US Supreme Court orders county to return seized assets

In 2015, Hennepin County seized and sold the condominium of a woman

named Geraldine Tyler for non-payment of taxes totaling around $15,000. The condo was sold for $40,000, and the county kept the difference. In 2019, Tyler filed a lawsuit in federal court against the county (Tyler v. Hennepin County) alleging that keeping the additional $25,000 was a violation of her property rights under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. Tyler’s suit was dismissed by the District Court, and that dismissal was upheld by the appeals court. The last stop on the line was the US Supreme Court.

Art by Lucy Comer
Art by Lucy Comer

Hennepin County hired the services of Neal Katyal, whose best-known recent case is Nestlé USA, Inc. v. Doe et al., in which he argued (successfully, 8-1) that former child slaves in West Africa were not allowed to sue their former corporate enslavers, Nestlé and Cargill, for damages. Befitting his status as one of the top lawyers in the country, Katyal (a partner at Hogan Lovells) gets paid: in another case in 2023, he billed Johnson & Johnson $2465 per hour to argue that their cancer-causing talcum powders did not cause cancer. Presumably the county paid him a similar rate for this case, which would mean that in just over 10 hours of work he ate up the entire excess amount seized from Tyler in her condo sale. The county was then paying additional taxpayer money for the rest of his representation.

On May 25, the decision was handed down. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Hennepin County was in the wrong and must return the money to Tyler. Perhaps the county expected the Supreme Court to affirm the appeals court decision, but instead they racked up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and got lots of press coverage painting them as monsters trying to take an old lady’s money.

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