Designated Orders: Bench Opinions and the Designated Orders Panel (12/24/18 to 12/28/18)

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With the holidays and the beginning of the government shutdown, there were not many designated orders during the week of December 24 to December 28, 2018. In fact, Judge Carluzzo provided our lone orders, two bench opinions from Los Angeles to close out the year. Both of these bench opinions involve petitioners that seem to try Jedi mind tricks to convince the IRS that a letter they sent is actually different than what it appears to be.

Since it is a light week, I am also going to give an account of the designated orders panel from last month’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) grantee conference.

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Bench Opinion 1

Docket Nos. 10878-16 and 7671-17, Luminita Roman, et al., v. C.I.R., available here.

Luminita and Gabriel Roman, the petitioners, appeared unrepresented in Tax Court and Luminita spoke on their behalf. Their argument is that the notices of deficiency issued to them were not valid and the Tax Court does not have jurisdiction in their cases. In fact, neither notice of deficiency was valid because they were not authorized by an individual with the authority to issue the notices of deficiency. In their view, each notice was generated by a computer, and computers have not been delegated authority by the Commissioner to issue notices of deficiency. The petitioners cited Internal Revenue Manual provisions as support. Judge Carluzzo states: “In that regard, we wonder if petitioners are confusing the authority to issue a notice of deficiency with the mechanical process of preparing, creating or printing one, but we doubt that we could convince petitioners to recognize that distinction.”

Judge Carluzzo goes through the analysis, noting the necessity for a valid notice of deficiency for Tax Court jurisdiction. Next, he states that the lack of a signature does not invalidate a notice of deficiency and the notices in question were issued by offices or officers of the IRS authorized to do so. Overall, the petitioners failed to meet their burden of proof that the notices of deficiency were invalid and their motions must be denied.

Takeaway: This was a bad argument to make in Tax Court. Without any proof that a notice of deficiency is invalid, an argument like this is a long shot at trying to stop the IRS. It is better to argue the deficiency or other merits of the case than to make a claim that a notice issued by the IRS is invalid because they used computers.

Bench Opinion 2

Docket No. 25370-17SL, Roy G. Weatherup & Wendy G. Weatherup v. C.I.R., available here.

The petitioners appeared unrepresented in Tax Court, though Roy Weatherup is an attorney. As background, the Weatherups made payments on a tax liability for tax year 2012. After financial hardships, they submitted an Offer in Compromise that was rejected. During the period when the offer was pending, the couple continued to make payments on the liability. Following the rejection letter, the IRS issued a notice that their 2012 liability was subject to levy. The liability amount listed in that notice was computed as though the offer had not been accepted.

The Weatherups were eligible to request a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing and did so. In the hearing, they took the position that their liability was fully paid due to the Offer in Compromise they submitted. They state the rejection letter does not satisfy the requirements of Internal Revenue Code section 7122(f). Since their view was that the offer was not rejected within 24 months from the date of submission, the offer was deemed accepted. In their view, the IRS rejection letter was only a preliminary rejection letter.

In their view, the rejection failed to take into account their financial hardship at the time and was otherwise inequitable, leading to an abuse of discretion. Even though they were invited to do so by the settlement officer, they chose not to submit a new Offer in Compromise.   They also did not propose any other collection alternative to the proposed levy.

Judge Carluzzo finds that the rejection letter meets the requirements of IRC section 7122(f) and was issued within the requisite 24-month period. He disagreed that it was a preliminary rejection letter because it meets the specifications of a rejection letter for an offer.

Since their offer was rejected, the liability remained with the IRS. Because the petitioners did not provide an alternative during the CDP hearing, there was nothing further to review. The expectation that the settlement officer would review the Offer in Compromise was misplaced as that was not the subject of the CDP hearing.

Judge Carluzzo granted the IRS motion for summary judgment, noting that the Weatherups would still be eligible to submit a new Offer in Compromise.

Takeaway: Again, the petitioners have taken an incorrect view of IRS procedure and based their arguments in Tax Court around it. While the IRS does issue preliminary determinations in innocent spouse cases, those are clearly designated “PRELIMINARY DETERMINATION.” The IRS does not issue such notices regarding an Offer in Compromise so it is an error to expect one there. Even if the IRS had issued a preliminary rejection letter for their offer, why did the Weatherups then act as if the liability disappeared? This is another case where the petitioners needed to get their facts straight before they presented their arguments to the judge.

The Designated Orders Panel at the LITC Grantee Conference – December 4, 2018

For the LITC Grantee Conference, both Samantha Galvin and I were contacted to present on “Recent U.S. Tax Court Designated Orders.” Since that was half of the group that rotates through the blog postings on this website, we contacted Caleb Smith and Patrick Thomas to see if they would like to be included on the panel. Caleb was busy with organizing and moderating for the Low-Income Taxpayer Representation Workshop that would take place the day before the panel, but Patrick Thomas agreed to join the panel to discuss designated order statistics that he previously wrote about on this site here.

Keith Fogg introduced the panel, speaking about the nature of designated orders and the decision to start featuring designated order analysis on Procedurally Taxing since no other venues were paying attention to designated orders. Samantha and I alternated the beginning portions with Patrick finishing on the statistical analysis.

I began by introducing the designated orders group and Samantha talked about the nature of designated orders, comparing them with non-designated orders and opinions. She next spoke about the limited availability of designated orders through the Tax Court website (possibly available 12 hours on the website and then no longer searchable as a designated order) and showed the audience where the orders are available on the website.

Samantha spoke about lessons for taxpayers, saying that they should avoid being tax protesters because of potential section 6673 penalties. Also, taxpayers should respond in a timely fashion and they bear the burden of proof for deficiency and CDP cases.

I followed up on Samantha’s lessons for taxpayers. I reminded the group that the Tax Court does not have jurisdiction over petitions that are not timely filed. I talked some about nonresponsive petitioner issues as I had here. Basically, petitioners that do not know court procedure and represent themselves in court are likely doing themselves a disservice. Petitioners also need to respond to court filings, substantiate their claims and have organized documents to submit to the IRS. I used some examples from recent designated orders for actions petitioners should avoid.

Next, Samantha turned to lessons for IRS and taxpayer counsel, looking at motions for summary judgment (following Rule 121, that there must be a genuine dispute of material fact to defeat the motion, with a reminder that the motions can be denied). She reminded the audience that communication between the parties is key, and that developing a comprehensive administrative record by writing letters to Appeals with everything discussed about the case is a helpful practice. Finally, it is best to follow informal discovery procedures and to treat a motion to compel as a last resort.

I tried to give a capsule judicial history of Graev v. Commissioner and Chai v. Commissioner, touching on the IRS penalty approval process. I noted that Judge Holmes gave factors for the standard for reopening the record which are that 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 prejudice to the non-moving party.

Two months later, Judge Halpern used different factors. He stated the factors the Court has to examine to determine whether to reopen a record are the timeliness of the motion, the character of the testimony to be offered, the effect of granting the motion, and the reasonableness of the request. The third factor, the effect of granting the motion, is the most relevant.

It was my question why there are two different sets of factors the Tax Court uses to determine whether to reopen a record in these IRS penalty approval cases.

I also provided the standard for whistleblower cases, noting that the petitioners are not very successful in succeeding at Tax Court. 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.

Patrick then discussed the designated orders statistical analysis project. The project reviewed 525 unique orders between May 2017 and October 2018 (623 total orders, with duplicate orders in consolidated cases). During the presentation he spoke about the utility of designating orders (such as the speed to designate an order compared to publishing an opinion). From there, he looked at which judges predominantly use designated orders and the types of cases and issues conducive to designated orders. Patrick focused on a one year period (4/15/17 to 4/15/18), with 319 unique orders. For the breakdown regarding types of cases, judges and more, I recommend you go to the link above to view Patrick’s work.

Patrick had several takeaways to conclude the panel. First, a substantial number of judges (13) do not designate orders or seldom designated orders. Do those judges substantially issue more opinions? Are their workloads substantively different from those who issue more designated orders?

Second, three 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?

Third, judges issued only 112 bench opinions during the research period. That was a small amount compared with the overall number of cases (2,244 cases closed in April 2018 alone). Of the 112 bench opinions, only 26 (23%) were designated. Judges might consider designating those orders so they highlight their bench opinions to the public.

Last, there is a disparity between small cases on the docket (37% of all cases) and 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?

Later in the week, we found out more information from the judges themselves. There is a process when submitting a Tax Court order electronically where a judge selects that the order becomes designated. Some judges find the process more expedient than the published opinion process. One judge I spoke with did not find too much value in our study of designated orders but was glad we were able to gain from the process.

 

 

William Schmidt About William Schmidt

William Schmidt joined Kansas Legal Services in 2016 to manage cases for the Kansas Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and became Clinic Director January 2017. Previously, he worked on pro bono tax cases for the Kansas City Tax Clinic, the Legal Aid of Western Missouri Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and the Kansas Low Income Taxpayer Clinic. He records and edits a tax podcast called Tax Justice Warriors.

Comments

  1. I write several hours before today’s Designated Orders will be posted, but I predict this one by Judge Holmes will make the list:

    https://www.ustaxcourt.gov/InternetOrders/DocumentViewer.aspx?IndexSearchableOrdersID=281452

    As the order, which rules on motions for summary judgment from both IRS and taxpayers, explains:

    “These are unusual deficiency cases that all parties agree can be decided through summary judgment. They arise from four different tax years, and all involve a common question of law — did a decision in these cases by the Treasury Department’s competent authority under the United States – Mexico tax treaty (Treaty) necessarily relieve petitioners of any liability for U.S. income tax? There are no similar cases that either party or the Court’s own research could find.”

    Does anyone else think that this ten-page review of facts and law looks like an opinion – one that could set precedent for other tax-treaty cases? If so, does anyone else wonder why it was issued as an order instead?

    I reviewed the Tax Court procedure for issuing opinions, and found this useful blog post from last year by Kandyce Korotsky:

    http://procedurallytaxing.com/all-for-one-and-five-for-sixteen-when-the-tax-courts-majority-opinion-isnt/

    Are orders being used instead of opinions to bypass review by the Chief Judge, and perhaps other judges? Or am I out of line for even asking that?

  2. Norman Diamond says:

    “Basically, petitioners that do not know court procedure and represent themselves in court are likely doing themselves a disservice.”

    Petitioners who CHOOSE to represent themselves in court are likely doing themselves a disservice (even if they do know court procedure). When an LITC rejects an applicant because it’s a collections case and doesn’t even try to figure out that the IRS failed to provide an opportunity for a deficiency case when there should have been one, or when an LITC rejects regular (non-S) cases, etc., the disservice to the petitioner is not done by the petitioner themself.

  3. Raymond Cohen says:

    Some courts have reduced no-shows by sending reminders by text message The Tax Court might want to consider trying this on a test basis

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