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Lawsuit over property tax assessments survives challenge

Monday, February 11, 2019
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Sarah Mansur

Lawsuit over property tax assessments survives challenge

By Sarah Mansur Law Bulletin staff writer
Posted February 11, 2019 11:38 AM


Three nonprofit neighborhood organizations have standing to sue the Cook County Assessor’s Office over an alleged unconstitutional property tax system, a Cook County judge ruled.

The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the South Suburban Housing Center filed a civil rights lawsuit against former Cook County assessor Joseph Berrios and Cook County in March.

Berrios and Cook County filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the nonprofits lacked standing as organizations to sue under the Illinois Civil Rights Act and federal Fair Housing Act as well as the equal protection and uniformity clauses of the Illinois Constitution.

On Thursday, Cook County Circuit Judge Celia G. Gamrath denied the motion to dismiss the counts that claimed violations of the Illinois Civil Rights Act and federal Fair Housing Act.

“The court finds, based on established case law, [p]laintiffs have established organizational standing to survive [d]efendants’ motion to dismiss under the Illinois Civil Rights Act (Count 1) and Fair Housing Act (Count 5), both which have exceedingly broad language permitting any aggrieved party to seek redress,” Gamrath wrote in her opinion.

But Gamrath found the nonprofits lacked standing to sue under the uniformity and equal protection clauses. As a result, she granted the motion to dismiss those claims.

Gamrath cited the U.S. Supreme Court case Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman (1982) to explain her finding that the nonprofits have standing under both acts.

In Havens, a nonprofit fair housing organization sued the realty company over alleged “racial steering,” which describes a practice of steering black people from renting or purchasing properties in a predominately white neighborhood.

The organization argued it was injured by the steering practices because those practices “impaired [the organization’s] ability to provide housing counseling and referral services — with a consequent drain on the organization’s resources,” the 1982 opinion states.

The Supreme Court held unanimously that the drain on the organization’s resources was sufficient to establish standing.

Likewise, Gamrath found the plaintiff organizations have standing in this case.

“Diversion of their resources toward investigation of [a]ssessor Berrios’ discriminatory tax assessment practice and advocacy and counseling to combat it is a direct injury to their missions,” Gamrath wrote.

However, Gamrath agreed with the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ lacked standing to sue under the equal protection and uniformity clauses of the state constitution.

“In virtually all equal protection and uniformity clause cases, standing is given only to those who were personally denied equal treatment or uniformity of their own taxation. In the context of property tax assessments, this means the taxpayer/property owner asserting their own legal rights and interests, not a third party claiming organizational standing,” Gamrath wrote.

Gamrath rejected the defendants’ motion to dismiss the entire complaint as a “tax objection claim that ought to be brought by individual property owners under the Property Tax Code,” Gamrath wrote in her order.

“The problem with [d]efendants’ argument is that [p]laintiffs are not taxpayers. Nor are they seeking a refund of taxes, which is the essence of a tax objection complaint under the [property tax] [c]ode,” she wrote. “Rather, [p]laintiffs seek a declaration that the current tax assessment method violates various constitutional provisions and an injunction requiring greater transparency and a new and improved valuation method.”

She also rejected the defendants’ argument that Berrios is not a unit of local government that can be sued under the Illinois Civil Rights Act. Gamrath found that a lawsuit against the assessor as an official “is a suit against the office, not the individual.”

Gamrath further disagreed with the defendants’ claim that the plaintiffs failed to plead detailed factual allegations to state a claim under both acts.

Cook County and Berrios are represented by Margarett S. Zilligen, James S. Beligratis and Michael Lapinski of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. The office did not respond to a request for comment.

The housing organizations are represented by a team of attorneys from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym Ltd. and Miner, Barnhill & Galland P.C.

“This order takes us one step closer to ending a property tax system that has overcharged property owners in [b]lack and Hispanic neighborhoods, disproportionately shifting the tax burden on to those communities and away from wealthier, [w]hite neighborhoods,” said Aneel L. Chablani, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, in a statement.

This case is Brighton Park Neighborhood Council et. al. v. Joseph Berrios, et. al. No. 17 CH 16453.

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