Priority Status of Transferee Liability in Bankruptcy

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Two types of claims exist in bankruptcy – secured and unsecured. Every creditor wants to be a secured creditor. In theory, secured creditors pass through bankruptcy unaffected. That theory has many notable exceptions but, nonetheless, it is best to be a secured creditor.

If you cannot be a secured creditor, the next best thing is to be a priority creditor. Congress has looked at the type of debts that exist in the United States and decided that certain of those debts, about ten, deserve recognition above all the rest. It lists these special “priority” debts in section 507 of the bankruptcy code. If your debt makes it onto this list, your debt gets paid before general unsecured claims receive payment. The higher you are on the list, the better you are. Think of the list of priority debts as a cruise ship with the best cabins at the top and the worst at the bottom. Then think of general unsecured claims as steerage existing in the hold of the ship below all of the priority claims. Depending on when the money in the estate runs out, only certain creditors get paid. All of the creditors in the first priority must be paid before any payments go to the next level down, and so on through each level. Wherever the money runs out, the creditors in the group where it runs out get paid pro rata and any creditors below that level go home empty handed.

It is in this context that the fight in In re Kardash, No. 8:16-bk-05715 (September 21, 2017) takes place. The IRS convinced the Tax Court to hold in T.C. Memo 2015-51 and T.C. Memo 2015-197 that he owed about $4.3 million as a result of fraudulent transfers, and the 11th Circuit affirmed the Tax Court’s decisions at 866 F.3d 1249 (11th Cir. 2017). For more background on the Tax Court aspect of this case see Steve’s prior post here and a subsequent post about the case by Peter Reilly here. The IRS seeks to have the transferee liability of Mr. Kardash treated as a priority claim in his bankruptcy case (although he is married Mr. Kardash filed a chapter 11 bankruptcy individually and his wife did not file). Mr. Kardash objected to treating the transferee liability as a priority claim. Usually, it is the trustee who cares more than the debtor, but there is a second importance to priority status for tax claims because any tax claim entitled to priority status is excepted from discharge if it does not get paid in the bankruptcy case. Tax debts not entitled to priority status can also be excepted from discharge but the rules for those debts are more restrictive. So, the classification of the claim makes a big difference both to the other creditors of the estate and, potentially, to Mr. Kardash.

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Mr. Kardash was an employee and minority shareholder with an 8.65 share of a company that was defunct by the time of the bankruptcy case. He managed the operations of the company but was not a responsible person under IRC 6672. (If he did owe any money as a responsible person, such a debt would always be entitled to priority status under bankruptcy code 507(a)(8)(C)). During the relevant period, the company had revenue in excess of $450 million but paid no income taxes. The IRS subsequently audited the company and determined that it owed over $120 million for these years. The two controlling shareholders siphoned substantially all of the cash out of the company. Mr. Kardash received about $3.5 million during the years 2005-2007, and he reported the distributions as dividends and paid tax on it.

The IRS sent him a notice of transferee liability regarding these dividends as well as bonuses he received in 2003 and 2004. He petitioned the Tax Court, which ruled that the dividends paid to him in 2005-2007 were fraudulent transfers under applicable Florida law because they were not made in compensation for his services and the company was either insolvent at the time it paid him or became insolvent as a result of the payments.

The IRS can file a priority claim under bankruptcy code 507(a)(8)(A) for unsecured claims for “a tax on or measured by income or gross receipts for a taxable year ending on or before the date of the filing of the petition….” The bankruptcy court states that the transferee liability under IRC 6901(a) (the basis for Mr. Kardash’s liability) does not by its terms impose a tax. While this is a true statement, the transferee liability provisions seek to provide the IRS with a basis for collecting tax that has otherwise gone unpaid. The bankruptcy court quotes from the Tax Court’s description of the case:

“Section 6901(a) is a procedural statute authorizing the assessment of a transferee liability in the same manner and subject to the same provisions and limitations as in the case of the taxes with respect to which the transferee liability was incurred. Section 6901(a) does not create or define a substantive liability but merely provides the Commissioner a remedy for enforcing and collecting from the transferee of the property the transferor’s existing liability.”

The bankruptcy court points to an 11th Circuit decision in Baptiste v. Commissioner, 29 F.3d 1533 (11th Cir. 1994), holding that “any liability to which section 6901(a) applies is not a tax liability, but rather an independent liability.” The 11th Circuit found that IRC 6901(a) is purely a procedural statute. The Baptiste case was not a bankruptcy case; however, in In re Pert, 201 B.R. 316, 320 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 1996), a bankruptcy court in the same jurisdiction as the court deciding Mr. Kardash’s case relied upon Baptiste in determining that a transferee liability was not entitled to priority status. The bankruptcy court states that the Baptiste and Pert decisions control the decision here. I do not necessarily agree with that statement as the Circuit Court decision addresses a different aspect of a transferee liability and a bankruptcy court is not bound by decisions of bankruptcy judges at the same level. Nonetheless, these cases provide support for the decision that the transferee liability is not entitled to priority status.

The Court disagrees with the decision of the 10th Circuit in McKowen v. Internal Revenue Service, 370 F.3d 1023 (10th Cir. 2004). The McKowen case involved the issue of discharge and not directly the issue of priority status, though the two can be linked. The McKowen case adopted a functional approach to the classification of the transferee liability claim which is the approach sought by the IRS. A middle ground here would be to treat the debt as non-priority but excepted from discharge similar to debts where a fraudulent return has been filed. Such treatment would allow other creditors of the estate to take before the payment of the derivative liability created by 6901(a), but would also allow the IRS to have the opportunity to collect on a debt that the actions of the company owing the debt has prevented the IRS from collecting. Neither the priority provision of bankruptcy code section 507 nor the discharge provisions of bankruptcy code section 523 neatly address the circumstances of a transferee liability. It is surprising that almost 40 years after the passage of the bankruptcy code, an issue of this type remains unresolved.

In arguing that the court should apply a functional analysis in determining whether the transferee liability receives priority status the IRS cited to United States v. Reorganized CF&I Fabricators of Utah, Inc., 518 U.S. 213 (1996) in support of its position that a bankruptcy court must look to the basis for a liability in determining the liabilities status. In CF&I the Supreme Court determined that a liability labeled a tax was really a penalty just as in Sotelo v. United States, 436 U.S. 268 (1978)(in a case involving the trust fund recovery penalty) the Supreme Court found a liability labeled a penalty was really a tax. See a post by Bryan Camp discussing this issue for further details. As you can see from the fact that cases have twice gone to the Supreme Court to classify tax claims, this is a serious issue. The parties’ briefs are excellent and set out the issue in great detail if you are seeking more understanding of the issue. See Debtor’s Response and Opposition to the IRS’S Motion for Summary Judgment and the Reply to Debtor’s Response and Opposition to the United States’ Motion for Summary Judgment.

Conclusion

I look for the IRS to appeal this decision unless it determines that the 11th Circuit precedent controls the issue. The decision here does not directly address discharge but only the priority of the IRS claim. Depending on the amount of money in the estate, the priority status of the claim may not matter as much as the discharge issue. From the pleadings it appears that the efforts of the IRS to collect from Mr. Kardash partially involves its ability to reach property held as tenancy by the entireties based on the decision in United States v. Craft, 535 U.S. 274 (2002) and a subsequent 11th Circuit case, United States v. Offiler, 336 F. App’x 907, 909 (11th Cir. 2009) interpreting Craft. I wrote about the Craft case here.

A part of the fight in the bankruptcy case involves use of the proceeds of a house that the taxpayer and his wife jointly owned. The IRS objected to certain uses of those proceeds because the debtor’s proposed use would reduce its recovery. The debtor is 75 and now on social security. The prospects for recovery here will come from existing property and not future income but the IRS may determine that its ability to collect from Mr. Kardash is less important than establishing the principle regarding the classification of transferee liabilities in bankruptcy cases. If it does, Mr. Kardash will not only have selected bad business partners but also a bad issue to litigate since the IRS may push the litigation without his concern for the cost vs. benefit.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Lavar Taylor says:

    Keith-

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve skirted around this issue in some of my cases but have never had to deal with this issue head on. Note that section 507(c) provides that a claim for an erroneous refund has the same priority as the tax to which the erroneous refund relates. Since Congress thought it necessary to include this provision, the absence of a similar provision regarding transferee liability supports the result reached by the Court here.

  2. I think the 11th Circuit reached the correct conclusion. Clearly a Section 6901 assessment is not a “tax” and thus not subject to priority under Section 507 under the plain reading of the language of the statute. (Would IRS also say that liability under 31 USC 3713 is entitled to priority? It is no “functionally” different from Section 6901.) Moreover, Congress has made clear in those instances where it wants the obligations of those vicariously liable for payment of tax a priority debt in those instances where Congress deems that appropriate. See e.g., 11 USC 507(a)(8)(c)(6672 civil penalty entitled to priority). The ramifications of the IRS position are far beyond what Congress intended and the decision reached is correct.

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