Refund decision revised by court

Only Lane and eight others are eligible for a tax refund.
Wednesday, June 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:38 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The Missouri Court of Appeals released a modified decision Tuesday in the Henry Lane lawsuit to make clear that only the nine plaintiffs in the case are eligible for a partial refund of their 2001 property taxes. The court also decided not to re-hear the case or transfer it to the Supreme Court.

The two defendants — the Columbia Public School District and Boone County Collector Pat Lensmeyer — now have 15 days to decide whether to directly ask the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case.

Alex Bartlett, the school district’s attorney, and John Patton, Lensmeyer’s attorney, both said they would consult with their clients before deciding what to do next.

Lane, who has run unsuccessfully for the Columbia School Board six times, said he expected the school district to appeal the ruling.

“Our big hope is that the Supreme Court won’t hear it,” Lane said.

The Appeals Court revised its decision through two footnotes meant to clarify a statute involving taxes “mistakenly or erroneously paid.” The original decision cited a time frame of three years to apply for a refund of such taxes. However, that time frame resulted from an amendment to the statute in 2003; before that, taxpayers were given one year to apply for a refund.

Clarification provided

In the revised decision, the court cited “the original statute of limitation” to assert that “the defendant has acquired a vested right to be free from suit.”

“Consequently, any further refund claims based on the District’s 2001 levy are now barred,” the court said in its ruling.

Bartlett said the clarification was the proper thing to do.

At issue in the suit was the 2001 property tax levy set by the school district. Lane and his co-plaintiffs charged that the district set the levy at an illegal rate to collect more money than its budget required. The suit was downed in circuit court, but on appeal, a three-judge panel ruled in May that the plaintiffs were entitled to a refund.

Both courts denied the suit class-action status, which could have made all taxpayers eligible for a partial refund of their 2001 property taxes. Were the case considered a class-action, the amount due to taxpayers could have totaled about $1 million.

The appeals court ordered the Boone County Circuit Court to determine the amount due the nine plaintiffs — a figure that has been reported between $33 and $78. The appeals court clerk’s office said they will not issue that mandate until all post-opinion options are exhausted.

“It really hurt us,” Lane said of Tuesday’s clarification. “That was our only hope (for a widespread refund).”

Bartlett has maintained that the appeals court was wrong to refer to the “mistakenly or erroneously paid” subsection, which he said has only been followed once in any reported decision in the appeals court. A separate subsection in the statute governs taxes paid under protest, giving taxpayers 90 days to commence action against the collector by filing a petition in circuit court. Bartlett said that part becomes superfluous if any excessive taxes can be defined as “mistakenly or erroneously paid.”

Lane said paying taxes under protest should be considered the “opening ground.” Once the courts have ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, Lane said it should be within taxpayers’ rights to file an application for a refund.

“‘Mistakenly’ and ‘erroneously’ applies to our case,” Lane said.

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