Implications for the Tax World of New Supreme Court Opinion Finding Another Claims Processing Rule Not Jurisdictional

I know some of you think I have “jurisdiction” on the brain. However, anyone who reads Supreme Court opinions over the last 15 years should also have that malady by now, since over that period the Court seems to have issued at least one opinion a year on the question of whether a particular rule of federal litigation is jurisdictional or a mandatory non-jurisdictional claims processing rule. Keith and I recognized that this question inevitably also applies to the tax world, where much discussion of the question in court opinions preceded the current thinking making claims processing rules presumptively not jurisdictional. We have tried to alert the lower courts (including the Tax Court) to these Supreme Court developments. Since 2014, tax opinions have begun to follow the developing Supreme Court non-tax authority in analyzing the tax statute requirements. Compare Lippolis v. Commissioner, 143 T.C. 393 (2014) ($2 million amount in dispute whistleblower award threshold in section 7623(b)(5) is not jurisdictional) and Volpicelli v. United States, 777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015) (section 6532(c) wrongful levy judicial filing deadline is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling) with Duggan v. Commissioner, 879 F.3d 1029 (9th Cir. 2018) (section 6330(d)(1) CDP filing deadline is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling) and Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2017) (section 6015(e)(1)(A) innocent spouse filing deadline is jurisdictional and not subject to estoppel).

Well, the Supreme Court just issued its second “jurisdictional” ruling of the current Term, Fort Bend County v. Davis, Docket No. 18-525 (June 3, 2019). The first ruling was in Nutraceutical Corp. v. Lambert, 139 S. Ct. 710 (Feb. 26, 2019). The Court in both cases held mandatory claims processing rules non-jurisdictional. Could these cases contribute to a larger effect in the tax world, since they underscore that almost no claims processing rule is held jurisdictional by the Court these days?

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First, a reminder of the principal differences between jurisdictional rules and non-jurisdictional rules. Non-jurisdictional rules are subject to waiver and also are subject to forfeiture if not raised soon enough in a case; courts need not police these rules. By contrast, courts must independently police jurisdictional rules, and complaints about lack of jurisdiction can be raised at any time during a case – either by the defendant or the court. Some non-jurisdictional claims processing rules are also subject to the equitable exceptions of estoppel and, in the case of rules that are filing deadlines, equitable tolling, but this is a separate issue. The Court in Nutraceutical, for example, held a deadline in which to ask permission from a court of appeal to appeal a district court denial of class certification not jurisdictional and yet still not subject to equitable tolling.

Second, before getting deep into this subject, I highly recommend to readers Bryan Camp’s forthcoming article in The Tax Lawyer (for the Summer 2019 issue) entitled, “New Thinking About Jurisdictional Time Periods in the Tax Code”, where he argues that the filing deadlines for Tax Court deficiency and CDP cases should not be jurisdictional under the new thinking, but that the filing deadline for a stand-alone innocent spouse case should be jurisdictional, and the district court refund suit filing deadline in section 6532(a) should not be jurisdictional.

Fort Bend Facts

Lois Davis worked for Fort Bend County. She filed with the EEOC two documents complaining that she was being harassed and retaliated against, since she had complained of another worker’s sexual harassment, after which the other worker quit. The first document was an intake questionnaire; the second, a formal “charge”.

Subsequent to the EEOC filings, she was ordered to work on a Sunday, when she had a planned church function. When she went to the church function, rather than work, the county fired her. She then went back and tried to amend the EEOC intake questionnaire by handwriting “religion” on it, but she made no similar amendment to the EEOC charge.

A few months later, the DOJ notified her of her right to sue in district court, and she did – arguing both retaliation and religious discrimination. The district court granted the county’s summary judgment motion, but the court of appeals reversed the grant as to the religious discrimination claim. The county then sought cert. on the issue, but cert. was denied.

On remand, the county for the first time moved the district court to dismiss the religious discrimination claim for lack of jurisdiction because Ms. Davis had not alleged religious discrimination in the EEOC charge. The district court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, but on a second trip to the court of appeals, the court of appeals held that the requirement to file an EEOC charge before filing suit was not jurisdictional, but a mandatory claims processing suit. The court of appeals held that the county had forfeited the right to complain about non-compliance with this requirement by waiting until after the case had already gone once through a round of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court. Because other Circuits had held the EEOC charge-filing requirement jurisdictional, the Supreme Court granted cert. this time to resolve the split.

Fort Bend Opinion

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg – who is the first Justice to have raised the issue of the overuse of the word “jurisdictional” by the courts. Her Fort Bend opinion, therefore, follows her earlier views, which all of the Justices have since adopted. Under those views (the adopted legal standard since 2004), mandatory claims processing rules are not jurisdictional unless either (1) Congress makes a “clear statement” that it wants the rule to be jurisdictional (a rare event, according to the Court) or (2) there exists a long line of Supreme Court precedent over many years holding the rule jurisdictional (a stare decisis exception). Since there was no previous Supreme Court authority on this EEOC requirement, the county only argued for the clear statement exception.

Before deciding the case, the Court noted:

The Court has characterized as nonjurisdictional an array of mandatory claim-processing rules and other preconditions to relief. These include: the Copyright Act’s requirement that parties register their copyrights (or receive a denial of registration from the Copyright Register) before commencing an infringement action, Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 157, 163–164 (2010); the Railway Labor Act’s direction that, before arbitrating, parties to certain railroad labor disputes “attempt settlement ‘in conference,’” Union Pacific, 558 U.S., at 82 (quoting 45 U.S.C. §152); the Clean Air Act’s instruction that, to maintain an objection in court on certain issues, one must first raise the objection “with reasonable specificity” during agency rulemaking, EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, L. P., 572 U.S. 489, 511–512 (2014) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 7607(d)(7)(B)); the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s requirement that a certificate of appealability “indicate [the] specific issue” warranting issuance of the certificate, Gonzalez, 565 U.S., at 137 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(3)); Title VII’s limitation of covered “employer[s]” to those with 15 or more employees, Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 503– 504 (2006) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b)); Title VII’s time limit for filing a charge with the EEOC, Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393 (1982); and several other time prescriptions for procedural steps in judicial or agency forums. See, e.g., Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Servs. of Chicago, 583 U.S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 1); Musacchio v. United States, 577 U.S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 8); Kwai Fun Wong, 575 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 9); Auburn, 568 U.S., at 149; Henderson, 562 U.S., at 431; Eberhart, 546 U.S., at 13; Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 414 (2004); Kontrick, 540 U.S., at 447.6/

__________ 6. “If a time prescription governing the transfer of adjudicatory authority from one Article III court to another appears in a statute, the limitation [will rank as] jurisdictional; otherwise, the time specification fits within the claim-processing category.” Hamer, 583 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 8) (citation omitted).

Slip op. at 7-8.

As to the particular EEOC rule at issue in Fort Bend, the Court wrote:

Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not of jurisdictional cast. Federal courts exercise jurisdiction over Title VII actions pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331’s grant of general federal-question jurisdiction, and Title VII’s own jurisdictional provision, 42 U.S C. § 2000e–5(f )(3) (giving federal courts “jurisdiction [over] actions brought under this subchapter”). Separate provisions of Title VII, § 2000e–5(e)(1) and (f )(1), contain the Act’s charge-filing requirement. Those provisions “d[o] not speak to a court’s authority,” EME Homer, 572 U.S., at 512, or “refer in any way to the jurisdiction of the district courts,” Arbaugh, 546 U.S., at 515 (quoting Zipes, 455 U.S., at 394). Instead, Title VII’s charge-filing provisions “speak to . . . a party’s procedural obligations.” EME Homer, 572 U.S., at 512. They require complainants to submit information to the EEOC and to wait a specified period before commencing a civil action. Like kindred provisions directing parties to raise objections in agency rulemaking, id., at 511–512; follow procedures governing copyright registration, Reed Elsevier, 559 U.S., at 157; or attempt settlement, Union Pacific, 558 U.S., at 82, Title VII’s charge filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.

Slip op. at 9-10 (footnotes omitted).

In Zipes and later cases, the Court has stated that the separation of a claims processing rule from a jurisdictional grant is a strong indication that the claims processing rule is not jurisdictional.

Impact of Fort Bend on Tax Rules

Any tax lawyer reading Fort Bend will instantly recognize the similarity between the EEOC charge stating rule and the tax refund claim rule of section 7422(a), requiring an administrative claim to have been filed before a refund suit is brought. In United States v. Dalm, 494 U.S. 596 (1990) (involving equitable recoupment jurisdiction), the Court stated that the section 7422(a) requirement is jurisdictional, but the Court’s statement was not really important to the outcome of the case, since the taxpayer would lose whether the section 7422(a) requirement was jurisdictional or not. Dalm is likely one of the opinions that the current Court would call “drive-by jurisdictional rulings”, entitled to no weight since the new rules of jurisdiction have applied. In Gillespie v. United States, 670 Fed. Appx. 393 (7th Cir. 2016), the Seventh Circuit recently observed (in dicta) that recent Supreme Court case law on jurisdiction “may cast doubt on the line of cases suggesting that § 7422(a) is jurisdictional”, including Dalm. Fort Bend throws more shade on this statement in Dalm.

Tax lawyers reading Fort Bend will also recognize the similarity between the EEOC charge stating rule and the rule (related to that of section 7422(a)) that a tax refund suit cannot have its basis be at substantial variance with the basis for the refund set out in the administrative claim. I have not made a study of all case law on the substantial variance rule, but I do know that the Federal Circuit treats that rule as jurisdictional. See Ottawa Silica Co. v. United States, 699 F.2d 1124, 1135-1136 (Fed. Cir. 1983). It also seems doubtful that such rule is jurisdictional after Fort Bend.

Finally, Fort Bend may help the D.C. Circuit resolve an issue presented to it in an appeal of the opinion of the Tax Court in Myers v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. 438 (a section 7623(b)(4) whistleblower action, previously discussed on PT here and here). The issue is whether the appeal to the D.C. Circuit was taken timely under section 7483, which provides only 90 days after the Tax Court decision is entered to file a notice of appeal. The jurisdictional grant for courts of appeals to hear appeals from the Tax Court is elsewhere, at section 7482(a)(1), and the word “jurisdiction” does not appear in section 7483. Section 7483 appears to be a mere run-of-the-mill, non-jurisdictional claims processing rule. Yet the D.C. Circuit has no precedent on this section 7483 jurisdictional issue, and the notice of appeal was filed more than 90 days after the Tax Court decision was entered.

FRAP 13(a)(1)(B) provides: “If, under Tax Court rules, a party makes a timely motion to vacate or revise the Tax Court’s decision, the time to file a notice of appeal runs from the entry of the order disposing of the motion or from the entry of a new decision, whichever is later.” After the Tax Court decision was entered, Mr. Myers had made a timely motion that he styled one for reconsideration (not to vacate). He filed his notice of appeal within 90 days of the Tax Court’s denial of this motion.

The D.C. Circuit raised sua sponte during the Myers appeal whether the notice of appeal was timely filed – something the court may do only if the filing deadline is jurisdictional. Both parties argue that the appeal was timely brought – with the DOJ arguing that the motion for reconsideration should be treated as a motion to vacate, as a practical matter, for purposes of FRAP 13(a)(1)(B). If the appellate filing deadline is not jurisdictional, the DOJ is clearly validly waiving any complaint about late filing.

But, at oral argument this past December, judges on the panel thought that maybe section 7483’s deadline is jurisdictional. If it is, then the judges did not see how a mere FRAP could extend the statutory 90-day period. Further, in Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007), creating the stare decisis exception to the new jurisdictional rules, the Supreme Court held that a deadline in 28 U.S.C. section 2107 to file a civil appeal from a federal district court to a court of appeal is jurisdictional because for over 100 years, in multiple opinions, the Supreme Court had called that deadline jurisdictional. The Myers judges wondered why Bowles does not dictate that section 7483’s filing deadline is also jurisdictional because this is a civil appeal.

In response, Mr. Myers’ counsel, Joe DiRuzzo, argued that Bowles only applied to appeals between Article III courts, and did not apply to an appeal from an Article I court (the Tax Court) to an Article III court. Mr. DiRuzzo noted a footnote in Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Servs. of Chicago, 138 S. Ct. 13, 20 n.9 (2017), suggesting that Bowles only applied to appeals between Article III courts. The Myers judges seemed not impressed by this footnote, correctly noting that it was dicta. However, it is interesting that Justice Ginsburg, in footnote 6 of Fort Bend (quoted above), again states this limitation (between Article III courts), citing Hamer. Again, Justice Ginsburg’s statement constitutes dicta, but how many courts of appeal will disregard well-considered, repeated dicta of the Supreme Court characterizing the scope of the Court’s own precedent?

The opinion of the D.C. Circuit in Myers is by now overdue. We shall see what it decides.

Note that the D.C. Circuit is not hostile to the new Supreme Court jurisdictional rules in tax cases. In Kim v. United States, 632 F.3d 713 (D.C. Cir. 2011), that court held that failure to comply with the administrative exhaustion requirement of section 7433(d)(1) before bringing a suit for damages for wrongful collection actions is a merits affirmative defense. Further, the next year, the court held that the filing deadline for such a suit at section 7433(d)(3) is also not jurisdictional – citing recent Supreme Court case law. Keohane v. United States, 669 F.3d 325, 330 (D.C. Cir. 2012).