Designated Orders: 7/23 to 7/27 Part One

Patrick Thomas from Notre Dame Law School brings us this week’s designated orders in three parts. After a few lean Designated Order weeks we have an abundance of issues to discuss. Part One begins with a sad case where a disabled taxpayer’s conservator failed to file tax returns for her ward and also apparently failed to adequately assist the taxpayer’s counsel in the CDP hearing. We then take a sharp, brief detour into TEFRA issues. Christine

The Tax Court (primarily Judges Holmes and Gustafson) issued 17 separate designated orders this week, which must at least approach a record number for the period we’ve been reviewing these orders.

Not discussed here are a routine bench opinion from Judge Buch and a couple “Chai ghouls” from Judge Holmes. In one such case, Brown v. Commissioner, the IRS continues to press the argument Caleb noted last week, that penalty approval forms are non-hearsay as statements introduced not for their truth, but for their independent legal significance. Another case from Judge Gustafson involved the six-year statute of limitations for gross omissions of income.

Finally, William Schmidt will be blogging separately about Judge Jacobs’ “order” (in my view, this should read “opinion”) in Taylor v. Commissioner, which grants a default judgment in a deficiency case. Significantly, it upholds a civil fraud penalty and the 10 year EITC ban under IRC § 32(k) without much discussion of the substance for either, or the thorny jurisdictional issues of the latter.

Unconcerned Conservator Provides No Disability Defense in CDP

Docket No. 23949-13L, Iannello v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This petitioner is permanently and totally disabled, but had a conservator, his mother, appointed under state law. In such situations, the conservator steps into the shoes of the individual for all legal purposes—including the filing and payment of the individual’s federal income taxes.

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The conservator’s failure to file petitioner’s 2008 tax return resulted in a substitute-for-return assessment, which eventually resulted in a notice of intent to levy and a CDP appeal, requesting a collection alternative. At the time, petitioner also had liabilities for 2003 and 2004, and hadn’t filed a tax return from 2003 through 2011. In March 2013, the settlement officer (SO) faxed petitioner’s counsel transcripts to complete the unfiled returns, and later rescheduled the May 2013 CDP hearing when counsel requested additional time. At the June hearing, the Form 433-A and delinquent returns were unprepared. The SO gave counsel yet more time, eventually resulting in unsigned, draft returns in August. After still not receiving the requested information, the SO issued a Notice of Determination (NOD) in September, upholding the levy. A few weeks thereafter, counsel finally sent the signed returns to the SO; the 2008 liability was thereby partially abated.

Counsel filed a petition challenging the NOD, primarily arguing that the NOD didn’t note that petitioner was disabled; further, it was difficult to work with the conservator, who traveled during the summer. The petition also noted that the 2008 return should have reduced the SFR assessment. For a time, it seemed that the parties would settle, but eventually Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment.

Judge Holmes finds first that the underlying liability is not at issue, and that therefore, the proper standard of review is abuse of discretion. While the petition focuses on 2008, the Service has now accepted the 2008 return and reduced the liability accordingly. So, there’s no dispute regarding this year.

Moreover, Judge Holmes notes that this issue wasn’t raised in the CDP hearing itself—only afterwards. He cites 26 C.F.R. § 301.6330-1(f)(2), Q&A-F3, which notes that “an issue is not properly raised . . . if consideration is requested but the taxpayer fails to present Appeals with any evidence with respect to that issue after being given a reasonable opportunity to present such evidence.” (emphasis added). While counsel submitted unsigned draft returns for 2008, “those were simply not enough” for Judge Holmes, who cites Beard v. Commissioner for this proposition. I’m not sure I’d agree with the notion that submitting unsigned draft returns is insufficient to raise a liability challenge in a CDP hearing. Does Judge Holmes mean to say that such returns constitute “[no] evidence”? It seems to me there’s a wide distance between the application of the failure to file penalties in Beard and whether an issue is properly raised in an administrative proceeding.

It doesn’t appear that this issue was sufficiently briefed. Petitioner may also have had a “prior opportunity” problem in raising the underlying liability (did he or his conservator receive the 2008 Notice of Deficiency?). And in any case, the Service did adjust 2008 as requested. So Judge Holmes is ultimately correct on the standard of review here (though I am puzzled why the decision does not stick to what seems to me the clearest rationale for upholding Appeals’ determination).

Judge Holmes determined that Appeals didn’t abuse its discretion, even though petitioner’s disability status wasn’t noted in the Notice of Determination. Clearly, the SO considered the disability status and presence of a conservator, as she noted these circumstances in the case file. She also gave counsel a great deal of additional time in preparing the requested returns and financials. After six months from the originally scheduled hearing, she upheld the levy when these documents weren’t forthcoming. Judge Holmes therefore upholds Appeals’ decision and allows the Service to proceed with collection.

An Overview of Partner Assessment & Collection Procedure under TEFRA

Docket No. 23411-14, Freedman v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In Freedman, Judge Halpern nicely sets forth the assessment and collection procedures against individual partners stemming from partnership-level adjustments under TEFRA.

Freedman was the sole member of an LLC, and the grantor and sole beneficiary of a trust, which held all of the interests in the partnership Pinnacle Trading Opportunities. The Service previously adjusted Pinnacle’s tax return for 1999, which resulted in a Tax Court decision under docket number 19291-05. In that case, the Court decided to disregard Pinnacle as a partnership; it also found under section 183 that Mr. Freedman did not have a profit motive for Pinnacle’s transactions. The Court also reduced Mr. Freedman’s capital contributions to $0, disallowed foreign currency trading losses, and disallowed other deductions. Finally, the Court applied a 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty under section 6662.

Following that case, which concluded in 2013, the Service issued a Notice of Deficiency to Mr. Freedman individually. This Notice mirrored the adjustments for the partnership, given that Mr. Freedman was the only person involved in the partnership.  Critically, the Notice also applied the 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty. Mr. Freedman petitioned the Tax Court.

Respondent filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, essentially arguing that all the adjustments in this Notice were adjudicated in the prior proceeding. Under TEFRA, tax items related to a partnerships are adjusted in a partnership-level proceeding; under section 6225(a), no collection is permitted against the partners until that proceeding is concluded.

After that proceeding is concluded, however, the Service may immediately assess and collect tax against individual partners in some circumstances. Under section 6230(a)(1), the Service need not resort to individual deficiency procedures if no partner-level determinations are necessary to calculate the resulting tax due; that is, if a tax adjustment results from mere “computational adjustments” under section 6231(a)(6). For example, if a partnership-item adjustment increases an individual taxpayer’s adjusted gross income, this may result in a reduced medical expense deduction because of the 10% AGI floor. If further determinations are necessary to calculate the partner’s liability resulting from “affected items” from the partnership-level determination—for example, a partner’s basis in a partnership—the Service must follow deficiency procedures.

Penalties are also generally calculated at the partnership level under TEFRA under section 6221, and may be assessed and collected against the partner without further deficiency procedures under section 6230(a)(2)(A)(I). This makes challenging penalties difficult if any partner-level defenses exist; partners are relegated to refund suits in these cases.

In Freedman, petitioner generally insists that the Court must determine Mr. Freedman’s outside basis in the partnership, and as such, the Service had to resort to deficiency procedures to assess tax against him individually. Among the multiple substantive adjustments, the Court finds that an outside basis calculation—while an “affected item” from any partnership proceeding—simply isn’t relevant to the calculation of Mr. Freedman’s individual tax liability. For example, the Court determined that Pinnacle’s allowable foreign currency trading losses and interest expenses were $0; it also determined that Pinnacle had no profit motive. As such, the Court agrees with Respondent that it has no jurisdiction to entertain these items, and partially grants Respondent’s motion as to these adjustments.

Regarding the penalty, Mr. Freedman sticks with his insistence on outside basis, arguing that any penalty resulting from an outside basis adjustment can be properly adjudicated in this forum. He concedes that any penalties resulting from partnership-level adjustments aren’t properly contestable here.

Again, Judge Halpern finds that outside basis simply doesn’t enter into it. The penalty here was entirely based on partnership-level items—specifically, the contributions to the partnership. So the Court lacks jurisdiction as to that portion of the penalty.

But Judge Halpern also finds that the prior case’s penalties weren’t based on the adjustments to interest expenses or foreign currency trading losses. To the extent the Service calculated a penalty on these items, Mr. Freedman can raise partner-level defenses in this deficiency proceeding.

Designated Orders June 18 – 22: Mailing Issues

Caleb Smith from University of Minnesota brings us this week’s designated orders. Two of the orders present interesting issues regarding the mail and the Court’s jurisdiction. One concerns the timing of the mailing by the petitioner while the other concerns the location of the mailing by the IRS. As with almost all mailing issues, the jurisdiction of the Court hangs in the balance. Keith

There is yet no sign of summer vacation in D.C., as the Tax Court continued to issue designated orders the week of June 18. Indeed, if the Tax Court judges are hoping to get away from the office for a while their orders don’t show it: one of the more interesting ones comes from Judge Gustafson raising sua sponte an interesting jurisdictional question for the parties to address. We begin with a look at that case.

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The Importance of Postmarks: Murfam Enterprises LLC, et.al v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 8039-16 (order here)

Most of this order deals with Judge Gustafson essentially directing the parties to play nice with each other. The order results from petitioner’s motion to compel the IRS to respond to interrogatories and to compel the IRS to produce documents. Since litigation in Tax Court is largely built around informal discovery and the stipulation process, there usually needs to be some sort of break-down between the parties before the Court will step-in to compel discovery.

One could read this order for a study of the boundaries of zealous (or over-zealous) representation of your client. Some of the deadlines proposed by petitioners for the IRS to respond appear to be less than fair, and it does not appear that petitioners tried too hard to work things out with the IRS prior to filing the motions to compel -according to the IRS, only one call was made, before business hours, without leaving a message. All of this leads to a mild tsk-tsk from Judge Gustafson: “communication during the discovery process and prior to the filing of the subject motions has been inadequate.”

But the more interesting issue, in my opinion, is the jurisdictional one that Judge Gustafson raises later. It is, after all, an issue that could render all of the discovery (and the entire case) largely moot: did Murfam mail the petition on time?

Judge Gustafson notes that under the applicable law, a tax matters partner must petition the court within 90 days after the notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment (FPAA) is mailed. We are told that the IRS mailed the FPAA on December 21, 2015, which we may as well accept as true for present purposes. (As a practitioner, one should note that the IRS date on the notice is not always the date of the actual mailing, which would control. See post here. Assuming the FPAA was actually mailed on December 21, 2015, Murfam would need to mail their petition by March 21, 2016, because 90 days later (March 20) falls on a Sunday. See IRC 7503.

This appears to be an easy question: did Murfam mail the petition by March 21, 2016? Because the Court did not actually receive the petition until April 2, 2016, we get into the “timely mailing” rules of IRC 7502. And here things get interesting. The envelope in which the petition was sent has a mostly illegible postmark. The day the petition was mailed is smudged, and may be either March 16 or March 26. The problem is, only one of those two dates (i.e. the 16th) is a timely mailing.

Carl Smith recently posted on the Treasury Regulation on point for these sorts of issues, with the interesting question of whether there is any room left for the common law mailbox rule in the same sphere as the Treasury Regulation. A slightly different question exists in Murfam, and the regulation specifically provides what to do with “illegible postmarks” at Treas. Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(A). Essentially, it provides that the burden of proof is on the sender to show the correct date. How, exactly, would one be expected to do that? That is where things would likely become difficult, and the practitioner may need to be creative. Though not quite the same issue, my favorite case for proving mailing is the Estate of Wood v. C.I.R., 909 F.2d 1155 (8th Cir. 1990) taking place in small-town Easton, Minnesota… a place where, much like Cheers, everybody knows your name. So much so that the “postmistress” was able to credibly testify that she specifically remembered sending the tax return in the mail on the day in question. It is unclear whether Murfam could rely on similar credible testimony to prove the date of the mailing.

I would also note that, at present, this is likely more of an academic point than anything else: the parties can stipulate that the petition was timely filed (and while I cannot access their stipulations, my suspicion is that they came to an agreement on that point… how much more efficiently things do progress when the parties work together). But, apart from again serving as a reminder on the importance of sending (certain) mail certified, the point to keep in mind is the evidentiary issues that can easily arise when mailing important documents.

The Importance of Addresses: Gamino v. C.I.R., dkt. # 12773-17S (order here)

Lest the importance of proper mailing issues be doubted, it should be noted that there was another designated order issued the same day primarily concerning mailing addresses. In Gamino, the IRS sent out a Notice of Deficiency (NOD) to the taxpayer at two different addresses. Those delivery attempts were in May of 2015. The petition that the taxpayer sent, and which Judge Guy dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, was mailed in May of 2017. Clearly the 90 days have passed. The only argument remaining for the taxpayer would involve, not the date of the mailing, but the address.

Neither of the NODs appear to have been “actually” received by the taxpayer at either address, although that may well have been by the taxpayers refusal to accept them -the NOD sent to the address the taxpayer was known to live at was marked “unclaimed” after multiple delivery attempts. However, actual receipt is not necessary for an effective NOD so long as it is sent to the “last known address.” Here the Court does not go into great detail of how to determine what the correct last known address would be. In fact, it appears as if that may be an issue, since the Court is squarely confronted with whether it was an effective mailing. But rather than dredge up the last filed tax return (perhaps Mr. Gamino never files?) or the other traditional methods the Service relies on for determining the last known address (see Treas. Reg. 301.6212-2) the Court relies on the petitioner effectively shooting himself in the foot during a hearing. That is, the fact that at a hearing on the issue Mr. Gamino “acknowledged that he had been living at the [address one of the NODs was sent to] for over 10 years.” No other information or argument is given as to why this should be treated as the proper “last known address,” but “under the circumstances” the Court is willing to treat it as such.

This order leaves me a bit torn. From a purely academic standpoint, it is not clear to me that just because the taxpayer was actually living somewhere that place should be treated as their “last known address.” In fact, that seems to go against the core concept behind the last known address and constructive receipt: it isn’t where you actually live, it is where the IRS (reasonably should) believe you to live. So the IRS sending a letter to anywhere other than my last known address should, arguably, only be effective on actual receipt.

On the other hand, a taxpayer shouldn’t be able to throw a wrench in tax administration just by refusing mail from the IRS. One could argue that such a refusal is “actual receipt” of the mail. In that respect, I would bet that Judge Guy got to the correct outcome in this case. But the order is nonetheless something of an anomaly on that point, since there should be much easier ways to show “last known address” and “actually living” at the address isn’t one of them. My bet is that the IRS couldn’t point to the address on the last filed return as the taxpayer’s “last known address” because that address may well have been a P.O. box (where one of the two NODs was sent, and returned as undeliverable). Taxpayers certainly shouldn’t be able circumvent the valid assessment of tax by providing undeliverable addresses… Although, even if you don’t “live” at a P.O. box, if that was the address you used on your last tax return, shouldn’t that be enough for a valid last known address? Truly, my mind boggles at these questions.

Changed Circumstances and Collection Due Process: The Importance of Court Review

English v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 16134-16L (order here)

On occasion, I wonder just how IRS employees view the role of “collection due process” in the framework of tax administration. Is it a chance to earnestly work with taxpayers on the best way of collecting (or perhaps foregoing) collecting tax revenue? Or is it just one more expensive and time-consuming barrier to collecting from delinquents? With some IRS employees (and counsel) I get the feeling that if they had to choose, they would characterize it as the latter. The above order strikes me as an example of that mindset.

Mr. English appears to be pursuing a collection alternative to levy, and is dealing with serious medical issues. I obviously do not have access to his financial details, but it should be noted that he is pro se, and that his filing fee was waived by the Court. This isn’t to guarantee that Mr. English may be dealing with financial hardship, but it is a decent indicator.

Further, this does not appear to be a case where the taxpayer simply never files a tax return and/or never submits financial information statements. In this case, the issue was the quality of the financial statements that were submitted (apparently incomplete, and with some expenses unsubstantiated). IRS appeals determined that Mr. English could full pay and sustained the levy. IRS counsel likely thought they could score a quick win on the case through summary judgment.

But that does not happen in this case, and for good reason.

Since the time of the original CDP hearing, Mr. English’s medical (and by extension, financial) position has seriously deteriorated. For one, he is now unemployed. For another, his left leg was amputated above the knee. The amputation occurred in late September, 2016. The unemployment was in July of 2017. In other words, both occurred well before the IRS filed a motion for summary judgment in 2018. Why did IRS counsel think that summary judgment upholding the levy recommendation, made by an IRS Appeals officer that was confronted with neither of those issues, was right decision? I have truly no idea. But I’ve come across enough overworked IRS attorneys to have a sense…

Fortunately, we have Judge Buch who apparently does appreciate the value of CDP. It is not clear whether Mr. English made any motion for remand to IRS appeals (it actually appears that he did not), but Judge Buch sees Mr. English’s “material change in circumstance” as good enough reason for it. And so, at the very least, the judicial review afforded CDP hearing provides Mr. English with another chance to make his case.

Odds and Ends

The remaining designated orders will not be given much analysis. One illustrates the opposite side of Mr. English in a CDP case: the taxpayer that does pretty much nothing other than petition the Court, while giving essentially no financials or other reasons for the IRS Appeals determination to be upheld (order here). The other deals with an apparently wrong-headed argument by an estate to exclude an IRS expert report (order here).

 

Designated Orders in Krug v. Commissioner, 5/29/18 & 6/13/18

Patrick Thomas and William Schmidt today discuss two designated orders by Judge Halpern in an unusual whistleblower case. The Court seeks further explication of a Social Security Act provision relating to inmate services, which Respondent alleges dooms the petitioner’s claim. Patrick and William take us through the tangle of applicable statutes. Christine

Docket No. 13502-17W, Gregory Charles Krug v. C.I.R. (Order here).

As promised in Patrick and William’s recent designated orders posts, this post looks at Krug v. Commissioner, a whistleblower case assigned to Judge Halpern, and is co-authored by both Patrick and William.

This order stems from Respondent’s motion for summary judgment, which actually resulted in two designated orders: the June 13 order discussed below, and one from May 29. In both orders, the Court is confused by Respondent’s arguments, and as such, declines to dispose of the motion without further argument. The May 29 order sets the motion for a hearing during a trial session on June 4. The later order discusses that hearing, but still reserves judgment until Respondent provides further information.

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Specifically, Respondent asks the Court to uphold the IRS denial of a whistleblower award, because the entity against which the whistleblower complained was not required to withhold employment taxes or federal income tax. Respondent submitted a Form 11369, Confidential Evaluation Report on Claim for Award, which evaluated Petitioner’s administrative claim for a whistleblower award. This form included the following language:

Social Security and Medicare wages are excluded from inmate services under the provision of Section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act. The Federal income tax withholding is dependent on the amount of wages paid which is less than the minimum wage. FIT on these wages would be dependent on other income (investment) earned by the inmates, and whether or not they file a joint return. Because of these unknown factors, this claim will be declined.

So, it appears the whistleblower notified the IRS that a prison was not withholding Social Security, Medicare, or Federal income taxes on wages paid to inmates. The IRS denied a whistleblower award claim, noting that the prison has no such withholding requirements.

Judge Halpern does not understand the relevance of the explanation. The Federal income tax reference seems inapplicable, he says, given that petitioner’s claim relates to “employment taxes.” He further notes that though section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act “does address services by inmates, we do not understand the relevance of the provision to petitioner’s claim.” In the May 29 order, he asked Respondent to clarify its argument at the June 4 trial session.

Apparently, Respondent’s explanation was insufficient. Judge Halpern notes in the June 13 order that, “as indicated in the transcript of the hearing, the Court was not satisfied with counsel’s explanation of why payments for the services of inmates are not subject to withholding for employment taxes.” Petitioner did not appear for the hearing. In fact, the petitioner has not been responsive to orders beginning February 8. Looking at the docket, there could be an issue of whether the Court has the petitioner’s correct address.

To us, it seems that Judge Halpern and Respondent are talking past each other. Judge Halpern is correct, in that, on its face, section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 418) has nothing to do with withholding obligations. Rather, Section 218 provides a mechanism through which State and local governments may allow their employees to participate in Social Security and Medicare. Originally, States were not automatically obligated to participate in these programs. After the addition of Code section 3121(b)(7)(F) in 1991, with limited exceptions, all state employees are required to participate in Social Security, including its withholding requirements. Today, all states have a Section 218 agreement with the federal government.

Separately, Code section 3101(a) imposes Social Security and Medicare taxes, which section 3102(a) requires to be withheld from employee wages. Section 3121(b) defines “employment” broadly, with a number of exceptions. An exception exists for any employee of “a State . . . or any instrumentality . . . “. IRC § 3121(b)(7). Importantly, an exception to the exception exists for any states who have entered into an agreement with the federal government under Section 218 of the Social Security Act, or where the employee is “not a member of a retirement system of such State . . .” IRC § 3121(b)(7)(E), (F). As noted above, all 50 states have these agreements, and all state employees are generally—agreement or not—required to withhold these taxes.

And there’s where the rubber meets the road: Inmates of penal institutions are, under Social Security Act section 218(c)(6), excluded from any agreement under that section, as the Service notes. Further, even where no agreement is in force, section 3121(b)(7)(F)(ii) specifically exempts withholding obligations for state employers for wages paid to inmates in a penal institution.

Regarding the withholding of federal income tax, while such a tax might not be strictly characterized as an “employment tax”, employers are nevertheless generally obligated to withhold such taxes from employee wages. Reporting such a failure could charitably fall under the ambit of “employment taxes” when a pro se taxpayer uses this term. And further, section 3401 contains no blanket waiver on the definitions of “wages” or “employment” in mandating withholding obligations under section 3402(a)(1).

So, to us, there appears to be a live issue regarding income tax withholding requirements, but a fairly straightforward argument that no Social Security or Medicare tax withholdings were required. The Service says in the Form 11369 that the employer needed more information to make this determination (other income, marital status, etc.). But isn’t it the employer’s problem that they didn’t collect that information?

We’re also confused why the IRS would make only this argument. A whistleblower award under section 7623 is premised upon the IRS “proceed[ing] with any administrative or judicial action described in [7623(a)] based on information brought to the Secretary’s attention by an individual.” The “administrative or judicial action” could include “(1) detecting underpayments of tax, or (2) detecting and bringing to trial and punishment persons guilty of violating the internal revenue laws or conniving at the same…” If Respondent’s argument is that the prison in question wasn’t required to withhold, then surely the IRS also did not take “administrative or judicial action” to detect an underpayment or other malfeasance. That seems a much stronger argument for upholding the denial.

Further, Judge Halpern, in his second order, advises Respondent’s counsel to review Kasper v. Commissioner, 150 No. 2 (2018), which we’ve discussed before. Kasper holds (1) Tax Court review of a whistleblower award denial is generally limited to the administrative record; (2) the standard of review is abuse of discretion; and (3) the Chenery rule applies, meaning that the Tax Court can only uphold the Service’s decision on the same grounds that the Service itself made the decision.

How does Kasper affect this case? Because the standard of review is now conclusively an abuse of discretion standard in the Tax Court, it’s easier for the Tax Court to uphold the denial of a whistleblower claim.

But we may also be missing a critical fact: did the whistleblower’s claim relate to unpaid wages, as in Kasper? Without access to the other documents in the Tax Court’s docket, we can’t know for sure. If so, then Judge Halpern seems to suggest that regardless of whether a prison is required to withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes for wages paid to inmates, the Court could uphold the decision on the basis that no withholding was necessary, because no wages were paid. But, if that’s the case, why not just order that here? If only Tax Court motions and briefs were publicly accessible, we wouldn’t be left to wonder.

The June 13 order requires Respondent and Petitioner to file a memorandum on or before August 3 addressing the Court’s concerns with the Form 11369’s relevance. In the meantime, the Court has taken the motion for summary judgment under advisement.

Designated Orders: 5/21/18 to 5/25/18 by Caleb Smith

In this installment of designated orders covering the week of May 21, guest blogger Caleb Smith of the University of Minnesota covers several deficiency cases in which the taxpayer failed to carry their burden of proof. Professor Smith also updates us on a few Graev issues including a Chief Counsel Notice from June 6 which will be the subject of additional discussion on this blog and elsewhere. Christine

Knowing When To Hold ‘Em and When To Fold ‘Em

Chief Special Trial Judge Carluzzo cleaned house with designated orders through three bench opinions on S-Cases. These cases didn’t have much in common except that the taxpayer probably never should have gone to trial. Two of the cases deal mostly with evidence and credibility issues (and the same IRS trial attorney for both), and one deals with too-good-to-be true legal arguments. We’ll start with the evidence/credibility issues.

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It is not uncommon that I come across IRS examiners (or law students) that harbor the belief that there is one particular document (and one particular document only) that a taxpayer needs in order to “prove” something. For law students, I suspect this is an offshoot of reading mostly appellate decisions where the facts are already set in stone. For IRS examiners, I suspect this is an offshoot of reading mostly the IRM and mistaking it for the law.

In any event, most of the time there are some documents that are better than others and some sources of evidence that are more reliable (and likely to be considered credible) than others, but usually your job is simply to show something convincing to the finder of fact. Where documentary evidence should exist (for example, a lease or bank records) you can be sure that the IRS is going to bring that issue up. Part of being a lawyer is gauging the likelihood of success on the evidence you do have, and if there is a compelling and credible narrative for why certain documents don’t exist, advising and planning accordingly. Fuller v. C.I.R. (dkt. # 14627-17S) is one instance where candid advice on review of the evidence would be “you have no chance in court.” Hadrami v. C.I.R. (dkt. # 11377-17S) is another.

In Fuller, the taxpayer claimed some rather large itemized deductions – the size of which (relative to income) likely tripped up the IRS smell-test known as Discriminant Inventory Function (DIF) selection. Here, we are not given the taxpayer’s reported income, but we do have some fairly eye-popping deductions: $41,628 for medical, $24,237 for charitable contributions, and $12,567 for unreimbursed employee expenses. Oh, and $850 in tax preparation fees for purchasing tax preparation software (the Turbo-Tax super-elite premium package?). Failing the smell-test, what evidence does the taxpayer have to convince the fact-finder of the propriety of her deductions?

Not a scrap of paper. And testimony that basically works against her as a matter of law. These are not auspicious circumstances.

To begin with, the charitable deductions already present an uphill battle since they require strict substantiation. Ms. Fuller has nothing for them, but does have the (apparent) excuse that her records have been destroyed by household floods. The loss of records in a flood or disaster area is an actual, recognized exception, but it isn’t going to do the trick here – at least in part because the taxpayer can’t explain why other third party records (presumably not subject to floods) don’t exist. Why no bank records of these massive contributions? The same question applies with equal force to the medical expenses and tax preparation fees.

The unreimbursed employee expenses of $12,567 present a different issue. Apparently these expenses stem from a home office. Two immediate legal issues come up: (1) as an employee, is this home office maintained for the convenience of the employer (see Hamacher v. C.I.R., 94 T.C. 348, (1990)), and (2) the usual killer, is the home office exclusively used on a regular basis as the principal place of business (see IRC 280A(c)(1))? Since the taxpayer’s own testimony is that the “home office” is her dining room table where she worked a couple days a week, winning advice would be that she is “unlikely” to succeed. And sure enough, she does not.

Hadrami is a twist on Fuller: documents exist and are introduced by the taxpayer, but they only serve to undermine his testimony. Hadrami was (or claimed to be) a limousine driver, providing his lucky riders a taste of the good life in a 2003 Lincoln Town Car… that had at least 291,380 miles on it in 2012. When Hadrami claims to have purchased the car from the limousine operating company, “Rim Limo,” in 2013 the odometer (allegedly) read 320,673 miles. Interestingly enough, when the DMV has record of the taxpayer purchasing the car in 2014, the odometer continued to read 320,673 miles. Judge Carluzzo notes that something is amiss.

Judge Carluzzo determines that it is doubtful that the taxpayer actually owned the vehicle for the tax year in question (2013). This is especially so as the Rim Limo job required him to park the limo and “return home” in his own car. The mileage log offered by the taxpayer “raises more questions than it answers.” One interesting substantive legal note in this case deserves mention on that point, which is that these expenses were NOT subject to the strict substantiation requirements we usually see trip up taxpayers, and accordingly the Cohan rule would apply. Judge Carluzzo notes that the definition of passenger automobiles (i.e. the listed property usually prompting strict substantiation) does NOT include vehicles used by the taxpayer directly in the trade or business of transporting persons for compensation or hire. See IRC 280F(d)(5)(B). As someone who routinely comes across Uber drivers subject to audit with partial, but not sterling, records of expenses, I find this to be a noteworthy point.

The taxpayer also offers his Wells Fargo bank records to substantiate other expenses (for example, over $1000 in meals and entertainment)… but apparently does not actually delineate where in his records those expenses are to be found. Handing a stack of papers to someone and saying “please find deductions for me” is what you do with your tax preparer, not a Tax Court Judge or IRS attorney. Speaking of tax preparers…

The return that prompted this whole ordeal apparently was prepared with the help of a tax “professional.” As usual, the “professional” saw nothing wrong with claiming (and the taxpayer nothing wrong with incurring) a $22,253 net loss from driving a limo. I suppose one goes into the limo business more for the love of carting around prom-goers than for the money. That, or some people just can’t say no to tax outcomes that seem too good to be true…

Which brings us to the last in Judge Carluzzo’s trilogy of bench opinions: Rykert v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 10427-17. Rather than a “tax professional” preparing questionable returns, Judge Carluzzo worries that Mr. Rykert may have been taken in by “advice he was receiving from an organization whose status to practice law is questionable.” In other words, the “only suckers pay tax” crowd that appear to have found technicalities with every aspect of our tax administration. This particular strain appears to be challenging who actually has the authority to sign a Notice of Deficiency at the IRS and what makes for a valid Notice of Deficiency (the taxpayer does not appear to disagree with any of the substantive items therein).

With what appears to be very genuine concern for a misguided petitioner, Judge Carluzzo does not throw out the case but instead grants an oral motion for continuance in the hope that Petitioner secures counsel and the matter resolves itself without trial. Presumably, that counsel will know whether to hold or fold. As to whether petitioner heeds that advice, one can only hope. A similar designated order (this time from Judge Cohen) suggests that some taxpayers probably just won’t take advice when it isn’t the outcome they want. In Loetscher v. C.I.R., dkt. # 10197-17L, the petitioner raises numerous tax protestor or otherwise frivolous arguments, and is warned of the possibility of penalties up to $25,000. Judge Cohen tries valiantly to bring the light of reason to the petitioner, but notes that the petitioner “failed to consult with the volunteer lawyers present and available” and “when the Court made a last attempt to persuade her to abandon the erroneous approach she [the petitioner] responded ‘I’m sticking to what I said about that.’” Not surprisingly, petitioner soon lost her case.

Graev Updates

The most substantive Graev order (found here and dealing with jeopardy assessments) has already been dealt with earlier in a stand-alone post here. I commend readers that haven’t had a chance to read it, and particularly the insightful comments posted thereunder.

A second Graev designated order was issued by Judge Holmes in Humiston v. C.I.R., dkt. # 25787-16L. This order provides still more insight on this rapidly developing area of law. It does so on two areas: (1) under what circumstances a taxpayer must specifically raise the issue of IRC 6571(b) compliance, and (2) with much less detail, what penalties are exempt IRC 6751(b)(2)(B) as “automatically calculated by electronic means.”

On the issue of whether a taxpayer must specifically raise the issue of IRC 6751 compliance, Judge Holmes raises a few questions. First, Judge Holmes notes that the taxpayer did not put IRC 6751 compliance at issue, and that generally that means it must be conceded. Since it is a summary judgement motion by the IRS, the taxpayer is pro se, and the issue is “cutting edge,” Judge Holmes ultimately lets the taxpayer off the hook for that potential problem. But what is interesting to me is how Judge Holmes phrases what the “error” is. This is a collection due process case, and the problem isn’t that the taxpayer specifically fails to put the penalty at issue. It is that the taxpayer doesn’t raise the issue of the settlement officer (SO) failing to verify all applicable law was followed per IRC 6330(c)(1). This potentially bolsters the reading that in a CDP case, verifying IRC 6751(b) compliance is part and parcel of the SO’s responsibilities under IRC 6330(c)(1) -which would be especially important for taxpayers who failed to challenge a penalty on a Notice of Deficiency that they previously (actually) received. The recently decided precedential opinion in Blackburn v. C.I.R., 150 T.C. No. 9 (2018) somewhat addresses this issue, but that case mostly stands for the proposition that there is no requirement to “look behind” the supervisory approval, if it exists. Although the boilerplate “I verified that all applicable law was followed” will not suffice on its own, some written record of supervisory approval is likely enough. A very recent Chief Counsel memorandum (CC-2018-006) describes the section 6751(b) verification requirement in a CDP case as as part of the section 6330(c) requirement even where the liability is not at issue, but notes that the IRS does not have the burden of production in such a case. In other words, the taxpayer may need to do a little more to put it at issue before the court.

Although it was only a footnote in a non-precedential designated order, one other aspect of the Humiston decision bears mention. It isn’t immediately clear whether the IRS argued that the penalty at issue (in this case, a Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (TFRP)) did not need section 6751 compliance, and it appears as if the SO simply failed to consider it at all. Nonetheless, Judge Holmes puts a stamp of disapproval on the notion that TFRPs would not need to meet IRC 6751(b) requirements,  both because they are penalties “under the code” and because it is doubtful to Judge Holmes’ mind that they could be automatically calculated through electronic means (the IRC 6751(b)(2)(B)) exception). This is important because in Blackburn the IRS explicitly made the argument in the alternative that IRC 6751 didn’t apply to TFRPs. The Court didn’t rule on that issue because it found compliance by the IRS anyway. My reading of the not-so-subtle tea leaves in Judge Holmes’ designated order is that the Court would almost certainly find section 6751 to apply to TFRPs if that issue was squarely before it.

Final Clean Up

There were two other designated orders for the week of May 21 that will not be discussed in this post. One was from Judge Jacobs granting a motion for continuance and remand (found here), and one was from Judge Thornton denying a motion to vacate or revise the Court’s opinion (found here).

Designated Orders: 11/20-11/24

 Professor Samantha Galvin of University of Denver Sturm College of Law brings us Designated Orders for the week ending November 24. The post looks at an order concerning a request to seal records and two interesting bench opinions. One bench opinion concerns the challenges proving deduction of vehicle expenses when a taxpayer has multiple sources of income and multiple cars. The other shows the dangers of petitioning the Tax Court when the return in question has other questionable items that could lead to a deficiency greater than initially proposed in a notice of deficiency–especially when the taxpayer fails to participate in the case beyond filing the petition. Les

Only five orders were designated for the week ending November 24, and the orders not discussed are here (granting respondent’s motion to dismiss and imposing a 6673 penalty) and here (granting petitioner’s motion for protective order).

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The Penleys’ Privacy

Docket No: 13243-15, Penley v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The Penleys are back in the designated order spotlight. It’s unclear why Judge Wherry is continuing to highlight their case, but this most recent designated order addresses petitioners’ motion to seal the case pursuant to Rule 103(a) to which respondent objects. This motion comes after petitioners were denied a motion for reconsideration in October.

Petitioners state that respondent failed to redact their social security numbers and other sensitive information from some court filings which resulted in theft of either their or a witness’s identity and a telephone scam. Petitioners did not provide any proof of this which appears to be a recurring theme for them.

The Court agrees that the sensitive information should be redacted. The Court also addresses a specific instance where respondent did not redact the petitioners’ SSNs in accordance to Rule 27(a), but respondent had subsequently corrected the error by substituting the unredacted copy with a redacted copy. The unredacted copy was removed from the public record and sealed.

Some unredacted information, not under seal was submitted by petitioners themselves, which generally means they have waived the protection of the privacy rules. Another order dealt with a similar issue and was highlighted in a previous PT post .

The Court balances the public needs for fairness and truth which are satisfied by making court records publicly available with the need, pursuant to Rule 103(a), to protect petitioners or witnesses from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.

To balance these competing interests, the Court decides a less drastic alternative to sealing the record using Rule 27(h) should be used and denies petitioners’ motion to seal the entire case. Rule 27(h) permits the petitioners to correct their inadvertent disclosure by submitting a redacted, substitute filing. The Court also allows petitioners to notify respondent of any other unredacted documents, and that may be the last time we will see the Penleys.

Miles and miles

Docket No: 10629-14, Asong-Morfaw v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This is the first of two designated orders from the week that contained bench opinions. Bench opinions are permitted under I.R.C. 7459(b) and Rule 152(b), and like designated orders cannot be cited as precedent. Not all bench opinions become designated orders, so there is a reason these are being highlighted – perhaps to serve as means of educating the public and pro se petitioners.

The first bench opinion involves whether a petitioner was entitled to take the vehicle expenses he had claimed on his 2010 tax return. Petitioner worked at a translator, tax preparer, and part-time employee at a center for mentally ill individuals in the year at issue.

Petitioner originally claimed $16,251 in vehicle expenses in connection with his translation business and during the audit stage, he was disallowed all but $1,743 of the expenses. Petitioner states that he had driven 3,485 miles but his mileage log only listed 1,416 miles. At trial, he testified that he actually had three cars which he used, along with other members of his family, for mixed business and personal use.

One of those vehicles is a Toyota RAV and petitioner purchased this vehicle in April of 2010. Petitioner alleges that he only used the Toyota RAV for business, so he wants to take actual repair costs and bonus depreciation under section 179. The Court starts chipping away at this argument and petitioner reveals that he also used the Toyota to commute to his part-time employment, so those miles are personal rather than business-related.

As a result of the mixed business and personal use, all of petitioner’s vehicles, including the Toyota, are listed property under section 280F, so if petitioner wishes to take actual expenses rather than mileage, he must determine what percentage of the vehicle use was qualified business use. Petitioner fails to allocate between personal and business miles for his three cars and it was impossible for the Court to determine the use percentage based on the record.

Then the Court analyzes whether petitioner is entitled to bonus depreciation. Section 168(k) allows for 50% depreciation in the year a vehicle is placed in service, or 100% if acquired between 9/8/2010 and 1/1/2012. The Toyota was placed in service on 4/17/2010, so it is not eligible for 100% bonus depreciation. The Toyota is also not eligible for 50% depreciation, because petitioner did not prove that it was predominantly used for business purposes, so it was not qualified property.

The Court allows the amount the auditor originally allowed while acknowledging that the government is being generous. Petitioner is entitled to mileage for 3,485 miles even though his mileage log reflected less.

Respondent Meets Burden without Petitioner Present

Docket No: 16860-16 S, Wallace v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This second bench opinion may be an example of what can happen when petitioner does not participate in the trial, even when the burden with respect to some items has shifted to respondent. The following issues are before the Court: 1) cancelled debt income, 2) filing status, 3) dependency exemption, 4) earned income tax credit, 5) itemized deductions and 6) education credits.

Only the cancelled debt was raised in the notice of deficiency, but respondent raised the remaining issues in his answer. Respondent has the burden to any new matter or increases in deficiency raised in an answer pursuant to Rule 142(a)(1). Petitioner did not provide evidence on any of the issues, and even though the burden was on respondent for most of the issues, petitioner still did not fair well.

With respect to each issue:

Since petitioner did not appear nor provide any evidence about the cancelled debt, the Court finds for respondent. Cancelled debt is an issue that we see in our clinic often because many taxpayers don’t understand that cancelled debt is taxed as income, unless an exception or exclusion applies.

Petitioner filed as head of household and his wife filed as single. The Court determined petitioner was not entitled to head of household status because he was married during the whole year. The burden is on respondent who offers proof that petitioner had filed a bankruptcy petition with his wife in the year at issue reflecting that they were married, and also used a married filing status on the following year’s return. Head of household status also requires that the petitioner has a qualifying dependent – which is the next issue the Court analyzes.

Again, respondent has the burden and proves that petitioner’s son, who was claimed as a dependent, was 25 years old in the year at issue which makes him too old to be a qualifying child even if he was a student, and there is no evidence that he was disabled. Respondent also proves that petitioner’s son earned more than $8,000 in the year, which is too much income for a qualifying relative.

After finding the petitioner ineligible for head of household status and the dependency exemption for his son, the Court analyzes whether he would qualify for the earned income tax credit (EITC). Respondent proves petitioner’s AGI exceeds the income limitations for taxpayers without qualifying children, so he is not entitled to EITC.

As to the itemized deductions, petitioner claimed tax preparation fees but had not used a paid preparer. He also claimed substantial medical expenses, but the expenses had been discharged in bankruptcy.

Petitioner claimed education credits but the IRS did not receive any information, such as a form 1098-T, from a qualified educational institution reporting that petitioner had paid educational expenses so he is not entitled to the credits.

Respondent met his burden using information available through public records and other means, so the Court disallows all items. Perhaps had the petitioner participated, things would have gone differently for him.

Top of the Order – Tax Court Designated Orders 5/8/2017 – 5/12/2017

Today we continue our reporting on designated orders.  Guest blogger Samantha Galvin reports on three cases.  Professor Galvin teaches and represents low income taxpayers in the tax clinic at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver – one of the oldest and best tax clinics for low income taxpayers.  Keith.

 

Designated Orders: 5/8/2017 – 5/12/2017

Two out of three of last week’s designated orders involved the IRS moving to dismiss the case, in part, for lack of jurisdiction because the taxpayers did not petition the Tax Court on a Notice of Deficiency but ended up in Tax Court after walking down a different procedural path. In these types of cases, the IRS wants to ensure that all parties understand which issue(s) is in front of the Court.

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Choose Your Procedural Path Carefully

Docket # 4354-16L, Schwartz v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision Here)

The first case is a fairly common scenario, but it is a scenario in which new practitioners (and pro se petitioners) should be careful.  Petitioners’ original 2013 tax return showed a balance due of approximately $44,000, but they did not make any payments. They received a Final Notice of Intent to Levy and timely requested a collection due process (CDP) hearing asking for an installment agreement or an offer in compromise.

As part of the normal process, the IRS Appeals Office requested that the taxpayers submit a financial form and substantiation but taxpayers did not respond, nor did they participate in their CDP hearing phone conference. In October of 2015 (mistakenly referred to as 2016 in the Order and Decision), the taxpayers finally submitted a financial form, but again did not submit any substantiation.  In December of 2015, the taxpayers received a statutory Notice of Deficiency (NOD) for tax year 2013 proposing to assess an additional $7,058 in tax and penalties. Taxpayers’ failed to timely petition the Tax Court for a redetermination pursuant to the NOD.

On January 22, 2016 (less than a week after the deadline to petition the Tax Court on the NOD had passed), the IRS Appeals Office issued a notice of determination concluding the CDPhearing in which it sustained the proposed levy because the taxpayers did not submit any substantiation and because they had sufficient assets to pay the balance. This time the taxpayers petitioned the Tax Court claiming the IRS unfairly assessed penalties and seeking review of the NOD.

The IRS moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction to the extent the matter related to the NOD and the Tax Court granted the motion. Additionally because the taxpayer did not raise the issue of penalties during the administrative process, the Court held they were precluded from doing so in Tax Court.

The IRS’s motion to dismiss not only prevented the taxpayers from disputing the underlying liability, but also impacted the standard of review used by the Tax Court. On a deficiency case, the standard of review is “de novo” which generally means the Court will review the case without being bound by what the IRS or taxpayer has done to resolve the case prior to coming to Court. On a CDP hearing case, such as this when the underlying liability is not properly at issue, the Court reviews the case for an “abuse of discretion” which is whether the exercise of discretion by IRS Appeals was without sounds basis in fact or law.

The court reviewed the notice of determination for abuse of discretion and found that Appeals did not abuse its discretion in sustaining the proposed levy, since the taxpayers failed to participate in the CDP hearing and did not submit financial information or substantiation. As a result, the Court granted the IRS summary judgment.

Take-away points:

  • Be cognizant of the procedural path down which you are walking. It can get confusing especially if the taxpayer is in collections for a portion of liability, but another portion has not yet been assessed. If you want to dispute the underlying liability, then petition the Tax Court on an NOD rather than a notice of determination. It is rare that liability disputes can be raised in a collection due process hearing and it can really only be done if a taxpayer did not receive an NOD or did not otherwise have an opportunity to dispute the liability, an issue PT has covered extensively; see Keith’s post from this past March, for example. This is true even if a practitioner begins representing a client after the right to petition Tax Court pursuant to an NOD has expired.
  • Penalty abatement can be raised in a CDP hearing, but if it is not raised it may be precluded from being raised in Tax Court.
  • If a dispute to liability exists but the right to go to Tax Court on an NOD has expired, a practitioner or taxpayer should dispute the liability through audit reconsideration or a doubt as to liability offer in compromise instead.
  • Don’t petition Tax Court on a CDP hearing unless the IRS abused its discretion, which means it did not consider the facts or law in an appropriate way.

Innocent Spouse Relief is the Only Dispute

Docket # 15590-16, Starczewski v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Similar to the Schwartz case (above) this is another case where the taxpayers did not petition the Tax Court on a Notice of Deficiency (NOD), but unlike the Schwartz case it seems like the taxpayers did not intend to dispute the underlying liability. In this case taxpayer wife and taxpayer husband ended up in Tax Court after the taxpayer wife’s request for innocent spouse relief was denied by the IRS (presumably this means the case involves taxpayer ex-wife and taxpayer ex-husband). Taxpayer husband intervened, which is permissible in an innocent spouse case and allows the non-requesting spouse the opportunity to testify about why the requesting spouse should not be granted relief. When an intervening spouse is successful, both spouses remain jointly and severally liable for the deficiency.

The IRS filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction as to the NOD, stating that the Tax Court only had the jurisdiction to determine whether petitioner (taxpayer wife) should be relieved of liability.

The Tax Court gave the petitioner (taxpayer wife) and intervenor (taxpayer husband) an opportunity to respond and neither did, but later in a telephone conference taxpayer husband had no objections and taxpayer wife’s counsel affirmatively consented to the Court granting the IRS’s motion.

Once all parties were made aware that a dispute to the liability was not before the Tax Court, the Court allowed the innocent spouse relief question to proceed to trial.

Take-away points:

  • In this case it is unclear if a dispute to the liability was raised in the petition, or if IRS always requests a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in these case just so the taxpayers (and perhaps, the Court) are clear about what is really at issue.
  • The IRS is required to send separate original notices of deficiency to each spouse at their last known address (pursuant to I.R.M. 4.8.9.8.2.7), so even if taxpayers were divorced or separated at the time both taxpayers would have had the opportunity to petition the Tax Court on the NOD.

 

When Petitioners are Prisoners

Docket # 29472-12, Martinez v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision Here)

This case involves a taxpayer/petitioner who is currently an inmate in the Texas prison system, but the deficiency arose from tax years 2009 and 2010 (only 2009 was still at issue, because IRS had been granted summary judgment for 2010). In those years, the taxpayer was not yet in prison and he was a school teacher. The IRS sent him a Notice of Deficiency (NOD) after he began serving time and he timely petitioned the Tax Court asking for the deficiency to be redetermined. The deficiency arose from the taxpayer’s failure to substantiate gross receipts on his Schedule C and expenses on his Schedule C and Schedule A.

The Tax Court prefers to resolve cases expeditiously, even when a taxpayer is in prison. In this case, the taxpayer petitioned the Tax Court in 2012 and the decision was issued in 2017 so this case had been going on for a while. The Court worked with the taxpayer through the stipulation and summary judgment process (presumably for 2010) but then ordered the taxpayer to file written testimony stating his disagreement of the NOD for 2009 but the taxpayer failed to do so.

The Tax Court used its Rule 123(a) power which allowed the Court to default the taxpayer’s case, and pursuant to that rule, enter a decision against him.

Taxpayers without substantiation are a common phenomenon even when they are not in prison, so it was likely nearly impossible for the petitioner in this case to retrieve old records – but to view this as just another lack of substantiation case may be incorrect, because the Court took the time to describe the difficulties involved in resolving cases when a taxpayer/petitioner is in prison.

The Court referenced the BTK serial killer’s Tax Court case (in which the Court allowed the BTK killer to participate in trial via phone pursuant to Tax Court Rule 143). The Court also discussed that writs of habeaus corpus ad testificandum, which is an order from the court that a prisoner be brought to court to testify, are difficult to manage and security concerns make transportation difficult. Those concerns allow the Court to weigh the amount at issue with the need to find economical solutions for resolving the case.

Take-away points:

  • If a practitioner has a client in prison, the Tax Court may use Rule 143 in order to resolve the case without requiring the petitioner to be there in person.
  • These types of cases present potential substantiation-related issues and may require some creativity on the part of the practitioner.

 

There is another way to deal with prisoners, which is to try the case inside the prison.  In the Richmond office, we had more than our fair share of spy cases in which the spy neglected to report the income from spying on their tax return.  In the case of master spy, Aldrich Ames, he sought to contest the determination of additional income in Tax Court.  The Court decided to try the case inside the maximum security prison in Allenwood, PA.  John McDougal and Richard Stein tried the case for the office against Mr. Ames who represented himself.  The opinion is reported here.  Keith

Top of the Order – Tax Court Designated Orders

Top of the Order is a round-up of the Tax Court’s “designated orders” from the prior week. This feature is based on the premise that if a Tax Court Judge thinks something is important, you should probably pay attention to it. We generally won’t try to play the role of pop-psychologist in determining why the particular judge may have thought the order was important enough to “designate” it, but we will give a synopsis of the points and lessons that stood out to us. For those looking to gaze deeper into the crystal ball, links to each order is provided.

This post begins a new feature which will be written in rotation by four relatively new attorneys working in the low income taxpayer area:  Samatha Galvin of Denver University Law School; Caleb Smith; William Schmidt of Kansas Legal Services; and Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame Law School.  Today’s post is written by Caleb Smith.  Caleb is currently the clinic fellow in the Federal Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School.  He will soon be leaving Harvard to become the director of the tax clinic at the University of Minnesota.  Caleb has written guest posts before and we welcome him back to kick off this new feature of PT.  We invite reader feedback on this feature and other possible features for the site.  Keith

Designated Orders: 4/24/2017 – 4/28/2017

S-Case Bumped Up to the Big Leagues: Precedential Decision Forthcoming

Docket # 015944-16, Skaggs v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The decision to try a case as an “S” (or “Small”) case is sometimes a tactical choice. The relaxed evidentiary rules of an S-case mean that a client with a good story may find fewer hurdles or restrictions in presenting that story. See bottom paragraphs of Procedurally Taxing Post (Here). Also, because an S-Case cannot be appealed there may be a tactical opportunity for a quick win if the Tax Court has previously ruled on the issue but the circuit court that would have jurisdiction on appeal has not. Usually (at least in my experience) the taxpayer doesn’t much care that the S designation also means the decision cannot serve as precedent.

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Judges, however, do care about precedent. Thus we have the designated order from Judge Buch removing the S-designation because the case “presents an issue of first impression.” You’ll have to hold your breath on what that novel issue is. (Actually, you don’t. If you’re short of breath you can read the decision here. Spoiler: it involves what qualifies as “income received while an inmate” for purposes of the Earned Income Credit). But the designated order on its own is worth a review for those that routinely work with cases that qualify for S-treatment (Rules found here).

A couple take-away points:

(1) You can request the S-designation be removed (or changed from regular to S) really late in the process. In fact, the rules say that the request can be made “at any time after the petition is filed and before the trial commences.” This doesn’t mean, however, that the motion will be granted that late in the game. (Keith has a story of making the request to the judge when the case was called for trial and the judge asked if there were any preliminary matters on a case he picked up earlier in the day at calendar call.  He sought to change the case to S status on the basis that it was prior to trial. As may be expected, the motion was not granted.) Which leads to the second point:

(2) The IRS may oppose the S-designation, and the taxpayer may need to show why it should be a small case. Anecdotally, I have witnessed IRS recalcitrance on S-case designation at least once in the past where it was not entirely clear to me why they cared. The order provides a helpful review of what factors are in play when weighing the decision to remove an S-case designation by citing to the 1978 Congressional Conference report on point. Addressing these factors should help a taxpayer respond to a motion either in favor of S-case designation or removal of it.

Lawyer Behaving Badly

Docket # 005880-16 L, Baity v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

For those of you that routinely monitor designated orders, this one may seem like deja-vu. And that’s because it basically is. This is merely the latest in a line of designated orders pertaining to one lawyer trying seven different cases, all of which will be lost at the summary judgment stage.

In fact, the taxpayers already HAVE lost, but the Court is simply holding back from entering the decision so that the cases remain on calendar. Why? Solely so that the lawyer can show up and explain why there should not be sanctions and a referral to the ethics committee. Ouch.

At absolute best, it appears that the lawyer has been completely invisible as an advocate in the case, failing to respond to the IRS motion for summary judgment and Tax Court order that he so respond. The court cannot determine if counsel is “unaware of or is ignoring the Court’s orders.” At worst, the Court suggests that the lawyer may have knowingly brought merit-less claims using CDP judicial review inappropriately to evade collection, giving rise to sanctions under IRC § 6673.

A couple of observations:

  • Attorneys, remember FRCP Rule 11 when deciding to take a case and prepare a petition… And relatedly:
  • Attorneys: remember the difficulties of getting out of a case when you’ve entered an appearance. When you don’t yet have all the facts and a petition deadline is looming, the better option can be limited representation through Form 2848, written about here. But, no matter what you do, at the very least RESPOND to the Tax Court (and show up).

When the Court Bolds Instructions, You Should Probably Pay Attention to Them

Docket # 021815-15, Kanofsky v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

An uncharitable recap of this order would be as follows: Court orders a pro se petitioner to respond to the IRS’s motion for summary judgment. Pro se petitioner responds, but did not follow the instructions of the Court’s order close enough. Court grants motion for summary judgment.

Harsh result?

Not quite. In fact, there appears to be quite a lot of hand-holding from the Court leading up to this outcome. First, the Court denies the IRS motion for summary judgment because the motion would not be easy for the petitioner to respond to. (More on that below). Then, when the IRS makes a second, clearer motion, the Court specifically bolds what and how it wants the petitioner to respond. The Court even includes a Q&A printout on what a motion for summary judgment is and how to respond to it. The taxpayer appears to be familiar with (or at least make frequent use of) the court. (An earlier order from the court shows that the IRS has had previous run-ins with the taxpayer, and the taxpayer also appears to refer to himself as an accomplished whistleblower.) All things considered, this appears to be an instance of the Court doing what it can to help a pro se taxpayer help themselves.

If anything a take away from this case is a parable on “the value of specificity.” Number and separate your assertions so that the Court (and the opposing party) can respond to the discrete issues.

The first substantive order of the court was a denial of the IRS motion for summary judgment, without even directing the petitioner to respond. Why? Because the IRS motion was sloppily drafted: misusing terms of art, and bringing up facts that were irrelevant to the issues at hand. All the Court wants is a motion for summary judgment with assertions that can be responded to, by number, with reason and evidence for the disagreement. The original IRS motion for summary judgment is not congenial to such a response, so the Court (looking out for the pro se petitioner), says “try again.”

When the IRS did try again (this time adequately), the table was set. If the petitioner couldn’t comply with the order to respond with specificity, summary judgment would be warranted. And thus you have the designated order above.

Reminder: Timely CDP Requests Yield Notice of Determination, Not Decision Letter

Docket # 026578-16 L, Allen v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This designated order from Special Trial Judge Armen looks at the jurisdiction of the Tax Court to review a CDP hearing that was timely requested with Appeals, but (for unknown reasons) a decision letter rather than a notice of determination was issued. A decision letter is typically what the IRS issues when the taxpayer has an “Equivalent” hearing rather than a full-fledged CDP hearing. (More on equivalent hearings can be found here.) Unlike CDP hearings, equivalent hearings cannot be reviewed by the Tax Court (thus the jurisdictional argument).

It is unclear from the available documents both why IRS counsel believes the Tax Court doesn’t have jurisdiction and why IRS Appeals issued a decision letter in the first place. If IRS counsel’s argument is that a (form-over-substance) “notice of determination” letter is required Special Judge Armen disposes of that with a reference to Craig v. Commissioner, standing for the proposition that a decision letter will be treated as a notice of determination if it was from a CDP hearing (and not an “equivalent” hearing).

Some thoughts and crystal ball gazing: This request was sent right at the buzzer, but ultimately was timely mailed (and received). What would the IRS have to do to show that the taxpayer WANTED an equivalent hearing even though the request would qualify for a full CDP?

As mentioned above, it is not immediately clear why the IRS thinks the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction. This may be a case where the IRS has created more work for itself by trying to dispose of something quickly, rather than correctly. The taxpayer is pro se and appears to want to argue tax years other than the one for which the proposed levy relates. The court quickly disposes of its jurisdiction to hear any of those other years. The taxpayer also appears to have checked pretty much every conceivable box for the court’s jurisdiction when filing her amended petition (e.g. Notice of Deficiency, Notice of Determination Concerning Collection Action, Notice of Determination Concerning Your Request for Relief From Joint and Several Liability, and Notice of Final Determination Not To Abate Interest (see order here)). It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Form 12153 CDP Request falling into a similar pattern…