The Taxpayer First Act

On March 26, 2018, the House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight published a discussion draft entitled “The Taxpayer First Act.” Unlike the recent tax reform legislation, the Act was jointly released by Chairman Lynn Jenkins and Ranking Member John Lewis of this subcommittee in a bipartisan effort to reform tax procedure. It’s nice to see that tax procedure can bring the parties together. The publication of the draft came with an invitation to submit comments and a statement that “Comments would be most helpful if received by April 6, 2018.” That’s a pretty short turnaround time; however the legislation came out just as my clinic class turned to policy. Each semester I try to end with a focus on the policy issues raised by the individual cases on which the students have worked. Writing proposed legislative solutions to policy issues we had encountered seemed like a good way to focus on policy given the invitation from the subcommittee. So, we tried our hand at commenting on the legislation and offering legislative proposals in the tax procedure area that might create a better tax system for the low-income taxpayers we represent. Thanks to Toby Merrill, Sean Akins and Carl Smith who assisted on this project.  On April 6, 2018, the clinic submitted comments to the subcommittee.

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The proposed Act has six parts roughly described as: 1) Independent Appeals; 2) Improved Service; 3) Sensible Enforcement; 4) Cyber Security; 5) Modernization and 6) Tax Court. The Clinic did not comment on all of the proposals. You can read the 49-page document submitted by the Clinic if you want the details, but I will give you a thumbnail sketch here.

Appeals

The subcommittee was concerned about the independence of Appeals. It almost seemed as if much of the concern stemmed from the issues raised in the ongoing Facebook litigation, about which we have blogged before here and here. Low-income taxpayers do not face the same issues of Appeals independence that large corporate taxpayers face. No one in IRS compliance or in Chief Counsel attempts to influence Appeals on an individual case involving a low-income taxpayer because no one at the IRS has worked their case. Their cases are worked in a group setting at correspondence exam. So, the concerns about the independence of Appeals expressed by the subcommittee’s proposal are not concerns that relate to the issues facing low-income taxpayers.

Low-income taxpayers would, however, like the same opportunity as their higher end counterparts to meet with an Appeals officer to discuss their case when a face-to-face meeting would be appropriate. The Appeals employees who work in local offices typically have worked with the IRS for some time and have achieved high grade levels. Appeals does not want these highly-graded employees to spend time working on cases involving low-income taxpayers. Appeals employees with the lower grades generally reside in the work ghettos generally known as service centers. Because of their location, these employees are not accessible to taxpayers. As a result, low-income taxpayers who do not have an individual assigned to their case as they go through the examination process get assigned to someone they never meet face to face and who may work in a community that is across the country creating time zone and community understanding issues. The Clinic suggested that the concerns of low-income taxpayers with Appeals will not be resolved by creating a more independent Appeals but a more accessible one.

Customer Service

Similar to the problem with Appeals, one of the big issues for low-income taxpayers is access to service. We know that Service is the last name of the IRS but it does not have to be the last aspect of focus. The Clinic identified issues that could improve the ability of taxpayers to deal with tax problems. It praised the subcommittee suggestion allowing IRS employees to make referrals to clinics rather than simply passing out a publication. It suggested making eligibility for clinics indexed to local cost of living so that clinics servicing high cost of living areas did not need to turn away individuals living a marginal lifestyle but one slightly above the national average for qualification. Specifically, the Clinic suggested changing the criteria for requiring entities forgiving debt to allow the non-issuance of Form 1099-C in instances of disputed debt. Sending out tens of thousands of Form 1099-C to individuals, usually low-income individuals, relieved of debt in the settlement of a lawsuit disputing that debt causes havoc for the individuals and for the system. This issue is currently playing out in the for-profit school industry where numerous state attorney generals and private parties have challenged the business model and practices of this industry to assist individuals with high debt and little meaningful education to show for it.

The Clinic also suggested changing the litigation path of assessable penalties so that taxpayers do not face insurmountable obstacles in seeking to litigate their dispute with the IRS because of the Flora rule. It suggested changing and clarifying the operation of the I.R.C. section 32(k) penalty for wrongfully claiming the earned income tax credit, arguing that the current penalty operates more like a penalty imposed in the welfare context rather than one imposed by the tax code which causes the IRS trouble is properly administering the penalty. The Clinic also suggested clarification of the provisions regarding taxation of attorney’s fees so that the fees do not create a barrier for low-income individuals seeking remedies for consumer law violations and other similar provisions where the statutory remedy provides a small recovery amount for the individual coupled with statutory attorney’s fees that could trigger tax to the individual in excess of the award amount, that can trigger loss of other public benefits because of the phantom income, and that creates a system of double taxation of the individual and the attorney.

Tax Court

The subcommittee proposals would rename court orders and rename the special trial judges to bring the names more into line with other federal courts. The Clinic made proposals seeking to open up the Tax Court both from a jurisdictional and information perspective. Consistent with the litigation the Clinic has pursued regarding the jurisdiction of the Tax Court, the Clinic suggests that Congress make clear it did not intend the time periods for filing a petition in Tax Court to be jurisdictional. Regarding information availability, the Clinic proposes that all notices giving a taxpayer the right to petition the Tax Court contain the last date for filing the petition, as the notices of deficiency do after the 1998 amendment regarding those notices. Additionally, the Clinic has some suggestions on accessing the Tax Court’s records and other matters.

Conclusion

Although it is now past the requested deadline set by the subcommittee for comments on its legislation, if you agree with any of the proposals of the Clinic, you might consider submitting comments yourself. The portal for sending comments is irsreform@mail.house.gov. Happy commenting.

Designated Orders: 3/19/18 to 3/23/18

Guest blogger William Schmidt from Legal Services of Kansas brings us the designated order post from two weeks ago as we catch up on this feature. The Tax Court designated a high number of order during this week including a couple concerning an individual on whom we have posted previously with respect to the frivolous return penalty. The Kestin case demonstrates the lengths to which the Court goes to try to protect pro se petitioners and assist them in understanding the process. Keith

For the week of March 19 to 23, there were 10 designated orders from the Tax Court. The first order lifted temporary seals and denied petitioner’s motion for protective order in order to seal public records (order here). In the second, petitioner’s protests, including that parts of Pennsylvania were declared a federal disaster area, were in vain (order here). The third order details fallout from the Affordable Care Act – how a woman’s marriage took her over income for the premium tax credit and thus she had to repay it (order and decision here).

Miscellaneous Short Items

  • Numbered Paragraphs from IRS – Docket No. 18254-17 L, Gwendolyn L. Kestin v. C.I.R. (Order here). In this order, the IRS filed a motion for summary judgment with a supporting memorandum that has a 9-page statement of facts consisting of unnumbered paragraphs. To assist the unrepresented petitioner, the Tax Court ordered the IRS to supplement the motion with a statement of facts with numbered paragraphs. The Court instructed Ms. Kestin on responding to the IRS motion for summary judgment and attached a copy of the Tax Court webite’s Q&A on “What is a summary judgment? How should I respond to one?”
  • Three Year Time Limit – Docket No. 23113-12, Frank W. Dollarhide & Michelle D. Dollarhide v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision here). This order is an illustration of the 3-year limitation on refunds. While the Dollarhides addressed their tax liability when they filed their 2006 tax return in 2011, they were outside the three-year time limit to receive the tax refund they would have been due had they filed a timely tax return.
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Correct Petition Filing Brings Tax Court Jurisdiction

  • Docket No. 380-18, John Henry Ryskamp v. C.I.R. (Order of Dismissal for Lack of Jurisdiction here). Mr. Ryskamp’s 2018 case is dismissed because he filed the petition based on an IRS Letter 2802C where the petitioner wrote “Notice of Determination” rather than an official IRS Notice of Determination. Mr. Ryskamp cites his own 2015 case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to no avail. In fact, the Court notes his 2016 case (7383-16) was also a petition based on a Letter 2802C. While referencing the ability to penalize him a penalty up to $25,000, the Court does not impose a penalty but warns that the Court will strongly consider imposing a penalty if he returns with similar arguments.
  • Docket No. 23808-17 L, John Henry Ryskamp v. C.I.R. (Order and Order of Dismissal for Lack of Jurisdiction here). In the same week, there is a designated order for Mr. Ryskamp’s 2017 Tax Court case. In the background, the Court elaborates on the 2015 case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which was an affirmation of a 2011 Tax Court order and decision which granted summary judgment for the IRS on a notice of deficiency for tax years 2003 to 2006, 2008, and 2009. By the way, Mr. Ryskamp’s petition for writ of certiorari was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, making the Tax Court decision in that matter final. For this case, Mr. Ryskamp filed a petition based off a Letter 4473C again concerning the 2003 tax year. Since the petition was not based off a proper notice of deficiency, the Court granted the IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. This time, there was no mention of a penalty for the litigious Mr. Ryskamp.
  • Docket No. 9417-17, Fletcher Hyler v. C.I.R. (Order of Dismissal for Lack of Jurisdiction here). In a similar vein, this designated order tells how petitioner filed a petition based on a math error notice for 2015. Since it was not based off a notice of deficiency, the Court granted the IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

Takeaway: It is necessary for a petitioner to file the petition based off a valid notice of deficiency or based on another valid issue. A petitioner cannot pick a random mailing from the IRS and file a petition with Tax Court. When a petitioner does, the Tax Court will not have jurisdiction and shall have to dismiss the case (with potential penalties for petitioners like Mr. Ryskamp).

Social Security Hardship for Petitioner

Docket No. 16269-16SL, Bonnie Lou Black v. C.I.R. (Order and Decision here).

In this case, the procedural issues are straightforward. Ms. Black sought review of a notice of intent to levy for her 2012 tax deficiency. Ms. Black did not submit financial information, offer any collection alternatives or agree to a payment plan. Since that was the case, the Tax Court granted the IRS motion for summary judgment.

An issue in the case, though, is that the IRS issued an erroneous CP-22A balance due notice for 2011 stating that $8,384.18 was due to them. The next month, the IRS corrected the error by issuing a CP-21C notice stating there was no balance due for 2011.

Ms. Black stated that the Social Security Administration reduced her benefits based on this IRS error. Since the government agencies share income information, she believes that the Social Security Administration thought she had increased income in 2011 and reduced her benefits. She requested relief in Tax Court but they note in this order’s second footnote they were unable to assist her because they “do not have jurisdiction to determine Social Security benefits, just tax deficiencies.”

Takeaway: IRS actions can affect taxpayers in a variety of ways, sometimes for the worse. It may be necessary to find creative ways to find clients relief. Unfortunately for Ms. Black, Tax Court is not the answer for assisting with her Social Security issues. Hopefully she can find help elsewhere.

How Long Does Petitioner Need to Prepare for Trial?

Docket No. 23475-15, William Budell Markolf v. C.I.R. (Order here).

This case is based on tax liabilities for 2008 through 2011. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency June 16, 2015 and petitioner filed with Tax Court September 15, 2015. The case was set for trial in Columbia, South Carolina, beginning October 17, 2016, with a pretrial order issued May 16, 2016 with a standard notice to exchange trial documents no later than two weeks before the trial session. On September 26, 2016, petitioner’s counsel filed a motion for continuance, explaining the need for additional time to secure documents, estimating three weeks would be necessary (which would be October 17, 2016). Petitioner was to file a supplement describing work toward preparation, which was filed October 3, 2016.

By notice filed April 11, 2017, the trial was rescheduled in Columbia for the session beginning September 11, 2017 with a new pretrial order. On August 8, 2017, respondent mailed a 65 paragraph stipulation of facts and 49 exhibits planned for trial. While there were several phone conferences the Court held, petitioner’s counsel did not respond to respondent’s stipulation or submit exhibits, which were not prepared as of a week before trial.

Then Hurricane Irma was expected to arrive in Columbia, South Carolina on September 11, 2017, prompting the Court to continue the case. The order stated that petitioner had “the unintended consequence” of continuance and he was given more time “which we think he does not deserve.” The court stressed he should not delay and should “complete that work while the iron is hot,” stating he should expect no further continuance or latitude regarding the pretrial order.

On September 15, 2017, respondent sent petitioner two copies of a revised stipulation of facts (now 73 paragraphs) and 49 exhibits. In correspondence sent in September, November, December, and January, respondent requested petitioner to sign and return the revised stipulation, but that did not happen.

By notice December 4, 2017, the Court set the trial in Columbia for April 30, 2018 with the standard pretrial order. On February 21, 2018, the IRS filed a motion for an order to show cause. On February 23, the Court held a phone conference where petitioner’s counsel stated petitioner hired an independent contractor to assist with document preparation and cited a difficulty was petitioner’s recent surgery. The Court granted the motion by ordering that petitioner had to document on or before March 15, 2018, why the IRS stipulation and exhibits should not be deemed admitted for the case.

On March 2, the IRS filed a motion to compel production of documents, which the Court granted in part on March 7, 2018. On March 16, petitioner filed a one-page answer twice with two different cover sheets, one being “Petitioner’s Response to Motion to Compel Production of Documents” and the other “Petitioner’s Reply to Answer.” Despite the second title, the document does not refer to the order to show cause or the motion it granted. It also does not refer by number to the stipulation or to any exhibits. Two documents are attached to the memoranda that are not sworn affidavits or signed under penalty of perjury.   One is a purported letter from a physician stating petitioner had surgery on December 6, 2017, and was “released to full-time work” on January 7, 2018. The other details the medical issues of the accountant hired to assist the petitioner. From January through March 2018, the accountant had the flu for two weeks, broke his right ankle, had surgery February 12, and was in physical rehabilitation from February 15 until discharged March 8, returning to work for petitioner on March 13. The accountant cites those issues as reasons for delay in assisting petitioner with the trial document preparation.

The Court reviews these delays, citing that the case was filed 2 and a half years ago and involves tax returns due 6 or more years ago. The petitioner received 2 continuances with admonishments not to delay further the production of documents. The Court notes that the petitioner waited until December to hire an assistant for the document production and not times such as when the returns were prepared, when the IRS examined them, when he received the notice of deficiency, filed the petition, received the first notice of trial with standing pretrial order, the time of the second notice, or when warned there would be no further continuances granted. The Court notes that allowing for the difficulties arising in recent months, those were “long after petitioner’s work on this case should have been largely finished.” The late-occurring mishaps do not explain why petitioner did not cooperate in the stipulation process and did not make an actual response to the order to show cause. The Court ordered that the Order to Show Cause is made absolute and respondent’s proposed stipulation is deemed stipulated for purposes of the pending case.

Takeaway: This case is an illustration on what not to do for a pending Tax Court trial. Basically, read the pretrial order and follow its instructions. Respond to opposing counsel’s stipulations and exhibits. As you need to, provide your own stipulations and exhibits on time. When the judge says to do any of those tasks and that there will be no more continuances, take that seriously and respond accordingly.

 

 

Designated Orders for week of 3-12-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, Concise and Direct

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

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

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

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

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

Three Attorneys and Levy Still Sustained

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tax Court Conference Ends By Looking to the Future

The last panel at the Tax Court Judicial Conference was a look to the future, considering current and future issues that could affect the way the court does business. The panel, moderated by Chief Judge Marvel, included the Chief Justice of the Tax Court of Canada, Miriam Fisher of Latham & Watkins, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, and Drita Tonuzi, Deputy Chief Counsel.

One indication of a successful panel is the sense that you both learned a lot and also wanted the panelists to keep going. The 80-minute panel flagged a number of issues (like possible new and revised jurisdiction, the court’s thorny constitutional status) and spent some time on a subset issues, including a tantalizingly brief discussion of EITC and its impact on the court, possible Tax Court rule changes, ways to increase efficiency and reduce litigation costs, the impact of globalization on Tax Court practice, and the possibility of expanding access to documents filed with the Court.

Access to filed Tax Court documents is an issue that seems to be front and center for the Court; as part of the materials the Chief Judge referred to a blog post that our sometimes Forbes colleague Peter Reilly wrote called Tax Court IRS and Secret Law. That post, in a nutshell, heavily criticized current Tax Court practice when it comes to allowing nonparties access to court documents, stating that the “Tax Court is letting us down when it comes to electronic transparency.”

As a blogger, researcher and sometime advocate, I find that easy access to briefs in cases in district court and appellate courts is very helpful. Current Tax Court practice essentially limits e-access to documents to parties, and those who have the resources or friends to go the Tax Court in DC can go and make make copies.

The Chief Judge tried to move the discussion away from labels (it is fair to say that the Chief Judge is not a fan of procedures being called secret or stealth) and toward what she referred to as a “constructive dialogue” that would take into account both the public’s legitimate need to know and the privacy concerns around often sensitive personal information that is embedded in the mostly pro se docket that makes up the court’s basket of cases.

As part of an effort to move the conversation, the Chief Judge flagged some specific possible changes, including the following:

  • Expanding the types of documents that can be accessed electronically (like briefs, dispositive motions);
  • Limit e-access to cases where both parties are represented; and
  • Restrict e-access to certain types of people, including possibly those who register

In a question, Judge Buch raised the possibility of allowing e-access to documents that Counsel files, and Judge Leyden suggested the possibility of allowing parties to elect into allowing e-access. The Chief Justice of the Canadian Tax Court said that in the near future all documents in the Canadian Tax Court will be e-accessible, with that court responsible for redacting some personal information.

The dialogue that Chief Judge Marvel encourages is welcome. So was some of the clarifying information at the start of the presentation, including reminders of the pro se nature of the Tax Court and that PACER limits access to Social Security and immigration cases, cases that like tax cases are embedded with lots of sensitive information. My sense is though that the Tax Court judges recognize that the balance is shifting on this issue, the balance between transparency and privacy is not currently correctly calibrated, and that Counsel’s access to all briefs and filings gives it a leg up over the private bar that could be remedied without major harm. Judge Buch’s suggestion to allow access to Counsel filings would be an easy start, though I think it is not too much of a leap to allow access to classes of documents like briefs and dispositive motions in all cases where there is counsel.

Now, when it comes to transparency and consistency for Tax Court orders….well that is another story and perhaps the subject of a future panel.

Designated Orders Post: Week of 2/26 – 3/2 Estate of Michael Jackson, A New Graev Issue and More

Caleb Smith who teaches and directs the clinic at University of Minnesota bring us this weeks designated order post. He starts with the now obligatory designated order concerning yet another aspect of Graev and ends with orders from two frequently recurring judges in the designated order post, Judges Holmes and Gustafson. Judge Holmes puts up another other in the ever popular Estate of Michael Jackson case. It is a “Thriller.” Keith

There were quite a few designated orders last week, but most warrant only a passing mention. Those that will not be discussed include involve motions for summary judgment, granted in full here and here and in part here and here. Of course, we start our substantive discussion with an order continuing the clean-up of Graev III.

Giving the IRS a Chance: Hendrickson v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 6863-14 (order here)

It seems fairly clear at this point when the IRS does and does not need supervisory approval for a penalty. I believe there may be a future, litigable question as to when the IRS can bypass the supervisory approval issue by relying on computers instead of humans for the determination, but when fraud is alleged (as it was in this case) it is pretty clear that approval will be needed.

Here, trial took place a week after Chai reversed Graev (but ONLY for the 2nd circuit, which this case would not be appealable to). Later, after the Tax Court reversed itself (Graev III) the court ordered the parties to address what effect that reversal had on their present case. The IRS, quite sensibly, took it to mean “Graev III means we need to introduce evidence of supervisory approval in a deficiency proceeding. So… we need to make a motion reopen the record and introduce that evidence.” The IRS then, quite sensibly, made that motion.

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Which brings us the present order…

To some (including a few of my students), insisting on compliance with IRC 6751(b) sometimes looks like a technicality that “bad-actor” taxpayers are trying to take advantage of. In some instances, that may well be so.

Here, with a civil fraud penalty at play, one gets a sense of the “technicality” argument in full force. Judge Buch has little trouble finding that it is within his discretion to open the record in this case (Judge Holmes dealt with a slightly less clear case weeks ago, here). The IRS was playing by the rules that bound the Tax Court at the time of the Hendrickson trial: that is to say, the rules of Graev I and II. Those rules did not require producing evidence of supervisory approval prior to assessment in any case other than those appealable to the 2nd Circuit. When it appears, as is suggested here, that the IRS actually had supervisory approval but failed to introduce it into evidence (in accordance with the Tax Court interpretation of the law, at the time), there isn’t much beyond a technical argument to be made as to why they shouldn’t be allowed to introduce that into evidence now. Kudos to the taxpayers (pro se) in their zealous self-representation… but I surmise they are just accumulating interest on their tax bill at this point.

Volume 36: Estate of Michael Jackson v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 17152-13 (order here)

We return to another Designated Order favorite: the never-ending saga of Michael Jackson’s estate. Here, after years of motion practice, a trial that produced 36 volumes of transcript, and no less than three separate stipulations of fact, we arrive at the initial stages of post-trial briefing. When you have this voluminous of a record, with evidence so frequently objected to, it is obviously difficult to know what you can (and can’t) rely on as in the record for the brief you are working on. Judge Holmes kindly takes on the task of sorting out one evidentiary issue confronting the parties: resolving the hearsay objections reserved throughout the stipulations.

For practitioners that want an in-depth analysis of numerous hearsay exceptions, I strongly recommend a close reading of Judge Holmes’ order. For tax practitioners generally, I think another aspect is worth highlighting.

And that aspect is the nature of stipulations. This order highlights the proper method of objecting to stipulations on most evidentiary grounds: you note (thereby reserving) your objection, you don’t fail to stipulate. We have seen instances where the two parties fail to get along, and then fail to stipulate, with the Court generally taking a dim view of that approach. Tax Court Rule 91(a) specifically states that an objection may be noted (to relevance or materiality), but that such objection is not, in itself, is not a reason to fail to stipulate.

Stipulations of fact are extremely important in Tax Court cases, and should not be taken lightly in preparing for trial. You should obviously be sure that you’ve stipulated absolutely everything that you need to (if you are submitting fully stipulated), but you also should consider objections and, even then, what your objections have the effect of doing. In this order, with very sophisticated parties (including the newly nominated Commissioner’s firm) it is informative how the taxpayer phrased some of the objections: not that the exhibits were admissible, but only that they could not be cited to as evidence of “truth of the matter asserted.” That is a nuance that often goes missed (but was stressed by the federal district judge that taught my evidence class): the reason you introduce the evidence is critical to whether (and to what extent) it is admissible.

Going Through the Motions: Langdon & Fuller v. C.I.R. (Dkt. No. 22414-15) and York v. C.I.R. (Dkt. No. 2122-17)

Another set of nearly identical orders provide a quick lesson for tax practitioner. As a change to the usual guidance the Tax Court provides to pro se taxpayers, the orders actually give a lesson to IRS counsel. And that lesson is that when you want the court to “do something,” you generally ask through a motion.

Here, a joint status report was given to the court that likely reflected both parties’ near imminent settlement. All that is left is to draft and file a decision document, so the IRS asks for more time to do so in the joint status report. Pretty uncontroversial… but denied, because the request for additional time was not made in a motion.

I tell my students that there aren’t usually “magic words” you need to know when asking the Tax Court to do something: students pull templates off of the internet with archaic “Here comes taxpayer John Smith by his representative Caleb Smith” and worry that if they omit that line the court won’t have any clue what to do with their document. At the same time, though there aren’t magic words, I tell my students to look to the US Tax Court rules to see what, if anything, the Court would want covered in the motion. As an unfortunate example we’ve had to deal with, there are specific things the Court wants in a motion to withdraw (see Rule 24(c)). A quick search of orders citing to that rule shows order after order denying the motion for failure to address something mentioned in the rule. Where there is a specific rule on point, use it as your lodestar.

These orders, denying a request for more time because it was not made in the form of a motion, may seem formulaic (and thus give rise to a “magic word” worry), but Judge Gustafson does a good job of explaining why it isn’t just insistence on form. For one, it makes the job of the judge easier to ask via motion. By using a motion, you also indicate to the court whether the opposing side has an objection (or is aware of the request at all). But perhaps most importantly, by asking the court to do something via motion you ensure that your request is actually seen and heard… With roughly 22,000 cases pending at the end of October, 2017, one can only imagine the amount of paper that accumulates on any given judge’s desk. As Judge Gustafson seems to hint, judges are people too, and if you want to make sure a request isn’t overlooked, you have to give it the bold heading of a request: in other words, a motion.

 

 

Designated Orders: 2/19/18 to 2/23/18

This week’s designated order post was prepared by William Schmidt of Kansas Legal Aid Services. Of course, one of the designated orders addresses an issue of interpretation of the Graev case. This week the Court struggles with the concession of the fraud penalty for lack of proper approval and the impact of that concession on the statute of limitations. If the IRS does not obtain the proper approval for imposition of the fraud penalty and if the statute of limitations expires but for the exception provided by proof of fraud, there can be situations in which the IRS must prove fraud for purposes of holding open the statute but not be allowed to impose the fraud penalty for lack of approval.

The second case discussed by William concerns a bankruptcy issue I have never seen litigated and one it appears the IRS did not appreciate the Court was asking about. The issue concerns the scope of the automatic stay. Section 362(a)(8) of the Bankruptcy Code imposes a stay “on the commencement or continuation of a proceeding before the United States Tax Court concerning a tax liability of a debtor … who is an individual for a taxable period ending before the date of the order for relief under this title.” The IRS and the taxpayer negotiated a settlement with the debtor during a period in which the stay was in effect. They submitted a decision document to the Court which was signed by the Court and then set aside when the existence of the stay became known to the IRS and the Court. After the lifting of the stay, the IRS resubmitted the decision document. The Court questions the binding effect of a settlement negotiated during the stay and finds a work around. Keith

One pattern for Tax Court is that holiday weeks are light weeks for designated orders. There were 3 designated orders this particular week.

The first, Renee Vento, et al., v. Commissioner (3 consolidated cases), finds the petitioners trying to claim deductions for payments made to the Virgin Islands Bureau of Internal Revenue (VIBIR). They now concede they are cash method taxpayers so would not be eligible to claim deductions on 2001 U.S. tax liability for 2002 payments made to the VIBIR.

Followup on Mr. Kyei

The second order, Cecil K. Kyei v. Commissioner, updates a previous designated order report here. To summarize, Mr. Kyei has filed for bankruptcy previously and those time periods have overlapped with his Tax Court cases. Specifically, a previous settlement agreement with the IRS looks to be void because it was during the time period of an automatic stay based on a bankruptcy filing. The parties were to file their recommendations before February 16.

Mr. Kyei has been nonresponsive and the IRS is unable to contact him. The IRS filed their recommendation to proceed with the notices of deficiency for 2008 and 2010, but accept a lower amount for 2009.

The Court’s decision is that the June 2015 agreement is not enforceable because of the automatic stay. The Court denied the IRS motion for entry of decision based on the agreement. The Court is treating the IRS motion, while not styled as a motion for dismissal, as a motion to dismiss for lack of prosecution.

The IRS did not address the 2010 penalty of $2,614.80 so they are ordered to file a supplement to their motion addressing the burden of production for the 2010 penalty no later than March 9, 2018. Mr. Kyei shall file his response to the motion as supplemented no later than March 23, 2018.

Takeaway: Potentially Mr. Kyei had a good settlement agreement in place with the IRS in June 2015. The bankruptcy affecting that time period means that the automatic stay interfered with those settlement negotiations and they are no longer enforceable. Now that the IRS is unable to contact him, Mr. Kyei is likely going to owe once again the original notice of deficiency amounts (with a lower amount in 2009), making part of his actions in vain.

Further Graev Fallout

The third order, Johannes Lamprecht & Linda Lamprecht v. Commissioner, further deals with Graev penalties. On February 20, 2018, the IRS filed a status report conceding the requirements of 6751(b)(1) were not met regarding the 6663 fraud penalty for 2006 and 2007. They indicate they are prepared to introduce evidence on compliance with 6751(b)(1) in connection with the 6662 accuracy-related penalty but trial is no longer required as to the fraud penalty. The status report does not comment on the issue of fraud as it relates to the statute of limitations.

The Court’s order is to strike the case from the March 8, 2018, Washington, D.C. Special Session calendar. No later than March 9, 2018, the IRS shall file a status report regarding their position as to the statute of limitations and the arguments relied on to show the statute of limitations does not bar the assessment of the accuracy-related penalty still at issue. The report should explain whether intending to argue fraud for the purpose of 6501(c)(1). If the concession affects the relevance of the information sought in the motions to compel, then that date is a deadline for amended motions to bring the previous motions into conformity with their current position. It is further ordered that the parties shall file a status report no later than March 23, 2018, (or separate reports, if necessary) with their recommendations as to further case proceedings (including a deadline for petitioners’ response to the motions to compel).

Takeaway Summary: There looks to be some IRS give-and-take regarding the 6751(b)(1) penalty in this case regarding Graev fallout. While conceding the 6663 fraud penalty, the IRS has not given up on the 6662 accuracy-related penalty and the Court wants explanation of how the statute of limitations allows them to proceed on that accuracy-related penalty. It is curious how each case develops regarding 6751(b)(1) penalties.

 

Fractured Tax Court Opinions – Which Opinion Controls and Does the Supreme Court’s Marks Decision Apply?

We welcome first time guest blogger Joseph A. DiRuzzo, III. Joe’s practice is based in South Florida; however, he handles cases throughout the country and in the United States Virgin Islands. Joe regularly represents litigants pro bono before the Tax Court and before the Courts of Appeal. Joe tilts at some of the same jurisdictional windmills as the tax clinic at Harvard. Keith

Introduction

For the last decade I have been involved in the on-going donnybrook between United States Virgin Islands taxpayers who claimed a tax incentive credit under Code Section 934 and the IRS, who has contested those taxpayers’ residency in the Virgin Islands and their ability to claim the Section 934 tax credit. Disclaimer – I do not pretend to be impartial as I’ve been one of a handful of attorneys on the other side of the “v.” with the Commissioner. See, e.g. Huff v. Comm’r, 135 T.C. 222 (2010); Huff v. Comm’r, 135 T.C. 605 (2010); Huff v. Comm’r, 138 T.C. 258 (2012); Cooper v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2015-72 (2015).

One of the main points of contention is whether the filing of an income tax return with the Virgin Islands tax authority starts the running of the statute of limitations for the IRS to assess (the details of that analysis are beyond this blog).

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With that in mind, I turn to the Tax Court’s January 29th fully reviewed decision in Coffey v. Comm’r, 150 T.C. No. 4 (Jan. 29, 2018). The Coffey opinion has an opinion by Judge Holmes, an opinion by Judge Thornton, and a dissenting opinion by Chief Judge Marvel.

Judge Holmes’ opinion was joined by Foley, Vasquez, Gustafson, and Buch, JJ.; Judge Thornton’s opinion was joined by Gale, Goeke, Paris, Kerrigan, Pugh, and Ashford, JJ., and with Judge Gustafson (with the exception as to the word “only” in the first line of the concurring opinion and the phrase “if not the reasoning” in the last sentence of the concurring opinion). Chief Judge Marvel’s dissenting opinion was joined by Morrison, Lauber, and Nega, JJ.

Questions in the wake of Coffey?

Frankly, I have no idea how to read the Coffey opinion, as the Tax Court has not indicated how to read fractured full division decisions, nor do the Tax Court’s rules shed any light on the matter. As I see it, the Tax Court entered a 5-7-4 decision, but leaves open the following questions:

  • Does Judge Holmes’ opinion carry the day when it had only 5 judges signing on to it?
  • Shouldn’t Judge Thornton’s opinion be the controlling since it had 7 judges signing on to it?
  • Judge Gustafson voted twice, i.e., he signed on to both the Holmes and the Thornton opinions. Is that possible? If so, does one vote weigh more heavily than the other?
  • Does Judge Thornton’s opinion (which is the most taxpayer friendly) control since it is well settled that courts interpret revenue laws in favor of the taxpayer—a principle known as the “strict construction doctrine.” Bowers v. N.Y. & Albany Lighterage Co., 273 U.S. 346, 350 (1927); see also Royal Caribbean Cruises, Inc. v. United States, 108 F.3d 290, 294 (11th Cir. 1997) (“This interpretation is consistent with the general rule of construction that ambiguous tax statutes are to be construed against the government and in favor of the taxpayer.”).
  • What impact, if any, does the Supreme Court’s opinion in Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188 (1977) have on this Court’s jurisprudence?

Marks expresses the Supreme Court’s view on how to determine which opinion is controlling when there is no majority opinion in its decisions. But, Marks is often difficult to apply, has been subject to much criticism, and has never explicitly been stated by the Tax Court as governing the interpretation of its own opinions (perhaps with good reason).

Marks v. United States

For those that are unfamiliar, the Marks decision set forth how one is to interpret a Supreme Court decision where there is no majority decision.  Grossly over-simplified, Marks stands for the proposition that the opinion that votes for the outcome of the case decided on the “narrowest grounds” is the controlling opinion. As one jurist has put it, the D.C. Circuit has

interpreted Marks to mean that, to be binding as representing the narrowest grounds for decision, an opinion must represent a common denominator of the Court’s reasoning it must embody a position implicitly approved by at least five Justices who support the judgment. (emphasis added). Under Marks’ “narrowest grounds” approach, for an opinion to be controlling it must contain a “controlling rationale.” “Marks is workable … only when one opinion is a logical subset of other, broader opinions.” Otherwise, the en banc court reasoned, “[i]f applied in situations where the various opinions supporting the judgment are mutually exclusive, Marks will turn a single opinion that lacks majority support into national law.” So, “[w]hen … one opinion supporting the judgment does not fit entirely within a broader circle drawn by the others, Marks is problematic.” According to the en banc court, Marks applies when “the concurrence posits a narrow test to which the plurality must necessarily agree as a logical consequence of its own, broader position.” (emphasis added).

United States v. Duvall, 740 F.3d 604–605 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (Rodgers, J. concurring in the denial or rehearing en banc) (internal citations omitted).

The problem with Marks is that “The Supreme Court has recognized that applying a rule of law from its fragmented decisions is often more easily said than done.” United States v. Bailey, 571 F.3d 791, 798 (8th Cir. 2009) (internal citations omitted); see also Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738, 745 (1994) (the Marks rule has been “more easily stated than applied.”).

Does Marks Apply to the Tax Court’s own decision?

The Tax Court has never cited to, let alone analyzed, the Marks decision. Accordingly, I have recently filed a motion asking the Tax Court to inform the Tax bar how to interpret its fractured decision (this would apply to all fractured decisions, not just the Coffey decision). A copy of the motion is available here (ignore the title on the coversheet as there isn’t a “miscellaneous” option on the drop down lists when selecting the type of motion (much to my chagrin)).

In my motion, I make the following arguments why Marks does not apply to the Tax Court’s interpretation of its own decisions (in contrast to the Supreme Court’s decisions).

  1. The “narrowest grounds” approach is a means to interpret case law, not statutes. Thus, to the extent that there is a tension between “strict construction doctrine” and the “narrowest grounds” the Tax Court must employ the “strict construction doctrine” to determine which opinion is most taxpayer friendly.
  2. The Supreme Court did not hold in Marks that lower court fractured decisions (i.e., Court of Appeals or the Tax Court) are subject to Marks. Marks was limited to Supreme Court decisions and has not been expanded to trial courts.
  3. The animating reasoning behind Marks is vertical stare decisis and lower courts’ obligations to follow Supreme Court rulings. While the Tax Court has taken the position that its rulings published in T.C. volumes are precedents that must be followed by other Tax Court judges until reversed by the court sitting en banc; see Lawrence v. Comm’r, 27 T.C. 713, 718 (1957) (“The Tax Court has always believed that Congress intended it to decide all cases uniformly . . . “); there is nothing in the Tax Court’s authorizing statutes that suggests and/or requires that result. Other trial courts, such as district courts and the Court of Federal Claims, do not purport to issue precedential rulings, and their judges are free to disagree with each other — only being required to follow controlling Supreme Court or appellate court authority. If there is no Tax Court majority opinion in an en banc reviewed opinion, does it accord with Marks’ purposes that any judge is bound to follow any particular Tax Court plurality opinion? Further, because vertical stare decisis cannot work on the Tax Court’s own case law, Marks is inapplicable to the Tax Court.
  4. There are times when splintered decisions have no “narrowest” opinion that would identify how a majority of a court (e.g. the Supreme Court or the Tax Court) would resolve all future cases.
  5. The Golsen Rule would wreak havoc if the Tax Court were to adopt Marks. That is so, because the Courts of Appeals “cases interpreting Marks have not been a model of clarity,” United States v. Davis, 825 F.3d 1014, 1021 (9th Cir. 2016), and the Tax Court would have to interpret Marks via extant circuit case law to determine how the Tax Court is to read its own fractured precedent. Such would simply be unworkable. This is especially so given that there is a circuit-split regarding how to apply Marks as the D.C. Circuit and the Ninth Circuit have taken a “logical-subset” approach, while the others used a “results-oriented” test.
  6. The Marks decision has received substantial academic criticism. See Mark A. Thurmon, When the Court Divides: Reconsidering the Precedential Value of Supreme Court Plurality Decisions, Vol. 42 Duke Law Review 419 (Nov. 1992); Ryan C. Williams, Questioning Marks: Plurality Decisions and Precedential Constraint, 69 Stan. L. Rev. 795, 799 (2017) (“The conceptual confusion surrounding Marks presents an important practical challenge for lower courts.”).
  7. On December 8, 2017, the Supreme Court has granted cert. in Hughes v. United States, Case No. 17-155, presenting the following three questions:

1. Whether this Court’s decision in Marks means that the concurring opinion in a 4-1-4 decision represents the holding of the Court where neither the plurality’s reasoning nor the concurrence’s reasoning is a logical subset of the other.

2. Whether, under Marks, the lower courts are bound by the four-Justice plurality opinion in Freeman, or, instead, by Justice Sotomayor’s separate concurring opinion with which all eight other Justices disagreed.

3. Whether, as the four-Justice plurality in Freeman concluded, a defendant who enters into a Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement is generally eligible for a sentence reduction if there is a later, retroactive amendment to the relevant Sentencing Guidelines range.

Thus, even the Supreme Court has recognized that the Marks decision needs some clarification.

  1. If the Tax Court desires to issue rulings which the American public can tell what the law is in respect to the omnipresent Internal Revenue Code, it must create a bright-line rule, which Marks does anything but.

Conclusion

In my humble opinion, the case law interpreting Marks is a mess, and the Tax Court should not import such a mess into its jurisprudence. So where does that leave us? Well, only time will tell how the Tax Court decides my motion. At a minimum, I hope that this blog will kick-start the discussion on this issue amongst the Tax bar (I anticipate this issue will arise again because it appears that fully reviewed opinions have become more common). If anyone wants to file an amicus in my case, please contact me so I can give you IRS counsel’s contact information.

 

Designated Orders 2/12 – 2/16

This week Samantha Galvin, who teaches and assists in running the low income taxpayer clinic at University of Denver, brings us the designated order post. In addition to the designated orders, she talks about one “ordinary” order issued during her week. Regular readers are by now tired of the many posts on the, so far, failed attempts of the tax clinic at Harvard to convince the Tax Court or an appellate court that the time period to file a Tax Court petition is not jurisdictional and can be equitably tolled. For those who are new to reading the blog or who want to review this issue see a sample of posts here, here and here.

Samantha discusses the case of Khanna v. Commissioner in which the Tax Court flexed its equitable tolling muscles a bit and indicated that it may ask the IRS to comment on the jurisdictional nature of time for filing the CDP request. This could be an interesting case to watch for those following the issue of Tax Court jurisdiction and equitable tolling. The issue does not center on the timely filing of a petition in Tax Court but rather on the timely filing of a pre-requisite to Tax Court jurisdiction – the filing of the CDP request. Keith

There were ten orders designated during the week of February 12th. Three are discussed below, along with one non-designated order. The orders not discussed address: 1) a petitioner’s motion to dismiss (here) and motion for continuance (here); 2) respondent’s motion to submit a section 7428 case under Rule 122 (here); 3) a tax protestor (here); 4) a bench opinion involving section 195 expenses (here); 5) a bench opinion involving questionable business deductions (here); and 6) a request for retained jurisdiction which had been resolved in an earlier order (here).

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Secondary Business Purpose is not Sham

Docket No: 12772-09, Peking Investment Fund LLC, Peking Investment Holdings LLC, Tax Matters Partner v. C.I.R. (Order here) 

In this first designated order the Court denies respondent’s motion for partial summary judgment because there are disputed questions of material fact. The action was brought in response to a notice of final partnership administrative adjustment. The partnership was formed to collect on non-performing loans (NPLs), and without going into too much detail, some of the transactions were between foreign entities. Respondent seeks to disallow a $26 million loss and argues that the partnership should be disregarded as a sham, or alternatively, the basis in the received portfolio should be reduced, pursuant to sections 482 and 723, so that no loss is realized. Petitioners object to both arguments.

Respondent relies on Commissioner v. Culbertson, 337 U.S. 733 (1949) which requires that parties must “in good faith and acting with a business purpose” intend “to join together in the present conduct of the enterprise” to form a genuine partnership.

Respondent has three arguments for why petitioners do not have a business purpose, and thus, the partnership should be disregarded.

First, respondent argues that the partnership was formed to implement a tax scheme where U.S. investors could claim tax losses without the risk of economic loss. As proof, respondent offers a letter sent to investors regarding a limited window of time when they could sell or exchange their investments without any economic loss.

Second, respondent argues that Cinda (another member of the partnership) never intended to become a partner because Cinda sold or contributed most, but not all, of its interest after certain transactions were completed. Respondent also argues there was no business purpose because Cinda never tried to collect on the NPLs, even though it was contractually obligated to do so.

Third, respondent argues the transactions were not business-related and were only used to increase the U.S. investors’ outside basis, noting that none of the partners took legal action when Cinda breached its agreement to service the portfolio. Petitioners acknowledge some underperformance by Cinda but also observe that other reports showed proceeds from Cinda’s collection efforts.

Respondent also cites several cases where other partnerships, like petitioners, dealing with distress assets/debts (also known as DAD transactions) were sham partnerships.

The Court uses Culbertson as the applicable legal standard and finds respondent’s arguments legally inadequate and unsupported by the record. Even if tax losses are the primary purpose for a partnership’s formation, the partnership can also have a secondary purpose of conducting business. In cases that failed the Culbertson test, evidence showed that the partners ultimately had no real interest in collecting on the NPLs. If facts show an objective of profiting from collection, even if utilizing substantial tax losses outweighs that objective, then the partnership should not be disregarded as a sham under Culbertson.

Respondent fails to establish that partners were not at risk of economic loss on an ongoing basis, because the letter he relies on only references a limited opportunity to avoid risk of economic loss. Respondent also does not establish that Cinda failed to fulfill its contractual obligations and assumes that a 1% interest in the partnership is too small to be recognized, but this position is not supported by law.

All in all, respondent does not establish that the partnership was so indifferent to collection that it fails the Culbertson test, so this is a question of fact that must be resolved at trial.

Respondent’s section 482 adjustment argument is a disputed legal question because Courts are split about whether the IRS can make adjustments to transactions between two related foreign entities when neither are subject to U.S. tax. The Court finds it is not necessary to resolve this question because respondent has not clearly established that the foreign entities were related or under common control.

Home Sweet Tax Home

Docket No: 5699-17S, Peter Changching Lai & Kaiting Su v. C.I.R. (Order here) 

This designated order is a bench opinion about whether a petitioner is entitled to deduct expenses incurred travelling away from his primary residence for work in 2012 and 2013. Section 162(a)(2) allows such deductions if the expenses are reasonable and necessary, incurred “away from home” and made in pursuit of a trade or business. What confuses many taxpayers is that in most jurisdictions, home means “tax home” which is the taxpayer’s principal place of business and not primary residence.

We occasionally see similar cases in Colorado involving taxpayers who work in the oil and gas industry.

Petitioner-husband is a rocket scientist who worked in southern California. He was laid off and took a job in northern California and around the same time married petitioner-wife who remained in southern California.

A taxpayer’s tax home depends on the length of the job assignment. If the employment is temporary (one year or less), a taxpayer may be able to deduct the travel expenses incurred, including meals and lodging. If the employment is indefinite (longer than a year), then the new location becomes petitioner’s tax home and the expenses cannot be deducted.

Petitioner worked in northern California for more than three years, so his job was indefinite, and therefore, he was not entitled to deduct his expenses in 2012.

In 2013, after northern California had become his tax home, he was assigned to a project in southern California. Rather than decide whether petitioner is entitled to deduct his 2013 expenses under section 162(a)(2), the Court finds petitioner’s testimony establishes that he was entitled to reimbursement by his employer for the expenses and the Court disallows the deduction on that ground.

Petitioner also did not properly substantiate some of his charitable donations.

Expert Witness Misses Mark in Medical Marijuana Case

Docket No: 13666-14, Laurel Alterman & William A. Gibson v. C.I.R. (Order here) 

The Court rules on evidentiary matters related to deductions for a medical marijuana business in this designated order.

Petitioner challenges several items that respondent seeks to admit on relevancy grounds, such as 2008 and 2009 tax returns (the year at issue is 2011), petitioner’s medical marijuana growing license and petitioner’s application to the city of Boulder to approve the grow site. The Court finds each relevant because, in one way or another, they help establish the cost of goods sold in the year at issue.

Petitioner also challenges admitting the testimony of a revenue agent. The Court finds the agent’s testimony relevant because it describes how the agent calculated the cost of goods sold amounts conceded to by respondent.

Respondent objects to admitting a report and oral testimony of petitioner’s expert witness and the Court looks to Federal Rules of Evidence 702 and Tax Court Rule 143(g) to determine whether either can be admitted.

There are three items that the expert witness’s testimony and report attempt to support: 1) cost of goods sold amounts; 2) the ratio of cost of goods sold to gross receipts, and 3) the expenses not subject to section 280E.

The Court found the expert’s testimony did not satisfy Rules 702 or 143(g) because he used insufficient facts and unreliable methodology. For example, the expert did not independently verify gross receipts even though there was a discrepancy between the general ledger and the tax return amounts. He also ignored beginning and ending inventories in his cost of goods sold calculation, and generally did not provide enough information to explain how he arrived at his conclusions.

Although the expert’s testimony had been used in a previous marijuana business case, the Court knew more about the returns in that case and the business bought all its marijuana merchandise from third party sellers, unlike petitioner’s business which grew some of its own marijuana merchandise.

It is important that experts understand the facts and use reliable methodology so that their findings can be admitted.

Non-Designated Order News

Docket No. 5469-16L, Rajiv Khanna & Vivian Cheng-Khanna v. C.I.R. (Order here)

This non-designated order asks respondent to supplement its motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. This issue is one we have seen before: whether a CDP hearing request deadline can be equitably tolled. I wrote a post on this issue a couple of months ago here.

Petitioners, who reside in the Third Circuit, timely mailed their CDP request to the wrong IRS office which then forwarded it to the correct office where it was received after the deadline. The first hurdle the Court asks respondent to address is whether the Tax Court petition was timely. If so, the Court directs respondent to address three items: 1) the statutory basis for respondent’s position that a taxpayer must file a CDP request within 30 days, 2) the impact of recent Supreme Court and Third Circuit Appeals cases concerning equitable tolling, and 3) the circumstances surrounding the forwarding of the request and the possibility that the forwarding would render the hearing request timely.

Respondent’s supplemented motion is due by March 15th, so again, we will wait to see if this case breaks some ground on this issue.