Attorney’s Fees Awarded in Penalty Case Arising From Late Payment of Excise Taxes

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As in Keith’s post yesterday, today’s post also involves attorney’s fees, though the subject of toady’s post, C1 Design Group v US, involves a qualified offer and whether the awarding of fees justifies a rate higher than the statutory cap of $200/hour. C1 Design Group is a magistrate’s order from a federal district court in Idaho, and as I describe below is a helpful case for practitioners wanting insights into recovering attorney’s fees under Section 7430.

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The underlying case involved a refund action that considered whether C1 Design’s failure to timely pay its excise taxes was due to willful neglect. C1 argued that a car crash involving the company’s founder led to financial difficulties, which led to the late excise tax payments. IRS agreed with that excuse for the first four quarters but litigated the effect of the crash on later quarters. The taxpayer argued that the injury triggered financial difficulties, which amounted to reasonable cause for the late payments.

The matter went to trial, with a jury rendering its verdict in favor of the taxpayer for the full amount of the refund, about $28,000. About a year after filing its claim, C1 Design made a qualifying offer, essentially agreeing to accept as a settlement a refund of about half of what the jury found the taxpayer was ultimately entitled to receive.

Following the verdict, C1 Design filed its motion for fees, seeking about $76,000; approximately $50,000 was attributable to the period after it made the qualifying offer.

The court agreed that C1 was entitled to fees for the period after the IRS  rejected the qualifying offer, but found that rejecting the offer was “substantially justified”, thus not warranting fees for the period prior to the qualifying offer. In addition, the court reduced the lead lawyer and his associates’ hourly rate, based on a finding that the taxpayer did not prove that there were special factors that warranted an increase over the statute’s $200 cap. The net result was that the taxpayer was awarded attorneys’ fees of about $33,000, not the $70,000 that the taxpayer sought.

There are some things in the opinion worth highlighting.

One, just because a taxpayer wins on the merits, it does not mean that the government position is not substantially justified, especially on a fact intensive issue like reasonable cause involving late payment penalties. As the opinion discusses, the “United States’ position was substantially justified if it is ‘justified to a degree that satisfies a reasonable person,’” or has reasonable basis in both law and fact. Pac. Fisheries Inc. v. United States, 484 F.3d 1103, 1108 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988). That inquiry, under the statute, has a focus on whether the “United States has lost in courts of appeal for other circuits on substantially similar issues.”

In this case (as in most), the judge deciding the fees motion presided at the trial. She noted that while the taxpayer won, its victory was “no slam dunk” for either side. Pointing out evidence that favored the government, including the taxpayer’s decisions to pay other creditors and pay healthy salaries while not paying Uncle Sam, the magistrate judge emphasized that had the taxpayer’s main witness (the person whose crash caused the taxpayer’s financial spiral) been less credible, the US would have won on the merits.

The order also discusses the lack of circuit court authority on the issue as to whether financial difficulties equate to reasonable cause for late payment of excise taxes; the slim authority the taxpayer relied on was out of the Third Circuit and involved an analogous issue, employment taxes rather than excise taxes.

Finally worth noting is the court’s unwillingness to allow the full hourly rate for the partner and associate’s fees. The statute caps the fees at $200/hour; the taxpayer sought the $300 that the partner charged and that were the bulk of the fees. Section 7430 provides that the $200 cap is what the taxpayer gets “unless the court determines that a special factor, such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys for such proceeding, the difficulty of the issues presented in the case, or the local availability of tax expertise, justified a higher rate.”

To justify the fee, the lead attorney filed an affidavit, stating that he practiced law for over 37 years, that for the last 16 years his main focus was tax resolution and that his fees were equivalent to what other attorneys with similar expertise charged. For good measure he noted that he believed he was only one of a couple of attorneys in the Idaho area that “solely represents” clients in tax controversy matters.

The order found that the affidavit was insufficient:

While Mr. Martelle [the partner] “believes” he is one of few tax attorneys in the Boise, Idaho market, he does not identify in his affidavit who those other attorneys are or the rates charged by those attorneys. Mr. Martelle’s belief, without other evidence to corroborate it, is not sufficient to establish that Boise, Idaho, is lacking in qualified tax attorneys. Moreover, the Court finds the issues presented in this matter were not so difficult as to warrant an upward adjustment of attorney fees. The issues presented were not technical—neither side found it necessary to hire an expert, and the trial (including deliberations) was over in just two days. Finally, while the Court does not doubt Mr. Martelle’s vast experience in tax law, such expertise alone is not a special factor to justify attorney’s fees in excess of the statutory cap. For these reasons, the Court will award attorney’s fees at the maximum statutory rate of $200 per hour for Mr. Martelle.

Conclusion

Keith has previously discussed how qualifying offers are an important tool for taxpayers and practitioners. The qualifying offer in C1 Design was crucial, and allowed for the recovery of some fees. While the order and the underlying refund case is a victory for the taxpayer, it is not the complete victory that it sought. It is expensive to try tax cases. Assuming that the taxpayer is paying the balance of the attorney fees, that amount almost washes out the recovery of the late payment penalties that were the subject of the underlying refund case.

 

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Comments

  1. Louis Wooten says:

    Congress needs to increase the cap. I do not know many competent and experienced tax lawyers working for $200/hour. Government should not be in this position in the first place and if the point of the statute is to make those wronged by an over-zealous IRS whole, then Congress needs to raise the cap b/c the current cap will no doubt result in clients making up the difference out of their own pocket.

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