Thursday, June 18, 2015

Another Tax Deed Declared Void; County's Failure To Take Further Action When Mailed Notice Of Tax Sale To Homeowner Is Returned Unclaimed Fatal To Sale Process; Oklahoma Supremes: Gov't Can't Simply Shrug Shoulders & Say 'We Tried'

From a Justia US Law Opinion Summary:

  • The question presented on appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court in this case was whether an owner of real property received constitutionally sufficient notice of the sale of his property for delinquent taxes when notice was provided only by publication and certified mail that was returned undelivered.

    Appellant-landowner neglected to pay taxes on certain real property in McIntosh County. The property was sold at a tax sale and a tax deed was issued to the buyer. The landowner filed suit seeking to invalidate the tax deed and quiet title in himself, asserting that the sale and resultant deed were void because he was not given constitutionally sufficient notice of the sale and was denied his right to redeem the property. Both the landowner and the county defendants moved for summary judgment.

    The trial court granted the county defendants' motion and denied the landowners. The landowner appealed, and the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed.

    After review, the Supreme Court held: (1) that the landowner did not receive constitutionally sufficient notice; and (2) the sale and resultant tax deed were therefore void.(1)
Source: Opinion Summary - Crownover v. Keel.

For the court ruling, see Crownover v. Keel, 2015 OK 35 (Okla. May 26, 2015) (Editor's Note: At this time, this opinion has not yet been released for publication. Until released, it is subject to revision or withdrawl).


(1) Some of the Oklahoma Supreme Court's reasoning backing its conclusion follows:
  • ¶ 1 The question presented on appeal is whether an owner of real property received constitutionally sufficient notice of the sale of his property for delinquent taxes when notice was provided only by publication and certified mail that was returned undelivered. We hold that he did not.


    ¶ 19 The notice requirement of due process is not satisfied where, as here, notice sent via certified mail is returned undelivered and no further action is taken. The decision of the United States Supreme Court in Jones v. Flowers, 547 U.S. 220, 126 S.Ct. 1708, 164 L.Ed.2d 415 (2006), is directly on point concerning notice required to satisfy the requirements of due process prior to sale of real property for delinquent taxation.

    In Jones, under similar facts to this cause, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that "when mailed notice of a tax sale is returned unclaimed, the State must take additional reasonable steps to attempt to provide notice to the property owner before selling his property, if it is practicable to do so." Jones, 547 U.S. at 225. The tax sale in Jones occurred after the State published notice in a newspaper and attempted to notify the property owner—who no longer lived on the property—by certified mail twice, with the notice returned unclaimed both times. Jones, 547 U.S. at 223-224.

    ¶ 20 The Jones Court reaffirmed that the due process clause of the United States Constitution does not require that a property owner receive actual notice before the government may take his property. 547 U.S. at 226; Dusenberry v. United States, 534 U.S. 161, 170, 122 S.Ct. 694, 151 L.Ed.2d 597 (2002). However, the Court also noted that:

    .... due process requires the government to provide "notice reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections."

    . . . .

    .... In Mullane we stated that "when notice is a person's due ... [t]he means employed must be such as one desirous of actually informing the absentee might reasonably adopt to accomplish it" . . .

    Jones, 547 U.S. at 226, 229 (quoting Mullane v. Central Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 314-315, 70 S.Ct. 652, 94 L.Ed. 865 (1950)).

    In Jones, much as in this cause, the State argued that it satisfied the notice requirement of due process through the act of sending notice via certified mail. The Court disagreed, holding:

    .... We do not think that a person who actually desired to inform a real property owner of an impending tax sale of a house he owns would do nothing when a certified letter sent to the owner is returned unclaimed.

    .... If the Commissioner prepared a stack of letters to mail to delinquent taxpayers, handed them to the postman, and then watched as the departing postman accidentally dropped the letters down a storm drain, one would certainly expect the Commissioner's office to prepare a new stack of letters and send them again. No one "desirous of actually informing" the owners would simply shrug his shoulders as the letters disappeared and say "I tried." Failure to follow up would be unreasonable, despite the fact that the letters were reasonably calculated to reach their intended recipients when delivered to the postman.

    Jones, 547 U.S. at 229 (emphasis added).

    The Jones court also stated succinctly that the property owner's failure to keep his address updated, which was required by statute, did not result in the owner somehow forfeiting his right to constitutionally sufficient notice.

    547 U.S. at 229. Further, "the common knowledge that property may become subject to government taking when taxes are not paid does not excuse the government from complying with its constitutional obligation of notice before taking private property." 547 U.S. at 232.

    ¶ 21 While the Jones Court determined that the State should have taken other reasonable measures to reach the property owner, it stopped short of requiring the state to search elsewhere for an address for the property owner, noting that an open-ended search for a new address would unduly burden the State.

    547 U.S. at 236. Rather, the Court suggested reasonable measures such as posting notice on the property door, or even sending notice by regular mail, which could at least have resulted in its delivery and presence on the property. Jones, 547 U.S. at 235. The Court noted that it was not its responsibility to redraft the State's notice statute, but it was sufficient that the Court was confident additional reasonable steps were available for Arkansas to employ before taking the property. Jones, 547 U.S. at 238. The Court concluded:

    .... There is no reason to suppose that the State will ever be less than fully zealous in its efforts to secure the tax revenue it needs. The same cannot be said for the State's efforts to ensure that its citizens receive proper notice before the State takes action against them. In this case, the State is exerting extraordinary power against a property owner-taking and selling a house he owns. It is not too much to insist that the State do a bit more to attempt to let him know about it when the notice letter addressed to him is returned unclaimed.

    Jones, 547 U.S. at 239.

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