Seeking Disclosure of Return Information in Tax Court Case

On April 5, 2017, the Tax Court rendered a fully reviewed T.C. opinion in the case of Mescalero Apache Tribe v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 11.  We do not often have two disclosure cases in one week.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

After President Nixon tried to run roughshod over the tax information of his enemies and Congress reacted with the new, extremely beefed up section 6103 in 1976, Chief Counsel, IRS soon thereafter created the Disclosure Division.  As you might imagine, new attorneys did not flock to that Division as their first (or second or third) choice.  So, Chief Counsel’s office created a rule that if you worked in the Disclosure Division for three years, you got first choice on any opening in the country.  That rule suggests how sought after a career focused on the disclosure laws was, at least with lawyers in Chief Counsel’s office; however, the disclosure provisions, despite their non-glamorous reputation, contain many important policy issues a number of which have split the circuits.  The Mescalero Apache Tribe case demonstrates one of the interesting issues that can lurk in the disclosure provisions.

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Before I move on to the disclosure issue, I want to pause and discuss an issue that the Court discusses in a footnote – appellate venue in cases brought by Indian tribes.  The issue of appellate venue in Tax Court cases has importance to the outcome of the case at the trial level because of the Golsen rule under which the Tax Court will follow the law of the circuit to which the case will be appealed.  The failure to update the appellate venue rules in 1998 when Congress created several new ways to obtain Tax Court jurisdiction led to some interesting issues we have blogged here and here.  In this case the Tax Court notes that the rules of appellate venue discuss individuals and corporations but not Indian tribes which have a sovereign nation like status.  So, the appellate venue for a Tax Court case involving a tribe put the court in uncharted waters.  It defaulted to looking to the law of the 10th Circuit which is the circuit where the tribal lands of the tribe appearing before the court are located.  I suspect that most readers will have few cases in which they represent an Indian tribe in Tax Court but the case points out in yet another context a hole that exists in the appellate venue of the Tax Court and how that hole can impact the resolution of the case when a circuit split exists on an issue.

The taxpayer is an Indian tribe that hired workers.  At issue in the Tax Court case is the classification of those workers as independent contractors or employees.  The tribe classified the works as independent contractors and the IRS seeks in the case to obtain a determination that the workers were employees.  If the IRS wins this argument, the tribe would owe the taxes on the workers under the theory that its failure to properly classify the workers and consequent failure to withhold taxes with each payment caused the non-payment of the taxes.  Section 3402(d) allows a company deemed to have employees rather than independent contractors to avoid the additional liability to the extent that the company can show that the workers independently paid the taxes to the IRS.  This offers a significant way out of what could be a heavy tax liability; however, there is one catch – the payment by the employees of their taxes is return information under IRC 6103 and return information, like tax returns themselves, comes under the broad umbrella of the protection from disclosure.

The structure of 6103 basically sets out the broad general rule at the outset that returns and return information is covered by the disclosure provisions and cannot be disclosed by the IRS.  The lengthy code section then has a multitude of exceptions.  At issue in this case is the application of one or more of the exceptions.  The case is a slightly unusual disclosure case in that both the IRS and the taxpayer before the court know the names of all of the individuals who worked for the tribe.  So, the tribe does not want taxpayer identity information but simply whether the identified individuals paid their taxes for the years at issue so that the tribe knows if the defense available in 3402(d) protects it.  Before seeking the information in discovery in the Tax Court case, the tribe sought to gather the information from the individuals who previously worked with it.  Because of time and mobility of the work force and maybe because some of the former workers did not want to provide the information, the tribe was unable to get information about all of its former workers.  So, it sent a discovery request to the IRS seeking to obtain information about a group of identified former workers and whether they paid taxes on the compensation they received.  The IRS objected to the request citing the general rule that it may not disclose this return information.  The tribe brought an action to enforce discovery citing to an exception in 6103(h) and the Tax Court, in a fully reviewed, unanimous opinion, holds that the tribe is entitled to the information through discovery.

This is a big deal for taxpayers who need information from the IRS in order to defend themselves in a tax matter.  The decision here will not open the IRS records in every case but it does provide a model for seeking information in Tax Court cases.  Because the Tax Court had not previously addressed this issue, it did so here through court conference.

As the Tax Court examined the issue of whether 6103(h)(4) provides an exception to the general rule of nondisclosure, it found the circuits were split.  The 5th Circuit held that this subsection applied to disclosures to certain federal officers because of the title of the section; however, the 10th Circuit held the 6103(h)(4), unlike earlier subparagraphs of the subsection,” speaks specifically of disclosure in a judicial or administrative tax proceeding with no indication that disclosure should be limited to officials.”  The Tax Court found that most courts had followed the 10th Circuit; however, the fact that (h)(4) created an opportunity for disclosure in a court proceeding did not mean that its language required or allowed disclosure in this circumstance.  So, the Tax Court had to look further at the statute.  Subparagraph (h)(4)(B) refers to returns and return information and another part refers only to returns.  Without getting into a significant discussion of returns and return information, it is important to understand that these are two different classes of information protected by 6103 and the tribe wants return information.  Two circuits found the subsequent reference to returns which omitted the phrase return information to create a limitation on the disclosure of return information.  The 10th Circuit had two opinions which, in different contexts, did not impose that limitation.

The Tax Court avoided that issue by looking at 6103(h)(4)(C) which allows for disclosure of both returns and return information; however, it limits disclosure to situations in which “return or return information directly relates to a transactional relationship between a person who is a party to the proceeding and the taxpayer which directly affects the resolution of an issue in the proceeding.”  So, the Tax Court needed to decide if the employer/worker relationship is a transactional relationship and whether the return information of the workers directly relates to this relationship and whether “information related to the transactional relationship directly affect(s) the resolution of the issue in this case.”

The court found that the relationship met the necessary test, that the return information directly relates to this relationship and that the return information directly affects the resolution of an issue in the case.  So, it found the return information disclosable but that did not end the matter because the IRS objected that even if it is disclosable “it is still not discoverable.”  The IRS pointed to the fact that the tribe bore the burden of proof that the workers paid their taxes.  This seems like a cruel argument if the IRS has the information that will allow the taxpayer to win their case and does not have to give it to the taxpayer because the taxpayer must prove their case.  The Tax Court found that just because the tribe had the burden of proof does not mean that discovery cannot be had of the IRS citing to Tax Court Rule 70(b) which says parties can discover information “regardless of the burden of proof involved.”  Keep in mind that sometimes the IRS has the burden of proof and it should be careful of arguments like this that could limit its ability to obtain information from the taxpayer through discovery.

In a case like this the IRS represents the interest of the 70 individuals whose return information will come out even though they have no voice in the matter.  The IRS defense of disclosure makes sense but so does the Court’s determination that the information meets the exception in the statute.  Failure to allow the information to come out could cause the tribe to pay a tax which its workers already paid.  The competing policy interest of the protection of the worker’s return information and the tribe’s interests properly fall on the side of preventing the tribe from having to pay a tax it should not owe.  The case does not talk about how the return information of the workers might be protected as the information is disclosed but that issue is present.

Mailing Your Revenue Agent’s Report to a Stranger

The recent Second Circuit case of Minda v. United States, addresses the damages the IRS must pay when it sends detailed information about a taxpayer to an unrelated third party.  The issues in the case did not involve whether a disclosure violation occurred but the appropriate amount of damages for the violation.  The IRS prevailed in the sense that it limited the damages to the lowest possible amount.  The court’s analysis provides insight for others who might find their tax information wrongfully disclosed.  If you feel the IRS got off too lightly, the remedy may lie in stronger legislation.

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The IRS examined the 2007 return of Gary Minda and Nancy Findlay Frost.  The examination resulted in proposed adjustments which the revenue agent’s report (RAR) set forth.  The RAR, as usual, contained a fair amount of information about the taxpayers, such as their social security numbers and financial information.  All of this type of information fits under the definition of “return information” in IRC 6103.  The IRS mailed the RAR to an unrelated third party in Ohio.  I did not see in the opinion where Gary and Nancy live but assume from the fact they brought their wrongful disclosure action in the Eastern District of New York that the did not live in Ohio at the time of the mailing of the RAR report.  The individual in Ohio who received the report gave it to his attorney who wrote to the IRS advising the IRS of the erroneous mailing.  The attorney for the third party also sent a copy of the report to Gary and Nancy whose address, I assume, was a party of the many pieces of information in the RAR identifying them and their finances.

Gary and Nancy complained to the IRS about the fact their RAR was sent to Ohio.  The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) conducted an investigation and found that Gary and Nancy’s examination occurred about the same time as the individual in Ohio, somehow the reports got comingled, and TIGTA could not identify the person who sent the RAR to the third party in Ohio.  The circumstances surrounding the disclosure seemed inadvertent.  The court found that Gary and Nancy “did not suffer any actual damages as a result of the unauthorized disclosure of their return information.”

When Gary and Nancy brought suit in district court seeking damages for unauthorized disclosure the IRS conceded the unauthorized disclosure and conceded liability for statutory damages but denied that they should receive any other relief.  The IRS moved for summary judgment contending that the damages were limited to $1,000 each.  The EDNY granted the motion.  The Second Circuit looked at 6103(b)(8) which provides that a disclosure is “the making known to any person in any manner whatever a return or return information” and then at 7431 which governs damages for wrongful disclosure.  When the IRS makes a wrongful disclosure, taxpayers can bring a civil action in the appropriate district court which they did here.  Section 7431(c) provides that the IRS is liable for the greater of “(A) $1,000 for each act of unauthorized inspection or disclosure of a return or return information with respect to which such defendant is found liable or (B) the sum of (i) the actual damages sustained by the plaintiff as a result of such unauthorized inspection or disclosure, plus (ii) in the case of a willful inspection or disclosure or an inspection or disclosure which is the result of gross negligence, punitive damages, plus (2) the cost of the action, plus…” reasonable attorney’s fees it the action met the criteria for (ii).

Because the IRS conceded that an unlawful disclosure occurred and petitioners conceded they had no actual damages, the issue before the court turned on whether the negligent or willful standard applied.  In determining the amount of statutory damages the court had to decide what the statute meant when it said “each act.”  Was the mailing of the RAR to the wrong person the act – meaning that a single act occurred and limiting the damages to that single act or did many acts occur because the single document contained many disclosures of return information.  The court found that the statute description look at acts and did not say “for each item of return information disclosed.”  The word “each” served as a modifier of act and not information.  After going through its analysis of the statute, the Second Circuit also bolstered its determination with the statement that 7431 provides a waiver of sovereign immunity and those waivers must be strictly construed.  So, the Second Circuit sustained the decision of the district court and limited the recovery of damages to $1,000 for each person based on the act of wrongfully mailing the document once.

Next, the court took up plaintiffs’ argument that they should receive punitive damages.  Because plaintiffs must essentially rely on the investigation by TIGTA and did not have a way to conduct their own investigation (not that I am suggesting their own investigation would necessarily have led to a different conclusion), they are hamstrung on this part of their case.  They really had no evidence that someone at the IRS engaged in aggravated conduct or that the action in mailing the RAR to the wrong place resulted from wanton or reckless disregard or their rights.  So, they could get no traction on this issue.  The government argued that a taxpayer can only receive a punitive damage award if the disclosure resulted in actual damages.  The Second Circuit did not reach this issue but noted a split between the 4th and 5th Circuits on this interpretation.

The outcome here does not surprise me given that the wrongful disclosure did not result in actual damages.  This type of wrongful disclosure may occur more frequently that we see litigation because the IRS will concede the violation and offer statutory damages.  Not many taxpayers push for additional damages because doing so involves resources and costs.  With the possibility that taxpayers in New York could have their case handled anywhere in the US, these types of mistakes will happen.  The inability of TIGTA to get to the source of the problem is perhaps more troubling than the inability of the taxpayers to get a greater award.  Without figuring out why the IRS system went wrong here, corrective action may not occur.

A Botched CDP Notice Leads to a Timely 6404 Interest Abatement Petition

Sometimes cases arrive in Tax Court in the most unusual way, and the case of Estate of Sager v. Commissioner is one such case.  On February 17, 2017, the Tax Court entered an order determining that it did not have jurisdiction over the case for purposes of reviewing a Collection Due Process (CDP) decision by Appeals following an equivalent hearing but that it did have jurisdiction over the case for purposes of reviewing an interest abatement “final determination” made as a part of the CDP decision.  It is nice that the Estate of Sager got into the door of the Tax Court on the interest abatement issue.  Whether this will cause the IRS to argue in the future that documents not necessarily, or perhaps not clearly, intended to serve as final determinations of interest abatement will trigger the running of the statutory period for filing petitions for interest abatement remains to be seen.

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The tax year at issue in this case is 1997 and the return for that year was timely filed by the decedent, pursuant to extension, on July 27, 1998.  The IRS issued a notice of deficiency for that year on November 10, 2011.  I cannot determine from the order why the notice was timely but that does not seem to be an issue that concerned anyone.  A Tax Court petition was untimely filed in response to the notice of deficiency leading to the eventual assessment of $108,130.  Following assessment the normal collection actions took place, including the assignment of the case to a revenue office.  The revenue office eventually issued a notice of intent to levy on August 29, 2012; however, petitioner appears not to have filed a Tax Court petition in response to this notice.  On September 22, 2012, the revenue officer sent a CDP notice of filing the federal tax lien.  Petitioner did respond to the CDP lien notice and filed a request for a CDP hearing on October 24, 2012.

Petitioner noted in the request that more than 30 days had passed but asserted that the CDP notice was delivered to an invalid address.  In the end, the Tax Court determined that the CDP lien notice was sent to the wrong address.  Although the Court does not address the issue in the Order, the sending of a CDP lien notice to the wrong address raises an issue regarding the continued validity of the lien notice.  The IRS must send a CDP lien notice to the taxpayer within five days after the filing of the notice of federal tax lien.  What impact does sending an invalid notice have?  It seems that the Tax Court could never have jurisdiction over the CDP issues because of the invalid notice.  Because by the time the Tax Court gets to the issue of the validity of the notice and of the notice of federal tax lien almost a year from the filing of the petition had passed and because during that year the parties had resolved the lien issue, the Court did not dwell on the issue of the invalidity of the CDP notice.  The Internal Revenue Manual provides that, in general, if the IRS sends an invalid notice it must send a substitute notice and the Tax Court in Bongam v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. No. 4 (2016) held that a substitute notice of determination was proper after the mailing of an inappropriate motion..

Here, the address on the notice was the address at which petitioner’s former partner lived.  She brought the notice to petitioner on the 29th day after the notice was issued.  That did not provide the petitioner with enough time to file a timely request for a CDP hearing.  For notices of deficiency, the Tax Court has a rule that a notice mailed to the wrong address can become a valid notice if the notice makes it way to the taxpayer in time for the taxpayer to file a timely Tax Court petition.  Under that case law, learning of the CDP notice on the 29th day would not validate the CDP notice.  It is not clear that getting the wrongly addressed CDP notice to the taxpayer would save the CDP notice.  I will leave the issue for another post where the issue is clearly raised, but wanted to point out the issues lurking in this case before returning to the interest abatement determination.

When it received the untimely CDP request, the IRS gave the taxpayer an equivalent hearing.  During the equivalent hearing, the Settlement Officer (SO) considered the merits of liability and reduced the liability.  Because this action did not necessarily bear on the outcome before the Tax Court, the order gives few details that allow me to know how the taxpayer persuaded the SO to consider the merits.  It appears from the dismissal of the untimely petition in Tax Court of the effort of the taxpayer to litigate the notice of deficiency that the taxpayer had a prior opportunity to litigate the tax.  I surmise that the taxpayer was able to show the SO in a simple, straightforward way that the assessment was wrong and the SO was willing to address the issue even though not compelled to do so by the CDP process.  Les talked about this in a recent post in which the SO was unwilling to fix an easily recognizable mistake.  I have had spotty success seeking to get a merits adjustments from an SO where the taxpayer had a prior opportunity but the adjustment was easy to fix.  If I am correct about what happened here, it shows at least one SO who was willing to fix something simple and save the taxpayer time as well as other IRS employees.

The SO did not agree to abate interest.  The order does not describe why the taxpayer felt interest should have been abated.  Given the unusual timing of the issuance of the notice of deficiency, perhaps the lengthy delay in working the case had something to do with the request.  The taxpayer made a $50,000 payment during the CDP equivalent hearing process.  Because of the adjustments the SO made and the payment, the taxpayer essentially satisfied the liability; however, the SO issued a decision letter at the conclusion of the equivalent hearing setting out the adjustment to the tax and denying interest abatement.

The taxpayer filed a petition in Tax Court within 30 days of the issuance of the decision letter.  The IRS moved to dismiss since it had not issued a determination letter.  Essentially, it argued that the late filing of the request for a CDP hearing precluded the Tax Court from having jurisdiction.  The low income taxpayer clinic at Rutgers Law School entered the scene at this point and argued that the Tax Court had jurisdiction over the interest abatement aspect of the case.  The IRS conceded that the Tax Court “may” have jurisdiction over the interest abatement request while continuing to argument that it did not have jurisdiction over the CDP request.  The taxpayer argued that his case met the unusual conditions for treating a decision letter as a notice of determination and that the Tax Court did have jurisdiction over his case.  The Tax Court disagreed and distinguished this case from the very short line of cases holding that the Tax Court has jurisdiction over a CDP matter after the issuance of a decision letter.

While disagreeing with petitioner on the issue of jurisdiction over the CDP aspect of the case, the Tax Court held that the decision letter could serve as a final determination with respect to interest abatement.  In Gray v. Commissioner, the Tax Court previously held that a CDP determination letter could serve as the basis for a final determination regarding interest abatement.  The order in Sager takes the next logical step and holds that a decision letter can also serve that purpose.  The petition filed here came well within the 180 period after the notice of final determination.  The Court finds that “Respondent has not asserted nor proven that the decision letter was not meant to be a final determination on Mr. Sager’s interest abatement request.”  Therefore, the Court found it had jurisdiction to hear the interest abatement request and ordered the parties to file status requests regarding the interest abatement issue.

The order follows the Tax Court’s longstanding practice of finding jurisdiction in those situations in which the petitioner comes to the Court within the established time frames in the applicable statutes.  Not only had the Court made a similar holding regarding a CDP determination letter in the Gray case, but it has made similar decisions in other contexts as well.  I wrote recently about one in the whistleblower context.  The decision here allows the petitioner to move forward for a determination on interest abatement without going the more ordinary route of filing a Form 843.  This is good news for this taxpayer and good news generally unless the IRS can argue that this type of informal final determination precludes the taxpayer from seeking interest abatement if the taxpayer does not realize that the informal final determination closes the door when it goes unrecognized and the taxpayer does not act quickly in response to it.

Update on Aging Offers into Acceptance

I wrote a post almost two years ago about the provision placed into IRC 7122(f) as part of the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005, which deems a doubt as to liability and doubt as to collectability offers received by the IRS on or after July 16, 2006, accepted if the IRS does not act on the offer within two years.  The prior post was prompted by a question I received from Scott Schumacher, my fellow clinician and now the associate dean at the University of Washington.  Scott’s clinic had a case that appeared to cross the 24-month threshold, but they could find no manual provisions describing what happens when that occurs.

A recent internal guidance memo, SBSE-04-0117-0007, shows that the IRS is now thinking about this issue and developing internal controls to monitor the amount of time an offer is pending.  The memo is short and establishes guidance for the IRS employees who process offers as they arrive.  It allows practitioners to see what the IRS will do to mark the arrival of a new offer and the beginning of the two year time frame.  When I posted on this issue previously, only one commenter mentioned having a case that went past the two year time period.  If you have experienced an offer that aged into acceptance, please send in a comment to allow the community to gain a sense of whether this is happening.  My research assistant searched the IRM to see if the IRS had published other guidance on this issue since the post two years ago and found a few pieces of information in the IRM.  The Appeals OIC discussion does mention the two year rule; the OIC manual has a brief discussion of the rule at 8.23.1.4.1 (04-18-2016) and last April the director of collection policy issued a letter similar to the one linked above.

I had a conversation with an offer examiner recently who said that his group had gotten behind for a bit in completing the offers but was relatively caught up at this moment.  Non-business offers seem to take about 4-6 months.  Unless an offer slips through the cracks, it seems unlikely that it would reach the two year period.  No doubt an occasional offer does slip through the cracks for what could be a nice reward at the end of a very long tunnel.

Innocent Spouse Injured by Using the Wrong Form

The difference between innocent and injured spouse can create confusion.  That confusion gets illustrated in the case of Palomares v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-243 which will soon be argued before the 9th Circuit by a student at the tax clinic at Gonzaga Law School.  The case illustrates something that regularly happens in innocent spouse case – the innocent spouse’s refunds get offset by the IRS to satisfy the liability of the “liable” spouse – and getting them back can prove very difficult for the innocent spouse.

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For anyone unfamiliar with the innocent spouse and injured spouse provisions, I will briefly discuss the distinction between the two types of relief.  Innocent spouse relief allows a spouse who has filed a joint return to obtain relief from the joint and several liability that results from filing a joint return if the spouse requesting relief meets certain criteria set out in IRC 6015(b), (c) or (f).  Injured spouse relief allows a spouse who files a joint return to recover the portion of the refund resulting from that return which relates to the liability of the requesting spouse when the refund would otherwise go to satisfy a tax, or other liability subject to offset, owed solely by the other spouse.  While both forms of relief result from filing a joint return, the goal of each type of relief differs and the difference can create confusion for someone who does not regularly handle these types of cases.

Ms. Palomares got confused.  She needed innocent spouse relief but filed Form 8379 designed for use by injured spouses.  The IRS recognized her confusion and provided her with the correct form, Form 8857.  Upon receipt of the correct form, Ms. Palomares eventually filed it but the delay creates the issue in the case.  The IRS determined she deserved some relief as an innocent spouse; however, the delay in filing the correct form limited that relief.  After incurring the joint liability for which she sought innocent spouse relief, Ms. Palomares found that the IRS took the refunds she claimed in subsequent years in order to satisfy the unpaid liability on the joint return.  In seeking innocent spouse relief, she also wanted a return of the refunds the IRS had offset against the joint liability.  The issue here turns on the timing of her request for refund, which turns on whether the filing of the incorrect form nominally seeking injured spouse relief can meet the requirements of the informal claim doctrine allowing her request for relief to relate to the date of filing the injured spouse relief rather than the date of filing the correct form for innocent spouse relief.

In addition to the general confusion that exists between innocent and injured spouse relief, Ms. Palomares had the additional handicap that English was not her first language, and she spoke very little English.  The years at issue for the refund are 2005 through 2008.  By these years, she had separated from her husband, and she filed returns using the filing status of head of household.  As mentioned above, the IRS took the refunds reflected on these returns as it should using the power of offset granted in IRC 6502.  When she did not receive her refunds for 2006 and 2007, she sought assistance from the Northwest Justice legal clinic which helped her fill out the wrong form on July 1, 2008.  This clinic is not a low income taxpayer clinic but a clinic providing general legal assistance.  On September 24, 2008, the IRS sent her a letter with the correct form.  The Court found that “She did not call or otherwise contact respondent with respect to the September 24 letter.”

Ms. Palomares’s life intervened and kept her from focusing on her taxes for almost two years.  Finally, in August, 2010, she filed the Form 8857 seeking innocent spouse relief with the correct form and seeking a return of the refunds taken from her for four years.  Initially, the IRS took the position that the request came too late because she sent it more than two years after collection activity had begun; however, on May 14, 2012 the IRS reversed its position regarding the two year rule and requests for relief under IRC 6015(f).  The IRS granted her relief as an innocent spouse; however, it limited her refund to amounts paid within two years of the filing of the Form 8857 in 2010.  She appealed arguing that the relief should date from the submission of Form 8379 and that is the issue before the court in this case.

The Tax Court found that the Form 8379 did not meet the requirements for an informal claim.  The requirements for an informal claim do not come from a statute since this is an equitable remedy constructed by the courts to prevent an injustice.  As the Court notes, the sufficiency of an informal claim largely turns on the facts; however, courts generally look for certain markers in deciding whether to treat something other than a formal claim for refund as an adequate informal one.  The underlying principle concerns exhaustion of administrative remedy and whether the IRS had a chance to consider the request.  The more the taxpayer can show that the inappropriate document filed essentially apprised the IRS of what it needed to know in order to grant a refund, the more likely the taxpayer will succeed.

The Court states that a qualifying informal claim must satisfy three requirements.  It quoted from a non-precedential memo opinion to set out the requirements:

It has long been recognized that a writing which does not qualify as a formal refund claim nevertheless may toll the period of limitations applicable to refunds if (1) the writing is delivered to the Service before the expiration of the applicable period of limitations, (2) the writing in conjunction with its surrounding circumstances adequately notifies the Service that the taxpayer is claiming a refund and the basis therefor, and (3) either the Service waives the defect by considering the refund claim on its merits or the taxpayer subsequently perfects the informal refund claim by filing a formal refund claim before the Service rejects the informal refund claim. Jackson v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2002-44, slip op. at 10.

The Court found that the Form 8379 meet the first test citing to Kaffenberger v. United States, 314 F.3d 944 (8th Cir. 2003).  The Court found that the Form 8379 did not convey sufficient information to notify the IRS that Ms. Palomares sought relief from the liability created by the joint return with her then husband and sought a refund of amounts applied to the liability created by the joint return.  The Court determined that sending her the form for innocent spouse relief amounted to guess by the IRS that she might have intended to request that relief rather than an awareness that she wanted such relief.  The Form 8379 did not reference 1996, the year for which she wanted innocent spouse relief.  Because it did not reference that year, the IRS lacked sufficient clues to know exactly what she wanted and to make a determination based on her Form 8379 other than that the form she sent did not work for the circumstances of her situation since she had not filed a joint return in the years to which the form related.  So, the Court denied her claim for refund based on the date of filing the Form 8379.

Ms. Palomares presents sympathetic facts.  She clearly did not know the difference between innocent spouse and injured spouse, and neither did the clinic that assisted her with her divorce and that helped her file the wrong form.  The IRS gave her the correct form relatively quickly but she delayed filing that form because of things happening in her personal life.  She appears to deserve the refunds she seeks.    The case deserves watching as it heads into argument in the 9th Circuit because of the effort to expand the informal claim doctrine into an area of some confustion.  If the IRS loses, it will probably do so because it was nice and sent her the innocent spouse form.  The outcome turns on whether the IRS knew what she wanted to a degree that would have allowed it to make an innocent spouse determination at the time it received the injured spouse form or instead made an educated guess based on the unavailability of the relief requested on the form she submitted and the confusion surrounding these two similar but different forms of relief available to spouses.

More Fallout from Chai

The Second Circuit reversed the Tax Court’s decision in Chai v. Commissioner and made clear that the IRS had a duty to show it complied with the managerial approval process required by IRC 6751 prior to issuing a notice of deficiency.  Steve blogged on that decision last week.  We also posted last week on a designated order issued by Judge Cohen requiring compliance with IRC 6751 and citing Chai.  Judge Lauber issued a similar order.

On Friday the IRS took the very unusual step of filing a motion for reconsideration of the Graev v. Commissioner decision.  We reported on Graev here.  The Second Circuit largely adopted the view of the dissent in Chai.  Because the appeal in Graev would go to the Second Circuit, it was clear that the opinion would not stand.  Potentially preempting an appeal, the IRS has asked the Tax Court to reconsider its opinion in Graev.  Here is the relevant language of the motion, which can be found here:

  • Relief is justified here because a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit created “exceptional circumstances” for this case.
  • On March 20, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit released an opinion in Chai v. Commissioner, No. 15-1653 (2d Cir. Mar. 20, 2017).
  • The Second Circuit’s opinion in Chai specifically disagreed with the majority opinion in this case. Chai, slip op. at *57, 59.
  • The court in Chai held that compliance with section 6751(b) is an issue in deficiency cases because it is part of Docket No. 30638-08 – 3 – respondent’s burden of production for penalties under section 7491(c). Chai, slip op, at *67.
  • Because an appeal in this case would be heard by the Second Circuit, the majority’s opinion in this case cannot be upheld under the precedent established by Chai.
  • Respondent requests that the Court vacate its decision in this case and order additional briefing on what steps the Court should take in this case in light of the Chai opinion. Respondent has views which it believes will benefit the Court to consider in the changed circumstances of this case.

It will be interesting to learn the views of the IRS on how Chai will impact its operation.  The IRS did not suggest what “views it believes will benefit the Court.”

We will keep you posted.  If you are contesting a case in Tax Court in which the IRS asserted a penalty, expect the IRS to begin a search of its records to determine if the required approval of the penalty occurred.  If the IRS does not come forward with the information proving the correct approval occurred prior to the issuance of the notice of deficiency, you may have a clear path to victory on the penalty.

Almost Immediate Impact of Chai

On March 21, Steve blogged about the important decision of the 2nd Circuit in  Chai v. Commissioner on March 20, holding that the IRS most show, as required by IRC 6721(b), that the immediate manager approved the imposition of a penalty.  In a designated order enter on March 22, 2017, in Henderson v. Commissioner, Docket No. 14187-16L, Judge Cohen cites to the Chai decision in a ruling on the motion for summary judgment filed by the IRS in this Collection Due Process Case.  Like the order in Vigon v. Commissioner issued by Judge Gustafson which we blogged about here, Judge Cohen requires the IRS to address the requirement of IRC 6751(b).  Specifically, she orders “on or before April 10, 2017, respondent may supplement the motion for summary judgment with any additional affidavit or argument concerning compliance with the requirements of law and administrative procedures supporting the notice of determination in this case, specifically with respect to compliance with Internal Revenue Code Section 6751(b)(1)….”

The fact that she added the requirement to show appropriate approval and that she made this order a designated order, signals what may be an important shift on the Court regarding the practice it will now take regarding the IRS obligation to prove the appropriate approval of penalties.  We will continue to monitor this issue because it suggests a potentially huge shift in practice.  Kudos again to Frank Agostino and the attorneys in his office for identifying and pursuing the argument in a statute that lay forgotten for almost 20 years.

For those of you not familiar with designated orders, the Tax Court has a wonderful feature available on the front page of its web site in which it posts the orders entered each day and provides a feature making the orders are searchable.  The searchable feature of the orders makes the Tax Court’s treatment of them vastly superior to PACER.  The feature became available in 2011 limiting the lookback period but that limitation grows less important with each passing day.  As the orders get posted, the judge issuing the order has the opportunity to “designate” the order.  If the judge designates the order, the judge is signaling that the order is somewhat special – at least in the view of that judge.  Keep in mind that orders do not go through the review in the Chief Judge’s office prior to issuance as is required with opinions.  Matters decided by orders also do not have precedential value as we have discussed before.  Yet, a not insignificant percentage of Tax Court cases get resolved through dispositive orders rather than opinions.  Designated orders allow the judge to alert practitioners that something about the order deserves attention; however, the designation of the order does not require, or really provide for, the judge to state explicitly why the judge has labeled it as a designated order.  The reader must surmise from context why the judge has chosen to designate the order.  On any given day the Tax Court may post five orders and maybe one order will be designated.

In the case of the order in the Henderson I surmise that Judge Cohen designated it because of the citation to Chai and the requirement that the IRS put on its proof about the authorization of the penalty.  This blog has regularly mined orders, and especially designated orders, as a source of information about Tax Court procedure that often goes unnoticed.  As mentioned before, Carl Smith has generally served as our eyes and ears on the Court’s orders.  We have decided to begin regularly posting about designated orders from the prior week in order to alert readers to those orders the judges on the Court deem most important.

The Henderson order, citing to Chai in a case which appears appealable to the 9th Circuit and not the 2nd, suggests a new day has dawned for the IRS in meeting its obligation when it asserts a penalty.  We will be watching closely for other orders and opinions.

A Crack in the Glass Ceiling – Victory in a Financial Disability Case

We have reported before here, here, here and here about the IRS’ unbroken string of victories in cases involving a claim of financial disability.  The first two posts listed in this string, a two-part series by Carl Smith, has a particularly important connection to the opinion reported in this post. While taxpayers have obtained relief from the statutory period for filing a refund claim in administrative decisions by the IRS, no one had won a 6511(h) case in court – until now and this victory is one that opens the door of the court but does not grant relief.  In Hoff Stauffer, Administrator of the Estate of Carlton Stauffer v. IRS, a magistrate judge in the District of Massachusetts has recommended that the court has jurisdiction to hear a case involving 6511(h) in the face of a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

Because this is the recommendation of a magistrate judge, the district court must accept it before it becomes final; however, the decision here coupled with the order entered by Judge Gustafson in another Boston case, Kurko v. Commissioner, suggests that perhaps a new day is dawning for those seeking relief for financial disability.  Because the IRS has only issued guidance in the form of an onerous revenue procedure and has never allowed public comment on the now 20-year old provision of the law and because most of the cases have been brought pro se, it has taken a long time to crack the ceiling and take steps toward meaningful administration of this provision.

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Carlton Stauffer passed away in 2012 at the age of 90.  His son, Hoff, discovered that the father had not filed a return since 2006 and proceeded to prepare the outstanding returns as was his fiduciary duty.  In 2013, Hoff Stauffer filed several back returns for his father’s estate and requested refund of an overpayment exceeding $100,000 for 2006.  The IRS disallowed the claim as untimely and declined to hold open the statute using 6511(h).  As a part of the process of appealing the denial of the claim, Hoff submitted a written explanation from a licensed psychologist who had treated his father from 2001 until his death.  The psychologist explained in his report that the father had a variety of mental and physical conditions which prevented him from properly managing his affairs from at least 2006 until his death.  The IRS rejected the explanation, citing to Rev. Proc. 99-21 which requires a statement from a physician and not a psychologist.

Tom Crice, a local Boston attorney whom I had met because of his pro bono work on behalf of low income taxpayers, brought suit for the estate after the denial of the claim.  Tom practiced as a criminal prosecutor and an actuary before settling into tax controversy work.  His background may have helped in the attack he took on Rev. Proc. 99-21.  The IRS filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because the claim for refund was untimely.  This caused the Court to examine 6511(h) which suspends the time frame if the claimant was financially disabled.  Examining the statute led to an examination of Rev. Proc. 99-21 which “sets forth in detail the form and manner in which proof of financial disability must be provided.”  The Rev. Proc. states that the claimant must submit “a written statement by a physician (as defined in section 1861(r)(1) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 1395x(r), qualified to make such determination…”  The court noted that the Rev. Proc. does not define “physician” but borrows the definition from the Social Security statute.  The reference to section 1861(r)(1) creates confusion because that section does not have subsections.  Instead it has one large paragraph defining physician that includes five categories: (1) “a doctor of medicine or osteopathy,” (2) a doctor of dental surgery or of dental medicine,” (3) “a doctor of podiatric medicine,” (4) “a doctor of optometry,” and (5) “a chiropractor.”

The Court states that it assumes the IRS intends to refer to the first category but notes that the Rev. Proc. introduces further confusion by linking section 1861(r)(1) to 42 U.S.C. 1395x(r) because the latter provision “essentially tracks verbatim the wording and format of section 1861(r), but does not contain a corresponding reference to a subsection one.  Indeed, section 1395x(r), like section 1861(r), does not formally contain any subsections.”  This raises questions of whether the reference to 1861(r)(1) is a scrivener’s error or intended to narrow the scope of physician.

The court notes that the Rev. Proc. does not receive Chevron deference because it expresses the view of one employee and not the view of the agency.  The Rev. Proc. receives deference “only to the extent that those interpretations have the power to persuade.”  The court then explains how the Rev. Proc. fails to persuade:

section 6511(h) allows a disability to be based on a showing of a  ‘mental impairment’ and Revenue Procedure 99-21 directly undermines that goal where it demands a note from a physician but then defines that term to exclude a whole class of professionals generally considered competent to opine on the existence of a mental impairment.  On the record before the Court, there is no evidence that the IRS has considered the implications of its interpretation of the word ‘physician’ as used in the revenue procedure.  On the contrary, and as noted, Revenue Procedure 99-21 was drafted principally by a single IRS employee who without elaboration or explanation selected a definition of ‘physician’ as used by the SSA.  In the absence of additional information, there is just no basis to assess the soundness of the IRS’s interpretation of the work ‘physician’ in Revenue Procedure 99-21.

The court goes on to say that if the IRS sought to find someone competent to render an opinion on a physical or mental impairment it could have looked elsewhere in the rules governing Social Security cases.  Social Security regulation 20 CFR 404.1527(a)(2) provides “medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s)….”  The court also cites to case law accepting the opinion of the treating psychologist while noting that the SSA and IRS definitions of disability are virtually identical.  So, the limitation argued by the IRS in its Rev. Proc. does not make sense and is inconsistent with the SSA rules it apparently sought to mimic.

The court states that the IRS may have reasons for limiting the opinions in financial disability cases to physicians but it does not explain those reasons in the Rev. Proc.  Without a reasoned explanation and in light of the fact that the opinion of psychologist in these types cases is viewed as acceptable in other contexts, the Rev. Proc. does not provide persuasive authority.  The court states “I conclude that the defendant’s interpretation of the term ‘physician’ in Revenue Procedure 99-21 is not entitled to deference here.  I conclude further that to the extent the psychologist’s statement the plaintiff submitted supports a financial disability based on a mental impairment, the IRS was not required to reject it on the ground that it did not constitute a ‘physician’s statement.  Consequently, I find no basis on this record to deem the plaintiff’s claim for refund untimely under section 6511(h), and thus do not agree that the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s suit.”

The IRS made a couple more arguments that the court rejected.  First, it argued that the psychologist’s statement failed because the estate did not submit the statement at the same time as the claim for refund but only submitted it with the initial appeal.  The court noted other cases that had rejected this technical argument by the IRS stating that “the practice is to accept the missing information at a later stage so it and the taxpayer’s claim may be considered.”

Second, the IRS argued in a footnote that the psychologist was unqualified to opine on the disability because he appeared to base the opinion in part on the taxpayer’s physical ailments and this is outside of the psychologist expertise.  The court rejects this argument because the sufficiency of the statement was not before the court and because the mental impairments alone may have been sufficient to support the financial disability determination.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), the IRS was to file an objection to this recommendation within 14 days of the receipt of the report.    On February 27, 2017, the IRS filed its objection to the magistrate judge’s report.  It took issue with just about every aspect of the report but most strongly objected to the failure of the court to bow down to Rev. Proc. 99-21 as controlling:

The United States has numerous objections to the Report. First, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s interpretation of Congress’ delegation to the Secretary. The Report misapprehends the plain language of § 6511(h) and the Secretary’s authority under that statute. The Secretary did what Congress told it to do and, as discussed in greater detail below, there is no reason to expand § 6511(h) beyond what is prescribed in Rev. Rule. 99-21, which is something that the Report attempts to do. Neither the language of § 6511(h) nor Rev. Proc. 99- 21 support Magistrate Judge Cabell’s view that a psychologist is permitted to medically determine a mental impairment. The Report’s discussion regarding the proper level of deference afforded to Rev. Proc. 99-21 is simply irrelevant pursuant to § 6511(h). In short, a psychologist’s statement is invalid pursuant to § 6511(h). Accordingly, the plaintiff’s failure to comply with Proc. 99–21 is fatal to its refund claim because federal courts have no jurisdiction over a tax refund suit until a claim for refund or credit has been “duly filed” with the Secretary. Second, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s conclusion that the Eighth Circuits decision in Abston v. Commissioner, 691 F.3d 992 (8th Cir. 2012), is distinguishable from the case at bar. Contrary to the Report, the Eighth Circuit, as well as numerous other federal courts, have found that taxpayers cannot establish a medical disability under § 6511(h) without submitting a “doctor’s note” as required by Rev. Proc. 99-21. The plaintiff did not provide a doctor’s note as it was required to do. Third, the United States objects to Magistrate Judge Cabell’s rejection of the United States’ alternative argument. Even if the psychologist’s statement at issue could be considered a “doctor’s note,” it continues to be deficient pursuant to Rev. Rule 99-21.

Plaintiff’s response to the IRS motion is also attached.

While Judge Gustafson cracked the glass in the 6511(h) ceiling with his order in the Kurko case, Magistrate Judge Cabell punches his fist through the glass.  This may allow others to follow and finally break the choke hold in this area.  Perhaps the IRS will consider, after two decades, the idea of getting comments on what a reasonable rule would look like and talk to the representatives who assist individuals with financial disability.  Taxpayers claiming this exception, by definition, face difficulties.  Rev. Proc. 99-21 adds to those difficulties and does not provide a reasonable basis for working through this issue.  The facts here follow fairly closely the facts in the case Brockamp v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), in which another 90 year old gentleman failed to timely file a refund claim and the failure was discovered by his executor after the ordinary statute of limitations had expired.  The facts of that case so moved Congress that it created the statutory exception in 6511(h).  Let’s work together to find a reasonable way to allow those with valid claims for refund and legitimate reasons for filing late to get their money without imposing undue barriers.