Carlton Smith

About Carlton Smith

Carlton M. Smith worked (as an associate and partner) at Roberts & Holland LLP in Manhattan from 1983-1999. From 2003 to 2013, he was the Director of the Cardozo School of Law tax clinic. In his retirement, he volunteers with the tax clinic at Harvard, where he was Acting Director from January to June 2019.

Federal Circuit Panel Calls For Reconsidering the Court’s Precedent Holding Refund Claim Filing and Timing Requirements Jurisdictional to a Refund Suit

In posts too numerous to cite, I have been calling for the courts to reexamine their prior precedents calling many tax filing deadlines and administrative exhaustion requirements jurisdictional.  In non-tax opinions issued by the Supreme Court since 2004, the Court has changed its precedent and held that “claims processing rules” that merely move litigation along are now almost never jurisdictional.  See, e,g. United States v. Wong, 575 U.S. 402 (2015) (Federal Tort Claims Act suit filing deadlines in agency and courts are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling); Fort Bend County v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 1843 (2019) (Title VII charge filing requirement is not jurisdictional) (see here for my thoughts on the implications of Fort Bend to the tax world).  Now, a panel of the Federal Circuit in a pro se tax protester case, Walby v. United States, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 13711 (Apr. 29, 2020), has joined a panel of the Seventh Circuit in Gillepsie v. United States, 670 F. App’x 393, 394–95 (7th Cir. 2016), in questioning their Circuit’s precedent holding that the administrative tax refund claim filing requirement at section 7422(a) is a jurisdictional requirement to the brining of a refund suit.  Further, the Federal Circuit panel in the Walby opinion stated it believes that the filing deadlines for tax refund administrative claims at section 6511(a) are no longer jurisdictional, also calling for overturning its Circuit’s precedent.

It will take an en banc Federal Circuit opinion to overrule the Circuit’s prior precedents, so the panels’ opinion in Walby doesn’t change that court’s precedents, yet.  But, it certainly makes it likely that the issues will reach an en banc panel soon.

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What is perhaps most surprising about the Walby panel’s statements is that the opinion below did not raise these concerns about recent Supreme Court opinions, but simply followed the Federal Circuit precedents holding that sections 6511(a)’s and 7422(a)’s requirements are jurisdictional.  Further, the DOJ brief in Walby in the Federal Circuit did not discuss the potential impact of the recent Supreme Court case law on this question, but merely cited prior Federal Circuit precedent.  And the pro se taxpayer, of course, did not complain about the Circuit precedents.  So, the panel on its own chose to research these issues and make its statement in a published opinion.

Here is what the Federal Circuit panel wrote in Walby on these issues:

In Walby’s case, her 2014 claims were deemed paid on April 15, 2015 because withheld income taxes are deemed to have been paid on April 15th of the following year. I.R.C. § 6513(b). To be timely, her administrative refund claim should have been filed with the IRS by April 15, 2017. But Walby did not file her refund claim until December 22, 2017. Walby’s 2014 refund claim was, therefore, untimely and the Claims Court properly dismissed that claim.

There is one aspect of the court’s conclusion regarding this claim, however, that warrants additional examination. The Claims Court concluded that, because Walby’s 2014 administrative refund claim was untimely, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7422(a), it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over that claim. Although this conclusion is correct under our existing case law, see, e.g.Stephens v. United States, 884 F.3d 1151, 1156 (Fed. Cir. 2018), it may be time to reexamine that case law in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification that so-called “statutory standing” defects — i.e., whether a party can sue under a given statute — do not implicate a court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 572 U.S. 118, 128 n.4 (2014)see also Lone Star Silicon Innovations LLC v. Nanya Tech. Corp., 925 F.3d 1225, 1235 (Fed. Cir. 2019) (recognizing that, following Lexmark, it is incorrect to classify “so-called” statutory-standing defects as jurisdictional).

The Tucker Act grants the Claims Court jurisdiction to render judgment “upon any claim against the United States founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress . . . in cases not sounding in tort.” 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1). Additionally, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a) provides that the Claims Court shall have original jurisdiction (concurrent with the district courts) of “[a]ny civil action against the United States for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected.” As such, Walby’s failure to meet the § 7422(a) statutory requirement of a timely administrative claim for her 2014 tax claim would not seem to implicate the Claims Court’s subject matter jurisdiction; rather, it appears to be a simple failure to meet the statutory precondition to maintain a suit against the government with respect to those taxes.

The Supreme Court has not addressed § 7422(a) following Lexmark. We note, however, that the Court’s most recent discussion of § 7422(a) does not describe it as “jurisdictional.” See Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Co., 553 U.S. 1 at 4–5, 11–12. And, although our court has continued to refer to this statute as jurisdictional following Lexmark, we have not yet addressed the implications of that case and the many Supreme Court cases applying it.2

In view of the Supreme Court’s guidance in Lexmark, it may be improper to continue to refer to the administrative exhaustion requirements of § 7422(a) and § 6511 as “jurisdictional prerequisites.” That these provisions concern the United States’ consent to be sued would not seem to change this conclusion. The Supreme Court has “made plain that most time bars are nonjurisdictional.” United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 575 U.S. 402, 410 (2015). In Kwai Fun, the Court held that the time bar in the Federal Tort Claims Act is nonjurisdictional. In doing so, it rejected the Government’s argument that, because that time bar is a precondition to the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity, the time bar must be jurisdictional. As it had in Lexmark, the Court distinguished jurisdictional statutes from “quintessential claim-processing rules which seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation, but do not deprive a court of authority to hear a case.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). It did not except statutes that implicate the government’s waiver of sovereign immunity from that distinction.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied on Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., where, finding Title VII’s numerical employee threshold nonjurisdictional, the Supreme Court stated:

“If the Legislature clearly states that a threshold limitation on a statute’s scope shall count as jurisdictional, then courts and litigants will be duly instructed and will not be left to wrestle with the issue. But when Congress does not rank a statutory limitation on coverage as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.”

546 U.S. 500, 515–16 (2006). This “clear statement” rule “does not mean Congress must incant magic words. But traditional tools of statutory construction must plainly show that Congress imbued a procedural bar with jurisdictional consequences.” Kwai Fun, 575 U.S. at 410 (internal quotation marks omitted). There is no such clear statement apparent in the statutes at issue here, 28 U.S.C. § 7422(a) and § 6511(a).3 Other courts also have begun to question whether the time limits and administrative exhaustion requirements in these and other tax provisions should continue to be deemed jurisdictional. See Gillespie v. United States, 670 F. App’x 393, 394–95 (7th Cir. 2016) (whether § 7422(a) is jurisdictional); Bullock v. I.R.S, 602 F. App’x 58, 60 n.3 (3d Cir. 2015) (whether I.R.C. § 7433 is jurisdictional). As to at least one administrative exhaustion requirement, one court has held that it should not be deemed jurisdictional. See Gray v. United States, 723 F.3d 795, 798 (7th Cir. 2013) (I.R.C. § 7433 “contains no language suggesting that Congress intended to strip federal courts of jurisdiction when plaintiffs do not exhaust administrative remedies”); cf. Duggan v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 879 F.3d 1029, 1034 (9th Cir. 2018) (I.R.C. § 6630(d)(1)‘s 30-day filing deadline “expressly contemplates the Tax Court’s jurisdiction . . . the filing deadline is given in the same breath as the grant of jurisdiction.”).

Accordingly, although the Claims Court properly dismissed Walby’s 2014 refund claim because she did not meet the prerequisite for bringing such a claim, we think that, under LexmarkArbaugh, and their progeny, the court likely did not lack subject matter jurisdiction over this claim.

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2. See, e.g., Stephens v. United States, 884 F.3d 1151, 1156 (Fed. Cir. 2018); see also Ellis v. United States, 796 F. App’x 749, 750 (Fed. Cir. 2020); Langley v. United States, 716 F. App’x 960, 963 (Fed. Cir. 2017).

3. We are mindful of the Supreme Court’s pre-Lexmark jurisprudence concerning § 7422(a). In United States v. Dalm, the Court held that the district court lacked jurisdiction over gift tax refund suit because “[d]espite its spacious terms, § 1346(a)(1) must be read in conformity with [§ 7422(a) and § 6511(a)] which qualify a taxpayer’s right to bring a refund suit upon compliance with certain conditions.” 494 U.S. 596, 601 (1990). The Court referred to the statutes as “controlling jurisdictional statutes.” Id. at 611. But this view was a departure from the Court’s prior commentary on a predecessor to § 7422(a), recognizing that it “was not a jurisdictional statute at all; it simply specified that suits for recovery of taxes, penalties, or sums could not be maintained until after a claim for refund had been submitted.” Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145 (1960).

If you would like to read a little of the Gillespie opinion of the Seventh Circuit, see my post on it here.  It was the statements within Gillespie questioning whether section 7422(a)’s claim-filing requirement is still jurisdictional that the DOJ cited for its decision, post-oral argument, in Tilden v. Commissioner, 846 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2017), to file a memorandum of law arguing that the section 6213(a) Tax Court deficiency jurisdiction filing deadline is still jurisdictional – a point with which the Seventh Circuit in Tilden agreed, despite Gillepsie.  See my post on Tilden here.  Of course, as I have noted before, the Harvard tax clinic continues to litigate the issues under section 6213(a) of whether the filing deadlines are still jurisdictional or subject to equitable tolling; companion cases on that issue are currently pending in the Ninth Circuit (and have been pending for over 6 months after oral argument there).

Observations

For most refund suit plaintiffs, it will make little difference whether the section 6511(a) and 7422(a) requirements are jurisdictional, since no one expects the Supreme Court to overturn its ruling in United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), that the filing deadline of section 6511(a) is, in any case, not subject to equitable tolling.  So, who might benefit from making these two requirements nonjurisdictional?  Well, there are always a small number of cases where the DOJ could make an argument that the refund claim filing deadline was missed or that a refund claim was not in proper form, but the DOJ either chose not to raise those issues or just missed that the DOJ had potential arguments under those provisions.  Under current law, treating the requirements as jurisdictional, courts should step in in such cases and police their jurisdiction by raising issues not raised by the DOJ.  But, if the claim filing requirement and claim filing deadline are not jurisdictional to a refund suit, then, in such cases, the court will no longer worry about the issues if the DOJ never raises them.  Non-jurisdictional conditions of suit are merely affirmative defenses.  If the DOJ doesn’t raise an affirmative defense (either accidentally or knowingly), it simply forfeits or waives the defense.  Indeed, if the DOJ wanted to expeditiously litigate a test case brought by a plaintiff who hadn’t yet filed a refund claim, if the claim filing requirements is no longer jurisdictional, the DOJ could choose to waive any argument that a claim should have been filed before suit was brought.

Tax Court Jurisdiction in Late-Filed Deficiency Cases

Yesterday, PT put up a post providing guidance in the timing of the filing of Tax Court petitions and noting the different time frames for filing caused by the Tax Court shutdown and IRS Notice 2020-23 exercising the power to extend Tax Court filing deadlines granted in IRC 7508A. If last year’s government shutdown is any indication of what will happen in 2020, it is almost a certainty that some taxpayers who try to get into the Tax Court will miss the deadline for one reason or another.  Some of those reasons are good reasons.  Those taxpayers will face a motion to dismiss filed by the IRS or an order to show cause generated by the Tax Court seeking to knock them out of Tax Court because of a late filing.  For those of you who read yesterday’s post and have a good grasp of the time to file your Tax Court petition and the need to file using the USPS, certified mail with a filing slip, this post is unnecessary.  For the rest of you, including those who come to the rescue of pro se taxpayers who may have filed late, this post will provide you with assistance if yesterday’s post did not keep you, or your current client from the shoals of a jurisdictional dismissal.

In a post last month, I called for a legislative clarification that judicial filing deadlines in most tax cases are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling.  The extensions for filing Tax Court petitions provided by the IRS in its recent Notice 2020-23 (from April 1, 2020 to July 15, 2020) and, effectively, by the Tax Court itself in Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230 (2016) (from March 19, 2020 [when the Clerk’s Office first closed] until the Clerk’s Office reopens) may not be sufficient for all COVID-19 sufferers.  Reports are that people coming out of the hospital are often extremely weakened by the virus.  They may not be physically able to meet even these extended deadlines.  That’s where equitable tolling may help, for one of the most common grounds for equitable tolling is the plaintiff being prevented by circumstances beyond his or her control from complying with the filing deadline.  Using equitable tolling, judges using their equity hats can give extensions after hearing all the facts and circumstances and making sure the taxpayer behaved at least with reasonable diligence under the circumstances.

Over the last year, The Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (The Clinic) has been looking to litigate test cases in the Tax Court concerning whether the deficiency filing deadline of section 6213(a) is still jurisdictional or is subject to equitable tolling under recent Supreme Court case law that, starting in 2004, made filing deadlines now almost never jurisdictional and usually subject to equitable tolling.  I assist The Clinic in finding good test cases by nightly scouring Tax Court orders in this area (not just designated orders).

I thought it would be useful to tell the story of the cat and mouse game that has been going on between The Clinic and the IRS since last fall in The Clinic’s attempt to litigate these issues.  In the three best test cases that I found, and where Keith and I entered appearances and filed lengthy papers to litigate the issues, in each case, the IRS took steps to avoid having to respond – in one case reissuing the notice of deficiency just before The Clinic filed its response to an order to show cause and in two others conceding the underlying deficiency shortly after The Clinic filed motions to vacate dismissal orders, leading to withdrawal of the motions to vacate as moot.  Is the IRS that afraid that The Clinic may be right? 

With this post, I also share the filing we made in one such case, since there is no reason that others shouldn’t be able to borrow from it for purposes of making these same arguments in their cases.  All I would ask is that you keep Keith or me informed if you do use it and have such a test case for yourself.

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You know from prior posts (too many, so I won’t give cites) that The Clinic initially tried to argue that the Tax Court innocent spouse (section 6015(e)(1)(A)) and Collection Due Process (section 6330(d)(1)) petition filing deadlines are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling under recent Supreme Court case law.  We lost the innocent spouse cases in three Circuits.  We lost the Collection Due Process cases in the Tax Court (Guralnik) and the Ninth Circuit (as amicus).  But, we won a case in the D.C. Circuit (as amicus with the court adopting significant portions of our brief) concerning the section 7623(b)(4) whistleblower award petition filing deadline, where the statutory language regarding the time period for filing the petition was taken almost verbatim, from the Collection Due Process provision. And for further discussion of these issues, see Bryan Camp’s article on jurisdictional tax deadlines (Prof. Camp argues that the deficiency, CDP and refund deadlines are non-jurisdictional, but that the innocent spouse deadline is jurisdictional).

However, probably 90% of Tax Court petitions are not under these jurisdictions, but are deficiency cases, where section 6213(a) supplies the deadline.  Initially, The Clinic avoided litigating the section 6213(a) deadline because of concerns that under section 7459(d), any late-filed petition that was dismissed would end up being dismissed on the merits and upholding the deficiency – thereby precluding by res judicata the taxpayer from subsequently paying and suing for a refund in district court. 

Only later, by doing a little research and thinking did we conclude that almost no one who is dismissed from the Tax Court for having late filed a deficiency case ever pays and sues for a refund.  There are only about 200 refund suits brought in the entire U.S. each year, and Keith and I don’t recall seeing any having been brought after a Tax Court dismissal for late filing.  So, the section 7459(d) concern is extremely unlikely as a factual matter. 

On the other hand, if the filing deadline is no longer jurisdictional, judges wouldn’t police the filing deadline themselves as they now do.  Our research showed that, each month, Tax Court judges on their own find 7 to 10 cases in which the IRS failed to notice a possible late filing and so the judges issue orders to show cause why the cases should not be dismissed.  So, 7 to 10 taxpayers a month might benefit if the deficiency filing deadline were not jurisdictional.  If the IRS fails to raise late filing as to a nonjurisdictional deadline, the IRS simply forfeits the issue.

The Tax Court and every Circuit court has long held that the deficiency filing deadline is jurisdictional.  But, surprisingly, only two Circuit courts to date and no Tax Court opinion has analyzed whether the deficiency filing deadline is still jurisdictional or is subject to equitable tolling under recent Supreme Court case law.  The one Circuit court precedential opinion, Tilden v. Commissioner, 846 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2017), held that the filing deadline is still jurisdictional, but its reasoning is subject to substantial criticism.  Another Circuit court opinion reaches the same result in an unpublished opinion; Garrett v. Commissioner, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 37483 (3d Cir. 2019); yet the case was a last known address case in which the parties did not even discuss in their briefs the issue of whether the filing deadline is still jurisdictional, and the court’s reasoning is similar to Tilden (which it doesn’t even cite).  So, since 2004 (when the Supreme Court changed its precedent), the issues have somehow been avoided in the Tax Court and most Circuits.

There are pending two companion cases in the Ninth Circuit presenting the issues of whether the section 6213(a) filing deadline is still jurisdictional or is subject to equitable tolling under the recent Supreme Court case law, Organic Cannabis Foundation v. Commissioner, Ninth Circuit Docket No. 17-72874, and Northern California Small Business Assistants, Inc. v. Commissioner, Ninth Circuit Docket No. 17-72877.  The cases had oral argument on October 22, 2019.  An opinion

could issue in the cases any day.  However, because of another issue presented in the cases, the Ninth Circuit may never reach the jurisdiction and equitable tolling issues.  (The Clinic filed amicus briefs in the cases.)

Because the issues may be avoided in those two Ninth Circuit cases, since last year, Keith and I have been looking in pro se Tax Court cases for fact patterns that would make great test cases on the issue.  We find the cases by searching orders issued daily by the Tax Court.  The orders are ones of dismissal or to show cause why the petition should not be dismissed for late filing.  Some of the orders come from S cases, which presents an extra layer of problem because, to date, no court has held that an S case petitioner can appeal a Tax Court dismissal of a petition for lack of jurisdiction.  (That’s another issue The Clinic is litigating and in another Ninth Circuit case – but I will not go into that issue here.)  If the order we find is one for dismissal, we try to enter an appearance and, within 30 days, move to vacate the dismissal, arguing that the Tax Court erred in treating the filing deadline as still jurisdictional.  If it is an order to show cause, we try to enter an appearance and respond to the order on behalf of the taxpayer.  If the case is an S case, we also move to remove the S designation, since it would be easier to appeal if that designation were removed.  To date, we have found about a half dozen apparently great test cases on the facts, but taxpayers have only responded to our approaches in three cases.

The funny thing about those three cases, though, is that the IRS attorneys in the cases have done everything possible to avoid having to respond to our papers.  In two cases, where we had moved to vacate dismissal orders, the IRS, before responding, looked into the facts of the underlying deficiency and represented that the deficiency would be abandoned by the IRS.  Such actions made our pursing further Tax Court litigation moot, so we moved to withdraw our motions to vacate (and, in one case, to remove the S designation).  The Tax Court granted our motion to withdraw without comment in one case and we are awaiting the outcome of the motion to withdraw in the other.  In effect, The Clinic helped the taxpayers in these cases to win the cases by other means.

In the third case, the IRS felt so bad about what had happened that it reissued the notice of deficiency and represented that it would not try to assess the deficiency sent out in the first notice.  The IRS sent out the new notice of deficiency shortly after the Tax Court issued an order to show cause why the case should not be dismissed and just prior to our entry of appearance though neither the taxpayers nor The Clinic knew this at the time of filing the taxpayers’ response to the order.  Only after The Clinic filed its response did the IRS inform The Clinic and the court that the IRS had sent out a new notice of deficiency. The new notice of deficiency afforded the taxpayers an opportunity to timely file in the Tax Court which the IRS hoped would make any fight on the first notice moot. 

However, the Tax Court has not cooperated with the IRS strategy (at least, yet).  The court does not simply dismiss a petition as duplicative when it might be that the petition did give the Tax Court jurisdiction.  Parties can’t stipulate the court into or out of jurisdiction.  So, in the case involving the first notice of deficiency, where the court had issued an order to show cause, and The Clinic filed papers, the Court has ordered the IRS to respond to our papers by April 27.  This may result in a Tax Court opinion, not just an unpublished order – especially if the Tax Court decides that the deficiency filing deadline is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling (which would no doubt be a court-reviewed opinion).

This third case is an S case, Rosenthal v. Commissioner, T.C. Docket No. 18392-19S[WMS1] , possibly appealable to the Ninth Circuit.  Here are the facts that we think present an excellent case for equitable tolling:  The taxpayers received a notice of deficiency and filled out a Tax Court Form 2 petition.  They incorrectly mailed the petition to the IRS Laguna Nigel office.  That office stamped the petition “received” four days before the end of the 90-day filing deadline.  Weeks later, the IRS forwarded the petition to the Tax Court, which filed it as of the date the Tax Court received the petition.  One of the classic grounds for equitable tolling is timely filing in the wrong forum.  Just in case anyone wants to read our response to the order to show cause (or copy from it), here it is in Word.

Since the first two cases got resolved in favor of the taxpayers without an opinion or order, for privacy purposes, I won’t identify them here by name or docket number.  But, one of those cases presented the exact same factual pattern as Rosenthal – i.e., timely filing of the Form 2 petition with the IRS office that generated the notice of deficiency. 

In sum, it is rather curious that the IRS keeps trying to prevent The Clinic from litigating in the Tax Court the issues of whether the deficiency petition filing deadline is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling.  But, these issues won’t be dodged forever.  If the Ninth Circuit rules favorably in the two pending test cases in which The Clinic filed amicus briefs, I expect the DOJ to seek en banc rehearing and Supreme Court review, if necessary.  In the event The Clinic loses in the Ninth Circuit, it is not yet prepared to give up on these issues in other appellate courts.  So, we will continue looking for Tax Court deficiency test cases.

IRS Finally Extends Judicial and Refund Claim Filing Deadlines Because of COVID-19

Today, Carl Smith brings us a quick analysis of the newest notice from the IRS on deadline extensions.  This broad notice gives deadline relief in many areas.  The post focuses on judicial and refund deadlines which are only a subset of the relief provided in the notice.  Note that pre-judicial deadlines such as the 30-day period to make a CDP request should also be extended by this notice and that the look back refund provision in IRC 6511(b) may be impacted by this notice.  This notice provides much relief that practitioners have been waiting for over the past few weeks.  Thanks to the IRS for using its muscular power in 7508A broadly.  Keith

Section 7508A allows the IRS to extend a number of deadlines because of Presidentially-declared disasters.  Most of the deadlines one thinks of involve filing tax forms, making elections, and paying taxes.  And, the IRS has been quick to issue a series of Notices under its authority because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Finally, though, in its latest expansive Notice 2020-23 extending even more tax deadlines because of COVID-19, the IRS got around to extending judicial and refund claim filing deadlines.  The extensions are for acts due to be performed on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15, 2020.

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Reg. sec. 301.7508A-1(c)(1) allows the IRS to suspend the periods for:

(iv) Filing a petition with the Tax Court, or for review of a decision rendered by the Tax Court;

(v) Filing a claim for credit or refund of any tax;

(vi) Bringing suit upon a claim for credit or refund of any tax;

In Part III.A. of Notice 2020-23, 2020-18 I.R.B. 1, the IRS writes:

The Secretary of the Treasury has also determined that any person performing a time-sensitive action listed in either § 301.7508A-1(c)(1)(iv)-(vi) of the Procedure and Administration Regulations or Revenue Procedure 2018-58, 2018-50 IRB 990 (December 10, 2018), which is due to be performed on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15, 2020 (Specified Time-Sensitive Action), is an Affected Taxpayer. 

In Part III.C. of the Notice, the IRS clarifies:

Affected Taxpayers also have until July 15, 2020, to perform all Specified Time-Sensitive Actions, that are due to be performed on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15, 2020. This relief includes the time for filing all petitions with the Tax Court, or for review of a decision rendered by the Tax Court, filing a claim for credit or refund of any tax, and bringing suit upon a claim for credit or refund of any tax. This notice does not provide relief for the time period for filing a petition with the Tax Court, or for filing a claim or bringing a suit for credit or refund if that period expired before April 1, 2020.

The last sentence of Part III.C. is a bit misleading, though.  Even though the IRS does not extend the period in which to file a Tax Court petition for any period before April 1, 2020, the result of the Tax Court’s opinion in Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230 (2016), should be that the period to file a Tax Court petition has been extended from the time the Tax Court Clerk’s Office closed on March 19, 2020, until the Tax Court Clerk’s Office reopens for business (a time that is at this point uncertain).

Practitioners should also be careful about the IRS extension: While it extends the time to file a refund claim under section 6511, bring a refund suit under section 6532(a), bring any Tax Court suit (under, for example, sections 6213(a), 6330(d)(1), or 6015(e)(1)(A)), and appeal a Tax Court case under section 7483, it does not extend the time to file an appeal of a district court refund suit judgment to a court of appeals under 28 U.S.C. sec. 2107, and it does not extend the times to file other kinds of tax suits in district courts, such as a wrongful levy suit under section 6532(c) or a suit for damages from wrongful collection under section 7433(d)(3).  Equitable tolling may be used to extend some of the other district court filing deadlines, but not in most Circuits.

The extension of the refund claim filing deadline probably affects the most taxpayers because, for individual filers, the period to file a refund claim for 2016 income taxes, which would, for most, have expired on April 15, 2020, is now put off for three months.

So, How Will the “Recovery Rebate” Refunds Work This Time? Part II

This is the second of a two-part post on the portion of the CARES Act legislation that adopts, once again, “recovery rebate” credits and refunds.

In part I of this post, I discussed the principal provisions of section 6428 and the practical ways I expected the statute to be administered.  My administrative predictions are based on how the IRS administered two prior version of section 6428—in 2001 and 2008.

This post is to discuss two issues under the prior versions of section 6428 that led to litigation and how those issues have or have not been addressed by the current legislation.  The two issues are:

  1. Whether the IRS may apply the recovery rebate credits (including stimulus checks) under section 6402 to reduce certain outstanding debts; and
  2. Which taxable year is the stimulus check “for” for purposes of bankruptcy?

The answer to the first question is decidedly “no”, with one exception.

The answer to the second question is still open – at least outside the Second Circuit.

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In plain English, taxpayers never “pay” refundable credits to the IRS.  So, Congress did something to modify plain English.  Section 6401(b)(1) provides that the excess of all refundable credits over the income tax imposed “shall be considered an overpayment”.

Section 6402(a) allows (but does not require) the IRS to offset any overpayment of one tax against any other federal tax debt.

Section 6402(c) instructs the IRS to send to states – to reimburse them for paying out overdue child support – “the amount of any overpayment to be refunded to the person making the overpayment” who was obligated to, but who did not pay, the child support. 

One of the early cases establishing that overpayments attributable to refundable credits can be sent to states under section 6402(c) involved an earned income tax credit (EITC) for a taxpayer who had a new family, but who had failed to pay the required child support to his old family.  He contested the IRS taking his EITC, arguing that he was not “the person making the overpayment” because he had never paid the EITC to the IRS in the first place.  In Sorenson v. Sec’y of Treasury, 475 U.S. 851 (1986), citing section 6401(b)(1), the Court held that the taxpayer had made an overpayment and so his EITC overpayment could be collected for child support under section 6402(c). Since Sorenson, it is uncontested that overpayments from refundable credits can be taken under section 6402.

Section 6402(d) requires the IRS to send overpayments to other federal agencies who inform the IRS that the taxpayer owes the other agency money.

Section 6402(e) requires the IRS to send overpayments to states who notify the IRS that a state resident owes state income taxes.

Section 6402(f) requires the IRS to send overpayments to states who notify the IRS that a person “owes a covered employment compensation debt” to that state.

Both the 2001 and 2008 versions of section 6428 said nothing about section 6402.  Accordingly, the IRS felt required to send stimulus checks to other federal agencies or the states under subsections (c), (d), (e), and (f) of section 6402 and decided that it would offset any such overpayment against federal taxes under the permissive language of section 6402(a).  This was sad with respect to most of my low-income Cardozo Tax Clinic clients, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it.

However, in 2007, two of the clinic’s clients entered into offers in compromise (OICs) with the IRS.  In each OIC, there was a provision stating that, as additional consideration, the client offered “any refund, including interest, due to me/us because of overpayment of any tax or other liability” up to and including for the year in which the offer was entered into (i.e., 2007).  For both clients, the IRS took their stimulus check, treating the checks as relating to the 2007 taxable year.  And for one taxpayer, the IRS also took the 2007 EITC and additional child tax credit. 

I arranged for the taxpayers to file refund claims and sue for refund on the ground that, while concededly, refundable credits are overpayments for purposes of the Code, the language of OICs is in plain English and overrides the Code.  I argued that in plain English, refundable credits are not “refunds . . . because of overpayment”.  I also argued that, as far as the stimulus check, it related to the 2008 tax year – per the language of section 6428(a) – so it was outside the scope of the additional consideration language.

In Sarmiento v. United States, 812 F. Supp. 2d 137 (E.D.N.Y. 2011), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, 678 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2012), and Maniolos v. United States, 741 F. Supp. 2d 555 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), aff’d per order, 469 Fed. Appx. 56(2d Cir. 2012)), I lost both arguments (though a judge in the E.D.N.Y. had agreed with me that the stimulus check related to 2008). 

The Second Circuit held that plain English was not contemplated by the wording of the OIC, but, instead, Code-speak was, and Code-speak (section 6401(b)(1)) made refundable credits “overpayments”. 

The Second Circuit also held that the stimulus check related to the 2007 year, primarily because the legislation was passed in February 2008, before 2007 tax returns were due.  I thought the date of passage of the act legally irrelevant, since the 2007 returns had no entry for section 6428 credits and 2007 returns could have been filed in January or February 2008, prior to the date of enactment.

Even though it won my cases, the IRS was concerned that another Circuit might not come to the same conclusion, so it altered the additional consideration language for future OICs.  Today, the OIC additional consideration sentence reads: “The IRS will keep any refund, including interest, that I might be due for tax periods extending through the calendar year in which the IRS accepts my offer.”  Note the omission of the words “because of overpayment”.

In any case, these were the first Article III courts that had ruled on the issue of the year to which the stimulus check relates – i.e., the year whose tax information generated the checks or the year to which section 6428(a) says the credit is attributable.

But, it turns out that the year to which the stimulus check relates is no longer important for collection of IRS taxes from the stimulus check:  New CARES Act section 2201(d) provides:

(d) EXCEPTION FROM REDUCTION OR OFFSET.—Any credit or refund allowed or made to any individual by reason of section 6428 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (as added by this section ) . . . shall not be— . . . (2) subject to reduction or offset pursuant to subsection (d), (e), or (f) of section 6402 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, or (3) reduced or offset by other assessed Federal taxes that would otherwise be subject to levy or collection.

As I read section 2201(d)(3), it prohibits collection of either the stimulus check or the credit under section 6428(a) for other federal taxes under section 6402(a) (though I don’t know why the statute makes no reference to section 6402(a)).  And all but the state child support offsets are also prohibited by the new statute.

I am delighted by this compromise.  It should be noted that when Senator McConnell first introduced his coronavirus legislation, the version of section 6428 appearing in that bill would have prohibited offset under sections 6402(d), (e), or (f), but would have allowed offsets for other federal taxes.  I complained of this publicly (in an article in Tax Notes Today Federal) and to a friend on the Joint Committee on Taxation staff.  I argued that now was not the time to be collecting old tax debts, but to be stimulating the economy.  The very people too poor to pay their back tax debts were no doubt also to be most in need of the checks to survive this crisis. Whether my advocacy had any effect, I have no idea.  I’d like to hope it did, even though this change probably cost the federal government several billion dollars that it would not otherwise have sent out.

The final issue that ended up in litigation regarding the 2001 and 2008 versions of section 6428 was whether, for purposes of bankruptcy, the advance check was “for” the taxable year on whose information it was calculated (2000 or 2007) or was “for” the taxable year of the stated credit (2001 or 2008).  There had been one ruling that the 2001 section 6428 check was for the taxable year 2001. In re Lambert, 283 B.R. 16 (9th Cir. BAP 2002).  But, bankruptcy courts split almost evenly over the taxable year as to which the 2008 stimulus check was for.  Compare In re Wooldridge, 393 B.R.  721 (Bankr. D. Idaho 2008) (check was for 2008); In re Schwenke, 102 A.F.T.R.2d 6355 (Bankr. D. Mont. Sept. 25, 2008) (same); with In re Alguire, 391 B.R. 252 (Bankr. W.D.N.Y. 2008) (check was for 2007); In re Smith, 393 B.R. 205, 208-209 (Bankr. S.D. Ind. 2008) (same).  I am no expert in bankruptcy, but I anticipate that there will be the same dispute concerning the new coronavirus stimulus check, and that the opinion of the Second Circuit in my cases, although influential, will not be the last word.

So, How Will the “Recovery Rebate” Refunds Work This Time? Part I

This is the first of a two-part post on the portion of the coronavirus legislation that adopts, once again, “recovery rebate” credits and refunds.

When Congress passed the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107-16 – i.e., Bush 43’s first tax bill – it reduced taxes, in part, by creating a new 10% bracket.  Congress wanted to get into taxpayer hands some of the benefit of that rate reduction even before returns were due.  So, it came up with the idea of sending checks mid-year.  The methods of sending and computing those checks were laid out in a new Code section 6428.  That section was entitled “Acceleration of 10 Percent Income Tax Rate Bracket Benefit for 2001”.

Even before the economy cratered in late 2008, Congress saw what was coming, so, in February 2008, in the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, Pub. L. 110-185, Congress revived and revised section 6428 – now to send “recovery rebate” checks in mid-2008. 

In section 2201 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress has again decided to send out checks through the IRS and has again revived and revised section 6428 to send recovery rebate checks in mid-2020. 

Why use the IRS to send out checks, rather than some other government entity?  Well, because Congress wants to base the amount of the checks, in part, on citizens’ income, and only the IRS would have that information handy.

Section 6428 operates as a refundable credit – just like the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit.  Section 6428(b).  (Hereinafter, all references to section 6428 are to the 2020 version, unless I tell you otherwise.)  Because it has been awhile since this recovery rebate credit has been in the law (and because I litigated on behalf of taxpayers the only district court and appellate court opinions addressing the 2008 version of section 6428; see Sarmiento v. United States, 812 F. Supp. 2d 137 (E.D.N.Y. 2011), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, 678 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2012), and Maniolos v. United States, 741 F. Supp. 2d 555 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), aff’d per order, 469 Fed. Appx. 56(2d Cir. 2012)), I thought it would be useful for me to give a practical primer on how the new recovery rebate is written, how it was administered last time, and how I think it will be administered this time – because I anticipate the IRS will make administrative choices in 2020 similar to those that the IRS made in 2008.

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The current recovery rebate credit is nominally a credit against 2020 income taxes.  Section 6428(a).  This follows the pattern of the prior two versions of making the credit a credit against the income taxes of the tax year in which the “advanced refund” (i.e., “stimulus check”) is sent out.  That means that, on the 2020 income tax return that you prepare in April 2021, there will likely be a line entry under payments and refundable credits in which you calculate the section 6428 credit using your 2020 income.  You will then subtract from the credit due you on that return the amount of any stimulus check that you received in 2020.  If you are due more credit, you will get it as part of your 2020 refund.  If you have been overpaid through the stimulus check, however, you do not have to return the excess.  Section 6428(e)(1).

This brings me to a comment based on my experience dealing with low-income taxpayers while I headed the Cardozo Tax Clinic during 2008 and 2009:  Most taxpayers, at the time the 2020 return is prepared, will not be sure whether or not they received the stimulus check or the amount thereof.   Since you have to subtract the amount of the stimulus check from the calculation of the 2020 credit, how do you solve this problem?  As discussed below, the stimulus check, if precedent holds, is going to be posted to the taxpayer’s 2019 income tax transcript as (1) a credit and (2) then a refund check. So, order a copy of that transcript for 2019 before preparing the 2020 return. 

If you fail to subtract the amount of a stimulus check that was sent, several things happen:

The excess refundable credit that you claimed is treated as a deficiency in tax under section 6211(b)(4) and can be collected without a notice of deficiency under the math error authority of section 6213(b)(1) and (g).  This is partly stated at section 6428(e)(1) and the rest is stated in subsection (b) of CARES Act section 2201, the non-codified part of the statute that adopted the new section 6428. 

You can also expect a 20% section 6662 penalty to be imposed on that deficiency.

Who gets the credit?  Any individual who is not a nonresident alien or a person who can be claimed as someone else’s dependent.  Section 6428(d).  This is a much broader category of individuals entitled to the credit than in the prior two versions of section 6428.  For the prior versions, smaller credits were allowed if an individual had not paid income tax in the amount of the usual credit, but the individual had a certain amount of qualifying income (which included Social Security benefits).

How much is the credit?  It is $1,200 per person ($2,400 in the case of a joint return) plus $500 per dependent who is a qualifying child of the individual under section 24(c).  Section 6428(a).  That means that the rules of section 24(c) apply to limit the additional $500 to children up to age 17.  All other limits on who is a qualifying child under section 24(c) also apply.

What is the phaseout of the credit?  The phaseout of the credit begins at certain adjusted gross income (AGI) levels, depending on filing status.  The phaseout is 5% of the AGI that exceeds that level.  The level at which the phaseout begins is AGI of $150,000 for joint filers, $112,500 for head of household filers, and $75,000 for single or married filing separately filers.  Section 6428(c).

How is the stimulus check sent to me in mid-2020 calculated, since I don’t know my 2020 income yet, and, indeed, my income is likely to be much lower in 2020 than in prior years?  As with the earlier versions of section 6428, this problem is only partly solved by having the IRS calculate the stimulus check as the amount that would have been due you under subsection (a) if your 2019 tax information were used.  Section 6428(f).  As you can see, though, many more people are likely to face smaller stimulus checks than they will ultimately be due for a recovery rebate refund under this system.  For example, say a single filer earned $200,000 of AGI in 2019.  She would get no stimulus check because of the operation of the phaseout.  But, when she filed a 2020 return showing AGI of only $60,000, she would get $1,200 at that time, since she did not get a stimulus check and her AGI was not above the phaseout amount.

What if an individual never filed a 2019 return, so the IRS can’t know the individual’s 2019 AGI?  Well, first, the IRS can substitute 2018 for 2019 in calculating the stimulus check, and, second, “if the individual has not filed a tax return for such individual’s first taxable year beginning in 2018, [the IRS may] use information with respect to such individual for calendar year 2019 provided in (i) Form SSA-1099, Social Security Benefit Statement, or (ii) Form RRB-1099, Social Security Equivalent Benefit Statement.”  Section 6428(f)(5). 

I am not sure what happens if the individual did not file either a 2018 or 2019 return and was not receiving Social Security benefits in 2019.  For example, many taxpayers are working and are slightly overwithheld and so do not bother to file a tax return for the small refund they may be due.  Are these taxpayers going to get a stimulus check? My guess is that they are not.  They will have to wait until they file a 2020 return to get the benefit of the credit.  If they are perennial non-filers, so don’t file for 2020, either, they may never get the credit.  I think the drafters of section 6428 could have been more creative – such as allowing the IRS to total all gross income shown on 2018 or 2019 third-party information returns for purposes of calculating an AGI.

When will the stimulus checks be paid?  The statute does not set a specific date for payment, but it does require that no checks be sent out after December 31, 2020.  Section 6428(f)(3).  For the 2008 checks, the IRS ended up staggering the issuance of checks each week, so as not to overwhelm its computers or staff.  If I recall, the checks were issued over a three-month period, with the last two digits of one’s Social Security Number determining in which tranche any check would be sent.  I am not sure the IRS can do it any faster.  However, if the first checks only go out to some people late summer or early fall, I don’t know how poor people or people who have lost their jobs already will be able to get by in the interim.

There are also provisions in section 6428 and the noncodified accompanying legislation addressing members of the Armed Forces and the treatment of possessions.  I will not discuss those.  However, in my next post, I will discuss issues that arose in the courts in response to the prior versions of section 6428 and how the answers may or may not differ under the current version.

The Coronavirus Shows Why We Need Equitable Tolling Legislation Now for Judicial Tax Filing Deadlines

Note that after this post below was written, at 9 pm March 18, the Tax Court issued a press release stating that its building is closed and that:

Mail will be held for delivery until the Court reopens. Taxpayers may comply with statutory deadlines for filing petitions or notices of appeal by timely mailing a petition or notice of appeal to the Court. Timeliness of mailing of the petition or notice of appeal is determined by the United States Postal Service’s postmark or the delivery certificate of a designated private delivery service. The eAccess and eFiling systems remain operational. Petitions and other documents may not be hand delivered to the Court.

Under Guralnik, this now extends — to the date the Clerk’s Office reopens — the time for filing in person or mailing a Tax Court petition.

Things are moving fast (finally) in D.C.  On March 13, the President sent a letter to three Cabinet Secretaries and the Administrator of FEMA invoking his power under the Stafford Act to declare a national emergency because of the coronavirus.  Part of the letter stated:  “I am also instructing Secretary Mnuchin to provide relief from tax deadlines to Americans who have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency, as appropriate, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. 7508A(a).”

On March 18, the IRS issued Notice 2020-17, providing for a 3-month extension (from April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020) to “Affected Taxpayers” to pay 2019 income taxes (i.e., not any other taxes) – limited to $1 million for individuals and $10 million for C  corporations or consolidated groups.  Affected Taxpayers are defined as “any person with a Federal income tax payment due April 15, 2020” – apparently regardless of where in the world the taxpayers are located.

A paragraph in the Notice also reads:

Affected Taxpayers subject to penalties or additions to tax despite the relief granted by this section III may seek reasonable cause relief under section 6651 for a failure to pay tax or seek a waiver to a penalty under section 6654 for a failure by an individual or certain trusts and estates to pay estimated income tax, as applicable. Similar relief with respect to estimated tax payments is not available for corporate taxpayers or tax-exempt organizations under section 6655.

I take this to mean that if, say, an individual taxpayer paid $1.5 million in income taxes on July 15, the IRS will impose a late-payment penalty on $500,000 of the payment, but the IRS encourages the taxpayers to seek abatement of that penalty by explaining why the coronavirus prevented payment of that $500,000, as well.  I assume that the IRS will be liberal in granting abatements, but a taxpayer will have to ask.

The IRS has, to date, has said nothing about extending any filing deadlines, though I expect it will act on that in the near future.  

Section 7508A allows the IRS to grant payment and filing extensions of up to one year (including for making refund claims, filing refund suits, and filing Tax Court petitions and notices of appeal; Reg. § 301.7508A-1(c)(1)(iv)-(vi)) for people affected by a Presidentially-declared disaster.  However, unless the IRS extends filing deadlines to people and entities worldwide (don’t forget our overseas U.S. taxpayers and foreigners who are taxpayers in the U.S.) and with respect to all taxes, this provision would not be sufficient to help all the persons who reasonably would need extensions to file tax cases in court.  Further, even a one-year extension for all taxes may not be enough, given that it is estimated that a vaccine for the coronavirus might not be available for 18 months.

I hope at least one person reading this post is a Congressional staffer, who can get what I propose into the next round of legislation to address the coronavirus pandemic.  Taxpayers dealing with the coronavirus will understandably miss tax judicial filing deadlines, such as the 30-day period to file a Collection Due Process petition in the Tax Court under § 6330(d)(1) or the 90-day (or 150-day) periods to file deficiency or innocent spouse petitions in the Tax Court under §§ 6213(a) and 6015(e)(1)(A).  Those taxpayers should be forgiven for missing those deadlines in appropriate cases, even if they are not covered by any announced extension to file under § 7508A.  However, currently, the power of the courts to forgive late judicial filings in the tax area is, according to most courts, nonexistent.  I ask Congress to change the law to clarify that tax judicial filing deadlines are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling.

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Most courts have held that statutory tax judicial filing deadlines are jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling.  That’s the case despite the few appellate rulings that Keith and I have yet won holding that certain tax judicial filing deadlines are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling.  Although we hope for more, we have, to date, only two Circuit Court victories that only apply to tax filing deadlines used by very few people:  The district court wrongful levy filing deadline of § 6532(c); Volpicelli v. United States,  777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015); and the Tax Court whistleblower award filing deadline of § 7623(b)(4)Myers v. Commissioner, 928 F.3d 1025 (D.C. Cir. 2019).  Fewer than 200 such petitions/complaints are currently filed each year (combined) in those kinds of cases, and even all the other Circuits to have ruled on the issue of the wrongful levy deadline have ruled the other way. 

Whatever reason that impelled the Supreme Court to hold in United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), that the refund claim filing and payment deadlines of §6511(a) and (b) are not subject to equitable tolling (including administrative problems that might arise because almost a hundred million 1994 returns included claims for refund), the problem of tax judicial filing deadlines is confined to a comparatively very small number of cases.  Currently, fewer than 30,000 tax complaints/petitions are filed annually, and the vast majority of these are filed on time.  It would not be a huge burden on the tax system if equitable tolling could be allowed for the few late-filed complaints/petitions where a plaintiff/taxpayer can give a good excuse for late filing – such as dealing with coronavirus.

If the Article I Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims can employ equitable tolling and district courts can employ equitable tolling in connection with Federal Tort Claims Act suits, I see no reason why tax suits should be excluded from equitable tolling.  So, legislation to change the tax law is urgently needed.

For filings in tax cases in the district courts and the Tax Court, if the clerk’s offices of those courts close during this pandemic, that will give automatic extensions to file initial pleadings until those offices reopen.  See, e.g., Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230 (2016) (borrowing a rule from the FRCP).  But, it is not clear that clerks offices will have to close during this pandemic.  Indeed, while the Tax Court has canceled certain upcoming trial calendars, it has not (at least yet) closed its clerk’s office to hand-delivered petitions.  Indeed, the Tax Court has announced that its Clerk’s office is still open for filing petitions, though only for four hours a day.  So, Guralnik can’t apply.

Reg. § 301.9100-1 et seq. allows the IRS to extend statutory and regulatory deadlines for making elections.  But, the IRS can’t extend judicial filing deadlines. 

Equitable tolling is generally appropriate only where the defendant [1] has actively misled the plaintiff respecting the cause of action, or [2] where the plaintiff has in some extraordinary way been prevented from asserting his rights, or [3] has raised the precise statutory claim in issue but has mistakenly done so in the wrong forum.

Mazurkiewicz v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., 356 Fed. Appx. 521, 522 (2d Cir. 2009) (cleaned up).  Accord Mannella v. Commissioner, 631 F.3d 115, 125 (3d Cir. 2011).  While coronoavirus interference with taxpayer lives (be it illness, quarantine, tending to others who are sick, or simply not being able to access necessary paperwork because of lock-downs) would likely fall into the “extraordinary circumstances” usual reason, equitable tolling is not limited to only those usual reasons.  As the Supreme Court has said:

The “flexibility” inherent in “equitable procedure” enables courts “to meet new situations [that] demand equitable intervention, and to accord all the relief necessary to correct . . . particular injustices.”  [Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238, 248 (1944)] (permitting postdeadline filing of bill of review).  Taken together, these cases recognize that courts of equity can and do draw upon decisions made in other similar cases for guidance.  Such courts exercise judgment in light of prior precedent, but with awareness of the fact that specific circumstances, often hard to predict in advance, could warrant special treatment in an appropriate case.

Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631, 650 (2010).

The former and current National Taxpayer Advocates have agreed with my push to get equitable tolling into judicial tax filing deadlines.  NTA 2017 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. 1, at pp. 283-292 (Legislative Recommendation Number 3); NTA 2018 Annual Report to Congress, 2019 Purple Book at pp. 88-90; NTA 2019 Annual Report to Congress, 2020 Purple Book at pp. 85-87.

And, I long ago drafted legislation to accomplish this.  Here’s my draft.  No doubt Congressional staffers should give it a review, as I am no expert drafter of legislation.  I would:

Amend section 7442 to add new section (b) as follows:

(b) Timely Filing Nonjurisdictional.—Notwithstanding any other provision of this title,

  • all periods of limitations for filing suit in the Tax Court are subject to waiver, forfeiture, estoppel, and equitable tolling; and
  • an order of the Tax Court dismissing a suit for untimely filing shall not be considered a ruling on the merits and shall not preclude the litigation of any later claim or issue brought in the Tax Court or any other court.

Amend section 7459(d)’s last sentence to add before the period:  “or untimely filing”.

Amend section 6532 to add a new subsection (d) reading:

(d) Timely Filing Nonjurisdictional.—The time periods set out in subsections (a) and (c) are subject to waiver, forfeiture, estoppel, and equitable tolling.

For the Second Time in About Five Years, the SG Decides Not to Take a Tax Equitable Tolling Case to SCOTUS

Just another short update on Myers v. Commissioner, 928 F.3d 1025 (D.C. Cir. 2019), on which I blogged here.  In that opinion, the D.C. Circuit held that the 30-day deadline in section 7623(b)(4) in which to file a whistleblower award petition in the Tax Court is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law.  The DOJ had initially sought en banc rehearing of the Myers opinion, contending that the opinion could not be reconciled with the opinion in Duggan v. Commissioner, 879 F.3d 1029 (9th Cir. 2018), on which I blogged hereDuggan held that the 30-day deadline in section 6330(d)(1) in which to file a Collection Due Process petition in the Tax Court is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling.  Since the 2006 language of section 7623(b)(4) was rather obviously cribbed from the 2000-version language in section 6330(d)(1), I agree with the DOJ that the two opinions cannot be reconciled.

After the D.C. Circuit denied rehearing, the Solicitor General had to consider seeking certiorari in Myers.  Clearly, there was some struggle in the DOJ to figure out what to do, since the SG twice requested extensions of the time to file a cert. petition.  But, the last extension expired on March 2, and no further extension was sought or petition was filed by that date.  Thus, the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Myers now controls all Tax Court whistleblower award cases under Golsen, since, under section 7482(b)(1), unlike most Tax Court cases, whistleblower award cases are only appealable to the D.C. Circuit.

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This is the second time in about five years that the DOJ, after losing a tax equitable tolling case and being unsuccessful in seeking en banc rehearing because of a conflict among the Circuits, has, in the end, decided not to seek cert.  The prior case was Volpicelli v. United States, 777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015), on which I blogged hereVolpicelli held that the then-9-month (now 2-year) deadline in section 6532(c) in which to file a district court wrongful levy complaint is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law.  Volpicelli is in conflict with several section 6532(c) opinions of other Circuits, including Becton Dickinson and Co. v. Wolckenhauer, 215 F.3d 340 (3d Cir. 2000), but all of the conflicting cases were decided before the new Supreme Court case law on jurisdiction began in 2004.

I am a little bummed out by the SG’s chickening out on seeking cert. in Myers, since in both Volpicelli and Myers, I wrote or co-wrote amicus briefs in the cases on behalf of tax clinics with which I had been then affiliated (Cardozo and Harvard, respectively).  And, more than the usual amicus, I was otherwise instrumental in pushing these cases forward as test cases.  I guess it is just my luck that any potential Supreme Court case I help generate gets passed on by the SG after much furor and ado below.  Given that I am retired and now just volunteering with the Harvard clinic, Myers was likely my last chance at getting to SCOTUS on an issue I cared strongly about.  But, maybe I should be like Yoda and sigh, “After all, there is another”.  In Boechler, P.C. v. Commissioner, Eight Circuit Docket No. 19-2003, the Eight Circuit has been asked to hold the section 6330(d)(1) filing deadline not jurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling.  Keith and I (on behalf of the Harvard clinic) are amicus there, as well.  Oral argument is expected shortly in Boechler, as the briefing is complete.

In a December post, I pointed out that the Tax Court had been holding back from deciding a number of whistleblower award cases pending the SG’s action regarding cert. in Myers.  See Tax Court orders in Aghadjanian v. Commissioner, Docket No. 9339-18W (dated 9/4/19 and 12/9/19); McCrory v. Commissioner, Docket No. 3443-18W (dated 9/4/19 and 12/6/19); Bond v. Commissioner, Docket No. 5690-19W (dated 10/8/19); Bond v. Commissioner, Docket No. 6267-19W (dated 10/30/19); Bond v. Commissioner, Docket No. 6982-19W (dated 11/5/19).  That has continued in other dockets.  See Tax Court orders in Berleth v. Commissioner, Docket No. 21414-18W (dated 1/22/20 and 2/2/20); Friedel v. Commissioner, Docket No. 11239-19W (dated 2/14/20); Damiani v. Commissioner, Docket No. 14914-19W (dated 2/18/20).

And, in the remand of Myers from the D.C. Circuit, we can all look forward to the Tax Court for the first time being confronted with deciding what constitutes substantive grounds for equitable tolling of a Tax Court filing deadline.  To decide this question, the Tax Court will have to borrow case law from other courts, including the Supreme Court, since the Tax Court has never before believed it had the power to grant equitable tolling.

Seventh Circuit Affirms Tax Court’s Discretion to Weigh Actual Knowledge More Heavily than Four Positive Factors for Innocent Spouse Relief

Last summer, I alerted PT readers here to an innocent spouse case, Jacobsen v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-115, that Keith and I were litigating in the Seventh Circuit on behalf of the Harvard tax clinic.  We took on the appeal of one year (2011) where the taxpayer did not get equitable innocent spouse relief from the Tax Court under section 6015(f) from the unreported taxes on the taxpayer’s former wife’s embezzlement income.  For that year, the Tax Court held that because the former wife was already jailed when the return was filed and because the taxpayer helped a CPA prepare the return, the taxpayer had actual knowledge of the deficiency.  Of course, while actual knowledge is fatal to relief under subsections (b) and (c), it is not supposed to be fatal under subsection (f) equitable relief.  Knowledge (whether actual or reason to know) is only supposed to be one factor of seven factors to consider under subsection (f), as elaborated on by Rev. Proc. 2013-34, 2013-2 C.B. 397.  Under the liberalizing 2013 Rev. Proc., unlike under the earlier Rev. Proc. 2003-61, 2003-2 C.B. 296, actual knowledge was now to be weighed no more heavily than reason to know in the factor analysis.  And, in the case, the Tax Court held that of the remaining factors, four were positive for relief – marital status, lack of significant benefit, compliance with future tax filing and payment obligations, and serious health issues.  So, it struck Keith and me as wrong – and as not consistent with what most Tax Court judges were doing – for the court to have still denied relief in this case.  It seemed to us that the Tax Court had not, in substance, applied the Rev. Proc. (which, concededly is not binding on the court, but which the court generally follows and purported to follow in the case).

Keith and I hoped a reversal of the Tax Court in the Jacobsen case would have a salutary effect on Tax Court judges not to overweigh the actual knowledge factor.  And, this would be the first appeals court to ever have to apply Rev. Proc. 2013-34 (surprisingly).  Then, during briefing of the appeal, Congress enacted the Taxpayer First Act, which amended section 6015(e) to add paragraph (7) providing that the Tax Court should decide innocent spouse cases on a de novo standard and a supplemented administrative record.  Because the amendment applied to pending cases, the Jacobsen Seventh Circuit opinion would also be the first to consider the impact of subsection (e)(7) on appellate review.

Well, we lost. In Jacobsen v. Commissioner, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 4544 (7th Cir. Feb. 13, 2020), in a published opinion, the Seventh Circuit upheld the Tax Court’s ruling, though noted that this was a close case and that, had it been the trier of fact (and not employing deferential appellate review), it might have ruled for the taxpayer.

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Given Jacobsen, I am not sure that any court of appeals will ever reverse the Tax Court on a section 6015 ruling against a taxpayer.  My research before the clinic’s taking on the appeal revealed that, while taxpayers occasionally obtained a reversal of the Tax Court under the former innocent spouse provision at section 6013(e) (in effect from 1971 to 1998); see, e.g., Resser v. Commissioner, 74 F.3d 1528 (7th Cir. 1996); no taxpayer since 1998, in 14 tries, had obtained a reversal of the Tax Court under section 6015.  See Asad v. Commissioner, 751 Fed. Appx. 339 (3d Cir. 2018); Nunez v. Commissioner, 599 Fed. Appx. 629 (9th Cir. 2015); Deihl v. Commissioner, 603 Fed. Appx. 527 (9th Cir. 2015); Karam v. Commissioner, 504 Fed. Appx. 416 (6th Cir. 2012); Maluda v. Commissioner, 431 Fed. Appx. 130 (3d Cir. 2011); Greer v. Commissioner, 595 F.3d 338 (6th Cir. 2010); Golden v. Commissioner, 548 F.3d 487 (6th Cir. 2008); Aranda v. Commissioner, 432 F.3d 1140 (10th Cir. 2005); Feldman v. Commissioner, 152 Fed. Appx. 622 (9th Cir. 2005); Alt v. Commissioner, 101 Fed. Appx. 34 (6th Cir. 2004); Doyle v. Commissioner, 94 Fed. Appx. 949 (3d Cir. 2004); Mitchell v. Commissioner, 292 F.3d 800 (D.C. Cir. 2002); Cheshire v. Commissioner, 282 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2002); Wiksell v. Commissioner, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 5857 (9th Cir. 2000).  The taxpayer losing string continues.

An interesting issue in the Seventh Circuit in Jacobsen was its discussion of the appellate standard of review in light of section 6015(e)(7).  As to what would be “inequitable” under section 6015(f), the IRS argued for abuse of discretion review, and the taxpayer argued for clear error review.  There isn’t much of a difference between the two standards, but (e)(7) was designed to prevent the Tax Court from giving deference to IRS rulings under (f), which had been held though, until Porter v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 203 (2009), to be reviewed by the Tax Court on an abuse of IRS discretion standard.  In Porter, the Tax Court held it would henceforth decide (f) issues on a de novo standard – the position adopted by statute in (e)(7).  And at least some Tax Court judges had said that the Tax Court does not exercise equitable discretion under (f), but merely makes a factual finding of what would be “unfair”.  Cf. Hall v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 374, 391-392 (2010) (Thornton and Holmes, JJ., dissenting) (arguing that by using the word “inequitable” in § 6015(f), Congress did not imply the rules of equity practice, but rather only meant that it would be “unfair” to hold the taxpayer liable;  “A request for relief under section 6015(f) is called a request for ‘equitable relief’ not because it is a request for reformation, rescission, specific performance, or accounting, but because to a reasonable decisionmaker at the IRS it would be unfair to hold one spouse jointly liable with another for a particular tax debt.”).  Factual findings are usually reviewed by appellate courts for clear error.  

In Jacobsen, the Seventh Circuit dodged the appellate review standard issue in the following discussion:

Although the parties agree generally that we review the Tax Court’s decisions “in the same manner and to the same extent as we review district court decisions from the bench in civil actions,” 26 U.S.C. § 7482(a)(1); Gyorgy v. C.I.R., 779 F.3d 466, 472–73 (7th Cir. 2015); Resser, 74 F.3d at 1535, they disagree as to whether that means we review the denial of relief under § 6015(f) for clear error or an abuse of discretion.

The parties’ differing views on the standard of review hinge in part on the Taxpayer First Act, legislation that was passed shortly after the parties filed their briefs. See Pub. L. No. 116-25, 133 Stat. 981 (July 1, 2019). As relevant here, § 1203 of the Taxpayer First Act added a new paragraph at the end of § 6015(e) codifying the existing practice of de novo review by the Tax Court of appeals from the denial of innocent spouse relief. Because this addition to § 6015 simply “clarified,” see Pub. L. No. 116-25, § 1203 (“Clarification of equitable relief from joint liability.”), the existing standard and scope of Tax Court review, the Commissioner maintains it has no effect on our standard of review. Thus, argues the Commissioner, denial of relief under § 6015(f) should be reviewed in the same manner as any determination of equitable relief in the district court—for abuse of discretion. See, e.g., Bowes v. Ind. Sec. of State, 837 F.3d 813, 817 (7th Cir. 2016) (explaining general applicability of abuse of discretion standard to equitable determinations).

Jacobsen, however, insists that the Taxpayer First Act confirms his position that we review decisions under § 6015(f) for clear error. Jacobsen explains his reasoning as follows: (1) the Taxpayer First Act makes equitable relief under § 6015(f) mandatory as opposed to discretionary; (2) mandatory relief under subsection (f) “is now the same as mandatory relief under subsection (b),” which also contains an inequity condition; and so (3) Tax Court rulings under subsection (f) should be reviewed under the same standard as subsection (b). Jacobsen finds further support for his position with the fact that subsection (b) is a continuation and expansion of former § 6013(e), which we held in Resser was subject to clear error review, 74 F.3d at 1535.

We are unconvinced, however, that the Taxpayer First Act (which settled only the Tax Court’s standard of review of IRS determinations) sheds any particular light on our standard of review as to relief under § 6015(f), which multiple courts have recognized as for abuse of discretion. See Greer v. C.I.R., 595 F.3d 398, 344 (6th Cir. 2010) (innocent spouse relief under § 6015(b) reviewed for clear error but equitable relief under § 6015(f) reviewed for abuse of discretion); Cheshire v. C.I.R., 282 F.3d 326, 338 (5th Cir. 2002) (same). Fortunately, we need not resolve the issue today, as we would affirm the Tax Court’s decision under either deferential standard.

Slip op. at 9-11 (emphasis in original; some citations omitted).

As to the underlying issue of whether the Tax Court could let actual knowledge outweigh four positive factors for relief, the Seventh Circuit wrote:

Because each of the factors for consideration was either neutral or favored relief, Jacobsen claims the Tax Court must have weighed knowledge more heavily than the other factors, in contravention of Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03(2)(c)(i)(A). Nothing in the Tax Court’s opinion, however, suggests that it believed knowledge of the embezzled funds necessarily precluded Jacobsen from equitable relief or automatically outweighed the other factors for consideration. Although the 2013 regulations make clear that knowledge is no longer necessarily a strong factor weighing against relief, as Jacobsen himself acknowledges in his brief, they do not prohibit the Tax Court from assigning more weight to petitioner’s knowledge if such a conclusion is supported by the totality of the circumstances. As explained in the Revenue Procedures, “no one factor or a majority of factors necessarily determines the outcome.” Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03. And although knowledge no longer weighs heavily against relief, nothing in the statute or revenue procedures forecloses the decisionmaker from concluding that in light of “all the facts and circumstances,” § 6015(f), knowledge of the understatement weighs heavily against granting equitable relief. There is thus no reason to believe the Tax Court’s decision was necessarily erroneous because only one of the nonexhaustive factors for consideration weighed against relief.

Jacobsen also suggests it was inappropriate for the Tax Court to factor his “participation in preparing the 2011 return” into its assessment, characterizing it as “another way for the court to extra-count” Jacobsen’s knowledge of the embezzlement. In assessing the role of Jacobsen’s knowledge in his entitlement to equitable relief, the court noted that in addition to Jacobsen’s actual knowledge on account of Lemmens’ criminal conviction and sentence, in 2011 Jacobsen himself provided the tax information to the paid preparer, whereas in previous years Lemmens had always prepared and submitted the tax information. Far from demonstrating that the Tax Court erred, the court’s consideration of his role in preparing the 2011 return demonstrates its commitment to heed the Revenue Procedure’s directive that the seven listed factors merely provide “guides” as opposed to an “exclusive list” and that “[o]ther factors relevant to a specific claim for relief may also be taken into account.” Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03(2).

It is clear from its opinion that the Tax Court considered the factors relevant to Jacobsen’s specific claim for relief. The court considered Jacobsen’s individual circumstances as it analyzed each of the listed factors. Jacobsen does not argue, nor could he, that the Tax Court misapprehended the facts or otherwise overlooked information relevant to Jacobsen’s claim.

We are sympathetic to Jacobsen’s situation, and recognize that the Tax Court could have easily decided on this record that Jacobsen was entitled to equitable relief under § 6015(f). Indeed, were we deciding the case in the first instance as opposed to on deferential review, we may have decided the case differently. But notwithstanding the existence of many factors favoring relief and only Jacobsen’s knowledge counseling against it, nothing in the record indicates the Tax Court misapprehended the weight to be accorded Jacobsen’s knowledge or treated it as a decisive factor barring relief. Indeed, its discussion of each of the factors as well as the relevance of Jacobsen’s involvement in preparing the 2011 taxes demonstrate that the Tax Court did not engage in a mechanical balancing of the factors where the number of factors favoring relief necessarily counterbalanced the ultimate question of whether it was inequitable to hold Jacobsen liable for the 2011 deficiencies. We thus cannot say the Tax Court either abused its discretion or clearly erred in its denial of relief for 2011.

Slip op. at 16-18 (emphasis in original; some citations omitted).

Based on our research (much of which we incorporated in the briefing in Jacobsen), the Jacobsen case is unusual in letting so many positive factors be outweighed by only one negative factor.  But, if other Circuits are going to be so deferential in reviewing the Tax Court’s weighing of factors, it is hard to imagine any taxpayer ever being able to mount a successful attack on a Tax Court judge’s weighing of the factors.  About the only chance for reversing the Tax Court may be if the Tax Court made a factual error as to whether a particular factor was positive, negative, or neutral for relief.

That brings me to Sleeth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2019-138.  Like Jacobsen, Sleeth is one of those outlier cases where the Tax Court unusually treated knowledge as outweighing multiple other factors for relief.  Sleeth is an underpayment case, where the taxpayer signed returns showing balances due (two of which were being filed late), but where the taxpayer’s husband, a doctor making $418,000 a year, failed to later fully pay the balances due that initially aggregated, in tax alone, about $354,000.  The Tax Court held that the taxpayer had reason to know that the taxes would never be fully paid because the taxpayer knew that in a prior year, the husband had once used an installment agreement.  As in Jacobsen, the Tax Court in Sleeth held that the taxpayer had not proved she would suffer economic hardship if forced to pay the liabilities, so this factor was neutral.  As in Jacobsen, the court in Sleeth found three other factors favored relief:  marital status, lack of significant benefit, and compliance with later tax return filing and payment obligations.  The main difference between the two cases is that, while Jacobsen had a serious health issue that favored relief, Sleeth did not.

Sleeth had paid counsel in the Tax Court, but she could not afford to pay counsel for an appeal.  The Harvard tax clinic, pro bono, is now representing her in an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit (Docket No. 20-10221).  If the Eleventh Circuit is as deferential as to the weighing of factors as the Seventh Circuit was in Jacobsen, Sleeth will have a hard time in obtaining victory.  However, there are arguments that the Tax Court erred in its holdings with respect to the knowledge and financial hardship factors.  So, it is still possible that Sleeth will break the unbroken string of taxpayer losses in appeals of innocent spouse cases from the Tax Court.  The appellate briefing in Sleeth has only just begun.