Leslie Book

About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Tax Court Order Highlights Faulty Stat Notice Issued to Married Taxpayers

What happens when IRS wishes to issue stat notice to taxpayers who filed joint returns? Section 6212(b)(2) provides that the notice may be a single joint notice, except if the IRS has been notified that the spouses live separately. IRS Restructuring Act of 1998 in an off-Code provision states that IRS is required, “whenever practicable,” to send “any notice” relating to a joint return separately to each spouse.  When taxpayers file joint returns, and IRS issues a stat notice, IRS policy is to send duplicate notices to each spouse even if they live at the same address.

Parson v Commissioner is a recent undesignated Tax Court order that highlights the risks to the IRS when it does not strictly follow its procedures for issuing separate notices.

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Here are the facts. Parson involved married taxpayers who lived at the same address. In 2014, the husband filed a MFS return and the wife did not file a return; in 2015 they filed a joint return. IRS examined the husband’s 2014 MFS return and the 2015 joint return. IRS issued and sent a single stat notice that covered the husband’s 2014 MFS return and the joint return. The letter portion of the stat notice was addressed only to the husband. The waiver allowing immediate assessment only listed the husband as the sole taxpayer. Accompanying the letter were two separate Forms 4549 A, Income Tax Examination Changes, one for 2014 in the husband’s name and the other for 2015 that referred to both husband and wife.

The Parsons together filed and signed a single petition; the petition swept in both years. For 2014, IRS moved to dismiss the case for the wife, which the Tax Court granted, given that in 2014 the examination pertained to the husband’s MFS return.

Special Trial Judge Armen on his own raised the issue of a jurisdiction for the wife for 2015 given that the stat notice letter only listed the husband’s name. IRS claimed that the Tax Court had jurisdiction over the wife for 2015 because the Income Tax Examination Change Form 4549 A for 2015 also had her name on it and that she was not misled or confused—after all she did file a petition the Tax Court.

Judge Armen disagreed:

However, the Court views the matter differently. First and foremost, it is clear that the . . . notice of deficiency was addressed solely to [husband]. See I.R.C. sec. 6212(a) and (b). Second, the Commissioner is obliged, “wherever practicable, [to] send any notice relating to a joint return under section 6013 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 separately to each individual filing the joint return.” Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-206, sec. 3201(d), 112 Stat. at 740. This was not done in the present case.

The order thus dismissed the wife’s case for lack of jurisdiction; the order goes on to state that of course IRS could issue a separate stat notice to the wife and that if she wishes to challenge that in Tax Court she will have to timely file a new petition.

Observations and Conclusion

RRA 98’s off Code provision requiring “wherever practicable” that IRS issue separate notices related to a joint return is an important protection from abusive or controlling spouses that may not share correspondence (IRS by the way interprets “any notice” relating to a joint return as only notices required by statute). The separate notice requirement is not an absolute directive and Section 6212 allows a single joint notice when IRS does not know that spouses live separately. The order in Parson highlights the risk to IRS when its stat notice itself fails to explicitly list both spouses’ names, and IRS fails to send separate letters. Parson also is a reminder to practitioners to review carefully IRS correspondence to make sure that IRS complied with its notice requirements. Query how Judge Armen would have ruled if the IRS had sent a duplicate copy of the stat notice addressed to the wife that failed to include her name on the letter portion of the notice.

Hat tip to Lew Taishoff who flagged this order on his blog.

 

 

 

 

Some Additional Reading on IRS Notice Regarding State and Local Deductions

My post last week discussing the IRS’s Strategic Plan briefly referred to the IRS notice indicating that Treasury intended to issue proposed regulations that will “assist taxpayers in understanding the relationship between the federal charitable contribution deduction and the new statutory limitation on the deduction for state and local tax payments.”

For those wanting some more on the IRS notice, I recommend Two Cheers for IRS Guidance on the New SALT Cap on Medium by University of Chicago Law School Professor Dan Hemel.  Dan’s post distinguishes between what is in the IRS notice’s crosshairs, i.e., plans enacted or on the books that allow taxpayers to get credit for charitable contributions to state-linked funds, from other state plans, like the NY State Employer Compensation Expense Program, that allow employees to claim credits if as Dan notes the “employer opts into a new payroll tax regime.”

Dan discusses some interesting procedural issues as well, emphasizing that a 2011  informal Chief Counsel memorandum,which some have used as legal support for the deduction of proceeds contributed to state linked charitable funds, is not precedential. (For those wanting some more substance on the support for the workaround see Federal Income Tax Treatment of Charitable Contributions Entitling Donor to a State Tax Credit, an article posted on SSRN by Dan, Joe Bankman, Jacob Goldin, David Gamage, Darien Shankse, Kirk Stark, Dennis Ventry and Manoj Viswanathan).

Dan’s post discusses how states may be able to avoid the reach of the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA) to bring a pre-enforecement judicial challenge to any future regs. Dan’s main point here is that absent a pre-enforcement challenge, states would have little direct chance to challenge the regulations when they are eventually promulgated. As Dan discusses, in 1984 the Supreme Court in South Carolina v Reagan allowed states to challenge legislation that pegged the federal income tax exemption of interest from state and local obligations to bonds issued in registered rather than bearer form. Despite objections from the federal government that the AIA should restrict a state’s ability to challenge that legislation, the Court disagreed:

In sum, the Anti-Injunction Act’s purpose and the circumstances of its enactment indicate that Congress did not intend the Act to apply to actions brought by aggrieved parties for whom it has not provided an alternative remedy. In this case  if the plaintiff South Carolina issues bearer bonds, its bondholders will, by virtue of 103(j)(1), be liable for the tax on the interest earned on those bonds. South Carolina will incur no tax liability. Under these circumstances, the State will be unable to utilize any statutory procedure to contest the constitutionality of 103(j)(1). Accordingly, the [AIA]cannot bar this action.

Dan’s flagging of South Carolina v Regan and its allowing states to challenge the future guidance seems spot on to me.

Stay tuned, both for 1) more IRS/Treasury guidance on this and other workaround plans and 2) states challenging whatever regulations Treasury eventually promulgates.

IRS Publishes 5-Year Strategic Plan

Earlier this week IRS published a 5-year strategic plan.The plan identifies the following six strategic goals.

  • Empower and Enable All Taxpayers to Meet Their Tax Obligations
  • Protect the Integrity of the Tax System by Encouraging Compliance through Administering and Enforcing the Tax Code
  • Collaborate with External Partners Proactively to Improve Tax Administration
  • Cultivate a Well-Equipped, Diverse, Flexible and Engaged Workforce
  • Advance Data Access, Usability and Analytics to Inform Decision-Making and Improve Operational Outcomes
  • Drive Increased Agility, Efficiency, Effectiveness and Security in IRS Operations

Here are some observations:

  1. The plan starts with a recitation of the IRS mission, and lists the taxpayer bill of rights. Including the taxpayer bill of rights so prominently in the plan is a very good sign, as IRS courts and taxpayers are all wrestling with precisely how and in what way those rights should manifest themselves in particular situations.
  2. The message from the acting commissioner is wrapped up with the challenges of administering the late 2017 tax legislation. That is less strategic in and of itself but certainly part of the IRS broader goals of empowering taxpayers to meet their obligations.There is tons on the IRS plate when it comes to getting guidance out; new procedures with OMB when it comes to issuing regulations, and many issues from pre-2017, such as more BBA guidance that my colleague Marilyn Ames and I are awaiting as we finalize the new partnership content in the Saltzman and Book treatise.  (One example will no doubt be watched and litigated: just this past week IRS issued Notice 2018-54concerning state workarounds to avoid the $10,000 limit on SALT deductions. The Notice reminds taxpayers that federal law controls the characterization of payments for federal tax purposes, and that regulations will reflect that substance over form will control the outcome).
  3. On the goal of empowering taxpayers to meet obligations, the plan emphasizes a multi-channel approach that incorporates taking advantage of digital technology but also recognizes that face to face and telephone interaction are key. The plan also discusses the importance of educating taxpayers when communicating.
  4. On protecting the integrity of the tax system, the plan reflects that interactions with taxpayers, even when there is a suspicion that a return may be incorrect (especially among individuals), can be a chance to inform and educate taxpayers and nudge compliance. Audits, while crucial, especially for those intent on gaming the system by leveraging information asymmetry and the inability and undesirability of IRS auditing all suspicious returns, are costly, and IRS needs to think more robustly about ways to encourage better taxpayer behavior, an issue I have been thinking about lately and which I explore further in an article with Intuit’s Dave Williams and Krista Holub that was just published in the Virginia Tax Review.
  5. The report has an important sidebar about challenges associated with administering a tax system in a changing environment. The report flags for emphasis the growth in the gig economy and in multi-generational households as two key challenges that present  difficulties for the IRS. Lots of income earned in the gig economy is not subject to information reporting. Credits like EITC which depend on income level and family living arrangements present a next level type of challenge for tax administration.
  6. The report emphasizes a need to reboot how “data is collected stored analyzed and accessed.” This is a key area that I suspect will be a challenge for the new Commissioner. Technology is changing so rapidly and there are many value choices that are manifested in the way data is used to inform agency practices. I am deeply interested in this area, and there is growing important research looking at how government agencies, under the guise of more efficient use of data in informing and driving compliance choices and procedures, have compromised the rights of those especially less able to navigate bureaucracy due to poverty and transience and other challenges facing the working poor.
  7. The conclusion emphasizes a world where more taxpayers will be able to resolve matters quickly and efficiently, while also recognizing that IRS faces substantial barriers to achieving its goals. Some of those challenges include “changes in tax law, aging technology infrastructure, staffing challenges, cybersecurity risks and fiscal uncertainty.” As part of its main goals, the report discusses the key role that a well-trained and motivated IRS workforce must play in a successful tax administration. While resources and technology and use of data are all key, I think that a trained and motivated agency is the best safeguard of the future for tax administration. The report notes that 27% of the IRS workforce is nearing retirement; and only half of 1% of the workforce is under 25. This is a major challenge for the new Commissioner.
  8. I think the report’s emphasizing collaborating with others (like the private sector and volunteer organizations and other government entities) is so important. Getting the right input from those who bring differing perspectives is a challenge but can in my view pay substantial dividends. There are signs of success in this area (like the Security Summit where IRS has partnered with private sector and states and others to drive down ID theft), and I think this is an area that has even great potential. With potential, there is also risk (e.g., agency capture), but with transparency and true broad stakeholder engagement the risks I think can be mitigated.

 

DC Circuit Oral Argument in Challenge to PTIN Fees

Last week the government and counsel for the plaintiffs faced off in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, with Judges Garland, Srinivasan, and Millett peppering both sides with pointed questions.

Readers may recall the Steele case (now styled Montrois v US), where the DC district court enjoined the IRS from charging for new and renewed PTINs. I enjoy listening to oral arguments and this superstar panel was well-versed with the issues.

A few things jumped out at me during the one-hour oral argument. In response to Judge Millett, a healthy part of the DOJ’s portion of the argument centered on what exactly the IRS did with the money it received; that to me anyway seems more related to the plaintiffs’ alternate argument that the fees were excessive (recall that the district court did not reach that as it found that the IRS did not have authority to charge any fees). I suspect that if the court finds that it was within the IRS’s power to charge fees on remand the plaintiffs will pick up this theme to focus on exactly what the IRS did to justify the fees preparers paid.

The panel, and Judge Garland in particular, focused on an alternate rationale for the use of PTIN, that is the benefit of not using preparers’ social security numbersrather than the program’s connection to the ill-fated licensing regime Loving struck down.

The end of the argument concerned a jurisdictional question from Judge Millett that I had not considered, namely whether the preparers who will likely be entitled to some refund were required to file a refund claim before being entitled to receive a return of the fees that they paid. The government has not argued this on appeal, but given its jurisdictional nature I suspect that the court might address its merits.

Facebook Loses Challenge in District Court

We have previously discussed the case that Facebook has brought in federal district court, where it argued that it had an enforceable right to Appeals in a matter that spun from its transfer pricing dispute that it is litigating in Tax Court.  In particular Facebook brought two claims under the Administrative Procedure Act alleging that the IRS acted arbitrarily and capriciously in refusing to refer its case to Appeals. Facebook also brought a claim for mandamus, asking the court to order the IRS to refer its tax case to IRS Appeals.

In this order, the district court has granted the government’s motion to dismiss the suit, finding that Facebook did not have standing because it failed to establish that there was a statutory right to Appeals. That absence of a statutory right led the court to conclude that it had no legally protected interest, a necessary element to prove standing. In so holding, the district court considered the 2015 codification of TBOR, and Facebook’s argument that TBOR reflected Congress’ direction to give taxpayers a statutory right to Appeals:

[W]hat the statutory TBOR did was to impose an affirmative obligation on the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to “ensure that employees of the Internal Revenue Service are familiar with and act in accord with” preexisting taxpayer rights established in other provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. In other words, the TBOR directed the Commissioner to, for example,better manage and train IRS employees to ensure that IRS employees know what rights taxpayers have and act in a way that respects those rights.

In reaching its conclusion the court emphasized that the government’s interpretation did not render the adoption of TBOR a nullity:

First, the statutory TBOR imposes duties on the IRS Commissioner to manage and train IRS employees regarding taxpayer rights. See generally Toward a More Perfect Tax System at 23–36 (discussing proposals for improved management and training of IRS employees); Amanda Bartmann, Making Taxpayer Rights Real: Overcoming Challenges to Integrate Taxpayer Rights into a Tax Agency’s Operations, 69 Tax Law. 597, 614–24 (2016) (same). Second, Facebook’s interpretation that the TBOR itself created new rights ignores the statutory language that the TBOR rights are “afforded by other provisions of this title.” 26 U.S.C. § 7803(a)(3)

It also considered the rights collectively, rather than solely focus on the right to appeal to an independent forum. That led the court to question whether the codification of TBOR should lead to the creation of substantive or procedural rights:

Facebook focuses on only one TBOR right — “the right to appeal a decision of the Internal Revenue Service in an independent forum” — but Facebook’sarguments, if they were correct, would apply to the other nine rights too. For example, the first right is “the right to be informed[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 7803(a)(3)(A). Applying Facebook’s argument, this provision must have created a new substantive right “beyond those existing prior to [the TBOR’s] codification.” A new right to be informed about what? And when? The TBOR does not say, and neither does Facebook. It is implausible that the TBOR created ten new substantive rights that it defined so poorly. The logical reading of the TBOR is not that it created some new, wholly nebulous rights, but that it created no new rights at all, and instead that Congress meant what it said when it said that the TBOR rights were rights “afforded by other provisions of this title,” not new rights created by the TBOR itself. (footnotes omitted)

The opinion also considered the APA and Facebook’s mandamus claim. The court discussed the Revenue Procedure setting Counsel’s discretion to limit access to Appeals and the agency’s decision to not refer the matter to Appeals, and held that neither constituted final agency action.

This is a quick summary and I suspect not the last we will say about this case, nor this issue. The case was discussed last week at the ABA Tax Section meeting, and advocates will continue to press courts to consider the codification of TBOR in differing settings. As I discussed on a panel with Keith and the National Taxpayer Advocate at the Tax Court judicial conference, and as Chris Rizek raised at the ABA Tax Section meeting in response to a question from Special Trial Judge Leyden, a court’s consideration of TBOR would likely differ in a CDP case, where the Tax Court reviews IRS collection actions for abuse of discretion and is required to balance the government’s interest in collecting taxes with the individual’s right that the collection actions that are no more intrusive than necessary.

Injunctions as a Tool to Prevent Pyramiding of Employment Taxes

Christine and I just returned from the ABA Tax Section May meeting.  In this brief post I want to flag an issue that DOJ attorney Noreene Stehlik and Chaya Kundra discussed at an Employment Tax panel entitled “Employment Tax Liabilities and IRS Collections” as well as a case that the Civil and Criminal Tax Penalties committee flagged. In the employment tax panel, the panelists discussed the various tools that DOJ and IRS have to go after employers who pyramid employment tax liabilities by withholding taxes from employees but then failing to remit the taxes to the government.

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Section 6672 allows the government to pierce the corporate veil and creates personal liability for delinquent employment taxes. Keith has written extensively about Section 6672 (see here). The ability to go after people in their individual capacity is powerful. Yet IRS and DOJ have been proactive in using even harsher tools to combat repeat offenders. That has included an uptick in criminal prosecutions and using injunction suits against the employer, owners or principal officers of delinquent employers.

In the last few years there have been a handful of employment tax injunction cases that have led to orders discussing the practice and power that the government has to use injunction as a remedy in this context. The statutory hook is Section 7402(a), which authorizes district courts to take a number of measures related to the enforcement of the internal revenue laws, including enjoining taxpayers from taking future conduct or requiring that taxpayers do specific acts.

While courts have long had this power, and IRS and DOJ have used it over the years, its use is growing. Last fall Keith drafted a new subchapter in Saltzman and Book Chapter 14A discussing the issue.  There are no statutory guidelines or time limitations for a civil injunction. The terms could last indefinitely, and the relief requested could be narrowly tailored or rather broad.

The new subchapter discusses the differing approaches district courts have taken, with some courts requiring  the government prove that it meets traditional standards for equitable relief, and other courts not starting the analysis from traditional equitable factors but considering whether the relief is appropriate for the enforcement of the laws in light of the statutory language in Section 7402(a).

Also at the meeting last week the Civil and Criminal Penalties Committee panel discussed a court order from earlier this year that did not grant injunctive relief in connection with multiple years of employment tax noncompliance. In US v Askins and Miller Orthopaedics, the Middle District of Florida denied the government’s request for injunctive relief (as an aside there seem to be a lot of doctor and dentist cases involving employment taxes); the request for injunctive relief was both broad (stating that the key individuals would be responsible for filing and paying on time) and specific (for example, detailing payment schedules and permitted ways for payroll processing companies to be involved to assist in meeting obligations). For over eight years the government had made numerous attempts to bring the practice into employment tax compliance. The order discusses the futility of levies, the apparent diversion of funds to an account that funded a private hunting club and allegations of a failure to disclose all bank accounts. Noting that the  collection efforts failed, the district court still did not grant the relief requested. In finding against the government, the court looked to traditional standards that would justify equitable relief, i.e., the government had to show absence of an alternate adequate remedy and the likelihood of suffering irreparable injury of denied relief.  That, in the courts view, cut against the injunction, as the government was bringing its traditional collection case for a money judgment for the unpaid taxes.

While the court sympathized with the government’s challenges in the past and its argument that it would have a difficult time collecting, that was not enough, as the order leaned heavily on the government’s ability to fashion a remedy in line with other creditors’ rights:

Bringing an action to recover money damages `does not entitle the claimant to equitable relief simply because the complaint alleges uncertainty of collectibility of a judgment if a fund of money is permitted to be disbursed. The test of the inadequacy of a remedy at law is whether a judgment could be obtained, not whether, once obtained it will be collectible.’ (citation omitted).

Conclusion

As we discuss in Saltzman and Book, even when courts do not rely on a traditional approach under equity to determine when an injunction is warranted, the government’s power is not unlimited.  I am sympathetic with the government in these cases, especially when there are pyramiding liabilities and repeated unsuccessful attempts to encourage voluntary compliance and efforts to defeat collection. Employment tax noncompliance is a major systemic problem, and the threat of contempt seems proportionate in light of repeat offenders who are tempted to view employment tax funds as a source to keep businesses afloat and who take affirmative steps to defeat collection.

We all suffer when employment taxes pile up, and it seems that this stubborn problem is need of more robust powers that are short of criminal prosecution but have more teeth than traditional collection suits.

Larson Part  2: Absence of Prepayment Judicial Review Is Not a Constitutional Defect

Carl Smith’s earlier post on Larson v United States discussed Larson’s argument that the Flora rule should not apply to immediately assessable civil penalties under Section 6707. Larson also argued that the absence of prepayment judicial review violated his 5th Amendment procedural due process rights.

I will briefly describe the procedural due process issue and the Second Circuit’s resolution of the issue in favor of the government.

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Larson’s argument Larson was straightforward: the absence of judicial prepayment review of the 6707 penalty violated his right to procedural due process, a right embedded in the 5thAmendment. The 5thAmendment provides that no person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .”  Stated differently, Larson argued that the right to challenge the penalty prior to payment at Appeals was not enough to meet constitutional due process standards. Taking the constitutional gloss off of it, as the opinion states, Larson felt that the process “just wasn’t fair.”

The Second Circuit disagreed in a fairly brief discussion of the issue, and in so doing reminds us that while courts have pushed back on tax exceptionalism in many areas, when it comes to viewing the adequacy of IRS procedures in a due process framework tax is different.

At its heart, the protections associated with procedural due process, notice and hearing, are about minimizing the risk of the government making a mistake and depriving a person of a protected interest—in this case property. In finding that the process adequate, the Larson opinion leaned on caselaw that had its pedigree in 17thcentury England which had established that when assessing and collecting taxes the sovereign is entitled to rely on summary pre-payment and assessment procedures backstopped by the right to post payment judicial review.

That case law was based on the notion that potentially interposing a hostile judiciary between the taxpayer and the fisc was just too risky; taxes, after all, are the lifeblood of the government, and if the government makes a mistake in assessing a tax, a taxpayer can get justice by bringing a refund suit.

Of course, in our modern tax system, Congress has repeatedly stepped in and provided statutory protection to allow prepayment review in many cases. The US Tax Court exists in large part to soften the impact of the lack of meaningful due process protections associated with a determination of liability. The ability to pay a divisible portion of a tax and sue for refund, as well as CDP’s opportunity to challenge a liability in certain circumstances, all soften the blow of the exceptional view of tax cases.

As Carl mentioned the 6707 penalty is not divisible, and we have discussed the limits of CDP providing a forum for challenging the penalty.

This brings us to Larson’s constitutional challenge.  As Larson and others have argued, much has happened since the Supreme Court first blessed the assess first pay later constitutionality of the US tax system in the latter part of the 19thand early part of the 20thcentury. A number of meaningful Supreme Court cases, such as Goldberg v Kelly, provided that in most instances, the norm should be more defined pre-deprivation review. Most creditors are no longer entitled to rely on post payment judicial protections to ensure that a debtor’s interests are protected. In Mathews v Eldridge, the Supreme Court instructed courts to consider three factors when faced with a due process claim: (1) “the private interest that will be affected by the official action”; (2) “the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards”; and (3) “the Government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.

In concluding that Larson did not have a successful procedural due process claim, the court did acknowledge that the Mathews factors were instructive and did in fact apply those factors to Larson’s facts. That  is more than some courts have done with tax cases, where some opinions state that since the time of King Charles the sovereign is entitled to rely on summary assessment procedures, and leave it at that.

In applying Mathews, the opinion stated that on balance while Appeals might not have afforded a perfect process the taxpayer did get a major reduction in the penalty assessment, and, in any event, the government interest in tax cases is “singularly significant”:

Larson’s interest is not insignificant; the IRS has imposed onerous penalties that Larson claims he cannot pay. But, as we previously noted, the IRS Office of Appeals review resulted in a substantial reduction of Larson’s penalties. No review is perfect and Larson offers no record‐based criticism of how the appeal was conducted. We are satisfied that the current procedures effectively reduced the risk of an erroneous deprivation and gave Larson a meaningful opportunity to present his case. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit recently observed that the IRS Office of Appeals “is an independent bureau of the IRS charged with impartially resolving disputes between the government and taxpayers,” and that “Congress has determined that hearings before this office constitute significant protections for taxpayers.” Our Country Home Enters., Inc., 855 F.3d at 789. Lastly, the governmental interest here is singularly significant due to the careful structuring of the tax system and the Government’s “substantial interest in protecting the public purse.” Flora II, 362 U.S. at 175. Considering all three factors, our Mathewsanalysis weighs in the Government’s favor. Therefore, application of the full‐payment rule to Larson’s § 6707 penalties does not result in a violation of Larson’s due process rights.

Observations and Conclusion

The opinion leans heavily on Appeals’ role, both in terms of how Congress has emphasized Appeals’ importance to the tax system (an issue front and center in the Facebook litigation we have discussed) and how Appeals reduced the penalties at issue in the case by $100 million.  The opinion heavily weighs the government’s interest without thinking on a more granular level as to what the government interest is. For example, what is the government’s interest in summary process for this penalty? What additional burdens or risks would the government face by allowing for judicial review of the penalty? I also would have liked to have seen a more robust discussion of the individual’s interest and a bit more on the structural deficiencies with Appeals as a resolution forum relative to a judicial forum.

To be sure, due process is not a one size fits all analysis. And as a comment to Carl’s post notes perhaps Larson is not the most sympathetic of taxpayers. Yet, over time, our tax system has changed to reflect an increased sense that taxpayers should have the right to challenge an IRS assessment without having to full pay the liability. Congress has also added significant civil penalties that are immediately assessable; that progression has been piecemeal and could stand to use some reform that might also consider the procedural aspects of challenging those penalties.

Norms with respect to individual protections and taxpayer rights are changing as well. Perhaps the appropriate remedy here is a statutory fix to CDP that would allow for Tax Court review of the penalty and possible refund of any amount paid in a CDP proceeding. That would more closely align collection due process with the 5thAmendment notion of due process.

 

District Court Holds That Taxpayer With Rejected E-Filed Return Subject to Late Filing Penalties

Last week, in Spottiswood v US, Docket No. 3:17-cv-00209 [link not yet available], the District Court for the Northern District of California held that a taxpayer who attempted to e-file his return a few days before the filing deadline but who incorrectly entered his child’s Social Security number was responsible for a late filing penalty. The case is the latest in I am certain to be a growing number of cases attempting to apply a 20thcentury approach to tax administration to the realities of 21stcentury tax return filing.

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Here are the facts.

Taxpayer John Spottiswood used Turbo Tax to prepare his federal return and California return. The federal return was submitted to Intuit for the software provider to then submit to IRS for electronic filing. Also using the Turbo Tax software, Spottiswood printed out his state return and mailed the State return via old-fashioned snail mail.

Here comes the problem. On the federal return his child’s Social Security number differed from information IRS had when it crosschecked the numbers with its databases. IRS notified Intuit, which sent an email to Spottiswood telling him IRS failed to accept the return.

Spottiswood failed to notice the email and he had no idea that all was not kosher until months later:

When I was investigating the issue, I discovered the following by logging back into my Turbo Tax 2012 software. [] I discovered that my return, which I thought had been successfully e-filed, had actually been rejected. If I had realized that there was a chance of rejection I would have mailed in my return, but e-filing seemed like an easier option and it was free with the software. Intuit may have informed me in the fine print that I needed to log back in to make sure that my return had not been rejected, but if so I did not read this fine print. Had I logged back in a few days later I would have realized that the return had been rejected. But I did not log back in until 18 months later.

Eventually Spottiswood got around to fixing the error and resubmitting the return.  IRS, however, assessed a late filing penalty of about $89,000.

Spottiswood paid the interest on the penalty and filed a claim for abatement and refund claim, which IRS rejected, leading to a suit (an aside: not clear how this gets around Flora as it does not appear based on the order that Spottiswood paid the penalty). In his motion for summary judgment, he had two main arguments: 1) the rejected return should have been considered a return and therefore no late filing penalty was appropriate and 2) in the alternative he had reasonable cause for the late filing.

The court held for the government and granted its cross-motion for summary judgment.

As to the first issue, the taxpayer’s main argument revolved around how if he had sent the precise information contained in the attempted e-filed return via old fashioned paper return, IRS would have accepted it and the information contained qualified as a return under the Beard standard as to whether a document is a return for federal income tax purposes.

I am sympathetic to this argument, as the IRS’s current approach essentially creates an additional burden for e-filers who, if they had just mailed the return in the old fashioned way, would not have found themselves facing a late filing penalty.

The court sidestepped the argument though because Spottiswood failed to establish that in fact IRS would have treated the information in a paper return differently than the e-filed return:

Plaintiffs argue that the IRS would have accepted a paper-filed return containing the same error, and that the IRS unlawfully applied a more stringent standard to their electronically- submitted return. Pls.’ Mem. at 7-8. Plaintiffs’ only support for this argument is a document entitled “Internal Revenue Manual Part 3. Submission Processing Chapter 11. Returns and Documents Analysis Section 3. Individual Income Tax Returns.” See Pls.’ Opp’n at 1 (“Plaintiffs submit Exhibits 1 through 3”); id., Ex. 2. This document is not authenticated, and Plaintiffs establish no foundation for the document. The document shows a transmittal date of November 17, 2017, and Plaintiffs do not establish any foundation showing the IRS followed the procedures described therein when Plaintiffs attempted to submit their tax return more than four years prior to that date. Plaintiffs also establish no foundation to show their interpretation of the procedures described in the document is correct. Plaintiffs fail to create a triable issue that the same mistake contained in their submission would have been treated differently if it had been presented as a paper filing, and that the IRS’ rejection of their submission because it contained an erroneous Social Security number was not lawful.

The order continued with its critique of the way the taxpayer argued that the information it submitted should have been enough to constitute a return for tax purposes:

Plaintiffs’ assertion that the document “contained sufficient data to calculate the couple’s tax liability” (Pls.’ Mem. at 7) is purely conclusory. Their support for this argument is based entirely on an unauthenticated copy of a document faxed by the IRS to an unidentified recipient on May 23, 2016. Id. (citing Pls.’ Opp’n at 1 (“Plaintiffs submit Exhibits 1 through 3”); id., Ex. 1). Plaintiffs do not set out facts showing the document is a true and correct copy of the data they submitted to the IRS in 2013; indeed, it does not appear to be, given that the document displays information received on January 26, 2015. See, e.g., Pls.’ Opp’n, Ex. 1, passim (“TRDB-DT- RCVD:2015-01-26”). Nor do they set out facts showing the information contained in this document would be sufficient to calculate their tax liability. They thus have not created a triable issue of fact that the document they attempted to submit to the IRS in 2013 qualifies as a tax return under Beard, such that the IRS should have accepted it for filing under their theory of the case. The United States does not actually challenge this point, arguing only that the first Beard factor was not met because the IRS could not calculate Plaintiffs’ tax liability because the return had not been accepted for filing.

With a better foundation, the court would have had to address this issue head on, and I think it is a close case and requires courts and IRS to apply some fresh thinking on the issue.

The court also summarily rejected the taxpayer’s argument that reasonable cause should excuse the penalty, looking to the taxpayer’s failure to check his email account that he provided Intuit and the taxpayer’s failure to look at the “check e-file status” on his software to confirm that everything went well with the e-filing. For good measure, although the court did not emphasize this in the order, IRS also failed to debit the $395,000 that Spottiswood designated as a payment with the  purportedly e-filed return, and he failed to notice this due to as he described the high balance in the account. That failure to confirm that in fact IRS accepted the payment cuts against the argument that he had reasonable cause for failing to file on time.

Additional readings on this and related issues:

For more on this issue, see a prior PT post discussing the Haynes case on appeal in the Fifth Circuit, Boyle in the Age of E-Filing(linking an amicus brief from the ACTC) and a PT post on e-file rejections.

In December of 2017 and January of 2018 ABA Tax Section submitted letters to IRS asking IRS to reconsider its approach to timeliness of e-filed returns after a failed transmission; see here and here. (Note: Keith was the initial drafter of these letters, and he was part of the ABA Tax group that called on Counsel to change its policies on this issue).

A 2012 Journal of Tax Practice and Procedure article by Bryan Skarlatos and Christopher Ferguson making the persuasive case for a new approach to Boyle in the age of e-filing.