Leslie Book

About Leslie Book

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

Is It Time To Reconsider When IRS Guidance Is Subject to Court Review?

I have been working on an essay that looks at the possible way that Congress could breathe more life into the 2015 codification of the taxpayer bill of rights. My essay Giving Taxpayer Rights a Seat at the Table, which is in draft form and up on SSRN, makes a relatively simple claim: before IRS issues guidance it should be statutorily required to consider whether in its view the guidance is consistent with the taxpayer rights that the IRS adopted in 2014 and that Congress codified in 2015. In making my claim, I acknowledge the limits of the current statutory taxpayer rights framework, which arguably provides no direct way to hold the IRS accountable for actions that violate taxpayer rights unless the right relates to a separate specific cause of action for its violation.*

In researching my article on taxpayer rights, I came back to a stubborn problem with the IRS guidance process and for taxpayers and third parties who believe that the IRS guidance violates a procedural requirement under the Administrative Procedure Act:  there are at times insurmountable obstacles to challenging IRS guidance for procedural adequacy. That problem has led me to think about some interesting and important articles that have addressed this issue in the past few years.

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In the tax world, unlike other areas of federal law, statutes like the Anti-Injunction Act and the Declaratory Judgment Act, have proven formidable barriers to test the adequacy of IRS fidelity to for example the notice and comment requirements under the APA until well after the rule has been in place. In other words, a taxpayer or third party often has to wait for a refund or deficiency case (i.e., an enforcement proceeding) to argue that there was a procedural infirmity that would result in the court’s possibly invalidating the regulation or possibly subregulatory guidance.

This has contributed to some calling for a careful look at the Anti-Injunction Act, with Professor Kristin Hickman and her co-author Gerald Kerska arguing in Restoring the Lost Anti-Injunction Act in the Virginia Law Review (reviewed here by Sonya Watson) that history supports a reading of the AIA that would generally allow pre-enforcement challenges to IRS guidance. The article takes as a starting point that IRS has not always been faithful to APA requirements and not every possible challenge neatly fits into an enforcement proceeding. On top of that, as Professor Hickman has highlighted in prior work as well, it is questionable that there would be an adequate remedy in certain instances even if a court were to find a procedural infirmity in the context of a challenge that arises in a deficiency or refund case.

Despite my sympathy with a reading of current law that would allow for greater pre-enforcement challenges, there are strong legal and policy arguments against courts on their own extending the circumstances when there will be challenges to the procedural adequacy of IRS guidance. For example, expanding the opportunity for procedural challenges will naturally soak precious agency resources.  As Professor Daniel Hemel, in The Living Anti-Injunction Act in the Virginia Law Review online edition argues in an essay responding to Hickman and Kerska’s article, it would be best institutionally for Congress rather than the courts to open the door to pre-enforcement challenges.

Professor Stephanie Hunter McMahon in a 2017 Washington Law Review article Pre-Enforcement Litigation Needed for Taxing Procedures also takes up the subject of challenging IRS guidance. In her article, she sizes up the current landscape:

While Congress only permits procedural challenges late in the tax collection process, this offers little to most taxpayers. The delay in litigating procedural complaints reduces what is challenged and affects taxpayer behavior throughout the period from its promulgation until someone, eventually, challenges the procedures. In the process, delayed litigation requires that taxpayers plan their affairs under the spectre of guidance that might not survive a procedural challenge. Moreover, in deciding whether to follow the tax guidance, taxpayers must not only assess its substance but also the procedures used to create it under procedural requirements that are not consistently interpreted by the courts.

Professor Hunter McMahon drills deeper on the disincentives associated with challenging tax guidance in enforcement proceedings:

Disincentives are increased because, unlike in other areas of law that permit pre-enforcement litigation, people are not suing in post- enforcement tax litigation simply to perfect the agency’s procedures. Instead, they are suing over their own tax obligations. The personal nature of the result and that the costs are already imposed likely changes the way people perceive the litigation. With pre-enforcement litigation, a judge remanding a case to the agency to correct the procedures would be a victory. In a tax refund or deficiency case, remand is insufficient to accomplish the goal of reducing the taxes owed. If courts are likely to remand procedural matters without vacating the rule, the taxpayer has little incentive to challenge the rules because the personal outcome remains the same.

These issues are even more pernicious when the rules in question relate to lower income or marginalized taxpayers, who are less likely to be able to get to court and as Professor Hunter McMahon aptly points out may not have the means or resources to influence the guidance process in the first instance. (That latter point is indirectly highlighted by the draft article “Beyond Notice-and-Comment: The Making of the § 199A Regulations” by Shu-Yi Oei and Leigh Osofsky that Keith discussed recently).

Professor Hunter McMahon proposes a legislative fix. That fix would be to allow an amendment to the Anti-Injunction and Declaratory Judgment Act to allow for a limited time period challenges to the procedural adequacy of the guidance:

[T]his proposal would permit pre- enforcement litigation of procedural requirements and a judicial evaluation of whether the process used, including the clarity of the statement and the comment period, suffices for APA purposes.

As Professor Hunter McMahon notes, the benefit of allowing a limited time to challenge to procedural adequacy is that it could focus attention on procedural issues early in the life of the guidance, which would allow for consistency in application of the substantive rules. A second part of Professor Hunter McMahon’s legislative fix is for Congress to delineate more specifically which forms of guidance are required to go through notice and comment—she focuses on guidance that is intended to change taxpayer behavior rather than define prior action as the candidate for a default requirement to go through the notice and comment process.

Conclusion

I believe that Professor Hunter McMahon’s approach merits serious consideration. I am reflecting further on my proposal about ways to give the taxpayer rights provisions more teeth -my proposal relies heavily on the Taxpayer Advocate Service and enhancing its institutional role in the guidance process, including giving the National Taxpayer Advocate specific authority to comment on regulations (something that the NTA herself as recommended in both Purple Books that accompanied the last two annual reports). As Congress signals a further willingness to take on IRS reform issues, I believe that it should directly address the current reach of the Anti-Injunction Act and the issue of when and to what extent taxpayers and third parties should be able to test the adequacy of IRS guidance conforming to APA requirements.

As part of this approach I am intrigued by the possibility of tying in the IRS’s fidelity to taxpayer rights principles in the rulemaking process. I would be grateful for comments on my draft article or reactions to any of the issues raised in this post.

*An example of how a taxpayer right relates to a specific cause of action is taxpayer right number 7, the right to privacy, and Section 7213, which authorizes a suit for unauthorized disclosure of a taxpayer’s any tax return or return information. An example of a taxpayer right that does not so relate to a cause of action is right number 5, the right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum, which as we discussed last year in connection with the Facebook case does not seem to carry with it a direct way to challenge IRS action that arguably conflicts with that right.

 

 

Update on Haynes v US: Fifth Circuit Remands and Punts on Whether Boyle Applies in E-Filing Cases

One of the foundational principles in tax procedure is that reliance on an accountant or lawyer to file a tax return cannot in and of itself constitute reasonable cause to avoid a late-filing penalty. The Supreme Court said as much in the 1985 case United States v Boyle. Over the last few years taxpayers and practitioners have started to challenge Boyle in the e-filing context. The basic question is whether courts should reconsider the bright line Boyle rule when a taxpayer provides her tax information to her preparer and the preparer purports to e-file the return, but for some reason the IRS rejects the return and the taxpayer arguably has little reason to suspect that the return was not actually filed.

Sometimes the preparer may fail to receive a rejection notice from the IRS; sometimes the preparer gets the reject notice and fails to tell the client. In either situation, the client then gets a surprise letter from the IRS months or maybe years later, leading to late filing penalties.

In the case of the Hayneses, the taxpayers heard from their accountant/preparer that on the last day for filing their 2010 tax return he had in fact e-filed the return. But for some reason the Social Security Number erroneously appeared on the line designated for an employment-identification number, and the IRS rejected the return. The preparer did not get a reject notice and neither he nor his clients took any steps to confirm that the IRS processed the supposedly e-filed return. After eventually receiving IRS correspondence the taxpayers filed their return and paid a late filing penalty. They sought a refund for the penalty, first with the IRS and then after the IRS denied the claim in federal district court. The district court granted the government summary judgment, concluding that as a matter of law under Boyle the taxpayers could not rely on their accountant to satisfy a return filing obligation even if the return filing process in the 21st century differs in kind from what was done back in the Reagan years.

In last month’s brief opinion, the Fifth Circuit took a different approach to the dispute. While noting that the application of Boyle in the 21stcentury world of e-filing is an “interesting” issue, it remanded the case back to the district court. It did so because it believed that there was a factual dispute that the lower court needed to resolve before it could even get to the legal issue:

Whether it was reasonable for Dunbar [the accountant] to assume, based on the IRS’s silence, that it had accepted the Hayneses’ return or whether ordinary business care and prudence would demand that he personally contact the IRS to ensure acceptance is a genuine question of material fact for the jury to decide. Because Dunbar is the Hayneses’ agent, if a jury determines that his actions meet the reasonable-cause standard, it must find the same to be true for the Hayneses—barring any determination of independent negligence by them.   After all, principals are not only bound by their agents’ failures, as in Boyle, but also by their diligence.

If, as a matter of fact, it was reasonable for the accountant to assume that the IRS accepted the return without seeking confirmation, then the penalty does not stand. If, however, the jury finds it was not reasonable, then the 21st century Boyle issue is teed up:

It is this question of material fact that makes it unnecessary for us to decide whether a broad e-filing exception to Boyle exists. That complex question need only be answered if Dunbar, in fact, acted negligently in filing the Hayneses’ tax return. Only then would the Hayneses be relegated to relying solely on their reliance on Dunbar to meet the reasonable-cause standard, thereby teeing up the Boyle question.

Conclusion

We will closely follow this case, as well as the handful of other cases that are percolating in the courts that raise the issue.

For prior PT coverage on this issue, see our post on the lower court opinion in the Haynes case and our post discussing a similar issue in the Spottiswood case. Those posts generated thoughtful comments and also link to some other useful sources.

 

 

Misclassified “Independent Contractor” Succeeds in Using Tax Code to Get Damages from Employer

We have nearly finished information return filing season. This is the time of year when Americans get their W-2s and 1099s, stuff them in folders and drawers, and hope that when it comes time to prepare their tax return they remember where the papers are. Information returns often lie forgotten until it’s time to answer questions from software prompts or from long-suffering preparers who play detective to ferret out a taxpayer’s economic life.  Some taxpayers can access their information returns seamlessly, but for most this is still a 20th century process that contributes to the huge costs of filing compliance. To be sure, information returns are the backbone of “voluntary” compliance—it is no surprise that when income is not subject to reporting taxpayers have a tendency to not include those items on their 1040s—and that will be true whether the 1040 is postcard size or in the form of a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card professing the IRS’s undying love for taxpayers who file and pay timely.

I digress—today’s post is about people who intentionally file incorrect information returns.

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We have discussed this issue before, and Stephen and I have just heavily tweaked this issue in the Saltzman and Book IRS Practice and Procedure treatise. The cases tend to crop up when someone seeks to make someone else’s life miserable by fling a phony return to generate IRS attention in the form of underreporting letters and possible tax assessments. What could be more middle-finger flipping then sending the IRS an information return showing a former partner or significant other with all kinds of income supposedly but not really earned?

To deal with this, Congress added Section 7434 which provides that

[i]f any person willfully files a fraudulent information return with respect to payments purported to be made to any other person, such other person may bring a civil action for damages against the person so filing such return.

There are a surprising number of interesting legal issues that spin off this provision. One of the issues concerns whether the statute provides a remedy for someone who is truly an employee but is treated as an independent contractor and who then receives a 1099-MISC rather than a W-2. The cases are split, some saying that the statute only provides a remedy when an improper amount is reported, and other courts holding that the statute provides a remedy for any fraudulent action in connection with the information return, including filing the wrong form. Another key issue that the courts are wrestling with is whether liability is limited to the person who was required to file the information return under federal law. For example, some courts have declined to find personal liability if the filer was not the party required to file the information return. See e.g., Vandenheede v. Vecchio, a 2013 case from a federal district court in Michigan declining to hold liable two co-trustees who prepared and caused a false information return to be filed on another’s behalf.

This takes us to a case from last year that I read as I prepare the updates for the next round of the treatise. The case is Czerw v Lafayette Moving and Storage. In the case, a federal district court in NY considered the claims of Joseph Czerw, who worked over twenty years as a mover for the same employer. In prior years, Czerw received W-2s and was treated as an employee, which was consistent with his actual arrangement with the employer. In 2015 his employer had major financial difficulties, with checks bouncing. Unlike in past years, when he got W-2s, for that year Czerw received a 1099-MISC for over $5,000. Not only was the information return the wrong type, but Czerw had only been paid about $4,000. Even though Czerw contacted his employer to get him to treat him as an employee and reflect the proper amount he was paid, his employer declined to fix things.

Czerw sued his corporate employer and Matthew Ferrentino, the corporation’s sole owner and president, alleging that his employer and Ferrentino had actual knowledge that a W-2 form was the correct form to submit and that the 1099-MISC reflected the wrong amount he received. Czerw alleged that the defendants willfully, purposely, and fraudulently filed the false Form 1099-MISC as part of a scheme “to defraud state and federal taxing authorities . . . by lessening [] Lafayette’s tax obligations and the amount of its worker’s compensation insurance premiums.” The complaint sought $5,000 in damages—the statutory amount provided in the absence of actual damages or discretionary legal fees.

The defendants defaulted, but before the court granted damages it had to explore whether the statute provided for relief in Mr. Czerw’s situation. The first issue the court considered was whether liability extended not only to the corporation but also to Ferrentino individually. The order briefly explores the split in cases on the issue, and lines up squarely with the cases that extend liability “on any person who willfully causes a fraudulent information return to be filed.” Thus it found that Ferrentino in his individual capacity was also potentially on the hook for damages.

As to whether section 7434 can be used in misclassification cases in the absence of an incorrect amount reported, the order notes that the law is developing on this issue. The court was able to avoid coming down on any side because the 1099-MISC that was filed overstated the amount that Czerw received:

As Plaintiff concedes, however, some courts have held that “§ 7434(a) creates a private cause of action only where an information return is fraudulent with respect to the amount purportedly paid to the plaintiff.” Liverett v. Torres Advanced Enter. Solutions LLC, 192 F. Supp. 3d 648, 653 (E.D. Va. 2016) (emphasis added). Under that interpretation, the statute “provides no remedy for a person incorrectly classified as an independent contractor.” Tran, 239 F. Supp. 3d at 1298. But because Plaintiff alleges that the Form 1099-MISC incorrectly states the amount paid to him, the second element is satisfied regardless, and the Court need not address whether the alleged misclassification supports a claim under § 7434.

Conclusion

Employee misclassification is a major issue. Employers who misclassify employees are failing to provide unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. Those employers can also leave workers with large employment tax liabilities. Advocates who work in this field have Section 7434 as a possible mechanism to ensure fair treatment for workers and punish those who do the wrong thing. The Czerw order is helpful but as briefly reflected in this post there are some key legal issues that await further development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taxpayer’s Depression From IRS Improper Collection Action and A Claim for $34 Million in Damages

What happens when a taxpayer goes into a tailspin following mistakes that the IRS makes in connection with trying to collect taxes? Wrhel v. United States is a district court opinion out of Wisconsin where a taxpayer sought over $34 million in damages for the IRS’s wrongful collection actions. The case caught my attention because it requires the courts to consider the limits of responsibility when someone’s life goes off kilter as a result of what the court framed as relatively minor IRS mistakes.

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I will summarize the facts to get to the heart of the case. Mr. Wrhel timely filed his 2010 tax return and received a refund. Unfortunately for Mr. Wrhel he neglected to include on the return about $1,100 in gambling winnings from a casino run by the Ho-Chunk Nation.

IRS issued an automated underreporting (AUR) notice and eventually a stat notice. The problem with those notices was that they were sent to a prior address of Wrhel’s in Iowa, and not to the Wisconsin address that was on his 2010 tax return. IRS wound up assessing $287 tax on the unreported gambling winnings. IRS then sent multiple collection letters to his old Iowa address; eventually IRS updated its records and sent collection letters to Wrhel at his Wisconsin address. Wrhel sent in a payment for the bill and also had about $100 of his state refund taken as a result of the assessment.

Because Wisconsin was his last known address for tax purposes, when Mr. Wrhel  petitioned the US Tax Court, the Tax Court eventually concluded that the stat notice (and thus the assessment) was invalid, leading the IRS to abate the assessment and issue a refund. Wrhel refused to cash the refund check because he believed that the IRS had miscalculated the amount he was owed. Part of the current dispute included Wrhel’s claim that he was entitled to a greater refund, and the consequences of his failing to cash the check that the IRS had sent him. I will skip that part but basically the court said he was not entitled to a greater refund and provided some information as to how Wrhel could get a replacement refund check.

The 2010 tax dispute led to problems in future years. Following the 2010 tax situation, Mr. Wrhel did not timely file his next three years’ tax returns. That inspired a visit to Mr. Wrhel’s home from a friendly revenue officer who left “literature” and information about the IRS collection process.  While Mr. Wrhel eventually filed the returns, Mr. Wrhel did not take kindly to the visit, and he believed that it violated Section 6304, which provides that IRS employees should not engage “in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of any unpaid tax.”

This takes us to Section 7433, which provides that taxpayers may recover the “costs of the action” and “actual, direct economic damages sustained by the plaintiff as a proximate result of the reckless or intentional or negligent actions of the [IRS] officer or employee.”

What were the actions that Wrhel claimed were improper? The first related to the home visit from the revenue officer which he believed amounted to harassment. The second stemmed from the collection notices that were erroneously issued to his wrong address that also generated the improper seizure of his small state tax refund. All of this business with the IRS seemed to really upset Mr. Wrhel. His distress is apparent from his filings:

I have suffered unnecessary anxiety, unnecessary unrest, unnecessary depression which caused me an inability to effectively operate my pepperidge farm business. This was unnecessary and not fair to pepperidge farm. . . . It further has wrecked all trust, faith, and belief in the United States Internal Revenue Service.

I have no desire to continue living in this country as a direct reckless disregard by the IRS and the subsequent seizure that took place.

Part of Wrhel’s unhappiness stemmed from being contacted directly and personally by a revenue officer, which Wrhel alleged was improper. The government fought hard on this point. Its first argument was that the revenue officer visit was not collection action as it was in connection with securing the filing of tax returns and only improper collection actions are within Section 7433. While the case law narrowly defines collection action, the opinion noted that the revenue officer left information about the collection process so it concluded that the revenue officer visit was collection activity. But the visit was not improper. An improper action would occur if, for example, the agent cursed or verbally abused the taxpayer or if the IRS bypassed a representative to visit the taxpayer. The opinion notes that there was no harassment, and without a Form 2848 on file there was no need for IRS to contact a representative about its house call. So the court found that there was no 7433 violation stemming from the visit. (BTW IRS has a brief info page on its website detailing when an IRS may make a visit—an important issue in today’s world of scammers).

For purposes of its motion for summary judgment, the government conceded that the IRS’s sending of the collection notices to the old Iowa address was a negligent improper collection action. This takes us back to Section 7433, which provides for a capped recovery for “actual, direct economic damages”, as well as reimbursement for costs of the action. The cap is $100,000 for negligent violations and $1M for reckless or intentional violations. The regulations also forbid recovery for emotional distress unless the distress leads to pecuniary damages. In the lawsuit, Wrhel tried to connect his emotional distress to actual economic damages. He alleged that the improper IRS actions led to his depression, substantial medical bills, repossession of his car and his ultimate sale of his business. For good measure, there was an affidavit from a psychiatrist who corroborated Wrhel’s distress being tied to his dealings with the IRS:

“[Wrhel] does perseverate somewhat on the belief that the Federal Government has stolen money from him. . . . I am somewhat uncertain about the nature of this perseveration on the government having taken money from him. It does certainly have a certain delusional quality to it, but at the same time, Mr. Wrhel denies any other psychotic symptoms, and notably as well his concerns are somewhat rooted in truth.”).

The court though pushed back on the damages issue, essentially saying that Wrhel’s desire for substantial damages was not reasonable in light of the IRS’s minor misconduct:

So what the § 7433 claim boils down to is Wrhel’s reaction to the notices sent to the wrong address, the levy of $94 from his state income tax refund, and the IRS’s bill for about $400, all for taxes on gambling winnings that Wrhel knew that he had avoided and that he would have had to pay if not for the IRS’s mistake. No one would be happy to learn that the IRS had been trying to recover taxes and had violated its own mailing rules in doing so, but again, this was not a completely fabricated bill: Wrhel indeed failed to disclose his gambling winnings. Put another way, I take Wrhel to be contending that he should be able to recover at the very least thousands of dollars in damages because the IRS sent mail to the wrong address and then recovered about $500 from him before reimbursing him.

To consider the issue of the appropriate amount of damages , the opinion circles back to tort law, and cites the Restatement (Third) of Torts, which provides that for allegations of negligent conduct inflicting emotional harm

“the actor’s conduct must be such that would cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional harm. . . . Objectively, an unusually susceptible person may not recover if an ordinary person would not have suffered serious emotional harm.” (emphasis added)

The court accepted that Wrehl in fact was suffering deeply, and that the evidence suggested that the IRS conduct contributed to his suffering. Yet that did not justify substantial damages as it was unreasonable to connect the alleged harm with the relatively minor misconduct:

Wrhel’s medical records provide some support for his position that he has suffered substantial mental distress from the interactions with the IRS [citing to the psychiatrist affidavit]…. And his many filings in this court underscore his anger at the IRS. He has repeatedly said that he has lost faith in the government and that he intends to move to another country. But the substantial harm that he says he suffered is simply not the type of harm that could reasonably be expected to be caused by the IRS’s violations in this case. So I conclude as a matter of law that Wrhel is not entitled to any damages flowing from emotional distress.

At the end of the day, the court awarded Mr. Wrhel $400, which was the filing fee for his district court action. The opinion concluded by recognizing Mr. Wrhel’s anger and his sense that the IRS conduct was tied in part to some sort of conspiracy relating to his father. But, as the opinion notes, IRS collection notices stem from an automated process, and it was not clear why the system failed in his case:

[T]here is no evidence to support this [conspiracy] theory, and the government maintains that its system is automated and it does not know why the system failed in this case. Hopefully in addition to his admittedly meager $400 judgment, Wrhel can take away from this case the knowledge that the IRS is as capable of making mistakes as taxpayers are.

I doubt that Mr. Wrhel will take solace in the closing words of the opinion.

 

Finding Guidance on the Effects of the Shutdown

As the IRS and Tax Court reopen (at least for about three weeks), readers might be interested in resources to help them.  The IRS has published a short announcement that answers some basic questions, here.   In addition, the ABA Section of Taxation is hosting a webinar on the effects of the shutdown on administrative operations and on Tax Court cases. The 1.5 hour webinar is scheduled for Monday, January 28, 2019 starting at 1 pm EST.  The cost is $10 for Tax Section members and $25 for non-members.  It is free to Low Income Tax Clinic or other pro-bono attorneys.

Topics will include:

  1. How the shutdown affected the Service’s issuance of notices;
  2. The ways taxpayers and representatives should consider reacting and responding to Service correspondence;
  3. The impact of the shutdown on applications for discretionary relief and IRS administrative services;
  4. The Service’s current collection efforts; and
  5. The impact on filings with the United States Tax Court.

You can find more information from the ABA Tax Section website.

Gambling Addiction Does Not Justify Effective Tax Administration Offer

Gillette v Commissioner is a collection due process case arising from the tax consequences of prematurely withdrawing funds from an IRA and underpaying taxes while a taxpayer was suffering from compulsive gambling that she claimed was attributable to an addiction to prescription medication. The taxpayer sought an effective tax administration offer in compromise. While unsuccessful, the case warrants attention as there is very little law around this type of offer.

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The opinion situates the sad tale that led to the sizable underpayment of taxes on her 2012 tax return. Ms. Gillette is a veteran and former firefighter who managed and owned a stable of rental properties. After retiring from firefighting, she developed a serious gambling addiction that she attributed to the side effects of pramipexole, a prescription medication.

Occasionally she would go days without sleep and at times slept in her car if she wasn’t given a complimentary night’s stay at a casino. Other times she would fall asleep at blackjack tables and slot machines only to be awakened by dealers and casino attendants. Nearly all of the money she collected from her rental properties went to casinos. When she ran out of money, she borrowed from friends and didn’t pay them back, took money and credit cards from her husband’s wallet, and eventually withdrew money from her retirement account in 2012.

In 2013, following the intervention of her son who recognized that the side effects of the medication she was taking were likely contributing to her gambling, she sought medical care to wean off the drug. Within a couple of years she was no longer taking the drug and was able to stop gambling. One lingering effect though was the 2012 alternative minimum tax (AMT) of about $17,000 and early IRA withdrawal penalty of about $10,500, both of which contributed to a tax balance due of almost $76,000 on her and her husband’s 2012 tax return.

Following a notice of intent to levy, the taxpayers requested a CDP hearing, challenging the underlying AMT liability and eventually offering $38,968 to compromise the liability based on effective tax administration (ETA). The ETA offer was sought because they were not a candidate for an offer based on doubt as to collectability, as the equity in assets (including the rental properties) exceeded the tax due (in fact Appeals determined that the reasonable collection potential in light of the assets was over $800,000).

The main part of the opinion dealt with Appeals’ rejection of the ETA offer and the Tax Court’s refusal to find any abuse of discretion in Appeals’ rejection.

The case originally went up to Tax Court a couple of years ago, but the Tax Court on the IRS’s motion remanded the case back to Appeals for a supplemental hearing because the original determination had an insufficient discussion of the reasons why Appeals agreed with the offer specialist’s decision to reject the ETA offer. By requesting a remand, the IRS avoided reversal for failure to consider the taxpayer’s equitable arguments. Guest blogger Professor Scott Schumacher previously discussed this requirement on PT.

After going back to Appeals, the settlement officer considered the taxpayer’s argument and again rejected the offer, in part on a finding that the side effect of the medications, including compulsive gambling, were known since 2006 and that the taxpayer made a choice to continue taking the medication anyway. In rejecting the offer on remand, Appeals did not refer the offer to the IRS’s ETA Non-economic Hardship Group, the group the IRM states should review ETA offers in “appropriate” cases.

Before exploring this further, it is worth emphasizing the law that applies to offers based on effective tax administration. The regulations provide the standard:

If there are no grounds for compromise under paragraphs (b)(1) [doubt as to liability], (2) [doubt as to collectability], or (3)(i) [economic hardship] of this section, the IRS may compromise to promote effective tax administration where compelling public policy or equity considerations identified by the taxpayer provide a sufficient basis for compromising the liability. Compromise will be justified only where, due to exceptional circumstances, collection of the full liability would undermine public confidence that the tax laws are being administered in a fair and equitable manner. A taxpayer proposing compromise under this paragraph (b)(3)(ii) will be expected to demonstrate circumstances that justify compromise even though a similarly situated taxpayer may have paid his liability in full.

Reg. Sec. 301.7122-1(b)(3).

Thus, the regulations provide that the IRS may accept a compromise where there are “compelling public policy or equity considerations.”  Unlike offers based on doubt as to collectability, which essentially default to a more mechanical comparison of the offer amount relative to the taxpayer’s collection potential, this standard is relatively vague. The regs do provide some examples of cases that should be considered under a public policy or equity ETA offer:

(1) a taxpayer with a serious illness requiring hospitalization for a number of years who, at the time, was unable to manage his or her financial affairs, including filing tax returns and (2) a taxpayer who learns after an audit that incorrect advice was given by the Commissioner and is now facing additional taxes and penalties because of that advice.

The IRM also provides guidance for IRS, providing additional factors and examples:

  • where the taxpayer’s liability was the result of the Commissioner’s processing error,
  • following the Commissioner’s erroneous advice or instructions,
  • the Commissioner’s unreasonable delay, or
  • the criminal or fraudulent act of a third party

In addition the IRM states that accepting a public policy or equity offer-in-compromise may be appropriate where rejecting it would cause a significant negative impact on the taxpayer’s community or “the taxpayer was incapacitated and thus unable to comply with the tax laws.”

The main argument that the taxpayers made was that because of the drug use Ms. Gillette was mentally impaired and incompetent, essentially claiming that this was akin to an incapacitation that would justify acceptance of an offer below the collection potential.

The Tax Court disagreed, primarily by distinguishing her situation from the examples and factors cited in the regs and the IRM:

Ms. Gillette and Mr. Szczepanski argue that their public policy or equity offer-in-compromise should be accepted because Ms. Gillette’s mental illness was caused by her prescription medication. While Ms. Gillette’s circumstances are unfortunate, Ms. Gillette and Mr. Szczepanski did not provide grounds for treating them differently from a similarly situated taxpayer who paid his or her liability in full. Their situation also differs from the examples given in the regulations: Ms. Gillette did not require hospitalization for a number of years, she was able to file her tax returns, she collected rents from her rental properties, and she did not receive incorrect advice from the Commissioner.

In addition, the opinion, while acknowledging the impact of the gambling addiction, distinguished the incapacity from others that would render an inability to comply with the tax laws:

Finally Ms. Gillette and Mr. Szczepanski do not meet any of the compelling factors outlined in the IRM. Ms. Gillette was not so incapacitated that she was unable to comply with the tax laws, rejection of their public policy or equity offer- in-compromise would not have had a significant negative impact on their community, and their 2012 tax liability was not caused by an error or delay of the Commissioner or the fraudulent or criminal conduct of a third party.

Conclusion

This is a close case. No doubt the taxpayers come away feeling that the system did not adequately address their legitimate concerns. From a process standpoint, I feel their pain; the initial Appeals determination did little in explaining why the offer was originally rejected; on remand Appeals did not refer the case to the unit specifically that hears ETA offers (a point the opinion notes was not an abuse of discretion as the decision to do so is essentially one completely in Appeals’ wheelhouse); and at trial the Tax Court did not allow the testimony of the taxpayer’s doctor or VA social worker, among other witnesses.

I am not equipped to evaluate the level of the taxpayer’s incapacity or the degree to which the medication contributed to or caused the gambling that led to the liability and underpayment of taxes. It would seem to me, however, that the Tax Court might have benefited from the testimony of the doctor. While some circuits follow the record rule and limit review of CDP cases to the evidence in the administrative record, the Seventh Circuit, where the case is appealable, has declined to decide that issue. In addition, given the lack of guidance in this area, the IRM factors and examples have heightened importance, a curious result again from a process standpoint given the absence of any public input in their promulgation.

To be sure, as the opinion notes, and as the IRS emphasized, there is no explicit unfairness hook that would require the IRS to accept an ETA offer. In addition, the taxpayer has significant assets. Given the lack of case law in this area, it is likely that this case will be one that the IRS will lean on when taxpayers seek to resolve a liability even after a taxpayer makes a credible case that substance abuse has contributed to the taxpayer’s liability.

For readers interested in more on ETA offers, including suggestions on how the IRS can improve standards for evaluating the offers, check out Rutgers Law School Professor Sandy Freund’s 2014 Virginia Tax Review article Effective Tax Administration Offers-Why So Ineffective.

 

 

 

IRS Digital Communication Pilot: Digital Divide and Tax Administration

Last week Bloomberg reported that IRS officials are expanding the Taxpayer Digital Communications pilot, which was launched in late 2016. The pilot program allows taxpayers to respond to correspondence audits electronically through a secure portal rather than by regular mail or fax. According to Bloomberg[$paywall], IRS has tested the program with audit correspondence from the Philadelphia Service Center and will add the Brookhaven Service Center to the pilot program next year.

The IRS has noted that there was over an 80% satisfaction rate among taxpayers who used the digital communications tool. The take up rate was relatively low, however, with 3,000 taxpayers opting in out of 28,000 invited. On the other hand, the default rate is quite high for correspondence examinations; it is not clear how many taxpayers who chose not to opt in continued participating in the audit process.

The brief Bloomberg article notes that the pilot actually added about an hour of IRS employee time to resolve a case; to me that is an interesting metric but key questions left unaddressed include whether the program will facilitate IRS and the taxpayer getting to the correct outcome, and the amount of time saved in closing the case from start to end.

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The same week that the Bloomberg story came out the New York Times reported that Microsoft has released a study showing the digital divide is much worse than the government has previously reported.  Access to broadband, according to Microsoft, is unavailable to over 168 million Americans, while the FCC claims that broadband is unavailable to only 24.7 million. The Microsoft study relied on actual speeds of people using its products.

To be sure, Microsoft has a vested interest in this discussion, as greater access to broadband makes its products and services more likely to be purchased. Yet, independent researchers have documented the difference in access to broadband and also detailed differing preferences and abilities for use of differing technologies (a good place to look at this research is the Pew Research Center on Internet & Technology). Access varies greatly by region; for example as of about a year ago Cleveland.com reported that about 1/3 of city residents had no access at all to internet in any form. New census data shows a stark digital divide within the city of Philadelphia, where neighborhood broadband access rates range from a shocking 37% to a high of 89%.

When it comes to use of technology, the IRS is playing catch up compared to many other tax administrators and the private sector. My sense is that the agency’s reflexive starting point with the adoption of technology is the possibility of efficiency gains. This is especially important to an agency that has faced serious funding shortfalls. To that end see this week’s  terrific piece in Pro Publica by Paul Kiel and Jesse Eisinger that highlights some of the recent IRS budget history and steep decline in many enforcement metrics. A companion Pro Publica piece quotes clinicians and guest posters Michelle Drumbl and Mandi Matlock discussing the burdens that EITC recipients face in light of the continued drumbeat for EITC audits while audit rates for all but the very rich continue to plummet. No doubt that for the IRS the allure of doing more with less is hard to resist.

Technology access and the skills to use new technology, like other resources, are unevenly distributed in America.  While the new technology holds great promise for the IRS and taxpayers, some of the greatest challenges the IRS face in the next decade include evaluating how the adoption of new technology relates to fundamental taxpayer rights as well as traditional tax procedure principles that have their origin in a paper-based tax system.

The National Taxpayer Advocate has been focusing on this for years, including her series of public hearings gathering information to inform IRS as it plans its Future (soon to be present) State and on more technical issues like the need to think about how the mailbox rule of Section 7502 intersects with digital communication. We are just scratching the surface on these issues.

I hope that the IRS and Congress consider all taxpayers’ perspectives, including the many low and moderate income taxpayers who increasingly rely on the safety net now increasingly found within the tax code, when evaluating and developing any IRS technology roll out. That will require a holistic view of taxpayers, and one that focuses on more than IRS employee hours per case resolution as compared to whether the technology facilitates reaching the correct outcome. In considering taxpayer service the IRS should understand the key role that taxpayer rights play in ensuring sound tax administration.  Relying on the supposed efficiency gains of technology can lead to a two track system of tax administration, and one that will exacerbate inequalities and unfairness associated with being poor.

When is a Case Settled? When a Taxpayer Sends a Check (No) And When a Taxpayer Sends a Letter Reflecting Agreement With US Attorney (Yes)

Disputes with the IRS often involve negotiations and correspondence regarding settlement. Two recent cases involving unrepresented taxpayers demonstrate that at times the taxpayers may not fully understand the consequences of corresponding with the government. In many instances courts will turn to contract principles to examine whether the correspondence can demonstrate that the parties have a binding settlement agreement.

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In Longino v Commissioner a taxpayer sent a check and cover letter to the IRS essentially saying that if IRS cashed the check it agreed with him that he owed no additional money to the IRS. IRS cashed the check but also sought to collect on an assessment that stemmed from a case that the taxpayer lost in Tax Court. In this post I will explain how the taxpayer’s unilateral actions did not constitute a settlement, even when the IRS cashed the check.

In this case, Mr. Longino filed two tax returns for 2006, a 1040 and an amended return on October 17, 2007, a few days after filing the original return. IRS processed the returns separately. The amended return requested a refund of approximately $1,396, which the IRS sent to Mr. Longino, who cashed the check. IRS also examined Mr. Longino’s original 2006 tax return and proposed a deficiency of about $39,000, as well as an accuracy-related penalty.

Years later, in 2013, after Longino had filed a petition challenging the proposed deficiency but prior to the Tax Court rendering a decision, IRS also sent a letter to Mr. Longino informing him that he was not entitled to the $1,396 refund he claimed on the 1040X. Mr. Longino responded with a letter and included a check to the IRS for the $1,396. The letter also asked the IRS to “confirm…that we are now concluded on this tax return issue and we won’t have any more issues with IRS on that year.”  He asked the IRS to return the check to him uncashed if the IRS disagreed with him.

IRS ignored the letter, assessed the tax (it can do so when there is a Tax Court petition filed under Section 6213(b)(4)), and cashed the check. The deficiency case proceeded to trial. Mr. Longino lost. IRS attempted to collect on the unpaid assessed deficiency and filed a notice of federal tax lien. Longino filed a CDP request claiming that his letter and the IRS cashing of the $1396 check meant that he no longer had a liability for 2006. He argued that the cashing of the check in light of his letter demonstrated that the matter was resolved. He raised no other issues in the CDP request. Appeals disagreed and Mr. Longino petitioned the Tax Court again, essentially asking that the collection action was unwarranted because there was no liability.

The Tax Court disagreed, noting that he tried his deficiency case in Tax Court and lost; while there may be settlement of a Tax Court case through offer and acceptance, that was not present here. In addition, notwithstanding his letter to the IRS, and the IRS’s cashing of the check, the Tax Court held that there was no settlement as a result of his unilateral correspondence with the IRS Service Center:

Nor did petitioner reach a settlement with the IRS employee with whom he exchanged correspondence in May 2013. That correspondence occurred after we had issued our opinion in his deficiency case but before we entered our decision. The IRS service center employee with whom he corresponded did not offer to settle any tax liability. The IRS simply sent him a bill for $1,396, and he paid that bill.

The opinion cites a line of cases that establishes that submission of a check to the IRS and IRS cashing of the check is not enough to show that there was assent to the offer to settle the matter.

For good measure, the opinion notes that even if the IRS employee who reviewed the letter and authorized cashing the check were attempting to settle the case on behalf of the IRS, that employee lacked the authority to do so.

Taxpayers in Bauer Do Not Want Correspondence to Be Treated as a Settlement

The Longino case is to be contrasted with the Bauer case  out of the district court in Arizona, also decided last month. In this case the taxpayers owed over $800,000 to the IRS, and the government brought a collection suit. Federal liens attached to the property of the husband and wife; the main property was a principal residence owned by the husband but which the wife had some interest in due to her funding some of the renovations on the house.

The US attorney assigned to the case and the taxpayers themselves spoke directly after the government filed its complaint. They began settlement negotiations and the US attorney sent a letter with a proposed deal essentially requiring the Bauers to get a $250,000 home equity loan and pay that money to the government within 6 months. In exchange the government would withdraw its order of foreclosure and foreclosure claim and subordinate its liens. In addition, the letter set forth the understanding that after the payment of the $250,000 the parties would be free to negotiate the payment of the balance that was owed.

The US attorney asked the Bauers to review the letter, sign the letter and return it to him. By the terms of the letter, the letter stated that it was not an offer or acceptance of an offer; instead, by signing the letter and returning it to the government it would constitute an offer from the taxpayers, which the government would then “consider and act on the settlement offer once it has received [their] signature making the offer.”

The letter also spelled out that the Bauers did not have to agree to return the letter but if they did not do so the government would pursue summary judgment.The Bauers returned the letter and also forwarded a copy of the letter to the US attorney with the subject matter of the email noted as “agreement.”

Unfortunately for the Bauers they had a change of heart and shortly after sought to renege on the deal. In part, it appeared that they were unable to secure a $250,000 loan, and were only able to get a commitment for about half of that.  The Bauers sent an email saying they were not honoring the deal. The US filed a motion seeking to enforce what it claimed was a binding agreement.

The court agreed with the US and issued an order granting the motion to enforce. In doing so, the court reviewed settlement principles and held that the parties had entered into a binding contract.  In response to the motion the Bauers argued that they were coerced into entering into the agreement and the agreement was predicated on the government’s misrepresentations about the loan (namely that the Bauers could secure the financing). As to the US attorney’s views about the viability of the loan, the court stated that under contract principles a recipient of another party’s opinion  “is not justified in relying on the other party’s assertion of opinion because the recipient has as good a basis for forming his own opinion”). Further, the court noted that the Bauers should have independently investigated the possibility of getting financing before signing the letter:

Rather than taking Mr. Stevko’s advice as a guarantee that they would be able to secure adequate financing on the home, Defendants could have used their own knowledge about the market value of their home and looked into that question for themselves. They did not inquire about loans with banks until after making the offer to the United States and did not seek to withdraw from the agreement once they discovered they could not secure more than $126,000 from such a loan.

As to the claim that they were coerced, the opinion notes that the US attorney’s statement that if the Bauers did not enter into the agreement the government would pursue summary judgment did not in itself amount to coercion. Contract principles are clear that a party’s threat of civil process does not amount to duress unless that is done in bad faith. There was nothing to suggest bad faith in this case.

Conclusion

Taxpayers when interacting with the IRS or the government may be uncertain of the impact of what they are doing. Unilateral actions such as a notation on a check and cover letter may be sufficient to designate a payment for some purposes but are not enough to settle a case.  A signed letter reflecting an agreement that the taxpayer and the government attorney negotiated is quite different and the government can seek a court order that will require the taxpayers to abide by the terms of a settled case.