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

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

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

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Facts

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

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

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

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

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

D.C. Circuit Rulings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote on slip op. at 18-19.

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

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

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

Slip op. at 20.

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

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

Slip op. at 22.

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

Observations

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

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

Carlton Smith About Carlton Smith

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

Comments

  1. Noting who wrote the opinion, you may wonder where you have seen that name before.

    Douglas Howard Ginsburg, age 74, is a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He was appointed to that court at age 40 in October 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, and served as its chief judge from July 2001 until February 2008. Judge Ginsburg was nominated by Reagan to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy after the retirement of Lewis F. Powell in October 1987, but soon withdrew from consideration after his earlier marijuana use created controversy.

    Judge Ginsburg was assistant professor and then professor at Harvard Law School from 1975 to 1983, specializing in antitrust and economic regulation.

    Ginsburg graduated from The Latin School of Chicago in 1963, then attended Cornell University. After dropping out in 1965 due to “boredom”, he invested in and helped run Operation Match, an early computer dating service based in Boston. Returning to Cornell in 1968 after selling the company, Ginsburg received his B.S. degree in 1970. He received his J.D. degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1973.

    He is apparently no relation to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but a New York Times article in 1987 suggests that he and his wife had something in common with Justice Ginsburg and her husband. According to a colleague, “Judge Ginsburg’s wife was a ‘superb cook’ and the two often work on special dishes together when having friends to dinner.”

    Judge Ginsburg was joined in the Myers opinion by Judge Cornelia (“Nina”) Pillard, age 58, B.A. Yale, J.D. Harvard, appointed in 2013 by President Obama. . The dissent came from senior Judge Karen Henderson, age 75, B.A. Duke, J.D. North Carolina, appointed in 1990 by the first President Bush to replace Ken Starr, who resigned to become Solicitor General.

    While Judge Pillard is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Judge Ginsburg taught there for eight years immediately preceding her enrollment, any connection between them and the author of the amicus brief cited profusely in the opinion is purely coincidental.

    • Carl Smith says

      Bob, I had noted the irony you point out to Keith last night. Let me state for the record that neither Keith nor I knows the majority judges personally. But, it certainly helps to submit an amicus brief from an institution that a judge attended or taught at. I am sure they pay more attention to such a brief than they might otherwise.

      • Kenneth H. Ryesky says

        In a recent non-tax case in New York state courts, my brief cited to cases decided by the trial court judge herself. I am informed that her lawlady (and by extension, Her Honor) received those aspects of my brief very well; the decision in my client’s favor was upheld on appeal.

        • Perhaps the most notable aspect of the personalities involved in this case is that all three lawyers on the government side are women. I haven’t found what law schools Janet Bradley, Joan Oppenheimer and Bethany Hauser attended before being hired by the Justice Department. But neither their gender, nor their appearance before a panel on which two out of three judges are women, is remarkable. At least in the public sector, equality is mostly taken for granted. On this Fourth of July, though, we should remember that Harvard Law did not admit women until a year after I was born.

    • Carl Smith says

      Bob, And lest one think that school ties count for very much in litigating, I would point to one of the cases that the Harvard clinic litigated in this series, Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2017). There, the court held that the filing deadline in 6015(e)(1) is jurisdictional and not subject to estoppel. The 3-judge panel included a Harvard ’81 classmate of mine, Judge Joseph Greenaway, Jr. I did the oral argument before the panel. I knew Judge Greenaway slightly from law school — we both having impersonated and sent up different One L Section 4 professors in the fall student show. Yet he still voted against me when another judge on the panel drafted the opinion!

  2. Carl Smith says

    I want to add something that I neglected to mention in the post, though I had intended to. When I read the Tax Court’s Myers opinion the day it came out, I thought of several ways in which I thought it might be wrong — with the jurisdiction/equitable tolling argument being only one of them. But, the Harvard clinic does not represent whistleblowers (not sure whether it would violate the LITC grant). Still, Mr. Myers was of limited means. So, I asked Joe DiRuzzo to volunteer to represent Mr. Myers pro bono. Joe jumped in, bringing with him Alex Golubitsky. Joe and Alex’s superb briefs addressed all the arguments (including the later-raised issue of whether the D.C. Cir. had appellate jurisdiction). The Harvard amicus brief (limited to 6,500 words) addressed only the question of whether the filing deadline is jurisdictional — not even the equitable tolling question. So, kudos really go to Joe and Alex for their public-spirited representation in this case. They are really counsel here, not the Harvard clinic. And if there is an en banc hearing, Joe will have to make a second trip from Florida to argue this case– not being paid anything for his troubles.

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