Having a Correct Statute of Limitations Date on the IRS System

Chief Counsel Advice 2017040416063446 points to an error in the current IRS calculation of the collection statute of limitations.  The advice concludes with a statement that the author of the relevant IRM provision is “open to revising” the IRM and related exhibit in order to clarify the correct time frame.  This is a rather casual statement regarding something that matters a great deal in certain circumstances.  While it’s nice to learn that the IRS is open to having the collection statute calculated correctly on its system, I would hope it would be desperate to ensure the accuracy of its systems, because otherwise many challenges to its calculations will result.

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Guest blogger Patrick Thomas wrote about the collection statute of limitations previously and the difficulty in calculating this period.  His post includes links to studies by the National Taxpayer Advocate and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration finding that the IRS regularly makes mistakes in calculating the collection statute of limitations.  Les wrote about a case the IRS lost because it incorrectly calculated the collection statute of limitations including the suspension triggered by installment agreements.  The recent CCA points to one of the difficulties and strongly suggests that the IRS current system incorrectly calculates the collection statute of limitations.  Yet, the author of the relevant section of the internal revenue manual governing the calculation of the statute of limitations is merely “open to revising” the manual.

The problem identified in the CCA concerns installment agreement; however, it is a potential problem for many of the IRS systems.  When a taxpayer requests an installment agreement, the statute of limitations on collection gets suspended for the period of time the IRS considers the IA because the IRS is prohibited by IRC 6331(k)(2)(B) from levying on a taxpayer’s property while the IA offer is pending and “if such offer is rejected by the Secretary, during the 30 days thereafter (and, if an appeal of such rejection is filed within such 30 days, during the period that such appeal is pending.)”

Because the IRS wants to make sure that it does not levy if the taxpayer has requested an appeal during the 30 day period, it builds 45 days into its system before it takes collection action after rejecting an IA.  This reasonable decision, which exists in other situations than just the IA, bleeds over into the way the IRS system now calculates the collection statute of limitations.  Instead of suspending the statute of limitations on its system for the period the IA is pending plus 30 days, the statutory time period of suspension, the IRS system suspends the statute of limitations for the period the IA is pending plus 45 days, which includes an extra 15 days for the administrative but not statutory period of suspension.  This extra 15 should not appear in the calculation of the statute of limitations but does.

Someone at the IRS noticed the problem and brought it to the attention of Chief Counsel’s office who, in turn, brought it to the attention of the person with the IRS responsible for setting the time frames on the collection statute of limitations.  The casual response does not leave me with a comfortable feeling that the problem will soon be fixed or that the person is scouring the system to find other instances of the same problem.  Yet, there are times when the IRS takes collection action at or near the last day of the collection statute of limitations.

The timing issue I encountered most often when working for Chief Counsel involved the filing of collection suits.  Department of Justice Tax Division attorneys burdened with many cases and accustomed to working with deadlines routinely filed collection suits very close to the statute of limitations on collection.  They rely, or at least pay attention to, the collection statute of limitations date provided to them in the suit letter by the Chief Counsel attorney who frequently relies on the collection statute of limitations date provided by the client.  Here is one example of how that date is routinely calculated incorrectly.  I suspect there are many others and the earlier work referenced by the NTA and TIGTA would attest to that fact.

The more suspension periods Congress creates the more difficult it is to correctly calculate the statute of limitations, but the IRS must build a proper system or it will routinely seek to collect from taxpayers who no longer owe the tax.  Doing so would violate the taxpayer bill of rights and just be wrong.  The IRS should not be casual about getting the statutory periods correct.  This should be a high priority.

9th Circuit Opines on TEFRA Small Partnership Exception’s Application to Disregarded Entities and Punts on Issue of Deference Given to Revenue Rulings

Today Treasury re-released regulations under the new partnership audit regime, and that is a reminder that TEFRA is on its way out, putting pressure on me and my Saltzman/Book colleagues to finish our new chapter on partnership audits. Despite the new regime, courts, taxpayers and IRS still wrestle with TEFRA, which, given its complexity, will still produce developments for the blog and the treatise for the foreseeable future. Those developments include technical TEFRA issues, as here, but also broader issues of importance to tax procedure, including the degree of deference that courts should give to revenue rulings and when disregarded entities under the check the box regulations are not to be disregarded for all purposes.

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Last week the 9th Circuit in Seaview Trading v Commissioner considered one nook and cranny of TEFRA, the Section 6321 small partnership exception that applies when the partnership has “10 or fewer partners each of whom is an individual . . . , a C corporation, or an estate of a deceased partner.”

In Seaview, the father and son partners each held their interest in a partnership via single member LLCs that were organized under Delaware law. IRS audited the partnership and under TEFRA issued a final partnership administrative adjustment (FPAA) disallowing partnership losses relating to the 2001 year. The statute of limitations had long passed on the father and son’s individual 2001 tax returns if the TEFRA rules were not applicable. The son, on behalf of the partnership, filed a petition in Tax Court claiming that the FPAA was invalid because the partnership was exempt from TEFRA due to its qualifying for the small partnership exception. The Tax Court disagreed, and the Ninth Circuit, on appeal, affirmed the Tax Court. In so doing, it expounded on the relationship between State and Federal law and the deference given to revenue rulings.

In this brief post I will explain the issue and summarize the appellate court’s opinion.

As most readers know, the check the box regulations under Section 7701 disregard a solely owned LLC unless the owner elects otherwise. Regulations under Section 6321 provide that the small partnership TEFRA exception “does not apply to a partnership for a taxable year if any partner in the partnership during that taxable year is a pass-thru partner as defined in section 6231(a)(9).” TEFRA, at Section 6321(a)(9), defines a pass-thru partner as any “partnership, estate, trust, S corporation, nominee, or other similar person through whom other persons hold an interest in the partnership.” Section 6321(a)(9) predates the LLC and like entity explosion of the late 20th century, and there are no Treasury regulations that define LLCs and the like as a pass-thru partner.

The partnership in Seaview argued that under the check the box regulations, the LLCs that held the partnership were treated as sole proprietorships of their respective individual owners, and that consequently they could not constitute pass-thru partners within the meaning of the TEFRA regulations.

Despite the absence of regulations that address the issue of how interests held through single member LLCS are treated under the small partnership exception, the IRS, in Revenue Ruling 2004-88, specifically considered that issue. The revenue ruling held that a partnership whose interest is held through a disregarded entity ineligible for the small partnership exemption because a disregarded entity is a pass-thru entity.

In reaching its conclusion that the small partnership exception did not apply, the 9th Circuit addressed how much deference it should give to the IRS’s revenue ruling. The opinion notes that there is some uncertainty on the degree of deference to informal agency positions like revenue rulings. The court explained that in Omohundro v. United States the 9th circuit has generally given Skidmore deference to them. On the other hand, it noted that under the 2002 Schuetz v. Banc One Mortgage Corp., the 9th Circuit had given greater Chevron deference to an informal HUD agency position, and that there is some tension between the circuit’s approach in Schuetz and its approach in Omohundro.

It avoided having to resolve the tension between Omohundro and Schuetz by finding that the Service position in the revenue ruling was correct even when applying the less deferential Skidmore standard. The Skidmore test essentially means that courts defer to the position if it finds it persuasive. As the opinion describes, factors that courts have considered in analyzing whether a position is persuasive include the position’s thoroughness, agency consistency in analyzing an issue and the formality associated with the guidance.

The taxpayers in Seaview essentially hung their hat on the revenue ruling’s rather brief discussion of the sole member LLC issue, but the court nonetheless found the ruling persuasive and also consistent with other cases and less formal IRS counsel opinions that likewise considered the application of the small partnership exception to disregarded entities.

For those few readers with an appetite for TEFRA complexity, I recommend the opinion, but in a nutshell the court agreed with the Service approach that looked first to how the statute’s language did not reflect a Congressional directive to limit the exception to only listed entities. As the opinion discussed, Section 6321(a)(9) defines a pass thru partner as a “partnership[s], estate[s], trust[s], S corporation[s], nominee[s] or [an]other similar person through whom other persons hold an interest in the partnership.” Noting that the statute itself contemplates its application beyond the “specific enumerated forms” the question turns on “whether a single- member LLC constitutes a “similar person” in respect to the enumerated entities.”

The opinion states that “Ruling 2004-88 holds that the requisite similarity exists when ‘legal title to a partnership interest is held in the name of a person other than the ultimate owner.’ ” That line drawing, in the 9th Circuit view, was persuasive, and the revenue ruling had in coming up with the approach cited to and briefly discussed cases that supported the IRS position, including one case where a custodian for minor children was not a pass thru partner because he did not have legal title and another case where a grantor trust was a pass thru partner because it did hold legal title.

One other point, the relationship between state and federal law, is worth highlighting. The taxpayers gamely argued that the IRS view impermissibly elevated state law considerations to determine a federal tax outcome. The court disagreed:

But the issue here is not whether the IRS may use state-law entity classifications to determine federal taxes. Rather, the question is whether an LLC’s federal classification for federal tax purposes negates the factual circumstance in which the owner of a partnership holds title through a separate entity. In other words, state law is relevant to Ruling 2004-88’s analysis only insofar as state law determines whether an entity bears the requisite similarity to the entities expressly enumerated in § 6231(a)(9)—that is, whether an entity holds legal title to a partnership interest such that title is not held by the interest’s owner.

Conclusion

The Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) new rules for partnership audits begin for returns filed for partnership tax years beginning in 2018. As partners and advisors navigate the uncertain waters of a new BBA partnership audit regime, TEFRA and its complexity will be with us for some time.

The BBA regime has opt out procedures for partnerships that have 100 or fewer qualifying partners. Essentially the statute states that all partners must be individuals,  C corporations, or any foreign entity that would be treated as a C corporation were it domestic, an S corporation, or an estate of a deceased partner. While silent on the treatment of disregarded entities, the BBA statute also states that Treasury and IRS by “regulation or other guidance” can prescribe rules similar to the rules that define the category of qualifying partners. 

Proposed Treasury regulations under the BBA were in limbo but earlier today Treasury re-released regulations that provide guidance for the new regime. The proposed BBA regulations specifically address disregarded entities. Despite comments in response to an earlier notice asking Treasury to allow disregarded entities to be treated as qualifying partners, the proposed regulations do not include disregarded entities as qualifying partners and the preamble specifically states that Treasury declined to do so because “the IRS will face additional administrative burden in examining those structures and partners under the deficiency rules.”

The upshot is that for under both TEFRA and likely BBA disregarded entities holding interests in a partnership mean that the general partnership audit rules will apply.

 

 

 

 

When Do Attorney’s Fees Start

In Fitzpatrick v. Commissioner, TCM 2017-88, the Tax Court took up the issue of the timing of attorney’s fees in a case in which the taxpayer made a qualified offer several months after the representation had begun.  The Tax Court previously found, in a seven day trial on the merits in a Collection Due Process (CDP) case, that the taxpayer was not a responsible officer.  The Tax Court tries a relatively small number of Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (TFRP) cases and probably a very small number of those cases involve a seven day trial.  A couple of other interesting aspects of this case from the underlying merits perspective are that the Court’s electronic docket sheet goes on for eight pages.  Only a small number of cases have that many entries.  The merits opinion leads me to believe that Ms. Fitzpatrick was the last remaining responsible officer because the IRS had determined the other possible responsible officers were not liable.  If I am correct in that determination, it could explain the effort the IRS put into her case.

Although this attorney’s fees opinion does not break significant new ground, hence its designation as a memorandum opinion, it does provide a good basis for discussion of when the fees begin as well as a few other fee related issues.

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Ms. Fitzpatrick held a position with a company that failed to pay over the withheld income and employment taxes from its employees.  From footnote 3 of the most recent opinion, I draw the conclusion that other persons working at the business sought to pin responsibility on her and made statements which the Court characterized as “misinformation.”  Of course, these statements would also have had the collateral effect of demonstrating that the persons making the statements were not themselves responsible.  The statements became a part of the revenue officer’s report – a report which the Court also indicated may not have provided the appropriate characterization of her role with the business.  For readers wanting more information about the underlying assessment, go to the opinion written last year.

After the IRS made its preliminary determination of liability, it would have mailed that determination to Ms. Fitzpatrick’s last known address.  The case does not find that the IRS improperly mailed the notice, but it does find that she did not receive it.  Her failure to receive the TFRP notice, much like the failure to receive a notice of deficiency, entitles her to litigate the merits of the assessment in her CDP case.  In Mason v. Commissioner, the Tax Court had previously decided, and we posted, that a proposed responsible officer who does not receive the notice proposing the liability and offering an opportunity to go to Appeals prior to the assessment may raise the merits of the TFRP liability in a CDP case.

The IRS did not take issue with her ability to raise the merits, and she made a presentation about the merits of her case to the Settlement Officer in the CDP hearing before she filed the Tax Court case.  Here, the filing of the notice of federal tax lien by the IRS triggered her CDP rights including the right to contest the underlying assessment.

She filed her request for a CDP hearing on July 25, 2012 within 30 days of receiving the CDP notice.  It is worth mentioning that the notice of federal tax lien would have remained on the public record for the four year period between the time of its filing and the decision of the Tax Court that she had no liability for the TFRP.  The filed notice of federal tax lien would have depressed her credit score, her general credit, limited her potential employment opportunities, and generally made life financially difficult for that entire period, which is why I have previously advocated for some type of expedited procedure in CDP cases involving liens.

The parties agreed that she made a qualified offer on November 7, 2012.  The date of the qualified offer comes about three and one half months after the filing of CDP request.  This period likely involved a fair amount of work for her attorney coming up to speed on the case and making a decision on her likely prospects for success but because of the way the qualified offer provisions work, she cannot recover attorney’s fees from the IRS for this period unless she can show that the position of the IRS lacked substantial justification.  After looking at the facts, the Court determined that the Settlement Officer had a file that contained sufficient facts to make the position of the IRS substantially justified.  So, the fees do not begin until the date of the letter.

Section 7430 provides guidance on when a taxpayer can file a qualified offer.  The taxpayer cannot make a qualified offer at the first minute the IRS raises an issue on audit or when the IRS issues a notice and demand.  A qualified offer can only occur at certain stages in the tax procedure continuum.  The time period for filing a qualified offer is set out in subparagraph 7430(g)(2) entitled “Qualified Offer Period.”  That subparagraph provides:

(2) Qualified offer period.  For purposes of this subsection, the term “qualified offer period” means the period—

(A)

beginning on the date on which the first letter of proposed deficiency which allows the taxpayer an opportunity for administrative review in the Internal Revenue Service Office of Appeals is sent, and

(B)

ending on the date which is 30 days before the date the case is first set for trial.

This provision really provides guidance regarding deficiency proceedings and not TFRP cases or CDP cases.  The IRS and the Courts agree that a taxpayer cannot make a qualified offer in a CDP case that simply contests collection alternatives.  [find authority]  Other courts have found that a taxpayer can request a qualified offer as a part of contesting a TFRP determination even though the statute does not appear to contemplate such a result.  [find authority]  Here, the IRS does not contest the ability of the taxpayer to make a qualified offer and does not contest that the timing of the offer is valid.  Based on earlier cases, it appears that the earliest a qualified offer could have been made in Ms. Fitzpatrick’s cases was the time of making the CDP request contesting the merits of the underlying TFRP liability.  The taxpayer waited three months after bring the CDP action before making the qualified offer but considering the circumstances, did not wait very long before making the qualified offer.

This aspect of the statute regarding the making of a qualified offer puts pressure on a representative who wants to protect the client’s ability to recover fees.  The representative does not want to make a qualified offer that has no basis in fact or law but while the representative researches the facts and the law before making the offer, the client must cover those costs unless the representative can ultimately overcome the high hurdle of showing that the IRS lacked substantial justification.  The representative must consider the timing of the qualified offer and make it as quickly as possible after expending as few billable hours as possible and yet not make an offer that will disadvantage their client.  If the representative makes a qualified offer that fails to take into account the litigation risks, then it is possible that through settlement or trial, the IRS will exceed the amount of the offer and the qualified offer provisions which eliminate the need to prove the IRS lacked substantial justification will not apply.  Conversely, if the representative makes an offer that is too high, the IRS might accept the offer to the client’s disadvantage.

After the Court explains why the IRS had substantial justification for its position that Ms. Fitzpatrick owed the TFRP, the Court then turned to other arguments of petitioner most of which arise frequently in these cases.  Petitioner argued the amount of the award should exceed the statutory amount because in Jacksonville, Florida only a limited number of attorneys could have handled a case such as this.  The Court did not agree.  Petitioner argued that her attorney possessed exceptional qualities enabling him to succeed in this case.  Again, the Court found that although her attorney was a qualified attorney he did not have the nonlegal or technical ability referred to by the statute as creating a basis for enhancement based on qualifications.  Petitioner argued that the issue in her case was difficult and that “this was not a simple case to try.”  The Court pointed out that TFRP cases are basically a dime a dozen.  Petitioner argued that the case was undesirable because she did not have the money to front to the firm and it had to absorb significant costs to keep the case going.  The Court found that undesirability of a case does not constitute a special factor warranting an enhanced fee.  Lastly, petitioner argued that the IRS took an unusually litigious position.  The Court basically said that if the IRS prolonged the case through its overly litigious position, her attorneys would receive compensation for the additional hours they spent responding to the positions raised by the IRS.  Here, the length of the trial and the other work done by petitioner’s counsel does result in a fee award of approximately $179,000.  The Court does not say that the IRS took an unreasonable litigation position.

The arguments over enhancements here sound like arguments made in other similar cases in which the Court has made awards.  The interesting feature of this case for me is the timing of the qualified offer.  The decision points to the benefits of an early submission of such a letter although tensions will exist concerning when the practitioner will have enough information to make an informed offer.  Winning a TFRP case is not easy.  Winning and getting attorney’s fees paid for most of the representation deserves recognition.

Designated Orders: 5/30/2017 – 6/2/2017

Today we welcome Professor Patrick Thomas.  He is the last of the gang of four who bring to us each week a look into the orders that the Tax Court judges have designated.  Professor Thomas has just completed his first year teaching and directing the tax clinic at Notre Dame.  Keith

Last week was a Judge Carluzzo-heavy week in the designated orders arena, as the Judge issued four of the five designated orders written. All dealt with taxpayers who either did not respond to IRS requests for information or were teetering on the edge of section 6673 penalties for frivolous submission to the Tax Court. Judge Armen addresses a Petitioner who moved to strike statements in the Service’s amended answer on the authority of Scar v. Commissioner.  Because the Scar case is an important one to know and has not been discussed much in this blog, we will start with a discussion of that order.

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Dkt. # 16792-16, Avrahami v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The substance of Judge Armen’s order in Avrahami is, admittedly, a little dense for yours truly. Not very often do my low income taxpayer clients come into my office with a dispute over Subpart F income, non-TEFRA partnerships, or multi-million dollar notices of deficiency. Fortunately, the procedural matter relates to a case I regularly teach: Scar v. Commissioner, 814 F.2d. 1363 (9th Cir. 1987).

In Scar, the taxpayers received a Notice of Deficiency, and with good reason: the taxpayer’s had invested in a videotape tax shelter and thereby understated their federal income tax by approximately $16,000. But the Notice of Deficiency the Scars received referred to an adjustment to income of $138,000 from the “Nevada Mining Project”, with a deficiency of $96,600 ($138,000 multiplied by the then-top marginal tax rate of 70%). The Notice stated that “[i]n order to protect the government’s interest and since your original income tax return is unavailable at this time, the income tax is being assessed at the maximum tax rate of 70%.” IRS counsel at trial explained that an IRS employee had accidentally entered the wrong code number, thus causing the wrong tax shelter item to be inserted into the Notice. However, no one testified to this fact at the hearing.

The Scars challenged the Notice in a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction on the basis that the IRS failed to “determine” a deficiency as to them under section 6212(a), and that therefore the Tax Court had no jurisdiction under section 6213(a). While the Tax Court upheld the Notice, the Ninth Circuit disagreed. Essentially, because the evidence showed that the IRS did not (1) review the taxpayer’s tax return in preparing the Notice or (2) connect the taxpayer with the Nevada Mining Project, no “determination” was made as to the particular taxpayer; thus, the Notice was invalid.

In subsequent cases, Scar has been limited to its facts: i.e., as Judge Armen notes, where the Notice “on its face reveals that [the IRS] failed to make a determination, thereby invalidating the notice and thus depriving [the Tax] Court of jurisdiction to proceed on the Merits.”

In Avrahami, Petitioners filed a Motion to Strike portions of an IRS amended Answer, which alleged unreported income—above the amounts indicated on the Notice—from various entities owned by Petitioners during 2012 and 2013. The Petitioners relied on Scar for the proposition that, in the Notice itself, the IRS did not rely on any information relating to these entities.

Judge Armen dismisses this claim. While the Notice did not list any information regarding these entities, the Petitioners did not challenge the Notice’s validity as such. Rather, the Tax Court has jurisdiction under section 6214(a) to consider and assess an additional deficiency, beyond that asserted in the Notice. And the IRS has the authority to bring such a claim, also under section 6214(a). Judge Armen goes on to note that even if Scar applied here, it’s clear that the IRS considered the information on the Petitioner’s tax returns and connected the relevant entities to the Petitioners; the Petitioners did not contest the latter point.

Finally, the standard Judge Armen articulates for granting a motion to strike is if it has “no possible bearing upon the subject matter of the litigation” and “there is a showing of prejudice to the moving party.” Because the case is not scheduled for trial and given that the IRS bears the burden of proof under section 6214(a) and Rule 142, there is no prejudice to the Petitioners. Considering the above, Judge Armen denies the motion.

The takeaway point here is that unless the Notice of Deficiency is entirely out of left field, Scar is unlikely to save the day. While it’s strong medicine, the Tax Court administers it only in very particular cases.

Dkt. # 19076-16SL, Higgs v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

The first order last week came from Judge Carluzzo on an IRS Motion for Summary Judgment in a Collection Due Process case. The facts are typical for a pro se litigant: the taxpayer failed to file his 2008 tax return. The IRS audited the taxpayer, who did not respond to the Notice of Deficiency. For 2009, the taxpayer filed a tax return, but did not pay the tax due.

The IRS filed a Notice of Federal Tax Lien regarding 2008, which the taxpayer did respond to and eventually petitioned the resulting Notice of Determination to the Tax Court in a prior proceeding (#24213-12), to no avail. It seems that collection efforts remained fruitless, and the Service finally issued a Notice of Intent to Levy for both years, which again caught the taxpayer’s interest.

Mr. Higgs’s Appeals hearing did not go well. He made two arguments: (1) that he had paid much of the liability previously and (2) that he qualified for a collection alternative. Yet, he did not provide any evidence supporting the requests he made at the hearing.

While the taxpayer didn’t raise the issue of the SO’s failure to accept the collection alternative in his Petition, Judge Carluzzo cited Mahlum v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-212, for the proposition that, if the taxpayer doesn’t provide any information to support a collection alternative, the Settlement Officer is authorized to reject that collection alternative.

In the Petition, the taxpayer did raise the issue of having paid funds towards the liability, for which the IRS gave him no credit. Judge Carluzzo reframed this argument as alleging an abuse of discretion for failure to investigate under section 6330(c)(1). Responding to this reframed argument, Judge Carluzzo says only that this position “must be rejected because the materials submitted by respondent in support of his motion show that the [SO] proceeded as required under the statutory scheme,” based on Petitioner’s lack of evidence establishing any additional payments.

Perhaps the Petitioner had a valid argument. To be sure, the Service has wrongly applied some of my client’s properly designated payments to the wrong tax period. However, where the Petitioner makes no reply to the Motion for Summary Judgment, the facts relied on by the IRS are deemed to be undisputed. While it’s a bit of circular reasoning for granting the Motion for Summary Judgment (isn’t their purpose, after all, to establish whether there are disputed facts?), it’s certainly a powerful incentive to respond to the Motion. That means there’s no luck at the end of the day for Mr. Higgs.

Dkt. # 27516-15L, Gross v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

A very similar case to Higgs, Judge Carluzzo grants another IRS Motion for Summary Judgment as to a nonresponsive taxpayer with liabilities for tax years 2008 and 2009. Unlike in Higgs, Gross was precluded from challenging the underlying merits in this matter, as he had previously litigated them in a deficiency case (#22766-12).

Unfortunately, Judge Carluzzo hides the ball a bit, noting only:

Petitioner’s request for a collection alternative to the proposed levy was properly rejected by respondent for the reasons set forth in respondent’s motion. Respondent’s motion shows that respondent has proceeded as required under section 6330, and nothing submitted by petitioner suggests otherwise.

What were the reasons set forth in respondent’s motion? How did respondent proceed as required under section 6330? Perhaps an enterprising reader in D.C. may enlighten us. The story for both of these cases is simple: petitioners must respond to the Motion for Summary Judgment in a CDP case, lest all of the facts stated in that motion be deemed as true. Barring any sloppy workmanship on the part of IRS attorneys, the petitioner’s case will otherwise end there.

Dkt. # 21799-16, McRae v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Carl Smith wrote earlier this week on Judge Carluzzo’s order the McRae case, which dealt with an IRS motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Carl described at length the Court’s failure to identify whether, in the Tax Court, the plausibility pleading standard identified in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) now replaces the notice pleading standard of Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957).

Dkt. # 14865-16, Lorenz v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Here, like in the McRae order, the IRS filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Unlike in McRae, Petitioners did reply to the motion—largely with frivolous arguments. In McRae, the frivolity was restricted to the Petition, whereas here, it appeared in the Petition, an attachment to the petition, and in the Petitioners’ reply to the motion to dismiss.

Judge Carluzzo did not mention any of the pleading standards cases here, but very well could have. The taxpayers again raised mostly frivolous arguments (which the Court struck from the Petition, attachment, and the reply to the motion to dismiss) but alleged that they and the IRS had reached an agreement before the Notice of Deficiency was issued. Judge Carluzzo viewed this allegation with skepticism:

We have our suspicions with respect to the nature of the letter that petitioners claim embodies [their] agreement, and whether the parties have, in fact, agreed to petitioners’ Federal income tax liability….

I think it’s plausible that in McRae, Judge Carluzzo merely cited Twombly for its admonition that, in the motion to dismiss context, all facts must be construed in favor of the non-moving party—true under either Twombly/Iqbal or Conley. Twombly then is cited merely because it is (one of) the most recent Supreme Court case on motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Judge Carluzzo could have inserted the same language in Lorenz, given that he seems to disbelieve the Petitioners; under either standard, the judge’s disbelief in the pleaded facts does not matter.  As such, Judge Carluzzo denies the motion to dismiss and orders an Answer from the Service.

National Taxpayer Advocate Blogging Again

We do not often write about competing bloggers, but it is worth mentioning that the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, is an occasional blogger and has just put up a new post.  Her post addresses the still relatively new and uncharted collection enforcement tool of revoking or denying a passport from a seriously delinquent taxpayer.  This is an issue on which we have posted before.  We have also written briefly about the new Tax Court rules for those who contest revocation or denial of their passport.  To my knowledge there have not been any Tax Court cases yet but to paraphrase from a HBO TV series “Denial is coming.”

Because Nina has an insider’s perspective, her blog may be worth a look (after, of course, you read ours.)

Intentionally Wrong Form Not Fraudulent Filing of Information Return?

When a taxpayer receives an accidentally wrong information return, it is natural for that person to be frustrated.  It creates filing problems, and usually it is impossible to get a corrected return.  When a taxpayer receives an intentionally incorrect information return, they usually freak out.  Cases coming out of Section 7434, which allows a taxpayer to make civil claims against the issuer of an information return for fraudulent filing of information returns, usually have entertaining fact patterns.  They often revolve around business partners (sometimes family members) seeking retribution against one and other for perceived wrongdoing. One angry person will issue an information return indicating huge amounts of money were paid as compensation to the other angry person.  Often there is other litigation going on over a business divorce. This post involves Section 7434, but the fact pattern is unfortunately pretty boring, as is the primary holding.  The Court did, however, make an interesting statement (perhaps holding) that intentionally issuing an incorrect information return with correction information would not constitute the fraudulent filing of an information return.  No Circuit Courts have reviewed this issue, and it was a matter of first impression for the Central District of Illinois.

In Derolf v. Risinger Bros Transfer, Inc., two truck drivers brought suit under Section 7434 against their employer for issuing them Form 1099s for the compensation they received from the employer, Risinger Bros, believing they were employees and should have received Form W-2s instead.  There are like absolutely no interesting facts in the summary.  No Smoky and the Bandit hijinks, or lurid lot lizard tails (don’t ask).  The plaintiffs were long haul truckers, who entered into “operating agreements” and “leases” with the trucking company.  Those agreements provided significant flexibility in how the truckin was accomplished.  The primary holding of the case was that the truckers were, in fact, independent contractors, and the trucking company was correct in issuing Form 1099s to them for the work instead of Form W-2s.

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That pretty well nips the Section 7434 issue in the bud, as Risinger Bros acted properly, but the District Court for the Central District of Illinois still addressed the potential issuance of a fraudulent information return.  In general, under Section 7434, the person receiving an incorrect information return can bring a civil suit against the issuer if the issuer willfully files a fraudulent information return as to payments purported to be made to any other person.  This provides a remedy for someone who receives false information returns that the issuer was using commit tax fraud or to create issues for the person receiving the return.  This requires a showing of bad faith or deceit, which is often the main issue in these cases, and why you get all the juicy details.

The Court in Derolf stated no misclassification occurred, but that it found the claim that the wrong information return resulted in a fraudulent filed information return to be “not cognizable as pled.”  The Court noted that “there appears to be a split amongst the district courts, and no authoritative precedent as to whether the nature of the fraud pertains solely to the pecuniary value of the payments at issue or whether the scope of the fraud encompasses broader concepts.”  In the case, the plaintiff cited to two cases from the Southern District of Florida, and a case from Maryland  for the proposition that it was not solely the amount that had to be fraudulent.  The Court in Derolf dismissed those cases as failing to actually address the issue (sort of a weak split).  In one of those three, Leon v. Tapas & Tintos, Inc., the court did state that where a Form 1099 was issued instead of a proper W-2, “that the issued forms violated Section 7434 where Plaintiff could properly be classified as an employee rather than an independent contractor,” but did not spend any time discussing that issue.   The plaintiff in Leon failed to properly plead bad faith, so the matter was tossed without further discussion.

The Court in Derolf instead focused on two other district court cases, Liverett v. Torres Adv. Ent. Sols. LLC and Tran v. Tran, which both stated the fraud had to be due to a misstatement in the amount.  Liverett had a very similar fact pattern, and did a deep dive into the statutory language and the legislative history on the matter.  In Liverett, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found Section 7434 was ambiguous and it wasn’t clear if the fraud was on the payment amount or the information return itself, but based on statutory construction and legislative history that the fraud had to be on the amount.  I won’t go into great detail about the analysis, but I think aspects are open to other interpretations.  For instance, the Court relies on legislative history stating the rationale for enacting the statute as “some taxpayers may suffer significant personal loss and inconvenience as the result of the IRS receiving fraudulent information returns, which have been filed by persons intent on either defrauding the IRS or harassing taxpayers.”  H.R. Rep. No. 104-506, at 35 (1996).  This doesn’t seem like a slam dunk in showing Section 7434 applies only to incorrect dollar amounts and not incorrect forms.  Perhaps the most convincing aspect of the holding was that the plaintiffs in these types of cases have other avenues of redress, specifically the Fair Labor Standards Act (although, in theory, this type of claim could arise with other forms not included under a FLSA claim, such as a Form 1099-Misc being issued when a Form 1099-B was appropriate).  Keith also mentioned this tactic seemed like potential self-help by the plaintiff in skirting the normal process for worker determination achieved by filing the SS-8.  This can be a slow process; taking many months.  It seems possible that the defendant or the Service could take the position that if the plaintiff has not sought such a determination, it has not exhausted its administrative remedies (then what happens if the plaintiff has, but the defendant still issues a Form 1099 when a W-2 would be appropriate –probably still no Section 7434 relief based on this case).

Overall, I think the statute and legislative history could be read to allow Section 7434 claims based on the filing of incorrect information returns, and not just incorrect dollar amounts on information returns.  For now, there is somewhat of a split, but most District Courts that have taken a hard look at this have come down on the side that the fraud must be in the amount reflected on the information return and not on the type of return filed.  Since 2015, there have been at least five or six cases looking at this issue, so I suspect more courts will deal with it in the coming months.

 

District Court Strikes Down IRS’s User Fees for PTINs

Readers may be aware of last week’s Steele v US district court opinion that upheld the IRS’s requirement that preparers obtain a PTIN but struck down the IRS’s requirement that preparers pay a user fee to get the PTIN. In light of the Steele opinion, IRS announced it is suspending PTIN renewal and registration.

This is another big setback to the IRS’s approach to gain oversight over tax return preparer community and may result in the IRS refunding millions of dollars in previously collected PTIN fees. The opinion conflicts with Brannen v US, a 2012 11th Circuit opinion that held that the IRS’s PTIN user fee regime passed muster, and is yet another in the ripples following the DC Circuit’s invalidating the IRS’ plan to regulate unlicensed preparers a few years ago in the Loving case.

I will excerpt the parties’ positions and the way the court resolved the dispute, and offer some observations as to why I think the court’s approach is misguided.

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The Steele district court opinion turns on the Independent Offices Appropriation Act of 1952 (IOAA) codified at 31 USC § 9701. The IOAA provides broad authority to assess user fees or charges on identifiable beneficiaries by administrative regulation. User fees assessed under IOAA authority must be (1) fair and (2) based on costs to the government, the value of the service or thing to the recipient, public policy or interest serviced, and other relevant facts.

Essentially the plaintiffs argued that the user fee scheme provided no value to preparers in light of the DC Circuit’s Loving opinion:

 [P]laintiffs argue that because Congress did not grant the IRS licensing authority—as found by Loving—tax return preparers receive no special benefit in exchange for the fees, rendering them unlawful under the IOAA. In other words, plaintiffs argue that the IRS originally created a licensing scheme that would limit tax return preparers to those certain people who could meet eligibility criteria. But, because Loving found that Congress did not authorize a license requirement for tax return preparers, there are now no restrictions on who may obtain a PTIN and therefore it is no longer true that only a specific set of people may receive PTINs and the “special benefit” of being able to prepare tax returns for compensation. The only beneficiary of the PTIN system is therefore the IRS.

The IRS, looking to the approach of the 11th Circuit in Brannen, distinguished the PTIN rules from the ill-fated regulatory regime that the DC Circuit struck down in Loving:

The government argues that the PTIN and user fee regulations are separate from the regulations imposing eligibility requirements on registered tax return preparers. It argues that the PTIN requirements are not arbitrary and capricious because they make it easier to identify tax return preparers and the returns they prepare, which is a critical step in tax administration, and because PTINs protect social security numbers from disclosure. In support of its position that it may charge fees for PTINs, the IRS states that PTINs are a service or thing of value because the ability to prepare tax returns for compensation is a special benefit provided only to those people who obtain PTINs, who are distinct from the general public. Individuals without PTINs cannot prepare tax returns for compensation. In addition, the IRS argues that PTINs protect the confidentiality of tax return preparers’ social security numbers, and that protection itself is a service or thing of value.

The district court opinion adopted the view that the PTIN rules were part and parcel of the overall regulatory regime:

The Court finds that PTINs do not pass muster as a “service or thing of value” under the government’s rationale. First, the argument that the registered tax return preparer regulations regarding testing and eligibility requirements and the PTIN regulations are completely separate and distinct is a stretch at best. While it is true that they were issued separately and at different times, they are clearly interrelated. The RTRP regulations specifically mention the PTIN requirements and state that PTINs are part of the eligibility requirements for becoming a registered tax return preparer. See Regulations Governing Practice Before the Internal Revenue Service, 76 Fed. Reg. at 32287–89; 26 C.F.R. § 1.6109-2(d) (“[T]o obtain a [PTIN] or other prescribed identifying number, a tax return preparer must be an attorney, certified public accountant, enrolled agent, or registered tax return preparer authorized to practice before the Internal Revenue Service under 31 U.S.C. 330 and the regulations thereunder.”). Furthermore, the overarching objectives named in the PTIN regulations indicate a connection to the RTRP regulations. They were 1) “to provide some assurance to taxpayers that a tax return was prepared by an individual who has passed a minimum competency examination to practice before the IRS as a tax return preparer, has undergone certain suitability checks, and is subject to enforceable rules of practice;” and 2) “to further the interests of tax administration by improving the accuracy of tax returns and claims for refund and by increasing overall tax compliance.” Furnishing Identifying Number of Tax Return Preparer, 75 Fed. Reg. at 60310. The first objective clearly relates to the RTRP regulations regarding eligibility requirements for tax return preparers. The second objective is less explicit, but it does not stretch common sense to conclude that the accuracy of tax returns would be improved by requiring tax return preparers to meet certain education requirements.

Once it functionally equated the PTIN regime to the testing and eligibility requirements Loving struck down, the Steele opinion concluded that the benefit that the IRS was supposedly conferring for the user fee was in fact the functional equivalent of regulating the practice of preparing returns, with my emphasis below on the key part of the Steele opinion’s discussion:

Having concluded the inter-connectedness of the regulations, the government’s argument begins to break down. The Loving court concluded that the IRS does not have the authority to regulate tax return preparers. Loving, 742 F.3d at 1015. It cannot impose a licensing regime with eligibility requirements on such people as it tried to do in the regulations at issue. Although the IRS may require the use of PTINs, it may not charge fees for PTINs because this would be equivalent to imposing a regulatory licensing scheme and the IRS does not have such regulatory authority. Granting the ability to prepare tax return for others for compensation—the IRS’s proposed special benefit—is functionally equivalent to granting the ability to practice before the IRS. The D.C. Circuit has already held, however, that the IRS does not have the authority to regulate the practice of tax return preparers. See id. In coming to its conclusion, the Circuit considered the statutory language that the Secretary may “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of the Treasury.” Id. at 1017–18 (quoting 31 U.S.C. § 330(a)(1)). The court found that the IRS improperly expanded the definition of “practice . . . before the Department of Treasury” to include “preparing and signing tax returns” because to “practice before” an agency “ordinarily refers to practice during an investigation, adversarial hearing, or other adjudicative proceeding.” Id. at 1018. The Loving court concluded that “[t]hat is quite different from the process of filing a tax return” in which “the tax-return preparer is not invited to present any arguments or advocacy in support of the taxpayer’s position . . . [and] the IRS conducts its own ex parte, non-adversarial assessment of the taxpayer’s liability.” Id. The ability to prepare tax returns is the “practice” identified by the IRS in Loving, but the court found that such an activity does not qualify as practicing before the IRS. Therefore, it appears to this Court that the IRS is attempting to grant a benefit that it is not allowed to grant, and charge fees for granting such a benefit.

Parting Thoughts

There are over  700,000 PTIN holders, and I have seen estimates that IRS has collected anywhere between $175 and 300 million since the PTIN program started in 2011. One aspect of the opinion is that by deciding the case in this manner (i.e, IRS has no authority to charge fees for PTINs), the court did not address the plaintiffs’ alternate argument that fees the IRS charged were excessive. (IRS reduced the PTIN fee to $50 from $64 a few years ago).

This is obviously a major setback for the IRS. I am surprised by the court’s narrow view of the benefits associated with PTINs. I recall a decade or so ago the many challenges IRS had in assessing the quality of return preparers in a pre-PTIN required world. When discussing IRS efforts to unify the identification requirement under a single identifying number, GAO noted that past practices made it very difficult for IRS to get a sense of the overall preparer community, let alone associate individual preparers and the returns they prepared. While of course the IRS benefits from the uniformity of identifying requirements, so does the public, and, by extension, so do preparers.

It is in the interest of competent and honest preparers to ensure that the public has confidence in the work that they do. The visibility and accountability associated with a uniform identifying requirement benefits the tax system generally. While the impact of Steele is by no means as far-reaching as Loving, it is a major defeat and is further reason why Congress needs to step in and legislate that IRS has the ability to regulate this important aspect of tax administration.

What is the Legal Standard that the Tax Court Applies for Motions to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim?

We welcome back frequent guest blogger, Carl Smith.  Carl’s post today focuses on the correct standard for dismissing a case for failure to state a claim.  Back in the late 1970s I worked in the Portland office of Chief Counsel, IRS and our office had a decent number of cases involving petitioners who we then called tax protestors.  I sent a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim to the Tax Court.  Not too long thereafter the National Office contacted me and my manager to let us know that the office did not file this type of motion.  Times have changed.  Chief Counsel’s office now files this type of motion regularly and the Court grants them.  Carl’s concern focuses on the reason for granting the motion and the proper standard.  Keith 

I clearly have a pet peeve about this, but for years, I have been complaining that the Tax Court has not been clear about the legal standard that it is imposing when ruling on motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted.  This is a topic that has never come up before on PT, and would never come up in a case where a lawyer represented the taxpayer, since the lawyer would never (I hope) draft a pleading that would fail to meet any Tax Court pleading standard.  (And the Tax Court typically first orders the taxpayer to perfect or correct incomprehensible pleadings before ruling on any such motion to dismiss.)  But, an unpublished designated order by Judge Carluzzo issued in McRae v. Commissioner, Docket No. 21799-16, on June 1, once again presents the issue of the standard that the court applies when deciding such motions.  The choices for the standard are:  (1) the notice pleadings standard of Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957), or (2) the plausibility pleading standard that replaced Conley in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).  In his order, Judge Carluzzo cited Twombly, but did not mention its standard.  Anything that would pass the Twombly standard would pass the Conley standard, as well, so one can’t take this as a clarification by the Tax Court of which standard it applies.

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I first wrote about this topic in a 2012 article in Tax Notes Today entitled, “The Tax Court Should Reject Twombly/Iqbal Plausibility Pleading”, 2012 TNT 159-4.  Updating my article, I took the same position in a letter that I wrote to the Tax Court in 2015 as a topic to address in the next set of rules changes issued by the court (for which we are still awaiting issuance).  For those interested in greater detail, here’s a link to my letter.

To summarize, in Conley, the Supreme Court adopted what in law school most of us knew as the notice pleading regime.  Conley stated:

[T]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a claimant to set out in detail the facts upon which he bases his claim.  To the contrary, all the Rules require is “a short and plain statement of the claim” that will give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.  The illustrative forms appended to the Rules plainly demonstrate this.  Such simplified “notice pleading” is made possible by the liberal opportunity for discovery and the other pretrial procedures established by the Rules to disclose more precisely the basis of both claim and defense and to define more narrowly the disputed facts and issues.

355 U.S. 47-48 (footnotes omitted).  Conley also famously stated that “a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim [under FRCP Rule 12(b)(6)] unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief”. Id., at 45-46.

By 2007, the Supreme Court was fed up with discovery abuses and nuisance settlements generated by the notice pleading standard and, in Twombly (an antitrust case), “retired” the famous statement from Conley in favor of a new standard:  Even though the courts should assume for purposes of such a motion that all facts stated in a complaint are true, there should be enough facts stated to plausibly infer that a cause of action could be proved after discovery.  No more simply stating legal conclusions as facts.  In 2009, in Iqbal, the Supreme Court clarified that this new plausibility pleading standard did not just apply to antitrust suits, but applied to all civil suits brought in federal district court.

As my letter to the Tax Court details, all pleadings in civil tax suits in district courts since 2009 have been governed by the plausibility standard, and the Court of Federal Claims has adopted it, as well.  But, most state courts to have faced the question since 2009 have resisted abandoning notice pleading, and there is considerable academic debate about the wisdom of the new plausibility standard.

In my letter to the Tax Court, I noted that, while the Tax Court has decided motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim in published opinions that cited Conley’s notice pleading standard, the last published opinion on such a motion was in 2003, in Carskadon v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2003-237.  Since then, the Tax Court has only ruled on such motions in unpublished orders.  Since 2011, all such orders have become searchable, yet only cite Conley and/or its progeny.  Before June 1, there were two exceptions to the prior sentence:  Judge Carluzzo cited Twombly in two orders in 2012 and 2013, but not in any way that indicated that he thought he was applying a different standard.  Most orders these days still cite Conley and/or its progeny as the standard the Tax Court is applying to these motions.

In his June 1 order in McRae, Judge Carluzzo cited Twombly again.  But, he did not say that the new standard for Tax Court pleading was plausibility instead of notice.  Further, since he ruled for the taxpayer that the petition, at least in part, satisfied the relevant pleading standard, it is clear that he would have reached the same result under Conley.

In McRae, Judge Carluzzo wrote, in part:

According to respondent’s motion, petitioner “makes no factual claims of error in the petition but argues only law and legal conclusions therein.” This is true for most of the statements contained in the section of the petition entitled “IV Allegations/Assignments of Error”, but in the last full paragraph on page 5 of part A of that section of the petition, petitioner alleges, in part, that “on information and belief” the notice of deficiency (notice) that forms the basis of this case “was issued on the basis of inaccurate and unreliable records”.

According to the notice, petitioner failed to file a Federal income tax return for the year here in issue, so respondent “used Information Return Documents filed by payers as reported under * * * [petitioner’s] Social Security Number to determine * * * [his] income.”  The details of the information reported on the “Information Return Documents”, however, are not set forth in the copy of the notice attached to respondent’s motion, which is the only copy of the notice currently in the record. That being so, and giving petitioner the benefit of every doubt as we are required to do in our consideration of respondent’s motion, see Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the above-referenced allegation gives rise to a justiciable issue, that is, whether the information return reports relied upon by respondent are accurate and reliable. Consequently, resolving this case in summary fashion, as respondent’s motion would have us do, is inappropriate at this stage of the proceedings.

Nevertheless, respondent’s motion calls to the Court’s attention much of the impertinent, if not frivolous matter contained in the petition, and that matter will be stricken.

In my letter to the Tax Court I urged it to stick with the Conley notice pleading standard for several reasons, among them:  (1) the difficulty in figuring out how to apply the plausibility standard to the Tax Court, where a petition is more like an answer to a notice of deficiency than a district court complaint stating a cause of action, (2) the lack of discovery abuses in the Tax Court or instances where the IRS is forced to engage in nuisance settlements in response to a petition, and (3) the many unrepresented people who file petitions in the Tax Court who barely write a few sentences on the simplified petition (Form 2) in the limited space provided.  For other reasons, please read my letter.

I still wish the Tax Court would either say something about which standard it applies (notice or plausibility) when it next revises its rules or, better yet, issue a T.C. opinion addressing this matter the next time it has to rule on a motion to dismiss a petition for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted under Tax Court Rule 40.