In the 1970s, Jeffrey H. Friedman, then of Cleveland, created handicapped parking placards that hang from rearview mirrors. They’re now the national standard. Decades later, he lobbied for disabled people’s rights, helping organize busloads of handicapped people who headed to Washington to push for their rights. That prompted then-President George H.W. Bush to sign the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
NAPLES — A quadriplegic Marco Island attorney who blames the Collier County Property Appraiser for mistakenly removing his disability homestead tax exemption missed his chance to contest the change, a judge has ruled.
The final summary judgment by Collier Circuit Judge Cynthia Pivacek means 62-year-old Jeffrey H. Friedman must pay $10,985.77 for his 2008 tax bill for a penthouse he lives and works out of at Marco Courtyard Towers on Swallow Avenue.
Since he sued in May, when he had a dozen properties in Collier County, two on Marco Island and one in East Naples were foreclosed on.
Friedman, who argued the exemption removal was the county’s mistake and their burden to prove, said he’d probably file an appeal.
“I respect the judge,” Friedman said, calling Pivacek fair and open-minded for listening to everyone’s arguments. “I believe, however, the court was wrong on the law in this case.”
Friedman, who became paralyzed after he was injured by a drunken driver when he was 17, is known as an advocate for the disabled in Ohio, where he’s a founding partner of Friedman, Domiano & Smith in Cleveland. The firm specializes in personal-injury cases and its advertisements feature Friedman in his wheelchair.
In the 1970s, the Cleveland man created handicapped parking placards that hang from rearview mirrors. They’re now the national standard. Decades later, he lobbied for disabled people’s rights, helping organize busloads of handicapped people who headed to Washington to push for their rights. That prompted then-President George H.W. Bush to sign the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
In Collier, his work is more low-key.
The judge made her ruling Dec. 28 after a hearing on Nov. 23.
Friedman’s saga began when he received a call from his mortgage company, alerting him his taxes hadn’t been paid and they’d been sold at a tax auction. The lawyer knew there had been a mistake: He doesn’t pay property taxes on his penthouse.
He’s among 33 quadriplegics exempted from paying property taxes in Collier County because they live here full time or are homesteaded.
Friedman discovered that his problem started in 2007, when he was hospitalized in Ohio and sent a letter to the Collier Property Appraiser’s Office, asking to change his address so tax bills would be mailed to his Ohio law firm’s address. But that prompted a tax employee here to remove the tax-free exemption he’d had since 2003.
During a hearing before the Value Adjustment Board, county officials testified he had opportunities to catch the mistake when they mailed him a proposed tax notice and a tax bill, both showing no exemption.
They also argued he’d been exempted in Ohio, but he contended that was a mistake caused by his mother’s death, which removed her name from her house, leaving him with an exemption; he corrected that and paid the taxes.
But he was only able to reinstate his Collier exemption beginning in 2009. So in May 2010, he sued Property Appraiser Abe Skinner, who certifies exemptions, and Tax Collector Larry Ray, who mails the tax bills.
During the November hearing, Friedman showed Pivacek proof that he lives here, providing his driver license and tax returns over the years.
He denied he missed a deadline that bars him from fixing the error if he didn’t contest it within 60 days of the county certifying its tax rolls. Instead, he argued, it was a clerical error, so his lawsuit fell under a four-year statute of limitations in which to contest the error.
“To have eliminated my exemption is a clear error in the truest sense,” Friedman argued as he sat in a wheelchair in court. “... I had the exemption until they mistakenly removed it.”
“I respect the judge,” Jeffrey Friedman said. “I believe, however, the court was wrong on the law in this case.”
They don't pay taxes
Real estate used and owned as a homestead by a quadriplegic, less any portion used for commercial purposes, is tax-exempt. The same applies to a paraplegic, hemiplegic — paralysis on one side of the body — or other totally and permanently disabled person, who must use a wheelchair or who is legally blind. However, that exemption has income limits for eligibility.
But Gaylord Wood, a Flagler County attorney who represented county officials, said Friedman’s case fell under the 60-day statute of time to contest a tax bill, not the four-year statute of limitations for a clerical error.
Citing a 2004 Florida Supreme Court decision, Ward v. Brown, Wood argued others had tried Friedman’s argument without success.
“Prior to Ward v. Brown, there were some very inventive attorneys trying to help taxpayers avoid the time-barred claim,” Wood told the judge, calling it “troubling” that Friedman hadn’t mentioned his Ohio exemption. “... So I would suggest that it was no error that the Collier County Property Appraiser did not find a property exemption for 2008.”
But Friedman argued he was hospitalized for a year and never signed anything in Ohio.
“It couldn’t have been me,” he said, suggesting someone in his office signed it in error. “I immediately called the Ohio tax appraiser and resolved it.”
In this case, he said, he did nothing to change his exemption, while the appraiser mistakenly did.
“I did not seek this,” Friedman told the judge as his wife, Margaret, sat in court listening. “I had the exemption until they mistakenly removed it. This is not a challenge of eligibility, but a revision of a clerical error.”
Both attorneys submitted orders for the judge to sign and Pivacek signed Wood’s five-page order, which said Friedman couldn’t use the correction of errors rule to “breathe new life into this action.”
Because it fell under the 60-day time period of not contesting the tax-roll certification, Pivacek ruled she had no jurisdiction and granted summary judgment for the county officials, dismissing Friedman’s lawsuit.