What Does Mnuchin Think of the Whistleblower Program

And, “collected proceeds” Tax Court case is finally final…now will there be an appeal?

In early August 2016, I wrote a second post on Whistleblower 21276-13W v. CIR, where the Petitioner was successful arguing that criminal fines and civil forfeitures were included in “collected proceeds” for whistleblower awards.  The decision can be found here, and my lyrical yet learned post can be found here.  The issue, as I wrote it up back then was:

Under Section 7623(b), certain whistleblowers are entitled to mandatory awards if certain requirements are met.  That amount can be between 15% and 30% of the “collected proceeds” under (b)(1), which has a parenthetical indicating that is “(including penalties, interest, additions to tax, and additional amounts),” and the sentence further states these amounts can be “resulting from the action (including any related actions) or from any settlement in response to such action.”

…[T]he Service took the position collected proceeds did not include criminal penalties and civil forfeitures.  The Service based this on the claim that Section 7623 should only apply to proceeds assessed and collected under the federal tax laws found in Title 26 of the United States Code.  As the fines and forfeitures here were imposed under Chapter 18, they could then not be “collected proceeds” subject to the statute; unlike the restitution, which as per 2010 law can be assessed and collected in the same manner as tax.

The Court concluded the statute was clear on its face, and the penalties and forfeitures were included.  I would highly recommend reading the post if you are interested in this area.  Although I heaped self-praise on myself, the post is really strong because of the input from Jack Townsend on the case and Les Book.  It also links back to our initial post on this case, which Dean Zerbe wrote, and which is also an important but different holding.  Dean, who was lead counsel on the case, also provided some comments on the second holding, which we included in a separate post, found here.

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The Service had sought a motion for reconsideration, but it was denied on January 28th in apparently a one sentence order (I could not track that down).  It will be interesting to see if anything happens in the next 90 days.

This case has, somewhat directly, come up in the recent testimony of Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin.  Much of the remainder of this post will be borrowed from a press release by Kohn, Kohn, and Colapinto, co-counsel on the above case, which can be found here, and from Senator Grassley’s webpage.

Dean provided a recent quote on the case, arguing against the failed “kitchen sink” approach taken by Counsel, and highlighting that the Tax Court wasn’t picking up what the Service was putting down, stating:

The IRS Chief Counsel’s office emptied the in basket in making arguments for the Motion for Reconsideration – including the availability of funds for award payments.  To no avail.  While I appreciate that Counsel wanted to defend its corner, at the end of the day the Tax Court wasn’t buying what IRS Counsel was selling.  This decision gives Treasury Secretary nominee Mnuchin and the new administration an opportunity to embrace the Tax Court’s final ruling and show that it supports the IRS whistleblower program and is serious about going after big time tax cheats.

Senator Grassley, who has been instrumental in the implementation of the whistleblower program and often a harsh critic of how it has been rolled out by the Service, questioned Mr. Mnuchin on the program, and specifically how the Service would handle this issue.  The response was somewhat positive as to the Whistleblower program, although not exactly a guarantee on the collected proceeds issue.  The Senator asked:

The IRS has chosen to interpret the whistleblower law narrowly to the detriment of whistleblowers and several instances, the IRS has interpreted the terms ‘collected proceeds’ which is the base for determining the amount of award to exclude criminal penalties and certain other proceeds suggest penalties assessed for undisclosed foreign bank accounts.  Two questions, and I will say that both – should you be confirmed, can I count on you to be support of the whistleblower program and work to ensure its success and would you be willing to review the IRS’s administration program including its very narrow interpretation of the words ‘collected proceeds?

Mr. Mnuchin’s response was favorable to the program overall, but not terribly specific as to the “collected proceeds” issue, stating:

We are aware there is tax fraud.  There is tax fraud as you said, and we need to be diligent and I believe that the whistleblower laws are very important part of that.  I will work very hard with you on that.

He also gave assurances he would look into the collected proceeds matter.  Giving assurances to look into something seems a little like government (and lawyer) speak for one of three things: “nope”; “I have no idea”; or, “we’ll actually consider it…someday”.    It would have been nice to get more specifics out of this aspect of the Q&A, as Mr. Mnuchin knew this was going to be a topic.  Here is a quote about Senator Grassely and Mr. Mnuchin meeting prior to the hearings to discuss Senator Grassely’s concerns.  From the Senator:

It was our first time meeting, so Mr. Mnuchin and I spent a few minutes getting acquainted.  We then discussed a series of issues.  We covered the importance of comprehensive tax reform on both the corporate and individual levels and how tax fairness is critical to economic growth and job creation.  I’ve often said that a major undertaking like tax reform requires the President’s use of his bully pulpit to rally support behind a plan from Congress and the American people.  There’s an opportunity to do that with a new administration.  I emphasized the importance of listening to whistleblowers within the Treasury Department and those who come to the IRS with allegations of major tax fraud.  The provisions improving the IRS whistleblower office that I drafted are working, but it’s required a lot of oversight to maintain the momentum, and I’d like to see a Treasury secretary who will build on the progress.  Enforcing tax fraud is a matter of fairness for the majority of the taxpayers who pay what they owe.  Mr. Mnuchin and I discussed the burden of the estate tax on family farms and businesses.   I emphasized the need to treat alternative energy tax incentives fairly, including keeping the current phase-out for the wind energy production tax incentive as is.  Alternative energy drives job creation in Iowa and nationwide.  We discussed currency manipulation as well as the need to broaden the scope of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to cover food security.  Mr. Mnuchin seemed to appreciate the need for the review process to become broader than it is now to help protect U.S. interests.  I look forward to covering these issues and more in Mr. Mnuchin’s nomination hearing.

You can find the full exchange during the hearings here on YouTube.  The Senator endorsed Mnuchin following the hearing, stating the following on the whistleblower program:

Having a Treasury secretary who understands the whistleblower role in enforcing tax fraud is important.  Whistleblowers have helped the IRS recover $3.4 billion that otherwise would have been lost to fraud.  Cracking down on big dollar tax fraud is a matter of fairness to the vast majority of taxpayers who pay what they owe.  The IRS has made progress in working with whistleblowers, but there’s more work to be done.  Mr. Mnuchin gave his assurance that he’ll work with me if confirmed to support tax fraud whistleblowers.

I also asked Mr. Mnuchin about the importance of supporting the congressionally established phase-out of the wind energy production tax credit.  A smooth transition and the certainty of the phase-out are necessary for a fast-growing industry that supports numerous jobs in Iowa and elsewhere around the country.  The industry needs to be able to maintain its successful growth even as its tax credit phases out.  Mr. Mnuchin said he supported the smooth phase-out.  And I asked Mr. Mnuchin about the role of private contractors in collecting tax debt that the IRS hasn’t tried to collect.  He agreed that it makes sense to use outside help in closing the tax gap.

I’ve expressed my personal views on the whistleblower program in the past.  I am fully in favor of having a whistleblower program, but my perception of the IRS handling of the program has not been favorable.  I recognize the financial and other constraints, but it does seem like other aspects of the agency may not be favorably inclined towards it, that the roll out had significant issues, and that internally there have been some efforts to thwart what seem like straightforward requirements of payment.  I hope the program continues to grow under Mr. Mnuchin or anyone else who may take over as Secretary of Treasury.

For more on this case, the testimony, and the recent report on whistleblower awards, check out Dean’s post on Forbes here.

USVI – Residing or Vacationing (and What if You Pay Income Tax While only Vacationing)

I am sitting in my dining room writing, and there is freezing rain outside, I’ve got a terrible cold, and my wife is cleaning up some child’s vomit.  I can’t help but think how nice it would be to live somewhere much warmer, that wasn’t as affected by these seasonal illnesses ….  And, wouldn’t it be all the better if I paid far less in taxes?  Maybe I should trade Love Park for Love City (nickname of St. John’s, USVI—which is apparently giving people money to come visit)?

The United States Virgin Islands have shown up in a lot of tax procedure cases over the last decade (like a ton!, there are only around 100,000 residents, and it seems like there is an important case every week).  So why is that the case?

Well, it is, for some, a legal tax shelter.  Normally, a US Citizen must file his or her return with the Service on a specified date, and the Service must assess tax within three years of filing a return, but if no return is filed the period of limitations remains open indefinitely.  See Section 6501.  To be filed, “the returns must be delivered…to the specific individual…identified in the Code or Regulations.” See Allnut v. Comm’r.  This normally means somewhere with the Service.  The USVI however operates a “separate but interrelated tax system.” Huff v. Comm’r.  Bona fide USVI residents are required to only file tax returns with the USVI Bureau of Internal Revenue (“VIBIR”).  See Section 932(c)(2).  If the taxpayer is not a bona fide resident, but has USVI source income, the taxpayer must file with the VIBIR and the Service.  In an effort to bring businesses to the USVI, an economic development program was implemented in USVI, which allows for a reduction of USVI tax on certain USVI residents up to 90% of their income tax.  Not sure how much economic development it has spurred, but a lot of rich people began trying to be bona fide USVI residents (or at least claimed they were), and the IRS took exception.

Below is a discussion of a few cases relating to claims of USVI residency.  One will review the requirements of residency, and why parking a boat may not be enough. It also highlights the interesting SOL issue of whether a USVI return starts the limitations period when the taxpayer is not a USVI resident.  The final case below investigates what happens if a non-resident pays tax to USVI (claiming to be a resident) and the refund statute of limitations has passed after there has been a determination that the person was not a resident.

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Parking Your Yacht and Staying at Ritz–Not Residency

In Commissioner v. Estate of Travis L. Sanders, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the Tax Court and remanded for additional fact findings regarding whether or not the decedent had ever been a resident of the USVI (and from the tone of the case, the Court gave fairly clear indication that the Tax Court should find he was not a resident).    The Tax Court opinion in Sanders can be found here.  The issue in the case was whether the filing of a USVI return started the statute of limitations, which the Court decided hinges on whether he was a resident of USVI.  As stated above, this has been a hot topic over the last few years, which we have not covered much on PT.

In Sanders, the taxpayer made his money on surge protectors (I think high end, not the consumer ones your computer is plugged into).  The more protectors he sold, the more his balance sheet surged.  In 2002, Mr. Sanders began spending some (but not much) time in the USVI.  From ’02 to ’04, the years in question, Mr. Sanders stayed at the Ritz, and then parked his yacht on the islands and stayed on the boat.  He spent somewhere between 8 and 18 days on the islands in ’02, between 49 and 78 days in ’03, and between 74 and 109 days in ’04.  He kept his FL home, never established a personal mailing address in the USVI, his girlfriend (eventually wife) remained in FL, his minor child lived in FL, and he spent considerable time at the company HQ in FL.

As to his work at the surge company, he became a limited partner in a USVI company, which employed him, and then contracted his services to the company he had created.  Mr. Sanders took the position that this was USVI source income, and that he was a USVI resident.  He then claimed the income was exempt from United States taxes (and it was potentially entitled to a 90 percent tax credit under USVI tax laws – hence the set up).

The IRS said this Caribbean dream was a little too dreamy, and in 2010 issued a notice of deficiency, alleging Mr. Sanders was not a bona fide USVI resident and that the set up was, as Jack Townsend would say, a b@!! $&!1 tax shelter.  Unfortunately, our Captain Sanders died in 2012, and did not get to see if his scheming worked.  In August, the Eleventh Circuit didn’t weigh in on the BS’iness of the tax shelter, but did overturn the Tax Court as to whether the statute of limitations prohibited the assessment.  Why did the courts disagree?

How to qualify as a USVI resident has changed somewhat over recent years, and, the discussion to follow regarding the statute of limitations on filing with VIBIR may no longer apply, as the Service and VIBIR entered into an information sharing agreement in ’07, and following that the Service agreed to treat certain returns filed with VIBIR as starting the statute of limitations regardless of whether the person was actually resident of USVI.

This was prior to ’07, and the Service took the position that Mr. Sanders was not a bona fide resident of the USVI in the years in question, and therefore the return he filed with VIBIR did not start the running of the statute of limitations in the United States.  Mr. Sanders (and the USVI government) argued he was a bona fide resident, and the statute had run.

The Court did not determine whether Mr. Sanders was or was not a bona fide resident, and remanded for further fact finding.  It was clear from the tenor of the opinion that based on the facts before the Court it strongly (very, very, very strongly) disagreed with the Tax Court conclusion that Mr. Sanders was a resident.

The more important holding, although not new law, was that the statute of limitations for filing his US Federal tax return would only run due to the VIBIR filing if Mr. Sanders was a bona fide resident (requiring a substantive finding of fact), and there was no good faith exception to this requirement implied in the statute.

In discussing the good faith exception, the Eleventh Circuit reviewed the meaning and use of the term bona fide and found it required objective proof.  The Court did note there are some fairness concerns in not having such an exception, but said that was not sufficient to read such an exception into the statute.  In addition, it noted that “entwining of the merits of a case with the statute of limitations is not uncommon in tax cases.”  The Eleventh Circuit rejected the good faith exception, holding filing with VIBIR only triggers the statute if the taxpayer is a bona fide resident (not merely that the taxpayer believes he is).

As to the bona fide residency, as mentioned above, the Eleventh Circuit gave a pretty heavy indication as to its feelings as to residency.  The Court stated that “[b]ecause the Tax Court never decided the nature and extent of Sanders’s physical presence, it cannot have properly weighed this factor.”  Further, “[e]ven Sanders’s own estimate that he spent 18 days in the USVI…places him on the island for only a small portion of time,” and “he had no personal home on the islands for any part of [the years in question].”  And, “[l]iving in a condominium partially owned by one’s employer (and which is not even available for every visit) does little to evidence an intention to reside there indefinitely…”, but the Court did note that moving the boat to the island and connecting it to utilities was slightly more indicative of residence; although, noted this was less strong evidence than a fixed home.  There were various other similar quotes, making it fairly clear the Court did not think Sanders was a bona fide resident.

Although I’ve discussed this type of planning in the past with clients for both USVI and PR (and other more exotic jurisdictions), this type of planning has a more common analogous state level planning topic; which is selecting a state level income tax residence (in my practice, it is usually someone in NY, NJ, MA, and less often PA, considering a move to FL).  Obviously, the analysis is different, but the advice is the same; you can’t just say you think you are a resident, you have to take meaningful steps that can prove you are.

Also, interesting to note, at least to me, that the Chief Justice of the Eleventh Circuit was appointed by George H. W. Bush, who once claimed residency in Texas while staying a limited number of days per year in the Houstonian, which Texas accepted and Maine, DC, and other states never questioned.  Perhaps the Houstonian is more homey than the Ritz.

Where Does My Entity Reside?

The Third Circuit had an interesting, albeit unsurprising, holding in the end of October relating to USVI residency of entities.  In VI Derivatives, LLC v. United States, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the taxpayer’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that res judicata barred the challenge to subject matter jurisdiction.  In VI Derivatives, various LLCs were challenging their residency, but the lower court had previously already determined the residency of the entity owners (the Ventos, more on them in a minute).  In that holding, the Court indicated there was no separate determination to be made regarding the entities, “Because those partnerships are pass-through entities…, they do not have residencies separate from their owners.”  When the entities filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on residency, the District Court denied the motions, holding res judicata barred the challenge because the residency decision on the owners constituted a final judgement on the merits, which was not appealed.  The Third Circuit agreed.

For those of you who follow tax procedure closely, especially offshore matters, the Ventos are turning into a familiar family.  Cases pertaining to the capital gains ($180MM) generated from the sale of Richard’s Vento’s business have generated interesting holdings regarding USVI residency, summons enforcement, and FOIA (and probably others that I am forgetting).

And…

VI Non-Residents Cannot Claim FTC For VI Income Paid

Not a shocking holding either.  In Vento v. Comm’r, the Tax Court reviewed the case of Renee Vento (daughter of Richard), who claimed foreign tax credits on her United States return for tax she paid in the USVI.  In the year the tax arose, Renee lived in the US.  For the tax year, she filed her income tax return with VIBIR including the payment of tax claiming to be a USVI resident, and the IRS transferred her estimated US payments to VIBIR.  Later, the IRS and Courts determined she was not a USVI resident, and a notice of deficiency was issued.  An agreed assessment was determined, with Renee treated as a US resident.  Renee apparently sought a refund on the VIBIR return, but this was likely denied due to the passing of the statute of limitations.  Renee then attempted to seek credits on her US return under Section 901 for payments she made to VIBIR (and the IRS payments that were converted to VIBIR payments) for the tax year in question.  Renee also claimed that for the IRS or the Court to hold otherwise would unfairly subject her to double taxation in the US and USVI.

The IRS responded by arguing that Renee was not a USVI resident, and therefore the payments were not compulsory, so no credits could be issued.

The Tax Court agreed with the Service.  It found that Renee had no USVI source income, and therefore there was no obligation to pay tax, so the payments to VIBIR were not “taxes paid”.  Section 901(b)(1) allows a credit for “the amount of any income…tax paid or accrued during the taxable year to any…possession of the United States.”  The Court found that the holdings regarding residency did not appear to give much credence to Renee’s position, which it found undercut her argument that she had a reasonable basis for paying VIBIR.  The Court also found that Renee had not exhausted all of her potential remedies to reduce her liability to USVI.  As such, the Tax Court found Renee did not meet her burden of showing that she had validly paid tax to USVI.

Before getting to the equity argument, the Court did note that Congress did not intend that taxes paid to USVI be eligible for the foreign tax credit.  The Court viewed the coordination rules under Section 932(c) as eliminating the potential for double taxation that the FTC usually solved.  Further, the Regulations specifically state that for FTC purposes, USVI income of a Section 932(a) taxpayer is treated as income from sources within the United States.  See Reg. 1.932-1(g)(1)(ii)(B).  The Court did also note that Renee’s situation may allow her to “slip through the crack in the statutory framework,” as under the literal terms she did not earn any USVI income, but it did not believe Congress would have intended that result.  The Court did not, however, hold on this rationale, as the “taxes paid” reasoning was sufficient.

The holding ends with some statements pertaining to the equity argument:

Whatever sympathy we might have for petitioners, however, does not compel us to allow them a credit against their U.S. tax liabilities to which they are not legally entitled.16 To the extent that petitioners pay tax on the same income to both the United States and the Virgin Islands, they must seek a remedy elsewhere; they cannot find it in section 901.

Foot note 16 states:

Our sympathy for petitioners would be tempered to the extent that tax avoidance motives prompted their claims to Virgin Islands residence. While the limited record before us is silent regarding petitioners’ motivations, our agreement to base our decision on the parties’ stipulations and admissions under Rule 122 does not require us to ignore the District Court’s observation in VI Derivatives, LLC v. United States…, aff’d in part, rev’d in part sub nom. Vento v. Dir. of V.I. Bureau of Internal Revenue… that “the timing of the [Vento] family’s decision to ‘move’ to the Virgin Islands is suspicious.” According to that court, Vento family members realized a significant gain as a result of a transaction that occurred at the beginning of 2001. Becoming Virgin Islands residents for that year held out the prospect of more than $9 million in tax savings to the family.

Sounds a bit like unclean hands.  Don’t argue equity after your tax fraud-ish behavior.  A bit harsher than the original taxpayer friendly Sanders holding before the Tax Court.

While reading the case, I wondered if the taxpayer could have made an argument about the amounts paid to the US that were “covered into” USVI (payments) pursuant to Section 7654.  That is the provision that makes the US pay over any tax collections it has to the possession.  I believe USVI intervened in this case (although I could be confusing my USVI residency cases), and the US was clearly a party.  It would seem both were on notice that their transfer of funds was potentially incorrect.  I have done no research on this, so the notion could be completely off base, but it was my initial thought while reading.

Additional Courts Hold Promoter Penalties Not Divisible For Refund Claim

So Flora is not an option.

In the below post, we will discuss the somewhat recent holdings in Diversified Group v. United States and Larson v. United States, two cases dealing with whether or not promoter penalties under Section 6707 are divisible for refund claim purposes.  An interesting issue, and one that may require a tweak to the law from Congress.

In September of 2015, Keith wrote about Diversified Group Inc. v United States, where the Court of Federal Claims held that shelter promoter penalties imposed under Section 6707 were not divisible, and therefore the promoter could not pay the penalty imposed on just one investor (this case was decided based on prior versions of Section 6111 and 6707, but the underlying concepts are still valid).  In November, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Court of Federal Claims; the opinion can be found here.

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As explained by Keith and in the opinion, in general, a taxpayer can only sue for a refund in a district court after the amount of tax has been paid in full.  SCOTUS created an important exception to this rule in Flora v. US, where it indicated an excise tax may be divisible based on each taxable transaction or event, allowing full payment to occur with a small amount of tax.  Under Section 6707, certain promoters who fail to file required returns, or do so with a false or incomplete return, regarding reportable transactions are subject to penalties.  The penalty then imposed was 1% of the aggregate investment amount (now the penalty is $50,000 for each transaction, or, if relating to a listed transaction, it is the greater of $200k or 50% of the gross income derived by the advisor (increased to 75% if the failure is intentional)).  The promoter paid a portion related to one transaction and sued for refund, and the IRS objected.  The lower court determined the penalty was not divisible, and was related to the singular act of failing to report the promoting of the tax shelter (and not the imposition of the amount on the 192 clients separate transactions).

The appellate court affirmed that the singular act of failing to report the shelter was what occurred to impose the penalty.  Further, it reviewed the applicable language, finding the Code viewed the shelters in the aggregate (not individually) for determining if the penalty was applied,  and Section 6111 required disclosure the day on which the shelter was initially offered, and did not relate to each investor  buying in.  Providing more evidence it was the initial failure and not each purchase of the shelter.

I quote briefly from Keith’s post regarding the direct impact of this case:

While feeling sorry for someone who promotes an egregious tax shelter scheme requires a great deal of effort, I think parties should have the opportunity to litigate the imposition of a tax or penalty without full payment.  The Court of Federal Claims decision rests on firm ground, yet barring someone against whom the IRS assesses a penalty, any penalty, from disputing that penalty in court without paying over $24 million seems inappropriate.  Maybe tax shelter promoters have access to that kind of money but most parties do not.

Keith’s post also discusses the potential for CDP as an avenue for a merit review by the courts, which is not without issues.  If readers have not previously reviewed that aspect of Keith’s prior post, I would encourage them to do so.

The Diversified holding was followed by Larson v. United States, which was decided by the District Court for the Southern District of New York on December 28th.  Larson is continued fallout from the KPMG tax shelter case from the mid-2000s.  Mr. Larson paid a fraction of the $63.4MM Section 6707 penalty related to one transaction (the overall penalty was initially a $160.2MM penalty, but others paid portions of it).  He argued that the partial payment was valid under Flora.  The Southern District came to the same conclusion as the Federal Circuit.

Jack Townsend wrote up the case on his Federal Tax Crimes Blog here, where he summarizes the holding and quotes the salient aspects of the case.  At the end of the post, Jack highlights his takeaways from the case, which include similar contents to Keith’s thoughts on Diversified.  Jack thinks, given the huge dollar amounts that can be involved, that there needs to be some prepayment or partial payment review, otherwise taxpayers could be inappropriately precluded from litigating the merits.  Mr. Larson attempted to make similar arguments in his case, based on the APA and the Constitution, which the Southern District did not agree with.  These are discussed below.

Jack also highlights an APA challenge raised by Mr. Larson.  Larson argued for judicial review under the APA claiming the denial of his refund claim was arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of the IRS discretion.  The Court found this argument lacking, stating “an existing review procedure will…bar a duplicative APA claim so long as it provides adequate redress. Clark City Bancorp. v. US Dept. of Treasury, 2014 WL 5140004 (DDC Sept. 19, 2014)”.   The “existing review procedure” here was the full payment of  the claimed amount due, and the request for review of a refund denial in the district court.  Jack’s post highlights other language summarizing this holding.

There are various other interesting arguments made in this case.  For instance, Mr. Larson argued the fines under Section 6707 violate the 8th Amendment of the Constitution (excessive fine, not cruel and unusual punishment, although if I told my wife I owed a fine of that amount I am certain it would result in cruel and unusual punishment).  The Court questioned whether it had jurisdiction to review the matter, but eventually determined that didn’t matter, as Larson failed to state a claim.

Sticking with long shot Constitutional challenges, Mr. Larson also argued that his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment would be violated by the penalty under Section 6707 if it was not divisible because the imposition of the full payment rule would preclude him from being able to pay and therefore from being able to have a review.  The Court rejected this argument, stating courts have consistently held that the inability to pay penalties has never been determined to be a due process violation (citing to various cases, including the recent case of his one-time co-defendant, Robert Pfaff, 117 AFTR2d 2016-981 (D. Colo. 2016)).  I understand if this was not the rule, everyone would claim inability to pay, and it is possible that much lower fine amounts would clog the courts.  Here, however, the fine was $63MM!  I think less than .1% of the population would ever be able to pay that.

I have no further insight beyond what Jack and Keith stated.  For the most part, the people arguing these cases have violated the tax law, and done so knowing full well that the areas they were flirting with had substantial penalties.  They did this for significant financial gain.  But, the penalties can easily be many times more than the assets of the individual, making it impossible for full payment, and there should be some way for the merits to be litigated.  This will likely require a legislative change, although I am uncertain who is going to advocate for the tax shelter promoters.

The Burden of Gifts

I am a firm believer that it is better to give than to receive, but I find buying presents to be overwhelming.  I can never find the right mix of thoughtfulness and pizzazz, so I usually put it off far too long and then end up doing most my shopping at RiteAid.  My wife does all of our holiday shopping, which means I only have to shop for her.   Clearly a lucky woman getting all of those fine convenient store items (if you all wanted to comment and provide suggestions as to what I should buy my wife, it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.  What I know after 15 years about her gift preferences are that she would rather they not come from RiteAid, and she doesn’t think tax related gifts are awesome—takes all kinds).

The taxpayers in Cavallaro v. Commissioner did not have similar problems.  Their gift was much more complex, but everyone  loves huge amounts of wealth.  The burden in this case  was not what to get or how much to spend.  Here, it was the burden of proof (more specifically, which party had the burden and what that burden of proof actually was).  The Tax Court and First Circuit both held the taxpayers were unable to shift the burden to the Service, but, interestingly, the First Circuit determined the Tax Court had misapplied the taxpayers’ burden as having to prove their proper tax liability instead of simply proving the Service’s assessed tax was incorrect, which some are suggesting is a significant taxpayer friendly holding.

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The Facts –Merging Companies, Giving Gifts.

So, what did the Cavallaros get their sons?  A merger, resulting in a gift worth about $29,670,000 (that is on my list, but probably not going to be under my tree).  The Cavallaros had a successful company  (“Knight”) that made custom tool and machine parts.  Husband owned 49%, and wife had 51%.  At some point, they tried to expand into a liquid dispensing system manufacturer, but it initially failed.  One of the sons asked if he could continue to try to develop the system under a new entity (“Camelot”), and the parents agreed.  That son and two other sons owned Camelot.  Ten or so years later, the Cavallaros brought in lawyers and accountants to review their estate plan.  The accountants felt the now successful other line of business (“newtech”) was part of, or owned by, Knight.  This was how it was treated by Knight and how it was kept on the books.  The lawyers, however, felt it should be treated as having already passed to Camelot, which was marketing and selling the technology, and which would have already transferred the value to the three sons.

The lawyer, in trying to convince the accountant of this, stated, “[h]istory does not formulate itself, the historian has to give it form without being discouraged by having to squeeze a few embarrassing facts into the suitcase by force.”  Facts can be the worst.  The lawyer eventually convinced the accountant and family, and then had affidavits, memos, and a confirmatory bill of sale evidencing newtech in Camelot.

The family had a valuation of the two companies post merger, which the valuation expert valued  at $70MM to $75MM, with the Knight portion worth about $13MM to $15MM (less than 20% of the total company). Camelot, with the ownership of newtech, was valued at over 80%.    After the merger, Mr. C got 18 shares of the merged company, Mrs. C got 20 shares, and each son got 54 shares.  Shortly thereafter, the company was sold, with the Cavallaros getting $10.8MM total, and each son receiving $15.4MM.

Later, the IRS examined the two companies, and disagreed about the ownership of newtech, leading it to investigate the transaction for potential gifts from the merger.  The Service eventually issued a notice of deficiency for the gifts from the Cavallaros to their sons.  The IRS’ initial position, without an appraisal, was that Camelot had no value, resulting in a roughly $46MM gift from the merger, with $12.6MM in tax due.  The service also imposed penalties for the failure to file the return and for fraud under Sections 6651(a)(1) and 6663(a).

The Cavallaros took the matter to the Tax Court, and during discovery found that the Service had a valuation done after the deficiency was issued, which had been done by an accountant named Bello, and the appraisal indicated Knight had a value of $22.6MM prior to the merger (not $0).  The Cavallaros used the valuation to make two arguments against the Service, both of which could have shifted the burden of proof to the Service.  First, the Cavallaros argued that the original deficiency was arbitrary and excessive.  Second, the Cavallaros argued the Service had initially taken the position that Camelot was a shell corporation used for a sham transaction, which was used solely for making a disguised gift.  The Cavallaros argued that the Service’s new position that the Cavallaros had grossly understated the value of Camelot was a “new matter” under Tax Court Rule 142.  Based on this, the taxpayers sought to shift the burden of proof to the Service.

The First Circuit summarized the tax court holding as follows:

The Tax Court denied the Cavallaros’ renewed motion to shift the burden of proof to the Commissioner. While noting that it was “evidently true that the Commissioner did not obtain an appraisal before issuing the notices” of deficiency, the Tax Court found that there was a sufficient basis for issuing the notices and, thus, that they were not arbitrary. Further, the court found unpersuasive the Cavallaros’ argument that the Commissioner’s litigating position was a “new matter” and stated that the Commissioner’s “partial concessions as to Camelot’s non-zero value” did not require a new theory or change the issues for trial.

And, summarized the Cavallaros’ appeal on this issue, and the question of what the burden was, as follows:

On appeal, the Cavallaros renew their claim that the Tax Court erred by failing to shift the burden of proof to the Commissioner for two independent reasons: because (1) the original notices of deficiency were arbitrary and excessive, and (2) the Commissioner relied on a new theory of liability. They make two additional arguments. First, they claim that the Tax Court improperly concluded that Knight owned all of the [newtech] related technology. Second, they contend that the Tax Court erred by misstating their burden of proof and subsequently failing to consider alleged flaws in Bello’s valuation of the two companies.

In general, there is a presumption of correctness of an IRS notice of deficiency, and the taxpayer must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the Service erroneously assessed tax (which isn’t necessarily the same as showing the taxpayer’s correct tax liability).  It is worth noting that this examination began prior to the enactment of RRA98, which amended Section 7491 dealing with burdens of proof.  Those changes made it easier, in certain circumstances, for taxpayers to shift the burden to the Service, but those provisions were not available to the Cavallaros (although I’m not sure that would have mattered in this case).

Excessive and Arbitrary

As indicated above, the first argument the Cavallaros made was that the deficiency notice was excessive and arbitrary.  Not much text was devoted to this argument, and the First Circuit noted this was a limited doctrine.  Essentially, a taxpayer must argue that the assessment has “no factual relationship to the taxpayer’s liability…” Zuhone v. Comm’r, 883 F2d 1317 (7th Cir 1989).  The Court said its question was “whether the [taxpayers] have carried their burden of producing evidence from which it can [conclude] that their deficiency assessments utterly lacked rational foundation.”  Although the Service initially used no formula, and had no valuation, the Court found that did not result in a conclusion that the initial assessment lacked a rational foundation.  As the Service had seen statements about “squeezing a few embarrassing facts into a suitcase,” and other information about aggressive planning, the Court found sufficient evidence to conclude the Camelot substantially less, and perhaps no, value.

The policy behind this makes sense.  The taxpayer has all the information, and may not have  been cooperating, but the Court was fairly dismissive of this argument, when there were some negative facts for the Service (obtaining a valuation shortly after assessment, which showed substantial value – hard to imagine it had none of that information when assessing).

New Matter

The Cavallaros second argument was that the Service was raising a new matter, which based on the facts from the First Circuit, seems like an aggressive characterization.  Under the Tax Court rules, a party raising a “new matter” has the burden of proof on that matter.  If the Service seeks to impose tax based on a rationale not in the notice, it is treated as having raised a “new matter”.  See Shea v. Comm’r, 112 TC 183 (1999).  Whether a new theory is a new matter is not always clear.  The Court noted, a new theory is “treated as a new matter when it either alters the original deficiency or requires presentation of different evidence.” Wayne Bolt & Nut Co. v. Comm’r, 93 TC 500 (1989).  That is not the case if the theory “clarifies or develops the original determination.”

Here, the Cavallaros believed that the original argument was that Camelot was a worthless sham, but at trial the government argued that Camelot was overvalued by the Cavallaros.  The notice, however, never indicated Camelot was a sham.  The notice stated:

[Under Section 2511,] donor’s merger of Knight Tool Co. into Camelot Systems, Inc. in return for 19% of the stock of Camelot Systems, Inc. resulted in a gift of $23,085,000.00 to the other shareholders of Camelot Systems, Inc. Accordingly, taxable gifts are increased $23,085,000.00.

The Court stated that the “clear implication was that, because Knight was undervalued, the…merger allowed for a disguised gift…”  The Court found that when the IRS subsequently changed its position on the value from $0 to around $22.7MM, it was “simply a refinement”, which it held was in line with its position that, “if a deficiency notice is broadly worded and the Commissioner later advances a theory not inconsistent with the language, the theory does not constitute a new matter…”  The Court also found that the notice clearly informed the Cavallaros that the Service was questioning their valuation.   This holding, again, makes sense, but I have conflicted feelings about incentivizing the Service to issue notices that are overly broad and vague.

What Was the Burden?

The most interesting aspect of the holding came from the application of the burden of proof in relation to challenging the IRS’s valuation of the entities.  The Cavallaros, before the Tax Court, had attempted to challenge the valuation report by Bello that was relied upon by the Service and the Court, believing it to have substantial flaws.  The Tax Court disallowed this challenge, believing it to be unnecessary.  The Tax Court stated that the Cavallaros had “the burden of proof to show the proper amount of their tax liability.”  The Tax Court had found that the Cavallaros’ valuations were incorrect, because they assumed full ownership of newtech in Camelot and the Tax Court had held the technology was owned by Knight.  The Tax Court further held that without valuations, the Cavallaros could not prove their correct tax liability, and therefore lost the case, so challenging the Bello valuation wasn’t necessary.  The Cavallaros, however, argued that their burden was not to show the proper amount of tax, but to prove that the alleged deficiencies by the Service were erroneous.  One avenue of doing this was to address the flaws in the Bello valuation.

In this instance, the First Circuit agreed with the Cavallaros, stating:

 [a]lthough the Tax Court did not misallocate the burden of proof at trial, we agree with the [taxpayers] that the Tax Court misstated the content of that burden.  The Commissioner’s deficiency notices enjoyed a presumption of correctness, and the [taxpayers] had the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that they were erroneous.

The First Circuit held this was a clear error, and the Cavallaros should have had the opportunity to show the valuation was arbitrary and excessive, which could have then indicated the Service assessment was incorrect.   The First Circuit remanded the case to the Tax Court to determine the evidentiary value of the Bello valuation, stating that if it was not valid the Tax Court would be responsible for determining the correct valuation and amount of tax due.

This procedural misstep by the Tax Court was a bit of a gift for the taxpayers, allowing them another shot at reducing their tax burden.  I would note, the Tax Court did state the burden correctly in the text of the holding, which it stated in multiple places as the petitioner having to show the deficiency notice was incorrect, and indicating “where the Commissioner has made a partial concession of the determination in the notice of deficiency, the petitioner has the burden to prove the remaining determination wrong” (quoting Silverman v. Comm’r, 538 F2d 927 (2d Cir. 1976)).  However, in the discussion of the review of the valuations, it did state, “[i]t is the Cavallaros who have the burden of proof to show the proper amount of their tax liability, and neither of the expert valuations they provided comports with our fundamental finding that Knight owned [newtech]…”  This did lead to the Tax Court not reviewing the valuations.

This was a good catch by the litigating attorneys, and goes to show that you need to pay close attention to every aspect of a holding, because even though a Court may correctly state the rules, it still can drift from those rules in coming to its holding.  At least one other commentator, Dominick Schirripa at Bloomberg BNA, believes this could be a substantial holding for taxpayers.  He indicates it is fairly common  for the Court to require the taxpayer to show the correct liability in order to prove the Service’s assessment is incorrect.  Mr. Schirripa may be correct, but I think my expectation from the case is a little more tempered (which Mr. Schirripa also notes in his post).   It would seem for many income tax cases, and gift and estate, showing the correct tax is really the only way to show that the Service assessment was incorrect.  In this case, where a valuation is at question, there are various ways to attack the Service’s valuations without presenting evidence of the correct tax due.  Since it may be limited circumstances where this is the case, this holding may not broadly impact how cases are handled before the Tax Court, but it is worth keeping in mind when reviewing a potential case.

 

 

 

Procedure Grab Bag: CCAs – Suspended/Extended SOLs and Fraud Penalty

My last post was devoted to a CCA, which inspired me to pull a handful of other CCAs to highlight from the last few months.  The first CCA discusses the suspension of the SOL when a petition is filed with the Tax Court before a deficiency notice is issued (apparently, the IRM is wrong on this point in at least one spot).  The second touches on whether failing to disclose prior years gifts on a current gift tax return extends the statute of limitations for assessment on a gift tax return that was timely filed (this is pretty interesting because you cannot calculate the tax due without that information).  And, finally, a CCA on the imposition of the fraud penalty in various filing situations involving amended returns.

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CCA 201644020 – Suspension of SOL with Tax Court petition when no deficiency notice

We routinely call the statutory notice of deficiency the ticket to the Tax Court.  In general, when a taxpayer punches that ticket and heads for black robe review, the statute of limitations on assessment and collections is tolled during the pendency of the Tax Court case.  See Section 6503(a).  What happens when the petition is filed too soon, and the Court lacks jurisdiction?  Well, the IRM states that the SOL is not suspended.  IRM 8.20.7.21.2(4) states, “If the petition filed by the taxpayer is dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the Service did not issue a SND, the ASED is not suspended and the case must be returned to the originating function…”  But, Chief Counsel disagrees. Section 6503(a) states:

The running of the period of limitations provided in section 6501 or 6502…shall (after the mailing of a notice under section 6212(a)) be suspended for the period during which the Secretary is prohibited from making the assessment or from collecting by the levy or a proceeding in court (and in any event, if a proceeding in respect of the deficiency is placed on the docket of the Tax Court, until the decision of the Tax Court becomes final), and for 60 days thereafter. (emph. added).

Chief Counsel believes the second parenthetical above extends the limitations period even when the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction because no notice of deficiency was issued.   The CCA further states, “Any indication in the IRM that the suspension does not apply if the Service did not mail a SND is incorrect.”  Time for an amendment to the IRM.  I think this is the correct result, but the Service likely had some reason for its position in the IRM, and might be worth reviewing if you are in a situation with the SOL might have run.

CCA 201643020

The issue in CCA 201643020 was whether the three year assessment period was extended due to improper disclosure…of prior gifts properly reported on prior returns.  In general, taxpayers making gifts must file a federal gift tax return, Form 709, by April 15th the year following the gift.  The Service, under Section 6501(a) has three years to assess tax after a proper return is filed.  If no return is filed, or there is not proper notification, the service may assess at any time under Section 6501(c)(9).

In the CCA, the Service sought guidance on whether a the statute of limitations was extended where in Year 31 a gift was made and reported on a timely filed gift tax return.  In previous years 1, years 6 through 9, and 15 prior gifts were reported on returns.  On the year 31 return, however, those prior gifts were not reported.  That information was necessary to calculate the correct amount of tax due.

Section 6501(c)(9) specifically states:

If any gift of property the value of which … is required to be shown on a return of tax imposed by chapter 12 (without regard to section 2503(b)), and is not shown on such return, any tax imposed by chapter 12 on such gift may be assessed, or a proceeding in court for the collection of such tax may be begun without assessment, at any time. The preceding sentence shall not apply to any item which is disclosed in such return, or in a statement attached to the return, in a manner adequate to apprise the Secretary of the nature of such item.

Chief Counsel concluded that this requires a two step analysis.  Step one is if the gift was reported on the return.  If not, step two requires a determination if the item was adequately disclosed.  Counsel indicated it is arguable that the regulations were silent on the omission of prior gifts, but that the statutory language was clear.  Here, the gift was disclosed on the return, and the statutory requirements were met.  The period was not extended.  I was surprised there was not some type of Beard discussion regarding providing sufficient information to properly calculate the tax due.

CCA 201640016

Earlier this year, the Service also released CCA 201640016, which is Chief Counsel Advice covering the treatment of fraud penalties in various circumstances surrounding taxpayers filing returns and amended returns with invalid original issue discount claims.  The conclusions are not surprising, but it is a good summary of how the fraud penalties can apply.

The taxpayer participated in an “Original Issue Discount (OID) scheme” for multiple tax years.  The position take for the tax years was frivolous.  For tax year 1, the Service processed the return and issued a refund.  For tax year 2, the Service did not process the return or issue a refund. For tax year 3, the return was processed but the refund frozen.  The taxpayer would not cooperate with the Service’s criminal investigation, and was indicted and found guilty of various criminal charges.  Spouse of taxpayer at some point filed amended returns seeking even greater refunds based on the OID scheme, but those were also frozen (the dates are not included, but the story in my mind is that spouse brazenly did this after the conviction).

The issues in the CCA were:

  1. Are the original returns valid returns?
  2. If valid, is the underpayment subject to the Section 6663 fraud penalty?
  3. Did the amended returns result in underpayments such that the penalty could apply, even though the Service did not pay the refunds claimed?

The conclusions were:

  1. It is likely a court would consider the returns valid, even with the frivolous position, but, as an alternative position, any notice issued by the Service should also treat the returns as invalid and determine the fraudulent failure to file penalty under Section 6651(f).
  2. To the extent the return is valid, the return for which a refund was issued will give rise to an underpayment potentially subject to the fraud penalty under Section 6663. The non-processed returns or the ones with frozen refunds will not give rise to underpayments and Section 6663 iis inapplicable.  CC recommended the assertion of the Section 6676 penalty for erroneous claims for refund or credit.
  3. The amended returns did not result in underpayments, so the Section 6663 fraud penalty is inapplicable, but, again, the Service could impose the Section 6676 penalty.

So, the takeaway, if a taxpayer fails to file a valid return, or there is no “underpayment” on a fraudulent return, the Service cannot use Section 6663.  See Mohamed v. Comm’r, TC Memo. 2013-255 (where no valid return filed, no fraud penalty can be imposed).  In the CCA, Counsel believed the return was valid, but acknowledged potential issues with that position.  Under the Beard test, a return is valid if:

 four requirements are met: (1) it must contain sufficient data to calculate tax liability; (2) it must purport to be a return; (3) it must be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law; and (4) it must be executed by the taxpayer under penalties of perjury. See Beard v. Comm’r,  82 T.C. 766 (1984). A return that is incorrect, or even fraudulent, may still be a valid return if “on its face [it] plausibly purports to be in compliance.” Badaracco v. Comm’r, 464 U.S. 386 (1984).

The only prong the CCA said was at issue was the third prong, that the return “must be an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law.”  As the taxpayer had been convicted of Filing False Claims with a Government Agency/Filing A False Income Tax Return, Aiding and Abetting, and Willful Attempt to Evade or Defeat the Payment of Tax, it is understandable why you would question if the returns were “an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law.”  Further, the Service had imposed the frivolous filing penalty under Section 6702, which only applies when the return information “on its face indicates that the self-assessment is substantially incorrect.”

The CCA notes, however, it is rare for courts to hold returns as invalid solely based on the third prong of Beard, but clearly there would be a valid argument for the taxpayers in this situation.  The CCA acknowledges that by stating “[t]o guard against the possibility that the returns are not valid, the Service should include the Section 6651(f) fraudulent failure to file penalty as an alternative position,” so the taxpayer could pick his poison.

As to the underpayment, Counsel highlighted that overstatements of withholding credits can give rise to an underpayment under the fraud penalty.  The definition was shown as a formula of Underpayment = W-(X+Y-Z).  W is the amount of tax due, X is the amount shown as due on the return, Y is amounts not shown but previously assessed, and Z is the amount of rebates made.  Where the refund was provided, the penalty could clearly apply.  In “frozen refund” situations, the Service has adopted the practice of treating that amount as a sum collected without assessment, which can cancel out the X and Y variables so no underpayment for the fraud penalty will exist.

But, as shown above, even if the fraud penalty may not apply, the Section 6651 penalty will likely apply if the return is invalid, or the frivolous position penalty under Section 6702 may apply.

Effect of General Power of Attorney On Reasonable Cause Exception to Penalties

Chief Counsel Advice memorandums are great sources of statements on IRS policy and the thought process of the Service on various issues.  They often are not long, which can make them difficult to turn into standalone blog posts.  I found one from September fairly interesting though, which discusses penalty abatement for the delinquency penalties when someone is incapacitated.  The CCA touches on two issues, the first time abatement provisions and the impact of a power of attorney on the reasonable cause exception to the delinquency penalties. The power of attorney aspect is fairly interesting, especially in considering the related issue regarding refund limitations periods being tolled by financial disability.

In CCA 201637012, the Service requested guidance on whether a potentially incapacitated person who suffered from dementia could have delinquency penalties abated for reasonable cause.  I found the CCA interesting because it highlighted the fact that the taxpayer had a valid power of attorney in place, and sought guidance on how that impacted the reasonable cause determination.

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The facts indicating that the taxpayer appointed an agent under a durable power of attorney (one that remains operative after someone is incapacitated) prior to becoming incapacitated.  Under the POA, the agent was authorized to file tax returns and handle other tax aspects for the taxpayer.  The agent knew of the POA.  In a later year,  the taxpayer filed untimely returns, and the Service assessed delinquency penalties under Section 6651(a)(1) (failure to file) and Section 6651(a)(2) (failure to pay).

At some point after the filing of the return, the agent under the POA petitioned the state court for an emergency guardian and conservator for the taxpayer.  Usually, when there is a POA in place, we try not to seek guardianship because an agent should have most of the same powers, so I’m curious as to why this was requested.  It is possible the taxpayer was fighting the agent, or power outside of the POA was needed.   The court did appoint the agent as guardian and used the term “incapacitated” in the order.  This was after the late filing, but the CCA seems to indicate it was close enough in proximity to evidence that the taxpayer was incapacitated when the return was not filed.

The two questions presented to Chief Counsel were:

  1. Whether the Service should abate the penalties because of the alleged incapacity.
  2. Whether the Service should deny the request to abate because the POA failed to fulfill the taxpayer’s obligation to timely file and pay tax on behalf of the taxpayer.

Chief Counsel first noted that Appeals should determine if the taxpayer qualifies for First Time Abatement under IRM 20.1.1.3.6.1.  We have discussed FTA on this blog in the past, which can be found here and here.  All tax practitioners should be very familiar with these provisions, as they provide a simple mechanism for eliminating penalties in many cases.  I have used these procedures in various cases, including some very large dollar cases, and have had no issue obtaining waivers when we fit within the framework.

The remainder of the CCA was the portion that I found more interesting.  The CCA went on to discuss reasonable cause for a person suffering from dementia.  As stated above, the taxpayer had a valid power of attorney in place the year in which she failed to file the tax return.  It is alleged that the taxpayer was incapacitated.  Chief Counsel did indicate that it lacked sufficient facts to determine the taxpayer was incapacitated at the time of filing, but seemed to indicate it was possible, and, for purposes of the analysis, assumed that was the case.

The taxpayer requested abatement of the penalties pursuant to Treas. Reg. Section 301.6651-1(c)(1), which provides for abatement due to reasonable cause.  Serious illness of the taxpayer or a family member can be sufficient to show reasonable cause (but not when your preparer is ill).  See IRM 1.2.12.1.2, Policy Statement 3-2.  The CCA indicated that if it could be shown that the taxpayer was demented during the year in question, and was unable to handle her own financial affairs, it could support a finding of reasonable cause.

What I found slightly more interesting was the discussion about the power of attorney.  In the CCA, Counsel states that the POA does not impact the conclusion.  Counsel essentially stated that if the guardian had been appointed during the year in question, reasonable cause would likely not apply.  This was because the guardian would have a duty to handle the finances, and therefore returns, of the ward.  See Bassett v. Comm’r, 67 F3d 29 (2d Cir. 1995) (taxpayer suffered from incapacity due to being a minor, and legal guardian had duty to file returns).  With a POA, however, there may be authorization to take actions regarding returns, but there is no affirmative legal duty to prepare and file returns on behalf of the taxpayer.  Looking to Boyle, Counsel said the duty to file the tax return is on the taxpayer, and not his agent or employee.

I think this is the correct result, but I found it interesting for two reasons.  First, that statement from Boyle is usually used to preclude reasonable cause defenses when a taxpayer fails to file due to the mistake belief that the taxpayer’s accountant, attorney, or other preparer is properly handling the return.  So, for once, I wasn’t muttering frustration about that case.

Second, this position is different than that applicable to seeking a refund due to financial disability.  In general, a refund must be timely made, and that time frame is normally three years from the date the return is filed or two years from the date the tax was paid, whichever expires later.  This statute can be tolled if the taxpayer is “financially disabled.”   Under Section 6511(h), the statute will not expire if the individual is unable to manage his financial affairs because he has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.  The general IRS requirements for this are found in Rev. Proc. 99-21.  Most focus on this Rev. Proc. is on the required doctor’s certification.  But, the procedure also requires the person signing the claim to certify that no person was authorized to act on behalf of the taxpayer in financial matters during the period of impairment.

The implication is that having a power of attorney in place could preclude the tolling of the statute, because the agent could/should have been acting.  Seeking to recoup improperly paid funds is slightly different that having penalties abated, but the situations are sufficiently similar that it is interesting that the Service has different positions.

Happy (Belated) Thanksgiving!

The Taxatturky was spared again, and can continue providing quality tax advice for another year.IMG_0873

Procedure Grab Bag – Making A Grab for Attorney’s Fees and Civil Damages

Your clients love the idea, and always think the government should pay, but it isn’t that easy.  Below are a summary of a handful of cases highlighting many pitfalls, and a few helpful pointers, in recovering legal fees and civil damages from the government (sorry federal readers) that have come out over the last few months.

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3rd Party Rights

The Ninth Circuit, in US v. Optional Capital, Inc., held that a third party holding a lien on property could not obtain attorney’s fees for an in rem proceeding to determine its rights in real estate that had also been subject to government liens pursuant to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, 28 USC 2465(b)(1)(A), or Section 7430.  The Court determined the 3rd party was not the prevailing party “in any civil proceeding to forfeit property,” as required by CAFRA.  The government had lost in a related hearing regarding the lien, but the 3rd party had “not pointed to any work it performed that was ‘useful’ or ‘necessary to secure’ victory against the Government,” so it was not the prevailing party.  It would seem, however, this leaves open the possibility of other 3rd parties prevailing, if meaningful work was done in the underlying case.  This case is a good reminder of another potential option under CAFRA in attempting to claim fees in certain collection matters.

As to Section 7430, the Court found, contrary to the 3rd party’s claims, it had not actually removed the government’s liens from the property, and therefore could not be considered the prevailing party, which is required under Section 7430 to obtain fees.

When You Are Rich Is Important

In Bryan S. Alterman Trust v. Comm’r, the Tax Court held that a trust could not qualify to recover litigation costs under Section 7430 because its net worth was over $2MM.  Section 7430 references 28 USC 2412(d)(2)(B), which states an individual must have under $2MM in net worth in order to recover litigation costs.  That is extended to trusts by Section 7430(c)(4)(D).  The taxpayer argued the eligibility requirement should be as of the time the deficiency notice was issued or the date the petition was filed.  That “reading” of the statute was found incorrect, as Section 7430(c)(4)(D)(i)(II) states the provision applies to a trust, “but shall be determined as of the last day of the taxable year involved in the proceeding.”  At that time, the trust had over $2MM in net worth, saving the IRS from potentially having to shell out capital.  And, that’s why I always keep my trust balances below $2MM…and right around zero dollars.

Key Questions: Are you the Taxpayer?  Did you Exhaust the Administrative Remedies?

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed the government’s motion for summary judgment in Garlovsky v. United States on fees under Section 7433, but also gave clear indication that the claim is in danger.  In Garlovsky, the government sought collection on trust fund recovery penalties against an individual for his nursing home employer that allegedly failed to pay employment taxes.  Prior to that collection action, the individual died, and notices were sent to his surviving spouse (who apparently was some type of fiduciary and received his assets).  The taxpayer’s wife paid a portion, and then sued for a refund.  As to damages, the Court found that the taxpayer’s wife failed to make an administrative claim for civil damages before suing in the District Court, which is required under Section 7433.

In addition, although the surviving spouse received the collection notices, none were addressed to her and the Service had not attempted to collect from her.  Section 7433 states, “in connection with any collection of…tax…the [IRS] recklessly or intentionally, or by reason of negligence, disregards any provisions of this title…such taxpayer may bring a civil action…”  The Court found that the spouse was not “such taxpayer”, and likely did not have a claim.  Although I have not researched this matter, I would assume the estate of the decedent could bring this claim (unlike Section 7431, pertaining to claims for wrongful disclosure of tax information, which some courts have held dies with the taxpayer – see Garrity v. United States –a case I think I wrote up, but never actually posted).

Qualifying as a Qualified Offer

The 9th Circuit held that married taxpayers were not entitled to recover attorney’s fees under Section 7430 in Simpson v. Comm’r, where the taxpayer did not substantially prevail on its primary argument, even though they did prevail on an alternative argument.  In Simpson, the wife received a substantial recovery in an employment lawsuit.  The Simpsons only included a small portion as income, arguing it was workers comp proceeds (not much evidence of that).  The Tax Court held 90% was income.  This was upheld.  The 9th Circuit held that the taxpayer was clearly not successful on its primary claim.  They did raise an ancillary claim during litigation, which the IRS initially contested, but then conceded.  The Court held the Service was substantially justified in its position, as the matter was raised later in the process and was agreed to within a reasonable time.  Finally, the Court held that the taxpayer’s settlement offer did not qualify as a “qualified offer”, since the taxpayers indicated they could withdraw it at any time.  Qualified offers must remain open until the earliest of the date it is rejected, the date trial begins, or the 90th day after it is made.  Something to keep in mind when making an offer.

Making the Granite State Stronger – No Fees For FOIA

Granite seems pretty sturdy, but Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire are hoping for something even sturdier.  The District Court for the District of New Hampshire in Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire v. IRS has denied Strong New Hampshire’s request for attorney’s fees under 5 USC 552(a)(4)(E)(i) for fees incurred in bringing its FOIA case.  That USC section authorizes fees and litigation costs “reasonably incurred in any case under [FOIA] in which the complainant has substantially prevailed.”  The statute defines “substantially prevailing” as obtaining relief through “(I) a judicial order, or an enforceable written agreement or consent decree; or (II) a voluntary…change in position by the agency…”

Strong New Hampshire requested documents through a FOIA request regarding various New Hampshire politicians.  It took the IRS a long time to get back to Strong New Hampshire, and it withheld about half the applicable documents as exempt under FOIA.  Strong New Hampshire continued to move forward with the suit, and the Service moved for summary judgement arguing it complied.  Aspects remained outstanding, but the Court held that the Service had not improperly withheld the various documents.  The IRS did a second search, moved for summary judgement, and Strong New Hampshire did not contest.

The Court held that the voluntary subsequent search by the Service did not raise to the level of substantially prevailing by Strong New Hampshire.  As required by the statute, there was not a court order in favor of Strong New Hampshire, and the actions taken by the Service unilaterally in doing the second search was not sufficient to merit fees.