SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Homeowner in Tyler v. Hennepin

Elder Law Answers case summary.Keeping Surplus Tax Foreclosure Sale Surplus Is Violation of Takings Clause

The United States Supreme Court has handed down a decision ruling in favor of an elderly homeowner who lost her real property to a tax foreclosure action. The homeowner, 94-year-old Geraldine Tyler, failed to pay property taxes on her condominium for several years. Hennepin County, Minnesota seized the property through tax foreclosure. The county then sold it for $40,000, reimbursed itself for the approximate $15,000 she owed, and kept the $25,000 excess. A unanimous SCOTUS court ruled that this violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It declines to rule on whether it also violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. See Geraldine Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota, et al., (U.S., No. 22–166, May 25, 2023).

The Court ruled that while Hennepin County had the power to sell Ms. Tyler’s home to recover unpaid property taxes, it could not take more than it was due. The county’s action constituted a taking in which a government directly appropriates private property for its own use. The idea that government may not take from a taxpayer more than what is due is rooted in U.S. and other legal precedents going back hundreds of years. This is also consistent with the laws of 36 U.S. states and the federal government, which require that excess value be returned to the taxpayer. Hennepin County’s position constitutes the minority position.

Furthermore, this action by Hennepin County harmed Ms. Tyler. Although the tax lien sale extinguished other liens, she remained personally liable for remaining unpaid mortgage debt and HOA fees. If Ms. Tyler had received the $25,000 surplus, she could have made headway on these other debts.

The county’s argument that Ms. Tyler abandoned her property by failing to pay her property taxes is also unavailing. Ms. Tyler did not surrender or relinquish all rights to the property. She could have continued to use the property for several years after falling behind on the taxes until the foreclosure process was complete. A failure to contribute to her share of taxes to the government is not equivalent to abandonment sufficient to avoid complying with the Takings Clause. The judgment of the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Read the case here.

Two SCOTUS judges also published a concurring opinion addressing Ms. Tyler’s argument that the county’s actions violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. They caution that lower courts should not ignore the issue. Actions such as those of Hennepin County may be subject to claims that they violated the Eighth Amendment, where a statutory scheme partially punishes a taxpayer, regardless of whether it is somewhat or primarily remedial. Minnesota’s tax-forfeiture scheme was not solely remedial and had punitive elements. As such, the concurring Justices contend that the Eighth Circuit committed a further error when it dismissed Ms. Tyler’s Eighth Amendment claim, and courts should not follow suit.