11th Circuit Weighs in on Split Re Whether Railroads May Challenge State Valuation Methodologies under 4-R Act
This appeal presents a question about state taxation of railroad properties that was expressly left open by the Supreme Court of the United States, has since divided the federal appellate courts, and involves the traditional balance of federal and state power. We are asked to decide whether section 306 of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (4-R Act or the Act), 49 U.S.C. § 11501, allows a railroad to challenge the methodology by which a state determines the true market value of railroad property for ad valorem tax purposes. The 4-R Act provides an exception to the general rule of the Tax Injunction Act that federal district courts will not interfere with matters of state taxation. Compare id. with 28 U.S.C. § 1341. This appeal turns on the breadth of that exception.
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Three of our sister circuits, following Burlington Northern v. Oklahoma, have split on whether railroads may challenge state valuation methodologies. The Fourth Circuit, on the one hand, has concluded that the 4-R Act does not permit a railroad to challenge the valuation methodology of a state. That circuit concluded that the text of the Act is ambiguous, and the court was "not inclined to disregard" the general policy of noninterference in matters of state taxation contained in the Tax Injunction Act "where § 306 does not plainly authorize such an exception." Chesapeake W. Ry. v. Forst, 938 F.2d 528, 531 (4th Cir.1991); accord Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. Forst, 4 F.3d 244, 250 (4th Cir.1993). The Second and Ninth Circuits, on the other hand, have repudiated Chesapeake Western and held that railroads may challenge valuation methodologies. In Burlington Northern Railroad v. Department of Revenue, the Ninth Circuit explained that section 11501(c) of the 4-R Act provides that state law governs the burden of proof in challenges to assessed value and true market value. 23 F.3d 239, 241 (9th Cir.1994). Because determinations of property value by public officials in Washington may be defeated by "clear, cogent and convincing evidence," the court reasoned that state valuation methodologies may likewise be defeated by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence. Id. In Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, the Second Circuit held that, at least where states use a unique method to appraise railroads, the 4-R Act allows railroads to challenge valuation methodology. 47 F.3d 473, 482 (2d Cir.1995).
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[W]e are persuaded that the Fourth Circuit correctly interpreted the 4-R Act as being subject to a clear statement rule. It is a well-settled principle of statutory interpretation that a statute will not be construed to burden states in the exercise of their traditional powers unless it clearly states its intent to do so. " 'If Congress intends to alter the usual constitutional balance between the States and the Federal Government, it must make its intention to do so unmistakably clear in the language of the statute.' "