She owed a little, so they took everything – how one New Jersey woman is fighting back against unfair tax foreclosure practices

December 02, 2021 | By BRITTANY HUNTER

Within seconds of meeting Lynette Johnson, you know you are in the presence of a strong woman. She’s the kind of tough a person must be to immigrate to a new country, raise eight children, lay a husband to rest, and take on the government when justice stands in jeopardy.

In 2018, Lynette found herself at odds with her city government after it seized her commercial property, sold it, and kept the equity—all of it.

Four years earlier, Lynette had purchased property in East Orange, New Jersey, to help her son and daughter pursue their dream of starting a business.

The entrepreneurial spirit courses through the Johnson family’s blood, a trait which Lynette credits her parents. Growing up in Guyana, both her mother and father were serial entrepreneurs, always finding ways to create value for others by offering a variety of goods and services.

Reflecting on her parents’ business savvy, she told us:

“You take ginger, you make ginger beer. They would sell the crushed ice. They would fry the fish. They had an oven. We used to own like 23 pans of bread and cakes. All of that they used to do. Plus, my father had his own rice land where he would grow rice. We had our own cows, pigs. So that came from my parents.”

Her parents’ zest for business trickled down to their children, who often helped out with their endeavors. Lynette would often work the meat counter her parents ran. As is true of many entrepreneurs, her parents were strong believers in self-sufficiency and independence, and those values were passed down not only to their children, but to their grandchildren as well.

The love of business comes naturally to Lynette’s children, and she speaks of their pursuits with pride.

“My children, they’re all like that. They’re like that. My eldest child, which is my daughter, she has her own clothing business in Trinidad.”

Her oldest daughter even stayed behind when the family came to the United States because she couldn’t imagine having to abandon her business and work for somebody else. She loved the freedom of being in control of her financial well-being.

It came of little surprise to Lynette when her younger son and daughter, Alton and Shevon, decided to follow in the family’s footsteps and start their own business. When they came to their mother for help, Lynette had gone back to Guyana for an extended stay. But she purchased the New Jersey property for $55,000 and put in another $1,600 on architectural plans and the permits they required.

She had no idea at the time that this investment would end up in a severe loss of money.

Lynette is a law-abiding citizen, but she would soon find herself on the opposite end of the law, all over a misunderstanding that turned into an expensive bureaucratic nightmare.

The family never received the property tax assessment the first year they owned the property—their local government never mailed anything to the family’s long-time residential address, where they had lived and paid their taxes for three decades. And with Lynette living abroad, and receiving no communication from her local government, dealing with the matter fell between the cracks. In fact, the family had no idea they had missed the $4,621.98 payment, nor that the resultant tax debt became a lien on the property. It was not until 2018 that the family discovered that the city had purchased the tax lien three years earlier without ever contacting the family. Worse still, the city had already foreclosed—taking full title and divesting Lynette of any ownership interest—and sold the property to a private investor.

The situation only came to light when Shevon saw the family’s vehicles being towed from the property. She was informed right then and there that the property no longer belonged to them.

With Lynette still out of the country, she was unsure how to respond to this news.

“Before I came back, my children notified me. I told them, ‘Just go and see what you can do.’”

Adding insult to injury, Lynette was already caring for a sick husband and wasn’t sure how to explain the situation to him without stressing him out while he battled his ailments.

“It gave me such a terrible headache that I didn’t know how to tell it to my husband. I didn’t know. Because he was sick, he suffered from high blood pressure. And I must tell you, that night my head was in such a pain. I hardly get to sleep. And my husband knew something was wrong. He said, ‘You are hiding something from me.’ So when he said it at that moment, I had to tell him. I couldn’t lie to him. I couldn’t lie.”

Shevon took it upon herself to get to the bottom of the situation. After being told that the amount owed had now risen to nearly $20,000—due to the fact that the family had also not received their tax assessments 2016 and 2017—she immediately went to city hall to pay the back taxes and restore her family’s ownership to the property.

To her utter shock, she was told by city officials that they could not accept the payment and they could not help her. Because the city had obtained a final judgment of foreclosure from state court a month earlier, redemption was no longer possible.

On its own, this was already a frustrating and disheartening situation. But it was only the beginning.

In the end, the property was sold for $101,00, and the city government kept every last cent of that money.

To be sure, the city government is vested with the authority to levy and collect taxes, and these taxes should be paid. But the power to collect taxes does not give the government the power to take more than it is owed.

The Takings Clause of the New Jersey Constitution, like its federal counterpart in the Fifth Amendment, protects an individual’s right to just compensation if the government takes their property. But this right was denied to Lynette. Instead, the government stole $81,000 worth of equity and left the family with nothing.

As Lynette explains:

“I can’t understand how they keep all the money. They’re supposed to take just what belongs to them.”

As outrageous as the Johnsons’ story is, they are not the only people in New Jersey dealing with this great injustice. According to data collected by Pacific Legal Foundation, property owners in New Jersey lost more than $140 million in total home equity from 2014 to 2020.

Lynette loves America. But this experience has soured her on the workings of her local government.

When she moved to the United States in 1993, she had no idea she would find herself in this debacle. But she was unwilling to go down without a fight. She and her children learned from a family friend that people have tried to fight back against what had happened to them, which is often called home equity theft. Eventually, the determination to fight for justice led them to discover Pacific Legal Foundation.

Lynette expressed her relief to find that there was someone out there willing to help her fight:

“At least there are people who know what the government is doing is completely wrong.”

She continued:

“The taxes were just $20,000. My property was worth so much more than the taxes. Even if you sold my property, take your taxes and give the rest to me. Why are you keeping what is not yours? You get double and I lost. I get nothing. I lose. All my money gone down the drain.”

Lynette knows what is at stake, and she understands that a challenge in court will be an uphill battle. But she is determined to try. And Pacific Legal Foundation will be with her every step of the way.