Georgia Supreme Court Says Taxpayer Lawsuit Over Mercedes-Benz Tax Breaks Was Rightfully Dismissed

The Supreme Court of Georgia has affirmed a Fulton County court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a group of local taxpayers who sued the Fulton County Board of Tax Assessors for determining that the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta was exempt from ad valorem property taxes.

The group of taxpayers opposed the lack of property taxes assessed on the stadium. In Tuesday’s unanimous opinion, SCOGA ruled that there was no error and affirmed a previous judgment dismissing the lawsuit.

Case Background

In 2017, after the Fulton County Board of Tax Assessors determined that the MercedesBenz Stadium was exempt from ad valorem taxes, Albert E. Love and other Fulton County taxpayers sued the Board, the individual members of the Board, and the Board’s chief appraiser. The taxpayers argued that the county was losing out on at least $26 million a year in property taxes for upwards of $700 million over the life of the 30-year lease.

In its 2018 opinion in Love v. Fulton County Board of Tax Assessors, the Court of Appeals provided this background: The Georgia World Congress Center Authority is a public corporation that is an instrumentality of the State of Georgia. The World Congress Center formerly owned the Georgia Dome, the home venue of the National Football League Atlanta Falcons from 1992 until 2016. It now owns the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which became the home venue of the Atlanta Falcons in 2017. 

The plaintiffs sued the Board members and the Chief Appraiser in their official and individual capacities. In their fourth amended petition, the plaintiffs sued Fulton County; the Board; Board members Salma Ahmed, Michael Fitzgerald, Edward London, Lisa Aman, and Pamela Smith; the Board’s Chief Appraiser, Dwight Robinson; and the Fulton County Tax Commissioner, Arthur E. Ferdinand. (The trial court, however, denied the plaintiffs’ motion to add Fulton County and the Fulton County Tax Commissioner as defendants.) In the fourth amended petition, the plaintiffs modified two of their claims (Count I for declaratory relief, and Count II for injunctive relief) to sue the Board members and the Chief Appraiser in their individual capacities only.

Prior to picking a site for the new stadium, the World Congress Center and other parties associated with the Falcons entered into certain memoranda of understanding. One stated that neither the World Congress Center nor the Atlanta Falcons Stadium Company, LLC “expect any ad valorem taxes to be payable with respect to their respective interests in such real property and improvements for the New Stadium Project….”

Since the lawsuit was initially filed, it has been dismissed, appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, remanded, amended to add claims and intervenors, and dismissed again. 

What the Georgia Supreme Court Was Charged with Determining

From the Supreme Court of Georgia on Tuesday:

At issue in this appeal to the state Supreme Court is whether the trial court properly dismissed the taxpayers’ fourth amended petition, in which they sought mandamus, declaratory, and injunctive relief, as well as a refund of taxes paid. In support of their claims, the appellants (i.e. taxpayers) argued that the Board and its members failed to “investigate diligently” whether the interest transferred was a taxable leasehold interest that is subject to ad valorem taxation, or a nontaxable license from the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to the Atlanta Falcons Stadium Company, LLC. The taxpayers also argued that the statute governing the World Congress Center Authority’s tax-exempt status, Georgia Code § 10-9-10, is unconstitutional because a 1989 amendment to that statute, which removed language prohibiting the exemption from extending to private lessees, was not enacted following a statewide referendum as required by the Georgia Constitution.

In response, the appellees (i.e. the Board, the Falcons Stadium Company, and the World Congress Center) argued that following an investigation and a hearing, the Board had properly determined that the Stadium Company’s interest was a non-taxable license or usufruct, not a taxable leasehold. (“Usufruct” is a legal term that means the right to use property that is owned by another.) They also argued that the Board’s decision was not based on § 10-9-10 but on an evaluation of the memoranda of understanding entered into by the Stadium Company and World Congress Center prior to construction of the stadium.

“In its order dismissing the case, the trial court addressed each of the appellants’ claims and found that the petition lacked any legal basis for recovery,” Tuesday’s 34-page opinion reads.

“On appeal, the appellants contend that the trial court erred in dismissing the petition…, arguing primarily that the trial court had applied an incorrect standard of review. They also contend that the trial court erred in declining to find [Georgia Code] § 10-9-10 unconstitutional.” However, in Tuesday’s opinion, the high court disagreed and has affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

You can read the complete opinion here.

Other Details

Attorney for Appellants (Love et al.): Wayne Kendall
Attorneys for Appellees (Board et al.): Patrise Perkins-Hooker, Kaye Burwell, Cheryl Ringer, Detriss Thomas, Robert Highsmith, Jr., A. Andre Hendrick, Philip George, Christopher Carr, Attorney General, Julie Jacobs, Dep. A.G., Alex Sponseller, Sr. Asst. A.G., Joseph Bearden, Asst. A.G.

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of The Georgia Virtue. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta, a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast,' and she has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers." Sign up for her weekly newsletter:

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