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.

A Tale of Two (Types of) Taxpayers: Designated Orders May 20 – 24

I always try to look for a theme running through the disparate designated orders I cover. Sometimes one readily presents itself, as it did the penultimate week of May: broadly speaking, the different ways that well-represented and unrepresented taxpayers use (one may uncharitably say, waste) the Court’s time. The four designated orders of the week give a perfect glimpse into the differing tactics and consequences that well-heeled, fully-lawyered taxpayers face compared to the more common “tax protestors.” We’ll begin with examining the latter.

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(Potential) Consequences to Tax Protestor Arguments: Sanctions and Penalties

Procedurally, there isn’t too much novel going on in the two tax protestor cases. Both are collection due process cases where the taxpayer isn’t arguing for a collection alternative, but just repeating tax protestor rhetoric about taxes being illegal or immoral in some sense. 

As usual, the Court has given both parties more than a few opportunities to get things right (Judge Leyden even went so far as to have her case once remanded to Appeals to confirm penalty approval under IRC § 6751). Also as usual, there are some moments of levity in the Court’s recounting of the reasons why the petitioners believe they shouldn’t have to pay taxes. A few of the highlights:

From the Harris v. Commissioner order, a “sovereign citizen” style protestor:

  1. No taxes owed because the IRS is actually a trust domiciled in Puerto Rico
  2. No taxes owed because petitioner “revoked” his “election” to be a U.S. Citizen taxpayer
  3. No taxes because nothing in the Internal Revenue Code applies to “natural persons,” (unlike, presumably, the rest of us fakers).

From the Cotter v. Commissioner order, a “religious duty not to pay tax” style protestor who stopped paying taxes in 2009 (I wonder what led her to believe the government became evil at that point…):

  1. I’ll pay taxes (gifts from “The People” for God’s glory) but I won’t pay “tribute money to extend The Devil’s Kingdom on earth” 
  2. I can’t pay taxes because “I cannot give God’s money for foolish, wicked, wasteful evil practices.”

Ok. So a lot of nonsense from both pro se parties. The Court and the IRS’s time have been sufficiently wasted. And for the petitioners there are consequences to these actions, though the consequences are procedurally distinct. 

For Mrs. Cotter, the consequence is a penalty of $5000 because her reason for requesting the CDP hearing was designated a frivolous position by the IRS under Notice 2008-14. It therefore meets the rules of a “frivolous submission” under IRC § 6702(b)

Mrs. Cotter only owed $348 going into the CDP hearing: she now owes over 14 times that because of the reasons she put forward for not having to pay taxes (even more mind-boggling, since she made a payment of $1,826 with the original return). These are real-life costs for conveniently reading “render unto Caesar” with an addendum of “unless you don’t like Caesar.”

For Mr. Harris, there are no IRC § 6702 penalties because his original CDP request actually specified potentially legitimate reasons for the hearing: in particular, that he never received a notice of deficiency. Rather, it is all of Mr. Harris’s behavior once he is before the Court that leads to a penalty on IRS counsel’s motion under IRC § 6673. Judge Halpern grants the motion and awards a penalty of $15,000. Ouch.

Of course, the Court doesn’t just issue $15,000 penalties to pro se taxpayers for the fun of it. Mr. Harris has been warned numerous times by the Court, resulting in two previous Court decisions (here and here), and is a serial non-filer. The Court has previously found that Mr. Harris has “attempted to turn the IRS and this Court into a mockery for his shopworn tax-protestor rhetoric.” It is unclear why Mr. Harris continues to make these obviously ineffective arguments (he is apparently a West Point graduate, so one may think he would know better) but if it is a hobby, it is fast becoming an expensive one.

Potential Consequences to Hardball Practices: Losing the Court’s Favor: Cross Refined Coal, LLC v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 19502-17

From unrepresented taxpayers we move to very-lucratively represented taxpayers with eight (!!!) attorneys on the case from both Mayer-Brown and Skadden. The Court has only slightly more patience for the positions and use of time by lawyers in this case than that of the unrepresented taxpayers. 

The Cross Refined Coal case actually provided two designated orders the week of May 20th. Both resulted from motions made by the petitioner: a motion for discovery (here) and a motion to strike (here). Both also resulted in, shall we say, stern language from Judge Gustafson almost entirely denying the motions. We will begin with the motion to compel discovery to see why Judge Gustafson was not impressed. 

Usually when I see the Court denying a motion to compel discovery it is because the parties haven’t exhausted informal discovery before asking the court to step in (see Rule70(a)). Here, however, the issue is not with the procedure, but with the contents of the discovery request -I too was a little baffled by what the taxpayer was hoping to get out of the documents.

The case revolves around what I can only imagine to be immensely valuable “refined coal” tax-credits claimed by the taxpayer but disallowed by the IRS for 2011 and 2012. Apart from the aforementioned stature and number of attorneys on this case, one may surmise the dollars at issue based on the amount of IRS attention the issue has received. In 2017, the IRS issued a Technical Advice Memorandum (TAM 201729020) that explained why the IRS was (soon thereafter) going to disallow the credits in a Notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment. A year later, the IRS issued a Chief Counsel Memorandum (CCM AM2018-002) that provided further explanation and analysis for analyzing the rather complex transactions at hand, providing that for other taxpayers (i.e. not Cross Coal) with other different facts, the credits may be allowed. It is the TAM and CCM that is at the heart of this discovery dispute.

Petitioner wants basically everything that the IRS used to reach its conclusions in the CCM and TAM, going so far as proposing to conduct a deposition of an IRS designee concerning the CCM meaning and terms. They also served admissions regarding the conclusions in the TAM and CCM, with questions about “what Congress intended” in enacting the statute at play, IRC § 45(e).

Completely devoid of any understanding of IRC § 45(e), I still couldn’t help but feel like all of the requested information focusing on the genesis and reasoning of the CCM was largely irrelevant to the Tax Court case at hand. Judge Gustafson, apparently, felt that way as well, and describes his consternation this way:

“The court will not adjudicate the correctness of the CCM. […] If the CCM was factually unsupported and legally without merit, that would not help Cross; and if instead the CCM was factually impeccable and legally brilliant, that fact would not help the Commissioner. Consequently, Cross’s efforts in discovery to learn more about the background of the CCM are misdirected.”

Because the taxpayer is represented by such sophisticated counsel, I found myself second-guessing my original impulse that this was obviously a flawed discovery request. I thought something I wasn’t seeing must be going on. What was lurking in the background, it appears, was a simultaneous FOIA dispute. Since the taxpayer is already running into roadblocks with FOIA, wouldn’t it just be more efficient to have the Tax Court fix the issue now, rather than wait for further litigation in the FOIA suit?

Judge Gustafson is not amenable to the proposal of taking work away from other (proper) court venues, and saves his most critical language for the idea: “today we must decline to overlook the palpable irrelevance of the requests at issue and must decline to become, in effect, a proxy for a district court adjudicating a FOIA dispute (in which context relevance is not an issue). We will not use the resources and authority of the Tax Court to compel disclosures extraneous to our proper business.”

And so the motion to compel is not surprisingly denied.

If one feels some frustration from Judge Gustafson at the use of the court (and parties) time in that order, it is amplified in a second order issued two days later on the same docket. This time the order concerns the petitioner’s motion to strike, and this time it is frustration with the uncharitable positions the petitioner is taking.

Again, this circles around discovery. The parties were originally supposed to serve requests for documents no later than January 30, 2019. As some may recall, there was a government shutdown from December 22, 2018 through January 25, 2019. Shortly after the month-long government shutdown hit, but after the January 30 deadline, the IRS requested a continuance of the case and all pretrial deadlines. The Tax Court said, effectively, “how about you two work together to adjust your pretrial schedule, recognizing that it isn’t the IRS’s fault they were locked out of the building?”

But the parties couldn’t come to an agreement: petitioners maintained that document requests made by IRS a few weeks after the shutdown were not timely, and they weren’t budging. This led to some acrimony and motion practice between the parties, with the IRS arguing that petitioners were taking a “hardline” approach and questioning, among other things, their good faith in the process. 

Which brings us to the actual motion to strike. 

Petitioners appeared offended by the IRS’s characterization of the issue, and note that they have always reserved their timeliness objection. Judge Gustafson agrees that the timeliness objection has been reserved, but beyond that asks “is there really any reason to file a motion to strike on those grounds?” In Judge Gustafson’s words, “[w]e think that the pending motion to strike was not a good expenditure of petitioner’s counsel’s time and that it required from the Court attention that would have been better spent on the remaining motions to compel.” 

Ouch. 

But if that doesn’t hurt enough, Judge Gustafson also lets drop that a loss on the untimeliness objection is likely coming down the pike. Sometimes the fine line of being a zealous advocate and playing hardball comes with consequences -perhaps, of losing some favor with the Judge. 

Invalidating an IRS Notice: Lessons and What’s to Come from Feigh v. C.I.R.

A few weeks ago, the United States Tax Court decided Feigh v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. No. 15 (2019): a precedential opinion on a novel issue involving the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and its interplay with an IRS Notice (Notice 2014-7). The petitioners in the case just so happened to be represented by my clinic, and the case just so happened to be a A Law Student’s Dream: fully stipulated (no pesky issues of fact), and essentially a single (and novel) legal issue. Because the opinion will affect a large number of taxpayers, I commend those working in low-income tax to read it. What I hope to do in this blog post is give a little inside-baseball on the case and, in keeping with the theme of this blog, tie it in a bit with procedural issues.

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Posture of the Case

I frequently sing the praises of Tax Court judges in working with pro se taxpayers. This case provides yet another example. My clinic received a call from the petitioners less than a week before calendar. Apparently, the Tax Court (specifically Judge Goeke) had recognized that this was a novel issue of law and suggested to the low-income, pro se petitioners that they may benefit from contacting a Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic for help with the briefing.

By the time the client contacted me (again, only a few days before calendar) the IRS had moved for the case to be submitted fully stipulated under Rule 122. The Court had not yet ruled on the motion but I mostly found the stipulations unobjectionable (with one minor change, which the IRS graciously did not object to). Rather, what concerned me was the fact that it was designated as an “S-Case.” I wanted this case to be precedential, and I wanted to be able to appeal –neither of which are possible for S-Cases. See IRC § 7463(b). Yes, the Court can remove the designation in its own discretion (see post here), but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. After consulting with my clients the first order of business was to move to have the S designation removed -which again saw no objection from the IRS. Now the table was set for briefing on the novel issue.

What’s At Issue?

I’m going to try hard not to dwell on the substantive legal issues in this case, important though they are. Nevertheless, an ever-so-brief primer on what was going on is necessary.

Our client (husband and wife) received Medicaid Waiver Payments for the services the wife provided to her disabled (non-foster) child. From conversations with local VITA organizations I already anecdotally knew that some people received these payments, but since taking this case on I have come to appreciate exactly how vast the Medicaid Waiver program is. For our client, the Medicaid Waiver Payments were made in the form of rather meager wages (a little over $7,000) that were subject (rightly or wrongly) to FICA. They were the only wages my clients had. When my clients went to file their income tax return, however, it looked like they were getting a fairly raw deal: namely, missing out on an EITC and Child Tax Credits cumulatively worth almost $4,000. Why? Because in 2014 the IRS decided that these Medicaid Waiver Payments were excluded from income as IRC § 131 “Foster Care” payments.

An exclusion from income sounds to most taxpayers like a good thing: it’s always better to have less taxable income, right? But the tax code is a complicated animal, and for lower-income taxpayers the exclusion of wages was actually a curse: to be considered “earned income” for both the EITC and Child Tax Credit (CTC), wages must be “includible” in income. By the IRS’s logic, this meant that you must exclude your $7,000 Medicaid Waiver Payment (with a tax benefit of $0 in some cases) and couldn’t thereafter “double-benefit” by also getting the EITC/CTC for those excluded wages.

It doesn’t quite seem fair for those who saw little or no tax benefit from the exclusion.

It seems even less fair when you consider that those who would actually phase out of the EITC (say, by receiving a large Medicaid Waiver Payment over $52,000, which has happened) not only would get a larger tax benefit from the exclusion, but could still potentially get the EITC if they had other wages (say, from the other spouse). Theoretically, a couple making $100,000 could get the EITC in this case if the greater portion of the income were Medicaid Waiver Payments. This would be the case because such payments would be disregarded for EITC eligibility calculation altogether. Probably not what Congress (or even the IRS) had in mind.

My clients felt like they should do something about this unfairness. So they did: they took both the exclusion of IRS Notice 2014-7 and the EITC based on the excluded wages. This of course led to a notice of deficiency and culminated in the precedential Feigh decision.

Our Legal Arguments

Because of our client’s novel stance, we had two points we had to make for our client to win: (1) that the wages could be included in income, and (2) basically, that was it. We wanted to make it a simple statutory argument: If the wages could be included, then they were “includible,” and that was all that was required of the EITC under IRC § 32(c)(2)(A)(i).

As to the first point -whether the payments could (maybe, should) be “included” in income- history was on our side. Prior to 2014 courts and the IRS agreed that such payments had to be included in income. Payments for adopted or biological children clearly did not meet the statutory language of excluded “Foster Care Payments” under IRC § 131. The only thing that changed in the intervening years was the IRS issuance of Notice 2014-7: there was no “statutory, regulatory, or judicial authority” that could anchor the change in treatment. As we argued, the IRS essentially transformed “earned income” into “unearned income” on its own. And that sort of change is a massive bridge too far through subregulatory guidance.

We won on that first issue handily. The Court noted that “IRS notices –as mere statements of the Commissioner’s position—lack the force of law.” Then, the Court applied Skidmore deference (see Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944)) to see whether the interpretation set forth by IRS Notice 2014-7 was persuasive.

It was not.

And the IRS could not, through the notice, “remove a statutory benefit provided by Congress” -like, say, eligibility for the EITC. That sort of thing has to be done through statute. For administrative law-hawks, the Tax Court reigning in the IRS’s attempts to rule-make without going through the proper procedures is probably the bigger win. (As an aside, I’m not entirely positive even a full notice-and-comment regulation could do what Notice 2014-7 tries to: I don’t think any amount of deference would allow a reading of IRC § 131 the way Notice 2014-7 does.)

So we cleared the first hurdle: the IRS can’t magically decree that what was once earned income is no more through the issuance of subregulatory guidance. But what of the second hurdle -the fact that our client undeniably did not include the wages in gross income?

Courts have (rightly) treated the terms “allowable” and “allowed” differently, as well as “excludible” vs. “excluded” in previous cases. The breakdown is that the suffix “able” means “capable of” whereas the suffix “ed” means “actually occurred.” See Lenz v. C.I.R., 101 T.C. 260 (1993). Coming into this case I was keenly aware of this distinction because of a law review article I read while writing a chapter on the EITC for Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS. Indeed, it was that aspect of the EITC statutory language (and not my familiarity with Notice 2014-7 or Medicaid Waiver Payments) which made me want to take this case from the beginning. I feel compelled to raise the value of that law review article (James Maule, “No Thanks, Uncle Sam, You Can Keep Your Tax Break,”) because so many law professors joke that no one reads law review articles, or that most articles are impractical (no comment on the latter).

Consistently with the distinction of “allowed” vs. “allowable,” the Court has previously ruled on the nuance of “included” vs. “includible.” See Venture Funding, Ltd. v. C.I.R., 110 T.C. No. 19 (1998). “Included” means it was reported as income, “includible” means that it could/should be reported in income. Since the Tax Court already found that we met the first hurdle (our client could include the payments in income and Notice 2014-7 can’t take that away), we were in the clear: it was “includible.”

And so our client has excluded income and the earned income credit derived from it… Impermissible double-benefit, you (and the IRS brief) say?

I disagree. Not only does treating excluded payments as earned income apply the statutory language correctly, and more in line with what Congress would want, I contend that it is the better way to protect the integrity of the EITC. To see why this is you have to look again at how the EITC is calculated, and how the phase-out applies. In so doing we see that the real problem would be in disregarding excluded income altogether.

The Integrity of the EITC

The EITC is means tested, but it calculates the taxpayers means through two separate numbers: (1) “earned income” and (2) “adjusted gross income (AGI).” See IRC § 32(a)(2) and (f).  Excluded income isn’t reflected in AGI, so people with high amounts of excluded income might escape the AGI means testing prong of the EITC -unless the excluded income is specifically caught through other IRC 32 provisions like limits on investment income or foreign income exclusions. (Note that excluded alimony payments post TCJA would not be incorporated in the means testing.)

However, if excluded income like Medicaid waiver payments is considered “earned income” (that is, if we don’t require that earned income be “included”) then people with large amounts of excluded earned income do begin to phase out under the “earned income” means testing prong. In other words, it more appropriately reserves the credit only for those who working and are (truly) of limited means, while denying it to those who (truly) are not. I think Congress would approve. I’d also note that the exclusion is necessarily worth more to higher income earners than to lower-income earners -and frequently worthless to EITC recipients, many of whom may not actually have a tax liability at all (thus providing a $0 benefit to the exclusion).

Finally, I’d note (and did in the brief) that Congress has essentially addressed this problem of excluded earned income before -only with non-taxable Combat Pay. A little history is helpful on that point.

For the majority of the EITC’s existence (from 1978 to 2001), earned income actually didn’t have to be “includible” in gross income. Then, in an effort to make the credit easier to compute (not an effort to limit eligibility), Congress added the includible requirement as part of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001. Mostly, Congress made this change because it wanted information returns to give taxpayers (and the IRS) all the information needed for calculating the EITC.

Unfortunately, this meant that active duty soldiers receiving combat pay (which is a mandatory statutory exclusion, and thus not “includible” under IRC § 112) could not treat that pay as qualifying for the EITC. A GAO report noted that this was likely an unintended consequence (see page 2), that accrued the bulk of the benefits to those that made the most money. The Congressional fix was IRC § 32(c)(2)(B)(vi), which allows taxpayers to “elect” to treat excluded combat pay as earned income (it still isn’t taxed). Congress had to make this change to fix an unintended consequence of their own (statutory) making. However, it would be absurd (we argued) to require Congress to fix an unintended consequence wholly created by the IRS through Notice 2014-7.

What Happens Next?

I’ve been in contact with the local VITA providers in my community that see Medicaid Waiver Payments on the front lines -apparently fairly frequently. Their main question is a practical one: what do we tell taxpayers now? The IRS VITA guidance before had been “you can’t get credit for those payments towards the EITC.” In the aftermath of Feigh, can they both exclude and get credit now (as my client did)?

That is an excellent question, which brings up some excellent procedural issues (finally: I promised I’d get to them). The main issue is whether the IRS may now consider Notice 2014-7 completely moribund, such that there is no exclusion period and the Medicaid Waiver Payments must be included. The Court noted that the IRS did not raise the argument that the payments should be includible in income for my client, so it was conceded. But is the IRS stuck with that position now? Can the IRS take a position that is contrary to its own published guidance? What if that guidance is essentially invalidated?

The best case on point for this sort of situation may be Rauenhorst v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 157 (2002). In that case, the IRS essentially said it wasn’t bound by its own guidance (in that instance in the form of a Revenue Ruling) when the Commissioner took a litigating position directly contrary to it. After receiving something of a slap-down from the Tax Court, the IRS issued Chief Counsel Notice CC-2003-014 (sorry, I couldn’t find any free links), which provided that “Chief Counsel attorneys may not argue contrary to final guidance.” Final guidance includes “IRB notices” (i.e. notices that are published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin), which Notice 2014-7 was.

Further, it does not appear to matter that Feigh essentially invalidated Notice 2014-7. The Chief Counsel Notice specifically includes a section headed “Case law invalidating or disagreeing with the Service’s published guidance does not alter” the rule that Chief Counsel shouldn’t take a contrary position that is unfriendly to taxpayers. In other words, so long as IRS Counsel follows the CC Notice, they should continue to let taxpayers exclude the Medicaid Waiver Payments… And since they’ve already lost on whether those excluded payments are earned income, it is perhaps best of both worlds for taxpayers moving forwards.


Perhaps. But I’m not sure I’d bet the farm on the IRS following the Chief Counsel’s Notice in all cases (and especially for taxpayers working with IRS agents or appeals, rather than Counsel).

But the final procedural point I want to make takes the long-view of things: which is that this never should have happened in the first place, because the IRS never should have overstepped its powers by issuing Notice 2014-7 masquerading as substantive law without, at the very least, following the rigorous notice and comment procedures required of substantive regulations. Had the IRS done so the tax community could well have seen this before the regulation was finalized and it could have been addressed. This may echo from my soapbox, but Notice 2014-7 undoubtedly caused real harm to some of the most vulnerable taxpayers. I know from conversations in the tax community that many low-income earners lost out on a credit they rightfully deserved. I don’t think for a second that was the intention of the IRS when they issued Notice 2014-7. Nor does Judge Goeke in the opinion (see footnote 7).

But, again, tax is a complicated animal: legislating new rules should not be done lightly. Procedure, in other words, matters.

The Benefits of Tax Court… Designated Orders April 22 – 26, 2019

There are numerous benefits of having your case before the Tax Court, rather than Federal District court. In case books, those benefits are usually distilled to (1) the fact that Tax Court is a pre-payment forum, and (2) the expertise of the Tax Court judges (as opposed to generalists in federal court) in dealing with tax law. At least three of the six designated orders issued during the final week of April 2019 exemplify the latter benefit. The remaining orders, however, demonstrate a third, equally important but often unspoken benefit of Tax Court as a venue for disputes: the patience and experience of Tax Court judges in working with pro se petitioners.

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The Patience (and Boundaries) of the Tax Court. Brown v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 20102-17 (order here)

In some ways, the deeper structural value of our judicial system is simply the feeling that you have a chance to be heard. It may be less about the dollars at issue than the sense that you are being treated unfairly by the IRS -likely on matters that you don’t fully understand. So it is in the above case, where Judge Gustafson goes to great lengths to allow the petitioners their chance to be heard -where others may say that they have already had more than their fair share of that chance.

In this case, the IRS had conceded back in February that there was no deficiency due from the taxpayers… and so moved for an entry of decision to that effect. However, the taxpayers didn’t take “no deficiency” as a (good enough) answer, thereafter (and apparently for the first time) raising the issue that they actually should be due a refund. To get to the bottom of the issue, the Court asked the petitioners for a “succinct statement of the decision that they believe the Court should enter[.]”

Suffice it to say, the taxpayers did not comply with that directive, and instead brought up a lot of extraneous issues and general legal gripes (for example, seeking to bring in the petitioner’s employer as a defendant). This led to an entry of decision confirming that the petitioners didn’t have a deficiency, but also weren’t getting anything else refunded to them.

Petitioners weren’t happy with this, and so filed a motion to vacate, this time sufficiently bringing up the overpayment issue -or at least sufficiently for Judge Gustafson to calendar the motion to be heard in Court. Because the overpayment issue wasn’t properly raised in pleadings, Judge Gustafson even gives a few extra tips to the petitioners on what they’d need to do should they prevail on their motion to vacate -namely, file a motion to amend their petition under Rule 41.

And for what has this intricate, time-consuming, and costly sequence of events revolved around? A potential refund that Judge Gustafson calculates as, at a maximum, $92. Since the dispute only concerns $232 of allegedly over-stated wages, this refund amount would result only if the taxpayers are in the highest marginal bracket (which is doubtful).

But that isn’t the point. The point is that the taxpayers feel wronged and want their day in court to be heard. Kudos to Judge Gustafson in taking that right seriously.

(UPDATE: Judge Gustafson ended up granting the motion to vacate (order here) and both parties eventually agreed to a small “overassessment to be abated” of $65 (see decision here). Still no refund, however, as apparently the petitioner had self-reported a fairly large liability to begin with… Hat-tip to Bob Kamman for following up on this case and sending it my direction.)

Of course, Judge Gustafson’s patience is not boundless, nor should it be. In two other designated orders that don’t warrant great detail (here and here) where the petitioner failed to show up for trial -that is, to exercise their rights- Judge Gustafson had no problem dismissing for lack of prosecution. 

Tax Court Expertise: Showing Your Work on Qualified Dividends. Bara v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 17107-17SL (order here)

Bara involves the somewhat rare Collection Due Process review where the underlying tax is (perhaps) properly at issue under IRC § 6330(c)(2)(B). Or at least the parties act as if the underlying liability is properly at issue – Chief Special Trial Judge Carluzzo hints that it is perhaps an unsettled question. Since the deficiency appears to have been determined by a Math Error notice, and not a Notice of Deficiency, the question would be resolved based on whether the taxpayer had a “prior opportunity to dispute the tax” –which can be a rather murky inquiry. See posts here, here, and here. But rather than upset the apple cart, Special Trial Judge Carluzzo simply says he will “follow the lead” of the parties and treat the liability as if it were properly at issue.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgement on the issue of whether petitioner had properly computed his tax on qualified dividends. Since the material facts were not at issue on that matter, it was ripe for Judge Carluzzo to render a decision… which he does in a tremendous example of statutory analysis.

One would think that calculating the tax on qualified dividends is fairly simple. Generally, we entrust it to our tax software and don’t give it a second thought. But were you to try to figure out solely by reading the statute at issue (IRC § 1(h)), you may be excused if you were left with a headache and confusion. Judge Carluzzo “shows his work” in how to compute the tax under the relevant statute with almost four pages of walkthrough on how the code section works. I won’t repeat it here, but I will commend others to take a look. It is a startling example of how something seemingly so simple (a preferential tax rate) can be so convoluted.

It isn’t clear how the taxpayer made the mistake of treating the qualified dividends as taxed at a zero rate -it appears that he did, in fact, report the dividends on his return, so it wasn’t simply an omission. And unless you are Judge Carluzzo, these calculations are best done by computers -ergo the “math error” treatment by the IRS under IRC § 6213. Kudos to Judge Carluzzo, in any case, for walking through why it should be calculated the way the IRS did, and showing the work we generally entrust software to do for us.

Expertise of the Tax Court, By Necessity. Whistleblower 6388-17W v. C.I.R. (order here)

On other areas of tax law the Tax Court necessarily has more expertise than federal district courts, because they have sole jurisdiction over the subject matter. This includes whistleblower and Collection Due Process cases (the latter could go to District Courts until 2006, but cannot any longer). Like Collection Due Process, the whistleblower statute is still being developed. One issue that has been recently determined is the scope of review of whistleblower actions which, in accordance with Kasper v. C.I.R., 150 T.C. 8 (2018) is limited to the administrative record.

As Judge Guy notes, there is a natural tension in whistleblower cases “between the general rule of protection prescribed in section 6103(a) [e.g. confidentiality of other people’s tax return information] and the parties’ obligations to exchange information in a good-faith effort to arrive at basis for settlement[.]” This tension manifests itself when, as here, the IRS heavily redacts the administrative record (which the whistleblower would rely on) on the grounds that the information is protected under IRC § 6103.

And so, to get clarity on these competing concerns (petitioner’s ability to properly prosecute a whistleblower case and respondent’s imperative to protect certain tax information), Judge Guy essentially orders a summer exam for the parties. Both are to write separate memoranda “providing a comprehensive discussion and analysis of the applicability or nonapplicability (as the case may be) of the provisions of section 6103, and particularly the exceptions prescribed in section 6103(h)(4)(A), (B), and (C), both in the broad context of this whistleblower action and with regard to the specific categories of redacted documents [at issue in the order.]” If that looks like a law-school exam prompt, it gets even better: the parties are expected to “address the plain language of the statute, legislative history, and significant legal precedent in support of their positions.” A happy summer to all…

Expertise on Assessment Issues in Collection Due Process. Jarvis v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 19387-18SL (order here)

I noted above that I find it somewhat rare for a petitioner to successfully or appropriately raise the underlying liability in a Collection Due Process hearing. The order in the Jarvis case is an example of the more common outcome: you had your chance to argue the liability before, and you don’t get a second bite at the apple. In Jarvis, however, it appears that petitioner actually wants a third bite. To wit, the taxpayer had already argued the liability in a previous Tax Court deficiency proceeding (which was dismissed for failure to prosecute when the taxpayer didn’t show up for trial), raised again on a motion to vacate, and raised still another time when the taxpayer appealed to the Second Circuit. The appeal to the Second Circuit, after failing to prosecute the case, begins to seem like a delay tactic on paying… which is not successful because, as Judge Armen points out, an appeal does not stay assessment and collection unless you post bond. See IRC § 7485(a). Since petitioner didn’t post bond (that is, put some skin in the game rather than indefinitely delay the IRS from collecting) AND petitioner has not raised any issues about collection alternatives, the proposed levy is appropriate.

No third bite of the apple for the taxpayer in this case. And no more patience from the Court needed.

Consistency and Other Hobgoblins of the Tax Code: Designated Orders March 25 – 29, 2019

Consistency, Congress, and the Taxpayer. Wheeler & Colerico v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 6104-17S (order here)

This case largely circles around the duty of individual consistency -specifically whether you can be “temporarily away from home” for one tax purpose (IRC 162(a)(2)) while simultaneously being there “on a permanent or indefinite […] as distinguished from temporary basis” for another tax purpose (IRC 217 as interpreted by Schweighardt v. C.I.R., 54 T.C. 1273 (1970)). In this case the taxpayer wants to have their cake and eat it too: yes, I was temporarily away from home, but also my temporary absence established a new permanent place of employment.

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The taxpayer needs these two (almost) contradictory facts to be found because he received and treated as non-taxable roughly $70,000 worth of per diem payments for the tax years at issue -payments that could only be tax free if he was temporarily away from home under IRC 162. Meanwhile, he also deducted $22,782 in moving expenses -expenses which can only be deducted if he is moving to a new principal place of work (i.e. no longer away from his tax home) under IRC 217.

Unfortunately for whatever clever arguments the taxpayer came up with, the precedential Schweighardt decision means that the legal outcome is basically a foregone conclusion. That decision addressed the interplay of exactly these same code provisions, and their appearance of inconsistency. As Judge Gustafson writes,

It is this whipsaw that informed the Tax Court’s construction in Schweighardt of the term “new principal place of work” in section 217(a): “[A] place of work is not to be considered a taxpayer’s principal place of work under section 217 if a deduction is allowable for traveling expenses while away from home under section 162.

In other words, you can only have one or the other benefit.

Frankly, that one sentence of Schweigardt should be enough on its own to put this case away (there are other damning facts, including that the work contracts explicitly say they are “temporary” and list his tax home at all times as being in Massachusetts). But there is another inconsistency that I think bears mention, and it is one of Congress’s and not the taxpayer’s making.

Imagine that Mr. Wheeler did not get a per diem while “away from home,” but instead paid for these expenses himself. Recall that, since the 2017 tax reform, unreimbursed employee expenses are no longer allowable itemized deductions. See IRC 67(a), (b) and (g). Accordingly, Mr. Wheeler would not be able to deduct those expenses in 2018 and moving forward. But what if he continued to receive a per diem, rather than deducting expenses he paid? In that instance, he would still get the tax benefit of not treating the per diem (or reimbursement) as taxable income (actually, it is better treatment than miscellaneous itemized deductions under pre-2017 law since it isn’t limited by 2% AGI). Why is this? Because those employer payments are still (probably) excludible under IRC 132(d), which was not repealed. One may question whether this is true, since IRC 132(d) refers to payments where a deduction would be “allowable” under IRC 162 or 167, but from what I can tell it appears to be the IRS’s position that they are still not includible in income (see IRS letter here). Note also that in the context of dependents, where post-2017 law reduces the exemption amount to $0, the deduction is still considered “allowable.” See IRC 151(d)(5) and IRS Notice 2018-70.

All of this is to say, those receiving money from their employer for job expenses get much better tax treatment than those that don’t. The clients I have with substantial unreimbursed employee expenses generally aren’t in a position to negotiate for a per diem, and generally aren’t well paid to begin with. One may question the propriety of this “inconsistency,” since it is likely to end up padding the pockets of people in a better position to pay the tax in the first place (which is generally a consideration of an equitable tax code).

Consistency in Giving Notice to the IRS of a Change in Address. Arnold v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 25750-17S (order here)

I always try to impart upon my students how important proper mailing is, and how frequently it is put at issue in tax cases. Certain statutorily required letters are particularly important to the assessment and collection procedures (e.g. the Notice of Deficiency and Collection Due Process letter). You won’t frequently win on challenges to the validity of the letter based on its content (see Keith’s post here) but you may win based on where it was actually mailed to. Specifically, the letter may be invalid if it was not mailed to the “last known address.”

As Keith detailed in a previous post the Tax Court has recently added some clarity to the last known address issue, in Gregory v. Commissioner. The above order represents a taxpayer casualty from that recent court decision. Because Ms. Arnold filed her Tax Court petition late, the Court must dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because of one of two defects with her “ticket”: (1) the ticket expired (IRS win) or (2) the ticket was invalid (taxpayer wins). Ms. Arnold’s only hope for the latter outcome is if the IRS sent the Notice of Deficiency to the wrong address. The address the letter was actually sent to was her old home, listed on her most recent tax return. Ms. Arnold wanted to argue that the correct address was the one listed on a Form 2848. And for a while, the Tax Court was sympathetic to that argument (see Patrick Thomas’s post here, listing out some of the previous cases where the Court addressed the issue).

Since Gregory is precedential, however, the 2848 change-of-address argument is no longer available – at least in Tax Court. I am unaware of any Circuit courts having ruled on the issue since the Treasury promulgated the regulation, so there may still be the potential for win on appeal.

But what is perhaps more interesting than the foregone legal conclusion in this case comes about from some sleuthing of frequent guest poster Bob Kamman.

Despite finding for the IRS in this order (again, a largely foregone conclusion), Judge Buch begins the order by chastising IRS counsel for filing a previous motion to dismiss that was “riddled with errors,” and failing to correct “some of the very same errors we explicitly noted[.]” Somewhat strangely, the case is being handled by the IRS’s L.A. office despite the trial and hearings being set in Michigan. Even more odd, it appears that IRS Counsel in Detroit would already be familiar with Ms. Arnold: she appears to have filed a case in US Tax Court (with her husband) for tax year 2013 (docket here). Ms. Arnold (assuming it is the same petitioner) filed that petition on 8/12/2016 –before the Notice of Deficiencies were issued in this matter. Again, this is pure conjecture, but one wonders if the address used in Tax Court, and directly with an IRS attorney, would be “clear and concise notice” of a change in address. As Judge Holmes puts it in a previous 2848 case (quoting a Bankruptcy court decision), the IRS “should not ignore what it obviously knows.” Alternatively, one could look at is as another example of the difficulties of providing agency-wide “clear and concise notice” of address change with an entity as vast as the IRS, and why it makes administrative sense for the IRS to want to limit the methods of notice that are valid.

Orders of the Rich and Famous. Ashkouri & Draper v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 17514-15 (order here)

The last order won’t be discussed in detail, since it involves “Graev” issues that have been dealt with extensively elsewhere. However, perhaps more interesting than the legal issues are the petitioners themselves – one in particular who is at least famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page (another hat-tip on that point to Bob Kamman). There isn’t much more I have to say on this case except that in tying in the theme of “consistency” I will note that low-income taxpayers may appear to get the short-end of the stick.

Most of the taxpayers I work with are subject to either Automated Under Reporter (AUR) or Automated Correspondence Exams (ACE). “Live human” (or field/office) exams are generally reserved for wealthier taxpayers (and likely those with a Wikipedia page). The inconsistency is that, under the recent decision of Walquist v. C.I.R., IRC 6662(b)(2) penalties arising from AUR/ACE do not require supervisory approval, whereas those same penalties would if the exam was initiated by a human. See IRC 6751(b)(2)(B). The mind fairly boggles.

Getting to Meaningful Court Review in Collection Due Process Cases: Designated Orders, February 25 – March 1, 2019

There were three designated orders for the final week of February 2019, and all of them concerned Collection Due Process (CDP) cases. Two of the orders (Savanrola Editoriale Inc. here and McDonald here feature the time-honored determination that it is not an abuse of discretion for the IRS to sustain a collection action when the taxpayer refuses to provide financial information or otherwise take any part in CDP hearing. The orders are not particularly novel in that regard, but they do provide a good contrast to the third order where the Court actually finds against the IRS and remands to Appeals.

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Since abuse of discretion is a fairly vague standard, even the easy cases can be useful. Savonrola involves a taxpayer that wanted to challenge the underlying tax liability leading to the notice of federal tax lien (NFTL). However, apart from requesting a CDP hearing (blaming a faulty 1099-Misc for the liability) and then petitioning the court after receiving the determination sustaining the NFTL, it does not appear that the taxpayer engaged in the process much at all. The order does not reference any content from the CDP hearing itself, and it is not clear if the taxpayer engaged in the one that was offered. At the very least, the taxpayer does not appear responsive to the Tax Court once the petition was filed -the case was on the verge of being dismissed for failure to respond to an order to show cause. Because the taxpayer made no showing (and raised no argument) that they should be able to argue the underlying liability under IRC 6330(c)(2)(B) the Court had an easy time disposing of the case.

In McDonald the taxpayer did engage a bit more, but still not enough to give themselves a chance of winning on review. Here, the taxpayer apparently wanted to enter an installment agreement but had been unable to (which can happen to the best of us). However, the taxpayer had a back-year tax return that was “rejected” (that is, not-processed) by the IRS which complicated matters. At the CDP hearing, IRS Appeals was understandably unwilling to set up an installment agreement without that return being properly filed. Appeals also requested a Form 433-A for the installment agreement -the reasonableness of that request depending a bit more on the terms of the installment agreement being proposed. In response, the taxpayer sent an unsigned 2015 return and a Form 433-A lacking supporting documentation. When the signature and supporting documents were not forthcoming after multiple requests, Appeals rejected the installment agreement request and issued a determination sustaining the levy. As can be guessed, based on the failure of filing compliance alone, the Court had very little trouble finding there to be no abuse of discretion.

One can read the frequent, easy cases of Savonrola and McDonald to mean simply that the taxpayer will lose if they don’t comply with IRS requests during CDP hearings. But there is a deeper lesson to be learned: the Court needs something to look at to see how IRS discretion was exercised. By failing to comply or otherwise engage with the IRS during the hearing, you are building a record for review that can only ask one question: was it a reasonable exercise of discretion for the IRS to request the information in the first place? Almost (but importantly not always) the Court will find requests for unfiled tax returns or financial statements are not unreasonable and, by consequence, there was no abuse of discretion for the IRS to sustain the collection action when the requests were not complied with.

The important difference is that taxpayers may succeed even without providing requested information if they have readily engaged in the process. By so doing, they create a record for the Court to review and, possibly, come to a determination that discretion, properly exercised, would not require the information. The most famous of these cases is Vinatieri v. C.I.R.. In Vinatieri, the taxpayer provided a Form 433-A and demonstrated serious financial hardship and medical issues during the CDP hearing, but acknowledged that she had unfiled tax returns. The financial hardship was obvious, as was the fact that it would be exacerbated by levy. The IRS policy (that back year returns must be filed before releasing a levy under IRC 6343(a)(1)(D)) was not so obvious, and blindly following it was an abuse of discretion. Ms. Vinatieri was, it should be remembered, a pro se low-income petitioner with serious health issues. She is the prototypical taxpayer that CDP is meant to protect before disastrous levies take place. Nonetheless, it is not clear she would have prevailed (especially not in a “record-rule” jurisdiction) had she not engaged with the IRS at the hearing.

CDP hearings can also help the more affluent (and represented) taxpayers on non-equitable grounds -and again, engaging is key. Sometimes, a taxpayer may not have to comply with an IRS request for information by adequately showing that the information is unnecessary -for instance, where updated financials are cumulative, because the real issue is a matter of law (See the earlier designated order from McCarthy v. C.I.R., here). When you turn the inquiry into a question of law (not always an easy, or possible task with low-income taxpayers) you change the Court’s rubric. And that is exactly what happens in the third and final designated order of the week

Tax Court to IRS: High School Math Rules Apply. Show Your Work or Face Remand. McCarthy v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 21940-15L (here)

We’ve blogged briefly about Mr. McCarthy before. The case boils down to whether the petitioner or a trust is the real owner of two pieces of property. If petitioner owns it his collection potential should be upwardly adjusted and the IRS rejection of his Offer in Compromise (or partial pay installment plan) likely constitutes a reasonable exercise of discretion. The issue, then, is mostly legal: does the trust own the property, or is the trust merely the petitioner’s “nominee”?

When the issue before the Court is a question of law, the vagueness of “abuse of discretion” goes largely out the window. It is always an abuse of discretion to erroneously interpret the law at issue (See Swanson v. C.I.R., 121 T.C. 111 at 119 (2003)). McCarthy, however, involves a slightly different lesson: it isn’t necessarily that the IRS erroneously interpreted the law (thereby reaching the wrong determination). It is that the IRS didn’t sufficiently back up the determinations it did reach.

The IRS tried to determine whether the petitioner was the true “beneficial owner” of the properties in the trust by analyzing how the petitioner and trust actually treated the property. The first property at issue (the “Stratford” property) was rented out to a corporation (American Boiler) that was apparently controlled by the petitioner. American Boiler made rental payments to the trust for many years, though in apparently inconsistent amounts.

The IRS believed this string of relationships, peculiar circumstances, as well as the fact that there was no written lease agreement between American Boiler and the trust, adds up to nominee. But the Court sees some gaps between those circumstances and the ultimate conclusion. The Court characterized the argument as “inviting us to speculate that petitioner caused the Trust to use in some fashion for its own benefit the rental income it received from American Boiler.” In other words, the IRS hasn’t adequately shown how they get from point A to point B, and their failure to show their work is fatal. The Tax Court “will not indulge in such speculation.”

The IRS fares no better with the second piece of property (the “Charlestown” property). This time, the IRS inferences seem even more threadbare. The trust (with petitioner as trustee) purchased the Charlestown property. The IRS argues that it was “reasonable for [the Settlement Officer] to have inferred that the funds to purchase the Charlestown property must have come from petitioner.” Unfortunately, there are other beneficiaries (apart from petitioner) of the trust that may have led to other contributions to it, even aside from the aforementioned rental income the trust received. Accordingly, the Court finds no basis for the IRS determination that petitioner was the beneficial owner of the Charlestown property as well.

The point isn’t that the IRS was clearly wrong that the trust was not the nominee of the petitioner (it may very well be his nominee: he hasn’t exactly been a “good actor” in other tax matters –the first footnote of the order mentions his involvement in a criminal tax case).  The point is that the IRS did not do its job in showing how they reasonably came to that conclusion apart from general inferences, which was the issue put before the Court. The taxpayer here may well be the polar opposite of Ms. Vinatieri: represented by counsel, likely affluent (at one time or another), and without the cleanest of hands. But like Vinatieri, (and unlike McDonald or Savonrola) they succeeded by engaging in the process and presenting a question (and record) the Court could reasonably rule in their favor on.

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

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.

 

Getting To Summary Judgment: The Art of Framing the Issue as a Matter of Law. January 28 – February 1 Designated Orders (Part One)

We welcome Professor Caleb Smith from the University of Minnesota writing today about designated orders that might also have been Tax Court opinions.  Each of the three case he discusses has a meaty order deciding the case at the summary judgment stage.  These opinions cause me to wonder what distinguishes a case when it comes to writing an opinion which will get published and one that will not.  Parties researching the issues presented here will need a significant amount of diligence to find the Court’s orders in these case.  Having gone to significant effort to reach the conclusions in these cases, it would be nice for the Court to find a way to make its thinking more transparent.  Keith

There was something of a deluge of designated orders after the shutdown, so in order to give adequate time to each (and to group them somewhat coherently) I decided to break the orders into two posts. Today is post one, which will focus on some of the interesting summary judgement orders.

At the end of January there were three orders involving summary judgment that are worth going into detail on as they bring up both interesting procedural and substantive issues. However, in keeping with the theme (and title) of this blog, focus will mostly be kept on the procedural aspects. Those interested in the underlying substantive law at issue would also do well to give the orders a close read.

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Big Value, BIG Tax? H R B-Delaware, Inc. & Subsidiaries v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 28129-12

We begin with how to get summary judgment in the rarest of places: a valuation question. Judge Holmes begins the order with a note almost of incredulity on the petitioner’s motion for partial summary judgment: “The motion calls for the application of old case law to a half-century old contract, and seeks a ruling that there is no genuine dispute about a material fact — valuation of intangible assets — that is only rarely capable of decision through summary judgment.”

So, how do you get to summary judgment on a valuation issue -which by default tends to be a “material fact” at issue between the parties? Argue that the real material facts are already agreed upon such that a particular value results as a matter of law. How that works in this case is (briefly) as follows:

The “H R B” in petitioner’s caption is referring to the well-known tax preparation service H&R Block -and more specifically, the franchisees of national H&R Block. (Also for your daily dose of tax trivia, H&R Block apparently stands for/is named after Henry and Richard Bloch.) That the petitioners are franchisees of H&R Block is important because the case pretty much entirely deals with the valuation of franchise rights. At its core, the IRS is contending that the franchise rights of petitioner were worth about $28.5 million as of January 1, 2000, and the petitioner is arguing their franchise rights were worth… $0.

The valuation of the franchise rights on January 1, 2000 matters (a lot) because the petitioner converted from a C-Corp to an S-Corp effective of that date. I don’t deal with these conversions in practice (ever), but one of the lessons imprinted upon me from Corporate Tax lectures was that you can’t just jump back-and-forth without tax consequences. In particular, when you convert from subchapter C to subchapter S, you may contend with “unrecognized built-in gain (BIG)” consequences under IRC 1374(d)(1) later down the line. Essentially, you may have “BIG” tax if (1) at the time you convert from C to S you have assets with FMV in excess of your adjusted basis and then (2) you sell those assets within 10 years of conversion. Here, petitioner converted from C to S in 2000, and then sold all its assets back to H&R Block (national) in 2008 (i.e. within 10 years of conversion).

Petitioner reported BIG tax of roughly $4 million on the 2008 return, which apparently included tax on the franchise rights self-report to be worth at about $12 million. But the IRS did the favor of auditing the H&R Block franchisee, which led to a novel realization during litigation: the tax return was wrong in valuing the franchise rights at almost $12 million. It should have been $0.  In other words, petitioner may have vastly over paid their taxes.

Back to the procedural aspects. How do we get to summary judgment on this valuation issue? The IRS argues you can’t because what we are dealing with (valuation) is a contested factual determination. Essentially, this implies that wherever valuation is at issue summary judgment is de facto inappropriate.

Petitioner, on the other hand, argues that the valuation at issue here (of the franchise rights) flows as a matter of law from the undisputed facts as well as some rather old case law. Specifically, petitioner points to Akers v. C.I.R., 6 T.C. 693 (1946) and the slightly more modern Zoringer v. C.I.R., 62 T.C. 435 (1974). Petitioner argues that under these cases (1) where an intangible asset is nontransferable, and (2) terminable under circumstances beyond their control, and (3) the existing business is not being transferred to a third party, the value of the intangible asset is $0 as a matter of law. Because the undisputed facts (namely, the contract in effect at the time of the conversion) show elements one and two, and because this case does not involve the transfer of the business to another party, the value of the franchise rights must be $0.

And Judge Holmes agrees. There can be no genuine dispute about the value of the franchise rights based on the undisputed facts and controlling law. Summary judgment is therefore appropriate. A BIG win for the petitioner in what appeared to be an uphill battle.

There is, frankly, a lot more going on in this case that could be of interest to practitioners that deal with valuation issues, BIG tax, and the like. But, as someone that focuses on procedure, I want to make one parting observation on that point. Although petitioner’s counsel did a wonderful job of researching the applicable tax law, note how the pre-litigation work also plays a large role in this outcome.

As a sophisticated party with a high-dollar and complicated tax issue, there is no doubt in my mind that this case resulted only after lengthy audit (the tax at issue, after all, is from 2008 and the petition was filed at the end of 2012). One of the things that (likely) resulted from the audit was a narrowing of the issues: it wasn’t simply a disagreement about petitioner’s intangible assets broadly, it was a disagreement about the franchise rights specifically. This is critically important to the success of the summary judgment motion.

One argument the IRS raises is that the motion should fail because it isn’t clear which intangible assets are even at issue (the petition just assigns error to the valuation of the intangible assets broadly). But petitioner is able to point to the notice of deficiency and Form 886-A that resulted from the audit, and which clearly states that the dispute is about the value of the “FMV of the Franchise Rights.” In other words, the IRS only put the franchise rights as the intangible asset at issue in the notice of deficiency, so it is necessarily the only intangible asset at issue in the case (barring amended pleadings from the IRS). And, for all the reasons detailed above, the franchise rights have a value that can be determined to be $0 as a matter of law, thus allowing for summary judgment.

Consistency in Law, or Consistency in Fact?: Deluca v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 584-18

In Deluca the Court is faced with another motion for summary judgment by the petitioner, again involving fairly convoluted and fact-intensive law: tax on prohibited transactions under IRC 4975. In the end, however it isn’t IRC 4975 that plays a starring role in the order, but the statute of limitations on assessment and an ill-fated IRS argument about the “duty of consistency.”

The agreed upon facts are fairly straightforward. Petitioners established a regular IRA, and then converted it to a Roth in 2010. The Roth IRA maintained an account with “National Iron Bank” presumably in Braavos (just kidding). The Roth IRA repeatedly made loans to petitioner from 2011 – 2016. Unfortunately, loans between a Roth IRA and a “disqualified person” are a big “no-no.” See IRC 4975(c)(1)(B) and IRC 4975(e)(2). When the creator and beneficiary of an IRA engages in a prohibited transaction the IRA essentially ceases to be. See IRC 408(e)(2)(A). Since petitioner definitely engaged in prohibited transactions in 2014, the IRS issued a notice of deficiency for that tax year finding a deemed distribution from the Roth IRA of almost $200,000.

Those of you paying close attention can probably see where the issue is. The first prohibited transaction took place in 2011. An IRA is not Schroedinger’s Cat: it either is or isn’t. In this case, it ceased to be in 2011, which is when the distribution should have been taxed. Presuming there was no fraud on the part of the petitioners (and that they mailed a return by April 15, 2012), the absolute latest the IRS could hope to issue a Notice of Deficiency for that tax year would be April 15, 2018 (i.e. six years after the return was deemed filed, if it was a substantial omission of income: see IRC 6501(e). We are currently in 2019, so this spells trouble for the IRS.

But perhaps the IRS can avoid catastrophe here, in what appears (to some) to be an unfair result. The petitioners were never taxed on the prohibited transaction that took place in 2011 (they did not report it on their return), and now they are taking the position that the transaction took place then? What about consistency? Maybe the IRA is like Schrodinger’s cat after all: not really dead, but not really alive, but somewhere in-between because no one thought to look into it until 2014?

Fairness and the duty of consistency certainly seem to go hand-in-hand. The Tax Court has described the “duty of consistency” as “based on the theory that the taxpayer owes the Commissioner the duty to be consistent in the tax treatment of items and will not be permitted to benefit from the taxpayer’s own prior error or omission.” Cluck v. C.I.R., 105 T.C. 324 (1995). Generally, the elements of a taxpayer’s duty of consistency are that they (1) made a representation or reported an item for tax purposes in one year, (2) the IRS relied on that representation (or just let it be), and (3) after that statute of limitations on that year has passed, the taxpayer wants to change their earlier representation. Id. In Deluca, the IRS may argue the taxpayer (1) represented that the IRA still existed/that there was no prohibited distribution in 2011 (or any year after), (2) the IRS acquiesced in that position by leaving the earlier returns unaudited, and (3) only now that the ASED has passed does the taxpayer say there was a prohibited transaction. Seems like a reasonable argument to me.

Alas, it is not to be. Under the Golsen rule, because the case is appealable to the 2nd Circuit, that court’s law controls. The Second Circuit has held (way back in 1943, in an opinion by Judge Hand I find somewhat difficult to parse) that in deficiency cases the duty of consistency only applies to inconsistencies of fact, not inconsistent positions on questions of law. Bennet v. Helvering, 137 F.2d 537 (2nd Cir. 1943). Why does that matter? Because summary judgment is all about framing the issue as a matter of law, not fact.

Was Petitioner inconsistent on a matter of fact or a matter of law? On all of the returns (and in repaying the loans to the IRA) petitioner has appeared to have treated the IRA consistently as being in existence. Petitioner, in other words, has consistently behaved as if the “fact” was that the IRA was in existence. Because of the intricacies of IRC 408 and 4975, however, that fact was mistaken (even if treated consistently). As a matter of law the IRA ceased existing in 2011. And (apparently) petitioner is free to presently take the legal position that the IRA ceased existing in 2011 while also implicitly taking the (inconsistent) position that it did exist on that tax return.

If your head is spinning you are not alone.

However, if this appears to be an unfair result and sympathize with the IRS’s position, there is at least some concern to be aware of. Judge Thornton succinctly addresses one issue lurking behind the IRS’s position: “To adopt respondent’s position would essentially mean rewriting the statute [IRC 408(e)(2)] to postpone the consequences of prohibited transactions indefinitely into the future, depending on when the IRS might happen to discover them.” In other words, the cat would be neither alive or dead until and unless the IRS decided to take a look. The duty of consistency would almost write the assessment statute of limitations out of existence under such a reading.

Uncharted Waters of International Law: Emilio Express, Inc. Et. Al, v. C.I.R., Dkt. 14949-10

Two wins on two taxpayer motions for summary judgment: might the government go 0 for 3? As a matter of substantive law, Emilio Express, Inc. is probably the most compelling order of the three. It is also the only one where the IRS makes a cross-motion for summary judgment -and wins.

The substantive law at issue is well-beyond my expertise (I’m not in the “international-tax cloister” that Judge Holmes refers to while helpfully describing what “competent authority” means). I highly recommend that those who so cloistered, and particularly those that regularly work with Mexican tax issues, give this order a closer look. It appears to be an issue of first impression.

But, again in keeping with the procedural focus of this blog, we will focus on the cross motions for summary judgment. Again, we will look at the framing of the motions, and the facts established to understand why the petitioner’s motion for summary judgment was doomed, and the IRS’s was ultimately successful.

The consolidated cases in this order involve a C-Corporation (later converted to S-Corp.) “Emilio Express” as well as individual tax return of the sole shareholder, Emilo Torres Luque. Mr. Torres was a Mexican national and permanent resident of the United States. Mr. Torres did essentially all of his business moving cargo between Tijuana and southern California -the latter being where he appeared to live.

The gist of the issue is that the petitioner is arguing he owes no US Tax because he was (1) a resident of Mexico under the terms of the relevant US-Mexico treaty, (2) Mexico accepted his tax returns as filed for the years at issue, and (3) on their understanding of the treaty, their income should only be taxed by Mexico (in whatever amount Mexico determines) and not “double-taxed” by the US. Apart from needing to be correct on their understanding of the substantive law, for petitioner to prevail this motion for summary judgment they would have to show that there was no genuine issue of material fact.

The factual questions surrounding Petitioner’s residency matters because it is critical to how they frame the legal argument: as their argument goes if their residency is in Mexico, then the fact that Mexico accepted their tax returns means they are not subject to US income tax. The immediate problem is that determining their residency is a highly factual inquiry, with a lot of contested aspects. Everyone is in agreement that under the terms of the treaty petitioner is a “resident” of both the US and Mexico. There are additional rules under the treaty for determining “residency” where the taxpayer is, essentially, a dual-resident. Here, the petitioner needed to show that he had a “permanent home” in Mexico. Unfortunately, there was a legitimate question about exactly that matter raised by the IRS. And since that was a material fact that would need further development, petitioner’s summary judgment motion can be disposed of without even getting to whether the law would be favorable.

So how does the IRS prevail on a summary judgment motion if, as just stated above, there was a genuine issue on material fact? Because the IRS’s (winning) argument makes that fact (residency) immaterial.

As the IRS frames the issue, the residency of the petitioner (Mexico or US) is irrelevant: the law at issue really just concerns whether the individual is subject to double-taxation. In this case, the petitioner had no Mexican tax liability (the accepted returns had a $0 liability) so regardless of residency under the treaty, petitioner could be subject to US tax. The thrust of the treaty is all about double-taxation, which is the key issue here and can be resolved (based on the other agreed-upon facts) without delving into whether or not the petitioner owned a home in Tijuana. He didn’t owe Mexican tax under Mexican law. He does owe US tax under US law. Case closed.

All very interesting stuff. Again, if you work with international tax (and particularly Mexican-American tax) I recommend giving the order a closer look for the substantive issues at play.

Dealing with the Shutdown When You Have an Impending Calendar Call: Take Me Back to 2013

We welcome Professor Caleb Smith who has decided to do something productive at a time when productivity does not seem to be the watchword of our politicians. I wrote a post about Tax Court calendars before and after a government shutdown in the early days of our blog. What happened in 2013 might also give you some perspective on what to expect now when the shutdown ceases. Keith

It probably comes as no shock that, in the midst of the government shutdown the Tax Court did not issue any designated orders during the week of December 31 – January 4. So, because I apparently don’t handle having free-time well, I looked to orders of the past to help with this (not quite unprecedented) period of Tax Court history. In particular, I wanted to look into orders that dealt with government shutdowns.

The last government shutdown (of a lasting duration) was in 2013. (For a list of all the government shutdowns since 1976, check out this helpful PBS post.) The most natural consequence of a shutdown (and the break in communication between parties) is that additional time is needed -either on deadlines that have previously been established (see T.C. Rule 25(c)), or for the trial itself (see T.C. Rule 133). Because I happen to have a calendar call that is still technically set for February 4, 2019 I was more interested in how the Court had previously dealt with motions for continuance for the trial. As noted on the Tax Court website I should learn by January 19 whether the calendar call will actually take place, but I’d rather not wait until then to begin planning.

In my research of motions for a continuance and referenced the government shutdown, I found six orders from three Tax Court judges. Although there are some general requirements to T.C. Rule 133 that any motion for continuance should wrestle with (addressed later), the orders demonstrate more than anything that, in these sorts of discretionary matters, different judges have different preferences. Accordingly, I have broken up the orders by the issuing judge.

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Judicial Approach Number One (Former Judge Kroupa): “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me If You Still Can’t Figure It Out”

The 2013 shutdown lasted 16 days from October 1 to the October 17. The 2013 Salt Lake City trial session was set for November 4. In my experience, the month before trial is set is often the month things actually start getting done, so it is understandable that the parties may not be prepared for trial with the critical period of time effectively cut in half. The IRS appears to say as much in its motion in two separate Salt Lake City cases (Docket 24802-12 and Docket 16322-12): “we haven’t been able to resolve or narrow the issues over the last few weeks because we were locked out of our offices, so please give us more time.”

To this, Judge Kroupa says: “I encourage you to try to settle or narrow the issues for trial. So I’m holding your continuance motion in abeyance until calendar call where you can give an update. And, because I’m serious about encouraging you to settle or narrow the issues, at calendar you will also have to actually discuss the efforts you’ve made to settle or narrow the issues.”

This approach either reflects stubborn optimism or stern stewardship over churning through cases on the Tax Court docket. In either case, the result was the same: for both cases, continuance was granted at trial, and a stipulated decision entered in August of the following year.

Judicial Approach Number Two (Judge Holmes): “Take Two Aspirins and Be Prepared to Submit Status Reports”

The approach taken by Judge Holmes (Docket 10600-12 and Docket 1659-13) was not significantly different from Judge Kroupa’s. Essentially, they each ended in the parties showing up to trial and orally requesting a continuance (which was subsequently granted).

In the Villegas case, the motion for continuance wasn’t even made until the calendar call on October 21, so there really wasn’t much of another option for Judge Holmes. What is striking to me is that Tax Court didn’t cancel the calendar when the shutdown continued within a week of it (as stated earlier, that will likely not be the case this year).

In the other case (Mid City Cannabis Club), the trial was not actually set until January 27, 2014 (i.e. with more time than that “magical final month” still remaining), but the parties were both nervous because, although they may settle, they were confident they wouldn’t be ready for trial. Although Judge Holmes assures the parties that the case will be put on “status-report track” if it doesn’t settle by calendar, he denies the continuance request until then.

 

Again, denying (or holding in abeyance, like Judge Kroupa) a continuance motion until the trial date is perhaps a way to keep parties working diligently towards resolution. But, also again, the ultimate result is generally the same: the Mid City Cannabis case was continued at trial and a stipulated decision was reached in the summer of 2014 (this time July).

Judicial Approach Number Three (Judge Wherry): “Sure, I’ll Grant the Continuance: We’re in Los Angeles All the Time Anyway”

Only the retired Judge Wherry gives the immediate relief (i.e. granting of the continuance motion prior to trial) that the parties requested. Both of the parties (in both of the orders) simply say they need more time because of issues relating to the shutdown, and that appears to be enough.

 

It should be noted, however, that both of the orders (Docket 23698-12, and Docket 145-11), concern cases on the Los Angeles calendar set for December 9, 2013. Of the four cases that Judges Kroupa and Holmes granted continuances for, only one ended up having to go to trial. And that trial took place in… Los Angeles.

Although it goes unstated in the order, the Tax Court simply comes to L.A. more frequently than it does to places like Salt Lake City. Accordingly, by granting a continuance the Court could simply allow the parties to regroup and come back to the table five months later during the May calendar call. Perhaps things would settle by then (as they did in the Moore case, during that “magical” pre-trial month). Or perhaps they would simply have the trial at that later date (as they did in the Coastal Heart Medical Group case). Either way, the efficiency concerns (that the parties will be at loggerheads, and the case sit on the docket for almost another year) don’t present themselves as starkly in the bigger cities as they do in the smaller.

Learning From the Past and Preparing for the Future: Crafting Your Rule 133 Motion

So what can be gleaned from these six orders (four of which come from judges that no longer are on the Tax Court)? In spite of my preliminary take-away (“different tax court judges deal with these things in their own way”) there are some commonalities, and, dare I say, some lessons to be learned from the orders.

Lesson One: Make the judge aware of your need for a continuance in advance of the trial date, rather than just assuming that they will “get it” that you need one because of the shutdown. The fact that (most of) the continuances weren’t automatically granted in the above cases is evidence that the Court expects you to work things out as much as possible even in limited timeframes. Which leads to the second lesson:

Lesson Two: Give reasons why granting the continuance won’t significantly hinder (or may actually help) the efficiency of the court. If both parties were in the process of working out a settlement (that was thwarted primarily because of a breakdown in communications caused by the shutdown) that seems a pretty good reason to give additional time to work things out and may avoid a trial that was never needed. Similarly, it doesn’t do anyone any favors (and makes everyone look bad) to show up for trial when the issues still aren’t well defined. But you have to be prepared to explain why it is the shutdown “caused” these issues to remain ill-defined or the settlement to remain out of reach. Perhaps there were meetings or document exchanges that had to be cancelled and, if only the shutdown wouldn’t have occurred, the case would be much clearer for all involved. Specificity (rather than just saying “we could use more time to define the issues… even though the petition was filed almost a year ago”) is key.

Lesson Three: Provide the court with a plan (specifically, deadlines) to show you will continue to diligently work on the case. The trial date is, in some ways, just a helpful deadline for the Court to keep parties moving towards settlement. If Tax Court isn’t coming to your town again in the near future, asking for continuance may appear to be an indefinite hold on having any accountability. If Tax Court is coming to town again in the not-so-distant future, you may suggest that it be calendared at that date. Of course, since not every location has that luxury, proposing to be put on the “status report track” may be the best you can do. Four of the six cases discussed above settled without needing to go to trial after the continuance was granted. The two that didn’t settle were able to get calendared within roughly half-a-year. If at all possible, you want to be able to demonstrate a similar likely outcome with your case.

Lesson Four: Detail why you are not dilatory in requesting the continuance at this late date. This lesson is less from the orders and more from the rule itself: namely, that a request for a continuance hearing within 30 days of the calendar/trial that it relates to will ordinarily “be deemed dilatory and will be denied unless the ground therefor arose during that period or there was good reason for not making the motion sooner.” The general rule is that the closer to the trial date you make the continuance motion the less likely it is to succeed unless (1) the reason for the motion only just arose, or (2) there is some other good reason for waiting. Of course, if your calendar date is within 30 days of the shutdown you can argue the reason for the motion “arose during that period”, but you will still want to provide other good reasons why it couldn’t be made sooner. One reason may well be logistics: every continuance motion specifically (and every motion generally, see T.C. Rule 50) is supposed to include whether it is objected to or not by the opposing party. At the moment, it is rather hard to get a word from IRS Counsel as to whether they reject, because they aren’t really around.

I could easily go broke betting on when this shutdown will end, but one thing I am confident of is that there is a lot of work piling up for the Tax Court and IRS in the meantime. On return from the shutdown you don’t want to greet the Tax Court judge with a motion that effectively says “let’s keep this case in your (massive) to-do pile because, man, that shutdown was rough.” Rather, try to empathize: “I know you have a lot on your plate, and we’re working to get this case resolved without a trial (or with as orderly a trial as possible). Help us help you by giving us time to do that.” By (1) letting the court know as far in advance as possible of the need for continuance, (2) providing specific reasons why the continuance is in their interest, and (3) drawing up a plan for how to work towards a resolution of the case you demonstrate to the Court that you are doing your part to keep things orderly and efficient.