The case of Carter v. United States, No. 5:18-cv-01380 (N.D. Ala. 8-9-2019) shows a limitation of the financial disability provision set out in IRC 6511(h). Ms. Carter is a personal representative of an estate. She failed to timely file an administrative claim for the estate and sought to use the financial disability provisions to hold open the time frame. The court finds that the language of the statute only applies to individuals. The court also spends a fair amount of time in its lengthy opinion talking about the issue of jurisdiction, a favorite topic at this blog. Both financial disability and jurisdiction will be discussed below. Carl Smith helped significantly in the writing of the jurisdictional portion of this post.
The decedent owned a lot of valuable stock in a bank but had the misfortune to pass away in the midst of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The stock went down precipitously because of the great recession but fell to worthless status when a fraudulent scheme perpetrated on the bank was discovered. The dramatic drop in the value of the stock apparently caused Ms. Carter, the executor of the estate to develop issues that she alleges caused her to be late in submitting an amended return claiming a refund because the value of the stock at the valuation date for the estate tax return was actually lower than the amount reported on the return.
The IRS moved to dismiss because by the time she filed the amended return it was well past the ordinary time for filing a claim for refund. Ms. Carter withdrew her initial claim and filed another one to which she attached a doctor’s note explaining that she, the executor, was suffering from a medical impairment that prevented her from managing the affairs of the estate for five years. She also filed an affidavit with the second claim stating that no one other than her had the authority to act on behalf of the estate during the relevant time period. The IRS did not act on her new amended claim. After waiting six months she filed her complaint and the IRS moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction since the claim was filed out of time. The estate claimed a refund of over 3 million dollars stating that the stock was really worthless at the time of valuation based on non-public information that later became available.
We can all sympathize with someone who thought they were inheriting stock worth over $17 million and who found out it was worthless. Compounding this problem, according to footnote 2 of the opinion, was the fact that the bank executives urged Ms. Carter and a co-beneficiary not to sell their stock but to borrow from the bank to pay the estate tax. The two borrowed the money giving personal guarantees and they remain liable on those guarantees. So they not only lost all of the value that they thought the stock had but they owe money (lots of it) to boot. [I doubt they found much solace in the successful prosecution of the person who caused the devaluation.]
Such a turn of events could put someone in a tailspin that might cause some delays. The IRS did not argue that Ms. Carter was wrong in her assertion that she suffered from some unspecified medical impairment that kept her from acting. It essentially argued that this did not matter because the taxpayer was the estate and not an individual. It also did not matter that the stock may have been worthless at the time the estate reported it without knowing of the actions that devalued the stock. What mattered was that the refund claim came too late.
Footnote 6 of the opinion collects the case law on this issue which uniformly holds that the financial disability must belong to the taxpayer and not to some third person. Prior cases on this point include Murdock v. United States, 103 Fed. C. 389 (2012); Alternative Entm’t Enters., Inc. v. United States, 458 F. Supp. 2d 424 (E.D. Mich. 2006), aff’d 277 F. App’x 590 (6th Cir. 2008); Brosi v. Commissioner, 120 T.C. 5, 10 (2003) as well as others I will not detail here. I wrote a law review article several years ago detailing holes in the financial disability statute. This is another hole. I cannot say that Ms. Carter would win her case but if financial disability did keep her from filing her claim on time, and if she can prove the claim was valid, this seems like a worthy exception for Congress to make to allow a taxpayer to obtain the return of money that should not have come to the IRS in the first place. Until the statute changes to include a broader class of taxpayers with financial disability cases like this will continue to occur occasionally. Financial disability cases do not present large numbers and courts can sort through the disability claims. I would let them do it.
The court also spent time parsing its jurisdiction. This issue matters because nonjurisdictional filing deadlines are subject to waiver, forfeiture, estoppel, and, usually, equitable tolling. The Supreme Court in Brockamp v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997) (remember it was Brockamp that caused Congress to pass IRC 6511(h) creating financial disability in the first place) merely held that equitable tolling doesn’t apply in 6511 cases, but the Court did not hold the other three defenses don’t apply. Brockamp says nothing about whether the filing deadline is jurisdictional. Indeed, the opinion doesn’t even contain the words “jurisdiction” or “jurisdictional”. Dalm v. United States, 498 U.S. 596 (1990) does contain language calling 6511 rules jurisdictional, but it goes on to reason that it is so because:
Under settled principles of sovereign immunity, the United States, as sovereign, is immune from suit, save as it consents to be sued . . . and the terms of its consent to be sued in any court define that court’s jurisdiction to entertain the suit. A statute of limitations requiring that a suit against the Government be brought within a certain time period is one of those terms.494 U.S. at 608 (cleaned up)
That statement is the reverse of good law today. SOLs now are almost never jurisdictional.
The Supreme Court has not given much thought to the 1990 Dalm opinion in recent years, for if the Court did, the 1997 Brockamp opinion (which doesn’t even mention Dalm) could have been one sentence long: “Since jurisdictional filing deadlines are never subject to equitable tolling, and since, in Dalm, we called the 6511 filing deadlines jurisdictional, those deadlines cannot be equitably tolled.”
Since the district court opinion did not involve the DOJ waiving or forfeiting the right to raise the untimeliness issue, nor did it involve facts that might cause estoppel, it really did not matter in Ms. Carter’s case whether the filing deadline is jurisdictional.
The district court has serious doubts that 6511 noncompliance arguments go to its jurisdiction. The court in the text relies on statements in Dalm making 6511 jurisdictional, but is sufficiently concerned that 6511 is not, that it goes on to decide the underlying merits against the taxpayer (not sure why it has to do this). Then, the court writes a long footnote about why 6511 might not be jurisdictional:
Supreme Court jurisprudence no longer accords similar limitations periods jurisdictional status. In United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 135 S. Ct. 1625 (2015), the Supreme Court held the limitations period for filing a Federal Tort Claims Act case is not jurisdictional. The Court determined “the Government must clear a high bar to establish that a statute of limitations is jurisdictional.” Id. at 1632. “In recent years, [the Court has] repeatedly held that procedural rules, including time bars, cabin a court’s power only if Congress has ‘clearly state[d]’ as much.” Id. (citation omitted). “Time and again, [the Court has] described filing deadlines as ‘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. (citing Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428, 435 (2011)).
Therefore, to “ward off profligate use of the term ‘jurisdiction,’ [the Court has] adopted a ‘readily administrable bright line’ for determining whether to classify a statutory limitation as jurisdictional. . . . [Courts should] inquire whether Congress has ‘clearly state[d]’ that the rule is jurisdictional; absent such a clear statement, . . . ‘courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.’” Sebelius v. Auburn Reg’l Med. Ctr., 568 U.S. 145, 153 (2013). As a result, the Court has “repeatedly held that filing deadlines ordinarily are not jurisdictional. . . .” Id. at 154.
Even more recently, the Supreme Court reconfirmed that a statute’s limitations period primarily pertains to claim-processing, not subject matter jurisdiction. See Fort Bend Cty., Texas v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 1843, 1849 (2019) (“The Court has therefore stressed the distinction between jurisdictional prescriptions and nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules, which ‘seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified times.’” (quoting Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428, 435 (2011))); Nutraceutical Corp. v. Lambert, 139 S. Ct. 710 (2019) (contrasting nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules subject to waiver by an opposing party with court procedural rules which clearly foreclose a flexible equitable tolling approach). “If a time prescription governing the transfer of adjudicatory authority from one Article III court to another appears in a statute, the limitation [will rank as] jurisdictional; otherwise, the time specification fits within the claim-processing category.” Hamer v. Neighborhood Hous. Servs. of Chicago, 583 U.S. at ___, 138 S. Ct. 13, 20 (2017).
Section 6511(a)’s filing deadlines appear to fall within the ambit of a claim-processing rule rather than a jurisdictional prerequisite. As similarly countenanced in Kwai Fun Wong, § 6511(a)’s “text speaks only to a claim’s timeliness, not to a court’s power.” 135 S. Ct. at 1632; see § 6511 (describing the filing deadlines for administrative claims for tax credits and refunds). Section 6511 “‘does not speak in jurisdictional terms or refer in any way to the jurisdiction of the district courts.’” Kwai Fun Wong, 135 S. Ct. at 1633 (citations omitted). Furthermore, § 6511’s limitations periods fall in a different section of the Internal Revenue Code from the jurisdiction granting provisions. See28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1); 26 U.S.C. § 7422.
The court cognizes the Supreme Court referred to § 6511’s time limits in jurisdictional terms in Dalm, In Dalm, the Court held the district court did not have jurisdiction over a suit seeking a refund of gift tax, interest, and penalties when the plaintiff did not file suit within the limitations period. Id. at 601. The Eleventh Circuit followed Dalm’s reasoning in dismissing a refund suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Wachovia Bank, N.A. v. United States, 455 F.3d 1261, 1268-69 (11th Cir. 2006). However, the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence portrays that courts “once used [the term “jurisdiction”] in a ‘less than meticulous’ manner.” Nutraceutical, 139 S. Ct. at 714 n. 3 (citing Hamer, 583 U.S. at ___, 138 S. Ct. at 21; Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 454 (2004)). “Those earlier statements did not necessarily signify that the rules at issue were formally ‘jurisdictional’ as [the Court uses] that term today.” Id.
Nevertheless, the structural interpretation of § 6511(a) as a claims-processing rule may not overcome its prior construal as a jurisdictional provision. See Fort Bend, 139 S. Ct. at 1849 (The “Court has stated it would treat a requirement as ‘jurisdictional’ when ‘a long line of Supreme Court decisions left undisturbed by Congress’ attached a jurisdictional label to the prescription.”) Furthermore, notwithstanding the shadow cast on § 6511(a) as a jurisdictional provision, its limitations period applies to this action as it prescribes mandatory filing deadlines subject to a narrow tolling provision. See Nutraceutical, 139 S. Ct. at __ (“The mere fact that a time limit lacks jurisdictional force, however, does not render it malleable in every respect. Though subject to waiver and forfeiture, some claim-processing rules are “mandatory” — that is, they are “‘unalterable’” if properly raised by an opposing party.” (citing Manrique v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1266, 1272 (2017); see also Kontrick, 540 U.S. at 456; Eberhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 12, 19 (2005) (per curiam) (A claim-processing rule manifests as “mandatory” when a court must enforce the rule if a party “properly raise[s]” it.). Therefore, Defendant properly raised the limitations period prescribed by 26 U.S.C. § 6511(a), and it applies whether it is designated as a jurisdictional or claim processing rule.
The Carter case provides much thought and analysis on the jurisdictional issue as it applies to refund claims. As you can see from this discussion, it does not simply stop at Brockamp. While the discussion does not help the taxpayer here, it may help to guide future taxpayers seeking to understand the possibilities for pursuing an otherwise late claim.