Guest poster Carl Smith brings us up to date on the latest in developments relating to courts reconsidering whether certain time limits in the Internal Revenue Code are jurisdictional. Les
Recently, a panel of the Seventh Circuit hearing the appeal of Tilden v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-188, sua sponte, at oral argument raised the question whether a failure to file a deficiency petition in the Tax Court within the 90-day period set out in section 6213(a) is still a jurisdictional defect in light of non-tax Supreme Court case law since 2004 that has generally limited jurisdictional requirements to those involving personal and subject matter jurisdiction, not “claims processing rules”, such as filing timing requirements. My post on the October 6 Tilden oral argument can be found here. In an unpublished opinion issued by another panel of the Seventh Circuit on November 1, in Gillespie v United States, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 19604, affg. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12891 (E.D. Wisc. 2016), the panel speculated (but did not decide) that the requirement in section 7422(a) to file an administrative refund claim before bringing a refund lawsuit may also no longer be a jurisdictional requirement under that same Supreme Court case law.
This post is to explain the facts of Gillespie and the panel’s non-jurisdictional thinking. It is also to report how the Gillespie opinion scared the DOJ enough into filing, on November 10, a motion for leave to file a supplemental brief in Tilden laying out in detail, for the first time, the government’s reasons for believing that the deficiency filing period is still jurisdictional. The Tilden panel immediately granted this unexpected motion, to which the proposed brief was attached, and directed the taxpayer to file his own supplemental brief on the jurisdictional question by November 28.
The Gillespies initially filed a joint income tax return for 2009 reporting $82,499 of wages from a private employer on which they calculated the tax as $5,145, all of which had apparently been withheld. I am not sure why, but by April 2013, the taxpayers had been forced to pay a total of $13,653 in tax, penalties, and interest towards the 2009 year. At that point, the taxpayers filed an amended return for 2009 showing their wages, income, and tax all as $0. They took the position, apparently, that only employees of the U.S. government had reportable wages, not employees of private employers. So, they sought a refund of the entire $13,653.
The IRS refused to process the amended return, so the Gillespies filed suit in district court for the refund. There, the DOJ moved under FRCP 12(b)(1) to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that no valid refund claim had been filed, and that Congress only waived sovereign immunity under section 7422(a) for refund lawsuits after a taxpayer first files a refund claim.
Gillespie District Court Ruling
The district court held that section 7422(a)’s requirement for a refund claim to have been filed before a refund suit is maintained is not a jurisdictional requirement. It wrote (at footnote 2):
While Congress can create statutory limitations on jurisdiction, such as prerequisites to suit, “when Congress does not rank a statutory limitation on coverage as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.” Arbaugh v. Y & H corp., 546 U.S. 500, 516 (2006). The statute at issue here, which waives sovereign immunity in taxpayer suits but requires taxpayers to first file a claim with the IRS, contains no language suggesting that this requirement is jurisdictional. 26 U.S.C. § 7422(a).
Arbaugh is one of the line of recent Supreme Court opinions that has cut back on the use of the word “jurisdictional”. The district court in Gillespie said that a defense of a lack of a waiver of sovereign immunity is a defense on the merits. The court then converted the motion to dismiss into one under FRCP 12(b)(6) to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. The court then cited Seventh Circuit case law (relying indirectly on one of the factors in Beard v. Commissioner, 82 T.C. 766, 779 (1984)) requiring that any refund claim or tax return must evince an honest and genuine endeavor to satisfy the law. Since the legal position taken by the taxpayers on the amended return reflected a long-rejected tax protestor argument, the court held that the amended return did not evince an honest and genuine endeavor to satisfy the law, and, thus, the taxpayers had failed to file a refund claim before bringing suit. The court granted the motion to dismiss.
Gillespie Seventh Circuit Ruling
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that no refund claim had been filed before suit had been brought because the purported amended return did not evince an honest and genuine endeavor to satisfy the law. While affirming the district court’s dismissal of the suit for failure to comply with section 7422(a)’s requirement, the court of appeals dodged the issue of whether the dismissal was properly on the merits or should have been for lack of jurisdiction. The Seventh Circuit wrote:
The Gillespies do not respond to the government’s renewed argument that § 7422(a) is jurisdictional, though we note that the Supreme Court’s most recent discussion of § 7422(a) does not describe it in this manner, see United States v. Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Co., 553 U.S. 1, 4-5, 11-12 (2008). And other recent decisions by the Court construe similar prerequisites as claims-processing rules rather than jurisdictional requirements, see, e.g., United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 135 S. Ct. 1625, 1632-33 (2015) (concluding that administrative exhaustion requirement of Federal Tort Claims Act is not jurisdictional); Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 157 (2010) (concluding that Copyright Act’s registration requirement is not jurisdictional); Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 504 (2006) (concluding that statutory minimum of 50 workers for employer to be subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not jurisdictional). These developments may cast doubt on the line of cases suggesting that § 7422(a) is jurisdictional. See, e.g., United States v. Dalm, 494 U.S. 596, 601-02 (1990); Greene-Thapedi v. United States, 549 F.3d 530, 532-33 (7th Cir. 2008); Nick’s Cigarette City, Inc. v. United States, 531 F.3d 516, 520-21 (7th Cir. 2008).
Supplemental DOJ Brief in Tilden
As I noted in my prior post on Tilden, the DOJ there had not briefed the issue of whether the time period in which to file a deficiency petition in the Tax Court was jurisdictional under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law on the meaning of “jurisdictional”. Counsel had incorrectly assumed that all they had to show was that the filing of the deficiency petition was or was not timely under the timely-mailing-is-timely-filing regulations under section 7502.
But, the panel of the Seventh Circuit in Tilden (which consisted of different judges from the panel in Gillespie), sua sponte, at oral argument, raised the jurisdictional question and was surprised that counsel in the case were not prepared to discuss it. In my prior post, I mentioned that the day after oral argument, the DOJ filed a short letter setting out its position that the deficiency petition filing period is still jurisdictional under the recent Supreme Court case law. I linked to that letter in my post on Tilden. But, this initial letter triggered off three more short letters back and forth between the parties on the issue – all filed after my post.
According to the DOJ, the opinion in Gillespie on November 1 triggered its concern that a fuller explanation of the government’s position as to why the deficiency filing period was jurisdictional was in order. So, without warning (and apparently without even contacting the taxpayer’s attorney), on November 10, the DOJ moved in Tilden to file a 24-page supplemental brief on the issue, a copy of which the DOJ attached to its motion. Without asking the taxpayer’s attorney whether there was an objection to the motion, the Seventh Circuit immediately granted the motion and directed the taxpayer to file a responding supplemental brief by November 28.
In my post on Tilden, I mentioned a couple of things that suggest that the deficiency filing period (unlike the filing periods under sections 6015(e)(1)(A) and 6330(d)(1)) might still be jurisdictional, despite the recent non-tax Supreme Court case law. In particular, I mentioned (1) a possible res judicata problem (if the court would hold otherwise) with the application of section 7459(d) and (2) that Congress in 1998 had, in Committee reports, called the deficiency time period “jurisdictional”. It may be that the DOJ lawyers read my Tilden post, since their brief makes these two points — though the DOJ lawyers also present a few other arguments that I did not articulate.
Interestingly enough, in its supplemental brief, the DOJ does not argue that the first sentence of section 6213(a) that contains the filing period contains a “clear statement” that Congress wants the time period to be jurisdictional. Rather, the DOJ points to other sentences in section 6213(a) and other Tax Court provisions that suggest that the time period must be jurisdictional. I won’t belabor this post with the details of and possible responses to what the DOJ argues, but suffice it to say that I can construct some responses that I suspect Mr. Tilden will present. I don’t consider this a slam dunk issue for either side.
Finally, once again, the DOJ, in its supplemental Tilden brief (as the Tax Court did in its opinion in Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. No. 15 (June 2, 2016)), put great weight on the long history of the Tax Court and Courts of Appeals holding that the deficiency filing period is jurisdictional. In one of Mr. Tilden’s short post-argument letters, he had written:
One of the issues in Guralnik was whether the 30-day period in 26 U.S.C. § 6330(d)(1) to file a Collection Due Process Tax Court petition is jurisdictional. The Tax Court’s primary reasoning for not abandoning its prior holdings indicating that §6213 is jurisdictional is the long history of the Tax Court’s own interpretation of the §6213(a) time period as jurisdictional, which the Tax Court thought it was entitled to follow under the stare decisis exception to the current jurisdictional rules set out in John R. Sand. But, that exception only applies for a long history of Supreme Court opinions, not opinions of lower courts. See Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 173-174 (Ginsburg, J., concurring, joined by Stevens and Breyer, JJ.) (“[I]n Bowles and John R. Sand & Gravel Co. . . . we relied on longstanding decisions of this Court typing the relevant prescriptions ‘jurisdictional.’ Amicus cites well over 200 opinions that characterize § 411(a) as jurisdictional, but not one is from this Court. . . .”; emphasis in original; citations omitted). Thus, the Tax Court’s reliance on stare decisis in Guralnik was misplaced.
In its Tilden supplemental brief, the DOJ responds:
But even if Justice Ginsburg’s concurring opinion supports the broad proposition taxpayer advances (and it is not clear that it does), the fact remains that a concurring opinion expressing the views of three justices does not represent a holding of the Court.
In the situation presented here, we think that the reasoning of the Court in John R. Sand & Gravel Co. supports our contention that I.R.C. § 6213(a)’s time limit is jurisdictional. As the Court explained in John R. Sand & Gravel Co., “re-examin[ing] … well-settled precedent” holding that a limitations period is jurisdictional would “threaten to substitute disruption, confusion, and uncertainty for necessary legal stability.” 552 U.S. at 139. Here, more than 35 years ago, the Fifth Circuit aptly described the state of the decisional law, observing that “[i]t cannot now be seriously questioned that the timely filing of the petition for redetermination is jurisdictional.” Johnson v. Commissioner, 611 F.2d 1015, 1018 (5th Cir. 1980). And, the absence of Supreme Court precedent confirming the decisional law of the courts of appeal only reflects the fact that the Supreme Court has had no reason to address the matter. As noted above, since the enactment of I.R.C. § 6213(a) in 1954, the twelve circuit courts that have jurisdiction to review decisions of the Tax Court have held that the statute’s time limit is jurisdictional. In these circumstances, there is no meaningful difference between the disruption that would occur from overturning this long-standing appellate court precedent and the disruption that would occur from overturning a Supreme Court precedent. Accordingly, under the Court’s reasoning in John R. Sand & Gravel Co., the long-standing and unanimous treatment of I.R.C. § 6213(a)’s time limit by the courts of appeals as jurisdictional should be sustained.
Furthermore, the Court in John R. Sand & Gravel also took into account the fact that “‘Congress remains free to alter what [the Court] ha[s] done.’” 552 U.S. at 139 (citation omitted). Here, Congress has had ample opportunity to amend I.R.C. § 6213(a) if it disagreed with the unanimous decisions of the judiciary. That it has not done so speaks volumes as to the correctness of those decisions.
All I can say is that I am grabbing a bowl of popcorn and, from the peanut gallery, I will be watching how the deficiency petition filing period jurisdictional fight comes out. Fascinating.
Editor’s Update: Carl’s comment to this post references Duggan v. Commissioner, which involves an appeal of a Tax Court dismissal of a CDP petition for lack of jurisdiction for being mailed to the Tax Court one day late. Here is the DOJ brief that Carl references in his comment.