Mixing a Pro Se Taxpayer and Confusing Innocent Spouse Deadlines Leads to Bad Result

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In Vu v Commissioner, a summary case from late last year, the Tax Court held that a pro se taxpayer did not establish the Tax Court’s jurisdiction to hear an appeal of an IRS’s denial of a request for innocent spouse relief. What makes the case unusual is that the taxpayer Amanda Vu did file a petition requesting relief but she did so before the IRS issued what it styled as a notice of determination and just prior to 6 months elapsing after her request to the IRS for relief was made. In other words, her petition jumped the gun on the two separate avenues needed to confer the Tax Court’s jurisdiction.

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Before digging into the case I note that I came across the case and wrote a draft of this post without realizing that Carl and Keith are now representing the taxpayer Ms. Vu. As I discuss below, what intrigued me initially about the case was how the result was unfair. Carl and Keith and the Harvard Tax Clinic have filed a motion to set aside the dismissal and remove the case’s small case designation. I will discuss below why the Tax Court dismissed the case, and why I agree with the Tax Court judge that the outcome inequitable and hope that the legal argument Carl and Keith have advanced persuade the Tax Court to reconsider its approach.

I also note that we have discussed premature petitions before, albeit in the context of straight up deficiency cases. In Tax Court Order Finds Jurisdiction Even When Taxpayer Files a Petition Before the IRS Issues Notice of Deficiency a taxpayer filed a petition prior to the stat notice but in response to other correspondence IRS issued in its exam. I discussed how the Tax Court in Weiss v Commissioner went out of its way to confer jurisdiction, essentially allowing the taxpayer’s response to IRS motion to dismiss the case confer jurisdiction, so long as the taxpayer amended its petition and the IRS’s motion and the taxpayer’s response were issued prior to the actual 90-day period ran. I speculated that the problem of premature petitions filed in good faith was likely a common one, and that the Weisses were lucky in that the IRS motion, and their response, were within the 90-day period.

Vu was not nearly as fortunate as Weiss. I will simplify the facts to bring home the procedural conundrum Vu found herself in.

She, with a friend’s assistance, submitted a request for innocent spouse relief that she signed and dated February 28, 2014. IRS recorded it as received on March 24, 2014.

Vu testified that she received from IRS on June 12 an “Innocent Spouse Relief Lead Sheet” that was dated June 4, 2014. The document was designated Workpaper # 615 and reads in part:

Conclusion: (Reflects the final determination on the issue.)

Conclusion for 6015(b):

Note: A summary of your conclusion should go here. Ensure that reference is made as to what factors are met if allowing or granting partial relief, and what factors are not met

It was concluded that the Taxpayer does not meet innocent spouse relief under IRC 6015(b).

*******

Conclusion for 6015(c):

Note: A summary of your conclusion should go here. Ensure that reference is made as to what factors are met if allowing or denying partial relief, and what factors are not met if disallowing or granting partial relief.

It was concluded that the Taxpayer does not meet innocent spouse relief under IRC 6015(c).

*******

Conclusion for 6015(f):

Note: A summary of your conclusion should go here.

It was concluded that the Taxpayer does not meet innocent spouse relief under IRC 6015(f).

*******

Vu sent in a petition to Tax Court and it had a September 8, 2014 postmark, and Tax Court received it on September 12, 2014.

About one month after Vu filed her petition, on October 9, 2014 IRS mailed Vu a final determination denying her request for innocent spouse relief.

On November 3, 2014, IRS filed an answer. In the answer it denied issuing a notice of determination from New Mexico and indicated that it issued a notice of determination from Phoenix on October 9, 2014. IRS did not in the answer indicate that the petition Vu filed was premature; that was too bad because if it had flagged the issue, the taxpayer, like the early bird in Weiss, could have cured her defect and filed a petition that would have clearly been timely.

On January 27, 2015 Vu, more than 90 days after issuing what it called a final determination and over four months after Vu filed her petition, IRS filed a motion to dismiss Vu’s petition on the ground that she filed it prior to the time that the IRS issued its October 9 notice of determination.

Vu did not respond to the Tax Court’s order ordering a response to the motion. The motion was argued at a June 2015 calendar in New Mexico.

The Law

A petition to Tax Court is timely in innocent spouse cases if it is made (1) within 90 days of the mailing of a notice of final determination of relief, or (2) if the IRS has not yet mailed a notice of determination, at any point after six months has transpired since the taxpayer’s request for relief was made with the Commissioner.

Applying the above rules to Vu meant that the Tax Court would have had jurisdiction under two alternate theories:

  • if it considered the IRS’s Innocent Spouse Relief Lead Sheet IRS issued sometime in June a notice of determination and Vu filed a petition within 90 days of that determination, or
  • if at the time she filed her petition to Tax Court 6 months had elapsed following her request for relief and IRS had issued no determination in the case.

On both grounds the Tax Court held that Vu came up empty leaving the Tax Court to conclude that it had no jurisdiction in the case.

Both issues are interesting and walk us down some complicated procedural rules. First let’s look at issue 1. The opinion indicates that it likely would have been willing to conclude that the Workpaper #615 correspondence was a determination, noting cases such as Barnes v Commissioner that neither the statute or regs impose a specific form or spell out the content of what should be in a determination and the language of the workpaper led the taxpayer to conclude it was a final IRS determination. The problem for Vu was that there was no evidence in the record when IRS issued that correspondence, making it impossible to conclude that the petition she filed was within 90-days (and allowing the court to punt on concluding definitively that the Workpaper was a determination).

There were two possible dates: June 4, when the document was dated, or June 12, when Vu claimed to receive it. Determining which was correct was key, because if it were issued on June12th the petition she mailed on September 8 would have been filed within 90 days, using the mailbox rule that allows date of mailing to be the date of filing. If it were issued on June 4th the petition would have been filed outside the 90-days.

According to the Tax Court Vu did not offer any evidence as to why June12th was the correct date:

As for the June 12, 2014, date, petitioner however did not present any evidence whatsoever showing that any relevant action occurred on June 12, 2014, and has specifically failed to establish that respondent provided her the requisite final determination notice on that date.

What about issue 2, the 6-month rule? That issue turned on whether Vu’s request was considered made on February 28, when she signed, dated and testified that she mailed it, or March 24, when IRS records treated the request as received. If the operative date were February, then Vu’s petition would have conferred jurisdiction, as the petition she mailed on September 8 and which the Tax Court received on September 12 would have been filed after 6 months had elapsed from her administrative request for relief and prior to the IRS’s issuance of the October 9 final determination.

Vu came up empty here too. How it gets there requires a detour to Section 7502, the mailbox rule. The Vu opinion treats the statutory language “made” in the same manner as if it interpreted when the request were filed. The opinion treated the request for relief as having been filed or made in March (when IRS received it) and not when  mailed in late February. It does so because the mailbox rule under Section 7502 is actually an exception to the general rule that a document is filed when it is received by the IRS. Recall that the mailbox rule of Section 7502 only applies when documents are filed with and received after the expiration of a filing period. Here, the filing period limitation relates to the time period to bring an administrative request for innocent spouse relief, and that limitation was years in the future:

Because petitioner’s Form 8857…was filed before respondent initiated any collection action with respect to that year (indeed, before respondent even issued the joint notice of deficiency to petitioner and Mr. Nguyen with respect to that year), we find that respondent timely received the form on March 24, 2014; section 7502 therefore does not apply, and the relevant date for section 6015(e)(1)(A)(i)(II) is not six months after the alleged mailing date of the form but six months after the date of receipt of the form, or September 25, 2014.

The opinion made clear why Vu came up short:

Consequently, we can exercise jurisdiction over the petition herein only if it was filed “at any time after the earlier of” October 9, 2014 [the date of the formal notice of determination], or September 25, 2014 [six months after Vu’s request was made], see sec. 6015(e)(1)(A)(i), and “not later than” January 7, 2015, see sec. 6015(e)(1)(A)(ii). Because the petition was filed with the Court on September 12, 2014, it does not meet this requirement and we thus lack jurisdiction over it.

This opinion noted the unfairness of the outcome:

While we acknowledge that this is an inequitable result, as petitioner filed her petition believing in good faith that it was timely and her opportunity to file another petition has now expired, we are unfortunately constrained by the statute, and our role is to apply the tax laws as written.

Final Thoughts

This is a bad outcome. I do not understand why counsel for IRS did not alert Vu of the premature petition issue earlier in the process. It appears that counsel for the IRS did not appreciate the 90-day issue fully until it filed the motion; otherwise one would have hoped that counsel would have filed the motion in lieu of the answer. That would have given Vu time to file a petition within the 90-day window, as the taxpayer in Weiss did. I also note that the IRS only raised the 6-month issue at the hearing itself on the motion, which was many months after the IRS filed its motion to dismiss.

We have discussed before the difficulties associated with confusing IRS correspondence. When you add to the mix the reality that many taxpayers are pro se and not equipped to understand the nuances of differing IRS procedures you can get to a place where a taxpayer is denied her day in court despite efforts to have her case heard.

There is a possibility that the Tax Court will change its mind and the case will get heard. Keith and Carl in their motion to set aside the dismissal argue that the IRS forfeited the right to make an SOL argument by waiting too long in this case, as it should have been made in the answer. This is an argument similar to the way the Supreme Court in the 2004 case of Kontrick v. Ryan held that a bankruptcy debtor waited too long in his case to raise the untimeliness of a creditor’s filing because the time period was not jurisdictional, so had to be raised earlier in the case.  Kontrick is the Supreme Court opinion that first began the narrowing of the use of the word “jurisdictional”.

We have discussed the issue of jurisdictional deadlines repeatedly; the most recent was Carl’s discussion of Tilden earlier this week, an opinion that does not help the argument in Vu. Admittedly there is no direct precedent in support of Vu’s argument, and the Tax Court in Pollock v Commissioner has previously held that the deadline under Section 6015(e)(1)(A) was jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. To be sure, there is no long line of Supreme Court precedent holding deadlines under Section 6015 jurisdictional, and the Tax Court’s opinion in Pollock was prior to the Supreme Court and other courts’ narrowing of the term jurisdictional. Moreover, the language in Section 6015(e) consists of a single sentence containing both jurisdictional grants and time periods to file a petition, a type of statute that the Supreme Court has previously held to be not jurisdictional.

Keith and Carl have a few cases other than Vu in the pipeline making this argument and I hope the courts at a minimum address the changing law and meaningfully apply those changes to these and other deadlines where IRS conduct has contributed to taxpayer confusion and the denial of a day in court.

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

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

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