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Snodgrass v. City of Wichita

United States District Court, D. Kansas

November 15, 2018

CITY OF WICHITA, KANSAS, et al., Defendants.



         This case comes before the court on responses to the court's show cause order (Docs. 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50.) On October 17, 2018, this court entered an order to show cause as to why this matter should not be remanded to state court pursuant to the Tax Injunction Act (“TIA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1341, or the principle of comity. The matter has been fully briefed. This action is REMANDED to state court for the reasons stated herein.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

          A notice of removal was filed by Defendant Kutak Rock LLP (“Kutak”) which alleges that the court has original jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. (Doc. 1 at 5.) Plaintiffs filed a class action petition in Sedgwick County, Kansas, bringing both state law claims and claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Wichita, members of the Wichita City Council, Kutak, and several other Defendants. (Doc. 1, Exh. A.) With respect to Plaintiffs' claims under section 1983, Plaintiffs allege violations of their Fifth Amendment rights and their Equal Protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Essentially, Plaintiffs allege that the City of Wichita (“the City”) issued general obligation and special obligation bonds under Kansas law to finance payment of certain improvements within the Remington Place Addition (“Remington”).

         The City issues general obligation and special obligation municipal bonds under the General Improvement and Assessment Laws of Kansas, K.S.A. § 12-6a01, et seq. A governing body of a city is authorized under Kansas law to make improvements that confer a special benefit to a property and then to “levy and collect special assessments upon property in the area deemed by the governing body to be benefited by such improvement….” K.S.A. § 12-6a02. The statute goes on to list the improvements which are allowed, including sewer systems and paving of streets.

         In 2003, Plaintiffs purchased property in Remington. Prior to Plaintiff's purchase, Peake, the developer of Remington, petitioned the City “for the financing of street, sewer and water improvements by the issuance of general obligations bonds” under Kansas law. (Doc. 1, Exh. A at 11.) Peake's petition was accepted and general obligation bonds (“bonds”) were issued. In 2004, the City spread special assessments across all of the lots in Remington to pay for the bonds issued, including Plaintiffs' lot. Plaintiffs have paid special assessments levied by the City. The special assessments have not been reduced. (Id. at 11-12.)

         Sometime later, the bonds were refinanced and the City has allegedly reaped savings of more than $60 million as of December 2017 due to interest savings. (Id. at 11.) Plaintiffs allege that this resulted in the misappropriation of their tax payments and that the City should have refunded the tax payments by reassessing the special assessments levied against their property. Plaintiffs have brought this action on behalf of themselves and all other landowners who are paying “excess special assessments levied under K.S.A. 12-6a01 et seq. and/or other” statutes and ordinances. (Id. at 34.) Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that Defendants have “fraudulently, intentionally and willfully misappropriated the millions of dollars of ‘saved' tax payments gained from the refinancing of general obligation and special obligation bonds.” (Id. at 36.) Plaintiffs further seek judgment in an amount equal to the special assessments paid and an order requiring Defendant Linda Kizzire, the Sedgwick County Treasurer, “to remit all excess special assessment funds collected.” (Id. at 38.)

         Defendants have all moved to dismiss on various grounds (Docs. 27, 29, 31, 34.) Plaintiffs have moved to remand this action to state court on the basis that it is not ripe for federal review (Doc. 39.) On October 17, 2018, this court entered an order to show cause as to why this matter should not be remanded to state court under the TIA or the principle of comity. (Doc. 42.) Defendant Kizzire and Plaintiffs have no objection to remanding this action for the reasons stated by the court in its show cause order. (Docs. 43, 45.) Defendant Kutak filed a response brief asserting that the TIA or the principle of comity is not applicable as the special assessments levied in this action are not taxes or, alternatively, Plaintiffs do not have an adequate remedy under state law. (Doc. 44.) The remaining Defendants joined in Kutak's response. (Docs. 46, 47, 48, 49.)

         II. Analysis

         The court has an independent obligation to satisfy itself that jurisdiction is proper. Henderson ex rel. Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428, 434 (2011). The TIA provides that the “district courts shall not enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State.” 28 U.S.C. § 1341. The Tenth Circuit has held that section “1341 is a broad prohibition against the use of the equity powers of federal courts involving state tax matters.” Heuser v. San Juan Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 162 Fed.Appx. 807, 809 (10th Cir. 2006) (citing Brooks v. Nance, 801 F.2d 1237, 1239 (10th Cir. 1986)). The TIA “applies to claims seeking declaratory judgments, injunctive relief, and refunds of taxes paid.” Mobil Oil Corp. v. U.S. Dep't of Energy (In re Dep't of Energy Stripper Well Exemption Litig.), 739 F.Supp. 1449, 1451 (D. Kan. 1990) (citing Brooks, 801 F.2d at 1239 and Cities Serv. Gas Co. v. Okla. Tax Comm'n, 656 F.2d 584, 586 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1124 (1981)). Moreover, the “principle of comity prohibits federal district courts from exercising jurisdiction over § 1983 damage claims where the taxpayer has a plain, adequate, and complete remedy in state court to correct any violations of their federal rights.” Heuser, 162 Fed.Appx. at 809 (citing Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass'n v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100, 116 (1981)).

         A. Tax

         The “TIA is to be read as a ‘broad jurisdictional barrier' and is ‘first and foremost a vehicle to limit dramatically federal district court jurisdiction.'” Hill v. Kemp, 478 F.3d 1236, 1246 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Arkansas v. Farm Credit Servs. of Centr. Ark., 520 U.S. 821, 825 (1997)). The TIA, or the related principle of comity, is applicable when the challenged action concerns the “assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law.” 28 U.S.C. § 1341. The label that Kansas provides to the assessment does not resolve “the question whether or not it is a tax…. But that does not mean that the phrase ‘under State law' is surplusage either.” Hill, 478 F.3d at 1247.

         The Tenth Circuit has held that the critical inquiry on whether an assessment is a tax under the TIA “focuses on the purpose of the assessment and the ultimate use of funds.” Id. At 1245 (citing Marcus v. Kan., Dept. of Rev., 170 F.3d 1305, 1312 (10th Cir. 1999)). In determining whether it is a tax, the Tenth Circuit has identified the following characteristics of state taxes:

[T]he classic tax sustains the essential flow of revenue to the government, while the classic fee is linked to some regulatory scheme. The classic tax is imposed by a state or municipal legislature, while the classic fee is imposed by an agency upon those it regulates. The classic tax is designed to provide a benefit for the entire community, while ...

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