Collecting Partnership Debt from General Partners

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The 9th Circuit recently sustained the district court which sustained the bankruptcy court in the case of Pitts v. United States.  The taxpayer sought a determination that the taxes claimed against her in the bankruptcy proceeding were discharged.  The courts determined that the taxes were not discharged, rejecting various arguments that she presented.  The case breaks no new legal ground but serves to highlight how the IRS collects from general partners.  If you have this issue, you might look at IRM Part 5, specifically 5.1.21, 5.17.7, and 5.19.14.

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Ms. Pitts was the general partner of DIR Waterproofing. DIR failed to pay its employment taxes including both trust fund and non-trust fund portions. The IRS would typically make some effort to collect from the partnership and then seek to collect from the partners. The opinion does not describe the efforts made here, but the IRS did issue a notice of federal tax (NFTL) against Ms. Pitts. In these situations the IRS does not go through a separate assessment process for Ms. Pitts but uses the assessment made against the partnership in order to pursue collection against her. The NFTL would reference the partnership debt although it would make clear that the lien is against her. Because the debt arose through the partnership, she argued that it was a state law debt and the IRS was limited to collect as a state law creditor. The 9th Circuit made three separate explanations of why her arguments failed.

First, the court pointed out that under IRC 6321 Ms. Pitts was a person liable to pay any tax and, as such a person, a lien arises under federal law which attaches to all of her property and rights to property once the IRS makes demand for payment and payment is not made. This is federal law and not state law creating the lien. The court cited several cases in support of its position.

Next, the court found that the IRS can use all of its administrative enforcement tools because she is secondarily liable on this debt. The court cited to a Supreme Court decision, United States v. Galletti, 541 U.S. 114 (2004) that may have caused Ms. Pitts to make the arguments she made here but which should also have suggested to her that these arguments would likely fail. In Galletti, similarly situated taxpayers to Ms. Pitts went into bankruptcy where the IRS filed a proof of claim based on the assessment against the partnership in which they were general partners. The Gallettis argued that no debt existed against them because the IRS had not made an assessment against them (and the statute of limitations on assessment of the partnership debt had run by the time of the bankruptcy.) In that case, the bankruptcy court, the district court, and the 9th Circuit agreed with the Gallettis. These opinions relied upon the definition of ‘taxpayer’ in IRC 7701 and looked to the separate nature of the partners as taxpayers from the partnership. The IRS pushed the case to the Supreme Court, which held that the IRS did not need to make a separate assessment because the Gallettis were liable under state law as general partners of the partnership.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Thomas said:

“Under a proper understanding of the function and nature of an assessment, it is clear that it is the tax that is assessed, not the taxpayer. See §6501(a) (“the amount of any tax … shall be assessed”); §6502(a) (“[w]here the assessment of any tax”). And in United States v. Updike, 281 U. S. 489 (1930), the Court, interpreting a predecessor to §6502, held that the limitations period resulting from a proper assessment governs “the extent of time for the enforcement of the tax liability,” id., at 495. In other words, the Court held that the statute of limitations attached to the debt as a whole. The basis of the liability in Updike was a tax imposed on the corporation, and the Court held that the same limitations period applied in a suit to collect the tax from the corporation as in a suit to collect the tax from the derivatively liable transferee. Id., at 494-496. See also United States v. Wright, 57 F. 3d 561, 563 (CA7 1995) (holding that, based on Updike‘s principle of “all-for-one, one-for-all,” the statute of limitations governs the debt as a whole).

Once a tax has been properly assessed, nothing in the Code requires the IRS to duplicate its efforts by separately assessing the same tax against individuals or entities who are not the actual taxpayers but are, by reason of state law, liable for payment of the taxpayer’s debt. The consequences of the assessment–in this case the extension of the statute of limitations for collection of the debt–attach to the tax debt without reference to the special circumstances of the secondarily liable parties.”

Ms. Pitts wants the courts to recognize that the assessment only applies to her because of the operation of state law and since it is the operation of state law causing her to become liable she wants the debt treated as state law debt and not tax debt with the exceptions to discharge applicable to tax debts. The 9th Circuit, perhaps still remembering the Galletti outcome, does not allow her to split hairs in this manner. State law plays an important role in creating the liability but her liability is for a federal tax debt.

The 9th Circuit rejects her argument that state law creates the statute of limitations. It also rejects her argument that the continuation by the IRS of its efforts to collect this debt violates the discharge injunction. I did not go back and read the earlier opinions to see the age of the debt. The trust fund portion of the partnership’s unpaid employment taxes will always be excepted from discharge because B.C. 507(a)(1)(C) will always make this a priority debt in bankruptcy and that will always make it excepted from discharge under B.C. 523(a)(1)(A). The non-trust fund portion of the partnership employment tax debt should become dischargeable for bankruptcy petitions filed more than three years after the employment tax return due date, assuming it timely filed the returns. The court engages in no analysis of this issue making me think that she is not entitled to a discharge of the non-trust fund portion; however, depending on the timing of the debt and the bankruptcy petition, this portion of her debt could potentially be discharged in her bankruptcy just as in the bankruptcy of the partnership itself.

This case demonstrates how the IRS will proceed to collect from a general partner. It simply uses the assessment against the partnership to open the full range of administrative collection tools given to it under the Code. The effort by Ms. Pitts to use the Galletti opinion to argue that the operation of state law which lets the IRS go after the general partners without a separate assessment should also limit the IRS in its ability to collect. The 9th Circuit rejects that limitation on the power of the IRS in this situation and, I think, its decision is correct. The issue brings up in another context the interplay between state law which creates certain rights and obligations and the federal tax collection law which builds upon the state created rights and obligations.

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