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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Civil Rights Claims Related to Tax Matter Not Proper in Federal Court

Today's case started with a dog bite. A dog bit a township employee on the Cosgriff property. After the employee and the township sued the Cosgriffs, the Cosgriffs started a petition campaign encouraging taxpayers to notify the township that its employees should not trespass on private property. When the township's next property assessment for the Cosgriff property was significantly higher than their last, the Cosgriffs appealed the increased assessment to the county appeals board. The Cosgriff assessment was 47.14%, the highest increase in the township that year. The county appeals board ruled in favor of the Cosgriffs and substantially reduced the new assessment.

Subsequently, the Cosgriffs filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the county and numerous individual defendants. In the lawsuit, the Cosgriffs claimed that the defendants acted unconstitutionally when they increased the Cosgriffs’ property assessment. Specifically, the Cosgriffs claimed the assessment increase was retaliation against the Cosgriffs for speaking out against township employees trespassing on private property. The district court dismissed the case, and the Cosgriffs appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The Seventh Circuit upheld the dismissal, holding that state taxpayers are barred from bringing 1983 claims in federal court. The court rejected the Cosgriffs' argument that they were not challenging the tax, but instead were challenging the defendants' unconstitutional actions against them. That, the court said, was a "distinction without a difference" because if the defendants had acted unconstitutionally, it was only because they increased the Cosgriffs' tax burden through the higher assessment. Because their claims related to taxation, they were precluded from being heard in federal court. The court noted that the Cosgriffs had state law remedies available to them and, in fact, took advantage of those remedies when they appealed their assessment increase to the county appeals board. Cosgriff v. County of Winnebago.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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