A Crack in the Glass Ceiling – Victory in a Financial Disability Case

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We have reported before here, here, here and here about the IRS’ unbroken string of victories in cases involving a claim of financial disability.  The first two posts listed in this string, a two-part series by Carl Smith, has a particularly important connection to the opinion reported in this post. While taxpayers have obtained relief from the statutory period for filing a refund claim in administrative decisions by the IRS, no one had won a 6511(h) case in court – until now and this victory is one that opens the door of the court but does not grant relief.  In Hoff Stauffer, Administrator of the Estate of Carlton Stauffer v. IRS, a magistrate judge in the District of Massachusetts has recommended that the court has jurisdiction to hear a case involving 6511(h) in the face of a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

Because this is the recommendation of a magistrate judge, the district court must accept it before it becomes final; however, the decision here coupled with the order entered by Judge Gustafson in another Boston case, Kurko v. Commissioner, suggests that perhaps a new day is dawning for those seeking relief for financial disability.  Because the IRS has only issued guidance in the form of an onerous revenue procedure and has never allowed public comment on the now 20-year old provision of the law and because most of the cases have been brought pro se, it has taken a long time to crack the ceiling and take steps toward meaningful administration of this provision.

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Carlton Stauffer passed away in 2012 at the age of 90.  His son, Hoff, discovered that the father had not filed a return since 2006 and proceeded to prepare the outstanding returns as was his fiduciary duty.  In 2013, Hoff Stauffer filed several back returns for his father’s estate and requested refund of an overpayment exceeding $100,000 for 2006.  The IRS disallowed the claim as untimely and declined to hold open the statute using 6511(h).  As a part of the process of appealing the denial of the claim, Hoff submitted a written explanation from a licensed psychologist who had treated his father from 2001 until his death.  The psychologist explained in his report that the father had a variety of mental and physical conditions which prevented him from properly managing his affairs from at least 2006 until his death.  The IRS rejected the explanation, citing to Rev. Proc. 99-21 which requires a statement from a physician and not a psychologist.

Tom Crice, a local Boston attorney whom I had met because of his pro bono work on behalf of low income taxpayers, brought suit for the estate after the denial of the claim.  Tom practiced as a criminal prosecutor and an actuary before settling into tax controversy work.  His background may have helped in the attack he took on Rev. Proc. 99-21.  The IRS filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because the claim for refund was untimely.  This caused the Court to examine 6511(h) which suspends the time frame if the claimant was financially disabled.  Examining the statute led to an examination of Rev. Proc. 99-21 which “sets forth in detail the form and manner in which proof of financial disability must be provided.”  The Rev. Proc. states that the claimant must submit “a written statement by a physician (as defined in section 1861(r)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395x(r), qualified to make such determination…”  The court noted that the Rev. Proc. does not define “physician” but borrows the definition from the Social Security statute.  The reference to section 1861(r)(1) creates confusion because that section does not have subsections.  Instead it has one large paragraph defining physician that includes five categories: (1) “a doctor of medicine or osteopathy,” (2) a doctor of dental surgery or of dental medicine,” (3) “a doctor of podiatric medicine,” (4) “a doctor of optometry,” and (5) “a chiropractor.”

The Court states that it assumes the IRS intends to refer to the first category but notes that the Rev. Proc. introduces further confusion by linking section 1861(r)(1) to 42 U.S.C. 1395x(r) because the latter provision “essentially tracks verbatim the wording and format of section 1861(r), but does not contain a corresponding reference to a subsection one.  Indeed, section 1395x(r), like section 1861(r), does not formally contain any subsections.”  This raises questions of whether the reference to 1861(r)(1) is a scrivener’s error or intended to narrow the scope of physician.

The court notes that the Rev. Proc. does not receive Chevron deference because it expresses the view of one employee and not the view of the agency.  The Rev. Proc. receives deference “only to the extent that those interpretations have the power to persuade.”  The court then explains how the Rev. Proc. fails to persuade:

section 6511(h) allows a disability to be based on a showing of a  ‘mental impairment’ and Revenue Procedure 99-21 directly undermines that goal where it demands a note from a physician but then defines that term to exclude a whole class of professionals generally considered competent to opine on the existence of a mental impairment.  On the record before the Court, there is no evidence that the IRS has considered the implications of its interpretation of the word ‘physician’ as used in the revenue procedure.  On the contrary, and as noted, Revenue Procedure 99-21 was drafted principally by a single IRS employee who without elaboration or explanation selected a definition of ‘physician’ as used by the SSA.  In the absence of additional information, there is just no basis to assess the soundness of the IRS’s interpretation of the work ‘physician’ in Revenue Procedure 99-21.

The court goes on to say that if the IRS sought to find someone competent to render an opinion on a physical or mental impairment it could have looked elsewhere in the rules governing Social Security cases.  Social Security regulation 20 CFR 404.1527(a)(2) provides “medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s)….”  The court also cites to case law accepting the opinion of the treating psychologist while noting that the SSA and IRS definitions of disability are virtually identical.  So, the limitation argued by the IRS in its Rev. Proc. does not make sense and is inconsistent with the SSA rules it apparently sought to mimic.

The court states that the IRS may have reasons for limiting the opinions in financial disability cases to physicians but it does not explain those reasons in the Rev. Proc.  Without a reasoned explanation and in light of the fact that the opinion of psychologist in these types cases is viewed as acceptable in other contexts, the Rev. Proc. does not provide persuasive authority.  The court states “I conclude that the defendant’s interpretation of the term ‘physician’ in Revenue Procedure 99-21 is not entitled to deference here.  I conclude further that to the extent the psychologist’s statement the plaintiff submitted supports a financial disability based on a mental impairment, the IRS was not required to reject it on the ground that it did not constitute a ‘physician’s statement.  Consequently, I find no basis on this record to deem the plaintiff’s claim for refund untimely under section 6511(h), and thus do not agree that the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s suit.”

The IRS made a couple more arguments that the court rejected.  First, it argued that the psychologist’s statement failed because the estate did not submit the statement at the same time as the claim for refund but only submitted it with the initial appeal.  The court noted other cases that had rejected this technical argument by the IRS stating that “the practice is to accept the missing information at a later stage so it and the taxpayer’s claim may be considered.”

Second, the IRS argued in a footnote that the psychologist was unqualified to opine on the disability because he appeared to base the opinion in part on the taxpayer’s physical ailments and this is outside of the psychologist expertise.  The court rejects this argument because the sufficiency of the statement was not before the court and because the mental impairments alone may have been sufficient to support the financial disability determination.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), the IRS was to file an objection to this recommendation within 14 days of the receipt of the report.    On February 27, 2017, the IRS filed its objection to the magistrate judge’s report.  It took issue with just about every aspect of the report but most strongly objected to the failure of the court to bow down to Rev. Proc. 99-21 as controlling:

The United States has numerous objections to the Report. First, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s interpretation of Congress’ delegation to the Secretary. The Report misapprehends the plain language of § 6511(h) and the Secretary’s authority under that statute. The Secretary did what Congress told it to do and, as discussed in greater detail below, there is no reason to expand § 6511(h) beyond what is prescribed in Rev. Rule. 99-21, which is something that the Report attempts to do. Neither the language of § 6511(h) nor Rev. Proc. 99- 21 support Magistrate Judge Cabell’s view that a psychologist is permitted to medically determine a mental impairment. The Report’s discussion regarding the proper level of deference afforded to Rev. Proc. 99-21 is simply irrelevant pursuant to § 6511(h). In short, a psychologist’s statement is invalid pursuant to § 6511(h). Accordingly, the plaintiff’s failure to comply with Proc. 99–21 is fatal to its refund claim because federal courts have no jurisdiction over a tax refund suit until a claim for refund or credit has been “duly filed” with the Secretary. Second, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s conclusion that the Eighth Circuits decision in Abston v. Commissioner, 691 F.3d 992 (8th Cir. 2012), is distinguishable from the case at bar. Contrary to the Report, the Eighth Circuit, as well as numerous other federal courts, have found that taxpayers cannot establish a medical disability under § 6511(h) without submitting a “doctor’s note” as required by Rev. Proc. 99-21. The plaintiff did not provide a doctor’s note as it was required to do. Third, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s rejection of the United States’ alternative argument. Even if the psychologist’s statement at issue could be considered a “doctor’s note,” it continues to be deficient pursuant to Rev. Rule 99-21.

Plaintiff’s response to the IRS motion is also attached.

While Judge Gustafson cracked the glass in the 6511(h) ceiling with his order in the Kurko case, Magistrate Judge Cabell punches his fist through the glass.  This may allow others to follow and finally break the choke hold in this area.  Perhaps the IRS will consider, after two decades, the idea of getting comments on what a reasonable rule would look like and talk to the representatives who assist individuals with financial disability.  Taxpayers claiming this exception, by definition, face difficulties.  Rev. Proc. 99-21 adds to those difficulties and does not provide a reasonable basis for working through this issue.  The facts here follow fairly closely the facts in the case Brockamp v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), in which another 90 year old gentleman failed to timely file a refund claim and the failure was discovered by his executor after the ordinary statute of limitations had expired.  The facts of that case so moved Congress that it created the statutory exception in 6511(h).  Let’s work together to find a reasonable way to allow those with valid claims for refund and legitimate reasons for filing late to get their money without imposing undue barriers.

 

 

Comments

  1. Bob Kamman says:

    The IRS objection ends with a reference to “Rev. Rule 99-21” ? Really? I think they agree they have lost the case when they have to turn a Rev. Proc. into something that doesn’t exist.

  2. Rick Stack says:

    This is a very interesting post, Keith. As it so happens, my former colleague, and later boss, at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Tax Division (Sandra Brown), was trial counsel in the Brockamp case.

    Let’s hope that the District Court in the Stauffer Estate case adopts the Magistrate Judge’s well-reasoned opinion. The Magistrate Judge correctly found that Rev. Proc. 99-21 was not entitled to deference due to its inartful drafting and turned to other Social Security regulations defining the term “medical opinion” to include an opinion from a psychologist. Also, it defies common sense for the IRS to conclude that only a physician (and not a psychologist) is competent to render an opinion that the taxpayer suffered from mental disability sufficient to toll the refund claim limitations period of Section 6511. The IRS essentially asserts that an ophthalmologist or a podiatrist is more competent to opine on a patient’s mental condition than is a psychologist. Absurd!

  3. The Solo IRS Procedure Writer likely did not go directtly to Title 42 to find a definition of “physician.” Instead, he (“Paul”) would have looked elsewhere in the Internal Revenue Code for a definition and found it in Section 213, the old standard allowing deductions for medical expenses. In part it provides:

    (d)(3) Prescribed drug.— The term “prescribed drug” means a drug or biological which requires a prescription of a physician for its use by an individual.
    (d)(4)Physician.— The term “physician” has the meaning given to such term by section 1861(r) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395x(r)).

    “Physician,” of course, is derived from the archaic term “physic,” meaning medicine. Section 1861(r) defines “physician,” as the post explains, as “ (1) “a doctor of medicine or osteopathy,” (2) a doctor of dental surgery or of dental medicine,” (3) “a doctor of podiatric medicine,” (4) “a doctor of optometry,” and (5) “a chiropractor.”

    So apparently a note from a chiropractor is sufficient for IRS to find financial disability, while a detailed statement from a psychologist is not. This, even though chiropractors are not allowed to prescribe medicine anywhere outside New Mexico.

    A client is a nurse practitioner in a remote clinic in rural Alaska. She can write prescriptions, as can physician assistants. Should I advise her to tell her patients that IRS will not allow a deduction for the cost of prescriptions she writes? After all, she is not a “physician” as defined in Section 213.

    Incidentally, psychologists can write prescriptions in at least four states (New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois and Iowa). So here is the IRS rule on financial disability: It must be confirmed by a dentist, chiropractor, podiatrist, optometrist or medical school graduate; but not by someone who treats patients who are afflicted with the condition; and not necessarily by someone who can prescribe a “physic” that might help.

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