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Miller & Rhoads Building, L.L.C. v. City of Richmond

Supreme Court of Virginia

September 15, 2016

MILLER & RHOADS BUILDING, L.L.C.
v.
CITY OF RICHMOND

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF RICHMOND Melvin R. Hughes, Jr., Judge

         PRESENT: All the Justices

          OPINION

          CLEO E. POWELL JUSTICE.

         Miller & Rhoads Building, L.L.C. ("MRB") appeals the decision of the trial court ruling that the City of Richmond's (the "City") Tax Abatement for Rehabilitated Real Estate Program (the "Partial Exemption"), Richmond City Code §§ 98-149 to -159, [1] does not apply to special district taxes.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 17, 2006, MRB acquired the vacant Miller & Rhoads Building (the "building"). The building is located in a special service and assessment district of the City. Thus, in addition to being subject to the city-wide real estate tax, see Richmond City Code § 98-121, the building is also subject to an annual special district tax, see Richmond City Code § 98- 842. Both taxes are calculated as a percentage of the property's "assessed evaluation." Richmond City Code §§ 98-121, -842.

         MRB planned to rehabilitate the building and develop the property to include a hotel, residential condominiums, retail space and parking. MRB sought to recoup some of the costs of rehabilitation by seeking a partial exemption from real estate taxes for the property under the Partial Exemption. Although the City determined that MRB's planned rehabilitation of the building satisfied the basic requirements to qualify for the Partial Exemption, it only applied the Partial Exemption to the base real estate tax; the City refused to apply the partial exemption to the special district tax.

         MRB paid the special district taxes under protest and brought an action to correct what it claimed were erroneous assessments. According to MRB, the City failed to properly calculate and apply the Partial Exemption. In its prayer for relief, MRB sought a refund of "any amounts of real property tax erroneously charged and paid that are attributable to the erroneous final value."

         Prior to trial, the parties stipulated that "[t]he only issue in disagreement is whether the [Partial Exemption] set forth in [Richmond] City Code §§ 98-149, 98-152 and 98-155 also applies to the City's computation of the special district tax as set forth in [Richmond] City Code §§ 98-816 and 98-842." After hearing argument on the matter, the trial court determined that the Partial Exemption did not apply to the special district tax. In a letter decision dated June 12, 2015, the trial court explained that, "according to the statutory origin for the imposition of the Special District Tax, its beginning method of calculation and its purposes, and use, [the Special District T]ax is not a real estate tax within the meaning and for the use of the [Partial Exemption]." On August 12, 2015, the trial court issued a final order that incorporated its letter opinion.

         MRB appeals.

         II. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, MRB argues that the trial court erred in ruling that the special district tax "is not a real estate tax within the meaning and for the use of" the Partial Exemption. In response, the City concedes that the special district tax is, in fact, a real estate tax, but claims that the special district tax is a different type of real estate tax that is not subject to the Partial Exemption. We agree with the City.

         Whether the special district tax is subject to the partial exemption is a question of statutory interpretation, which this court reviews de novo. CVAS 2, LLC v. City of Fredericksburg, 289 Va. 100, 108, 766 S.E.2d 912, 914 (2015); see also Renkey v. County Bd. of Arlington, 272 Va. 369, 373, 634 S.E.2d 352, 355 (2006) (holding that municipal ordinances are interpreted in the same manner as statutes). "In interpreting [a] statute, 'courts apply the plain meaning . . . unless the terms are ambiguous or applying the plain language would lead to an absurd result.'" Baker v. Commonwealth, 284 Va. 572, 576, 733 S.E.2d 642, 644 (2012) (quoting Boynton v. Kilgore, 271 Va. 220, 227, 623 S.E.2d 922, 926 (2006)).

         This Court has repeatedly admonished that, where, as here, a statute is clear and unambiguous, "[t]he question . . . is not what the legislature intended to enact, but what is the meaning of that which it did enact. We must determine the legislative intent by what the statute says and not by what we think it should have said." Carter v. Nelms, 204 Va. 338, 346, 131 S.E.2d 401, 406-07 (1963). Thus, the paramount principle of statutory interpretation is "to interpret the statute as written." City of Lynchburg v. Suttenfield, 177 Va. 212, 221, 13 S.E.2d 323, 326 (1941).

         In the present case, however, the trial court based its decision, not on the plain language of the Richmond City Code, but instead on "the statutory origin, " the "beginning method of calculation, " the "purposes" and the use of the special district tax. While consideration of these factors may be necessary in certain circumstances, such as when a literal reading of the statute would lead to absurd results, see Tvardek v. Powhatan Vill. Homeowners Ass'n, 291 Va. 269, 285-86, 784 S.E.2d 280, 285-86 (2016), it has no place in the present case. Accordingly, the trial court erred in its analysis.

         However, "[a]ppellate courts do 'not review lower courts' opinions, but their judgments.'" Evans v. Commonwealth, 290 Va. 277, 288 n.12, 776 S.E.2d 760, 766 n. 12 (2015) (quoting Jennings v. Stephens, 574 U.S.__, 135 S.Ct. 793, 799 (2015)). "In instances where a trial court's decision is correct, but its reasoning is incorrect, and the record supports the correct reason, we uphold the judgment pursuant to the right result for the wrong reason doctrine." Haynes v. Haggerty, 291 Va. 301, 305, 784 S.E.2d 293, 294 (2016).

Under the right result for the wrong reason doctrine, "it is the settled rule that how[ever] erroneous . . . may be the reasons of the court for its judgment upon the face of the judgment itself, if the judgment be right, it will not be disturbed on account of the reasons."

Perry v. Commonwealth, 280 Va. 572, 579, 701 S.E.2d 431, 435 (2010) (quoting Schultz v. Schultz, 51 Va. (10 Gratt.) 358, 384 (1853)).

         "This Court may uphold a judgment even when the correct reasoning is not mentioned by a party in trial argument or by the trial court in its decision, as long as the record contains sufficient information to support the proper reason." Haynes, 291 Va. at 305, 784 S.E.2d at 294. Moreover, the right for the wrong reason doctrine is especially applicable where, as here, the question is one of pure statutory interpretation and the parties were on notice that the statutes or statutory scheme was at issue. See Rives v. Commonwealth, 284 Va. 1, 3, 726 S.E.2d 248, 250 (2012) (applying the right result for the wrong reason doctrine to a case where the only issue was one of pure statutory interpretation).

         In the present case, both parties and the trial court focused primarily on the Partial Exemption and the special district tax, without giving proper consideration to the overarching statutory scheme. This Court has long recognized that "statutes are not to be considered as isolated fragments of law, but as a whole, or as parts of a great connected, homogeneous system, or a single and complete statutory arrangement." Prillaman v. Commonwealth, 199 Va. 401, 405, 100 S.E.2d 4, 7 (1957). Thus, in addition to those sections of the Richmond City Code that expressly enact the special district taxes and the Partial Exemption, it is also necessary to consider those sections that provide the overall framework for the levy and collection of special district taxes. In the present case, that framework is provided by Richmond City Code § 98-816.[2]

         Richmond City Code § 98-816 states:

All assessments levied under [Article XIV] shall be added to the general real estate levy for the property and shall be subject to the following sections of [Chapter 98] governing the levy and collection of real estate taxes and the penalties applicable thereto: sections 98-123, 98-124, 98-127 and 98-129.

         It is of particular note that, in establishing the framework for levying and collecting special district taxes, the Richmond City Council cites only four specific sections of Article III of the Richmond City Code to which the special district taxes under Article XIV are "subject to." "In interpreting statutory language, we have consistently applied the time-honored principle expressio unius est exclusio alterius, " because this maxim "recognizes the competence of the legislature to choose its words with care." Virginia Department of Health v. NRV Real Estate, LLC, 278 Va. 181, 187-88, 677 S.E.2d 276, 279 (2009). Under this maxim, "[w]hen a legislative enactment limits the manner in which something may be done, the enactment also evinces the intent that it shall not be done another way." Grigg v. Commonwealth, 224 Va. 356, 364, 297 S.E.2d 799, 803 (1982). Stated another way, "the mention of specific items in a statute implies that all items omitted were not intended to be included." NRV Real Estate, 278 Va. at 188, 677 S.E.2d at 279.

         While this maxim is not applicable in every situation, this Court has recognized that "'[n]o maxim of the law is of more general or uniform application, and it is never more applicable than in the construction and interpretation of statutes.'" Whitehead v. Cape Henry Syndicate, 105 Va. 463, 471, 54 S.E. 306, 308 (1906) (quoting Broom's Legal Maxims, pp. 663, 607). See also Tate v. Ogg, 170 Va. 95, 103, 195 S.E. 496, 499 (1938) (recognizing that this maxim "is especially applicable in the construction and interpretation of statutes."). Accordingly, this Court has regularly relied on the maxim when interpreting statutes that include enumerated provisions. See Fisher v. Tails, Inc., 289 Va. 69, 75, 767 S.E.2d 710, 714 (2015); NRV Real Estate, 278 Va. at 187-88, 677 S.E.2d at 279; Couplin v. Payne, 270 Va. 129, 136, 613 S.E.2d 592, 595 (2005); Jackson v. Fidelity & Deposit Co., 269 Va. 303, 313, 608 S.E.2d 901, 906 (2005); Blake Constr. Co. v. Upper Occoquan Sewage Auth., 266 Va. 564, 577, 587 S.E.2d 711, 718 (2003); Smith Mountain Lake Yacht Club v. Ramaker, 261 Va. 240, 246, 542 S.E.2d 392, 395 (2001); Government Emples. Ins. Co. v. Hall, 260 Va. 349, 355, 533 S.E.2d 615, 617 (2000); Commonwealth v. Brown, 259 Va. 697, 704-05, 529 S.E.2d 96, 100 (2000); Board of Supervisors v. Wilson, 250 Va. 482, 485, ...


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