Editor’s note: Robert Bruss is temporarily away. The following column from Bruss’ “Best of” collection first appeared Sunday, July 16, 2006.
For more than 30 years, Gary Kent Jones owned the house at 717 North Bryan St. in Little Rock, Ark. He lived there with his wife until they separated in 1993. Jones then moved to a nearby apartment. His wife and daughter continued living in the house.
Until 1997 when Jones made the final payment on his 30-year mortgage, the mortgage lender paid the property taxes to the local tax collector. But because Jones failed to notify the tax collector of his new address, the property taxes went unpaid since 1997.
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In April 2000, the state lands commissioner sent Jones a certified mail notice the house would be sold in 24 months in 2002 if he didn’t pay the delinquent property taxes. But Jones never received that notice, which was returned to the tax collector marked “unclaimed.”
Two years later, just before the tax sale, the state lands commissioner sent another certified letter to Jones at the property. It was also returned by the post office as “unclaimed.”
The commissioner then published an official notice in the local newspaper listing properties to be sold for unpaid property taxes. No bids were submitted for the Jones property.
Several months later, as allowed by state law, Linda Flowers bought the Jones property for total unpaid property taxes of $21,042. The house had an estimated fair market value of at least $80,000.
After the 30-day period for post-sale redemption passed, Flowers had an unlawful detainer eviction notice delivered to the house. It was served on Jones’ daughter who then notified her father of the tax sale.
Jones then filed a lawsuit in state court to prevent loss of his free-and-clear house. He lost. Then he appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court and lost again. But the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari and heard the case appeal.
If you were a U.S. Supreme Court justice would you rule Jones received sufficient notice and he should lose his home for failure to pay property taxes?
Chief Justice Roberts said no!
Due process requires a property-tax collector to make every reasonable attempt to give actual notice to a property owner before selling an asset for unpaid property taxes, Chief Justice Roberts wrote. There are many reasons why a certified letter might not reach a person, he continued, such as failure to be home when the postal carrier delivers the mail, failure to go to the post office within 15 days to pick up the certified letter, or other reasons.
At the very least, the tax collector should have mailed the delinquency letter by ordinary first-class mail, which would be forwarded if the property owner moved, and posted a notice on the property before selling it at a tax sale, the justice explained.
Although Jones had a duty to notify the local tax collector of his new mailing address and to pay his annual property taxes or risk loss of the residence, the tax collector failed to use reasonable methods to notify the property owner of the pending tax sale, which is therefore void for violation of due process, Chief Justice Roberts ruled.
Based on the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jones v. Flowers, 126 S.Ct. 1708.
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