Offset – Whose Funds Does the IRS Hold

In the recent case of Laird v. United States,  (5th Cir. 2019) the court addressed the issue of whether the IRS could offset an overpayment resulting from an attempted designated payment.  The Fifth Circuit distinguished earlier circuit precedent that the IRS could offset extra money that a taxpayer sent by creating a rule that the IRS can only do so when it applies the extra money to the tax account of the person remitting the money.  The rule makes sense but here the facts get muddy.

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If you have never represented someone who might have the trust fund recovery penalty (TFRP) assessed against them, you might wonder why one taxpayer would pay the taxes of another.  Sure, there are many good and generous people in the world and we are in the giving season, but still, the payment of someone else’s taxes is not a customary holiday gift nor an ordinary act at any time of the year.  The picture becomes clearer when the TFRP enters the picture.  Let’s look at a typical fact pattern.

Corporation A builds buildings.  It has 20 employees.  Business has been slow, but it expects a turnaround at any time.  Corporation A has a cash flow problem.  To get it through the lean times, it looks for ways to conserve cash.  One way it decides to do this is to pay its employees their salaries, otherwise they will walk, but to hold off on paying the IRS the withheld taxes and the employer’s share of FICA.  Corporation A anticipates that it will soon have a contract that will allow it to make the tax payments and has no intention of stiffing the IRS.  Unfortunately, the business downturn lasts longer than it anticipates, and some of its accounts do not pay on time.  The unpaid taxes build up for several months at which time a friendly revenue officer appears at the door of Corporation A to demand payment, or levies will occur and the responsible officers will have the TFRP assessed against them pursuant to IRC 6672.

An officer of Corporation A, Bob, decides that the best thing to do in order to avoid the consequences of non-payment of the taxes is to pay them himself.  He sends the IRS a check for the unpaid taxes and designates on the check how the funds should be applied.  Unfortunately, he miscalculates the amount of debt that brought the revenue officer to the door of Corporation A and he sends a check for too much.  While it does not happen too often that a corporate officer sends in too much in this situation, it does happen, and it did happen in the Laird case.

The IRS knew what to do with the extra money.  It applied the funds to another debt of Corporation A which had not yet reached the hands of the revenue officer or it applied the debt to the non-trust fund portion of Corporation A’s outstanding liability.  Bob did not intend to pay the non-trust fund portion of Corporation A’s debt because he had no personal liability for this debt.  He only sought to pay the trust fund portion.  He requests that the IRS return to him that portion of the check which overpaid the liability he sought to satisfy.  The IRS argued that it had the right to offset this money against other debts of Corporation A.

In the case of United States v. Ryan, (11th Cir. 1995), the Eleventh Circuit answered the question in this case by holding that the IRS could keep the extra amount of a check sent in with a specific designation; however, in Ryan the taxpayer sending the check was the same taxpayer who owed the money.  In Laird the person sending in the money, like Bob, is not the taxpayer.  The entity, like Corporation A, is the taxpayer.  The Fifth Circuit holds that this distinction makes a difference.  Here, it holds that the individual (Bob) may require the excess amount be returned to him.  In the case, however, these facts were unclear.  The Fifth Circuit could not tell the true source of the funds.  So, it remanded the case to the district court for a determination of the true payor of the funds.  If the IRS can show that the corporation really paid the funds instead of the individual, then the IRS will be allowed to offset the funds.  If the individual can show that the money was his, then the IRS must return the money to him.

Cracks in the Flora Rule? Definition of a “Tax” and the New World of Refundable Credits

This year, the Notre Dame Tax Clinic litigated a case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, which sought a refund of taxes claimed on our clients’ amended tax return. Alexander Ingoglia, a 3L at the Notre Dame Law School and a student in the Clinic, worked on this case last spring, and composed our response to the government’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Alex describes the case and the cracks it might show in the Flora rule.  – Patrick  

In 1960, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Flora and established the full-payment rule.  The rule requires plaintiffs to pay their entire tax deficiency before obtaining jurisdiction to sue the government for a tax refund in federal district court or the Court of Federal Claims.  However, we encountered a case in the Notre Dame Tax Clinic this year that presented facts that challenged the Flora rule.  While the case came to an end before the court considered its jurisdiction with respect to the facts, several unique facts established a credible distinction from Flora’s full-payment rule.  As a student attorney in the clinic, I had the opportunity to research Flora’s progeny and the statutory meaning behind the underlying jurisdictional hurdle while representing our client.

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Factual and Legal Background

Our clients, Mr. and Mrs. Burns, originally filed a timely 2014 tax return, which properly claimed their two grandchildren as dependents.  The Burns’ tax return preparer, however, failed to claim the Burns’ deserved Child Tax Credit (“CTC”) and Earned Income Tax Credit (“EITC”) with respect to the grandchildren.  Pursuant to the Burns’ 2014 tax return, the couple received a $617 tax refund.

When the Burns switched tax preparers, their new preparer realized the mistake and filed an amended return on their behalf in April 2016.  At the time the Burns filed their amended return, they owed no taxes to the IRS.  The Burns reported a $1,889 decrease in adjusted gross income and claimed the EITC and CTC in the amounts of $5,430 and $1,588, respectively.  The Burns’ new tax preparer also noticed a $70 understatement in the Burns’ self-employment tax and reported the increase on the amended return.  In total, the Burns sought to receive a $6,948 refund after combining the additional credits with the increased self-employment tax assessment.

The IRS received the return, but rather than sending the Burns their nearly $7,000 refund, the IRS only assessed the additional $70 self-employment tax.  The IRS sent nothing denying the credits or even a request for additional information to substantiate the claimed credits. The Burns never received a right to challenge the denial of credits administratively or otherwise.

The Notre Dame Tax Clinic filed a complaint in district court on the Burns’ behalf.  The complaint stated that the Burns timely claimed a refund in their 2014 tax return, but that they never received any indication that their claims were insufficient or denied.  Instead, the claimed credits were selectively ignored while the IRS recognized the increased self-employment tax in the same 1040X.  The complaint sought relief in the form of the Burns’ $6,948 refund.

In response, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a Motion to Dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.  The DOJ asserted that the district court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), which states that the district courts have original jurisdiction over civil actions “for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected . . . .”  This section serves as a limited waiver of sovereign immunity, allowing plaintiffs to sue the government in federal court. 

Although the section allows plaintiffs to sue the government to obtain their allegedly deserved refunds, the Supreme Court interpreted the limited waiver to include a “pay first and litigate later” requirement.  Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145 (1960).  Without a plaintiff fulfilling the “pay first and litigate later” requirement, the district court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case.  The Seventh Circuit reiterated the full payment rule, holding that “[f]ull payment is a jurisdictional prerequisite imposed by Congress.”  Univ. of Chicago v. United States, 547 F.3d 773, 785 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing Flora, 362 U.S. 64–65, 75, 78).  This interpretation of 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) prevents taxpayers from paying only a small portion of their tax bill to obtain district court jurisdiction. 

Of course, § 1346(a)(1) only dictates jurisdiction in the District Courts and the Court of Federal Claims.  Taxpayers retain the ability to bring cases in tax court without full payment (or any payment) of an alleged tax liability.  However, to sue for a refund in district court, Supreme Court and lower courts’ precedent has long held that a plaintiff must fully pay their tax bill before utilizing the limited waiver of sovereign immunity in § 1346(a)(1). What “fully pay” means, though, is not always clear.

In Flora, the case that established the full payment rule, the facts were simple.  The petitioner claimed ordinary losses.  The Commissioner treated the reported losses as capital, resulting in a $28,908.60 deficiency.  The petitioner paid $5,058.54 of the alleged deficiency and filed a refund claim for that amount with the IRS.  Once denied, the petitioner sued in district court for a refund of the $5,058.54 and a judgment abating the remainder of the assessment.  Recognizing a circuit split and a need for uniform treatment of similar district court suits, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.  In the interest of saving “the harmony of our carefully structured . . . system of tax litigation,” the Court ruled that in order to obtain jurisdiction, a tax liability must be fully paid before commencing a refund suit in district court.  The petitioner lost because he had paid only the $5,058.54 portion of the $28,908.60 deficiency.

Flora, at its core, is a decision about statutory interpretation.  Faced with ambiguous language, the Court resorted to legislative history to determine the meaning of “any internal-revenue tax.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1).  That history, the Court determined, made it more likely that Congress intended the language to mean that the entirety of a tax must be paid for jurisdiction to arise.  In Flora’s case, this meant paying the entire deficiency assessment relevant to the dispute at hand.

The Burns’ case presented complicated facts.  At the time the Burns filed their 1040X, they owed nothing to the IRS.  In fact, they already collected a refund when originally filing the return.  While the Burns reported a $70 self-employment tax on their amended return, the nearly $7,000 in credits drowned the small self-assessment.  The IRS failed to deny the claimed credits or request additional documentation.  Instead, the IRS ignored the credits, assessed the $70 self-employment tax, and hid behind Flora to attempt to dismiss the refund suit, despite failing to deny or request additional information pertaining to the credits that swallowed the assessment.

The Clinic filed a response to the DOJ’s Motion to Dismiss.  The response differentiated the Burns’ case from Flora and its subsequent progeny on two bases: first, the Burns solely disputed the denial of rightfully claimed credits of the “tax” imposed under IRC § 1.  They did not dispute the unpaid self-employment tax assessment under § 1401.  Second, the Burns had already fully paid the $70 self-employment tax with their $7,000 of deemed refundable credits.

The First Distinction: The Owed Tax and the Refundable Tax are Different “Taxes” under § 1346(a)(1)

Our response argued that the statute’s use of the words “any internal-revenue tax” allows a petitioner to file a refund suit for one type of “internal-revenue tax,” while owing another type of “internal-revenue tax.”  Our argument pointed to several different types of internal-revenue taxes throughout Title 26 of the United States Code, such as §§ 1 (individual income tax), 11 (corporate income tax), 59A (base erosion and anti-abuse tax), etc. Similarly, Flora and the language of § 1346(a)(1) does not bar tax refund suits for a given year where a taxpayer has fully paid one tax period, but owes the government on another tax period.  By the same logic, the statutory language should not bar a petitioner from refund suits where the taxpayer has fully paid one “internal-revenue tax,” but not a separate, undisputed tax. 

Looking first to the text of 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), we argued that “[t]he term ‘any’ should be given [a] broad construction under the settled rule that a statute must, if possible, be construed in such fashion that every word has some operative effect.” Jove Eng’g, Inc. v. I.R.S., 92 F.3d 1539, 1554 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing United States v. Nordic Village, 503 U.S. 30, 36 (1992) (internal citations omitted)).  Assuming a broad construction of the term “any,” we contended that the contested credits were analytically distinct from the uncontested self-employment taxes.  The two taxes come from different chapters in Title 26 of the United States Code (“IRC”), with separate analyses and calculations.  The CTC and EITC fall under Chapter 1, whereas the self-employment tax falls under Chapter 2.

Flora, on the other hand, completely concerned an IRC § 1 tax.  Flora and its progeny do not contemplate jurisdiction when the petitioner challenges an entirely separate tax than the one creating the alleged deficiency.  Further, the tax creating the alleged deficiency would be eliminated if the Burns succeeded in their case and received their refundable CTC and EITC.  In Flora, the petitioner only paid a portion of his § 1 taxes, then sought a refund for those § 1 taxes paid, with a large § 1 tax deficiency outstanding.  The Burns paid the entirety of the § 1 tax disputed in the lawsuit, which was statutorily distinct from the unpaid, undisputed § 1401 (self-employment) taxes.

We focused primarily on two cases to deliver this point.  The first, Moe v. United States, No. CS-96-0672-WFN, 1997 WL 669955 (E.D. Wash. June 30, 1997), directly took on this distinction, stating that requiring payment of both § 1 and § 1401 taxes “places form over substance,” when the taxes pertinent to the disputed issue were paid.  In Moe, the taxpayer sought a refund with respect to his § 1401 (self-employment) taxes, while he owed taxes under § 1.  While the court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss on other grounds, it clearly found the plaintiff’s argument persuasive, stating “[p]laintiff[s] should arguably not be required to prepay the uncontested income tax portion of her 1991 tax deficiency in order to litigate the contested 1991 self-employment tax.”  We also relied on Shore v. United States, 9 F.3d 1524 (Fed. Cir. 1993), which allowed the Court of Federal Claims to hear a refund suit even though interest on the underlying tax had not been paid.  The Shore court reasoned that because the interest was not itself disputed in the refund claim or in court, it need not be fully paid prior to filing suit.

The Burns never owed tax under § 1 for 2014.  They claimed refundable credits, causing an overpayment, which they claimed as a refund.  They were never audited or received a deficiency assessment.  Indeed, they never became subject to a tax assessment until the Government ignored their claimed refundable credits in the amended return.  While the Burns owed a tax under § 1401, this was a separate “internal-revenue tax,” which the Burns did not dispute in court.  We argued that, following the statutory interpretation in cases such as Moe and Shore, the Burns passed the statutory hurdles to jurisdiction.

Second Distinction: The Refundable Credits Claimed on the Amended Return Exceed the Tax Reported on the Return

The gist of this distinction is simple: there is no deficiency that needs to be fully paid because the credits claimed outweigh the increased self-employment assessment.  Flora preceded refundable credits in general, let alone the specific CTC and EITC at issue in the Burns’ case.  Thus, Flora could not contemplate the facts in the Burns case.  However, such refundable credits should, reasonably construed, constitute payments of tax that can, in circumstances such as in this case, provide jurisdiction for a District Court to adjudicate a substantive dispute as to the taxpayer’s entitlement to those credits.

In our response, we analogized the refundable EITC and CTC to withholding credits.  By example, we described a situation where a taxpayer neglects to include a W-2 in their tax return, notices it, then attempts to file an amended return to correct the error. If the W-2 produced additional tax of $150, but reported withholdings of $200, the Government surely could not assess the $150 tax, ignore the $200 withholding, and seek dismissal of a refund suit because the taxpayer failed to fully pay the associated tax assessment.  In that example, the government already has $50 owed to the folks amending their return.  Similarly, the government already owed nearly $7,000 to the Burns.  How could the government seek dismissal based on a $70 self-employment assessment when the government owes that same taxpayer nearly $7,000 for the same tax period?  We argued that the withholding credits and the credits in our case were analogous, and thus considering these claimed refundable credits, the tax was fully paid.

Conclusion

After the court received our response, the DOJ contacted us to offer a compromise.  The DOJ proposed a stay in the case while the IRS investigated the authenticity of the claimed credits.  The Burns agreed, and the IRS ultimately agreed that the Burns qualified for the claimed CTC and EITC.  The IRS’s issuance of the refund marked the end of the Burns’ district court case, leaving the unique distinctions in the case unaddressed.  The Burns case demonstrates the ambiguity that remains nearly 60 years after the Supreme Court interpreted 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) to require full payment in order to establish district court jurisdiction with respect to tax refund claims.

First Circuit Sustains Denial of Financial Disability Claim

On September 16, 2019, the First Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court denying a claim for refund a son filed for his father’s estate after the normal statute of limitations for claiming a refund had expired.  The decision, Stauffer v. Internal Revenue Service, No. 18-2105, finds that Mr. Stauffer’s son held a durable power of attorney and that, because of that POA, the estate cannot avail itself of the benefit of the statute suspension provided in IRC 6511(h).  We have previously written about this case here and in three prior posts linked therein.  Despite the unfavorable outcome at the Circuit level, this case did move the needle on financial disability cases by resulting in a favorable ruling early in the litigation regarding the need to obtain an expert opinion from certain types of professionals, as required by Rev. Proc. 99-21.

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The facts as determined by the court are relatively straightforward.  Father gives son a durable power of attorney (POA)(Sometimes referred to herein as a DPA).  Son and father have a falling out.  Son tells father he will no longer serve as the POA.  Son drafts revocation of POA but fails to send out the revocation.  Father and son later reconcile shortly before father’s death.  Son becomes executor and discovers that his father has not filed returns for several years prior to death.  As is common in unfiled return cases, some of the years involved refunds and at least one involved a reasonably substantial liability that would have been paid by the refunds on the now overly delinquent returns.

The estate did well in the early stages of the case when the IRS tried to rely on its Revenue Procedure in arguing that the estate did not obtain an opinion from the right type of professional.  The magistrate judge ruled against the IRS and allowed the opinion of a professional who had worked with the decedent for several years prior to his death, even though it was not the type of professional described by the Revenue Procedure. However, the IRS then changed tactics to begin arguing that the son did not properly revoke the POA.  The statute does not allow a suspension when a competent POA exists, under the theory that the competent POA could/should file the return on time even if the taxpayer had disabilities preventing that from happening.  The district court bought the IRS argument regarding the POA, and the First Circuit does as well.

In the First Circuit the estate made two arguments.  First, it attacked the factual finding that Hoff never renounced the POA.  Second, it disputed the court’s legal conclusion that the POA qualified Hoff as a person authorized to act on behalf of Carlton in financial matters for the purposes of I.R.C. § 6511(h)(2)(B).  With respect to the legal argument, the court stated:

The Estate urges us to adopt a reading of § 6511(h)(2)(B) under which a person will be considered “authorized to act on behalf of [a financially disabled taxpayer] in financial matters” only if he or she has: (1) authority to file the financially disabled taxpayer’s tax returns; (2) a duty to file the financially disabled taxpayer’s tax returns; and (3) actual or constructive knowledge that the tax returns for a particular year have to be filed on behalf of the disabled taxpayer. The Estate claims that, because Hoff did not meet these three purported requirements, the statute of limitations for the filing of Carlton’s tax refund should have remained suspended through his death in October 2012 due to his financial disability.

The First Circuit found that:

The DPA explicitly granted him the authority to file Carlton’s tax returns, as well as any other tax-related claim before the IRS. Thus, ever mindful of the principles that guide our interpretation of a statute, we turn to the Estate’s purported “duty” and “actual or constructive knowledge” requirements for a person to qualify as “authorized to act on behalf of [a financially disabled taxpayer] in financial matters” under § 6511(h)(2)(B)….
 
Here, the key word for our analysis of § 6511(h)(2)(B)is “authorized.” By urging us to adopt the “duty” and “constructive knowledge” requirements, the Estate asks us to interpret the term “authorized” in § 6511(h)(2)(B) beyond its plain and unambiguous meaning. And this we cannot do. The Estate’s proposed definition of “authorized” finds no support in § 6511(h)(2)(B)’s plain language or its statutory context.  

The court then looked at the word ‘authority’ to find the correct definition.  In doing so it found:

None of the above definitions imply that the existence of a “duty” is a requisite for a person’s authority. To the contrary, the provided definitions illustrate that one who acts with “authority” has been bestowed with the power to perform an action on another’s behalf. By contrast, a duty imposes an obligation to perform a certain act.10 While there are duties that flow from grants of authority (e.g., those of loyalty and care in agency law), the relevant question here is whether in this context, definitionally speaking, one who is “authorized” to take a certain course of action should be understood narrowly to mean only one who has an affirmative obligation to take such action….
 
Therefore, we hold that a person may be considered “authorized to act on behalf of [a financially disabled taxpayer] in financial matters” for purposes of § 6511(h)(2)(B) even if he has no affirmative obligation to act on the taxpayer’s behalf.

Next it turned to constructive knowledge to address the estate’s argument that the POA needed to know of the duty to file a tax return.  Here it said:

The Estate’s argument in support of an “actual or constructive knowledge” requirement is even less persuasive. The statute’s plain language does not include any term into which such a requirement can plausibly be read, nor does the Estate point to any contextual basis (e.g., provisions of the whole law) from which it can be inferred. Thus, we also hold that, for purposes of § 6511(h)(2)(B), a person “authorized to act on behalf of [a financially disabled taxpayer] in financial matters” is not required to have actual or constructive knowledge of the need to file tax returns in a specific year.

After knocking out the legal argument concerning the POA, the court then determined that the estate failed to prove that the son revoked the POA.  In doing so it relied on both the standard of proof imposed upon the estate to upset the factual decision of the district court and Pennsylvania law, which was the state law governing the POA.

The Stauffer decision provides a disappointment for those of us buoyed by the initial success of the estate in pushing back on the harshness of the Revenue Procedure.  Nothing in the First Circuit’s decision undercuts the good points made by the magistrate concerning the Revenue Procedure.  The First Circuit does add clarity to the issue of the type of POA that can cause a taxpayer to lose the protection of the financial disability provisions.  It also provides clarity on what an individual appointed as a POA must do to revoke the POA at a point when the individual no longer wishes to serve.  Many of the financial disability cases involve pro se individuals who do not do a good job of advocating for their position.  The estate here was well represented at each stage.  Unfortunately, that did not save the estate, even if it did produce a favorable opinion concerning the restrictions in the Revenue Procedure regarding an appropriate expert.

Overpayment Interest – Is the Tide Turning?, Part Two

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the second of a two-part post on developments in overpayment interest litigation. Christine

In the last post, I discussed the latest developments in the Paresky and Pfizer cases.  The latter in particular was an important milestone that may change how courts approach the issue of district court jurisdiction for taxpayer suits seeking interest payable to them by the government on tax refunds.  This post turns to Bank of America, with some additional general observations.

These cases involve the interpretation of 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), which provides district court jurisdiction over tax refund suits.  Does it also offer jurisdiction for suits for overpayment interest, even though technically those are not refund suits?  The government says no, but taxpayers may argue it does, in order to escape the $10,000 dollar limitation for district court jurisdiction under the “little” Tucker Act, § 1346(a)(2).  If § 1346(a)(1) provides jurisdiction for these overpayment interest suits, which statute of limitations applies – the general six-year statute of limitations under § 2401 or the two-year statute of limitations for refund suits under section 6532(a)(1)?

As discussed in the last post, the report and recommendation by the magistrate judge in Paresky concluded that the Southern District of Florida had jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) but the suit should be dismissed because the refund claim was not filed timely.  We’re waiting to see what the district court judge thinks.  In Pfizer, we had the first Circuit Court decision to directly decide that § 1346(a)(1) does not provide jurisdiction for these kinds of suits, setting up a circuit split.  And in Estate of Culver, the District of Colorado adopted the Second Circuit’s reasoning in Pfizer.  It will be a while before we see what effect, if any, Pfizer has in the Bank of America case, where there has also been a new development.

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What is happening with Bank of America?

Bank of America filed this case in the Western District of North Carolina (WDNC), apparently to avoid an unfavorable precedent in the CFC (see here for details).  The bank’s interest netting case sought both recovery of underpayment interest and additional overpayment interest.  The government filed a motion to transfer the claims requesting overpayment interest to the CFC; in the alternative, to dismiss because § 1346(a)(1) does not cover suits for overpayment interest.  It also suggested that cases filed under § 1346(a)(1) would be subject to the Code refund claim requirement and statute of limitations, sections 7422 and 6532 respectively.  The WDNC denied the government’s motion on June 30, 2019, relying heavily on the Scripps decision.

An interlocutory appeal by the government to the Fourth Circuit seemed more probable than the alternative of waiting until a decision on the merits.  A transfer to the CFC would likely result in certain victory by the government for most of the amount at issue, so it certainly would make sense to challenge the jurisdictional ruling now.   Then I belatedly checked the docket for Bank of America and realized there was a third possibility that I hadn’t even counted upon (gratuitous reference for fellow baby boomers).  The government filed a notice of appeal on August 28, 2019 – not to the Fourth Circuit, but to the Federal Circuit. 

Appellate specialists are probably nodding their heads now and murmuring “of course.”  And they may have been rolling their eyes at my earlier speculation about an interlocutory appeal to the Fourth Circuit.  But, alas, I am not an appellage specialist and had never before encountered 28 U.S.C. § 1292(d)(4).  I now know that the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction for appeals of a district court interlocutory order granting or denying, in whole or in part, a motion to transfer an action to the CFC.  Before I ran across this provision, I assumed that the CFC and Federal Circuit would never have occasion to rule on a jurisdictional provision that applied only to district courts (more about that below).  But that assumption is apparently wrong.  The WDNC’s denial of the motion to transfer the case to the CFC was based on its determination that district courts do have jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) so that is presumably what the Federal Circuit will have to decide.

The government could also have appealed to the Federal Circuit in the Pfizer case, after the denial by the SDNY back in 2016 of the first motion to dismiss, but did not do so.  Perhaps it wanted to get a ruling on the separate statute of limitations issue.  But it may have just been a case of different strategies by different trial teams.  Pfizer was handled by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the SNDY; while Bank of America was handled by DOJ Tax Division, as was Paresky.

Is there a Supreme Court visit in the future?

We now have a circuit split between the Second (Pfizer) and the Sixth (Scripps).  But the government won in Pfizer, so the taxpayer would have to seek certiorari.  Pfizer may decide to proceed without the favorable Second Circuit precedent; it can still win in the CFC.  Bank of America seems more likely than Pfizer to go to the Supreme Court, since both parties have strong motivations.  The government wants to overrule Scripps and Bank of America would lose most of the value of its interest netting claim if forced to litigate in the CFC.  We’ll have to wait to see how Paresky and Estate of Culver proceed.

A comment on underlying policy

We all recognize the Tax Court’s relative expertise, compared to courts of general jurisdiction, on tax issues.  But there is also a difference in expertise between the CFC and district courts.  The district court jurisdictional structure demonstrates two different policy decisions, aiming in different directions.  The dollar limitation in § 1346(a)(2) – the “little” Tucker Act – was based on a judgement by Congress that the Court of Claims (now the CFC) would have more expertise with claims against the government, because that is a major part of its caseload compared to district courts.  Small claims could be pursued in district courts so that taxpayers wouldn’t have to litigate in far off Washington, D.C., but larger ones should be filed in the Court of Claims.

When the predecessor of § 1346(a)(1) was enacted, it also was subject to a dollar limitation but that limitation was later removed.  That was based on a judgement by Congress that tax refund suits were different from other claims against the government and taxpayers should always be able to litigate those locally instead of with the CFC.

Which of those policy judgements should apply to the specific questions of interest on overpayments and underpayments of tax?

Many years ago, Mary McNulty and I were tracking all significant interest cases (both overpayment interest and underpayment interest).  I recently looked back at the list as of five years ago.  It showed 5 cases filed in district courts and 63 filed in the CFC.  When you factor in the number of district court judges compared to the number of CFC judges, that ratio is orders of magnitude more experience by the CFC judges (as well as the Federal Circuit) with the specific, complex issues of interest.  Most taxpayers chose that forum, although as precedents built up and unresolved issues were narrowed, there may be more motivation for taxpayers to avoid unfavorable precedents in the CFC and Federal Circuit, as in Bank of America.

And a final comment on CFC jurisdiction

I’ve been focusing in all of these blog posts on district court jurisdiction.  But when I discussed Pfizer recently with Jack Townsend, he pointed out something in some of these opinions that I skipped over.  The courts occasionally referred to § 1346(a)(1) as granting jurisdiction to both the district courts and the CFC.  Early in my career, I read the provision that way but over the years I came around to the idea that the reference to the CFC is just a reminder rather than an actual grant of jurisdiction.  I don’t recall offhand ever seeing the CFC refer to that provision as the basis for its jurisdiction over a tax refund suit.  I mentioned that briefly in this blog post but it’s worth pointing out explicitly.

The structure of the statute strongly supports that interpretation.  Section 1346(a)(1) is part of Chapter 85 of Title 28, which is titled “District Courts; Jurisdiction.”  Chapter 91 covers the CFC’s jurisdiction.  The specific language “shall have original jurisdiction, concurrent with the United States Court of Federal Claims, of” appears in § 1346(a) and thus applies not only to § 1346(a)(1) but also to § 1346(a)(2).  The latter certainly doesn’t grant jurisdiction to the CFC for Tucker Act claims, since the CFC already has jurisdiction under § 1491.  And § 1346(a)(2) refers to “any other civil action or claim against the United States,” whereas § 1491 just says “any claim against the United States.”  That convinces me that tax refund suits, covered by § 1346(a)(1), are a “claim against the United States” encompassed within § 1491.

If that doesn’t convince you, Jack’s blog post has a footnote by Judge Allegra on the topic that should.

Overpayment Interest – Is the Tide Turning?, Part One

Today Bob Probasco returns with further updates on overpayment interest litigation, in a two-part post. We are grateful to Bob for following the issue closely and sharing his observations with us. Christine

In August, I wrote about the Bank of America case (here and here), and provided updates on the status of the Pfizer and Paresky cases, all of which addressed the question of district court jurisdiction for taxpayer suits seeking interest payable to them by the government on tax refunds.  Recently we’ve had developments in all three cases, plus one new case.  This post will cover Paresky and Pfizer.  Part Two will move on to Bank of America, speculation concerning where this issue may head next, and some general observations about jurisdiction and policy considerations.

Setting the stage

There are two district court jurisdictional statutes at issue in these cases. This first is 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1). It has no dollar limitation. That’s the statute we rely on when filing tax refund suits in district court, so I usually refer to it as “tax refund jurisdiction.” However, some taxpayers argue that this provision also covers suits for overpayment interest, although technically those are not refund suits.  The government strongly opposes that interpretation and we’ve seen a lot of litigation over the issue recently.

The second is § 1346(a)(2), which provides jurisdiction for any other claim against the United States “founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress, or any regulation of an executive department . . . .” This is commonly referred to as “Tucker Act jurisdiction” and for district courts is limited to claims of $10,000 or less. The comparable jurisdictional statute for the Court of Federal Claims, § 1491(a)(1), has no such dollar limitation.  Practitioners often refer to § 1346(a)(2) as the “little” Tucker Act.

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There are also two different statutes of limitation potentially applicable. The general federal statute of limitations, § 2401 (for district courts or § 2501 for the Court of Federal Claims), requires that complaints be filed within six years after the right of action first accrues. In the Code, section 6532(a)(1) requires the taxpayer to file a refund suit no later than two years after the claim is disallowed.

A preliminary decision in Paresky

In the interest of space, I’ll just refer you back to the earlier blog post for the factual background on Paresky.  The taxpayers originally filed in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC).  That court concluded that it did not have jurisdiction over the suit because the applicable six-year statute of limitations in § 2501 began running in 2010 and had expired.  The Pareskys had previously requested that the court transfer the suit to the Southern District of Florida (SDF), in response to the government’s motion to dismiss, and the CFC agreed.  That would allow the Pareskys to try to persuade the SDF that § 1346(a)(1) covers claims for overpayment interest and that the two-year statute of limitations in section 6532(a)(1) applies.

After the transfer, the government quickly filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that § 1346(a)(1) did not apply and that the Pareskys’ claim exceeded the $10,000 limit for jurisdiction under the “little” Tucker Act.  On August 30, 2019, the magistrate judge issued her report and recommendation.  The report agreed with the Pareskys that § 1346(a)(1) covers claims for overpayment interest but also agreed with the government that taxpayers have to file an administrative refund claim within the time limitations set forth in the Code.  They had done so timely for the 2007 tax year but not for the earlier years.  The Pareskys argued for equitable estoppel based on the directions they had received from IRS personnel, but the judge was not convinced.  She concluded that equitable estoppel for the timely refund claim requirement is not available, based on the decision in United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).  Technically, Brockamp involved an equitable tolling claim but the judge quoted a statement in the decision that suggested application to any equitable doctrines.

This is still a preliminary decision, not yet adopted by the district court judge in the case.  Both parties filed objections (on different grounds) to the report and recommendation on September 10, 2019; both parties filed a response to the other side’s objections on September 19, 2019; and the government then filed a reply on October 7th.  We’re still waiting to hear from the district court judge.  That decision may be complicated by the development in our next case.

A new decision in Pfizer

The IRS mailed refund checks to Pfizer within the 45-day safe harbor of section 6611(e).  The checks were never received, and the IRS eventually direct deposited a replacement approximately a year later, without overpayment interest.  The IRS takes the position that when the original refund check is issued timely but never received, the replacement refund still falls within section 6611(e).  (Some exceptions to this position are set forth in I.R.M 20.2.4.7.3.) Pfizer filed suit in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), asserting jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) to take advantage of the favorable Doolin v. United States, 918 F.2d 15 (2d Cir. 1990) precedent on the issue of interest on replacement refund checks. The government filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that district courts only have jurisdiction for standalone suits for overpayment interest under the “little” Tucker Act but the amount at issue exceeded the $10,000 limit. The court agreed with Pfizer and denied that motion to dismiss.  The court granted a second motion to dismiss, because the refund statute of limitations under section 6532(a)(1) had expired before suit was filed.  Pfizer argued that the general six-year statute of limitations in § 2401 applied.  But the court agreed with the government regarding the statute of limitations and dismissed the case.

In the first motion to dismiss, Pfizer requested that the case be transferred to the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) if the motion to dismiss were granted.  That was denied when the SDNY ruled that it had jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1).  In the second motion to dismiss, Pfizer did not make the same request for transfer.  The government also did not recommend transfer.  But on appeal, Pfizer asked that the Second Circuit, if it affirmed the decision by the SDNY, transfer the case.  That would allow the case to proceed, as suit was filed within the six-year general statute of limitations for Tucker Act claims, although the Second Circuit precedent Pfizer wanted to rely on would not be binding in the CFC.  

The government argued that if the Second Circuit concluded that § 1346(a)(1) applies to suits for overpayment interest but affirmed the SDNY because of the statute of limitations issue, it should not transfer the case because it was not timely when originally filed in the SDNY.  This struck me as over-reaching.  The CFC does not apply the Code statute of limitations to these cases and under the CFC’s jurisdictional statute (more discussion below), it would have been timely filed.   The argument that transfer would not be in the interests of justice because Pfizer had successfully resisted transfer under the first motion of dismiss might carry more weight.  In any event, the government said that it would not oppose transfer if the Second Circuit concluded that § 1346(a)(1) does not apply to suits for overpayment interest.  That is the result the government was hoping for.

On September 16, 2019, the Second Circuit ruled – and the government got exactly what it was hoping for.  The court disagreed completely with the analysis by the district court and in E.W. Scripps Co. v. United States, 420 F.3d 589 (6th Cir. 2005).  The text in § 1346(a)(1) that those decisions relied on – “a sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected” – did not apply to suits for overpayment interest.  Read in harmony with the rest of the statute, that would “plainly refer to amounts the taxpayer has previously paid to the government and which the taxpayer now seeks to recover.”  Further, “any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected” is written in present-perfect tense, indicating that “excessive” or “wrongfully collected” occurred in the past, that is, an assessment previously paid by the taxpayer.  Finally, dicta in Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145 (1960), stating that “any sum” would encompass interest, was clearly referring to underpayment interest based on the context.  The Second Circuit therefore transferred the case to the CFC.

Judge Lohier filed a concurrence to point out that if the district court had jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1), it would have been subject to the Code statute of limitations and Pfizer would have lost anyway.  He rejected Pfizer’s attempt to disassociate § 1346(a)(1) and section 7422 of the Code.  Keith and Carl had filed an amicus brief arguing that even if the filing deadline in section 6532(a) applies, it is not jurisdictional and is subject to estoppel or equitable tolling arguments.  The judge rejected equitable tolling in a footnote due to the lack of an “extraordinary circumstance” but did not mention estoppel.  But it’s a footnote in a concurrence, so this is still an open question.

I found the statutory interpretation in this decision much more persuasive than that in Scripps, although the statute may be sufficiently ambiguous that other courts could reasonably disagree.  In any event, this is a significant milestone.  Before Pfizer, Scripps was the only other Circuit Court decision to have directly ruled on this issue.  (Sunoco, Inc. v. Commissioner, 663 F.3d 181, 190 (3d Cir. 2011) suggested the same interpretation, but that was dicta.)

What effect will this have on other cases?  On October 7th, in Estate of Culver v. United States, the district court for the District of Colorado also adopted the reasoning of the Second Circuit and transferred that case to the CFC.  Even district court decisions disagreeing with Scripps have been rare, so this may also be a sign that the tide is turning.  As with Bank of America, an immediate appeal of that order would go to the Federal Circuit.

As one might expect, the government quickly brought the Pfizer decision (on September 18th) and the Culver decision (October 7th) to the attention of the SDF in the Paresky case.  If the district court judge is influenced by Pfizer and rejects the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation, the Pareskys may have to appeal to the Eleventh Circuit and hope that court agrees with Scripps

It will be a while before we see what effect, if any, Pfizer has in the Bank of America case, where there has also been a new development.  I’ll turn to that in Part Two.

Second Circuit Reverses Tax Court in Borenstein

This post got lost and so comes onto the site about six months after I wrote it, but it still might be of interest to some.  Thanks to Jack Townsend for asking about it.  I wrote it just before I took off on my cross country bicycling trip and failed to keep a good track on it as it went to my research assistant.  Keith

The Tax Court held in Borenstein v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. 263 (2017) that a taxpayer who filed her return late and after the IRS had issued a notice of deficiency could not obtain a refund given the specific timing of her late return and the notice of deficiency.  We discussed the case here.  The interpretation of the IRS and the Tax Court in the case created an odd “donut-hole” in the statute during which the taxpayer could not file a late return and obtain a refund if during the applicable time the IRS had sent a notice of deficiency.

The Tax Court reached the decision in the case by interpreting the plain language of the statute and applying an interpretive maxim.  The Second Circuit did not find the language as plain or the maxim as applicable and reversed the decision of the Tax Court allowing Ms. Borenstein to receive a refund of almost $40,000 plus interest.  The tax clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard partnered with the tax clinic at Georgia State to file an amicus brief in support of Ms. Borenstein because we thought his issue likely to impact low income taxpayers.

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Ms. Borenstein filed a request to extend the time to file her 2012 individual income tax return from April 15, 2013 to October 15, 2013.  Even though she timely and properly filed the request for an extension of time to file her return, she failed to file the return by the extended due date.  She had a lot of stock sales.  The IRS assigned a zero basis to the stock and eventually sent her a notice of deficiency stating that she owed over $1 million in taxes largely resulting from the sale of stock.  The IRS sent the notice of deficiency on June 19, 2015.  Ms. Borenstein filed her return, showing an almost $40,000 refund because her stock did not have a zero basis, on August 29, 2015.

Because of the timing of the notice of deficiency and of the late filed return, the IRS took the position that IRC 6213(b)(3) prohibited her from obtaining a refund.  The facts in the case were not in dispute.  The only issue was the interpretation of the statute and whether it created an unusual donut-hole time period during which a taxpayer could not file their return and obtain a refund, as the IRS argued, or whether the taxpayer had a continuous time period within which to file the return and still obtain a refund. 

Because this is the first and only case seeking an interpretation of the statute on this issue and because the administrative importance is low as signaled by the lack of litigation over the 20-year span since the statutory provision at issue came into existence, it seems extremely unlikely that the IRS will seek certiorari in this case.  Whether it will make the same argument if the issue arises in another circuit remains to be seen.  I hope that the opinion will cause it to rethink its position.

Congress took a look at IRC 6213 and the refund provision in it after the Supreme Court decided the case of Commissioner v. Lundy, 516 U.S. 235 (1996).  Lundy involved the look back period for refund claims and produced a surprising result causing the changes to the statute.  The Second Circuit described the Congressional intent in changing the statute as follows:

A taxpayer who files a tax return, and within three years after that filing is mailed a notice of deficiency from the Commissioner, is entitled to a look‐back period of at least three years. However, prior to Congress’s amendment of the governing statute, a taxpayer who had not filed a return before the mailing of a notice of deficiency‐‐like Borenstein‐‐was entitled only to a default two‐year look‐back period. Accordingly, Congress, seeking to extend the look‐back period available to such non‐filing taxpayers, provided that if a notice of deficiency is mailed “during the third year after the due date (with extensions) for filing the return,” and if no return was filed before the notice of deficiency was mailed, the applicable look‐back period is three years. This is called the “flush
language” of 26 U.S.C. § 6512(b)(3).

Ms. Borenstein filed her return during the third year after the original due date of the return and after the notice of deficiency.  If Congress had not changed the statute, the Lundy case would have prevented her from obtaining a refund because she filed the return more than two years after the original due date and after the issuance of the statutory notice.  She argued that the change in the statute opened the door for her to obtain the refund, but the IRS said if you carefully looked at the statute it did not work that way for someone who had requested an extension of time to file the return and then filed late.  Looking at the language of the statute quoted above, the IRS argued and the Tax Court accepted that:

“(with extensions)” has the effect of delaying by six
months the beginning of the “third year after the due date, ….”

Under this interpretation, the Tax Court could only look back two years. She had no payments within the two-year period as her payments were deemed made on the original due date of the return.

Borenstein looked at the statute and found different meaning:

Borenstein argues that “(with extensions)” has the effect of extending by six months the “third year after the due date,” and therefore that the notice of deficiency, mailed 26 months after the due date, was mailed during the third year. That would mean that the Tax Court has jurisdiction to look back three years, which would reach the due date and allow Borenstein to recover her overpayment.

The Second Circuit sided with Borenstein but examined the Tax Court decision and explained why it disagreed with that decision.  It described the Tax Court’s basis for the decision as follows:

[T]he Tax Court determined that the meaning of the flush language of 26 U.S.C. § 6512(b)(3) is unambiguous, relying heavily on the canon of statutory construction known as the “rule of the last antecedent” to find that “(with extensions)” modifies only “due date.” However, that canon “is not an absolute and can assuredly be overcome by other indicia of meaning.” Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 26 (2003). Here, it does not yield a clear answer.

What the Tax Court found clear, the Second Circuit did not:

While the Tax Court determined that “(with extensions)” modifies the noun “due date,” it is at least as plausible that “(with extensions)” modifies the phrase “third year after the due date,” thereby extending the third year. Accordingly, because the flush language of 26 U.S.C. § 6512(b)(3) supports more than one interpretation, we “consult legislative history and other tools of statutory construction to discern Congress’s meaning.” 

Once it determined it could look at legislative history, the Second Circuit determined that in amending IRC 6213(b)(3) after Lundy, Congress was trying to create a path for taxpayers to have a three-year lookback period in Tax Court in order to obtain their refund.  Congress did not like the fact that a taxpayer had been cut off from obtaining a refund just because the IRS had sent a notice of deficiency prior to the end of three years from the original due date.  Cutting off taxpayers who received a notice of deficiency created disparate treatment among taxpayers who were similarly situated.  Given the Congressional goal in amending the statute, it makes the most sense to read the statute in the way proposed by Ms. Borenstein.  Of course, the Second Circuit needed to throw in a maxim that supported its conclusion and in doing so gave some good language to taxpayers for future cases:

Our conclusion is supported by “the longstanding canon of construction that where ‘the words [of a tax statute] are doubtful, the doubt must be resolved against the government and in favor of the taxpayer,’” a principle of which “we are particularly mindful.” Exxon Mobil Corp. & Affiliated Cos. v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 689 F.3d 191, 199‐200 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting United States v. Merriam, 263 U.S. 179, 188 (1923)). As Borenstein notes, the Tax Court’s interpretation creates a six‐month “black hole” into which her refund disappears, a result that unreasonably harms the taxpayer and is not required by the statutory language.
 
Moreover, the interpretation we adopt is consistent with the language of 26 U.S.C. § 6511(b)(2)(A), which provides for a look‐back period “equal to 3 years plus the period of any extension of time for filing the return.” 26 U.S.C. § 6511(b)(2)(A) (emphasis added). In view of our obligation to resolve doubtful language in tax statutes against the government and in favor of the taxpayer, we conclude that “(with extensions)” has the same effect as does the similar language that existed in § 6511(b)(2)(A) at the time of § 6512(b)(3)’s amendment‐‐that is, the language expand.

The Second Circuit opinion makes sense to me.  I think it achieves the intent of Congress in “fixing” the statute after Lundy.  It also avoids what seems like an absurd result the IRS interpretation achieves by avoiding the six month black hole or donut hole.  Taxpayers should file their returns on time.  If they do not file on time, they can suffer significant consequences including the total loss of their refund if they wait too long.  Taxpayers, however, should receive three years within which to file their late returns and still receive a refund whether or not the IRS issues a notice of deficiency. 

Prison Mailbox Rule Doesn’t Apply to Refund Claims

In what the court thinks is apparently a case of first impression, a district court has held that a refund claim that arrived at the IRS more than three years after it was due is not timely under the “prison mailbox rule”.  Whitaker v. United States, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165345 (N.D. Fla. 9/26/19), adopting magistrate’s opinion at 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 166975.  The court also holds (following precedent in the Fifth Circuit which a court in the Eleventh Circuit had to follow) that the common law mailbox rule cannot apply because it has been superseded by section 7502.  Circuits are split as to the latter holding. Further, the court holds that the taxpayer did not make out a factual case for equitable estoppel to apply to the IRS.

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Facts

During 2012, the taxpayer, a single individual, performed some work for which he was eventually sent a Form W-2.  But he did not timely file a return for 2012 until sometime in 2016. 

The taxpayer says he filed an original Form 1040-EZ before he got a copy of the Form W-2.  The original return showed no tax liability for the year, but sought refund of (1) $446 that the taxpayer claimed had been withheld as income taxes from his wages and (2) an EITC of $475.  The taxpayer was incarcerated in 2016 and claims that he handed his original 2012 return to prison authorities for mailing on March 25, 2016 – within the 3-year lookback period of section 6511(b).  (Since it was an original return containing a claim, the return would have been timely under the 3-year look-forward rule of section 6511(a), so the issue is whether the 3-year lookback rule of section 6511(b) regarding the amount of taxes paid has been satisfied.)

The taxpayer says that in late April 2016, he first obtained a copy of the Form W-2 for 2012 and only then learned that no income tax withholding had been done on his wages.  He prepared an amended return, therefore, removing the portion of the prior claim for withheld income taxes.  The amended return still sought an EITC refund of $475.  The taxpayer handed this amended return to prison authorities for mailing on April 21, 2016.

The IRS says that it never received the original return, but on April 30, 2016, it received the amended return and filed it as of that date.  The IRS denied the claim as untimely.

The taxpayer brought suit on the $475 refund claim in the district court for the Northern District of Florida.  The DOJ moved for summary judgment that the amount of the claim was limited under section 6511(b) to $0.  The taxpayer cross-moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claim should be deemed filed on March 25, 2016.  The taxpayer supported his motion with an unsigned note purportedly from “Classification Counselor Mrs. Doll.” In that unsigned note, Mrs. Doll stated that “[o]n 3/25/16 Mailroom Staff Ms. Bailey sealed, timestamped and post-dated the 2012 tax return. This is logged in the legal/privileged mail log.”   The taxpayer also submitted a copy of his original return, his amended return, and affidavits of inmates who helped or observed him preparing his 2012 tax return.  The taxpayer did not, however, submit the envelope in which the original return was mailed or any proof of its mailing by registered or certified mail.

Holdings

The magistrate’s opinion that was later adopted by the district court judge begins by taking the position that a timely-filed refund claim is necessary to the district court’s jurisdiction, citing United States v. Dalm, 494 U.S. 596, 609 (1990).  As an aside, Keith and I have been arguing recently that Dalm is no longer good law on these points – that under more recent Supreme Court case law, both the filing of an administrative claim (required by section 7422(a)) and its timely filing (required by section 6511(a)) are merely mandatory claims processing rules not going to the court’s jurisdiction.  See Gillespie v. United States, 670 Fed. Appx. 393, 395 (7th Cir. 2016) (not deciding issue, but noting that current Supreme Court case law on the distinction between subject matter jurisdiction and mere claims processing rules “may cast doubt on the line of cases suggesting that § 7422(a) is jurisdictional”, including Dalm.).

Without discussion, the magistrate’s opinion then mentions the further tax amount paid look-back requirements of section 6511(b) and overall treats compliance with that subsection as a nonjurisdictional matter.  As another aside, most courts today, without noting it, still treat compliance with section 6511(b) as a jurisdictional matter.  However, the Federal Circuit has held that the issue of how much tax was paid during the lookback period of section 6511(b) is not jurisdictional.  See Boeri v. United States, 724 F.3d 1367, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2013), on which Stephen blogged here.  So, the magistrate in Whitaker unknowingly aligns himself with the Federal Circuit.  By moving for summary judgment, the parties also seem to align with the Federal Circuit, since, if compliance with section 6511(b) is jurisdictional, the DOJ should, instead, have moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under FRCP 12(b)(1).  It is odd, though, that sometimes in the opinion, the magistrate seems to equate compliance with section 6511(b)’s payment rules as also jurisdictional, but yet grants the DOJ summary judgment that he refund is limited to $0 – a merits holding.

Third, in applying the lookback rules of section 6511(b), the court is supposed to look at how much tax was “paid” in the 3-year period before the claim was filed.  The statute limits the refund to those taxes paid within the lookback period.  But, Whitaker’s claim is now solely predicated on the EITC, which, of course, he never actually “paid”.  Over a decade ago, while the director of the tax clinic of the University of Connecticut, now-Tax-Court-Special-Trial-Judge Leyden argued to the Second Circuit that there is no time limitation under section 6511(b) on EITC claims because they were never “paid” by the taxpayer.  In Israel v. United States, 356 F.3d 221, 225 (2d Cir. 2004), the court held that the EITC should be treated as “deemed paid” by the taxpayer on the April 15 following the end of the tax year, just like withholding and estimated taxes under section 6513(b)(1) and (2) are treated as paid on that date.  The magistrate in Whitaker cites and applies Israel.  Thus, he deems the EITC “paid” on April 15, 2013, so the amount of the claim allowable is limited to $0 if the claim was filed after April 15, 2016.  Aside:  I wonder why no one has ever litigated the Israel issue in any other Circuit?  As I see it, the Israel opinion’s reasoning is something like “ipse dixit”.

The magistrate in Whitaker then notes that section 7502(a) provides a timely-mailing-is-timely-filing rule for, among other things, refund claims.  But, that rule doesn’t benefit Whitaker, since it only extends the filing date when there is a postmark on the envelope that shows the envelope was mailed on or before the last date to file.  There is no envelope in the record, let alone one bearing such a postmark.  The court also notes the special rule under section 7502(c) that could deem evidence of the date of mailing by registered or certified mail as the date of the postmark under subsection (a), but there is also no evidence in the record as to registered or certified mailing of an envelope.

Next, the magistrate considers the possibility that the common law mailbox rule (allowing for parol and other extrinsic evidence of mailing) has not been eliminated by section 7502 or the regulations thereunder.  The court notes the existing split among the Circuits about whether the common law mailbox rule survived the enactment of section 7502 and the recent ruling of the Ninth Circuit in Baldwin v. United States, 921 F.3d 836 (9th Cir. 2019), that regulations under section 7502 have abrogated all case law holding that the common law mailbox rule still survives the enactment of section 7502.  We blogged on Baldwin and that case law split here.  As an aside (boy, am I abusing the privilege of asides), the Baldwins filed a petition for certiorari on September 23, 2019 at Supreme Court Docket No. 19-402, a copy of which can be found here.  In the petition, they argue that the Court should revisit the correctness of its opinion in National Cable & Telecomms. Assn. v. Band X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005), where it held that regulations may overrule preexisting case law where the case law was not predicated on the court holding the statute’s language unambiguous.  In the alternative, the petition argues for Brand X to be limited so as not to permit regulations that overrule common law case law like the mailbox rule.

The district court in Whitaker is located in the Eleventh Circuit, which has not taken a precedential position regarding the continued existence of the common law mailbox rule since the passage of section 7502 or the enactment of the regulations thereunder.  However, the magistrate notes that the Fifth Circuit in Drake v. Commissioner, 554 F.2d 736, 738-39 (5th Cir. 1977), held the common law mailbox rule to no longer exist after section 7502.  Since that opinion was issued before the Eleventh Circuit was carved out of the Fifth Circuit in 1981, Drake is thus binding precedent on district courts in the Eleventh Circuit under Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209-10 (11th Cir. 1981), and the common law mailbox rule proof offered by Whitaker can be of no use to him.

Next, and most novel, the magistrate considers whether the “prison mailbox rule” applies to assist Whitaker.  The court apparently finds no case law on whether the prison mailbox rule can apply to tax refund claims.  In the following passage, the magistrate declines to extend the prison mailbox rule to tax refund claims:

The Supreme Court created the prison mailbox rule when it held that — for purposes of Rule 4(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure — a notice of appeal that a pro se prisoner sought to file in a federal court of appeals should be considered filed on the date the prisoner delivered it “to the prison authorities for forwarding to the court clerk.” Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 275, 108 S. Ct. 2379, 2385 (1988); Daker v. Comm’r, Ga. Dep’t of Corrs., 820 F.3d 1278, 1286 (11th Cir. 2016). In reaching its decision, the Court reasoned that the word “filed” was ambiguous insofar as neither Rule 4(a)(1) nor the applicable statute set “forth criteria for determining the moment at which . . . ‘filing’ has occurred.” Houston at 272-76, 108 S. Ct. 2383-85; Bonilla v. United States Dep’t of Justice, 535 F. App’x 891, 893 (11th Cir. 2013). Additionally, in creating the prison mailbox rule, the Supreme Court never stated that the rule applies to every document a prisoner seeks to mail. Rather, the rule announced by the Supreme Court applied only to notices of appeal submitted to federal courts of appeals, and was subsequently codified consistent with that limitation. See Fed. R. App. P. 4(c).


Other courts expanded the rule announced in Houston v. Lack to apply the prison mailbox rule to other court filings. See Edwards v. United States, 266 F.3d 756, 758 (7th Cir. 2001) (per curiam) (noting that courts expanded the prison mailbox rule to include many other types of court filings). This expansion was codified to apply to appellate documents and habeas petitions filed with federal courts. See Fed. R. App. P. 25(a)(2)(A)(iii); Fed. R. Bankr. P. 8002(c); Rules Governing Section 2254 Proceedings For the United States District Courts, Rule 3(d); Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings For the United States District Courts, Rule 3(d).
Consistent with its historical roots, in the Eleventh Circuit, the prison mailbox rule is limited to filings made to courts. See Williams v. McNeil, 557 F.3d 1287, 1290 n.2 (11th Cir. 2009) (“Under the ‘prison mailbox rule,’ a pro se prisoner’s court filing is deemed filed on the date it is delivered to prison authorities for mailing.”) (emphasis added); Garvey v. Vaughn, 993 F.2d 776, 783 (11th Cir. 1993) (holding that the prison mailbox rule announced in Houston applies to pro se prisoners seeking to file in federal courts complaints under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Federal Tort Claims Act) (emphasis added). Plaintiff has not cited any authority demonstrating that the prison mailbox rule applies to tax returns submitted to prison officials for mailing to the IRS.


Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s holding in Fex v. Michigan strongly suggests that the prison mailbox rule does not apply generally to all documents a prisoner seeks to mail to government entities. 507 U.S. 43, 47, 113 S. Ct. 1085, 1089 (1993). In that case, the prisoner sought to apply the prison mailbox rule to a request for disposition under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers that he had provided to prison officials to mail. Fex, 507 U.S. at 46, 113 S. Ct. at 1088. In determining the date the document was “caused to be delivered,” the Supreme Court did not apply the prison mailbox rule and instead held that the document was “caused to be delivered” on the date the prosecutor’s office and court received the request, and not on the date the inmate gave the request to prison officials for mailing. Fex, 507 U.S. at 47, 113 S. Ct. at 1089.


Other courts have noted that “the prison mailbox rule does not apply when there is a ‘specific statutory or regulatory regime’ governing the filing at issue.” Crook v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue Serv., 173 F. App’x 653, 656 (10th Cir. 2006) (quoting Longenette v. Krusing, 322 F.3d 758, 763 (3d Cir. 2003)); Smith v. Conner, 250 F.3d 277, 277, 279 (5th Cir. 2001); Nigro v. Sullivan, 40 F.3d 990, 994-95 (9th Cir. 1994). More specifically, when the particular statute defines the term “filing” or “filed” — as § 7502 essentially does — courts have seen no reason to usurp a statutory or regulatory definition by resorting to the prison mailbox rule. See Crook, 173 F. App’x at 656 (interpreting the word “filed” defined in Section 7502(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code); Smith, 250 F.3d at 279 (holding that the court “shall resort to Houston if the rule does not clearly define filing” and in all other cases the court “will enforce the regulations as written”); Nigro, 40 F.3d at 994 (noting that the prison-mailbox rule did not apply because the administrative regulations defined the word “filed” as “when the receipt is issued.”).  [Emphasis in original.]

Finally, Whitaker had argued that the government should be estopped from arguing for the section 6511(b) limitation in this case. It is well-settled that jurisdictional conditions are not subject to estoppel (just like they are not subject to waiver, forfeiture or equitable tolling).  Dolan v. United States, 560 U.S. 605, 610 (2010).  Since the magistrate appears not to treat section 6511(b) compliance as jurisdictional, this presents him with the question of whether estoppel could apply to the assertion that section 6511(b)’s conditions were not met. The magistrate states:

Plaintiff asserts that Defendant should be estopped from invoking § 6511’s three-year deadline because the IRS sent him a disallowance letter — dated and sent to Plaintiff on May 5, 2017 — in which the IRS incorrectly stated that May 15, 2016, was Plaintiff’s (already expired) deadline to file his claim for 2012 taxes. (Doc. 56-13 at 2). Plaintiff intimates that he relied on this letter (Doc. 56-13), even though the IRS issued this letter on May 5, 2017, more than a year after the deadline to file his return had expired (April 15, 2016), and long after the date Plaintiff claims that he sent his initial 2012 tax return to the IRS (March 25, 2016).


“The question of whether equitable estoppel is ever available against the federal government is unresolved,” but it is clear that the party asserting estoppel against the government has a heavy burden. Ferry v. Hayden, 954 F.2d 658, 661 (11th Cir. 1992) (citing Heckler v. Cmty. Health Servs., 467 U.S. 51, 61, 104 S. Ct. 2218, 2224 (1984)).  [footnote and some citations omitted; emphasis in original]

The magistrate does not decide whether estoppel could ever apply to section 6511, but details exhaustively why the facts alleged by Whitaker could not give rise to estoppel in any event.

Observations

I wonder if Whitaker will appeal his loss to the Eleventh Circuit?  The case only involves $475 plus interest from March or April of 2016 to date. 

Whitaker proceeded pro se in the district court and got the district court $350 filing fee put on an installment agreement so he could proceed in forma pauperis.  He is obligated to pay 20% of his income out of his “inmate account” towards the full $350 fee, over time.  He has so far paid $139.66 towards the fee.  Could he get the $505 appellate filing fee waived? 

Does anyone admitted to the Eleventh Circuit want to represent him?  (He appears to be quite the prison litigator, having filed numerous papers in the district court citing case law.)  In his motion for summary judgment, he argued for the application of the common law mailbox rule and estoppel.  In order for him to prevail in the Eleventh Circuit on the mailbox rule, he would need an en banc panel that decided to no longer follow the Fifth Circuit’s controlling Drake opinion holding that the common law mailbox rule has been supplanted by section 7502.  That is pretty unlikely.  And the Supreme Court in Baldwin is not being asked to resolve that Circuit split about the common law mailbox rule – merely to hold that the regulation under section 7502 doesn’t overrule any Circuit Court that has already held that the common law mailbox rule still applies after section 7502.  So, a taxpayer victory in Baldwin won’t be enough help Whitaker.

Whitaker’s case might have been a good litigating vehicle for the Israel issue of whether the section 6511(b) limits apply at all to EITC claims.  If section 6511(b) doesn’t apply, then all the issues decided by the magistrate on whether Whitaker mailed too late go by the wayside as irrelevant.  But, I have read Whitaker’s motion for summary judgment, and he doesn’t argue that section 6511(b) doesn’t limit EITC claims. It appears he has waived that Israel issue.  Too bad.

Timely Filing Issues in Bankruptcy Court

Dixon v. IRS, No. 2:18-cv-00274 (N.D. Ind. July 24, 2019) presents the issue of whether filing a bankruptcy petition extends the time within which a taxpayer can file a claim for refund.  In re Long, No. 19-20186 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. July 29, 2019) raises the issue of whether a debtor in a bankruptcy case must accelerate the time for filing their income tax return because of filing bankruptcy.  The answer to both questions is no.  Details and explanation below.

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Charles Dixon filed a chapter 13 bankruptcy petition on September 2, 2010.  As with most chapter 13 cases, it took time before his bankruptcy case came to an end on July 22, 2016.  While his bankruptcy cases was pending Mr. Dixon filed an amended return for tax year 2012 on April 13, 2015.  The IRS notified him by Letter 105C, a statutory notice of claim disallowance, on January 21, 2016, that it would not allow his claim.  For some reason he filed another amended return for 2012 in June of 2016 and the IRS sent him a statutory notice of claim disallowance with respect to that claim on August 3, 2016. 

On July 26, 2018, Dixon filed a complaint alleging that the IRS improperly denied his first claim.  The IRS filed a motion to dismiss because of the filing of the complaint more than two years after the notice of claim disallowance.  Though the court couches the dismissal discussion in jurisdictional terms, readers of this blog know that the timing of filing of the complaint vis a vis the sending of the claim disallowance issue may not present a jurisdictional issue though the time frame for filing provided in IRC 6532(a)(1) does represent an important time frame that a taxpayer must meet or show reasons for the failure to meet the time frame.

The statute requires that the taxpayer file the refund suit within two years of the sending of the statutory notice of claim disallowance.  Here, Mr. Dixon filed suit more than two years after the notice.  To overcome this timing problem, Mr. Dixon argues that his bankruptcy case tolled the time for filing the refund suit.  In support of this argument he cites to IRC 6503(h).  This section provides a tolling of “the period of time in which the United States can collect a tax against a taxpayer/debtor.” But it does not mention tolling the time within which to bring a refund suit.  The bankruptcy court declined to extend the tolling provision to the refund situation.  Doing so would have created a shocking result.  The tolling statute that he cited in support of the timeliness of his claim seeks to give the IRS more time to collect a liability in situations in which the automatic stay of bankruptcy prevents it from collecting.  The statute has nothing to do with extending the time for a taxpayer to file bankruptcy.

Next he argued essentially that his second refund claim gave him more time; however, the second claim mirrored the first claim.  It did not raise new grounds for recovery.  The court found that a second claim could only extend the time within which to bring suit if the second claim raised new legal arguments.  Since it did not, the filing of the second claim here had no meaning.  (The IRS pointed out that even if the second claim had contained a second ground for recovery it would have done no good here because Mr. Dixon filed it after the statute of limitations for filing a refund claim.)  Although Mr. Dixon did not argue that the statute of limitations for filing his refund claim did not create a jurisdictional bar to filing a claim after that date, he presented no evidence that appeared in the opinion which would have allowed him to miss the due date.

As a result of making arguments on which he achieved little traction, the court grants the motion to dismiss filed by the IRS with relatively little discussion.  He does not appear to have made the argument that the time frame for filing a refund suit is not a jurisdictional time frame.  The facts available in the published opinion do not suggest that he would succeed in an equitable tolling argument.

The second case pits the taxpayer/debtor against the chapter 13 trustee rather than the IRS.  Here, the trustee argues that the taxpayer should have filed his return prior to the first meeting of creditors in his chapter 13 bankruptcy case.  The opinion parses the interpretation of a statute designed to require taxpayers to file their tax returns in order to obtain chapter 13 relief. 

Before the passage of the relevant statute in 2005, at almost every chapter 13 confirmation hearing day across the country, the IRS routinely sent attorneys who objected to the confirmation of a debtor’s plan because the debtor had unfiled returns which prevented the IRS from knowing whether, and how much, to claim against the estate.  Bankruptcy judges got tired of postponing hearings so that delinquent debtors could file these returns.  I made the objections in the 1980s and 1990s in the bankruptcy court in Richmond.  When we first started making them, the bankruptcy judge would give a stern lecture to the debtor about their criminal behavior in not filing returns.  It didn’t take too long before the judge realized that far more people failed to file their returns than he thought possible.  So, he stopped making the lectures but he still denied confirmation.  Stopping confirmation wastes the time of the court which must reschedule the hearing, prevents creditors from getting paid, costs the debtor’s attorney money to fix the plan and reappear and costs the trustee time and effort.  In 1994 when Congress appointed a bankruptcy commission to assist it in revising the bankruptcy laws to fix problems stemming from the Bankruptcy Code’s passage in 1978, the commissioners quickly identified this as a problem that needed to be fixed.  It took about eight years after the commission presented its findings before Congress got around to passing the correctively legislation but now anyone going into bankruptcy must be up to date on their return filing (the same basic rule that applies to anyone seeking an installment agreement or offer in compromise from the IRS). 

The Long case looks at the meaning of the statute requiring chapter 13 debtors to be current in their tax filing.  The bankruptcy case here was filed on January 8, 2019, during the filing season.  Usually the first meeting of creditors is scheduled within 20 to 40 days of the bankruptcy petition.  So, the debtor had more time to file their return according to the Internal Revenue Code than the date scheduled for the first meeting of creditors.  The issue before the court was whether the bankruptcy code accelerates the return filing date in this situation.  Here’s how the bankruptcy court framed the question at the outset of its opinion:

“Shortly after a debtor commences such a case, the United States trustee (or a designee) must “convene and preside at a meeting of creditors.” Id. §341(a); Fed. R. Bankr. P. 2003(a). By no later than “the day before the date on which the meeting of the creditors is first scheduled to be held”, the debtor must file with appropriate tax authorities the prepetition tax returns specified in 11 U.S.C. §1308(a), unless the chapter 13 trustee gives the debtor more time, see §1308(b). If the debtor does not file “all applicable Federal, State, and local tax returns as required by section 1308”, the court cannot confirm the debtor’s plan. Id.§1325(a)(9). The issue presented here is whether the prepetition tax returns specified in §1308(a) include returns that are not due to be filed with the appropriate tax authority before the date on which the meeting of creditors is first scheduled to be held.”

The bankruptcy court in Wisconsin was not working with a clean slate.  This issue, at least in that jurisdiction had been bubbling for quite a long time.  The court described the situation:

“This provision [Section 1308] may simply require the debtor to file, before the date on which the meeting of creditors is first scheduled to be held, all tax returns for the specified prepetition taxable periods that the debtor was otherwise required to file — i.e., that were due to be filed — before that date. But In re French, 354 B.R. 258 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. 2006), offers a competing construction: that §1308(a) requires “debtors who file for Chapter 13 protection . . . to have their return for the prior year filed by the date first scheduled for the meeting of creditors, even if the return is not yet delinquent under [applicable nonbankruptcy law].” Id. at 263.”

The opinion is lengthy and goes into some depth in seeking to find the meaning of Section 1308 and how it interacts with other provisions of the bankruptcy and tax codes.  The court expresses concern that following French really puts debtors filing early in the calendar year into a near impossible bind and allows the trustee to stop their bankruptcy cases by the simple act of refusing to extend the time of the first meeting of creditors.  After balancing the competing provisions, the court decides that the French case reaches the wrong conclusion and allows the debtor here to confirm a plan without filing the return not yet due under the tax code. 

I agree with this result as a logical reading of the code and the intent of the statute.  The statute seeks to require debtors to file past due returns.  The IRS or the debtor have a mechanism to add the debt for the 2018 year into the plan if they choose to do so.  Adding in the debt for the prepetition year after plan confirmation is a bit messy and expensive but denying confirmation to someone for not filing a return by the end of January also presents problems.  On balance the court reaches the logical result, but debtors who know they will owe taxes for the immediately past year do themselves no favors by failing to address the year in their plan.  Perhaps chapter 13 debtors should consider, as one of the factors in deciding the timing of filing a bankruptcy petition, postponing if possible to avoid filing at the very beginning of a calendar year.  If they can wait a few weeks or months before filing, they can avoid this problem.  Such a delay, however, is not always possible and taxes should not drive this timing.