Designated Orders – Discovery Issues, Delinquent Petitioners, and Determination Letters (and some Chenery): August 13 – 17

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Designated Order blogger Caleb Smith from University of Minnesota Law School brings us this week’s installment of designated orders. Based on reader feedback we are trying to put more information about the orders into the headlines to better assist you in identifying the cases and issues that will be discussed. Keith

Limitations on Whistleblower Cases and Discovery: Goldstein v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 361-18W (here)

Procedurally Taxing has covered the relatively new field of “whistleblower” cases in Tax Court before (here, here and here are some good reads for those needing a refresher). Goldstein does not necessarily develop the law, but the order can help one better conceptualize the elements of a whistleblower case.

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The statute governing whistleblower awards is found at IRC § 7623. In a nutshell, it provides for awards to tipsters (i.e. “whistleblowers”) that provide information to the IRS that result in collection of tax proceeds. The amount of the award is generally determined and paid out of the proceeds that the whistleblowing brought in. On this skeletal understanding, we can surmise that there are at least two things a whistleblower must do: (1) provide a good enough tip to get the IRS to act, and (2) have that action result in actual, collected money.

Goldstein, unfortunately, fails on the second of these grounds. Apparently, his tip was just good enough to have the IRS act (by initiating an exam, proposing a rather large amount due), but not good enough to go the distance and result in any proceeds: Appeals dropped the case as “no change” largely on “hazards of litigation” grounds. And since whistleblower awards are paid out of proceeds, and the proceeds from the tip here are $0, it stands to reason that Mr. Goldstein was not in for a big payday.

So why does Mr. Goldstein bring the case? Because Mr. Goldstein believes there actually were proceeds from the tip and wants to use the discovery mechanisms of Court as a way to get to the bottom of the matter. Or, somewhat as an alternative, Mr. Goldstein wants to use discovery to show that there should have been proceeds collected from his tip.

The Court is not persuaded by either of these arguments, but for different reasons.

The question of whether the tip “should have” led to proceeds (in this case, through the assessment of tax and penalties as originally proposed in exam) is not one the Court will entertain, for the familiar reason of its “limited jurisdiction.” As the Court explained in Cohen v. C.I.R. jurisdiction in a whistleblower case is only with respect to the Commissioner’s award determination, not the “determination of the alleged tax liability to which the claim pertains.” Arguing that the IRS should have assessed additional tax certainly seems like a look at the alleged tax liability and not the Commissioner’s award determination. So no-go on that tactic.

But the question of whether the IRS actually received proceeds that it is not disclosing -and whether a whistleblower can use discovery to find out- is a bit more interesting. Here, Judge Armen distinguishes Goldstein’s facts from two other whistleblower cases that did allow motions to compel production of documents from the IRS: Whistleblower 11099-13W v. C.I.R., and Whistleblower 10683-13W v. C.I.R..

These cases, in which whistleblowers were able to use discovery to compel production both had one simple, critical, difference from Mr. Goldstein’s case: in both of those cases, there was no question that the IRS had recovered at least some proceeds from the taxpayers. In the present case, there were no proceeds, and so an element of the case is missing… and thus is dismissed.

Of course, in the skeletal way I have summarized Mr. Goldstein’s case it all sounds quite circular: Mr. Goldstein thinks there were proceeds, the IRS says there weren’t, and the Court says “well, we’d let you use discovery to determine the amount of proceeds if there were any. But the IRS says there aren’t any, so we won’t let you use the Court to look further.” In truth, the IRS did much more in Goldstein than just “say” there weren’t any proceeds. The IRS provided the Court with exhibits and transcripts detailing that there were no proceeds, because the case was closed at Appeals.

Also, to be fair to Mr. Goldstein, the reports were significantly redacted (they do deal with a different taxpayer, after all, so one must be wary of IRC § 6103, but not to an extent that causes Judge Armen much worry. And it will take more than a “hunch” for the Court to allow petitioners access to the Court or use of discovery powers.

From the outset of a whistleblower case (that is, providing the “tip”) the IRS holds pretty much all the cards. Here, it appears that the tip could well have ended up bringing in proceeds: at least it was good enough that the examiner proposed a rather large tax. Appeals reversed on “hazards of litigation” grounds –not exactly a signal that they completely disagreed some proceeds could ensue. But the whistleblower, at that point, has no recourse in court to second-guess the IRS decision.

End of an Era? Bell v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 1973-10L (here)

I am often impressed with how far the Tax Court goes out of its way to be charitable to pro se taxpayers. I am also often impressed with the Tax Courts patience. This isn’t our first (or second) run-in with the Bells, though hopefully it is the last (at least for this docket number and these tax years). As the docket number indicates, this collection case has been eight years in the making. Like Judge Gustafson, I will largely refrain from recounting the history (which can be found in the earlier orders) other than to say that the Bells have appeared to vary between dragging their feet and outright refusing to communicate with the IRS over the intervening years. This behavior (kind-of) culminated in the Court dismissing the Bell’s case for failing to respond to an order to show cause.

And yet, they persisted.

Even though the case was closed, the Bell’s insisted on their “day in court” by showing up to calendar call in Winston-Salem while another trial was ongoing. And rather than slam the door, which had been slowly closing for the better part of eight years, the Court allowed the Bells to speak their part during a break in the scheduled proceedings. The assigned IRS attorney, “naively” believing that merely because the case was closed and removed from the docket they would not need to be present, now had to scramble and drive 30 miles to court.

Of course, the outcome was pretty much foreordained anyway. The Bell’s wanted to argue now that they had documents that would make her case. Documents that never, until that very moment in the past eight years, were shared with the IRS or court. The Court generously construed the Bell’s comments as an oral motion for reconsideration (which would be timely, by one day). And then denied the motion, via this designated order.

And so ends the saga… or does it?

In a tantalizing foreshadowing of future judicial resources to be wasted, Judge Gustafson notes that the Bells have previously asked about their ability to appeal the Court’s decision. We wish all the best to the 4th Circuit (presumptively where appeal would take place), should this saga continue.

One can be fairly impressed with the generosity and patience of the Judge Gustafson in working with the pro se parties of Bell. Tax law is difficult, and Tax Court judges frequently go out of their way to act as guides for pro se taxpayers through the maze. But that patience is less apparent where the party should know better -particularly, where the offending party is the IRS…

Things Fall Apart: Anatomy of a Bad Case. Renka, Inc. v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 15988-11R (here)

It is a good bet that the parties are sophisticated when the case deals with a final determination on an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). It is an even better bet if the Judge begins the order with a footnote that “assumes the parties’ familiarity with the record, the terms of art in this complicated area of tax law, and the general principles of summary-judgment law.” Needless to say, this is not the sort of case where either of the parties could ignore court orders, show up at calendar after the case was closed, and be allowed to speak their part.

And of course, neither parties go quite that far. However, both procedurally and substantively the arguments of one party (the IRS) fall astoundingly short of the mark.

The IRS and Renka, Inc. are at odds about whether an ESOP qualified as a tax-exempt trust beginning in 1998. The IRS’s determination (that it is not tax-exempt) hinged on the characterization of Renka, Inc. as also including a second entity (ANC) as either a “controlled group” or “affiliated service group.” If this was so, then Renka, Inc.’s ESOP also must be set up to benefit additional employees (i.e., those of ANC), which it did not.

I am no expert on ESOPs, controlled groups, or affiliated service groups, and I do not pretend to be. But you don’t have to be an expert on the substantive law to see that the IRS is grasping. Here is where procedure and administrative law come into play.

The Notice of Determination at issue is for 1998. Although the determination also says the plan is not qualified for the years subsequent to 1998, it is really just looking at the facts in existence during 1998, reaching a determination about 1998, and saying that because of those facts (i.e. non-qualified in 1998), it continues to be non-qualified thereafter. But the critical year of the Notice of Determination is 1998: that is the year that Renka, Inc. has been put on notice for, and it is the determination that is reached for that year that is before the Court. So when the Commissioner says in court, “actually, Renka, Inc. was fine in 1998, but in 1999 (and thereafter) it wasn’t qualified” there are some big problems.

The biggest problem is the Chenery doctrine. Judge Holmes quotes Chenery as holding that “a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency.” SEC v. Chenery Corp. (Chenery II), 332 U.S. 194 (1947). The IRS essentially wants to argue that the Notice of Determination for 1998 is correct if only we use the facts of 1999… and apply the determination to 1999 rather than 1998. The Chenery doctrine, however, does not allow an agency to use its original determination as a “place-holder” in this manner. Since all parties agree the ESOP met all the necessary requirements in 1998 (the determination year), the inquiry ends: the Determination was an abuse of discretion.

This is one of those cases where you can tell which way the wind is blowing well before reaching the actual opinion. Before even getting to the heart of Chenery, Judge Holmes summarizes the Commissioner’s argument as being “if we ignore all the things he [the Commissioner] did wrong, then he was right.” And although the IRS has already essentially lost the case on procedural grounds (i.e. arguing about 1999 when it is barred by Chenery), for good measure Judge Holmes also looks at the substantive grounds for that argument.

Amazingly, it only gets worse.

First off, the IRS relies on a proposed regulation for their approach on the substantive law (i.e. that the ESOP did not qualify as a tax-exempt trust). Of course, proposed regulations do not carry the force of law, but only the “power to persuade” (i.e. “Skidmore” deference). And what is the power to persuade? Essentially it is the same as a persuasive argument made on brief. Judge Holmes cites to Tedori v. United States, 211 F.3d 488, 492 (9th Cir. 2000) as support for this idea.

As an aside, I have five hand-written stars in the margin next to that point. I have always struggled with the idea that Skidmore deference means anything other than “look at this argument someone else made once: isn’t it interesting?” It is not a whole lot different than if I (or whomever the party is) made the argument on their own in the brief, except that the quote may be attributed to a more impressive name.

But if there is something worse than over-relying on a proposed regulation for your argument, it would be over-relying on a proposed regulation that was withdrawn well before the tax year at issue. Which is what happened here, since the proposed regulation was withdrawn in 1993. Ouch.

Finally, and just to really make you cringe, Judge Holmes spends a paragraph noting that even if the proposed regulation was (a) not withdrawn, and (b) subject to actual deference, it still would not apply to the facts at hand. In other words, the thrust of the IRS’s substantive argument was an incorrect interpretation of a proposed regulation that was no longer in effect. No Bueno.

There was one final designated order that I will not go into detail on. For those with incurable curiosity, it can be found here and provides a small twist on the common “taxpayers dragging their feet in collections” story, in that this taxpayer was not pro se.

 

Comments

  1. Send not for whom the Bells’ statutes of limitations may toll. Just have some sympathy for them this week, because they are long-time residents of Wilmington, North Carolina. As the Washington Post reported from Wilmington yesterday,

    “This city has always embraced the water, with a lively riverfront on one side and the ocean on the other. But in the wake of Hurricane Florence, water has rendered Wilmington an island, shut off from the rest of the world.

    “It is impossible to get in and out of the city now. Flooding closed interstates and secondary roads, choking it off by land. The airport has been shuttered since Wednesday. It is not accessible by sea, with the Port of Wilmington on Cape Fear River closed.”

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