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California State University, Fresno Association, Inc. v. County of Fresno

California Court of Appeals, Fifth District

March 2, 2017

CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, FRESNO ASSOCIATION, INC., Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
COUNTY OF FRESNO, Defendant and Appellant; CITY OF FRESNO et al., Interveners and Appellants. CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, FRESNO ASSOCIATION, INC., Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
COUNTY OF FRESNO, Defendant and Respondent; CITY OF FRESNO et al., Interveners and Respondents

         [CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION[*]]

         APPEAL from judgments of the superior court of Fresno County, No. 12CECG03791, M. Bruce Smith and Alan M. Simpson, Judges. []

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          COUNSEL

          Daniel C. Cederborg, County Counsel, and Peter Wall, Deputy County Counsel, for Defendant and Appellant and Defendant and Respondent County of Fresno.

         Bewley, Lassleben & Miller, Leighton M. Anderson, Joseph A. Vinatieri and Patricia Verdugo for Plaintiff and Respondent and Plaintiff and Appellant California State University, Fresno Association, Inc.

         McCormick, Kabot, Jenner & Lew and Nancy A. Jenner for Intervener and Appellant and Intervener and Respondent City of Fresno.

         Lozano Smith, David J. Wolfe and Jenell A. Van Bindsbergen for Intervener and Appellant and Intervener and Respondent City of Clovis.

         Opinion by Detjen, J., with Kane, Acting P. J., and Franson, J., concurring.

          OPINION

          [215 Cal.Rptr.3d 47] DETJEN, J.

         Introduction

         County of Fresno (County) appeals from a judgment of the superior court entered [215 Cal.Rptr.3d 48] on July 28, 2015, in favor of California State University, Fresno Association, Inc. (Association), in Fresno County Superior Court case No. 12CECG03791. Association appeals from the superior court's postjudgment order issued November 17, 2015, denying its motion for attorney fees in the same case.[1]

         Association is a nonprofit public benefit corporation and auxiliary organization serving California State University, Fresno (University). Along with administering University's dining services, residence halls, bookstore, student union, and fitness and recreation center, Association operates and maintains Save Mart Center, an estimated 430,000-square-foot on-campus arena that hosts athletic, cultural, and entertainment events and seats up to 16,000 spectators.

         In 2007, Association received property value assessments of Save Mart Center, and the related tax bills, for the period of 2003 through 2006. Association applied for reduced assessments pursuant to Revenue and

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Taxation Code section 1603.[2] The applications were not designated as refund claims. Following a hearing, the Fresno County Assessment Appeals Board (Board), inter alia, valued the property for the years 2004, 2005, and 2006 at amounts that were less than those set by the Fresno County Assessor (Assessor). Board mailed written notice of its decision to Association on November 4, 2010. The notice did not advise Association to file a claim for refund. Thereafter, Association paid the tax bills plus penalties.

         On February 24, 2012, more than a year after Board mailed the notice, Association filed a property tax refund claim with County. County denied the claim.

         On November 30, 2012, Association brought a property tax refund action against County pursuant to section 5140. County argued, inter alia, the action was barred because Association failed to file a timely refund claim pursuant to section 5097, subdivision (a)(3)(A)(i).[3],[4] Following a trial, the superior court found the one-year time limit of section 5097, subdivision (a)(3)(A)(i) did not " begin[] to run" until the date the tax was paid. Hence, it determined Association filed a timely claim, reversed Board's November 4, 2010, decision, and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

         On appeal, County again asserts the superior court lacked jurisdiction to consider Association's action because Association's February 24, 2012, claim was untimely. We [215 Cal.Rptr.3d 49] agree.[5]

         Section 5097, subdivision (a)(3)(A)(i) sets the procedural time limit within which a party in Association's position must file a claim with County for a refund of taxes. That procedural time limit is one year. That time limit is not affected by the timing of the party's payment of the property taxes due.

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Since Association did not file their claim for refund of taxes with the County within the one-year time limit of section 5097, subdivision (a)(3)(A)(i), the superior court lacked jurisdiction over Association's subsequent property tax refund action against County. Accordingly, we reverse.

         Factual and Procedural History

         I. County's appeal.

         Association and the Trustees of the California State University (Trustees) entered into a ground lease dated October 1, 2001, under which Association agreed to lease from Trustees certain undeveloped land on the University campus; undertake the planning, financing, construction, and operation of Save Mart Center; and convey to Trustees unencumbered title to the real property at the end of the lease term. At the time, Association was " the only vehicle for revenue bond financing for the university" and was " used as the financing vehicle to get [Save Mart Center] built." Construction began in December 2001 and ended on November 1, 2003. Association issued $74,475,000 in revenue bonds to pay most of the building costs.

         In fiscal year 2003, Trustees approved the systemwide revenue bond program. It was through that program that the bond debt incurred to construct Save Mart Center was refinanced in early 2005. Association and Trustees entered into a facility purchase contract dated March 1, 2005, under which Trustees agreed to purchase Association's right, title, and interest in and to Save Mart Center for the amount of the outstanding bonds. Association and Trustees then entered into a ground and facility lease dated March 1, 2005, under which Association agreed to lease Save Mart Center from Trustees; occupy, operate, and maintain Save Mart Center for the benefit of University; and convey to Trustees unencumbered title to the real property at the end of the lease term.

         Association received a notice of supplemental assessment dated February 5, 2007, in which Assessor appraised Save Mart Center as of November 1, 2003, the date of its completion, and established a taxable value of $64.5 million. A supplemental property tax bill charged $461,477.74. On March 27, 2007, Association filed an assessment reduction application, which was not designated as a refund claim. Association then received a notice of enrollment of escape assessments[6] dated May 31, 2007, in which Assessor retroactively appraised Save Mart Center as of the lien dates for 2004, 2005, and 2006 (see § 531) and enrolled escape assessments of $64.5 million; $65.79 million; and

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$67,105,800, respectively. Unsecured property tax bills charged $786,320.79 for 2004; $802,047.20 for 2005; and $818,088.14 for 2006. On [215 Cal.Rptr.3d 50] June 18, 2007, Association filed three additional assessment reduction applications, one for each escape assessment. These applications were not designated as refund claims.

         Board conducted a bifurcated hearing on Association's applications. The first phase, scheduled for April 15 and 16, 2010, was " limited to the existence of an assessable property interest." The second phase, scheduled for July 15 and 16, 2010, " relate[d] to valuation of the subject property." Board announced its decision denying Association's applications on November 4, 2010. First, it concluded Association had a taxable interest in Save Mart Center. Second, utilizing the cost method of appraisal,[7] Board ordered the following " 'equalized'" property values, which were lower than Assessor's original figures: (1) $62,528,309.34 as of November 1, 2003; (2) $62,840,950.88 as of January 1, 2004; (3) $45,143,297.43 as of January 1, 2005; (4) $45,257,328.97 as of March 1, 2005; and (5) $43,906,188.90 as of January 1, 2006. Board mailed a written notice of its decision to Association on November 4, 2010, and a written copy of its findings of fact on December 2, 2010. The notice did not advise Association to file a refund claim.

         Association paid $4,190,859.84 in taxes and penalties on May 5, 2011, and filed a property tax refund claim on February 24, 2012. County, through its auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector, denied the claim on August 24, 2012.

         On November 30, 2012, Association brought a property tax refund action against County, averring Board's use of the cost method instead of the income method[8] was legally erroneous. In an answer filed January 17, 2013, County alleged, inter alia, the action was " barred by the statute of limitations set forth in ... section 5097, subd[ivision] (a)(3)(A)(i)" because Association's February 24, 2012, refund claim was untimely. A bench trial commenced on October 7, 2014, and ended October 9, 2014. The issue of timeliness was ...


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