A Botched CDP Notice Leads to a Timely 6404 Interest Abatement Petition

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Sometimes cases arrive in Tax Court in the most unusual way, and the case of Estate of Sager v. Commissioner is one such case.  On February 17, 2017, the Tax Court entered an order determining that it did not have jurisdiction over the case for purposes of reviewing a Collection Due Process (CDP) decision by Appeals following an equivalent hearing but that it did have jurisdiction over the case for purposes of reviewing an interest abatement “final determination” made as a part of the CDP decision.  It is nice that the Estate of Sager got into the door of the Tax Court on the interest abatement issue.  Whether this will cause the IRS to argue in the future that documents not necessarily, or perhaps not clearly, intended to serve as final determinations of interest abatement will trigger the running of the statutory period for filing petitions for interest abatement remains to be seen.

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The tax year at issue in this case is 1997 and the return for that year was timely filed by the decedent, pursuant to extension, on July 27, 1998.  The IRS issued a notice of deficiency for that year on November 10, 2011.  I cannot determine from the order why the notice was timely but that does not seem to be an issue that concerned anyone.  A Tax Court petition was untimely filed in response to the notice of deficiency leading to the eventual assessment of $108,130.  Following assessment the normal collection actions took place, including the assignment of the case to a revenue office.  The revenue office eventually issued a notice of intent to levy on August 29, 2012; however, petitioner appears not to have filed a Tax Court petition in response to this notice.  On September 22, 2012, the revenue officer sent a CDP notice of filing the federal tax lien.  Petitioner did respond to the CDP lien notice and filed a request for a CDP hearing on October 24, 2012.

Petitioner noted in the request that more than 30 days had passed but asserted that the CDP notice was delivered to an invalid address.  In the end, the Tax Court determined that the CDP lien notice was sent to the wrong address.  Although the Court does not address the issue in the Order, the sending of a CDP lien notice to the wrong address raises an issue regarding the continued validity of the lien notice.  The IRS must send a CDP lien notice to the taxpayer within five days after the filing of the notice of federal tax lien.  What impact does sending an invalid notice have?  It seems that the Tax Court could never have jurisdiction over the CDP issues because of the invalid notice.  Because by the time the Tax Court gets to the issue of the validity of the notice and of the notice of federal tax lien almost a year from the filing of the petition had passed and because during that year the parties had resolved the lien issue, the Court did not dwell on the issue of the invalidity of the CDP notice.  The Internal Revenue Manual provides that, in general, if the IRS sends an invalid notice it must send a substitute notice and the Tax Court in Bongam v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. No. 4 (2016) held that a substitute notice of determination was proper after the mailing of an inappropriate motion..

Here, the address on the notice was the address at which petitioner’s former partner lived.  She brought the notice to petitioner on the 29th day after the notice was issued.  That did not provide the petitioner with enough time to file a timely request for a CDP hearing.  For notices of deficiency, the Tax Court has a rule that a notice mailed to the wrong address can become a valid notice if the notice makes it way to the taxpayer in time for the taxpayer to file a timely Tax Court petition.  Under that case law, learning of the CDP notice on the 29th day would not validate the CDP notice.  It is not clear that getting the wrongly addressed CDP notice to the taxpayer would save the CDP notice.  I will leave the issue for another post where the issue is clearly raised, but wanted to point out the issues lurking in this case before returning to the interest abatement determination.

When it received the untimely CDP request, the IRS gave the taxpayer an equivalent hearing.  During the equivalent hearing, the Settlement Officer (SO) considered the merits of liability and reduced the liability.  Because this action did not necessarily bear on the outcome before the Tax Court, the order gives few details that allow me to know how the taxpayer persuaded the SO to consider the merits.  It appears from the dismissal of the untimely petition in Tax Court of the effort of the taxpayer to litigate the notice of deficiency that the taxpayer had a prior opportunity to litigate the tax.  I surmise that the taxpayer was able to show the SO in a simple, straightforward way that the assessment was wrong and the SO was willing to address the issue even though not compelled to do so by the CDP process.  Les talked about this in a recent post in which the SO was unwilling to fix an easily recognizable mistake.  I have had spotty success seeking to get a merits adjustments from an SO where the taxpayer had a prior opportunity but the adjustment was easy to fix.  If I am correct about what happened here, it shows at least one SO who was willing to fix something simple and save the taxpayer time as well as other IRS employees.

The SO did not agree to abate interest.  The order does not describe why the taxpayer felt interest should have been abated.  Given the unusual timing of the issuance of the notice of deficiency, perhaps the lengthy delay in working the case had something to do with the request.  The taxpayer made a $50,000 payment during the CDP equivalent hearing process.  Because of the adjustments the SO made and the payment, the taxpayer essentially satisfied the liability; however, the SO issued a decision letter at the conclusion of the equivalent hearing setting out the adjustment to the tax and denying interest abatement.

The taxpayer filed a petition in Tax Court within 30 days of the issuance of the decision letter.  The IRS moved to dismiss since it had not issued a determination letter.  Essentially, it argued that the late filing of the request for a CDP hearing precluded the Tax Court from having jurisdiction.  The low income taxpayer clinic at Rutgers Law School entered the scene at this point and argued that the Tax Court had jurisdiction over the interest abatement aspect of the case.  The IRS conceded that the Tax Court “may” have jurisdiction over the interest abatement request while continuing to argument that it did not have jurisdiction over the CDP request.  The taxpayer argued that his case met the unusual conditions for treating a decision letter as a notice of determination and that the Tax Court did have jurisdiction over his case.  The Tax Court disagreed and distinguished this case from the very short line of cases holding that the Tax Court has jurisdiction over a CDP matter after the issuance of a decision letter.

While disagreeing with petitioner on the issue of jurisdiction over the CDP aspect of the case, the Tax Court held that the decision letter could serve as a final determination with respect to interest abatement.  In Gray v. Commissioner, the Tax Court previously held that a CDP determination letter could serve as the basis for a final determination regarding interest abatement.  The order in Sager takes the next logical step and holds that a decision letter can also serve that purpose.  The petition filed here came well within the 180 period after the notice of final determination.  The Court finds that “Respondent has not asserted nor proven that the decision letter was not meant to be a final determination on Mr. Sager’s interest abatement request.”  Therefore, the Court found it had jurisdiction to hear the interest abatement request and ordered the parties to file status requests regarding the interest abatement issue.

The order follows the Tax Court’s longstanding practice of finding jurisdiction in those situations in which the petitioner comes to the Court within the established time frames in the applicable statutes.  Not only had the Court made a similar holding regarding a CDP determination letter in the Gray case, but it has made similar decisions in other contexts as well.  I wrote recently about one in the whistleblower context.  The decision here allows the petitioner to move forward for a determination on interest abatement without going the more ordinary route of filing a Form 843.  This is good news for this taxpayer and good news generally unless the IRS can argue that this type of informal final determination precludes the taxpayer from seeking interest abatement if the taxpayer does not realize that the informal final determination closes the door when it goes unrecognized and the taxpayer does not act quickly in response to it.

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