Ninth Circuit Declines to Reach Constitutionality of President’s Removal Power Over Tax Court Judges

Frequent guest blogger Carl Smith brings us up to date on litigation over the constitutionality of IRC section 7443(f), giving the President removal power over Tax Court judges. Christine

In a post from September I alerted PT readers that two of the cases in which Joe DiRuzzo had again raised the issue of the constitutionality of the President’s removal power over Tax Court judges were set for oral argument before the Ninth Circuit. The constitutional separation of powers issue was decided against the taxpayers in both Kuretski v. Commissioner, 755 F.3d 929 (D.C. Cir. 2014), and Battat v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 2 (2017) – though, on different reasoning as to which Branch of government in which the Tax Court is located, if any.

Well, the Ninth Circuit panel removed both of Joe’s cases from the oral argument calendar, and it just issued two unpublished opinions. In both of the opinions, the Ninth Circuit avoided addressing the constitutional question.

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In Thompson v. Commissioner, Ninth Cir. Docket No. 17-71027 (Nov. 14, 2018), Joe had moved to recuse all Tax Court judges because, in light of the President’s removal power, the judges were being subtlely pressured to rule in favor of the IRS. When the Tax Court denied the motion (citing Battat), Joe brought an interlocutory appeal. Consistent with the results of all other interlocutory appeals that Joe has brought on this issue to date, the Ninth Circuit refused to rule on the constitutional issue. Joe tried to fit this case into an exception from the rule that, ordinarily, interlocutory appeals are prohibited. However, the Ninth Circuit found that no exception applied. Nor did it think a writ of mandamus should issue. The court wrote: “The Thompsons do not explain how their challenge to the constitutionality of the Tax Court cannot be adequately reviewed or possibly corrected on direct appeal.”

In Crim v. Commissioner, Ninth Cir. Docket No. 17-72701 (Nov. 14, 2018), the taxpayer submitted an OIC, and, after it was not accepted, went to Appeals. Appeals confirmed the OIC denial. Despite the fact that the OIC was not part of a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing, the taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court for review. In the case, Joe also moved for recusal of all Tax Court judges on the constitutional issue. Citing Battat, the Tax Court first denied the constitutional motion in an unpublished order. Then, the court issued a second unpublished order holding that, in the absence of a CDP proceeding, the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction to review Appeals’ denial of an OIC. Crim’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit was thus not an interlocutory one. However, it fared no better. The court did not reach the constitutional issue because it held that the Tax Court had properly dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit wrote:

Because Crim has not presented any evidence that the IRS filed a notice of a federal tax lien or a final intent to levy against him, that he requested a collection due process hearing with the IRS Office of Appeals, that he attended an Office of Appeals collection due process hearing, or that the Office of Appeals made any “determination” addressing a disputed lien or levy, the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction over Crim’s petition under 26 U.S.C. § 6320 and § 6330. Any argument that Craig v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 252 (2002), commands a different result has been forfeited. See Christian Legal Soc’y Chapter of Univ. of Cal. v. Wu, 626 F.3d 483, 487-88 (9th Cir. 2010). Crim also forfeited the arguments raised for the first time in his reply brief that the Administrative Procedures Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706(1), and the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651, provide jurisdiction here. The failure to find jurisdiction on these grounds was not plain error. . . .

Given that the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction over Crim’s petition, we decline to exercise our “discretionary jurisdiction” over the recusal motion. See Gruver v. Lesman Fisheries Inc., 489 F.3d 978, 981 n.4 (9th Cir. 2007).

To get the constitutional issue adjudicated, it looks like Joe or somebody else will have to appeal any Tax Court ruling on the constitutional issue after a final decision is entered in a Tax Court case over which the court clearly had jurisdiction.

Can the House Obtain and Release President Trump’s Tax Returns?

Guest poster Stu Bassin continues the discussion about possible ways that President Trump’s tax returns may see the light of day. In this post Stu suggests an approach that does not rely on the Congressional right within Section 6103(f) but instead looks to the possibility of serving a subpoena on advisors. Les

Minutes after the networks announced that the Democrats had retaken the House of Representatives, the commentators began discussing whether the Democrats in control of the House could obtain and release President Trump’s tax returns.  Recognizing that the discussion focused upon one of my favorite obscure tangents of the tax law, I pulled out my tattered copy of the Internal Revenue Code and looked for an answer.

I have previously explained on Procedurally Taxing that the Section 6103 prohibition against disclosure of tax returns and return information provides only limited protection for the President’s tax returns. Section 6103 (b) establishes that the only protected returns and return information are those filed with the Service. Identical copies of the same documents which are not filed with the Service are not protected.  Further, the statute establishes many detailed exceptions to the prohibition against disclosure.

Most of the commentary has focused upon the Section 6103(f) exception to the prohibition against disclosure which authorizes Congress to obtain returns and return information.  Under the statute, the Service must provide the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee any returns and return information specifically requested in writing, presumably including the President’s returns and any related audit files.  The statute provides that any information in those documents identifying the taxpayer (i.e., the President) can be provided to the committee only when it is sitting in closed executive session.  Interestingly, the statute does not contain any prohibition against further disclosure of the documents to the remainder of the Congress or disclosure of the information by the Congress to the general public.  And, as Professor Yin has reported,Congress has occasionally read the statute as allowing it to disclose returns and return information to the public. Less formally, the documents might “leak.”

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Given the sensitivity of this information, one can imagine a scenario where the President (or his appointees at Treasury and the Service) refused to produce the requested documents, contending that Section 6103 protected the documents from disclosure.  I see no merit in such an argument because the statute is clear on its face.  Even if they objected, the Committee and the House would likely seek to enforce its request and find the administration in contempt.  The dispute would likely find its way into the courts, years of political debate would ensue, and the courts would be asked to sort out the statutory construction issues (along with any related separation of powers issues).

I believe, however, that the House has another alternative which could fast-track resolution of the disclosure.  It could serve document subpoenas upon the accounting firm which prepared the returns and the law or accounting firms representing the President in his audit disputes with the Service.   The firms (and the President) could not assert Section 6103 to resist the subpoena because copies of the returns and audit documents in their possession are not protected by the statute.  Likewise, any attorney-client privilege claim would be deemed waived because identical copies of the returns and audit documents had already been disclosed to the Service—an entity outside any privileged relationship.   Further, an effort to quash the subpoena as politically motivated would almost surely fail because decades of summons enforcement case law establishes an almost insurmountable legal burden for taxpayers asserting such claims.  The House could persuasively defend its inquiry as a proper investigation of potential conflicts of interest of an executive branch employee (i.e., the President).

Finally, even if the President attempted to intervene in the court to assert a separation of powers argument, this blogger’s inclination is that the President’s argument would fail.  The documents subject to the subpoena have nothing to do with the President’s conduct of his official functions.  Even if the documents dealt with Presidential conduct, the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Nixon 418 U.S.  663 (1974) would appear decisive.  The Constitution simply does not protect documents unrelated to the conduct of official business and which are possessed by people outside the government, even if they refer to the conduct of the President.

Stay tuned.

“Defense to Repayment” Protects Taxpayers with Defaulted Student Loans from Treasury Offset Program

Professor Michelle Drumbl who teaches at Washington & Lee University School of Law and who runs the low income taxpayer clinic there brings us a guest post on an interesting case regarding the intersection of the earned income tax credit, defaulted student loan debt and the Treasury Offset Program. I am privileged to work at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School with a group of amazing lawyers who represent individuals who have attended for profit colleges and who have not received the bargained for benefits of higher education. As Professor Drumbl describes and as they posted, my colleagues recently won an important case protecting the tax refunds of students of a for profit college. I hope that this case, and others, will help create a movement to protect the earned income tax credit from the offset program. For those interested in this issue look for a deeper discussion in Professor Drumbl’s book which will be published next year by Cambridge University Press. Keith

Individuals expecting a tax refund are sometimes unpleasantly surprised to learn the refund instead has been applied to another outstanding debt. Internal Revenue Code section 6402(a) authorizes the Department of Treasury to offset an “overpayment” (generally speaking, the amount of refund shown as due on the return) against any outstanding federal tax, addition to tax, or interest owed by the taxpayer. If the taxpayer does not have any outstanding federal tax debts, or if any amount of refund remains after those debts are paid, section 6402(c)-(f) provide that the overpayment is then subject to the Treasury Offset Program in the following order of priority: 1) past-due child support payments; 2) outstanding debts to other federal agencies, including federal student loan debt; 3) outstanding state income tax debt; and 4) outstanding unemployment compensation debt owed to a state.

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Keith blogged about section 6402 nearly three years ago in a post that drew a few dozen comments, including many from return filers who had experienced various types of refund offsets. In my view, the refund offset rules are troubling because they capture the refundable portion of the earned income tax credit (EITC) and the child tax credit. These two refundable credits constitute important social benefits for millions of working Americans. Administered by the IRS and delivered as part of the tax return filing process, these credits are a critical part of the U.S. social safety net.

In its 1986 decision Sorenson v. Secretary of the Treasury, the Supreme Court held that the refundable portion of the earned income tax credit is an “overpayment” for purposes of section 6402(c). Sorenson involved a challenge brought by a married taxpayer who filed a joint income tax return with her husband; their expected tax refund was offset and applied toward her husband’s past-due child support obligation. Mrs. Sorenson protested, and because they lived in Washington state, the IRS determined she was entitled to one-half of the joint refund under the state’s community property laws. But Mrs. Sorenson was unsatisfied with that outcome and filed suit in federal court, arguing that Congress did not intend for section 6402(c) to reach the earned income tax credit. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Mrs. Sorenson made a statutory interpretation argument and also argued that “permitting interception of an earned-income credit would frustrate Congress’ aims in providing the credit.” The Court rejected both of these arguments. While the Court acknowledged the “undeniably important” objectives of the EITC, it also noted that the “ordering of competing social policies is a quintessentially legislative function.” In particular, it is for Congress, not the Court, to decide whether the goals of the EITC outweigh the offset program’s goals of “securing child support from absent parents whenever possible.” After all – as the decision alludes – securing child support from absent parents also reduces the number of families on welfare (just as the EITC does). Following Sorenson, it is clear that it would be up to Congress to explicitly carve out the EITC from the definition of overpayment for purposes of section 6402. In the meantime, taxpayers subject to refund offsets will continue to lose this valuable social benefit which they otherwise are entitled to receive.

In my forthcoming book, Improving Tax Credits for the Working Poor, I argue that Congress should indeed consider protecting the EITC from offset, at least in part, and at least with respect to certain types of debts. I acknowledge, though, that Sorenson presented the most morally troublesome argument for protection from offset, because the underlying debt at issue was past-due child support. It is difficult to argue that a taxpayer should receive the EITC in support of a child who currently resides with him or her if the alternative is to divert the EITC to a child for whom the taxpayer is delinquent on child-support obligations.

In contrast, I highlight student loan defaulters as a relatively sympathetic case for which to carve out EITC offset protection. My proposals are inspired in part by informative National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) reports available here and here, from which I learned that approximately 1.3 million individuals in student loan default were subject to tax refund offsets in 2017. We do not know how many of those 1.3 million individuals were also EITC recipients, but surely there is some significant overlap between low-income working families and student loan defaulters. Among the most vulnerable student loan borrowers are those who borrow to attend for-profit institutions. As NCLC attorney Persis Yu describes in her March 2018 report, some of these borrowers are denied the promised benefits of their education when a fraudulent school closes in mid-course.

Thus, I was thrilled recently to learn that Keith’s colleagues Toby Merrill and Alec Harris are succeeding in some of their consumer protection efforts against the for-profit college industry. Toby and Alec, who have also blogged on the issue of refund offsets previously, work for the Project on Predatory Student Lending, which is part of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. Among other cases, the Project on Predatory Student Lending has represented individuals who borrowed money to attend Corinthian College, a now-defunct for-profit company that operated post-secondary schools around the country, including a school called Everest Institute in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office spent several years investigating Everest Institute for its deceptive recruiting and marketing practices. On March 25, 2016, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and U.S. Department of Education Secretary John B. King announced that students who were defrauded by Corinthian campuses nationwide (including the two Everest Institute campuses in Massachusetts) would be eligible for forgiveness of those federal loans. While this sweeping announcement was great news for borrowers, the details remained to be seen as to how and when this relief would apply.

Darnell Williams and Yessenia Taveras were among the thousands of students who had attended programs at Everest Institute. Williams and Taveras each took out federal student loans to pay for their program. Both individuals defaulted on their loans in the fall of 2014, before Healey’s office had completed its investigation of the Everest Institute campuses. Following their default, in August of 2015 the Department of Education sent Williams and Taveras the required notice of intent to turn the defaulted debt over to the Treasury Offset Program (TOP). Once the Department of Education certifies to the TOP that the debt meets certain requirements, the debt becomes subject to section 6402 offset procedures in the manner I describe above. Neither Williams nor Taveras individually filed an objection to the Department of Education notice within the prescribed 65-day deadline.

After the 65-day window to file an objection, but before the Department certified Williams’ and Taveras’ student loan debts to the TOP, Healey wrote to the Secretary of Education to request immediate and automatic discharge of all federal student loans borrowed to attend Everest Institute in Massachusetts (note that this November 2015 request of Healey’s also predates the aforementioned joint announcement with the Department of Education). Healey referred to her written request as a “defense to repayment” application on behalf of the student borrowers. Healey’s defense to repayment application included, among other exhibits, a list of names of more than 7,000 student borrowers who had attended Everest Institute, including Williams and Taveras. The Department of Education nonetheless certified the Williams’ and Taveras’ debts for collection by the TOP without deciding on the merits of Healey’s letter.

The following spring, in April and May of 2016, Williams and Taveras each filed income tax returns showing refunds due. Because the Secretary of Education had certified the defaulted debts to the TOP, the taxpayers’ refunds were offset against their outstanding loans. The amounts they lost were significant: Williams’ offset was in the amount of $1,263, and Taveras’ offset was in the amount of $4,999.

At issue in Williams v. Devos is whether Attorney General Healey successfully raised a borrower defense proceeding on behalf of the thousands of individuals listed in her exhibit, including Williams and Taveras. The Project on Predatory Lending represented Williams and Taveras in the matter in federal court, arguing that the Secretary of Education improperly certified their student loan debts as legally enforceable for purposes of the TOP program.

Last month, the judge in this case ruled that Healey’s November 2015 submission did invoke a borrower defense proceeding as to Williams and Taveras, and that the Secretary’s certification of the debt to the TOP without consideration of Healey’s submission was arbitrary and capricious. The court order vacated the certifications for refund offset for Williams and Taveras and remanded the matter to the Department of Education for a consideration of the borrower defense asserted by Healey.

Congratulations to Toby, Alec, and all at the Project on Predatory Student Lending on this ruling in Williams v. Devos. This is a significant victory for student borrowers challenging the validity of their loans. Though not strictly speaking a tax case, this development has important collateral consequences for low-income taxpayers who are eligible for refundable credits. As Keith has written recently in the offer in compromise context, and as I contemplate in my book, the fact that the EITC is an anti-poverty supplement for working families provides a compelling argument to protect it from offset, at least in certain circumstances. While I would like to see Congress act to at least partially exempt the EITC from offset against any federal student loan default, this ruling is an important and tangible step forward, as it is precedent for protecting student loan defaulters from tax refund offset while a borrower defense proceeding is pending.

 

Application of Chenery to Supervisory Affidavits in Graev Cases

Ray Cohen, a faithful reader and a CPA in Paramus, New Jersey, asks the following question of other readers and invites them to send comments to the post to help him work through the answer. Keith

When the original signature of the immediate supervisor is missing, the IRS attempts to get around this by using an affidavit of the immediate supervisor. Attempts have been made to defeat the affidavit by calling it hearsay. Unfortunately, the court have not accepted this argument. SEC v Chenery Corp (Chenery II) 332 U.S.194 (1947) might be the answer. Does anybody think so?

Section 6751(b)(1) states that “[n]o penalty under this title 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….”
According to Notice CC-2018-006 from the Office of Chief Counsel, supervisory approval is required when the IRS “files an answer or amended answer asserting penalties. In Graev v Commissioner III, it states that “IRC Sec. ‘6751(b)(1) requires written approval of the initial penalty determination no later than the date the IRS issues the notice of deficiency ((or files an answer or amended answer)asserting such penalty’, id. At 221.

While the Federal Rules of evidence permit the use of affidavits, the IRS rules and chief counsel require original signatures in asserting a penalty.

SEC v Chenery Corp (Chenery II)332 U.S.194 (1947) states “ That rule is to the effect that a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency. If those grounds are inadequate or improper, the court is powerless to affirm the administrative action by substituting what it considers to be a more adequate or proper basis. To do so would propel the court into the domain which Congress has set aside exclusively for the administrative agency.“

Designated Orders: 10/15 – 10/19/2018 and Statistics from the Project’s First Year

Guest blogger Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame Law School brings us this week’s few designated orders. He then reviews the development of the Designated Order blogging project and reports the data that the team has gathered so far. There are some interesting statistics on Designated Orders that deserve some attention.

In related news, Paul Merrion at MLEX US Tax Watch recently wrote about (login required) the Tax Court’s new contract with Flexion, Inc. to develop a new electronic filing and case management system. The two-sentence announcement on the Tax Court’s homepage had escaped my notice. Paul’s article summarizes the request for proposals, which can be found here. While the Tax Court declined to comment on the article, this development may be a sign of greater openness to come. Christine

Designated Orders: 10/15 – 10/19/2018

The Tax Court issued only two designated orders during this week, both of which Judge Armen wrote. I will not discuss either in depth here. For posterity’s sake, Judge Armen upheld the Office of Appeals’ decision to sustain a levy in Cheshier v. Commissioner, a Collection Due Process case in which the Petitioner did not provide financial information or tax returns in the CDP hearing. In contrast, the second case, Levin v. Commissioner, involved a very responsive CDP petitioner. In Tax Court, the parties disagreed as to the financial analysis, the propriety of filing a NFTL after entering into an installment agreement, and the necessity of filing business tax returns. Alas, the Tax Court agreed with Respondent on all counts. The order from Judge Armen merely finalized Judge Ashford’s opinion in this case (T.C. Memo. 2018-172), which I would recommend for further reading.

The Designated Orders Project & Statistics

With such a light week, this provides an opportunity to take stock of our Designated Orders blogging project, which began in May 2017. Since then, Samantha Galvin, William (Bill) Schmidt, Caleb Smith, and I have tracked every order designated on the Tax Court’s website. As of October 30, 2018, there have been 623 designated orders—though many orders occur in consolidated cases, causing the number of “unique” orders to be substantially less at approximately 525.

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Why do we track these orders? First, the orders often deal with substantive issues of tax procedure. Some orders could very well be reported opinions. Many of these issues—especially those arising in CDP cases—receive comparatively less coverage in the Tax Court’s opinions. Indeed, through “designating” an order, the individual judge indicates that the order is more important than a routine order (of which the Tax Court issues hundreds each day). The orders can often reveal the direction in which an individual judge or the Court is tracking on certain issues.

Given the importance of the orders, one might surmise that the Tax Court’s website could filter the designated orders from those not designated. One would be mistaken. The Order Search tool on the website does not distinguish between designated and undesignated orders. (I am told, however, that internal users within the Tax Court can search and filter Orders by whether they were designated.)

Instead, orders are listed on the “Today’s Designated Orders” page each weekday after 3:30pm Eastern time (or, a message appears that no orders were designated on that day). At some unspecified time overnight, any record of these orders disappears. Of course, the underlying orders are themselves maintained within the dockets of their respective cases. But without knowing which orders were designated, it becomes impossible to discover them.

As an aside: no compelling reason exists to hide the designated status of an order from the public. Professor Lederman’s recent post nicely encapsulates the continuing (though progressively fewer) transparency concerns that the Tax Court faces. This certainly is another; yet the Court’s historic rationale for preventing disclosure of information (the valid concern with taxpayer privacy) simply does not apply here.

So, Caleb, Samantha, Bill, and I began tracking every order each weekday in May 2017. We have logged the date, docket number, petitioner, judge, and hyperlink for every designated order since then.

This summer, I cleaned and analyzed one year of designated orders data from April 15, 2017 until April 15, 2018. (I acknowledge help from Bill in initially looking at this data, along with substantial work from my research assistant, Chris Zhao). In addition to the above data, I added data regarding the jurisdictional type, whether the case was a small case under IRC § 7463, and whether the order merely transmitted a bench opinion under IRC § 7459(b). I present those initial findings below. In later work, I will compare the designated orders with opinions and “undesignated” orders (some of which are indeed just as substantive as designated orders, as Bob Kamman has routinely pointed out to us).

The dataset revealed 319 unique orders during the research period. In terms of content, we have not systemically tracked the subject matter of designated orders in our dataset. From our experience, the vast majority of orders deal with substantive, often tricky issues. The one major exception is found in Judge Jacobs’ orders, which are often routine scheduling orders. We are not sure why these orders are designated, presuming the purpose of designating an order is to highlight an important case or issue.

While we did not track individual issues, the dataset does contain a jurisdictional breakdown. Deficiency and CDP cases accounted for the vast majority of orders (51.10% and 37.30%, respectively). Other case types included partnership proceedings, whistleblower, standalone innocent spouse, retirement plan qualification review, 501(c)(3) status revocation, and others that involved multiple jurisdictional types.

12.85% of orders were for a small tax case under section 7463. Small cases are underrepresented, compared with the Court’s 37% share of such cases generally (as of April 30, 2018, according to Judge Carluzzo’s presentation to the ABA Tax Section’s Pro Bono and Tax Clinics Committee).

Certain judges used Designated Orders much more frequently than others during the period reviewed. Judges Gustafson, Holmes, and Carluzzo lead the pack, having issued 46.40% of all designated orders, at 21%, 13.17%, and 12.23%, respectively. Thirteen judges (a substantial minority of the 31 active judges) did not designate a single order during the research period. Almost half of the regular judges—Judges Foley, Goeke, Nega, Paris, Pugh, Thornton, and Vasquez—issued no designated orders at all. (The Chief Judge, given their increased administrative duties, receives fewer individual cases. Further, Judge Thornton did designate two orders during May and June 2018. Judges Goeke and Vasquez, while currently on senior status, are classified in the dataset as regular judges, as they retired on April 21 and June 24, 2018, respectively.) Over half of the senior judges issued no designated orders. All of the Special Trial Judges designated orders and did so frequently, accounting for 29.47% of all designated orders.

Judges have also used Designated Orders to highlight bench opinions with substantive tax issues. A bench opinion is one rendered orally at a trial session that disposes of the entire case. After the transcript is prepared, the judge then orders transmittal of the bench opinion to the parties under Rule 152(b). For an example, see Chief Special Trial Judge Carluzzo’s order in Garza v. Commissioner. These transmittal orders represent 8.46% of all designated orders.

Judge Carluzzo issued 11 such orders, followed closed by Judges Gustafson and Buch at 9 and 6 orders, respectively. Judges Carluzzo, Gustafson, and Holmes designated every order that transmitted a bench opinion, while Judge Buch had some undesignated bench opinions (there were 80 other undesignated bench opinions from other judges, which represent the vast majority).

Some cases are repeat players in designated orders. Twenty-nine dockets received more than one designated order during the research period. Three dockets received three or more orders, two of which were among the most well-known cases then before the Tax Court: Docket No. 18254-17L, Kestin v. Commissioner (three orders); Docket No. 31183-15, Coca-Cola Co. v. Commissioner (three orders); and Docket No. 17152-13, Estate of Michael Jackson v. Commissioner (seven orders).

From a timing perspective, the Court’s orders seem to peak in December and March and drop off in January and May—both for regular and S cases. I’ll leave it to those with access to better data to inform us whether this corresponds with the Tax Court’s overall production during these times.

What do these data tell us? I’ll venture a few broad conclusions and raise further questions:

  1. A substantial number of judges do not designate orders at all, or do so very seldom. Do these judges issue substantially more opinions? Are these judges’ workloads substantively different from those who do issue more designated orders?
  2. Three judges (Judges Gustafson, Holmes, and Carluzzo) accounted for nearly half of all designated orders. Why is there such a disparity between these judges and the rest of the Court?
  3. Judges issued only 112 bench opinions during the research period. (To get this figure I searched for “152(b)” on the Order Search tool for each judge between April 15, 2017 and April 15, 2018.) This strikes me as minute compared with the overall number of cases (2,244 cases closed during April 2018 alone). Keith has long argued to increase the use of bench opinions to resolve cases; the Court appears to have disregarded his advice. Of the 112 bench opinions, only 26 (23%) were designated. Judges might consider designating these orders such that they highlight their bench opinions to the public.
  4. There is a large disparity in small cases on the docket (37% of all cases) with designated orders in small tax cases (12.85% of all designated orders). Are small cases simply too “routine” and less deserving of highlighting to the public?

Ideally, the Tax Court would publish its own statistical analysis of its cases, orders, and opinions, as Professor Lederman suggests. Perhaps the Court can discuss and address some of my questions above in so doing. In addition, the Court should allow public users to filter orders on the Tax Court’s website by whether the orders were designated.

In the meantime, we will continue to track these orders so that practitioners and researchers alike keep abreast of important developments at the Court. We’ve learned a great deal about certain substantive topics through this project —especially about penalty approval under section 6751.

I further hope these statistics on designated orders shed some light on the Court’s sometimes opaque operations. Unless the Court, as it should, decides to take up the mantle itself, we’ll continue to track, summarize, and look at trends stemming from these orders.

Vested or Distributed Value, Post-Computation Procedures and a Lien in Limbo. Designated Orders, October 22-26

This week’s designated order post is brought to us by Professor Samantha Galvin from the University of Denver Sturm School of Law. The second order she describes involves one of those technical procedures on which it is easy to make a mistake. Here, the mistake is by respondent’s counsel but the fix is also easy. Keith

During the week of October 25, 2018 there were four orders designated. Three are discussed below. The only order not discussed (here) addresses a trial transcript that was incorrectly attached to a joint status report.

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Vested or Distributed Value

Docket 10488-10: Rui-Kang Zhang & Jua-Fei Chen v. C.I.R. (here)

First is the most substantive of the orders designated during my week. This case is about the value of life insurance policies that were distributed to petitioners in 2004. Petitioners and respondent agree the distribution created taxable income, but the amount is in dispute. The Court analyzes whether respondent is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Petitioners were shareholders and employees of an S corporation that had a benefit plan and trust agreement paid for by the corporation which provided life insurance for petitioners. The corporation took deductions for the cost of the two policies, which were owned by a non-exempt trust. The IRS began scrutinizing plans like this because they often consisted of multiple single-employer plans dressed up as a single multiple-employer plan and used to obtain tax advantages under sections 419 and 491A.

In the present case, petitioners’ corporation wound down its involvement in this plan in 2004 and petitioners were entitled to receive a share of the plan’s assets. The plan administrator transferred ownership of the life insurance policies from the plan’s trustee to the individual petitioners. Petitioners reported the plan’s fair market value at distribution as $160,000 (this is the net value after subtracting the policies’ surrender charges) and a severance cash distribution of $30,000, but the IRS argues that the total amount should be closer to $550,000.

Because the policies were owned by a non-exempt trust, section 402(b) is used to determine the value of the policies, but the statutory cross references are particularly important. Section 402(b)(1) governs the value of an employee’s rights to assets still held in trust at the time those rights become vested, and cross references section 83, which states the value is the fair market value of such property determined without regard to any lapse restrictions.

Whereas section 402(b)(2) governs the value of assets that are distributed and not still held in trust, and cross references section 72, which states the value is the “amount actually distributed.” This was defined in Schwab v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 120 (2011), aff’d, 715 F.3d 1169, 1179 (9th Cir. 2013) as the fair market value of what was actually distributed (taking into account the taxpayer’s initial investment, insurance rates, and the dates covered after the distribution).

In other words, the amount included in petitioners’ table income should either be the vested value or the distributed value. Respondent argues that both sections of 402(b) should apply and petitioners should include the higher vested value as income, because once the corporation notified the plan of the withdrawal the petitioners became beneficial owners which created a vesting event that was later followed by a distribution event.

Court says this is counterintuitive because the same property cannot be both distributed and be owned by a trustee for the benefit of the person to whom it is distributed. Respondent’s logic would also make section 402(b)(2) superfluous because it would make all distributions of pension assets taxable in a two-step process: first, taxable as vested when the plan cuts the check (which make it transferable and not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture) and then, taxable as distributed when the taxpayer actually receives the payment.

The Court identifies four relevant cases on this issue and determines that section 402(b)(2) should apply because the policies were distributed to and owned by the individual taxpayers. This means that the amount included in petitioners’ income should be the fair market value of what was actually distributed.

The Court denies respondent’s motion for summary judgment and order the parties to file a status report about whether the parties will settle or go to trial.

Post-Computation Procedures

Docket No. 14704-14: Damon R. Becnel v. CIR (here)

In this order the Court clarifies the proper procedure to be used when a petitioner is not responsive after the IRS submits computations. The Court released its opinion in this case but was waiting on the computations before it could enter the final decision. Petitioner has not approved the computations but it is unclear whether petitioner’s lack of approval is intentional, if he is simply nonresponsive, or if there is some misunderstanding.

Respondent moves for an entry of decision, but that is not actually the proper procedure to use in this situation. Computations are governed by Tax Court rule 155. Rule 155(b) states that when there is an absence of agreement between the parties the clerk will serve upon the opposite party a notice of the filing of computations and if the opposite party fails to object or submit alternative computations, then the Court may enter a decision in accordance with the computations already submitted.

In this case, the petitioner was never given notice so the Court recharacterizes IRS’s motion, orders the clerk to serve the petitioner with notice, and will enter a decision in accordance to the computations if petitioner fails to respond.

A Lien in Limbo

Docket: 681-18L, Douglas C. Hendriks v. CIR (here)

Next the Court evaluates the undisputed facts to determine whether to grant respondent’s motion for summary judgment in a collection due process case.

The petitioner filed two CDP hearing requests one in response to an intent to levy, and another in response to the intent to file a notice of federal tax lien. The IRS only responded to and issued a notice of determination for the levy CDP request, but did not respond to nor issue a notice of determination on the lien filing.

The Court finds that the lack of information about the lien CDP request is a genuine issue of material fact that could result in a remand to appeals. As a result, summary judgment is not appropriate under these circumstances and the Court denies respondent’s motion.

 

Trials and Tribulations in the ITIN Unit

We welcome first time guest blogger Sarah Lora. Sarah is a supervising attorney in Legal Aid Services of Oregon located in Portland, Oregon. She is also a vice chair of the ABA Tax Section Pro Bono and Low Income Taxpayer Committee. She represents a high percentage of immigrant taxpayers. Today, she discusses the problems encountered by one of her clients trying to file a proper tax return. The process led to frustration and points to the need for a system that allows clients to have a further hearing when things go wrong. She cites us to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and to administrative law in her discussion of the search for a clear answer. Julie Preciado, Willamette Law School 2L, helped edit this piece. Keith

Our clinic represents a U.S. legal permanent resident who supports his teenage daughter who resides in Mexico. Our clinic helped the client file his 2015 return tax return. The client rightfully included his daughter as a dependent on the return. The daughter qualifies as a dependent under Section 151 of the code, except that she does not have a TIN as required by Section 151(e). To satisfy that requirement, we helped prepare the W-7 application pursuant to Section 6109(i)(1) with supporting documents of an original birth certificate and school record as allowed by the W-7 instructions. A few weeks passed and we received a notice that stated that the supporting documents submitted were insufficient, without further explanation.

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Regarding school records, the W-7 instructions state:

School records will be accepted only if they are for a school term ending no more than 12 months from the date of the Form W-7 application. The school record must consist of an official report card or transcript issued by the school or the equivalent of a Ministry of Education. The school record must also be signed by a school official or ministry official. The record must be dated and contain the student’s name, coursework with grades (unless under age 6), date of grading period(s) (unless under age 6), and school name and address.

I carefully reviewed the documents and the W-7 instructions and could find no problem with the birth certificate. The only discrepancy I could find with the school record is that it contained a grade point average, and not individual coursework. We submitted a detailed explanation as to why the documents substantially complied with the W-7 instructions. The rejection letter came shortly thereafter, again, without explanation. I started to feel like I had entered Dickens’ Office of Circumlocution.

I posted to the ABA listserv requesting feedback from my fellow practitioners about how to appeal a rejected W-7. All the responses were the same: you cannot. The only recourse is to file another application. However, if I do not understand why the ITIN unit rejected the original application, how can I hope to be successful in a second application? Furthermore, the education record had become stale because, according to the W-7 instructions, the records are only acceptable for 12 months from the end of the school term for which the record pertains. To file another W-7 would mean the time-consuming and arduous task of obtaining other documents from Mexico.

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights guarantees my client the right to: challenge the IRS’s position and be heard; appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum; and pay no more than the correct amount of tax. How could we appeal and where could my client be heard? Several weeks later, we received a math error notice stating that my client had erred in calculating the correct amount of tax because he was denied a dependent exemption due to lack of a valid tax identification number for his dependent. A light bulb went off. We could get to the issue of the wrongly denied ITIN by protesting the math error notice!

Section 6109(i)(1) authorizes the Secretary to issue an ITIN, “if the applicant submits an application, using such form as the Secretary may require and including the required documentation.” Section 6109(i)(2) defines required documentation to include “such documentation as the Secretary may require that proves the individual’s identity, foreign status, and residency.” The implementing regulation is found at Section 301.6109-1(b)(3) and states, in relevant part, that the applicant “must apply for [an ITIN] on form W-7.” An ITIN will be assigned to an individual on the basis of information reported on Form W-7 . . . and any such accompanying documentation that may be required by the Internal Revenue Service. An applicant for an [ITIN] must submit such documentary evidence as the Internal Revenue Service may prescribe in order to establish alien status and identity.

The regulation gives latitude to the IRS to prescribe the types of allowable documents. However, that latitude is limited by the APA. Judicial review under the APA allows a court to examine a final agency action, so long as it is not committed to agency discretion or otherwise precluded from review by statute. Section 706 requires that with respect to any agency action, a reviewing court must “hold unlawful and set aside agency action found to be,” among other things, “arbitrary, capricious, [or] an abuse of discretion.”

The arbitrary and capricious standard requires agencies to engage in reasoned decision making prior to issuing a determination. Motor Vehicle Mfr. Ass’n v. State Farm Auto Mut. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 52 (1983). Courts will invalidate agency determinations that fail to “examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action including a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.” Id. at 43 (internal quotation omitted).

In this case, a reasonable person could make the argument that the denial of my client’s dependent’s ITIN application was arbitrary and capricious under State Farm because the IRS did not articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action, much less show a rational connection between a report card with “coursework and grades” and proving an applicant’s identity. Not only are the W-7 instructions raising barriers for the most vulnerable taxpayers by requiring “coursework” rather than grade point averages, a rational connection with a legitimate state interest is tangential at best. If fraud prevention in supporting documentation is the IRS’s objective, requiring report cards including “coursework with grades” is both under and over inclusive. It excludes more official government issued educational proof documents, such as the one my client submitted with a grade point average, and includes easily falsified commonplace progress reports. The ITIN unit is wrong to offer no explanation for its decisions that create confusion, frustration, and ultimately an inefficient process that wastes taxpayer resources.

Another possibly narrower argument against the ITIN unit’s actions in my case is that the ITIN unit’s interpretation of Treasury Reg. 301.6109-1(b)(3) is “plainly erroneous” as set in Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997). Here the ITIN unit’s requirement for specific coursework versus a grade point average (if this is indeed the problem in my case) does not appear to be at all rationally related to the regulation’s requirement that the document show “alien status and identity.”

Creating opaque guidelines for the most vulnerable taxpayers is fundamentally unfair. Administrative agencies have a duty to the public to provide clear guidelines, tied to legitimate state interests. After all, Nina Olson has told us on many occasions that “[a]t their core, taxpayer rights are human rights.”

Can A Lawyer’s Representation Be So Bad That It Is A Fraud on the Court? Designated Orders, October 8 – 12

Caleb Smith at the University of Minnesota brings us this week’s designated orders. Caleb highlights one case involving a lawyer whose removal from the Tax Court bar we have previously discussed. As he notes, the lawyer was a problem but competent return preparation could have perhaps avoided the whole problem. The more cases I see the more I am convinced that getting the return right is the key to having the tax system work properly and smoothly. To the extent that we can provide the resources and direction to assist people in filing a correct return, everyone will reap rewards from the creation of competent preparation. Keith 

“My Lawyer’s A Fraud!” Brown v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 28934-10 (here)

Much of the general public is probably aware of the right to effective counsel. As with many legal issues, popular understanding is cultivated by crime shows like Making a Murderer. Of course, in the very civil world of Tax Court no such right exists. And yet, apart from firing the attorney, might not the petitioner have some recourse for counsel that is so inept as to ruin their case?

This, at least, is the premise that the petitioners in Brown v. C.I.R. would like Judge Halpern to entertain. Their legal theory being that the representation was so bad as to be a fraud on the court, such that the prior decision should be vacated. Indeed, their attorney (Mr. Aka) was so inept that he was disbarred from the Tax Court in a case that was previously covered in Procedurally Taxing here.

But is doing your job poorly the same (or similar enough) as perpetrating a fraud on the court?

To that question, Judge Halpern provides a resounding “no.” And for good reason.

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The petitioners in this case appear to be grasping at straws. To be sure, Mr. Aka’s representation seems at best to be ineffective. A glance at the docket shows the situation getting off to a rocky start at an early date with missed deadlines and a frequent failure to respond. Apparently, after trial Judge Halpern even took the extra step of encouraging the petitioner to “supplement [their counsel] with someone with the skills perhaps to reach a settlement” with the IRS. But petitioner took no such action, and his faith in his counsel went unrewarded: shortly thereafter, Mr. Aka missed the deadline to file an opening brief. Instead, one month after the deadline, Mr. Aka filed a motion to extend the time to file an opening brief… and then, before the Tax Court had ruled on the motion, filed this opening brief… after the deadline he had requested. Judge Halpern was unswayed by this attempt, and struck the opening brief as untimely, while taking the extra step of ensuring that petitioner was personally delivered his order striking it. This step was taken so that petitioners could be made all-the-more aware of their attorney’s poor behavior.

When the Judge is implicitly and explicitly telling you your attorney is no good, that is probably because the attorney behaving egregiously bad. And yet, I opened the prior paragraph insisting that the petitioners were grasping in this case by arguing for vacating the decision on grounds of fraud. And that remains so for at least two reasons: (1) the legal standard for fraud on the court doesn’t sync up with the petitioner’s allegations, and (2) petitioners themselves don’t seem particularly sympathetic.

Beginning with the law, what do the petitioners need to show in this case? Quite a bit, actually. Judge Halpern provides various iterations of what fraud on the court is, mostly quoting Abatti v. Commissioner, 859 F.2d 115 (9th Cir. 1988). But really it boils down to proving, through clear and convincing evidence, that there was an intentional plan of deception to improperly influence the Court in its decision, and that the deception actually worked.

It isn’t immediately clear what the petitioner’s think their lawyer’s intentional plan of deception (henceforth, “scheme”) was, and much less clear to see how it “worked” (that is, resulted in the desired outcome by improperly influencing the Court). Petitioner’s offer that the scheme of the attorney was just to cover up his own incompetence.

Maybe.

But did that influence the Court in its decision? If it did, it must not have been in the way intended: the petitioner’s pretty much lost on all issues and Mr. Aka was subsequently disbarred. There is little doubt that Mr. Aka lied (in his excuses about missing deadlines). But to the extent that these lies constitute a scheme, they certainly didn’t work: that is, they did not influence the Court’s decision.

And that is the crux of the issue, and consequently where petitioners begin to appear less sympathetic than they otherwise would. For one, as has already been noted, the Court gave repeated notice to the petitioners that their counsel was inept throughout the proceedings. Petitioners simply decided not to act on those warnings. Only now that everything has (irreversibly) fallen apart, they appear to bring up some novel and serious allegations: namely, that Mr. Aka (1) didn’t offer evidence at trial that would have won the case, and (2) stipulated to facts that petitioners would never have agreed to.

Pretty serious allegations of professional misconduct, if not actually fraud. The only problem is that (1) the petitioners can’t actually point to what this unoffered evidence was, and (2) petitioner signed the stipulation of facts. The stipulated issues were, moreover, read at trial while the petitioner was there, who voiced no objection. These sorts of arguments resemble more and more a taxpayer that is grasping for a lifeline.

Which leads to the final point in this sad saga. It is pretty clear from reading over the actual decision in the case (here) that petitioners would have benefitted tremendously from competent counsel AND competent tax preparation. On the facts as presented in the decision, they almost certainly owe substantial additional tax, but (through their own mistakes), it is difficult to know how much. The returns are a morass of improper Schedule C deductions, impossible-to-align corporate tax returns, and poorly documented management fees. The extraordinarily poorly prepared returns (it is unclear if they were self-prepared) set the stage for the tangled mess that gets to Judge Halpern’s door. A competent tax return preparer could have likely nipped this in the bud (albeit with a tax bill the petitioners would have to contend with), thus saving years of time and resources (of the judiciary, the IRS and the petitioners themselves). For the petitioners in this case it is not clear why they did not avail themselves of competent tax preparation (or counsel): they certainly have the money. It is important to recognize that is not always the case…

When You Can’t Afford Tax Preparation: Hermit v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 15998-17SL (here)

Before becoming a lawyer, I worked at a non-profit that primarily focused on preparing tax returns for low-income taxpayers. The organization was originally founded by accountants in the late 1970s, with the refreshingly non-partisan idea that the ability of people to comply with their tax obligations should not depend on their ability to pay competent professionals. Over time and largely in step with the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, organizations like this expanded nationwide and often took on more of a “financial empowerment” mission. Today, this network generally falls under the umbrella of “VITA” (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), which must follow certain guidelines to receive blessing from the IRS. But the guidelines on who VITA organizations can serve, particularly with regards to self-employed taxpayers, leave many low-income taxpayers out in the cold. The National Taxpayer Advocate has previously listed this as a “most serious problem” in her annual report to Congress For these taxpayers, their options are (1) hire someone at a rate they can’t afford to prepare their taxes (especially true since these returns implicate Schedule C, which many preparers charge extra for), or (2) try filing on your own, which for many people is akin to being told “try reading Mandarin on your own.”

In Hermit, you have a petitioner that (potentially) falls in this trap. Mr. Hermit did not file a return for 2012, so the IRS did him the favor and sent a SFR based on “nonemployee compensation” (i.e. a 1099-Misc that the IRS had). Mr. Hermit responded to the SFR by requesting that the IRS send him the documents needed to prepare a return on his own since (1) he could not afford a preparer, and (2) he was “alarmed” by the tax on the SFR -which is understandable since it would be treated as 100% profit from self-employment, and wholly subject to SE tax.

Unfortunately, requesting the needed forms is about as far as Mr. Hermit goes in resolving this matter. He does not file any returns, and instead signs and mails a Notice of Deficiency Waiver (Form 5564), along with a request to enter an Installment Agreement at $200/month.

Mr. Hermit, at this point, seems fairly sympathetic taxpayer that is trying to comply. And maybe that accurately summarizes his intentions (I won’t play armchair psychologist any further). But for whatever reason compliance does not ensue. No payments are made on the Installment Agreement and no returns are filed for subsequent years. The story takes a familiar turn: no action from the taxpayer until a Collection Due Process letter is sent, at which point Mr. Hermit states “I have no money to pay this [tax liability].”

I won’t rehash the determination of the CDP hearing, or the Tax Court’s order granting the IRS summary judgment, other than to say that your collection alternatives are limited when you fail to file tax returns, which is what happened here. And although the order does not exactly paint the picture of a blameless petitioner in this case, I can’t help but wonder if, much like the prior case, everything could have been fixed years ago with only the proper tax preparation…

Quick Hits, Long Order: Lamprecht v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 14410-15 (here)

When I saw the name “Lamprecht” I immediately thought I was in for an order dealing with Graev (see previous post by William Schmidt here.) I was surprised when I saw that the order was in response to an IRS motion to compel discovery: what documents could the IRS possibly want from the taxpayer to show IRS supervisory approval?

Of course, there is much more to the world of tax than Graev, and the 20 page order deals not with IRC 6751, but contours of what is and is not an acceptable discovery request. Without going into detail, I will simply note that discovery requests that are “unlimited in time” (for example, “all documents relating to Blackacre, EVER”) are likely to be struck as overly burdensome. I will also note that, while the IRS can use discovery as a way to learn about other taxpayers that may have committed fraud, it cannot make such discovery requests for the sole purpose of discovering information about other taxpayers that aren’t in the case at hand. In other words, when the IRS wants to fish for other bad-actors in a tax case it has to hook them with something pertinent to the case at hand.

The two other orders issued during the week of October 8 – 12 concerned a summary judgment motion for a taxpayer that didn’t like having a notice of federal tax lien filed, but gave no alternative for the IRS (or Tax Court) to consider. They can be found (here) and (here) but will not be discussed in detail.