Tax Court Determines IRS Actions Do Not Violate Restrictions on Second Examinations

The moral of the story in Planty v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-240 is that if you ask the IRS to take another look at your return you cannot successfully claim that this “look” is a second examination of the return subject to the rules and approvals that limit the IRS’s ability to take a second look. In this case, the IRS examined the taxpayers’ return and seemed to have some difficulty coming to the final answer. After some fits and starts, the IRS made a determination and an assessment of $2,755. I could not determine from the description of the case how the IRS obtained permission to make the assessment but it does not seem to be a troublesome aspect of the case for the parties or the court.

After the IRS made the assessment and before paying the additional assessed tax, the taxpayers immediately submitted a Form 1040X claiming a refund of $1,560. The IRS treated the Form 1040X as a request for abatement. After looking at the request, the IRS decided that the taxpayer really owed a corrected tax liability of $64,704. Petitioners concede that the adjustment is correct subject to their argument that the adjustment resulted from an impermissible second examination of the tax year. Additionally, the IRS imposed an accuracy related penalty on this additional tax.

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Second Exam

The Court states that “we may deal summarily with petitioners’ claim that they were subjected to an impermissible second examination of their 2010 return.” The Court cites to IRC 7605(b) which sets out the rules on second exams. The Code does not prohibit second exams but does require that the IRS go through a high level approval process. Most of the time the IRS will not do this because it spotlights that the original examiner and exam manager made a large mistake and provides proof of the mistake to their high level manager. Bureaucrats do not like to highlight their mistakes to high level management since doing so has a tendency to suppress future advancement and current bonuses.

In response to the taxpayers’ argument that the IRS engaged in an impermissible second examination, the IRS responded that IRC 7605 has “no bearing upon the Commissioner’s authority to examine tax returns already in his possession.” The Court points out that it would have been very difficult for the IRS to make a determination regarding their claim for refund without pulling the return and looking at it. Since the IRS was looking at the return to satisfy petitioners’ own request, doing so did not run afoul of IRC 7605.

Petitioners’ actions here point to the problem taxpayers have when they want to file an amended return. They think they are due a refund which they would like to receive ASAP; however, making the request for the refund will cause the IRS to scrutinize their return. Here, the quest for a $1,500 refund results in a $64,000 liability, plus a 20% penalty for good measure. Petitioners should have waited to file their request until the statute of limitations on assessment was about to expire. Had they waited, the IRS would still have denied their refund request but would not have hit them with the large assessment. Their impatience proves very costly.

So, the lesson here is not only should you not argue about an impermissible second exam when you have caused the IRS to look at the return but you should not make the request with gobs of time left on the assessment statute of limitations.

Accuracy Related Penalty

Taxpayers here not only brought unnecessary attention on their return costing themselves over $60,000, but they ramped up the liability to the point where the IRS felt obliged to penalize them adding insult to injury regarding their mistake for filing the Form 1040X too early. The Court finds that taxpayers’ return contains an understatement of the tax. It states that based on the proof provided by the IRS, taxpayers’ only hope of averting the penalty is to mount a credible defense based on substantial authority, adequate disclosure, or reasonable cause.

Taxpayers’ understatement resulted from their erroneous claim of almost $150,000 of real estate losses. The Court quoted from the regulations on the standard for substantial authority which requires that “the weight of authorities supporting the treatment is substantial in relation to the weight of authorities supporting contrary treatment.” The Court also pointed out that this is an objective and not subjective standard, and that the existence of a legal opinion does not by itself create substantial authority. Here, the IRS disallowed the loss because of the passive activity loss rules. As authority, taxpayers pointed to an opinion from a tax attorney and the failure of the IRS to notice the issue when it first looked at their return.

Unfortunately, at trial taxpayers did not call the tax attorney to testify. So, the Court says it does not have any evidence to know why she gave the advice and whether her opinion had a basis in tax authorities that would allow the taxpayers to meet the substantial authority test. The Court also finds that the failure of the IRS to notice the issue initially does not constitute substantial authority pointing to provisions in the regulations on precisely this point.

The Court points out that adequate disclosure has no effect unless the return position has a reasonable basis and the failure of the tax attorney to testify leaves the Court without an ability to determine if there was a reasonable basis. With respect to reasonable cause, the taxpayers admitted that the tax attorney did not prepare their return and they could not show that the return preparer gave them advice with respect to this item that could cloak them with a reason for taking the erroneous position on their return.

Conclusion

The penalty portion of the opinion follows routine patterns but points to the need to obtain the testimony of any tax professional upon whom the taxpayer relies for the position taken on the return. It is not clear that taxpayers would have won if the professional had testified, but without the testimony a loss on the penalty issue was almost a foregone conclusion costing the taxpayers another $10,000 on top of the over $50,000 liability they picked up by filing the amended return.

 

Proving Actual Knowledge in a 6015(c) Case

The case of Bishop v. Commissioner, T.C. Summ. Op. 2018-1 although not precedential, provides comfort for spouses seeking relief under the provision available for those who are divorced, widowed, or separated. This case has a couple of unusual aspects worth noting before discussing the main issue – actual knowledge. First, the person claiming innocent spouse status is the former husband. Only a small percentage of innocent spouse cases present the situation in which the husband claims innocence and seeks relief. Second, this case involves an intervenor, the former wife, who is represented by a low income taxpayer clinic. It is unusual to see a clinic on the side of the intervenor though certainly not unprecedented.  (I corresponded with the Lewis & Clark clinic director, Jan Pierce, about the case.  Jan indicated that the clinic picked up the case at calendar call.  This is something the opinion does not indicate.  Because I also pick up cases at calendar call and litigate and lose them, I think it would be nice if the Court somehow made mention of the fact that a clinic or pro bono counsel came into the case at calendar call.  It provides a little background about the limited ability of the representative in the case.)

Here, the parties admit that the wife inherited a retirement account from her father in 2009. They admit that after she inherited this account she received distributions from the account each year and they admit that the distribution made in 2014 in the amount of $15,068 was left off of their return. They also admitted that $6,000 of the distribution went into a joint checking account that both had access to and that the balance was used to benefit the wife’s daughter. The husband claims that he was generally aware of the retirement account but did not know that a distribution occurred in 2014 and, therefore, had no actual knowledge of the amount left off the return. Because he did not have actual knowledge, he asserts that he qualifies for relief from the additional tax liability based on the language of IRC 6015(c).

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The court starts out stating that a “question exists as to where the burden of proof lies in cases when, as here, the IRS favors granting relief and the nonrequesting spouse intervenes to oppose it. The Court has resolved such cases by determining whether actual knowledge has been established by a preponderance of the evidence as presented by all parties.” To determine if a spouse had actual knowledge the IRS considers “all of the facts and circumstances” as required by Treas. Reg. 1.6015-3(c)(2)(iv). The test imposed by the Tax Court examines the surrounding facts and circumstances for “an actual and clear awareness (as opposed to reason to know)” of the omitted income causing the deficiency.

In a situation like this where both spouses know of the retirement account, both spouses know that money has been distributed from the retirement account in each of the five years preceding the year at issue, and both spouses have access to the bank account into which $6,000 of the retirement account distribution in 2014 was made, the person claiming innocent spouse status would seem to bear a heavy burden to demonstrate that he did not know about the distribution. In the background portion of the opinion, the Court noted that the parties separated twice during 2014 before permanently separating in 2015. These facts suggest that the parties did not enjoy harmonious relations in 2014 and that undoubtedly was a factor in the Court’s decision.

The Court states that “he argues that intervenor deliberately deceived him, but he relies on her silence and does not identify any specific misrepresentations by her.” It also states that “he acknowledges that he was at fault for not checking the records on the joint bank account maintained by him and intervenor.”

The wife attacked his credibility and argued that he had actual knowledge of the distribution because it was deposited in their joint bank account seven months before the filing of the return. During that time he wrote checks on the account and used debit cards to access the account. She did not testify that she specifically told him about the distribution and she testified that they both forgot about it when they provided their accountant with the information necessary to prepare the return.

The Court finds that the “history of withdrawals from the retirement account used by the parties over a period of years and the transactions by petitioner with reference to the joint bank account support a conclusion that petitioner should have known about the distribution. The amount was very large in relation to the average balances and other transactions in the account.” Having made that finding which seems very damaging to the petitioner, the Court went on to conclude however that “there is no evidence … that petitioner saw the bank records before the joint return for 2014 was filed. His denials are not incredible, implausible or contradicted by direct evidence.” So, the Court concludes that “regardless of the strong indications of constructive knowledge, the evidence falls short of establishing actual knowledge of any specific amount of the distribution in 2014.”

The case should provide great comfort to anyone seeking to use section 6015(c) if knowledge is the crucial point of contention. The evidence here of constructive knowledge could hardly have been greater and yet the Court declines to rely on the strong evidence of constructive knowledge instead insisting on proof of actual knowledge. Since he denied actual knowledge and she did not testify that she specifically told him about the distribution, there was no evidence that he had specific knowledge. The opinion is consistent with the language of the statute and upholds the actual knowledge requirement in a very literal way.

If you were advising a client you might tell them to make sure that their spouse knows about all of the income coming from their side of the family equation so that your client could testify that the former spouse had actual knowledge but who engages in this type of planning discussion – not many people.

This case demonstrates how difficult proving actual knowledge will be for the IRS or the intervenor. This difficulty is good news for divorced, separated, or widowed spouses who want to avoid a liability caused by income of their former spouse. Remember that to obtain (c) relief you must make the request within two years of collection action. The timing of the request for innocent spouse relief in this situation could be critical because taxpayers like Mr. Bishop may not qualify for relief under IRC 6015(f) and (c) relief may be the only door available in order to walk away from the liability.

 

Paying for but not Receiving Your Social Security Benefits – The Consequence of Filing Late

We have had many posts on the myriad of consequences of filing late tax returns. One we have not discussed results when a self-employed taxpayer files more than three years late. In that situation, the individual must still pay the self-employment tax; however, the individual receives no social security benefits as a result of those payments. As the economy drives more and more individuals into jobs in which they have independent contractor status, the importance of filing on time increases in order to preserve future benefits available to those who qualify for social security.

When a non-filer shows up, sometimes we triage their return for the year in which the refund statute of limitations will soon expire. If it appears that the taxpayer will receive a refund, a last minute push occurs to send that return in before the expiration of the statute of limitations which is generally three years from the due date of the return. If it appears that the taxpayer owes money, the same last minute push may not occur. Because filing the return before three years from the original due date could preserve for the individual the ability to get credit for self-employment earnings for purposes of calculating the amount of social security they will receive, or even whether they will qualify for social security, the practitioner who has the chance to file the return before three years from the due date of the original return should make every effort to do so.

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In order to receive social security benefits based on age, an individual must accumulate 40 quarters of earnings. To receive social security disability benefits, the individuals needs 32 quarters.   In 2017, an individual receives credit for a quarter of social security earnings if they have $1,300 of qualified earnings. Anyone earning more than $5,200 in 2017 will receive four quarters of credit – the most quarters it is possible to earn in a single year. In addition to meeting the number of quarters necessary to obtain benefits, an individual receives social security benefits based on the amount of their earnings. While the formula skews towards individuals at the lower end of the earnings spectrum by giving a higher return on those earnings in calculating the benefits, the more a person earns the higher their social security benefits.

Here are the directions from Social Security on how to calculate your projected benefit. You can find Column A and B here. I include this primarily to show how valuable the lower earnings are to someone compared to the earnings over $5,336 and how the benefit skews to provide the greatest assistance to those who will likely have the greatest need. 

Step 1: your earnings in Column B, but not more than the amount shown in Column A. If you have no earnings, enter “0.”

Step 2: Multiply the amounts in Column B by the index factors in Column C, and enter the results in Column D. This gives you your indexed earnings, or the estimated value of your earnings in current dollars.

Step 3: Choose from Column D the 35 years with the highest amounts. Add these amounts. $_________

Step 4: Divide the result from Step 3 by 420 (the number of months in 35 years). Round down to the next lowest dollar. This will give you your average indexed monthly earnings. $_________

Step 5:

  1. Multiply the first $885 in Step 4 by 90%. $_________
  2. Multiply the amount in Step 4 over $885, and less than or equal to $5,336, by 32%. $_________
  3. Multiply the amount in Step 4 over $5,336 by 15%. $_________

Step 6: Add a, b, and c from Step 5. Round down to the next lowest dollar. This is your estimated monthly retirement benefit at … your full retirement age. $_________

The aged based benefit is calculated based on the highest 35 years of earnings. Some of my earnings from the 1960s and 1970s when I worked summer jobs while going to school and a quarter of earnings could accumulate for $250 will not do much to push up my high 35 years of earnings, but these quarters did provide a benefit to me in reaching the 40 quarters because all of my earnings when working for the federal government involved no social security taxation and therefore no buildup of earnings or quarters. Federal employees hired starting in the mid-1980s do pay social security, but some state and local government employees may still be outside of the social security system from their primary earnings. Some of my clients have not yet earned enough quarters to receive any social security benefits. Making sure that they understand the importance of earning enough quarters and the link between filing their tax return and earning quarters is something we try to impart.

What can you do if your client has failed to file their return within the normal time period for having their earnings count toward social security? Several exceptions apply to individuals in these circumstances; however, the exceptions are narrow:

After the time limit has passed, earnings records can only be revised under the conditions described below and in §1425:

1. To correct an entry established through fraud;

2. To correct a mechanical, clerical, or other obvious error;

3. To correct errors in crediting earnings to the wrong person or to the wrong period;

4. To transfer items to or from the Railroad Retirement Board (if reported to the wrong agency), or to add railroad earnings to Social Security earnings records when the law permits;

5. To add wages paid in a period by an employer who made no report of any wages paid to the worker in that period, or if the employer is increasing the originally reported amount for the period;

6. To add or remove wages in accordance with a wage report filed by the employer with IRS; or, if a State or local governmental employer, with SSA if the report is filed within the time limitation specified for assessment, refund, or credit under a State’s coverage agreement;

7. To add self-employment income in a taxable year if an individual or the individual’s survivor establishes that:

(1) A self-employment tax return for that year was filed before the time limit ran out; and

(2) Either no self-employment income for that year has been recorded in the individual’s earnings record, or the recorded self-employment income for that year is less than the amount reported on the self-employment tax return; or

8. To add self-employment income for any taxable year up to the amount of earnings that were wrongly recorded as wages and later deleted. This can be done only if a tax return reporting such self-employment income is filed within three years, three months, and 15 days after the taxable year in which the earnings wrongly recorded as wages were deleted. The self-employment income must:

(1) Be for the same taxable year as the year in which the wages were removed; and

(2) Have already been included on the individual’s Social Security record.

9. Prior to the expiration of the time limit the worker or the worker’s survivor has:

(1) Applied for benefits and stated that the earnings for a year(s) were incorrect; or

(2) Requested a revision of his or her earnings record for a year(s).

The time limit can also be extended if an investigation was in progress. Because of the manner in which social security benefits work, it may not be the taxpayer who wants or needs to correct the social security records. It could be a spouse or a child or someone else who can obtain benefits derivatively from the individual with the earnings.

Some sources for correcting the social security statement can be found here, here and here.

 

 

 

 

Misclassification of Workers and its Aftermath

Last spring we reported on the Tax Court decision in Mescalero Apache Tribe v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 11 (2017), in which the Tax Court determined that the taxpayer could obtain information about tax reporting by its former employees. The tribe did not classify these individuals as employees during the period of employment; however, the IRS determined that the individuals who worked for the tribe were employees and not independent contractors. Where an employer has misclassified its employees, the employer is liable for certain taxes that would have been paid through proper withholding of employees unless the employer can show that the employees paid the taxes.

The tribe tried to track down the employees to determine if they properly reported the taxes. It could not reach most of them and sought through discovery in Tax Court to find out from the IRS whether the employees paid. The IRS resisted citing the disclosure provisions; however, the Tax Court ordered the IRS to turn over information which would allow the tribe to calculate its liability after taking into account the employee payments. This post is about the rest of the story because, not too long after the opinion came out, the IRS issued CCA 201723020 limiting the scope of the opinion in the view of Chief Counsel’s office. For those interested in this issue, you should also look at the blog post by the National Taxpayer Advocate on this subject.

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The CCA takes the position that a taxpayer that has misclassified employees cannot obtain information about the employees from Exam or Appeals but can only obtain the information through the discovery process in court. In a resource starved agency, it seems counterproductive to drive taxpayers into court just to obtain information that will allow the taxpayer to determine the correct liability. No one has this information other than the IRS and the individual employees who are typically scattered to the wind. If the misclassification only involves one or two employees, maybe the employer can readily find the misclassified employees; however, if the number of employees is substantial the employer will almost certainly encounter problems tracking down the all of the employees at the time of the misclassification. The CCA will cause employers in these larger cases to petition the Tax Court just to use discovery.

The opinion provides that:

“It is important to note that the court’s determination that the workers’ return information was discoverable was based largely on the representation by the Tribe that it has already made a significant effort to locate the workers and that it had failed only with respect to a relatively small number.  It is also important to note that IRC 6103(h)(4) authorizes disclosure, but does not require it; thus the court’s determination that the workers’ return information “is disclosable under section 6103(h)(4)(C)” does not create a requirement that the Service disclose the information.

Thus, Mescalero does not stand for the proposition that taxpayers and/or their representatives are entitled to workers’ return information during the conduct of an employment tax audit or at the Appeals consideration level. Instead, the Mescalero decision is limited to discovery requests made by a taxpayer during the pendency of a Tax Court proceeding, where the Tax Court has the ability to determine hether the requested information is disclosable pursuant to IRC 6103(h)(4), AND has balanced the relevancy of the requested information against the burden placed on the Service pursuant to Tax Court Rules 70(b) and 70(c).”

Since section 6103(h)(4) permits disclosure, it seems a better way may be to give the information to taxpayers at the examination level but charge them for the cost of obtaining the information so that the IRS is not the loser in this situation. Charging a reasonable search fee allows the taxpayers to obtain the information early in the process, saves resources of both parties inherent in the use of Appeals and the Tax Court. The decision expressed in the CCA makes a loser out of everyone when a much easier solution seems available. The National Taxpayer Advocate is rightfully critical of the decision in her blog post. Once the attorneys in Chief Counsel’s office opine that the decision to disclose is up to the IRS and not barred by section 6103, the door is open for the IRS to make a reasonable decision. The path suggested in the CCA should be ignored by those entrusted to administer the law.

 

 

Happy Holidays Thanks to Graev III

As discussed in our previous post, the Tax Court in Graev III has reversed the position it adopted in November, 2016 and agreed with the Second Circuit’s decision in Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2nd Cir. 2017). That reversal had immediate consequences for four cases that Judge Holmes was holding in his inventory. On December 20, 2017, the same day the Court issued Chai, Judge Holmes issued designated orders in four cases in his inventory that had pending issues regarding penalties. In each of the four cases, he turned back an IRS request to reopen the record to allow it to put in evidence of compliance with IRC 6751(b). This amounted to a loss by the IRS on its attempt to impose a penalty on each of the taxpayers in question. These cases will go to circuits other than the Second Circuit giving the IRS the opportunity to try to overturn Chai and create a conflict among the circuits.

The four case are Estate of Michael Jackson (a relatively well known singer); Warren Sapp (a NFL Hall of Famer) and his ex-wife Jamiko together with consolidate case petitioners, Kumar Rajagopalan & Susamma Kumar, et al ; Kevin Sells and Oakbrook Land Holdings. The cases present similar but not completely identical fact patterns. The cases have quite old docket numbers and the parties had already had extensive opportunity to present matters to the Court.

Judge Holmes was not the only judge holding cases; he was just the quickest to release the cases he held due to the pending decision in Graev III. On December 21, Judge Buch issued four designated orders and Judge Paris issued a non-designated order. There could be more to come as it is clear the IRS has been moving to reopen the record to put in information required by IRC 6751(b) and judges have held up cases waiting for the publication of Graev III. Other judges may have similar motions in their inventory of undecided cases and the orders from these three judges may just signal more orders to come perhaps as holiday season ends.

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The Estate of Michael Jackson case was tried in February, 2017. Judge Holmes mentions that:

“… no one tried to introduce evidence about whether the Commissioner met his burden of production under I.R.C. § 6751(b)(1) to show that “the initial determination of such assessment [i.e., of the penalties] [wa]s personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination.”

In July of 2017 the IRS saw problems with 6751(b) coming on the horizon. It had filed the motion for reconsideration in Graev that led to Graev III. It filed a motion in the Jackson Estate case, appealable to the 9th Circuit, seeking to reopen the record so that it could place into the record the evidence of compliance with the penalty approval process required by 6751(b). It had not attempted to do so during the trial. That motion sat because, no doubt, Judge Holmes knew that the Court was in the process of reconsidering Graev, and he did not want to rule until he knew where the Tax Court was headed.

Judge Holmes denied the motion filed by the IRS to reopen the record and allow it to place into evidence information regarding the approval of the penalty it asserted against the estate for either the gross valuation misstatement or accuracy related penalty – a 40 or 20% add on to any deficiency the Court might determine. A nice holiday gift for the estate.

He quoted from his concurring opinion in Graev III where he adopted language from a Justice Scalia concurrence as he warned of the consequences of the decision:

In our concurring opinion in Graev III, this division of the Court warned that ‘”[l]ike some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad,’ [this construction of I.R.C. § 6751] will serve only to frighten little children and IRS lawyers.”

The Jackson Estate made clear after the Graev case brought to light a new way to challenge the assertion of penalties that it intended to put 6751(b) at issue but the IRS waited before filing its motion until after the trial and during the trial it did not put on the evidence of compliance with the statute. The trial itself occurred before the Second Circuit’s decision in Chai. The IRS position in Chai was that it did not have to present this type of evidence. Now, at least at the Tax Court level, it pays a price for not hedging its bets.

The outcomes in the other three designated orders issued by Judge Holmes follow a similar path. Those three cases all were tried in Birmingham Alabama and have an appellate path that leads to the 11th Circuit. The parties in those cases claimed conservation easements, the same claim made by the Graevs. Judge Holmes recounts the facts in each of the cases and the knowledge and opportunity for the IRS to put into the record the evidence of compliance during the trial concluding again by denying the request of the IRS to reopen the record after trial to put into the record the evidence of compliance with IRC 6751.

Judges Buch and Paris did not go as far as Judge Holmes in the orders that they issued. The four orders issued by Judge Buch include Hendrickson, Sherman, Triumph Mixed Use Investments, and Dynamo Holdings Ltd Partnership. Judge Buch gives a nice history of the 6751(b) litigation and how it relates to each of the cases. The quote below is taken from the Dynamo case. In the order he then invites the parties to respond to the latest developments rather than issuing a dispositive order at this time. Some attorneys at Chief Counsel with use or lose leave may be working at a time they expected to be on leave:

The question before us is how Graev III might affect this case. In this regard, a timeline may be helpful.

-Section 6751 enacted (July 22, 1998)

-Section 6751 effective (notices issued after December 31, 2000)

-Chai v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-42 (March 11, 2015)

-Legg v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. 344 (December 7, 2015)

-Graev v. Commissioner, 146 T. C. No. 16 (November 30, 2016)

-Dynamo v. Commissioner, Dkt. No. 2685-11, Trial Held (January 23, 2017, to February 3, 2017)

-Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2nd Cir. March 20, 2017)

-Dynamo v. Commissioner, Dkt. No. 2685-11, Briefing Completed (July 3, 2017)

-Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 23 (December 20, 2017)….

To assist the Court in addressing this issue, it is

ORDERED that respondent shall file a response to this Order by January 5, 2018 addressing the effect of section 6751(b) on this case and directing the Court to any evidence of section 6751(b) supervisory approval that is in the record of this case.

It is further

ORDERED that petitioners may file a response to this Order by January 12, 2018 addressing the effect of section 6751(b) on this case.

It is further

ORDERED that any motion addressing the application of section 6751(b) on this case shall be filed by January 19, 2018. The parties are reminded that any such “motion shall show that prior notice thereof has been given to each other party or counsel for each other party and shall state whether there is any objection to the motion.”

Judge Paris follows the lead of Judge Buch, including the helpful timeline, and does not issue a dispositive order. In Blossom Day Care Centers, a case tried about 18 months ago, she issues the following order:

To assist the Court in addressing this issue, it is

ORDERED that, on or before January 12, 2018, petitioners shall file a Sur- Reply to respondent’s Reply to Response to Motion to Reopen the Record.

It is further

ORDERED that the Simultaneous Answering Briefs are extended to January 3, 2018

Conclusion

The Court and the parties will be busy dealing with the aftermath of the most recent decision in Graev and this may keep the Tax Court and the circuit courts busy for some years to come. Interesting how a little noticed, poorly drafted provision can create so much havoc almost two decades after enactment. Les wonders whether dealing with the poor draftsmanship in 6751 may give the Tax Court practice in addressing issues raised by the hastily drafted legislation that passed earlier this week.

Carl Smith points out another open question as the 6751(b) issue moves forward, viz., does the petitioner need to affirmatively raise penalties in their petitions now or are penalties always at issue:

Will some judges still say that since lack of 6751(b) compliance was not mentioned by the taxpayer (and it never will be by a pro se taxpayer), the court won’t consider the issue.  My hunch is that is no longer good law.  But, also remember that there is still on the books Tax Court opinions holding that where the taxpayer fails to state a claim with respect to a penalty or addition to tax in the pleadings, the Commissioner incurs no obligation to produce evidence in support of the individual’s liability pursuant to section 7491(c), see Funk v. Commissioner, 123 T.C. 213, 216-218 (2004); Swain v. Commissioner, 118 T.C. 358, 364-365 (2002).

Carl points out other issues in a comment he made to the prior post on Graev III for those seeking additional insight.  In the season of giving, Graev III will be giving us additional opinions, and possibly nightmares, for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

Tax Court Reverses Itself a Year After a Fully Reviewed Opinion Acknowledging a “Graev” Mistake

Christmas came a little early to at least four Tax Court petitioners, including the estate of Michael Jackson. It also comes early for bloggers who like to write awful titles to our posts. I will discuss the Christmas presents to these petitioners in a companion post but today I focus on the underlying cause which is the reversal by the Tax Court of its decision in Graev v. Commissioner, 147 T.C. No 16 (2016)(sometimes known as Graev II). In that case the Tax Court decided that it did not have the authority in deficiency cases to look at whether the IRS obtained the proper penalty approvals under IRC 6751(b) though the Court split significantly in a fully reviewed decision. We have blogged about this issue more times than deserve links; however, a few links are here and here for those needing background on the issue. I suspect there will be more posts to come before this issue reaches a stable position.

The latest decision in Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 23 (2017)(Graev III) reverses the decision made just last year, adopts the intervening opinion of the Second Circuit in Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2nd Cir. 2017) and holds that in deficiency cases the Tax Court does have the ability to review whether the IRS obtained the appropriate signatures prior to the imposition of the penalty. Although, with the exception of Judge Holmes who agreed with the decision solely based on the Golsen rule since Graev’s appeal will go to the Second Circuit, the Court again split rather substantially. This time the split is primarily on the application of IRC 6751(b) and not whether it should apply, though Judge Holmes writes extensively on why he believes the Tax Court should have stuck to its position in Graev II. Mostly because of Judge Holmes’ concurrence (in result only), the opinion is long. This post is no more than a very cursory overview. For those interested in tax procedure, the opinion deserves a careful read.

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Well, it would have been interesting to be in the Tax Court’s conference room on the day(s) it discussed this case. The statute provided lots of room for debate as the Court struggled to fit its language into existing tax procedure norms. Maybe before the case reaches its final resting place, the conference room will be renamed the Graev room for many meetings the case has, and may still, cause. As we have referenced before, kudos go to Frank Agostino for paying attention to a provision in the 1998 act that everyone else seemed to overlook. Frank’s client comes away from the latest opinion in this case a bit empty handed but the split on the Court may provide ample room for Frank to obtain some relief at the next level.

I will discuss the case by looking at each of the four parts: 1) the majority opinion written by Judge Thornton; and then the concurring opinions by 2) Judge Lauber; 3) Judge Holmes, partially dissenting and 4) Judge Buch, partially dissenting.

Majority Opinion

The Court reverses its prior opinion and adopts the Second Circuit’s view of IRC 6751(b) as expressed in Chai. It does this with relatively little fanfare:

Having considered the opinion of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Chai, and in the interest of repose and uniformity on an issue that touches many cases before us, we reverse those portions of Graev II which held that it was premature to consider section 6751(b) issues in this deficiency proceeding.

The Court then went on to talk about what that means:

In the light of our holding that compliance with section 6751(b) is properly at issue in this deficiency case, we also hold that such compliance is properly a part of respondent’s burden of production under section 7491(c).

Once it decided that it could consider the 6751(b) issue and that the IRS had the burden of production with respect to the issue, the majority then looked at each penalty imposed in order to determine whether the IRS met its burden. Based on its analysis, with which Judge Buch disagrees, the Court sustained the imposition of the penalty.

The majority found that the Chief Counsel docket attorney who reviewed the notice of deficiency initiated part of the penalty and that his supervisor approved his recommendation/determination of the applicability of the penalty. The determination came in the form of a review of the proposed statutory notice of deficiency. When the IRS received his recommendation regarding the penalty to be imposed on the Graevs, it adopted the recommendation in the notice of deficiency sent to the petitioners.

In addition, the Chief Counsel docket attorney assigned to try the case added an additional penalty after the filing of the Tax Court petition. Her supervisor approved this additional penalty. The majority found that the penalties generated by the Chief Counsel attorneys met the requirements of 6751(b). The majority found that the taxpayers’ conduct regarding the unpaid taxes and the claiming of the gift warranted the imposition of the penalty. Since the Chief Counsel attorneys and supervisor’s actions satisfied the approval requirement and since the penalties were otherwise appropriate, the Court determined that the petitioners owed the penalties.

Judge Lauber’s Concurrence

Joined by four other of the eight judges in the majority, Judge Lauber wrote to take issue with the separate opinion written by Judge Buch. He discusses in detail why the approval by Chief Counsel lawyers meet the statutory test as initial recommenders of the penalty. He looks at both delegation orders and the intent of the statute.

Judge Holmes’ concurrence and dissent

Judge Holmes writes at length about the problems and uncertainty that the decision will cause. He has many concerns about the Second Circuit’s opinion and the problems it will cause. His opinion is not a full on dissenting opinion because he agrees that the Tax Court must follow the Second Circuit here pursuant to the Golsen rule; however, he wants to preserve the Tax Court’s approach in Graev II for another day and for a case appealable to a different circuit.

He does not like the Second Circuit’s approach to the case and argues forcefully that compliance with the statute is not ripe for court review in a deficiency case. He notes initially that 6751(b) has existed for almost 20 years. Adopting the Second Circuit’s approach means that many cases during that period have resulted in penalty imposition without appropriate proof by the IRS. He states:

Adopting this reading as our own, and rolling it out nationwide, amounts to saying that we have been imposing penalties unlawfully on the tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of taxpayers who have appeared before us in that time.

This is just the beginning of his concerns about the case. To the extent he is concerned, he might feel better knowing that the IRS does not care when it has hundreds of thousands of improper penalty assessments on its books as it demonstrated following the Rand case. Unlike the Rand case in which most taxpayers could still oppose the penalty if they knew that they had a basis for doing so, the penalty decisions over the past two decades made without the now adopted standards involve a Tax Court decision and cannot, by and large, be undone.

He next engages in a close reading of the Chai opinion and what it says. In doing so he points out the differences in the language of the statute and how taxes work:

And here is where a closer reading of the text and a broader understanding of tax litigation ought to make a difference. As the majority and Chai implicitly acknowledge, liability for penalties — indeed, liability for tax of any kind — is fixed by the Code sections imposing penalties and tax. See Chai, 851 F.3d at 217 (explaining that penalty “aris[es] under [section] 6662(a)”). “Assessment” is just a recording of the liability. See Hibbs v. Winn, 542 U.S. 88, 100 (2004); United States v. Galletti, 541 U.S. 114, 122 (2004) (assessment is “little more than the calculation or recording of a tax liability”). Liability “arises and persists whether vel non that tax is assessed.” Principal Life Ins. Co. v. United States, 95 Fed. Cl. 786, 790-91 (2010); see also Kelley, 539 F.2d at 1203 (“liability is imposed by statute independent of any administrative assessment”).

He points out that Chai conflates liability and assessment and that in doing so it will play havoc with the burden of proof rules. The Second Circuit looked to the purpose of a statute that did not make good sense rather than pay close attention to the technical language. He thinks that it is possible to achieve a correct result based on a technical reading of the statute and that the correct technical reading takes the Tax Court out of 6751 since the statute refers to assessment. He produces numerous examples to show how difficult it will be to make the statute work. His portion of the opinion cogently explains many aspects of tax procedure but he is left alone among the judges deciding this case because of his desire to adhere to the result in Graev II.

Judge Buch’s concurrence and dissent

Judge Buch, joined by five other judges, three of whom who like him had worked at Chief Counsel’s office prior to joining the Court and the other two having worked in the Tax Division of the Department of Justice, agreed that the Tax Court should apply Section 6751(b) in a deficiency proceeding but disagreed with the application of the new rule to penalty determinations by Chief Counsel lawyers. His opinion focuses on the role that Chief Counsel attorneys play in the process. He characterized this role as one of advisor rather than the person making the determination.

I agree that the Chief Counsel attorney’s role in reviewing the notice of deficiency is that of advisor. The IRS does not have to agree with the Chief Counsel attorney in this situation. If the Chief Counsel attorney’s advice is something different than a determination then it provides another example of something that does not fit the language of the statute. This segment of the opinion does a good job of showing the problems with the statute raised by Judge Holmes in the preceding section.

Two Chief Counsel attorneys made penalty recommendations/determinations in this case. The attorney who reviewed the notice of deficiency prior to it issuance made one which fits the description in the prior paragraph and then another attorney was assigned to the case once the petitioners filed in Tax Court. The second attorney made another penalty determination. Once the case is petitioned, Chief Counsel’s office can make a decision on adding or removing penalties without getting the opinion of the IRS. The opinion here does not distinguish between the two situations in which the penalty determinations were made by the Chief Counsel attorneys and their managers but it would be possible to split hairs here continuing to demonstrate the potential problems with the statute.

Conclusion

For the reasons detailed by Judge Holmes in the many examples he provided, the Tax Court has not seen the last of the many variations of how 6751(b) can cause mischief. Anyone defending a penalty will want to read Judge Holmes’ concurrence carefully in order to gather ideas on how to challenge the approval process chosen by the IRS. The IRS also needs to read that section carefully in order to create procedures that will withstand attack. Of course, the Second Circuit may still have more to say on how to interpret 6751 as it applies to the Graevs.

 

Borenstein Case Leaves Taxpayer Bare on Refund Claim

In Borenstein v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 10 (2017), the Tax Court addressed an issue of first impression regarding the time for filing a refund claim after filing a request for extension. The decision came out at the end of August, just as the fall semester was starting. The Harvard tax clinic filed an amicus brief in this case in support of the petitioner. The filing of the amicus brief did not help the petitioner as the Tax Court determined that she filed her return too late to obtain a refund. Because my clinic filed the amicus brief and because the opinion came out at a busy time of year, I hoped that someone else might write the blog post to avoid having one that was too biased. No one else has stepped up and perhaps that is the result of the somewhat metaphysical statutory language and result. So, we are a little slow in reporting on this narrow but important issue. She has now filed an appeal. So, a circuit court will get the opportunity to review the decision.

The Borenstein case is in many ways a follow up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Commissioner v. Lundy, 116 S. Ct. 647 (1996), where the Court held that the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction to find that the taxpayer was entitled to a refund when the Service issued a stat notice, the taxpayer filed a delinquent return claiming a refund and then petitioned the Tax Court. After finding for the Service, Congress in 1997 attempted to “fix” the problem by essentially  by permitting taxpayers in the Tax Court to recover the overpaid tax deemed paid on the return due if the notice of deficiency was issued within three years. The 1997 legislative fix does not help taxpayers who have not filed returns when the notice of deficiency is issued more than three years from the due date of the return. Now following Borenstein, unless reversed, the legislative overrule of Lundy does apply for a non-filer when the notice of deficiency is issued during the second year after the due date (with extensions) but prior to the third year. I doubt Congress thought about this odd situation when overruling Lundy.

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Ms. Borenstein made payments totaling $112,000 toward her 2012 tax liability. All of the payments were deemed made on April 15, 2013. Although she requested a six month extension to file her 2012 return, she did not file a return for 2012 by the extended due date of Oct. 15, 2013, or during the ensuing 22 months. On June 19, 2015, the IRS issued Ms. Borenstein a notice of deficiency for 2012.

On Aug. 29, 2015, shortly before filing her Tax Court petition, she filed a delinquent return for 2012, reporting a tax liability of $79,559 on which she sought a refund of $32,441. The IRS agreed that she was entitled to an overpayment of $32,441; however, the IRS took the position that she was not entitled to a refund under I.R.C. sec. 6511(a) and (b)(2)(B) because her tax payments were made outside the applicable “look back” period keyed to the date on which the notice of deficiency was mailed. Ms. Borenstein contended that she remained eligible for the three-year look back period specified in the final sentence of I.R.C. sec. 6512(b)(3) and to the refund she claimed.

Once again, in what is a theme that runs throughout the posts on our blog, the taxpayer faces dire consequences because of not filing the return on time. The IRS concedes her entitlement to the refund and contests only the timeliness of her request for the refund. While the Tax Court is normally associated with determining deficiencies, once it has jurisdiction because of the issuance of a notice of deficiency and the timely filing of a petition, the Tax Court has the ability to determine that a taxpayer has no deficiency and is instead due a refund. Section 6512(b)(1) provides in relevant part that:

“… if the Tax Court finds that there is no deficiency and further finds that the taxpayer has made an overpayment of income tax for the same taxable year, … in respect of which the Secretary determined the deficiency, or finds that there is a deficiency but that the taxpayer has made an overpayment of such tax, the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction to determine the amount of such overpayment, and such amount shall, when the decision of the Tax Court has become final, be credited or refunded to the taxpayer…”

The parties agreed that the relevant limitation on the refund is the limitation in section 6512(b)(3)(B) which provides that :

(3) Limit on amount of credit or refund – No such credit or refund shall be allowed or made of any portion of the tax unless the Tax Court determines as part of its decision that such portion was paid—

(B) within the period which would be applicable under section 6511(b)(2), (c), or (d), if on the date of the mailing of the notice of deficiency a claim had been filed (whether or not filed) stating the grounds upon which the Tax Court finds that there is an overpayment

Because section 6512(b)(3)(B) refers back to specific provisions of section 6511, it then becomes necessary to follow the code there. The Supreme Court engaged in this exercise two decades ago in the case of Commissioner v. Lundy, 516 U.S. 235, 242 (1996). The parties agreed that the relevant time period for the look back described in section 6511 is found in section 6511(b)(2) and not in (c) or (d). Section 6511(b)(2) provides that:

(2) Limit on amount of credit or refund

(A) Limit where claim filed within 3-year period – If the claim was filed by the taxpayer during the 3-year period prescribed in subsection (a), the amount of the credit or refund shall not exceed the portion of the tax paid within the period, immediately preceding the filing of the claim, equal to 3 years plus the period of any extension of time for filing the return. If the tax was required to be paid by means of a stamp, the amount of the credit or refund shall not exceed the portion of the tax paid within the 3 years immediately preceding the filing of the claim.

Petitioner’s brief summed up the situation as follows:

“Under respondent’s proposed reading of the statute, if the deficiency notice had been issued on or before April 15, 2015 (two years from the April 15, 2013, return due date), then petitioner would get her refund. If the notice had been issued after October 15, 2015, but before April 16, 2016, then petitioner would get her refund. But because her deficiency notice was issued during the six-month period between April 16, 2015, and October 15, 2015, respondent argues that a two-year look-back rule applies. Respondent’s reading of the 1997 amendment would mean that petitioner would not get her refund, whereas a similarly situated taxpayer who had not secured an extension of time to file would get a refund—a result that betrays the plain meaning of the statute, and, if not absurd, certainly is unreasonable. Consistent with the unambiguous legislative intent, the final flush language of section 6512(b)(3) should be interpreted so as to not inject filing extensions into the look-back period mechanism.”

Petitioner’s brief also contains a helpful chart showing the situation and the positions of the parties.

The Tax Court found that the hypothetical refund claim was filed on June 19, 2015, the date of the mailing of the notice of deficiency for 2012 and not August 29, 2015, the date of the filing of the delinquent tax return. Because the refund claim was filed before the return, the claim was not filed within three years of the time the return was filed. The Tax Court points out that this happens frequently with non-filers who will experience the issuance of the notice of deficiency before filing their return. If the taxpayer cannot satisfy the look back period of section 6511(b)(2)(A), which the Tax Court finds that Ms. Borenstein did not do, then the statute provides a look back period in section 6511(b)(2)(B). That period limits the taxpayers to a refund of money paid within two years of the claim. Here, that is zero, as the money was deemed paid on the original due date of the return on April 15, 2013.

The IRS argued for a plain language interpretation of section 6512(b)(3) interpreting the phrase “with extensions” to modify due date. Because this was an issue of first impression in the Tax Court, it rendered a precedential T.C. opinion while citing to some non-precedential and precedential opinions that suggested the result reached in this case.

The taxpayer, and the tax clinic, argued that the plain language reading of the statute suggested by the IRS created a result that did not make sense. If the notice of deficiency were issued prior to April 15, 2015 or after October 15, 2015 (and before April 15, 2016), the Tax Court would have jurisdiction to determine the refund. It lost that jurisdiction, according to the “plain language” if the notice of deficiency was issued during the six month window of time more than two years after the due date of the return and less than two and one half years. How could Congress have intended such a result?

In arguing that the IRS reading of the statute produced an absurd result, petitioner pointed to the legislative history:

“Here, the legislative history is unambiguous and precise. Congress intended to legislatively reverse Lundy and provide for a three-year look-back period for all taxpayers, even if a notice of deficiency is issued within three years from the initial due date of a return. The relevant legislative record provides:

In Commissioner v. Lundy, 116 S. Ct. 647 (1996), the taxpayer had not filed a return, but received a notice of deficiency within 3 years after the date the return was due and challenged the proposed deficiency in Tax Court. The Supreme Court held that the taxpayer could not recover overpayments attributable to withholding during the tax year, because no return was filed and the 2-year “look back” rule applied. Since over withheld amounts are deemed paid as of the date the taxpayer’s return was first due (i.e., more than 2 years before the notice of deficiency was issued), such overpayments could not be recovered. By contrast, if the same taxpayer had filed a return on the date the notice of deficiency was issued, and then claimed a refund, the 3-year “look back” rule would apply, and the taxpayer could have obtained a refund of the overwithheld amounts.
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The House bill permits taxpayers who initially fail to file a return, but who receive a notice of deficiency and file suit to contest it in Tax Court during the third year after the return due date, to obtain a refund of excessive amounts paid within the 3-year period prior to the date of the deficiency notice.
H. Conf. Rept. 105-220, at 701 (1997), 1997-4 C.B. (Vol. 2) 1456, 2171.

There is nothing vague or confusing about the legislative history. Congress intended to treat all nonfiling taxpayers the same during the three years after the initial due date of their tax returns (regardless of whether a Tax Court petition was filed).”

Congress, undoubtedly, did not expect this result; however, sometimes the statutory language it chooses produces unexpected results. Maybe the circuit court will read the language to produce a result that fits what Congress appears to have intended or perhaps Ms. Borenstein will be another taxpayer who has found a way, by filing her return late, to lose a refund to which she would have been entitled had she filed on time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Does Appeals Notify You of Their Involvement in the Case

Over the past year, the decision by Appeals to no longer hold face to face meetings and the subsequent partial reversal of that decision served as the highest item of interest regarding Appeals. Taxpayers with cases involving controversies large enough to warrant assignment to an Appeals Officer in the field can now obtain a face to face conference with Appeals again. Taxpayers whose cases do not have sufficient dollars at issue continue to be sent to the back of the bus because the low dollar amount of their controversy means their cases get assigned to low graded Appeals employees who reside in the six Service Centers where Appeals has employees.

One of the concerns that Appeals has in allowing the case of a taxpayer with a small amount of tax at issue to meet with a “live” Appeals employee in a face to face meeting is that the case is scored for assignment to a low graded Appeals employee and in the local offices Appeals does not have low graded employees, or enough low graded employees, so it needs to send these case to the Service Centers where the low graded Appeals employees reside. Because of the limited geographical availability of these employees and the fact that Service Centers do not really accommodate meetings with taxpayers, taxpayers with smaller dollars at issue continue to have the pleasure to deal with the IRS via phone and fax just as they did during the examination phase of their case.

On the listserv for clinicians who work on cases involving low income taxpayers, a new issue concerning Appeals emerged recently. The new issue involves the manner in which Appeals notifies the taxpayer, or the representative, of the assignment of the case in Appeals. Several individuals posting to the listserv reported receiving contact via phone instead of mail of the assignment of the Appeals employee and some reported that in that phone contact the Appeals employee also wanted to discuss the merits of the case. Because the phone contact came “out of the blue” with no opportunity for the person receiving the call to prepare for the discussion, the representatives receiving these calls invariably sought to put off the discussion of the case with varying degrees of success. In questioning the Appeals employee about the approach of calling out of the blue to discuss a case with prior correspondence, some representatives received the explanation that Appeals no longer sent letters in order to save money.

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Donna Hansberry, the Director of Appeals, attended the most recent Low Income Taxpayer Clinic conference on December 7 to discuss the interplay between Appeals and those representing low income taxpayers. She did not seem to be aware of any changes within Appeals that stopped the employees from sending letters to taxpayers and representatives upon assignment of the case and that encouraged Appeals employees to “cold call” taxpayers or representatives seeking to discuss the case. She asked that attendees send her information about this practice and also solicited comments on what Appeals should adopt as the best practice for notifying taxpayers and representatives of the case assignment as well as notifying them of the time (and for taxpayers owing sufficient money, the place) for holding the Appeals conference.

One of the slides she used in her presentation showed that the number of Appeals employees in the past three years. She said that the number has dropped by 1/3 since 2010. The number of cases has dropped but not by the same percentage.

Another slide she displayed showed the breakdown of the caseload in Appeals which is now heavier on collection cases than examination cases.

Because Donna solicited feedback on this issue, PT will be glad to collect feedback and forward it to her. If you have experienced the type of cold call described above, let us know by sending in a comment. We also will forward to her suggestions on how to make the interaction with Appeals work best. Do you want a letter immediately upon assignment of the case to an Appeals employee letting you know the name, address, fax number and phone number of the employee and then another letter setting up the conference? Is there a way to reduce the number of letters and still allow you to properly prepare for the Appeals conference? Let us know your thoughts so we can pass them along or pass them along directly to Appeals.