United States v. Williams, 514 U.S. 527, 4 (1995)

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530

UNITED STATES v. WILLIAMS

Opinion of the Court

Meanwhile, Rabin and Williams divided their marital property in contemplation of divorce. Williams did not have notice of the lien when Rabin deeded his interest in the house to her on October 25, 1988, for the Government did not file its tax lien until November 10, 1988. As consideration for the house, Williams assumed three liabilities for Rabin (none of them tax liabilities) totaling almost $650,000. App. 7-8 (Statement of Uncontroverted Facts presented by attorneys for United States). In the ensuing months, the Government made further assessments on Rabin in excess of $26,000, but did not file notice of them until June 22, 1989.

Williams entered a contract on May 9, 1989, to sell the house, and agreed to a closing date of July 3. Id., at 8. One week before the closing, the Government gave actual notice to Williams and the purchaser of over $41,000 in tax liens which, it claimed, were valid against the property or proceeds of the sale. The purchaser threatened to sue Williams if the sale did not go through on schedule. Believing she had no realistic alternative—none having been suggested by the Government—Williams, under protest, authorized disbursement of $41,937 from the sale proceeds directly to the Internal Revenue Service so that she could convey clear title.

After the Government denied Williams' claim for an administrative refund, she filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, claiming she had taken the property free of the Government's lien under 26 U. S. C. 6323(a) (absent proper notice, tax lien not valid against purchaser). To enforce her rights, she invoked 28 U. S. C. 1346(a)(1), which waives the Government's sovereign immunity from suit by authorizing federal courts to adjudicate "[a]ny civil action against the United States for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected." In a trial on stipulated facts, the Government maintained that it was irrelevant whether the Government had a right to Williams' money; her plea could not be entertained, the Govern-

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