Fourth Circuit Declines to Rule on Whether CDP Filing Period is Jurisdictional, but Holds Against Taxpayer, Since It Says Facts Do Not Justify Equitable Tolling

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We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who discusses the most recent circuit court opinion regarding the jurisdictional nature of the time frames for filing a petition in Tax Court. The Fourth Circuit takes a different tack but reaches the same result as prior cases. Keith 

A few days ago, I did a post on the Ninth Circuit opinion in Duggan v. Commissioner, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 886 (9th Cir. 1/12/18). In Duggan, a pro se taxpayer mailed a Collection Due Process (CDP) petition to the Tax Court one day late, relying on language in the notice of determination that stated that the 30-day period to file a petition did not start until the day after the notice of determination. He read this to mean that he had 31 days to file after the date of the notice of determination. Keith and I filed an amicus brief in Duggan arguing that (1) the filing deadline in section 6330(d)(1) is not jurisdictional, (2) the deadline is subject to equitable tolling, and (3) in light of the fact that 7 other pro se taxpayers over the last 2 ½ years read the notice the same way, the IRS misled the taxpayer into filing a day late – justifying equitable tolling on these facts to make the filing timely. In Duggan, the Ninth Circuit did not have to reach the second or third arguments, since it held that the language of section 6330(d)(1) made its filing deadline jurisdictional under a “clear statement” exception to the Supreme Court’s usual rule (since 2004) that filing deadlines are no longer jurisdictional. Thus, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the Tax Court’s dismissal of the case for lack of jurisdiction – a dismissal that had originally been done in an unpublished order.

Keith and I represented a formerly-pro se taxpayer in the Fourth Circuit who had a case on all fours with Duggan, Cunningham v. Commissioner. In another unpublished Tax Court order, she also had her CDP petition dismissed for lack of jurisdiction as untimely. Like the Ninth Circuit, the Fourth Circuit had no precedent on whether the CDP filing deadline is jurisdictional or subject to equitable tolling. Only days after the Ninth Circuit’s published opinion in Duggan, the Fourth Circuit, on January 18, 2018, issued an unpublished opinion in Cunningham affirming the Tax Court. But, the Fourth Circuit avoided the tricky issues of whether the filing deadline is jurisdictional or whether it might be subject to equitable tolling in an appropriate case. Instead, the Fourth Circuit held that Ms. Cunningham has misread a clear notice of determination and that her mere error was not a fact sufficient to sustain a holding of equitable tolling, even assuming (without deciding) that the filing deadline might be nonjurisdictional and might be subject to equitable tolling in an appropriate case.

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The opinions in Duggan and Cunningham do not mention the significant number of pro se taxpayers who have recently read the notice of determination filing period language differently, although the Cunningham opinion acknowledges that “other taxpayers” (number unspecified) have read the language like Ms. Cunningham.

The key passage in the Cunningham opinion states:

We have said that equitable tolling is appropriate “in those rare instances where—due to circumstances external to the party’s own conduct—it would be unconscionable to enforce the limitation period against the party and gross injustice would result.” Whiteside v. United States, 775 F.3d 180, 184 (4th Cir. 2014) (en banc) (internal quotation marks omitted).

We find these considerations to be wholly absent here. There is no suggestion of extraordinary circumstances that prevented Cunningham from timely filing her appeal, nor of circumstances external to her own conduct. Cunningham simply points to the language in the IRS’s letter, which she claims is misleading and tricked her and other taxpayers into filing late. But we see nothing misleading about it.

The letter informed Cunningham that she had “a 30-day period beginning the day after the date of this letter” to file an appeal. J.A. 5. We think the only reasonable reading of that language requires counting the day after the date of the letter (here, May 17) as “day one,” the following day (May 18) as “day two,” and so on up to “day thirty”—June 15. Cunningham claims she understood the language in the IRS letter to essentially count May 17 as “day zero,” and onward from there, resulting in a cutoff date one day later than the true deadline. Such a method of counting is certainly contrary to the practice set forth in Rule 25(a) of the Tax Court Rules of Practice and Procedure. See United States v. Sosa, 364 F.3d 507, 512 (4th Cir. 2004) (“[I]gnorance of the law is not a basis for equitable tolling.”). We think it is also contrary to the plain language of the IRS letter and to principles of common sense.2

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2Cunningham also points out (correctly) that the language in the letter is not identical to the language in the statute. But it need not be, and Cunningham fails to explain why the difference in wording matters. In our view, the language of the letter and the language of the statute are two commonsense ways of expressing the same message.

 

After the Duggan opinion was issued, the DOJ filed a FRAP 28(j) letter in the Fourth Circuit to alert the latter court to the ruling of the former. But, pointedly, the Fourth Circuit in Cunningham does not mention Duggan, even for contrast.

Since there is no Circuit split between Duggan and Cunningham (just different reasoning for affirming the Tax Court’s dismissals), it is almost certain that the Supreme Court would never grant cert. to review either of these opinions. Thus, no cert. petitions will be filed.

Keith and I want to thank Harvard Law student Amy Feinberg, who did the oral argument in Cunningham before the Fourth Circuit on December 5, 2017.

Keith and I also represent in the Fourth Circuit another formerly-pro se taxpayer who filed her Tax Court petition late. In the case of Nauflett v. Commissioner, Fourth Circuit Docket No. 17-1986, however, the notice of determination was issued under the innocent spouse provisions, and the language governing her filing deadline is contained in section 6015(e)(1)(A). In Ms. Nauflett’s case, there is a better argument for equitable tolling because (1) notes of a TAS employee clearly show that, prior to the last date to file (a date also not shown on the innocent spouse notice of determination), that TAS employee told Ms. Nauflett the wrong last date to file, on which she relied, and (2) Ms. Nauflett alleges by affidavit that the IRS CCISO employee who actually issued the notice of determination also told Ms. Nauflett (over the telephone) the identical wrong last date to file. The Tax Court, in an unpublished order, dismissed Ms. Nauflett’s petition for lack of jurisdiction as untimely. We are arguing in the case that, under recent Supreme Court case law, the innocent spouse filing period is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling, and the facts in her case justify equitable tolling. It may be harder for the Fourth Circuit to avoid issuing a ruling in Nauflett on whether or not the filing period is jurisdictional or subject, theoretically, to equitable tolling in the right case. Nauflett is fully briefed. It is not yet clear whether or when oral argument will be scheduled in the case.

Nauflett will no doubt be another uphill battle for Keith and me, however, since last year, two Circuits, in two other cases where we represented the taxpayers, held that the filing deadline in section 6015(e)(1)(A) is jurisdictional under current Supreme Court case law. Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2017); Matuszak v. Commissioner, 862 F.3d 192 (2d Cir. 2017).

Despite recent setbacks in court, I do not consider Keith and my litigation of the nature of tax suit filing deadlines under current Supreme Court case law to be a waste of time. Clearly, although we have not (yet) convinced any Circuit court to find the innocent spouse or CDP Tax Court petition filing deadline not to be jurisdictional, we have highlighted problems in those areas that have led Nina Olson to propose two legislative fixes.

Further, there is a much better case under current Supreme Court case law for finding district court filing deadlines under section 6532 nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable exceptions like tolling or estoppel. As an amicus in Volpicelli v. Commissioner, 777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015), I helped persuade the Ninth Circuit to hold that the period in section 6532(c) in which to file a district court wrongful levy suit is nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling. And, if the court reaches the issue, Keith and I hope, as amicus, to help persuade the Second Circuit to hold that the 2-year period in section 6532(a) in which to file a district court refund suit is nonjurisdictional and subject to estoppel. In both section 6532 instances, by contrast to sections 6015(e)(1)(A) and 6330(d)(1), the sentence containing the filing deadline does not also contain the word “jurisdiction”, and the jurisdictional grants to hear such suits are far away (in 28 U.S.C. section 1346) – key factors under current Supreme Court case law demonstrating that filing deadlines are not jurisdictional. As I noted in my post on Duggan, the jurisdictional and estoppel issues under section 6532(a) are among the issues presented in Pfizer v. United States, Second Circuit Docket No. 17-2307, where oral argument is scheduled for February 13.

 

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