Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota .


Does the government violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment when it requires a homeowner who owed property tax to the government to forfeit their property worth more than such debt and then keeps the surplus proceeds?

Oral argument: 
April 26, 2023

This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether the government violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment when the government forfeits a homeowner’s property due to a property tax delinquency and keeps the surplus proceeds of that property’s sale. Petitioner Geraldine Tyler argues that her equity interest in her condominium is private property protected by the Takings Clause, and that the government violated the Takings Clause by selling her home and retaining proceeds in excess of her debt to the government. She further contends that the forfeiture serves punitive rather than remedial purposes and thus is an excessive fine under the Excessive Fines Clause. Respondent Hennepin County asserts that the government has the sovereign power to foreclose on properties to hold tax delinquents accountable. Hennepin County also argues that tax forfeitures do not violate the Excessive Fines Clause because they are remedial and not punitive. This case’s holding will impact the constitutional limit on the government’s power over individual property rights and the government’s ability to promote Minnesota productive land use.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

(1) Whether taking and selling a home to satisfy a debt to the government, and keeping the surplus value as a windfall, violates the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause; and (2) whether the forfeiture of property worth far more than needed to satisfy a debt, plus interest, penalties, and costs, is a fine within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment.


Petitioner Geraldine Tyler owned a condominium in Minneapolis and stopped paying property taxes on it when she moved into a new apartment in 2010. See Tyler v. Hennepin Cnty. at 790–91. Minnesota initiated a tax-collection process, and Respondent Hennepin County (the “County”) followed Minnesota’s tax-forfeiture scheme to collect Tyler’s delinquent tax debt of $15,000. Id. at 791. Tyler received notice of the foreclosure action from the county but did not respond. Id. In April 2012, the County obtained a judgment against Tyler’s condominium and notified Tyler of her right to repurchase her property. See id. However, Tyler did not exercise her right to repurchase the property or repay the delinquent taxes during the three-year redemption period provided by Minnesota’s tax statutes. See id.; Minn. Stat. §§ 279.37, 281.01, 281.02, and 281.17. Pursuant to Minnesota law, Minnesota took absolute title to Tyler’s condominium in July 2015 and canceled Tyler’s $15,000 tax debt. See Tyler at 791. In November 2016, the County sold the property to a private party for $40,000 and distributed the net proceeds. Id.

Tyler then sued the County for violation of the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, which “prohibits the government from taking ‘private property’ for ‘public use’ without paying the owner ‘just compensation.’ Id. at 792. Tyler based this argument on the County’s use of her $40,000 condominium to satisfy her $15,000 tax debt without paying her the $25,000 surplus. See Tyler at 792. The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota (the “District Court”) granted the County’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on this count. Tyler v. Hennepin Cnty. at 895. The United States Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit (the “Eighth Circuit”) affirmed the District Court’s judgment, holding that Tyler did not possess a property interest in the surplus pursuant to state law. Tyler at 793–94. The Eight Circuit held that Tyler failed to state a claim that the County violated the Takings Clause since the County gave Tyler adequate notice before the final sale of the property and Tyler failed to respond by exercising the right to redeem, confess judgment or repurchase. See id.

Tyler also argued that Minnesota’s tax-collection scheme constituted an unconstitutionally excessive fine in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which provides that “…nor [shall] excessive fines [be] imposed.” See id. at 792.; Tyler at 895. The District Court also dismissed this claim because Eighth Amendment claims apply only to punitive schemes, and the tax collection scheme at issue collects unpaid tax and is thus remedial rather than punitive in nature. See Tyler at 897. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s holding on this count. See Tyler at 794.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision to dismiss Tyler’s claim. See id. Tyler petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Geraldine Tyler at 1. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on January 13, 2023. Brief for Petitioner, Geraldine Tyler at 1.



Tyler argues that the County violated the Takings Clause when it confiscated Tyler’s house and kept the sales surplus because both the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedents and the Anglo-American legal tradition recognize equity in real estate as private property protected by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Brief for Petitioner, Geraldine Tyler at 8–9. Tyler claims that the Supreme Court treats real property equity—such as the $25,000 leftover proceeds after the tax sale of Tyler’s house—as private property under the Takings Clause. Id. at 11–12. Referring to the Civil War-era trilogy of cases on federally forfeited property, Bennett v. Hunter, United States v. Taylor, and United States v. Lawton, , Tyler argues that the Supreme Court has ruled that, even if the government forfeits the house for the owner’s tax delinquency and sells it, the government must return the surplus proceeds to the former owner who retains a property interest in that surplus. Id. at 12–14. Tyler also asserts that history and tradition support her argument that real estate equity counts as private property. Id. at 14. She notes that common law treaties forbid the government from collecting more debt than owed and impose on the government a fiduciary duty to pay the former owner surplus proceeds. Id. at 14, 16. In addition, Tyler claims that existing Minnesota law requires the government to return surplus proceeds to debtors in debt collections, mortgage foreclosures, or delinquent tax collections. Id. at 20–22.

Tyler further argues that the County violated the Takings Clause by confiscating Tyler’s equity without just compensation. Id. at 23–24. First, Tyler refutes the lower court’s claim that the Minnesota legislature can “abrogate” her property interest in the house or by itself redefine the house as public property. Id. at 24–25 (quoting Tyler v. Hennepin Cnty. at 793). Tyler maintains that the state may not merely exclude from the Takings Clause’s definition of property “any interest that the state wished to take.” Id. at 24. Also, Tyler rejects the lower court’s reliance on Nelson v. City of New York, where the Supreme Court allowed the government to retain a forfeiture sale’s surplus proceeds when the former owner was given an opportunity to claim the proceeds but failed to do so. Id. at 30. Tyler asserts that the takings reasoning in Nelson was nonbinding dicta and argues that the Eighth Circuit erroneously read this dicta in Nelson to shift the burden of action: from the government’s burden to compensate Tyler to Tyler’s burden to ask for the proceeds. Id. at 30–31.

In opposition, the County contends first that Tyler does not have Article III standing to bring her claim because she failed to allege that she has equity in the property and did not mention the substantial private liens encumbering the property. Brief for Respondents, Hennepin Cnty. and Daniel P. Rogan (the “County”) at 12. The County notes that the public record indicated that two separate liens from Tyler’s mortgage and her homeowner’s association substantially encumbered the property. Id. Thus, the County asserts that Tyler did not establish sufficient equity in her property to satisfy the requirements for standing. Id. at 14.

On the merits, the County argues that the forfeiture was not a taking. Id. at 14. Reaffirming Minnesota’s sovereign powers to tax and condition property rights, the County argues that Minnesota’s property tax laws correctly require forfeiture of the property and do not require just compensation. Id. at 15–16. The County contends that when an owner is tax delinquent and does not assert her interest in the property, she has neglected the property, and thus its forfeiture and sale do not count as a taking. Id. The County dismisses Tyler’s interpretation of Anglo-American legal history as incomplete and erroneous; instead, the County notes that laws and treaties from medieval England to the American Colonies and the Founding Era to the present all suggest that property owners forfeit their claims to property as a consequence of failing to pay taxes. See id. at 17–25. The County asserts that the only constitutional limit is the requirement of procedural safeguards before forfeiture. See id. at 22. Further, the County asserts that the Supreme Court’s precedents support forfeiture without returning surplus proceeds upon tax delinquency and do not consider such forfeiture as uncompensated taking. Id. at 29–31. Specifically, the County challenges Tyler’s reading of Nelson and asserts that Nelson affirms foreclosing real property and retaining surplus proceeds absent the owner’s timely action. Id. at 31–32. The County maintains that Nelson’s takings reasoning was not mere dictum because the Nelson court framed its takings discussion as a clear holding. Id. at 32. The County further points out that Minnesota gave Tyler five years to claim her equity, longer than the period in Nelson. Id. at 31–32.


Tyler contends that since the County’s forfeiture of her property has at least some punitive purpose, the County’s forfeiture constitutes a fine under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Brief for Petitioner at 35–36. Tyler points to the Supreme Court’s test in Austin v. United States, which holds that even if a forfeiture can be remedial to the government, it is considered punitive when it is aimed at deterring or punishing certain behaviors. Id. at 36. Tyler argues that the forfeiture of her house must have a deterrent or retributive purpose because the lower court’s explanation that the forfeiture is primarily to compensate the government’s loss of tax revenue fails to justify the huge gap between the taxes she owed and the value of her property. Id. at 37. Tyler further argues that the lower courts erred in following the discussion in United States v. Bajakajian which reasoned that traditional in rem forfeiture is remedial rather than punitive. Id. at 41. Tyler notes that this discussion in Bajakajian is dicta. Id. Tyler cites recent scholarship that she claims supports her conclusion that in rem forfeiture is punitive. Id. at 41–42.

In contrast, the County asserts that Minnesota law does not violate the Excessive Fines Clause by providing a remedial rather than punitive fine. Brief for Respondents at 45. First, the County contends that Bajakajian authoritatively holds that a forfeiture is remedial when the purpose of such forfeiture is simply to reimburse the government for losses. Id. The County also states that punitive forfeitures require a “culpable mental state” connected to a crime and the tax forfeiture of Tyler’s home is not related to a crime. Id. at 46. Indeed, the County suggests that forfeiture for tax delinquency does not require any specific mental state and thus is purely remedial. Id. at 47. According to the County, Minnesota law intends the forfeiture and sale to remedy the loss in tax revenue and to allow recovery of maintenance costs. Id. at 46. The County notes that forfeiture ensures finality in public revenue streams since it provides the government with clean, marketable title. Id. Further, the County contends that the mere existence of a deterrent purpose does not transform forfeiture from remedial to purely punitive. Id. at 48.



The Cato Institute and other civil rights institutes (the “Cato Institute”), in support of Tyler, argue that Minnesota’s tax statutes violate individuals’ fundamental property rights recognized by important English common law theorists. See Brief of Amici Curiae Cato Institute et al. (the “Cato Institute”), in Support of Petitioner at 13–14. To illustrate the significance of property rights, the Cato Institute cites John Locke, who recognized an individual’s right to property as “one of the common gifts given to mankind.” See id. at 13. The Cato Institute further cites William Blackstone, who suggested that a legislature that takes away foundational property rights must pay for this act and emphasizes that the government should not carelessly tamper with these paramount rights. See id. at 14. The Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence (“CCJ”), in support of Tyler, also claims that one’s right to property is a foundational concept embedded in American Constitutional history. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence ("CCJ"), in Support of Petitioner at 5–6. CCJ cites Alexander Hamilton, who underscored that the importance of protecting property ownership in determining the constitutional limits of the government, and emphasizes that the government should carefully safeguard this important right. See id. at 7.

The National Tax Lien Association (“NTLA”) and other tax associations, in support of the County, counter that the protection of property rights should be weighed against Minnesota’s need to collect tax for public expenditures. See Brief of Amici Curiae National Tax Lien Association et al. ("NTLA"), in Support of Respondents at 25. NTLA states that different states have been balancing such needs based on distinctive policy concerns, and interference with this state-specific process may risk intrusion into states’ sovereignty. See id. at 25–26, 28–30. More generally, Local Government Legal Center (“LGLC”) and other government interest-related associations, in support of the County, emphasize states’ sovereign and constitutionally important right in administering taxation. See Brief of Amici Curiae Local Government Legal Center et al. ("LGLC"), in Support of Respondents at 24–25. Citing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., LGLC points out that property tax is the cornerstone of civil society as it provides funds for many fundamental governmental services, and any individual’s delinquency in paying such taxes may burden the whole society. See id.


Wisconsin Realtors Association (“WRA”), in support of Tyler, claims that Minnesota’s tax statutes create economic impacts that put homeowners at substantial inequity. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Wisconsin Realtors Association ("WRA"), in Support of Petitioner at 20. WRA points out that homeowners usually do not intentionally default on their homes, and home foreclosure is a “devastating experience” because of the significant economic loss it causes. See id. at 21. Public Citizen, in support of Tyler, argues that Minnesota’s foreclosure rules on properties with unpaid taxes will cause taxpayers unfair snowball effects that create economic losses far greater than the tax debt. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Public Citizen, in Support of Petitioner at 15–16. To support this argument, Public Citizen describes individuals losing their homes due to failure to pay a small amount of property taxes. See id. at 16. Public Citizen further warns that those suffering from “Alzheimers, dementia, or other cognitive disorders,” usually elderly homeowners like Tyler, are less capable of timely paying back their property taxes, amplifying the economic inequity in the tax collection process. See id. at 16–17.

Association of Minnesota Counties (“AMC”) and other Minnesotan county associations, in support of the County, counter that Minnesota has provided many opportunities for delinquent taxpayers to retain their property. See Brief of Amici Curiae Association of Minnesota Counties et al. (“AMC”), in Support of Respondents at 29. AMC argues that Minnesota’s statutes provide many options to help property owners, from redemption periods to repurchase rights. See id. at 30–34. AMC mentions programs outside of the statutory context that help vulnerable homeowners, including seniors, pay back taxes. See id. at 35–36. The states of Minnesota, New Jersey, and Oregon (the “States”), in support of the County, underscore the economic advantages of Minnesota’s tax collection scheme, especially its promotion of productive land use. See Brief of Amici Curiae States of Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon (the “States”), in Support of Respondents at 18–19. The States argue that many of the properties affected by the tax statutes are vacant or abandoned parcels with dysfunctions that “foment crime, risk neighbors’ health, and reduce nearby property value.” See id. at 19, 22. The States thus claim that the government sells these properties to prevent economic hazards and does not obtain windfalls because the rehabilitation of these properties is costly. See id. at 20–23.


Written by:

Yue (Wendy) Wu

Wentao Yang

Edited by:

Emily Gust