NELF Files a Brief to Assist the Massachusetts Land Court in Dealing with the Aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Decision in Tyler
The Massachusetts Land Court finds itself in a quandary that NELF helped to create. Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Tyler v. Hennepin County, 598 U.S. 631 (2023), a tax case in which NELF filed an amicus brief supporting the taxpayer. The Supreme Court held that when property is taken to pay delinquent taxes, any value above the tax belongs to the taxpayer and cannot be kept by the government. Like the law of some other states, Massachusetts law has long permitted government to keep the entire value of the property. To do so is now unconstitutional.
In a tax case called Town of Tyngsborough v. Recco, the Land Court justice has asked NELF and several others to advise whether there may be a way for it to serve two masters, i.e., Tyler and current state law. Can it foreclose on the property and pass title to the town without denying the taxpayer her right to her home equity?
In its brief NELF suggests a way. It notes that one isolated sentence in the laws is responsible for government’s obtaining the unconstitutional “absolute” title. NELF calls attention to the Court’s statutory duty to try to save partly unconstitutional statutes if possible. NELF argues that the sentence may permissibly be severed because to do so would not harm the rest of the statute or related statutes. With the sentence gone, the town would be able to obtain (non-absolute) title and sell the land for the taxes, while the Court could rule that the taxpayer retains an enforceable equitable interest in all sale proceeds above the taxes.
NELF emphasizes that the severance, so far from re-writing the law, would accomplish the legislature’s two prime purposes of facilitating the collection of delinquent taxes while protecting the interests of the taxpayer.