Leslie Book

About Leslie Book

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

Jurisdiction in the Court of Federal Claims and FBAR Cases

Yesterday, in Paying the Full FBAR Penalty, Keith discussed the Court of Claims opinion in Norman v US, which upheld an FBAR penalty and disagreed with district court opinions in Colliot and Wadhan concerning the intersection of the FBAR regs and the statute.  Keith’s post flags an important split in views concerning the intersection of regs, which cap the penalty at $100,000, and the later-enacted statute, which provides that the maximum penalty “shall be increased” to the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the account.

Keith notes that the case was tried in the Court of Federal Claims; most of the cases concerning FBAR penalties have arisen in federal district courts. There is a side jurisdictional issue in the case, and one of the reasons for the delay between the complaint being filed and the outcome Keith discussed is that the government initially argued in Norman that only federal district courts could hear FBAR cases.

Here is the statutory context of the dispute.

Title 28 Section 1355 states that “district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of any action or proceeding for the recovery or enforcement of any fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise, incurred under any Act of Congress, except matters within the jurisdiction of the Court of International Trade under section 1582 of this title.”

The Tucker Act is also found within Title 28 and waives the federal government’s sovereign immunity from suit and authorizes monetary claims “founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress, or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United States, or for liquidated or unliquidated damages in cases not sounding in tort.”  The Court of Federal Claims has trial court jurisdiction over “Big” Tucker Act claims against the United States; district court and the Court of Federal Claims have concurrent jurisdiction over claims for $10,000 (so-called Little Tucker Act claims)

In 2016, the government argued in effect that the Tucker Act was preempted by Section 1355 and sought to dismiss Norman’s complaint; the Court of Federal Claims disagreed, finding that 1355 was not meant to give district courts jurisdiction in all penalty cases and also finding that the FBAR penalties in Title 31 did not reflect a “specific and comprehensive scheme for administrative and judicial review” which could also displace its jurisdiction under the Tucker Act.

The 2016 Norman opinion discusses a handful of cases applying 1355 that limit the Court of Federal Claims’ jurisdiction; ultimately it distinguished those cases from Norman as relating to either forfeiture cases or criminal cases.  There is a bit more to the issue, including a 9thCircuit case that suggests that 1355 is only meant to apply when the government is reducing a penalty to judgment. The 2016 Norman opinion did note that there was tension between Section 1355 and the Tucker Act, and substantial ground for difference of opinion in its view that the CFC had jurisdiction, leading it to conclude that the government could file an interlocutory appeal on the jurisdictional issue, which would have allowed for an appellate opinion on that issue before a trial on the merits.

That appeal never came, as the government abandoned its jurisdictional defense. While the government lost the battle in 2016, as Keith discussed, it won the war of the case—at least for now. One expects that Mrs. Norman may try her luck for an appellate review on the merits of the penalty, and see if the panel agrees with the two district court judges that have capped the penalty in line with the regulations. In addition, if Norman appeals one suspects that the circuit court may take a fresh look at the jurisdictional issue.

 

TIGTA Criticizes IRS Efforts at Curbing Preparer Misconduct

TIGTA reports are, by their nature, often critical of IRS performance. IRS Lacks a Coordinated Strategy to Address Unregulated Return Preparer Misconduct details TIGTA’s view that IRS is not doing enough to curb preparer misconduct.

There is a lot in this report. It lays out the recent history of IRS efforts; starting in 2009 with the ill-fated plan to regulate unlicensed preparers via compliance and background checks, qualifying examinations and continuing education requirements. When Loving struck down the 2009 rules, IRS pivoted and the TIGTA report discusses in detail the IRS procedures at SB/SE for examining preparers and the sanctions that IRS can bring on unscrupulous or incompetent preparers even in the absence of the direct oversight.

The main takeaway from the report is that IRS does not have a consistent national return preparer strategy. As the report details, IRS stated that its “overall strategy for addressing preparer misconduct was generally to use the tools at the IRS’s disposal as effectively as possible within resource constraints to improve tax compliance by increasing the accuracy of tax returns and holding tax return preparers accountable for misconduct.” Post-Loving, IRS has shifted resources to a relatively undersubscribed voluntary program for unenrolled preparers while the vast majority of unenrolled preparers continues to operate outside direct oversight.

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TIGTA takes direct issue with IRS claims to address the issue “as effectively as possible.” Starting from a macro perspective, TIGTA notes that there is no evidence of a coordinated IRS strategy; and little in writing that could serve as a blueprint for efforts to address unenrolled preparers. While SB/SE has the main responsibility for addressing preparer misconduct, its Business Performance Review documentation in recent years barely mentions the Return Preparer Coordinator functions in the seven main geographic areas; it also has little discussion of Lead Development Centers, which are the hubs for reviewing referrals of preparer misconduct.

The report goes into great detail as to how this lack of strategy manifests itself in particular problems. Here are some of the highlights:

Limited Priority in Exams: TIGTA notes the relative scarcity of focused preparer examinations (called PACS, or Program Action Cases) in recent years; for example in FY 2016 there were only 140 developed PACs compared to Criminal Investigation’s 248 investigations and 204 indictments in the same period.  As TIGTA notes, the lesser number of civil cases “is unexpected given the respective resources of these two IRS functions, as well as the intensive nature of criminal investigations versus civil penalty cases. The SB/SE Division Examination function has approximately 6,500 revenue agents and tax compliance officers compared to Criminal Investigation’s nearly 2,200 special agents.”

Inconsistent Criteria and Limited Impact For PAC Referrals: TIGTA criticized the differing approaches to focused preparer examinations in the seven geographical areas, with some areas focusing on high refund rates and others looking to numbers of taxpayers connected to a preparer. That contributes to a lack of a national approach to the issue of preparer oversight.Furthermore, TIGTA noted that the preparer exam impact  is often limited as IRS often failed to examine all of the identified preparer’s tax returns.

Assessment of Penalties Not Maximized: The report examines the failure to assess penalties when conduct may have warranted them. For example, it discusses a lack of PTIN penalty enforcement. TIGTA notes that “if penalties had been proposed when the invalid PTINs were identified, more than $122,747,250 could have been assessed, yet only 215 penalties were assessed for all of I.R.C. § 6695(a)-(e) penalties, inclusive of § 6695(c) penalties, totaling $1,572,055 which is 1 percent of the potential penalty assessment for just one of the possible violations.”  Of course, assessing more penalties against a group such as bad preparers in no way guarantees collection of the penalties assessed as discussed in the next section.

Collection of Preparer Penalties is Minimal: TIGTA notes that IRS no longer prioritizes collection of return preparer penalties. TIGTA notes that from CY 2012 to CY 2015, the IRS collected just $46.3 million (15 percent) of the $317.2 million of penalties assessed on individual return preparers; the numbers are even worse for penalties assessed against preparers failing to put a PTIN on returns, with IRS collecting just 8% of those penalties in 2016.  Prioritizing collection from this group would not necessarily ensure a higher return.  Collection may have directed their limited resources to persons more likely to have the ability to pay.

RPO Doing Little to Combat Unregulated Preparer Misconduct:The report discusses the efforts of the IRS Return Preparer Office following Loving. It is not a pretty picture.

The Return Preparer Office, which was originally established to lead the now defunct regulatory effort, is still in existence but now primarily focuses its efforts on tax professionals and those few tax return preparers who volunteer to be subject to certain annual training. The Return Preparer Office checks tax compliance for tax professionals but not for most unregulated preparers. More than 26,000 Preparer Tax Identification Number recipients acknowledged being tax noncompliant. Additionally, while preparing tax returns without a Preparer Tax Identification Number is subject to a penalty, the penalties are assessed on a limited ad hoc basis. In Processing Year 2016, the IRS failed to assess $121,175,195 in Preparer Tax Identification Number penalties.

TIGTA notes that a main part of RPO, the Suitability Office, produces limited benefits:

The resources used by the Suitability Office to conduct credentials research are not commensurate with the benefits realized. At best, preparers who have misrepresented themselves will stop after being notified by the Suitability Office. However, if the preparers continue with the behavior, the IRS is not taking additional steps to address it. The Suitability Office takes no further action if the preparer is unregulated. Even when cases are referred to the OPR, nearly all of them are closed upon receipt because the preparers are not currently practicing before the IRS and therefore, the OPR lacks jurisdiction. The appropriate function to report unregulated preparers misrepresenting themselves as tax professionals is TIGTA’s Office of Investigations.

The report notes that “an even more significant problem is that the Suitability Office no longer devotes any resources to unregulated preparers. Ensuring the tax compliance of tax preparers yields benefits to tax administration; however, the Suitability Office is only checking the status of the relatively small number of tax professionals and volunteers for the AFSP, e.g., those who present the least risk to tax administration.”

IRS Failing to Use Its Information: One of the key benefits of a uniform preparer identification number is the greater ease that the number affords the IRS to track preparer behavior. The report notes that PTINs “allow the IRS to keep track of preparers’ behavior, such as the number of returns they prepare and file, the number of returns by filing method (paper or electronically filed), returns filed with refunds, and returns filed with balances due.”

All of the IRS’ information on preparers is consolidated in the Return Preparer Database. Despite the presence of the information, TIGTA notes that IRS has failed to maximize its potential:

IRS has not yet taken full advantage of its capabilities. Much of the analyses and resulting corrective actions could be performed systemically, with minimal need for employees’ direct involvement. Expansion of the database’s capabilities could allow the IRS to identify and deter additional preparer misconduct, while also freeing employees who are currently performing manual tasks that could be performed systemically by the database.

Given the resources reductions over the past several years, it is particularly important for the IRS to continue developing and taking full advantage of its available systemic capabilities.

Conclusion

No doubt the IRS could improve its police role for return preparers.  Many of the recommendations presented by TIGTA could assist the IRS in improving this role.  The IRS has continued to push for a legislative fix to Loving – a fix that would have come quickly in past decades but not in the Congress since 2010.  The hope for a legislative fix that would allow the IRS to go back to the strategy it had finally decided to employ coupled with the diminution of resources may have something to do with the sluggish action TIGTA perceives coming out of the IRS.  Collection from bad preparers will never be easy.  The IRS will not fix the problem of bad preparers by assessing more penalties.  It needs strong tools to stop them from preparing.  Getting the return right at the outset saves the IRS and taxpayers from time consuming efforts to reconstruct a correct tax assessment.  TIGTA is right to keep reviewing IRS efforts on this important issue.  The IRS is right to keep pushing for legislation to allow it to robustly regulate preparers.  While waiting for Congressional approval, the IRS should look carefully at those suggestions from TIGTA that will allow it to shut down bad tax preparers and pay little attention to the suggestions that cause it to assess large amounts of penalties it will struggle to collect and that may not stop the bad action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Takes: Altera, Senate Finance Committee Testimony on IRS Reform

I am trying to meet a deadline before a last gasp of summer vacation in California, and I have had a little less time than usual for blogging.  Tax procedure and tax administration developments wait for no one, however, and much has been happening this week. I will briefly discuss and add some links to two major developments: the Altera case and the Senate Finance Committee Subcommittee on Tax and IRS Oversight hearing.

Altera

As I am sure many readers know, the Ninth Circuit reversed the Tax Court in the heavily anticipated case of Altera v Commissioner, a case we have blogged numerous times. The basic holdings in the Ninth Circuit case all involved the broader question as to whether Treasury exceeded “its authority in requiring Altera’s cost-sharing arrangement to include a particular distribution of employee stock compensation costs.”

The Ninth Circuit, in a divided opinion that included now deceased Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the majority, concluded that the Treasury did not. In so doing, it held that Treasury did not violate the APA in its rulemaking, and under Chevron the court deferred to Treasury’s take on the substantive issue of allocation of employee stock compensation costs.

We will have more on this decision in PT. In the meantime, here are some comments on the decision in the blogosgphere:

Dan Shaviro in Start Making Sense trumpets the 9thCircuit getting to the right outcome

Leandra Lederman in The Surly Subgroup, who like Professor Shaviro wrote an amicus arguing for reversal, succinctly summarizes the holding

Jack Townsend, who in his Federal Tax Procedure blog, in addition to linking to his excellent and free tax procedure book offers his take on the case, including his gloss on Chevron and his forecast that if the Supreme Court gets to this one there is a good chance for the Supremes “screwing it up”

Chris Walker at Notice and Comment who expresses unease about the process, especially the aspect of including as part of the majority a judge who passed away prior to the Court’s issuing the opinion

Alan Horowitz at Miller & Chevalier’s Tax Appellate blog, discussing the holding and likely petition for rehearing by the full circuit

Senate Hearing on Tax Administration

The Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommitte on Taxation and IRS Oversight had a hearing yesterday on improving tax administration.

Here is a link to the audio; witnesses, whose written testimony is linked above, were

  • Caroline Bruckner, Managing Director of the Kogod Tax Policy Center at American University ;
  • Phyllis Jo Kubey, Member of the National Association of Enrolled Agents and the IRS Advisory Council ;
  • Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate ;
  • John Sapp, the current Chair of the Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee advising the Internal Revenue Service, and
  • Rebecca Thompson, the Project Director of the Taxpayer Opportunity

Senator Portman’s introductory statement is here—in it he notes the 20thanniversary of the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act, and how he and Senator Cardin recently introduced the Taxpayer First Act(following the House passing its version of legislation).

The National Taxpayer Advocate blogged on the hearing, including her take encouraging “everyone who cares about improving tax administration to watch the hearing and read the testimony submitted.”

Eleventh Circuit Upholds Enforcement of Summons Relating to Law Firm and Its Clients (And Sweeps in the 1980 Miracle on Ice)

The Eleventh Circuit opinion in Presley v US ostensibly is about how IRS can summons a bank for information relating to deposits from a law firm’s clients. The opinion starts with a recounting of the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the US Olympic hockey team, against heavy odds, beat the Soviets.  Drilling into the details, the opinion includes the average age of the US team (22), links to the E.M. Swift’s Sports Illustrated article on the win, references the 2004 Disney movie Miracle, and how one of the players (Jack O’Callahan), was so moved by Coach Herb Brooks’ pregame speech that he could recount it decades later.

What is the connection between the power of the IRS to gather information from third parties and the Miracle on Ice?

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Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Rosenbaum contrasts the uphill battle that the US hockey team faced from the battle that the plaintiffs faced:

But forget about tough odds the U.S. hockey team faced, Plaintiffs face-off with something even more formidable…

According to the opinion, more formidable than the Soviet team is the considerable power that the IRS has to get information via its summons powers. The opinion nicely summarizes the statutory framework and Supreme Court guidance that stack the deck heavily in favor of the IRS.

The facts are straightforward. The plaintiffs are a lawyer and his law firm, and they sought court protection to avoid their bank’s compliance with summonses the IRS issued in connection with an exam of Presley’s individual income tax liability.

As the opinion discusses the IRS summonses sought records “pertaining to any and all accounts over which [each Plaintiff] has signature authority,” including bank statements, loan proceeds, deposit slips, records of purchase, sources for all deposited items, and copies of all checks drawn.

Presley objected to the bank’s turning over information related to their clients’ trust and escrow accounts, arguing essentially that his clients’ Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy would be violated if the IRS obtained the information about the clients’ financial transactions with the law firm.

The opinion starts by describing that there is some uncertainty whether the law firm, rather than the clients, can make the Fourth Amendment argument. After all, it is the clients whose privacy interests are at stake. This is akin to a standing dispute; i.e., does the law firm have standing to make the case that its clients’ privacy interests may be violated?

The opinion is able to sidestep that issue, noting that unlike traditional Article III standing disputes, Fourth Amendment standing is not jurisdictional, meaning that the opinion can effectively decide the matter on the merits without weighing in on whether technically Presley can in fact make the argument.

Getting to the merits, Presley argued that in light of the clients’ privacy interests in the financial information the IRS must show probable cause to enforce the summons. The court disagreed, noting that probable cause would only be required if the clients had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the financial records.  The opinion says that there is no such expectation, referring to what is known as the third-party doctrine and citing to the 1976 Supreme Court case US v Miller (also involving an IRS summons and a bank):

[A] party lacks a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment in information “revealed to a third party and conveyed by [that third party] to Government authorities, even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in the third party will not be betrayed.”

Presley tried to distinguish Miller, because unlike in that case, there was an intermediary between the clients and the bank, i.e., the clients transferred money to the law firm, which then made deposits on behalf of the clients. The court found that distinction insignificant:

Nor does it matter that Plaintiffs’ clients gave their records to Plaintiffs rather than directly to the bank. Plaintiffs conveyed their records, such as checks for deposit in Presley Law’s escrow or trust accounts, knowing that the firm would, in turn, deposit these items with the Bank. So if Plaintiffs cannot escape Miller directly, Plaintiffs’ clients cannot avoid its application indirectly. In short, Miller precludes us from holding that Plaintiffs’ clients have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the summoned records.

There were two other issues of note in the opinion. Presley also argued that even if there was no Fourth Amendment requirement that the government show probable cause to ensure enforcement, the Florida constitution had a heightened privacy protection for these circumstances. The Eleventh Circuit declined to consider the impact of the Florida constitution on the reach of IRS summons powers, noting that state laws that “conflict with federal laws by impeding the ‘full purposes’ of Congress must give way as preempted,” a doctrine known as the Supremacy Clause. That has come up before in tax cases, as courts have enforced IRS summonses despite, for example, state law doctor-patient privileges.

Once dispelling with the argument that the IRS had to establish heightened probable cause to justify the summonses, the opinion rested on a traditional application of the Powell factors, which in effect is a proxy for the Fourth Amendment protection that an IRS search met the lesser standard that it not be unreasonable. Noting that Presley did not claim a conflict with Powell, and that there was no claim that the IRS was using the summons power as a subterfuge to investigate the clients or violate attorney-client privilege, the opinion found “no reason to discern why the summons should not be enforced.”

As a final argument, Presley argued that the district court failed to comply with the so-called John Doe summons procedures under Section 7609(f). That requires the IRS to go to a district court in an ex parte hearing when it seeks information about unnamed third parties. We have discussed that a few times in PT, and I discuss it heavily in Chapter 13 of Saltzman and Book, including in the context of the IRS investigation of crypto currency users.

Here, while the IRS sought information that included information about unnamed third parties (the clients), the main targets were the law firm and Presley himself, who were named on the summons and who did receive notice of the IRS actions. Moreover, the plaintiffs in Presley conceded that their clients were not the subject of the IRS investigation, unlike in the Bitcoin dispute where IRS has been trying to gather information to allow it to determine whether Bitcoin customers were complying with federal tax laws.

For good measure, additional Supreme Court precedent, Tiffany v US, allows the IRS to effectively issue dual purpose summonses that could also provide information about unnamed third parties, provided that the IRS complies with the notice provisions under Section 7609(a)—which it did here.

Taken together, the defenses that the government mustered were more formidable than Vladislav Tretiak, and the bank will have no choice but to comply with the summons and I doubt there will be a Disney movie about this story.

When Can An Entity Be Subject to Return Preparer Penalties?

I have been reading a lot of opinions discussing misbehaving tax return preparers. The IRS has a heavy arsenal it can deploy against those preparers short of criminal sanctions: civil penalties, injunctions and disgorgement are the main tools, all of which we have discussed from time to time. A recent email advice that the IRS released  explores when an entity that employs a return preparer can also be subject to return preparer penalties.

One way to think about the uptick in actions against return preparers is that the IRS has taken Judge Boasberg and others to heart when IRS lost the Loving case a few years ago.

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Part of the reason Judge Boasberg (later affirmed by the DC Circuit) tossed the IRS return preparer scheme out was that the IRS approach to including return preparation within 31 USC § 330 (which authorizes the Secretary to regulate “the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of the Treasury” )seemed to disregard or minimize the existing powers the IRS had to combat bad egg preparers:

Two aspects of § 330’s statutory context prove especially important here. Both relate to § 330(b), which allows the IRS to penalize and disbar practicing representatives. First, statutes scattered across Title 26 of the U.S. Code create a careful, regimented schedule of penalties for misdeeds by tax-return preparers. If the IRS had open-ended discretion under § 330(b) to impose a range of monetary penalties on tax-return preparers for almost any conduct the IRS chooses to regulate, those Title 26 statutes would be eclipsed. Second, if the IRS could “disbar” misbehaving tax-return preparers under § 330(b), a federal statute meant to address precisely those malefactors—26 U.S.C. § 7407—would lose all relevance.

As Judge Boasberg flagged, a key aspect of the IRS power to police return preparers is civil penalties under Title 26. Section 6694(b) provides a penalty for a preparer’s willful or reckless misconduct in preparing a tax return or refund claim; the penalty is the greater of $5,000 or 75% of the income derived by the tax return preparer from the bad return/claim.

The recent email advice from the National Office explored the Service’s view on whether the IRS can impose a 6694 penalty on the entity that employs a misbehaving return preparer as well as the individual return preparer who was up to no good.  The advice works its way through the statutory and regulatory definitions of return preparer under Section 6694(f), which cross references Section 7701(a)(36) for the definition of “tax return preparer.”

Section 7701(a)(36) provides that “tax return preparer” means any person who prepares for compensation, or who employs one or more persons to prepare for compensation, tax returns or refund claims.

The regs under Section 6694 tease this out a bit. Treasury Regulation § 1.6694-1(b) provides the following:

For the purposes of this section, ‘tax return preparer’ means any person who is a tax return preparer within the meaning of section 7701(a)(36) and § 301.7701-15 of this chapter. An individual is a tax return preparer subject to section 6694 if the individual is primarily responsible for the position(s) on the return or claim for refund giving rise to an understatement. See § 301.7701-15(b)(3). There is only one individual within a firm who is primarily responsible for each position on the return or claim for refund giving rise to an understatement. … In some circumstances, there may be more than one tax return preparer who is primarily responsible for the position(s) giving rise to an understatement if multiple tax return preparers are employed by, or associated with, different firms.

Drilling deeper the advice also flags Reg § 1.6694-3(a)(2), which sets out when someone other than the actual return preparer may also be on the hook for the 6694 penalty:

  1. One or more members of the principal management (or principal officers) of the firm or a branch office participated in or knew of the conduct proscribed by section 6694(b);
  2. The corporation, partnership, or other firm entity failed to provide reasonable and appropriate procedures for review of the position for which the penalty is imposed; OR
  3.   The corporation, partnership, or other firm entity disregarded its reasonable and appropriate review procedures though willfulness, recklessness, or gross indifference (including ignoring facts that would lead a person of reasonable prudence and competence to investigate or ascertain) in the formulation of the advice, or the preparation of the return or claim for refund, that included the position for which the penalty is imposed.

In the email, the Counsel attorney points to the above reg for the conclusion that  its “interpretation of Treasury regulation § 1.6694-3(a)(2) is that generally, the entity (corporation, partnership, or other firm entity) that employs a tax return preparer will simultaneously be subject to the penalty under section 6694(b) only if the specific conditions set forth in the regulation are met. Otherwise, only the individual(s) that is primarily responsible for the position(s) on the return or claim for refund that gives rise to the understatement will be subject to the penalty.”

The email does refer to a district court opinion case (affirmed by the Sixth Circuit) from a few years ago, US v Elsass, where the court found that the owner of an entity was a “tax return preparer” for the purposes of the return preparer penalty provisions. In that case, the owner was the sole owner and personally prepared a substantial number of the returns at issue and was in its view the moving force on the positions (a theft loss/refund scheme).

The upshot of the advice is that absent circumstances similar to Elsass, or the presence of conditions 1 and either 2 or 3 above in Reg 6694-3(a)(2), an entity that employs return preparers itself is likely not subject to penalties. That conclusion suggests that return preparers should be careful to document and review procedures that are in place to ensure that an employed preparer has supervision and, of course, to make sure that management follows those procedures.

Court Rejects Prior Settlement From Barring Release of Documents in FOIA Claim

“Some on the street say snitches get stitches, but in this case they become the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests.” So starts Montgomery v US, one of the more interesting FOIA cases I have come across in this round of updates for the Saltzman Book IRS Practice and Procedure treatise.

I start by noting that “FOIA” and “interesting” do not usually find themselves paired. But in Montgomery, a district court opinion from earlier this year, the two fit nicely. In an opinion written by Judge James Boasberg, the same district court judge who wrote the opinion a few years ago in Loving v IRS, which struck down the testing and continuing education requirements for return preparers, Montgomery addresses a FOIA issue I had not previously seen-namely whether a prior settlement agreement can serve as a nonstatutory basis for the government’s withholding documents in a FOIA case.

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This case had its origins in the IRS’s examination of the taxpayers’ complex partnership transactions many years ago. As the opinion describes, the partnership transactions attracted the attention of the IRS, leading to opinions that upheld the determination that the partnerships were shams and that the IRS properly issued final partnership administrative adjustments, but also a separate refund suit that the IRS ultimately settled, leading to an almost $500,000 refund for the Montgomerys.

The settlement did not end the dispute. The Montgomerys filed a FOIA claim, convinced that the IRS troubles with the partnerships were the result of information that an informant provided to the IRS. The FOIA claim sought general information pertaining to the IRS investigation, but also specific forms the IRS uses when confidential informants trigger an investigation.

The case implicates FOIA Exemption 7D, which we discuss in Chapter 2 of the treatise, and which provides protection for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes [which] could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source…”

7D has a lot to unpack, and there has been a substantial amount of case law getting into its nooks and crannies, and we discuss that in Chapter 2.03[6] of the treatise.

This opinion, however, involves a preliminary defense that the Service raised in a motion for summary judgment. In settling the refund suit in 2014, the IRS and Montgomery entered into an agreement that “fully and final resolve[d] all ongoing disputes” among the IRS, the Montgomerys and their partnerships; the language in the agreement also referred to resolving all issues in “pending” lawsuits.

In justifying its refusing to hand over documents that the Montgomerys requested in the FOIA request, the government argued that the refund suit settlement agreement’s final resolution language barred the Montgomerys from bringing their FOIA case.

The problem, however, is that the settlement agreement, which resolved the ongoing disputes and pending litigation, predated the FOIA claim, which was filed a year or so after the agreement. Despite that challenge, the government argued that the Montgomerys in their refund suit had sought similar information in a motion for disclosure, and thus there was an “ongoing dispute” that brought the FOIA claim within the parties’ settlement agreement.

The court disagreed:

Where the IRS goes off track, however, is in conflating the underlying information that Plaintiffs seek with the device through which they are pursuing documents…. The Service cannot try to shoehorn this action into the Settlement Agreement simply because Plaintiffs’ end game is the same.

While the opinion rejected the government’s argument, the opinion notes that the outcome might have differed if in the prior litigation the taxpayers had sought information pursuant to Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows for inspection of documents or electronically stored information and which the opinion notes  “might arguably be more akin to a FOIA request.”

Conclusion

For readers with an interest in FOIA, there is a bit more to this case, as the  opinion also rejects strained res judicata and collateral estoppel arguments the government raised in its motion.

Despite the initial win for the Montgomerys, the dispute continues, however, as the parties differ on the reach of the statutory basis for withholding of documents, as well as the applicability of a so-called Glomar denial, which is when the government refuses to confirm or deny information pertaining to a request. A Glomar denial has its origins in a case involving the CIA and the government’s withholding information relating to Project Azorian, a massive project to uncover a sunk Soviet sub. Its reach in FOIA cases involving the IRS and its possible use of informants is now squarely at issue in this case. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

NTA Releases 2019 Objectives Report Highlights Challenges With Private Debt Collection Program

Last week the National Taxpayer Advocate released her FY 2019 Objectives Report to Congress. This is the second report the NTA releases annually; the first is issued in January. In Volume 1 of the Objectives Report the NTA highlights key aspects of the past filing season, and in Volume 2 she presents the IRS responses to prior recommendations regarding most serious problems she identified in the end of year annual report.

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Volume 1 presents lots of statistics and data on how IRS performed on some of its key tasks. This year Volume 1 also details 12 priority issues the NTA will be focusing on in the upcoming year, a fascinating window into TAS research projects (including a look at the impact of behavioral messaging and educational letters on tax compliance), and five appendices providing history on TAS and some internal measures of its performance.

As usual, the report has lots to offer, but here in the words of TAS is the snapshot summary of the review of the past filing season:

During the 2018 filing season, the IRS processed most returns successfully, but taxpayers needing help from the IRS faced a more challenging experience. The IRS could not answer the majority of the calls it received, especially on its compliance telephone lines. It served fewer taxpayers who sought help at Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) and continued to answer only a limited scope of tax law questions.  Its identity theft and pre-refund wage verification filters and certain processing glitches significantly delayed refunds for hundreds of thousands of taxpayers who filed legitimate returns, harming some taxpayers and creating additional work for the IRS.

The select areas of focus in the report include discussions on the following:

  • Private debt collection (highlighting the program’s challenges, including its net loss and taxpayer burdens; more on this in Volume 2 of the report);
  • The need for guidance following the 2017 tax legislation;
  • The false detection rate associated with IRS fraud and identity theft detection measures;
  • The due process rights jeopardized by the newly implemented passport denial and revocation program;
  • The need for IRS to emphasize what the NTA calls an omnichannel approach to taxpayer service (essentially an understanding that many taxpayers are ill-equipped to use online self-help tools and may need a more personal touch); and
  • A plea for a well-funded and implemented IRS IT function.

Volume 2: Tax Administration Transparency and Private Debt Collection

I am in the middle of reading Volume 2 of the report. In this volume, IRS offers written responses to past NTA recommendations and NTA replies to those responses. This to me is one of the most interesting and important parts of the report. It has its origins in the statutory mandate of the NTA, which is required to submit reports directly to Congress “without any prior review or comment from the Commissioner, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Oversight Board, any other officer or employee of the Department of the Treasury, or the Office of Management and Budget.”

The statute also provides that the Commissioner “establish procedures requiring a formal response to all recommendations submitted to the Commissioner by the National Taxpayer Advocate within three months after submission to the Commissioner.”

The IRS written responses in the Objectives Report are part of the procedures for the Commissioner’s response to the Annual Report.  This inside view of the back and forth between TAS and IRS on some of the key tax administration issues of the day is a fascinating window into the challenges associated with administering differing parts of the tax law.

For example, the first part of Volume 2 includes very different perspectives that TAS and IRS have on the private debt collection program (a topic Keith has discussed). The report includes copies of the NTA Taxpayer Advocate Directive ordering IRS not to assign to private debt collectors taxpayers with incomes under 250% of federal poverty guidelines and, in response, an IRS appeal of the TAD, all almost in real time with the latest IRS correspondence on the issue issued in late June. In addition, Volume 2 reveals that IRS is not allowing TAS employees to monitor phone interactions between private debt collection agency employees and taxpayers, leading the NTA to conclude that she is prevented from doing her job of ensuring that the IRS treats taxpayers fairly and respects their rights.

Going deeper on the private debt collection issue, Volume 2 details how IRS has no systemic method of screening out vulnerable taxpayers for assignment to debt collectors (including those getting SSDI and SSI), and how those taxpayers are essentially on their own to make the case with the private debt collectors that they should not be assigned to the debt collection agency or enter into an installment agreement.

More on this from the NTA:

[W]here there are methods to systemically identify recipients of SSDI or SSI benefits, it is profoundly negligent on the part of the IRS to allow the determination of whether a case is returned to the IRS to turn on whether a taxpayer, in talking with a PCA [Private Collection Agency] employee, happens to mention that he or she receives SSDI or SSI benefits. SSDI and SSI recipients are among the most vulnerable taxpayers the IRS deals with. They may be fearful that challenging a PCA may result in levies on or loss of their benefits, and thus agree to amounts they cannot afford to pay. This, in fact, is what the data discussed in the 2017 Annual Report to Congress show. Moreover, it is an abdication of the IRS’s oversight responsibilities to rely on PCAs to return these taxpayers’ debts, which would require the PCA to forego a potential commission on a payment. The IRS can and should systemically prevent the debts of SSDI taxpayers from being assigned to PCAs and should work with SSA to identify the debts of taxpayers who receive SSI.

This issue typifies the trade offs that tax administrators make when dealing with the most vulnerable taxpayers and illustrates the challenges of giving life to taxpayer rights. The statute authorizing transfer of cases to debt collectors allows IRS to assign cases with “potentially collectible inventory.” This requires a deeper consideration of the meaning of “potentially collectible.” In a post from 2017 Keith recounted his meeting with the Commissioner that covered some of this ground in this report, including the importance of programming to effectuate policy decisions not to assign certain cases to debt collectors. The Objectives Report makes a compelling case for a fuller consideration of systemically excluding from the category of “potentially collectible” all taxpayers who are likely vulnerable and who are unlikely to either fully pay or be able to comply with the terms of a payment plan.

The IRS response on this issue states that to build into its IT capability a way to systemically screen out vulnerable taxpayers (like SSDI recipients) would require resources and it is not required to do so by law.

It is not easy to quantify the costs of unfair collection procedures (though no doubt those costs are very real and tangible for those affected) whereas there are scarce dollars at issue in building out an IT system that would limit the assignment of vulnerable taxpayers to private debt collectors. Forcing the IRS to justify its approach and explain is a key way to expose trade offs when an agency, as IRS does here, declines to apply the resources as the NTA suggests. As the report reveals, the risks to taxpayers are still present. The real value of this part of the report is that absent a process such as this it is almost certain that the taxpayers whose rights are impacted would be mostly invisible. Visibility is a necessary but not sufficient means of protecting taxpayers. Absent a change in policy by the IRS itself, it will be left to Congress and perhaps the courts to ensure that the rights the NTA flags are protected.

Recent Tax Court Case Highlights CDP Reach and Challenges With Collection Potential (and a little Graev too)

I read with interest Gallagher v Commissioner, a memorandum opinion from earlier this month.  The case does not break new ground, but it highlights some interesting collection issues and also touches on the far-reaching Graev issue.

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First the facts, somewhat simplified.  The taxpayer was the sole shareholder of a corporation whose line of business was home building and residential construction.

The business ran into hard times and was delinquent on six quarters of employment taxes from the years 2010 and 2011. IRS assessed about $800,000 in trust fund recovery penalties under Section 6672 on the sole shareholder after it determined he was a responsible person who willfully failed to pay IRS. IRS issued two notices of intent to levy including rights to a CDP hearing. The taxpayer timely requested a hearing, and the request stated that he sought a collection alternative.

After the taxpayer submitted the request for a CDP hearing the matter was assigned to a settlement officer (SO). There was some back and forth between the SO and the taxpayer, and the taxpayer submitted an offer in compromise based on doubt as to collectability for $56,000 to be paid over 24 months. After he submitted the offer, IRS sent a proposed assessment for additional TFRP for some quarters in the years 2012 and 2014.

The SO referred the offer to an offer specialist. Here is where things get sort of interesting (or at least why I think the case merits a post). The specialist initially determined that the taxpayer’s reasonable collection potential (RCP) was over $847,000. That meant that the specialist proposed to reject the offer, as in most cases an offer based on doubt as to collectability must at least equal a taxpayer’s RCP, a figure which generally reflects a taxpayer’s equity in assets and share of future household income.

Before rejecting the offer, the specialist allowed the taxpayer to respond to its computation of RCP. The taxpayer submitted additional financial information and disputed the specialist’s computation of the taxpayer’s equity in assets that he either owned or co-owned.  That information prompted the offer specialist to revise downward the RCP computation to about $231,000 after the specialist took into account the spouse’s interest in the assets that the taxpayer co-owned and also considered the impact of the spouse on his appropriate share of household income.

Following the specialist’s revised computations, the taxpayer submitted another offer, this time for about $105,000. Because it was still below the RCP (at least as the specialist saw it), she rejected the follow up offer, which led the IRS to issue a notice of determination sustaining the proposed levies and then to the taxpayer timely petitioning the Tax Court claiming that IRS abused it discretion in rejecting his offer and sustaining the proposed levies.

So what is so interesting about this? It is not unusual for taxpayers to run up assessments and to then disagree with offer reviewers on what is an appropriate offer and to differ on RCP. RCP calculations are on the surface pretty straightforward but in many cases, especially with nonliable spouses, illiquid assets and shared household expenses (as here) that calculation can be complex and lead to some differences in views.

In addition, the opinion’s framing of the limited role that Tax Court plays in CDP cases that are premised primarily on challenges to a collection alternative warrants some discussion. The opinion notes that the Tax Court’s function in these cases is not to “independently assess the reasonableness of the taxpayer’s proposed offer”; instead, it looks to see if the “decision to reject his offer was arbitrary, capricious, or without sound basis in fact or law.” That approach does not completely insulate the IRS review of the offer (or other alternative) from court scrutiny, and in these cases it generally means that the court will consider whether the IRS properly applied the IRM to the facts at hand. While that is limited and does not give the court the power to compel acceptance of a collection alternative, it does allow the court to ensure that the IRS’s rejection stems from a proper application of the IRM provisions in light of the facts that are in the record and can result in a remand if the court finds the IRS amiss in its approach (though I note as to whether the taxpayer can supplement the record at trial is an issue that has generated litigation and differing views between the Tax Court and some other circuits).

That led the court to directly address one of the main contentions that the taxpayer made, namely that the specialist grossly overstated his RCP due to what the taxpayer claimed was an error in assigning value to his share of an LLC that owned rental properties.  This triggers consideration of whether it is appropriate to assign a value for RCP purposes to an asset that may in fact also be used to produce income when the future income from that asset is also part of the RCP. The IRM addresses this potential double dipping issue but the Gallagher opinion sidesteps application of those provisions because the rental properties did not in fact produce income, and the offer specialist rejection of the offer, and thus the notice of determination sustaining the proposed levies, was not dependent on any income calculations stemming from the rental properties.

The other collection issue worth noting is a jurisdictional issue. During the time the taxpayer was negotiating with the offer specialist, IRS proposed to assess additional TFRP for quarters from different years that were not part of the notice of intent to levy and subsequent CDP request:

Those liabilities [the TFRP assessments from quarters that were not part of the CDP request] were not properly before the Appeals Office because the IRS had not yet sent petitioner a collection notice advising him of his hearing rights for those periods.  In any event, the IRS had not issued petitioner, at the time he filed his petition, a notice of determination for 2012 or 2014. We thus lack jurisdiction to consider them. [citations omitted]

Yet the taxpayer in amending his offer included those non CDP years in the offer. The Gallagher opinion in footnote 5 discusses the ability of the court to implicitly consider those non CDP years in the proceeding:

We do have jurisdiction to review an SO’s rejection of an OIC that encompasses liabilities for both CDP years and non-CDP years. See, e.g., Sullivan v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2009-4. Indeed, that is precisely the situation here: the SO considered petitioner’s TFRP liabilities for 2012 and 2014, as well as his TFRP liabilities (exceeding $800,000) for the 2010 and 2011 CDP years, in evalu- ating his global OIC of $104,478. We clearly have jurisdiction to consider (and in the text we do consider) whether the SO abused his discretion in rejecting that offer. What we lack jurisdiction to do is to consider any challenge to petitioner’s underlying tax liabilities for the non-CDP years.

This is a subtle point and one that practitioners should note if in fact liabilities arise in periods subsequent to the original collection action that generated a collection notice and a consideration of a collection alternative in a CDP case. Practitioners should sweep in those other periods to the collection alternative within the CDP process; while those periods are not technically part of the Tax Court’s jurisdiction they implicitly creep in, especially in the context of an OIC which could have, if accepted, cleaned the slate.

The final issue worth noting is the opinion’s discussion of Graev and the Section 6751(b) issue. While acknowledging that it is not clear that the TFRP is a penalty for purposes of the Section 6751(b) supervisory approval rule, the opinion notes that in any event the procedures in this case satisfied that requirement, discussing and referring to the Tax Court’s Blackburn opinion that Caleb Smith discussed in his designated orders post earlier this month:

We found no need to decide that question because the record included a Form 4183 reflecting supervisory approval of the TFRPs in question. We determined that the Form 4183 was suffic- ient to enable the SO to verify that the requirements of section 6751(b)(1) had been met with respect to the TFRPs, assuming the IRS had to meet those requirements in the first place.

Here, respondent submitted a declaration that attached a Form 4183 showing that the TFRPs assessed against petitioner had been approved in writing by …. the [revenue officer’s] immediate supervisor…. In Blackburn, we held that an actual signature is not required; the form need only show that the TFRPs were approved by the RO’s supervisor. Accordingly, we find there to be a sufficient record of prior approval of the TFRPs in question.