Rep. David Perryman concerned state High Court ruling could void county tax sales

OKLAHOMA CITY – An Oklahoma Supreme Court decision last month could potentially void hundreds, if not thousands, of tax sales across the state, Rep. David Perryman warned Monday (June 15).

By a vote of 7-2 in the case entitled “Crownover v. Keel,” the Justices held that even when county treasurers follow the precise letter of the law, “Their efforts to collect delinquent taxes and sell unredeemed property may be jeopardized,” said Perryman, an attorney.

The landowner, Vernon L. Crownover, neglected to pay taxes on certain property in McIntosh County “for several years,” the court record relates. Crownover’s property was sold at a tax sale in 2010 and a tax deed was issued to the buyer, Garland Keel.

However, Crownover filed suit, asserting that the sale and resultant deed were void because he was not given constitutionally sufficient notice of the sale and therefore “was denied his right to redeem the property.”

The high-court judges ruled May 26 that even though the McIntosh County Treasurer followed the notice requirements of state statutes to the very letter of the law – publishing a legal notice in a county newspaper of general circulation and sending a certified letter to Crownover’s last known address – the tax sale and tax deed were void.

The certified letter containing the Notice of Tax Sale was “returned marked as undeliverable as addressed and unable to forward,” and therefore the property owner did not receive constitutionally sufficient notice, the Justices ruled. 

Unbeknownst to the McIntosh County Treasurer’s Office, Crownover “no longer lived at the address to which notice was sent,” the state Supreme Court wrote in its majority opinion.

The United States Supreme Court, in a 2006 case from Arkansas, ruled that a property owner’s failure to keep his address updated “did not result in the owner somehow forfeiting his right to constitutionally sufficient notice,” the Oklahoma Justices pointed out.

The Crownover v. Keel decision will become final and released for publication if a motion to reconsider is not filed by the McIntosh County Treasurer and the County Commissioners. 

However, even if a motion to reconsider is filed, “three justices would have to change their minds on the case,” and that’s not likely, said Perryman, D-Chickasha.

“At a time when the Republican state budget has devastated the ability of county governments to repair roads and infrastructure and has reduced the amount of vehicle tax that schools will receive, this case further impacts the budgets of Oklahoma’s counties,” the second-term lawmaker said. “It also hinders the attempts of county treasurers to get real estate back on the tax rolls for the benefit of schools, county government, fire districts and cities and towns.”

The issue is not only critical, it’s complicated, Perryman pointed out.

 For example, the Grady County Treasurer mailed a tax sale notice via registered mail in April, but it was returned earlier this month, undelivered.

In Crownover v. Keel the Oklahoma Justices did not specify what steps would be sufficient to satisfy the notice requirement, but they did point to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that although the state “should have taken other reasonable measures to reach the property owner, it stopped short of requiring the state to search elsewhere for an address for the property owner, noting that an open-ended search for a new address would unduly burden the state…” 

Instead, the Supreme Court “suggested reasonable measures such as posting notice on the property door, or even sending notice by regular mail, which could at least have resulted in its delivery and presence on the property.”

Prior decisions of the Oklahoma Supreme Court “also firmly indicate that the county was required to do more under these circumstances than simply shrug and claim it complied with the notice statute,” the state Justices wrote.

Perryman has requested an interim legislative study later this year “to determine whether a change in state statute can be made so that county treasurers across the state will have some assurances that their tax sales and tax deeds are not voided.”

He said he also intends to inquire further whether the Court’s decision in Crownover v. Keel will be applied only prospectively, going forward, or whether it will be applied retroactively, thereby invalidating previous tax sales that occurred under similar circumstances.

June 12 was the deadline for submission of interim study requests in the state House of Representatives, and House Speaker Jeff Hickman said he will announce by July 10 which studies he has authorized.