There are many cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court that receive scant attention from the public. Despite ideological divisions among the justices, it is not uncommon for the Court to vote 9-0 in case. In the case of Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota, the Court issued a unanimous decision concerning the constitutionality of a tax lien foreclosure.
Geraldine Tyler owed $15,000 in unpaid real estate taxes on a condominium she owned in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The County seized the condomin and sold it for $40,000, keeping the $25,000 excess over what Tyler owed in unpaid taxes. Tyler argued the windfall to the County was unconstitutional in violation of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Takings Clause provides that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 5. The question the Court concerned itself with was whether the surplus funds from the sale of the condominium are protected from uncompensated appropriation by the County. The Court’s analysis provided a history lesson in our English common law roots:
Parliament gave the Crown the power to seize and sell a taxpayer’s property to recover a tax debt, but dictated that any “Overplus” from the sale “be immediately restored to the Owner.” 4 W. & M., ch. 1, §12, in 3 Eng. Stat. at Large 488–489 (1692). As Blackstone explained, the common law demanded the same: If a tax collector seized a taxpayer’s property, he was “bound by an implied contract in law to restore [the property] on payment of the debt, duty, and expenses, before the time of sale; or, when sold, to render back the overplus.” 2 Commentaries on the Laws of England 453 (1771).
Ultimately, the Court held that “Tyler has plausibly alleged a taking under the Fifth Amendment,” reasoning that a “taxpayer who loses her $40,000 house to the State to fulfill a $15,000 tax debt has made a far greater contribution to the public fisc [treasury] than she owed.” Wisconsin’s law on foreclosure of tax liens, Wis. Stat. § 75.521, is similar to the law that was challenged in Tyler. While the Wisconsin law is still on the books, a challenge to its constitutionality seems inevitable.
If you have any questions about tax liens or foreclosures, please discuss it with one of our experienced real estate or tax attorneys.