IRS Updates Contingency Plan

Frequent contributor Bob Kamman discusses the IRS’s updated lapsed appropriations contingency plan for the filing season. Les

The first thing to realize about the IRS Filing Season Contingency Plan is that it is already outdated. As the Overview states,

“The IRS Lapse in Appropriations Contingency Plan describes actions and activities for the first five (5) business days following a lapse in appropriations. The plan is updated annually in accordance with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of Treasury. While we do not anticipate using the plan, prudent management requires that agencies prepare for this contingency.”

Although the cover sheet is dated January 15, 2019, that excerpt from Page 5 is dated January 11, 2019.  Filing season, it states, runs from January 1 through April 30, 2019.  What happens after the first five days?

“In the event the lapse extends beyond five (5) business days, the Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support will direct the IRS Human Capital Officer to reassess ongoing activities and identify necessary adjustments of excepted positions and personnel.”

In lay terms, this is known as “flying by the seat of your pants.”

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The general rule is that all IRS employees must stay home because they are not essential and there is no money to pay them.  (Of course, history tells us that they will be paid when the shutdown ends.)  The exception to the rule is that they must work, without pay, if they fall into one of several “excepted” categories.

Category “A” includes activities that (A1) are already funded, like those related to TCJA implementation and disaster relief; activities (A2)  “authorized by statutes that expressly permit obligations in advance of appropriations; and the catch-all (A3) “authorized by necessary implication from the specific terms of duties that have been imposed on, or of authorities that have been invested in, the agency.”  Until anyone objects, this A3 means what any given lawyer says it means on any given day.

Then there are “excepted” employees (remember, these are the ones who must show up to work) in Category B.  Their jobs are necessary to safeguard human life (see Police Officers, below) and, more often, to protect government property.

To understand this category, note that “tax revenues constitute Government property which the Service must safeguard.”  But not just money is involved:

 “…the Service may continue processing tax returns to ensure the protection of those returns that contain remittances. Activities necessary to protect other types of Government property, including computer data and Federal lands and buildings, may continue during a shutdown as well.”

In fact, not just money, buildings, and computers are at stake.  It is the IRS reputation itself.  The agency must “maintain the integrity of the federal tax collection process.” (This mostly seems to come under A3, not B, for those keeping score at home.)

Finally, there is the “turn out the lights” Category C, for activities that “provided for the orderly termination of those functions that may not continue” during a shutdown.

Those are the rules.  Here are some examples of how they are being applied.

Category A1: This includes “Income Verification Express Service (IVES) and Revenue & Income Verification Service (RAIVS) Photocopy Programs.”  These allow mortgage lenders  to verify taxpayer incomes.  It was recently determined that this was “excepted” work, perhaps because it is funded by user fees.

Category A2: This one is easy.  IRS does not have any.  It just shows up in the report because Treasury needs it for other reports.

Category A3: “Maintaining minimum staff necessary to handle budget matters related to the lapse in appropriations.”  Presumably these employees will have other work to do, when the lapse ends.

Category A3 also includes “Activities necessary for the payment of refunds, including processing electronic returns through issuance of refunds; processing “Paper Refund Tax Returns” through issuance of refunds; and processing “1040X Amended Refund Returns Adjustments including Carrybacks, Amended Returns, Duplicate Filed Returns (DUPF), Correspondence, Injured Spouse Claims, Disaster Claims, F843 Claim for Refund and Request for Abatement in support of issuing refunds.”

Issuing those refunds is necessary, not because they are government property, but because they are part of a system that maintains IRS integrity.

For Category B, there is a long list of activities necessary for the protection of human life or government property.  “The risk to life or property must be near at hand and demand an immediate response. To ensure that employees only perform functions that meet this requirement, each business unit will conduct regular meetings throughout a lapse in appropriations to identify actual imminent threats and activate excepted personnel only as required to perform related excepted activities.”   Here are just some of these examples:

  • Completion and testing of the upcoming Filing Year programs
  • Processing Remittances including Payment Perfection
  •  Responding to taxpayer filing season questions (call sites)
  • Continuing the IRS’ computer operations to prevent the loss of data
  • Protection of statute expiration, bankruptcy, liens and seizure cases
  •  Protecting Federal lands, buildings, and other property owned by the United States
  • Upcoming Tax Year forms design and printing
  • Maintaining criminal law enforcement and undercover operations

(You might find it odd that designing next year’s forms has at least the same priority as criminal law enforcement.  You will agree, however, once you see this year’s forms.)

Those are the activities that are necessary.  Here are some examples of work that is not:

  •  Non-automated collections
  •  Legal counsel
  • Taxpayer services such as responding to taxpayer questions (call sites) (But only during Non-Filing Season.  During Tax Season, they hope to operate.)
  • All audit functions, examination of returns, and processing of non-electronic tax returns that do not include remittances

So let’s not call it a shutdown.  When audit and collection work is suspended, let’s call it a holiday.  Were it not for the staff trying to prevent statute expirations, we could almost call it amnesty.

Here are some details from the latest plan:

Chief Counsel

“Chief Counsel’s primary responsibility during a lapse is to manage pending litigation, the time-sensitive filing of motions, briefs, answers and other pleadings related to the protection of the government’s material interests. Due to Counsel’s separate litigation function, the number of excepted Counsel positions will not align with excepted activities authorized in other IRS business units. Counsel’s plan assumes that the Federal and District Courts will be open, and that litigation will continue uninterrupted. The plan excepts, on an as needed basis, those personnel assigned to litigation that is scheduled for trial or where there is a court-imposed deadline during the first five days of a lapse. Personnel are not generally excepted to perform litigation activities where a trial or other court-imposed deadline is scheduled more than five days after the start of the lapse. Personnel assigned to those cases should seek continuances as part of an orderly shutdown. If a continuance is denied, the case will be reviewed to determine if work on the case may be excepted. . . .

“Chief Counsel personnel are also excepted, on an as needed basis to provide required legal advice necessary to protect statute expiration, and the government’s interest in bankruptcy, lien, and seizure cases.”

Taxpayer Advocate Service

There are now two “excepted” Category B employees allowed in each local office: The local TA, and either a group manager or a “lead case advocate.”  Their jobs are to “Check mail to comply with the IRS’s requirement to open and process checks during a shutdown while also complying with the statutory requirements that TAS maintain confidential and separate communications with taxpayers and that TAS operate independently of any other IRS office . . .Screen the mail for incoming requests for Taxpayer Assistance Orders and notify the appropriate Business Unit that a request has been made tolling any statute of limitations.”

It doesn’t sound like they are allowed to answer the phone or work cases.  Protecting IRS integrity doesn’t extend this far?

Small Business / Self Employed

In this operating division, 2,614 of the 2,938 Category B employees are in Collection and another 264 are in Examination. But wait – what happened to that  holiday?

Most of them are Collection Representatives who “carry out revenue protection activities that include responding to taxpayers who have received a collection notice through the Automated Collection System and clarifying the payment process; assisting taxpayers with setting up installment agreements for tax payments; assist taxpayers with general collection processes; serve as the gateway for transferring taxpayers to Accounts Management for appropriate filing season inquiries;  and provide assistance with releasing levies and liens as required by law.” In other words, you can contact them but they won’t contact you.

Those in Examination “protect statute expiration/assessment activities, bankruptcy or other revenue generating issues.   Open incoming mail to identify documents required to be processed to protect the government’s interest during shutdown. Complete computer operations required to determine necessary actions, prevent data loss and route documents associated with imminent statutes.”

Wage And Investment

These are the workers at 10 Service Centers and 15 call sites,  most of whom are in Category A3.  IRS hopes that 12,961 show up for Submission Processing, and 17,520 show up for Accounts Management, which includes call sites.

From other sources, I find that at least 6,600 of these employees are seasonal.  Would you take a temporary job with IRS in January, with the hope of being paid by April? It might make a difference if you needed to pay for daycare.

How many in W&I “Refundable Credits Policy & Program Management” will work on “Pre-refund case selection to protect improper payments from being released to ineligible taxpayers and perfect refunds to verify the refund is appropriate”?  An army of 51.

Compare that with the 469 needed for the IVES and RAIVS programs.  IVES “provides express return transcript, W-2 transcript, and 1099 transcript delivery services to mortgage lenders and others within the financial community to confirm the income of a borrower during the processing of a loan application. RAIVS services taxpayer request for copy of tax return.”

Online Services

In Category B, 25 employees are needed because “Online Services (OLS) is responsible for the development and continuity of operations for IRS.gov, which is the agency’s exclusive external facing website servicing the public. IRS.gov is the means in which taxpayers may continue to file returns and submit remittances online. OLS anticipates that 9 employees will be needed for the duration of the shutdown to maintain the IRS.gov website.”

Facilities Management

Did you know IRS has Police Officers?  There are nine of them kept on duty who along with 13 Security Specialists and five Safety Officers “support general security services that increase as the IRS population escalates in excepted employees during the Filing Season.   Additionally, security and emergency response actions are influenced by other external activities such as bomb threats, suspicious packages and threats to employees. Situational Awareness Management Center/Threat Incident Reporting is operational 24/7 during a shutdown.”

Leave (Not Brexit) Policy

Finally, current and former IRS employees should find this interesting.  I am not sure it  is how the situation was handled in previous shutdowns, but maybe I am thinking of snow days.

“Managers should advise employees who are scheduled to be on annual, sick, court, or military leave that, if a lapse in appropriations occurs while they are on leave, their leave will be canceled, and they will be placed in a furlough status. According to 5 CFR § 752.402, a furlough means ‘the placing of an employee in a temporary status without duties and pay because of lack of work or funds or other non-disciplinary reasons.’”

What IRS Taught Me about Building Barriers

During the IRS and Tax Court shutdown, we have less material to work with and more time for observations and reminiscences from readers.  Chronic contributor Bob Kamman assures us that there must be others who can do better than this. 

I have stories about shutdowns that I could tell from my time at the government but mostly my impression of shutdowns is that they are an incredible waste. I feel it would not take much to find a better way to fight over disagreements about the budget.  

Bob tells us a story about barriers and Service Centers. Having been at several Service Centers, I can say that the barriers to entry there pale by comparison to entry to the Martinsburg Computing Center where the IRS stores the masterfile information and creates significant barriers to entry. Keith

Before I get to that story, here is something to watch for when this “partial government shutdown” finally ends.

In November 1995, the IRS was shut down for only four days. Some of the rest of the government then closed again for 22 days, when negotiations between President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich failed, but IRS was spared.

The White House was not reluctant to place blame on Congress, so it released a report showing how much tax was not assessed or collected during the brief furlough of examination and collection employees. The Treasury Department calculated that $400 million was lost by lack of enforcement action by IRS over a four-day period. That round number of $100 million a day translates to $165 million in today’s dollars, or about a billion dollars for every six working days.

This estimate was confirmed in a White House report on the costs of the October 2013 federal government shutdown. “IRS enforcement and other program integrity measures were halted,” it stated. “IRS was unable to conduct most enforcement activities during the shutdown, which normally collect about $1 billion per week.” (Emphasis in original.)

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Will similar numbers be provided this time? Or maybe there will be a compromise. Most federal budget analysts agree that every dollar IRS spends on enforcement brings in about $10 of revenue. The Democrats have offered $1.6 billion for border security. The President could refuse such a large sum. “Just give me $500 million more for IRS,” he could say. “Then let me spend the $5 billion it produces, how I want.”

(Much of that half billion would be paid in salaries and come back to the government anyway. IRS employees are notorious for paying their income taxes.)

But the current impasse reminds me of my IRS days, in the mid-1970s, when I was an intern in the National Office’s Taxpayer Service division. Interns were not unpaid college students brought in for the summer (like my son in 2003, at the White House photo office). We were full-time permanent employees, recruited nationally for training that would create the next generation of IRS leadership. The assignment lasted for a year, followed by placement in some essential program.

There were only three of us in Taxpayer Service, but there were more than 20 “Admin” interns who rotated among what were then the four divisions of the Administration function (if I remember them correctly): Personnel; Facilities Management; Training; and Fiscal.

There were occasional “classes” for interns when senior executives would lead discussions of IRS problems and how they had been solved. When it was the turn for Facilities Management, the topic for discussion was whether a rather large sum should be spent to build fences around Service Centers.

I doubt any of us had ever considered this question. Service Centers are huge buildings on large parcels of real estate. For example, the one in Ogden, Utah, is a single-story brick building with 504,741 gross square feet located on a 60-acre site. It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and provides work space for approximately 2,500 federal employees.

 

That would require a lot of chain link, we agreed. Of course, security is an important issue for all government buildings, but especially IRS work locations. Who would argue with fencing them off?

But fences are meant either to keep people in (not an issue at IRS) or to keep people out. So whom were we trying to exclude?

This was before daily headlines about terrorist threats. But there have always been angry taxpayers, including some with mental-health issues. And by then the “Anarchist Cookbook” had instructions for building bombs. So fences were necessary.

Or were they? The class was asked to imagine a potential bomber driving past the Service Center, noticing a fence around it, and therefore deciding it was not worth the effort to penetrate. If this person existed, then the cost of the fence would justify discouraging the “casual bomber.” But of course, someone intent on bombing IRS could probably figure out a way to get over, under, around or through that fence.

The point was: The fence is not there for security. It is there to create the appearance of security. The otherwise-determined bomber, it was hoped, would decide that “if there is that much security on the perimeter, there must be a lot more of it inside.” So according to the cost/benefit analysis of the day, the fences were built and the contractors paid.

This anecdote may have nothing to do with current affairs, but for me there are always reminders.   For example, I thought of it when I saw this April 2018 story about what happened to a fence at the Fresno Service Center – which, however, was breached from the inside out.

 

Section 6662: Owe A Little Tax? Pay The Penalty. Owe A Lot More? Maybe Not.

Frequent commenter/guest blogger Bob Kamman brings us a post about the weird way the IRS is choosing to impose the substantial understatement penalty. He brought a couple of Tax Court cases seeking to establish some precedent in the area but the Chief Counsel attorneys handling the cases conceded and prevented him from obtaining court review of the IRS practice in this area. Because the fact pattern he has identified usually involves a relatively small amount of money, taxpayers will struggle to find representation in these cases and may find it easier to concede than to fight.  A case in which the taxpayer contests all or part of the underlying tax may provide the more likely vehicle for a test.  If you see this issue in your client’s case, consider following Bob’s example and seek to set precedent. Even if Chief Counsel’s office continues to concede the issue, maybe someone in that office will speak to the IRS about the bad practice that may be a result of computer programming or maybe just an unusual view of the type of behavior that should be penalized. Keith

I won a couple of Tax Court cases in 2018 that I had expected to lose. My clients are happy that IRS settled. But I’m disappointed, because I hoped a Tax Court opinion would at least highlight the issue. At least along the way I learned a few things. For example, there is the Doctrine of Absurdity.

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But first, some background. Suppose that you are a Member of Congress and on a committee that oversees tax laws and IRS. You think penalties are sometimes needed to encourage tax compliance. You consider two cases:

 

Taxpayer A, in a 15% bracket, wins $32,000 on a slot machine, has no tax withheld when the casino issues Form W-2G, and does not report the income on Form 1040. The IRS computer-matching system eventually discovers the omission and assesses $4,800 tax.

Taxpayer B, in a 25% bracket, withdraws $20,000 from a retirement account, requests federal tax withholding at a 20% rate, and thinking like many others that “I already paid tax on it,” does not report the income on Form 1040. IRS document matching catches this error also, and sends a bill for $1,000 because the withholding is not sufficient to cover the additional tax.

Not as someone with a sense of fairness and logic, but as a Member of Congress you would reach the same result that according to IRS was enacted nearly thirty years ago. Taxpayer A pays $4,800 but no penalty. Taxpayer B pays not only $1,000 but an additional $200 penalty.

That’s how Section 6662, together with Section 6664, operates. These Internal Revenue Code penalty provisions come up frequently, and deserve a closer look. They require findings of an “underpayment” and an “understatement,” which IRS tells us are not the same thing.

Section 6662 assesses a 20% penalty on several varieties of “underpayment.” The two seen most frequently are those due to “negligence or disregard of rules or regulations,” and to “any substantial understatement of income tax.”

IRS computers, lacking human interaction with taxpayers, don’t yet have the intelligence to make accusations of “negligence or disregard.” So the “substantial understatement” clause is invoked when proposed assessments are based only on matching information returns to a Form 1040.

And acknowledging the legal maxim de minimis non curat lex – “the law does not deal with trifles” – Section 6662(d)(1)(A) adds that on individual returns, a “substantial understatement” occurs only if the amount exceeds the greater of—

(i) 10 percent of the tax required to be shown on the return for the taxable year, or

(ii) $5,000.

In most cases, the $5,000 minimum rule applies. So you might ask, why will IRS assess a penalty to our Taxpayer A, who only owed $1,000? The answer is that no credit is given for withholding, when determining if there is an “understatement,” even though the withholding is considered when figuring the “underpayment” amount on which the 20% penalty is calculated.

At least, that is how IRS interprets the Regulations to these two sections. I am not sure the IRS understands the Regulations, nor am I confident the Regulations correctly describe what Congress enacted. Some day perhaps a Tax Court judge will reach the same conclusions.

Here is an example from a Tax Court case in which IRS decided it was not worth arguing with me. My client withdrew money from a retirement account, and had tax withheld. Because she thought the taxes had already been paid, she did not mention it to her tax preparer or report it on her return. The additional tax was $9,158. The withholding was $7,325. The difference was $1,833, which when contacted by IRS she gladly paid with interest. But IRS still wanted $367 “substantial tax understatement penalty.”

(Had the return been filed late, a penalty of $458 would also have been proposed, but under the IRS “one time free pass” policy, it could be abated.)

My client is not a low-income taxpayer but she had a high-respect government career. I did not charge a fee for filing the Tax Court petition, or for several phone conversations with a Chief Counsel paralegal (in Phoenix) who handled settlement of the case in our favor. I did furnish reasons that this case might qualify under the “reasonable cause” exception of Section 6664(c) because my client had acted “in good faith.” These arguments seldom prevail at IRS administrative levels. The settlement process took more than four months, from petition filing to stipulation signing.

And here is another example from a Tax Court case. My clients unintentionally omitted some W-2 income from their joint return. They and their preparer had rushed to meet the April 15 deadline after receiving a complex, high-dollar Schedule K-1 on April 10. The additional tax was $6,230 and the withholding only $2,012. The difference of $4,218 was not quite as substantial as the $5,000 minimum contemplated by Section 6662(d)(1)(A). Nevertheless, IRS proposed a “substantial understatement” penalty of $844, because the deficiency before withholding exceeded $5,000.

This case was settled by a Chief Counsel attorney (in Dallas) in less than six weeks after the petition was filed. I did not earn a fee on this case either, but as the preparer I avoided reimbursing my clients for an error for which I shared responsibility.

I did not have to ask the Dallas attorney for a copy of the signed managerial approval now required for such assessments. It might not have existed. In Phoenix, the paralegal showed me what the Service Center considers adequate.   I thought it was ambiguous.

In researching these cases, I came across the “Doctrine of Absurdity,” which is discussed in a 2017 Tax Court opinion, Borenstein, in which Keith Fogg of the “Harvard Clinic” filed an amicus brief. (The opinion does not state whether he supported the anti-absurdity argument, which was just one of several.) The opinion explains:

The “anti-absurdity” canon of construction dates back many years. See Rector of Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457, 460 (1892) (“If a literal construction of the words of a statute be absurd, the act must be so construed as to avoid the absurdity.”); Scalia & Garner, supra, at 234-239 (“A provision may be either disregarded or judicially corrected as an error * * * if failing to do so would result in a disposition that no reasonable person could approve.”); 2A Sutherland Statutes and Statutory Construction, sec. 46:1 (7th ed.).

The “anti-absurdity” canon, while of ancient pedigree, is invoked by courts nowadays quite rarely. In order for a party to show that a “plain meaning” construction of a statute would render it “absurd,” the party must show that the result would be “so gross as to shock the general moral or common sense.” Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55, 60 (1930); see Tele-Commc’ns, Inc. & Subs. v. Commissioner, 95 T.C. 495, 507 (1990) (citing Harrelson as supplying the relevant standard but upholding the plain language construction of the statute), aff’d, 12 F.3d 1005 (10th Cir. 1993).

Of course the application of the “substantial understatement” penalty to taxpayers who owe small amounts is absurd. But is it more so than many other IRS procedures? Eventually a Tax Court judge may decide that question, if Chief Counsel stops conceding before trial.

Otherwise, it’s unlikely that Congress will revisit the Section 6662 penalty procedures and make sense of a rule where now there is none.

 

A Close Look at the IRS Shutdown

As we settle in for what may be a long shutdown of the not yet funded parts of the federal government, including the IRS, frequent commenter and occasional guest blogger, Bob Kamman, brings us a post on what to expect at the IRS. I know from email traffic among tax clinics that the fax machine at the CAF unit has been turned off meaning that those trying to notify the IRS of the power of attorney must wait for the IRS to reopen before sending in form. The turning off of the CAF fax machine is just one tangible way of knowing that the IRS has shifted to shut down mode. Bob gives an employee by employee breakdown of who is working.

 

We wrote previously about a law suit brought by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson after the Taxpayer Advocate Service was deemed non-essential in its entirety during one of the most recent shutdowns. The NTA lost the suit but may have won the war, or at least partially so, because the NTA and certain TAS employees are deemed essential now which could be critical from taxpayers facing a hardship. I suspect the NTA faces a significant hardship herself because of the timing of this shutdown and the issuance of her annual report to Congress. Read on for the details distilled for us by Bob straight from the contingency plan created by the IRS. For prior coverage about government shutdowns and the IRS, see our post here which gives a broader perspective on government shutdowns and which links to prior posts on the subject. Keith

After all the work that the Internal Revenue Service put into planning for a shutdown, it would have been a shame to waste it.

The IRS contingency plan, revised on November 30, 2018, provides many useful insights into what the federal tax agency considers important and which employees it considers essential. The 110-page document can be found here.

The priorities include:

1) Open the mail. There might be checks.

2) Cash the checks.

3) Protect the statutes of limitation, for collection and assessment, from expiring.

4) Keep the computers running and keep preparing for tax season.

5) Especially, keep preparing for implementation of the 2017 tax law changes, because money for that has already been appropriated.

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IRS has a total workforce of 79,868 employees. Of those, 9,946 are “excepted” to some extent from furlough. The rest will not return to work until their jobs are funded. Most likely, they will eventually be paid for their time away, but they might miss paychecks until the shutdown ends.

If the government had to close, the last couple weeks of the year were the best time. Many employees with seniority and “use or lose” leave time, were away on planned vacations anyway.

Here are some highlights from the “Lapse in Appropriations Contingency Plan,” with a focus on several areas of importance to readers of this blog.

“Excepted” employees are categorized as A, B or C.

Category A employees have jobs that “include those authorized by law and those funded by multi-year, no-year, and revolving funds or advance appropriations that would not be affected by a lapse in an annual appropriation.” There are 1,900 of them.

Category B employees perform tasks that are “necessary for the safety of human life or protection of government property.” Oddly enough, this includes “administrative, research, and other overhead activities supporting excepted activities” such as “completion and testing of the upcoming Filing Year programs,” “processing paper tax returns through batching,” and “Upcoming Tax Year forms design and printing.” There are 8,017 of them.

Category C employees are those needed “to bring about the orderly closedown of non-excepted activities. Activities of employees during this period must be wholly devoted to close-down the function. Upon completion of these activities, these employees would be released.” There are 29 of them, including the only three from the Office of Professional Responsibility with any shutdown duties.

Chief Counsel

The Chief Counsel (lucky guy) is a Presidential appointee who is not subject to furlough.   As for the rest of the office, 286 must show up now and get paid later for these purposes:

The plan excepts, on an as needed basis, those personnel assigned to litigation that is scheduled for trial or where there is a court-imposed deadline during the first five days of a lapse. Personnel are not generally excepted to perform litigation activities where a trial or other court-imposed deadline is scheduled more than five days after the start of the lapse. Personnel assigned to those cases should seek continuances as part of an orderly shutdown. If a continuance is denied, the case will be reviewed to determine if work on the case may be excepted.

Chief Counsel personnel are also excepted, on an as needed basis to provide required legal advice necessary to protect statute expiration, and the government’s interest in bankruptcy, lien, and seizure cases. Personnel excepted to perform this work are also excepted under Category B. The employees in General Legal Services are in Category A3, because they are needed to support activities that are authorized to continue during a lapse in appropriations. The employees in Criminal Tax fall into Category B because they maintain criminal law enforcement and undercover operations. Fifty-six employees are supporting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and fall into Category A1 because they are funded with the special two-year appropriation provided for TCJA activities.

Appeals

18 employees are “excepted” from shutdown:

Appeals requires that a minimum number of technical staff remain active to ensure statutory deadlines are met. Taxpayer compliance cases, when appealed, must be adjudicated within a statutory timeline that is not under the control of the IRS. If cases are not monitored, statutes may lapse resulting in adverse impacts to the IRS and US government tax collection functions.

During a lapse, the Chief, Appeals will hold a daily virtual meeting with excepted personnel to identify any imminent statutory deadlines or other threats to government property. As necessary, excepted personnel will be activated to take actions that address the imminent threat. All other employees will return to furlough status until the following day.

National Taxpayer Advocate

“National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) has identified 84 employees (the NTA and one per TAS office) who are required on an on-call basis based the necessary-for-the-safety-of-human-life-and-the-protection-of-property exception (Category B).” That’s not grammatical, but that’s what the plan says. The plan’s chart (Page 96) shows 82, not 84 employees.

 

The local Taxpayer Advocates (one per TAS office) are to report intermittently to check the mail. There might be checks, and the filing of a Taxpayer Assistance Order suspends the statute on collection. Their instructions:

Check mail one or two hours a day, up to three days a week, to comply with the IRS’s requirement to open and process checks during a shutdown while also complying with the statutory requirements that TAS maintain confidential and separate communications with taxpayers and that TAS operate independently of any other IRS office, as described in IRC §§ 7803(c)(4)(A)(iii), 7803(c)(4)(A)(iv), and 7803(c)(4)(B). Screen the mail for incoming requests for Taxpayer Assistance Orders and notify the appropriate Business Unit that a request has been made tolling any statute of limitations. See IRC § 7811(d).

Criminal Investigation

Crime never stops, so CI never shuts down. The plan notes that “in recent years, the Shutdown Contingency Plan proposed that CI attempt to continue work on our 6,352 investigations with a reduced staff. During the implementation phase of the 2011 Shutdown Plan, it became clear that it was logistically impossible for CI to operate at a nearly 50% staffing level when the federal courts, federal prosecutors and our federal law enforcement partners were planning to continue their usual law enforcement operations.”

So all 2,745 Criminal Investigation employees continue to report.

The Most Important People At IRS

A third of the IRS employees who continue to work – 3,337 of them – are in “Information Technology.”

For example, 571 “IT Specialists…support application & web services operations necessary to prevent loss of data in process and revenue collections, application support for critical systems, manage code, perform builds, process transmittals, completion and testing of Filing Year programs.”

Another 62 are needed to “Support the IT filing season systems that operate the nation’s tax infrastructure are updated and in place for the processing of approximately 200 million tax returns annually.”

And 119 employees are required to “Provide 24×7 database support, including data storage, data replication and data backup and recovery for critical IT projects in Dev/Test/Prod/DR environments to continue to work deliverables and maintain all systems related to filing season preparedness, IT Security and IT support for Essential processes/employees.”

In the Mainframe Operations Branch (the “MOB”), 131 IRS workers, among other essential duties, “Provide critical 24x7x365 coverage to applications; Process tax returns, tax deposit and refunds; continue to process successfully on IBM and Unisys mainframe systems and to provide print and electronic documents support for internal and external customers; . . . The IDSE Section provides printed notices and letters to taxpayers, as well as both printed and electronic documents to internal customer.”

The Commissioner

Don’t worry about him, either. Like Chief Counsel, he is a “Political appointee who is not subject to furlough. The Commissioner’s salary is an obligation incurred by the year, without consideration of hours of duty required and is not placed in a non-duty, non-pay status.”

And he keeps his security detail, also. There are six special agents from Criminal Investigation who serve in that capacity (probably not more than two at a time).

 

Some Tax Court Geography

We welcome back as a guest poster frequent commenter Bob Kamman.  Those of you who are regular readers of the blog know that Bob has a sharp eye and an inquisitive mind. He saw in a designated order post the statement by the National Taxpayer Advocate that her office is looking to add a tax clinic to Hawaii. Drawn to the beautiful islands, Bob began to do his research about the tax issues he might face should he seek to establish a low income taxpayer clinic (LITC) in that state. I think he is sharing the information in case there are other readers who might also be interested. As you can see from our prior post, Hawaii is not the only state looking for an LITC. Keith

The seas are infested with sharks. The land is scorched by flowing lava. It is no place for a young person. But volunteers are needed. So in the twilight of my tax years, I could accept the risks. The National Taxpayer Advocate has asked for help with establishing a low-income taxpayer clinic in Hawaii, and I am ready. I understand grant money is available.

First, of course, I checked out whether there is really a need for tax help in the middle of the South Pacific. Does federal enforcement of tax laws really extend that far?

One measure of need (and there are probably better ones) is the number of Tax Court petitions filed from a place. The Tax Court website provides an easy, although somewhat inaccurate count. A “Docket Inquiry” yields the number of petitioners from each state. Of course, in many cases there are two names for each petition because of joint returns, or multiple petitions for the same issue, if partnerships and their members are counted.

Yet you can imagine yourself at the Tax Court door, watching about 100 people file their petitions each business day (mostly, by mail or delivery service), and asking, “Where do they all come from?”
And it is of some interest, at least to me, if there are geographical differences in the origins of these tax disputes.

So here are the results of my research. I started with the 2017 rank by population of each state, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. And then I found how many petitioners came from each location, so far this year.

This method works for most states, but not the ten largest by petitioner count, because the Tax Court docket inquiry function lists only the first 500. So those were ranked according to earliest date of the first 500 petitions.

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What stands out from this table is that nothing much stands out. With few exceptions, the results are about what you would expect.

Some states rank five or six places lower in petitioner count than in population rank. It is not unreasonable to assume that compliance levels are higher in them: Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Maine. Or, you could assume that a higher percentage of rural residents discourages trips to Tax Court trial sites.

Delaware ranks five places higher, and Maryland eight places higher, in petitioners compared to population. Delaware is home to many corporations, but most file from some other state. The IRS Baltimore District used to administer Washington, D.C., also. Maybe the IRS staffing in Maryland is still weighted more heavily than needed.

And then there are the four contiguous Western states where petitioner rank significantly exceeds population rank: Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. What do they have in common? A low percentage of rural residents. Someone with more access to data than I have, should research what percentage of Tax Court cases are filed by taxpayers who live within a two-hour drive of the courthouse.

Of course, for most of Hawaii trial attendance requires a flight to Oahu. But there are still more petitioners in Hawaii, than in twelve other states; Washington, D.C.; and our Atlantic islands of Puerto Rico. Help is definitely needed. I am just waiting for a call.

And Now a Quick Break from Procedure to Recognize Dorothy Steel

Guest blogger Bob Kamman picked up this story last week and the judicial conference slowed down our production line. This is a great story about a former revenue officer who has gone on to bigger (and better?) things with her career. It’s nice to see someone working in tax procedure collecting taxes having a good post-IRS career. Keith

Is there life after IRS? That’s a question that many writers and readers of this blog have likely asked ourselves. No one has a better answer than a 91-year-old former IRS revenue officer from College Park, Georgia.

“Hopefully, somebody who at 55 or 60 has decided, ‘This is all I can do,’ they will realize they have 35 more years to get things together,” Steel said. “Start now. It’s never too late. … Keep your mind open and keep faith in yourself that you can do this thing. All you have to do is step out there.”

That is a quote from her in this article in the Washington Post

“Dorothy Steel was born and raised in Detroit and eventually worked for the federal government as a senior revenue officer for the Internal Revenue Service for decades before retiring on Dec. 7, 1984 — a date she rattles off with impeccable memory,” the Post reports. The article adds, “she bounced around the world as part of her job.” So what has she done lately?

Proved, beyond a doubt, that if you can collect federal taxes you can do anything, even if you are an African-American woman north of 90 years old.

She is a scene-stealing actress in the current box-office blockbuster, “Black Panther.” It’s the 14th-highest grossing movie of all time, and moving up the list. She plays the role of a merchant elder. Acting experience? She started in community theatre for seniors when she was 88. At 89, she got an agent and began getting parts in television shows and commercials.

Steel turned down the chance to audition for “Black Panther” the first time she was asked, because she was not interested in some “comic-strip movie” and she didn’t think she could do an African accent. Her grandson, 26, explained to her that this was not just any comic strip. And she listened to hours of Nelson Mandela speeches on YouTube, to develop the accent. She agreed to the audition, and was asked to join the cast.

Yes, there is life after IRS. Some of us may even be fortunate enough, to have an income at age 91 that is as much as what Dorothy Steel will pay in taxes this year.

Harry Potter and the Nominee for Commissioner

We occasionally write reminders that the comments to our posts provide a rich source of additional information. This is especially true when frequent commenter Bob Kamman takes hold of a topic and does the background research that we do not do. Bob has two comments on the post about Chuck Rettig, the President’s nominee for IRS Commissioner, that we are elevating to a post in order to make sure that a broader audience benefits from his work. It seems that, if confirmed, Mr. Rettig could indeed perform magic at the IRS as you will learn in reading Bob’s research.

In addition to the comments Bob made, we are receiving a lot of comments this month from individuals hurt by the way we carry out offsets under the current system. I wrote a post in December of 2015 on the topic of refund offset bypass that is our all-time most viewed post. Each year at this time, we get hundreds of hits every day from individuals searching the internet to try to understand why they are not receiving their refund or who seek to understand and use the bypass procedure in order to avoid the offset. Most often, the failure to receive the refund results from the offset of the refund to another federal or state obligation. This year we have received a number of comments from these individuals showing the harshness of the procedure because it frequently captures the earned income credit designed to provide a benefit to lift individuals, usually with qualifying children, out of the depths of poverty. Refunds of the earned income credit get offset just like “regular” tax refunds even though the purpose of these refunds differs significantly from the return of money paid into the system. The comments point to the need to rethink this system. Keith

As noted, some IRS observers believe the best choice for Commissioner of Internal Revenue is an experienced executive with public and private experience, while others believe the best choice is a lawyer with tax expertise and experience dealing with IRS from outside the system.

Both groups are wrong, of course. But until a tax law professor is nominated and confirmed, it might be best to alternate between the two types, as will happen when Charles Rettig earns Senate approval.

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Most tax professionals will consider it in his favor, that he has sat at his Beverly Hills desk or conference table to advise clients on litigation when they disagree with IRS. They may not have the same issues as those of us who deal with middle-class or low-income taxpayers, but the procedures and judges are the same.

I came across four Tax Court cases in which Mr. Rettig appeared. There is a win, a loss, and a draw. He even inspired some wordplay in an opinion by Judge Mark Holmes.

Here are the cases:

In Corbalis, 142 TC 2 (2014) blogged by Leslie Book at Mr. Rettig was one of four lawyers with whom the Tax Court agreed, ruling on a motion for summary judgment, that Tax Court review provisions of section 6404(h) apply to denials of interest suspension under section 6404(g). IRS had taken the position that the court review provisions of 6404(h) applied only to final determinations relating to 6404(e), dealing with abatement claims running from IRS ministerial or managerial mistakes. The Tax Court held that it does have jurisdiction to review an IRS determination that the suspension period does not apply.

This case illustrates that the wheels of justice often grind slowly. The case is still on the Tax Court docket. After the Court decided it has jurisdiction, the last filing is an October 26, 2016 status report filed by the petitioners. There are two related cases involving the same petitioners. In Docket No. 008220-13, the last filing is apparently the same status report. In Docket No. 027306-14, the petitioners filed a status report on September 1, 2017.

In Canterbury Holdings, TC Memo 2009-175 Mr. Rettig’s clients lost on the issue of whether $987,040 in LLC “management fees” were deductible, but won their argument that Section 6662 accuracy-related penalties should not be assessed. (Mr. Rettig was not involved in the preparation of the return. It was done by a KPMG partner who was a CPA and lawyer with more than 40 years of experience.)

Judge Holmes in a footnote gave some history of “limited liability companies,” even in 2009 a somewhat novel creature in tax litigation. But that was not until he used some equine references that frankly went over my head. It might be because “Canterbury” is the name of a horse racing track in Minnesota — not one with which I was familiar during my college days when I worked on a Chicago newspaper’s horse-racing results desk. Judge Holmes wrote:

“Christopher Woodward, David Teece, and Kenneth Klopp were partners in Canterbury Holdings, LLC. Canterbury mounted a takeover of an old New Zealand clothing company in 1999. Its ride turned rough, and the shell company that Canterbury was using had to pony up more money in 2000 and 2001 to make the deal go through. That money actually came from Canterbury itself, but Canterbury argues that these payments are deductible nonetheless. The Commissioner disagrees, and would also saddle Canterbury’s partners with an accuracy-related penalty.”

Then there are two estate-tax cases in which Mr. Rettig represented executors. The first, Estate of Trompeter, TC Memo 1998-35 contains many useful facts about the valuation of large coin collections, if you want to wade through its 68 pages. However, the petitioners lose on most, if not all points, and are assessed a penalty:

“After our detailed review of the facts and circumstances of this case, in conjunction with our analysis of the factors mentioned above, we conclude that respondent has clearly and convincingly proven that the coexecutors filed the decedent’s estate tax return intending to conceal, mislead, or otherwise prevent the collection of tax. We also conclude that section 6664(c) does not insulate the estate from this penalty; we find no reasonable cause for the underpayment, nor that the estate acted in good faith with respect to the underpayment. We sustain respondent’s determination of fraud.”

Keep in mind that even serial killers are entitled to competent representation.

The other estate-tax case is Estate of Gimbel, TC Memo 2006-270. In a 28-page opinion, Judge Swift listened carefully to the arguments of both sides concerning the valuation of a large block of publicly-traded Reliance Steel and Aluminum Company. The estate suggested a 20.72% discount, and IRS recommended only 8%. The Court’s solution was 14.2%. No doubt it was just coincidence that this was almost exactly halfway between the two positions.

Commissioner-designate Rettig should also be applauded for his history of media availability. Many tax practitioners are reluctant to speak to journalists about tax issues. Between 2000 and 2004, he was the go-to guy for columnists Kathy Kristof and Liz Pulliam Weston of the Los Angeles Times, whose financial-advice columns were widely syndicated to other newspapers.

In May 2004, for example, Ms. Kristof quoted him in a column about IRS efforts to settle “Son of Boss” cases by waiving penalties for those who voluntarily settled. Mr. Rettig told her, “If you look at the effort of trying to chase those people versus opening the door and letting them come in, this makes a lot of sense.” Commenting on other amnesty programs, he added “there are a lot of wannabe taxpayers who just don’t know how to get back into the system. When you provide some incentive for people to come forward, you find a tremendous number of folks step up to the plate.”

In August 2000, he had offered Ms. Weston some rather colorful advice: “If the taxpayer buries his head in the sand and ignores the liabilities, as the saying goes, the only place left in the air to kick is going to [get] hurt. No one should wait for the IRS to knock on their door before attempting to rectify the situation.”

In May 2008, Mr. Rettig was quoted by Tom Herman of the Wall Street Journal in an article headlined “Offshore-account holders bite their nails.”

“People are having trouble sleeping at night. They don’t want to go to prison.” . . . If you have an offshore account with unreported income, you “should definitely be worried,” says Mr. Rettig, who represents a number of clients with such accounts. And if you have an account in Liechtenstein, you should “lawyer up immediately.”

A final note: in December 1997, Charles and Susan Rettig of California, pro se, filed a Tax Court petition at Docket No. 023484-97. The case was closed with a stipulated decision in December 1998. Visitors to the Tax Court archives in Washington may be able to determine whether these Rettigs are related to the current nominee.

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More about Charles Rettig, including his membership in the Academy of Magical Arts, here and his history of political contributions, here.

 

Why Does IRS File Answers Before Petition Fees Are Paid?

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Kamman. As mentioned before, Bob practices in Phoenix and does a great job of providing comments to our blog posts, often filling in the “rest of the story.” For those immersed in the filing season, here is an oldie but goody article featuring Bob and the impairment of his eyesight caused by the minuscule entries on the Forms 1099 he must decipher. He has lately been paying a lot of attention to the Tax Court’s orders and he noticed an anomaly – the IRS regularly files answers to petitions that have not been perfected by the petitioner.

There can be several reasons for a petition to be “imperfect” in the language of the Tax Court. Perhaps the most common results from the failure to pay the filing fee. When a taxpayer fails to pay the filing fee, or in some other way files an imperfect petition, the Court does not consider the case perfected until the taxpayer fixes the imperfection, e.g., pays the fee or obtains a fee waiver. The Court’s practice is very taxpayer friendly because the Court treats the receipt of the imperfect petition as the time for calculating whether the taxpayer meets the 90 day period within which to file but also keeps taxpayers who fail to perfect from having the tax periods in the notice deemed resolved by the provisions of IRC 7459. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in an unintentionally suggestive post that does not convey the importance of not gaming the Tax Court’s generosity.

Bob’s post raises, but does not answer, the question of why Chief Counsel attorneys file answers to imperfect petitions. I cannot say why they do in the percentage of cases Bob has tracked. Filing an answer takes resources and even though all too often the Chief Counsel attorneys do not carefully review petitions to admit facts not in dispute, I would expect the Chief Counsel attorneys and paralegals to wait until perfection before filing. The Court issues an order when the case is perfected. It seems that Chief Counsel’s office should do a better job of tracking that order and not the 60 day period from the filing of the petition. Keith

The average price last year for a ticket to a Cleveland Browns football game was $108. NFL fans know, of course, that the Browns did not win a game all season. By comparison, the price of a ticket to the Tax Court is still just $60 — and has stayed the same since the early 1980s, although the “small tax case” filing fee of $10 was eliminated back then.

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So filing a Tax Court petition costs next to nothing for most petitioners, and the filing fee can be waived on application and good cause shown. Nevertheless, some petitions don’t include the $60 fee. The Tax Court is remarkably tolerant of these unpaid cases, sending at least one notice and often two to remind petitioners of their debt.

One consequence is that petitions are assigned a docket number and copies are sent to IRS Chief Counsel upon filing, not upon payment. And in many cases, it seems that IRS attorneys file an answer, only to discover later that it was wasted effort. Many observers agree that the IRS has more work every year and not enough resources to do the best possible job. So why are these answers necessary?

For example, in the week ending January 19, 2018 there were eight cases dismissed for failure to pay the filing fee. The orders of dismissal are all the work of Chief Judge L. Paige Marvel, who signs hundreds of orders involving cases that have not yet been assigned for further proceedings to another Tax Court judge. In six of these eight cases, the IRS had filed an answer. Here are the chronologies (all dates are 2017 except dismissal date, and where noted):

 

Docket: 7257-17

Petition Filed: March 31

Order for Filing Fee: April 5; pay by May 22

IRS Answer: May 2

Second Order for Filing Fee: November 29; extended date December 20

Case Dismissed: January 18 (This case also involved an unsigned petition.)

 

Docket: 16014-17S

Petition Filed: July 27, with application for fee waiver

Order for Filing Fee: July 31, application denied (no reason stated); pay by September 14

IRS Answer: August 18

Second Order for Filing Fee: November 29; extended date December 20

Case Dismissed: January 18 (This case also involved an unsigned petition.)

 

Docket: 16917-17

Petition Filed: August 8

Order for Filing Fee: August 15; pay by September 29

IRS Answer: September 1Second Order for Filing Fee: November 29; extended date December 20Case Dismissed: January 18

 

Docket: 11527-17

Petition Filed: May 22

Order for Filing Fee: May 26; pay by July 10

IRS Answer: June 19, with request for place of trial

Second Order for Filing Fee: November 29; extended date December 20

Case Dismissed: January 18

 

Docket: 19697-17

Petition Filed: September 18

Order for Filing Fee: September 25; pay by November 9

Amended Petition Filed: October 27

IRS Answer to Amended Petition: November 14

Second Order for Filing Fee: November 30; extended date December 21

Case Dismissed: January 18

 

Docket: 20587-17

Petition Filed: October 2

Amended Petition Filed: October 4

Order for Filing Fee: October 4; pay by November 20.

IRS Answer to Amended Petition: November 21.

Second Amended Petition Filed: December 4

On December 4, 2017, Judge Marvel ordered IRS to file an answer to the amended petition by January 4, 2017 (sic).

On December 21, IRS filed a motion for more definite statement pursuant to Rule 51 (apparently stating there is no objection by petitioner).

On January 12, 2018, petitioner filed a motion to dismiss.

Case Dismissed: January 16, for failure to pay filing fee. IRS motion for more definite statement and petitioner’s motion to dismiss are denied as moot.

 

Tax Court Rule 20(d) requires that the filing fee be paid “at the time of filing a petition.” However, this is one of those rules that the court does not consider jurisdictional. It allows more time for payment of the fee, even giving petitioners a second chance to pay if they ignore the first deadline.

The filing fee is authorized by Code Section 7451, but Congress did not provide instructions on when it must be paid: “The Tax Court is authorized to impose a fee in an amount not in excess of $60 to be fixed by the Tax Court for the filing of any petition.”

Meanwhile, Rule 21(b) requires the Clerk of the Court to serve petitions on the IRS. It does not say when this should be done, but apparently a docket number is assigned immediately and the papers are sent (physically, or electronically?) right away.

Rule 36(a) requires that IRS file an answer within 60 days “from the date of service of the petition.”

 

Or, the IRS has “45 days from that date within which to move with respect to the petition.”

Rule 36 then provides:

(b) Form and Content: The answer shall be drawn so that it will advise the petitioner and the Court fully of the nature of the defense. It shall contain a specific admission or denial of each material allegation int he petition; however, if the Commissioner shall be without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of an allegation, then the Commissioner shall so state, and such statement shall have the effect of a denial. If the Commissioner intends to qualify or it as is true and shall qualify or deny only the remainder. In addition, the answer shall contain a clear and concise statement of every ground, together with the facts in support thereof on which the Commissioner relies and has the burden of proof. Paragraphs of the answer shall be designated to correspond to those of the petition to which they relate.

(c) Effect of Answer: Every material allegation set out in the petition and not expressly admitted or denied in the answer shall be deemed to be admitted.

If answers are being filed less than a month after an unpaid petition, it is likely that they will consist of specific denials, general denials, and assertions of “without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief.” So, are answers even necessary? Whether the fee is paid or unpaid, perhaps the rule should be that the IRS acknowledge the petition has been received and that the case will be assigned to an Appeals officer and a lawyer when they get around to it, but not until the fee is paid. This is clerical work, and although the IRS shortage of clerks is probably just as severe as its shortage of lawyers, it would be less expensive.

Such a change would not be needed, though, if Rule 20 required that the fee be paid (or a waiver application filed and approved) before the petition is sent to IRS. The original filing date could still be used for purposes of the 90-day rule.

In a civil case, the party demanding money is usually the plaintiff, and the party not wanting to pay it is usually the defendant. A tight deadline for filing an answer prevents delay by the unwilling party. In Tax Court, it is the IRS that wants money, and therefore has greater urgency to move things along. Answers are required because, I suppose, that’s the way it has always been done.

While changing Rule 20, why not order that in all cases, the Clerk of the Court notify the petitioner that the case will not be docketed until payment is made, or waived, within 30 days? It should not require an order signed by a judge to remind petitioners that payment is required. Of course, if the Tax Court and Chief Counsel want statistics to back up claims of increasing workload, it is better to count cases that are easily and quickly dismissed. That’s part of what bureaucrats call “empire building.” It’s not the type of thing that enters the mind of Tax Court or IRS administrators, I’m sure.