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04/18/91 JAMES D. KEATTS v. JACK ROBINSON

April 18, 1991

JAMES D. KEATTS, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
JACK ROBINSON, ET AL., APPELLEES



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. William C. Gardner, Trial Judge

Belson, Steadman and Schwelb, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb

This case concerns a tax sale of real property in 1979. It arises out of unpaid 1978 real estate taxes. On September 19, 1985, the trial Judge remarked to counsel that "I dreamed last night that this case had been settled." Unfortunately, that is still a dream.

I

The factual background of this controversy was described in some detail in Keatts v. Robinson, 544 A.2d 716 (D.C. 1988)(Keatts I). From 1973 to 1976, appellant Keatts, who owned real estate in the District, lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland. In November 1976 he moved to Crofton, Maryland. At the time of his move, he filed a change of address form with the post office. A tax bill for his 1976 taxes which was mailed to his Chevy Chase address was therefore duly forwarded to him in Crofton. Keatts testified that when he paid this bill in March 1977, he enclosed with his check a written notice of the change in his address.

Thereafter, Keatts never received another tax bill, and he failed to pay his real estate tax for the second half of 1978. As a result, in January 1979, the property was sold to the Robinsons at a public tax sale for $478.

Although tax bills were apparently mailed to Keatts at his former Chevy Chase address even after he had moved to Crofton, there was some evidence that the Department of Finance and Revenue (DFR) was aware of his new address. Less than one month after the tax sale, the DFR sent an "Income-Expense Form" to Keatts in Crofton. The computer-printed address on the form was the outdated one in Chevy Chase, but the Crofton address was handwritten on the side. The envelope bore Keatts' Crofton address. At trial, Keatts also introduced into evidence a DFR mailing list on which his former Chevy Chase address was printed out, but on which his Crofton address was handwritten in red ink underneath with the notation "New Address."

In Keatts I, we described the ensuing events as follows:

After the tax sale, Keatts and his co-owners had two years to redeem the property by paying all back taxes, penalties, and other costs. D.C. Code § 47-1005 (1973). Shortly before the expiration of the two-year period, the DFR mailed Keatts a notice that his right of redemption would soon terminate. Unfortunately, this notice was also mailed to Chevy Chase, and the post office returned it to the DFR because Keatts' forwarding notice had expired. Mr. Richards, the DFR assessment chief, testified that when mail such as this is returned, personnel in his division customarily look in the District of Columbia, suburban Maryland, and suburban Virginia telephone directories to locate the owner's address. In this instance, however, no such address was found, and the notice was simply remailed - to Chevy Chase. The redemption period then expired, and the District issued a tax deed to the Robinsons.

544 A.2d at 717-18 (footnote omitted). *fn1

Keatts filed suit in the Superior Court to set aside the tax sale. His principal claim was that the DFR had failed to send tax notices to his last known address as recorded in the real estate assessment records. See Regulation 74-35, § 112(c), 21 D.C. Reg. 1651 (1975). The trial Judge upheld the validity of the tax deed. He found that Keatts had failed to prove that he had notified the DFR of his change of address, and that a change made to the mailing list for Income-Expense Forms "does not constitute a change in record address of the property owner."

Keatts then filed his first appeal to this court. After discussing the evidence and the relevant precedents, we remanded the case to the trial Judge to determine whether the DFR knew or should have known of Keatts' move, and whether the agency should have sent notices of Keatts' right to redeem the property to the Crofton address. Specifically, the Judge was directed to decide whether the DFR

has a duty to check its own records for evidence of a taxpayer's correct address. To resolve this question, the trial court must balance the burden that such a procedure would place on the District against the reasonableness of a taxpayer's expectation, unless otherwise informed, that the Department has the correct address for all purposes if the Department mails some notices to the proper address.

Keatts I, supra, 544 A.2d at 720 (quoting Robinson v. Kerwin, 454 A.2d 1302, 1307 (D.C. 1983)). On remand, without conducting an evidentiary hearing or considering the affidavit proffered by appellant Keatts, see n.1, (supra) , the trial Judge again sustained the validity of the challenged tax ...


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