Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal Of Federal Lawsuit Against Athens County

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In a ruling issued Wednesday, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a federal lawsuit against Athens County.

The lawsuit was filed in 2011 in a dispute over whether property in Nelsonville should have been given tax-exempt status.

U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley had ruled in March that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case that was filed by Steve Heskett II of Nelsonville and Heskett Land Development Co. The lawsuit, which dealt with the former Nelsonville Elementary School property, had been filed against Athens County and County Auditor Jill Thompson.

Heskett appealed Marbley’s ruling to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Having thoroughly reviewed the record, the parties’ briefs and the applicable law, we find no error in the district court analysis,” the appeals court ruled in a two-page opinion Wednesday. “The reasoning supporting the judgment for defendants was clearly and persuasively articulated by the district court, and, accordingly, there is no need for a detailed written opinion by this court.”

Heskett bought the property in 2000 for $115,500 and said in the original lawsuit that it was being used for a nonprofit youth camp and for activities sponsored by the International Conservative Holiness Association of Churches. The court case claimed the property was improperly valued at more than $1 million and that Heskett applied three times for tax-exempt status based on the charitable use of the property by the church association. The county said Heskett only applied once, and the application was forwarded to the Ohio tax commissioner for a decision.

The lawsuit claimed Heskett’s constitutional rights were being violated, and that he was being discriminated against based on religion and his disability. Heskett is a licensed minister and has cerebral palsy. The county denied the discrimination allegation.

In 2011, Athens County Common Pleas Judge L. Alan Goldsberry had issued a foreclosure judgment on $98,079 in favor of the county against Heskett Land Development Co. for taxes owed through tax year 2010. The amount of taxes owed had since increased.

Heskett’s lawsuit asked that the federal court order that the property be properly valued and that retroactive tax-exempt status be granted. It sought a preliminary injunction to stop the county from proceeding with the foreclosure.

“Essentially, plaintiffs seek to restrict defendant Athens County from levying taxes on plaintiff’s real property,” Marbley ruled in March, saying that under federal law the court does not have jurisdiction to consider such an action.

In 2012, Ohio Tax Commissioner Joseph Testa dismissed Heskett’s application for tax-exempt status for the property, saying he did not have jurisdiction to consider the application because back taxes were owed.

Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Rob Driscoll said Thursday that the property has not yet been sold at a sheriff’s sale.

This article was contributed by the Athens Messenger