Must the Taxpayer Mention Section 6751(b)(1) in a Deficiency Case for the Tax Court to Have to Consider Compliance With That Section?

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who raises another Graev III question. The issues raised by that case will continue to present themselves for some time as the Tax Court continues to sort through different scenarios. Keith

There are a lot of questions now about how the Tax Court will administer its recent holding in Graev III (i.e., Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 23 (Dec. 20, 2017)). Graev is a deficiency case in which penalties were sought under section 6662 and where the taxpayer specifically raised the issue before trial that the IRS had not shown compliance with the written penalty supervisor approval requirement set forth in section 6751(b). In Graev III, the Tax Court overruled its immediately-prior opinion in the case and held that the IRS burden of production under section 7491(c) for certain penalties in a deficiency case included showing compliance with section 6751(b)’s approval rules.

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In the days since Graev III, around 30 orders have been issued by various Tax Court judges in deficiency cases that have already been tried, but where the court has not yet ruled. In those orders, a number of judges have solicited the views of the parties as to how, if at all, Graev III applies to the case. The orders generally direct that any motions (presumably by the IRS to supplement the record to show section 6751(b) compliance) be filed very quickly. It is unclear whether such motions will be granted. And, it is unclear whether the taxpayers in some of those cases had raised section 6751(b) noncompliance as an issue earlier in the case. (In other cases, section 6751(b) noncompliance was definitely raised earlier.)

In Collection Due Process cases, Tax Court judges have recently differed as to whether the IRS must come forward to show section 6751(b) compliance where a taxpayer does not mention the section in his or her pleadings or filings. The same question will now be presented in deficiency cases: Will the Tax Court now insist that the IRS show compliance with the section 6751(b) approval requirement in deficiency cases where a taxpayer (unlike in Graev III) never mentions section 6751(b) in any pleadings or filings? This is of great importance to pro se taxpayers, who no doubt will be ignorant of section 6751(b)’s existence.

As of January 8, 2018, there have been two opinions issued by the Tax Court in deficiency cases involving penalties covered by section 6751(b):

In Roth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-248 (Dec. 28, 2017), the Tax Court made specific rulings on whether the IRS had complied with section 6751(b) in a case involving section 6662 penalties. This result was not surprising, however, since the taxpayers had raised possible noncompliance with section 6751(b)’s rules earlier in the case.

But, in Ankerberg v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-1 (Jan. 8, 2018), the Tax Court did not discuss compliance with section 6751(b) before imposing a fraud penalty under section 6663. The taxpayer was pro se in this deficiency case and presumably did not mention section 6751(b) in his pleadings or other filings.

Ankerberg is a bad sign for pro se taxpayers. It is also, I would argue, inconsistent with what the Tax Court has understood to be the burden of production under section 7491(c) on other penalty sub-issues when a taxpayer has pleaded merely that he or she contests the penalties (but gives no more details).

Without any prompting, the Tax Court began enforcing 7491(c), starting with Higbee v. Commissioner, 116 T.C. 438 (2001), any time a taxpayer contested the penalties. But, in Swain v. Commissioner, 118 T.C. 358, 364-365 (2002), the court put in a caveat — that if the taxpayer never mentioned contesting penalties, the IRS had no burden of production under 7491(c). In Wheeler v. Commissioner, 127 T.C. 200 (2006), affd. 521 F.3d 1289 (10th Cir. 2008), when a taxpayer merely wrote in the petition: that “[t]he petitioner is not liable for a penalty”, the Tax Court held that this was sufficient to put the IRS to its burden of production on all penalty sub-issues other than reasonable cause. In Wheeler, the Tax Court refused to impose (1) a late-payment penalty because the IRS had failed to show that it had filed a substitute for return, and (2) an estimated tax penalty because the IRS had failed to show that the taxpayer had filed a return for the prior year (necessary to determine the required quarterly estimated tax payment for the current year).

To me, it seems clear that, under Wheeler, proof of compliance with the section 6751(b) approval requirement should be just another penalty sub-issue on which the IRS should have the burden of production, even in cases where a taxpayer does no more than state that he or she thinks the penalty doesn’t apply. I would hope any Tax Court judges reading this post would on their own seriously consider the import of Wheeler when they next face the issue of a penalty under section 6662 or 6663 in a case where the taxpayer is ignorant of section 6751(b), but has manifested an interest to contest the penalty.

UPDATE:  After this post went up, Carl learned that, although the Ankerberg opinion does not discuss section 6751(b) compliance, the parties had stipulated to the signed penalty approval form.  Knowledge of the form’s existence may have led the court into not discussing the section 6751(b) compliance issue.

 

Tenth Circuit Dismisses Appeal of Small Tax Case Where Taxpayer Was Only Seeking Review of Tax Court Procedural Rulings

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who brings news that the Tenth Circuit sees no path to appeal a Tax Court case with the small tax case designation even when the cases is dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. So, the Tax Court has enough jurisdiction to accept the designation of a case as a small case but not enough to actually decide the case.  This is big lump of coal in Ms. Vu’s stocking.  Tomorrow, we hope to spread some tax procedure holiday cheer with a discussion of yesterday’s Tax Court decision in Graev and the orders that followed it. Keith

I will keep this short, since there have already been three prior blog posts, see here, here, and here, on the case of Vu v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Op. 2016-75. The last post was concerned with arguments raised by the parties about whether the Tenth Circuit could review procedural rulings in this small tax case. On December 18, 2017, the Tenth Circuit issued an order dismissing the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction.

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Keith and I represented Ms. Vu, and argued that the Tax Court’s dismissal of her case for lack of jurisdiction as untimely was an erroneous procedural ruling that could be reviewed by an appellate court, notwithstanding the usual prohibition at section 7463(b) on review of “decisions” of the Tax Court in small tax cases. We pointed out appellate case law under section 7429(f) (which contains a similar prohibition on appellate review of certain jeopardy assessment determinations) holding that the prohibition on review did not apply to procedural rulings, such as rulings dismissing a case for lack of jurisdiction. We thought there should be a similar exception for section 7463(b).

At the Tax Court in the Vu case, Keith and I had also asked Judge Ashford, pursuant to section 7463(d), to remove the small tax case designation so an appeal would be possible and precedent could be created in the Tenth Circuit on the underlying innocent spouse jurisdictional issue. The judge refused to remove the small tax case designation. Her action was, as best we could tell, a unique refusal to a taxpayer since orders have been searchable on the Tax Court’s website (mid-2011). So, we also argued to the Tenth Circuit that Judge Ashford abused her discretion by not granting the taxpayer’s timely request to remove the small tax case designation and that the appellate court could review that ruling on our motion. No court has ever considered whether it has appellate jurisdiction to review the denial of a party’s motion to remove a small tax case designation. In response, the DOJ took the surprising view that the only authority the Tax Court had under section 7463(d) to remove a small tax case designation was where the court belatedly discovered that the amount in dispute threshold ($50,000) had been exceeded. The Vu case concededly did not involve more than $50,000.

In an unpublished order, the Tenth Circuit did not address most of the parties’ arguments. Instead, the Tenth Circuit wrote:

In her response to the jurisdictional show cause order, Ms. Vu recognizes that small tax cases are not ordinarily appealable under I.R.C. § 7463(b), but argues that “[t]he prohibition on appellate review does not apply in this case, since Ms. Vu is not seeking merits review, but review of an erroneous procedural ruling of the Tax Court that precluded the Tax Court from deciding the case on the merits (i.e., a ruling that it lacked jurisdiction.” The court finds this to be a distinction without a difference: the Tax Court’s decision to dismiss a small tax case on jurisdictional grounds is nonetheless a “decision” rendered in a small tax case and, as such, “shall not be reviewed in any other court.” See I.R.C. § 7463(b); see also Rayle v. C.I.R., 594 F. App’x 305, 307 (7th Cir. 2014) (unpublished) (holding that “[t]he Tax Court’s dismissal of a case for lack of jurisdiction is a ‘decision’” and dismissing appeal of that decision for lack of appellate jurisdiction); Edge v. C.I.R., 552 F. App’x 255, 255 (4th Cir. 2014) (unpublished) (same). Accordingly, this court is without jurisdiction to hear Ms. Vu’s appeal.

The Tenth Circuit’s order did not mention Ms. Vu’s arguments under section 7429(f) for an analogous exception for procedural rulings.

The Tenth Circuit also did not discuss the separate issue of whether a denied motion to remove a small tax case designation is ever appealable. Nor did it discuss the DOJ’s position that removal under section 7463(d) was only permitted when it was discovered that the small tax case amount in dispute threshold was exceeded.

Observations

Keith and I were aware that in three unpublished opinions (including Rayle and Edge), courts of appeal had declined to review Tax Court dismissals of small tax cases for lack of jurisdiction. Still, it was not clear to us that any of those appellate court opinions seriously considered treating Tax Court procedural rulings on a different footing from merits rulings. Further, none of those opinions mentioned section 7429(f).

 

Tax Court Holds that Evidence of Internet Postage Purchase Constitutes Private Postmark for Timely Mailing Purposes

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who discusses another case dealing with the jurisdiction of the Tax Court. Here, the taxpayer’s issue concerns the postage which was purchased over the internet. Keith

In Pearson v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 20 (Nov. 29, 2017), the Tax Court, sitting en banc, abandoned the holdings in its memorandum opinion in Tilden v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-188, and adopted the holdings of the Seventh Circuit in Tilden v. Commissioner, 846 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2017), that (1) postage bought over the internet that is affixed to an envelope creates a private postmark as of the date of purchase for purposes of the regulations under the timely-mailing-is-timely-filing provisions of section 7502 and (2) internal tracking data of the USPS is not treated as a USPS postmark for purposes of those regulations. Applying those holdings to the facts of Pearson (which were virtually identical to Tilden – even involving the same law firm), the Tax Court found that it had jurisdiction.

Pearson frees up the Tax Court to issue similar rulings in a number of cases where the Tax Court had stayed proceedings in anticipation of both the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Tilden and the Tax Court’s response in Pearson. Indeed, on the same day that Pearson was issued, the Tax Court issued a similar jurisdictional ruling in Baham v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Op. 2017-85 – a case also involving internet-purchased postage.

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I have blogged five previous times on the Tilden case as it winded its way through the courts (see here, here, here, here, and here), so I will try to keep repetition in this post to a minimum.

Pearson Facts

To understand how the Pearson holdings occurred and were applied, I will summarize the facts (noting the trivial differences between Pearson and Tilden) and the relevant regulation provisions.

Pearson is a deficiency case where, on the 89th day after the notice was issued, an employee at a lawyer’s office in Salt Lake City (the same office as in Tilden) went to the internet website of stamps.com and purchased a stamp for the appropriate postage amount. (In Tilden, the stamps.com postage was purchased and the envelope was mailed on the 90th day.) After printing out the stamp, the employee affixed it to an envelope addressed to the Tax Court. The stamp had printed on it the date of purchase. The employee then filled out a certified mail receipt form (the white slip) and also attached it to the envelope. On the white slip, where there is space for the USPS to stamp a postmark, the employee wrote in by hand the date the stamp was purchased. Then, the employee walked the envelope over to the Post Office and mailed it, without getting a stamp from the USPS on the envelope or on the receipt. The employee kept the receipt.

The USPS never placed its own postmark on the envelope during its long journey to the Tax Court, but internal USPS tracking data showed the envelope first in the USPS system on the 91st day. (In Tilden, the tracking data indicated the 92nd day.) The tracking data for the initial entry was from a different Salt Lake City postal facility from the site of mailing, however.

On the 97th day, the envelope arrived at the Tax Court in Washington, D.C. – presumably after the now-common delay to irradiate the envelope to kill possible anthrax. (In Tilden, the envelope arrived on day 98.) The IRS concedes that if an envelope were mailed from Salt Lake City to the Tax Court on the 90th day, it would ordinarily be received in a range of days that included the 8th day after mailing.

Potentially Relevant Regulations 

Section 7502(b) states: “This section shall apply in the case of postmarks made other than the United States Postal Service only if and to the extent provided by regulations prescribed by the Secretary.”

Two regulations could have applied to determine whether the filing was timely.

A regulation involving a situation where there is a private postmark, but not a USPS postmark, Reg. section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(B)(1), reads:

(B) Postmark made by other than U.S. Postal Service.–(1) In general.–If the postmark on the envelope is made other than by the U.S. Postal Service–

(i) The postmark so made must bear a legible date on or before the last date, or the last day of the period, prescribed for filing the document or making the payment; and

(ii) The document or payment must be received by the agency, officer, or office with which it is required to be filed not later than the time when a document or payment contained in an envelope that is properly addressed, mailed, and sent by the same class of mail would ordinarily be received if it were postmarked at the same point of origin by the U.S. Postal Service on the last date, or the last day of the period, prescribed for filing the document or mailing the payment.

A regulation involving a situation where there is a USPS postmark and a private postmark, Reg. section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(B)(3), reads, in part:

(3) U.S. and non-U.S. postmarks.–If the envelope has a postmark made by the U.S. Postal Service in addition to a postmark not so made, the postmark that was not made by the U.S. Postal Service is disregarded . . . .

Tilden Tax Court Holding 

On these virtually identical facts in Tilden, the Tax Court had held that it lacked jurisdiction because the petition was untimely filed. In the opinion, the Tax Court always referred to the stamps.com date stamp on the postage as a “postmark” – using quotes around postmark to apparently indicate that the court was dubious about calling a mere internet stamp purchase date a true postmark. However, even if it were a true private postmark, then the court held that USPS tracking data constitutes a USPS postmark, so that the second regulation quoted above governs and makes the USPS postmark determinative. The judge relied on the Tax Court’s earlier opinion in Boultbee v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2011-11, where it had held that timely USPS tracking information could be used by a party as a timely USPS postmark in the case of an envelope lacking a true USPS postmark. (In Boultbee, the envelope was mailed from Canada through its own postal system and never got a USPS postmark after it crossed the border.)

Tilden Seventh Circuit Holding

The Seventh Circuit overruled the Tax Court in Tilden, noting that the initial USPS tracking information could occur at a time long after true mailing, so was not reliable evidence of the date of mailing. Thus, the Seventh Circuit refused to treat the tracking information as a USPS postmark. By contrast, the Seventh Circuit held that the date stamp on the stamps.com postage affixed to the envelope constituted a private postmark for purposes of the first regulation quoted above. The court noted that, while it is true that there is no guarantee that the date of purchase is also the date that the envelope was mailed, that is also true in the situation (addressed by the regulations) where postage meters (such as by Pitney-Bowes) affix private postmarks with dates that can be manipulated by parties. Thus, since the envelope with this timely private postmark arrived within the ordinary period that a letter mailed from Salt Lake City on the 90th day would arrive, the petition was timely filed.

Pearson Holding

The Tax Court in Pearson completely accepted the Seventh Circuit’s analysis in its Tilden opinion, even though the Pearson case would be appealable to the Eighth Circuit. This now creates a nationwide rule that internet-purchased postage is a private postmark for purposes of the regulations and that USPS tracking data does not create a USPS postmark.

The Pearson majority opinion and the joint dissent of Judges Gustafson and Morrison sparred over the definition of “postmark” in the regulations – with the majority looking to a dictionary definition. The dissent did not think this envelope contained a private postmark. There are interesting discussions in both opinions of the origins of section 7502(b) – originally titled “Stamp Machine”, but now titled “Postmarks” – and the history of Pitney-Bowes-type machines. The majority wrote: “[A] Stamps.com postage label is the modern equivalent of the output of an old-fashioned postage meter. We find no plausible basis for making a legally significant distinction between these two means of affixing postage.”

The majority also gave Auer deference to the IRS’ current interpretation of the word “postmark” in its regulations to include dates shown on internet-purchased postage. (See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997).) The dissent did not think Auer deference should be accorded and pointed out the shaky continuing existence of the Auer deference line of cases in the Supreme Court.

Baham

Baham, issued the same date as Pearson, is a case where Judge Wherry, on his own, investigated the USPS tracking information and took judicial notice of it. In Baham, the envelope contained a petition that was signed on the 89th day and that was mailed to the Tax Court from “The UPS Store” in Acadia, California. The envelope bore a shipping label purchased from Endicia.com on the 90th day. The taxpayer also introduced a receipt from The UPS Store for mailing at 2:44 pm on the 90th day, but, of course, that evidence is not itself a postmark. Other evidence was later introduced that The UPS Store typically brought its mail over to the USPS at 5 pm on the date the mail was received. The envelope was sent by certified mail, but never acquired a USPS postmark. USPS certified mail tracking information showed the envelope first in the USPS system at 8:03 am on the 91st day. Judge Wherry held that the petition was mailed on the 90th day and so was timely.

Observations

Since the IRS agrees with the Tax Court in Pearson, it is doubtful that any party (the IRS or the taxpayer) will ever argue in the courts of appeals that a petition was late under facts similar to Pearson, Tilden, or Baham. Thus, I expect no further appellate court opinions on this issue.

However, given the widespread use of internet-purchased postage, I think it long overdue that the IRS update the regulations under section 7502 to bring them into the 21st Century. There should be no need for people to ever wonder about whether internet postage or USPS tracking information constitutes a postmark.

 

DOJ Argues that Small Tax Case Designations Can Only Be Removed for Exceeding the Jurisdictional Amount in Dispute Limit

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about an interesting development regarding the government’s view of the effect of electing small case status in a Tax Court case. Keith

I write this post because I am sure that what the DOJ is arguing in the Tenth Circuit is, if accepted, going to be a shock to both the Tax Court and the IRS. I suspect that the latter has no idea that the DOJ is trying to take away a case management tool it has been using for almost 50 years. The DOJ is arguing that under section 7463(d), the sole circumstance in which the Tax Court may remove a small tax case designation is when it is belatedly discovered that the $50,000 amount in dispute limit for small tax cases has been exceeded. The DOJ argues that legislative history (relied on by the IRS and Tax Court over the years) that suggests other reasons for removing the small tax case designation (such as to create precedential rulings either in the Tax Court or the appellate courts) should be ignored, as the statute itself is clear.

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Section 7463 gives taxpayers the option (concurred in by the Tax Court pre-trial) to designate a case as a small tax case. The scope of the authority to remove the small tax case designation is one thing at issue in the Tenth Circuit in an appeal of Vu v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Op. 2016-75 – a case on which Les previously blogged here.

In Vu, the taxpayer filed a pro se innocent spouse petition under section 6015(e) too early (though she had no reason to think so). The IRS filed an answer that did not allege any premature filing. By the time that the IRS moved to dismiss her case for lack of jurisdiction as prematurely filed, she could no longer correct her error by timely filing another petition. Judge Ashford stated that she had to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction because the filing deadlines in section 6015(e) are jurisdictional. Though, as she did so, Judge Ashford herself wrote that “this is an inequitable result”.

At that point, Keith and I stepped in to represent Ms. Vu pro bono and moved for reconsideration, to vacate, and to remove the small tax case designation.

In the motions for reconsideration and to vacate, we argued that (1) under current Supreme Court case law, the filing deadlines are not jurisdictional and (2) the IRS waited too long to raise – and so forfeited – what is really a non-jurisdictional statute of limitations defense. At the time we made those arguments, the Tax Court in Pollock v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 21 (2009), had held the 90-day filing deadline in section 6015(e) to be jurisdictional – based, in part, on Supreme Court case law up to 2009. But, no court of appeals had ruled one way or the other on whether the filing deadlines in section 6015(e) are jurisdictional.

In our motion to remove the small tax case designation, we pointed out the novelty of the jurisdictional issue in the appellate courts, that Ms. Vu’s case (if the designation were removed) could be appealed to the Tenth Circuit, and that the issue of whether the section 6015(e) 90-day filing deadline is jurisdictional was presented in two then-pending Circuit courts in appeals that Keith and I had also brought.

Rather than ruling immediately, Judge Ashford waited until the Second and Third Circuits held the 90-day period in section 6015(e) jurisdictional in Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2017), and Matuszak v. Commissioner, 862 F.3d 192 (2d Cir. 2017). Then, relying on Pollock, Rubel, and Matuszak, Judge Ashford denied the motions to reconsider and to vacate.

In the same order (on which Patrick Thomas blogged here in a designated order post), Judge Ashford also denied Ms. Vu’s motion to remove the small tax case designation. Judge Ashford noted that the amount in dispute in the case did not exceed $50,000. She also thought there was now enough precedent on the jurisdictional issue adverse to Ms. Vu so as not to justify removing the designation so that Ms. Vu could attempt to create Tenth Circuit precedent. The Judge also felt that, while technically timely (since the motion was made before the decision was final or any trial began), granting a motion to remove the small tax case designation after the judge had already issued an opinion “violates the spirit of the Court’s small tax case rules”.

Section 7463(b) states, in part: “A decision entered in any case in which the proceedings are conducted under this section shall not be reviewed . . . .”

Section 7463(d) states, in relevant part:

At any time before a decision entered in a case in which the proceedings are conducted under this section becomes final, the taxpayer or the Secretary may request that further proceedings under this section in such case be discontinued. The Tax Court, or the division thereof hearing such case, may, if it finds that (1) there are reasonable grounds for believing that the amount of the deficiency placed in dispute, or the amount of an overpayment, exceeds the applicable jurisdictional amount described in subsection (a), and (2) the amount of such excess is large enough to justify granting such request, discontinue further proceedings in such case under this section.

Legislative history states:

In view of the proposed increase in the small tax case jurisdictional amount to $5,000 it is contemplated that, the Tax Court will give careful consideration to a request by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to remove a case from the small tax case procedures when the orderly conduct of the work of the Court or the administration of the tax laws would be better served by a regular trial of the case. . . . [R]emoval of the case from the small tax case category may be appropriate where a decision in the case will provide a precedent for the disposition of a substantial number of other cases or where an appellate court decision is needed on a significant issue.

  1. Rept. 95-1800 at 277-278.

Relying on this legislative history, the Tax Court, over the years, has taken the position (with which the IRS agreed) that it had the power to remove small tax case designations for pretty much any reason (if the taxpayer asked) and for the reasons stated in the legislative history (if the IRS asked or the court acted sua sponte). See, e.g., IRS Chief Counsel Memorandum 200115033, 2001 IRS CCA LEXIS 13 (Feb. 14, 2001) (“While the small tax case designation turns chiefly on the amount in dispute, the government has succeeded in having the small tax case designation removed in cases where a decision in the case will provide a precedent for the disposition of a substantial number of other cases or where an appellate court decision is needed on a significant issue.”) The Tax Court views the second sentence of section 7463(d) as providing merely an illustration of one of the grounds for removing small tax case designations, not the exclusive reason.

Despite our setback in not getting the Tax Court to remove the small tax case designation – which would have made an appeal easier – Keith and I appealed the Vu case to the Tenth Circuit (Docket No. 17-9007). That Circuit suspended briefing in the case and requested the parties to discuss its appellate jurisdiction in light of section 7463(b)’s prohibition on appeals from small tax cases.

On November 15, 2017, Keith and I filed a response to the Tenth Circuit arguing two grounds for appellate jurisdiction:

First, we contend that section 7463(b) does not preclude appellate review of certain procedural rulings of the Tax Court in small tax cases. This is a novel argument under section 7463(b). However, section 7429(f) precludes appellate review of district court or Tax Court determinations made in section 7429 jeopardy assessment proceedings, and the majority of courts of appeals to have considered the issue has held that review of section 7429 procedural rulings is not barred by the statute. See, e.g., Wapnick v. United States, 112 F.3d 74 (2d Cir. 1997) (“Following other circuits, we hold that this limitation applies only to decisions on the merits regarding the jeopardy assessment in question. A dismissal of a Section 7429 proceeding for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is, therefore, appealable.”; citations omitted). Keith and I argue that the limitation of appeal in small tax cases should similarly not preclude review of the Tax Court’s (in our view erroneous) dismissal of a small tax case for lack of jurisdiction.

Second, we take the position that a denial of a motion to remove a small tax case designation is itself appealable (also a novel issue on which there is no case law). We argue (1) that Judge Ashford abused her discretion in denying a taxpayer request that was technically timely, and (2) that the statute’s authorization of removal before a decision in a small tax case becomes final shows that Congress intended to have the Tax Court sometimes remove small tax case designations after the court had already ruled on an issue. Relying on the legislative history of section 7463(d) and long-standing Tax Court practice, we argue that Judge Ashford was wrong to deny Ms. Vu a chance to create Tenth Circuit precedent on a significant, novel legal issue in that Circuit.

In a response filed on November 30, 2017, the DOJ distinguished section 7429(f) precedent on the ground that the statute there precludes the review of “determination[s]”, not “decision[s]” (as in section 7463(b)). Most shockingly, though, the DOJ, while conceding that Ms. Vu timely filed her motion to remove the small tax designation, argues that section 7463(d) only allows the Tax Court to remove a small tax case designation where the court finds that the $50,000 jurisdictional amount in dispute limit is exceeded. The DOJ contends that the statute’s language plainly shows this, so the legislative history laying out other grounds for removing the small tax case designation should be disregarded.

On December 7, 2017, Keith and I filed a reply that showed the Tenth Circuit the long history of the Tax Court making determinations on motions to remove small tax case designations using the criteria set out in the legislative history (such as to create appellate precedent) – not just looking at whether the jurisdictional limit has been exceeded.

Observations

As a litigant in the Vu case, I don’t feel comfortable saying anything more than this: Whether the DOJ is right on the removal power’s scope, I am pretty certain that the DOJ did not consult with the IRS before making the argument that the only ground on which the Tax Court can remove a small tax case designation is that the jurisdictional limit has been exceeded. Indeed, it is ironic that Ms. Vu’s case is an innocent spouse case where an argument is untimely filing. It wasn’t too many years ago that the Tax Court in Lantz v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 131 (2009), invalidated a 2-year limitation on requesting section 6015(f) equitable innocent spouse relief that was set out only in a regulation. In order to challenge this ruling in many Circuits, the IRS sought to remove small tax case designations in a number of pending Tax Court cases so that the IRS could create precedent in many Circuits (and hopefully generate a Circuit split). See Iljazi v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Op. 2010-59 at p. *4 n.1, where I was counsel for the taxpayer and where Judge Panuthos denied the IRS motion – basically on the theory that taxpayer preferences to stay as small tax cases should generally be honored.

 

 

 

Automated Substitute for Return (ASFR) Program Suspended

Thanks to frequent guest blogger Carl Smith for this news from a tax conference this morning. Keith

On September 26, at a New York County Lawyers Association seminar entitled “Nontraditional Tax Advocacy”, Matthew Weir, the Assistant Inspector General of the office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) spoke. Among other things, he announced that the IRS had, for lack of sufficient financial resources, suspended its Automated Substitute for Return (ASFR) program. This is shocking news!

Mr. Weir said that TIGTA internally debated whether to disclose to the public the ASFR program’s suspension because, normally, TIGTA does not like to disclose information that taxpayers could use to evade enforcement. But, TIGTA decided that the suspension of the ASFR program was too important to keep from the public. He said a TIGTA report on the suspension would be issued shortly.

The ASFR program was employed for individuals who did not file an income tax return but who had enough gross income reported by third parties to the IRS on information returns (such as on Forms W-2 and 1099) to have had an obligation to file an income tax return. In the ASFR program, computers (without human involvement) (1) detected the need to file and the lack of filing, (2) prepared substitutes for returns under section 6020(b) based on the third-party gross income information, and (3) issued a letter to the taxpayer showing the proposed deficiency and balance due based on that substitute for return (essentially, a 30-day letter). The computer would automatically tack on late-filing and late-payment penalties to the tax balance due. A taxpayer who did not respond to the computer’s letter or who did respond, but did not convince the IRS that no tax or penalties were due, would later get a notice of deficiency – a ticket to the Tax Court.

Under the ASFR program, many taxpayers wrote back to the IRS and pointed out either errors in the gross income calculation or claimed entitlement to fully- or partially-offsetting deductions or credits that the IRS had no knowledge about, such as dependency exemptions and earned income tax credits. Human IRS employees needed to respond to such taxpayer letters. Although Mr. Weir did not say so, I assume that the big expense in running the ASFR program was employee time responding to the taxpayer correspondence. I also assume that, given the frequently-available offsetting deductions and credits, the ASFR program may not have generated enough enforcement revenue to justify the use of the scarce resource, human IRS employee time.

Storm at SEC Over Appointments Clause Violations Concerning Its ALJs and Possible Implications as to Circular 230 ALJs , Part V

Frequent guest poster Carl Smith updates us on important developments concerning SEC ALJs and reminds readers of possible implications for tax procedure. Les

Since September 2015, I have been following and posting about litigation concerning whether SEC ALJs need to be appointed in accordance with the Constitution’s Appointments Clause.  They currently are not appointed.  The SEC doesn’t think its ALJs need to be appointed because arguably its ALJs do not exercise final authority, since the SEC can review their rulings mostly de novo.

In my last post, I noted that the Tenth Circuit has held that these ALJs need to be appointed; Bandimere v. SEC, 844 F.3d 1168 (10th Cir. 2016); while the D.C. Circuit has held that these ALJs need not be appointed. Raymond J. Lucia Cos., Inc. v. SEC, 832 F.3d 277 (D.C. Cir. 2016).  I pointed out that, to see if it could resolve the Circuit split short of Supreme Court review, the D.C. Circuit agreed to rehear Lucia en banc.  That hearing took place on May 24, 2017.  But, the Circuit split evenly, so on June 26, 2017, it issued an order announcing that it split.  There is no opinion as a result.  This is to report that on July 21, 2017, Lucia filed a petition for cert. I fully expect the Supreme Court to grant that petition.

For more background on these SEC cases and why this may have an impact on ALJs that the Treasury uses to try Circular 230 violations (who also may not be properly appointed), see my prior posts here, here, here, and here.

This all boils down to a fight over the meaning of a part of Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991).  In Freytag,  the Supreme Court held that the Appointments Clause did not prohibit the Tax Court’s Chief Judge from appointing Special Trial Judges (STJs) because the Tax Court was one of the “Courts of Law” mentioned in the Clause and because the Chief Judge could act for the Tax Court.  Before reaching these rulings, the Supreme Court first had to decide whether the STJs are “Officers” of the United States who need to be appointed under the Clause or are mere government workers, who don’t need to be appointed.  This question turned on the vague standard the Supreme Court has used in recent years to identify Officers – i.e., individuals who “exercise significant authority on behalf of the United States”.

In Freytag, the Supreme Court held that because of the judge-like duties of the STJs, they are Officers needing appointment under the Clause.  In going through a recitation of STJ duties and powers, the Court, at the end, noted that in some cases (under what is now section 7443A(b)(1)-(5)) STJs can make rulings that are final and not reviewable by regular Tax Court judges.  See section 7443A(c).  In deciding whether SEC ALJs are Officers, the D.C. Circuit and Tenth Circuit have split over whether the mention of these final decision instances for Tax Court STJs constituted a holding by the Supreme Court that, in the absence of final authority, no individual can be an Officer.  The Supreme Court in Lucia (if it grants cert.) will have to resolve this split over what it meant by the finality observation in Freytag.

Second Circuit Agrees with Third That Time to File an Innocent Spouse Petition is Jurisdictional and Not Subject to Equitable Tolling

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about a case he has assisted the Harvard Tax Clinic in litigating before the Second Circuit.  The court found the time for filing a Tax Court petition is jurisdictional meaning that our client’s reliance on the IRS statement regarding the last date to file her petition has landed her outside of the court without a judicial remedy for review of the innocent spouse determination unless she can come up with the money to fully pay the liability which she cannot.  Keith

This post updates a post on Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. May 9, 2017).  In Rubel, the IRS told the taxpayer the wrong date for the end of the 90-day period in section 6015(e)(1)(A) to file a Tax Court innocent spouse petition.  The taxpayer relied on that date – mailing the petition on the last date the IRS told her.  Then, the IRS moved to dismiss her case for lack of jurisdiction as untimely.  In response, the taxpayer argued that the IRS should be estopped from making an untimeliness argument, having caused the late filing.  But, the Tax Court and, later, the Third Circuit held that the filing period is jurisdictional.  Jurisdictional periods are never subject to equitable exceptions.

Keith and I litigated Rubel.  We also litigated a factually virtually-identical case in the Second Circuit named Matuszak v. Commissioner.  On July 5, the Second Circuit reached the identical conclusion as the Third Circuit.

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The reasoning of both opinions is almost the same:  Under recent Supreme Court case law, time periods to file are no longer jurisdictional.  But, there are two exceptions:

One is that if the Supreme Court has called a time period jurisdictional in multiple past opinions issued over decades, the time period is still jurisdictional under stare decisis.  This stare decisis exception can’t apply to the innocent spouse petition filing period because the Supreme Court has never called any time period to file in the Tax Court jurisdictional or not jurisdictional.

The other exception is the “rare” case where Congress makes a “clear statement” that it wants a time period to be jurisdictional, notwithstanding the ordinary rule.  Both Rubel and Matuszak rely on the language of section 6015(e)(1)(A) as providing such a clear statement through the words “and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction . . . if” the petition is filed within 90 days of the notice of determination’s issuance.

Keith and I think this “clear statement” analysis is a bit too pat:  The words “and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction” appear only in a parenthetical.  Further, the “if” clause does not immediately follow that parenthetical.  We think that, based on Supreme Court case law on this clear statement exception, one can fairly argue that the parenthetical only applies to the language immediately following it – i.e., “to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section” – and which precedes the “if”.  In any case, if the language is not “clear”, then the time period should be held nonjurisdictional.

Both the Rubel and Matuszak opinion also pointed out the provision in section 6015(e)(1)(B)(ii) that gives the Tax Court jurisdiction to enjoin the IRS from collection of the disputed amount while the request for relief and all judicial appeals is pending.  There is a sentence in this provision that limits the Tax Court’s injunctive jurisdiction only to cases of the “timely” filing of a Tax Court petition under section 6015(e)(1)(A).  Keith and I don’t see the relevance of this injunctive provision to the clear statement exception, and we don’t see that “timely” means not considering any extensions provided under statutes (such as sections 7502 (tolling for timely mailing), 7508 (combat zone tolling), or 7508A (disaster zone tolling)) or judicial equitable exceptions.

And as to the context of the statute, remember both (1) that the statute explicitly invokes equity (in subsections (b) and (f)) and (2) that section 6015(e) was adopted joined in the same 1998 act to a legislative overruling of United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).  In Brockamp, the Supreme Court held that, due to the high volume of administrative refund claims and the complexity of section 6511, the time periods therein were not subject to equitable tolling under the presumption in favor of equitable tolling against the government laid down in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990).  Congress adopted section 6511(h) to provide what it called a legislative “equitable tolling” in cases of financial disability.  Does anyone think Congress’ desire to overrule the Supreme Court as to equitable tolling in section 6511 means that the same Congress did not want equitable tolling to apply in its new equitable innocent spouse provision?

In Rubel, the Third Circuit also cited Brockamp for the proposition that Congress in 1998 would have thought all time periods in the Internal Revenue Code jurisdictional.  Keith and I pointed out to both Circuits, however, that Brockamp doesn’t even contain the word “jurisdiction” or “jurisdictional”.  About the only significant difference between the opinions of the two Circuits is that the Second Circuit declines to include this questionable characterization of Brockamp.

No other Circuit has yet considered whether the time period in section 6015(e)(1)(A) is jurisdictional or not.  Keith and I are about to litigate the identical issue in the Fourth Circuit.  Clearly, the opinions in Rubel and Matuszak are not helping us.

Taft v. Comm’r: Innocent Spouse Relief Generates a Refund

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about an innocent spouse case in which the Tax Court granted relief under a subsection permitting the innocent taxpayer to obtain a return of money previously taken from her to satisfy the liability caused by her ex-spouse.  Because the IRS frequently defaults to granting relief in a way that prevents the innocent spouse from obtaining refunds, this case shows a path to a more complete victory.  Keith

A number of people have congratulated Keith for contributing to a victory last month for a taxpayer seeking a $1,500 refund under the innocent spouse provisions at section 6015See Taft v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-66.  Keith and I had filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic.  In it, we agreed with pro bono Florida attorney Joe DiRuzzo and his firm that a regulation on which the IRS relied to deny the refund under subsection (f) (equitable relief) was invalid – though invalid for different reasons than articulated by Joe and his firm.  But, as noted in footnote 4 near the end of the opinion, Tax Court Judge Vasquez never had to discuss the regulation’s validity, since he found the refund authorized under subsection (b) (traditional relief), even though the taxpayer had also been nominally granted relief under subsection (c) (separation of liability relief), which does not allow for refunds.  So, really, Keith and I did not win this case.  Rather, the taxpayer, aided by Joe and his firm, did.

In any event, the Taft opinion provides a useful reminder of some of the rules on getting a refund under the innocent spouse provisions.  And a post on it may alert others who find themselves in this position to the regulation invalidity argument.

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The traditional way to bring a refund suit is to file an administrative claim, which, if not allowed, forms the basis of a suit for refund in district court or the Court of Federal Claims.  But, when Congress, in section 6015(e)(1)(A), also gave the Tax Court stand-alone jurisdiction to “determine the relief available to the individual under” section 6015, that included also determining whether a taxpayer was due a refund, even in the absence of predicate unpaid taxes.  Thus, Ms. Taft had her choice of bringing this refund action in any of three federal courts.

The pro se Ms. Taft first filed a Form 8857 seeking a refund under section 6015.  Note that she could not have used a Form 1040X to seek the refund, since the year involved, 2010, was one in which she had filed a joint return, and she did not want to file a joint amended return with the former husband that she had divorced in 2013.  The IRS treats a Form 8857 as a refund claim for purposes of the section 6511 statute of limitations.  Prop. Reg. § 1.6015-1(k)(4) (Nov. 19, 2015) (“Generally the filing of Form 8857, ‘Request for Innocent Spouse Relief,’ will be treated as the filing of a claim for credit or refund even if the requesting spouse does not specifically request a credit or refund.”).  Her refund request was timely because the IRS had taken about $1,500 of her reported overpayment on her 2012 return (filed in 2013) and applied it to fully pay the 2010 joint deficiency at issue.  She filed the Form 8857 less than two years after the overpayment was applied, so she qualified under the 2-years-from-payment refund statute of limitations in section 6511(a).

Since, by the time she filed the Form 8857, she was divorced, she was entitled to elect (c) (separation of liability) relief.  This led to the first complication, since relief under (b) and (f) can entitle a taxpayer to a refund, but relief under (c) cannot.  Section 6015(g)(3).  The reason why Congress made a refund under (c) unallowable is because it made relief under (c) so easy to obtain.

Relief under (c) applies to deficiencies when, at the time the Form 8857 is filed, the taxpayer is divorced, legally separated, or has been living apart from the taxpayer’s spouse for at least 12 months.  For relief under (c), a taxpayer merely elects to separate his or her liability from that of his or her spouse based on their respective contributions to causing the deficiency.  In this case, the deficiency was tax on about $4,500 of unreported dividends from stock Mr. Taft owned and that he had acquired as an employee of the supermarket chain, Publix.  Mr. Taft had worked for many years at Publix until he was fired in 2009.  Relief is available under (c) even where it would not be inequitable to hold the electing spouse liable (e.g., where he or she significantly benefited from the underpayment and would have no hardship in paying the amount).  The only way the IRS can deny relief under (c) is for it to prove (note the burden shift) that the taxpayer had actual knowledge of the item giving rise to the deficiency.  The IRS concluded that Ms. Taft did not see the statements addressed to Mr. Taft that would have shown the exact amount of dividends that were unreported, so, in the notice of determination, the IRS conceded that Ms. Taft was entitled to relief under (c) because she did not have actual knowledge.  But, that relief under (c) did absolutely nothing for Ms. Taft, since she had (involuntarily) already fully paid the deficiency and was only seeking a refund, which could not be granted under (c).

The IRS then went on to deny Ms. Taft the refund under (b).  Under (b), relief is only available in the case of deficiencies if, among other things, a taxpayer had no reason to know of the deficiency and it would be inequitable to hold the taxpayer liable for the deficiency.  The IRS argued that she should have known that there were unreported dividends from Publix because for many prior years she had signed joint returns that reported such dividends.  The IRS also argued that it would not be inequitable to hold Ms. Taft liable for the deficiency.

Relief under subsection (f) (including refunds) is available if only two conditions are met:  First, relief is “not available” under subsections (b) or (c).  Second, it would be inequitable to hold the taxpayer liable for the deficiency or underpayment.  Reg. § 1.6015-4(b) (which applies to relief under (f)), states:  “This section may not be used to circumvent the limitation of § 1.6015-3(c)(1) (i.e., no refunds under § 1.6015-3) [i.e., the regulations under subsection (c)]. Therefore, relief is not available under this section to obtain a refund of liabilities already paid, for which the requesting spouse would otherwise qualify for relief under § 1.6015-3.”  This regulation was controversial before it was enacted in 2002.  It seems to prohibit a refund under (f) – even if the taxpayer can show that it would be inequitable for the taxpayer to be held liable for the deficiency – because of qualification for nonexistent relief under (c) (which does not require proof of inequity).  The IRS argued that since relief had been “available” to Ms. Taft under (c), she was not entitled to a refund attributable to the Publix dividend underreporting deficiency.  The IRS also argued that it was not inequitable to hold Ms. Taft liable, in any event.

Judge Vasquez held that, even though Ms. Taft could not get a refund under (c), she could get a refund under (b).  Mr. Taft had started an affair, which Ms. Taft discovered in 2011.  During 2010, Mr. Taft, unbeknownst to Ms. Taft, liquidated all the family savings (including the Publix stock) and spent them on himself and his girlfriend.  Wanting to conceal his affairs (both emotional and financial) from Ms. Taft, when it came time to prepare the 2010 joint Form 1040, he did so with the long-time accountant without her present and had the return e-filed.  That return revealed all the income from liquidating the family assets, though mistakenly left off the Publix dividends.  Mr. Taft did not let Ms. Taft see a copy of the return, though he assured her that it had been properly prepared by the long-time accountant.  Given all this secretiveness, Judge Vasquez held that Ms. Taft had no reason to know of the deficiency for purposes of that requirement for (b) relief.

Given the fact that Mr. Taft had wasted the family assets in his affair and so Ms. Taft did not benefit in the slightest from the Publix dividends and Ms. Taft’s lack of knowledge of the underreporting, Judge Vasquez also held that it would have been inequitable to hold Ms. Taft liable – another condition for (b) relief.

Since the judge granted Ms. Taft a refund under (b), he no longer had to reach the issue of refunds under (f) and the possible invalidity of the regulation under (f).

The Regulation’s Possible Invalidity

Joe DiRuzzo took on the Taft case pro bono at a Tax Court calendar call.  It was his first innocent spouse case, so, knowing I was experienced in this area, he gave me a call about it later that day.  We both were worried that the judge might find that Ms. Taft should have known about the unreported Publix dividends based on the prior-year reporting of similar dividends.  In that event, Ms. Taft could not get relief under (b), and the issue of relief under (f) (and the validity of the regulation under (f) possibly prohibiting a refund) would be squarely presented.

Despite the small amount involved in the case, Joe asked the court for permission to do post-trial briefs.  And he then immediately did a FOIA request of the IRS for all comments submitted on the proposed regulations that were finalized in 2002.  Finding a few comments objecting to the proposed (f) refund regulation limitation and not feeling the IRS had adequately responded to those comments, in his brief in Taft, Joe challenged the validity of the regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act.  He made the same argument that had recently been successful in Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. 91 (2015) (currently on appeal in the Ninth Circuit):  that the IRS had not sufficiently responded to the comments or provided a “reasoned explanation” for why it reached the result that it did under the standard set out in Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass’n of the U.S. v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29 (1983).

Keith and I then got permission from the court to weigh in as amicus, arguing in our brief in Taft that the regulation was invalid under the tests of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).  We argued that the regulation added a limitation on getting a refund under (f) that was not in the statute – i.e., preventing circumvention of the no refund rule of subsection (c).  We pointed out that there could be no circumvention because a refund under (f) was not automatic, since, under (f), one had to prove inequity (something that was irrelevant under (c)).  We cited to the Tax Court’s opinions in Lantz v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 131 (2009), revd. 607 F.3d 479 (7th Cir. 2010), and Hall v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 374 (2010), which made similar points that the 2-year period for requesting (f) relief imposed by § 1.6015-5(b)(1) did not need to be imposed to prevent the circumvention of the 2-year periods provided by statute for (b) and (c) relief because (f) relief (by contrast) requires additional proof of a number of events that may occur years after the returns are filed.

In the end, the work that Joe DiRuzzo and his firm and that Keith and I did was irrelevant to the court’s decision to grant a refund in Taft under (b).  But, we know this situation occurs now and then.  Recently, at least one attorney with a section 6015 refund case contacted me with the same problem concerning refunds under the regulation under (f) where useless (c) relief was arguably “available”.  I have linked to the two briefs filed in the Taft case, just in case anyone might be helped in a future litigation by seeing the arguments we raised.  And readers should also know that Joe DiRuzzo has on a disk copies of all the comments made on the section 6015 regulations that were adopted in 2002, which is not only a resource for this issue under the (f) regulations, but for any other challenge to the 2002 regulations.

Finally, I would note that the IRS proposed new section 6015 regulations on November 19, 2015, that are still awaiting adoption.  The proposed regulations retain the current sentences quoted above, but add this:  “For purposes of determining whether the requesting spouse qualifies for relief under § 1.6015-3, the fact that a refund was barred by section 6015(g)(2) [res judicata] and paragraph (k)(2) of this section [no refunds under (c)] does not mean that the requesting spouse did not receive full relief.” Prop. Reg. § 1.6015-1(k)(3).  The IRS is trying to buttress its argument that even relief under (c) that is, as a practical matter, useless (because no refund is allowed under (c)), is relief that precludes a refund under (f).