Carlton Smith

About Carlton Smith

Carlton M. Smith worked (as an associate and partner) at Roberts & Holland LLP in Manhattan from 1983-1999. From 2003 to 2013, he was the Director of the Cardozo School of Law tax clinic. In his retirement, he volunteers with the tax clinic at Harvard, where he was Acting Director from January to June 2019.

So, How Will the “Recovery Rebate” Refunds Work This Time? Part II

This is the second of a two-part post on the portion of the CARES Act legislation that adopts, once again, “recovery rebate” credits and refunds.

In part I of this post, I discussed the principal provisions of section 6428 and the practical ways I expected the statute to be administered.  My administrative predictions are based on how the IRS administered two prior version of section 6428—in 2001 and 2008.

This post is to discuss two issues under the prior versions of section 6428 that led to litigation and how those issues have or have not been addressed by the current legislation.  The two issues are:

  1. Whether the IRS may apply the recovery rebate credits (including stimulus checks) under section 6402 to reduce certain outstanding debts; and
  2. Which taxable year is the stimulus check “for” for purposes of bankruptcy?

The answer to the first question is decidedly “no”, with one exception.

The answer to the second question is still open – at least outside the Second Circuit.

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In plain English, taxpayers never “pay” refundable credits to the IRS.  So, Congress did something to modify plain English.  Section 6401(b)(1) provides that the excess of all refundable credits over the income tax imposed “shall be considered an overpayment”.

Section 6402(a) allows (but does not require) the IRS to offset any overpayment of one tax against any other federal tax debt.

Section 6402(c) instructs the IRS to send to states – to reimburse them for paying out overdue child support – “the amount of any overpayment to be refunded to the person making the overpayment” who was obligated to, but who did not pay, the child support. 

One of the early cases establishing that overpayments attributable to refundable credits can be sent to states under section 6402(c) involved an earned income tax credit (EITC) for a taxpayer who had a new family, but who had failed to pay the required child support to his old family.  He contested the IRS taking his EITC, arguing that he was not “the person making the overpayment” because he had never paid the EITC to the IRS in the first place.  In Sorenson v. Sec’y of Treasury, 475 U.S. 851 (1986), citing section 6401(b)(1), the Court held that the taxpayer had made an overpayment and so his EITC overpayment could be collected for child support under section 6402(c). Since Sorenson, it is uncontested that overpayments from refundable credits can be taken under section 6402.

Section 6402(d) requires the IRS to send overpayments to other federal agencies who inform the IRS that the taxpayer owes the other agency money.

Section 6402(e) requires the IRS to send overpayments to states who notify the IRS that a state resident owes state income taxes.

Section 6402(f) requires the IRS to send overpayments to states who notify the IRS that a person “owes a covered employment compensation debt” to that state.

Both the 2001 and 2008 versions of section 6428 said nothing about section 6402.  Accordingly, the IRS felt required to send stimulus checks to other federal agencies or the states under subsections (c), (d), (e), and (f) of section 6402 and decided that it would offset any such overpayment against federal taxes under the permissive language of section 6402(a).  This was sad with respect to most of my low-income Cardozo Tax Clinic clients, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it.

However, in 2007, two of the clinic’s clients entered into offers in compromise (OICs) with the IRS.  In each OIC, there was a provision stating that, as additional consideration, the client offered “any refund, including interest, due to me/us because of overpayment of any tax or other liability” up to and including for the year in which the offer was entered into (i.e., 2007).  For both clients, the IRS took their stimulus check, treating the checks as relating to the 2007 taxable year.  And for one taxpayer, the IRS also took the 2007 EITC and additional child tax credit. 

I arranged for the taxpayers to file refund claims and sue for refund on the ground that, while concededly, refundable credits are overpayments for purposes of the Code, the language of OICs is in plain English and overrides the Code.  I argued that in plain English, refundable credits are not “refunds . . . because of overpayment”.  I also argued that, as far as the stimulus check, it related to the 2008 tax year – per the language of section 6428(a) – so it was outside the scope of the additional consideration language.

In Sarmiento v. United States, 812 F. Supp. 2d 137 (E.D.N.Y. 2011), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, 678 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2012), and Maniolos v. United States, 741 F. Supp. 2d 555 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), aff’d per order, 469 Fed. Appx. 56(2d Cir. 2012)), I lost both arguments (though a judge in the E.D.N.Y. had agreed with me that the stimulus check related to 2008). 

The Second Circuit held that plain English was not contemplated by the wording of the OIC, but, instead, Code-speak was, and Code-speak (section 6401(b)(1)) made refundable credits “overpayments”. 

The Second Circuit also held that the stimulus check related to the 2007 year, primarily because the legislation was passed in February 2008, before 2007 tax returns were due.  I thought the date of passage of the act legally irrelevant, since the 2007 returns had no entry for section 6428 credits and 2007 returns could have been filed in January or February 2008, prior to the date of enactment.

Even though it won my cases, the IRS was concerned that another Circuit might not come to the same conclusion, so it altered the additional consideration language for future OICs.  Today, the OIC additional consideration sentence reads: “The IRS will keep any refund, including interest, that I might be due for tax periods extending through the calendar year in which the IRS accepts my offer.”  Note the omission of the words “because of overpayment”.

In any case, these were the first Article III courts that had ruled on the issue of the year to which the stimulus check relates – i.e., the year whose tax information generated the checks or the year to which section 6428(a) says the credit is attributable.

But, it turns out that the year to which the stimulus check relates is no longer important for collection of IRS taxes from the stimulus check:  New CARES Act section 2201(d) provides:

(d) EXCEPTION FROM REDUCTION OR OFFSET.—Any credit or refund allowed or made to any individual by reason of section 6428 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (as added by this section ) . . . shall not be— . . . (2) subject to reduction or offset pursuant to subsection (d), (e), or (f) of section 6402 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, or (3) reduced or offset by other assessed Federal taxes that would otherwise be subject to levy or collection.

As I read section 2201(d)(3), it prohibits collection of either the stimulus check or the credit under section 6428(a) for other federal taxes under section 6402(a) (though I don’t know why the statute makes no reference to section 6402(a)).  And all but the state child support offsets are also prohibited by the new statute.

I am delighted by this compromise.  It should be noted that when Senator McConnell first introduced his coronavirus legislation, the version of section 6428 appearing in that bill would have prohibited offset under sections 6402(d), (e), or (f), but would have allowed offsets for other federal taxes.  I complained of this publicly (in an article in Tax Notes Today Federal) and to a friend on the Joint Committee on Taxation staff.  I argued that now was not the time to be collecting old tax debts, but to be stimulating the economy.  The very people too poor to pay their back tax debts were no doubt also to be most in need of the checks to survive this crisis. Whether my advocacy had any effect, I have no idea.  I’d like to hope it did, even though this change probably cost the federal government several billion dollars that it would not otherwise have sent out.

The final issue that ended up in litigation regarding the 2001 and 2008 versions of section 6428 was whether, for purposes of bankruptcy, the advance check was “for” the taxable year on whose information it was calculated (2000 or 2007) or was “for” the taxable year of the stated credit (2001 or 2008).  There had been one ruling that the 2001 section 6428 check was for the taxable year 2001. In re Lambert, 283 B.R. 16 (9th Cir. BAP 2002).  But, bankruptcy courts split almost evenly over the taxable year as to which the 2008 stimulus check was for.  Compare In re Wooldridge, 393 B.R.  721 (Bankr. D. Idaho 2008) (check was for 2008); In re Schwenke, 102 A.F.T.R.2d 6355 (Bankr. D. Mont. Sept. 25, 2008) (same); with In re Alguire, 391 B.R. 252 (Bankr. W.D.N.Y. 2008) (check was for 2007); In re Smith, 393 B.R. 205, 208-209 (Bankr. S.D. Ind. 2008) (same).  I am no expert in bankruptcy, but I anticipate that there will be the same dispute concerning the new coronavirus stimulus check, and that the opinion of the Second Circuit in my cases, although influential, will not be the last word.

So, How Will the “Recovery Rebate” Refunds Work This Time? Part I

This is the first of a two-part post on the portion of the coronavirus legislation that adopts, once again, “recovery rebate” credits and refunds.

When Congress passed the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107-16 – i.e., Bush 43’s first tax bill – it reduced taxes, in part, by creating a new 10% bracket.  Congress wanted to get into taxpayer hands some of the benefit of that rate reduction even before returns were due.  So, it came up with the idea of sending checks mid-year.  The methods of sending and computing those checks were laid out in a new Code section 6428.  That section was entitled “Acceleration of 10 Percent Income Tax Rate Bracket Benefit for 2001”.

Even before the economy cratered in late 2008, Congress saw what was coming, so, in February 2008, in the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, Pub. L. 110-185, Congress revived and revised section 6428 – now to send “recovery rebate” checks in mid-2008. 

In section 2201 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress has again decided to send out checks through the IRS and has again revived and revised section 6428 to send recovery rebate checks in mid-2020. 

Why use the IRS to send out checks, rather than some other government entity?  Well, because Congress wants to base the amount of the checks, in part, on citizens’ income, and only the IRS would have that information handy.

Section 6428 operates as a refundable credit – just like the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit.  Section 6428(b).  (Hereinafter, all references to section 6428 are to the 2020 version, unless I tell you otherwise.)  Because it has been awhile since this recovery rebate credit has been in the law (and because I litigated on behalf of taxpayers the only district court and appellate court opinions addressing the 2008 version of section 6428; see Sarmiento v. United States, 812 F. Supp. 2d 137 (E.D.N.Y. 2011), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, 678 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2012), and Maniolos v. United States, 741 F. Supp. 2d 555 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), aff’d per order, 469 Fed. Appx. 56(2d Cir. 2012)), I thought it would be useful for me to give a practical primer on how the new recovery rebate is written, how it was administered last time, and how I think it will be administered this time – because I anticipate the IRS will make administrative choices in 2020 similar to those that the IRS made in 2008.

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The current recovery rebate credit is nominally a credit against 2020 income taxes.  Section 6428(a).  This follows the pattern of the prior two versions of making the credit a credit against the income taxes of the tax year in which the “advanced refund” (i.e., “stimulus check”) is sent out.  That means that, on the 2020 income tax return that you prepare in April 2021, there will likely be a line entry under payments and refundable credits in which you calculate the section 6428 credit using your 2020 income.  You will then subtract from the credit due you on that return the amount of any stimulus check that you received in 2020.  If you are due more credit, you will get it as part of your 2020 refund.  If you have been overpaid through the stimulus check, however, you do not have to return the excess.  Section 6428(e)(1).

This brings me to a comment based on my experience dealing with low-income taxpayers while I headed the Cardozo Tax Clinic during 2008 and 2009:  Most taxpayers, at the time the 2020 return is prepared, will not be sure whether or not they received the stimulus check or the amount thereof.   Since you have to subtract the amount of the stimulus check from the calculation of the 2020 credit, how do you solve this problem?  As discussed below, the stimulus check, if precedent holds, is going to be posted to the taxpayer’s 2019 income tax transcript as (1) a credit and (2) then a refund check. So, order a copy of that transcript for 2019 before preparing the 2020 return. 

If you fail to subtract the amount of a stimulus check that was sent, several things happen:

The excess refundable credit that you claimed is treated as a deficiency in tax under section 6211(b)(4) and can be collected without a notice of deficiency under the math error authority of section 6213(b)(1) and (g).  This is partly stated at section 6428(e)(1) and the rest is stated in subsection (b) of CARES Act section 2201, the non-codified part of the statute that adopted the new section 6428. 

You can also expect a 20% section 6662 penalty to be imposed on that deficiency.

Who gets the credit?  Any individual who is not a nonresident alien or a person who can be claimed as someone else’s dependent.  Section 6428(d).  This is a much broader category of individuals entitled to the credit than in the prior two versions of section 6428.  For the prior versions, smaller credits were allowed if an individual had not paid income tax in the amount of the usual credit, but the individual had a certain amount of qualifying income (which included Social Security benefits).

How much is the credit?  It is $1,200 per person ($2,400 in the case of a joint return) plus $500 per dependent who is a qualifying child of the individual under section 24(c).  Section 6428(a).  That means that the rules of section 24(c) apply to limit the additional $500 to children up to age 17.  All other limits on who is a qualifying child under section 24(c) also apply.

What is the phaseout of the credit?  The phaseout of the credit begins at certain adjusted gross income (AGI) levels, depending on filing status.  The phaseout is 5% of the AGI that exceeds that level.  The level at which the phaseout begins is AGI of $150,000 for joint filers, $112,500 for head of household filers, and $75,000 for single or married filing separately filers.  Section 6428(c).

How is the stimulus check sent to me in mid-2020 calculated, since I don’t know my 2020 income yet, and, indeed, my income is likely to be much lower in 2020 than in prior years?  As with the earlier versions of section 6428, this problem is only partly solved by having the IRS calculate the stimulus check as the amount that would have been due you under subsection (a) if your 2019 tax information were used.  Section 6428(f).  As you can see, though, many more people are likely to face smaller stimulus checks than they will ultimately be due for a recovery rebate refund under this system.  For example, say a single filer earned $200,000 of AGI in 2019.  She would get no stimulus check because of the operation of the phaseout.  But, when she filed a 2020 return showing AGI of only $60,000, she would get $1,200 at that time, since she did not get a stimulus check and her AGI was not above the phaseout amount.

What if an individual never filed a 2019 return, so the IRS can’t know the individual’s 2019 AGI?  Well, first, the IRS can substitute 2018 for 2019 in calculating the stimulus check, and, second, “if the individual has not filed a tax return for such individual’s first taxable year beginning in 2018, [the IRS may] use information with respect to such individual for calendar year 2019 provided in (i) Form SSA-1099, Social Security Benefit Statement, or (ii) Form RRB-1099, Social Security Equivalent Benefit Statement.”  Section 6428(f)(5). 

I am not sure what happens if the individual did not file either a 2018 or 2019 return and was not receiving Social Security benefits in 2019.  For example, many taxpayers are working and are slightly overwithheld and so do not bother to file a tax return for the small refund they may be due.  Are these taxpayers going to get a stimulus check? My guess is that they are not.  They will have to wait until they file a 2020 return to get the benefit of the credit.  If they are perennial non-filers, so don’t file for 2020, either, they may never get the credit.  I think the drafters of section 6428 could have been more creative – such as allowing the IRS to total all gross income shown on 2018 or 2019 third-party information returns for purposes of calculating an AGI.

When will the stimulus checks be paid?  The statute does not set a specific date for payment, but it does require that no checks be sent out after December 31, 2020.  Section 6428(f)(3).  For the 2008 checks, the IRS ended up staggering the issuance of checks each week, so as not to overwhelm its computers or staff.  If I recall, the checks were issued over a three-month period, with the last two digits of one’s Social Security Number determining in which tranche any check would be sent.  I am not sure the IRS can do it any faster.  However, if the first checks only go out to some people late summer or early fall, I don’t know how poor people or people who have lost their jobs already will be able to get by in the interim.

There are also provisions in section 6428 and the noncodified accompanying legislation addressing members of the Armed Forces and the treatment of possessions.  I will not discuss those.  However, in my next post, I will discuss issues that arose in the courts in response to the prior versions of section 6428 and how the answers may or may not differ under the current version.

The Coronavirus Shows Why We Need Equitable Tolling Legislation Now for Judicial Tax Filing Deadlines

Note that after this post below was written, at 9 pm March 18, the Tax Court issued a press release stating that its building is closed and that:

Mail will be held for delivery until the Court reopens. Taxpayers may comply with statutory deadlines for filing petitions or notices of appeal by timely mailing a petition or notice of appeal to the Court. Timeliness of mailing of the petition or notice of appeal is determined by the United States Postal Service’s postmark or the delivery certificate of a designated private delivery service. The eAccess and eFiling systems remain operational. Petitions and other documents may not be hand delivered to the Court.

Under Guralnik, this now extends — to the date the Clerk’s Office reopens — the time for filing in person or mailing a Tax Court petition.

Things are moving fast (finally) in D.C.  On March 13, the President sent a letter to three Cabinet Secretaries and the Administrator of FEMA invoking his power under the Stafford Act to declare a national emergency because of the coronavirus.  Part of the letter stated:  “I am also instructing Secretary Mnuchin to provide relief from tax deadlines to Americans who have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency, as appropriate, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. 7508A(a).”

On March 18, the IRS issued Notice 2020-17, providing for a 3-month extension (from April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020) to “Affected Taxpayers” to pay 2019 income taxes (i.e., not any other taxes) – limited to $1 million for individuals and $10 million for C  corporations or consolidated groups.  Affected Taxpayers are defined as “any person with a Federal income tax payment due April 15, 2020” – apparently regardless of where in the world the taxpayers are located.

A paragraph in the Notice also reads:

Affected Taxpayers subject to penalties or additions to tax despite the relief granted by this section III may seek reasonable cause relief under section 6651 for a failure to pay tax or seek a waiver to a penalty under section 6654 for a failure by an individual or certain trusts and estates to pay estimated income tax, as applicable. Similar relief with respect to estimated tax payments is not available for corporate taxpayers or tax-exempt organizations under section 6655.

I take this to mean that if, say, an individual taxpayer paid $1.5 million in income taxes on July 15, the IRS will impose a late-payment penalty on $500,000 of the payment, but the IRS encourages the taxpayers to seek abatement of that penalty by explaining why the coronavirus prevented payment of that $500,000, as well.  I assume that the IRS will be liberal in granting abatements, but a taxpayer will have to ask.

The IRS has, to date, has said nothing about extending any filing deadlines, though I expect it will act on that in the near future.  

Section 7508A allows the IRS to grant payment and filing extensions of up to one year (including for making refund claims, filing refund suits, and filing Tax Court petitions and notices of appeal; Reg. § 301.7508A-1(c)(1)(iv)-(vi)) for people affected by a Presidentially-declared disaster.  However, unless the IRS extends filing deadlines to people and entities worldwide (don’t forget our overseas U.S. taxpayers and foreigners who are taxpayers in the U.S.) and with respect to all taxes, this provision would not be sufficient to help all the persons who reasonably would need extensions to file tax cases in court.  Further, even a one-year extension for all taxes may not be enough, given that it is estimated that a vaccine for the coronavirus might not be available for 18 months.

I hope at least one person reading this post is a Congressional staffer, who can get what I propose into the next round of legislation to address the coronavirus pandemic.  Taxpayers dealing with the coronavirus will understandably miss tax judicial filing deadlines, such as the 30-day period to file a Collection Due Process petition in the Tax Court under § 6330(d)(1) or the 90-day (or 150-day) periods to file deficiency or innocent spouse petitions in the Tax Court under §§ 6213(a) and 6015(e)(1)(A).  Those taxpayers should be forgiven for missing those deadlines in appropriate cases, even if they are not covered by any announced extension to file under § 7508A.  However, currently, the power of the courts to forgive late judicial filings in the tax area is, according to most courts, nonexistent.  I ask Congress to change the law to clarify that tax judicial filing deadlines are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling.

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Most courts have held that statutory tax judicial filing deadlines are jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling.  That’s the case despite the few appellate rulings that Keith and I have yet won holding that certain tax judicial filing deadlines are not jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling.  Although we hope for more, we have, to date, only two Circuit Court victories that only apply to tax filing deadlines used by very few people:  The district court wrongful levy filing deadline of § 6532(c); Volpicelli v. United States,  777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015); and the Tax Court whistleblower award filing deadline of § 7623(b)(4)Myers v. Commissioner, 928 F.3d 1025 (D.C. Cir. 2019).  Fewer than 200 such petitions/complaints are currently filed each year (combined) in those kinds of cases, and even all the other Circuits to have ruled on the issue of the wrongful levy deadline have ruled the other way. 

Whatever reason that impelled the Supreme Court to hold in United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), that the refund claim filing and payment deadlines of §6511(a) and (b) are not subject to equitable tolling (including administrative problems that might arise because almost a hundred million 1994 returns included claims for refund), the problem of tax judicial filing deadlines is confined to a comparatively very small number of cases.  Currently, fewer than 30,000 tax complaints/petitions are filed annually, and the vast majority of these are filed on time.  It would not be a huge burden on the tax system if equitable tolling could be allowed for the few late-filed complaints/petitions where a plaintiff/taxpayer can give a good excuse for late filing – such as dealing with coronavirus.

If the Article I Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims can employ equitable tolling and district courts can employ equitable tolling in connection with Federal Tort Claims Act suits, I see no reason why tax suits should be excluded from equitable tolling.  So, legislation to change the tax law is urgently needed.

For filings in tax cases in the district courts and the Tax Court, if the clerk’s offices of those courts close during this pandemic, that will give automatic extensions to file initial pleadings until those offices reopen.  See, e.g., Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230 (2016) (borrowing a rule from the FRCP).  But, it is not clear that clerks offices will have to close during this pandemic.  Indeed, while the Tax Court has canceled certain upcoming trial calendars, it has not (at least yet) closed its clerk’s office to hand-delivered petitions.  Indeed, the Tax Court has announced that its Clerk’s office is still open for filing petitions, though only for four hours a day.  So, Guralnik can’t apply.

Reg. § 301.9100-1 et seq. allows the IRS to extend statutory and regulatory deadlines for making elections.  But, the IRS can’t extend judicial filing deadlines. 

Equitable tolling is generally appropriate only where the defendant [1] has actively misled the plaintiff respecting the cause of action, or [2] where the plaintiff has in some extraordinary way been prevented from asserting his rights, or [3] has raised the precise statutory claim in issue but has mistakenly done so in the wrong forum.

Mazurkiewicz v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., 356 Fed. Appx. 521, 522 (2d Cir. 2009) (cleaned up).  Accord Mannella v. Commissioner, 631 F.3d 115, 125 (3d Cir. 2011).  While coronoavirus interference with taxpayer lives (be it illness, quarantine, tending to others who are sick, or simply not being able to access necessary paperwork because of lock-downs) would likely fall into the “extraordinary circumstances” usual reason, equitable tolling is not limited to only those usual reasons.  As the Supreme Court has said:

The “flexibility” inherent in “equitable procedure” enables courts “to meet new situations [that] demand equitable intervention, and to accord all the relief necessary to correct . . . particular injustices.”  [Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238, 248 (1944)] (permitting postdeadline filing of bill of review).  Taken together, these cases recognize that courts of equity can and do draw upon decisions made in other similar cases for guidance.  Such courts exercise judgment in light of prior precedent, but with awareness of the fact that specific circumstances, often hard to predict in advance, could warrant special treatment in an appropriate case.

Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631, 650 (2010).

The former and current National Taxpayer Advocates have agreed with my push to get equitable tolling into judicial tax filing deadlines.  NTA 2017 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. 1, at pp. 283-292 (Legislative Recommendation Number 3); NTA 2018 Annual Report to Congress, 2019 Purple Book at pp. 88-90; NTA 2019 Annual Report to Congress, 2020 Purple Book at pp. 85-87.

And, I long ago drafted legislation to accomplish this.  Here’s my draft.  No doubt Congressional staffers should give it a review, as I am no expert drafter of legislation.  I would:

Amend section 7442 to add new section (b) as follows:

(b) Timely Filing Nonjurisdictional.—Notwithstanding any other provision of this title,

  • all periods of limitations for filing suit in the Tax Court are subject to waiver, forfeiture, estoppel, and equitable tolling; and
  • an order of the Tax Court dismissing a suit for untimely filing shall not be considered a ruling on the merits and shall not preclude the litigation of any later claim or issue brought in the Tax Court or any other court.

Amend section 7459(d)’s last sentence to add before the period:  “or untimely filing”.

Amend section 6532 to add a new subsection (d) reading:

(d) Timely Filing Nonjurisdictional.—The time periods set out in subsections (a) and (c) are subject to waiver, forfeiture, estoppel, and equitable tolling.

For the Second Time in About Five Years, the SG Decides Not to Take a Tax Equitable Tolling Case to SCOTUS

Just another short update on Myers v. Commissioner, 928 F.3d 1025 (D.C. Cir. 2019), on which I blogged here.  In that opinion, the D.C. Circuit held that the 30-day deadline in section 7623(b)(4) in which to file a whistleblower award petition in the Tax Court is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law.  The DOJ had initially sought en banc rehearing of the Myers opinion, contending that the opinion could not be reconciled with the opinion in Duggan v. Commissioner, 879 F.3d 1029 (9th Cir. 2018), on which I blogged hereDuggan held that the 30-day deadline in section 6330(d)(1) in which to file a Collection Due Process petition in the Tax Court is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling.  Since the 2006 language of section 7623(b)(4) was rather obviously cribbed from the 2000-version language in section 6330(d)(1), I agree with the DOJ that the two opinions cannot be reconciled.

After the D.C. Circuit denied rehearing, the Solicitor General had to consider seeking certiorari in Myers.  Clearly, there was some struggle in the DOJ to figure out what to do, since the SG twice requested extensions of the time to file a cert. petition.  But, the last extension expired on March 2, and no further extension was sought or petition was filed by that date.  Thus, the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Myers now controls all Tax Court whistleblower award cases under Golsen, since, under section 7482(b)(1), unlike most Tax Court cases, whistleblower award cases are only appealable to the D.C. Circuit.

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This is the second time in about five years that the DOJ, after losing a tax equitable tolling case and being unsuccessful in seeking en banc rehearing because of a conflict among the Circuits, has, in the end, decided not to seek cert.  The prior case was Volpicelli v. United States, 777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015), on which I blogged hereVolpicelli held that the then-9-month (now 2-year) deadline in section 6532(c) in which to file a district court wrongful levy complaint is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law.  Volpicelli is in conflict with several section 6532(c) opinions of other Circuits, including Becton Dickinson and Co. v. Wolckenhauer, 215 F.3d 340 (3d Cir. 2000), but all of the conflicting cases were decided before the new Supreme Court case law on jurisdiction began in 2004.

I am a little bummed out by the SG’s chickening out on seeking cert. in Myers, since in both Volpicelli and Myers, I wrote or co-wrote amicus briefs in the cases on behalf of tax clinics with which I had been then affiliated (Cardozo and Harvard, respectively).  And, more than the usual amicus, I was otherwise instrumental in pushing these cases forward as test cases.  I guess it is just my luck that any potential Supreme Court case I help generate gets passed on by the SG after much furor and ado below.  Given that I am retired and now just volunteering with the Harvard clinic, Myers was likely my last chance at getting to SCOTUS on an issue I cared strongly about.  But, maybe I should be like Yoda and sigh, “After all, there is another”.  In Boechler, P.C. v. Commissioner, Eight Circuit Docket No. 19-2003, the Eight Circuit has been asked to hold the section 6330(d)(1) filing deadline not jurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling.  Keith and I (on behalf of the Harvard clinic) are amicus there, as well.  Oral argument is expected shortly in Boechler, as the briefing is complete.

In a December post, I pointed out that the Tax Court had been holding back from deciding a number of whistleblower award cases pending the SG’s action regarding cert. in Myers.  See Tax Court orders in Aghadjanian v. Commissioner, Docket No. 9339-18W (dated 9/4/19 and 12/9/19); McCrory v. Commissioner, Docket No. 3443-18W (dated 9/4/19 and 12/6/19); Bond v. Commissioner, Docket No. 5690-19W (dated 10/8/19); Bond v. Commissioner, Docket No. 6267-19W (dated 10/30/19); Bond v. Commissioner, Docket No. 6982-19W (dated 11/5/19).  That has continued in other dockets.  See Tax Court orders in Berleth v. Commissioner, Docket No. 21414-18W (dated 1/22/20 and 2/2/20); Friedel v. Commissioner, Docket No. 11239-19W (dated 2/14/20); Damiani v. Commissioner, Docket No. 14914-19W (dated 2/18/20).

And, in the remand of Myers from the D.C. Circuit, we can all look forward to the Tax Court for the first time being confronted with deciding what constitutes substantive grounds for equitable tolling of a Tax Court filing deadline.  To decide this question, the Tax Court will have to borrow case law from other courts, including the Supreme Court, since the Tax Court has never before believed it had the power to grant equitable tolling.

Seventh Circuit Affirms Tax Court’s Discretion to Weigh Actual Knowledge More Heavily than Four Positive Factors for Innocent Spouse Relief

Last summer, I alerted PT readers here to an innocent spouse case, Jacobsen v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-115, that Keith and I were litigating in the Seventh Circuit on behalf of the Harvard tax clinic.  We took on the appeal of one year (2011) where the taxpayer did not get equitable innocent spouse relief from the Tax Court under section 6015(f) from the unreported taxes on the taxpayer’s former wife’s embezzlement income.  For that year, the Tax Court held that because the former wife was already jailed when the return was filed and because the taxpayer helped a CPA prepare the return, the taxpayer had actual knowledge of the deficiency.  Of course, while actual knowledge is fatal to relief under subsections (b) and (c), it is not supposed to be fatal under subsection (f) equitable relief.  Knowledge (whether actual or reason to know) is only supposed to be one factor of seven factors to consider under subsection (f), as elaborated on by Rev. Proc. 2013-34, 2013-2 C.B. 397.  Under the liberalizing 2013 Rev. Proc., unlike under the earlier Rev. Proc. 2003-61, 2003-2 C.B. 296, actual knowledge was now to be weighed no more heavily than reason to know in the factor analysis.  And, in the case, the Tax Court held that of the remaining factors, four were positive for relief – marital status, lack of significant benefit, compliance with future tax filing and payment obligations, and serious health issues.  So, it struck Keith and me as wrong – and as not consistent with what most Tax Court judges were doing – for the court to have still denied relief in this case.  It seemed to us that the Tax Court had not, in substance, applied the Rev. Proc. (which, concededly is not binding on the court, but which the court generally follows and purported to follow in the case).

Keith and I hoped a reversal of the Tax Court in the Jacobsen case would have a salutary effect on Tax Court judges not to overweigh the actual knowledge factor.  And, this would be the first appeals court to ever have to apply Rev. Proc. 2013-34 (surprisingly).  Then, during briefing of the appeal, Congress enacted the Taxpayer First Act, which amended section 6015(e) to add paragraph (7) providing that the Tax Court should decide innocent spouse cases on a de novo standard and a supplemented administrative record.  Because the amendment applied to pending cases, the Jacobsen Seventh Circuit opinion would also be the first to consider the impact of subsection (e)(7) on appellate review.

Well, we lost. In Jacobsen v. Commissioner, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 4544 (7th Cir. Feb. 13, 2020), in a published opinion, the Seventh Circuit upheld the Tax Court’s ruling, though noted that this was a close case and that, had it been the trier of fact (and not employing deferential appellate review), it might have ruled for the taxpayer.

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Given Jacobsen, I am not sure that any court of appeals will ever reverse the Tax Court on a section 6015 ruling against a taxpayer.  My research before the clinic’s taking on the appeal revealed that, while taxpayers occasionally obtained a reversal of the Tax Court under the former innocent spouse provision at section 6013(e) (in effect from 1971 to 1998); see, e.g., Resser v. Commissioner, 74 F.3d 1528 (7th Cir. 1996); no taxpayer since 1998, in 14 tries, had obtained a reversal of the Tax Court under section 6015.  See Asad v. Commissioner, 751 Fed. Appx. 339 (3d Cir. 2018); Nunez v. Commissioner, 599 Fed. Appx. 629 (9th Cir. 2015); Deihl v. Commissioner, 603 Fed. Appx. 527 (9th Cir. 2015); Karam v. Commissioner, 504 Fed. Appx. 416 (6th Cir. 2012); Maluda v. Commissioner, 431 Fed. Appx. 130 (3d Cir. 2011); Greer v. Commissioner, 595 F.3d 338 (6th Cir. 2010); Golden v. Commissioner, 548 F.3d 487 (6th Cir. 2008); Aranda v. Commissioner, 432 F.3d 1140 (10th Cir. 2005); Feldman v. Commissioner, 152 Fed. Appx. 622 (9th Cir. 2005); Alt v. Commissioner, 101 Fed. Appx. 34 (6th Cir. 2004); Doyle v. Commissioner, 94 Fed. Appx. 949 (3d Cir. 2004); Mitchell v. Commissioner, 292 F.3d 800 (D.C. Cir. 2002); Cheshire v. Commissioner, 282 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2002); Wiksell v. Commissioner, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 5857 (9th Cir. 2000).  The taxpayer losing string continues.

An interesting issue in the Seventh Circuit in Jacobsen was its discussion of the appellate standard of review in light of section 6015(e)(7).  As to what would be “inequitable” under section 6015(f), the IRS argued for abuse of discretion review, and the taxpayer argued for clear error review.  There isn’t much of a difference between the two standards, but (e)(7) was designed to prevent the Tax Court from giving deference to IRS rulings under (f), which had been held though, until Porter v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 203 (2009), to be reviewed by the Tax Court on an abuse of IRS discretion standard.  In Porter, the Tax Court held it would henceforth decide (f) issues on a de novo standard – the position adopted by statute in (e)(7).  And at least some Tax Court judges had said that the Tax Court does not exercise equitable discretion under (f), but merely makes a factual finding of what would be “unfair”.  Cf. Hall v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 374, 391-392 (2010) (Thornton and Holmes, JJ., dissenting) (arguing that by using the word “inequitable” in § 6015(f), Congress did not imply the rules of equity practice, but rather only meant that it would be “unfair” to hold the taxpayer liable;  “A request for relief under section 6015(f) is called a request for ‘equitable relief’ not because it is a request for reformation, rescission, specific performance, or accounting, but because to a reasonable decisionmaker at the IRS it would be unfair to hold one spouse jointly liable with another for a particular tax debt.”).  Factual findings are usually reviewed by appellate courts for clear error.  

In Jacobsen, the Seventh Circuit dodged the appellate review standard issue in the following discussion:

Although the parties agree generally that we review the Tax Court’s decisions “in the same manner and to the same extent as we review district court decisions from the bench in civil actions,” 26 U.S.C. § 7482(a)(1); Gyorgy v. C.I.R., 779 F.3d 466, 472–73 (7th Cir. 2015); Resser, 74 F.3d at 1535, they disagree as to whether that means we review the denial of relief under § 6015(f) for clear error or an abuse of discretion.

The parties’ differing views on the standard of review hinge in part on the Taxpayer First Act, legislation that was passed shortly after the parties filed their briefs. See Pub. L. No. 116-25, 133 Stat. 981 (July 1, 2019). As relevant here, § 1203 of the Taxpayer First Act added a new paragraph at the end of § 6015(e) codifying the existing practice of de novo review by the Tax Court of appeals from the denial of innocent spouse relief. Because this addition to § 6015 simply “clarified,” see Pub. L. No. 116-25, § 1203 (“Clarification of equitable relief from joint liability.”), the existing standard and scope of Tax Court review, the Commissioner maintains it has no effect on our standard of review. Thus, argues the Commissioner, denial of relief under § 6015(f) should be reviewed in the same manner as any determination of equitable relief in the district court—for abuse of discretion. See, e.g., Bowes v. Ind. Sec. of State, 837 F.3d 813, 817 (7th Cir. 2016) (explaining general applicability of abuse of discretion standard to equitable determinations).

Jacobsen, however, insists that the Taxpayer First Act confirms his position that we review decisions under § 6015(f) for clear error. Jacobsen explains his reasoning as follows: (1) the Taxpayer First Act makes equitable relief under § 6015(f) mandatory as opposed to discretionary; (2) mandatory relief under subsection (f) “is now the same as mandatory relief under subsection (b),” which also contains an inequity condition; and so (3) Tax Court rulings under subsection (f) should be reviewed under the same standard as subsection (b). Jacobsen finds further support for his position with the fact that subsection (b) is a continuation and expansion of former § 6013(e), which we held in Resser was subject to clear error review, 74 F.3d at 1535.

We are unconvinced, however, that the Taxpayer First Act (which settled only the Tax Court’s standard of review of IRS determinations) sheds any particular light on our standard of review as to relief under § 6015(f), which multiple courts have recognized as for abuse of discretion. See Greer v. C.I.R., 595 F.3d 398, 344 (6th Cir. 2010) (innocent spouse relief under § 6015(b) reviewed for clear error but equitable relief under § 6015(f) reviewed for abuse of discretion); Cheshire v. C.I.R., 282 F.3d 326, 338 (5th Cir. 2002) (same). Fortunately, we need not resolve the issue today, as we would affirm the Tax Court’s decision under either deferential standard.

Slip op. at 9-11 (emphasis in original; some citations omitted).

As to the underlying issue of whether the Tax Court could let actual knowledge outweigh four positive factors for relief, the Seventh Circuit wrote:

Because each of the factors for consideration was either neutral or favored relief, Jacobsen claims the Tax Court must have weighed knowledge more heavily than the other factors, in contravention of Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03(2)(c)(i)(A). Nothing in the Tax Court’s opinion, however, suggests that it believed knowledge of the embezzled funds necessarily precluded Jacobsen from equitable relief or automatically outweighed the other factors for consideration. Although the 2013 regulations make clear that knowledge is no longer necessarily a strong factor weighing against relief, as Jacobsen himself acknowledges in his brief, they do not prohibit the Tax Court from assigning more weight to petitioner’s knowledge if such a conclusion is supported by the totality of the circumstances. As explained in the Revenue Procedures, “no one factor or a majority of factors necessarily determines the outcome.” Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03. And although knowledge no longer weighs heavily against relief, nothing in the statute or revenue procedures forecloses the decisionmaker from concluding that in light of “all the facts and circumstances,” § 6015(f), knowledge of the understatement weighs heavily against granting equitable relief. There is thus no reason to believe the Tax Court’s decision was necessarily erroneous because only one of the nonexhaustive factors for consideration weighed against relief.

Jacobsen also suggests it was inappropriate for the Tax Court to factor his “participation in preparing the 2011 return” into its assessment, characterizing it as “another way for the court to extra-count” Jacobsen’s knowledge of the embezzlement. In assessing the role of Jacobsen’s knowledge in his entitlement to equitable relief, the court noted that in addition to Jacobsen’s actual knowledge on account of Lemmens’ criminal conviction and sentence, in 2011 Jacobsen himself provided the tax information to the paid preparer, whereas in previous years Lemmens had always prepared and submitted the tax information. Far from demonstrating that the Tax Court erred, the court’s consideration of his role in preparing the 2011 return demonstrates its commitment to heed the Revenue Procedure’s directive that the seven listed factors merely provide “guides” as opposed to an “exclusive list” and that “[o]ther factors relevant to a specific claim for relief may also be taken into account.” Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03(2).

It is clear from its opinion that the Tax Court considered the factors relevant to Jacobsen’s specific claim for relief. The court considered Jacobsen’s individual circumstances as it analyzed each of the listed factors. Jacobsen does not argue, nor could he, that the Tax Court misapprehended the facts or otherwise overlooked information relevant to Jacobsen’s claim.

We are sympathetic to Jacobsen’s situation, and recognize that the Tax Court could have easily decided on this record that Jacobsen was entitled to equitable relief under § 6015(f). Indeed, were we deciding the case in the first instance as opposed to on deferential review, we may have decided the case differently. But notwithstanding the existence of many factors favoring relief and only Jacobsen’s knowledge counseling against it, nothing in the record indicates the Tax Court misapprehended the weight to be accorded Jacobsen’s knowledge or treated it as a decisive factor barring relief. Indeed, its discussion of each of the factors as well as the relevance of Jacobsen’s involvement in preparing the 2011 taxes demonstrate that the Tax Court did not engage in a mechanical balancing of the factors where the number of factors favoring relief necessarily counterbalanced the ultimate question of whether it was inequitable to hold Jacobsen liable for the 2011 deficiencies. We thus cannot say the Tax Court either abused its discretion or clearly erred in its denial of relief for 2011.

Slip op. at 16-18 (emphasis in original; some citations omitted).

Based on our research (much of which we incorporated in the briefing in Jacobsen), the Jacobsen case is unusual in letting so many positive factors be outweighed by only one negative factor.  But, if other Circuits are going to be so deferential in reviewing the Tax Court’s weighing of factors, it is hard to imagine any taxpayer ever being able to mount a successful attack on a Tax Court judge’s weighing of the factors.  About the only chance for reversing the Tax Court may be if the Tax Court made a factual error as to whether a particular factor was positive, negative, or neutral for relief.

That brings me to Sleeth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2019-138.  Like Jacobsen, Sleeth is one of those outlier cases where the Tax Court unusually treated knowledge as outweighing multiple other factors for relief.  Sleeth is an underpayment case, where the taxpayer signed returns showing balances due (two of which were being filed late), but where the taxpayer’s husband, a doctor making $418,000 a year, failed to later fully pay the balances due that initially aggregated, in tax alone, about $354,000.  The Tax Court held that the taxpayer had reason to know that the taxes would never be fully paid because the taxpayer knew that in a prior year, the husband had once used an installment agreement.  As in Jacobsen, the Tax Court in Sleeth held that the taxpayer had not proved she would suffer economic hardship if forced to pay the liabilities, so this factor was neutral.  As in Jacobsen, the court in Sleeth found three other factors favored relief:  marital status, lack of significant benefit, and compliance with later tax return filing and payment obligations.  The main difference between the two cases is that, while Jacobsen had a serious health issue that favored relief, Sleeth did not.

Sleeth had paid counsel in the Tax Court, but she could not afford to pay counsel for an appeal.  The Harvard tax clinic, pro bono, is now representing her in an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit (Docket No. 20-10221).  If the Eleventh Circuit is as deferential as to the weighing of factors as the Seventh Circuit was in Jacobsen, Sleeth will have a hard time in obtaining victory.  However, there are arguments that the Tax Court erred in its holdings with respect to the knowledge and financial hardship factors.  So, it is still possible that Sleeth will break the unbroken string of taxpayer losses in appeals of innocent spouse cases from the Tax Court.  The appellate briefing in Sleeth has only just begun.

District Court Reverses Its Section 6511(b)(2)(A) Ruling and Excoriates IRS and DOJ for Not Citing Relevant Authority

People ask me what I do in my retirement to keep my mind active.  In addition to a lot of pleasure reading, I keep up with the tax law, blog here, and engage in impact litigation with the Harvard tax clinic, usually in the appellate courts.  Getting an appellate court to overturn a lower court ruling is almost a mug’s game.  Gil Rothenberg of the DOJ reported last fall that of taxpayer appeals in the fiscal year ended September 30, 2019, the DOJ won 94% of the time.  I usually get involved in hard cases, seeking to overturn settled law.  But, my winning percentage is far better than 6% – though still well below 50%, as any appellant would expect.  I tell people that I am a sort of Don Quixote, often falling off my Rosinante or mistaking a barber’s basin for the Golden Helmet of Mambrino.  But, sometimes, I do save a damsel in distress.  I just did.

Indeed, I just got a district court reversal even without entering an appearance in the case, even as an amicus.  And I got a scathing opinion from the judge against the government, to boot.  (I was not looking for the scathing tone, but the judge is right.)

You may recall my recent post involving a case named Harrison v. United States, W.D. Wisconsin Docket No. 19-cv-194.  In the case, the taxpayers mailed a late 2012 original return containing a refund claim for withheld taxes just before the end of a period of 3 years after the return’s due date plus the length of an extension they had obtained to file the return (but had not used).  The return arrived at the IRS a few days after the period expired.  The court correctly ruled that the claim was timely filed under section 6511(a) because it was filed within 3 years after the return was filed – indeed, both were filed the same day.  But, the court then misapplied the lookback rule of section 6511(b)(2)(A) to hold that the claim was limited to taxes deemed paid in a period looking back 3 years plus the extension period from the date the IRS received the claim.  No tax was deemed paid in that period, so the over-$7,000 refund was limited to $0, said the court.  The taxpayers had correctly argued that section 7502’s timely mailing rules apply such that the lookback period should begin from the date the return was mailed (not received), so the entire refund should be allowed.  Apparently, the IRS’ only objection to paying the refund was the amount limitation. 

Unfortunately, neither party cited to the district court the most relevant case law, Weisbart v. United States, 222 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2000), or pertinent regulations that had been adopted in 2001 to embody the holding of Weisbart.  And you would not expect a district court judge to be an expert on tax procedure.

I contacted the taxpayers’ attorney on January 13 to point out the correct authority and suggested that he move for reconsideration.  He did so here on January 15.  On January 24, the DOJ filed a notice that it did not object to the motion for reconsideration because the DOJ had the law wrong.  In part, the DOJ Tax Division blamed the IRS lawyers for not telling the DOJ the correct law.  On January 29, the district court entered a revised order, granting the motion for reconsideration and also amended the judgment to find the government owes the taxpayers the tax refund they sought, plus interest from April 15, 2013.

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The district court ruled for the taxpayers not just relying on Weisbart and the 2001 regulations that I discussed in my post, but the earlier, less clear regulations that Weisbart interpreted as providing for this result. This could have been a two-page order.  But, it wasn’t.  The judge was boiling mad at the government.  He ordered that his revised opinion be sent to every IRS and DOJ Tax Division attorney for reading for ethical training.  Because you don’t see this too often, I quote here what the judge wrote about the government lawyers (omitting footnotes; emphasis added):

Regrettably, not only did plaintiff fail to bring this case and the regulations to the court’s attention in their previous briefing on defendant’s motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, but the IRS and the U.S. Department of Justice, whose respective jobs include promulgating and enforcing the applicable regulation, also did not. Still, presented with the regulations, defendant concedes it has no basis to oppose the motion for reconsideration, and the IRS has confirmed that it is prepared to issue a refund in the amount sought in plaintiffs complaint, plus statutory interest. (Def.’s Resp. (dkt. #25) ¶ 18.) While there is no question that this is the appropriate response and course of action, the court remains troubled by defendant’s failure to alert the court to the Weisbart case and even more the regulations. In its submission, defendant represents that the IRS did not identify the Weisbart case, the Chief Counsel’s Notice or the regulations, but acknowledges that counsel for defendant did identify the Weisbart case in their own research, and chose not to disclose it in their briefing because it is not “controlling” in the Seventh Circuit. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) This might be a viable defense if: (1) the failure to cite Weisbart were the only failure and; (2) the U.S. Department of Justice’s and IRS’s aspirations only were not to fall below the bare minimum ethical threshold. See Am. Bar Assoc. Rule 3.3 (“A lawyer should not knowingly . . . fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel.”). 

More critically, however, the Weisbart court relied on a Treasury Regulation, which is controlling authority on both the IRS and this court. Defendant explains that the Chief Counsel’s Notice announcing a change in its litigation position and the amendment to 26 C.F.R. § 301.7502-1(f) occurred after the Weisbart opinion, but the language in 26 C.F.R. § 301.6402-3(a)(5), on which the Second Circuit in part relied, remains in place today, and defendant failed to alert the court of this regulation. Thus, the conduct of defendant’s counsel here falls below even a bare minimum ethical standard, something counsel would have discovered by reading Weisbart and the current versions of the regulations cited in that case closely, rather than dismissing it as an inconvenient contrary authority that they were not ethically required to cite to the court. Even if this were not so, defendant cited a number of cases from other circuits that were also not controlling in this court in support of its erroneous argument that the administrative complaint was filed on the date it was received by the IRS.

These egregious missteps in defendant’s response were enough to prompt this court to consider whether an award of attorney’s fees incurred in responding to the motion for summary judgment and in bringing their motion for reconsideration would be appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1927. However, this would require a finding of actual bad faith to shift fees to plaintiff. See Boyer v. BNSF Ry. Co., 824 F.3d 694, 708 (7th Cir.), opinion modified on reh’g, 832 F.3d 699 (7th Cir. 2016) (“If a lawyer pursues a path that a reasonably careful attorney would have known, after appropriate inquiry, to be unsound, the conduct is objectively unreasonable and vexatious. To put this a little differently, a lawyer engages in bad faith by acting recklessly or with indifference to the law, as well as by acting in the teeth of what he knows to be the law[.]” (internal citation omitted). Instead, defendant’s counsel’s representations show negligence, which is not sufficient to invoke fees under § 1927. Id. Plus, counsel at least confessed error when plaintiff finally discovered the controlling regulation and brought it to defendant’s and the court’s attention. 

Nevertheless the court will require defendant to circulate this opinion and order, along with the Chief Counsel’s Notice and 26 C.F.R. §§ 301.7502-1(f) and § 301.6402- 3(a)(5) to all attorneys in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel and to the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in hopes that these actions will prevent future opposition to meritorious claims for refunds, as well as any instinct to ignore the duty of candor to the court by burying precedent no matter how well reasoned, helpful or directly on point it may be simply because one is not ethically bound to disclose it. In their prayer for relief in their complaint, plaintiffs requested attorney’s fees, but cited no support for this request. (Compl. (dkt. #1) 3.) In their motion for reconsideration, plaintiffs simply request $7,386.48 and statutory interest. (Pls.’ Mot. (dkt. #24) 4.)

Observation

I am glad the court corrected this injustice.  However, I would point out that district courts still need guidance on issues like interest.  It is usually the case that overpayment interest is payable to a taxpayer from the date the tax was overpaid.  But, in 1982, Congress specifically added new paragraph (3) to section 6611(b) providing that in the case of late returns, interest is payable from the date the return is filed.  Thus, the amended judgment has the wrong interest accrual date.  I refuse to do the research necessary to figure out if the interest accrual date (i.e., the date the return is “filed”) is the date the return was mailed or the date the IRS received the return.  Basta!

District Court Gets Timely Mailing Is Timely Filing Rule of Section 7502 Wrong as Applied to Refund Claim Lookback Period of Section 6511(b)(2)(A)

I remember when I was a young associate at Roberts & Holland LLP in 1983 and marveled at how Sidney Roberts could remember developments in the tax law from as much as 40 years earlier.  Well, now I am approaching 40 years of doing tax procedure, and I marvel at long-ago fights that I still remember.  One of those fights just came up in a district court case in the Western District of Wisconsin, Harrison v. United States, No. 19-cv-00194 (W.D. Wis. Jan. 9, 2020), and, sadly, the court got the upshot wrong.  The exact issue in the case was definitively resolved the other way in regulations adopted in 2001 that followed a once-controversial Second Circuit opinion.  Neither the DOJ nor the district court in Harrison seems to be aware of the Second Circuit opinion or the relevant regulation.  Sad.

The issue is how the refund claim limitations at section 6511(a) and (b) and the timely mailing is timely filing rules of section 7502(a) interact when a late original return was filed seeking a refund, and the return was mailed out only a few days before the expiration of the period that is 3 years plus the amount of any extension to file after the return’s original due date, where the return/claim is received by the IRS and filed after that period.  The DOJ and the district court correctly recognized that the refund claim is timely under section 6511(a) because it was filed on the same date the return was filed – i.e., that a late return is still a return for purposes of section 6511(a).  See Rev. Rul. 76-511, 1976-2 C.B. 428 (itself trying to resolve a Circuit split on this issue that still continued for almost 30 years after its issuance).  But, then the DOJ argued (and the district court agreed) that the 3 year plus extension lookback period of section 6511(b)(2)(A) looks back from the date of IRS receipt, and since the taxes were deemed paid on the original due date of the return, the refund claim is limited to $0 because no taxes were paid or deemed paid in that lookback period.  It is this second holding that is manifestly incorrect.

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Harrison Facts

The Harrison facts are quite simple and typical:  All of the 2012 taxes at issue were withheld from wages or other income.  Thus, section 6513(b)(1) deems them paid as of April 15, 2013.  The taxpayers obtained a 6-month extension to file their return, but then did not mail an original return under that extension.  Rather, they filed a very late return in 2016.  It showed an overpayment of $7,386.48, which they asked to be refunded.  The return was sent by certified mail on October 11, 2016, and was received by the IRS on October 17, 2016.

The taxpayers argued that, under the timely mailing is timely filing rules of section 7502(a), the 3 years plus 6 month lookback period for taxes paid begins from the October 11, 2016 date of mailing (making the refund amount limit $7,386.48), while the DOJ argued that the 3 years plus 6 month lookback period for taxes paid begins from October 17, 2016 because section 7502(a) has no application in this case (making the refund amount $0).  The DOJ moved (1) to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted (i.e., under FRCP 12(b)(6)) – a merits dismissal – or (2), in the alternative, for summary judgment that the claim was limited to $0 (also a merits ruling).

Harrison Ruling

The district court correctly noted that there is no Seventh Circuit authority directly answering the question of the date from which the lookback is determined on these facts.  The district court then reasoned that October 15 or 17, 2016, was not the due date for the return – October 15, 2013 was (taking into account the 6-month extension).  The court concluded that section 7502(a) had no application here.  That statute only provides that if a return or claim is delivered to the IRS after the due date, then the date of the United States postmark is deemed the date of delivery.  However, this rule only applies if the postmark falls on or before the due date of the return or claim.  (For certified mail, used herein, the date on the certified mail receipt, not the postmark, is used.  Section 7502(c).)

What does the district court cite in support of its holding under section 6511(b)(2)(A)?  It cites (1) Pitre v. IRS, 938 F. Supp. 95 (D.N.H. 1996), an on point opinion decided before the Second Circuit’s opinion in Weisbart v. United States Dept. of Treasury, 222 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2000) (discussed below) and (2) two opinions reaching the right result (i.e., no refund) – Washington v. United States, 123 AFTR 2d 2019-1585 (S.D.N.Y. 2019), and Doyle v. United States, 88 Fed. Cl. 314 (2009) – but where the mailing date was after the 3 years plus any extension period, so the courts’ statements therein that the even-later received date governed under section 6511(b)(2)(A) were correct because section 7502(a)’s extension does not apply if the mailing is after such date. 

Weisbart and the Regulation

The district court in Harrison neither discussed the Weisbart opinion nor the regulations under section 7502.  Had the district court done so, I expect that it would have reached a different result. 

Weisbart is on all fours with Harrison as to its facts.  In Weisbart, to quote the court:

Emanuel Weisbart’s 1991 income tax return was due on April 15, 1992, but he obtained an automatic extension until August 17, 1992. Despite the extension, Weisbart did not file his return by the August 1992 deadline. Tarrying three years, he mailed his 1991 return to the IRS on August 17, 1995. The tax return was submitted on the customary Form 1040 and included a refund claim for $4,867 from the $12,477 in taxes that had been previously withheld from Weisbart’s 1991 wages. The IRS received the return on August 21, 1995.

222 F.3d at 94.

The Weisbart court, relying on regulations that have since been clarified and expanded, reasoned that the rules of section 7502 apply in this case to make the amount paid on the due date within the period provided by section 6511(b)(2)(A) – i.e. that the lookback date is the date of mailing, not the date the IRS received the refund claim.  The court wrote:

The Service argues, and the district court held, that the “prescribed” period applicable to Weisbart’s tax return should also apply to the refund claim. Applying this construction, Weisbart’s refund claim would not enjoy the benefit of the mailbox rule, and would therefore be barred. . . .

Taken together, these two Treasury Regulations provide that the applicability of the mailbox rule to the refund claim should be analyzed independently of the timeliness of the tax return itself, regardless of whether they are in the same document. As such, even though Weisbart’s tax return was untimely filed, his refund claim enjoys the benefit of the mailbox rule, and is deemed filed on August 17, 1995. Because that date is within 3 years of the date when Weisbart is deemed to have paid his withheld employment taxes, he may recover any overpayment included in those taxes under the look back provisions of section 6511(b)(2)(A).

222 F.3d at 97 (citation omitted).

The Treasury decided to accept the Weisbart holding, and so, in 2001, promulgated T.D. 8932, 66 FR 2257.  The Treasury decision stated:

[T]he IRS and the Treasury Department have determined that, in certain situations, a claim for credit or refund made on a late filed original income tax return should be treated under section 7502 as timely filed on the postmark date for purposes of section 6511(b)(2)(A). This is consistent with the opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Weisbart v. United States Department of Treasury and Internal Revenue Service, 222 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2000), rev’g 99-1 USTC (CCH) P50,549 (E.D.N.Y. 1999), AOD-CC-2000-09 (Nov. 13, 2000).

66 FR at 2258.  The Treasury Decision added a new subsection (f) to Reg. section 301.7502-1.  I won’t quote the technical language of the regulation, but I will quote the one on point example at subsection (f)(3). It reads:

(i) Taxpayer A, an individual, mailed his 2001 Form 1040, “U.S. Individual Income Tax Return,” on April 15, 2005, claiming a refund of amounts paid through withholding during 2001. The date of the postmark on the envelope containing the return and claim for refund is April 15, 2005. The return and claim for refund are received by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on April 18, 2005. Amounts withheld in 2001 exceeded A’s tax liability for 2001 and are treated as paid on April 15, 2002, pursuant to section 6513.


(ii) Even though the date of the postmark on the envelope is after the due date of the return, the claim for refund and the late filed return are treated as filed on the postmark date for purposes of this paragraph (f). Accordingly, the return will be treated as filed on April 15, 2005. In addition, the claim for refund will be treated as timely filed on April 15, 2005. Further, the entire amount of the refund attributable to withholding is allowable as a refund under section 6511(b)(2)(A).

Emphasis added.

Observations

Before berating the district judge, who is no doubt not a tax procedure specialist, I would point out that the parties’ briefing on the motion did not mention either the Second Circuit’s opinion in Weisbart or the regulation under section 7502.  The brief accompanying the motion is here, the taxpayers’ brief is here, and the government’s reply brief is here.  I am quite dismayed, though, that the DOJ Trial Section attorney did not know of the relevant authority.  I have sent an e-mail to the Harrisons’ counsel suggesting a motion for reconsideration or an appeal to the Seventh Circuit.

The district court in Harrison did do something else right, though:  It did not treat compliance with the tax paid amounts rules of section 6511(b) as jurisdictional.  Rather, both the DOJ and the court (unlike many other courts) treated compliance with these rules as a merits issue.  The court granted the DOJ’s motion on the ground of summary judgment, not FRCP 12(b)(1) (lack of jurisdiction) or 12(b)(6) (failure to state a claim).  In not treating the rules of section 6511(b) as jurisdictional, the Harrison court followed Seventh Circuit precedent, stating:

In reviewing the caselaw, requiring administrative exhaustion of a refund claim may be a jurisdictional requirement. See Gillespie v. United States, 670 Fed. App’x 393 (7th Cir. 2016) (acknowledging that recent Supreme Court developments “may cast doubt on the line of cases suggesting that § 7422(a) is jurisdiction”). However, the Seventh Circuit has treated whether there are any tax payments within the “look back period” as an element of the claim. See Gessert v. United States, 703 F.3d 1028, 1036-37 (7th Cir. 2013) (holding that the claims do “not meet the [timing] requirements of the statute,” despite headnotes that describe it as a jurisdictional defect); Curry v. United States, 774 F.2d 852, 855 (7th Cir. 1985) (holding court lacks jurisdiction because plaintiffs failed to exhaust their claims, but even if they had exhausted, they would be barred from obtaining a refund because of the time requirements under § 6511). As such, the merits of plaintiffs’ claim appear to be properly before the court.

Footnote 2 (emphasis in original).

The Federal Circuit took a similar position (i.e., that compliance with the section 6511(b) tax payment rules is not jurisdictional) in Boeri v. United States, 724 F.3d 1367, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2013), a case on which Stephen blogged here.  For a discussion of the Gillespie case cited by the Harrison court, see my prior post here.

Does Judge Toro Misunderstand Guralnik?

There’s a pro se deficiency case set for trial in San Francisco before Judge Toro in the week beginning February 3, 2020, Gebreyesus v. Commissioner, Docket No. 1883-19.  Although the IRS had not moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction, Judge Toro, has essentially issued an order to show cause why he shouldn’t dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction because of an untimely petition.  The Judge thinks the petition would be untimely if the notice of deficiency had been mailed to the taxpayer on the date shown on the notice of deficiency – October 22, 2018 – so the judge asks that proof of mailing be submitted to him by January 21, 2020.

This case gets into a particular issue of how the government shutdown interacts with (1) Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230 (2016) (en banc), and (2) section 7502.  I think it pretty clear that the judge, who seems vaguely aware of Guralnik (but doesn’t cite the opinion), has the analysis wrong, and that there is no way this petition is untimely.  I hope the IRS lawyers in the case explain it to the judge, but just in case they don’t, I hope the judge gets to read this post before he rules.  No pro se taxpayer is likely to be able to explain about how Guralnik should work in this case.  Keith has blogged here, here, and here on the interaction of Guralnik and the recent government shutdown, but not on the facts of Gebreyesus.

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Gebreyesus Facts

Let’s assume that the IRS has documentary proof that it mailed the notice of deficiency on the date shown on the notice – October 22, 2018.  You would probably think the taxpayer has until January 20, 2019 (90 days) to file the petition in person, place it in the mails, or place it with a designated private delivery service.  But, January 20, 2019 was a Sunday, and the 21st was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday – both of which under section 7503 can’t be the last date to file.  Interestingly, the notice of deficiency correctly stated that the last date to file was Tuesday, January 22, 2019.

But, then, the government (including the Tax Court) shut down in late December.  As a result, the Tax Court’s Clerk’s Office was not open again until Monday, January 28, 2019.

Judge Toro just noticed that on January 23, 2019, the petition was placed with a FedEx service that is a qualifying private delivery service under section 7502(f).  Had the government not shut down, the petition no doubt would have been delivered to the court overnight on Wednesday, January 24, 2019.  But, the petition arrived at the Tax Court instead on Monday, January 28, 2019 – the date the Clerk’s Office reopened – and was filed on that date.

Judge Toro’s Analysis

In his order, Judge Toro writes:

If the notice of deficiency was mailed on October 22, 2018 (that is, on the date shown on the notice of deficiency), then the 90-day period under section 6213(a) would have expired on January 22, 2019 (taking into account that January 20, 2019, was a Sunday and January 21, 2019, was a holiday in the District of Columbia).  Because the ship date reflected on the FedEx envelope – January 23, 2019 -is one day after January 22, 2019, the petition would be untimely under section 6213(a) and the rules of section 7502(a) and (f).
 
If, however, the notice was mailed after October 22, 2018, the 90-day period would have expired no earlier than January 23, 2019, and, since the petition was given to FedEx by January 23, 2019, under section 7502(a) and (f) the petition would be treated as having been timely filed. [footnote omitted]

What’s Wrong With This Analysis?

Section 7502 has no application unless the petition arrives after the last date to file.  But, that did not occur in this case.  Under Guralnik, if the Clerk’s Office is not open on what would ordinarily be the last date to file, then the last date to file becomes the date the Clerk’s office reopens – i.e., January 28, 2019 in this case. But, that’s the date the Tax Court physically received and filed the petition.  So, the petition did not arrive after the due date, taking into consideration Guralnik.  It arrived on the (revised) due date.  Effectively, the taxpayer here should be treated as if he personally walked into the Clerk’s Office on January 28, 2019 and handed in the petition for filing.  Clearly, that would be OK under Guralnik.  FedEx merely acted as the taxpayer’s agent in walking the petition in on that last date to file.

This result may strike some as odd – that the taxpayer could mail out the petition the day after the last date to file shown on the notice of deficiency, yet still get the benefit of filing a timely petition.  But, I don’t see how a court could rule any other way.