On July 17 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in Rafaeli, LLC v Oakland County (the “County”) that the proceeds for a tax sale in excess of the tax owed must be returned to the taxpayer. The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed in Oakland County Circuit Court (the “Circuit Court”), that challenged one part of Michigan’s tax foreclosure law contained in the Michigan General Property Tax Act (the “GPTA”). That provision, which dates back to 1999, allows county treasurers – who collect delinquent taxes on behalf of communities – to pocket all of the proceeds of auctioned properties, regardless of the amount of the delinquent tax debt. But the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that this aspect of the GPTA was an unconstitutional taking under the Michigan Constitution.
The case originated back in 2011 when Uri Rafaeli’s business — Rafaeli, LLC (“Rafaeli”) purchased a modest rental property in Southfield. Rafaeli inadvertently underpaid its property taxes by $8.41, that over time due to interest and penalties grew to $285.81 in unpaid property taxes. In a companion case, Andre Ohanessian (“Ohanessian”) owed approximately $6,000 in unpaid property taxes, interest, and penalties from 2011. The County, foreclosed on both properties and sold the properties at public auction, Rafaeli’s for $24,500 and Ohanessian’s for $82,000. The properties were sold in accordance with the requirements of the GPTA. The County retained the surplus proceeds and distributed them to various governmental entities.
Rafaeli and Ohanessian sued the County alleging the actions of the County violated the due-process and equal protection clauses of the US and Michigan Constitution, as well as an unconstitutional taking. The Circuit Court ruled in favor of the County reasoning that the property was properly forfeited and did not constitute a “taking” in violation of the US or Michigan Constitution. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, relying on precedent from the US Supreme Court in regard to civil-asset taking resulting from criminal activity. The Michigan Supreme Court (the “Court”), reversed holding “defendants’ [Oakland County] retention of those surplus proceeds is an unconstitutional taking without just compensation..”
The Court noted that upon sale, the foreclosing governmental unit deposited all of the sales proceeds from all foreclosure sales into a unified tax sales proceeds account. The proceeds are used to cover the costs for all foreclosure proceedings for the year of tax delinquency with the excess distributed to appropriate governmental units. Michigan is one of nine states that requires the foreclosing governmental unit to disburse the excess proceeds to someone other than the former owner. The Court distinguished the civil-asset forfeiture of criminal statutes in that the purpose of such statutes was, in part, to punish the owner of the property. Conversely, the purpose of the GPTA is to encourage the timely payment of taxes, not to punish the former property owner.
The Court took an exhaustive review of common law and prior cases revealing that a Taking Clause violation will occur when the surplus is retained by the taxing authority and not returned to the former property owner. Further “(T)he GPTA does not recognize a former property owner’s statutory right to collect the surplus proceeds.” The Court conclude that the common law of the State of Michigan recognized that right. The purpose of the GPTA is not to seize property and retain proceeds in excess of the taxes owed,
Accordingly, when property is taken to satisfy an unpaid tax debt, just compensation requires the foreclosing governmental unit to return any proceeds from the tax-foreclosure sale in excess of delinquent taxes, interest, penalties and fees reasonably related to the foreclosure and sale of the property – no more, no less.
The case is now headed back to the Circuit Court to determine a remedy. However, an appropriate remedy may involve changing the GPTA. Complicating matters further is the possibility that former foreclosed property owners may come back looking for any surplus proceeds that were collected and distributed to the various government units. Some counties make a considerable sum in auction profits that they use to boost their delinquent tax revolving funds, which some counties then use to fill their budget holes.