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Lincoln woman loses legal fight to keep her home following Supreme Court ruling

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LINCOLN — A Lincoln woman Friday lost her legal fight to keep her home following a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling in a case where she had challenged the sale of her property tax liens when she had gotten behind on real estate taxes.

“Despite legal protections, (Sandra) Nieveen, who suffers from mental illness, will lose her home of nearly 50 years based on today’s ruling,” attorney Mark Bestul of Legal Aid of Nebraska said in a press release.

Under Nebraska law, counties can sell property tax liens to private parties when homeowners fall behind on their real estate taxes. Regardless of how much equity a homeowner has in his or her property or how small the amount the owner owes in taxes, state law allows the county to take the property and all of the equity in it and transfer it to a private purchaser who pays the unpaid taxes.

If the property owner doesn’t pay the money back within three years, the private party can take ownership of the property.

Bestul said Nieveen tried to rely upon a two-year extension of time for the redemption period based on her mental illness.

Extensions are allowed under Nebraska law if a property owner is determined to suffer a mental disorder at the time of the tax sale.

But both the trial court and the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that Nieveen did not prove she was entitled to it.

In Friday’s decision, Justice Jonathan Papik said to qualify for the extension, the party must establish that he or she has a mental health condition and that it prevented them from understanding their legal rights or taking action to protect them.

He said Nieveen acknowledged in testimony that she knew she had to pay her bills and that there were consequences if she did not.

“While we have no reason to question that Nieveen suffered from depression and anxiety in 2015, we do not believe she proved that those conditions prevented her from understanding her legal rights or taking action to protect them,” Papik wrote.

And, he said, Nieveen failed to avail herself of the opportunity for a hearing on the requested extension.

In response to Friday’s decision, Bestul said: “The fact our clients, like Ms. Nieveen, who are already dealing with many facets of instability, now also have to lose their home due to a lack of a basic notice is heartbreaking. We firmly believe that low-income, elderly, and disabled clients deserve better, and we will continue to fight for fair and equal property rights for all Nebraskans.”

He said they are reviewing the decision and determining all possible remaining options, including requesting additional review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal Aid of Nebraska was involved in a similar case before the Nebraska Supreme Court, Continental Resources v. Kevin Fair, in which Fair argued Nebraska’s tax sale scheme is unconstitutional.

The state’s high court ruled against him in March.

Bestul said Fair plans to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

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