Updated: 1:35 p.m.
A unanimous Supreme Court on Thursday gave a 94-year-old Minneapolis woman a new chance to recoup some money after the county kept the entire $40,000 when it sold her condominium over a small unpaid tax bill.
The justices ruled that Hennepin County, Minn. 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 title to the one-bedroom apartment in 2015. The county said she did nothing to hold onto her one-time residence. The apartment sold the next year.
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“Hennepin County represented the interests of Minnesota and many other states with laws that transfer title of abandoned property to reduce the burden to the public. Counties in Minnesota have faithfully administered the state’s property forfeiture laws for well over a century,” Dan Rogan, assistant county administrator and Hennepin County auditor said.
“Based on today's decision which found Minnesota's law unconstitutional, Minnesota’s property tax forfeiture laws must be revised. Hennepin County will work closely with the Minnesota Legislature to create a process that is consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision,” Rogan added.
Minnesota is among roughly a dozen states and the District of Columbia that allow local jurisdictions to keep the excess money, 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.
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.
There has been no explanation about why Tyler stopped paying her property taxes when she moved from the condo, where she had lived since 1999. She moved for “health and safety” reasons, Pacific Legal said.
The court rejected the county’s arguments that Tyler could have sold the property and kept whatever was left after paying off the mortgage and taxes, refinanced her mortgage to pay the tax bill or signed up for a tax payment plan.
Lower courts had sided with the county before the justices agreed to step in.
The case is Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota, 22-166.