Homeowners who fail to pay their property taxes can still legally lose their homes even if the buyer of the tax deed can’t confirm the former homeowners have been notified, so long as county officials and the buyers make a realistic effort to contact the delinquent taxpayer and satisfy due process requirements under the law, the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled.
Thursday, Dec. 3, the state Supreme Court delivered a unanimous opinion, siding with the owners of a company that purchased a Joliet home under tax sale. The opinion, authored by Justice Robert Thomas, overturned rulings by a Will County Circuit Court judge and a divided Illinois Third District Appellate Court, which had sided with the administrator of the estate of the previous homeowner, who had argued the transfer of the property should be voided, in part, because the buyer had not done enough to notify the elderly woman who had owned the home of the danger of losing the home.
The Supreme Court decision stemmed from a case which arose in Will County in 2012, after a business identified in court documents as DG Enterprises LLC-Will Tax LLC appeared to secure a tax deed on the home on Henderson Street in Joliet.
DG Enterprises had purchased the delinquent property taxes for the home at a November 2008 Will County tax sale.
After that, court documents indicated DG Enterprises set about trying to notify Lorrayne Cornelius, the person listed in county records as the property’s owner, of the potential loss of her property, unless she paid the delinquent taxes. The court documents indicated DG Enterprises attempted to send notices to Cornelius through the Will County Clerk’s office, and, when that failed, by way of a hired licensed process server, who attempted 11 times to personally serve Cornelius.
The Will County Sheriff’s Office also attempted to notify Cornelius by certified mail, the court documents said.
Notices were also published in a Will County newspaper.
However, no response was received from Cornelius, her family or other representative, until the administrator Cornelius’ estate, identified as Vincent Cornelius, appeared in Will County court and demanded the court void the tax deed because DG’s notification attempts “were fatally defective under the statute and failed to comply with due process,” stripping the county and the court of the power to transfer ownership of the property to DG.
When DG received no reply to its notices, he argued DG should have “attempted to locate Lorrayne Cornelius by asking neighbors, doing an Internet search of the public records of Will County, or sending the notice to her property by regular mail.” He told the court a public records search would have revealed a mortgage document listing Vincent Cornelius’ mailing address in Wheaton, who they could have contacted to “learn the whereabouts of Lorrayne Cornelius.”
A Will County judge agreed, and the decision was upheld by the Third District appeals court, who also found insufficient notice had been provided, particularly noting the notices did not include the address and phone number of the Will County Clerk.
DG appealed those decisions, and the high court justices said they believed the reasoning of the lower courts was flawed in this case. The Supreme Court justices said precedent from either the U.S. Supreme Court or the Illinois high court specifically held buyers of tax deeds not be required to engage in an “open-ended search for a new address” for delinquent property taxpayers before the deed can be transferred.
“The search of the records of the county recorder’s office that respondent (Cornelius) suggests is precisely the sort of ‘open-ended search for a new address’ of the government records that was expressly held not to be required” under the precedent cases, the justices wrote.
The justices also brushed aside the Cornelius’ concerns regarding the omission of the county clerk’s contact information, saying the lack of the information should not doom the tax deed process, as “…the information omitted was not of such a nature that it rendered the notices constitutionally defective in terms of apprising the interested parties of the pendency of the action and affording them an opportunity to present their objections.”