« July 2021 | Main | September 2021 »

Indiana Supreme Court Affirms Denial Of Owner's Motion To Set Aside Tax Deed

Ind. Land Tr. Co. v. XL Inv. Props., LLC, 155 N.E.3d 1177 (Ind. 2020) is a thorough and definitive opinion by our state's highest court regarding whether a county auditor provided adequate notice to a landowner of an Indiana tax sale.  As is typical, these tax sale cases are fact sensitive and legally complicated, and frankly are difficult to summarize in a standard-size blog post.  Please read the entire opinion if you're confronted with a similar problem.  For purposes of today's post, I'll simply quote Justice David's introduction, which really says it all: 

Before the State sells a delinquent property, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that the owner of the property be given adequate notice reasonably calculated to inform him or her of the impending tax sale. While actual notice is not required, the government must attempt notice in a way desirous of actually informing the property owner that a tax sale is looming. If the government becomes aware that its notice attempt was unsuccessful—such as through the return of certified mail—it must take additional reasonable steps to notify the owner of the property if practical to do so.

In this case, property taxes went unpaid on a vacant property from 2009 to 2015 resulting in over $230,000 in outstanding tax liability. The county auditor—through a third-party service—sent simultaneous notice of an impending tax sale via certified letter and first-class mail to the tax sale notice address listed on the deed for the property. The owner of the property, however, had moved from its original address several times and never updated its tax address for the property with the county auditor. The certified letter came back as undeliverable, but the first-class mail was never returned. After a skip-trace search was performed for a better address and notice was published in the local newspaper, the property eventually sold and a tax deed was issued to the purchaser. The original owner was ultimately notified of the sale when the purchaser filed a quiet title action and searched for a registered agent. The original owner then moved to set aside the tax deed due to insufficient notice.

The central question before our Court today is whether the LaPorte County Auditor gave adequate notice reasonably calculated to inform Indiana Land Trust Company of the impending tax sale of the property. As a corollary question, we also confront whether the Auditor was required under the circumstances of this case to search its own records for a better tax sale notice address when the notice sent via certified mail was returned as undeliverable. We find the Auditor provided adequate notice and was not required to search its internal records. We therefore affirm the trial court's denial of Indiana Land Trust's motion to set aside the tax deed.

The Court held that, under the facts of the case, the auditor "provided notice reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise [the owner] of the pendency of the action and afforded them an opportunity to present their objections."  

See also:

My practice includes representing parties in connection with contested tax sales. If you need assistance with a similar matter, please call me at 317-639-6151 or email me at john.waller@dinsmore.com. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Twitter @JohnDWaller or on LinkedIn, or you can subscribe to posts via RSS or email as noted on my home page.

7th Circuit: Communications Were Not “False, Misleading, Or Deceptive To The Unsophisticated Consumer” In Violation of the FDCPA

Lesson. Per the Seventh Circuit, “Congress did not intend the FDCPA to require debt collectors to cast about for a disclosure formulation that strikes a precise balance between providing too little information and too much. The use of an itemized breakdown accompanied by zero balances would not confuse or mislead the reasonable unsophisticated consumer.”

Case cite. Degroot v. Client Servs. 977 F.3d 656 (7th Cir. 2020)

Legal issue. Whether allegedly false or misleading statements by a collection agency violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692e, by using false, deceptive, and misleading representations or means to collect a debt, or 15 U.S.C. § 1692g by failing to disclose the amount of the debt in a clear and unambiguous fashion.

Vital facts. Debtor defaulted on credit card debt, and the credit card company assigned the debt to Collection Agency. The Debtor sued Collection Agency following a couple of collection letters Debtor received. (The opinion details the letters.) Debtor claimed that the second letter “misleadingly implied that [the credit card company] would begin to add interest and possibly fees to previously charged-off debts if consumers failed to resolve their debts with [Collection Agency].” Specifically, Debtor alleged that he was "confused by the discrepancy between the [letter 1’s] statement that 'interest and fees are no longer being added to your account' and [letter 2's] implication that [credit card company] would begin to add interest and possibly fees to the Debt once [Collection Agency] stopped its collection efforts on an unspecified date."

Procedural history. The District Court granted the Collection Agency’s motion to dismiss. Debtor appealed.

Key rules. The FDCPA requires debt collectors to send consumers a written notice disclosing "the amount of ... debt" they owe. 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(1).

This disclosure must be “clear.” "If a letter fails to disclose the required information clearly, it violates the Act, without further proof of confusion."

"A collection letter can be 'literally true' and still be misleading ... if it 'leav[es] the door open' for a 'false impression.'"

“A debt collector violates § 1692e by making statements or representations that ‘would materially mislead or confuse an unsophisticated consumer.’"

Holding. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court and held that the Collection Agency’s communications “were not false, misleading, or deceptive to the unsophisticated customer.”

Policy/rationale. The key issue in Degroot was whether Collection Agency, by providing a breakdown of the debt that showed a zero balance for "interest" and "other charges," violated §§ 1692e and 1692g(a)(1) by implying that interest and other charges would accrue if the debt remained unpaid. The Court set out the test it faced:

To determine whether [Collection Agency’s] letter was false or misleading, we must answer two questions. The first is whether an unsophisticated consumer would even infer from the letter that interest and other charges would accrue on his outstanding balance if he did not settle the debt. If, and only if, we conclude that an unsophisticated consumer would make such an inference, then we move to analyze whether the inference is false or misleading.

The Court reasoned that the itemization (debt breakdown) at issue could not be construed “as forward looking and therefore misleading”:

That interest and fees are no longer being added to one's account does not guarantee that they never will be, because there is no way—unless the addition is a legal or factual impossibility—to know what may happen in the future. That is why a statement in a dunning letter that relates only to the present reality and is completely silent as to the future generally does not run afoul of the FDCPA. While dunning letters certainly cannot explicitly suggest that certain outcomes may occur when they are impossible … they need not guarantee the future. For that reason, the itemized breakdown here, which makes no comment whatsoever about the future and does not make an explicit suggestion about future outcomes, does not violate the FDCPA.

My practice includes the defense of mortgage loan servicers in consumer finance litigation. If you need assistance with a similar matter, please call me at 317-639-6151 or email me at john.waller@dinsmore.com. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Twitter @JohnDWaller or on LinkedIn, or you can subscribe to posts via RSS or email as noted on my home page.

Tips For Indiana Receivers, Updated

My practice includes representing receivers in commercial mortgage foreclosure cases.  Since we could see an uptick in commercial loan defaults this year, I thought I'd re-share a few tips related to receiverships over mortgaged real estate: 

1. Review and understand the proposed order appointing receiver before agreeing to serve.   Ask an attorney (like me) to review and help negotiate terms, as needed.  Receivers can be personally liable for certain conduct or damages, so you need to go into the job with your eyes wide open. 

2. Ensure your compensation is fair and profitable from the outset.  See #1.

3. Before the receivership hearing, eyeball the property – drive by and/or inspect if possible.  Understand the lay of the land.

4. Determine the plaintiff lender’s objectives with regard to the case and the property from the beginning:  babysit the property only, improve the property, sell the property, etc.?  Get a feel for the lender’s cost tolerance.  As a practical matter, the plaintiff lender is the captain of the ship. 

5. Once appointed:

    a.  Line up a receiver's bond immediately.

    b. Secure rents ASAP.

    c. Ensure that hazard insurance is current.

    d. Determine the status of real estate taxes and confer with the lender regarding any delinquency.  Develop a plan with the lender as to how and when taxes should be paid, if at all.  Send a confirming email and record the status/plan in court-filed reports.

    e. Investigate the status of utilities and consider action.

    f. Evaluate whether there is any non-real estate (personal property) collateral of value and, if so, learn what the lender wants you to do with it.  Ensure that the action is covered by prior court order, or obtain order authorizing the action.

6. Hire an attorney unless (a) you have prior experience with, and trust in, lender’s counsel and (b) there is no apparent adversity with the lender.  Some lawyers have the view that receivers should always retain independent counsel.  I don’t necessarily share that opinion and tend to assess the issue on a case-by-case basis.  Having said that, the trend is for receivers to have independent counsel, which probably is best.   

7. Report, report, report.  Inundate the lender’s representative and/or lender’s counsel with emails regarding significant issues and action.  Timely file all reports required by the order appointing receiver.  Full disclosure of operations is the best practice, especially if there are other creditors involved and/or an interested owner/borrower.  

8. As to major decisions affecting the property, including significant expenditures, obtain prior written approval from the lender or lender’s counsel.  See #7.  Emails are easy.  Use them.  Archive them for your file.

I represent parties involved with receiverships, including receivers themselves. If you need assistance with a similar matter, please call me at 317-639-6151 or email me at john.waller@dinsmore.com. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Twitter @JohnDWaller or on LinkedIn, or you can subscribe to posts via RSS or email as noted on my home page.