Tenth Circuit Raises Possible Defense to IRS Levying Bank Account with Veteran’s Disability Payments

Thanks to celebrity shills such as Alan Thicke even non-tax experts know the reach of IRS’ collection powers. That power extends to allow it to levy on a taxpayer’s property unless that property is subject to a specific exemption in Section 6334(a). Included in that exemption list are things like workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits. Veterans’ disability payments are also on that list.

Last week’s 10th Circuit’s Maehr v Koskinen involved an IRS levy on a bank account that had received the taxpayer’s VA disability deposits. Maehr had challenged the IRS assessment and intention to levy on some of his assets. Maehr appears to be a serial tax protestor, and the order dispenses with the frivolous arguments quickly though not the issue of the levy on the bank account that held his VA payments.

That issue requires a bit more context and analysis. Maehr had an account at Wells Fargo that received his VA disability payments. Under Section 6334(a)(10), IRS is precluded from directly levying on certain armed force connected disability benefits. Maehr argued that Section 6334(a)(10) should protect the assets in the bank account since the funds were comprised of VA disability benefits that are exempt from levy.

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The government raised two arguments against Maehr’s challenge to that levy:

(1) the IRS did not place a direct levy on any exempt VA disability payments; and (2) even if the IRS is improperly levying exempt disability payments, the only remedy available to the taxpayer would be full payment of the assessment of his tax liability followed by a suit for refund in district court.

The arguments are closely related. The second of the arguments relates to the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA), which, is codified at Section 7421 and provides that “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person, whether or not such person is the person against whom such tax was assessed.” In other words, taxpayers unhappy with IRS enforced collection actions are generally unable to get a court to enjoin the IRS from going forward with its collection powers, including levy. We have discussed the AIA on numerous occasions, as courts in the past few years have been poking holes in that restriction. Even before some of the recent exceptions, then Chief Justice Warren in the Williams Packing case crafted a two-pronged common law exception to the AIA: 1) that under no circumstances could the Government ultimately prevail and 2) that equity jurisdiction otherwise exists. Courts have generally looked at that last part of Williams Packing as requiring the taxpayer to prove irreparable injury stemming from the IRS’s proposed collection action.

Taxpayers subject to collection action for excise and employment taxes that were outside the deficiency procedures have often faced the AIA’s reach when IRS sought to collect even while a refund proceeding was in the works. In a 1977 case called Marvel v US the 10th Circuit used the AIA to dispense with a taxpayer trying to challenge the IRS’s levying of business’s assets during a district court refund suit following a partial payment of employment taxes. In Maehr, the 10th Circuit distinguished Marvel on the facts, noting that Maehr also had a cause of action in addition to injunction (I assume a wrongful collection claim as well).

Despite the distinction, the 10th Circuit addressed the broader AIA issue and found that Maehr satisfied the Williams Packing narrow exception allowing the suit to continue:

If the IRS had placed a direct levy on Appellant’s VA disability benefits, we have little doubt that Appellant would have been able to satisfy the Williams Packing test and obtain injunctive relief. We see no possibility of the government prevailing on the merits in such a case, and a disabled veteran will likely be able to show that he will suffer irreparable injury if the government is not enjoined from illegally levying the VA benefits on which he relies for his maintenance and survival. See Comm’r v. Shapiro, 424 U.S. 614, 627 (1976)…

What about the government’s argument that the IRS was not directly going after the VA disability benefits, since the funds were sitting in a bank account? The Tenth Circuit briefly addressed that:

However, here the government has not directly levied Appellant’s VA benefits, and it suggests that it may do indirectly what it may not do directly—that it may wait until exempt VA disability benefits have been directly deposited into Appellant’s bank account and then promptly obtain them through a levy on all funds in the bank account, despite their previously exempt status. The government cites no authority to support this argument, and the few cases we have found adopting such a rule, see, e.g., Calhoun v. United States, 61 F.3d 918 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (unpublished table decision); United States v. Coker, 9 F. Supp. 3d 1300, 1301–02 (S.D. Ala. 2014); Hughes v. IRS, 62 F. Supp. 2d 796, 800–01 (E.D.N.Y. 1999), have not considered whether this result is consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Porter Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 370 U.S. 159 (1962), or with 38 U.S.C. § 5301’s prohibition against the levy of veterans’ benefit payments either before or after receipt by a beneficiary.

I was not familiar with either the Porter case or 38 U.S.C. § 5301, and this opinion nudged me to look at both. Porter v Aetna Casualty involves a private creditor and not the IRS but it held that VA disability benefits paid to an incompetent veteran and deposited in a federal savings and loan association were exempted from attachment by 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a) [now codified at 38 USC 5301(a)(1)]. That statute provides that payments administered by the VA “shall be exempt from taxation, shall be exempt from the claim of creditors, and shall not be liable to attachment, levy, or seizure by or under any legal or equitable process whatever, either before or after receipt by the beneficiary. The preceding sentence shall not apply to claims of the United States arising under such laws nor shall the exemption therein contained as to taxation extend to any property purchased in part or wholly out of such payments.” (emphasis added).

So Title 38 has its own protection of VA disability benefits that goes beyond the Internal Revenue Code. As I said, Porter did not involve an IRS levy (instead it involved a private creditor) but it did directly consider the reach of the Title 38 protection when the disability benefits were held after payment. The savings and loan rules at issue in Porter treated the depositor as a shareholder, requiring a 30-day demand before the S&L shareholder could reach the proceeds. Porter considered whether the deposit of the VA disability payments in a savings and loan essentially constituted after-acquired property that was no longer protected by Title 38. Porter discusses the earlier case of Lawrence v. Shaw, 300 U. S. 245 (1937), where the Court held that “bank credits derived from veterans’ benefits were within the exemption, the test being whether, as so deposited, the benefits remained subject to demand and use as the needs of the veteran for support and maintenance required.” On the other hand, the Court had held in a prior case that a veteran’s purchase of bonds with the VA proceeds removed the protection of the statute and those bonds constituted an after-acquired investment.

Porter resolved the issue as to whether the S&L account was more like the bank deposit case or the after-acquired investment:

Since legislation of this type should be liberally construed… to protect funds granted by the Congress for the maintenance and support of the beneficiaries thereof… we feel that deposits such as are involved here should remain inviolate. The Congress, we believe, intended that veterans in the safekeeping of their benefits should be able to utilize those normal modes adopted by the community for that purpose — provided the benefit funds, regardless of the technicalities of title and other formalities, are readily available as needed for support and maintenance, actually retain the qualities of moneys, and have not been converted into permanent investments.

Back to Maehr and the IRS’s Collection Powers

The Tenth Circuit remanded the case back to the District Court to consider whether the reach of Porter and whether the “IRS has improperly levied exempt VA disability benefits by placing a levy on all funds in the bank account where Appellant’s disability benefits are deposited.” It left open the question of remedy, expressing “no opinion on the ultimate resolution of this claim or on the unresolved questions regarding the availability of the types of relief Appellant has sought or may seek in an amended Complaint.”

This is an interesting opinion and raises a possible defense to collection on a certain kind of asset, i.e., a bank account that holds veteran’s disability payments. It seems that IRS at the district court should emphasize Section 6334(c), which provides that “[n]otwithstanding any other law of the United States (including section 207 of the Social Security Act), no property or rights to property shall be exempt from levy other than the property specifically made exempt by subsection (a).” Likewise the regulations under Section 6334 provide that “no other property or rights to property are exempt from levy except the property specifically exempted by section 6334(a).”

IRS has a longstanding position that once the funds move from the excepted payor to the taxpayer, the funds lose their exemption. The Porter case and Maehr’s unearthing it suggest a possible barrier to the vast collection powers that IRS generally has when there is a bank account that has solely as the source of its deposits disability payments the IRS would be unable to reach directly. Given the explicit language in Section 6334(c) and IRS’s longstanding view that the exempted property loses its character when the funds reach the taxpayer I would expect a vigorous challenge to extending Porter to include protection from the reach of an IRS levy. In addition, even if that protection were extended, there could be some interesting second order questions. Query for example  the tracing problems if the account has other funds beyond the disability payments or if the IRS were to show that the taxpayer had other funds that he used to meet his necessities beyond the disability payments.

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

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

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3rd Party Rights

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

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

When You Are Rich Is Important

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

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

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

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

Qualifying as a Qualified Offer

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

Making the Granite State Stronger – No Fees For FOIA

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

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

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

Procedure Grab Bag – Collection Financial Standards & 7-Eleven

Over the last two months, the IRS has made two administrative changes that we didn’t previously cover that impact the collection of taxes, predominately from low income taxpayers.  One is fairly negative (National Standards for collection potential), and I have mixed feelings about the other (paying taxes while buying a Big Gulp).

Deflation Nation

The Service has issued updated National Standards for taxpayer expenses when determining collection potential.  These amounts are what the Service views as reasonable expenses for food, housekeeping supplies, clothing, and miscellaneous expenses.  A taxpayer can rely on the National Standards without having to put forth any evidence of the actual expenses paid.  The Service also issues amounts by County for taxpayers for expenses relating to housing and utilities.  If a taxpayer seeks to claim expenses in excess of the National Standards (or local for housing), the taxpayer has to substantiate the same and prove the additional expense is necessary.  This can be onerous, especially for people using predominately cash, those who are ESL, and those with temporary housing.

The most recent National Standards, and at least some of the local housing and utilities amounts, have decreased from 2015.  The new 2016 amounts are:

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Expense One Person Two Persons Three Persons Four Persons
Food $307 $583 $668 $815
Housekeeping supplies $30 $60 $60 $71
Apparel & services $80 $148 $193 $227
Personal care products & services $34 $61 $62 $74
Miscellaneous $119 $231 $266 $322
Total $570 $1,083 $1,249 $1,509

 

More than four persons Additional Persons Amount
For each additional person, add to four-person total allowance: $341

Source: https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/national-standards-food-clothing-and-other-items

While in 2014 (and I think 2015), those amounts were:

Expense One Person Two Persons Three Persons Four Persons
Food $315 $588 $660 $794
Housekeeping supplies $30 $66 $69 $74
Apparel & services $88 $162 $209 $244
Personal care products & services $34 $61 $64 $70
Miscellaneous $116 $215 $251 $300
Total $583 $1,092 $1,249 $1,482

 

More than four persons Additional Persons Amount
For each additional person, add to four-person total allowance: $298

 

For larger families, the amount increased slightly, but for smaller families, the amount decreased, when many taxpayers making these types of offers were already feeling the pinch.  Various local amounts for housing and utilities also decreased, some of which by over $100.   When putting both together, collection potential is increased by well over $100, perhaps approaching $200 per month.  Having worked in the clinic at Villanova and assisting various pro bono clients in my private practice, I know most taxpayers using these standards felt the national amounts were difficult to live on and assumed significantly more discretionary income than they had.  That got squeezed a bit more with these adjustments.

7-Eleven Payment Heaven

The IRS has issued a new cash payment option largely aimed at helping unbanked taxpayers pay their taxes.  The notice can be found here.  The payment option allows taxpayers to use cash to pay their taxes at the over 7,000 domestic 7-Elevens (not sure it works in the roughly billion international 7-Elevens—I had no idea it was so popular overseas).   This is being done with a partnership with PayNearMe and ACI Worldwide’s  Officialpayments.com.  With rumors that the IRS will stop allowing walk in cash tax payments (already only allowed in limited locations) and taxpayers receiving penalties for certain cash payments, any additional payment method for those without bank accounts and credit cards is welcome.  I’ll be honest, the idea of 7-Eleven collecting our taxes is entertaining and seems quintessentially American (even if it is owned by a Japanese company).  It also makes me nervous, as outsourcing tax collection in other areas has not panned out well, and the franchise model strikes me as potentially allowing for less corporate oversight (7-Eleven in Australia is also currently battling a huge human rights issue over its wages).  Also, Slurpees are gross.  But, apparently other countries have been using 7-Elevens to pay some taxes and traffic tickets, so maybe this will work out splendidly.

Ignoring the major Slurpee issue, the IRS program requires the taxpayer to go to IRS.gov and to the payments page (so, no bank account, but easy access to the internet is needed).  There you select the cash option, and walk through the steps.  Once the taxpayer’s info is in the page, the taxpayer will receive an email from Officialpayments.com, which confirms their information.  The IRS then has to verify the information, at which point PayNearMe sends the taxpayer another email, with a link to a payment code and instructions (this is sort of seeming like a pain in the @$*).  The individual can then print the payment code, or send it to his or her smart phone.  The taxpayer then can go the closest 7-Eleven, make the payment, and receive a receipt.  Only $1000 per day can be paid, and there is a $3.99 charge per payment.

I applaud the notion, but the implementation, especially for low income and ESL, seems pretty onerous.  I’m not sure all taxpayers who may need to use this service have easy access to the internet, computers, email addresses, printers, and/or smart phones.  Not to mention, there are quite a few steps, this does take a while, and we are charging them to pay their taxes.

The IRS is also encouraging taxpayers to start the process well ahead of tax time, due to the three step process, and the fact that the funds “usually posts to the taxpayer’s account within two business days.”  The notice does not indicate what the payment date is for the penalties and interest, but the notice would seem to indicate it is the posting date and not the date the taxpayer hands the funds over to 7-Eleven.  I don’t think Section 6151 has a Kwik-E-Mart exception for time of paying tax, and I do not think 7-Eleven qualifies as a government depository under Section 6302, so taxpayers do need to be certain to allow for substantial time to pass between the payment date and the tax return due date.

Summary Opinions Catch Up Part II

Second part of the catch up.  These materials are largely from February.  One more installment coming shortly.  We may be renaming SumOp.  Although I loved the name (thanks Prof. Grewal), this keeps getting linked as a summary of all Tax Court summary opinions.  Feel free to suggest names, although it may just fall under the Grab Bag title from now on.  And, if you work at a law firm that is taxed as a C-corporation, check out the Brinks, Gibson discussion below.  Might be a little scary.

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  • Most of you probably heard that the Form 8971 was issued for basis reporting in estates.  Form can be found here and instructions here.  First set will (probably, although it has been extended a couple times already) be due June 30th.  Pretty good summary can be found here.  Lots of complaints so far.
  • The Fourth Circuit had a recent Chapter 7 priority case in Stubbs & Perdue, PA v. Angell (In re Anderson).  In Stubbs (great name), S&P were lawyers who represented Mr. Anderson.  Initially, the case was a Chapter 11 case, and S&P racked up $200k in legal fees.  Priority, but unsecured.  There was also over $1MM in secured tax debt.  The bankruptcy converted to a Chapter 7, and S&P were tossed in with the unsecured debtors, which they took exception with.  The Court looked to the current version of section 724(b)(2) of the bankruptcy code.  That section allows certain unsecured creditors to “step into the shoes” of secured creditors, and recover before other creditors.  Due to perceived abuses, that section had been amended in 2010 to limit the expenses that were given super priority, including Chapter 11 administrative expenses when the case was converted to a Chapter 7 case.  The amended provision was in place when the conversion occurred, and the Fourth Circuit relied on that version of the law, disallowing the legal fees super priority.  The law firm argued the prior version of the statute should apply, as it was the applicable statute when the originally filing occurred, but the Fourth did not agree.  Why does this really matter? It is the federal tax liability supported by the federal tax lien that gets subordinated to pay these priority claims.  So, the fight in this insolvent estate boiled down to whether the lawyers, who may have waited too long to convert the case to Chapter 7, or the IRS get paid (of course, the decision to convert is a client decision which puts the lawyer’s ability to get their fees at the mercy of the rationality of the client’s decision. A bad place to be) (thanks to Keith for giving me a quick primer on this subject).
  • The Tax Court in Brinks, Gilson & Lione, PC v. Commissioner has probably caused quite a bit of concern for quite a few law firms – or should (which reminds me, I have something to discuss with the Gawthrop management committee).  McGuire Woods has a good write up, and some insight into planning around the issue, which is found here.  The facts are that the firm would provide partners with a salary, and then at year end it would take all the profits and provide year-end bonuses to the partners, who would treat the amounts as W-2 wages.  This would wipe out the profits, so the c-corporation law firm would have no tax due (sounds familiar to a lot of you in private practice, doesn’t it?).  This firm had close to 300 non-lawyer employees who generated profits, and the IRS said that treating the bonus amount as w-2 income on to the partners on what those other folks generated was improper.  The corporation should have paid tax, and then dividends should have been issued to the partners, who would also then pay tax.  Yikes!  That is interesting enough, but the Court also found that the firm lacked substantial authority for its positions and there was no reasonable cause under Section 6662(d)(2)(B), so substantial penalties were also due on the corporate income tax due (the regulations do not allow for an “everyone else is doing it” defense).
  • Sometimes you go into court just knowing you are going to look like an @s$ for one reason or another.  I may have felt that way walking in to argue Estate of Stuller for the government before the Seventh Circuit.  Not because I would have been wrong, but, based on the opinion, the taxpayer was having a pretty bad year.  In Stuller, the Court held that the penalties for failure to timely file returns were proper when a restaurant business owner (who was a widow) missed the filing deadline.  In the year in question, the husband died in a tragic fire, which also injured the widow.  In addition, a key employee was embezzling from her businesses and she had difficulty tracking down aspects of the probate proceedings.  The Court found all required info could have been found in her records, and she did not exercise ordinary business care and prudence to fulfill the requirements of the reasonable cause exception (it probably didn’t help that she was taking questionable deductions related to her “horse” business that lost like $1.5MM in the preceding years).
  • We have covered Rand pretty extensively here on the blog, including the reversal of it by section 209 of the PATH Act and the Chief Counsel advice that followed, which can be found here.    In February, additional guidance was released stating there are no longer any situations where the Section 6676 penalty is subject to deficiency procedures, which was the same conclusion our (guest) blogger, Carlton Smith, came to in his post discussing the Kahanyshyn case.  Carl, however, reflected upon this more, and concluded there may, in fact, be a situation where the deficiency procedures might apply to a Section 6676 penalty.  I’m somewhat quoting Carl (via email) here.  All intelligent comments are Carl’s, while any errors are assuredly mine:

If you recall from prior posts, in PMTA 2012-016…the IRS changed its position and held that where it had frozen the refund of a refundable credit, there was no “underpayment” for purposes of section 6664(a) because the freezing of the refund should be considered as “an amount so shown [on the tax return] previously assessed (or collection without assessment)” under section 6664(a)(1)(B). So, there can be no assessment of a section 6662 or 6663 penalty in that circumstance.

However, section 6676′s penalty on excessive refund claims can apply even if the refund is never paid. Accordingly, within the PMTA, the IRS states (I think correctly) that where it freezes a refund of a disallowed refundable tax credit, it can assert a section 6676 penalty instead.

The PATH Act did two significant things to section 6676: It removed the previous exception to applying the penalty with respect to EITC claims. It changed the defense to the penalty from the troublesome proof of “reasonable basis” (an objective test) to the easier “reasonable cause” (a subjective one).

So, we may see section 6676 assessments in the future where refundable credits were improperly claimed, but the refund was frozen.…If a taxpayer improperly claimed, say, an EITC, but the refund was frozen, the IRS would later issue a notice of deficiency to permanently disallow the EITC.  The IRS could also assess a section 6676 penalty (assuming no reasonable cause), since it is the claiming of an improper refund that triggers the section 6676 penalty, not its payment.

It is still an open question whether or not the section 6676 penalty on disallowed frozen refundable credit claims will be asserted by the deficiency procedures or the straight-to-assessment procedures usually involved in the assessable penalties part of the Code.

  • In United States v. Smith, the District Court for the Western District of Washington reviewed a community spouse’s argument that her portion of the community property house could not be used to satisfy her husband’s tax debt from his fraud.  I found this write up of the case from a law firm out west, Miles Stockbridge.  The Court upheld the foreclosure, finding the wife did not show that she was entitled to the exception of collecting against community property under Section 66(c), nor did she show that the debt was not a community property debt by clear and convincing evidence, as required under Washington law.
  • Nothing too novel in US v. Wallis, from the District Court of the Western District of Virginia in February of 2016, but a good review of suspension provisions to collection statute.  In Wallis, the Service  took collection actions after the ten year period found under Section 6502 for penalties under Section 6722.  The Court found collection was not prohibited, as the statute was tolled due to the taxpayer’s bankruptcy and OIC/CDP hearings.  Sorry, couldn’t find a free version.
  • The folks over at The Simple Dollar have asked that we provide you with links to some of their content.  This post is about the best tax software for nonprofessionals to use for doing their own taxes.  This site is geared to the general public, but has some basic finance and tax info.  These are usually in the form of listicles, which are completely click bait, but are hard to hate.

 

 

 

 

Summary Opinions for 9/21/15 to 10/2/15

Running a little behind on the Summary Opinions.  Should hopefully be caught up through most of October by the end of this week.  Some very good FOIA, whistleblower, and private collections content in this post.  Plus fantasy football tax cheats, business on boats, and lots of banks getting sued.  Here are the items from the end of September that we didn’t otherwise write about:

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  • Let’s start with some FOIA litigation. The District Court for the District of Columbia issued two opinions relating to Cause of Action, which holds itself out as an advocate for government accountability.  On August 28th, the Court ruled regarding a FOIA request by Cause for various documents relating to Section 6103(g) requests, which would include all request by the executive office of the Prez for return information, plus all such requests by that office that were not related to Section 6103(g), and all requests for disclosure by an agency of return information pursuant to Sections 6103(i)(1), (2), & (3)(A).   The IRS failed to release any information pursuant to the last two requests, taking the position that records discussing return information would be “return information” themselves, and therefore should be withheld under FOIA exemption 3.  There are various holdings in this case, but the one I found most interesting was the determination that the request by the Executive Branch and the IRS responses may not be “return information” per se, which would require a review by the IRS of the applicable documents.  Although the petition was drafted in broad terms, this Washington Times article indicates the plaintiff was seeking records regarding the Executive Branch looking into them specifically, presumably as some type of retaliation.

In a second opinion issued on September 16th, in Cause of Action v. TIGTA, Judge Jackson granted TIGTA’s motion for summary judgement because after litigation and in camera review, the Court determined none of the found documents were responsive.  This holding was related to the same case as above, but the IRS had shifted a portion of the FOIA request to TIGTA.  Initially, TIGTA issued a Glomar response, indicating it could not confirm or deny the existence (I assume for privacy reasons, not national defense).  The Court found that was inapplicable, and TIGTA was forced to do a review and found 2,500 records, which it still withheld.  Cause of Action tried to force disclosure, but the Court did an in camera review and found the responsive records were not actually applicable.

  • That was complicated.  Now for something completely different.  This HR Block infographic is trying to get you all investigated for tax fraud.  In summary, 75 million of the 319 million people in America play fantasy football, and roughly none are paying taxes on their winnings.  If you click on the infographic, we know you are guilty.  Thankfully, my teams this year are abysmal, so I won’t be committing tax fraud…my wife on the other hand has a juggernaut in our shared league…To all of our IRS readers, please ignore this post.
  • Now a couple whistleblower cases.  In Whistleblower One 10683W v. Comm’r, the Tax Court held that the whistleblower was entitled to review relevant information relating to the denial of the award based on information provided by the whistleblower.  The whistleblower had requested information relating to the investigation of the target, the disclosed sham transaction, and the amounts collected, but the IRS took the position that certain items requested were not in the Whistleblower Office’s file, and were, therefore, beyond the scope of discovery (denied, but we don’t have to explain ourselves).  The Court disagreed and found the information was relevant and subject to review by the whistleblower.  Further, the IRS was not unilaterally allowed to decide what was part of the administrative record.  Another case that perhaps casts a negative light on how the IRS is handling the whistleblower program.
  • On September 21st, the District Court for the Middle District of Florida declined a pro se’s request for reconsideration of a petition for injunctive relief against the IRS to force it to investigate his whistleblower claim in Meidinger v. Comm’r (sorry couldn’t find a free link to this order).  Mr. Meidinger likely knew the court lacked jurisdiction, and this was the purview of the tax court —  Here is a write up by fellow blogger, Lew Taishoff, on Mr. Meidinger’s failed tax court case.  Lew’s point back in 2013 on the case still rings true:  “But the administrative agency here has its own check and balances, provided by the Legislative branch.  There’s TIGTA, whose mission is ‘(T)o provide integrated audit, investigative, and inspection and evaluation services that promote economy, efficiency, and integrity in the administration of the internal revenue laws.’ Might could be y’all should take a look at how the Whistleblower Office is doing.”  The tax court really can’t force an investigation, but TIGTA could put some pressure on the WO to do so.  After taking a shot at the IRS, I should note I know nothing of the facts in this case, and Mr. Meidinger may have no right to an award, and TIGTA has flagged various issues in the program.  It just doesn’t feel like significant progress is being made.
  • I found Strugala v. Flagstar Bank  pretty interesting, which dealt with a taxpayer trying to bring a private action under Section 6050H.  Plaintiff Lisa Strugala filed a class action suit against Flagstar Bank for its practice of reporting, and then in future years ceasing to report, capitalized interest on the borrower’s Form 1098s.  Flagstar Bank apparently had a loan that allowed borrowers to pay less than all the interest due each month, resulting in interest being added to the principal amount due.  At year end, the bank would issue a 1098 showing the interest paid and the interest deferred.  In 2011, the bank ceased putting the deferred interest on the form.  Plaintiff claims that the bank’s practice violated Section 6050H, which only requires interest paid to be included.  The over-reporting of interest, she claims, causes tens of thousands of tax returns to be filed incorrectly.  Further, upon the sale of her home, Strugala believed that the bank received accrued interest income that it didn’t report to her.  A portion of the case was dismissed, but the remainder was transferred to the IRS under the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  The Court found the IRS had not stated how the borrower should report interest in this particular situation, and that it should determine whether or not this was a violation.  In addition, Section 6050H didn’t have a private right under the statute.  I was surprised that this was not a case of first impression.  The Court references another action from a few years ago with identical facts.  However, perhaps I shouldn’t not have been, as this is somewhat similar to the BoA case Les wrote about last year, where taxpayers sued Bank of America alleging fraudulent 1098s had been issued relating to restructuring of mortgage loans.
  • The Tax Court has held in Estate of John DiMarco v. Comm’r, that an estate was not entitled to a charitable deduction where individual beneficiaries were challenging the disposition of assets.  Under the statute, the funds have to be set aside solely for charity, and the chance of it benefiting an individual have to be  “so remote as to be negligible.”  Here, the litigation made it impossible to make that claim.
  • My firm has a fairly large maritime practice, which makes sense given our sizable port in West Chester, PA (there is not actually a port, but we do a ton of maritime work).  That made me excited about this crossover tax procedure and maritime  Chief Counsel Advice dealing with Section 1359(a).  Most of our readers probably do not run across Section 1359 too frequently.  Section 1359 provides non-recognition treatment for the sale of a qualifying vessel, similar to what Section 1031 does for like kind real estate transactions.  This applies for entities that have elected the tonnage tax regime under Section 1352, as opposed to the normal income tax regime.  In general, the replacement vessel can be purchased one year before the disposition or three years afterwards.  But, (b)(2) states, “or subject to such terms and conditions as may be specified by the Secretary, on such later date as the Secretary may designate on application by the taxpayer.  Such application shall be made at such time and in such manner as the Secretary may by regulations prescribe.”  Those regulations do not exist.  The CCA determined that even though the regulations do not exist, the IRS must consider a request for an extension of time to purchase a replacement vessel, as the Regs are clearly supposed to deal with extensions by request.
  • From The Hill, another article against the IRS use of private collection agencies.

 

 

 

A Pro Se King Royally Wins Interest Abatement on Employment Taxes

 

Carlton Smith recently emailed us regarding King v. Commissioner, a Tax Court case dealing with interest abatement on employment taxes- a fairly infrequent occurrence. The taxpayer in King successfully obtaining the interest abatement was interesting (bad pun not intended) by itself, but the case also touched on the Court’s jurisdiction to review an abatement action arising from the CDP context where the tax had been paid, and reinforced the Tax Court’s view on what is excessive interest (which is contrary to the IRS’s position and perhaps the most important aspect of the case).

Although Mr. King was pro se, he was a lawyer (50 years of experience) and his tax practice is what gave rise to the employment tax liability.  He was a solo lawyer, but employed at least one person in most quarters from 2002 to 2008.  Apparently, not all employment taxes were paid, and the IRS assessed taxes and penalties of just under $50k.  Most of Mr. King’s assets were real estate or his law practice, which would have been difficult or costly to liquidate.  Mr. King requested an installment agreement, which became a long, drawn out fiasco, resulting in Mr. King being passed around to various agents, TAS, and others in collections.  The IA was eventually denied due to the equity Mr. King had in various assets, and he requested a CDP hearing related to filed lien, which the IRS declined to withdraw.  In October of 2011, Mr. King was finally able to contact Arthur Fonzarelli (come on Henry, you are better than that) and obtain a reverse mortgage to pay the taxes.  Following the payment of the tax, Mr. King petitioned the Tax Court to review the denial of the installment agreement, and the IRS denial of penalty and interest abatement on the employment taxes.

The Court had to grapple with whether or not it could take jurisdiction over a CDP case where the tax had been paid (usually, no), whether interest abatement applied to employment taxes (usually, no), and if the Service’s increasing usual game of pass off and wait could result in excessive interest (usually, no).  As discussed below, the Tax Court for Mr. King (not to be confused with the Court of the King before the King Himself) was persuaded by the regal arguments, and held for the taxpayer on all three issues.

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Jurisdiction

As many of our readers know, in general if a taxpayer pays the assessment that gave rise to the CDP hearing, the Tax Court is divested of jurisdiction over the matter, and a taxpayer is forced to request a refund in a district court or the Court of Federal Claims.  See Sections 6320 and 6330; Green-Thapedi v. Comm’r, 126 TC 1 (2006) (though in the SaltzBook upcoming chapter on CDP we also discuss some cracks in the no refund in a CDP case, an issue Les touched on in in June in the post Recent Order Explores Scope of Tax Court powers in CDP Cases).  In the CDP hearing for Mr. King, however, Appeals considered the collection actions and alternatives, but also reviewed the interest abatement request.  Recent case law has made it clear that the Tax Court views the CDP decision as a final determination regarding the abatement of interest.  Although it is related to the CDP determination on the other matters, the abatement is independent and can provide jurisdiction on its own.  In 2012 and 2013, the Tax Court in Gray v. Comm’r, 138 TC 298,  declined to follow the IRS position that it lacked jurisdiction because the interest had been paid.  It held that it retained its jurisdiction under Section 6404(h); Section 6404(h)(2)(B) provides in interest abatement claims that the Tax Court had overpayment jurisdiction.  The Court, in foot note 12, gave the taxpayer a hand, by laying out how this was a claim for overpayment of interest due to failure to abate, as the petition did not specifically state an overpayment.

Section 6404(e) – (e) is not for “employment taxes”

Mr. King apparently argued that Section 6404(e) should have been a valid provision to rely upon for abatement of the interest related to his employment tax liability.  Section 6404(e) allows for the abatement of interest on any deficiency attributable to the IRS’s unreasonable error or delay, and is frequently relied upon for income tax interest abatement.  Unfortunately for the taxpayer here, there is pesky qualifying language relating to (e)(1)(B) that states the Service can only abate tax described in Section 6212, which restricts abatement to taxes imposed by subtitle A or B or chapter 41, 42, 43, or 44.  This generally includes income, gift, estate, gst and various excise taxes on nonprofits or retirement plans – not employment taxes.  King does not discuss (e)(1)(A), which allows for abatement of “any deficiency attributable in whole or in part to any unreasonable error or delay by [the IRS] in performing a ministerial or managerial act”, which does not contain the same reference to Section 6212.  As (e)(1)(B) speaks of payment of the tax and (e)(1)(A) the assessment of the deficiency, my assumption is the timing on the assessment was not an issue, only the prolonged process of the taxpayer being able to pay.  The Service position on (A) may be that the qualifying language applies to it also, but that may be susceptible to attack – I haven’t really researched the matter, but it seems like the key aspect is reliance on regulations that state the position, which seems outside the scope of the statutory language.

Section 6404(a) and when the IRS causes “excessive” interest

So when is the assessment of interest excess?  Probably not as often as taxpayers believe, but more often than the IRS would like.  Section 6404(e) did not provide relief, but Section 6404(a) provides for the abatement of the portion of an assessment, including interest, which “(1) is excessive in amount…or (3) is erroneously or illegally assessed.”  There is no restriction on the type of tax.

Mr. King claimed that the interest was excessive because of the various delays created by the IRS.  The Service position on this matter is that “excessive” is essentially a restatement of the third option of “erroneously or illegally assessed.”  The Service has lost on this matter before in the Tax Court in H&H Trim & Upholstry v. Commr, TC Memo 2003-9, and Law offices of Michael BL Hepps v. Comm’r, TC Memo 2005-138, so this is not breaking new ground, but good reinforcement of a taxpayer friendly ruling.  The Tax Court in the previous cases had interpreted “excessive” to “include the concept of unfairness under all of the facts and circumstances.”  A bit broader than simply erroneously or illegally assessed.   In H&H Trim, the taxpayer was able to show the interest would not have accrued “but for” the Services dilly-dallying.  In King, the Service argued that the prior case law was incorrect, but also argued that the taxpayer could have made a voluntary payment to stop the interest and was requesting an installment agreement, which would have incurred interest.  The Court essentially held that the taxpayer showed he would have perfected the installment agreement and paid it the underlying amount more quickly but for the IRS taking its sweet time and failing to follow its own IRM procedures in responding to the taxpayer’s IA request (albeit imperfect), and abatement was therefore appropriate.  As to the voluntary payment, the Tax Court stated that Section 6404(a) has no language barring abatement when a portion of the error or delay could have been attributable to the taxpayer (Section 6404(e) has that language).  Even if the taxpayer could have made the payment, the failure to do so did not alleviate the IRS’s requirement to abate.

Overall, a very instructive case on making employment tax and interest abatement claims.  Also helpful for those seeking abatement under Section 6404(a) who are arguing the tax is excessive, if the taxpayer can show that but for the IRS’s actions in inappropriately slowing the process the interest would have been less.

Summary Opinions for the week of 05/01/15

Happy Memorial Day weekend!  We won’t be posting on Monday, but will probably be back in full force on Tuesday.  I know we have a handful of guest posts coming up on really interesting topics and I’m certain Keith and Les have some insightful things to add following ABA.

In the week of May the 1st, we welcomed first time guest poster, Marilyn Ames, who wrote on NorCal Tea Party Patriots v. IRS and disclosure of return information.

Here are the other procedure items from that week:

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  • A recent Tax Court decision brought back the analysis used by the Supreme Court almost 20 years ago on a similar but slightly distinct fact pattern.  The situation can be tough to follow at first because it plays out at the intersection of Sections 6511 and 6512.  It also involves reliance on the earlier Supreme Court decision which caused a change to Section 6512 after it was decided.  In Butts v. Comm’r, the Tax Court denied taxpayers’ request for refund as being untimely.  The taxpayers failed to file in ’07 and ’08.  In 2011 (and 2012), SNODs were issued for 2007 and 2008, and later that year the taxpayer filed for review in the Tax Court.  In 2013, taxpayers filed joint returns, claiming overpayment due to employer withholdings.  The Court stated SCOTUS reviewed an almost identical case in Lundy v. Comm’r.   The issue in both cases was if the refund amount was allowed under Section 6512(b)(3), which allows refunds of any amount paid:

(A) after the mailing of the notice of deficiency;

(B) within the period which would be applicable under section 6511(b)(2), (c), or (d), if on the date of the mailing of the notice of deficiency a claim had been filed (whether or not filed) stating the grounds upon which the Tax Court finds that there is an overpayment; or

(C) within the period which would be applicable under section 6511(b)(2), (c), or (d), in respect of any claim for refund filed within the applicable period specified in section 6511 and before the date of the mailing of the notice of deficiency.

Based on the facts in Butts and Lundy, (A) and (C) do not apply.  In Lundy, SCOTUS stated it considered:

the look-back period for obtaining a refund of overpaid taxes in the…Tax Court under 26 USC 6512(b)(3)(B), and decide[d] whether the Tax Court can awarded a refund of taxes paid more than two years prior to the date on which the [IRS] mailed the taxpayer a notice of deficiency, when, on the date the notice of deficiency was mailed, the taxpayer had not yet filed a return.  We hold that in these circumstances the 2-year look-back period in 6513(b)(3)(B) applies, and the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction to award a refund.

One difference in Butts and Lundy is that in Lundy the taxpayer made its request within three years of the filing date, whereas in Butts the request was made more than three years after the filing date.  Based on a prior version of the statute, Lundy was precluded from obtaining a refund because it was outside of two years and there was not a reference to the three year statute applicable. Section 6512(b)(3) was modified in 1997 by Congress, and now the minimum statute of limitations would be the three years from the filing date.

In Butts, under Section 6512(b)(3)(B), the Court stated it must look to the mailing date of the SNOD as a hypothetical claim date and determine if a timely claim could have been made then based on Section 6511.  This requires a review of the two year statute from the date of taxes paid, and three years from the due date of the return.  The withholdings for 2007 were treated as having been paid on April 15, 2008, while the initial SNOD was issued in June of 2011.  Since both statutes had passed, no claim for refund could be allowed.  There was a similar issue with the 2008 return.

  • Peter Hardy and Carolyn Kendall, attorneys from Post & Schell, and prior guest bloggers here at PT, have posted on Jack Townsend’s Federal Tax Crimes blog (two-timers!) on the Microsoft appeal in In re Warrant to Search a Certain E-mail Account.  The guest post can be found here, and Jack’s summary of related materials on the Stored Communications Act can be found here.  Although the post deals with a drug case, the impact could be far reaching regarding subpoena power over electronic communications in the cloud (including datacenters outside of the US).  Peter and Carolyn tie in the Service’s review of foreign accounts nicely.
  • It’s like speed dating, but it might cost more and you only get lucky if you don’t get picked.  The NY Times has an op-ed on the IRS speed audit, with agency cut backs causing reduced response time for taxpayers, which if not promptly responded to could result in important collection due process rights being forfeited.  The op-ed indicates that the IRS may be sending out follow up letters the same day as the initial letter, which the author argues is in violation of the updated taxpayer bill of rights issued last year.  When you are on the op-ed, check out the comments the NY Times has picked as important.  Carl Smith was highlighted for indicating a few other ways the tax system is failing taxpayers.  This practice may save time for the Examination Division of the IRS but pushes more cases into the collection stream which also impacts the IRS resources.
  • On April 20th, the Tax Court issued a decision in Yuska v. Comm’r, holding the automatic stay invalidated a Notice of Determination Concerning Collection Actions regarding a tax lien that was issued after the bankruptcy petition.  Importantly, the Court declined to follow the IRS’s suggestion that the Court distinguish this case from Smith v. Comm’r, which had similar facts but pertained to a levy.  The timing of events were very important in following Smith, and the Service also argued that the Court should instead follow Prevo v. Comm’r, which was a lien case where the collection action occurred before the BR petition.  In Smith, the Serviced began collection actions, and then the taxpayer filed a bankruptcy petition, followed by the Service issuing a notice of determination concerning the levy, and then the taxpayer petitioning the Tax Court for review of the levy action.  The Court held the continuance of the collection action violated the stay under 11 USC 362(a)(1).  In Prevo, the sustaining of the lien occurred before the BR petition.  As to differentiating between a lien and levy case, the Court found the administrative review of a lien was clearly part of the administrative collection process and subject to the ruling in Smith, even if future administrative review was possible. Although the Court declined to differentiate between the two in this case, Keith noted that if the stay stopped the CDP case there can be important differences.  In a lien case, the NFTL remains valid (if not enforceable) until after the stay is lifted.  In a levy case, the stay prevents the IRS from moving forward with the levy completely.  Keith didn’t read the case, and still came up with something much more insightful and helpful to add.
  • This is becoming a little like an advertisement for Jack Townsend’s Criminal Tax Crimes Blog.  Jack posted on the recent 7th Circuit case, US v. Michaud, which reviewed whether or not the IRS had authority to issue a summons in a criminal matter prior to a DOJ referral.  The statute in question is Section 7602(b) & (d), which was modified after US v. LaSalle Nat’l Bank to make it clear the IRS did have this authority.  The 7th Circuit had some additional thoughts on when the IRS couldn’t issue the summons.  Check out the post for a discussion of that point, and Jack’s always helpful thoughts on the matter.
  • Context is always important.  For instance, being suspended can be very good (we took our daughters rock climbing this weekend, and being suspended by the rope was really helpful), but it can also be pretty bad in the school, professional or corporate context.  Such was the case in Leodis C. Matthews, APC, a CA Corp. v. Comm’r, where the Tax Court held that it lacked jurisdiction  over a deficiency petition brought be a corporation (law firm) that California had suspended its corporate privileges for due to failure to pay state taxes.  Interesting point of law.  Can someone bring the petition on behalf of the corporation so it does not lose its ability to contest the tax?  Timing is also interesting.   Corp is suspended May 1, 2013, and 90 day letter is issued June 30, 2014.  Taxpayer petitions court Oct. 1, 2014 (presumably timely), and had its corporation reinstated November 26, 2014.  You would guess he was trying to deal with his state tax issue during the 90 day period.  I also wonder if there is a way to get limited rights reinstated, so that the corporation could have petitioned the Tax Court.
  • We all hear the scare tactics on the radio about how if you owe more than $10,000, the IRS is going to come and take your assets, steal your children, put you in jail, shoot your dog, etc.  We are lucky enough to know this is BS, and an effort to garner business.  Sometimes, however, the IRS can show up at your premises (probably armed), and take your stuff.  You have to owe a bit more than $10k, and the Service has to jump through a lot of hoops.  In re: The Tax Indebtedness of Voulgarelis is one such writ of entry case.  In Voulgarelis, the taxpayer apparently owed around $300k, possibly more, and ignored six notices of intent to levy.  The Service sought an order authorizing it to enter the premises and levy the tangible property, which was granted in accordance with GM Leasing Corp. v. United States, 429 US 338 (1977).
  • The Service has updated its list of private delivery services that count for the timely mailing is timely filing rules under Section 7502.  The update can be found in Notice 2015-38.  As we’ve discussed before, failure to file these rules can result in harsh results.  These results can be seemingly arbitrary when a taxpayer selects a quicker FedEx/UPS delivery method that isn’t approved, and cannot rely on the rule.
  • In information notice 2015-74, the IRS has reminded businesses of the temporary pilot penalty relief program for small businesses that have failed to properly comply with administrative and reporting requirements for retirement plans.  That program ends June 2nd.