Prime Accounting Dep’t v. Township of Carney’s Point, 421 N.J. Super. 199 (App. Div. 2011). A complaint that sought to contest the assessment of certain property was filed in the Tax Court. The complaint named plaintiff Prime Accounting Department as the plaintiff and owner of the property, and correctly identified the property by address, lot and block number. But there was a problem: Prime Accounting was not then the owner of the property, or even a tenant.
Through a series of events, Bocceli, LLC had become a subtenant, exclusively in possession of the property and obligated to pay the taxes. Bocceli tried to amend the complaint to name itself as the plaintiff. By the time that happened, however, the time to file an appeal had long since expired. The Tax Court denied the motion to amend and dismissed the complaint because it had not been timely filed by the taxpayer. Bocceli appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed.
Writing for the panel, Judge Parrillo endorsed the reasoning of the Tax Court. The relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 54:3-21, allows only a “taxpayer” to file an appeal. Prime Accounting was not the “taxpayer” when the appeal was filed. Although the appeal properly identified the property at issue, that did not suffice.
Judge Parrillo cited many cases for the principle that the appeal deadline under N.J.S.A. 54:3-21, which is also incorporated into Rule 8:4-1(a)(4), is strictly applied. Accordingly, “[f]ailure to file a timely appeal is a fatal jurisdictional defect.”
Because Bocceli was out of time when it sought to amend the complaint, the issue then became whether the “relation back” rule, Rule 4:9-3, would save the day. Judge Parrillo held that it would not. Rule 4:9-3 “ordinarily applies to new claims germane to the original underlying claim, or to new defendants misidentified in the original complaint, or where the amendment is ‘the functional equivalent of a routine substitution pursuant to Rule 4:34-4′” (citations omitted). Naming Bocceli was not a “routine substitution” of the type contemplated by Rule 4:34-4. Bocceli was “an entirely new and previously unidentified party … completely unrelated to the plaintiff Prime Accounting.”
The panel then rejected Bocceli’s estoppel and laches arguments. Regardless of the Township’s actions, jurisdiction could be raised by the court, on its own, at any time. There was never any jurisdiction because the appeal was not filed by the “taxpayer,” and it was now too late to amend to name the taxpayer.