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How a $534 Property Tax Challenge Ballooned into $83,900 in Legal Fees by R. Robin McDonald, The Daily Report

 When a Jackson county couple challenged the county's decision to boost the tax assessment on their home by $534, they appealed. Three law firms, six years and a jury trial later, they won. The county had to pay the legal bill.

By R. Robin McDonald | July 17, 2018 at 04:27 PM

Jim Joedecke (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

At first glance, a Jackson County couple's challenge of an annual appraisal that hiked their property taxes by $534 was just like any one of thousands of other tax appeals.

Instead, it became "a one-in-a million case" that ended June 25 when Jackson County not only reimbursed Mike and Elizabeth Evans for the excess tax with interest, but also paid $83,900 in legal fees accumulated during a six-year battle with the Jackson County Board of Tax Assessors, said the Evans' trial lawyer, James Joedecke Jr.

The Jackson County Board of Tax Assessors took the position "It was only $534," and that nobody was going to spend the money the Evanses invested to fight them, said Joedecke, a partner at Anderson, Tate & Carr. "They guessed wrong."

"If the county had just treated them a little differently from the beginning, they never would have taken it this far," Joedecke said. "I don't know of any other examples involving a normal, residential piece of property with an outcome like this. … It literally could be any homeowner who is able to get a reduction of 15 percent or more."

Jackson County Chief Appraiser Allen Sargent referred questions to the board's outside counsel, Chris Hamilton of Jarrard & Davis in Cumming. Hamilton was away from the office and did not respond to a request for comment made to his staff.

Joedecke said he almost didn't take the case when the Evanses first saw him last year.

The ongoing appeal was more than five years old, and two other law firms had already worked on the case and withdrawn. The couple had already paid about $45,000 in legal fees. Joedecke also knew a trial in Jackson County Superior Court would be costly and that a jury would likely reach a compromise verdict over the actual market value of the couple's home.

"My first reaction was they were crazy," Joedecke said. "I really encouraged them not to hire me."

He cited a retainer fee high enough to deter them from pursuing the matter any further. But two days after that meeting, the couple returned, saying "We really want you to do it," Joedecke said.

"They were so sweet," he said. "They were convinced they had been wronged. … They were so upset by what the county had done."

The couple also knew a state statute offered the possibility of recouping their legal costs if a jury reduced the county's tax assessment by at least 15 percent.

"It was a really small window," Joedecke said. But he was "jonesing to try" a case. And the Evanses were willing to pay his rate to do it. "They caught me at the right moment," he said. "They needed someone to help them dig out of it. They couldn't settle it or dismiss it."

The dispute stemmed from a 2011 assessment of the four-year-old Jefferson home the couple bought in 2010 for $182,000. Jefferson, with less than 10,000 residents, is about halfway between Gainesville and Athens.

Thirteen months later, during one of the worst recessions in the nation's history, county tax assessors jacked up the assessment by 43 percent, to $261,149, Joedecke said. The Evans' assessment, he argued in court papers, "was in direct contradiction to comparable home sale prices, which exhibited a downward trend."

The Evanses appealed, but the county showed no inclination to settle the dispute, Joedecke said. Assessors "would not budge even one dollar," thinking the Evanses "would eventually lose their appetite to pursue an appeal as their legal fees continued to mount," he contended in court papers.

At one point, the county notified the Evans' attorney that it didn't do settlement conferences, Joedecke said. Two years after the Evanses first appealed, the county made a settlement offer, saying it would knock $20,000—and later $40,000—off the 2012 appraisal, if the couple paid all legal costs and fees, which had risen to nearly $11,000.

When the Evanses rejected the offer, the county once more increased the 2012 assessment of the couple's home, eventually claiming it was worth $269,000.

"It bounced around the court system for five years" before it finally went to trial last April, Joedecke said. At the end of a three-day trial, a Jackson County jury determined the county had hyperinflated the appraisal and assessed the 2012 fair market value of the Evans' residence at $219,000—more than $42,000 less than the county assessment, Joedecke said.

Joedecke said county lawyers warned the jury during their closing argument that, if the jury decided the true 2012 assessment was 15 percent lower than the county's assessment, the jurors—as county taxpayers—would be footing the bill and paying the Evans' legal fees, the lawyer said. "The jury made a pretty deliberate decision that they were going to award attorney fees," he added.

Joedecke also said that, during the trial, county lawyers attempted to make the Evanses look like "crackpots" for appealing a $534 increase in their property tax bill. Joedecke said he told the jury, "Is that really the attitude we want our tax assessor to take?"

The county continued to fight after the verdict, claiming the Evans' lawsuit was frivolous and that the couple should pay the county's legal bills, Joedecke said. Joedecke added he warned county lawyers that their actions were only running up his own fees.

His clients "have been portrayed as eccentric, misguided, and lacking in integrity, simply because they pursued a tax appeal," and "are tired of it," he warned in court papers.

In June, the night before a scheduled hearing on the legal fees, Joedecke said he got a call from the county "waving the white flag."

Joedecke said he has never had clients so appreciative over a $500 tax appeal. The jury verdict brought them to tears, he said. Elizabeth Evans baked pies for him and his associate, Brittany Partridge.

"I've never been hugged so many times in my life," he said.

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