Seventh Circuit Sustains Tax Court Decision Enforcing Stipulation

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In Shamrock v. Commissioner, No. 16-3811 (7th Cir. Mar. 14, 2017), the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the Tax Court in T.C. Memo. 2016-193. The case has an interesting history because of the representative chosen by petitioners.  Petitioners filed their Tax Court petition pro se but were assisted in their case by Grant Niehus.  Mr. Niehus is a lawyer, and was at all relevant time, but is not licensed to practice in Illinois.  I note that it is likely that although this is a case set for trial in Chicago, it would not surprise me to learn that the lawyer representing the IRS in the Chicago office of Chief Counsel is also not licensed to practice in Illinois.  Because federal tax practice is a federal practice, lawyers can represent taxpayers nationwide on federal tax issues in the U.S. Tax Court and are not limited to practicing in states in which they are licensed.  Working for Chief Counsel, attorneys must be licensed in one state, a member in good standing, and an active member of the bar but Chief Counsel attorneys need not be a member of the bar of the state in which they are practicing.  So, I do not find that statement that Mr. Niehus is not licensed to practice in Illinois to be especially important.  He did, however, have another problem and that caused the Tax Court to do a lot more work in this case.

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It is important that a lawyer properly hold himself out to his clients.  There were concerns that Mr. Niehus did not properly explain his status to his clients.  The Circuit Court opinion states that Mr. Niehus, in addition to not having a license to practice in Illinois, was not admitted before the Tax Court.  It is his inability to practice before the Tax Court that greatly concerned the 7th Circuit when it looked at the first appeal. It should be noted that getting admitted to practice before the Tax Court generally takes little effort if you are admitted and in good standing before the highest bar of one state.

He advised the taxpayers to stipulate that only half of the relief they sought in the Tax Court was appropriate.  They did that and the Tax Court accepted their stipulation.  After entering into that stipulation, the taxpayers discovered that Mr. Niehus was not licensed to practice in Illinois and requested that the Tax Court set aside their stipulation.  The Tax Court refused to set aside the stipulation – a decision consistent with its general treatment of such requests – and the taxpayers appealed.  On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed and remanded the case.  The 7th Circuit criticized the Tax Court for enforcing the stipulation without considering the possible deceit of Mr. Niehus.

On remand the taxpayers chose another somewhat non-traditional representative.  They chose a CPA authorized to practice before the Tax Court.  I have written before about the ability of non-attorneys to practice before the Tax Court and if you go back to 1924 when the Board of Tax Appeals was created, CPAs were authorized to represent clients before Board.  Their ability to do so based on the professional designation continued into the 1940s when it was removed and a successful passage of a test was required for non-attorneys to represent clients before the Tax court.  The taxpayers’ new representative, Sheldon Drobny, was one of the small percentage of individuals who passed this test.

After a hearing, the Tax Court issued a brief 99 page opinion explaining that the advice the taxpayers received from their original representative was good advice.  The taxpayers did not agree with the Tax Court and went for a second round before the 7th Circuit.  Now in possession of a detailed explanation of tax issues and how the advice of Mr. Niehus lined up with the correct tax result, the 7th Circuit agreed with the Tax Court.  The 7th Circuit notes that the taxpayers did not accuse Mr. Niehus of malpractice, that the Tax Court found he provided “competent, valuable, diligent and effective” assistance.  It holds the “dispositive principle is ‘no harm no foul.’”

The case deserves some attention because of the tension between stipulations and effective representation.  The Tax Court relies heavily on the stipulation process.  Tax Court Rule 91 requires the parties to stipulate to the fullest extent possible.  When the parties submit a stipulation, the Court does not easily allow one party to back out of it after submission.  See, e.g., Muldavin v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1997-531  It does not want to look behind each stipulation to determine if the facts are correct or what motivated the stipulation of the facts.

However, when a taxpayer’s representative has not accurately represented himself to the taxpayer in terms of his capacity competing concerns arise which cause the Court to need to look into the statements by the representative as they impact the integrity of the system.  The system relies on appropriate representation and if a taxpayer is duped or inappropriately represented the Court must step in to rectify the situation.  The recent case of Liu v. Commissioner  presented this issue to the 5th Circuit which refused to set aside a stipulated decision based on the alleged bias of petitioners’ former attorney because it found the attorney did not cause the stipulation.  This is also why the removal of a representation from the ability to practice before the Court is important as discussed in an earlier post which case was affirmed on appeal by the D.C. Circuit.

The 7th Circuit’s concerns were legitimate and caused the Tax Court to go behind the stipulation in great depth.  In the end, the Tax Court’s lengthy opinion essentially proves that Mr. Niehus gave proper advice and gets the parties back to where they were at the time of the original stipulation but now without concerns that the integrity of the system was impugned.  This case shows how much additional work can result when accusations of attorney or judicial misconduct arise.

 

 

 

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