The Certainties of Life: Death, Taxes… and the Supreme Court

Nick Georgelis, Staff Writer

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This past term, the Supreme Court addressed central theories of property rights in the case, Tyler v. Hennepin County. In what can be described as ‘home equity theft’ where local governments can seize the value of a property, the Court managed to please conservative, liberal, and libertarian interests.[1]

This case centered around Geraldine Tyler, a 94-year-old woman living in a one-bedroom condo in Minnesota.[2] From 1999 to 2010, Tyler lived in the condo, but eventually she and her family found it best for her to move to a senior community because of the lack of safety in the area.[3] For the next five years, from 2010 to 2015, nobody paid taxes on the condo.[4] This accumulated over $15,000 in unpaid taxes, interest, and penalties.[5] Under Minnesota statute, the county was legally allowed to take possession of the property to satisfy this tax debt.[6] Soon after, they sold the property for $40,000, which relieved Tyler’s $15,000 debt.[7] However, this left a difference of $25,000, and instead of returning this to Tyler, it went to the pockets of the State.[8] Again, this process was perfectly legal under Minnesota statute, however, Tyler sued the county and brought claims under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.[9]

The District Court dismissed Tyler’s suit for failure to state a claim.[10] The Eighth Circuit affirmed, which brought this case to the United States Supreme Court.[11] Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court in a rare unanimous decision.[12]

Hennepin taxes real property annually, if the taxpayer does not pay in a timely manner, then the taxpayer accrues interest and penalties.[13] Eventually, if the taxpayer does not extinguish these debts, the State will gain absolute control of the property title.[14] Therefore, under the statute, the debtor has no legal interest in the property when it is sold; thus, they have no interest in the proceeds from the sale of the property. 

The Fifth Amendment says that “private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation.”[15] Neither the taxes nor the seizure of the property is considered a taking, however, the question the Court must decide, is whether the surplus from the sale is a taking. 

The Constitution protects property rights, but it does not create them; thus, the Court was tasked with defining property under the Takings Clause.[16] To do this, the Court first looked at traditional property law principles, beginning with the Magna Carta.[17]English common law has addressed this principle as far back as 1215, where it was stated that property may be taken only until the debt was paid, with the remainder returning to the estate.[18] This principle made it to the new government of the United States and was quickly adopted.[19] Thus, states that keep a tax surplus, such as Minnesota, are a minority.[20]

Additionally, the Court reviewed precedent related to this principle.[21] In numerous cases dating back to the Civil War, courts have consistently held that debtors are entitled to a surplus value of taxes, ignoring the specific state statutes.[22]

Lastly, Minnesota state law allows a property owner to retain the surplus in excess of their debt in many other circumstances.[23]For example, private creditors and bank foreclosures both abide by the rule that when enforcing a judgment, real property may be used to satisfy the debt, but no more than the amount that is sufficient to satisfy the debt.[24] This extends even further to other taxes including income and personal taxes.[25] The Court emphasizes that “property rights cannot be so easily manipulated” by the State, referencing Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid.[26]

For these reasons, the Court reversed the findings of the lower courts.[27] Thus, holding that Minnesota’s statutory scheme of retaining a property owner’s surplus equity in excess of their tax debt, is a classic taking, in violation of the Takings Clause.[28]

Tyler made her arguments in the alternative; therefore, the Court did not address the claim under the Excessive Fines Clause.[29]However, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Jackson, filed a concurring opinion, which clarified that they agreed the conduct constituted a taking, but wished to correct the lower court’s decision on the excessive fines issue.[30] To conclude such, they use the expression, “economic penalties imposed to deter willful noncompliance with the law are fines by any other name. And the Constitution has something to say about them: They cannot be excessive.”[31]

Tyler sets a significant precedent that is expected to change the practice of the twelve states and DC, which still follow this rule.[32] This holding also allows former homeowners the potential to recover millions of dollars in stolen equity.[33]  We will likely see the Court continue to explore issues under the Takings Clause in future terms to further define individual property rights. 


[2] Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota, 598 U.S. 631, 635 (2023).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 636.

[10] Id. at 636, 637, and 646.

[11] Id. at 636.


[13] Id. 

[14] Id.

[15] Tyler, 598 U.S. at 637.

[16] Id. at 638.

[17] Id. at 639.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 640.

[20] Id. at 642.

[21] Id. at 638.

[22] Id. at 642.

[23] Id. at 645.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. 648.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id. at 650.


[33] Id.

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