In early 2008, relator Marlow Timberland, LLC (Marlow Timberland), purchased nearly 40,000 acres of real property located in Lake County, Minnesota, from Potlatch Corporation. Based on its belief that Lake County's property tax assessment of this land was too high, Marlow Timberland filed a tax petition in April 2008 challenging the taxes payable in 2008. Lake County moved to dismiss the 2008 petition because it included noncontiguous parcels from multiple jurisdictions in violation of Minn.Stat. § 278.02 (2010). Marlow Timberland later filed tax petitions challenging the taxes payable in 2009 and 2010, which were subsequently dismissed pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1 (2010), due to Marlow Timberland's failure to pay the taxes due for those years. Marlow Timberland moved to reinstate the 2009 and 2010 petitions based on its contention that the Lake County properties were overassessed and that it was unable to pay the taxes due on the properties. After a telephone hearing on the parties' motions, the Minnesota Tax Court issued an order granting Lake County's motion to dismiss the 2008 petition and denying Marlow Timberland's motion to reinstate the 2009 and 2010 petitions. We reverse the tax court's decision regarding the 2008 petition and affirm the tax court's decision regarding the 2009 and 2010 petitions.
Beginning in 2006 and continuing into early 2008, Roy Marlow, on behalf of Marlow Timberland, negotiated with Potlatch Corporation in an arms-length transaction to purchase nearly 40,000 acres of land owned by Potlatch Corporation, which included 744 separate tax parcels located throughout Lake County. The purchase price for the property was $385 per acre. Marlow Timberland's business plan anticipated that it could carry the costs of the land purchase and real estate taxes of the Lake County property through sales of property and timber. But Marlow Timberland claims that this business plan failed due to the inflated property assessment, the costs of timber fiber harvesting,
Lake County assessed the property in dispute, for real estate tax purposes, at an average value of $1,000 per acre. In early 2008, however, Marlow Timberland obtained an appraisal that valued the property at an average of $744 per acre. On April 24, 2008, Marlow Timberland filed a tax petition for the taxes payable in 2008 alleging that the 744 tax parcels, which are located in four townships and two unorganized territories, were overassessed. In compliance with Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1, the taxes payable in 2008 on the contested parcels were timely paid. On March 29, 2010, Lake County moved to dismiss the 2008 petition because the petition included noncontiguous parcels from multiple jurisdictions in violation of Minn.Stat. § 278.02 (limiting a single petition to parcels located in the same city or town, unless the parcels are contiguous).
On April 29, 2009, Marlow Timberland filed four tax petitions—separated so that each petition listed parcels located in only one of three townships and one unorganized territory—challenging the taxes payable in 2009. On April 16, 2010, Marlow Timberland filed four tax petitions—again separated so that each petition listed parcels located in only one of three townships and one organized territory—challenging the taxes payable in 2010. Like the 2008 petition, the 2009 and 2010 tax petitions were based on Marlow Timberland's contention that the tax parcels were overassessed. The 2009 and 2010 tax petitions were automatically dismissed pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1, however, because Marlow Timberland failed to pay the second half installment for the taxes payable in 2009 and both installments for the taxes payable in 2010. On September 23, 2010, Marlow Timberland moved to reinstate the 2009 and 2010 tax petitions under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02, claiming that "the assessment value of its properties is arbitrary and unreasonable, and [that it] is unable to pay [the 2009 and 2010 property taxes] due to dire financial hardship."
After conducting a telephone hearing on October 12, 2010, the tax court issued an order granting Lake County's motion to dismiss the 2008 petition and denying Marlow Timberland's motion to reinstate the 2009 and 2010 petitions. Marlow Timberland, LLC v. Cnty. of Lake, Nos. 38-CV-08-313, 38-CV-09-261 to -264, 38-CV-10-231 to -233, 2010 WL 4868020 (Minn.T.C. Nov. 23, 2010). With regard to the 2008 petition, the tax court stated that Marlow Timberland had cited no authority supporting its position that it should be allowed to proceed with respect to the parcels in one of the townships. Id. at *4. With regard to the 2009 and 2010 petitions, the tax court concluded that relief under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 is not available when a taxpayer fails to pay the required tax or request relief before the taxes are due and that even if the rule applied, Marlow Timberland would be unable to show inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect as required to qualify for relief under that rule. 2010 WL 4868020, at *2-4.
Although Marlow Timberland concedes that its 2008 petition, as filed, did not comply with Minn.Stat. § 278.02, Marlow Timberland argues that the tax court erred by not allowing it to amend the petition pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01. We review tax court decisions to determine whether the tax court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, whether the tax court's decision is supported by evidence in the record, and whether the tax court made an error of law. Minn.Stat. § 271.10, subd. 1 (2010); Hohmann v. Comm'r of Revenue,
Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 15.01 states, in relevant part:
(Emphasis added.) We have stated that "[a] party may amend a pleading by leave of [the] court" and that a motion to amend pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01 "should be freely granted, except where to do so would result in prejudice to the other party." Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn.1993) (considering whether trial court erred by not granting party's motion to amend complaint); accord Voicestream Minneapolis, Inc. v. RPC Props., Inc., 743 N.W.2d 267, 272 (Minn.2008) ("Leave to amend [pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01] should be freely granted unless it results in prejudice to the other party.").
Although not clearly stated, the essence of Marlow Timberland's argument is that the tax court should have allowed its proposed amendment to the petition because an amendment would not result in any prejudice to Lake County. In denying the amendment, the tax court gave no explanation and made no findings as to why Lake County would be prejudiced by Marlow Timberland's amendment. The tax court simply noted that Marlow Timberland had failed to cite any authority supporting its position that it should be allowed to proceed with respect to one of the townships included in the petition. But Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01 clearly allows amendment of the petition if "justice so requires." On the record before us, we see no prejudice to Lake County and no reason why justice would not be served by allowing Marlow Timberland to amend its petition as proposed. Therefore, we reverse the tax court's decision rejecting Marlow Timberland's amendment to the 2008 petition.
Next, Marlow Timberland argues that the tax court erred in denying its motion to reinstate the 2009 and 2010 tax petitions. Marlow Timberland's 2009 and 2010 petitions were automatically dismissed because Marlow Timberland failed to pay the second installment of taxes payable in 2009 and any of the taxes payable in 2010 on the contested parcels. See Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1. However, Marlow Timberland contends that the tax court erred because Marlow Timberland qualifies for relief under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02, or, in the alternative, because the 2009 and 2010 petitions should be reinstated on an equitable basis. We disagree.
A real property owner who seeks to file a petition seeking to challenge property taxes must follow the framework set forth
Id. But "[f]ailure to make payment of the amount required when due shall operate automatically to dismiss the petition and all proceedings thereunder unless the payment is waived by an order of the court permitting the petitioner to continue prosecution of the petition without payment." Id. However, the petition is automatically reinstated if the petitioner is able to make payment of the tax plus interest and penalty within one year of the dismissal. Id.
Marlow Timberland argues that although it did not comply with Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1, the tax court should have reinstated its 2009 and 2010 petitions pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02. Rule 60.02 provides that a "court may relieve a party . . . from a final judgment . . ., order, or proceeding and may order a new trial or grant such other relief as may be just for . . . (a) Mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect." Marlow Timberland points out that both this court and the tax court have held that a tax petitioner may be afforded relief under this rule. See, e.g., Husby-Thompson Co. v. Cnty. of Freeborn, 435 N.W.2d 814, 815-16 (Minn. 1989); Thunderbird Motel Corp. v. Cnty. of Hennepin, 289 Minn. 239, 240, 183 N.W.2d 569, 570 (1971); Bloomington Hotel Investors v. Cnty. of Hennepin, No. TC-8428, 1990 WL 166931, at *2 (Minn. T.C. Oct. 25, 1990). In particular, we have
We have not had occasion to decide whether Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 is still available for purposes of allowing the reinstatement of a tax petition dismissed for failure to pay the required taxes after the amendments to Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1. Because Marlow Timberland cannot show that it has a reasonable excuse for failing to pay the taxes in a timely manner, we need not answer that question here. Marlow Timberland argues that it has a reasonable excuse because it purchased the property with the intent of paying property taxes through sales of property and timber, but that plan failed when "the recent recession . . . caused the costs of timber harvesting to skyrocket while the value of timber fiber . . . dwindled," resulting in insufficient timber sales to be able to pay the required taxes. In essence, Marlow Timberland's argument is that the failure of its business plan constitutes a reasonable excuse for failing to pay the taxes as required by section 278.03, subdivision 1. We have never held that a failed business plan provides a reasonable excuse for failing to comply with section 278.03, subdivision 1, and we decline to do so here. To hold as Marlow Timberland asks would subject the taxpayer's obligation to pay the taxes at the time the petition is filed to the vagaries of the taxpayer's business acumen and judgment. That in itself is unreasonable. Accordingly, we conclude that Marlow Timberland could not qualify for relief under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 even if it were still available.
In the alternative, Marlow Timberland argues that the 2009 and 2010 petitions should be reinstated on an equitable basis. We have stated that "a taxpayer may not maintain a suit in equity to enjoin the collection of a tax or an assessment when he has an adequate remedy at law available to contest the proceeding or the collection of the tax or the assessment." Rosso v. Vill. of Brooklyn Ctr., 214 Minn. 364, 368, 8 N.W.2d 219, 221 (1943). Here, it is enough to say that Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1, provides an adequate remedy at law. Therefore, Marlow Timberland's equitable argument fails.
Reversed in part, affirmed in part, and remanded.
Minn.Stat. § 278.03, subd. 1.