After Mary Ann Dupere had a stroke in 2010, her daughter, Tina, became her caretaker in the family’s Dartmouth, Massachusetts home of 42 years. But, because of an outstanding property tax debt of only 0.7% of the home’s total worth, they faced eviction.
The house was originally purchased in 1979 by Mary Ann’s parents, who transferred ownership to Mary Ann herself in 1986. Mary Ann holds the title, as well as life estate interest in the home, and Tina holds the remainder of the interest in the property. This means that Mary Ann should own her property until she passes away, at which point the title may be transferred to her daughter. However, their family home was recently foreclosed upon despite them owning equity in the property. She and Tina paid all property taxes on the home from 1986 until they began financially struggling in 2013.
The Duperes did not receive...any warning about losing their home or equity...
In that year, the Duperes underpaid their property taxes by $1,374. The town of Dartmouth then issued a tax taking for the amount of $1,509.67. The municipality then sold the tax title to a third party firm, Tallage Davis, LLC, where the debt and interest accrued to $5,192.16. In early 2016, the Duperes were able to pay off this debt and redeem their property. However, they began to struggle again later in the year.
In addition to being her mother’s full-time caretaker, Tina also works part-time aiding other people with disabilities. Because of financial hardship, she was unable to pay the property tax bill in late 2016, leaving them with a $2,300 debt on a property worth around $330,000, according to a lawsuit filed on the Dupere’s behalf by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF). After interest and fees added up, that debt became more than $7,000.
In 2018, the town of Dartmouth once again sold the Dupere’s debt to Tallage Davis, LLC. Later that year, the Boston-based firm began foreclosure proceedings on the home. The complaint claimed that the foreclosure notice sent to the Duperes was filled with "vague" legal jargon, and "did not explain the consequences of failing to stop the foreclosure."
"The Duperes did not receive...any warning about losing their home or equity," the lawsuit claimed.
Eventually, what started off as a $2,300 debt snowballed to more than $13,000. The lawsuit states that the value of the house is roughly 1,100 percent more than the debt (plus interest and fees) owed by the Duperes.
Fortunately, the eviction process has ended with the help of PLF.
“I can say that the Duperes are no longer in danger of losing their home,” a PLF attorney told FEE.
Foreclosed Over Eight Bucks
Joshua Polk, an attorney for PLF, told radio station WBSM that most states prohibit cities or collection agencies from keeping the proceeds of this kind. However, Massachusetts is not one of those states. Though the Duperes were able to resolve their case against the town of Dartmouth and Tallage Davis, home foreclosures and evictions over small amounts of unpaid property taxes will not stop until the policy is changed.
The PLF has previously represented families in even more egregious cases of foreclosure over property tax debt, and won. Oakland County, Michigan seized a house from 81 year-old Uri Rafaeli, sold it, and kept all the money for the government – over a mere $8.41 in unpaid property taxes.
No, that isn’t a typo.
The amount owed by Rafaeli was just 8 dollars and 41 cents on a house now worth $200,500, according to Zillow. Despite the significant worth of the home, Oakland County only made $24,500 from auctioning it off.
"You can't confiscate a house for such a ridiculous amount," said Yair Adegeko, Rafaeli’s son-in-law to Hill TV.
"If you would say it will be in eastern Europe, I understand that. If you say it [happened] in Russia, or whatever, or in other countries I don't want to insult, that's okay," he continued. "But in the biggest democracy in the world, I couldn't believe that."
“The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it!
Fortunately, this particular home seizure was ruled as unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court, but in many states local governments continue to take advantage of people who have fallen on hard times and are attempting to and succeeding at taking their homes, despite many owing relatively small amounts of debt compared to the total value of the property.
Even if these homeowners have paid off their mortgages, missing a property tax payment can prevent people from ever truly owning their home. As we’ve seen from the Duperes, even if they’ve lived there decades and own equity in the home, any small amount of unpaid property taxes can lead to foreclosure and even eviction. This practice is not only unjust, but predatory and cruel.
When a government uses a relatively miniscule tax debt as an excuse to seize someone’s entire house, it can only be regarded as an act of plunder, no less than if the seizure had been committed by a raiding band of barbarians or pirates. As the 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote in his great pamphlet The Law:
“When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it—without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud—to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated; that an act of plunder is committed.
I say that this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress, always and everywhere. When the law itself commits this act that it is supposed to suppress, I say that plunder is still committed…”
Bastiat referred to legal plunder as the ultimate perversion of law.
Bastiat called such an act “legal plunder.” Legal plunder, Bastiat argued, is even more pernicious and twisted than private plunder, because it is sanctioned by law and perpetrated by the very institution that is charged with defending citizens against plunder.
As the enlightenment philosopher John Locke, argued, the reason why people form non-tyrannical governments in the first place is “for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property." He also wrote:
“The great and chief end... of men’s... putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property."
"...government has no other end but the preservation of property."
With this understanding in mind, Bastiat referred to legal plunder as the ultimate perversion of law.
“The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!
If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.”
It is indeed a serious fact, as the Dupere family can attest. Thankfully organizations like PLF are around to call the attention of fellow citizens when Americans fall victim to legal plunder—and even successfully rise to their defense.