Accepting Gifts from the IRS: Ethical Considerations (Part One)

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Previously, I wrote about the strange case of Householder v. C.I.R (here). As a refresher, the Householders tried to take about half-a-million dollars in nonsense deductions for their horse breeding/leasing “business,” and the Tax Court disallowed them. This, of course, resulted in a $0 deficiency after running Rule 155 computations.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right: there was no deficiency for the Householders even after “losing” on a half-million dollar deduction because the IRS made a serious mistake in their Notice of Deficiency. Essentially, the IRS “gifted” the Householders a tax loss unrelated to the one at issue before the court. In the previous post we mostly looked at whether the IRS could take back or otherwise undo their gift. This time, we’ll look at ethical considerations for counsel in accepting these gifts.

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It took all my willpower not to name this blog “Emily Post’s Guide to Accepting Gifts From the IRS.” However, the real concerns for counsel in these situations are less matters of etiquette and more the competing obligations of confidentiality with your client and candor to the court.

As a human in the world, I might think morality dictates I should tell the IRS of an erroneous “gift” so they can (presumably) rescind it. But as a lawyer in the world, professional rules dictate otherwise- something that may be thought of as a “loophole” in morality. (I can’t help myself: I was a philosophy major with a focus on applied ethics and I’m still paying off those loans. Any reference I can make to something I learned in undergrad eases the pain.)

Without being able to heavily rely on our gut moral compass, it can be difficult to know what is required of you as a lawyer on ethical issues. Lawyers have to think in terms of what “is or isn’t” in accordance with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC). And even within the constrained universe of the MRPC it can be difficult to know what your ethical responsibilities are: as the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct state, these are “rules of reason.” See MRPC “Scope” [14]. In most situations attorneys must work backwards from the general principles of the MRPC to arrive at an answer.

Fortunately, there is an ABA Statement almost directly on point for the sorts of issues at play in Householder. This is ABA Statement 1999-1.The money quote from that statement is as follows:

“A client should not profit from a clear unilateral arithmetic or clerical error made by the Service and a lawyer may not knowingly assist the client in doing so. This is not the case, however, if the computational error is conceptual, such that a reasonable dispute still exists concerning the calculation.”

The ABA Statement creates a typology of “gifts,” each with different characteristics and ethical considerations. The differences are important primarily in how they determine what duties you owe the client, the IRS, and the court. Those different varieties are (a) computational gifts, (b) clerical gifts, and (c) conceptual gifts. Let’s take a look at each before figuring out which one the Householders received.

Clerical Gifts

Let’s begin with the easiest one to classify and respond to: clerical gifts. These can be thought of as typos, and they are not the sort of gifts you are allowed to accept. If my client and the IRS settle on a refund of $1,000 and the IRS types up a decision document accidentally listing a refund of $100,000 my role is clear: Let the IRS know of the mistake. I don’t even need to consult my client on that. The decision document would be entered in court and failing to correct this mistake would be in violation of my duty of candor to the court. MRPC 3.3.

You might be thinking to yourself, “but what about your duty to the client? Shouldn’t they get the final say as to whether to accept this payday since the mistake is a client confidence?”

Not so. Where the court is involved, such client confidences are explicitly overruled by MRPC 3.3(c). In fact, because you’d already reached a settlement amount with the client and IRS, you don’t even need to disclose the issue to your client: you have implied authority to make the fix on your own. See MRPC 1.6(b)(3). As we’ll see with the other varieties of gifts, this issue of maintaining a client confidence can be a serious sticking point.

If the matter didn’t involve entering a decision document in court (and therefore candor towards a tribunal), the answer may be different. In that case, you’d want to have a long chat with the client about the criminality of cashing a government check they aren’t entitled to. And as a tax lawyer you’d probably want to drop the case because of Circular 230 concerns. But that isn’t what we’re dealing with for the purposes of this blog. For now, playing the role of Emily Post, if the IRS gives you a clerical gift, one must politely say “I could never accept such generosity.”

Computational Gifts

Computational gifts may be “squishier” than clerical gifts and entail a broader range of mistakes. On one end of the spectrum the mistake may be simple arithmetic: 2 + 2 = 5. This isn’t a far-cry from a clerical mistake, and identical ethical considerations apply: you cannot accept such generosity, and you must disclose (if in court). Most of the time, however, the arithmetic isn’t so cut-and-dry. What if the issue isn’t failure to correctly add two numbers, but failure to consider a code section that would introduce another variable to the equation? In other words, what if the correct computation is 5 + 3 x 0 but the IRS doesn’t recognize a law providing the zero multiplier, and only adds 5 + 3? Computational, to be sure, but not strictly so…

Which leads us to the final category: “Conceptual Gifts.” These are the gifts attorneys want to receive from the IRS, because in some circumstances they can actually accept them. Was the Householder’s erroneous Notice of Deficiency one such conceptual gift? We’ll take a deeper look at what exactly distinguishes conceptual gifts from purely computational ones in the next post.

About Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith is Visiting Associate Clinical Professor and the Director of the Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School. Caleb has worked at Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics on both coasts and the Midwest, most recently completing a fellowship at Harvard Law School's Federal Tax Clinic. Prior to law school Caleb was the Tax Program Manager at Minnesota's largest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance organization, where he continues to remain engaged as an instructor and volunteer today.

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