535 U.S. 43 (2002), 00-1567, Young v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 00-1567.
Citation:535 U.S. 43, 122 S.Ct. 1036, 152 L.Ed.2d 79, 70 U.S.L.W. 4178
Party Name:YOUNG ET UX. v. UNITED STATES
Case Date:March 04, 2002
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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535 U.S. 43 (2002)

122 S.Ct. 1036, 152 L.Ed.2d 79, 70 U.S.L.W. 4178

YOUNG ET UX.

v.

UNITED STATES

No. 00-1567.

United States Supreme Court

March 4, 2002

Argued January 9, 2002

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT

Syllabus

If the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a claim for certain taxes for which the return was due within three years before the individual taxpayer files a bankruptcy petition, its claim enjoys eighth priority under 11 U.S.C. § 507(a)(8)(A)(i), and is nondischargeable in bankruptcy under § 523(a)(1)(A). The IRS assessed a tax liability against petitioners for their failure to include payment with their 1992 income tax return filed on October 15, 1993. On May 1, 1996, petitioners filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition, which they moved to dismiss before a reorganization plan was approved. On March 12, 1997, the day before the Bankruptcy Court dismissed the Chapter 13 petition, petitioners filed a Chapter 7 petition. A discharge was granted, and the case was closed. When the IRS subsequently demanded that they pay the tax debt, petitioners asked the Bankruptcy Court to reopen the Chapter 7 case and declare the debt discharged under § 523(a)(1)(A), claiming that it fell outside § 507(a)(8)(A)(i)’s “three-year lookback period” because it pertained to a tax return due more than three years before their Chapter 7 filing. The court reopened the case, but sided with the IRS. Petitioners’ tax return was due more than three years before their Chapter 7 filing but less than three years before their Chapter 13 filing. Holding that the “lookback period” is tolled during the pendency of a prior bankruptcy petition, the court concluded that the 1992 debt had not been discharged when petitioners were granted a discharge under Chapter 7. The District Court and the First Circuit agreed.

Held:

Section 507(a)(8)(A)(i)’s lookback period is tolled during the pendency of a prior bankruptcy petition. Pp. 46–54.

(a) The lookback period is a limitations period subject to traditional equitable tolling principles. It prescribes a period in which certain rights may be enforced, encouraging the IRS to protect its rights before three years have elapsed. Thus, it serves the same basic policies furthered by all limitations periods: “repose, elimination of stale claims, and certainty about a plaintiff’s opportunity for recovery and a defendant’s potential liabilities.” Rotella v. Wood, 528 U.S. 549, 555. The fact that the lookback commences on a date that may precede the date when the IRS discovers its claim does not make it a substantive component of the Bankruptcy Code as petitioners claim. Pp. 46–49.

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(b) Congress is presumed to draft limitations periods in light of the principle that such periods are customarily subject to equitable tolling unless tolling would be inconsistent with statutory text. Tolling is appropriate here. Petitioners’ Chapter 13 petition erected an automatic stay under § 362(a), which prevented the IRS from taking steps to collect the unpaid taxes. When petitioners later filed their Chapter 7 petition, the three-year lookback period therefore excluded time during which their Chapter 13 petition was pending. Because their 1992 tax return was due within that three-year period, the lower courts properly held that the tax debt was not discharged. Tolling is appropriate regardless of whether petitioners filed their Chapter 13 petition in good faith or solely to run down the lookback period. In either case, the IRS was disabled from protecting its claim. Pp. 49–51.

(c) The statutory provisions invoked by petitioners—§§ 523(b), 108(c), and 507(a)(8)(A)(ii)—do not display an intent to preclude tolling here. Pp. 51–53.

233 F.3d 56, affirmed.

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

Grenville Clark III argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioners.

Patricia A. Millett argued the cause for the United States. With her on the briefs were Solicitor General Olson, Assistant Attorney General O’Connor, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Bruce R. Ellisen, and Thomas J. Sawyer.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

A discharge under the Bankruptcy Code does not extinguish certain tax liabilities for which a return was due within three years before the filing of an individual debtor’s petition. 11 U.S.C. §§ 523(a)(1)(A), 507(a)(8)(A)(i). We must decide whether this “three-year lookback period” is tolled during the pendency of a prior bankruptcy petition.

I

Petitioners Cornelius and Suzanne Young failed to include payment with their 1992 income tax return, due and filed on

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October 15, 1993 (petitioners had obtained an extension of the April 15 deadline). About $15,000 was owing. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) assessed the tax liability on January 3, 1994, and petitioners made modest monthly payments ($40 to $300) from April 1994 until November 1995. On May 1, 1996, they sought protection under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Hampshire. The bulk of their tax liability (about $13,000, including accrued interest) remained due. Before a reorganization plan was confirmed, however, the Youngs moved on October 23, 1996, to dismiss their Chapter 13 petition, pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 1307(b). On March 12, 1997, one day before the Bankruptcy Court dismissed their Chapter 13 petition, the Youngs filed a new petition, this time under Chapter 7. This was a “no asset” petition, meaning that the Youngs had no assets available to satisfy unsecured creditors, including the IRS. A discharge was granted June 17, 1997; the case was closed September 22, 1997.

The IRS subsequently demanded payment of the 1992 tax debt. The Youngs refused and petitioned the Bankruptcy Court to reopen their Chapter 7 case and declare the debt discharged. In their view, the debt fell outside the Bankruptcy Code’s “three-year lookback period,” §§ 523(a)(1)(A), 507(a)(8)(A)(i), and had therefore been discharged, because it pertained to a tax return due on October 15, 1993, more than three years before their Chapter 7 filing on March 12, 1997. The Bankruptcy Court reopened the case but sided with the IRS. Although the Youngs’ 1992 income tax return was due more than three years before they filed their Chapter 7 petition, it was due less than three years before they filed their Chapter 13 petition on May 1, 1996. Holding that the “three-year lookback period” is tolled during the pendency of a prior bankruptcy petition, the Bankruptcy Court concluded that the 1992 tax debt had not been discharged. The District Court for the District of New Hampshire and Court

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of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed. 233 F.3d 56 (2000). We granted certiorari. 533 U.S. 976 (2001).

II

Section 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code excepts certain individual debts from discharge, including any tax “of the kind and for the periods specified in section. . . 507(a)(8) of this title, whether or not a claim for such tax was filed or allowed.” § 523(a)(1)(A). Section 507(a), in turn, describes the priority of certain claims in the distribution of the debtor’s assets. Subsection 507(a)(8)(A)(i) gives eighth priority to “allowed unsecured claims of governmental units, only to the extent that such claims are for— . . . a tax on or measured by income or gross receipts— . . . for a taxable year ending on or before the date of the filing of the petition for which a return, if required, is last due, including extensions, after three years before the date of the filing of the petition . . . .” (Emphasis added.) This is commonly known as the “three-year lookback period.” If the IRS has a claim for taxes for which the return was due within three years before the bankruptcy petition was filed, the claim enjoys eighth priority under § 507(a)(8)(A)(i) and is nondischargeable in bankruptcy under § 523(a)(1)(A).

The terms of the lookback period appear to create a loophole: Since the Code does not prohibit back-to-back Chapter 13 and Chapter 7 filings (as long as the debtor did not receive a discharge under Chapter 13, see §§ 727(a)(8), (9)), a debtor can render a tax debt dischargeable by first filing a Chapter 13 petition, then voluntarily dismissing the petition when the lookback period for the debt has lapsed, and finally refiling under Chapter 7. During the pendency of the Chapter 13 petition, the automatic stay of § 362(a) will prevent the IRS from taking steps to collect the unpaid taxes, and if the Chapter 7 petition is filed after the lookback period has expired, the taxes remaining due will be dischargeable. Petitioners

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took advantage of this loophole, which, they believe, is permitted by the Bankruptcy Code.

We disagree. The three-year lookback period is a limitations period subject to traditional principles of equitable tolling. Since nothing in the Bankruptcy Code precludes equitable tolling of the lookback period, we believe the courts below properly excluded from the three-year limitation the period during...

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