RESPONDENT: Linda K. Flowers et al.
LOCATION: Board of Immigration Appeals
DOCKET NO.: 04-1477
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Arkansas Supreme Court
CITATION: 547 US 220 (2006)
GRANTED: Sep 27, 2005
ARGUED: Jan 17, 2006
DECIDED: Apr 26, 2006
Carter G. Phillips - argued the cause for Respondents
James A. Feldman - argued the cause for Respondents
Michael T. Kirkpatrick - argued the cause for Petitioner
Facts of the case
In 1993, Gary Jones moved out of his house and into an apartment, while his wife continued to live in the house. Jones failed to notify the state of his new address, however, and after several years of unpaid property taxes the tax authority sent a letter by certified mail to the house notifying him that, if the taxes went unpaid, the house would be sold. The letter was returnes as "unclaimed" (because Jones was not living at the house) and the property was eventually sold to Linda Flowers, the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands.
Jones sued in state court, claiming that the sale violated his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights because he was never actually notified of the sale. The Arkansas Supreme Court disagreed, however, finding that under the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Dusenberg v. United States actual notice is not required as long as the state makes a reasonable effort to notify the party of his rights.
When mailed notice of a tax sale or property forfeiture is returned undelivered, does the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause require the government to make any additional effort to locate the owner before taking the property?
Media for Jones v. FlowersAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 17, 2006 in Jones v. Flowers
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 26, 2006 in Jones v. Flowers
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
I have the opinion in 04-1477, Jones versus Flowers.
Gary Jones bought a house in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1967.
He lived in the house with his family until he and his wife separated in 1993.
Mr. Jones then moved into an apartment across town, and his wife continued to live in the house.
Mr. Jones paid his mortgage every month for 30 years, continuing to make the monthly payments even after he moved out.
He paid off the mortgage in 1997.
During these 30 years, the mortgage company took care of paying the property taxes pursuant to the usual escrow arrangement.
After the mortgage was paid off, the property taxes went unpaid.
Following Arkansas law, the State sent a Certified letter to Mr. Jones at the property’s address.
The purpose of the letter was to notify Mr. Jones that he had two years to pay his back taxes, and if he did not, the State would get its money by taking his house and selling it.
Nobody was home to sign for the letter when the postman came to the door, and nobody appeared at the post office to retrieve the letter within the next two weeks.
The post office returned the letter to the State marked “unclaimed”.
For the next two years, the State made no further effort to contact Mr. Jones, even though it knew that he had not received the letter.
As the two-year redemption period came to an end, the State published notice of its plan to sell Mr. Jones’s house in a local newspaper, and the State eventually sold the house to Linda Flowers.
When Mrs. Flowers tried to evict the Jones family, Mr. Jones’ daughter called him and told him what had happened.
Mr. Jones sued the Commissioner of State Lands and Mrs. Flowers in Arkansas court, arguing that the State had not done enough to try to notify him before taking and selling his house.
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled against Jones, and we granted review.
The Constitution says that a State may not take a person’s property without due process of law, and one component of due process is notice of the impending taking.
Fifty-six years ago, we decided an important case, Mullane versus Central Hanover Bank & Trust, which said that in determining whether a state’s attempted notice was adequate, we should ask what would a person who actually wanted to inform the property owner of the proceedings against him have done.
We conclude that someone who actually wanted to alert Mr. Jones that he was in danger of something as drastic as the potential loss of his house would not have simply given up when the Certified letter was returned.
The State should have taken further steps to notify Mr. Jones that he was in danger of losing his house if any reasonable steps were available.
We are confident that there were several relatively easy steps the State could have taken here: resending the letter by regular mail, posting notice on the property or trying to notify the current occupants, as well as Mr. Jones.
There is no reason to suppose that the State will ever be less that fully zealous in its effort to secure the tax revenue it needs.
The same cannot be said for the State’s efforts to ensure that its citizens receive proper notice before the State takes action against them.
In this case, the State is exerting extraordinary power against a property owner, taking and selling a house he owns.
It is not too much to insist that the State do a bit more to let him know about it when the notice letter addressed to him is returned unclaimed.
For reasons stated more fully in an opinion filed this morning with the Clerk, we therefore reverse the judgment of the Arkansas Supreme Court; Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia and Kennedy have joined; Justice Alito did not take part in the consideration or decision of the case.