Superior Court Judge Invalidates “Equity Theft” Law as Unconstitutional

SPRINGFIELD, MA –A Massachusetts Superior Court has ruled that a state law allowing municipalities (or private actors to whom municipalities sell the right to foreclose) to foreclose on homes due to property tax debt without having to pay the homeowner the difference between the taxes owed and the value of the home is unconstitutional as applied to the facts of the case at hand.

MIAA to Allow Virtual School Students to Participate in Home School District Athletics

Under pressure from lawsuits, agency reinstates long-held policy

BOSTON – Pioneer Public Interest Law Center (PPILC) and the law firm of Sullivan & Worcester LLP are pleased to announce that after an 18-month legal battle, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) has reversed its position and will once again allow children who attend Commonwealth Virtual Schools to play interscholastic sports in the school districts where they live.

“While I am deeply gratified that the MIAA leadership finally decided to abide by state and federal constitutional requirements, I am deeply disappointed that children have missed as much as two years of participation on their school sports teams,” said PPILC President Frank J. Bailey.

Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester LLP who also represented the students, added, “I am filled with admiration for our clients, who stayed the course long after the rule change robbed them of their own seasons, to make a positive change for other students.”

In 2022, MIAA announced that students from Massachusetts’ two virtual schools — TECCA Connections Academy (TECCA) in Walpole and Greater Commonwealth Virtual School (GVCS) in Greenfield — were no longer eligible to participate in interscholastic athletics in their home districts, even though such participation had been successfully in place for seven years prior.

Under the earlier policy, virtual school students could participate in athletics at their local public high school if the heads of both the virtual and traditional schools agreed to it. There had never been an issue with the mutual agreement system, nor was there any outreach from MIAA about any possible change. Many school districts allow virtual school students to participate in all other extracurricular activities, such as theater and music programs.

The families of students at TECCA and GVCS challenged the MIAA’s decision.

In late 2022, PPILC, a Massachusetts public interest law firm, teamed with Sullivan & Worcester to file suit against the MIAA on behalf of two students who were suddenly prohibited from competing as part of their local district teams.

One plaintiff, who had attended public schools in his hometown for five years, joined the lawsuit during his sophomore year in high school. While attending his local public high school, he was relentlessly mistreated and bullied by his classmates — experiences that destroyed his self-confidence and were greatly exacerbated by an anxiety disorder.

By last year, his third at TECCA, he had gained the self-confidence to try out for and make junior varsity soccer team at his local public high school, where he had a great experience. But just before the first game of the season in September 2022, he was informed that he was no longer eligible to play. Having now missed two seasons, his hopes of playing high school soccer are over.

The other named plaintiff is an outstanding hockey player who is in line to be recruited at the highest level of collegiate hockey. He was adopted from another country at 18 months old and attended local public schools through ninth grade, but struggled with learning issues likely attributable to neglect before he was adopted.

After enrolling at TECCA nearly two years ago, he received the academic support he needed, and the online format can accommodate his busy club hockey travel schedule. The student has also competed as part of his local high school’s lacrosse team, but the new MIAA rule prevented him from continuing at TECCA.

The families of both students own homes and pay real estate taxes that support their local public schools. The plaintiffs are representative of the diverse student bodies at public virtual schools that also include students with medical issues, those seeking the flexibility to proceed at a slower — or, not infrequently, a faster academic pace — and students who are very involved with the arts. The schools provide districts and parents alike with a far less expensive option to private schools that address these needs.

After over a year of litigation, MIAA announced in October 2023 that it had reversed the decision to ban virtual school students from participating in local school sports. The decision was ratified in November.

“Pioneer Public Interest Law Center is dedicated to preserving families’ right to choose the educational environment that best suits their child’s needs,” Bailey said. “We will continue to protect those rights in and out of court.”

U.S. Supreme Court Invalidates Minnesota Tax Foreclosure Scheme

Ruling could impact Worcester homeowner’s suit against city and private tax lien buyer

BOSTON, May 26, 2023 – The United States Supreme Court today struck down Minnesota’s tax foreclosure scheme, ruling that a Minnesota homeowner who lost her home to a tax foreclosure was entitled to the surplus from the home’s sale.

In Tyler v. Hennepin County, Geraldine Tyler lost her home valued at $40,000 because she had not paid $15,000 in property taxes.

“The Court sent a clear message today, ruling unanimously that any surplus beyond the tax debt should be returned to the homeowner,” said Pioneer Public Interest Law Center President Frank Bailey.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could affect a Massachusetts case filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court earlier this month.  There, homeowner Carmen Rodriguez sued the City of Worcester and a tax lien buyer, Tallage Davis, LLC, seeking to invalidate a state statute that allows municipalities to confiscate people’s homes — including all the equity built up over many years — when they fall behind on their real estate taxes.  Ms. Rodriguez is represented by the Pioneer Public Interest Law Center, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Greater Boston Legal Services.

Ms. Rodriguez has owned her Worcester home for decades. She raised her family there and paid the mortgage in full.  When she became ill and had to leave her job at the TJ Maxx warehouse where she worked for 37 years, she fell behind in her city real estate taxes, but she was not terribly worried because she owed only about $2,600 and her house was worth $200,000 to $300,000.

Worcester, however, quickly moved ahead with a little-known practice of selling its right to foreclose on Ms. Rodriguez’s home to Tallage Davis, LLC, a Boston-based tax title buyer.  Tallage soon took title to the house and commenced eviction proceedings against Carmen and her son, seeking to remove her from the house during the 2022 holidays.

Ms. Rodriguez continued to make payments to Worcester even after Tallage filed a tax foreclosure, as she was unaware that the company was trying to foreclose on her home.

Ms. Rodriguez is not alone in her efforts to invalidate what many have called the “equity theft process.”  Approximately 13 states have laws that allow equity theft.

In the U.S. Supreme Court case, Geraldine Tyler, an elderly Minnesota woman, lost her home under that state’s statute, which tracks the Massachusetts law.  Like Ms. Rodriguez, Tyler argued that statutes such as these violate state and federal constitutional provisions that prohibit the taking of property without just compensation and the charging of unreasonable fines.  Today’s decision found that Minnesota violated the U.S. Constitution when it took the entire value of her home for the taxes.

“I appreciate that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that homeowner’s have rights and they should not lose the entire value of their home for a small amount of taxes owed,” Rodriguez said.  “I am fortunate to have great team of lawyers in my corner to show how unjust this is.  Hopefully it will never happen to another homeowner in Massachusetts.”

Carmen Rodriguez was preparing to move out of her home prior to accessing legal assistance.

“The process used by Worcester does not even benefit the city’s citizens, because while Worcester received less than $4,000, Tallage took the deed to Carmen’s home worth about $300,000,” said Todd Kaplan of Greater Boston Legal Services.  “This process makes no economic sense for Massachusetts communities; it only enriches people like those who own Tallage.”

Massachusetts High Court Strikes Down Town’s Civility Code as Unconstitutional

BOSTON, March 7, 2023 — In an opinion that reinforces political speech rights at public meetings throughout the Commonwealth, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has declared that Southborough’s civility code governing participation at public meetings violates Article 19 of the Massachusetts Constitution.

Article 19 protects core political speech rights—the right to assemble “in an orderly and peaceable manner. . . to consult upon the common good; give instructions to [the people’s] representatives,” and to request of the government “by way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.”

Exercising her Article 19 rights is just what appellant Louise Barron was attempting to do during the public comment portion of a Southborough town meeting when she was abruptly silenced and threatened with expulsion by town officials who claimed that her criticism of their repeated violations of the Open Meeting Law violated Southborough’s civility code.

“We are delighted that the court has made it absolutely clear that our democratic form of government was founded upon, and still depends upon, our right to freely and peaceably criticize our leaders, and to seek redress of our grievances, without fear of retribution or governmental restraints,” said PioneerLegal staff attorney Selena Fitanides.

The town’s code requires that “[a]ll remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks,” and it warns that [i]nappropriate language . . . will not be tolerated.”

PioneerLegal filed a non-party amicus brief in the case last fall urging the court to rule that civility codes like Southborough’s constitute viewpoint discrimination and, therefore, violate the sacrosanct right to free political expression enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution.

In a 29-page scholarly opinion, Justice Kafker agreed, writing that “[a]lthough civility can and should be encouraged in political discourse, it cannot be required.” According to our Constitution, “political speech must remain ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

PioneerLegal President Frank J. Bailey reacted to the opinion as follows:

“We are convinced that the Barron decision, which marks a high-water mark in free speech rights in the Commonwealth, will have a nationwide impact on the rights of citizens to be heard by their elected officials. We also hope the United States Supreme Court will recognize those same rights in the federal Constitution when given an opportunity.”

Keeping State Taxation Powers Within the Law

U.S. Auto Parts Network, Inc. v. Commissioner of Revenue

In December 2022, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of U.S. Auto Parts Network, Inc., in a case that involving taxation of online sales. Pioneer Public Interest Law Center — then known as PioneerLegal — had submitted an amicus brief in the case.

In 2018, in the Wayfair case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state could, consistent with the Commerce Clause, require a company that engages in online retail sales to file a sales tax return and to collect the tax, provided the company has a “substantial nexus” with the state, even if it has no physical presence in the state. The Court  left it to the states to define “substantial nexus.” The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) then sent a tax bill to U.S. Auto Parts, an out-of-state retailer, for a period before the Wayfair decision.

Pioneer’s amicus brief argued that the application of Wayfair retroactively was impermissible, and the state’s SJC agreed. Importantly, the ruling in this case will apply in other instances where the DOR seeks to expand tax liabilities retroactively, an invidious technique that has been seen in other contexts.


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PioneerLegal is a non-partisan, public interest law firm that defends and promotes educational options, accountable government and economic opportunity across the Northeast. PioneerLegal achieves its mission through legal research, amicus briefs, and litigation.