Another Jurisdictional Issue in Pfizer

Today we welcome Bob Probasco in his first guest appearance on Procedurally Taxing. Bob directs the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth. He has had a long and varied career in the tax world, having moved from accounting to tax law and most recently to teaching. In this post Bob describes the pending dispute over which forum a taxpayer can use to sue for overpayment interest. Christine

Carl Smith blogged earlier this year about the Pfizer case. The attention on Procedurally Taxing, and the amicus briefs filed by Carl and Keith in several cases, focused on an issue that could affect a large number of tax controversies: whether filing deadlines are “claim-processing” rather than “jurisdictional” rules and therefore can be equitably tolled. It’s an interesting and very important issue.

But there’s also a smaller issue Carl alluded to briefly, in an area with which some readers may not be familiar, that hasn’t received as much attention. The issue arises in lawsuits seeking overpayment interest under section 6611. The procedural differences might be of interest while we’re waiting for Second Circuit’s decision in Pfizer.

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Underpayment interest under section 6601, owed by taxpayers to the government on taxes and penalties that have not yet been paid, is explicitly treated as equivalent to the underlying tax for most purposes by section 6601(e)(1). (The exception is that underpayment interest is not subject to deficiency procedures.) Treating underpayment interest as equivalent to tax makes sense – assessment of additional tax will often result in assessment of underpayment interest and an abatement of tax will often result in abatement of previously assessed underpayment interest. But overpayment interest under section 6611 has no provision equivalent to section 6601(e)(1) and additional overpayment interest is “allowed” and paid rather than assessed.

If a taxpayer does not receive the overpayment interest to which it is entitled, how can the taxpayer challenge the IRS in court? If the tax overpayment was determined as part of a Tax Court case, the taxpayer can seek the court’s review of an erroneous determination of associated interest under Rule 261. But if the underlying tax overpayment was claimed on the original return (as in Pfizer) or a refund claim that is resolved administratively rather than in court, how does the taxpayer seek judicial review of an erroneous determination of overpayment interest?

Pfizer filed its suit under the jurisdiction (concurrent to district courts and the Court of Federal Claims) to hear tax refund suits, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1). But it’s not at all clear that provision applies to a stand-alone claim for additional overpayment interest. The jurisdictional provision applies to

Any civil action against the United States for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority or any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected under the internal-revenue laws.

With an action for additional overpayment interest, there was no assessment or collection – simply a failure to “allow” and pay.

The Sixth Circuit, in E.W. Scripps Co. v. United States, 420 F.3d 589 (6th Cir. 2005), concluded that courts do have jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) to hear a stand-alone claim for overpayment interest. It looked to the last part of the provision: “any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected under the internal-revenue laws.” You may be wondering how the court concluded that a failure to allow and pay interest equates to overpayment interest that is “excessive” or “wrongfully collected.” The answer: “If the Government does not compensate the taxpayer for the time-value of the tax overpayment, the Government has retained more money than it is due, i.e., an ‘excessive sum.’”

I’ve never found Scripps very convincing, and to the best of my knowledge no other Circuit has reached the same conclusion. The government disagrees with Scripps and continues to challenge efforts to bring stand-alone claims for overpayment interest under § 1346(a)(1). That doesn’t mean taxpayers are without recourse, of course. Suit can be brought under the Tucker Act, which provides jurisdiction to both district courts and the Court of Federal Claims for

any claim against the United States . . . founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United States, or for liquidated or unliquidated damages in cases not sounding in tort.

Even better, the six-year statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2401 or 2501 applies to Tucker Act suits and there is no requirement to file a refund claim first.

So why didn’t Pfizer just claim jurisdiction under the Tucker Act, to avoid any question about jurisdiction? As you might expect, this was probably a case of forum shopping. The Tucker Act jurisdiction for the Court of Federal Claims, at 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1), is not limited as to the amount of the claim. Pfizer wanted to bring suit in district court instead, where the Tucker Act jurisdiction (sometimes referred to as the “little Tucker Act”), at 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2), adds a limitation: “not exceeding $10,000 in amount.” (Judges in the Court of Federal Claims have more experience with claims against the federal government than typical district court judges; the jurisdictional provisions funnel most large and complex disputes there instead of to district court.) But Pfizer was seeking more than $8 million. If there is any way to do that in district court, it would have to be § 1346(a)(1).

The district court in Pfizer followed Scripps and ruled for the taxpayer in a preliminary motion to dismiss based on whether jurisdiction was proper under § 1346(a)(1). But Pfizer’s suit was filed beyond the two-year limit of section 6532 and the court granted the government’s second motion to dismiss because the suit was not filed timely. On appeal, the government is challenging the first ruling and the taxpayer is challenging the second ruling.

In addition to the argument based on equitable tolling, the taxpayer is also making a second argument: no refund claim was required at all, and therefore section 6532 doesn’t apply. That seems odd when suit was brought under the jurisdictional provision we think of as governing refund suits, Section 7422, which requires a refund claim be filed first for any suit

for the recovery of any internal revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or of any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority, or of any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected.

The language is almost identical to that in § 1346(a)(1) but the taxpayer argues the two provisions should not be interpreted the same way.

The Sixth Circuit agreed, in Scripps. The taxpayer had filed a refund claim timely but the court addressed section 7422 anyway. The government had cited a case suggesting a link between section 7422 and § 1346(a)(1). If so, since section 7422 and related provisions apply most naturally to refunds of “tax,” arguably § 1346(a)(1) also should be limited to “tax.” Certainly some requirements associated with section 7422, such as the “look-back” provision in section 6511(b)(2) and the Flora rule, would seem nonsensical for a stand-alone claim for overpayment interest. But the Sixth Circuit simply distinguished these two provisions that use virtually identical language:

. . . the two provisions serve different functions and thus have their own independent meanings. . . . Thus, even though a claim for statutory interest on an overpayment of tax might not fall within the scope of § 7422(a), this does not prevent statutory interest from being included with the ‘‘any sum’’ clause of § 1346(a)(1).

Will the Second Circuit rule for the taxpayer by following Scripps and also by concluding that the section 6532 statute of limitations either doesn’t apply or can be equitably tolled? If so, with two Circuits now giving an expansive reading to § 1346(a)(1), will more taxpayers be likely to file these claims – and other, non-tax claims – in district court instead of the Court of Federal Claims?

Or will the Second Circuit rule for the government? Will it conclude that Pfizer was “in the right place but it must have been the wrong time” (agreeing with Scripps that jurisdiction is proper in district court under § 1346(a)(1) but dismissing the suit as not filed timely) and/or “in the wrong place but it must have been the right time” (timely filing for a suit under the Tucker Act, but plaintiff didn’t claim that as jurisdiction and also needed to be in the Court of Federal Claims)? Pfizer might wind up in the Court of Federal Claims after all.