[author: Jamel Greer]
The Illinois Appellate Court recently dismissed a petition for a writ of mandamus in which the plaintiffs challenged the legality of taxes assessed on their property. In Dumas v. Pappas, the Court addressed the proper path and conditions that must be satisfied in order to succeed in challenging assessments of real property and reinforced the longstanding rule that actions challenging assessments must be brought in accordance with the Property Tax Code.
Plaintiffs filed a pro se petition for a writ of mandamus and declaratory judgment against the Cook County Treasurer, Clerk, and Assessor. Plaintiffs sought to have their property tax bills recalculated as a result of a fire in 2007 that destroyed the structure on their property. Plaintiffs alleged that the property was vacant and denied receiving any tax bills or a decision from the Assessor with respect to their certificate of error application. The circuit court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that plaintiffs failed to set forth sufficient facts to support their cause of action. The court also dismissed the petition with prejudice, reasoning that the plaintiffs’ failure to file a tax objection complaint prevented the court from hearing the claim.
On appeal, the plaintiffs contended that their petition stated a proper cause of action for a writ of mandamus and that the lower court erred in dismissing their petition with prejudice because they were not given an opportunity to file an amended petition. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Court of Appeals held that the Assessor has discretion to execute a certificate of error in situations like that involving the plaintiffs. The Court found that because the Assessor’s duty to issue a certificate of error was discretionary, a writ of mandamus could not be issued. This effectively left plaintiffs without a proper cause of action for the issuance of the writ of mandamus. Moreover, the Court held that because plaintiffs did not first exhaust their remedies by appealing their assessment to the Board of Review prior to filing the petition, their claim also fails due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The Court reaffirmed that challenges to property tax assessments must first go before the Board of Review. Only then can a taxpayer appeal to either the Property Tax Appeal Board or file a tax objection complaint. The Court specified that only where the tax is unauthorized by law or where it is levied upon tax-exempt property may the taxpayer bypass the statutory remedies provided in the Property Tax Code and seek injunctive or declaratory relief. While the plaintiffs in this case did allege that the assessment was unlawful, their claim failed because those allegations were based on procedural irregularities as opposed to a taxing body that has no statutory power or jurisdiction to tax a certain area.
The decision is another reminder that in nearly all instances the procedures set forth in the Property Tax Code are the exclusive mechanism for challenging assessments. By requiring strict compliance with these procedures, the Courts ensure that there are not even greater numbers of cases filed seeking property tax refunds.
* Jamel Greer is a third-year law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.