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J-W POWER COMPANY, Appellant/Cross-Appellee v. FRIO COUNTY APPRAISAL DISTRICT, Appellee/Cross-Appellant
In the underlying case, J-W Power Company sued the Frio County Appraisal District to remove its natural gas compressors from the county's appraisal rolls for tax years 2013–2016 and to reimburse it for excess taxes paid, with interest, and attorney's fees. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted in part each of the parties’ motions, and both parties appeal. Because res judicata bars J-W Power's claims, we reverse the portion of the trial court's order that ordered a correction of the tax appraisal rolls for certain compressors, and we affirm the remainder of the order.
J-W Power sells and leases self-powered natural gas compressors.1 It stores and maintains its compressors at storage yards located in several Texas counties, including Jim Wells County. From 2013–2016, some of its Jim Wells County yard compressors were leased for service in nearby counties, including Frio County. The Frio County Appraisal District (FCAD) included J-W Power's compressors that were physically located in Frio County as business personal property on its tax appraisal rolls for 2013–2016, despite a change in the applicable tax laws.
A. Change in Tax Laws
Effective January 1, 2012, the legislature changed the method for valuing dealer heavy equipment inventory, which includes equipment like J-W Power's compressors. See Act of May 21, 2011, 82d Leg., R.S., ch. 322, §§ 1–3, 2011 Tex. Gen. Laws 938, 938–39 (codified at Tex. Tax Code Ann. §§ 23.1241, .1242); J-W Power Co. v. Duval Cnty. Appraisal Dist., No. 04-21-00172-CV, 2022 WL 789345, at *1 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Mar. 16, 2022, no pet.) (mem. op.).
Before that time, counties usually taxed compressors located in their county as business personal property—a type of inventory—and they taxed the compressors on their full market value. EXLP Leasing, LLC v. Galveston Cent. Appraisal Dist., 554 S.W.3d 572, 574 (Tex. 2018); see generally Tex. Tax Code Ann. § 22.01(a) (requiring an annual rendition of “all tangible personal property used for the production of income”).
Despite the changed tax code, for tax appraisals from 2013–2016, FCAD continued taxing J-W Power's compressors as business personal property. See Tex. Tax Code Ann. § 22.01. While others litigated the constitutionality of the tax code changes, see, e.g., EXLP Leasing, 554 S.W.3d at 574, J-W Power paid the taxes FCAD assessed on its compressors, see Tex. Tax Code Ann. § 22.01.
B. J-W Power Tax Protests
However, J-W Power timely protested its FCAD appraisals each year from 2013–2016. See Tex. Tax Code Ann. § 41.41(a) (authorizing a property owner to protest a property's appraised value or “any other action of the chief appraiser, appraisal district, or appraisal review board that applies to and adversely affects the property owner”). It argued that FCAD was improperly determining that the compressors were business personal property—taxable under section 22.01—rather than dealer heavy equipment inventory—taxable under sections 23.1241 and 23.1242.
Each year's protest was reviewed by the Frio County Appraisal Review Board (ARB), but each protest was denied.
C. Motions to Correct
In late 2018, after the supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the new valuation method, J-W Power filed motions to correct the FCAD appraisal rolls for tax years 2013–2016 under section 25.25(c). See Tex. Tax Code Ann. § 25.25(c); EXLP Leasing, 554 S.W.3d at 583, 586. J-W Power argued that the compressors on FCAD's appraisal rolls for those years should be removed because (1) they were dealer heavy equipment inventory, (2) they should be valued and taxed under sections 23.1241 and 23.1242, and (3) their taxable situs was in Jim Wells County, not Frio County.
In June 2019, the Frio County ARB denied J-W Power's motions to correct its appraisal rolls.
D. J-W Power Lawsuit; Motions for Summary Judgment
The next month, J-W Power sued FCAD.
FCAD's first amended answer pled the affirmative defense of res judicata, and later FCAD moved for summary judgment as a matter of law. It argued, inter alia, that J-W Power's section 25.25(c) challenges were barred by res judicata.
J-W Power moved for partial summary judgment. It sought correction of the FCAD tax rolls for tax years 2013–2016. It argued that its compressors had already been taxed in Jim Wells County, the yard county, and it sought refunds of the taxes it paid on its dealer heavy equipment inventory located in Frio County, plus interest and attorney's fees.
After considering the competing motions, the trial court ordered that FCAD remove the multiply-appraised compressors from its appraisal rolls, but it denied all other relief J-W Power requested. The trial court granted FCAD's motion, except for the appraisal roll corrections, and ordered that J-W Power take nothing.
Both parties appeal: J-W Power is the appellant; FCAD is the cross-appellant.
A. J-W Power's Issues
On appeal, J-W Power raises four issues. First, it argues that its compressors must be removed from FCAD's appraisal rolls under section 25.25(c)(2) because they were taxed in the same years by Jim Wells County Appraisal District. Second, its compressors must be removed from FCAD's appraisal rolls under section 25.25(c)(3) because the compressors on FCAD's rolls do not exist in the form or at the location described in the rolls. Third, its motion to correct was not barred by res judicata or its alleged failure to exhaust judicial remedies under section 41.41. Fourth, FCAD has no authority to declare that J-W Power's incomplete tax statement filings in Jim Wells County were legal nullities.
B. FCAD's Issues
FCAD also raises four issues. In its first and third issues, FCAD argues J-W Power's incomplete tax statement filings in Jim Wells County were not sufficient to consider the compressors appraised in Jim Wells County, and thus none of the compressors were subject to multiple appraisals. In its second issue, FCAD argues J-W Power's motion to correct the tax appraisal rolls under section 25.25(c) was barred by res judicata. In its fourth issue, FCAD objects to some of J-W Power's summary judgment evidence and reasserts that J-W Power's compressors were not subject to multiple appraisals.
As we will explain, FCAD's res judicata argument disposes of this appeal.
We begin with some foundational facts. Under the applicable law, the summary judgment evidence conclusively establishes the following facts. See EXLP Leasing, 554 S.W.3d at 574; J-W Power Co. v. Duval Cnty. Appraisal Dist., 2022 WL 789345, at *1.
The compressors on FCAD's 2013–2016 appraisal rolls are dealer heavy equipment inventory, and dealer heavy equipment inventory is taxed under sections 23.1241 and 23.1242. See Tex. Tax Code Ann. §§ 23.1241, .1242; J-W Power Co. v. Duval Cnty. Appraisal Dist., 2022 WL 789345, at *1. During the 2013–2016 tax years, J-W Power did not have a storage yard in Frio County; rather, the yard county for J-W Power's compressors on FCAD's appraisal rolls was Jim Wells County. For tax years 2013–2016, J-W Power protested its Frio County tax appraisals.
In each of its protests, J-W Power argued that its compressors were taxable under sections 23.1241 and 23.1242, they were not taxable as business personal property, and FCAD's appraisals created a “double assessment.” The Frio County ARB denied each of J-W Power's protests, and J-W Power did not appeal to the district court any of the ARB's 2013–2016 decisions.
Before we address the parties’ issues, we briefly recite the standard of review.
Standard of Review
We review a trial court's summary judgment de novo. Lightning Oil Co. v. Anadarko E&P Onshore, LLC, 520 S.W.3d 39, 45 (Tex. 2017); Merriman v. XTO Energy, Inc., 407 S.W.3d 244, 248 (Tex. 2013). A trial court may render summary judgment when “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the issues [presented].” Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c); accord Lightning Oil, 520 S.W.3d at 45; Provident Life & Acc. Ins. Co. v. Knott, 128 S.W.3d 211, 215–16 (Tex. 2003). “A defendant may obtain summary judgment by conclusively establishing an affirmative defense.” Eagle Oil & Gas Co. v. TRO-X, L.P., 619 S.W.3d 699, 705 (Tex. 2021) (citing Frost Nat'l Bank v. Fernandez, 315 S.W.3d 494, 508 (Tex. 2010)).
A. J-W Power's Partial Motion for Summary Judgment
In its motion for partial summary judgment, J-W Power asserted that its compressors are dealer heavy equipment inventory, they are subject to taxation under sections 23.1241 and 23.1242, and they were already appraised and taxed in Jim Wells County. See Tex. Tax Code Ann. §§ 23.1241, .1242. J-W Power argued that FCAD wrongfully appraised its compressors as business personal property under section 21.02, and the ARB wrongfully denied its motion to correct the FCAD appraisal rolls based on multiple appraisals of the compressors under section 25.25(c)(2) and the allegedly wrong form and location under section 25.25(c)(3). See Tex. Tax Code Ann. §§ 21.02, 25.25. J-W Power insisted it was entitled to a refund of its overpaid taxes, interest on the overpayments, and attorney's fees. See Tex. Tax Code Ann. §§ 42.43 (refund, interest), 42.29 (attorney's fees).
B. FCAD's Motion for Summary Judgment
FCAD moved for summary judgment as a matter of law. Its motion presented five grounds; one was its affirmative defense of res judicata. Because FCAD's affirmative defense is dispositive, we begin with it.
Motions to Correct Barred by Res Judicata
A. FCAD's Res Judicata Ground
In its res judicata argument, FCAD argues that it proved each of the three essential elements of its affirmative defense as a matter of law. First, the ARB's prior determinations, which J-W Power did not appeal, were final judgment on the merits by a decisional authority of competent jurisdiction. Second, the parties were identical. Third, J-W Power's current lawsuit is based on the same claims it raised, or could have raised, in its earlier section 41.41 protests.
B. J-W Power's Argument
Responding to FCAD's res judicata argument, J-W Power contends that FCAD was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law because section 25.25(c) is a separate and independent remedy to seek correction of FCAD's appraisal rolls. It insists that section 25.25(l) expressly permits filing a motion to correct “under Subsection (c) regardless of whether, for a tax year to which the motion relates, the owner of the property protested under Chapter 41 an action relating to the value of the property that is the subject of the motion.” See Tex. Tax Code Ann. § 25.25(l).
J-W Power also contends its section 25.25(c) motions to correct asserted different types of claims from its section 41.41 protests, and thus res judicata does not apply.
Before we address the parties’ arguments, we briefly recite the applicable law.
C. Doctrine of Res Judicata
“The doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, bars causes of action that have already been fully adjudicated or that, with the use of diligence, could have been brought in the prior suit.” Rosetta Res. Operating, LP v. Martin, 645 S.W.3d 212, 225 (Tex. 2022) (citing Eagle Oil, 619 S.W.3d at 705).
A defendant moving for summary judgment on claim preclusion must prove the following elements: “(1) a prior final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) identity of parties or those in privity with them; and (3) a second action based on the same claims as were raised or could have been raised in the first action.” Id. (quoting Amstadt v. U.S. Brass Corp., 919 S.W.2d 644, 652 (Tex. 1996)).
The question of whether a current claim is the same as one that was raised or could have been raised in the first action focuses on the “basic nature” of the claim. Id. at 226 (citing Barr v. Resolution Tr. Corp. ex rel. Sunbelt Fed. Sav., 837 S.W.2d 627, 630 (Tex. 1992)). “It requires an analysis of the factual matters that make up the gist of the complaint, without regard to the form of action.” Barr, 837 S.W.2d at 630; see Amstadt, 919 S.W.2d at 653 (“Res judicata also precludes a second action on claims that arise out of the same subject matter and which might have been litigated in the first suit.”).
Separate forms of action, such as separate statutory remedies, do not avoid claim preclusion if the basic nature of the claims is the same. See Rosetta Res. Operating, 645 S.W.3d at 225; Barr, 837 S.W.2d at 630.
Further, res judicata also applies to decisions of “an administrative agency ․ acting in a judicial capacity [which] resolve[s] disputed issues of fact properly before it which the parties have had an adequate opportunity to litigate.” Igal v. Brightstar Info. Tech. Grp., 250 S.W.3d 78, 86–87 (Tex. 2008), superseded by statute on other grounds, Tex. Labor Code Ann. § 61.051(c), as recognized in Prairie View A & M Univ. v. Chatha, 381 S.W.3d 500, 518 (Tex. 2012) (third alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Utah Const. & Mining Co., 384 U.S. 394, 422, 86 S.Ct. 1545, 16 L.Ed.2d 642 (1966)); accord New Talk, Inc. v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 520 S.W.3d 637, 648 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2017, no pet.).
D. Res Judicata (Claim Preclusion) Bars J-W Power's Claims
We address each of claim preclusion's three essential elements in turn.
1. Final Judgment on the Merits
The first element of a claim preclusion defense is “a prior final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction.” Rosetta Res. Operating, 645 S.W.3d at 225.
In its 2013–2016 protests under section 41.41, J-W Power argued that FCAD improperly appraised its compressors as business personal property under section 22.01 rather than dealer heavy equipment inventory under sections 23.1241 and 23.1242. See Tex. Tax Code Ann. §§ 22.01, 23.1241, 23.1242.
But Frio County ARB denied each of the protests, and J-W Power did not appeal. Thus, the ARB decisions became final decisions on the merits by an administrative agency of competent jurisdiction in which the parties had an adequate opportunity to litigate the matters. See Igal, 250 S.W.3d at 86–87; New Talk, 520 S.W.3d at 648. Accordingly, the ARB decisions, which are conclusively established by the record, satisfy the first element. See Rosetta Res. Operating, 645 S.W.3d at 225.
2. Identity of Parties
The second element of a claim preclusion defense is an “identity of parties or those in privity with them.” Id. J-W Power does not argue that the parties were not the same, and the record shows they were; thus, the second element is conclusively established. See id.
3. Same Claims as in First Action
J-W Power vigorously challenges the third element.
a. Separate Statutory Remedies
It first insists that its claims are not the same because the tax code expressly creates separate remedies: Specifically, its protest claims under section 41.41 are different claims than those in its motions to correct the appraisal rolls under section 25.25(c), and thus res judicata does not apply.
Two of our sister courts have already addressed J-W Power's res judicata argument in four virtually identical cases, and we reach the same conclusion. See J-W Power Co. v. Wise Cnty. Appraisal Dist., No. 02-22-00227-CV, 2023 WL 2325507, at *3 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Mar. 2, 2023, no pet. h.); J-W Power Co. v. Jack Cnty. Appraisal Dist., No. 02-22-00082-CV, 2023 WL 415517, at *5 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Jan. 26, 2023, no pet. h.); J-W Power Co. v. Irion Cnty. Appraisal Dist., No. 03-21-00005-CV, 2022 WL 2836812, at *4 (Tex. App.—Austin July 21, 2022, pet. filed); J-W Power Co. v. Sterling Cnty. Appraisal Dist., No. 03-21-00069-CV, 2022 WL 2836807, at *4 (Tex. App.—Austin July 21, 2022, pet. filed).
We conclude that J-W Power's claims in its section 25.25(c) motions to correct FCAD's tax appraisal rolls—that FCAD improperly taxed its compressors as business personal property rather than dealer heavy equipment inventory and that some of its compressors had also been taxed in Jim Wells County—were either the same or of the same basic nature as its section 41.41 protest claims. See, e.g., J-W Power Co. v. Jack Cnty. Appraisal Dist., 2023 WL 415517, at *5.
b. Claims not Ripe
J-W Power also argues that its section 25.25(c) claims were not ripe when its protests were decided because the tax appraisal rolls had not been certified.
“Under the ripeness doctrine, we consider whether, at the time a lawsuit is filed, the facts are sufficiently developed so that an injury has occurred or is likely to occur, rather than being contingent or remote.” Eagle Oil, 619 S.W.3d at 706 (Tex. 2021) (quoting Waco Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Gibson, 22 S.W.3d 849, 851–52 (Tex. 2000)).
At the time of each of its annual protests, J-W Power asserted that FCAD was taxing its compressors under the wrong statute, and at those times, those alleged injuries were neither contingent nor remote. Cf. id.; Gibson, 22 S.W.3d at 851–52. J-W Power should have known it was the chief appraiser's duty to prepare FCAD's appraisal records for certification, and the records would be certified absent some intervening action by J-W Power. See, e.g., Tex. Tax Code Ann. § 25.01(a) (requiring the chief appraiser to prepare appraisal records); Waters at N. Hills, LLC v. Bexar Appraisal Dist., 414 S.W.3d 897, 903–04 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2013, pet. denied) (reviewing the chief appraiser's duties in preparing and presenting appraisal records).
We also conclude, as our sister courts have, that “the basic nature of J-W Power's claims did not change between its Section 41.41 protests and its Section 25.25 motion[s] ․ [and the] ripeness doctrine therefore does not prevent the application of res judicata.” J-W Power Co. v. Jack Cnty. Appraisal Dist., 2023 WL 415517, at *5 (citing J-W Power Co. v. Sterling Cnty. Appraisal Dist., 2022 WL 2836807, at *4). Thus, the summary judgment evidence conclusively establishes the third element. See id.
E. Requisite Disposition
The summary judgment evidence conclusively proves each essential element of FCAD's affirmative defense of res judicata. Thus, J-W Power's claims were barred, and the trial court should have (1) denied J-W Power's partial motion for summary judgment in its entirety and (2) granted FCAD's motion for summary judgment in its entirety. Accordingly, we need not address the parties’ other issues. See Tex. R. App. P. 47.1.
J-W Power's claims it brought against FCAD under section 25.25(c) to correct the tax appraisal rolls were or could have been brought under its earlier section 41.41 protests to the Frio County ARB. When J-W Power did not appeal the ARB's decisions, those determinations became final. Given a prior final determination by the Frio County ARB, the same parties, and J-W Power's 25.25(c) claims which were or could have been brought in its earlier protests, J-W Power's claims in its section 25.25(c) motions to correct were barred by res judicata, and the trial court should have granted FCAD's motion for summary judgment in its entirety.
Accordingly, we reverse the portion of the trial court's order that ordered a correction of the Frio County tax appraisal rolls for certain compressors. We affirm the remainder of the trial court's order—which orders that J-W Power take nothing on its claims against Frio County Appraisal District.
1. Our previous case, J-W Power Co. v. Duval County Appraisal District, provides legal background that is relevant in this case. No. 04-21-00172-CV, 2022 WL 789345 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Mar. 16, 2022, no pet.) (mem. op.).
Opinion by: Patricia O. Alvarez, Justice
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Docket No: No. 04-21-00564-CV
Decided: April 26, 2023
Court: Court of Appeals of Texas, San Antonio.
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