Ninth Circuit Denies Request for En Banc Hearing by Altera

We have written about Altera v. Commissioner on many occasions because it was such an important decision by the Tax Court and because of the interesting twists in the case at the circuit level.  We have written many posts on this case.  You can find some here, here, here, here and here.  Today, the Ninth Circuit has rejected the request for an en banc hearing.  The rejection of the request is here.  Three judges dissented from the decision not to hear the case en banc.  This leaves Altera with the decision to press on to the Supreme Court or to accept the decision.  For those not following the case, the issue concerns the manner in which the IRS promulgated the regulations.  The Tax Court was so uncomfortable with the process that it struck down the applicable regulations in a unanimous vote of the full court.  The Ninth Circuit panel reversed the Tax Court in a 2-1 vote.

Tax Protesting and 6673 Penalties: Designated Orders 9/2/19 to 9/6/19

There was one sole designated order for the week I monitored the Tax Court in September. It deals with a tax protestor who is a frequent flier with the Tax Court. How did he fare? Find out below. Following that, we provide a survey of section 6673 penalty cases in the Tax Court.

Tax Protesting
Docket No. 17872-18L, Alexander H. Hyatt v. C.I.R., Order and Decision available here.

The petition filed concerns a notice of determination sustaining a proposed levy to collect on unpaid tax liability for 2012. The IRS filed a motion for summary judgment with a declaration in support. The Court ordered Mr. Hyatt to file a response to the motion on the same day. In the Court’s order, they cautioned Mr. Hyatt that his frivolous arguments raised in the petition could be subject to the imposition of a section 6673 penalty of up to $25,000.

Previously, Mr. Hyatt had filed a petition with the Tax Court concerning the notice of deficiency of $39,414 on the 2012 tax year. He filed an imperfect petition and the Court ordered him to file an amended petition and pay the filing fee. Since he failed to do that, the petition was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

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In response to a notice of intent to levy the unpaid 2012 tax liability, Mr. Hyatt filed for a collection due process hearing. However, his arguments were that no contract exists between the parties, the tax was fraudulently assessed, he objects to the United States financial system, objects to his status as a citizen of the United States, objects to the Social Security system, and desires to rescind his signature on all IRS Forms 1040 he filed because he believes he is no longer legally required to file such forms.

In the collection due process hearing, the settlement officer verified that all procedural and administrative requirements were met. Mr. Hyatt could not challenge the underlying tax liability because of his previous failed petition to the Tax Court. He informed the settlement officer he was not seeking a collection alternative. The settlement officer determined that the proposed levy was appropriate and the IRS issued the notice of determination.

With the current petition, Mr. Hyatt asserts there is no legal authority (statutory, regulatory, or otherwise) that authorizes the notice of deficiency, the IRS fraudulently manipulated its internal systems, and no regulation imposes a tax liability on wages. He also made the other arguments listed above. He did not respond to the IRS motion for summary judgment.

As an aside, I recommend reading (or skimming) the IRS statements regarding tax protesters. The official title is “The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments”, available starting here, or in a 73-page PDF here. It is fascinating reading into the world of tax protests. Truly, this group has come up with creative arguments regarding why the federal tax system does not apply to them and why they should not pay their share of taxes.

The official IRS position is that these are frivolous tax arguments. Accordingly, those frivolous tax arguments can lead to hefty penalties. By the way, that sentence is what is known as foreshadowing.

Back to the Tax Court – the Court analyzes the collection due process hearing. Looking at the facts above concerning the settlement officer’s actions, the Court finds there was no abuse of discretion for sustaining the proposed levy.

The Court reviewed Mr. Hyatt’s arguments and concludes they are frivolous and without any basis in law or fact. As a result, the Court determines that summary judgment is appropriate and grants the IRS motion.

Finally, the Court reviews the authority to impose a penalty not exceeding $25,000 under IRC section 6673(a)(1). Now, until this point, I was thinking that this was an average tax protestor case and it would not necessarily be worth reporting on.

However, Mr. Hyatt is a repeat offender at the Tax Court. You can see how each judge leaves hints for the next judge regarding future treatment of such an offender:

• In docket # 7221-07L, the Tax Court imposed a $5,000 penalty – Judge Kroupa first states, “Petitioner deserves a penalty under section 6673(a)(1), and that penalty should be substantial, if it is to have the desired deterrent effect.” Later, “We are also convinced that petitioner is aware of the warnings this Court has given to taxpayers who provide the type of arguments petitioner provided in this case yet petitioner persisted and wasted this Court’s limited time and resources.” After applying the penalty – “In addition, we take this opportunity to admonish petitioner that the Court will consider imposing a larger penalty if petitioner returns to the Court and advances similar arguments in the future.”

• In docket # 26157-08, a $7,500 penalty – From the bench opinion transcript of the hearing (where Mr. Hyatt did not appear) with Special Trial Judge Armen: “The record in this case convinces us that petitioner was not interested in disputing the merits of the deficiency in income tax determined by respondent in the notice of deficiency. Rather, the record demonstrates that petitioner regards this case as a vehicle to protest the tax laws of this country and espouse his own misguided views. We are also convinced that petitioner instituted and maintained this proceeding primarily, if not exclusively, for purposes of delay. Having to deal with this matter wasted the Court’s time, as well as respondent’s. Moveover, taxpayers with genuine controversies may have been delayed. Many years ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said: ‘Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.’ Petitioner undoubtedly feels himself to be entitled to every benefit that civilized society has to offer; unfortunately, he feels no obligation to pay his fair share. [Regarding the previous penalty,] Petitioner remains undeterred.”

• In docket # 8771-08L, a $10,000 penalty – Mr. Hyatt is before Special Trial Judge Armen again, this time appearing with the same Respondent’s counsel from the last case. Judge Armen reuses a good amount of the language above in another bench opinion transcript. “In view of the foregoing, and as Petitioner remains undeterred, he deserves a significant penalty under section 6673(a). Accordingly, we shall grant that part of Respondent’s motion requesting a sanction and impose a penalty on Petitioner in the amount of $10,000.”

• In docket # 22711-09L, a maximum penalty of $25,000 – This time, it is a bench opinion transcript from a trial before Judge Halpern. “We are convinced that Petitioner has no legitimate grounds for challenging the notice. Rather, Petitioner’s arguments in this case and Petitioner’s previous appearances before this Court demonstrate that Petitioner regards this case as a vehicle to protest the tax laws of this country and espouse his own misguided views. Based on well-established law, Petitioner’s position is frivolous and groundless. We are also convinced that Petitioner instituted and maintained this proceeding primarily, if not exclusively, for purposes of delay. Having to deal with this matter wasted the Court’s tie, as well as Respondent’s.” Regarding the prior penalties – “Petitioner has not been deterred, and we think it appropriate to penalize him to the maximum extent possible. We therefore shall impose on him a 6673(a)(1) penalty of $25,000.”

In this case, the Court states that Mr. Hyatt has not been deterred from maintaining frivolous positions. He advanced frivolous arguments that serve no purpose other than to protest the tax system and delay the collection of his owed taxes, wasting resources of the Court and the IRS. Because of those reasons, the Court again imposed the maximum penalty of $25,000.

Takeaway: See a pattern? Tax protesting is not profitable in Tax Court. I do not advise it. Find better creative outlets than upsetting the Tax Court.

We may never know how many fees the IRS collects from Mr. Hyatt. Keith mentioned that it would be an interesting CDP case in Tax Court regarding the collection of 6673 fines.

§ 6673 Penalty Tax Court Cases

Keith thought it would be worthwhile to survey 6673 penalty cases with the Tax Court using the order function on the website. It is possible that some 6673 cases were decided by opinion and not by order so this list may not be all inclusive. Keith asked his research assistant to run a search using the order function which is one of the best features of the Court’s website. Here, we have a list of the 6673 penalties imposed by judges during years 2011 through 2019. There were 173 penalties imposed during this period. Keith is using the information to write an article in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Tax Practice and Procedure. Look for more details in that article and a breakdown of penalties imposed by year.

Cases by Judge:
– Judge Armen: 6 cases
– Judge Buch: 2 cases
– Judge Carluzzo: 32 cases
– Judge Colvin: 2 cases
– Judge Copeland: 1 case
– Judge Foley: 58 cases
– Judge Gale: 1 case
– Judge Gustafson: 8 cases
– Judge Guy: 10 cases
– Judge Halpern: 2 cases
– Judge Holmes: 2 cases
– Judge Kerrigan: 1 case
– Judge Leyden: 2 cases
– Judge Marvel: 8 cases
– Judge Morrison: 4 cases
– Judge Nega: 11 cases
– Judge Panuthos: 3 cases
– Judge Paris: 4 cases
– Judge Pugh: 4 cases
– Judge Ruwe: 1 case
– Judge Thornton: 10 cases
– Judge Wherry: 1 case

My main comments are that Judges Carluzzo and Foley are the top two judges with 6673 penalty cases. However, Judge Carluzzo stopped after 2016. Chief Judge Foley picked up the slack in 2018. As Chief Judge, he is setting a new standard for the imposition of this penalty. It’s possible we are seeing a shift in the approach of the court to imposing the penalty but it’s also interesting to note how many Tax Court judges have never imposed the 6673 penalty.

Internal Tracking Data Is Determinative for Designated Private Delivery Services under § 7502(f)

There was a recent Tax Court order (not a designated one) that caught my eye because of the contrast of the ruling with the Seventh Circuit’s ruling a few years ago in Tilden v. Commissioner, 846 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2017).  I blogged on the Seventh Circuit’s Tilden opinion here.  That opinion criticized the use of United States Postal Service (USPS) certified mail internal tracking information as a “postmark” for purposes of determining whether a Tax Court petition was timely filed.  In the recent order in Moncada v. Commissioner, T.C. Docket No. 13303-19 (Nov. 7, 2019), by contrast, the internal tracking information of a Designated Private Delivery Service (DPDS) – here, UPS Next Day Air – was held determinative of the date of the filing of the petition.

Initially, I questioned how these two rulings could be reconciled.   But, I think they are both right.  The different results are the fault of Congress in the adoption of § 7502(f), which allows to IRS to designate private delivery services for purposes of taking advantage of the § 7502(a) timely-mailing-is-timely-filing rule that applies to envelopes sent by USPS mail.

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Tilden Background

There are regulations under § 7502(a) that elaborate on the timely mailing rules when the USPS is used.  The regulations cover four common situations where the Tax Court receives the petition after the last date to file:  (1) where there is only a USPS postmark on the envelope, (2) where there is only a private postmark on the envelope, (3) where there is no postmark (or no legible postmark) on the envelope, and (4) where there is both a USPS and private postmark on the envelope.  See Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii).  In general, if there is a legible USPS postmark, it governs as the date of mailing, and if there isn’t, the envelope better get to the Tax Court within the period that mail ordinarily sent from that address would take to get to the court if the envelope had been mailed on the last date to file.  There are exceptions to this last rule that I won’t get into here, not being relevant.  Further, not relevant to either Moncada or Tilden are the special rules where mail does not arrive at the Tax Court, but had been sent certified or registered mail, and where the taxpayer has a USPS mailing receipt with a legible date stamp.

In Tilden, the envelope containing the deficiency petition bore a private postage label from stamps.com, dated the 90th day.  Apparently, the envelope was placed in the mail by an employee of counsel for the taxpayer, and that employee also affixed to the envelope a Form 3800 certified mail receipt (the white form), on which the employee also handwrote the date that was the 90th day.  The Form 3800 did not bear a stamp from a USPS employee.  Nor did the USPS ever affix a postmark to the envelope.

The envelope arrived at the Tax Court from the USPS.  The USPS had handled the envelope as certified mail.  That meant that the USPS internally tracked the envelope under its “Tracking” service.  Plugging the 20-digit number from the Form 3800 into the USPS website yielded Tracking data showing that the envelope was first recorded in the USPS system on the 92nd day.  The envelope arrived at the Tax Court on the 98th day. 

The IRS later conceded that the taxpayer’s counsel’s employee had brought the envelope to a USPS office on the 90th day.  Eventually, both the taxpayer and IRS argued that the petition should be treated as timely filed under the private postmark rules, since the petition arrived within 8 days of the 90th day, and the IRS agreed that 8 days was within the normal time it takes an envelope to go from Utah to the Tax Court.

The Tax Court, however, viewed the date from the Tracking data to be the equivalent of a USPS postmark and so held that the petition must be treated as having been mailed, late, on the 92nd day.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the Tax Court’s equation of USPS Tracking data and a postmark, writing:

Part [301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)](B)(3) of the regulation specifies what happens if an envelope has both a private postmark and a postmark from the U.S. Postal Service. Tilden’s envelope had only one postmark. The regulation does not ask whether a date that is not a “postmark” is as good as a postmark. It asks whether there are competing postmarks.

To say “A is as good as B” is not remotely to show that A is B. “Vanilla ice cream is as good as chocolate” does not mean that a customer who orders chocolate must accept vanilla, just because the customer likes both. They are still different. Subsection (B)(3) does not make anything turn on a date as reliable as an official postmark. It makes the outcome turn on the date of an official postmark. If the Postal Service were to treat tracking data as a form of postmark, that might inform our reading of the regulation, but we could not find any evidence that the Postal Service equates the two.

For what it may be worth, we also doubt the Tax Court’s belief that the date an envelope enters the Postal Service’s tracking system is a sure indicator of the date the envelope was placed in the mail. The Postal Service does not say that it enters an item into its tracking system as soon as that item is received—and the IRS concedes in this litigation that the Postal Service did not do so for Tilden’s petition, in particular. Recall that the Commissioner has acknowledged that the envelope was received by the Postal Service on April 21. It took two days for the Postal Service to enter the 20-digit tracking number into its system, a step taken at a facility in zip code 84199, approximately ten miles away from the Arbor Lane post office (zip 84117) where the envelope was handed in.

846 F.3d at 887 (emphasis in original).

So, the Seventh Circuit held that the petition had been timely filed.

Moncada Facts

On April 15, 2019, the IRS mailed a notice of deficiency to the Moncadas.  Ninety days from that date was Sunday, July 14, so under § 7503, the due date for a Tax Court petition became the 91st day, Monday, July 15.

On the 88th day, Friday, July 12, the Moncadas went on line and created a shipping label for UPS Next Day Air, a DPDS.  From here, I quote from the taxpayers’ letter in response to the IRS motion to dismiss the petition:

The petition was prepared, signed and placed in the UPS pick-up box on the afternoon of Friday, July 12, 2019 for pick up at the posted pick-up time of 6:00PM. This action would have resulted in a timely delivery to the tax court on Monday, July 15, 2019.

However, UPS inexplicably did not pick up any packages form the pick-up location on Friday, July 12 or on Monday, July 15.  On Tuesday, July 16 we started to track the package and discovered there was no tracking information in the UPS system. We contacted UPS and asked why there was no tracking information. They had no answer. When the driver showed up on the 16th we discovered that the package was still in the box. UPS admitted that their driver did not stop at the box on Friday the 12th or on Monday the 15th. They shipped the package on July 16, and it arrived on July 17 . . . .

While the Tax Court did not find these letter statements to be facts, the taxpayers also submitted receipts to the Tax Court, dated July 12, generated in preparing the UPS label for shipment.

The IRS attached to its motion to dismiss UPS electronic database tracking information showing that the envelope was shipped (picked up) by UPS on July 16 (the 92nd day).  The envelope arrived at the Tax Court, and the petition was filed, on July 17 (the 93rd day).

Because of the different law that applies to shipment by DPDSs from the law that applies to shipment by the USPS, for purposes of the motion to dismiss, it turns out that whether the letter’s alleged facts were true is irrelevant.

Moncada Holding

Section 7502(f) was adopted in 1996.  It provides for the treatment of envelopes sent to the IRS or the Tax Court by IRS-designated private delivery services.  The IRS has designated UPS Next Day Air to be a DPDS.  Notice 2016-30, 2016-1 C.B. 676

There are several requirements for a service to be designated, among which is that the private service “records electronically to its data base . . . , or marks on the cover in which any item referred to in this section is to be delivered, the date on which such item was given to such trade or business for delivery”.  § 7502(f)(2)(C).  Section 7502(f)(1) provides:

Any reference in this section to the United States mail shall be treated as including a reference to any designated delivery service, and any reference in this section to a postmark by the United States Postal Service shall be treated as including a reference to any date recorded or marked as described in paragraph (2)(C) by any designated delivery service.

Thus, in the absence of a mark on the cover of the envelope (there was none here), tracking data supplies the deemed USPS “postmark”.  This is so clear from the statute that the regulations contain no rules about conflicts between private “postmarks” and DPDS “postmarks”.

Given the statute, the Tax Court had little choice but to rule that the UPS tracking data supplied a deemed USPS postmark of July 16 (the 92nd day), so the petition was not timely sent by UPS.  As noted above, the USPS postmark date always governs under the regulations if there is one.  In its order of dismissal in Moncada, the Tax Court was sympathetic to the taxpayers, but wrote:  “The creation of a label and mere placement in a UPS pick-up box is a risk analogous to that identified in the regulations when a sender affixes USPS postage and drops the items in a mailbox, at the mercy of the USPS to pick up and apply a postmark.”

Thus, even though the Seventh Circuit’s criticism in Tilden of using tracking data may still make sense, Congress has chosen for DPDSs to use tracking data instead of anything like the alternative proof of mailing by USPS in the absence of a true USPS postmark.

The moral of the story is that the still safest way to be certain that a petition will be timely filed in the Tax Court is to bring the envelope containing the petition to a USPS office, send it certified or registered mail, and get a legible postmark date on the mailing receipt from the USPS employee.  In that case, even if the document never gets to the Tax Court, the receipt will be proof of mailing.  § 7502(c) (deeming the date of registration or certification to be “the postmark date”); Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(2) (deeming the date on the receipt that was placed there by a USPS employee to be the date of registration or certification).  Use of private postmarks is riskier.  And there is no way to make a private postmark that will have any legal effect when one uses a DPDS.  You simply can’t control when a DPDS will pick up an envelope from a drop box and enter the envelope into its electronic database.

Lien Priority Litigation

The case of Shirehampton Drive Trust v. JP Morgan Chase Bank et al.; No. 2:16-cv-02276 (D. Nev. 2019) presents a relatively straightforward lien priority fight.  The case shows the continued fallout from the great recession.  It also shows the perils of purchasing property at a foreclosure sale.  When a federal tax lien exists, such a purchase becomes especially perilous, as the purchaser discovers here.  I remember as a district counsel attorney having to deal with a few unsophisticated purchasers at foreclosure sales who discovered to their sorrow that the property which they thought they had purchased at such a bargain, would cost them much more than anticipated because of a federal tax lien that the sale did not defeat.  The Shirehampton case does not break new ground but merely serves as a cautionary tale.

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In 2008 Louisa Oakenell purchased property located at 705 Shirehampton Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89178 (“the property”). The property sits in a community governed by the Essex at Huntington Homeowners Association (“HOA”). The HOA requires its community members to pay dues.  At the time she purchased the property, she already owed the IRS significant income tax liabilities for 2005 and 2006.  The court described the relevant facts as follows:

This matter concerns a nonjudicial foreclosure on a property located at 705 Shirehampton Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89178 (“the property”). The property sits in a community governed by the Essex at Huntington Homeowners Association (“HOA”). The HOA requires its community members to pay dues.
 
Louisa Oakenell borrowed funds from MetLife Home Loans, a Division of MetLife Bank, N.A. (“MetLife”) to purchase the property in 2008. To obtain the loan, Oakenell executed a promissory note and a corresponding deed of trust to secure repayment of the note. The deed of trust, which lists Oakenell as the borrower, MetLife as the lender and Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., (“MERS”) as the beneficiary, was recorded on December 24, 2008. MERS assigned the deed of trust to Chase in May 2013.
 
Oakenell fell behind on HOA payments. The HOA, through its agent Red Rock Financial Services, LLC (“Red Rock”) sent Oakenell a demand letter by certified mail for the collection of unpaid assessments on June 26, 2009. On July 21, 2009, the HOA, through its agent, recorded a notice of delinquent assessment lien. The HOA sent Oakenell a copy of the notice of delinquent assessment lien on July 24, 2009. The HOA subsequently recorded a notice of default and election to sell on October 21, 2009 and then a notice of foreclosure sale on September 18, 2012. Red Rock mailed copies of the notice of default and election to sell to Oakenell, the HOA, Republic Services, the IRS, and Metlife Home Loans. Red Rock did not mail a copy of the notice of default and election to sell to MERS. On January 28, 2013, the HOA held a foreclosure sale on the property under NRS Chapter 116. Shirehampton purchased the property at the foreclosure sale. A foreclosure deed in favor of Shirehampton was recorded on February 7, 2013.

In addition to falling behind on her HOA payments, however, Oakenell also stopped paying federal income taxes. The IRS subsequently filed notices of federal tax liens against Oakenell at the Clark County Recorder’s office on May 1, 2009 and June 24, 2009. As of October 1, 2018, Oakenell had accrued $250,953. 37 in income tax liability plus daily compounding interest.

For any reader not familiar with the federal tax lien, a quick detour into lien law may help.  For a more detailed discussion of this lien law, refer to Saltzman and Book, “IRS Practice and Procedure” at chapter 14.04, et seq.  When the IRS makes an assessment, it sends a notice and demand letter (required by IRC 6303) almost immediately thereafter.  If the taxpayer fails to pay the tax within the time prescribed in the notice and demand letter, the federal tax lien comes into existence relates back to the date of assessment and attaches to all of the taxpayer’s property and right to property.  The lien also attaches to all after-acquired property as long as the lien remains in existence.  In this case the federal tax lien would have attached to the property Ms. Oakenell purchased immediately upon closing; however, at that time the lien was known only to the IRS and Ms. Oakenell, since the IRS had not yet made the lien public by filing a notice of the lien.

In 1966 Congress passed the legislation establishing the lien priority rules that still apply today.  Congress gave the federal tax lien the broadest possible power; however, it limited that power by creating a first in time rule in IRC 6323(a).  That first in time rule allows a competing interest to defeat the federal tax lien if perfected prior to perfection of the federal tax lien.  Perfection of the federal tax lien occurs when the IRS files the notice in the appropriate place.  In this case the fight concerns the timing of the filing of the lien and not the location.

Because the notice of federal tax lien was filed here prior to the filing of the lien for the HOA, the federal tax lien defeats the lien of the association.  HOA fees seem a lot like local real estate taxes; however, if competing with the federal tax lien, the two types of ownership liens operate differently.  The real estate taxes, even though they arise after the existence of the filing of federal tax lien, come ahead of the filed federal tax lien because of IRC 6323(b)(6)(a).  Congress added this subparagraph in 1966 to avoid circular priority problems which arose when a real estate taxes went unpaid after the filing of a notice of federal tax lien.  Prior to 1966 courts had to struggle with the situation, because the purchase money mortgage defeated the IRS lien, the IRS lien defeated the later arising real estate taxes and the real estate taxes defeated the purchase money mortgage.  With the passage of this provision, Congress had the IRS step back in order to allow the real estate taxes to come before the IRS; however, it did not do the same for HOA fees.  As a consequence, the IRS defeats HOA fees that get recorded after the notice of federal tax lien.  Since that happened here, the purchaser bought the property subject to the substantial tax liabilities secured by the federal tax lien.  A very unfortunate result for the purchaser and one that should never occur but which does with surprising frequency.

In addition to the Shirehampton case, another lien priority case was recently decided, United States v. Patrice L. Harold et al.; No. 2:18-cv-10223.  I will discuss the Harold case in an upcoming post.

Trying to Find Order in the Anti-Injunction Act and the Tax Injunction Act

We welcome back Marilyn Ames who has blogged for us several times in the past.  She graciously agreed to write about some recent litigation that highlights the confusion currently surrounding these provisions.  Keith

In the past few weeks, I have been revising the subchapter in Saltzman and Book, IRS Tax Practice and Procedure on the Anti-Injunction Act.  It has been an exercise in frustration, as, although the Supreme Court says it likes “rule[s] favoring clear boundaries in the interpretation of jurisdiction statutes,” it doesn’t necessary mean what it says.  That’s a quote from Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, 135 S. Ct. 1124, 1131 (2015), discussing the lesser known sibling of the AIA, the Tax Injunction Act, which is aimed at preventing federal courts from hearing suits intended to restrain the assessment, levy, and collection of state taxes.  And in the midst of this attempt to make some sort of order out of something which does not have any, two district courts have added their opinions to the fray.

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In State of New York, et al. v. Mnuchin, which can be found here, the Southern District of New York takes on the issue of whether the Anti-Injunction Act prevents four states from bringing suit to litigate the constitutionality of the $10,000 ceiling placed on the deduction of state and local taxes (SALT) by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The federal government raised three challenges to the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction, including the limitation imposed by the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA). The AIA, located at 26 USC § 7421(a) provides, with numerous exceptions, that “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person, whether or not such person is the person against whom such tax was assessed.”  (For those of you interested in historical/legal trivia, the initial iteration of the AIA was passed in 1867.) In addition to the exceptions to the AIA actually contained in the statute, the Supreme Court created a judicial exception to the AIA in Enochs v. Williams Packing & Navigation Co.,370 U.S. 1 (1962), requiring the plaintiff to meet a two-part test to overcome the bar of the AIA: (1) it is clear at the time the suit is filed that under no circumstances could the government prevail on the merits; and (2) the action at issue will cause the plaintiff irreparable injury. And with this opinion, the race began to explore the boundaries of this court-made exception. 

One of these cases, and the one relied on by the court in State of New York v. Mnuchin, is South Carolina v. Regan,465 US 367 (1984).  In Regan, South Carolina invoked the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction and asked leave to file a complaint against Donald Regan, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time to litigate whether a provision of TEFRA was unconstitutional. The provision in question required state obligations to be issued in registered rather than bearer form in order to qualify as tax exempt under IRC § 103.  The government raised the AIA in its objection to South Carolina’s motion, arguing that the state did not fall within any of the specific exceptions or within the judicial exception created in Williams Packing.  The Supreme Court then created an exception to its exception, holding that the AIA was not intended to bar a suit when Congress has not provided the plaintiff with an alternative legal way to challenge the validity of a tax.  Because South Carolina was not liable for a tax which it could then pay and use as the basis for a refund suit, it had no other way to litigate the constitutionality of the TEFRA provision.  In this situation, the Supreme Court said “a careful reading of Williams Packing and its progeny supports our conclusion that the [AIA] was not intended to apply in the absence of such a remedy.”

In State of New York v. Mnuchin, four states that impose lots of state and local taxes sued to have the $10,000 ceiling on the deduction of SALT declared unconstitutional.  The federal government argued that the suit was barred by the AIA and that the Williams Packing exception did not apply.  This is not like South Carolina v. Regan, the federal government argued, because the taxpayers affected in these four states have a motivation to file refund actions to challenge the law.  (It’s not clear from the opinion why the federal government felt that the bond holders in Regan who bought bonds that no longer qualified as tax exempt would not have a similar motivation.) The district court rejected the federal government’s argument, and noted that in both Regan and the suit before the court, the plaintiff-states were seeking to protect their own interests, rather than those of their taxpayers. In this situation, the court in State of New York v. Mnuchin held, a state has no other legal remedy to assert its sovereign interests. When a plaintiff has no other legal remedy to litigate the issue, then the AIA does not apply even if the plaintiff cannot meet the Williams Packing test.  Having won the jurisdictional battle, the states in New York v. Mnuchin then lost the war when the district court held that the ceiling on SALT deductions is constitutional.  Lots for everyone to argue about on appeal.

The second opinion of American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, 377 F.Supp.3d 125 (D.R.I. 2019)involves the Tax Injunction Act, 28 USC § 1341, which provides “the district courts shall not enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State.” As the Supreme Court recognized in Williams Packing, the TIA “throws light on the proper construction to be given” to the AIA.  In other words, these statutes have similar language and purpose. In the Alviti case, which can be found here, the plaintiffs are long distance trucking companies and associations that filed suit against the state of Rhode Island challenging the constitutionality of a bridge toll scheme.  The statute, known as the “Rhodeworks” Act, expressly prohibits the imposition of the bridge toll on any vehicles other than large commercial trucks. Under the Rhodeworks Act, the toll is set by state agencies in terms of the amount and the locations where it will be collected, and the funds go into a special account to be used only for the replacement, rehabilitation, and maintenance of bridges. The scheme instituted sets maximum daily amounts that can be collected based on the routes traveled, which the plaintiffs argue falls more heavily on trucks involved in interstate rather than intrastate travel.

The state of Rhode Island raised the TIA as a defense to the suit, arguing that although the fees were labelled as tolls, they were actually taxes subject to the TIA.  Although the Supreme Court has indicated it prefers clear boundaries, the district court framed the issue as one “which pits the actual language of the TIA and the context surrounding its enactment in the 1930s against several more modern decisions of the First Circuit that attempt to distinguish between fees and taxes.” In other words, let’s make this more confusing. The district court then cited a number of cases decided prior to enactment of the TIA, including one decided by the Supreme Court in 1887, that a toll is not a tax and that they are distinct and serve different purposes. Despite these decisions, the court then discussed whether the exaction in question fell within the three-pronged test of San Juan Cellular Telephone Co. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of P.R., 967 F.2d 683 (1st Cir. 1992), the purpose of which is to decide if a challenged assessment is more like a tax or a regulatory fee.  Despite finding that two of the three prongs were more in the nature of a fee, the court relied on the final prong of the test to decide the bridge tolls were actually taxes, and the suit was thus barred by the TIA. The case has been appealed to the First Circuit, and as the trucking company plaintiffs note in the brief to the circuit, this is the first case involving an exaction labelled a toll that has been found to be a tax.

It seems that while the mirage of clear boundaries for the AIA and the TIA is out there, the courts have difficulties in making their way to it.  I am reminded of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “Bring me a shrubbery.” “Not THAT shrubbery.”

And we go on trying to make sense of what the courts really want.

The Difference between Proposed and Determined, Designated Orders August 26 – August 30

Four orders were designated during the week of August 26, including a bench opinion in favor of petitioners in Cross Refined Coal, LLC, et. al v. C.I.R. which is summarized at the end of this post. The only order not discussed found no abuse of discretion in the IRS’s determination not to withdraw a lien (order here).

Docket No. 1312-16, Sheila Ann Smith v. C.I.R. (order here)

First is another attempted development in the ever-expanding universe that is section 6751(b)(1). Petitioner moves to compel discovery related to section 6751 supervisory approval for the section 6702 penalties asserted against her while the Court’s decision is pending.

The Court first explains that some district courts have incorrectly held that the 6702 penalty is automatically calculated through electronic means, and thus, does not require supervisory approval. This is incorrect, because although the penalty is easily calculated since it is a flat $5,000 per frivolous return, it still requires supervisory approval pursuant to IRM section 4.19.13.6.2(3).

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Since the penalty requires supervisory approval and the record already contains some proof of approval, the Court goes on to evaluate the timing at issue (and whether additional discovery is warranted) in this case by looking to Kestin v. Commissioner, 153 T.C. No. 2, which it decided at the end of August. Like petitioner’s case, in Kestin, a section 6702 penalty for filing a frivolous tax return was at issue and a Letter 3176C was sent to the taxpayer warning of the imposition of the penalty. The Court held a Letter 3176C is not an “initial determination” of penalty for purposes of section 6751(b)(1), so approval is not required prior to the letter being sent.

This is an unsurprising result. The letter warns the taxpayer that the penalty may be imposed, but also provides the taxpayer with an opportunity to withdraw and correct their frivolous return to avoid the penalty. By providing a taxpayer with an opportunity to act to avoid the penalty, the letter does not need the protection afforded by the section 6751(b) approval requirement. Supervisory approval is required when there is a determination of a penalty, rather than “an indication of a possibility that such a liability will be proposed,” like the Letter 3176C.

The Court denies petitioner’s motion as moot, since the evidence she seeks to compel is already in the record showing that section 6751 approval was timely obtained after the issuance of the Letter 3176C.

Docket No. 26734-14, Daniel R. Doyle and Lynn A. Doyle (order here)

In this designated order, petitioners move the Court to reconsider its decision about whether they can deduct the legal expenses they paid in settlement of a discrimination suit. Unfortunately, petitioners didn’t make this argument during their trial. They had originally argued the expenses were related to petitioner husband’s consulting business, but the fees were not related to his business because they were for a suit against his former employer.

The Court denies petitioners’ motion to reconsider because they are raising a new legal theory that is not supported by the record and they did not allege new evidence, fraud, nor newly voided judgments which would allow the Court to vacate and revise its decision under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).

Docket No. 19502-17, Cross Refined Coal, LLC, et. al. v. C.I.R. (order and opinion here)

Petitioners are victorious in Cross Refined Coal – a case involving a partnership in the coal refining industry and the section 45 credits. The section 45 credits are for refined coal that is produced and sold to an unrelated party in 10 years, subject to certain requirements. The bench opinion consists of 24 pages of findings of fact and 22 pages of legal analysis, so I only highlight some aspects here.

The IRS’s main issue is whether the partnership was a bona fide partnership under the Culbertson test and Tax Court’s Luna test. The IRS had an issue with two (of the eight) factors in Luna which help establish whether there was a business purpose intent to form a partnership.

First, the IRS posits that the contributions the parties made to the venture were not substantial, even though the partners made multi-million dollar contributions of their initial purchase price and to fund ongoing operating expenses. The Court disagrees and points out that the contributions are not required to meet any objective standard, the partners’ initial investments were at risk, and they continued to make contributions to fund operating expenses even when the tax credits were not being generated.

Second, the IRS argues that the partners did not meaningfully in share profits and losses, because the arrangement should justify itself in pre-tax terms in order to be respected for tax purposes. Disagreeing with the IRS, the Court finds petitioners shared in profits and losses, even though the arrangement resulted in net losses because the credit amounts increased as the profits increased.

The IRS also argues that partners shared no risk of loss because the partners joined the partnership after the coal refining facility had been established. The Court points out that the IRS’s own Notice 2010-54 allows for lessees of coal refining operations to receive tax credits. The Court also distinguishes this case from a Third Circuit decision, Historic Boardwalk v. CIR, 694 F.3d 425 (3rd Cir. 2012), rev’g 136 T.C. 1 (2011), where the Court held there was no risk of loss when taxpayer became a partner after a rehabilitation project had already begun. Historic Boardwalk, however, dealt with investment credits. The credits at issue in this case are production credits, so what the IRS argues is the “11th hour” (because the coal refining facility had already been established) is actually the first hour because it is the production of coal that generates the credit, rather than the establishment of the facility.  

An overarching theme in the IRS’s position is that the existence of the credits make it less likely that the partners had a true business purpose, and the Court should find abuse when a deal is undertaken only for tax benefits. The Court responds to this argument at multiple points in the opinion explaining that the congressional purpose behind section 45 credits is to incentivize participation in the coal industry, an industry that no one would participate in otherwise. As a result, the credits should not be subject to a substance over form analysis in the way that the IRS seeks.

I encourage those interested in more detailed aspects of the analysis to read the opinion itself, but overall, this seems like the correct result for petitioners.

No Toll for the Taxpayer: Financial Disability, Statute of Limitations Refund Tolling, and Courts’ Strict Application of “Authority”

Today’s post comes from one of my students at the University of Minnesota Law School Tax Clinic, Casey Epstein, on a topic very near and dear to my heart: financial disability. Casey is currently working one such case in our clinic and has put in a lot of research on the topic. This post, however, takes us a different direction than the common lamentations on Rev. Proc. 99-21 pitfalls, instead focusing on the exception to financial disability where the taxpayer has a guardian. Note that a version of this post was originally published in the Minnesota Law Review De Novo online blog.

-Caleb

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INTRODUCTION

Imagine you are poor, mentally-ill, and struggle to manage your finances. You granted your adult son durable power of attorney (“DPA”) but are no longer on speaking terms with him. You work a low-wage, menial job and your paychecks are subject to typical tax withholdings. Because of your modest income your effective tax rate is zero, and most of your withholdings are returnable to you in a small, but meaningful, refund. However, as a result of your condition you forget to file your tax returns until four years later. The IRS denies your refund as being past the statute of limitations (”SOL”). You challenge, claiming to meet the requirements for “financial disability,” tolling your SOL. Despite the judge agreeing that you were financially disabled, the judge denies your claim anyway because she finds that your estranged adult son had the authority to file your tax returns for you.  

As unjust as this sounds, the First Circuit rejected an analogous claim in Stauffer v. Internal Revenue Service, No. 18-2105 in September 2019 (covered in Procedurally Taxing here, here, here, and here). The First Circuit’s strict financial disability analysis is not unique—nearly every financial disability litigation ends in failure for the taxpayer. Moreover, taxpayers potentially eligible for financial disability are, by definition, mentally and/or physically disabled—and therefore among the most vulnerable Americans. This Post focuses on financial disability’s little-discussed “authority” provision and argues that courts should adopt a more lenient standard for assessing “authority” and awarding “financial disability” tolling.

  1. FINANCIAL DISABILITY

Most taxpayers have a three-year SOL to receive refunds from the IRS on their tax returns—typically starting on April 15, when the taxpayer’s withholding or other credits are deemed paid, after the tax year in question. See IRC § 6511(a); IRC § 6513(b), (c)(2). Once the statute of limitations clock expires, taxpayers have little recourse—and a confusing set of procedural rules—to recover their refunds. Courts are exceedingly reluctant to grant equitable tolling, regardless of the taxpayer’s situation, as shown by Keith Fogg and Rachel Zuraw in their 2013 article Financial Disability for All.

Responding to the Supreme Court’s 1997 United States v. Brockamp decision, which refused to grant equitable tolling to a ninety-three year old with dementia who forgot to file his tax return, Congress sought to provide a limited tolling option for taxpayers whose inability to manage their finances was truly beyond their control. The Congressional Record (at H3411–12) documents Representative Dunn, a sponsor of the financial disability bill, stating that the Brockamp result was “an outrageous injustice that my commonsense [bill] is intended to end.” One year later, Congress enacted a tolling provision for taxpayers “unable to manage financial affairs due to disability.” Codified in Section 6511(h), a taxpayer is “financially disabled” if they are “unable to manage [their] financial affairs by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment.”

Congress additionally specified that a taxpayer is not financially disabled if “any . . . person is authorized to act on [their] behalf.” Neither the legislature nor the Treasury’s Revenue Procedure 99-21 provided guidance as to what qualifies a person as one “authorized to act on behalf.” As professor Roger McEowen further shows, Courts have consistently held against taxpayers who granted someone DPA, but afterword claimed that the DPA holder was not “actually” authorized or able to manage the taxpayer’s finances.

Beyond “authority” issues, courts reject almost every “financial disability” tolling claim anyway, fearing stale claims and extra administrative burdens for the IRS. Taxpayers’ success rates for financial disability are so low that Procedurally Taxing has already celebrated victory in Stauffer twice—here and here—only to have the Blog’s hopes dashed on appeal.

  • STAUFFER

In Stauffer, the Court refused to grant financial disability tolling to an elderly, mentally-ill man whose son had DPA, discovered millions of dollars in lost assets, and quickly became estranged from his father. Neither father nor son filed tax returns for the year in question, which would have allowed recovery of almost $140,000 in overpayment to the IRS.

The Court’s specific rationale for rejecting financial disability tolling was that Stauffer did have someone authorized to act on his behalf—his estranged son who still technically had DPA, despite both parties orally revoking the agreement. The Stauffer Court invoked the plain meaning statutory canon to interpret the undefined term “authorized,” concluding that dictionary definitions “unambiguous[ly]” define “authority” as the mere “right or permission to act,” not “imply[ing] the existence of a ‘duty.’” Because the father executed a DPA with his son and never revoked it in writing—oral revocation and estrangement notwithstanding—the son had legal authority to act on his father’s behalf and plaintiff was thus not entitled to SOL tolling under § 6511(h)(2)(B).

  • COURTS SHOULD APPLY A MORE FORGIVING STANDARD

The Stauffer Court’s analysis and use of the plain meaning canon is unduly strict. There was no reason that the Court to solely rely on dictionary definitions in interpreting “authority.” The Court could have easily interpreted “authority” to mean actual as opposed to theoretical authority under a common usage theory. Moreover, such a strict application of § 6511(h) undermines its raison d’etre—statutory rejection of the harsh Brockamp result. Whether or not the Stauffer’s son had legal authority to file his tax returns, he clearly lacked permission. From a broad fairness perspective, it is unjust that Stauffer was denied his refund merely because his son had tenuous power of attorney.

Other courts interpreting “authority” also rejected plaintiffs’ pleas, although without Stauffer’s statutory interpretation hoopla. In Bova v. United States, (and other similar cases, like Plati v. United States, discussed in McEowen’s article) the Federal Claims Court held a DPA sufficient to deny plaintiffs’ financial disability claims, finding that “[b]ecause the express terms of the power of attorney instrument here authorized Mr. Bova . . . the court may not consider the plaintiffs’ allegation that a separate oral agreement made the power of attorney contingent on the taxpayer becoming disabled.” Few critics and scholars have addressed the problematic interpretation of “authorized;” most commentators, like the Taxpayer Advocate and ABA Section on Taxation instead advocate for expanding the definition of “physician,” specifying qualifying medical conditions, and courts broadening their analyses of taxpayers’ ability to manage their financial affairs. These myriad criticisms showcase many, many issues still affecting § 6511(h).

Critics proposed solutions for § 6511(h) primarily involve Congress and the Treasury promulgating new rules to correct the judiciary. The courts, however, are fully capable of addressing § 6511(h)’s flaws on their own. Moreover, the judiciary arguably should change course and apply a more lenient standard because their strict approach undermines the original purpose of § 6511(h)—ensuring that future plaintiff’s in Mrs. Brockamp’s shoes would have redress. And yet it seems highly unlikely that Mrs. Brockamp would win her financial disability claim if argued today.

While the Treasury and Congress should revisit financial disability rules, the courts can salve disabled Americans’ tax woes by simply applying more leniency. Instead of strictly interpreting “authority” with a legalistic dictionary definition as the Stauffer Court did, courts should apply a reasoned facts-and-circumstances test to determine whether the taxpayer actually had someone authorized to act on their behalf—not merely a tenuous or orally rescinded DPA agreement. No legislative fix is necessary for these judicial errors—courts must simply provide the flexibility that Congress demanded in enacting 6511(h). A judicial mentality of leniency towards the small number taxpayers medically incapable of filing their tax returns would fulfill Congress’ aims without overburdening the IRS.

CONCLUSION

Despite Congress’ good intentions, Section 6511(h) has not relieved disabled taxpayers incapable of filing their tax returns. Fortunately, the judiciary can address and ameliorate the most pressing issues of financial disability jurisprudence on its own. To do so, however, courts must reverse course and apply a far more lenient analysis. This solution requires evaluating taxpayers’ “authorized” agents on a facts-and-circumstances basis instead of through a strict and reductive plain meaning statutory interpretation lens. Late filing or not, it is unjust for disabled plaintiffs to be regularly denied their overpayment refunds; it is far past time for the courts to heed Congress’ 1998 clarion call.

Asking the Court to Let You Change Your Mind: Designated Orders September 9 – 13, 2019 (Post Three of Three)

In the previous coverage of the weeks designated orders we looked at how to ask the Court to change its mind via a motion to reconsider (or the very similar motion to vacate or revise). In this final post on the designated orders from the week of September 9, we look at when you can ask the Court to let you change your mind….

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Kurdziel Junior, et. al v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 21186-12 (order here)

This order comes in the aftermath of another interesting substantive case, but one where the substantive issues were largely addressed elsewhere in a memorandum opinion and covered by Professor Bryan Camp here.

The opinion determined whether Mr. Kurdziel engaged in an activity for profit and found in the IRS’s favor that Mr. Kurdziel’s WWII plane flying was actually a hobby, thereby disallowing the losses he claimed. But while the opinion determined all of the substantive issues at point, it did not reach a determination on the final deficiency amount, which is something that Court has to do. Instead of doing that all at once, the Court opted (as it often does) to have the parties determine those computations via Rule 155.

Sometimes genuine computational disputes arise at the Rule 155 stage. Sometimes, however, one party tries to relitigate or raise new issues at the computation stage. The Court tends not to allow that, particularly when the issues could and should have been raised earlier. See Keith’s post here. In the above order, the IRS just now realized it made some mistakes that were in the Form 5278 accompanying the Notice of Deficiency (wayyy back in the process… this case was petitioned in 2012). You can get a sense for how much patience Judge Holmes has for the IRS motion to file an amended answer to fix the errors: “now [the IRS] wants to make [changes] — after discovery, after trial, after even the posttrial briefing –[.]”

A first question that one might have is “why doesn’t the IRS have to raise this in a motion for reconsideration? Isn’t the matter over with?” And the answer (or at least part of the answer), is that the IRS wants to raise new issues, not have the Court reconsider the issues it decided. And the IRS has to do this by an answer, and the Court still has jurisdiction to redetermine a deficiency greater than the amount on the Notice, if the matter is raised before the Court enters a final decision.

We are late in the game for the IRS to be bringing up new issues, but we are not too far gone. In this instance, trial has passed and an opinion has been issued, but no final decision has yet been entered. Judge Holmes cites to two cases (Sun v. C.I.R., 880 F.3d 173 (5th Cir. 2018) and Henningsen v. C.I.R., 243 F.2d 954 (4th Cir. 1957)) for the proposition that the IRS could still, then, try for increased deficiencies under Rule 41

Of course, just because the Court can allow the party to amend its answer doesn’t mean that it will. Or at least, not for all of the changes the IRS wants.

It may then surprise some readers that Judge Holmes, in this case, actually does allow some of the proposed changes to be made. From the outset it should be noted, however, that all of the changes the IRS asks for can be best understood as mathematical and not conceptual: they don’t really involve new legal arguments. Rather, the mathematical changes flow (you guessed it) mathematically from the changes that were properly at issue in the case.

Tax laws and deductions are often interconnected by taxable income or AGI “phase-outs.” A change to one part of the return frequently has an effect on another. If I fail to report $500K in income, the Notice of Deficiency might only assert that I have an additional $500K of taxable income, but a side-effect may be that I lose the Child Tax Credit I claimed because I am now “too rich” for it (usually, in my experience, the Notice of Deficiency also accounts for these mathematical changes).

In this case the increase to petitioner’s taxable income (which the Court determined by disallowing the “hobby loss”) would or should result in a phase-out of the losses he can claim on his rental real estate. Even though that wasn’t put directly at issue in the Notice of Deficiency (or answer), this side-effect apparently was raised in the trial and largely acknowledged by petitioner’s counsel. Judge Holmes has no qualms about allowing those changes to be made now.

But asking for changes that would come as a surprise, even if they are still mostly mathematical changes, is one step too far. Apparently, the IRS also failed to properly add in gross receipts from the flying (hobby) to the taxpayer’s income -as best I can tell, all they did was deny the loss. This would have not only increased taxable income, but have reduced some itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor (at IRC 67 and in effect during the pre “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” year at issue here). This issue was never raised in trial, or at any other point, until this motion. Judge Holmes has no patience left for finding these late mistakes (for which the IRS offers no excuse other than “we just didn’t notice it”) and denies that portion of the motion. This case has been around since 2012, after all: it is time to move on.

And so shall we.