Search Results for: equitable tolling

D.C. Circuit Holds Tax Court Whistleblower Award Filing Deadline Not Jurisdictional and Subject to Equitable tolling

As many of you know, the Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School has been arguing, since its 2015 inception, that judicial filing deadlines in tax are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling under recent Supreme Court case law. Accepting this argument would upend decades of case law in the appellate courts and the Tax Court. We first made the argument in a Collection Due Process (CDP) case filed in the Tax Court. In Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230, 235-238 (2016), an en banc Tax Court unanimously rejected our argument (but found another way to rule for the taxpayer). Later, in another case, Duggan v. Commissioner, 879 F.3d 1029 (9th Cir. 2018), the Ninth Circuit also held the CDP filing deadline at section 6330(d) jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. (In Cunningham v. Commissioner, 716 Fed. Appx. 182 (4th Cir. 2018), the Fourth Circuit said there were no facts that would justify equitable tolling, so it passed on deciding whether the CDP filing deadline was jurisdictional.) 

The whistleblower award jurisdiction of the Tax Court at section 7623(b)(4) dates from 2006 and was copied almost verbatim from the CDP filing deadline language. In a 2-1 opinion in Myers v. Commmissioner, U.S. App. LEXIS 19757 (D.C. Cir. July 2, 2019), rev’g 148 T.C. 148 (2017), the D.C. Circuit has just held that the whistleblower award petition filing deadline is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling. The D.C. Circuit reversed the Tax Court’s dismissal of the case for lack of jurisdiction. The Tax Court had so held because it felt that the whistleblower’s failure to timely file the petition within 30 days of the issuance of various notices that the Tax Court found were notices of determination deprived the Tax Court of jurisdiction. I previously blogged on the Tax Court’s Myers opinion here. The D.C. Circuit remanded the Myers case to the Tax Court for the Tax Court to decide, in the first instance, whether the confusing nature of the determinations and their being sent by regular mail (and not even mentioning possible Tax Court review) justified equitable tolling in this case to make the Tax Court petition timely.

read more...

Facts

Davis Myers told the whistleblowers office that he thought a company at which he had worked had misclassified employees as independent contractors. He sought a mandatory whistleblower award under section 7623(b) for a portion of the proceeds of any audit of the company. In a series of four letters written by the office to him and sent by regular mail, the office declined to pay him an award. The letters did not state that they were determinations under the statute, nor did they explain that the next step the whistleblower could take to contest the letters was to file a Tax Court petition within 30 days. Myers was puzzled what to do next. He wrote various people in the government complaining of his lack of award and mentioning the letters he had received. After getting no satisfaction form anyone, he decided to try filing a Tax Court petition – more than a year after the date on the last letter.

In the Tax Court, the IRS moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that the filing deadline is jurisdictional. The Tax Court asked the IRS for proof of mailing of each letter. Normally, other tickets to the Tax Court are sent certified mail, but these letters hadn’t been. The IRS conceded that it had no proof of when the letters were actually mailed. But, pointing to Myers’ correspondence with other government individuals, the IRS argued that Myers had received the letters at least by the dates of such correspondence. Since he had waited more than 30 days thereafter to file, the IRS argued that the petition was untimely. In an opinion importing some of its case law from its deficiency jurisdiction, the Tax Court granted the IRS motion.

Myers then had 30 days to file either a motion to vacate under Rule 162 or a motion for reconsideration of findings or opinion under Rule 161. He filed such a timely motion, but styled it one for reconsideration when he uploaded it electronically though the Tax Court’s efiling system. After the Tax Court denied the motion, he filed a notice of appeal of the Tax Court case, seeking an appeal to the Tenth Circuit. The notice of appeal was filed more than 90 days after the entry of the decision in the Tax Court case. Section 7483 gives an appellant only 90 days from the decision’s entry to file an appeal. But, FRAP 13 provides that if a person files a timely motion to vacate the decision, then the 90-day period to appeal starts running on the date the Tax Court rules on the motion. The FRAP does not mention motions to reconsider findings or opinions, however.

The Tenth Circuit transferred the appeal to the D.C. Circuit because, under section 7482(b)(1), the D.C. Circuit is the sole proper appellate venue for whistleblower appeals from the Tax Court.

Myers had been pro se to this point. But, for the D.C. Circuit, Joe DiRuzzo and Alex Golubitsky entered appearances on Myers’ behalf. The Harvard Federal Tax Clinic filed an amicus brief in the D.C. Circuit case.

D.C. Circuit Rulings

Initially, in its ruling, the D.C. Circuit addressed whether it had proper appellate jurisdiction from the Tax Court. Only one Circuit had ruled precedentially on the issue, the Ninth in Nordvik v. Commissioner, 67 F.3d 1489, 1493-1494 (9th Cir. 1995). In Nordvik, the court held that, despite FRAP 13’s lack of mention of a motion for reconsideration, such a motion also triggers the running of the 90-day period beginning from the date the Tax Court rules on the motion. In Myers, the D.C. Circuit reasoned that many Tax Court petitioners file pro se, and there is no explanation in Tax Court rules as to the difference between the two types of motions. Indeed, the motions are governed by similar review standards. Further, in non-tax appeals, motions for reconsideration are treated the same as motions to vacate a judgment – i.e., both postponing the appeal period until after such motions are ruled on. In order not to create a trap for unwary pro se filers, the D.C. Circuit held that motions for reconsideration are treated the same as motions to vacate the decision for purposes of the 90-day period to appeal under FRAP 13. Thus, Myers had filed a timely notice of appeal within 90 days of the Tax Court’s ruling on his motion for reconsideration.

Regarding the question of whether the Tax Court whistleblower award petition’s filing deadline is jurisdictional, the appellate court took a liberal view of Myers’ pro se pleadings to consider this issue and the issue of equitable tolling (even though Myers had never mentioned that exact doctrine before the Tax Court).

But first, contrary to some of Myers’ arguments, the D.C. Circuit held that the letters were proper notices of determination, since there was no legal requirement that the notices be sent certified mail, mention Tax Court review, or mention a 30-day filing period to contest them. Further, the D.C. Circuit did not disturb the Tax Court’s holding that Myers actually received the letters more than 30 days before he filed the Tax Court petition, and the 30-day period started no later than the date of provable receipt.

Turning to whether Myers could be forgiven for not filing timely, this raised two separate questions: Whether the filing deadline is jurisdictional and, if not, whether it is subject to equitable tolling?

Section 7623(b)(4) provides: “Any determination regarding [a whistleblower] award under paragraph (1), (2), or (3) may, within 30 days of such determination, be appealed to the Tax Court (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter).” This language is virtually the same as the CDP jurisdiction language at section 6330(d)(1), from which it was copied. Section 6330(d)(1) provides: “The person may, within 30 days of a [CDP] determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter).” Both provide a deadline for filing a Tax Court petition 30 days after the issuance of a determination, and both contain an ending parenthetical stating “and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter”.

PT had published a post by Texas Tech Prof. Bryan Camp criticizing Guralnik’s holding that the CDP filing deadline is jurisdictional. The post can be found here. In the clinic’s amicus brief in Myers, we quoted Bryan’s criticism of the Tax Court’s logic that the jurisdictional grant was made in the same breath as the filing deadline, so the filing deadline must also be jurisdictional. In its Myers opinion, although the D.C. Circuit did not cite Bryan’s blog post, it clearly borrowed from it in coming to its conclusion.

Under recent Supreme Court case law, a filing deadline is almost never jurisdictional. But, Congress can override that conclusion by making a “clear statement” that the filing deadline is intended to be jurisdictional. The D.C. Circuit acknowledged that it may be pushing the law a bit farther than the Supreme Court had so far in its cases, but the D.C. Circuit simply did not see that Congress had made a clear statement that the filing deadline in section 7623(b)(4) is jurisdictional by inserting the parenthetical grant “with respect to such matter”. The D.C. Circuit wrote:

The IRS contends this constitutes a “clear statement” because the Congress “placed the jurisdictional language in the same sentence and subsection as the time limit.” As our amicus points out, however, the Supreme Court has explicitly rejected “proximity-based arguments” to that effect. See Sebelius v. Auburn Reg’l Med. Ctr., 568 U.S. 145, 155 (2013) [where a single sentence contained both the jurisdictional grant and a filing deadline, but the Supreme Court still held the filing deadline not jurisdictional] . . . .

On the contrary, the jurisdictional grant is separated from the rest of the provision by being put in parentheses and introduced by the word “and,” which announces a new independent clause. We therefore do not attach dispositive significance to the proximity between the provision setting the time period and the jurisdictional grant. . . .

The IRS counters that “the test is whether Congress made a clear statement, not whether it made the clearest statement possible.” See Duggan v. Commissioner, 879 F.3d 1029, 1034 (9th Cir. 2018). True enough, but we are not saying the Congress must “incant magic words in order to speak clearly.” Auburn, 568 U.S. at 153. The Congress need only include words linking the time period for filing to the grant of jurisdiction . . . .

Our dissenting colleague reads “such matter” in the parenthetical to provide the connection that makes the filing period jurisdictional. We agree that “such matter” means “the subject of litigation previously specified,” which is “an appeal to the Tax Court.” Dissent 3. In our view, however, the type of appeal to which “such matter” refers is most naturally identified by the subject matter of the appeal – namely, “any determination regarding an award under paragraph (1), (2), or (3)” – and not by the requirement that it be filed “within 30 days of such determination.”

Slip Op. at 16-19 (some citations omitted).

The majority distinguished the three recent court of appeals opinions in which the Harvard clinic had unsuccessfully argued that the innocent spouse filing deadline at section 6015(e) is also not jurisdictional (Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301(3d Cir. 2017), Matuszak v. Commissioner, 862 F.3d 192 (2d Cir. 2017), and Nauflett v. Commissioner, 892 F.3d 649 (4th Cir. 2018)) because the language in the innocent spouse jurisdictional grant contains an “if” condition that is not present in the CDP or whistleblower award provision. The D.C. Circuit wrote:

[Section 6015(e)(1)(A)] differs from the provision at hand in one critical respect: The grant of jurisdiction is followed by an “if” clause that expressly conditions jurisdiction upon timely filing. There is no conflict, therefore, between this case and the cited decisions. Indeed, we think § 6015(e)(1)(A) just shows one way the Congress could have more clearly conditioned the Tax Court’s jurisdiction upon timely filing in § 7623(b)(4), viz., with a parenthetical that stated “the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter if the appeal is brought within such period.”

Footnote on slip op. at 18-19.

In his forthcoming law review article in The Tax Lawyer, Prof. Camp makes the similar distinction, concluding that section 6330(d)(1)’s filing deadline is not jurisdictional, while section 6015(e)(1)(A)’s filing deadline is jurisdictional. See “New Thinking About Jurisdictional Time Periods in the Tax Code.

The D.C. Circuit in Myers noted that its holding is “in some tension with that of another circuit regarding a similarly worded provision of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. §6330(d)(1)”, citing the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Duggan and the Tax Court’s opinion in Guralnik, and writing:

This provision is nearly identical in structure to the one at hand. Nevertheless, for the reasons given above, we cannot agree that ‘timely filing of the petition [is] a condition of the Tax Court’s jurisdiction’ simply because ‘the filing deadline is given in the same breath as the grant of jurisdiction.’ Duggan, 879 F.3d at 1034.

Slip op. at 20.

Moving on to whether the filing deadline is subject to equitable tolling, the Myers court noted that in Irwin v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990), the Supreme Court laid down a rebuttable presumption that nonjurisdictional federal statutes of limitations are subject to equitable tolling. The Myers court dismissed the DOJ’s argument that the filing deadline, even if not jurisdictional, is not subject to equitable tolling because, the DOJ argued, the whistleblower award Tax Court filing deadline is similar to the internal administrative filing deadline held not subject to equitable tolling in the Auburn case. The scheme in Auburn involved health care providers seeking reimbursements from Medicare internal boards, where the providers were represented by counsel and were repeat players before the boards. The Myers court wrote:

None of these other indicators of legislative intent is present in this case: The Tax Court is not an “internal” “administrative body” and Tax Court petitioners are typically pro se, individual taxpayers who have never petitioned the Tax Court before. Moreover, the IRS points to no regulation or history of legislative revision that might contradict the Irwin presumption. That the whistleblower award statute is not unusually protective of claimants is the only consideration on the IRS side of the ledger. Without more, we are not persuaded to set aside a presumption that has been so consistently applied. See, e.g. Young v. United States, 535 U.S. 43, 49 (2002) (“It is hornbook law that limitations periods are customarily subject to equitable tolling”) (cleaned up).

Slip op. at 22.

The D.C. Circuit remanded the case to the Tax Court for the Tax Court to determine, in the first instance, whether the facts in Myers required equitable tolling.

Observations

The D.C. Circuit is the sole appellate jurisdiction for whistleblower award ruling appeals from the Tax Court. So, this is a nationwide victory for whistleblowers. But, the DOJ might seek reconsideration en banc or cert. because of the split with the Ninth Circuit in Duggan. I would not be shocked if the Supreme Court would grant cert., since it has always been the position of the Tax Court and the government that the filing of a timely petition is necessary to any of its jurisdictions. See Tax Court Rule 13(c). Yet, the Supreme Court has never said anything about the jurisdictional nature of the Tax Court’s filing deadlines or whether they are subject to equitable tolling.

In sum, I am delighted to report that, after a series of disappointing losses involving Tax Court filing deadlines, we finally have a winner — and one that might generate a Supreme Court opinion, depending on how the Solicitor General feels about the case.

Bankruptcy Court Limits Prior Supreme Court Decision on Equitable Tolling

Regular readers of the blog know that the tax clinic at Harvard has been pushing to break down jurisdictional barriers and have equitable tolling applied to allow taxpayers to get into court in situations in which the government has caused, or partially caused, them to miss the filing deadline. The IRS vigorously opposes our requests just as it vigorously opposed the equitable tolling request in the cases leading to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brockamp v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).

Sometimes the IRS wants to use equitable tolling. In 2002, it won a major victory in the Supreme Court in the case of Young v. United States, 535 U.S. 43 in which the court found that the time period for an income tax liability to have priority status could be tolled by a prior bankruptcy case. The decision significantly expanded the possible life of priority status for claims of the IRS. Priority status not only assists the IRS in recovering from the bankruptcy estate but makes the tax non-dischargeable because of the interplay of the priority and discharge provisions. In Clothier v. IRS, No. 18-00104 (Bankr. W.D. Tenn. 2018) the bankruptcy court held that Young no longer applies because of changes to the law in 2005.

I feel confident that the IRS will appeal this decision; however, the decision has nationwide implications and will no doubt cause enterprising bankruptcy lawyers, who previously did not think that the changes to the bankruptcy law in 2005 changed the outcome in the Young case, to litigate this issue around the country. When coupled with Internal Revenue Service v. Murphy, a case of first impression from the First Circuit issued on June 7, 2018, this might keep the IRS and the U.S. Attorneys representing the IRS busy at the end of a high number of bankruptcy cases obtaining rulings from the bankruptcy court regarding discharge. Our post on Murphy can be found here.

.

read more...

Bankruptcy code section 507(a)(8)(A) has three subparts describing the income taxes that achieve priority status in a bankruptcy case. Subpart (i) describes income taxes for which the tax return is due within three years, including extensions, of the bankruptcy petition. This subpart would make a debtor’s taxes for the years 2017, 2016 and 2015 entitled to priority status if the debtor filed bankruptcy today because the returns for those years were due on April 15, 2018; April 15, 2017 and April 15, 2016, and each due date is within three years of today’s date. If the debtor obtained an extension to file the 2014 tax return, the due date for that return would have been October 15, 2015 and that due date is also with three years of today’s date. If the debtor did not obtain an extension to file the 2014 return, the due date of April 15, 2015 is more than three years from today’s date and any liability for that year would not meet the priority test imposed by subpart (i).

Because the ability to assess income taxes, and therefore to collect income taxes, involve the deficiency procedure which allows the taxpayer to delay the timing of the assessment by failing to file a return or declining to accept a proposed increase, Congress added two additional subparts to BC 507(a)(8)(A) to cover the eventuality that an assessment would not occur at or near the original due date for filing the return. The thinking behind the provisions for priority status for taxes was that the IRS should have a reasonable time to collect before a tax loses its priority status. It picked three years as the generally reasonable time but knew that the three year rule could be frustrated by certain taxpayer actions which is why it created subparts (ii) and (iii).

Subpart (ii) provides priority for taxes assessed within 240 days of the bankruptcy petition. I will come back to talk about the exceptions to subpart (ii) which form the basis for this decision but first want to explain how it works. A typical case in which subpart (ii) would apply involves a liability assessed after a Tax Court case or an extended examination. If the IRS audited the debtor’s 2013 return, it might be April 1, 2018 before the Tax Court rendered a decision regarding additional taxes for that year and the IRS made an assessment based on the decision. If the taxpayer filed bankruptcy today, the income tax liability for 2013 would not receive priority status based on subpart (i) because more than three years have passed since the due date of the return; however, today’s date is less than 240 days after the making of the additional assessment for 2013 causing subpart (ii) to bring this liability into priority status. Note that if the debtor had an outstanding liability stemming from the filing of his return because he did not include sufficient remittance, the liability related to the return would not have priority status because it would fail the tests of both (i) and (ii). It would be a general unsecured claim while the liability for the same tax period assessed as a result of the Tax Court decision would have priority status.

Subpart (iii) applies to those taxes which the IRS can still assess. Building on the prior example, assume that the debtor filed a Tax Court petition for 2013 but the Tax Court has not yet rendered a decision. The IRS cannot yet assess the taxes in the notice of deficiency. It has a priority claim for those taxes based on subpart (iii). It would not have priority status based on subpart (i) since more than three years has passed since the due date of the return nor would it have priority status based on subpart (ii) since there has been no assessment within 240 days of the filing of the bankruptcy petition. While subpart (iii) would appear to grant priority status for unfiled or fraudulent returns since the assessment period would remain open in those instances, an exception prevents the IRS from gaining priority status if the reason the statute of limitations on assessment remains open is due to an unfiled or fraudulent return. The discharge provisions will allow the IRS to continue collecting from the debtor after bankruptcy on this type of debt but the priority provisions prevent the IRS from gaining an advantage over other creditors from the property of the estate when the debtor’s bad actions with respect to taxes created the problem.

Circling back to subpart (ii) and the issue in Clothier it is necessary to look at the exceptions that exist in that subpart. Prior to 2005, it contained an exception in the case of a pending offer in compromise which extended the 240 day period if an offer was pending during that time period for the period the offer was pending plus 30 days. In the 2005 bankruptcy legislation, Congress added a second exception which provides “any time during which a stay of proceedings against collections was in effect in a prior case under this title during that 240 day period, plus 90 days…”

The bankruptcy court here finds that the passage of this subsection, passed after the decision in Young, shows Congressional intent to overrule Young and to limit the application of the tolling of the priority period to the circumstance prescribed in the new subsection in subpart (ii). If correct, this means that the tolling permitted by Young would not apply to extend the time in subpart (i) which is the time period on which the IRS was relying in Clothier.

Here, the debtors filed the bankruptcy case at issue in the opinion on September 4, 2013. The tax years at issue in the discharge proceeding are 2008 and 2009 for which the debtors had extensions to file until October 15 of year of the respective years. Debtors filed a prior bankruptcy petition on January 19, 2012 which was dismissed on June 5, 2013.

The bankruptcy court quickly and correctly found that the 2009 liability was entitled to priority status under BC 507(a)(8)(A)(i) because the filing of the current bankruptcy fell within three years of the extended due date for the 2009 return, viz., the return was due on October 15, 2010 which was less than three years prior to September 4, 2013. (The bankruptcy filing was ill timed if motivated by eliminating this tax debt absent consideration of the effect of Young.)

A very different result, however, applies with respect to 2008. The due date for the 2008 return, as extended, clearly falls outside of the three year period in BC 507(a)(8)(A)(i). Here, the IRS filed a priority claim relying on Young which tolled the time period due to the prior bankruptcy filing. The prior bankruptcy existed long enough to cause the new bankruptcy to fall within the three year period. Because of the apparent codification of the Young decision in BC 507(a)(8)(A)(ii), the bankruptcy court finds that Young no longer helps the IRS when it relies on subpart (i). Since the IRS does not receive the additional tolling, the 2008 tax debt does not achieve priority status and since it was not classified as a priority debt it was discharged in the bankruptcy case.

I have not looked at the brief filed by the IRS in this case to discover what arguments it makes that equitable tolling should continue in the face of the statue change. The statute change was driven by the bankruptcy commission created in the 1994 bankruptcy legislation. That commission created a tax advisory panel which recommended several changes to the bankruptcy code to make it better align with the tax code. The recommendations of the tax advisory panel and the bankruptcy commission were wrapped up a few years before the decision in the Young case but, after the IRS victory in Young no one went back to the proposed legislation to remove the change to subpart (ii). Now we will find out if the bankruptcy court’s seemingly logical interpretation of the statutory change effectively overrules Young and limits the IRS to the new statutory provision.

The reason for tolling the time period still exists when the IRS relies on subpart (i) to achieve priority status. The tax clinic at Harvard has some experience with arguing equitable tolling. We will be thinking about filing an amicus brief on behalf of the IRS. Given our track record on this issue, it would be the kiss of death.

 

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

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.

read more...

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

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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.

 

NTA Calls for Making Judicial Tax Case Filing Deadlines Subject to Forfeiture, Waiver, Estoppel, and Equitable Tolling

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who comments on a portion of the NTA’s recently released annual report relating to the issue of equitable tolling and adequate provision of information to taxpayers facing court filing deadlines.  The Ninth Circuit ruled this morning on this issue in the Duggan case linked below and found IRC 6330 jurisdictional.  More later. Keith

In her annual report to Congress dated December 31, 2017, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson has made two legislative proposals that will, if enacted, address problems that Keith and I have faced in some cases that were are litigating or have recently litigated in the courts of appeals. These cases have been the subject of a number of posts on PT. Thus, even if we never win any of these cases (and we make no promises on that score), at least we may have provoked discussion of legislative fixes.

Among problems that have come up in these cases are ones that flow from the courts’ view that all filing deadlines in the Tax Court are jurisdictional and therefore not subject to the judicial doctrines of forfeiture, waiver, estoppel, and equitable tolling – doctrines that are often applicable to nonjurisdictional statutes of limitations in suits (1) between private parties and (2) outside the tax area, brought against the federal government in such areas of law as Social Security disability benefits, employment discrimination, tort claims, and veterans benefits. The NTA notes that, unlike with the Tax Court, the appellate courts have been divided over whether those doctrines apply to tax case filings in the district courts and the Court of Federal Claims. The NTA has recommended that the Code be amended to provide that all of these tax case judicial filing deadlines be made nonjurisdictional and subject to those doctrines. The portion of her report on this proposal can be found here.

Also, along similar lines, the NTA is recommending a legislative change to require the IRS to show the last date to file any Tax Court petition on all Collection Due Process and innocent spouse notices of determination – just as the IRS has been required (since 1998) to show the last date to file on all notices of deficiency. She would have Congress also amend the Code to state that taxpayers may rely on the last date to file shown in the notice, even if the IRS has given the wrong last date – the same rule (added in 1998) under section 6213(a) applicable to notices of deficiency that show the wrong last date. As part of this proposal, she would also ask Congress to allow persons out of the country an additional 60 days to file Tax Court Collection Due process and innocent spouse petitions. The portion of her report on this proposal can be found here.

read more...

I had thought about extending this post to list all the various cases that Keith and I have litigated or are litigating in this area, but have decided that it makes more sense simply to report on the court rulings when they come down. I will, however, note that we are imminently awaiting rulings in the following three cases:

Duggan v. Commissioner, 9th Cir. Docket No. 15-73819   (submitted without oral argument on Dec. 7, 2017; the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic is amicus), and Cunningham v. Commissioner, 4th Cir. Docket No. 17-1433 (oral argument held on Dec. 5, 2017; the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic is counsel for the taxpayer). In both of these cases, the taxpayers argue that they were misled by the IRS through confusing language in the Collection Due Process notice of determination into mailing their Tax Court petitions to the court a day late. They seek equitable tolling to make their filings timely.

Pfizer v. United States, 2d Cir. Docket No. 17-2307 (oral argument to be held on Feb. 13, 2018; the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic is amicus). There, the IRS issued a notice of disallowance of a claim for overpayment interest under section 6611and told the taxpayer it had 6 years to bring suit on the claim in the district court (under 28 U.S.C. section 2401(a)) or the Court of Federal Claims (under 28 U.S.C. section 2501). That is the position that the IRS has long taken as to the statutes of limitations applicable to overpayment interest suits. See Rev. Rul. 56-506, 1956-2 C.B. 959. When the taxpayer brought suit in the SDNY about 3 years later, the DOJ moved to dismiss the suit for lack of jurisdiction as untimely, arguing that the applicable statute of limitations is the 2-year one of I.R.C. section 6532(a). The taxpayer argues that the applicable statute of limitations is the 6-year one, but if the 2-year statute applies, then that 2-year period is nonjurisdictional and subject to estoppel. The taxpayer points to Miller v. United States, 500 F.2d 1007 (2d Cir. 1974), which held that the 2-year period of section 6532(a) is subject to estoppel. Miller is in conflict with Federal Circuit case law holding that the 2-year period is jurisdictional and not subject to estoppel. See, e.g., RHI Holdings, Inc. v. United States, 142 F.3d 1459 (Fed. Cir. 1998).

 

The Idea of Equitable Tolling in Collection Due Process Request is Gaining Traction

Today we welcome guest blogger Samantha Galvin from the University of Denver. Professor Galvin is one of the four writers of our feature on designated orders published by the Tax Court. During the week she was “on” for the designated orders, the Court issued an which deserved its own post, and she took on that task. In the cases discussed below, the Tax Court reverses course and mitigates a somewhat harsh result that can occur when a taxpayer sends the CDP request to the wrong place within the IRS. The IRS has taken the position that if the taxpayer sends the CDP request to the wrong office, the taxpayer loses their right to a CDP hearing if the request does not find its way to the proper office within the 30 day time period allowed for making such a request. This rule has tripped up a number of pro se and represented taxpayers and becomes even harder to meet when the IRS gives wrong information. One issue raised by the cases Professor Galvin writes about today is whether these decisions represent a crack in the door regarding equitable tolling. Keith 

In the last couple of months, two designated orders have come out that suggest an unstated, equitable tolling exception may exist when it comes to collection due process (CDP) hearings requested pursuant to sections 6330 and 6320(a). The two most recent designated orders are Tarig Gabr v. C.I.R., Docket No: 24991-15 L (order here) and Taylor v. C.I.R., Docket No: 3043-17 L (order here). This issue has previously been covered in PT posts by Carl Smith most recently here and here.

read more...

Typically, a taxpayer, or his or her representative, must request a collection due process hearing to the appropriate IRS office within 30 days from receiving either a “Final Notice of Intent to Levy” (LT 11) or a “Notice of Intent to File a Lien and Your Right to Request a Hearing” (Letter 3172).

The designated orders involve taxpayers who sent CDP requests within the 30-day period, but to the wrong IRS offices. The requests were not received by the correct offices until after the 30-day deadline. As a result, the IRS denied the taxpayers a right to a CDP hearing and instead granted them an equivalent hearing. If a request is not timely as to the 30-day deadline, but sent within one year a taxpayer is entitled to an equivalent hearing. An equivalent hearing provides a forum with IRS Appeals similar to a CDP hearing, however, it does not provide the same protection from collection or allow for judicial review.

The IRS and Tax Court’s position has generally been that the 30-day deadline is jurisdictional, which means it cannot be subject to equitable tolling. If it is instead a claim-processing rule, then there is an argument to be made that equitable tolling may apply in some cases.

The door to make this argument was opened by the Supreme Court in the context of veterans’ affairs related claims. In Irwin v. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990), the Supreme Court held that a rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling should apply to suits against the United States, unless Congress clearly intends otherwise.

As to the question of whether the 30-day deadline is jurisdictional, in Henderson v. Shineski, 131 S. Ct. 1197 (2011), the Supreme Court urged courts to discontinue using the word “jurisdiction” for claim-processing rules, stating that the conditions that accompany the jurisdiction label should be reserved for rules that govern a court’s adjudicatory capacity such as subject-matter or personal jurisdiction. The Supreme Court acknowledged that it must look to Congress’ intent for a clear indication that a deadline is intended to carry harsh jurisdictional consequences before deciding whether equitable tolling should apply.

There have not been any Tax Court cases that decide whether equitable tolling should apply to collection due process requests, but in the recent designated orders the Tax Court rejects respondent’s argument that the Court lacks jurisdiction when a collection due process hearing request is filed within 30 days but sent to the wrong IRS office. According to respondent, this contradicts sections 7502 and 7503 which are used to determine timeliness only if a request is properly transmitted pursuant to Treas. Reg. sections 1.301.6320-1(c)(2) Q&A C-6 and Q&A C-4. In other words, respondent argues timeliness is only met when a request is sent within 30 days to the office where the request is required to be filed.

In Gabr, the taxpayer’s representative allegedly received erroneous instructions from an IRS employee and faxed the CDP request to the wrong office. In determining whether to grant or deny respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, the Tax Court acknowledged guidance from the Internal Revenue Manual section 5.9.8.4.2(8) that provides that if a taxpayer receives erroneous instructions from an IRS employee resulting in the request being sent to the wrong office then the postmark date for when the request was sent to the wrong office is used to determine timeliness.

In Taylor, however, there were no erroneous instructions given, rather the representative sent the request to a local office, instead of the office listed on the notice. Respondent relies on cases dealing with tax return filing and the assessment statute, bankruptcy, and foreclosure and lien withdrawal to argue that the CDP request cannot be equitably tolled. Respondent also relies on Gafford v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 16-40, citing Andre v. Commissioner, 127 T.C. 68 (2006), where the Court held that requiring taxpayers to follow claim-processing rules creates procedural consistency in effectively and efficiently processing such requests. But Andre is distinguishable from Gabr and Taylor, because Andre dealt with a request that was sent to an incorrect address prematurely, prior to the issuance of an LT 11 or Letter 3172.

In Taylor, the Tax Court was not convinced by any of respondents’ arguments since it denied respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and stated that respondent did not demonstrate sufficient prejudice to enforce strict compliance with the Treasury Regulations on the matter.

Does this mean these cases will result in decisions that can be relied upon to argue that the 30-day deadline can be equitably tolled for CDP requests in certain circumstances? So far, no. In Gabr, respondent conceded the case so the final decision issued by the Court did not speak on the issue. We will have to wait and see what happens in Taylor, but at the very least these designated orders suggest the Court is open to entertaining the argument.

WARNING: In Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230, 235-238 (2016), the Tax Court held, en banc, that the different 30-day period in section 6330(d)(1) to file a Tax Court petition after a CDP notice of determination is issued is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling under current Supreme Court case law. But the sentence containing the 30-day period in section 6330(d)(1) explicitly contains the word “jurisdiction”, while the 30-day periods in subsections (a)(3)(B) of section 6320 and 6330 do not. Keith and Carl Smith are in the midst of litigating whether the Tax Court’s position in Guralnik is correct in both Cunningham v. Commissioner, Fourth Circuit Docket No. 17-1433, and Duggan v. Commissioner, Ninth Circuit Docket No. 15-73819 (both cases where taxpayers mailed off their petitions a day late, but argue that they were misled by the language of the notice of determination that appeared to give them 31 days to file courting from the day of the notice of determination). Oral argument happened in Cunningham on December 5, and you can hear the argument here. (Harvard Federal Tax Clinic student Amy Feinberg argued the case for Ms. Cunningham.) Whichever way the Cunningham case comes out, it is clear that the judges there were giving Keith’s and Carl’s argument a serious hearing and not dismissing it lightly. The Duggan case was submitted without oral argument on December 7.

 

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

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.

read more...

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.

Two Appeals Court Innocent Spouse Test Cases on Equitable Tolling

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith.  Today Carl writes about some cases he and I are pursuing in the circuit courts.  It may be some time before this issue is resolved and we continue to look for cases with the right facts that will best allow us to pursue this argument.  Keith

Earlier this year, I reported here that Keith and I had become pro bono counsel of record in a Tax Court case, Matuszak v. Commissioner, Docket No. 471-15, where the Tax Court had, in a December 29, 2015, unpublished order dismissed an untimely-filed innocent spouse petition under § 6015(e) for lack of jurisdiction.  Keith and I believe that, under recent non-tax Supreme Court opinions, the time periods in which to file both innocent spouse and Collection Due Process (CDP) petitions in the Tax Court are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling.  Despite the Tax Court’s recent resounding, unanimous rejection of our arguments as regards the CDP time period to file in Guralnik v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. No. 15 (June 2, 2016), we are not convinced by the Tax Court’s opinion.  Respectfully, we think the Tax Court got this part of its Guralnik opinion wrong – and not merely for the reasons stated by Bryan Camp in his post of June 6, 2016.

This post is to update readers on what Keith and I are doing to continue to press our arguments.  Our arguments are questions of first impression in all of the Circuit Courts.  In a nutshell, on August 30, 2016, we filed an appeal in the Matuszak case to the Second Circuit.  And on that same day, we filed an appeal in another case on all fours with Matuszak, Rubel v. Commissioner, Docket No. 9183-16 (order of dismissal dated July 11, 2016), to the Third Circuit.

read more...

We don’t want to litigate the cases in this post, but suffice it to say that the Guralnik opinion, we feel, erred in not directly discussing in detail the Supreme Court’s opinion in Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center, 133 S. Ct. 817 (2013).  There, the Supreme Court found a filing period in an administrative body not jurisdictional, despite the time period’s being contained within the very statutory sentence that gave the body jurisdiction to hear certain Medicare reimbursement disputes.  We think the statutory sentence at issue in Auburn is comparable to the sentences in §§ 6015(e)(1)(A) and 6330(d)(1) that both give the Tax Court jurisdiction and include time limits in which to file petitions.  As the Ninth Circuit said of 15 U.S.C. § 1692k (which authorizes a suit for monetary damages under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act):

[W]e attach no particular significance to the fact that this statute of limitations appears in the same sentence in which the jurisdiction provision appears. Nothing in the structure of that sentence tells us that the time limitation was also a jurisdictional limitation. In fact, a more natural reading is that parties may bring their action in any “court of competent jurisdiction” and may do so “within one year.” 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(d). It is fair to say that parties are faced with a “when” issue and a “what court” issue for every action, but the former does not usually control or affect the latter.

Magnum v. Action Collection Services, Inc., 575 F.3d 935, 940 (9th Cir. 2009).

We think the Tax Court in Guralnik also erred in justifying its ruling that the CDP petition filing period was jurisdictional on the long-standing treatment of the deficiency petition time periods to file as jurisdictional.  We don’t take issue with the long-standing, but not Supreme Court, rulings of the Tax Court and appellate courts that the § 6123(a) time periods are jurisdictional.  But, we also don’t think every grant of Tax Court jurisdiction necessarily inherits the same jurisdictional status of the § 6213(a) time periods.  So far, the Supreme Court has not allowed an exemption to its new rules that time periods to file are almost never jurisdictional on the basis of stare decisis to lower court opinions.  The exceptions in two cases to the current rules were made on stare decisis grounds only to over 100 years of Supreme Court opinions previously holding the particular time period at issue jurisdictional.  See John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, 552 U.S. 130 (2008); Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007).

Matuszak

The procedural facts of Matuszak are fairly simple.  And, though we don’t discuss the merits of each case, suffice it to say that Keith and I are very optimistic about each case if the Tax Court ever gets to the merits.

Ms. Matuszak filed joint returns with her husband for 2007.  When there later was a deficiency for that year, all of which was attributable to her husband, Ms. Matuszak filed a Form 8857 seeking section 6015 relief.

On October 7, 2014, the IRS sent Ms. Matuszak a notice of determination.  Notices of determination for CDP and innocent spouse purposes, unlike notices of deficiency, do not set out on the notice the last date to file a Tax Court petition.  (The requirement for the IRS to set out a last date to file was adopted by Congress in 1998, but only applies to notices of deficiency, where taxpayers are entitled to rely on any erroneous date set forth on the notice.)  On the day that the Appeals Officer (AO) mailed out the notice, the AO called Ms. Matuszak to warn her that the notice had just been mailed.  Concerned not to miss the 90-day Tax Court filing deadline, Ms. Matuszak asked the AO what would be the last date to file a Tax Court petition and was told:   January 7, 2015.  In fact, the 90 day period lasted only until January 5, 2015.  When Ms. Matuszak received the notice of determination, she called the AO, who repeated the erroneous date as the last date to file.  Ms. Matuszak took and kept contemporaneous notes of both phone calls.  In reliance on what the AO told her, Ms. Matuszak, acting pro se, sent her petition to the Tax Court on January 6, 2015, which she thought was a day early.  In fact, it was a day late.

On December 29, 2015, Judge Marvel dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that the petition was filed late and this was a jurisdictional defect that could not be excused by any possible misleading information given by the AO.  In early January, Keith and I entered our appearances in the case and filed a timely motion to vacate, arguing, for the first time, that, under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law, the filing period under section 6015(e)(1)(A) is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling – the same arguments we had made in an earlier amicus brief we had filed in Guralnik relating to the CDP petition filing period.  One area where equitable tolling commonly applies is where the defendant misled the plaintiff as to the correct filing date.  Irwin v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 96 (1990).

On July 29, 2016, now Chief Judge Marvel issued an unpublished order denying the motion to vacate, citing the Tax Court’s reasoning in Guralnik on these issues.  On August 30, 2016, Keith and I mailed a notice of appeal to the Tax Court, commencing an appeal in Matuszak to the Second Circuit.  The Second Circuit docket number is 16-3034.

Rubel

Ms. Rubel’s case is virtually the same as Ms. Matuszak’s, except that Ms. Rubel is even better situated to argue for equitable tolling, since she has erroneous filing date advice in writing from the IRS.

Ms. Rubel filed joint returns with her then-husband for 2005-2008.  The IRS is still seeking to collect for these years mostly liabilities attributable to her now-ex-husband.  Ms. Rubel filed a Form 8857 seeking relief from her ex-husband’s share of the liabilities as set forth in a 2009 divorce decree.

In early January of this year, the IRS sent four separate notices of determination (three on January 4 and one January 13) denying Ms. Rubel any relief under section 6015.  After receiving these letters, Ms. Rubel continued to send material to the IRS to try to persuade the IRS to change its mind.  On March 3, 2016, the IRS mailed Ms. Rubel a letter stating that it would not reconsider its decision as to any of the four taxable years.  The letter included the following sentences:  “Please be advised that this correspondence doesn’t extend the time to file a petition with the U.S. Tax Court.  Your time to petition the U.S. Tax Court began to run when we issued our final determination on Jan. 04, 2016 and will end on Apr. 19, 2016.”  In reliance on this erroneous date, Ms. Rubel, acting pro se, sent a petition to the Tax Court on April 19, 2016.  The petition was sent at least a week late, since 90 days from the dates of the notices of determination was either April 4, 2016 or April 12, 2016.

In the Tax Court, Ms. Rubel hired counsel to respond to an IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.  He argued both that the March 3 letter was a new notice of determination, giving a new 90-day period to file and that the IRS was estopped from complaining about the late filing by the wrong date that the IRS had stated in the March 3 letter.

On July 11, 2016, Chief Judge Marvel issued an unpublished order dismissing the case.  The judge held that the time period in which to file was jurisdictional and not subject to equitable estoppel, even if the IRS letter showing the April 19 filing date was misleading.  The judge also noted that in Barnes v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. 248 (2008), it had held that a letter denying reconsideration of an innocent spouse determination was not a new notice of determination that started a new 90-day period running.  The court rejected Ms. Rubel’s counsel’s attempts to distinguish Barnes.

Keith and I entered pro bono appearances in Ms. Rubel’s case (replacing her prior lawyer), and on August 30, 2016, we mailed a notice of appeal to the Tax Court, commencing an appeal in Rubel to the Third Circuit.  In the notice, we did not make the argument rejected in Barnes, but we did argue that, under current non-tax Supreme Court case law, the 90-day filing period was not jurisdictional and was subject to equitable tolling and equitable estoppel.  The Third Circuit docket number is 16-3526.

Observations

Because the Third Circuit has less of a backlog, our hunch is that the Third Circuit will be the first to decide the issues we are raising.

But, anticipating Chief Judge Marvel’s July 29 ruling in Matuszak, earlier this year, Keith and I, acting as counsel to Ms. Matuszak, filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief in a Ninth Circuit case named Duggan v. Commissioner, Docket No. 15-73819.  I wrote a post on the Duggan case.  In Duggan, a pro se taxpayer argued that he was misled by the language of a CDP notice of determination into mailing his Tax Court petition a day late.  In our Duggan proposed amicus brief (a copy of which we attached to the motion), we raised the same arguments that we had raised in our Guralnik amicus brief – that the 30-day period in which to file a CDP petition is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling under current non-tax Supreme Court case law.

The parties in Duggan have filed their briefs, with the taxpayer’s reply brief having been filed in late June.  Earlier in June, the government brought to the Ninth Circuit’s attention the Tax Court’s opinion in Guralnik.  Mr. Duggan’s reply brief, we think, adequately responds to the Tax Court’s holding in Guralnik.  Although our motion to file an amicus brief in Duggan is unopposed, the panel hearing the case has not yet ruled on the motion.  And, the government has asked that it be allowed to respond to our brief if the motion is granted.  Because the Ninth Circuit is such a slow, backlogged court, it would not surprise me if it was the last of the three circuit courts to rule on these issues.

I know that some practitioners think Keith and I are on a wild goose chase here – especially after our unanimous loss in Guralnik.  We have warned our clients that this is probably an uphill battle in the appeals courts.  But, there is little downside to the clients here, as neither Ms. Matuszak nor Ms. Rubel wants to or can afford to fully pay the liabilities and sue for refund in district court.  Keith and I don’t think the appeals courts will be as concerned as the Tax Court was about the Tax Court’s prior precedents holding the time period in which to file deficiency petitions to be jurisdictional.  Appellate judges have a lot of experience already in applying the new non-tax Supreme Court case law on jurisdiction and equitable tolling to various filing deadlines.  And note that, last year, the Ninth Circuit was persuaded in Volpicelli v. United States, 777 F.3d 1042, to hold that the 9-month period in section 6532(c) in which to file a wrongful levy suit is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling, applying the recent non-tax Supreme Court case law.  For my post on Volpicelli, see here.  It is time for someone to bring these issues regarding the CDP and innocent spouse filing deadlines up to appeals courts.  The issues Keith and I are raising are far from frivolous.  If we lose, these cases may prompt Congress to amend the statutes to require the IRS to place last dates to file in CDP and innocent spouse notices of determination and allow taxpayers to rely on any erroneous dates set forth.

Finally, it is unclear that Guarlnik will ever be appealed.  If there were an appeal, it would go to the Second Circuit.  The Tax Court has set the Guralnik case for trial on the merits on a calendar commencing November 28.  Stay tuned.

Matuszak v. Comm’r: A Tax Court Innocent Spouse Equitable Tolling Test Case

Frequent guest blogger Carl Smith writes today about a case in which he and I seek to argue that equitable tolling applies to the time frame for filing innocent spouse cases in Tax Court.  If you happen to have an innocent spouse or Collection Due Process case dismissed recently for lack of jurisdiction where the taxpayer had good reason for missing the time frame within which to file, please let us know.  Keith

I know that some of you think I only care about equitable tolling in the Tax Code.  I don’t.  But, it is one of the few areas of tax procedure where the courts created the problem and so are the ones who should fix it.  In United States v. Brockamp, the Supreme Court held that the section 6511 periods in which to file tax refund claims are not subject to the judicial doctrine of equitable tolling.  Through enactment of section 6511(h) (tolling the statute of limitations in cases of financial disability), Congress overruled Brockamp for the limited circumstances involved therein.

Since then, the government has consistently argued that Brockamp requires that there be no equitable tolling anywhere in the Tax Code.

As to time periods in which to file certain recent-jurisdiction Tax Court petitions (but not the original section 6213(a) deficiency jurisdiction time period), Keith and I would like to ask the Tax Court to reconsider and overrule its precedents on jurisdiction and equitable tolling.  This is to inform you that Keith and I have just done so — as new pro bono counsel of record — in a stand-alone innocent spouse case brought in Tax Court under section 6015(e), Matuszak v. Commissioner, Docket No. 471-15.  A copy of the December 29, 2015 order of dismissal entered by Judge Marvel in the case is here.  A link to our January 22, 2016 memorandum of law in support of a motion to vacate that order is found in two parts here and here.  Keith and I argue that the 90-day period at section 6015(e)(1)(A) in which to file a stand-alone innocent spouse petition is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling.  And we ask the Tax Court to reconsider and overrule its contrary precedent as to this particular time period in Pollock v. Commissioner because the reasoning of Pollock has been undermined by five subsequent Supreme Court opinions: Holland v. Florida; Henderson v. Shinseki; Gonzalez v. Thaler: Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Med. Cntr.; and United States v. Wong. (Another opinion issued on January 25, 2016, by the Supreme Court, Musacchio v. United States,also undermines Pollock.)

read more...

Last year, as an amicus, I helped obtain a ruling from the Ninth Circuit in the case of Volpicelli v. United States that, under current Supreme Court case law, the 9-month period in section 6532(c) in which to file a wrongful levy suit in district court is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling.  The government vigorously disagrees with that opinion, but decided not to ask the Supreme Court to review it (despite a split with older opinions from other Circuits). See posts on Volpicelli here and here.

In recent posts here and here, PT made you aware that in November, Keith and I, on behalf of the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic, filed an amicus memorandum of law in the Tax Court case of Guralnik v. Commissioner,  in which we make the argument that the 30-day period in section 6330(d)(1) in which to file a Collection Due Process (CDP) petition in the Tax Court is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling.  For those interested, as an update, here is a link to the IRS’ January 6, 2016 response to our memorandum.  Suffice it to say that the IRS argues that we grossly exaggerate the impact of the recent non-tax Supreme Court opinions on these topics.  But, that’s what the government unsuccessfully argued in Volpicelli, too.

I have been using the Tax Court’s order search function to read all recent orders of the Tax Court citing either section 6015 or 6330.  From doing that reading, and ordering copies of documents from the Tax Court in cases suggesting that the taxpayers might have had an equitable tolling argument for a late filing, I have located a small number of cases that might be used as test cases.  When the order issued in Matuszak on December 29, 2015, this seemed like a promising test case.

Matuszak Facts 

Craig Matuszak had a successful career going in the telecommunications business.  But, things went off the rails when his employer accused him and other employees of theft.  The theft was accomplished by making the employer pay third-party invoices for work never done and pocketing the money sent to pay those invoices.  The alleged conduct happened in 2007 and 2008, years in which Craig and his wife Linda filed joint returns that, of course, did not report any money that Craig stole as income.

On August 8, 2012, Craig was charged in federal district court both with wire fraud and filing a false 2007 income tax return in violation of section 7602(2).  The date the information was filed, Craig pled guilty, since he and his criminal lawyer had negotiated the exact amount of the tax deficiencies for 2007 and 2008 with the federal government in advance.  Under the plea deal, Craig and Linda forfeited the primary residence that they had been building in 2007 and 2008 (and completed in 2009) and two automobiles.  The primary residence was their only house and major asset.  Since January 2014, Craig has been incarcerated, and he is not expected to be released until 2017 at the earliest.  If you have access to PACER you can find out more about his case at United States v. Craig Matuszak, N.D.N.Y., Docket No. 1:12-cr-359.

On August 28, 2012, Craig brought a Form 4549 for 2007 and 2008 to Linda, and told her that she needed to sign the form for his plea deal to go through and that she would not be liable for the tax deficiencies shown thereon ($333,964 for 2007 and $105,055 for 2008) beyond the forfeited assets.  Late in 2009, Craig had told Linda that he was under criminal investigation for something he did at work, but he minimized the investigation and did not even let Linda go to his plea entry hearing.  So, in August 2012, she was rather shocked to hear that, essentially, the Matuszaks would lose all their assets because of the plea and owe additional unpaid taxes.  She was not aware at that date that Craig had ever received any unreported income.  Even today, she doesn’t know what happened with the money Craig now concedes that he took from his employer.  But, taking her husband’s assurances that she would not be liable for anything more, Linda signed the Form 4549, and the IRS assessed the taxes shown thereon and sent both spouses bills seeking payment.

After Craig was incarcerated and Linda was reduced to renting a place to live in, she filed a Form 8857 covering the 2007 and 2008 liabilities.  With no fuss, CCISO granted Linda complete section 6015 relief for 2008.  (Since 2001, Linda has been disabled, and her sole source of income has been Social Security disability.)  But, there was a problem with 2007.

Prior Deficiency Case

In 2010, the IRS had begun a routine audit of some unreimbursed employee business expense deductions claimed by Craig on the Schedule A of the 2007 joint return.  In September 2010, the IRS sent a notice of deficiency disallowing most of the deductions and asserting a deficiency of $9,260.  Linda had asked Craig if this IRS audit had anything to do with the criminal investigation that was going on.  Craig (probably correctly) said, “no”.

Acting pro se, Craig and Linda jointly prepared and filed a Tax Court petition contesting the notice.  At this point, Craig was still employed (by a different employer) and the Matuszaks were fairly well off, so Linda had no reason to think that, even if the deductions were wrong, the couple couldn’t afford to pay them.  As a result, the petition (given Docket No. 27407-10) did not include a request for section 6015 relief.

When the IRS attorney who was about to prepare the answer in the case searched a database, she discovered a criminal investigation regarding Craig that included the year 2007.  So, rather than file an answer, she successfully moved the Tax Court to stay all proceedings in the deficiency case pending resolution of the criminal proceedings.  Nothing happened in the deficiency case – other than periodic reports filed by the IRS attorney – until the IRS attorney prepared and sent to the Matuszaks a stipulated decision that showed the $333,964 deficiency for 2007 that appeared in the Form 4549 that both spouses had already signed.  Linda co-signed the stipulated decision, again on Craig’s assurances that she wouldn’t owe the tax shown thereon.

During the entire deficiency case, Linda never spoke to the IRS attorney – even failing to respond to voicemail messages from the attorney asking Linda’s position on IRS motions and the status reports prepared by the IRS attorney.  Linda was afraid of messing up Craig’s criminal case if she said something wrong to the IRS attorney in the deficiency case.

Current Innocent Spouse Case

CCISO denied Linda’s request for section 6015 relief for 2007 simply on the grounds of res judicata – that Linda could have, but did not, raise section 6015 relief in the deficiency case.  CCISO ruled that Linda was not entitled to the statutory exception to res judicata found at section 6015(g)(2) because, it said, Linda had “participated meaningfully” in the deficiency case.

Linda took her disallowance to Appeals, which upheld the CCISO ruling and issued a notice of determination denying relief on October 7, 2014.  Linda was concerned that she timely file a Tax Court petition, so she spoke twice to the Appeals Officer (AO) about the final date by which the petition needed to be mailed to the Tax Court.  Linda has contemporaneous notes in three places regarding the two phone conversations she had with the AO that seem to corroborate Linda’s story that the AO told Linda the final date to file was January 7, 2015.  In fact, the final date was January 5, 2015.  Linda thought she mailed her petition a day early when she mailed it out on January 6, 2015.  But, in fact, she mailed her petition a day late.

You may be wondering why Linda did not go to a tax clinic to get help with filing, since, of course, at that point, she could not afford to hire an attorney.  Well, Linda lives far upstate in New York, not near any New York City clinic.  And the closest clinic, in Albany, could not help her, since its intake procedures prohibited taking cases involving more than $50,000 of tax.  Linda went to her local library to research her case.  Linda’s research and frequent migraine headaches were among the reasons why she took so long to file the petition.

After Linda filed the section 6015(e) petition, the IRS attorney filed an answer and then went out on maternity leave.  A second IRS attorney who was assigned the case after it was noticed for trial before Judge Marvel (on February 1, 2016 in New York City) noticed the late filing issue.  Because jurisdictional issues can be raised at any time (unlike statute of limitation issues, which should be raised in the answer), the second IRS attorney then moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.

On December 29, 2015, Judge Marvel dismissed the petition, pointing out that Tax Court precedent is that its filing dates in that court cannot be extended.  While sympathetic, Judge Marvel said there was nothing that she could do if Linda was misled by the AO into filing a day late.

Keith and I read the order and decided to contact Linda and offer our services, pro bono, to try to get the Tax Court to overturn its precedent that the section 6015(e)(1)(A) 90-day period in which to file a Tax Court innocent spouse petition is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling.  We have asked the court to rule that the time period is not jurisdictional, but is merely a period of limitations subject to equitable tolling in the right circumstances.  We have also asked the court to take back jurisdiction in the case and then invite the IRS, if it chooses, to file a motion for leave to amend its answer to plead non-compliance with the period of limitations.  Under Rule 39, both the statute of limitations and estoppel are special issues that must be set forth in a party’s pleadings.  If the IRS does plead the statute of limitations, Linda, in turn, will plead estoppel as a result of the AO’s statements as to the filing date – estoppel being one of the usual grounds giving rise to equitable tolling.

Frankly, an example in the proposed section 6015 regulations seems to exactly cover Linda’s case on the res judicata issue, so that if the Tax Court takes back jurisdiction and the IRS does not raise (or raises, but loses) the statute of limitations issue, I would expect the IRS to concede the case on the merits.  Example 5 of Proposed Reg. 1.6015-1(e)(4) (proposed on November 20, 2015) states:

“In March 2014, the IRS issued a notice of deficiency to H and W determining a deficiency on H and W’s joint income tax return for tax year 2011. H and W timely filed a pro se petition in the United States Tax Court for redetermination of the deficiency. W signed the petition, but otherwise, H handled the entire litigation, from discussing the case with the IRS Chief Counsel attorney to agreeing to a settlement of the case. Relief under section 6015 was never raised. W signed the decision document that H had agreed to with the IRS Chief Counsel attorney. If W were to later file a claim requesting relief under section 6015, W’s claim would not be barred by res judicata. Considering these facts and circumstances, W’s involvement in the prior court proceeding regarding the deficiency did not rise to the level of meaningful participation.  [REG-134219-08, 2015-49 I.R.B. 842, 851]”

If this proposed regulation had been on the books when CCISO reviewed Linda’s Form 8857, I don’t believe that CCISO would have even asserted that Linda’s limited participation in the deficiency case caused res judicata to apply to her request for innocent spouse relief.

In a future post in March, Keith and I will report on another CDP case (i.e., beyond Guralnik) in which we will hopefully be arguing as amicus – this time in a pending pro se Ninth Circuit appeal – that the 30-day period in section 6330(d)(1) in which to file a CDP petition in the Tax Court is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling.  Stay tuned.