In one of my prior blog posts (April 6, 2010 – "Tax Lien Foreclosure: Ready, Willing, and Able to Redeem"), I wrote about an unpublished Memorandum Decision from the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division 2 – Leveraged Land, Montgomery, v. Hodges, 2 CA-CV 2009-0057. In that Decision, the Court overturned a default judgment that a tax lien investor had obtained through service by publication in a newspaper, which restored the owner of record’s ability to pay off the delinquent property taxes. Service by publication is often the only way to notify someone about a pending lawsuit, because in many cases all efforts to personally serve someone prove unsuccessful. Because service by publication is not the preferred manner of serving defendants, the courts allow a default judgment that is obtained through serving a defendant by publication to be challenged for up to a year after the judgment is obtained.
In the Leveraged Land case, even though service by publication was warranted, the Court, based on prior precedent, ruled that the owner of record, because he was ready, willing, and able to pay off the tax lien, should be entitled to do so. Additionally, the Court ruled that the tax lien investor must understand that any default judgment obtained through service by publication is open to attack for up to a year, and the fact that the tax lien investor later decided to sell the property to a third-party before that time period had run was their own fault.
The Arizona Court of Appeals recently issued a written Opinion stemming from the same litigation. In this set of appeals, the Court was faced with two primary issues on appeal: (1) were Appellants Raven II Holdings, LLC ("Raven"), Hanna 120 Holdings, LLC ("Hanna"), and Bingham Arizona Land, LLC ("Bingham"), the subsequent purchaser of the property from Leveraged Land, LLC, "bona fide purchasers" of the property that was the subject of the tax lien foreclosure case? and (2) was Leveraged Land entitled to recover all of its attorneys’ fees under A.R.S. Section 42-18206.
A "bona fide purchaser" is used to refer to one who purchases property for value with notice. Regarding the issue of whether Raven, Hanna, and Bingham were "bona fide purchasers," the Court held that because Leveraged Land properly recorded the Treasurer’s Deed and the Default Judgment was attached to it, all subsequent purchasers were given "constructive notice" that the Default Judgment was subject to legal challenge, and "the risk of disruptions to any subsequent conveyances of the foreclose property fell squarely on" Leveraged Land and its successors.
Leveraged Land appealed the trial court’s award to it of attorney’s fees in the amount of $1,500.00. The trial court ruled that the amount of attorney’s fees that Leveraged Land requested was "unreasonable," though it provided no basis for such a determination. Leveraged Land argued on appeal that such an award was arbitrary and had no reasonable basis, especially when it had already been determined by the Court of Appeals that service was done correctly, thus entitling Leveraged Land to recovery of its fees if the owner of record later redeemed, which is what Hodges did in this case. Hodges, who was permitted to redeem the tax lien, argued that Leveraged Land was not entitled to attorney’s fees it incurred in opposing his redemption. The Court ruled that, over a dissenting opinion, a plain reading of A.R.S. 42-18206 leads to the conclusion that Leveraged Land is entitled to recover its attorney’s fees even if it was eventually unsuccessful in its appeal on the issue of whether Hodges was entitled to redeem the tax lien. The Court of Appeals, ruling that the trial court had abused its discretion, has remanded the case back to the trial court for a determination of the amount of attorney’s fees that Leveraged Land is entitled to.
One has to wonder just how much the subject property was worth in order to justify the level of expenditures in the underlying case, which resulted in three different appeals. In the end, the Court of Appeals made it clear that A.R.S. Section 42-18206 is unambiguous and permits a party to recover its attorney’s fees if the owner of record redeems a tax lien after proper service of process, and will leave it to the trial courts to determine what fees are "reasonable."