Jefferson & Co. v. Board of Assessment

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Rights § 1983
  • Date Filed: 08-29-2012
  • Case #: 11-55223
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge B. Fletcher for the Court; Circuit Judge Wardlaw and District Judge Mendez
  • Full Text Opinion

In an administrative hearing where statutory provisions allow separate county counsel attorneys to represent both the challenged government agency and the administrative panel adjudicating the appeal, the presumption that the adjudicator is unbiased remains as long as screening procedures exist to maintain an ethical wall between the two attorneys’ activities.

William Jefferson & Co., Inc. (“William Jefferson”) appealed the district court’s determination that William Jefferson’s procedural due process rights were not violated during an administrative appeal hearing where William Jefferson challenged the Orange County Tax Assessor’s valuation of a parcel of real property. During the administrative appeal, an attorney (Whaley) from the Orange County Counsel’s Office acted as counsel to the Assessment Appeal Board for Orange County (“Board”) and another Orange County Counsel attorney (Harmon) represented the county assessor (“assessor”). California Government Code § 31000.7 (“the statute”) specifically allows county counsel attorneys to represent both the Board and the assessor, as long as the same attorney does not represent both entities. William Jefferson alleged the following illegalities, each violating William Jefferson’s right to procedural due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: (1) the statute “denies taxpayers an unbiased adjudicator and undermines the appearance of fairness in the Board’s proceedings”; (2) “Whaley’s interactions with the Board were impermissible ex parte contacts with a decision maker”; and (3) “the Orange County Counsel’s Office has a financial stake in the outcome of taxpayer appeals that could influence the advice its attorneys give to the Board.” The Court held that the statute does not offend procedural due process, provided that the lawyer advising the adjudicator is “screened from any inappropriate contact with the advocate [for the government agency in the suit].” The Court also determined that the statute does not deny taxpayers the appearance of fairness, because the Board did not perform both “investigative and adjudicative functions.” Further, the Court concluded that Whaley could not have ex parte communications with the Board, because she did not represent any party to William Jefferson’s appeal. Last, the county counsel’s office did not have a financial stake in the appeal, because the appeal fees that go to the county counsel’s office are not dependent on the Board’s conclusion of the case. AFFIRMED.

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