TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Friday, October 13, 2017

Camp: Equitable Principles And Jurisdictional Time Periods

Bryan Camp (Texas Tech), Equitable Principles and Jurisdictional Time Periods, Part 1, 156 Tax Notes 1397 (Sept. 11, 2017):

Like other federal courts, the Tax Court is very, very cautious about not overstepping its Congressionally-given bounds. However, the Tax Court also strives to allow taxpayers their day in Court. These two impulses — the caution to stay within the statutory grants of power and the drive to decide cases on the merits — sometimes collide. When that happens, the Tax Court struggles in applying the relevant limitation period and, as a result, sometimes lies or cheats. It sometimes lies by claiming that it may not apply equitable principles to the relevant limitation period. It sometimes cheats by accomplishing the same result by manipulating facts to bring a case within the relevant time period. It sometimes does both at the same time.

This article addresses the lie. It reviews cases where the Supreme Court, and other courts, have indeed applied equitable doctrines to jurisdictional time periods. It describes the Supreme Court’s continuing but uncertain distinction between time periods that are jurisdictional and time periods that are “mere” claims-processing rules. Since we are stuck with that distinction, the article suggests that a better way to approach the distinction — plain language permitting — is to look at the purpose of the limitation period. That purpose will often help decide whether Congress has left room for courts to apply equitable principles to the limitations period. If there is room, the limitation period should not be labeled “jurisdictional.”

The article thus argues that, descriptively, courts allow equitable doctrines to toll supposedly jurisdictional time periods and, normatively, such application is desirable because the upside of helping taxpayers get judicial review of the merits of their controversy with the IRS outweighs the potential downsides.

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