Designated Orders 7/16 – 7/20

Caleb Smith from the University of Minnesota brings us this week’s designated orders. The parade of orders involving Graev continues and Professor Smith explains the evidentiary issues present when the IRS seeks to enter the necessary approval form after reopening the Tax Court record. Professor Smith also provides advice, based on another order entered this week, on how to frame your CDP case. A non-procedural matter that might be of interest to some readers is ABA Resolution 102A passed this week, urging Congress to repeal the repeal of the alimony deduction. For those interested in this issue, the resolution contains much background on the deduction.  Keith

Submitting Evidence of Supervisory Approval Post-Graev III

Last week, William Schmidt covered three designated orders that dealt with motions to reopen the record to submit evidence of supervisory approval under IRC 6751. I keep waiting for this particular strain of post-Graev III clean-up to cease, but to no avail: the week of July 16 two more designated orders on issues of reopening the record were issued. Luckily, there are important lessons that can be gleaned from some of these orders on issues that have nothing to do with reopening the record (something that post-Graev III cases shouldn’t have to worry about). Rather, these cases are helpful on the evidentiary issues of getting supervisory approval forms into the record in the first place.

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Choosing the Right Hearsay “Exception” Fakiris v. C.I.R., dkt. # 18292-12 (here)

In Fakiris, the IRS was once again confronted with the issues of (1) reopening the record to get supervisory approval forms into it, and (2) objections to those forms on hearsay grounds. At the outset (for those paying attention to docket numbers), one may be forgiven for wondering how it is even possible that this case was not decided well before Graev III. The briefing in Fakiris was completed in August, 2014 with no apparent court action until June, 2017. Judge Gale walks us through the procedural milestones in a footnote: although a decision was entered for the IRS about a year ago in T.C. Memo. 2017-126, the IRS filed a motion to vacate or revise (surprisingly, since they appear to have won on all fronts). The decision that the IRS sought to vacate includes a footnote (FN 20) providing that because petitioner did not raise a 6751 issue, it is deemed conceded. At the time, there was some uncertainty about whether the taxpayer had to affirmatively raise the issue, or whether it was a part of the IRS’s burden of production under Higbee. See earlier post from Carl Smith.

In any event, and no matter how old the case may be, it is still before the Court and the record must still be reopened for the IRS to succeed on the IRC 6751 issue. After the usual explanation of why it is proper for the Court to exercise its discretion to reopen the record, we arrive at the evidentiary issue: isn’t a supervisory approval form hearsay? At least so objects petitioner.

Where petitioners object to IRS supervisory approval forms as “hearsay” it appears to be the standard operating procedure of IRS counsel to argue the “business records” exception (see FRE 803(b)). Generally, the IRS prevails on this theory, but this theory creates potentially needless pitfalls. Fakiris demonstrates those pitfalls, noting that under the business record exception the IRS has certain foundational requirements it must meet “either by certification, see 902(11), Fed. R. Evid. [here], or through the testimony of the custodian or another qualified witness, see Rule 803(6)(D), Fed. R. Evid.” Without that foundation, the business records exception cannot hold -and indeed, in Fakiris the IRS lacks this foundation and is left spending more time and resources to go back and build it as their proffered evidence is excluded from the record.

So how does one avoid the time-consuming, perilous path of the “business exception?” Judge Gale drops a rather large hint in footnote 9: “We note that Exhibits A and B [the actual penalty approval forms] might also constitute “verbal acts”, i.e., a category of statements excluded from hearsay because ‘the statement itself affects the legal rights of the parties or is a circumstance bearing on conduct affecting their rights.’” If it is a “verbal act” it is categorically not hearsay (and not an “exception” to the hearsay rule). I have made exactly this argument before, although I referred to verbal act as “independent legal significance.” I am surprised that the IRS does not uniformly advanced this argument. In the instances that the IRS used it, the IRS has prevailed (as covered in the designated orders of the previous week). Judge Gale also refers to the advisory committee’s note to bolster the argument that the supervisory approval form is not hearsay: “If the significance of an offered statement lies solely in the fact that it was made, no issue is raised as to the truth of anything asserted, and the statement is not hearsay.” Advisory Committee Note on FRE 801(c) [here]. To me, that is what appears to be happening here. The IRS is simply trying to prove that a statement was made (i.e. a supervisor said “I approve of this penalty.”) The penalty approval form is that statement. It is absurd to think that the form is being offered for any other purpose (e.g. as evidence that the taxpayer actually was negligent, etc.).

If you don’t believe me (or Judge Gale), perhaps Judge Holmes will change your mind? In a designated order covered last week in Baca v. C.I.R., the IRS prevails on a theory that the supervisory approval form is a verbal act, without relying on the business exception. In reaching that determination, Judge Holmes references not only the FRE advisory committee note on point, but also Gen. Tire of Miami Beach, Inc. v. NLRB, 332 F.2d 58 (5th Cir. 1964) providing that a statement is a nonhearsay verbal act if “inquiry is not the truth of the words said, merely whether they were said.”

If you just aren’t sold on the “verbal acts” argument, Judge Gale’s Footnote 9 has yet more to offer. As a second possible avenue for getting the penalty approval form into evidence, Judge Gale suggests the public records exception of FRE 803(8). This exception to hearsay requires proper certification, but apparently has been successfully used by the IRS in the past with Form 4340 (See U.S. v. Dickert, 635 F. App’x 844 (11th Cir. 2016)).

All of this is to say, I think the IRS has ample grounds for getting the supervisory approval form properly into evidence. For petitioners, though it is likely a losing argument, if there are actual evidentiary concerns you must be sure to properly raise those objections -even if in the stipulation of facts. A second designated order issued the same week as Fakiris (found here) does not even get to the question of whether the forms are hearsay after reopening the record -presumably because the objections were never raised (the docket does not show a response by petitioner to the IRS’s motion to reopen the record).

Setting Yourself Up for Favorable Judicial Review on CDP Cases: Jackson v. C.I.R., dkt. # 16854-17SL (here)

Taxpayers that are unable to reach an agreement with the IRS on collection alternatives at a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing generally have an uphill battle to get where they want to go. Yes, they can get Tax Court review of the IRS determination, but that review is under a fairly vague “abuse of discretion” standard. Still, there are things that petitioners can do to better situate themselves for that review.

At an ABA Tax Section meeting years ago, a practitioner recommended memorializing almost everything that is discussed in letters to IRS Appeals. Since the jurisdiction I practice in is subject to the Robinette “admin record rule,” it is especially important to get as much as possible into the record. Conversely, one may argue that the record is so undeveloped that it should be remanded because there is nothing for the Court to even review: see e.g. Wadleigh v. C.I.R., 134 T.C. 280 (2010). The order in Jackson provides another lesson: how to frame the issue before the Court.

In Jackson, the taxpayers owed roughly $45,000 for 2012 – 2015 taxes due to underwithholding. After receiving a Notice of Intent to Levy, the Jacksons timely requested a CDP hearing, checking the boxes for “Offer in Compromise,” “I Cannot Pay Balance,” and “Installment Agreement” on their submitted Form 12153. Over the course of the hearing, however, the only real issue that was discussed was an installment agreement -albeit, a “partial pay” installment agreement (PPIA). A PPIA is essentially an installment agreement with terms that will not fully pay the liability before the collection statute expiration date (CSED) occurs.

Obviously, the IRS is less inclined to accept a PPIA than a normal installment agreement, because a PPIA basically agrees to forgive a part of the liability by operation of the CSED. Sensibly, IRS Appeals required a Form 433-A from the Jacksons to determine if a PPIA made sense.

The Form 433-A submitted by the Jacksons appears to have pushed the envelope a bit. Most notably, the Jacksons claimed $740 for monthly phone and TV expenses (the ultra-deluxe HBO package?) and $629 per month in (voluntary) retirement contributions as necessary expenses. The settlement officer downwardly adjusted both of these figures (and possibly others) pursuant to the applicable IRM, and determined that the Jacksons could afford to pay much more than the $300/month they were offering. Going slightly above and beyond, the settlement officer proposed an “expanded” installment agreement (i.e. one that goes beyond the typical 72 months) of $1,100 per month. The Jackson’s rejected this, but appear to have proposed nothing in its stead. Accordingly, the settlement officer determined that the proposed levy should be sustained.

Judge Armen notes that with installment agreements (as with most collection alternatives under an abuse of discretion standard of review), “the Court does not substitute its judgment for that of the Appeals Office[.]” Sulphur Manor, Inc. v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2017-95. If the IRS “followed all statutory and administrative guidelines and provided a reasoned, balanced decision, the Court will not reweigh the equities.” Thompson v. C.I.R., 140 T.C. 173, 179 (2013).

The Thompson and Sulphur Manor, Inc. cases provide, in the negative, what a petitioner must argue for any chance on review. Starting with Sulphur Manor, Inc., the petitioner must strive to present the question as something other than a battle of who has the “better” idea. In other words, don’t frame it as a battle of bad judgment (IRS Appeals) vs. good judgment (petitioner). If it must be a question of judgment, then Thompson gives the next hint on how to frame the issue: not that the IRS exercised “bad” judgment, but that they didn’t provide any reasoning for their decision in the first place (i.e. that they did not “provide a reasoned, balanced decision”). A lack of reasoning is akin to an “arbitrary” decision, which is by definition an abuse of discretion.

Better than framing the determination as lacking any reasoning, however, is where the petitioner can point to “statutory and administrative guidelines” that the IRS did not follow. Of course, this is difficult in collection issues because there are generally fairly few statutory guidelines the IRS must follow in the first place. But administrative guidelines do exist in abundance, at least in the IRM. Of course, this cuts both ways: the IRM can also provide cover for the IRS when it is followed, but appears to get to an unjust outcome.

Returning to the facts of Jackson, the petitioner faced an extremely uphill (ultimately losing) battle. It is basically brought before the Court as a request for relief on the grounds that the taxpayer just doesn’t like what the IRS proposes. As Judge Armen more charitably characterizes the case, by failing to engage in further negotiations with Appeals on a proper amount of monthly installment payments, “petitioners framed the issue for decision by the Court as whether the settlement officer, in declining to accept their offer of a partial payment installment agreement in the monthly amount of $300, abused her discretion by acting without a reasonable basis in fact or law.” This is asking for a pretty heavy lift of the Court, since there is no statute that provides the IRS must accept partial pay agreements, and the facts show the IRM was followed by the IRS. Not surprisingly, the Court declines to find an abuse of discretion.

Odds and Ends: Remaining Designated Orders

End of an Era? Chapman v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 3007-18 (here)

The Chapmans appear to be Tax Court “hobbyists” -individuals that enjoy making arguments in court more than most tax attorneys, and generally with frivolous arguments. The tax years at issue (going back to 1999) have numerous docket numbers assigned to them both in Tax Court and the 11th Circuit, all with the same general take-away: you have no legitimate argument, you owe the tax. But could this most recent action be the secret, silver bullet? Could this newfound argument, that they are not “taxpayers” subject to the Federal income tax when the liability is due to a substitute for return, be their saving grace?

Nope. All that argument does is get them slapped with a $3,000 penalty under IRC 6673(a). One hopes this is the end of the saga.

The Vagaries of Partnership Procedure: Freedman v. C.I.R., dkt. # 23410-14 (here)

Freedman involves an IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction the portion of an individual’s case that concerns penalties the IRS argues were already dealt with in a prior partnership-level case. For a fun, late-summer read on the procedures under TEFRA for assessment and collection against a partner, after a partnership-level adjustment, this order is recommended.

 

IRS Office of Chief Counsel Gives Direction on Graev Compliance in Litigation

The IRS issued Chief Counsel Notice 2018-006 advising its attorneys how to address compliance with section 6751’s requirement for supervisory approval of penalties in light of the Tax Court’s decision in Graev III. The notice covers a lot of ground in a short number of pages. It reviews several different ways an IRS attorney might encounter Graev issues in litigation and instructs the attorney how to proceed in each situation. I will not review each issue covered by the notice; I encourage readers to read it in full. This blog post discusses two of the items mentioned in Notice 2018-006: the application of section 6751 to the trust fund recovery penalty and the exception in subsection 6751(b)(2) for penalties automatically calculated through electronic means. 

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IRS asserts supervisory approval is not required before imposition of a Trust Fund Recovery Penalty 

Section 6751(b) begins, “No penalty under this title shall be assessed unless…” In a brief paragraph, Chief Counsel Notice 2018-006 directs IRS attorneys to argue that the trust fund recovery penalty (TFRP) under section 6672 is a tax, rather than a penalty. Therefore, the argument goes, supervisory approval for assertion of a TFRP is not required by section 6751. The Notice also flags this issue generally, noting “there may be other taxes that taxpayers will contend are penalties.”  

In support of the IRS position the Notice cites United States v. Rozbruch, 28 F. Supp. 3d 256 (S.D.N.Y. 2014), aff’d on other grounds, 621 Fed. Appx. 77 (2d Cir. 2015). In Rozbruch the government had filed suit under section 7403 to reduce its tax assessments to judgment and to foreclose on property owned by the Rozbruchs. The taxpayers defended in part by arguing that the TFRP assessments were invalid for failure to comply with section 6751’s supervisory approval requirement.  

The Rozbruchs pointed out that section 6672 explicitly calls the TFRP a penalty. Penalties may not be imposed on top of the TFRP. (I have not read the case documents apart from the court’s decision; the taxpayers may have made additional points not mentioned in the decision.) On the other side, the government pointed out that individuals who make payments towards a TFRP are really paying the underlying trust fund taxes; liability for a TFRP is co-extensive with the employment taxes that remain to be paid over. The district court in Rozbruch agreed with the government, citing an Eighth Circuit decision and several Second Circuit district court cases finding the TFRP to be a tax.  

However, the government’s position is not yet established in the Tax Court. The court declined to decide the issue in its April 2018 decision in the CDP case of Blackburn v. Commissioner, 150 T.C. No. 9. (The case was first noted on PT in a Designated Order post by Professor Caleb Smith.) In Blackburn Judge Goeke found that it was unnecessary to decide whether supervisory approval is required for TFRPs because the IRS had satisfied the requirement in any event. The IRS had a Form 4183, Recommendation re: Trust Fund Recovery Penalty Assessment, bearing the approval of the recommending Revenue Officer’s immediate supervisor, the Acting Group Manager. This was enough to support the Settlement Officer’s finding under section 6330(c)(1) that IRS had complied with administrative procedures in making the assessment. Judge Goeke rejected the taxpayer’s argument that the Settlement Officer should have looked beyond the form to investigate whether the supervisor’s review was “meaningful.” As the opinion points out, Tax Court “caselaw acknowledges that reliance upon standard administrative records is acceptable to verify assessments.” Blackburn, slip op. at 10 (citing Nestor v. Commissioner, 118 T.C. 162, 266 (2002); Davis v. Commissioner, 115 T.C. 35, 41 (2000)).  

Judge Holmes also raised the issue in a TFRP CDP case, Humiston v. CommissionerDocket No. 25787-16 L. In Humiston, no Form 4183 was mentioned in the Settlement Officer’s determination or apparent from the record before the court. In a May 24 order denying the IRS’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Holmes notes that the TFRPs “are called penalties under the Code,” and determines that the novelty of the legal issue weighs in favor of permitting petitioner to raise it at calendar call. I do not know whether petitioner did so, but he now has counsel so perhaps the case will result in a decision on the issue. It appears that case would be appealable to the 2d Circuit Court of Appeals, which of course started all this with Chai 

Next up, Judge Lauber may have the intersection of 6751 and the TFRP before him in the Florida case of Kane v. CommissionerDocket No. 10988-17 L (hat tip: Lew Taishoff). Under a recent order, the IRS has until June 28 to file “a Form 4183 or any other relevant documentation concerning supervisory approval of the TFRPs in question.”  

The way a provision is titled or described does not trump its function for constitutional purposes, but it does provide evidence of Congressional intent for purposes of statutory construction. See National Federation of Independent Business v. Sibelius, 567 U.S. 519, 543-546, slip op. at 12-13 (2012) (finding the individual shared responsibility provision a penalty for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act but a tax for purposes of constitutional validity). Taxpayers arguing this issue before the Tax Court will need to address both form and function of the TFRP.  

Uncertainty continues around penalties automatically calculated through electronic means 

Readers of this blog know that penalties which are “automatically calculated through electronic means” do not require supervisory approval under section 6751(b)(2). For background, see my previous post on the issue. Chief Counsel Notice 2018-006 largely repeats the position taken in prior IRS guidance (linked in the prior post). The 2018 Notice says, in part:  

Penalties appearing in a statutory notice of deficiency as a result of programs such as the Automated Underreporter (AUR) and the Combined Annual Wage Reporting Automated programs will fall within the exception for penalties automatically calculated through electronic means if no one submits any response to the notice, such as a CP2000, proposing a penalty. However, if the taxpayer submits a response, written or otherwise, that challenges a proposed penalty, or the amount of tax to which a proposed penalty is attributable, then the immediate supervisor of the Service employee considering the response should provide written supervisory approval prior to the issuance of any statutory notice of deficiency that includes the penalty. A penalty is no longer automated once a Service employee makes an independent determination to pursue a penalty or to pursue adjustments to tax to which a penalty is attributable.  

This is in line with prior IRS guidance but it does not do a whole lot to clear up unresolved issues. For one thing, the notice does not mention correspondence examinations. It is unclear whether we should read anything into that. Perhaps the IRS is not ready to publicly take a consistent position on correspondence examinations, but it is a shame the issue was not explicitly addressed in Notice 2018-006. The Notice also fails to clarify the issue of timing, and when precisely a taxpayer’s response arrives too late take a penalty out of section 6751(b)(2)’s ambit.   

The prior post on section 6751(b)(2) examined a nondesignated order in Triggs v. Commissioner. Triggs involves a correspondence examination where the taxpayer did not respond during the audit. The IRS argued that the correspondence exam function had automatically asserted the penalties according to its computer programming without the independent intervention of any human IRS employee, and therefore no supervisory approval was required for either the negligence penalty or the substantial understatement penalty. Although penalty assertion in correspondence examinations may be fully automated in practice, several IRM provisions appear to conflict with this view and require examiners to exercise responsibility for penalty assertions. On April 5, 2018 Judge Leyden ordered further submissions to address these IRM provisions.  

The Triggs case is still pending. The IRS filed its supplement in response to the April 5 order, and subsequently Judge Leyden gave the petitioner until June 29 to respond. The court also provided him with a list of local low-income taxpayer clinics. Unfortunately, to date Mr. Triggs remains pro se. 

IRM provisions also muddy the waters for Judge Lauber in the case of Bowse v. CommissionerBowse has a fact pattern similar to Triggs but in it arises from the AUR program rather than correspondence exam. It also deals solely with the substantial understatement penalty rather than both negligence and understatement. Like Triggs, the Bowse case was brought to my attention by Carl Smith.  

In Bowse, Judge Lauber highlights the timing problems that muddle the application of section 6751(b)(2) to a deficiency case in the Tax Court. Remember, it is the “initial determination” of a penalty “assessment” that requires supervisory approval under section 6751. Professor Bryan Camp has an excellent post explaining why the statutory language does not make much sense and inevitably causes courts to engage in interpretive gymnastics. We can clearly see this in Bowse 

Mr. Bowse and his wife Ms. Vaes were picked up by the AUR program, but they did not respond to the IRS’s letters until after the AUR program issued them a statutory notice of deficiency (SNOD). The SNOD included a 20% substantial understatement penalty. At that point, the taxpayers submitted an amended return, and in response the Office of Appeals reduced the proposed deficiency and understatement penalty amounts. The penalty was still 20% of the proposed deficiency; it was reduced in proportion to the deficiency amount. The taxpayer then appealed the SNOD to the Tax Court.  

On those facts, what constitutes the “initial determination” of the penalty “assessment”? Was it the automated proposal by AUR in the SNOD? Or did the individualized review by Appeals take the case out of 6751(b)(2) territory? Does it matter that the proposed penalty amount changed? To answer this question, one needs to consider both what “initial determination” means and what qualifies as the “assessment” under section 6751.  

As Professor Camp explains, in Graev III the Tax Court interpreted the word “assessment” to essentially mean “penalty assertion.” And so Graev III examines whether certain IRS employees had “authority to make the initial determination of a penalty,” among other issues. 149 T.C. No. 23, slip op. at 17. But before Graev III the word “assessment” in section 6751 was taken at its ordinary meaning in the tax context – the official recording of a liability. Because of this, pre-Graev IRS guidance and IRMs are not wholly consistent with the IRS’s current litigating position. The IRMs in particular raise questions for Judge Lauber, as they did for Judge Leyden in Triggs. 

In Bowse, the IRS argued that no supervisory approval was required because the AUR program had automatically proposed the penalty in its SNOD without any human employee review. However, Judge Lauber is not sure it’s that simple and requests further briefing from the parties on several points.  

In his order Judge Lauber quotes several IRM sections, including this one: 

‘…However, if a taxpayer responds either to the initial letter proposing a penalty or to the notice of deficiency that the program automatically issues, an IRS employee will have to consider the taxpayer’s response. Therefore, the IRS employee will have to make an independent determination as to whether the response provides a basis upon which the taxpayer may avoid the penalty. The employee’s independent determination of whether the penalty is appropriate means the penalty is not automatically calculated through electronic means. Accordingly, IRC 6751(b)(1) requires managerial written approval of an employee’s determination to assert the penalty.’ IRM pt. 20.1.5.1.6(9) (Jan. 24, 2012); see also IRM pt. 4.19.3.2.1.4(2) and (3) (Sept. 1, 2012).  

(Emphasis added.) The IRM clearly suggests that the taxpayer can escape automatic penalty calculation by responding to the AUR program’s SNOD. Judge Lauber asks for briefing to address the following five questions: 

(1) By filing a Form 1040X for 2014 after receiving the notice of deficiency, did petitioners “respond * * * to the notice of deficiency that the [AUR] program automatically issue[d],” within the meaning of the IRM provision quoted above?

(2) If so, after considering petitioners’ response, did an IRS employee “make an independent determination as to whether the response provides a basis upon which the taxpayer may avoid the penalty,” within the meaning of the IRM provision quoted above?

(3) By accepting petitioners’ amended return and reducing the deficiency and penalty amounts, did the IRS made a new “initial determination” of the assessment of the penalty?

(4) If so, was that new initial determination of the penalty “automatically calculated through electronic means”?

(5) If not, what IRS officer made the “initial determination” of the reduced penalty, and who was the immediate supervisor of that individual? 

This order is interesting coming from Judge Lauber, whose concurrence in Graev III suggests a straightforward approach. He describes the majority opinion as “requiring supervisory approval the first time an IRS official introduces the penalty into the conversation.” Graev III, Lauber, J., concurring, slip op. at 27. That reading of “initial determination” appears narrower than the IRM’s, since under the IRM a taxpayer’s response to a SNOD can take a penalty out of section 6751(b)(2)’s ambit.  

I suspect the conflict between the IRS’s litigating position and the IRM is temporary. The IRMs cited by Judges Lauber and Leyden (like the 2002 Service Center Advice) reflect the IRS’s pre-Graev III understanding of what “assessment” means in section 6751. If assessment meant the official recording of the liability, then naturally a taxpayer’s response after an AUR SNOD but prior to assessment could take the final penalty decision out of the computer’s hands. Now that penalty “assessment” means penalty “proposal,” though, I would expect to see the IRMs on section 6751(b)(2) changing to remove references to taxpayers responding to the SNOD. It is somewhat puzzling, however, that Chief Counsel Notice 2018-006 does not explicitly mention this change or clarify whether, in the IRS’s view, the SNOD is the cut-off point for taxpayers to respond to an automated penalty proposal in order to trigger supervisory review.  

 

Chai Ghouls and Jeopardy Assessments

In an order dated May 21, 2018 (brought to my attention by Bryan Camp) denying the IRS motion to reopen the record, in the case of Joseph C. Becker & Marcy Grace Castro, et al., v. Commissioner, Judge Holmes highlights another version of the impact of the Graev issue involving IRC 6751 that we have discussed so frequently in our blog. Judge Holmes calls these cases Chai ghouls after the Second Circuit decision that led the Tax Court to reverse its position in Graev and which put IRC 6751 in play in many cases pending in Tax Court after trial and awaiting decision at the time the Court reversed itself regarding its ability to enforce that provision in deficiency cases. (I will not link to all of the prior posts on this issue but put Chai or Graev into our search function and have at it if you are new to this topic.)

In Becker the Court encounters a new Chai ghoul because Becker involves a jeopardy assessment. Most of the Becker group of consolidated cases have docket numbers that go back to 2012 which means they rival in time the Fumo cases I describe below. In addition to the order linked above in which Judge Holmes refuses to reopen the record, he also issued a 52 page opinion on May 21 and an order for a Rule 155 computation meaning each party won and lost part of the case.

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Before I discuss the treatment of the penalties in Becker, I commend you to read the posts in the case of Fumo v. Commissioner (there are two related dockets) if you need to know more about jeopardy cases or just look at the docket sheet if you are interested in a really slow moving jeopardy case with a Tax Court life similar to the Becker case. I started writing about the Fumo case, which originates in Philadelphia and features a former state senator whose story dominated the Philadelphia Inquirer for much of the time I was at Villanova, shortly after we began the blog almost five years ago. In the first year of the blog when we were sometimes searching for things to write I wrote five posts on this case: here, here, here (Note that if you go to the Tax Court docket room do not pull out your smart phone and start taking pictures of the file as I describe in this post. The Court now has signs up warning you not to do this. So much for the man from UNCLE.), here and here.

I looked up the Fumo cases as I wrote this post to see if anything had happened or if it continued on as one of the world’s slowest moving jeopardy cases. It continues on. There is an order from two years ago denying a motion for summary judgment filed by the IRS and there are regular status updates but Mr. Fumo still has his money (I assume he still has it and is carefully preserving it to pay to the IRS should he ultimately lose) and the IRS is still trying to get Tax Court approval of the assessment and file a notice of federal tax lien. Children are over half way through elementary school who were born when this matter started. Not all jeopardy cases move with alacrity. Because of its age, I wonder if the IRS obtained the proper approvals for the penalties it is asserting in this case and if it obtained them before making the jeopardy assessments (see discussion below.) Chai and Graev were not even a glimmer in Frank Agostino’s eye when the Fumo and Becker cases began.

So, in the Becker case the trial occurred prior to the Tax Court’s decision in Graev III and the IRS filed a motion to reopen the record to put on evidence that it obtained approvals appropriately, or not. The order denying the right to reopen the case lays out the events in chronological order and then works through the various penalties at issue in the case. The Court starts with the “or not” part of the IRS motion.

IRC 6662(c) Penalties for 2007, 2008 and 2009 and Section 6662(d) Penalty for 2010

The IRS conceded that it had no evidence of complying with IRC 6751. This made the Court’s work easy.

Fraud Penalties for 2007, 2008 and 2009

The IRS attached an affidavit from the immediate supervisor of the agent but here’s where the jeopardy assessment aspect of the case comes into play. Section 6751(b)(1) requires that:

No penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate.

In jeopardy assessment cases the IRS makes the assessment first and provides the notice of deficiency later. The statute makes no mention of or exception for jeopardy. Even under Graev II the Tax Court would have acknowledged jurisdiction over the penalty provisions in a jeopardy case and the Court says the IRS should have known it had the burden at the time of trial to show it made the appropriate approvals in a jeopardy case; however, that proves not to be the biggest problem that the IRS faces. The penalty approval form it submitted to the Court showed that the approval occurred twelve days after the jeopardy assessment. The timing of the approval is fatal to the validity of the assessment and it would not matter if the Court reopened the record to allow in the evidence or not. Since the evidence regarding this part of the penalty approval could not change the outcome of the case, the Court said it could not justify the reopening of the case.

Section 6662(d) Penalties for 2007, 2008 and 2009 and Section 6663 Penalty (Fraud) for 2010

The penalty for 2009 was raised by Chief Counsel but no approval form by the Chief Counsel supervisor was submitted and that proves fatal to the penalty for that year to the Court. The penalty approval forms for the other penalties appeared to the Court to have been done in a timely and proper manner; however, the Court still declines to reopen the record to permit the IRS to submit those forms. It finds that the IRS should have submitted these forms at the time of trial.

The outcome with respect to the penalties for which the IRS could submit proper approval forms follows the outcome reached by Judge Holmes in four cases he decided immediately after the issuance of the opinion in Graev III and which we blogged alluding to happy holidays for the petitioners. The IRS cannot have been surprised with this result though it is no doubt disappointed. This will not be the last case involving an attempt to reopen the record of a case closed long ago. The jeopardy aspect of this case provides instruction in an area not explored by prior opinions.

Where is This Going

The IRS will continue to struggle with the Graev issue in cases before it began thinking carefully about how to timely approve penalties, how to preserve the record of the approval and how to present the record. The Court will continue to struggle as well. The decision not to allow reopening the record here seems at odds with a decision at almost the same time in Sarvak v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2018-68 and related order. It also stands in some contrast to the decision in Dynamo Holdings (brought to my attention by Les) where Judge Holmes discussed how the IRS does not bear the burden of production with respect to penalties in a partnership-level proceeding and how taxpayer failing to raise issue hurt it:

Our conclusion that the Commissioner does not bear the burden of production under section 7491(c) does not necessarily mean that the Commissioner’s motion to reopen the record should be denied. A taxpayer may raise the lack of supervisory approval as a defense to penalties, Graev III, 149 T.C. ___, and if that issue were validly raised, the Commissioner might want to supplement the record to respond. But Dynamo GP did not raise the lack of penalty approval in its petition, at trial, or on brief. It was not until the Court directed the parties’ attention to Graev III, after the record was closed and the case was fully submitted, that petitioners challenged the sufficiency of the written penalty approval in the record. And even then, Dynamo GP did not seek to reopen the record to dispute whether penalty approval occurred. Consequently, we consider the defense to have been waived. Rule 151; Petzoldt v. Commissioner, 92 T.C. 661, 683 (1989).

 

 

 

When Is A Penalty Automatically Calculated Through Electronic Means?

Christine here, posting incognito. 

Special Trial Judge Diana Leyden issued a nondesignated order in April 2018 that signals interesting reading and litigation ahead on another Graev-related issue: when is a penalty “automatically calculated through electronic means” so that supervisory approval is not required? Thanks to Carl Smith for alerting us to this order in Triggs v. Comm’r. This is not a new legal issue, but it is newly salient in deficiency litigation since the Tax Court’s December 2017 ruling in Graev III (first blogged on PT here).  

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When a tax return omits income or overstates credits, an accuracy-related penalty might be imposed under section 6662(b). At issue in Triggs are the negligence penalty in section 6662(b)(1) and the understatement penalty in section 6662(b)(2). There are several other grounds for accuracy penalties in section 6662, which are not discussed here.  

The Graev and Chai litigation concerned section 6751(b)(1), which generally requires written supervisory approval before the IRS assesses a penalty. However, section 6751(b)(2) sets out two exceptions to that requirement. 

Paragraph (1) shall not apply to— 

(A) any addition to tax under section 6651, 6654, or 6655; or 

(B) any other penalty automatically calculated through electronic means.

Section 6651 contains the failure to file and failure to pay penalties. Sections 6654 and 6655 establish estimated tax penalties. The application of these penalties is mechanical and automatic, as many of us have explained repeatedly to indignant clients. Taxpayers can contest the 6651 penalties (and sometimes the 6654 penalty) by showing that their failure to comply was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect. However, this burden is on the taxpayer.  

That brings us to section 6751(b)(2)(B). What else counts as a “penalty automatically calculated through electronic means”? Which of the accuracy-related penalties might be considered sufficiently automatic, and under which circumstances? Can a determination of negligence ever be “automatically calculated”? Les pointed me to the authorities discussed in Saltzman & Book 7B.24, at n 889.1.  

Since at least 2002, the IRS has taken the position that supervisor approval is not required if a penalty is assessed entirely by an automated computer program. SCA 200211040 addresses Automated Underreporter (AUR) assessments of the negligence and substantial understatement penalties. It acknowledges a lack of legislative history to guide the analysis. The memo concludes that 

assessment of a penalty qualifies as one calculated through electronic means if the penalty is assessed free of any independent determination by a Service employee as to whether the penalty should be imposed against a taxpayer.  

The key fact according to the memo is that the taxpayer must respond to a proposed AUR assessment before any IRS employee looks at the matter and exercises judgment. This may seem surprising as to the negligence penalty, since to find negligence there must be a determination of whether a taxpayer made a reasonable attempt to comply with law and whether they exercised ordinary and reasonable care in doing so. See Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-3(b)(1). The SCA memo reasons, however, that  

programmed into the computer are uniform factual criteria under which the computer will automatically propose a negligence penalty; when a taxpayer, for a second year, fails to report income reported on third party information returns, the programmed determination is that the taxpayer has not exercised ordinary and reasonable care in the preparation of his return. When the computer program automatically assesses the penalty on the basis of this mechanical determination, we believe that it qualifies as an exception to the general rule requiring written supervisory approval. 

I find this rationale troubling. Hopefully IRS personnel also aim to use uniform factual criteria when deciding whether a negligence penalty is warranted. Very complex decisions can be made by computers if they are programmed to do so, but programming incorporates the biases and errors of human programmers. A computer does not necessarily arrive at a legally correct determination. There is a wealth of debate on this issue in other contexts, including criminal sentencing. As journalist Matthias Spielkamp puts it, “algorithms make no value judgments – except the ones designed by humans.” The AUR negligence logic tree may not be as complex as the algorithms that send people to prison or deny them credit, but the difference seems to me one of degree. As tax compliance has become more automated, and as algorithms have become more sophisticated, it is hard to identify any penalty decision that could not in theory be made by a computer program. 

Troubling or not, the IRS applied the reasoning of SCA 200211040 in 2014 to the frivolous tax filing penalty under section 6702, in CC 2014-004. As in the AUR function, the IRS had programmed its computer system to apply predetermined criteria for assessing the frivolous return penalty, and no human employee reviewed an individual assessment unless the taxpayer responded.  

The Triggs case involves the negligence and understatement penalties, asserted in the alternative. The IRS conducted a correspondence examination of Mr. Triggs’s return, but he did not respond until after the notice of deficiency was issued (with the proposed penalty). Like many of the post-Graev cases we have blogged, the trial in Mr. Triggs’s case occurred before the Graev III decision. In March 2018, Judge Leyden invited the IRS to file a motion to reopen the record to submit proof that it had complied with the penalty assessment procedures. The IRS responded by asserting that those procedures do not apply to Mr. Triggs’s case, because his penalty was proposed by the correspondence examination computer system without any human review and therefore falls under section 6751(b)(2)(B). This position is consistent with the reasoning in SCA 200211040 and CC 2014-004, although those memos did not involve correspondence examinations.   

However, Judge Leyden points out several IRM sections that seem inconsistent with this position. For example, the order notes: 

With respect to correspondence examinations, one provision of the IRM states: “The determination to assert penalties, to identify the appropriate penalties, and to calculate the penalty amount accurately is primarily the examiner’s responsibility. This responsibility remains the same even when examinations are conducted by correspondence.” IRM pt. 4.10.3.16.8 (Mar. 1, 2003). 

Judge Leyden therefore orders the IRS to file a supplement by May 31, setting out the legal basis for its position in more detail, and specifically addressing the IRM provisions identified in the order. The supplement will be available at the Tax Court’s offices in Washington, D.C., if any enterprising reader is motivated to obtain a copy.  

In 2014, in response to the IRS position on AUR assessments, the National Taxpayer Advocate issued a legislative recommendation that Congress amend section 6751(b)(2)(B) to specify which penalties are not subject to the general requirement, and to specifically exclude the negligence penalty. She has maintained that recommendation for several years, and it is now included in the Purple Book compilation. That recommendation will be even more important if the government maintains its current position in Triggs 

Designated Orders for week of 3-12-2018

Guest blogger Samantha Galvin from University of Denver brings us up to date on the designated orders this week.  (We are a bit behind on publishing these but will catch up soon.)  I had the chance to see Samantha recently at the Tax Court Judicial Conference and to hear comments from many readers of this feature. As always in 2018 there are orders on issues concerning the Graev case. Michael Jackson’s estate continues to provide fodder as well. Perhaps the most interesting case is the first one she discusses. The issue of obtaining a refund in a CDP case is one we thought was settled with the answer being that it was not possible to obtain a refund in that forum. Perhaps the Tax Court has decided to revisit the area. See here and here for prior discussion of that issue. There is also a lengthy discussion of the issue in the Collection Due Process chapter of Saltzman and Book. Keith

The Tax Court designated seven orders the week of March 12, 2018. Three are discussed below, the orders not discussed are: 1) an order ruling on a motion for continuance and motion to dismiss involving the Court’s discretion to grant a continuance shortly before trial (here); 2) a ruling on evidentiary matters in the Michael Jackson Estate case (here); 3) an order involving partnership issues where petitioner filed a motion in limine and motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction (here); and 4) an order reopening the trial record in a case involving a Graev III analysis (here).

A Novel Jurisdictional Question – Can the Court Order Refund in a CDP Case?

Docket No. 20317-13, Brian H. McClane v. C.I.R. (Order here)

In this designated order the Tax Court directs the pro se petitioner to contact LITCs in the Baltimore area because it confronts a novel issue, which is whether the Court has jurisdiction to determine and order the credit or refund of an overpayment in a CDP case. The case is before the Court to review a determination sustaining an NFTL for tax years 2006 and 2008.

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It is important to note that the parties dispute whether respondent properly mailed a notice of deficiency (“NOD”) for the years at issue, but both parties agree that the petitioner did not receive a notice of deficiency.

During and after trial, respondent accepted petitioner’s substantiation of deductions for 2008 which results in petitioner’s tax liability being less than the amount reported on his return and eliminates the need for the Court to sustain the NFTL for that year. As a result, the Court asks if the parties object to a decision upholding respondent’s determination for 2006 only, and petitioner objects because he believes he is due a refund for 2008.

Petitioner did not claim a refund in his petition, but that does not preclude him from pursuing a refund claim now because Rule 41(b)(1) requires that any issues tried by express or implied consent are treated as if they were raised in the initial pleadings. The Court views respondent’s concessions as implied consent to the issue of whether petitioner is entitled to a refund. The fact that the issue is raised, however, does not establish the Court’s jurisdiction over the issue. This bring us to the focus of the designated order – does the Court have jurisdiction to order a refund here?

The Court requests that the parties submit supplemental briefs on this issue before the Court resolves it but provides guidance in the form of observations and questions.

Sections 6330(d)(1) and 6512(b)(1) are relevant to the issue of the Court’s jurisdiction to determine and order the refund or credit of an overpayment in a CDP case. Section 6330(d)(1) is the principal, and perhaps the only, basis for jurisdiction and allows the Court to review a determination made by Appeals. The authority is generally regarded as limited to matters within scope of Appeals’ determination. This permits the Court to decline to uphold the determination to sustain the NFTL for 2008, but can they go further and order a refund? Did Appeals have the authority to order a refund and does that matter?

The Court asks petitioner to advise the Court on whether he views the Court’s ability to order a refund within the jurisdiction of 6330(d)(1) and what analysis or authorities support that view. The Court similarly asks respondent to advise the Court on whether the Court’s jurisdiction is limited under section 6330(d)(1) and whether Appeals has the authority to order a refund.

Section 6512(b)(1) gives the Court jurisdiction to determine and order the refund or credit of an overpayment in deficiency cases, but this is not a deficiency case.

Section 6512(b)(3) limits the Court’s ability to order a credit or refund to only that portion of tax paid after the mailing of a NOD or the amount which a timely claim for refund was pending (or could have been filed) on the date of mailing of the NOD. Is this limitation a further indication that overpayment jurisdiction by section 6512(b)(1) is ancillary to deficiency jurisdiction under section 6214(a)?

Respondent’ efforts to collect a deficiency that petitioner did not previously have an opportunity to contest puts into play the amount of his tax liability for that year under section 6330(c)(2)(B), but it is not clear that respondent’s efforts had any effect on petitioner’s ability to pursue a refund claim in other ways (by filing an amended return or responding to the NOD). The Court is not aware of any reason why petitioner could not have pursued his refund claim independently of respondent’s collection action and the section 6330 petition.

Petitioner filed the return at issue in 2009 but made payments from 2009 and 2012 meaning that the latest he could have claimed a refund for some of the amount paid was 2014, so the Court wonders to what extent petitioner’s claim is timely. Did respondent’s issuance of NFTL or any other event that occurred as part of the CDP case suspend the section 6511(a) period of limitations? Or any action on part of petitioner? If respondent’s issuance of the NFTL did not affect petitioner’s ability to pursue a refund claim that has since become time-barred, then petitioner has no ground to complain about the Court’s inability to entertain a belated refund claim as part of the present case.

Supplemental briefs on the issue are due on or before April 30, 2018.

Simple, Concise and Direct

Docket No. 14619-10, 14687-10, 7527-12, 9921-12, 9922-12, 9977-12, 30196-14, 31483-15, Ernest S. Ryder & Associates, Inc., APLC, et al. v. C.I.R. (Order here)

This designated order is somewhat unique because it contains a lesson for Respondent.

These consolidated docket cases had been tried in two special sessions in 2016. During trial, Respondent made an oral motion to conform the pleadings to proof (which means that the Court treats the issues tried by the parties’ express or implied consent as if they were raised in the initial pleadings) pursuant to Rule 41(b) and the Court directs respondent to put his motion in writing so it can serve as an amended pleading. Rule 41(d) requires that amended pleadings to relate back to the original pleading.

The motion filed by respondent has two attachments (issues raised in the NOD and issues raised at trial) which contain over 100 different numbered items which are duplicative to some extent. Despite the voluminous nature of the attachments, respondent also states that the lists are not exhaustive. The Court finds deciphering the issues raised by respondent to be confusing and since the Court is confused, it understands that the petitioner may also be confused.

Petitioner argues that respondent’s evolving theories prejudice him by making it difficult to know which theories warrant a response. Rule 31(b) requires that pleadings be simple, concise and direct. The Court has discretion to allow amended pleadings but denies respondent’s motion because it violates Rule 31. The Court directs respondent to make his motion describe the issues more clearly if he plans to resubmit it.

Three Attorneys and Levy Still Sustained

Docket No. 26364-16, Patricia Guzik v. C.I.R. (Order here)

 

The petitioner is in Tax Court on a determination to sustain a levy on income tax and section 6672 trust fund recovery penalties. Respondent moves for summary judgment and argues that the settlement officer did not abuse her discretion since petitioner’s offer in compromise could not be processed due to an open examination and petitioner could not establish an installment agreement because she failed to propose a specific monthly payment amount. The Court grants respondent’s motion.

Petitioner is very sympathetic. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, pregnant and on bed rest when she first began working with Appeals in her collection due process hearing. Her attorney, the first of three over 14 months, requests an extension to submit a collection statement and an offer in compromise, which the settlement officer grants. Because petitioner’s 2011 return was being audited, the settlement officer informed the attorney that an offer would not be processable unless the audit was closed by the time the offer was considered, but an installment agreement may be an option.

The first attorney faxes over a collection information statement and requests another extension to submit an offer in compromise which the settlement officer grants, but this deadline is ultimately missed.

Petitioner hires new representation in the meantime and the second attorney requests an extension which, again, the settlement office grants. This time the offer is submitted, but it is not processable due to the still open audit. While the offer is being considered, petitioner hires new representation for the third time. The newest attorney informs the settlement officer that because the offer is not processable, petitioner wants to propose an installment agreement. Petitioner’s counsel asks if the settlement officer has an amount in mind and the settlement officer states that proposing an amount is not her role, it is petitioner’s. The settlement officer also states that petitioner’s assets may need to be liquidated before the installment agreement can be considered. At this point, petitioner has not paid her 2015 liability and has not made estimated tax payments for 2016.

Petitioner pays nearly all her trust fund recovery penalties, which she argues is a material change in circumstances, and because of that change the Court should remand her case back to Appeals for review.

The Court can remand cases back to Appeals but typically does so if a taxpayer’s ability to repay has diminished and does not necessarily do so when a taxpayer’s ability to pay has improved – so the Court chooses not to remand the case.

Petitioner’s health issues are very unfortunate, but she had three attorneys in 14 months all of whom requested extensions which the settlement officer allowed. Even with the additional time, petitioner never submits an installment agreement proposal, so the Court sustains the levy finding that the settlement office did not abuse her discretion.

 

D.C. Circuit Asked to Agree With Second Circuit and Tax Court About Application of Section 6751(b)

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who brings us up to date on a Graev case headed to the DC Circuit. So far, only the Second Circuit has had the chance to write an opinion on this issue. This will be an important case to watch. Keith

In RERI Holdings I, LLC v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. 1 (2017), the Tax Court disallowed a TEFRA partnership’s $33 million charitable contribution deduction because RERI failed to show on its Form 8283 its cost basis in the property (only $3 million).  The Tax Court also imposed a substantial valuation misstatement penalty under section 6662(h).  In the notice of final partnership administrative adjustment, the IRS had determined a regular valuation misstatement penalty under section 6662(e).  By amended answer, the IRS increased the penalty to a substantial valuation misstatement penalty under section 6662(h).  The case was tried and briefed in 2015 — long before the Tax Court in Graev III (Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 23 (Dec. 20, 2017)) and the Second Circuit in Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017), held that, in a deficiency case involving an individual, section 7491(c) imposed the burden of production on the IRS to demonstrate compliance with the managerial approval requirement in section 6751(b) for imposing penalties.  The IRS in RERI had not introduced any evidence that a manager approved either of the penalties under section 6662.

The partnership has appealed both the disallowance of the charitable deduction and the imposition of the penalties to the D.C. Circuit (Docket No. 17-1266).  In its opening brief filed on April 2, 2018, among other arguments, the partnership has for the first time argued that the IRS had an obligation under sections 6751(b) and 7491(c) to introduce in the Tax Court evidence of managerial approval of the penalties.  The IRS having not done so, the partnership seeks to be relieved of any penalties — citing ChaiRERI may thus present the first time after Chai that an appellate court deals with section 6751(b)’s requirements.

Since the DOJ hasn’t yet filed its brief, it is unknown whether the government will agree that it had the burden of production on this approval issue or whether the approval issue can even be considered in a case prior to the assessment of the penalty.  Note, however, that there are two large issues lurking in the case now:  First, do Chai and Graev III, which involved deficiency cases, also extend to TEFRA partnership cases?  Second, does section 7491(c)’s shift in the burden of production extend to TEFRA partnership cases, since that section nominally applies only to cases of an individual?  The tax matters partner of RERI who brought the Tax Court case is an individual.  Does that affect the analysis under section 7491(c)?  These are issues that Judge Holmes recently invited the parties to brief in a designated order he issued on January 5, 2018 in a TEFRA partnership case named Oakbrook Land Holdings, LLC v. Commissioner, Docket No. 5444-13.  Caleb Smith blogged on this designated order in a post on January 17, 2018.  In its opening brief in the D.C. Circuit, RERI does not discuss these two potential issues.  Wisely, RERI is leaving it to the government to raise these issues, if it wants, in its answering brief.

Ford v. Commissioner: A step forward in the shadow of Graev III

We welcome back guest blogger Professor Erin Stearns who directs the low income taxpayer clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Graduate Tax Program. She writes today about more fallout from Graev III. Professor Stearns co-authored the Penalty chapter in the forthcoming (hopefully next month) Seventh Edition of Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS. The case she discusses today takes a taxpayer favorable position on proof of the necessary penalty approval. For a discussion of the case that focuses on the substantive law at issue, see the blog post by Professor Bryan Camp. Keith

The Tax Court published the Ford v. Commissioner memorandum decision on January 25, 2018. See T.C. Memo. 2018-8. It is significant not only because the petitioner is a legendary mover and shaker on Nashville’s country music scene, but because it demonstrates how the Tax Court may handle penalty disputes involving I.R.C. § 6751 after Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 23 (Dec. 20, 2017) (“Graev III”).

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I.R.C. § 6751 states that no penalty shall be assessed unless the “initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate.” Exceptions from the requirement of supervisory approval are for penalties under § 6651 (failure to pay and file) and §§ 6654 and 6655 (failure to make estimated tax penalties by individuals and corporations). See I.R.C. § 6751(b)(2).

Ford v. Commissioner involves the petitioner, Mrs. Joy Ford, who with her deceased husband, Mr. Sherman Ford, formed a country music label called Country International Records in 1974. They also started the Bell Cove Club in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just outside Nashville, in the late 1980’s. Bell Cove – still in operation – has been an important venue for up and coming country music stars to take the stage and perform before talent scouts and agents in the competitive Nashville music scene.

In each of 2012, 2013, and 2014, Bell Cove sustained significant losses which appear to have been reported on Schedule C of Mrs. Ford’s Form 1040 and which offset her income from other sources. The IRS audited Mrs. Ford’s individual income tax returns and proposed to deny the losses, arguing that Bell Cove was not an activity engaged in for profit under I.R.C. § 183, but rather a hobby for Mrs. Ford. The IRS also sought to deny NOL deductions on two years of tax returns. Finally, it proposed an accuracy-related penalty for negligence under I.R.C. § 6662. Mrs. Ford’s case went to trial before Judge Foley in May 2017.

The seven-page memorandum decision addresses three issues. The first was whether the Bell Cove was an activity engaged in for profit or a hobby in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and the second was whether Mrs. Ford was entitled to net operating losses (NOL) deductions from earlier years. In the decision, Judge Foley quickly disposed of the first two issues. Albeit with an approving nod to the mission and contributions of Bell Cove to the Nashville music scene, he determined that the operation of Bell Cove was “primarily motivated by personal pleasure, not profit, and simply used the club’s losses to offset her [other] income.” T.C. Memo. 2018-8, Slip Op. at 6. He noted that the handwritten ledger did not match business expenses reported on the returns, that Mrs. Ford frequently used her personal bank account to pay Bell Cove’s expenses, and that the amount paid to performers generally exceeded the revenue from ticket sales. Judge Foley also sustained the respondent’s disallowance of NOL deductions for lack of substantiation.

The remaining issue, and the one relevant here, concerns the accuracy-related penalty. The decision states:

We do not, however, sustain the section 6662(a) accuracy-related penalties relating to negligence for the years in issue. Respondent failed to present any evidence that the penalties were “personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination.”… Accordingly, he did not meet his burden of production, and petitioner is not liable for the determined penalties.

The IRS has the burden of production under § 7491(c) for certain penalties in a deficiency case, including showing compliance with the requirements of § 6751(b). See Graev III. The penalty at issue in Ford, and a common penalty for many petitioners, is the accuracy-related penalty under § 6662(a).

Over the last year, the Tax Court and Second Circuit Court of Appeals have sought to define what the IRS must show in order to prove the petitioner is liable for penalties, and when the IRS must show it. See Graev v. Commissioner, 147 T.C. No. 16 (November 30, 2016) (“Graev II”), Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190, 221 (2d Cir. 2017), and Graev III. There have also been a series of excellent posts by Keith (here, here, and here) and Carl Smith (here) about these cases and their impacts on this site. These posts are worth reading and this post will not re-span the ground they cover other than to identify the landscape post-Graev III, and how Ford builds on it.

Graev III, issued December 20, 2017, held that in a deficiency case, the IRS’s burden of production under § 7491(c) for certain penalties includes showing compliance with the requirements of § 6751(b). Graev III was significant in that it overruled the earlier decision in Graev II and rejected that majority’s holding that the written approval may be obtained at any time before the penalty is assessed, and any challenge under § 6751(b) must be made after assessment of the underlying tax liability. This would effectively postpone challenges under § 6751(b) until after the deficiency dispute has been decided, whether by settlement or at trial. The Graev III court seems to adopt the timing standards set forth by the Second Circuit in Chai v. Commissioner. This rule says that the IRS must “obtain written approval of the initial penalty determination no later than the date the IRS issues the notice of deficiency (or files an answer or amended answer) asserting such penalty.”

Following Graev III, Tax Court judges issued a number of orders asking parties to weigh in on whether and how Graev III affected them. Ford is the first decision issued post-Graev III addressing whether the IRS met its burden of production by showing compliance with the requirements of § 6751(b). As noted above, in Ford Judge Foley held that respondent failed to put on evidence sufficient to meet this burden. This was good for Mrs. Ford and appears to be a good sign for petitioners going forward.

I hesitate to overstate the significance to Ford, but it demonstrates the Court’s willingness to sua sponte require the IRS to show compliance with § 6751(b) in at least some cases involving penalties. We know that Mrs. Joy Ford was represented by counsel, but it’s not clear from the decision to what degree and on what basis her counsel challenged penalties and if the issue of compliance with § 6751(b) ever came up. Therefore, on its own, Ford does not give us clear guidance on what this means for pro se litigants, or even represented petitioners with pending cases involving penalties where § 6751(b) compliance issues were not raised.

If judges increasingly sua sponte require the IRS to show it complied with § 6751(b), then petitioners are likely to prevail on the issue of penalties unless respondent’s counsel immediately anticipates this challenge and puts on evidence that the § 6751(b) requirements were met. Assuming that Ford does not alter the landscape so much as to make it standard for judges to sua sponte require respondent to prove it complied with § 6751(b), another more practical question arises: how should petitioners’ counsel approach penalty challenges in light of the timing rule that respondent must obtain supervisory approval of penalties “until no later than the date the IRS issues the notice of deficiency (or files an answer or amended answer) asserting such penalty”?

Certainly Graev III and Ford empower petitioners and their counsel to raise the issue that the IRS has the burden of production under § 7491(c) to show compliance with the § 6751(b) procedures, and to argue that penalties at issue should not be sustained absent such a showing. But when is the best time to make this argument? More specifically, is this something petitioners should state in their petitions to Tax Court?

As noted above, the language in Chai which Graev III seems to have adopted, would give the IRS up until the notice of deficiency is issued or the Answer or Amended Answer is filed to obtain supervisory approval of penalties sufficient to comply with § 6751(b). Chai seems to suggest that for penalties asserted in a notice of deficiency, the IRS would need to have obtained approval of the penalties by a supervisor before the notice was issued. It also suggests that in instances where respondent’s counsel may seek to assert penalties not originally asserted in the Notice of Deficiency in the Answer (or Amended Answer), then supervisory approval must be obtained prior to the issuance of the Answer (or Amended Answer). At this point, it’s not clear from Chai or Graev III whether the IRS could go back and obtain supervisory approval of a penalty after a notice of deficiency is issued but before an Answer (or Amended Answer) is filed if the IRS determines that the requirements of § 6751(b) were not met prior to issuance of the notice of deficiency.

Because of this uncertainty, I question whether raising a § 6751(b) challenge in a petition would invite the IRS to obtain supervisory approval if it appears to be missing before the Answer is filed. While the students and staff in our clinic strive to be as transparent as possible in our dealings with IRS Counsel, we would not want to show all our cards in the petition if doing so could later preclude us from making an argument in our client’s favor. At this point, unless and until judges require the IRS to show it complied with § 6751(b) as a matter of course, it may be safest for petitioner to simply state she disagrees with the IRS’s proposed assessment of penalties in her petition and save any potential § 6751(b) arguments for later negotiations or trial, if necessary.

 

Designated Orders: Week of 1/1/2018 – 1/5/2018 aka New Year, New Graev III(?)

This week’s designated orders come courtesy of Caleb Smith at University of Minnesota. It is not surprising that Graev III and other issues related to penalties continue to dominate the order pages at the Tax Court. As one might expect in reading Graev III and previous designated orders, Judge Holmes has problems with the way things are working. In two cases Caleb discusses, we find out about the problems and how to attack them. Keith

Estate of Michael Jackson v. C.I.R., dkt. # 17152-13 [here];

Oakbrook Land Holdings, LLC v. C.I.R., dkt. # 5444-13 [here]

2018 begins with Judge Holmes continuing the inquiry into the aftermath of Graev III, and raising some new issues. As Carl posted earlier [here], even if we now know that the IRC 6751(b)(1) argument can be raised in a deficiency case, there certainly remain questions to be answered about the contours of its applicability and interplay with IRC 7491(c) (the IRS burden of production on penalties).

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The main issue in Judge Holmes’s two orders is the interplay of these statutes with taxpayers that are not “individuals” as defined in the code. That is, how does the burden of production issue in 7491(c), which by its language applies to penalties against individuals come to effect partnerships and estates?

Consider the varying breadth of the primary statutes at play:

  • IRC 6751(b)(1): “No penalty under this title shall be assessed […]”

Thus, subject to the exceptions listed in IRC 6751(b)(2), the supervisory approval requirement appears quite broad. By its language, it appears to apply to all penalties found in the Internal Revenue Code.

OK, so we know that supervisory approval is broad. But when exactly does the IRS have the burden of production to show that it has complied? That seems a slightly narrower… As relevant here:

  • IRC 7491(c): the IRS “shall have the burden of production in any court proceeding with respect to any individual for any penalty […]”

So if the penalty is against an individual, the IRS bears the burden of production. That, of course, prompts the question: what is an “individual” for tax purposes? For guidance there, we look to the definitions section of the code. As relevant here:

  • IRC 7701(a)(1): “The term “person” shall be construed to mean and include an individual, a trust, estate, partnership, association, company or corporation.”

This definition clearly contemplates that not every entity is an “individual.” In fact, an individual is basically limited to a natural human. Putting these three statutes together, you seem to get (1) supervisory approval required for all penalties, but (2) burden of production for the IRS to show approval only when the penalty is against a natural human.

The question seems more complicated in the case of partnerships than estates (go figure). For one, in TEFRA cases the petitioner is the partner that files the petition: which may be an individual, but it may also be another partnership, association, etc. Another wrinkle: in the TEFRA/partnership context, the court is looking at the applicability of the penalty, not the liability. Does that change the analysis? 7491(c) explicitly deals with a court proceeding “with respect to the liability […] for any penalty[.]” Is determining applicability the same (or close enough) to being “with respect to” the liability of the penalty for IRC 7491(c) to apply in TEFRA? I would think yes, but I (blessedly) do not frequently work with partnership issues.

As far as I can tell the question of whether the IRS should have the burden of production on penalties (generally) against estates, partnerships, etc. is not much changed under Graev III. The only real difference now is that the IRS (may) have to wrap in supervisory approval as part of their burden of production. In reading Judge Holmes’s orders, I couldn’t help but get the sense that his questions have less to do with the outcome of Graev III and more to do with general problems in the law concerning penalties. In fact, it seemed to me that Graev III simply provided the Court an opportunity to review some issues that may have been lurking for some time.

In both orders, Judge Holmes lists multiple memorandum decisions that apply the burden of production against the IRS for penalties against estates and in the partnership context, respectively. However, Judge Holmes also notes that the cases either don’t really address the question (for applicability against estates), or are fairly unclear in their rationale (for applicability in the partnership context… again, go figure).

The court decision that explicitly does apply the burden of proof on the IRS in a partnership context appears particularly weak. That case is Seismic Support Services, LLC v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2014-78. The issue is addressed in a footnote (11), where the Court actually notes that the language of IRC 7491(c) applies “on its face” to individuals and that numerous Tax Court decisions have refused to apply IRC 7491(c) against the IRS when the taxpayer isn’t an individual. In fact, a precedential decision explicitly says that 7491(c) doesn’t apply when the taxpayer is not an individual: see NT, Inc. v. C.I.R., 126 T.C. 191.

Case closed… right?

Well, no, because other memorandum decisions have applied IRC 7491(c) against the IRS when the taxpayer was a corporation. Why it is that Judge Kroupa in Seismic Support Services, LLC decides that she should follow the lead of the memorandum decisions is beyond me. Those decisions provide essentially no analysis as to whether IRC 7491(c) should apply against non-individuals, whereas NT, Inc. specifically states why it shouldn’t. I would not be surprised if the Court began a trend towards consistency in this matter, abandoning Judge Kroupa’s approach and opting for what appears to be the correct statutory reading: if it isn’t an “individual,” the burden of production for penalties does not apply to the IRS. Partnership issues may complicate that matter, but generally speaking (and especially for estates), it does not appear that IRC 7491(c) should apply.

Throughout all of this, one thing that surprised me was that the IRS has not raised the issue before. In fact, the case that explicitly holds that IRC 7491(c) does not apply in the case of corporate taxpayers (NT, Inc. v. C.I.R.), the IRS (by motion) stated that it did apply… and the Court had to say of its own volition “no, in fact it does not.” Little issue, I suppose, because the IRS won either way.

And that may be the ultimate lesson: if and when the burden of production will actually change the outcome. In essentially all of the cases cited by Judge Holmes (i.e. the cases I reviewed) it is likely the IRS didn’t much care about the burden of proof. They were arguing a “mechanical” applicability of a penalty (like substantial undervaluation) such that it really didn’t matter who had the burden of production, since the burden would be met (or not met) depending on how the Court valued the underlying property (in the estate cases).

But where the penalty requires something more (say, negligence) the IRC 7491(c) issue would definitely be important. Alternatively, if it becomes a requirement that the IRS affirmatively show compliance with IRC 6751 without the taxpayer raising that issue, it may also change the calculous. Like so many other penalty issues, we don’t yet have clarity on how that will turn out.

Remaining Orders:

There were three other designated orders that were issued last week. An order from Special Trial Judge Carluzzo granting summary judgment against an unresponsive pro se taxpayer can be found here, but will not be discussed. The two remaining orders don’t break new ground or merit nearly as much discussion, but provide some interesting tidbits:

A Judge Buch order in Collins v. C.I.R., (found here) may be of some use to attorneys that have some familiarity with federal court, but no familiarity with Tax Court. In Collins, the pro se taxpayer (apparently an attorney, but without admission to the Tax Court) attempts to compel discovery, and cites to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) Rule 37 to do so. Among many other errors (ranging from spelling, to failing to redact private information), this maneuver fails. For one, it fails because Mr. Collins appears to seek information “looking behind” the Notice of Deficiency (i.e. to how or why the IRS conducted the examination) which older Tax Court decisions frown upon. (I would say that the outcome of Qinetiq (discussed here) generally reaffirms this approach.)

But the more imminent reason why Mr. Collins approach fails is that he doesn’t comply with the Tax Court Rules before looking to the FRCP as a stand-in. And those rules (at R. 70) plainly require attempting informal discovery before using more formal discovery procedures. All of which is to say, attorneys that are accustomed to litigating in other fora should understand that Tax Court is a different animal than they may be expecting.

Finally, An order from Judge Gustafson (found here) shows still more potential problems for the IRS on penalty issues, this time IRC 6707A concerning failure to disclose reportable transactions. The Court surmises (and orders clarification through a phone call) that the IRS may have lumped multiple years of penalties (some for time-barred periods) into one aggregate penalty for a non-time barred year. This is almost certainly a no-no, and if it turns out the IRS calculated the later (open) penalty in that way one would expect the phone call to involve some large dollar concessions from the IRS.