For petitioners and practitioners alike, adhering to filing deadlines is crucial. Failure to do so can result in the dismissal of an appeal, depriving the filer of an opportunity to present their case. The cases of Antwawn Jamal Sanders v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and Culp v.  Commissioner of Internal Revenue provide a stark contrast in the treatment of filing deadlines by the courts in different jurisdictions.

Understanding the Impact of Jurisdictional and Non-jurisdictional Filing Deadlines

Take, for example, the case of Sanders, where the Tax Court rejected an appeal on the grounds that it was filed electronically a mere 11 seconds late. The case involved the application of the 90-day rule, which stipulates that taxpayers have 90 days to file an appeal with the Tax Court. In the Sanders case, the Court deemed the 90-day rule jurisdictional and found that “a timely filed petition is a prerequisite to [the court’s] jurisdiction in a deficiency case.” Put plainly, the Court held that it lacked the power to hear the petitioner’s case because the 90-day deadline for filing an appeal had not been met. 

In contrast, in Culp, the Third Circuit took a different approach. Unlike in the Sanders case, the Court in Culp considered whether the filing deadline was jurisdictional or subject to equitable tolling, which allows for the extension of a deadline in certain circumstances. While the Court recognized that missing a statutory filing deadline was not ideal, the Court found that the consequences should turn on the statute’s intent. The Third Circuit remanded the case back to the Tax Court, concluding that the 90-day deadline lacked a clear statement on the jurisdiction. For that reason, the Court held that it could entertain the taxpayer’s appeal despite missing the filing deadline. Specifically, the Court held that: 

“[T]here is no “clear tie between the deadline and the jurisdictional grant. The most pertinent part of §6213(a) provides that “[w]ithin 90 days . . . after the notice of deficiency . . . is mailed . . . the taxpayer may file a petition with the Tax Court for a redetermination of the deficiency. . . . Nothing in that language links the deadline to the Court’s jurisdiction. Yet, elsewhere in §6213(a), Congress specified that [t]he Tax Court shall have no jurisdiction to enjoin any action or proceeding or order any refund under this subsection unless a timely petition for a redetermination of the deficiency has been filed and then only in respect of the deficiency that is the subject of such petition. . . So Congress knew how to limit the scope of the Tax Court’s jurisdiction. It expressly constrained the Tax Court from issuing injunctions or ordering refunds when a petition is untimely. But it did not similarly limit the Tax Court’s power to review untimely redetermination petitions.” 

Key Takeaways

Drawing a distinction between jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional deadlines is crucial for both taxpayers and practitioners alike. Where a case involves a jurisdictional deadline, even the slightest delay can result in the complete loss of a petitioner’s opportunity to appeal. But, when a court finds that a deadline is non-jurisdictional, the petitioner may gain the benefit of equitable tolling, which allows for the extension of a deadline under certain circumstances.

For that reason, taxpayers and practitioners must be well-informed about the implications of filing deadlines and exercise diligence. Lastly, while taxpayers in the Third Circuit can rely on the holding in Culp, others should still consider the 90-day rule under IRC Section 6213(a) to be jurisdictional, consistent with precedent outside of the Third Circuit and the recent Sanders case. 

Thank you to MSBA member Stuart Levine for bringing this case to the attention of our members.