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Thomas Gilcrease Foundation v. Cavallaro

Supreme Court of Wyoming

June 7, 2017

THOMAS GILCREASE FOUNDATION, as Trustee for the GILCREASE HOBACK ONE CHARITABLE TRUST; THOMAS GILCREASE FOUNDATION, as Trustee for the GILCREASE HOBACK TWO CHARITABLE TRUST; and THOMAS GILCREASE FOUNDATION, as Trustee for the GILCREASE HOBACK THREE CHARITABLE TRUST, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
v.
ANDY CAVALLARO, sued in his official capacity as the TETON COUNTY ASSESSOR, an agency of the COUNTY OF TETON, STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Defendant).

         Appeal from the District Court of Teton County The Honorable Timothy C. Day, Judge.

          Representing Appellants: Richard W. Walden of Walden & Van Tassell, PLLC, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

          Representing Appellee: Keith M. Gingery, Teton County Attorney's Office, Jackson, Wyoming.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

          KAUTZ, Justice.

         [¶1] Appellant, the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation (the Foundation), filed a declaratory judgment action in the district court against Appellee, Andy Cavallaro, the Teton County Assessor. The Foundation sought a declaration from the district court that the trusts for which it acts as trustee are charitable trusts within the meaning of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 4-10-406(a) (LexisNexis 2015) and are exempt from taxation under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 39-11-105(xix) (LexisNexis 2015). The district court dismissed the complaint on the basis of primary jurisdiction, and the Foundation appeals that determination. We affirm.

         ISSUE

         [¶2] The Foundation raises one issue in this appeal:

[W]hether the [district court] abused its discretion when it relied upon the primary jurisdiction doctrine to dismiss [the Foundation's] Declaratory Judgment[s] Act lawsuit.

         FACTS

         [¶3] The Foundation is an Oklahoma non-profit corporation and serves as the trustee for three Wyoming trusts: Gilcrease Hoback One Charitable Trust; Gilcrease Hoback Two Charitable Trust; and Gilcrease Hoback Three Charitable Trust (collectively referred to as "the trusts"). Each trust leases its property which is adjacent to the Snake River to the Jackson Hole Kayak Club, a non-profit organization that provides youth kayaking opportunities. Additionally, the trusts have set aside certain areas of the collective parcels for the people of Teton County, its tourists, and for wildlife.

         [¶4] Prior to 2009, the Foundation owned all eight of the parcels of property that are now held collectively in the trusts. At that time, the previous Teton County Assessor determined the parcels were exempt from taxation under § 39-11-105(xix). That section exempted from taxation the "[p]roperty of charitable trusts." In 2009, the Foundation transferred the property to the trusts, and in 2010, the Teton County Assessor began assessing tax on the properties because the trusts could not show they provided a direct benefit to the people of Wyoming. The trusts paid the 2010 tax without objection, but protested the 2011 tax assessment to the county board of equalization. The assessor acquiesced and considered the property tax exempt and the trusts withdrew their administrative appeal.

         [¶5] In 2011, the Teton County and Prosecuting Attorney requested an opinion from the Wyoming Attorney General regarding charitable trusts and the requirements for tax exemption. The Attorney General concluded that, to qualify for the property tax exemption, a charitable trust must benefit members of a community within Wyoming.

          The Attorney General based its opinion on the definition of "charitable trust" found in Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 4-10-103(a)(iii) (LexisNexis 2015) and 4-10-406(a), and the definition of "charity" in the Department of Revenues Rules. The opinion did not discuss the fact that § 39-11-105(xix) exempted simply "property of charitable trusts." Mr. Cavallaro alleges that, due to this ambiguity, the then current assessor did not assess tax on the property in 2012, 2013, or 2014. Instead, she urged the Wyoming Legislature, through the Wyoming County ...


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