Designated Orders 7/16 – 7/20

Caleb Smith from the University of Minnesota brings us this week’s designated orders. The parade of orders involving Graev continues and Professor Smith explains the evidentiary issues present when the IRS seeks to enter the necessary approval form after reopening the Tax Court record. Professor Smith also provides advice, based on another order entered this week, on how to frame your CDP case. A non-procedural matter that might be of interest to some readers is ABA Resolution 102A passed this week, urging Congress to repeal the repeal of the alimony deduction. For those interested in this issue, the resolution contains much background on the deduction.  Keith

Submitting Evidence of Supervisory Approval Post-Graev III

Last week, William Schmidt covered three designated orders that dealt with motions to reopen the record to submit evidence of supervisory approval under IRC 6751. I keep waiting for this particular strain of post-Graev III clean-up to cease, but to no avail: the week of July 16 two more designated orders on issues of reopening the record were issued. Luckily, there are important lessons that can be gleaned from some of these orders on issues that have nothing to do with reopening the record (something that post-Graev III cases shouldn’t have to worry about). Rather, these cases are helpful on the evidentiary issues of getting supervisory approval forms into the record in the first place.

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Choosing the Right Hearsay “Exception” Fakiris v. C.I.R., dkt. # 18292-12 (here)

In Fakiris, the IRS was once again confronted with the issues of (1) reopening the record to get supervisory approval forms into it, and (2) objections to those forms on hearsay grounds. At the outset (for those paying attention to docket numbers), one may be forgiven for wondering how it is even possible that this case was not decided well before Graev III. The briefing in Fakiris was completed in August, 2014 with no apparent court action until June, 2017. Judge Gale walks us through the procedural milestones in a footnote: although a decision was entered for the IRS about a year ago in T.C. Memo. 2017-126, the IRS filed a motion to vacate or revise (surprisingly, since they appear to have won on all fronts). The decision that the IRS sought to vacate includes a footnote (FN 20) providing that because petitioner did not raise a 6751 issue, it is deemed conceded. At the time, there was some uncertainty about whether the taxpayer had to affirmatively raise the issue, or whether it was a part of the IRS’s burden of production under Higbee. See earlier post from Carl Smith.

In any event, and no matter how old the case may be, it is still before the Court and the record must still be reopened for the IRS to succeed on the IRC 6751 issue. After the usual explanation of why it is proper for the Court to exercise its discretion to reopen the record, we arrive at the evidentiary issue: isn’t a supervisory approval form hearsay? At least so objects petitioner.

Where petitioners object to IRS supervisory approval forms as “hearsay” it appears to be the standard operating procedure of IRS counsel to argue the “business records” exception (see FRE 803(b)). Generally, the IRS prevails on this theory, but this theory creates potentially needless pitfalls. Fakiris demonstrates those pitfalls, noting that under the business record exception the IRS has certain foundational requirements it must meet “either by certification, see 902(11), Fed. R. Evid. [here], or through the testimony of the custodian or another qualified witness, see Rule 803(6)(D), Fed. R. Evid.” Without that foundation, the business records exception cannot hold -and indeed, in Fakiris the IRS lacks this foundation and is left spending more time and resources to go back and build it as their proffered evidence is excluded from the record.

So how does one avoid the time-consuming, perilous path of the “business exception?” Judge Gale drops a rather large hint in footnote 9: “We note that Exhibits A and B [the actual penalty approval forms] might also constitute “verbal acts”, i.e., a category of statements excluded from hearsay because ‘the statement itself affects the legal rights of the parties or is a circumstance bearing on conduct affecting their rights.’” If it is a “verbal act” it is categorically not hearsay (and not an “exception” to the hearsay rule). I have made exactly this argument before, although I referred to verbal act as “independent legal significance.” I am surprised that the IRS does not uniformly advanced this argument. In the instances that the IRS used it, the IRS has prevailed (as covered in the designated orders of the previous week). Judge Gale also refers to the advisory committee’s note to bolster the argument that the supervisory approval form is not hearsay: “If the significance of an offered statement lies solely in the fact that it was made, no issue is raised as to the truth of anything asserted, and the statement is not hearsay.” Advisory Committee Note on FRE 801(c) [here]. To me, that is what appears to be happening here. The IRS is simply trying to prove that a statement was made (i.e. a supervisor said “I approve of this penalty.”) The penalty approval form is that statement. It is absurd to think that the form is being offered for any other purpose (e.g. as evidence that the taxpayer actually was negligent, etc.).

If you don’t believe me (or Judge Gale), perhaps Judge Holmes will change your mind? In a designated order covered last week in Baca v. C.I.R., the IRS prevails on a theory that the supervisory approval form is a verbal act, without relying on the business exception. In reaching that determination, Judge Holmes references not only the FRE advisory committee note on point, but also Gen. Tire of Miami Beach, Inc. v. NLRB, 332 F.2d 58 (5th Cir. 1964) providing that a statement is a nonhearsay verbal act if “inquiry is not the truth of the words said, merely whether they were said.”

If you just aren’t sold on the “verbal acts” argument, Judge Gale’s Footnote 9 has yet more to offer. As a second possible avenue for getting the penalty approval form into evidence, Judge Gale suggests the public records exception of FRE 803(8). This exception to hearsay requires proper certification, but apparently has been successfully used by the IRS in the past with Form 4340 (See U.S. v. Dickert, 635 F. App’x 844 (11th Cir. 2016)).

All of this is to say, I think the IRS has ample grounds for getting the supervisory approval form properly into evidence. For petitioners, though it is likely a losing argument, if there are actual evidentiary concerns you must be sure to properly raise those objections -even if in the stipulation of facts. A second designated order issued the same week as Fakiris (found here) does not even get to the question of whether the forms are hearsay after reopening the record -presumably because the objections were never raised (the docket does not show a response by petitioner to the IRS’s motion to reopen the record).

Setting Yourself Up for Favorable Judicial Review on CDP Cases: Jackson v. C.I.R., dkt. # 16854-17SL (here)

Taxpayers that are unable to reach an agreement with the IRS on collection alternatives at a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing generally have an uphill battle to get where they want to go. Yes, they can get Tax Court review of the IRS determination, but that review is under a fairly vague “abuse of discretion” standard. Still, there are things that petitioners can do to better situate themselves for that review.

At an ABA Tax Section meeting years ago, a practitioner recommended memorializing almost everything that is discussed in letters to IRS Appeals. Since the jurisdiction I practice in is subject to the Robinette “admin record rule,” it is especially important to get as much as possible into the record. Conversely, one may argue that the record is so undeveloped that it should be remanded because there is nothing for the Court to even review: see e.g. Wadleigh v. C.I.R., 134 T.C. 280 (2010). The order in Jackson provides another lesson: how to frame the issue before the Court.

In Jackson, the taxpayers owed roughly $45,000 for 2012 – 2015 taxes due to underwithholding. After receiving a Notice of Intent to Levy, the Jacksons timely requested a CDP hearing, checking the boxes for “Offer in Compromise,” “I Cannot Pay Balance,” and “Installment Agreement” on their submitted Form 12153. Over the course of the hearing, however, the only real issue that was discussed was an installment agreement -albeit, a “partial pay” installment agreement (PPIA). A PPIA is essentially an installment agreement with terms that will not fully pay the liability before the collection statute expiration date (CSED) occurs.

Obviously, the IRS is less inclined to accept a PPIA than a normal installment agreement, because a PPIA basically agrees to forgive a part of the liability by operation of the CSED. Sensibly, IRS Appeals required a Form 433-A from the Jacksons to determine if a PPIA made sense.

The Form 433-A submitted by the Jacksons appears to have pushed the envelope a bit. Most notably, the Jacksons claimed $740 for monthly phone and TV expenses (the ultra-deluxe HBO package?) and $629 per month in (voluntary) retirement contributions as necessary expenses. The settlement officer downwardly adjusted both of these figures (and possibly others) pursuant to the applicable IRM, and determined that the Jacksons could afford to pay much more than the $300/month they were offering. Going slightly above and beyond, the settlement officer proposed an “expanded” installment agreement (i.e. one that goes beyond the typical 72 months) of $1,100 per month. The Jackson’s rejected this, but appear to have proposed nothing in its stead. Accordingly, the settlement officer determined that the proposed levy should be sustained.

Judge Armen notes that with installment agreements (as with most collection alternatives under an abuse of discretion standard of review), “the Court does not substitute its judgment for that of the Appeals Office[.]” Sulphur Manor, Inc. v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2017-95. If the IRS “followed all statutory and administrative guidelines and provided a reasoned, balanced decision, the Court will not reweigh the equities.” Thompson v. C.I.R., 140 T.C. 173, 179 (2013).

The Thompson and Sulphur Manor, Inc. cases provide, in the negative, what a petitioner must argue for any chance on review. Starting with Sulphur Manor, Inc., the petitioner must strive to present the question as something other than a battle of who has the “better” idea. In other words, don’t frame it as a battle of bad judgment (IRS Appeals) vs. good judgment (petitioner). If it must be a question of judgment, then Thompson gives the next hint on how to frame the issue: not that the IRS exercised “bad” judgment, but that they didn’t provide any reasoning for their decision in the first place (i.e. that they did not “provide a reasoned, balanced decision”). A lack of reasoning is akin to an “arbitrary” decision, which is by definition an abuse of discretion.

Better than framing the determination as lacking any reasoning, however, is where the petitioner can point to “statutory and administrative guidelines” that the IRS did not follow. Of course, this is difficult in collection issues because there are generally fairly few statutory guidelines the IRS must follow in the first place. But administrative guidelines do exist in abundance, at least in the IRM. Of course, this cuts both ways: the IRM can also provide cover for the IRS when it is followed, but appears to get to an unjust outcome.

Returning to the facts of Jackson, the petitioner faced an extremely uphill (ultimately losing) battle. It is basically brought before the Court as a request for relief on the grounds that the taxpayer just doesn’t like what the IRS proposes. As Judge Armen more charitably characterizes the case, by failing to engage in further negotiations with Appeals on a proper amount of monthly installment payments, “petitioners framed the issue for decision by the Court as whether the settlement officer, in declining to accept their offer of a partial payment installment agreement in the monthly amount of $300, abused her discretion by acting without a reasonable basis in fact or law.” This is asking for a pretty heavy lift of the Court, since there is no statute that provides the IRS must accept partial pay agreements, and the facts show the IRM was followed by the IRS. Not surprisingly, the Court declines to find an abuse of discretion.

Odds and Ends: Remaining Designated Orders

End of an Era? Chapman v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 3007-18 (here)

The Chapmans appear to be Tax Court “hobbyists” -individuals that enjoy making arguments in court more than most tax attorneys, and generally with frivolous arguments. The tax years at issue (going back to 1999) have numerous docket numbers assigned to them both in Tax Court and the 11th Circuit, all with the same general take-away: you have no legitimate argument, you owe the tax. But could this most recent action be the secret, silver bullet? Could this newfound argument, that they are not “taxpayers” subject to the Federal income tax when the liability is due to a substitute for return, be their saving grace?

Nope. All that argument does is get them slapped with a $3,000 penalty under IRC 6673(a). One hopes this is the end of the saga.

The Vagaries of Partnership Procedure: Freedman v. C.I.R., dkt. # 23410-14 (here)

Freedman involves an IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction the portion of an individual’s case that concerns penalties the IRS argues were already dealt with in a prior partnership-level case. For a fun, late-summer read on the procedures under TEFRA for assessment and collection against a partner, after a partnership-level adjustment, this order is recommended.

 

Review of Stephanie Hunter McMahon’s “The Perfect Process is the Enemy of the Good: Tax’s Exceptional Regulatory Process”

We welcome guest blogger Sonya Watson who teaches at UNLV law school where she is an assistant professor in residence and the director of the Rosenblum Family Foundation Tax Clinic. In the last few weeks, with decisions in Altera and Good Fortune, we have seen major circuit courts of appeal opinions considering whether Treasury’s regulations withstand challenge. Professor Watson returns to provide us with another review of a tax procedure article that directly considers the relationship of Tax regulations and broader administrative law concepts. Keith

Earlier this year I reviewed Professor Kristin Hickman’s article, “Restoring the Lost Anti-Injunction Act,” in which she argued that that a narrow interpretation of the Anti-Injunction Act (“AIA”) is warranted to protect taxpayers’ presumptive right to pre-enforcement judicial review of agency rules and regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”).  While the AIA prevents pre-enforcement review of tax laws, the APA allows pre-enforcement review. Hickman argues that it is especially important that taxpayers are able to invoke the APA and hold the IRS to the APA’s standards because of Treasury’s and IRS’ belief than in many instances, the APA does not apply to them. Today I review Professor Stephanie McMahon’s “The Perfect Process is the Enemy of the Good: Tax’s Exceptional Regulatory Process” in which McMahon plays devil’s advocate. McMahon argues that tax is exceptional and as such, Treasury and IRS shouldn’t be bound to the letter of the APA. Rather, Treasury and IRS should follow the spirit of the APA. She argues that this is especially true considering that the APA is not without flaws and that other agencies may not properly adhere to the APA either.

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Because the procedures set out in the APA don’t always accomplish the APA’s goals, rather than focusing on whether agencies strictly adhere to the procedures set out in the APA, we should focus on whether the procedures that the agency does employ are in line with the goals underlying the procedures provided in the APA. The goals underlying the APA’s procedures include: the promotion of public deliberation; reasoned agency decision-making with few errors; and agency accountability to the public and Congress. McMahon argues strict adherence to the APA can thwart accomplishment of these goals. In particular, she takes issue with the APA’s notice and comment process.

The notice and comment process, along with the hard look doctrine, which requires agencies to “consider all comments and to explain why it was not persuaded by all but frivolous comments,” may cause agencies to delay or defer issuing guidance because doing so is too burdensome in terms of resources. Producing guidance costs money:

When not excepted from notice and comment procedures, agencies face significant costs associated with compliance. Although it is impossible to calculate all of the costs of rulemaking because data is unavailable or immeasurable, Professor David Franklin notes, “Congress, the President, and the courts have all taken steps that have made the notice-and-comment rulemaking process increasingly cumbersome and unwieldy. Even critics of tax exceptionalism note that the “procedures are quite burdensome.” Many federal agencies have responded by foregoing notice and comment and issuing interpretative tools, policy statements, and informal guidance. “[B]usy staffs, tight budgets, and a variety of competing priorities” may affect how agencies weight the choice of rulemaking tools.

Further, there is always the risk that that courts may invalidate a rule to which Treasury and IRS have devoted its scare resources.

Aside from being a drain on resources, the notice and comment process creates the potential for agency capture. Agency capture occurs when an interested party influences an agency by dominating it “in ways that are detrimental to the public purpose for which it was created.” There are several ways to capture an agency, one of which is with information. In the context of the IRS, the notice and comment process may lead to information capture if an interested taxpayer inundates the IRS with large amounts of information—evidence and arguments pertaining to a rule—which then may have the effect of drowning out other voices or overcomplicating the issues, making it more difficult for less sophisticated taxpayers to participate. Because the APA’s notice and comment process does not provide a way to effectively filter information so that agencies aren’t overwhelmed by the information received, the process may not achieve its goal of increased public participation in rulemaking. Further, the notice and comment process may be unnecessary considering that “[i]nformal meetings, roundtables, speeches and leaks, advisory committees, and negotiated rulemaking are ways to really get information from the public.”

To the extent that Treasury can promote the goals underlying the APA without following the APA, McMahon believes it makes sense for Treasury to do so. To this end she states that Treasury is justified in availing itself of the good cause exemption to the APA. The good cause exemption allows agencies to issue binding guidance without notice and comment by explaining why notice and comment would be “impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest.” Regarding Treasury’s use of the good cause exemption, McMahon writes:

Good arguments can be made for the good cause exemption to apply widely in the tax context. Currently tax provisions are tied to the federal government’s budget and there are restrictions on both deficit spending and the national debt. As a part of the federal fiscal planning, tax provisions are almost always estimated to have immediate effect, and that estimation is necessary in order to accomplish other goals of federal budgeting. In other words, if tax provisions were given delayed effective dates to permit time for notice and comment, this delay would alter the cost calculation of the federal budget.

The foregoing is in addition to the consideration that taxpayers and tax practitioners need Treasury to create guidance quickly in order to be able to better ensure compliance with the ever evolving tax laws.

Courts’ deference to agency rules is another important consideration in the debate over whether Treasury should be required to adhere to the APA. The more likely it is that courts will defer to an agency, the more important it is to make sure that the agency follows proper procedure in creating a rule. Final, legislative regulations enjoy significant deference but interpretative, proposed and, temporary regulations, as well as other types of guidance (revenue rulings, etc.) may enjoy less deference. This is because although agencies theoretically have broad discretion under Chevron, courts often apply tax-specific standards when deciding the extent to which they should defer to tax guidance, making deference harder to secure in the tax arena. Therefore, the idea that courts’ deference to agency rules make it vitally important that agencies follow proper procedure should be tempered with the knowledge that courts often don’t defer to agencies and that this is especially true in the case of Treasury and IRS.

Finally, adherence to the APA might inhibit the use of heuristics. The notice and comment process is meant to provide a means for an agency to receive information it should consider when creating guidance. However, it is unlikely that an agency will receive information regarding all the considerations it should make in creating guidance. So rather than relying on the notice and comment process to receive the information it needs to create good guidance, Treasury should create and rely on heuristics whenever possible. Heuristics are rules of thumb that aid decision making. Using heuristics in the administration of the Internal Revenue Code would allow non-experts to participate by giving them rules that are easier to apply. It also allows Treasury to keep up with changes in the law—because the Code continuously evolves, it is impossible to create guidance that will cover all possible scenarios. Heuristics don’t provide the specificity that regulations do, so using heuristics helps ensure compliance by those who might otherwise plan around the rules. Anyway, taxpayers and practitioners already use heuristics to understand and apply the code:

Developed through common law and now incorporated into practice by the IRS, tax lawyers know that gross income is interpreted broadly while deductions are construed narrowly as a matter of legislative grace, income is to be taxed to earners, substance prevails over form, and (although possibly threatened by codification) transactions need economic substance. These ideas, among others, guide the practice of law and the choices taxpayers make when they report the tax consequences of their activities. Without such guideposts, every new tax provision must be fully and singularly explicated, and any ambiguity litigated from scratch.

McMahon does acknowledge, however, that more detailed guidance may be necessary when heuristics are insufficient.

 

 

Some Tax Court Geography

We welcome back as a guest poster frequent commenter Bob Kamman.  Those of you who are regular readers of the blog know that Bob has a sharp eye and an inquisitive mind. He saw in a designated order post the statement by the National Taxpayer Advocate that her office is looking to add a tax clinic to Hawaii. Drawn to the beautiful islands, Bob began to do his research about the tax issues he might face should he seek to establish a low income taxpayer clinic (LITC) in that state. I think he is sharing the information in case there are other readers who might also be interested. As you can see from our prior post, Hawaii is not the only state looking for an LITC. Keith

The seas are infested with sharks. The land is scorched by flowing lava. It is no place for a young person. But volunteers are needed. So in the twilight of my tax years, I could accept the risks. The National Taxpayer Advocate has asked for help with establishing a low-income taxpayer clinic in Hawaii, and I am ready. I understand grant money is available.

First, of course, I checked out whether there is really a need for tax help in the middle of the South Pacific. Does federal enforcement of tax laws really extend that far?

One measure of need (and there are probably better ones) is the number of Tax Court petitions filed from a place. The Tax Court website provides an easy, although somewhat inaccurate count. A “Docket Inquiry” yields the number of petitioners from each state. Of course, in many cases there are two names for each petition because of joint returns, or multiple petitions for the same issue, if partnerships and their members are counted.

Yet you can imagine yourself at the Tax Court door, watching about 100 people file their petitions each business day (mostly, by mail or delivery service), and asking, “Where do they all come from?”
And it is of some interest, at least to me, if there are geographical differences in the origins of these tax disputes.

So here are the results of my research. I started with the 2017 rank by population of each state, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. And then I found how many petitioners came from each location, so far this year.

This method works for most states, but not the ten largest by petitioner count, because the Tax Court docket inquiry function lists only the first 500. So those were ranked according to earliest date of the first 500 petitions.

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What stands out from this table is that nothing much stands out. With few exceptions, the results are about what you would expect.

Some states rank five or six places lower in petitioner count than in population rank. It is not unreasonable to assume that compliance levels are higher in them: Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Maine. Or, you could assume that a higher percentage of rural residents discourages trips to Tax Court trial sites.

Delaware ranks five places higher, and Maryland eight places higher, in petitioners compared to population. Delaware is home to many corporations, but most file from some other state. The IRS Baltimore District used to administer Washington, D.C., also. Maybe the IRS staffing in Maryland is still weighted more heavily than needed.

And then there are the four contiguous Western states where petitioner rank significantly exceeds population rank: Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. What do they have in common? A low percentage of rural residents. Someone with more access to data than I have, should research what percentage of Tax Court cases are filed by taxpayers who live within a two-hour drive of the courthouse.

Of course, for most of Hawaii trial attendance requires a flight to Oahu. But there are still more petitioners in Hawaii, than in twelve other states; Washington, D.C.; and our Atlantic islands of Puerto Rico. Help is definitely needed. I am just waiting for a call.

Designated Orders: 7/9/18 to 7/13/18

William Schmidt from the Kansas Legal Aid Society brings us this weeks designated orders. Three orders in cases involving the Graev issue keep that issue, no doubt the most important procedural issue in 2018, front and center. As with last week, there is an order in the whistleblower area with a lot of meat for those following cases interpreting that statute. Keith

For the week of July 9 through July 13, there were 9 designated orders from the Tax Court. Three rulings on IRS motions for summary judgment include 2 denials because there is a dispute as to a material fact (1st order based on employment taxes here) (2nd order involves petitioners denying both having a tax liability and receiving notice of deficiency for 2012 here) and a granted motion because petitioner was not responsive (order here). What follows are three orders where Judge Holmes takes on Chai ghouls, an exploration of a whistleblower case, and two quick summaries of cases. Overall, the Chai ghoul cases and whistleblower case made for a good week to read judicial analysis.

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Chai Ghouls

All three of these are orders from Judge Holmes that deal with Chai and Graev issues. The first two discussed were later in the week and had more analysis. As you are likely aware, the Chai and Graev judicial history in the Tax Court has led to several current cases that need analysis regarding whether there was supervisory approval regarding accuracy-related penalties, as required by Internal Revenue Code section 6751. In each of these cases, the IRS has filed a motion to reopen the case to admit evidence regarding their compliance with 6751(b)(1).

  • Docket Nos. 11459-15, Hector Baca & Magdalena Baca, v. C.I.R. (Order here).

The Commissioner filed the motion to reopen the record to admit the form. The Bacas couldn’t tell the Commissioner whether or not they objected to the motion. When given a chance to respond, they did not object. The Bacas did not raise Code section 6751 at any stage of the case (petition, amended petition, trial, or brief). The Commissioner conceded 6662(c) (negligence or disregard) penalties because the only penalty-approval form found is the one for 6662(d) (substantial understatement) penalties.

The Court’s analysis sets out the standard for reopening the record. The evidence to be added cannot be merely cumulative or impeaching, must be material to the issues involved, and would probably change the outcome of the case. Additionally, the Court should consider the importance and probative value of the evidence, the reason for the moving party’s failure to introduce the evidence earlier, and the possibility of the prejudice to the non-moving party.

The Court then analyzes those elements set out above. For example, the Court finds the penalty-approval form to be properly authenticated nonhearsay and thus admissible. Ultimately, the Commissioner had less reason to anticipate the importance of section 6751 because it was following Chai and Graev that it was clarified the Commissioner had the burden of production to show compliance with 6751 when wanting to prove a penalty.

In this case, the Court states because the Bacas did not object to the accuracy-related penalties, that is some excuse for the Commissioner’s lack of diligence. Additionally, the Court concludes that it can’t decide the Bacas would be prejudiced because they never said they would be.

Takeaway – Respond when the court requests your opinion or you may suffer consequences that could have been avoided if you had raised your hand and notified the court of your concerns.

  • Docket Nos. 19150-10, 6541-12, Scott A. Householder & Debra A. Householder, et al., v. C.I.R. (Order here).

This set of consolidated cases differ from the Bacas’ case because of an objection submitted by the petitioners. Arguments by the petitioners begin that the record should not be reopened because the Commissioner’s failure to introduce evidence of compliance with 6751(b)(1) shows a lack of diligence, and the Commissioner doesn’t offer a good reason for failing to introduce the form despite possessing it when trying the cases. They argue they would be prejudiced by reopening the record because they have not had a chance to cross-examine the examining IRS Revenue Agent on their case. They argue the form is unauthenticated and that both the declaration and the form are inadmissible hearsay.

Again, the form is found to be admissible nonhearsay. Regarding the authentication argument, the IRS recordkeeping meets the government’s prima facie showing of authenticity. The Court brings up that the Revenue Agent in question was a witness at trial that the petitioners did cross-examine, it’s just that they did not have section 6751 in mind at the time. In fact, the Court reviews a set of questions the petitioners listed and finds that those answers likely would not have helped them so comes to the conclusion that they would not be prejudiced by admitting the form.

Overall, both parties should have been more diligent to bring up section 6751. Since they did not, the lack of diligence on the Commissioner’s part is counterbalanced by the probative value of the evidence and the lack of prejudice to the petitioners if the record were reopened to admit the form.

Takeaway – The IRS is not the only party on notice of the Chai and Graev issue. Petitioners bear responsibility to raise the issue of supervisory approval just as the IRS has a responsibility to show proper authorization of the penalty. The court seems to be shifting a bit from prior determinations.

  • Docket Nos. 17753-16, 17754-16, 17755-16, Plentywood Drug, Inc., et al., v. C.I.R. (Order here).

These consolidated cases also deal with the 6751 accuracy-related penalties and the IRS motion to reopen the record to admit penalty-approval forms. While the petitioners originally disputed the penalties, they conceded penalties on some issues but did not want to concede penalties on others. As a result, they did not object to the Commissioner’s motion. The Court did not grant the motion regarding penalties determined against the corporate petitioner as it would not change the outcome of the case. In Dynamo Holdings v. Commissioner, 150 T.C. No. 10 (May 7, 2018), the Court held that section 7491(c)’s burden of production on penalties does not apply to corporate petitioners, so that, in a corporate case, where the taxpayer never asked for proof of managerial approval and so did not get into the record either a form or an admission that no form was signed, the taxpayer had the burden of production on this section 6751(b) issue and had failed. For the penalties determined against the individual petitioners, the Court granted the motion since they did not raise any objections.

In all three cases, the Court orders to grant the IRS motion to reopen the record to admit the penalty-approval form attached to the motion (with the exception of the denial of the application to Plentywood Drug, Inc.).

Comments: I must admit when Judge Holmes mentions Chai ghouls in his orders it makes me think of Ghostbusters (Chai ghoul bustin’ makes him feel good?). In looking over these three cases, it seems to me they have the same result no matter what the petitioners did. It is understandable when the petitioners never objected to the penalties or the approval form. However, the Householders objected and still got the same result. Perhaps I am more sympathetic to the petitioners, but the reasoning also does not follow for me that petitioners would not be prejudiced by admitting a form that allows them to have additional penalties added on to their tax liabilities. 

Whistleblowers and Discovery

Docket No. 972-17W, Whistleblower 972-17W v. C.I.R. (Order here).

By order dated April 27, 2018, the Court directed respondent to file the administrative record as compiled by the Whistleblower Office. Petitioner filed a motion for leave to conduct discovery, the IRS followed with an opposing response and the petitioner filed a reply to respondent’s response. On June 25, the Court conducted a hearing on petitioner’s motion in Washington, D.C., where both parties appeared and were heard.

Internal Revenue Code section 7623 provides for whistleblower awards (awards to individuals who provide information to the IRS regarding third parties failing to comply with internal revenue laws). Section 7623(b) allows for awards that are at least 15 percent but not more than 30 percent of the proceeds collected as a result of whistleblower action (including any related actions) or from any settlement in response to that action. The whistleblower’s entitlement depends on whether there was a collection of proceeds and whether that collection was attributable (at least in part) to information provided by the whistleblower to the IRS.

On June 27, 2008, the petitioner executed a Form 211, Application for Award for Original Information, and submitted that to the IRS Whistleblower Office with a letter that identified seven individuals who were involved in federal tax evasion schemes. The first time the petitioner met with IRS Special Agents was in 2008 and several meetings followed. The IRS focused on and investigated three of the individuals listed on petitioner’s Form 211 following those initial meetings.

The first taxpayer (and I use that term loosely for these three individuals) was the president of a specific corporation. In 2013, that individual was convicted of tax-related crimes including failing to file personal and corporate tax returns due in 2006, 2007, and 2008. This person received millions of dollars in unreported dividends (from a second corporation, also controlled by this individual). This individual was ordered to pay restitution of $37.8 million.

The second individual was the chief financial officer of the corporation. This person received approximately $13,000 per month from the corporation in tax year 2006 but failed to report that as taxable income, and did not file a tax return in 2007. After amending the 2006 tax return and filing the 2007 tax return, the criminal investigation ended. The Revenue Officer assessed trust fund recovery penalties for the final quarter of tax year 2006 and all four quarters of tax year 2007. This taxpayer filed amended tax returns for 2005 and 2006 in March 2009 and filed delinquent returns for 2007 and 2008 in July 2010. The IRS filed liens to collect trust fund recovery penalties of approximately $657,000 and income tax liabilities of $75,000 for tax years 2005 and 2006.

The third individual was an associate of the first two but had an indirect connection with the corporation. This taxpayer had delinquent returns for 2003-2011 and there was a limited scope audit for tax years 2009 and 2010. The IRS filed tax liens for unpaid income taxes totaling approximately $2.4 million for tax years 2003 to 2011.

For each of the individuals, the IRS executed a Form 11369, Confidential Evaluation Report, on petitioner’s involvement in the investigations. For taxpayer 1, the IRS Special Agent stated that all information was developed by the IRS independent of any information provided by petitioner. For taxpayer 2, the form includes statements the Revenue Officer discovered the unreported income and petitioner’s information was not useful in an exam of the 2009 and 2010 tax returns. For taxpayer 3, the form states the taxpayer was never the subject of a criminal investigation (which is inconsistent with the record) and that petitioner’s information was not helpful to the IRS.

The petitioner seeks discovery in order to supplement the administrative record, contending the record is incomplete and precludes effective judicial review of the disallowance of the claim for a whistleblower award. Respondent asserts the administrative record is the only information taken into account for a whistleblower award so the scope of review is limited to the administrative record and petitioner has failed to establish an exception.

The Court notes the administrative record is expected to include all information provided by the whistleblower (whether the original submission or through subsequent contact with the IRS). The Court’s review of the record in question is that it contains little information, other than the original Form 211, identifying or describing the information petitioner provided to the IRS. While the record indicates that there were multiple meetings concerning the three taxpayers, there are few records of the dates and virtually no documents of the information provided. The Court agreed with the petitioner that the administrative record was materially incomplete and that the circumstances justified a limited departure from the strict application of the rule limiting review to the administrative record.

The Court states the petitioner met the minimal showing of relevant subject matter for discovery since the administrative record was materially incomplete and precluded judicial review. The information petitioner seeks is relevant to the petitioner’s assertion that the information provided led the IRS to civil examinations and criminal investigations for the three taxpayers and led to the assessment and collection of taxes that would justify an award under section 7623(b). The IRS did not deny petitioner’s factual allegations and did not argue the information sought would be irrelevant so failed to carry the burden that the information sought should not be produced.

The Court limited petitioner’s discovery to three interrogatories concerning conversations with a Revenue Officer and two Special Agents, two requests for production of documents concerning notes and records of meetings with those three individuals.

Petitioner sought nonconsensual depositions if the IRS did not comply with the interrogatories and requests for production of documents. Since the Court directed the IRS to respond to the granted discovery requests, it is premature to consider the requests for nonconsensual depositions at this time. The footnote cites Rule 74(c)(1)(B), which calls that “an extraordinary method of discovery” only available where the witness can give testimony not obtained through other forms of discovery.

Respondent is ordered to respond to those specific interrogatories and requests for production of documents by August 17, 2018.

Comment: On the surface, this step forward looks to be a win for the petitioner as there seems to be a cause and effect that justifies a substantial whistleblower award. I discussed the case with an attorney with a whistleblower case in his background who commented that to get a whistleblower award the whistleblower had to be the first one to make the reporting and the information had to be outside public knowledge (though that was outside the tax world). From his experience, the government made it difficult to win a whistleblower award and I would say that looks to be the case here.

Miscellaneous Short Items

  • The Petitioner Wants to Dismiss? – Docket No. 11487-17, Gary R. Lohse, Petitioner, v. C.I.R. (Order here). Petitioner files a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, stating the notice of deficiency is not valid. The judge denies his motion because there is a presumption of regularity that attaches to actions by government officials and nothing submitted by the petitioner overcomes that presumption.
  • Petitioner Wants a Voluntary Audit – Docket No. 24808-16 L, Tom J. Kuechenmeister v. C.I.R. (Order here). Petitioner filed a motion for order of voluntary audit, also claiming that the IRS was negligent in allowing the third party reporter to issue the forms 1099-MISC for truck driving. As Tax Court is a court of limited jurisdiction, the Court cannot order the IRS to conduct a voluntary audit. While the petitioner was previously warned about possible penalties up to $25,000, this motion was filed prior to the warning so no penalty assessed for this motion. Petitioner’s motion is denied.

Takeaway: Each time here, the petitioner does not understand the purpose of the Tax Court. The petitioners may have come to a better result by treating Tax Court motions as surgical tools rather than as blunt weapons.

 

Remember to File a Refund Suit under the Shorter SOL when Congress Lets You Sue after Paying Only 15%

We welcome frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about the time frame for filing a refund suit with respect to a divisible, assessable penalty. Here, the taxpayer’s attorney seems to have relied on the general rule allowing a taxpayer to bring a refund suit within two years after payment. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, that rules does not apply in this context. Keith

In a recent unpublished opinion of the Ninth Circuit in Taylor v. United States, an individual who was assessed multiple section 6694 return preparer penalties tried to take advantage of the statutory rule allowing him to bring a refund suit by paying only 15% of each penalty. However, it appears that he did not pay close attention to the provision of section 6694(c)(2) that requires an expedited suit for refund in that event. He brought a district court refund suit on February 25, 2016, a year and three months after he made the 15% payments and filed a refund claim. That suit would have been timely had the 2-year period after formal notification of claim disallowance applied under section 6532(a). But, section 6532(a) does not apply to such a 15% payment suit, and he missed the shorter statute of limitations applicable to a suit where 15% is paid. As a result, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court for the Eastern District of Washington’s dismissal of his refund suit for lack of jurisdiction as untimely. It seems to me that he can now pay the remaining 85% and file a new refund claim and sue concerning the 85%. But, I doubt that he can ever get back the 15% paid because the IRS disallowed that claim on January 29, 2016, so it is now more than 2 years since the claim for the 15% was disallowed. Any new suit for the 15% or the 85% would, I think, have to be brought under the section 6532(a) filing deadline after full payment.

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In Flora v. Unites States, 362 U.S. 145 (1960), the Supreme Court held that a suit for refund under 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) involving an income tax deficiency could only be brought if the taxpayer first paid 100% of the deficiency. Treating full payment as a jurisdictional prerequisite, said the Court, was not clearly required by the words of the statute or its 1921 legislative history. However, subsequent developments – including the 1924 creation of the Board of Tax Appeals to allow prepayment review of deficiencies – influenced the Supreme Court’s thinking.

It was not clear after Flora whether that full payment requirement would apply to assessable penalties, such as the section 6672 responsible person penalty, since there was no possibility of Tax Court prepayment review of the few assessable penalties then in existence. However, a footnote in Flora indicated that, in the case of divisible taxes, payment of one of one divisible portion would be enough jurisdictionally to found a refund suit. Relying on that footnote in Flora, less than three months after Flora, in Steele v. United States, 280 F.2d 89 (8th Cir. 1960), the Eighth Circuit held that the full payment rule of Flora applied to the divisible penalties under section 6672 such that suit was jurisdictionally proper if the taxpayer had fully paid only one penalty for one employee for each quarter involved in the suit.

Section 6672(c)(1) currently provides that if a taxpayer, within 30 days of notice and demand, makes such a divisible payment, files a refund claim, and puts up a bond for the rest of the assessment, then the IRS is barred from collecting by levy or bringing a suit for payment of the balance assessed so long as a taxpayer’s refund suit under (c)(2) is pending. (The IRS may, however, counterclaim for the balance in the suit brought under (c)(2).) Under (c)(2), a taxpayer who has done what is required under (c)(1) may bring a refund suit, but only within an abbreviated period – i.e., up to 30 days after the refund claim is denied.

There are a few other assessable penalties that have special jurisdictional payment and filing features similar to that of section 6672(c). Those penalties are under section 6694 (return preparer penalty), 6700 (penalty for promoting abusive tax shelters), and 6701 (penalty for aiding and abetting understatements of tax). The assessable section 6702 frivolous submission penalty once had similar features for a part-payment refund suit, but those were removed. In each of the three cases, section 6694(c)(1) or 6703(c)(1) (applicable to the section 6700 and 6701 penalties) provides that paying 15% and filing a refund claim within 30 days of notice and demand can be enough to bar the IRS from collecting by levy or bringing a suit for payment of the balance assessed so long as a refund suit under (c)(2) is pending. (Note the lack of a bond requirement for the balance, unlike under section 6672(c).) Under (c)(2), a litigant who has done what is required under (c)(1) may bring a refund suit, but only within an abbreviated period that is potentially shorter than the period for section 6672 penalties – i.e., under sections 6694(c)(2) and 6703(c)(2), within the earlier of (1) 30 days after the refund claim is denied or (2) six months and 30 days after the refund claim is filed. Note that the six months and 30 day alternative period is a much more limited period than the indefinite period to bring suit in section 6532(a) in the absence of a claim disallowance.

I speculate that what happened in the Taylor case is that, since he was familiar with the rule of section 6532(a) that effectively allows an indefinite period to bring suit in the absence of a notification of claim disallowance, he did not realize that, under section 6694(c)(2), he could not wait beyond six months and 30 days to bring suit after he filed his refund claim – even though his claim had not yet been disallowed. My speculation is because he actually did bring suit within 30 days after the claim was disallowed. But, that was too late. And nothing in either the district court or appellate court opinion gives a reason for his late filing that might suggest an equitable reason for late filing.

So, what did Taylor argue to get out of the box he put himself into?

First, in his district court written response to the DOJ’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction he argued that the filing deadline in section 6694(c)(2) is not jurisdictional, but is simply a statute of limitations that does not go to the power of the court. I am not sure why he made this argument, since he did not show facts for equitable tolling of a nonjurisdictional statute of limitations. Even if the filing deadline is not jurisdictional, it is still a mandatory claims processing rule with which he did not comply. He argued that (c)(2) is not jurisdictional, but only “sets limits on the time frame in which the IRS is prohibited from pursuing collection action of the penalties at issue.” The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

Here is the full text of section 6694(c)(1) and (2):

(c)  Extension of period of collection where preparer pays 15 percent of penalty.

(1) In general. If, within 30 days after the day on which notice and demand of any penalty under subsection (a) or (b) is made against any person who is a tax return preparer, such person pays an amount which is not less than 15 percent of the amount of such penalty and files a claim for refund of the amount so paid, no levy or proceeding in court for the collection of the remainder of such penalty shall be made, begun, or prosecuted until the final resolution of a proceeding begun as provided in paragraph (2). Notwithstanding the provisions of section 7421(a), the beginning of such proceeding or levy during the time such prohibition is in force may be enjoined by a proceeding in the proper court. Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to prohibit any counterclaim for the remainder of such penalty in a proceeding begun as provided in paragraph (2).

(2)  Preparer must bring suit in district court to determine his liability for penalty. If, within 30 days after the day on which his claim for refund of any partial payment of any penalty under subsection (a) or (b) is denied (or, if earlier, within 30 days after the expiration of 6 months after the day on which he filed the claim for refund), the tax return preparer fails to begin a proceeding in the appropriate United States district court for the determination of his liability for such penalty, paragraph (1) shall cease to apply with respect to such penalty, effective on the day following the close of the applicable 30-day period referred to in this paragraph.

Apparently, the question whether the filing deadline under section 6694(c)(2) is jurisdictional has not been previously addressed in the Ninth Circuit. However, the Ninth Circuit in Taylor noted the virtually verbatim similarity of the language of section 6694(c) and that of section 6703(c). In Thomas v. United States, 755 F.2d 728 (9th Cir. 1985), the Ninth Circuit had held that the 30-day deadline in section 6703(c)(1) after a notice and demand to pay the 15% is a jurisdictional requirement of a refund suit in a case involving a section 6702 penalty that was at the time (but is no longer) subject to section 6703(c). In Korobkin v. United States, 988 F.2d 975 (9th Cir. 1993), the Ninth Circuit had held that the six months plus 30-day deadline in section 6703(c)(2) to file suit is a jurisdictional requirement of a refund suit involving a section 6700 penalty. Taylor followed these cases by analogy in holding that compliance with the filing deadline under section 6694(c)(2) is jurisdictional. So, the district court properly dismissed this untimely suit for lack of jurisdiction.

The second thing Taylor argued was that instead of having paid 15% of each penalty (as he originally directed the IRS to apply the payments) he should be deemed to have paid 100% of 15% of the penalties, so the district court had jurisdiction under section 1346(a)(1), and suit was timely under section 6532(a) with respect to the penalties that he had fully paid. This was an interesting argument, but it was first raised at oral argument on the DOJ’s motion to dismiss before the district court. The district court held that this argument was raised too late to be considered. The Ninth Circuit agreed that this argument was not timely raised.

Observations

Les and I recently blogged on Larson v. United States, 888 F.3d 578 (2d Cir. 2018), here and here. Larson involved a section 6707 penalty for failing to file a form with the IRS providing information concerning listed transactions as to which the rules of section 6703(c) do not apply. In Larson, the Second Circuit held that Flora requires full payment of such an assessable penalty as a jurisdictional prerequisite of a refund suit, even though there is no alternative Tax Court prepayment contest permitted for such penalty. Part of why Larson ruled the way it did was because the Second Circuit there noted that Congress, in sections 6694(c) and 6703(c), had created 15% exceptions to the full payment rule of Flora, but had not done so for other assessable penalties. Taylor also holds the 15% payment requirement to be jurisdictional, citing Flora.

The Ninth Circuit in Taylor failed to acknowledge that its ruling that the filing deadline in section 6703(c)(2) is jurisdictional is in conflict with that of at least one other Circuit court: In Dalton v. United States, 800 F.2d 1316 (4th Cir. 1986), the Fourth Circuit had held that the 30-day-after-claim-disallowance deadline in section 6703(c)(2) to file suit is a not a jurisdictional requirement of a refund suit involving a section 6702 penalty. Indeed, in Dalton, the court equitably tolled the filing deadline (tolling only being possible if the filing deadline is not jurisdictional). Taylor’s attorney cited Dalton in his opening Ninth Circuit brief.

I have repeatedly noted in PT that, under recent Supreme Court case law since Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443 (2004), filing deadlines are no longer considered jurisdictional, unless Congress has made a rare “clear statement” in the statute that it wants what is usually a nonjurisdictional claim processing rule (a filing deadline) to be treated as jurisdictional. Of course, the Circuit court opinions in Thomas, Korobkin, and Dalton were decided before Kontrick and its progeny, so do not analyze section 6703(c) under the proper current case law. I am disappointed, however, that the Ninth Circuit in Taylor (here in 2018) did not think to reconsider its holdings in Thomas and Korobkin in light of the more recent Supreme Court authority. Appellate judges know that authority quite well and should employ it, even where (as in Taylor’s case) both parties failed to cite it in their briefs. See Volpicelli v. United States, 777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015) (not merely relying on prior precedent, but analyzing the wrongful levy suit filing deadline at section 6532(c) under recent Supreme Court case law and holding the deadline not jurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling).

As PT readers know, Keith and I have recently argued (with little success so far) that Tax Court filing deadlines for stand-alone innocent spouse actions (at section 6015(e)(1)(A)) and Collection Due Process actions (at section 6330(d)(1)) should no longer be considered jurisdictional under recent Supreme Court case law. We have lost those cases mostly because those provisions use the words “the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction” in the same sentences that provide the filing deadlines. It appears that one could make a stronger case that the filing deadlines in sections 6694(c)(2) and 6703(c)(2) are not jurisdictional: First, the sentences in those provisions do not contain the word “jurisdiction”. Indeed, they do not speak at all to the district court’s jurisdiction or powers. Taylor is right that these provisions really only give deadlines to file and “set[] limits on the time frame in which the IRS is prohibited from pursuing collection action of the penalties.” That does not comport with the Supreme Court’s current view that “Congress must do something special, beyond setting an exception-free deadline, to tag a statute of limitations as jurisdictional . . . .” United States v. Wong, 135 S. Ct. 1625, 1632 (2015). Second, the Supreme Court “has often explained that Congress’s separation of a filing deadline from a jurisdictional grant indicates that the time bar is not jurisdictional.” Id. at 1633 (citations omitted). Here, the real jurisdictional basis for a 15% payment refund suit is still located at 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), far away from these Internal Revenue Code sections. So, I respectfully disagree with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Taylor that these filing deadlines are jurisdictional. [Sigh]

The Ninth Circuit Reverses the Tax Court Decision in Altera

We welcome back guest bloggers Professor Susan C. Morse and Stephen E. Shay. Professor Morse teaches at University of Texas Law School and Steve Shay teaches at Harvard. Both are great speakers and writers with a deep knowledge of international taxes honed when they worked together at the Boston law firm of Ropes and Gray. They provided insight on the Altera decision in which the Tax Court decided the case in a fully reviewed 15-0 opinion back in 2015 after the filing of their amicus brief, immediately prior to the oral argument and following the oral argument. The opinion provided perhaps the most important procedural development of 2015 and the reversal is big news as well. The post is a little longer than our normal post but the opinion it discusses is much longer and more important than most of the cases we cover. This is a big win for the IRS. Keith

On July 24, the Ninth Circuit upheld a key IRS transfer pricing regulation, worth billions of dollars in federal revenues, that requires sharing employee stock compensation costs as a condition for a “qualified cost sharing arrangement” or QCSA. In Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, a 2-1 panel reversed the Tax Court’s decision, which had invalidated the regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

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The conditions for a qualified cost sharing arrangement are described in U.S. tax regulations. If these are satisfied, the IRS will not make transfer pricing adjustments to the costs shared and will treat the cost sharing subsidiary as the co-owner, for tax purposes, of the intellectual property (IP) rights whose costs were shared. QCSAs benefit U.S. multinationals, since they allow MNCs to allocate to non-U.S. subsidiaries (usually in low-tax countries) income from their ownership of the IP.

The “sharing” of the cost of stock options granted to employees (such as engineers) who develop the intellectual property means that some related tax deductions are shifted to the non-U.S. subsidiary (to match with the shifted profit) rather than all of the deductions reducing the U.S. parent’s taxable income. These amounts are very large in the tech sector in particular and the industry has fought for years to avoid treatment of these expenses as costs to be shared in a QCSA. The failure to allocate the costs supports unjustified income shifting from the U.S. to countries where the foreign subsidiaries are located.

Altera, now part of Intel, claimed that its taxable income would be $80 million less if it were not required to share stock option costs. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the issue is worth at least $3.5 billion to Google alone. If the regulation were invalidated, the U.S. government would lose billions of dollars in tax revenue.

Treasury Regulation 1.482-7A was promulgated in 2003 under the authority of Internal Revenue Code Section 482, after notice and comment. Section 482 charges the Commissioner with reallocating income or deduction items “clearly to reflect” related taxpayers’ taxable income.

Altera argued that Section 482 required application of a narrow version of the “arm’s length” principle that only allowed the IRS to take account of costs if they were found in comparable cost sharing arrangements between unrelated parties. Because the stock option cost sharing regulation took the position that all relevant expenses had to be shared, and did not carve out stock option expenses not shared by unrelated parties, Altera contended – and the Tax Court agreed — that Treasury’s regulation was arbitrary and capricious and therefore invalid under the procedural strictures of the APA for failure to adequately explain its position in response to contrary comments. The Tax Court relied on the 1983 Supreme Court precedent State Farm and held that the reasoning supporting the stock option cost sharing regulation could not be discerned from materials such as the Preamble to the final regulations.

The thorough Ninth Circuit opinion starts with a history lesson on Section 482. The concept of “arm’s length” as primarily a comparable transactions method, which Altera focuses on, stems from 1968 regulations, which the court acknowledges featured a new “focus on comparability” (slip op. at 16). But the court explains that comparable transactions never had a monopoly on Section 482 adjustments. Cases in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s had rejected the view that Section 482 only turned on comparable transactions. As of 1981, more than ten years after the 1968 regulations, the GAO found that only 3% of IRS adjustments were based on “direct comparables.” (Slip op. at 17)

In 1986, a statutory amendment to Section 482 added a sentence, which requires income allocations “commensurate with the income attributable to the intangible.” In 1994 and 1995, regulations regarding direct and cost sharing intangible transfers were promulgated in response to the statutory change. The cost sharing regulations implemented the commensurate with income standard by conditioning shared ownership of intellectual property under QCSAs on shared allocation of all relevant costs incurred to produce the intangibles. As the Ninth Circuit explained in a footnote, “[c]ontemporary commentators understood that [in the cost sharing regulations], by attempting synthesis between the arm’s length and commensurate with income provisions, Treasury was moving away from a view of the arm’s length standard grounded in comparability.” (slip op. at 21 n. 4) The regulations involving direct transfers of intangibles also adopted some exclusively internal pricing rules using profit splits, which were understood as part of the arm’s length standard. These regulations have not been challenged by taxpayers for failure to rely on (unavailable) comparables. In 2003, Treasury promulgated the regulation at issue in Altera, which explicitly requires the sharing of stock option expense when a firm seeks the protection of a cost-sharing agreement under U.S. regulations.

The Ninth Circuit opinion adheres to general administrative law requirements, consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2011 Mayo decision. The court first evaluated Treasury’s compliance with § 706 of the APA under the State Farm’s “reasoned decisionmaking” understanding of the clause prohibiting “arbitrary” or “capricious” agency action. Then it considered whether the agency’s interpretation of the statute was permissible under Chevron.

Altera’s State Farm argument ran as follows. In the notice-and-comment process, tech industry and other commentators said that requiring related parties to share stock option costs couldn’t be arm’s length because unrelated parties did not share such costs. Commentators contended that nothing could replace comparable transactions, not even if exposure to a contract counterparty’s stock price would be unacceptable for unrelated parties but appropriate for related firms. Altera claimed that Treasury’s response to these comments was inadequate under § 706 of the APA.

Treasury responded, for example in the Preamble to the final regulation, by saying that the comments about comparable transactions were beside the point, because Section 482 does not require comparable transactions. In the regulation’s Preamble, Treasury justified the stock option cost-sharing regulation as consistent with “the legislative intent underlying section 482,” “the commensurate with income standard” and “the arm’s length standard.” Treasury’s view was that “arm’s length” meant a result consistent with what arm’s length parties would have bargained for, not a result that had to be predicated on comparable transactions.

Said the court: “[T]he thrust of Altera’s [State Farm] objection “was that Treasury misinterpreted § 482. But that is a separate question – one properly addressed in the Chevron analysis. That commentators disagreed with Treasury’s interpretation of the law does not make the rulemaking process defective.” (slip op. at 32) The court held that Treasury complied with the State Farm requirement because its regulatory intent could be discerned. It plainly “set forth its understanding that it should not examine comparable transactions when they do not in fact exist and should instead focus on a fair and reasonable allocation of costs and income,” (slip op. at 32). It treated the arm’s length standard as “aspirational, not descriptive.” (slip op. at 43)

The Ninth Circuit followed its State Farm analysis with an analysis of Chevron deference. Here, the question was not whether Treasury had clearly articulated its understanding of its authority under § 482, but rather whether it had stayed within the limits of that authority. As to Chevron step one, the court quickly found that Congress left gaps in transfer pricing law for the Treasury to fill with guidance. It is hard to see a different path. The statute includes broad delegation language, saying that “the Secretary may … allocate gross income, deductions [and other items of commonly controlled organizations] if he determines [it] necessary in order … clearly to reflect … income.”

The court’s Chevron step two analysis was also straightforward. When Congress added the commensurate with income standard to the statute in 1986, it communicated that “the goal of parity is not served by a constant search for comparable transactions” and that “the amendment was intended to hone the definition of the arm’s length standard.” (slip op. at 41) The commensurate with income statutory language directed Treasury to do precisely what it did, which was to promulgate internal standards to address the inadequacy of a narrow, comparable transactions approach to arm’s length. The court rejected the argument that Xilinx Inc. v Commissioner, a 2010 Ninth Circuit case, controlled its decision, in part because Xilinx involved the interpretation of pre-2003 regulations, which did not mention stock options.

Judge O’Malley, a Federal Circuit judge sitting by designation, dissented. On the Chevron issue, she wrote that Xilinx should control. Despite the 1986 addition of the “commensurate with income” standard to the statute and the express mention of stock option costs in the 2003 revisions to Treas. Reg. 1.482-7A, she wrote that the regulations had a “fundamental ‘purpose’” (slip op. at 51) consisting of the narrow, traditional arm’s length standard derived from comparable transactions. On the State Farm issue, she wrote that “Treasury may well have believed that, given the fundamental characteristics of stock-based compensation in QCSAs, it could dispense with arm’s length entirely…. But the APA required Treasury to say that it was taking this position….” (slip op. at 59).

Judge O’Malley also suggested a different interpretation of the text of Section 482, saying that the commensurate with income standard’s reference to a “transfer (or license) of intangible property” was not broad enough to include a qualified cost-sharing agreement. This interpretation, raised in an amicus brief submitted by Cisco Systems, cannot be right. Absent a cost-sharing agreement (or another kind of transfer or license other than a QCSA), intangibles would be owned by the affiliate whose workers created them. For Cisco, this would likely be Cisco Systems, Inc., the parent, publicly traded California-incorporated company that sits atop of the multinational Cisco firm and presumably employs Cisco’s engineers. But because of the cost-sharing agreement, some rights, for instance non-U.S. rights, to the intangibles are owned for tax purposes by a non-U.S. subsidiary, say Cisco Systems Netherlands Holdings B.V., which is apparently the holding company for Cisco’s European, Middle East and Africa business. The only explanation for Cisco Systems Netherlands Holdings B.V.’s tax ownership interest in intangibles created by Cisco Systems, Inc. is that, at least for tax purposes, Cisco’s cost-sharing agreement transferred or licensed intangibles from the U.S. parent to the (low-tax) non-U.S. subsidiary. Also, in practice, in addition to the transfer or license for tax purposes worked by the QCSA, cost sharing arrangements are accompanied by IP licenses to the cost sharing subsidiaries to protect their use of the IP.

A request for panel rehearing is not likely, since one of the panelists in the majority, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, unexpectedly passed away in March 2018. However, the taxpayer might request the Ninth Circuit to review the Altera decision en banc (which would not include Judge O’Malley, the dissenting judge, since she sits on the Federal Circuit). And appeal to the Supreme Court is possible as well.

Altera now involves a remarkable tangle of complex legal issues. It raises federal courts rules, international tax regulations, and intricate administrative case law. How strong is Altera’s hand in the event of appeal?

The federal courts issue is procedural: how should a judge’s vote be recorded when the judge dies before an opinion is issued? A footnote explains that “Judge Reinhardt fully participated in this case and formally concurred in the majority opinion before his death.” This is consistent with Ninth Circuit rules and the approach of some other circuits (though not all), giving perhaps little reason to think that the Ninth Circuit would reconsider the issue en banc. If the question is Supreme Court review, Altera might not be the best case for further consideration of this issue. There should be no actual concern that Judge Reinhardt would have changed his mind. Reinhardt voted for the government twice in Xilinx, as he was in the majority in the initial case and in dissent on rehearing. This means that he thought the government properly required the sharing of stock option costs even under the pre-2003 regulations that did not mention them.

The international tax and administrative law questions together raise the issues of compliance with Chevron deference and State Farm APA requirements. Here too, Altera does not hold a strong hand. Despite Judge O’Malley’s efforts, it is impossible to read the statute as limiting Treasury’s authority to the narrow, comparable transactions view of arm’s length analysis that the taxpayer advances. As the history of Section 482 shows, the statute clearly is not limited to traditional arm’s length analysis based on comparable transactions. This validates Treasury’s Preamble disagreement with commentators’ view that comparable transactions had to be used as a starting point.

In other words, the question is not close. Even if Chevron deference were cut back to Skidmore “power to persuade” deference, there would still be room under Section 482 for regulations that did not follow the narrow version of arm’s length based on comparable transactions. Plus, Altera covers an area that is a paradigm of technical tax expertise (unlike, for instance, the issue said to be outside Treasury’s wheelhouse in King v. Burwell). Even if the Supreme Court is inclined to consider limits to Chevron deference, Altera is not a good vehicle for that project.

 

 

 

Designated Orders 7/2/2018 – 7/6/2018

Samantha Galvin from University of Denver’s Sturm Law School brings us this week’s designated orders. The first two orders she discusses demonstrate the difficulty pro se taxpayers have in determining when to appeal an adverse decision while the third order is a detailed opinion regarding the factors necessary to obtain a whistleblower award. The whistleblower case reminds us that many dispositive orders have the same amount of analysis as many opinions but when issued as an order lack any precedent and generally fly under the radar of those looking for Tax Court opinions. Keith

The week of July 2nd started off light but ended with a decent amount of designated orders – three are discussed below. The six orders not discussed involved the Court granting: 1) a petitioner’s motion to compel the production of documents under seal (here); 2) respondent’s motion for summary judgment when a petitioner did not respond nor show up at trial (here); 3) respondent’s recharacterized Motion to File Reply to Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment (here); 4) respondent’s motion for summary judgment on a petitioner’s CDP case for periods that were already before the Tax Court and Court of Appeals (here); 5) respondent’s motion for summary judgment in CDP case where petitioners’ did not provide financial information (here); and 6) an order correcting the Judge’s name on a previously filed order to dismiss (here).

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Ring the Final (Tax Court) Bell on Bell

Docket No. 1973-10L, Doug Stauffer Bell and Nancy Clark Bell v. CIR (Order here)

This first order is for a case that William Schmidt blogged about (here). Bob Kamman also followed up on this case, in the comments to William’s post, with useful background information that sheds light on the petitioners’ circumstances. In the last designated order, the Court had ordered petitioners to show cause as to why the Court should not dismiss their case for failure to prosecute no later than June 28. Petitioners did not respond to the order to show cause, so the Court has dismissed the case.

If you recall the petitioners filed for bankruptcy three separate times while their Tax Court case was pending but ultimately failed to complete the bankruptcy process each time. Then they prematurely appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which dismissed their case for lack of jurisdiction after finding that the IRS appeals’ determination (issued after remand by the Court) was not “a final order nor an appealable interlocutory or collateral order.”

Now that the Court has dismissed their case it becomes appealable, however, the petitioners’ lack of meaningful participation in the process up to this point unfortunately does not bode well for an appeal.

The next order I discuss also involves a premature attempt to appeal a not-yet-final Tax Court decision.

Appeal after Computations

Docket No. 12871-17, Duncan Bass v. CIR (Order here)

This case is pending under rule 155 and it is somewhat understandable why petitioner thought the decision was final. Petitioner was served a bench opinion on June 8, 2018, and subsequently appealed to the Fifth Circuit, however, the bench opinion was an interlocutory order and the Court withheld entry of its decision for the purposes of permitting parties to submit computations, as rule 155(a) allows.

Interlocutory orders are generally not appealable, but there is an exception for “orders that include a statement that a controlling question of law is involved with respect to which there is a substantial ground for differences of opinion” and “an immediate appeal from that order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.” The order in this case does not contain such a statement. As a result, the Court orders the parties to continue to comply with rule 155 to resolve the computational issues so that the Court may enter a final, and thus appealable, decision.

A Disappointed “Whistleblower”

Docket No. 8179-17W, Robert J. Rufus v. CIR (Order here)

The petitioner in this case is an accountant who was hired to help prepare a statement of marital assets as part of a divorce proceeding, which gave him access to his client’s soon-to-be ex-husband’s (“the ex-husband’s”) tax information. This information led petitioner to believe that the ex-husband had underreported gifts and treated gifts as worthless debts. He provided information about these two violations in an initial and supplemented submission to the Whistleblower Office, which ultimately denied him an award.

In this designated order, respondent moves for summary judgment on petitioner’s challenge of the denial of the award. Respondent argues that it did not abuse its discretion in denying the award because, although the ex-husband was audited and tax was assessed, the IRS did not rely on the information petitioner provided.

Regarding petitioner’s initial submission, the IRS examined the ex-husband’s underreporting of gifts but found that there was not enough independent, verifiable data to support a gift tax assessment. The ex-husband had also filed amended returns which included worthless debts of $23 million and generated losses which he carried back and forward in amended 2003, 2004, and 2006 returns. Petitioner was aware of these amended returns and provided the IRS with information about the worthless debts in a supplemented submission, alleging that the debts were actually gifts to family and friends. According to respondent, the large refund amounts claimed on the returns are what triggered the audit, rather than petitioner’s information.

The information petitioner sent was never seen or used until after the case was closed because the assigned revenue agent believed, for unexplained reasons, that the information was based on grand jury testimony and was tainted. In the audit, the revenue agent concluded the ex-husband failed to substantiate the bad debts he claimed and assessed tax accordingly.

The Whistleblower office sent petitioner a letter denying his claim regarding the gift tax liabilities to which petitioner responded stating that his claim involved the gift tax liabilities and the treatment of gifts as worthless debts. The Whistleblower Office then sent a final determination reviewing each item, and with respect to the worthless debt the IRS stated that it had identified the issue prior to receiving information from petitioner.

Petitioner petitioned Tax Court on that final determination arguing that the exam was initiated due to his information and the information was directly, and indirectly, beneficial to the IRS and resulted in the assessment of tax, penalties, and interest but he offered no evidence to support these claims. He also argued that respondent was too focused on the timing of his supplemented submission in an attempt to deny the award.

A whistleblower is entitled to an award if the secretary proceeds with any administrative or judicial action based on information submitted by the whistleblower. Additionally, the award is only available if the whistleblower’s target’s gross income exceeds $200,000, and if the amount or proceeds in dispute exceed $2,000,000. The IRS must take action and collect proceeds in order to entitle the whistleblower to an award. If the IRS’s action causes the whistleblower’s target to file an amended return, then the amounts collected based on the amended return are considered collected proceeds.

Since the petitioner in this case did not provide additional evidence, the Court reviews the administrative record which reflects that petitioner’s first submission was related to the gift tax issue, on which no proceeds were collected. The administrative record also reflects that petitioner’s supplemented submission about the worthless debts was not used in the exam of the amended returns and the revenue agent received the information after the returns were already selected for exam. Based on its review of the administrative record, the Court grants respondent’s motion for summary judgment.

 

Designated Orders: 6/25 – 6/29/2018

Patrick Thomas from Notre Dame Law School brings us this week’s designated order posts. The first one he discusses serves as a reminder that litigation can be very tedious when the parties do not get along. Keith 

This week’s orders provided a sequel in the continuing saga of the Murphy Family’s tax disputes, another exposé on the lack of basic tax literacy, and a reminder to Appeals and Counsel on the importance of clarity in notices of determination. Judge Leyden also issued a routine order in a CDP case, in addition to two orders from Judge Jacobs. 

Docket Nos. 8039-16, 14536-16, 14541-16, Murfam Enterprises, LLC v. C.I.R. (Order Here) 

Our first order is one in a flurry of recent orders in this consolidated case, which is set for a special trial session on August 6, 2018 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before Judge Gustafson. Caleb Smith covered one of these orders last time, which disposes of a motion to compel responses to interrogatories, and to address a jurisdictional issue with the timing of the petition.

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This particular order resolves Respondent’s motion for an order to show cause under Rule 91(f); this asks the court to issue an order to Petitioner to show cause why Respondent’s proposed stipulations shouldn’t be admitted. Essentially, the parties had a dispute over the breadth and content of their stipulations of fact. As Judge Gustafson frames the issue, it seems rather silly.

On May 31, Respondent’s counsel proposed to Petitioner’s counsel a non-comprehensive stipulation about the parties, tax returns, notice of deficiency, and appraisals. Instead of working on that version of the stipulation, Petitioner’s counsel proposed his own stipulation that was comprehensive and would not agree to sign Respondent’s truncated stipulation.

Indeed, Rule 91(a)(1) requires a comprehensive stipulation—or at least, as comprehensive as possible:

The parties are required to stipulate, to the fullest extent to which complete or qualified agreement can or fairly should be reached, all matters not privileged which are relevant to the pending case, regardless of whether such matters involve fact or opinion or the application of law to fact. Included in matters required to be stipulated are all facts, all documents and papers or contents or aspects thereof, and all evidence which fairly should not be in dispute.

But Judge Gustafson notes that those stipulations need not be filed in a single document. While it’s common to file stipulations one after the other, there could be circumstances where a single comprehensive stipulation makes sense. Judge Gustafson identifies those scenarios as:

  • Simple cases
  • Cases where parties engage in “horse-trading” of stipulated facts.
  • Cases where unfairness would arise if parties attempted to stipulate helpful facts for themselves, while leaving unhelpful facts for a later date.

This being a complicated case, Judge Gustafson suggests a basic stipulation on truly non-contested issues (like parties, tax returns, notices, etc.). The parties could sort through the rest later.

Judge Gustafson also seems miffed at the “maddening” counter-drafts that were exchanged in crafting this (then unfiled) stipulation. To this practitioner, this seems like a failure of communication combined with latter gamesmanship. It’s clear, from the prior order Caleb covered, that counsel are simply not communicating effectively with each other. They hadn’t clarified which attorney would first draft the stipulation, so both did; then both parties wanted to use their own version.

Judge Gustafson grants the Order to Show Cause, requiring petitioner to file a response under Rule 91(f)(2) by July 2, 2018. Under the rule, the responding party must state whether a dispute (in whole or part) exists as to the moving party’s proposed stipulations, along with an explanation for any disputed item. Judge Gustafson warned that if the response was evasive or incomplete, then any of Respondent’s affected stipulations of fact would be deemed admitted. Alternatively, the parties could file a joint stipulation of facts by July 2—which Judge Gustafson clearly preferred. 

As these Designated Order posts are somewhat delayed, we helpfully know what happened—and while all’s well that ends well, it was not going well for Petitioner’s counsel for some time. Judge Gustafson issued this order on June 25; Petitioner filed a response on the evening of June 26, with a lengthy explanation about the timing of drafts and his objections on some of Respondent’s proposed stipulations.

Judge Gustafson responded the next day with a further order, excoriating Petitioner’s counsel for wasting precious time explaining the logistics of the stipulation process, rather than actually working toward a stipulation. He orders the parties to continue to work towards the basic stipulation, and notes that the Order to Show Cause remains active. Finally, he orders that Petitioner may file an additional response no later than July 2—but, to stave off a further tit-for-tat, no earlier than July 1!

Of course, should the parties file a joint stipulation, all would be forgiven. And indeed, that’s just what occurred on June 29.

Docket No. 714-16, Haynes v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This case presents a very straightforward legal issue. I highlight it because I’ve heard the following belief frequently from Clinic clients: if taxes are withheld from the client’s pension, 401(k) distribution, IRA distribution, gambling winnings, etc… they’ve done all they need to do vis-à-vis the government. The taxes are paid. End of story.

Except, it’s not. Our federal income tax system—because of its progressive rates, deductions and credits that depend upon future events, and “pay-as-you-go” requirements—rests on two fundamental premises: (1) we estimate our yearly tax obligation and pay tax through withholding or estimated tax payments as we receive income, and then (2) we calculate what we should have paid, after the year has occurred, based on our knowledge of the income we earned and other situations bearing on our ultimate federal income tax liability. As such, we file a tax return to report these facts and reconcile any discrepancy between our estimate and our actuality.

Thus, there’s no guarantee that the amount of taxes withheld will match the taxes that person owes for the tax year. In fact, it’s a near certainty that they will not.

Yet I’ve encountered numerous taxpayers who do not understand these fundamental premises. Many see the tax season as a means to obtain the tax benefits allowed under Code, but do not understand the underlying purpose of the income tax return. Others are new to the United States, coming from countries that have very different taxation schemes.

It seems the Petitioner here suffered the same misunderstanding. She received $11,923 from a qualified retirement plan in 2013, and was under age 59 ½ when the distribution occurred. The retirement plan administrator withheld about $2,384 from the payment, and issued a Form 1099-R reflecting this distribution, the withholding, and that no known exception to the 10% penalty under section 72(t) applied.

Petitioner went to a paid preparer, who timely filed Petitioner’s 2013 tax return. The return reported Petitioner’s wages, business loss, and unemployment compensation; the return didn’t report the retirement distribution as income. Additionally, the return didn’t report the 10% penalty under section 72(t); it did, however, contain a Form 5329, which noted that the early distribution was included in income and claimed an exception to the 72(t) penalty due to permanent and total disability. The preparer also included the withholding from the 1099-R on the return, which resulted in a $4,333 refund paid to Petitioner.

Because the 1099-R reported the income, Petitioner was subject to an Automated Underreporter. In addition to the additional tax and penalty from the 1099-R, it alleged she had also omitted interest and dividend income (which was not contested).

Petitioner responded to the AUR directly, stating that she was “forced to take money from … [her] 401k just to survive”, and noting that she reported the distribution on Form 5329. Later, she responded that “she had already been taxed on the $11,923 distribution because . . . $2,384 had been withheld….”

The AUR unit responded via letter as follows:

When you have federal withholding taken out of a distribution it does not mean the income does not have to be reported on line 15b/16b [in the section for “Income”] of Form 1040; federal withholding helps to cover any taxes on that distribution. In order to determine taxes due, the taxable portion listed on the Form 1099-R box 2a [i.e., the section for “Taxable amount”] needs to be reported on line 15b/16b.

I’m glad to see the Service attempting to educate taxpayers, but the response doesn’t quite get at the core problem. This letter presumes understanding of the yearly estimation and reconciliation underlying the federal income tax system. But, as noted above, many of my clients (and this Petitioner) do not understand. It may seem like second nature to the Service, but I’d suggest that this correspondence approach this problem at an even more basic level.

Eventually the Service issued a notice of deficiency, Petitioner timely filed a petition with the Tax Court, and Respondent answered the petition, alleging affirmatively that Petitioner was not disabled under 72(t)(a)(iii) and was under age 59 ½. The disability exception requires a taxpayer to be “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long-continued and indefinite duration.” IRC § 72(m)(7). Essentially, qualifying as disabled under the Social Security Act will be sufficient under section 72.

Petitioner spoke with Appeals and agreed she was not disabled (she had a full-time job shortly after the tax year in question), but wanted to review other exceptions to the penalty. In a subsequent call, she agreed no other exception applied, but she wanted to go to trial. Afterward, Respondent moved that its allegations in the answer be deemed admitted, because Petitioner didn’t file a reply; the court granted this motion.

This caused Respondent to file a motion for summary judgment—a relative rarity in deficiency cases—because all undisputed material facts meant that the tax should have been included in income and subject to the section 72(t) penalty. Petitioner responded, blaming her tax return preparer for the error, and asking to be “exonerated” from the tax debt.

Indeed, from a practical standpoint, that’s where I find the majority of fault in this matter. The return preparer should have been able to advise their client on this very straightforward issue. Had the return been filed correctly, Petitioner would have received a reduced refund—approximately $2,899 instead of the $4,333 she actually received. Instead, she owes this deficiency, plus interest.

Nevertheless, from a legal standpoint, Petitioner clearly owes the tax and 72(t) penalty. Because no material evidence remained undisputed, Judge Ashford grants summary judgment for Respondent.

Docket No. 22140-15L, Houk v. C.I.R. (Order Here) 

This order highlights something of a tautology: a Tax Court order needs to adequately explain what it’s ordering. Respondent had moved for entry of decision “sustaining the supplemental [N]otice [of Determination]” in this CDP levy case. But from the face of the supplemental notice, the decision documents, and the motion for entry of decision, Judge Gustafson can’t discern the final result in the case. As a bonus, he also goes out of his way to chastise Appeals for using boilerplate language in its notices of determination.

This case stemmed from an unpaid, self-assessed joint income tax debt for 2013. The Service sent a Notice of Intent to Levy and petitioners requested a CDP hearing. Appeals issued a first Notice of Determination, upholding the levy for failure to provide financial information. So far, so typical.

The Houks petitioned the Tax Court, but eventually conceded (after Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment) that they were not entitled to remand on the collections issue—or, apparently, to innocent spouse relief.

They did receive a remand to Appeals for their challenge to the underlying liability. While at first blush a bit counterintuitive, taxpayers may challenge self-assessed tax debts in a CDP hearing, so long as there’s been no prior opportunity to dispute the debt. Montgomery v. C.I.R., 122 T.C. 1, 8-9 (2004). Mr. Houk filed an amended return in the supplemental hearing, and Appeals issued a supplemental Notice of Determination stating the following:

[Appeals] made the determination to adjust your account to the amended return filed to correct the amount of taxes you now owe. The Appeals Officer submitted the Form 3870, Request for Adjustment for an abatement of prior tax assessment in the amount of $7,369.00.

Does this mean that the Houks originally reported $7,369 as tax owed on the original return, the Service agreed to abate everything? Does it instead mean $7,369 would be abated, and some liability would remain? The difference very much matters, as the supplemental notice does only just that—by its explicit words, it supplements the original Notice of Determination, which upheld the levy action. But the supplemental notice also states that if any balance due remains (making the second option more likely), Appeals would need to discuss a “collection resolution” with petitioners.

Neither the Notice of Determination nor the rest of the record clarifies this issue for Judge Gustafson. Likewise, the decision documents repeat the request in Respondent’s motion that the supplemental notice be “sustained in full” and that the proposed levy is likewise sustained.

Judge Gustafson is uncomfortable—justifiably in my view—with sustaining the supplemental notice in its present state. Citing section 7459(c), he notes that in deficiency cases “the Court’s decision ‘must specify[] the amount of the deficiency.’“ (Section 7459(c) is not as commanding as advertised, but in conjunction with section 7459(d), the Court has plausibly read the section as implying this requirement in deficiency cases. See Estate of Ming v. C.I.R., 62 T.C. 519 (1974).) So too in CDP cases challenging the underlying liability; the Court should “specify the amount of the adjusted liability.” He cites Judge Pugh’s order in Dykstra v. Commissioner as an example. To that end, he orders Respondent to supplement the motion and proposed decision documents to clearly specify the adjustments in this case. If collection activities will continue, he requires Respondent to attach “account transcripts or other appropriate records, showing the remaining liability . . . .”

Finally, Judge Gustafson—for reasons that don’t quite appear to connect to this case—bemoans the use of boilerplate in Appeals’ notices of determination. Specifically, he notes the fact that all notices of determination contain the following title:

NOTICE OF DETERMINATION CONCERNING COLLECTION ACTIONS UNDER SECTION 6320 and/or 6330.

This lets Appeals avoid altering language in determining whether a hearing is based on a proposed levy or a filed Notice of Federal Tax Lien. Similarly, the notices contain language regarding the verification requirements:

There was a balance due when the Notice of intent to Levy was issued or when the NFTL filing was requested.

He suggests that this sentence, in particular, causes a further lack of clarity as to whether the Appeals officer did verify there was a balance due. “One assumes that someone at Appeals actually did address [this] question . . . but one dislikes assuming.” Judge Gustafson concludes that “we cannot endorse the ‘and/or’ approach reflected in IRS Appeals’ notices.” Here’s hoping that someone at Chief Counsel pays attention to this order.

That “we” is also an interesting way to conclude this Order. Is this more than Judge Gustafson’s opinion? I presumed that orders were the opinion of one judge alone, rather than the full court. I’d be very interested to know if that presumption is in any way incorrect.

Finally, I’ll note that one of my very first (and very slightly) embarrassing moments as a young tax attorney involved the boilerplate Judge Gustafson criticizes. I’d filed my first petition from a CDP levy hearing for a client in Tax Court, and—wanting to be exacting in my pleading—I titled the petition as “Petition for Levy Action Under Code Section 6330(d)”. Sure enough, upon filing, the clerk struck out my title and replaced it with “Petition for Lien or Levy Action Under Code Section 6320(c) or 6330(d)”. I agree entirely with Judge Gustafson, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…