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Williams Island Ventures, LLC v. Saiz de la Mora

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

April 25, 2018

Williams Island Ventures, LLC, et al., Appellants,
v.
Marcus Saiz de la Mora, in his capacity as Miami-Dade County Tax Collector, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An Appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Jorge E. Cueto, Judge. Lower Tribunal No. 15-6907

          Rennert Vogel Mandler & Rodriguez, P.A., Thomas S. Ward and Jill Nexon Berman, for appellants.

          Abigail Price-Williams, Miami-Dade County Attorney, and Jorge Martinez-Esteve and Daija Page Lifshitz, Assistant County Attorneys, for appellee.

          Before SUAREZ, FERNANDEZ, and SCALES, JJ.

          FERNANDEZ, J.

         Plaintiffs Williams Island Ventures, LLC; Merrick Park LLC; Northwestern Capital Corporation; Sunshine Gasoline Distributors, Inc.; Sunshine Dade Investments, LLC; Coral Gables Luxury Holdings, LLC; Baptist Health South Florida, Inc.; Terra Grove Communities, LLC; Terra Doral Commons Commercial, LLC; and Terra Doral Commons Residential, LLC (collectively, "the taxpayers") appeal the trial court's Final Order Granting Marcus Saiz de la Mora's Motion to Dismiss Second Amended Complaint with Prejudice. We reverse and remand because we agree with the taxpayers that they pled legally sufficient claims which should not have been dismissed with prejudice on a motion to dismiss.

         Before July 1, 2011, a Miami-Dade County taxpayer was not required to pay any taxes in order to challenge an ad valorem tax assessment. The Florida Legislature then enacted section 194.014, Florida Statutes (2011), effective July 2011, which required taxpayers filing petitions to challenge a tax assessment to pre-pay at least 75% of the ad valorem taxes they were challenging. Section 194.014(1)(a), Fla. Stat. (2011), reads in part: "A petitioner before the value adjustment board who challenges the assessed value of property must pay all of the non-ad valorem assessments and make a partial payment of at least 75 percent of the ad valorem taxes… ." The section further provided that a taxpayer is entitled to receive interest on the pre-paid ad valorem taxes that were due, if a taxpayer succeeded in obtaining a reduction of an assessment. Section 194.014(2), Fla. Stat. (2011), stated:

If the value adjustment board determines that the petitioner owes ad valorem taxes in excess of the amount paid, the unpaid amount accrues interest at the rate of 12 percent per year… until…paid. If the value adjustment board determines that a refund is due, the overpaid amount accrues at the rate of 12 percent per year…until a refund is due. [1]

         When section 194.014 became effective, Fernando Casamayor was the Miami-Dade tax collector. After taxpayers filed petitions, Casamayor remitted taxpayers 12% interest on refunds resulting from assessment reductions. The refunds were triggered by a ruling of the Value Adjustment Board ("VAB") special magistrate after a hearing, as well as a reduction in assessments that resulted from the execution of a Petition Withdrawal Agreement without a hearing. Thus, the phrase in the statute, "determines that a refund is due" by the VAB, applied whether or not there was a formal hearing.

         On May 1, 2014, Marcus L. Saiz de la Mora succeeded Casamayor as the Miami-Dade tax collector. In 2014, Saiz de la Mora unilaterally decided that he would pay taxpayers interest on refunds only if an assessment was reduced after: 1) a formal VAB hearing, and 2) the issuance of a formal, written VAB ruling reducing the assessment. Consequently, in 2014, Saiz de la Mora stopped paying interest on refunds owed to taxpayers who executed Petition Withdrawal Agreements, reasoning that the VAB in these cases had not "determined" that a refund was due. Saiz de la Mora stopped paying interest on refunds related to petitions for the 2011, 2012, and 2013 tax years, even when the taxpayers' assessments were reduced during the time that the previous tax collector, Casamayor, was in office.

         Starting in January 2015, Saiz de la Mora further unilaterally decided that interest payments paid to taxpayers who executed Petition Withdrawal Forms when Casamayor was the tax collector were paid erroneously. Saiz de la Mora sent written demand letters demanding these taxpayers refund the interest payments to Saiz de la Mora (the "clawback taxpayers") and threatening "additional collection enforcement" actions if the clawback taxpayers failed to refund the interest payments. Saiz de la Mora also listed the interest payments he sought to claw back on the tax collector's website as taxes owed by the taxpayer. These interest payments show up in title searches and are clouds on the title of taxpayers' real property.

         Thereafter, on March 24, 2015, ten clawback taxpayers and one interest-owed taxpayer filed a class action suit in the trial court against Saiz de la Mora on behalf of all similarly situated taxpayers. The interest-owed taxpayers sued for: (i) declaratory judgment (Count I); (ii) breach of contract (Count IV); and (iii) promissory estoppel (Count VI). The clawback taxpayers sued for: (i) declaratory judgment (Count II); (ii) injunction (Count III); (iii) breach of contract (Count IV); (iv) slander of title (Count V); and (v) promissory estoppel (Count VI). The class of affected taxpayers, approximately 30, 000, was defined as "(i) all taxpayers who should have received interest from the Tax Collector for overpayment of their 2011, 2012, and 2013 assessments and (ii) all taxpayers who received interest for these tax years and should not be required to repay such interest to the [Current] Tax Collector." That same day, the taxpayers filed a request for production on Saiz de la Mora and subpoenaed the records of the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser records custodian.

         In response, Saiz de la Mora filed a "Motion for Entry of a Protective Order Regarding Subpoena of Non-Party Property Appraiser, Motion for Order Related to Costs, or Motion for Status Conference, " seeking to stay the property appraiser's deposition so that the trial court could first determine some underlying issues. However, with this motion, Saiz de la Mora did not move to stay any discovery the taxpayers propounded on him. After the hearing on this motion, the trial court granted the current tax collector's motion for protective order and entered a stay "barring discovery related to the putative class until the underlying legal issues raised in the plaintiffs' amended complaint are resolved." The taxpayers moved for reconsideration of the stay order. Saiz de la Mora moved for clarification ...


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