Does the Tax Court Sometimes Have Refund Jurisdiction in CDP Cases?

Frequent contributor Carl Smith discusses a case implicating the Tax Court’s ability to determine and order the credit or refund of an overpayment in a CDP case. Les

In 2006, in a court-reviewed opinion, the Tax Court in Greene-Thapedi v. Commissioner, 126 T.C. 1 (2006), held that the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction to determine an overpayment in a Collection Due Process (“CDP”) case. Although section 6512(b) gives the Tax Court overpayment jurisdiction, the court held that section 6512(b) was limited in application to deficiency cases and interest abatement cases, where it is specifically referenced in section 6404(h)(2)(B). The Tax Court has never reexamined its Greene-Thapedi holding, and the holding was adopted only in a D.C. Circuit opinion, Willson v. Commissioner, 805 F.3d 316 (D.C. Cir. 2015), presenting a highly unusual fact pattern. A case named McLane v. Commissioner, Docket No. 20317-13L, currently pending before Judge Halpern may lead to consideration of Greene-Thapedi’s holding in the Fourth Circuit in a case with a more typical fact pattern than that presented in either Greene-Thapedi or Willson.

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The McLane case is not new to readers of PT. A March designated order in the case was discussed by Samantha Galvin in her post on April 5. But, that post did not discuss Greene-Thapedi, so I think another post expanding on McLane is called for.

In Greene-Thapdei, a taxpayer complained during a CDP hearing of alleged excess interest and late-payment penalty that she had been charged after she settled a Tax Court deficiency case.  The IRS had assessed the agreed tax, as well as interest and late-payment penalty thereon.  During the Tax Court CDP case, the balance charged was fully paid by a credit that the IRS took from a later taxable year, so the Tax Court dismissed the case as moot, concluding that it had no overpayment jurisdiction in CDP.  But, a curious footnote (19) in the majority opinion may have tried to leave open the issue of overpayment jurisdiction in cases where the taxpayer did not receive a notice of deficiency and so could challenge the underlying liability in CDP. However, the footnote is far from clear.  The footnote reads:

We do not mean to suggest that this Court is foreclosed from considering whether the taxpayer has paid more than was owed, where such a determination is necessary for a correct and complete determination of whether the proposed collection action should proceed. Conceivably, there could be a collection action review proceeding where (unlike the instant case) the proposed collection action is not moot and where pursuant to sec. 6330(c)(2)(B), the taxpayer is entitled to challenge “the existence or amount of the underlying tax liability”. In such a case, the validity of the proposed collection action might depend upon whether the taxpayer has any unpaid balance, which might implicate the question of whether the taxpayer has paid more than was owed.

Judge Halpern joined nearly every other judge in the majority opinion.  Judge Vasquez filed a dissent arguing that the Tax Court implicitly had jurisdiction to determine an overpayment in CDP.

In McLane, the IRS says it issued a notice of deficiency to McLane’s last known address, but, when he never filed a Tax Court petition, it assessed the income tax deficiency.  It later sent him a notice of intention to levy.  In the CDP case in Tax Court, the IRS conceded that he did not receive the notice of deficiency so could challenge the underlying liability.  After a trial, the IRS conceded that McLane proved not only the disputed deductions in the notice of deficiency, but also that he had more deductions than were reported on his return and so overpaid his taxes by about $2,500.  After the post-trial briefs were in (but before any opinion was issued), the parties held a conference call with Judge Halpern about what to do.  The IRS took the position that the Tax Court had no jurisdiction to find an overpayment and any claim filed today would be time barred.  After the conference call, the Judge in March issued an order asking for the parties to file memoranda addressing whether the court had overpayment jurisdiction.  The 6-page order did not mention Greene-Thapedi, but stated:

Because the question of our jurisdiction in a collection due process (CDP) case to determine and order the credit or refund of an overpayment appears to be a novel one, we will require the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing the issue before we resolve it.

Judge Halpern doesn’t usually forget about relevant opinions, so I suspect that he may be thinking that Greene-Thapedi is distinguishable (maybe under footnote 19?).  In the order, the judge also suggested that the pro se taxpayer consult a tax clinic in the Baltimore or D.C. area before submitting his memorandum.

Although the taxpayer spoke to the tax clinic at the University of the District of Columbia, he decided not to retain that clinic and stayed pro se.

In response to the judge’s order, three memoranda were eventually filed with the Tax Court: (1) an IRS’ memorandum, (2) the taxpayer’s memorandum, and (3) an amicus memorandum that the judge allowed the UDC clinic to submit. Full disclosure: Although the amicus memorandum was written primarily by UDC law student Roxy Araghi and her clinic director, Jacqueline Lainez, since I assisted them significantly, I am also listed as of counsel on the memorandum.

Essentially, the IRS simply points to Greene-Thapedi as controlling and argues that the Tax Court lacks overpayment jurisdiction in CDP for the reasons stated by the majority in that opinion.

The IRS also cites and relies on Willson. In Willson, the IRS erroneously sent the taxpayer refund checks for two taxable years, when it should have sent only one refund check. Later realizing its mistake, the IRS assessed in the earlier year the erroneous payment amount. The taxpayer eventually realized that one of the two refunds checks was erroneous, and he voluntarily sent the IRS some money for the year for which the IRS had set up the assessment. When the IRS did not get back the rest of the assessment from the taxpayer, it issued a notice of intention to levy for the balance. During the Tax Court CDP case, the Tax Court held that assessment was not a proper way of collecting back the erroneous refund. And appropriate methods (such as a suit for erroneous refund) were now time-barred. So, the IRS abated the assessment. Then, the IRS argued that the case was moot. But, at that point, the taxpayer contended that he had overpaid his tax (the voluntary payments), and he asked the Tax Court to so hold, citing the Tax Court’s authority under section 6330(c)(2)(B) to consider challenges to the underlying liability. The Tax Court dismissed the CDP case as moot, without finding an overpayment.

The D.C. Circuit in Willson agreed with the Tax Court, but stated: “The IRS retained the $5,100 not to satisfy a tax liability but to recover an erroneous refund sent as a result of a clerical error. The debt created by such an erroneous refund is not a tax liability.” 805 F.3d at 320 (emphasis in original).

Since Willson does not involve a deficiency in tax and may not even involve underlying tax liability at all, it may not be controlling in McLane.

And, no other Court of Appeals has considered Greene-Thapedi’s Tax Court jurisdictional issue.

The McLane taxpayer and UDC amicus memoranda argue that Greene-Thapedi is distinguishable from McLane on the facts or was, simply, wrongly decided. The taxpayer’s memorandum also distinguishes Willson factually in a footnote. Both memoranda make many of the arguments that Judge Vasquez included in his dissents in Greene-Thapedi for why the Tax Court has inherent overpayment jurisdiction in a CDP case – especially one where a taxpayer is litigating a deficiency because he did not receive a notice of deficiency.

As I see it, either way Judge Halpern rules, there is a good chance that the losing party will take this issue up to the Fourth Circuit on appeal, where we might finally get a ruling on whether the Greene-Thapedi opinion is right or not after all.

 

Frivolity, CDP Remands, Proving A Return Filed, and Untimely Refund Claims: Designated Orders 4/30 – 5/4/2018

Professor Patrick Thomas brings us the latest installment as we continue to play catch up on some interesting designated orders. Les

 This week’s orders bring us, yet again, a few taxpayers behaving badly (the interminable Mr. Ryskamp graces the pages of this blog yet again), a bevy of Graev-related orders on motions to reopen from Judge Carluzzo (all granted), three orders from Judge Jacobs, and a few deeper dives.

First, Judge Buch exercises the Tax Court’s ability to remand CDP cases for changed circumstances. Judge Ashford reminds us of the potential power of dismissing a deficiency case for lack of jurisdiction due to an untimely Notice of Deficiency—along with the proof needed to achieve such a result. Finally, Judge Holmes handles a motion to vacate due to petitioner’s inability to obtain a refund from the Tax Court.

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 Special Trial Judges Wield the Section 6673 PenaltyDocket Nos. 12507-17 L, Rader v. C.I.R. (Order Here); Docket No. 3899-18, Ryskamp v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In Rader, Judge Panuthos granted respondent’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in the CDP context. It’s relatively rare for the Tax Court to hear or grant such motions in CDP cases. When a petition is timely and properly filed, the Court usually decides, at minimum, whether the Settlement Officer “verifi[ed] … that the requirements of any applicable law or administrative procedure have been met”, as is required under section 6330(c)(1)—even where the petitioner doesn’t raise that issue or participate in the administrative hearing or Tax Court proceeding.

In contrast, here Judge Panuthos never reaches the merits (despite a timely filed request for a CDP hearing and timely filed petition) because the petition itself didn’t really say anything of substance.  Indeed, Judge Panuthos characterized it as containing “little more than pseudo-legal verbiage; references to [Code] sections and citations of tax cases, accompanied by petitioner’s questionable interpretations of those Code sections and case holdings; and accusations of fraud on the part of the IRS.”

The petition did try to challenge the underlying tax liability for 2012, noting that the Substitute-For-Return was inappropriate. Judge Panuthos gives a short recitation of why individuals are obligated to pay federal income tax, and why the Service has authority to assess tax via an SFR. (Not that he was required to; petitioner had already challenged his underlying liability, unsuccessfully, in a deficiency case, and so was barred from litigating the issue here). He then grants the motion to dismiss.

Finally, Judge Panuthos assesses, on the Court’s own motion, a $5,000 penalty under section 6673 for asserting “frivolous and meritless arguments”. Apparently, Mr. Rader has been assessed such a penalty in four (four!) separate deficiency dockets, including the one giving rise to this CDP matter. I’m not sure if another penalty will set him on the straight and narrow—but at this juncture, not issuing a penalty simply isn’t an option.

In Judge Guy’s order, Mr. Ryskamp is at it again. As we reported last month, Mr. Ryskamp attempted to acquire CDP jurisdiction by writing “Notice of Determination” on top of a Letter 2802C for 2017, and filed a petition with that letter on January 5, 2018. (The Letter 2802C indicates to a taxpayer that they submitted incorrect information to their employer on Form W-4). Judge Guy dismissed that case for lack of jurisdiction, warning him about the section 6673 penalty in an order dated March 23, 2018. In another post, we notedthat Mr. Ryskamp did the same thing with a LT16 notice (for those keeping score at home, still not a Notice of Determination), which Judge Gustafson quickly dismissed (though without the 6673 warning).

Now, Mr. Ryskamp filed a petition dated February 23, 2018, again attaching a letter related to withholding compliance, which he had requested from the Service. Judge Guy issued an Order to Show Cause why the case shouldn’t be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction; Mr. Ryskamp responded that the Court should regardless answer the following question: “What are a taxpayer’s substantive collection due process rights?”

Bad answer—or, question. Judge Guy dismisses the case for lack of jurisdiction. Additionally, he imposes a $1,000 penalty under section 6673, noting that Mr. Ryskamp was previously warned about the penalty four years earlier, and had been subject to two other case dismissals upon similar grounds. Judge Guy didn’t yet reference his earlier order regarding the Letter 2802C (perhaps because the Order to Show Cause was filed a day beforethe earlier order was issued).

What IRS notice will next reach the Tax Court as Mr. Ryskamp seeks to acquire jurisdiction of his substantive due process arguments? Time—and ever-increasing 6673 penalties—will likely tell. In the meantime, however, the Ninth Circuit will deal next with Mr. Ryskamp; he filed a Notice of Appeal on May 4. Mr. Ryskamp should take a look at section 6673(b)(3), which allows for the Service to assess and collect as a tax any sanctions he receives in a Court of Appeals.

Remanding for Changed Circumstances in a CDP Hearing Docket No. 1801-17 L, Rine v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Turning the tables, Judge Buch encounters a relatively sympathetic taxpayer in Rine, where the petitioner is mired in the collection of a Trust Fund Recovery Penalty under section 6672. In the CDP hearing, Mr. Rine rejected the Settlement Officer’s proposed $914 per month installment agreement, and upon issuance of a Notice of Determination sustaining the levy, petitioned the Tax Court.

While Mr. Rine actively participated in the CDP hearing—submitting a Form 433-A with expenses well in excess of his income—it seems the Settlement Officer substantially adjusted his figures. Ultimately, she concluded that Mr. Rine had at least $914 per month in disposable income, and that he’d need to sell some assets (stock, life insurance, and his 401(k)) before that could occur. He alleged that these assets had already been fully leveraged to finance his struggling former business.

Meanwhile, this business, which originally incurred the employment taxes at issue, had already entered into a bankruptcy plan to repay the liability (or more likely, some portion of the liability). Throughout this litigation, it paid $10,000 per month (which eventually mooted one of the tax periods before the Court in Pine, as it became paid in full). Mr. Rine argued that the liability was being paid under the bankruptcy plan, and so the IRS shouldn’t collect from him personally.

Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that there was no abuse of discretion in sustaining the levy, because Mr. Rine rejected the proposed Installment Agreement. In response, Mr. Rine repeated the arguments above, and noted that his wife had recently suffered from an accident, reducing her income; his own medical conditions had also deteriorated, increasing his expenses. Judge Buch holds that no abuse of discretion occurred, because the SO considered the information petitioner provided, verified applicable legal and administrative requirements, and engaged in the CDP balancing test.

But that was the extent of Judge Buch’s analysis. As such, I’m left with a number of questions: (1) how did the SO arrive at a $914 per month income surplus, where Mr. Rine’s submissions deviate so substantially? (2) Was her calculation valid? (3) What’s the total liability, and how quickly would the liability be paid under the bankruptcy plan alone? While the latter question is not determinative, it’d be helpful to have seen more analysis of whythe SO’s calculation was not arbitrary and capricious. From the facts alone (expenses far exceeding income; fully leveraged assets), a colorable case could be made that the decision was indeed arbitrary and capricious.

Nevertheless, Mr. Pine lives on to fight another day. Because of the changed circumstances for both Mr. and Mrs. Pine, Judge Buch remands the case to Appeals—though he notes that it’s up to Mr. Pine to provide evidence of his new situation.

Conflicting Evidence Finds Jurisdiction Docket Nos. 17507-14, 3156-13, Peabody v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Our next order comes from Judge Ashford, who denies petitioner’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Petitioners alleged that the Service issued their Notice of Deficiency too late, and therefore, had blown the assessment statute of limitations under section 6501(a).

Interestingly, this motion to dismiss was made pursuant to a timely filed petition; in the ordinary course, petitioners move to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction where the taxpayer never received the Notice of Deficiency. They then allege that the Service failed to send the Notice to their last known address. The Service responds with its own motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, but on the basis that the petition is untimely. Either way, the Tax Court finds a lack of jurisdiction, but the prevailing party obtains a judgment as to whythe Court lacks jurisdiction. If no proper Notice of Deficiency was issued, then the Service must respect that judgment and cannot thereafter proceed to assess or collect the underlying tax.

In contrast, the Peabodys received the Notice and timely filed a petition. Strike one against the success of their jurisdictional motion to dismiss.

The dispute here centers on whenthe Peabodys filed their 2009 income tax return. All agree they received an extension of time to file until October 15, 2010. If they filed the return on that date, then the statute under 6501(a) would have expired on October 15, 2013. A Notice of Deficiency issued on July 10, 2014 would be too late.

But was the return filed on October 15, 2010? The Service introduced a 2009 return that bore a stamped date of October 31, 2011, petitioners’ signatures, and handwritten dates of October 13, 2010.  The date on the paid preparer signature line was October 18, 2011. The envelope, which was sent to the IRS service center in Austin, bore a postmark date of October 28, 2011. Under these facts, a filing date of October 31, 2011 causes the statute to run on October 31, 2014—3 years after filing (note that the filing date for returns received after the deadline is the date of IRS receipt, not when the taxpayer mailed it).

Petitioners’ story is quite different. They argue that this purported “return” was not, in fact, their original 2009 federal income tax return. In their version, the return was prepared, picked up, signed, and mailed to the IRS campus in Fresno all on October 15, 2010. To support these allegations, they included an email, invoice, and filing instructions from their return preparer; a copy of the first two pages of their 2009 tax return; and sworn declarations from both Mr. Peabody and their tax return preparer.

The email seems to show that the return was sent from the preparer to Mr. Peabody on October 15, 2010. The return has a handwritten date of October 15, 2010 next to petitioners’ signatures, though the tax preparer did not sign. Mr. Peabody’s statement avers that he mailed the return the same day using the pre-addressed envelope from his return preparer. It also notes that, as to the Service’s return allegedly received on October 31, 2011, Mr. Peabody mailed a second return in response to a letter from the IRS, which requested a copy of the return; their preparer, according to them, printed it on October 18, 2011, and they sent it on its way. The preparer’s statement noted only that he prepared the return, and that the Peabodys picked it up on October 15, 2010 and mailed it.

This caused the IRS to pile on. Respondent submitted a sworn statement of the Revenue Agent who conducted the audit and a certified copy of Form 4340, Certificate of Assessments, Payments, and Other Specified Matters. The RA began the audit in August 2012, and requested a copy of the return, which was provided in early 2013 (thus, petitioners’ statement that he sent a copy of the return in 2011 seems suspect). At no time, according to the RA, did the Peabodys challenge the timing of the 2009 return filing. The Form 4340 showed an extension of time was filed, but that no return was filed until October 31, 2011.

Finally, Mr. Peabody replied with another sworn statement, noting that he was told during the audit that he was a victim of ID theft, which had caused his 2009, 2011, and 2012 returns to be rejected. He also noted that he believed the SOL had expired, justifying his refusal to extend the assessment statute for 2009.

Judge Ashford finds jurisdiction, and validates the Notice of Deficiency, relying on the self-serving nature of petitioners’ testimony, along with the unexplained discrepancies between the Service’s return (signed on October 13, 2010 and filed October 31, 2011) and the petitioners’ (signed on October 15, 2010 and filed on October 15, 2010). Further, the petitioners alleged in their petition that the return was filed on October 10, 2010. Judge Ashford also notes in a footnote that even if petitioner was an ID theft victim, this hurts his claim; the Service rejects returns that it believes are from an ID thief. (Interestingly, she also chides the IRS for assessing a failure-to-file penalty under section 6651(a) if the Peabodys are indeed ID theft victims). As such, the petitioners fail to carry their burden; weighed against the evidence the Service produced, especially the Form 4340, it appears more likely than not the only valid return is the one the IRS received on October 31, 2011. Indeed, the Form 4340 notes that the Service sent notices on July 25, 2011 and September 19, 2011, strongly suggesting the Service either rejected or didn’t receive the earlier return (and perhaps it’s that second notice to which petitioners responded with the “copy” of the return). This all puts the Service’s Notice of Deficiency well within the assessment statute.

Motion to Vacate for Bygone Refunds Docket Nos. 21366-14, 23139-12, 23113-12, Dollarhide v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

I was really hoping that with a name like “Dollarhide”, this would be a tax evasion case of some variety.

I mean, come on. Dollarhide? It’s just too good.

Alas, the Dollarhides seem like fairly honest taxpayers tripped up by the refund statute of limitations. We briefly covered these dockets in an earlier postfrom March. In that order, Judge Holmes granted the Service’s motion to enter a decision, finding that the refund statute of limitations barred the petitioners’ refund claim. Under section 6513(b), their withholding for 2006 was treated as paid on April 15, 2007; to make matters worse, it seems the Dollarhides paid excess Social Security tax—which likewise is claimable as a credit and treated as paid on April 15, 2007. But they filed their return on February 3, 2011, more than three years thereafter. Accordingly, the payment on April 15, 2007 was not claimable under section 6511(b)(2).

Now, the Dollarhides filed a motion to vacate or revise the decision under Rule 162. They argued that, had they known they couldn’t receive a refund, they would not have agreed to the stipulation of settled issues, upon which the Court based its decision. This document presumably includes a stipulation that the 2006 return was filed on February 3, 2011. The Tax Court rules here track the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; FRCP 60(b) governs motions for relief from judgment, and the Dollarhides attempt to shoehorn this matter into FRCP 60(b)(3), which allows relief for fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party.

That argument doesn’t fly with Judge Holmes. He notes that a mere failure to state something is not fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct, at least where the untold statement could have been discovered with a little diligence. The Dollarhides, according to Judge Holmes, could have indeed discovered a clear legal issue like this.

Secondly, the Dollarhides argue that they didn’t file a 2006 return, because the Revenue Agent handling the corporation’s audit requested their 2006 individual return. From the order, we can’t tell whetherthat return was indeed submitted to the RA. Judge Holmes notes that no individual audit occurred for 2006. If the Dollarhides are telling the truth, and the return was indeed submitted to the RA, I’m not sure it matters that no individual audit was conducted. See above, however, for difficulties in proving whenor howa return was filed.

Finally, the Dollarhides didn’t raise the overpayment in their petition. Because the stipulation of settled issues indeed “resolved all issues in the case” (the refund claim not being an issue), any misrepresentation to the IRS wasn’t material.

But even if the Dollarhides found their way past the barriers to granting a motion to vacate, they’d still have great difficulties on the merits. If the Dollarhides could have proven that the return was somehow filed beforethe IRS alleges (perhaps with the Revenue Agent), they might have had a shot. It doesn’t look like any such evidence was presented, either with the motion or elsewhere in this case. As such, Judge Holmes denies the motion and ends this case.

Borenstein Case Leaves Taxpayer Bare on Refund Claim

In Borenstein v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 10 (2017), the Tax Court addressed an issue of first impression regarding the time for filing a refund claim after filing a request for extension. The decision came out at the end of August, just as the fall semester was starting. The Harvard tax clinic filed an amicus brief in this case in support of the petitioner. The filing of the amicus brief did not help the petitioner as the Tax Court determined that she filed her return too late to obtain a refund. Because my clinic filed the amicus brief and because the opinion came out at a busy time of year, I hoped that someone else might write the blog post to avoid having one that was too biased. No one else has stepped up and perhaps that is the result of the somewhat metaphysical statutory language and result. So, we are a little slow in reporting on this narrow but important issue. She has now filed an appeal. So, a circuit court will get the opportunity to review the decision.

The Borenstein case is in many ways a follow up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Commissioner v. Lundy, 116 S. Ct. 647 (1996), where the Court held that the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction to find that the taxpayer was entitled to a refund when the Service issued a stat notice, the taxpayer filed a delinquent return claiming a refund and then petitioned the Tax Court. After finding for the Service, Congress in 1997 attempted to “fix” the problem by essentially  by permitting taxpayers in the Tax Court to recover the overpaid tax deemed paid on the return due if the notice of deficiency was issued within three years. The 1997 legislative fix does not help taxpayers who have not filed returns when the notice of deficiency is issued more than three years from the due date of the return. Now following Borenstein, unless reversed, the legislative overrule of Lundy does apply for a non-filer when the notice of deficiency is issued during the second year after the due date (with extensions) but prior to the third year. I doubt Congress thought about this odd situation when overruling Lundy.

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Ms. Borenstein made payments totaling $112,000 toward her 2012 tax liability. All of the payments were deemed made on April 15, 2013. Although she requested a six month extension to file her 2012 return, she did not file a return for 2012 by the extended due date of Oct. 15, 2013, or during the ensuing 22 months. On June 19, 2015, the IRS issued Ms. Borenstein a notice of deficiency for 2012.

On Aug. 29, 2015, shortly before filing her Tax Court petition, she filed a delinquent return for 2012, reporting a tax liability of $79,559 on which she sought a refund of $32,441. The IRS agreed that she was entitled to an overpayment of $32,441; however, the IRS took the position that she was not entitled to a refund under I.R.C. sec. 6511(a) and (b)(2)(B) because her tax payments were made outside the applicable “look back” period keyed to the date on which the notice of deficiency was mailed. Ms. Borenstein contended that she remained eligible for the three-year look back period specified in the final sentence of I.R.C. sec. 6512(b)(3) and to the refund she claimed.

Once again, in what is a theme that runs throughout the posts on our blog, the taxpayer faces dire consequences because of not filing the return on time. The IRS concedes her entitlement to the refund and contests only the timeliness of her request for the refund. While the Tax Court is normally associated with determining deficiencies, once it has jurisdiction because of the issuance of a notice of deficiency and the timely filing of a petition, the Tax Court has the ability to determine that a taxpayer has no deficiency and is instead due a refund. Section 6512(b)(1) provides in relevant part that:

“… if the Tax Court finds that there is no deficiency and further finds that the taxpayer has made an overpayment of income tax for the same taxable year, … in respect of which the Secretary determined the deficiency, or finds that there is a deficiency but that the taxpayer has made an overpayment of such tax, the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction to determine the amount of such overpayment, and such amount shall, when the decision of the Tax Court has become final, be credited or refunded to the taxpayer…”

The parties agreed that the relevant limitation on the refund is the limitation in section 6512(b)(3)(B) which provides that :

(3) Limit on amount of credit or refund – No such credit or refund shall be allowed or made of any portion of the tax unless the Tax Court determines as part of its decision that such portion was paid—

(B) within the period which would be applicable under section 6511(b)(2), (c), or (d), if on the date of the mailing of the notice of deficiency a claim had been filed (whether or not filed) stating the grounds upon which the Tax Court finds that there is an overpayment

Because section 6512(b)(3)(B) refers back to specific provisions of section 6511, it then becomes necessary to follow the code there. The Supreme Court engaged in this exercise two decades ago in the case of Commissioner v. Lundy, 516 U.S. 235, 242 (1996). The parties agreed that the relevant time period for the look back described in section 6511 is found in section 6511(b)(2) and not in (c) or (d). Section 6511(b)(2) provides that:

(2) Limit on amount of credit or refund

(A) Limit where claim filed within 3-year period – If the claim was filed by the taxpayer during the 3-year period prescribed in subsection (a), the amount of the credit or refund shall not exceed the portion of the tax paid within the period, immediately preceding the filing of the claim, equal to 3 years plus the period of any extension of time for filing the return. If the tax was required to be paid by means of a stamp, the amount of the credit or refund shall not exceed the portion of the tax paid within the 3 years immediately preceding the filing of the claim.

Petitioner’s brief summed up the situation as follows:

“Under respondent’s proposed reading of the statute, if the deficiency notice had been issued on or before April 15, 2015 (two years from the April 15, 2013, return due date), then petitioner would get her refund. If the notice had been issued after October 15, 2015, but before April 16, 2016, then petitioner would get her refund. But because her deficiency notice was issued during the six-month period between April 16, 2015, and October 15, 2015, respondent argues that a two-year look-back rule applies. Respondent’s reading of the 1997 amendment would mean that petitioner would not get her refund, whereas a similarly situated taxpayer who had not secured an extension of time to file would get a refund—a result that betrays the plain meaning of the statute, and, if not absurd, certainly is unreasonable. Consistent with the unambiguous legislative intent, the final flush language of section 6512(b)(3) should be interpreted so as to not inject filing extensions into the look-back period mechanism.”

Petitioner’s brief also contains a helpful chart showing the situation and the positions of the parties.

The Tax Court found that the hypothetical refund claim was filed on June 19, 2015, the date of the mailing of the notice of deficiency for 2012 and not August 29, 2015, the date of the filing of the delinquent tax return. Because the refund claim was filed before the return, the claim was not filed within three years of the time the return was filed. The Tax Court points out that this happens frequently with non-filers who will experience the issuance of the notice of deficiency before filing their return. If the taxpayer cannot satisfy the look back period of section 6511(b)(2)(A), which the Tax Court finds that Ms. Borenstein did not do, then the statute provides a look back period in section 6511(b)(2)(B). That period limits the taxpayers to a refund of money paid within two years of the claim. Here, that is zero, as the money was deemed paid on the original due date of the return on April 15, 2013.

The IRS argued for a plain language interpretation of section 6512(b)(3) interpreting the phrase “with extensions” to modify due date. Because this was an issue of first impression in the Tax Court, it rendered a precedential T.C. opinion while citing to some non-precedential and precedential opinions that suggested the result reached in this case.

The taxpayer, and the tax clinic, argued that the plain language reading of the statute suggested by the IRS created a result that did not make sense. If the notice of deficiency were issued prior to April 15, 2015 or after October 15, 2015 (and before April 15, 2016), the Tax Court would have jurisdiction to determine the refund. It lost that jurisdiction, according to the “plain language” if the notice of deficiency was issued during the six month window of time more than two years after the due date of the return and less than two and one half years. How could Congress have intended such a result?

In arguing that the IRS reading of the statute produced an absurd result, petitioner pointed to the legislative history:

“Here, the legislative history is unambiguous and precise. Congress intended to legislatively reverse Lundy and provide for a three-year look-back period for all taxpayers, even if a notice of deficiency is issued within three years from the initial due date of a return. The relevant legislative record provides:

In Commissioner v. Lundy, 116 S. Ct. 647 (1996), the taxpayer had not filed a return, but received a notice of deficiency within 3 years after the date the return was due and challenged the proposed deficiency in Tax Court. The Supreme Court held that the taxpayer could not recover overpayments attributable to withholding during the tax year, because no return was filed and the 2-year “look back” rule applied. Since over withheld amounts are deemed paid as of the date the taxpayer’s return was first due (i.e., more than 2 years before the notice of deficiency was issued), such overpayments could not be recovered. By contrast, if the same taxpayer had filed a return on the date the notice of deficiency was issued, and then claimed a refund, the 3-year “look back” rule would apply, and the taxpayer could have obtained a refund of the overwithheld amounts.
* * *
The House bill permits taxpayers who initially fail to file a return, but who receive a notice of deficiency and file suit to contest it in Tax Court during the third year after the return due date, to obtain a refund of excessive amounts paid within the 3-year period prior to the date of the deficiency notice.
H. Conf. Rept. 105-220, at 701 (1997), 1997-4 C.B. (Vol. 2) 1456, 2171.

There is nothing vague or confusing about the legislative history. Congress intended to treat all nonfiling taxpayers the same during the three years after the initial due date of their tax returns (regardless of whether a Tax Court petition was filed).”

Congress, undoubtedly, did not expect this result; however, sometimes the statutory language it chooses produces unexpected results. Maybe the circuit court will read the language to produce a result that fits what Congress appears to have intended or perhaps Ms. Borenstein will be another taxpayer who has found a way, by filing her return late, to lose a refund to which she would have been entitled had she filed on time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6511(h) Case Takes a New Turn

We have reported before, here and here, about the case of Hoff Stauffer, Administrator of the Estate of Carlton Stauffer v. IRS, in which the taxpayer, the estate of Carl Stauffer, seeks to obtain a refund for the amount of tax overpaid by a 90 year old individual who failed to timely request the refund in the declining years of his life. Mr. Stauffer was under the long term care of a psychologist who wrote an expert opinion on why Mr. Stauffer’s condition caused him to meet the criteria for financial disability, but the IRS refused to consider this opinion since psychologists are not listed as the type of medical professionals who can offer an opinion for purposes of the statute according to the Revenue Procedure.

The IRS moved to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because the estate made its request for refund based on IRC 6511(h) but did not use the type of medical professional to support its request required by Rev. Proc. 99-21. In the opinion of both the magistrate judge and the district judge in Boston, the use of the precise medical professional required by the Revenue Procedure was not necessary and the court denied the IRS motion to dismiss.

Tom Crice, who represents the estate, has now filed a motion seeking to enjoin the IRS from arguing in any case that a taxpayer seeking a refund under 6511(h) must use the type of medical professional prescribed by the Revenue Procedure. This will be an interesting case to watch. I also note that separate from what is happening in this case, the government has published a request for comments on Rev. Proc. 99-21. If you have any experience with this provision and thoughts on how the IRS might improve the process, consider sending in a comment to assist the IRS in thinking about how to administer this provision. This is the first opportunity of which I am aware to formally comment on this procedure, which went into effect almost 20 years ago with no public comments.

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Just because it lost the motion to dismiss did not mean that the IRS needed to or would concede that the estate was entitled to the refund and the case has continued. In denying its motion to dismiss, the district court wrote that the basis in the Revenue Procedure for the use of only the type of medical professional designated by the IRS seemed arbitrary. Specifically, the court stated:

“Because the government has offered no evidence that the IRS had a reason that was not arbitrary for excluding psychologists from the category of professionals qualified to support a claimant’s financial disability, the court is denying the motion to dismiss.”

The court granted Defendant leave to present at summary judgment any evidence it might have “that the IRS considered reasonably obvious alternatives in excluding psychologists from the definition of “physicians” in the Revenue Procedure. On October 27, 2017, Defendant submitted to the Court its statement that “the United States reports that it does not presently have evidence on what alternatives that the IRS considered in excluding psychologist from the definition of “physicians” in Revenue Procedure 99-21 other than the rule itself.”

The IRS has stopped arguing that the opinion of the psychologists cannot be considered and will now argue that the opinion is not supported. The estate here is fortunate that Mr. Stauffer was seeing a professional for many years before his death and that this professional was in the position to write an expert opinion from personal knowledge and observation of his patient. So many individuals suffering from the type of cognitive decline that could form the basis for 6511(h) relief are not seeing professionals who can write an opinion based on personal observation. The lack of personal observation makes medical professionals, no matter what their professional designation, uncomfortable opining on the scope of a taxpayer’s cognitive decline in a manner that suits the criteria of the revenue ruling. Now that the IRS no longer contests the validity of the opinion of the psychologists, the ability of the taxpayer to succeed in this case has increased significantly. The IRS will have the same difficulty many taxpayers face in finding an expert. Its case will be primarily one of trying to punch holes in taxpayer’s expert rather than having a report of its own.

While I am rooting for Tom in his effort to enjoin the IRS from insisting on a specific type of medical professional as a basis for securing subject matter jurisdiction, I am most interested in seeing the IRS produce a rule that will work for it and for taxpayers in the situation of Mr. Stauffer, Mr. McGill (the decedent involved in Brockamp) and Ms. Parsons (the decedent involved in Webb).  The IRS fears a flood of long overdue refund claims and taxpayers fear an inability to provide expert proof of the basis for the late claim.

In my clinic, the students regularly marvel at our clients who fail to file their returns and often leave money on the table as a result. A tiny fraction of these clients may meet the concerns Congress sought to address in passing 6511(h) but most are just professional or semi-professional procrastinators. On the other hand, taxpayers like Mr. Stauffer and Mr. McGill who have a lifetime of timely filing should receive some recognition of that in the process similar to the reasoning behind first time abatement of penalties but with more stringent proof of the longstanding nature of compliance.

The combination of long-standing compliance coupled with cognitive decline because of age or because of other factors like disease or physical injury should produce the type of situation that allows for a refund of money that everyone agrees belongs to the taxpayer but for the delay in requesting it. I also do not mean to suggest that only people with perfect filing histories prior to the onset of financial disability should have the time for filing a refund claim tolled, but rather that a stellar filing history provides its own proof of the aberration of the late filed claim and likely reason therefore.

The rule should build upon the same principles as equitable tolling. It should not open the floodgates for late refunds, but it should not be so narrow that it causes the IRS to seek to knock out taxpayers who do not use the right kind of medical professional or submit the perfect proof package in the first instance. The people who suffer from financial disability will struggle to put together the perfect package for the IRS. Even with professional assistance, the ability to gather the right kind of information can be quite difficult and some patience on the part of the IRS and the court is necessary because of the difficulties of the person seeking the relief.

In her 2013 Annual Report, the National Taxpayer Advocate made a legislative recommendation concerning section 6511(h) and suggesting that Congress broaden the language.  The legislative recommendation contains an excellent and detailed discussion of the issue.  In particular, one of the concerns she addressed in the report is whether the language of the statute using the words “medically determinable physical or mental impairment” limits the relief to taxpayers who have obtained an opinion from a medical doctor as opposed to another type of medical professional. I know that the IRS is concerned about that as it looks at revising Rev. Proc. 99-21.  The Harvard clinic plans to put its thoughts together on this subject in the form of a comment to assist the IRS in reconsidering it guidance and litigation strategy. Please join us in commenting if you have thoughts on this subject.

 

Getting a Double Penalty Benefit or Getting to the Right Result

It’s easy to feel sorry for the people who invested in Son of Boss tax shelters. They really wanted to pay the right amount of taxes but were hoodwinked into investing into tax shelters that did not turn out like they hoped causing them to have significant problems with the IRS that they never intended.

If that’s your take on Son of Boss investors, you will love a case that came out earlier this summer. If that’s not your take, you might still find the situation amusing. I think the IRS found the situation just slightly less amusing than paying out attorney’s fees to tax shelter promoter BASR. In Ervin v. United States, the district court found that investors in a Son of Boss shelter were entitled to a refund of penalties paid to the IRS even though they recovered the penalties from their tax advisors who brought them into the tax shelter in the first place. How did we get there?

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The investors brought a suit against the IRS to obtain a refund of the valuation misstatement penalty and penalty interest payments. They convinced a jury of their peers that they had reasonable cause for the tax positions they took. Now, they want the IRS to give them a refund of the penalties they paid.

In the meantime, the investors sued some of their tax advisors – BDO Seidman and Curtis Mallet – to recover the penalties asserted against them for investing in the Son of Boss shelter and they won that suit also. It came out in the tax refund suit that they had won the suit against their advisors and recovered a substantial amount of money. The IRS argued that it should not have to refund the penalties and interest to them because the recovery that the investors received from their advisors was intended to pay for the penalty. If the investors got to keep the recovery and did not have to pay the penalty, the investors would receive a windfall. The IRS argued that it should keep the money the investors paid to it because they were already made whole and the payments by the advisors represented the true payments of the penalties. The investors argued that they should receive the entire refund despite the private settlement. They also argued that the IRS does not have a claim of right with respect to the penalty payments.

The Court rejected the argument made by the IRS and rejected it without giving the IRS any further discovery. It finds that the investors did not fail to disclose a matter “bearing on the nature and extent of injuries suffered.” The suit was about their liability for penalties and the private suit against their advisors really had nothing to do with it. The Court said that it could not find a single instance in which a court has excused the IRS from its obligation to repay the improperly assessed and collected tax in a refund suit and ordered the IRS to pay here.

This case brings up an issue that Steve and I have debated before and he has written about. When a taxpayer argues reasonable cause based on the advice of tax advisor, the case is in many ways the malpractice case involving the advisor. If the taxpayer succeeds in fending off the penalty, maybe the taxpayer does not pursue the advisor. So, a victory for the taxpayer may be an economic victory for the party who caused the problem just as much for the taxpayer.

If taxpayers are going to defend against the IRS and sue their advisor in situations in which they can win both cases because they were reasonable in relying on the advisor and the advisor did give bad advice, maybe this feels bad to the IRS but it puts the economic loss in the right place, or maybe it misallocates the placement of the economic loss which is why the IRS was complaining.

The advisor who gives the bad advice should be liable and pay for the damages caused by the bad advice. The bad advice has really harmed both the IRS and the taxpayer. If the taxpayer pays the right amount of tax after the audit, the IRS is whole from the perspective of collecting the correct amount of tax but has still had to expend effort to collect that tax instead of having the self-reporting system work as it should. If the taxpayer pays the correct amount of tax in the end, should the taxpayer be freed from paying the advisor who caused the taxpayer to incur the problem in the first place? The taxpayer may have had to pay more money to fight with the IRS about the correct amount of tax and certainly did not get the value bargained for.

In cases where the taxpayer avoids an otherwise appropriate penalty because the taxpayer reasonably relied upon the advisor, should the system penalize the advisor so that the IRS recovers something akin to the appropriate penalty and so that the advisor feels the pain of causing the problem while also allowing the taxpayer to recover from the advisor at least the cost of the original bad advice plus perhaps the cost of the advice to fix the problem created? The IRS is right to complain here, in the sense that some penalty payment seems appropriate. It also seems right to allow the taxpayer to avoid paying the penalty to the IRS where the taxpayer reasonably relied on the advice of a professional and to allow the taxpayer to recover the cost the taxpayer paid for the bad advice. Maybe we should look at recasting the penalty scheme to bring all of the players to the table. Where I am particularly bothered, the advisor is continuing to represent the taxpayer in the reasonable cause litigation and I felt that the advisor was using the taxpayer’s more sympathetic case as a shield for the advisors’ less sympathetic one.

 

Prisoners Filing Fraudulent Returns and the Efforts to Detect It

On July 20, 2017, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued its third report in the past several years on the topic of tax fraud perpetrated by prisoners and the efforts to detect and stop it.  As with most TIGTA reports this one bears the catchy title “Actions Need to be Taken to Ensure Compliance with Prisoner Reporting Requirements and Improve Identification of Prisoner Returns.”  While TIGTA found a number of items the IRS needed to improve because that’s its job, I found that the IRS had made significant improvements in this area due to increased effort and legislative assistance.  I last wrote about this issue on April 24, 2015 following the last TIGTA report.

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Prisoners have a reputation for using the tax system to get easy money.  The increase in the use of refundable credits put a target on the back of the IRS as a place to pick up money simply by filing a tax return.  Since tax returns can be filed from prison, using the tax system to gain access to money makes sense for prisoners.  When Congress created the first time homebuyer credit and the refundable adoption credit, it created very attractive targets for the type of fraudulent activity by prisoners.

In this report, TIGTA continues to find problems with the way the IRS administers the program for catching prisoners but the data also shows that the IRS has made significant strides using the relatively new legislation as well as its computers.  The process of seeking prisoner fraud looks very much like the other processes the IRS uses to detect mistakes in individual tax returns.  It relies heavily on matching information with computers rather than people and applying filters.  The ability to tackle the problem without devoting much people power allows the IRS to succeed here in a time of reduced resources.  While this program does not bring in revenue, the ability to keep improper refunds from going out the door is at least as important as putting effort into bringing in money.

One of the legislative changes requires prisons to provide the IRS with the Social Security Numbers of inmates.  The IRS then puts a prisoner indicator on the account of that SSN.  If someone is in prison, we should not expect that person to have significant income, though of course exceptions exist, and we should not expect that person to buy a home, adopt a child or engage in other activities that might trigger a refundable credit.  Having the information from the prisons, allows the IRS to do some immediate filtering that can catch improper claims.

Dealing with prisoner fraud also implicates the broader area of identity theft.  The IRS appears to have made significant strides in attacking ID theft in the past two years and that success has an impact on prisoner fraud since fraudulent returns filed by prisoners will more often than not involve the use of stolen or misused identification.

There is more than one program underway to stop prisoner refund fraud.  In addition to getting the SSNs of prisoners and loading it into the IRS database, prisons are now more carefully monitoring prisoner communication looking for tax fraud.  When a prison identifies a communication as one which might involve tax fraud, it notifies the IRS through the “Blue Bag Program.”  While the amount of correspondence sent to the IRS using this program in 2016 was slightly under 1,000, the existence of the program must serve as a deterrent.  This program would seem to play to a strong suit of prisons the way data matching plays to a strong suit of the IRS.

The prison program did not seem to work as well as one might hope in addressing the cases in which the IRS detects fraud by a prisoner.  The report indicates that the IRS might stop the fraud but little is done to punish the prisoner who engaged in the fraud even though the prisoner is known.  The IRS is not going to be able to prosecute prisoners unless they engage in a fairly wide ranging fraudulent effort just because of the limitations on its resources.  My impression from the report was that when the IRS provided information to the prisons about specific tax fraud activity but that information did not necessarily result in parole denial or other actions that could occur without criminal tax prosecution.  While the report did not discuss this in depth, it would seem that tailoring disclosure laws to allow the IRS to provide prisons with detailed information about an incidence of tax fraud and making that information a part of probation denial and other punishments within prison system without requiring criminal tax prosecution would be a way to strongly deter prisoner fraud for prisoners with hope of release or of the ability to use computers or other forms of communication.

TIGTA found that the IRS had not created a master list of all prisons.  Most of the prisons the IRS seemed not to be getting information from were part of the state and local system.  I would be interested in an analysis of which prisons or which types of prisons are most likely to generate tax fraud.  It would seem to state prisons incarcerating individuals for crimes of violence would be much less likely than federal prisons with more white collar crime and the knowledge base for creating the type of scheme necessary for refund fraud but my thinking about this could be entirely wrong.  Still, a profile of the likely prisoner to commit tax fraud would seem like something useful to create and to target efforts on those prisons or those prisoners where the likely criminals reside.

Since few tax practitioners represent incarcerated individuals, this report may provide little practical information.  I see it as a success story for IRS and Congress at a time when there are not enough success stories about legislative or administrative efforts to fix a problem.  Maybe lessons can be learned from the efforts to stop prisoner fraud and applied to the tax gap generally.  We know where the big holes are.

 

Two Years Later: Form 1042-S Frozen Refunds

We welcome back a former student of Les and mine, Sonya Miller, who is now an Assistant Professor-in-Residence at the William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  She also directs the brand new Russell M. Rosenblum Tax Clinic Program serving low income taxpayers in the Las Vegas area.  Sonya wrote one of the most popular posts we have had at PT about the IRS program directed at nonresidents and their requests for refunds.  In today’s post she updates us on the program.  The program seems to be a situation in which someone saw abuse and the IRS chose a blunt an instrument to combat that abuse.  In doing so it caught a lot of people in its net that did not belong there, spent more of its own resources than necessary and paid out several million dollars in interest.  The program may have had successes that we do not chronicle because we do not know about them.  Perhaps we will learn about them in some future TIGTA audit.  Keith

Around this time in 2015, while I was directing the Federal Tax Clinic at the University of South Dakota School of Law, it came to the clinic’s attention that the Service was freezing refunds from Form 1042-S withholding for nonresident students at the University. The clinic and I wrote about the issue in Procedurally Taxing here. At that time, dealing with the Service to represent these taxpayers was extremely frustrating; it was like talking to a brick wall. Repeated phone calls to the practitioner priority line yielded virtually no information. We contacted the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) for assistance and still it was slow going. This is likely because, as the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) noted in her Fiscal Year 2016 Objectives Report to Congress, the Service directed taxpayers to contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) for assistance but had not provided TAS with any specific procedures or protocols that could be followed to assist these taxpayers. Indeed, in her Fiscal Year 2017 Objectives Report to Congress, the NTA notes that the Service was no more forthcoming with TAS than it was with other third parties: “The National Taxpayer Advocate and her staff raised concerns about the matching program and the student Form 1042-S issues. These concerns, however, were repeatedly dismissed by the IRS officials charged with operating the program.” On behalf of affected taxpayers, TAS issued mass Operation Assistance Requests and developed Taxpayer Assistant Orders.

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The NTA further noted in her report the unfair burden the Service placed on compliant nonresident taxpayers in an attempt to catch a few bad actors, while leaving compliant taxpayers with virtually no recourse for proving that they were entitled to the frozen refunds. Indeed, this was our experience at the South Dakota clinic. Early on in representing our student taxpayers, we contacted the University’s comptroller and received proof that the University had in fact withheld taxes from the students and had turned the money over to the Service. Still, the Service refused to release the refunds. It took so long to get the refunds released that I cannot be sure that it was our representation of the students that caused the Service to finally release the refunds. By the time the students contacted us, the refunds from their 2014 Forms 1040NR had been frozen for five months or more. Some of the students waited over a year to receive their refunds.

To be fair to the Service, it was trying to prevent fraud. Even so, no such burden exists for domestic taxpayers whose withholding agents fail to turn over withholdings. When an employer fails to turn over payroll tax to the Service, domestic taxpayers are still entitled to receive a refund from any over withheld taxes. Moreover, the Service’s means (trying to match the information in each and every Form 1042-S reported by withholding agents to each and every Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ filed by taxpayers) to reach the end of preventing fraud, was a blunder, which the Service recognizes in hindsight. However, the Service does attempt to place more of the burden on withholding agents by disincentivizing bad behavior. Withholding agents face hefty penalties if they fail to meet the requirement to file Forms 1042-S. They also face penalties for failing to furnish correct Forms 1042-S to recipients. Failing to ensure that Forms 1042-S reported to the Service exactly match the forms provided to the taxpayer is one common mistake that withholding agents make. Treasury Regulation 1.1461-1(h) lists the code sections for all of the penalties to which withholding agents may be subject.

However, notwithstanding its limited resources, as the NTA highlights, the Service could always do more to use its resources effectively.  In her Fiscal Year 2017 Report to Congress, the NTA states that the Service’s verification process for refunds based on Forms 1042-S “has not only been costly for taxpayers, but for the IRS, which has estimated that an extension of the freezes through early 2016 would generate an interest expense of over $4 million.” She further states that the Service could have maximized its resources had it “simply used technology already developed and pre-tested in the domestic withholding context” rather than using a separate, systemic matching program.

In an effort to “try harder and do better,” it has been reported (full text on file with the author) that the Service will no longer systemically freeze all refunds based on Forms 1042-S and will manually review all frozen refunds. The service describes its matching program in IRM 21.8.1.11.14.2. Unfortunately, we the people are not privy to most of the information in this IRM—the Service has heavily redacted it. It seems that the Service redacts information for fear that people will use the information to game the system. So, if I had to hazard a guess, in line with the de minimis exception in IRS Notice 2015-10, the redacted information probably says something about which refunds will be systemically frozen and which will not and that there’s a threshold amount to make this decision. Nevertheless, in IRM 21.8.1.11.14.3, the Service does set out what the matching program looks for in determining a good match. Where refunds are frozen, the freeze will systemically release after a little over five months. Also, IRM 21.8.1.1.13, informs IRS employees that nonresident taxpayers have rights under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which means that the Service cannot just keep nonresident taxpayers in the dark regarding the status of their refund claims. Change has been somewhat slow but the Service has taken responsibility for its transgressions and appears to be moving in the right direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starr v US and The Power to Confer Discretionary Treaty Benefits: Part 1

It is not often that the courts wrestle with the application of discretionary treaty provisions. Earlier this month, in Starr International v US , a DC federal district court found that the Competent Authority did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in denying discretionary relief under the U.S.-Swiss Treaty. In today’s post, I will  discuss the jurisdictional battle that led to last week’s opinion. I will follow up in Part 2 with a discussion as to the court’s application of the APA to the treaty claims.

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In 2015, in District Court Hands IRS Loss in its Bid to Exclude Discretionary Treaty Benefits From Judicial Review I discussed the fight between The Starr International Group and the IRS over Starr’s efforts to get the benefits of discretionary treaty relief that would have reduced US withholding on AIG dividends. Much of the post discussed the government’s unsuccessful efforts to convince the court that the decision was not subject to court review. That opinion, and my post, discusses why there is a strong presumption against unfettered agency discretion.

Following that setback, the government asked the court to reconsider. In a 2016 opinion, the government did get a victory, of sorts. Despite reaffirming its earlier conclusion about the court’s power to review the IRS’s decision to not grant discretionary treaty relief, the District Court held that separation of powers principles meant that it could not order a monetary refund for Starr even if it felt that the US competent authority improperly applied that the anti-treaty shopping provisions of the US –Swiss tax treaty.

The 2016 opinion explored the  limits of the court’s powers. In so doing, it discusses how in treaties there is a consultation process between the contracting states following one state’s Competent Authority determination that a party is entitled to discretionary treaty relief.  That consultation is an executive branch function. As such, the 2016 opinion concludes that the courts are unable  to mandate that a party is entitled to receive a refund based on a claim that there was an improper application of a discretionary tax treaty provision. On that point, the opinion was clear:

To determine that Starr is entitled to a certain sum of benefits, the Court would be forced to step into the shoes of the IRS and its Swiss counterparts and effectively preordain the outcome of any consultation between the two. This a court may not do.

Yet in that 2016 development the district court concluded that Starr could bring a claim under the APA seeking to set aside the U.S Competent Authority’s determination and that if Starr “prevailed on that claim, [it] would be entitled … to have the matter remanded to the U.S. Competent Authority for further action” consistent with the Court’s opinion.

The 2016 opinion nicely summarizes how the APA provided jurisdiction over Starr’s dispute:

The APA makes “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court … subject to judicial review.” 5 U.S.C. § 704. The government concedes that the Competent Authority’s decision constitutes final agency action. And if the Court were to hold that Starr could not challenge the decision through a claim brought under the tax-refund statute, then no other adequate remedy would exist, and review under the APA would be proper. Cf. Cohen v. United States, 650 F.3d 717, 736 [108 AFTR 2d 2011-5046] (D.C. Cir. 2011) (en banc) (directing the district court to consider the merits of an APA claim against the IRS when plaintiffs had “no other adequate remedy at law”).

In allowing Starr to bring a claim under the APA, the 2016 opinion acknowledged that Starr’s ultimate goal was a refund, not just an academic finding that the Competent Authority acted improperly. Yet, the opinion paved the way for the Starr Company to amend its complaint to bring the APA claims and suggested that such a finding might in fact lead to a refund (or at least a consultation about a refund):

As the Court has explained, however, monetary relief of any sort is unavailable to Starr without improper judicial intervention into the consultation process….

The Court declines to assume, however, that Starr would forgo an opportunity simply to have the Competent Authority’s decision set aside as arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion. Indeed, as the government recognizes, remanding to the agency for further consideration is the norm when a court sets aside an agency’s action. And this relief is not illusory. Regardless of whether the Court possesses the authority to order the IRS to engage in consultation, counsel for the IRS has represented—and the Court would fully expect—that the IRS would not decline to consult with the Swiss in the event that the Court found that the IRS abused its discretion and remanded to the IRS, and the IRS otherwise preliminarily determined that Starr qualified for treaty benefits. Hr’g Tr., ECF No. 34, 42:8-18. The Court thus will not deprive Starr of the opportunity to seek this form of relief under the APA. It will grant Starr leave to amend its complaint to bring such a claim.

Starr dutifully amended its complaint to include APA claims. This led the district court in an opinion earlier this month to apply the APA to the Competent Authority’s decision to deny treat benefits. In Part 2 of this post, I will discuss the court’s analysis as to why under the APA the Competent Authority did not act improperly in finding that the discretionary treaty benefits did not apply to reduce withholding on the AIG dividends.