A Crack in the Glass Ceiling – Victory in a Financial Disability Case

We have reported before here, here, here and here about the IRS’ unbroken string of victories in cases involving a claim of financial disability.  The first two posts listed in this string, a two-part series by Carl Smith, has a particularly important connection to the opinion reported in this post. While taxpayers have obtained relief from the statutory period for filing a refund claim in administrative decisions by the IRS, no one had won a 6511(h) case in court – until now and this victory is one that opens the door of the court but does not grant relief.  In Hoff Stauffer, Administrator of the Estate of Carlton Stauffer v. IRS, a magistrate judge in the District of Massachusetts has recommended that the court has jurisdiction to hear a case involving 6511(h) in the face of a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

Because this is the recommendation of a magistrate judge, the district court must accept it before it becomes final; however, the decision here coupled with the order entered by Judge Gustafson in another Boston case, Kurko v. Commissioner, suggests that perhaps a new day is dawning for those seeking relief for financial disability.  Because the IRS has only issued guidance in the form of an onerous revenue procedure and has never allowed public comment on the now 20-year old provision of the law and because most of the cases have been brought pro se, it has taken a long time to crack the ceiling and take steps toward meaningful administration of this provision.

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Carlton Stauffer passed away in 2012 at the age of 90.  His son, Hoff, discovered that the father had not filed a return since 2006 and proceeded to prepare the outstanding returns as was his fiduciary duty.  In 2013, Hoff Stauffer filed several back returns for his father’s estate and requested refund of an overpayment exceeding $100,000 for 2006.  The IRS disallowed the claim as untimely and declined to hold open the statute using 6511(h).  As a part of the process of appealing the denial of the claim, Hoff submitted a written explanation from a licensed psychologist who had treated his father from 2001 until his death.  The psychologist explained in his report that the father had a variety of mental and physical conditions which prevented him from properly managing his affairs from at least 2006 until his death.  The IRS rejected the explanation, citing to Rev. Proc. 99-21 which requires a statement from a physician and not a psychologist.

Tom Crice, a local Boston attorney whom I had met because of his pro bono work on behalf of low income taxpayers, brought suit for the estate after the denial of the claim.  Tom practiced as a criminal prosecutor and an actuary before settling into tax controversy work.  His background may have helped in the attack he took on Rev. Proc. 99-21.  The IRS filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because the claim for refund was untimely.  This caused the Court to examine 6511(h) which suspends the time frame if the claimant was financially disabled.  Examining the statute led to an examination of Rev. Proc. 99-21 which “sets forth in detail the form and manner in which proof of financial disability must be provided.”  The Rev. Proc. states that the claimant must submit “a written statement by a physician (as defined in section 1861(r)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395x(r), qualified to make such determination…”  The court noted that the Rev. Proc. does not define “physician” but borrows the definition from the Social Security statute.  The reference to section 1861(r)(1) creates confusion because that section does not have subsections.  Instead it has one large paragraph defining physician that includes five categories: (1) “a doctor of medicine or osteopathy,” (2) a doctor of dental surgery or of dental medicine,” (3) “a doctor of podiatric medicine,” (4) “a doctor of optometry,” and (5) “a chiropractor.”

The Court states that it assumes the IRS intends to refer to the first category but notes that the Rev. Proc. introduces further confusion by linking section 1861(r)(1) to 42 U.S.C. 1395x(r) because the latter provision “essentially tracks verbatim the wording and format of section 1861(r), but does not contain a corresponding reference to a subsection one.  Indeed, section 1395x(r), like section 1861(r), does not formally contain any subsections.”  This raises questions of whether the reference to 1861(r)(1) is a scrivener’s error or intended to narrow the scope of physician.

The court notes that the Rev. Proc. does not receive Chevron deference because it expresses the view of one employee and not the view of the agency.  The Rev. Proc. receives deference “only to the extent that those interpretations have the power to persuade.”  The court then explains how the Rev. Proc. fails to persuade:

section 6511(h) allows a disability to be based on a showing of a  ‘mental impairment’ and Revenue Procedure 99-21 directly undermines that goal where it demands a note from a physician but then defines that term to exclude a whole class of professionals generally considered competent to opine on the existence of a mental impairment.  On the record before the Court, there is no evidence that the IRS has considered the implications of its interpretation of the word ‘physician’ as used in the revenue procedure.  On the contrary, and as noted, Revenue Procedure 99-21 was drafted principally by a single IRS employee who without elaboration or explanation selected a definition of ‘physician’ as used by the SSA.  In the absence of additional information, there is just no basis to assess the soundness of the IRS’s interpretation of the work ‘physician’ in Revenue Procedure 99-21.

The court goes on to say that if the IRS sought to find someone competent to render an opinion on a physical or mental impairment it could have looked elsewhere in the rules governing Social Security cases.  Social Security regulation 20 CFR 404.1527(a)(2) provides “medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s)….”  The court also cites to case law accepting the opinion of the treating psychologist while noting that the SSA and IRS definitions of disability are virtually identical.  So, the limitation argued by the IRS in its Rev. Proc. does not make sense and is inconsistent with the SSA rules it apparently sought to mimic.

The court states that the IRS may have reasons for limiting the opinions in financial disability cases to physicians but it does not explain those reasons in the Rev. Proc.  Without a reasoned explanation and in light of the fact that the opinion of psychologist in these types cases is viewed as acceptable in other contexts, the Rev. Proc. does not provide persuasive authority.  The court states “I conclude that the defendant’s interpretation of the term ‘physician’ in Revenue Procedure 99-21 is not entitled to deference here.  I conclude further that to the extent the psychologist’s statement the plaintiff submitted supports a financial disability based on a mental impairment, the IRS was not required to reject it on the ground that it did not constitute a ‘physician’s statement.  Consequently, I find no basis on this record to deem the plaintiff’s claim for refund untimely under section 6511(h), and thus do not agree that the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s suit.”

The IRS made a couple more arguments that the court rejected.  First, it argued that the psychologist’s statement failed because the estate did not submit the statement at the same time as the claim for refund but only submitted it with the initial appeal.  The court noted other cases that had rejected this technical argument by the IRS stating that “the practice is to accept the missing information at a later stage so it and the taxpayer’s claim may be considered.”

Second, the IRS argued in a footnote that the psychologist was unqualified to opine on the disability because he appeared to base the opinion in part on the taxpayer’s physical ailments and this is outside of the psychologist expertise.  The court rejects this argument because the sufficiency of the statement was not before the court and because the mental impairments alone may have been sufficient to support the financial disability determination.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), the IRS was to file an objection to this recommendation within 14 days of the receipt of the report.    On February 27, 2017, the IRS filed its objection to the magistrate judge’s report.  It took issue with just about every aspect of the report but most strongly objected to the failure of the court to bow down to Rev. Proc. 99-21 as controlling:

The United States has numerous objections to the Report. First, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s interpretation of Congress’ delegation to the Secretary. The Report misapprehends the plain language of § 6511(h) and the Secretary’s authority under that statute. The Secretary did what Congress told it to do and, as discussed in greater detail below, there is no reason to expand § 6511(h) beyond what is prescribed in Rev. Rule. 99-21, which is something that the Report attempts to do. Neither the language of § 6511(h) nor Rev. Proc. 99- 21 support Magistrate Judge Cabell’s view that a psychologist is permitted to medically determine a mental impairment. The Report’s discussion regarding the proper level of deference afforded to Rev. Proc. 99-21 is simply irrelevant pursuant to § 6511(h). In short, a psychologist’s statement is invalid pursuant to § 6511(h). Accordingly, the plaintiff’s failure to comply with Proc. 99–21 is fatal to its refund claim because federal courts have no jurisdiction over a tax refund suit until a claim for refund or credit has been “duly filed” with the Secretary. Second, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s conclusion that the Eighth Circuits decision in Abston v. Commissioner, 691 F.3d 992 (8th Cir. 2012), is distinguishable from the case at bar. Contrary to the Report, the Eighth Circuit, as well as numerous other federal courts, have found that taxpayers cannot establish a medical disability under § 6511(h) without submitting a “doctor’s note” as required by Rev. Proc. 99-21. The plaintiff did not provide a doctor’s note as it was required to do. Third, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s rejection of the United States’ alternative argument. Even if the psychologist’s statement at issue could be considered a “doctor’s note,” it continues to be deficient pursuant to Rev. Rule 99-21.

Plaintiff’s response to the IRS motion is also attached.

While Judge Gustafson cracked the glass in the 6511(h) ceiling with his order in the Kurko case, Magistrate Judge Cabell punches his fist through the glass.  This may allow others to follow and finally break the choke hold in this area.  Perhaps the IRS will consider, after two decades, the idea of getting comments on what a reasonable rule would look like and talk to the representatives who assist individuals with financial disability.  Taxpayers claiming this exception, by definition, face difficulties.  Rev. Proc. 99-21 adds to those difficulties and does not provide a reasonable basis for working through this issue.  The facts here follow fairly closely the facts in the case Brockamp v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), in which another 90 year old gentleman failed to timely file a refund claim and the failure was discovered by his executor after the ordinary statute of limitations had expired.  The facts of that case so moved Congress that it created the statutory exception in 6511(h).  Let’s work together to find a reasonable way to allow those with valid claims for refund and legitimate reasons for filing late to get their money without imposing undue barriers.

 

 

Second Circuit Tosses Penalties Because of IRS Failure To Obtain Supervisor Approval

–Or, Tax Court Burnt by Second Circuit’s Hot Chai

Yesterday the Second Circuit decided a very important decision in favor of the taxpayer pertaining to the Section 6571 requirement that a direct supervisor approve a penalty before it is assessed.  In Chai v. Commissioner, the Second Circuit reversed the Tax Court, holding the Service’s failure to show penalties were approved by the immediate supervisor prior to issuing a notice of deficiency caused the penalty to fail.  In doing so, the Second Circuit explicitly rejected the recent Tax Court holdings on this matter, including Graev v. Commissioner, determining the matter was ripe for decision and that the Service’s failure prevented the imposition of the penalty.  Chai also has interesting issues involving TEFRA and penalty imposition that will not be covered (at least not today), and is important for the Second Circuit’s rejection of the IRS position that the taxpayer was required to raise the Section 6571 issue.   It is lengthy, but worth a read for practitioners focusing on tax controversy work.

PT regulars know that we have covered this topic on the blog in the past, including the recent taxpayer loss in the very divided Tax Court decision in Graev v. Commissioner.  Keith’s post on Graev from December can be found here.  For readers interested in a full review of that case and the history of this matter, Keith’s blog is a great starting point, and has links to prior posts written by him, Carlton Smith, and Frank Agostino (whose firm handled Graev and also the Chai case). Graev was actually only recently entered, and is appealable to the Second Circuit, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the taxpayer in that case files a motion to vacate based on the Second Circuit’s rejection of the Tax Court’s approach in Greav.

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Before discussing the  Second Circuit holding, I will crib some content from Keith, to indicate the status of the law before yesterday.  Here is Keith’s summary of the holding in Graev:

The Court split pretty sharply in its opinion with nine judges in the majority deciding that the IRC 6751(b) argument premature since the IRS had not yet assessed the liability, three judges concurring because the failure to obtain managerial approval did not prejudice the taxpayers and five judges dissenting because the failure to obtain managerial approval prior to the issuance of the notice of deficiency prevented the IRS from asserting this penalty (or the Court from determining that the taxpayer owed the penalty.)

That paragraph from Keith’s post regarding the holding doesn’t cover the lengthy and nuanced discussion, but his full post does for those who are interested.  The Second Circuit essentially rejected every position taken by the majority and concurrence in Graev, and almost completely agreed with the dissenting Tax Court judges (with a  few minor differences in rationale).

For its Section 6751(b) review, the Second Circuit began by reviewing the language of the statute.  It highlighted the fact that the Tax Court did the same, and found the language of the statute unambiguous, a conclusion with which the Second Circuit disagreed.

Section 6751(b)(1) states, in pertinent part:

No penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination…[emph. added]

The Tax Court found the lack of specification as to when the approval of the immediate supervisor was required allowed the immediate supervisor to approve the determination at any point, even after the statutory notice of deficiency was issued or the Tax Court reviewed the matter.

The Second Circuit, however, found the language ambiguous, and the lack of specification as to when the approval was required problematic.  The Second Circuit stated “[u]understanding § 6751 and appreciating its ambiguity requires proficiency with the deficiency process,” and then went through a primer on the issue.  To paraphrase the Second Circuit, the assessment occurs when the liability is recorded by the Secretary, which is “essentially a bookkeeping notation.”  It is the last step before the IRS can collect a deficiency.  The Second Circuit stated the deficiency is announced to the taxpayer in a SNOD, along with its intention to assess.  The taxpayer then has 90 days to petition the Tax Court for review.  If there is a petition to the Court, it then becomes the Court’s job to determine the amount outstanding.  As it is the Court’s job to determine the amount of the assessment, the immediate supervisor no longer has the ability to approve or not approve the penalty.  The Second Circuit agreed with the Graev dissent that “[i]n light of the historical meaning of ‘assessment,’” the phrase “initial determination of such assessment” did not make sense.  A deficiency can be determined, as can the decision to make an assessment, but you cannot determine an assessment.

The Second Circuit then looked to the legislative history, and found the requirement was meant to force the supervisor to approve the penalty before it was issued to the taxpayer, not simply before the bookkeeping function was finalized.  The Court further stated, as I noted above, if the supervisor is to give approval, it must be done at a time when the supervisor actually has authority.  As the Court noted, [t]hat discretion is lost once the Tax Court decision becomes final: at that point, § 6215(a) provides that ‘the entire amount redetermined as the deficiency…shall be assessed.”  The supervisor (and the IRS generally) can no longer approve or deny the imposition of the penalty.  The Court further noted, the authority to approve really vanishes upon a taxpayer filing with the Tax Court, as the statute provides approval of “the initial determination of such assessment,” and once the Court is involved it would no longer be the initial determination.  Continuing this line of thought, the Second Circuit stated that the taxpayer can file with the Tax Court immediately after the issuance of the notice of deficiency, so it is really the issuance of the notice of deficiency that is the last time where an initial determination could be approved.

This aspect of the holding is important for two reasons.  First, the Second Circuit is requiring the approval at the time of the NOD, and not allowing it to be done at some later point.  Second, this takes care of the ripeness issue.  If the time is set for approval, and it has passed, then the Court must consider the issue.

Of potentially equal importance in the holding is the fact that the Second Circuit stated unequivocally that the Service had the burden of production on this matter under Section 7491(c) and was responsible for showing the approval. It is fairly clear law that the Service has the burden of production and proof on penalties once a taxpayer challenges the penalties, with taxpayers bearing the burden on affirmative defenses.   The case law on whether the burden of production exists when a taxpayer doesn’t directly contest the penalties is a little more murky (thanks to Carlton Smith for my education on this matter).  The Second Circuit made clear its holding that the burden of production was solely on the Service, and the taxpayer had no obligation to raise the matter nor the burden of proof to show the approval was not given.  The Service had argued the taxpayer waived this issue by not bringing it up earlier in the proceeding, which the Second Circuit found non-persuasive.

As to the substance of the matter, the Second Circuit held the government never once indicated there was any evidence of compliance with Section 6751.  Since the Commissioner failed to meet is burden of production and proof, the penalty could not be assessed and the taxpayer was not responsible for paying it.  A very good holding for taxpayers, and we would expect a handful of other case to come through soon.  Given the division within the Tax Court, and the various rationales, it would not be surprising to see other Circuits hold differently.

Tax Expenditures and Complexity

I returned last week from a conference that focused on the challenges that tax agencies across the world face in administering tax systems. One part of our tax system stood out in comparison with other systems. While most systems rely in some part on tax agencies to administer tax laws that promote social goals in addition to raising revenue, IRS seems to be the champ in terms of administering social programs embedded in the tax laws.

The other day the Congressional Budget Office released a blog post summarizing tax expenditures. Whether a particular item in the Code is classified as an expenditure is subject to some debate, but the CBO defines the terms as an “array of exclusions, deductions, preferential rates, and credits that reduce revenues for any given level of tax rates in the individual, payroll, and corporate income tax systems.”

Like direct spending, tax expenditures promote certain activities (like home ownership) or benefit some classes of taxpayers or entities. CBO estimates that tax expenditures will reach around $1.5 trillion in 2017, or around half of all federal revenues.

As the CBO blog post notes, the top expenditures in terms of total revenues foregone are the following:

  1. The exclusion from workers’ taxable income of employers’ contributions for health care, health insurance premiums, and premiums for long-term care insurance;
  2. The exclusion of contributions to and the earnings of pension funds (minus pension benefits that are included in taxable income);
  3. Preferential tax rates on dividends and long-term capital gains;
  4. The deferral for profits earned abroad, which certain corporations may exclude from their taxable income until those profits are returned to the United States; and
  5. The deductions for state and local taxes (on nonbusiness income, sales, real estate, and personal property).

The CBO post and its link to recent Congressional testimony and an annual Joint Committee report discussing tax expenditures have more detail on these and others (like refundable credits, deductions for charitable contributions and home mortgage interest deductions).

The National Taxpayer Advocate, in her 2016 annual report has noted the complexity and burden that follows from many expenditures. Congress’ desire to target benefits to certain taxpayers or reward certain activities often is accompanied by complexity in terms of eligibility criteria. Not surprisingly, lobbyists can influence legislation in ways that are meant to hide the impact of provisions that favor certain industries or even specific taxpayers.

As Congress perhaps turns its attention to tax reform (though there seems to be many legislative balls in the air so reform is no sure thing), it would be wise for Congress to consider administrability and complexity in determining whether the IRS is the appropriate agency to be in charge of specific programs or benefits.

In this year’s annual report the NTA proposes that Congress take a “zero-based budgeting” approach that specificically calls on Congress to weigh burdens on taxpayers and the IRS:

The starting point for discussion would be a tax code without any exclusions or reductions in income or tax. A tax break or IRS-administered social program would be added back only if lawmakers decide, on balance, that the public policy benefits of running the provision or program through the tax code outweigh the tax complexity burden the provision creates for taxpayers and the IRS.  At the end of the exercise, tax rates can be set at whatever level is required to raise the amount of revenue that Congress determines is appropriate.

There are many specific targets for consideration if Congress is not up for the task of taking on wholesale reform. When one considers the array of education benefits and the hodgepodge of family status benefits embedded in the tax code it seems like a Congress intent on simplifying the lives of taxpayers and IRS would have plenty of places to start.

 

 

What is a Taxpayer Assistance Order?

A recent Program Manager Technical Assistance (PMTA) opinion (CC:NTA-POSTN-132247-16) issued by the attorney to the National Taxpayer Advocate provides insight on taxpayer assistance orders (TAOs).  Only select employees of the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) can issue TAOs.  Taxpayer representatives benefit from understanding TAOs because having the authorized TAS employee issue a TAO on behalf of your client can go a long way toward resolving a case in which the IRS has taken an incorrect or unreasonable position that you cannot otherwise convince it to reverse.  The PMTA does not describe how to obtain a TAO but instead describes the process within TAS and the operating division after the issuance of a TAO.  This post will discuss the process of obtaining a TAO and then the path that the TAO might follow.

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Around the country there are Local Taxpayer Advocates (LTAs) in every state.  Larger states have more than one and every service center has one.  There are a total of 84 LTAs.  If you do not know the LTA for your area, you might want to get to know them because this person will assist you when your client has a serious hardship.  Better to know your LTA and develop a relationship of trust before you face the pressure of seeking their assistance with a time sensitive hardship matter.  The LTAs constantly have outreach efforts so that representatives in the area of their geographical coverage do know who they are and what they can accomplish.

If your taxpayer experiences significant hardship because of IRS action, and this does not just include collection action, although that is traditionally a source of hardship, and if your client’s case meets TAS case criteria for acceptance, then the LTA can initiate a TAO ordering the appropriate IRS operating unit to take action or to stop action in order to alleviate the hardship.  The power of the LTA to do this derives from IRC 7811 and delegation from the National Taxpayer Advocate.  The delegation does not go below the LTA so case advocates working the case with the taxpayer or the representative do not have the authority to issue a TAO but must convince the head of their office, the LTA, to do so.

The LTA will only issue the TAO if convinced that the operating division has acted incorrectly based on the Code or, more likely, the Internal Revenue Manual.  The more research you provide to the TAS caseworker and the LTA showing that the IRS has acted inappropriately, the more likely the LTA will consider a TAO.  The LTA does not want to issue a TAO and have the operating division point out the basis for the TAO is incorrect since the LTA will lose credibility.    Some LTAs issue TAOs regularly and some almost never.  In addition to getting to know your LTA, you want to get a sense of whether your LTA has demonstrated a willingness to issue TAOs and under what circumstances.

The PMTA describes the process of what happens after TAS issues the TAO.  Before issuing the TAO, the LTA will call the impacted operating division.  Let’s say that your small business client was the victim of a fraudulent payroll services provider similar to the unfortunate McDonald’s franchisee I blogged about last year.  Your client now owes $40,000 in payroll taxes to the IRS it paid to the payroll services provider but which was stolen.  Your client’s business has more than $40,000 in equity and income resources so that it does not qualify for an offer in compromise on doubt as to collectability; however, if it pays over another $40,000 the payment will severely cripple the company.  The company makes an effective tax administration offer in compromise of $5,000 which the special OIC unit for ETA offers rejects.  You bring the case to the LTA and point out the IRM provisions that suggest the IRS will consider an ETA under these circumstances.

The LTA can issue a TAO to the OIC unit that considers ETA offers asking that it reconsider the OIC taking into account the IRM provisions.  First, the LTA will call.  After being rebuffed, the LTA will write up the TAO citing to the IRM provisions and detailing the hardship created by the embezzlement.  If the manager of the OIC unit refuses to reconsider the OIC, the normal path is for the LTA to forward the TAO to his or her manager, the Deputy Executive Director Case Advocacy (DEDCA).  The refusal process may involve phone discussions between the LTA and the OIC manager after receipt of the TAO or it may simply involve a written response denying (appealing) the requested action in the TAO.  The LTA cannot accept the OIC but can only use the TAO process to direct and persuade the appropriate function within the IRS to take the action that the LTA thinks would appropriately follow the rules and regulations governing the IRS.  When the LTA receives the appeal of the TAO from the operating unit, the LTA can modify or rescind the TAO, or sustain the appeal.  If the LTA disagrees with the response, the LTA forwards the appealed TAO to the DEDCA for review.  The PMTA describes the process in detail.

If the TAO moves from the LTA to the DEDCA, the DEDCA reviews the TAO to determine its correctness.  This process might involve a fair amount of back and forth between the LTA and the DEDCA.  Just as the LTA must be persuaded that issuing the TAO will not create an embarrassment, so must the LTA now persuade the DEDCA.  The more persuasive the LTA can present the facts and the law (or the IRM) the more likely that the LTA will convince the DEDCA that the TAO should be sustained.  If the DEDCA agrees with the TAO, the DEDCA will raise it to the level of the territory manager.  The manager of the offer unit knows that this is a possibility from the start and knows that if the OIC unit has followed the wrong process or made a boneheaded decision, this process will shine a light on that fact.  Conversely, if the head of the OIC unit feels strongly that they have correctly interpreted the applicable rules and evaluated the circumstances surrounding the OIC, the manager will deny the TAO and stand ready to face the scrutiny from the territory manager.  The elevation of the TAO will cause one or more conversations between the territory manager and the OIC manager about the case which may result in acceptance of the TAO or rejection and the rejection may, or may not, include new facts not previously mentioned.

If the territory manager rejects the TAO, then the DEDCA must decide whether to send it to the NTA.  If the TAO goes forward to the NTA, she raises it to the Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner.  The process provides an interesting dance of competing bureaucratic emotions.  The operating divisions hate being told what to do and that they have done something wrong.  Many can be quite smug about the correctness with which they handle the matters coming through their office but at the same time they also hate shining the light on their practices to their boss and their boss’ boss.  The practice can have good effect of fixing bad practices, it can expose TAS as too overbearing if it pushes a TAO not properly grounded and it can create animosity between TAS and the operating division rather than a spirit of cooperation to reach the right result.  Sometimes, TAS becomes more the “enemy” than the taxpayer.

The PMTA focuses on what to do when new facts come to light during the process of the TAO.  Because the TAO causes the operating division to carefully look at what it did and to justify its actions, the possibility exists that the action it took was correct for a reason it did not mention to the taxpayer or even to the LTA when the TAO was first issued.  The PMTA opines that when the operating division raises new facts in response to a TAO or the appeal of a TAO, the appropriate person within TAS has the ability to go back to same level of employee within the operating division with a supplemental memo “to the same official addressing the concerns raised in the response and ordering that the official reconsider the matter again in light of the new information before modifying or sustain the TAO to the next level IRS official for further consideration.”

The current IRM does not address the situation of sending the case back from the same level for reconsideration.  The IRM contemplates a back and forth but does not mention this formal move seeking reconsideration.  The guidance here is not radical and simply formalizes what probably was happening in a less formal way.  It does provide a formal opportunity for clarification and resolution of the issue at lower levels.  Such a resolution is good for the taxpayer and the IRS.  Because the TAS is a voice for taxpayers behind the curtain of the IRS, we do not get to see what goes on between the two sides in the TAO disputes.  The PMTA gives a good description of the process.  For taxpayers being “represented” by TAS in this process and for taxpayers or representatives considering the use of TAS to resolve a problem, understanding the process and the possibilities makes use of the process more possible.  If done correctly, it has the ability to greatly assist taxpayers, to fix systemic problems within the IRS and to avoid litigation or feelings of utter frustration.

Using a Refund Suit to Remedy Identity Theft of Return Preparer Fraud

Today, we welcome guest blogger, Robert G. Nassau.  Professor Nassau teaches at Syracuse University College of Law and directs the low income taxpayer clinic (LITC) there.  Today, he discusses twin problems that have plagued my taxpayers, identity theft and preparer fraud.  He has employed refund suits before to resolve cases in which the IRS has frozen a taxpayer’s earned income tax credit and in the post today he explains how he used a refund suit to solve a seemingly intractable identity theft/preparer fraud issue.  His pioneering and innovative use of refund suits to craft favorable results for his clients is probably what caused him to become the author of the chapter on refunds in the book “Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS.”  The book is gearing up for its seventh edition in 2017 and Professor Nassau has signed on for another update of the refund chapter.  Keith

As all tax professionals know, tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud are widespread, and trying to assist a victim of these crimes – despite significant procedural improvements made by the Internal Revenue Service – can make one envy Sisyphus and his Boulder Problem.  Recently, the Syracuse University College of Law Low Income Taxpayer Clinic successfully resolved one such taxpayer’s ordeal – and did it by filing a refund suit in Federal District Court.  This is his story.

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The Taxpayer.

Prior to 2011, John Doe (not his real name) had traditionally prepared and filed his own tax returns, and had never had any problems.  When he was working on his 2011 return, his calculations were not leading to his accustomed refund.  When he mentioned his dilemma to a friend, she suggested that he contact Bonnie Parker (not her real name), who, according to the friend, was very knowledgeable in all things tax.  John went to Bonnie, showed her his W-2, and gave her some additional personal information.  Bonnie said she would look into it and get back to him, but she never did.  John never saw her again.  John himself did not timely file his 2011 return, because he was considering filing for bankruptcy, and thought he had three years to file the return.

The Crime Perpetrated.

Unbeknownst, at the time, to John, Bonnie submitted a fraudulent return using John’s identity and some of his legitimate information, and received a refund of about $5,000.

The Crime Discovered.

In early 2013, John realized that something was amiss, as he started to get collection notices regarding “his” 2011 tax return.  The Service had audited John’s “return” on the basis of both automated underreporting and child-based benefits.  Because the audit was ignored, John now found himself assessed close to $6,000.

The Failure of Traditional Remedies.

Having “put two and two together,” John filed his real 2011 return in the summer of 2013, claiming a refund of about $2,000.  This return was not processed.  In early 2014, John went to his local Taxpayer Assistance Center, where he was encouraged to submit an Identity Theft Affidavit (IRS Form 14039), which he did.  This did not solve the problem.  Later in 2014 he was told to submit a Tax Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit (IRS Form 14157-A), and a Complaint: Tax Return Preparer (IRS Form 14157).  John submitted both of these Forms.  He also filed a police report with the Syracuse Police Department.  None of this solved his problem.  In fact, while he was trying to solve his 2011 problem, his refunds for 2012 and 2013 (and, later 2014) were all offset and applied to his 2011 “debt,” reducing it to around $2,000.  In early 2015, John sought help from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which, despite diligent efforts by his Case Advocate, was unable to fix the problem.  Apparently, the Service was confused by whether this was an Identity Theft case or a Return Preparer Fraud case.  In addition, the Service was suspicious of John and his “relationship” with Bonnie.  Ultimately, his Case Advocate suggested that he contact the Syracuse LITC.

Commencement of the Refund Suit.

Concluding that it would be fruitless to try to solve John’s problem administratively (that train had left the station and was not coming back), the Syracuse LITC decided to file a refund suit on John’s behalf in Federal District Court, which it did in November 2015.  The Complaint sought a recovery of John’s claimed refunds on his actual 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 returns. In our view, because each of those returns had claimed a refund; six months had passed since each return had been filed; and it was not more than two years from John’s receipt of a notice of disallowance with respect to any of his claims (there had been no such notices), the District Court had jurisdiction to hear his case.  (Section 6532(a)(1) of the Code.)

The Department of Justice Answers.

In his Answer, the attorney for the Department of Justice raised two interesting points (while denying most of the factual assertions for lack of knowledge): (1) the refunds for 2012, 2013 and 2014 had actually been granted – they had just been offset to 2011, therefore, there was no issue for those years; and (2) there might be a jurisdictional issue regarding 2011, because there was currently a balance due for 2011, and, pursuant to United States v. Flora, one cannot bring a refund suit if one still owes any part of the taxes assessed for that year.  While this first point is not without a good deal of merit, the second point creates a fascinating potential Catch-22 (fascinating from a tax law perspective, not from a solve-the-problem perspective).  If the DOJ attorney were correct, the Court would implicitly have to conclude that the fraudulent return was the real return, when the case is premised on the fact that the fraudulent return is fraudulent and the real return shows a refund (hence no Flora issue).  Effectively, if the DOJ attorney were correct, one might never get his “day in court” to prove that he was the victim of identity theft or return prepare fraud.

How It Played Out.

While reserving his Flora argument, the DOJ attorney flew to Syracuse to depose John.  Having listened to John’s story in person, and having done some independent sleuthing of his own, the DOJ attorney concluded that John was telling the truth.  He arranged to have the fraudulent 2011 return (and its liability) purged from the system, and John’s actual 2011 return respected and processed.  Interestingly, that actual 2011 return wound up showing a small liability, but it was more than offset by John’s 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 refunds, so he received a significant check.  It took thirteen months from the time John filed his refund suit until the time his account was rectified and he received his proper refund.

Lessons and Observations.

Given John’s – and even TAS’s – inability to solve his tax problem administratively, a refund suit seemed his best, if not only, resort.  While it took over a year to reach the correct result, the refund suit brought with it an intelligent, diligent and dedicated DOJ attorney who, to his credit, seemed more concerned with reaching the correct result than with trying to set a new jurisdictional precedent.  It also brought a Judge who seemed to believe John from the “get-go,” and who prodded the parties toward settlement.  While we would certainly recommend fully exhausting one’s administrative avenues of relief first, where those have proven unsuccessful, we would encourage taxpayers to file refund suits to get the result they deserve.

 

Tax Court Won’t Certify Battat for Interlocutory Appeal

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes today in continuation of coverage concerning the status of the Tax Court within the constitutional framework.  We especially thank Carl for his timely guest post as Les presents on taxpayer rights in Vienna, Steve shovels out in Philadelphia, and I visit warmer climes for spring break.  Keith

In Battat v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 2 (Feb. 2, 2017), on which we blogged here and here, the Tax Court (Judge Colvin) held that there is no constitutional separation of powers problem in the President’s holding a removal power under section 7443(f) with respect to its judges.  Battat holds that the Tax Court is not a part of the Executive Branch — unlike the D.C. Circuit in Kuretski v. Commissioner, 755 F.3d 929 (D.C. Cir. 2014), which held that the Tax Court was still an Executive Branch entity.

Joe DiRuzzo is the lawyer for the Battats and several additional clients in whose cases he raised the same constitutional argument.  He has cases that could be appealed to several different Circuits.  His cases are before Judges Colvin, Jacobs, and Wherry, and Chief Judge Marvel.  After the Battat opinion, Joe moved for permission to file an interlocutory appeal on this separation of powers issue in the cases that are before Judges Colvin, Jacobs, and Wherry.  Interlocutory appeal orders are not granted automatically, and must be issued under section 7482(a)(2)(A).  The court should grant an interlocutory appeal motion if (1) a controlling question of law is involved, (2) substantial grounds for a difference of opinion are present, and (3) an immediate appeal may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.

In First Western Government Securities v. Commissioner, 94 T.C. 549 (1990), affd. sub nom. Samuels, Kramer & Co. v. Commissioner, 930 F.2d 975 (2d Cir. 1991), the Tax Court had held, unanimously and en banc, that it is a Court of Law for purposes of the Appointments Clause, so there is no problem with the Chief Judge’s appointment of its Special Trial Judges.  Despite the absence of any contrary holding at the time, the Tax Court in First Western certified an interlocutory appeal of its holding because of the importance of the issue — eventually leading to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991). See 94 T.C. at 569 (Appendix E) for the interlocutory certification.

On March 14, Judges Colvin, Jacobs, and Wherry each denied Joe DiRuzzo’s motions to certify the Kuretski/Battat issues in his cases for immediate interlocutory appeal.  Here’s a link to the order in Battat, though the orders are identical in each case.  The orders admit that there is a divergence in the reasoning between the Tax Court and D.C. Circuit as to how both courts get to the conclusion that there is no constitutional problem in the removal power.  But, the Tax Court judges do not think that divergence enough to warrant interlocutory appeals.  The orders simply state:

The Court of Appeals in Kuretski applied a different analysis, but it rejected, as did this Court, the contention that Presidential removal authority is unconstitutional. Petitioners cite, and we are aware, of no legal authority supporting petitioners’ contention regarding the controlling issue of law in this case. Thus, we conclude that the second requirement of section 7482(a)(2), the presence of “substantial grounds for a difference of opinion”, is not met.

I beg to differ, and so, doubtless, would the late Justice Scalia.  He wrote in his concurrence in Freytag:

When the Tax Court was statutorily denominated an “Article I Court” in 1969, its judges did not magically acquire the judicial power. They still lack life tenure; their salaries may still be diminished; they are still removable by the President for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” 26 U.S.C. § 7443(f).   (In Bowsher v. Synar, supra, [478 U.S. 714] at 729 [(1986)], we held that these latter terms are “very broad” and “could sustain removal . . . for any number of actual or perceived transgressions.”) How anyone with these characteristics can exercise judicial power “independent . . . [of] the Executive Branch” is a complete mystery. It seems to me entirely obvious that the Tax Court, like the Internal Revenue Service, the FCC, and the NLRB, exercises executive power.

501 U.S. at 912 (emphasis in original; some citations omitted).

I am surprised that the orders make no mention of the interlocutory appeal certification granted in First Western.  I think that this, at the very least, is inconsistent behavior by the Tax Court as to allowing interlocutory appeals.

 

Update on the Issue of the Prior Opportunity to Dispute a Liability in a Collection Due Process Case

On February 28, 2017, I wrote about the Keller Tank case in which the 10th Circuit followed prior Tax Court precedent and the language of the collection due process (CDP) regulations in denying a taxpayer the opportunity to raise the merits of underlying liability in a CDP case where the taxpayer had the administrative, but not judicial, opportunity to raise the issue prior to the CDP case.  In that post, I noted that Lavar Taylor argued three cases in different circuits with this identical issue in a very short time span.  On March 7, 2017, the 4th Circuit issued its opinion in Iames v. Commissioner, No. 16-1154, the second of those three cases.  The 4th Circuit reached the same conclusion as the 10th Circuit validating the regulation as a reasonable interpretation of the statute.  You can hear the oral argument here.  Judge Wilkinson wrote a strong opinion explaining the basis for his decision.  He not only supported the position of the IRS based on IRC 6330(c)(2) but also bought the government’s secondary argument under IRC 6330 (c)(4) which the 10th Circuit did not reach.  This leaves taxpayers hoping for relief through the CDP process with only one circuit remaining to change the course of the discussion at least in this round of attacks on the governing regulation.  The 4th Circuit had no discomfort creating a distinction between taxpayers with deficiency procedure taxes versus those whose liabilities do not use those procedures.  For those interested in a full blown discussion of this issue, come to the Pro Bono and Tax Clinics Committee meeting on Saturday May 13 at the ABA Tax Section meeting in DC or order the recording of the discussion.

Taxpayer Rights and Declining Budgets

Today marks the opening of the Second International Taxpayer Rights Conference. It is hosted by the Institute for Austrian and International Tax Law at WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) in Vienna, Austria.

This conference connects government officials, scholars, and practitioners from around the world to explore how taxpayer rights globally serve as the foundation for effective tax administration.

For two days, the conference will consider a range of issues, including:

  • Taxpayer Rights in Multi-Jurisdictional Disputes
  • Privacy and Transparency in Tax Administration
  • Access to Taxpayer Rights: The Right to Quality Service in Today’s Environment
  • Transforming Cultures of Agencies and Taxpayers
  • Impact of Penalty Administration on Taxpayer Trust

There are some very interesting panelists and over 160 attendees representing 40 different countries.  Facebook live sessions of the conference can be found at www.facebook.com/TaxAnalysts.org/videos

I am appearing on a panel discussing taxpayer rights in era of reduced agency budgets. My talk is entitled Thoughts on Taxpayer Rights and an Uncertain Future, and an upcoming paper based on it will be published as part of the conference proceedings. A significant number of the panelists’ talks will result in published papers.

Part of my talk addresses how an agency can best juggle its multiple roles when faced with declining resources. This is an issue the IRS knows well. To be sure, there have been trends like e-filing that allow for a more efficient and lean tax agency, and many developed countries are squeezing efficiency gains out of tax administrators. Yet budget pressures on the IRS have been constant over the last five years, and it looks like more major cuts are coming. For example, the NY Times reported last week that a Trump budget would include a 14% funding cut for the IRS.

The issue of declining resources and a drop in IRS service is a good way to link last week’s hearings sponsored by the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittees on Government Operations and Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules that focused on the IRS “failure to efficiently direct available resources to customer service and what might be done to improve it.”

The hearings included an IRS executive discussing IRS performance in the last year or so, with a generally optimistic discussion of improvements (due in part to the FY 16 the first increase in six years to IRS funding) over the dreadful 2015 filing season when some measures of service like answering phone calls and responding to correspondence were weak by most every measure. Last week’s TIGTA testimony is a more measured assessment of IRS performance and lays out some of the specific 2017 filing season challenges and difficulties IRS has in staffing taxpayer assistance centers and performing

The GAO in its written testimony found an uptick in IRS’s service last filing season as compared to 2015, though still found considerable room for improvement:

In summary, we found that IRS provided better telephone service to callers during the 2016 filing season—generally between January and mid-April—compared to 2015. However, its performance during the full fiscal year remained low. Furthermore, IRS does not make this nor other types of customer service information easily available to taxpayers, such as in an online dashboard. Without easily accessible information, taxpayers are not well informed of what to expect when requesting services from IRS. We also found that IRS has improved aspects of service for victims of IDT refund fraud However, inefficiencies contribute to delays, and potentially weak internal controls may lead to the release of fraudulent refunds. In turn, this limits IRS’s ability to serve taxpayers and protect federal dollars.

The mainstream media has picked up on some of the implications of continued IRS budget cuts; see, e.g. Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post Trump’s gift to Americans: Making it easier to cheat on their taxes. Deep cuts in IRS budgets as may be on the horizon are likely to create continued complaints both about declining direct measures of compliance and on measures of IRS service like answering the phone and making employees available to meet in person with taxpayers. Budget cuts and drops in service tend to hit hardest on those with fewer resources. In addition, while IRS has now adopted a formal set of taxpayer rights, to ensure protection of those rights it often takes a committed agency both willing to identify problems its taxpayers experience and to ensure its procedures and practices respect and promote those rights. Whether IRS will be able to balance its many responsibilities while respecting the taxpayer rights it agrees to protect is something that is on uncertain ground in this uncertain time.