Designated Orders: Week of 1/1/2018 – 1/5/2018 aka New Year, New Graev III(?)

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This week’s designated orders come courtesy of Caleb Smith at University of Minnesota. It is not surprising that Graev III and other issues related to penalties continue to dominate the order pages at the Tax Court. As one might expect in reading Graev III and previous designated orders, Judge Holmes has problems with the way things are working. In two cases Caleb discusses, we find out about the problems and how to attack them. Keith

Estate of Michael Jackson v. C.I.R., dkt. # 17152-13 [here];

Oakbrook Land Holdings, LLC v. C.I.R., dkt. # 5444-13 [here]

2018 begins with Judge Holmes continuing the inquiry into the aftermath of Graev III, and raising some new issues. As Carl posted earlier [here], even if we now know that the IRC 6751(b)(1) argument can be raised in a deficiency case, there certainly remain questions to be answered about the contours of its applicability and interplay with IRC 7491(c) (the IRS burden of production on penalties).

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The main issue in Judge Holmes’s two orders is the interplay of these statutes with taxpayers that are not “individuals” as defined in the code. That is, how does the burden of production issue in 7491(c), which by its language applies to penalties against individuals come to effect partnerships and estates?

Consider the varying breadth of the primary statutes at play:

  • IRC 6751(b)(1): “No penalty under this title shall be assessed […]”

Thus, subject to the exceptions listed in IRC 6751(b)(2), the supervisory approval requirement appears quite broad. By its language, it appears to apply to all penalties found in the Internal Revenue Code.

OK, so we know that supervisory approval is broad. But when exactly does the IRS have the burden of production to show that it has complied? That seems a slightly narrower… As relevant here:

  • IRC 7491(c): the IRS “shall have the burden of production in any court proceeding with respect to any individual for any penalty […]”

So if the penalty is against an individual, the IRS bears the burden of production. That, of course, prompts the question: what is an “individual” for tax purposes? For guidance there, we look to the definitions section of the code. As relevant here:

  • IRC 7701(a)(1): “The term “person” shall be construed to mean and include an individual, a trust, estate, partnership, association, company or corporation.”

This definition clearly contemplates that not every entity is an “individual.” In fact, an individual is basically limited to a natural human. Putting these three statutes together, you seem to get (1) supervisory approval required for all penalties, but (2) burden of production for the IRS to show approval only when the penalty is against a natural human.

The question seems more complicated in the case of partnerships than estates (go figure). For one, in TEFRA cases the petitioner is the partner that files the petition: which may be an individual, but it may also be another partnership, association, etc. Another wrinkle: in the TEFRA/partnership context, the court is looking at the applicability of the penalty, not the liability. Does that change the analysis? 7491(c) explicitly deals with a court proceeding “with respect to the liability […] for any penalty[.]” Is determining applicability the same (or close enough) to being “with respect to” the liability of the penalty for IRC 7491(c) to apply in TEFRA? I would think yes, but I (blessedly) do not frequently work with partnership issues.

As far as I can tell the question of whether the IRS should have the burden of production on penalties (generally) against estates, partnerships, etc. is not much changed under Graev III. The only real difference now is that the IRS (may) have to wrap in supervisory approval as part of their burden of production. In reading Judge Holmes’s orders, I couldn’t help but get the sense that his questions have less to do with the outcome of Graev III and more to do with general problems in the law concerning penalties. In fact, it seemed to me that Graev III simply provided the Court an opportunity to review some issues that may have been lurking for some time.

In both orders, Judge Holmes lists multiple memorandum decisions that apply the burden of production against the IRS for penalties against estates and in the partnership context, respectively. However, Judge Holmes also notes that the cases either don’t really address the question (for applicability against estates), or are fairly unclear in their rationale (for applicability in the partnership context… again, go figure).

The court decision that explicitly does apply the burden of proof on the IRS in a partnership context appears particularly weak. That case is Seismic Support Services, LLC v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2014-78. The issue is addressed in a footnote (11), where the Court actually notes that the language of IRC 7491(c) applies “on its face” to individuals and that numerous Tax Court decisions have refused to apply IRC 7491(c) against the IRS when the taxpayer isn’t an individual. In fact, a precedential decision explicitly says that 7491(c) doesn’t apply when the taxpayer is not an individual: see NT, Inc. v. C.I.R., 126 T.C. 191.

Case closed… right?

Well, no, because other memorandum decisions have applied IRC 7491(c) against the IRS when the taxpayer was a corporation. Why it is that Judge Kroupa in Seismic Support Services, LLC decides that she should follow the lead of the memorandum decisions is beyond me. Those decisions provide essentially no analysis as to whether IRC 7491(c) should apply against non-individuals, whereas NT, Inc. specifically states why it shouldn’t. I would not be surprised if the Court began a trend towards consistency in this matter, abandoning Judge Kroupa’s approach and opting for what appears to be the correct statutory reading: if it isn’t an “individual,” the burden of production for penalties does not apply to the IRS. Partnership issues may complicate that matter, but generally speaking (and especially for estates), it does not appear that IRC 7491(c) should apply.

Throughout all of this, one thing that surprised me was that the IRS has not raised the issue before. In fact, the case that explicitly holds that IRC 7491(c) does not apply in the case of corporate taxpayers (NT, Inc. v. C.I.R.), the IRS (by motion) stated that it did apply… and the Court had to say of its own volition “no, in fact it does not.” Little issue, I suppose, because the IRS won either way.

And that may be the ultimate lesson: if and when the burden of production will actually change the outcome. In essentially all of the cases cited by Judge Holmes (i.e. the cases I reviewed) it is likely the IRS didn’t much care about the burden of proof. They were arguing a “mechanical” applicability of a penalty (like substantial undervaluation) such that it really didn’t matter who had the burden of production, since the burden would be met (or not met) depending on how the Court valued the underlying property (in the estate cases).

But where the penalty requires something more (say, negligence) the IRC 7491(c) issue would definitely be important. Alternatively, if it becomes a requirement that the IRS affirmatively show compliance with IRC 6751 without the taxpayer raising that issue, it may also change the calculous. Like so many other penalty issues, we don’t yet have clarity on how that will turn out.

Remaining Orders:

There were three other designated orders that were issued last week. An order from Special Trial Judge Carluzzo granting summary judgment against an unresponsive pro se taxpayer can be found here, but will not be discussed. The two remaining orders don’t break new ground or merit nearly as much discussion, but provide some interesting tidbits:

A Judge Buch order in Collins v. C.I.R., (found here) may be of some use to attorneys that have some familiarity with federal court, but no familiarity with Tax Court. In Collins, the pro se taxpayer (apparently an attorney, but without admission to the Tax Court) attempts to compel discovery, and cites to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) Rule 37 to do so. Among many other errors (ranging from spelling, to failing to redact private information), this maneuver fails. For one, it fails because Mr. Collins appears to seek information “looking behind” the Notice of Deficiency (i.e. to how or why the IRS conducted the examination) which older Tax Court decisions frown upon. (I would say that the outcome of Qinetiq (discussed here) generally reaffirms this approach.)

But the more imminent reason why Mr. Collins approach fails is that he doesn’t comply with the Tax Court Rules before looking to the FRCP as a stand-in. And those rules (at R. 70) plainly require attempting informal discovery before using more formal discovery procedures. All of which is to say, attorneys that are accustomed to litigating in other fora should understand that Tax Court is a different animal than they may be expecting.

Finally, An order from Judge Gustafson (found here) shows still more potential problems for the IRS on penalty issues, this time IRC 6707A concerning failure to disclose reportable transactions. The Court surmises (and orders clarification through a phone call) that the IRS may have lumped multiple years of penalties (some for time-barred periods) into one aggregate penalty for a non-time barred year. This is almost certainly a no-no, and if it turns out the IRS calculated the later (open) penalty in that way one would expect the phone call to involve some large dollar concessions from the IRS.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Carl Smith says:

    I checked this morning and found that, since Graev III was issued on Dec. 20, 2017, there have already been orders citing the opinion issued in 105 dockets. This is a huge issue going forward in the Tax Court.

  2. I would think that section 7491(c) might still be applicable in estate cases because the personal representative/executor is a named petitioner.

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