Second Circuit Tosses Penalties Because of IRS Failure To Obtain Supervisor Approval

–Or, Tax Court Burnt by Second Circuit’s Hot Chai

Yesterday the Second Circuit decided a very important decision in favor of the taxpayer pertaining to the Section 6571 requirement that a direct supervisor approve a penalty before it is assessed.  In Chai v. Commissioner, the Second Circuit reversed the Tax Court, holding the Service’s failure to show penalties were approved by the immediate supervisor prior to issuing a notice of deficiency caused the penalty to fail.  In doing so, the Second Circuit explicitly rejected the recent Tax Court holdings on this matter, including Graev v. Commissioner, determining the matter was ripe for decision and that the Service’s failure prevented the imposition of the penalty.  Chai also has interesting issues involving TEFRA and penalty imposition that will not be covered (at least not today), and is important for the Second Circuit’s rejection of the IRS position that the taxpayer was required to raise the Section 6571 issue.   It is lengthy, but worth a read for practitioners focusing on tax controversy work.

PT regulars know that we have covered this topic on the blog in the past, including the recent taxpayer loss in the very divided Tax Court decision in Graev v. Commissioner.  Keith’s post on Graev from December can be found here.  For readers interested in a full review of that case and the history of this matter, Keith’s blog is a great starting point, and has links to prior posts written by him, Carlton Smith, and Frank Agostino (whose firm handled Graev and also the Chai case). Graev was actually only recently entered, and is appealable to the Second Circuit, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the taxpayer in that case files a motion to vacate based on the Second Circuit’s rejection of the Tax Court’s approach in Greav.

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Before discussing the  Second Circuit holding, I will crib some content from Keith, to indicate the status of the law before yesterday.  Here is Keith’s summary of the holding in Graev:

The Court split pretty sharply in its opinion with nine judges in the majority deciding that the IRC 6751(b) argument premature since the IRS had not yet assessed the liability, three judges concurring because the failure to obtain managerial approval did not prejudice the taxpayers and five judges dissenting because the failure to obtain managerial approval prior to the issuance of the notice of deficiency prevented the IRS from asserting this penalty (or the Court from determining that the taxpayer owed the penalty.)

That paragraph from Keith’s post regarding the holding doesn’t cover the lengthy and nuanced discussion, but his full post does for those who are interested.  The Second Circuit essentially rejected every position taken by the majority and concurrence in Graev, and almost completely agreed with the dissenting Tax Court judges (with a  few minor differences in rationale).

For its Section 6751(b) review, the Second Circuit began by reviewing the language of the statute.  It highlighted the fact that the Tax Court did the same, and found the language of the statute unambiguous, a conclusion with which the Second Circuit disagreed.

Section 6751(b)(1) states, in pertinent part:

No penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination…[emph. added]

The Tax Court found the lack of specification as to when the approval of the immediate supervisor was required allowed the immediate supervisor to approve the determination at any point, even after the statutory notice of deficiency was issued or the Tax Court reviewed the matter.

The Second Circuit, however, found the language ambiguous, and the lack of specification as to when the approval was required problematic.  The Second Circuit stated “[u]understanding § 6751 and appreciating its ambiguity requires proficiency with the deficiency process,” and then went through a primer on the issue.  To paraphrase the Second Circuit, the assessment occurs when the liability is recorded by the Secretary, which is “essentially a bookkeeping notation.”  It is the last step before the IRS can collect a deficiency.  The Second Circuit stated the deficiency is announced to the taxpayer in a SNOD, along with its intention to assess.  The taxpayer then has 90 days to petition the Tax Court for review.  If there is a petition to the Court, it then becomes the Court’s job to determine the amount outstanding.  As it is the Court’s job to determine the amount of the assessment, the immediate supervisor no longer has the ability to approve or not approve the penalty.  The Second Circuit agreed with the Graev dissent that “[i]n light of the historical meaning of ‘assessment,’” the phrase “initial determination of such assessment” did not make sense.  A deficiency can be determined, as can the decision to make an assessment, but you cannot determine an assessment.

The Second Circuit then looked to the legislative history, and found the requirement was meant to force the supervisor to approve the penalty before it was issued to the taxpayer, not simply before the bookkeeping function was finalized.  The Court further stated, as I noted above, if the supervisor is to give approval, it must be done at a time when the supervisor actually has authority.  As the Court noted, [t]hat discretion is lost once the Tax Court decision becomes final: at that point, § 6215(a) provides that ‘the entire amount redetermined as the deficiency…shall be assessed.”  The supervisor (and the IRS generally) can no longer approve or deny the imposition of the penalty.  The Court further noted, the authority to approve really vanishes upon a taxpayer filing with the Tax Court, as the statute provides approval of “the initial determination of such assessment,” and once the Court is involved it would no longer be the initial determination.  Continuing this line of thought, the Second Circuit stated that the taxpayer can file with the Tax Court immediately after the issuance of the notice of deficiency, so it is really the issuance of the notice of deficiency that is the last time where an initial determination could be approved.

This aspect of the holding is important for two reasons.  First, the Second Circuit is requiring the approval at the time of the NOD, and not allowing it to be done at some later point.  Second, this takes care of the ripeness issue.  If the time is set for approval, and it has passed, then the Court must consider the issue.

Of potentially equal importance in the holding is the fact that the Second Circuit stated unequivocally that the Service had the burden of production on this matter under Section 7491(c) and was responsible for showing the approval. It is fairly clear law that the Service has the burden of production and proof on penalties once a taxpayer challenges the penalties, with taxpayers bearing the burden on affirmative defenses.   The case law on whether the burden of production exists when a taxpayer doesn’t directly contest the penalties is a little more murky (thanks to Carlton Smith for my education on this matter).  The Second Circuit made clear its holding that the burden of production was solely on the Service, and the taxpayer had no obligation to raise the matter nor the burden of proof to show the approval was not given.  The Service had argued the taxpayer waived this issue by not bringing it up earlier in the proceeding, which the Second Circuit found non-persuasive.

As to the substance of the matter, the Second Circuit held the government never once indicated there was any evidence of compliance with Section 6751.  Since the Commissioner failed to meet is burden of production and proof, the penalty could not be assessed and the taxpayer was not responsible for paying it.  A very good holding for taxpayers, and we would expect a handful of other case to come through soon.  Given the division within the Tax Court, and the various rationales, it would not be surprising to see other Circuits hold differently.

Proving a Negative – The Use of IRC 6201(d)

It has only been a short period of time since I wrote about IRC 6201(d) in a post about cash for keys but I return to it as we enter the filing season for a couple of reasons.  First, I have observed the importance of 6201(d) on a high percentage of the pro se cases heading to litigation in the Tax Court and second, a relatively easy fix at a lower level seems possible.

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On the Tuesday after Christmas I drove one of my sons back to DC from Richmond.  He works only a few blocks from the Tax Court.  After dropping him off, I spent the day in the Tax Court clerk’s office looking up the cases on two Tax Court calendars scheduled for Boston this spring so that I could identify cases I thought would benefit from the services of a clinic and personally reach out to those individuals.  Both the Tax Court and the Boston Chief Counsel’s office send notices to pro se taxpayers informing them of the existence of the potential for free legal services for pro se petitioners seeking to have their case heard in Boston; however, I find that the number of petitioners who respond to these notices is quite low.  I wanted to obtain data about their cases that would allow me to send them a personal letter from the clinic that addressed their specific tax problem to ascertain if that approach would increase the number of individuals who sought the services of our clinic.  Because the information about a Tax Court case is public, including the petition and the notice of deficiency which provide the taxpayer’s address, phone number and the issues in the case, obtaining the data in order to pursue the study proved no problem as long as I was willing to travel to DC to the Tax Court clerk’s office and look at the information there.

I provide this background because spending the day looking at all of the cases on a Tax Court calendar allows you to see how the IRS spends its resources.  Tax Court cases directly correlate to audit activity.  Some years ago when I fought a losing battle with the examination division in Richmond over the need to provide better descriptions in notices of deficiency, the data showed that only 3% of notices resulted in a Tax Court petition.  I doubt the percentage has changed much over the years.  That low percentage fostered the belief of the examination manager that spending extra time to provide a better description of the issue did not make sense.  Time has proven him correct and cases like QinetiQ support the decision of the IRS not to devote excessive energy to making the notice something which carefully details the issues; however, I began my time representing the IRS when review staffs reviewed every notice of deficiency and insured that they met certain standards.  Losing the high standards of hand-crafted notices provides an example of the same type of progress that exists in many other fields of endeavor where mass production overtook the more expensive means of producing a product.  Still, the loss of the hand-crafted notice still hurts if you had grown accustomed to a better product.

In my review of pro se cases on both a small and regular calendar, I expected a relatively heavy dose of earned income tax credit (EITC) cases since the IRS audit numbers for that type of case has held steady at relatively high numbers for many years.  To my surprise, I found far fewer EITC cases than anticipated.  Instead, I found far more cases involving taxpayers petitioning because they did not agree that the Form 1099 issued to them correctly reported their income.  Finding Form 1099 cases did not surprise me but the percentage did.  The percentage suggested to me that cases coming out of the automated underreporter unit (AUR) of the IRS where the IRS computer matches the data on the return with the date coming in from third parties has become perhaps the most common type of “examination” that the IRS performs and results in the most common type of Tax Court case for pro se individuals.

The current IRS strategy when the information on a return does not match the third party reporting information on a Form 1099 is to have the AUR unit send the taxpayer a letter informing the taxpayer of the mismatch and instructing the taxpayer to sign the consent form agreeing to an additional assessment based on the third party data or to provide the IRS with proof of the incorrectness of the data.  For the majority of taxpayers receiving this notice, the third party data probably correctly states the tax character of a source of income that the taxpayer either left off the return or reported in a manner that masked the income from the view of the computer.  In these cases, resolving the discrepancy proves relatively simple.

For a smaller percentage but still a high raw number, the taxpayer truly disagrees with the information on the Form 1099.  The disagreement could take several forms.  In the Bobo case blogged recently, the disagreement centered on the characterization of the income and not the amount.  Sometimes, the disagreement focuses on the amount reported and sometimes on the very existence of the transaction as it relates to the taxpayer.  In the clinic we regularly have clients who dispute correctness of the existence of the Form 1099 usually because the client became the victim of identity theft.  For these individuals, the position in the IRS letter essentially requests that they prove a negative.  We also have clients in the clinic who deny the correctness of a Form 1099 only to have an “ah ha” moment when additional data supports its correctness.  I do not mean to suggest that taxpayers always know the correct answer regarding Form 1099 or that the IRS should stop questioning them; however, a better way of resolving these cases may exist.  The current system seems to push too many down the road where higher resolution costs exist.

In response to the recent post, frequent commenter Bob Kamman suggested the following:

A successful strategy at the return-filing stage would involve IRS providing a disclosure form for taxpayers to dispute a 1099. IRS would then be required to include with Notices CP-2000 an admission that the dispute had been reviewed and either is rejected, or requires further information. This, of course, requires more resources at the first contact level, where it is so much easier to kick the problem up to a higher pay grade.

This suggestion provides a good option for resolving the issue at the lowest level and for providing the person preparing the return with an easy way to flag the problem with the Form 1099.  It would keep return preparers from forcing the data onto the return in an effort to save the taxpayer the grief of AUR correspondence and clearly alert the IRS to the problem with the Form 1099.  Taxpayers often have little or no leverage over the issuer of the Form 1099 and cannot get the person issuing the form to fix it or, in some cases, to even provide an explanation of the basis for issuing it.  Of course, in those instances in which a third party victimizes both the taxpayer and the issuer through identity theft, neither the taxpayer nor the issuer may have the facts necessary to understand what has happened.  The IRS has a better chance of getting information from the issuer of a Form 1099 than the taxpayer and could write regulations requiring the issuer to provide the backup data to the IRS upon request.

Assuming that the IRS does not leap to accept Bob’s suggestion and adopt a process that would seek to resolve the disputed Forms 1099 at the earliest stage, what should you do when trying to prove the negative?  This is where IRC 6201(d) comes into play and where a qualified offer can provide a benefit.  Section 6201(d) provides:

(d)Required reasonable verification of information returns

In any court proceeding, if a taxpayer asserts a reasonable dispute with respect to any item of income reported on an information return filed with the Secretary under subpart B or C of part III of subchapter A of chapter 61 by a third party and the taxpayer has fully cooperated with the Secretary (including providing, within a reasonable period of time, access to and inspection of all witnesses, information, and documents within the control of the taxpayer as reasonably requested by the Secretary), the Secretary shall have the burden of producing reasonable and probative information concerning such deficiency in addition to such information return.

One of the problems with 6201(d) concerns its focus on court proceedings, but knowing that the burden of production will shift at the court level should provide the IRS with adequate incentive to appropriate the burden of production into its administrative process.  When contesting the Form 1099 which the taxpayer states is wrong, the taxpayer must bring this to the attention of the IRS during the audit phase of the case.  If the taxpayer knows nothing about the Form 1099, as will frequently occur in an identity theft context, the taxpayer will have nothing to give to the IRS about the circumstance except the statement that they know nothing.  That statement should spur the IRS to seek data from the issuer.

If the case passes the stage of the 30-day letter and if the taxpayer expresses confidence in the incorrectness of the Form 1099, the case becomes a good one for the issuance of a qualified offer.  The qualified offer will give the IRS a relatively short period of time to gather data from the third party and make a decision whether to continue forward with the matter in a situation in which it will face potential attorney’s fees if it cannot meet its burden of production.  The failure to resolve Form 1099 disputes at the initial stages of return processing can put an expensive burden on taxpayers who become caught up in the controversy system.  If the IRS does not decide to create a verification system to help avoid legitimate contests regarding the correctness of Form 1099, taxpayers should utilize IRC 6201(d) to set the case up for a shift in the burden of production at the court stage and utilize the qualified offer process to provide incentives for the IRS to get the data from the third party as quickly as possible.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Summary Opinions through 12/18/15

Sorry for the technical difficulties over the last few days.   We are glad to be back up and running, and hopefully won’t have any other hosting issues in the near future.

December had a lot of really interesting tax procedure items, many of which we covered during the month, including the PATH bill.  Below is the first part of a two part Summary Opinions for December.  Included below are a recent case dealing with Section 6751(b)(1) written approval of penalties, a PLR dealing with increasing carryforward credits from closed years , an update on estate tax closing letters, reasonable cause with foundation taxes, an update on the required record doctrine, and various other interesting tax items.

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  • In December, PLR 201548006 was issued regarding whether an understated business credit for a closed year could be carried forward with the correct increased amounts for an open year.  The taxpayer was a partner in a partnership and shareholder in an s-corp.  The conclusion was that the corrected credit could be carried forward based on Mennuto v. Comm’r, 56 TC 910, which had allowed the Service to recalculate credits for a closed year to ascertain the correct tax in the open year.
  • IRS has issued web guidance regarding closing letters for estate tax returns, which can be found here.  This follows the IRS indicating that closing letters will only be issued upon taxpayer request (and then every taxpayer requesting a closing letter).  My understanding from other practitioners is that the transcript request in this situation has not worked well.  And, some states will not accept this as proof the Service is done with its audit.  Many also feel it is not sufficient to direct an executor to make distributions.  Seems as those most are planning on just requesting the letters.
  • Models and moms behaving badly (allegedly).  Bar Refaeli and her mother have been arrested for tax fraud in Israel.  The Israeli taxing authority claims that Bar told her accountant that she resided outside of Israel, while she was living in homes within the country under the names of relatives.  Not model behavior.
  • The best JT (sorry Mr. Timberlake and Jason T.), Jack Townsend, has a post on his Federal Tax Procedure Blog on the recent Brinkley v. Comm’r case out of the Fifth Circuit, which discusses the shift of the burden of proof under Section 7491.
  • PMTA 2015-019 was released providing the government’s position on two identity theft situations relating to validity of returns, and then sharing the return information to the victims.  The issues were:

1. Whether the Service can treat a filed Business Masterfile return as a nullity when the return is filed using a stolen EIN without the knowledge of the EIN’s owner.

2. Whether the Service can treat a filed BMF return as a nullity when the EIN used on the return was obtained by identifying the party with a stolen name and SSN…

4. Whether the Service may disclose information about a potentially fraudulent business or filing to the business that purportedly made the filing or to the individual who signed the return or is identified as the “responsible party” when the Service suspects the “responsible party” or business has no knowledge of the filing.

And the conclusions were:

1. The Service may treat a filed BMF return as a nullity when a return is filed using a stolen EIN without the permission or knowledge of the EIN’s owner because the return is not a valid return.

2. The Service may treat a filed BMF return as a nullity when the EJN used on the return was obtained by using a stolen name for Social Security Number for the business’s responsible person. The return is not a valid return.

  • Back in 2014, SCOTUS decided Clark v. Rameker, which held that inherited IRAs were not retirement accounts under the bankruptcy code, and therefore not exempt from creditors.  In Clark, the petitioners made the claim for exemption under Section 522(b)(3)(C) of the Bankruptcy Code for the inherited retirement account, and not the state statute (WI, where petitioner resided, allowed the debtor to select either the federal exemptions or the state exemptions).  End of story for those using federal exemptions, but some states allow selection like WI between state or federal exemptions, while others have completely opted out of the federal exemptions, such as Montana.  A recent Montana case somewhat follows Clark, but based on the different Montana statute.  In In Re: Golz, the Bankruptcy Court determined that a chapter 7 debtor’s inherited IRA was not exempt from creditors.  The Montana law states:

individual retirement accounts, as defined in 26 U.S.C. 408(a), to the extent of deductible contributions made before the suit resulting in judgment was filed and the earnings on those contributions, and Roth individual retirement accounts, as defined in 26 U.S.C. 408A, to the extent of qualified contributions made before the suit resulting in judgment was filed and the earnings on those contributions.

The BR Court, relying on a November decision of the MT Supreme Court, held that an inherited IRA did not qualify based on the definition under the referenced Code section of retirement account.  I believe opt-out states cannot restrict exemption of retirement accounts beyond what is found under Section 522, but it might be possible to expand the exemption (speculation on my part).   Here, the MT statute did not broaden the definition to include inherited IRAs.

  • In August, we covered US v. Chabot, where the 3rd Circuit agreed with all other circuits in holding the required records doctrine compels bank records to be provided over Fifth Amendment challenges.  SCOTUS has declined to review the Circuit Court decision.
  • PLR 201547007 is uncool (technical legal term).   The PLR includes a TAM, which concludes reasonable cause holdings for abatement of penalties are not precedent (and perhaps not persuasive) for abating the taxable expenditure tax on private foundations under Section 4945(a)(1).  The foundation in question had assistance from lawyers and accountants in all filing and administrative requirements, and those professionals knew all relevant facts and circumstances.  The foundation apparently failed to enter into a required written agreement with a donee, and may not have “exercised expenditures responsibly” with respect to the donee.  This caused a 5% tax to be imposed, which was paid, and a request for abatement due to reasonable cause was filed.  Arguments pointing to abatement of penalties (such as Section 6651 and 6656) for reasonable cause were made.  The Service did not find this persuasive, and makes a statutory argument against allowing reasonable cause which I did not find compelling.  The TAM indicates that the penalty sections state the penalty is imposed “unless it is shown that such failure is due to reasonable cause and not due to willful neglect.”  That language is also found regarding Section 4945(a)(2), but not (1), the first tier tax on the foundation.  That same language is found, however, under Section 4962(a), which allows for abatement if the event was due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect, and such event was corrected within a reasonable period.  Service felt that Congress did not intend abatement to apply to (a)(1), or intended a different standard to apply, because reasonable cause language was included only in (a)(2).  I would note, however, that Section 4962 applies broadly to all first tier taxes, but does specify certain taxes that it does not apply to.  Congress clearly selected certain taxes for the section not to apply, and very easily could have included (a)(1) had it intended to do so.

I’m probably devoting too much time to this PLR/TAM, but it piqued my interest. The Service also stated that the trust cannot rely on the lack of advice to perform certain acts as advice that such acts are not necessary.  I am not sure how the taxpayer would know he or she was not receiving advice if it asked the professionals to ensure all distributions were proper and all filings handled.  I can hear the responses (perhaps from Keith) that this is a difficult question, and perhaps the lawyer or accountant should be responsible.  I understand, but have a hard time getting behind the notion that a taxpayer must sue someone over missed paperwork when the system is so convoluted.  Whew, I was blowing so hard, I almost fell off my soapbox.

  • This is more B.S. than the tax shelters Jack T. is always writing about.  TaxGirl has created her list of 100 top tax twitter accounts you must follow, which can be found here. Lots of great accounts that we follow from writers we love, but PT was not listed (hence the B.S.).  It stings twice as much, as we all live within 20 miles of TaxGirl, and we sometimes contribute to Forbes, where she is now a full time writer/editor.  Thankfully, Prof. Andy Gerwal appears to be starting a twitter war against TaxGirl (or against CPAs because Kelly included so many CPAs and so few tax professors).  We have to throw our considerable backing and resources behind Andy, in what we assume will be a brutal, rude, explicit, scorched earth march to twitter supremacy.  We are excited about our first twitter feud, even if @TaxGirl doesn’t realize we are in one.
  • This doesn’t directly relate to tax procedure or policy, but it could be viewed as impacting it, and we reserved the right to write about whatever we want.  Here is a blog post on the NYT Upshot blog on how we perceive the economy, how we delude ourselves to reinforce our political allegiances (sort of like confirmation bias), and how money can change that all.

Thumbs Up on No Income Even When IRS Serves up 1099 DIV: Ebert v Commissioner

An earlier version of this  post originally appeared on the Forbes PT site on January 26, 2015.

It is not unusual at this time of year for taxpayers to get an information return reflecting some payments that are long forgotten. With the memory jogged, the taxpayer may place the Form 1099 in a file and use it later when it comes time to file the return.

Sometimes there is a disconnect between a 1099 and what a taxpayer thinks actually happened. We wrote about that earlier this month when we looked at a disabled vet who sued Bank of America after receiving a 1099 for the cancellation of a credit card account he claimed to have never opened. Other problems may arise too. Sometimes, a taxpayer may claim to have never received the 1099. That happened in Ebert v Commissioner, a Tax Court case from earlier this month where the taxpayer admitted in 2009 to having owned over 1100 shares of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp (BNSF) stock. The registered agent of BNSF had a record of issuing 1099 DIV for four quarterly dividend payments to Ebert at his correct address. Mr. Ebert was convinced that in 2009 he had only received one of the $470 quarterly payments, and he claimed to have never received the 1099 DIV showing payment of the other three quarterly dividends. On his 2009 tax return, Ebert filed his return reflecting the receipt of only $470 of the BNSF dividends.

Not surprisingly, the mismatch generated a deficiency notice stating that Ebert owed the tax on the other three quarterly dividend payments. Ebert petitioned the Tax Court. This case involves whether a taxpayer’s testimony alone may overcome documentary evidence that suggested the taxpayer received the dividends.

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Prior to trial, IRS counsel helpfully requested and received from the paying agent a copy of the properly addressed 1099 DIV showing a record of four payments being made to Ebert. Prior to trial, counsel presented the 1099 DIV to Ebert. Ebert attempted to call the paying agent; as is often the case, there was a new paying agent, and to complicate matters Berkshire Hathaway acquired BNSF in 2010 and Ebert did not get any useful information regarding the mystery dividends. The case went to trial, where Ebert testified that he did not receive any of the other three quarterly dividend payments, nor did he receive the Form 1099 DIV.

The Law

Taxpayers generally have the burden of proving an IRS determination is incorrect. Section 7491(a) provides for a shifting of the burden of proof if the taxpayer has cooperated with the IRS and “introduces credible evidence with respect to any factual issue relevant to ascertaining the liability.” Under Section 6201(d), there is also a shift in the burden of production if a taxpayer asserts a reasonable dispute with respect to any third-party item reported on an information return and the taxpayer has cooperated with the IRS. In that situation, the IRS has the burden of producing reasonable and probative information in addition to the information return.

Some brief background on burden of proof: the Wex legal dictionary refers to burden of proof as relating to “the threshold that a party seeking to prove a fact in court must reach in order to have that fact legally established; that has two distinct components, the burden of production and the burden of persuasion. TheWex legal dictionary refers to burden of production as a “party’s obligation to come forward with sufficient evidence to support a particular proposition of fact”; burden of persuasion is the “obligation of a party to introduce evidence that persuades the factfinder, to a requisite degree of belief, that a particular proposition of fact is true.”

In civil tax cases, the burden of persuasion is the “preponderance of evidence” standard. What exactly does preponderance of evidence mean? Well, again practitioners’ views may vary on its practical import, but it generally means (and I borrow from the Wex legal dictionary again) that the evidence in the record is “just enough . . . to make it more likely than not that the fact the claimant seeks to prove is true.”

There has been some vigorous debate in this blog about how useful burden shifting is for taxpayers. The general view among most practitioners is that the shift does not do much in actual disputes; as comments to one of our prior posts reflect, however, that is not shared by all. It would seem, however that it might make a difference in a case like Ebert when a taxpayer has to prove the negative. The IRS in those cases generally is only going to have a copy of the 1099 and a taxpayer will only have his or her own testimony unless IRS does some digging.

In Ebert, however, the Tax Court punted on whether 7491(a) and 6201(d) applied, finding that Ebert’s testimony was credible and enough to carry the day even if the taxpayer’s burden was the normal “preponderance of evidence” standard.

I was somewhat surprised that the Tax Court found in favor of Ebert, especially with no shift in burden; there are countless cases where the Tax Court discounts a taxpayer’s own testimony as self-serving. In addition, the payor and its agent were major corporations and there was no dispute regarding receipt of at least one of the quarterly dividend payments. There was also no reported change of residences in 2009, and the evidence suggested that the 1099 DIV was mailed to the taxpayer’s correct address.

Yet, cases are not tried on paper, and the opportunity to tell it to the judge may make a difference no matter which party has the burden of proof or production. Like Ebert, a credible taxpayer who has made efforts on his own to get information relating to the payment (Ebert credibly testified that he had “unsuccessful attempts” to contact the paying agent prior to trial) may be enough to carry the day, especially if the amount in question is relatively small. As the court explained, Ebert

has devoted a substantial amount of time to contest the relatively small amount of tax liability at issue here, and he testified consistently, clearly, and with considerable conviction in explaining the negative–that he did not receive the disputed dividend payments. He has persuaded us that he did not receive the disputed dividend payments in 2009.

Conclusion

The case demonstrates a few important points. One, a taxpayer who has been a good taxpayer over a long period of time, whose story is consistent – particularly on a small amount of money where contesting the liability may be costing the taxpayer more than the amount at issue – and where the IRS relies on a piece of paper to disprove the taxpayer – can win a fact based determination. Another important point is cooperation. Here, the taxpayer cooperated at the examination level which allowed section 6201(d) to come into play and the taxpayer tried to find the information from the issuing corporation only to be frustrated in the attempt. It can never hurt to have 6201(d) in your corner when you are fighting a battle concerning the correctness of a Form 1099. Courts have a long history (see Portillo v Commissioner) of skepticism of the correctness of these forms and expect the IRS to go to some lengths including a possible source of funds analysis or cash expenditure analysis to support a naked allegation in Form 1099 where the taxpayer disagrees. Finally, opinions do not have an ability to easily express the impression a fact witness makes on them. Where your client makes an excellent fact witness, your case has a significant opportunity for success if the decision turns on the interpretation of the facts. The IRS will almost always have significant trouble finding witnesses to overcome good fact testimony.

Summary Opinions for 11/07/14 & 11/14/14

Trying to get somewhat back on schedule with the SumOp’s, so we are covering two weeks of material in this post.

First, I want to note that Keith has a really interesting post up on Forbes regarding Microsoft filing a FOIA suit yesterday against the IRS to determine the extent to which the IRS is using an independent contract (here the law firm Quinn Emanuel) in its examination.  This is going to be a very hot  topic moving forward.  That post will find its way to PT later today, but probably not until late in the afternoon.

Before getting to the items we missed over the last few weeks, we had a very strong guest post by Christopher Rizek on the Sexton v. Hawkins case, which was very well received two weeks ago. You should check it out if you didn’t read it when we originally posted.  In October, we had a somewhat related post from Michael Desmond on the future role of Circular 230 in tax compliance, which can be found here.  The comments to that post, which are found here, have recently expanded significantly, as various Villanova LLM students were asked to respond as part of their professional responsibility class.  The students provide some quality feedback, astute observations, and ask some good follow up questions.

To the other procedure.

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  • Veolia Environment is still fighting with the IRS over document discovery.  We touched on this last year around this time.  The case again discusses privilege regarding various draft reports by experts, and other lawyer communications.  For one draft valuation, which was then shared with the company’s accountants at PWC, the Court found privilege had not been waived, stating, “PWC is not an adversary nor a conduit to an adversary.”  That seems like a favorable view on what is required to blow privilege.  The case goes through many other specifics as to the types of documents that remained privileged.
  • Jumping to a case from early October that we (I) missed in Comparini v. Comm’r, where the Tax Court determined it had jurisdiction to review an IRS determination to deny the taxpayers’ whistleblower claim.  The letter was not formatted as a determination, and prior letters had been sent to taxpayers; however, letter was the first one to use term “determination”, stated the matter was closed, and did not indicate any further administrative procedures were available.  The Court found that prior letter could have been a determination, but this later letter was also a determination (there is an interesting back and forth in the concurring and majority opinion about the basis for jurisdiction).  The concurring opinion, and Judge Holmes in comments to the CA Bar Association, both noted that the Court is having to spend a lot of time on procedural matters and jurisdictional questions due to the Whistleblower Offices’ habit of issuing various statements that seem to be determinations, and not having set forms for indicating when a determination had been made.  Tax Litigation Survey has coverage here.
  • Another older item that I didn’t catch.  The Service issued an Action on Decision  with regard to the Dixon case from last September, which we wrote about here.  The case had to do with an employer’s ability to designate employment tax payments that were not withheld at the source.  The Service believes the Tax Court was wrong in Dixon in deciding such payments can be designated against a taxpayer’s specific liability.
  • From Jack Townsend’s Federal Tax Crimes Blog, a discussion of the jury instructions in the Weil case as regard the good faith defense.  Not a long post, but interesting summary of this attack on the government’s case, and how the instructions could have influenced the jury.
  • Earlier this year, Google killed off one of its coupon saving sites, Zavers (reminds me of Zima’s “zomething different” slogan—don’t use Z’s where they are not needed—your company will fail), but the remains of the aggressive tax planning of Zavers’ chief technology officer have been resurrected by the Tax Court in Brinkley v. Comm’r.  As a side note, it is nice to be Google, who bought Zavers for close to $100MM in 2011, probably spent a bundle more on it, and are now walking away, as it was not growing fast enough (so says the article linked above).  The underlying matter has to do with Mr. Brinkley’s characterization of his income as capital gains, whereas the Service and Tax Court thought a portion should be ordinary income.  He had apparently been very clear that his ownership should never dip below 3% of the stock, which Zavers agreed to; however, at the time of the Google purchase, he owned around 1%.  In the end, he was paid as though he still held 3%.  The two tax procedure items involved the shifting of the burden, and reliance on a practitioner as reasonable cause.  Neither treads new ground.

On the shifting of the burden, the taxpayer argued that he offered reasonable evidence that an item of income reported on an information return was incorrect, shifting the burden under Section 6201.  The Court, however, was relying on other evidence submitted by the IRS, and not the information return, so the burden did not shift.  Mr. Brinkley also argued that he complied with Section 7491, and produced “credible evidence to support his position as to a factual issue, complie[d] with substantiation requirements, and cooperate[d] with the Secretary with regard to all reasonable requests for information,” but the Court found that Mr. Brinkley failed to offer any credible evidence of his position.

As to the reliance, the Court found that Mr. Brinkley failed to disclose his percentage of the stock to his advisers, how much that was valued at, and  did not provide them with all the documents from the deal.  It is clear law that where the adviser is not informed of all pertinent information, the taxpayer cannot rely on the adviser’s advice or work to get out of a penalty.

  • Susquehanna Bank, which was purchased last week by a North Carolina bank, recently won a lien priority case in the Fourth Circuit.  The Court held the district court incorrectly determined a trust deed, which the bank received prior to the IRS lien, but failed to record, was entitled to priority under Section 6323(h) based on Maryland law relating the recording of the trust deed back to the execution date.  However, the holding was affirmed because the bank was protected by Maryland’s equitable conversion law, which directs that when a taxpayer executes a deed in exchange for a loan prior to a lien filing, the deed took priority.
  • Kurko v. Comm’r is packed with tax procedure.  Lew Taishoff’s blog has some coverage here.   The cases discusses credit elect overpayment jurisdiction before the tax court, tolling for financial disability under Section 6511(h), how those interact, and the Court’s “next friend” rules under Tax Court Rule 60(d).  The Court encouraged Ms. Kurko, who suffered from substantial mental health issues, to have someone file a Motion to Be Recognized as Next Friend.  The Court said such motion should recite that:

o   The person filing would like to be recognized as Ms. Kurko’s next friend and would represent her best interests;

o   That Ms. Kurko cannot prosecute the case without help;

o   The person has a significant relationship with Ms. Kurko; and

o   There is no other person better suited to serve as next friend.

  • The Tax Court had occasion to review the 2006 changes to Section 6664, and the removal of the reasonable cause defense to the gross valuation misstatement penalty in Reisner v. Comm’r.  Prior to 2006, old Section 6664(c)(2) allowed the reasonable cause defense to the penalty when value was provided by a qualified appraiser and the taxpayer made a good faith attempt to determine the value.  That was tossed in the 2006 amendment for gross valuation misstatements (those with only substantial valuation misstatements can still show reasonable cause).  In Reisner, the taxpayer received a charitable deduction for a façade easement.  A portion carried forward to 2005 and 2006.  The Service determined the donation was valueless, and no deductions were allowed.  The gross valuation misstatement penalty was not imposed in 2004 or 2005 because the taxpayer was able to show reasonable cause.  For 2006, the return was filed after the changes to the statute, and the Service imposed the penalty on the carryover charitable deduction.  The Court held the penalty was correctly imposed, stating:

Because their 2006 return was filed after the effective date of 2006 amendments to I.R.C. sec. 6664(c)(3), Ps are precluded under that section from raising a reasonable cause defense to imposition of the gross valuation misstatement penalty for the underpayment on their 2006 return attributable to the carryover of their charitable contribution deduction.

An interesting result, where the action was protected in the initial year, but the statutory change resulted on penalties in future years based on the same transaction.

  • The Ninth Circuit reversed the Tax Court in JT USA, LP v. Comm’r, holding Section 6223(e)(3)(B) was clear and unambiguous and did not allow a partner in a partnership to elect out of the TEFRA proceedings unless the partner elects to have all his or her partnership items treated as non-partnership items.  For the majority, that was all partnership items, regardless if those were owned through other entities.  From the case:

 

26 U.S.C. § 6223(e)(3)(B), entitled “Notice to Partners of Proceedings,” reads in pertinent part, “In any case to which this subsection applies, if paragraph (2) does not apply, the partner shall be a party to the proceedings unless such partner elects – . . . (B) to have the partnership items of the partner for the partnership taxable year to which the proceeding relates treated as nonpartnership items.

In the prior proceeding, the tax Court held that that “§ 6223(e)(3)(B) permits taxpayers to opt out of the partnership proceeding with respect to their indirect interests but to leave in that proceeding their alleged remaining direct partnership interests.”  The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and said that the plain language states it is all or nothing when it comes to opt out.  The opinion was split, and the dissent stated the taxpayer should have the ability to completely elect out with regard to their direct interests in the partnership, but not do so with the indirect interest in the partners (and/or the other way).  I found this surprising, and my initial (somewhat uninformed) thought is that the tax court had this right.

 

Reinhart Part II – Extending the Statute of Limitations on Collection by Virtue of Being Out of Country

In the first post on this case I discussed the CDP and lien issues presented.  Many of those issues seemed unusual or wrong in some way.  The meat of this case, however, lies in the application of the facts to the statutory suspension available where a taxpayer removes themselves from the country for six months.  This statute extension provision presents legal issues and Ms. Reinhart’s counsel challenged the regulation interpreting what it means to remove oneself from the country.  The case also presents factual issues.  In the end the Court decided the case on the facts without resorting to an analysis of the correctness of the regulation.  In this post I will examine the law, the facts, and the burden of proof.

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The burden of proof issue adds a wrinkle to the case because of the procedural setting. The question raised by Reinhart concerns how, if at all, the burden of proof on a statute of limitations issue changes when a statute of limitations issue presents itself in the CDP context.  The IRS argued that the determination letter issued by Appeals in response to Reinhart’s CDP request was subject to an abuse of discretion review.  If correct, that would change the burden of production for the statute of limitations argument.  Reinhart argued that the burden of proof/burden of production issue, like an issue where petitioner contests the underlying tax, would have a de novo review.  The Tax Court agreed with Reinhart.

CCA 2014-002 states that “Counsel attorneys should argue in Tax Court CDP cases that a determination by Appeals about the validity of an assessment, the expiration of the assessment or collection statute of limitation, or other procedural requirements for administrative collection are determinations under sections 6320(c) and 6330(c)(1) reviewable for abuse of discretion.”  The notice acknowledges that some Tax Court opinions have decided that the phrase “existence or amount of the underlying tax liability” in the CDP provisions includes arguments regarding the statute of limitations and cites to five cases.  Then the Notice lists another five cases reaching the opposite conclusion.  Because Appeals must verify the statute of limitations has not yet expired as part of statutory charge, Counsel views the statute of limitations issue as one falling under the abuse of discretion standard.

In Reinhart, the IRS could hardly have chosen a worse case to test the position taken in the notice. The normal statute of limitation had long expired before the IRS decided to reopen this case.  The statute of limitations issue presented here is not only rare but particularly fact driven.  For the Tax Court to decide that the IRS could get past a difficult statute of limitation issue because the case came to it through the CDP door seems a stretch.  In some ways the IRS position here reminds me of the position it battled in bankruptcy court for two decades.  In bankruptcy cases, debtors argued that instead of the normal burden of proof in a tax case where the taxpayer has the burden that if a tax merits argument came up in a bankruptcy case the appropriate burden applicable was not the one used for tax merits litigation but rather the one used for objections to bankruptcy claims.  The Supreme Court rejected that argument in Raleigh v. Illinois Department of Revenue, 530 U.S. 15 (2000), holding that the nature of the issue before the court, rather than the particular forum, dictated the burden of proof.

Just as in Raleigh, the important issue in Reinhart is the nature of the issue before the court.  It should not matter that the statute of limitations issue has come to the court through the lense of a CDP case.  It should not matter that an IRS Appeals employee, in addition to the IRS employee in collection, decided that the statute of limitations on collection had not expired.  What matters is that the statute of limitations issue requires the party asserting an exception to the statute of limitations must prove the exception applies to the circumstances of the case.  Letting the IRS avoid the need to prove that simply because a second IRS employee, the Settlement Officer in Appeals, agreed with the first should not control this issue.

The Tax Court laid it out in simple, direct terms. The party raising the statute of limitations has an affirmative defense but must establish a prima facie case the collection period has expired.  Once the party, here the taxpayer, establishes a prima facie case, the burden of production then “shifts to the Commissioner to prove that an exception to the period of limitations applies.”  The IRS must prove that exception and not hide behind a determination of one of its employees.  The Tax Court held that a statute of limitations argument challenges the underlying liability and therefore give a de novo rather than abuse of discretion review to this issue.

After resolving the burden issue, the Court moved on to the real issue – did petitioner extend the statute of limitations by her actions? Section 6503(c) provides that “[t]he running of the period of limitations on collection after assessment prescribed in section 6502 shall be suspended for the period during which the taxpayer is outside the United States if such period of absence is for a continuous period of at least 6 months.”  Treasury regulation 301.6503(c)-1(b) explains what the statute means by providing, “The taxpayer will be deemed to be absent from the United States for purposes of this section if he is generally and substantially absent from the United States, even though he makes casual temporary visits during the period.”

“Generally and substantially absent” does not seem quite the same as continuously absent – at least not to Ms. Reinhart. She argued that the statute was not ambiguous and should be applied based on its plain meaning which is always out of the country for a period of six straight months.  The IRS argued that “continuous” does not necessarily mean “uninterrupted.”  Both positions leave open the question of when the suspension stops.  If Ms. Reinhart did spend six straight months out of the United States after the assessment and before the running of 10 years, when would the suspension stop?   How much U.S. presence would trigger an end to the suspension?  That would have been an interesting question on the facts of this case but the Court did not get there because it interpreted that she did not meet the initial test to create a suspension.

The opinion contains seven pages (at least in my printed version) displaying Ms. Reinhart’s arrival and departure records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. That’s a lot of trips.  The records start on January 16, 2001.  From that point until they stop on July 10, 2010, she was constantly going in and out of the country.  The IRS could have collected the liability just from the cost of the airplane tickets.  The amount of travel displayed in the opinion is impressive.  So, the issue of continuously versus generally and substantially is clearly presented by the facts of this case.

Aside from the airplane records which create significant doubt about the continuous nature of her absence overseas, the IRS had two rather significant pieces of evidence in its favor. First, Ms. Reinhart’s 2001 through 2004 joint tax returns listed a Bahamian mailing address.  Second, on August 6, 2006, “petitioner signed a declaration submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida stating that petitioner and her husband lived in Nassau, Bahamas, and that the Vero Beach, Florida, residence never was intended to be their residence.”  These two pieces of evidence impressed me but did not create the same impression on the Court.

Petitioner testified that she lived in Florida throughout, reciting a fairly long list of different addresses in Florida. She said that her husband rented a furnished one-bedroom apartment in Nassau, Bahamas from September 2002 until February 2012 but she always considered herself to reside in the U.S. (except perhaps when she signed the declaration).  She explained away the use of the Nassau address as resulting from a misunderstanding of the question and that she did live in Nassau when she was with her husband and she was not asked whether she lived continuously in the Bahamas or whether she had other residences.  The Court found her testimony credible even if I am having trouble with some of it.  It found that she lived in the U.S. and her husband lived in the Bahamas.

The burden of proof aspect of the case is legally the most significant; however, the lengthy litany of facts about her obvious constant movement back and forth between the Bahamas and the U.S. makes it a difficult case from a factual perspective. As a long time government lawyer, I am troubled when people explain away statements they make under penalties of perjury when the answer does not have significance.  I understand why the Court wanted to get to a factual rather than legal result here but I find her testimony too convenient for my liking.  Had the Court gotten to the merits of the statutory language, I think she was not continuously out of the United States.  By deciding the case on a factual basis, it gets to what seems to be the right result in a way that does not require it to strike down a regulation and cause an automatic appeal.

I take away from the case that a taxpayer traveling back and forth all the time as Ms. Reinhart did will have a decent case to keep the statute of limitations from getting suspended. Even if the Court had made its decision based on her residence moving to the Bahamas and applying the language of the regulation, it might still have found that she was not generally and substantially absent.  This is a hard case to know who to root for.  The IRS appears to have done nothing for a decade with respect to a taxpayer who it knew was not a good taxpayer.  Then it makes very technical argument based on a regulation that appears suspect.  On the other hand neither Ms. Reinhart’s tax activities nor her testimony left me with a favorable impression.  Losing this liability may mean nothing if it gets a subsequent liability against her and the new liability exceeds her ability to pay or the IRS’s ability to pursue collection.  If nothing else, the case highlights a little used provision of the code for extending the statute of limitations and tees up an attack on the regulation for the next taxpayer to come along.

 

Summary Opinions for 10/17/14

141022cHot tubs, fraudulent credits, the Tax Court saving a marriage, and, of course, some tax procedure.

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  • This is an old version of Frank Agostino’s newsletter, which was published about a year ago.  I had not read it before, and he just posted it to LinkedIn.  As always, the quality is great.  I particularly enjoyed the hot-tubbing with the IRS article, and will know not to get flattered if Mr. Agostino ever asks me to hot-tub in the future.  Great article for tax professionals, but also non-tax folks who deal with valuation disagreements.
  • United States v. Bostick is an interesting case from the District Court for the Northern District of Texas relating to the IRS seeking permanent injunctions against preparers engaging in a fraudulent credit scheme. The Court did not grant the government’s injunction to the extent requested by the Service, largely because it did not believe the practitioners would engage in this type of action again. There is also a discussion as to what standard preparers are held to under Section 6694(a) and (b), and the reasonable cause exception to that statute.  In discussing these aspects of the case, the Court, interestingly, noted that the government had “not presented any evidence…that persuades the court that tax preparers are held to the same standard as attorneys or are required in every instance to seek the advice of a tax attorney.”  I wonder what the standard is for CPAs?  Peter Reilly at Forbes has some coverage found here.
  • The Service issued Notice 2014-58, which provides additional guidance regarding the codification of economic substance doctrine under Section 7701(o).  The Notice provides a definition of “transaction”, and also provides additional guidance for the related penalty under Section 6662.  There has been strong coverage of the Notice, especially helpful are write ups by PWC and KPMG.
  • In Wang v. Comm’r, a taxpayer claiming innocent spouse failed the “knowledge/reason to know” requirement under Section 6501(b)(1)(C), although she argued that her husband hid information from her. Taxpayer and her husband had conflicting testimony on various aspects of the case, and the Court found that taxpayer was involved in her husband’s business in a meaningful way, was very well educated, and did speak with him regarding his legal troubles.  The Court concluded she should have known or inquired more about the tax issues.  Worth noting that husband was disbarred a few years before for misappropriating client funds – he attributed this to bookkeeping errors (hmm, seems suspect, I’m sure Mr. Agostino was all over that).  Also somewhat interesting, the taxpayer said she was only with her husband for the children, and she would divorce him if successful in the innocent spouse claim…Perhaps the Court did not want to be responsible for the failed marriage.
  • I’m working on Saltzman and Book chapter 5 right now, which deals with statutes of limitations, and I’m pretty sure Reinhart v. Comm’r is going to make it into the text in one or two places.  Service filed a lien after ten years following the assessment.  The primary issue was whether or not the Service could collect trust fund recovery penalties that accrued prior to my little brother being born and around the time President Bush I puked on the Japanese prime minister.  The Case has a good burden discussion, a good discussion of when a limitations argument can be made before the court when coming out of Appeals, the proper scope of review, and when the statute is tolled for a taxpayer out of the country.  We will have more on this case this week and next, so I’ll just highlight the issues for now.
  • More statutes of limitations, this time regarding the refund period for claims based on foreign tax credit carrybacks.  In Albemarle Corp. v. United States, the Court of Federal Claims held that although the taxpayer met the “all events” test under Section 461, and the dispute was settled and taxes paid within the 10 year period, under the “relation back doctrine” accruals related to the original refund year, which was outside of the ten year period.  McDermott Will & Emery has a write up here, which discusses the issues in greater detail.
  • In Hauptman v. Comm’r, the Tax Court confirmed the IRS’s rejection of an OIC predominately because the taxpayer had provided drastically different values for his assets to the Service and to other third parties; further, he failed to comply with the tax laws, and was not completely helpful in providing information and explanations.  He was also not the most endearing taxpayer.  First, Mr. Hauptman owed a boatload of money; some amount of millions.  He also just didn’t file tax returns or pay tax, largely because he didn’t feel like it.  Eventually, his business tanked, and he wasn’t as rich anymore, and then the Service started levying.  Probably the biggest take away from the case is that you shouldn’t expect the Service to rely on your numbers when you owe millions.  The IRS followed up with banks, lenders and business associates, who provided much higher values for the taxpayer’s companies and assets.  He said those were “puffed up”, but the Service should definitely trust the numbers he gave to them.