Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Bruce S. Mencher, Trial Judge)
Before Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Kern, Senior Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell
FARRELL, Associate Judge:
On this appeal from a judgment canceling a tax deed, the issue is whether the rule in this jurisdiction that government authorities must comply strictly with the notice provisions of the District of Columbia tax sale statute and regulations requires that a sale be invalidated because the notices to the delinquent property owners abbreviated their first names rather than spelling them out in accordance with the tax assessor's records. Although we take this occasion to caution the District tax authorities about the risks inherent in deviating from notice in the full names listed in the tax records, we conclude that a categorical rule voiding a tax sale whenever a first name appearing in the records has been abbreviated is neither compelled by nor appropriate under our precedents. We hold that because abbreviations of a type used in this case would not materially affect the accuracy of the notices given or create a substantial danger of misleading property owners as to the intended recipients of the notice, the trial court erred in voiding the tax sale on this ground. We remand, however, for consideration of an additional issue raised by our recent decision in Malone v. Robinson, No. 89-CV-1546 (D.C. August 21, 1992). *fn1
George O'Berry Newsome and Alma Violet Newsome, appellees, were the record owners of property located at 1140 Morse Street, N.E. When they failed to pay their property taxes for the fiscal year 1983, the District of Columbia sent them a Final Delinquent Real Property Tax Notice, as required by statute. The notice was addressed to "Geo. O. & A. V. Newsome." A list of delinquent tax properties subject to a tax sale was published in the Washington Post on December 17, 1983, and in the Washington Afro-American on December 20, 1983. The published notices listed the Newsomes' property under the description "Newsome, Geo. O. & A. V.," followed by the correct Morse Street address. Appellant David Gore bought the property at a tax sale on January 20, 1984. A certificate of sale was issued to him and a copy filed with the recorder of deeds on February 17, 1984. Near the end of the statutory redemption period, the District government, by certified mail, sent a notice of impending expiration of the redemption period to 1140 Morse Street, N.E., this time directed to "Geo' O &' A V Newsome" (sic). The Post Office returned the notice to the District marked "unclaimed." Because appellees failed to pay back taxes plus interest in the amount of $695.59 by the expiration of the redemption period, January 21, 1986, a deed to the property was issued to appellant Gore on May 10, 1989.
Appellees filed suit to quiet title against the District of Columbia and Gore. Gore requested summary judgment, claiming that because the District had complied with all statutory notice requirements, the tax sale was valid. Appellees filed an opposition and their own motion for summary judgment asserting, among other deficiencies, that the mailed and published notices were inadequate because they did not spell out the first names of appellees. *fn2 Included with appellees' motion was: a deed of trust to the property listing their names as "George O. Berry Newsome" and "Alma Violet Newsome," documents showing that the Office of the Assessor in the Department of Finance and Revenue listed the ownership of the property under the names "George O. Newsome" and "Alma V. Newsome," and affidavits attesting that neither owner was known by his or her first initials or abbreviated versions of their first names. After a pretrial conference on March 6, 1991, the trial Judge entered summary judgment in favor of appellees
based upon the sole issue and undisputed findings that sending notices and bills addressed to "Geo. O. & A. V. Newsome" and publishing the notice of tax sale with the names "Geo. O. & A. V. Newsome" did not strictly comply with requirements of the law that bills and notices be sent to the owners in their names and that the publication of notices of sale and delinquent tax lists be published in the names of the owners.
Neither side disputes the general principle that District of Columbia law requires strict compliance with the statutes and regulations governing tax sales of real property. Keatts v. Robinson, 544 A.2d 716, 719 (D.C. 1988); Frassetto v. Barry, 497 A.2d 109, 113 14 (D.C. 1985); Robinson v. Kerwin, 454 A.2d 1302, 1306 (D.C. 1983); Boddie v. Robinson, 430 A.2d 519, 522-23 (D.C. 1981); Shenandoah Corp. v. Pringle, 385 A.2d 748, 749-50 (D.C. 1978); Potomac Bldg. Corp. v. Karkenny, 364 A.2d 809, 812 (D.C. 1976), cert. denied, 431 U.S. 921, 97 S.Ct. (1977). The issue here is whether that rule prohibits a deviation, in the form of an abbreviated first name, from the full name of the property owner listed in the District's tax records when the government publishes or mails the required notices during the tax sale process.
The governing statutes and regulations require notification of the property owner at three stages of this process. Before property is sold at a tax sale, the District must mail two notices of tax delinquency to the "record owner." D.C. Code § 47-1302 (1981); 9 DCMR § 314.1 et seq. (1984). *fn3 The District must also publish a list of delinquent properties that are subject to auction at a tax sale. This list must "contain the name of the owner of the property" and describe the property in question. D.C. Code § 47-1301, implemented by, 9 DCMR §§ 315.1, 315.2 (1984). The District must provide final notification to the landowner thirty days before the two year redemption period expires. This notice must be sent by certified or registered mail to the address of the "record owner" of the property. 9 DCMR 317.3 (1984).
Appellees contend that the notices in this case which, while accurate as to the Newsomes' last name, middle initials, and address, abbreviated Mr. Newsome's first name from "George" to "Geo." and Mrs. Newsome's first name entirely (Alma to "A."), did not comply with the requirement that notice be given to the "record owner" and contain "the name of the owner of the property," thereby invalidating the sale. Neither party has cited (nor have we found) legislative history indicating the degree of exactness the drafters intended the mailed designation of "record owner" to have. Appellees cite common law authority generally for the principle that a person's "name" is not rendered by an abbreviation. BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 1023 (6th ed. 1990) sums up this authority as follows:
A person's "name" consists of one or more Christian or given names and one surname or family name. It is the distinctive characterization in words by which one is known and distinguished from others, and description, or abbreviation, is not the equivalent of a "name."
More persuasive, perhaps, though not cited by appellees, is that in a separate but functionally similar place in the tax sale statute -- dealing with the District government's right to "bid off" or purchase property at a tax sale and then enforce its lien after notice to the delinquent taxpayer -- the drafters specified that "notice must be given in the name appearing upon the records of the Assessor as the owner of such property." D.C. Code § 47-1313. Since the purpose of § 47-1313 notice obviously parallels the purpose of notice under the provisions governing this case, appellees can plausibly argue that the legislature meant notice to the "record owner" generally to mean ...