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Campbell Properties, Inc. v. Cook

Supreme Court of Mississippi

December 6, 2018

CAMPBELL PROPERTIES, INC.
v.
RACHAEL DOWE COOK, AND ANY ALL PERSONS HAVING OR CLAIMING ANY LEGAL OR EQUITABLE INTEREST IN HEREINAFTER DESCRIBED LAND SOLD FOR TAXES ON AUGUST 26, 2013, VIZ: PART OF SECTION 4, TOWNSHIP 18 NORTH, RANGE 5 EAST, WARREN COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, TAX PARCEL 005 04 999 001300; PPIN 206; DEED BOOK 1422, PAGE 769 LESS AND EXCEPT THE PORTION OF PROPERTY LYING IN SECTION 3, TOWNSHIP 18 NORTH, RANGE 5 EAST OF THE WARREN COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI LAND RECORDS

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/22/2017

          WARREN COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. VICKI R. BARNES TRIAL JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: WILLIAM M. BOST, JR. A. J. “BUDDY” DEES, JR. KENNETH B. RECTOR

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: KENNETH B. RECTOR

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: A. J. “BUDDY” DEES, JR. SARAH CUNNINGHAM McMILLIN

          BEFORE WALLER, C.J., MAXWELL AND ISHEE, JJ.

          MAXWELL, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. When a property owner fails to timely pay his or her property taxes, the county will auction off the property for the amount of unpaid taxes. At that point, the property owner has two years to redeem the property. If he or she fails to do so, the property is forfeited to whoever wins the auction. But for a tax sale to be valid, the chancery clerk must strictly follow Mississippi Code Section 27-43-3's notice requirements. These statutory notice procedures further Mississippi's long-standing policy of protecting landowners from losing property in tax sales.[1] Specifically, the statute mandates that when a clerk is unable to notify the landowner, he or she must diligently search and inquire for a new or different address to provide notice.

         ¶2. Here, the property owner failed to timely pay his taxes or to redeem them within two years of the tax sale of his property. The owner objected to the sale, asserting that he was deprived of his property without the statutorily required prior notice. What our review shows is that the chancery clerk's first notice was returned undelivered. At that point, by statute, the clerk was required to diligently search for a different address for the property owner. But despite having another address readily available in the county's land records, no notices were ever mailed to that address before the redemption period ended. Thus, the clerk's search and inquiry did not strictly comply with the statute. We must therefore reverse and render.

         Background Facts and Procedural History

         ¶3. In 2006, Alan Osborne bought fifty acres off Highway 3 in Warren County, Mississippi. In 2012, Osborne failed to timely pay his property taxes. And on August 26, 2013, his property was auctioned off for the unpaid taxes to Rachael Cook. When the redemption period ended on August 26, 2015, Osborne had not redeemed the property. Several days later, Osborne visited the chancery courthouse. While paying property taxes for his employer, Osborne asked about his own property. He was told by a deputy clerk that the redemption period had expired. The clerk's office issued Rachael Cook a tax deed on September 11, 2015, which she filed the same day.

         ¶4. Osborne was unable to negotiate a deal with Cook to obtain his once-owned property. So Osborne filed a complaint to set aside the tax sale.[2] In it, he claimed the Warren County sheriff never personally served him nor did he receive any notice by certified mail from the clerk's office. Cook answered and responded with her own counterclaim to confirm title in herself.

         ¶5. After Osborne's property was sold at auction, the chancery clerk's office was required to provide him notice-by personal service, certified or registered mail, and by newspaper publication-of when his right to redeem the property would expire. Miss. Code Ann. § 27-43-3 (Rev. 2017). Thus, the clerk's office needed Osborne's physical and mailing addresses. But when the chancery clerk sent a "courtesy notice" to Osborne in February 2015 to 8435 Highway 3, C/O P.O. Box 820258, Vicksburg, MS 39182-0258, the notice was returned to the clerk's office marked "not deliverable as addressed." Despite this, the clerk continued to use that very same post-office-box address for every subsequent notice that was mailed, certified or otherwise.

         ¶6. When the statutory notice sent in March 2015 and personal service by the sheriff were ineffective, the clerk was required by statute to perform a diligent search and inquiry to locate another address for Osborne. The deputy clerk responsible for redemption notices testified that she reviewed the tax collector's records. She also testified that she reviewed court and land records and prior tax sales for Osborne's address. Still, after doing so, the clerk's office continued to send future notices to the same post-office-box address, an address from which the very first notice-the courtesy notice-was returned "not deliverable as addressed." This address was continually used for mailings, though Warren County land records contained a deed of trust filed March 10, 2011, which listed Osborne's address at 8435 Highway 3, Redwood, MS 39156. In fact, the deed conveying the subject property to Osborne listed the ...


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