Property owners throughout New Jersey have observed that more tax appeals are headed to trial. More than ever, cases that would have been settled had they occurred a few years ago are now routinely in the litigation track.

What’s behind this trend? The most significant reason is that government is under increasing pressure to preserve the municipal treasury. And as the drive for tax revenue brings more taxpayers to court, many of those property owners find an uneven playing field during litigation. The assessment is presumed to be correct until it is overcome by the preponderance of the evidence. The level of proof the taxpayer must provide to reach this standard has become increasingly more difficult to attain.

One useful aid in arguing a property owner’s appeal is often overlooked because it comes right out of the appraiser’s tool box. The Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP) can help to level the playing field for the property owner. Taxpayers need to understand this set of regulations because it affords opportunities to attack the credibility of the taxing jurisdiction’s presentation.

Any licensed appraiser in the state of New Jersey is subject to USPAP, which mandates that an “appraiser shall ensure that all appraisals shall, at a minimum, conform to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice.” An appraiser’s failure to comply with the provisions of USPAP may be construed to be professional misconduct in violation of New Jersey tax law.

For example, USPAP sets minimal standards for the retention of records, referred to as the “recordkeeping rule.” An appraiser must prepare a work file for each appraisal, appraisal review or appraisal consulting assignment. A work file must exist prior to the issuance of any report, and a written summary of any oral report must be added to the work file within a reasonable time after the issuance of the oral report. Such a work file must include the report as well as the information used in creating the report.

The standards set time requirements as well. The work file must be retained for at least five years after preparation or at least two years after final disposition of any judicial proceeding in which the appraiser provided testimony related to the assignment, whichever period expires last. Any appraiser who willfully or knowingly fails to comply with the obligations of this recordkeeping rule is in violation of the state’s ethics rule.

In further clarifying the recordkeeping rule, USPAP states that it applies to “appraisals and mass appraisal, performed for ad valorem taxation assignments.”

USPAP is adopted by statute, so a violation of its standards may leave a violating appraiser susceptible to sanctions imposed by the governing professional association. In addition, New Jersey’s tax statute provides explicitly that for engaging in an act of professional misconduct, the professional licensing board may penalize the offender by suspending or revoking any certificate, registration or license.

It is not unusual to find situations where appraisers are brought in to assist tax assessors in setting assessments. This is certainly understandable when complicated properties are being appraised. Now, however, as the appraiser advises the assessor as to value in setting an assessment, that advice and conclusion is now discoverable by the taxpayer. This presents a significant opportunity for taxpayers to discern the machinations behind the setting of an assessment.

Under USPAP, the appraiser must have a work file demonstrating all of the evidence relied upon to determine that value. It does not matter whether the advice given the assessor is written or oral; the work file must contain written evidence supporting the advice and conclusions given to the assessor. This now becomes a potential gold mine of information that can be used to damage the presumption of correctness of the assessment.

In another common scenario, taxing jurisdictions that rely on outside appraisers to assist the assessor in setting the assessment will typically retain those same appraisers to defend the assessments before the tax court. Because of the backlog of cases in the tax court, this means that an appraiser that originally assisted in setting an assessment could be testifying about value several years after the assessment was set.

This presents an opportunity for the taxpayer to probe the appraisal report prepared for trial and compare it to the work file prepared when the assessment was made. Was the value predetermined because of the early work in setting the assessment? Does the early work erode the conclusions of the later work?

These are all important considerations, and will significantly help to level the playing field against recalcitrant taxing jurisdictions. Appraisers who lend their licenses and credibility to taxing jurisdictions in setting assessments need to be aware that there could be a day of reckoning.

John Garippa is senior partner of the law firm of Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario with offices in Montclair, N.J. The firm is the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of the American Property Tax Counsel.