Did the IRS Just Buy Off the Tea-Party?

Guest blogger Stu Bassin updates readers on what appears to be the end of the line for the politically charged NorCal Tea Party case involving a lawsuit against the IRS for improper review of applications for tax exempt status. We previously discussed this case in a guest post by Marilyn Ames and most recently in Stu’s earlier guest post concerning class certification. As Marilyn and Stu noted in their earlier posts, and as Stu discusses today, this case has raised many unusual issues, and the resolution is no different. Les

You may have missed the small item in the tax press describing the latest embarrassment for the Service arising out of the agency’s handling of applications for tax exempt status submitted by “tea party” organizations. The taxpayers, their supporters in the press, and many in Congress have long contended that the IRS action was politically motivated and evidence of an agency running amok. Meanwhile, the Service bungled its response, adding fuel to the fire. While public discussion of the scandal has subsided in recent months, we learned last week that the Government had settled a class action brought by the Tea-Party organizations with a $3.5 million payment from the Treasury. NorCal Tea Party Patriots v. Internal Revenue Service, No. 13-cv-00341 (Order of April 4, 2018).

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For any of you who do not know remember the back story, the underlying dispute began nearly a decade ago with filing of a spate of applications for tax-exempt status by organizations with political agendas, including many organizations associated with the Tea Party movement. The applications attempted to skirt the prohibition against political activities by tax-exempt organizations, although the political focus of the applicants was readily apparent. The exempt organizations specialists within the Service’s National Office, headed by Lois Lerner, eventually transferred the applications to a small office in the Cincinnati Service Center, where they largely languished in inaction. The motive for the Service’s action is a subject of dispute—many have contended that the Service was implementing the political agenda of the Obama administration. The official explanation of what happened provided by senior Service officials kept changing, Ms. Lerner refused to testify at Congressional hearings, the Service “lost” the data from Ms. Lerner’s computer, and IRS Commissioner Koskinen’s appearances before congressional committees only added to fears of political wrongdoing. Years later, several senior Service officials have left office with their reputations damaged, the public standing of the Service has declined even further following congressional hearings, and many of the complaining organizations have quietly received tax-exempt status.

Naturally, the scandal generated a substantial amount of litigation, little of which has gone well for the Government. The Nor-Cal case was brought as a class-action by one of the disappointed applicants for tax-exempt status. According to the plaintiffs, the Service gave increased scrutiny to applications submitted by the taxpayer and other politically conservative groups, delayed action on some of the applications and, in some cases, requested additional and unnecessary information from the applicants to delay review of their applications. Substantively, the plaintiffs’ legal claims asserted violations of the First Amendment and the Section 6103 prohibition against disclosure of taxpayer return information.

For several years, the Government vigorously (and unsuccessfully) defended the case. It objected to certification of the case as a class action and vehemently resisted discovery of documentation from the Service’s files. The courts rejected the Government’s technical legal arguments, certified the case as a class action involving any disappointed applicant for tax-exempt status, and required very broad production of Service documents regarding the processing of applications for exempt status submitted by taxpayers who were not parties to the case. Overall, the courts made it quite clear that they did not approve of the Service’s conduct of the whole affair and might well rule for the taxpayers on the merits.

The recent settlement of the Nor-Cal case almost went unnoticed, although the Government agreed to pay damages of $3.5 million to members of the class. (The bland settlement agreement filed in court did not mention the amount of damages, but subsequent reporting disclosed the payment.) While other cases brought by similar taxpayers had previously had been settled, this appears to be the first case resulting in a payment of damages by the government.

The settlement is remarkable in part because the taxpayers’ claims appear to have had massive legal and factual holes, even accepting the taxpayers’ allegations regarding the Service’s mis-handling of their exemption applications. Some of those holes include—

  • Given the uncertainty regarding the bounds between permissible educational advocacy and impermissible political activity, had the taxpayers established that they would have been entitled to tax-exempt status absent the alleged misconduct?
  • Was there any specific evidence that the Service had violated Section 6103 by improperly disclosing any taxpayer’s tax return information to anyone—the only conduct barred by Section 6103?
  • Assuming that the Service had delayed approval of the taxpayers’ applications for tax exemption because of their politics, is that conduct sufficient to establish a constitutional violation actionable under Bivens, particularly given the extensive authority rejecting Bivens claims under outrageous factual circumstances?
  • Recognizing that the taxpayers were asserting that the Service had delayed (not rejected) their applications, when does delay in processing a request for a ruling become a constitutional violation, particularly recognizing that the wheels of government bureaucracy (and especially the IRS ruling process) often grinds slowly?
  • What damages could the taxpayers establish resulted from an improper delay in granting tax-exempt status?
  • Given the case law drastically limiting the availability of class actions in cases involving taxation, why weren’t the varying facts regarding the applications of various class members an insurmountable barrier to class certification?
  • These issues do not appear to have been fully litigated (at least not at the appellate level).

Under the circumstances, the Government’s willingness to settle the case by paying damages to the class is remarkable. This blogger’s experience has been that the procedures employed by the Government for reviewing settlement proposals of tax cases involving multi-million dollar payouts from the Treasury would have required formal written review by several officials in the Justice Department’s Tax Division, including the Acting Assistant General. Several Service employees would also have reviewed the proposal, with formal written approval given by someone acting on behalf of the current Acting Chief Counsel. Depending upon application of some nuances in the procedures governing settlements, a review by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation may have been required under Section 6405.

So, this blogger asks: What induced these officials to approve the settlement and the multi-million dollar payout? Did the Government’s evaluation of the litigating hazards (likelihood of success multiplied by potential damage award) justify a payment of $3.5 million to the class? Or, was the payment justified by other considerations (e.g., a desire to buy a quiet resolution to embarrassing litigation)? And, if so, is that a proper reason for the government to pay litigants? As much of that process was conducted internally within the government and is privileged, we will all be left to ponder the possibilities.

Notes and Handouts from the Tax Court Judicial Conference

At the Tax Court Judicial Conference last month, there were several breakout sessions and plenary sessions – many of which provided handouts that some of you might find useful. In this post, I will talk about several of the sessions and attach the documents from the section discussed.

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Future State of the Tax Court

Les wrote a post that covered some of this session. Because there was more and there were several documents, I am going to expand on his post.

The first concern the panel addressed was access to Court records. The outline does an excellent job of laying out the Court’s concerns about making its records as open as the records of other federal courts using the PACER system. The material cites to a couple of administrative courts, social security and immigration, that do not use the PACER system. I do not find those administrative courts to provide a perfect template for the Tax Court but appreciate the Court’s concern about the privacy of taxpayer information since most of the people the Court protects are low-income taxpayers filing pro se. In the recent submission to Congress, the tax clinic at Harvard made proposals on this issue seeking to open up the records to greater electronic access. The clinic’s proposal puts the burden on the IRS to redact. Making public documents submitted by the IRS was proposed by Judge Buch to the panel as Les mentioned in his post. It sounds as if the Canadian Tax Court, which has no electronic access today, plans to put everything online within three years.

The panel next turned to the Tax Court’s Rules. The question before the panel was whether it was time for the Tax Court to reissue its rules, which would allow it to reorder them and to make other logical changes. Since the rules were last created, Congress has added numerous types of jurisdiction to the Court. The press release when the rules were last changed can be found here, and the general categories here. Other events have caused changes to the rules that have resulted in the rules growing in a way that might not create the most orderly statement of what parties practicing before the Court might expect in researching the rules. A proposed topical grouping of Tax Court rules can be found here and guidelines for drafting and editing court rules here. One example given of a needed rule change/addition is the lack of any mention in the Tax Court’s rules of amicus briefs. A couple of years ago, the Court sent out requests for comments on its rules after Chief Counsel’s office wrote to the Court requesting certain rules changes. We discussed the request here. The Court promulgated rules without comment after a recent legislative burst and we wrote about it here. The tax clinic at Harvard has not experienced any difficulty filing amicus briefs in the Tax Court but having a rule laying out the expectations would be a great idea. My takeaway from the discussion is that we should expect an overhaul of the rules in the not too distant future. This endeavor will keep some people at the Court very busy.

The third issue presented by the panel involved reducing the cost of litigation. The panel discussed increased use of the electronic courtroom to reduce travel costs. It also discussed changing the expert witness rules. Because the Chief Judge of the Tax Court of Canada was on the panel, it was interesting to hear the perspective of that court on many issues, including experts and his views on the use of hot tubbing. I did not come away with a feeling of what changes are coming but I expect that changes may come.

The fourth issue concerned the impact of IRS actions on the Court. Attached to the report is a group of related documents among which is the National Taxpayer Advocate’s report on ETIC cases in Tax Court. The IRS puts very little time and effort into auditing cases through its correspondence process, which in turn puts cases into the Tax Court that have not been properly developed. The report details outcomes.

The final issue discussed concerned the impact of globalization on the Tax Court. Because of time, the discussion on the final two issues was relatively short.

Ethics

The panel on ethics gave attendees a PowerPoint presentation attached here. The PowerPoint contains 10 hypotheticals which the panel worked through during this session. The panel also provided the group with authorities for resolving each of the hypotheticals which are attached here, here, here, here, here, and here. If you have to teach tax ethics, this is a great set of materials. If you practice and want to review very relevant problems, these are worth the time. The most interesting and scary set of facts is found in hypothetical #9 and involves the representation of someone who is not the person they purported to be.

Litigation of Individual Tax Issues and TBOR

This session had two panels. Les and I were on the TBOR panel with Special Trial Judge Panuthos and Nina Olson. This session had a PowerPoint presentation, found here. Other materials from this session were a Decision Document Guide; Schedule C examples; an Annotated AUR Notice; a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Effectively Representing the Taxpayer in a Substantiation and Penalty Case”; a Model Stip Decision; and a Bibliography.

Exotic Jurisdictions

Les discussed this session in a previous post found here. This presentation involved a PowerPoint, found here.

Discovery and Stipulation Process

This presentation had a relatively short PowerPoint, found here. It was an excellent session although it is one that is difficult to recapture. The judges and the participants engaged in a good review of the discovery rules and how to put them to best use.

Mediation

This session had a relatively short PowerPoint, found here, and materials, found here. The stories from this panel were good. The Court seems genuinely interested in assisting parties through providing a mediation option. Although I do not see this as a likely avenue for the types of cases I litigate in the Tax Court with the clinic, I came away from the session with a better appreciation of mediation as a viable option. The panelists who had served as mediators spent time describing their special role in that context and how they thought they could best assist the parties in reaching an agreement. Because mediators get to hear both sides in a way that judges do not, this would seem to be a good break for the judges participating from the formal presentation of cases they hear routinely.

 

The Individual Mandate Loses Another Tooth

Christine Speidel brings us up to the minute on the individual mandate.  Keith

The Affordable Care Act has been limping along despite persistent efforts to roll back the law and loosen its interpretation and administration. Even the individual mandate remains in force for 2014 through 2018, to the chagrin of those who assumed that it would be repealed immediately or not enforced in the wake of 2017’s executive order. Nevertheless, the individual mandate is on its way out, and recent developments weaken its bite for the tax years to which it applies.  

The individual shared responsibility provision (ISRP) of the Code (section 5000A) requires most people to have health insurance, claim an exemption, or make an individual shared responsibility payment. In its preliminary review of the 2018 filing season, TIGTA reports that as of March 1 about 1.5 million tax returns reported ISRP totaling $993.9 million for 2017. Also, for the 2018 tax season the IRS implemented a filter to reject as incomplete returns which failed to report any of those three things. TIGTA reports that as of February 28, 2018 just over 104,000 “silent returns” had been rejected from e-filing.  

Taxpayers will have to report on their insurance status for at least one more tax season. In the December 2017 tax act, Congress reduced the penalty for not having insurance to $0 beginning on January 1, 2019. However, I’ve encountered people who believe the mandate is no longer in effect, including attorneys. I can understand why if they are checking the statute online. The way section 5000A was amended makes it look like the mandate is repealed already, but the effective date in the 2017 tax law says otherwise. The penalty is imposed per month without coverage or an exemption, and the Act § 11081(b) says “the amendments [to section 5000A] shall apply to months beginning after December 31, 2018.” Fortunately TIGTA reads that language the same way I do, so I can refer skeptics to their report.

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Although the ISRP is still in effect, recent administrative guidance opens the door for many more taxpayers to get a hardship exemption. On April 9, 2018, the Center for Consumer Information & Insurance Oversight (CCIIO) issued guidance providing additional expansive examples of circumstances for which hardship exemptions will be granted. The guidance also indicates that applications will be accepted without documentation. The applicant must submit a brief explanation, and “should provide documentation” “when available”.  

Exemptions from the ISRP must ultimately be claimed on a tax return, but hardship exemptions must first be approved by the Marketplace. (The IRS Form 8965 instructions have a helpful chart explaining how to claim the various exemptions.) All states except Connecticut use the federal marketplace for hardship exemptions. 

Hardship is defined in the exchange regulations and includes the catchall, “other circumstances that prevented [a person] from obtaining coverage under a qualified health plan.” 45 CFR § 155.605(d)(1). HHS (through CCIIO) has elaborated on the regulatory definition in guidance, and it posts hardship information and application forms on Healthcare.gov.   

The Marketplace hardship application lists 14 types of hardships, and the applicant must check off which boxes apply to them. The categories include homelessness, foreclosure or eviction, natural disaster, and domestic violence, among others, and the last category is “other”. These “category 14” hardship applications are reviewed on their merits and are well worth trying if your client can write a paragraph about why they should not have to pay a penalty. This has been the case for some time, but recent guidance provides reinforcement of the Marketplace’s current approach.  

The April 9 hardship guidance describes four additional examples of “category 14” hardships, which could apply to a significant number of people. Under the guidance, a hardship exemption may be granted if the applicant has no access to a Marketplace plan, or if there is only one insurance company offering plans in the applicant’s location. The latter is a major development. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that “In 2018, about 26% of enrollees (living in 52% of counties) have access to just one insurer on the marketplace.”   

The guidance goes on to give two more examples of personal circumstances that will support a hardship exemption: first, people who object to buying a plan that covers abortion and have no other options in the Marketplace; and second, people whose personal circumstances create a hardship in accessing care through their Marketplace plans.  

Practitioners whose clients paid or owe the ISRP for prior years should consider submitting a hardship exemption application and filing a protective claim for refund with the IRS. The exchange regulations allow hardship applications to be submitted “during one of the 3 calendar years after the month or months during which the applicant attests that the hardship occurred.” 45 CFR § 155.610(h)(2). The April 9 guidance indicates that the hardship must have occurred within the current calendar year or the prior two calendar years. (I nearly missed this but caught it in the Health Affairs blog.) So, the federal Marketplace’s position is that one could apply today based on a hardship from January 2016 or later. I am glad to have clarity on the Marketplace’s approach, but I question whether it makes sense. It seems that a 3-year period has been turned into less than 3 years, depending on when one’s hardship occurs. A calendar year is January 1 to December 31. If a hardship occurs in April 2018, isn’t the first calendar year after the month of hardship 2019? Alternately, if you’re using the second dictionary definition of “calendar year” (365 days), shouldn’t the applicant have 36 months after the month of hardship?  

To close out this ISRP update, last but not least I recommend reading the National Taxpayer Advocate’s Tax Day testimony before the House of Representatives. Her testimony touches on many areas of concern including taxpayer confusion about their ISRP obligations, and particular difficulties the Amish and Mennonite communities face in attempting to comply. These difficulties were not helped by the IRS mistakenly treating these taxpayers as “silent return” filers in 2017. The continuing and upcoming changes to the ISRP surely do not help either.

Lindsay Manor Reprise

Last year, we posted on the Tax Court’s decision in Lindsay Manor v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. 9 (2017). The taxpayer appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit, which has not only dismissed the appeal as moot but also vacated the Tax Court’s decision.

The Tax Court, in a precedential opinion, decided that a corporation could not avail itself of the hardship exception in IRC section 6343(a)(1)(D) holding, in support of Treas. Reg. 301.6343-1, that only individuals may avoid levy based on hardship.

On appeal, the government moved to dismiss the case as moot because Lindsay Manor no longer operated nursing home facilities. The 10th Circuit agreed because Lindsay Manor lacked a “personal stake in the outcome of the lawsuit.” The only issue on appeal was the applicability of IRC section 6343(a)(1)(D) to corporate taxpayers. Lindsay Manor had argued that it qualified for hardship relief only “because imposing the levy would leave it unable to ‘provide adequate care for its patients.’” Since Lindsay Manor no longer has patients this ground for relief does not exist anymore.

In dismissing for mootness, the 10th Circuit looked into the facts surrounding the nursing home Lindsay Manor operated. It turns out that another creditor had a receiver appointed six months before the Tax Court published its opinion. So, the case was moot before the Tax Court published its opinion. In the Tax Court, the IRS filed two motions for summary judgment. The second motion was filed on October 14, 2015 with the response from petitioner on October 28, 2015. The opinion was rendered on March 22, 2017 – about 17 months later. So, Lindsay Manor was operating the nursing home at the time of the last action by the parties prior to the issuance of the opinion. Obviously, neither the petitioner nor the IRS alerted the Tax Court to the change in circumstance.

I looked for a Tax Court Rule obligating the parties to notify the Court but could not find one.  I know that the IRS feels under an obligation to tell the Court when something happens that impacts jurisdiction and provides instructions to Chief Counsel attorneys for notification in the situation presented by this case, bankruptcy filings, etc. The IRS would not necessarily have known about the appointment of the receiver or at least not in a way that would naturally make its way to their Counsel. If petitioner’s counsel knew that his client had been replaced by a receiver, he probably should have notified the Tax Court although I could not file a Rule obliging him to do so.  If either party had notified the Court, I expect that the notification would have caused the Tax Court to not issue the opinion in the first place. Although the 10th Circuit talks below about what the Tax Court should have done, absent notification from one of the parties the Tax Court would have no reason to know of the change in circumstances. A quicker opinion might have averted the problem but this case was one of several with similar issues.  I find the criticism of the Tax Court on this point misplaced.  I was ready to place blame on petitioner’s counsel for not notifying the Court since he was the person most likely to know of the change in circumstances forming a basis for the vacatur but any criticism of petitioner’s counsel would require that they had notice of the receiver coupled with a duty to inform the Court.

The 10th Circuit stated:

“If an actual case or controversy ceases to exist during the course of tax court proceedings, the tax court must dismiss the case as moot.” Willson, 805 F.3d at 320. This case became moot when the court appointed the receiver. After that, Lindsay Manor no longer operated any nursing homes and consequently could not receive economic hardship relief. The Tax Court published its decision on March 23, 2017 – over six months after the receiver had been appointed and after the case had become moot. Rather than deciding the case’s merits, then, the Tax Court should have ‘dismiss[ed] the case as moot.’ Id. Vacatur is therefore appropriate.”

So, we have a sneak peek at what the Tax Court thinks about the regulation but the case itself no longer provides precedent for the position sustaining the regulation that economic hardship does not apply to corporations.

Don’t Expect a Whistleblower Award for Giving the IRS Privileged Information and General Information from the Judicial Conference on this Issue

At the recent Tax Court judicial conference, there was a specific breakout session dedicated to whistleblower cases. I attended the session not because my clinic has, or will ever have, a whistleblower case but because I have blogged a number of these cases which are coming out now with regularity. Since the jurisdictional basis is relatively new, many of the decisions set precedent. From going to this session, I now know that generally we have picked the most important issues to cover with our blog posts. Sadly, we have still not recruited a regular guest poster with expertise who could offer insights someone not litigating this type of case cannot offer. Anyone practicing in this area who would like to send us guest posts would be most welcome.

In addition to discussing and linking to information provided at the Judicial Conference about Whistleblowers, I will discuss a recent case involving the denial of any award. The case points out the difficulty that a claimant will have if the IRS determines that the information is privileged and the claimant disagrees. The Tax Court does not become the forum for litigating whether the IRS made the right decision regarding the privilege just as it does not second guess the IRS on whether it makes a good decision to pursue cases based on the information provided.

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The Conference

The non-judicial panel members for the whistleblower breakout session included: Erica L. Brady, of The Ferraro law Firm (a PT guest blogger); Bryan C. Skarlatos, of Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP; and Robert T. Wearing, of the IRS Office of Chief Counsel. The panel was co-moderated by The Honorable John O. Colvin and The Honorable Daniel A. Guy. During the session, documents were provided to attendees that were useful in following the presentation. The documentation was: first, an outline of the issues in whistleblower litigation; second, accompanying attachments to the outline of the whistleblower litigation issues; third, a general whistleblower outline on representing tax whistleblowers and defending against them; fourth, an outline on IRC section 6103 and the use and protection of taxpayer return information in whistleblower cases; and fifth, a copy of Form 11369 Confidential Evaluation Report on Claim for Award.

The Court provided some statistics on these cases during its presentation. Assuming my handwritten notes correctly captured the data provided, 101 whistleblower cases filed so far have requested permission to proceed anonymously. The Tax Court granted the request in about half of these cases, which is about the same number that were represented. The Court reminded us that the venue for appeal of these cases lies with the D.C. Circuit and stated that three cases were currently on appeal to that court. The number of petitioners seeking relief under this provision increased gradually until 2016 before dropping off in 2017. There were 56 whistleblower petitions filed in 2016 and only 45 in 2017. One panelist suggested fewer claims were filed because taxpayers and practitioners learned more about these claims. The number of IRC section 7623(b) claims has continued to rise each year. One surprising, but not too shocking, statistic was that it takes about seven and one-half years for a claim to go through the process to payout or denial.

Over 14,000 determinations have been made so far by the IRS whistleblower office but it is not clear how many of the determinations are for claims submitted under (a) and how many under (b). It is assumed that most are under (a). Last year the IRS made 242 awards, only 27 of which were under (b). Another thing I learned at the conference, related to the amount of time these cases take, is that the IRS has a relatively new program in which they try to follow up with a whistleblower each year.

The Case

On March 20, 2018, the Tax Court issued its most recent whistleblower opinion in the case of Whistleblower 23711-15W v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2018-34. In this sealed case, the Court granted summary judgment to the IRS because it did not initiate administrative or judicial action based on the information provided. The problem with the information was that the whistleblower, an attorney, got the information (in the view of the IRS) in a privileged context. The IRS decided that it could not use the information provided to it in order to create a case. There is not enough information in the opinion to permit a detailed analysis of the information and the privilege. The attorney must have thought that the information was not privileged. The attorney had enough concerns about the information in order to request and receive a sealing of the record of the case but that does not speak to the privilege. The IRS whistleblower office gave the information to Chief Counsel of the IRS, which opined that the privilege attached.

Petitioner had previously been employed as an attorney by the law firm that represented the reported party and alleged, based on information gathered during that relationship, that the taxpayer had “engaged in tax evasion using offshore entities.” Based on the advice received from Chief Counsel’s office, the IRS did not do anything with the information. Since the IRS showed the Tax Court that it did not collect any tax based on the tip, the Court sustained the motion for summary judgment filed by the IRS.

The whistleblower argued that the IRS should have “dug deeper” in reviewing the returns of the reported party but the Court had little trouble brushing aside this argument.

Petitioner disputed that the information was covered by the attorney client privilege. The Court stated “in reviewing the Office’s determination, however, we do not have authority to second guess the IRS’s decision not to proceed with administrative or judicial action. Our authority is limited to ascertaining whether the IRS in fact proceeded with such action and collected proceeds as a result.”

This case shows once again that whistleblowers will not get anywhere arguing to the Tax Court that the IRS failed to make good use of the valuable information provided. It also shows the value of providing the IRS with information about where the information came from and legal support for the ability of the IRS to use the information. The petitioner here disagreed with the determination of the Chief Counsel attorney that the petitioner gathered the information in a privileged setting. Petitioner should have anticipated the concern and provided a detailed legal supporting memo along with the information. Maybe the end result would not have changed, but by heading off concerns at the outset the whistleblower has a better chance that the IRS will accept the information that might otherwise cause it concern. Since the petitioner cannot use the Tax Court to settle any dispute regarding privilege, the petitioner must try to head off the concern before it gets to the stage of keeping the IRS from using the information.

 

Changes Coming on the Tax Court and at Chief Counsel

Congress has under consideration the nominations of three new Tax Court judges: Elizabeth Copeland, Patrick Urda, and Courtney Dunbar Jones for a few months.  This week a fourth new judge, Emin Toro, was nominated. Two of the nominees are graduates of Harvard Law School. I am not sure if this is a court packing scheme on the part of the administration in an effort to help the tax clinic at Harvard which has had its troubles convincing the Tax Court of the correctness of many of its arguments, but the clinic appreciates the efforts of the administration to provide whatever assistance it can.  In addition to the four judicial nominees described below, the administration has nominated a new Chief Counsel, IRS, Michael Desmond, who is also discussed.

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Elizabeth Copeland has the distinction of having been nominated to the Tax Court by both President Obama and President Trump. I suspect she may be the only nominee by these two presidents since their appointments do not ordinarily seem to coincide. Both Presidents made a good choice, which may be why she was renominated by the current administration when her previous nomination lapsed. She has practiced in San Antonio for many years and was named the city’s top tax lawyer in 2017. She is active in the ABA Tax Section and a prior winner of the Janet Spragens Pro Bono award for her work in organizing the Texas Bar to attend and assist at Tax Court calendar calls. Through her practice and her volunteer work, she has a great deal of background in Tax Court issues which will assist her as she assumes her new role. She is the only one of the judicial nominees I personally know, allowing me to attest that the administration has made a great choice. The Committee on Finance unanimously approved her previous nomination, but the nomination was never voted on by the full Senate. Her previous nomination expired with the conclusion of the 114th Congress in January 2017. Copeland is a partner at the law firm Strasburger & Price, LLP. She is a graduate of the University of Texas for both her B.A. and J.D. She worked as an attorney advisor at the Tax Court early in her career.

Courtney Dunbar Jones serves as a senior attorney in the Tax-Exempt and Government Entities division in the Office of Chief Counsel of the Internal Revenue Service. Prior to joining the Chief Counsel’s office six years ago, Ms. Jones practiced for three years in the exempt organizations and intellectual property practice groups of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Caplin & Drysdale. Before relocating to the Washington area, she practiced for four years at Bird, Loechl, Brittain & McCants, a boutique law firm in Atlanta. Since 2015, Ms. Jones has served on the Board of Trustees of Hampton University, where she earned her B.S., magna cum laude, and was the recipient of the President’s Award for Exceptional Achievement. Ms. Jones then earned her J.D. from Harvard Law School, where she served for two years as the editor-in-chief of the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal, (which has since been renamed the Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice). During law school, Ms. Jones was recognized for a variety of achievements; she was named a scholar in the Earl Warren Legal Training Program sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and received the National Bar Institute African American Law Student Fellowship. If confirmed, she will assume the position left vacant by the 2016 retirement of Judge John O. Colvin. Judge Colvin still performs judicial duties as a Senior Judge on recall.

Patrick Urda, serves as counsel to the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the United States Department of Justice’s Tax Division. Urda received his Bachelor of Arts degree in classics, summa cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He received his J.D. from Harvard Law School. At the start of his legal career, Urda spent three years in private practice and served as a law clerk to Judge Daniel A. Manion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In his position as counsel to the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Tax Division, Urda advised the Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Tax Division front office on legal and administrative issues facing the Division, particularly regarding appellate and settlement matters. In addition to acting as counsel, he was a member of the Tax Division’s Appellate Section, which he joined in 2006.

While working in the Appellate Section, he has litigated more than eighty appeals from the United States Tax Court and the United States District Courts, and has presented oral argument on behalf of the United States in more than forty-five appeals, including arguments in each of the United States Courts of Appeals. He was also one of the principal drafters of the United States’ successful brief in Hall v. United States, 566 U.S. 506 (2012). Urda is a five-time recipient of the Tax Division’s Outstanding Attorney Award, and has received the IRS’s Mitchell Rogovin Award.

A fourth judge has recently been nominated to fill the seat being vacated by Judge Goeke, whose term expires on April 21. Because the statute requires Tax Court judges to assume senior status at age 70 and because Judge Goeke, like many of us who are baby boomers, is not too far from that age, he may not have sought to go through the nomination process and instead can assume senior status at the end of his appointment. Moving to senior status means that a judge no longer participates in court conferences to decide those cases in which the full court participates; however, it still allows the judge to hear as many cases as he or she may want. The new nominee is Emin Toro. The nomination states the following about Mr. Toro:

Emin Toro is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Covington & Burling LLP, where he represents and counsels multinational companies in tax controversies. Mr. Toro’s tax controversy experience includes audits, administrative appeals, litigation, as well as advance pricing agreement and competent authority proceedings. He is also a Fellow of the American College of Tax Counsel. Upon graduation from law school, Mr. Toro served as a law clerk to Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and to Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court of the United States. Mr. Toro earned his B.A., summa cum laude, from Palm Beach Atlantic University and his J.D., with highest honors, from the University of North Carolina School of Law, where he was inducted into the Order of the Coif and served as an articles editor of the North Carolina Law Review.

Adding four judges at once changes the face of the Tax Court in a relatively major way. Other changes to the Court may be coming before long as additional vacancies may be on the horizon.

In addition to the changes at the Tax Court, the President has nominated Michael Desmond for the position of Chief Counsel. No doubt the selection was heavily influenced by the fact that he has been a guest blogger on PT, with posts found here, here and here. Other factors that may have influenced his selection could have been his wide ranging litigation experience at the Department of Justice and private practice, and his additional government experience in the Treasury Department. Like Elizabeth Copeland, he has been active in the Tax Division of the ABA. I am jealous of the fact that he bicycled across the United States a few years ago with Tax Court Judge Buch.  He will form a team with Chuck Rettig, the nominee for IRS Commissioner. As we featured prominently in discussing the nomination of Mr. Rettig, Mr. Desmond has extensive tax procedure experience. Just as previous tax lawyers who have served as Commissioner have not always come with extensive tax litigation and tax procedure experience, the same can be said of prior Chief Counsels. Having two individuals at the top of the IRS with this much practical tax procedure experience should be a good thing for improving processes at the IRS. The most recent Chief Counsel formed a band, The Traveling Helverings, which we have featured before in a post. If the new Chief Counsel and Commissioner, both of whom are coming from the Los Angeles area, decide to form a band maybe it will be known as the Beach Boys if that name is still available.

 

 

 

Designated Orders: 3/26/2018 – 3/30/2018

Guest blogger Caleb Smith of the University of Minnesota bring us the designated orders from the last week of March. These orders do not offer unique insights but Caleb does a nice job of categorizing them and providing useful insights. With a minor exception, this week is surprisingly light on cases with the Graev issue. Keith

There were six designated orders during the final week of March, none of which were particularly consequential. There is, however, a common thread that runs through them all: the extra work that the Tax Court puts in with pro se parties. The orders (all of which involve pro se taxpayers) can be categorized as follows:

  • Where the Petitioner “Files and Forgets”

Anderson v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 30766-15L

Hoffer v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 17545-15L

In two of the designated orders, the petitioner appears to have filed in court and then washed their hands of having to deal with what comes thereafter. As Judge Gustafson notes in Anderson v. C.I.R., it is the petitioner’s duty to prosecute the case after filing the petition, and failure to do so can result in dismissal. But the Court does not dismiss such cases without giving quite a few opportunities to the petitioner, and generally requires the IRS to give a fairly detailed account of their attempts to reach the individual.

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Judge Gustafson stops short of dismissing the case because of their own concern that the taxpayer may have changed addresses (without notifying the Court, as they are required to do under Rule 24(b)). Judge Gustafson even goes the extra mile in providing numerous addresses the taxpayer may be found, and ordering the Tax Court Clerk to send standing pretrial orders to each of them. Kudos to Judge Gustafson.

Similarly, Judge Leyden gives more than a fair shake to the petitioners in Hoffer v. C.I.R. Though the petitioners appear to occasionally send (some) information to the IRS during the CDP process, they never quite give what is asked, and they never really participate in the CDP hearings. When it is docketed in court, the IRS files a motion for summary judgment which Judge Leyden sets for hearing in Indiana. The petitioner does not show up (usually, a bad sign for your prospects, but in this case perhaps excusably because of medical problems). Judge Leyden still does not grant summary judgment because there was, nonetheless, a dispute on material facts (apparently, the IRS acknowledged that it had made some computational errors, but insisted that they were non-material). The case is remanded to Appeals to work out the issues at a supplemental CDP hearing. The IRS tries multiple times to set a supplemental hearing and to receive supplemental information… but the petitioners seem to place it on the back-burner.

It is something of an open question as to whether Judge Leyden goes the extra mile, or simply as far as the law requires, in her final decision. Clearly, Judge Leyden gives the petitioners more than enough of their opportunity to be heard in court. But Judge Leyden also affirmatively required that the IRS show proof that it complied with IRC § 6751(b) for the accuracy penalty without it appearing as if the petitioners raised the issue (the CDP hearing was solely on collection grounds). As noted before here, it is unclear if every judge would go this far with 6751. Nonetheless, for Judge Leyden when the IRS failed to show this the taxpayer was due a limited win: relief from the IRC 6662 penalty that had been applied against them.

  • Where the Petitioner Files… But Really Shouldn’t Have

Graham v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 9815-17SL

Wendt et al v. C.I.R., Dkt No. 11366-17S

Then there are the cases where the petitioners are engaged, but really should have left things alone. Sometimes, the IRS can make quick work of the case through summary judgment. In Graham v. C.I.R., the taxpayer seems unwilling to do much of anything (file back year tax returns, submit financial statements) except combat the IRS, in this case by filing a “Motion to Deny Summary Judgment.” Judge Armen has little trouble finding for the IRS in this case, but just to be sure that the petitioner gets the picture (that this is over and done with) adds a provision at the end of the order advising the petitioner not to show up in court on April 30 (the original calendar call). Kudos to Judge Armen in making that clear to the taxpayer.

Wendt et al v. C.I.R. is another instance where the petitioner really should have left things alone, but decided to keep fighting. This order also comes to us on a summary judgment motion, but this time through a bench opinion rendered after a hearing on that motion.

The facts (and law) are simple enough. Taxpayers claimed two education benefits (American Opportunity Credit as well as tuition and fees deduction) for the same student and the same expenses. For those keeping track, this is a “no-no” sometimes given the vaguely disgusting label of “double-dipping.” Also for those keeping track, arguing that you didn’t elect to take a credit when your tax return shows that you did is unlikely to carry the day. Convoluted legal arguments that you didn’t elect the credit “under the Internal Revenue Code” (even if you admit you took the credit on the tax return) are also unlikely to meet welcoming arms of the Court.

Judge Carluzzo notes that the petitioner’s testimony (and legal argument) could result in a worse outcome for the taxpayer: a higher deficiency, because the American Opportunity Credit is more valuable than the tuition and fees deduction. In essence, a hardnosed IRS attorney (or possibly the Court) could have held the petitioners’ feet to the fire on their own testimony. Kudos to Judge Carluzzo (and the IRS) for not pushing for that result, tempting though it may have been.

  • Where the Petitioner Files… And it is Unclear if They Should Have

Bell v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 1973-10L

Saustegui v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 20674-17

Finally, the last two designated orders involve taxpayers that clearly could use assistance from counsel in getting to the correct outcome, whatever that may be. In Bell v. C.I.R. Judge Gustafson explicitly puts out the bat-signal for LITCs in North Carolina to assist with one petitioner in a case that has apparently been dragging for eight years. In Saustegui v. C.I.R. Judge Guy does not advise the pro se party to request LITC assistance, but from the looks of it such counsel may be helpful (though one is never sure the party will be receptive). Instead, in denying the petitioner’s motion for summary judgment where evidentiary issues clearly persist, Judge Armen strongly encourages the petitioner to meet with IRS counsel and try to work things out. Perhaps an enterprising LITC or pro bono practitioner in the Miami area may nonetheless be willing to lend a hand.

 

Designated Orders: 3/5 – 3/9/2018

We welcome guest blogger Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame with the designated order post. These orders are about a month old; however, in drafting this post we needed to consult with someone at the IRS to understand the activity on one of the orders and it took a little time to nail down the answer.  The usual Graev orders exist. At the recent Tax Court Judicial Conference, the Court did not schedule any sessions regarding this issue. I suspect the judges were glad to take a few days away from thinking about the many ways that Graev can arise and complicate a case. The two orders that Professor Thomas discusses at length do involve penalties. One of the orders features the 6673 penalty and another its return filing cousin, the frivolous return penalty. Keith 

The orders from last week raised more Graev concerns, featured three orders from Judge Gustafson, and handled an interesting CDP issue from a tax protestor. Another order granted partial relief in an innocent spouse case where the requesting spouse still lived with the non-requesting spouse.

First, three orders from Judge Gustafson. One order focused on an issue raised in Caleb Smith’s post from the previous week—don’t ask for extensions of time in status reports. Ask for them through a motion. Another dealt with a motion to compel discovery and for sanctions, made very close to trial. Finally, a third granted summary judgment to the Service in a CDP case, largely because a taxpayer didn’t show up to trial (or appropriately designate a next-friend under Rule 60(d) to appear for him).

Next, two cases force the Court, as Judge Holmes describes it, “to hunt down yet another Chai ghoul….” I suppose that “Graev ghoul” would have been just too much, but I defer to Judge Holmes on all matters of colorful opinion writing. In any case, he found, deferring to a prior case, that the penalty for fraudulent failure to file a tax return under section 6651(f) does not require compliance with section 6751(b), because the penalty is calculated through automatic means. As such, Judge Holmes denies the Service’s request to reopen the record to demonstrate 6751(b) compliance.

The second case is also a motion to reopen for a substantial understatement penalty under section 6662(a). (The Service does not argue here, as it had argued in a prior case, that the penalty was calculated through automatic means.) Judge Halpern found, as in many other post-Graev III cases, that the record ought to be reopened, notably because the 6751 issue was not previously raised.

The remaining cases deserve more extension discussion:

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Docket No. 18225-16L, Griggs v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This brief order is interesting not for its disposition of the underlying CDP case (Judge Guy granted the Service’s motion for summary judgment because the petitioners did not provide financial information), but rather for its treatment of the Service’s request to impose the section 6673 penalty and to permit a levy.

This was the petitioners’ second time in Tax Court in this CDP matter. The first time, the Service actually filed a motion to remand to Appeals to consider whether to grant Currently Not Collectible status to the petitioner (something that I’ve not seen before in my practice—though admittedly, we don’t know much about the underlying issues here). After the petitioners failed to provide financials in that second hearing, Appeals sustained the levy and the Court granted the Service’s summary judgment motion on that basis.

The Service also wanted to impose the section 6673 penalty for filing a Tax Court petition merely for purposes of delay. However, the petitioners didn’t respond to the motion for summary judgment at all—and as such, did not defend themselves against the 6673 penalty. The Court, however, “considering all the facts and circumstances” (though without any more explanation), declines to impose the penalty. Judge Guy does so notwithstanding his notation that “without an explanation from petitioners, the record suggests that they instituted this proceeding primarily for purposes of delay.”

Without more facts, it’s tough to judge the penalty’s propriety in Griggs. I could certainly foresee a pro se taxpayer who—not understanding the limitations of the Tax Court’s standard of review—would desire to explain their financial circumstances to the Court. And further—not understanding the formalities of motion practice—would fail to properly respond to the motion (though here, there is no response at all).

Indeed, from having examined section 6673 penalties in prior cases, it seems that the Court is wary of imposing these penalties except in the most egregious of cases—usually involving tax protestors.

One other notable item: the Court also granted the respondent’s motion to permit levy. I was originally unsure why this was necessary, given that granting the motion for summary judgment resolved the case (and thus, permits the Service to levy). However, under section 6330(e)(2), the Service is ordinarily prohibited from levying during an appeal of a CDP case from the Tax Court, unless (1) the underlying liability is not at issue, and (2) the Service shows good cause not to suspend the levy. Thus, if petitioners appeal Judge Guy’s order, the Service may still levy while that appeal is pending. A good catch by IRS counsel, as I’ve not seen many CDP cases disposed in this manner.

Docket No. 17789-16SL, Luniw v. C.I.R. (Order Here) 

Certainly the longest order of the week, Judge Leyden analyzes this fairly unique issue in commendable depth—especially given the nature of the returns and the petitioner in question.

Quickly stated, this taxpayer took a page from Beard v. Commissioner. He worked for two employers and received two Form W-2s during 2012. He also timely filed a 2012 Form 1040, but listed his total income as $0 on Line 22, and thus requested all of his income tax withholdings as a refund. One-upping Mr. Beard, he also claimed his Social Security and Medicare tax withholding as a credit and requested a refund of those amounts as well.

The Service responded with two notices, dated June 17, 2013: a CP11, math error assessment notice, and a CP72, notifying Mr. Luniw that his return was frivolous, and requesting that he filed a non-frivolous Form 1040 within 30 days to avoid assessment of a penalty under section 6702(a).

On June 25, 2013, Mr. Luniw responded to the CP11 with tax protestor arguments (noting that because he worked for entities incorporated in states, his income was not “federally connected”, and therefore not subject to any federal tax). He included a Form 4852, Substitute W-2 (alleging that the employer’s W-2 was incorrect in including any taxable income), along with a “copy” of a Form 1040 he purportedly sent to the Service on April 25. He also noted that he had sent an original Form 1040 on April 8. 

A day prior, Mr. Luniw responded to the CP72 with a Form 1040 that he stated he mailed on April 24, again to correct his April 8 return. 

On March 31, 2014, the Service assessed three penalties, totaling $15,000, under section 6702, believing that Mr. Luniw submitted three frivolous returns. The IRS assessment form indicated the penalties were assessed for frivolous submissions dated “4/15/2013, 06/27/2013, and 6/28, 2013”. This appears to relate to the April 9 submission, along with the two responses Mr. Luniw sent on June 24 and 25.

Judge Leyden noted that each Form 1040 contained the same information—except the IRS receipt stamps.

  • One return bore a stamp of June 28, 2013 at Ogden, along with a second stamp of July 3, 2013 from the Frivolous Return Penalty unit.
  • One return bore only one stamp of July 10, 2013 from the Frivolous Return Penalty unit. It also had a number at the top of the first page (0921111186222-3).
  • The final return bore four IRS stamps: June 27, 2013; July 1, 2013; August 5, 2013 at the Ogden Campus, and August 8, 2013 from the Frivolous Return Penalty unit. The first two stamps also noted “ATSC IRS #7576” and “AT-CT #31”, respectively.

There is a very lengthy history of how the CDP case arose; in sum, this case involved a Notice of Intent to Levy regarding both the 6702 and underlying income tax assessments. Somehow, the Service did not properly assess the income tax for this year and blew its statute of limitations. Additionally, Mr. Luniw didn’t timely file a petition regarding the NFTL issued for the same assessments. So this CDP case before Judge Leyden dealt only with the levy notices for the 6702 penalties, and whether those penalties were properly assessed.

Mr. Luniw could challenge the underlying liability, having received no prior opportunity to do so. He also requested Currently Not Collectible status but, unsurprisingly, provided no financial information to IRS Appeals.

Finally, he also made various arguments during the CDP hearing that the Settlement Officer determined to be frivolous. During the hearing, he submitted a Form 1040X, which contained essentially the same information as the previous Form 1040s. I wonder if there is yet another section 6702 penalty in the works for Mr. Luniw?

After winding up in the Tax Court after a supplemental hearing, respondent and Mr. Luniw moved for summary judgment. Judge Leyden denied both motions; while the reasons for denying Mr. Luniw’s motion are apparent, genuine issues of material fact existed on whether the 6702 penalties were properly assessed.

Specifically, section 6702 applies where (1) a taxpayer files a document purporting to be a tax return; (2) the return “does not contain information on which the substantial correctness of the self-assessment may be judged” or “contains information that on its face indicates that the self-assessment is substantially incorrect”; and (3) the taxpayer’s conduct must either be based on an identified frivolous position or reflect a desire to delay or impede the administration of federal tax laws.

Elements two and three were easily satisfied. But Judge Leyden was concerned that the record did not reflect, to-date, that Mr. Luniw filed “three separate and different” tax returns for 2012. Mr. Luniw maintained in the summary judgment hearing that he only filed one original return for 2012. Further, Judge Leyden was troubled that the dates of the returns in respondent’s motion didn’t correspond to the dates on the IRS assessment notice. With regard to the first filing, Mr. Luniw noted that he filed a return on April 8, and then a subsequent “corrected” return later in April. Respondent apparently didn’t clearly link up the first 6702 assessment to either return.

So, this case will proceed to trial. While one might presume that the Service will at least get one $5,000 penalty out of this case, they appear to need to more clearly establish the filing date of the first return, as it relates to the Service’s subsequent assessment for that “original” return. Otherwise, this may indeed be a case in which a tax protestor gets away with their frivolous positions.