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Property Rights

Sixth Circuit Finds Government Seizure of Home's Equitable Title to Satisfy Tax Debt Was a Taking

An important victory against "self-dealing" by state and local governments.


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit released a potentially important decision concluding that a Michigan county over-reached when it seized an individual's property to satisfy a tax debt and did not refund the surplus to the property owner. Judge Kethledge wrote for the court in Hall v. Meisner.

Here is the brief summary from Judge Kethledge's introduction:

In this case the defendant Oakland County took "absolute title" to plaintiff Tawanda Hall's home—worth close to $300,000, on the facts alleged here—to satisfy a $22,262 tax debt, and then refused to refund any of the difference. The other plaintiffs shared a similar fate with their homes. Under Michigan law—and the law of virtually every state for the past 200 years—a creditor can divest a debtor of real property only after a public foreclosure sale, after which any surplus proceeds in excess of debt are refunded to the debtor. The return of that surplus compensates the debtor for her equitable interest in the property—which in common speech is called the "equity" in real property, and which English and American courts for centuries have called "equitable title." Yet the Michigan General Property Tax Act created an exception to this rule for just a single creditor: namely, the State itself (or a county thereof), which alone among all creditors may take a landowner's equitable title without paying for it, when it collects a tax debt. In that respect the Michigan statute is not only selfdealing: it is also an aberration from some 300 years of decisions by English and American courts, which barred precisely the action that Oakland County took here.

The government may not decline to recognize long-established interests in property as a device to take them. That was the effect of the Michigan Act as applied to the plaintiffs here; and we agree with the plaintiffs that, on the facts alleged here, the County took their property without just compensation. We therefore reverse the district court's dismissal of their claim against the County under the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Kethledge was joined by Judges Bush and Nalbandian. The Pacific Legal Foundation represented the homeowners.