Louisiana Court: Parish Can't Be Forced to Comply With Zillow's Tax Roll Request
A Louisiana trial court erred in granting a writ of mandamus to Zillow Inc. compelling a parish to provide tax assessment rolls in the company’s requested format, a state appellate court has found.
In a January 25 decision in Zillow Inc. v. Aguillard, the Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third District, reversed a district court ruling granting Zillow a writ of mandamus to purchase Calcasieu Parish tax assessment records in a .txt format rather than a .pdf format from third-party vendor Software and Services (S&S), finding that the Calcasieu assessor is not the custodian of the records and is therefore not bound to produce them.
The parish's assessor, Wendy Aguillard, “is bound to produce public records over which she is the custodian. She is not obligated to produce records over which she is not the custodian. These may seem like elementary propositions, but the disagreement between Zillow and Aguillard essentially reduces to whether she is the custodian over .txt files created on her behalf by S&S. We find that she is not,” the appeals court said.
In October 2020 Zillow contacted Aguillard's office requesting assessment files for all parcels in the parish, which included information like the owner’s name, address, legal descriptions of the parcel, lot sizes, assessed and market values, tax bill amounts, sale information, and property characteristics, among other items. Zillow specifically requested that the data be provided in a .txt format.
After several email exchanges, Aguillard’s office offered Zillow the option of viewing parcel information free of charge from the assessor’s website; through the Louisiana Tax Commission’s website; in hard copy form for $1 per page; or in a .pdf file. According to the appeals court, Zillow responded to this by reiterating that it wanted “a workable electronic copy of the tax roll to include the files it previously received” from the parish’s vendor in .txt format. The office responded by advising Zillow that it could not create .txt format copies of the tax rolls.
Zillow filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in February 2021 requesting the information, with the request specifying that it be delivered in a .txt format. In requests for admissions Aguillard admitted that she could authorize the parish’s third-party vendor, S&S, to produce the information in the format Zillow requested, but said she could not instruct, direct, or compel the vendor to do so. Aguillard further admitted that in previous years the vendor was authorized to access the assessment database to provide Zillow and other third-party data aggregators the data in a .txt format.
Following a hearing, the trial court granted Zillow a writ of mandamus, according to the appellate court, “to permit Zillow, Inc. to purchase the assessment data requested from [Aguillard's] external vendor, Software & Services, Inc., for the fee that company customarily charges for the production of the tax assessment rolls.”
Aguillard appealed, arguing that the appellate court’s previous decisions in Zillow Inc. v. Taylor and Zillow Inc. v. Bealer — which the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to review — as well as the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal's decisions in Zillow Inc. v. Gardner and Zillow Inc. v. Blanchard, foreclose the issuance of mandamus.
The court of appeal noted that “in each case, the assessor advised Zillow that the data was not maintained in the format sought, and that Zillow could only receive the requested data in the requested format by obtaining it from S&S.” In each case the respective court denied writs of mandamus to Zillow, finding that either the assessors were not required to supply the data in a format other than that in which the office maintains the data, or that the assessors could authorize the third-party vendor to produce the data in Zillow’s desired format but could not compel it to do so.
Zillow argued that under the precedent of the state supreme court's decision in Title Research Corp. v. Rausch, for Louisiana Public Records Law purposes, members of the public are allowed to inspect, copy, or reproduce records, or obtain reproductions of records from the custodian.
Although the appellate court noted that the supreme court found that “the right of public access to records is fundamental” and that “any doubt about whether a record is subject to public scrutiny is resolved in favor of the public,” the court of appeal reasoned that Rausch could be distinguished from the present case because “Rausch involved a public record seeker who was actively reproducing the records itself. Zillow is seeking to use the mandamus procedure to force someone else to reproduce the records for it.”
The appellate court said that, in order to issue a writ of mandamus under the public records law, the requester must have been denied the right to inspect, copy, reproduce, or obtain reproductions of records. However, in the present case, the court noted that Zillow was not denied access to the records since it was offered the records in .pdf format, even if it was not Zillow’s desired format.
“If the assessor does not utilize a .txt format for facilitating her duties and does not store.txt files in her data processing equipment, she cannot be compelled to produce records in that format. Zillow’s protestations to the contrary, the evidence demonstrates that Aguillard does not prepare or store the tax information in.txt format, and she lacks the capacity to produce a .txt format document; ergo, she cannot be compelled to produce them in that format,” the appeals court said.
Representatives for Zillow did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The taxpayer in Zillow Inc. v. Aguillard (No. 22-520) is represented by Scott Sternberg and Michael Finkelstein of Sternberg, Naccari & White LLC.
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Tax Notes State, Jan. 30, 2023, p. 456
107 Tax Notes State 456 (Jan. 30, 2023)
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