George Williams v. Roselle BoroughAnnotate this Case
TAX COURT OF NEW JERSEY
Joshua D. Novin 153 Halsey Street, 12thFloor
Judge P.O. Box 47025
Newark, New Jersey 07101
Tel: (973) 645-4280 Fax: (973) 645-4283
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT APPROVAL OF
THE TAX COURT COMMITTEE ON OPINIONS
May 13, 2015
Ryan Linder, Esq.
134 Evergreen Place, Suite 301
East Orange, New Jersey 07018
Catherine M. DeAppolonio, Esq.
Palumbo, Renaud & DeAppolonio, LLC
190 North Avenue East
Cranford, New Jersey 07016
Re: George Williams v. Roselle Borough
Docket No. 015567-2013
Dear Mr. Linder and Ms. DeAppolonio
This letter constitutes the court s opinion after trial in the above-referenced matter challenging the 2013 tax year assessment on plaintiff s single-family residence. For the reasons stated more fully below, the assessment is affirmed.
I. Procedural History and Factual Findings
Pursuant to R. 1:7-4, the court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence and testimony offered at trial in this matter.
George Williams ( plaintiff ) is the owner of the single-family home located at 114 East 10th Avenue, in the Borough of Roselle, County of Union and State of New Jersey. The property is identified on the tax map of the Borough of Roselle as Block 3501, Lot 2 (the subject property ). For the 2013 tax year, the subject property was assessed as followsLand: 50,000
Improvements: 49,400 Total 99,400
The average ratio of assessed to true value, commonly referred to as the Chapter 123 ratio, for Roselle Borough ( defendant ) for the 2013 tax year is 57.61%, with a corresponding Chapter 123 common level range between 48.97% and 66.25%. SeeN.J.S.A.54:1-35a(a); N.J.S.A. 54:1-35a(b). When the average ratio is applied to the assessment, the implied equalized value of the subject property for the 2013 tax year is $172,539.48.
Plaintiff filed a petition of appeal with the Union County Board of Taxation challenging the 2013 tax year assessment on the subject property. On August 23, 2013, the Board entered a Memorandum of Judgment (the Judgment ) affirming the assessment on the subject property under judgment code 2A Assessment within Range (N.J.S.A. 54:3-22).
On October 8, 2013, plaintiff filed a timely Complaint with the Tax Court contesting the Board s Judgment. The defendant did not file a Counterclaim. The matter was tried to conclusion on February 9, 2015. At trial, plaintiff offered the testimony of a State of New Jersey certified general real estate appraiser who, after voir dire and for the reasons set forth on the record, was accepted by the court as an expert in the field of real estate valuation (the expert or plaintiff s expert ). The expert prepared an appraisal report dated December 22, 2014, which was admitted in evidence, without objection.
Based upon the testimony and evidence presented at trial, the court concludes that the subject property is a colonial-style single-family home, approximately 93 years of age, in average condition, and is situated on a 5,000 square foot lot. The home consists of a total of seven rooms, three bedrooms and one full bathroom, a finished attic, an unfinished basement and a detached one-car garage. The subject property has a gross living area of 1,324 square feet. The home is located in an established residential community which provides convenient access to major highways.
Plaintiff s expert employed the comparable sales approach to reach an opinion of the true market value of the subject property. The expert offered his opinion that, as of the October 1, 2012 valuation date, the true market value of the subject property was $90,000.
II. Conclusions of Law
Presumption of Validity
The court s analysis begins with the well-established principle that [o]riginal assessments and judgments of county boards of taxation are entitled to a presumption of validity. MSGW Real Estate Fund, LLC v. Borough of Mountain Lakes, 18 N.J. Tax 364, 373 (Tax 1998). The presumption attaches to the quantum of the tax assessment. Based on this presumption, the appealing taxpayer has the burden of proving that the assessment is erroneous. Pantasote Co. v. City of Passaic, 100 N.J. 408, 413 (1985)(citing Riverview Gardens v. North Arlington Borough, 9 N.J. 167, 174 (1952)). The presumption is not simply an evidentiary presumption serving only as a mechanism to allocate the burden of proof. It is, rather, a construct that expresses the view that in tax matters, it is to be presumed that governmental authority has been exercised correctly and in accordance with law. MSGW Real Estate Fund, LLC, supra, 18 N.J. Tax at 374 (citing Powder Mill, I Assocs. v. Hamilton Township, 3 N.J. Tax 439 (Tax 1981)). The presumption of correctness stands, until sufficient competent evidence to the contrary is adduced. Little Egg Harbor Township v. Bonsangue, 316 N.J. Super. 271, 285-86 (App. Div. 1998). A taxpayer can only rebut the presumption by introducing cogent evidence of true value. That is, evidence definite, positive and certain in quality and quantity to overcome the presumption. Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Newark City, 10 N.J. 99, 105 (1952). Therefore, at the close of plaintiffs proofs, the court must be presented with evidence which raises a debatable question as to the validity of the assessment. MSGW Real Estate Fund, LLC, supra, 18 N.J. Tax at 376.
The court, in evaluating whether the evidence presented meets the cogent evidence standard, must accept such evidence as true and accord the plaintiff all legitimate inferences which can be deduced from the evidence. Id. at 376 (citing Brill v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, 142 N.J. 520 (1995)). However, the evidence presented, when viewed under the Brill standard must be sufficient to determine the value of the property under appeal, thereby establishing the existence of a debatable question as to the correctness of the assessment. West Colonial Enters, LLC v. City of East Orange, 20 N.J. Tax 576, 579 (Tax 2003)(quoting Lenal Props., Inc. v. City of Jersey City, 18 N.J. Tax 405, 408 (Tax 1999), aff d, 18 N.J. Tax 658 (App. Div. 2000), certif. denied, 165 N.J. 488 (2000)). Only after the presumption is overcome with sufficient evidence must the court appraise the testimony, make a determination of true value and fix the assessment. Greenblatt v. Englewood City, 26 N.J. Tax 41, 52 (Tax 2011)(quoting Rodwood Gardens, Inc. v. City of Summit, 188 N.J. Super. 34, 38-39 (App. Div. 1982)). If the court concludes that evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption of validity attached to the tax assessment has not been presented, judgment must be entered affirming the assessment. Ford Motor Co. v. Township of Edison, 127 N.J. 290, 312 (1992). In the absence of a motion to dismiss under R. 4:37-2(b), the court is nonetheless required to decide if the plaintiff has overcome the presumption of validity. Thus, if the court independently concludes the plaintiff has not carried its requisite burden, dismissal of the action is warranted under R. 4:40-1, and the trial court need not engage in an evaluation of the evidence to make an independent determination of value.
At the conclusion of plaintiff s case, defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff's Complaint under R. 4:37-2(b). The court denied defendant s motion and placed a statement of reasons on the record.
However, concluding the presumption of validity has been overcome, does not equate to a finding by the court that the assessment is erroneous. Once the presumption has been overcome, the court must then turn to a consideration of the evidence adduced on behalf of both parties and conclude the matter based on a fair preponderance of the evidence. Ford Motor Co., supra, 127 N.J. at 312. The court must be mindful that although there may have been enough evidence [presented] to overcome the presumption of correctness at the close of plaintiff s case-in-chief, the burden of proof remain[s] on the taxpayer throughout the entire case to demonstrate that the judgment under review was incorrect. Ford Motor Co., supra, 127 N.J. at 314-15 (citing Pantasote Co., supra, 100 N.J. at 413).
Accordingly, the court will evaluate and weigh the evidence presented to determine if plaintiff has met the requisite burden of proof.
Methodology of Valuation
There are three traditional appraisal methods utilized to predict what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller on a given date, applicable to different types of properties: the comparable sales method, capitalization of income and cost. Brown v. Borough of Glen Rock,19 N.J. Tax366,376 (App.Div.2001)(citing Appraisal Institute, The Appraisal of Real Estate 81 (11th ed. 1996), certif. denied, 168 N.J. 291 (2001)). [T]he answer as to which approach should predominate depends upon the facts in the particular case. WCI-Westinghouse, Inc. v.
Township of Edison, 7 N.J. Tax, 610, 619 (Tax 1985), aff d, 9 N.J. Tax 86 (App. Div. 1986).
The sales comparison approach derives an opinion of market value by comparing properties similar to the subject property that have recently sold, are listed for sale, or are under contract. Appraisal Institute, The Appraisal of Real Estate 377 (14th ed. 2013). The sales comparison approach involves a comparative analysis of properties and requires the expert to focus on the similarities and differences that affect value which may include variations in property rights, financing, terms, market conditions and physical characteristics. Id. at 378. When data is available, this [approach] is the most straight forward and simple way to explain and support an opinion of market value. Greenblatt v. Englewood City, 26 N.J. Tax 41 (Tax 2011)(citing Appraisal Institute, The Appraisal of Real Estate 300 (13th ed. 2008)). Here the court concludes, as did the expert, the sales comparison approach is the most appropriate method to determine the true market value of the subject property.
Plaintiff s expert relied on the sale of three single-family homes in Roselle Borough. The sale prices of the expert s comparable sales ranged from $60,000 to $130,000. After adjustments, the adjusted sale prices of the expert s comparable property sales ranged from $72,900 to $104,500.
Comparable sale one located at 1003 Sheridan Avenue, Roselle Borough, New Jersey sold in September 2012, for a price of $62,500. This comparable is a colonial-style single-family home, located approximately .74 miles from the subject property, and is situated on a 5,000 square foot lot. Comparable sale one has a gross living area of 1,056 square feet, making it approximately 20% smaller than the subject property. Plaintiff s expert made the following adjustments to the sale price of comparable sale one: (i) a positive adjustment of $5,400, to account for differences in gross living area, calculated at $20.00 per square foot; and (ii) a positive adjustment of $2,500, based on the expert s opinion that the functional utility of this comparable was inferior to the subject property; and (iii) a positive adjustment of $2,500, to account for the lack of a finished attic in this comparable.
In total, the expert made net adjustments of 16.6% and gross adjustments of 16.6% to comparable sale one. The final adjusted sale price was $72,900.
Comparable sale two located at 611 Melville Terrace, Roselle Borough, New Jersey sold in February 2012, for a price of $130,000. This comparable is a colonial-style single-family home, located approximately .61 miles from the subject property, and is situated on an 8,994 square foot lot. This comparable has a gross living area of 1,650 square feet, making it approximately 20% larger than the subject property. Plaintiff s expert made the following adjustments to the sale price of comparable sale two: (i) a negative adjustment of $6,500, to account for differences in gross living area, calculated at $20.00 per square foot; and (ii) a negative adjustment of $2,000, to account for differences in lot size, calculated at $0.50 per square foot; and (iii) a negative adjustment of $20,000, based on the expert s opinion the condition of this comparable was superior to the subject property; and (iv) a negative adjustment of $2,500, to account for the presence of an additional half bathroom in this comparable; and (v) a positive adjustment of $2,500, based on the expert s opinion that the functional utility of this comparable was inferior to the subject property; and (vi) a positive adjustment of $2,500, to account for the lack of a one-car garage in this comparable; and (vii) a negative adjustment of $2,000, to account for the presence of a patio in this comparable; and (viii) a positive adjustment of $2,500, to account for the lack of a finished attic in this comparable.
In total, the expert made net adjustments of -19.6% and gross adjustments of 31.2% to comparable sale two. The final adjusted sale price was $104,500.
Comparable sale three located at 590 Uncas Avenue, Roselle Borough, New Jersey sold in September 2012, for a price of $60,000. This comparable is a colonial-style single family home, located approximately .74 miles from the subject property, and is situated on an 8,333 square foot lot. This comparable has a gross living area of 1,208 square feet, making it approximately 9% smaller than the subject property. Plaintiff s expert made the following adjustments to the sale price of comparable sale three: (i) a positive adjustment of $2,300, to account for differences in gross living area, calculated at $20.00 per square foot; and (ii) a negative adjustment of $1,700, to account for differences in lot size, calculated at $0.50 per square foot; and (iii) a positive adjustment of $20,000, based on the expert s opinion that the condition of this comparable was inferior to the subject property; and (iv) a negative adjustment of $2,500, to account for the presence of an additional half bathroom in this comparable; and (v) a positive adjustment of $2,500, to account for the lack of a finished attic in this comparable; and (vi) a negative adjustment of $2,000, to account for the presence of a fireplace in this comparable.
In total, the expert made net adjustments of 31%, and gross adjustments of 51.7% to comparable sale three. The final adjusted sale price was $78,600.
In undertaking a sales comparison approach to value, a substantial similarly must exist between the subject property and the comparable properties. Evidence of comparable sales is effective in determining value only where there is a substantial similarity between the properties. Venino v. Borough of Carlstadt, 1 N.J. Tax 172, 175 (Tax 1980), aff d o.b. 4 N.J. Tax 528 (App. Div. 1981); See also Bloomfield Associates v. Bloomfield Town, 12 N.J. Tax 501 (Tax 1992); Glenpointe Assocs. v. Township of Teaneck, 241 N.J. Super. 37, 48 (App. Div. 1990), certif. denied, 122 N.J. 391 (1990). In employing a sales comparison approach, the evidence must be sufficient[ly] similar in some significant respects to permit . . . the fact-finder, to draw rational probative valuation inferences from the sales cited. Ford Motor Co. v. Township of Edison, supra, 127 N.J. at 307 (quoting Moorestown Township v. Slack, 85 N.J. Super. 109 (App. Div. 1964)). The evidence presented must be based on sound theory and objective data , rather than on mere wishful thinking. MSGW Real Estate Fund, supra, 18 N.J. Taxat 376(quoting FMC Corp. v. Unmack,92 N.Y.2d 179, 188 (1998)). Thus, the  probative value of the comparable properties hinge on the similarities which can be drawn.
The court finds that comparable sale one lacks credibility as evidence of the true market value of the subject property.
Comparable sale one was identified by the taxing district s assessor as non-usable for purposes of the Director of the Division of Taxation s annual assessment-sales ratio study. Comparable sale one was designated non-usable code 10, which applies to [s]ales by guardians, trustees, executors and administrators. N.J.A.C. 18:12-1.1(a)(10). A transaction classified as non-usable may be considered if after full investigation it clearly appears that the transaction was a sale between a willing buyer, not compelled to buy, and a willing seller, not compelled to sell, and that it meets all other requisites of a usable sale. N.J.A.C. 18:12-1.1(b). See Pepperidge Tree Realty Corp. v. Kinnelon Borough, 21 N.J. Tax 57, 67 (Tax 2003). Although the regulation does not result in the exclusion of the sale as evidence of true market value, it causes the court to pause and consider the terms and conditions of the sale. The court is obligated to evaluate the terms of sale of each property offered as evidence of market value, to ascertain if it was influenced by other conditions. It is for the court to appraise the circumstances surrounding a sale to determine if there were special factors which affected the sale price without affecting the true value. Glen Wall Associates v. Township of Wall, 99 N.J. 265, 282 (1985). See Whippany Assoc. v. Hanover Township, 1 N.J. Tax 325, 330 (Tax 1980); Ewing Township v. Suburban Square Associates, 7 N.J. Tax 263, 267 (Tax 1985); American Cyanamid Co. v. Wayne Township, 17 N.J. Tax 542, 580 (App. Div. 2000); AT&T Corp. v. Township of Morris, 19 N.J. Tax 319, 324 (Tax 2000).
Here, the expert testified that although comparable sale one was an estate sale , he was of the opinion that it was a bona fide, arms-length transaction. The expert s conclusion was premised upon having confirmed with the realtor comparable sale one was properly exposed to the mls and that there was a meeting of the minds between the two parties. However, the expert offered no further details, testimony or evidence to support those statements. Moreover, the expert could not identify, and did not know, the time period comparable sale one was offered for sale on the market. Thus, the expert did not provide the court with any factual support or information concerning the property s exposure to the marketplace. Plaintiff s expert only offered the court his bare conclusion that comparable sale one was adequately marketed. Although the expert acknowledged comparable sale one was an estate sale, the expert failed to address the motivations, if any, of the seller in offering the property for sale. The expert s understanding that there was a meeting of the minds between the buyer and seller does not demonstrate that either party to the transaction was not unusually motivated. The motivations of transaction participants is often the driving force in consummating a transaction. The expert s report further reflected that comparable sale one was a cash transaction, thereby raising further questions regarding the seller s motivation in disposing of the property. Accordingly, the court is unable to gauge if comparable sale one was a bona fide, arms-length transaction because insufficient evidence and factual information was presented surrounding the sale of the property. Without this crucial evidence and information, the court is unable to conclusively establish if comparable sale one reflected the true market value of the property.
Similarly, the court concludes that comparable sale two and comparable sale three lack credibility as evidence of the true market value of the subject property.
Comparable sale two required the expert to make gross adjustments of 31.2% and comparable sale three required the expert to make gross adjustments of 51.7%. The extent of such adjustments raises significant doubt as to the similarity of comparable sale two and comparable sale three to the subject property. By definition, comparability does not require  properties to be identical, differences between a comparable property and the subject property are anticipated. They are dealt with by adjustments recognizing and explaining these differences, and then relating the two properties to each other in a meaningful way so that an estimate of the value of one can be determined from the value of the other. U.S. Life Realty Corp. v. Jackson Township, 9 N.J. Tax 66, 72 (Tax 1987). However, the degree of gross adjustments can have a material bearing upon the comparison of the properties. Adjustments to sales of a large magnitude vitiate comparability. Pansini Custom Design Assocs., LLC v. City of Ocean City, 407 N.J. Super. 137, 148 (App. Div. 2009)(quoting Global Terminal & Container Servs. v. City of Jersey City, 15 N.J. Tax 698, 704 (Tax 1996)). See also Congoleum Corp. v. Township of Hamilton, 7 N.J. Tax 436, 451 (Tax 1985)(concluding that adjustments must be sufficiently supported by objective data); M.I. Holdings v. City of Jersey City, 12 N.J. Tax 129, 137 (Tax 1991) (concluding that adjustments of 22% to 63% were incompatible to the subject property and not probative of its true value); Greenblatt v. Englewood City, supra, 26 N.J. Tax at 55 (concluding that adjustments must have a foundation obtained from the market ).
Here the expert made a negative adjustment of $20,000 to comparable sale two for condition, which he opined was superior to the subject. Similarly, the expert made a positive adjustment of $20,000 to comparable sale three for condition, which he opined was inferior to the subject. The expert s condition adjustments comprise 15% of the total sale price of comparable sale two and 33.33% of the total sale price of comparable sale three. Effective cross-examination revealed the expert did not conduct an inspection of the interior of comparable sale two or comparable sale three. Instead, the expert explained his condition adjustments were based on a review of the interior photographs that the realtor puts up on their board, and I looked at the kitchen of the subject, the kitchen of the comp, the bathrooms, etc., they have interior rooms, paint schemes, carpeting, whatever s based on the interior photos placed by the realtor on the comps. The expert provided no further explanation to the court supporting his condition adjustments. The expert did not describe his observations or identify any distinguishing features, characteristics or differences in the quality of the interior of comparable sale two, comparable sale three and the subject property to justify his adjustments. Moreover, the expert did not annex to his appraisal report copies of the interior photographs he reviewed of comparable sale two and comparable sale three which formed the basis of his condition adjustments. Here, plaintiff s expert provided the court with bare conclusions that the condition of comparable sale two was superior to the subject, and the condition of comparable sale three was inferior to the subject. Stated simply, the expert failed to provide the court with any substantive factual evidence to support his conclusions. Hence, the court concludes the expert s condition adjustments are not credible.
Additionally, the gross living area adjustments made by plaintiff s expert lacked any supporting objective market data. The expert explained that his gross living area adjustments were based on my study and my market data being an experienced appraiser, and I measured the market reaction to gross living areas differences in sales transactions over the years and I formulated my opinion of the gross living area adjustment based on my experience. However, the expert did not include in or annex to his report the market data upon which his gross living area adjustment value was founded. Moreover, the expert did not furnish the court with any testimony detailing the market area examined, the time period involved or the market reactions observed, allowing him to formulate an opinion of the gross living area adjustment value to be applied.
The expert s lot size adjustments similarly lacked a credible foundation. Although the expert explained that he measured the market reaction to lot size differences based upon paired sales over the years, and determined that in Roselle it is $0.50 per square foot , the expert did not provide any objective market data, surveys or analyses supporting such conclusion. The paired sales analysis alluded to by plaintiff s expert was neither contained in, nor annexed to his report. Moreover, although the expert was afforded the opportunity to present support for his conclusions during direct and cross examination, the expert failed to do so. The expert merely professed his bare conclusion that it is my experience as a state certified general appraiser that it [site size adjustment] is $0.50 a square foot in Roselle Borough.
For an expert's testimony to be of any value to the trier of fact, it must have a proper foundation. See Peer v. City of Newark, 71 N.J. Super. 12, 21 (App. Div. 1961), certif. denied, 36 N.J. 300 (1962). When an expert offers an opinion without providing specific underlying reasons he ceases to be an aid to the trier of fact. Jimenez v. GNOC, Corp., 286 N.J. Super 533, 540 (App. Div. 1996). An expert s opinions must be supported by data, facts or information available to the expert at or prior to trial, however such data and information need not be admissible. N.J.R.E. 703. An expert witness is required to give the why and wherefore of his expert opinion, not just a mere conclusion. Jimenez, supra, 286 N.J. Super. at 540. The opinion of an expert lacking in such foundation and consisting of bare conclusions unsupported by factual evidence is inadmissible. Rosenberg v. Tavorath, 352 N.J. Super. 385, 401 (App. Div. 2002) (citing Johnson v. Salem Corp., 97 N.J. 78, 91 (1984)). See also Buckelew v. Grossbard, 87 N.J. 512, 524 (1981) (concluding that an expert opinion that offers bare conclusions unsupported by factual evidence, is inadmissible. ). The weight to be afforded an expert's testimony relative to adjustments depends upon the facts and reasoning which form the basis of the opinion. An expert's conclusion can rise no higher than the data providing the foundation (citation omitted). If the bases for the adjustments are not made evident the court cannot extrapolate value. Inmar Associates v. Edison Township, 2 N.J. Tax 59, 66 (Tax 1980). Without explanation as to the basis, the opinion of the expert is entitled to little weight in this regard. Dworman v. Tinton Falls, 1 N.J. Tax 445, 458 (Tax 1980)(citing to Passaic v. Gera Mills, 55 N.J. Super. 73 (App. Div. 1959), certif. denied, 30 N.J. 153 (1959)).
The court concludes the record in this matter is devoid of credible objective market data, information, surveys and/or analyses to support the expert s adjustments to comparable sale two and comparable sale three for lot size, condition and gross living area. Moreover, the expert s opinion that gross adjustments of 31.2% and 51.7% must be applied to the sale price of comparable sale two and comparable sale three demonstrates the marked dissimilarity of the comparable sales chosen by the expert to the subject property.
Therefore, the expert s report and the testimony on which it was based, lack the necessary factual information, market support and meaningful objective data to assist the trier of fact in determining the true market value of the subject property.
Determination of true market value
Our Supreme Court has recognized that [t]he Tax Court has not only the right, but the duty to apply its own judgment to valuation data submitted by experts in order to arrive at a true value and find an assessment for the years in question. Glen Wall Associates v. Township of Wall, 99 N.J. 265, 280 (1985)(citing New Cumberland Corp. v. Roselle Borough, 3 N.J. Tax, 345, 353 (Tax 1981)). Stated differently, the court bears the responsibility of applying its own judgment to the objective data presented to determine the true market value of the subject property. To enable the court to make this finding of true market value, credible and competent evidence must be adduced in the trial record. Here, the lack of credible factual, analytical and objective data raise material doubts about the comparable sales and cloud the expert s opinion of value of the subject property. As Judge Andrew observed, [w]hile this court has a certain degree of knowledge and expertise in local property tax matters it cannot legitimately review the adjustment process and arrive at an informed determination in the absence of credible data. WCI-Westinghouse, Inc. v. Township of Edison, 7 N.J. Tax 610, 622 (Tax 1985), aff d, 9 N.J. Tax 86 (App. Div. 1986). The court s independent determination of value must be based on the evidence before it and the data that are properly at its disposal. F.M.C. Stores Co. v. Borough of Morris Plains, 100 N.J. 418, 430 (1985).
Accordingly, as a result of the inadequacies in the appraisal report and the expert s testimony, the record contains insufficient credible objective data and evidence for this court to make an independent determination of the true market value of the subject property by a fair preponderance of the evidence.
The court concludes plaintiff has failed to prove, by a fair preponderance of the evidence, the subject property s assessment exceeds its true market value. Therefore, the court will enter judgment dismissing plaintiff s Complaint.
Very truly yours,
Joshua D. Novin, J.T.C.