Former Tax Assessor Sues City

Melissa Bailey PhotoFormer tax assessor Bill O’Brien is suing the city, claiming New Haven should pay his legal fees as he tries to fend off a different lawsuit—from a tax collection company that says O’Brien tried to undermine its work by spreading lies.

O’Brien (pictured) filed his suit against the city last month. Click here to read it.

The previous lawsuit against O’Brien, brought by Bridgeport-based Tax Data Solutions, was filed in November 2010 and is ongoing.

The two lawsuits are just the latest controversies to surface in connection with O’Brien, who left the tax assessor’s office under a cloud in December 2011.

O’Brien’s reign as city tax assessor was the subject of a series of public hearings in 2011 on complaints ranging from capricious inflation of tax assessments and lost paperwork, to botched tax bills, rising assessments on old used cars, and rude and unprofessional behavior in his office. Read about all that here.

The Tax Data Solutions complaint follows in this vein. The company claims that O’Brien worked to undermine its contract with the city, and accuses him of slander and libel. The complaint alleges that O’Brien went after Tax Data Solutions even for bizarre little matters, like using the word “pursuant” in emails.

O’Brien has been fighting the case against him with the help of attorney Vincent Sabatini. He has succeeded in striking five of seven counts against him, leaving only the slander and defamation charges. Tax Data Solutions is pursuing the other counts in a separate lawsuit against the city.

Last month, Sabatini sued the city on O’Brien’s behalf. The complaint argues that New Haven should pay O’Brien’s legal bills in the Tax Data Solutions case since he was employed by the city at the time of his alleged misdeeds.

Asked for comment, city Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden said only, “This is a matter in litigation, and the city will comment at the appropriate time.”

Sabatini could not be reached for comment.

Tax Data Solutions, LLC v. O’Brien, William

Tax Data Solutions (TDS) filed a case against O’Brien on Nov. 22, 2010. The case was filed by attorney Robert Berke, who’s also one of two members of Tax Data Solutions along with Matthew Tagley.

According to the complaint, The city hired TDS, a Bridgport company, four years in a row, from 2006 to 2009, to do “field investigations” of people and businesses that may be subject to property and car taxes in New Haven. TDS was paid based on the taxes, interest, and penalties the city collected on property the company turned up as taxable: 40 percent of collected car taxes, 25 percent for all other personal property.

Berke said TDS tracks down tax evaders in a variety of ways, including driving around town and videotaping cars, and even videotaping from boats in the New Haven harbor. The company looks for cars that might have, for instance, New Hampshire plates but are constantly in New Haven. Berke said New Haveners sometimes register their cars in other Connecticut towns with lower mill rates, or even in other states, like New Hampshire, that have no property taxes.

TDS worked for the city for several years. The trouble began, according to the complaint, after O’Brien became New Haven’s tax assessor in 2009.

Here’s what the complaint alleges:

In the spring of 2009, as TDS applied for another contract with the city for the upcoming fiscal year, 2009-2010. O’Brien “made efforts” to have the contract awarded to a different company, Municipal Tax Services (MTS), and was successful. MTS took over car tax investigations, and TDS continued working on other personal property.

O’Brien then began to try to discredit or undermine TDS’s work with the city in several ways. He refused to add some of their property accounts to the grand list, he reduced the assessed value of the properties TDS had found, and he otherwise refused to credit TDS for property the company had investigated and reported to the city. O’Brien removed TDS’s “name and designation” from the city’s computer system so that the company would not be compensated for work it had already completed.

Meanwhile, O’Brien “repeatedly chastised and degraded TDS staff in his emails, during telephone conversations, and during meetings,” the complaint states. O’Brien also threatened to end the contract with TDS if the company used the word “pursuant” in any correspondence.

The complaint also accuses O’Brien of slander and libel. It states that he made “defamatory and false” written and oral statements to city staff, spreading the accusation that TDS was trying to over-bill the city.

Berke said O’Brien sent TDS an email with those accusations and CC’d other city staff: “It essentially accused us of taking credit for work that he claimed that city employees did.”

Berke said O’Brien was trying to force TDS out of its contract with the city. If that was his intent, it seems to have worked. TDS no longer has any contract with the city. MTS has taken over.

The TDS case has stretched on for over a year and a half. O’Brien’s filings called all the accusations baseless. He moved to strike all the counts against him, arguing that he had governmental immunity and that the complaint against him is not legally justified. O’Brien argued that TDS accuses him of acting maliciously without explaining how his actions amount to being wrong or malicious.

Theses arguments convinced Judge Terrence Zabatini, who February granted a motion to strike five of the seven counts, including “tortious interference” with business and contracts. The slander and defamation counts remain.

O’Brien, William v. City of New Haven

O’Brien filed his lawsuit against the city on June 19. The complaint states that when TDS sued him in 2010, O’Brien immediately contacted Bolden, the city corporation counsel, and requested the city defend him, since the allegations in the suit stem from his time as assessor. The city refused.

In February, O’Brien sought $50,906.25 from the city in reimbursement for legal fees in the TDS case. The city offered to pay $18,469, according to the complaint.

O’Brien is accusing the city of breach of contract, “breach of good faith covenant and fair dealing,” “unjust enrichment,” and negligent misrepresentation.

Berke said O’Brien may have trouble winning the case since TDS is accusing him not of negligent behavior, but of intentional acts, which Berke said is not usually covered by legal indemnification of city employees.

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posted by: Bill Saunders on July 2, 2013  3:20pm

And when do the Citizens of New Haven get to file a lawsuit against our former, over-reaching tax czar???

posted by: Seth Poole on July 2, 2013  3:36pm

Now, this is the type of issue that I would like to see our Mayoral hopefuls chime in on.  Litigation against the city is an unexpected problem for which their is no financial forecast.  Nevertheless, taxpayer dollars will (and have been) committed to right the wrongs of individuals under the city’s employ.

posted by: robn on July 2, 2013  4:51pm

I hate to say it but we’re probably on the hook for this. If we hire someone who behaves egregiously in his position and we drag our heels correcting it; our bad.