The Right to Amend, and Relation Back

Prime Accounting Dep’t v. Carney’s Point Tp., 212 N.J. 403 (2013).  This tax appeal case came about because the defendant municipality’s tax assessment list showed plaintiff as the owner of the subject property when in fact plaintiff had merely processed taxes on behalf of a prior lessee.  The new tenant, who was the actual filer and the true party in interest in the tax appeal, filed that tax appeal in the name of plaintiff rather than in its own name.  Later, the new tenant tried to amend its pleading, but the Tax Court denied leave to amend and dismissed the tax appeal.  The Tax Court held that the proposed amendment would not relate back, and that the filing of the tax appeal in the name of plaintiff, who had no interest in the property and was not an aggrieved taxpayer, deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction.  The Appellate Division affirmed, in an opinion discussed here.  The Supreme Court, however, unanimously reversed in an opinion by Justice Patterson.

The Court held that the misdesignation of the plaintiff did not deprive the courts of subject matter jurisdiction.  The tax appeal was filed timely, correctly identified the property at issue, and sufficed to put the municipality and the public on notice that the tax assessment for the property was being put in issue.  The misdesignation could be cured by an amended pleading that would relate back.  The municipality did not suffer any prejudice from the misdesignation and, in any event, the misdesignation resulted from the appellant’s reliance on the municipality’s tax list.  The Supreme Court suggested, however, that what is apparently current practice, according to both the petitioner and the New Jersey State Bar Association as amicus curiae, of relying on the municipality’s list without investigating who is actually the current property owner or proper party in interest, should be modified.

Justice Patterson provided an exhaustive discussion of the Court Rules relating to the right to amend pleadings and the principle of relation back.  Though the context of the opinion is somewhat idiosyncratic to the tax appeal realm, the opinion will be an excellent source for any case in which the right to amend or relation back is at issue.