Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
No. 95-1225. Argued December 3, 1996-Decided February 18, 1997 *fn*
After the taxpayer in each of these cases paid the Internal Revenue Service money he did not owe, he (or his representative) submitted an administrative refund claim several years past the end of the applicable filing period set forth in Section(s) 6511 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. Each taxpayer asked the court to extend the statutory period for an "equitable" reason, namely that he had a mental disability (senility or alcoholism) that caused the delay. Such a reason is not mentioned in Section(s) 6511, but, in both cases, the Ninth Circuit read the statute as if it contained an implied "equitable tolling" exception. It then applied equity principles to each case, found that those principles justified tolling the statutory period, and permitted the actions to proceed.
Held: Congress did not intend the "equitable tolling" doctrine to apply to Section(s) 6511's time (and related amount) limitations for filing tax refund claims. The taxpayers misplace their reliance on Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U. S. 89, 94-96. Even assuming, as they contend, that a tax refund suit and a private restitution suit are sufficiently similar to warrant asking Irwin's negatively phrased question-Is there good reason to believe that Congress did not want the equitable tolling doctrine to apply in a suit against the Government?-there are strong reasons for answering that question in the Government's favor. Section 6511 sets forth its time limitations in a highly detailed technical manner, reiterates them several times in different ways, imposes substantive limitations, and sets forth explicit exceptions to its basic time limits that do not include "equitable tolling." To read such tolling into these provisions would require one to assume an implied tolling exception virtually every time a number appears in Section(s) 6511, and would require the tolling of that section's substantive limitations on the amount of recovery-a kind of tolling for which there is no direct precedent. There are no counter-indications of congressional intent. Reading "equitable tolling" into the statute could create serious administrative problems by forcing the IRS to respond to, and perhaps litigate, large numbers of late claims. That fact suggests that, at the least, Congress would likely have wanted to decide explicitly whether, or just where and when, to expand the statute's limitations periods, rather than delegate to the courts a generalized power to do so wherever it appears that equity so requires. The taxpayers' counter-rebuttal, consisting primarily of a historical analysis of the tax refund provisions, actually helps the Government's argument. Pp. 2-7. 67 F. 3d 260 and
On Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The two cases before us raise a single question. Can courts toll, for non-statutory equitable reasons, the statutory time (and related amount) limitations for filing tax refund claims set forth in Section(s) 6511 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986? We hold that they cannot. These two cases present similar circumstances. In each case a taxpayer initially paid the Internal Revenue Service several thousand dollars that he did not owe. In each case the taxpayer (or his representative) filed an administrative claim for refund several years after the relevant statutory time period for doing so had ended. In each case the taxpayer suffered a disability (senility or alcoholism), which, he said, explained why the delay was not his fault. And in each case he asked the court to extend the relevant statutory time period for an "equitable" reason, namely the existence of a mental disability-a reason not mentioned in Section(s) 6511, but which, we assume, would permit a court to toll the statutory limitations period if, but only if, Section(s) 6511 contains an implied "equitable tolling" exception. See 4 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure Section(s) 1056 (2d ed. 1987 and Supp. 1996); see also Wolin v. Smith Barney, Inc., 83 F. 3d 847, 852 (CA7 1996) (defining equitable tolling).
In both cases, the Ninth Circuit read Section(s) 6511 as if it did contain an implied exception that would permit "equitable tolling." It then applied principles of equity to each case. It found those principles justified tolling the statutory time period. And it permitted the actions to proceed. 67 F. 3d 260 (1995); judgt. order reported at 70 F. 3d 120 (1995). All other Circuits that have considered the matter, however, have taken the opposite view. They have held that Section(s) 6511 does not authorize equitable tolling. See Amoco Production Co. v. Newton Sheep Co., 85 F. 3d 1464 (CA10 1996); Lovett v. United States, 81 F. 3d 143 (CA Fed. 1996); Webb v. United States, 66 F. 3d 691 (CA4 1995); Oropallo v. United States, 994 F. 2d 25 (CA1 1993) (per curiam); and Vintilla v. United States, 931 F. 2d 1444 (CA11 1991). We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict. And we conclude that the latter Circuits are correct.
The taxpayers rest their claim for equitable tolling upon Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U. S. 89 (1990), a case in which this Court considered the timeliness of an employee's lawsuit charging his Government employer with discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e et seq. The Court found the lawsuit untimely, but nevertheless tolled the limitations period. It held that the "rule of equitable tolling" applies "to suits against the Government, in the same way that it is applicable" to Title VII suits against private employers. 498 U. S., at 94-95. The Court went on to say that the "same rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling applicable to suits against private defendants should also apply to suits against the United States." Id., at 95-96. The taxpayers, pointing to Irwin, argue that principles of equitable tolling would have applied had they sued private defendants, e.g., had they sought restitution from private defendants for "Money Had and Received." See C. Keigwin, Cases in Common Law Pleading 220 (2d ed. 1934). They add that given Irwin's language, there must be a "presumption" that limitations periods in tax refund suits against the Government can be equitably tolled. And, they say, that "presumption," while "rebuttable," has not been rebutted. They conclude that, given Irwin, the Ninth Circuit correctly tolled the statutory period for "equitable" reasons.
In evaluating this argument, we are willing to assume, favorably to the taxpayers but only for argument's sake, that a tax refund suit and a private suit for restitution are sufficiently similar to warrant asking Irwin's negatively phrased question: Is there good reason to believe that Congress did not want the equitable tolling doctrine to apply? But see Flora v. United States, 362 U. S. 145, 153-154 (1960) (citing Curtis's Administratrix v. Fiedler, 2 Black 461, 479 (1863)) (distinguishing common-law suit against the tax collector from action of assumpsit for money had and received); George Moore Ice Cream Co. v. Rose, 289 U. S. 373, 382-383 (1933); see also Plumb, Tax Refund Suits Against Collectors of Internal Revenue, 60 Harv. L. Rev. 685, 687 (1947) (describing collector suit as a fiction solely designed to bring the Government into court). We can travel no further, however, along Irwin's road, for there are strong reasons for answering Irwin's question in the Government's favor.
Section 6511 sets forth its time limitations in unusually emphatic form. Ordinarily limitations statutes use fairly simple language, which one can often plausibly read as containing an implied "equitable tolling" exception. See, e.g., 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-16(c) (requiring suit for employment discrimination to be filed "[w]ithin 90 days of receipt of notice of final [EEOC] action . . . "). But Section(s) 6511 uses language that is not simple. It sets forth its limitations in a highly detailed technical manner, that linguistically speaking, cannot easily be read as containing implicit exceptions. Moreover, Section(s) 6511 reiterates its limitations several times in several different ways. Section 6511 says, first, that a
"[c]laim for . . . refund . . . of any tax . . . shall be filed by the taxpayer within 3 years from the time the return was filed or 2 years from the time the tax was paid, whichever of such periods expires the later, or if no return was filed . . . within 2 years from the time the tax was paid." 26 U. S. C. Section(s) 6511(a).
"[n]o credit or refund shall be allowed or made after the expiration of the period of limitation prescribed . . . unless a claim for . . . refund is filed . . . ...