Designated Orders: 7/9/18 to 7/13/18

William Schmidt from the Kansas Legal Aid Society brings us this weeks designated orders. Three orders in cases involving the Graev issue keep that issue, no doubt the most important procedural issue in 2018, front and center. As with last week, there is an order in the whistleblower area with a lot of meat for those following cases interpreting that statute. Keith

For the week of July 9 through July 13, there were 9 designated orders from the Tax Court. Three rulings on IRS motions for summary judgment include 2 denials because there is a dispute as to a material fact (1st order based on employment taxes here) (2nd order involves petitioners denying both having a tax liability and receiving notice of deficiency for 2012 here) and a granted motion because petitioner was not responsive (order here). What follows are three orders where Judge Holmes takes on Chai ghouls, an exploration of a whistleblower case, and two quick summaries of cases. Overall, the Chai ghoul cases and whistleblower case made for a good week to read judicial analysis.

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Chai Ghouls

All three of these are orders from Judge Holmes that deal with Chai and Graev issues. The first two discussed were later in the week and had more analysis. As you are likely aware, the Chai and Graev judicial history in the Tax Court has led to several current cases that need analysis regarding whether there was supervisory approval regarding accuracy-related penalties, as required by Internal Revenue Code section 6751. In each of these cases, the IRS has filed a motion to reopen the case to admit evidence regarding their compliance with 6751(b)(1).

  • Docket Nos. 11459-15, Hector Baca & Magdalena Baca, v. C.I.R. (Order here).

The Commissioner filed the motion to reopen the record to admit the form. The Bacas couldn’t tell the Commissioner whether or not they objected to the motion. When given a chance to respond, they did not object. The Bacas did not raise Code section 6751 at any stage of the case (petition, amended petition, trial, or brief). The Commissioner conceded 6662(c) (negligence or disregard) penalties because the only penalty-approval form found is the one for 6662(d) (substantial understatement) penalties.

The Court’s analysis sets out the standard for reopening the record. The evidence to be added cannot be merely cumulative or impeaching, must be material to the issues involved, and would probably change the outcome of the case. Additionally, the Court should consider the importance and probative value of the evidence, the reason for the moving party’s failure to introduce the evidence earlier, and the possibility of the prejudice to the non-moving party.

The Court then analyzes those elements set out above. For example, the Court finds the penalty-approval form to be properly authenticated nonhearsay and thus admissible. Ultimately, the Commissioner had less reason to anticipate the importance of section 6751 because it was following Chai and Graev that it was clarified the Commissioner had the burden of production to show compliance with 6751 when wanting to prove a penalty.

In this case, the Court states because the Bacas did not object to the accuracy-related penalties, that is some excuse for the Commissioner’s lack of diligence. Additionally, the Court concludes that it can’t decide the Bacas would be prejudiced because they never said they would be.

Takeaway – Respond when the court requests your opinion or you may suffer consequences that could have been avoided if you had raised your hand and notified the court of your concerns.

  • Docket Nos. 19150-10, 6541-12, Scott A. Householder & Debra A. Householder, et al., v. C.I.R. (Order here).

This set of consolidated cases differ from the Bacas’ case because of an objection submitted by the petitioners. Arguments by the petitioners begin that the record should not be reopened because the Commissioner’s failure to introduce evidence of compliance with 6751(b)(1) shows a lack of diligence, and the Commissioner doesn’t offer a good reason for failing to introduce the form despite possessing it when trying the cases. They argue they would be prejudiced by reopening the record because they have not had a chance to cross-examine the examining IRS Revenue Agent on their case. They argue the form is unauthenticated and that both the declaration and the form are inadmissible hearsay.

Again, the form is found to be admissible nonhearsay. Regarding the authentication argument, the IRS recordkeeping meets the government’s prima facie showing of authenticity. The Court brings up that the Revenue Agent in question was a witness at trial that the petitioners did cross-examine, it’s just that they did not have section 6751 in mind at the time. In fact, the Court reviews a set of questions the petitioners listed and finds that those answers likely would not have helped them so comes to the conclusion that they would not be prejudiced by admitting the form.

Overall, both parties should have been more diligent to bring up section 6751. Since they did not, the lack of diligence on the Commissioner’s part is counterbalanced by the probative value of the evidence and the lack of prejudice to the petitioners if the record were reopened to admit the form.

Takeaway – The IRS is not the only party on notice of the Chai and Graev issue. Petitioners bear responsibility to raise the issue of supervisory approval just as the IRS has a responsibility to show proper authorization of the penalty. The court seems to be shifting a bit from prior determinations.

  • Docket Nos. 17753-16, 17754-16, 17755-16, Plentywood Drug, Inc., et al., v. C.I.R. (Order here).

These consolidated cases also deal with the 6751 accuracy-related penalties and the IRS motion to reopen the record to admit penalty-approval forms. While the petitioners originally disputed the penalties, they conceded penalties on some issues but did not want to concede penalties on others. As a result, they did not object to the Commissioner’s motion. The Court did not grant the motion regarding penalties determined against the corporate petitioner as it would not change the outcome of the case. In Dynamo Holdings v. Commissioner, 150 T.C. No. 10 (May 7, 2018), the Court held that section 7491(c)’s burden of production on penalties does not apply to corporate petitioners, so that, in a corporate case, where the taxpayer never asked for proof of managerial approval and so did not get into the record either a form or an admission that no form was signed, the taxpayer had the burden of production on this section 6751(b) issue and had failed. For the penalties determined against the individual petitioners, the Court granted the motion since they did not raise any objections.

In all three cases, the Court orders to grant the IRS motion to reopen the record to admit the penalty-approval form attached to the motion (with the exception of the denial of the application to Plentywood Drug, Inc.).

Comments: I must admit when Judge Holmes mentions Chai ghouls in his orders it makes me think of Ghostbusters (Chai ghoul bustin’ makes him feel good?). In looking over these three cases, it seems to me they have the same result no matter what the petitioners did. It is understandable when the petitioners never objected to the penalties or the approval form. However, the Householders objected and still got the same result. Perhaps I am more sympathetic to the petitioners, but the reasoning also does not follow for me that petitioners would not be prejudiced by admitting a form that allows them to have additional penalties added on to their tax liabilities. 

Whistleblowers and Discovery

Docket No. 972-17W, Whistleblower 972-17W v. C.I.R. (Order here).

By order dated April 27, 2018, the Court directed respondent to file the administrative record as compiled by the Whistleblower Office. Petitioner filed a motion for leave to conduct discovery, the IRS followed with an opposing response and the petitioner filed a reply to respondent’s response. On June 25, the Court conducted a hearing on petitioner’s motion in Washington, D.C., where both parties appeared and were heard.

Internal Revenue Code section 7623 provides for whistleblower awards (awards to individuals who provide information to the IRS regarding third parties failing to comply with internal revenue laws). Section 7623(b) allows for awards that are at least 15 percent but not more than 30 percent of the proceeds collected as a result of whistleblower action (including any related actions) or from any settlement in response to that action. The whistleblower’s entitlement depends on whether there was a collection of proceeds and whether that collection was attributable (at least in part) to information provided by the whistleblower to the IRS.

On June 27, 2008, the petitioner executed a Form 211, Application for Award for Original Information, and submitted that to the IRS Whistleblower Office with a letter that identified seven individuals who were involved in federal tax evasion schemes. The first time the petitioner met with IRS Special Agents was in 2008 and several meetings followed. The IRS focused on and investigated three of the individuals listed on petitioner’s Form 211 following those initial meetings.

The first taxpayer (and I use that term loosely for these three individuals) was the president of a specific corporation. In 2013, that individual was convicted of tax-related crimes including failing to file personal and corporate tax returns due in 2006, 2007, and 2008. This person received millions of dollars in unreported dividends (from a second corporation, also controlled by this individual). This individual was ordered to pay restitution of $37.8 million.

The second individual was the chief financial officer of the corporation. This person received approximately $13,000 per month from the corporation in tax year 2006 but failed to report that as taxable income, and did not file a tax return in 2007. After amending the 2006 tax return and filing the 2007 tax return, the criminal investigation ended. The Revenue Officer assessed trust fund recovery penalties for the final quarter of tax year 2006 and all four quarters of tax year 2007. This taxpayer filed amended tax returns for 2005 and 2006 in March 2009 and filed delinquent returns for 2007 and 2008 in July 2010. The IRS filed liens to collect trust fund recovery penalties of approximately $657,000 and income tax liabilities of $75,000 for tax years 2005 and 2006.

The third individual was an associate of the first two but had an indirect connection with the corporation. This taxpayer had delinquent returns for 2003-2011 and there was a limited scope audit for tax years 2009 and 2010. The IRS filed tax liens for unpaid income taxes totaling approximately $2.4 million for tax years 2003 to 2011.

For each of the individuals, the IRS executed a Form 11369, Confidential Evaluation Report, on petitioner’s involvement in the investigations. For taxpayer 1, the IRS Special Agent stated that all information was developed by the IRS independent of any information provided by petitioner. For taxpayer 2, the form includes statements the Revenue Officer discovered the unreported income and petitioner’s information was not useful in an exam of the 2009 and 2010 tax returns. For taxpayer 3, the form states the taxpayer was never the subject of a criminal investigation (which is inconsistent with the record) and that petitioner’s information was not helpful to the IRS.

The petitioner seeks discovery in order to supplement the administrative record, contending the record is incomplete and precludes effective judicial review of the disallowance of the claim for a whistleblower award. Respondent asserts the administrative record is the only information taken into account for a whistleblower award so the scope of review is limited to the administrative record and petitioner has failed to establish an exception.

The Court notes the administrative record is expected to include all information provided by the whistleblower (whether the original submission or through subsequent contact with the IRS). The Court’s review of the record in question is that it contains little information, other than the original Form 211, identifying or describing the information petitioner provided to the IRS. While the record indicates that there were multiple meetings concerning the three taxpayers, there are few records of the dates and virtually no documents of the information provided. The Court agreed with the petitioner that the administrative record was materially incomplete and that the circumstances justified a limited departure from the strict application of the rule limiting review to the administrative record.

The Court states the petitioner met the minimal showing of relevant subject matter for discovery since the administrative record was materially incomplete and precluded judicial review. The information petitioner seeks is relevant to the petitioner’s assertion that the information provided led the IRS to civil examinations and criminal investigations for the three taxpayers and led to the assessment and collection of taxes that would justify an award under section 7623(b). The IRS did not deny petitioner’s factual allegations and did not argue the information sought would be irrelevant so failed to carry the burden that the information sought should not be produced.

The Court limited petitioner’s discovery to three interrogatories concerning conversations with a Revenue Officer and two Special Agents, two requests for production of documents concerning notes and records of meetings with those three individuals.

Petitioner sought nonconsensual depositions if the IRS did not comply with the interrogatories and requests for production of documents. Since the Court directed the IRS to respond to the granted discovery requests, it is premature to consider the requests for nonconsensual depositions at this time. The footnote cites Rule 74(c)(1)(B), which calls that “an extraordinary method of discovery” only available where the witness can give testimony not obtained through other forms of discovery.

Respondent is ordered to respond to those specific interrogatories and requests for production of documents by August 17, 2018.

Comment: On the surface, this step forward looks to be a win for the petitioner as there seems to be a cause and effect that justifies a substantial whistleblower award. I discussed the case with an attorney with a whistleblower case in his background who commented that to get a whistleblower award the whistleblower had to be the first one to make the reporting and the information had to be outside public knowledge (though that was outside the tax world). From his experience, the government made it difficult to win a whistleblower award and I would say that looks to be the case here.

Miscellaneous Short Items

  • The Petitioner Wants to Dismiss? – Docket No. 11487-17, Gary R. Lohse, Petitioner, v. C.I.R. (Order here). Petitioner files a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, stating the notice of deficiency is not valid. The judge denies his motion because there is a presumption of regularity that attaches to actions by government officials and nothing submitted by the petitioner overcomes that presumption.
  • Petitioner Wants a Voluntary Audit – Docket No. 24808-16 L, Tom J. Kuechenmeister v. C.I.R. (Order here). Petitioner filed a motion for order of voluntary audit, also claiming that the IRS was negligent in allowing the third party reporter to issue the forms 1099-MISC for truck driving. As Tax Court is a court of limited jurisdiction, the Court cannot order the IRS to conduct a voluntary audit. While the petitioner was previously warned about possible penalties up to $25,000, this motion was filed prior to the warning so no penalty assessed for this motion. Petitioner’s motion is denied.

Takeaway: Each time here, the petitioner does not understand the purpose of the Tax Court. The petitioners may have come to a better result by treating Tax Court motions as surgical tools rather than as blunt weapons.

 

Designated Orders 7/2/2018 – 7/6/2018

Samantha Galvin from University of Denver’s Sturm Law School brings us this week’s designated orders. The first two orders she discusses demonstrate the difficulty pro se taxpayers have in determining when to appeal an adverse decision while the third order is a detailed opinion regarding the factors necessary to obtain a whistleblower award. The whistleblower case reminds us that many dispositive orders have the same amount of analysis as many opinions but when issued as an order lack any precedent and generally fly under the radar of those looking for Tax Court opinions. Keith

The week of July 2nd started off light but ended with a decent amount of designated orders – three are discussed below. The six orders not discussed involved the Court granting: 1) a petitioner’s motion to compel the production of documents under seal (here); 2) respondent’s motion for summary judgment when a petitioner did not respond nor show up at trial (here); 3) respondent’s recharacterized Motion to File Reply to Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment (here); 4) respondent’s motion for summary judgment on a petitioner’s CDP case for periods that were already before the Tax Court and Court of Appeals (here); 5) respondent’s motion for summary judgment in CDP case where petitioners’ did not provide financial information (here); and 6) an order correcting the Judge’s name on a previously filed order to dismiss (here).

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Ring the Final (Tax Court) Bell on Bell

Docket No. 1973-10L, Doug Stauffer Bell and Nancy Clark Bell v. CIR (Order here)

This first order is for a case that William Schmidt blogged about (here). Bob Kamman also followed up on this case, in the comments to William’s post, with useful background information that sheds light on the petitioners’ circumstances. In the last designated order, the Court had ordered petitioners to show cause as to why the Court should not dismiss their case for failure to prosecute no later than June 28. Petitioners did not respond to the order to show cause, so the Court has dismissed the case.

If you recall the petitioners filed for bankruptcy three separate times while their Tax Court case was pending but ultimately failed to complete the bankruptcy process each time. Then they prematurely appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which dismissed their case for lack of jurisdiction after finding that the IRS appeals’ determination (issued after remand by the Court) was not “a final order nor an appealable interlocutory or collateral order.”

Now that the Court has dismissed their case it becomes appealable, however, the petitioners’ lack of meaningful participation in the process up to this point unfortunately does not bode well for an appeal.

The next order I discuss also involves a premature attempt to appeal a not-yet-final Tax Court decision.

Appeal after Computations

Docket No. 12871-17, Duncan Bass v. CIR (Order here)

This case is pending under rule 155 and it is somewhat understandable why petitioner thought the decision was final. Petitioner was served a bench opinion on June 8, 2018, and subsequently appealed to the Fifth Circuit, however, the bench opinion was an interlocutory order and the Court withheld entry of its decision for the purposes of permitting parties to submit computations, as rule 155(a) allows.

Interlocutory orders are generally not appealable, but there is an exception for “orders that include a statement that a controlling question of law is involved with respect to which there is a substantial ground for differences of opinion” and “an immediate appeal from that order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.” The order in this case does not contain such a statement. As a result, the Court orders the parties to continue to comply with rule 155 to resolve the computational issues so that the Court may enter a final, and thus appealable, decision.

A Disappointed “Whistleblower”

Docket No. 8179-17W, Robert J. Rufus v. CIR (Order here)

The petitioner in this case is an accountant who was hired to help prepare a statement of marital assets as part of a divorce proceeding, which gave him access to his client’s soon-to-be ex-husband’s (“the ex-husband’s”) tax information. This information led petitioner to believe that the ex-husband had underreported gifts and treated gifts as worthless debts. He provided information about these two violations in an initial and supplemented submission to the Whistleblower Office, which ultimately denied him an award.

In this designated order, respondent moves for summary judgment on petitioner’s challenge of the denial of the award. Respondent argues that it did not abuse its discretion in denying the award because, although the ex-husband was audited and tax was assessed, the IRS did not rely on the information petitioner provided.

Regarding petitioner’s initial submission, the IRS examined the ex-husband’s underreporting of gifts but found that there was not enough independent, verifiable data to support a gift tax assessment. The ex-husband had also filed amended returns which included worthless debts of $23 million and generated losses which he carried back and forward in amended 2003, 2004, and 2006 returns. Petitioner was aware of these amended returns and provided the IRS with information about the worthless debts in a supplemented submission, alleging that the debts were actually gifts to family and friends. According to respondent, the large refund amounts claimed on the returns are what triggered the audit, rather than petitioner’s information.

The information petitioner sent was never seen or used until after the case was closed because the assigned revenue agent believed, for unexplained reasons, that the information was based on grand jury testimony and was tainted. In the audit, the revenue agent concluded the ex-husband failed to substantiate the bad debts he claimed and assessed tax accordingly.

The Whistleblower office sent petitioner a letter denying his claim regarding the gift tax liabilities to which petitioner responded stating that his claim involved the gift tax liabilities and the treatment of gifts as worthless debts. The Whistleblower Office then sent a final determination reviewing each item, and with respect to the worthless debt the IRS stated that it had identified the issue prior to receiving information from petitioner.

Petitioner petitioned Tax Court on that final determination arguing that the exam was initiated due to his information and the information was directly, and indirectly, beneficial to the IRS and resulted in the assessment of tax, penalties, and interest but he offered no evidence to support these claims. He also argued that respondent was too focused on the timing of his supplemented submission in an attempt to deny the award.

A whistleblower is entitled to an award if the secretary proceeds with any administrative or judicial action based on information submitted by the whistleblower. Additionally, the award is only available if the whistleblower’s target’s gross income exceeds $200,000, and if the amount or proceeds in dispute exceed $2,000,000. The IRS must take action and collect proceeds in order to entitle the whistleblower to an award. If the IRS’s action causes the whistleblower’s target to file an amended return, then the amounts collected based on the amended return are considered collected proceeds.

Since the petitioner in this case did not provide additional evidence, the Court reviews the administrative record which reflects that petitioner’s first submission was related to the gift tax issue, on which no proceeds were collected. The administrative record also reflects that petitioner’s supplemented submission about the worthless debts was not used in the exam of the amended returns and the revenue agent received the information after the returns were already selected for exam. Based on its review of the administrative record, the Court grants respondent’s motion for summary judgment.

 

Designated Orders in Krug v. Commissioner, 5/29/18 & 6/13/18

Patrick Thomas and William Schmidt today discuss two designated orders by Judge Halpern in an unusual whistleblower case. The Court seeks further explication of a Social Security Act provision relating to inmate services, which Respondent alleges dooms the petitioner’s claim. Patrick and William take us through the tangle of applicable statutes. Christine

Docket No. 13502-17W, Gregory Charles Krug v. C.I.R. (Order here).

As promised in Patrick and William’s recent designated orders posts, this post looks at Krug v. Commissioner, a whistleblower case assigned to Judge Halpern, and is co-authored by both Patrick and William.

This order stems from Respondent’s motion for summary judgment, which actually resulted in two designated orders: the June 13 order discussed below, and one from May 29. In both orders, the Court is confused by Respondent’s arguments, and as such, declines to dispose of the motion without further argument. The May 29 order sets the motion for a hearing during a trial session on June 4. The later order discusses that hearing, but still reserves judgment until Respondent provides further information.

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Specifically, Respondent asks the Court to uphold the IRS denial of a whistleblower award, because the entity against which the whistleblower complained was not required to withhold employment taxes or federal income tax. Respondent submitted a Form 11369, Confidential Evaluation Report on Claim for Award, which evaluated Petitioner’s administrative claim for a whistleblower award. This form included the following language:

Social Security and Medicare wages are excluded from inmate services under the provision of Section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act. The Federal income tax withholding is dependent on the amount of wages paid which is less than the minimum wage. FIT on these wages would be dependent on other income (investment) earned by the inmates, and whether or not they file a joint return. Because of these unknown factors, this claim will be declined.

So, it appears the whistleblower notified the IRS that a prison was not withholding Social Security, Medicare, or Federal income taxes on wages paid to inmates. The IRS denied a whistleblower award claim, noting that the prison has no such withholding requirements.

Judge Halpern does not understand the relevance of the explanation. The Federal income tax reference seems inapplicable, he says, given that petitioner’s claim relates to “employment taxes.” He further notes that though section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act “does address services by inmates, we do not understand the relevance of the provision to petitioner’s claim.” In the May 29 order, he asked Respondent to clarify its argument at the June 4 trial session.

Apparently, Respondent’s explanation was insufficient. Judge Halpern notes in the June 13 order that, “as indicated in the transcript of the hearing, the Court was not satisfied with counsel’s explanation of why payments for the services of inmates are not subject to withholding for employment taxes.” Petitioner did not appear for the hearing. In fact, the petitioner has not been responsive to orders beginning February 8. Looking at the docket, there could be an issue of whether the Court has the petitioner’s correct address.

To us, it seems that Judge Halpern and Respondent are talking past each other. Judge Halpern is correct, in that, on its face, section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 418) has nothing to do with withholding obligations. Rather, Section 218 provides a mechanism through which State and local governments may allow their employees to participate in Social Security and Medicare. Originally, States were not automatically obligated to participate in these programs. After the addition of Code section 3121(b)(7)(F) in 1991, with limited exceptions, all state employees are required to participate in Social Security, including its withholding requirements. Today, all states have a Section 218 agreement with the federal government.

Separately, Code section 3101(a) imposes Social Security and Medicare taxes, which section 3102(a) requires to be withheld from employee wages. Section 3121(b) defines “employment” broadly, with a number of exceptions. An exception exists for any employee of “a State . . . or any instrumentality . . . “. IRC § 3121(b)(7). Importantly, an exception to the exception exists for any states who have entered into an agreement with the federal government under Section 218 of the Social Security Act, or where the employee is “not a member of a retirement system of such State . . .” IRC § 3121(b)(7)(E), (F). As noted above, all 50 states have these agreements, and all state employees are generally—agreement or not—required to withhold these taxes.

And there’s where the rubber meets the road: Inmates of penal institutions are, under Social Security Act section 218(c)(6), excluded from any agreement under that section, as the Service notes. Further, even where no agreement is in force, section 3121(b)(7)(F)(ii) specifically exempts withholding obligations for state employers for wages paid to inmates in a penal institution.

Regarding the withholding of federal income tax, while such a tax might not be strictly characterized as an “employment tax”, employers are nevertheless generally obligated to withhold such taxes from employee wages. Reporting such a failure could charitably fall under the ambit of “employment taxes” when a pro se taxpayer uses this term. And further, section 3401 contains no blanket waiver on the definitions of “wages” or “employment” in mandating withholding obligations under section 3402(a)(1).

So, to us, there appears to be a live issue regarding income tax withholding requirements, but a fairly straightforward argument that no Social Security or Medicare tax withholdings were required. The Service says in the Form 11369 that the employer needed more information to make this determination (other income, marital status, etc.). But isn’t it the employer’s problem that they didn’t collect that information?

We’re also confused why the IRS would make only this argument. A whistleblower award under section 7623 is premised upon the IRS “proceed[ing] with any administrative or judicial action described in [7623(a)] based on information brought to the Secretary’s attention by an individual.” The “administrative or judicial action” could include “(1) detecting underpayments of tax, or (2) detecting and bringing to trial and punishment persons guilty of violating the internal revenue laws or conniving at the same…” If Respondent’s argument is that the prison in question wasn’t required to withhold, then surely the IRS also did not take “administrative or judicial action” to detect an underpayment or other malfeasance. That seems a much stronger argument for upholding the denial.

Further, Judge Halpern, in his second order, advises Respondent’s counsel to review Kasper v. Commissioner, 150 No. 2 (2018), which we’ve discussed before. Kasper holds (1) Tax Court review of a whistleblower award denial is generally limited to the administrative record; (2) the standard of review is abuse of discretion; and (3) the Chenery rule applies, meaning that the Tax Court can only uphold the Service’s decision on the same grounds that the Service itself made the decision.

How does Kasper affect this case? Because the standard of review is now conclusively an abuse of discretion standard in the Tax Court, it’s easier for the Tax Court to uphold the denial of a whistleblower claim.

But we may also be missing a critical fact: did the whistleblower’s claim relate to unpaid wages, as in Kasper? Without access to the other documents in the Tax Court’s docket, we can’t know for sure. If so, then Judge Halpern seems to suggest that regardless of whether a prison is required to withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes for wages paid to inmates, the Court could uphold the decision on the basis that no withholding was necessary, because no wages were paid. But, if that’s the case, why not just order that here? If only Tax Court motions and briefs were publicly accessible, we wouldn’t be left to wonder.

The June 13 order requires Respondent and Petitioner to file a memorandum on or before August 3 addressing the Court’s concerns with the Form 11369’s relevance. In the meantime, the Court has taken the motion for summary judgment under advisement.

What Makes a Whistleblower Notice of Determination?

Carlton Smith brings us a thought-provoking discussion of the Myers whistleblower case which raises important issues of Tax Court jurisdiction and tax exceptionalism. Christine

There is a case pending in the D.C. Circuit that may upend several Tax Court precedents concerning what constitutes a valid notice of determination concerning a whistleblower award.  Such notices give the Tax Court review jurisdiction under section 7623(b)(4).  In Myers v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 20 (June 5, 2017), the Tax Court followed its prior precedent of Cooper v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 70, 75-76 (2010), which held that there is no particular form for a whistleblower award notice of determination, and that multiple letters from the Whistleblower Office indicating that an award was not being granted each constituted tickets to the Tax Court.  In an appeal of Myers, the whistleblower is challenging those holdings, which have never been reviewed by an appellate court.  Under section 7482(b)(1)’s flush language, all appeals from Tax Court whistleblower award cases go to the D.C. Circuit – not the Circuit of residence.  So, under Golsen, the Tax Court will have to accept anything the D.C. Circuit rules in the appeal of Myers.

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Facts

Myers sought an award with respect to a former employer of his.  He told the IRS that the employer had misclassified him and many of his co-workers as independent contractors.  It is unclear whether the IRS ever used this information to conduct an administrative proceeding.  In one letter to Myers, the IRS alleged that it did not collect $2 million – the threshold for awards under section 7623(b)(5) – which may imply it did audit the employer and collect some money.  Starting in 2009 and going through 2014, Myers exchanged correspondence with the Whistleblower’s Office.  In a series of four letters written to him in 2013 and 2014, the Office made clear that it was not giving him an award.  But, despite the Manual’s then requirement (since repealed) that any whistleblower award notice of determination be sent certified mail, each of these letters was sent to Myers by regular mail.  Further, none of the letters stated therein that this was a notice of determination, that review was available in the Tax Court, or that he had 30 days to file a Tax Court petition.

Myers was representing himself, and he was frustrated and did not know what to do to pursue his claim.  Eventually, in 2015, Myers filed a Tax Court petition, and the IRS moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction as untimely.

Tax Court Proceedings

In the Tax Court, Myers resisted the IRS motion, arguing that the letters were not valid notices of determination, particularly since they were not sent certified mail, but also because they did not alert him to the possibility of filing in the Tax Court.  Of course, if he were right on this, then perhaps the correct ruling would be for the court to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction for lack of a ticket to the Tax Court, rather than for untimely filing.

But, Myers also argued that, if the letters constituted valid notices of determination, then the Tax Court had jurisdiction because either equitable tolling or estoppel should prevent the IRS from arguing that he filed too late.

The case was first discussed in a phone call with Special Trial Judge Guy, and then a hearing on the motion was held before Judge Ashford.  The transcript of the hearing is here.  At the hearing, Judge Ashford’s concern was how the IRS could prove the date of mailing of the letters, when they were not sent certified mail.  But, the judge also wondered why the IRS couldn’t just fix the problem by now sending a notice of determination by certified mail.  Here’s the judge speaking at pp. 47-48 of the transcript:

I’m going to take this matter under advisement. I am still — I mean, based on the testimony, you know, of both Ms. Carr and Mr. Myers, you know, Mr. Arthur and Mr. Barnes, I am still troubled, to be frank with you, by the fact that all of these letters or determinations, you know, they’re ambiguous. They give no clue as to — first, you know, like I said, at the outset starting the 30 days — starting the 30-day clock, so to speak.

And it just seems like, you know, the Internal Revenue Service issuing these letters, they can easily frustrate judicial review, you know, by issuing ambiguous denials.

You know, I don’t know whether, you know, it’s a matter of — and I think Judge Guy may have alluded to this when you all had a telephone conference. You know, the IRS whistleblower office, you know, issuing, you know, another, you know, denial letter certified mail, you know, so that — so that The Court, you know, can proceed, I guess.

When she wrote her opinion in Myers, though, Judge Ashford followed Cooper and held that each of these letters constituted notices of determination, and she got around the issue of the date the IRS sent the letters by holding that Mr. Myers’s actions in responding to them shows that he received the letters in sufficient time to petition the Tax Court within 30 days after the date of the letters, so his later Tax Court filing was untimely.  She imported into the whistleblower award jurisdiction the similar case law from deficiency jurisdiction holding that if one actually received a notice of deficiency – one that was either not sent certified mail or not properly addressed – with enough time left on the 90-day period to file a petition, then the notice of deficiency was valid.  She also observed that the Tax Court could not equitably toll the whistleblower award filing period, citing Friedland v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2011-90, since the filing period is jurisdictional.  As a side note, when Friedland came out, I questioned whether it was correct in light of recent Supreme Court case law that now only rarely makes filing deadlines jurisdictional and the existing presumption in favor of finding that statutes of limitations running against the government are subject to equitable tolling.  See my “Friedland:  Did the Tax Court Blow its Whistleblower Jurisdiction?”, Tax Notes Today, 2011 TNT 100-10 (May 24, 2011).

Myers moved to reconsider the opinion, in part because both Judges Guy and Ashford had considered asking the IRS to just issue a proper notice of determination by certified mail.  In an order, Judge Ashford denied the motion, writing in part:

[P]etitioner places undue import on what transpired during a telephone conference the Court held with the parties before the hearing on respondent’s motion to dismiss and at the hearing. What the Court suggested to respondent was just that — a suggestion (to potentially resolve a previously unaddressed legal question).  Indeed, as a court of limited jurisdiction, sec. 7442, we lack the authority to order respondent to take such a specific action as reissuing a determination letter. Cf. Cooper v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 597, 600 (2011) (no authority under sec. 7623 to order Commissioner to initiate examination on basis of whistleblower information). The suggestion in any event (and respondent’s apparent disinclination to take up the Court’s suggestion) does not cause us to question the direct evidence that petitioner received actual notice of the Whistleblower Office’s determination letters significantly more than 30 days before he filed his petition with the Court.

If Judge Gustafson is reading this post, his ears must have just pricked up, since he had a much ballyhooed whistleblower case a while ago in which he indicated that he was not so sure that the Tax Court did not have the power to order the IRS to issue a whistleblower award notice of determination where the IRS had unreasonably delayed in sending such a notice.  Indeed, an amicus brief was submitted to him in that case, Insinga v. Commissioner, T.C. Docket No. 4609-12W.  Here’s what he wrote in a 2013 order in Insinga:

The amicus curiae (National Whistleblower Center) argues in the alternative that where an award determination has been unreasonably delayed, the Tax Court has jurisdiction–in light of § 7623(b)(4) and under § 706(1) of the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq.–to “compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed”. Respondent counters that the APA itself confers no jurisdiction and that the mandamus statute (28 U.S.C. § 1361) by its terms gives jurisdiction only to “[t]he district courts”. Respondent is correct; but the “All Writs Act” (28 U.S.C. § 1651) applies to “all courts established by Act of Congress” (cf 26 U.S.C. § 7441, establishing the U.S. Tax Court); and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has held in Telecommunications Research and Action Center v. FCC, 750 F.2d 70, 75 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (“TRAC“), that, in view of the APA and the All Writs Act, “it is clear–and no party disputes this point–that” if a statute (there, 28 U.S.C. § 23421(1)) confers on a court exclusive jurisdiction to review a final agency order, then even before the final order has been issued, the court has “jurisdiction over claims of unreasonable [agency] delay”. (The D.C. Circuit would appear to be the default venue for any appeal in this case; see 26 U.S.C. § 7482(b)(1).)

We have not decided whether the reasoning in TRAC applies to the Tax Court and its jurisdiction under § 7623(b)(4). Nor have we decided whether, if the APA does not directly apply, this case nonetheless presents one of those instances in which the Tax Court, “in appropriate circumstances, borrow[s] principles of judicial review embodied in the APA.” Ewing v. Commissioner, 122 T.C. 32, 54 (2004) (Thornton, J., concurring).

We believe we ought not to reach those questions if we do not need to do so.

Before Judge Gustafson had to rule on this issue, the Insinga mater became moot when the IRS issued a notice of determination and the parties settled the Insinga case.

Appellate Proceedings

Still acting pro se, Myers appealed the Tax Court’s dismissal of his case to the Tenth Circuit.  At the urging of the DOJ, though, the Tenth Circuit transferred the appeal to the Circuit with correct venue, the D.C. Circuit, per the following order.

At this point, Joe DiRuzzo and Alex Golubitsky tendered their legal services pro bono to Mr. Myers and filed an opening brief in his case in the D.C. Circuit.  In that brief, they did not contest whether Mr. Myers received the letters in time to file a Tax Court petition, but rather argued, first, that the letters did not constitute notices of determination.  Rather than immediately asking the Tax Court to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction for lack of the predicate notice of determination, they argued that, under the TRAC opinion cited by Judge Gustafson in his Insinga order, the Tax Court had the power under the All Writs Act to order the IRS to issue a notice of determination to Myers and that the Tax Court should exercise that power.  They also noted that the Federal Circuit last year held that the Article I Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (the “Veterans Court”), under the All Writs Act, had the power to order the VA to issue the predicate tickets to the Veterans Court if they had been unreasonably delayed.  Monk v. Shulkin, 855 F.3d 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2017).  (As an aside, the Monk case is one Tax Court judges should read and ponder, since the Federal Circuit also held in that case that, despite the lack of Veterans Court rules authorizing class actions, the Veterans Court also had the power to hear class actions.  Might the Tax Court also have class action powers, despite no current class action rules?  Monk may be the subject of another post, but I just flag the opinion here as worth reading by all tax procedure buffs for several reasons.)

In the alternative, if the letters were valid notices, Messrs. DiRuzzo and Golubitsky argued that the 30-day filing deadline in section 7623(b)(4) was not jurisdictional under current Supreme Court case law that now rarely makes filing deadlines jurisdictional, and the petition should be held timely under the doctrine of equitable tolling because of the misleading behavior of the IRS in this case.  The Harvard Federal Tax Clinic filed an amicus brief in Myers (written by Keith and me) limited to the argument that the filing deadline is not jurisdictional.  This is just another case in our campaign against judicial tax filing deadlines still being considered jurisdictional.

The DOJ has not yet filed its answering brief in Myers, so the government position on many of these issues is not yet known.  This should be an interesting case to follow for many reasons.  PT will keep you posted on further interesting developments therein.

Don’t Expect a Whistleblower Award for Giving the IRS Privileged Information and General Information from the Judicial Conference on this Issue

At the recent Tax Court judicial conference, there was a specific breakout session dedicated to whistleblower cases. I attended the session not because my clinic has, or will ever have, a whistleblower case but because I have blogged a number of these cases which are coming out now with regularity. Since the jurisdictional basis is relatively new, many of the decisions set precedent. From going to this session, I now know that generally we have picked the most important issues to cover with our blog posts. Sadly, we have still not recruited a regular guest poster with expertise who could offer insights someone not litigating this type of case cannot offer. Anyone practicing in this area who would like to send us guest posts would be most welcome.

In addition to discussing and linking to information provided at the Judicial Conference about Whistleblowers, I will discuss a recent case involving the denial of any award. The case points out the difficulty that a claimant will have if the IRS determines that the information is privileged and the claimant disagrees. The Tax Court does not become the forum for litigating whether the IRS made the right decision regarding the privilege just as it does not second guess the IRS on whether it makes a good decision to pursue cases based on the information provided.

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The Conference

The non-judicial panel members for the whistleblower breakout session included: Erica L. Brady, of The Ferraro law Firm (a PT guest blogger); Bryan C. Skarlatos, of Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP; and Robert T. Wearing, of the IRS Office of Chief Counsel. The panel was co-moderated by The Honorable John O. Colvin and The Honorable Daniel A. Guy. During the session, documents were provided to attendees that were useful in following the presentation. The documentation was: first, an outline of the issues in whistleblower litigation; second, accompanying attachments to the outline of the whistleblower litigation issues; third, a general whistleblower outline on representing tax whistleblowers and defending against them; fourth, an outline on IRC section 6103 and the use and protection of taxpayer return information in whistleblower cases; and fifth, a copy of Form 11369 Confidential Evaluation Report on Claim for Award.

The Court provided some statistics on these cases during its presentation. Assuming my handwritten notes correctly captured the data provided, 101 whistleblower cases filed so far have requested permission to proceed anonymously. The Tax Court granted the request in about half of these cases, which is about the same number that were represented. The Court reminded us that the venue for appeal of these cases lies with the D.C. Circuit and stated that three cases were currently on appeal to that court. The number of petitioners seeking relief under this provision increased gradually until 2016 before dropping off in 2017. There were 56 whistleblower petitions filed in 2016 and only 45 in 2017. One panelist suggested fewer claims were filed because taxpayers and practitioners learned more about these claims. The number of IRC section 7623(b) claims has continued to rise each year. One surprising, but not too shocking, statistic was that it takes about seven and one-half years for a claim to go through the process to payout or denial.

Over 14,000 determinations have been made so far by the IRS whistleblower office but it is not clear how many of the determinations are for claims submitted under (a) and how many under (b). It is assumed that most are under (a). Last year the IRS made 242 awards, only 27 of which were under (b). Another thing I learned at the conference, related to the amount of time these cases take, is that the IRS has a relatively new program in which they try to follow up with a whistleblower each year.

The Case

On March 20, 2018, the Tax Court issued its most recent whistleblower opinion in the case of Whistleblower 23711-15W v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2018-34. In this sealed case, the Court granted summary judgment to the IRS because it did not initiate administrative or judicial action based on the information provided. The problem with the information was that the whistleblower, an attorney, got the information (in the view of the IRS) in a privileged context. The IRS decided that it could not use the information provided to it in order to create a case. There is not enough information in the opinion to permit a detailed analysis of the information and the privilege. The attorney must have thought that the information was not privileged. The attorney had enough concerns about the information in order to request and receive a sealing of the record of the case but that does not speak to the privilege. The IRS whistleblower office gave the information to Chief Counsel of the IRS, which opined that the privilege attached.

Petitioner had previously been employed as an attorney by the law firm that represented the reported party and alleged, based on information gathered during that relationship, that the taxpayer had “engaged in tax evasion using offshore entities.” Based on the advice received from Chief Counsel’s office, the IRS did not do anything with the information. Since the IRS showed the Tax Court that it did not collect any tax based on the tip, the Court sustained the motion for summary judgment filed by the IRS.

The whistleblower argued that the IRS should have “dug deeper” in reviewing the returns of the reported party but the Court had little trouble brushing aside this argument.

Petitioner disputed that the information was covered by the attorney client privilege. The Court stated “in reviewing the Office’s determination, however, we do not have authority to second guess the IRS’s decision not to proceed with administrative or judicial action. Our authority is limited to ascertaining whether the IRS in fact proceeded with such action and collected proceeds as a result.”

This case shows once again that whistleblowers will not get anywhere arguing to the Tax Court that the IRS failed to make good use of the valuable information provided. It also shows the value of providing the IRS with information about where the information came from and legal support for the ability of the IRS to use the information. The petitioner here disagreed with the determination of the Chief Counsel attorney that the petitioner gathered the information in a privileged setting. Petitioner should have anticipated the concern and provided a detailed legal supporting memo along with the information. Maybe the end result would not have changed, but by heading off concerns at the outset the whistleblower has a better chance that the IRS will accept the information that might otherwise cause it concern. Since the petitioner cannot use the Tax Court to settle any dispute regarding privilege, the petitioner must try to head off the concern before it gets to the stage of keeping the IRS from using the information.

 

Tax Court Decides Scope and Standard of Review in Whistleblower Cases

In a fully reviewed Tax Court opinion, Kasper v Commissioner, the Tax Court held that the scope of review in whistleblower cases is subject to the record rule and that the standard of review is abuse of discretion. The opinion is an important development in the progression of treating tax cases as a subset of cases within the mainstream of administrative law generally and the Administrative Procedure Act.

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The opinion concerns whistleblower claim relating to a former employee’s allegations that his employer had a longstanding pattern of uncompensated overtime for its employees. The whistleblower claim connected to taxes because it claimed that the millions of dollars in unpaid overtime would have led to substantial employment tax on the compensation.

The IRS rejected the claim in 2011, and in so doing sent a boilerplate rejection that was not really responsive to the particulars of the claim. In a bankruptcy proceeding involving Kasper’s former employer, IRS collected over $37 million in taxes relating to unpaid withholdings. Kasper wanted some of that, connecting his whistleblower claim to the IRS actions in the bankruptcy proceeding.

The opinion notes that the parties tried the case to “establish the contents of the administrative record and ordered the parties to brief the issues of the scope and standard of review in whistleblower cases to help us figure out both what we can look at and how to look at the IRS’s work in whistleblower cases.”

The opinion clears the fog on the scope and standard of review in whistleblower cases. In so doing, it explores an issue we have covered in PT and an area that I have discussed extensively in IRS Practice and Procedure, especially in revised Chapter 1.7, namely the precise relationship between the APA and the workings of the IRS.

The importance of Kasper is that it establishes that whistleblower cases, unlike deficiency cases which predate the APA and which have a defined set of procedures establishing a clear legislative exception to the path of judicial review of agency action, are subject to the same rules as applied to court review of other agency adjudications. There are there main aspects of that principle:

  • Scope of Review: Tax Court review of whistleblower determinations are subject to the record rule, meaning that the parties are generally bound to the record that the agency and party made prior to the agency determination
  • Standard of Review: the Tax Court will review whisitleblower determinations on an abuse of discretion basis; and
  • Chenery Rule Applies: The Tax Court can uphold the Whistleblower Office determination only on the grounds it actually relied on when making its determination.

What makes Kasper one of the most significant tax procedure cases of the new year is that in reaching those conclusions it walks us through and synthesizes scope and standard of review and Chenery principles in other areas, such as spousal relief under Section 6015 and CDP cases under Section 6220 and 6330.

In what I believe is potentially even more significant is its discussion of exceptions within the record rule that allow parties to supplement the record at trial.   To that end the opinion lists DC Circuit (which it notes in an early footnote would likely be the venue for an appeal even though the whistleblower lived in AZ ) summary of those exceptions:

  • when agency action is not adequately explained in the record;
  • when the agency failed to consider relevant factors;
  • when the agency considered evidence which it failed to include in the record;
  • when a case is so complex that a court needs more evidence to enable it to understand the issues clearly;
  • where there is evidence that arose after the agency action showing whether the decision was correct or not; and
  • where the agency’s failure to take action is under review

As I observe in IRS Practice and Procedure, the clarity so to speak of cases such as Kasper in bringing categories of tax cases within the confines of administrative law is belied by the complexity and at times uncertainty surrounding basic administrative law principles. As  Kasper notes, there can be (and often are) disputes about what is the agency record, and nontax cases establish that the agency itself does not have the final word on what constitutes the record.

On the merits, the Tax Court concluded that the information that Kasper provided did not lead to the collection of the employment taxes in the bankruptcy case. Even though the whistleblower office did not consider the evidence pertaining to the bankruptcy court proceedings, the opinion notes that the IRS would have filed its proof of claim in the ordinary course, so its error in note considering the information was harmless.

Waiving a Right to Contest a Whistleblower Award

The case of Whistleblower 4496-15W v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 19 (May 25, 2017) concerns both the timeliness of filing a Tax Court petition in a whistleblower case and the effect of cashing a check granting an award.  Both aspects of the case deserve some discussion.  The whistleblower wins the battle concerning the timing of the filing of the petition only to lose the war on whether the signing of the check served as a waiver of the right to sue the IRS in this matter.

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The whistleblower gave the IRS some good information.  The IRS calculated that the information allowed it to recover over $14 million.  Based on that recovery, the IRS recommended an award percentage of 22% resulting in a proposed award of $3,187,630.  Because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the IRS reduced the award by 7.3%.

On December 1, 2014, the IRS sent to the whistleblower a summary report “that explains our preliminary award recommendation in the amount of $2,954,933.00.”  The letter explained the amount recovered the percentage award and the required reduction.  It also explained that the award would be reduced by withholding.  The letter also explained the options that the whistleblower had upon its receipt.  If the whistleblower agreed with the award, “he was directed to ‘check the appropriate box, sign and date the Response to Summary Report indicating … [his] agreement’ and ‘return the signed Response’ to the Office.”  The letter gave explicit details concerning the effect of signing on future contests concerning the award stating that “by checking the box that you agree with the preliminary award recommendation, you agree to waive any judicial appeal rights with respect to the award determination, including filing a petition with the U.S. Tax Court.”

The letter also explained that the whistleblower could disagree with the proposed award recommendation and submit comments to the Office.  The letter stated that it was NOT a final determination for purposes of filing a Tax Court petition.  The whistleblower’s attorney called the Office on December 8 and 9 with questions and was told accepting the award now was conclusive.

The whistleblower and his attorney signed the letter.  The IRS sent a check dated January 15, 2015, in the reduced amount, which was further reduced by $819,107 of withholding.  The whistleblower filed a Tax Court petition on February 11, 2015, arguing that the IRS lacked legal support for reducing the recommended offer by 7.3%.  The IRS moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction arguing first that it should have been filed within 30 days of December 1, 2014.  The Court pointed out that the December 1 letter specifically stated that it was a preliminary letter and not a final determination.  Without much difficulty, the Court found that the December 1 letter was not and could not be the determination letter starting the time to file a petition in a whistleblower case.  Looking around at what could be used for that purpose, the Court concluded that the statute provided no guidance.  Here, it found that the check served the purpose of the final determination.  Since the petition was filed within 30 days of the mailing of the check, the petition was timely.  Makes sense, but the lack of a formal way to denote a final determination will continue to plague petitioners, the IRS, and the Court until Congress gets around to fixing this hole in the statute.

So, now the whistleblower got past the building guard and into the Tax Court, but he still had a problem.  He agreed not to file a Tax Court petition as part of accepting the check.  When you get a check for over $2 million I can only imagine that it is hard to pass that up for Door #2.  I am still waiting for the day I have this option.

The IRS moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because of the signed agreement; however, the Court correctly pointed out that the signed agreement did not mean the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case but could form a basis for a motion for summary judgment and the Court recharacterized the motion to that purpose.

As I read the case I thought about the form used by Appeals, Form 870-AD, which has produced a number of decisions regarding the effect of having the taxpayer sign away the ability to litigate.  Most, but not all, of those decisions have resulted in victories for the IRS with courts enforcing the signed waiver.  The Tax Court here looked at several of its prior decisions on waivers including decisions on the Appeals form.  The decisions uniformly held for the IRS.  At this point I had a strong suspicion where the Court would end up here.

The Court found that the whistleblower knowingly signed away his right to come to court.  It swatted away the arguments made by the petitioner finding the language of the letter unambiguous.  The Court states:

In sum, petitioner waived his judicial appeal rights in order to receive prompt payment of his award, and the Office fully performed its side of the bargain.  We will accordingly enforce the agreement reached by the parties, give effect to petitioner’s waiver of his right to judicial review, and grant summary judgment for respondent sustaining the Office’s determination.

I do not know if petitioner will appeal this determination.  A quick search indicated that an appeal has not yet been filed.  While the result here does not surprise me, a few courts have struck down waiver paragraphs like this.  Look at Whitney v. United States, 826 F.2d 896 (9th Cir. 1987) where the court found that the Form 870-AD, standing alone, does not estop a taxpayer from later seeking a refund.  Other courts, such as Arch Engineering Co., Inc. v. United States, 783 F.2d 190, 192 (Fed.Cir.1986) (dicta); Lignos v. United States, 439 F.2d 1365, 1367 (2d Cir.1971); Uinta Livestock Corp. v. United States, 355 F.2d 761 (10th Cir.1966); cf. Cain v. United States, 255 F.2d 193, 199 (8th Cir.1958) (Van Oosterhout, J., dissenting) that follow this view look for the IRS to enter into a closing agreement if it wants to bind the taxpayer.  Most courts, represented by cases such as Flynn v. United States, 786 F.2d 586, 591 (3d Cir.1986) (dicta) (also applying contract principles); Elbo Coals, Inc. v. United States, 763 F.2d 818, 821 (6th Cir.1985); General Split Corp. v. United States, 500 F.2d 998, 1004 (7th Cir.1974); Cain v. United States, 255 F.2d 193, 199 (8th Cir.1958) prevent the taxpayer from coming into court after signing the Form 870-AD based on equitable estoppel.  Maybe a whistleblower will find a sympathetic ear before one of the circuit courts that looks kindly on the taxpayer coming into court after signing the Form 870-AD.  The closing agreement argument has some appeal.  If not, whistleblowers will have to make some hard choices when they receive the check from the IRS because it looks like they will be stuck with the award they receive unless they fight before cashing the check.

 

Designated Orders: 7/24 – 7/28/2017

Professor Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame discusses last week’s designated orders. Les

Last week’s orders follow up on some previously covered developments in the Tax Court, including the Vigon opinion on the finality of a CDP case and the ongoing fight over the jurisdictional nature of section 6015(e)(1)(A). We also cover a very odd postal error and highlight remaining uncertainties in the Tax Court’s whistleblower jurisprudence. Other orders this week included a Judge Jacobs order and Judge Wherry’s order in a tax shelter case. The latter case showcases the continuing fallout from the Graev and Chai opinions.

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Deposits in a CDP Liability Challenge? – Dkt. # 14945-16L, ASG Services, LLC v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The first order this week follows on the heels of the Vigon division opinion, about which Keith recently wrote. In a challenge to the underlying liability in a CDP case, ASG paid the liabilities at issue in full in August 2016, and the Service quickly followed with a motion to dismiss for mootness, given that no further collection activity would take place. Judge Gustafson (Vigon’s author) orders ASG to answer three hypotheses, which attempt to distinguish ASG from Vigon.

Judge Gustafson contrasts ASG’s situation with the taxpayer in Vigon, given that the Service has not indicated an inclination to assess the liabilities again in ASG. Indeed, this may be because the IRS cannot assess ASG’s liabilities a second time due to the assessment statute of limitations under section 6501. As a corollary, Judge Gustafson posits that ASG is asking for a refund of the tax, without any contest as to a collection matter. Thus, as in Greene-Thapedi, the court may lack jurisdiction to entertain the refund suit. Finally, the Court notes that even if the refund claim could proceed, ASG would need to show that it had filed a claim for a refund with the Service. Judge Gustafson requests a response from ASG (and the Service) on these suggestions.

Separately, ASG noted in its response to the motion to dismiss that “Petitioner paid the amounts to stop the running of interest.” Judge Gustafson therefore ordered ASG to document whether these remittances were “deposits”, rather than “payments,” along with the effect on mootness. Under section 6603, deposits are remittances to the Service that stop underpayment interest from running. However, deposits are ordinarily always remitted prior to assessment, during an examination. The Service must return the deposit to the taxpayer upon request, and, if at the end of the examination the resulting assessment is less than the deposit, the Service must refund the remainder.

It’s unclear whether a remittance made during a CDP proceeding challenging the underlying liability could be treated as a deposit, though Judge Gustafson seems to be opening the door to this possibility.

The Continuing Saga of Section 6015(e)(1)(A) – Dkt. # 21661-14S, Vu v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Vu is one of four innocent spouse Tax Court cases in which Keith and Carl Smith have argued that the period under section 6015(e)(1)(A) to petition the Tax Court from the Service’s denial of an innocent spouse request is not jurisdictional. Les wrote previously about this case when Judge Ashford issued an opinion dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction. Vu is unique among the four cases; in the three other Tax Court dockets (Rubel, Matuszak, and Nauflett), petitioners argue that the time period is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling in circumstances where the Service misled the taxpayers into filing late. In contrast, Ms. Vu filed too early, but by the time she realized this, it was too late to refile. As a result, Judge Ashford dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, because of an untimely petition.

Shortly after the opinion, Keith and Carl entered an appearance in Vu and filed motions to reconsider, vacate, and remove the small tax case designation, arguing that the Service forfeited the right to belatedly raise a nonjurisdictional statute of limitations defense.

Last week, Judge Ashford denied those motions. Substantively, Judge Ashford relied on the opinions of the Second and Third Circuits in Matuszak v. Commissioner and Rubel v. Commissioner, which hold that the time limitation in section 6015(e)(1)(A) is jurisdictional. (The Tax Court also recently ruled against the petitioner in Nauflett, but Keith and Carl plan to appeal this to the Fourth Circuit). Given that, therefore, Judge Ashford believed there to be no “substantial error of fact or law” or “unusual circumstances or substantial error” that would justify granting a motion to reconsider or motion to vacate, she denies those two motions.

To compound matters, Vu also filed her petition requesting a small case designation; decisions in small tax cases are not appealable. While Vu moved to remove the small case designation, Judge Ashford denied that motion as well. The standard for granting a motion to remove a small case designation is whether “the orderly conduct of the work of the Court or the administration of the tax laws would be better served by a regular trial of the case.” In particular, the court may grant such a motion where a regular decision will provide precedent to dispose of a substantial number of other cases. But because Judge Ashford views there to already be substantial precedent against Vu’s position, she denies this motion as well.

Keith and Carl plan to appeal Vu to the Tenth Circuit anyway, arguing that the ban on appeal of small tax cases does not apply where the Tax Court mistakenly ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear a case. This argument will be one of first impression.

A second argument will be that the denial of a motion to remove a small case designation is appealable. In Cole v. Commissioner, 958 F.2d 288 (9th Cir. 1992) the Ninth Circuit dismissed an appeal from an S case for lack of jurisdiction, noting that neither party had actually moved to remove the small case designation. In Risley v. Commissioner, 472 Fed. Appx. 557 (9th Cir. 2012), where there is no mention of the issue of a motion to remove the small tax case designation, the court raised, but did not have to decide, whether it could hear an appeal from an S case if there was a due process claim. A due process violation allegation might be another occasion for appealing an S case, but there will be no due process violation alleged in the appeal of Vu.

Keith and Carl also note that they will not be filing a cert petition in either Matuszak or Rubel. They will only do so if they can generate, through Nauflett or Vu, a circuit split on whether the time period under section 6015(e)(1)(A) is jurisdictional.

Postal Error? – Dkt. # 9469-16L Marineau v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In Marineau, Judge Leyden tackles the Service’s motion for summary judgment in a CDP case. The facts start as is typical: the Service filed a motion for summary judgment, and the Petitioner responded that the Service hadn’t sent the Notice of Deficiency to their last known address in Florida. Dutifully, the Service responded with a copy of the Notice of Deficiency showing the taxpayer’s Florida address and a Form 3877 indicating the NOD was sent by certified mail to that address. Both the NOD and the Form 3877 have the same US Postal Service tracking number.

But then things take a turn. The Service also submitted a copy of the tracking record for that tracking number from the post office. It shows that the NOD was sent from Ogden, Utah, but that it was attempted to be delivered in Michigan, rather than Florida. The NOD was unclaimed and eventually returned to the Service.

Judge Leyden appears to be as perplexed as I am by this situation. So, she ordered the Service to explain what happened. I’ll be looking forward to finding out as well.

Remand and Standard of Review in a Whistleblower Action – Dkt. # 28731-15W Epstein v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In this whistleblower action, the Service and the Petitioner apparently agreed that the Petitioner was entitled to an award (or perhaps, an increased award). The Service filed a motion to remand the case so that a new final determination letter could be issued. The Petitioner opposed this motion, as he believed that the Tax Court could decide the issue for itself, without need to remand.

Judge Lauber appears to be cautious towards remanding a case, for two reasons: first, it’s unclear whether the Court has the authority to remand a whistleblower case. While CDP cases are subject to remand, due to the abuse of discretion standard applicable in most cases, cases in which the Court may decide an issue de novo are, according to Judge Lauber, generally not subject to remand. (I’m not sure that’s entirely correct, as CDP cases challenging the underlying liability are indeed subject to remand.) Relatedly, the Court isn’t yet even sure what the standard of review for a whistleblower case is.

Judge Lauber manages to avoid these issues. Because the Court retains jurisdiction where the Service changes its mind about the original whistleblower claim post-petition (see Ringo v. Commissioner), Judge Lauber does not believe there’s any point in remanding the case for issuance of a new letter. The Service can simply issue the letter now, and the Court can enforce any resulting settlement through a judgment. Of course, it can’t hurt to not have to decide the tricky issues surrounding the Court’s standard of review and possibility of a remand