Burden of Proof on Taxpayer for Challenging Classifications

February 26, 2014

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently issued an opinion holding that the taxpayer challenging the classification of his or her property has the burden of proving the assessor’s classification was erroneous. In Sausen v. Town of Black Creek Board of Review, 2014 WI 9 (Feb. 19, 2014), the Town of Black Creek’s Board of Review assessed a property tax against Frank Sausen’s 10-acre piece of property on the assessed value of $27,500. The land was located in Outagamie County and was used occasionally for hunting.

The Town of Black Creek’s assessor classified the land as “productive forest land.” This was significant because under Wisconsin statute, “productive forest land” may be assessed at 100 percent of the land’s value. The taxpayer, Frank Sausen, objected to this classification and argued the land was “undeveloped land” under state statute, which was only assessed at 50 percent of the land’s value.

To support his argument, the taxpayer produced and relied on two maps, which showed the land was forested wetland. Based on these maps, the taxpayer argued the land was undeveloped swamp or marsh and should not be classified as “productive forest land.” In response, the town assessor disputed the taxpayer’s assertion at the hearing, claiming the aerial maps showed the property was “pretty much all trees.” The town found the assessor’s classification was not erroneous. Sausen appealed that decision to the Circuit Court and Court of Appeals, arguing the town erroneously placed the burden of proof on him to establish the proper classification.

Finding the Wisconsin statutes addressing property classifications did not state the burden of proof, the Court recognized the general rule that a party seeking judicial review carries the burden of proof. The Court also relied on the applicable statutes addressing the process for objecting to property tax valuations and assessments, which placed the burden of proof on the objector. Accordingly, the burden of proof should rest with the taxpayer in challenging the classification. In the end, the Court upheld the town’s decision, finding the taxpayer failed to submit enough evidence to show the property was not capable of producing commercial forest products or failed to qualify as low grade woods.

Justice David Prosser joined the majority in affirming the assessor’s ruling, but wrote separately to provide tips to future taxpayers challenging the classification of their property. Under certiorari review pursuant to Wis. Stat. §70.47(13), the court is limited to only that evidence that was presented to the board of review. In Sausen’s case, that evidence consisted of just two maps. Justice Prosser suggested future objectors seek de novo review under Wis. Stat. § 74.37, which would allow a taxpayer to present evidence outside of what was presented to the board of review. This would permit the taxpayer to buttress his case with more – and different – evidence gathered after the board of review hearing.

This decision is important because it sets forth the procedures and hurdles a taxpayer will face in challenging the classification of his or her property. Justice Prosser’s concurrence is especially helpful for taxpayers because it sets forth a road map for introducing additional evidence to challenge the assessor’s classification on appeal.

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