Federal lawsuit: Cook Co. makes it too difficult to appeal big tax bills; state law only enables

By Scott Holland | Jul 18, 2018

A group of property owners have filed a federal complaint challenging the legality, not only of their Cook County property tax assessments, but also of the state law that governs the assessment process and which they said aided the county's efforts to make it overly difficult to effectively appeal tax bills.

A group of plaintiffs, including A.F. Moore & Associates, J. Emil Anderson & Son, Prime Group Realty Trust, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Erling Eide, Fox Valley/River Oaks Partnership and Simon Property Group filed their complaint July 17 in Chicago, naming as defendants Cook Country Treasurer Maria Pappas and Assessor Joseph Berrios.

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs’ cases are part of a larger group seeking tax relief going as far back as 2000 in cases filed in Cook County Circuit Court. The actions were consolidated for purposes of discovery.

“The cases remain in discovery despite active litigation for more than a decade,” the plaintiffs said. “Pretrial motions and other proceedings have made it evident that a plain, speedy and efficient remedy for plaintiffs’ federal constitutional claims is not available, despite the best efforts of the Cook County Court, because of the uncertainty and inadequacy of procedures under the Property Tax Code.”


Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios  

The plaintiffs detailed accusations of improper assessments for residential, commercial and industrial property for at least the 2000-2008 tax years, saying the assessor’s office, including Berrios’ predecessor James Houlihan, “deliberately and systematically distorted” certain aspects of his assessments, including putting “fictitious market values on county records available to the public” to make it appear he’d been following proper procedures.

The alleged result was property owners being “given the false impression that the value basis of their tax was much lower than the real market value estimated by the Assessor, and these taxpayers could not determine whether their properties were assessed uniformly with others.” The complaint said this affected parcels targeted with “significantly increased effective rates” in that landowners were unable to participate in the normal assessment appeal process because they were deprived of accurate data.

Each property owner detailed how the alleged scheming forced them to pay larger tax bills — collectively by tens of millions of dollars — than should have been appropriate given the real market value of their holdings. They further said discovery the county court ordered in 2014 eventually revealed Berrios’ office had destroyed many of the records plaintiffs sought to prove their allegations.

The complaint also targets the 1995 state law amending the property tax code, which plaintiffs say has never been made subject to federal court scrutiny. They say the arduous process of litigating their concerns thus far confirms “the tax objection procedures under the Property Tax Code are inherently uncertain, unclear, involve extensive and unwarranted delays, and fail to provide a plain, speedy and efficient remedy for the violations of plaintiffs’ federal and state constitutional rights.”

The complaint alleges violation of 14th Amendment equal protection clause, since the majority of other similarly situated properties were taxed using a different process, and wants a judge to determine the assessments in question illegal and order refunds with interest. Plaintiffs also said the 1995 tax code violates the 14th Amendment by depriving landowners of due process when appealing assessments, notably the law’s “Methodology Prohibition, which may be construed to bar all discovery and evidence of methodologies, practices and procedures used by the Assessor in assessing the plaintiffs’ properties and similarly situated properties.”

The plaintiffs similarly alleged violation of due process, equal protection and uniformity rights under the state constitution, as well as said the constitution bars the county from assessing any property in any classification at a level of more than two and a half times the lowest level assessment of property in any other class.

Representing the plaintiffs in the matter are lawyers from O’Keefe Lyons & Hynes LLC, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Circuit Court of Cook County Cook County Assessor Cook County Treasurer O'Keefe Lyons Hynes State of Illinois U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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