It’s All in the Name [Christiana Trust v. Ciota]

Christopher B. Schultz and his wife, Megan A. Ciota, acquired title to certain real property by warranty deed from DDD Properties LLC. The deed listed the grantees as “Christopher B. Schultz and wife, Megan A. Ciota.” However, the property was enrolled on the Harrison County Real Property Tax Rolls as “Schultz Christopher B & Megan A C.” As the story usually goes with tax deeds … Schultz and Ciota failed to pay ad valorem taxes on the property for the 2013 tax year and a tax sale purchaser – Christiana Trust – acquired the property at a tax sale.

Ciota is a Louisiana resident. Schultz and Ciota are now divorced, and Schultz is not a party to this appeal.

The chancery clerk sent Ciota a notice of forfeiture via certified mail to her New Orleans address. The notice was addressed to “Schultz Megan A C.” The record shows that Ciota received and signed for this notice. 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 Miss. Code Ann. 27-43-3, the notice mailed to Ciota and the notice by publication contained a legal description of the land. Ciota failed to redeem the property within the statutory period. After the redemption period expired, the chancery clerk executed a tax deed conveying the subject property to Christiana Trust.

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. After Ciota failed to file a timely answer or appear, Christiana Trust obtained a clerk’s entry of default against Ciota pursuant to M.R.C.P. 55(a). Christiana Trust later filed a motion for a default judgment against Ciota. Ciota filed an 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. Ciota also filed a motion for a declaratory judgment and a motion for summary judgment. The chancellor entered an order granting Ciota’s motion to set aside the entry of default and denying Ciota’s motion for summary judgment. Ciota filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment. After a hearing, the chancellor determined that the publication notice to Ciota failed to meet the statutory requirements of Miss. Code Ann. 27-43-3. The chancellor entered an order granting Ciota’s motion to alter and amend the judgment. The chancellor granted Ciota’s motion for summary judgment, voided the tax sale, and set aside the chancery clerk’s conveyance. The tax sale purchaser – Christiana Trust – appealed.

On appeal, Christiana Trust argued that the chancery clerk strictly complied with the statutory notice requirements pertaining to tax sales and redemption periods. Christiana Trust maintained that the alleged error in Ciota’s name is not a deviation from the statutorily mandated procedures.

Miss. Code Ann. 27-43-1 and 27-43-3 set forth the guidelines for providing notice to property owners of the impending expiration of the redemption period for real property that has been sold for delinquent taxes.

Miss. Code Ann. 27-43-1 states that the chancery court clerk:

shall, within one hundred eighty (180) days and not less than sixty (60) days prior to the expiration of the time of redemption with respect to land sold . . . be required to issue notice to the record owner of the land sold as of one hundred eighty (180) days prior to the expiration of the time of redemption.

Miss. Code Ann. 27-43-3 requires the chancery clerk to issue redemption notice of the tax sale to the reputed owner of the real property by the following methods:

(1) by personal notice as summons issued from the courts are served, (2) by mail at his usual street address, and (3) by publication in a public newspaper of the county in which the land is located.

If personal service is not obtained and certified mail is returned undelivered, the clerk must then make a diligent search and inquiry to locate the record landowner. Miss. Code Ann. 27-43-3 specifies that the chancery clerk must publish the name and address of the reputed owner of the property and the legal description of the property in a public newspaper having a general circulation in the county in which the land is located.

Miss. Code Ann. 27-43-3 further provides that:

Should the clerk inadvertently fail to send notice as prescribed in this section, then the sale shall be void and the clerk shall not be liable to the purchaser or owner upon refund of all purchase money paid.

Failure to comply strictly with the notice requirements renders the purchaser’s tax deed void, with no legal effect, and not simply voidable. The record showed that the chancery clerk published notice to Ciota as “Schultz Megan A C” instead of “Megan A. Ciota,” the name listed in the vesting deed. Given the name discrepancy, the Mississippi Court of Appeals found that the redemption-notice statute was not strictly followed. As a result, the tax sale was void. The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the chancellor’s judgment but found that Christiana Trust was entitled to damages under Miss. Code Ann. 27-45-3 and remanded the issue of damages with instructions to the chancellor to (1) calculate the amount of the statutory damages, and (2) order Ciota to pay that amount to Christiana Trust.

To read the case, see: Christiana Trust as Custodian GSRAN-Z LLC Deposit Account v. Megan A. Ciota (2018-CA-00906-COA)