Like the First Amphibian Crawling Out of the Swamp onto Land, the Flora Rule Emerges from Title 26 to Possibly Infest Title 31

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The case of Bedrosian v. United States, No. 17-3525, __ F.3d __, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 36146 (3rd Cir. Dec. 21, 2018) marks the possible jurisdictional cross-over of the Flora rule from the tax code into the broader reaches of the United States Code. This is not good news for individuals seeking to contest the application of the FBAR penalty – the penalty at issue in this case – or other liabilities with ties to taxes. For a discussion of the case and links to several of the documents filed in the case, look at the blog post by Jack Townsend. In addition to Jack’s excellent post which you should read for a fuller understanding of the issue here, I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Carl Smith and Christine Speidel in writing this post. While we regularly circulate the posts prior to publication, I reached out with a special request for help on this one due to my lack of knowledge about the technical workings of the FBAR provisions.

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The FBAR penalty arises from 31 U.S.C. 5314 and the following sections. The Third Circuit described the penalty as follows:

The Secretary has implemented this statute through various regulations, including 31 C.F.R. § 1010.350, which specifies that certain United States persons must annually file a Report with the IRS. Covered persons must file it by June 30 each year for foreign accounts exceeding $10,000 in the prior calendar year. 31 C.F.R. § 1010.306(c). The authority to enforce the FBAR requirement has been delegated to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Id. § 1010.810(g); see also Internal Revenue Manual § 4.26.1, Ex. 4.26.1-3 (U.S. Dep’t of Treasury Memorandum of Agreement and 4 Delegation of Authority for Enforcement of FBAR Requirements).

The civil penalties for a FBAR violation are in 31 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(5). The maximum penalty for a non-willful violation is $10,000. Id. § 5321(a)(5)(B)(i). By contrast, the maximum penalty for a willful violation is the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the balance in the unreported foreign account at the time of the violation. Id. § 5321(a)(5)(C)(i).

The amount of the penalty imposed on individuals who the IRS determines willfully violated the provision makes the FBAR penalty potentially similar to the IRC 6707 penalty at issue in United States v. Larson, __ F.3d __ (2nd Cir. 2018) which we discussed here and here. The IRS assessed a willful FBAR violation penalty against Mr. Bedrosian of $975,789. While that is only a small fraction of the amount assessed against Mr. Larson and “only” 50% of the amount in the foreign bank account for the year he failed to report the account, this amount still presents a high bar for entry into court to litigate the correctness of the application of the penalty.

To understand how Mr. Bedrosian came to be in front of the Third Circuit, a short review of FBAR assessment and collection procedures may be helpful. When the IRS determines that someone has failed to properly report a foreign bank account, it does not send a notice of deficiency for this Title 31 violation. It makes a summary assessment. The “person” (not “taxpayer”) is given the opportunity to go to appeals before FBAR assessment. See IRM 4.26.17.4.6 (01-01-2007) Closing the FBAR Case Unagreed. See also IRM 4.26.17.4.7 (01-01-2007) Closing the FBAR Case Appealed, and IRM 8.11.6 FBAR Penalties (appeals procedures). There are also special procedures for FBAR examinations.

Not surprisingly, the IRM reflects in several ways the government’s position that FBAR penalties are not tax penalties subject to Title 26 requirements and norms. For example, Form 2848 can only be used to appoint a representative for an FBAR exam if there is a related income tax examination. If there is not, a representative must provide a general POA valid under state law. See IRM 4.26.8.2.

The collection process for FBAR cases does not follow the normal IRS practice for collection either. For a detailed discussion of collection of an FBAR penalty you might review the slide program to which Jack Townsend mentions. The program was presented at the May, 2018 ABA Tax Section meeting.

The FBAR regulation says that IRS has been delegated collection authority as well as assessment authority. 31 CFR 1010.810(g). However, the IRM on collection explains that while “authority to collect” has been delegated,

[IRS] Collection is not delegated any enforcement authority with respect to FBAR penalties. … The Bureau of Fiscal Service (BFS), formerly Financial Management Service (FMS), which is a bureau of the Department of the Treasury, is responsible for collecting all non-tax debts. This includes FBAR penalties.

IRM 5.21.6, Foreign Financial Account Reporting. There is nothing in the IRM about BFS collection procedures or requirements.

One might wonder if FBAR penalties can be compromised. The IRS position is that FBAR assessments cannot be compromised through the Offer in Compromise program “because the assessment is based on Title 31 violations and IRC § 7122 allows the IRS to compromise only Title 26 liabilities.” IRM 5.8.1.9.6 (05-05-2017). The Third Circuit, however, rejects this simple and clear distinction.

Mr. Bedrosian decided to pay 1% of the assessed liability, or $9,757, and bring a suit for recovery of that amount in district court under the Little Tucker Act.  The Tucker Act (28 U.S.C. sec. 1491(a)(1)) allows the Court of Federal Claims to hear suits against the United States founded upon a contract, the constitution, or a statute, without limitation as to amount.  The Little Tucker Act (28 U.S.C. sec. 1346(a)(2)) allows similar suits in district court, but only where the amount involved does not exceed $10,000.  Flora held that a tax refund suit under 28 U.S.C. sec. 1346(a)(1) (i.e., not the Little Tucker Act) can only be brought in the district court or the Court of Federal Claims after full payment of the tax in dispute.  Section 1346(a)(1) applies to suits brought for refund “under the internal -revenue laws”.  Neither party brought up the Flora rule as a jurisdictional hurdle here.  The Department of Justice counterclaimed for the balance of the liability rather than moving to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, as it did in Larson, because it believed that the district court had jurisdiction to hear the case under the Little Tucker Act.  The district court did not raise Flora as a possible jurisdictional bar to the litigation.  The Flora issue emerged, sua sponte, from the Third Circuit at oral argument.  The court asked the parties to submit letter memoranda on the district court jurisdictional issue after the oral argument occurred. Jack Townsend’s post linked in the first paragraph above provides the links to the memoranda submitted to the Third Circuit on this issue.

Here is what the Third Circuit says in a footnote about the Flora issue:

The parties’ argument that Bedrosian’s claim is not within the tax refund statute is premised on the notion that the phrase “internal-revenue laws” in 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) refers only to laws codified in Title 26 of the U.S. Code. But that argument does not follow the statutory history of the tax refund statute, which suggests that “internal-revenue laws” are defined by their function and not their placement in the U.S. Code. See Wyodak Res. Dev. Corp. v. United States, 637 F.3d 1127, 1134 (10th Cir. 2011). The argument also ignores the Tax Court’s rejection of the proposition that “internal revenue laws are limited to laws codified in [T]itle 26.” See Whistleblower 21276–13W v. Comm’r, 147 T.C. 121, 130 & n.13 (2016) (noting that “the IRS itself acknowledges that tax laws may be found outside title 26”). We also observe, by analogy, that claims brought by taxpayers to recover penalties assessed under 26 U.S.C. § 6038(b) for failing to report holdings of foreign companies—a statute nearly identical to the FBAR statute, except addressing foreign business holdings rather than foreign bank accounts—are brought under the tax refund statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1). See Dewees v. United States, 2017 WL 8185850, at *1 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 3, 2017). Also, allowing a taxpayer to seek recovery of a FBAR penalty under the Little Tucker Act permits that person to seek a ruling on that penalty in federal district court without first paying the entire penalty, as Bedrosian did here by paying just under the $10,000 Little Tucker Act threshold. This violates a first principle of tax litigation in federal district court—“pay first and litigate later.” Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145, 164 (1960). We are inclined to believe the initial claim of Bedrosian was within the scope of 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) and thus did not supply the District Court with jurisdiction at all because he did not pay the full penalty before filing suit, as would be required to establish jurisdiction under subsection (a)(1). See Flora, 362 U.S. at 176–77. But given the procedural posture of this case, we leave a definitive holding on this issue for another day.

Having raised Flora as a possible jurisdictional defect to the suit, the Third Circuit decides that because the IRS filed a counterclaim the district court (and it) clearly have jurisdiction to hear the case. It decides not to make a definitive ruling on the application of Flora to FBAR cases. Maybe no other court will take the bait and after a few faltering footsteps on land the idea of applying Flora to provisions outside of Title 26 will head back to the swamp not to emerge again. Still, Bedrosian raises the specter of the extension of Flora yet again to matters never intended by the Supreme Court or anyone else when that Court ruled 5-4 on the shaky legal basis presented 60 years ago. Let’s hope that Bedrosian does not signal a new expansion of a doctrine that needs to be contracted and not expanded.

Bedrosian also presents a case involving the appropriate standard for review and the appropriate standard for willfulness in an FBAR case. The appeals court decides that the appropriate standard of review of the factual finding from the bench trial (that Mr. Bedrosian’s conduct was not willful) is to review the determination for clear error. However, the court must still correct any errors in the district court’s legal analysis. It decides that the appropriate standard for willfulness in an FBAR case mirrors willfulness in other contexts:

In assessing the inquiry performed by the District Court, we first consider its holding that the proper standard for willfulness is “the one used in other civil contexts—that is, a defendant has willfully violated [31 U.S.C. § 5314] when he either knowingly or recklessly fails to file [a] FBAR.” (Op. at 7.) We agree. Though “willfulness” may have many meanings, general consensus among courts is that, in the civil context, the term “often denotes that which is intentional, or knowing, or voluntary, as distinguished from accidental, and that it is employed to characterize conduct marked by careless disregard whether or not one has the right so to act.” Wehr v. Burroughs Corp., 619 F.2d 276, 281 (3d Cir. 1980) (quoting United States v. Illinois Central R.R., 303 U.S. 239, 242–43 (1938)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In particular, where “willfulness” is an element of civil liability, “we have generally taken it to cover not only knowing violations of a standard, but reckless ones as well.” Fuges v. Sw. Fin. Servs., Ltd., 707 F.3d 241, 248 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 57 (2007)). We thus join our District Court colleague in holding that the usual civil standard of willfulness applies for civil penalties under the FBAR statute.

This is an important case for those practicing in the FBAR area. The Flora issue raises the possibility of expansion in a way that could make it much more difficult for individuals challenging an FBAR assessment. The discussion of willfulness provides some clarity that litigants may find useful.

 

Comments

  1. Norman Diamond says:

    ‘The parties’ argument that Bedrosian’s claim is not within the tax refund statute is premised on the notion that the phrase “internal-revenue laws” in 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) refers only to laws codified in Title 26 of the U.S. Code. But that argument does not follow the statutory history of the tax refund statute, which suggests that “internal-revenue laws” are defined by their function and not their placement in the U.S. Code.’

    If I understand correctly, this is not the first time that the Third Circuit has pretended to give US Tax Court jurisdiction on issues which Tax Court ruled it does not have jurisdiction on. Tax Court has already ruled that it doesn’t have jurisdiction on FBAR penalties. FBAR is not an internal revenue law. (FBAR brings penalty revenue but the penalties do not involve tax issues.

    But please do persuade Congress to extend the jurisdiction of Tax Court. Judges of District Courts, Federal Claims, and Circuit Courts have so little understanding of both taxes and FBAR that no one can have any rational expectation of getting laws or facts recognized in those courts.

    ‘We also observe, by analogy, that claims brought by taxpayers to recover penalties assessed under 26 U.S.C. § 6038(b) for failing to report holdings of foreign companies’

    Congress intentionally imposed duplicative reporting by individuals as well, under both Title 31 and Title 26. The statutes invalidate the Circuit Court’s alleged observation of alleged analogy.

    “Having raised Flora as a possible jurisdictional defect to the suit, the Third Circuit decides that because the IRS filed a counterclaim the district court (and it) clearly have jurisdiction to hear the case.”

    Do you mean the DOJ filed a counterclaim, or did the IRS find some way to intervene? Small-j justice would benefit it the IRS would intervene in other cases where the DOJ misrepresents IRS positions or facts.

  2. “Eventually a Tax Court judge may decide that question, if Chief Counsel stops conceding before trial.”

    Maybe this comment deserves it’s own Blog Topic: But why are you forced to agree with the IRS’ concession? If you really want to see how a judge would resolve the issue, why not proceed? I know the IRS has done this when the taxpayer has conceded. And it is done to create precedent (favorable government precedent in that case). Why can’t the taxpayer do the same? The IRS concession is just a way to avoid adverse precedent. And given no precedent, it is foreseeable that the IRS will continue to send the type of notice you describe. I realize we have a duty to our clients, so accepting the concession makes sense from that standpoint. But if we’re talking about peanuts and a common and important issue…

    • Norman Diamond says:

      The taxpayer can do the same, but the taxpayer doesn’t have the kind of representation that the IRS obtains through (usually) funding from taxpayers’ money.

      I did plan to proceed in a trial where the IRS had conceded every alleged penalty after calendar call, but I had already postponed heart surgery twice because of Tax Court calendar calls and relatives persuaded me to accept instead of proceeding. When the chief surgeon showed before-and-after X-rays, I saw that my relatives had been right.

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