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Lehigh Cement Co. v. Quinn

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 13, 2017

Lehigh Cement Co.
v.
David Quinn, in his capacity as Tax Assessor of the City of Providence, Rhode Island.

         Providence County, PC 12-6580 Superior Court Jeffrey A. Lanphear Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Mark A. Pogue, Esq.

          For Defendant: Lisa Fries, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          PAUL A. SUTTELL CHIEF JUSTICE.

         It is said that the only things of which we can be certain are death and taxes, [1] neither one of which is embraced with great enthusiasm. But whereas the former is an immutable law of nature, the latter is most decidedly a human creation. Although most persons accept the necessity of paying taxes, no one relishes paying more than his or her fair share, much less paying taxes for which he or she has been erroneously assessed. Such is the situation in which the plaintiff, Lehigh Cement Co. (Lehigh or plaintiff) finds itself. Lehigh filed suit against the City of Providence (the city), seeking to recover approximately $500, 000 in real-estate taxes billed and collected by the city from 2006 to 2009. The matter presently before us is Lehigh's appeal from a Superior Court judgment, granting the city's motion for summary judgment. This case came before the Supreme Court, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment.

         I

         Facts and Procedural History

         On December 21, 2012, Lehigh filed a civil action for money damages against the city for having imposed an excessive and illegal tax. The complaint set forth the following facts.[2]

         In 2002, Lehigh leased 3.65 acres of land at the Port of Providence from ProvPort, a nonprofit, tax-exempt, public-private partnership that owns the Port. The city, however, taxed Lehigh on 16.8 acres of land rather than the 3.65 acres it was actually leasing. The error was not apparent from the tax bills and, consequently, Lehigh paid the bills in full. In total, Lehigh paid nearly $500, 000 in taxes attributable to property it neither owned nor leased. When it became aware of the error in 2010, Lehigh brought it to the tax assessor's attention, and the city corrected its records going forward. Lehigh met with the tax assessor on December 15, 2010, at which time the tax assessor represented that he would review the matter and, if an error had occurred, he would rectify it by giving Lehigh tax credits it could use against future bills. Subsequently, Lehigh engaged in additional communications with the city in the course of which the city assured Lehigh that it was aware of the problem and was working on it.[3]

         Lehigh's complaint sought the following relief: (count 1) that pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 44-5-23, the assessor must correct the erroneous assessment for tax years 2006-2009 by issuing both corrected assessments to Lehigh and an appropriate refund; (count 2) that pursuant to the fair- distribution clause under article 1, section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution, Lehigh is entitled to a refund of the taxes paid in excess because "[the city] failed to fairly distribute the burden of its property tax on Lehigh"; and (count 3) that pursuant to § 44-5-27, Lehigh is entitled to the return of the illegal tax imposed during 2006-2009.

         On July 5, 2013, the city filed an amended answer to the complaint. Thereafter, the city filed a motion for summary judgment, to which Lehigh objected. A hearing was held on the city's motion for summary judgment on January 7, 2016; and on January 14, 2016, the hearing justice issued a written decision, granting the city's motion.

         Regarding Lehigh's claim under § 44-5-27, the hearing justice found that Lehigh "offer[ed] no support for its conclusory allegation that it was assessed an illegal tax." The hearing justice also determined that Lehigh's § 44-5-27 claim was untimely regardless of when Lehigh discovered the error; and he declined to apply the doctrine of equitable tolling because "Lehigh ha[d] not provided evidence that circumstances beyond its control prevented it from filing a complaint." Concerning Lehigh's claim under § 44-5-23, the hearing justice declared that "it does not appear that § 44-5-23 creates a private cause of action" nor does it permit taxpayers "to collect a refund for the taxes it paid in excess of the amount it owed." Finally, in regard to Lehigh's claim under the fair-distribution clause, the hearing justice determined that he "need not address Lehigh's argument" because "Lehigh has not alleged any facts-other than a bare assertion-sufficient to support its argument that it was assessed an illegal tax * * *."

         On February 4, 2016, the hearing justice entered an order and judgment in favor of the city, from which Lehigh timely appealed.

         II

         Standard of Review

         "This Court will review the grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo, 'employing the same standards and rules used by the hearing justice.'" Newstone Development, LLC v. East Pacific, LLC, 140 A.3d 100, 103 (R.I. 2016) (quoting Daniels v. Fluette, 64 A.3d 302, 304 (R.I. 2013)). "We will affirm a [trial] court's decision only if, after reviewing the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, we conclude that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (quoting Daniels, 64 A.3d at 304). Furthermore, "the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving by competent evidence the existence of a disputed issue of material fact and cannot rest upon mere allegations or denials in the pleadings, mere conclusions or mere legal opinions." Id. (quoting Daniels, 64 A.3d at 304). "[S]ummary judgment should enter 'against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case * * *.'" Id. (quoting Lavoie v. North East Knitting, Inc., 918 A.2d 225, 228 (R.I. 2007)). "It is a fundamental principle that [s]ummary judgment is a drastic remedy, and a motion for summary judgment should be dealt with cautiously." Botelho v. City of Pawtucket School Department, 130 A.3d 172, 176 (R.I. 2016) (quoting The Law Firm of Thomas A. Tarro III v. Checrallah, 60 A.3d 598, 601 (R.I. 2013)).

         III

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