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Aka v. United States Tax Court

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

April 14, 2017

Wilfred I. Aka, Appellant
United States Tax Court, Appellee

          Argued November 18, 2016

         On Appeal from the Final Order of the United States Tax Court

          Wilfred I. Aka, pro se, argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

          Jennifer M. Rubin, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellee. With her on the briefs was Michael J. Haungs, Attorney.

          Before: Rogers, Brown, and Griffith, Circuit Judges.

          Griffith, Circuit Judge

         Attorneys have duties not only to clients, but to opposing counsel and courts. Because our legal system depends on attorneys working with opponents and abiding by court orders, each court has the "inherent power" to control attorneys' admission to its bar and their expulsion. In re Echeles, 430 F.2d 347, 349 (7th Cir. 1970).

         The United States Tax Court has disbarred Wilfred I. Aka for repeated failures to discharge his duties to the court, clients, and opposing counsel alike. Today we uphold its order, clarifying in the process the basis for our jurisdiction in this case and the proper standard of review.


         First we must take up the question of whether we have jurisdiction to review the Tax Court's disbarment orders. Section 7482(a)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) gives the federal courts of appeals (aside from the Federal Circuit) jurisdiction to review "decisions" of the Tax Court "in the same manner and to the same extent as decisions of the district courts in civil [bench trials]." 26 U.S.C. § 7482(a)(1). But civil bench trials-in which courts resolve disputes between adverse parties-differ significantly from disbarment proceedings, in which a court exercises its inherent power to police its own bar. See Brooks v. Laws, 208 F.2d 18, 22 (D.C. Cir. 1953) (a district court's application of its rules to deny someone admission to its bar "is not appealable"). This contrast raises the possibility that Tax Court disbarment orders-unlike Tax Court trial orders-fall outside our appellate jurisdiction under the IRC.

         That concern is reinforced by the only other IRC provision providing hints on what counts as a Tax Court "decision[]." In the course of explaining how to determine the date of entry of a "decision of the Tax Court," this second provision mentions only declaratory judgments and orders specifying how much a taxpayer still owes (i.e., notices of deficiency). 26 U.S.C. § 7459(c). That disbarment orders are neither might further suggest that they are not "decisions of the Tax Court" subject to our review. See Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Smith Paper, Inc., 222 F.2d 126, 129 (1st Cir. 1955) (reading a precursor to section 7459(c) as enumerating the only Tax Court "decisions" subject to appellate review).

         We have rejected that suggestion in an earlier case, however, seeing "no reason to believe that . . . § 7459(c) . . . in any way meant to limit appellate jurisdiction over . . . decisions [of the Tax Court]." InverWorld, Ltd. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 979 F.2d 868, 872 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Instead we have held that section 7482(a)(1) "is the controlling provision" for "appellate review." Id. Under that section, "finality of the Tax Court's order [is] the criterion." Id. Thus, we have jurisdiction to review final Tax Court orders.

         And disbarment orders are final. In re Fletcher, 107 F.2d 666, 668 (D.C. Cir. 1939) (labeling them "final order[s] . . . reviewable by appeal"). They are "unequivocal determinations" that take "immediate" effect, leaving no issues unresolved. InverWorld, 979 F.2d at 872. Thus, the Supreme Court has reviewed disbarment orders of circuit courts, see, e.g., In re Ruffalo, 390 U.S. 544 (1968), and we have reviewed those of our district court, see, e.g., Fletcher, 107 F.2d at 668. Disbarment orders of the Tax Court, whose decisions we review "in the same manner and to the same extent" as those of a district court judge, merit the same treatment. 26 U.S.C. § 7482(a)(1); see InverWorld, 979 F.2d at 872 (exercising jurisdiction over a Tax Court order when a "similar district court decision would be considered final . . . because the court has completely disposed of the claim").

         Although we have reviewed Tax Court disbarment orders on previous occasions, see In re Thies, 662 F.2d 771 (D.C. Cir. 1980); Rodriguez v. U.S. Tax Court, 398 Fed. App'x 614 (D.C. Cir. 2010); Krouner v. U.S. Tax Court, 202 Fed. App'x 470 (D.C. Cir. 2006), we have not expressly held that we have jurisdiction to do so. Today we confirm that we do.

         Another preliminary matter: our court has not settled on a standard of review for such disbarment orders. See Rodriguez, 398 Fed. App'x at 614 (declining to choose between abuse of discretion and ...

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