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COVEY v. TOWN SOMERS

decided: May 7, 1956.

COVEY, COMMITTEE
v.
TOWN OF SOMERS



APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK.

Warren, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Minton, Harlan

Author: Warren

[ 351 U.S. Page 142]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The application of Article VII-A, Title 3, of the New York Tax Law to the mentally incompetent ward of appellant is challenged as being repugnant to the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The statute, in § 165 et seq., provides for the judicial foreclosure of tax liens on real property. The filing at the county clerk's office of a list of taxes delinquent more than four years constitutes the filing of a notice of lis pendens and of a complaint, and commences an action against the property. Provision is made for notice by publication, by posting, and by mailing. The prescribed notice is to the effect that, unless the amount of unpaid tax liens, together with interest and penalties which are a lien against the property, are paid within 7 weeks, or an answer interposed within 20 days thereafter, any person having the right to redeem or answer shall be forever foreclosed of all his right, title, and interest and equity of redemption in and to the delinquent property. Provision is made for entry of a judgment of foreclosure awarding possession of the property to the tax district

[ 351 U.S. Page 143]

     and directing execution of a deed conveying an estate in fee simple absolute to the district. The provisions of Title 3 purport to be applicable to and valid and effective with respect to all defendants, even though one or more of them be infants, incompetents, absentees, or nonresidents of the State of New York.

Section 165-h (7) makes the deed presumptive evidence of the regularity of the proceedings. After two years this presumption becomes conclusive. The Section further provides that no action to set aside the deed may be maintained unless commenced and a lis pendens notice filed prior to the time the presumption becomes conclusive.

We are met at the outset with the contention of appellee and the State of New York, amicus curiae, that an action, as distinguished from the motion in the original proceeding here utilized, was the exclusive remedy in this case. The statute itself contains no suggestion that a new action is the exclusive remedy; it merely limits the time within which an action may be brought to set aside the deed. The Second Department of the Appellate Division, which decided this case, has recognized the existence of equitable power to entertain a motion to open a default in an in rem tax proceeding.*fn1 If that were not enough, appellee, on oral argument, conceded that in an action of the sort contemplated by § 165-h (7), the appellant would have been able to attack the deed only on the ground of alleged irregularities in the assessment and foreclosure proceedings. Although the Attorney General of New York has supported a contrary position, it was

[ 351 U.S. Page 144]

     admitted at the argument that there was no decision to support his view. Our conclusion that the constitutional question was properly raised by appellant's motion is reinforced by the action of the Court of Appeals which amended its remittitur to disclose that a constitutional question was presented and necessarily decided on the appeal to that court. 308 N. Y. 941, 127 N. E. 2d 90. Manifestly, no constitutional question could have been reached if the Court of Appeals had been of the opinion that the appellant had pursued the wrong remedy.

This proceeding started on May 8, 1952. The Town of Somers instituted it to foreclose many tax liens, one of which was its lien against the parcel of real property owned by the incompetent. In compliance with the statute, notice was given to the incompetent taxpayer by mail, by posting a notice at the post office, and by publication in two local newspapers. No answer having been filed by the incompetent, judgment of foreclosure was entered on September 8, 1952, and on October 24, 1952, a deed to her property was delivered to the town. Five days later, on October 29, 1952, Nora Brainard was certified by the County Court as a person of unsound mind, and one week later, November 6, 1952, she was committed to the Harlem Valley State Hospital for the insane. Thereafter, on February 13, 1953, appellant filed bond pursuant to an order appointing him Committee of the person and property of the incompetent.

Sometime prior to September 22, 1953, the town offered the incompetent's property for sale at a minimum bid price of $6,500. The unpaid taxes, interest, penalties, costs of foreclosure, attorney's fees, and maintenance charges on the property to September 22, 1953, aggregated $480. On that date, appellant's attorney appeared before the ...


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