Recent Tax Court Decisions Point Out ACA Pitfalls For Taxpayers

In today’s guest post we welcome back Christine Speidel. Ms. Speidel is an attorney with the Vermont Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and the Office of the Health Care Advocate, both at Vermont Legal Aid. She has a particular interest in health care reform as it affects low-income taxpayers. Christine is the author of the 2016 update of the Affordable Care Act chapter of “Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS” and a nationally recognized expert on the intersection of tax law and health law. In today’s post, Christine discusses the Premium Tax Credit, and two situations where taxpayers were left with sizeable tax deficiencies after purchasing insurance.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Forbes PT site on July 20, 2017.

The first round of deficiency cases involving the premium tax credit are still working their way through the Tax Court. So far, the decisions apply the law in a straightforward way, but they illuminate certain issues that may not be commonly known.

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Not all ACA-compliant insurance plans qualify a taxpayer for PTC

The first opinion I am aware of is Nelson v. Commissioner, from April 2017. The holding is based on a straightforward application of the Code, but it exposes a confusing feature of the ACA: tax credits are only available for plans purchased through an ACA exchange. I.R.C. § 36B(c)(2)(A)(i). Government communications to taxpayers use the term Marketplace, which the Nelsons claimed was confusing and caused them to think that their health insurance qualified them for a PTC.

In 2014 the Nelsons purchased health insurance from Kaiser Permanente, and they claimed a premium tax credit (PTC) on their income tax return based on that coverage. After all, they had purchased a plan on the insurance “market.” However, the Service disallowed the claim when it did not see a record of any exchange plan for the Nelsons. As required by section 36B, the Court upheld the deficiency.

On its face, the Nelsons’ contention is plausible. The record does not have any details of the insurance plan that the Nelsons purchased, but it could have been perfectly good coverage. (In Vermont, the exact same insurance plans are sold on and off the exchange.) It seems strange that ACA-compliant insurance (in terms of benefits and plan design) might not qualify for a PTC just because of where it was purchased.

There is a further wrinkle that is not discussed in the Nelson case. In many states a taxpayer actually can purchase a PTC-qualifying plan directly from an insurance company. This is called “direct enrollment in a manner considered to be through an exchange”, and it is arranged between the exchange and its participating insurance companies. See 45 C.F.R. § 156.1230. This hybrid enrollment affords the taxpayer the right to claim a PTC, and a Form 1095-A with which to claim it. The exchange issues a 1095-A for exchange “direct enrolled” plans, as it does with ordinary exchange enrollments. For 2018, CMS is making direct enrollment more streamlined and will not require the insurer’s website to redirect the taxpayer to the exchange site for an eligibility determination, as has been the case in prior years. It will be very important for companies to communicate clearly so that consumers know whether they are purchasing a PTC-eligible plan.

Any plan that qualifies for the PTC should generate a Form 1095-A to the taxpayer. This is of little comfort to those who were expecting a 1095-A but do not receive one.

Taxpayers pay for Exchange APTC errors

Recently the Tax Court issued its first opinion on reconciliation of advance PTC (APTC) payments. The result is quite harsh: a semi-retired couple owes nearly $13,000 in additional income tax because Covered California miscalculated their eligibility for the PTC. Walker v Comm’r, T.C. Summary Opinion 2017-50. There is no indication that the taxpayers misrepresented their income; rather, it appears that the exchange erred in finding the Walkers financially eligible.

This outcome is no surprise; it is a foreseeable consequence of the system’s design. During the annual open enrollment period, exchanges estimate applicants’ annual income for the upcoming tax year and authorize health insurance subsidies based on that estimate. See 45 C.F.R. § 155.305. (Exchange open enrollment for 2018 is November 1 through December 15, 2017.) Taxpayers calculate their actual PTC over a year later, on the income tax return for the tax year. If the exchange authorized too little PTC, the taxpayer receives the additional amount as a refundable credit. If the exchange authorized too much, the taxpayer owes the excess as an additional income tax liability. I.R.C. § 36B(f)(2). (Taxpayers can also pay full freight and claim their entire credit at tax time. Most taxpayers who are eligible for the PTC cannot afford to do this. Nationally, about 83% of 2017 healthcare.gov enrollees receive APTC.)

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see exchange errors in PTC determinations, particularly for 2014 when the system was brand new. For example, in early 2015 CMS acknowledged that healthcare.gov had been inflating taxpayers’ income by counting all Social Security payments received by children. Anecdotally, several Vermont tax preparers have reported that clients with investment income were only asked about wages and other very common sources of income when they applied over the phone. Thus the exchange undercounted their income for the PTC and caused them an additional income tax obligation.

Data matching and other systemic protections are supposed to ensure that APTC determinations are as accurate as possible. However, not all of these systems have been developed or implemented, and certainly many were not for 2014. Indeed, last week the GAO issued a blistering report on deficits in HHS and IRS controls against improper PTC payments. GAO-17-467. Thankfully APTC calculators are available to check eligibility for the current year, so consumers and their advisors can double-check eligibility determinations that seem off.

Taxpayers up to 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) are somewhat protected from exchanges under-estimating their income, since their excess APTC repayment obligation is capped. I.R.C. § 36B(f)(2)(B). Once 400% FPL is reached, however, the taxpayer must repay all erroneous APTC. This is why the Walkers have such a large deficiency. The Walkers reported an adjusted gross income of just over $63,000. If the Walkers’ household income (or modified adjusted gross income, which includes the nontaxable Social Security) had been $62,000 (just under 400% FPL for purposes of the 2014 PTC), their repayment would have been capped at $2,500. I.R.C. § 36B(f)(2)(B)(i); see also 2014 Form 8962 instructions, Table 1-1 and Table 5. There is an enormous liability cliff for taxpayers who reach the 400% FPL income level. The National Taxpayer Advocate discussed the problem in her 2015 Annual Report to Congress and her 2017 Objectives Report to Congress, particularly with respect to taxpayers who unexpectedly receive lump sum Social Security payments. Under current law, the cliff applies to all taxpayers regardless of fault or foreseeability.

The magnitude of the Walkers’ debt underscores how expensive comprehensive coverage with a capped out-of-pocket exposure can be for older people, and accordingly how valuable the PTC is for them. (For a nice visual of how PTC is calculated, see Figure 1 in this PTC fact sheet by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.) It also explains why some health policy experts believe that the ACA set its individual shared responsibility payment (ISRP) too low. The Walkers told the Court that they would not have purchased insurance if they had known they were not eligible for subsidies. This is completely plausible. If they had gone without insurance, the Walkers’ ISRP for 2014 would have been $431 (assuming both spouses were under 65). (Both the Taxpayer Advocate Service and the Tax Policy Center have ISRP estimators online. For readers using the TAS ISRP estimator, note that nontaxable Social Security is not counted in household income for the ISRP.) The ISRP was gradually phased in, so 2014 amounts are particularly low. However, even under the fully-implemented ISRP for 2016, a married couple under 65 with household income of $63,417 would only pay a penalty of $1,390. Compared to $13,000 for the exchange plan the Walkers chose, it’s conceivable that healthy taxpayers would take the risk. Even a bronze-level plan would most likely cost more than the Walkers’ ISRP.

The Walkers’ situation raises complicated policy questions about how best to strengthen the individual insurance market and provide robust coverage to people of all income levels and health statuses. Suffice it to say that there is no agreement in Congress on how to solve the problem.

 

Designated Orders:  7/10/2017 – 7/14/2017

Today we welcome back William Schmidt  the LITC Director for Kansas Legal Services for our “Top of the Order”, designated order post for the week of 7/10 to 7/14.  Steve.

There were 5 designated orders this week and all were on motions for summary judgment.  The majority of the rulings followed a pattern of the IRS filing a motion for summary judgment, the Petitioner had or continued to have a degree of nonresponsiveness, and the Tax Court granted summary judgment for the IRS.  Except for one this week, summary judgment was in favor of the IRS.

Unsuccessful Whistleblowers

Docket # 4569-16W, Thomas H. Carroll, Jr. and David E. Stone v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision Here)

Petitioners submitted to the IRS Whistleblower Office a joint form 211, Application for Award for Original Information, with information about numerous taxpayers who allegedly improperly filed their tax returns.  The claims were referred to the IRS Large Business and International Division and one of the taxpayers was selected, with the matter referred to IRS examiners who had already audited that taxpayer.  The IRS decided to take no action against that taxpayer or any of the others submitted by Petitioners and no proceeds were collected to justify a whistleblower award.

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The Petitioners filed a petition with Tax Court.  In summarizing the petition, this order states that during the IRS review of the whistleblower claims, “the IRS had engaged in negligent conduct, misfeasance, malfeasance, and/or nonfeasance, and discriminative audit policies.  They further alleged that the IRS had permitted flawed tax returns to go unaudited, ignored evidence of systemic prohibited transactions, and wrongfully disallowed petitioners’ claims.  Petitioners requested that the Court conclude that the IRS acted arbitrarily, declare that an implied contract was created between the parties, direct the IRS to enforce Federal income tax laws, and determine that they are entitled to damages equal to the fair market value of their services.”  In their motions for partial summary judgment, the petitioners also accuse the IRS of unreasonable delay, misuse and mismanagement of government resources and administrative delay leading to abuse of discretion.

The Court granted the IRS motion for summary judgment since there was no genuine dispute as to any material fact (the standard for granting summary judgment).  No tax proceeds were collected from a taxpayer to grant a whistleblower award, plus the claims and relief sought by the petitioners were not cognizable by the Court.

My main take on the situation was that being disrespectful to the IRS did not garner the Petitioners any favor with the Tax Court.

Some Quick Takes on Summary Judgments

Docket # 14345-16 L, Russell T. Burkhalter v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Docket # 12320-16SL, Heath Davis v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision Here)

  • In both the Davis and Burkhalter cases, Judge Armen states that to assist petitioners in preparing a response to the IRS motion for summary judgment, the Court encloses with its Order (for petitioner to file a response to the motion) a copy of Q&A’s the Court prepared on the subject “What is a motion for summary judgment?”
  • In Burkhalter, the petitioner did not dispute the underlying tax liability for 2010, 2011 and 2013 when using Form 12153, Request for a Collection Due Process or Equivalent Hearing.  However, petitioner did dispute the liability for those years when filing a petition with the Tax Court.  The Court granted summary judgment for the IRS, citing a regulation that states:  “Where the taxpayer previously received a CDP Notice under section 6320 with respect to the same tax and tax period and did not request a CDP hearing with respect to that earlier CDP Notice, the taxpayer already had an opportunity to dispute the existence or amount of the underlying tax liability.”
  • In Davis, there is a theme of the petitioner citing hardship but not being responsive to IRS requests.  In response to a notice of intent to levy, Mr. Davis said he was going through hardship and had expenses exceeding income when filing his own Form 12153.  The settlement officer requested Mr. Davis fill out a Form 433-A financial statement and show proof of estimated tax payments.  On Mr. Davis’s 433-A, he showed income of $2,100 with greater expenses while the settlement officer calculated income of $2,994 with expenses of $2,473, leaving $521 to potentially pay the IRS each month.  Mr. Davis was unresponsive to later requests.  Based on a Notice of Determination, Mr. Davis petitioned the Tax Court.  In the petition and amended petition, Mr. Davis requested payment arrangements, potentially of $50 monthly.  The Court granted summary judgment to the IRS based on Mr. Davis’s nonresponsiveness, citing that it is the obligation of the taxpayer and not the reviewing officer to propose collection alternatives.  My take on the situation is that while those conclusions may be procedurally correct, it sounds like Mr. Davis needed some form of assistance and then both parties would have had a better result.

Docket # 26557-15 L, Michael Timothy Bushey v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision Here)

There are two main issues in this case, whether there was abuse of discretion by the settlement officer and the underlying tax liability for the petitioner.

  • Petitioner filed a Form 12153 and the IRS acknowledged receipt by letter dated May 21, 2015.  The settlement officer sent a response on May 28 scheduling a phone conference for July 17, requesting information and stating that the petitioner could contact her to reschedule or set an in-person conference.  The officer was sick on July 17 so sent a letter July 20 rescheduling the phone hearing for August 4, also stating no documents had been received.  On August 4, she received a phone message from Petitioner stating that he would be unavailable for a hearing that day but would be available the first or second week of September.  She sent a letter scheduling the hearing for September 2.  On September 2, she was unable to reach the Petitioner but received a letter the next day acknowledging receipt of the August 5 letter stating he did not request a phone conference and that “by law” he was entitled to a “due process hearing.”  At each point, the petitioner did not send any of the requested supporting documents.  On September 22, Appeals sent Petitioner a Notice of Determination letter.  A lengthy summary was attached to the letter and was also quoted at length in the order currently being discussed.  The Court granted the IRS summary judgment, stating there had been no abuse of discretion in their collection actions.  It also was not an abuse of discretion since there was no in-person meeting between the settlement officer and the Petitioner.  I would state there was quite the opposite of an abuse of discretion since the settlement officer made several attempts to get information from the Petitioner.
  • Regarding the tax liability itself, in the Petitioner’s Form 12153 for 2008, he checked the box for an Offer in Compromise and stated, “I do not owe this money.  It was a tax credit, not a tax owed.  It was a first time home buyers credit and it was based on the first & only house I have ever purchased.”  The settlement officer had requested he submit to her a Form 656, Offer in Compromise, but that did not happen.  In his petition based on the Notice of Determination, Petitioner said, “The amount in dispute was not back taxes or unpaid taxes, but a tax credit (a.k.a. loan).  The amount was discharged under bankruptcy chapter 7 action.”  He said area counsel recommended he file an Offer in Compromise that had been rejected “over and over.”  In court on November 28, 2016, Petitioner stated he already submitted an Offer in Compromise to the IRS with all requested financial information and would be willing to submit another.  The record reflected the parties entered a stipulated decision and following that, the Petitioner submitted and the IRS rejected an Offer in Compromise regarding 2008.  The Court had recommended that Petitioner file an Offer in Compromise with the assistance of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Inc.  The Court then stated it hoped the IRS will “hold off on proceeding with the proposed collection action to give petitioner an opportunity…to submit an offer in compromise,” perhaps with the above-mentioned low income taxpayer clinic’s assistance.
  • With regard to an Offer in Compromise on a 2008 first-time homebuyer credit (which I agree was basically an interest-free loan, depending on the timing of the credit), it is my understanding that the full amount of the credit owed must be a liability assessed by the IRS before it can be addressed in an Offer in Compromise.  In order to do so, it may be necessary to amend a tax return to state that the taxpayer owes the entirety of the credit as of that tax year.  Once that full credit is a liability owed to the IRS, the credit can then be negotiated through the Offer in Compromise program.  Hopefully Mr. Bushey uses that procedure to address the amount owed through the credit in his Offer in Compromise.

Important DC Circuit Opinion on Anti-Injunction Act and Offshore Disclosure Regime

We have previously briefly discussed the challenge that a group of noncompliant taxpayers brought against the IRS decision to disallow participation in the so-called Streamlined Procedures of the offshore disclosure program. Last year, a district court held that the Anti Injunction Act (AIA) barred the taxpayers from challenging the IRS decision. Last week the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in Maze v IRS upheld the district court.

Maze is the latest in a series of important Anti Injunction Act decisions and reflects the statute’s ability to insulate IRS decisions from judicial review until a taxpayer fits squarely within deficiency, refund or CDP procedures.

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The main issue that the Maze opinion considers whether the AIA is a bar to preventing the court from considering the taxpayer’s argument that the IRS should have used streamlined disclosure procedures rather than transition streamlined procedures. Streamlined procedures allow for no payment of accuracy related penalties; transition rules required payment of up to eight years of those penalties. (Readers looking to learn more on the offshore disclosure program can look to our colleague Jack Townsend over at Federal Crimes Blog; Jack is also the primary author in the criminal tax penalty chapter in the Saltzman Book treatise, and we discuss the IRS offshore disclosure policies in detail in the treatise).

The importance of Maze for our purposes is its consideration of the AIA and in particular Maze’s efforts to get court review of the IRS decision to shoehorn her into the Transition Streamlined procedures rather than the regular Streamlined disclosure procedures.

This takes us into the AIA itself, which is codified at Section 7121. The AIA provides that “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person . . . .”  The key in the case is whether the lawsuit would have the effect of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax. There is a current ambiguity as to whether restrain for these purposes is defined broadly or narrowly. Not surprisingly the government argued for a broad application, urging that the term includes “litigation that completely stops the assessment or collection of a tax but also encompasses a lawsuit that inhibits the same.” Maze urged a more narrow reading, arguing restrain refers “solely to an action that seeks to completely stop the IRS from assessing or collecting a tax.”

The scope of the term “restrain” is a hotly contested issue in AIA litigation; proponents of the narrow reading have pointed to the analogous Supreme Court discussion of the term in the Direct Marketing opinion from a couple of years ago. Earlier this year, the Tenth Court of Appeals in Green Solutions carefully distinguished Direct Marketing and held that the broader reading of restrain is the more appropriate reading in the context of federal AIA litigation.

The DC Circuit in Maze sidestepped this definitional issue; in resolving the opinion in favor of the government the court assumed that the more narrow reading that the taxpayers urged was correct. Using that narrow reading, the DC Circuit still found that the taxpayers came up short.

To get there it first concluded that for these purposes accuracy related penalties are taxes for purposes of the AIA (as the Court discussed not all penalties are taxes for these purposes). After reaching that decision, it was fairly easy to get to the government’s view:

As participants in the 2012 [Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program], the plaintiffs are required to pay eight years’ worth of accuracy-based penalties. These penalties are treated as taxes under the AIA and any lawsuit that seeks to restrain their assessment or collection is therefore barred…. This lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs seek to qualify to enroll in the Streamlined Procedures, does just that; to repeat, the Streamlined Procedures do not require a participant to pay any accuracy-based penalties for the three years covered by the program. Thus, their lawsuit would have the effect of restraining—fully stopping—the IRS from collecting accuracy-based penalties for which they are currently liable. We believe this fact alone manifests that the AIA bars their suit. See 26 U.S.C. § 7421(a).

To shift the focus away from the lawsuit’s impact on a possible assessment or collection, Maze emphasized that its efforts concerned a desire to apply to Streamlined procedures, which in and of itself alone was not a determination that there were no penalties due. The DC Circuit rejected that view:

They note that their eligibility to enroll alone, viewed in vacuo, has no immediate tax consequence. But we have never applied the AIA without considering the practical impact of our decision. Rather, we have recognized our need to engage in “a careful inquiry into the remedy sought . . . and any implication the remedy may have on assessment and collection.” Cohen, 650 F.3d at 724 (emphasis added). And here, the plaintiffs concede that they will enroll in the Streamlined Procedures if they are deemed eligible, see Oral. Arg. Rec. 3:10-3:15, thereby stopping the IRS from collecting the 2012 OVDP accuracy-based penalties.

The taxpayer noted that the Streamlined procedures would not have resulted in a more favorable treatment if the IRS determined that there was willful noncompliance or a foot fault with the Streamlined procedures. That too was not enough:

But the fact that their attempt to take advantage of the Streamlined Procedures’ more lenient tax treatment might be thwarted by the possibility of an adverse IRS determination does not make their lawsuit one that is not brought “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax.” 26 U.S.C. § 7421(a).

Conclusion

There are still important definitional questions that the courts are wrestling with as the IRS and Treasury get dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century post Mayo world. Using its centuries old shield of tax exceptionalism that is the AIA, the IRS still enjoys powerful procedural protections that essentially shoehorn procedural challenges to IRS rulemaking decisions to traditional tax litigation. The DC Circuit in Maze was careful to note (and the DOJ attorney conceded at oral argument) that Maze could have challenged the IRS position in a refund suit. This concession is important because there is an exception to the AIA if there is no other remedy for the alleged wrong. Of course, a traditional tax refund suit generally requires full payment, and that is a considerable bar and practical limit on taxpayers who do not like the rules of the game. Cases like Maze suggest that while the IRS is less special than it used to be the IRS still enjoys a limit on court inquiry into its decisions.

 

TIGTA Report Shows IRS Has a Long Way to Go On Employment Related Identity Theft

The other day I wrote about the Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee and its annual report showcasing many successes and improvements IRS made when it came to identity theft. Part of the success ETAAC discussed included a major drop in identity theft receipts, which the report suggests is the product of better detection at the front end of the return filing process. TIGTA, in a report from last month, highlights a different story when it comes to employment related identity theft. Essentially TIGTA found that IRS materially understates the number of employment-related identity theft cases and has had major systemic flaws in informing victims.

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What is employment related identity theft? As most readers know, to gain employment one must have valid Social Security number. Individuals who are not authorized to work in the US sometimes use other peoples’ Social Security numbers to secure employment. They then file a individual income tax return using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Individuals whose SS numbers are used by someone else can be in for a surprise after they file a tax return (or do not file due to not having an obligation to file) when IRS may send an Automatic Underreporting (AUR) notice reflecting the income that was earned by someone else who illegitimately used their SS number.

IRS procedures are supposed to catch returns that are submitted by an ITIN user that reflect someone else’s SS # associated with wages. In IRS speak, that is known as an ITIN/SSN mismatch. When all works well, IRS places an identity theft marker on the victim’s account, and prevents victims from getting an AUR notice.

TIGTA found that all does not work well, with a number of systemic issues associated with placing markers on accounts. It examined over a million e-filed returns that had an SS/ITIN mismatch and found that in about 51.8% of the time IRS put the appropriate identity theft marker on the account. The IRS did not place markers on the remaining 48%; that was because many in that 48% group did not have a tax account (Note IRS defines tax account as an active account as one “for which the taxpayer’s Master File account, which contains the taxpayer’s name, current addresses, and filing requirements, etc., exists on the IRS computer system capable of retrieving or updating stored information.”).

Of the e-filed returns, there were another 60,000 or so victims who did have a tax account but still did not have an id theft marker placed; IRS noted various reasons, including its placing only one marker per return even if the return filed has multiple incorrect SS# associated W-2s and that some of the victims were minors and IRS did not have procedures in place to inform minors.

TIGTA sensibly recommended that IRS take steps to improve its process of placing id theft markers on all e-filed returns. IRS generally agreed with the recommendations and said it would monitor progress “and determine, by July 2018, the requisite programming changes needed to ensure that identity theft markers are properly applied when the potential misuse of an individual’s SSN becomes evident.”

In addition to e-filing issues, TIGTA noted major problems that the IRS has had in placing identity theft markers when a return reflecting an ITIN/SS mismatch is not e-filed:

Specifically, guidelines state that a Form W-2 is not required for Line 7 (Wages, Salaries, Tips, etc.) of Form 1040. As such, the IRS has no way to identify ITIN/SSN mismatches associated with paper tax returns. In addition, if the ITIN filer voluntarily attaches a Form W-2 with an SSN, IRS internal guidelines do not require employees processing these returns to place an employment identity theft marker on the SSN owner’s tax account.

TIGTA recommended that IRS require ITIN filers to attach W-2s with their 1040’s; IRS rejected that recommendation because it noted that “wages constitute taxable income under Internal Revenue Code Section 61 and are reportable even when a Form W-2 is not provided or is otherwise unavailable at the time of return filing.” IRS did, however, agree to put better procedures in place when a paper filed ITIN return does in fact include W-2s that reflect a mismatch.

Conclusion

The TIGTA report shows that IRS has a lot of room for improvement. People need to be vigilant, as IRS in many cases does not take action even if it has information that reflects a high likelihood that someone is improperly using a Social Security number. As TIGTA notes, if IRS fails to place an identity theft marker on an account, “victims can be subjected to additional burden when the IRS processes their tax returns.” It may trigger confusing and stressful notices and limit the ability for IRS and others to help victims unwind the effects of the identity thief. IRS needs to do a better job here, as the costs for victims in time, stress and potentially dollars are likely very significant.

Designated Orders: 7/3/2017 – 7/7/2017

Today’s designated order post was written by Samatha Galvin from Denver Law School.  The orders continue to cover a variety of issues many of which we would not otherwise cover.  Keith

The Tax Court designated five orders last week and three are discussed below. The orders not discussed involved a TEFRA related issue (order here) and a motion to add small (S) case designation (order here).

Language Barrier Does Not Prevent NFTL Filing

Docket # 21856-16L, Carlos Barcelo & Vanessa Gonzalez-Rubio v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision Here)

In this designated order and decision, the Tax Court decided that the IRS Appeals Office did not abuse its discretion when it sustained a filing of a Notice of Federal Tax Lien (“NFTL”) for Spanish-speaking taxpayers, even though the taxpayers’ limited understanding of English may have created confusion about the administrative process and the IRS’s right to file an NFTL.

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The tax years involved were 2006 and 2007. The tax was self-reported and assessed after examination by the IRS for 2006, and only assessed after examination by the IRS for 2007.

Taxpayers set up a partial payment installment agreement but were informed that an NFTL would be filed to protect the government’s interest. Under section 6321, a lien is imposed whenever a taxpayer fails to pay any tax liability owed and this lien arises automatically at the time the tax is assessed. An NFTL is filed in certain circumstances to make this automatic lien valid against other creditors. Section 6320 requires the IRS to inform taxpayers of the NFTL and allow for an administrative review in the form of a collection due process (“CDP”) hearing.

Taxpayers timely requested a CDP hearing using the Spanish version of the Form 12153. In their request they asked for an installment agreement and asked that the NFTL be withdrawn. In an attachment they stated the NFTL would affect their credit and ability to find alternative employment. They also stated that their primary language was Spanish and they wanted assistance in Spanish.

The settlement officer assigned to the case sent taxpayers a letter, in English, scheduling a telephone conference for the hearing, but when the settlement officer called at the scheduled time and date the petitioners did not answer. The settlement officer made subsequent attempts to contact the taxpayers by mail and phone, including after the taxpayers had faxed her a letter, in English, requesting that the hearing be rescheduled. The record was not clear as to whether the settlement officer’s contact attempts were in English or Spanish.

After the unsuccessful attempts to hold a hearing with the taxpayers, the settlement officer determined that the requirements of applicable law and administrative procedures were met and that the filing of the NFTL balanced the need for efficient collection of taxes with petitioners’ concern regarding intrusiveness of the filing, as sections 6320(c) and 6330(c)(3) require.

Taxpayers (hereafter, petitioners) petitioned the Tax Court on the settlement officer’s notice of determination, and since their petition did not involve a challenge to liability the Court reviewed the case under an abuse of discretion standard.

At a hearing before the Court, petitioners with assistance from a Spanish language interpreter, argued that the NFTL should be withdrawn since they were in an installment agreement, but the Court held it was not an abuse of discretion for Appeals to sustain the filing of an NFTL because the partial pay installment agreement would not satisfy their liability in full. Petitioners also argued that the NFTL would affect their credit and their ability to find employment or housing if their circumstances changed, but did not offer any specific evidence to support the likelihood that their circumstances would change or that the NFTL would cause them hardship.

Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment which was supported by a declaration from the settlement officer involved in the case. Since petitioners’ did not submit any facts or offer any evidence that the determination to sustain the NFTL was arbitrary, capricious or without sound basis in fact or law, including any evidence that the language barrier may have been an issue, the Court granted respondent’s motion.

Take-away points:

  • Taxpayers often want to request a CDP hearing with respect to an NFTL filing whether or not there is a language barrier. Many taxpayers do not understand there are only a limited number of ways to have an NFTL withdrawn.
  • Although it may not have been an option for these taxpayers, the quickest way to have an NFTL withdrawn, without paying the liability in full, is to enter into a Direct Debit installment agreement. There are additional requirements, including that the liability must be $25,000 or less and paid in full after 60 months, but if the requirements are met, a taxpayer can request that the lien be withdrawn after payments are made for three months.

Pro Se Petitioner Attempts to Recover Costs

Docket # 12784-16, James J. Yedlick v. C.I.R (Order Here)

In this designated order, the parties appear to have reached a basis for settlement and the petitioner does not have a deficiency in income tax due for tax year 2013; however, petitioner indicated that he would like to recover his litigation costs (consisting of his Tax Court filing fee and then other costs, first of $60 and in a second request of $5,000).

Petitioner is representing himself pro se. On two separate occasions he submitted signed decision documents. The first time to the Court, bearing only his signature and not Respondent’s, with a letter asking the Court to “not close the case entirely” because he had planned to ask the Court about a secondary matter, but didn’t state what the matter involved.

Respondent filed a response to the letter stating that they had received a signed stipulated decision document with a written disclaimer from petitioner stating his signature was only agreeing with the decision, and he was requesting the case be ongoing, so respondent did not file them with the Court.

The Court informed petitioner that no stipulated decision had been submitted, and therefore, no decision had been entered and directed the parties to confer and file a status report regarding the present status of the case. In response to this, petitioner filed a motion to dismiss and requested litigation costs. The Court denied his motion because it is required to enter a decision, it also informed petitioner that if he wanted to recover his litigation costs he should agree to a stipulation of settled issues since doing so is required by Rule 231.

Under section 7430(a)(2), a prevailing party may be awarded the reasonable litigation costs that were incurred during a proceeding. The award of litigation costs is included in a single decision from the Tax Court, so petitioner’s attempt to agree to the decision and address the issue of costs later was not the correct way to do it.

If the signed decision documents were filed by the Court, petitioner would waive his right to recover such costs. Respondent planned to file a motion for entry of decision, and if the motion was granted, it would also prevent the petitioner from recovering litigation costs.

In order to allow the petitioner an opportunity to receive litigation costs, the Court explained the correct procedure for requesting such costs under Rule 231 and ordered petitioner to file a motion for an award of costs pursuant to the rule.

Take-away points:

  • If you wish to recover litigation costs, make sure to follow the procedures outlined in Rule 231.
  • This is a very good example of the Tax Court going above and beyond to help a pro se petitioner understand the Tax Court procedures and, hopefully, get the results he is after.

Whistleblowers Should Act Early to Protect Anonymity

Docket # 13513-16W, Loys Vallee v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Earlier this week, we mentioned a designated order in a whistleblower case where Rule 345 was used to protect a petitioner’s identity. Here is another designated order involving a whistleblower who moved the Court to seal the case under Rule 345, but in this case the Tax Court denied petitioner’s motion on the grounds that he had already revealed his identity to the public when he filed his Tax Court petition, which also had the final determination letter from the IRS denying petitioner’s request for a whistleblower award attached to it. Section 7461 makes reports of the Tax Court and evidence received by the Tax Court a matter of public record.

The petitioner’s desire for anonymity, eleven months into the case, came about after respondent accidentally sent two informal discovery letters meant for petitioner to an incorrect address. The letters were subsequently forwarded to petitioner but had been opened and resealed with tape.

In petitioner’s motion, he stated that good cause existed to seal the case because of his general concerns that he would be harmed or suffer economic retaliation if his identity was not protected, but his motion did not provide any specific proof that he was at risk of actual harm or retaliation.

It is possible for a petitioner to proceed anonymously in a whistleblower case pursuant to the factors enumerated in Rule 345(a). One such factor is that the litigant’s identity has thus far been kept confidential. This factor was not met in petitioner’s case since his request for anonymity came eleven months after the case began. Another factor is that the petitioner must set forth a sufficient, fact-specific basis for anonymity showing that the harm to petitioner outweighs society’s interest in knowing the whistleblower’s identity. In this case, since petitioner’s concerns were general and not specific this factor was also not met.

The Court denied petitioner’s motion to seal the case and instructed respondent to take care in assuring that any mail sent to the petitioner is correctly addressed going forward.

Take-away points and interesting information:

  • If anonymity is desired in a whistleblower case it should be requested early on in the case.
  • The requirements of Rule 345 must be met before the Court will seal a case.

 

Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee Report to Congress: Updates on E-Filing, Refund Fraud and Identity Theft

Last month the Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee issued its annual report to Congress. ETAAC was born in the 98 Restructuring Act; it is an advisory committee that is made up of a number of volunteers from the private sector, consumer advocacy groups and state tax administrators. As I discuss below, the report considers e-filing and refund fraud and identity theft issues.

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When formed in 98, ETAAC’s mission was principally directed at IRS reaching an 80% rate of electronic return filing; this year’s report details the substantial progress in meeting that target, though there is a range in e-filing that is based on type of return. For example individual income tax returns are e-filed at around 88%; exempt org returns are in the mid-60% range. ETAAC projects this year that the overall electronic filing for all returns will exceed 80%.

A Shifting Focus to Refund Fraud and Identity Theft

With ETAAC essentially fulfilling its primary mission, last year its charter was amended to include the problem of Identity Theft Tax Refund Fraud (ITTRF), which, as the report states, threatens to undermine the integrity of our tax system:

America’s voluntary compliance tax system and electronic tax filing systems exist, and succeed, because of the trust and confidence of the American taxpayers (and policy makers). Any corrosion of trust in filing tax returns electronically would result in reverting back to the less-efficient and very costly “paper model.” That option is neither feasible any longer nor desirable.

The report discusses the IRS’s convening of a Security Summit and last year’s special $290 million appropriation to “improve service to taxpayers, strengthen cybersecurity and expand their ability to address identity theft.” The main goals relating to ITTRF include educating and protecting taxpayers, strengthening cyber defenses and detecting and preventing fraud early in the process.

The report discusses a number of ITTRF successes in the past year:

  • From January through April 2016, the IRS stopped $1.1 billion in fraudulent refunds claimed by identity thieves on 171,000 tax returns; compared to $754 million in fraudulent refunds claimed on 141,000 returns for the same period in 2015. Better data from returns and information about schemes meant better filters to identify identity theft tax returns.
  • Thanks to leads reported from industry partners, the IRS suspended 36,000 suspicious returns for further review from January through May 8, 2016, and $148 million in claimed refunds; twice the amount of the same period in 2015 of 15,000 returns claiming $98 million. Industry’s proactive efforts helped protect taxpayers and revenue.
  • The number of anticipated taxpayer victims fell between/during 2015 to 2016. Since January, the IRS Identity Theft Victim Assistance function experienced a marked drop of 48 percent in receipts, which includes Identity Theft Affidavits (Form 14039) filed by victims and other identity theft related correspondence.
  • The number of refunds that banks and financial institutions return to the IRS because they appear suspicious dropped by 66 percent. This is another indication that improved data led to better filters which reduced the number of bad refunds being issued.
  • Security Summit partners issued warnings to the public, especially payroll industry, human resources, and tax preparers, of emerging scams in which criminals either posed as company executives to steal employee Form W-2 information or criminals using technology to gain remote control of preparers’ office computers.

E-file Signature Verification

While ETAAC shifts its focus to include security and fraud detection, it still examines how IRS is doing in the e-file arena. One area in the report that I think warrants further reflection is ETAAC’s recommendation that IRS improve its ability to allow taxpayers to verify an e-filed return. The report discusses the history of signing and verifying an e-filed return, which now requires that the taxpayer have access to the prior year’s AGI or a special PIN.  While most software will allow for those numbers to carry over from last year’s returns, at times taxpayers may not know last year’s AGI or the PIN (e.g., when there is a switch in software) and ETAAC tells us that this has triggered many taxpayers abandoning e-filing and reverting to paper filing.

The report discusses how the IRS Get Transcript online tool ostensibly could facilitate taxpayers getting access to their last year’s AGI but that access has a clunky authentication process that has led to a very high fail rate for users (the Report also discusses the compromising of a prior iteration of the Get Transcript online tool and other data breaches).

As IRS works out the kinks with its “Future State” platform, authentication and ease of taxpayer access will be crucial. Of course, given the backdrop of dedicated and as the report notes nimble and dedicated criminals who continue to probe for weaknesses this will continue to be a challenge for IRS and its partners.

New Rock Baptist Church Continues Development of Collection Due Process Law

Located not too far from the Tax Court’s building in D.C., New Rock Baptist Church and its nursery school provided the setting for an interesting full TC opinion looking at who can bring a Collection Due Process (CDP) case as well as when does the case become moot.  The Court finds that only the real taxpayer can bring a CDP case even if the IRS lists the wrong taxpayer in its notice of federal tax lien and that fixing the lien problem by withdrawing the notice does not end the CDP case for the taxpayer seeking to adjudicate their collection issue.

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It’s not unusual for a church to host a nursery school.  It’s not unusual for the church and the nursery school to exist as two separate entities despite the close relationship they have in sharing a building and often other matters as well.  In this case, the church and the school did have separate identities and separate EINs and even separate addresses.  The nursery school ran into trouble with its payroll taxes.  The IRS eventually assessed a decent sized liability of over $400,000 against the nursery school and decided that it needed to file a notice of federal tax lien in order to protect its interest.

Unfortunately, when the IRS filed the notice of federal tax lien, it did not file it in the name of the New Rock Baptist Church Child Development Center but rather filed it in the name of New Rock Baptist Church.  Although the NFTL correctly identified the address and EIN of the nursery school, the church did not appreciate having a NFTL filed in its name rather than the name of the nursery school and took the opportunity to join in filing a CDP request.  The person receiving the CDP notice at the nursery school seems to have shared the notice with the church, and one might even imagine some discussions occurring regarding the nature and the existence of the NFTL, because the nursery school also filed a CDP request.

The CDP requests of the church and the school were consolidated in the hands of one settlement officer.  I base my comments on the opinion and not the underlying documents.  Based on the opinion, it appears that the CDP requests filed by both entities focused on obtaining an installment agreement for the nursery school instead of focusing on the separate issue of the correctness of the NFTL.  The SO, perhaps unaware of the incorrectness of the NFTL, rejected the proposed installment agreement stating “no collection alternative can be approved.”  The Court notes that the SO did not make the basis for rejection clear.  I would speculate that the basis was a failure of the nursery school to keep current with its filing requirements or payment requirements.  Surprisingly, although perhaps attributable to neither party raising the issue, the SO further determined that “the NFTL was correctly and properly filed.”  Even if neither the church nor the nursery school mentioned the incorrect name on the NFTL, the existence of CDP requests from both entities should have served as at least a mild clue that something was amiss.

On June 20, 2014, the IRS issued a notice of determination.  The Court’s choice of words makes me think that only one notice of determination was issued.  It was sent, like the NFTL to the correct address, with the correct EIN and the wrong taxpayer name.  The nursery school and the church jointly petitioned the Tax Court from the notice of determination requesting that the IRS should withdraw the NFTL.  Chief Counsel’s office requested a remand of the case to Appeals for it to: 1) give further consideration into withdrawing the NFTL, and 2) provide greater explanation regarding why it rejected the IA.  The Court granted the motion of the IRS for a remand.

On remand the IRS assigned a new SO.  The new SO, perhaps alerted to the issue by the Chief Counsel attorney, determined that the NFTL was ambiguous (this is the Court’s word; it is possible to conclude that the NFTL was simply wrong or that it violated disclosure laws by wrongfully naming a taxpayer with no liability and telling the world that it had a whopping liability) and that the NFTL should be withdrawn.  The new SO determined that the nursery school did not qualify for an IA because it was not in compliance with all return filing requirements.  Despite having identified the problem with the lien, the new SO sent the supplemental notice of determination to the correct address for the nursery school, with the correct EIN and with the name of the church rather than the nursery school.  Some things die hard.  Once the IRS has used the wrong name, getting it to switch and use the right name can require an act of God, or at least a Tax Court judge, and here again the IRS misidentifies the taxpayer even after recognizing the problem of misidentification.

Before finishing the discussion of the case, I want to pause here to make sure everyone understands that the withdrawal of the NFTL does not impact the federal tax lien itself which continues to exist and continues to attach to all property and rights to property owned by the nursery school.  Withdrawal of a NFTL simply removes the notice of the lien but not the lien itself.  Withdrawing the notice has an impact on the security of the lien and its priority vis a vis other creditors, but not the validity of the underlying lien or the liability secured by the lien.  Do not get sucked into thinking that withdrawal of the NFTL fixes the nursery school’s tax problems.  Withdrawal does, however, remove from the public record the erroneous statement that the church has a tax liability.  The church may still need more statements from the IRS to the effect that it never owed any federal taxes giving rise to the NFTL because creditors will, or may, know that the withdrawal does not signal the church no longer owes.

So, back in the Tax Court the IRS moves to dismiss the case as moot since the new SO fixed the problem by withdrawing the NFTL.  The nursery school, however, says not so fast because it still wants to have a hearing on the liabilities it owes.  The Tax Court determines that it has jurisdiction over the CDP case involving the nursery school basically finding that even though the NFTL did not mention the nursery school by its precise name it was close enough to trigger CDP rights; however, with respect to the church the Court finds that it was not a proper party.  It says no valid notice of determination was issued to the church despite the fact that the notice of determination listed the name of the church and not the nursery school.  Maybe this works in an opinion written when the NFTL has already been withdrawn; however, I am troubled that an entity clearly listed on the NFTL and on the notice of determination is denied the opportunity to seek relief from the impact of the NFTL.

Perhaps the Court thinks that the 7432 provisions regarding liens provide sufficient protection but it does not spell out why it thinks an individual or entity listed on an NFTL and listed in the notice of determination as the taxpayer against whom the IRS is taking collection action giving right to a CDP hearing has no right to seek redress through such a hearing.  It says that no valid federal tax lien existed with respect to the church.  True, but CDP protection does not depend on a valid federal tax lien it depends on the filing of an NFTL.  Determining the validity of the NFTL is an integral part of the CDP process.  A taxpayer listed in an NFTL should be able to use the CDP process to contest the validity of the NFTL and the underlying lien.  The Court does not explain why the lack of an underlying federal tax lien has an impact on the jurisdiction of the Court in a CDP case.  Does this mean that if the Court should reach the conclusion in another case that no lien exists, say because the assessment is invalid, it must dismiss the case rather than grant relief.  I cannot follow the logic here.

The Court also says no valid notice of determination was issued.  I have a similar problem.  A notice of determination was issued in the name of the church.  Yes, the IRS made a mistake in sending the notice of determination (as well as the notice of supplemental determination) in the name of the church but that should not prevent the church from receiving relief.  Maybe it would be useful for a taxpayer who wrongfully gets listed on an NFTL and who receives a notice of determination to have a court opinion that says it was wrong so it can show its creditors that it was wrong.

The Court may reach its conclusion because the notice of determination uses the separate address of the nursery school to say that the church did not receive this notice.  It does not make that explicit and the link between the organizations still creates a problem for the church that CDP might resolve.

In the end, after determining that it has jurisdiction to consider the CDP relief requested by the nursery school, the Court finds that the withdrawal of the NFTL did not moot the case.  Even though it has jurisdiction and even though issues regarding liability still exist, the nursery school has problems that prevent it from getting any relief through CDP.  It raised some issues it wanted the Court to address after making its CDP request, and the Court says those issues are not properly before it.  Because the nursery school was not in compliance with its filing requirements at the time of the Appeals determination, the Court sustains the Appeals determination that it is not eligible for an IA.  The nursery school alleges that it is now in filing compliance, and the Court responds correctly that losing a CDP case does not prevent it from entering into an IA at the conclusion of the case.  That’s the nice thing about CDP.  It’s just a skirmish on the road to collection and not the ending point.

 

 

Second Circuit Agrees with Third That Time to File an Innocent Spouse Petition is Jurisdictional and Not Subject to Equitable Tolling

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about a case he has assisted the Harvard Tax Clinic in litigating before the Second Circuit.  The court found the time for filing a Tax Court petition is jurisdictional meaning that our client’s reliance on the IRS statement regarding the last date to file her petition has landed her outside of the court without a judicial remedy for review of the innocent spouse determination unless she can come up with the money to fully pay the liability which she cannot.  Keith

This post updates a post on Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. May 9, 2017).  In Rubel, the IRS told the taxpayer the wrong date for the end of the 90-day period in section 6015(e)(1)(A) to file a Tax Court innocent spouse petition.  The taxpayer relied on that date – mailing the petition on the last date the IRS told her.  Then, the IRS moved to dismiss her case for lack of jurisdiction as untimely.  In response, the taxpayer argued that the IRS should be estopped from making an untimeliness argument, having caused the late filing.  But, the Tax Court and, later, the Third Circuit held that the filing period is jurisdictional.  Jurisdictional periods are never subject to equitable exceptions.

Keith and I litigated Rubel.  We also litigated a factually virtually-identical case in the Second Circuit named Matuszak v. Commissioner.  On July 5, the Second Circuit reached the identical conclusion as the Third Circuit.

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The reasoning of both opinions is almost the same:  Under recent Supreme Court case law, time periods to file are no longer jurisdictional.  But, there are two exceptions:

One is that if the Supreme Court has called a time period jurisdictional in multiple past opinions issued over decades, the time period is still jurisdictional under stare decisis.  This stare decisis exception can’t apply to the innocent spouse petition filing period because the Supreme Court has never called any time period to file in the Tax Court jurisdictional or not jurisdictional.

The other exception is the “rare” case where Congress makes a “clear statement” that it wants a time period to be jurisdictional, notwithstanding the ordinary rule.  Both Rubel and Matuszak rely on the language of section 6015(e)(1)(A) as providing such a clear statement through the words “and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction . . . if” the petition is filed within 90 days of the notice of determination’s issuance.

Keith and I think this “clear statement” analysis is a bit too pat:  The words “and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction” appear only in a parenthetical.  Further, the “if” clause does not immediately follow that parenthetical.  We think that, based on Supreme Court case law on this clear statement exception, one can fairly argue that the parenthetical only applies to the language immediately following it – i.e., “to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section” – and which precedes the “if”.  In any case, if the language is not “clear”, then the time period should be held nonjurisdictional.

Both the Rubel and Matuszak opinion also pointed out the provision in section 6015(e)(1)(B)(ii) that gives the Tax Court jurisdiction to enjoin the IRS from collection of the disputed amount while the request for relief and all judicial appeals is pending.  There is a sentence in this provision that limits the Tax Court’s injunctive jurisdiction only to cases of the “timely” filing of a Tax Court petition under section 6015(e)(1)(A).  Keith and I don’t see the relevance of this injunctive provision to the clear statement exception, and we don’t see that “timely” means not considering any extensions provided under statutes (such as sections 7502 (tolling for timely mailing), 7508 (combat zone tolling), or 7508A (disaster zone tolling)) or judicial equitable exceptions.

And as to the context of the statute, remember both (1) that the statute explicitly invokes equity (in subsections (b) and (f)) and (2) that section 6015(e) was adopted joined in the same 1998 act to a legislative overruling of United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).  In Brockamp, the Supreme Court held that, due to the high volume of administrative refund claims and the complexity of section 6511, the time periods therein were not subject to equitable tolling under the presumption in favor of equitable tolling against the government laid down in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990).  Congress adopted section 6511(h) to provide what it called a legislative “equitable tolling” in cases of financial disability.  Does anyone think Congress’ desire to overrule the Supreme Court as to equitable tolling in section 6511 means that the same Congress did not want equitable tolling to apply in its new equitable innocent spouse provision?

In Rubel, the Third Circuit also cited Brockamp for the proposition that Congress in 1998 would have thought all time periods in the Internal Revenue Code jurisdictional.  Keith and I pointed out to both Circuits, however, that Brockamp doesn’t even contain the word “jurisdiction” or “jurisdictional”.  About the only significant difference between the opinions of the two Circuits is that the Second Circuit declines to include this questionable characterization of Brockamp.

No other Circuit has yet considered whether the time period in section 6015(e)(1)(A) is jurisdictional or not.  Keith and I are about to litigate the identical issue in the Fourth Circuit.  Clearly, the opinions in Rubel and Matuszak are not helping us.