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A. Pre-Tribunal Adjudication
The Bureau of Conciliation and Mediation Services (BCMS) comprises a separate operating bureau within the Division of Taxation, and reports directly to the Commissioner of Taxation and Finance. The goal of the Conciliation Conferee is to resolve tax disputes without the necessity of a formal hearing before the Division of Tax Appeals. A request for a Conciliation Conference must generally be made within 90 days after the issuance of a Notice of Determination. The taxpayer who deems the Conciliation Order issued by the Conferee following the Conference unacceptable, may request a formal hearing before the Division of Tax Appeals within 90 days after the Conciliation Order is issued.
A taxpayer who wishes to bypass the Conciliation Conference may do so, but must file a request for a formal hearing before the Division of Tax Appeals within 90 days after the issuance of a Notice of Determination. These time periods are jurisdictional, and the taxpayer who fails to timely file a request for a hearing before the Division of Tax Appeals will lose all appeal rights in the administrative tax tribunals. (Relief may still be sought in some cases by bring a declaratory judgment action in state supreme court challenging the constitutionality or the applicability of the statute or assessment. However, this path is perilous at best.)
The Division of Tax Appeals, in contrast to BCMS, is an autonomous unit of the Department of Taxation and is independent of the Commissioner of Taxation and Finance. The Administrative Law Judges who preside over hearings at the Division of Tax Appeals are experienced and impartial. Still, the Department of Taxation has an advantage in the Division of Tax Appeals, since tax laws are construed narrowly and in favor of the government. Hearings are held at the offices of the Division of Tax Appeals, located at 500 Federal Street, in Troy. Following a hearing, any party may appeal all or part of the Determination to the Tax Appeals Tribunal, provided a Notice of Exception is filed within 30 days after service of the Determination on the parties. A brief may be filed within 30 days after the the filing of the Notice of Exception. 30-day extensions for filing a Notice of Exception may be granted “for cause.” In practice, such extensions are granted as a matter of course, provided a letter requesting the extension is received by the Division of Tax Appeals within the 30-day period for filing the Notice of Exception.
Taxpayers not representing themselves at the Division of Tax Appeals may be represented by an accountant or an attorney. Pro se taxpayers generally fare poorly at the Division of Tax Appeals and create a hearing record so decidedly adverse that a later appeal to the Tax Appeals Tribunal handled even by a competent attorney becomes problematic.
B. Tax Appeals Tribunal
The Tax Appeals Tribunal, also located in Troy, has three Commissioners who serve nine-year terms and who may be removed only for cause. Tax procedure in the administrative tax tribunals is governed by rules promulgated by the Tax Appeals Tribunal. In many respects, these rules resemble procedural rules found in the CPLR, but are more flexible. Oral argument may be requested before the Tax Appeals Tribunal, but is not automatically granted.
C. Article 78 Appeals
Taxpayers wishing to contest adverse determinations of the Tax Appeals Tribunal generally have only one choice: an Article 78 proceeding to review the determination of a “state body” (i.e., the Tax Appeals Tribunal), pursuant to CPLR §7804. The action must be commenced in the Appellate Division, 3rd Department, in Albany, as provided for in Tax Law §2016. Tax Procedure in state courts is governed exclusively by the CPLR and, taxpayers who are not acting pro se may be represented only by an attorney.
The obstacles encountered in initiating Article 78 review are somewhat daunting. The first and perhaps most unpleasant surprise that awaits the taxpayer when petitioning for Article 78 review is the time period within which such review may be sought: CPLR § 217 provides that “a proceeding against a body . . . must be commenced within four months after the determination to be reviewed becomes final and binding.”
More than a few taxpayers have lost meritorious appeals based upon the failure to commence the Article 78 review within the four month period, which is jurisdictional. Tax Law §2016 provides that the four-month period commences after notice of the Tax Appeals Tribunal is served. The statute then provides that “service by certified mail shall be complete upon deposit of such notice . . . in a post office.” Therefore, the taxpayer actually has less than four months from receipt of the notice in which to commence an Article 78
proceeding. The Department of Taxation keeps meticulous records, including affidavits by clerks, concerning the manner in which certified copies of decisions are mailed.
Arguments made by the taxpayer concerning either the taxpayer’s own timely mailing, or the Department’s failure in this regard, will in all likelihood fail. One might presume that only the Department of Taxation need be served with an Article 78 petition. This presumption would be erroneous: Tax Law § 2016 provides that “[t]he petitioner shall designate the tax appeals tribunal and the commissioner of taxation and finance as respondents in the proceeding for judicial review.” (The Tax Appeals Tribunal does not, however, participate in the proceeding.)
Section 2016 continues, providing that “[i]n all other respects the provisions and standards of article seventy-eight of the [CPLR] shall apply.” CPLR §7804(c) provides that “notice of petition must be served upon the attorney general by delivery of such order or notice to an assistant attorney general.” Therefore, the Department of Taxation, the Tax Appeals Tribunal and the Attorney General must all be served in an Article 78 proceeding. One might also assume that since the taxpayer may be served with notice of the Tax Appeals Tribunal decision by certified mail, the taxpayer could, similarly, commence an Article 78 proceeding by serving the three required recipients by certified mail. This is not the case: Although CPLR §307(2) does provide that personal service may be effected upon a state agency (i.e., Department of Taxation and Tax Appeals Tribunal) by certified mail, § 307(1) appears to require personal delivery by a process server upon the Attorney General.
Additionally, one more trap awaits the unwary regarding service of process by certified mail: CPLR §307(2) provides that such service is not effective unless “the front of the envelope bears the legend “URGENT LEGAL MAIL.” Given the tangle of statutory provisions governing service, it would appear far preferable to serve all parties personally by process server, rather than to serve by certified mail and hope that all statutory requirements have been met. Although the taxpayer may have contested the deficiency to the Tax Appeals Tribunal without paying any disputed tax, this courtesy of the New York Legislature ends at the filing of the Article 78 petition, at least with respect to some types of tax.
Thus, a jurisdictional prerequisite to instituting an Article 78 proceeding involving, inter alia, sales tax or real property transfer gains tax, is the filing of a bond to cover contested amounts and court costs. Although a bond is not required in order to initiate an Article 78 proceeding based upon deficiency relating to income tax, the Department may nevertheless assess and collect a deficiency during the pendency of such an Article 78 proceeding.
If the Department decides to assess tax during the proceeding (it may not come to the Tax Compliance Bureau’s attention during the course of the proceeding), the taxpayer must either pay the deficiency or file a bond (a letter of credit may also be acceptable to the Department) pending ultimate disposition of the case.
The actual Article 78 proceeding is commenced by service of a Notice of Petition and Petition upon the parties described above made returnable to the Appellate Division, 3rd Department, on at least 20 days’ notice. At least least five days before the return date of the Petition, the adverse party must appear by serving an answer, or otherwise moving to dismiss. (A motion to dismiss could be based upon a lack of jurisdiction for failing to properly serve all parties or for failing to obtain the required bond, or dismissal could result from failing to state a cause of action.)
Although it may seem unjust for the Appellate Division to dismiss meritorious cases on procedural grounds such as the failure to serve the Article 78 petition in the proper manner — and perhaps it is unjust — a body of case law has evolved which makes it virtually impossible for a court to entertain a petition which suffers from jurisdictional defects. The petition must be verified (CPLR §7804) and must comply with all provisions of the CPLR which govern pleadings.
Thus, it must make factual allegations in separately numbered paragraphs and must state a legally cognizable cause of action, or the action will be susceptible to a motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals held in Spodek v. New York State Commr. of Taxation and Finance, 628 N.Y.S.2d 256 (1995), that the commencement-by-filing provisions in CPLR §304 apply to proceedings originating in the Appellate Division. Thus, before service of the Article 78 petition on the required recipients, the Petition must be filed (and an index number purchased) from the Clerk of the Appellate Division.
After purchasing the index number, personal service (preferably by a process server) must be made on the recipients. After such service is complete, proof of such service must be filed with the Appellate Division “not later than 15 days after the date on which the [four-month] statute of limitations expires.” CPLR § 306(b) Pursuant to Tax Law § 2016, the taxpayer must include as part of the petition (1) the determination of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), (2) the decision of the Tax Appeals Tribunal, (3) the transcript of the hearing (if any) before the ALJ, and (4) any exhibit or document submitted into evidence at any stage in the proceeding. Judicial review of the agency determination will be limited to a review of the record.
After issue has been joined (i.e., the Department has served an answer or moved to dismiss), and within nine months of the date of the Notice of Petition, the taxpayer must file with the Appellate Division an original and nine copies of a reproduced full record, as well as ten copies of the taxpayer’s brief. In reviewing the determination of the Tax Appeal Tribunal, CPLR §7803 provides that the determination will be upheld if it is supported by “substantial evidence.” In addition, the burden of proof is generally on the taxpayer to show that the agency determination was arbitrary or capricious, or not supported by the evidence. This includes responsible person determinations made under the income and sales tax laws for corporate officers and employees.
After submission of the record and brief, oral argument is scheduled. Taxpayer’s counsel is generally allowed 15 minutes for oral argument. Approximately six weeks later, the Court will render a full opinion or memorandum decision. The prevailing party will then draft a proposed order for execution by the Appellate Division Clerk. After service of this order with Notice of Entry, the nonprevailing party will then have 30 days in which to seek leave (permission) to appeal to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals seldom grants leave to appeal in tax cases.