Is It Time To Reconsider When IRS Guidance Is Subject to Court Review?

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I have been working on an essay that looks at the possible way that Congress could breathe more life into the 2015 codification of the taxpayer bill of rights. My essay Giving Taxpayer Rights a Seat at the Table, which is in draft form and up on SSRN, makes a relatively simple claim: before IRS issues guidance it should be statutorily required to consider whether in its view the guidance is consistent with the taxpayer rights that the IRS adopted in 2014 and that Congress codified in 2015. In making my claim, I acknowledge the limits of the current statutory taxpayer rights framework, which arguably provides no direct way to hold the IRS accountable for actions that violate taxpayer rights unless the right relates to a separate specific cause of action for its violation.*

In researching my article on taxpayer rights, I came back to a stubborn problem with the IRS guidance process and for taxpayers and third parties who believe that the IRS guidance violates a procedural requirement under the Administrative Procedure Act:  there are at times insurmountable obstacles to challenging IRS guidance for procedural adequacy. That problem has led me to think about some interesting and important articles that have addressed this issue in the past few years.

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In the tax world, unlike other areas of federal law, statutes like the Anti-Injunction Act and the Declaratory Judgment Act, have proven formidable barriers to test the adequacy of IRS fidelity to for example the notice and comment requirements under the APA until well after the rule has been in place. In other words, a taxpayer or third party often has to wait for a refund or deficiency case (i.e., an enforcement proceeding) to argue that there was a procedural infirmity that would result in the court’s possibly invalidating the regulation or possibly subregulatory guidance.

This has contributed to some calling for a careful look at the Anti-Injunction Act, with Professor Kristin Hickman and her co-author Gerald Kerska arguing in Restoring the Lost Anti-Injunction Act in the Virginia Law Review (reviewed here by Sonya Watson) that history supports a reading of the AIA that would generally allow pre-enforcement challenges to IRS guidance. The article takes as a starting point that IRS has not always been faithful to APA requirements and not every possible challenge neatly fits into an enforcement proceeding. On top of that, as Professor Hickman has highlighted in prior work as well, it is questionable that there would be an adequate remedy in certain instances even if a court were to find a procedural infirmity in the context of a challenge that arises in a deficiency or refund case.

Despite my sympathy with a reading of current law that would allow for greater pre-enforcement challenges, there are strong legal and policy arguments against courts on their own extending the circumstances when there will be challenges to the procedural adequacy of IRS guidance. For example, expanding the opportunity for procedural challenges will naturally soak precious agency resources.  As Professor Daniel Hemel, in The Living Anti-Injunction Act in the Virginia Law Review online edition argues in an essay responding to Hickman and Kerska’s article, it would be best institutionally for Congress rather than the courts to open the door to pre-enforcement challenges.

Professor Stephanie Hunter McMahon in a 2017 Washington Law Review article Pre-Enforcement Litigation Needed for Taxing Procedures also takes up the subject of challenging IRS guidance. In her article, she sizes up the current landscape:

While Congress only permits procedural challenges late in the tax collection process, this offers little to most taxpayers. The delay in litigating procedural complaints reduces what is challenged and affects taxpayer behavior throughout the period from its promulgation until someone, eventually, challenges the procedures. In the process, delayed litigation requires that taxpayers plan their affairs under the spectre of guidance that might not survive a procedural challenge. Moreover, in deciding whether to follow the tax guidance, taxpayers must not only assess its substance but also the procedures used to create it under procedural requirements that are not consistently interpreted by the courts.

Professor Hunter McMahon drills deeper on the disincentives associated with challenging tax guidance in enforcement proceedings:

Disincentives are increased because, unlike in other areas of law that permit pre-enforcement litigation, people are not suing in post- enforcement tax litigation simply to perfect the agency’s procedures. Instead, they are suing over their own tax obligations. The personal nature of the result and that the costs are already imposed likely changes the way people perceive the litigation. With pre-enforcement litigation, a judge remanding a case to the agency to correct the procedures would be a victory. In a tax refund or deficiency case, remand is insufficient to accomplish the goal of reducing the taxes owed. If courts are likely to remand procedural matters without vacating the rule, the taxpayer has little incentive to challenge the rules because the personal outcome remains the same.

These issues are even more pernicious when the rules in question relate to lower income or marginalized taxpayers, who are less likely to be able to get to court and as Professor Hunter McMahon aptly points out may not have the means or resources to influence the guidance process in the first instance. (That latter point is indirectly highlighted by the draft article “Beyond Notice-and-Comment: The Making of the § 199A Regulations” by Shu-Yi Oei and Leigh Osofsky that Keith discussed recently).

Professor Hunter McMahon proposes a legislative fix. That fix would be to allow an amendment to the Anti-Injunction and Declaratory Judgment Act to allow for a limited time period challenges to the procedural adequacy of the guidance:

[T]his proposal would permit pre- enforcement litigation of procedural requirements and a judicial evaluation of whether the process used, including the clarity of the statement and the comment period, suffices for APA purposes.

As Professor Hunter McMahon notes, the benefit of allowing a limited time to challenge to procedural adequacy is that it could focus attention on procedural issues early in the life of the guidance, which would allow for consistency in application of the substantive rules. A second part of Professor Hunter McMahon’s legislative fix is for Congress to delineate more specifically which forms of guidance are required to go through notice and comment—she focuses on guidance that is intended to change taxpayer behavior rather than define prior action as the candidate for a default requirement to go through the notice and comment process.

Conclusion

I believe that Professor Hunter McMahon’s approach merits serious consideration. I am reflecting further on my proposal about ways to give the taxpayer rights provisions more teeth -my proposal relies heavily on the Taxpayer Advocate Service and enhancing its institutional role in the guidance process, including giving the National Taxpayer Advocate specific authority to comment on regulations (something that the NTA herself as recommended in both Purple Books that accompanied the last two annual reports). As Congress signals a further willingness to take on IRS reform issues, I believe that it should directly address the current reach of the Anti-Injunction Act and the issue of when and to what extent taxpayers and third parties should be able to test the adequacy of IRS guidance conforming to APA requirements.

As part of this approach I am intrigued by the possibility of tying in the IRS’s fidelity to taxpayer rights principles in the rulemaking process. I would be grateful for comments on my draft article or reactions to any of the issues raised in this post.

*An example of how a taxpayer right relates to a specific cause of action is taxpayer right number 7, the right to privacy, and Section 7213, which authorizes a suit for unauthorized disclosure of a taxpayer’s any tax return or return information. An example of a taxpayer right that does not so relate to a cause of action is right number 5, the right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum, which as we discussed last year in connection with the Facebook case does not seem to carry with it a direct way to challenge IRS action that arguably conflicts with that right.

 

 

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Comments

  1. Percell Deborah says:

    Thank you for your well written discourse in procduerallytaxing.com.
    I always learn from the writers, as well as the references .
    While I am not a tax attorney, nor a CPA, I am an Enrolled Agent and retired Treasury agent .
    Deborah Percell EA
    No need to publish this comment.

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