Arguably the most important aspect of litigating a case in the Tax Court or in a refund forum is the timely filing of the petition or complaint. Absent timely filing, the court may not have jurisdiction and the case could be dismissed without the court ever reaching the substantive issues. On January 13, 2017, the Seventh Circuit joined several other circuit courts in confirming that the time for filing a petition in Tax Court is jurisdictional, not a claims processing rule.
In Tilden v. Commissioner, No. 15-3838 (available here), the taxpayer’s petition was mailed on the last day of the 90-day filing deadline. It was not stamped and bore no postmark; instead, a USPS print-at-home postage label was attached by legal staff, and it was delivered to the post office the same day. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) argued this was insufficient for timelymailing under the “mailbox rule” of Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 7502. The Tax Court disagreed with both parties about what section of the regulations applied, and used the date the envelope was entered into the postal service’s tracking system as the date of postmark and filing—which was two days late. Thus, the Tax Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction (available here).
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit raised sua sponte the issue of whether the filing deadline for a Tax Court petition is jurisdictional or a claims processing rule. The proper characterization of the filing deadline is extremely important. If the deadline is considered jurisdictional, then late filing automatically precludes the taxpayer from seeking relief in the Tax Court. But, the taxpayer may still pay the tax due, file a claim for refund with the IRS, and file a complaint in a refund forum (if the IRS denies or fails to timely act on the claim). On the other hand, if the deadline is a claims processing rule, the taxpayer’s options may be limited. Although the taxpayer that files a late petition might be able to demonstrate that the Tax Court should hear its case, if the court were to determine that the petition was untimely, it arguably would be required under the Code to enter a decision on the merits for the IRS, rather than a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction. That result eliminates the alternative refund forum.
In Tilden, the Seventh Circuit considered the Supreme Court’s current approach in non-tax cases for determining whether deadlines are jurisdictional or claims processing rules, but decided that the language of the relevant statute and the body of Tax Court and circuit court precedent compelled a finding that the 90-day deadline is jurisdictional. Finding it “imprudent to reject that body of precedent” under principles of stare decisis, the Seventh Circuit followed the Tax Court and other circuit court precedent. The Seventh Circuit further disagreed with the Tax Court’s holding on the relevant postmark regulations to conclude that the petition was timely filed.
Practice Point: The Seventh Circuit’s opinion is a good reminder as to the potential consequences of missing a filing deadline. Taxpayers (and their lawyers) should not wait until the last minute to file their petitions and should also take care to ensure they use the proper method of delivery. The “unnecessary risk [of] waiting until the last day” carries with it potentially serious consequences that can, and should, be avoided.