Public Interest Law Firms File Direct Action with SJC to Enjoin Use of ‘Equity Theft’ Law

Action seeks to bring Massachusetts into compliance with recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling

BOSTON – The Pioneer Public Interest Law Center and Greater Boston Legal Services have filed an action with Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) to enjoin the City of Springfield from foreclosing on a home worth about $230,000 because of a $22,000 unpaid tax bill without returning the more than $200,000 difference between the value of the home and the tax liability to the homeowner.

The action comes after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found earlier this year in Tyler v. Hennepin County that a Minnesota statute substantially similar to the Commonwealth’s “equity theft” law was unconstitutional because it denied just compensation to a homeowner for the taking of her property. State Attorney General Andrea Campbell recently opined that Tyler renders the Massachusetts law, known as Chapter 60, unconstitutional.

“In Tyler, the Supreme Court sent a clear message that any surplus beyond the tax debt must be returned to the homeowner,” said Pioneer Public Interest Law Center President Frank Bailey. “Massachusetts is one of a minority of states that has a law like Minnesota’s, and the Court’s ruling makes it clear that such laws are unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable.”

In Tyler, the Court unanimously ruled in favor of Geraldine Tyler, an elderly woman who had lost her home valued at $40,000 because of $15,000 in unpaid property taxes. Pioneer Public Interest Law Center filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the Minnesota statute was unconstitutional.

In the Massachusetts case, Ashley Mills is on the verge of losing her Springfield home worth around $230,000 and for which the mortgage has been fully paid, due to a $22,000 property tax debt. Currently, Chapter 60 allows Springfield — or a private actor to whom a municipality sells its right to foreclose — to keep the more than $200,000 difference between the home’s fair market value and the taxes owed.

Mills, 25, lives with her 22-month-old son and disabled mother in the home she inherited from her grandmother. The home is her only financial asset. If it is foreclosed on and she does not receive the more than $200,000 of remaining equity after the tax debt is satisfied, Ashley, her toddler, and her disabled mother are at risk of becoming homeless.

In 2016, Mills was unable to pay $1,636.70 in property taxes she owed. Over the next three years, she entered into payment agreements with the city, but was unable to catch up, largely due to a punitive 16 percent interest rate and other charges imposed under Chapter 60. In May, the City of Springfield filed a motion in the Massachusetts Land Court for judgment of foreclosure.

“Ms. Mills will continue to use every avenue available to pay her taxes and keep her home,” said Catherine M. Kay, Supervising Attorney at Community Legal Aid, who represents Mills in the Land Court foreclosure case. “But those options are limited at this point. If she cannot save her home, she should at least receive the equity in it.”

Ashley Mills’ home is but one example among dozens of unconstitutional tax takings in Massachusetts this year. As a result, in addition to enjoining the City of Springfield from taking her home, the Pioneer Public Interest Law Center and Greater Boston Legal Services are also asking the SJC to enjoin all use of Chapter 60 takings for 90 days.

The action is meant to give the state Legislature time to amend the law to conform with Tyler and allow for a permanent injunction that would prevent Springfield from taking Ms. Mills’ home unless the city makes a provision to turn over, in a reasonable time, the difference between the fair market value of the home and the amount Mills owes in taxes.

Prior to Tyler, 13 states had laws similar to Chapter 60 and the Minnesota statue the Court struck down. Since then, Minnesota, Maine and Nebraska have changed their laws. Illinois has frozen sales of the right to foreclose.

“Low-income households are especially vulnerable to tax foreclosures and Massachusetts has failed to provide these homeowners with realistic options to repay tax arrears,” said Todd S. Kaplan, Senior Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “We are asking the Supreme Judicial Court to stop tax foreclosures while the Legislature works to align the tax foreclosure process with Tyler. The Legislature has an opportunity to ensure that tax foreclosures are a last resort and are done in accordance with the Constitution.”

Fighting to End Unconstitutional Equity Theft

Supreme Court ruling will impact state laws and case of Worcester homeowner

On May 26, 2023, the United States Supreme Court in Tyler v. Hennepin County struck down Minnesota’s tax foreclosure scheme. The Court ruled that a Minnesota homeowner who lost her home to a tax foreclosure was entitled to the surplus from the home’s sale. The unanimous ruling has put the spotlight on laws in several states that allow municipalities to sell tax liens to private parties, which then foreclose on properties, pay back taxes and fees, and then retain most or all of the remaining equity.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is expected to impact a Massachusetts case filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in which 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 was represented by the Pioneer Public Interest Law Center, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Greater Boston Legal Services.

“The Court sent a clear message, ruling unanimously that any surplus beyond the tax debt should be returned to the homeowner,” said Frank Bailey, president of Pioneer Public Interest Law Center, which filed an amicus brief in Tyler v. Hennepin County.

In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: The principle that a government may not take more from a taxpayer than she owes can trace its origins at least as far back as Runnymeade in 1215, where King John swore in the Magna Carta that when his sheriff or bailiff came to collect any debts owed him from a dead man, they could remove property ‘until the debt which is evident shall be fully paid to us; and the residue shall be left to the executors to fulfil the will of the deceased.'”

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.  The Court found that Minnesota violated the U.S. Constitution when it took the entire value of her home for the taxes.

PioneerLegal Applauds Today’s U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Carson v. Makin

BOSTON – PioneerLegal applauds today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin striking down a Maine law that allows districts without their own public schools to contract with or reimburse the families of students who attend private or public schools located elsewhere, but which explicitly excludes religious schools.

Two years ago, in the 2020 decision, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that, “A state need not subsidize private education.  But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

“While the Maine law allowed parents to access the public or private education that best suits their children,” said PioneerLegal President Frank J. Bailey, “its exclusion of religious schools clearly could not pass constitutional muster after Espinoza.”

Again writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts found that the “unremarkable” principles in Espinoza suffice to resolve this case and that for the Court to “accept Maine’s argument, our decision in Espinoza would be rendered meaningless.”  Bailey also noted that “a law, such as the one at issue in Carson, that targets religious education will rarely satisfy strict scrutiny analysis.”

For over a century, until the early 1980s, religiously affiliated schools were included in the Maine school choice program.  The Maine Legislature re-codified the program in 1982 to prohibit parents and students from using the law to access religious schools, as was the intention when it was passed in 1873.

“We are thrilled that the law will once again reflect the intent of those who enacted it, as it did for over a century,” said Jamie Gass, Pioneer Institute’s director of school reform.  “This ruling will restore educational opportunity to families across rural Maine.”

PioneerLegal submitted an amicus brief in Carson, and Pioneer Institute submitted an amicus brief in Espinoza, which was cited in Justice Samuel Alito’s concurrence.

For well over a decade Pioneer Institute has highlighted this important legal and educational topic through researcheventsop-edsmedia appearancespodcast episodes, and a documentary film.

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Pioneer Institute Files Amicus Brief Urging Supreme Court to Hear School Choice Case

Claims amendment to Montana Constitution motivated by anti-Catholic bias

Contact Micaela Dawson, 617-723-2277 ext. 203 or

BOSTON – Pioneer Institute today announced that it has submitted an amicus curiae urging the United States Supreme Court to hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which challenges a state constitutional amendment marked by religious bias.

The amendment in question is a so-called Blaine amendment. It prohibits public resources from flowing to individuals to send their children to religiously affiliated schools, preventing Catholics and immigrants from receiving the kind of education that would enable them to become successful.

In the Espinoza case, Kendra Espinoza, a suddenly-single mom, sought a better education for her daughters. In public school, one daughter was bullied and the other struggled in her classes. Both children would later thrive in the parochial school of her choice.

Ms. Espinoza’s decision to send her daughters to Stillwater Christian School was not easy and caused her family financial difficulties. Her access to a badly needed scholarship was denied after the Montana Supreme Court struck down a legislatively established education tax credit program. The basis for the court’s decision was the state’s 130-year-old Blaine amendment.

While the money for the scholarships the Espinoza family accessed came from private sources, the Montana Innovative Education Program Credit provided the donors with tax credits for their contributions. According to the Montana Supreme Court, the Blaine amendment prevented Ms. Espinoza’s children from gaining access to the scholarships.

“Acts motivated by religious animus violate the first and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” said Cornelius Chapman, an attorney and the author of “The Know-Nothing Amendments: Barriers to School Choice in Massachusetts.” “Even if they appear neutral on their face, they are impermissible if designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.”

Legislative history and press coverage of efforts to enact a national Blaine amendment in the 1870s show that Catholicism was clearly the target of amendment proponents.

Sadly, anti-Catholic bias still animated a majority of Congress in 1889, when the enabling act authorizing Montana to form a state constitution required that it include a Blaine provision. The clause forced on Montana by an anti-Catholic Congress exists to this day in substantially unaltered form.

“Kendra Espinoza, like so many other parents, sought the education that best suits the needs of her children,” said Pioneer’s Executive Director Jim Stergios. “It is hard to believe that an amendment steeped in anti-Catholic bias still stands in her way 130 years after its passage.”

Massachusetts was the first of 38 states to adopt Blaine amendments. Two amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution are the work of the virulently anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, which came to power in the state elections of 1854, after a wave of Catholic immigrants arrived in the Commonwealth during the Irish Potato Famine.

The Pioneer brief was filed April 12, 2019. It was drafted by a team led by Michael Gilleran of Fisher Broyles and Professor Dwight Duncan of the University of Massachusetts School of Law. They were assisted by Harvard Law School students Annika Boone, Benjamin Fleshman, Anastasia Frane, James McGlone and Grant Newman.

The Court is expected to announce whether it will hear the case by early summer.

In 2018, Pioneer produced a 30-minute documentary, “Big Sacrifices, Big Dreams: Ending America’s Bigoted Education Laws,” that chronicles the struggles of four families in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Georgia, all states with Blaine amendments, to send their children to parochial schools. View the film here.

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.


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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.