The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania clarified the interpretation of the statutory notice requirements for tax sales in the matter of Horton v. Washington County, 81 A.3d 883 (2013). The underlying claim involved Plaintiffs’ not having paid real estate taxes for the Property for the years 2007 and 2008 to Washington County’s Tax Claim Bureau (“Bureau”). Due to the delinquent taxes, the Bureau pursued and perfected a tax sale of the Property.
Specifically, the Court analyzed 72 P.S. Section 5860.602(e) and the statutory phrase “proof of mailing” in order to provide guidance as to how notice of a tax sale is to be provided to the interested parties.
The Plaintiffs in the matter owned real estate in Pennsylvania (“Property”) from which they operated an insurance business while they resided in Florida. Plaintiffs did not use the Property as a mailing address. Furthermore, the deed to the Property contained errors, namely the Plaintiffs’ names were misspelled and it indicated that the Property was a residence as opposed to a business. Significantly, the Bureau was never provided with correct information about Plaintiffs’ actual residence.
Before conducting the above-mentioned tax sale, the Bureau made a variety of efforts to locate and notify the Plaintiffs of the tax sale. The Bureau’s efforts included: mailing a courtesy letter to the Property in April 2008 (which was returned by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) as “no such number”); mailing a pre-sale warning letter to the Property in May 2009 (returned by the USPS as “return to sender – attempted – not known – unable to forward”); mailing a certified letter with restricted delivery to the Property (returned by the USPS as “not deliverable as addressed – unable to forward”) in July 2009; posting the Property later in July 2009 (personal service was not perfected and there was no answer at the Property); in August 2009 placing a notice in three (3) local newspapers for the tax sale; and, later in August 2009, sending an additional final notice of the sale to the Property (returned as “not deliverable as addressed – unable to forward”). The sale took place in September 2009 and by October 2009 the Bureau mailed several post-sale notices to Plaintiffs at the Property via certified mail (all were returned as not deliverable).
Based on the above, a tax sale of the Property occurred and was perfected; Plaintiffs subsequently filed a petition to set aside the tax sale. At the trial of this matter, Plaintiffs testified that they never received any tax bill, any notice of tax delinquency, or any notice of the tax sale; they also admitted that the Bureau was not responsible for any of the errors on the Deed to the Property and conceded that the errors would make it difficult for the Bureau to locate them. Plaintiffs also argued that the Bureau did not exercise reasonable efforts to investigate their whereabouts. The trial court granted Plaintiffs’ petition to set aside the tax sale. Specifically, the trial court ruled that Bureau did not provide a “proof of mailing” of notice of the sale to Plaintiffs. The Bureau appealed to the Commonwealth Court which upheld the decision of the trial court, ruling that a “proof of mailing” can only be satisfied with a USPS Certificate of Mailing (Form 3817). The Bureau then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
On appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the only issue to be decided was whether Plaintiffs were provided sufficient notice under the applicable statute. The Court noted that Pennsylvania precedent requires the Bureau to strictly comply with the statute’s notice provisions in order to ensure Plaintiffs received due process of law before being deprived of Property. The case turned on an interpretation of 72 P.S. Section 5860.602(2)’s language requiring a “proof of mailing.”
When determining how to interpret the term “proof of mailing” the Court looked to legislative intent and other parts of the same statute. The Court found it significant that multiple official USPS mailing terms are used in the relevant statute, but the term “proof of mailing” is not a USPS term for a specific service. As a result, the Court could not conclude that the term “proof of mailing” referred to a specific USPS service or form.
The Court noted that, as described above, the Bureau did send correspondence and other notices to the Property and provided USPS documents as proof that those mailings did, indeed, occur (albeit they were returned); therefore, the Court ruled, the Bureau did provide the proof of mailing as required by the statute. As a result, the Court remanded the matter back to the trial court for consideration of the other issues raised by Plaintiffs in view of the Court’s ruling that they received adequate notice.
In ruling as it did, as described above, the Court overruled prior cases and specifically confirmed that, as far as notice for tax sales are concerned, “proof of mailing” merely means providing documentary proof of mailed correspondence and does not refer to a specific USPS service or form.
Originally published in Upon Further Review on August 18, 2014 and can be seen here.