LaPorte Co. auditor provided adequate notice of tax sale, Supreme Court rules

Indiana Supreme Court justices have affirmed the denial of a land trust company’s motion to set aside a tax deed for a LaPorte County property, finding an auditor gave adequate notice of the property’s impending tax sale.

Property taxes went unpaid on the vacant property that used to be part of a municipal airport from 2009 to 2015, resulting in over $230,000 in outstanding tax liability. Thirty acres of the property, previously owned by Peter Dellaportas, was transferred to Indiana Land Trust and known as Trust 4340 but later sold for unpaid taxes in 2015.

Dellaportas had moved his business, Midwest Investment, over the years and never received notice of the tax sale until the buyer, XL Investment Properties, filed a quiet title action in December 2016 after the county had issued a tax deed.

In March 2017, Dellaportas’ entities sued XL and the LaPorte County auditor seeking to set aside the quiet title and tax deed, but the LaPorte Superior Court ruled for XL and the auditor. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, reinstated the landowner’s challenge to the tax sale results and remanded the case in July 2019.

But a unanimous Indiana Supreme Court panel affirmed the trial court’s denial of Indiana Land Trust’s motion to set aside the tax deed in a Tuesday order, finding that the auditor provided adequate notice and was not required to search its internal records.

“Rather than weigh in on the constitutionality of the underlying statute, we will instead focus on whether the Auditor’s actions complied with minimal due process standards,” Justice Steven David wrote for the unanimous high court.

The justices declined to adopt Trust 4340’s arguments that the auditor was required to — or at minimum should have — search its own records for a better tax sale notice address, and that the contents of the notice were insufficient for failing to include a common description of the property.

First, the court determined that the manner in which the notice was provided was constitutionally sufficient in the case of Indiana Land Trust Company, f/k/a Lake County Trust Company TR #4340 v. XL Investment Properties, LLC and LaPorte County Auditor, 20S-MI-62.

From Indiana Code § 6-1.1-24-4(b) (2015), the high court gleaned that as happened in the case at hand, two notices must be sent – one by certified mail and one by first-class mail – and that the notices must be sent to the last address on record at the date the tax sale list is certified. Additionally, only if both notices are returned must the auditor take an additional reasonable step, if practical.

“Here, the Auditor, through (SRI Inc.), sent contemporaneous notice via certified and first-class mail. While the certified mail was returned to SRI, there is no evidence the first-class mail was ever returned to its sender. This meant either the mail was received by its intended recipient or simply lost to time,” David wrote. “Nevertheless, the Supreme Court in (Jones v. Flowers, 547 U.S. 220 (2006)) observed that sending notice via regular mail likely increases the chances of actual notice. Id. At 236, 126 S.Ct. at 1719. Given actual notice is not required, we do not think the Auditor should be left to speculate whether the first-class mail was truly delivered, especially when it was not returned to its sender.”

Noting that while the auditor could have done more, the justices concluded that “the Constitution does not require more than the actions taken in this case. The power to require more than the threshold requirements of due process rests squarely with the General Assembly and we decline to enter that arena today.”

The court likewise found that the contents of the notice – which included the name of the development, the unit and lot number, and the exact acreage – substantially complied with relevant statutory requirements.

“We find that under the facts of this case, the LaPorte County Auditor provided notice reasonably calculated, under all circumstances, to apprise Trust 4340 of the pendency of the action and afforded them an opportunity to present their objections,” David concluded. “We affirm the trial court’s denial of Indiana Land Trust Company’s motion to set aside the tax deed.”

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