DOJ Argues that 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) Doesn’t Bar Altera’s APA Challenge to a Tax Regulation Made More Than 6 Years After Adoption

We welcome frequent guest blogger Carl Smith with breaking news about the Altera appeal pending in the 9th Circuit. Today’s news is not dispositive but does provide interesting insight on the Government’s view of a new issue raised by the 9th Circuit as the new panel reviewed the case. Keith

PT readers are no doubt aware of Altera v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. 91 (2015). In the case, the Tax Court invalidated a regulation under § 482 concerning the inclusion of stock option compensation in related-party cost-sharing arrangements. The two Tax Court dockets involved in the case were under the Tax Court’s deficiency jurisdiction in 2012. In those cases, Altera sought to invalidate a 2003 regulation both under the Chevron standard (i.e., not reasonable) and under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The Tax Court invalidated the regulation under both theories. The Tax Court found APA violations including the IRS’ (1) failure to respond to significant comments submitted by taxpayers and (2) in light of the administrative record showing otherwise, the IRS’ failure to support its belief that unrelated parties entering into cost sharing arrangement would allocate stock-based compensation costs.

As we blogged here, on July 24, 2018, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion upholding the regulation. But that opinion was later withdrawn because one of the judges in the majority had died before the opinion was issued. After a new judge was assigned to rehear the case, the parties were invited to (and did) submit supplemental briefs. (Four supplemental amicus briefs were also submitted.) On the day all of these supplemental briefs were submitted, September 28, 2018, the Ninth Circuit panel issued an order inviting further briefing from the parties by October 9 on an issue that had never before been argued in the case. The case is set for reargument before the new Ninth Circuit panel on October 16.

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The recent order stated concerning this additional briefing issue:

The parties should be prepared to discuss at oral argument the question as to whether the six-year statute of limitations applicable to procedural challenges under the Administrative Procedure Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a), applies to this case and, if it does, what the implications are for this appeal. Perez-Guzman v. Lynch, 835 F.3d 1066, 1077-79 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 138 S. Ct. 737 (2018).

In Perez-Guzman, the Ninth Circuit had held that procedural challenges to regulatory authority (unlike Chevron substantive challenges) must be raised in a court suit within the 6-year catch-all federal statute of limitations at 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a). Since the Altera deficiency cases had been brought more than six years after the pertinent regulation was adopted, the Ninth Circuit was, in effect, wondering whether all APA arguments in the case were time barred.

On October 9, however, the DOJ, rather than file a supplemental brief, filed a 5-page letter disclaiming any reliance on the statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a). The letter states, in part:

It is the Commissioner’s position that any pre-enforcement challenge to the regulations at issue here – including a purely procedural challenge under the APA, cf. Perez-Guzman, 835 F.3d at 1077-79 – would have been barred by the Anti-Injunction Act. See 26 U.S.C. (“I.R.C.” or “Code”) § 7421(a) (stating that, “[e]xcept as provided in” various Code sections (the most significant of which, I.R.C. § 6213(a), allows the pre-payment filing of a Tax Court petition in response to a statutory notice of deficiency), “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person”) . . . . Thus, Altera properly asserted its challenge to the regulations in two Tax Court actions contesting notices of deficiency that reflected the enforcement of the regulations against it. See Redhouse v. Commissioner, 728 F.2d 1249, 1253 (9th Cir. 1984).

If Altera’s procedural APA challenge to the regulations were nonetheless subject to the six-year statute of limitations set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) (which would have started running on the date of issuance of the final regulation, see Perez-Guzman, 835 F.3d at 1077), then Altera would have had to pay the tax and file a refund claim within the six-year window – thereby forfeiting the opportunity to contest the enforcement of the regulations against it in the pre-payment forum of the Tax Court – in order to comply with that time limit. Because the Commissioner has never expressed the view that the six-year statute of limitations applies to a procedural APA challenge to a tax regulation in the context of a Tax Court deficiency proceeding, and because the IRS issued the notices of deficiency in this case outside the six-year APA window, it would have been unfair to argue below that Altera’s procedural APA claims are time-barred. And, given this Court’s holding that the six-year statute of limitations set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) is not jurisdictional, Cedars-Sinai Med. Ctr. v. Shalala, 125 F.3d 765, 770 (9th Cir. 1997), the Commissioner waived any defense under that provision by not raising it in the Tax Court.

In sum, it is the Commissioner’s position that the six-year statute of limitations that is generally applicable to procedural challenges to regulations under the APA, see 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a), does not apply to this case.

Observation

Some people wonder why I litigate so much over whether or not filing deadlines are jurisdictional. The Altera case demonstrates again why this can often be a critical issue, since only nonjurisdictional filing deadlines are subject to waiver, forfeiture, estoppel, and equitable tolling.

 

Notes from Last Week’s ABA Tax Section Meeting in Atlanta

Christine, Les and I attended the ABA Tax Section meeting in Atlanta from October 4-6. We did a little speaking and a lot of listening. One of the benefits of the meeting is to hear the government speakers to obtain insights on their world. Here is a short post coming from a meeting in which government speakers provided updates.

Comments from Chief Judge of the Tax Court

The Tax Court is developing a new case management system and has signed a contract with the vendor to build the system. No date on when it might be launched.

The Tax Court currently has 175 cases with over $10 million in dispute

The ABA Tax Section submitted a proposal to the Tax Court to allow limited scope representation. The Chief Judge has submitted the proposal to the Court’s Rules Committee, Pro Bono Committee and Admissions Committee for review and a report back. [These comments resulted from remarks by Chief Special Trial Judge Lewis Carluzzo at the Tax Court’s judicial conference back in March of this year. Note that PT’s own Christine Speidel was one of the primary persons responsible for the comment. The ABA comment recommends that the Tax Court adopt limited practice rules especially to cover lawyers assisting with calendar call. This is a positive development that has been discussed for many years.]

There were over 27,000 cases filed in the Tax Court last year and over 29,000 cases closed.

Comments from the Office of Chief Counsel

The comments focused on the implementation of IRC 7345 and the passport revocation program. As of August 31, 2018, 272,656 taxpayers have been certified by the IRS to the State Department. Of those taxpayers, slightly over 17,000 have been decertified or reversed.

A taxpayer cannot just pay the debt under $51,000 and have the passport revocation lifted. Once a taxpayer is selected and referred, full payment must be made to have the IRS decertify the debt.

The Tax Court has chosen to use the letter “P” after the docket number to indicate that a case is a passport case.

The Tax Court is not the exclusive forum for contesting the passport revocation. Chief Counsel takes the position that: 1) a taxpayer cannot raise the merits of the underlying liability in the passport revocation case; 2) an equivalent hearing does not stop a passport revocation from moving forward the same way a CDP hearing would; 3) the scope of review is the administrative record; 4) the standard of review is abuse of discretion; 5) Chief Counsel will not refer these cases to Appeals after the filing of a Tax Court petition; and 6) the appellate venue in these cases is the DC Circuit. The Chief Counsel initial positions on passport revocation can be found in CC-2018-5.

It is not clear how to figure out what the State Department is doing with the information that the IRS sends over. The taxpayer generally will not hear from the State Department unless it revokes the passport or rejects an application for a passport. If a taxpayer applies and the State Department rejects the application because of an IRS certification, the State Department will hold open the application for 90 days for the individual to get the IRS to withdraw the referral. Thereafter, the individual will need to reapply for the passport.

The IRS has no control over what the State Department does with the referrals. It is not clear that an individual has a path to talk to someone in the State Department. It has not yet published procedures for handling these cases. The State Department is held harmless by the statute for the actions it takes (or fails to take) in these cases. The State Department may issue a passport for humanitarian or emergency reasons but does not have a requirement to do so.

Comments from DOJ, Tax Division

It is focusing on three matters this year:

  • Offshore
  • Return Preparer Injunctions – it has brought 40 complaints so far this year
  • Employment taxes – it has obtain 100 permanent injunctions against individuals and businesses pyramiding liability since 2016

Comments from Treasury

It is working hard to publish regulations as quickly as possible. It is not giving commenters additional time to submit comments generally because of the push to get out the regulations. The goal is to publish all of the regulations within 18 months of enactment so that the government gets the benefit of the relation back to the date of enactment rule.

For IRS Appeals Office, An Epidemic of Remands

We welcome back frequent commentor and occasional guest blogger Bob Kamman. As usual, Bob digs into a topic that the rest of us may have overlooked. Today, he writes, and primarily reports, about remands from the Tax Court. Remands in Tax Court cases most frequently occur in the Collection Due Process (CDP) setting in which the Appeals employee reviewing the CDP case fails to properly review some aspect of the case. When Chief Counsel’s office or the Tax Court notices the failure, the case gets sent back to Appeals to fix the problem. In most CDP cases a remand serves as the best result a taxpayer can hope for in the case. It does represent an opportunity for the Appeals to agree with the taxpayer’s position after initially disagreeing but a remand does not necessarily mean the taxpayer will succeed. It generally does, however, signal some failure at Appeals. To that extent, Bob’s research shows that Appeals appears to fail often. Remands can occur after a failed motion for summary judgment by Chief Counsel’s office and we have written often about failures of those motions and particularly the observations of Judge Gustafson. Remands also delay the process. Bryan Camp recently wrote about a case that serves as a reminder of the slow movement of CDP cases which is something Carl Smith and I wrote about in an article in 2011. Today’s post is long which speaks to the problem. Keith

The New York Mets once again have avoided the World Series, but we still recall their first manager Casey Stengel and his immortal question, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

The same question might now be asked about the IRS Appeals Office. It seems that Chief Counsel is batting clean-up – that is, cleaning up the cases that end up in Tax Court and must be sent back down to the minors for the administrative equivalent of a not-so-instant replay “further review.”

I did a search for the word “remand” in Tax Court orders for the period September 4 through October 4, 2018.   How many motions to remand would you expect IRS lawyers to file in a month? Would twenty seem to be a high number?

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Here is the list, along with excerpts from the orders. Most of these are CDP cases, although one “whistleblower” case appears. Another case came back up a year after a remand, and there were still problems that resulted in an IRS motion for summary judgment being denied.

For many of these cases, a trial date had already been set, some of them within the following month. For one, the IRS asked for the remand at the Tax Court calendar call.

1) Murphy, Docket No. 10992‑18SL. Chief Judge Foley.

ORDERED that the above‑referenced motion to remand is granted, and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals for the purpose of affording petitioner an administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6320 and/or 6330. It is further

ORDERED that respondent shall offer petitioners an administrative hearing at respondent’s Appeals Office located closest to petitioners’ residence (or at such other place as may be mutually agreed upon) at a reasonable and mutually agreed upon date and time, but no later than December 13, 2018.

2) Morring, Docket No. 13226‑18 L. Chief Judge Foley.

On September 5, 2018, respondent filed a Motion To Remand. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that, on or before October 1, 2018, petitioners shall file an Objection, if any, to the above‑described motion to remand. Failure to comply with this Order may result in the granting of the motion to remand.

3) Ferrie, Docket No. 17979‑17 L. Judge Kerrigan order dated September 12.

This case is scheduled to be tried at the Court’s session in Los Angeles, California beginning September 24, 2018. On September 11, 2018, respondent filed a motion to remand in which it asks the Court to remand this Collection Due Process case to respondent’s Office of Appeals for further consideration. The motion further indicates that petitioner does not object to granting of the motion. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s motion to remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals for purposes of affording petitioner an administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6330.

4) Harropson, Docket No. 16313‑17 L. Judge Kerrigan order dated September 19.

This case is calendared for trial at the Court’s session in Los Angeles, California beginning September 24, 2018. On September 18, 2018, respondent filed a motion to remand in which it asks the Court to remand this Collection Due Process case to respondent’s Office of Appeals for further consideration. The motion further indicates that petitioner does not object to the granting of the motion. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s motion to remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals for the purposes of affording petitioner an administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6330. It is further

ORDERED that this case is stricken for trial from the Court’s September 24, 2018, trial session in Los Angeles, California, and that the undersigned judge retains jurisdiction. . . .

ORDERED that on or before December 18, 2018, the parties shall file with the Court a joint status report regarding the then‑present status of this case.

5) East Bank Center LLC, Docket No. 7194‑17L. Judge Gale.

On September 15, 2017, the parties, concluding that the foregoing findings in the notice of determination were contradictory, jointly moved for a remand of the case for a supplemental hearing. On September 19, 2017, the Court granted the motion and the case was remanded to Appeals for a supplemental hearing.

The record as currently developed does not demonstrate to our satisfaction that respondent is entitled to a decision in his favor as a matter of law. It is undisputed that SO Kammers, in connection with the supplemental hearing, reviewed petitioner’s 2016 Form 1065 and used the financial information therein as her basis to determine petitioner’s ability to pay. An Appeals officer’s use of a tax return in this manner would appear to contravene Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) pts. 8.23.3.3(5) and (6) (Aug. 18, 2017). In these circumstances, we conclude that summary adjudication is not appropriate. Accordingly, we shall deny respondent’s Motion.

6) Lewis, Docket No. 14911‑17W. Judge Goeke order dated September 26.

This case is calendared for trial at the Session of the Court commencing November 5, 2018, in St. Louis, Missouri.

Upon due consideration of respondent’s Motion to Remand, filed September 26, 2018, it is

ORDERED that petitioner is directed on or before October 15, 2018, to file with the Court a response to respondent’s above‑referenced motion.

7) Barragan, Docket No. 18245‑17L, Judge Kerrigan.

On September 24, 2018, this case was called from the calendar for the Trial Session of the Court at Los Angeles, California, at which time a Joint Motion to Remand was filed. Upon due consideration, and for cause more fully appearing in the transcript of the proceeding, it is

ORDERED that the joint motion is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals for the purpose of affording petitioner an administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. § 6330.

8) Dennis, Docket No. 398‑18 L. Chief Judge Foley.

Upon due consideration of respondent’s Motion To Remand, filed in the above‑docketed proceeding on August 20, 2018, and first supplement thereto clarifying the Court’s jurisdiction in this matter, filed August 31, 2018, it is

ORDERED that the above‑referenced motion to remand, as supplemented, is granted, and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals for the purpose of affording petitioners an administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6320 and/or 6330.

9) Akins, Docket No. 22097‑17L. Judge Gale.

This case is calendared for trial at the Los Angeles, California, trial session commencing November 26, 2018. On July 19, 2018, respondent filed a Motion for Continuance and a Motion to Remand therein requesting that the Court continue this case for purposes of remanding it to respondent’s Office of Appeals for a supplemental hearing. By Order dated July 23, 2018, the Court directed petitioner to file responses stating his position regarding respondent’s Motions by August 13, 2018. To date, petitioner has not filed a response to either Motion. The foregoing considered, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s Motion for Continuance, filed July 19, 2018, is granted and this case is stricken from the calendar of the November 26, 2018, Los Angeles, California, trial session, and continued. It is further

ORDERED that respondent’s Motion to Remand, filed July 19, 2018, is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals for purposes of affording petitioner a supplemental collection due process hearing under I.R.C. section 6330.

10) Billing Enterprise, Inc., Docket No. 20540‑17 L. Judge Paris.

This case is calendared for the trial at the November 5, 2018, Dallas, Texas Trial Session of the Court. On September 4, 2018, respondent filed a Motion to Remand. After due consideration, it is

ORDERED that jurisdiction in this case is retained by this Division of the Court. It is further

ORDERED that this case is continued from the November 5, 2018, Dallas, Texas Trial Session of the Court until further direction by this Division of the Court. It is further

ORDERED that respondent’s Motion for Remand is granted, IN THAT this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for reconsideration of petitioner’s request for a collection alternative and to allow respondent to subsequently issue a supplemental notice of determination or other appropriate notice.

11) Horner, Docket No. 15601‑17 L. Chief Judge Foley.

On July 27, 2018, respondent filed a Motion To Remand. Although the Court directed petitioner to file an Objection, if any, to respondent’s motion, petitioner failed to do so. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s Motion To Remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for further administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6330.

12) Ceneviva, Docket No. 19445‑17 L. Chief Judge Foley.

On August 28, 2018, respondent filed a Motion To Remand. In it, respondent states that petitioner has no objection to the granting of the motion. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s Motion To Remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for further administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6330 wherein the assigned appeals officer shall consider collection alternatives proposed by petitioner as well as any other issue appropriately raised by petitioner.

13) Jenkins, Docket No. 25422‑17 L. Judge Lauber order of September 10, 2018.

This collection due process (CDP) case is calendared on the Court’s October 22, 2018, Washington, D.C., trial session. On November 8, 2017, the IRS sent petitioner a Final Notice of Intent to Levy and Your Right to a Hearing and petitioner timely requested a CDP hearing. On September 7, 2018, the parties filed a Joint Motion to Remand asking that the case be sent back to the IRS Office of Appeals for a supplemental CDP hearing. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that the parties’ Joint Motion to Remand, filed September 7, 2018, is granted, and this case is remanded to the IRS Office of Appeals for a supplemental CDP hearing.

14) McNeil, Docket No. 19965‑17 L. Judge Thornton.

This case is calendared for trial during the Court’s October 1, 2018, Dallas, Texas, trial session. On September 7, 2018, respondent filed a motion to remand stating therein that petitioners have no objection to the granting of said motion. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED: That this case is stricken for trial from the Court’s October 1, 2018, Dallas, Texas, trial session and jurisdiction is retained by the undersigned. It is further

ORDERED: That respondent’s above‑referenced motion to remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for a supplemental collection due process hearing with a new settlement officer for further consideration.

15) Hodges Legends Café LLC, Docket No. 18317‑16SL. Judge Panuthos.

This case is presently calendared for trial at the Trial Session of the Court scheduled to commence on December 3, 2018, at Atlanta, Georgia. On September 13, 2018, respondent filed a Motion to Remand this case to respondent’s Appeals Office. Premises considered, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s motion to remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for the purpose of affording petitioner an administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6330.

16) Whitesides, Docket No. 17752‑17 L. Judge Kerrigan.

This case is scheduled to be tried at the Court’s session in San Francisco, California, beginning October 29, 2018. On September 28, 2018, respondent filed a motion for continuance and a motion to remand in which it asks the Court to remand this Collection Due Process case to respondent’s Office of Appeals for further consideration. The motions indicate that petitioners do not object to the granting of the motions. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s motion for continuance is granted in that this case is stricken for trial from the Court’s trial session beginning October 29, 2018, in San Francisco, California, and that the undersigned judge retains jurisdiction. It is further

ORDERED that respondent’s motion to remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals for the purposes of affording petitioners an administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6330.

17) Russell, Docket No. 7757‑18 L. Judge Vasquez.

Upon due consideration of respondent’s motion to remand, filed September 13, 2018, and respondent’s motion for continuance, filed September 13, 2018, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s motion for continuance is granted in that this case is stricken for trial from the Court’s November 26, 2018, Tampa, Florida, trial session. It is further

ORDERED that respondent’s motion for remand to respondent’s Appeals Office is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for further consideration. It is further

ORDERED that respondent shall offer petitioner an administrative hearing at respondent’s Appeals Office located closest to petitioner’s residence (or at such other place as may be mutually agreed upon) at a reasonable and mutually agreed upon date and time, but no later than December 17, 2018.

18) Baxter, Docket No. 950‑18L. Judge Lauber.

This collection due process (CDP) case is calendared on the Court’s October 22, 2018, Washington, D.C. trial session. On September 17, 2018, respondent filed a Motion to Remand asking that the case be sent back to the IRS Office of Appeals for a supplemental CDP hearing. Petitioner does not oppose the motion and we shall grant it. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that the respondent’s Motion to Remand, filed September 17, 2018, is granted, and this case is remanded to the IRS Office of Appeals for a supplemental CDP hearing.

19) Lucas, Docket No. 24611‑17 L. Judge Thornton.

This case is calendared for trial during the Court’s November 26, 2018, New York, New York, trial session. On September 21, 2018, respondent filed a motion to remand and stated therein that petitioner has no objection to the granting of said motion. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED: That this case is stricken for trial from the Court’s November 26, 2018, New York, New York, trial session and jurisdiction is retained by the undersigned. It is further

ORDERED: That respondent’s above‑referenced motion to remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for a supplemental collection due process hearing with a new settlement officer for further consideration.

20) Gibson, Docket No. 20421‑17 L. Judge Halpern.

This case is calendared for trial at the Court’s December 3, 2018, Las Vegas, Nevada trial session. On September 26, 2018, respondent filed a motion to remand. Respondent’s motion advises that petitioner has no objection to the granting of this motion. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s motion to remand is granted, and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals, at respondent’s Appeals Office located closest to petitioner’s residence (or at such other place as may be mutually agreed upon) at a reasonable and mutually agreed upon date and time, but no later than December 27, 2018, for a supplemental CDP hearing with an appeals settlement officer, for the purpose of considering an offer in compromise or other alternative to collection of petitioner’s unpaid taxes.

21) Monaco, Docket No. 25731‑17 L. Chief Judge Foley.

On August 16, 2018, respondent filed a Motion To Remand. Although the Court directed petitioner to file an Objection, if any, to respondent’s motion, petitioner failed to do so. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s Motion To Remand is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Appeals Office for further administrative hearing pursuant to I.R.C. section 6330. It is further

ORDERED that the above‑referenced hearing shall take place at a reasonable and mutually agreed upon date and time, but no later than November 28, 2018.

22) Maddox, Docket No. 15184‑17 L. Judge Lauber.

This collection due process (CDP) case is calendared on the Court’s October 22, 2018, Washington, D.C., trial session. On August 20, 2018, respondent filed a Motion to Remand asking that the case be sent back to the IRS Office of Appeals for further consideration. By order dated August 24, 2018, petitioners were directed to file a response to respondent’s motion on or before September 17, 2018.

Petitioners did not respond to that order. Upon due consideration, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s Motion to Remand, filed August 20, 2018, is granted, and this case is remanded to the IRS Office of Appeals for further consideration.

23) Kelly, Docket No. 26941‑17SL. Judge Armen.

This case was called from the calendar for the Trial Session of the Court on September 24, 2018 at Chicago, Illinois. Both parties appeared and filed with the Court a joint Motion For Remand. After due consideration, and for cause more fully appearing in the transcript of the proceedings, it is

ORDERED that the parties’ joint Motion For Remand, filed September 24, 2018, is granted and this case is remanded to respondent’s Office of Appeals in order to conduct a supplemental hearing consistent with the aforementioned motion.

24) And finally there is the case of Johnson and Roberson, Docket No. 22224‑17 L, which was discussed here in the text and comments of the blog post for Designated Orders on October 3, 2018. Judge Gustafson suggested a remand, but petitioners declined, doubting that they would get to first base with the Appeals Office.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OPR Imposes Monetary Penalties For Enrolled Agent Who Misled Potential Clients

I am catching up on developments over the past few months that slipped through the cracks as Stephen, Keith and I gear up for the next update for the Saltzman & Book IRS Practice & Procedure treatise. One item from this summer involves an Office of Professional Responsibility press release describing a settlement that included monetary penalties on a practitioner for misconduct relating to false claims in connection with tax services.

Circular 230 prohibits tax practitioners from using communication that contains false, fraudulent, coercive, misleading or deceptive statements. It also prohibits practitioners from using false or misleading solicitations to procure business. The release discusses how the practitioner misled potential clients in an effort to attract business.

In this case, the practitioner created false advertising designed to mislead potential clients to believe the firm successfully helped thousands of taxpayers and employed multiple attorneys, enrolled agents, CPAs and former IRS employees. In fact, the practitioner is an enrolled agent and the only Circular 230 practitioner at the firm.

The false advertising was also intended to mislead potential clients to believe that hiring a private firm was virtually their only hope of resolving their tax issues due to alleged widespread misconduct by IRS employees. The advertising also falsely inflated the chances of tax relief for clients by inflating the percentage of clients receiving offers in compromise (OIC) and claiming none of these OICs were above a small percentage of outstanding tax.

The settlement agreement with the practitioner included five years of probation and a 12-month suspension of practice before the IRS if the probation is violated. The release notes that the undisclosed amount of the monetary penalty was based on a percentage of the gross income from the misconduct.

OPR plays an important part in ensuring the integrity of tax practitioners. One of the most interesting  articles that I read in the past year or so was former Director of OPR Karen Hawkins’  2017 Griswold lecture published in Volume 70 of the Tax Lawyer (which Keith now edits in his role as Vice Chair-Publications at the ABA Tax Section) where she forcefully discussed the problems facing the Office Of Professional Responsibility and the many holes in the current version of Circular 230. For those interested in tax administration, I recommend a careful read.

One of the points Ms. Hawkins raised in the Griswold lecture was that starting in about 2014 the OPR no longer was releasing ALJ and Appellate Authority disciplinary opinions. As the article explains this change arose due to the 2014 discovery that earlier legal advice erroneously concluded that OPR could release those opinions without violating Section 6103. The article makes the point that this change has contributed to making the OPR less visible.

The press release describing the settlement in this matter included that the sanctioned practitioner allowed for the release of certain information relating to the violation; in the absence of a settlement it appears that the disciplinary opinions are not accessible to the public, an outcome that is far from ideal.

One other point in the settlement is worth emphasizing. The imposition of monetary penalties in OPR proceedings is relatively uncommon; in the 2017 Griswold lecture Ms. Hawkins notes that was invoked only once since 2004 legislation authorizing it.  I am not sure if the 2018 release is indicative of a change in policy that is contributing to OPR imposing monetary sanctions. The OPR ability to impose monetary penalties is somewhat controversial; Ms. Hawkins makes the case that it has an unwanted effect of further intertwining Circular 230 with the Internal Revenue Code civil penalty regime—one of the many problems she identifies in the lecture.

 

Tax Court Reiterates That It Lacks Refund Jurisdiction in Collection Due Process Cases

In McLane v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2018-149, the Tax Court followed its prior precedent in Greene-Thapedi v. Commissioner, 126 T.C. 1 (2006) holding that it lacked jurisdiction in a Collection Due Process (CDP) case to grant petitioner a refund. Carl Smith blogged about the issue here when the McLane case was pending and he earlier blogged about the issue here when the DC Circuit affirmed the outcome in Greene-Thapedi in its holding in Willson v. Commissioner, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 19389 (Nov. 6, 2015). We have discussed other cases with this issue such as VK&S Industries v. Commissioner; ASG Services, LLC v. Commissioner; and Allied Adjustment Services v Commissioner (see post here) in which the court issued a designated order rather than an opinion. These cases serve as another reminder of the importance of orders, and particularly designated orders as a source of substantive rulings from the Tax Court even if these orders do not have precedential value.

Carl assisted the University of the District of Columbia Tax Clinic in filing an amicus brief in the McLane case. A link to the amicus brief, substantially written by Jacqueline Lainez’s student at UDC Roxy Araghi is here. A copy of the taxpayer’s brief and the IRS brief are here and here, respectively. The outcome is disappointing but not surprising given the prior precedent. In the opinion Judge Halpern provides a detailed explanation regarding why the Tax Court should not exercise jurisdiction to grant refunds in CDP cases but does not change the reasoning or outcome of Greene-Thapedi which is no doubt why the Tax Court marked this as a memorandum opinion.

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On October 19, 2009, Mr. McLane timely filed his 2008 income tax return pursuant to a 6-month extension to file and the mailing rules of section 7502. The return showed a balance due, and so he paid $957 toward that balance between December 2009 and October 2010 and another $800 between October 2010 and October 2012.   In August 2012, the IRS mailed a notice of deficiency to Mr. McLane disallowing various Schedule C deductions and seeking a deficiency with respect to his 2008 taxes. But, he never got the notice of deficiency. Some of the $800 had been paid after the IRS mailed the notice of deficiency. The IRS later filed a notice of federal tax lien (NFTL) against him, and he sought a CDP hearing in which he contended that the assessment was invalid because no notice of deficiency had been mailed. He also argued in the hearing that he could prove sufficient deductions, but he did not ask for a refund of any amount that he had paid.

Mr. McLane did not get satisfaction at Appeals, so he petitioned the Tax Court. The Tax Court concluded that a notice of deficiency had been properly mailed, but he simply had not received it. After a remand to Appeals, a trial was had in the Tax Court in September 2016, and post-trial briefs were later filed. The failure to receive the notice of deficiency allowed the Tax Court to decide de novo his challenge to the underlying tax liability set out therein. Neither in his pretrial nor post-trial briefs did Mr. McLane seek a refund. Before the Tax Court’s ruling on the merits, the IRS later conceded that, for the 2008 tax year, Mr. McLane had proved enough business expenses at trial to not only fully eliminate any deficiency and abate the NFTL, but to also produce an overpayment. In a conference call among the parties and Judge Halpern in February 2018, Mr. McLane first asked for a refund of the overpayment that the IRS now conceded had occurred.

In an order issued on March 13, 2018 — one that did not mention Greene-Thapedi — Judge Halpern asked for memoranda of law from the parties on whether he had jurisdiction to find an overpayment under these facts. UDC filed an amicus memorandum, as well.

In Greene-Thapedi the Tax Court reviewed a CDP case where the IRS had been trying to collect a deficiency arising from a stipulated decision of the Tax Court in an earlier deficiency case involving 1992 income taxes. The dispute in the CDP hearing was only over the amount of interest charged on the stipulated deficiency. But, the IRS offset an overpayment of taxpayer’s 1999 liability to fully pay the 1992 liability pending before the court in the CDP matter. The taxpayer in that CDP case then sought a refund of interest accrued before the notice of intent to levy. The court found that the dispute over the interest was a challenge to the underlying liability, but once the levy became moot by virtue of the offset of the 1999 liability the opportunity to challenge the liability vanished together with any claim for refund. The court also noted in the case that IRC 6330 does not expressly give the Tax Court jurisdiction to determine overpayments and to order refunds. The case contains no discussion of whether the refund claim was timely filed under section 6512(b)(3), which gives the Tax Court the power to find an overpayment under its deficiency jurisdiction under several scenarios.

In the Greene-Thapedi opinion at footnote 19 the Tax Court mentioned the possibility that although not present in that case the determination of an overpayment might be “necessary for a correct and complete determination of whether the proposed collection action should proceed.” Thus, the court gave Mr. McLane some hope that his case might fit within the exception mentioned by the court as a possibility. Both Mr. McLane and the amicus also argued that the Greene-Thapedi case was legally distinguishable, since it involved a dispute over interest on a deficiency that had already been stipulated, whereas the McLane CDP case was the first time the merits of the deficiency were being litigated. Both memoranda argued that a taxpayer who had not received a notice of deficiency should be put in the same position in a CDP challenge to that liability in Tax Court as he would have been had he received the notice of deficiency. The amicus pointed out that one could still apply the Tax Court’s overpayment jurisdiction rules of section 6512(b)(3) by limiting the amount of the refund to both (1) the amount paid in the 3-year (plus extension) period before the notice of deficiency was mailed (a deemed paid claim) and (2) the amount paid after the notice of deficiency. The $957 and $800 payments would fall within those descriptions. Another factor giving Mr. McLane some hope was the dissenting opinion of Judge Vasquez in Greene-Thapedi which invoked the need to broadly construe the court’s jurisdiction because of the remedial nature of CDP. Judge Vasquez also pointed out that the decision created a trap for the unwary:

Taxpayers who choose to litigate their section 6015 [innocent spouse] and section 6404 claims as part of a section 6330 proceeding cannot obtain decisions of an overpayment or refund in Tax Court. If those same taxpayers had made claims for section 6015 relief or interest abatement in a non-section 6330 proceeding, we could enter a decision for an overpayment and could order a refund.

In McLane the court acknowledges that it must revisit Greene-Thapedi to determine if it has overpayment jurisdiction on the facts presented here; however, it concludes that it has no reason to depart from the earlier precedent.

In response to the narrow argument that Mr. McLane and UDC made that the Tax Court has overpayment jurisdiction in a Tax Court case only where the underlying tax liability is at issue because of “the non-receipt of a mailed notice of deficiency,” the court states that:

We see no reason why the issuance of a notice of deficiency that petitioner never received should allow him to pursue a claim for refund that would otherwise have become time barred long before he manifested any awareness of it.

The court reasons that he had plenty of time to notice that he had more expenses than he originally claimed on his 2008 return and he did not act to raise a refund claim until a conference call with the parties in the CDP litigation in February of 2018. By 2018, the normal statute of limitations to file a claim for refund had long since passed. The court expresses concern that providing refund jurisdiction in this context would allow a taxpayer to make an end run around the refund time frames established in the Code. It is unclear how much this late request for a refund may have impacted the outcome of the case. The court does not directly address the argument made by UDC that section 6512(b)(3)’s overpayment jurisdiction filing deadlines (which cover payments made in periods both before and after the notice of deficiency was mailed) could be treated as obviating the need for any amended return in order to seek a refund in the Tax Court CDP case.

The court provides an extensive discussion regarding the arguments of the amicus brief which follow closely the arguments made by Judge Vasquez in his dissent in Greene-Thapedi and the court pushes back on each one of those arguments. I will not repeat them here but I came away with the impression that the length of the opinion may have been influenced by the desire to take this opportunity to refute Judge Vasquez’s dissent in more detail than was done in the majority opinion in Greene-Thapedi and perhaps was done with an eye toward the possible appeal of the McLane case. Of the appellate courts, only the D.C. Circuit (in Willson, a case also with unusual facts not involving a challenge to the underlying liability) has ever discussed or followed Greene-Thapedi. McLane could appeal his case to the Fourth Circuit. In any event several pages of the opinion explain in detail why none of the issues raised by Judge Vasquez provide a basis for Tax Court jurisdiction.

For anyone interested in fighting this issue, the opinion provides a detailed roadmap of what the court thinks of the arguments made to this point. While it appeared that Greene-Thapedi may have left a crack in the door for a taxpayer to come in with different facts and succeed in obtaining a refund in a CDP case, the McLane decision signals that the crack is closed. Any success on this issue must come from persuading a circuit court to interpret the statute differently or for Congress to make clear that its jurisdictional grant goes further than it currently appears to do.

 

 

Putting IRS Records at Issue: Proving Supervisory Approval and Receipt of Notice of Deficiency. Designated Orders 9/10/28 – 9/14/18

We welcome designated order blogger Caleb Smith from the University of Minnesota with this week’s discussion of the orders the Tax Court has deemed important. Keith

Taxpayers routinely get into problems when they don’t keep good records. At least in part because of the information imbalance between the IRS and taxpayer, when the IRS reviews a return and says “prove it” the burden is (generally) on the taxpayer to do so. Attempts by the taxpayer to turn the tables on the IRS (“prove you, the IRS, have good reason to challenge my credit, etc.”) are unlikely to succeed.

However, there are areas where demanding the IRS “prove it” can be a winning argument. Not unsurprisingly, these are areas where the information imbalance tips to the IRS -in other words, procedural areas where the IRS would have better knowledge of whether they met their obligations than the taxpayer would. We will dive into two designated orders that deal with these common areas: (1) proving supervisory approval under IRC § 6751, and (2) proving mailing in Collection Due Process (CDP) cases. Because it gives a better glimpse into the horrors of IRS recordkeeping, we’ll start with the CDP case.

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Summary Judgment Haunts the IRS Once More: Johnson & Roberson v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 22224-17L (order here)

Judge Gustafson has tried on numerous occasions to explain what is required for a motion for summary judgment to succeed. Those lessons generally involved motions that failed to fully address relevant legal questions or put forth necessary facts through affidavits, exhibits, and the like.

The IRS motion for summary judgment in this case goes, perhaps, one step further: claiming that facts aren’t “subject to genuine dispute” and, as evidence, attaching documents that seem to prove only that the facts ARE subject to genuine dispute. More on the nature of those documents (and what they say about IRS recordkeeping) in a second. But first, for those keeping score at home, this order also provides a new addition to the list of “signs the judge is not going to rule in your favor”: when the judge finds it necessary to remind a party that they are “responsible for what is asserted in a motion that he signs and files.”

Law students are taught about the potential horrors and responsibilities of FRCP Rule 11. The idea is to imprint upon their mind the responsibilities in making representations to the court, such that Rule 11 will not become something they will need to be reminded of later in practice. A Tax Court judge referencing Rule 33(b) in response to your motion is fairly close to a reminder of that 1L Civil Procedures lecture, and may on its own trigger some unwanted flashbacks.

So what went so horribly wrong in this motion for summary judgment that the IRS needed to be reminded of the “effect of their signature” on that motion? To understand that, we need to first understand what is at issue.

The pro se petitioners in this case wanted to argue their underlying tax liability in the CDP hearing, but were denied the opportunity to do so by Appeals. For present purposes, if the petitioners could show they “did not receive any statutory notice of deficiency (SNOD)” then they can raise the underlying tax as an issue in the CDP hearing. See IRC § 6330(c)(2)(B). Also for present purposes, receiving a SNOD means actual receipt, not just that it was mailed to the last known address.

When a petitioner puts actual receipt of an SNOD at issue in a CDP hearing, the typical song-and-dance is for the IRS to offer evidence that the SNOD was properly mailed to the actual residence of the taxpayer at the time. Since there is a presumption that the USPS does its job (that is, properly delivers the mail), it is usually an uphill battle for the taxpayer to argue “yes, I lived there, but no, I never got that piece of mail” -especially since SNODs are sent certified and refusing to accept the mail is just as good as receiving it. See Sego v. C.I.R., 114 T.C. 604 (2000).

So for this summary judgment motion the IRS basically needs to put out evidence showing that the SNOD was mailed and received by the petitioners, and that the fact of receipt is not subject to genuine dispute. The evidence the IRS puts forth on that point is, shall we say, lacking.

Judge Gustafson immediately finds some issues with the IRS records that, while not proving a lack of mailing, “does not inspire confidence.” First is a dating issue: the SNOD is dated 3/28/2016, but the mailing record only shows a letter (not necessarily the SNOD) going out 3/24/2016 (that is, four days earlier than the SNOD is dated). I don’t put much faith in the dates printed on IRS letters, so this is not particularly surprising to me, but the inconsistency does throw a little doubt on the credibility of the IRS records. Further, Judge Gustafson notes that there is no “certified mail green card bearing a signature of either petitioner” that the IRS can point to.

It seems pretty obvious from the outset that the actual receipt of the SNOD is a fact “subject to genuine dispute.” First, the taxpayers request for a CDP hearing (Form 12153) appears to reflect ignorance of any SNOD being sent. But far, far, more damning are the IRS Appeals CDP records on that point. The “Case Activity Record” speaks for itself:

Dated March 30, 2017: “Tracked certified mail number and found that as of April 16, 2016, the status of the SNOD is still in transit for both taxpayers, therefore, it is determine[d] that the taxpayers did not receive the SNOD.”

There you have it. IRS Appeals has found that there was no receipt of SNOD. The taxpayer is also arguing there was no receipt of SNOD. IRS Counsel is arguing that “petitioners had a prior opportunity to dispute their underlying liability pursuant to the notice of deficiency” and therefore are precluded from raising it in the CDP hearing. With utmost charity, the IRS argument could potentially be saved if it was arguing that there was another opportunity to argue the tax (which, of course, would require other facts). But that is not what is happening.

The IRS motion explicitly asserts (as a fact) receipt of the SNOD by petitioners on March 28. 2016. As evidence of that fact, the IRS attaches “Exhibit 1” and “Rubilotta Declaration, Exhibit D.”

Unfortunately, “Exhibit 1” is just the mailing list (which simply shows a letter being sent four days before the SNOD date, and says nothing about receipt), while “Exhibit D” is apparently just the SNOD itself. Basically, the IRS is trying to get summary judgment against pro se taxpayers based on evidence that, at best, shows that the only thing certain in the matter is that there is a big, genuine issue of material fact. Judge Gustafson is not impressed, finds against the IRS on every point, casually mentions Counsel’s responsibilities vis a vis Rule 33(b), and appears on the verge of remanding to Appeals.

One may read this order as a FRCP Rule 11/Tax Court Rule 33(b) lesson, and the importance of due diligence before the court. It definitely provides a lot to think about on those points. But I would note that IRS Counsel’s follies in this case did not go unassisted. Specifically, IRS Appeals did not do their job. Although the settlement officer (SO) specifically found that the SNOD was not received by the taxpayers, the SO also determined “the taxpayer is precluded from raising the tax liability due to prior opportunity” to argue the tax. That is arguably what led to the taxpayer bringing this petition in the first place. Without SNOD receipt this outcome could conceivably be correct, but it would take more explanation from the SO as to what the prior opportunity was. Instead, the poor record-keeping and poor file review was preserved from Appeals to Counsel, culminating in the rather embarrassing order being issued.

Chai/Graev Ghouls and Recordkeeping: Tribune Media Company v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 20940-16 (order here)

Analysis of the IRS burden of proof in penalty cases, and specifically in proving compliance with IRC § 6751 need not be rehashed here (but can be reviewed here among many other places, for those that need a refresher).  Tribune Media Company doesn’t break any new ground on the issue, but it does provide some practical lessons for both the IRS and private practitioners in litigating IRC § 6751 issues.

The first lesson is one that I suspect the IRS already is in the process of correcting, post-Graev. That lesson is on the value of standardizing penalty approval procedures. The IRS loves standardized forms. This isn’t an arbitrary love: the constraints of the IRS budget and the sheer volume of work that goes into administering the IRC pretty much requires a heavy reliance on standardized forms.

The IRS already has standardized forms that it can and does use for penalty approval, but the Service was likely far more lax in tracking (or actually using) those forms pre-Graev. And although Graev/IRC § 6751 does not require a specific “form” as proof of supervisory approval (it simply must be written approval), things can get needlessly complicated if you draw outside the lines. Tribune Media Company demonstrates this well.

As a (presumably) complicated partnership case, there were numerous IRS employees assigned to Tribune Media Company at the audit stage. At the outset there was both a revenue agent and an attorney from local IRS counsel assigned to assist the revenue agent. Both of these parties, apparently, came to the determination that a penalty should be applied, and both received oral approval from their separate immediate supervisors before issuing the notice of proposed adjustment.

Of course, oral approval of the penalty is not enough. So the IRS has to provide something more… What would usually, or hopefully, be a readily available and standardized penalty approval form. Only that form does not appear to exist in this case. The IRS tries to comply with Tribune Media Company requests for documents showing supervisory approval largely through memoranda of the supervisor, email chains and handwritten notes (pertaining to the penalties, one assumes). But these “irregular approvals” aren’t good enough for Tribune Media Company… so formal discovery requests ensue.

Which leads to the second lesson: don’t expect success when you ask the Court to “look behind” IRS documents.

Judge Buch’s order does a good job of detailing the standards of discovery in tax court litigation. Generally, the scope of discoverable information in Tax Court Rule 70(b) is not significantly different from the Rules of Federal Civil Procedure. However, because the Tax Court will not examine “the propriety of the Commissioner’s administrative policy or procedure underlying his penalty determinations” (see Raifman v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2018-101), any discovery requests that could only be used to “look behind” the IRS determination will be shot down.

So when Tribune Media Company requests documents (1) “related to the Commissioner’s consideration, determination, or approval of penalties” and (2) “all forms, checklists, or other documents” the IRS generally uses for memorializing penalty approval they are going a step too far. The IRS has to provide proof of written supervisory approval for the penalties. Full stop. They do not have to provide any detail on the reasoning that went into the penalties, or (arguably) what the typical approval documents would be in this sort of case. (I wonder about this latter issue, as it seems to me it could properly be used by Tribune Media Company for impeachment purposes).

In the end, there appears to me some irony to the Tribune Media Company case. It seems highly likely that there was supervisory penalty approval, or at least a reasoned process leading to the penalty determination. The IRS is better off from a litigating perspective, however, streamlining penalty determination with rubber stamp (or worse, “automated”) approval on standardized forms.

I understand the Congressional desire to keep the IRS from using penalties as “bargaining chips,” but am not convinced that “written supervisory approval” really does much to advance that goal. What I am more worried about, especially in working with low-income taxpayers, is when accuracy penalties are more-or-less arbitrarily tacked on to liabilities in ways that do nothing to help compliance. In those cases, at least with the proper training, I think that supervisory approval could actually result in reducing the number of ill-advised penalties -they aren’t really being proposed as “bargaining chips” in the first place. Instead you have what increasingly looks like a bad-actor loophole -one which may, depending on how things develop with IRC § 6751(b)(2)(B) as applied to AUR, not even be available for the most vulnerable and least culpable taxpayers.

Odds and Ends: Other Designated Orders.

Two other designated orders were issued which will not be discussed. One fits the usual narrative of taxpayers losing in CDP when they do not participate in the CDP hearing, or do much of anything other than file a timely tax court petition (found here). The other provides a quick-and-dirty primer on IRC 351 transfers, and easily disposes the matter in favor of the IRS (found here).

 

 

What is a Prior Administrative Hearing?

In Loveland v. Commissioner, 151 T.C. No. 7 (2018) the Tax Court answered a previously unanswered question necessary in some Collection Due Process cases for determining the scope of the hearing. The court determined that a prior administrative hearing means a hearing before Appeals and that meeting with a revenue officer (and presumably a revenue agent) does not satisfy the language of IRC 6330(c)(4)(A)(i) or Treasury Regulation 301.6320-1(e)(1). The court issued the case in a precedential opinion because of this aspect but it contains other interesting issues as well. The taxpayers brought their case pro se. The court reaches its opinion in the context of a motion for summary judgment.

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The Lovelands present a factual situation quite similar to many clients of low income taxpayer clinics. He retired from working as a boilermaker and she retired after a career as a teacher. The Great Recession significantly impacted their finances in a negative way and each has had a major health issue to deal with. Because of the negative financial and health issues happening in their lives, the Lovelands stopped paying taxes during the years 2011-2014 and accumulated about $60,000 in federal tax debt.

The opinion does not say exactly what they did to accumulate the debt but the fact pattern reminded me of so many formerly middle class clients I saw following the recession who had to dip into their retirement funds to keep afloat. These individuals ended up at the Villanova tax clinic with significant tax liabilities similar to the Lovelands’ and often by that point had lost their jobs, their houses, their cars and had little prospect of repaying the taxes. We saw so many of these cases for a few years that my students threw me a 72(t) party on the day I turned 59 and ½ because they had come to appreciate the significance of all of the exceptions to the 10% excise tax imposed by that Code section.

The IRS sent the Lovelands a notice of intent to levy. They entered into negotiations with a collections officer and sought an offer in compromise. The description in the opinion leads me to believe that they submitted a complete offer package and that they sought a special circumstances offer which would allow them to pay less than what the IRS would calculate as their reasonable collection potential. I suspect that they did this because they had a house or some other asset of value they sought to keep because their health issues would prevent them from borrowing on the house.

The collection officer rejected the OIC finding that they had the ability to fully repay the taxes. They initially appealed the decision; however, they also sought to pursue discussions about an installment agreement (IA). The IRS told them that if they appealed the rejection of the OIC they could not simultaneously negotiate an IA, so they withdrew the appeal of the OIC rejection and continued negotiations with the collection officer about an IA.

While they discussed the IA, the Lovelands sought to borrow about $11,500 against real estate they owned in order to reduce their tax liability below $50,000 so they could qualify for a streamlined IA. On the day they submitted the loan application, the IRS filed a notice of federal tax lien (NFTL) which killed the loan application. They requested a CDP hearing with respect to the filing of the NFTL and requested release of the NFTL so they could obtain the financing to pay the IRS.

The Appeals employee assigned to the CDP case sent them a letter asking for a Form 433-A to support their requested collection alternative. They responded by asking the Appeals employee to take a second look at the OIC which included a completed 433-A (OIC). The Appeals employee declined to consider the OIC or a partial pay IA but she was kind enough to calculate a full pay IA in 84 months which would cost them $853 per month.

The court found that:

On April 7, 2017, the Appeals officer closed the Lovelands’ appeal. On April 11, 2017, a notice of determination was sent to the Lovelands informing them of the Commissioner’s determination and their right to appeal the decision to the Tax Court. The notice states that the Lovelands’ requested the withdrawal of the lien and an installment agreement. The notice also states that the Appeals officer did not consider their proposed installment agreement because the Lovelands ‘did not provide any financial information.’ Neither the notice of determination nor the case history notes discussed Mr. Loveland’s medical condition or the effect of his disability on the Lovelands’ ability to pay the tax liability.

In response to the motion for summary judgment, the Lovelands argued that in giving the Form 433-A (OIC) to the Appeals employee they did submit financial information and they also argued that the NFTL was causing financial hardship.

The court states that:

We are faced with a unique question here: whether negotiations with a collections officer constitute a previous administrative proceeding under section 6330(c)(4)(A)(i)….The Lovelands made an offer-in-compromise in a separate collection proceeding that is not before us. Then, in the CDP hearing underlying this case, they renewed their offer-in-compromise.

The statute says that an issue cannot be raised if “the issue was raised and considered at a previous hearing under section 6320 or in any other previous administrative or judicial proceeding.” In this case the issue does not turn on whether there was a prior opportunity for a hearing as many cases have litigated but rather whether there was a prior proceeding. The court points out that the standard for a prior opportunity differs from whether a prior proceeding occurred. The applicable regulation, 301.6320-1(e)(3), Q&A-E7 explicitly provides that a prior opportunity to dispute the underlying liability precludes consideration of the underlying liability in a subsequent CDP hearing. We have written extensively on that issue here, here and here.

The regulation is “noticeably silent” with regard to “spousal defenses, challenges to the appropriateness of the NFTL filing, and offers of collection alternatives” leaving open the opportunity for taxpayer to raise these issues in a CDP hearing if they did not have a previous administrative hearing. The court then finds that in refusing to consider the OIC requested by the Lovelands the IRS abused its discretion. Similarly, the court finds that it abused its discretion in refusing to consider the partial pay installment agreement and the court took pains to point out that the record did not show any failure on the part of the Lovelands to provide requested information.

The court also found that the Lovelands used words in their communication with the Appeals employee that she should have interpreted as economic hardship giving rise to the consideration of an effective tax administration offer in compromise. Because the Appeals employee never evaluated this claim, the IRS abused its discretion in failing to consider this as well. The court remanded the case to Appeals. One hopes that Appeals can find a way to work with the Lovelands and that their case will not return to the Tax Court.

The case creates new law for taxpayers not arguing the merits of the tax liability by making clear that only a prior administrative hearing and not a prior opportunity for an administrative hearing has a preclusive effect on the collection issues such as spousal defenses, collection alternatives and lien filing that a taxpayer may want to raise in a CDP hearing. It will be interesting to see if the IRS agrees with this legal conclusion by the court or seeks to appeal the issue.

 

Third Party Fraud and APTC Repayment Liability

As we move into fall, it’s time for the 10.6 million individuals with “Obamacare” insurance to start thinking about 2019 open enrollment. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released three reports in July illuminating aspects of the Health Insurance exchanges (or Marketplaces) created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). These reports are described in detail by Katie Keith on the Health Affairs blog. Unsurprisingly, most people with 2018 Marketplace plans are receiving advance premium tax credits (APTC) to subsidize their premiums (87%, up slightly from 84% in 2017). CMS points out that premiums in the exchanges are rising and may be pricing out consumers who do not qualify for APTC.  

The Premium Tax Credit can make health insurance affordable for people without other options, but its structure of advance estimated payments combined with a sheer eligibility cliff when the advance payments are reconciled inevitably leads to harsh outcomes in some cases. (A few were discussed on this blog here.) As APTC absorbs the cost of premium increases, the stakes will only become higher for taxpayers. This blog post gives a brief background on APTC reconciliation in the context of the Tax Court’s deficiency jurisdiction, then highlights one circumstance in which taxpayers should be able to avoid APTC liability: fraudulent enrollment.  

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Reconciliation of Advance Premium Tax Credits in the U.S. Tax Court 

The Premium Tax Credit is payable in advance through an ACA exchange, subject to reconciliation on each year’s tax return. See 42 U.S.C. § 18082section 36B(f). (“Marketplace” is the federal government’s preferred term in public communications; however, this blog will follow the statute and regulations in referring to exchanges.) Under section 36B(f), excess APTC awarded by an exchange is considered an income tax liability, subject to certain caps. If a household’s modified adjusted gross income reported on the tax return is above 400% of the federal poverty guideline, the taxpayers must repay all APTC received by themselves or their tax dependents. This eligibility cliff leads to harsh results as many including the National Taxpayer Advocate and the Tax Court have recognized.  

As an income tax liability, a taxpayer’s excess APTC may be redetermined by the Tax Court if the IRS issues a Statutory Notice of Deficiency and the taxpayer timely appeals. See sections 6211 through 6216. However, Tax Court review may not get the taxpayer the result they desire. Some of the most frustrating APTC cases for taxpayers involve government or third-party culpability. For example, in McGuire v. Comm’r, 149 T.C. 9 (2017), the exchange failed to process an income change that the taxpayers duly reported. It erroneously continued APTC payments even though the taxpayers’ income was too high. The Tax Court expressed sympathy but found there was nothing it could do to help the taxpayers avoid repayment, because they had received APTC to which they were not entitled. Likewise, in Gibson v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2017-187, the taxpayers’ young adult dependent had signed up for APTC without the taxpayers’ knowledge. Since they did not disclaim their son as a dependent, the taxpayers were stuck with the repayment obligation.  

The problem for taxpayers hoping to avoid strict reconciliation is that section 36B simply does not have a mechanism to consider equity in the reconciliation of APTC. The U.S. Tax Court was created by Congress, not the U.S. Constitution, and as an “Article I” court its powers are limited to those granted by Congress. See Rawls Trading, L.P. et al. v. Comm’r, 138 T.C. 271, 292section 7442. In a nonprecedential case involving tax treatment of a retirement annuity, Judge Armen provided this explanation with helpful citations: 

Petitioners should understand that the Tax Court is a court of limited jurisdiction and that we are not at liberty to make decisions based solely in equity. See Commissioner v. McCoy, 484 U.S. 3, 7 (1987); Woods v. Commissioner, 92 T.C. 776, 784-787 (1989); Estate of Rosenberg v. Commissioner, 73 T.C. 1014, 1017-1018 (1980); Hays Corp. v. Commissioner, 40 T.C. 436, 442-443 (1963), affd. 331 F.2d 422 (7th Cir. 1964) In other words, absent some constitutional defect, we are constrained to apply the law as written, see Estate of Cowser v. Commissioner, 736 F.2d 1168, 1171-1174 (7th Cir. 1984), affg. 80 T.C. 783 (1983), and we may not rewrite the law because we may deem its “‘effects susceptible of improvement'”, see Commissioner v. Lundy, 516 U.S. 235, 252 (1996) (quoting Badaracco v. Commissioner, 464 U.S. 386, 398 (1984)). Accordingly, petitioners’ appeal must, in this instance, be addressed to their elected representatives. “The proper place for a consideration of petitioner’s complaint is in the halls of Congress, not here.” Hays Corp. v. Commissioner, supra at 443. 

Zedaker v. Comm’r, T.C. Summary Opinion 2011-64. Given the statutory language and the Tax Court’s limited jurisdiction, taxpayers must generally seek remedies elsewhere for inequitable APTC debts.  

Addressing erroneous APTC: the exchange regulations 

A taxpayer who disputes the enrollment or APTC information provided to the IRS by the exchange should try to resolve the dispute with the exchange. It is always a good idea to try to address disputes through the exchange, even if you have a plausible argument in Tax Court. (There have been instances in which the exchange’s Form 1095-A did not match the insurance company records; it might be possible to prevail in Tax Court in such a case.) Exchanges do not like to make retroactive changes, however. After all, the federal government is relying on private insurance companies to offer insurance on the exchanges, and those companies can lose money from retroactive enrollment changes. The exchanges have tried to balance the financial needs of insurance companies with the reality that Form 1095-A can bring genuine errors and other compelling situations to light.  

In narrow circumstances, therefore, third-party misdeeds and exchange errors can entitle a taxpayer to nullify their exchange enrollment and avoid any APTC repayment obligation. Generally, the taxpayer must pursue this through the exchange or through their purported insurance company. Two recent practitioner inquiries reminded me that this is very much a live issue that needs to be identified as soon as possible when a taxpayer seeks assistance. Time is of the essence; the exchange regulations guarantee taxpayers only a short window to request retroactive changes.  

The CMS and Health and Human Services (HHS) exchange regulations at 45 C.F.R. § 155.430(b)(1)(iv) allow enrollees to retroactively cancel coverage when  

(A) The enrollee demonstrates to the Exchange that he or she attempted to terminate his or her coverage or enrollment in a QHP and experienced a technical error that did not allow the enrollee to terminate his or her coverage or enrollment through the Exchange, and requests retroactive termination within 60 days after he or she discovered the technical error. 

(B) The enrollee demonstrates to the Exchange that his or her enrollment in a QHP through the Exchange was unintentional, inadvertent, or erroneous and was the result of the error or misconduct of an officer, employee, or agent of the Exchange or HHS, its instrumentalities, or a non-Exchange entity providing enrollment assistance or conducting enrollment activities. Such enrollee must request cancellation within 60 days of discovering the unintentional, inadvertent, or erroneous enrollment. For purposes of this paragraph (b)(1)(iv)(B), misconduct includes the failure to comply with applicable standards under this part, part 156 of this subchapter, or other applicable Federal or State requirements as determined by the Exchange. 

(C) The enrollee demonstrates to the Exchange that he or she was enrolled in a QHP without his or her knowledge or consent by any third party, including third parties who have no connection with the Exchange, and requests cancellation within 60 days of discovering of the enrollment. 

This right to retroactive cancelation was added to the regulations in the Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2017, effective May 9, 2016. Note that there is no provision for erroneous APTC: if a taxpayer knowingly enrolled in coverage but received too much APTC, the exchange regulations do not offer a remedy.  

Insurance broker fraud is of particular concern and is a major reason that exchanges grant retroactive cancellations. One of the earliest reported examples came out of North Carolina in 2015. An insurance broker collected names and SSNs at homeless shelters, and ultimately enrolled 600 people. This earned him $9,000 per month in commissions, until the insurance company terminated the relationship. Some of the people enrolled were told they were getting “free insurance”, but others said they did not know they were signing up for insurance at all. The applications conveniently inflated the taxpayers’ income to exactly 100% of the federal poverty level, where they would not owe a monthly premium. While the broker collected his commissions, the enrollees were stuck with insurance that they could not use (for lack of funds to meet the deductible or cost-sharing) or did not know about.  Just having “free” insurance caused hardships for those who relied on programs for the uninsured to receive prescriptions and medical care.  

Reports of broker fraud continued in 2016 and 2017, leading CMS to hold a webinar and issue specific instructions to issuers on July 31, 2017, allowing enrollees meeting certain criteria to fast-track their cancellations. In the webinar slide deck, CMS notes: 

Many of the complainants only learned that they had been enrolled in QHPs when notified by the IRS that their tax refunds would not be processed until they submitted Form 8962 to reconcile their Premium Tax Credit. …Because contact information for consumers may not be correct, the 1095-As did not reach many of the enrollees. 

Also, many of the complaining consumers had other health insurance coverage.  

CMS also issued Examples for Issuers of QHPs in the Exchanges of Elements Demonstrating an Appropriate Rescission, which allows insurance companies to rescind coverage if they suspect fraud and the enrollee either confirms it or cannot be contacted. Finally, CMS’s instructions for broker fraud cases were reiterated on November 20, 2017. Fast-track cancelation is authorized for cases meeting five criteria: 

1. The consumer stated directly to CMS through the FFE Call Center that he/she did not enroll in the Exchange, did not give authorization or consent to an enrollment, and did not want the coverage;

2. The enrollment was completed by an agent or broker or an individual acting under the agent or broker’s direction or control;

3. The consumer is receiving 100% APTC or, if not 100%, the portion of the premium that is the responsibility of the enrollee was not made in whole or in part resulting in the termination of the policy;

4. The issuer has had no contact from the enrollees such as calls to customer service, emails, letters or any other direct contact, with the exception of communications from the enrollee stating that they did not know about or consent to the enrollment; 

5. No claims have been filed for any of the enrollees on each policy.

The regulation permitting cancelation can encompass a broader range of circumstances, but taxpayer representatives should check to see if their client meets the criteria for faster resolution of their dispute.  

One note on timing. While the regulation grants a 60-day dispute window, I would encourage advocates to try for cancelation in compelling situations even if the taxpayer discovered the fraudulent enrollment over 60 days ago. The regulation sets minimum requirements for exchanges to allow cancelations; it does not prevent an exchange from allowing a longer window or from making exceptions to the time limit under a reasoned, consistently applied policy. An exchange’s approach to cases beyond the 60-day window may vary also depending on whether the insurance company consents to the cancelation.  

Final thoughts 

If a taxpayer misses the 60-day dispute window, and the exchange refuses to cancel the coverage, is there any remedy in the Tax Court? As set out above, the taxpayer will likely not prevail by relying on equitable claims or principles. However, a legal argument based on analysis of the Code may have a chance of success. The case of Roberts v. Commissioner, 141 T.C. 569 (2013) (blogged by Scott Schumacher here) may provide some small hope by analogy. In his blog post, Scott explains the legal issue in Roberts: 

Roberts owned several IRA accounts, and during the year at issue, someone withdrew substantial amounts from those accounts.  Roberts said his now ex-wife forged his signature and took the money, while the ex-wife said that she had nothing to do with it.  The IRS took the position that even if she took the money, Roberts as the owner of the retirement accounts, was still taxable on the withdrawals.  

Thanks to the efforts of the University of Washington LITC, the taxpayer prevailed. Scott writes: 

Judge Marvel found that Roberts’ wife had in fact withdrawn the funds from his IRA accounts.  The Court went on to hold that because Roberts did not request, receive, or benefit from the IRA distributions, he was not a payee or distributee within the meaning of section 408(d)(1). 

Could a similar legal argument be made in the case of fraudulent exchange enrollment? If a taxpayer had no idea they were signed up for insurance and they meet all five criteria set out by CMS for expedited cancelation, were there actually “advance payments to [the] taxpayer” made within the meaning of section 36B(f)(2)? This may be ultimately a losing argument, but it could be one worth trying. It seems wisest to continue advocacy with the exchange, issuer and CMS, even if the taxpayer is pursuing an administrative or Tax Court appeal.