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

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

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

read more...

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ii) $5,000.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

read more...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Oral Persuasion: Taxpayer Testimony and the Burden of Proof

We welcome guest bloggers John A. Clynch, Managing Director, and Scott A. Schumacher, Faculty Director, of the University of Washington School of Law Federal Tax Clinic. John and Scott take us behind the scenes on a recent case where they successfully shifted the burden of proof and convinced the Tax Court that their client did not have income despite its appearance on a Form 1099-MISC. The facts of this case are unusual in several respects, but information return disputes are a regular issue in tax controversy practice and on this blog. Keith collected several previous PT posts here last July. Christine

Unreported income cases are a staple of low-income taxpayer clinics. Low-income individuals often have several jobs of shorter duration, move their residence more often than the general population, and may not be the most adept at recordkeeping. Handling these cases is generally straightforward – obtain the wage and income information from the IRS and match it to the return. These cases can be more challenging if the taxpayer was a victim of identity theft, and the taxpayer must prove they did not receive the income listed in the W-2 or 1099.

But what if there is no dispute that the taxpayer received the money but there is no indication of what payment is for? In Park v. Commissioner, T.C. Summ Op. 2018-46, the Tax Court decided the rather unique question of not whether the amount was received or by whom, but rather what the amount paid was for and thus whether the amount was taxable.

read more...

The taxpayer, Jin Park, is an immigrant from South Korea, who served in the U.S. Army. Mr. Park purchased a home in 2008 and took out mortgages with Bank of America. He was paying both principal and interest on the mortgages in 2012 while on military deployment overseas.

In 2014, Mr. Park received a $13,508 check from BOA. Included with the check was a letter that provided, “based on a recent review of your account, we may not have provided you with the level of service that you deserve, and are providing you with this check.” The letter further stated that Mr. Park might wish to consult with someone about any possible tax consequences of receiving the funds, included a number for him to call if he had any questions. The letter concluded by thanking him for his military service. Mr. Park called the phone number provided on several occasions, but he was unable to obtain any further information. He filed his 2014 Federal income tax return without including the $13,508.

The IRS received a Form 1099-MISC from BOA, reporting other income of $12,789 and a Form 1099-INT from BOA, reporting interest income of $719. The IRS duly issued a Notice of Deficiency, and Mr. Park, now represented by the Federal Tax Clinic at the University of Washington, submitted a Tax Court Petition on his behalf.

In preparing the case for trial, the clinic first sought information from BOA by phone. After what appeared to be a successful telephone contact with BOA, all future calls were met with a brick wall. No one at BOA was able (or willing) to provide any information regarding the payments. The clinic subsequently served a subpoena for records on BOA. The bank declined to produce any records, even after being ordered by the Court. In response to the subpoena, BOA stated, “the bank is unable to locate any accounts or records requested with the information provided.” This is quite surprising, especially given that the Bank Secrecy Act requires banks to maintain records for at least five years.

The case proceeded to trial without any further information from BOA. The issue for the Tax Court to decide was whether any part of the $13,508 received by Mr. Park was income. At trial, the IRS relied on the general presumption of correctness afforded a Notice of Deficiency and on the Form 1099-MISC. At trial, Mr. Park presented testimony that he had been making payments to BOA of interest and principal and that the check received from the bank could be a non-taxable return of overpayment of principal.

The case thus, as in many cases like this, turned on the burden of proof. As readers of PT know, section 7491 places the burden of proof on the IRS, subject to several very important conditions, including the requirement that the taxpayer introduce “credible evidence” to dispute the factual issue. Section 6201(d) further provides that if a taxpayer asserts a “reasonable dispute” with respect to any item of income reported on an information return, the IRS has the burden of producing “reasonable and probative information” concerning the deficiency, over and above the information return.

The specific question before the Court was whether Mr. Park produced “credible evidence” that raised a “reasonable dispute” as to the accuracy of the Form 1099-MISC. The Court held that Mr. Park met his burden. The Court held that his testimony “was subjected to cross-examination and was both plausible and credible.” Further, the Court held that BOA’s letter admitted it was correcting a wrong it had committed regarding Mr. Park’s accounts and was returning his money and the interest that had accrued on it. The Court further noted that the IRS did not offer any argument to the contrary and appeared instead to rely on the presumption of correctness. The Court accordingly held that the $12,789 received from BOA was a nontaxable return of principal.

The facts of Park are unique and are unlikely to repeat, although with banks, one never knows. However, the larger lesson from the case is that credible testimony from the taxpayer can be effective in meeting the burden of proof or shifting it to the IRS. Oftentimes it is the only evidence.

A Close Look at the IRS Shutdown

As we settle in for what may be a long shutdown of the not yet funded parts of the federal government, including the IRS, frequent commenter and occasional guest blogger, Bob Kamman, brings us a post on what to expect at the IRS. I know from email traffic among tax clinics that the fax machine at the CAF unit has been turned off meaning that those trying to notify the IRS of the power of attorney must wait for the IRS to reopen before sending in form. The turning off of the CAF fax machine is just one tangible way of knowing that the IRS has shifted to shut down mode. Bob gives an employee by employee breakdown of who is working.

 

We wrote previously about a law suit brought by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson after the Taxpayer Advocate Service was deemed non-essential in its entirety during one of the most recent shutdowns. The NTA lost the suit but may have won the war, or at least partially so, because the NTA and certain TAS employees are deemed essential now which could be critical from taxpayers facing a hardship. I suspect the NTA faces a significant hardship herself because of the timing of this shutdown and the issuance of her annual report to Congress. Read on for the details distilled for us by Bob straight from the contingency plan created by the IRS. For prior coverage about government shutdowns and the IRS, see our post here which gives a broader perspective on government shutdowns and which links to prior posts on the subject. Keith

After all the work that the Internal Revenue Service put into planning for a shutdown, it would have been a shame to waste it.

The IRS contingency plan, revised on November 30, 2018, provides many useful insights into what the federal tax agency considers important and which employees it considers essential. The 110-page document can be found here.

The priorities include:

1) Open the mail. There might be checks.

2) Cash the checks.

3) Protect the statutes of limitation, for collection and assessment, from expiring.

4) Keep the computers running and keep preparing for tax season.

5) Especially, keep preparing for implementation of the 2017 tax law changes, because money for that has already been appropriated.

read more...

IRS has a total workforce of 79,868 employees. Of those, 9,946 are “excepted” to some extent from furlough. The rest will not return to work until their jobs are funded. Most likely, they will eventually be paid for their time away, but they might miss paychecks until the shutdown ends.

If the government had to close, the last couple weeks of the year were the best time. Many employees with seniority and “use or lose” leave time, were away on planned vacations anyway.

Here are some highlights from the “Lapse in Appropriations Contingency Plan,” with a focus on several areas of importance to readers of this blog.

“Excepted” employees are categorized as A, B or C.

Category A employees have jobs that “include those authorized by law and those funded by multi-year, no-year, and revolving funds or advance appropriations that would not be affected by a lapse in an annual appropriation.” There are 1,900 of them.

Category B employees perform tasks that are “necessary for the safety of human life or protection of government property.” Oddly enough, this includes “administrative, research, and other overhead activities supporting excepted activities” such as “completion and testing of the upcoming Filing Year programs,” “processing paper tax returns through batching,” and “Upcoming Tax Year forms design and printing.” There are 8,017 of them.

Category C employees are those needed “to bring about the orderly closedown of non-excepted activities. Activities of employees during this period must be wholly devoted to close-down the function. Upon completion of these activities, these employees would be released.” There are 29 of them, including the only three from the Office of Professional Responsibility with any shutdown duties.

Chief Counsel

The Chief Counsel (lucky guy) is a Presidential appointee who is not subject to furlough.   As for the rest of the office, 286 must show up now and get paid later for these purposes:

The plan excepts, on an as needed basis, those personnel assigned to litigation that is scheduled for trial or where there is a court-imposed deadline during the first five days of a lapse. Personnel are not generally excepted to perform litigation activities where a trial or other court-imposed deadline is scheduled more than five days after the start of the lapse. Personnel assigned to those cases should seek continuances as part of an orderly shutdown. If a continuance is denied, the case will be reviewed to determine if work on the case may be excepted.

Chief Counsel personnel are also excepted, on an as needed basis to provide required legal advice necessary to protect statute expiration, and the government’s interest in bankruptcy, lien, and seizure cases. Personnel excepted to perform this work are also excepted under Category B. The employees in General Legal Services are in Category A3, because they are needed to support activities that are authorized to continue during a lapse in appropriations. The employees in Criminal Tax fall into Category B because they maintain criminal law enforcement and undercover operations. Fifty-six employees are supporting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and fall into Category A1 because they are funded with the special two-year appropriation provided for TCJA activities.

Appeals

18 employees are “excepted” from shutdown:

Appeals requires that a minimum number of technical staff remain active to ensure statutory deadlines are met. Taxpayer compliance cases, when appealed, must be adjudicated within a statutory timeline that is not under the control of the IRS. If cases are not monitored, statutes may lapse resulting in adverse impacts to the IRS and US government tax collection functions.

During a lapse, the Chief, Appeals will hold a daily virtual meeting with excepted personnel to identify any imminent statutory deadlines or other threats to government property. As necessary, excepted personnel will be activated to take actions that address the imminent threat. All other employees will return to furlough status until the following day.

National Taxpayer Advocate

“National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) has identified 84 employees (the NTA and one per TAS office) who are required on an on-call basis based the necessary-for-the-safety-of-human-life-and-the-protection-of-property exception (Category B).” That’s not grammatical, but that’s what the plan says. The plan’s chart (Page 96) shows 82, not 84 employees.

 

The local Taxpayer Advocates (one per TAS office) are to report intermittently to check the mail. There might be checks, and the filing of a Taxpayer Assistance Order suspends the statute on collection. Their instructions:

Check mail one or two hours a day, up to three days a week, to comply with the IRS’s requirement to open and process checks during a shutdown while also complying with the statutory requirements that TAS maintain confidential and separate communications with taxpayers and that TAS operate independently of any other IRS office, as described in IRC §§ 7803(c)(4)(A)(iii), 7803(c)(4)(A)(iv), and 7803(c)(4)(B). Screen the mail for incoming requests for Taxpayer Assistance Orders and notify the appropriate Business Unit that a request has been made tolling any statute of limitations. See IRC § 7811(d).

Criminal Investigation

Crime never stops, so CI never shuts down. The plan notes that “in recent years, the Shutdown Contingency Plan proposed that CI attempt to continue work on our 6,352 investigations with a reduced staff. During the implementation phase of the 2011 Shutdown Plan, it became clear that it was logistically impossible for CI to operate at a nearly 50% staffing level when the federal courts, federal prosecutors and our federal law enforcement partners were planning to continue their usual law enforcement operations.”

So all 2,745 Criminal Investigation employees continue to report.

The Most Important People At IRS

A third of the IRS employees who continue to work – 3,337 of them – are in “Information Technology.”

For example, 571 “IT Specialists…support application & web services operations necessary to prevent loss of data in process and revenue collections, application support for critical systems, manage code, perform builds, process transmittals, completion and testing of Filing Year programs.”

Another 62 are needed to “Support the IT filing season systems that operate the nation’s tax infrastructure are updated and in place for the processing of approximately 200 million tax returns annually.”

And 119 employees are required to “Provide 24×7 database support, including data storage, data replication and data backup and recovery for critical IT projects in Dev/Test/Prod/DR environments to continue to work deliverables and maintain all systems related to filing season preparedness, IT Security and IT support for Essential processes/employees.”

In the Mainframe Operations Branch (the “MOB”), 131 IRS workers, among other essential duties, “Provide critical 24x7x365 coverage to applications; Process tax returns, tax deposit and refunds; continue to process successfully on IBM and Unisys mainframe systems and to provide print and electronic documents support for internal and external customers; . . . The IDSE Section provides printed notices and letters to taxpayers, as well as both printed and electronic documents to internal customer.”

The Commissioner

Don’t worry about him, either. Like Chief Counsel, he is a “Political appointee who is not subject to furlough. The Commissioner’s salary is an obligation incurred by the year, without consideration of hours of duty required and is not placed in a non-duty, non-pay status.”

And he keeps his security detail, also. There are six special agents from Criminal Investigation who serve in that capacity (probably not more than two at a time).

 

Designated Orders: A Mixed Bag – Easements and Common Issues (11/26/18 to 11/30/18)

William Schmidt of Legal Services of Kansas brings us this weeks designated orders. The orders this week contain a lot of meat. Two of the orders deal with expert witnesses and problems with those witnesses. In one case the IRS seeks to exclude a petitioner’s expert because the expert is a promoter of tax schemes rather than a true expert and in another case petitioner seeks to exclude respondent’s expert because the expert destroyed the material he thought was not relevant to his expert opinion. Many other matters, particularly regarding conservation easements, deserve attention in these orders as well. Keith

The week of November 26 to 30, 2018 had seven designated orders. The week was a mixed bag. Some orders focused on less common issues like charitable contributions of easements, while other orders looked at routine deficiency or Collection Due Process issues.

Easement Issues, Part One

Docket No. 29176-14, George A. Valanos & Frederica A. Valanos v. C.I.R., available here.

To begin with, this designated order is 30 pages. Most designated orders do not reach a page count in the double digits so it is a rarity to find one this long. As a result, there are multiple items to discuss that I will be summarizing.

read more...

The petitioners asked the Court to determine whether the IRS improperly denied their non-cash charitable contribution deduction for a conservation easement in tax years 2005 to 2007. The IRS filed a motion for partial summary judgment that the Court denies. The sole issue stated for decision is whether the petitioners’ conservation easement deed of gift satisfied the perpetuity requirements of IRC section 170(h)(5) and 26 C.F.R. sections 1.170A-14(g)(2) and (6). Because of the genuine dispute as to material facts, Rule 121(b), and a lack of clarity and specificity in the parties’ contentions of law, the Court denied the IRS motion for partial summary judgment.

For background, the order discusses the subject property, the mortgages affecting the subject property and the conservation easement, the subordination agreements, the conservation easement, the petitioners’ tax returns and charitable deduction disallowance, and the Tax Court proceedings.

Of note is that the recalculations of petitioners’ tax liabilities resulted in deficiencies of $192,486 for 2005, $153,742 for 2006, and $104,662 for 2007. The IRS also determined that the petitioners were liable for gross valuation misstatement penalties under section 6662(h) or, in the alternative, section 6662(a). On September 3, 2014, the IRS issued a notice of deficiency, and the petitioners timely mailed their petition to Tax Court.

The Commissioner moved for partial summary judgment on the grounds that the Greater Atlantic Bank subordination was defective and therefore the conservation easement did not meet the requirements for the charitable contribution deduction. The IRS appeared to initially concede any issue with the Wells Fargo deed of trust.

After the parties fully responded to the motion for partial summary judgment, the Court issued its opinion in Palmolive Bldg. Investors, LLC v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. ___ (Oct. 10, 2017), (discussed below). The Court issued an order that invited the parties to file supplemental memoranda addressing the implications for this case.

In its supplemental filings, the IRS arguments are that similar to the Palmolive subordinations, the Greater Atlantic Bank and Wells Fargo subordinations failed to adequately meet the requirements of subordination of the lenders’ interests in insurance proceedings. The IRS reiterated the Greater Atlantic Bank argument but added the argument that the Wells Fargo subordination did not meet requirements because it did not use the term “subordinate.”

The petitioners responded with arguments that the conservation easement and subordination agreements are valid, all section 170 requirements are satisfied, and they are entitled to all the deductions taken on their original returns.

In the discussion, the order begins with general principles and reviews the principles of summary judgment, conservation easements under section 170(h), the perpetuity requirement of 26 C.F.R. section 1.170A-14(g) (broken down into mortgage subordination and extinguishment proceedings), the relation of federal taxation and state law property rights, real property ownership and mortgage theory (looking at sections on real property ownership, legal interests and equitable interests, and mortgage theory), and District of Columbia’s real property law (with this section looking at mortgages in the District of Columbia, deeds in the District of Columbia, and conveyances of personal property in the District of Columbia).

Next in the discussion is the parties’ contentions, broken down between the Greater Atlantic Bank deeds of trust and their subordination agreement, and the Wells Fargo deed of trust and its subordination agreement.

Third in the discussion is the analysis portion. The first part of the analysis begins by stating that factual disputes are not resolved under Rule 121.

Next is that Section 1.170A-14(g)(2) requires subordination of mortgages. This second part includes sections on the need for attention to local law, Greater Atlantic Bank’s subordination agreement and the Wells Fargo subordination. The Greater Atlantic Bank subordination agreement section looks at the sufficiency of one general subordination agreement for two deeds of trust, the undated subordination agreement, and compliance with District of Columbia law’s recording and other requirements (broken down further into application of state-equivalent real estate law and recording requirements – validity as to third parties). The Wells Fargo subordination looks at the failure to use the verb “subordinate” and subordination or conveyance of an executory interest.

The third part of the analysis looks at the Section 1.170A-14(g)(b) requirement that the donee receive a proportionate share of extinguishment proceeds. This is broken down further to look at Greater Atlantic Bank’s subordination as to proceeds and Wells Fargo’s subordination as to proceeds.

The fourth part of the analysis turns to mortgage theory in light of conservation easements.

The order then turns to unanswered questions. The Court provides a list of nineteen unanswered questions, stating that thorough answers to these questions would allow the Court to analyze the parties’ respective arguments and reach a conclusion of the issues discussed within the order.

In the conclusion, the Court states disputes of fact exist and that the statements from both parties need further explanation and citations to legal authority.

Judge Gustafson orders that the IRS motion for partial summary judgment is denied. The facts assumed in the order are not findings for trial, and each party must be prepared to prove the relevant facts. No later than December 21, 2018, the parties must file a joint status report (or separate reports if that is not expedient) with their recommendations as to further proceedings in this case.

Takeaway: If you want to experience the complexity of the discussion, issues and questions in this case, I recommend you click the link above. This order dives deeply into an examination of the interaction between various areas of law, such as property (subordination agreements, mortgages, and conservation easements) and tax (charitable contribution deductions) while balancing the intersection of federal law and District of Columbia law.

Easement Issues, Part Two: The Palmolive Orders

Docket No. 23444-14, Palmolive Building Investors, LLC, DK Palmolive Building Investors Participants, LLC, Tax Matters Partner v. C.I.R.

The Tax Court issued an opinion in this case, 149 T.C. No. 18 (Oct. 10, 2017), holding that Palmolive is not entitled to a charitable contribution deduction for the contribution of a façade easement because of their failure to comply with certain requirements of IRC section 170. It is still at issue regarding Palmolive’s liability for IRS penalties asserted, which is set for trial commencing January 22, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois.

  • Order 1 available here. The IRS filed a motion for leave to file a second amendment to their answer, where they would supplement the answer with an allegation that Palmolive’s appraiser was a “promoter” and therefore not a qualified appraiser. The Court grants the motion for leave to amend, but the IRS needs to transmit a detailed written statement of the facts on which it will rely at trial to support its contention he was a “promoter.” Palmolive’s assertions in their opposition are deemed to be requests for admission for the IRS to respond to under Rule 90.
  • Order 2 available here. Palmolive filed a motion for summary judgment and the IRS filed their own motion for partial summary judgment in response. In a conference call with the parties, Judge Gustafson explained his expectations as to how he is likely to rule on the issues raised in the motions. He suggested that Palmolive “might wish to forego further filings on the motions and instead use its time to prepare for trial.” Palmolive’s counsel stated there would be no further filing on the issues 2 to 4, but would file a reply as to issue 1. The judge stated he expects to grant the IRS motion on issue 4, regarding the IRS written supervisory approval of the initial determination of penalties in compliance with IRC section 6751(b), but that the order or opinion might not be issued until soon before trial. The parties are to prepare for trial on the assumption that issue 4 will not be a subject of trial. Note: there was a subsequent designated order on issue 1 that will potentially be addressed in another blog post that is available here. Spoiler alert: Palmolive loses on issue 1.

Takeaway: This is a case with multiple filings and has complexity. One takeaway from these orders is that when the judge tells you not to do something it is in your best interest to comply.

Motion to Strike

Docket No. 14214-18, Pierre L. Broquedis v. C.I.R. (Order here).

It is not often that we see a Motion to Strike in a Tax Court case. Here, Petitioner states paragraphs and exhibits in Respondent’s answer are false or not concise statements of the facts upon which Respondent relies.

The Court cites Tax Court Rule 52, where the Court may order stricken from any pleading any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, frivolous, or scandalous matter. The Court states that motions to strike are not favored by federal courts. Matters will not be stricken from a pleading unless it is clear that it can have no possible bearing on the subject matter of the litigation. Additionally, a motion to strike will not be granted unless there is a showing of prejudice to the moving party.

The Court concludes the allegations and exhibits bear a relationship to the issues in the case. Also, petitioner failed to show that he would be materially prejudiced by a denial of his motion to strike. The Court then ordered to deny the motion to strike.

Takeaway: Since the Court states that motions to strike are not favored by federal courts, they should be avoided. While Rule 52 spells out the Court’s ability to order material stricken, this case illustrates that there are rare circumstances when the Court will grant such an order.

The Numbers Don’t Match

Docket No. 7737-18, Kelle C. Hickam & Nancy Hickam v. C.I.R. (Order here). Petitioners filed their petition with 6 numbered statements in their paragraph 5. Respondent filed an answer, admitting to certain paragraphs in the petition. Petitioners, thinking that the IRS partially conceded the case, submitted a motion for partial summary judgment. The Court states: “Petitioners, however, appear to believe that respondent’s numbered paragraphs in his answer refer to their numbered responses in the petition’s paragraph 5. They do not. Respondent’s paragraphs in his answer refer to the numbered paragraphs on the petition.” Since there are genuine disputes of material fact, the Court denied the motion.

Takeaway: While I understand that court documents are not always easy to understand, it would have been wise for these unrepresented petitioners to talk about the pleadings with someone who is familiar with court procedure. It should be a simple step to match the paragraphs between the Petitioner’s petition and the Respondent’s answer. The IRS is not going to concede material issues when they file an Answer. You’re not going to get that lucky.

Miscellaneous Short Items

  • Supervisor Conspiracy – Docket No. 15255-16SL, Robert L. Robinson v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision here). The petitioner mentions that his supervisor obstructed/impeded his payments and that there was a conspiracy. Otherwise, this looks to be a routine Collection Due Process case, granting the IRS motion for summary judgment because they followed routine procedures.
  • Materials Destroyed – Docket No. 20942-16, Donald L. Bren v. C.I.R. (Order here). Petitioner filed a motion in limine to exclude from evidence the report of respondent’s expert, Robert Shea Purdue, because he deliberately discarded documents and deleted electronic records investigated but disregarded in reaching the conclusions set forth in his report. The Court granted that motion.

 

 

Update: Can District Courts Hear Innocent Spouse Refund Suits?

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith. Carl discusses a case, Hockin, in which the Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School has filed an amicus brief. If you read the brief filed by Ms. Hockin, to which we link below, you will learn the underlying facts of the case. Like the vast majority of innocent spouse cases these facts describe the sad circumstances that led her to request relief. Relief here for her, if she obtains it, will not make her whole monetarily because of the Flora rule. (Of course, relief would never make her whole in the true sense because the tax system can only assist her with the tax component of the difficult situation caused by the actions of her former husband.) 

This case should not only make us think about the jurisdictional issues raised by the innocent spouse provisions but also about how the application of the Flora rule prevents taxpayers without the wherewithal to fully pay in a short span of time to obtain the return of all of the money paid to the IRS for taxes that they do not owe. This situation describes most low income taxpayers. Keith

This is an update on two cases discussed by Keith in a recent post. The post primarily discussed the case of Chandler v. United States, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174482 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 17, 2018) (magistrate opinion), adopted by judge at 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173880 (N.D. Tex. Oct. 9, 2018). Chandler was a district court suit in which an individual sought a refund for overpaying her equitable share of taxes on a joint return, taking into account innocent spouse relief under section 6015(f). In Chandler, the district court granted a DOJ motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, holding that only the Tax Court could hear suits involving innocent spouse relief. Keith wondered whether there would be an appeal of this ruling of first impression with respect to innocent spouse refund suit jurisdiction.

In his post, Keith also mentioned the existence of a similar innocent spouse refund suit under section 6015(f) pending in the district court for the District of Oregon, Hockin v. United States, Docket No. 3:17-CV-1926. In that case, a similar DOJ motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction was pending, arguing that district courts cannot hear refund suits involving innocent spouse relief.

The update, in a nutshell, is that Chandler was not appealed, but Hockin has been set up as a test case, where nearly all the filings are in and linked to below.

read more...

Both under the original innocent spouse provision (section 6013(e), which existed from 1971 to 1998) and the current innocent spouse provision (section 6015, enacted in 1998), the district courts and the Court of Federal Claims had occasionally, and without objection from the DOJ, entertained suits for refund filed solely on the grounds that a taxpayer paid more than was required after the application of the innocent provisions.

Although the DOJ had apparently never done so before in any innocent spouse refund suit going back all the way to the 1970s and 1980s, in the summer of 2018, DOJ trial division lawyers in both Chandler and Hockin submitted motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that, because Congress in 1998 enacted a stand-alone innocent spouse Tax Court action at section 6015(e) in which the Tax Court can find an overpayment under section 6015(b) or (f), the Tax Court is the sole court in which innocent spouse refund suits can now be filed (i.e., via section 6015(e)), and so neither the district courts nor the Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction to entertain innocent spouse refund suits. The DOJ motions acknowledged only one rare exception to this position: Where there was a pending refund suit in a district court or the Court of Federal Claims (presumably on other issues) at a time when a taxpayer also filed a suit in the Tax Court under section 6015(e), the statute provides that the Tax Court innocent spouse suit should be transferred over to the court hearing the refund suit. Section 6015(e)(3).

In July, Keith and I were alerted to the existence of the motion in Hockin – but not the one in Chandler – by pro bono counsel for Ms. Hockin, J. Scott Moede, the Chief Deputy City Attorney of the Portland, Oregon Office of the City Attorney. Mr. Moede had taken on the Hockin case in his role as a regular voluteer with the Lewis & Clark Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic in Portland. That clinic suggested that Mr. Moede contact the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic because of the Harvard clinic’s interest in innocent spouse cases.

Working with summer students, in August, Keith and I put together a draft of a proposed amicus memorandum for Hockin arguing that the DOJ position was both ahistorical and contrary to the 1998 and 2000 legislative history of section 6015(e) that seemed to make clear that Congress enacted section 6015(e) to be added on top of all existing avenues for judicial review of innocent spouse issues, not to repeal or replace any prior avenues for judicial review.

Further, in the draft memorandum, we pointed out that the Trial Section’s motion in Hockin took a position directly contrary to the position that the DOJ Appellate Section had taken in three cases that the Harvard clinic had recently litigated. In those three cases, the DOJ Appellate Section urged the appellate courts not to worry about holding that a person who filed a late Tax Court suit under section 6015(e) must have her suit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The DOJ Appellate Section said that such a taxpayer could always still get judicial review of the IRS’ decision to deny innocent spouse relief by paying the tax in full, filing a refund claim, and suing for a refund in the district court or the Court of Federal Claims.

In both Hockin and Chandler, the taxpayers received a notice of determination denying innocent spouse relief, but did not try to petition the Tax Court within the 90 days provided under section 6015(e). Rather, after later making either partial (Chandler) or full (Hockin) payment, the taxpayers filed refund claims and brought refund suits in district court that were timely under the rules of sections 6511(a) and 6532(a) (though, for Hockin, the lookback rules of section 6511(b) limit the amount of the refund to only a portion of what Ms. Hockin paid). Thus, except for the full payment (Flora) rule problem in Chandler, the taxpayers had done exactly what the Appellate Section said they should do to get judicial review of innocent spouse relief rulings other than through section 6015(e).

In August, we sent a draft copy of the memorandum to the DOJ attorney in Hockin and asked whether the DOJ would object to a motion by the Harvard clinic to file it. This draft memorandum apparently triggered the DOJ’s desire to explore mediation in the case. So, the case was assigned to a magistrate for mediation, and further filings on the motion (including the amicus motion) were postponed.

Then, in September and October, the magistrate and district court judge, respectively, issued rulings in Chandler granting the DOJ’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. That is how Keith, Mr. Moede, and I learned of the existence of the Chandler case presenting the identical jurisdictional issue. Although Ms. Chandler was represented by counsel, that counsel had filed no papers in response to the DOJ motion to dismiss in her case. Naturally, this led to the magistrate and judge in Chandler relying entirely on the DOJ’s arguments and citations in ruling for the DOJ.

In his recent post on Chandler, Keith raised the question whether the Chandler district judge ruling would be appealed to the Fifth Circuit. The first piece of news in this update is that Ms. Chandler decided not to appeal. Frankly, give the Flora full payment problem in the case, I think an appeal on the issue of whether the district court otherwise would have had jurisdiction would have been pointless.

But, the second piece of news is that, in November, mediation failed in the Hockin case. So, Hockin is now set up as a possible appellate test case, depending on the district court’s ruling.

The DOJ has now not objected to the Harvard clinic’s filing of an amicus memorandum in Hockin. That memorandum was filed on November 26.

On December, 21, Ms. Hockin (through Mr. Moede) filed her response to the DOJ motion. In her response, Ms. Hockin argued not only that the district court had jurisdiction over section 6015 innocent spouse relief refund suits, but also that she had raised in her refund claim two additional arguments: that she had never filed a joint return for the year and that the IRS should be bound to give her innocent spouse relief for the year because it had given her such relief for the immediately-following taxable year. As noted in the Harvard memorandum, the “no joint return” argument has been considered in district court refund lawsuits even predating the enactment of the first innocent spouse provision in 1971.

The DOJ will be allowed to file a reply by January 11.

On February 5, oral argument on the motion will be heard before a magistrate who was not involved in the mediation. Ms. Hockin has agreed to have this magistrate decide the jurisdictional motion without the involvement of a district court judge, but the DOJ has not yet similarly consented. If the DOJ does the same, and the magistrate dismisses the case, this would allow a direct appeal from the magistrate to the Ninth Circuit. If the DOJ does not consent, the magistrate’s ruling will have to be reviewed by a district court judge before a party could appeal any adverse ruling to the Ninth Circuit.

You can find here for Hockin, the DOJ’s motion, the Harvard clinic’s amicus memorandum, and Ms. Hockin’s response.

Finally, you may be aware of the recent amendment of 28 U.S.C. section 1631 that allows district courts and the Court of Federal Claims to transfer to the Tax Court suits improperly filed in the former courts. That amendment would not help Ms. Hockin, since her district courts suit was filed long after the 90-day period to file a Tax Court suit under section 6015(e) expired. So, her case, if transferred, would have to be dismissed by the Tax Court for lack of jurisdiction because the suit was untimely filed in the district court for purposes of the Tax Court’s stand-alone innocent spouse case jurisdictional grant. For Ms. Hockin, her only chance now for getting a refund attributable to the innocent spouse provisions is for the courts to agree that district courts have jurisdiction to consider innocent spouse refund suits.

 

Frustration with the Premium Tax Credit, Designated Orders 11/19/18 – 11/23/18

We welcome Professor Samantha Galvin from the Sturm Law School at the University of Denver who brings us this weeks designated orders. She focuses on Premium Tax Credit disputes and the possibility of success in some cases where an insurance company or health insurance marketplace erred. Professor Galvin’s success in the second clinic case she describes makes me hopeful that the final thoughts in this post on APTC and third-party fraud were not entirely off the mark. Christine

Only four orders were designated during the week of Thanksgiving. I discuss one in detail and summarize the others below.

Frustration with the Premium Tax Credit

Ovid Sachi & Helen Sachi v. CIR, Docket No. 12032-17 (here)

This first order and decision was issued in a case involving the premium tax credit (“PTC”) under section 36B. Christine Speidel and I authored the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) chapter in the most recent edition of Effectively Representing Your Client before IRS and it was my introduction to all things ACA.

A search of Tax Court opinions reveals that only ten cases, so far, mention the PTC. I anticipate that we will see more PTC related cases as time goes on, but it is still very much a developing area and this decision seems consistent with the others. Two early cases were discussed on PT here.

read more...

For those of you who may not know, the PTC is a credit available to taxpayers to whose incomes fall between 100% – 400% of the federal poverty line. It is intended to offset the cost of insurance premiums and make health insurance more affordable for middle and low-income taxpayers. The credit can be paid, either in part or in full, to the insurance company in advance and then taxpayers must reconcile the advance payments on form 8962 when they file their tax returns. Depending on the amount of credit received and the taxpayer’s modified adjusted gross income, the reconciliation may result in a refund if taxpayers were entitled to a larger credit than they received, or a balance due if taxpayers were entitled to a smaller credit or not entitled to any credit. I’ll avoid going into any further detail about the mechanics of the PTC, but for those looking for more information I encourage you to check out Chapter 29 in the 7th Edition of Effectively Representing.

This order itself is somewhat unexciting; respondent moves for summary judgment and petitioners do not respond. The Court goes on to provide some background information: petitioners received the PTC in 2015, but only reported half of their advance credits on  form 8962. Worse, the form’s reconciliation calculation showed that their income was higher than 400% of the federal poverty line rendering them ineligible for any credit. In their petition the taxpayers did not dispute the material facts (the total PTC amount and their modified adjusted gross income) but expressed frustration with the application process and confusing correspondence from the insurance company, the health insurance marketplace, and the IRS.

The order does not provide any information about whether the taxpayers correctly reported their anticipated income to the marketplace, or if they earned more income than expected – but these facts wouldn’t change the outcome of the case because the taxpayers are still responsible for repaying any excess credit in those situations. See McGuire v. C.I.R, 149 T.C. No. 9.

Taxpayer frustration in this area is sadly a common occurrence. We have had two Tax Court cases dealing with the PTC in my clinic. One case involved an incorrect form 1095-A which the marketplace refused to correct, but we were successful because the clients had documentation and receipts which allowed us to prove to the IRS what a correct form 1095-A would have looked like. The case was conceded by the IRS after we submitted this documentation to Appeals.

The other case involved advance PTC that was paid for a married couple; however, the insurer only effectuated a policy for the husband. The wife’s policy was never effectuated as evidenced by documentation provided to us, somewhat surprisingly, by the (now defunct) health insurance company. In other words, the Treasury was paying a credit to an insurer for a policy that did not exist, and as a result, the taxpayer never received any benefit. We were successful at the Appeals stage in the Tax Court process in this case as well.

We will see what happens in this area as it continues to develop, but it seems that success may be possible in cases where a taxpayer proves that the marketplace or insurance company made a mistake and the taxpayer did not benefit from the mistake.

Now, a summary of the other orders:

  • Napoleon v. Irabago & Zosima Irabagon v. C.I.R., Docket No. 1594-16L (here): This order and decision involves a sad instance of petitioners failing to understand their obligations in the Tax Court process and losing the opportunity to present evidence to reduce their liability. Petitioners initially petitioned the Tax Court on a notice of deficiency for 2010 and 2011. The petition was timely received but petitioners failed to pay the $60 filing fee despite being ordered to do so, and their case was ultimately dismissed. The IRS collection process proceeded, and eventually the taxpayers requested a collection due process hearing and then petitioned the Court on the notice of determination attempting to maintain their original argument (that they have proof of their expenses). Unfortunately, the Court no longer has jurisdiction to hear it.
  • Marvel Thompson v. CIR, Docket No. 29498-12 (here): This order grants respondent’s motion for summary judgment after the petitioner failed to respond. Although the Court said it could grant the motion without further analysis, it proceeds to discuss the merits of the case. Petitioner earned rents and royalties but didn’t file a return for tax years 2007 and 2008. I thought the case might take an interesting turn when petitioner stated that he had been incarcerated since 2004, so he could not have earned income, but in the end the Court finds that he has not met the burden of proving he did not earn the rent and royalty income while incarcerated.
  • Sue Hawkins v. CIR, Docket No. 19223-17 (here): After a decision was rendered in her case, petitioner wrote a letter to the Court which was accepted as a motion for reconsideration. The Court orders the IRS to respond and include information about how much of petitioner’s liability has been paid thus far. The Court also specifically orders petitioner to communicate and cooperate with the IRS as they prepare to respond to her motion and goes even further ordering that she answer their calls and letters. If she fails to do so, the initial decision will stand.

 

 

 

A Light Week at the Court Shines the Light on Pro Se Taxpayers Designated Orders: 11/12 – 11/17/2018

We welcome Professor Patrick Thomas from Notre Dame who brings us this week’s designated orders. Keith 

The Tax Court designated three orders this week—another very light week for the Court. Judges Thornton, Gustafson, and Leyden handled some common pro se taxpayer issues. Judge Gustafson, with a very detailed chronology of a petitioner’s unresponsiveness, ordered dismissal of a pro se taxpayer’s case. The cases from Judge Thornton and Judge Leyden are discussed in more detail below. 

read more...
 

Docket No. 21411-17L, Dail v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Thornton grants Respondent’s motion for summary judgment nearly in full. This CDP case with a tax protestor flavor arose from returns that Mr. Dail filed for 2010, 2011, and 2012.

In April 2015, Mr. Dail filed amended returns for each year, in addition to 2009 and 2013. These amended returns reported $0 of taxable income, notwithstanding wages reported on a W2. He also attached to the returns a Form 4852 (a substitute for a Form W2 or 1099), which also reported $0 of wages. The Forms 4582 claimed that the wages are not taxable under sections 3401 and 3121 (which define “wages” for federal income and FICA tax withholding purposes, respectively). Mr. Dail also attached various documents that purported to exempt his wages from taxation, arguing that he was a “private sector citizen (non-federal employee) employed by a private sector company (non-federal employer).”

The Service did not take kindly to these amended returns. It rejected the returns and assessed frivolous return filing penalties under section 6702 of $5,000 per return. An original return filed for 2014 also earned Mr. Dail a $5,000 penalty under section 6702, along with a Notice of Deficiency for the underreported tax and an accuracy penalty under section 6662(a).

 

Subsequently, Mr. Dail received a Notice of Federal Tax Lien and Notices of Intent to Levy for each year in February 2017 and timely field a CDP hearing request—noting again that he’s not liable for any taxes of any sort, and that the IRS didn’t send him a summary record of assessment. He did not seek any collection alternative, but did ask for withdrawal of the NFTL.

The Settlement Officer in the CDP hearing found that he only raised frivolous issues as to the underlying liability, and issued a Notice of Determination sustaining both the NFTL and the levies. Mr. Dail timely petitioned the Notice of Determination to the Tax Court.

Respondent eventually filed the present motion for summary judgment. Mr. Dail didn’t respond; this means that Judge Thornton could have granted the motion solely on that basis under Tax Court Rule 121(d).

But as Tax Court judges often do, Judge Thornton evaluates the merits in this case. Regarding the income tax debts, because Mr. Dail only presented frivolous arguments regarding his underlying liability, section 6330(g) provides that the Tax Court could not consider them (though Judge Thornton cites 6330(c)(2)(B)). Judge Thornton also upheld the section 6702 penalties; he could consider them in a CDP case because Mr. Dail had had no prior opportunity to dispute the liability, given that the Service may assess such penalties directly. He found that the penalties were appropriate because (1) Mr. Dail filed documents purporting to be returns, (2) his claims that his wages were not taxable was substantially incorrect on its face, and (3) his conduct was based on a position that the Service previously identified as frivolous. Finally, Judge Thornton finds no abuse of discretion in the Settlement Officer’s analysis of the collection issues in the CDP Hearing. He also warns Mr. Dail of a section 6673 penalty if he persists in these sorts of arguments.

Respondent, however, doesn’t quite get to a full resolution of the case. For tax year 2014, the Service issued a Notice of Deficiency as to this frivolous return seeking to assess the proper amount of tax on Mr. Dail’s wages. The Notice included a small accuracy penalty. Judge Thornton held that Mr. Dail was also barred from challenging 2014 because he received the Notice of Deficiency and had the opportunity then to petition the Tax Court, but did not.

Nevertheless, Judge Thornton denies summary judgment as to the 6662(a) penalty, because Respondent’s counsel promised, but did not deliver, documents supporting the managerial approval of the penalty required under section 6751.

It seems, at first blush, odd that Judge Thornton could and did deny summary judgment on this issue. He could have simply ruled in Respondent’s favor under Rule 121(d). Mr. Dail was barred from challenging the underlying 2014 liability under section 6330(c)(2)(B) because he’d had a prior opportunity to do so. He was also potentially barred under section 6330(g), because the issues he raised were frivolous.

So how did Judge Thornton reach this result? First, the Tax Court Rules are not ironclad; Tax Court judges often waive harshness under the Rules for pro se taxpayers. Judge Thornton certainly has the discretion to do so here. Further, the particular issue—managerial approval under 6751—isn’t a frivolous issue at all. So the bar under section 6330(g) probably doesn’t apply. Moreover, while Mr. Dail is barred from raising the issue under section 6330(c)(2)(B), the Service must consider, under section 6330(c)(1), whether the requirements of any applicable law or administrative procedure have been met. The Court has authority to review the Service’s analysis under an abuse of discretion analysis. Failure to consider the requirement under 6751 would constitute an abuse of discretion, and so the Court may order the Service to consider the issue. If Respondent’s counsel has the goods, then the Court may resolve this case without a remand to Appeals. If not, then a remand may theoretically be appropriate; more likely, however, Respondent’s counsel will conclude that the approval documents do not exist, and—to expedite their and Appeals’ workload—will concede the issue to fully resolve the case.

Docket No. 307-18L, Chang v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In Chang, Respondent filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in this CDP case. Petitioner challenged years 1999 through 2010 and 2014 in the Tax Court. Respondent countered that, as to years 2003 and 2008, the Service sent a Notice of Intent to Levy on January 12, 2016 and received a CDP request on February 16. (The other years were more clearly barred from a Tax Court challenge, stemming as they did from an NFTL, for which Petitioner requested a CDP hearing four months late, rather than four days. He’d also challenged 1999 to 2002 in a prior CDP case in the Tax Court).

Petitioner’s CDP request for 2003 and 2008 “[did] not bear a postmark”. Therefore, Judge Leyden ordered Respondent (and later Petitioner) to research and present to the Court evidence on the mailing time between Petitioner’s home and the address on the CDP notice, which appear to both be in Hawai’i. Respondent filed a declaration from customer service manager of the “Downtown Station of Hawaii” (I’m not really sure where “Downtown Hawaii” is…), indicating that the letter was necessarily mailed on February 13, due to intervening weekends and holidays.

Petitioner filed an objection to Respondent’s declaration, noting that it can take up to two days for mail to be delivered between zip codes 96813 and 96816. For those curious, both zip codes are located near downtown Honolulu, Hawai’i, so interisland mailing (which might reasonably take longer than one day), is not in play.

So, Judge Leyden gave Petitioner an opportunity to submit similar information as did Respondent, ordering that Petitioner should present evidence about “when an envelope, properly addressed to the IRS requesting a CDP hearing would ordinarily have been received at the IRS and attach as an exhibit any statement by a U.S. Postal Service employee that petitioner obtains in support of his assertion that the CDP hearing request was timely mailed.”

A few questions that remain for me: how was the mailing delivered without a postmark? I originally thought that Respondent should simply argue that Petitioner cannot rely on the mailbox rule of section 7502, because under the applicable regulations at 26 C.F.R. 7502(c)(1)(iii), the envelope was not properly posted. But of course, the envelope did arrive at the Service, so it must have borne some postmark. The U.S. Postal Service is, after all, not in the business of delivering unposted envelopes. Hopefully Judge Leyden will designate a future order in this matter, so that we can discover the rest of the story.