Where do you challenge county tax refund cases?

The Washington State Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in a Lewis County case, entitled Hardel v. Lewis County (August 25, 2022). This case concerned the proper venue to challenge the value assessed by the county assessor.

Property taxes are based on the assessed value of property as determined by county assessors. RCW 84.40.030; Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Easter, 126 Wn.2d 370, 375, 894 P.2d 1290 (1995). Property owners may challenge assessors’ determinations in several ways. See Weyerhaeuser, 126 Wn.2d at 375-76. Without first paying the tax, challenges may be brought to the local board of equalization or, under some circumstances, directly to the Board of Tax Appeals. RCW 84.40.038. Taxpayers may also pay the tax under protest and bring a refund action in superior court.

In the current case, Hardel paid the tax and sought refund by bringing an action in Thurston County Superior Court. Was Thurston County the proper venue for the case?

There are two venue statutes that address tax disputes of this kind. Under the first more specific statute, property tax refund cases “shall be brought in the superior court of the county wherein the tax was collected.” RCW 84.68.050. Under the second more general statute, “[a]ll actions against any county may be commenced in the superior court of such county, or in the superior court of either of the two nearest judicial districts.” RCW 36.01.050(1).

The Court concluded the State Legislature intended the specific statute to govern. Therefore, tax refund actions were intended to be litigated, and shall be litigated, in the county that collected the tax.

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