Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Tax Law
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In three related actions, privately held public utilities sued for property tax refunds for fiscal years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, following the County’s denial of refund claims submitted under Revenue and Taxation Code section 5097. Section 100(b) establishes formulas for calculating the debt-service component of certain property taxes. Pursuant to that statute, Santa Clara County imposed taxes on the utilities’ properties at rates higher than those imposed on non-utility properties. Although section 100(b) was enacted in 1986, the utilities argued that imposition of a higher debt-service tax rate on their property, under the statutory formulas, violated California Constitution article XIII, section 19, which provides that the state-assessed property of certain regulated utility companies “shall be subject to taxation to the same extent and in the same manner as other property.”The trial court denied motions to dismiss, holding that the County had not carried its burden of establishing that the utilities cannot state a claim. The court of appeal reversed. Article XIII, section 19, does not mandate that utility property be taxed at the same rate as other property. Instead, it provides that, after utility property is assessed by the State Board of Equalization, it shall be subject to ad valorem taxation at its full market value by local jurisdictions. View "County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the district court dismissing this case claiming that the Traverse Ridge Special Service District needed either to stop charging members The Cove at Little Valley Homeowners Association for services it had never provided or to start plowing snow from private roads in front of homes in the Cove, holding that the district court erred in part.The Service District filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim because the Draper City Code did not require it to service private roads and because the Homeowners Association needed to bring its challenge in a manner dictated by the Utah Tax Code. The Supreme Court affirmed the district court's dismissal of the Cove's first cause of action but reversed its dismissal of the second reversed in part, holding that the district court erred when it concluded that the assessment its members paid to the Service District was a tax as a matter of law. View "Cove at Little Valley Homeowners Ass'n v. Traverse Ridge Special Service District" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs challenged a surcharge that Long Beach imposes on its water and sewer customers by embedding the surcharge in the rates the Water Department charges for service. The surcharge funds are transferred from the Water Department to the city’s general fund, to be used for unrestricted general revenue purposes. The surcharge was approved by a majority of the city’s voters under California Constitution article XIII C. The plaintiffs argued that notwithstanding majority voter approval, the surcharge violates article XIII D, which prohibits a local agency from assessing a fee or charge “upon any parcel of property or upon any person as an incident of property ownership” unless the fee or charge satisfies enumerated requirements the city acknowledges were not met.The trial court found the surcharge unconstitutional and invalid. The court of appeal affirmed the judgment and an award of attorney fees. Because the surcharge qualifies as a “levy other than an ad valorem tax, a special tax, or an assessment, imposed by an agency upon a parcel or upon a person as an incident of property ownership, including a user fee or charge for a property related service,” it satisfies the definition of “fee” or “charge” in article XIII D and must comply with article XIII D, section 6(b)’s requirements regardless of voter approval. View "Lejins v. City of Long Beach" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, the Towns of Chester and Hudson (collectively, Towns), appealed a Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) order granting respondent Public Service Company of New Hampshire d/b/a Eversource Energy (PSNH) abatements of taxes assessed against its property located in Chester for tax years 2014 and 2016 and in Hudson for tax years 2014, 2015, and 2016. PSNH submitted an appraisal report prepared by its expert, Concentric Energy Advisors, Inc., setting forth the expert’s opinion of the aggregate fair market value of PSNH’s taxable property located in each municipality for each tax year. Two appraisers employed by the Towns’ expert, George E. Sansoucy, P.E., LLC (GES), used a substantially similar methodology in appraising the fair market value of the land interests. The BTLA compared the equalized market value to the aggregate assessed value for each municipality for each tax year. The BTLA concluded that an assessment was unreasonable and granted an abatement when it determined that the difference between the equalized market value and the aggregate assessed value was greater than five percent. The Towns argued that because both GES and Concentric relied upon the assessed value of PSNH’s land interests in reaching their opinions of fair market value, the values that the BTLA incorporated into its analysis “were already proportionate” and “should not have had the equalization ratio[s] applied to them.” The BTLA denied the Towns’ motion for reconsideration, noting that it based its calculations upon values that “were supplied by the [Towns] themselves in the stipulations agreed to by them” and adopting the arguments PSNH raised in its objection. Finding no reversible error in the BTLA's order, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed. View "Appeal of Town of Chester et al." on Justia Law

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After the passage of Proposition 218, Sacramento voters approved a requirement that city enterprises providing water, sewer, storm drainage, and solid waste services pay a total tax of 11% of their gross revenues from user fees and charges. Nineteen years later, plaintiff-respondent Russell Wyatt brought a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory relief against the City challenging its fees and charges for utility services under article XIII D, section 6, subdivision (b) of the California Constitution (added by Prop. 218, as approved by voters, Gen. Elec. (Nov. 5, 1996)). It was undisputed that the City set these fees and charges at rates sufficient to fund the payment of the tax to its general fund. The trial court issued a writ of mandate and judgment in Wyatt’s favor. The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment and directed the trial court to vacate its writ of mandate. By approving the tax in 1998, Sacramento voters increased the cost of providing utility services, rendering those costs recoverable as part of their utility rates and the subsequent transfer of funds permissible under article XIII D. View "Wyatt v. City of Sacramento" on Justia Law

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A city-owned utility charges rates to its customers that do not "exceed the reasonable costs" of providing the utility service, but at the end of each fiscal year, the city routinely invokes its power under the city's charter to, via multiple steps, transfer the "surplus" in the utility's revenue fund—the amount left over after paying all "outstanding demands and liabilities" which, if transferred, will not have a "material negative impact" on the utility's "financial condition" (L.A. Charter, section 344(b))—to the city's general fund. Plaintiff filed suit against the city defendants, alleging that this routine practice by the city constitutes a "tax" that requires voter approval.The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the action challenging the practice as being an unlawful "tax." The court held that the city's alleged, ongoing practice of transferring a “surplus” from the DWP's revenue fund to the city's General Fund where, as also alleged, the rates charged by the DWP to its customers nevertheless do not exceed the costs of providing electricity to them, does not constitute a "tax" for three reasons. First, the practice does not satisfy the definition of a "tax" under the plain language of the California Constitution. Second, this conclusion is the one that best accords with the purpose behind the Constitution's restrictions on local taxation, namely to stop local governments from extracting even more revenue from California taxpayers. Third, Citizens for Fair REU Rates v. City of Redding (2018) 6 Cal.5th 1, strongly suggests that the city's yearly transfers of surplus funds do not constitute a "tax" when they do not cause the DWP's rates to exceed its costs of providing electricity. In this case, because plaintiff will be bound in any future amended complaints by the same verified allegations that doom his claims now, the court concluded that he cannot cure these defects by amendment and the trial court properly sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. View "Humphreville v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law

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Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, generally required local governments obtain voter approval prior to imposing taxes. Plaintiffs Jess Willard Mahon, Jr. and Allan Randall brought this certified class action against the City of San Diego (City) claiming that the City violated Proposition 218 by imposing an illegal tax to fund the City’s undergrounding program. Specifically, plaintiffs contended the City violated Proposition 218 through the adoption of an ordinance that amended a franchise agreement between the City and the San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E). The ordinance, together with a related memorandum of understanding, further specifies that part of the money to fund the undergrounding budget will be collected by SDG&E through a 3.53 percent surcharge on ratepayers in the City that will be remitted to the City for use on undergrounding (Undergrounding Surcharge). Plaintiffs claim that the surcharge is a tax. Plaintiffs further claim that the surcharge violates Proposition 218 because it was never approved by the electorate. Plaintiffs note that the City has imposed more than 200 million dollars in charges pursuant to the Undergrounding Surcharge during the class period. Through this action, plaintiffs seek a refund of those amounts, among other forms of relief. The City moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on two grounds: (1) the Undergrounding Surcharge constituted compensation for franchise rights and thus was not a tax; alternatively, (2) the Undergrounding Surcharge was a valid regulatory fee and not a tax. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court properly granted the City’s motion for summary on the ground that the Undergrounding Surcharge was compensation validly given in exchange for franchise rights and thus, was not a tax subject to voter approval. View "Mahon v. City of San Diego" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from a consolidated cases filed by plaintiff Northern New England Telephone Operations, LLC d/b/a FairPoint Communications-NNE (FairPoint), against several New Hampshire towns and cities, asserting claims of ultra vires taxation and disproportionate taxation. As “representative municipalities” in the “test cases” established for this litigation, defendants, the Town of Durham and the Town of Hanover (Towns), appealed two superior court orders challenging: (1) the grant of summary judgment on the ultra vires ruling because they contended the agreements authorizing such use or occupation did not satisfy the requirements of RSA 72:23, I(b) (2012) (amended 2017, 2018, 2020); and (2) the superior court’s decision after trial, arguing that the court committed several errors in concluding that FairPoint was entitled to abatements of its tax assessments from the Town of Durham and the Town of Hanover for tax years 2013 and 2011 respectively. The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed with the Towns that the superior court erred with respect to the tax on the value of FairPoint's use or occupation of municipal rights-of-way was ultra vires. FairPoint’s use or occupation of municipal rights-of-way was not pursuant to a perpetual lease that gave rise to an independently taxable property interest; FairPoint met its burden to prove it was taxed disproportionately by the Towns. Judgment was affirmed in part, reversed in part and consequently abating the two tax assessments at issue. View "Northern New England Telephone Operations, LLC d/b/a FairPoint Communications - NNE v. Town of Acworth" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of an action brought by plaintiffs, customers of the DWP, claiming that DWP overcharged for electric power and then transferred the surplus funds to the City, thereby allowing the City to receive what amounts to an unlawful tax under California law. Plaintiffs alleged claims under the Hobbs Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and 42 U.S.C. 1983, as well as claims under state law.The panel agreed with its sister circuits that the Hobbs Act does not support a private civil right of action; held that municipal entities are not subject to liability under RICO when sued in their official capacities, but the RICO claims in this case were asserted against the defendant City and DWP officials in their personal capacities; held that the RICO claim was nonetheless properly dismissed because it failed as a matter of law because it did not adequately allege a predicate act in extortion under California law or the Hobbs Act, mail and wire fraud, or obstruction of justice; and held that, under the Johnson Act, the district court lacked jurisdiction over the the section 1983 claims. Because plaintiffs have provided no basis for concluding that any of these deficiencies could be cured by an amendment of the complaint, and based upon the panel's own thorough review of the record, the panel held that amendment would be futile. View "Abcarian v. Levine" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approving the interconnection tax which National Grid (NG) charged Petitioners to interconnect to NG's distribution system then paid to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as contributions in aid of construction, holding that the PUC did not err.In their petition for the issuance of writ of certiorari, Petitioners asked the Supreme Court to declare the PUC order illegal and unreasonable for purportedly failing to follow a specific IRS ruling and for failing to hold NG to its burden of proof. The Supreme Court affirmed the PUC's order, holding (1) NG was entirely reasonable in believing that it continued to owe the interconnection tax to the IRS and in, therefore, passing that tax on to Petitioners; and (2) the PUC order fully comported with a settlement proposal in this case. View "ACP Land, LLC v. Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law