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Bankruptcy Court Limits Prior Supreme Court Decision on Equitable Tolling

Posted on Aug. 17, 2018

Regular readers of the blog know that the tax clinic at Harvard has been pushing to break down jurisdictional barriers and have equitable tolling applied to allow taxpayers to get into court in situations in which the government has caused, or partially caused, them to miss the filing deadline. The IRS vigorously opposes our requests just as it vigorously opposed the equitable tolling request in the cases leading to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brockamp v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).

Sometimes the IRS wants to use equitable tolling. In 2002, it won a major victory in the Supreme Court in the case of Young v. United States, 535 U.S. 43 in which the court found that the time period for an income tax liability to have priority status could be tolled by a prior bankruptcy case. The decision significantly expanded the possible life of priority status for claims of the IRS. Priority status not only assists the IRS in recovering from the bankruptcy estate but makes the tax non-dischargeable because of the interplay of the priority and discharge provisions. In Clothier v. IRS, No. 18-00104 (Bankr. W.D. Tenn. 2018) the bankruptcy court held that Young no longer applies because of changes to the law in 2005.

I feel confident that the IRS will appeal this decision; however, the decision has nationwide implications and will no doubt cause enterprising bankruptcy lawyers, who previously did not think that the changes to the bankruptcy law in 2005 changed the outcome in the Young case, to litigate this issue around the country. When coupled with Internal Revenue Service v. Murphy, a case of first impression from the First Circuit issued on June 7, 2018, this might keep the IRS and the U.S. Attorneys representing the IRS busy at the end of a high number of bankruptcy cases obtaining rulings from the bankruptcy court regarding discharge. Our post on Murphy can be found here.

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Bankruptcy code section 507(a)(8)(A) has three subparts describing the income taxes that achieve priority status in a bankruptcy case. Subpart (i) describes income taxes for which the tax return is due within three years, including extensions, of the bankruptcy petition. This subpart would make a debtor’s taxes for the years 2017, 2016 and 2015 entitled to priority status if the debtor filed bankruptcy today because the returns for those years were due on April 15, 2018; April 15, 2017 and April 15, 2016, and each due date is within three years of today’s date. If the debtor obtained an extension to file the 2014 tax return, the due date for that return would have been October 15, 2015 and that due date is also with three years of today’s date. If the debtor did not obtain an extension to file the 2014 return, the due date of April 15, 2015 is more than three years from today’s date and any liability for that year would not meet the priority test imposed by subpart (i).

Because the ability to assess income taxes, and therefore to collect income taxes, involve the deficiency procedure which allows the taxpayer to delay the timing of the assessment by failing to file a return or declining to accept a proposed increase, Congress added two additional subparts to BC 507(a)(8)(A) to cover the eventuality that an assessment would not occur at or near the original due date for filing the return. The thinking behind the provisions for priority status for taxes was that the IRS should have a reasonable time to collect before a tax loses its priority status. It picked three years as the generally reasonable time but knew that the three year rule could be frustrated by certain taxpayer actions which is why it created subparts (ii) and (iii).

Subpart (ii) provides priority for taxes assessed within 240 days of the bankruptcy petition. I will come back to talk about the exceptions to subpart (ii) which form the basis for this decision but first want to explain how it works. A typical case in which subpart (ii) would apply involves a liability assessed after a Tax Court case or an extended examination. If the IRS audited the debtor’s 2013 return, it might be April 1, 2018 before the Tax Court rendered a decision regarding additional taxes for that year and the IRS made an assessment based on the decision. If the taxpayer filed bankruptcy today, the income tax liability for 2013 would not receive priority status based on subpart (i) because more than three years have passed since the due date of the return; however, today’s date is less than 240 days after the making of the additional assessment for 2013 causing subpart (ii) to bring this liability into priority status. Note that if the debtor had an outstanding liability stemming from the filing of his return because he did not include sufficient remittance, the liability related to the return would not have priority status because it would fail the tests of both (i) and (ii). It would be a general unsecured claim while the liability for the same tax period assessed as a result of the Tax Court decision would have priority status.

Subpart (iii) applies to those taxes which the IRS can still assess. Building on the prior example, assume that the debtor filed a Tax Court petition for 2013 but the Tax Court has not yet rendered a decision. The IRS cannot yet assess the taxes in the notice of deficiency. It has a priority claim for those taxes based on subpart (iii). It would not have priority status based on subpart (i) since more than three years has passed since the due date of the return nor would it have priority status based on subpart (ii) since there has been no assessment within 240 days of the filing of the bankruptcy petition. While subpart (iii) would appear to grant priority status for unfiled or fraudulent returns since the assessment period would remain open in those instances, an exception prevents the IRS from gaining priority status if the reason the statute of limitations on assessment remains open is due to an unfiled or fraudulent return. The discharge provisions will allow the IRS to continue collecting from the debtor after bankruptcy on this type of debt but the priority provisions prevent the IRS from gaining an advantage over other creditors from the property of the estate when the debtor’s bad actions with respect to taxes created the problem.

Circling back to subpart (ii) and the issue in Clothier it is necessary to look at the exceptions that exist in that subpart. Prior to 2005, it contained an exception in the case of a pending offer in compromise which extended the 240 day period if an offer was pending during that time period for the period the offer was pending plus 30 days. In the 2005 bankruptcy legislation, Congress added a second exception which provides “any time during which a stay of proceedings against collections was in effect in a prior case under this title during that 240 day period, plus 90 days…”

The bankruptcy court here finds that the passage of this subsection, passed after the decision in Young, shows Congressional intent to overrule Young and to limit the application of the tolling of the priority period to the circumstance prescribed in the new subsection in subpart (ii). If correct, this means that the tolling permitted by Young would not apply to extend the time in subpart (i) which is the time period on which the IRS was relying in Clothier.

Here, the debtors filed the bankruptcy case at issue in the opinion on September 4, 2013. The tax years at issue in the discharge proceeding are 2008 and 2009 for which the debtors had extensions to file until October 15 of year of the respective years. Debtors filed a prior bankruptcy petition on January 19, 2012 which was dismissed on June 5, 2013.

The bankruptcy court quickly and correctly found that the 2009 liability was entitled to priority status under BC 507(a)(8)(A)(i) because the filing of the current bankruptcy fell within three years of the extended due date for the 2009 return, viz., the return was due on October 15, 2010 which was less than three years prior to September 4, 2013. (The bankruptcy filing was ill timed if motivated by eliminating this tax debt absent consideration of the effect of Young.)

A very different result, however, applies with respect to 2008. The due date for the 2008 return, as extended, clearly falls outside of the three year period in BC 507(a)(8)(A)(i). Here, the IRS filed a priority claim relying on Young which tolled the time period due to the prior bankruptcy filing. The prior bankruptcy existed long enough to cause the new bankruptcy to fall within the three year period. Because of the apparent codification of the Young decision in BC 507(a)(8)(A)(ii), the bankruptcy court finds that Young no longer helps the IRS when it relies on subpart (i). Since the IRS does not receive the additional tolling, the 2008 tax debt does not achieve priority status and since it was not classified as a priority debt it was discharged in the bankruptcy case.

I have not looked at the brief filed by the IRS in this case to discover what arguments it makes that equitable tolling should continue in the face of the statue change. The statute change was driven by the bankruptcy commission created in the 1994 bankruptcy legislation. That commission created a tax advisory panel which recommended several changes to the bankruptcy code to make it better align with the tax code. The recommendations of the tax advisory panel and the bankruptcy commission were wrapped up a few years before the decision in the Young case but, after the IRS victory in Young no one went back to the proposed legislation to remove the change to subpart (ii). Now we will find out if the bankruptcy court’s seemingly logical interpretation of the statutory change effectively overrules Young and limits the IRS to the new statutory provision.

The reason for tolling the time period still exists when the IRS relies on subpart (i) to achieve priority status. The tax clinic at Harvard has some experience with arguing equitable tolling. We will be thinking about filing an amicus brief on behalf of the IRS. Given our track record on this issue, it would be the kiss of death.

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