Johnsen v. US, CV 89-2089 (RJD).

Decision Date15 February 1991
Docket NumberNo. CV 89-2089 (RJD).,CV 89-2089 (RJD).
Citation758 F. Supp. 834
PartiesDoris JOHNSEN, et al., Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York

Seth Rubinstein, Brooklyn, N.Y., Alan Shapiro, Trial Atty., Tax Div., Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for plaintiffs.

Joseph D. McCann, Asst. U.S. Atty., Brooklyn, N.Y., for defendant.


DEARIE, District Judge.

The government has moved to dismiss plaintiffs' action for a tax refund pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6511(b)(2)(A). For the reasons that follow, defendant's motion is DENIED.


In 1983, the Multzmans overpaid approximately twenty-five thousand dollars in taxes to the government. A completed tax return for that year remained unsigned in their home.

For some time prior to 1983, the Multzmans were extremely eccentric, spoke to nonexistent persons and lived under hazardous conditions despite their healthy financial status. In early 1985, Ethel Multzman was diagnosed to be suffering from senile psychosis. The following year, her husband was adjudicated incompetent, and soon thereafter he passed away. In 1987, Mrs. Multzman and her adult son were also adjudicated incompetents. The government does not dispute, for purposes of this motion, that the Multzmans were incompetent in 1983 and that they overpaid their taxes that year. In addition, the parties have reached agreement on the exact amount of the overpayment.

Plaintiff Doris Johnsen was appointed Committee of the Person and Property of Ethel Multzman in February of 1987. As soon as she discovered that a prepared 1983 return had never been filed, she immediately filed an administrative claim for a refund which was summarily denied in June of that year, presumably on timeliness grounds. In June of 1989, Ms. Johnsen commenced this action for a refund of the 1983 overpayment pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6511(b)(2)(A).

For the reasons discussed below, the government's motion to dismiss is denied.


Federal courts have generally held that mental incompetence does not toll statutes of limitations in suits against the government. E.g., Barren v. United States, 839 F.2d 987, 992 (3d Cir.1988); cert. denied, 488 U.S. 827, 109 S.Ct. 79, 102 L.Ed.2d 55 (1988). Sovereign immunity concerns have traditionally generated this strict adherence to time limitations in actions against the government. Lopez v. Citibank, N.A., 808 F.2d 905, 906 (1st Cir.1987). However, federal statutes of limitations in suits between private litigants have been subject to equitable tolling due to considerations such as mental incompetence. Irwin v. Veterans Admin., ___ U.S. ___, 111 S.Ct. 453, 457, 112 L.Ed.2d 435 (1990); e.g., Thomas v. Humfield, 916 F.2d 1032, 1035 (5th Cir. 1990).

In its recent Irwin decision, the Supreme Court held that the same equitable tolling principles applicable to suits between private parties should also apply to suits against the government. The Court reasoned that

once Congress has made such a waiver of sovereign immunity, we think that making the rule of equitable tolling applicable to suits against the Government, in the same way that it is applicable to private suits, amounts to little, if any, broadening of the congressional waiver. Such a principle is likely to be a realistic assessment of legislative intent as well as a practically useful principle of interpretation.

Id. 111 S.Ct. at 457.1 The legislative history of Section 6511(b)(2)(A) is absolutely devoid of any indication that Congress intended to preclude such equitable tolling in tax refund actions. H.R.Rep. No. 1337, 83rd Cong., 2 Sess., reprinted in 1954 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 4017, 4563; S.Rep. No. 1622, 83rd Cong., 2 Sess., reprinted in 1954 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 5235. Accordingly, the Court must now apply the principles enunciated in suits between private parties.

Equitable tolling for mental incompetence is analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Lopez, 808 F.2d at 907. The Second Circuit has acknowledged that "cases occasionally arise where the equities in favor of tolling are `so great that deference to the agency's judgment is inappropriate'." New York v. Sullivan, 906 F.2d 910, 917 (2d Cir.1990). This case presents such a situation.

Plaintiffs have not simply "failed to exercise due diligence" in filing for a tax refund within the statutory period. Irwin, 111 S.Ct. at 458. As mental incompetents, the Multzmans made numerous excess payments to the government during 1983 and yet failed to file a return for that year although there is clear evidence that a return was in fact prepared.

The government concedes that plaintiffs are due a sizeable refund. Indeed there is nothing in the record before the Court that even suggests that the...

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11 cases
  • Webb v. U.S.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • October 2, 1995
    ...1387, 1394-95 (N.D.Iowa 1992) (tolling applies; Sec. 6511 equitably tolled by taxpayer's mental illness); Johnsen v. United States, 758 F.Supp. 834, 835-36 (E.D.N.Y.1991) (same); see generally Ronald A. Stein, "Will Equitable Tolling of the Statute of Limitations Gain Wider Acceptance in Ta......
  • First Interstate Bank of Nevada v. US
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Nevada
    • November 21, 1994
    ...F.Supp. 1387 (N.D.Iowa 1992) (permitting equitable tolling of Section 6511's limitations for schizophrenia); and Johnsen v. United States, 758 F.Supp. 834 (E.D.N.Y. 1991) (permitting equitable tolling of Section 6511's limitations for mental incompetency). This Court rejected the decisions ......
  • Oropallo v. U.S.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • May 24, 1993
    ...6511(a) was at issue, although the facts indicate that section 6511(b)(2)(A) could have been involved as well); Johnsen v. United States, 758 F.Supp. 834 (E.D.N.Y.1991) (section 6511(b)(2)(A)). 5 In our view, the relevant analysis has been altered yet again by a more recent Supreme Court de......
  • Wiltgen v. US
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • August 28, 1992
    ...under § 6511 given its statutory history and the facts of this case. The defendant recognizes that in Johnsen v. United States, 758 F.Supp. 834 (E.D.N.Y.1991), the court held that equitable tolling principles applied to § 6511 due to mental incapacity. In that case, the government moved to ......
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