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Genesis Ministries, Inc. v. Brown

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

July 25, 2018

Genesis Ministries, Inc., a Delaware Corporation, Appellant,
v.
Gregory S. Brown, as Property Appraiser for Santa Rosa County, Florida; Stan Colie Nichols, as Tax Collector for Santa Rosa County, Florida; and Leon M. Biegalski, as Executive Director of the Florida Department of Revenue, Appellees.

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

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Santa Rosa County. David Rimmer, Judge.

          Douglas L. Smith of Burke, Blue, Hutchison, Walters & Smith, P.A., Panama City, for Appellant.

          Thomas M. Findley of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, Tallahassee, for Appellees Gregory S. Brown and Stan Colie Nichols; Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Timothy E. Dennis, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee Leon M. Biegalski.

          Rowe, J.

         Genesis Ministries, Inc. appeals an order granting summary judgment in favor of Gregory S. Brown and Stan Nichols, as Property Appraiser and Tax Collector for Santa Rosa County, Florida. Genesis had filed an action challenging tax assessments made from 2005 to 2013. Genesis raises several arguments regarding its entitlement to tax exemption during this period, only two of which merit discussion.[*]We agree with the trial court's conclusion that Genesis was not entitled to exemption from ad valorem taxes from 2005 to 2012. However, as to the 2013 tax year, because the property appraiser failed to comply with the statutory notice requirements of section 196.193(5), Florida Statutes (2013), the property appraiser improperly denied Genesis's existing tax exemption for 2013. Accordingly, we reverse the grant of summary judgment with respect to the 2013 taxes and remand for entry of summary judgment in favor of Genesis consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         In 1994, Reverend Dr. Michael Palmer formed Genesis Ministries, Inc. under the laws of Delaware. At or around the same time, Genesis acquired title to property in Santa Rosa County, Florida. From 1994 to 2004, Genesis operated a Christian church and school on the property-Genesis Ministries and Victory Christian Academy. Palmer also formed a Florida non-profit corporation, Genesis Ministries, Inc., without specifying the purpose of the non-profit. Genesis applied for and was granted a "religious exemption" from ad valorem taxes from 1994 to 2004.

         In 2004, Palmer closed Victory Christian Academy, dissolved the Florida non-profit Genesis Ministries, and moved to Iowa. After the school closed, Russell Cookston, a former employee of Genesis Ministries, entered into a commercial lease and agreement with Palmer to lease the property where the former church and school had operated. Cookston formed a new corporation called Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, Inc. for the purpose of operating a new Christian church and school- Lighthouse Ministries and Lighthouse Academy. From 2005 to 2013, Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, Inc. paid rent and operated the Christian church and school on the property. Genesis, as the property owner, continued to receive a "religious exemption" from ad valorem taxes from 2005 to 2012.

          In a February 26, 2013 letter, the property appraiser informed Genesis that it no longer qualified for a tax exemption for the property. An investigation by the property appraiser revealed that Genesis had dissolved in 2004. Thus, according to the property appraiser, Genesis erroneously received exemption from ad valorem taxes from 2005 to 2012. The property appraiser indicated it would file a lien against Genesis for recovery of the amount of taxes exempted from 2005 to 2012, plus penalties and interest. In the same letter, the property appraiser notified Genesis that it was revoking Genesis's tax exempt status for the 2013 tax year.

         In August 2013, Genesis received a standard Truth in Millage Notice listing the amount of taxes owed for 2013. The county's 2013 tax rolls were certified on October 18, 2013, and Genesis's property was listed as fully taxable with no exemption.

         After seeking explanation from the property appraiser, Genesis received a letter that the tax determination would not be changed. Genesis then sold the property and paid the tax lien and 2013 taxes under protest. In September 2014, Genesis sued the property appraiser, the tax collector, and the executive director of the Department of Revenue, asserting its entitlement to the religious exemption from 2005 to 2013 and seeking a refund of the taxes paid under protest.

         The trial court dismissed Genesis's complaint on jurisdictional grounds, finding Genesis was barred from challenging both the imposition of the tax lien and the denial of the 2013 exemption because Genesis failed to file suit within 60 days after the certification of the tax rolls as required under section 194.171(2), Florida Statutes (2013). Genesis appealed, and this Court reversed. See Genesis Ministries, Inc. v. Brown, 186 So.3d 1074, 1082 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016) (Genesis I). We held that the 60-day period in section 194.171(2) does not apply to actions challenging a tax lien. Id. at 1079. As to the denial of the 2013 exemption, we reiterated that the 60-day period does not begin to run if the property appraiser fails to strictly comply with the applicable statutory notice requirements. Id. at 1077 (citing Chihocky v. Crapo, 632 So.2d 230, 232-33 (Fla. 1st DCA 1994)). We remanded the case, noting that further record development was necessary to determine whether the property appraiser complied with the requirements of section 196.193(5), Florida Statutes (2013). Id. at 1080-82.

         On remand and after several months of discovery, the parties filed competing motions for summary judgment. Genesis argued it was entitled to exemption because it continuously operated a Christian church and school on the property through Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, Inc. The property appraiser argued Genesis had no involvement with the operation of the Christian church or school and instead used the property for the purpose of obtaining substantial lease income. As to the denial of the 2013 tax ...


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