Because of the breadth and scope of the federal Civil Rights Act, citizens frequently attempt to assert constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for all sorts of wrongs – even mundane matters which would appear at first blush not to involve a citizen’s constitutional rights. There are many reasons why citizens attempt to invoke § 1983, but one important reason is that under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, a plaintiff asserting a constitutional claim may recover all of his attorney fees if a judge or jury determines that his constitutional rights have been violated by the government.
These principles were recently considered by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Cosgriff v. County of Winnebago, No. 17-1396 (7th Cir. 12/1/2017). In Cosgriff, the Seventh Circuit made clear that there are limits to what types of matters can be litigated under the Civil Rights Act.
In Cosgriff, a dog bit a Roscoe Township tax assessor who had come to the Cosgriffs’ house after the Cosgriffs had installed a $50,000 pool at their home. The assessor sued the Cosgriffs, and the Cosgriffs responded by putting up a “No Trespass” sign and starting a petition drive on a website which encouraged taxpayers to complain about instances of trespassing by the assessor’s office. Shortly thereafter, the Assessor’s Office reassessed the Cosgriffs’ property at $525,000, which represented a 47% increase over the prior valuation of the property ($357,000). The Cosgriffs filed a property tax assessment complaint, challenging the property tax increase. At the hearing, the Township Assessor was unable to explain how she assessed the property at $525,000, and the attorney for the Township allegedly made a statement at the end of the hearing that Kelly Cosgriff shouldn’t have challenged the Township by putting up a sign on her property and starting a petition drive. At the completion of the hearing, the Tax Review Board found the value of the property to be $409,000. The Cosgriffs did not appeal that reassessment, but instead brought suit in federal court, claiming that County and Township officials conspired with each other and retaliated against the Cosgriffs for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Despite the Cosgriffs’ evidence suggesting that government officials may have retaliated against them for their speech against the assessor’s office, the district court nevertheless dismissed the Cosgriffs’ constitutional claims and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case. While acknowledging that Congress “cut a broad swath” when it enacted § 1983, the Court also observed that the comity doctrine counsels that federal courts should “resist engagement in certain cases” and that “cases dealing with state tax systems fall within the comity doctrine’s purview.” Accordingly, the Court found that comity bars a state taxpayer from bringing a § 1983 suit even if the taxpayer was seeking to recover for an allegedly unconstitutional administration of a state tax system.
The Court explained that no § 1983 suit can stand in a tax-related matter if the state otherwise offered state law remedies which are “plain, adequate and complete.” The Court then observed that Illinois’ statutory procedures for appealing property tax assessments were in fact adequate and complete since taxpayers could obtain a full hearing regarding a tax assessment and could raise any and all constitutional objections at that time. The Court also noted that Illinois’ scheme provided an avenue whereby a taxpayer could appeal a decision to a Property Tax Appeal Board or file a tax objection complaint directly in state court. While the Cosgriffs maintained on appeal that they were no longer concerned with the tax that was imposed on them but rather on the defendants’ unconstitutional actions against them, the Court explained that this was a “distinction without a difference” since the defendants’ misconduct occurred in the context of their actions in assessing Cosgriffs’ property at an unwarranted and excessive rate. Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit explained that if the Cosgriffs wished to litigate their constitutional concerns, they should have raised their constitutional complaints during the state law process.