Designated Orders: 10/15 – 10/19/2018 and Statistics from the Project’s First Year

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Guest blogger Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame Law School brings us this week’s few designated orders. He then reviews the development of the Designated Order blogging project and reports the data that the team has gathered so far. There are some interesting statistics on Designated Orders that deserve some attention.

In related news, Paul Merrion at MLEX US Tax Watch recently wrote about (login required) the Tax Court’s new contract with Flexion, Inc. to develop a new electronic filing and case management system. The two-sentence announcement on the Tax Court’s homepage had escaped my notice. Paul’s article summarizes the request for proposals, which can be found here. While the Tax Court declined to comment on the article, this development may be a sign of greater openness to come. Christine

Designated Orders: 10/15 – 10/19/2018

The Tax Court issued only two designated orders during this week, both of which Judge Armen wrote. I will not discuss either in depth here. For posterity’s sake, Judge Armen upheld the Office of Appeals’ decision to sustain a levy in Cheshier v. Commissioner, a Collection Due Process case in which the Petitioner did not provide financial information or tax returns in the CDP hearing. In contrast, the second case, Levin v. Commissioner, involved a very responsive CDP petitioner. In Tax Court, the parties disagreed as to the financial analysis, the propriety of filing a NFTL after entering into an installment agreement, and the necessity of filing business tax returns. Alas, the Tax Court agreed with Respondent on all counts. The order from Judge Armen merely finalized Judge Ashford’s opinion in this case (T.C. Memo. 2018-172), which I would recommend for further reading.

The Designated Orders Project & Statistics

With such a light week, this provides an opportunity to take stock of our Designated Orders blogging project, which began in May 2017. Since then, Samantha Galvin, William (Bill) Schmidt, Caleb Smith, and I have tracked every order designated on the Tax Court’s website. As of October 30, 2018, there have been 623 designated orders—though many orders occur in consolidated cases, causing the number of “unique” orders to be substantially less at approximately 525.

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Why do we track these orders? First, the orders often deal with substantive issues of tax procedure. Some orders could very well be reported opinions. Many of these issues—especially those arising in CDP cases—receive comparatively less coverage in the Tax Court’s opinions. Indeed, through “designating” an order, the individual judge indicates that the order is more important than a routine order (of which the Tax Court issues hundreds each day). The orders can often reveal the direction in which an individual judge or the Court is tracking on certain issues.

Given the importance of the orders, one might surmise that the Tax Court’s website could filter the designated orders from those not designated. One would be mistaken. The Order Search tool on the website does not distinguish between designated and undesignated orders. (I am told, however, that internal users within the Tax Court can search and filter Orders by whether they were designated.)

Instead, orders are listed on the “Today’s Designated Orders” page each weekday after 3:30pm Eastern time (or, a message appears that no orders were designated on that day). At some unspecified time overnight, any record of these orders disappears. Of course, the underlying orders are themselves maintained within the dockets of their respective cases. But without knowing which orders were designated, it becomes impossible to discover them.

As an aside: no compelling reason exists to hide the designated status of an order from the public. Professor Lederman’s recent post nicely encapsulates the continuing (though progressively fewer) transparency concerns that the Tax Court faces. This certainly is another; yet the Court’s historic rationale for preventing disclosure of information (the valid concern with taxpayer privacy) simply does not apply here.

So, Caleb, Samantha, Bill, and I began tracking every order each weekday in May 2017. We have logged the date, docket number, petitioner, judge, and hyperlink for every designated order since then.

This summer, I cleaned and analyzed one year of designated orders data from April 15, 2017 until April 15, 2018. (I acknowledge help from Bill in initially looking at this data, along with substantial work from my research assistant, Chris Zhao). In addition to the above data, I added data regarding the jurisdictional type, whether the case was a small case under IRC § 7463, and whether the order merely transmitted a bench opinion under IRC § 7459(b). I present those initial findings below. In later work, I will compare the designated orders with opinions and “undesignated” orders (some of which are indeed just as substantive as designated orders, as Bob Kamman has routinely pointed out to us).

The dataset revealed 319 unique orders during the research period. In terms of content, we have not systemically tracked the subject matter of designated orders in our dataset. From our experience, the vast majority of orders deal with substantive, often tricky issues. The one major exception is found in Judge Jacobs’ orders, which are often routine scheduling orders. We are not sure why these orders are designated, presuming the purpose of designating an order is to highlight an important case or issue.

While we did not track individual issues, the dataset does contain a jurisdictional breakdown. Deficiency and CDP cases accounted for the vast majority of orders (51.10% and 37.30%, respectively). Other case types included partnership proceedings, whistleblower, standalone innocent spouse, retirement plan qualification review, 501(c)(3) status revocation, and others that involved multiple jurisdictional types.

12.85% of orders were for a small tax case under section 7463. Small cases are underrepresented, compared with the Court’s 37% share of such cases generally (as of April 30, 2018, according to Judge Carluzzo’s presentation to the ABA Tax Section’s Pro Bono and Tax Clinics Committee).

Certain judges used Designated Orders much more frequently than others during the period reviewed. Judges Gustafson, Holmes, and Carluzzo lead the pack, having issued 46.40% of all designated orders, at 21%, 13.17%, and 12.23%, respectively. Thirteen judges (a substantial minority of the 31 active judges) did not designate a single order during the research period. Almost half of the regular judges—Judges Foley, Goeke, Nega, Paris, Pugh, Thornton, and Vasquez—issued no designated orders at all. (The Chief Judge, given their increased administrative duties, receives fewer individual cases. Further, Judge Thornton did designate two orders during May and June 2018. Judges Goeke and Vasquez, while currently on senior status, are classified in the dataset as regular judges, as they retired on April 21 and June 24, 2018, respectively.) Over half of the senior judges issued no designated orders. All of the Special Trial Judges designated orders and did so frequently, accounting for 29.47% of all designated orders.

Judges have also used Designated Orders to highlight bench opinions with substantive tax issues. A bench opinion is one rendered orally at a trial session that disposes of the entire case. After the transcript is prepared, the judge then orders transmittal of the bench opinion to the parties under Rule 152(b). For an example, see Chief Special Trial Judge Carluzzo’s order in Garza v. Commissioner. These transmittal orders represent 8.46% of all designated orders.

Judge Carluzzo issued 11 such orders, followed closed by Judges Gustafson and Buch at 9 and 6 orders, respectively. Judges Carluzzo, Gustafson, and Holmes designated every order that transmitted a bench opinion, while Judge Buch had some undesignated bench opinions (there were 80 other undesignated bench opinions from other judges, which represent the vast majority).

Some cases are repeat players in designated orders. Twenty-nine dockets received more than one designated order during the research period. Three dockets received three or more orders, two of which were among the most well-known cases then before the Tax Court: Docket No. 18254-17L, Kestin v. Commissioner (three orders); Docket No. 31183-15, Coca-Cola Co. v. Commissioner (three orders); and Docket No. 17152-13, Estate of Michael Jackson v. Commissioner (seven orders).

From a timing perspective, the Court’s orders seem to peak in December and March and drop off in January and May—both for regular and S cases. I’ll leave it to those with access to better data to inform us whether this corresponds with the Tax Court’s overall production during these times.

What do these data tell us? I’ll venture a few broad conclusions and raise further questions:

  1. A substantial number of judges do not designate orders at all, or do so very seldom. Do these judges issue substantially more opinions? Are these judges’ workloads substantively different from those who do issue more designated orders?
  2. Three judges (Judges Gustafson, Holmes, and Carluzzo) accounted for nearly half of all designated orders. Why is there such a disparity between these judges and the rest of the Court?
  3. Judges issued only 112 bench opinions during the research period. (To get this figure I searched for “152(b)” on the Order Search tool for each judge between April 15, 2017 and April 15, 2018.) This strikes me as minute compared with the overall number of cases (2,244 cases closed during April 2018 alone). Keith has long argued to increase the use of bench opinions to resolve cases; the Court appears to have disregarded his advice. Of the 112 bench opinions, only 26 (23%) were designated. Judges might consider designating these orders such that they highlight their bench opinions to the public.
  4. There is a large disparity in small cases on the docket (37% of all cases) with designated orders in small tax cases (12.85% of all designated orders). Are small cases simply too “routine” and less deserving of highlighting to the public?

Ideally, the Tax Court would publish its own statistical analysis of its cases, orders, and opinions, as Professor Lederman suggests. Perhaps the Court can discuss and address some of my questions above in so doing. In addition, the Court should allow public users to filter orders on the Tax Court’s website by whether the orders were designated.

In the meantime, we will continue to track these orders so that practitioners and researchers alike keep abreast of important developments at the Court. We’ve learned a great deal about certain substantive topics through this project —especially about penalty approval under section 6751.

I further hope these statistics on designated orders shed some light on the Court’s sometimes opaque operations. Unless the Court, as it should, decides to take up the mantle itself, we’ll continue to track, summarize, and look at trends stemming from these orders.

Comments

  1. Kenneth H. Ryesky says:

    As I noted in a 2009 article, “[F]iats which restrict the universe of citable cases to those officially reported can easily transform a judicial opinion’s publication status into a precious vendible in which corrupt judges and/or other courthouse functionaries might nefariously traffic.”

    https://www.uakron.edu/law/lawreview/taxjournal/atj24/docs/Ryesky.pdf

    • Norman Diamond says:

      Hear, hear.

      I wonder if it’s a good thing that the designation of “designated” disappears overnight. Though even if it remained, it would be less damaging than the way other courts hide behind “not for publication” and “not precedential”.

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