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Internal Revenue Service v. Murphy

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 7, 2018

WILLIAM CHARLES MURPHY, Plaintiff, Appellee.


          Peter Sklarew, with whom David A. Hubbert, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Paul A. Allulis, Gilbert S. Rothernberg, Thomas J. Clark, Attorneys, Tax Division, Department of Justice, and Halsey B. Frank, United States Attorney, were on brief, for appellant.

          John H. Branson, with whom Branson Law Office, P.A., was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Lynch, Circuit Judge, Souter, Associate Justice, [*] and Stahl, Circuit Judge.

          STAHL, Circuit Judge.

         In this case, we need to determine whether an employee of the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") "willfully violate[d]" an order from the bankruptcy court discharging the debts of debtor-taxpayer William C. Murphy, as that term is used in 26 U.S.C. § 7433(e). After careful consideration, we hold that an employee of the IRS "willfully violates" a discharge order when the employee knows of the discharge order and takes an intentional action that violates the order. Under § 7433(e), the IRS's good faith belief that it has a right to collect the purportedly discharged debts is not relevant to determining whether it "willfully violate[d]" the discharge order. Because the IRS's actions in this case meet this standard, we affirm.


         On October 13, 2005, Murphy filed a Chapter 7 petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maine. On Schedule E of his bankruptcy petition, Murphy listed his income tax obligations to the IRS for the years of 1993-1998, 2000, 2001, and 2003, as well as a 2003 tax obligation to the Maine Revenue Services. Murphy's tax obligations were by far the largest liabilities he sought to discharge. In his petition, Murphy listed total liabilities of $601, 861.61, of which $546, 161.61 were tax obligations. On January 20, 2006, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Emery, Jr. ("AUSA Emery") filed an appearance on behalf of the IRS in the bankruptcy proceeding.

         On February 14, 2006, the bankruptcy court granted Murphy a discharge. The discharge order, which appears to be a standard form, reads:

It appearing that the debtor is entitled to a discharge,
The debtor is granted a discharge under section 727 of title 11, United States Code, (the Bankruptcy Code).

         Beneath the bankruptcy judge's signature, there is a notice that states, in bold and capital letters, "SEE THE BACK OF THIS ORDER FOR IMPORTANT INFORMATION." The back of the order provides an explanation of bankruptcy discharge in a Chapter 7 case, stating that "[t]he discharge prohibits any attempt to collect from the debtor a debt that has been discharged." The order lists "[s]ome of the common types of debts which are not discharged" and specifically notes that "[d]ebts for most taxes" are not discharged.

         It does not appear that the IRS objected to Murphy's discharge prior to the bankruptcy court entering its discharge order. On February 16, 2006, the IRS received notice of the discharge order.

         The IRS did not believe that the discharge relieved Murphy of his tax obligations. Rather, the IRS viewed Murphy's taxes as excepted from discharge under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(1)(C), which excepts from discharge any tax if "the debtor made a fraudulent return or willfully attempted in any manner to evade or defeat such tax." Based on its earlier investigations into Murphy, the IRS believed that Murphy had willfully attempted to evade taxes during all of the years in question.

         From February 2006 to February 2009, the IRS repeatedly informed Murphy that it did not view his tax obligations as discharged and that it planned to collect what it believed was owed. On February 20, 2009, the IRS issued levies against several insurance companies with which Murphy then did business in an attempt to collect on these tax obligations. Margurite Gagne, a revenue officer for the IRS, signed the levy notices sent to the insurance companies.

         On August 14, 2009, Murphy filed an adversarial proceeding seeking a declaration that his tax obligations from 1993-1998, 2000, and 2001 had been discharged. In this proceeding, AUSA Emery represented the IRS. According to the IRS, AUSA Emery "took only minimal discovery in the case" and failed to submit evidence to the bankruptcy court that the IRS had developed during its investigation into Murphy's tax obligations. Instead, the IRS claims that AUSA Emery merely filed a summary of the IRS's allegations of Murphy's tax evasion, without submitting any admissible evidence to support the allegations.

         On June 22, 2010, the bankruptcy court granted summary judgment in Murphy's favor and declared that Murphy's tax obligations had been discharged. The bankruptcy court later noted that it granted summary judgment in large part because the IRS's opposition to summary judgment "fell far short of applicable substantive and procedural standards." Murphy v. IRS (In re Murphy), No. 05-22363, 2013 WL 6799251, at *2 (Bankr. D. Me. Dec. 20, 2013). The IRS did not appeal the bankruptcy court's 2010 summary judgment ruling.

         Subsequently, AUSA Emery was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia ("FTD"). According to the IRS, symptoms of FTD include "impairment of executive function, such as the cognitive skill of planning and organizing." Based on AUSA Emery's medical records and the opinions of three physicians, the IRS believes that AUSA Emery was already experiencing the symptoms of FTD in 2010.

         In February 2011, Murphy filed a complaint against the IRS under § 7433(e), alleging that an employee of the IRS willfully violated the bankruptcy court's 2006 discharge order in February 2009 by issuing levies against the insurance companies with which he did business and thereby attempting to collect on his discharged tax obligations.[1] The IRS responded that it did not willfully violate the order because it reasonably believed his tax obligations were excepted from discharge under § 523(a)(1)(C) based on its investigation into his alleged tax evasion.

         On December 20, 2013, the bankruptcy court granted summary judgment for Murphy for his § 7433(e) claim. The court found that the term "willfully violates" has an established meaning in the context of violations of automatic stays and discharge orders issued in bankruptcy proceedings: a willful violation occurs "when, with knowledge of the discharge, [a creditor] intends to take an action, and that action is determined to be an attempt to collect a discharged debt." In re Murphy, 2013 WL 6799251, at *7. The court further found that the 2010 summary judgment ruling collaterally estopped the IRS from relitigating whether Murphy's tax obligations were discharged, whether the IRS knew they were discharged, and whether it took actions which violated the discharge order. Id. at *8.

         After the bankruptcy court denied the IRS's motion for reconsideration, the IRS appealed to the district court, which vacated the bankruptcy court's decision. IRS v. Murphy, 564 B.R. 96, 98 (D. Me. 2016). The district court concluded that the bankruptcy court should have considered AUSA Emery's impairment before finding that the 2010 summary judgment ruling collaterally estopped the IRS from relitigating issues related to Murphy's discharge. Id. at 112.

         However, the district court agreed with the bankruptcy court's definition of "willfully violates" as used in § 7433(e). Id. at 106. The district court found that, by 1998, the term had an established meaning in the context of violations of both automatic stays and discharge injunctions, and under this established meaning, a creditor's "good faith belief in a right to the property is not relevant to a determination of whether the violation was willful." Id. (quoting Fleet Morg. Grp., Inc. v. Kaneb, 196 F.3d 265, 269 (1st Cir. 1999)).

         On remand, the parties entered into a settlement agreement, whereby the IRS waived its collateral estoppel arguments and accepted that the 2010 summary judgment ruling conclusively determined that Murphy's tax obligations had been discharged. The IRS reserved the right:

for further appeal(s) only its arguments that that [sic] a debtor is not entitled to damages where a creditor's violation of the discharge reflects a reasonable belief that the debt involved was excepted from discharge, and/or that the "willfully violates" language in IRS § 7433(e) should be construed to permit the IRS to defend against liability for violating the discharge on the basis that its employee reasonably believed that the tax involved is excepted from discharge [hereinafter "the willfully violates issue"].

         As part of the settlement, the IRS agreed to pay $175, 000 as Murphy's damages once it had exhausted the reserved right to appeal if the appeal was lost. The settlement did not "resolve whether or not the deficiencies in in [sic] the United States' response to plaintiff's motion for summary judgment . . . were caused by any mental disability of the former Assistant United States Attorney at the time of the summary judgment proceedings." Based on this agreement, on January 4, 2017, the bankruptcy court entered final judgment against the United States, and the district court affirmed the judgment on appeal. The IRS timely appeals to this court.[2]


         We are, at this stage, confronted solely with the bankruptcy court's resolution of a legal question, which we review de novo. Wilding v. CitiFinancial Consumer Fin. Servs., Inc., (In re Wilding), 475 F.3d 428, 430 (1st Cir. 2007). The parties' settlement agreement reserved for the IRS the right to appeal only the bankruptcy court's construction of the phrase "willfully violates" as used in § 7433(e).

         The IRS argues it does not "willfully violate" an automatic stay or discharge order if it has a good faith belief that its actions do not violate the bankruptcy court's order. In support of its position, the IRS presents two somewhat conflicting arguments. First, it claims that, before Congress enacted § 7433(e) in 1998, all creditors could raise a good faith defense to allegations that they willfully violated an automatic stay or discharge order. Second, it posits that even if most creditors could not raise a good faith defense, such a defense must be available to the IRS because § 7433(e) is a waiver of sovereign immunity that must be construed narrowly.

         We begin our interpretation of § 7433(e) "where all such inquires must begin: with the language of the statute itself." Ransom v. FIA Card Servs., N.A., 562 U.S. 61, 69 (2011) (quoting United States v. Ron Pair Enters., Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 241 (1989)). Section 7433(e) provides that:

If, in connection with any collection of Federal tax with respect to a taxpayer, any officer or employee of the Internal Revenue Service willfully violates any provision of section 362 (relating to automatic stay) or 524 (relating to effect of discharge) of title 11, United States Code (or any successor provision), . . . such taxpayer may petition the bankruptcy court to recover damages against the United States. (emphasis added).

         Congress did not define "willfully" or the phrase "willfully violates" as used in § 7433(e). "[W]e attribute to words that are not defined in the statute itself their ordinary usage, while keeping in mind that meaning can only be ascribed to statutory language if that language is taken in context." Brady v. Credit Recovery Co., Inc., 160 F.3d 64, 66 (1st Cir. 1998).

         "The statutory term 'willfully' is a chameleon." United States v. Marshall, 753 F.3d 341, 345 (1st Cir. 2014). At a minimum, "willfully" "differentiates between deliberate and unwitting conduct." Bryan v. United States, 524 U.S. 184, 191 (1998); see also McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 133 (1988) ("In common usage the word 'willful' is considered synonymous with such words as 'voluntary, ' 'deliberate, ' and 'intentional.'"). In criminal law, it "typically refers to a culpable state of mind, " such that a "willful violation" occurs only when a defendant "act[s] with knowledge that his conduct [is] unlawful." Bryan, 524 U.S. at 191-92. In contrast, "[c]ivil use of the term . . . typically presents neither the textual nor the substantive reasons for pegging the threshold of liability at knowledge of wrongdoing." Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 57 n.9 (2007).

         In sum, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated, "'willfully' is a 'word of many meanings whose construction is often dependent on the context in which it appears.'" Id. at 57 (quoting Bryan, 524 U.S. at 191); see also Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135, 141 (1994); United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389, 394-95 (1933). We look then to the context in which the word "willfully" appears in § 7433(e) to ascertain its meaning.

         Section 7433(e) directly links the phrase "willfully violates" to two pre-existing sections of the Bankruptcy Code: section 362, which addresses automatic stays, and section 524, which addresses discharges and discharge orders. "We generally presume that Congress is knowledgeable about existing law pertinent to the legislation it enacts." Goodyear Atomic Corp. v. Miller, 486 U.S. 174, 184-85 (1988). This presumption is particularly appropriate when the new legislation invokes and builds off an existing statutory framework. See, e.g., Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Thurston, 469 U.S. 111, 126 (1985). We turn then to examine how courts had interpreted sections 362 and 524 of the Bankruptcy Code in the years before Congress enacted § 7433(e), looking first at violations of automatic stays and then turning to violations of discharge orders.



         The automatic stay is "one of the fundamental debtor protections provided by the bankruptcy laws." Midlantic Nat. Bank v. N.J. Dept. of Envtl. Prot., 474 U.S. 494, 503 (1986) (quoting S. Rep. No 95-989, p. 54 (1978); H.R. Rep No. 95-595, p. 340 (1977)). "The stay gives a 'breathing spell' to the debtor and stops 'all collection efforts, all harassment, and all foreclosure actions.'" Tringali v. Hathaway Mach. Co., Inc., 796 F.2d 553, 562 (1st Cir. 1986) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 95-595, p. 340)).

         Congress enacted then-section 362(h) of the Bankruptcy Code in 1984 to provide a private cause of action to "[a]n individual injured by any willful violation of a stay . . . ." 11 U.S.C. § 362(h) (West 1998); see Vahlsing v. Comm. Union Ins. Co., Inc., 928 F.2d 486, 489 n.1 (1st Cir. 1991).[3] Before this provision was added to the Bankruptcy Code, some courts had imposed sanctions for willful violations of automatic stays "pursuant to the authority of bankruptcy courts to order parties in contempt." Crysen/Montenay Energy Co. v. Esselen Assocs., Inc. (In re Crysen/Montenay Energy Co.), 902 F.2d 1098, 1104 (2d Cir. 1990). For this reason, the standard courts had used for evaluating whether a violation was willful was the standard that "governed contempt proceedings: a party generally would not have sanctions imposed . . . as long as it had acted without maliciousness and had had a good faith argument and belief that its actions did not violate the stay." Id. However, because § 362(h) created "an independent statutory basis" to hold violators of the automatic stay liable, courts began to apply "a standard less stringent than maliciousness or bad faith to govern the imposition of sanctions in bankruptcy cases." Id.

         Prior to the enactment of § 7433(e), nearly all courts, and a majority of the circuits, had held that a willful violation of an automatic stay under § 362(h) occurs when an individual knows of the automatic stay and takes an intentional action that violates the automatic stay. See, e.g., Jove Eng'g, Inc. v. IRS (In re Jove Eng'g, Inc.), 92 F.3d 1539, 1555 (11th Cir. 1996); Price v. United States (In re Price), 42 F.3d 1068, 1071 (7th Cir. 1994); In re Crysen/Montenay Energy Co., 902 F.2d at 1105; Cuffee v. Atl. Bus & Cmty. Corp. (In re Atl. Bus. & Cmty. Corp.), 901 F.2d 325, 329 (3d Cir. 1990); Knaus v. Concordia Lumber Co. (In re Knaus), 889 F.2d 773, 775 (8th Cir. 1989); Goichman v. Bloom (In re Bloom), 875 F.2d 224, 227 (9th Cir. 1989); Budget Serv. Co. v. Better Homes of Am., 804 F.2d 289, 292-93 (4th Cir. 1986). These courts refused to incorporate a bad faith or maliciousness requirement, and in fact many specifically rejected good faith defenses. In re Crysen/Montenay Energy Co., 902 F.2d at 1104-05; In re Atl. Bus. & Cmty. Corp., 901 F.2d at 329; see also Pinkstaff v. United States (In re Pinkstaff), 974 F.2d 113, 115 (9th Cir. 1992) ("As it is undisputed that the IRS acted with knowledge of the bankruptcy filing, it necessarily follows that the government willfully violated the automatic stay." (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)).

         Contemporary versions of leading bankruptcy treatises defined a "willful violation" of the automatic stay in the same manner. See George M. Treister et al., Fundamentals of Bankruptcy Law (4th ed. 1996) § 5.01(c) ("A willful violation of the stay . . . does not require an intent to violate nor an awareness that the conduct was prohibited by the stay. It suffices that the violator knew of the existence of the stay, i.e., that he knew of the pendency of the bankruptcy, and that he intentionally did the violating act."); David G. Epstein et al., Bankruptcy (1992) ยง 3-33(c) ("A specific intent to violate the stay is not required, or even an awareness by the creditor that her conduct violates the stay. It is sufficient that the creditor knows of the bankruptcy and engages in deliberate conduct that, it so happens, is a violation of the stay."). These contemporary sources further show that the phrase "willful violation" had a generally accepted meaning at the ...

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