Arguments to Raise in Collection Due Process, Naked Assessment Concerns, and the Supremacy Clause: January 28 – February 1 Designated Orders (Part II)

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In Part I we focused mostly on summary judgment motions in deficiency cases, and particularly on how important it is to frame the issue as a matter of law rather than fact. The remaining designated orders of that week provide lessons on (1) burden shifting arguments, (2) state privilege and federal rules of evidence conflicts, and (3) arguments to raise (or not raise) in collection due process (CDP) litigation. We begin our recap with the latter.

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CDP Argument One: Did the IRS Engage in a Balancing Analysis? Jackson v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 3661-18L

Judicial review of a CDP hearing may sometimes seem a bit perfunctory -it can be difficult to make legal arguments in abuse of discretion review where the IRS appears to have quite a bit (though not unbounded) of discretion to take their proposed collection action. The statutes governing the usual “collection alternatives” (Offer in Compromise at IRC 7122, Installment Agreements at IRC 6159, and Currently Not Collectible at, more-or-less, IRC 6343) similarly do not provide a robust set of rules that the IRS cannot violate.

But that isn’t to say that judicial review in a CDP hearing provides no benefit. As I’ve written about before, CDP can be an excellent venue for putting the IRS records at issue -not asking the Court to rule on a collection alternative, but to prove that they followed the rules they are supposed to (proper mailing, supervisory approval, etc.). The statutory hook for these issues is the CDP statute itself -specifically, IRC 6330(c)(1) and (c)(3)(A). The orders discussed below rely (with varying success) on different statutory or common-law arguments.

In something of a rarity, all three CDP hearing cases involve parties that are either represented by counsel or, in this instance, are attorneys themselves. The lawyerly imperative to focus on the text of the statute is what drives Mr. Jackson’s argument: in this case the requirement that the IRS “balances the need for efficient collection of taxes with the legitimate concern of the person that any collection action be no more intrusive than necessary.” IRC 6330(c)(2)(A)

The crux of Mr. Jackson’s argument is that the IRS didn’t balance these interests when they denied his installment request. Judge Gustafson (tantalizingly) mentions that there is a part of the Notice of Determination that specifically talks about the “balancing analysis” the merits of which the Court could review… but that, quite unfortunately, is not how Mr. Jackson frames the issue. Rather, the reference to the balancing test by Mr. Jackson is just a disguised, repackaged argument that the IRS should have accepted the proposed installment agreement.

There is good reason why it fails on that point. Namely, that Mr. Jackson was not filing compliant (he was delinquent on estimated tax payments) and the Tax Court has already held such a rejection not to be an abuse of discretion in Orum v. C.I.R. 123 T.C. 1 (2004). Since the crux of the argument is just “the IRS should accept my installment agreement” made twice (once as an issue raised under IRC 6330(c)(2)(ii) and once under IRC 6330(c)(3)(C)) it is doomed to fail.

I characterized Judge Gustafson’s mention of court review of real “balancing analysis” arguments as tantalizing because (1) I see them so rarely, and (2) they may provide new and fertile ground for court review. In my experience, a Notice of Determination always includes a boilerplate, conclusory paragraph on the “balancing analysis” conducted by Appeals. That appears to be the case here as well, where the “balancing analysis” is a statement that conveniently covers all the issues of IRC 6330(c):

“The filing of the notice of federal tax lien is sustained as there were legitimate balances due when the lien was filed and the taxes remain outstanding. All legal and procedural requirements prior to the filing of the Federal Tax Lien have been met. The decision to file the lien has been sustained. This balances the need for efficient collection of the tax with your concern that the action be no more intrusive than necessary.”

Judge Gustafson refers to this language in the notice of determination when he writes “there was at least a purported balancing, whose merits we might review.” Emphasis in original. The present facts and posture of the case before Judge Gustafson leave much to be desired, but I wouldn’t bet against other cases potentially gaining traction on that line of argument. It is true that, in my quick research, petitioners historically haven’t had much success on “balancing analysis” argument. But many of the taxpayers in such cases were either non-individuals (i.e. corporate) see Western Hills Residential Care, Inc. v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2017-98, non-compliant on filing, or the determination actually demonstrated the IRS did balance the equities, see Estate of Myers v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2017-11. I’d like to see a case where the taxpayer legitimately raises such equity concerns in the hearing and the IRS determination blithely repeats the boilerplate language. I believe under those circumstances you may just have an argument for remand -particularly if the administrative record gives no insight to the Appeal’s reasoning such that abuse of discretion could be properly determined.

CDP Argument Two: Invoking Res Judicata and Challenging Treasury Regulations: Ruesch v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 2177-18L

There is a lot going on in this case but, depending partly on your view of the validity of Treas. Reg. 301.6320-1(d)(2), Q&A-D1, the eventual resolution may seem inevitable. By breaking up the collection into two discrete issues (income tax vs. penalty) one can better trace the contrasting ideas of petitioner and the Court.

2010 Income Tax Liability

The taxpayer had a small balance due and was offered a CDP hearing after the IRS took their state tax refund (one of the few exceptions to a “pre-collection” CDP hearing: see IRC 6330(f)(2)). The taxpayer timely requested the CDP hearing. However, by the time the hearing actually was dealt with by Appeals it was moot because the balance (somewhere around $325 originally) now showed $0. Appeals issued a decision letter (erroneously but in this case harmlessly treating the original CDP request as an equivalent hearing) stating that there was no case because “your account has been resolved.” Nonetheless (and probably anticipating the next point), the taxpayer timely petitioned the court on that determination letter.

2010 IRC 6038(b) Penalty

A little more than a month after receiving that decision letter, the taxpayer gets a new Notice for 2010, this time saying that she had a balance of $10,000. Only it wasn’t for any income tax assessment: it was a penalty under IRC 6038(b) for failure to disclose information to the IRS. The IRS issued a CP504 Notice for this penalty which, though frustratingly similar to a CDP letter (see Keith’s article here) will not ordinarily lead to a CDP hearing. Nonetheless, the taxpayer requested a CDP hearing (as well as a Collection Appeals Request) after receiving the CP504 Notice. Still later, however, the taxpayer did receive a Notice of Federal Tax Lien for the penalty conveying CDP rights, which they also timely requested. Most important, however, is just this: at the time of the trial no determination was reached and no determination letter issued regarding the penalty as a result of a CDP hearing.

If you are treating the matter as two discrete tax issues, the answer seems straightforward: dismiss for mootness. The only tax issue properly before the court (the income tax liability, not the penalty for which no CDP hearing or determination letter has issued) has a $0 balance. From that perspective, there is no real notice of determination or collection action to review.

Having their day in court, however, the taxpayer wishes to argue otherwise. Rather than dismiss for mootness, the Court should exercise jurisdiction by granting a motion to restrain assessment or collection because: (1) the case is not moot (the IRS says the taxpayer still owes a balance (penalty) for that year, after all), (2) the IRS previously said (in the Notice of Determination for the since-paid liability) that there was no balance due for that tax year and should be held to that under res judicata, and (3) there can be no further CDP hearings on this matter because the Treasury Regulation that (seems to) allow more than one hearing for a given tax period (Treas. Reg. 301-6320-1(d)(2), Q&A-D1) is invalid.

The Court basically says “no” to each of these arguments or premises. In reverse order, the Court says (1) it doesn’t need to touch the regulation validity argument because ta prior case that explicitly allows more than one CDP hearing per period (Freije II) doesn’t rely on the Regulation; (2) res judicata is not applicable to IRS determinations that are administrative rather than judicial in nature; and (3) the case is moot because the notice of determination before the court pertains to fully paid tax. The argument the taxpayer wants to make pertains to a penalty which has not yet even had a CDP hearing (or determination).

Collectability As a Matter of Law: McCarthy v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 21940-15L

Lastly, we have the rare case where a taxpayer’s inaction (failure to fill out updated financial statements) is actually quite appropriate. In this instance, the case has been remanded to Appeals already, so court is waiting for parties to work things out. The IRS, as it often does, has since requested updated financial documents. But the taxpayer has not complied for the simple reason that it would be futile to do so: The determination of collectability, it appears, all circles around a legal question of whether a trust is the taxpayer’s nominee. Since the two parties are at loggerheads about that question, it is likely that will be a question for the Court and one of the reasons the judicial review of collection decisions can be important. Though, frustratingly for those of us working with low-income taxpayers, such wins seem to only appear to help those with trusts… See Campbell v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2019-4.

Naked Assessments… In Employment Law? Drill Right Consultants, LLC v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 16986-14

There were two orders issued in the same day for the above case, and only the docket number was listed as “designated” (there was no link to a particular order) so I’m just going to treat both as designated orders, with greater detail on the more substantive of the two.

One of the orders (here) was a fairly quick denial of a summary judgment motion by the petitioner. The case concerns worker classification which, as Judge Holmes remarks, “is a famously multifactor test.” Generally, it is difficult to prevail in summary judgment on multi-factor (and highly fact intensive) tests. Here, the IRS disagrees with some of the “facts” (informal interrogatory responses) provided by petitioner in support of the motion for summary judgment. And that is all that it takes. Motion dismissed.

What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the accompanying order (here) that addresses who (petitioner or the IRS) has the burden of proof moving forward in this case. Those rules are pretty well set in deficiency cases, and the applicable Tax Court Rule 142(a)(1) also seems to make it an easy answer: the burden is on the taxpayer unless a statute or the court says otherwise.

There isn’t a direct statute on point. The most appropriate statute on point does not actually address the underlying type of tax at issue here: IRC 7491 burden shifting rules apply to income, estate and gift taxes but not employment taxes. Arguably, this could be interpreted as an intentional omission by Congress, such that there should be no burden shift with employment taxes. But, lacking a “direct hit” from Congress, might the taxpayer find some room for judge-made exceptions?

Here, the analysis goes to that most well-known of exceptions: the “naked assessment.” Judge Holmes quickly describes what appear to be two strains of naked assessment cases applicable to deficiency cases. The “pure” strain is a complete failure of the Commissioner to engage in a determination related to the taxpayer and completely ruins the validity of the Notice of Deficiency. This strain is derived from the well-known Scar v. C.I.R. case that taxpayers have rarely been able to use. The Scar strain actually won’t help petitioner, because he needs there to be jurisdiction in order to get court review of the employment status leading to the employment taxes (which are not subject to deficiency procedures).

Fortunately for petitioner, there is also a diluted strain of the naked assessment: the Portillo v. C.I.R. strain. The Portillo strain doesn’t ruin the validity of the notice of deficiency (thereby ruining jurisdiction), but simply removes the presumption of correctness. To get the Portillo outcome, you need to argue that there was a determination relating to the taxpayer, but that there was no “ligament of fact” behind that determination, and it should not be afforded a presumption of correctness. This is the judge-made exception the taxpayer wants here, and it certainly makes sense in omitted income cases (where the taxpayer has to prove a negative).

It appears that petitioner tries to get Portillo treatment by relying on a particular worker classification case, SECC Corp. v. C.I.R., 142 T.C. 225 (2014). In SECC Corp., both sides agreed that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction because the IRS didn’t issue its standard “Notice of Determination of Worker Classification” (NDWC) letter. Instead the IRS issued “Letter 4451” which both parties agreed (for different reasons) wasn’t a proper ticket to get into tax court. But the tax court found that they had jurisdiction anyway, because both parties were putting form over substance in contravention of the underlying statute’s (IRC 7436) intent. Essentially, the statute requires a determination by the IRS and the letter reflects the final determination: it doesn’t much matter what the letter is labeled and the legislative history buttressed the reading that a specific letter was not needed.

So why does the jurisdictional “substance over form” SECC Corp. case matter for petitioners here? It matters because they SECC Corp. never answered whether these “informal determinations” should be afforded the same presumption of correctness that a formal determination gets. And presumably, petitioner’s case is dealing with the same informal determination that SECC Corp. did.

Unfortunately, Judge Holmes isn’t buying that the SECC Corp. case created a new Portilla-style burden shift for worker classification issues. Petitioner has to point to something (statute or case law) that says the burden should shift. The only statute on point implies that it doesn’t. The only case(s) on point deal with notices of deficiency (SECC Corp. doesn’t speak one way or another on the issue). And so, with nothing to hang their hats on, they cannot prevail on the burden shift.

Where State and Federal Law Collide: Rules of Evidence and Supremacy: Verde Wellness Center Inc. v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 23785-17

The final designated order addresses who wins in the battle of State privilege vs. federal rules of evidence. Appropriately, it involves a medical marijuana dispensary in Arizona -once more highlighting the potential tensions of state and federal law. The IRS is trying to get more information about the dispensary via subpoena to a state department, and the state department (not the taxpayer) is saying “sorry Uncle Sam: that information is privileged.”

As far as Arizona state law goes, the department is correct on that point. Unfortunately, this is a federal tax case which, under IRC 7453 is governed by the federal rules of evidence, particularly FRE 501 which provides that federal law governs privilege questions in federal cases. And federal law in both the D.C. circuit and 9th Circuit (where the instant case would be appealable) make clear that no “dispensary – state” privilege is recognized.

Since it isn’t privileged under the rules that matter it doesn’t matter that it would be a crime under state law to disclose. That’s the gist of what the Constitution is getting at when it says “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Art. VI, Cl. 2

Or, to parse, in conflict of state and federal law, Uncle Sam is the superior sovereign. Sorry Arizona.

 

Caleb Smith 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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