2019 Tax Court Shutdown: A Year Later, Still Catching Up

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Kamman. In this post, Bob investigates what happened to one batch of cases whose trials were postponed due to the last federal government shutdown. This is a timely reminder that disruptions to the system can have significant lingering impacts on some individuals, even if the system as a whole appears to have recovered and moved on. Christine

A federal government shutdown is often just around the corner. So let’s
take a look at how the last one worked out for some Tax Court cases.

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I searched Tax Court orders from January, 2019, during the five weeks that many government offices were closed for lack of funding. I found 31 cases that had been set for trial at the New York City session starting February 11, 2019. The Tax Court pulled the plug on these January 22, 2019. As it turned out, the shutdown ended January 25, 2019, but it would have been difficult for IRS attorneys to get back up to speed, even in two weeks.

Of course, other dockets in other cities were also canceled. This was just one of them.

A year later, how did these cases turn out?

If you guessed that many of them were settled by stipulation when the court reopened, without a trial, you have a good working knowledge of tax litigation.

If you wondered how many have not shown any progress in nearly a year, you share my concerns. More on those, later. But first, here are some details on when the stipulated decisions were entered, and whether petitioners agreed they owed tax and penalties. I have listed them in chronological order, with the name of the first petitioner listed.

  • February 15, Nji Ban, $223 tax owed, no penalties.
  • February 26, Vanessa Smith (innocent spouse), $966 tax owed, no penalties.
  • March 20, Malaika Martin, tax, no penalty.
  • April 5, Michael Fiore, tax and penalty (successful innocent spouse).
  • April 10, Guy Jacono, tax and penalty.
  • April 18, Michael Patriarca, tax and penalty.

On June 5, the Court set October 28 as the new trial date for these cases, which then apparently inspired more stipulated decisions:

  • July 1 and July 2, James Sherlock, two cases, tax and penalty.
  • July 15, Marie Miele, no tax, no penalty.
  • October 18, Jeffrey Farrell, tax and penalty.
  • October 23, Donna Schlenker, tax and Section 6651 penalty (2 cases).
  • October 24, Nirvelyn Jean-Simon, tax, no penalty.
  • December 2, David Nnadika, tax, no penalty after October 28 hearing.
  • December 2, Morris Kromah, tax, no penalty, innocent spouse not assessed.

There were three other rescheduled cases on the October 28 New York City calendar, with these outcomes:

  • Hamid Maksoud: IRS filed a motion for summary judgment. Taxpayer did not appear, and IRS won a decision for tax and fraud penalty.
  • Brian Reis, dismissed November 4 after an October 28 hearing on IRS motion for failure to properly prosecute. Taxpayer did not appear. Tax and Section 6651 penalty assessed.
  • David Stein: Frank Agostino entered an appearance on July 16. On September 16, his motion to continue and consolidate with another case was granted. No new trial date has yet been set.

This list accounts for 18 of the 31 cases I found for the February 11, 2019 New York City calendar. What happened in the other 13?

The wheels of justice turn slowly, and for these petitioners they may not be grinding at all. The last docket entry for these cases, as of December 10, 2019, is the January 22, 2019 order that canceled their February 11 trial.

  • Munr Kazmir and Ansar Batool (three cases total; one in each name, and one joint. They are also represented by Frank Agostino or another lawyer in his firm). Two of these cases were filed in December 2014; the other in November 2016.
  • Junior Burke (the order canceling trial is returned mail, the docket reports). Case filed February 2016.
  • Barbara Reagor, February 2016.
  • Michael Crosby, April 2016.
  • Pressure Controls Inc. (petitioner substituted counsel April 23), August 2016.
  • Jason Voicheck. January 2017.
  • Karen Jones, February 2017.
  • Lawrence Ebert (who won an earlier Tax Court case), April 2017. He had written a letter on March 8, 2019, to the Court that caused another case to be opened by mistake; it was closed.
  • Marvin Boyd, April 2017.
  • Erica Harris-Young, May 2017.
  • Yousef Zaben, June 2017.

All of these cases had been filed at least 20 months before the canceled trial date, and now it has been at least two and a half years. The earliest ones have now been waiting five years for a day in court. Is this any way to run a tax system?

How the Government Shutdown Impacted the Tax Court Filing Deadline

Every year the National Taxpayer Advocate prepares an objectives report to Congress and submits it at the end of June. This year’s report contains a discussion of the impact of the longest government shutdown in history on the Taxpayer Advocate Service. We will never really know what happened to everyone trying to petition the Tax Court during the shutdown but it would be interesting to see a report on that as well. We have experienced a significant “climate” change in the government over the past couple of decades and that change has resulted in increased shutdowns with all of the issues resulting therefrom.

We have written about the government shutdown and the Tax Court previously on many occasions. Professor Bryan Camp provided us with a four part series back in January speculating on the impact of the shutdown. See the posts here, here, here and here. The first post directly addresses the impact of the Tax Court’s decision in Guralnik v. Commissioner on government shutdown days. Les wrote a post about the shutdown and the guidance available. On New Year’s Eve I wrote a post reminding readers not to forget Guralnik and Parker during the shutdown. I also wrote a post in May about the shutdown and the odyssey of the petition filed in one case and how that odyssey impacted the court’s jurisdiction.

Now we have a live case involving the shutdown with a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction for late filing a petition during the shutdown, a court order issued two days after the filing of the motion and a government response. I am unsure if this will result in an opinion that anyone can cite to in the future but knowing about the order and the response may assist others with this situation stemming from the most recent shutdown or future shutdowns. It would be nice if Chief Counsel’s office put up a Notice setting out its position on government shutdowns and time frames. Chief Counsel signaled its position in an earlier case which we blogged here. As I suggested in the first paragraph, the last government shutdown has probably not yet occurred.

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Angela Marie Henderson wants to receive innocent spouse status. On October 25, 2018, the IRS sent her a notice of determination denying her the requested status. She sent a petition to the Tax Court which it filed on February 4, 2019 in an envelope bearing a postmark of January 25, 2019. January 25, 2019 was a Friday. That date is 92 days after the mailing of the notice of determination. The 90th day, Wednesday, January 23, 2019, was not a Saturday, Sunday or holiday, but both January 23 and January 25 were days when the United States government, including the Tax Court, was shut down because of the impasse over the budget. The shutdown began on December 22, 2018 and ended on Monday, January 28, 2019. The Tax Court reopened on January 28 with the rest of the federal government. (The Tax Court was shutdown for 31 days and the IRS for 35 days. Because the Tax Court has some non-appropriated funds that it obtains through the collection of fees, it has the ability to remain open for a short period of time during a shutdown when agencies like the IRS must close.)

On June 12, 2019, the IRS filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because Ms. Henderson filed her petition more than 90 days after the issuance of the notice of determination denying her innocent spouse request. On June 14, 2019, Chief Judge Foley, known for his brevity, issued a slightly more than one page order directing Respondent to “discuss fully his position as to the application, if any, of Guralnick to this case.” The swiftness with which the court issued this order surprises me somewhat and suggests that the court had its antenna up for motions to dismiss filed during the shutdown. The citation to the Guralnick case immediately drew my attention given the discussion of that case and its possible impact on the Tax Court’s jurisdiction in our prior posts.

The case also brings back memories of the 16-0 opinion by the Tax Court regarding the argument by the tax clinic at Harvard that the court had jurisdiction to hear a late filed CDP petition. For those who do not remember the Guralnik case, it involved a situation in which petitioner’s counsel went to FedEx on Friday the 13th and purchased the most expense delivery service that FedEx offered, next day-first thing in the morning. The petition in a CDP case was due on Sunday, February 15. Monday the 16th was a federal holiday for President’s Day and on the 17th the Tax Court closed because it snowed in the District of Columbia. As a result the petition arrived at the Court on Wednesday, February 18th. The IRS moved to dismiss because the petition was late. The Tax Court rejected petitioner’s argument regarding timely mailing because the FedEx delivery service chosen by petitioner did not appear on the IRS list of approved delivery services because the IRS had not updated the list in 11 years (it did so while the case was pending in an interesting twist of fate.) The Tax Court rejected the determination of the Special Trial Judge who initially heard the case that a snow day equated to a holiday allowing the filing on the day after the “holiday.” As mentioned above the Tax Court rejected the argument of my clinic that the 30 day time period for filing a CDP petition was not a jurisdictional time period thus allowing the court to accept the case if it determined equitable tolling was appropriate (but see our post on the recent decision of the D.C. Circuit accepting that argument with respect to the identical language of the whistleblower statute.) Finally, after going through all of the reasons it could not accept the case, the Tax Court allowed the Guralnik case to proceed under the reasoning that since it did not have a rule it could look to the federal rules of civil procedure. When the clerk’s office is closed, the rules of civil procedure allow the act to be performed on the next day. Bryan Camp wrote an excellent post explaining the holding in Guralnik. Now Chief Judge Foley wants the IRS to tell the court what the IRS, which did not appeal Guralnik, thinks of the application of that opinion to the closing of the clerk’s office due to the shutdown.

Although Chief Judge Foley’s order gave the IRS until July 8, 2019 to file a response, it did so on June 26, 2019. Ms. Henderson requested place of trial in Boston. So, the original motion and the response were filed by the Chief Counsel’s office in Boston. They made an eight-page response containing 15 numbered paragraphs. The first 14 paragraphs contain a recitation of the facts and the law with minor references to the Guralnik case. Reading those paragraphs I drew the conclusion that the IRS continued to believe the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction in this case despite the position it took in Parker.

Then, in paragraph 15, the IRS stated the following:

As a result, in this case, the deadline for timely mailing the petition to the Court was the first day in which the clerk’s office became accessible following the government shutdown, Monday, January 28, 2019. Because the petition in this case was postmarked before that date, petitioner benefits from the ‘timely mailed, timely file’ rule in section 7502 and her petition was timely.

Now we have an interesting case. This is the first case of which I am aware in which the IRS has acknowledged the impact of Guralnik on filing deadlines covered by a government shutdown although it had signaled this result to those who read the case of Parker v. Commissioner which we discussed in the blog post cited earlier. Reading the response one almost leaps to the conclusion that the author was directed to create an ending different than the one he wanted or planned to create. Either that or the author is a fan of novels with a twist as the ending. As I mentioned before, the position taken by the IRS here should go into a notice so that the world, and all the attorneys in Chief Counsel’s office, know the position of that Chief Counsel’s office will take in situations when a petitioner files a petition during a time the Tax Court clerk’s office is closed. Not all representatives or Chief Counsel attorneys read court orders or this blog.

I do not know how many other petitioners might occupy the same position as Ms. Henderson. If she is the only person who late filed a petition during the government shutdown, I am surprised. More than 2,500 dockets preceded hers in 2019. Although the Tax Court quickly issued the order requesting the views of the IRS in this case, more than two weeks have passed since the IRS responded and the Court has not acted further on this case. Ms. Henderson is now ably represented by my fellow clinician in Boston, Luz Arévalo of Greater Boston Legal Services. This is a case to watch. I hope it will result in pronunciations from the court and the IRS that will make it easy for others to know the impact of a closure of the clerk’s office on their ability to obtain jurisdiction in the Tax Court.

Fallout from the Shutdown – The Odyssey of a Tax Court Petition

I think we all expected that the length of the shutdown would create some interesting procedural issues. At the recent ABA Tax Section meeting Rich Goldman from Procedure & Administration in Chief Counsel’s office reported on an interesting case that arose because of the shutdown. In the end the taxpayers will get their day in court but their visit to the Tax Court got off to a rocky start.

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The case is Hackash v. Commissioner, Dk. No. 2406-19S. Mr. and Mrs. Hackash received a statutory notice of deficiency (SNOD) on October 22, 2018. They sent a petition to the Tax Court on January 16, 2019 via FedEx using one of the FedEx services designated by the IRS. At the time they sent their petition to the Tax Court, it was closed. FedEx attempted delivery several times (January 17, 18 and 22); I guess the delivery person was not reading the news about the shutdown. Each time the delivery person showed up there was no answer at the Tax Court.

The story told by Rich at the ABA diverges a bit from the Court’s order determining that it had jurisdiction. The order says that after the last failed attempt FedEx attempted to return the petition to petitioners. Rich said that FedEx took the petition to a location in Mississippi. Meanwhile, the Court resumed operations on January 28, 2019 at the end of the shutdown. According to Rich, someone in Mississippi noticed that they had a package destined for the Tax Court and shipped the package back up to D.C. where it was delivered to the Court on February 1, 2019. In shipping the package from Mississippi to D.C., FedEx used one of its lowest delivery services which has not made it onto the IRS list of approved services.

When the package arrived at the Court on February 1, more than 90 days had run since the sending of the SNOD. Because the package arrived at the Court via an unapproved delivery service and because it arrived well after the 90th day, the Court issued an order to show cause why the case should not be dismissed as untimely.

Petitioners were able to show the Court that they did timely mail the petition and show the various attempts by FedEx to deliver the package during the shutdown. Rich noted that they had kept their receipt from the original mailing. Based on the timely mailing of the petition in the first instance and the mailing by an authorized third party, the Court determined that it did have jurisdiction, stating:

I.R.C. section 7502(f) governs the treatment of private delivery services under section 7502. It provides that the sending of a petition by a designated private delivery service may be treated as timely mailed. In Notice 2016-30, 2016- 18 I.R.B. 676,2 the Commissioner includes FedEx Standard Overnight among designated private delivery services. See I.R.C. sec. 7502(f)(2); sec. 301.7502-1(c)(3), Proced. & Admin. Regs. As respondent further notes, Notice 2016-30 further provides that, under section 7502(f)(1), the date recorded by FedEx to its electronic data base or the date marked by FedEx on the cover of the item is treated as the postmark for purposes of section 7502. Accordingly, the Court concludes and agrees with the parties that the petition in this case was timely mailed/timely filed with the Court.

So, the taxpayers have a happy ending and we get a story from one of the problems created by the shutdown. I am sure this is not the only problem. Here, the taxpayers were diligent in responding to the Court’s order, they had used an authorized delivery service to initiate the mailing to the Court, and they had kept proof of mailing. I hope that they have an outcome on the merits equal to their outcome on the jurisdictional issue. I also wonder how many private delivery servers stood at the Tax Court’s doors during the shutdown waiting for someone to answer.

After The Shutdown: Dealing with Time Limitations, Part IV — Equity

In Part IV of the series “After the Shutdown,” Professor Bryan Camp examines the role of equity in addressing time limitations that have become tangled by the shutdown. Christine

It is unconscionable to enforce against taxpayers a statutory time limitation when Congress itself denied taxpayers the ability to protect their rights during all or part of that time period by forcing the closure of the IRS and the Tax Court.  That is, Congress failed to fund either the Tax Court or the IRS, causing both to shut down for between 31 (Tax Court) and 35 (IRS) days.  This failure caused both the agency and the Court to be closed to taxpayer’s attempts to resolve disputes about either the determination or collection of tax.  This failure is an act of Congress just as much as the statutory limitations periods are acts of Congress.  And Congress should not be able to demand that a taxpayer act within a certain time period while at the same time denying the taxpayer any ability to act during all or part of that time period.  Equity should, and I believe can, prevent that result.

The above proposition is the basis for this, my last Post in the “After the Shutdown” series.  Part I discussed how a reopened Tax Court might apply the Guralnik case to ostensibly late-filed petitions.  Part II explained the new thinking about how jurisdictional time periods differ from non-jurisdictional.  Part III explained why the time period to petition the Tax Court in §6213 should no longer be viewed as a jurisdictional limitation.  I invite those readers interested in how the new thinking would apply to the time periods in §6330(d) and §6015(e) to look at my paper posted on SSRN, which I am trying to get published in a Law Review.  Legal academics must publish or perish and, apparently, blogging does not count.

Today’s post explores why the Tax Court should be able to apply equitable principles to evaluate the timeliness of taxpayer petitions filed after the shutdown, regardless of whether any of the applicable limitations periods are jurisdictional or not.

Before diving in to equity, I wanted to point out that Congress itself could actually save a lot of litigation here by passing a very simple off-Code statute that says something like: “For purposes of computing  time limitations imposed in Title 26 on taxpayers to petition the Tax Court, the days between December 22, 2018 and January 28, 2019 shall be disregarded.”  Congress could do that.  Congress should do that (for the reasons I explain below).  But you can bet you sweet bippy that Congress won’t do that.  It made this mess.  But it is unlikely to clean it up.  So it will fall to the Tax Court to sort through cases.  When it does so, I believe the circumstances of the shutdown strongly support the extraordinary remedy of equitable tolling.

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The Tax Court is truly a unique court. It is neither fish nor fowl, as Prof. Brant Hellwig so nicely explains in his article “The Constitutional Nature of the U.S. Tax Court,” 35 Va. Tax Rev. 269 (2015). That is, all efforts to type the Tax Court as part of the Legislative Branch, Judicial Branch, or Executive Branch of the federal government are flawed, both as a matter of theory and as a matter of practice. Channeling Felix Cohen and other Legal Realists, Brant sensibly concludes that we don’t really need to worry about “where” the Tax Court belongs in the Constitutional structure. It’s indeterminate position poses no threat to the structural integrity of the federal government, and its useful work in resolving taxpayer disputes with the IRS does not depend on its precise location in any branch.

But there is no doubt that the Tax Court exercises the “judicial power” of the United States. The Supreme Court said so in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991). And part of that “judicial power” is the power to apply equitable principles and doctrines to the disputes that are properly brought before the Court for resolution. Prof. Leandra Lederman has a lovely article on this subject: “Equity and the Article I Court: Is the Tax Court’s. Exercise of Equitable Powers Constitutional?” 5 Fla. Tax Rev. 357 (2001).

It is important to remember that equitable doctrines are not simply free-floating grants of power. Equitable doctrines are linked to, and bounded by, a set of principles. But what distinguishes equitable principles from legal rules is that the application of equity is highly contingent on the facts before the court. The great legal historian F. W. Maitland put it this way in his 1910 Lectures On Equity: “I do not think that any one has expounded or ever will expound equity as a single, consistent system, an articulate body of law. It is a collection of appendixes between which there is no very close connection.” (p. 19) And in this 1913 law review article, Professor Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld discussed the difficulty of teaching equity as a system of rules separate from legal rules. I think it this way: equity fixes problems that legal rules cannot fix.

One equitable doctrine that might apply here is equitable tolling. When litigants show that, despite diligent efforts, some extraordinary circumstance prevented them from protecting their rights by timely filing within a period of limitations, a court will equitably toll the limitation period. See e.g. Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631 (2010). The idea of “tolling” means that the limitations period is suspended for the tolling period. That is, it stops running and then starts running again when the tolling period ends, picking up where it left off. Artis v. District of Columbia, 138 S.Ct. 594 (2018).

Remember, this is equity, not a hard and fast legal rule or doctrine. So how much diligence a litigant must show varies with circumstances. Similarly, how extraordinary the barrier had to be also varies with circumstance. If the Tax Court applies that doctrine, it could decide—consistent with the logic of my very first paragraph—that the days in which Congress’s failure to fund the Court forced it to shut its doors should stop the running of any applicable limitation period. The Court may decline to apply equitable tolling, however, for two reasons.

First, the Tax Court has repeatedly said it cannot equitably toll jurisdictional time periods and it believes that the relevant time periods in the Tax Code are jurisdictional. I believe the Tax Court is simply wrong that the deficiency and CDP time periods are jurisdictional. That’s what I explained in the prior blog posts and in my SSRN paper.

Even if the time periods are jurisdictional, however, I believe there is good authority to toll them nonetheless. The authority is from the Supreme Court. In Honda v. Clark, 386 U.S. 484 (1967), 4,100 plaintiffs of Japanese descent whose assets had been seized by the U.S. during World War II sued for recovery years after the applicable limitation period had ended. The district court dismissed the cases “on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction over the subject matter of the actions because they were not commenced within the time set forth in section 34(f) of the Trading with the Enemy Act.” 356 F.2d 351, 355 (D.C. Cir. 1966). Both the district court and the D.C. Circuit dismissed their suit for the standard reason: equitable principles did not apply to when limitation periods were a waiver of sovereign immunity. The D.C. Circuit gave the standard analysis: “All conditions of the sovereign’s consent to be sued must be complied with, and the failure to satisfy any such condition is fatal to the court’s jurisdiction.” 356 F.2d at 356.

The Supreme Court disagreed. While noting the general rule, it characterized the rule as a presumption and said that one needed to look at the particular statutory scheme at issue to discern purpose. Whether or not the time period was jurisdictional was totally absent from the Court’s approach to applying equitable tolling. The Court concluded it was “much more consistent with the overall congressional purpose to apply a traditional equitable tolling principle, aptly suited to the particular facts of this case and nowhere eschewed by Congress, to preserve petitioners’ cause of action.” 386 U.S. at 501.

The Supreme Court’s focus in Honda (and later in other cases, as I explain in my paper) was on the relationship between Congress and the limitation period. When you approach the limitation periods in §6213 and §6330(d) in that way, I believe the approach used by the Supreme Court in Honda strongly support application of equitable tolling, in two ways.

First, as I have argued here, the Tax Court itself has relied upon the great remedial purposes of §6213 and §6330 to in fact enlarge what it believes are jurisdictional time periods under certain circumstances. A careful reading of its cases shows that what animates its decisions is the remedial purpose of the statutory scheme that allows taxpayers a day in court before either (1) being forced face a tax assessment and its consequences or (2) being forced to pay an assessed tax. To count the shutdown days as part of a limitations period would run counter to that remedial purpose.

Second, I again restate the idea of my first paragraph. This is not a situation where a taxpayer would seek equitable tolling because of some individual government employee’s bad behavior. This is Congressional bad behavior. Another way to think of the relationship is this: if the time periods are part of Congress’s waiver of Sovereign Immunity, and if only Congress can waive Sovereign Immunity, then one can reasonably find that Congress itself has here waived its immunity by ceasing to fund the government.

The second reason that the Tax Court might look askance at applying equitable tolling here is that the doctrine usually applies in a fact pattern where the party seeking tolling has done all it can. Here, there may be instances where that is not true. For example, a taxpayer may not have even attempted to file a petition when the last day ran during the shutdown period. Or the taxpayer may not have even been prepared to file during the shutdown period and only prepares and files once the shutdown period ends. Most importantly, a taxpayer’s period might have been disrupted by the shutdown period but may not have ended during the shutdown period. How is the Tax Court supposed to measure a taxpayer’s diligence in that situation, when no one knew until Friday that the government would reopen on Monday?

I do not know the answer to these questions because equity is a case-by-case determination. The Tax Court can help avoid the time and effort of applying equitable tolling by applying a uniform counting rule that simply disregards the shutdown days, based on the idea underlying FRCP 6, as I will argue in an article I hope to publish in Tax Notes soon. Even there, however, there will be cases that are not covered even by a broad reading of FRCP 6. That will be the cases where the last day of the period came after the shutdown ended. Yet there may be such cases that command the sympathy of the Tax Court. I think the Court has the power to act and to apply equitable tolling in the cases where the circumstances support it.

After The Shutdown: Dealing with Time Limitations, Part III

Today Professor Bryan Camp returns for Part III of the series “After the Shutdown,” in which he examines the time limit for appealing a notice of deficiency. Now that the government has reopened, Professor Camp’s analysis may soon be tested in the Tax Court. The Tax Court’s website advises that the court will resume full operations on Monday, January 28, and that the February 25 trial sessions will proceed as scheduled. Christine

Part I discussed how a reopened Tax Court might apply the Guralnik case to ostensibly late-filed petitions.  The Tax Court is likely to apply Guralnik narrowly which means petitions not filed on the first day the Court reopens will be outside their Statutes of Limitation, putting the SOL in SOL.  Equitable tolling could help cure that problem but the Tax Court takes the position that it cannot apply equitable doctrines to the time periods for taxpayers to petition the Tax Court because, in its view, those time periods are jurisdictional restrictions on its powers.   

Part II explained the new thinking about how jurisdictional time periods differ from non-jurisdictional.  I read the opinions and drew out five indeterminate factors that the Supreme Court instructs lower courts to consider when deciding whether a particular statutory time period is jurisdictional or merely a “claims processing rule.”   

Today’s post applies the rules to the 90/150 day period in §6213.  The most reasonable conclusion under the new thinking is that §6213 is not a jurisdictional time period. That means that the Tax Court can apply equitable principles to decide whether an ostensibly late-filed petition is timely or not.  And when the Tax Court is closed for more than 33 days in a row, that is a big start to an equitable tolling analysis for those cases that cannot fit within a narrow or even a broad application of Guralnik.

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Four of the five factors point to treating §6213 as a claims processing rule.  Again, this is basically a summary of what I have written in this paper posted on SSRN.  As usual, please comment on any errors or omissions that you spot. 

  1. Mandatory Language

As it currently reads, §6213(a) now contains five sentences.  The first sentence contains the limitations period, as follows: “Within 90 days, or 150 days if the notice is addressed to a person outside the United States, after the notice of deficiency authorized in section 6212 is mailed … the taxpayer may file a petition with the Tax Court for a redetermination of the deficiency.” 

Notice there is no mandatory language.  Nothing in that sentence tells the reader what happens if the taxpayer misses the 90/150 day deadline.  And nothing in that sentence gives the Tax Court the power to hear or decide matters raised in the petition. 

  1. Magic Words

The word “jurisdiction” does not appear in the first sentence.  One finds the jurisdictional grant to the Tax Court over in §6214, which provides that the Tax Court has “jurisdiction to redetermine the correct amount of the deficiency even if the amount so redetermined is greater than the amount of the deficiency…and to determine whether any additional amount, or any addition to the tax should be assessed, if claim therefor is asserted by the Secretary at or before the hearing or a rehearing.”  The §6214 power to redetermine a deficiency is simply not hooked into the §6213 timing rule.  

The fourth sentence of §6213 does contain the magic word “jurisdiction.”  But, as I explain in much greater detail in my paper on SSRN, while the word “jurisdiction” does appear in the fourth sentence, it is not there tied to the Court’s power to redetermine a deficiency.  It was added to the Tax Court much, much, later than first sentence and later than the §6214 jurisdictional language.  

  1. Statutory Context

 As I explain in my SSRN paper, Congress first gave the Tax Court jurisdiction to redetermine a proposed deficiency in 1924.  It did that in a statute separate from the 90/150 day limitation period.  The codifiers also put that jurisdictional grant in a separate section of the Tax Code, both in the 1939 Code and the 1954 Code.

Much later, in 1954, Congress added to the Tax Court’s jurisdiction the power to enjoin the IRS from assessing or collecting a tax liability when the taxpayer had filed a timely petition.  The codifiers put that injunctive power in the same statute as the 90/150 limitation period and conditioned that power on a timely petition being filed.  But the Tax Court’s jurisdiction to redetermine a deficiency is still in a separate statute.

As applied to the shutdown, that distinction possibly makes a difference.  The IRS computers will automatically set up an assessment if no IRS employee inputs the Transaction Code (TC) indicating that a petition has been filed in the Tax Court.  To account for notification delays, the computers are programmed to wait 110 days after the NOD date before setting up the assessment.  Readers should understand that assessments are made in bulk.  Each week, all the assessments that are ready to be made are aggregated into a single document that is signed, either physically or electronically, by a designated official and, hey presto, all of the taxpayers who were set up for that week are now assessed.

The problem in the shutdown is that the IRS computers keep counting the shutdown days as part of the 110 days.  So if and when the Tax Court decides that a petition ostensibly filed 140 days late is actually timely, whether under a narrow or broad reading of Guralnik or under equitable principles, the question arises as to what to do about that assessment.  The IRS should abate the assessment as §6404 authorizes when an assessment “is erroneously or illegally assessed.” 

  1. Judicial Context

 This is the only factor that supports reading §6213 as jurisdictional.  But it’s not especially strong because it consists only of lower court precedent that relies on other lower court precedent.  As I explained in Part II, the Supreme Court has not hesitated to scrub even long-standing lower court precedent when it believes the new thinking requires a different result.  The only judicial context that counts for the Supremes is their own former opinions!      

Still, there is plenty of lower court precedent holding that §6213 is jurisdictional.  First, the most recent Tax Court case to express an opinion about §6213 was—you guessed it— Guralnik.  That was in 2016.  But the Court in Gurlanik chose to look exclusively at only this factor and gave no analysis on the other four factors, saying:

In cases too numerous to mention, dating back to 1924, we have held that the statutorily-prescribed filing period in deficiency cases is jurisdictional. See, e.g., Satovsky v. Commissioner, 1 B.T.A. 22, 24 (1924); Block v. Commissioner, 2 T.C. 761, 762 (1943). Even if the “equitable tolling” argument advanced by petitioner and amicus curiae were otherwise persuasive, which it is not, we would decline to adopt that argument solely on grounds of stare decisis.

The error here is in relying on old thinking.  As I explained in Part II and also in my paper, the Supreme Court keeps emphasizing that courts should not rely solely on precedent developed under the old thinking.  In particular, my paper looks at both the cases cited by Guralnik here and not only shows how neither is particularly useful but also discovers that the Tax Court itself no longer follows Block’s rationale on how to count jurisdictional time periods!   

The most recent Circuit Court opinion of note is Tilden v. Commissioner, 846 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2017).  There, Judge Easterbrook gave two reasons for holding that §6213 was jurisdictional.  First, he swooned over the magic word “jurisdiction” in §6213 and totally ignored how it related, or did not relate, to the 90/150 time period.  Second, he relied on—wait for it—wait for it—Guralnik!

For many decades the Tax Court and multiple courts of appeals have deemed § 6213(a) as a whole to be a jurisdictional limit on the Tax Court’s adjudicatory competence. [String cite omitted]. We think that it would be imprudent to reject that body of precedent, which places the Tax Court and the Court of Federal Claims, two Article I tribunals, on an equal footing. So we accept Guralnik’s conclusion and treat the statutory filing deadline as a jurisdictional one.

What is especially sad here is that the string cite that I omitted from the quote does not contain a single case after 1995.  Nor could it.  There is not a single court case—much less one from the Supreme Court—that actually analyzes §6213 under the Supreme Court’s new thinking and applies all the factors.   

  1. Legislative Context

The legislative context of §6213(a) also supports reading the provision as a claims-processing rule and not as a jurisdictional requirement.  The legislative context is very similar to that which the Supreme Court found so important in Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428 (2011) discussed in Part II.  In brief, Congress created the original Board of Tax Appeals to give taxpayers a theretofore unavailable judicial remedy.  The legislation creating the BTA was manifestly remedial.   

The remedial nature of deficiency proceedings has been long recognized by the Supreme Court.  I think Helvering v. Taylor, 293 U.S. 507 (1935) is particularly instructive.  There, the taxpayers proved that the Notice of Deficiency contained significant error.  The government argued that taxpayers had to not just show the NOD was wrong but also had to prove up their correct tax.  The Supreme Court responded this way: “The rule for which the Commissioner here contends is not consonant with the great remedial purposes of the legislation creating the Board of Tax Appeals.”

The Tax Court itself has used the remedial nature of deficiency proceedings to soften the effect of its continued holding that §6213 is jurisdictional.  In effect, the Tax Court “cheats” on applying §6213 by choosing from among multiple starting dates to help taxpayers meet the 90 day requirement.  It does so because it recognizes the legislative context of the deadline.  I explain this in my article Equitable Principles and Jurisdictional Time Periods, Part II, 159 Tax Notes 1581 (free download here).

It would be no stretch at all for the Tax Court to apply that precedent to an analysis of whether §6213 is jurisdictional in the first place.  

Under the new thinking, then, four of the five factors point towards reading §6213 as a claims processing rule and not a jurisdictional rule.

Finding Guidance on the Effects of the Shutdown

As the IRS and Tax Court reopen (at least for about three weeks), readers might be interested in resources to help them.  The IRS has published a short announcement that answers some basic questions, here.   In addition, the ABA Section of Taxation is hosting a webinar on the effects of the shutdown on administrative operations and on Tax Court cases. The 1.5 hour webinar is scheduled for Monday, January 28, 2019 starting at 1 pm EST.  The cost is $10 for Tax Section members and $25 for non-members.  It is free to Low Income Tax Clinic or other pro-bono attorneys.

Topics will include:

  1. How the shutdown affected the Service’s issuance of notices;
  2. The ways taxpayers and representatives should consider reacting and responding to Service correspondence;
  3. The impact of the shutdown on applications for discretionary relief and IRS administrative services;
  4. The Service’s current collection efforts; and
  5. The impact on filings with the United States Tax Court.

You can find more information from the ABA Tax Section website.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service’s Role During an IRS Shutdown

The ongoing lapse in federal government appropriations is now the longest in modern history. On January 15, the IRS released an updated shutdown plan which substantially alters how the ongoing shutdown impacts taxpayers. Regular PT contributor Bob Kamman described the updated plan here; he summarized the original shutdown plan here. The biggest change of plan is the recall of about half the IRS workforce primarily to process tax returns and ensure that refunds will be paid this filing season. But the plan also calls for expanded operations in another important arena: collections. And automated notices of intent to levy are still being issued. Meanwhile, Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) employees are largely furloughed and those who are excepted are not permitted to work on individual taxpayer cases. This situation raises important questions about the IRS and Treasury’s interpretation of the Anti-Deficiency Act. What should be TAS’s role in a shutdown, and who will protect taxpayer rights if TAS is not permitted to engage in those activities?  

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In a February 2018 PT post, guest bloggeStuart J. Bassin explained the legal framework around a shutdown:

Spending and taxation authority reside in Congress under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution; the Executive has no independent taxation or spending power. Separately, Article I Section 9 prevents unauthorized spending, providing that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” When a lapse in appropriations occurs, the government necessarily shuts down. Neither the President nor Congress decides to shut down the Government; it happens automatically under the Constitution. 

Statutory law develops the constitutional prohibitions and invokes the criminal law to enforce the prohibition. Under Section 1341(a) to Title 31 of the U.S. Code, federal employees “may not make or authorize an expenditure or obligation” or involve the “government in a contract or obligation” absent a lawful appropriation. Similarly, under Section 1342, federal employees “may not accept voluntary services for the government … except for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The “emergency” exception is narrowly defined to exclude “ongoing, regular functions of government the suspension of which would not imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Section 1350 makes a knowing violation of either provision a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. 

So, when there is no Congressional appropriation funding the IRS, the Anti-Deficiency Act allows the agency to continue limited operations only “for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, albeit with “volunteer” labor.  

This brings us to the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Given the substantial expansion of IRS operations reflected in the revised shutdown plan, it was disappointing to see the role of the Taxpayer Advocate Service remain the same. Bob Kamman notes: 

There are now two “excepted” Category B employees allowed in each local office: The local TA, and either a group manager or a “lead case advocate.”  Their jobs are to “Check mail to comply with the IRS’s requirement to open and process checks during a shutdown while also complying with the statutory requirements that TAS maintain confidential and separate communications with taxpayers and that TAS operate independently of any other IRS office . . .Screen the mail for incoming requests for Taxpayer Assistance Orders and notify the appropriate Business Unit that a request has been made tolling any statute of limitations.” 

It doesn’t sound like they are allowed to answer the phone or work cases.  Protecting IRS integrity doesn’t extend this far? 

Apparently it doesn’t, at least not in the eyes of the IRS. Multiple TAS employees have privately confirmed that they are not permitted to work on taxpayer cases during the shutdown, even where a hardship is present.

TAS plays a crucial role in the tax collection system, as a backstop protecting taxpayers from serious financial hardship. As such, one might think that TAS activities related to taxpayer hardships would be excepted. Certainly taxpayers threatened with homelessness or living without heat or water view their situations as “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property”. However, the IRS Office of Chief Counsel has interpreted the “protection of property” prong to refer only to government property (Exception Category B of the shutdown plan: “Necessary for the Safety of Human Life or Protection of Government Property”). The NTA strongly disagrees with this interpretation, and she has called on Congress to clarify the statute.  

In her Fiscal Year 2015 Objectives Report to Congress (June 30, 2014), Nina Olson analyzed the Anti-Deficiency Act and raised several concerns with the IRS’s interpretation of its exceptions as applied to TAS. She also compared the IRS’s 2013 shutdown policy to its prior shutdown contingency plan and to the interpretations of other federal agencies and the OMB. It’s illuminating to revisit that report now in light of the original and revised shutdown plans for 2018/2019. I recommend reading the report for the full background and detailed analysis.  

The good news is that the IRS has addressed or partially addressed some of the NTA’s previous concerns. The January 2019 shutdown plan provides for the recall of 1,989 SBSE collection representatives whose duties include releasing liens and levies as required by law. Shockingly, release of levies was not a function performed at all during the 2013 shutdown. The current plan also preserves TAS’s independence by permitting TAS employees to open their own mail, which also was not allowed in 2013. However, the IRS has not changed its interpretation of the “protection of property” exception and it has not conceded that TAS plays an integral role in protecting the integrity of tax collection and in preventing taxpayers from experiencing irreparable harm.  

The limited IRS telephone service provided for in the new shutdown plan has only been open since January 22, and it is not clear yet whether the current operations plan will be sufficient to protect taxpayers against serious harm from unlawful collection actions. Anecdotal reports on the ABA Tax Section’s Low-Income Taxpayer email list suggest that taxpayers and representatives may experience inconsistent treatment when calling in, with some IRS representatives able to accept faxed authorizations and some not, and some representatives claiming they have no ability to address the caller’s hardship. Problems with front-line collection employees are nothing new to taxpayer representatives. One could argue that the sufficiency of the new shutdown plan is not open to debate, as Congress has already determined in enacting sections 7803(c) and 7811 that the NTA and TAS are a necessary safeguard within the system to protect taxpayers from unlawful collection action.  

When the shutdown ends, I anticipate the NTA forcefully renewing her legislative recommendation that Congress 

Clarify that the emergency exception to the Anti-Deficiency Act for the protection of property includes taxpayer property as well as government property. Alternatively, clarify that the National Taxpayer Advocate may incur obligations in advance of appropriations for purposes of assisting taxpayers experiencing an economic hardship within the meaning of IRC § 6343(a)(1)(D) due to an IRS action or inaction, and that the IRS may incur obligations in advance of appropriations for purposes of complying with any Taxpayer Assistance Order issued pursuant to IRC § 7811.

Such clarification would be a relief for taxpayers in a world in which future shutdowns seem inevitable.  

After The Shutdown:  Dealing with Time Limitations, Part II

In the second post of the series “After the Shutdown” Professor Bryan Camp connects the shutdown with the thorny issue of when a time limit is jurisdictional. Les

Part I discussed how a reopened Tax Court might apply the Guralnik case to ostensibly late-filed petitions.  I explained how it might apply the case narrowly or broadly.  This post moves beyond Guralnikand starts exploring the correctness of the Court’s underlying assumption: that time limits in the Tax Code for taxpayers to petition the Tax Court to hear their disputes with the IRS are jurisdictional.  A possible silver lining to the shutdown may be that it gives the Court an opportunity to revisit that assumption.

Guralnik is essentially a work-around to equitable tolling.  The Tax Court says it cannot apply equitable principles to most statutes of limitation in the Tax Code because those statutes are, in its view, part and parcel of the Congressional grant of subject matter jurisdiction to the Tax Court.  I believe that view is based on an outdated understanding of the law.  I have posted a paper on SSRN that goes into great detail on what the current law is and how it should apply to three limitation periods in the Code: §6213, §6330(d), and §6015(e).  Today’s post is a summary of what I call the “new thinking” about jurisdictional time periods that the Supreme Court has been wrestling with for the past 10-15 years. For fuller treatment, please see my paper on SSRN.  For the Cliff Notes version, read on.

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Starting in Kondrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443 (2004), the Supreme Court became obsessed with distinguishing between jurisdictional time periods and “mere” claims processing rules.  At that time, courts routinely presumed that all time limits were jurisdictional in nature. By 2013, however, the Court had totally flipped the traditional presumption.  The new thinking is that time limits are presumed non-jurisdictional unless Congress had done something special to indicate otherwise.  Here is how the Court summed it up in Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center, 568 U.S. 145 (2013).  Be sure to empty your mouth of liquid before you read on.

To ward off profligate use of the term jurisdiction, we have adopted a readily administrable bright line for determining whether to classify a statutory limitation as jurisdictional. We inquire whether Congress has clearly stated that the rule is jurisdictional; absent such a clear statement, we have cautioned, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character. This is not to say that Congress must incant magic words in order to speak clearly. We consider context, including this Court’s interpretations of similar provisions in many years past, as probative of whether Congress intended a particular provision to rank as jurisdictional. 568 U.S. at 153.

The spit-take is on the phrase “readily administrable bright line.”  It makes you wonder what planet the Justices had just visited.  Folks, there is no bright line.  There are, by my count, five indeterminate factors that the Court instructs lower courts to consider.  But fear not!  The task is not hopeless; it is merely very difficult.

Please note that all my case cites are to Supreme Court cases after 2000.  I’ve read what I think are all the relevant ones in order to synthesize these factors.  Note further that you simply cannot trust any court case before then.  And you cannot really trust many lower court cases before the Supreme Court’s “we-really-mean-it” decisions in 2013 (Auburn Regional) and 2015 (Kwai Fun Wong).  If someone cites a case to you, go look at the date to see if it is even attempting to reflect the Supreme Court’s new thinking.  Here is my summary of that thinking, divided into five factors.

  1. Mandatory Language

 The first factor any court will consider is the text of the relevant statute.  If  the text expressly refers to subject-matter jurisdiction or speaks in jurisdictional terms, then that will generally be the end of the analysis.  Under the old presumption, a statute that used mandatory language was presumed jurisdictional and mandatory language made it difficult to overcome the presumption.  Under the new thinking, however, while mandatory language is still one factor to consider, it is no longer very important.  Words like “shall” or “must” just don’t cut it anymore.  The Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the idea that mandatory language alone—even really emphatic language—makes a time period jurisdictional. Musacchio v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 709 (2016)(defendant in criminal prosecution not allowed to raise statute of limitations for first time on appeal because the limitation period was not jurisdictional despite its mandatory language); United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 135 S.Ct. 1625 (2015)(limitations period which said a claim brought after the deadline date “shall be forever barred” was not jurisdictional).

  1. Magic Words

A second factor is the presence or absence of the term “jurisdiction.”  It turns out that while the word “jurisdiction” is important, it is not determinative.  The Supreme Court has found a statute jurisdictional even without the word “jurisdiction” in it. Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322 (2003)(finding that the statutory context of 28 U.S.C. §2253 made it jurisdictional even though it did not contain the magic word “jurisdiction”).  And on the flip side, the Court has also found a statute of limitations to be non-jurisdictional even though the statute contained the word “jurisdiction” in it! SeeReed Elsevier v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154 (2010)(overruling widespread agreement among Circuit Courts to hold that the term “jurisdiction” in 17 U.S.C. §441(a) was not a clear enough statement because it just described a court’s ability to hear a particular issue in a larger copyright infringement suit and not the courts ability to hear the rest of the suit).

  1. Statutory Context

A third important factor to consider is the relationship of the limitation period to the surrounding statutory scheme.  That is statutory context.  The Supreme Court has focused on this factor to explain its reluctance to label a limitation period as “jurisdictional” when the limitation period is present in the same statutory section as a concededly jurisdictional grant.  SeeGonzalez v. Thaler, 565 U.S. 134 (2012)(even though 28 U.S.C. §2253(c)(1) was a jurisdictional provision, the neighboring limitation in §2253(c)(3) was not);Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center, 568 U.S. 145 (2013)(rejecting argument that proximity of 42 U.S.C. §1395oo(a)(3) to concededly jurisdictional requirements in §1395oo(a)(1) and §1395oo(a)(2) made the (a)(3) time requirements also jurisdictional).

  1. Judicial Context

This is just another word for “precedent.”  The Court has not been reluctant to reverse long-standing precedent…when the precedent is from lower courts.  See e.g.Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154 (2010).  But it’s a different story when the long-standing precedent is of the Supreme Court’s own making.  SeeBowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007)(deciding that the time limits in 28 U.S.C. §2107 were jurisdictional simply because of “our longstanding treatment of statutory time limits for taking an appeal”); J.R. Sand and Gravel v. United States, 552 U.S. 130 (2008)(holding that time limits in 28 U.S.C. § 2501 were jurisdictional because of four prior Supreme Court cases said so and “petitioner can succeed only by convincing us that this Court has overturned, or that it should now overturn, its earlier precedent.”).

  1. Legislative Context

The final type of context that the Supreme Court has factored into its jurisdictional analysis is what I call the legislative context.  Others might call it legislative purpose.  Whatever you call it, the Court has sometimes looked to see whether finding a limitation period jurisdictional would further or hinder the policy goals of the underlying statutory scheme.   I would not put a whole lotta faith in this factor right now because the current composition of the Supreme Court seems to me (and to this USA Today article) to tilt towards textualists. And textualists don’t seem to like looking to purpose unless they get really desperate.

But there is hope.  I think the clearest example of where the Court found legislative context to be the deciding factor is Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428 (2011).  And that opinion was authored by Justice Alito.  There the Court held that the limitation period in 38 U.S.C. §7266(a) for a veteran to obtain court review from an adverse Veterans Administration agency decision was not jurisdictional.  After first finding that neither the factors of text nor precedent pointed clearly in one direction or another, Justice Alito turned to the legislative context.  “While the terms and placement of §7266 provide some indication of Congress’ intent, what is most telling here are the singular characteristics of the review scheme that Congress created for the adjudication of veterans’ benefits.” Focusing then on the Congressional intent, Justice Alito found that Congress meant for the entire statutory scheme for veterans benefits to be highly remedial.

The reason I go into some detail on the Henderson case is because I think it is pretty relevant to how a court might approach interpreting the limitation provisions in the Tax Code.  After all, the whole point of the U.S. Tax Court’s existence is to give taxpayers a pre-payment remedy.  It’s a big-time remedial scheme.  That is, I think, particularly important when considering the limitation periods in §6213, §6330(d), and §6015(e).  More on that in Part III, coming soon.