But I Complied with the Mailbox Rule on my Refund Request… You Still Missed the SOL

In a recent opinion handed down by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, the Court dismissed the taxpayer’s suit for a refund on the basis of lack of jurisdiction. The Court found the taxpayer failed to file the suit for a refund within the two year deadline set forth by §6532(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code (Any reference to a Section or § is to a Section of the Internal Revenue Code unless otherwise noted). Patel v. IRS, 124 AFTR 2d 2019-XXXX (DC NJ 2019).1

When it comes to timely filing in tax litigation, many people refer to the so-called “Mailbox Rule” of §7502 which states that in general, a return, document, or payment received by the IRS, including documents filed with the Tax Court, will be considered to have been filed on the date of the postmark. We have discussed the “Mailbox Rule” and its application, including traps and pitfalls, in recent articles found here (https://esdlawfirm.com/sol-shutdown/) and here (https://esdlawfirm.com/curtiss-mailbox-rule/#easy-footnote-bottom-3-786). But does the “Mailbox Rule” apply to a suit for refund in United States District Court? Unfortunately for Mr. Patel, he learned the hard way that it does not. In fact, the Treasury Regulations specifically state that, for application of the “Mailbox Rule”, the term “document” as used in §7502 “does not include any document filed in any court other than the Tax Court.”2

Quick Run Through of Options to Dispute a Tax Assessment or a Refund Suit

It might be helpful for this article to have a short discussion of the venue options a taxpayer has to dispute a tax assessment in court and/or initiate a suit for a refund in court.3 In general, a taxpayer has three venue options4 in which to challenge the IRS. First, the taxpayer can challenge an IRS assessment in Tax Court. This is the only option that allows the taxpayer to contest the tax assessment without first paying the assessment. The second and third venue options are suits for a refund, often referred to as “pay-to-play” venues, and include not only suits for a refund of IRS assessments paid but also suits for a refund for overpayment of taxes during the tax year. Mr. Patel’s suit for a refund was the latter. Once the taxes are paid, whether due to an assessment or an overpayment, the taxpayer may sue the United States for a refund in either a United States District Court or the United States Court of Federal Claims. As discussed by my colleagues in the articles cited above, the Tax Court is a special court of limited jurisdiction established under Article I of the United States Constitution and thus it has its own statutes and rules that apply to it. But for the second and third venue options where the taxpayer sues for a refund, U.S. District Courts and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims are governed by their own separate statues and rules. Unfortunately, as discussed below, this proved fatal to Mr. Patel’s suit for a refund.

Facts

Mr. Patel claimed that he overpaid his 2011 taxes and sought a claim for a refund of $4,171.00. Mr. Patel filed his 2011 tax return on which he initially claimed the refund on October 8, 2015, nearly 3 years and 5 months past the due date of April 15, 2012. Mr. Patel alleged that he had properly filed an extension which extended his due date to October 15, 2012. Thus, his return was filed within 3 years of the due date. The IRS had no record of Mr. Patel’s extension.

On December 17, 2015, The IRS issued a Notice of Claim Disallowance to Mr. Patel on December 17, 2015. The Notice informed Mr. Patel that he could file an administrative appeal within the IRS or file suit in federal court within two years after the date of the Notice. Mr. Patel filed his suit for a refund with the clerk of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey on December 20, 2017, three days past the two-year deadline stated in the Notice of Claim of Disallowance. The IRS filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which alleged that the Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction due to the claim being filed with clerk of the Court 3 days past the two year deadline Mr. Patel had to file his claim.

Analysis

A suit for a refund such as that filed by Mr. Patel is a lawsuit against the United States of America. In general, the US government enjoys sovereign immunity and may only be sued to the extent and under the conditions that the it has waived such sovereign immunity.5 When it comes to tax refund suits such as this one, the US government has waived such sovereign immunity but has placed time limits on such suits pursuant to the statutes discussed below.

Pursuant to §6532(a)(1), a suit for a refund must be filed within “2 years from the date of mailing by certified mail or registered mail by the Secretary to the taxpayer of a notice of the disallowance of the part of the claim to which the suit or proceeding relates.”

As the Court stated, “civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court,”6 and “filing by mail is not complete until the complaint is delivered to an officer of the court who is authorized to receive it.”7 While the Court sympathized with Mr. Patel, the Court concluded that the § 6532(a)(1) deadline is a rigid one and it is not subject to equitable tolling on sympathetic or other grounds.8 The Court entertained Mr. Patel’s evidence that the clerk could have received the complaint earlier based on a USPS website price calculator Mr. Patel submitted, but concluded that the clerk’s stamp is conclusive evidence of the date of receipt The USPS printout does not suffice to raise a question of fact on this jurisdictional issue. Accordingly, as to the filing of the complaint within the 2-year § 6532(a)(1) deadline, the Court granted the IRS’ Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Although the Court dismissed the case based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court went on to discuss whether the refund claim which made on Mr. Patel’s 2011 tax return which was filed on October 8, 2015 was even timely filed.  Mr. Patel argued that the refund claim was timely because it was filed within three years after the six-month extension of his deadline to file his 2011 tax return as required by § 6511(a) and (b)(2)(A).

Mr. Patel’s tax return was due on April 15, 2012, although he claimed to have submitted a six month extension which would have extended the date until October 15, 2012. By that reckoning, October 8, 2015, the date he finally filed the refund claim/tax return, would be within the three-year period under § 6511(b)(2)(A). The government records contained no entry for Mr. Patel of a six month extension for his 2011 tax return. Accordingly, the Court concluded that an evidentiary hearing would be needed to decide this issue were it not moot due to the dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1).

Conclusion

The overriding takeaway here is that the “Mailbox Rule” does not apply to a suit for a refund in United States District Courts or the United States Court of Federal Claims. Unfortunately, Mr. Patel found out the hard way that different rules, statutes, and deadlines apply to different avenues of disputing a tax assessment or a refund claim. Had this case been a tax assessment and had Mr. Patel been filing a Petition to Tax Court, he would have made the filing deadline pursuant to the “Mailbox Rule” as he did in fact mail his complaint the day before the due date. But such was not the case as Mr. Patel was not in Tax Court but rather the United States District Court  filing a suit against the United States government for a refund. In Mr. Patel’s case, the “Mailbox Rule” had no bearing and could not save him. Taxpayers should always be aware of the different rules, statutes, and deadlines that may apply to their particular case and circumstances and make sure not to run afoul of them.

Footnotes

  1. Note that while the case is styled with the IRS as the defendant, both parties agreed during court proceedings that the proper defendant is the United States of America and the Court has directed the clerk correct the caption.
  2. Treas. Reg. §301.7502-1(b)(a)(iii).
  3. Note there are numerous administrative options and channels, some of which may be required, prior to being able to go to court. Such administrative options and channels are not discussed here.
  4. Technically there are four options, with the fourth being the United States Bankruptcy Court which is outside the scope of this article.
  5. Price v. U.S., 174 US 373 (1899); See also Schillinger v. U.S., 155 US 163 (1894).
  6. Fed. R. Civ. P. 3.
  7. Wiss v. Weinberger, 415 F. Supp. 293, 294 n.3 (E.D. Pa. 1976).
  8. RHI Holdings, Inc. v. U.S., 142 F.3d 1459 (Fed. Cir. 1998).