Commissioner v. Lundy
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516 U.S. 235 (1996)
OCTOBER TERM, 1995
COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE v.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
No. 94-1785. Argued November 6, 1995-Decided January 17, 1996
Respondent Lundy and his wife withheld from their 1987 wages substantially more in federal income taxes than they actually owed for that year, but they did not file their 1987 tax return when it was due, nor did they file a return or claim a refund of the overpaid taxes in the succeeding 21/2 years. On September 26, 1990, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue mailed Lundy a notice of deficiency for 1987. Some three months later, the Lundys filed their joint 1987 tax return, which claimed a refund of their overpaid taxes, and Lundy filed a timely petition in the Tax Court seeking a redetermination of the claimed deficiency and a refund. The Tax Court held that where, as here, a taxpayer has not filed a tax return by the time a notice of deficiency is mailed, and the notice is mailed more than two years after the date on which the taxes are paid, a 2-year "look-back" period applies under 26 U. S. C. § 6512(b)(3)(B), and the court lacks jurisdiction to award a refund. The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that the applicable lookback period in these circumstances is three years and that the Tax Court had jurisdiction to award a refund.
Held: The Tax Court lacks jurisdiction to award a refund of taxes paid more than two years prior to the date on which the Commissioner mailed the taxpayer a notice of deficiency, if, on the date that the notice was mailed, the taxpayer had not yet filed a return. In these circumstances, the applicable look-back period under § 6512(b)(3)(B) is two years. Pp. 239-253.
(a) Section 6512(b)(3)(B) forbids the Tax Court to award a refund unless it first determines that the taxes were paid "within the [look-back] period which would be applicable under section 6511(b)(2) ... if on the date of the mailing of the notice of deficiency a claim [for refund] had been filed." Section 6511(b)(2)(A) in turn instructs the court to apply a 3-year look-back period if a refund claim is filed, as required by § 6511(a), "within 3 years from the time the return was filed," while § 6511(b)(2)(B) specifies a 2-year look-back period if the refund claim is not filed within that 3-year period. The Tax Court properly applied the 2-year lookback period to Lundy's case because, as of September 26, 1990 (the date the notice of deficiency was mailed), Lundy had not filed a tax return,
and, consequently, a claim filed on that date would not be filed within the 3-year period described in § 6511 (a). Lundy's taxes were withheld from his wages, so they are deemed paid on the date his 1987 tax return was due (April 15, 1988), which is more than two years prior to the date the notice of deficiency was mailed. Lundy is therefore seeking a refund of taxes paid outside the applicable look-back period, and the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction to award a refund. Pp. 239-245.
(b) Lundy suggests two alternative interpretations of § 6512(b)(3)(B), neither of which is persuasive. Lundy first adopts the Fourth Circuit's view, which is that the applicable look-back period is determined by reference to the date that the taxpayer actually filed a claim for refund, and argues that he is entitled to a 3-year look-back period because his late-filed 1987 tax return contained a refund claim that was filed within three years from the filing of the return itself. This interpretation is contrary to the requirements of the statute and leads to a result that Congress could not have intended, as it in some circumstances subjects a timely filer of a return to a shorter limitations period in Tax Court than a delinquent filer. Lundy's second argument, that the "claim" contemplated by § 6512(b)(3)(B) can only be a claim filed on a tax return, such that a uniform 3-year look-back period applies under that section, is similarly contrary to the language of the statute. Pp. 245-250.
(c) This Court is bound by § 6512(b)(3)(B)'s language as it is written, and even if the Court were persuaded by Lundy's policy-based arguments for applying a 3-year look-back period, the Court is not free to rewrite the statute simply because its effects might be susceptible of improvement. Pp. 250-253.
45 F.3d 856, reversed.
O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 253. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 253.
Kent L. Jones argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Argrett, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Richard Farber, and Regina S. Moriarty.
Glenn P. Schwartz argued the cause for respondent.
With him on the brief was Lawrence J. Ross. *
* David M. Kirsch, pro se, filed a brief as amicus curiae urging affirmance.