Designated Orders: 6/25 – 6/29/2018

Patrick Thomas from Notre Dame Law School brings us this week’s designated order posts. The first one he discusses serves as a reminder that litigation can be very tedious when the parties do not get along. Keith 

This week’s orders provided a sequel in the continuing saga of the Murphy Family’s tax disputes, another exposé on the lack of basic tax literacy, and a reminder to Appeals and Counsel on the importance of clarity in notices of determination. Judge Leyden also issued a routine order in a CDP case, in addition to two orders from Judge Jacobs. 

Docket Nos. 8039-16, 14536-16, 14541-16, Murfam Enterprises, LLC v. C.I.R. (Order Here) 

Our first order is one in a flurry of recent orders in this consolidated case, which is set for a special trial session on August 6, 2018 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before Judge Gustafson. Caleb Smith covered one of these orders last time, which disposes of a motion to compel responses to interrogatories, and to address a jurisdictional issue with the timing of the petition.

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This particular order resolves Respondent’s motion for an order to show cause under Rule 91(f); this asks the court to issue an order to Petitioner to show cause why Respondent’s proposed stipulations shouldn’t be admitted. Essentially, the parties had a dispute over the breadth and content of their stipulations of fact. As Judge Gustafson frames the issue, it seems rather silly.

On May 31, Respondent’s counsel proposed to Petitioner’s counsel a non-comprehensive stipulation about the parties, tax returns, notice of deficiency, and appraisals. Instead of working on that version of the stipulation, Petitioner’s counsel proposed his own stipulation that was comprehensive and would not agree to sign Respondent’s truncated stipulation.

Indeed, Rule 91(a)(1) requires a comprehensive stipulation—or at least, as comprehensive as possible:

The parties are required to stipulate, to the fullest extent to which complete or qualified agreement can or fairly should be reached, all matters not privileged which are relevant to the pending case, regardless of whether such matters involve fact or opinion or the application of law to fact. Included in matters required to be stipulated are all facts, all documents and papers or contents or aspects thereof, and all evidence which fairly should not be in dispute.

But Judge Gustafson notes that those stipulations need not be filed in a single document. While it’s common to file stipulations one after the other, there could be circumstances where a single comprehensive stipulation makes sense. Judge Gustafson identifies those scenarios as:

  • Simple cases
  • Cases where parties engage in “horse-trading” of stipulated facts.
  • Cases where unfairness would arise if parties attempted to stipulate helpful facts for themselves, while leaving unhelpful facts for a later date.

This being a complicated case, Judge Gustafson suggests a basic stipulation on truly non-contested issues (like parties, tax returns, notices, etc.). The parties could sort through the rest later.

Judge Gustafson also seems miffed at the “maddening” counter-drafts that were exchanged in crafting this (then unfiled) stipulation. To this practitioner, this seems like a failure of communication combined with latter gamesmanship. It’s clear, from the prior order Caleb covered, that counsel are simply not communicating effectively with each other. They hadn’t clarified which attorney would first draft the stipulation, so both did; then both parties wanted to use their own version.

Judge Gustafson grants the Order to Show Cause, requiring petitioner to file a response under Rule 91(f)(2) by July 2, 2018. Under the rule, the responding party must state whether a dispute (in whole or part) exists as to the moving party’s proposed stipulations, along with an explanation for any disputed item. Judge Gustafson warned that if the response was evasive or incomplete, then any of Respondent’s affected stipulations of fact would be deemed admitted. Alternatively, the parties could file a joint stipulation of facts by July 2—which Judge Gustafson clearly preferred. 

As these Designated Order posts are somewhat delayed, we helpfully know what happened—and while all’s well that ends well, it was not going well for Petitioner’s counsel for some time. Judge Gustafson issued this order on June 25; Petitioner filed a response on the evening of June 26, with a lengthy explanation about the timing of drafts and his objections on some of Respondent’s proposed stipulations.

Judge Gustafson responded the next day with a further order, excoriating Petitioner’s counsel for wasting precious time explaining the logistics of the stipulation process, rather than actually working toward a stipulation. He orders the parties to continue to work towards the basic stipulation, and notes that the Order to Show Cause remains active. Finally, he orders that Petitioner may file an additional response no later than July 2—but, to stave off a further tit-for-tat, no earlier than July 1!

Of course, should the parties file a joint stipulation, all would be forgiven. And indeed, that’s just what occurred on June 29.

Docket No. 714-16, Haynes v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This case presents a very straightforward legal issue. I highlight it because I’ve heard the following belief frequently from Clinic clients: if taxes are withheld from the client’s pension, 401(k) distribution, IRA distribution, gambling winnings, etc… they’ve done all they need to do vis-à-vis the government. The taxes are paid. End of story.

Except, it’s not. Our federal income tax system—because of its progressive rates, deductions and credits that depend upon future events, and “pay-as-you-go” requirements—rests on two fundamental premises: (1) we estimate our yearly tax obligation and pay tax through withholding or estimated tax payments as we receive income, and then (2) we calculate what we should have paid, after the year has occurred, based on our knowledge of the income we earned and other situations bearing on our ultimate federal income tax liability. As such, we file a tax return to report these facts and reconcile any discrepancy between our estimate and our actuality.

Thus, there’s no guarantee that the amount of taxes withheld will match the taxes that person owes for the tax year. In fact, it’s a near certainty that they will not.

Yet I’ve encountered numerous taxpayers who do not understand these fundamental premises. Many see the tax season as a means to obtain the tax benefits allowed under Code, but do not understand the underlying purpose of the income tax return. Others are new to the United States, coming from countries that have very different taxation schemes.

It seems the Petitioner here suffered the same misunderstanding. She received $11,923 from a qualified retirement plan in 2013, and was under age 59 ½ when the distribution occurred. The retirement plan administrator withheld about $2,384 from the payment, and issued a Form 1099-R reflecting this distribution, the withholding, and that no known exception to the 10% penalty under section 72(t) applied.

Petitioner went to a paid preparer, who timely filed Petitioner’s 2013 tax return. The return reported Petitioner’s wages, business loss, and unemployment compensation; the return didn’t report the retirement distribution as income. Additionally, the return didn’t report the 10% penalty under section 72(t); it did, however, contain a Form 5329, which noted that the early distribution was included in income and claimed an exception to the 72(t) penalty due to permanent and total disability. The preparer also included the withholding from the 1099-R on the return, which resulted in a $4,333 refund paid to Petitioner.

Because the 1099-R reported the income, Petitioner was subject to an Automated Underreporter. In addition to the additional tax and penalty from the 1099-R, it alleged she had also omitted interest and dividend income (which was not contested).

Petitioner responded to the AUR directly, stating that she was “forced to take money from … [her] 401k just to survive”, and noting that she reported the distribution on Form 5329. Later, she responded that “she had already been taxed on the $11,923 distribution because . . . $2,384 had been withheld….”

The AUR unit responded via letter as follows:

When you have federal withholding taken out of a distribution it does not mean the income does not have to be reported on line 15b/16b [in the section for “Income”] of Form 1040; federal withholding helps to cover any taxes on that distribution. In order to determine taxes due, the taxable portion listed on the Form 1099-R box 2a [i.e., the section for “Taxable amount”] needs to be reported on line 15b/16b.

I’m glad to see the Service attempting to educate taxpayers, but the response doesn’t quite get at the core problem. This letter presumes understanding of the yearly estimation and reconciliation underlying the federal income tax system. But, as noted above, many of my clients (and this Petitioner) do not understand. It may seem like second nature to the Service, but I’d suggest that this correspondence approach this problem at an even more basic level.

Eventually the Service issued a notice of deficiency, Petitioner timely filed a petition with the Tax Court, and Respondent answered the petition, alleging affirmatively that Petitioner was not disabled under 72(t)(a)(iii) and was under age 59 ½. The disability exception requires a taxpayer to be “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long-continued and indefinite duration.” IRC § 72(m)(7). Essentially, qualifying as disabled under the Social Security Act will be sufficient under section 72.

Petitioner spoke with Appeals and agreed she was not disabled (she had a full-time job shortly after the tax year in question), but wanted to review other exceptions to the penalty. In a subsequent call, she agreed no other exception applied, but she wanted to go to trial. Afterward, Respondent moved that its allegations in the answer be deemed admitted, because Petitioner didn’t file a reply; the court granted this motion.

This caused Respondent to file a motion for summary judgment—a relative rarity in deficiency cases—because all undisputed material facts meant that the tax should have been included in income and subject to the section 72(t) penalty. Petitioner responded, blaming her tax return preparer for the error, and asking to be “exonerated” from the tax debt.

Indeed, from a practical standpoint, that’s where I find the majority of fault in this matter. The return preparer should have been able to advise their client on this very straightforward issue. Had the return been filed correctly, Petitioner would have received a reduced refund—approximately $2,899 instead of the $4,333 she actually received. Instead, she owes this deficiency, plus interest.

Nevertheless, from a legal standpoint, Petitioner clearly owes the tax and 72(t) penalty. Because no material evidence remained undisputed, Judge Ashford grants summary judgment for Respondent.

Docket No. 22140-15L, Houk v. C.I.R. (Order Here) 

This order highlights something of a tautology: a Tax Court order needs to adequately explain what it’s ordering. Respondent had moved for entry of decision “sustaining the supplemental [N]otice [of Determination]” in this CDP levy case. But from the face of the supplemental notice, the decision documents, and the motion for entry of decision, Judge Gustafson can’t discern the final result in the case. As a bonus, he also goes out of his way to chastise Appeals for using boilerplate language in its notices of determination.

This case stemmed from an unpaid, self-assessed joint income tax debt for 2013. The Service sent a Notice of Intent to Levy and petitioners requested a CDP hearing. Appeals issued a first Notice of Determination, upholding the levy for failure to provide financial information. So far, so typical.

The Houks petitioned the Tax Court, but eventually conceded (after Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment) that they were not entitled to remand on the collections issue—or, apparently, to innocent spouse relief.

They did receive a remand to Appeals for their challenge to the underlying liability. While at first blush a bit counterintuitive, taxpayers may challenge self-assessed tax debts in a CDP hearing, so long as there’s been no prior opportunity to dispute the debt. Montgomery v. C.I.R., 122 T.C. 1, 8-9 (2004). Mr. Houk filed an amended return in the supplemental hearing, and Appeals issued a supplemental Notice of Determination stating the following:

[Appeals] made the determination to adjust your account to the amended return filed to correct the amount of taxes you now owe. The Appeals Officer submitted the Form 3870, Request for Adjustment for an abatement of prior tax assessment in the amount of $7,369.00.

Does this mean that the Houks originally reported $7,369 as tax owed on the original return, the Service agreed to abate everything? Does it instead mean $7,369 would be abated, and some liability would remain? The difference very much matters, as the supplemental notice does only just that—by its explicit words, it supplements the original Notice of Determination, which upheld the levy action. But the supplemental notice also states that if any balance due remains (making the second option more likely), Appeals would need to discuss a “collection resolution” with petitioners.

Neither the Notice of Determination nor the rest of the record clarifies this issue for Judge Gustafson. Likewise, the decision documents repeat the request in Respondent’s motion that the supplemental notice be “sustained in full” and that the proposed levy is likewise sustained.

Judge Gustafson is uncomfortable—justifiably in my view—with sustaining the supplemental notice in its present state. Citing section 7459(c), he notes that in deficiency cases “the Court’s decision ‘must specify[] the amount of the deficiency.’“ (Section 7459(c) is not as commanding as advertised, but in conjunction with section 7459(d), the Court has plausibly read the section as implying this requirement in deficiency cases. See Estate of Ming v. C.I.R., 62 T.C. 519 (1974).) So too in CDP cases challenging the underlying liability; the Court should “specify the amount of the adjusted liability.” He cites Judge Pugh’s order in Dykstra v. Commissioner as an example. To that end, he orders Respondent to supplement the motion and proposed decision documents to clearly specify the adjustments in this case. If collection activities will continue, he requires Respondent to attach “account transcripts or other appropriate records, showing the remaining liability . . . .”

Finally, Judge Gustafson—for reasons that don’t quite appear to connect to this case—bemoans the use of boilerplate in Appeals’ notices of determination. Specifically, he notes the fact that all notices of determination contain the following title:

NOTICE OF DETERMINATION CONCERNING COLLECTION ACTIONS UNDER SECTION 6320 and/or 6330.

This lets Appeals avoid altering language in determining whether a hearing is based on a proposed levy or a filed Notice of Federal Tax Lien. Similarly, the notices contain language regarding the verification requirements:

There was a balance due when the Notice of intent to Levy was issued or when the NFTL filing was requested.

He suggests that this sentence, in particular, causes a further lack of clarity as to whether the Appeals officer did verify there was a balance due. “One assumes that someone at Appeals actually did address [this] question . . . but one dislikes assuming.” Judge Gustafson concludes that “we cannot endorse the ‘and/or’ approach reflected in IRS Appeals’ notices.” Here’s hoping that someone at Chief Counsel pays attention to this order.

That “we” is also an interesting way to conclude this Order. Is this more than Judge Gustafson’s opinion? I presumed that orders were the opinion of one judge alone, rather than the full court. I’d be very interested to know if that presumption is in any way incorrect.

Finally, I’ll note that one of my very first (and very slightly) embarrassing moments as a young tax attorney involved the boilerplate Judge Gustafson criticizes. I’d filed my first petition from a CDP levy hearing for a client in Tax Court, and—wanting to be exacting in my pleading—I titled the petition as “Petition for Levy Action Under Code Section 6330(d)”. Sure enough, upon filing, the clerk struck out my title and replaced it with “Petition for Lien or Levy Action Under Code Section 6320(c) or 6330(d)”. I agree entirely with Judge Gustafson, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…

 

 

Designated Orders in Krug v. Commissioner, 5/29/18 & 6/13/18

Patrick Thomas and William Schmidt today discuss two designated orders by Judge Halpern in an unusual whistleblower case. The Court seeks further explication of a Social Security Act provision relating to inmate services, which Respondent alleges dooms the petitioner’s claim. Patrick and William take us through the tangle of applicable statutes. Christine

Docket No. 13502-17W, Gregory Charles Krug v. C.I.R. (Order here).

As promised in Patrick and William’s recent designated orders posts, this post looks at Krug v. Commissioner, a whistleblower case assigned to Judge Halpern, and is co-authored by both Patrick and William.

This order stems from Respondent’s motion for summary judgment, which actually resulted in two designated orders: the June 13 order discussed below, and one from May 29. In both orders, the Court is confused by Respondent’s arguments, and as such, declines to dispose of the motion without further argument. The May 29 order sets the motion for a hearing during a trial session on June 4. The later order discusses that hearing, but still reserves judgment until Respondent provides further information.

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Specifically, Respondent asks the Court to uphold the IRS denial of a whistleblower award, because the entity against which the whistleblower complained was not required to withhold employment taxes or federal income tax. Respondent submitted a Form 11369, Confidential Evaluation Report on Claim for Award, which evaluated Petitioner’s administrative claim for a whistleblower award. This form included the following language:

Social Security and Medicare wages are excluded from inmate services under the provision of Section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act. The Federal income tax withholding is dependent on the amount of wages paid which is less than the minimum wage. FIT on these wages would be dependent on other income (investment) earned by the inmates, and whether or not they file a joint return. Because of these unknown factors, this claim will be declined.

So, it appears the whistleblower notified the IRS that a prison was not withholding Social Security, Medicare, or Federal income taxes on wages paid to inmates. The IRS denied a whistleblower award claim, noting that the prison has no such withholding requirements.

Judge Halpern does not understand the relevance of the explanation. The Federal income tax reference seems inapplicable, he says, given that petitioner’s claim relates to “employment taxes.” He further notes that though section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act “does address services by inmates, we do not understand the relevance of the provision to petitioner’s claim.” In the May 29 order, he asked Respondent to clarify its argument at the June 4 trial session.

Apparently, Respondent’s explanation was insufficient. Judge Halpern notes in the June 13 order that, “as indicated in the transcript of the hearing, the Court was not satisfied with counsel’s explanation of why payments for the services of inmates are not subject to withholding for employment taxes.” Petitioner did not appear for the hearing. In fact, the petitioner has not been responsive to orders beginning February 8. Looking at the docket, there could be an issue of whether the Court has the petitioner’s correct address.

To us, it seems that Judge Halpern and Respondent are talking past each other. Judge Halpern is correct, in that, on its face, section 218(c)(6) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 418) has nothing to do with withholding obligations. Rather, Section 218 provides a mechanism through which State and local governments may allow their employees to participate in Social Security and Medicare. Originally, States were not automatically obligated to participate in these programs. After the addition of Code section 3121(b)(7)(F) in 1991, with limited exceptions, all state employees are required to participate in Social Security, including its withholding requirements. Today, all states have a Section 218 agreement with the federal government.

Separately, Code section 3101(a) imposes Social Security and Medicare taxes, which section 3102(a) requires to be withheld from employee wages. Section 3121(b) defines “employment” broadly, with a number of exceptions. An exception exists for any employee of “a State . . . or any instrumentality . . . “. IRC § 3121(b)(7). Importantly, an exception to the exception exists for any states who have entered into an agreement with the federal government under Section 218 of the Social Security Act, or where the employee is “not a member of a retirement system of such State . . .” IRC § 3121(b)(7)(E), (F). As noted above, all 50 states have these agreements, and all state employees are generally—agreement or not—required to withhold these taxes.

And there’s where the rubber meets the road: Inmates of penal institutions are, under Social Security Act section 218(c)(6), excluded from any agreement under that section, as the Service notes. Further, even where no agreement is in force, section 3121(b)(7)(F)(ii) specifically exempts withholding obligations for state employers for wages paid to inmates in a penal institution.

Regarding the withholding of federal income tax, while such a tax might not be strictly characterized as an “employment tax”, employers are nevertheless generally obligated to withhold such taxes from employee wages. Reporting such a failure could charitably fall under the ambit of “employment taxes” when a pro se taxpayer uses this term. And further, section 3401 contains no blanket waiver on the definitions of “wages” or “employment” in mandating withholding obligations under section 3402(a)(1).

So, to us, there appears to be a live issue regarding income tax withholding requirements, but a fairly straightforward argument that no Social Security or Medicare tax withholdings were required. The Service says in the Form 11369 that the employer needed more information to make this determination (other income, marital status, etc.). But isn’t it the employer’s problem that they didn’t collect that information?

We’re also confused why the IRS would make only this argument. A whistleblower award under section 7623 is premised upon the IRS “proceed[ing] with any administrative or judicial action described in [7623(a)] based on information brought to the Secretary’s attention by an individual.” The “administrative or judicial action” could include “(1) detecting underpayments of tax, or (2) detecting and bringing to trial and punishment persons guilty of violating the internal revenue laws or conniving at the same…” If Respondent’s argument is that the prison in question wasn’t required to withhold, then surely the IRS also did not take “administrative or judicial action” to detect an underpayment or other malfeasance. That seems a much stronger argument for upholding the denial.

Further, Judge Halpern, in his second order, advises Respondent’s counsel to review Kasper v. Commissioner, 150 No. 2 (2018), which we’ve discussed before. Kasper holds (1) Tax Court review of a whistleblower award denial is generally limited to the administrative record; (2) the standard of review is abuse of discretion; and (3) the Chenery rule applies, meaning that the Tax Court can only uphold the Service’s decision on the same grounds that the Service itself made the decision.

How does Kasper affect this case? Because the standard of review is now conclusively an abuse of discretion standard in the Tax Court, it’s easier for the Tax Court to uphold the denial of a whistleblower claim.

But we may also be missing a critical fact: did the whistleblower’s claim relate to unpaid wages, as in Kasper? Without access to the other documents in the Tax Court’s docket, we can’t know for sure. If so, then Judge Halpern seems to suggest that regardless of whether a prison is required to withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes for wages paid to inmates, the Court could uphold the decision on the basis that no withholding was necessary, because no wages were paid. But, if that’s the case, why not just order that here? If only Tax Court motions and briefs were publicly accessible, we wouldn’t be left to wonder.

The June 13 order requires Respondent and Petitioner to file a memorandum on or before August 3 addressing the Court’s concerns with the Form 11369’s relevance. In the meantime, the Court has taken the motion for summary judgment under advisement.

Designated Orders: 5/28 – 6/1/2018

Patrick Thomas brings us the designated order posts this week. He is writing separately on the Krug whistleblower case and we will publish his write up with the designated orders for a later week. The Webert case, discussed here, provides a good lesson on different types of assessments and covers material we have not previously addressed. Keith 

Memorial Day week is, apparently, a fairly inactive one at the Tax Court. Only three orders were designated this week, though all have something interesting. We’ll cover Judge Halpern’s order in a whistleblower case in an upcoming post that looks at a later designated order in that case.

Summary vs. Deficiency Assessments in Section 6213(a)

Docket No. 15981-17, Webert v. C.I.R. (Order Here) 

This order from Judge Panuthos very nicely distinguishes a summary assessment from a deficiency assessment—and the resulting ability of the Service to collect on the former, though not the latter, while a Tax Court proceeding is pending.

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The Service sent these joint taxpayers Notices of Deficiency for 2010 through 2015 proposing over $300,000 in tax and penalties, as the taxpayers hadn’t yet filed returns for those years. Two days later, the Service received tax returns for all of these years and filed them. These returns reported substantially less tax for each year and claimed a refund for a number of years. For 2010 through 2013, they’d owe about $11,000; for 2014 and 2015, they claimed a refund, which they elected to apply to the subsequent tax year.

They then filed a 2016 return, which claimed a $10,000 refund (owing largely to their election with respect to the 2015 tax year). In turn, they wanted this refund applied to 2017.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the Service first issued a math error notice for 2016, removing the $7,000 overpayment from 2015, leaving a $2,875 refund. Then, after processing the old returns, the Service took that refund and applied it to the 2010 and 2011 debts.

In the meantime, the Service sent a notice for 2010 through 2015, reducing the proposed assessments in the Notice of Deficiency (though the Court doesn’t say by how much). Presumably, these reductions exceeded the Weberts’ own calculations, as the examining agent “did not accept the figures on the returns as substantially correct.”

The Weberts filed a Tax Court petition, and before the Respondent answered, Mr. Webert filed a motion to restrain assessment or collection last September. This motion argued that the 2016 to 2010/2011 refund offset violated section 6213(a), which prohibits collection of a deficiency until after a Tax Court decision becomes final. The Court has since issued four substantive orders asking for additional detail from Respondent, ultimately resulting in this order denying Mr. Webert’s motion. (Mrs. Webert apparently retained counsel and clarified that she did not join in his motion).

Judge Panuthos denied the motion, principally because he found that the petitioners did not challenge the portion of the deficiency representing the taxes listed on their filed tax returns. He explained that, under Meyer v. Commissioner, 97 T.C. 555 (1991), the Service is authorized to assess and collect tax reported on original or amended tax returns, along with any additions to tax such as the failure to file penalty. Further, he notes that under section 6213(a) itself, the Court has jurisdiction to enjoin collection as to part of a deficiency only if the Tax Court petition disputes that part of the deficiency.

However, Judge Panthuos needs to distinguish the Powerstein case—a case he himself wrote more than 25 years ago! There, the petitioners filed amended returns for multiple years during a Tax Court proceeding that, under the logic of Meyers, would constitute summary assessments and were otherwise collectible by the Service during a Tax Court case. But Judge Panuthos held in Powerstein that these returns did not authorize the Service to assess or collect the tax they reported.

What’s the difference? In Powerstein, petitioners filed their return after their petition was filed, specifically referencing the ongoing Tax Court proceeding. Indeed, the returns were filed after Respondent’s answer proposing additional deficiencies and after petitioner’s reply thereto. The returns were also submitted at once—some claiming a large refund, others reporting tax, in what Judge Panuthos characterized as a “misguided attempt to generate a net refund for the years at issue.”

While Powerstein doesn’t explicitly state this principle, the core inquiry seems to be whether, based on all facts and circumstances, it was clear that the Powersteins were still disputing a portion of the deficiency the Service was seeking to assess or collect. That squares with the text of section 6213(a), which deprives the Court of jurisdiction otherwise. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily matter when the returns were filed, but that timing can be relevant to the inquiry.

So, I suspect that a return filed even during a Tax Court proceeding itself could still allow the Service, under Judge Panuthos’ logic in Powerstein and Webert, to assess and collect that debt where there’s no other indication that the taxpayer still dispute that portion of the liability. Conversely, any tax reported on a return filed before the Service issues a Notice of Deficiency would be summarily assessed and collectible.

The Weberts fall into a grayer area, given that the Service determined a deficiency, but they had not yet filed a Tax Court petition. Ultimately, however, they did not show either through the returns themselves, their petition, or through the many rounds of previous orders and responses any intent to challenge that portion of the purported deficiency. That being so, the assessment was properly made under section 6201(a) and the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction to enjoin collection under section 6213(a).

A Cautionary Tale of Stipulations, Admissions, and Delay

Docket No. 17507-14, Trilogy, Inc. & Subsidiaries v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

To conclude, a foray into relief from stipulations by Judge Gustafson. Before getting to this order—which grants Respondent’s motion to strike under Rule 91(e)—some context is necessary.

At issue is whether Petitioner can deduct legal fees for 2009 through 2011. An apparently key analysis underlying this claim is why Trilogy sought to increase its stock ownership percentage in another company, Selectica. The Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed a ruling that concluded Trilogy did so to “intentionally impair corporate assets, or else coerce Selectica into meeting certain business demands under the threat of such impairment,” rather than to conduct a hostile takeover. Versata Enterprises, Inc. v. Selectica, Inc., 5 A.3d 586 (Del. 2010).

In the Tax Court, Trilogy filed requests for admissions in November 2017 that asked Respondent to admit matters that were contrary to that 2010 holding. Nevertheless, Respondent admitted them in January 2018. The Court previously relieved Respondent of those admissions in an order on April 12.

In the meantime, Respondent and Petitioner signed a stipulation of facts on March 19, 2018, and filed it on March 26. This stipulation also contained the offending provisions and so Respondent filed its motion to strike under Rule 91(e)—on April 20, 2018. Anyone see a problem yet?

Judge Gustafson granted Respondent’s present motion, as under the standards for evaluating such a motion, Trilogy could not show unfair prejudice, given it knew about Respondent’s dispute as to this issue when the motion to withdraw the admissions was filed on March 20—and indeed, of the larger factual controversy since 2010.

Judge Gustafson, however, is not indulging IRS counsel’s delay and unnecessary motion practice. Looking at the dates above, IRS counsel clearly knew about this factual dispute when the motion to withdraw the admission was filed on March 20—and likely for some time before. Yet counsel signed the stipulation containing similar language one day prior (and filed it a few days after that). Worse still, counsel took a whole month to file a motion to correct the stipulations.

I certainly respect that both petitioner’s and respondent’s counsel bear significant time pressures in Tax Court litigation. In this case, however, the Court itself had to expend additional time and resources on this motion, which if the issue had been caught before the stipulations were filed, could have been avoided. Not wanting to deal with this again in this litigation, Judge Gustafson concludes: “we do not condone the Commissioner’s inefficient handling of this issue. Absent truly extraordinary circumstances, we do not expect to allow the Commissioner to make any further correction of his admissions or stipulations in this case.” Consider yourself warned.

 

Frivolity, CDP Remands, Proving A Return Filed, and Untimely Refund Claims: Designated Orders 4/30 – 5/4/2018

Professor Patrick Thomas brings us the latest installment as we continue to play catch up on some interesting designated orders. Les

 This week’s orders bring us, yet again, a few taxpayers behaving badly (the interminable Mr. Ryskamp graces the pages of this blog yet again), a bevy of Graev-related orders on motions to reopen from Judge Carluzzo (all granted), three orders from Judge Jacobs, and a few deeper dives.

First, Judge Buch exercises the Tax Court’s ability to remand CDP cases for changed circumstances. Judge Ashford reminds us of the potential power of dismissing a deficiency case for lack of jurisdiction due to an untimely Notice of Deficiency—along with the proof needed to achieve such a result. Finally, Judge Holmes handles a motion to vacate due to petitioner’s inability to obtain a refund from the Tax Court.

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 Special Trial Judges Wield the Section 6673 PenaltyDocket Nos. 12507-17 L, Rader v. C.I.R. (Order Here); Docket No. 3899-18, Ryskamp v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In Rader, Judge Panuthos granted respondent’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in the CDP context. It’s relatively rare for the Tax Court to hear or grant such motions in CDP cases. When a petition is timely and properly filed, the Court usually decides, at minimum, whether the Settlement Officer “verifi[ed] … that the requirements of any applicable law or administrative procedure have been met”, as is required under section 6330(c)(1)—even where the petitioner doesn’t raise that issue or participate in the administrative hearing or Tax Court proceeding.

In contrast, here Judge Panuthos never reaches the merits (despite a timely filed request for a CDP hearing and timely filed petition) because the petition itself didn’t really say anything of substance.  Indeed, Judge Panuthos characterized it as containing “little more than pseudo-legal verbiage; references to [Code] sections and citations of tax cases, accompanied by petitioner’s questionable interpretations of those Code sections and case holdings; and accusations of fraud on the part of the IRS.”

The petition did try to challenge the underlying tax liability for 2012, noting that the Substitute-For-Return was inappropriate. Judge Panuthos gives a short recitation of why individuals are obligated to pay federal income tax, and why the Service has authority to assess tax via an SFR. (Not that he was required to; petitioner had already challenged his underlying liability, unsuccessfully, in a deficiency case, and so was barred from litigating the issue here). He then grants the motion to dismiss.

Finally, Judge Panuthos assesses, on the Court’s own motion, a $5,000 penalty under section 6673 for asserting “frivolous and meritless arguments”. Apparently, Mr. Rader has been assessed such a penalty in four (four!) separate deficiency dockets, including the one giving rise to this CDP matter. I’m not sure if another penalty will set him on the straight and narrow—but at this juncture, not issuing a penalty simply isn’t an option.

In Judge Guy’s order, Mr. Ryskamp is at it again. As we reported last month, Mr. Ryskamp attempted to acquire CDP jurisdiction by writing “Notice of Determination” on top of a Letter 2802C for 2017, and filed a petition with that letter on January 5, 2018. (The Letter 2802C indicates to a taxpayer that they submitted incorrect information to their employer on Form W-4). Judge Guy dismissed that case for lack of jurisdiction, warning him about the section 6673 penalty in an order dated March 23, 2018. In another post, we notedthat Mr. Ryskamp did the same thing with a LT16 notice (for those keeping score at home, still not a Notice of Determination), which Judge Gustafson quickly dismissed (though without the 6673 warning).

Now, Mr. Ryskamp filed a petition dated February 23, 2018, again attaching a letter related to withholding compliance, which he had requested from the Service. Judge Guy issued an Order to Show Cause why the case shouldn’t be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction; Mr. Ryskamp responded that the Court should regardless answer the following question: “What are a taxpayer’s substantive collection due process rights?”

Bad answer—or, question. Judge Guy dismisses the case for lack of jurisdiction. Additionally, he imposes a $1,000 penalty under section 6673, noting that Mr. Ryskamp was previously warned about the penalty four years earlier, and had been subject to two other case dismissals upon similar grounds. Judge Guy didn’t yet reference his earlier order regarding the Letter 2802C (perhaps because the Order to Show Cause was filed a day beforethe earlier order was issued).

What IRS notice will next reach the Tax Court as Mr. Ryskamp seeks to acquire jurisdiction of his substantive due process arguments? Time—and ever-increasing 6673 penalties—will likely tell. In the meantime, however, the Ninth Circuit will deal next with Mr. Ryskamp; he filed a Notice of Appeal on May 4. Mr. Ryskamp should take a look at section 6673(b)(3), which allows for the Service to assess and collect as a tax any sanctions he receives in a Court of Appeals.

Remanding for Changed Circumstances in a CDP Hearing Docket No. 1801-17 L, Rine v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Turning the tables, Judge Buch encounters a relatively sympathetic taxpayer in Rine, where the petitioner is mired in the collection of a Trust Fund Recovery Penalty under section 6672. In the CDP hearing, Mr. Rine rejected the Settlement Officer’s proposed $914 per month installment agreement, and upon issuance of a Notice of Determination sustaining the levy, petitioned the Tax Court.

While Mr. Rine actively participated in the CDP hearing—submitting a Form 433-A with expenses well in excess of his income—it seems the Settlement Officer substantially adjusted his figures. Ultimately, she concluded that Mr. Rine had at least $914 per month in disposable income, and that he’d need to sell some assets (stock, life insurance, and his 401(k)) before that could occur. He alleged that these assets had already been fully leveraged to finance his struggling former business.

Meanwhile, this business, which originally incurred the employment taxes at issue, had already entered into a bankruptcy plan to repay the liability (or more likely, some portion of the liability). Throughout this litigation, it paid $10,000 per month (which eventually mooted one of the tax periods before the Court in Pine, as it became paid in full). Mr. Rine argued that the liability was being paid under the bankruptcy plan, and so the IRS shouldn’t collect from him personally.

Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that there was no abuse of discretion in sustaining the levy, because Mr. Rine rejected the proposed Installment Agreement. In response, Mr. Rine repeated the arguments above, and noted that his wife had recently suffered from an accident, reducing her income; his own medical conditions had also deteriorated, increasing his expenses. Judge Buch holds that no abuse of discretion occurred, because the SO considered the information petitioner provided, verified applicable legal and administrative requirements, and engaged in the CDP balancing test.

But that was the extent of Judge Buch’s analysis. As such, I’m left with a number of questions: (1) how did the SO arrive at a $914 per month income surplus, where Mr. Rine’s submissions deviate so substantially? (2) Was her calculation valid? (3) What’s the total liability, and how quickly would the liability be paid under the bankruptcy plan alone? While the latter question is not determinative, it’d be helpful to have seen more analysis of whythe SO’s calculation was not arbitrary and capricious. From the facts alone (expenses far exceeding income; fully leveraged assets), a colorable case could be made that the decision was indeed arbitrary and capricious.

Nevertheless, Mr. Pine lives on to fight another day. Because of the changed circumstances for both Mr. and Mrs. Pine, Judge Buch remands the case to Appeals—though he notes that it’s up to Mr. Pine to provide evidence of his new situation.

Conflicting Evidence Finds Jurisdiction Docket Nos. 17507-14, 3156-13, Peabody v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Our next order comes from Judge Ashford, who denies petitioner’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Petitioners alleged that the Service issued their Notice of Deficiency too late, and therefore, had blown the assessment statute of limitations under section 6501(a).

Interestingly, this motion to dismiss was made pursuant to a timely filed petition; in the ordinary course, petitioners move to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction where the taxpayer never received the Notice of Deficiency. They then allege that the Service failed to send the Notice to their last known address. The Service responds with its own motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, but on the basis that the petition is untimely. Either way, the Tax Court finds a lack of jurisdiction, but the prevailing party obtains a judgment as to whythe Court lacks jurisdiction. If no proper Notice of Deficiency was issued, then the Service must respect that judgment and cannot thereafter proceed to assess or collect the underlying tax.

In contrast, the Peabodys received the Notice and timely filed a petition. Strike one against the success of their jurisdictional motion to dismiss.

The dispute here centers on whenthe Peabodys filed their 2009 income tax return. All agree they received an extension of time to file until October 15, 2010. If they filed the return on that date, then the statute under 6501(a) would have expired on October 15, 2013. A Notice of Deficiency issued on July 10, 2014 would be too late.

But was the return filed on October 15, 2010? The Service introduced a 2009 return that bore a stamped date of October 31, 2011, petitioners’ signatures, and handwritten dates of October 13, 2010.  The date on the paid preparer signature line was October 18, 2011. The envelope, which was sent to the IRS service center in Austin, bore a postmark date of October 28, 2011. Under these facts, a filing date of October 31, 2011 causes the statute to run on October 31, 2014—3 years after filing (note that the filing date for returns received after the deadline is the date of IRS receipt, not when the taxpayer mailed it).

Petitioners’ story is quite different. They argue that this purported “return” was not, in fact, their original 2009 federal income tax return. In their version, the return was prepared, picked up, signed, and mailed to the IRS campus in Fresno all on October 15, 2010. To support these allegations, they included an email, invoice, and filing instructions from their return preparer; a copy of the first two pages of their 2009 tax return; and sworn declarations from both Mr. Peabody and their tax return preparer.

The email seems to show that the return was sent from the preparer to Mr. Peabody on October 15, 2010. The return has a handwritten date of October 15, 2010 next to petitioners’ signatures, though the tax preparer did not sign. Mr. Peabody’s statement avers that he mailed the return the same day using the pre-addressed envelope from his return preparer. It also notes that, as to the Service’s return allegedly received on October 31, 2011, Mr. Peabody mailed a second return in response to a letter from the IRS, which requested a copy of the return; their preparer, according to them, printed it on October 18, 2011, and they sent it on its way. The preparer’s statement noted only that he prepared the return, and that the Peabodys picked it up on October 15, 2010 and mailed it.

This caused the IRS to pile on. Respondent submitted a sworn statement of the Revenue Agent who conducted the audit and a certified copy of Form 4340, Certificate of Assessments, Payments, and Other Specified Matters. The RA began the audit in August 2012, and requested a copy of the return, which was provided in early 2013 (thus, petitioners’ statement that he sent a copy of the return in 2011 seems suspect). At no time, according to the RA, did the Peabodys challenge the timing of the 2009 return filing. The Form 4340 showed an extension of time was filed, but that no return was filed until October 31, 2011.

Finally, Mr. Peabody replied with another sworn statement, noting that he was told during the audit that he was a victim of ID theft, which had caused his 2009, 2011, and 2012 returns to be rejected. He also noted that he believed the SOL had expired, justifying his refusal to extend the assessment statute for 2009.

Judge Ashford finds jurisdiction, and validates the Notice of Deficiency, relying on the self-serving nature of petitioners’ testimony, along with the unexplained discrepancies between the Service’s return (signed on October 13, 2010 and filed October 31, 2011) and the petitioners’ (signed on October 15, 2010 and filed on October 15, 2010). Further, the petitioners alleged in their petition that the return was filed on October 10, 2010. Judge Ashford also notes in a footnote that even if petitioner was an ID theft victim, this hurts his claim; the Service rejects returns that it believes are from an ID thief. (Interestingly, she also chides the IRS for assessing a failure-to-file penalty under section 6651(a) if the Peabodys are indeed ID theft victims). As such, the petitioners fail to carry their burden; weighed against the evidence the Service produced, especially the Form 4340, it appears more likely than not the only valid return is the one the IRS received on October 31, 2011. Indeed, the Form 4340 notes that the Service sent notices on July 25, 2011 and September 19, 2011, strongly suggesting the Service either rejected or didn’t receive the earlier return (and perhaps it’s that second notice to which petitioners responded with the “copy” of the return). This all puts the Service’s Notice of Deficiency well within the assessment statute.

Motion to Vacate for Bygone Refunds Docket Nos. 21366-14, 23139-12, 23113-12, Dollarhide v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

I was really hoping that with a name like “Dollarhide”, this would be a tax evasion case of some variety.

I mean, come on. Dollarhide? It’s just too good.

Alas, the Dollarhides seem like fairly honest taxpayers tripped up by the refund statute of limitations. We briefly covered these dockets in an earlier postfrom March. In that order, Judge Holmes granted the Service’s motion to enter a decision, finding that the refund statute of limitations barred the petitioners’ refund claim. Under section 6513(b), their withholding for 2006 was treated as paid on April 15, 2007; to make matters worse, it seems the Dollarhides paid excess Social Security tax—which likewise is claimable as a credit and treated as paid on April 15, 2007. But they filed their return on February 3, 2011, more than three years thereafter. Accordingly, the payment on April 15, 2007 was not claimable under section 6511(b)(2).

Now, the Dollarhides filed a motion to vacate or revise the decision under Rule 162. They argued that, had they known they couldn’t receive a refund, they would not have agreed to the stipulation of settled issues, upon which the Court based its decision. This document presumably includes a stipulation that the 2006 return was filed on February 3, 2011. The Tax Court rules here track the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; FRCP 60(b) governs motions for relief from judgment, and the Dollarhides attempt to shoehorn this matter into FRCP 60(b)(3), which allows relief for fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party.

That argument doesn’t fly with Judge Holmes. He notes that a mere failure to state something is not fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct, at least where the untold statement could have been discovered with a little diligence. The Dollarhides, according to Judge Holmes, could have indeed discovered a clear legal issue like this.

Secondly, the Dollarhides argue that they didn’t file a 2006 return, because the Revenue Agent handling the corporation’s audit requested their 2006 individual return. From the order, we can’t tell whetherthat return was indeed submitted to the RA. Judge Holmes notes that no individual audit occurred for 2006. If the Dollarhides are telling the truth, and the return was indeed submitted to the RA, I’m not sure it matters that no individual audit was conducted. See above, however, for difficulties in proving whenor howa return was filed.

Finally, the Dollarhides didn’t raise the overpayment in their petition. Because the stipulation of settled issues indeed “resolved all issues in the case” (the refund claim not being an issue), any misrepresentation to the IRS wasn’t material.

But even if the Dollarhides found their way past the barriers to granting a motion to vacate, they’d still have great difficulties on the merits. If the Dollarhides could have proven that the return was somehow filed beforethe IRS alleges (perhaps with the Revenue Agent), they might have had a shot. It doesn’t look like any such evidence was presented, either with the motion or elsewhere in this case. As such, Judge Holmes denies the motion and ends this case.

Designated Orders: 4/2 – 4/6/2018

Designated Order guest blogger Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame brings us this week’s post. He examines a pair of bench opinions and expresses frustration with our complex tax system, the poor information provided to taxpayers by our financial system and the impact on compliance of asserting the substantial understatement penalty. In his last paragraph he speculates that the experience will make these two taxpayers more compliant which is logical thinking but there is a study by the National Taxpayer Advocate which reaches the conclusion that imposing penalties can make individuals less compliant. Imposing penalties without thought, which is how the substantial understatement penalty works, needs review as good policy and the NTA keeps suggesting such a review without success as yet. Keith 

This week’s orders bring us two bench opinions from Chief Special Trial Judge Carluzzo analyzing the reasonable cause exception to the substantial understatement penalty under section 6662. These two orders are the only ones discussed at length in this post.

Other orders include a helpful reminder of burden of proof considerations with unreported income, along with highlights of a few interesting procedural mechanisms in the innocent spouse and math error assessment contexts. Judge Carluzzo also issued another order that was light on publicly available facts, but a reminder that the Tax Court may consider what the Service designates as a “decision letter” to actually constitute a Notice of Determination.

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Reasonable Cause – Late/Incorrect 1099 Forms Insufficient for Penalty Avoidance

Docket No. 9285-17S, Zschau v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Docket No. 6628-17S, Cusack v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Carluzzo issued bench opinions in two cases, Zschau and Cusack, where the sole issues for decision was whether the petitioners qualified for a reasonable cause exception to the substantial understatement penalty under section 6662. In both cases, the petitioners relied on third parties to properly and timely issue information returns; those third parties (Janus Investments and Chase Bank) failed their statutory obligations. Nevertheless, Judge Carluzzo sustained the penalties in both cases—though in Zschau, only by a hair.

These cases are eminently frustrating to me. They reflect what I consider to be a wholesale failure of federal tax administration, stemming, it seems, from the taxpayers’ basic lack of understanding of just what the federal income tax is and what their reporting obligations are. I see this among many (though not all) of my clients in the LITC; I’m sure my fellow bloggers have similar experiences.

Indeed, just the other day, I spoke with a new client. Since retiring on a small pension about 10 years ago, she hasn’t filed an income tax return, because—she believed—there’s no requirement to file a tax return or pay taxes after one is retired. I explained the very basic concepts of income taxation and withholding to her. Her eyes lit up. “I had no idea. That makes sense, but no one has ever explained that to me,” she said. Fortunately, after obtaining her information returns, I determined she owed no tax on the unreported income—but had missed out on nearly $10,000 in refunds over the past 10 years.

The issues in Zschau and Cusack are more complex, but I believe, derive from the very same ignorance of how federal income taxation works and what obligations the Code imposes on taxpayers. Most taxpayers that I encounter (and I admittedly self-select those who have run into issues with the Service) understand taxation through unsolicited experience; that is, at some point in their lives, their employer or a payor sends them an information return, which they do not understand. The taxpayer may ignore that form; or they may take it to a trusted friend or relative, who eventually points them to a tax return preparer.

Eventually, the understanding emerges that all taxpayers have an annual filing obligation, and such forms should be provided to a tax return preparer on an annual basis. Taxpayers thus rely on and presume the accuracy and timely delivery of those forms. And perhaps, at some point, taxpayers come to understand the notion that if they receive income—especially in cash—they’re required to pay taxes on that income. But I think (and I’d welcome research on this point) that the provision of an information return with respect to that income would satisfy the taxpayer’s perceived obligation, so long as it was timely delivered to a return preparer; that the absence of such a form, generally speaking, signals to the taxpayer that nothing needs to be provided to a return preparer; and that any error on the form or in delivering the form is the fault of either the third party or the tax return preparer.

In Zschau, the taxpayers didn’t “see” any income from their investment account in cash—and didn’t receive a 1099-B to boot. In Cusack, the taxpayers received a (very) incorrect 1099-R. Both taxpayers had invested with large investment or banking organizations, which presumably have sophisticated tax reporting operations. In both cases, we see errors of the type I describe above.

Zschau’s investment account custodian did not send a 1099-B until long after the petitioners’ return preparer filed the tax return. As such, it wasn’t included on the return. Further, the amounts distributed were reinvested into the account; thus, the Zschau’s didn’t intuit that they had received taxable income, as one might have, had the proceeds been converted to cash in a bank account. They didn’t know about the discrepancy until receiving correspondence from the Service, and then submitted an amended return to include the income (which was unprocessed, due to the outstanding Notice of Deficiency). They also paid the deficiency.

These taxable events that do not result in liquid income often confuse my clients in the Clinic, such that the income is not reported on the return. This is especially true if there’s a delay, like in Zschau, in issuing the 1099-B or other information return, as the tax preparer cannot catch that income either. Cancellation of debt income, pass-through income, reinvested taxable income, and improperly performed retirement account rollovers often lie at the heart of Automated Underreporter (and eventually, Automated Collection Systems) cases in my clinic, and reflect the general ignorance of federal income taxation that I describe above.

The amounts underreported clearly established a substantial understatement under section 6662(d), as the underreported tax exceeded 10 percent of the tax required to be shown on the return (and presumably also exceeded $5,000). Thus, the only legal issue was whether reasonable cause existed for the underreporting.

Before deciding the issue, Judge Carluzzo noted that this was “a very close case”, and that further he was “disappointed that the parties were unable to resolve it between themselves by splitting the penalty.” That short comment struck me and creates a fertile ground for a longer discussion. Notwithstanding the preferences of judges for private settlement, the Tax Court’s institutional interest in efficiency, and litigants’ interests in avoiding the cost and time of trial, surely it’s this very sort of case that the Tax Court exists to decide: a case where equities exist on both sides, are difficult to balance, and where cause the parties to hold seemingly strong views regarding their positions.

Of course, we can only speculate as to what happened before trial. We don’t know whether settlement negotiations occurred, and if so, what took place therein. Perhaps had the Zschaus retained counsel, they would have benefited from a more accurate analysis of litigation hazards. Or perhaps it was respondent who was intransigent.

Putting aside my speculation, Judge Carluzzo ultimately held for the Service. The decision hinged on the Zschaus having received a 2014 year-end summary from Janus before filing the tax return. While the summary didn’t indicate whether any gains were taxable, it did show a large amount of capital gains. Zschau noted that he had only ever provided his return preparer with his Forms 1099-B; Judge Carluzzo found this insufficient (which may surprise a number of tax return preparers). Not helping matters was Zschau’s ownership of an insurance brokerage agency, suggesting he should have known to provide the summary to his return preparer—though I submit that general financial literacy (if that can be imputed to Zschau from ownership of an insurance agency) does not substitute for tax literacy.

Bottom line: a cautionary tale for taxpayers with investment accounts and tax preparers who only require a 1099-B from their clients. To enable accurate reporting and penalty avoidance, taxpayers should provide their year-end summaries to their return preparers, in addition to their tax reporting forms.

The Cusack matter is more straightforward, though still frustrating to me and for the taxpayers. The Cusacks owned an IRA, from which they took distributions amounting to $36,500 due to financial hardship. However, Chase issued the Cusacks a 1099-R reporting only $2,780, which they provided to their return preparer and reported on their return. Chase did not issue a corrected or additional 1099-R for this year.

Judge Carluzzo noted that the taxpayers “were obviously aware that the distributions were made” and that “one or both of them must have known that the amount shown on the return as an IRA distribution was understated.” He concluded that, “we cannot excuse their failure to question the relatively low amount the return preparer included on the return as an IRA distribution.” As such, he upheld the penalty, as the Cusacks did not demonstrate reasonable cause.

We can indeed easily conclude that the Cusacks were aware of the distributions, given they compensated for the taxpayers’ difficult economic circumstances. But I do wonder: were the taxpayers afforded an opportunity to review their return before filing? Could the taxpayers effectively read and understand the items listed on a Form 1040? Did they presume that Chase had accurately reported taxable income from the IRA on Form 1099-R? Did they understand how an IRA works, in the first instance?

I realize that the answers to these questions are not necessarily determinative in the 6662(a) context. Yet the stated purpose of the accuracy penalties is to encourage voluntary compliance. I’d indeed bet that the Zschaus and the Cusacks now have a better understanding of their federal income tax obligations, and are therefore more likely to comply in the future (at least if similar issues arise).

But will these cases have any effect on taxpayers writ large, outside of those already tax-educated few who read this blog? I very much doubt it.

 

Designated Orders: 3/5 – 3/9/2018

We welcome guest blogger Patrick Thomas of Notre Dame with the designated order post. These orders are about a month old; however, in drafting this post we needed to consult with someone at the IRS to understand the activity on one of the orders and it took a little time to nail down the answer.  The usual Graev orders exist. At the recent Tax Court Judicial Conference, the Court did not schedule any sessions regarding this issue. I suspect the judges were glad to take a few days away from thinking about the many ways that Graev can arise and complicate a case. The two orders that Professor Thomas discusses at length do involve penalties. One of the orders features the 6673 penalty and another its return filing cousin, the frivolous return penalty. Keith 

The orders from last week raised more Graev concerns, featured three orders from Judge Gustafson, and handled an interesting CDP issue from a tax protestor. Another order granted partial relief in an innocent spouse case where the requesting spouse still lived with the non-requesting spouse.

First, three orders from Judge Gustafson. One order focused on an issue raised in Caleb Smith’s post from the previous week—don’t ask for extensions of time in status reports. Ask for them through a motion. Another dealt with a motion to compel discovery and for sanctions, made very close to trial. Finally, a third granted summary judgment to the Service in a CDP case, largely because a taxpayer didn’t show up to trial (or appropriately designate a next-friend under Rule 60(d) to appear for him).

Next, two cases force the Court, as Judge Holmes describes it, “to hunt down yet another Chai ghoul….” I suppose that “Graev ghoul” would have been just too much, but I defer to Judge Holmes on all matters of colorful opinion writing. In any case, he found, deferring to a prior case, that the penalty for fraudulent failure to file a tax return under section 6651(f) does not require compliance with section 6751(b), because the penalty is calculated through automatic means. As such, Judge Holmes denies the Service’s request to reopen the record to demonstrate 6751(b) compliance.

The second case is also a motion to reopen for a substantial understatement penalty under section 6662(a). (The Service does not argue here, as it had argued in a prior case, that the penalty was calculated through automatic means.) Judge Halpern found, as in many other post-Graev III cases, that the record ought to be reopened, notably because the 6751 issue was not previously raised.

The remaining cases deserve more extension discussion:

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Docket No. 18225-16L, Griggs v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This brief order is interesting not for its disposition of the underlying CDP case (Judge Guy granted the Service’s motion for summary judgment because the petitioners did not provide financial information), but rather for its treatment of the Service’s request to impose the section 6673 penalty and to permit a levy.

This was the petitioners’ second time in Tax Court in this CDP matter. The first time, the Service actually filed a motion to remand to Appeals to consider whether to grant Currently Not Collectible status to the petitioner (something that I’ve not seen before in my practice—though admittedly, we don’t know much about the underlying issues here). After the petitioners failed to provide financials in that second hearing, Appeals sustained the levy and the Court granted the Service’s summary judgment motion on that basis.

The Service also wanted to impose the section 6673 penalty for filing a Tax Court petition merely for purposes of delay. However, the petitioners didn’t respond to the motion for summary judgment at all—and as such, did not defend themselves against the 6673 penalty. The Court, however, “considering all the facts and circumstances” (though without any more explanation), declines to impose the penalty. Judge Guy does so notwithstanding his notation that “without an explanation from petitioners, the record suggests that they instituted this proceeding primarily for purposes of delay.”

Without more facts, it’s tough to judge the penalty’s propriety in Griggs. I could certainly foresee a pro se taxpayer who—not understanding the limitations of the Tax Court’s standard of review—would desire to explain their financial circumstances to the Court. And further—not understanding the formalities of motion practice—would fail to properly respond to the motion (though here, there is no response at all).

Indeed, from having examined section 6673 penalties in prior cases, it seems that the Court is wary of imposing these penalties except in the most egregious of cases—usually involving tax protestors.

One other notable item: the Court also granted the respondent’s motion to permit levy. I was originally unsure why this was necessary, given that granting the motion for summary judgment resolved the case (and thus, permits the Service to levy). However, under section 6330(e)(2), the Service is ordinarily prohibited from levying during an appeal of a CDP case from the Tax Court, unless (1) the underlying liability is not at issue, and (2) the Service shows good cause not to suspend the levy. Thus, if petitioners appeal Judge Guy’s order, the Service may still levy while that appeal is pending. A good catch by IRS counsel, as I’ve not seen many CDP cases disposed in this manner.

Docket No. 17789-16SL, Luniw v. C.I.R. (Order Here) 

Certainly the longest order of the week, Judge Leyden analyzes this fairly unique issue in commendable depth—especially given the nature of the returns and the petitioner in question.

Quickly stated, this taxpayer took a page from Beard v. Commissioner. He worked for two employers and received two Form W-2s during 2012. He also timely filed a 2012 Form 1040, but listed his total income as $0 on Line 22, and thus requested all of his income tax withholdings as a refund. One-upping Mr. Beard, he also claimed his Social Security and Medicare tax withholding as a credit and requested a refund of those amounts as well.

The Service responded with two notices, dated June 17, 2013: a CP11, math error assessment notice, and a CP72, notifying Mr. Luniw that his return was frivolous, and requesting that he filed a non-frivolous Form 1040 within 30 days to avoid assessment of a penalty under section 6702(a).

On June 25, 2013, Mr. Luniw responded to the CP11 with tax protestor arguments (noting that because he worked for entities incorporated in states, his income was not “federally connected”, and therefore not subject to any federal tax). He included a Form 4852, Substitute W-2 (alleging that the employer’s W-2 was incorrect in including any taxable income), along with a “copy” of a Form 1040 he purportedly sent to the Service on April 25. He also noted that he had sent an original Form 1040 on April 8. 

A day prior, Mr. Luniw responded to the CP72 with a Form 1040 that he stated he mailed on April 24, again to correct his April 8 return. 

On March 31, 2014, the Service assessed three penalties, totaling $15,000, under section 6702, believing that Mr. Luniw submitted three frivolous returns. The IRS assessment form indicated the penalties were assessed for frivolous submissions dated “4/15/2013, 06/27/2013, and 6/28, 2013”. This appears to relate to the April 9 submission, along with the two responses Mr. Luniw sent on June 24 and 25.

Judge Leyden noted that each Form 1040 contained the same information—except the IRS receipt stamps.

  • One return bore a stamp of June 28, 2013 at Ogden, along with a second stamp of July 3, 2013 from the Frivolous Return Penalty unit.
  • One return bore only one stamp of July 10, 2013 from the Frivolous Return Penalty unit. It also had a number at the top of the first page (0921111186222-3).
  • The final return bore four IRS stamps: June 27, 2013; July 1, 2013; August 5, 2013 at the Ogden Campus, and August 8, 2013 from the Frivolous Return Penalty unit. The first two stamps also noted “ATSC IRS #7576” and “AT-CT #31”, respectively.

There is a very lengthy history of how the CDP case arose; in sum, this case involved a Notice of Intent to Levy regarding both the 6702 and underlying income tax assessments. Somehow, the Service did not properly assess the income tax for this year and blew its statute of limitations. Additionally, Mr. Luniw didn’t timely file a petition regarding the NFTL issued for the same assessments. So this CDP case before Judge Leyden dealt only with the levy notices for the 6702 penalties, and whether those penalties were properly assessed.

Mr. Luniw could challenge the underlying liability, having received no prior opportunity to do so. He also requested Currently Not Collectible status but, unsurprisingly, provided no financial information to IRS Appeals.

Finally, he also made various arguments during the CDP hearing that the Settlement Officer determined to be frivolous. During the hearing, he submitted a Form 1040X, which contained essentially the same information as the previous Form 1040s. I wonder if there is yet another section 6702 penalty in the works for Mr. Luniw?

After winding up in the Tax Court after a supplemental hearing, respondent and Mr. Luniw moved for summary judgment. Judge Leyden denied both motions; while the reasons for denying Mr. Luniw’s motion are apparent, genuine issues of material fact existed on whether the 6702 penalties were properly assessed.

Specifically, section 6702 applies where (1) a taxpayer files a document purporting to be a tax return; (2) the return “does not contain information on which the substantial correctness of the self-assessment may be judged” or “contains information that on its face indicates that the self-assessment is substantially incorrect”; and (3) the taxpayer’s conduct must either be based on an identified frivolous position or reflect a desire to delay or impede the administration of federal tax laws.

Elements two and three were easily satisfied. But Judge Leyden was concerned that the record did not reflect, to-date, that Mr. Luniw filed “three separate and different” tax returns for 2012. Mr. Luniw maintained in the summary judgment hearing that he only filed one original return for 2012. Further, Judge Leyden was troubled that the dates of the returns in respondent’s motion didn’t correspond to the dates on the IRS assessment notice. With regard to the first filing, Mr. Luniw noted that he filed a return on April 8, and then a subsequent “corrected” return later in April. Respondent apparently didn’t clearly link up the first 6702 assessment to either return.

So, this case will proceed to trial. While one might presume that the Service will at least get one $5,000 penalty out of this case, they appear to need to more clearly establish the filing date of the first return, as it relates to the Service’s subsequent assessment for that “original” return. Otherwise, this may indeed be a case in which a tax protestor gets away with their frivolous positions.

 

 

 

Designated Orders: 2/5 – 2/9/2018

Patrick Thomas who teaches and runs the tax clinic at Notre Dame brings us this week’s designated order posts. Graev continues to draw the Court’s attention. I found the post on what happens to material attached to the petition to be of special interest. Keith 

Last week’s designated orders continue to discuss the Pandora’s Box of issues that the Court unleashed in its Graev III opinion. Judge Ashford granted an IRS motion to reopen the record to demonstrate compliance with section 6751(b); Judge Gustafson did the same, though gave petitioner an opportunity to respond regarding the approval form’s authenticity; and Judge Holmes issued an interesting order, which we discuss more fully below.

In other orders, Judge Buch issued a bench opinion disallowing various unsubstantiated itemized deductions; Judge Armen issued an order fully disposing of a case, which educated a taxpayer on the basics of federal income taxation; Judge Gustafson issued a bench opinion in a CDP case, where the petitioner did not submit a Form 433-A; and Judge Jacobs issued two miscellaneous orders.

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Docket No. 18254-17L, Kestin v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This order merits only a quick discussion, but one that my students may find useful as they complete their Tax Court petition assignment. The petitioner here submitted a number of evidentiary documents along with their Tax Court petition. Many pro se taxpayers (and even some inexperienced practitioners) may do this, reasonably believing that documentation would support the claims made in the petition.

However, the Tax Court may only consider documentation if formally entered into evidence. As such, the Court’s clerk wrote the petitioner, informing her as much. The petitioner responded with a “motion to amend”, asking the clerk not to reject her documents (and to fix a weblink error she noticed).

Judge Gustafson denied the motion as moot, seeing no need to amend any claim in the petition. He noted further that the petitioner could cite the correct web address later in her pretrial memo, and can attempt to submit evidence at trial. Finally, Judge Gustafson notes that the documentation she submitted was not actually deleted from the petition; indeed, it’s very likely still available in hard copy in the case file in DC, or in electronic format via the petitioner’s Tax Court website login. Not an earthshattering order, but important for clearing up this basic proposition for newer practitioners and pro se taxpayers alike. 

Docket No. 174980-17L, Holdner v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

In Holdner, the taxpayer continued a nearly 15-year fixation with the tax years 2004 through 2006—even though this case related to a CDP hearing from a levy and lien filing related to 2015.

The earlier years were litigated in a deficiency case in 2010, which the Ninth Circuit ultimately affirmed. The substantive issues in those years centered on whether petitioner was a member of a partnership, and as such, should have recognized income and expenses allocable to his partnership interest. Apparently, while he allocated the income evenly between himself and his son, he had allocated the lion’s share of expenses to himself, and allowed his son (who presumably was subject to a lower marginal tax rate) to bear the brunt of taxation.

The Service proceeded with enforced collection activity for these years, resulting in a CDP hearing and subsequent Tax Court case, wherein the petitioner again attempted to litigate the underlying liability from 2004 through 2006. The Tax Court rightly disallowed this challenge (and ruled in favor of the Service, given that petitioner declined to divulge any financial information as to establish a collection alternative), which the Ninth Circuit again affirmed.

For some reason that does not appear in this designated order, petitioner ended up owing for 2015. The Service again attempted to collect this debt via levy, and petitioner requested a CDP hearing; he again attempted to raise the underlying liability from 2004 through 2006, without making any argument regarding 2015. And, in the meantime, petitioner managed to sue the Service in federal district court—which dismissed the case on similar grounds as the earlier 2004 – 2006 CDP case in Tax Court. The Ninth Circuit—for the third time—affirmed the decision in 2017.

This brings us to last week’s order, where the Service had filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction as to 2004, 2005, and 2006, along with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on 2015 (because no collection alternative had been proposed). As might be anticipated, Judge Armen grants both motions, ending the case for Mr. Holdner (no doubt the Ninth Circuit will soon enjoy its fourth opportunity to weigh in).

I must confess two areas of confusion with Judge Armen’s opinion. First, he seems to grant the motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction on a basis other than a lack of jurisdiction—that is, that Mr. Holdner previously litigated the issues underlying his 2004 through 2006 tax years. But that’s not what deprives the Court of jurisdiction here; rather, that’s because petitioner did not demonstrate that he possessed a Notice of Determination relevant to 2004, 2005, or 2006, on the basis of which he timely petitioned the Tax Court. The Court need not address that substantive issue at all.

More importantly, I question why no penalty under section 6673 was imposed or threatened in this case. A taxpayer has a clear right to litigate the merits of a tax liability in a deficiency case. And, being charitable to Mr. Holdner, perhaps he was unaware that one cannot challenge that deficiency in a CDP hearing, when it has been previously litigated. But this case represents the third time that Mr. Holdner used the resources of the Tax Court, federal district court, Chief Counsel, the Tax Division, and/or the Ninth Circuit to litigate an issue that he was unquestionably barred from disputing. As we’ve noted previously, the Tax Court has the ability to impose these penalties even absent a request from the Service. While one might question the penalty’s efficacy in preventing further bad behavior—and while the Tax Court seems primarily to use these penalties in the case of more egregious tax protestor arguments—this case would seem a candidate for its application.

Docket No. 15602-15L, Great Lakes Concrete Products, LLC v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Finally, Judge Holmes’s order on a motion to remand continues to explore the contours of Graev III and section 6751(b). Judge Holmes grants the Service’s motion to remand (to which petitioner consented), but orders the Service, in any new Notice of Determination to consider the following questions:

  • Is a failure to deposit penalty one “automatically calculated through electronic means”?
  • Is 6751(b) supervisor approval present in this case?
  • Is compliance with section 6751(b) part of the “verification” necessary under section 6330? Or, is it rather, part of challenge to underlying liability?
  • Does the taxpayer qualify for a reasonable cause exception from the penalties?

I do not purport to answer any of the above questions, but it’s interesting to note the degree of control that Judge Holmes exercises on this issue in retaining jurisdiction and requiring an answer to particular questions in the subsequent Notice of Determination. We’ll stay tuned in this case, and others, that continue to develop the Tax Court’s 6751(b) jurisprudence.

 

Designated Orders: 1/8 – 1/12/2018—Shutdown Special Edition

We welcome Patrick Thomas at Notre Dame who brings us this week’s designated order post.  Keith

I’ve complained before about “light” weeks in designated orders from the Tax Court. But this week was truly a nothingburger: two orders from Judge Jacobs in two separate consolidated cases, along with an order from Judge Gustafson dismissing a deficiency case because neither the petitioner nor an attorney for the petitioner showed up to calendar call. That’s it.

Docket No. 24347-17, Oliver v. C.I.R.

So, our duty of recording each designated order fulfilled, we’ve decided to hit an “undesignated” order today, as well as muse generally regarding the Tax Court’s procedures during the short-lived, though perhaps recurring, government shutdown. Bob Kamman identified an order from Chief Judge Marvel regarding an IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, due to the petitioner’s alleged failure to timely file. The Service argued that, based on the mailing address on the petition, and the time it takes to mail documentation from that address to the Tax Court in Washington, the petition must have arrived by June 30, 2017 for it to be timely.

However, the Court notes that the Service didn’t provide any information “with respect to the additional time required for the petition to undergo the irradiation process that is required for mail sent to the Tax Court.” I apparently showed my age in asking Keith just what an “irradiation process” was. This process derives from the anthrax attacks in 2001, which killed five people and injured 17. Currently, the Postal Service irradiates mail sent via certain mailing methods to certain government offices in the DC area—which, according to Chief Judge Marvel, includes the Tax Court. Apparently that process may delay the usual mail processing time.

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That’s all well and good. However, the petition in this case was filed on December 7, 2017. Over five months after the Service calculated that the petition was due. Any seasoned practitioner would raise an eyebrow if the filing of a petition in the Tax Court was delayed by more than a couple weeks after mailing.

Is there any reason that the petition’s filing date could be so delayed, yet the petitioner still timely mailed the petition? If not, it appears that this litigant’s Tax Court case—like his petition—may end up irradiated as well. 

Shutdown: Past, Present, and Future(?)

I was not quite yet in practice during the 2013 shutdown. As the specter of the 2018 shutdown approached on Friday, I caught myself realizing that (1) I hadn’t thought much about the consequences of a shutdown on my practice, it being the beginning of a new and hectic semester, and (2) I had some Tax Court petitions to file and other deadlines coming up this week.

I was heartened to see that the Tax Court has a separate funding allocation that allowed its continued operation for the shutdown’s relatively limited duration. So those cases continued apace. Though apparently, it’s not always been the case that such funding exists; Carl Smith tells me that, when he was a Tax Court clerk for Judge Nims in 1982, the court underwent a three-day shutdown because the government was closed and there was at that time no special funding for the court to continue operations. All employees of the court were told not to come in. But, the judges came in and limited their work to stamping the mail received (nothing else).

In researching the consequences of the 2013 shutdown, I noted some lessons for practitioners and petitioners in interfacing with both the Court and Service during these periods. Given that current funding lasts until February 8—and the still unresolved nature of the fundamental differences between the parties—practitioners may do well to prepare for another shutdown in the near future.

  1. Keith has a great piece on a calendar call that occurred immediately prior to and after the 2013 shutdown in Philadelphia. I suggest reading it in full for a sense of pressure it applies to litigants and Tax Court judges at calendar call.
  2. The shutdown may not automatically extend the jurisdictional deadline in which to file a petition. Taxpayers and practitioners should continue to mail petitions to the Court to meet their statutory deadlines—especially if the Tax Court instructs petitions to do so on their website.

In McCoy v. Commissioner, the taxpayer’s attorney first attempted to e-file a petition (then and now, impossible), and that having failed, sought to hand-deliver the petition to the Tax Court’s courthouse in Washington, D.C. on October 11, 2013—during the middle of the shutdown. I’m not sure whether the Court’s funding had run out entirely, or whether it had furloughed its public-facing employees. Regardless, the Court was closed, and the attorney was unable to deliver the petition.

Meanwhile, the 90 day period after issuance of the Notice of Deficiency expired on October 15. Once the government reopened, the attorney hand-delivered the petition to the Court on November 4 (though the shutdown ended on October 17).

The Tax Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. It noted that, though hand-delivery was impossible, the petitioner could have filed a petition like the majority of petitioners who neither reside nor have counsel in the Washington, D.C. area: by mailing the petition to the Tax Court. Indeed, the Tax Court instructed litigants to do just that. The Postal Service operates on revenue, and so is unaffected by a shutdown. Presumably, as long as USPS actually delivers a petition bearing an appropriate date, the petition would be timely. I wonder, though, what the process of delivering/collecting the mail at the Tax Court during a shutdown looks like now, and whether petitions could be lost in the mix. Do judges continue to come in to stamp the mail, as they did in 1982?

McCoy’s very belated delivery aside, taxpayers who run into shutdown-related snafus with their petition dates should look to Guralnik v. Commissioner, which was decided after McCoy. Guralnik holds that a “snow day,” during which the Tax Court was closed, rendered the Court “inaccessible” under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6(a)(3). Thus, the last date to file was extended to the next day the Court was open (and happily enough, the petition was received by the Court on that date).

Still, as noted above, the Court continues to operate from allocated funding during the initial stages of a shutdown. For those days that the Court is open, it is “accessible” under FRCP 6(a)(3). So, practitioners and petitioners shouldn’t assume that a shutdown automatically translates to additional time.

  1. Even if the Tax Court has reserve funding, your local counsel’s office, appeals office, and certainly the IRS campuses, do not. Monday was, thus, a rather lonely day at the Clinic.

Indeed, in 2013, the entirety of the Taxpayer Advocate Service, Automated Collection Systems, and other core functions of the Service were furloughed. As the National Taxpayer Advocate noted in the 2015 Objectives Report to Congress, however, automated collections actions continued apace—but there were no human beings to call—either in TAS or ACS—to request relief from that automated collection. During the two-week shutdown period, there were 3,902 Social Security levies, 5,455 levies on financial accounts, 7,025 wage levies, and 4,099 Notices of Federal Tax Liens filed. If any of these actions presented the kind of economic hardship that I routinely see in my Clinic (e.g., inability to pay rent, utilities, or other necessary living expenses), there was simply no immediate recourse for these taxpayers.

Given that, it’s probably a good idea to move quickly on cases where a levy can be proactively prevented—i.e., if a practitioner is sitting on a February 8 deadline to file a request for a Collection Due Process hearing (which would prevent a levy), it might be better to mail that request this week, rather than the deadline.

  1. Relatedly, it remains an open question whether the Commissioner has the authority to furlough the National Taxpayer Advocate or her staff. If not, this would certainly help with the problems identified above.

That’s all for this edition of Designated Orders. Here’s to another three weeks of a functioning government. And hopefully, in the meantime, a few more substantive orders from the Tax Court.