Federal Bar Association Tax Section Writing Competition

Last month PT celebrated its 1,000th post and its 2,000th comment. One aspect of the success of the site is that we are occasionally asked to post an announcement because of the number of readers who look at PT. Today, we are happy to comply with a request from the Federal Bar Association Tax Section to publicize its writing competition.

The website for the competition is here. The rules for the competition can be found here and a flyer about the competition can be found here. Effective writing skills will serve any budding tax attorney well. This is a great competition and winning would provide quite an honor (in addition to cash and a trip to D.C.)

We encourage eligible students to write on tax procedures issues and suggest that they can find many good topics from the posts on this blog.

Getting a Double Penalty Benefit or Getting to the Right Result

It’s easy to feel sorry for the people who invested in Son of Boss tax shelters. They really wanted to pay the right amount of taxes but were hoodwinked into investing into tax shelters that did not turn out like they hoped causing them to have significant problems with the IRS that they never intended.

If that’s your take on Son of Boss investors, you will love a case that came out earlier this summer. If that’s not your take, you might still find the situation amusing. I think the IRS found the situation just slightly less amusing than paying out attorney’s fees to tax shelter promoter BASR. In Ervin v. United States, the district court found that investors in a Son of Boss shelter were entitled to a refund of penalties paid to the IRS even though they recovered the penalties from their tax advisors who brought them into the tax shelter in the first place. How did we get there?

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The investors brought a suit against the IRS to obtain a refund of the valuation misstatement penalty and penalty interest payments. They convinced a jury of their peers that they had reasonable cause for the tax positions they took. Now, they want the IRS to give them a refund of the penalties they paid.

In the meantime, the investors sued some of their tax advisors – BDO Seidman and Curtis Mallet – to recover the penalties asserted against them for investing in the Son of Boss shelter and they won that suit also. It came out in the tax refund suit that they had won the suit against their advisors and recovered a substantial amount of money. The IRS argued that it should not have to refund the penalties and interest to them because the recovery that the investors received from their advisors was intended to pay for the penalty. If the investors got to keep the recovery and did not have to pay the penalty, the investors would receive a windfall. The IRS argued that it should keep the money the investors paid to it because they were already made whole and the payments by the advisors represented the true payments of the penalties. The investors argued that they should receive the entire refund despite the private settlement. They also argued that the IRS does not have a claim of right with respect to the penalty payments.

The Court rejected the argument made by the IRS and rejected it without giving the IRS any further discovery. It finds that the investors did not fail to disclose a matter “bearing on the nature and extent of injuries suffered.” The suit was about their liability for penalties and the private suit against their advisors really had nothing to do with it. The Court said that it could not find a single instance in which a court has excused the IRS from its obligation to repay the improperly assessed and collected tax in a refund suit and ordered the IRS to pay here.

This case brings up an issue that Steve and I have debated before and he has written about. When a taxpayer argues reasonable cause based on the advice of tax advisor, the case is in many ways the malpractice case involving the advisor. If the taxpayer succeeds in fending off the penalty, maybe the taxpayer does not pursue the advisor. So, a victory for the taxpayer may be an economic victory for the party who caused the problem just as much for the taxpayer.

If taxpayers are going to defend against the IRS and sue their advisor in situations in which they can win both cases because they were reasonable in relying on the advisor and the advisor did give bad advice, maybe this feels bad to the IRS but it puts the economic loss in the right place, or maybe it misallocates the placement of the economic loss which is why the IRS was complaining.

The advisor who gives the bad advice should be liable and pay for the damages caused by the bad advice. The bad advice has really harmed both the IRS and the taxpayer. If the taxpayer pays the right amount of tax after the audit, the IRS is whole from the perspective of collecting the correct amount of tax but has still had to expend effort to collect that tax instead of having the self-reporting system work as it should. If the taxpayer pays the correct amount of tax in the end, should the taxpayer be freed from paying the advisor who caused the taxpayer to incur the problem in the first place? The taxpayer may have had to pay more money to fight with the IRS about the correct amount of tax and certainly did not get the value bargained for.

In cases where the taxpayer avoids an otherwise appropriate penalty because the taxpayer reasonably relied upon the advisor, should the system penalize the advisor so that the IRS recovers something akin to the appropriate penalty and so that the advisor feels the pain of causing the problem while also allowing the taxpayer to recover from the advisor at least the cost of the original bad advice plus perhaps the cost of the advice to fix the problem created? The IRS is right to complain here, in the sense that some penalty payment seems appropriate. It also seems right to allow the taxpayer to avoid paying the penalty to the IRS where the taxpayer reasonably relied on the advice of a professional and to allow the taxpayer to recover the cost the taxpayer paid for the bad advice. Maybe we should look at recasting the penalty scheme to bring all of the players to the table. Where I am particularly bothered, the advisor is continuing to represent the taxpayer in the reasonable cause litigation and I felt that the advisor was using the taxpayer’s more sympathetic case as a shield for the advisors’ less sympathetic one.

 

Identity Theft Meets Student Loans and Wrongful Collection

An interesting case at the confluence of identity theft, student loans, and wrongful collection is set for oral argument in the D.C. Circuit on November 21, 2017. As with many cases we write about on PT, thanks goes out to Carl Smith for finding this case and bringing it to our attention. The case is Reginald L. Ivy v. Commissioner. Although Mr. Ivy is pro se, the court has appointed Travis Crum and Brian Netter of Mayer Brown LLP as Amicus Curiae to write in support of his position.

Mr. Ivy owed student loans and the Department of Education certified those loans to the Treasury Department for offset because he was in default. Someone stole Mr. Ivy’s identify and filed a false return claiming a refund. The IRS allowed an overpayment of $1,822, and the money was sent to DOE to pay off the student loan. I can only imagine the chagrin of the identity thief for being good enough to prepare a return that got through the IRS filters only to find out that the selected victim had an outstanding federal liability subject to the federal offset procedures.

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In August of 2013, the student loan was fully satisfied thanks, in part, to the offset of the refund on the fraudulently filed return by the ID thief. In September of 2013 Mr. Ivy learned of the false 2011 return and prepared and submitted his own return for that year. On his return, he showed an overpayment of $634.

The IRS became aware that the first return filed under Mr. Ivy’s name for 2011 was a false return and it reversed the credit which had the effect of putting Mr. Ivy into default on his student loan. When the IRS reversed the credit, it caused the “real” overpayment by Mr. Ivy to go to, or stay with, DOE. Mr. Ivy complained that he should receive his $634 refund because his student loan was satisfied and argued that in keeping his $634, the IRS acted impermissibly. He brought suit in federal district court under IRC 7433, seeking the return of his money plus damages, arguing that the failure of the IRS to send him the refund caused him to miss a payment on another debt and triggered higher interest charges on the other debt.

The IRS argued that IRC 6402(g) prohibited suit against the IRS and that Mr. Ivy would have to sue DOE on the debt. In effect, the IRS argued that it gave him his refund and that his recourse was to go against the agency that prevented him from receiving the refund, and that agency was not the IRS. This is the standard argument that the IRS makes when someone has their refund offset because of the debt of owed to another agency of the state or federal government participating in the Treasury offset program and is a logical argument because of the language of the statute. In effect, his real beef was not with the IRS which had allowed not one but two refunds on his account, but rather was with the agency seeking to collect his student loan debt.

The district court agreed with the IRS and dismissed the suit. Mr. Ivy appealed, and the Circuit Court brought in the pro bono lawyers. The briefs have been filed. Attached are the Opening Brief of Amicus Curiae and the reply brief of Amicus Curiae. The briefs were filed this summer. During the briefing, the IRS sent Mr. Ivy a check for $634 plus interest. I cannot explain why the IRS did that. The sending of the refund means that only the damages portion of the suit remains.

At issue is the interplay between IRC 6402(g) and 7433(a). Section 6402(g) provides:

No court of the United States shall have jurisdiction to hear any action, whether legal or equitable, brought to restrain or review a reduction authorized by subsection (c), (d), (e) or (f). No such reduction shall be subject to review by the Secretary in an administrative proceeding. No action brought against the United States to recover the amount of any such reduction shall be considered to be a suit for refund of tax. This subsection does not preclude any legal equitable, or administrative action against the Federal agency or State to which the amount of such reduction was paid or any such action against the Commissioner of Social Security which is otherwise available with respect to recoveries of overpayments of benefits under section 204 of the Social Security Act.

Section 7433(a) provides

If, in connection with an collection of Federal tax with respect to a taxpayer, any officer or employee of the Internal Revenue Service recklessly or intentionally, or by reason of negligence, disregards any provision of this title, or any regulation promulgated under this title, such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against the United States in a district court of the United States. Except as provided in section 7432, such civil action shall be the exclusive remedy for recovering damages resulting from such actions.

The issue is whether there is any room left between to two statutes for Mr. Ivy to squeeze in a claim. Does the very broad bar of 6402(g) stop all action as the district court found (and as I am inclined to believe), or do the actions of the IRS with respect to the refund somehow constitute collection action on which the IRS has recklessly, intentionally, or negligently disregarded the code or regulations? So, Mr. Ivy must not only get past the bar of the first statute, he must find that sending the refund to DOE is collection activity. The amicus brief makes that argument after examining, through other cases, what is collection activity. It gets there in part because the refund is sent after an assessment, and an assessment is a predicate to collection action. But assessment, as they point out, is also a predicate to creation of an overpayment. I cannot make the leap that granting someone a refund and then sending it to another agency is collection action taken by the IRS in any sense, other than the sense covered by the jurisdictional bar of 6402(g).

The situation makes for an interesting discussion, but I cannot get past the fact that it looks like the IRS did exactly what the jurisdictional bar covers and nothing more. I would love to know why the IRS sent Mr. Ivy his refund in the end. I am curious to know if DOE is still trying to collect from him after the IRS reversed the credits. Of course, I would also like to know more about the ID thief and whether he or she, after starting this whole mess, has been caught.

 

Collection Due Process Determination Letter Continues to Mislead Taxpayers into Filing Their Tax Court Petition Too Late

The Harvard Tax Clinic is litigating the issue of the Tax Court’s jurisdiction to hear cases filed late. The Tax Court has soundly rejected our arguments that it has jurisdiction to hear Collection Due Process (CDP), discussed here, and Innocent Spouse (IS) cases, discussed here, filed after the respective 30 and 90 day periods following the issuance of the determination letters to the taxpayers. Not only has the Tax Court rejected our arguments, but the 2nd and 3rd Circuits have agreed with the Tax Court with respect to the IS statute. We expect to argue about the CDP statute in the 4th and 9th Circuits later this fall.

In the CDP cases, the issue concerns situations in which the taxpayers filed one day late relying on the language of the determination letter explaining to them the time within which they needed to file a Tax Court petition. In each case, the taxpayer filed on the 31st day and in each case, in responding to the motion to dismiss filed by the IRS, the taxpayer explained why they felt their petition was timely. In the Cunningham case cited below, Chief Judge Marvel described Ms. Cunningham’s interpretation of the notice as novel, and so it may seem to lawyers trained to read the type of language used in the determination letter, but after eight cases in a little over two years, the novelty has worn off and it has become clear that the language is misleading people on a regular basis. (One of the eight cases involves a pro se petitioner who is a lawyer. So, it is not only lay people who have found the language confusing.)

We blogged about this problem in a post on March 24, 2016, at a time when only three pro se taxpayers had been misled since mid-2015. See here http://procedurallytaxing.com/cdp-notice-of-determination-sentence-causing-late-pro-se-petitions/. In effect, this is an update post because five more pro se taxpayers have been misled since our last post. We have never gone back to look for orders before mid-2015 in which similar dismissals may have happened, so the figure of eight pro se taxpayers misled may actually severely understate the problem that has existed since, probably, 2006 or 2007, when the notice of determination was redrafted to include the confusing language for the first time.

Whether or not the Tax Court has jurisdiction to hear a case filed late because of the misleading notice, the notice itself needs to be changed now in order to avoid the continuation of a bad situation.

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I wrote about the third letter in the collection notice stream that the IRS has been sending for the past 18-24 months that misstates the law. The good news with respect to that letter is that I am told that the IRS agreed to change the letter to remove the language that misstates the law and that tells the taxpayer that the IRS can levy upon their property when it cannot levy upon their property. Based on the information provided to me, the new, improved third letter in the notice stream will go out starting in January of 2018. Until then, taxpayers will continue to receive the incorrect letter; however, I am encouraged that the IRS is changing the letter in response to concerns about its accuracy. I know that changing letters is a slow process at the IRS because of the procedures it has for approving letters and getting them into mass mailings, though I wish it were not so slow when a letter is actually wrong. Because I have not seen the new, improved third letter in the notice stream, I cannot say how improved it is.

Based on the ability of the IRS to listen and adapt regarding the wrong letter it was using in the notice stream, I am hoping that it will also change the letter that it uses in sending a taxpayer a notice of determination. Carl Smith has been tracking Tax Court orders over the past few years. He has found eight cases in which the language of the notice of determination letter has misled the taxpayer into filing Tax Court petition on the wrong day:

Order dated June 26, 2015, in Duggan v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 4100-15L, on appeal, Ninth Circuit Docket No. 15-73819;

Order dated December 7, 2016, in Cunningham v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 14090-16L, on appeal, Fourth Circuit Docket No. 17-1433;

Order dated March 4, 2016, in Pottgen v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 1410-15L;

Order dated January 14, 2016, in Swanson v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 14406-15S (The Swanson case order does not discuss any argument that the language of the notice of determination misled the taxpayer.  But, Carl Smith went down to the Tax Court and looked at Swanson’s opposition to the motion, wherein Swanson attached the notice of determination and quadruple-underlined the words “day after” in the sentence that is misleading all these pro se people, including Swanson.  It is because of the language of that sentence that he argued his filing was timely — an argument rejected in the order);

Order dated April 20, 2017, in Wallaesa v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 1179-17L;

Order dated May 31, 2017, in Saporito v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 8471-17L;

Order dated May 31, 2017, in Integrated Event Management, Inc. v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 27674-16SL;

Order dated September 26, 2017, in Protter v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 22975-15SL.

We could provide good advice to these individuals that waiting until the last day to file your Tax Court petition is not a good idea. It is a good practice to send the petition at least a week before the last day to file in order to provide some cushion, though we understand that this may not always be possible, given the short deadline in CDP (30-days) and the fact that taxpayers do not receive the notice of determination until several days after the IRS mails it. Despite this nice advice that could have saved these petitioners, we all know that filing on the last day is normal for many pro se petitioners as well as many lawyers. There should not be a question about what is the last day. The notice should make that clear.

The notice of determination creating this confusion states:  “If you want to dispute this determination in court, you must file a petition with the United States Tax Court within a 30-day period beginning the day after the date of this letter.”  (Emphasis added).  That is not the statutory language.  The statute provides:  “The person may, within 30 days of a determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter).”  § 6330(d)(1) (emphasis added).  Prior to a 2006 amendment of § 6330(d)(1) (an amendment which centralized all CDP review only in the Tax Court), the notice of determination more closely tracked the statutory language, stating: “If you want to dispute this determination in court, you must file a petition with the United States Tax Court for a redetermination within 30 days from the date of this letter.”  See Jones v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2003-29 at *3 (language from notice issued in 2001; emphasis added).

The IRS apparently chose to write a sentence in the current version of the notice that conflates the words of the statute with elements of Tax Court Rule 25(a)(1) (discussing how to count days) and Reg. § 301.6330-1(f)(1) (“The taxpayer may appeal such determinations made by Appeals within the 30-day period commencing the day after the date of the Notice of Determination to the Tax Court.”).  However, the IRS failed to alert taxpayers as to the rules it was summarizing or where taxpayers could find examples of how the 30-day rule operated (including omitting any discussion of weekend days).  It has become clear that this language is misleading to many pro se taxpayers.  Indeed, it is because pro se taxpayers have difficulty understanding how to count days that, in 1998, Congress specifically required the IRS to place a last date to file on notices of deficiency and amended § 6213(a) to provide that taxpayers can rely on any incorrect dates shown. § 3463, Pub. L. 105-206.  (Unfortunately, Congress forgot to write the same sentences requiring showing the last date to file on the new notices of determination issued under §§ 6330(d)(1) and 6015(e)(1) that were adopted in the same statute.)

The National Taxpayer Advocate has written about problems with the innocent spouse notice before:

Problem

Even though the IRS’s relief determination under IRC § 6015 is subject to judicial review, the IRS is not required to provide and does not provide taxpayers with the last date to petition the U.S. Tax Court in the final determination letters it issues to them in connection with requests for innocent spouse relief. In contrast, IRS deficiency determinations are similarly subject to judicial review, but Congress has directed the IRS to assist taxpayers by providing them with the last date to petition the Tax Court in notices of deficiency. Providing such assistance is important because it may be difficult for some taxpayers to determine the deadline for filing a petition in Tax Court without professional assistance, assistance which many taxpayers who need relief may be unable to afford. Sixty-five percent of the taxpayers who request innocent spouse relief make less than $30,000 per year. Thus, it may be even more helpful for the IRS to include the last date to petition the Tax Court in innocent spouse determination letters than to include it in notices of deficiency.

Perhaps one reason the IRS does not include the last date to petition the Tax Court in its notice of determination letters is that if the IRS enters a date beyond the requisite period and the taxpayer relies on it, then the taxpayer could miss the filing deadline. In contrast, if the IRS enters a date beyond the requisite period for filing a Tax Court petition in a notice of deficiency, then a taxpayer will not be harmed as long as he or she files the petition on or before the date contained in the notice of deficiency because IRC § 6213 (a) provides that a taxpayer may petition the Tax Court any time on or before the date specified in the notice.

[Example and footnotes omitted]

Recommendation

Require the IRS to include the last date to petition the Tax Court in any final determination letter the IRS issues in connection with an election or request for innocent spouse relief in a manner similar to that provided by IRC § 6213 (a). Provide that a taxpayer may petition the Tax Court within 90 days of the date of the determination or by the date specified in the letter, whichever is later.

I understand that the NTA will have something about the CDP notice problem in her next annual report.

The filing deadline language in the notice of determination for CDP cases is also inconsistent with the filing deadline language for other similar IRS-issued notices that constitute “tickets” to the Tax Court.  Notices of deficiency issued under § 6212 have long stated: “If you want to contest this deficiency in court before making any payment, you have 90 days from the above date of this letter (150 days if addressed to you outside of the United States) to file a petition with the United States Tax Court for a redetermination of the deficiency.”  See Erickson v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1991-97 at *21 (language from 1988 notice; emphasis added); Rochelle v. Commissioner, 116 T.C. 356, 357 (2001) (same, except for addition of the word “mailing” before “date” in language from 1999 notice).  Notices of determination for Tax Court review of innocent spouse relief claims under § 6015(e)(1) state: “You can contest our determination by filing a petition with the United States Tax Court. You have 90 days from the date of this letter to file your petition.”  See Barnes v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. 248, 250 (2008) (language from 2001 notice; emphasis added).

The IRS should change the language in the notice of determination now. Undoubtedly, this will not stop late petitions. It should, however, greatly decrease the number of late petitions caused by confusing language. The language of the CDP notice now provides the date by which the taxpayer must make their CDP request. It is hard to object to that type of clarity.

 

 

Applying the Federal Payment Levy Program to Veterans

The National Taxpayer Advocate has recently written a couple of blog posts on the application of the Federal Payment Levy Program (FPLP) to veterans which can be found here and here. The posts provide significant detail and insight into the application of the program to veterans and argue persuasively that the IRS has applied the program too broadly by failing to use filters that it has adopted for other similar FPLP programs. If you are not generally familiar with FPLP the first post provides a good deal of background into the program generally.

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In May, 2017, the Service expanded it application of the FPLP to include military retirement payments paid by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. The decision to expand FPLP to these payments makes good sense. It stems from a recommendation in an audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). This seems to be one of those situations in which the auditors of the IRS did an excellent job of noticing a hole in the collection system, the IRS relatively quickly followed up to implement a program which will collect money from people receiving federal payments who have not fulfilled their tax obligations at little cost to the Treasury.

If the program is so good, why is the NTA complaining and why do I think her complaint is valid? The problem is not the program itself but the scope of the program. In implementing this program, the Service made a decision not to exclude from the levy program military retirees whose incomes fall below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. The decision to apply the FPLP to all military retirees means that money will be taken from the pensions of many retirees who are quite vulnerable. The second post goes into details about the numbers of military retirees whose income falls below 250% of poverty. When the IRS levies on a person whose income is that low, it almost always comes into the prohibition on levy when the taxpayer is in a hardship situation. A high percentage of the military retirees whose income falls below 250% of poverty will have allowable expenses that exceed their income. This qualifies them to have the IRS remove the levy. Many of the military retirees, like many of the recipients of Social Security payments, lack familiarity with IRC 6343. So, they will not raise it. For those that do raise the hardship issue, with or without knowing the statutory basis, the IRS will expend its precious resources undoing the levy and probably cost itself more in that process than it obtains from several others. For these reasons the IRS has chosen not to levy on similarly situated individuals in other settings.

The Service developed a filter to the FPLP which it uses to screen out low income taxpayers receiving Social Security old age or disability benefits and Railroad Retirement Board benefits. I applaud the use of this filter because applying the FPLP to the vast majority of taxpayers with income under 250% of poverty would implicate the hardship restriction on levy imposed by IRC 6343. It does not make good business sense or good policy to levy on these individuals with a high likelihood that hardship exists and require them to raise the hardship exception to levy.

For the same reasons that it makes good business sense and policy not to impose the FPLP on recipients of federal payments under the Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board, it also makes sense to extend the application of the exclusion to military retirement payments made to military retirees whose income is less than 250% of poverty. Military retirees, having served our country in such an important way, do not deserve to be discriminated against in this way. They have the same financial constraints as non-military retirees whose income is less than 250% of poverty. We should not honor their service by making it harder for them to receive the hardship relief granted by the Internal Revenue Code. The same presumptions that they would qualify for such relief should apply to this group as well.

The expansion of the FPLP to military retirement payments followed an internal audit criticizing the Service for failing to capture these payments under the FPLP. The internal audit, however, did not suggest that the same exclusions offered to individuals in the lowest economic strata of our society should be ignored when those individuals were recipients of a military pension based on their long and honorable service to the country. Many military retirees fall into the low income category and should receive the same treatment with regard to the low income filter as other recipients of federal benefits.

The NTA has marshalled the data showing that the levy will fall hard on the low income military retirees just as it falls hard on other persons receiving federal payments. The IRS should reconsider its decision not to apply the filter. The removal of the filter does not give the group with less than 250% of poverty in earnings a free pass and the decision is not a static decision that applies for the 10 year statute of limitations. If the IRS has information about the military retiree’s assets or other sources of support suggesting that imposition of the levy would not produce a hardship, nothing prevents the IRS from imposing FPLP or other collection remedies at any time.

Prisoners Filing Fraudulent Returns and the Efforts to Detect It

On July 20, 2017, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued its third report in the past several years on the topic of tax fraud perpetrated by prisoners and the efforts to detect and stop it.  As with most TIGTA reports this one bears the catchy title “Actions Need to be Taken to Ensure Compliance with Prisoner Reporting Requirements and Improve Identification of Prisoner Returns.”  While TIGTA found a number of items the IRS needed to improve because that’s its job, I found that the IRS had made significant improvements in this area due to increased effort and legislative assistance.  I last wrote about this issue on April 24, 2015 following the last TIGTA report.

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Prisoners have a reputation for using the tax system to get easy money.  The increase in the use of refundable credits put a target on the back of the IRS as a place to pick up money simply by filing a tax return.  Since tax returns can be filed from prison, using the tax system to gain access to money makes sense for prisoners.  When Congress created the first time homebuyer credit and the refundable adoption credit, it created very attractive targets for the type of fraudulent activity by prisoners.

In this report, TIGTA continues to find problems with the way the IRS administers the program for catching prisoners but the data also shows that the IRS has made significant strides using the relatively new legislation as well as its computers.  The process of seeking prisoner fraud looks very much like the other processes the IRS uses to detect mistakes in individual tax returns.  It relies heavily on matching information with computers rather than people and applying filters.  The ability to tackle the problem without devoting much people power allows the IRS to succeed here in a time of reduced resources.  While this program does not bring in revenue, the ability to keep improper refunds from going out the door is at least as important as putting effort into bringing in money.

One of the legislative changes requires prisons to provide the IRS with the Social Security Numbers of inmates.  The IRS then puts a prisoner indicator on the account of that SSN.  If someone is in prison, we should not expect that person to have significant income, though of course exceptions exist, and we should not expect that person to buy a home, adopt a child or engage in other activities that might trigger a refundable credit.  Having the information from the prisons, allows the IRS to do some immediate filtering that can catch improper claims.

Dealing with prisoner fraud also implicates the broader area of identity theft.  The IRS appears to have made significant strides in attacking ID theft in the past two years and that success has an impact on prisoner fraud since fraudulent returns filed by prisoners will more often than not involve the use of stolen or misused identification.

There is more than one program underway to stop prisoner refund fraud.  In addition to getting the SSNs of prisoners and loading it into the IRS database, prisons are now more carefully monitoring prisoner communication looking for tax fraud.  When a prison identifies a communication as one which might involve tax fraud, it notifies the IRS through the “Blue Bag Program.”  While the amount of correspondence sent to the IRS using this program in 2016 was slightly under 1,000, the existence of the program must serve as a deterrent.  This program would seem to play to a strong suit of prisons the way data matching plays to a strong suit of the IRS.

The prison program did not seem to work as well as one might hope in addressing the cases in which the IRS detects fraud by a prisoner.  The report indicates that the IRS might stop the fraud but little is done to punish the prisoner who engaged in the fraud even though the prisoner is known.  The IRS is not going to be able to prosecute prisoners unless they engage in a fairly wide ranging fraudulent effort just because of the limitations on its resources.  My impression from the report was that when the IRS provided information to the prisons about specific tax fraud activity but that information did not necessarily result in parole denial or other actions that could occur without criminal tax prosecution.  While the report did not discuss this in depth, it would seem that tailoring disclosure laws to allow the IRS to provide prisons with detailed information about an incidence of tax fraud and making that information a part of probation denial and other punishments within prison system without requiring criminal tax prosecution would be a way to strongly deter prisoner fraud for prisoners with hope of release or of the ability to use computers or other forms of communication.

TIGTA found that the IRS had not created a master list of all prisons.  Most of the prisons the IRS seemed not to be getting information from were part of the state and local system.  I would be interested in an analysis of which prisons or which types of prisons are most likely to generate tax fraud.  It would seem to state prisons incarcerating individuals for crimes of violence would be much less likely than federal prisons with more white collar crime and the knowledge base for creating the type of scheme necessary for refund fraud but my thinking about this could be entirely wrong.  Still, a profile of the likely prisoner to commit tax fraud would seem like something useful to create and to target efforts on those prisons or those prisoners where the likely criminals reside.

Since few tax practitioners represent incarcerated individuals, this report may provide little practical information.  I see it as a success story for IRS and Congress at a time when there are not enough success stories about legislative or administrative efforts to fix a problem.  Maybe lessons can be learned from the efforts to stop prisoner fraud and applied to the tax gap generally.  We know where the big holes are.

 

Late Filed Return Issue Overlooked in Recent Collection Due Process Case

On July 28, 2017, in the Collection Due Process (CDP) case of Conway v. Commissioner, Docket Number 6204-13S L, the Court issued an order determining that petitioner did not discharge her tax liabilities for several years.  The Tax Court has the authority Washington v. Commissioner, 120 T.C. 114, 120-121 (2003) to determine discharge issues in CDP cases.  The case is interesting for what the IRS did not argue, what it conceded, the standard of review of a CDP case in the 1st Circuit and how timing plays into the outcome.

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Ms. Conway failed to timely file returns for the years 2002 and 2006-2010.  This familiar story lands her in bankruptcy court for the District of Massachusetts on February 10, 2012 where she received a discharge of her chapter 7 case on May 8, 2012.  Regular readers of this blog know that someone living in the First Circuit who does not timely file their income tax return can never discharge the liability on that return because of the decision in Fahey v. Massachusetts Department of Revenue, _ F.3d _ (1st Cir. February 18, 2015).  See blog posts here, here and here discussing the issue.

The funny thing about the Conway decision is that even though Ms. Conway failed to timely file her returns for all of the years at issue and even though controlling circuit law, under the Golsen rule, made the outcome of her case a slam dunk victory for the IRS, the Fahey case never gets mentioned.  This could be because the people involved were not carefully reading PT, or for other reasons, or a combination of both.

After Ms. Conway received her discharge, the IRS did not abate her liabilities for the years mentioned above.  At that time, almost three years before the Fahey decision, a decision with which the IRS does not yet agree, the IRS decision to keep open her liabilities for these years was not based on her late filing but on the timing of the assessments for the years 2006-2010 and on a mistake as to 2002.  In August, 2012 the IRS filed a notice of federal tax lien against her for her outstanding liabilities and sent her the required CDP notice.  She timely filed a CDP request and sought relief, inter alia, because the tax debts were discharged in her recently completed bankruptcy case.  In February, 2013 the Settlement Officer (SO) issued a notice of determination sustaining the NFTL.

Ms. Conway filed a CDP Tax Court petition on March 15, 2013 raising, inter alia, the bankruptcy discharge as a reason for removing the NFTL.  The IRS filed a motion for summary judgment on November 29, 2013.  In that motion, the IRS conceded that the SO made a mistake as to 2002 and should have written off that liability; however, the IRS argued that as to the remaining years the exception to discharge in Bankruptcy Code 523(a)(1) prevented the discharge.  (The IRS attorney pledged to fix the 2002 year and make sure it was abated.) The IRS argued that the “SO did not abuse her discretion under the standard of review adopted by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Dalton v. Commissioner, 682 F.3d 149 (1st Cir. 2012), rev’g 135 T.C. 393 (2010).”  On January 6, 2014, petitioner filed an objection to the motion for summary judgment.  At that point, the case stood ready for decision and at that point Fahey was just a glimmer in the eye of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

The Court decides in Conway that the 2006-2010 taxes are excepted from discharge because they were assessed within 240 days of the date of filing the bankruptcy petition.  If taxes were at all a factor in the decision to file bankruptcy, and I have no idea, I fault taxpayer’s bankruptcy lawyer for filing during this 240-day window because it prevents them from discharge under 523(a)(1)(A) since these taxes still had priority status; however, even in the pre-Fahey world, she would have had to wait two years after filing her late returns in order to avoid the exception from discharge under 523(a)(1)(B).  The Tax Court had ample reason to find her taxes excepted from discharge here and was correct in doing so.  At the time the IRS filed its summary judgment motion, it was correct to concede 2002 and it was correct not to argue Fahey.

Because the Tax Court took over three and ½ years to decide what appears to be a relatively simple discharge case, the IRS had the opportunity to supplement its summary judgment motion with the intervening Circuit authority.  Based on the docket sheet of the case and the Court’s opinion, it appears that it did not do so; however, the IRS did file a request to file a status report earlier this year and I cannot see what was in that request.  I thought that the IRS, even though not agreeing with the one-day late discharge rule of Fahey and two other circuits, was making the argument in the three circuits with controlling authority on the one day late rule.  So, I do not know if the failure to point Fahey out to the court here was a decision representing a change in position that it would argue the one-day late rule in those circuits, or a failure to recognize the opportunity to make this argument, or simply a decision that it was going to win anyway and why add yet another reason when the opinion should come out at any second.  I bring it up for those watching the one day rule and the IRS reaction to it.  Because of the decision in the Fahey case, the IRS decision to concede 2002 could have been reversed.  I do not know how the Tax Court would have reacted to an effort by the IRS to withdraw its concession because the law of the circuit changed while the Tax Court was working on its opinion.  Because the IRS did not attempt to withdraw its concession, we will never know.

The case also raises the application of the First Circuit’s decision in Dalton.  In Dalton, the First Circuit reversed the Tax Court and held that the findings of law in CDP determination are only tentative and so the Tax Court does not need to give deference to the SO’s legal conclusions.  The IRS argued in its motion that despite the SO’s legal mistake as to the dischargeability of 2002, the Court should sustain the notice of determination because the SO did not abuse her discretion under the standard of review adopted in DaltonDalton seems to stand alone in its view of the deference accorded to SOs.  This issue deserves attention and may get litigated further in other circuits.

Ms. Conway was going to lose her case even before the Fahey decision because of the timing of her late filed returns and her bankruptcy petition.  She benefits here by filing her case before the Fahey decision came out because of the IRS concession with respect to 2002.  She loses most of her case because of late filing.  Somehow taxpayers need to understand the benefits of filing on time even if they cannot pay.  In circuits like the First, it is now critical because it is a lifetime bar on discharge.  Even in other circuits, late filing will create the types of problems Ms. Conway faced here and will not allow debtors to obtain the full measure of the benefits of bankruptcy.

 

Waiving a Right to Contest a Whistleblower Award

The case of Whistleblower 4496-15W v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 19 (May 25, 2017) concerns both the timeliness of filing a Tax Court petition in a whistleblower case and the effect of cashing a check granting an award.  Both aspects of the case deserve some discussion.  The whistleblower wins the battle concerning the timing of the filing of the petition only to lose the war on whether the signing of the check served as a waiver of the right to sue the IRS in this matter.

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The whistleblower gave the IRS some good information.  The IRS calculated that the information allowed it to recover over $14 million.  Based on that recovery, the IRS recommended an award percentage of 22% resulting in a proposed award of $3,187,630.  Because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the IRS reduced the award by 7.3%.

On December 1, 2014, the IRS sent to the whistleblower a summary report “that explains our preliminary award recommendation in the amount of $2,954,933.00.”  The letter explained the amount recovered the percentage award and the required reduction.  It also explained that the award would be reduced by withholding.  The letter also explained the options that the whistleblower had upon its receipt.  If the whistleblower agreed with the award, “he was directed to ‘check the appropriate box, sign and date the Response to Summary Report indicating … [his] agreement’ and ‘return the signed Response’ to the Office.”  The letter gave explicit details concerning the effect of signing on future contests concerning the award stating that “by checking the box that you agree with the preliminary award recommendation, you agree to waive any judicial appeal rights with respect to the award determination, including filing a petition with the U.S. Tax Court.”

The letter also explained that the whistleblower could disagree with the proposed award recommendation and submit comments to the Office.  The letter stated that it was NOT a final determination for purposes of filing a Tax Court petition.  The whistleblower’s attorney called the Office on December 8 and 9 with questions and was told accepting the award now was conclusive.

The whistleblower and his attorney signed the letter.  The IRS sent a check dated January 15, 2015, in the reduced amount, which was further reduced by $819,107 of withholding.  The whistleblower filed a Tax Court petition on February 11, 2015, arguing that the IRS lacked legal support for reducing the recommended offer by 7.3%.  The IRS moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction arguing first that it should have been filed within 30 days of December 1, 2014.  The Court pointed out that the December 1 letter specifically stated that it was a preliminary letter and not a final determination.  Without much difficulty, the Court found that the December 1 letter was not and could not be the determination letter starting the time to file a petition in a whistleblower case.  Looking around at what could be used for that purpose, the Court concluded that the statute provided no guidance.  Here, it found that the check served the purpose of the final determination.  Since the petition was filed within 30 days of the mailing of the check, the petition was timely.  Makes sense, but the lack of a formal way to denote a final determination will continue to plague petitioners, the IRS, and the Court until Congress gets around to fixing this hole in the statute.

So, now the whistleblower got past the building guard and into the Tax Court, but he still had a problem.  He agreed not to file a Tax Court petition as part of accepting the check.  When you get a check for over $2 million I can only imagine that it is hard to pass that up for Door #2.  I am still waiting for the day I have this option.

The IRS moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because of the signed agreement; however, the Court correctly pointed out that the signed agreement did not mean the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case but could form a basis for a motion for summary judgment and the Court recharacterized the motion to that purpose.

As I read the case I thought about the form used by Appeals, Form 870-AD, which has produced a number of decisions regarding the effect of having the taxpayer sign away the ability to litigate.  Most, but not all, of those decisions have resulted in victories for the IRS with courts enforcing the signed waiver.  The Tax Court here looked at several of its prior decisions on waivers including decisions on the Appeals form.  The decisions uniformly held for the IRS.  At this point I had a strong suspicion where the Court would end up here.

The Court found that the whistleblower knowingly signed away his right to come to court.  It swatted away the arguments made by the petitioner finding the language of the letter unambiguous.  The Court states:

In sum, petitioner waived his judicial appeal rights in order to receive prompt payment of his award, and the Office fully performed its side of the bargain.  We will accordingly enforce the agreement reached by the parties, give effect to petitioner’s waiver of his right to judicial review, and grant summary judgment for respondent sustaining the Office’s determination.

I do not know if petitioner will appeal this determination.  A quick search indicated that an appeal has not yet been filed.  While the result here does not surprise me, a few courts have struck down waiver paragraphs like this.  Look at Whitney v. United States, 826 F.2d 896 (9th Cir. 1987) where the court found that the Form 870-AD, standing alone, does not estop a taxpayer from later seeking a refund.  Other courts, such as Arch Engineering Co., Inc. v. United States, 783 F.2d 190, 192 (Fed.Cir.1986) (dicta); Lignos v. United States, 439 F.2d 1365, 1367 (2d Cir.1971); Uinta Livestock Corp. v. United States, 355 F.2d 761 (10th Cir.1966); cf. Cain v. United States, 255 F.2d 193, 199 (8th Cir.1958) (Van Oosterhout, J., dissenting) that follow this view look for the IRS to enter into a closing agreement if it wants to bind the taxpayer.  Most courts, represented by cases such as Flynn v. United States, 786 F.2d 586, 591 (3d Cir.1986) (dicta) (also applying contract principles); Elbo Coals, Inc. v. United States, 763 F.2d 818, 821 (6th Cir.1985); General Split Corp. v. United States, 500 F.2d 998, 1004 (7th Cir.1974); Cain v. United States, 255 F.2d 193, 199 (8th Cir.1958) prevent the taxpayer from coming into court after signing the Form 870-AD based on equitable estoppel.  Maybe a whistleblower will find a sympathetic ear before one of the circuit courts that looks kindly on the taxpayer coming into court after signing the Form 870-AD.  The closing agreement argument has some appeal.  If not, whistleblowers will have to make some hard choices when they receive the check from the IRS because it looks like they will be stuck with the award they receive unless they fight before cashing the check.