June 5, 2020
Vacated and Remanded
- Whether the New Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) erred in dismissing the petitioner’s appeals of the denial of their real estate tax abatement for failure to comply with the signature and certification requirement of N.H. Admin R., Tax 203.02.
- Whether the BLTA erred in dismissing the petitioner’s appeal of the denial of their appeal on finding that the petitioner did not demonstrate the failure was “due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect.” H. Admin R., Tax 203.02(d).
The petitioners contacted Attorney Randall F. Cooper regarding an abatement application. He was going on vacation but agreed to represent them and complete the application. Upon his return, he completed the application and signed on their behalf. The BTLA denied the abatement application and the petitioner’s appeal for failure to comply with Tax 203.02’s signature and certification requirement because the attorney’s vacation did not “constitute reasonable cause” for failure to obtain the Taxpayer’s signature.
The petitioner had the burden of proof to show by a clear preponderance of the evidence that the BTLA order was “unjust or unreasonable.” The Court reviewed de novo. The petitioner’s do not dispute the lack of signature on the application, but contest the BTLA ruling that they did not demonstrate “that the lack of signatures and certification was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect” under Tax 203.02(d). The BTLA’s regulations do not define “reasonable cause” or “willful neglect” and case law indicates these terms can vary in meaning based on the context Morgan, 144 N.H. at 52.
In defining “reasonable cause” and “willful neglect,” the Court looks to Ives interpretation of RSA 275:44, which also tracks to federal law that the Court finds persuasive. There, the threshold inquiry is “whether based on all of the facts and circumstances, the taxpayer exercised ordinary business care and prudence.” In re Refco, 554 B.R at 742. Furthermore, related to “willful” the Court found that the “taxpayer must show that the failure was the result neither of carelessness, reckless indifference, nor intentional failure” East Wind Industries. Here, the BTLA in denying the application focused on whether the omission was intentional, but the Court in vacating and remanding the BTLA’s decision focused on “whether the taxpayer can show that it was not reasonably possible to comply with the requirement despite exercising ordinary business care and that the taxpayer was not indifferent to the signature and certification requirement.” The Court lays out circumstances that bear on “objective reasonableness” including but not limited to: “the petitioner’s sought representation; the representation agreement was not signed until Cooper was away on vacation; Cooper had approximately three days to complete and file the abatement applications after returning from vacation; all but one of the petitioner’s was located out of state; and the Town did not reject the application for lack of signatures.”
Cooper, Cargill, Chant P.A. of North Con- way (Randall F. Cooper on the brief and orally) for the petitioners. Donahue, Tuck- er & Ciandella PLLC, of Exeter (Christo- pher T. Hilson and Brenda A. O’Donnell on the brief and Mr. Hilson orally) for the respondent.