9th Circuit Opines on TEFRA Small Partnership Exception’s Application to Disregarded Entities and Punts on Issue of Deference Given to Revenue Rulings

Today Treasury re-released regulations under the new partnership audit regime, and that is a reminder that TEFRA is on its way out, putting pressure on me and my Saltzman/Book colleagues to finish our new chapter on partnership audits. Despite the new regime, courts, taxpayers and IRS still wrestle with TEFRA, which, given its complexity, will still produce developments for the blog and the treatise for the foreseeable future. Those developments include technical TEFRA issues, as here, but also broader issues of importance to tax procedure, including the degree of deference that courts should give to revenue rulings and when disregarded entities under the check the box regulations are not to be disregarded for all purposes.

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Last week the 9th Circuit in Seaview Trading v Commissioner considered one nook and cranny of TEFRA, the Section 6321 small partnership exception that applies when the partnership has “10 or fewer partners each of whom is an individual . . . , a C corporation, or an estate of a deceased partner.”

In Seaview, the father and son partners each held their interest in a partnership via single member LLCs that were organized under Delaware law. IRS audited the partnership and under TEFRA issued a final partnership administrative adjustment (FPAA) disallowing partnership losses relating to the 2001 year. The statute of limitations had long passed on the father and son’s individual 2001 tax returns if the TEFRA rules were not applicable. The son, on behalf of the partnership, filed a petition in Tax Court claiming that the FPAA was invalid because the partnership was exempt from TEFRA due to its qualifying for the small partnership exception. The Tax Court disagreed, and the Ninth Circuit, on appeal, affirmed the Tax Court. In so doing, it expounded on the relationship between State and Federal law and the deference given to revenue rulings.

In this brief post I will explain the issue and summarize the appellate court’s opinion.

As most readers know, the check the box regulations under Section 7701 disregard a solely owned LLC unless the owner elects otherwise. Regulations under Section 6321 provide that the small partnership TEFRA exception “does not apply to a partnership for a taxable year if any partner in the partnership during that taxable year is a pass-thru partner as defined in section 6231(a)(9).” TEFRA, at Section 6321(a)(9), defines a pass-thru partner as any “partnership, estate, trust, S corporation, nominee, or other similar person through whom other persons hold an interest in the partnership.” Section 6321(a)(9) predates the LLC and like entity explosion of the late 20th century, and there are no Treasury regulations that define LLCs and the like as a pass-thru partner.

The partnership in Seaview argued that under the check the box regulations, the LLCs that held the partnership were treated as sole proprietorships of their respective individual owners, and that consequently they could not constitute pass-thru partners within the meaning of the TEFRA regulations.

Despite the absence of regulations that address the issue of how interests held through single member LLCS are treated under the small partnership exception, the IRS, in Revenue Ruling 2004-88, specifically considered that issue. The revenue ruling held that a partnership whose interest is held through a disregarded entity ineligible for the small partnership exemption because a disregarded entity is a pass-thru entity.

In reaching its conclusion that the small partnership exception did not apply, the 9th Circuit addressed how much deference it should give to the IRS’s revenue ruling. The opinion notes that there is some uncertainty on the degree of deference to informal agency positions like revenue rulings. The court explained that in Omohundro v. United States the 9th circuit has generally given Skidmore deference to them. On the other hand, it noted that under the 2002 Schuetz v. Banc One Mortgage Corp., the 9th Circuit had given greater Chevron deference to an informal HUD agency position, and that there is some tension between the circuit’s approach in Schuetz and its approach in Omohundro.

It avoided having to resolve the tension between Omohundro and Schuetz by finding that the Service position in the revenue ruling was correct even when applying the less deferential Skidmore standard. The Skidmore test essentially means that courts defer to the position if it finds it persuasive. As the opinion describes, factors that courts have considered in analyzing whether a position is persuasive include the position’s thoroughness, agency consistency in analyzing an issue and the formality associated with the guidance.

The taxpayers in Seaview essentially hung their hat on the revenue ruling’s rather brief discussion of the sole member LLC issue, but the court nonetheless found the ruling persuasive and also consistent with other cases and less formal IRS counsel opinions that likewise considered the application of the small partnership exception to disregarded entities.

For those few readers with an appetite for TEFRA complexity, I recommend the opinion, but in a nutshell the court agreed with the Service approach that looked first to how the statute’s language did not reflect a Congressional directive to limit the exception to only listed entities. As the opinion discussed, Section 6321(a)(9) defines a pass thru partner as a “partnership[s], estate[s], trust[s], S corporation[s], nominee[s] or [an]other similar person through whom other persons hold an interest in the partnership.” Noting that the statute itself contemplates its application beyond the “specific enumerated forms” the question turns on “whether a single- member LLC constitutes a “similar person” in respect to the enumerated entities.”

The opinion states that “Ruling 2004-88 holds that the requisite similarity exists when ‘legal title to a partnership interest is held in the name of a person other than the ultimate owner.’ ” That line drawing, in the 9th Circuit view, was persuasive, and the revenue ruling had in coming up with the approach cited to and briefly discussed cases that supported the IRS position, including one case where a custodian for minor children was not a pass thru partner because he did not have legal title and another case where a grantor trust was a pass thru partner because it did hold legal title.

One other point, the relationship between state and federal law, is worth highlighting. The taxpayers gamely argued that the IRS view impermissibly elevated state law considerations to determine a federal tax outcome. The court disagreed:

But the issue here is not whether the IRS may use state-law entity classifications to determine federal taxes. Rather, the question is whether an LLC’s federal classification for federal tax purposes negates the factual circumstance in which the owner of a partnership holds title through a separate entity. In other words, state law is relevant to Ruling 2004-88’s analysis only insofar as state law determines whether an entity bears the requisite similarity to the entities expressly enumerated in § 6231(a)(9)—that is, whether an entity holds legal title to a partnership interest such that title is not held by the interest’s owner.

Conclusion

The Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) new rules for partnership audits begin for returns filed for partnership tax years beginning in 2018. As partners and advisors navigate the uncertain waters of a new BBA partnership audit regime, TEFRA and its complexity will be with us for some time.

The BBA regime has opt out procedures for partnerships that have 100 or fewer qualifying partners. Essentially the statute states that all partners must be individuals,  C corporations, or any foreign entity that would be treated as a C corporation were it domestic, an S corporation, or an estate of a deceased partner. While silent on the treatment of disregarded entities, the BBA statute also states that Treasury and IRS by “regulation or other guidance” can prescribe rules similar to the rules that define the category of qualifying partners. 

Proposed Treasury regulations under the BBA were in limbo but earlier today Treasury re-released regulations that provide guidance for the new regime. The proposed BBA regulations specifically address disregarded entities. Despite comments in response to an earlier notice asking Treasury to allow disregarded entities to be treated as qualifying partners, the proposed regulations do not include disregarded entities as qualifying partners and the preamble specifically states that Treasury declined to do so because “the IRS will face additional administrative burden in examining those structures and partners under the deficiency rules.”

The upshot is that for under both TEFRA and likely BBA disregarded entities holding interests in a partnership mean that the general partnership audit rules will apply.

 

 

 

 

District Court Strikes Down IRS’s User Fees for PTINs

Readers may be aware of last week’s Steele v US district court opinion that upheld the IRS’s requirement that preparers obtain a PTIN but struck down the IRS’s requirement that preparers pay a user fee to get the PTIN. In light of the Steele opinion, IRS announced it is suspending PTIN renewal and registration.

This is another big setback to the IRS’s approach to gain oversight over tax return preparer community and may result in the IRS refunding millions of dollars in previously collected PTIN fees. The opinion conflicts with Brannen v US, a 2012 11th Circuit opinion that held that the IRS’s PTIN user fee regime passed muster, and is yet another in the ripples following the DC Circuit’s invalidating the IRS’ plan to regulate unlicensed preparers a few years ago in the Loving case.

I will excerpt the parties’ positions and the way the court resolved the dispute, and offer some observations as to why I think the court’s approach is misguided.

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The Steele district court opinion turns on the Independent Offices Appropriation Act of 1952 (IOAA) codified at 31 USC § 9701. The IOAA provides broad authority to assess user fees or charges on identifiable beneficiaries by administrative regulation. User fees assessed under IOAA authority must be (1) fair and (2) based on costs to the government, the value of the service or thing to the recipient, public policy or interest serviced, and other relevant facts.

Essentially the plaintiffs argued that the user fee scheme provided no value to preparers in light of the DC Circuit’s Loving opinion:

 [P]laintiffs argue that because Congress did not grant the IRS licensing authority—as found by Loving—tax return preparers receive no special benefit in exchange for the fees, rendering them unlawful under the IOAA. In other words, plaintiffs argue that the IRS originally created a licensing scheme that would limit tax return preparers to those certain people who could meet eligibility criteria. But, because Loving found that Congress did not authorize a license requirement for tax return preparers, there are now no restrictions on who may obtain a PTIN and therefore it is no longer true that only a specific set of people may receive PTINs and the “special benefit” of being able to prepare tax returns for compensation. The only beneficiary of the PTIN system is therefore the IRS.

The IRS, looking to the approach of the 11th Circuit in Brannen, distinguished the PTIN rules from the ill-fated regulatory regime that the DC Circuit struck down in Loving:

The government argues that the PTIN and user fee regulations are separate from the regulations imposing eligibility requirements on registered tax return preparers. It argues that the PTIN requirements are not arbitrary and capricious because they make it easier to identify tax return preparers and the returns they prepare, which is a critical step in tax administration, and because PTINs protect social security numbers from disclosure. In support of its position that it may charge fees for PTINs, the IRS states that PTINs are a service or thing of value because the ability to prepare tax returns for compensation is a special benefit provided only to those people who obtain PTINs, who are distinct from the general public. Individuals without PTINs cannot prepare tax returns for compensation. In addition, the IRS argues that PTINs protect the confidentiality of tax return preparers’ social security numbers, and that protection itself is a service or thing of value.

The district court opinion adopted the view that the PTIN rules were part and parcel of the overall regulatory regime:

The Court finds that PTINs do not pass muster as a “service or thing of value” under the government’s rationale. First, the argument that the registered tax return preparer regulations regarding testing and eligibility requirements and the PTIN regulations are completely separate and distinct is a stretch at best. While it is true that they were issued separately and at different times, they are clearly interrelated. The RTRP regulations specifically mention the PTIN requirements and state that PTINs are part of the eligibility requirements for becoming a registered tax return preparer. See Regulations Governing Practice Before the Internal Revenue Service, 76 Fed. Reg. at 32287–89; 26 C.F.R. § 1.6109-2(d) (“[T]o obtain a [PTIN] or other prescribed identifying number, a tax return preparer must be an attorney, certified public accountant, enrolled agent, or registered tax return preparer authorized to practice before the Internal Revenue Service under 31 U.S.C. 330 and the regulations thereunder.”). Furthermore, the overarching objectives named in the PTIN regulations indicate a connection to the RTRP regulations. They were 1) “to provide some assurance to taxpayers that a tax return was prepared by an individual who has passed a minimum competency examination to practice before the IRS as a tax return preparer, has undergone certain suitability checks, and is subject to enforceable rules of practice;” and 2) “to further the interests of tax administration by improving the accuracy of tax returns and claims for refund and by increasing overall tax compliance.” Furnishing Identifying Number of Tax Return Preparer, 75 Fed. Reg. at 60310. The first objective clearly relates to the RTRP regulations regarding eligibility requirements for tax return preparers. The second objective is less explicit, but it does not stretch common sense to conclude that the accuracy of tax returns would be improved by requiring tax return preparers to meet certain education requirements.

Once it functionally equated the PTIN regime to the testing and eligibility requirements Loving struck down, the Steele opinion concluded that the benefit that the IRS was supposedly conferring for the user fee was in fact the functional equivalent of regulating the practice of preparing returns, with my emphasis below on the key part of the Steele opinion’s discussion:

Having concluded the inter-connectedness of the regulations, the government’s argument begins to break down. The Loving court concluded that the IRS does not have the authority to regulate tax return preparers. Loving, 742 F.3d at 1015. It cannot impose a licensing regime with eligibility requirements on such people as it tried to do in the regulations at issue. Although the IRS may require the use of PTINs, it may not charge fees for PTINs because this would be equivalent to imposing a regulatory licensing scheme and the IRS does not have such regulatory authority. Granting the ability to prepare tax return for others for compensation—the IRS’s proposed special benefit—is functionally equivalent to granting the ability to practice before the IRS. The D.C. Circuit has already held, however, that the IRS does not have the authority to regulate the practice of tax return preparers. See id. In coming to its conclusion, the Circuit considered the statutory language that the Secretary may “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of the Treasury.” Id. at 1017–18 (quoting 31 U.S.C. § 330(a)(1)). The court found that the IRS improperly expanded the definition of “practice . . . before the Department of Treasury” to include “preparing and signing tax returns” because to “practice before” an agency “ordinarily refers to practice during an investigation, adversarial hearing, or other adjudicative proceeding.” Id. at 1018. The Loving court concluded that “[t]hat is quite different from the process of filing a tax return” in which “the tax-return preparer is not invited to present any arguments or advocacy in support of the taxpayer’s position . . . [and] the IRS conducts its own ex parte, non-adversarial assessment of the taxpayer’s liability.” Id. The ability to prepare tax returns is the “practice” identified by the IRS in Loving, but the court found that such an activity does not qualify as practicing before the IRS. Therefore, it appears to this Court that the IRS is attempting to grant a benefit that it is not allowed to grant, and charge fees for granting such a benefit.

Parting Thoughts

There are over  700,000 PTIN holders, and I have seen estimates that IRS has collected anywhere between $175 and 300 million since the PTIN program started in 2011. One aspect of the opinion is that by deciding the case in this manner (i.e, IRS has no authority to charge fees for PTINs), the court did not address the plaintiffs’ alternate argument that fees the IRS charged were excessive. (IRS reduced the PTIN fee to $50 from $64 a few years ago).

This is obviously a major setback for the IRS. I am surprised by the court’s narrow view of the benefits associated with PTINs. I recall a decade or so ago the many challenges IRS had in assessing the quality of return preparers in a pre-PTIN required world. When discussing IRS efforts to unify the identification requirement under a single identifying number, GAO noted that past practices made it very difficult for IRS to get a sense of the overall preparer community, let alone associate individual preparers and the returns they prepared. While of course the IRS benefits from the uniformity of identifying requirements, so does the public, and, by extension, so do preparers.

It is in the interest of competent and honest preparers to ensure that the public has confidence in the work that they do. The visibility and accountability associated with a uniform identifying requirement benefits the tax system generally. While the impact of Steele is by no means as far-reaching as Loving, it is a major defeat and is further reason why Congress needs to step in and legislate that IRS has the ability to regulate this important aspect of tax administration.

Tax Court Case Highlights Limits of Court’s Power in Standalone Innocent Spouse Cases

 One of the challenges I used to face when directing a legal clinic was explaining to clients the limits of what the Tax Court could do in cases, especially in CDP and innocent spouse cases. When people would come to the clinic with a problem, and took the time (usually on their own) to petition the Tax Court they held out hope that if they could tell their story to the judge it would help make the IRS problem go away.

Despite some deep questions as to where the Tax Court sits constitutionally, its judges have extensive power in deficiency cases to resolve disputes, apply equitable principles and even order the issuance of a refund. A recent innocent case in Tax Court, Asad and Akel v Commissioner, illustrates some of the Tax Court’s limits and likely confusion that pro se taxpayers face in standalone innocent spouse cases that are not part of a deficiency proceeding.

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The simplified version of the facts is as follows. Asad and Akel were married, and then divorced. When married, both individually owned rental properties, and they filed joint returns. IRS audited a couple of those years’ returns, disallowing losses and expenses pertaining to the real estate activities and also imposing a 20% accuracy-related penalty. Asad and Akel did not respond to the stat notices. At trial in their divorce, Asad and Akel agreed that each would be responsible for ½ of the federal tax debt for the years IRS assessed liabilities.

Fast forward a few years. Each now ex spouse filed separate requests for relief from joint and several liability. IRS denied each request and both spouses filed petitions to Tax Court challenging the denial; husband for good measure intervened on wife’s Tax Court challenge. The Tax Court consolidated both cases.

In a pre-trial memo, IRS agreed to reduce each spouse’s share of the joint liability to essentially reflect the share that was attributable to the ex spouse, a result consistent with an outcome under Section 6015(c). The problem was that the parties wanted the IRS and Tax Court to respect their 50/50 tax liability allocation they agreed to in state court, an outcome that would have favoured Asad, who wound up with a higher shares of the liability under the IRS concession.

What did Asad and Akel want from the court? Asad and Akel did not claim at trial in Tax Court that they were entitled to relief under 6015, and essentially argued that that the Tax Court should provide a way to guarantee that the IRS respect the state law divorce terms. The Tax Court held that it could (and would) not do so. The state law agreement is not binding on the IRS, which was not a party (thankfully I am sure) to the state law divorce proceeding.

Although Asad and Akel petitioned the Court for relief from joint and several liability under section 6015, at trial neither contended that they satisfied the tests for relief under section 6015. It is apparent that they both would agree to a 50-50 settlement of these cases. But the IRS is also a party to these cases. Without the IRS’s consent to a settlement under which Asad and Akel’s liability is each reduced to 50%, there can be no enforceable settlement on those terms.

The substantive issue that both ex spouses agreed on at Tax Court was that they should not be subject to the 20% accuracy related penalty, and they argued at trial in the Tax Court that the positions on the old joint returns reflected the advice of a competent tax return preparer. Again, the opinion (and clear application of the law) left the ex spouses with no relief. In a standalone innocent spouse case the penalty issue was not properly before the court:

The Court is without jurisdiction in these cases to consider Asad’s and Akel’s return-preparer defense. Neither Asad nor Akel petitioned the Tax Court in response to the IRS’s notice of deficiency. See sec. 6213(a) (allowing taxpayer to petition the Tax Court to redetermine a deficiency within 90 days after the mailing of a notice of deficiency). Instead, they petitioned the Court to review the IRS’s denial of their respective claims for relief from joint and several liability under section 6015. See sec. 6015(e). In a stand-alone section-6015 case such as this, which is independent of a deficiency proceeding, the Court can consider only whether the relief provisions of section 6015 are available. See Block v. Commissioner, 120 T.C. 62, 68 (2003). The Court cannot consider issues other than section-6015 relief. Id. Thus, it cannot consider Asad’s and Akel’s tax-return-preparer defense to the accuracy-related penalties.

Conclusion

For seasoned tax practitioners it comes as no surprise that the IRS is not bound by state law divorce proceedings because this reflects settled law. It appears that Asad and Akel did not appreciate the subtleties of the limits of the Tax Court’s powers and the relationship between state and federal law.

The outcome of this case is a decision that reflects the IRS concession rather than the agreement that the ex spouses reached in state court. Of course, nothing in this opinion keeps Asad and Akel from following the state court agreement in terms of paying the IRS and that agreement may be enforceable in the divorce proceeding even if it is not enforceable with respect to the IRS. They may very well have federal tax liabilities and state court obligations that do not match but they can be held to both. Nothing prevents them from getting the result they bargained for in the divorce. This opinion also does not keep them from now requesting penalty relief even though they will not have a judicial remedy unless they pay the penalty and file for refund. This standalone case is not res judicata or collateral estoppel on that issue.

 

Trump Budget: Perhaps Dead on Arrival But Key Themes Emerge for Tax Administration

The Trump Administration released its FY 18 budget, a budget that is generating a great deal of controversy due to unrealistic assumptions and for its slashing many entitlement programs. Since early days on the campaign the President has emphasized the need to control for errors and fraud in transfer programs. IRS has been a poster child for improper payments, and it is no surprise that this budget addresses that issue.

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The document entitled Analytical Perspectives to the budget seems to contain most of the context and description of the assumptions and additional detail. Starting at about page 99 is a discussion of the need to ensure greater integrity in federal spending programs. While I have not read line by line the budget materials there are two measures in the budget that stand out for possible impact on tax administration: oversight over tax return preparers and expanded IRS math error powers. The former in my view is a great idea and the latter not so much.

The  budget requests “authority to increase [IRS] oversight over paid preparers.” As the Administration states, “[i]ncreasing the quality of paid preparers lessens the need for after-the-fact enforcement of tax laws and increases the amount of revenue that the IRS can collect.” We have discussed this issue numerous times in PT. Increasing accountability and visibility of unenrolled preparers is on balance good for taxpayers and tax administration. The most recent IRS compliance study pegged unenrolled preparers as having the highest error rates on EITC returns, and while regulation is not a panacea, requiring minimum standards and directly bringing those preparers into the Circular 230 fold is a way to discourage preparers and taxpayers from acting as if the tax system is an unwatched cookie jar and to encourage preparers to act as gatekeepers.

The second proposal in the budget is a call to expand IRS power to essentially use math error summary assessment powers:

[W]ith this new authority, the IRS could deny a tax credit that a taxpayer had claimed on a tax return if the taxpayer did not include the required paperwork, or where government databases showed that the taxpayer-provided information was incorrect.

I understand the reasoning behind this proposal. EITC exams already hover at about 40% of all IRS exams and while IRS does these exams mostly on the cheap through correspondence, TIGTA has estimated that it still costs IRS on average about $400 for each correspondence exam. Yet the problem with the proposal is that the underlying information in many of the federal databases is not reliable enough to justify dispensing with the normal due process protections of pre-assessment notice and defined right to Tax Court review. For example, HHS maintains database on child custody but millions of lower income individuals do not have formal custody arrangements or even if they do the databases are not reliable enough to warrant automatic rejection. In addition, GAO and others have criticized past IRS administration of its math error powers, an issue that is particularly pressing if individuals rely on the claimed credit to meet basic needs.

While IRS is still an efficient administrator of refundable credits (even accounting for program error costs per $ of benefit are very low relative to other means-based benefit programs), Congress would be better served recognizing the limits of IRS ability to verify eligibility and provide additional resources to do its job properly rather than look for ways to do its job on the cheap and on the backs of the beneficiaries.

While many observers have labeled this budget dead on arrival, tax proposals and tax administration proposals often have nine lives. The theme of reducing errors and saving money through increased compliance will be recurring over the next few years, and that will likely lead to proposals like these that if enacted could mean significant tax administration changes.

Legal Practice and Mental Health

We try hard to stay in our lane on Procedurally Taxing. If you come to us for tax procedure and tax administration, and want to keep it that way, feel free to pass on today’s article.  Because we deal with proper representation and because good mental health of the representative is an important aspect of proper representation, you may find today’s short post of some benefit.

May is mental health month, according to Mental Health America, a leading nonprofit that spreads the word on mental health issues. As someone who has over the years benefitted from confronting mental health issues with the care of professionals, and who lost a dear friend to suicide, I believe that tax professionals and the organizations where they work should have at their disposal resources to help through inevitable tough times that are part of life.

There are many places that can provide help and information, and lawyers and tax professionals are generally pretty good about finding information (hey, you found us)! For many who might need help, however, a big issue still is the stigma associated with seeking help from a mental health professional.

Perhaps that is changing.

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An article last week in the WSJ Law Firms Finally Say it’s OK to See a Therapist [$]discussed how some law firms have begun to address more directly the challenges of life in big law, with proactive efforts to bring care to lawyers who may need some help.

My tax professor at Stanford, Joe Bankman, who is also a clinical psychologist in addition to being a rock star tax professor, along with Sarah Weinstein, have started the Wellness Project. As the home page of the project describes, “there has been an explosion of interest in wellness at law schools, and in the greater legal community. The purpose of this website is to make it easier for those working in this area to share ideas, teaching materials, articles and announcements.”

There are some terrific resources at the Wellness Project site. I listened to their most recent podcast, a conversation with Brooklyn Law School Professor Heidi Brown, who discussed her book The Introverted Lawyer. The discussion is terrific, and includes some heartfelt stories about anxiety and how students and lawyers can develop coping strategies to deal with anxiety. As a fellow introvert who finds joy and calm in reading, reflecting and writing, I identified with Professor Brown’s day-to-day approach in finding professional satisfaction despite anxieties.

Just knowing that there are others who sometimes struggle can make a difference. People do not need to suffer in silence, or feel that mental health issues make them weak or lesser professionals.

Back to tax procedure. I promise.

Who Needs Netflix? Tax Videos on Demand

Today is graduation at Villanova Law School. It is a beautiful day and it will be nice to see families and students beaming. One of the highlights for me last academic year was participating in the Second Annual International Taxpayer Rights Conference in Vienna. The conference had a diverse group of speakers, with tax administrators, practitioners and academics from all over the world.

The conference organizers have posted videos of all of the panels and I link them below. An agenda with a little more description and information about the panelists is here.

Links to Video of Panels

NTA Testimony Today on Tax Reform

For more viewing pleasure, the National Taxpayer Advocate will be testifying today about tax reform before the Oversight Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee. The hearing is scheduled for 9 AM and the committee live streams and archives the event, which can be found here. More information on the hearing is here

 

9th Circuit Reverses District Court in Case Involving Exceptions to SOL For Failing to Disclose a Listed Transaction

We have often discussed statutes of limitation. Yesterday’s post discussed the government’s unlimited time period to assess civil penalties that are not based on the filing of a tax return. Today’s post discusses the consequences of a taxpayer failing to file a form that it is supposed to file when it engages in a listed transaction. In an opinion that surprised me, in May v US, (an unpublished opinion) the 9th Circuit reversed and held that the taxpayer’s failure to file the form resulted in the application of an extended SOL on assessment even when the IRS admitted that it had knowledge of the information that the form itself would have contained.

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First some background: Section 6707A imposes a civil penalty for failing to include information pertaining to a listed transaction on a tax return. Under Section 6707A a listed transaction is “a reportable transaction which is the same as, or substantially similar to, a transaction specifically identified by the Secretary as a tax avoidance transaction for purposes of [Section] 6011.”

Section 6501(c)(10) is an exception the general SOL rules and addresses a taxpayer who “fails to include on any return or statement (that Section 6011 requires to be included in the return or statement) for any taxable year any information with respect to a listed transaction.” If this information is omitted, the time for the assessment of any tax imposed by the Code arising out of the transaction, “shall not expire before the date which is [one] year after the earlier” of (A) the date the Service receives the information required to have been filed, or (B) the date that a material advisor complies with the Service’s request for the list the material advisor is required to maintain on the transaction in which the taxpayer has participated.

Treasury promulgated regs under Section 6011 that specify how a taxpayer is to disclose the transaction. Regulation § 1.6011-4 provides that “[a] taxpayer required to file a disclosure statement under this section must file a completed Form 8886, ‘Reportable Transaction Disclosure Statement’ … , in accordance with … the instructions to the form” and that “[t]he Form 8886 … is the disclosure statement required under this section.”

May involved a transaction that the taxpayer failed to disclose on his 2004 tax return, which he filed in 2005. The transaction at issue that he failed to include on his 2004 tax return was about $165,000 in pass through income. May eventually agreed that the transaction that gave rise to the omitted income was a listed transaction. At the district court, the Service argued that only the taxpayer’s filing of Form 8886 triggered the statute of limitations for purposes of Section 6501(c)(10)(A). The Service admitted that it had knowledge of the information that the taxpayer was supposed to report in the form but that May’s failure to file Form 8886 meant that the statute of limitation was still open (the trial court and appellate opinion do not specify how the IRS got the information but IRS conceded that it had it). May argued that the Service’s knowledge of the information in the form, rather than his filing the form, was the starting point for the one-year period.

 At the district court, May won, with that opinion stating that “common sense confirms that the statute of limitations does not open or close based on which piece of paper a taxpayer chooses to employ.”

Over a brief but spirited dissent, the 9th Circuit reversed. In finding for the government, the 9th Circuit tied the 6501(c)(10) exception to what it viewed as clear directive under the 6011 regulations to submit the 8886:

6501(c)(10)(A)’s reference to “the information so required” under § 6011 functions as an incorporation by reference of the disclosure requirements of Treasury Regulation § 1.6011-4(d), which requires that a taxpayer disclosing a listed transaction do so on Form 8886 and send a completed copy of that disclosure to the OTSA[Office of Tax Shelter Analysis]. It is undisputed that May neither filed a Form 8886 nor sent it to the OTSA. For that reason, May failed to do what was required to start the running of the § 6501(c)(10)(A) statute of limitations. Thus, the one-year limitations period of § 6501(c)(10)(A) did not commence, and the IRS’s assessment of the penalty was timely.

As support, the majority felt that looking to 6501(c)(10) in isolation was not coherent with the overall scheme, and it repeated the maxim from the 1984 Supreme Court case Badaracco v Comm’r that statutes of limitations “barring the collection of taxes otherwise due and unpaid are strictly construed in favor of the Government.”

The dissent viewed it quite differently, focusing on how Section 6501(c)(10) itself does not require the submission of any particular form and that the regulations under 6011 failed to clearly specify the SOL consequences of failing to submit information on any particular form:

It would have been simple to write a statute that stated that the limitations period starts to run on “the date when the taxpayer provides the information to the Secretary on the form specified by the Secretary,” but that’s not how Congress wrote the statute. Alternatively, it would have been simple for the Secretary to have promulgated a regulation that clearly informed all taxpayers that providing information to the IRS doesn’t count unless the information is provided on the specified form.

I must say I am surprised by the 9th Circuit opinion. As the dissent noted, it might have been appropriate to remand for the trial court to refine its standard to avoid a broad reading of the opinion that would invite questions and litigation in other circumstances as to whether IRS had sufficient knowledge:

I have no quarrel with the Government’s position that the taxpayer should be required to provide the relevant information in a coherent form to the appropriate tax agents. An interpretation that started the limitations period as soon as some IRS office, somewhere, had the information or as soon as IRS agents collectively had the information would be both illogical and open to abuse. I don’t disagree that it might be appropriate to remand this case to the district court to apply a more precise interpretation of the statute. But I am not persuaded by the Government’s interpretation, especially in the context of a civil penalty, and cannot join my colleagues in adopting it.

It seems to me if the IRS admits to knowledge of the information then in appropriate circumstances then to elevate the Form itself as the sole trigger elevates a literal form over substance.

Court Rules Abusive Tax Shelter Penalty Has No SOL; Laches Also Not A Defense

Groves v US involves a taxpayer who was assessed over $2M in penalties for failing to register transactions as tax shelters. The penalties stemmed from conduct in years 2002, 2004 and 2005, but the IRS did not assess the penalties until 2015. Groves argued that the IRS assessments, coming over a decade after the conduct that gave rise to the penalty, was too late. The federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois disagreed.

I will briefly explain the opinion below.

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Under statutory procedures that allow for a refund claim following partial payment of the tax shelter penalty, Groves paid 15%, and filed a refund claim alleging that the penalty was assessed outside the normal three-year statute of limitations under Section 6501(a) or a 5-year SOL under Title 28 that applies to civil penalties. He also alleged in the alternative that the doctrine of laches barred the government from assessing the penalty for conduct that stretched back the better part of a decade.

After IRS denied the claim, Groves filed suit in federal district court. The court agreed with the IRS, holding that the penalty under Section 6700 for failing to register a tax shelter was not subject to the normal statute of limitation scheme and that laches was of no help.

We are in the process of finishing the new chapter in Saltzman and Book on statutes of limitation (SOL); it should be out in the fall (with this chapter will mark the rewriting of all original 18 chapters in the book, with a new 19th chapter on CDP). In the SOL chapter we discuss the odd intersection of civil penalties and SOL issues. Many penalties are not subject to readily observable statutes of limitations. For civil penalties that are not “return-based” penalties, courts have increasingly found that those penalties are not subject to any statute of limitations.

What are non return-based penalties? The key feature is that the conduct that gives rise to the civil penalty is not tethered to the filing of a tax return; in other words, as in Groves, what triggered the liability was the conduct of promoting tax shelters and failing to inform the IRS of his promotion rather than the filing of a return.

Groves argued that because the Code states that the 6700 penalty is to be assessed and collected in the same manner as taxes it should thus be subject to the general SOL rules as per Section 6501(a). The opinion disagreed:

Section 6700 assessments do not depend on the filing of a tax return,” but rather “occur … after the IRS becomes aware that an individual’s activities are prohibited by Section 6700.” The mismatch between the triggering event under § 6501(a)—the taxpayer’s filing a return—and the basis for liability under § 6700—being involved in a tax shelter and making false statements about its benefits—makes the § 6501(a) limitations period an inappropriate fit for the assessment of § 6700 penalties.

Groves countered that there was a return at issue, that is, the individuals who took up his advice and filed returns taking positions consistent with his shelter advice. The court emphasized that the penalty under Section 6700 only looked to whether promoter makes “a statement that falsely touts the shelter’s tax benefits.”

The court also addressed 28 USC § 2462, a non-tax law based SOL that applies to civil penalties. That statute states that “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by Act of Congress, an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise, shall not be entertained unless commenced within five years from the date when the claim first accrued ….”

The opinion concluded (as have other courts) that the IRS assessment of a 6700 penalty does not arise from “an action, suit or proceeding” because the IRS assessment arises from in the court’s view an ex parte act rather than an adversarial adjudication. Adjudicative action is a prerequisite to the 28 USC § 2462 SOL applying. As support, the court emphasized that Groves had no right to any pre-assessment administrative adjudication of the penalty, and a number of courts have held that the assessment itself was agency conduct not in the nature of an action or suit for these purposes. Groves served up a number of other creative § 2462 arguments, but the court rejected them, largely on the grounds that the IRS imposition of the penalty was not in any way based on a hearing or other adversarial procedures.

Finally, the court considered whether laches applied. Laches is an equitable defense that gives the court the power to hold that a legal right or claim will not be enforced if a party unreasonably delays in bringing the claim and the delay prejudices the other party. There is uncertainty as to whether a laches claim can be made against the government in tax cases. A Fifth Circuit case, Sage v US, after concluding that no SOL applied to the 6700 penalty, stated in dicta that the doctrine was the only curb on IRS assessment power.

Groves is appealable to the 7th Circuit, and the district court noted that the circuit had not held whether laches is available as a defense to a government tax suit. (for an interesting discussion of laches, including its history, see Judge Posner’s discussion in the 7th Circuit Lantz case from 2010). Groves concluded that laches is probably not a defense in tax cases, and that even if laches were an available defense it only applied in narrow circumstances that were not present in the case. One of the circumstances is when there is an egregious delay. On that point  the court pointed to a 2005 Second Circuit case, Cayuga Indian Nation v Pataki. In Cayuga, the US intervened on behalf of the tribe in an ejectment action that stemmed from conduct over 200 years old and pertained to actions surrounding a treaty signed in 1795. Unlike Cayuga, “this case, by contrast, involves a delay of just over ten years. Although ten years is not an instant, the difference between a ten-year delay and a 200-year delay is one in kind, not of degree.” Another circumstance where laches may apply is when the government action pertains to an adjudication of private rights. As to that circumstance, the court noted that “few areas of government activity are more canonically sovereign than taxation.”

Parting Thoughts

It does to me seem odd that the government has no limits on when it can assess these (and some other) penalties. Over the last couple of decades there has been a vast increase in the number of civil penalties in the Code. When Congress gets around to revising the civil penalty regime, it would be well served to look at these non return based penalties and impose some outside limits on when the government can  assess these penalties.