U.S. v. Brockamp, Administrator of the Estate of Mcgill, Deceased (95-1225), 519 U.S. 347 (1997)
[ Breyer ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 95-1225. Argued December 3, 1996 -- Decided February 18, 1997


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 §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 §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 §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 indifferent 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 §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 70 F. 3d 120, reversed.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


* Together with United States v. Scott, also on certiorari to the same court.