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“Taxpayer” loses property to city of St. Louis

Four justices of the  Missouri Supreme Court wouldn’t help Bhatti recover his property, which had been sold by the City of St. Louis in an effort to collect Bhatti’s delinquent property taxes. These justices reckoned that Bhatti was obligated to know whether letters that he never received were reasonably calculated to reach him and inform him that he was losing his property.

The court’s majority opinion pointed out crucial facts that kept the court from applying the due process rules which were set out by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions, most recently in Jones v. Flowers, a 2006 decision.

At trial, Bhatti failed to provide evidence to indicate that the sheriff had reason to know that the mailed notices were not reaching Bhatti.

In a motion for a new trial  based on newly discovered evidence,  Bhatti provided the envelopes marked “return to sender” which the sheriff’s office had received. Bhatti’s motion for a new trial was rejected, because Bhatti did not show the court that the returned envelopes were not available at the time of the first trial.

Bhatti also argued that the evidence of the returned notices to him were a part of the fat file that was included in the trial exhibits. The Missouri Supreme Court stated that the trial court was under no obligation to sort through a fat file to find documents that would help Bhatti — it was up to Bhatti (or his attorney) to call the trial judge’s attention to specific documents that would support Bhatti’s case.

In its conclusion, the Missouri Supreme Court lectured Bhatti on three points, only one of which is based on law (which I have put into separate paragraphs):

The Court regrets the result in this case. But Owner’s loss of his real estate is the result of his multiple acts of negligence.

  • First, he was negligent in failing to pay his real estate taxes for three years…
  • Second, Owner provided an incorrect address for the purpose of notification of real estate taxes due, and he never updated his address….
  • Third, when pursuing his constitutional rights in our court system, he failed to follow United Supreme Court authority that requires him to show that the notice sent to him was not reasonably calculated to apprise him of the pendency of the action against him.

The lessons from this lecture are clear:

  • If you own property and are not receiving a tax bill for it, you need to contact the tax collector.
  • The Missouri Supreme Court expects a person to know whether or not a notice not received is “reasonably calculated to apprise him of the pendency of the action.”

Negligence of the property owner is not a part of the constitutional law in due process cases. The court’s remarks about Bhatti’s negligence are gratuitous, but perhap provide a moral underpinning to the dissent’s position that focused on the City’s lack of effort in getting notices to Bhatti.

Justice Wolff’s dissent, supported by justices Stith and Teitelman, notes that the government spent a total of $1.28 in postage to send notices to Bhatti, even though the government is obligated to send notices that are “reasonably calculated to apprise him of the judgment of foreclosure, the forclosure sale and the confirmation hearing.” The government knew that Bhatti didn’t receive the notices, but still sold Bhatti’s property to collect $7,600 in taxes.

The City of St. Louis had another address for Bhatti, which Bhatti used on his building permit applications. Wolff indicated that the City should have also sent a notice to this alternate address, rather than only to the vacant building which Bhatti was fixing up.

Wolff also argues that the City’s tax lien foreclosure ordinances, as implemented, do not provide due process.The City, having the returned mail sent to Bhatti, should not benefit from the presumption that mail has been received.

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