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

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A Hennepin County woman’s property rights lawsuit will be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Geraldine Tyler, 94, is being represented by the national nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) in Tyler v. Hennepin County.

“We represent people for free, and we defend constitutional rights including property rights,” Christina Martin, senior attorney with PLF, said, adding about Tyler’s case: “I think it’s a great case — I think we’ve got the right view.”

Geraldine Tyler (Courtesy photo)

Friday, they learned the Supreme Court will hear the case.

Martin says it all started in 2010 when Tyler moved from her Minneapolis condo because she didn’t feel safe. Tyler did not sell her condo and fell behind on taxes. After penalties, interest, and other costs Martin says Tyler owed Hennepin County $15,000.

“Hennepin County, to collect that $15,000 debt, foreclosed [and] sold the condo for $40,000 – and then rather than just keeping what it was owed and taxes, interest, penalties and fees, the county kept everything.”

Martin and the PLF call it “home equity theft” and argue it’s unconstitutional. PLF says Minnesota is one of 12 states where this happens.

“Home equity theft is what happens when the government, rather than just taking what is owed in property taxes and with any additional penalties, interest in fees, takes the entire property and all your equity, no matter how valuable the property or how small the debt,” Martin said.

When asked for an interview to discuss the specifics of this case, Hennepin County sent the following from county auditor Dan Rogan:

  • “Under Minnesota law, property owners must pay property taxes and failure to do may result in a forfeiture, which transfers title and ownership to the State. 
  • “Forfeiture is the very last resort in enforcing property taxes. Hennepin County works hard to prevent forfeiture by assisting taxpayers facing hardship. However, if owners do not ultimately pay their taxes, the property is forfeited to the state and all liens and encumbrances are removed.
  • “Before a property forfeits, Minnesota law gives owners over three years to resolve nonpayment or to sell the property, if the owner wants to take action to preserve their asset or any equity they may have in the property.
  • “We believe Minnesota’s forfeiture laws are constitutional, and believe the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm the lower courts’ decisions in this case.”
Hennepin County auditor Dan Rogan

Arguments at the Supreme Court are set for April, and an opinion is expected in June.

“[This is] incredibly rare,” David Schultz, political science and legal studies professor at Hamline University, said about the case making it to the high court.

“First, what I see is the state has the authority to be able to go after people who don’t pay their taxes,” Schultz said. “Two, there’s got to be some kind of sense of compassion. Compassion in the sense of looking at the age of the person looking at the financial circumstances — and to me, how do you bring the two together?”

Depending on the outcome, Schultz feels this case could have a wide impact.

“This has implications for not just property taxes, but also in terms of income taxes, and a whole bunch of other issues in terms of the ability of states to generate revenue,” he said.