Supreme Court sides with grandmother who lost home, equity because of back taxes

Geraldine Tyler, 94, now lives in an apartment building for seniors.
Geraldine Tyler, 94, now lives in an apartment building for seniors.

WASHINGTON − The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously sided with a 94-year-old grandmother who lost her home to foreclosure and then lost the equity she had in the property beyond the taxes she owed.

A Minnesota County sold Geraldine Tyler’s condo at an auction for $40,000. Instead of returning the $25,000 difference between the sales price and what she owed in back taxes, the county pocketed the balance and used the extra money for forest development, county parks, and recreation programs.

"The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but not more," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

Tyler's attorneys said about a dozen states have laws similar to Minnesota's – including New York, Arizona and Illinois – and that those laws can have a big impact on seniors struggling to pay property taxes after retirement. Tyler claims the county's handling of the property represented a government "taking" that she says violates the Fifth Amendment.

Argued: A 94-year-old grandmother lost her home. Should the government have profited from her setback?

Case tracker: A look at the key cases pending before the Supreme Court

Hennepin County told the Supreme Court that Tyler had five years to pay the taxes or sell the property. And, it argued, Tyler couldn't have recuperated the surplus money – and therefore doesn't have standing to sue – because she owed a mortgage and back homeowner association fees. Tyler moved out of the condo and into an apartment building for seniors in 2010.

A federal district court sided with the county in the dispute and the St. Louis-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit affirmed that decision.

But a majority of the justices – conservatives and liberals – signaled during oral argument in April that they were concerned with the state law at issue in Tyler's case. The takings clause of the Fifth Amendment bars the government from taking private property "without just compensation."

Tyler also argued that the fines assessed by the county are excessive in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Tyler owed about $2,300 in back taxes but with penalties and interest, her obligation grew to $15,000.

The case is Tyler v. Hennepin County.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court backs 94-year-old Geraldine Tyler in fight over condo