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Christiana Trust v. Ciota

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

November 5, 2019

CHRISTIANA TRUST AS CUSTODIAN GSRANZ LLC DEPOSIT ACCOUNT APPELLANT
v.
MEGAN A. CIOTA APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/24/2018

          COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HARRISON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JENNIFER T. SCHLOEGEL

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: WILLIAM ALEX BRADY II MICHELLE ELIZABETH LUBER

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: LEWIE G. "SKIP" NEGROTTO IV

          BEFORE CARLTON, P.J., GREENLEE AND TINDELL, JJ.

          CARLTON, P.J.

         ¶1. Christiana Trust[1] as Custodian GSRAN-Z LLC Deposit Account (Christiana Trust) appeals the Harrison County Chancery Court's order voiding its tax-sale purchase of real property. On appeal, Christiana Trust argues that the chancery clerk's notice by publication met the statutory requirements of Mississippi Code Annotated section 27-43-3 (Rev. 2017). Christiana Trust asserts that the chancellor therefore erred in voiding the tax sale and setting aside the chancery clerk's conveyance to Christiana Trust.

         ¶2. After our review, we find that the chancery clerk's notice by publication failed to strictly comply with the statutory requirements of section 27-43-3. We therefore affirm the chancellor's judgment voiding the tax sale and setting aside the chancery clerk's conveyance to Christiana Trust, and we remand the issue of statutory damages for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS

         ¶3. DDD Properties LLC executed a warranty deed conveying the real property located at 116 Poplar Point, Pass Christian, Mississippi, to Christopher B. Schultz and his wife, Megan A. Ciota.[2] The warranty deed lists Schultz and Ciota as "Christopher B. Schultz and wife, Megan A. Ciota." However, the Real Property Tax Rolls for Harrison County lists Schultz and Ciota as "Schultz Christopher B & Megan A C."

         ¶4. Schultz and Ciota failed to pay ad valorem taxes on the property for the 2013 tax year. As a result, Christiana Trust acquired the property at a tax sale held on August 25, 2014. After a landowner's property is sold at a tax sale, section 27-43-3 requires the chancery clerk to notify the landowner that her property will be forfeited unless redeemed. Section 27-43-3 sets forth that such redemption notice must be provided by the following methods: (1) personal service, (2) certified or registered mail, and (3) appropriate newspaper publication. Campbell Props. Inc. v. Cook, 258 So.3d 273, 277 (¶11) (Miss. 2018).

         ¶5. The record reflects that Ciota is a Louisiana resident. On March 31, 2016, the chancery clerk sent Ciota a notice of forfeiture via certified mail to her New Orleans address.[3] The notice was addressed to "Schultz Megan A C." The record shows that Ciota received and signed for this notice on April 2, 2016. The chancery clerk also published notice of forfeiture in the Sun Herald newspaper in the name of "Schultz Christopher B & Megan A C." Per the requirements set forth in section 27-43-3, the notice mailed to Ciota and the notice by publication contained a legal description of the land.

         ¶6. Ciota failed to redeem the property within the statutory period. See Miss. Code Ann. § 27-45-3 (Rev. 2017) (owner may redeem land sold for taxes at any time within two years after the day of sale by paying the chancery clerk the amount of the taxes for which the land was sold). On October 21, 2016, after the redemption period expired, the chancery clerk executed an instrument conveying the subject property to Christiana Trust.

         ¶7. On November 18, 2016, Christiana Trust filed a complaint to quiet and confirm title to the property. Ciota was served with process by certified mail at her residence in Louisiana on December 12, 2016. After Ciota failed to file a timely answer or appear, Christiana Trust obtained a clerk's entry of default against Ciota pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 55(a). On January 16, 2017, Christiana Trust filed a motion for a default judgment against Ciota.

         ¶8. On April 21, 2017, Ciota filed her answer and counterclaim seeking to set aside the tax sale. Christiana Trust moved to strike Ciota's responsive pleadings as untimely. Ciota then filed a motion to set aside the clerk's entry of default.

         ¶9. In her motion to set aside the entry of default, Ciota asserted that on June 9, 2016, she mailed a check in the amount of $10, 400 to the Harrison County Tax Collector in an attempt to redeem her 2013 and 2014 taxes. Ciota stated that the tax collector returned her check rather than forwarding it to the chancery clerk. Ciota attached to her motion the check for $10, 400 and a letter from the tax collector explaining that he was returning her check because she owed money for her 2013 taxes. The letter stated that the tax collector could not accept payment for the 2014 taxes until Ciota paid her 2013 taxes in the chancery clerk's office. The letter also directed Ciota to contact the chancery clerk's office.

         ¶10. On July 11, 2017, Ciota filed a motion for a declaratory judgment and a motion for summary judgment. In her motion for a declaratory judgment, Ciota sought a declaration from the chancery court stating that no statutory interest would accrue after June 9, 2016 (the date that Ciota mailed a check to the tax collector "to redeem her property"). Alternatively, Ciota sought a declaration that no statutory interest would accrue after June 12, 2017 (the date that Ciota's attorney "sent a letter to [Christiana Trust's] counsel providing payment in an amount sufficient to pay for statutory interest accrued as of June 2017"). In her motion for summary judgment, Ciota argued that the ...


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