Designated Orders: Betrayals of Intuition – Omitted Petitioners and Error Correction under Rule 155 – 8/20 – 8/24/2018

We welcome Patrick Thomas who brings us this week’s designated orders.  The last week of orders that fell to Patrick ended up in a three part series plus an extra article written by William Schmidt.  He gets off a bit easier this time.  Keith 

A huge thanks to the judges of the United States Tax Court for issuing few substantive designated orders during the first week of classes. We only have three orders deserving discussion this week. Other designated orders included four orders from Judge Jacobs: a routine scheduling order, an order allowing petitioner’s counsel to withdraw, and two discovery orders in the same case.

Judge Halpern also dismissed the Krug v. Commissioner case on his own motion because the Petitioner failed to prosecute the case. Krug, which we covered previously, raised interesting substantive issues about withholding on prisoner income in the whistleblower context. Sadly, we won’t see a substantive conclusion to this case for the time being.

For the cases that follow, I must admit I rolled my eyes a bit at the results. Both betrayed my own intuition of how the cases ought to be resolved—though ultimately for somewhat good reasons. The first case strikes me as reaching for a technical result without consideration of the practicalities of pro se taxpayers, while I find the second correctly decided, even if clearly erroneous as to the ultimate tax result.

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Docket No. 6155-17, Heath v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Armen’s order in Heath highlights an issue that LITC practitioners see from time to time. Taxpayers file a joint return; the IRS then conducts an audit and issues a Notice of Deficiency to both taxpayers. For whatever reason, only one taxpayer signs and files a Tax Court petition. Trouble ensues.

Taxpayers who owe a debt relating to a jointly filed tax return are, under section 6013(d)(3), jointly and severally liable for that debt. Thus, the Service can levy both taxpayers’ assets to satisfy the liability. This applies not only to self-assessed debts reported on a return, but also to debts arising from a Notice of Deficiency. Under section 6213(a), the Service may neither assess nor collect such a deficiency-related debt until 90 days after issuing the Notice of Deficiency. If the taxpayer files a petition in Tax Court, this prohibition lasts until the case becomes final.

What happens if only one taxpayer subject to a joint Notice of Deficiency files in Tax Court? Assessment and collection against that taxpayer is barred under section 6213. But the Service may and will assess the tax (90 days after issuance of the Notice of Deficiency) against the other joint filer.

That other filer can get into the Tax Court case—and receive protection against assessment and collection—in certain circumstances. To do so, this “omitted” petitioner would need to either (1) file their own petition before the 90 days expires or (2) cause the already-filed petitioner to amend their petition under Rule 41.

An omitted petitioner may always successfully get into Tax Court before the 90 days expires, but after that, the omitted petitioner’s options are limited by that veritable refrain: “The Tax Court is a court of limited jurisdiction.” Under Rule 34, the Tax Court views jurisdiction as depending on the timely filing of a petition on the part of each petitioner subject to a Notice of Deficiency.

Thus, the individual prohibition on assessment and collection for the petitioning spouse is of limited value, especially where the spouses have joint liquid assets or the non-petitioning spouse earns the majority of household income. In these cases, taxpayers must simultaneously prosecute their cases in Tax Court and defend themselves against IRS Collections. Even outside of those situations, no one likes IRS notices coming through the mail, regardless to whom they’re addressed. The notices must undoubtedly confuse the taxpayers, who believed they had successfully petitioned the Tax Court for a fresh look at their case.

Why would a spouse fail to sign a Tax Court petition? In one of my cases, my client’s spouse passed away before the audit even began, and my client couldn’t afford to open an estate to obtain authority to sign the petition on behalf of her deceased husband.

In others, the tax issue may result solely from one spouse’s income or other tax issue. Knowing this, a pro se petitioner may not realize that both spouse’s signatures are required on the petition. They may view the tax dispute as only that spouse’s problem—one that that spouse will resolve independently.

There are also very limited indications to pro se taxpayers that both spouses must sign a Tax Court petition to avoid IRS Collections. While Notices of Deficiency are issued to both spouses, those living at the same address may just see this as typical IRS notice duplication. The Tax Court form petition, while suggesting “Spouse” as an example of an “additional petitioner”, gives no clear indication that failure of both spouses to sign could lead to these very serious consequences.

Nevertheless, Rule 60(a) provides an opening if the original petitioner can show that they also brought the case on behalf of the omitted petitioner. The omitted petitioner may thereby “ratify” the original petition, which will date back to the time of filing under Rule 41. To do so, the original petitioner must show that they (1) were authorized to file the petition on behalf of the omitted petitioner and (2) objectively intended to do so.  Indicia of objective intent appear to be: the original petition’s caption; pronoun usage in the petition and attachments (i.e., first-person plural vs. singular); and the delay between the petition’s filing and attempts to correct the petition.

The substantive dispute in Heath centers on two Schedule K-1s issued to Mrs. Heath. She disputes having an ownership interest in the issuing organization for this tax year. (Accordingly, Judge Armen denies the Service’s motion for partial summary judgment on this issue, as it was sufficiently disputed as to make summary judgment inappropriate.)

But only Mrs. Heath filed and signed the petition. Eventually, Mrs. Heath retained counsel (the Tax Clinic at the Chicago-Kent College of Law), who noticed the issue and seeking to add Mr. Heath to the Tax Court case, filed the present motion.

Judge Armen denies the motion, running through a number of factors that indicate Mrs. Heath’s lack of objective intent to file a motion on her husband’s behalf. These include:

  • – She handwrote, filed, and signed the petition on her own
  • – She captioned the case in her name alone
  • – She used first-person pronoun in the petition and various attachments
  • – Counsel noted in the motion that “the underlying tax issue had nothing to do with [Mr. Heath] and ‘arose before they were married.’ ”
  • – Counsel didn’t enter an appearance for husband.
  • – The motion was filed one year after the petition and six months after Counsel entered his appearance
  • – The motion was filed in response to IRS collection activities
  • – No ratification was filed with the motion (but was filed later)

Of these reasons, only two appear relevant to me: (1) Mrs. Heath captioned the case in her name alone and (2) a ratification wasn’t filed until the Court’s order in June 2018.

The rest are tautological, irrelevant, or—with more explanation—not indicative of a lack of intent. All cases involving these disputes will, without question, involve a petitioner who signed and filed the petition herself. Most such cases will also involve adjustments that only pertain to one petitioner; petitioner’s admission thereof in this motion thus doesn’t seem terribly relevant to this inquiry. Handwriting a petition seems neutral on the intent question. Finally, first-person singular language may be relevant, but in the seminal case on this topic, Brooks v. Commissioner, 63 T.C. 709 (1975), such language was present, yet the Court found an objective intent to file a petition on behalf of the taxpayer’s wife.

The timing issues all seem consistent with the underlying causes of petitioner’s challenge in Brooks: the petitioner first raises the issue once he or she notices it. In Brooks, a petition was filed in December 1974 and Brooks began challenging the issue in February 1975—fairly quick! But Brooks had a cue that the Heaths lacked: Respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Because Mr. Brooks included Mrs. Brooks in the caption, but she didn’t sign the petition, Respondent sought to remove him from the case.

Here, only Mrs. Heath appeared on the caption. So, Respondent didn’t bug the Heaths about the issue. Only after the Service’s machinery (1) assessed the tax, and (2) started sending notices to the Heaths, could they have possibly discovered that Mr. Heath was in jeopardy. So yes—of course, the Heaths only took steps to resolve the issue once they discovered it, through the collection notices sent to Mr. Heath. The petition was filed on March 13, 2017, meaning that the IRS likely didn’t start sending out notices until mid-summer 2017 at the earliest. Counsel was retained in September 2017. Admittedly, the motion wasn’t filed until March 2018, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate Mrs. Heath’s lack of an objective intent to file a petition on behalf of her husband. The Heaths were also sorting through respondent’s motion for summary judgment at the time.

Finally, Counsel could not have easily entered an appearance for husband through the Court’s electronic filing system. Mr. Heath was not a party to the case in September 2017, so he would not appear as a party one could represent when e-filing an entry of appearance. While a paper could be filed purporting to represent Mr. Heath, the electronic filing system would treat the paper’s caption as applicable only to Mrs. Heath. Moreover, this factor seems only tangentially relevant to the underlying issue: did Mrs. Heath intend to file a petition on behalf of Mr. Heath?

More fundamentally, what does it mean to have intent to file a petition at all? Must Mrs. Heath have intended to file a particular piece of paper on behalf of Mr. Heath? Why is that so seemingly important to the jurisdictional question?

The Court might reframe its intent analysis in terms of the petition’s function—not the petition as a document. A timely filed petition provides (1) independent judicial review of the Service’s determination and (2) protection from assessment and collection while that review occurs. Surely Mrs. Heath desired this both for herself and her husband—particularly if they shared joint assets or income. There may be circumstances where spouses do not intend those results; the Court could decline to exercise jurisdiction in such a case.

Notwithstanding that she likely possessed that intent, Mrs. Heath likely finds herself subject to IRS collections while the Tax Court case proceeds. It appears as if she believed the issue shouldn’t ultimately have anything to do with her husband, given her substantive argument that the Schedules K-1 are incorrect. Whether she knew the adverse consequences of failing to file a joint petition seems irrelevant.

In any case, Judge Armen denies the motion, but suggests that the IRS defer collections administratively. Here’s hoping that Counsel follows that reasonable suggestion.

Docket No. 23891-15, Muhammad v. C.I.R. (Orders Here and Here)

This case had two orders: one on Respondents motion for entry of decision under Rule 155 and one on Respondent’s motion to reopen to supplement the record per Graev III. Ultimately, Judge Gustafson grants the latter motion, because petitioner didn’t object to it. Nevertheless, he sets forth a very thorough primer on the hearsay and authentication issues under the Federal Rules of Evidence, given potential concern with the taxpayer’s pro se status. He finds that form falls into the FRE 803(6) exception of a regularly conducted activity, and that it is a self-authenticating document record under FRE 902(11). Rather than describe the details here, I strongly suggest you read Judge Gustafson’s order in full.

The other motion is fairly interesting. Apparently, petitioner deducted $7,400 on his return as a charitable contribution. The Notice of Deficiency disallowed this in full. Petitioner fully conceded this issue, so this should have been a $7,400 adjustment, right?

Well, petitioner also submitted an amended return to IRS counsel at some point, which reported a reduced charitable contribution of $4,700. The Service never processed this return, but somehow it wound up before Judge Gustafson as an exhibit.

Judge Gustafson disposed of this case via a bench opinion. He orally noted that the Notice of Deficiency’s $7,400 adjustment appeared incorrect, looking as he was at the $4,700 deduction apparently claimed on Schedule A of the amended return.

As with most Tax Court cases, this one is ultimately resolved under Rule 155. The Court itself doesn’t determine the ultimate tax result; instead, the Service issues a computation based on the Court’s decision. Here, the computations came back with a $7,400 deduction. Substantively correct—but in violation of Judge Gustafson’s decision in the bench opinion.

That’s a no-no under Rule 155. Rule 155(c) specifically proscribes reconsideration of the decision itself. It’s “not a remedy for correcting errors.” Indeed, it’s difficult to intuitively ascertain whether an adjustment of this sort appears in a Rule 155 computation; indeed, there’s nothing that would “flag” the issue, as a more substantive motion would. So, in response to the Rule 155 motion, Judge Gustafson orders the IRS to show cause why there should not be a supplemental computation reducing the adjustment to $4,700, as originally decided in the bench opinion.

This may all seem like a lot of work to get to the wrong tax result. But there’s an important principle that emerges: the Service may not simply correct the Tax Court’s error by fiat through computations. If the Service (or petitioner) believes a decision to be wrongly decided, they must either move for reconsideration or appeal, so that the Court can fully consider respondent’s arguments, hear any objections from petitioner, and firmly decide the ultimate liability. While he suggests that the Court may have jurisdiction to reconsider the decision sua sponte, he declines to do so. (It also appears Judge Gustafson exhibits some reticence to a now very untimely motion for reconsideration).

To date the Service has not responded substantively to this order, but has received additional time to do so. We will keep an eye on further developments here.

How Do Section 6511(b)’s Payment Limitations Apply When a Late-Filed Original Return Perfects a Prior Informal Refund Claim?

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes today about a potential issue not reached by the court.  Whether the taxpayer will seek to raise the issue in a request for reconsideration or attempt to raise it on appeal remains to be seen.  Keith

I don’t usually do posts on opinions where an interesting issue is presented, but the court didn’t reach the issue, and I don’t know how the issue should come out.  But, when I mentioned the issue in this post to Les, and asked whether Saltzman & Book answered the issue, and Les told me that the book did not and that he thought the issue was “fascinating,” I decided:  Why not do a post?

The potential issue is presented in Voulgaris v. United States, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150724 (E.D. Mich. Sep. 5, 2018), a refund suit that was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the administrative claim, although timely made under section 6511(a), was limited by section 6511(b) to zero because the taxpayer had not made any tax payments in the 3-year period looking back from the date the claim was made through the filing of a late original return.

The court does not discuss the informal claim doctrine, which was not raised by the taxpayer’s counsel or mentioned in the government’s motion to dismiss.  However, taken from the government’s summary of the facts, the court includes in its opinion facts demonstrating that the taxpayer had made an informal claim long before that claim was perfected by the filing of a late original return showing the overpayment.  The Supreme Court held in United States v. Kales, 314 U.S. 186 (1941), that where an informal claim is later perfected, the perfected claim is treated as made on the date of the informal claim for purposes of what is today section 6511(a).  But, Kales doesn’t answer the question of what is the limit under section 6511(b) of the amount of the claim when a claim is deemed timely filed under the informal claim doctrine.  Section 6511(b) says that if a claim is filed within three years after the filing of the original return (one of the alternative requirements of subsection (a)), then the claim is limited to the amount of any tax paid in the 3-year period prior to the filing of the claim (plus the period of any extension to file the original return).  Section 6511(b), though, also provides that if a taxpayer is relying on the 2-years-after-payment rule of subsection (a) to make a refund claim timely, then the section 6511(b) amount limit is to the taxes paid in the 2-year period prior to filing the claim.  In Kales, whether the lookback period was two years or three years from the filing of the claim, the amount was not limited because the amount of the tax in dispute had been paid on the very day the informal claim was filed.

If the taxpayer in Voulgaris had raised the informal claim doctrine, should the court have used the 2-year or 3-year lookback rules from the date of the informal claim for purposes of applying the tax payment amount rules of 6511(b)?  Is the late-filed return treated as filed on the date of the informal claim so that the 3-year lookback rule applies from the informal claim date?  If so, the refund amount sought was paid within that lookback period.  However, if the 2-year lookback rule applied, the refund claim would be limited to zero.

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Here are the facts of Voulgaris, which involves a refund claim for overpaid 2003 income taxes. The taxpayer, a foreigner, was a grad student during 2001 at the University of Michigan.  While studying, he set up a bank account in the U.S, in which he kept a fair amount of money.  In 2003, I am not sure if he was in the U.S. (probably not, from the court’s finding that he went back to Europe after 2001), but he bought and sold stocks through a (probably U.S-based) Scottrade account.  He did not file a timely U.S. 2003 income tax return.

The IRS later sent a notice of deficiency for 2003 income taxes to the taxpayer at some address (probably in the U.S.) in which the IRS computed his tax based on gross sales proceeds of $77,000 reported on Forms 1099-Bs.  The computation did not include any basis information.

Voulgaris never received the notice of deficiency, so, of course, he did not go to Tax Court and the deficiency was later assessed.

In 2009, the IRS issued a notice of intention to levy to Voulgaris, which he also did not receive.  So, of course, he did not request a Collection Due Process hearing.

The IRS then levied on Voulgaris’ U.S. bank account, and on Feb. 24, 2010, the IRS received $28,000 from the bank.  That amount apparently fully paid the liability.

On Feb. 10, 2013 (i.e., more than two years, but less than three years after the levy payment), the IRS received a letter from Voulgaris seeking a complete refund and including “Schedule D, Schedule D-1, and a Composite Substitute 1099 showing his Scottrade stock transactions,” but not an original Form 1040 for 2003.  The Schedule D showed that, when basis information was included, Voulgaris’ 2003 stock transactions actually had resulted in a net capital loss of about $5,000.  There is no mention in the opinion of Voulgaris having any other U.S.-source income in 2003.

The IRS responded to this letter by asking Voulgaris to file a complete Form 1040 for 2003.  After much back and forth, on Aug. 19, 2015, the IRS finally received from Voulgaris a Form 1040, which it processed.  The return sought a refund.  But, the IRS denied the refund, and the taxpayer brought a timely suit.

The court correctly observes that the claim is timely under 6511(a) because made on the original return.  Given that timely claim, the lookback period under 6511(b) was three years, not two, from the time the return was filed.  Since the tax was paid on Feb. 24, 2010 – more than three years before the return was filed – the court holds that the amount of the claim must be limited to zero.  But, is this right?

Wasn’t the Feb. 10, 2013 letter an informal claim that just later got perfected?  The court does not discuss the informal claim doctrine, since Voulgaris’ lawyer did not argue that he had made an informal claim prior to the filing of the Form 1040.  If the Feb. 10, 2013 letter in fact constituted an informal claim, that claim would come with a lookback period.  Is the lookback period two years (in which case, the claim would be limited to zero) or three years (in which case the claim could encompass the entire amount paid by levy on Feb. 24, 2010)?

I have never run across this fact pattern and haven’t done research on it.  I suspect that there is no case law on this informal claim issue because only in the last 20 years have all the courts come around to the idea that a late return showing an overpayment gets the 3-year lookback period under (b) because the claim shown on that return is timely under (a) (having been made within three years after the return was filed – indeed, on the same day).  See Baral v. United States, 528 U.S. 431, 433 (2000) (in the case of a return filed more than three years after the due date, the IRS “did not dispute that Baral had timely filed the request under the relevant filing deadline – “within 3 years from the time the return was filed or 2 years from the time the tax was paid, whichever of such periods expires the later.’ § 6511(a)”); Omohundro v. United States, 300 F.3d 1065 (9th Cir. 2002) (overruling Miller v. United States, 38 F.3d 473 (9th Cir. 1994), which had held that the 2-year lookback period applied when a late original return was filed showing an overpayment); Rev. Rul. 76-511, 1976-2 C.B. 428.

Les tells me that Saltzman & Book does not address the issue of how the section 6511(b) amount limits apply when an informal claim is filed before a late original return showing an overpayment is filed.  And he doesn’t know whether there is case law on this question, either.  Both of us are inclined to think that, on these facts, the return is deemed filed on the date of the informal claim, so, logically, the 3-year lookback period from the date of the informal claim should apply.  But, I would not bet my shirt on it.  If any reader of PT has encountered authority on this issue, I would urge you to help us all out by citing pertinent authority in the comments section to this post.

 

 

Designated Orders – Discovery Issues, Delinquent Petitioners, and Determination Letters (and some Chenery): August 13 – 17

Designated Order blogger Caleb Smith from University of Minnesota Law School brings us this week’s installment of designated orders. Based on reader feedback we are trying to put more information about the orders into the headlines to better assist you in identifying the cases and issues that will be discussed. Keith

Limitations on Whistleblower Cases and Discovery: Goldstein v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 361-18W (here)

Procedurally Taxing has covered the relatively new field of “whistleblower” cases in Tax Court before (here, here and here are some good reads for those needing a refresher). Goldstein does not necessarily develop the law, but the order can help one better conceptualize the elements of a whistleblower case.

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The statute governing whistleblower awards is found at IRC § 7623. In a nutshell, it provides for awards to tipsters (i.e. “whistleblowers”) that provide information to the IRS that result in collection of tax proceeds. The amount of the award is generally determined and paid out of the proceeds that the whistleblowing brought in. On this skeletal understanding, we can surmise that there are at least two things a whistleblower must do: (1) provide a good enough tip to get the IRS to act, and (2) have that action result in actual, collected money.

Goldstein, unfortunately, fails on the second of these grounds. Apparently, his tip was just good enough to have the IRS act (by initiating an exam, proposing a rather large amount due), but not good enough to go the distance and result in any proceeds: Appeals dropped the case as “no change” largely on “hazards of litigation” grounds. And since whistleblower awards are paid out of proceeds, and the proceeds from the tip here are $0, it stands to reason that Mr. Goldstein was not in for a big payday.

So why does Mr. Goldstein bring the case? Because Mr. Goldstein believes there actually were proceeds from the tip and wants to use the discovery mechanisms of Court as a way to get to the bottom of the matter. Or, somewhat as an alternative, Mr. Goldstein wants to use discovery to show that there should have been proceeds collected from his tip.

The Court is not persuaded by either of these arguments, but for different reasons.

The question of whether the tip “should have” led to proceeds (in this case, through the assessment of tax and penalties as originally proposed in exam) is not one the Court will entertain, for the familiar reason of its “limited jurisdiction.” As the Court explained in Cohen v. C.I.R. jurisdiction in a whistleblower case is only with respect to the Commissioner’s award determination, not the “determination of the alleged tax liability to which the claim pertains.” Arguing that the IRS should have assessed additional tax certainly seems like a look at the alleged tax liability and not the Commissioner’s award determination. So no-go on that tactic.

But the question of whether the IRS actually received proceeds that it is not disclosing -and whether a whistleblower can use discovery to find out- is a bit more interesting. Here, Judge Armen distinguishes Goldstein’s facts from two other whistleblower cases that did allow motions to compel production of documents from the IRS: Whistleblower 11099-13W v. C.I.R., and Whistleblower 10683-13W v. C.I.R..

These cases, in which whistleblowers were able to use discovery to compel production both had one simple, critical, difference from Mr. Goldstein’s case: in both of those cases, there was no question that the IRS had recovered at least some proceeds from the taxpayers. In the present case, there were no proceeds, and so an element of the case is missing… and thus is dismissed.

Of course, in the skeletal way I have summarized Mr. Goldstein’s case it all sounds quite circular: Mr. Goldstein thinks there were proceeds, the IRS says there weren’t, and the Court says “well, we’d let you use discovery to determine the amount of proceeds if there were any. But the IRS says there aren’t any, so we won’t let you use the Court to look further.” In truth, the IRS did much more in Goldstein than just “say” there weren’t any proceeds. The IRS provided the Court with exhibits and transcripts detailing that there were no proceeds, because the case was closed at Appeals.

Also, to be fair to Mr. Goldstein, the reports were significantly redacted (they do deal with a different taxpayer, after all, so one must be wary of IRC § 6103, but not to an extent that causes Judge Armen much worry. And it will take more than a “hunch” for the Court to allow petitioners access to the Court or use of discovery powers.

From the outset of a whistleblower case (that is, providing the “tip”) the IRS holds pretty much all the cards. Here, it appears that the tip could well have ended up bringing in proceeds: at least it was good enough that the examiner proposed a rather large tax. Appeals reversed on “hazards of litigation” grounds –not exactly a signal that they completely disagreed some proceeds could ensue. But the whistleblower, at that point, has no recourse in court to second-guess the IRS decision.

End of an Era? Bell v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 1973-10L (here)

I am often impressed with how far the Tax Court goes out of its way to be charitable to pro se taxpayers. I am also often impressed with the Tax Courts patience. This isn’t our first (or second) run-in with the Bells, though hopefully it is the last (at least for this docket number and these tax years). As the docket number indicates, this collection case has been eight years in the making. Like Judge Gustafson, I will largely refrain from recounting the history (which can be found in the earlier orders) other than to say that the Bells have appeared to vary between dragging their feet and outright refusing to communicate with the IRS over the intervening years. This behavior (kind-of) culminated in the Court dismissing the Bell’s case for failing to respond to an order to show cause.

And yet, they persisted.

Even though the case was closed, the Bell’s insisted on their “day in court” by showing up to calendar call in Winston-Salem while another trial was ongoing. And rather than slam the door, which had been slowly closing for the better part of eight years, the Court allowed the Bells to speak their part during a break in the scheduled proceedings. The assigned IRS attorney, “naively” believing that merely because the case was closed and removed from the docket they would not need to be present, now had to scramble and drive 30 miles to court.

Of course, the outcome was pretty much foreordained anyway. The Bell’s wanted to argue now that they had documents that would make her case. Documents that never, until that very moment in the past eight years, were shared with the IRS or court. The Court generously construed the Bell’s comments as an oral motion for reconsideration (which would be timely, by one day). And then denied the motion, via this designated order.

And so ends the saga… or does it?

In a tantalizing foreshadowing of future judicial resources to be wasted, Judge Gustafson notes that the Bells have previously asked about their ability to appeal the Court’s decision. We wish all the best to the 4th Circuit (presumptively where appeal would take place), should this saga continue.

One can be fairly impressed with the generosity and patience of the Judge Gustafson in working with the pro se parties of Bell. Tax law is difficult, and Tax Court judges frequently go out of their way to act as guides for pro se taxpayers through the maze. But that patience is less apparent where the party should know better -particularly, where the offending party is the IRS…

Things Fall Apart: Anatomy of a Bad Case. Renka, Inc. v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 15988-11R (here)

It is a good bet that the parties are sophisticated when the case deals with a final determination on an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). It is an even better bet if the Judge begins the order with a footnote that “assumes the parties’ familiarity with the record, the terms of art in this complicated area of tax law, and the general principles of summary-judgment law.” Needless to say, this is not the sort of case where either of the parties could ignore court orders, show up at calendar after the case was closed, and be allowed to speak their part.

And of course, neither parties go quite that far. However, both procedurally and substantively the arguments of one party (the IRS) fall astoundingly short of the mark.

The IRS and Renka, Inc. are at odds about whether an ESOP qualified as a tax-exempt trust beginning in 1998. The IRS’s determination (that it is not tax-exempt) hinged on the characterization of Renka, Inc. as also including a second entity (ANC) as either a “controlled group” or “affiliated service group.” If this was so, then Renka, Inc.’s ESOP also must be set up to benefit additional employees (i.e., those of ANC), which it did not.

I am no expert on ESOPs, controlled groups, or affiliated service groups, and I do not pretend to be. But you don’t have to be an expert on the substantive law to see that the IRS is grasping. Here is where procedure and administrative law come into play.

The Notice of Determination at issue is for 1998. Although the determination also says the plan is not qualified for the years subsequent to 1998, it is really just looking at the facts in existence during 1998, reaching a determination about 1998, and saying that because of those facts (i.e. non-qualified in 1998), it continues to be non-qualified thereafter. But the critical year of the Notice of Determination is 1998: that is the year that Renka, Inc. has been put on notice for, and it is the determination that is reached for that year that is before the Court. So when the Commissioner says in court, “actually, Renka, Inc. was fine in 1998, but in 1999 (and thereafter) it wasn’t qualified” there are some big problems.

The biggest problem is the Chenery doctrine. Judge Holmes quotes Chenery as holding that “a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency.” SEC v. Chenery Corp. (Chenery II), 332 U.S. 194 (1947). The IRS essentially wants to argue that the Notice of Determination for 1998 is correct if only we use the facts of 1999… and apply the determination to 1999 rather than 1998. The Chenery doctrine, however, does not allow an agency to use its original determination as a “place-holder” in this manner. Since all parties agree the ESOP met all the necessary requirements in 1998 (the determination year), the inquiry ends: the Determination was an abuse of discretion.

This is one of those cases where you can tell which way the wind is blowing well before reaching the actual opinion. Before even getting to the heart of Chenery, Judge Holmes summarizes the Commissioner’s argument as being “if we ignore all the things he [the Commissioner] did wrong, then he was right.” And although the IRS has already essentially lost the case on procedural grounds (i.e. arguing about 1999 when it is barred by Chenery), for good measure Judge Holmes also looks at the substantive grounds for that argument.

Amazingly, it only gets worse.

First off, the IRS relies on a proposed regulation for their approach on the substantive law (i.e. that the ESOP did not qualify as a tax-exempt trust). Of course, proposed regulations do not carry the force of law, but only the “power to persuade” (i.e. “Skidmore” deference). And what is the power to persuade? Essentially it is the same as a persuasive argument made on brief. Judge Holmes cites to Tedori v. United States, 211 F.3d 488, 492 (9th Cir. 2000) as support for this idea.

As an aside, I have five hand-written stars in the margin next to that point. I have always struggled with the idea that Skidmore deference means anything other than “look at this argument someone else made once: isn’t it interesting?” It is not a whole lot different than if I (or whomever the party is) made the argument on their own in the brief, except that the quote may be attributed to a more impressive name.

But if there is something worse than over-relying on a proposed regulation for your argument, it would be over-relying on a proposed regulation that was withdrawn well before the tax year at issue. Which is what happened here, since the proposed regulation was withdrawn in 1993. Ouch.

Finally, and just to really make you cringe, Judge Holmes spends a paragraph noting that even if the proposed regulation was (a) not withdrawn, and (b) subject to actual deference, it still would not apply to the facts at hand. In other words, the thrust of the IRS’s substantive argument was an incorrect interpretation of a proposed regulation that was no longer in effect. No Bueno.

There was one final designated order that I will not go into detail on. For those with incurable curiosity, it can be found here and provides a small twist on the common “taxpayers dragging their feet in collections” story, in that this taxpayer was not pro se.

 

Designated Orders: 8/6/18 to 8/10/18

William Schmidt of the Legal Aid Society of Kansas brings us this week’s designated order post. The case discussed involves a mystery regarding how the IRS made the assessment that led to the filing of the notice of federal tax lien that led to the collection due process case. There may be more orders yet to come in this case. Because the case is scheduled for trial next month in Denver, perhaps Samantha Galvin, another writer of designated order posts and one of the clinicians working in Denver, will have personal knowledge of the case. Keith

For the week of August 6 to 10, there were two designated orders from the Tax Court so this posting will be briefer than usual. It is unclear if this is a week where summer vacations took their toll. Both orders examined are from the same case so the analysis will include all the orders for the week.

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Docket No. 6161-17 L, Debra L. March v. C.I.R.

The Court provided 2 orders in this case starting from IRS Appeals issuing a determination to sustain the filing of the notice of lien for the collection of income tax for tax years 2009 and 2010.

Petitioner had a prior collection due process (CDP) case, Docket No. 10223-14, resulting from a notice of intent to levy. In the prior case the IRS issued a notice of determination sustaining the levy and the petitioner filed a Tax Court petition in which it challenged the validity of the assessment. The parties to that case entered into a stipulated decision on June 25, 2015, that did not sustain Appeals’ determination. The decision document stated that the IRS would abate the liability for tax year 2009 on the basis that the IRS failed to send the statutory notice of deficiency (SNOD) to the petitioner’s last known address. The Court, in the current case, states that it assumes the IRS complied with the decision entered in the prior case and made the abatement.

At issue in this week’s designated order is how the IRS came to have an assessment against the petitioner after the abatement of the prior assessment. The case presents a very curious situation; however, the order does not resolve the mystery but rather seeks to have the parties, particularly the IRS, explain how to resolve it.

At some point after the “presumed abatement” of the 2009 assessment following the first CDP case in Tax Court, the IRS appears to have reassessed the 2009 liability and filed a notice of lien on that 2009 liability. Appeals issued a notice of determination on February 6, 2017. The notice of determination states that the original assessment was abated (due to the wrong address on the notice of deficiency) and the taxpayer was given additional time to file an original tax return. Since the taxpayer continued not to file the return for 2009, the IRS reinstated the assessment. The problem with the verification is that how the IRS reinstated the assessment remains entirely unclear. It seems clear that the taxpayer did not consent to the reassessment by filing a tax return. What remains unclear is what the IRS did to acquire authority to reassess.

The language of the Settlement Officer in the notice of determination contains only a vague statement regarding the basis for the new assessment. For verification, the notice of determination states: “The Settlement Officer verified through transcript analysis that the assessment was properly made per IRC section 6201 for each tax and period listed on the CDP notice.” Ms. March timely petitioned the Tax Court on March 6, 2017 with the new CDP case again contesting the assessed liability.

The Court then analyzes code section 6201. Section 6201(a)(1) authorizes the IRS to assess “taxes…as to which returns…are made” though Ms. March has yet to file a return for 2009. The Court states that the other provisions for making an assessment do not seem to apply beyond the authority for the IRS to determine a deficiency, mail the taxpayer a SNOD, and assess the deficiency upon the passage of 90 days following the mailing (unless the taxpayer files a timely petition with Tax Court). But, the parties stipulated in that prior case that no SNOD was properly mailed, and the notice of determination appears to indicate no SNOD was mailed subsequent to the conclusion of the first Tax Court case.

The Court would like an explanation for the authority the IRS had to “restore the tax assessment.” The Court’s order is for the IRS to file a status report explaining the position about the validity of the 2009 income tax underlying the lien filing at issue in the case.

Takeaway: The IRS looks to have been caught making another bad assessment and then providing an alleged verification that fails to verify the proper statutory procedure for making an assessment. Perhaps they will have a suitable explanation or be able to cite different authority. Either the IRS “reinstated” the assessment without statutory authority for doing so or the Settlement Officer did not know how to write the verification section of the CDP determination and explain a statutory basis for the new assessment. In either case the IRS does not look good but if the IRS simply “reinstated” the assessment as the Settlement Officer describes, it appears the IRS is headed for its second CDP loss with respect to the same taxpayer for the same year for the same problem. Under the circumstances, the IRS attorney might also have noticed this issue before it got in front of a judge a second time. Tough. 

The Court discusses an IRS motion to show cause regarding why proposed facts and evidence should not be accepted as established. This order relates to a routine Rule 91(f) motion requiring a party to stipulate. Because the petitioner is unrepresented, the judge explains in the order how stipulations can be used to include evidence that a self-represented petitioner such as Ms. March would otherwise have to introduce at trial on her own. The judge also explained that Ms. March would not be prevented from introducing additional evidence beyond what was including in the stipulated evidence. The order provides an example of a typical Tax Court order to a pro se taxpayer in which the Court provides a simple, straight-forward explanation of the rules and why the unrepresented individual should comply for their own best interest. While this order uncoupled from Order 1 discussed above would not deserve designated order status, it offers a glimpse of a routine order issued in Tax Court cases to pro se petitioners uncomfortable with the stipulation process for fear of stipulating themselves out of court.

After providing the careful explanation for the benefit of the petitioner, the Court granted the IRS motion to show cause and ordered that the petitioner file a reply on or before August 27. If no response is provided, the Court will issue an order accordingly.

Takeaway: While the Court is reasonable in explaining to an unrepresented petitioner the process of stipulations, the Court also does not stray from the rules or let that delay the upcoming trial (September 24 in Denver).

 

 

Tax Court Jurisdiction and the EITC Ban

We welcome William Schmidt who is normally one of our regular designated order blogging. William’s post today results from a request for help from another designated order blogger, Patrick Thomas, who asked for assistance from his colleagues to do an in-depth analysis on a specific designated order from the week of July 23 to 27. During that week the Tax Court issued a heavy load of designated orders that Patrick turned into a three part series without including the case which is the subject of today’s post. William writes about Docket No. 20967-16, Katrina E. Taylor & Avery Taylor, v. C.I.R. (Order here). He focuses on the Taylor case because it brings back a jurisdictional issue for Tax Court regarding the earned income tax credit (EITC) ban that Les has written about before as is cited below. Keith

To begin with some background on the EITC ban, there have been issues through the years regarding fraud on tax returns claiming the EITC. In response, Congress provided the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Its purpose, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation: “The Congress believed that taxpayers who fraudulently claim the EIC or recklessly or intentionally disregard EIC rules or regulations should be penalized for doing so.” The Act provided for an EITC ban under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 32(k). The ban disallows a taxpayer to claim the EITC for 10 years when there claim of the credit was due to fraud (or 2 years for reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, though not due to fraud). There have been issues on how fairly the IRS administers the ban. One example is that it was identified as one of the “Most Serious Problems” in the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2013 Report to Congress.

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The IRS issued a notice of deficiency to the Taylors regarding the 2013 tax year, listing a deficiency of $14, 186 and an IRC section 6662(a) accuracy-related penalty of $2,837.20. The deficiency results from disallowance of car and truck expenses the Taylors claimed on the Schedule C filed with their Form 1040.

The Taylors timely filed their Tax Court petition and the IRS filed their answer. The IRS followed up with an amended answer, raising two affirmative defenses. First, they raise an IRC section 6663 civil fraud penalty of $10,639.50, asserting the petitioners falsely claimed business-related car and truck expenses to reduce their income to make them eligible to claim the EITC. Second, the IRS raises the 10-year EITC ban pursuant to IRC section 32(k)(1)(B)(I) for improperly claiming the EITC.

To complete the procedural history, the Taylors did not participate further in their Tax Court case, which was to their detriment. They did not respond to the amended answer and the IRS followed with a “Motion for Entry of Order that Undenied Allegations be Deemed Admitted Pursuant to Rule 37(c).” The Court issued an order granting that motion, meaning the Taylors are deemed to have admitted all the statements in the amended answer, including the affirmative allegations with respect to the civil fraud penalty and the 10-year ban on claiming the EITC.

Next, the IRS filed a “Motion to Take Judicial Notice,” which requested the Court take judicial notice of the distances between the Taylors’ home and the various addresses Katrina Taylor reported driving during 2013 for her business activities. The motion asserts that the Taylors’ travel logs are unreliable and overstate the travel distances. The IRS provided Google Maps documents that show the distance and driving times for the routes Mrs. Taylor reported for the business destinations. Since the Taylors did not respond, the Court’s order granted the IRS motion, taking judicial notice of that information as facts, the accuracy of which cannot reasonably be questioned.

The IRS prepared a joint stipulation of facts that the Taylors refused to sign. The IRS filed a “Motion for Order to Show Cause Why Proposed Facts and Evidence Should not be Accepted as Established Pursuant to Rule 91(f).” The Court ordered the Taylors to respond to the motion. Since they failed to respond, the Court issued its order making the Order to Show Cause absolute, meaning the facts and evidence set forth in the proposed stipulation of facts was deemed to be established for the purposes of the case.

Turning to the facts established through the orders, the Taylors reported $105,914 in wages on their 2013 Form 1040, with $55,033 earned by Mrs. Taylor as an employee. The attached Schedule C listed financial data on Mrs. Taylor’s business, which reports no business income. It instead reports advertising expenses of $290 and car and truck expenses of $73,740, resulting in a net loss of $74,030. Also included are a Form 4562, Depreciation and Amortization (Including Information on Listed Property), which states the Taylors represent they used two vehicles for business purposes, with a total of 130,513 business miles. Vehicle 1 was driven 65,212 miles and vehicle 2 was driven 65,301 miles. In response to line 24a, “Do you have evidence to support the business/investment use claimed?” their response was to check the box for “no.” Those business expenses reduced their adjusted gross income to $30,690. Since they had three minor children in 2013, they qualified for an earned income credit of $4,417 based on that income.

The IRS audited the Taylors, focusing on their car and truck expenses. The Taylors supplied two versions of a log purporting to show business miles driven for Mrs. Taylor’s business. The logs were not provided contemporaneously with her travel and state she drove the 130,513 miles on business, driving a 2004 Cadillac truck 41,483 miles and a 2006 BMW 89,030 miles. The Court states these logs are demonstrably unreliable because petitioners traded in the 2004 Cadillac truck with Mrs. Taylor signing an odometer disclosure statement reporting the odometer at time of sale as 102,345 miles while according to the provided logs the December 23, 2013 year end odometer reading was 154,990 miles. Similarly, the BMW’s trade-in odometer disclosure statement was 91,333 miles while the purported logs stated the December 17, 2013, reading to be 186,880 miles.

The Court also believed the log mileage to be inflated. The logs stated Mrs. Taylor drove the Cadillac 1,376 miles and the BMW 701 miles (totaling 2,077 miles) on September 22, 2013. The IRS points out the driving distance from Manhattan to Los Angeles is approximately 2,800 miles and “[a]t a constant speed of 70 miles per hour (“MPH”) it would take 29.7 hours to drive 2,077 miles.” The logs also report trips of 1,200 miles to 1,800 miles for other days.

The Court’s discussion within the order itself focuses on how the petitioners have not been responsive. They failed to plead or otherwise proceed within Rule 123(a). Because of the deemed established facts, the Court grants the IRS Motion for Default Judgment and enters a decision against the Taylors.

In the decision, Judge Jacobs ordered and decided that for 2013 there is a deficiency of $14,186 and an IRC section 6663 civil fraud penalty of $10,639.50 (the IRS sought an IRC section 6662 accuracy-related penalty in the alternative so that is denied as moot). Additionally, Judge Jacobs orders and decides “that the 10-year ban for claiming the earned income credit, pursuant to section 32(k)(1)(B)(I), is imposed as sought in respondent’s amended answer.”

There is no analysis regarding the 10-year ban and whether the Court has jurisdiction to impose it. The closest is a prior mention of the affirmative allegations that “petitioners…should be subject to the 10-year ban on claiming the earned income credit.”

We come back to a jurisdictional issue for the Tax Court. In the Taylor case, the Court had the 2013 tax return at issue. The jurisdictional issue is what authority the Court has with regard to the EITC ban in a case like this. Is the jurisdiction for the year in which the ban arises (2013) or for the years in which the ban will take effect (10 following years, presumably starting with 2014)?

The Tax Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. IRC section 6214(a) states that Tax Court has jurisdiction to redetermine the correct amount of a deficiency at issue. The disallowed refundable credit banned through the EITC ban affects future years that are not before the Tax Court. In fact, IRC section 6214(b) states that the Court “shall have no jurisdiction to determine whether or not the tax for any other year…has been overpaid or underpaid.”

I note that the IRS does have the ability to assert fraud and get facts deemed stipulated in order for the IRS to meet its burden of proof on the issue of fraud. I provide a quote from Console v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2001-32 at *12, aff’d 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 15535 (3d Cir. 2003): “It is well settled in this Court that the Commissioner may establish fraud by relying upon matters deemed admitted under Rule 90Marshall v. Commissioner, 85 T.C. 267 (1985)Morrison v. Commissioner, 81 T.C. 644, 651 (1983)Doncaster v. Commissioner, 77 T.C. 334, 336 (1981). The Commissioner may also establish fraud by relying on facts deemed to be stipulated under Rule 91(f)Ambroselli v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1999-158.” My thanks to Carl Smith for providing this note and citation.

One case to consider is a prior Tax Court case, Ballard v. Commissioner, which included a Tax Court judge’s reluctance to issue an order regarding a 2-year ban on the EITC. Les Book provided prior commentary in Procedurally Taxing here. In that posting, there are links to other posts, including Carl Smith’s discussion of the jurisdictional issue of the EITC ban in the Tax Court. I agree with Les’s view that the Tax Court does not have authority to apply an EITC ban for a year of fraudulent behavior (or reckless/intentional disregard), which could be called a conduct year.

Specifically for the Taylors, I argue that while the petitioners should potentially be subject to the ban, the only year before the Court was 2013. It was within the Court’s authority to find that there was fraud in 2013, but not within their authority to apply an EITC ban for later years.

I am unsure if the Taylors were outmatched in the courtroom. If all of the allegations against them are true, though, I can understand the claims of fraud the IRS made against them. Whether their goal was to inflate business expenses to claim the earned income tax credit or not, the results are unrealistic business miles and mileage logs that do not match. Even if one does not agree with the EITC ban, the ban is an area the IRS has authority to administer. This case does not provide justification that the Tax Court has jurisdiction to administer the EITC ban for later years when 2013 was the conduct year before the Court so went a step too far in ordering the imposition of the EITC ban for the Taylors.

 

Ninth Circuit to Hear Oral Argument on November 9 in Two Cases Raising Constitutionality of President’s Removal Power Over Tax Court Judges

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith. Carl writes today about an issue of power – the power to remove – who should have it which implicates where the Tax Court lands in the various branches of government. All of this seems like an academic exercise until it doesn’t and then the discussion of the issue will have importance. My former colleague at Villanova, Tuan Samahan, raised this issue early. He recently wrote a symposium piece on the topic for the law review at my alma mater. Keith

PT readers are familiar with the argument, raised in Kuretski v. Commissioner, 755 F.3d 929 (D.C. Cir. 2014), that the President’s removal power over Tax Court judges at section 7443(f) violates the separation of powers. In Kuretski, the D.C. Circuit rejected that argument, finding no constitutional problem because the Tax Court was located in the Executive Branch. Congress responded to Kuretski by amending section 7441 to add the following: “The Tax Court is not an agency of, and shall be independent of, the executive branch of the Government.”

In response to this, Florida attorney Joe DiRuzzo, in a number of his Tax Court cases appealable to various Circuits, made motions to recuse all Tax Court judges, contending that the judges suffered from the same separation of powers problem – particularly in light of the amendment to section 7441. In Battat v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 2 (2017), the Tax Court denied that motion and refused to certify an interlocutory appeal of the ruling under the procedures at section 7482(a)(2). The Tax Court disagreed with the D.C. Circuit that it was located in the Executive Branch, refused to say in which Branch the Tax Court was located, and found no constitutional problem because the Tax Court only dealt with public rights controversies, unlike Article III courts. The Tax Court then entered unpublished interlocutory orders citing Battat in Joe’s other cases.

Despite the Tax Court’s refusal to certify immediate appeals, Joe appealed to a number of Circuit courts of appeal anyway (including the 11th Circuit in Battat). All attempts so far to do interlocutory appeals have failed, though in non-precedential unpublished opinions of the Circuit courts issued without oral argument. See, e.g., Teffeau v. Commissioner, 709 Fed. Appx. 170 (4th Cir. 2017); and the unpublished opinion in Elmes v. Commissioner, Eleventh Cir. Docket No. 17-11648-DD (June 20, 2017).

Another one of those interlocutory appeals is now before the Ninth Circuit in a case named Thompson v. Commissioner, Ninth Cir. Docket No. 17-71027. Unlike in the prior interlocutory appeals, however, Thompson will be getting oral argument in Seattle on November 9, with the court allocating the parties 15 minutes per side. Thompson has already generated a Tax Court opinion, T.C. 148 T.C. No. 3 (2017), which also denied an Eight Amendment Excessive Fines Clause argument against the section 6662A penalty, but the current interlocutory appeal is limited to the section 7443(f) issue.

The oral argument in Thompson will be immediately preceded by oral argument in another of Joe’s cases, Crim v. Commissioner, Ninth Cir. Docket No. 17-72701. In Crim, the taxpayer submitted an OIC, and, after it was not accepted, went to Appeals. Appeals confirmed the OIC denial. Despite the fact that the OIC was not part of a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing, the taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court for review. In the case, Joe also moved for recusal of all Tax Court judges on the constitutional issue. Citing Battat, the Tax Court first denied the constitutional motion in an unpublished order. Then, the court issued a second unpublished order holding that, in the absence of a CDP proceeding, the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction to review Appeals’ denial of an OIC.   Crim’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit is thus not an interlocutory one, since there is nothing more to be done in the Tax Court case. It seems much more likely that the Ninth Circuit in Crim will reach the constitutional issue, though the DOJ argues that the court still need not do so. The court has allocated the parties 10 minutes per side for oral argument.

For those interested in the briefs, I attach here the Thompson appellant, appellee, and reply briefs and the Crim appellant, appellee, and reply briefs.

Designated Orders the Week of July 30 – August 3

Samantha Galvin from University of Denver’s Sturm Law School brings us this week’s designated orders. We congratulate Professor Galvin on her recent promotion to associate professor (and congratulate the law school on its wise decision.)  The first order she discusses concerns a somewhat unusual taxpayer. We thank Bob Kamman for bringing the back story to our attention. If the case goes to trial and the taxpayer does not change his arguments, he may face additional penalties for taking a groundless position that needlessly burdens the Court even if it is entertaining.  Professor Galvin points you to additional information if you find his story entertaining. Keith

There were a good number of designated orders the week of July 30, most were unremarkable, but for those interested they can be found: here, here, here, here, here and here.

And of course, Chai/Graev was back but in a slightly different context this time being used as a defense to penalties in a case where (consolidated) petitioners do not want the record to be reopened. The order (here) includes an analysis of the penalty rules applicable to C Corporations, individuals and a TEFRA partnerships.

But on to the orders I found most interesting…

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Credit for Creativity

Patrick Combs v. C.I.R., Docket No: 22748-14 (Order here)

My lecture on the assignment of income doctrine typically begins with me stating that it’s an antiquated concern that is rarely at issue in today’s electronic, information reporting world. Aside from genuine identity theft cases, it’s difficult for taxpayers to argue that someone else should pay tax on income earned by them and reported to the IRS in their name – so I was delighted to see this order be designated during the week of July 30.

Before getting into the details of the order, this petitioner’s background is worth mentioning. He is a monologist whose most famous work to date is a show called “Man 1, Bank 0” which details his successful attempt at cashing a non-negotiable, fake advertisement check for nearly $100,000 and the aftermath that followed when the bank realized its error. It’s worth a Google search.

Unlike writing him off as just another tax protestor, I can’t ignore the fact that his arguments (which are almost performance-like) in Tax Court may evolve into yet another successful comedy show.

So why is he in Tax Court? Petitioner failed to report income he earned as a monologist and from rental real estate that he owned in San Diego. At the time of this order, the Court had provided petitioner with many opportunities to reach a settlement and went as far as issuing a preclusion order, which barred petitioner from introducing at trial any records he failed to disclose to the IRS by a December deadline.

Petitioner met this deadline and the documents he provided included a written statement on the theory (or the “epiphany”) of his case. His theory involves another taxpayer, Mr. Holcomb (“Mr. H.”) and while the exact nature of their relationship is not disclosed, petitioner states that he is a penniless artist entirely dependent on Mr. H. to whom he has signed over (either via trust or agency agreements) all his income and property.

As a result, petitioner does not understand how he could be liable for any tax because if there are any taxes due they are due strictly from Mr. H. and the Court should address the issue with Mr. H.

Even if the Court had a reason to address anything with Mr. H, it would be difficult to do so. Mr. H. has his own interesting background and was recently found guilty by a jury of four counts of making a false statement to a financial institution.

Petitioner’s argument that he has no rights to the income becomes contradictory when he also writes that he is authorized by Mr. H. to spend the “signed over” funds for petitioner’s personal purposes in whatever way petitioner sees fit. This arrangement, petitioner states, “goes to the heart of why I chose to be one of [Mr. H.’s] fiduciaries in the first place. I am an artist (monologist) and there is no better space for an artist to be in other than one that frees him of all concerns relative to financial liability (income tax included), while at the same time being able to properly provide for himself and his family members.” Petitioner concludes his impassioned written statement with, “in simple straight forward speak; I am a “kept” man.”

The “trust arrangement” that petitioner has with Mr. H. calls Mr. H. the “director” of petitioner’s future income and property, and in return, Mr. H. agrees petitioner is the “manager” or “general manager” of such income and property and is free to do whatever petitioner wants to do with it.

The Court calls it an anticipatory assignment of income and warns petitioner that a 6673 penalty may be in his future if he continues with his theory.

The Court grants summary judgment in part for petitioner’s failure to report income, orders the parties to submit settlement documents with respect to other issues and if no settlement is reached expects the parties to appear at trial – where I’d expect there to be an inspired performance by petitioner.

Quash a Lot

Mufram Enterprises LLC, Wendell Murphy, Jr, Tax Matters Partner, et al. v. C.I.R., Docket Nos: 8039-16, 14536-16, 14541-16 (Order here)

Next before the Court is petitioners (in a consolidated docket) motion to quash two subpoenas duces tecum, which the Court grants in part.

The case involves a property appraiser that petitioners retained as a consulting expert, and specifically not as an expert witness, to assist them in preparing their case. Before the case commenced, the appraiser had also been hired by prospective lenders to appraise the properties involved in the case.

Respondent had requested appraisals of the properties from petitioners, but petitioners said appraisals did not exist.

Respondent issued a subpoena to the appraiser requesting documents beginning when he had become petitioners’ consulting expert. Without looking at the details of the subpoena, the appraiser stated aloud that he was not surprised by the subpoena because he had done appraisals of the properties.

This prompted IRS to issue another subpoena to the appraiser for records and correspondence from the last 23 years. The subpoena also requests that the appraiser testify at trial about facts, but not as an expert witness.

Petitioner argues the first subpoena should be quashed because the documents beginning at the time the appraiser became a consulting expert are protected work product, and the Court grants this motion to quash.

Regarding the second subpoena, petitioner argues that requiring the appraiser to produce records or correspondence that pre-date 2010 (the year of the first property appraisal related to this case) is unreasonable and oppressive. The Court agrees and limits the scope of the subpoena to the appraiser’s non-work product records and correspondence beginning in 2010.

With respect with whether the appraiser will need to testify at trial, the Court will hold judgement on the matter until trial, but if IRS intends to call the appraiser it will determine whether it is as a fact or expert witness, rule on the propriety of his being called, and then determine what fee amount (either the regular or expert witness fee) the IRS should pay to him.

Motion to Compel and Section 6103

Loys Vallee v. C.I.R., Docket No: 13513-16W (Order here)

Here is another whistleblower case where the IRS is arguing that petitioner’s submission did not lead to the collection of any tax, but in this case, the administrative record does not clearly demonstrate that.

Petitioner filed motion to compel production of documents and respondent filed a motion for summary judgment.

In opposition to respondent’s motion, petitioner is (as construed by the Court) challenging the sufficiency of the administrative record. Pursuant to Kasper v. Commissioner, 150 T.C. No. 2, the Court limits the scope of its review in whistleblower cases to the administrative record, but the administrative record can be supplemented if it is incomplete or when an agency action is not adequately explained in the record.

Respondent’s position is that the returns were already selected for exam at time petitioner’s information was received as supported by declaration from IRS employees, however, the administrative record does not contain the declarations that respondent relies upon. It also appears that employees beyond the ones identified by respondent were involved in reviewing petitioner’s submission.

Petitioner’s motion to compel is broad and requests information about all of the target taxpayers in his whistleblower submission (referred to a Corporate D, Related A and Related B by the Court). There are section 6103 disclosure concerns that come with petitioner’s motion to compel. Section 6103 generally prohibits disclosure of returns or return information, but there is an exception under 6103(h)(4)(B) that return information can be disclosed in a judicial proceeding pertaining to tax administration if treatment of an item reflected on a return is directly related to resolution of an issue in the proceeding.

Without ruling on petitioner’s motion (holding it in abeyance), the Court orders respondent to file petitioner’s Form 211 (the whistleblower application) and its attachments with the Court to enable it to review petitioner’s claims. It also orders respondent to respond to petitioner’s challenge to the sufficiency of the administrative record, and denies respondent’s motion for summary judgment.

 

Designated Orders: 7/23 to 7/27 Part Three

Today we arrive at Part Three of this week’s bumper crop of Designated Orders. Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame Law School takes us through the finish line with several interesting orders, including one in which a taxpayer’s credible testimony defeated the presumption of receipt of a Notice of Deficiency. Christine

Odds and Ends

Docket No. 1395-16L, Bhambra v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

While mailing the Notice of Deficiency to a taxpayer’s last known address is enough for the Service to assess a tax, the taxpayer may still challenge the underlying liability in the Tax Court if they never received the Notice. Therefore, to avoid subsequent litigation, the Service must go to some lengths to ensure that taxpayers receive the Notice.

In Bhambra, Judge Halpern grants petitioner’s motion to remand this CDP case to Appeals, to consider his challenge to the civil fraud penalty under section 6663. Originally, the Service sent a Notice to the taxpayer’s last known address; this valid notice allowed the Service to assess tax after the taxpayer didn’t file a petition in Tax Court. But at this time, Mr. Bhambra was incarcerated; and his wife wasn’t living at this address any longer. The Service, knowing at least the former, sent a Notice of Deficiency to the husband’s prison.

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Both Mr. and Mrs. Bhambra testified that they didn’t receive the Notice; particularly, Mr. Bhambra testified about the prison mail system, and the heightened potential for non-receipt of mail. Notwithstanding Mr. Bhambra’s tax evasion conviction under section 7601(a), Judge Halpern found both parties credible. While the Service’s introduction of the Notice into evidence creates a presumption that its addressee received it, this presumption is rebuttable—and here, was rebutted by the Bhambras’ credible testimony. Because the Service didn’t introduce any further evidence in rebuttal, Judge Halpern found that petitioner didn’t receive the Notice and could challenge the underlying 6663 penalty in Appeals (and, if we’re being honest, eventually again before Judge Halpern).

Docket No. 16575-16W, Insinga v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This an odd situation. In this whistleblower case, petitioner filed a motion to dismiss their own case. The Tax Court has previously ruled that, unlike in deficiency proceedings, the Court may dismiss whistleblower cases on a motion from a petitioner. See Jacobsen v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. 68 (2017).

However, petitioner desired that the case be dismissed “without prejudice.” Such a dismissal is technically permissible; there is no Tax Court rule governing whether a case is dismissed with or without prejudice. So, Judge Gustafson relies on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 1(b), which states that dismissals are generally without prejudice.

Yet as Judge Gustafson notes, Tax Court cases are practically dismissed with prejudice, given the timing deadlines that run with essentially every Service notice that provides the Court jurisdiction to hear a case. Indeed, in this case, section 7623(b)(4) requires a petition to the Tax Court within 30 days of a notice denying an award for providing information on tax noncompliance to the Service. Because it is now far beyond 30 days after the notice in question, Mr. Insinga couldn’t petition the Court again based on this notice. I speculate that because of this reality, Respondent objected to petitioner’s motion, after learning that petitioner wished to retain the option to litigate this issue in the future.

There is some distance, however, between dismissal in the whistleblower context and, for example, CDP context. Here, it’s possible that petitioner could file a new request for an award under the same or similar facts, and then petition the Court for review of the Service’s denial of that request. Judge Gustafson further notes that even a dismissal with prejudice may not prevent litigation of such a subsequent claim. At first blush, there doesn’t seem to be any statute or judicial doctrine that would prevent such use (in my view) of duplicative administrative and judicial resources.

Because Judge Gustafson wants to ensure that both petitioner and respondent are fully understanding the consequences of a dismissal in this matter, he orders both parties to reply to the order.

Docket No. 4949-10, James Coffey v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The Coffey cases actually had two separate orders this week. (The other was the topic of Part Two of this week’s Designated Order posts.) Originally, the Court dismissed the cases for lack of jurisdiction in an order on January 29, 2018. The Court realized, however, that it didn’t say anything about why the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction (i.e., that the Notice of Deficiency was issued beyond the statute of limitations on assessment). So, Chief Judge Marvel issued an order clarifying that no deficiency was due for 2003 or 2004.

That was not good enough for Respondent. The Service filed a motion to vacate that order, and instead grant Petitioner’s motion for summary judgment. Its argument was not that Respondent should win the case (as in the motion for reconsideration, above), but rather that the Court improperly characterized the reasons for Petitioner winning the case. In this case, Respondent argues, “the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional bar to suit resulting in a dismissal.”

At first, I was quite confused. In the cases I handle, the statute of limitations is ordinarily a defense only where the Service issues an invalid Notice of Deficiency (because, for example, it was not sent to the Petitioner’s last known address and the Petitioner otherwise didn’t receive the Notice in sufficient time to timely petition the Tax Court). When we discover this, the time for filing a Tax Court petition has long passed and the taxpayer is likely in IRS Collections. The procedure to resolve this issue, as many practitioners know, is to (1) file a Tax Court petition, albeit late, and then (2) file a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, on the basis that the Notice was invalid, and therefore didn’t toll the assessment statute of limitations or provide the necessary prerequisite to assessment (or collection). The Service follows with their own jurisdictional motion, arguing that the Court lacks jurisdiction due to an untimely petition. The Court then determines whether the Notice was properly sent.

In this case, the Service properly issued the Notice. So it wasn’t “invalid”, like Notices in the situation above. It was simply late, and so regardless of any tolling that took place, the statute had already run before the Notice was issued.

In usual cases, the Service simply doesn’t blow its statute like this. And so, the schema for myself, practitioners, and Tax Court judges alike in a statute of limitations case is one of a jurisdictional decision. It seems the Tax Court fell into that trap here, but Respondent’s eagle-eyed attorney noticed the issue and Judge Holmes swiftly corrected it. It might have helped practitioners (or at least, this practitioner) to include, perhaps in a footnote, an explanation for the confusion.

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

We’ve previously blogged about the litigation-heavy Murfam case here and hereThe trial in Murfam is finally over, but before trial began Judge Gustafson disposed of another flurry of motions during this week. He issued four orders, which resolved multiple motions in limine regarding expert witnesses and reports, along with Respondent’s motion to quash a subpoena against a Chief Counsel attorney. Additionally, on the Court’s own motion, and keeping with the tight ship that Judge Gustafson has been running during this litigation, he refused to let the parties expand the time for trial beyond one week.

The motion in limine disputes centered around the fact that Petitioner’s expert report was prepared by multiple authors. This creates an issue during cross examination of the expert, because certain authors may not have drafted certain sections of the report, causing confusion and potentially duplicative testimony. As noted, Judge Gustafson has no time for duplicative testimony. Eventually, it seems that only one author was the “principal expert” on the report; if this individual were also the principal witness, all would be well (as long as the other witnesses were made available for testimony).

Regarding the motion to quash, it seems Petitioner desired Respondent’s documents regarding compliance with section 6751(b)(1) and Graev, but didn’t timely file a request for production of documents under Rule 72. Instead, Petitioner subpoenaed the supervising IRS attorney, requiring the attorney to these documents to trial. Judge Gustafson granted the motion to quash, not allowing Petitioner to circumvent the Rule 72 timing requirements. While a subpoena could be necessary to compel testimony, Respondent already listed the supervising attorney as a witness; thus, no subpoena was necessary. Finally, Judge Gustafson strongly suggested to the parties that they resolve the 6751 issue outside of trial.