In addition to providing analysis and updates on pending tax appeals, this blog is intended to serve as a resource where readers can easily access the briefs and relevant opinions in those cases. Because of the press of business and other reasons, the posting of a couple of the opinions in cases we have discussed has slipped through the cracks. So we are providing links to those opinions here, even though the opinions are long past the point of “breaking news”:
The Second Circuit’s decision in TIFD (“Castle Harbour”), once again reversing the district court and holding that the banks did not qualify as partners under § 704(e)(1), and that the government could impose a penalty on the taxpayer for substantial understatement of income.
The Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Calloway, affirming the Tax Court and holding that the transaction in question was properly treated as a sale, not a loan, and upholding the penalties. The decision approves the multi-factor approach employed by the Tax Court majority, and notes infirmities in the alternative analytical approaches suggested by Judges Halpern and Holmes in their respective concurring opinions.
The Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (linked below). The opinion was eventually entitled NFIB v. Sebelius, although we had covered it using the caption of one of the companion cases, HHS v. Florida. The discussion of the Anti-Injunction Act, the issue that was covered in the blog, is found at pages 11-15 of the Court’s slip opinion. Our prior coverage (linked here only so that I can show off my against-the-mainstream prediction that the legislation would survive) can be found here and here. The majority’s key holding that the individual mandate could be upheld as an exercise of the Taxing Power is found at pp. 33-44.
As we previously reported, Day 1 of last week’s oral argument in the Supreme Court on the challenges to the health care legislation focused on whether the Anti-Injunction Act bars the lawsuits. The excitement about the argument on that issue was largely gone as soon as it was over, because it was fairly apparent that the Court will not find the Act to be an obstacle to reaching the merits of the health care dispute. Indeed, Robert Long, the lawyer who argued as amicus for that position, has predicted that he will not get a single vote. Certainly the argument was almost completely forgotten by the next day when the Court’s questioning on the constitutionality of the individual mandate led many observers to conclude that the mandate will be invalidated. (For the record, my opinion is that the health care legislation will survive, but that topic is beyond the scope of this blog.) Still, the Court’s decision to reject the applicability of the Anti-Injunction Act could have precedential significance, depending on the rationale that the Justices use. Therefore, we briefly recount the argument here with that issue in mind.
There were two basic arguments made for holding that the health care lawsuits could proceed despite the Anti-Injunction Act. The primary argument was that the Act by its terms did not apply — that is, that for a variety of reasons the “penalty” for failing to obtain health insurance is not a “tax” within the meaning of the Anti-Injunction Act. Both the challengers to the health care legislation and the United States took this position. Preliminary to this statutory interpretation question, however, was the argument that the Anti-Injunction Act should not apply in this case — even if the health care penalty would ordinarily come within the ambit of the Anti-Injunction Act — because the government had waived the defense and urged that the lawsuits should proceed. The validity of that waiver argument turns on whether the Anti-Injunction Act is “jurisdictional,” meaning that it addresses a court’s jurisdiction or power to hear a case, as opposed to being a “claim processing rule.”
A court does not have the authority to create its own jurisdiction, even if both parties want it to hear the case. Thus, if a statute is “jurisdictional,” a court is obliged to examine jurisdiction on its own and to dismiss the case if it finds that the statutory conditions are not met. Conversely, if a statutory condition is not jurisdictional, then a party can waive satisfaction of that condition and the court can proceed to hear the case. (For example, many exhaustion requirements or statutes of limitations are not jurisdictional, see Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 130 S. Ct. 1237 (2010); Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 205-06 (2006)). In the health care litigation, although the United States wanted the lawsuits to proceed, it took the position that the Anti-Injunction Act is “jurisdictional” and therefore (in contrast to the challengers to the law) argued that the Court could proceed to hear the case only if it concluded that the Anti-Injunction Act by its terms did not apply to the “penalty” for failing to obtain insurance.
If the Court were to resolve the case on waiver grounds, concluding that the Anti-Injunction Act is not jurisdictional, that could create opportunities for taxpayers in future cases if a government attorney overlooks an Anti-Injunction Act defense. It also would give the government flexibility to assert the defense when it wants, but to allow cases like the health care challenge to go forward if the government determines that it wants a prompt answer. The government, however, is concerned about a holding that the Anti-Injunction Act is not jurisdictional, because courts are freer to adopt equitable exceptions to non-jurisdictional statutes.
At the oral argument, the Justices explored both possible grounds for resolving the issue. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito seemed the most interested in concluding that the Act is not jurisdictional and thus giving effect to the government’s waiver. Roberts described as the “biggest hurdle” to the Anti-Injunction Act argument a 1938 case in which the Court had gone ahead and decided an issue apparently barred by the Act after the government had waived its defense. When counsel responded that the case was no longer good law and pointed out that the Court had since repeatedly referred to the Act as “jurisdictional,” Alito forced him to concede that the Court had never actually held that the statute was “jurisdictional” in a case where that characterization would make a difference. Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor all joined in that line of questioning, pointing to similarly worded statutes or precedents that in Justice Sotomayor’s words indicated that “Congress has accepted that in the extraordinary case we will hear the case.”
As the argument progressed, however, it appeared less likely that a majority would coalesce around this position. Justice Breyer volunteered that he was inclined to agree that the Anti-Injunction Act is jurisdictional, but that he doubted it applied to the health care legislation. Sotomayor indicated that she thought this position, which is what was being espoused by the government, was the least problematic. Justice Ginsburg suggested that she sided with the position that the Act did not apply, observing that this conclusion would make it unnecessary to resolve the thornier “jurisdictional” question.
Although it is always hazardous to predict outcomes based on questions asked at oral argument, the most likely outcome appears to be that the majority of Justices will address the merits of the Anti-Injunction Act issue, rather than relying on the government’s waiver of the defense. If so, the decision will not foreclose courts in the future from applying the Anti-Injunction Act when the government has failed to raise the defense or deliberately chosen not to raise it.
A decision is expected in the last week of June, perhaps June 28, and will surely be overshadowed by the Court’s contemporaneous decision on the constitutionality of the health care legislation.
The Supreme Court is preparing to hold oral arguments on its long-awaited consideration of the constitutionality of the health care legislation. The arguments will cover four distinct issues in three different cases and occur over three days, March 26-28. The most prominent issue, of course, is whether the “individual mandate” requiring almost everyone to have health insurance is constitutional. Additional issues are “severability” (whether the entire law must be struck down if the individual mandate provision is unconstitutional or whether other portions of the law can survive) and whether the Medicaid expansion provisions of the law are impermissibly “coercive.”
But leading all of this off on March 26 in HHS v. Florida, No. 11-398, is a tax issue – whether the challenges to the law are barred by Code section 7421, the Tax Anti-Injunction Act. Former Solicitor General Paul Clement is slated to argue the other three issues for the challengers to the law, but has left the tax issue for someone else. He remarked (tongue-in-cheek, I believe) that the Court was playing a “practical joke” on the public in its scheduling and that the folks who wait in line all night to attend the first day of arguments on March 26 are going to end up sitting through “the most boring jurisdictional stuff one can imagine.” Tax lawyers might disagree (or they might not). Either way, the section 7421 issue could hijack the case and have the effect of prolonging the uncertainty over the constitutionality of the law for several more years.
The issue is simple on its face. Section 7421 forbids federal courts from maintaining any suit “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax.” Rather, one generally must wait until the tax is imposed and then contest the liability through a refund claim or in defending against an enforcement proceeding. The individual mandate in the statute is enforced by imposing a “penalty” on individuals who are required to purchase insurance but fail to do so. The relevant provision is section 5000A of the Internal Revenue Code, which requires individuals to report on their tax return information about their compliance with the mandate and pay a penalty if necessary. That Code section also generally provides that the amounts owed are to be assessed and collected in the same manner as other penalties under the Code.
If the health insurance penalty is a “tax” subject to section 7421, then the current challenges to the mandate (which in essence are challenging the imposition of a penalty for failure to purchase insurance) are premature. Rather, the legality of the penalty would have to be contested after it is imposed, like other taxes. The individual mandate does not kick in until 2014, so an income tax return that self-reports penalty liability, thereby potentially triggering an assessment, would not be filed until 2015. The Fourth Circuit adopted this view and dismissed a suit challenging the health care statute, telling the plaintiffs to come back in a few years. Other circuits have disagreed, finding that, despite its presence in the Code and linkage to the assessment procedures for more conventional tax penalties (which are generally treated as “taxes”), the health care penalty has nothing to do with income tax and ought not to be governed by section 7421. Of course, the issue is not that simple. A concise and more nuanced summary of the respective arguments can be found in this article (see page eight) by our colleague George Hani.
One interesting sidelight to the Court’s consideration of this issue is that the Court had to appoint counsel to argue that section 7421 bars the suit. The challengers, of course, have argued all along that section 7421 is no bar. The government initially raised section 7421 as a defense, but later reversed course and abandoned that position because it did not want uncertainty over the legislation’s legality to linger. Thus, in the Supreme Court, both sides are arguing that section 7421 does not bar the lawsuit. The Court appointed Robert Long, an experienced Supreme Court practitioner, as an amicus curiae to brief and argue the position that section 7421 does bar the suit.
The oral argument on the morning of March 26 will proceed as follows: Robert Long, arguing as amicus for 40 minutes that the challenges are barred; Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, arguing for the government for 30 minutes that section 7421 does not bar the challenges, and Gregory Katsas, arguing for the challengers for 20 minutes also that section 7421 does not bar the challenges.
The Court has announced that a transcript and audio of the argument will be posted on its website by 2:00 that afternoon. We will be back sometime after that with some observations on the argument.
The Supreme Court briefs filed on this issue can be found here. The Court is likely to issue its decision during the last week of June.