Designated Orders: 5/30/2017 – 6/2/2017

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Today we welcome Professor Patrick Thomas.  He is the last of the gang of four who bring to us each week a look into the orders that the Tax Court judges have designated.  Professor Thomas has just completed his first year teaching and directing the tax clinic at Notre Dame.  Keith

Last week was a Judge Carluzzo-heavy week in the designated orders arena, as the Judge issued four of the five designated orders written. All dealt with taxpayers who either did not respond to IRS requests for information or were teetering on the edge of section 6673 penalties for frivolous submission to the Tax Court. Judge Armen addresses a Petitioner who moved to strike statements in the Service’s amended answer on the authority of Scar v. Commissioner.  Because the Scar case is an important one to know and has not been discussed much in this blog, we will start with a discussion of that order.

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Dkt. # 16792-16, Avrahami v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The substance of Judge Armen’s order in Avrahami is, admittedly, a little dense for yours truly. Not very often do my low income taxpayer clients come into my office with a dispute over Subpart F income, non-TEFRA partnerships, or multi-million dollar notices of deficiency. Fortunately, the procedural matter relates to a case I regularly teach: Scar v. Commissioner, 814 F.2d. 1363 (9th Cir. 1987).

In Scar, the taxpayers received a Notice of Deficiency, and with good reason: the taxpayer’s had invested in a videotape tax shelter and thereby understated their federal income tax by approximately $16,000. But the Notice of Deficiency the Scars received referred to an adjustment to income of $138,000 from the “Nevada Mining Project”, with a deficiency of $96,600 ($138,000 multiplied by the then-top marginal tax rate of 70%). The Notice stated that “[i]n order to protect the government’s interest and since your original income tax return is unavailable at this time, the income tax is being assessed at the maximum tax rate of 70%.” IRS counsel at trial explained that an IRS employee had accidentally entered the wrong code number, thus causing the wrong tax shelter item to be inserted into the Notice. However, no one testified to this fact at the hearing.

The Scars challenged the Notice in a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction on the basis that the IRS failed to “determine” a deficiency as to them under section 6212(a), and that therefore the Tax Court had no jurisdiction under section 6213(a). While the Tax Court upheld the Notice, the Ninth Circuit disagreed. Essentially, because the evidence showed that the IRS did not (1) review the taxpayer’s tax return in preparing the Notice or (2) connect the taxpayer with the Nevada Mining Project, no “determination” was made as to the particular taxpayer; thus, the Notice was invalid.

In subsequent cases, Scar has been limited to its facts: i.e., as Judge Armen notes, where the Notice “on its face reveals that [the IRS] failed to make a determination, thereby invalidating the notice and thus depriving [the Tax] Court of jurisdiction to proceed on the Merits.”

In Avrahami, Petitioners filed a Motion to Strike portions of an IRS amended Answer, which alleged unreported income—above the amounts indicated on the Notice—from various entities owned by Petitioners during 2012 and 2013. The Petitioners relied on Scar for the proposition that, in the Notice itself, the IRS did not rely on any information relating to these entities.

Judge Armen dismisses this claim. While the Notice did not list any information regarding these entities, the Petitioners did not challenge the Notice’s validity as such. Rather, the Tax Court has jurisdiction under section 6214(a) to consider and assess an additional deficiency, beyond that asserted in the Notice. And the IRS has the authority to bring such a claim, also under section 6214(a). Judge Armen goes on to note that even if Scar applied here, it’s clear that the IRS considered the information on the Petitioner’s tax returns and connected the relevant entities to the Petitioners; the Petitioners did not contest the latter point.

Finally, the standard Judge Armen articulates for granting a motion to strike is if it has “no possible bearing upon the subject matter of the litigation” and “there is a showing of prejudice to the moving party.” Because the case is not scheduled for trial and given that the IRS bears the burden of proof under section 6214(a) and Rule 142, there is no prejudice to the Petitioners. Considering the above, Judge Armen denies the motion.

The takeaway point here is that unless the Notice of Deficiency is entirely out of left field, Scar is unlikely to save the day. While it’s strong medicine, the Tax Court administers it only in very particular cases.

Dkt. # 19076-16SL, Higgs v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The first order last week came from Judge Carluzzo on an IRS Motion for Summary Judgment in a Collection Due Process case. The facts are typical for a pro se litigant: the taxpayer failed to file his 2008 tax return. The IRS audited the taxpayer, who did not respond to the Notice of Deficiency. For 2009, the taxpayer filed a tax return, but did not pay the tax due.

The IRS filed a Notice of Federal Tax Lien regarding 2008, which the taxpayer did respond to and eventually petitioned the resulting Notice of Determination to the Tax Court in a prior proceeding (#24213-12), to no avail. It seems that collection efforts remained fruitless, and the Service finally issued a Notice of Intent to Levy for both years, which again caught the taxpayer’s interest.

Mr. Higgs’s Appeals hearing did not go well. He made two arguments: (1) that he had paid much of the liability previously and (2) that he qualified for a collection alternative. Yet, he did not provide any evidence supporting the requests he made at the hearing.

While the taxpayer didn’t raise the issue of the SO’s failure to accept the collection alternative in his Petition, Judge Carluzzo cited Mahlum v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-212, for the proposition that, if the taxpayer doesn’t provide any information to support a collection alternative, the Settlement Officer is authorized to reject that collection alternative.

In the Petition, the taxpayer did raise the issue of having paid funds towards the liability, for which the IRS gave him no credit. Judge Carluzzo reframed this argument as alleging an abuse of discretion for failure to investigate under section 6330(c)(1). Responding to this reframed argument, Judge Carluzzo says only that this position “must be rejected because the materials submitted by respondent in support of his motion show that the [SO] proceeded as required under the statutory scheme,” based on Petitioner’s lack of evidence establishing any additional payments.

Perhaps the Petitioner had a valid argument. To be sure, the Service has wrongly applied some of my client’s properly designated payments to the wrong tax period. However, where the Petitioner makes no reply to the Motion for Summary Judgment, the facts relied on by the IRS are deemed to be undisputed. While it’s a bit of circular reasoning for granting the Motion for Summary Judgment (isn’t their purpose, after all, to establish whether there are disputed facts?), it’s certainly a powerful incentive to respond to the Motion. That means there’s no luck at the end of the day for Mr. Higgs.

Dkt. # 27516-15L, Gross v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

A very similar case to Higgs, Judge Carluzzo grants another IRS Motion for Summary Judgment as to a nonresponsive taxpayer with liabilities for tax years 2008 and 2009. Unlike in Higgs, Gross was precluded from challenging the underlying merits in this matter, as he had previously litigated them in a deficiency case (#22766-12).

Unfortunately, Judge Carluzzo hides the ball a bit, noting only:

Petitioner’s request for a collection alternative to the proposed levy was properly rejected by respondent for the reasons set forth in respondent’s motion. Respondent’s motion shows that respondent has proceeded as required under section 6330, and nothing submitted by petitioner suggests otherwise.

What were the reasons set forth in respondent’s motion? How did respondent proceed as required under section 6330? Perhaps an enterprising reader in D.C. may enlighten us. The story for both of these cases is simple: petitioners must respond to the Motion for Summary Judgment in a CDP case, lest all of the facts stated in that motion be deemed as true. Barring any sloppy workmanship on the part of IRS attorneys, the petitioner’s case will otherwise end there.

Dkt. # 21799-16, McRae v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Carl Smith wrote earlier this week on Judge Carluzzo’s order the McRae case, which dealt with an IRS motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Carl described at length the Court’s failure to identify whether, in the Tax Court, the plausibility pleading standard identified in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) now replaces the notice pleading standard of Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957).

Dkt. # 14865-16, Lorenz v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Here, like in the McRae order, the IRS filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Unlike in McRae, Petitioners did reply to the motion—largely with frivolous arguments. In McRae, the frivolity was restricted to the Petition, whereas here, it appeared in the Petition, an attachment to the petition, and in the Petitioners’ reply to the motion to dismiss.

Judge Carluzzo did not mention any of the pleading standards cases here, but very well could have. The taxpayers again raised mostly frivolous arguments (which the Court struck from the Petition, attachment, and the reply to the motion to dismiss) but alleged that they and the IRS had reached an agreement before the Notice of Deficiency was issued. Judge Carluzzo viewed this allegation with skepticism:

We have our suspicions with respect to the nature of the letter that petitioners claim embodies [their] agreement, and whether the parties have, in fact, agreed to petitioners’ Federal income tax liability….

I think it’s plausible that in McRae, Judge Carluzzo merely cited Twombly for its admonition that, in the motion to dismiss context, all facts must be construed in favor of the non-moving party—true under either Twombly/Iqbal or Conley. Twombly then is cited merely because it is (one of) the most recent Supreme Court case on motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Judge Carluzzo could have inserted the same language in Lorenz, given that he seems to disbelieve the Petitioners; under either standard, the judge’s disbelief in the pleaded facts does not matter.  As such, Judge Carluzzo denies the motion to dismiss and orders an Answer from the Service.

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