(BREAKING NEWS, OP-ED) — The author of this post is a paralegal and trial consultant to attorneys on chain of title issues. The article is designed to educate and is not to be construed as legal advice or to attempt to draw any legal conclusions of law.
A Supreme Court of Iowa case came into my inbox this morning and after reading its 14 pages, it became a relevant topic for discussion here.
In this suit, the tax deed holder (ACC Holdings LLC), twice tried to sue the owner of record (Rooney). The Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure only allow for two “bites at the apple” (IRCP 1.943) and the second voluntary dismissal operated as an “adjudication on the merits” (in other words, by dismissing its own case twice, it blocked the Plaintiff from suing a third time by creating case law, based on a third filing of the same claim). One would begin to wonder exactly what the attorneys for the Plaintiffs were thinking.
You can read the case file here:
A lot of different ideas came to mind.
First, the property owner could have set up a payment plan with the County Treasurer to pay his past due tax bills, but didn’t.
Second, even failing to set up a payment plan, when the homeowner’s property went up for tax deed sale, the homeowner even had a 90-day chance to redeem the property; yet, he didn’t do that either. Most folks would look upon this guy as a tax cheat who should get his comeuppance.
Needless to say, the investor/Plaintiff obtained a tax deed. Anyone playing this game (like the author) knows that you have to quiet the title in order to make the property marketable. Instead, the Plaintiff served the homeowner with a notice to quit, followed up by a small claims court forcible detainer action, alleging the homeowner was a tenant at sufferance after the issuance of a valid tax deed.
This time, the homeowner fought back by moving to dismiss the Plaintiff’s claim based on the small claims division not having jurisdiction over tax deed actions. The fact the homeowner fought back caused the investor/Plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss its action, but not before filing its second action in district court (instead of small claims court). The mistake the Plaintiff made was using the same, previously-dated, notice to quit that had accompanied the first petition and after seeing the mistake, voluntarily dismissed the second forcible detainer action, which triggered the Rule of Civil Procedure, making a third action moot.
Third, rather than read the Rules of Civil Procedure, the investor/Plaintiff filed a third action for forcible detainer in the district court with a new 3-day notice to quit attached. The homeowner, whose attorney knew what was going on with the IRCP, filed an answer asserting 3 defenses. As usual, no matter how many valid arguments a homeowner might posit, the district court judge doesn’t care and awarded the homeowner’s property to the investor/Plaintiff. The homeowner appealed and the Supreme Court reversed and remanded with instructions, but not without a gob of explanation.
Fourth, a lot of analysis (worth the read) went into the rendering of this opinion. There are some genuine “nuggets” in the analysis that any homeowner looking at quiet title/tax deed issues should examine.
Fifth … and most shockingly … the Iowa Supreme Court sua sponte, took it upon themselves to bring up the discussion of a quiet title action in the form of a question. If this isn’t a “tip-off” to the investor/Plaintiff, what is? However, Pages 10 – 14 had more “teeth” in it for the investor/Plaintiff’s attorneys to chew on. You can bet they won’t make the same mistake twice after reading the Court’s ruling, which dismissed the Plaintiff’s case with prejudice.
Sixth, NOW … the Plaintiff’s attorneys can use this case material as a reference to bring a quiet title action, wherein the Court even ruled that the Plaintiff could bring such an action. By legally posturing the entire case for the Plaintiff, one must ask whether or not the Court exceeded its judicial boundaries by “stepping outside” of the case to submit its own remedy which benefitted the Plaintiff in its future endeavors to evict the homeowner (who claimed he had a disability).
Disability or no disability, one could have made a deal with the taxing authorities to make payments on the tax debt, even at the rate of $100 a month. Now, due to the Court’s “extended ruling” sua sponte, the disabled homeowner is soon going to be kicked to the curb with all of his possessions. Given this Court’s nature as well as the nature of the lower courts, don’t be surprised if the Plaintiff’s attorneys don’t ask the homeowner to pay attorney’s fees when they prevail in court, using the Supreme Court’s template as their basis to quiet title.
Sadly, one must also consider why the homeowner decided to fight (and retain counsel) instead of paying his taxes (which would have been considerably less expensive). Part of the problem with many homeowners is the misguided effort to fight the wrong battle. It would have been better to pay the taxes than pay an attorney and lose the home anyway.
One must also ask … is it worth taking the matter to the Supreme Court of the United States and asking the nation’s highest “conservative” Court whether the Supreme Court of Iowa’s extended ruling violated the civil rights of the Defendant homeowner for educating the Plaintiff’s attorneys in how to obtain the Property? Nope. This homeowner couldn’t afford it anyway. It’s over $15,000 just to file the damned case in the U.S. Supreme Court and there’s no guarantee the Court will hear the case anyway.
And this is why these scenarios are put forth. Homeowners in trouble generally do not pay their hazard insurance or property taxes. That’s the first sign they’re in financial straits. And this is one way that the investors are going to grab up properties to rehab them and turn them into rental properties, which brings to the forefront this author’s key argument that this nation is being turned into a nation of renters because of the lack of homeowners’ financial education.
It is for this reason the author wrote the book Clouded Titles.