MARK A. SACCULLO, as Successor Trustee of the Anthony L. Saccullo Irrevocable Trust for the benefit of Mark A. Saccullo, Plaintiff-Counter Defendant-Appellant,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant-Counter Claimant-Appellee. DOROTHY A. SACCULLO, Counter Defendant-Appellant, TAX COLLECTOR OF CHARLOTTE COUNTY, FLORIDA, Counter Defendant,
from the United States District Court for the Middle District
of Florida, D.C. Docket No. 8:16-cv-00410-CEH-TBM
MARCUS, NEWSOM, and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.
NEWSOM, CIRCUIT JUDGE:
relic of the English legal tradition holds that, as a general
matter, the sovereign (here, the United States) is not bound
by statutes of limitation or subject to laches. The question
before us is how this vestigial rule-nullum tempus
occurrit regi, or, as the parties here call it, the
"Summerlin" principle, after United
States v. Summerlin, 310 U.S. 414, 416 (1940)-interacts
with a Florida law designed to correct technical flaws in
issue in this case is whether Fla. Stat. §
95.231, which operates to cure certain defective deeds after
the passage of five years, applies to a parcel on which the
United States has asserted a federal estate-tax lien.
Here's the (very) short story: In 1998, the
appellant's aging father executed a deed conveying
property to a trust created for the appellant's
benefit-but unfortunately, failed to procure a second
witness, as Florida law requires. Following the
appellant's father's death in 2005, the United States
assessed an estate tax on the property-which it said remained
in the estate despite the attempted conveyance-and, when the
tax remained unpaid, imposed a series of liens. The question
here is whether Summerlin forestalls enforcement of
§ 95.231's five-year-cure provision to defeat the
United States' estate-tax claim. We hold that it does
not. Section 95.231 cured the deed in question, thereby
effectuating the intended conveyance and transferring the
property out of the father's estate, well before the
United States' claim could have vested. The Florida
statute, therefore, didn't cut off a preexisting claim in
a way that might offend Summerlin; rather, it
simply-and validly-prevented that claim from coming into
being in the first place.
Saccullo has lived on the property at issue here, the site of
his childhood home, since 1991. In 1998, Mark's father
Anthony, who owned what we'll call "the
Property" in fee simple, executed a deed that purported
to convey it to the "Anthony L. Saccullo Irrevocable
Trust for the benefit of Mark A. Saccullo." For the most
part, the deed conformed to the necessary formalities, and it
was properly notarized and recorded in December 1998. There
was just one glitch: the deed bore the signature of only one
witness, not the two required by Fla. Stat. § 689.01.
That failure effectively negated the conveyance-at least for
the time being, but more on that later-and despite the deed,
Anthony retained title to the Property.
Anthony died in December 2005, Mark became the trustee of his
father's irrevocable trust. Mark filed an estate-tax
return and-mistakenly it now seems-included the Property
among the estate's assets. In 2007, the IRS assessed an
estate tax of almost $1.4 million, apparently under the
impression that the estate still owned the Property. Shortly
thereafter, Mark, acting in his capacity as trustee, conveyed
the Property via quitclaim deed to himself and his wife.
the estate-tax liability remained delinquent, the government
filed two tax-lien notices with Charlotte County, Florida-one
against the estate in 2012, and another against the Property
in 2015. The IRS later administratively seized the Property
and unsuccessfully sought to sell it, as the estate-tax
liability increased to $1.6 million.
the administrative seizure, Mark filed a quiet-title action
in the United States District Court for the Middle District
of Florida, contending that the liens didn't cover the
Property because it was (in fact) not part of his
father's estate when he died. The government
counterclaimed, seeking to foreclose on its liens.
government subsequently moved for summary judgment on its
counterclaim arguing, as relevant here, that the Property
remained in Anthony's estate, and was thus "subject
to [the government's] tax lien" because, as
explained above, "the 1998 deed was not properly
witnessed." In opposing the government's motion,
Mark relied on Fla. Stat. § 95.231, which, in relevant
part, states that
[f]ive years after the recording of an instrument required
to be executed in accordance with s. 689.01 . . . from
which it appears that the person owning the property
attempted to convey [the property], . . . the instrument .
. . shall be held to have its purported effect to convey
[the property] . . . as if there had been no lack of . . .
witness or ...