Tax Court Reverses Course and Allows Taxpayers to Change Filing Status

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Today we are privileged to have Tom Thomas as our guest blogger. Tom and I worked together for many years at Chief Counsel’s Office though we were never working together in the same office at the same time. When I retired, he was my boss’s, boss’s boss. Put another way, he was the head lawyer for all of the Chief Counsel attorneys in the SBSE stovepipe. These are the lawyers who primarily populate the field offices of Chief Counsel, who try the bulk of the Tax Court cases and who provide the collection advice to the IRS. Tom held that position for about a decade before he retired a couple of years ago. In retirement he found the pull to work in a low income tax clinic and he is now the Assistant Director of the Kansas City Tax Clinic. That clinic and the low income taxpayers of Kansas City are extremely lucky to have Tom providing assistance.

The case Tom discusses marks an important shift at the Tax Court in its approach to taxpayers who use the wrong filing status on their original return and want to shift to a correct and usually more favorable filing status in response to a notice of deficiency. As Tom discusses, the Court reaches its decision in a fully reviewed, precedential opinion. Although the issue has existed for decades and come before the Tax Court on several occasions, it had previously only addressed the issue in non-precedential memorandum opinions. The life of this issue in Tax Court opinions provides an interesting glimpse in how and when a case becomes precedential. Unfortunately, I cannot say that the glimpse makes the process any clearer to me.

The case also provides an important glimpse at what makes the Tax Court so wonderful. Judge Thornton provides a beautifully written law review like explanation of the history of the statute involving joint returns. He does this without the benefit of a much help from the petitioners who were pro se. I recently presented a paper to the Harvard faculty on access to judicial review in tax cases. I concluded in the paper that the best answer to the problem I perceived was to insure access to the Tax Court, and I drew a question from a professor on why I preferred to insure access to an Article I court rather than an Article III court. The Camara case is my answer. The Tax Court puts a lot of effort into finding the right answer for a pro se taxpayer on an issue that typically plagues low income taxpayers. While I do not always agree with the Tax Court, I am always impressed with the efforts it takes to insure equal justice for all taxpayers appearing before it. The opinion here is worth reading for the education it provides on filing status issues but also for the care it takes to find the answer with little help from the pro se taxpayers who appeared before it. Keith

In a fully reviewed opinion, a unanimous Tax Court held that petitioner Fansu Camara’s originally filed return, erroneously claiming “single” status, did not constitute a “separate return” under section 6013(b) and, thus, petitioner is not barred from filing a subsequent joint return. Camara v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. No. 13 (September 28, 2017). Section 6013(b)(2) bars a joint return for a married taxpayer who initially filed a separate return if either spouse received a notice of deficiency and files a petition with the Tax Court. Because Mr. Camara did not file a separate return within the meaning of section 6013(b)(2), he and his wife were entitled to file a joint return and enjoy joint tax rates and filing status.

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In holding for Mr. Camara, the Tax Court rejected its own precedent in several memorandum opinions, the most recent being Ibrahim v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-8, rev’d and remanded, 788 F.3d 835 (8th Cir. 2015). In rejecting those memorandum opinions, Judge Thornton noted that the Tax Court has never addressed the issue in a reported or reviewed opinion. Further, Ibrahim was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 2015. Also, in Glaze v. United States, 641 F.2d 339 (5th Cir. Unit B Apr. 1981), aff’g 45 A.F.T.R2d (RIA) 80-740 (N.D. Ga. 1979), the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1981 held that a single return is not a “separate” return under section 6013(b). In light of these circuit court opinions, Judge Thornton concluded “that the importance of reaching the right result in this case outweighs the importance of following our precedent.”

This issue has been of interest to our clinics. Ibrahim was tried by a student attorney under the supervision of Professor Kathryn Sedo of the University of Minnesota Law School; the student also successful argued the case in the Eighth Circuit. Mr. Ibrahim had erroneously filed as head of household before filing a joint return with his spouse. If his HOH return was a separate return, as the IRS and the Tax Court found, he would have been precluded from claiming his earned income credit.

The Code and the regulations do not define “separate return” within the context of section 6013. The Tax Court found that the term means a return on which a married taxpayer has elected to file a married filing separate return, rather than a return on which a married taxpayer files a return with an incorrect filing status, that is, a single or head of household status. Judge Thornton reasoned that because section 6013(b)(1) refers to an “election,” an erroneous filing status impermissible under the Code cannot be an election. Further, the Tax Court’s exhaustive review of the legislative history reveals that the ability under the Code to switch from one allowable filing status to another was never intended to preclude one from correcting a return with an erroneous filing status.

Mr. Camara pursued his Tax Court case pro se. The case was submitted under Rule 122, that is, by stipulation without trial. The Tax Court ordered briefs, but Mr. Camara did not file one. It appears that the Tax Court was on the lookout for a vehicle to reconsider the issue.

Where do we go from here? Judge Thornton’s opinion in Camara is as well reasoned as it is taxpayer friendly. The next step is for IRS Chief Counsel’s office to decide whether to recommend that the Department of Justice appeal the opinion to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals or acquiesce in the Tax Court opinion. If the IRS acquiesces, it will issue an action on decision (AOD) and abandon its current postion. If it recommends an appeal, it will be up to the Department of Justice to decide whether to continue pursuing the issue. In either case, the Camara opinion is a big step forward for taxpayers.

 

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