Rule of Law

Minnesota County Had No Right to Confiscate Elderly Woman’s Home Equity, Supreme Court Rules

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the plaintiff in Tyler v. Hennepin County, finding that county officials violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment by seizing not only back taxes owed by an elderly home owner but also the equity she had accumulated in her condo.

The case centers around Geraldine Tyler, a 94-year-old woman, whose $40,000 home was seized by Hennepin County, Minn., due to $15,000 in unpaid taxes and fees. However, after the sale of the property, local officials kept the surplus $25,000 profit instead of returning the funds to Tyler.

“A taxpayer who loses her $40,000 house to the State to fulfill a $15,000 tax debt has made a far greater contribution to the public fisc than she owed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a majority opinion published on Thursday. “The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more.”

The county argued that, under state law, Tyler forfeited her remaining home equity and that the state did not seize the property, to begin with.

“This dangerous argument would give states carte blanche to define away property interests and violate the Fifth Amendment with impunity. States should not be allowed to so easily circumvent a core constitutional protection,” legal scholars Thomas A. Berry and Isiah McKinney, who submitted an amicus brief to the Court on Tyler’s behalf, wrote in National Review last month.

The case was notable for the bipartisan support Tyler received. As the legal scholar, Ilya Shapiro, summarized in late April for the Washington Examiner:

Progressive groups such as the Constitutional Accountability Center are aligned with conservative groups such as the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. The American Civil Liberties Union is on a brief with the Cato Institute. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation, AARP, Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Home Builders, National Association of Realtors, National Consumer Law Center, and Public Citizen have all weighed in to help Tyler, as have disability advocates and four of Minnesota’s congressional representatives. Hennepin County, meanwhile, is supported mainly by state and municipal governments and related associations.

Meanwhile, the justices avoided weighing in on the case’s potential impact on the Eighth Amendment’s protections against the “Excessive Fines Clause,” given that their first ruling resolved Tyler’s core grievance.

“Because we find that Tyler has plausibly alleged a taking under the Fifth Amendment, and she agrees that relief un- der ‘the Takings Clause would fully remedy [her] harm,’ we need not decide whether she has also alleged an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment.”