Supreme Court Landmark Cases on Tax Refund Claims

Tax Refund Claims Against Collectors in Common Law Courts: At common law, individuals had no right of action against the sovereign, enforceable by jury trial or otherwise. (See Galloway v. United States (1943) 319 U.S. 372; McElrath v. United States (1880) 102 U.S. 426; 9 Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil (3d ed. 2008) 2314, pp. 174-175.) However, common law history shows that taxpayers were able to assert claims for tax refunds by bringing actions against tax collectors rather than against the sovereign itself. The doctrine permitting suits against collectors was "devised by the courts ... to do justice to taxpayers who, at one time, could not directly sue the government to recover wrongful exactions by its officers." (Hammond-Knowlton v. U.S. (2d Cir. 1941) 121 F.2d 192, 194; see also Plumb, Tax Refund Suits Against Collectors of Internal Revenue (1947) 60 Harv. L.Rev. 685, 687 (Plumb) describing suits against collectors as a "fiction" that "originated in a desire of the courts to do justice"; Moore Ice Cream Co. v. Rose (1933) 289 U.S. 373.) Actions for money had and received were the closest analogue to a modern tax refund action (Northrop Aircraft v. Cal. Emp. etc. Com. (1948) 32 Cal.2d 872 at pp. 879-880), and the common law courts heard claims for tax refunds in actions for money had and received against tax collectors. In Stevenson v. Mortimer (1778) 98 Eng.Rep. 1372, a custom house officer was held liable in an action for money had and received brought by the owners of a boat, who alleged that the officer had charged the boat master fees which were inapplicable under the relevant statute and that the fees charged were excessive. (Id. at pp. 1372-1373.) In Camplin v. Bullman (1761) 145 Eng.Rep. 755, the plaintiff purchased a French ship taken as a prize by a British warship and challenged in an action for money had and received certain duties imposed by the English customs collector. (Id. at pp. 755-756.) The court held the plaintiff was properly charged a duty generally applicable to goods and merchandise, but should not have been charged an additional duty applicable to French-made sails. (Id. at pp. 758, 764.) In Campbell v. Hall (1774) 98 Eng.Rep. 1045, 1047, 1050, the issue was whether the government properly imposed export duties on a Grenada plantation in accordance with the prevailing duties in the British leeward islands rather than with the amount imposed by the French king prior to British conquest of Grenada. The decisions in Camplin and Campbell describe special verdicts rendered by juries finding the facts and leaving the legal issues for determination by the courts.