KALI FAMILY LIMITED PARTNERSHIP v. TOWN OF MILTON & another.1
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER PURSUANT TO RULE 23.0
The plaintiff, Kali Family Limited Partnership (Kali), appeals from a final judgment entered in favor of the defendants, the town of Milton (town) and Edilma Hosein, following a bench trial on Kali's claim in equity for unjust enrichment. This case arises out of tax assessments levied on real estate owned by Kali for multiple tax years dating back to 2002. After failing to seek tax abatements pursuant to G. L. c. 59, § 59, Kali brought this lawsuit alleging that the town was unjustly enriched by what Kali described as excessive tax assessments. On appeal, Kali argues that the trial judge erred in concluding that the administrative remedy of abatement was Kali's exclusive remedy. We affirm.
Background. William Adams, who is a general partner of Kali, received title to lots 14, 17, 29, and 30 in July 1999. In August 1999, Adams conveyed all four lots to Kali. In 2002, lots 17, 29, and 30 were redrawn, with the resulting lots being lots 33 and 34. Following the creation of lots 33 and 34, Kali continued to own adjacent lots 14 and 33 but sold lot 34 to a third party.3
For multiple tax years dating back to 2002, Kali received tax bills for lot 33 that Kali did not pay and for which it did not seek tax abatements pursuant to G. L. c. 59, § 59. By way of explanation, Adams testified at trial that his house was on lot 14, whereas lot 33 remained unimproved, and that Kali received separate tax bills for lots 14 and 33. While Kali paid the lot 14 tax bills, Kali disregarded the lot 33 tax bills because Adams thought the assessed value of lot 33 was excessive.4 Ultimately, in 2014, the mortgagee of lots 14 and 33 paid the $52,709.19 tax lien that had accrued on lot 33; Kali is now repaying that amount, plus interest, to the mortgagee.
Kali then brought this lawsuit asserting a claim for equity in which Kali alleged that the town was unjustly enriched by the lot 33 tax assessments.5 Following a bench trial, the trial judge concluded that the administrative remedy of abatement is exclusive absent extraordinary circumstances. Further concluding that there were no extraordinary circumstances in this case, the trial judge found that Kali was not entitled to equitable relief.
Discussion. Kali argues that the trial judge erred in concluding that the administrative remedy of abatement was Kali's exclusive remedy where (1) “the [t]own was unjustly enriched to a shocking degree” and (2) this “was not a simple dispute over the fair market value of the subject property but a series of fundamental mistakes.” The town disputes Kali's characterization of the case and argues that this case instead presents a simple question regarding the assessed value of lot 33, which Kali should have attempted to resolve through the statutory abatement procedures. We agree with the town.
The administrative remedy of abatement has been described as an “exclusive remedy” (citation omitted). Tax Collector of Braintree v. J.G. Grant & Sons, Inc., 26 Mass. App. Ct. 731, 734 (1989). Yet, as this court has acknowledged, the exclusivity of the administrative remedy of abatement “has taken on a paradoxically relative character.” Id. If “the administrative remedy [is] seriously inadequate, or the case involve[s] novel questions, repetitive problems, or the public interest, resort to the Superior Court has been grudgingly countenanced” (quotation and citation omitted). Id.
Despite Kali's arguments to the contrary, none of the circumstances mentioned in Tax Collector of Braintree are present here. See 26 Mass. App. Ct. at 734-735. Where it is undisputed that lot 33 was not tax exempt, the issue in this case was limited to whether the assessed value of lot 33 was excessive. This is the precise issue routinely addressed in administrative abatement proceedings, and Kali has not offered any reason why the administrative remedy of abatement would have been inadequate.6 Contrast id. at 735 (if taxpayer argues that tax is wholly void and not merely excessive, “it is quite acceptable to put the declaratory judgment statute in play”). Nor does this case involve a novel question, a repetitive problem, or the public interest. Contrast Bettigole v. Assessors of Springfield, 343 Mass. 223, 237-238 (1961) (challenge to entire assessment scheme). Kali does not argue, for example, that any excessive assessment here resulted from a pervasive problem that affected numerous lots. In these circumstances, we agree with the trial judge that Kali's exclusive remedy was the administrative remedy of abatement. See, e.g., Nearis v. Gloucester, 357 Mass. 203, 205 (1970) (remedy of abatement exclusive where taxpayer argued assessments too high due to city's assessors not having requisite qualifications).
3. We note that there were intervening conveyances of lots 14 and 33 to Adams and then back to Kali. Specifically, Kali conveyed lot 14 to Adams in August 2002 and lot 33 to Adams in January 2003; both lots were then conveyed back to Kali in February 2003.
4. Adams testified that he thought the town was erroneously assessing lot 33 as a buildable lot, but the trial judge did not explicitly credit this testimony. Moreover, it is undisputed that lot 33 was not exempt from real estate taxation.
5. In Kali's complaint, it asserted two additional claims that were later dismissed and are not at issue on appeal.
6. We need not resolve whether there may be circumstances in which, because a lot has been so overvalued, the equities would countenance resort to the Superior Court. Despite Kali's contention that the town was unjustly enriched “to a shocking degree,” the record does not support that conclusion. Kali did not, for example, introduce any expert testimony regarding what the assessed value of lot 33 should have been for the pertinent tax years, and we do not know the degree to which lot 33 was overvalued, if at all.
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