Monday, July 18, 2011

Golden Oldie

Mountain View Community School, Inc. v. City of Rutland, 2011 VT 65

By Andrew Delaney

Mountain View Community School sought a tax exemption as a “college, academy, or other public school” under 32 V.S.A. § 3802(4) from the City of Rutland.  When the City denied the exemption, Mountain View sued for declaratory and injunctive relief, in large part to prevent a threatened tax sale.  The first judge on the case granted Mountain View an injunction staying the sale pending completion of the action, but a different judge later ruled that Mountain View was not entitled to the exemption.  Mountain View appealed, and the SCOV reversed.

Mountain View is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit, licensed as an independent elementary school in Vermont.  < Mountain View has operated two locations in Rutland for some time.  The lands were used only as schools.  Mountain View paid taxes from 1994 to 2007, although it maintained that it was statutorily exempt.  After its assessed value increased substantially in 2006 and 2007, it sought the exemption more proactively.  The City declined to grant the exemption and threatened tax sale.  And so the court saga began. At the hearing regarding the preliminary injunction, one member of Mountain View’s board of trustees testified.  She addressed the school’s history, mission, and admissions process.  She explained that the school seeks students who are a good “fit” for the school, but maintained that selection was open to all.  She also pointed out that Mountain View offers scholarships to needy students and that several towns in Rutland County have sent public-school students to Mountain View.  The judge found that Mountain View had presented a “colorable case” and stayed the tax sale.

Another judge took the case over.  At the hearing on the exemption, Mountain View essentially relied on the testimony presented at the preliminary injunction hearing, with its student handbook thrown in for good measure.  Mountain View argued that it was a “public school” under the statute; the City argued that Mountain View’s use of the property failed to meet the “public use” criteria of the statute. 

The trial court agreed with the City’s argument, concluding that Mountain View had failed to show that it directly benefited “an indefinite class of persons who are part of the public.”  The court found that Mountain View’s selection criteria was too vague and that it had failed to meet its burden of showing that it was entitled to an exemption for a public, pious, or charitable use.  Mountain View appealed.
This case involves statutory construction and so the SCOV has “plenary and de novo” review powers—meaning the SCOV gets to do pretty much whatever it wants with the case, regardless of what the trial court did.  This is a good thing to keep in mind.

But what is really interesting is what the SCOV does next.  Instead of parsing through the parties’ arguments, it reaches back and breaks out some of that Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll in the form of an 1887 case that nobody had bothered to cite below.  “It’s still good law, and it’s on point,” says the SCOV.  So when you think “school tax exemptions” in Vermont, think Willard v. Pike, 59 Vt. 202 (1887).

The SCOV runs through the decision in Willard, which involved applying the same exemption to the St. Johnsbury Academy against the protests of the City of St. Johnsbury which asserted that selection criteria and scholars paying tuition negated the “public school” qualification in the statute.  The 1887 edition of SCOV rejected the City of St. Johnsbury’s argument in Willard and we can start to guess what its successor will do here.  Is Mountain View a “public school” under the statute?  Why, yes.  Yes, it is.

Only then does the SCOV run through a series of decisions on the issues at play here as framed by the parties, specifically noting that the “public school” exemption is separate and independent from the “public, pious[,] or charitable” uses exemption contained in the same statute that has led to the public purpose test, which the SCOV most recently ruled upon last year.  If you still can’t guess which way the wind is blowing at this point, then you need to go back and look at what the trial court did. 

That’s right—it conflated the exemptions.  As the SCOV points out, if an institution qualifies for the public school exemption, it need not further qualify for the “public, pious, or charitable” exemption.  One will do, thank you.  Now, the use of the land has to be for the appropriate use and benefit of the school and all, but that’s not really in dispute here—Mountain View always used its properties as schools.

Because the SCOV concludes that Mountain View qualifies for the public school exemption, and because the lands were used solely for schools, the SCOV reverses the trial court and Mountain View gets its exemption.

As a side note, this case illustrates the importance of thorough legal research.  Old cases are still highly relevant.  The Unnamed Partner may just know what he’s talking about, kiddies.   

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