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Mikulin v. Harris County

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

October 8, 2019


          On Appeal from the 129th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2017-79969

          Panel consists of Justices Lloyd, Goodman, and Landau.



         William H. Mikulin appeals from a final judgment issued in a suit to collect delinquent ad valorem taxes. The trial court ordered Mikulin to pay $66, 855.74 in delinquent taxes, among other things, to various taxing authorities. In three issues, Mikulin contends the trial court erred by entering a final judgment against him because (1) the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the tax suit; (2) the form of payment in which the trial court ordered him to pay his taxes is unconstitutional; and (3) there is a conflict between the United States Constitution and the Texas law. We affirm.


         Harris County, [1] the City of Houston, Houston Independent School District, and Houston Community College System (collectively, "Harris County") brought an action against Mikulin seeking to recover delinquent ad valorem taxes[2] under Section 33.41 of the Texas Tax Code for tax years 2016 and 2017. In its amended petition, Harris County sought to recover "[t]he total aggregate amount of taxes, penalties, interest, and attorney's fees," including additional taxes, penalties, interest, and attorney's fees that accrued after it filed its amended petition.

         The trial court held a hearing on the tax delinquency. Mikulin appeared at this hearing pro se. Harris County introduced evidence in support of the delinquency, including certified tax statements, affidavits, and deed records for Mikulin's home located in Houston, Harris County, Texas. The trial court asked Mikulin whether he had made any payments to the taxing authorities. In response, Mikulin acknowledged that he had not paid his tax debts and then tendered a "conditional payment" in the form of a document explaining why, in his view, he was not required to pay his tax debts because they were unconstitutional. The trial court entered a judgment against Mikulin and ordered him to pay taxes in the amount of $66, 855.74, plus "penalties, interest, and attorney's fees, with penalty and interest continuing to accrue . . . from the date of trial until paid or sold, plus all costs of court." Mikulin appealed.

         Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         In his first issue, Mikulin argues that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because only Congress, and not the judiciary, has the authority to rule on issues involving money.

         A. Standard of review

         Subject-matter jurisdiction is essential to the authority of a court to decide a case. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 553 (Tex. 2000). A court has the power to dispose of every issue once it acquires subject-matter jurisdiction. Mladenka v. Mladenka, 130 S.W.3d 397, 400 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2004, no pet.) (citing Cedar Crest Funeral Home, Inc. v. Lashley, 889 S.W.2d 325, 330 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1993, no writ)). A plea to the jurisdiction challenges the trial court's authority to decide the merits of the case. Am. K-9 Detection Servs., LLC v. Freeman, 556 S.W.3d 246, 267 (Tex. 2018). Because subject-matter jurisdiction presents a question of law, we review the trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction de novo. Hearts Bluff Game Ranch, Inc. v. State, 381 S.W.3d 468, 476 (Tex. 2012). In reviewing a plea to the jurisdiction, we review the pleadings, factual assertions, and any evidence relevant to the jurisdictional issue. Klumb v. Houston Mun. Emps. Pension Sys., 458 S.W.3d 1, 8 (Tex. 2015). We accord the trial court's decision no deference. J.M. Davidson, Inc. v. Webster, 128 S.W.3d 223, 239 (Tex. 2003).

         B. The trial court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the tax suit

         Under Texas law, real property is subject to taxation. Tex. Const. art. VIII, § 1(b); Tex. Tax Code §§ 11.01(a)-(b), 21.01. An owner of real property is obligated to pay ad valorem taxes levied on the property on the first day of January of the tax year for which the tax is imposed by a taxing authority. Tex. Tax Code § 32.07. A taxing authority is defined as a county, city, or school district that is authorized to impose ad valorem taxes on real property. Id. § 21.01. The Texas Constitution authorizes counties to levy property taxes and empowers the legislature to enact laws for the assessment and collection of property taxes by school districts. Tex. Const. art. 8, § 9; art. 7, § 3(e); Fisher v. Cty. of Williamson, No. 03-05-00584- CV, 2006 WL 1649262, at *2 (Tex. App.-Austin June 15, 2006, no pet.). School districts are also authorized to levy and collect property taxes. Tex. Educ. Code § 11.152; Fort Worth Indep. Sch. Dist. v. City of Fort Worth, 22 S.W.3d 831, 835 n.2 (Tex. 2000). Finally, the Texas Constitution, the Tax Code, and the Local Government Code allow cities to levy, assess, and collect property taxes. Tex. Const. art. 8, § 9(a); art. 11, §§ 4, 5; Tex. Tax Code § 302.001; Tex. Loc. Gov't Code § 51.051; see Fisher, 2006 WL 1649262, at *2. Under Texas Tax Code section 33.41(a), a taxing unit may initiate a legal proceeding in the county in which the tax was imposed and sue to foreclose the lien securing the payment of the tax, to enforce personal liability for the tax delinquency, or both. Tex. Tax Code § 33.41(a).

         These taxing units are authorized to initiate legal proceedings to collect taxes when an owner of real property fails to timely remit payment for property taxes assessed. A district court in Harris County is a court of competent jurisdiction to hear cases involving delinquent taxes assessed on property located within the county. See Willie v. Harris Cty., 499 S.W.3d 907, 909-10 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2016, pet. denied) (explaining that the Harris County District Court had ...

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