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Fitts v. Furst

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

September 13, 2019

WILLIAM DAVID FITTS and NANCY B. FITTS, Appellants,
v.
BILL FURST, as Sarasota County Property Appraiser, and LEON M. BIEGALSKI, as Executive Director of the Department of Revenue, Appellees.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Sarasota County; Frederick P. Mercurio, Judge.

          David A. Wallace and Amanda R. Kison of Bentley & Bruning, P.A., Sarasota, for Appellants.

          Jason A. Lessinger, J. Geoffrey Pflugner, Anthony Manganiello, III, and Mark C. Dungan of Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg, P.A., Sarasota, for Appellee Bill Furst.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Robert P. Elson, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee Leon M. Biegalski.

          BLACK, Judge.

         William and Nancy Fitts filed a lawsuit against the Sarasota County Property Appraiser (Property Appraiser) and the Executive Director of the Florida Department of Revenue (Director) after the Property Appraiser recorded a tax lien on their home pursuant to section 196.161(1)(b), Florida Statutes (2016), and revoked their homestead tax exemption.[1] The Fittses brought the suit after the Property Appraiser determined that for approximately five years the Fittses had been benefitting from a homestead tax exemption on their Sarasota County home while simultaneously receiving the benefit of a tax exemption in Ohio based upon permanent residency there in violation of section 196.031(5). The Fittses now appeal the entry of the final summary judgment in favor of the Property Appraiser and the Director, raising five issues. We affirm in all respects and write only to address the second issue raised on appeal concerning the circuit court's interpretation and application of section 196.161(1)(b). For the reasons expressed herein, we conclude that the circuit court did not err in determining that the Fittses' Sarasota County home is subject to back taxes, penalties, and interest pursuant to section 196.161(1)(b) despite the Fittses being permanent residents of Florida who did not intend to receive the benefit of the tax exemption based upon permanent residency in Ohio.

         Section 196.031(5) provides, in part, that "[a] person who is receiving or claiming the benefit of an ad valorem tax exemption or a tax credit in another state where permanent residency is required as a basis for the granting of that ad valorem tax exemption or tax credit is not entitled to the homestead exemption provided by this section." Although it is undisputed that the Fittses did not intend that their home in Ohio serve as their permanent residence and that during the time they owned that property they were permanent residents of Florida receiving a homestead exemption on property in this state, through a third-party's error they received the benefit of a permanent residency-based tax exemption on their home in Ohio for several years. The Property Appraiser became aware that the Fittses were receiving the benefit of tax exemptions in both Ohio and Florida based on permanent residency following an audit and then sent the Fittses a notice of his intent to record a tax lien on their home in Sarasota County pursuant to section 196.161(1)(b). Prior to receiving that notice, the Fittses were apparently unaware that they had been receiving a tax exemption in Ohio based upon permanent residency, the credit for which totaled approximately $560 for the five-year period at issue.[2] Because the Fittses received the benefit of a tax exemption in Ohio based on permanent residency while simultaneously receiving a homestead exemption in Florida in violation of section 196.031(5), the Property Appraiser determined that the Fittses were required to pay back taxes, penalties, and interest pursuant to section 196.161(1)(b).[3] Relying on these statutes and the undisputed facts, both parties moved for summary judgment. Following a hearing on the motions, the circuit court entered final summary judgment in favor of the Property Appraiser and the Director.

         Section 196.161, titled "Homestead exemptions; lien imposed on property of person claiming exemption although not a permanent resident," provides, in part, as follows:

(1)(a) When the estate of any person is being probated or administered in another state under an allegation that such person was a resident of that state and the estate of such person contains real property situate in this state upon which homestead exemption has been allowed pursuant to s. 196.031 for any year or years within 10 years immediately prior to the death of the deceased, then within 3 years after the death of such person the property appraiser of the county where the real property is located shall, upon knowledge of such fact, record a notice of tax lien against the property among the public records of that county, and the property shall be subject to the payment of all taxes exempt thereunder, a penalty of 50 percent of the unpaid taxes for each year, plus 15 percent interest per year, unless the circuit court having jurisdiction over the ancillary administration in this state determines that the decedent was a permanent resident of this state during the year or years an exemption was allowed, whereupon the lien shall not be filed or, if filed, shall be canceled of record by the property appraiser of the county where the real estate is located.
(b) In addition, upon determination by the property appraiser that for any year or years within the prior 10 years a person who was not entitled to a homestead exemption was granted a homestead exemption from ad valorem taxes, it shall be the duty of the property appraiser making such determination to serve upon the owner a notice of intent to record in the public records of the county a notice of tax lien against any property owned by that person in the county, and such property shall be identified in the notice of tax lien. Such property which is situated in this state shall be subject to the taxes exempted thereby, plus a penalty of 50 percent of the unpaid taxes for each year and 15 percent interest per annum. However, if a homestead exemption is improperly granted as a result of a clerical mistake or an omission by the property appraiser, the person improperly receiving the exemption shall not be assessed penalty and interest. Before any such lien may be filed, the owner so notified must be given 30 days to pay the taxes, penalties, and interest.

§ 196.161(1)(a)-(b). The Fittses argue on appeal that both the title to section 196.161 and the language of section 196.161(1) reflect the legislature's intent only to impose a lien on a person's property in the event that the person claiming the homestead exemption in Florida is not in fact a Florida permanent resident. Thus, the Fittses, as permanent residents of Florida, should not be subject to the severe sanctions set forth in section 196.161(1)(b). They further assert that it is inconsistent with the legislature's intent and illogical to penalize the Fittses for an error made by a third party in Ohio because the legislature has expressly stated in section 196.161(1)(b) that the penalty and interest shall not be assessed in the event that a homestead exemption is granted in this state through an error on the part of a Florida property appraiser. The Fittses contend that section 196.031(5) dictates the sanction that they should face, if any at all-the loss of the Florida homestead exemption going forward and nothing more.

         We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Heine v. Lee County, 221 So.3d 1254, 1256 (Fla. 2d DCA 2017). Likewise, we review the circuit court's interpretation of a statute de novo. Id. As the supreme court has repeatedly held, "statutory interpretation begins with the plain meaning of the statute." Fla. Birth-Related Neurological Injury Comp. Ass'n v. Dep't of Admin. Hearings, 29 So.3d 992, 997 (Fla. 2010) (citing GTC, Inc. v. Edgar, 967 So.2d 781, 785 (Fla. 2007)). We thus begin our analysis by examining the plain language of section 196.161(1)(b), which provides that it applies to "a person who was not entitled to a homestead exemption" but "was granted a homestead exemption from ad valorem taxes." (Emphasis added.) The plain language does not limit section 196.161(1)(b)'s application to those persons who are not permanent residents of Florida and instead applies to anyone who-for whatever reason-is not entitled to a homestead exemption. "[W]here the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous, there is no need for judicial interpretation." State v. Bradford, 787 So.2d 811, 817 (Fla. 2001) (quoting T.R. v. State, 677 So.2d 270, 271 (Fla. 1996)). But as the Fittses contend, "we must give due weight and effect to the title of the section" as it "is more than an index to what the section is about or has reference to; it is a direct statement by the legislature of its intent." Aramark Uniform & Career Apparel, Inc. v. Easton, 894 So.2d 20, 25 (Fla. 2004) (first citing State v. Webb, 398 So.2d 820, 825 (Fla. 1981); and then quoting Webb, 398 So.2d at 825); see also Fajardo v. State, 805 So.2d 961, 963 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001) ("We recognize that the title of a legislative enactment, and, less frequently, the titles within codified statutes may be helpful in construing an ambiguous statute."). However, the title of a statute is not determinative. See Dep't of Revenue v. Val-Pak Direct Mktg. Sys., Inc., 862 So.2d 1, 5 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003) (quoting Bradford, 787 So.2d at 819). We must also consider the language of subsection (1)(a) "in order to determine whether it creates an ambiguity not otherwise apparent on the face of" section 196.161(1)(b). See State v. Peraza, 259 So.3d 728, 732 (Fla. 2018). "This is true because '[w]here possible, courts must give effect to all statutory provisions and construe related statutory provisions in harmony with one another.'" Id. (quoting M.W. v. Davis, 756 So.2d 90, 101 (Fla. 2000)). The title of section 196.161 and the language of subsection (1)(a) specifically reference persons who are or were not permanent residents of this state. So to the extent that the title of section 196.161 and the language of section 196.161(1)(a) can reasonably be read to limit the applicability of subsection (1)(b) to those who are not permanent residents of Florida making it "susceptible to more than one interpretation," it would be necessary "to utilize principles of statutory construction to ascertain legislative intent." See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Shands Jacksonville Med. Ctr., Inc., 210 So.3d 1224, 1228-29 (Fla. 2017); accord Bautista v. State, 863 So.2d 1180, 1185 (Fla. 2003) ("If the statutory language is unclear, we apply rules of statutory construction and explore legislative history to determine legislative intent." (first citing Joshua v. City of Gainesville, 768 So.2d 432, 435 (Fla. 2000); and then citing Weber v. Dobbins, 616 So.2d 956, 958 (Fla. 1993))).

         In Bradford, the supreme court concluded that the legislature did not intend that fraudulent intent be an element of unlawful insurance solicitation under section 817.234(8), Florida Statutes (1997), despite the fact that the title of section 817.234 was "False and Fraudulent Insurance ...


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