Attorney’s Fees Awarded in Penalty Case Arising From Late Payment of Excise Taxes

As in Keith’s post yesterday, today’s post also involves attorney’s fees, though the subject of toady’s post, C1 Design Group v US, involves a qualified offer and whether the awarding of fees justifies a rate higher than the statutory cap of $200/hour. C1 Design Group is a magistrate’s order from a federal district court in Idaho, and as I describe below is a helpful case for practitioners wanting insights into recovering attorney’s fees under Section 7430.

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The underlying case involved a refund action that considered whether C1 Design’s failure to timely pay its excise taxes was due to willful neglect. C1 argued that a car crash involving the company’s founder led to financial difficulties, which led to the late excise tax payments. IRS agreed with that excuse for the first four quarters but litigated the effect of the crash on later quarters. The taxpayer argued that the injury triggered financial difficulties, which amounted to reasonable cause for the late payments.

The matter went to trial, with a jury rendering its verdict in favor of the taxpayer for the full amount of the refund, about $28,000. About a year after filing its claim, C1 Design made a qualifying offer, essentially agreeing to accept as a settlement a refund of about half of what the jury found the taxpayer was ultimately entitled to receive.

Following the verdict, C1 Design filed its motion for fees, seeking about $76,000; approximately $50,000 was attributable to the period after it made the qualifying offer.

The court agreed that C1 was entitled to fees for the period after the IRS  rejected the qualifying offer, but found that rejecting the offer was “substantially justified”, thus not warranting fees for the period prior to the qualifying offer. In addition, the court reduced the lead lawyer and his associates’ hourly rate, based on a finding that the taxpayer did not prove that there were special factors that warranted an increase over the statute’s $200 cap. The net result was that the taxpayer was awarded attorneys’ fees of about $33,000, not the $70,000 that the taxpayer sought.

There are some things in the opinion worth highlighting.

One, just because a taxpayer wins on the merits, it does not mean that the government position is not substantially justified, especially on a fact intensive issue like reasonable cause involving late payment penalties. As the opinion discusses, the “United States’ position was substantially justified if it is ‘justified to a degree that satisfies a reasonable person,’” or has reasonable basis in both law and fact. Pac. Fisheries Inc. v. United States, 484 F.3d 1103, 1108 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988). That inquiry, under the statute, has a focus on whether the “United States has lost in courts of appeal for other circuits on substantially similar issues.”

In this case (as in most), the judge deciding the fees motion presided at the trial. She noted that while the taxpayer won, its victory was “no slam dunk” for either side. Pointing out evidence that favored the government, including the taxpayer’s decisions to pay other creditors and pay healthy salaries while not paying Uncle Sam, the magistrate judge emphasized that had the taxpayer’s main witness (the person whose crash caused the taxpayer’s financial spiral) been less credible, the US would have won on the merits.

The order also discusses the lack of circuit court authority on the issue as to whether financial difficulties equate to reasonable cause for late payment of excise taxes; the slim authority the taxpayer relied on was out of the Third Circuit and involved an analogous issue, employment taxes rather than excise taxes.

Finally worth noting is the court’s unwillingness to allow the full hourly rate for the partner and associate’s fees. The statute caps the fees at $200/hour; the taxpayer sought the $300 that the partner charged and that were the bulk of the fees. Section 7430 provides that the $200 cap is what the taxpayer gets “unless the court determines that a special factor, such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys for such proceeding, the difficulty of the issues presented in the case, or the local availability of tax expertise, justified a higher rate.”

To justify the fee, the lead attorney filed an affidavit, stating that he practiced law for over 37 years, that for the last 16 years his main focus was tax resolution and that his fees were equivalent to what other attorneys with similar expertise charged. For good measure he noted that he believed he was only one of a couple of attorneys in the Idaho area that “solely represents” clients in tax controversy matters.

The order found that the affidavit was insufficient:

While Mr. Martelle [the partner] “believes” he is one of few tax attorneys in the Boise, Idaho market, he does not identify in his affidavit who those other attorneys are or the rates charged by those attorneys. Mr. Martelle’s belief, without other evidence to corroborate it, is not sufficient to establish that Boise, Idaho, is lacking in qualified tax attorneys. Moreover, the Court finds the issues presented in this matter were not so difficult as to warrant an upward adjustment of attorney fees. The issues presented were not technical—neither side found it necessary to hire an expert, and the trial (including deliberations) was over in just two days. Finally, while the Court does not doubt Mr. Martelle’s vast experience in tax law, such expertise alone is not a special factor to justify attorney’s fees in excess of the statutory cap. For these reasons, the Court will award attorney’s fees at the maximum statutory rate of $200 per hour for Mr. Martelle.

Conclusion

Keith has previously discussed how qualifying offers are an important tool for taxpayers and practitioners. The qualifying offer in C1 Design was crucial, and allowed for the recovery of some fees. While the order and the underlying refund case is a victory for the taxpayer, it is not the complete victory that it sought. It is expensive to try tax cases. Assuming that the taxpayer is paying the balance of the attorney fees, that amount almost washes out the recovery of the late payment penalties that were the subject of the underlying refund case.

 

Happy (Belated) Thanksgiving!

The Taxatturky was spared again, and can continue providing quality tax advice for another year.IMG_0873

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

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

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3rd Party Rights

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

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

When You Are Rich Is Important

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

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

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

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

Qualifying as a Qualified Offer

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

Making the Granite State Stronger – No Fees For FOIA

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

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

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

Private Debt Collection

I am not a fan of the idea of private debt collection and have posted about it before.  I mistakenly thought it died off as an idea.  The recent legislation, Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015, Pub. Law 114-113 (Dec. 18, 2015), reinstating private debt collectors came as a disappointment to me because my perception is that it will further degrade IRS collection rather than fix it. I would rather see Congress create more revenue officer and revenue representative jobs in local offices to move away from the remote collection so prevalent as a result of the shift in the last 30 years to Automated Collection Sites (ACS) and away from having individuals embedded in the same community as the taxpayer work on the delinquent account.

Adding non-IRS employees who will contact taxpayers will further confuse taxpayers already receiving calls from scam artist trying to shake them down in the name of the IRS and create other problems as well. The new legislation, however, does suggest that Congress knew the IRS would be reluctant to accept private debt collectors again after the failure of this program so recently.  So, Congress sought to address the problems up front by giving the IRS little leeway in how it will use private debt collectors and placing a carrot in front of the IRS if the private debt collection program works.

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Congress first authorized private debt collectors in 2004 with the passage of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, Pub. Law 108-357, § 881 (Oct. 22, 2004).  It codified private debt collection in IRC § 6306.  This initial use of private debt collectors came under heavy criticism from the National Taxpayer Advocate year after year.  As a result of the criticism from the NTA and others as well as a lack of success, Congress allowed the Service to abandon the use of private debt collectors though it did not strike Section 6306 from the Code.  The passage of another bill mandating private debt collectors so soon after the initial failure speaks to the strong interest of Congress in supplementing the IRS collection efforts while it stifles IRS hiring.  In bringing back the private debt collectors, the new legislation tightened the existing statute to provide greater statutory clarity concerning the types of cases on which the private debt collectors could, and could not, work.  With the initial passage of Section 6306 creating private debt collectors, Congress gave the Service more leeway to craft the program.  This time Congress sought to take tighter control over the reins.  Congress also created a new statute this time, Section 6307, to provide an incentive to the Service to make the private debt collection program work by providing that some of the funds collected by this program can go into a special account to allow the Service to hire additional collection personnel.

In the PATH legislation, Congress mandated that the Service implement the “new” private debt collection provisions within three months from passage of the legislation in December, 2015. So, we will see the first aspects of the program next month.   The basic concept places private debt collectors on those cases where the efforts of the IRS have failed or the Service lacks resources to pursue the debt.  The revised Section 6306 provides much detail on precisely the cases that should go to these private debt collectors.  The legislation at 6306(c)(1)(A)(i)-(iii) guides the IRS to a specific use of private debt collectors by providing a definition of “inactive tax receivable.” A debt due to the IRS receives this designation if it meets one of three criteria if:  1) “at any time after assessment, the Internal Revenue Service removes such receivable from the active inventory for lack of resources or inability to locate the taxpayer;” 2) “more than 1/3 of the period of applicable statute of limitations [on collection] has lapsed and such receivable has not been assigned for collection to any employee of the Internal Revenue Service;” or 3) ‘in the case of a receivable which has been assigned for collection, more than 365 days have passed without interaction with the taxpayer or a third party for purposes of furthering the collection of such receivable.’  The revised statute at 6306(d)(1)-(5) also provides a definition for certain tax receiveables not eligible for referral to the private debt collectors: 1) cases with a pending or active offer or installment agreement; 2) innocent spouse cases; 3) cases in which the taxpayer is deceased, under the age of 18, in a designated combat zone or a victim of identity theft; 4) cases in which the taxpayer is currently under examination, litigation, criminal investigation or levy or 5) cases in which the taxpayer has made a proper request to exercise their right to appeal .

The balance of the 2015 provisions relating to the private debt collectors provides various items designed to carry out the program. Congress needed to expand the disclosure laws to include certain disclosures to the private debt collectors and this required a change to Section 6103.  Congress required the Service to provide periodic reports on the progress of the program, and it allowed the President to exempt individuals in certain areas hit by a disaster.  The tight control Congress keeps on the private debt collection provisions in this second version coupled with the incentive program for the Service created in Section 6307 demonstrates the strong desire Congress has to see this program work and to both tie the hands of the Service in how it implements the program while putting a carrot in front of it if the program goes well.  The carrot comes in Section 6307 which allows the IRS to set up a special account from funds collected by the private debt collectors for use to create a special compliance personnel program.  Under this program the IRS can hire additional collection personnel with the money from the special account.   As I see it, the IRS can hire more revenue officers or ACS call site workers and is not restricted on how it decides to use this money.  Because the money is derived if private debt collection succeeds and goes away if it does not, the IRS must take care in hiring these workers since their source of funding could dry up.

Since 1954 when each state had a political appointee running the Service and the agency gave the appearance of having its employees influenced by the amount of money collected, Congress has resisted any efforts to provide incentives to the Service or to individual employees to collect more. In 1998 Congress even forbid the Service from keeping statistics on matters like how much an employee or a group collected or caused to be assessed.  Section 6307 appears to provide an incentive for the Service to want the private debt collection to succeed so it can have access to unappropriated funds with which to purchase more employees.  Between this program and the significant amount of unappropriated funds the Service now receives each year by charging fees for rulings and other services , Congress seems to be moving the IRS away from public service and integrity based on appropriated funds with no incentive to do anything but reach the correct result to one with monetary incentives for certain performance.  While the shift is small, this does not seem like a good trend.

Ninth Circuit Reverses Tax Court on Qualified Offer Case and Holds That a Concession is not a Settlement

In the Knudsen case decided last month, the Ninth Circuit reversed the Tax Court and determined that the qualified offer submitted by the taxpayer, on which the IRS failed to respond during the 90 period of the offer, formed the basis for determining that the position of the IRS in the case lacked substantial justification.  I previously blogged about the Tax Court case here.

The Knudsen issue concerns a loophole to the application of the qualified offer provisions the IRS tried to create in this case and others (see also Estate of Lippitz and Angle v. Comm’r.)  The IRS conceded that the petitioner did not owe the liability in Knudsen before the Tax Court reached a decision.  It then argued that the concession equated to a settlement of the case.  Regulation section 301.7430-7(e)(example 1) provides that a settlement negates a qualified offer.  The position of the IRS regarding concession, with which the Tax Court has agreed in the Knudsen case and others, has the effect of barring the beneficial presumption provided to taxpayers making a qualified offer which the IRS did not accept during the 90 day period of the offer.  If correct, the IRS position that its concession prior to a Tax Court decision on the merits, allows it to ignore the 90 day period and wait until just before trial (or even after trial) to see how the case goes before conceding a case and avoiding the consequences of the presumption afforded by the qualified offer with respect to attorney’s fees.  The 9th Circuit rejected the IRS argument that a concession equals a settlement on the facts presented here.  In doing so, it held for the taxpayer in a case argued on the taxpayer’s behalf by students at the Lewis and Clark Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.

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Background on Qualified Offers

While Congress created the opportunity for taxpayers to obtain attorney’s fees in cases in which they prevailed in 1982 (see Pub. L. 97-248, title II, section 292(a),) actually obtaining attorney’s fees proved almost impossible because the statute required the taxpayer to show that the IRS position in the case was not substantially justified.  (See The United States Tax Court – An Historical Analysis, 2d ed. At p. 502, et seq. for a discussion of the history of the provision.)  To address this concern with the statute, in 1998 Congress added subsection 7430(g) creating the qualified offer provisions.  A taxpayer making a qualified offer that the IRS does not accept during the 90 day qualified offer period and who prevails in the case achieving a result equal to or better than the amount offered, could overcome the substantially justified provision.  This qualified offer provision opens the attorney’s fee spigot in a way that did not exist prior to the statute’s amendment.

Using the qualified offer provision requires that petitioner give careful thought to the correct outcome of the case and tender an offer to the IRS during a specified period.  Section 7430(g)(2) requires that the offer must occur during a period “beginning on the date on which the first letter of proposed deficiency which allows the taxpayer an opportunity for administrative review of the Internal Revenue Service Office of Appeals is sent, and ending on the date which is 30 days before the date the case is first set for trial.”  I have yet to make a qualified offer to Appeals that caused Appeals to do anything special.  In fact, Appeals seems unconcerned about the 90 period.  Chief Counsel’s office does take note of qualified offers.  Their manual (see IRM 34.8.2.10) requires coordination with their National Office.  This requirement makes the person submitting the qualified offer slightly unpopular since it complicates handling of the case.

Sometimes, it appears to me that qualified offers may pass the 90 day time period while sitting in Appeals before they reach Counsel.  In a small case this can present Counsel with a choice to settle the case for the amount of the qualified offer or risk not only losing the case but incurring attorney’s fees that exceed the amount at issue in the case.  I have had Counsel concede the case immediately prior to trial in order to avoid attorney’s fees.  Based on the Tax Court’s interpretation of the statute, regulations and meaning of concession, such a tactic protects the IRS from attorney’s fees under the qualified offer provisions even though the 90 day period within which the IRS should have accepted the offer ran long before the concession.

The Loophole and the Knudesn Case

The success of this tactic causes me to label the late hour concession tactic as a loophole in the statute.  It defeats one of the major purposes of the qualified offer provision: to foster early resolution of cases.  This early resolution is vitally important when representing clients who may have thousands of dollars in refunds (often based on the earned income tax credit) held up pending resolution of a Tax Court matter. Through no fault of their own, many clients who are entitled to the EITC have been unable to prove eligibility during the correspondence audit process. Those individuals are forced to file a petition in Tax Court to resolve the case.

For those of us representing individuals claiming the EITC whose credit – sometimes equaling 33% or more of their annual income – remains frozen throughout the entire audit and litigation process, the hope that the qualified offer provisions would expedite the consideration of the case and the refund of the vitally important funds gets undercut by this tactic. In addition to the burden on the taxpayer, the late resolution of the case puts a burden on the clinic or pro bono attorney representing this taxpayer. While the representation occurs at no charge to the taxpayer, the clinic or pro bono attorney is entitled to compensation pursuant to IRC 7430 if the Tax Court awards attorney’s fees. These fees do not motivate clinics or pro bono attorneys but do compensate them for the time and effort of handling a case.

The Knudsen case, although coming out of a low income taxpayer clinic, did not involve the earned income tax credit but another common issue faced by low income taxpayers – the innocent spouse provisions.  Ms. Knudsen had a very sympathetic case.  The IRS agreed that she met the statutory qualifications for innocent spouse status; however, her case preceded the withdrawal by the IRS of its regulation requiring claimants under IRC 6105(f) to file their innocent spouse claim within two years after the first time the IRS took collection action. Because no factual dispute existed and the only question for the Tax Court involved the interpretation of the regulation concerning the timing of her request for relief, the parties submitted the case fully stipulated to the Court.  Long before the submission of the case fully stipulated, petitioner, through her counsel, had submitted a qualified offer.

The IRS did not accept her qualified offer within the period of the offer because of its litigation position.  Its success in three Circuits, despite its loss in the Tax Court in Lantz, gave the IRS reason to believe that its position regarding the regulation limiting the time for claiming relief under IRC 6015(f) not only met but exceeded the substantial justification for its litigating position.  (Despite the Circuit court victories, opponents of the regulation would argue that the regulation was wrong from the outset and the concession simply recognized that it never expressed the intention of Congress with respect to 6015(f) relief.  The concession of the issue merely recognized reality rather than conceding a matter on which it had prevailed in the courts.)  Of course, if the provision of the qualified offer knocked out the analysis of the basis for its position with a statutory determination on the issue, it faced attorney’s fees if it lost.

This was the situation when the IRS voluntarily reversed its position regarding the 6015(f) regulation that imposed a two year limitation on claiming innocent spouse status.  With the change of its position in the regulation, the IRS conceded the Knudsen case.  It had already agreed she met the statutory requirements for relief and denied relief solely on the basis of its position in the regulation regarding the timing of the request.  When the IRS conceded the case, the taxpayer prevailed in a result which exceeded her qualified offer which the IRS did not timely accept.  So, she sought attorney’s fees as the prevailing party in a matter in which the IRS lacked substantial justification because of the operation of the qualified offer provisions.

Knudsen: A Satisfactory Result But an Unsatisfying Approach

The Tax Court opinion simply equated concession to settlement and determined that Ms. Knudsen could not take advantage of the provision determining that the IRS lacked substantial justification.  It does not discuss how the IRS concession of an issue on which it had prevailed in three circuit courts might have influenced its decision.  Similarly, the 9th Circuit does not discuss the unusual nature of the basis for the concession here which could evoke sympathy for the IRS under the circumstances of this case at least with respect to attorney’s fees.  Rather, the 9th Circuit makes some broad statements about concessions not equating to settlements before continuing its discussion of the case in a manner that leaves me, at least, less satisfied than I was after reading the first parts of the opinion.

Had the 9th Circuit done a careful analysis of the differences between concession and settlement and had it addressed the purpose of the statute to foster early settlement of cases, I would have come away from the opinion more satisfied.  Instead, reading the opinion as a whole you come to a place not unlike the decision in Estate of Lippitz v. Comm’r  in which the Tax Court earlier granted attorney’s fees based on the qualified offer provisions after a concession by the IRS following a trial.  In other words, Knudsen, despite some broad language at the outset, still has the feel of a fact based determination rather than a legal one and that may mean the IRS will continue to litigate this issue.

Continued litigation of the issue ignores the real benefit that qualified offers present – quick resolution. The failure to quickly resolve Knudsen is understandable because it was part of a larger litigation issue; however, in almost all cases involving low income taxpayers the issues are not so complex that resolution cannot take place within the 90 period if the IRS will turn to the case during that period.

Conclusion

I hope I am wrong in thinking that this issue will continue. If it does, it is an unfortunate result because the position of the IRS, that it can concede a case and avoid the problem of lack of substantial justification, means low income taxpayers seeking frozen refunds (and others seeking an early end to litigation) must wait until the eve of trial or after trial in order to achieve a settlement Congress tried to foster at an early point in litigation.

Summary Opinions for June

Before covering the June tax procedure items we didn’t otherwise write on, I wanted to highlight that Keith was quoted in a Seattle Times’ article about the IRS/Microsoft litigation, where MS is questioning the length of its audit and the Service’s hiring of Quinn Emanuel to investigate its tax obligations.  Other tax procedure luminaries Stuart Bassin (who is working with Les on rewriting part of SaltzBook addressing disclosure litigation) and Professor Andy Grewal (a PT guest poster) were also quoted.   Keith’s last post on the topic can be found here, where he discusses Senator Hatch’s letter to the Commissioner questioning the use of an outside law firm on audits.

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  • The 2015 IRS annual Whistleblower Report to Congress was released in June and can be found here.  In 2014, the Service paid out around $52MM in awards, representing about 17% of the tax it claims was collected due to WB’s information.  Submissions to the WB group were up in 2014, with over 14,000 claims being filed.  Of those, about 8,600 were opened.  The report paints a slightly rosier picture of the program than what may be practitioners’ perceptions of the program.  It does note issues with taxpayer confidentiality, and whistleblower protection. The report also provides a spreadsheet of the reasons for closing cases and the time most cases have been in the program (which tends to be fairly long).
  •  This Tax Court case has a fair amount of tax procedure packed into it.  In Webber v. Comm’r, the Court found a taxpayer had retained control and incidents of ownership over life insurance held in a trust, which caused some negative tax  consequences.  In coming to this determination, the Court found that the IRS Revenue Rulings dealing with the “investor control” doctrine were entitled to Skidmore deference under the “power to persuade” standard.  The Court also found reasonable cause due to the taxpayer’s reliance on his advisor.  In the case, the advisor was an expert and was paid hourly to review the transaction, and had the pertinent information.  We just wrote this case up for SaltzBook, so I won’t go into too much detail (don’t want to give all the milk away, as we definitely want to keep selling cows).
  • Agostino & Associates has published its July Monthly Journal of Tax Controversy.  Frank and his associate Brian Burton have a nice piece on the public policy of OICs.  As always, it is interesting and essentially a mini law review article.
  • BMC Software v. Comm’r is a Fifth Circuit case we (I) missed in March that was potentially significant in how closing agreements are interpreted.  Miller & Chevalier’s Tax Appellate Blog has coverage here.  The facts are fairly specific, and the applicable Code sections do not pertain to many taxpayers.  What is important is that the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court, and held that the boilerplate in the opening paragraph stating, “for income tax purposes” did not cause the agreed treatment of a tax item for one purpose as applying for all purposes under the Code.  The Court would not read that into the agreement of the two parties, who had meticulously spelled out the specific tax treatments for one purpose.
  • Another case with multiple interesting tax procedure items.  In Riggs v. Comm’r, the Tax Court ruled on 1) whether a bankruptcy stay for the taxpayer’s successor-in-interest applied to the taxpayer, and  2) whether the IRS had to follow the taxpayer’s instructions about which debts its payment should be applied to when the Bankruptcy Court directed the payment generally.  As to the first point, the court found there was not sufficient “identity between the debtor and the [taxpayer] that the debtor may be said to be the real party defendant”, so the stay did not apply.  As to the second point, the Court found the payments were not voluntary, and therefore it did not have to follow the taxpayer’s instructions under Rev. Proc. 2002-26.  I would assume the Court would have specifically directed the payment application in the order had it been requested.
  • Hard to talk to an accountant these days and not discuss the tangible personal property change of accounting method.  The Service has provided additional time to file Form 3115 and modified some procedures.  See Rev. Proc. 2015-33.
  • For those of you who do work with Section 6672 penalties, you know the definition of willfulness and actually running a business can be in conflict.  Often, a business that is light on cash has to make a decision about which bills to pay, and sometimes the business thinks that suppliers need payment to keep product flowing.  If a responsible person makes such a decision and knows the withholding taxes are delinquent, Section 6672 penalties will almost certainly apply.  See Phillips v. US, 73 F3d 939 (9th Cir. 1996).  The Court of Federal Claims had occasion to review one such case in Gann v. US, and dismissed the government’s motion for summary judgement.  It held that determining when and whether the responsible person had knowledge of the company’s failure to pay taxes was a disputed issue of fact.  The Court found that simply showing that cash inflows and outflows indicating someone wasn’t going to get paid weren’t enough for summary judgement, and some level of actual knowledge was needed by the responsible person.  There was also some question as to whether the person was a “responsible person”, which was covered by Professor Timothy Todd on Forbes and can be found here.
  • Another attorneys’ fees case that probably would have ended differently had the client made a qualified offer.  In Mylander v. Comm’r, the Tax Court found that the taxpayer prevailed in the amount in controversy and the most significant issue, but the Service’s position was substantially justified.  The reasoning for this was because the case was complex and the taxpayer didn’t share all relevant facts or the case law for their claims.  I’m not sure how I feel about the complexity aspect or the onus being on the taxpayer to provide the applicable law  to the Service.  If the taxpayer’s position was clear, and reasonable research could have turned up the correct law, it seems unfair to make the taxpayer outline all relevant cases.  I hope those were only considered in conjunction with the missing facts, and wouldn’t have been sufficient on their own.  The Court did also mention that the current case was arguably distinguishable from the applicable prior holdings, so the Service’s position could have been somewhat reasonable no matter what.  All of this probably wouldn’t have mattered if the taxpayer had taken advantage of the qualified offer provisions (although if you make an offer, and fail to provide the IRS with the facts and the law, can you still prevail?).
  • SCOTUS has denied cert for Ford in its interest payment case involving the treatment of an advanced remittance.  Les has blogged this case twice before, most recently here.  In addition to the interest question, there was also a jurisdictional issue about whether the district courts could hear an interest disagreement or if it had to be determined by the Court of Federal Claims.  Les’ post outlines the issue and eventual court holding.
  • In Slone v. Comm’r, The 9th Circuit has decided another case on the two prong test necessary to establish a transferee is liable for the predecessor’s tax liability.  The court remanded for the tax court to review the transaction as to the first prong on federal law, but also held that the Service had to show it was a fraudulent transaction under the federal law and also had to independently show that the transferee was liable under the applicable state law.  This holding is in line with the various other recent cases, including Stern, Salus Mundi, and Diablod, which we most recently covered here.
  • Would you like to know how to file delinquent FBARs and not pay a penalty (i.e. are you mega rich and hiding money in some country with shady banking laws)?  Well, this probably doesn’t apply to you because you likely did not pay the tax due on those assets.  For those folks who paid the tax, but inadvertently failed to file the FBAR the IRS has issued updated guidance on filing late without penalties.
  • A res judicata case, which should have a familiar name for tax procedure junkies.  In Batchelor-Robjohns v. US, the 11th Circuit held the feds were barred by res judicata from raising the dead taxpayer’s income tax issues in an income tax audit when the same issue was previously litigated in an estate tax refund relating to same issue.
  • Just about a year ago, we covered Heckman v. Comm’r, where the Tax Court found the six year statute of limitations under Section 6501(e)(1)(A) applied to ESOP distributions that were not properly disclosed.  The Eighth Circuit has affirmed that ruling.  This is the link to the prior SumOp where we discussed the case.  In Heckman, the courts (Tax Court & 8Th Cir.) declined to incorporate other related entity returns to show disclosure for the individual’s return of the ESOP distribution.  It is interesting to compare that language to CNT Investors, another recent Tax Court statute of limitations case, which seemed to indicate the tax court would consider all the filings of the taxpayer and his related entities.  Although the tones are different, I do not think the holdings are necessarily in conflict.  In Heckman, there was not much disclosed that would adequately apprise the Service of the connection.  In CNT, a few key items were left off, but overall the filings painted a fairly full picture.

Summary Opinions through 02/20/15

A special thanks to our frequent guest blogger, Carlton Smith, who over the last few weeks has provided us with quite a few posts.  Les, Keith and I have been extremely busy with various projects, which Carl knows, and he offered to do some extra writing to ensure the blog had quality content over that period. The posts have all been wonderful, and we are indebted to him for that.

Before getting to the other tax procedure, we wanted to provide an interesting update on a case we have been following.  Frequent readers of our blog are familiar with our coverage of the Kuretski case, which questioned the President’s power to remove Tax Court judges under Section 7443(f). As Mr. Smith stated in his December 2nd post on the topic,

This past June, the D.C. Circuit ruled that there was no separation of powers issue because (1) the Tax Court, while defined as an Article I (Congressional) court in section 7441, was really, for most constitutional purposes, an Article II Executive Agency exercising executive functions, and (2) there is no problem in the President, who heads the Executive Branch, ever having the power to remove officers of an Executive Agency.

The taxpayer has filed for cert., which has not yet been reviewed.   Miami attorney, Joe DiRuzzo (who seems to get his hands on cases with most interesting procedure issues), in late December and early January, filed Kuretski-like motions in various Tax Court cases appealable to various Circuits asking the Tax Court to declare the 7443(f) removal power unconstitutional.  In a couple of those cases, the Service was given a healthy amount of time to respond, until March 9th.  The Service has requested another sixty days to coordinate its response at the highest levels of Counsel’s office (not a direct quote, but pretty close–we can provide a copy of the motion, if you are interested).  That is a lot of time to coordinate a response, and it would be reasonable to assume this has something to do with what is or is not happening with the Kuretski.  I’m sure we will have continuing coverage as this moves forward (or doesn’t move forward).

To the other procedure:

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  • Agostino & Associates have published their February 2015 Newsletter.  It is great, as normal, and congrats to Jairo Cano on being named a Nolan Fellow!  I particularly liked the first part of the article regarding the “Service’s Duty to Foster Voluntary Compliance Through IRC Sections 6014(a) and 6020(a).”
  • Do you hate it when your clients fail to pay your bills? Want to stick it to them, and force them to pay tax on the discharge of that indebtedness by issuing a Form 1099-C.  OPR thinks that might reflect negatively on your character and fitness to practice before the Service.  OPR did not provide an opinion, but found that only an “applicable entity” had to file such a form, which is defined as various government entities, “applicable financial entities” or other organizations that engage in lending.  Further, whether a debt can be discharged is a question of fact, and it “generally occurs when a taxpayer receives funds that are not includible in income, because the taxpayer is obligated to repay the obligation,” not when there is a disagreement about fees for services owed.  OPR stated that if a practitioner was not following these substantive rules, that could be problematic for the practitioner under Circular 230, as the practitioner would have a duty to know those laws before issuing an IRS form.  See in particular Circ. 230, Section 10.22(a).
  • The District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, in Carriker v. United States, has partially dismissed an accountant’s attempt to collect attorney’s fees for the accountant defending his CPA license before a state board that he claimed was related to an IRS controversy.  The Court found these were not proceedings “by or against” the United States under Section 7430.  Similarly, the Code did not provide for fees for the accountant’s time helping his lawyer on the project.  The claims related to fees for the underlying IRS controversy were not dismissed.
  • The Service issued a taxpayer favorable PLR on seeking discretionary relief for late recharacterization of a Roth IRA conversion back to a normal IRA in PLR 201506015.  Under the PLR, the taxpayer converted his IRA to a Roth, and a few weeks later invested in a company on his financial advisor’s advice.  That company, through other investments, either stole or lost the money, and fraudulent provided incorrect statements regarding the investment’s value.  Because of this, the taxpayer had no reason to recharacterize his IRA back to a Roth.  After the period for making such an election, the taxpayer found out about the fraud.  Taxpayers are, under certain circumstances, allowed to convert their traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.  This requires the taxpayer to pay the income tax due on the distribution, but no penalty.  If the value of the account decreasing significantly immediately after the conversion, taxpayers may want to recharacterize and obtain a refund of the tax due.  There are certain time limits within which the election must be made.   Under Treas. Reg. § 301.9100-3(b)(1), the Service has discretion to allow late relief in certain circumstances.  One of which is when the taxpayer “failed to make an election because, after exercising due diligence, the taxpayer was unaware of the necessity for the election.”  The Service found the fraud caused the taxpayer to be “unaware of the necessity for the election” and allowed the late election.  This is arguably a broad, taxpayer friendly, view of when a taxpayer will be aware of something and what is a necessity.
  • The Service has issued its internal guidance regarding Letter 5262-D in estate and gift audits.  This guidance discusses how the auditor should handle a case that was not settled based on how cooperative the taxpayer was.  It covers when a 30 day letter can be issued, how additional information must be requested, and when a 90 day letter must go out.  If you don’t respond to those IDRs, you are probably getting a ticket to Tax Court.
  • Next time the ABA Tax Section meets in San Francisco, we may need to take a field trip to the bar from this next case.  In Estate of Fenta v. Comm’r, the Tax Court found the taxpayer was not entitled to litigation and administrative costs, as the IRS was substantially justified (too bad, because I think the fees would have gone to a low income taxpayer clinic).   The action in this case surrounded the Lakeside Lounge, which might be this joint.  The Lounge appears to be a dive bar, that earned a substantial portion of its income from the sale of booze, largely in cash transactions.  In a fact pattern that would not be surprising to any IRS agent, it was believed that the bar was not reporting all of its income.  Below is a quick note on how the Service calculated the deficiency and on why no costs were awarded.

The taxpayer wasn’t excited to hand over the books and records, and after a few summonses, the Service determined the business was not keeping adequate books and records.  Using the invoices for the alcohol purchased by the bar, the Service applied the “percentage-markup” analysis (which the California taxing authority had previously used) to determine the under reporting of the income.  This is one of the methods used by the IRS during audits of cash intensive businesses – here is a portion of the IRS’ audit guide on the topic.  For bars, this is calculated by taking “liquor purchases divided by average drinks per bottle times average price per drink with allowance for spillage.”  There are a lot of things practitioners and the Service can quibble about in this calculation.  The Service issued its notice of deficiency, and the taxpayer petitioned the court.  Prior to a hearing, the matter was largely settled and a stipulated settlement was filed with the court.

In the instant case, it does not appear a qualified offer was made, so the Tax Court did a Section 7430(c)(4)(A) review to determine if the taxpayer substantially prevailed.  In this case, the Service largely argued that it was substantially justified in its position because Mr. Fenta failed to provide various receipts until after he filed his petition.  Once the Service received those items, it settled.  The Court agreed with the Service.  Interestingly, the Court did not indicate whether the Service argued that the settlement precluded fees.  I was too lazy (busy) to pull the briefs to see if the Service did not argue the same or if the Court found it more appropriate to only discuss the substantially justified argument.

  • The First Circuit, in In Re: Brian S. Fahey, consolidated four cases, all with the same question, which was:

whether a Massachusetts state income tax return filed after the date by which Massachusetts requires such returns to be filed constitutes a “return” under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a) such that unpaid taxes due under the return can be discharged in bankruptcy.

The Court, joining a recent Tenth Circuit decision, held “we conclude that it does not.”  The Court found persuasive the holding in Mallo v. Internal Revenue Service, where the Tenth Circuit held late filed returns were not returns for the applicable paragraph in the bankruptcy code.  Keith had a great write up of Mallo found here (comments are worth a review also).

  • From the Federal Tax Crimes Blog, Jack Townsend discusses the DOJ press release regarding another plea deal for a UBS client.  Jack quotes the release and then covers his thoughts, which are insightful, as always.  Great point about the taxpayer’s lie to the Service in a meeting potentially extending the statute on the underlying crime (and being a crime itself).

Summary Opinions for 1/6/15-1/23/15

Les and Keith ditched me for the end of last week, while they both attended the ABA Tax Section Meeting (much more on that to come).  Thankfully, Carlton Smith provided two guest posts.  One was on unpublished CDP orders and how those can implicate substantive and other important procedural matters, and a second on his victory in the Volpicelli equitable tolling case out of the Ninth Circuit.  Thanks again to Carl for both of those and a big congratulations on the important victory.

To the other procedure:

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  • A couple cases on administrative costs are first up.  First Milligan v. Comm’r, where the IRS clearly did a poor job handling the taxpayer’s appeal, filing it incorrectly, not acting promptly (probably being difficult to contact), and requiring the Taxpayer Advocate to intervene.  Based on Section 7430(f)(2), the Tax Court correctly held that the IRS CP 2000 notice and Letter 105C denying the refund were not the “position of the United States” as required under the statute.  For the statute, the “position” only arises under a notice of decision by Appeals or the notice of deficiency.  Prior to that date, the IRS’s position and actions don’t count for fee shifting, and fees are not available.
  • Switching to a taxpayer win, the District Court for New Hampshire in United States v. Baker held that the Service was not substantially justified in its position that an ex-wife’s real estate was subject to a lien from her ex-husband’s tax liability because the divorce decree (and/or deed) was not recorded transferring the property to the wife pursuant to the divorce (which occurred before the lien arose).  We covered the underlying case in SumOp last year here.  The District Court found the position was contrary to the First Circuit’s law on the topic and awarded costs to the real estate owner.
  • Moving to a different topic, Steven Mopsick published “IRS to Issue More Tickets to the Tax Court in 2015” on LinkedIn and his blog last week, which discusses changes to Letter 5262.  Mr. Mopsick indicates that the changes to the document make it clear that if a taxpayer isn’t prompt in following requests for information (Form 4564), the taxpayer will no longer be able to remove the issue to Appeals in nondocketed cases, and will instead get a 90 day letter directing him to the Tax Court (where he could go to Appeals, but as a docketed case).  I have not looked into this further than Mr. Mopsick’s post.  In the post, it seems to indicate this is being done to reduce the Appeals backlog.  If this is correct, it will be interesting to see if there is an increase in small tax court cases over the next year or two, and a corresponding decrease in Appeals cases.  If, however, Appeals cases decrease, while Tax Court filings remain the same, it may indicate many taxpayers are not receiving review that they otherwise may have obtained.  Given the frequency with which the IRS is incorrect and Appeals high success rate in settling matters (when someone can actually review the matter), this would be unfortunate.  It would be interesting to see how often Form 4564 is issued, in what types of matters, and for what income groups.  Similarly, it would be interesting to see who is not responding.
  • The District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin has tossed a complaint by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (I wonder what percentage of its constituents are ten year old kids who don’t want to go to church every Sunday), which sought to block the IRS from granting churches and religious organizations exemptions from reporting requirements under Section 6033.  FFRF claimed that the Code section violated the establishment clause and the equal protection clause.  FFRF lost a similar case in November of 2014 regarding parsonage allowances.  The District Court, largely following the 7th Circuit, found that FFRF did not have standing, as it had never sought the exemption.
  • The Tax Court, in Lee v. Comm’r, denied the government’s motion for summary judgment on a taxpayer’s challenge to its lien imposition for failure to serve letter 1153.  The Court stated that whether the letter was served was a subject to a genuine dispute as to a material fact, and, further, whether the letter was properly issued was  a requirement of the statute that the Court would review regardless of whether the taxpayer raised the issue in his CDP hearing.
  • Last year, SumOp covered the Julia R. Swords Trust v. Comm’r, a Tax Court case discussing transferee liability and declining to apply the federal substance over form doctrine to recast a transaction being reviewed under Section 6901.  The case, and various related cases, have been appealed by the Service to the Sixth Circuit.  In December, the trustees were successful in moving venue to the Fourth Circuit.  The Sixth Circuit found both circuits could be the appropriate venue.  The Court noted the Service sought review in the Sixth Circuit because it had not held on the underlying question (at least not against the Service).  Most of the action in the case had occurred in Virginia (not in the Sixth Circuit). The deficiency notice was issued in Virginia and the tax court petition was filed in Virginia, where the case was decided.  The Court noted that the Service conceded venue was appropriate in the Fourth previously, but that did not preclude venue in other locations; however, the trustees had relied upon the venue statement in filing their petitions to the Tax Court.  As such, it found the Fourth circuit more appropriate.  This could be a slight blow to forum shopping for the Service, and perhaps taxpayers.  I couldn’t find the case for free on line. Sorry.
  • The University of South Dakota has a football program!!!!!  I had no idea – It is DI also. The program seems pretty terrible at football, but apparently some of its former players are really good at committing tax fraud.
  • Jack Townsend’s Federal Tax Crimes Blog has the creepiest headline of the year, Foot Kissing Chiropractor Sentenced for Bribing IRS Agent.  I have two takeaways from the post. First, don’t try to bribe the IRS, you will probably go to jail.  Second, don’t try to bribe the IRS after admitting to being a weirdo, you will go to jail, and all kinds of news outlets and bloggers will circulate posts about you for the world to see.
  • In what appears to be a really terrible case, the district court for the Southern District of Ohio has upheld delinquency penalties against an estate for failure to timely file and pay estate taxes in Specht v. United States.  The executor of the estate was a high school educated homemaker who was around the age of 73.  She did not own any stock, and had never been to a lawyer.  When her cousin died, she retained her cousin’s lawyer, Mary Backsman, who had been an estates lawyer for decades and was well respected.  Ms. Backsman was also suffering from brain cancer at the time, and did not disclose this to the executor or various other clients.  The attorney claimed to be doing various tasks, including obtaining extension of time to file and pay tax.  She also claimed to be contacting UPS for assistance in selling a large amount of UPS stock, and handle various other requirements.  None of these tasks were actually done.  Eventually, the executor realized, and fired the attorney and sued her for malpractice.  Unfortunately, the attorney had similar issues with various other clients.

The executor hired a new attorney, filed the estate tax return, and paid all tax due.  The IRS imposed a huge amount of penalties and interest. Due to the above facts, the executor argued the failure to file was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect.  Unfortunately, based on Treasury Regulation 301.6651-1(c)(1) and Boyle, the executor had not exercised ordinary business care, as reliance on an attorney to file does not remove the executor’s obligation to ensure the return is timely filed and the tax paid.  The Court stated the executor did not need to be an expert to determine the due date.  I’ve shared my frustration with this line of cases repeatedly in the past, but I do somewhat understand why the rule is crafted in this matter.  I would be interested to know how the malpractice case panned out.  The coverage may have a maximum payout amount, and if there were a bunch of these cases, the various clients could be dividing up a limited pie.  In theory, the executor could be held liable to the beneficiaries for anything not recouped.  Any result where the executor ends up responsible seem completely inequitable to me.

  • I’m not a fan of Hartland Management Services Inc. v. Comm’r either, which is a recent Tax Court case reforming a Form 872 that the IRS screwed up.  Just when you think you get lucky, with the IRS completely blowing something, the Tax Court comes in and bails them out.  Without getting too far into the facts, the taxpayer and various entities were being audited for multiple years.  During the audit, the Service needed to extend the statute for assessment to continue discussing the matters.  On the Form 872, the Service included the extended date as the date of the return being extended (so the form effectively extended the statute for assessment on a return that wouldn’t have been filed yet or would never be filed).  The Service and the taxpayer continued to discuss the matter, and eventually the Service assessed tax.  The taxpayer contested the validity of the assessment, because the Form 872 did not state the year of assessment.  The Court found a mutual mistake of fact, which was evidenced by the taxpayers’ actions before and after the signing of the Form 872.  Because of the mistake, the Court reformed the document to extend the appropriate year.  I wonder if the taxpayers had contemporaneous notes indicating they were happy to sign because of the IRS error, and then immediately ceased negotiations if the Court would have held differently.  Then it would have arguably just been an IRS error.  Although I’m not sure I can create a winning legal argument against this holding, it does seem there are a lot of situations where a taxpayer could make a similar error, which was accepted by the IRS, that would never be reformed to save the taxpayer.  For those interested in learning more about this topic, Saltzman and Book touches on contract principles applicable to Form 872 in the newly rewritten Chapter 8.08[4][b].