Designated Orders June 18 – 22: Mailing Issues

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Caleb Smith from University of Minnesota brings us this week’s designated orders. Two of the orders present interesting issues regarding the mail and the Court’s jurisdiction. One concerns the timing of the mailing by the petitioner while the other concerns the location of the mailing by the IRS. As with almost all mailing issues, the jurisdiction of the Court hangs in the balance. Keith

There is yet no sign of summer vacation in D.C., as the Tax Court continued to issue designated orders the week of June 18. Indeed, if the Tax Court judges are hoping to get away from the office for a while their orders don’t show it: one of the more interesting ones comes from Judge Gustafson raising sua sponte an interesting jurisdictional question for the parties to address. We begin with a look at that case.

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The Importance of Postmarks: Murfam Enterprises LLC, et.al v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 8039-16 (order here)

Most of this order deals with Judge Gustafson essentially directing the parties to play nice with each other. The order results from petitioner’s motion to compel the IRS to respond to interrogatories and to compel the IRS to produce documents. Since litigation in Tax Court is largely built around informal discovery and the stipulation process, there usually needs to be some sort of break-down between the parties before the Court will step-in to compel discovery.

One could read this order for a study of the boundaries of zealous (or over-zealous) representation of your client. Some of the deadlines proposed by petitioners for the IRS to respond appear to be less than fair, and it does not appear that petitioners tried too hard to work things out with the IRS prior to filing the motions to compel -according to the IRS, only one call was made, before business hours, without leaving a message. All of this leads to a mild tsk-tsk from Judge Gustafson: “communication during the discovery process and prior to the filing of the subject motions has been inadequate.”

But the more interesting issue, in my opinion, is the jurisdictional one that Judge Gustafson raises later. It is, after all, an issue that could render all of the discovery (and the entire case) largely moot: did Murfam mail the petition on time?

Judge Gustafson notes that under the applicable law, a tax matters partner must petition the court within 90 days after the notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment (FPAA) is mailed. We are told that the IRS mailed the FPAA on December 21, 2015, which we may as well accept as true for present purposes. (As a practitioner, one should note that the IRS date on the notice is not always the date of the actual mailing, which would control. See post here. Assuming the FPAA was actually mailed on December 21, 2015, Murfam would need to mail their petition by March 21, 2016, because 90 days later (March 20) falls on a Sunday. See IRC 7503.

This appears to be an easy question: did Murfam mail the petition by March 21, 2016? Because the Court did not actually receive the petition until April 2, 2016, we get into the “timely mailing” rules of IRC 7502. And here things get interesting. The envelope in which the petition was sent has a mostly illegible postmark. The day the petition was mailed is smudged, and may be either March 16 or March 26. The problem is, only one of those two dates (i.e. the 16th) is a timely mailing.

Carl Smith recently posted on the Treasury Regulation on point for these sorts of issues, with the interesting question of whether there is any room left for the common law mailbox rule in the same sphere as the Treasury Regulation. A slightly different question exists in Murfam, and the regulation specifically provides what to do with “illegible postmarks” at Treas. Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(A). Essentially, it provides that the burden of proof is on the sender to show the correct date. How, exactly, would one be expected to do that? That is where things would likely become difficult, and the practitioner may need to be creative. Though not quite the same issue, my favorite case for proving mailing is the Estate of Wood v. C.I.R., 909 F.2d 1155 (8th Cir. 1990) taking place in small-town Easton, Minnesota… a place where, much like Cheers, everybody knows your name. So much so that the “postmistress” was able to credibly testify that she specifically remembered sending the tax return in the mail on the day in question. It is unclear whether Murfam could rely on similar credible testimony to prove the date of the mailing.

I would also note that, at present, this is likely more of an academic point than anything else: the parties can stipulate that the petition was timely filed (and while I cannot access their stipulations, my suspicion is that they came to an agreement on that point… how much more efficiently things do progress when the parties work together). But, apart from again serving as a reminder on the importance of sending (certain) mail certified, the point to keep in mind is the evidentiary issues that can easily arise when mailing important documents.

The Importance of Addresses: Gamino v. C.I.R., dkt. # 12773-17S (order here)

Lest the importance of proper mailing issues be doubted, it should be noted that there was another designated order issued the same day primarily concerning mailing addresses. In Gamino, the IRS sent out a Notice of Deficiency (NOD) to the taxpayer at two different addresses. Those delivery attempts were in May of 2015. The petition that the taxpayer sent, and which Judge Guy dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, was mailed in May of 2017. Clearly the 90 days have passed. The only argument remaining for the taxpayer would involve, not the date of the mailing, but the address.

Neither of the NODs appear to have been “actually” received by the taxpayer at either address, although that may well have been by the taxpayers refusal to accept them -the NOD sent to the address the taxpayer was known to live at was marked “unclaimed” after multiple delivery attempts. However, actual receipt is not necessary for an effective NOD so long as it is sent to the “last known address.” Here the Court does not go into great detail of how to determine what the correct last known address would be. In fact, it appears as if that may be an issue, since the Court is squarely confronted with whether it was an effective mailing. But rather than dredge up the last filed tax return (perhaps Mr. Gamino never files?) or the other traditional methods the Service relies on for determining the last known address (see Treas. Reg. 301.6212-2) the Court relies on the petitioner effectively shooting himself in the foot during a hearing. That is, the fact that at a hearing on the issue Mr. Gamino “acknowledged that he had been living at the [address one of the NODs was sent to] for over 10 years.” No other information or argument is given as to why this should be treated as the proper “last known address,” but “under the circumstances” the Court is willing to treat it as such.

This order leaves me a bit torn. From a purely academic standpoint, it is not clear to me that just because the taxpayer was actually living somewhere that place should be treated as their “last known address.” In fact, that seems to go against the core concept behind the last known address and constructive receipt: it isn’t where you actually live, it is where the IRS (reasonably should) believe you to live. So the IRS sending a letter to anywhere other than my last known address should, arguably, only be effective on actual receipt.

On the other hand, a taxpayer shouldn’t be able to throw a wrench in tax administration just by refusing mail from the IRS. One could argue that such a refusal is “actual receipt” of the mail. In that respect, I would bet that Judge Guy got to the correct outcome in this case. But the order is nonetheless something of an anomaly on that point, since there should be much easier ways to show “last known address” and “actually living” at the address isn’t one of them. My bet is that the IRS couldn’t point to the address on the last filed return as the taxpayer’s “last known address” because that address may well have been a P.O. box (where one of the two NODs was sent, and returned as undeliverable). Taxpayers certainly shouldn’t be able circumvent the valid assessment of tax by providing undeliverable addresses… Although, even if you don’t “live” at a P.O. box, if that was the address you used on your last tax return, shouldn’t that be enough for a valid last known address? Truly, my mind boggles at these questions.

Changed Circumstances and Collection Due Process: The Importance of Court Review

English v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 16134-16L (order here)

On occasion, I wonder just how IRS employees view the role of “collection due process” in the framework of tax administration. Is it a chance to earnestly work with taxpayers on the best way of collecting (or perhaps foregoing) collecting tax revenue? Or is it just one more expensive and time-consuming barrier to collecting from delinquents? With some IRS employees (and counsel) I get the feeling that if they had to choose, they would characterize it as the latter. The above order strikes me as an example of that mindset.

Mr. English appears to be pursuing a collection alternative to levy, and is dealing with serious medical issues. I obviously do not have access to his financial details, but it should be noted that he is pro se, and that his filing fee was waived by the Court. This isn’t to guarantee that Mr. English may be dealing with financial hardship, but it is a decent indicator.

Further, this does not appear to be a case where the taxpayer simply never files a tax return and/or never submits financial information statements. In this case, the issue was the quality of the financial statements that were submitted (apparently incomplete, and with some expenses unsubstantiated). IRS appeals determined that Mr. English could full pay and sustained the levy. IRS counsel likely thought they could score a quick win on the case through summary judgment.

But that does not happen in this case, and for good reason.

Since the time of the original CDP hearing, Mr. English’s medical (and by extension, financial) position has seriously deteriorated. For one, he is now unemployed. For another, his left leg was amputated above the knee. The amputation occurred in late September, 2016. The unemployment was in July of 2017. In other words, both occurred well before the IRS filed a motion for summary judgment in 2018. Why did IRS counsel think that summary judgment upholding the levy recommendation, made by an IRS Appeals officer that was confronted with neither of those issues, was right decision? I have truly no idea. But I’ve come across enough overworked IRS attorneys to have a sense…

Fortunately, we have Judge Buch who apparently does appreciate the value of CDP. It is not clear whether Mr. English made any motion for remand to IRS appeals (it actually appears that he did not), but Judge Buch sees Mr. English’s “material change in circumstance” as good enough reason for it. And so, at the very least, the judicial review afforded CDP hearing provides Mr. English with another chance to make his case.

Odds and Ends

The remaining designated orders will not be given much analysis. One illustrates the opposite side of Mr. English in a CDP case: the taxpayer that does pretty much nothing other than petition the Court, while giving essentially no financials or other reasons for the IRS Appeals determination to be upheld (order here). The other deals with an apparently wrong-headed argument by an estate to exclude an IRS expert report (order here).

 

Comments

  1. Norman Diamond says:

    ‘Since litigation in Tax Court is largely built around informal discovery and the stipulation process’

    I made several Google searches for branerton letter sample, branerton letter example, etc. The only information I could find is that the IRS has Word macros for IRS employees to produce Branerton letter templates, a famous news organization sells a course to people who can afford to pay fees to learn how to litigate taxes and one worksheet is a Branerton letter sample, and a few dozen malicious hosting sites of viruses use a bunch of interesting keywords to draw traftic from Google searches to get tricked into downloading their malware.

    Could someone please post a real sample of a Branerton letter for pro se’s to refer to when we need to send one?

    ‘The envelope in which the petition was sent has a mostly illegible postmark.’

    Perhaps the burden of proof should be placed on the party related to (same owner as) the organization which is supposed to put postmarks on envelopes?

    ‘On occasion, I wonder just how IRS employees view the role of “collection due process” in the framework of tax administration. Is it a chance to earnestly work with taxpayers on the best way of collecting (or perhaps foregoing) collecting tax revenue? Or is it just one more expensive and time-consuming barrier to collecting from delinquents?’

    It’s just one more barrier to a taxpayer who’s trying yet again to find out the reason for a penalty, when the Settlement Officer asserts that no Notice of Deficiency was issued but the Settlement Officer still refuses to discuss the underlying reason for the assessment — that is, if there was actually an assessment. Sometimes it’s a barrier to a taxpayer who wasn’t actually assessed, when the Settlement Officer says by telephone that there was no assessment but the Settlement Officer’s supervisor signs a Notice of Determination stating that all requirements were verified.

  2. Bryan Camp says:

    Caleb, you correctly note that “the parties can stipulate that the petition was timely filed (and while I cannot access their stipulations, my suspicion is that they came to an agreement on that point).” I would just note that this in effect allows the parties to stipulate that the Tax Court has jurisdiction over the case, which cuts against the hornbook rule that parties cannot stipulate to a court’s subject matter jurisdiction. This workaround has been blessed by the 7th Circuit in Tilden v. Commissioner, 846 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2016) where Judge Easterbrook makes the (to my mind) inane distinction between a forbidden stipulation to jurisdiction and a permitted stipulation to “facts” that, if true, allow jurisdiction. So this is just one more reason to play nice with Chief Counsel. You may be able to get a favorable stipulation! For those interested I have listed other ways to “cheat” on jurisdiction in a June 11 Tax Notes article (which I just realized I need to put up on SSRN! If anyone wants a copy they can email me. Cheers! -bryan

  3. Where the postmark is illegible, the taxpayer should be given the opportunity to prove the date of mailing, whether by mailing receipt or by forensic examiner of taxpayer’s own choosing. Skolski v. Commissioner, 351 F.2d 485 (3rd Cir. 1965).

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