A Webber Update, Possible Pandemic Changes, and Conservation Easements: Designated Orders 5/11/20 to 5/15/20 and 6/8/20 to 6/12/20

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There were 7 designated orders during the week I monitored in May and 1 designated order for the week I monitored in June (Mark Alan Staples order), covering a variety of topics.  We start with an order updating the Webber case and its Collection Due Process issues.  Next, is there a change in the Tax Court treatment of motions to dismiss during the COVID-19 pandemic?  Following that, there are conservation easement, innocent spouse and other cases to review.

A Webber Update

Docket No. 14307-18 L, Scott Allan Webber v. C.I.R., Order available here.

Previously in Procedurally Taxing, the Webber case prompted discussion and change regarding Collection Due Process (CDP) and jurisdiction in Tax Court.  I wrote here regarding the case and Judge Gustafson’s taking issue with a prior IRS motion to dismiss.  The motion to dismiss was based on an IRS notice concerning CDP rights that had 2 addresses listed, one to request a CDP hearing and the other to make payment to the IRS on the listed amount due.  Mr. Webber had attempted to submit his CDP hearing request, but wound up mailing it to the payment address by mistake.  Based on the request’s movement through the IRS bureaucracy, it arrived at the correct location but late enough to only allow Mr. Webber an equivalent hearing (limiting his access to Tax Court review).  After Judge Gustafson took the IRS to task on the motion to dismiss as being a harsh result for such a simple taxpayer mistake, the IRS withdrew their motion to dismiss.  Things were not done regarding CDP, though, as there was a CDP Summit Initiative Workshop where these types of issues with CDP notices were discussed (also here).  Keith wrote here that a result of this discussion led to a program manager technical assistant (PMTA) memo setting new IRS policy to determine timeliness of a CDP hearing request.  The new policy is based on the type of situation above – receipt of a CDP hearing request at an incorrect office when it was mailed to the incorrect office because of being an office listed on the notice. 

I would like to also announce that the IRS is making a revision to the Internal Revenue Manual at IRM 8.22.5.3 to reflect that PMTA memo.  The revision will be effective beginning July 6 and will be incorporated into the IRM within 2 years of the date of this memorandum, reflected here (this links to a Tax Notes article available only to subscribers). 

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Got that?  Because the current designated order has a change of topic.  This designated order’s topic is shift from jurisdiction to the topic of credit elects.

In fact, Mr. Webber is dealing with a credit elect dating back to 2003 (when it was $71,012).  Over the years, that credit elect was applied to each tax year until we are dealing with the tax year at issue and the question of whether a credit elect of $77,782 from 2012 applies to his 2013 tax return.  If so, it reduces his 2013 total tax of $5,690 so that there is a credit elect of $72,092 that would carry to the 2014 tax return.

The problem is that Mr. Webber has received conflicting messages from the IRS regarding allowance of the credit elect over the years.  Certainly, removing an earlier link in the chain of credit elects would affect the 2013 tax year.  Part of the problem is that the review by Appeals during his CDP hearing was not honoring a prior IRS letter allowing the credit elect for tax years 2004 and 2005.

This order deals with both an IRS motion for summary judgment and Mr. Webber’s response, which contains a motion to dismiss and a motion to remand.

Mr. Webber presents the issue raised, the availability of the credit elect for tax year 2013, as a challenge to the existence of an underlying liability.  He contends that no valid CDP hearing was conducted asking to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, but also asking for a remand back to Appeals for them to take appropriate action.  The judge finds dismissal for lack of jurisdiction to be unwarranted.  Regarding remand, Judge Gustafson says it may or may not be necessary based on the IRS argument concerning the credit elect issue in the CDP hearing so no remand at this time.  Both motions are denied (the motion to remand denied without prejudice).

While the Court is not adjudicating Mr. Webber’s entitlement to the overpayment underlying the credit elect in 2013, the Court does have the responsibility to determine if the IRS allowed the overpayment but failed to credit it.  The Court states that is a genuine dispute of material fact since Appeals gave a statement in 2012 that they are allowing the full amount of the claimed credit elect for 2004 and 2005.  Appeals stated in the more recent CDP hearing that the question needed to be resolved outside Appeals so the Court reviews possible reasoning (statute of limitations, non-determination years, or refunds received).  None of that is conclusive so there is a genuine dispute of fact, leading to denial of the motion for summary judgment.  The parties are currently filing joint status reports to the Court.

Bob Kamman wanted to let us know about some coincidences – there is a citation in this order to a published Tax Court opinion from 2012 that also involves a credit-elect dispute in a CDP context.  The taxpayer is named Hershal Weber and the opinion was written by Judge Gustafson.  The more things change, the more they stay the same?

Stance on Motions to Dismiss During Pandemic?

Docket No. 10386-19S, Salvador Vazquez, v. C.I.R., Order available here.

This order is rather short, but notable.  The order begins by stating this case was scheduled for the Los Angeles trial session beginning June 1 before COVID-19 disrupted the Tax Court calendars.  The IRS filed a motion to dismiss for failure to properly prosecute on May 6, stating that the petitioner failed to respond to numerous attempts by the IRS to make contact.

Judge Carluzzo states:  “Under the circumstances and at this stage of the proceedings, we are reluctant to impose the harsh sanction that respondent requests. Our reluctance, however, to impose the sanction at this time in this case should not in any way be taken as a suggestion that a party’s behavior, as petitioner’s behavior is described in respondent’s motion, could not support such a sanction under appropriate circumstances.”

It is too soon to tell if this is any type of new position for the Tax Court regarding motions to dismiss during these pandemic times.  Since then, the judge ordered the parties to, separately or together, submit reports by August 24.

Conservation Easements

In recent years, the IRS has been taking a harder stance against several organizations that have claimed deductions for the donations of conservation easements.  For those looking to learn more about the issues, I recommend listening to two of the June 2020 podcast episodes from Tax Notes Talk.  A problem I have noticed is that both the bad apples and the good ones have been swept up in the IRS enforcement efforts.  For example, a request I have seen from the good apples is that they would like to get sample language from the IRS on how to draft documents relating to the conservation easement donation that will be satisfactory to the IRS.

One current development regarding conservation easement cases is that the IRS announced in IR-2020-130 that certain taxpayers with syndicated conservation easement issues will receive letters regarding time-limited settlement offers in docketed Tax Court cases.  Perhaps that will help reduce the conservation easement cases on Tax Court dockets.

  • Docket No. 5444-13, Oakbrook Land Holdings, LLC, William Duane Horton, Tax Matters Partner v. C.I.R., Order available here.

Oakbrook Land Holdings would like to reopen the record to add four deeds from the Nature Conservancy that have language to support the argument that Oakbrook’s deed doesn’t violate the regulation regarding their conservation easement donation.  The Court ruled the evidence is merely cumulative.  Also, the Conservancy’s comments, not practices, are what is discussed so the proffered deeds won’t change the outcome of the case.  The motion to supplement the record is denied.

  • Docket No. 10896-17, Highpoint Holdings, LLC, High Point Land Manager, LLC, Tax Matters Partner, v. C.I.R., Order available here.

This case required a look to state law in Tennessee regarding interpretation of the deed at issue and that does not help Highpoint Holdings.  The IRS motion for partial summary judgment is granted and the parties are to submit their status reports on how to proceed in the case.

Innocent Spouse

Docket No. 4899-18, Doris Ann Whitaker v. C.I.R., Order available here.

This is an innocent spouse case that came to Tax Court as Ms. Whitaker is seeking relief from joint liability for 2005 income tax, pursuant to IRC 6015(f).  Ms. Whitaker has not completed high school and is employed as a nurse’s aide.  When filing the 2005 tax return, income attributable to her then-disabled and drug-addicted husband was not reported on the return.  Ms. Whitaker did not report his income as she incorrectly understood “married filing jointly” to mean “married filing separately”.  Basically, she thought filing the joint return took care of her obligations and her husband was required to file his own separate return.

The IRS filed their motion for summary judgment, arguing “there remains no genuine issue of material fact for trial”.  The Court, when reviewing the facts and circumstances, takes Ms. Whitaker’s education and resources into account and finds this factor is sufficient to prompt a holding that there is a genuine issue of material fact to prompt denial of the motion without prejudice.

However, what to make of the recent amendment to IRC 6015(e)(7)?  The amendment requires the Tax Court to review applicable innocent spouse cases based on (A) the administrative record established at the time of the determination, and (B) any additional newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence.  What should be done with motions for summary judgment in conjunction with these evidentiary requirements?  In this case, only the IRS motion is on hand.  The Court has the discretion to construe an opposition to a summary judgment motion as a cross-motion for summary judgment but only where the parties have adequate notice and adequate opportunity to respond.  There was no such notice to treat Ms. Whitaker’s opposition as a cross-motion.  The Court orders the parties to communicate toward settlement.  The next order is for the IRS to file a certified administrative record and motion for summary judgment based on that record.  Ms. Whitaker is ordered to file any objections she would have about the administrative record, a response to the motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment.  The Clerk of the Court is also ordered to serve on Ms. Whitaker a copy of the information letter regarding the local Low Income Taxpayer Clinics potentially providing assistance to her (this case is being worked by Winston-Salem IRS Counsel so presumably this would be the 2 North Carolina clinics).

There have been subsequent orders filed in this case.  The first order relays that in a telephone conference between the parties that the IRS is conceding the IRC 6015 issue in the case so the parties are ordered to file a proposed stipulated decision or joint status report no later than July 17.  The second order relays that the IRS filed a motion for entry of decision on June 24, proposing a zero deficiency and no penalty due for the 2005 tax year, after applying IRC section 6015(b), and there is no overpayment in income tax due to petitioner for the 2005 tax year.  However, the motion states that the petitioner objects so Ms. Whitaker is to file no later than July 24 a response to the motion explaining why it should not be granted and a decision should be entered in this case.

Unless there is a procedural issue in her case I am overlooking, I find this to be a win for Ms. Whitaker and think she should not file a response to the motion.

Short Takes on Issues

  • Docket No. 6946-19SL, Soccer Garage, Inc., v. C.I.R., Order available here.

This case concerns Collection Due Process regarding a levy and penalties for failure to file.  The IRS argues there was an intentional disregard of the filing requirement.  There are not enough facts provided regarding the petitioner’s intent so the Court denied the IRS motion for summary judgment.

  • Docket No. 10662-19W, Wade H. Horsey v. C.I.R., Order available here.

Mr. Hosey requested the reconsideration of the determination of a whistleblower claim and his motion was denied.

  • Docket No. 6560-18, Mark Alan Staples v. C.I.R., Order and Decision available here.

Mr. Staples filed a motion for new trial that the Court had to recharacterize as a motion for reconsideration of findings or opinion.  Mr. Staples made arguments about the characterization of his retirement benefits, Constitutional arguments, and generally argued about his computation regarding tax year 2015.  The Court denied the motion as the IRS computations were in line with the Court’s memorandum findings of fact and opinion.  On this case, I am generally confused by the petitioner’s actions – was he a tax protestor or just ignorant of tax procedure?  Either way, his motion was filed in vain.

 

About William Schmidt

William Schmidt joined Kansas Legal Services in 2016 to manage cases for the Kansas Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and became Clinic Director January 2017. Previously, he worked on pro bono tax cases for the 3 Kansas City metro area Low Income Taxpayer Clinics. He records and edits a tax podcast called Tax Justice Warriors and is now an adjunct professor for Washburn University School of Law.

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