Thursday, April 27, 2006

SCOTUS Rules on Steps Required to Notify Homeowner Prior to Tax Sale, Where Government is Aware that Actual Notice Never Reached Homeowner

JONES v. FLOWERS (No. 04-1477)
Web-accessible at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/04-1477.ZS.html

Argued January 17, 2006; Decided April 26, 2006

Petitioner Jones continued to pay the mortgage on his Arkansas home after separating from his wife and moving elsewhere in the same city. Once the mortgage was paid off, the property taxes-which had been paid by the mortgage company-went unpaid, and the property was certified as delinquent. Respondent Commissioner of State Lands mailed Jones a certified letter at the property's address, stating that unless he redeemed the property, it would be subject to public sale in two years. Nobody was home to sign for the letter and nobody retrieved it from the post office within 15 days, so it was returned to the Commissioner, marked 'unclaimed.' Two years later, the Commissioner published a notice of public sale in a local newspaper. No bids were submitted, so the State negotiated a private sale to respondent Flowers. Before selling the house, the Commissioner mailed another certified letter to Jones, which was also returned unclaimed. Flowers purchased the house and had an unlawful detainer notice delivered to the property. It was served on Jones' daughter, who notified him of the sale. He filed a state-court suit against respondents, alleging that the Commissioner's failure to provide adequate notice resulted in the taking of his property without due process. Granting respondents summary judgment, the trial court concluded that Arkansas' tax sale statute, which sets out the notice procedure used here, complied with due process. The State Supreme Court affirmed.

Held:

1. When mailed notice of a tax sale is returned unclaimed, a 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...

2. Because additional reasonable steps were available to the State, given the circumstances here, the Commissioner's effort to provide notice to Jones was insufficient to satisfy due process.

Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined.
Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Alito, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.