MILLER, P. J., ANDREWS and BROWN, JJ.
MILLER, PRESIDING JUDGE.
Dukes was served by publication with notice of a quiet title
action filed by three individuals who had purchased his
property at a tax sale. The trial court granted judgment in
favor of the purchasers, and Dukes appeals, challenging the
sufficiency of service, among other things. We now reverse
because the record shows that the purchasers failed to
exercise reasonable diligence to ascertain Dukes' correct
relevant facts are not disputed. Dukes owned a parcel of
property in Fulton County, but became delinquent in paying
his property taxes. Harold F. Munoz, Beatriz Elena Porras
Martinez, and Natalia M. Higgins (collectively, "the
Purchasers") bought the property at a tax sale in
January 2014. The 2014 county tax bill for the property
listed Dukes as the owner and included the property address,
but no other contact information for Dukes on the tax bill.
January 2015, the Purchasers sent Dukes legal notice of the
impending termination, or barment, of his right to redeem the
property by mailing a certified letter addressed to him at
the property address. The letter was "return[ed] to
sender" as undeliverable. The Purchasers then ran a
legal notice in The Daily Report for four consecutive weeks,
advising that the statutory right to redeem the property
would be forever barred on April 15, 2015.
2015, the Purchasers filed a petition to quiet title to the
property. Their attorney engaged a private investigator to
locate Dukes so that he could be served with the petition.
According to the investigator's affidavit, he started
with "some identifying information" for Dukes
giving his last known address as the Property address to
which the Purchasers had sent the barment notice; however,
using "normal investigative methods and procedures"
he was "unable to locate more current information"
on the investigator's affidavit, the Purchasers filed a
motion for permission to serve Dukes by publication. After
the special master appointed to hear the petition agreed that
Dukes should be served by publication, the trial court
granted the Purchasers' motion, and notice of the quiet
title action was then published. Following a hearing at which
Dukes did not appear, the special master issued a report and
recommendation finding that the Purchasers had perfected
service upon Dukes by publication and had properly barred his
right of redemption. Accordingly, the special master
concluded that the Purchasers were entitled to default
judgment against Dukes.
after the special master's report was filed, Dukes filed
an objection to the report, a request for a hearing, and a
motion for summary judgment, arguing that he had not been
properly served with the barment notice or the quiet title
action. He also tendered the redemption price for the
property into the registry of the court.
support of his arguments regarding improper service, Dukes
submitted the affidavit of a private investigator that his
lawyer had hired to determine whether "any information
regarding Winfred Dukes could be located that would provide
for a means of making contact with him." As background,
the investigator was given only the 2014 tax bill listing
Dukes' name and the property address. The investigator
started with a Google search for "Winfred Dukes, GA,
" and the first 50 results - including a pop-up window -
showed that Dukes served in the Georgia state legislature as
a representative from Albany. By clicking on the search
results, the investigator accessed biographical and
employment information about Dukes, as well as several postal
addresses, email addresses, and telephone numbers. The
investigator also located multiple social media accounts for
Dukes that contained contact information.
the investigator found a mailing address listed for Dukes on
the website for the tax assessor for Fulton County, where the
property is located. Finally, the investigator found contact
information for Dukes in subscription databases, in the
Secretary of State's occupational licensing division, in
voter registration records, and in the property records of
Dougherty County, where the Google search had shown that
Dukes lives. Based on his research, the investigator
concluded that "a minimal effort to locate a means for
contacting Winfred Dukes would have been successful."
trial court entered a final order overruling Dukes'
objections, adopting the special master's report, and
denying Dukes' summary judgment motion. The trial court
found that "[r]easonable notice was given to all parties
for whom the Special Master had, or could, after due
diligence, obtain a service address" and that service
had been perfected upon Dukes by publication. Further, the
trial court ruled that legal title to the property was vested
in the Purchasers and that Dukes was responsible for paying
the special master's fees. Dukes appeals, arguing that
service by publication was improper, the barment notice was
inadequate, legal title should not vest in the Purchasers,
Dukes should not be responsible for the special master's
fees, and Dukes was entitled to attorney fees.
Dukes first argues that he was not properly served with the
quiet title petition. We agree.
Quiet Title Act requires personal service upon "known
persons whose address is ascertainable." OCGA §
23-3-65 (b). The trial court may order service by publication
"[i]n all cases where service by publication is
permitted under the laws and where the respondent or other
party resides outside this state or whose residence is
unknown." Id. Thus, "our first inquiry . .
. is whether service by publication is permitted under the
laws of this State, given the situation presented here."
Floyd v. Gore, 251 Ga.App. 803, 804-805 (1) (555
S.E.2d 170) (2001).
process requires that a chosen method of service be
reasonably certain to give actual notice of the pendency of a
proceeding to those parties whose liberty or property
interests may be adversely affected by the proceeding."
(Citations omitted.) Abba Gana v. Abba Gana, 251 Ga.
340, 343 (1) (304 S.E.2d 909) (1983). Because service by
publication is a "notoriously unreliable means" of
providing actual notice, a plaintiff may serve a quiet title
petition by publication only if the defendant's address
is not ...