Fourth Circuit Joins Second and Third in Holding Innocent Spouse Suit Filing Deadline Jurisdictional

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We welcome frequent guest blogger Carl Smith back to the blog. Today he writes about our most recent loss in our effort to knock down jurisdictional walls in situations where taxpayers have a strong equitable reason for missing a court deadline. Keith

In a case litigated by the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic, the Fourth Circuit in Nauflett v. Commissioner, affirmed, in a published opinion, two unpublished orders of the Tax Court (found here and here) holding that the 90-day period in section 6015(e) in which to file a Tax Court innocent spouse petition is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. The Fourth Circuit thus joins the two other Circuits to have addressed these questions – in other cases litigated by the clinic – Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2017) (on which we blogged here) and Matuszak v. Commissioner, 862 F.3d 192 (2d Cir. 2017) (on which we blogged here).

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In all three cases, the IRS misled a pro se taxpayer into filing a late Tax Court petition.

The Nauflett opinion basically just follows what was said by those prior Circuits, finding in the words of the statute a clear statement that excepts this filing deadline from the current Supreme Court general rule that filing deadlines are no longer jurisdictional. Section 6015(e) provides that an “individual may petition the Tax Court (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction) to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section if the petition is filed” within 90 days of the issuance of a notice of determination (or after the taxpayer’s request for relief hasn’t been ruled on for 6 months). The Fourth Circuit noted the word “jurisdiction” in the sentence creating the filing deadline and felt that the word “if” in the sentence conditioned the Tax Court’s jurisdiction on timely filing. The court did not think the fact that the word “jurisdiction” was in a parenthetical mattered, and it did not credit (or even discuss) the taxpayer’s argument that the word “jurisdiction” was arguably addressed only to the words immediately following the parenthetical (“to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section”), which made the sentence ambiguous – i.e., not “clear”, as required for a Supreme Court exception to apply. As we have noted previously, jurisdictional filing deadlines can never be subject to equitable tolling or estoppel.

Observations

All three opinions omit discussion the clinic’s assertion that Congress, in drafting section 6015(e) in 1998, would likely have been shocked to hear that its language precluded equitable tolling, since section 6015 was an equitable provision enacted as section 3201 of the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 and was explicitly paired with section 3202, which amended section 6511 to add subsection (h), providing for equitable tolling of the tax refund claim filing deadline in cases of financial disability. The latter provision was to overrule United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), which held that the refund claim filing deadline could not be equitably tolled. Section 6015(e) was drafted in 1998 with none of the features that led the Brockamp court to reject judicial equitable tolling of the refund claim filing period.

I hope this third loss on the section 6015(e) issue can at least be of use in lobbying Congress for Nina Olson’s proposed legislative fix to make the filing deadlines for all tax suits not jurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling. For her proposal, see the link in our blog here.

Keith and I have no further cases to litigate on this section 6015(e) filing deadline. We cry “uncle” on section 6015(e)’s filing deadline.

However, only as amici, we are still litigating the jurisdictional nature of several other judicial tax filing deadlines:

  1. Section 6213(a) (the Tax Court deficiency suit filing deadline, in the Ninth Circuit related cases of Organic Cannabis Foundation v. Commissioner, Docket No. 17-72874, and Northern California Small Business Assistants v. Commissioner, Docket No. 17-72877 – both reviewing unpublished orders of the Tax Court dismissing allegedly-late petitions for lack of jurisdiction);
  2. Section 6532(a) (the district court refund suit filing deadline, in the Second Circuit case of Pfizer Inc. v. United States, Docket No. 17-2307 – reviewing unpublished orders of the district court for the Southern District of New York that dismissed an allegedly-late complaint for lack of jurisdiction); and
  3. Section 7623(b)(4) (the Tax Court whistleblower award deadline in the D.C. Circuit case of Myers v. Commissioner, Docket No. 18-1003 – reviewing the ruling in Myers v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 20 (June 5, 2017), dismissing a late petition for lack of jurisdiction (on which we blogged here).

All of those cases present statutes that are easier for us to win under than section 6015(e) (the hardest). We are expecting a ruling in Pfizer any moment, since it was argued on February 13. But, it is possible in each of these cases that the court will affirm or reverse on some other ground, so that the jurisdictional issue is not reached.

Finally, I wish to thank Harvard Law student Allison Bray for her excellent oral argument in the Nauflett case. Nauflett’s was the third court of appeals oral argument done by a Harvard Law student in the last 14 months. Hear Allison’s oral argument here. Prior to Allison, two other tax clinic students argued similar cases.  Hear Amy Feinberg’s oral argument to the 4th Circuit regarding jurisdiction in the CDP context here. Hear Jeff Zink’s argument to the 2nd Circuit in Matuszak regarding section 6015 jurisdiction here.

Comments

  1. Norman Diamond says:

    ‘We cry “uncle” on section 6015(e)’s filing deadline.’

    Without “sam”?

    “All three opinions omit discussion the clinic’s assertion that Congress, in drafting section 6015(e) in 1998, would likely have been shocked to hear that its language precluded equitable tolling, since section 6015 was an equitable provision”

    Don’t you know someone in Congress to suggest fixing this?

  2. Bob Kamman says:

    I wonder how many law schools offer a course in lobbying. There certainly are enough lawyers employed in that line of work. There could be a lobbying clinic, where students could take on worthy causes like changing the jurisdictional rules that prevent IRS from assisting abused women. (No chance that federally-funded low-income taxpayer clinics would be allowed to become involved; they can’t even help taxpayers trying to prove insolvency.)

    High school students in Florida have shown recently how public opinion and lawmakers can be directed to focus on certain issues. All hope has been abandoned, by the time students get to law school?

  3. Jesse Langel says:

    Exceptional work going on at the Harvard Tax Clinic. I just heard Allison Bray’s argument. I’m very impressed to see a second-year law student arguing a case of this caliber.

    I will now commit to memory: “jurisdictional filing deadlines can never be subject to equitable tolling or estoppel.”

    Thank you for this wonderful content. Keep them coming.

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