Jurisdiction of District Court in Innocent Spouse Case

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On March 22, 2023, in the case of Viktoriya Korleshchuk-Petrie v. United States, Dk. No. 21-cv-40125-DHH (D. Mass.), the court denied the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division trial section’s dual motions to dismiss the case for LOJ under FRCP 12(b)(1) and for failure to state a claim under FRCP 12(b)(6). The court found her complaint contained sufficient allegations to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. In its 12(b)(1) motion, the DOJ argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction to hear a refund suit filed in an innocent spouse case brought seeking relief pursuant to IRC 6015(f). Almost four years ago, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon rejected the same DOJ jurisdictional argument. The court’s decision agrees with Hockin v. U.S., 400 F. Supp. 3d 1085 (D. Or. 2019), but conflicts with Chandler v. U.S., 338 F. Supp. 3d 592 (N.D. Tex. 2018). Right now, there is no controlling appellate authority on this issue, but there is some dicta. I mention that this matter was brought by the trial section of DOJ since that group of DOJ Tax Section has not aligned with the Appellate Section in the arguments it has made on this issue. See discussion here.

DOJ Tax Division trial section now takes the position in this case that a person seeking a refund based on innocent spouse relief could bring a refund suit if the relief was based on 6015(b) or (c) but not on (f).  This seems to be a refinement of the trial section’s prior position.  The DOJ brief is here.

 Ms. Korleshchuk-Petrie was represented by Audrey Patten, the director of the Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and Fritz Schemel a 2L.  Their brief can be found here


Ms. Korleshchuk-Petrie moved to the US in 2007 and married Mr. Petrie.  They had two children.  He had numerous problems as a husband as well as legal problems that landed him in prison for selling controlled substances.  She obtained a restraining order against him and eventually a divorce.  The IRS made changes to their 2007 joint return.  She filed for innocent spouse relief in the past and did not file a Tax Court petition when the IRS denied her relief.  The IRS offset her refunds which fully paid the liability.  She timely filed a claim for refund.  The IRS did not respond.  She timely filed suit for refund after waiting six months from the time of her claim.

DOJ seeks to dismiss her case based on lack of jurisdiction because of a lack of waiver of sovereign immunity for a suit seeking a refund pursuant to innocent spouse relief based on 6015(f).  It argues that unlike 6015(b) and (c) which provide mandatory relief if the statutory provisions are met, the relief under 6015(f) is discretionary and therefore the exercise of discretion by the IRS in denying relief is not subject to judicial review by the district court but only by the Tax Court.

The fight initially centers on 28 USC 1346(a)(1) which provides:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, concurrent with the United States Court of Federal Claims, of: (1) Any civil action against the United States for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority or any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected under the internal-revenue laws.

The court states that the statute has three requirements.  First, the taxpayer must file a claim.  Second, the taxpayer must fully pay the tax and meet the Flora rule (even though Flora was a case involving deficiency proceedings having nothing to do with innocent spouse claims.)  Third, the claim must be timely.  The court finds there is no dispute that the three pre-conditions for bringing suit in district court were met.  So, it finds that she meets the plain language requirements for relief in the district court.  It states:

The Williams Court [United States v. Williams, 514 U.S. 527 (1995)] characterized 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) as “waiv[ing] the Government’s sovereign immunity from suit by authorizing federal courts to adjudicate ‘[any] civil action against the United States for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected.’” Id. at 530. Indeed, after listing the categories of alleged bases for seeking a refund in district court, Congress added a basis for seeking a refund for a tax “in any manner wrongfully collected.” In sum, Congress appears to have captured virtually every permutation of a claim for a refund and, introducing its scope with the word, “any,” certainly excludes no particular class of refund claims.

The court then states:

I find that § 6015(f) fits comfortably within the plain meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), and hence that Congress has waived sovereign immunity for refund claims predicated on § 6015(f).

After finding that the plain meaning of the relevant statute supports allowing a person seeking a refund based on innocent spouse relief, the court then addresses the specific argument that court review is not allowed because relief under 6015(f) is discretionary. Here it says:

The Government’s argument that discretionary relief determinations are insulated from “wrongfulness” under 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) is further undermined by its concession that § 6015(e) provides for review of § 6015(f) determinations in the Tax Court. Certainly, the language of § 6015(e) supports the Government’s position that the Tax Court can review § 6015(f) determinations. However, the fact of a route to review of a § 6015(f) relief denial in any forum necessarily contemplates that the Secretary’s equitable determination may not be correct.

So, the court finds that district court’s have jurisdiction to hear refund suits for innocent spouse relief even if the basis for the requested relief is 6015(f). 

The arguments against jurisdiction by DOJ Tax Division trial section do not stop there.  It next argues that Congress granted the Tax Court exclusive jurisdiction in 6015(f) cases citing to 6015(e).  The court rejects this argument as well finding that 6015(e) pertains only to the Tax Court jurisdiction over 6015 claims but does not indicate that the Tax Court’s jurisdiction is exclusive.

to the precise contrary, § 6015(e)(1)(A) provides that, “[i]n addition to any other remedy provided by law, the individual may petition the Tax Court … to determine the appropriate [innocent spouse] relief available[.]”

Again, the DOJ Tax Division trial section makes a very nuanced argument concerning jurisdiction in 6015(f) cases:

The Government argues that under the plain terms of § 6015(e), refund claims cannot be premised on § 6015(f) where, as here, the IRS collects a tax deficiency “after denial of relief that is not appealed to the Tax Court[.]” [Dkt. No. 18, p. 8]. The Government suggests that under § 6015(e)(3), the one “discrete instance” in which a district court has jurisdiction to adjudicate a refund claim premised on § 6015(f) relief is when “either spouse commences a refund suit [in a district court] implicating the same years involved in the innocent-spouse petition” appealed to the Tax Court. [Id. at p. 13]. In that specific instance alone, the “Tax Court shall yield jurisdiction over a timely filed petition for review of an IRS innocent-spouse relief determination to a district court.” [Id.].

The court rejects this argument finding that the statute does not state the Tax Court’s jurisdiction is exclusive and it cites to the Tax Court’s decision in the case of Coggin v. Commissioner, 157 T.C. 144, 151-53 (2021) which interpreted the meaning of 6015(e) and stated:

The text [of § 6015(e)(3)] is not explicit about the timing or sequence requirement (if any) as to a refund suit and filing of an innocent spouse relief claim in the Tax Court. Section 6015(e)(3) could be read to mean that this Court’s jurisdictional limitation applies only where a petition is filed before a refund claim. However, we do not interpret the statute as having such a requirement or as compelling us to give any weight to the sequence of Ms. Coggin’s actions with respect to her claims.

The DOJ Tax Division trial section then made a legislative history argument which the court also rejected but to which it devotes a fair amount of discussion.  The final argument centered on interest abatement cases where the Supreme Court, in Hinck v. United States, 550 U.S. 501 (2007) has held that the Tax Court has sole jurisdiction to hear these cases.  Because the IRS has discretion to abate interest, the argument sought to tie the discretionary relief in 6015(f) to the same result.  The court rejected this argument as well finding that the two provisions were distinct.

So, the case moves forward.  The innocent spouse claim under 6015(f) must still be won.  It would be interesting to be in the Room of Lies when/if the trial section seeks to convince the Appellate Section to appeal its position in a setting in which the Appellate Section tells circuit courts that taxpayers seeking innocent spouse relief can full pay and bring a refund suit.


  1. Norman Diamond says

    “DOJ Tax Division trial section now takes the position in this case that a person seeking a refund based on innocent spouse relief could bring a refund suit if the relief was based on 6015(b) or (c) but not on (f).”

    Especially not (f)(2)(B). The D.C. Circuit mentioned that (f)(2)(A) was irrelevant but ignored (f)(2)(B) to avoid refunding overpayments. Let’s hope for a circuit split.

  2. Carl Smith says

    I just wanted to point out how important clinics are to the development of the law in innocent spouse cases.

    Not counting the clinics’ extensive involvement from 2009-2011 in the Lantz and related cases involving the 2-year regulation limiting 6015(f) relief, more recently, clinics filed an amicus brief in the Tax Court Thomas case, urging an expansive view of newly-discovered evidence in 6015(e) cases. The clinics’ arguments in Thomas largely prevailed.

    In both Hockin and Korleshchuk-Petrie, the courts accepted clinics’ arguments that district courts have jurisdiction to consider 6015(f) relief in refund suits. The Chandler case that Keith mentions as coming to a contrary conclusion involved a pro se taxpayer who did not address the DOJ’s argument there that there was no jurisdiction. Hockin specifically mentioned that one of the reasons the Chandler opinion didn’t persuade the judge was the absence of two-sided contest of the jurisdictional matter.

    As Keith notes, there is no directly on point appellate authority on the refund suit issue. the same is true on the issue of whether innocent spouse can be raised as a defense in a DOJ suit for collection. The CTR (represented by the Harvard clinic) has submitted a proposed amicus brief in the 4th Cir. case of Koncurat arguing in favor of such jurisdiction. We will hopefully get some appellate guidance in this area, as well, before the end of this year.

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