Happy Holidays Thanks to Graev III

As discussed in our previous post, the Tax Court in Graev III has reversed the position it adopted in November, 2016 and agreed with the Second Circuit’s decision in Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2nd Cir. 2017). That reversal had immediate consequences for four cases that Judge Holmes was holding in his inventory. On December 20, 2017, the same day the Court issued Chai, Judge Holmes issued designated orders in four cases in his inventory that had pending issues regarding penalties. In each of the four cases, he turned back an IRS request to reopen the record to allow it to put in evidence of compliance with IRC 6751(b). This amounted to a loss by the IRS on its attempt to impose a penalty on each of the taxpayers in question. These cases will go to circuits other than the Second Circuit giving the IRS the opportunity to try to overturn Chai and create a conflict among the circuits.

The four case are Estate of Michael Jackson (a relatively well known singer); Warren Sapp (a NFL Hall of Famer) and his ex-wife Jamiko together with consolidate case petitioners, Kumar Rajagopalan & Susamma Kumar, et al ; Kevin Sells and Oakbrook Land Holdings. The cases present similar but not completely identical fact patterns. The cases have quite old docket numbers and the parties had already had extensive opportunity to present matters to the Court.

Judge Holmes was not the only judge holding cases; he was just the quickest to release the cases he held due to the pending decision in Graev III. On December 21, Judge Buch issued four designated orders and Judge Paris issued a non-designated order. There could be more to come as it is clear the IRS has been moving to reopen the record to put in information required by IRC 6751(b) and judges have held up cases waiting for the publication of Graev III. Other judges may have similar motions in their inventory of undecided cases and the orders from these three judges may just signal more orders to come perhaps as holiday season ends.

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The Estate of Michael Jackson case was tried in February, 2017. Judge Holmes mentions that:

“… no one tried to introduce evidence about whether the Commissioner met his burden of production under I.R.C. § 6751(b)(1) to show that “the initial determination of such assessment [i.e., of the penalties] [wa]s personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination.”

In July of 2017 the IRS saw problems with 6751(b) coming on the horizon. It had filed the motion for reconsideration in Graev that led to Graev III. It filed a motion in the Jackson Estate case, appealable to the 9th Circuit, seeking to reopen the record so that it could place into the record the evidence of compliance with the penalty approval process required by 6751(b). It had not attempted to do so during the trial. That motion sat because, no doubt, Judge Holmes knew that the Court was in the process of reconsidering Graev, and he did not want to rule until he knew where the Tax Court was headed.

Judge Holmes denied the motion filed by the IRS to reopen the record and allow it to place into evidence information regarding the approval of the penalty it asserted against the estate for either the gross valuation misstatement or accuracy related penalty – a 40 or 20% add on to any deficiency the Court might determine. A nice holiday gift for the estate.

He quoted from his concurring opinion in Graev III where he adopted language from a Justice Scalia concurrence as he warned of the consequences of the decision:

In our concurring opinion in Graev III, this division of the Court warned that ‘”[l]ike some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad,’ [this construction of I.R.C. § 6751] will serve only to frighten little children and IRS lawyers.”

The Jackson Estate made clear after the Graev case brought to light a new way to challenge the assertion of penalties that it intended to put 6751(b) at issue but the IRS waited before filing its motion until after the trial and during the trial it did not put on the evidence of compliance with the statute. The trial itself occurred before the Second Circuit’s decision in Chai. The IRS position in Chai was that it did not have to present this type of evidence. Now, at least at the Tax Court level, it pays a price for not hedging its bets.

The outcomes in the other three designated orders issued by Judge Holmes follow a similar path. Those three cases all were tried in Birmingham Alabama and have an appellate path that leads to the 11th Circuit. The parties in those cases claimed conservation easements, the same claim made by the Graevs. Judge Holmes recounts the facts in each of the cases and the knowledge and opportunity for the IRS to put into the record the evidence of compliance during the trial concluding again by denying the request of the IRS to reopen the record after trial to put into the record the evidence of compliance with IRC 6751.

Judges Buch and Paris did not go as far as Judge Holmes in the orders that they issued. The four orders issued by Judge Buch include Hendrickson, Sherman, Triumph Mixed Use Investments, and Dynamo Holdings Ltd Partnership. Judge Buch gives a nice history of the 6751(b) litigation and how it relates to each of the cases. The quote below is taken from the Dynamo case. In the order he then invites the parties to respond to the latest developments rather than issuing a dispositive order at this time. Some attorneys at Chief Counsel with use or lose leave may be working at a time they expected to be on leave:

The question before us is how Graev III might affect this case. In this regard, a timeline may be helpful.

-Section 6751 enacted (July 22, 1998)

-Section 6751 effective (notices issued after December 31, 2000)

-Chai v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-42 (March 11, 2015)

-Legg v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. 344 (December 7, 2015)

-Graev v. Commissioner, 146 T. C. No. 16 (November 30, 2016)

-Dynamo v. Commissioner, Dkt. No. 2685-11, Trial Held (January 23, 2017, to February 3, 2017)

-Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2nd Cir. March 20, 2017)

-Dynamo v. Commissioner, Dkt. No. 2685-11, Briefing Completed (July 3, 2017)

-Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 23 (December 20, 2017)….

To assist the Court in addressing this issue, it is

ORDERED that respondent shall file a response to this Order by January 5, 2018 addressing the effect of section 6751(b) on this case and directing the Court to any evidence of section 6751(b) supervisory approval that is in the record of this case.

It is further

ORDERED that petitioners may file a response to this Order by January 12, 2018 addressing the effect of section 6751(b) on this case.

It is further

ORDERED that any motion addressing the application of section 6751(b) on this case shall be filed by January 19, 2018. The parties are reminded that any such “motion shall show that prior notice thereof has been given to each other party or counsel for each other party and shall state whether there is any objection to the motion.”

Judge Paris follows the lead of Judge Buch, including the helpful timeline, and does not issue a dispositive order. In Blossom Day Care Centers, a case tried about 18 months ago, she issues the following order:

To assist the Court in addressing this issue, it is

ORDERED that, on or before January 12, 2018, petitioners shall file a Sur- Reply to respondent’s Reply to Response to Motion to Reopen the Record.

It is further

ORDERED that the Simultaneous Answering Briefs are extended to January 3, 2018

Conclusion

The Court and the parties will be busy dealing with the aftermath of the most recent decision in Graev and this may keep the Tax Court and the circuit courts busy for some years to come. Interesting how a little noticed, poorly drafted provision can create so much havoc almost two decades after enactment. Les wonders whether dealing with the poor draftsmanship in 6751 may give the Tax Court practice in addressing issues raised by the hastily drafted legislation that passed earlier this week.

Carl Smith points out another open question as the 6751(b) issue moves forward, viz., does the petitioner need to affirmatively raise penalties in their petitions now or are penalties always at issue:

Will some judges still say that since lack of 6751(b) compliance was not mentioned by the taxpayer (and it never will be by a pro se taxpayer), the court won’t consider the issue.  My hunch is that is no longer good law.  But, also remember that there is still on the books Tax Court opinions holding that where the taxpayer fails to state a claim with respect to a penalty or addition to tax in the pleadings, the Commissioner incurs no obligation to produce evidence in support of the individual’s liability pursuant to section 7491(c), see Funk v. Commissioner, 123 T.C. 213, 216-218 (2004); Swain v. Commissioner, 118 T.C. 358, 364-365 (2002).

Carl points out other issues in a comment he made to the prior post on Graev III for those seeking additional insight.  In the season of giving, Graev III will be giving us additional opinions, and possibly nightmares, for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

Tax Court Reverses Itself a Year After a Fully Reviewed Opinion Acknowledging a “Graev” Mistake

Christmas came a little early to at least four Tax Court petitioners, including the estate of Michael Jackson. It also comes early for bloggers who like to write awful titles to our posts. I will discuss the Christmas presents to these petitioners in a companion post but today I focus on the underlying cause which is the reversal by the Tax Court of its decision in Graev v. Commissioner, 147 T.C. No 16 (2016)(sometimes known as Graev II). In that case the Tax Court decided that it did not have the authority in deficiency cases to look at whether the IRS obtained the proper penalty approvals under IRC 6751(b) though the Court split significantly in a fully reviewed decision. We have blogged about this issue more times than deserve links; however, a few links are here and here for those needing background on the issue. I suspect there will be more posts to come before this issue reaches a stable position.

The latest decision in Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 23 (2017)(Graev III) reverses the decision made just last year, adopts the intervening opinion of the Second Circuit in Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2nd Cir. 2017) and holds that in deficiency cases the Tax Court does have the ability to review whether the IRS obtained the appropriate signatures prior to the imposition of the penalty. Although, with the exception of Judge Holmes who agreed with the decision solely based on the Golsen rule since Graev’s appeal will go to the Second Circuit, the Court again split rather substantially. This time the split is primarily on the application of IRC 6751(b) and not whether it should apply, though Judge Holmes writes extensively on why he believes the Tax Court should have stuck to its position in Graev II. Mostly because of Judge Holmes’ concurrence (in result only), the opinion is long. This post is no more than a very cursory overview. For those interested in tax procedure, the opinion deserves a careful read.

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Well, it would have been interesting to be in the Tax Court’s conference room on the day(s) it discussed this case. The statute provided lots of room for debate as the Court struggled to fit its language into existing tax procedure norms. Maybe before the case reaches its final resting place, the conference room will be renamed the Graev room for many meetings the case has, and may still, cause. As we have referenced before, kudos go to Frank Agostino for paying attention to a provision in the 1998 act that everyone else seemed to overlook. Frank’s client comes away from the latest opinion in this case a bit empty handed but the split on the Court may provide ample room for Frank to obtain some relief at the next level.

I will discuss the case by looking at each of the four parts: 1) the majority opinion written by Judge Thornton; and then the concurring opinions by 2) Judge Lauber; 3) Judge Holmes, partially dissenting and 4) Judge Buch, partially dissenting.

Majority Opinion

The Court reverses its prior opinion and adopts the Second Circuit’s view of IRC 6751(b) as expressed in Chai. It does this with relatively little fanfare:

Having considered the opinion of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Chai, and in the interest of repose and uniformity on an issue that touches many cases before us, we reverse those portions of Graev II which held that it was premature to consider section 6751(b) issues in this deficiency proceeding.

The Court then went on to talk about what that means:

In the light of our holding that compliance with section 6751(b) is properly at issue in this deficiency case, we also hold that such compliance is properly a part of respondent’s burden of production under section 7491(c).

Once it decided that it could consider the 6751(b) issue and that the IRS had the burden of production with respect to the issue, the majority then looked at each penalty imposed in order to determine whether the IRS met its burden. Based on its analysis, with which Judge Buch disagrees, the Court sustained the imposition of the penalty.

The majority found that the Chief Counsel docket attorney who reviewed the notice of deficiency initiated part of the penalty and that his supervisor approved his recommendation/determination of the applicability of the penalty. The determination came in the form of a review of the proposed statutory notice of deficiency. When the IRS received his recommendation regarding the penalty to be imposed on the Graevs, it adopted the recommendation in the notice of deficiency sent to the petitioners.

In addition, the Chief Counsel docket attorney assigned to try the case added an additional penalty after the filing of the Tax Court petition. Her supervisor approved this additional penalty. The majority found that the penalties generated by the Chief Counsel attorneys met the requirements of 6751(b). The majority found that the taxpayers’ conduct regarding the unpaid taxes and the claiming of the gift warranted the imposition of the penalty. Since the Chief Counsel attorneys and supervisor’s actions satisfied the approval requirement and since the penalties were otherwise appropriate, the Court determined that the petitioners owed the penalties.

Judge Lauber’s Concurrence

Joined by four other of the eight judges in the majority, Judge Lauber wrote to take issue with the separate opinion written by Judge Buch. He discusses in detail why the approval by Chief Counsel lawyers meet the statutory test as initial recommenders of the penalty. He looks at both delegation orders and the intent of the statute.

Judge Holmes’ concurrence and dissent

Judge Holmes writes at length about the problems and uncertainty that the decision will cause. He has many concerns about the Second Circuit’s opinion and the problems it will cause. His opinion is not a full on dissenting opinion because he agrees that the Tax Court must follow the Second Circuit here pursuant to the Golsen rule; however, he wants to preserve the Tax Court’s approach in Graev II for another day and for a case appealable to a different circuit.

He does not like the Second Circuit’s approach to the case and argues forcefully that compliance with the statute is not ripe for court review in a deficiency case. He notes initially that 6751(b) has existed for almost 20 years. Adopting the Second Circuit’s approach means that many cases during that period have resulted in penalty imposition without appropriate proof by the IRS. He states:

Adopting this reading as our own, and rolling it out nationwide, amounts to saying that we have been imposing penalties unlawfully on the tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of taxpayers who have appeared before us in that time.

This is just the beginning of his concerns about the case. To the extent he is concerned, he might feel better knowing that the IRS does not care when it has hundreds of thousands of improper penalty assessments on its books as it demonstrated following the Rand case. Unlike the Rand case in which most taxpayers could still oppose the penalty if they knew that they had a basis for doing so, the penalty decisions over the past two decades made without the now adopted standards involve a Tax Court decision and cannot, by and large, be undone.

He next engages in a close reading of the Chai opinion and what it says. In doing so he points out the differences in the language of the statute and how taxes work:

And here is where a closer reading of the text and a broader understanding of tax litigation ought to make a difference. As the majority and Chai implicitly acknowledge, liability for penalties — indeed, liability for tax of any kind — is fixed by the Code sections imposing penalties and tax. See Chai, 851 F.3d at 217 (explaining that penalty “aris[es] under [section] 6662(a)”). “Assessment” is just a recording of the liability. See Hibbs v. Winn, 542 U.S. 88, 100 (2004); United States v. Galletti, 541 U.S. 114, 122 (2004) (assessment is “little more than the calculation or recording of a tax liability”). Liability “arises and persists whether vel non that tax is assessed.” Principal Life Ins. Co. v. United States, 95 Fed. Cl. 786, 790-91 (2010); see also Kelley, 539 F.2d at 1203 (“liability is imposed by statute independent of any administrative assessment”).

He points out that Chai conflates liability and assessment and that in doing so it will play havoc with the burden of proof rules. The Second Circuit looked to the purpose of a statute that did not make good sense rather than pay close attention to the technical language. He thinks that it is possible to achieve a correct result based on a technical reading of the statute and that the correct technical reading takes the Tax Court out of 6751 since the statute refers to assessment. He produces numerous examples to show how difficult it will be to make the statute work. His portion of the opinion cogently explains many aspects of tax procedure but he is left alone among the judges deciding this case because of his desire to adhere to the result in Graev II.

Judge Buch’s concurrence and dissent

Judge Buch, joined by five other judges, three of whom who like him had worked at Chief Counsel’s office prior to joining the Court and the other two having worked in the Tax Division of the Department of Justice, agreed that the Tax Court should apply Section 6751(b) in a deficiency proceeding but disagreed with the application of the new rule to penalty determinations by Chief Counsel lawyers. His opinion focuses on the role that Chief Counsel attorneys play in the process. He characterized this role as one of advisor rather than the person making the determination.

I agree that the Chief Counsel attorney’s role in reviewing the notice of deficiency is that of advisor. The IRS does not have to agree with the Chief Counsel attorney in this situation. If the Chief Counsel attorney’s advice is something different than a determination then it provides another example of something that does not fit the language of the statute. This segment of the opinion does a good job of showing the problems with the statute raised by Judge Holmes in the preceding section.

Two Chief Counsel attorneys made penalty recommendations/determinations in this case. The attorney who reviewed the notice of deficiency prior to it issuance made one which fits the description in the prior paragraph and then another attorney was assigned to the case once the petitioners filed in Tax Court. The second attorney made another penalty determination. Once the case is petitioned, Chief Counsel’s office can make a decision on adding or removing penalties without getting the opinion of the IRS. The opinion here does not distinguish between the two situations in which the penalty determinations were made by the Chief Counsel attorneys and their managers but it would be possible to split hairs here continuing to demonstrate the potential problems with the statute.

Conclusion

For the reasons detailed by Judge Holmes in the many examples he provided, the Tax Court has not seen the last of the many variations of how 6751(b) can cause mischief. Anyone defending a penalty will want to read Judge Holmes’ concurrence carefully in order to gather ideas on how to challenge the approval process chosen by the IRS. The IRS also needs to read that section carefully in order to create procedures that will withstand attack. Of course, the Second Circuit may still have more to say on how to interpret 6751 as it applies to the Graevs.

 

Designated Orders: 6/12/2017 – 6/16/2017

From 7 designated orders last week, this post focuses on 3 orders of interest.  One may need to address a split of authority, one may need jurisdiction to revise a decision for an agreement between the parties, and a third deals with the death of a nonrequesting spouse in an Innocent Spouse case.

A Jackson Split?

Docket # 17152-13, Estate of Michael J. Jackson, Deceased, John G. Branca, Co-Executor and John McClain, Co-Executor v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Slotted in the middle of a designated order that also deals with a joint stipulation of facts and whether specific information or exhibits needs to be sealed is an issue that could have greater implications.  In the case dealing with the tax liability of Michael Jackson’s estate, the Tax Court addressed implications of the recent Second Circuit opinion of Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017).

To summarize, there are disputes about the fallout from the Second Court opinion in Chai and whether that will triumph over the Tax Court opinion in Graev v. Commissioner, 147 T.C._ (Nov. 30, 2016).  The designated order in Estate of Michael R. Jackson cites the two cases concerning a difference of opinion regarding whether certain requirements are imposed on the IRS under IRC 6751.

The Graev conclusion was “that the statute [IRC 6751] imposes no particular deadline for the IRS to secure the required written approval before a penalty is assessed.”

In preparing for the trial in the Estate of Michael R. Jackson case, the Commissioner potentially provided a copy of the administrative approval of valuation penalties to the Petitioners.  However, no copy of the form made it into the record at trial.

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Following trial, the Second Circuit rejected the conclusion in Graev.  They replaced it in Chai with a holding that “compliance with IRC 6751(b) is part of the Commissioner’s burden of production and proof in a deficiency case in which a penalty is asserted.”

At this point in the Jackson case, the Commissioner certainly wants the approval form in the record and the P objects.  Unless the parties agree before the time the third stipulation is due (on or before 6/30/17), a motion would be necessary to reopen the record.  The Court will want the motion briefed and it would likely lead to an opinion.

The Court ordered that on or before 7/13/17 the Commissioner shall file any motion to reopen the record to include evidence relevant to their compliance with IRC 6751.  Petitioners shall file a response to that motion on or before 8/3/17.  Then, the Commissioner shall file a reply to that response on or before 8/17/17.

It thus looks like Michael Jackson’s estate may lead to something more than celebrity gossip.  The Tax Court case may be the next judicial step regarding a split of opinion regarding the burden of proof on the IRS under IRC 6751.

Jurisdiction Needed?  Just Add Rogers

Docket # 7390-10, John E. Rogers & Frances L. Rogers v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

While a decision in Rogers was finalized on April 3, 2017, that decision may not be so final.

The IRS brief to the Court of Appeals stated that computational errors resulted in a $134,000 overstatement of Rogers’s taxable income, deficiency and penalties.  While the IRS recommended remanding the case to correct that overstatement, the Court of Appeals affirmed instead of remanding.

The Tax Court ordered the parties submit a joint status report regarding further proceedings.  In their 2/15/17 joint status report, it states that the IRS is recomputing the deficiency and that the Rogers spouses will review the computations.  A joint status report filed on 6/13/17 stated that the IRS recomputed the deficiency and the petitioners agreed with the new computations.

However, no motion to vacate or revise the decision was filed under Rule 162 by 4/3/17.  Since the decision became final on 4/3/17, it is unclear to the Tax Court what their jurisdiction is for revising the decision.

Since the IRS will process the credits to the account for the petitioners for tax year 2004 in order to effectuate the corrections, that potentially makes the jurisdictional issue moot.

The Tax Court ordered that if either party wishes to file a Rule 162 motion to vacate or revise the decision, that the party should do so (with a motion for leave to file out of time) no later than July 14, 2017.  The motion for leave should explain how the Tax Court has jurisdiction to revise the decision.  If neither party files such a motion, the case will remain closed.

While the parties are in agreement, the Tax Court finds that their hands may be tied.  While they want the record to reflect the agreement of the parties, it is interesting that the Tax Court looks to the parties for jurisdictional help on how to revise their decision since time likely ran out.

Don’t Forget the Heirs and Beneficiaries

Docket # 19277-16, Alison Turen v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Normally in an Innocent Spouse case, the IRS files a copy of the notice of the filing of the petition that they served on the other individual that the Petitioner filed joint returns with for the tax years before the Tax Court.  In other words, the Petitioner files a petition with Tax Court regarding an Innocent Spouse case and the IRS is to send a copy of the notice of the filing of the petition with the other spouse from the joint tax returns in order to give that spouse the right to intervene in the Tax Court case.  What happens then when the other spouse has died?

In the Turen case, the IRS did not file the notice since the petition states that the other spouse is deceased.  The Tax Court stated in their designated order that the death of that spouse does not relieve the IRS of their responsibility for providing notice.  Fain v. Commissioner, 129 T.C. 89 (2007) provides that the right of intervention belongs to the decedent’s heirs or beneficiaries, based on procedures outlined in Nordstrom v. Commissioner, 50 T.C. 30, 32 (1968) to ascertain the heirs at law of a deceased non-petitioning spouse.

The Tax Court order was that the parties are to identify on or before June 30, 2017 the heirs at law of the decedent nonrequesting spouse and on the same day to provide a joint status report to the Court of the heirs at law identified.  They are also ordered that on or before July 14, 2017, the IRS shall submit a Notice of Filing of Petition and Right to Intervene served on the heirs at law or file a response stating the reasons for not doing so.

Chai not Gaining Traction with Tax Court or IRS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast, the IRS frames the issues as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Fallout from Chai

The Second Circuit reversed the Tax Court’s decision in Chai v. Commissioner and made clear that the IRS had a duty to show it complied with the managerial approval process required by IRC 6751 prior to issuing a notice of deficiency.  Steve blogged on that decision last week.  We also posted last week on a designated order issued by Judge Cohen requiring compliance with IRC 6751 and citing Chai.  Judge Lauber issued a similar order.

On Friday the IRS took the very unusual step of filing a motion for reconsideration of the Graev v. Commissioner decision.  We reported on Graev here.  The Second Circuit largely adopted the view of the dissent in Chai.  Because the appeal in Graev would go to the Second Circuit, it was clear that the opinion would not stand.  Potentially preempting an appeal, the IRS has asked the Tax Court to reconsider its opinion in Graev.  Here is the relevant language of the motion, which can be found here:

  • Relief is justified here because a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit created “exceptional circumstances” for this case.
  • On March 20, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit released an opinion in Chai v. Commissioner, No. 15-1653 (2d Cir. Mar. 20, 2017).
  • The Second Circuit’s opinion in Chai specifically disagreed with the majority opinion in this case. Chai, slip op. at *57, 59.
  • The court in Chai held that compliance with section 6751(b) is an issue in deficiency cases because it is part of Docket No. 30638-08 – 3 – respondent’s burden of production for penalties under section 7491(c). Chai, slip op, at *67.
  • Because an appeal in this case would be heard by the Second Circuit, the majority’s opinion in this case cannot be upheld under the precedent established by Chai.
  • Respondent requests that the Court vacate its decision in this case and order additional briefing on what steps the Court should take in this case in light of the Chai opinion. Respondent has views which it believes will benefit the Court to consider in the changed circumstances of this case.

It will be interesting to learn the views of the IRS on how Chai will impact its operation.  The IRS did not suggest what “views it believes will benefit the Court.”

We will keep you posted.  If you are contesting a case in Tax Court in which the IRS asserted a penalty, expect the IRS to begin a search of its records to determine if the required approval of the penalty occurred.  If the IRS does not come forward with the information proving the correct approval occurred prior to the issuance of the notice of deficiency, you may have a clear path to victory on the penalty.

Almost Immediate Impact of Chai

On March 21, Steve blogged about the important decision of the 2nd Circuit in  Chai v. Commissioner on March 20, holding that the IRS most show, as required by IRC 6721(b), that the immediate manager approved the imposition of a penalty.  In a designated order enter on March 22, 2017, in Henderson v. Commissioner, Docket No. 14187-16L, Judge Cohen cites to the Chai decision in a ruling on the motion for summary judgment filed by the IRS in this Collection Due Process Case.  Like the order in Vigon v. Commissioner issued by Judge Gustafson which we blogged about here, Judge Cohen requires the IRS to address the requirement of IRC 6751(b).  Specifically, she orders “on or before April 10, 2017, respondent may supplement the motion for summary judgment with any additional affidavit or argument concerning compliance with the requirements of law and administrative procedures supporting the notice of determination in this case, specifically with respect to compliance with Internal Revenue Code Section 6751(b)(1)….”

The fact that she added the requirement to show appropriate approval and that she made this order a designated order, signals what may be an important shift on the Court regarding the practice it will now take regarding the IRS obligation to prove the appropriate approval of penalties.  We will continue to monitor this issue because it suggests a potentially huge shift in practice.  Kudos again to Frank Agostino and the attorneys in his office for identifying and pursuing the argument in a statute that lay forgotten for almost 20 years.

For those of you not familiar with designated orders, the Tax Court has a wonderful feature available on the front page of its web site in which it posts the orders entered each day and provides a feature making the orders are searchable.  The searchable feature of the orders makes the Tax Court’s treatment of them vastly superior to PACER.  The feature became available in 2011 limiting the lookback period but that limitation grows less important with each passing day.  As the orders get posted, the judge issuing the order has the opportunity to “designate” the order.  If the judge designates the order, the judge is signaling that the order is somewhat special – at least in the view of that judge.  Keep in mind that orders do not go through the review in the Chief Judge’s office prior to issuance as is required with opinions.  Matters decided by orders also do not have precedential value as we have discussed before.  Yet, a not insignificant percentage of Tax Court cases get resolved through dispositive orders rather than opinions.  Designated orders allow the judge to alert practitioners that something about the order deserves attention; however, the designation of the order does not require, or really provide for, the judge to state explicitly why the judge has labeled it as a designated order.  The reader must surmise from context why the judge has chosen to designate the order.  On any given day the Tax Court may post five orders and maybe one order will be designated.

In the case of the order in the Henderson I surmise that Judge Cohen designated it because of the citation to Chai and the requirement that the IRS put on its proof about the authorization of the penalty.  This blog has regularly mined orders, and especially designated orders, as a source of information about Tax Court procedure that often goes unnoticed.  As mentioned before, Carl Smith has generally served as our eyes and ears on the Court’s orders.  We have decided to begin regularly posting about designated orders from the prior week in order to alert readers to those orders the judges on the Court deem most important.

The Henderson order, citing to Chai in a case which appears appealable to the 9th Circuit and not the 2nd, suggests a new day has dawned for the IRS in meeting its obligation when it asserts a penalty.  We will be watching closely for other orders and opinions.

Second Circuit Tosses Penalties Because of IRS Failure To Obtain Supervisor Approval

–Or, Tax Court Burnt by Second Circuit’s Hot Chai

Yesterday the Second Circuit decided a very important decision in favor of the taxpayer pertaining to the Section 6571 requirement that a direct supervisor approve a penalty before it is assessed.  In Chai v. Commissioner, the Second Circuit reversed the Tax Court, holding the Service’s failure to show penalties were approved by the immediate supervisor prior to issuing a notice of deficiency caused the penalty to fail.  In doing so, the Second Circuit explicitly rejected the recent Tax Court holdings on this matter, including Graev v. Commissioner, determining the matter was ripe for decision and that the Service’s failure prevented the imposition of the penalty.  Chai also has interesting issues involving TEFRA and penalty imposition that will not be covered (at least not today), and is important for the Second Circuit’s rejection of the IRS position that the taxpayer was required to raise the Section 6571 issue.   It is lengthy, but worth a read for practitioners focusing on tax controversy work.

PT regulars know that we have covered this topic on the blog in the past, including the recent taxpayer loss in the very divided Tax Court decision in Graev v. Commissioner.  Keith’s post on Graev from December can be found here.  For readers interested in a full review of that case and the history of this matter, Keith’s blog is a great starting point, and has links to prior posts written by him, Carlton Smith, and Frank Agostino (whose firm handled Graev and also the Chai case). Graev was actually only recently entered, and is appealable to the Second Circuit, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the taxpayer in that case files a motion to vacate based on the Second Circuit’s rejection of the Tax Court’s approach in Greav.

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Before discussing the  Second Circuit holding, I will crib some content from Keith, to indicate the status of the law before yesterday.  Here is Keith’s summary of the holding in Graev:

The Court split pretty sharply in its opinion with nine judges in the majority deciding that the IRC 6751(b) argument premature since the IRS had not yet assessed the liability, three judges concurring because the failure to obtain managerial approval did not prejudice the taxpayers and five judges dissenting because the failure to obtain managerial approval prior to the issuance of the notice of deficiency prevented the IRS from asserting this penalty (or the Court from determining that the taxpayer owed the penalty.)

That paragraph from Keith’s post regarding the holding doesn’t cover the lengthy and nuanced discussion, but his full post does for those who are interested.  The Second Circuit essentially rejected every position taken by the majority and concurrence in Graev, and almost completely agreed with the dissenting Tax Court judges (with a  few minor differences in rationale).

For its Section 6751(b) review, the Second Circuit began by reviewing the language of the statute.  It highlighted the fact that the Tax Court did the same, and found the language of the statute unambiguous, a conclusion with which the Second Circuit disagreed.

Section 6751(b)(1) states, in pertinent part:

No penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination…[emph. added]

The Tax Court found the lack of specification as to when the approval of the immediate supervisor was required allowed the immediate supervisor to approve the determination at any point, even after the statutory notice of deficiency was issued or the Tax Court reviewed the matter.

The Second Circuit, however, found the language ambiguous, and the lack of specification as to when the approval was required problematic.  The Second Circuit stated “[u]understanding § 6751 and appreciating its ambiguity requires proficiency with the deficiency process,” and then went through a primer on the issue.  To paraphrase the Second Circuit, the assessment occurs when the liability is recorded by the Secretary, which is “essentially a bookkeeping notation.”  It is the last step before the IRS can collect a deficiency.  The Second Circuit stated the deficiency is announced to the taxpayer in a SNOD, along with its intention to assess.  The taxpayer then has 90 days to petition the Tax Court for review.  If there is a petition to the Court, it then becomes the Court’s job to determine the amount outstanding.  As it is the Court’s job to determine the amount of the assessment, the immediate supervisor no longer has the ability to approve or not approve the penalty.  The Second Circuit agreed with the Graev dissent that “[i]n light of the historical meaning of ‘assessment,’” the phrase “initial determination of such assessment” did not make sense.  A deficiency can be determined, as can the decision to make an assessment, but you cannot determine an assessment.

The Second Circuit then looked to the legislative history, and found the requirement was meant to force the supervisor to approve the penalty before it was issued to the taxpayer, not simply before the bookkeeping function was finalized.  The Court further stated, as I noted above, if the supervisor is to give approval, it must be done at a time when the supervisor actually has authority.  As the Court noted, [t]hat discretion is lost once the Tax Court decision becomes final: at that point, § 6215(a) provides that ‘the entire amount redetermined as the deficiency…shall be assessed.”  The supervisor (and the IRS generally) can no longer approve or deny the imposition of the penalty.  The Court further noted, the authority to approve really vanishes upon a taxpayer filing with the Tax Court, as the statute provides approval of “the initial determination of such assessment,” and once the Court is involved it would no longer be the initial determination.  Continuing this line of thought, the Second Circuit stated that the taxpayer can file with the Tax Court immediately after the issuance of the notice of deficiency, so it is really the issuance of the notice of deficiency that is the last time where an initial determination could be approved.

This aspect of the holding is important for two reasons.  First, the Second Circuit is requiring the approval at the time of the NOD, and not allowing it to be done at some later point.  Second, this takes care of the ripeness issue.  If the time is set for approval, and it has passed, then the Court must consider the issue.

Of potentially equal importance in the holding is the fact that the Second Circuit stated unequivocally that the Service had the burden of production on this matter under Section 7491(c) and was responsible for showing the approval. It is fairly clear law that the Service has the burden of production and proof on penalties once a taxpayer challenges the penalties, with taxpayers bearing the burden on affirmative defenses.   The case law on whether the burden of production exists when a taxpayer doesn’t directly contest the penalties is a little more murky (thanks to Carlton Smith for my education on this matter).  The Second Circuit made clear its holding that the burden of production was solely on the Service, and the taxpayer had no obligation to raise the matter nor the burden of proof to show the approval was not given.  The Service had argued the taxpayer waived this issue by not bringing it up earlier in the proceeding, which the Second Circuit found non-persuasive.

As to the substance of the matter, the Second Circuit held the government never once indicated there was any evidence of compliance with Section 6751.  Since the Commissioner failed to meet is burden of production and proof, the penalty could not be assessed and the taxpayer was not responsible for paying it.  A very good holding for taxpayers, and we would expect a handful of other case to come through soon.  Given the division within the Tax Court, and the various rationales, it would not be surprising to see other Circuits hold differently.

Judge Gustafson Continues His Primer for Chief Counsel Attorneys on Motions for Summary Judgment

I recently wrote about an order issued by Judge Gustafson in the case of Vigon v. Commissioner in which he explained to a Chief Counsel attorney what the attorney needed to provide in order to succeed in a motion for summary judgment in a case involving a penalty.  In the case of Hill v. Commissioner, Judge Gustafson continued his lessons to Chief Counsel attorneys on this subject.  It appears that the attorney in the Hill case may have missed my prior post since it came out before he submitted his motion and could have been helpful to him in drafting the motion.

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Judge Gustafson has the unusual background for a Tax Court judge of service as a career attorney at the Department of Justice Tax Division.  Few Tax Court judges have a background as career civil servants litigating cases for the government because becoming a Tax Court judge requires a political appointment and such appointments do not usually go to individuals who have spent their careers working for the federal government in the executive branch where opportunities for the kinds of relationships that lead to a political appointment do not come easy.  At the time of his appointment, Judge Gustafson was the chief of the court of claims section of the Tax Division.  That section, not surprisingly, represents the IRS in cases brought before the Court of Federal Claims.  The work in that section differs from the work in the other civil trial sections at the Tax Division because of the limitations of the Court of Federal Claims.  Attorneys in that section do not typically handle bankruptcy cases, do not get involved in collection suits brought by the government, do not have jury trials but do, like the Tax Court, have some unique jurisdictional issues because of the nature of that court and do handle large, high profile refund matters.  Like all civil trial sections at the Tax Division, attorneys in that section do have a substantial practice in motions for summary judgment.

Unlike Tax Division attorneys, Chief Counsel attorneys do not have a long tradition in summary judgment work.  Prior to the passage of the collection due process (CDP) provisions in 1998, summary judgment motions in Tax Court cases were rare.  Even after 1998, it took some time, maybe a decade or so, before Chief Counsel’s office settled upon summary judgment motions as a go to option for resolving CDP cases.  So, many of the managers in Chief Counsel’s office did not cut their teeth on summary judgment motions and may not be in the strongest position to review and guide the attorneys in preparing such motions.  Judge Gustafson, who would have prepared many summary judgment motions as a DOJ trial attorney and reviewed many as a supervisor there, is in a good position to provide guidance on these motions and he does so again in the Hill case.  Now, the question is whether the Chief Counsel attorneys are paying attention to his orders since orders do not get published by the Tax Court in a formal manner but do go up on the Court’s web site each day and can be searched by issue or by judge.  Because IRS attorneys may view summary judgment motions against pro se taxpayers as shooting fish in a barrel, they may not take the time to develop all of the evidence necessary to support such motions.  They are finding in the recent orders issued by Judge Gustafson that even unrepresented taxpayers may present a challenge in successfully obtaining a summary judgment if the Court carefully reviews the motions submitted.

The IRS assessed a frivolous tax submission penalty against Ms. Hill.  The case is set for trial on March 27, 2017.  The IRS filed a motion for summary judgment in the case on January 25, 2017.  The timing of the filing of the motion is not accidental.  For the first several years after the IRS adopted motions for summary judgment as their go to option for CDP cases, they tended to file the motions the week before the trial calendar.  Carl Smith and I wrote about this in an article back in 2011.  The Tax Court changed Rule 121(a) regarding the timing of filing motions for summary judgment in 2011 to require that they be filed at least 60 days before the calendar.  The Tax Court rule drove the timing of the IRS filing of the motion on January 25 for a calendar 61 days later.  Keep in mind that some Chief Counsel attorney had this case in their inventory since shortly after it was filed on March 30, 2016.  CDP cases do not go back to Appeals after the filing of the petition since the notice of determination always issues from Appeals.  Chief Counsel attorneys each handle many cases.  Here the attorney decided to wait to the very last minute to file the motion for summary judgment.  There could be many reasons for the timing of the filing including that the case was only recently assigned to the attorney filing the motion but the timing of the motion was typical of the cases I see.  As with the Vigon case, Judge Gustafson did not wait until the last minute to issue his order in response to the summary judgment motion and did not require a response from the pro se taxpayer.

Judge Gustafson finds that the IRS did not support some of the factual predicates in the motion as required by Tax Court Rule 121(d), sent. 3 and did not address patent legal questions.  The IRS did not attach the allegedly frivolous return to the motion.  So, the Court could not see what made the return frivolous.  The Court describes the Form 12153 submitted by petitioner as containing “handwritten notations, words, and symbols, none of which we can understand” together with a four page handwritten attachment of “similarly indecipherable writing.”  The description raises my curiosity and reminds me of some handwritten law school exams I have had to grade.  The Court goes on to say that the written matter “does not appear to assert typical tax protestor contentions.”  This is important if you remember the types of things that can trigger the frivolous return penalty which we have discussed in a prior post.  The gibberish, if that is the right word, made it past the IRS filters for frivolous CDP requests (also discussed here and here) which differ from the filters for application of the frivolous return penalties.

The notice of determination issued by Appeals interpreted the difficult to read Form 12153 as one in which it could not determine if the petitioner intended to dispute the liability and so it did not seek to determine if the IRS should have asserted the frivolous return penalty.  The Court, however, assumes that it did.  Apparently, Appeals made no mention of a prior opportunity to contest the penalty which might have barred petitioner from raising the penalty in the CDP hearing.  Since Appeals did not consider the merits of the penalty and since Counsel did not attach the allegedly frivolous return to the motion, the motion will fail at least in part but the failure does not stop here.  The Court notes that on the penalty issue the IRS bears at trial the burden of production under IRC 7491(c) and the burden of proof under IRC 6703(a) which it fails to meet.

The liability at issue here is a penalty which raises the issue of appropriate approval which raises the issue of verification by Appeals.  Appeals determination makes no mention of its efforts to verify the IRS gave the necessary approval for assertion of the penalty as required by IRC 6751(b)(1).  The motion for summary judgment does not address this issue.  To show compliance with this issue, which the IRS would have known had it read Judge Gustafson’s order from December in the Vigon case, it “must show (1) the identity of the individual who made the “initial determination”, (2) an approval “in writing”, and (3) the identity of the person giving approval and his or her status as the “immediate supervisor”.”  The IRS failure to address any of these elements in its motion, including attaching the Form 8248 designed for this purpose dooms the motion.

I suspect that the Vigon and Hill motions for summary judgment are not the only ones out there in which the IRS has failed to meet its burden under section 6751.  The IRS routinely files summary judgment motions and often does so in rote, cookie cutter fashion based on the last summary judgment motion it filed.  A high percentage of cases have penalties.  Until it clears out of its system the summary judgment motions that fail to mention the verification process, it may be easy to push back on such motions.  Of course, many of these motions involve pro se taxpayers.  It will be interesting to see if other judges begin to push back as Judge Gustafson has done on this issue.