Second Circuit Agrees with Third That Time to File an Innocent Spouse Petition is Jurisdictional and Not Subject to Equitable Tolling

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We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about a case he has assisted the Harvard Tax Clinic in litigating before the Second Circuit.  The court found the time for filing a Tax Court petition is jurisdictional meaning that our client’s reliance on the IRS statement regarding the last date to file her petition has landed her outside of the court without a judicial remedy for review of the innocent spouse determination unless she can come up with the money to fully pay the liability which she cannot.  Keith

This post updates a post on Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. May 9, 2017).  In Rubel, the IRS told the taxpayer the wrong date for the end of the 90-day period in section 6015(e)(1)(A) to file a Tax Court innocent spouse petition.  The taxpayer relied on that date – mailing the petition on the last date the IRS told her.  Then, the IRS moved to dismiss her case for lack of jurisdiction as untimely.  In response, the taxpayer argued that the IRS should be estopped from making an untimeliness argument, having caused the late filing.  But, the Tax Court and, later, the Third Circuit held that the filing period is jurisdictional.  Jurisdictional periods are never subject to equitable exceptions.

Keith and I litigated Rubel.  We also litigated a factually virtually-identical case in the Second Circuit named Matuszak v. Commissioner.  On July 5, the Second Circuit reached the identical conclusion as the Third Circuit.

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The reasoning of both opinions is almost the same:  Under recent Supreme Court case law, time periods to file are no longer jurisdictional.  But, there are two exceptions:

One is that if the Supreme Court has called a time period jurisdictional in multiple past opinions issued over decades, the time period is still jurisdictional under stare decisis.  This stare decisis exception can’t apply to the innocent spouse petition filing period because the Supreme Court has never called any time period to file in the Tax Court jurisdictional or not jurisdictional.

The other exception is the “rare” case where Congress makes a “clear statement” that it wants a time period to be jurisdictional, notwithstanding the ordinary rule.  Both Rubel and Matuszak rely on the language of section 6015(e)(1)(A) as providing such a clear statement through the words “and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction . . . if” the petition is filed within 90 days of the notice of determination’s issuance.

Keith and I think this “clear statement” analysis is a bit too pat:  The words “and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction” appear only in a parenthetical.  Further, the “if” clause does not immediately follow that parenthetical.  We think that, based on Supreme Court case law on this clear statement exception, one can fairly argue that the parenthetical only applies to the language immediately following it – i.e., “to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section” – and which precedes the “if”.  In any case, if the language is not “clear”, then the time period should be held nonjurisdictional.

Both the Rubel and Matuszak opinion also pointed out the provision in section 6015(e)(1)(B)(ii) that gives the Tax Court jurisdiction to enjoin the IRS from collection of the disputed amount while the request for relief and all judicial appeals is pending.  There is a sentence in this provision that limits the Tax Court’s injunctive jurisdiction only to cases of the “timely” filing of a Tax Court petition under section 6015(e)(1)(A).  Keith and I don’t see the relevance of this injunctive provision to the clear statement exception, and we don’t see that “timely” means not considering any extensions provided under statutes (such as sections 7502 (tolling for timely mailing), 7508 (combat zone tolling), or 7508A (disaster zone tolling)) or judicial equitable exceptions.

And as to the context of the statute, remember both (1) that the statute explicitly invokes equity (in subsections (b) and (f)) and (2) that section 6015(e) was adopted joined in the same 1998 act to a legislative overruling of United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).  In Brockamp, the Supreme Court held that, due to the high volume of administrative refund claims and the complexity of section 6511, the time periods therein were not subject to equitable tolling under the presumption in favor of equitable tolling against the government laid down in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990).  Congress adopted section 6511(h) to provide what it called a legislative “equitable tolling” in cases of financial disability.  Does anyone think Congress’ desire to overrule the Supreme Court as to equitable tolling in section 6511 means that the same Congress did not want equitable tolling to apply in its new equitable innocent spouse provision?

In Rubel, the Third Circuit also cited Brockamp for the proposition that Congress in 1998 would have thought all time periods in the Internal Revenue Code jurisdictional.  Keith and I pointed out to both Circuits, however, that Brockamp doesn’t even contain the word “jurisdiction” or “jurisdictional”.  About the only significant difference between the opinions of the two Circuits is that the Second Circuit declines to include this questionable characterization of Brockamp.

No other Circuit has yet considered whether the time period in section 6015(e)(1)(A) is jurisdictional or not.  Keith and I are about to litigate the identical issue in the Fourth Circuit.  Clearly, the opinions in Rubel and Matuszak are not helping us.

Comments

  1. Rick Stack says:

    Carl – You’ve penned an excellent post on this issue! The analysis of the Circuit Courts in Rubel and Matuszak that Section 6015(e) contains a “clear statement” of congressional intent that equitable tolling is inapplicable seems to be slipshod, especially given the contemporaneous enactment of Section 6511(h) to partially overrule the Brockamp decision. Hopefully you’ll have better luck with this argument before the Fourth Circuit and this issue will be decided by the Supremes.

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