The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday in favor of a 94-year-old Minneapolis woman, giving her a new chance to recoup some money after her county kept the entire $40,000 when it sold her condominium over a small unpaid tax bill.
The justices ruled that Hennepin County in Minnesota violated the constitutional rights of the woman, Geraldine Tyler, by taking her property without paying “just compensation.”
“The County had the power to sell Tyler’s home to recover the unpaid property taxes. But it could not use the toehold of the tax debt to confiscate more property than was due,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.
Tyler, who now lives in an apartment building for older people, owed $2,300 in unpaid taxes, plus interest and penalties totaling $15,000, when the county took the title to her one-bedroom apartment in 2015. The county said she did nothing to keep her residence and the apartment sold the next year.
Minnesota is among roughly a dozen states and the District of Columbia that allow local jurisdictions to keep the excess money from those types of transactions, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation, a not-for-profit public interest law firm focused on property rights that represented Tyler at the Supreme Court in Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota.
“Today’s decision is a major victory for property rights in the United States,” Christina Martin, the PLF attorney who argued the case before the Court, said in a statement. “This decision affirms that property rights are fundamental and don’t depend solely on state law. The Court’s ruling makes clear that home equity theft is not only unjust, but unconstitutional.”
At least 8,950 homes were sold because of unpaid taxes and the former owners received little or nothing in those states between 2014 and 2021, according to Pacific Legal.
The other states are: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and South Dakota, the group said.
The Court rejected the county’s arguments that Tyler could have refinanced her mortgage to pay the tax bill, signed up for a tax payment plan or sold the property and kept whatever was left after paying off what she owed.
Lower courts had sided with the county before the justices agreed to step in.