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Coleman v. Seldin (Challenging racial discrimination in Nassau County’s tax assessment policies)

This lawsuit questions whether Nassau County’s tax assessment system for residences, based on 1938 market values, is racially discriminatory. Nassau County assessed residences, for purpose of local taxation, on the basis of the amount that it would have cost to build the residence in 1938 rather than on the basis of the current market value of the residence. Consequently, homeowners living in communities where the value of their homes had appreciated significantly from 1938 costs had their homes under-assessed as a percentage of real market value, while homeowners in communities where the value of homes had appreciated much more slowly had their residences over-assessed, relative to the homes that were over-assessed. This regime had a racially disparate impact. Such over-assessment and under-assessment of residences disadvantaged African-American and other minority homeowners and advantaged white homeowners, with the result that minority homeowners paid more taxes in proportion to the real value of their property than did white homeowners.

The NYCLU filed this suit on behalf of minority homeowners in an attempt to invalidate this tax assessment system and to achieve a more equitable system of taxation. The suit was based on two provisions of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title VI, which bars any municipality receiving federal funds from operating a system that has the effect of discriminating on the basis of race, and Title VIII of the Fair Housing Act, which bars any discrimination in housing based on race. The NYCLU further argued that the assessment plan violated the Nassau County Charter, which requires the county to base its assessment system on “uniform, equitable and scientific principles.”

In a decision rendered on March 8, 1999, the Supreme Court denied the County’s motion to dismiss the Title VIII claim and granted the County’s motion to dismiss the Title VI claim. Plaintiffs amended the complaint to overcome the objections to the Title VI claim and the Court subsequently reversed its dismissal. On March 28, 2000, two days before the scheduled trial, a settlement was reached. A consent decree was entered into and the Court endorsed a stipulation stating that Nassau County shall adopt a revaluation system and tax assessment role that is nondiscriminatory, scientific, equitable and based on fair market value. On Dec. 31, 2002 the assessment was promulgated for the year 2003. Both the County and private parties brought challenges to various aspects of the consent decree.

In December 2004, the third annual assessment was approved. It was recognized by all parties that the assessment rolls were no longer discriminating and were in substantial compliance with the decree. The County has agreed to continue with annual updates of assessment, so it is expected that compliance will continue even in the absence of further court jurisdiction. The NYCLU has followed these post-judgment developments as it participates in monitoring the decree. 

State Supreme Court, Nassau County, Index No. 30380-97 (direct) 

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