US Supreme Court: Hennepin County illegally kept surplus from sale of woman’s home

US Supreme Court: Hennepin County illegally kept surplus from sale of woman’s home

US Supreme Court: Hennepin County illegally kept surplus from sale of woman’s home

The nation’s highest court has sided with a Minnesota woman in her property rights battle against Hennepin County.

Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the county illegally kept more money than it should have when it sold 94-year-old Geraldine Tyler’s one-bedroom condo in Minneapolis over unpaid taxes.

Back in 2010, Tyler moved from her condo and stopped paying taxes on it. After penalties, interest, and other costs, Tyler’s tax debt eventually rose to $15,000. To collect that debt, the county foreclosed on the condo and sold it for $40,000.

However, because Tyler’s debt was only $15,000, her attorneys argued that the county should’ve given her the $25,000 that remained from the sale after her debt was paid.

After a district court dismissed her lawsuit, the Supreme Court notified Tyler and her attorneys in January that it would hear her case against the county, which it did last month.

RELATED: US Supreme Court to hear woman’s property rights lawsuit against Hennepin County

Hennepin County argued that Tyler gave up her rights to the property and that excess money from the sale because she abandoned the condo. However, the justices rejected that argument, saying abandonment “requires the ‘surrender or relinquishment or disclaimer of all rights in the property.

Pacific Legal, a not-for-profit public interest law firm that represented Tyler, said she moved for “health and safety” reasons. However, there has been no explanation given about why Tyler stopped paying her property taxes once she moved.

The court also noted that many other parts of Minnesota’s laws entitle a property owner to a surplus in excess of a debt, such as if a bank forecloses and sells a home. The justices said the county and state shouldn’t be able to keep a surplus when the law requires everyone else to give it back to the property owner.

“Minnesota may not extinguish a property interest that it recognizes everywhere else to avoid paying just compensation when the State does the taking,” the court’s ruling states.

Chief Justice John Roberts put it more plainly in his opinion, writing, “The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more.”

Last month, David Schultz, a political science professor with Hamline University, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the court’s ruling could have an impact that extends beyond just Minnesota.

“This could have a huge impact for many states and many homeowners across the country. [Including] for those who are struggling [with] paying taxes [and] maintaining their homes,” Schultz said.

Today, Schultz stated that while it’s rare for a case to be heard by the SCOTUS, it’s even more unlikely for justices to unanimously land on the same opinion.

“Across etiology, liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, they all agreed with [Tyler],” Schultz said. “It’s rare to see the Supreme Court reached that level of agreement.”

He also says this local case will likely have a national impact.

“It’s going to force many states to rethink their policy for how they collect taxes,” Schultz said.

Dan Rogan, an assistant county administrator, and auditor for Hennepin County, issued the following statement Thursday morning:

“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. 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.”

National nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented Tyler, issued the following statement:

“The Tyler decision is a vindication of fundamental property rights. It will change the lives of thousands of Americans across the country—many of them senior citizens and struggling families who would have been destroyed by the government’s theft of their home equity.”

Pacific Legal tells 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Tyler is very happy that this could help more people.

“Legislatures in states like Minnesota need to clean up their laws,” Christina Martin, a senior attorney with PFL, said. “The Supreme Court’s decision today sends a clear message to all states that the government violates the takings clause when it takes more than what’s owed.”

PFL says they plan to send letters to states with similar forfeiture laws as Minnesota, “demanding they change their laws to comply with today’s decision.”

As for the funds Tyler was seeking in her lawsuit, Hennepin County says, “The case will return to the lower court, and Ms. Tyler will have to prove her claims.”