Application of Chenery to Supervisory Affidavits in Graev Cases

Ray Cohen, a faithful reader and a CPA in Paramus, New Jersey, asks the following question of other readers and invites them to send comments to the post to help him work through the answer. Keith

When the original signature of the immediate supervisor is missing, the IRS attempts to get around this by using an affidavit of the immediate supervisor. Attempts have been made to defeat the affidavit by calling it hearsay. Unfortunately, the court have not accepted this argument. SEC v Chenery Corp (Chenery II) 332 U.S.194 (1947) might be the answer. Does anybody think so?

Section 6751(b)(1) states that “[n]o 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….”
According to Notice CC-2018-006 from the Office of Chief Counsel, supervisory approval is required when the IRS “files an answer or amended answer asserting penalties. In Graev v Commissioner III, it states that “IRC Sec. ‘6751(b)(1) requires 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’, id. At 221.

While the Federal Rules of evidence permit the use of affidavits, the IRS rules and chief counsel require original signatures in asserting a penalty.

SEC v Chenery Corp (Chenery II)332 U.S.194 (1947) states “ That rule is to the effect that a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency. If those grounds are inadequate or improper, the court is powerless to affirm the administrative action by substituting what it considers to be a more adequate or proper basis. To do so would propel the court into the domain which Congress has set aside exclusively for the administrative agency.“

Putting IRS Records at Issue: Proving Supervisory Approval and Receipt of Notice of Deficiency. Designated Orders 9/10/28 – 9/14/18

We welcome designated order blogger Caleb Smith from the University of Minnesota with this week’s discussion of the orders the Tax Court has deemed important. Keith

Taxpayers routinely get into problems when they don’t keep good records. At least in part because of the information imbalance between the IRS and taxpayer, when the IRS reviews a return and says “prove it” the burden is (generally) on the taxpayer to do so. Attempts by the taxpayer to turn the tables on the IRS (“prove you, the IRS, have good reason to challenge my credit, etc.”) are unlikely to succeed.

However, there are areas where demanding the IRS “prove it” can be a winning argument. Not unsurprisingly, these are areas where the information imbalance tips to the IRS -in other words, procedural areas where the IRS would have better knowledge of whether they met their obligations than the taxpayer would. We will dive into two designated orders that deal with these common areas: (1) proving supervisory approval under IRC § 6751, and (2) proving mailing in Collection Due Process (CDP) cases. Because it gives a better glimpse into the horrors of IRS recordkeeping, we’ll start with the CDP case.

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Summary Judgment Haunts the IRS Once More: Johnson & Roberson v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 22224-17L (order here)

Judge Gustafson has tried on numerous occasions to explain what is required for a motion for summary judgment to succeed. Those lessons generally involved motions that failed to fully address relevant legal questions or put forth necessary facts through affidavits, exhibits, and the like.

The IRS motion for summary judgment in this case goes, perhaps, one step further: claiming that facts aren’t “subject to genuine dispute” and, as evidence, attaching documents that seem to prove only that the facts ARE subject to genuine dispute. More on the nature of those documents (and what they say about IRS recordkeeping) in a second. But first, for those keeping score at home, this order also provides a new addition to the list of “signs the judge is not going to rule in your favor”: when the judge finds it necessary to remind a party that they are “responsible for what is asserted in a motion that he signs and files.”

Law students are taught about the potential horrors and responsibilities of FRCP Rule 11. The idea is to imprint upon their mind the responsibilities in making representations to the court, such that Rule 11 will not become something they will need to be reminded of later in practice. A Tax Court judge referencing Rule 33(b) in response to your motion is fairly close to a reminder of that 1L Civil Procedures lecture, and may on its own trigger some unwanted flashbacks.

So what went so horribly wrong in this motion for summary judgment that the IRS needed to be reminded of the “effect of their signature” on that motion? To understand that, we need to first understand what is at issue.

The pro se petitioners in this case wanted to argue their underlying tax liability in the CDP hearing, but were denied the opportunity to do so by Appeals. For present purposes, if the petitioners could show they “did not receive any statutory notice of deficiency (SNOD)” then they can raise the underlying tax as an issue in the CDP hearing. See IRC § 6330(c)(2)(B). Also for present purposes, receiving a SNOD means actual receipt, not just that it was mailed to the last known address.

When a petitioner puts actual receipt of an SNOD at issue in a CDP hearing, the typical song-and-dance is for the IRS to offer evidence that the SNOD was properly mailed to the actual residence of the taxpayer at the time. Since there is a presumption that the USPS does its job (that is, properly delivers the mail), it is usually an uphill battle for the taxpayer to argue “yes, I lived there, but no, I never got that piece of mail” -especially since SNODs are sent certified and refusing to accept the mail is just as good as receiving it. See Sego v. C.I.R., 114 T.C. 604 (2000).

So for this summary judgment motion the IRS basically needs to put out evidence showing that the SNOD was mailed and received by the petitioners, and that the fact of receipt is not subject to genuine dispute. The evidence the IRS puts forth on that point is, shall we say, lacking.

Judge Gustafson immediately finds some issues with the IRS records that, while not proving a lack of mailing, “does not inspire confidence.” First is a dating issue: the SNOD is dated 3/28/2016, but the mailing record only shows a letter (not necessarily the SNOD) going out 3/24/2016 (that is, four days earlier than the SNOD is dated). I don’t put much faith in the dates printed on IRS letters, so this is not particularly surprising to me, but the inconsistency does throw a little doubt on the credibility of the IRS records. Further, Judge Gustafson notes that there is no “certified mail green card bearing a signature of either petitioner” that the IRS can point to.

It seems pretty obvious from the outset that the actual receipt of the SNOD is a fact “subject to genuine dispute.” First, the taxpayers request for a CDP hearing (Form 12153) appears to reflect ignorance of any SNOD being sent. But far, far, more damning are the IRS Appeals CDP records on that point. The “Case Activity Record” speaks for itself:

Dated March 30, 2017: “Tracked certified mail number and found that as of April 16, 2016, the status of the SNOD is still in transit for both taxpayers, therefore, it is determine[d] that the taxpayers did not receive the SNOD.”

There you have it. IRS Appeals has found that there was no receipt of SNOD. The taxpayer is also arguing there was no receipt of SNOD. IRS Counsel is arguing that “petitioners had a prior opportunity to dispute their underlying liability pursuant to the notice of deficiency” and therefore are precluded from raising it in the CDP hearing. With utmost charity, the IRS argument could potentially be saved if it was arguing that there was another opportunity to argue the tax (which, of course, would require other facts). But that is not what is happening.

The IRS motion explicitly asserts (as a fact) receipt of the SNOD by petitioners on March 28. 2016. As evidence of that fact, the IRS attaches “Exhibit 1” and “Rubilotta Declaration, Exhibit D.”

Unfortunately, “Exhibit 1” is just the mailing list (which simply shows a letter being sent four days before the SNOD date, and says nothing about receipt), while “Exhibit D” is apparently just the SNOD itself. Basically, the IRS is trying to get summary judgment against pro se taxpayers based on evidence that, at best, shows that the only thing certain in the matter is that there is a big, genuine issue of material fact. Judge Gustafson is not impressed, finds against the IRS on every point, casually mentions Counsel’s responsibilities vis a vis Rule 33(b), and appears on the verge of remanding to Appeals.

One may read this order as a FRCP Rule 11/Tax Court Rule 33(b) lesson, and the importance of due diligence before the court. It definitely provides a lot to think about on those points. But I would note that IRS Counsel’s follies in this case did not go unassisted. Specifically, IRS Appeals did not do their job. Although the settlement officer (SO) specifically found that the SNOD was not received by the taxpayers, the SO also determined “the taxpayer is precluded from raising the tax liability due to prior opportunity” to argue the tax. That is arguably what led to the taxpayer bringing this petition in the first place. Without SNOD receipt this outcome could conceivably be correct, but it would take more explanation from the SO as to what the prior opportunity was. Instead, the poor record-keeping and poor file review was preserved from Appeals to Counsel, culminating in the rather embarrassing order being issued.

Chai/Graev Ghouls and Recordkeeping: Tribune Media Company v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 20940-16 (order here)

Analysis of the IRS burden of proof in penalty cases, and specifically in proving compliance with IRC § 6751 need not be rehashed here (but can be reviewed here among many other places, for those that need a refresher).  Tribune Media Company doesn’t break any new ground on the issue, but it does provide some practical lessons for both the IRS and private practitioners in litigating IRC § 6751 issues.

The first lesson is one that I suspect the IRS already is in the process of correcting, post-Graev. That lesson is on the value of standardizing penalty approval procedures. The IRS loves standardized forms. This isn’t an arbitrary love: the constraints of the IRS budget and the sheer volume of work that goes into administering the IRC pretty much requires a heavy reliance on standardized forms.

The IRS already has standardized forms that it can and does use for penalty approval, but the Service was likely far more lax in tracking (or actually using) those forms pre-Graev. And although Graev/IRC § 6751 does not require a specific “form” as proof of supervisory approval (it simply must be written approval), things can get needlessly complicated if you draw outside the lines. Tribune Media Company demonstrates this well.

As a (presumably) complicated partnership case, there were numerous IRS employees assigned to Tribune Media Company at the audit stage. At the outset there was both a revenue agent and an attorney from local IRS counsel assigned to assist the revenue agent. Both of these parties, apparently, came to the determination that a penalty should be applied, and both received oral approval from their separate immediate supervisors before issuing the notice of proposed adjustment.

Of course, oral approval of the penalty is not enough. So the IRS has to provide something more… What would usually, or hopefully, be a readily available and standardized penalty approval form. Only that form does not appear to exist in this case. The IRS tries to comply with Tribune Media Company requests for documents showing supervisory approval largely through memoranda of the supervisor, email chains and handwritten notes (pertaining to the penalties, one assumes). But these “irregular approvals” aren’t good enough for Tribune Media Company… so formal discovery requests ensue.

Which leads to the second lesson: don’t expect success when you ask the Court to “look behind” IRS documents.

Judge Buch’s order does a good job of detailing the standards of discovery in tax court litigation. Generally, the scope of discoverable information in Tax Court Rule 70(b) is not significantly different from the Rules of Federal Civil Procedure. However, because the Tax Court will not examine “the propriety of the Commissioner’s administrative policy or procedure underlying his penalty determinations” (see Raifman v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2018-101), any discovery requests that could only be used to “look behind” the IRS determination will be shot down.

So when Tribune Media Company requests documents (1) “related to the Commissioner’s consideration, determination, or approval of penalties” and (2) “all forms, checklists, or other documents” the IRS generally uses for memorializing penalty approval they are going a step too far. The IRS has to provide proof of written supervisory approval for the penalties. Full stop. They do not have to provide any detail on the reasoning that went into the penalties, or (arguably) what the typical approval documents would be in this sort of case. (I wonder about this latter issue, as it seems to me it could properly be used by Tribune Media Company for impeachment purposes).

In the end, there appears to me some irony to the Tribune Media Company case. It seems highly likely that there was supervisory penalty approval, or at least a reasoned process leading to the penalty determination. The IRS is better off from a litigating perspective, however, streamlining penalty determination with rubber stamp (or worse, “automated”) approval on standardized forms.

I understand the Congressional desire to keep the IRS from using penalties as “bargaining chips,” but am not convinced that “written supervisory approval” really does much to advance that goal. What I am more worried about, especially in working with low-income taxpayers, is when accuracy penalties are more-or-less arbitrarily tacked on to liabilities in ways that do nothing to help compliance. In those cases, at least with the proper training, I think that supervisory approval could actually result in reducing the number of ill-advised penalties -they aren’t really being proposed as “bargaining chips” in the first place. Instead you have what increasingly looks like a bad-actor loophole -one which may, depending on how things develop with IRC § 6751(b)(2)(B) as applied to AUR, not even be available for the most vulnerable and least culpable taxpayers.

Odds and Ends: Other Designated Orders.

Two other designated orders were issued which will not be discussed. One fits the usual narrative of taxpayers losing in CDP when they do not participate in the CDP hearing, or do much of anything other than file a timely tax court petition (found here). The other provides a quick-and-dirty primer on IRC 351 transfers, and easily disposes the matter in favor of the IRS (found here).

 

 

Designated Orders 9/3/18 to 9/7/18: A Plea Agreement, a Follow-up, and More Graev

We welcome designated order guest blogger William Schmidt from the Legal Aid Society of Kansas who writes on this week’s designated orders. In the first case petitioners make an argument that has been made before and failed. It fails again because their agreement in the criminal case about the scope of prosecution does not prohibit the IRS from pursuing them to determine their correct civil tax liability. Keith

For the week of September 3 to 7, there were 6 designated orders from the Tax Court. The first two are regarding two separate petitioners requesting to consolidate their cases and filing motions for summary judgment based on a plea agreement from prior litigation. The next 2 are a pair of orders that follow up from a previous posting (March). There is another Graev follow-up case. The final order, here, deals with a Collection Due Process hearing where petitioners question why they were audited for a home office expense when they were not audited in prior years.

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The Plea Agreement Does Not Cover Tax Court

Docket No. 22616-17, Krystina L. Szabo v. C.I.R., available here.

Docket No. 22560-17, Michael P. Martin v. C.I.R., available here.

This pair of Tax Court designated orders for a married couple are very similar, but distinct. In fact, the cases have so much in common, the couple filed motions to consolidate their cases, but those motions are denied.

Both petitioners were responsible for the daily activities of Pony Express Services, LLC. The company provided foster care and related services to persons with mental handicaps in western Virginia and maintained and operated three group homes there. Mr. Martin was the owner while Ms. Szabo was an employee and program manager.

In December 2006, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia filed charges against the couple for conspiracy to defraud Medicare, Medicaid and the IRS. Among the charges were that the object of the conspiracy was to enrich the couple by falsely and fraudulently billing Medicaid for residential services not rendered and services not provided in the manner envisioned and required by Medicaid, plus maximizing the couple’s proceeds by utilizing what is called the foster home tax credit [actually referring to IRC section 131] when falsely informing their accountant they resided separately in two of the residential facilities.

The couple filed a plea agreement, acknowledged by the assistant U.S. attorney, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Within the plea agreement, it states there will be no further prosecution regarding the couple in the Western District of Virginia. The plea agreement is limited to the Western District of Virginia. The plea agreement does not address potential civil tax liabilities or agreements regarding those liabilities. Ms. Szabo and Mr. Martin were each sentenced to 27 months imprisonment and three years of supervised release and paid a joint and several restitution to the U.S. Department of Medical Assistance Services of $173,174.65. They satisfied the judgment.

In separate notices of deficiency to Ms. Szabo and Mr. Martin, dated August 2, 2017, the IRS determined separate liabilities and penalties for each of them regarding tax years 2003 and 2004. The parties timely filed their separate petitions with Tax Court.

Each party filed a separate motion for summary judgment, contending that the plea agreement prevents the IRS from civilly determining, assessing or collecting the deficiencies in income tax or penalties for 2003 and 2004. They also contend that the government did not preserve its rights to pursue the criminal defendants for tax assessments and penalties after the entry of criminal judgment. Even though Mr. Martin’s motion was filed prematurely, the Court determined that it would be refiled anyway so chose to proceed on a substantive basis on his motion.

The Court determined that the plea agreement did not address the civil assessment and collection of taxes and does not bar the IRS from proceeding civilly. The plea agreement does not prevent the IRS from its determination, assessment or collection of tax, penalties, and additions to tax for the years at issue. The Court denied the motions for summary judgment of both petitioners.

Regarding the motions to consolidate, the Court admits the cases have much in common. The Court states the decision for consolidation is best left to the discretion of the trial judge. The Court denied the motions to consolidate without prejudice to the petitioners, allowing them the chance to refile the motions when calendared for trial.

Takeaway: I am not sure whether the petitioners believed their plea agreement would apply to the IRS or United States Tax Court or they were taking a chance on that legal argument, but I would suggest being more familiar with documents like the plea agreement in question before arguing that it is a document controlling for the IRS or the United States Tax Court.

Followup for Ms. March

Docket No. 6161-17 L, Debra L. March v. C.I.R.

I previously wrote about Ms. March regarding Tax Court designated orders here. While the first order there had the issue of how the IRS could reinstate an assessment after potentially being abated, the other order concerned a motion to show cause. Both of the orders this week follow up on that order on the motion to show cause.

Ms. March did not file her tax returns for 2009 and 2010. The IRS audited her for not reporting her income, assessed tax and filed notices of lien against her. She requested a collection due process hearing before IRS Appeals. Appeals issued a notice of determination sustaining the lien filings. Ms. March petitioned Tax Court and the IRS proposed facts and evidence be established as provided in Rule 91(f). They filed a motion for an order to show cause on August 8, 2018. The Tax Court granted the motion by an order on August 10, 2018.

As of this order, Ms. March did not file a response in compliance with the Court’s August 10 order. Instead, she mailed to the Court a document entitled “Amended Petition,” received August 29, 2018. The document does not respond or refer to the proposed stipulation, but alleges defects in how the IRS handled her case.

Since an amended petition cannot be filed as a matter of course, but only by order of the Court in response to a motion for leave in Rule 41(a) (which Ms. March did not file), the Court ordered that it was to be filed as a response to the order to show cause.

The Court orders that the order to show cause is absolute, deeming the facts stipulated regarding her receipt of income and non-filing of the tax returns. She does have the ability to move to be relieved from the deemed stipulations at trial, but would need to present proof of contrary facts.

Her filing stated, “The IRS did not read or address the issues I brought up in my letters about IRS’ failure to issue and mail valid Notices of Deficiency to me.” The Court is unsure whether this statement means that she believes the IRS did not issue valid notices of deficiency or whether she did not receive those notices. As stated above, she would be able to make these arguments at trial but would need to show evidence.

In the Court’s order, it provides that Ms. March is welcome to contact the Chambers Administrator to schedule a telephone conference with the Court and the IRS.

The Court received filings from Ms. March on September 4, 2018, deemed to be a motion for reconsideration of the order above (dated August 31), making absolute the August 10 order to show cause, and a declaration in support of that motion.

Even though Ms. March was a day late in her response, the Court exercised its discretion to treat it as a motion for reconsideration under Rule 161 and addressed its merits. She does not address the issues of her receipt of income or non-filing of returns. Instead, she criticizes how the IRS handled her case and argues that the Tax Court review is limited to the administrative record in a collection due process case (citing Robinette v. Commissioner, an 8th Circuit case).

The Court’s view is that it is not confined to the administrative record in collection due process cases, especially when the case involves a challenge to the underlying liability, pursuant to IRC section 6330(c)(2)(B), resembling a more typical deficiency case. In this instance, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is the appellate court with jurisdiction (not the 8th Circuit), but the 10th Circuit has not spoken on the issue. Ms. March citied Olenhouse v. Commodity Credit Corp., which is a 10th Circuit case, but it is not a collection due process case, does not relate to tax, and was decided before IRC section 6330 was enacted.

While the Court does not address whether 6330(c)(2)(B) prevents Ms. March from challenging her underlying liability as the IRS states she had a prior “opportunity to dispute such tax liability,” the Court states both parties are permitted to provide evidence outside the administrative record.

As Ms. March did not respond to the proposed stipulations from the IRS, the Court did not vacate the order making the order to show cause absolute and the deemed stipulations still stand.

Additionally, Ms. March explains that she has health problems that would make it difficult for her to appear at trial. She would like the case to be fully stipulated and decided pursuant to Rule 122. She also suggests that the contents of the administrative record be stipulated. The Court does not agree the stipulation should be limited to the administrative record, but encourages the parties to attempt a comprehensive stipulation for the case under Rule 122. That is not an order as the case was not submitted that way yet, but will be addressed if presented that way later. Again, the Court encourages the parties to schedule a telephone conference.

Takeaway: Ms. March has some sophistication as a litigation since she is citing case law. However, her lack of responsiveness to the IRS and the Court do not help her case. Perhaps she was able to address these issues or deal with the stipulations under Rule 122 in time before her September trial date.

More Graev Fallout

Docket Nos. 23621-15 and 23647-15, Nathaniel A. Carter & Stella C. Carter, et al., v. C.I.R., (consolidated cases) available here.

Here are more cases affected by Graev v. Commissioner. The Carters have deficiencies and penalties for 2011 through 2013 while Mr. Evans has deficiencies and penalties for 2011 and 2012.

The Graev decision allowed for Court interpretation of IRC section 6751(b)(1). Specifically, the case held the IRS has a burden of production under section 7491(c) showing compliance with supervisory approval as required under 6751(b). Since the petitioners in these cases would be affected by section 6662 accuracy-related penalties, the IRS filed its motion to reopen the record to admit evidence to establish that the 6751(b)(1) requirements for supervisory approval have been met.

The factors the Court has to examine to determine whether to reopen a record are the timeliness of the motion, the character of the testimony to be offered, the effect of granting the motion, and the reasonableness of the request. The third factor, the effect of granting the motion, is the most relevant.

The IRS seeks to reopen the record to admit declarations of Donald Maclennan, a Supervisory Internal Revenue Agent, and a separate Civil Penalty Approval Form in each case. The petitioners object, stating the exhibits contain inadmissible hearsay. Additionally, one Civil Penalty Approval Form shows a printed date in April 2014, more than a year earlier than Mr. Maclennan’s signature block in May 2015. The two forms call for a signature but show only his printed name. Each of the forms lack justification for his approval.

The Court finds that the forms fall under the exception to the hearsay rule for records of a regularly conducted activity and the declarations fit into evidence that is self-authenticating. The Court admits that the lack of signatures on the forms will go to the weight of the evidence, but are not part of the hearsay evaluation. They show approval by a “Group Manager” and do not explicitly indicate the manager was an “immediate supervisor,” as required under 6751(b)(1). The forms lack evidence of facts necessary for the IRS to meet the required burden. The declarations are meant to bolster the forms but the Court determines that the IRS cannot rely on the declarations for purposes of meeting the burden of production to show the “immediate supervisor” approved the penalty determinations.

Having determined to open the record to allow the IRS to offer evidence that the 6751(b)(1) requirements are satisfied, the Court is allowing the IRS the opportunity to offer admissible evidence or make argument to show the requisite managerial approval. The petitioners have 30 days to conduct discovery regarding whether Mr. Maclennan was Mr. Dickerson’s immediate supervisor (as part of meeting the requirements). The parties may stipulate if they agree by filing a supplemental stipulation of facts. If they do not, either party may move for a supplementary evidentiary hearing to introduce evidence. The IRS may make further argument there are grounds sufficient for the Court to infer Mr. Maclennan’s supervisory status.

The Court grants the IRS motion and received the forms into evidence and the declarations are received into evidence as supporting documents for the forms. The petitioners are ordered to have 30 days to conduct discovery. Either party may move for a supplemental hearing on or before October 9. If neither party requests that hearing, petitioners have until October 19 to notify the court regarding their argument as to Mr. Maclennan’s supervisory role. If notifying the Court, they have until November 9 to file a memorandum of law making that argument.

Takeaway: From my observation, the IRS seemed to be broadly winning the arguments that they met the factors needed to reopen the record to admit evidence in prior cases. In this case, both parties are providing evidence that the Court will evaluate. I think this a balanced approach to weighing the factors regarding reopening the record in a Tax Court case affected by Graev.

 

 

Designated Orders for the week of August 27, 2018: A Pause for Coffey, a New Flavor of Chai, and the Court and Technology.

Professor Samantha Galvin from University of Denver’s Sturm School of Law brings us this week’s designated orders.  Keith

The week of August 27th was light, in typical pre-holiday week fashion, with a total of five orders designated. The two orders not discussed involve: 1) the final decision on a petitioner’s request to dismiss his case without prejudice (a case Patrick Thomas previously blogged about) (here), and 2) an order to show cause for the non-imposition of a section 6673(a)(1) penalty (here).

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A Pause for Coffey

Docket No: 7976-14, Bradley A. Hite v. C.I.R. (Order here)

The Tax Court’s opinion in Coffey v. Commissioner issued earlier this year held that U.S. Virgin Island (“USVI”) territorial income tax returns submitted to an IRS office constitute the filing of a federal income tax return and start the clock on the assessment statute under section 6051(a). Patrick Thomas also blogged about two orders that were recently designated as part of the Coffey case here and here and the Coffey case was covered by Kandyce Korotky and Joe DiRuzzo (if interested, see links in Patrick’s first post).

In this designated order the Court contemplates granting respondent’s Motion for Leave to File Out of Time First Amendment to Answer in a case involving USVI returns. The case itself involves a question of whether petitioner’s 2002 and 2003 USVI territorial tax returns should be treated as filed with the IRS.  Petitioner had initially alleged that his USVI territorial tax returns should be treated as federal income tax returns for purpose of the assessment statute but did not allege that he had actually filed the returns at issue with the IRS. Petitioner later admitted in a reply to respondent’s answer that he did not file the returns at issue with the IRS.

In response to petitioner’s statements and the decision in Coffey, respondent wants to amend his answer to clarify that if the returns are treated as filed with the IRS, then the January 2014 notice of deficiency was sent before the expiration of the assessment statute under section 6501(a) and the parties executed agreements to extend the assessment statute under section 6501(c)(4). It is a little difficult to discern from the order itself but it appears the reason for this is that even though petitioner admitted to not filing a return with the IRS, if his filing with the Virgin Islands Bureau of Internal Revenue (“VIBIR”) is somehow treated as a filing with the IRS then respondent wants to make it clear that the ASED did not expire before the notice of deficiency was issued.

Pursuant to Rule 41(a) a party can amend a pleading only by leave of Court or by written consent of the adverse party, and leave shall be given freely when justice so requires. The Court looks to the underlying circumstances including whether there is a reason for the delay and whether the opposing party would be harmed if the motion to amend was granted.

Here the Court looks to petitioner’s statements and its recent decision in Coffey and finds that respondent’s delay in seeking to amend his answer is understandable. Petitioner’s counsel also concedes that since the case has not been set for trial, allowing respondent to amend his answer will not prejudice petitioner so the Court grants respondent’s motion.

A New Flavor of Chai

Docket Nos: 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 species [of Chai ghoul] involves documentation that we have not seen the Commissioner offer in any other case,” states Judge Holmes in this designated order. I wrote on this case in my April 5, 2018 designated order post and another designated order for this case (which I did not write about) was issued during my last “on” week, but this order deserves some attention.

The cases were tried in two special trial sessions in 2016 and involve all sorts of taxpayers: C Corporations, a TEFRA partnership, and individuals. In all but two of the cases, the IRS asserted accuracy-related and/or fraud penalties.

The parties are now in the briefing process, but respondent has moved for the Court to reopen the record to allow in evidence that shows compliance with section 6751(b)(1) for some of the penalties. Petitioners object to this motion.

The motion is only for penalties asserted against the Ryders individually because respondent’s position is that he doesn’t have the burden to show compliance with section 6751(b)(1) for penalties asserted against a C Corporations and TEFRA partnerships.

The Court outlines the timeline in which that IRS proposed deficiencies and accuracy-related penalties in three separate deficiency notices issued to the Ryders for tax years 2002-2010. The IRS did not propose any section 6663 fraud penalties in any of the deficiency notices but raised the fraud penalties for all years in amended answers on March 21, 2016.

At trial in July and August of 2016, no evidence was raised as to respondent’s compliance with section 6751(b)(1) for the accuracy-related or fraud penalties and the parties did not stipulate to compliance. Then came Graev II and Chai and respondent still did not mention compliance with section 6751(b)(1) in his opening seriatim brief nor amended opening seriatim brief. Then the Court adopted Chai as its own in Graev III.

Due to the complexity of the cases and respondent’s very long opening brief, the Court granted petitioners more time to file their answering brief on three separate occasions, and during this time, the respondent moved to reopen the record.

The Court ponders whether it should reopen the record to admit respondent’s evidence against petitioner’s objection. Petitioner argues that respondent cannot use ignorance of the law as a defense and respondent was aware that section 6751(b)(1) would be an issue, so failure to introduce evidence beforehand shows a lack of diligence. Petitioners also argue that reopening the record would cause them prejudice because do not have a chance to cross-examine the IRS employees who made declarations about the evidence respondent now seeks to admit.

The decision to reopen the record is within the Court’s discretion, but that discretion is not limitless, so the Court evaluates each item.

First is an examination case processing sheet. Respondent has sought to admit penalty approval forms in other post-Graev III cases, and some have been admitted under the business records exception or as a verbal act to show a supervisor approved the penalty (and specifically not used to determine whether the penalty was justified or what the supervisor was thinking when it was approved). The Court does not think the business record or verbal-act analysis applies to the examination case processing sheet because the document itself does not indicate that a supervisor approved the initial determination of penalties. The case processing sheet needs an accompanying declaration from revenue agent, Ms. Phan, (which respondent also seeks to admit, but the Court finds is inadmissible hearsay) to make sense of it.

Second is several documents that allegedly support the section 6663 fraud penalty, the documents consists of: an email with an attached amendment to answer raising fraud, a redacted Significant Case Report, a 2016 employee evaluation, and a declaration from a different IRS employee explaining the significance of these documents.

The Court finds these documents are also inadmissible because they mean nothing without an explanation, and again, finds the IRS employee’s declaration to be inadmissible hearsay.

The Court declines to evaluate whether respondent was diligent or whether admitting the evidence would prejudice the petitioners because it finds that IRS has not shown that admitting this evidence would change the outcome of the case and denies respondent’s amended motion to reopen the record.

Technology Helps the Court

Docket No. 27759-15, George E. Joseph v. C.I.R. (Order here)

The Court has been slow to adopt technological advances and highlights the helpfulness of petitioner providing the cutting-edge technology (sarcasm intended) of a thumb drive containing his brief and exhibits in this designated order.

Petitioner filed a seriatim brief with the Court along with five files containing exhibits, but also mailed the Court a thumb drive containing an electronic version of his brief with hyperlinks to the exhibit files. The Court finds the thumb drive and hyperlinks to be helpful to all involved, but respondent has some objections. Some of the exhibits on the thumb drive are not in the record of the case and other exhibits (which are in the record of the case) contain notations that are not on the original exhibits.

The Court allows petitioner leave to file an amended brief without exhibits and provide a thumb drive with the exhibits that were actually received into evidence. It orders, among other things, that the files not received into evidence be deemed stricken from the case and that the thumb drive be returned to petitioner.

 

District Court Holds That Premature Withdrawal from Retirement Account Under Threat of Levy Subject to 10 Percent Additional Tax

In this post I will discuss Thompson v US, an opinion from the Northern District of California that explores the limits to an exception to the 10% penalty on early withdrawals from tax favored retirement plans when the distribution is used to pay an assessed federal tax liability on account of a levy.

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The facts of Thompson are straightforward. Facing a significant tax liability and “under imminent threat of levy and lien collection by Field Collections,” the Thompsons withdrew over a million dollars from a retirement account.  There are a number of exceptions to the additional 10% tax on levied on the gross distributions from a retirement plan. The most commonly known is the exception for distributions after an employee turns 59 1/2; another is found in Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii), which provides that the 10% additional tax does not apply if the distribution is “on account of a levy under Section 6331.”

The Thompons paid the tax and filed a claim for refund, arguing that they were not subject to the early distribution additional tax under the Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii) “on account of a levy” exception.

After IRS rejected the claim and the Thompsons sued for a refund in federal court, the government filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the Thompsons’ withdrawal was voluntarily made and thus not “on account” of a levy and thus outside the exception in 72(t)(2)(A)(vii). The Thompsons in response did not deny that there was no actual levy, but instead argued that the government “took all the legally required steps to set in motion a levy, issuing Final Notices/Notices of Intent to Levy on December 12, 2012.” In addition, facing the threat of a Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which posed a “threat to Mr. Thompson’s business, his livelihood and his ability to generate funds sufficient to pay the balance of the liability over time,” meant that the withdrawal was not truly voluntary and and therefore should not be subject to the penalty.

For support, the Thompsons pointed to Murillo v Comm’r, where there was a distribution from a retirement plan that arose due to a forfeiture order and the Tax Court held that the taxpayer was not subject to the penalty, and to an earlier case, Laratonda v Comm’r, where the Tax Court, prior to the statutory exemption for levies now found in Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii), found that a taxpayer whose funds from a retirement account were withdrawn pursuant to an IRS levy was not subject to the penalty.

The district court distinguished the Thompsons’ facts from the exception the Tax Court fashioned in Murillo and Laratonda:

Plaintiffs rely on the court’s emphasis on the involuntary nature of the withdrawals in Murillo and Laratonda in support of their assertion that they have stated a valid claim. Yet the limited facts alleged here are distinguishable from both Murillo and Laratonda in a crucial respect. Here, Plaintiffs’ retirement account was not, in fact, levied and the distribution was triggered not by any act of the IRS but by Plaintiffs’ own acts. In other words, Plaintiffs were actively involved in the distribution.

For good measure the district court noted that the legislative history to Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii) explicitly referred to the exception as not applying to voluntary withdrawals to pay in the absence of an actual levy, as well as a 2009 Tax Court case, Willhite v Comm’r, which held that a taxpayer who had withdrawn funds from a retirement account following receipt of a notice of intent to levy was subject to the 10 % penalty.

Conclusion

In finding for the government and granting dismissal of the complaint, the district court did, however, throw a lifeline to the Thompsons. It noted that cases like Murillo suggest that there “may be circumstances other than a levy (for instance, a forfeiture) where a withdrawal is involuntary and therefore does not trigger the 10% penalty under § 72(t).” While noting that the Thompsons did not allege facts to support a plausible inference that the exception applies, it dismissed the complaint without prejudice, meaning that the Thompsons can file an amended complaint, which could include facts that would support such an inference.

In dismissing the complaint the district court held that it “need not decide at this juncture whether Plaintiffs might be able to state a claim based on allegations that the withdrawal was involuntary and coerced for reasons other than the fact that the IRS had set in motion a levy.”

I suspect that the Thompsons may have a difficult time navigating the narrow exception that Murillo supports. The issue of avoiding the 10% additional tax based on the levy exception is one Keith discussed most recently here, when he updated readers on Dang v Commissioner, involving a taxpayer who requested that IRS levy on his retirement account to ensure that the 10% tax did not apply. That post generated thoughtful comments, and Joe Schimmel suggested that perhaps IRS should draft a revenue procedure that allows the taxpayer to elect a levy on a retirement account. If the IRS listened to Joe that would have allowed the Thompsons to avoid what seems like a fairly punitive result of paying what amounts to an additional fairly harsh penalty for their tax troubles–admittedly of their own doing.

One other issue that the Thompons apparently did not raise is whether Section 72(t) is a penalty for purposes of Section 6751(b). As one might expect, another of our longtime readers and pioneer on this issue, Frank Agostino (joined by Malinda Sederquist) has weighed in on this in the latest issue of the Monthly Journal of Tax Controversy. Frank and Malinda point to analogous authority in the bankruptcy context, which has held that Section 72(t) is a penalty for purposes of determining priority status, and they recommend that taxpayers challenge the Section 72(t) 10% addition under Section 6751(b). Frank and Malinda do note that there is a summary non precedential Tax Court opinion holding that Section 72(t) is not a penalty for purposes of Section 6751(b) and they also acknowledge El v Commissioner, a 2015 opinion that held that Section 72(t) is not a penalty for purposes of Section 7491(c).

Whether this can be raised by the Thompsons in an amended complaint is unclear, as they would run into a likely variance challenge if they had not raised the 6751(b) issue in their original claim. I have no doubt, however, that Frank and friends and others will be pressing this issue.

 

 

 

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).