Director, Center for Supreme Court AdvocacyNational Association of Attorneys General
This Report summarizes opinions issued on April 21, 2022 (Part I).
Opinion: Boechler v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service, 20-1472
The Court unanimously held that the deadline to petition the Tax Court for review of a collection due process determination is not jurisdictional, and can be equitably tolled in appropriate cases. Boechler, a North Dakota law firm, sought review from the Tax Court after losing its challenge to an IRS levy of its property in an administrative collection due process hearing. Boechler had 30 days to file its petition for review of the administrative decision, 26 U.S.C. §6330(d)(1), but missed the deadline by one day. The Tax Court dismissed the untimely petition for lack of jurisdiction and the Eighth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the filing deadline is jurisdictional (i.e., the Tax Court lacks authority to consider the late petition) and could not be equitably tolled. In an opinion by Justice Barrett, the Court reversed and remanded.
The Court explained that a procedural rule will not be treated as jurisdictional unless “Congress ‘clearly states’ that it is.” And while “Congress need not ‘incant magic words,’” it must be plain from the statute that “‘Congress imbued a procedural bar with jurisdictional consequences.’” Applying those principles here, the Court concluded that §6330(d)(1) lacks the clear statement needed to provide a jurisdictional bar. Under §6330(d)(1), “[a] person may, within 30 days of a determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter).” The only jurisdictional language in this provision, according to the Court, lies in the parenthetical, and whether or not that parenthetical language limits the Tax Court’s jurisdiction “depends on the meaning of ‘such matter.’” If “such matter” refers only to the immediately preceding phrase (“petition the Tax Court for review of such determination”), as Boechler contended, the filing deadline is independent of the jurisdictional grant. If, however, “such matter” refers farther back to the entire first clause of the sentence, as the Commissioner argued, then the Tax Court’s authority to hear the case is conditioned on meeting the filing deadline.
The Court concluded that the parenthetical language in §6330(d)(1) does not clearly mandate jurisdiction because “such matter” lacks a clear antecedent. Given the absence of a clear antecedent, the Court applied the “last-antecedent rule,” which considers the “nearest reasonable” antecedent. While “hardly a slam dunk,” the last antecedent in this case favored Boechler’s interpretation that the filing deadline is independent of jurisdiction. The Court also found persuasive that there were many plausible interpretations of §6330(d)(1), only one of which was jurisdictional, which lent itself to a finding that there is no clear statement of jurisdiction in the statute. And while §6330(d)(1) can plausibly be construed to condition the Tax Court’s jurisdiction on timely filing, that condition is not express and is found in a parenthetical, which typically conveys an aside or afterthought. The Court also found guidance in the enactment of other tax provisions around the same time as §6330(d)(1), that more clearly link jurisdictional grants to a filing deadline.
Given that Boechler still missed the filing deadline by a day, the Court considered whether the deadline is subject to equitable tolling. The Court observed that nonjurisdictional deadlines are presumptively subject to equitable tolling, and concluded that the Commissioner had not rebutted the presumption. Factors the Court pointed to included, but were not limited to, the unemphatic nature of the deadline in the statute; the “limited and ancillary role” of the deadline in the tax collection system; the “relatively small number of petitions at issue”; and the unlikelihood that equitable tolling “will appreciably add to the uncertainty already present in the process.” The Court remanded the matter to determine whether Boechler is entitled to equitable tolling.