Designated Orders: 5/21/18 to 5/25/18 by Caleb Smith

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In this installment of designated orders covering the week of May 21, guest blogger Caleb Smith of the University of Minnesota covers several deficiency cases in which the taxpayer failed to carry their burden of proof. Professor Smith also updates us on a few Graev issues including a Chief Counsel Notice from June 6 which will be the subject of additional discussion on this blog and elsewhere. Christine

Knowing When To Hold ‘Em and When To Fold ‘Em

Chief Special Trial Judge Carluzzo cleaned house with designated orders through three bench opinions on S-Cases. These cases didn’t have much in common except that the taxpayer probably never should have gone to trial. Two of the cases deal mostly with evidence and credibility issues (and the same IRS trial attorney for both), and one deals with too-good-to-be true legal arguments. We’ll start with the evidence/credibility issues.

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It is not uncommon that I come across IRS examiners (or law students) that harbor the belief that there is one particular document (and one particular document only) that a taxpayer needs in order to “prove” something. For law students, I suspect this is an offshoot of reading mostly appellate decisions where the facts are already set in stone. For IRS examiners, I suspect this is an offshoot of reading mostly the IRM and mistaking it for the law.

In any event, most of the time there are some documents that are better than others and some sources of evidence that are more reliable (and likely to be considered credible) than others, but usually your job is simply to show something convincing to the finder of fact. Where documentary evidence should exist (for example, a lease or bank records) you can be sure that the IRS is going to bring that issue up. Part of being a lawyer is gauging the likelihood of success on the evidence you do have, and if there is a compelling and credible narrative for why certain documents don’t exist, advising and planning accordingly. Fuller v. C.I.R. (dkt. # 14627-17S) is one instance where candid advice on review of the evidence would be “you have no chance in court.” Hadrami v. C.I.R. (dkt. # 11377-17S) is another.

In Fuller, the taxpayer claimed some rather large itemized deductions – the size of which (relative to income) likely tripped up the IRS smell-test known as Discriminant Inventory Function (DIF) selection. Here, we are not given the taxpayer’s reported income, but we do have some fairly eye-popping deductions: $41,628 for medical, $24,237 for charitable contributions, and $12,567 for unreimbursed employee expenses. Oh, and $850 in tax preparation fees for purchasing tax preparation software (the Turbo-Tax super-elite premium package?). Failing the smell-test, what evidence does the taxpayer have to convince the fact-finder of the propriety of her deductions?

Not a scrap of paper. And testimony that basically works against her as a matter of law. These are not auspicious circumstances.

To begin with, the charitable deductions already present an uphill battle since they require strict substantiation. Ms. Fuller has nothing for them, but does have the (apparent) excuse that her records have been destroyed by household floods. The loss of records in a flood or disaster area is an actual, recognized exception, but it isn’t going to do the trick here – at least in part because the taxpayer can’t explain why other third party records (presumably not subject to floods) don’t exist. Why no bank records of these massive contributions? The same question applies with equal force to the medical expenses and tax preparation fees.

The unreimbursed employee expenses of $12,567 present a different issue. Apparently these expenses stem from a home office. Two immediate legal issues come up: (1) as an employee, is this home office maintained for the convenience of the employer (see Hamacher v. C.I.R., 94 T.C. 348, (1990)), and (2) the usual killer, is the home office exclusively used on a regular basis as the principal place of business (see IRC 280A(c)(1))? Since the taxpayer’s own testimony is that the “home office” is her dining room table where she worked a couple days a week, winning advice would be that she is “unlikely” to succeed. And sure enough, she does not.

Hadrami is a twist on Fuller: documents exist and are introduced by the taxpayer, but they only serve to undermine his testimony. Hadrami was (or claimed to be) a limousine driver, providing his lucky riders a taste of the good life in a 2003 Lincoln Town Car… that had at least 291,380 miles on it in 2012. When Hadrami claims to have purchased the car from the limousine operating company, “Rim Limo,” in 2013 the odometer (allegedly) read 320,673 miles. Interestingly enough, when the DMV has record of the taxpayer purchasing the car in 2014, the odometer continued to read 320,673 miles. Judge Carluzzo notes that something is amiss.

Judge Carluzzo determines that it is doubtful that the taxpayer actually owned the vehicle for the tax year in question (2013). This is especially so as the Rim Limo job required him to park the limo and “return home” in his own car. The mileage log offered by the taxpayer “raises more questions than it answers.” One interesting substantive legal note in this case deserves mention on that point, which is that these expenses were NOT subject to the strict substantiation requirements we usually see trip up taxpayers, and accordingly the Cohan rule would apply. Judge Carluzzo notes that the definition of passenger automobiles (i.e. the listed property usually prompting strict substantiation) does NOT include vehicles used by the taxpayer directly in the trade or business of transporting persons for compensation or hire. See IRC 280F(d)(5)(B). As someone who routinely comes across Uber drivers subject to audit with partial, but not sterling, records of expenses, I find this to be a noteworthy point.

The taxpayer also offers his Wells Fargo bank records to substantiate other expenses (for example, over $1000 in meals and entertainment)… but apparently does not actually delineate where in his records those expenses are to be found. Handing a stack of papers to someone and saying “please find deductions for me” is what you do with your tax preparer, not a Tax Court Judge or IRS attorney. Speaking of tax preparers…

The return that prompted this whole ordeal apparently was prepared with the help of a tax “professional.” As usual, the “professional” saw nothing wrong with claiming (and the taxpayer nothing wrong with incurring) a $22,253 net loss from driving a limo. I suppose one goes into the limo business more for the love of carting around prom-goers than for the money. That, or some people just can’t say no to tax outcomes that seem too good to be true…

Which brings us to the last in Judge Carluzzo’s trilogy of bench opinions: Rykert v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 10427-17. Rather than a “tax professional” preparing questionable returns, Judge Carluzzo worries that Mr. Rykert may have been taken in by “advice he was receiving from an organization whose status to practice law is questionable.” In other words, the “only suckers pay tax” crowd that appear to have found technicalities with every aspect of our tax administration. This particular strain appears to be challenging who actually has the authority to sign a Notice of Deficiency at the IRS and what makes for a valid Notice of Deficiency (the taxpayer does not appear to disagree with any of the substantive items therein).

With what appears to be very genuine concern for a misguided petitioner, Judge Carluzzo does not throw out the case but instead grants an oral motion for continuance in the hope that Petitioner secures counsel and the matter resolves itself without trial. Presumably, that counsel will know whether to hold or fold. As to whether petitioner heeds that advice, one can only hope. A similar designated order (this time from Judge Cohen) suggests that some taxpayers probably just won’t take advice when it isn’t the outcome they want. In Loetscher v. C.I.R., dkt. # 10197-17L, the petitioner raises numerous tax protestor or otherwise frivolous arguments, and is warned of the possibility of penalties up to $25,000. Judge Cohen tries valiantly to bring the light of reason to the petitioner, but notes that the petitioner “failed to consult with the volunteer lawyers present and available” and “when the Court made a last attempt to persuade her to abandon the erroneous approach she [the petitioner] responded ‘I’m sticking to what I said about that.’” Not surprisingly, petitioner soon lost her case.

Graev Updates

The most substantive Graev order (found here and dealing with jeopardy assessments) has already been dealt with earlier in a stand-alone post here. I commend readers that haven’t had a chance to read it, and particularly the insightful comments posted thereunder.

A second Graev designated order was issued by Judge Holmes in Humiston v. C.I.R., dkt. # 25787-16L. This order provides still more insight on this rapidly developing area of law. It does so on two areas: (1) under what circumstances a taxpayer must specifically raise the issue of IRC 6571(b) compliance, and (2) with much less detail, what penalties are exempt IRC 6751(b)(2)(B) as “automatically calculated by electronic means.”

On the issue of whether a taxpayer must specifically raise the issue of IRC 6751 compliance, Judge Holmes raises a few questions. First, Judge Holmes notes that the taxpayer did not put IRC 6751 compliance at issue, and that generally that means it must be conceded. Since it is a summary judgement motion by the IRS, the taxpayer is pro se, and the issue is “cutting edge,” Judge Holmes ultimately lets the taxpayer off the hook for that potential problem. But what is interesting to me is how Judge Holmes phrases what the “error” is. This is a collection due process case, and the problem isn’t that the taxpayer specifically fails to put the penalty at issue. It is that the taxpayer doesn’t raise the issue of the settlement officer (SO) failing to verify all applicable law was followed per IRC 6330(c)(1). This potentially bolsters the reading that in a CDP case, verifying IRC 6751(b) compliance is part and parcel of the SO’s responsibilities under IRC 6330(c)(1) -which would be especially important for taxpayers who failed to challenge a penalty on a Notice of Deficiency that they previously (actually) received. The recently decided precedential opinion in Blackburn v. C.I.R., 150 T.C. No. 9 (2018) somewhat addresses this issue, but that case mostly stands for the proposition that there is no requirement to “look behind” the supervisory approval, if it exists. Although the boilerplate “I verified that all applicable law was followed” will not suffice on its own, some written record of supervisory approval is likely enough. A very recent Chief Counsel memorandum (CC-2018-006) describes the section 6751(b) verification requirement in a CDP case as as part of the section 6330(c) requirement even where the liability is not at issue, but notes that the IRS does not have the burden of production in such a case. In other words, the taxpayer may need to do a little more to put it at issue before the court.

Although it was only a footnote in a non-precedential designated order, one other aspect of the Humiston decision bears mention. It isn’t immediately clear whether the IRS argued that the penalty at issue (in this case, a Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (TFRP)) did not need section 6751 compliance, and it appears as if the SO simply failed to consider it at all. Nonetheless, Judge Holmes puts a stamp of disapproval on the notion that TFRPs would not need to meet IRC 6751(b) requirements,  both because they are penalties “under the code” and because it is doubtful to Judge Holmes’ mind that they could be automatically calculated through electronic means (the IRC 6751(b)(2)(B)) exception). This is important because in Blackburn the IRS explicitly made the argument in the alternative that IRC 6751 didn’t apply to TFRPs. The Court didn’t rule on that issue because it found compliance by the IRS anyway. My reading of the not-so-subtle tea leaves in Judge Holmes’ designated order is that the Court would almost certainly find section 6751 to apply to TFRPs if that issue was squarely before it.

Final Clean Up

There were two other designated orders for the week of May 21 that will not be discussed in this post. One was from Judge Jacobs granting a motion for continuance and remand (found here), and one was from Judge Thornton denying a motion to vacate or revise the Court’s opinion (found here).

Comments

  1. “It is not uncommon that I come across IRS examiners (or law students) that harbor the belief that there is one particular document (and one particular document only) that a taxpayer needs in order to ‘prove’ something.”

    Hey, wasn’t that the basic problem behind the old Section 7502 “exclusive means” of proving a postmark circuit split?

  2. Thank you, Caleb! Great write-up. As a newcomer to the tax profession, I look forward to seeing how more Graev penalty-defense cases unfold.

  3. Norman Diamond says:

    “This is a collection due process case, and the problem isn’t that the taxpayer specifically fails to put the penalty at issue. It is that the taxpayer doesn’t raise the issue of the settlement officer (SO) failing to verify all applicable law was followed per IRC 6330(c)(1).”

    How would the taxpayer know that this should be an issue? How would the taxpayer know that the settlement officer didn’t verify all applicable law? If the settlement officer looked at adminstrative transcripts maybe she actually did verify all applicable law, even though the administrative transcripts are full of lies.

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