Tax Free Reorg and Statute of Limitations: When is a Document a Return?

The New Capital Fire v Commissioner case from earlier this month is another in the many cases involving statutes of limitation on assessment. The case involves an old issue;  whether a document constitutes a return for purposes of starting the clock ticking on the statute of limitations on assessment.

In this case, the twist was that one taxpayer (Old Capital Fire)  was merged out of existence in a transaction that was intended to qualify as a tax free reorg under 368(a)(1)(F) (an F reorg) Following the merger, the surviving corporation (New Capital Fire) filed a corporate tax return, and with that return it included a pro forma Form 1120 that it included with its corporate tax return. That pro forma 1120 included the information pertaining to Old Capital Fire’s operations in its last short year.

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Generally speaking, when there is an F reorg, as the opinion discusses, the regs under Section 381 require that “the part of the tax year before the reorganization and the part after constitute a single tax year, and the resulting corporation must file a single full-year return.”

The problem here was apparently IRS argued that there was no valid F reorg. IRS came in 9 years or so after New Capital Fire filed its return and sought to assess a tax relating to the return that it believed Old Capital was required to separately file. If no return was filed, under Section 6501(c)(3) IRS would have an unlimited time to assess additional tax.

The issue that the Tax Court considered was whether the pro forma 1120 that New Capital included with its return was a return for purposes of starting the SOL on assessment for the tax stemming from the supposedly blown reorg.

There is plenty of old law on whether a document filed with the Service counts as a return. In 1984 the Tax Court put together the story in the oft-cited Beard v Commissioner, where it identified the following test:

(1) the document must contain sufficient data to calculate tax liability;

(2) the document must purport to be a return;

(3) there must be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law; and

(4) the taxpayer must have executed the document under penalties of perjury.

Most of the New Capital Fire opinion centered on the third requirement, the need to have an “honest and reasonable attempt” satisfy the tax law. The IRS argued that the New Capital return was purposefully misleading. While it was not clear (to me anyway) what led the IRS to label it as such, the opinion noted that the New Capital return had a clear statement regarding the position that Old Capital was merged into New Capital and that the pro forma return reported “income, deductions, and credits that were included in the notice of deficiency at issue in this case.”

The opinion notes that many opinions have liberally applied the third Beard element, with a flunking only if the court found that the pro forma 1120 and the 1120 that disclosed the merger was “false or fraudulent with intent to evade tax as it pertains to Old Capital.” The Tax Court observed that the IRS came up short, as “New Capital’s 2002 return contained sufficient information to calculate Old Capital’s tax liability.”

As the opinion notes, citing cases like Zellerbach Paper v Helvering and Germantown Trust v Commissioner, perfect accuracy is not necessary. Even if New Capital whiffed and there was a separate obligation to file a different return relating to Old Capital’s short year, that mistake did not change the fact that IRS had what it needed to assess any additional tax within the normal time frame.

With that, the court concluded that IRS did in fact receive a return from Old Capital and IRS was out of luck (and time) to assess any additional tax that may have stemmed from Old Capital Fire’s merger.

Designated Orders: 9/4/17 to 9/8/2017

LITC Director for Kansas Legal Services William Schmidt reviews interesting procedural issues in this week’s edition of designated orders, including whether an issue flagged in an IDR is considered a new issue at trial, whether Coca Cola’s closing agreement in a transfer pricing dispute is relevant in a dispute covering years not covered in the agreement and the importance of letting the court know if there is a change in address. Les

Out of 11 designated orders this week, roughly half were in the same case so that case is a main focus in this blog post. Additionally, Coca-Cola’s calculation methodology is relevant to their case and it’s always good to update your address with the Tax Court.

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Multiple Motions Lead to Multiple Orders

Docket # 21255-13, 27239-13, Duane Pankratz, et al., v. C.I.R.

These cases were set on the St. Paul, Minnesota, trial calendar for June 15, 2015 based on 2008 and 2009 tax years. The cases were continued based on Petitioner’s motion because there are a large number of issues. The parties proposed to corral the relatively noncontroversial issues and try the remaining issues the parties thought reasonably needed to be tried. The Court’s pretrial order was extended as no St. Paul calendar was docketed until September 2017, when they are set for trial.

  • Order 1 Here – After the parties had narrowed issues and stipulated facts, settlement talks broke down. The Court spoke with the parties on July 21, 2017, and learned the parties disagreed on what documents were exchanged, issues raised in the notice of deficiency and pleadings, and whether to set deadlines differing from the pretrial order deadlines for expert-witness reports or pretrial memos.       On August 3, 2017, Petitioner moved to compel production of documents from his requests 1-11 and 13.       These first 11 requests are broad, but the instructions narrow them to tax years 2008-2009. The Court found Petitioner’s request 13 to be overbroad. The Court granted the motion to compel for requests 1-11 to the extent of documents not already in Petitioner’s possession that Respondent intends to introduce at trial. If Respondent claims privilege for any of those documents, he must produce a privilege log.
  • Order 2 Here – On July 3, 2017, Respondent moved for summary judgment on three issues, noncash charitable deductions subject to enhanced substantiation requirements. As one issue was settled, the other two issues are deductions for a donation of four oil-and-natural-gas fields and a donation of a conference center in South Dakota. Respondent argues qualified appraisals are required to substantiate those donations. Petitioner argues that Respondent’s authority predates 2004, when I.R.C. Section 170(f)(11)(A)(ii)(II) allows for a reasonable cause exception to those requirements. Since Petitioner asserts he can meet the reasonable cause requirements and will testify in support, Respondent’s motion for partial summary judgment was denied.
  • Order 3 Here – Petitioner moved in limine on August 4, 2017, to preclude new matters from being tried, listing three issues in the motion. The issues were not listed in the notices of deficiency, answer, or amended answers. Respondent argues that the issues were raised in an information document request and a letter in September 2015. The Court notes that information document requests and letters from counsel are not pleadings. Respondent also argued Rule 41(b)(1) that when parties expressly or impliedly try an issue by consent, it is treated as if it were in the pleadings. The Court cites Rule 70(a)(2) and states that discovery is not trial. The motion in limine was granted for Petitioner and Respondent was precluded from offering evidence on the three issues.
  • Order 4 Here – Here is an order on another one of Petitioner’s motions in limine regarding a new issue from Respondent. This motion was filed September 1, 2017, regarding a disallowance of Petitioner’s Schedule E losses in 2009 for lack of basis. As the issue did not arise until August 2017 in an email chain, the Court precluded Respondent from offering evidence at trial on that issue.
  • Order 5 Here – There is also an August 3, 2017, motion by Petitioner for the Court to review Respondent’s responses to requests for admissions 18-36.       The Court illustrates Petitioner’s lateness on some requests for admissions and how his responses are a potential backdoor way to get in evidence subject to a preclusion order from the Court. The Court denied Petitioner’s motion to review the sufficiency of answers or objections to request for admissions.

Some takeaways: Information document requests, letters from counsel, and email chains are not ways to introduce new issues for Tax Court. To do so, the issues must be introduced in the pleadings (such as answers or amended answers). One exception is Rule 41(b)(1), where the parties consent to trying an issue. Discovery does not equal trial so an issue sought during discovery does not necessarily make it a triable issue in Tax Court and a motion in limine is a way to prevent that.

It is always worth reviewing discovery requests to ensure they are not overbroad in scope. Keeping the request reasonable and not overly burdensome may make the difference in getting a useful discovery response.

Coca-Cola Court

Docket # 31183-15, The Coca-Cola Company and Subsidiaries v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This case is based on a Notice of Deficiency issued to Petitioner for transfer-pricing adjustments under I.R.C. Section 482 resulting in deficiencies over $3.3 billion for tax years 2007-2009. The IRS asked the Court to render judgment as a matter of law that a closing agreement in 1996 has no relevance to any issue arising in the case.

After an examination of the Petitioner’s 1987-1989 federal income tax returns, the parties executed a closing agreement covering tax years up to and including 1995. In that agreement, the parties agreed to a methodology (the “10-50-50 method”) to calculate the product royalties payable to the Coca-Cola foreign affiliates (supply points). With this method, the supply point retains 10% of gross revenues as a routine return while the adjusted residual operating income is split 50-50 between the supply point and Petitioner. The closing agreement provided penalty protection for Petitioner during the agreement term and in tax years after 1995. For those tax years after 1995, supply point royalties calculated using the 10-50-50 method or another subsequent agreed-upon method would meet the “reasonable cause and good faith” exception to the penalties in I.R.C. Sections 6662(e)(3)(D) and 6664(c).

For tax years 1996-2006, Respondent accepted the application of the 10-50-50 method and made no I.R.C. Section 482 adjustments (with one exception). However, for tax years 2007-2009, the IRS determined the 10-50-50 method calculations were not arm’s-length, leading into the Notice of Deficiency and the case at issue.

Because the closing agreement sets the narrative for the 2007-2009 audit, the Court stated that is the beginning of its relevance. Next, the Court states the penalty protection provision has obvious relevance for the closing agreement. Additionally, Petitioner claimed foreign tax credits for Mexican income tax paid by its Mexican branch for tax years 2007-2009. The Notice of Deficiency includes $254 million of disallowed foreign tax credits on the grounds that the Mexican taxes were not compulsory levies. At issue is whether the Mexican taxes were compulsory or not, with the Coca-Cola argument that the Mexican taxing authority effectively adopting the 10-50-50 method from the 1996 closing agreement. Based on those relevancy reasons, the Court denied the Respondent’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.

Rule 24(b) for an Updated Address

Docket # 22387-16S, Eric Scott Hanson v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

On August 30, 2017, the Court granted Respondent’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss this case by order and decision. The Court cancelled the September 11 trial session in Columbia, South Carolina, because Hurricane Irma was anticipated to arrive that date.

However, the Chambers Administrator for Judge Gustafson learned on September 7 that Mr. Hanson had a new address and had not received recent orders in this case. Rule 24(b) states that a party self-representing in Tax Court must promptly notify the Court in writing of a change of address (so not receiving copies of Court filings is his fault). Any motion Mr. Hansen makes to vacate the decision is due no later than September 29, 2017.

Takeaway: Parties must notify the Tax Court of a change of address. If they do not notify the Court, it is their fault for not receiving Court filings.

ABA Tax Section Fall Meeting in Austin

Stephen and I are attending the fall ABA Tax Section meeting in Austin. There are panels about important procedural and administrative issues, including the new partnership audit regime (timely as my colleague Marilyn Ames and I are finishing up a chapter on that for the Saltzman/Book treatise), the many changes in Appeals Office procedures, how to navigate cases before the Office of Professional Responsibility, best practices in reading and drafting the various types of tax guidance, and the possible changes arising due to the tax aspects of healthcare reform.

This morning Stephen will be on a panel I am moderating  discussing Section 7434 and the private cause of action that it allows for fraudulently issued information returns. Joining him on the panel is Mandi Matlock, who splits her time between Mondrick & Associates and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (and who contributes to the Effectively Representing book and has also blogged for us). There are many interesting issues relating to Section 7434, including whether the statute supports a claim for improperly issued information returns arising in employee misclassification cases, whether a person who did not have a legal obligation to file the information return is potentially liable and how the courts have approached damages in the handful of cases that plaintiffs have won.

 

Waiving a Right to Contest a Whistleblower Award

The case of Whistleblower 4496-15W v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 19 (May 25, 2017) concerns both the timeliness of filing a Tax Court petition in a whistleblower case and the effect of cashing a check granting an award.  Both aspects of the case deserve some discussion.  The whistleblower wins the battle concerning the timing of the filing of the petition only to lose the war on whether the signing of the check served as a waiver of the right to sue the IRS in this matter.

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The whistleblower gave the IRS some good information.  The IRS calculated that the information allowed it to recover over $14 million.  Based on that recovery, the IRS recommended an award percentage of 22% resulting in a proposed award of $3,187,630.  Because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the IRS reduced the award by 7.3%.

On December 1, 2014, the IRS sent to the whistleblower a summary report “that explains our preliminary award recommendation in the amount of $2,954,933.00.”  The letter explained the amount recovered the percentage award and the required reduction.  It also explained that the award would be reduced by withholding.  The letter also explained the options that the whistleblower had upon its receipt.  If the whistleblower agreed with the award, “he was directed to ‘check the appropriate box, sign and date the Response to Summary Report indicating … [his] agreement’ and ‘return the signed Response’ to the Office.”  The letter gave explicit details concerning the effect of signing on future contests concerning the award stating that “by checking the box that you agree with the preliminary award recommendation, you agree to waive any judicial appeal rights with respect to the award determination, including filing a petition with the U.S. Tax Court.”

The letter also explained that the whistleblower could disagree with the proposed award recommendation and submit comments to the Office.  The letter stated that it was NOT a final determination for purposes of filing a Tax Court petition.  The whistleblower’s attorney called the Office on December 8 and 9 with questions and was told accepting the award now was conclusive.

The whistleblower and his attorney signed the letter.  The IRS sent a check dated January 15, 2015, in the reduced amount, which was further reduced by $819,107 of withholding.  The whistleblower filed a Tax Court petition on February 11, 2015, arguing that the IRS lacked legal support for reducing the recommended offer by 7.3%.  The IRS moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction arguing first that it should have been filed within 30 days of December 1, 2014.  The Court pointed out that the December 1 letter specifically stated that it was a preliminary letter and not a final determination.  Without much difficulty, the Court found that the December 1 letter was not and could not be the determination letter starting the time to file a petition in a whistleblower case.  Looking around at what could be used for that purpose, the Court concluded that the statute provided no guidance.  Here, it found that the check served the purpose of the final determination.  Since the petition was filed within 30 days of the mailing of the check, the petition was timely.  Makes sense, but the lack of a formal way to denote a final determination will continue to plague petitioners, the IRS, and the Court until Congress gets around to fixing this hole in the statute.

So, now the whistleblower got past the building guard and into the Tax Court, but he still had a problem.  He agreed not to file a Tax Court petition as part of accepting the check.  When you get a check for over $2 million I can only imagine that it is hard to pass that up for Door #2.  I am still waiting for the day I have this option.

The IRS moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because of the signed agreement; however, the Court correctly pointed out that the signed agreement did not mean the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case but could form a basis for a motion for summary judgment and the Court recharacterized the motion to that purpose.

As I read the case I thought about the form used by Appeals, Form 870-AD, which has produced a number of decisions regarding the effect of having the taxpayer sign away the ability to litigate.  Most, but not all, of those decisions have resulted in victories for the IRS with courts enforcing the signed waiver.  The Tax Court here looked at several of its prior decisions on waivers including decisions on the Appeals form.  The decisions uniformly held for the IRS.  At this point I had a strong suspicion where the Court would end up here.

The Court found that the whistleblower knowingly signed away his right to come to court.  It swatted away the arguments made by the petitioner finding the language of the letter unambiguous.  The Court states:

In sum, petitioner waived his judicial appeal rights in order to receive prompt payment of his award, and the Office fully performed its side of the bargain.  We will accordingly enforce the agreement reached by the parties, give effect to petitioner’s waiver of his right to judicial review, and grant summary judgment for respondent sustaining the Office’s determination.

I do not know if petitioner will appeal this determination.  A quick search indicated that an appeal has not yet been filed.  While the result here does not surprise me, a few courts have struck down waiver paragraphs like this.  Look at Whitney v. United States, 826 F.2d 896 (9th Cir. 1987) where the court found that the Form 870-AD, standing alone, does not estop a taxpayer from later seeking a refund.  Other courts, such as Arch Engineering Co., Inc. v. United States, 783 F.2d 190, 192 (Fed.Cir.1986) (dicta); Lignos v. United States, 439 F.2d 1365, 1367 (2d Cir.1971); Uinta Livestock Corp. v. United States, 355 F.2d 761 (10th Cir.1966); cf. Cain v. United States, 255 F.2d 193, 199 (8th Cir.1958) (Van Oosterhout, J., dissenting) that follow this view look for the IRS to enter into a closing agreement if it wants to bind the taxpayer.  Most courts, represented by cases such as Flynn v. United States, 786 F.2d 586, 591 (3d Cir.1986) (dicta) (also applying contract principles); Elbo Coals, Inc. v. United States, 763 F.2d 818, 821 (6th Cir.1985); General Split Corp. v. United States, 500 F.2d 998, 1004 (7th Cir.1974); Cain v. United States, 255 F.2d 193, 199 (8th Cir.1958) prevent the taxpayer from coming into court after signing the Form 870-AD based on equitable estoppel.  Maybe a whistleblower will find a sympathetic ear before one of the circuit courts that looks kindly on the taxpayer coming into court after signing the Form 870-AD.  The closing agreement argument has some appeal.  If not, whistleblowers will have to make some hard choices when they receive the check from the IRS because it looks like they will be stuck with the award they receive unless they fight before cashing the check.

 

Court Grants Government’s Motion in Limine in FBAR Penalty Trial

Last week’s order in Bedrosian v US concerns an evidentiary dispute in an FBAR case. Bedrosian is CEO of pharmaceutical company Lannett. The dispute centered around the government’s motion in limine to exclude any evidence pertaining to its administrative determination to impose penalties for willfully failing to file an annual FBAR form. The government filed its motion, arguing that the evidence pertaining to its the administrative determination was irrelevant in the court proceeding, as the court would be making a de novo review on the merits of the penalty. The court agreed with the government.

I will describe the order and give some context.

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FBAR penalties are steep, especially if the failure to file the report is willful. A willful failure to file carries a penalty of up to the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the account balance.

In Bedrosian, the penalty at issue is about $1 million for willfully failing to disclose an interest in one of two UBS Swiss bank accounts.

Bedrosian had a Swiss account for many years, which he failed to disclose to the IRS. For many years he also did not report the income from the account on his federal income tax returns. He had another more recently opened smaller UBS account, which he began disclosing on an FBAR in the 2007 tax year, though when he filed the FBAR for that smaller account he did not report its income on his 2007 federal tax return.

The account he disclosed had a value of about $230,000; the other undisclosed account was worth about ten times that. In 2008 UBS told Bedrosian that it would be turning over all account information to the IRS. In 2010, Bedrosian amended the earlier FBAR filing and filed a new FBAR showing his interest in both accounts. He also amended his income tax return to reflect the income from the accounts.

The order from earlier this year on the cross summary judgment motions discusses how Bedrosian cooperated with IRS after it began investigating him in 2011. (See Jack Townsend’s Federal Tax Crimes blog post for an excellent discussion of the earlier order and the court’s discussion of the willfulness standard; hard working Jack also beat us to this punch with a post yesterday on last week’s order here). Initially the IRS proposed to only impose nonwillful FBAR penalties; however, for reasons that are not clear the IRS reassigned the matter to another IRS agent, and that agent recommended imposing the willful FBAR penalty. IRS went ahead and proposed to impose the largest willful penalty allowed under the regs; that was just under $1M.

Bedrosian sued claiming that the penalty amounted to an illegal exaction, leading both parties to file summary judgment motions.

After denying both parties’ summary judgment motions, and with the case heading to trial, the government sought to exclude from trial the evidence pertaining to the IRS’s flip flop on its penalty determination. Last week’s order agreed with the government. In so doing the court looked to analogous case law that provides that the “thoughts and analysis, application of facts to law at the administrative level with respect to willfulness have no place in the Court’s de novo review of whether Bedrosian willfully failed to comply with the FBAR requirements.”

Bedrosian cited case law interpreting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which also has de novo review of administrative proceedings but has mandated that the earlier proceedings become part of the record in court challenges. The Bedrosian order distinguished that line of cases, as the IDEA statute specifically requires that the courts should receive records of the earlier administrative proceedings.

The key, from the court’s perspective, was that the government’s documents on its FBAR penalty determination were not relevant to its task of making an independent determination on whether Bedrosian acted willfully in failing to file the FBAR. The matter now proceeds to a trial on the merits. As there are many FBAR cases in the pipeline, and only a handful of court opinions and orders, this is an important victory for the government.

 

 

Designated Orders: 8/28/2017 – 9/1/2017

Professor Samantha Galvin of University of Denver Sturm College of Law brings us this week’s edition of Designated Orders. This week’s post looks at an order involving a Collection Due Process case and an order explaining the impact of sending a refund on the IRS’s subsequent ability to audit.  Keith

The Tax Court designated seven orders last week and three are discussed below. The designated orders not discussed are here, here, here and here.

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Dictum in Greene-Thapedi Does Not Apply

Docket # 23295-14L, VK&S Industries v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In this designated order the taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court on a notice of determination, however, the Court remanded the case to Appeals to review the liability pursuant to section 6330(c)(2)(B) which indicates that the petitioner did not have a prior opportunity to dispute the underlying liability for the tax year at issue. Following its review, Appeals issued a supplemented notice of determination which the Court also has the authority to review under section 6330(d)(1).

The Appeals’ review on remand resulted in adjustments which abated a portion of the tax due and generated a large refund that was then paid out to petitioner. As a result of there no longer being any tax amount due, the IRS (respondent) moved to dismiss the case on the ground of mootness relying upon Greene-Thapedi v. Commissioner, 126 T.C. 1.

The majority in Greene-Thapedi held that the Tax Court has no jurisdiction to determine an overpayment or order a refund in section 6330 cases, however, the Court stated (in dictum) that it might consider whether a taxpayer had paid more than what was owed in collection cases where the underlying liability was properly at issue pursuant to section 6330(c)(2)(B). Other cases citing Greene-Thapedi have been recently discussed by Procedurally Taxing here and here.

Petitioner objected to respondent’s motion on grounds that its case was distinguishable from the majority’s decision in Greene-Thapedi since it was not allowed to raise its underlying liability in its initial CDP hearing, even though it satisfied section 6330(c)(2)(B). This was because, even though petitioner’s liability was reviewed and abated in large part on remand, petitioner believed additional amounts should have been abated during Appeals’ review.

The Court granted respondent’s motion and dismissed the case, stating that since Appeals reviewed the underlying liability on remand and eliminated petitioner’s balance, the circumstances described in the dictum of Greene-Thapedi did not apply.

Take-away point:

  • The circumstances described in the Greene-Thapedi dictum could potentially apply in cases where a petitioner was not provided an opportunity to dispute the underlying liability but there is also still a balance due, however, this was not the position in which the petitioner in this case found itself.

Respondent’s Motion Given the Boot, Not Moot

Docket # 20779-16S, Brooks v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Similar to the case discussed directly above, in this designated order respondent moved to dismiss the case, in part, on grounds of mootness because the taxpayer no longer owed a balance for 2003 which was one of two tax years at issue. This time, however, the balance was no longer owed because the collection statute had expired. The Court did not agree with respondent and denied the motion, because petitioner’s 2014 refund of $364 was applied to 2003 right before the collection statute expired. This meant it was possible that petitioner could still receive this refund because the issue before the Court was an innocent spouse determination, and the petitioner filed his petition within the requisite two-year period under section 6511(b)(2)(B). Whereas the Court in Greene-Thapedi held that it has no jurisdiction to find an overpayment (at least in some circumstances) under its CDP jurisdiction, the Court may determine an overpayment under its section 6015(e) stand-alone innocent spouse jurisdiction because that provision grants the Court jurisdiction “to determine the relief available to the individual under this section.”  Section 6015(g)(1) and (3) provide for the possibility of overpayments under subsections (b) or (f), but not under subsection (c).  See the recent opinion in Taft v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-66 (finding an overpayment under subsection (b)), on which PT blogged on May 3, 2017 here.

The Court has jurisdiction to review innocent spouse relief claims de novo. During tax years 2003 and 2006, petitioner earned a larger portion of the income reported on the joint return he filed with his wife. Petitioner’s wife’s income was from a combination of social security benefits and income from other sources, however, she was relieved of all joint and several liability in a bankruptcy proceeding to which petitioner was not a party. As a result, petitioner was the only one still responsible for the entire balance. Over time, petitioner’s income decreased and he was diagnosed with serious health issues.

The Court analyzed whether or not petitioner was eligible for relief under section 6015(f), with the caveat that the facts assumed in the order were not findings for purposes of the trial and the facts were still petitioner’s burden to prove.

First, it stated that petitioner was not entitled to streamlined relief because he was still married to his wife. The Court then went on to look at the factors outlined in Revenue Procedure 2013-34 and suggested that three of the factors may weigh in favor of relief, namely: economic hardship, health problems and compliance with tax laws. It also stated that holding petitioner solely liable could create an inequitable result since petitioner’s wife discharged her joint and several liability in bankruptcy.

At the end of this designated order, Judge Gustafson said that the case would proceed to trial and requested that the parties show, at trial, what petitioner’s individual liability would have been had he filed separately from his wife.

Update:

  • In a subsequent, non-designated order issued on September 5, 2017 (here) the Court granted respondent’s motion to submit the case under rule 122 and the case was stricken for trial. In that non-designated order, petitioner stipulated to the amounts of his and his wife’s income in the years at issue. The Court ordered the parties to file a status report stating whether they wished to provide additional briefs, or rely solely on the information in the pretrial memoranda, prior to the Court making its decision.

Receiving a Refund Does Not Preclude a Deficiency

Docket # 26549-16S, Chambers v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision Here)

In this case the taxpayer petitioned the Court after she incorrectly claimed an excess net premium tax credit in tax year 2014.  The error arose because the taxpayer entered the annual totals listed on her Form 1095-A as monthly amounts into the tax software that she used to prepare her return. The IRS audited the return and later issued a notice of deficiency reflecting a $2,880 deficiency, which was the difference between the amount of net premium tax credit to which she was entitled of $120 and the net premium tax credit which she had mistakenly claimed of $3,000.

Petitioner did not make the argument that the deficiency amount was incorrect, but rather she argued that the IRS had “ample” time to correct any miscalculations prior to sending her a refund. As a result, she believed that the IRS should be precluded from determining a deficiency. She filed her return on March 9, 2015 and received the refund on April 13, 2015. She stated that in between this (very short by IRS standards) time her return was audited and that the IRS requested copies of the information she had entered, presumably her Form 1095-A.

The Court doesn’t comment on whether the IRS actually requested any information in between the date the return was filed and the date the refund was issued. Instead, the Court held that even if a return was audited before a refund was issued, it would not bind the IRS in the absence of a closing agreement, valid compromise or final adjudication.

Since the petitioner did not dispute the substantive determinations made in the notice of deficiency, respondent filed a motion for summary judgement under Rule 121.

The Court agreed there was no genuine dispute to material fact so it granted respondent’s motion for summary judgment and decided that the petitioner had a deficiency in income in the amount of the excess refund.

Take-away points:

  • We often have clients who desire to make similar arguments in the belief that the onus is on the IRS to determine that a refund is correct before it is issued. Unfortunately, these are not arguments that the IRS nor Court are willing to entertain. I presume this belief arises often among low-income clients since most refunds are spent immediately, and often on necessary living expenses, leaving the client in a very uncomfortable spot once the IRS demands that the amount be repaid.
  • In my experience, errors made by state healthcare exchanges have been the culprit of issues with premium tax credits, unfortunately in this case, the taxpayer was the one who got it wrong.

 

 

Two Years Later: Form 1042-S Frozen Refunds

We welcome back a former student of Les and mine, Sonya Miller, who is now an Assistant Professor-in-Residence at the William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  She also directs the brand new Russell M. Rosenblum Tax Clinic Program serving low income taxpayers in the Las Vegas area.  Sonya wrote one of the most popular posts we have had at PT about the IRS program directed at nonresidents and their requests for refunds.  In today’s post she updates us on the program.  The program seems to be a situation in which someone saw abuse and the IRS chose a blunt an instrument to combat that abuse.  In doing so it caught a lot of people in its net that did not belong there, spent more of its own resources than necessary and paid out several million dollars in interest.  The program may have had successes that we do not chronicle because we do not know about them.  Perhaps we will learn about them in some future TIGTA audit.  Keith

Around this time in 2015, while I was directing the Federal Tax Clinic at the University of South Dakota School of Law, it came to the clinic’s attention that the Service was freezing refunds from Form 1042-S withholding for nonresident students at the University. The clinic and I wrote about the issue in Procedurally Taxing here. At that time, dealing with the Service to represent these taxpayers was extremely frustrating; it was like talking to a brick wall. Repeated phone calls to the practitioner priority line yielded virtually no information. We contacted the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) for assistance and still it was slow going. This is likely because, as the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) noted in her Fiscal Year 2016 Objectives Report to Congress, the Service directed taxpayers to contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) for assistance but had not provided TAS with any specific procedures or protocols that could be followed to assist these taxpayers. Indeed, in her Fiscal Year 2017 Objectives Report to Congress, the NTA notes that the Service was no more forthcoming with TAS than it was with other third parties: “The National Taxpayer Advocate and her staff raised concerns about the matching program and the student Form 1042-S issues. These concerns, however, were repeatedly dismissed by the IRS officials charged with operating the program.” On behalf of affected taxpayers, TAS issued mass Operation Assistance Requests and developed Taxpayer Assistant Orders.

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The NTA further noted in her report the unfair burden the Service placed on compliant nonresident taxpayers in an attempt to catch a few bad actors, while leaving compliant taxpayers with virtually no recourse for proving that they were entitled to the frozen refunds. Indeed, this was our experience at the South Dakota clinic. Early on in representing our student taxpayers, we contacted the University’s comptroller and received proof that the University had in fact withheld taxes from the students and had turned the money over to the Service. Still, the Service refused to release the refunds. It took so long to get the refunds released that I cannot be sure that it was our representation of the students that caused the Service to finally release the refunds. By the time the students contacted us, the refunds from their 2014 Forms 1040NR had been frozen for five months or more. Some of the students waited over a year to receive their refunds.

To be fair to the Service, it was trying to prevent fraud. Even so, no such burden exists for domestic taxpayers whose withholding agents fail to turn over withholdings. When an employer fails to turn over payroll tax to the Service, domestic taxpayers are still entitled to receive a refund from any over withheld taxes. Moreover, the Service’s means (trying to match the information in each and every Form 1042-S reported by withholding agents to each and every Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ filed by taxpayers) to reach the end of preventing fraud, was a blunder, which the Service recognizes in hindsight. However, the Service does attempt to place more of the burden on withholding agents by disincentivizing bad behavior. Withholding agents face hefty penalties if they fail to meet the requirement to file Forms 1042-S. They also face penalties for failing to furnish correct Forms 1042-S to recipients. Failing to ensure that Forms 1042-S reported to the Service exactly match the forms provided to the taxpayer is one common mistake that withholding agents make. Treasury Regulation 1.1461-1(h) lists the code sections for all of the penalties to which withholding agents may be subject.

However, notwithstanding its limited resources, as the NTA highlights, the Service could always do more to use its resources effectively.  In her Fiscal Year 2017 Report to Congress, the NTA states that the Service’s verification process for refunds based on Forms 1042-S “has not only been costly for taxpayers, but for the IRS, which has estimated that an extension of the freezes through early 2016 would generate an interest expense of over $4 million.” She further states that the Service could have maximized its resources had it “simply used technology already developed and pre-tested in the domestic withholding context” rather than using a separate, systemic matching program.

In an effort to “try harder and do better,” it has been reported (full text on file with the author) that the Service will no longer systemically freeze all refunds based on Forms 1042-S and will manually review all frozen refunds. The service describes its matching program in IRM 21.8.1.11.14.2. Unfortunately, we the people are not privy to most of the information in this IRM—the Service has heavily redacted it. It seems that the Service redacts information for fear that people will use the information to game the system. So, if I had to hazard a guess, in line with the de minimis exception in IRS Notice 2015-10, the redacted information probably says something about which refunds will be systemically frozen and which will not and that there’s a threshold amount to make this decision. Nevertheless, in IRM 21.8.1.11.14.3, the Service does set out what the matching program looks for in determining a good match. Where refunds are frozen, the freeze will systemically release after a little over five months. Also, IRM 21.8.1.1.13, informs IRS employees that nonresident taxpayers have rights under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which means that the Service cannot just keep nonresident taxpayers in the dark regarding the status of their refund claims. Change has been somewhat slow but the Service has taken responsibility for its transgressions and appears to be moving in the right direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recent Tax Court Case Sustains Preparer EITC Due Diligence Penalties

Last week in Mohamed v Commmssioner, the Tax Court sustained $7,000 of EITC due diligence penalties against a preparer. The preparer, who was a CPA, had an active business preparing individual tax returns, including many EITC returns. The opinion provides a rare court review of the imposition of these penalties.

The EITC due diligence penalty has been on the books for a while; the current penalty is $500 for each failure to comply. Requirements include preparing and retaining forms like the Paid Preparer’s Earned Income Credit Checklist, and the Earned Income Credit Worksheet. In addition, the rules require that tax return preparer must not know, or have reason to know, that any information pertaining to the EITC is incorrect.

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This penalty is even more important for preparers, as Congress recently expanded the scope of due diligence penalties to include the child tax credit and the American opportunity tax credit.

There are not many cases involving the penalty, and while Mohamed is a summary opinion, it does provide some insights into the process and limits on Tax Court review of the penalty.

The opinion discusses how IRS examined a number of Mohamed’s clients as part of its EITC due diligence audit program. He was visited by a tax compliance officer, who reviewed 50 of Mohamed’s returns. The audit report proposed a penalty on 20 of the 50 returns; while the penalty is not subject to deficiency procedures, the IRM provides and IRS allowed for Mohamed to challenge the proposed assessment before Appeals.

Mohamed met with an Appeals Officer for 6 hours to discuss the penalty; after the meeting Appeals agreed to remove the penalty from 5 of the returns. Appeals also asked for more information on 4 other returns. Mohamed sent documents to Appeals and also had a follow up phone conversation. The correspondence and phone call led Appeals to remove the penalty from another return, bringing the penalty down to 14 returns, or $7,000.

Appeals sent a closing letter indicating that it was recommending a penalty assessment on 14 of the returns; it also let Mohamed know that he could pay the penalty and file a refund claim and eventually sue in district court or the Court of Federal Claims if he wanted court review of the penalty.

IRS assessed the penalty and issued a notice of intent to levy. Mohamed did not pay and instead filed a CDP request. In the hearing he asked to challenge the underlying assessment. The settlement officer refused that request on the theory that he had a prior opportunity to challenge the penalty in the preassessment Appeals hearing.

PT readers are likely familiar with the legal issue; namely whether a prior opportunity to dispute the amount or existence of the liability includes for these purposes an administrative preassessment Appeals hearing. Taxpayers have lost in Tax Court and circuit courts on this issue (For more see Keith’s discussion Continued Developments in Taxpayer Attempts to Litigate the Merits in CDP Cases.)

Given the Tax Court and appellate courts’ views on this issue, it is not surprising Mohamed had an uphill battle. He gamely attempted to distinguish the adverse authority, arguing that Appeals did not give him a chance to rebut its conclusions and that it terminated the process prematurely.

The Tax Court disagreed, emphasizing that he participated fully in the examination process, had a long in-person meeting with Appeals and follow up conversations and correspondence:

In sum, the record shows that in 2015 petitioner was provided a full and fair opportunity to challenge the imposition of the disputed penalties before the Appeals Office and he meaningfully participated in that proceeding. Although petitioner would have preferred to continue to dispute his liability, we are satisfied hat the Appeals Office conducted a fair and comprehensive review of the matter and acted properly in concluding the matter by issuing its closing letter.

That the Tax Court looked into the process that Appeals provided in the preasessment hearing is a slight opening for other taxpayers who may not have had the same opportunities with Appeals. Yet Mohamed is another in the growing line of cases that show that CDP is not an avenue for challenging the amount or existence of a liability even if there is no prior opportunity for court review.

There is one other aspect of the case worth noting. Mohamed also challenged the penalty under Section 6751(b) which requires that no IRC penalty “shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate…”

The court considered this issue on the merits and found that the compliance officer had prepared a Form 8484, which is used to refer preparers for possible discipline to the Return Preparer Office. That form was where the compliance officer proposed the penalties, and the supervisor signed that form and approved referral.   Interestingly the record did not include a Form 8278, which is what IRS typically uses to propose preparer penalties. The lack of that form did not trouble the Tax Court:

On its face, Form 8484 is a report that IRS personnel are encouraged to use to convey information to the OPR about questionable practitioner conduct. Although the form does not function to authorize the assessment of a penalty, in this case the TCO’s acting immediate supervisor placed her digital signature on the Form 8484 indicating that she agreed with the referral of the matter to the OPR and that she approved the audit report (attached to the Form 8484) which recommended that 20 section 6695(g) penalties be assessed against petitioner. The audit report included a detailed explanation in support of each of the 20 penalties. Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the TCO’s initial determination to assess the penalties in dispute was personally approved in writing by her immediate supervisor within the meaning of section 6751(b).

As this is a summary opinion not subject to further review, there is no chance to in this case see if the IRS’s failure to seek penalty approval in the proper manner amounted to compliance with Section 6751(b). As we have discussed (most recently in Samantha Galvin’s Designated Order post from a few weeks ago), the 6751(b) issue is one that the Tax Court and other courts are increasingly facing.