District Court Finds that Sanmina Waived Privilege Claims For Memos That Tax Counsel Prepared

Earlier this year in Ninth Circuit Defers on Important Privilege Waiver Case I summarized US v Sanmina Corp, a Ninth Circuit opinion that remanded a case to the district court to consider whether by disclosing the existence of purportedly protected documents the taxpayer waived various privilege claims it asserted with respect to memos that its in house tax counsel prepared. Earlier this month a federal district court in California issued an order holding that the taxpayer waived its privilege claims. The issue is important, especially for corporate taxpayers with layers of advisors touching different parts of a transaction or position taken on a tax return.

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As background, and as I repeat from my January post, the case arose out of Sanmina’s 2009 tax return, when it claimed about a half billion dollars in a worthless stock deduction in one of its subsidiaries. The purportedly worthless sub had two related party receivables with an approximate $113 million book value. Notwithstanding the healthy book value, Sanmina claimed that the FMV of the receivables was zilch.

IRS examined Sanmina’s tax return and sent an information document request for documents that supported the deduction. Sanmina gave to IRS a valuation report from DLA Piper, its outside counsel. That report (not surprisingly) supported the taxpayer’s view that the receivables had no fair market value. Included in the report was a footnote that referenced internal memos that Sanmina’s tax counsel had prepared, one in 06 and the other in 09.

IRS asked for those two memos; Sanmina resisted, leading to IRS to summons them and bring an enforcement action when Sanmina did not comply. In 2015, the district court held that both memos were protected by attorney client and work product privilege and that the “mere mention” of the memos in the DLA Piper valuation report did not amount to the party’s waiving the privilege.

The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the matter back to the district court, and specifically asked that the district court judge examine the documents in camera so it could provide a “more informed analysis” of the waiver claims.

[As  an interesting aside, the case has been festering for almost four years; the magistrate judge who originally wrote the order that the government appealed, Paul Grewal, has moved on to Facebook where he is Deputy General Counsel.]

After some additional back and forth with the Ninth Circuit about the scope of the remand, the district court has now issued its opinion. In brief fashion, the district court agreed with the taxpayer that the documents were subject to both attorney client privilege and work product protection, but it found that the privileges were waived in light of the DLA Piper valuation report for two main reasons:

  • When Sanmina gave the memos to DLA Piper it did so not with the hope of getting legal advice but for the purpose of getting a valuation for the stock of one of its subs; and
  • In any event when it gave the DLA Piper report to IRS it waived privilege for any of the materials that Piper used to reach its valuation, as the report explicitly stated that it based its conclusions (at least in part) on the two memoranda that were at issue.

Sanmina had attempted to minimize the DLA Paper’s report reliance on the memos, pointing to a Ninth Circuit case Tennenbaum v Deloitte and Touche that suggested that disclosing the existence of the memos was not tantamount to disclosing the contents themselves. The opinion’s framing of DLA Piper as relying on the memos (aided by the in camera review the Ninth Circuit suggested) led the court to reject that argument:

[In Tennebaum], our court of appeals held that a promise to waive privilege is not, in itself, a waiver, rather, it is disclosure that triggers waiver. Id. at 341. The court noted that waiver is rooted in notions of “fundamental fairness” and that its principal purpose is “to protect against the unfairness that would result from a privilege holder selectively disclosing privileged communications to an adversary, revealing those that support the cause while claiming shelter of the privilege to avoid disclosing those that are less favorable.” Id. at 340.

Here, Sanmina wishes to do just that. Sanmina relies on DLA Piper’s determination supporting a $503 million stock deduction, but it avoids disclosing the very foundational analysis that informed its conclusion. DLA Piper acknowledged that it based its conclusions on the memoranda in question. Thus, it would be fundamentally unfair for Sanmina to disclose the valuation report while withholding its foundation.

Conclusion

While the taxpayer may appeal this order, it serves as a cautionary tale for taxpayers who rely on both in house tax counsel and outside advisors. Valuation issues often are at the heart of many disputes with the IRS (and other parties) but when a client leans on outside advice for valuation and those advisors disclose their use of documents prepared in house it creates a road map for a waiver argument for the documents that would otherwise be protected from disclosure.

Tax Court Urged to Permit Limited Scope Appearances by Counsel

We welcome first-time guest blogger James Creech to Procedurally Taxing. James is a tax controversy attorney in solo practice in San Francisco and Chicago. He currently chairs the Individual and Family Tax Committee of the ABA Section of Taxation. Here James discusses comments submitted by the ABA Tax Section urging the adoption of a limited appearance rule in Tax Court, and he explains his support for the proposal from the perspective of a pro bono calendar call attorney. As one of the authors of the comments I hope the Court agrees with James. Christine

On October 3rd, the ABA Section of Taxation submitted comments to the Tax Court urging the court to amend Tax Court Rule 24 in order to create a new limited scope appearance. The comments are primarily aimed at allowing pro-bono volunteers to speak on the record during a calendar call without having to worry about broader ethical issues and without worrying about assuming responsibility beyond a solitary appearance. Importantly, while calendar calls are the primary focus, the Tax Section recommendation does not restrict the use of limited scope appearances to only calendar calls. The comments urge permission for limited scope representation in any situation where 1. the limitation is reasonable given the circumstances; 2. the limitation does not preclude competent representation or violate other rules; and 3. the client gives informed consent. This broader request would allow pro-bono volunteers to not only assist during the trial setting session but would open the door to assisting during trial itself, or during appeals hearings in docketed tax court matters.

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A limited scope representation rule could help a large number of taxpayers. According to the comment 69% of all petitioners are unrepresented. When looking only at S cases that number jumps to 91%. Currently during the typical calendar call session there is a limited amount of time where petitioners can meet with a pro-bono attorney and often they are overwhelmed with the process. Allowing limited scope representations would allow pro-bono volunteers to increase their assistance and reduce the burden on both petitioners and the Court.

Under the Tax Section’s proposal, beginning a limited scope representation would require the pro-bono volunteer to complete a Tax Court form that clearly identified the date, the time period of the representation, the activity, and the subject matter. On the sample forms attached to the comments, these lines are prominently displayed and are likely to reduce much of the client’s uncertainty the limited representation. This form would then be signed by the pro-bono attorney and served on both the Court and opposing counsel. For representations that are part of the calendar call program, the ABA Tax Section comment language specifically states that the representation ends at the conclusion of the calendar call. If a practitioner wishes to extend the representation through trial a separate notice of completion must be filed with the Court and served upon respondent.

As a frequent calendar call volunteer, the recommendations made in the ABA Tax Section comment are welcome and frankly overdue. One of the biggest frustrations of a calendar call pro-bono attorney is the inability to speak to the court on behalf of a pro-se litigant even when it comes to something as simple as requesting a continuance. Calendar Call volunteers often spend a significant amount of time with a pro-se litigant teaching them the basics of Tax Court procedure, what facts are relevant, and what the roles of Chief Counsel attorneys and the Court are. At the conclusion of the meeting it is not unusual to wait in the back of the courtroom only to watch them step up to the podium and start rehashing irrelevant facts that are unhelpful to the Court. It then takes time for the Judge to give the opportunity for the litigant to speak, inform them why they are in court today, and to ask questions about what their goals are. Often what should be a two minute request for a specific trial day or a continuance can turn in to ten minutes of the Judge trying to get a sense of the evidentiary issues and if trial is the fairest way to resolve the case. Allowing a pro-bono attorney to approach the podium with the petitioner would eliminate these issues. I believe a limited scope rule would give petitioners a better sense that they were able to communicate their needs and that they had a fair opportunity to be heard both of which are essential to due process.

Enacting the ABA Tax Section’s proposal for limited scope representation would benefit volunteers, pro-se taxpayers, chief counsel, as well as the Court. Volunteers would more certainty that their time would be put to good use. Pro se litigants would get a fairer outcome because they would be able to better communicate their needs to the Court and explain the relevant facts in their case. Finally, the Court would benefit from increased efficiency and a trial record that better reflected what the parties believed the facts to be.

Overall the Tax Section comment does a great job of striking a balance between the needs of volunteer attorneys ethical compliance and workload considerations with their desire to help pro-se petitioners. The inclusion of clear sample forms gives the Court and pro-bono volunteers a better idea of how this rule could be implemented and what pro-se litigants might expect should this proposal be adopted. In my opinion the Tax Court should implement a limited scope rule that is substantially similar to what the ABA Tax Section proposes.

Designated Orders 9/24/2018 – 9/28/2018: Understand the Remand; No Proof, No Relief

This week’s designated orders are brought to us by Samantha Galvin of the University of Denver. The last case Samantha mentions involves an unsuccessful motion for reconsideration under Tax Court rule 161. Keith previously covered motions for reconsideration on PT here. Christine

During the week of September 24, 2018, the Court designated four orders: two for cases previously covered in Caleb Smith’s October 3rd post, and two for cases where petitioners offered no evidence to support their positions. First, as a very quick follow up – the Court denied the remaining portion of Tribune Media Company’s motion to compel the production documents (order here). If you are interested, see Caleb’s post (here) for the background and more information on this order and the first order discussed below.

Understand the Remand

Docket No. 22224-17, Johnson and Roberson v. C.I.R. (designated order of 9/29/18 here; most recent order here)

When we last saw this case, Caleb explained that notes in the administrative file suggested that petitioners had not received a SNOD, and as a result, a remand to Appeals seemed imminent. The IRS does not object to a remand, but petitioners do object, so the case is set for trial during the week of October 15th. In its designated order of September 29, the Court takes steps to ensure that petitioners understand the consequences of objecting to a remand. The Court explains that many petitioners benefit from remands, and that any supplemental determination is eligible for judicial review. In the alternate scenario, if there is no remand and the Court decides that Appeals’ determination cannot be sustained- that finding of abuse of discretion alone does not bar the IRS from future collection activity.

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There is a misconception among some taxpayers who believe if they can prove that IRS made a mistake, they’ll be absolved of their tax liability – we all know this is not the case. Although not receiving the SNOD allows petitioners to raise issues related to the underlying liability, a reduction or elimination of that liability is not guaranteed. In the present case, petitioners will have the burden of proving their charitable contributions, medical expenses, and business expenses claimed as miscellaneous deductions.

The next two orders share a common designated orders’ theme, which is “petitioners who do not provide evidence to support their claims.”

No Proof, No Levy Release

Docket No. 25627-17SL, Hommertzheim Enterprises, Inc. v. C.I.R (Order and Decision here)

This first instance of a petitioner without proof is in Court after a CDP hearing for unpaid employment taxes. This case also has another common designated orders’ theme, which is “neither the IRS, nor the Court, can help the taxpayer who fails to do what they’re asked to do.” I assume here (and have assumed in previous posts) that these types of orders are frequently designated to provide guidance to taxpayers about their responsibilities in a CDP hearing and the Court’s jurisdiction over CDP hearings, which makes me think CDP hearings would run more smoothly if the IRS would instruct taxpayers to read Procedurally Taxing as a part of the process (ha ha).

In this case the IRS requests a collection information statement, unfiled returns, and proof of quarterly tax deposits. Petitioner provided one of the three unfiled returns, copies of two previously filed (but not requested) returns, and nothing more. The new return showed a balance which the settlement officer said would need to be paid before an installment agreement could be considered; although, I don’t understand why this balance couldn’t be included in any proposed agreement.

The levy is sustained, and petitioner explains in its petition (in all capital letters, presumably to convey anger and frustration) that all documents were faxed, they were never told how to make a payment arrangement, and thus were unable to make it.

Despite the explanation, petitioner does not offer any evidence to prove that it faxed all of the documents and the administrative record supports the IRS’s position that only one of the requested documents was received. As a result, the Court finds there is no abuse of discretion, grants the IRS’s motion for summary judgment and sustains the levy determination.

No Proof, No Reconsideration

Docket No. 25105-12L, Robinson and Jung-Robinson v. C.IR. (order here)

This order involves petitioners’ motion for reconsideration. The crux of petitioners’ argument is that the Court lacks jurisdiction because the ASED had already expired when the parties executed an agreement to extend it, but again, petitioners did not offer any evidence to support this. Whereas the IRS refers to exhibits that show the ASED had been extended until ten months after the notice of deficiency was issued.

As a reminder, or for those of you who don’t know, a motion for reconsideration is generally only granted when there is a substantial error or unusual circumstances, so without evidence from petitioners it’s no surprise the Court denies their motion.

Altera Oral Argument Live Stream Available Now

We have covered the Altera opinion extensively. The oral argument in the Ninth Circuit is being live streamed here

The argument started today at 5PM EDT. On my stream it can be found at about 7 minutes and 52 seconds in.

UPDATE: The above video link is no longer active; a link to a recording of the video is here and the audio alone is here

Professor Kwoka Sues IRS and Explains the Path of FOIA in Two Recent Important Law Review Articles

Kwoka v IRS is a FOIA case from a federal district court in the District of Columbia. The case involves Professor Margaret Kwoka, one of the leading scholars of government secrecy in general and FOIA in particular. In the lawsuit, Professor Kowka is seeking records that categorize FOIA requests IRS received in 2015, including the names and organizational affiliations of third-party requesters and the organizational affiliation of first-party requesters. The IRS provided some of the information she sought, but not all of it.

In this post I will briefly describe Professor Kwoka’s research project and turn to the particular suit that generated last month’s opinion.

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Professor Kwoka teaches at the University of Denver Strum School of Law. Her recent research focuses on FOIA and how it has strayed from its main purpose of allowing third party requesters (like the press and non profits) holding government accountable.  A 2016 article in the Duke Law Journal, FOIA, Inc.  chronicles the growth at some agencies of commercial FOIA requests, that is requests that are primarily motivated by commercial interests of the requesters. A 2018 article in the Yale Law Journal, First-Person FOIA, highlights the rapid growth in FOIA cases from people or their lawyers or other representatives seeking information about their particular case, often to use in other litigation or administrative actions. It is these FOIA cases that are made by so called first person requesters.

The First-Person FOIA article has particular resonance for people interested in tax administration, as practitioners and taxpayers frequently turn to FOIA to learn more about their case as they challenge an IRS determination. The article looks at agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Administration and Professor Kwoka demonstrates that a “significant amount of first-person FOIA requesting serves as a means for private individuals to arm themselves when they are subject to governmental enforcement actions or seek to make their best case for a government benefit.”

First-Person FOIA makes the case that while FOIA provides a vehicle for people to get needed information about their cases it has significant shortcomings when used for that purpose. The article does not minimize the need for access to information; she suggests solutions for individual access outside of FOIA, including expanding individuals’ online access to information and limited administrative discovery. Yet Kwoka argues that while “these requests represent legitimate efforts by private individuals to obtain information about themselves, they serve largely private, not public interests.” That, as Kwoka notes, has led some observers to question FOIA’s value and perhaps will have the unintended effect of reducing its role as helping the public keep government accountable, a goal that seems as important today as it did in the post-Watergate era when sunshine laws like FOIA took root as one way to keep government accountable.

That takes us to the lawsuit that Professor Kwoka filed to get more information so she could properly catalogue the FOIA requests IRS received in FY 2015. In her study Kwoka sought information about requesters from 22 different agencies; only six gave her the information she needed; three provided the information in publicly available form on their websites. IRS was one of seven agencies that provided some information but due to withholdings or redactions Professor Kwoka could not use it in her study. That is what led to her suing the IRS to get more specific information about the FOIA requesters and their affiliations. In particular in her FOIA request, she sought “[t]he name of the requester for any third-party request (for first-party requests I accept this will be redacted)” and “[t]he organizational affiliation of the requester, if there is one.”

In the suit IRS relied on Exemptions 3 and 6 to withhold the names of the third party requesters and the organizational affiliations of the first and third party requesters. Exemption 3 essentially requires IRS to withhold information that is exempted from disclosure under another statute—the biggie in tax cases is the general restriction on release of taxpayer information in Section 6103. Exemption 6 allows an agency to withhold “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

With respect to its Exemption 3 defense, IRS argued that need not reveal the names or organizational affiliations of FOIA requesters because doing so could “reveal protected tax information including, but not limited to[,] the identity of a taxpayer.”   As part of its defense IRS pointed to the online log of FOIA requests that it maintains (see for example its FY 2015 log).  The IRS argued that if Kwoka obtained the names and organizational affiliation of third-party requesters, she could cross-reference that information with the online log and deduce the identities of the taxpayers.

The opinion pushed back on this, noting firstly that the topics the log lists are vague and more importantly  the “IRS’s conclusion does not follow from its premises.”

Even armed with the information she requests and the publicly accessible FOIA log, in most cases Kwoka could not know with any certainty the identity of particular taxpayers. Neither the log nor the information Kwoka requests generally reveals the target of a FOIA request—i.e., the person whose tax records the requester is seeking. Thus, for third-party requests in which a requester submits a request for someone else’s information, knowing the name and organizational affiliation of the requester (from her own FOIA request) in conjunction with the topic of the request (from the publicly accessible log) would not reveal the identity of the target of the request.

The requests for the organizational affiliations of the first-party requesters was a somewhat more nuanced issue, but there too the court sided with Kowka over the IRS argument that exemption 3 allowed a blanket excuse to withhold on all of the requested information:

In most cases, the same is true for first-party requesters who request their own tax return information. Kwoka concedes that the IRS can redact the names of first-party requesters, see FOIA Request; she asks only for their organizational affiliations. But because most organizations have many affiliated individuals, knowing a requester’s organizational affiliation—even in conjunction with the topic of the request—would not ordinarily reveal the identity of the requester (and thus the identity of the taxpayer). There may be a few exceptions where, for example, a particular organization has only one affiliate, or where a topic listed in the publicly accessible FOIA log is so specific (in contrast to the majority of the entries) that it would, in conjunction with the requester’s organizational affiliation, effectively reveal the first-party requester’s identity. See Def.’s Reply at 8 (arguing that “a FOIA request made by the owner of an individually held or closely held company, in concert with the subject of the request, would be enough to reveal the identity of the individual making the request”). Kwoka also concedes that “[w]here an individual requests tax records about the organization that is identical to the individual’s organizational affiliation as recorded in the IRS’s records, … the organizational affiliation would be subject to redaction.”

The opinion moved on to Exemption 6, which employs a balancing test and allows agencies to withhold certain information when disclosing it would result in a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”  IRS argued that it could rely on Exemption 6 for a blanket witthhoding of the requested information For reasons similar to its rejection of Exemption 3, the court disagreed with the IRS:

For many of the same reasons the IRS is not entitled to a blanket invocation of exemption 3, it is not entitled to one under exemption 6. The IRS argues that “third-party FOIA requesters in this case [would] be subject to harassment, stigma, retaliation, or embarrassment if their identities were revealed” and that “[t]he average citizen has ample reason not to want the world to know that someone else has used the FOIA to obtain information regarding his federal tax liabilities, or his tax examination status.” But, as explained above, in most cases, revealing the organizational affiliations of first-party requesters and the names and organizational affiliations of third-party requesters would not reveal the targetof the request. Moreover, FOIA requesters “freely and voluntarily address[] their inquiries to the IRS, without a hint of expectation that the nature and origin of their correspondence w[ill] be kept confidential.” Stauss v. IRS, 516 F. Supp. 1218, 1223 [48 AFTR 2d 81-5617] (D.D.C. 1981)…

Conclusion

The case continues, as the court concluded that the IRS could not rely on Exemptions 3 and 6 to provide a categorical denial of Professor Kwoka’s request though it may in specific instances rely on those exemptions as a basis for redacting or withholding information.

Kudos to Professor Kwoka for her important research and her efforts to uncover more information about the nature of FOIA requests across the government.

Suspending the Priority Claim Period and an Update on Clothier v. IRS

On August 17, 2018, I wrote about the bankruptcy case of Clothier v. IRS which held that a debtor’s prior bankruptcy did not suspend the time period for the IRS to retain priority status. I will come back to that case in a postscript to this post. Clothier involved the issue of whether a taxpayer’s prior bankruptcy case tolled the time for the IRS to claim priority status. The case of Tenholder v. United States, No. 3-17-cv-01310 (S.D. Ill. 2018) looks at the same issue but examines a different basis for tolling – a Collection Due Process (CDP) request. The district court, affirming the decision of the bankruptcy court, concludes that taxpayers’ CDP request did toll the time period for claiming priority status.

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Debtors filed a chapter 7 petition on December 30, 2015. At issue in this discharge litigation is tax year 2011. Debtors requested an extension of time to file their 2011 return making the return due date October 15, 2012. That extended due date falls more than three years before the date of their bankruptcy petition. As such, the priority claim provision of BC 507(a)(8)(A)(i) did not apply nor did the other two rules that allow the IRS to file a priority claim for assessments within 240 days of the bankruptcy petition and for taxes not yet assessed but still assessable. So, the IRS sought to hold open the three years from the extended due date for filing by resorting to the flush language added to the end of 507(a)(8) in the 2005 legislative changes.

That language provides:

An otherwise applicable time period specified in this paragraph shall be suspended for any period during which a governmental unit is prohibited under applicable nonbankruptcy law from collecting a tax as a result of a request by the debtor for a hearing and an appeal of any collection action taken or proposed against the debtor, plus 90 days; plus any time during which the stay of proceedings was in effect in a prior case under this title or during which collection was precluded by the existence of 1 or more confirmed plans under this title, plus 90 days.

Applying this language suspends the three year period for 207 days in the debtors’ case because that was the time between their CDP request on July 22, 2013, and the end of the CDP hearing on February 14, 2014. In addition to the 207 days, the flush language also tacks on an additional 90 days. Adding 297 days to the end of the period three years from the extended due date of October 15, 2015, yields a date of August 7, 2016. Since debtors filed their bankruptcy petition prior to August 7, 2016 the IRS filed its claim for 2011 as a priority claim. Based on its claim of priority status for 2011, the IRS argued that the debt was excepted from discharge by BC 523(a)(1)(A).

Debtors disagreed with the application of the flush language because the language of the paragraph says taxes for “which a governmental unit is prohibited under applicable non-bankruptcy law from collecting a tax.” Debtors acknowledge that the IRS could not levy while their CDP case was pending but argued that the IRS could offset or could bring a collection suit while the CDP case was pending and, since it was not totally prohibited from collecting, the flush language does not apply to suspend the priority period.

Debtors were not the first to make this argument. At least three prior cases addressed the same issue but the district court did its own analysis of the provision. It found IRC 6330, the CDP provision, was a non-bankruptcy law prohibiting collection. The court disagreed with debtors’ argument that the language provided a clear statement requiring broad prohibition of any type of collection and agreed with the argument of the IRS that the statute does not say all collection and it clearly covers the collection prevented by a CDP hearing. In holding for the IRS the court found the language of the statute ambiguous but the legislative history clear in its intent to cover the CDP situation. As a result it found that debtors filed within the period during which the IRS could claim priority status. This decision aligns with the prior decisions interpreting the language of this paragraph.

The harsh result here points to the care that a debtor must take in choosing the timing of a bankruptcy petition where discharge of a tax for a specific year serves as the goal of the filing of the bankruptcy petition. Had the debtor realized the impact of the filing of the CDP request, and assuming no other factors drove the timing of the filing of the petition, the debtor could have realized the discharge of this tax debt by simply waiting a little longer to file.

This brings us back to the Clothier case which raised a similar issue of timing but did not discuss the flush language of 507(a)(8) added in 2005. As I mentioned in the earlier post about Clothier, the Court’s decision essentially overturned the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).

Following the post, I received an email from Ken Weil in Seattle who specializes in bankruptcy and tax matters citing me to the hanging paragraph at the end of 507(a)(8). Ken’s cite to this part of 507 is perfect because in this hanging paragraph Congress codified the decision in the Young case. I am getting too rusty on bankruptcy and should have questioned in my post why the government did not vigorously argue this language.

Coincidentally, I had a conversation with someone familiar with the case who informed me that the case was argued by an assistant United States Attorney rather than a Department of Justice Tax Division attorney. The AUSA would not be as familiar with tax issues in bankruptcy and did not cite the court to the hanging paragraph. So, the judge missed it as well.

We have not yet confirmed that the IRS appealed the Clothier decision. I expect that it will and that the outcome of the decision will change. We will see.

 

 

Proper Treatment of Earned Income tax Credit in Calculating Disposable Income

In Marshall v. Blake, 885 F.3d 1065 (7th Cir. 2018) the Seventh Circuit accepted a certified appeal from the bankruptcy court and ruled that taxpayer’s earned income credit refund (EIC) could be prorated over the year. Both the procedure for certification of bankruptcy appeals and the method for calculating disposable income provide useful procedural information.

Before discussing the issues raised in the opinion, I would like to point out a related issue that bothers me in offer in compromise (OIC) submissions. The IRS pre-printed OIC contract permits the IRS to retain the debtor’s refund for the year in which the IRS accepts the OIC. This includes the EIC refund. In many cases, even if the IRS allowed taxpayers to keep their refunds and added the prorated amount to a taxpayer’s monthly income, monthly expenses will still exceed projected income.  The EIC refund seeks to lift the taxpayer out of poverty. It is not a refund of funds withheld. Taking the refund hurts the children of the taxpayer as much as or more than the taxpayer. Many families rely on the EIC to purchase everyday items, as indicated by a recent Federal Reserve analysis. The analysis tracked retail sales following the 2017 congressionally mandated delay in tax refunds for EIC claimants. It noted that retail sales were much lower than previous years during the period in which refunds are typically issued, but peaked once the EIC was finally released. For a more detailed analysis, see Elaine Maag’s recent blog post. I think the IRS should not require offset of the taxpayer’s refund generated by EIC where the debtor’s schedules show allowable expenses in excess of income but should allow a refund recoupment bypass as cryptically described in IRM 5.19.7.2.21.  Allowing the taxpayer to retain future refunds under these circumstances, makes economic sense because of the purpose of the credit. Taking the EIC portion of a taxpayer’s refund where the schedules demonstrate its need to meet basic living expenses just seems wrong. The Seventh Circuit shows a better way.

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The trustee in the chapter 13 bankruptcy case seeks to have debtor turn over her entire refund each year to fund the plan. The debtor, a low-income wage earner, single mom living in subsidized housing with three dependent children, argues that the court should allow her to retain the portion of her refund attributable to the earned income tax credit allocating a portion of the credit each month to offset her reasonably necessary expenses. Her annual income of $30,000 falls well below the median income for a family of four in Illinois. In her schedules she included a pro rata share of her anticipated EIC. Doing this and subtracting payroll deductions and allowable expenses created for her the ability to pay $120 a month toward her chapter 13 plan.

The chapter 13 plan explicitly laid out her proposed use of the refund each year attributable to the EIC. The trustee filed a motion to dismiss the case for failing to correctly list her income and expenses. The trustee argued that the court should not confirm the plan because it failed to commit all of the debtor’s projected disposable income since it called for her to retain a portion of her annual refund. The debtor argued that the EIC should not count as income under the bankruptcy code. The bankruptcy court allowed the debtor to confirm a plan with a prorated version of annual income that would have her offset expenses throughout the year in a manner that would have her keep most or all of the EIC portion of the refund.

The court noted in its confirmation order that the debtor sought to purchase beds and furniture for her two 19 year old sons who had previously slept on air mattresses. The plan also proposed purchasing dressers for their bedroom which they previously did not have. These types of purchases created “a pretty skinny budget overall.”

The trustee moved for a direct appeal to the circuit court. The debtor objected. The normal path to the circuit court would involve a stop at the district court or a bankruptcy appellate panel; however, a direct appeal can occur in certain circumstances and the majority of the panel at the 7th Circuit citing 28 USC 158(d)(2)(A)(i) agreed that certification to the circuit “was appropriate because there is no controlling decision from the Supreme Court or the Seventh Circuit as to whether tax credits are disposable income under the Bankruptcy Code.”

Although the parties had argued in the bankruptcy court about whether to characterize the EIC credits as income, the circuit court recast the issue by focusing on the language of the bankruptcy statute. It looked at BC 1325(b)(1) which defines disposable income and BC 101 which defines “current monthly income.” It found that current monthly income includes the monthly income from all sources that the debtor receives “without regard to whether such income is taxable income.” The Seventh Circuit also looked at case law in reaching the conclusion that “Congress intended for the [EIC] to be included in the calculation of income.”

More importantly, however, the court found that just because current monthly income includes the EIC refund received by the debtor, that does not mean that the debtor must pay the entire refund to the trustee because the real issue in this case involves how the EIC works when calculating projected disposable income. The court noted that several bankruptcy courts in its circuit used the same calculus used by the bankruptcy court and allowed debtors to prorate future expense on which the debtor would spend the refund as long as such expenses met the reasonably necessary test.

The Seventh Circuit found that the holding here fits with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of projected disposable income. In Hamilton v. Lanning, 560 U.S. 50 (2010) the Court adopted a forward-looking approach to the question. It provided several reasons for approaching this issue with flexibility. It looked to the ordinary meaning of projected. The Supreme Court found that the mechanical approach adopted by the trustee in that case clashed with the provisions of BC 1325 and would produce senseless results in cases in which the debtor’s income during the six month lookback period was “substantially lower or higher than the debtor’s disposable income during the plan period.” Here, the bankruptcy court’s flexible approach aligned with the approach used by the Supreme Court.

The trustee argued that prorating the annual refund to a monthly amount artificially inflated the debtor’s income; however, the Seventh Circuit found that nothing in the bankruptcy code requires that current monthly income “is limited to income that is received on a monthly basis.” Rather, the bankruptcy code defines current monthly income as “the average monthly income from all sources that the debtor receives’ during the six-month lookback period.” The court describes the trustee’s objection to the plan as one driven by the fact that it allows the debtor to deduct reasonable expenses which reduces the amount that the debtor could use to fund plan payments.

The Seventh Circuit also found that allowing confirmation of this plan meets the good faith requirement of BC 1325(a)(3), that it meets the feasibility requirement in 1325(a)(6), and that it promotes the purposes of chapter 13. The dissenting opinion on the circuit court did not object to the holding on the merits but expressed concern that the case did not meet the criteria for direct appeal from the bankruptcy court.

The opinion avoids rigid treatment of the EIC just because it comes once a year. Though the court did not mention this, the EIC was available throughout the year prior to 2010 when Congress discontinued that option apparently because of the low uptake on the monthly option and the higher cost to employers. The impact allows debtors to project the true cost of their expense on an annual basis rather than treating the once a year payment as some sort of special payment that does not relate to the annual expenses. I would like to see the IRS adopt this approach in the treatment of OICs which have very similar considerations.

 

Designated Orders: One-Two Punch for Respondent in CDP Disputes before Judge Gustafson

This week Patrick Thomas who teaches and runs the low income taxpayer clinic at Notre Dame Law School brings us the designated orders. I have written before about the lessons in making motions for summary judgment that Judge Gustafson provides to Chief Counsel attorneys. Like the wonderful blog series written by Bryan Camp entitled Lessons from the Tax Court (samples here and here), Judge Gustafson provides his own lessons from the Tax Court to the attorneys in Chief Counsel’s Office who file summary judgment motions with him without carefully preparing their motions. At some point we hope the Chief Counsel attorneys will read our blog posts (not to mention his prior orders) and realize that they need to spend some time with these motions and especially when they know the motion will go to Judge Gustafson’s chambers. Professor Thomas writes about the Judge’s most recent lessons below. Keith 

Designated Orders: 9/17 – 9/21/2018

There were only three orders this week, two of which will be discussed here. Not discussed is a routine scheduling order from Judge Jacobs. The two others are both from Judge Gustafson and involve an IRS motion for summary judgment in collection due process cases. Judge Gustafson denies both motions—the first because material facts remained in dispute, and the second because the motion mischaracterized facts elsewhere in the record (and omitted other facts that might have saved the motion). More below.

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Docket No. 26438-17L, Schumacher v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This CDP case stems from a Notice of Federal Tax Lien filed against Mr. Schumacher for multiple tax years. After Petitioner timely requesting a hearing, the Settlement Officer (SO) sent an initial contact letter to Petitioner and his authorized representative—at least, to what the IRS computers thought was his authorized representative. On the hearing date, the SO called petitioner; the order states “[Petitioner] was not available and his telephone message stated that he did not accept blocked calls.” I’m assuming that the SO was therefore unable to leave a message on Petitioner’s voicemail.

Undeterred, the SO attempted to call the authorized representative on file with the IRS CAF Unit. The representative’s office informed the SO that they no longer represented Petitioner. The SO called the next listed authorized representative and left a message, but didn’t receive a response.

So, on that day, the SO sent a letter to Petitioner, noting these attempts. It further stated that if Petitioner didn’t contact the SO within 14 days, she would issue a Notice of Determination sustaining the lien. 14 days came and went, and the SO did just that.

In the motion, Respondent argues that the SO was justified in issuing the NOD, because neither Petitioner nor his authorized representative responded during the CDP hearing. In opposition, the Petitioner notes that (1) he didn’t receive any phone calls from the IRS and (2) he didn’t have any authorized IRS representative at that time. Judge Gustafson finds the latter plausible, given there’s no indication on the Form 12153 that Petitioner had representation. Good for Petitioner, as the Tax Court will ordinarily sustain a NOD if a truly authorized representative fails to respond.

Judge Gustafson denies the motion because, in his view, there appears to be a dispute as to whether Petitioner had a reasonable opportunity to challenge the NFTL. Specifically, Judge Gustafson finds troubling that there were no attempts to phone Petitioner a second time and no attempt to “unblock” the SO’s phone, such that Petitioner could receive its calls or a message. Further, he takes issue with the language in the 14-day letter sent to Petitioner; it included language noting that “your account has been closed” and might reasonably suggest to a taxpayer without CDP experience that the SO had already made her decision. Accordingly, Judge Gustafson denies the motion and sets the case for trial in Baltimore on November 5.

Takeaways: First, at the end of representation, practitioners should remember to withdraw their Forms 2848. Some portion of the confusion could have been avoided here.

Second, I didn’t know there was a mechanism that could block voicemails or calls from blocked numbers. To the extent our clients have such a mechanism, I might advise them to disable this feature until their tax controversy is resolved. As an aside, to the extent this seeks to reduce spam calls, it appears ill suited to the task. From my own experience, I don’t think I’ve ever received a spam call from a blocked number; rather, it’s usually an IRS employee calling. The spam calls tend instead to come from unblocked numbers.

Docket No. 1117-18L, Northside Carting, Inc. v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This combined NFTL and levy case involves Petitioner’s unpaid employment taxes. Here, Petitioner does itself no favors in not responding to the motion for summary judgment. Nonetheless, Judge Gustafson finds that Respondent fails to carry own their burden on the motion because of other record evidence.

Respondent argues that Petitioner asked for an OIC or installment agreement in the CDP request, failed to provide the information and documentation necessary to consider an installment agreement. Specifically, Respondent notes that when Petitioner’s authorized representative informed the SO on July 13, 2017 of their desire to renegotiate a collection alternative, the SO asked for additional documentation. That documentation not being forthcoming, the motion states, the SO justifiably upheld the levy and NFTL filing.

Not so fast, says Judge Gustafson. The administrative record shows that the representative submitted some portion of the requested information on two occasions after July 13. Ultimately, the SO still wanted more; after a final deadline of November 16, the SO issued the Notice of Determination.

Judge Gustafson finds the motion’s failure to recite this information problematic. It doesn’t say what was requested or given—only that the SO requested something, part of which was provided and part of which was not. This is a material difference; if the SO receives no information at all, and issues a NOD on that basis, that’s understandable. But here the Court must at least understand the information that was provided; perhaps the SO required a piece of meaningless or trivial information, and on that basis upheld the NFTL and levy. Probably not, but without the specific information, the Court is left without any idea.

The motion could probably have been saved for another reason: when the NOD was issued, Petitioner wasn’t in filing compliance, a necessary requirement for any collection alternative. While the declaration underlying the motion mentions this, the motion itself fails to do so. Judge Gustafson seems unwilling to entertain an argument not presented to the Court, and so ultimately denies the motion, setting the case for trial in Boston on October 15. He suggests that an ultimate outcome may be remand to Appeals for further development of the record, or simply that the NFTL cannot be sustained.

So, good news for Petitioner. Hopefully Petitioner realizes its good fortune, and begins to participate in this case.