A superior court judge approved a $17.5 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit over improperly applied homestead exemptions on Friday.
According to a consent order issued by Cobb County Superior Court Judge G. Grant Brantley, Glynn County government and the Glynn County Board of Education must pay $17.5 million into an aggregate fund out of which the class members will be refunded.
The county and school board are on the hook for roughly, $6.9 million and $10.6 million respectively.
“Defendant Glynn County shall pay its portion of the Aggregate Refund Fund in the amount of $6,907,308.20 into the Aggregate Refund Fund on or before Nov. 20, 2019,” Brantley’s order reads.
“Pursuant to (state law) the Glynn County Tax Commissioner is directed to withhold the portion of the Aggregate Refund Fund representing the percentage of funds received by the Glynn County School Board in the amount of $10,592,691.72 from ‘his next distribution to the ... [School Board]’ with said amount to be paid into the Aggregate Refund Fund by Nov. 20, 2019.”
If either party fails to make the required payments, interest will begin accruing at a seven percent annual rate, the order states.
Brantley said Friday that he would return to hold another hearing on Nov. 22 to make sure all parties were complying with the order.
Attorney’s fees and a reward for the class representatives will come out of the aggregate fund, according to the order.
St. Simons Island law firm Roberts Tate litigated the case on behalf of the class, and requested $7 million — or 40 percent of the aggregate fund — in attorney’s fees and another $93,455 to cover expenses incurred over the last seven years.
Brantley wrote in the order that he felt the request was fair as the firm has been litigating the case for seven years and has, until now, received no compensation. His order also states that 40 percent is within the range of standard attorneys’ fees for tax refund cases.
The judge also awarded $350,000 to J. Matthew and Elizabeth Coleman, the class representatives in the case.
“The court finds that as the Colemans provided invaluable assistance to counsel in these lawsuits by first identifying the issue concerning the incorrect application of the exemption and then by, among other things, locating relevant documents, participating in conferences with class counsel and attending and testifying at hearings,” the order states.
All told, a little more than $10 million remains to refund members of the class.
The class-action lawsuit goes back to 2012 when the Colemans filed a lawsuit alleging they had been overcharged on property taxes due to misapplication of the Scarlett Williams homestead exemption.
In effect, the homestead exemption “freezes” a property’s assessed value at the value of the base year. In the lawsuit, the Colemans alleged the county had used the wrong base year. It had used the year they applied for an exemption as the base year, when it should have used the year before.
For some, this means the county has been overcharging them on property taxes. For others, it may mean an increase in property taxes as their base year is changed to a year in which their property values were higher.
Two more lawsuits filed in 2013 and 2014 alleged the same thing, and all three were certified as a single class-action lawsuit in 2015.
Brantley sided with the county in 2017, clearing it of civil charges.
In March 2018, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed his decision. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case later that year in August. As such, the appeals court’s ruling stood.
The county announced a preliminary settlement early last month, and Brantley approved the settlement on Friday.