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Sowell v. Faith Christian Family Church of Panama City Beach, Inc.

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

July 25, 2018

Dan Sowell, as Property Appraiser of Bay County, Florida, Petitioner,
v.
Faith Christian Family Church of Panama City Beach, Inc., Respondent.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          Petition for Writ of Prohibition-Original Jurisdiction.

          Loren E. Levy of The Levy Law Firm, Tallahassee, for Petitioner.

          William E. Corley, III, Panama City Beach, for Respondent.

          Per Curiam.

         This is a petition for writ of prohibition seeking review of the circuit court's denial of Petitioner's motion to dismiss an amended complaint challenging the denial of an ad valorem tax exemption for three pieces of property owned by the Respondent, a church, for the 2015 and 2016 tax years. For the reasons explained below, we grant the petition and order that the challenge to the 2015 and 2016 tax years be dismissed.

          The Respondent, Faith Christian Family Church of Panama City Beach, Inc. ("Faith Christian"), filed suit on November 30, 2015, challenging the property appraiser's denial of an ad valorem tax exemption for the 2015 tax year and raising a civil rights claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"). The Section 1983 claim was later dismissed. Faith Christian filed an amended complaint on April 17, 2017, [*] challenging ad valorem denials for 2015, 2016, and 2017, and adding a claim for slander and a restated Section 1983 claim. The property appraiser filed a motion to dismiss, and the circuit court granted the motion as to counts two and three of the amended complaint (the slander and Section 1983 claims), but denied the motion as to count one (the claim for declarative and injunctive relief as to the denial of the ad valorem exemption for 2015 and 2016).

         The property appraiser argues the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to consider the challenge to the 2015 and 2016 years pursuant to section 194.171, Florida Statutes, because Faith Christian failed to pay the taxes due and owing for the 2016 tax year prior to delinquency. Section 194.171 provides in relevant part:

(5) No action to contest a tax assessment may be maintained, and any such action shall be dismissed, unless all taxes on the property assessed in years after the action is brought, which the taxpayer in good faith admits to be owing, are paid before they become delinquent.
(6) The requirements of subsections (2), (3), and (5) are jurisdictional. No court shall have jurisdiction in such cases until after the requirements of both subsections (2) and (3) have been met. A court shall lose jurisdiction of a case when the taxpayer has failed to comply with the requirements of subsection (5).

§§ 194.171(5), (6), Fla. Stat. (2016). Prohibition is an appropriate vehicle for review of the denial of a motion to dismiss which raises a claim that a trial court lost subject matter jurisdiction over a tax challenge pursuant to subsections 194.171(5) and (6). See Nikolits v. Hanna, 92 So.3d 299 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012); Higgs v. Armada Key West Ltd. Partnership, 903 So.2d 303 (Fla. 3d DCA 2005); Markham v. Hinckley, 544 So.2d 1139 (Fla. 4th DCA 1989).

         As of May 11, 2017, Faith Christian had not paid the taxes due and owing on the subject property, and the taxes on those parcels became delinquent by operation of law on April 1, 2017, pursuant to section 197.333, Florida Statutes (2016). Taxes become "delinquent on April 1 following the year in which they are assessed or immediately after 60 days have expired from the mailing of the original tax notice, whichever is later." § 197.333, Fla. Stat. (2016); see also Fla. Admin. Code R. 12D-13.004(1) (2016).

         When Faith Christian's 2016 taxes became delinquent by operation of law, the trial court lost subject matter jurisdiction over Faith Christian's challenge to not only the 2016 tax year, but also the 2015 tax year. "[I]f a challenge to the assessment is attempted, that challenge will not relieve the challenger of the obligation to pay successive years' taxes." Bystrom v. Diaz, 514 So.2d 1072, 1074 (Fla. 1987) (quoting Marshall v. Perkins, 494 So.2d 506, 507 (Fla. 2d DCA 1986)); see also Washington Square Corp. v. Wright, 687 So.2d 1374 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997); Wilkinson v. Clarke, 91 So.3d 897 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012); Nikolits, 92 So.3d at 299; Higgs, 903 So.2d at 305. As the Florida Supreme Court has observed:

Although subsections 194.171(5) and (6) appear to be somewhat harsh, their meaning is clear. Subsection 194.171(5) plainly states that a taxpayer may not maintain a suit contesting a tax assessment, an action "shall be dismissed, unless all taxes on a property assessed in years after the action is brought, which the taxpayer in good faith admits to be owing, are paid before they become delinquent." Subsection (6) expressly declares that these requirements are jurisdictional and that "[a] court shall lose jurisdiction of the case when the taxpayer has failed to comply with ...

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