IRS Updates Contingency Plan

Frequent contributor Bob Kamman discusses the IRS’s updated lapsed appropriations contingency plan for the filing season. Les

The first thing to realize about the IRS Filing Season Contingency Plan is that it is already outdated. As the Overview states,

“The IRS Lapse in Appropriations Contingency Plan describes actions and activities for the first five (5) business days following a lapse in appropriations. The plan is updated annually in accordance with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of Treasury. While we do not anticipate using the plan, prudent management requires that agencies prepare for this contingency.”

Although the cover sheet is dated January 15, 2019, that excerpt from Page 5 is dated January 11, 2019.  Filing season, it states, runs from January 1 through April 30, 2019.  What happens after the first five days?

“In the event the lapse extends beyond five (5) business days, the Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support will direct the IRS Human Capital Officer to reassess ongoing activities and identify necessary adjustments of excepted positions and personnel.”

In lay terms, this is known as “flying by the seat of your pants.”

read more...

The general rule is that all IRS employees must stay home because they are not essential and there is no money to pay them.  (Of course, history tells us that they will be paid when the shutdown ends.)  The exception to the rule is that they must work, without pay, if they fall into one of several “excepted” categories.

Category “A” includes activities that (A1) are already funded, like those related to TCJA implementation and disaster relief; activities (A2)  “authorized by statutes that expressly permit obligations in advance of appropriations; and the catch-all (A3) “authorized by necessary implication from the specific terms of duties that have been imposed on, or of authorities that have been invested in, the agency.”  Until anyone objects, this A3 means what any given lawyer says it means on any given day.

Then there are “excepted” employees (remember, these are the ones who must show up to work) in Category B.  Their jobs are necessary to safeguard human life (see Police Officers, below) and, more often, to protect government property.

To understand this category, note that “tax revenues constitute Government property which the Service must safeguard.”  But not just money is involved:

 “…the Service may continue processing tax returns to ensure the protection of those returns that contain remittances. Activities necessary to protect other types of Government property, including computer data and Federal lands and buildings, may continue during a shutdown as well.”

In fact, not just money, buildings, and computers are at stake.  It is the IRS reputation itself.  The agency must “maintain the integrity of the federal tax collection process.” (This mostly seems to come under A3, not B, for those keeping score at home.)

Finally, there is the “turn out the lights” Category C, for activities that “provided for the orderly termination of those functions that may not continue” during a shutdown.

Those are the rules.  Here are some examples of how they are being applied.

Category A1: This includes “Income Verification Express Service (IVES) and Revenue & Income Verification Service (RAIVS) Photocopy Programs.”  These allow mortgage lenders  to verify taxpayer incomes.  It was recently determined that this was “excepted” work, perhaps because it is funded by user fees.

Category A2: This one is easy.  IRS does not have any.  It just shows up in the report because Treasury needs it for other reports.

Category A3: “Maintaining minimum staff necessary to handle budget matters related to the lapse in appropriations.”  Presumably these employees will have other work to do, when the lapse ends.

Category A3 also includes “Activities necessary for the payment of refunds, including processing electronic returns through issuance of refunds; processing “Paper Refund Tax Returns” through issuance of refunds; and processing “1040X Amended Refund Returns Adjustments including Carrybacks, Amended Returns, Duplicate Filed Returns (DUPF), Correspondence, Injured Spouse Claims, Disaster Claims, F843 Claim for Refund and Request for Abatement in support of issuing refunds.”

Issuing those refunds is necessary, not because they are government property, but because they are part of a system that maintains IRS integrity.

For Category B, there is a long list of activities necessary for the protection of human life or government property.  “The risk to life or property must be near at hand and demand an immediate response. To ensure that employees only perform functions that meet this requirement, each business unit will conduct regular meetings throughout a lapse in appropriations to identify actual imminent threats and activate excepted personnel only as required to perform related excepted activities.”   Here are just some of these examples:

  • Completion and testing of the upcoming Filing Year programs
  • Processing Remittances including Payment Perfection
  •  Responding to taxpayer filing season questions (call sites)
  • Continuing the IRS’ computer operations to prevent the loss of data
  • Protection of statute expiration, bankruptcy, liens and seizure cases
  •  Protecting Federal lands, buildings, and other property owned by the United States
  • Upcoming Tax Year forms design and printing
  • Maintaining criminal law enforcement and undercover operations

(You might find it odd that designing next year’s forms has at least the same priority as criminal law enforcement.  You will agree, however, once you see this year’s forms.)

Those are the activities that are necessary.  Here are some examples of work that is not:

  •  Non-automated collections
  •  Legal counsel
  • Taxpayer services such as responding to taxpayer questions (call sites) (But only during Non-Filing Season.  During Tax Season, they hope to operate.)
  • All audit functions, examination of returns, and processing of non-electronic tax returns that do not include remittances

So let’s not call it a shutdown.  When audit and collection work is suspended, let’s call it a holiday.  Were it not for the staff trying to prevent statute expirations, we could almost call it amnesty.

Here are some details from the latest plan:

Chief Counsel

“Chief Counsel’s primary responsibility during a lapse is to manage pending litigation, the time-sensitive filing of motions, briefs, answers and other pleadings related to the protection of the government’s material interests. Due to Counsel’s separate litigation function, the number of excepted Counsel positions will not align with excepted activities authorized in other IRS business units. Counsel’s plan assumes that the Federal and District Courts will be open, and that litigation will continue uninterrupted. The plan excepts, on an as needed basis, those personnel assigned to litigation that is scheduled for trial or where there is a court-imposed deadline during the first five days of a lapse. Personnel are not generally excepted to perform litigation activities where a trial or other court-imposed deadline is scheduled more than five days after the start of the lapse. Personnel assigned to those cases should seek continuances as part of an orderly shutdown. If a continuance is denied, the case will be reviewed to determine if work on the case may be excepted. . . .

“Chief Counsel personnel are also excepted, on an as needed basis to provide required legal advice necessary to protect statute expiration, and the government’s interest in bankruptcy, lien, and seizure cases.”

Taxpayer Advocate Service

There are now two “excepted” Category B employees allowed in each local office: The local TA, and either a group manager or a “lead case advocate.”  Their jobs are to “Check mail to comply with the IRS’s requirement to open and process checks during a shutdown while also complying with the statutory requirements that TAS maintain confidential and separate communications with taxpayers and that TAS operate independently of any other IRS office . . .Screen the mail for incoming requests for Taxpayer Assistance Orders and notify the appropriate Business Unit that a request has been made tolling any statute of limitations.”

It doesn’t sound like they are allowed to answer the phone or work cases.  Protecting IRS integrity doesn’t extend this far?

Small Business / Self Employed

In this operating division, 2,614 of the 2,938 Category B employees are in Collection and another 264 are in Examination. But wait – what happened to that  holiday?

Most of them are Collection Representatives who “carry out revenue protection activities that include responding to taxpayers who have received a collection notice through the Automated Collection System and clarifying the payment process; assisting taxpayers with setting up installment agreements for tax payments; assist taxpayers with general collection processes; serve as the gateway for transferring taxpayers to Accounts Management for appropriate filing season inquiries;  and provide assistance with releasing levies and liens as required by law.” In other words, you can contact them but they won’t contact you.

Those in Examination “protect statute expiration/assessment activities, bankruptcy or other revenue generating issues.   Open incoming mail to identify documents required to be processed to protect the government’s interest during shutdown. Complete computer operations required to determine necessary actions, prevent data loss and route documents associated with imminent statutes.”

Wage And Investment

These are the workers at 10 Service Centers and 15 call sites,  most of whom are in Category A3.  IRS hopes that 12,961 show up for Submission Processing, and 17,520 show up for Accounts Management, which includes call sites.

From other sources, I find that at least 6,600 of these employees are seasonal.  Would you take a temporary job with IRS in January, with the hope of being paid by April? It might make a difference if you needed to pay for daycare.

How many in W&I “Refundable Credits Policy & Program Management” will work on “Pre-refund case selection to protect improper payments from being released to ineligible taxpayers and perfect refunds to verify the refund is appropriate”?  An army of 51.

Compare that with the 469 needed for the IVES and RAIVS programs.  IVES “provides express return transcript, W-2 transcript, and 1099 transcript delivery services to mortgage lenders and others within the financial community to confirm the income of a borrower during the processing of a loan application. RAIVS services taxpayer request for copy of tax return.”

Online Services

In Category B, 25 employees are needed because “Online Services (OLS) is responsible for the development and continuity of operations for IRS.gov, which is the agency’s exclusive external facing website servicing the public. IRS.gov is the means in which taxpayers may continue to file returns and submit remittances online. OLS anticipates that 9 employees will be needed for the duration of the shutdown to maintain the IRS.gov website.”

Facilities Management

Did you know IRS has Police Officers?  There are nine of them kept on duty who along with 13 Security Specialists and five Safety Officers “support general security services that increase as the IRS population escalates in excepted employees during the Filing Season.   Additionally, security and emergency response actions are influenced by other external activities such as bomb threats, suspicious packages and threats to employees. Situational Awareness Management Center/Threat Incident Reporting is operational 24/7 during a shutdown.”

Leave (Not Brexit) Policy

Finally, current and former IRS employees should find this interesting.  I am not sure it  is how the situation was handled in previous shutdowns, but maybe I am thinking of snow days.

“Managers should advise employees who are scheduled to be on annual, sick, court, or military leave that, if a lapse in appropriations occurs while they are on leave, their leave will be canceled, and they will be placed in a furlough status. According to 5 CFR § 752.402, a furlough means ‘the placing of an employee in a temporary status without duties and pay because of lack of work or funds or other non-disciplinary reasons.’”

Dealing with the Shutdown When You Have an Impending Calendar Call: Take Me Back to 2013

We welcome Professor Caleb Smith who has decided to do something productive at a time when productivity does not seem to be the watchword of our politicians. I wrote a post about Tax Court calendars before and after a government shutdown in the early days of our blog. What happened in 2013 might also give you some perspective on what to expect now when the shutdown ceases. Keith

It probably comes as no shock that, in the midst of the government shutdown the Tax Court did not issue any designated orders during the week of December 31 – January 4. So, because I apparently don’t handle having free-time well, I looked to orders of the past to help with this (not quite unprecedented) period of Tax Court history. In particular, I wanted to look into orders that dealt with government shutdowns.

The last government shutdown (of a lasting duration) was in 2013. (For a list of all the government shutdowns since 1976, check out this helpful PBS post.) The most natural consequence of a shutdown (and the break in communication between parties) is that additional time is needed -either on deadlines that have previously been established (see T.C. Rule 25(c)), or for the trial itself (see T.C. Rule 133). Because I happen to have a calendar call that is still technically set for February 4, 2019 I was more interested in how the Court had previously dealt with motions for continuance for the trial. As noted on the Tax Court website I should learn by January 19 whether the calendar call will actually take place, but I’d rather not wait until then to begin planning.

In my research of motions for a continuance and referenced the government shutdown, I found six orders from three Tax Court judges. Although there are some general requirements to T.C. Rule 133 that any motion for continuance should wrestle with (addressed later), the orders demonstrate more than anything that, in these sorts of discretionary matters, different judges have different preferences. Accordingly, I have broken up the orders by the issuing judge.

read more...

Judicial Approach Number One (Former Judge Kroupa): “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me If You Still Can’t Figure It Out”

The 2013 shutdown lasted 16 days from October 1 to the October 17. The 2013 Salt Lake City trial session was set for November 4. In my experience, the month before trial is set is often the month things actually start getting done, so it is understandable that the parties may not be prepared for trial with the critical period of time effectively cut in half. The IRS appears to say as much in its motion in two separate Salt Lake City cases (Docket 24802-12 and Docket 16322-12): “we haven’t been able to resolve or narrow the issues over the last few weeks because we were locked out of our offices, so please give us more time.”

To this, Judge Kroupa says: “I encourage you to try to settle or narrow the issues for trial. So I’m holding your continuance motion in abeyance until calendar call where you can give an update. And, because I’m serious about encouraging you to settle or narrow the issues, at calendar you will also have to actually discuss the efforts you’ve made to settle or narrow the issues.”

This approach either reflects stubborn optimism or stern stewardship over churning through cases on the Tax Court docket. In either case, the result was the same: for both cases, continuance was granted at trial, and a stipulated decision entered in August of the following year.

Judicial Approach Number Two (Judge Holmes): “Take Two Aspirins and Be Prepared to Submit Status Reports”

The approach taken by Judge Holmes (Docket 10600-12 and Docket 1659-13) was not significantly different from Judge Kroupa’s. Essentially, they each ended in the parties showing up to trial and orally requesting a continuance (which was subsequently granted).

In the Villegas case, the motion for continuance wasn’t even made until the calendar call on October 21, so there really wasn’t much of another option for Judge Holmes. What is striking to me is that Tax Court didn’t cancel the calendar when the shutdown continued within a week of it (as stated earlier, that will likely not be the case this year).

In the other case (Mid City Cannabis Club), the trial was not actually set until January 27, 2014 (i.e. with more time than that “magical final month” still remaining), but the parties were both nervous because, although they may settle, they were confident they wouldn’t be ready for trial. Although Judge Holmes assures the parties that the case will be put on “status-report track” if it doesn’t settle by calendar, he denies the continuance request until then.

 

Again, denying (or holding in abeyance, like Judge Kroupa) a continuance motion until the trial date is perhaps a way to keep parties working diligently towards resolution. But, also again, the ultimate result is generally the same: the Mid City Cannabis case was continued at trial and a stipulated decision was reached in the summer of 2014 (this time July).

Judicial Approach Number Three (Judge Wherry): “Sure, I’ll Grant the Continuance: We’re in Los Angeles All the Time Anyway”

Only the retired Judge Wherry gives the immediate relief (i.e. granting of the continuance motion prior to trial) that the parties requested. Both of the parties (in both of the orders) simply say they need more time because of issues relating to the shutdown, and that appears to be enough.

 

It should be noted, however, that both of the orders (Docket 23698-12, and Docket 145-11), concern cases on the Los Angeles calendar set for December 9, 2013. Of the four cases that Judges Kroupa and Holmes granted continuances for, only one ended up having to go to trial. And that trial took place in… Los Angeles.

Although it goes unstated in the order, the Tax Court simply comes to L.A. more frequently than it does to places like Salt Lake City. Accordingly, by granting a continuance the Court could simply allow the parties to regroup and come back to the table five months later during the May calendar call. Perhaps things would settle by then (as they did in the Moore case, during that “magical” pre-trial month). Or perhaps they would simply have the trial at that later date (as they did in the Coastal Heart Medical Group case). Either way, the efficiency concerns (that the parties will be at loggerheads, and the case sit on the docket for almost another year) don’t present themselves as starkly in the bigger cities as they do in the smaller.

Learning From the Past and Preparing for the Future: Crafting Your Rule 133 Motion

So what can be gleaned from these six orders (four of which come from judges that no longer are on the Tax Court)? In spite of my preliminary take-away (“different tax court judges deal with these things in their own way”) there are some commonalities, and, dare I say, some lessons to be learned from the orders.

Lesson One: Make the judge aware of your need for a continuance in advance of the trial date, rather than just assuming that they will “get it” that you need one because of the shutdown. The fact that (most of) the continuances weren’t automatically granted in the above cases is evidence that the Court expects you to work things out as much as possible even in limited timeframes. Which leads to the second lesson:

Lesson Two: Give reasons why granting the continuance won’t significantly hinder (or may actually help) the efficiency of the court. If both parties were in the process of working out a settlement (that was thwarted primarily because of a breakdown in communications caused by the shutdown) that seems a pretty good reason to give additional time to work things out and may avoid a trial that was never needed. Similarly, it doesn’t do anyone any favors (and makes everyone look bad) to show up for trial when the issues still aren’t well defined. But you have to be prepared to explain why it is the shutdown “caused” these issues to remain ill-defined or the settlement to remain out of reach. Perhaps there were meetings or document exchanges that had to be cancelled and, if only the shutdown wouldn’t have occurred, the case would be much clearer for all involved. Specificity (rather than just saying “we could use more time to define the issues… even though the petition was filed almost a year ago”) is key.

Lesson Three: Provide the court with a plan (specifically, deadlines) to show you will continue to diligently work on the case. The trial date is, in some ways, just a helpful deadline for the Court to keep parties moving towards settlement. If Tax Court isn’t coming to your town again in the near future, asking for continuance may appear to be an indefinite hold on having any accountability. If Tax Court is coming to town again in the not-so-distant future, you may suggest that it be calendared at that date. Of course, since not every location has that luxury, proposing to be put on the “status report track” may be the best you can do. Four of the six cases discussed above settled without needing to go to trial after the continuance was granted. The two that didn’t settle were able to get calendared within roughly half-a-year. If at all possible, you want to be able to demonstrate a similar likely outcome with your case.

Lesson Four: Detail why you are not dilatory in requesting the continuance at this late date. This lesson is less from the orders and more from the rule itself: namely, that a request for a continuance hearing within 30 days of the calendar/trial that it relates to will ordinarily “be deemed dilatory and will be denied unless the ground therefor arose during that period or there was good reason for not making the motion sooner.” The general rule is that the closer to the trial date you make the continuance motion the less likely it is to succeed unless (1) the reason for the motion only just arose, or (2) there is some other good reason for waiting. Of course, if your calendar date is within 30 days of the shutdown you can argue the reason for the motion “arose during that period”, but you will still want to provide other good reasons why it couldn’t be made sooner. One reason may well be logistics: every continuance motion specifically (and every motion generally, see T.C. Rule 50) is supposed to include whether it is objected to or not by the opposing party. At the moment, it is rather hard to get a word from IRS Counsel as to whether they reject, because they aren’t really around.

I could easily go broke betting on when this shutdown will end, but one thing I am confident of is that there is a lot of work piling up for the Tax Court and IRS in the meantime. On return from the shutdown you don’t want to greet the Tax Court judge with a motion that effectively says “let’s keep this case in your (massive) to-do pile because, man, that shutdown was rough.” Rather, try to empathize: “I know you have a lot on your plate, and we’re working to get this case resolved without a trial (or with as orderly a trial as possible). Help us help you by giving us time to do that.” By (1) letting the court know as far in advance as possible of the need for continuance, (2) providing specific reasons why the continuance is in their interest, and (3) drawing up a plan for how to work towards a resolution of the case you demonstrate to the Court that you are doing your part to keep things orderly and efficient.

 

Systemic Problems in the CAF Unit with Form 2848 Processing for Academic LITCs

Tax Court update:  The Court’s website announces that all of the calendars scheduled for January 28 are cancelled.

Professor Patrick Thomas usually brings us posts on designated orders but today branches out to discuss an issue impacting all practitioners but of particular importance to academic clinics. All practitioners interact with the CAF unit at the IRS in order to submit their power of attorney (POA) forms. If the CAF unit does not operate efficiently, the problems there multiply downstream and cause significant frustration for the practitioner, the client and for other parts of the IRS. The failure of the CAF unit to operate efficiently can cause practitioners to resort to the phone lines and engage in lengthy calls to resolve issues and obtain transcripts in situations where the IRS and the practitioner would prefer to avoid that interaction.

While only a small portion of our readers will encounter the specific problems academic clinics encounter where the IRS breaks apart the required six page submission necessary when substituting a student onto a POA, many of the CAF unit problems cross all practice areas. The low income tax clinic community, and particularly its academic component, is engaging in a conversation with the CAF unit to seek improvements. We welcome others to join in that effort. If you read no other portion of Professor Thomas’ post today, look closely at the chart he created regarding correspondence. If you experience the same amazing problem of receiving correspondence two months after the date on the correspondence, let the IRS know about your frustration and help us work together with the IRS to improve this critical process. Keith

I’m willing to bet that all federal tax practitioners have, at one time or another, experienced problems with the IRS Centralized Authorization File (CAF) Unit. The CAF Unit processes Form 2848 (among other forms), which authorizes practitioners to receive information on behalf of their clients that is otherwise protected from disclosure under section 6103.

read more...

The Form 2848 Filing and Rejection Processes

Filling out and filing Form 2848 is, in theory, relatively straightforward. List the client’s name, address, and taxpayer identification number. List the representative’s name, address, phone, fax, and CAF number. List the tax periods and tax types for which the client wishes to grant access. Have the client sign, date, and print their name. Sign and date the form yourself as the practitioner. Fax the form to the CAF Unit. Within a week or two, the practitioner should have access to the taxpayer’s information throughout the IRS, including transcripts through IRS e-Services.

But sometimes the Form 2848 is rejected. Much of the time, the CAF Unit properly rejects incomplete Forms 2848. Perhaps the taxpayer or practitioner missed one of the steps above; that’s certainly happened to me more times than I’d like to admit.

Other times, the CAF Unit rejects a perfectly valid Form 2848. In my prior clinical practice, the CAF Unit often did so because they believed our signature appeared to be a copy or stamped. (It was not.) (How exactly the CAF Unit can perceive a copied or stamped signature from a fax—which is, itself, a copy—I do not know). Illegibility of a name or date can also cause rejection, even if it’s the fax that causes the illegibility.

In either case, the CAF Unit sends a letter to the practitioner and the taxpayer, indicating the problem it sees in the Form 2848, with a copy of the offending Form 2848 and directions for correcting the issue.

When the Form 2848 is rejected for an invalid reason, numerous complications arise. First, the practitioner doesn’t have access to the taxpayer’s information on IRS e-Services, making initial investigation of the tax problem fairly difficult. Second, IRS telephone assistors may be unwilling to speak with the practitioner, even where the practitioner can fax a Form 2848 to them directly. And third, but not unimportantly, the taxpayer can become confused because the IRS sends the taxpayer a copy of the POA rejection notice. The notice comes to the taxpayer with no context. The taxpayer receives it at the same time the practitioner receives notice so that the practitioner has no opportunity to explain what is happening before the taxpayer receives the notice of rejection of the POA. This frequently causes the taxpayer to believe either that they or the practitioner have made a mistake before the IRS (even when none has occurred) or that the IRS will not allow the practitioner to represent them leaving them on their own to deal with the IRS. These issues are an annoyance for most practitioners, but ultimately are surmountable.

Special Concerns for Academic LITCs

Student Representatives and Substitution Procedures

These problems multiply for academic Low Income Taxpayer Clinics, especially those that change students frequently. Per IRM 4.11.55.2.1.1, law students in an LITC may represent taxpayers if, per IRM 21.3.7.8.5, the Taxpayer Advocate Service issues a special appearance authorization (“Authorization Letter”), which we must attach to a Form 2848 on which a student representative appears. Student representative authority lasts for 130 days—about the length of one semester.

Because students cycle in and out of the Clinic so frequently, most academic clinics opt to use the “substitution procedures” to change or add representatives. Per IRM 4.11.55.2.3.1.2, a practitioner may substitute authority to another representative or add another representative if the taxpayer grants this authority on the original Form 2848, Line 5a. Per IRM 21.3.7.8.5(6) an LITC Director may delegate authority to student representatives. The Director must sign the substitute Form 2848 on behalf of the taxpayer, attach a copy of the original Form 2848 that authorized the Director to add or substitute a representative, and attach a copy of the Authorization Letter. The student representative and Director also sign as the representatives.

It is not feasible for LITCs to have clients sign a new Form 2848 every 4 to 6 months. IRS cases take a long time to work. Our Clinic currently has about fifty active cases; obtaining signatures for all of these clients would take up much of the first few weeks of the clinical experience. As many clinicians can attest, our clients may not respond to requests for information or documentation as quickly as we’d like. Therefore, the substitution procedures provide an expedient solution to this problem, one which is explicitly recognized in the IRM.

Form 2848 Rejections in Academic LITCs – A Case Study

Because of the confluence of these unique requirements, academic clinics experience a high rejection rate for Form 2848. All clinicians understand this intuitively; however, this past semester, I conducted a systemic analysis of my clinic’s Form 2848 submissions and rejections. Of the approximately 50 Forms 2848 submitted, 10 were rejected. Three were rejected for valid reasons (one student representative forgot to sign the 2848; in the other two, the student representative sent last semester’s Authorization Letter, rather than the current semester).

Failure to Timely Notify

Before delving into the reasons for the improper rejections, the CAF Unit’s notification delays deserve mention. Our Clinic’s small survey indicates that the CAF Unit consistently fails to notify practitioners of an error until about two months from the date of faxing the Form 2848. While the CAF Unit usually dates its rejection letters soon after it receives the Form 2848, we do not actually receive those letters anywhere close to their dates. One letter took nearly three months to arrive. Below, I include a table of the rejection letters I used in our analysis.

Letter Number Date of Fax from Clinic Date of CAF Receipt Date of Letter Date of Clinic Receipt Taxpayer
1 9/7/2018 9/10/2018 9/21/2018 11/5/2018 Client A
2 9/6/2018 9/6/2018 9/18/2018 11/5/2018 Client B
3 9/5/2018 9/11/2018 9/18/2018 11/5/2018 Client C
4 9/5/2018 9/11/2018 9/18/2018 11/5/2018 Client C
5 9/10/2018 9/10/2018 9/21/2018 11/5/2018 Client D
6 8/23/2018 8/23/2018 9/6/2018 10/25/2018 Client E
7 8/23/2018 8/23/2018 9/6/2018 10/25/2018 Client F
8 7/24/2018 7/24/2018 8/8/2018 9/24/2018 Client G
9 9/5/2018 9/4/2018 9/20/2018 11/6/2018 Client H
10 9/7/2018 9/12/2018 9/21/2018 11/7/2018 Client I
11 9/7/2018 9/10/2018 10/9/2018 12/3/2018 Client J
12 9/7/2018 9/24/2018 10/1/2018 December 2018 Client A

* While there were 10 clients and 10 Forms 2848 submitted, there are 12 rejection letters from the CAF. This is due, as noted above, to rejection letters for both a substitute Form 2848 and original Form 2848 for the same client.

This notification delay hampers effective client representation in an academic LITC. Telephone assistors routinely do not communicate with student representatives if they are not properly entered in CAF—even if a student can fax them an appropriately executed Form 2848. Students may not discover this until they must take action on a case within the two months in which the CAF Unit has failed to appropriately process their Form 2848. Unless I am physically present in the Clinic to step in and take over the conversation—a pedagogical opportunity that I do not enjoy usurping from my students—students often can make no progress and taxpayer representation suffers.

Stated Reasons for Rejections

In each letter to the practitioner/taxpayer that rejects a Form 2848, the CAF Unit provides a block-text reason for rejection. Below, I provide a redacted version of a letter I sent to the CAF Unit director in December, detailing the inappropriate rejections we received, along with our responses thereto. The stated reasons for rejection often feel Kafkaesque; for example, numerous letters stated that the CAF Unit rejected the Form 2848 because it did not include an Authorization Letter. The CAF Unit then attached the Authorization Letter from our submission to the Form 2848 it rejected. More details appear below:

Letters 1 and 12 (Client A)

On September 7, 2018, Student Attorney 1 submitted a substitute Form 2848 for our client, Client A. This included (1) an original Form 2848 signed by Client A, which authorized myself and a former student attorney; (2) the student authorization letter from TAS for Fall 2018; and (3) a substitute Form 2848 that I signed on behalf of Client A, which substituted Student Attorney 1 as the representative. The former student attorney was a student in the Tax Clinic in Spring 2018, and Student Attorney 1 was a student in Fall 2018.

The CAF Unit sent two rejection letters. The first (Letter 1), received on November 5, contained the entire submitted package, but rejected the Form 2848 as noted below:

  • “You indicated you are delegating or substituting one representative for another. Please refer to Section 601.505(b)(2)(i), Statement of Procedural Rules, which you can find in Publication 216, Conference and Practice Requirements, for information on what you must send to us to make this delegation or substitution…”
  • “You indicated you want an existing power of attorney to remain in effect. Please attach to your form a copy of the power of attorney you want to remain active.”

The Clinic received another rejection letter in December 2018 regarding this client. This letter only contained the original Form 2848. In addition to the statement referring the Clinic to 26 CFR § 601.505(b)(2)(i), the letter stated:

  • “On Form 2848, you entered “student attorney” … as the designation in the Declaration of Representative. We need a copy of the Authorization for Student Tax Practice Letter the Taxpayer Advocate Service sent you that authorizes you to practice before the IRS.”

Response: The Form 2848 that the CAF Unit sent back to the Clinic was properly filed. Using the substitution authority granted on the original Form 2848 that the client signed, I substituted Student Attorney 1 for the former student representative. The Clinic attached the original Form 2848, which was signed by the client and both representatives. I signed the substitute Form 2848 as the taxpayer’s POA, and both I and the new student representative signed as representatives. Finally, the Clinic attached the student authorization letter from the LITC Program Office for Fall 2018.

We did not indicate that we wanted an existing POA to remain in effect. Had we so indicated, we would have checked Line 6 on the Form 2848. Line 6 is blank on the substitute Form 2848.

Letters 3 & 4 (Client C)

Student Attorney 2 submitted a substitute Form 2848 for Client C on September 5, 2018. This fax submission contained the following documents, in this order: (1) fax cover sheet, (2) the Fall 2018 student authorization letter, (3) a substitute Form 2848, and (4) an original Form 2848, signed by the client, which granted authority to substitute or add representatives.

The CAF Unit stated the following reason for rejection of the Form 2848 in both Letter 3 and Letter 4:

  • “On Form 2848, you entered “student attorney”… . We need a copy of the Authorization for Student Tax Practice letter the Taxpayer Advocate Service sent you that authorizes you to practice before the IRS.

Response: Letter 3 contains a substitute Form 2848 that I signed on behalf of the client as her POA on August 29, 2018. Letter 4 contains the original Form 2848 that the client signed on June 28, 2018, and which granted me authority to substitute or add representatives. It seems that the CAF Unit separated the original Form 2848 from the substitute Form 2848, along with misplacing the student authorization letter.

Letter 5 (Client D)

Student Attorney 3 submitted a substitute Form 2848 for Client D on September 10, 2018. This fax submission contained the following documents, in this order: (1) fax cover sheet, (2) page one of a substitute Form 2848, (3) student authorization letter, (4) page two of the substitute Form 2848, and (4) an original Form 2848.

The CAF Unit stated the following reason for rejection of the Form 2848:

  • “You indicated you want an existing power of attorney to remain in effect. Please attach to your form a copy of the power of attorney you want to remain active.”

Response: As with Letter 1, we did not indicate that we wanted an existing POA to remain in effect. Had we so indicated, we would have checked Line 6 on the Form 2848. Line 6 is blank on the substitute Form 2848.

The letter from the CAF Unit attached only the substitute Form 2848 and a student authorization letter. The packet did not contain the original Form 2848. It appears that the CAF Unit separated the substitute from the original Form 2848.

Letter 8 (Client G)

Student Attorney 4 submitted an original Form 2848 to the CAF Unit on July 24, 2018, which was signed by the client, Client G, along with a student authorization letter for Summer 2018.

The CAF Unit stated the following reason for rejection of the Form 2848:

  • “On Form 2848, you entered “student attorney”… . We need a copy of the Authorization for Student Tax Practice letter the Taxpayer Advocate Service sent you that authorizes you to practice before the IRS.

Response: The letter attached the original 2848, which was signed by the client and both representatives. It also attached the student authorization letter for summer 2018, dated May 9, 2018. This is the very document that the CAF Unit letter itself requests.

While the student authorization letter limits practice to a maximum of 130 days, 130 days from May 9, 2018 is September 16, 2018. Given that the CAF Unit received the Form 2848 on July 24, 2018 and issued this letter on August 8, 2018, there is no timeliness issue.

Letter 9 (Client H)

Student Attorney 4 sent a substitute Form 2848 for this client on September 5, 2018. This fax included (1) a fax cover sheet, (2) a substitute Form 2848 for Client H, which added the student attorney as a representative, and which I signed for the client (3) the Fall 2018 student authorization letter from TAS, and (4) the original Form 2848 signed by the client, which authorized me to substitute or add representatives.

The CAF Unit stated the following reason for rejection of the Form 2848:

  • “On Form 2848, you entered “student attorney”… . We need a copy of the Authorization for Student Tax Practice letter the Taxpayer Advocate Service sent you that authorizes you to practice before the IRS.

The CAF Unit’s letter attached the original 2848, which is signed by the client and both representatives. It does not include the student authorization letter. It seems that the CAF Unit separated the original Form 2848 from the substitute Form 2848, along with misplacing the student authorization letter.

Letters 10 and 11 (Clients I and J)

Student Attorney 1 faxed a substitute Form 2848 for these clients on September 7, 2018. These faxes included (1) a fax cover sheet, (2) a substitute Form 2848 for the client, which added the student attorney as a representative, and which I signed for the client (3) the Fall 2018 student authorization letter from TAS, and (4) the original Form 2848 signed by the client, which authorized me to substitute or add representatives.

For Letter 10, the CAF Unit stated the following reason for rejection of the Form 2848:

  • “A copy of your civil power of attorney, guardianship papers, or other legal documents that authorize you to sign Form 2848.”

For Letter 11, the CAF Unit stated the following reason for rejection of the Form 2848:

  • “You indicated you are delegating or substituting one representative for another. Please refer to Section 601.505(b)(2)(i), Statement of Procedural Rules, which you can find in Publication 216, Conference and Practice Requirements, for information on what you must send to us to make this delegation or substitution…”
  • “On Form 2848, you entered “student attorney”… . We need a copy of the Authorization for Student Tax Practice letter the Taxpayer Advocate Service sent you that authorizes you to practice before the IRS.

Additionally, our client delivered Letter 10 to us. The CAF Unit did not copy us on this Form 2848 rejection letter.

These letters also attach only the substitute Forms 2848; they did not attach our student authorization letter from TAS or original Form 2848. It seems that for both letters, the CAF Unit separated the original Form 2848 from the substitute Form 2848, along with misplacing the student authorization letter.

Actual Reasons for Rejections

These rejections appear to largely to result from two separate, but related reasons, which match the shared intuition among academic LITC directors. First, it appears that the CAF Unit separates the original Form 2848 from the substitute Form 2848 and treats them as separate submissions. It then rejects the substitute Form 2848 for lacking the original Form 2848 that grants authority to substitute, and then rejects the original Form 2848 if the prior student’s 130-day authority expired or was not attached (or else, the original Form 2848 is rejected as duplicative of one already accepted). Second, the CAF Unit often separates the substitute or original Form 2848 from the Student Authorization Letter, and rejects the submission for lack of an Authorization Letter.

Potential Solutions

The CAF Unit’s use of dated fax technology bears some responsibility for causing this problem. The ABA Tax Section facilitated a call in October 2018 between LITC directors and the CAF Unit director, who confirmed that the CAF Unit uses physical fax machines, rather than the e-fax process that every other IRS unit uses (at least, that I’ve worked with).

Understandably, the CAF Unit receives very many Forms 2848 each day, and has a limited workforce, and so our Forms 2848 can, quite literally, be lost in the shuffle. Most Form 2848 submissions are 2-3 pages long, consisting of the two pages of the Form 2848, plus a fax cover sheet. Our submissions are often six pages long, consisting of a substitute Form 2848, an original Form 2848, a student authorization letter, and a fax cover sheet. I suspect that a CAF Unit employee may pick up only the first two pages of a Form 2848 and then disregard the remainder.

Keith suggested during that call that the CAF Unit may wish to implement an e-fax solution to ensure that it receives the entire fax. I agree with that approach, and accordingly suggested this solution to the CAF Unit director. I also submitted a Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS) report in December, informing TAS of the above problems and proposing this as a solution. According to the systemic advocacy analyst that I spoke with, the issue is being assigned to an active task force within TAS. I encourage other academic clinicians to submit similar reports via SAMS so that the IRS has the data to support this problem’s existence.

Effect of Changes to IRS Transcripts 

Finally, recent changes to IRS Transcript procedures will further exacerbate the issues facing academic LITCs. Last fall, the Service announced that in January 2019, transcripts will no longer be faxed to practitioners who are not duly authorized in the CAF. Any transcripts would have to be mailed to the taxpayer’s last known address. Since then, the Service has stepped back somewhat from the position, allowing that if a telephone assistor could verify a Form 2848 over the phone, then the assistor could send transcripts to the practitioner’s secure mailbox on IRS e-Services. (The ABA Tax Section submitted commentary on these changes, which appear to have helped move the needle on this issue).

This is welcome news and ameliorates much of the concern for academic clinics. Nevertheless, students often encounter difficulties accessing IRS e-Services (for example, if they’ve never filed a federal income tax return or do not have loan or credit card information to verify identity).

Conclusion

Unwarranted Form 2848 rejections cause numerous negative consequences for low income taxpayers. The letters from the CAF Unit confuse our clients; they believe that some information is required of them or that their representative has erred. The rejections can also unnecessary delay the ability of student representatives to advocate on behalf of low income taxpayers, as IRS telephone assistors often refuse to speak with student representatives if their authority is not properly registered on the CAF. Additionally, forthcoming changes to transcript delivery will require that representatives are properly verified in CAF before issuing a transcript, with some helpful exceptions.

Finally, the CAF Unit takes, on average, two months to inform practitioners and/or taxpayers that a Form 2848 was rejected. The dates on the CAF Unit’s letters do not correspond to the actual dates of mailing. There is ordinarily a 45 day delay between the date on the letter and receipt in our Clinic. By the time students have faxed a Form 2848, learned of its rejection, and taken steps to fix it, the semester is essentially over. This problem can then repeat in subsequent semesters.

The CAF Unit should consider implementing an e-fax solution for its incoming correspondence. Because the largest source of error appears to be separation of the faxed pages, an e-fax solution would include the precise fax that the taxpayer intended to submit. I encourage the Service to consider these changes to improve taxpayer service and ensure taxpayers’ statutory right to representation before the IRS.

 

 

What IRS Taught Me about Building Barriers

During the IRS and Tax Court shutdown, we have less material to work with and more time for observations and reminiscences from readers.  Chronic contributor Bob Kamman assures us that there must be others who can do better than this. 

I have stories about shutdowns that I could tell from my time at the government but mostly my impression of shutdowns is that they are an incredible waste. I feel it would not take much to find a better way to fight over disagreements about the budget.  

Bob tells us a story about barriers and Service Centers. Having been at several Service Centers, I can say that the barriers to entry there pale by comparison to entry to the Martinsburg Computing Center where the IRS stores the masterfile information and creates significant barriers to entry. Keith

Before I get to that story, here is something to watch for when this “partial government shutdown” finally ends.

In November 1995, the IRS was shut down for only four days. Some of the rest of the government then closed again for 22 days, when negotiations between President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich failed, but IRS was spared.

The White House was not reluctant to place blame on Congress, so it released a report showing how much tax was not assessed or collected during the brief furlough of examination and collection employees. The Treasury Department calculated that $400 million was lost by lack of enforcement action by IRS over a four-day period. That round number of $100 million a day translates to $165 million in today’s dollars, or about a billion dollars for every six working days.

This estimate was confirmed in a White House report on the costs of the October 2013 federal government shutdown. “IRS enforcement and other program integrity measures were halted,” it stated. “IRS was unable to conduct most enforcement activities during the shutdown, which normally collect about $1 billion per week.” (Emphasis in original.)

read more...

Will similar numbers be provided this time? Or maybe there will be a compromise. Most federal budget analysts agree that every dollar IRS spends on enforcement brings in about $10 of revenue. The Democrats have offered $1.6 billion for border security. The President could refuse such a large sum. “Just give me $500 million more for IRS,” he could say. “Then let me spend the $5 billion it produces, how I want.”

(Much of that half billion would be paid in salaries and come back to the government anyway. IRS employees are notorious for paying their income taxes.)

But the current impasse reminds me of my IRS days, in the mid-1970s, when I was an intern in the National Office’s Taxpayer Service division. Interns were not unpaid college students brought in for the summer (like my son in 2003, at the White House photo office). We were full-time permanent employees, recruited nationally for training that would create the next generation of IRS leadership. The assignment lasted for a year, followed by placement in some essential program.

There were only three of us in Taxpayer Service, but there were more than 20 “Admin” interns who rotated among what were then the four divisions of the Administration function (if I remember them correctly): Personnel; Facilities Management; Training; and Fiscal.

There were occasional “classes” for interns when senior executives would lead discussions of IRS problems and how they had been solved. When it was the turn for Facilities Management, the topic for discussion was whether a rather large sum should be spent to build fences around Service Centers.

I doubt any of us had ever considered this question. Service Centers are huge buildings on large parcels of real estate. For example, the one in Ogden, Utah, is a single-story brick building with 504,741 gross square feet located on a 60-acre site. It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and provides work space for approximately 2,500 federal employees.

 

That would require a lot of chain link, we agreed. Of course, security is an important issue for all government buildings, but especially IRS work locations. Who would argue with fencing them off?

But fences are meant either to keep people in (not an issue at IRS) or to keep people out. So whom were we trying to exclude?

This was before daily headlines about terrorist threats. But there have always been angry taxpayers, including some with mental-health issues. And by then the “Anarchist Cookbook” had instructions for building bombs. So fences were necessary.

Or were they? The class was asked to imagine a potential bomber driving past the Service Center, noticing a fence around it, and therefore deciding it was not worth the effort to penetrate. If this person existed, then the cost of the fence would justify discouraging the “casual bomber.” But of course, someone intent on bombing IRS could probably figure out a way to get over, under, around or through that fence.

The point was: The fence is not there for security. It is there to create the appearance of security. The otherwise-determined bomber, it was hoped, would decide that “if there is that much security on the perimeter, there must be a lot more of it inside.” So according to the cost/benefit analysis of the day, the fences were built and the contractors paid.

This anecdote may have nothing to do with current affairs, but for me there are always reminders.   For example, I thought of it when I saw this April 2018 story about what happened to a fence at the Fresno Service Center – which, however, was breached from the inside out.

 

A Question of Identity – Interest Netting, Part 2

Today, guest blogger Bob Probasco brings us the second part of his post on interest netting. At the end of this part he refers to an article in the most recent edition of The Tax Lawyer. If you are a member of the ABA Tax Section you can link through to the article after signing in as a member. If you are not a member but have access to Heinonline, Westlaw or Lexis you can also get to articles of The Tax Lawyer. As the editor of that law review, I invite you to look at the articles there which explore issues in much more depth than we are able to do on the blog. I hope you would agree with me that after 70 years it continues to be a premier tax law review. If you have a law review article on tax you want to publish, consider sending it to The Tax Lawyer. Keith

We’re continuing to explore the “same taxpayer” issue for interest netting under Section 6621(d), for which the Federal Circuit issued an important decision in November. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed other approaches to netting, the background of Section 6621(d), early IRS guidance, and the first of four major cases that have addressed this question. In Part 2, I’ll wrap up with the remaining cases plus some thoughts about the future.

read more...

The evolution of “same taxpayer”

Section 6621(d) allows netting only of equivalent overpayments and underpayments “by the same taxpayer.” Part 1 covered what I consider one of the more interesting attempts at IRS guidance on this issue, Field Service Advice 2002-12028,. It concluded that to qualify for this benefit, one must “both be liable for the underpayment of tax, and entitled to the overpayment of tax.” This kept the restrictive adjective “same” while creating exceptions for mergers and consolidated returns by attributing overpayments or underpayments of one corporation to another. As taxpayers starting filing cases for expansive interpretations of “same taxpayer,” the DOJ retreated from the IRS guidance to very narrow interpretations that would, in practice, make interest netting virtually impossible for the large corporations that most need it.

Balances that arose prior to consolidation: Energy East Corp. v. United States, 645 F.3d 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2011), aff’g 92 Fed. Cl. 29 (2010). This case involved acquisitions in which the subsidiaries survived as members of an affiliated group and tried to net overpayments and underpayments for pre-acquisition tax years. The taxpayers lost. That was probably the right result, although I still have some reservations. The case was decided by a “temporal requirement” that later cases borrowed. Read Part I for the gory details.

And now on to the other three cases.

Attribution of an overpayment on a consolidated return to its members: Magma Power Co. v. United States, 101 Fed. Cl. 562 (2011). Magma Power had an underpayment for its 1993 tax return; it was acquired by CalEnergy on February 24, 1995; it was included thereafter on consolidated tax returns with CalEnergy and other subsidiaries; and the consolidated group overpaid its taxes for 1995-1998. The question was whether Magma’s 1993 underpayment could be netted against the consolidated group’s overpayments. If the situation were reversed – a 1993 overpayment by Magma and consolidated group underpayments for 1995-1998 – it would be an easier decision because all group members are severally liable for group underpayments. But this fact pattern is the one that FSA 200212028 answered as “theoretically possible.”

Magma provided an affidavit to the effect that a substantial portion of the overpayments by the consolidated group were attributable to Magma. How substantial? More than 100% of the reduction of consolidated taxable income resulting in the 1995 and 1997 overpayments; 92% of the reduction of consolidated taxable income resulting in the 1996 overpayment; and 79% of the reduction of consolidated taxable income resulting in the 1998 overpayment. The government disputed the plaintiff’s methodology and amounts but conceded that some portion of the overpayments were attributable to Magma.

The Court of Federal Claims’ opinion is one of the best and most comprehensive analyses of this issue I’ve read – kudos to the court and the litigants. I think it’s also potentially the most important for future developments in interpretation of Section 6621(d). The court interpreted “same taxpayer” as “same TIN.” In that respect it accepted the government’s argument. But the court also concluded that overpayments could be attributed to individual members of a consolidated group, not just underpayments (for which all members are severally liable per regulation); the government appeared to concede neither. The court also rejected the “complete identity” or “exact DNA identity” argument of the government. Key to the decision was the court’s observation that the group is not itself a taxpayer, merely a method of combining all the members for computing tax liability; the members of the group are the taxpayers. Further, the tax liability of the consolidated group must be allocated to individual members as part of tracking E&P for each member pursuant to Section 1552. Either individual members pay their allocated share of the tax liability or the amount they don’t pay would be treated as a contribution from the other member who did pay, Treas. Reg. section 1.1502-33(d)(1). Because the tax liability is allocated and payments by the group are allocated, that should be enough to allocate overpayments to individual members as well, shouldn’t it?

After a careful consideration of legislative history, previous IRS guidance, and the remedial nature of the legislation, the court held that pre-merger Magma Power and post-merger Magma Power “should be properly considered the same taxpayer to the extent the consolidated group’s overpayment can be traced to the company” (emphasis added). Because there had not yet been an agreement by the parties or determination by the court of how much of the overpayments could be attributed, the court ordered the parties to propose further proceedings to resolve the case.

The parties entered a stipulation as to the amount owed about eleven months later – interest computations can be difficult and securing the required government approvals for settlement can drag out – and the court entered judgment. The government filed a notice of appeal on November 20, 2012, and then filed a motion in the Federal Circuit to dismiss the appeal on December 12, 2012. We have no assurance of how the Federal Circuit would rule on this issue but apparently, DOJ was not confident or at least wanted to avoid the risk of an adverse precedent.

This analysis seems to follow the “attribution to a single entity” framing of FSA 200212028 rather than a “two entities are treated as the same taxpayer” framing.

Statutory mergers, various scenarios: Wells Fargo & Co. v. United States, 827 F.3d 1026 (Fed. Cir. 2016), aff’g in part and rev’g in part 119 Fed. Cl. 27 (2014). Stephen Olsen posted here a few years ago when the Court of Federal Claims and Federal Circuit opinions came out.

This case included many different factual circumstances, resulting from a series of seven mergers and 64 separate refund claims. The government and Wells Fargo identified three “test claims”; the principles would govern all of the claims. Wells Fargo (represented by the same firm that represented Magma Power) argued that merged corporations are always treated as the “same taxpayer,” regardless of the timing of the payments. The government argued that taxpayers are only the “same taxpayer” if they have the same TIN at the time of the payments.

Scenario One: Wachovia had an overpayment for 1993; First Union had an underpayment for 1999. The two merged in a statutory merger in 2001, and First Union survived. The government argued that the netting was not available because the two corporations had different TINs and were unaffiliated at the time of both the overpayment and the underpayment.

Scenario Two: First Union had an overpayment for 1993, underwent four statutory mergers between 1993 and 1999 (in each of which it was the surviving corporation), and First Union had an underpayment for 1999. The government conceded the availability of netting in this situation; “the underpaying and overpaying company retained the same TIN because it was the surviving corporation in the mergers.”

Scenario Three: CoreStates had an overpayment for 1992 and merged with First Union in 1998 with First Union surviving. Then First Union had an underpayment for 1999. The government argued that netting was not available because the two corporations had different TINs.

The Federal Circuit mentioned the “same taxpayer = same TIN” rule from Magma Power, without explicitly adopting the rule. But it mischaracterized the Court of Federal Claim’s application of the rule as that “the consolidated group or corporations met the ‘same taxpayer’ requirement because they shared a single TIN.” As discussed above, that is not what the CFC did in Magma Power. The court focused on the TIN of the subsidiary, Magma Power, rather than the consolidated group. It allowed netting, but only if the consolidated return’s overpayment could be traced or attributed to the company.

Based on merger law, the Federal Circuit concluded that two merging corporations are the “same” regardless of which survives. The Court of Federal Claims declined to apply the temporal requirement from Energy East because joining an affiliated group (when both corporations maintain their separate identity) differs from a statutory merger (in which only once corporation survives). But the Federal Circuit disagreed, applied the temporal requirement, and allowed netting in Scenario Three but not in Scenario One.

In Energy East, the Federal Circuit seemed to say that the taxpayer must be the same before both the underpayment and the overpayment. Of course, that was the situation being decided; the court wasn’t dealing with a situation with an overpayment made prior to the acquisition. But in Wells Fargo, the court allowed netting in Scenario Three, when the overpayment was made prior to the merger. Apparently, the requirement is that the taxpayer must be the same when the overpayments or underpayments are made. That seems plausible; there are no overlapping balances to be netted until the second balance comes into existence.

I don’t find the temporal requirement imposed in Energy East and Wells Fargo completely persuasive. The court interpreted an overpayment or underpayment as being associated with a particular date rather than a period. That’s understandable, given the language in Sections 6601(a) and 6611(b). But I think the antiquated language of the Code has effectively been superseded by Avon Products Co. v. United States, 588 F.2d 342 (2d Cir. 1978), and the realities of tax administration. In Avon Products, the Second Circuit concluded that individual transactions must be netted into a single balance before computing interest. The IRS has acquiesced in not only the result of that case but also the reasoning. Over a period of time, the single balance required by Avon Products may change from underpayment to overpayment back to underpayment, and the traditional determinations of the “date” of an overpayment and underpayment no longer fit well. They are better considered in terms of a period rather than a particular date when they arise. Admittedly, no court has yet reached the same conclusion.

Further, the “last antecedent rule” is simply an interpretative standard, not an ironclad rule any more than other canons of statutory construction. Given the remedial nature of netting, it would have been possible to interpret the provision more broadly. Even if both the underpayments and overpayments began before the merger or joining into an affiliated group, netting might be permissible if both are still outstanding afterward. At that point, once the two corporations become the “same taxpayer,” the harm that Section 6621(d) is intended to remedy exists. Netting might be allowed from that point. This argument is likely stronger for mergers than for affiliated groups that file consolidated returns.

But that’s not what the court ruled.

Not part of the parent’s consolidated return: In Ford Motor Company v. United States, 908 F.3d 805 (Fed. Cir. 2018), aff’g 132 Fed. Cl. 104 (2017), the court concluded that Ford Motor Company (“Ford”) and a wholly-owned subsidiary were not the “same taxpayer” for purposes of interest netting. Against the backdrop of the earlier cases, Ford seems an even harder case for the taxpayer to win. Ford formed Ford Export Services B.V. (“Export”), its wholly-owned subsidiary, in 1984 as a foreign sales corporation. Because FSCs must be foreign rather than domestic corporations and a consolidated group cannot include foreign corporations, Ford and Export filed separate U.S. income tax returns between 1990 and 1998. Ford had an overpayment for the 1992 tax year and Export underpaid its taxes for 1990-1993 and 1995-1998. Ford claimed that Ford and Export were the same taxpayer because Ford “exercised near complete control over Export’s operations” and “Export never performed any activity that Ford did not direct.”

Instead of relying on a dictionary, the Federal Circuit concluded that the meaning of “same taxpayer” depended on “background legal principles” at the time Congress enacted Section 6621(d). One of those background legal principles was that a parent corporation and its subsidiaries are separate taxable entities. (Cases cited in the opinion concluded that even if the parent and subsidiaries join to file a consolidated return, the group is not as a single entity and individual members retain their identity.) The court identified “the unique legal effects of a merger” as an exception to that general rule, citing Wells Fargo. Ford argued that the FSC statute was another relevant background legal principle that would constitute an exception to the general rule, but the court disagreed. There was no statutory provision for FSCs comparable to the continuation of the identity of the acquired corporation in the successor corporation after a merger.

The plaintiff’s arguments here were based on control and direction because of the factual situation: Export was not a member of the affiliated group that filed a consolidated return. That suggests that the decision may be relatively narrow in scope and may also help explain why the court reached this decision. This level of “control and direction” will most often occur with a subsidiary that meets the 80% voting and value test for an includible corporation in an affiliated group (even if not includible for other reasons such as being a foreign corporation). Consider three categories such subsidiaries might fall into: (a) included in the affiliated group; (b) not included in the affiliated group but a foreign corporation with no US income; and (c) not included in the affiliated group but a corporation that files a US tax return. If the Federal Circuit eventually blesses netting involving attribution from consolidated returns, similar to FSA 2001-12028 and Magma Power, the effect of the decision in Ford may be limited to category (c). Further, allowing netting based on control and direction, rather than attribution from a consolidated return, would impose more of an administrative burden on the IRS because the factual determination is more difficult. It’s not well suited for a general background legal principle to apply as an interpretation of “same taxpayer.” On the other hand, netting with subsidiaries who meet the 80% test but are not includible for other reasons, might be a viable test.

What does the future hold?

The boundaries of “same taxpayer” are still not entirely clear. Because most netting claims include a request for additional overpayment interest, these cases will usually be brought in the Court of Federal Claims rather than district court. Review by the Supreme Court and legislative action both seem unlikely in the extreme. So the Federal Circuit’s decisions carry a lot of weight. But there are some possibilities the Federal Circuit has not yet ruled on.

In a statutory merger, the Federal Circuit will allow netting of a pre-merger balance against a post-merger balance but not if both balances are from pre-merger years. If a taxpayer or the government wants to change that, it will be difficult to do just through litigation.

The Federal Circuit has never directly ruled on netting in the context of consolidated returns. Energy East and Wells Fargo involved mergers; a Magma Power appeal was dismissed on the government’s request; and Ford involved a subsidiary that was not consolidated. The opinion in Ford seems to suggest that these situations are not an exception to the general rule that a parent and its subsidiaries are separate entities and therefore are not the same taxpayer. I don’t think that necessarily precludes netting, though.

First, I suspect that as a practical matter the IRS has been allowing netting administratively, and thus there have been no lawsuits, in circumstances where one member has an overpayment based on a separate tax return and the consolidated return has an underpayment. We haven’t seen such a case in the Federal Circuit and I would expect to by now if the IRS were disallowing the claims. If that’s correct, I’m not sure that the opinion in Ford will be enough for the IRS to change its administrative practice.

Second, treating a parent and its subsidiaries as separate entities does not preclude netting if you allow attribution of underpayment and overpayments to individual members of the affiliated group. Then, as in Magma Power, you are dealing with a single taxpayer; the attribution results in one taxpayer having equivalent overpayments and underpayments outstanding at the same time. The Federal Circuit has not addressed the attribution theory and, based on its mischaracterization of Magma Power in Wells Fargo, may not have considered it yet.

Netting in the context of consolidated returns, under an attribution theory, will still create administrative issues. Even in simple netting claims, the taxpayer cannot use balances if it has previously used them for netting. For example, if Corporation A nets a 2001 underpayment against a 2004 overpayment, Corporation A cannot later net the same 2001 underpayment against a 2006 overpayment. This would apply for netting under an attribution theory in the context of consolidated returns. Further, the netting claim would have to provide documentation to support the attribution. But such administrative issues should not be an impediment. Revenue Procedure 2000-26 simply shifts the burden to the taxpayer requesting netting. A more significant problem with netting in the context of consolidated returns might arise with respect to disputes between members of the group about the attribution – particularly after a member has left the group but still wants to net past balances as part of the group against post-departure balances.

Are there situations other than mergers and consolidated returns that might supply “background legal principles” to justify netting? Contractual assignments of tax liabilities and the right to refunds of overpayments might be a possibility, although courts are often reluctant to be bound by those when deciding tax issues. There may be others.

Even if the Federal Circuit is unlikely to approve netting in the consolidated return context or other situations, it’s worth still contesting issues on which the Federal Circuit has not yet ruled. Interest disputes for the largest corporations can involve significant amounts, which alone justifies taking a shot. Ford, as an example, involved a $20 million claim while Wells Fargo involved a $350 million claim (although that included items other than netting).

Postscript

As I was finishing this post up, I received the latest volume of The Tax Lawyer, which includes an article “More of the ‘Same’: Section 6621(d) in the Federal Circuit” by David Berke, an associate at Skadden, Arps. He and I are not in complete agreement, but for those with an interest in a different perspective on this topic, it’s worth perusing.

 

A Question of Identity – Interest Netting, Part 1

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco who brings us a discussion of an important recent decision in the Federal Circuit. Bob directs the low income taxpayer clinic at Texas A&M Law School but he comes to that position after a career or representing large taxpayers while working at a large law firm (Thompson and Knight). His background representing large taxpayers gives him a perspective on this issue which turns on who is a sufficiently related corporate entity to allow interest owed to the IRS to net with interest owed to a taxpayer. For most of our clients interest is a painful reminder of consequences of owing additional taxes but for some large taxpayers the issue of netting can have consequences in the millions of dollars. Keith

On November 9, 2018, the Court of the Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Ford Motor Company v. United States, 908 F.3d 805 (Fed. Cir. 2018), aff’g 132 Fed. Cl. 104 (2017). The Court concluded that Ford Motor Company and a wholly-owned subsidiary were not the “same taxpayer” for purposes of the interest netting provision in Section 6621(d).

Procedurally Taxing addressed this issue a few years ago when the last major case on Section 6621(d) was decided. With the decision by the Federal Circuit in Ford, now seems a good time to revisit the issue – both in Ford and the earlier cases – as well as speculate where it may be heading.

In Part 1, I will review the background of Section 6621(d), other netting methods, early IRS guidance on the “same taxpayer” question, and the first of four major cases interpreting that aspect of the provision. In Part II, I’ll cover the other three cases as well as take a look at the future.

Spoiler alert: this is a complex, confusing area of tax procedure. I think some of the cases could have, and perhaps should have, come out differently. But this is what we have.

read more...

Why interest netting?

With some exceptions, the government charges taxpayers interest on unpaid tax liabilities and pays taxpayers interest on refunds. There were some rate differences in the earliest years of the modern income tax, but for a long period of time the government used the same interest rate for both underpayments and overpayments. That’s still the case for non-corporate taxpayers but changed for corporate taxpayers over 30 years ago.

In the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Congress created a 1% difference in Section 6621(a) between the base rate it charges corporations on underpayments of tax (the federal short-term rate + 3%) and the base rate it pays corporations on overpayment of tax (the federal short-term rate + 2%). As a result of subsequent changes, the gap can be much larger. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 added Section 6621(c), establishing the “large corporate underpayment” or “hot interest” rate (the federal short-term rate + 5%) for underpayments exceeding $100,000. The Uruguay Round Agreements Act of 1994 added the flush language at the end of Section 6621(a)(1), establishing the “GATT interest” rate (the federal short-term rate 0.5%) for overpayments exceeding $10,000. The proper application of hot interest and GATT interest is itself a complex issue beyond the scope of this post, but many large corporations will be subject to rates that differ by as much as 4.5%.

What happens when a corporation has both an outstanding overpayment of tax and an outstanding underpayment of tax, accruing interest during the same period of time? Might a corporation find itself paying more interest than it receives on equivalent amounts? Prior to the enactment of interest netting, taxpayers had two protections against that.

“Annual interest netting” addresses situations where a taxpayer has both an overpayment and an underpayment with respect to the same tax return outstanding during a given period. For example, Big Corp’s income tax return for 2012, filed on 3/15/2013, shows an overpayment of $3,000,000, which the IRS does not refund until 1/5/2015. After an audit, the IRS assesses additional tax of $5,000,000 for 2012. The IRS might try to assess interest on the $5,000,000 underpayment, from 3/15/2013 until paid, while paying Big Corp interest (at a lower rate) on the $3,000,000 original overpayment, from 3/15/2013 until 1/5/2015. In Avon Products Co. v. United States, 588 F.2d 342 (2d Cir. 1978), the Second Circuit concluded that individual transactions must be netted into a single balance before computing interest. Thus, the IRS would assess interest only on the net $2,000,000 underpayment from 3/15/2013 until 1/5/2015, and on $5,000,000 thereafter until paid. The IRS acquiesced not only in the result but also in the reasoning of Avon Products, although it has occasionally argued for a different result in particular cases. Revenue Procedure 94-60 and Revenue Ruling 99-40 are interpretations of the Avon Products doctrine; in recent years the IRS changed interest computation software and (somewhat) its methodology. (Revenue Ruling 99-40 actually – and likely unintentionally – mischaracterizes Avon Products in a subtle manner that obscures another procedural problem concerning recovery of excessive overpayment interest. The problem is potentially significant, although few people seem to be aware of it. But that is beyond the scope of this post.) However, “annual interest netting” only applies when the overpayment and underpayment are for not only the same type of tax but also the same tax return.

In other circumstances, the IRS exercise of its authority under Section 6402(a) to credit overpayments against outstanding tax liabilities, rather than issuing a refund, results in the elimination of the rate differential problem. A Section 6402(a) credit, of course, is not intended to and does not by itself accomplish netting. It is merely a collection method, almost always applied automatically to credit an overpayment under one TIN against an underpayment for exactly the same TIN. When the IRS makes such a credit, however, any interest rate differential is eliminated because of specific interest computation provisions. If an overpayment for 2010 is applied to an underpayment for 2011, for example, Section 6611(b)(1) provides that interest on the overpayment runs only to the due date of the 2011 underpayment – the same date that interest on 2011 underpayment starts accruing. If an overpayment for 2011 is applied to an underpayment for 2010, Section 6601(f) provides that there is no interest on that portion of the underpayment “for any period during which, if the credit had not been made, interest would have been allowable with respect to such overpayment.” This avoids an overlap period with interest accruing both on an overpayment and an underpayment, but a Section 6402(a) offset is only available if both balances are still outstanding. If the overpayment was refunded or the underpayment was paid, Section 6402(a) won’t help.

Those two solutions still left unresolved some instances of overlapping overpayments and underpayments. When Congress created the 1% rate differential in 1986, it asked the IRS to implement “the most comprehensive netting procedures that are consistent with sound administrative practice.” It continued to request IRS action as the rate differential widened to 3% and then 4.5%, and again when it enacted the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but Treasury pushed back because it had no statutory authority for such netting. Congress eventually enacted Section 6621(d) in the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. That provision requires that for any period when there are “equivalent underpayments and overpayments by the same taxpayer of tax imposed by this title, the net rate of interest under this section on such amounts shall be zero for such period.” I’ve always referred to this as “global interest netting,” to differentiate it from “annual interest netting,” but I’ve dealt with some DOJ attorneys who prefer “net interest rate of zero.” For the remainder of this post, I’ll use “netting” to refer only to Section 6621(d).

Netting is available, under its terms, for taxes other than income tax. However, it only applies if underpayment interest is payable and overpayment interest is allowable during that period. Various “restricted interest” provisions of the Code state that under appropriate circumstances interest is not payable/allowable. Thus, if during the relevant period the taxpayer’s overpayment balance does not earn interest, there is no elimination or reduction of the interest rate on the equivalent underpayment balance. (Annual interest netting, however, does effectively net balances even if interest is not payable/allowable for one of the balances. In fact, that was the situation in Avon Products.)

The IRS computers cannot readily identify situations in which netting would be available. As a result, the IRS requires taxpayers to specifically request such netting on a refund claim. Revenue Procedure 2000-26 sets forth the requirements.

The evolution of “same taxpayer”

The legislative history for Section 6621(d) didn’t really explain what “same taxpayer” means. The meaning would be clear if we were talking about individuals. But corporations can change their corporate identity, through mergers, and join affiliated groups that file consolidated tax returns. What effect does that have? The IRS issued guidance as it began dealing with how to apply netting, and courts decided at least four major cases, including Ford, to clarify the boundaries of the term.

One of the IRS early attempts at guidance, Field Service Advice 2002-12028, required that one corporation “both be liable for the underpayment of tax, and entitled to the overpayment of tax.” This kept the restrictive adjective “same” while creating exceptions for mergers and consolidated returns. The principles it applied were:

  • In a statutory merger, as a matter of law the surviving corporation is liable for any underpayment and entitled to any overpayment of the non-surviving corporation, so netting is permissible even for balances from tax years prior to the merger. (Situations 5 and 7)
  • But in an acquisition in which both corporations survive, netting is impermissible because neither is liable for underpayments or entitled to overpayments of the other. Actual payment of the underpayment is not sufficient, absent legal liability for it. (Situation 6)
  • All members of an affiliated group are severally liable for underpayments of the consolidated return, Treas. Reg. section 1502-6(a), so they can net their own overpayments against the group’s underpayments. (Implied from the reasoning for Situations 8 and 9)
  • But a subsidiary is not liable for the group’s underpayment for tax years for which it was not a member of the group. Therefore, the subsidiary can’t net the group’s underpayment against its own overpayments. This applies when the subsidiary was acquired or came into existence after the year of the group’s underpayment (Situations 3 and 4), or if the subsidiary was owned by the parent during that year but was not part of the affiliated group (Situations 8 and 9).
  • It is unclear whether subsidiaries would be entitled to some or all of the group’s overpayments for tax years when they were members of the groups and therefore able to net the group’s overpayments against their own underpayments. It is theoretically possible but that will depend on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. (Situations 1 and 2) The IRS reiterated this position in Chief Counsel Advice 2004-11003 but later walked back this concession in Chief Counsel Advice 2007-07002.

This was not a perfect, or complete, analysis but it was a good start. When I first read it years ago, I thought it was an interesting way to frame the analysis. Although we sometimes use a shortcut and say that this issue is whether Company A and Company B are the “same taxpayer,” this FSA focuses on whether a single taxpayer – Company A – has equivalent overlapping overpayment and underpayment. But in doing so, it allows under appropriate circumstances the attribution of overpayments or underpayments on Company B’s tax returns to Company A. There is solid support for many of the attributions in FSA 200212028.

Litigation ensued and the courts began fleshing out the nuances. In that litigation, the government pushed for a much more restrictive interpretation than in FSA 200212028. At various times, DOJ advanced three alternative arguments that would substantially limit or eliminate the ability of affiliated groups to obtain the benefits of netting. First, the TIN associated with the overpayment must be identical to the TIN associated with the underpayment. Thus, an overpayment or underpayment of the affiliated group could never be netted against an underpayment/overpayment of individual members; further, balances of the surviving corporation in a statutory merger could never be netting against pre-merger balances of the non-surviving corporation. Second, even if the TIN were identical, the taxpayer must not have undergone any substantial change between the two years. Thus, any addition or removal of members of an affiliated group or merger with another corporation – among other changes – would eliminate the ability to net interest. This would effectively eliminate netting for the largest corporations, which are those most likely to benefit from netting. Third, Congress did not intend netting to be available for overpayments or underpayments by consolidated returns at all. The Federal Circuit has accepted the first argument, with exceptions carved out, but has not (yet) adopted the more extreme interpretations.

Balances that arose prior to consolidation: Energy East Corp. v. United States, 645 F.3d 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2011), aff’g 92 Fed. Cl. 29 (2010). Energy East Corporation acquired Central Maine Power Company (“CMP”) in 2000 and Rochester Gas & Electric Corporation (“RG&E”) in 2002. Both subsidiaries became part of Energy East’s affiliated group and were included in consolidated returns from that point forward. The refund claim requested that CMP’s and RG&E’s overpayments for 1995, 1996, and 1997 be netted against Energy East’s underpayment for 1999. Thus, all of the balances began before the subsidiaries were acquired by Energy East.

The Court of Federal Claims used a dictionary definition of “same” – “being one without addition, change, or discontinuance: identical.” By that definition, CMP and RG&E were no longer the same taxpayers after the acquisition by Energy East, as they became part of an affiliated group. I’m often uneasy about a court’s use of dictionary definitions and this is no exception. Not only did it open the door for DOJ to argue for an overly narrow definition, but it also fails to recognize multiple different shades of meaning. For example, since I got married 31 years ago, I have moved twice, got a law degree, changed jobs four or five times and professions twice, lost weight, qualified for Medicare, etc. In one sense, yes, people would say I’m “not the same person” I was 31 years ago. But “same person” is also commonly used more broadly so that “not the same person” would refer to, say, major psychological changes – or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Same” just raises the questions “to what extent” or “in what essentials” and becomes a vaguely ontological inquiry. So, dictionary definitions are a (minor) pet peeve just because of the flexibility and nuances of human language makes them too susceptible to manipulation and an ineffective guide to Congressional intent. I’m not a fan of the CFC’s definition of “same” for this issue.

The CFC also noted that “although they later became members of the consolidated group, [Energy East], CMP, and RG&E were different taxpayers with different employer identification numbers at the time of their overpayments and underpayments.” There was no support for treating them as the same for tax years prior to joining the group. This temporal requirement became an important part of the analytical framework, although I argue in Part 2 that it’s not necessarily the right way to look at this issue.

The Federal Circuit agreed that the consolidated return regulations provided no basis for concluding that individual members of the group should be treated as the “same” for years prior to their joining the group. It also rejected Energy East’s alternative argument that the focus of the “same taxpayer” determination should be when interest (to be netted) was accruing. Instead, the court concluded that they had to be the “same taxpayer” on the date of the underpayment and overpayments, based on the “last antecedent rule.” It said that “by the same taxpayer” referred to “equivalent overpayments and understatements” in Section 6621(d); thus, “the statute provides an identified point in time at which the taxpayer must be the same [by virtue of being members of an affiliated group], i.e., when the overpayments and underpayments are made.” As I’ll discuss in Part 2, this may not be precisely correct, at least in other contexts.

The court did not state that these three companies were the same taxpayer for years in which they were included in consolidated returns. That determination was not necessary for the decision, as the parties agreed the companies were not the same taxpayer for the years when the overpayments and underpayments were made.

Under the “attribution to a single entity” framing of FSA 200212028, this decision was clearly right. CMP and RG&E had no connection to Energy East’s underpayment for 1999 that would allow attribution under existing rules. Under a “two entities are treated as the same taxpayer” framing, it’s not as clear. I’ll return to that in Part 2, in the discussion of the Wells Fargo case.

That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2, where the action heats up.

 

Section 6662: Owe A Little Tax? Pay The Penalty. Owe A Lot More? Maybe Not.

Frequent commenter/guest blogger Bob Kamman brings us a post about the weird way the IRS is choosing to impose the substantial understatement penalty. He brought a couple of Tax Court cases seeking to establish some precedent in the area but the Chief Counsel attorneys handling the cases conceded and prevented him from obtaining court review of the IRS practice in this area. Because the fact pattern he has identified usually involves a relatively small amount of money, taxpayers will struggle to find representation in these cases and may find it easier to concede than to fight.  A case in which the taxpayer contests all or part of the underlying tax may provide the more likely vehicle for a test.  If you see this issue in your client’s case, consider following Bob’s example and seek to set precedent. Even if Chief Counsel’s office continues to concede the issue, maybe someone in that office will speak to the IRS about the bad practice that may be a result of computer programming or maybe just an unusual view of the type of behavior that should be penalized. Keith

I won a couple of Tax Court cases in 2018 that I had expected to lose. My clients are happy that IRS settled. But I’m disappointed, because I hoped a Tax Court opinion would at least highlight the issue. At least along the way I learned a few things. For example, there is the Doctrine of Absurdity.

read more...

But first, some background. Suppose that you are a Member of Congress and on a committee that oversees tax laws and IRS. You think penalties are sometimes needed to encourage tax compliance. You consider two cases:

 

Taxpayer A, in a 15% bracket, wins $32,000 on a slot machine, has no tax withheld when the casino issues Form W-2G, and does not report the income on Form 1040. The IRS computer-matching system eventually discovers the omission and assesses $4,800 tax.

Taxpayer B, in a 25% bracket, withdraws $20,000 from a retirement account, requests federal tax withholding at a 20% rate, and thinking like many others that “I already paid tax on it,” does not report the income on Form 1040. IRS document matching catches this error also, and sends a bill for $1,000 because the withholding is not sufficient to cover the additional tax.

Not as someone with a sense of fairness and logic, but as a Member of Congress you would reach the same result that according to IRS was enacted nearly thirty years ago. Taxpayer A pays $4,800 but no penalty. Taxpayer B pays not only $1,000 but an additional $200 penalty.

That’s how Section 6662, together with Section 6664, operates. These Internal Revenue Code penalty provisions come up frequently, and deserve a closer look. They require findings of an “underpayment” and an “understatement,” which IRS tells us are not the same thing.

Section 6662 assesses a 20% penalty on several varieties of “underpayment.” The two seen most frequently are those due to “negligence or disregard of rules or regulations,” and to “any substantial understatement of income tax.”

IRS computers, lacking human interaction with taxpayers, don’t yet have the intelligence to make accusations of “negligence or disregard.” So the “substantial understatement” clause is invoked when proposed assessments are based only on matching information returns to a Form 1040.

And acknowledging the legal maxim de minimis non curat lex – “the law does not deal with trifles” – Section 6662(d)(1)(A) adds that on individual returns, a “substantial understatement” occurs only if the amount exceeds the greater of—

(i) 10 percent of the tax required to be shown on the return for the taxable year, or

(ii) $5,000.

In most cases, the $5,000 minimum rule applies. So you might ask, why will IRS assess a penalty to our Taxpayer A, who only owed $1,000? The answer is that no credit is given for withholding, when determining if there is an “understatement,” even though the withholding is considered when figuring the “underpayment” amount on which the 20% penalty is calculated.

At least, that is how IRS interprets the Regulations to these two sections. I am not sure the IRS understands the Regulations, nor am I confident the Regulations correctly describe what Congress enacted. Some day perhaps a Tax Court judge will reach the same conclusions.

Here is an example from a Tax Court case in which IRS decided it was not worth arguing with me. My client withdrew money from a retirement account, and had tax withheld. Because she thought the taxes had already been paid, she did not mention it to her tax preparer or report it on her return. The additional tax was $9,158. The withholding was $7,325. The difference was $1,833, which when contacted by IRS she gladly paid with interest. But IRS still wanted $367 “substantial tax understatement penalty.”

(Had the return been filed late, a penalty of $458 would also have been proposed, but under the IRS “one time free pass” policy, it could be abated.)

My client is not a low-income taxpayer but she had a high-respect government career. I did not charge a fee for filing the Tax Court petition, or for several phone conversations with a Chief Counsel paralegal (in Phoenix) who handled settlement of the case in our favor. I did furnish reasons that this case might qualify under the “reasonable cause” exception of Section 6664(c) because my client had acted “in good faith.” These arguments seldom prevail at IRS administrative levels. The settlement process took more than four months, from petition filing to stipulation signing.

And here is another example from a Tax Court case. My clients unintentionally omitted some W-2 income from their joint return. They and their preparer had rushed to meet the April 15 deadline after receiving a complex, high-dollar Schedule K-1 on April 10. The additional tax was $6,230 and the withholding only $2,012. The difference of $4,218 was not quite as substantial as the $5,000 minimum contemplated by Section 6662(d)(1)(A). Nevertheless, IRS proposed a “substantial understatement” penalty of $844, because the deficiency before withholding exceeded $5,000.

This case was settled by a Chief Counsel attorney (in Dallas) in less than six weeks after the petition was filed. I did not earn a fee on this case either, but as the preparer I avoided reimbursing my clients for an error for which I shared responsibility.

I did not have to ask the Dallas attorney for a copy of the signed managerial approval now required for such assessments. It might not have existed. In Phoenix, the paralegal showed me what the Service Center considers adequate.   I thought it was ambiguous.

In researching these cases, I came across the “Doctrine of Absurdity,” which is discussed in a 2017 Tax Court opinion, Borenstein, in which Keith Fogg of the “Harvard Clinic” filed an amicus brief. (The opinion does not state whether he supported the anti-absurdity argument, which was just one of several.) The opinion explains:

The “anti-absurdity” canon of construction dates back many years. See Rector of Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457, 460 (1892) (“If a literal construction of the words of a statute be absurd, the act must be so construed as to avoid the absurdity.”); Scalia & Garner, supra, at 234-239 (“A provision may be either disregarded or judicially corrected as an error * * * if failing to do so would result in a disposition that no reasonable person could approve.”); 2A Sutherland Statutes and Statutory Construction, sec. 46:1 (7th ed.).

The “anti-absurdity” canon, while of ancient pedigree, is invoked by courts nowadays quite rarely. In order for a party to show that a “plain meaning” construction of a statute would render it “absurd,” the party must show that the result would be “so gross as to shock the general moral or common sense.” Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55, 60 (1930); see Tele-Commc’ns, Inc. & Subs. v. Commissioner, 95 T.C. 495, 507 (1990) (citing Harrelson as supplying the relevant standard but upholding the plain language construction of the statute), aff’d, 12 F.3d 1005 (10th Cir. 1993).

Of course the application of the “substantial understatement” penalty to taxpayers who owe small amounts is absurd. But is it more so than many other IRS procedures? Eventually a Tax Court judge may decide that question, if Chief Counsel stops conceding before trial.

Otherwise, it’s unlikely that Congress will revisit the Section 6662 penalty procedures and make sense of a rule where now there is none.

 

Making the Wrong Argument: How to Avoid Raising Issues That Don’t Actually Matter. Designated Orders December 3 – December 7, 2018

This week’s designated order post is brought to us by Professor Caleb Smith at the University of Minnesota. Keith

Raising the Wrong Issue in Summary Judgment: Fowler v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 28935-14L (here)

We have seen no shortage of summary judgment motions in the designated orders section. Some fail because of defects the IRS brought upon itself (for example, here), some fail because the law is particularly complicated and the record needs to be further developed (for example, here). Many succeed. This is particularly when the taxpayer is unrepresented or when the taxpayer does not appear to have fully participated in a collection due process hearing.

Fowler is a slight variation on this theme: it involves unrepresented taxpayers that clearly could have afforded counsel, but decided to go their own way. And in so doing they provide a lesson on how not to respond to a summary judgment motion while simultaneously illustrating the adage “penny wise, pound foolish.”

read more...

It isn’t clear exactly where the Fowlers income comes from, but it is safe to bet that they live comfortably. Apart from the fact that they own a vacation home in Los Angeles, one may surmise their wealth from the size of their tax liabilities. For the tax years at issue is in this case there are self-reported liabilities of $274,005 (for 2008), $214,846 (2009), $273,220 (2010), $205,839 (2011), and $289,787 (2012). The Fowlers apparently have enough cash on-hand to make fairly large lump-sum payments, when they feel so inclined (as they did by paying $120,000 on September 24, 2010 and $70,000 on March 22, 2012). Lastly, in 2012, the IRS calculated that the Fowlers were making $83,000… per month.

All of this is to say that the Fowlers (1) can afford to pay a lawyer, and (2) can afford to pay their taxes. Or at least could have afforded to pay their taxes if they hadn’t let them balloon with penalties and interest.

Of course, things change and by the time of the CDP hearing in 2014 the Fowlers had calculated that they could only pay $11,000 a month through an installment agreement. The IRS asked for a bit more information to confirm this payment amount (as is standard, when the liability is that large will not be paid within 72 months). And the Fowlers apparently never responded. Which is typically a recipe for summary judgment should resulting unfavorable CDP determination ever find its way to court review.

And so it was in this case, but with an important twist: the Fowlers did respond to the summary judgment motion, but made the wrong arguments. Mainly, they tried to allege new facts purporting to show abuse of discretion rather than denying (or otherwise addressing) the facts put forth by the IRS in the summary judgment motion.

The crux of the IRS’s motion for summary judgment is “Your collection alternative (installment agreement) could only be considered if you bumped up the monthly amount or provided more information. You did neither. You do not dispute that you did neither. Ergo, summary judgment is appropriate.” The crux of the Fowlers’ argument is “you should have given us more time to submit those documents: the roughly three months you provided was not enough.” The crux of Judge Ashford’s decision is “it sounds like you both agree on the material facts, and those facts lead to a decision that may be rendered as a matter of law.”

The important aspect of Judge Ashford’s decision (and the flaw in the Fowlers argument) is that for summary judgment all that matters are the material facts. Here, the material facts are primarily whether the Fowlers ever provided information after being asked for it. Because the “factual disputes” the Fowlers put forth would not “affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law” (see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc,, 477 U.S. 242 (1986) (here) they are essentially irrelevant for the purposes of the summary judgment motion.

Quoting Casanova Co. v. C.I.R., 87 T.C. 214 (1986) (here), Judge Ashford notes that the determination of what facts “are material, of course, depends upon the context in which they are raised and the legal issues which exist between the parties.” One may be inclined to think that the amount of time the IRS allows you to provide documents could be a material fact with regards to an abuse of discretion determination. But not in this case, where the IRS has apparently allowed several months and generous extensions already. In the words of Judge Ashford, and quoting numerous cases on point, “This Court has consistently held that Appeals is not required to negotiate indefinitely or wait any specific amount of time before issuing a notice of determination.” I won’t run through the list of cases Judge Ashford cites to prove this point, but they take up essentially a full paragraph running from the bottom of page 14 through the top of page 15 in the order.

While the Fowlers may have benefitted from counsel at an early stage in this controversy, the order also provides a second interesting lesson on the arguments one can make in a CDP case. This time, however, the lesson applies against the IRS. Early in the order (and brushed aside with a footnote), the IRS appears to allege that the Fowlers filed their 2008 taxes late -which would carry huge penalty implications given the $273,005 liability at issue for that year. Indeed, Judge Ashford states that “On December 18, 2009, petitioners filed (on extension) their joint Federal income tax return for 2008[.]” If that is the case, then it is nearly impossible that the Fowlers return was not late, regardless of extension. Unless they were abroad or in a Presidentially declared disaster zone and received an extension, a filing date of December 18 would almost necessarily be late, and reflect the date the return was received by the IRS. See IRC 6072 and IRC 6081.

The late filing would, in turn, make for an assessable penalty of 5% the tax required to be shown on the return, per month delinquent. See IRC 6651(a)(1). Again, a large chunk of change in this instance. I tell my students that with big dollar taxpayers being a day late leaves you far more than a dollar short (Ok, I don’t phrase it exactly that way). See Laidlaw v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2017-167 for a good example of how costly late filing errors can be. But either the IRS is mistaken about the return actually being late (as the Fowlers argue) or someone/some computer gifted the taxpayers a large amount of penalty relief by failing to assess what is generally a pretty automatic penalty. In any event, because it is of no moment to the motion for summary judgment, it is swept aside by Judge Ashford.

Raising the Wrong Issue On Your Petition: Owens v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 12420-18 (here)

Owens involves an aggrieved taxpayer that filed a petition for redetermination of his deficiency, but on grounds that appear to put him in the company of tax protestors. The disagreement with the IRS (at least as presented on the petition) appears to focus on a supposed failure to send the notice of deficiency by certified mail, and general gripes against the IRS for being unresponsive. These arguments do not, however, appear to allege any actual errors with the IRS determination itself. The result is a rather concise dismissal of the petitioners tax court case for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

So a (like) tax protestor loses at an early stage for failure to state a claim. Why does that matter? It matters for reasons the intrepid Carl Smith has blogged about before and alerted to me again in writing this post.

The first issue is what standard the Court should apply in determining the sufficiency of the pleading -in a sense, how much do you have to initially put forth for your petition to state a claim on which relief could be granted? Historically, district court’s applied the fairly low-bar “notice pleading” standard put forth by the Supreme Court in Conley v. Gibson. Since my office is directly next to a professor of federal civil procedure, I regularly hear the phrase “Twiqbal” in discussions about the sufficiency of pleadings in federal district court. “Twiqbal” is a mash-up of the two Supreme Court cases that have replaced Conley (Twombley and Iqbal) and incorporated a new, more demanding standard for pleadings to survive. Namely, the Court looks to “whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief[.]” [Emphasis added.]

The question (addressed by Carl in depth here) is what standard the Tax Court uses to determine the sufficiency of the pleadings. Is it still Conley (which is the case cited to by Judge Guy in this order)? One may reasonably believe that to be the case: I found only one Tax Court case that even mentions Iqbal, and even then it is only quoting the language of petitioner’s (failed) argument. See Cross v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2012-344. Nonetheless, clarification on the applicable standard appears to be lacking.

But there is also a second issue lurking in the dismissal, this time concerning the IRC 6662 penalty asserted in the notice of deficiency. Does the IRS “win” on the penalty with the dismissal of the case? What about their burden of production under IRC 7491(c)? What about Graev III and IRC 6751(b)?

The Tax Court rules instruct petitioners to assign error even to issues “in respect of which the burden of proof is on the Commissioner.” T.C. Rule 34(b)(4). Accordingly, the petitioner should put the penalty at issue in the petition, even if they don’t need to allege any facts relating to it (See T.C. Rule 34(b)(5)). Further, two tax court cases cited by Judge Guy (Funk v. C.I.R. and Swain v. C.I.R.) have already held that the burden of production for penalties does not apply to the IRS when the petition (and/or amended petition) does not “raise any justiciable claims.” In short, if your petition walks and talks like a tax protestor (while failing to specifically assign error to the penalty), the IRS has no burden to produce evidence that the penalty applies before your case gets dismissed.

All of this is, in a sense, a fairly elementary but important lesson on what how the initial stages of litigation work. It may be best to conceptualize the Notice of Deficiency as the complaint: the taxpayer has to answer to avoid default, and in the answer they must take care to respond to everything that is actually at issue or risk conceding it. The petition is not the time to make legal arguments (which is where I see my students most often going astray), but simply to assign error (which is all that is needed for penalties subject to IRC 7491(c)) and allege facts that, if true, would support your claim. Trying to do too much (raising issues that aren’t really in the NOD, making legal arguments rather than alleging facts) will generally do you more harm than if you just succinctly said “the Commissioner erred on x, y and z because of facts a, b and c.”

A Designated Order… Or Not? Whistleblower 11099-13W v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 11099-13W (here)

There was only one other designated order this week… or was there? What began as a somewhat tantalizing look at the interplay of the APA to whistleblower cases has turned to dust:  the Tax Court vacated the order for reasons not particularly illuminated or illuminating (found here).