SCOTUS Rules Against County in Takings Case

On May 25, in a unanimous opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that Hennepin County violated the Takings Clause by keeping the surplus equity in a condominium that it sold after the homeowner failed to pay her property taxes (and failed to regain title to that property pursuant to state law).  The Taking occurred not with the sale of the property for failure to pay property taxes or when the County kept the tax debt (including interest and penalties), but rather, the County violated the Takings Clause by keeping the surplus equity.  As Chief Justice Roberts put it, “[t]he taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more.”  To read the Court’s decision, click here.

Under Minnesota law, property taxes become a lien against the property once they are assessed.  Minn. Stat. § 272.31.  If property taxes are not paid during the year in which they are due, they become delinquent the following year, at which point, a county may obtain a judgment against the property.  Minn. Stat. § 279.03 subd. 1.  At this point, delinquent taxpayers have several avenues to avoid forfeiture, including a 3-year period of redemption. Minn. Stat. §§ 281.01–281.02, 281.17.  If a property owner fails to pursue these avenues, absolute title vests in the state and all outstanding taxes, penalties, interest, etc. are canceled.  Under Minnesota’s tax foreclosure scheme, former property owners have no way to claim any proceeds from the sale of the property in excess of the tax debt. 

Geraldine Tyler owned a condominium in Minneapolis and stopped paying taxes in 2010.  At the time the County sought judgment under the statutory scheme, she owed $15,000 in unpaid state property taxes, penalties, costs, and interest. She received the statutorily prescribed notice of foreclosure, failed to answer, and then never tried to redeem the property during the 3-year period.  Thereafter, Hennepin County sold the property for $40,000, and kept the surplus (and distributed it) pursuant to state law. 

Ms. Tyler sued the County, claiming that keeping the surplus equity violated both the Takings and Excessive Fines Clauses of the Constitution.

In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that the County violated the Takings Clause.  The Court noted at the outset that the imposition of taxes does not constitute a Taking and that a state or local government may also impose interest and late fees when a taxpayer fails to pay taxes.  Furthermore, the Court indicated that a state or local government may also seize property to recover a tax debt without running afoul of the Takings Clause.

The question in this case is whether a homeowner whose property is sold pursuant to a valid state procedure for failure to pay a tax debt has any property interest in the excess value (after satisfying the tax debt, interest, and fees) of that home. 

The Court tells us to answer that question, it looks to state law as an “important source” to understand property rights, but that state law cannot be “the only source.”  Because “[o]therwise, a State could ‘sidestep the Takings Clause by disavowing traditional property interests’ in assets it wishes to appropriate.”  The Court therefore looks to not just state law to determine if there is a property interest, but also historical practices and the Court’s precedent. 

Because the Court concluded that the County violated the Takings Clause, it did not reach the Excessive Fines question.  However, Justices Gorsuch and Jackson concurred in the decision and wrote separately to indicate that they would have likely found an Excessive Fines violation. 

The Local Government Legal Center (LGLC), joined by IMLA, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and the Government Finance Officers Association filed an amicus brief in this case in support of the County which was drafted by John Baker and Katherine Swenson of Greene Espel.  In the brief, the LGLC argued that principles of federalism dictate that the Court should not interfere with the administration of state taxes in cases like this where adequate procedural safeguards exist for the owner to safeguard her property interest.  The brief also pointed out the practical implications of a ruling in favor of the property owner, including the significant costs local governments incur in selling tax forfeited properties as well as the fact that such a ruling would provide a perverse incentive for property owners to abandon their properties rather than sell them as they would not need to bear those costs. 

As the Court points out in its decision, Minnesota is not alone in excluding surplus equity from the definition of property rights after title vests in the state or local government.  According to the Court, twenty-three other states have such a rule.  As a practical matter then, these state laws will need to be updated and local governments will need to ensure that they are not keeping any surplus equity after the sale of a forfeited property.