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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations

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

About Carlton Smith

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

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