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Cogger v. County of Becker

January 20, 2005

DARWIN COGGER, ET AL., RELATORS,
v.
COUNTY OF BECKER, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Congress has authorized the states to tax real property held in fee by Indians and located within the boundaries of an Indian reservation, and pursuant to that authority a state may define a manufactured home as real property.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meyer, Justice.

Affirmed.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

The question presented in this case is whether state law controls in defining whether a manufactured home located within the boundaries of an Indian reservation may be taxed as real property. The tax court found that the county has authority to assess an ad valorem tax on the land in question and it then applied Minnesota statutes to classify the manufactured home as real property. The Coggers appealed the tax court decision by a writ of certiorari. We affirm the tax court.

Darwin and Janet Cogger are members of the White Earth Band of Chippewa Indians. The Coggers own fee patented title to a plot of land within the boundaries of the White Earth Indian Reservation, located in Becker County, Minnesota. In 1993, the Coggers moved a manufactured home onto their land and have occupied the home as their primary residence since that time. The manufactured home is a 28' x 40' "double wide" home with vinyl skirting. In 1998, the Coggers attached an 8' x 6' porch to their home and added three storage sheds and two wooden decks to the property.

In 2002, the Becker County Assessor assessed an ad valorem property tax*fn1 on the Coggers' property, including the value of the land and the value of the manufactured home, porch, vinyl skirting, three storage sheds, and two wooden decks.*fn2 The assessor determined that the manufactured home was taxable as real property because it was similarly situated to other manufactured homes that Becker County taxed as real property. The Coggers appealed to the tax court.

The tax court held in favor of Becker County based on United States Supreme Court precedent, federal statutes, and state statutes. The most persuasive factor in the tax court's decision in favor of the County's authority to tax the Coggers' property was that the Coggers own the land in fee patented title. The following factors were the basis for the court's finding that the manufactured home was real property: (1) the manufactured home was similarly situated to other such homes taxed as real property in the county, (2) the home was connected to a well and septic tank system, and (3) the Coggers used the home as their primary residence.

On appeal the Coggers concede, and Becker County agrees, that Congress has authorized states to tax real property held in fee by Indians and located within the boundaries of an Indian reservation. But the Coggers contend that Congress has not granted states the authority to define what property may be taxed as real property. Becker County asserts that Congress has necessarily granted all real property taxing authority to the states, and the tax court acted properly when it applied Minnesota statutes in classifying the Coggers' property.

In Minnesota, the legislature has plainly defined real and personal property. Minn. Stat. § 272.03, subds. 1, 2 (2004).*fn3 The legislature has also defined when a manufactured home, and the structures annexed to it, should be classified as real property and when a manufactured home should be classified as personal property. Minn. Stat. § 273.125, subd. 8 (2004).*fn4 Under these statutes, the Coggers' manufactured home and adjoining property would properly be classified as real property.

We review tax court decisions to determine "whether the tax court lacked jurisdiction, whether the tax court's decision is supported by the evidence and is in conformity with the law, [or] whether the tax court committed any other error of law." Jefferson v. Commissioner of Revenue, 631 N.W.2d 391, 394 (Minn. 2001); Minn. Stat. § 271.10, subd. 1 (2004).

Resolution of the issue raised by the Coggers requires a brief history of federal legislation with respect to Indians and reservation land. Congressional federal policy toward Indians and Indian land has gone through several transformations since it was first interpreted by the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (Pet.) 515 (1832). In Worcester, the Court stated that the federal policy with respect to Indians was to treat the Indian nations as "distinct political communities," with the federal government as the sole body of government authorized to interact with the Indians. Id. at 556-57; see County of Yakima v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Indian Nation, 502 U.S. 251, 257 (1992).

In 1887 the Indian General Allotment Act, commonly known as the Dawes Act, ch. 119, 24 Stat. 388 (repealed 2000), was enacted with the objective of facilitating the government's policy of Indian assimilation. County of Yakima, 502 U.S. at 254. The Dawes Act gave the President power to apportion almost all tribal land throughout the United States without first obtaining the consent of the affected Indian nation. County of Yakima, 502 U.S. at 254. The Dawes Act also limited alienation and encumbrance of specific tribal land by placing land in trust with the United States for at least 25 years. County of Yakima, 502 U.S. at 254. Once the 25-year period ...


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