Recent Tax Court Case Sustains Preparer EITC Due Diligence Penalties

Last week in Mohamed v Commmssioner, the Tax Court sustained $7,000 of EITC due diligence penalties against a preparer. The preparer, who was a CPA, had an active business preparing individual tax returns, including many EITC returns. The opinion provides a rare court review of the imposition of these penalties.

The EITC due diligence penalty has been on the books for a while; the current penalty is $500 for each failure to comply. Requirements include preparing and retaining forms like the Paid Preparer’s Earned Income Credit Checklist, and the Earned Income Credit Worksheet. In addition, the rules require that tax return preparer must not know, or have reason to know, that any information pertaining to the EITC is incorrect.

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This penalty is even more important for preparers, as Congress recently expanded the scope of due diligence penalties to include the child tax credit and the American opportunity tax credit.

There are not many cases involving the penalty, and while Mohamed is a summary opinion, it does provide some insights into the process and limits on Tax Court review of the penalty.

The opinion discusses how IRS examined a number of Mohamed’s clients as part of its EITC due diligence audit program. He was visited by a tax compliance officer, who reviewed 50 of Mohamed’s returns. The audit report proposed a penalty on 20 of the 50 returns; while the penalty is not subject to deficiency procedures, the IRM provides and IRS allowed for Mohamed to challenge the proposed assessment before Appeals.

Mohamed met with an Appeals Officer for 6 hours to discuss the penalty; after the meeting Appeals agreed to remove the penalty from 5 of the returns. Appeals also asked for more information on 4 other returns. Mohamed sent documents to Appeals and also had a follow up phone conversation. The correspondence and phone call led Appeals to remove the penalty from another return, bringing the penalty down to 14 returns, or $7,000.

Appeals sent a closing letter indicating that it was recommending a penalty assessment on 14 of the returns; it also let Mohamed know that he could pay the penalty and file a refund claim and eventually sue in district court or the Court of Federal Claims if he wanted court review of the penalty.

IRS assessed the penalty and issued a notice of intent to levy. Mohamed did not pay and instead filed a CDP request. In the hearing he asked to challenge the underlying assessment. The settlement officer refused that request on the theory that he had a prior opportunity to challenge the penalty in the preassessment Appeals hearing.

PT readers are likely familiar with the legal issue; namely whether a prior opportunity to dispute the amount or existence of the liability includes for these purposes an administrative preassessment Appeals hearing. Taxpayers have lost in Tax Court and circuit courts on this issue (For more see Keith’s discussion Continued Developments in Taxpayer Attempts to Litigate the Merits in CDP Cases.)

Given the Tax Court and appellate courts’ views on this issue, it is not surprising Mohamed had an uphill battle. He gamely attempted to distinguish the adverse authority, arguing that Appeals did not give him a chance to rebut its conclusions and that it terminated the process prematurely.

The Tax Court disagreed, emphasizing that he participated fully in the examination process, had a long in-person meeting with Appeals and follow up conversations and correspondence:

In sum, the record shows that in 2015 petitioner was provided a full and fair opportunity to challenge the imposition of the disputed penalties before the Appeals Office and he meaningfully participated in that proceeding. Although petitioner would have preferred to continue to dispute his liability, we are satisfied hat the Appeals Office conducted a fair and comprehensive review of the matter and acted properly in concluding the matter by issuing its closing letter.

That the Tax Court looked into the process that Appeals provided in the preasessment hearing is a slight opening for other taxpayers who may not have had the same opportunities with Appeals. Yet Mohamed is another in the growing line of cases that show that CDP is not an avenue for challenging the amount or existence of a liability even if there is no prior opportunity for court review.

There is one other aspect of the case worth noting. Mohamed also challenged the penalty under Section 6751(b) which requires that no IRC penalty “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 or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate…”

The court considered this issue on the merits and found that the compliance officer had prepared a Form 8484, which is used to refer preparers for possible discipline to the Return Preparer Office. That form was where the compliance officer proposed the penalties, and the supervisor signed that form and approved referral.   Interestingly the record did not include a Form 8278, which is what IRS typically uses to propose preparer penalties. The lack of that form did not trouble the Tax Court:

On its face, Form 8484 is a report that IRS personnel are encouraged to use to convey information to the OPR about questionable practitioner conduct. Although the form does not function to authorize the assessment of a penalty, in this case the TCO’s acting immediate supervisor placed her digital signature on the Form 8484 indicating that she agreed with the referral of the matter to the OPR and that she approved the audit report (attached to the Form 8484) which recommended that 20 section 6695(g) penalties be assessed against petitioner. The audit report included a detailed explanation in support of each of the 20 penalties. Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the TCO’s initial determination to assess the penalties in dispute was personally approved in writing by her immediate supervisor within the meaning of section 6751(b).

As this is a summary opinion not subject to further review, there is no chance to in this case see if the IRS’s failure to seek penalty approval in the proper manner amounted to compliance with Section 6751(b). As we have discussed (most recently in Samantha Galvin’s Designated Order post from a few weeks ago), the 6751(b) issue is one that the Tax Court and other courts are increasingly facing.

Designated Orders: 7/31/2017-8/4/2017

Professor Samantha Galvin of University of Denver Sturm College of Law brings us this week’s edition of Designated Orders. This week’s post looks at an order involving Section 6751 and an order involving the Court’s power to impose sanctions. Les

The Tax Court designated four orders last week and two are discussed below. The designated orders that are not discussed are an order that a petitioner respond regarding his objection to respondent’s motion for summary judgment (here) and an order denying a petitioner’s motion for reconsideration to vacate the Court’s decision and dismissal where petitioner repeatedly failed to file a disclosure statement as required by Rule 20(c) (here).

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Section 6751(b) Compliance is Designated Again

Docket # 13535-16SL, Adrian Antionette McGee v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Here is yet another section 6751 designated order. After the Graev decision opened the door for these arguments, PT has posted frequently on the topic including, most recently, in a very informative designated order post dedicated to section 6751 a few weeks ago (here).

In this designated order, Judge Leyden is raising the issue of whether the IRS has complied with section 6751 when imposing an accuracy-related penalty. Judge Leyden also raised this issue in another (non-designated) order last week (here) which dealt with a failure to deposit penalty.

McGee is a pro se petitioner from Florida. Undoubtedly, she did not raise section 6751(b) non-compliance during her CDP hearing. As mentioned in our previous designated orders post, this issue is being treated slightly differently depending on the Judge. Judge Leyden appears to be one of the judges that does not think a taxpayer waives the section 6751(b) issue by not raising it.

In the present case, respondent filed a motion for summary judgment. Respondent’s motion was premature but petitioner didn’t object on that basis, so interestingly, the Court exercised its discretion and allowed the motion to proceed.

In case you haven’t been following the other posts, section 6751(b)(1) provides that, “a penalty cannot be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate.” To demonstrate compliance with this section, respondent must show: 1) the identity of the individual who made the “initial determination”, 2) an approval “in writing”, and 3) the identity of the person giving approval and his or her status as the “immediate supervisor.” The settlement officer’s declaration stated that the requirements of applicable law or administrative procedure were met, but did not specifically verify that section 6751 requirements were met nor did it include any documents to substantiate that the requirements under the section were met.

The Court gives respondent three options: 1) prove that the requirements of section 6751(b)(1) were met, 2) prove that the “automatically calculated through electronic means” exception under section 6751(b)(2) applies and compliance need not be shown, or 3) concede the penalty.

The IRS must supplement its motion by August 15, and the petitioner may respond by August 30 – so we will wait in anxious anticipation to see where this one goes.

Section 6673 Penalty Imposed on Egregious Tax Protestor

Docket # 27787-16, Gary A. Bell, Sr. v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The Tax Court sees a lot of tax protestors, in part because taxpayers do not have a lot to lose when petitioning the Tax Court. They can represent themselves, the tax liability is not required to be paid beforehand, and the court filing fee is not cost prohibitive and can be waived if the taxpayer can demonstrate economic hardship. The section 6673(a)(1) penalty is one of the Tax Court’s defenses against egregious tax protestors, and others who may meet the section’s criteria.

The petitioner in this case is particularly egregious. In the present case, he petitioned the Tax Court on CP71A notices for four different tax years. The CP71A notices are annual reminder notices informing the taxpayer of a balance due and do not provide a taxpayer with the right to petition the Court.

Petitioner had previously petitioned the Tax Court eight years ago for three out of the four years listed in his petition and the Court had rendered a decision for those years. As for the fourth year, neither a notice of deficiency (nor a notice of determination) had been issued. This meant the Court lacked jurisdiction for every year listed in petitioner’s petition.

As a result, in the present case, respondent filed a motion for summary judgment for lack of jurisdiction and requested that a section 6673(a)(1) penalty be imposed. Petitioner filed a Notice of Objection.

According to the Tax Court, “the purpose of section 6673 is to compel taxpayers to think and to conform to settled tax principles; it was designed to deter frivolity and waste of judicial resources.” In total, the petitioner had previously petitioned the Tax Court six separate times on various tax years using tax protestor arguments and had been warned about the imposition of the section 6673 penalty, to some degree, in all cases. Under section 6673, a penalty of up to $25,000 can be imposed whenever it appears to the Tax Court that proceedings before it have been instituted or maintained by the taxpayer primarily for delay; the taxpayer’s position in such proceeding is frivolous or groundless; or the taxpayer unreasonably failed to pursue available administrative remedies.

Due to the petitioner’s repetitively egregious behavior, the Court was convinced that petitioner instituted and maintained the proceeding for the purpose of delay and imposed a section 6673 penalty of $5,000.

Take-away points:

  • The Court likely designated this order as a warning to other tax protestors who wish, or continue, to drain the Court’s resources in a similar way.
  • The penalty is a necessary option for the Court since a taxpayer can take advantage of the Court’s time and resources, even when he or she has no basis on which to be there.

 

Wells Fargo and The Negligence Penalty for A Transaction Lacking Reasonable Basis

Over the last few weeks, Stephen, Keith and I (with some help from others like Jack Townsend who is the lead author on the criminal penalties chapter) are all writing up the next update for IRS Practice and Procedure, and are sorting through and writing about 125 developments from March through early July for addition to the book.

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A few of the developments are major ones we did not address in Procedurally Taxing. One is the Wells Fargo case from earlier this spring. You may recall Wells Fargo v US where Stu Bassin in a post on PT discussed the government’s loss in its efforts to use the economic substance doctrine to disallow interest expense deductions for a transaction that lacked a non tax business purpose. The case also has an interesting and important penalty component involving the government’s assertion of a negligence penalty in connection with Wells Fargo’s claiming of disallowed foreign tax credits.

The issue was teed up for the district court in a somewhat odd manner, with Wells Fargo stipulating that if the foreign credit generating transaction was a sham, it should not be subject to the penalty because “there was an objectively reasonable basis for Wells Fargo’s return position under the authorities referenced in § 1.6662–3(b)(3).”

The court held that the foreign credit generating transaction was a sham. Wells Fargo agreed to the stipulation to limit discovery, but the effect of the stipulation prevented it from arguing that it exercised ordinary and reasonable care in the preparation of its tax return. In other words, Wells Fargo felt that the authority for the position was sufficient to shield it from penalties without regard to any independent effort it made to assess the merits of the transaction prior to taking its position on its tax return. Wells Fargo did so because the regulations insulate from negligence a return position that has a reasonable basis; i.e., the position is reasonable based on one or more authorities (as further defined in the regulations).

In the opinion considering the penalties, the district framed the issue as follows:

Is it enough for Wells Fargo to show that its return position had a reasonable basis under the authorities referenced in § 1.6662–3(b)(3)? Or must Wells Fargo prove that it actually consulted those authorities in preparing its tax return?

The district court held that Wells Fargo was subject to the penalty because it had to prove that it in fact consulted with the authorities before adopting its position on the return. This was the view the government urged under the regulations; the taxpayer argued that the statute and regulatory focus is on an objective analysis, with the taxpayer’s efforts beside the point.

The Court found the regulations to be ambiguous, specifically that Treasury Regulation §1.6662-3(b)(3) states a reasonable basis is satisfied if “a return position is reasonably based on one or more” authorities. That was important, because under administrative law principles (so-called Auer deference) an agency is entitled to deference regarding an interpretation of an ambiguous question relating to the meaning of its own regulations.

At or around the time of the opinion, Jim Malone of Post & Schell wrote a terrific blog post critiquing the district court opinion, suggesting that perhaps Wells Fargo deserved to be penalized but that the court’s approach to the issue was “troubling”. There was also a piece in Bloomberg that quoted Jim and former PT guest poster Andy Grewal, with Andy saying that “it would be more sensible to apply Section 1.6662-3(b)(1) in accordance with its plain meaning and examining all relevant authorities supporting the treatment of a position, whether or not the taxpayer was aware of them.”

The Wells Fargo outcome is a departure from the norm in these cases because it has generally been thought that reasonable basis is an objective inquiry; i.e., if the position is more or less plausible based on an authority, then the taxpayer is free from the penalty. As Jim discusses, there are some cases along the lines suggesting that if a taxpayer had some separate reason to do a bit of digging then more than just objective analysis is warranted, yet the Wells Fargo opinion suggests a differing starting point than what many believed to be the case under the regulations.

I am not sure that other courts will follow this approach but it is something that advisers should be aware of when considering the effect of a stipulation as well as what may be necessary to put in the record if one is looking to rely on this defense to penalties.

 

 

Chai not Gaining Traction with Tax Court or IRS

Back in March, Steve blogged about the 2nd Circuit’s decision in Chai v. Commissioner reversing the Tax Court and finding that the IRS had a duty to prove that the immediate supervisor of the employee imposing a penalty met the requirements of the previously long forgotten IRC 6751.  The Chai decision came shortly after a fully reviewed Tax Court opinion in which the Court, in Graev v. Commissioner, held that the IRS did not have a duty to prove that the immediate supervisor had signed.  See my blog post here.  The 2nd Circuit essentially adopted the views of the dissent in Graev.  Because appellate venue for Graev lies in the 2nd Circuit, the decision in that case will unlikely stand; however, the opinion can still provide precedent for Tax Court cases appealable to other circuits as the Tax Court applies its Golsen rule.  This post will focus on what is happening post-Chai and how that might impact your clients who are unable to move to New York City or other fine locations in the 2nd Circuit.

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The first matter to discuss is Graev.  The IRS has chosen not to roll over and accept Chai as applying in a way that resolves the Graev case.  The IRS filed a motion with the Tax Court asking it to reconsider its opinion in Graev in light of the Chai decision.  The critical paragraph of the motion states:

“Respondent requests that the Court vacate its decision in this case and order additional briefing on what steps the Court should take in this case in light of the Chai opinion. Respondent has views which it believes will benefit the Court to consider in the changed circumstances of this case.”

The Tax Court granted this motion and issued an order vacating the decision and requiring the parties to file simultaneous briefs by June 1, 2017.  The petitioner and respondent timely filed these briefs.  The Court ordered the parties to file responsive briefs by June 20; however, petitioner filed a motion requesting until June 30 to file responsive briefs and permission to file a response to the responsive briefs by July 31.  The Court granted petitioner’s request so it will be at least a month before this case becomes fully at issue again.

The vacation of the decision raises an interesting question with respect to the Golsen rule.  Does the Graev opinion control future decisions of the Tax Court if the decision in the case is vacated at the request of the government?  The answer to that question appears to be yes as discussed further below.

While you might have expected that the IRS requested the vacation of the decision in Graev so that it could concede the IRC 6751 issue, the IRS has taken the fight to a new level, and in fact, in the first post-Chai brief filed in the Graev case, the IRS did not even cite to Golsen.  The brief filed by Frank Agostino’s firm cited Golsen four times and devoted the first of six sections of the brief to this issue.  In the statement of the case, petitioner’s brief states:

The issue is whether the rule in Golsen v. Commissioner, 54 T.C. 742 (1970), aff’d, 445 F.2d 985 (10th Cir. 1971), and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s opinion in Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017), aff’a in part and rev’a in part, T.C. Memo. 2015-42, 109 T.C.M. (CCH) 1206 (2015), require this Court to vacate its decision determining the Graevs liable for 20% accuracy-related penalties under section 6662(a) and instead enter a decision for the Graevs adjudging them not liable for the penalties because the Commissioner failed to comply with the written-approval requirements of section 6751(b)(1).

So, the next opinion by the Tax Court in this case will have the opportunity to decide a number of issues concerning the application of the 2nd Circuit’s decision on the these types of cases.  Petitioner frames the issues in this manner:

The Second Circuit’s opinion in Chai requires this Court to vacate the March 7th Decision for five reasons. First, Chai is controlling in this case pursuant to the rule in Golsen v. Commissioner, 54 T.C. 742, 757 (1970), aff’d, 445 F.2d 985 (10th Cir. 1971), because this case is appealable to the Second Circuit, because the holdings in Chai are squarely on point and the facts are indistinguishable, and because the failure to follow Chai would result in inevitable reversal upon appeal.

Next, in rejecting the majority’s holding and reasoning in Graev II that the 6751(b)(1) issue was not ripe in a deficiency proceeding (i.e., it was premature), the Second Circuit in Chai held that the issue of the Commissioner’s compliance with the requirements of section 6751(b)(1) is ripe for review in a deficiency proceeding.

Third, by rejecting the concurrence’s holding and reasoning in Graev II that the Commissioner’s failure to comply with the written-approval requirements of section 6751(b)(1) is excusable as harmless error, the Chai Court held that the written-approval requirement in section 6751(b)(1) is a “mandatory, statutory element of a penalty claim” that is not subject to harmless error analysis.

Fourth, the facts of this case, as found in Graev I and Graev II, require a holding that the Commissioner did not comply with the requirements of section 6751(b)(1) in determining the 20% accuracy-related penalties at issue.

Fifth, the Chai Court rejected the Commissioner’s contention that an amended answer filed by his attorneys can cure his failure to comply with the written-approval requirement of section 6751(b)(1) because compliance at the time of the initial determination is a “mandatory, statutory element.” Thus, the Court must vacate the March 7th Decision and its determination that the 20% accuracy related penalties may be assessed.

In contrast, the IRS frames the issues as follows:

Because this case is appealable to the Second Circuit, this Court’s holding in Graev v. Commissioner, 147 T.C. No. 16 (2016), regarding the timing of the supervisory approval of the initial determination of a penalty assessment cannot stand on appeal. Therefore, this Court must face additional issues regarding whether there was adequate supervisory approval of the initial determination of a penalty assessment in this case.

Those issues are: (1) whether the timely supervisory approval of a 40 percent accuracy-related penalty was, in effect, approval of the alternative position of the 20 percent penalty; (2) whether an attorney’s recommendation to include the 20 percent penalty in the statutory notice of deficiency, which recommendation was approved and adopted, can constitute the initial determination of the penalty assessment in this case; and (3) if a penalty assessment arises from an assertion raised in the amendment to answer in this case, whether the initial determination of that penalty assessment was made by the attorney who asserted the penalty in the amendment to answer. To avoid the potential for piecemeal litigation of these issues, respondent requests a ruling on each one even if the Court decides more than one issue in respondent’s favor.

So, the next phase of Graev could focus on the ability of the Chief Counsel attorney and the supervisor of that attorney to initiate and provide the appropriate supervisory approval.  If the IRS wins this argument, it will win the case and it will avoid the problem that occurs in cases in which Chief Counsel attorneys in the answer or subsequent pleadings change the penalty from the penalty imposed by the Commissioner in the notice of deficiency.  We will closely watch the case and keep you informed.

Meanwhile, there are many other cases in which petitioners have suddenly decided to raise the failure of the IRS to obtain the proper supervisory approval for a penalty.  We blogged about such a case decided almost immediately after Chai.  A more recent case shows another side.  On June 12, 2017, Judge Lauber issued an order in the case of Zolghadr v. Commissioner in which he rejected their Chai argument for two reasons.  First, petitioners did not raise the argument in time in a deficiency case.  Remember that both Chai and Graev were also deficiency cases where  the timing of raising the argument was also a concern.  Second, and more important for this discussion, he addressed the merits and the current viability of Graev stating:

“Alternatively, even if petitioners’ argument were timely, their reliance on Chai is misplaced because this case is appealable to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the fourth Circuit, not to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the second circuit, which decided the chai case.  For cases in which the appellate venue is a court of appeals other than the second Circuit, the applicable Tax Court rule is that enunciated in Graev v. Commissioner, 147 T.C. (slip. Op. at 42 n.25).  Under that case respondent has no burden of production to demonstrate compliance with section 6751(b).”

While we are waiting for the “final answer” in Graev, you should not wait to raise the IRC 6751 argument in your case.  In addition, you now know that at least one judge on the Tax Court views Graev as controlling which means you may have to move your case into the applicable circuit court if your client lives outside the Second Circuit.  I think Judge Lauber’s view of the current applicability of the Golsen rule as it applies to Graev is a view shared by other judges on the Tax Court.  Do not expect to roll into Tax Court citing Chai and automatically winning.

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

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

I will briefly explain the opinion below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parting Thoughts

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

 

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.

One Hake of a Taxpayer Friendly Reasonable Cause Holding

And, could this be heading to SCOTUS?

The District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania just issued a holding in Hake v. United States regarding the reasonable cause exception for the failure to file penalties for executors who failed to file due to bad advice from their lawyer.  This was a fairly taxpayer friendly opinion, following somewhat closely on the heels of the Thouron case in the Third Circuit, which we covered heavily here.  While Thouron could have been limited, somewhat, to its facts, the Hake opinion applied the case broadly, allowing taxpayer reliance on an advisor to eliminate penalties.  Longtime PT readers will know that I dislike the framework from Boyle regarding reasonable cause for reliance on an expert in this area (but other practitioners disagree, including other PT authors).  Our readers will also likely recall that I was fairly heated in my harsh words against the Eastern District’s decision in Thouron before it was reversed by the Third Circuit.  Although I think allowing reasonable cause is the right thing to do for the Hakes, the case isn’t nearly as strong for reasonable cause as Thouron was, at least in my mind.  So, why do I think the Hakes got lucky (or more specifically their lawyer)?

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Mrs. Hake died in October of 2011 after a period of incapacitation, holding substantial assets including a closely held grocery store chain.  Her five children apparently did not agree on much, and that included the administration of her estate and the value of the assets.  Two of her five children, Ricky and Randy, were named executors, and hired the family lawyer to act as estate and tax counsel.  Normally, the estate tax return, Form 706, would have been due nine months following the date of death, in July of 2012. See Section 6075(a).  Due to the disagreements between the family, it was believed that they would not know the actual values of the estate assets at the filing deadline.

The attorney suggested filing a Form 4768 to obtain an extension of time to file the return and pay the tax due.  In June of 2012, the request for extension was filed.  An associate in the office was tasked with determining the extension, and informed the primary attorney, who in turn informed the client, that the filing deadline and the payment deadline had both been extended by a year.

But, that isn’t really a thing.  The estate had received a six month automatic filing extension, and a one year discretionary extension for payment.  This fact didn’t make it to the executors, who thought they were doing substantial good by prepaying the tax in February of 2013 ( about a month after the return was due) and in July the return was filed.  In August of 2013, the Service notified the estate that about $198k of penalties were due for failure to file a timely return under Section 6651, along with $17k in interest.  The estate took administrative steps to seek abatement, but eventually had to pay the tax due.  It then filed a refund suit in the District Court.

As the court stated, the issue was narrowly defined:

When an executor relies upon inaccurate advice from legal and tax counsel regarding the extended deadline for filing an estate tax return, in a factual context where determination of filing and payment deadlines are governed by a series of mandatory and discretionary rules which may vary depending upon the residence status of the taxpayer, does that reliance upon professional advice constitute reasonable cause to avoid the assessment of late filing penalties and interest?

The Court found that yes, it did constitute reasonable cause, which I applaud, and, as I have said repeatedly in the past, in this particular situation I do not think penalties should be imposed on the estate.  However, this is not in line with most of the case law.  The holding does follow the Third Circuit opinion in Thouron, as discussed below, but this fact pattern pushes the boundaries of the Supreme Court’s holding in Boyle further than Thouron did.

To begin the legal analysis, the court covered the general law, including that a six month extension is allowed under Reg. 20.6075-1 for filing, and that an extension to pay is allowed for up to a year under Reg. 20.6081-1(b).  Pursuant to Section 6081(a), however, the IRS is limited in allowing extensions beyond six months for failure to file (unless the taxpayer is outside of the country).

The Court characterizes this extension in an interesting way, stating:

 thus, with respect to payment and filing deadlines, the legal terrain requires subtle multi-faceted analysis. First, one must determine the initial filing and payment deadlines.  Next one must negotiate a series of deadline extensions rules.  Some of these extensions are automatic; others are discretionary.  Further, one must be alert to the fact that the application of these differing rules can lead to different deadlines for payment and filing.  Finally, one must remain mindful of the fact that the filing rules themselves change depending upon residency status of the executors.

The language is clearly framing this as a difficult issue that lay persons generally would not be capable of figuring out, which is not always how the discussions begin in cases following Boyle.    As our readers know, the failure to file penalty has an exception when such failure was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect. Section 6651(a)(1).  SCOTUS outlined the general test for executors seeking to show reasonable cause in United States v. Boyle when relying on a tax professional.

The District Court discussed Boyle, but largely through the context of Thouron v. United States, the 2014 Third Circuit failure to pay case, which found the executor had reasonable cause for failing to timely pay estate tax because of his reliance on a tax professional regarding the extended deadline.

At the outset, it is important to note that most courts, practitioners, and commentators believe the failure to pay case law and the failure to file case law is largely interchangeable in this area, which I agree with.

The District Court noted the Third Circuit stated Boyle:

identified three distinct categories of late-filing cases. In the first category consists of cases that involve taxpayers who delegate the task of filing a return to an agent, only to have the agent file the return late or not at all…[SCOTUS] held…such…reliance…was not reasonable cause…The second category…is where a taxpayer, in reliance on the advice of an accountant or attorney, files a return after the actual due date, but within the time that the…lawyer or accountant advised the taxpayer was available.  Finally, in the third category are those cases where “an accountant or attorney advises a taxpayer on a matter of tax law.”

The District Court believed that Thouron had instructed it to construe Boyle narrowly, only clearly applying to the first set of failure above.  As to the second set, it believed Boyle did not hold on the issue leaving the lower courts to make their own determinations, and that under the third set of cases, Boyle would not apply.

The government’s contention is that the requirement for timely filing is non-delegable, and reasonable cause based on misunderstanding the deadline is never sufficient.  Such a failure is, in its mind (I am assuming), a malpractice claim between the taxpayer and its advisor.  The Service would never allow reasonable cause in the second set of cases, and would likely argue against it in most of the third set of cases.

The District Court in Hake, in the remainder of the opinion, somewhat appeared to begrudgingly agree with the Third Circuit’s analysis that reasonable cause could, and perhaps should, apply in all second and third category cases.  Towards the end, the Court stated the following not-so-ringing endorsement of its holding:

In reaching this conclusion, however, we wish to emphasize the very narrow scope of our ruling. We do not purport to stake out new or novel legal theories in this decision.  Rather, we attempt to simply and faithfully apply the law of this circuit to the facts of this case.  Moreover, our decision regarding the reasonableness of the executor’s reliance upon legal advice is strictly limited to, and bound up in the facts of this case.

The Court did then note, as a positive, the fact that the executors had overpaid the amount of tax due before the deadline for doing so (making the imposition of the penalty seem a little boorish on the part of the Service).  Finally, in foot note 6, the Court invited the government to consider taking this case up through various appeals to clarify the disparity in case law on this matter that is found in the other Circuits compared to the Third.

I have no specific knowledge of the case, but the opinion seemed to indicate that the district court judge in Hake 1)  doesn’t agree with Thouron completely, 2)  appreciated the fact that taxes were timely (over) paid, and 3)  didn’t want to be overruled on the opinion.

Thouron, however, in my mind left the door potentially open for the judge in Hake  to hold the other way, had it wanted to.  Hake doesn’t clearly state whether it falls within the second or third group of Boyle cases indicated above.  The language of the case would indicate the judge in Hake was analyzing the case under the second group, where the taxpayer files within the time frame erroneously indicated by a practitioner, not where there was clear reliance on legal advice (although the discussion of the complexity of the filing dates does drift into what I would view as a discussion more related to reliance on legal advice).

Thouron, likewise, didn’t specify whether it was a second or third group case.  It stated that Boyle only held on clerical oversight in an agent failing to file by the deadline.  “It did not rule on when taxpayers rely on the advice of an expert, whether that advice relates to a substantive question of tax law or identifying the correct deadline”.

Thouron certainly indicates a willingness of the Third Circuit to allow a reliance case in either a second (advice regarding deadline) or third (reliance on expert for tax law advice), but it does not flesh out the issue any further.

One key distinction between Thouron and Hake, in my opinion, is that Thouron seems more like reliance on an expert regarding tax advice, which happened to impact the filing deadline.  In Thouron, the estate failed to timely pay tax because the estate erroneously believed it qualified for deferral of payment under Section 6166.  That Section allows deferrals on certain closely held business interests, and is incredibly complicated, including substantial regulations, rulings, etc.  Section 6166 itself, which only deals with the extension to pay, is about 4,000 words long.  Determining whether or not an estate qualifies is clearly an expert’s job, and to attempt to penalize an estate for such reliance when the expert is wrong in the analysis is antithetical to the statutes and regulations regarding the reasonable cause exception.  Hake, instead, was just a normal extension request.

While I agree the automatic extension provisions and the discretionary extension for payment can be confusing, and arguably could be expert advice, I think the case is less clear that it would fall within group three.   Again, the holding in Thouron lumps groups two and three together, but it does not state whether Thouron was in one or both groups.  It also does not state that all cases involving an accountant or lawyer advice regarding a deadline would qualify under group two (for instance, it would be interesting to see a court have that type of holding with the same automatic extension to pay income taxes and an extension to pay income tax).  I suspect the Third Circuit would affirm Hake, and probably would have reversed it had the holding been for the government.  Its statements in Thouron were somewhat clear in stating it would find reasonable cause for reliance on determining an extension or on legal advice.

I do not believe Hake has been appealed to the Third Circuit yet, and may not be.  If it or other similar cases should continue to be affirmed by the Third Circuit, it would result in a sufficient split to allow SCOTUS to weigh in on how Boyle should be applied, or more accurately, how the underlying law should be applied in groups two and three.  I think cases in group three have to remain reasonable cause, but it would be really interesting to see what happens with group two.

Preparer “Doctors” the Return Adding Phantom Income: Court Sustains Preparer Penalties

Tax return preparers have heightened requirements when preparing returns claiming many refundable credits. While the IRS lost the battle over regulating unlicensed preparers, it does have tools to examine and sanction preparers who violate those rules. There have been very few opinions considering whether a preparer’s conduct justifies the imposition of civil penalties. Last week in Foxx v US the Court of Federal Claims held that a preparer was subject to a civil penalty under Section 6694(b) for his willful or reckless conduct relating to his failure to make reasonable inquiries into income from taxpayer’s purported auto-detailing business. The IRS claimed that the taxpayer did not in fact earn the income in question. The Foxx case presents the what frequent guest poster Carl Smith has referred in a guest post to as the topsy-turvy world of earned income tax credit (EITC) cases because the creation of the phantom income fueled a refundable EITC that exceeded the taxpayer’s income and self-employment tax liability.

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George Foxx came to the attention of the IRS after it audited the tax return of Shakeena Bryant. Bryant had claimed an EITC; almost all of the earned income on the return was from an auto-detailing business she reported on Schedule C. Foxx referred to himself as the tax doctor and claimed to have 37 years of tax return prep experience. Bryant went to the tax doctor with a friend of hers, Herman James. On audit of Bryant’s return, the IRS disallowed the credit. During the audit, she agreed that she did not have the income necessary to justify her claiming the credit. In correspondence, Bryant claimed that she was instructed by Foxx to report the income to justify the refund.

IRS then examined Dr. Foxx and assessed a $5,000 penalty under Section 6694 for his willful or reckless conduct in preparing the return (note there is a separate $500 penalty under Section 6695(g) for violating the due diligence rules; that penalty was not at issue in the case). After an administrative appeal of his penalty IRS reduced it to $2500. Foxx paid and sued for refund.

The government deposed Bryant’s friend (James) who accompanied her to Dr. Foxx when the Tax Doctor prepared her return.

The case on the surface turned on whether the preparer George Foxx 1) facilitated the improper claiming of the credit by instructing the taxpayer how to goose the credit and make it look legitimate by applying for a business license even in the absence of the actual business or 2) prepared the return based on what Bryant told him about her business.

A bad fact for the Tax Doctor in this case was that James on deposition supported Bryant’s version of the facts. Both Bryant and James stated that she obtained a business license the same day the return was prepared pursuant to Dr. Foxx’s instruction. James also stated that Dr. Foxx “explained that such a license would allow him to obtain more money for Ms. Bryant, and Dr. Foxx, not Ms. Bryant, created the false business income that appeared on Ms. Bryant’s tax return.”

According to the opinion, Foxx clamed that in preparing the return he relied upon Bryant’s business license and two pages of his notes that outlined expenses associated with the business.

What was potentially a he said/they said case evolved into the court concluding that it did not matter which version was true. Even if Bryant did tell the preparer about her income the court concluded that Foxx had an affirmative obligation under the specific EITC due diligence regulations to dig deeper:

Dr. Foxx argued before the IRS that his reliance on Ms. Bryant’s alleged statements regarding her business was reasonable because Ms. Bryant otherwise would have only earned approximately $15 in 2007 based on the W-2 she provided to Dr. Foxx. Such an argument is misplaced; Ms. Bryant’s financial situation did not relieve Dr. Foxx of his obligation to make reasonable inquiries into any auto detailing business purportedly conducted by Ms. Bryant after she did not provide adequate documentation. His failure to do so was an intentional or reckless disregard of relevant Treasury Regulations [referring to the due diligence regulations under Section 6695]

Schedule C and Compliance Generally

As the Foxx case illustrates, the EITC creates the odd incentive for the creation of phantom income that could fuel a tax refund. That phantom income could also create a record of social security benefits that could generate Social Security benefits.

While noncompliance with the EITC generates significant attention, the absence of information reporting that ties much income to self-employed taxpayers contributes to those taxpayers in general comprising the largest source of the individual tax gap. EITC noncompliance among self-employed taxpayers is a small but significant part of the tax gap that is associated with self-employed taxpayers. Despite the EITC comprising a small portion of the tax compliance problem among the self-employed, there are special due diligence obligations imposed on preparers who prepare EITC returns with Schedule C’s that do not apply to other Schedule C returns.

On the IRS’s EITC web page for professionals it has a special training section discussing Schedule C. The training states that preparers “generally can rely on the taxpayers’ representations, but EITC due diligence requires the paid preparer to take additional steps to determine that the net self-employment income used to calculate the amount of or eligibility for EITC is correct and complete.”

IRS has on its EITC due diligence web site a series of scenarios discussing what it believes are examples of when preparers need to take additional steps. One of the scenarios involves a self-employed housecleaner who comes to a preparer claiming exactly $12,000 in earnings with no records and no expenses. A similar example is in the regulations. For the house-cleaner with the rounded off income figures and no expenses the IRS advice states that a preparer should “probably not” prepare the return in the absence of at least a written record of expenses and earnings, though opens the door a bit if the taxpayer “can reasonably reconstruct” the earnings and expenses. To that end the advice suggests that the preparer should ask how much she charges per house, as well questions relating to how many houses she cleaned on average per week and probe as to the reason for the lack of expenses (e.g., the homeowners provided all supplies).

Back to Foxx

One does not need to have a suggestion that a preparer has encouraged the fabrication of phantom income to generate preparer penalties. A cautious reading of the Foxx opinion is when preparing a return with an EITC based on self-employment income the preparer should  require documentary evidence supporting the amount claimed to have been earned and any expenses that are incurred. In the absence of records (a sure bet for many) the preparer should document and retain an explanation as to how he came to the net earnings, tying conclusions to specific information that the client has provided. For a taxpayer with little in the way of documents, it would be a good idea to have the taxpayer in writing affirm the manner that the preparer computed a business’ net earnings and state that the facts that the preparer is relying on are accurate to the best of the taxpayer’s recollection. Absent that the preparer opens himself up to a charge that he has failed to make “reasonable inquiries” in the presence of incomplete information (one of the requirements under the due diligence regulations).