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Property owners hail ruling
Judge orders city officials to cooperate
in class-action lawsuit over assessments

(Published October 6, 2003)

By MARY LEE MALCOLM
Staff Writer

The plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit challenging the Districtís method of calculating property assessments upon which property taxes are based earned an important victory last week, when the judge in the case ruled that the D.C. corporation councilís office must fully comply with all discovery requests made to date, including making Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other administration officials available for deposition.

The plaintiffs allege that the methodology used by the city to determine the fair market value of property in the District is grossly flawed.

"They assume across-the-board increases, based on the sales of a handful of properties," said Peter S. Craig, an attorney for the class, fellow petitioner and resident of Cleveland Park. "One house that has just been sold might be appraised at 50 percent of its recent sale price, while another one gets appraised at 140 percent of the actual sales price, based on the assumption that the neighborhood as a whole has gone up 49.2 percent....and the whole appeals procedure is a charade."

Judge Eugene Hamilton certified the case, Peter S. Craig, et al. v. District of Columbia, et. al., as a class action last June. His order created a class of plaintiffs numbering roughly 35,000, all of whom were the "owners of Class 1 residential real properties located in the District of Columbia," who were adversely affected by the assessment process used in 2002, and part of the former Triennial Assessment Group 1. Neighborhoods covered by the class action include Kalorama, Mount Pleasant, parts of Anacostia, Cleveland Park and Conservatory Circle.

Craig filed his motion to compel discovery after attorneys for the District refused to turn over information related to the entire class. In a letter dated August 27, 2003, Assistant Corporation Counsel Nancy Smith wrote to Craig: "The District maintains its position that it will provide discovery only as to the 23 representative petitioners who have exhausted their administrative remedies."

Under current procedures, a taxpayer must first appeal an assessment to the Office of Tax and Revenue, then file a second appeal with the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals. Only after receiving an unsatisfactory result from that body can the taxpayer take an appeal to D.C. Superior Court.

In one of two orders certifying the class, Judge Hamilton last June specifically rejected the argument that the class should be limited to plaintiffs who have exhausted their administrative remedies.

Moreover, he warned the parties, "I donít want any foot dragging in this situation," and "I donít expect a lot of bickering and arguing about these discovery requests, unless it is a real serious matter that violates some type of legal confidence and privilege," according to documents filed with the court.

The judgeís recent order also denied all of the Districtís requests for protective orders to block depositions of key government officials with knowledge of the case.

Judge Hamilton, a retired chief judge of D.C. Superior Court who lives in Maryland, was asked to take the case after city officials requested that all judges who live in the District recuse themselves.

During the past few years, the District has been phasing in a switch from triennial to annual property assessments. Responding to the outcry generated by rapidly increasing assessments, two years ago the city council capped tax increases at 25 percent.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator