Trying to Find Order in the Anti-Injunction Act and the Tax Injunction Act

We welcome back Marilyn Ames who has blogged for us several times in the past.  She graciously agreed to write about some recent litigation that highlights the confusion currently surrounding these provisions.  Keith

In the past few weeks, I have been revising the subchapter in Saltzman and Book, IRS Tax Practice and Procedure on the Anti-Injunction Act.  It has been an exercise in frustration, as, although the Supreme Court says it likes “rule[s] favoring clear boundaries in the interpretation of jurisdiction statutes,” it doesn’t necessary mean what it says.  That’s a quote from Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, 135 S. Ct. 1124, 1131 (2015), discussing the lesser known sibling of the AIA, the Tax Injunction Act, which is aimed at preventing federal courts from hearing suits intended to restrain the assessment, levy, and collection of state taxes.  And in the midst of this attempt to make some sort of order out of something which does not have any, two district courts have added their opinions to the fray.

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In State of New York, et al. v. Mnuchin, which can be found here, the Southern District of New York takes on the issue of whether the Anti-Injunction Act prevents four states from bringing suit to litigate the constitutionality of the $10,000 ceiling placed on the deduction of state and local taxes (SALT) by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The federal government raised three challenges to the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction, including the limitation imposed by the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA). The AIA, located at 26 USC § 7421(a) provides, with numerous exceptions, that “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person, whether or not such person is the person against whom such tax was assessed.”  (For those of you interested in historical/legal trivia, the initial iteration of the AIA was passed in 1867.) In addition to the exceptions to the AIA actually contained in the statute, the Supreme Court created a judicial exception to the AIA in Enochs v. Williams Packing & Navigation Co.,370 U.S. 1 (1962), requiring the plaintiff to meet a two-part test to overcome the bar of the AIA: (1) it is clear at the time the suit is filed that under no circumstances could the government prevail on the merits; and (2) the action at issue will cause the plaintiff irreparable injury. And with this opinion, the race began to explore the boundaries of this court-made exception. 

One of these cases, and the one relied on by the court in State of New York v. Mnuchin, is South Carolina v. Regan,465 US 367 (1984).  In Regan, South Carolina invoked the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction and asked leave to file a complaint against Donald Regan, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time to litigate whether a provision of TEFRA was unconstitutional. The provision in question required state obligations to be issued in registered rather than bearer form in order to qualify as tax exempt under IRC § 103.  The government raised the AIA in its objection to South Carolina’s motion, arguing that the state did not fall within any of the specific exceptions or within the judicial exception created in Williams Packing.  The Supreme Court then created an exception to its exception, holding that the AIA was not intended to bar a suit when Congress has not provided the plaintiff with an alternative legal way to challenge the validity of a tax.  Because South Carolina was not liable for a tax which it could then pay and use as the basis for a refund suit, it had no other way to litigate the constitutionality of the TEFRA provision.  In this situation, the Supreme Court said “a careful reading of Williams Packing and its progeny supports our conclusion that the [AIA] was not intended to apply in the absence of such a remedy.”

In State of New York v. Mnuchin, four states that impose lots of state and local taxes sued to have the $10,000 ceiling on the deduction of SALT declared unconstitutional.  The federal government argued that the suit was barred by the AIA and that the Williams Packing exception did not apply.  This is not like South Carolina v. Regan, the federal government argued, because the taxpayers affected in these four states have a motivation to file refund actions to challenge the law.  (It’s not clear from the opinion why the federal government felt that the bond holders in Regan who bought bonds that no longer qualified as tax exempt would not have a similar motivation.) The district court rejected the federal government’s argument, and noted that in both Regan and the suit before the court, the plaintiff-states were seeking to protect their own interests, rather than those of their taxpayers. In this situation, the court in State of New York v. Mnuchin held, a state has no other legal remedy to assert its sovereign interests. When a plaintiff has no other legal remedy to litigate the issue, then the AIA does not apply even if the plaintiff cannot meet the Williams Packing test.  Having won the jurisdictional battle, the states in New York v. Mnuchin then lost the war when the district court held that the ceiling on SALT deductions is constitutional.  Lots for everyone to argue about on appeal.

The second opinion of American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, 377 F.Supp.3d 125 (D.R.I. 2019)involves the Tax Injunction Act, 28 USC § 1341, which provides “the district courts shall not enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State.” As the Supreme Court recognized in Williams Packing, the TIA “throws light on the proper construction to be given” to the AIA.  In other words, these statutes have similar language and purpose. In the Alviti case, which can be found here, the plaintiffs are long distance trucking companies and associations that filed suit against the state of Rhode Island challenging the constitutionality of a bridge toll scheme.  The statute, known as the “Rhodeworks” Act, expressly prohibits the imposition of the bridge toll on any vehicles other than large commercial trucks. Under the Rhodeworks Act, the toll is set by state agencies in terms of the amount and the locations where it will be collected, and the funds go into a special account to be used only for the replacement, rehabilitation, and maintenance of bridges. The scheme instituted sets maximum daily amounts that can be collected based on the routes traveled, which the plaintiffs argue falls more heavily on trucks involved in interstate rather than intrastate travel.

The state of Rhode Island raised the TIA as a defense to the suit, arguing that although the fees were labelled as tolls, they were actually taxes subject to the TIA.  Although the Supreme Court has indicated it prefers clear boundaries, the district court framed the issue as one “which pits the actual language of the TIA and the context surrounding its enactment in the 1930s against several more modern decisions of the First Circuit that attempt to distinguish between fees and taxes.” In other words, let’s make this more confusing. The district court then cited a number of cases decided prior to enactment of the TIA, including one decided by the Supreme Court in 1887, that a toll is not a tax and that they are distinct and serve different purposes. Despite these decisions, the court then discussed whether the exaction in question fell within the three-pronged test of San Juan Cellular Telephone Co. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of P.R., 967 F.2d 683 (1st Cir. 1992), the purpose of which is to decide if a challenged assessment is more like a tax or a regulatory fee.  Despite finding that two of the three prongs were more in the nature of a fee, the court relied on the final prong of the test to decide the bridge tolls were actually taxes, and the suit was thus barred by the TIA. The case has been appealed to the First Circuit, and as the trucking company plaintiffs note in the brief to the circuit, this is the first case involving an exaction labelled a toll that has been found to be a tax.

It seems that while the mirage of clear boundaries for the AIA and the TIA is out there, the courts have difficulties in making their way to it.  I am reminded of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “Bring me a shrubbery.” “Not THAT shrubbery.”

And we go on trying to make sense of what the courts really want.

No Toll for the Taxpayer: Financial Disability, Statute of Limitations Refund Tolling, and Courts’ Strict Application of “Authority”

Today’s post comes from one of my students at the University of Minnesota Law School Tax Clinic, Casey Epstein, on a topic very near and dear to my heart: financial disability. Casey is currently working one such case in our clinic and has put in a lot of research on the topic. This post, however, takes us a different direction than the common lamentations on Rev. Proc. 99-21 pitfalls, instead focusing on the exception to financial disability where the taxpayer has a guardian. Note that a version of this post was originally published in the Minnesota Law Review De Novo online blog.

-Caleb

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INTRODUCTION

Imagine you are poor, mentally-ill, and struggle to manage your finances. You granted your adult son durable power of attorney (“DPA”) but are no longer on speaking terms with him. You work a low-wage, menial job and your paychecks are subject to typical tax withholdings. Because of your modest income your effective tax rate is zero, and most of your withholdings are returnable to you in a small, but meaningful, refund. However, as a result of your condition you forget to file your tax returns until four years later. The IRS denies your refund as being past the statute of limitations (”SOL”). You challenge, claiming to meet the requirements for “financial disability,” tolling your SOL. Despite the judge agreeing that you were financially disabled, the judge denies your claim anyway because she finds that your estranged adult son had the authority to file your tax returns for you.  

As unjust as this sounds, the First Circuit rejected an analogous claim in Stauffer v. Internal Revenue Service, No. 18-2105 in September 2019 (covered in Procedurally Taxing here, here, here, and here). The First Circuit’s strict financial disability analysis is not unique—nearly every financial disability litigation ends in failure for the taxpayer. Moreover, taxpayers potentially eligible for financial disability are, by definition, mentally and/or physically disabled—and therefore among the most vulnerable Americans. This Post focuses on financial disability’s little-discussed “authority” provision and argues that courts should adopt a more lenient standard for assessing “authority” and awarding “financial disability” tolling.

  1. FINANCIAL DISABILITY

Most taxpayers have a three-year SOL to receive refunds from the IRS on their tax returns—typically starting on April 15, when the taxpayer’s withholding or other credits are deemed paid, after the tax year in question. See IRC § 6511(a); IRC § 6513(b), (c)(2). Once the statute of limitations clock expires, taxpayers have little recourse—and a confusing set of procedural rules—to recover their refunds. Courts are exceedingly reluctant to grant equitable tolling, regardless of the taxpayer’s situation, as shown by Keith Fogg and Rachel Zuraw in their 2013 article Financial Disability for All.

Responding to the Supreme Court’s 1997 United States v. Brockamp decision, which refused to grant equitable tolling to a ninety-three year old with dementia who forgot to file his tax return, Congress sought to provide a limited tolling option for taxpayers whose inability to manage their finances was truly beyond their control. The Congressional Record (at H3411–12) documents Representative Dunn, a sponsor of the financial disability bill, stating that the Brockamp result was “an outrageous injustice that my commonsense [bill] is intended to end.” One year later, Congress enacted a tolling provision for taxpayers “unable to manage financial affairs due to disability.” Codified in Section 6511(h), a taxpayer is “financially disabled” if they are “unable to manage [their] financial affairs by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment.”

Congress additionally specified that a taxpayer is not financially disabled if “any . . . person is authorized to act on [their] behalf.” Neither the legislature nor the Treasury’s Revenue Procedure 99-21 provided guidance as to what qualifies a person as one “authorized to act on behalf.” As professor Roger McEowen further shows, Courts have consistently held against taxpayers who granted someone DPA, but afterword claimed that the DPA holder was not “actually” authorized or able to manage the taxpayer’s finances.

Beyond “authority” issues, courts reject almost every “financial disability” tolling claim anyway, fearing stale claims and extra administrative burdens for the IRS. Taxpayers’ success rates for financial disability are so low that Procedurally Taxing has already celebrated victory in Stauffer twice—here and here—only to have the Blog’s hopes dashed on appeal.

  • STAUFFER

In Stauffer, the Court refused to grant financial disability tolling to an elderly, mentally-ill man whose son had DPA, discovered millions of dollars in lost assets, and quickly became estranged from his father. Neither father nor son filed tax returns for the year in question, which would have allowed recovery of almost $140,000 in overpayment to the IRS.

The Court’s specific rationale for rejecting financial disability tolling was that Stauffer did have someone authorized to act on his behalf—his estranged son who still technically had DPA, despite both parties orally revoking the agreement. The Stauffer Court invoked the plain meaning statutory canon to interpret the undefined term “authorized,” concluding that dictionary definitions “unambiguous[ly]” define “authority” as the mere “right or permission to act,” not “imply[ing] the existence of a ‘duty.’” Because the father executed a DPA with his son and never revoked it in writing—oral revocation and estrangement notwithstanding—the son had legal authority to act on his father’s behalf and plaintiff was thus not entitled to SOL tolling under § 6511(h)(2)(B).

  • COURTS SHOULD APPLY A MORE FORGIVING STANDARD

The Stauffer Court’s analysis and use of the plain meaning canon is unduly strict. There was no reason that the Court to solely rely on dictionary definitions in interpreting “authority.” The Court could have easily interpreted “authority” to mean actual as opposed to theoretical authority under a common usage theory. Moreover, such a strict application of § 6511(h) undermines its raison d’etre—statutory rejection of the harsh Brockamp result. Whether or not the Stauffer’s son had legal authority to file his tax returns, he clearly lacked permission. From a broad fairness perspective, it is unjust that Stauffer was denied his refund merely because his son had tenuous power of attorney.

Other courts interpreting “authority” also rejected plaintiffs’ pleas, although without Stauffer’s statutory interpretation hoopla. In Bova v. United States, (and other similar cases, like Plati v. United States, discussed in McEowen’s article) the Federal Claims Court held a DPA sufficient to deny plaintiffs’ financial disability claims, finding that “[b]ecause the express terms of the power of attorney instrument here authorized Mr. Bova . . . the court may not consider the plaintiffs’ allegation that a separate oral agreement made the power of attorney contingent on the taxpayer becoming disabled.” Few critics and scholars have addressed the problematic interpretation of “authorized;” most commentators, like the Taxpayer Advocate and ABA Section on Taxation instead advocate for expanding the definition of “physician,” specifying qualifying medical conditions, and courts broadening their analyses of taxpayers’ ability to manage their financial affairs. These myriad criticisms showcase many, many issues still affecting § 6511(h).

Critics proposed solutions for § 6511(h) primarily involve Congress and the Treasury promulgating new rules to correct the judiciary. The courts, however, are fully capable of addressing § 6511(h)’s flaws on their own. Moreover, the judiciary arguably should change course and apply a more lenient standard because their strict approach undermines the original purpose of § 6511(h)—ensuring that future plaintiff’s in Mrs. Brockamp’s shoes would have redress. And yet it seems highly unlikely that Mrs. Brockamp would win her financial disability claim if argued today.

While the Treasury and Congress should revisit financial disability rules, the courts can salve disabled Americans’ tax woes by simply applying more leniency. Instead of strictly interpreting “authority” with a legalistic dictionary definition as the Stauffer Court did, courts should apply a reasoned facts-and-circumstances test to determine whether the taxpayer actually had someone authorized to act on their behalf—not merely a tenuous or orally rescinded DPA agreement. No legislative fix is necessary for these judicial errors—courts must simply provide the flexibility that Congress demanded in enacting 6511(h). A judicial mentality of leniency towards the small number taxpayers medically incapable of filing their tax returns would fulfill Congress’ aims without overburdening the IRS.

CONCLUSION

Despite Congress’ good intentions, Section 6511(h) has not relieved disabled taxpayers incapable of filing their tax returns. Fortunately, the judiciary can address and ameliorate the most pressing issues of financial disability jurisprudence on its own. To do so, however, courts must reverse course and apply a far more lenient analysis. This solution requires evaluating taxpayers’ “authorized” agents on a facts-and-circumstances basis instead of through a strict and reductive plain meaning statutory interpretation lens. Late filing or not, it is unjust for disabled plaintiffs to be regularly denied their overpayment refunds; it is far past time for the courts to heed Congress’ 1998 clarion call.

Overpayment Interest – Is the Tide Turning?, Part Two

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the second of a two-part post on developments in overpayment interest litigation. Christine

In the last post, I discussed the latest developments in the Paresky and Pfizer cases.  The latter in particular was an important milestone that may change how courts approach the issue of district court jurisdiction for taxpayer suits seeking interest payable to them by the government on tax refunds.  This post turns to Bank of America, with some additional general observations.

These cases involve the interpretation of 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), which provides district court jurisdiction over tax refund suits.  Does it also offer jurisdiction for suits for overpayment interest, even though technically those are not refund suits?  The government says no, but taxpayers may argue it does, in order to escape the $10,000 dollar limitation for district court jurisdiction under the “little” Tucker Act, § 1346(a)(2).  If § 1346(a)(1) provides jurisdiction for these overpayment interest suits, which statute of limitations applies – the general six-year statute of limitations under § 2401 or the two-year statute of limitations for refund suits under section 6532(a)(1)?

As discussed in the last post, the report and recommendation by the magistrate judge in Paresky concluded that the Southern District of Florida had jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) but the suit should be dismissed because the refund claim was not filed timely.  We’re waiting to see what the district court judge thinks.  In Pfizer, we had the first Circuit Court decision to directly decide that § 1346(a)(1) does not provide jurisdiction for these kinds of suits, setting up a circuit split.  And in Estate of Culver, the District of Colorado adopted the Second Circuit’s reasoning in Pfizer.  It will be a while before we see what effect, if any, Pfizer has in the Bank of America case, where there has also been a new development.

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What is happening with Bank of America?

Bank of America filed this case in the Western District of North Carolina (WDNC), apparently to avoid an unfavorable precedent in the CFC (see here for details).  The bank’s interest netting case sought both recovery of underpayment interest and additional overpayment interest.  The government filed a motion to transfer the claims requesting overpayment interest to the CFC; in the alternative, to dismiss because § 1346(a)(1) does not cover suits for overpayment interest.  It also suggested that cases filed under § 1346(a)(1) would be subject to the Code refund claim requirement and statute of limitations, sections 7422 and 6532 respectively.  The WDNC denied the government’s motion on June 30, 2019, relying heavily on the Scripps decision.

An interlocutory appeal by the government to the Fourth Circuit seemed more probable than the alternative of waiting until a decision on the merits.  A transfer to the CFC would likely result in certain victory by the government for most of the amount at issue, so it certainly would make sense to challenge the jurisdictional ruling now.   Then I belatedly checked the docket for Bank of America and realized there was a third possibility that I hadn’t even counted upon (gratuitous reference for fellow baby boomers).  The government filed a notice of appeal on August 28, 2019 – not to the Fourth Circuit, but to the Federal Circuit. 

Appellate specialists are probably nodding their heads now and murmuring “of course.”  And they may have been rolling their eyes at my earlier speculation about an interlocutory appeal to the Fourth Circuit.  But, alas, I am not an appellage specialist and had never before encountered 28 U.S.C. § 1292(d)(4).  I now know that the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction for appeals of a district court interlocutory order granting or denying, in whole or in part, a motion to transfer an action to the CFC.  Before I ran across this provision, I assumed that the CFC and Federal Circuit would never have occasion to rule on a jurisdictional provision that applied only to district courts (more about that below).  But that assumption is apparently wrong.  The WDNC’s denial of the motion to transfer the case to the CFC was based on its determination that district courts do have jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) so that is presumably what the Federal Circuit will have to decide.

The government could also have appealed to the Federal Circuit in the Pfizer case, after the denial by the SDNY back in 2016 of the first motion to dismiss, but did not do so.  Perhaps it wanted to get a ruling on the separate statute of limitations issue.  But it may have just been a case of different strategies by different trial teams.  Pfizer was handled by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the SNDY; while Bank of America was handled by DOJ Tax Division, as was Paresky.

Is there a Supreme Court visit in the future?

We now have a circuit split between the Second (Pfizer) and the Sixth (Scripps).  But the government won in Pfizer, so the taxpayer would have to seek certiorari.  Pfizer may decide to proceed without the favorable Second Circuit precedent; it can still win in the CFC.  Bank of America seems more likely than Pfizer to go to the Supreme Court, since both parties have strong motivations.  The government wants to overrule Scripps and Bank of America would lose most of the value of its interest netting claim if forced to litigate in the CFC.  We’ll have to wait to see how Paresky and Estate of Culver proceed.

A comment on underlying policy

We all recognize the Tax Court’s relative expertise, compared to courts of general jurisdiction, on tax issues.  But there is also a difference in expertise between the CFC and district courts.  The district court jurisdictional structure demonstrates two different policy decisions, aiming in different directions.  The dollar limitation in § 1346(a)(2) – the “little” Tucker Act – was based on a judgement by Congress that the Court of Claims (now the CFC) would have more expertise with claims against the government, because that is a major part of its caseload compared to district courts.  Small claims could be pursued in district courts so that taxpayers wouldn’t have to litigate in far off Washington, D.C., but larger ones should be filed in the Court of Claims.

When the predecessor of § 1346(a)(1) was enacted, it also was subject to a dollar limitation but that limitation was later removed.  That was based on a judgement by Congress that tax refund suits were different from other claims against the government and taxpayers should always be able to litigate those locally instead of with the CFC.

Which of those policy judgements should apply to the specific questions of interest on overpayments and underpayments of tax?

Many years ago, Mary McNulty and I were tracking all significant interest cases (both overpayment interest and underpayment interest).  I recently looked back at the list as of five years ago.  It showed 5 cases filed in district courts and 63 filed in the CFC.  When you factor in the number of district court judges compared to the number of CFC judges, that ratio is orders of magnitude more experience by the CFC judges (as well as the Federal Circuit) with the specific, complex issues of interest.  Most taxpayers chose that forum, although as precedents built up and unresolved issues were narrowed, there may be more motivation for taxpayers to avoid unfavorable precedents in the CFC and Federal Circuit, as in Bank of America.

And a final comment on CFC jurisdiction

I’ve been focusing in all of these blog posts on district court jurisdiction.  But when I discussed Pfizer recently with Jack Townsend, he pointed out something in some of these opinions that I skipped over.  The courts occasionally referred to § 1346(a)(1) as granting jurisdiction to both the district courts and the CFC.  Early in my career, I read the provision that way but over the years I came around to the idea that the reference to the CFC is just a reminder rather than an actual grant of jurisdiction.  I don’t recall offhand ever seeing the CFC refer to that provision as the basis for its jurisdiction over a tax refund suit.  I mentioned that briefly in this blog post but it’s worth pointing out explicitly.

The structure of the statute strongly supports that interpretation.  Section 1346(a)(1) is part of Chapter 85 of Title 28, which is titled “District Courts; Jurisdiction.”  Chapter 91 covers the CFC’s jurisdiction.  The specific language “shall have original jurisdiction, concurrent with the United States Court of Federal Claims, of” appears in § 1346(a) and thus applies not only to § 1346(a)(1) but also to § 1346(a)(2).  The latter certainly doesn’t grant jurisdiction to the CFC for Tucker Act claims, since the CFC already has jurisdiction under § 1491.  And § 1346(a)(2) refers to “any other civil action or claim against the United States,” whereas § 1491 just says “any claim against the United States.”  That convinces me that tax refund suits, covered by § 1346(a)(1), are a “claim against the United States” encompassed within § 1491.

If that doesn’t convince you, Jack’s blog post has a footnote by Judge Allegra on the topic that should.

Overpayment Interest – Is the Tide Turning?, Part One

Today Bob Probasco returns with further updates on overpayment interest litigation, in a two-part post. We are grateful to Bob for following the issue closely and sharing his observations with us. Christine

In August, I wrote about the Bank of America case (here and here), and provided updates on the status of the Pfizer and Paresky cases, all of which addressed the question of district court jurisdiction for taxpayer suits seeking interest payable to them by the government on tax refunds.  Recently we’ve had developments in all three cases, plus one new case.  This post will cover Paresky and Pfizer.  Part Two will move on to Bank of America, speculation concerning where this issue may head next, and some general observations about jurisdiction and policy considerations.

Setting the stage

There are two district court jurisdictional statutes at issue in these cases. This first is 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1). It has no dollar limitation. That’s the statute we rely on when filing tax refund suits in district court, so I usually refer to it as “tax refund jurisdiction.” However, some taxpayers argue that this provision also covers suits for overpayment interest, although technically those are not refund suits.  The government strongly opposes that interpretation and we’ve seen a lot of litigation over the issue recently.

The second is § 1346(a)(2), which provides jurisdiction for any other claim against the United States “founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress, or any regulation of an executive department . . . .” This is commonly referred to as “Tucker Act jurisdiction” and for district courts is limited to claims of $10,000 or less. The comparable jurisdictional statute for the Court of Federal Claims, § 1491(a)(1), has no such dollar limitation.  Practitioners often refer to § 1346(a)(2) as the “little” Tucker Act.

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There are also two different statutes of limitation potentially applicable. The general federal statute of limitations, § 2401 (for district courts or § 2501 for the Court of Federal Claims), requires that complaints be filed within six years after the right of action first accrues. In the Code, section 6532(a)(1) requires the taxpayer to file a refund suit no later than two years after the claim is disallowed.

A preliminary decision in Paresky

In the interest of space, I’ll just refer you back to the earlier blog post for the factual background on Paresky.  The taxpayers originally filed in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC).  That court concluded that it did not have jurisdiction over the suit because the applicable six-year statute of limitations in § 2501 began running in 2010 and had expired.  The Pareskys had previously requested that the court transfer the suit to the Southern District of Florida (SDF), in response to the government’s motion to dismiss, and the CFC agreed.  That would allow the Pareskys to try to persuade the SDF that § 1346(a)(1) covers claims for overpayment interest and that the two-year statute of limitations in section 6532(a)(1) applies.

After the transfer, the government quickly filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that § 1346(a)(1) did not apply and that the Pareskys’ claim exceeded the $10,000 limit for jurisdiction under the “little” Tucker Act.  On August 30, 2019, the magistrate judge issued her report and recommendation.  The report agreed with the Pareskys that § 1346(a)(1) covers claims for overpayment interest but also agreed with the government that taxpayers have to file an administrative refund claim within the time limitations set forth in the Code.  They had done so timely for the 2007 tax year but not for the earlier years.  The Pareskys argued for equitable estoppel based on the directions they had received from IRS personnel, but the judge was not convinced.  She concluded that equitable estoppel for the timely refund claim requirement is not available, based on the decision in United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).  Technically, Brockamp involved an equitable tolling claim but the judge quoted a statement in the decision that suggested application to any equitable doctrines.

This is still a preliminary decision, not yet adopted by the district court judge in the case.  Both parties filed objections (on different grounds) to the report and recommendation on September 10, 2019; both parties filed a response to the other side’s objections on September 19, 2019; and the government then filed a reply on October 7th.  We’re still waiting to hear from the district court judge.  That decision may be complicated by the development in our next case.

A new decision in Pfizer

The IRS mailed refund checks to Pfizer within the 45-day safe harbor of section 6611(e).  The checks were never received, and the IRS eventually direct deposited a replacement approximately a year later, without overpayment interest.  The IRS takes the position that when the original refund check is issued timely but never received, the replacement refund still falls within section 6611(e).  (Some exceptions to this position are set forth in I.R.M 20.2.4.7.3.) Pfizer filed suit in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), asserting jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) to take advantage of the favorable Doolin v. United States, 918 F.2d 15 (2d Cir. 1990) precedent on the issue of interest on replacement refund checks. The government filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that district courts only have jurisdiction for standalone suits for overpayment interest under the “little” Tucker Act but the amount at issue exceeded the $10,000 limit. The court agreed with Pfizer and denied that motion to dismiss.  The court granted a second motion to dismiss, because the refund statute of limitations under section 6532(a)(1) had expired before suit was filed.  Pfizer argued that the general six-year statute of limitations in § 2401 applied.  But the court agreed with the government regarding the statute of limitations and dismissed the case.

In the first motion to dismiss, Pfizer requested that the case be transferred to the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) if the motion to dismiss were granted.  That was denied when the SDNY ruled that it had jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1).  In the second motion to dismiss, Pfizer did not make the same request for transfer.  The government also did not recommend transfer.  But on appeal, Pfizer asked that the Second Circuit, if it affirmed the decision by the SDNY, transfer the case.  That would allow the case to proceed, as suit was filed within the six-year general statute of limitations for Tucker Act claims, although the Second Circuit precedent Pfizer wanted to rely on would not be binding in the CFC.  

The government argued that if the Second Circuit concluded that § 1346(a)(1) applies to suits for overpayment interest but affirmed the SDNY because of the statute of limitations issue, it should not transfer the case because it was not timely when originally filed in the SDNY.  This struck me as over-reaching.  The CFC does not apply the Code statute of limitations to these cases and under the CFC’s jurisdictional statute (more discussion below), it would have been timely filed.   The argument that transfer would not be in the interests of justice because Pfizer had successfully resisted transfer under the first motion of dismiss might carry more weight.  In any event, the government said that it would not oppose transfer if the Second Circuit concluded that § 1346(a)(1) does not apply to suits for overpayment interest.  That is the result the government was hoping for.

On September 16, 2019, the Second Circuit ruled – and the government got exactly what it was hoping for.  The court disagreed completely with the analysis by the district court and in E.W. Scripps Co. v. United States, 420 F.3d 589 (6th Cir. 2005).  The text in § 1346(a)(1) that those decisions relied on – “a sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected” – did not apply to suits for overpayment interest.  Read in harmony with the rest of the statute, that would “plainly refer to amounts the taxpayer has previously paid to the government and which the taxpayer now seeks to recover.”  Further, “any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected” is written in present-perfect tense, indicating that “excessive” or “wrongfully collected” occurred in the past, that is, an assessment previously paid by the taxpayer.  Finally, dicta in Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145 (1960), stating that “any sum” would encompass interest, was clearly referring to underpayment interest based on the context.  The Second Circuit therefore transferred the case to the CFC.

Judge Lohier filed a concurrence to point out that if the district court had jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1), it would have been subject to the Code statute of limitations and Pfizer would have lost anyway.  He rejected Pfizer’s attempt to disassociate § 1346(a)(1) and section 7422 of the Code.  Keith and Carl had filed an amicus brief arguing that even if the filing deadline in section 6532(a) applies, it is not jurisdictional and is subject to estoppel or equitable tolling arguments.  The judge rejected equitable tolling in a footnote due to the lack of an “extraordinary circumstance” but did not mention estoppel.  But it’s a footnote in a concurrence, so this is still an open question.

I found the statutory interpretation in this decision much more persuasive than that in Scripps, although the statute may be sufficiently ambiguous that other courts could reasonably disagree.  In any event, this is a significant milestone.  Before Pfizer, Scripps was the only other Circuit Court decision to have directly ruled on this issue.  (Sunoco, Inc. v. Commissioner, 663 F.3d 181, 190 (3d Cir. 2011) suggested the same interpretation, but that was dicta.)

What effect will this have on other cases?  On October 7th, in Estate of Culver v. United States, the district court for the District of Colorado also adopted the reasoning of the Second Circuit and transferred that case to the CFC.  Even district court decisions disagreeing with Scripps have been rare, so this may also be a sign that the tide is turning.  As with Bank of America, an immediate appeal of that order would go to the Federal Circuit.

As one might expect, the government quickly brought the Pfizer decision (on September 18th) and the Culver decision (October 7th) to the attention of the SDF in the Paresky case.  If the district court judge is influenced by Pfizer and rejects the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation, the Pareskys may have to appeal to the Eleventh Circuit and hope that court agrees with Scripps

It will be a while before we see what effect, if any, Pfizer has in the Bank of America case, where there has also been a new development.  I’ll turn to that in Part Two.

Taxpayer Protection Program Sidesteps Right to Representation

We welcome guest blogger Barbara Heggie. Barb is the Coordinator and Staff Attorney for the Low-Income Taxpayer Project of the New Hampshire Pro Bono Referral System. In the most recent Annual Report to Congress, the National Taxpayer Advocate identified the high false positive rate associated with the IRS’s fraud detection systems as the fifth most serious problem affecting taxpayers. The IRS took steps to improve its refund fraud program for the 2019 filing season; the results were not fully in at the time of the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2020 Objectives Report. In today’s post, Barb walks us through a recent false positive case from her clinic. She identifies IRS procedures that pose a high barrier to successfully passing through the verification process, particularly for taxpayers who need assistance from a representative. Barb suggests the IRS ought to make changes to comport with a taxpayer’s right to representation. Christin

I had my first encounter with the IRS’s Integrity & Verification Operations (IVO) function last month. It did not go well.

I had prepared a 2017 return a few weeks earlier for a disabled, fifty-something client in recovery from substance abuse, and he’d been anticipating receipt of a small overpayment. His main source of income that year had been Social Security, but he’d also had a few hundred dollars in wages. His payroll withholding, plus a bit of the Earned Income Credit, had added up to an early fall heating bill here in New Hampshire.

Instead of a refund notice, we each received a copy of a Letter 4883C from the IVO Taxpayer Protection Program; his return had been flagged, and he needed to verify his identity. Given this client’s severe anxiety concerning the IRS, I studied the letter and prepared to make the call alone. I anticipated no issues; I had all the documentation the letter required, including the flagged return, the prior year’s return, and all supporting forms and schedules for each.

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Once on the line with IVO, however, things quickly got strange. Following the preliminary, “normal” authentication, the customer service representative (CSR) asked me to answer these questions three: “What is your client’s place of birth? What is his mother’s maiden name? And what is his father’s middle name?” I had none of this information and have never asked such things of my clients, save for the place of birth for an ITIN application. I don’t collect birth certificates as a matter of course.

Interestingly, Letter 4883C did warn of “questions to verify your identity” – but then listed the documents to have on hand. Hence, I believed those documents would be the basis for the verification questions. The letter “encourage[s]” the client “to be available . . . on the call” with an authorized representative, but it fails to explain why that might, in fact, be essential.

Had I studied more than the 4883C letter, I would have realized that the call would involve “high risk authentication procedures,” necessitating “Additional Taxpayer Authentication.” IRM 21.1.3.2.3(2); 21.1.3.2.4(2); 25.25.6.4. Once in the land of Additional Taxpayer Authentication, the caller is subject to the TPP HRA IAT disclosure tool; that is, the Taxpayer Protection Program High Risk Authentication Integrated Automation Technologies Disclosure tool. IRM 25.25.6.4(2). This tool, in turn, generates a series of authentication questions for the taxpayer, the answers to which cannot easily be guessed by anyone else, including the taxpayer’s authorized representative. Tantalizingly, the IRM provides a long list of possible questions to ask in the ITIN identity theft context – possibly the same as those asked of SSN holders – but they’re all masked against public consumption. IRM 25.25.6.4(8).

Thus, if I had thought to read the IRM before placing the verification call, I wouldn’t have had a clue what questions might be asked. But I would have realized the futility of making the call without my client on the line.

And, so, I flunked the call. When I explained my client’s situation and offered to call right back with the answers, the CSR informed me that I had already used up my “one chance” to resolve the issue “the easy way.” The two hard ways were: (1) attending an in-person meeting with the client at a Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC), or (2) verifying his identity by mail. Both methods required the authentication documentation originally requested, as well as two forms of identification. The CSR stated that he was making the mail-in option available to my client only because of his severe anxiety.

My client did, eventually, verify his identity at a TAC with the help of a volunteer attorney who was kindly working with him to reduce his anxiety about the IRS. Fortunately, both the client and the volunteer had only a few minutes’ drive to reach the TAC. But conversations with practitioners on the ABA Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) listserv reminded me that this is often not the case. To receive a legitimately-claimed refund – already months late – a rural client may need to jump through ever-more burdensome hoops, such as an unpaid day off from work and an expensive tank of gas.

Clients lacking English fluency doubtless find further barriers standing in their way in such a system. One LITC colleague recalled an incident with IVO in which she and her low-English client participated in the call together via speaker phone, yet the CSR forbade this attorney from speaking for her client. Other LITC staff have recounted similar experiences. All such scenarios seem contrary to the authentication provisions of IRM 25.25.6.3.1(3)(1), which explicitly states that “the POA is authorized to act on behalf of the taxpayer.”

My client’s identity verification scenario was arguably less egregious than these. Moreover, in the context of the enormously costly, vastly complex problem of identity theft, overbroad rule-writing is understandable, if not optimal. Getting it right is as difficult as it is critical. And yet, as retired National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson wrote in her June 20, 2019, NTA blog post, “the soundness and effectiveness of any tax administration is measured by the trust its taxpayers have that they will be treated fairly and justly.” Overbroad IRM provisions can lead to an erosion of this trust in the system – a system which relies primarily on voluntary compliance.

More particularly, the procedures that led to my authentication difficulty violate the client’s right to retain representation. The right to retain representation implies, of course, the right to have a representative speak and act for the taxpayer. Any limitation on this right should come with justification, such as the need for a taxpayer to sign certain documents under penalties of perjury. Even then, the taxpayer holds the right to authorize a representative in certain exigent circumstances. See 26 CFR 1.6012-1(a)(5).

In the case of an IVO identity verification, IRM 25.25.6.3.1(3)(1) has the practical effect of limiting the representative’s authority, but without justification. This provision directs the CSR to “follow all instructions in the IRM as if the POA is the taxpayer.” (Emphasis added.) However, because the POA is not, in fact, the taxpayer, the POA cannot answer questions specifically designed to be answerable solely by the taxpayer. Thus, this IRM provision deprives the taxpayer of the chance to have a representative resolve the identity verification issue. Given the misleading nature of Letter 4883C, a taxpayer and representative may lose their “one chance” to make a speedy verification over the telephone and instead be forced to do so in person at an IRS office.

Security concerns provide no justification for this provision. A high level of security can be maintained by asking the representative to answer such questions as only the representative can answer. After all, the only two people addressed in a Letter 4883C are the taxpayer and the representative. And, presumably, if the IRS knows your client’s place of birth, mother’s maiden name, and father’s middle name, the IRS has the same information on you. As Sir Galahad discovered – alas, too late – the only correct answers to personal questions are your own personal answers.

The right to retain representation is part of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR), found in IRC §7803(a)(3) and IRS Publication 1. As last year’s Facebook case emphasized, however, Section 7803(a)(3) specifies that various “other provisions” of the Code afford these rights. Thus, the Facebook court concluded, “no right was a new right created by the TBOR itself.” Rather, TBOR is more concerned with training and management of IRS employees, according to the United States District Court, N.D. California, San Francisco Division. Keith Fogg takes the discussion a few steps further in his forthcoming Temple Law Review article:

Perhaps more important than litigation is the role TBOR can play in shaping policy decisions at the IRS. It could play a major role in the regulations issued and in the sub-regulatory guidance that governs everyday life at the IRS. . . TBOR also has a role to play in internal discussions at the IRS which shape so much of the administrative process. If TBOR can alter the culture at the IRS to incorporate taxpayer rights as a major component of each policy decision, it will become an important part of tax administration whether or not it becomes an important part of litigation.

Several discussions on this topic can be found in Procedurally Taxing here, here, and here.

It may be that a bit of policy-shaping and culture-altering may come of the authentication tribulation my client and I experienced. I submitted a request on the representation issue in the Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS), #41352, and got a sympathetic reply from the analyst assigned to it. After a couple of weeks, she reported back that the issue had been elevated to the Revenue Protection Team, with the goal of finding ways “to make the system move more smoothly.” Moreover, she said, the issue would be added to the CSRs’ training package. With luck, all changes will be made with an eye to TBOR.

The EITC Ban – Further Thoughts, Part Three

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the third and final post on the ban for recklessly or fraudulently claiming refundable credits. Part Three tackles the ban process.

The first two parts of this series (here and here) addressed judicial review of the EITC ban. The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Special Report on the EITC also made several recommendations about improvements during the Exam stage. The report is very persuasive (go read it if you haven’t already). In Part One, I quoted Nina’s preface to the report, which says that she is “hopeful that it will lead to a serious conversation about how to advance the twin goals of increasing the participation rate of eligible taxpayers and reducing overclaims by ineligible taxpayers.” Part Three is my small contribution to the conversation, concerning the ban determination process.

About that “disregard of rules and regulations” standard

The ban provision refers to a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit was due to “reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations.” This standard seems to have been imported from section 6662, although there it covers not only reckless or intentional disregard but also negligent disregard. It seems a strange standard in this context, though.

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The accuracy-related penalty regulations, § 1.6662-3(b)(1), state that disregard of rules and regulations is not negligent, let alone reckless or intentional, if there is a reasonable basis for the return position. But the definition of reasonable basis, § 1.6662-3(b)(3), cross-references the types of authority, § 1.6662-4(d)(3)(iii), applicable to determining whether there was substantial authority for a return position. And those are legal authorities. Arguably, the “disregard of rules and regulations” standard – for the EITC ban as well as the accuracy-related penalty – carries with it an unexamined implication that the facts are known and indisputable; only the application of the law to those facts is at issue.

Such a standard may make a lot of sense with respect to the accuracy-related penalty, at least for sophisticated taxpayers with good records. Those of us who deal a lot with low-income taxpayers and the EITC, however, know that often the credit is disallowed because the taxpayer’s proof is not considered sufficient. It’s a factual dispute, rather than a dispute as to what the law means.

Osteen v. Commissioner, 62 F.3d 356 (11th Cir. 1995) has some interesting discussion of this distinction in the context of the substantial understatement penalty. The very first sentence of the case mentions “certain tax deductions attributable to their farming and horse breeding operations,” so we know that section 183 is going to be the focus. The taxpayers, both of whom were employed full-time, were breeding and raising Percheron horses with the expressed intent to train them, show them, use them to operate a horse-powered farm, and then sell them. The Tax Court opinion, 66 T.C.M. 1237 (1993), determined that the taxpayers did not have “an actual and honest objective of making a profit,” and the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the court’s determination was not clearly erroneous.

The penalty discussion took much longer than the analysis of the profit objective issue. The Tax Court had rejected the petitioners’ penalty defense, which was based on substantial authority, and that puzzled the Eleventh Circuit:

The application of a substantial authority test is confusing in a case of this kind. If the horse breeding enterprise was carried on for profit, all of the deductions claimed by the Osteens would be allowed. There is no authority to the contrary. If the enterprise was not for profit, none of the deductions would be allowed. There is no authority to the contrary. Nobody argues, however, not even the Government, that because the taxpayers lose on the factual issue, they also must lose on what would seem to be a legal issue.

The court reversed on the penalty issue and said that “substantial authority” for a factual issue is met if a decision in the taxpayers’ favor would not have been clearly erroneous:

If the Tax Court was deciding that there was no substantial authority because of the weakness of the taxpayers’ evidence to establish a profit motive, we reverse because a review of the record reveals there was evidence both ways. In our judgment, under the clearly erroneous standard of review, the Tax Court would be due to be affirmed even if it had decided this case for the taxpayers. With that state of the record, there is substantial authority from a factual standpoint for the taxpayer’s position. Only if there was a record upon which the Government could obtain a reversal under the clearly erroneous standard could it be argued that from an evidentiary standpoint, there was not substantial authority for the taxpayer’s position.
 
If the Tax Court was deciding there was not substantial legal authority for the deductions, we reverse because of the plethora of cases in which the Tax Court has found a profit motive in the horse breeding activities of taxpayers that were similar to those at hand.

For those interested in the “factual issue versus legal authority” question, there was also an interesting article by Bryan Skarlatos in the June-July 2012 issue of the Journal of Tax Practice & Procedure: “The Problem With the Substantial Authority Standard as Applied to Factual Issues.”

This is not directly applicable to the EITC ban but a similar approach seems reasonable. A determination in Exam to disallow the EITC often merely means “the taxpayer didn’t prove that she met the requirements,” rather than “the taxpayer didn’t meet the requirements.” But I suspect that some or many of those who make the ban determination proceed with an assumption, implicit if not explicit, that the former is the equivalent of the latter. If the taxpayer doesn’t meet her burden of proof, that may suffice for denying the credit in the conduct year but may not be enough to impose the ban for future years.

For example, one of the three scenarios in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (7), used as a starting point to help determine whether the ban is appropriate, addresses situations in which the taxpayer provided insufficient documentation but “indicates they clearly feel they are eligible, and is attempting to prove eligibility and it is clear they do not understand.” In those circumstances, the technician is supposed to “[c]onsider the taxpayer’s lack of understanding” before asserting the ban. There is no reference to the relative strength or weakness of the support offered. That formulation strongly supports an assumption by the technician that (understanding the rules + insufficient documentation), rather than (understanding the rules + not meeting the requirements), is sufficient to assert the ban. If so, that’s a problem.

Recommendations for a revised ban recommendation process

The Office of Chief Counsel issued Significant Service Center Advice in 2002 (SCA 200245051), concluding that neither the taxpayer’s failure to respond to the audit nor a response that fails to provide adequate substantiation is enough by itself to be considered reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations. That conclusion is also set forth in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (1): “A variety of facts must be considered by the CET [correspondence examination technician] in determining whether the 2-Year Ban should be imposed. A taxpayer’s failure to respond adequately or not respond at all does not in itself indicate that the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded the rules and regulations.”

But, as the Special Report points out, the guidance in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (7) is erroneous and/or woefully inadequate for the CET’s. And research described in the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2013 Annual Report to Congress showed an incredibly high error rate in the ban determination. The Special Report recommends that the IRS develop a ban examination process independent from the audit process, modeled on other means-tested programs, to improve accuracy and provide adequate due process protections. The report also mentions several recommendations from earlier annual reports. For example, in the 2014 Annual Report to Congress, the NTA recommended (again) that a single IRS employee be assigned to work any EITC audit in which the taxpayer calls or writes to respond.

The Special Report didn’t, and couldn’t, define the appropriate process in depth. That is something that the IRS, in consultation with TAS, will have to develop, and it may take a significant amount of time. But while we’re waiting for that, here are suggestions for some specific parts of a revised process that would be on my wish list.

First, the ban determination process should incorporate the concept of the strength of evidence for and against eligibility. The ban should be asserted only when the evidence against eligibility is significantly stronger than evidence for eligibility. The inability to provide evidence for eligibility is not equivalent to deemed evidence against eligibility. And some types of evidence against eligibility will be stronger or weaker than other types.

Second, the process for determining eligibility for the credit should expand the types of evidence that can be submitted and considered, which in turn will affect the relative strength of evidence to be considered during the ban determination phase. The standard audit request and the IRM 4.19.14-1 list focus on third-party documents. Third-party documents are strong evidence but they’re not the only evidence; they’re just the only evidence Exam seems to accept. The IRS experimented with allowing third-party affidavits in test cases from 2010-2013. Starting with tax year 2018, taxpayers can submit third-party affidavits (signed by both the taxpayer and the third party) to verify the residency of qualifying children (IRM 4.19.14.8.3). Why not for other aspects of the eligibility determination? Why not talk directly with the taxpayer and assess credibility?

This is a pet peeve of mine. It’s frustrating to receive a notice of deficiency (because the technician did not accept other types of evidence) and then get a full concession by the government in Tax Court (because the IRS attorney understands the validity of testimony as evidence). I like getting the right result but would prefer to avoid the need to go to Tax Court, delaying the resolution. As the Special Report points out, the IRS cannot properly determine whether to assert the ban without talking to the taxpayer. If a technician/examiner is talking to the taxpayer for that, and assessing their understanding of the rules and regulations, why not also accept verbal testimony (or statements by neighbors and relatives) and evaluate credibility, to accurately evaluate the strength of the evidence for eligibility and therefore the propriety of imposing the ban?

Conclusion

The Special Report would, if its recommendations were implemented, transform a critically important benefit to low-income taxpayers. Nina, Les, and the rest of the team did a fantastic job. It will be a long, hard fight to achieve that transformation but it will be worth it.

The EITC Ban – Further Thoughts, Part Two

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the second of a three-part post on the ban for recklessly or fraudulently claiming refundable credits. In today’s post Bob looks at legislative solutions to the issue of Tax Court jurisdiction.

My last post summarized previous arguments by Les and Carl Smith that the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction to review the proposed imposition of the EITC ban and then examined what the Tax Court is actually doing.  Some cases have ruled on the ban, but some cases have expressed uneasiness about this area and have declined to rule at all.  Congress has clearly stated its intent that judicial review would be available, but it’s appropriate to clarify that by an explicit grant of jurisdiction – preferably in a deficiency proceeding for the year in which the alleged conduct – the taxpayer intentionally or recklessly disregarded rules and regulations – occurred.  The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Special Report on the EITC recommended that Congress provide an explicit grant of jurisdiction to the Tax Court to review the ban determination.  This post offers suggestions – some sparked by Tax Court decisions and/or previous posts here on PT – about exactly how that should be implemented.  The point at which recommendations turn into legislation is a danger zone where flawed solutions can create problems that take years to fix.

Grant Tax Court jurisdiction in a deficiency proceeding for the “conduct year,” not the “ban years”

Les explained the benefits of this approach in his “Problematic Penalty” blog post.  Ballard saw the “attractiveness,” as do I.  It’s even more attractive today.  Although challenging the ban in a proceeding with respect to the conduct year is a better solution, back in 2014 taxpayers at least would have the opportunity to challenge the ban in a proceeding with respect to the ban year. (The “conduct year” is the year for which the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded rules or regulations to improperly claim the EITC and the “ban year” is a subsequent year for which the taxpayer cannot claim the EITC.)  As Les pointed out, and the Office of Chief Counsel explained in 2002 guidance (SCA 200228021), summary assessment procedures were available for post-ban years (for failure to re-certify) but the IRS would have to issue a notice of deficiency to disallow EITC in a ban year.  But since then, summary assessment authority for the ban years was added by the PATH Act of 2015, in section 6213(g)(2)(K), and the IRS is using it.  There is still an opportunity for judicial review after a summary assessment, but that opportunity has a lot of problems, as described in the Special Report.

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The Special Report, Part IV, also recommends changes in summary assessment authority, under which some adjustments are not subject to the deficiency procedures, for an initial determination in the conduct year that the taxpayer is not entitled to the EITC.  Although I’m not entirely sure, I think the report is not recommending any change to the summary assessment authority under section 6213(g)(2)(K) for automatic disallowances in the ban year.  That’s understandable, as normally the correct application of the ban will be straight-forward and not require a separate examination in the ban year.  But there may some instances where the ban shouldn’t be applied automatically.  I’ll return to that below in the discussion of the application of the determination in the ban year.

Require that the proposed ban be set forth in a notice of deficiency for the conduct year

Of course, judicial review will be difficult if not impossible unless imposition of the ban is explicitly asserted and at issue in a case for the conduct year.  In all seven of the Tax Court cases discussed in my last post, the ban was explicitly asserted in an amended answer (Taylor) or the NOD itself (the other cases).  But that doesn’t always happen.

Carl Smith mentioned, in comments to the “Ballard” blog post, seeing a lot of cases where the ban was imposed by letter (presumably Notice CP79) rather than NOD.  I’ll quote his final sentence:

I wonder why some 32(k) sanctions are imposed by a simple letter and others (though apparently very few) are imposed in notices of deficiency.

My answer might be along the lines of: “Because the IRS thinks it can do that, unless Congress explicitly says otherwise, and it’s easier.”  My experiences with the EITC ban have made me more cynical.

My experience is consistent with Carl’s.  In just the past couple of years, my clinic has had four cases in which the IRS imposed the ban and issued Notice CP79.  Only one of the NOD’s explicitly stated the intent to impose the EITC ban.  In the other three cases, there was no indication whatsoever. 

In fact, in one case, there was an indication that an examiner had decided not to impose the ban.  After the NOD was issued, the taxpayer provided additional information and received a response from the IRS declining to change the proposed tax increase.  The letter included Form 886-A Explanation of Items that, again, did not propose the ban.  It also included a separate attachment, explaining why the additional information provided was insufficient.  That attachment stated at one point (emphasis added):

For future reference on the EITC BAN (Earned Income Tax Credit Ban) – The ban was considered.  If you continue to claim XXXXXXX for the credit and disallowed for no relationship, you could be subject to a 2-year earned income tax ban if you are found reckless and intentionally disregard the tax laws, rules and regulations.  You must meet the relationship test, residency test, age test and support test to be eligible for the credits.

That certainly sounds as though the determination required for the ban had not been made when the NOD was issued.  Nevertheless, when the taxpayer failed to file a petition timely, the IRS imposed the ban.

Given all the evidence that the IRS is asserting the ban without ever mentioning it in a notice of deficiency, the grant of jurisdiction to the Tax Court should be carefully crafted.  It should include not just jurisdiction to review the determination but also incorporate safeguards like those found in Section 6213(a) for tax assessments:

  • The determination required by section 32(k) is not a final determination until: (a) a notice of deficiency setting forth the determination has been properly mailed to the taxpayer; and (b) the expiration of the 90-day or 150-day period or, if a petition is filed in Tax Court, the decision of the Tax Court has become final.
  • Any disallowance of the credit in subsequent years based on the ban, before the determination is final, can be enjoined by a court proceeding, including in the Tax Court, despite the Anti-Injunction Act.

Applying the ban in the ban year

The cases I discussed in the last post suggested some specific issues that may need to be addressed when legislation is drafted to grant Tax Court jurisdiction to review the ban.  The first is obvious and fairly straight-forward.  Congress may need to modify section 7463(b) to specify that the determination in a small case with respect to the ban will be treated as binding for a proceeding in a future ban year.

How do we address the problem (discussed in Ballard and Griffin) that the court may not know yet whether the ban even had an effect in the ban years, because (for example) the taxpayer may not yet have filed returns claiming the credit for those years?  I don’t consider this concern an insurmountable obstacle.  Consider an analogy to the TEFRA partnership rules.  Under those rules, the court makes a redetermination of proposed adjustments on one return (the partnership’s).  The effect of that adjustment on other returns (the partners’) is authorized by provisions for computational adjustments.  The redetermination might turn out to have no effect on the partners’ returns, but the court doesn’t have to consider that in making its ruling in the partnership proceeding.

Currently, any credit claimed in the ban years can be disallowed automatically through the summary assessment authority in section 6213(g)(2)(K).  I don’t like that solution and think that instead Congress and/or the IRS should consider an approach similar to that in TEFRA: providing for some assessments without requiring a notice of deficiency in the ban year, but in other circumstances requiring a notice of deficiency because new fact determinations are needed.

Why might new fact determinations be needed?  Primarily because some exceptions or limitations should be carved out.  An all-or-nothing approach simply doesn’t make sense all the time.  What if:

A. The credit was reduced, but not disallowed, because some of the taxpayer’s earned income was disallowed.

B. The credit was claimed for 3 children and was only disallowed with respect to one.

C. The credit was disallowed because Husband’s earned income could not be verified.  Husband later married Wife, who has earned income and children from a previous marriage, and filed a joint return.  (See page 48 of the Special Report.)

Should we consider for future years, in situations like those: (A) allowing the credit but solely with respect to the taxpayer’s earned income from a Form W-2; (B) allowing the credit solely with respect to the children who qualified in the conduct year; or (C) allowing the credit but solely with respect to Wife’s earned income and qualifying children?

Lopez (situation A) suggested that there might be an exception for a partial disallowance:

It would appear that our findings will result in the reduction of petitioner’s claimed earned income tax credit for each year, but we expect that the credit will not be entirely disallowed for either year.  Consequently, we make no comment in this proceeding regarding the application of section 32(k).

A recent CCA (situation B) mentioned in Les’s blog post, however, concluded that partial disallowance was enough to trigger the ban.  The CCA’s reasoning was that section 32(k) doesn’t prohibit imposition of the ban for partial disallowances; thus, any disallowance is enough to trigger the ban.  “Disallowance” is not explicitly restricted to “total disallowance.”

Fair enough, but that doesn’t seem to be how Lopez interpreted the statute.  I don’t think it is entirely clear under current law.  Section 32(k) doesn’t refer to a disallowance (without explicitly specifying “total”) in the conduct year; it refers to the taxpayer’s “claim of credit” due to disregard of rules and regulations.  If the taxpayer could not legitimately claim any credit at all, that could meet the requirement (if done intentionally or recklessly).  In Lopez, was the “claim of credit” contrary to rules and regulations?  Or was the “claim of [at least some amount of] credit” consistent with rules and regulations but the amount excessive?  Lopez suggests the latter.  Does the answer depend on the reason for the excessive amount?  These questions deserve more thought.  The conclusion in the CCA may not be the best answer.

Another wrinkle came up in Griffin.  The court found the taxpayer was not entitled to EITC at all for 2013 because the taxpayer did not establish that any of the claimed dependents met the necessary tests.  However, the court found the taxpayer might be entitled to EITC for 2014, subject to applicable AGI limitations and thresholds after adjustments, because one of the two dependents claimed as qualifying children did meet all of the tests.  Should the ban be imposed if the taxpayer is not entitled to the EITC at all for one year but is entitled to at least some EITC in another year included in the same NOD, particularly if it’s the latest year included in the NOD?

Even if the CCA above is correct, current law is not immutable.  Congress should consider carving out exceptions or limitations to the ban.  If it doesn’t, we can try to change the law by persuading a court concerning the proper interpretation of the statute.  If the law changes, either through Congress or a court decision, we may want to use a more nuanced approach, like that in TEFRA, rather than blanket summary assessment authority.

Conclusion

This finishes my discussion of judicial review.  Establishing robust judicial review with all the flourishes will provide significant protection to low-income taxpayers who claim the EITC.

Some protection but, given current IRS practices, not enough.  Not all cases even go to Tax Court, so our primary goal should be to reduce the need for judicial review by improving the ban determination process in Exam.  The Special Report offered several suggestions along those lines.  I have some additional thoughts, coming up in Part Three of this series.

The EITC Ban – Further Thoughts, Part One

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the first of a three-part post on the ban for recklessly or fraudulently claiming refundable credits. In today’s post Bob looks at how the Tax Court has addressed the ban. Part Two will suggest legislative solutions to the issue of Tax Court jurisdiction. Part Three tackles the ban process.

As Bob mentions, in the recent Special Report to Congress on the EITC that I helped write, we flagged the ban as an issue that potentially jeopardizes taxpayer rights. The Senate Appropriations Committee in a committee report accompanying the IRS funding for FY 2020 directs the IRS to “make the elimination of improper payments an utmost priority.” S. Rep. No. 116-111, at 26-27. At the recent Refundable Credits Summit at the IRS National Office that I attended IRS executives explored ways to reduce overpayments (in addition to increasing participation and improving administration more generally). The ban is part of the IRS toolkit. As Bob highlights today, there are fundamental questions concerning the path that taxpayers can employ to get independent review of an IRS determination. Les

One of Nina Olson’s last acts as National Taxpayer Advocate was the release of the Fiscal Year 2020 Objectives Report to Congress.  Volume 3 was a Special Report on the EITC; Les discussed it in a recent post.  If you are interested in issues affecting low-income taxpayers, you’ve probably already read it.  It’s definitely worth your time.  Kudos to Nina and to Les and the rest of the team that worked on the Special Report.  There are a lot of innovative, creative suggestions, backed up by thorough research, that would not just improve but transform how the IRS administers this program.

Nina’s preface to the report says that she is “hopeful that it will lead to a serious conversation about how to advance the twin goals of increasing the participation rate of eligible taxpayers and reducing overclaims by ineligible taxpayers.”  In that spirt, I’d like to offer my small contribution to the conversation, with additional thoughts about some of their suggestions.  The entire Special Report is important, but after a client’s recent “close encounter of the worst kind” with the EITC ban of section 32(k)(1), I have a particular interest in Part V.  This post will address the need for judicial review and what the Tax Court is actually doing.  Part Two will provide some further thoughts about how the Tax Court’s jurisdiction (when clarified by Congress) should be structured.  Part Three will address suggested changes to the ban determination process.

Does the Tax Court have jurisdiction to review the imposition of the ban?

Congress clearly envisioned the opportunity for pre-payment judicial review.  According to the legislative history for the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, “[t]he determination of fraud or of reckless or intentional disregard of rules or regulations are (sic) made in a deficiency proceeding (which provides for judicial review).”  H. Conf. Rpt. 105-220, at 545.  But there is no jurisdictional statute that clearly and unequivocally covers this, at least not until the ban is actually imposed in a future year.

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The question of Tax Court jurisdiction has been discussed here on Procedurally Taxing several times: 

I will follow Les’s terminology and refer to the year in which the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded rules and regulations by claiming the EITC as the “conduct year,” and to the subsequent years in which the taxpayer is not allowed to claim the credit because of the ban as the “ban years.”

Les and Carl Smith advanced arguments, in the “Problematic Penalty” and “Ballard” blog posts, that the Tax Court does not have jurisdiction to review an EITC ban in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year.  The Tax Court has jurisdiction to redetermine the amount of a deficiency stated in a notice of deficiency as well as accuracy-related penalties applicable to the understatement, but explicitly does not have jurisdiction to determine any overpayment or underpayment for other years.  Although the EITC ban looks somewhat like a “penalty,” it does not fall within the scope of penalties that are treated like taxes, which are limited to Chapter 68.  Ruling on whether the ban was valid, in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year, would therefore be a declaratory judgement for which the court has no jurisdiction.  The ban years will only be subject to the court’s deficiency jurisdiction if/when a notice of deficiency is issued with respect to them.

What has the Tax Court actually been doing?

I’m persuaded by Les’s and Carl’s arguments.  The Tax Court may not be, though.  It has addressed the issue of the ban in seven cases to date: Campbell v. Commissioner (2011 decision concerning 2007-2009 tax years), Garcia v. Commissioner (2013 decision concerning 2008 tax year), Baker v. Commissioner (2014 decision concerning 2011 tax year), Ballard v. Commissioner (2016 decision concerning 2013 tax year), Lopez v. Commissioner (2017 decision concerning 2012-2013 tax years), Griffin v. Commissioner (2017 decision concerning 2013-2014 tax years), and Taylor v. Commissioner (2018 decision concerning 2013 tax year).  All were either summary opinions, bench opinions, or orders granting a decision for the government when the taxpayer did not participate.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here concerning the cases.  The PT blog posts above have already discussed Campbell (in the blog comments only),Garcia, Baker, Ballard, and Taylor – only Lopez and Griffin appear to be new here.  (The Lopez case was actually discussed here, but that was with respect to an earlier order dealing with a different issue.)  But I do want to summarize how the Tax Court responded to the issue, with a couple of additional observations.

Campbell and Taylor imposed the ban, when the taxpayers did not respond to a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Prosecution and a Motion for Default Judgment respectively, without any discussion of jurisdiction to do so.  In addition to the jurisdictional issue, it’s noteworthy that there was – or could have been – evidence supporting a determination of intentional or reckless disregard of regulations.  In Taylor, as previously noted in William Schmidt’s blog post, the court granted a motion to deem Respondent’s allegations, including those relevant to civil fraud and the ban, as admitted when the Petitioners did not respond to the amended answer.  (Because the ban was apparently not proposed in the notice of deficiency but was instead asserted in the notice of deficiency, the government would have the burden of proof.)  In Campbell, Respondent filed a motion to show cause why statements in a proposed stipulation of facts should not be deemed admitted.  The court granted the motion, Petitioners did not respond, and the court could have deemed those statements (which presumably would have covered the ban) as admitted.  Instead, the court simply granted the motion to dismiss for lack of prosecution.

These decisions to impose the ban demonstrate an interesting quirk.  The Office of Chief Counsel issued Significant Service Center Advice in 2002 (SCA 200245051), concluding that neither the taxpayer’s failure to respond to the audit nor a response that fails to provide adequate substantiation is enough by itself to be considered reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations.  That conclusion is also set forth in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (1): “A variety of facts must be considered by the CET [correspondence examination technician] in determining whether the 2-Year Ban should be imposed. A taxpayer’s failure to respond adequately or not respond at all does not in itself indicate that the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded the rules and regulations.”  In these cases, and assuming the taxpayers were equally uncooperative during the audit, arguably the IRS should never have asserted the ban.  But that’s during the audit.  If the IRS does assert the ban, challenging that in Tax Court (if the taxpayer remains uncooperative) opens the door for deemed admissions supporting the ban.  It’s better to cooperate.

Garcia and Baker disallowed the EITC but concluded that claiming the credit was not due to a reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations and therefore that the taxpayers were not subject to the ban for following years.  Reliance on a paid return preparer was significant for both decisions.  Neither case discussed the court’s jurisdiction to rule on the validity of the proposed ban.

Ballard and Griffin declined to rule on the ban.  Both made the same argument: there was no information in the record as to whether returns had been filed, and whether the EITC had even been claimed, for the ban years.  Further, both pointed out that any ruling in an S-case is not precedential in any other case.  It was questionable whether a ruling in a proceeding with respect to the conduct year would have any effect at all in the ban years.  Ballard seemed to suggest that this factor was the most critical:

Respondent made that determination for the year in dispute here, but the determination obviously has no consequence to the deficiency determined in the notice – the consequences of the determination take effect in years other than the year before us.  Normally, in a deficiency case the Court is reluctant to make findings or rulings that have no tax consequences in the period or periods presently before us.  Nevertheless, we can see the attractiveness in making the determination in the same year that the earned income credit is disallowed albeit on other grounds and we have addressed the issue in other non-precedential opinions, see
Section 7463(b).
 
In this case not only does the application of section 32(k) have no tax consequence to Petitioner’s Federal income tax liability for the year before us, the record does not reveal whether a finding or ruling on the point would have any Federal tax consequence in either 2014 or 2015.

The court “is reluctant,” rather than “has no jurisdiction,” and even that is qualified as “normally.”  The court’s concern may have been jurisdiction but the language in the opinion suggests that the court might have been willing to rule if the record included appropriate information about the future years.  As far as I know, though, Campbell, Taylor, Garcia, and Baker also did not have such information in the record.

Ballard did, however, rule that the petitioner (who relied on a paid return preparer) was not liable for an accuracy-related penalty for negligence.  That strongly suggested that the ban should not apply; if the taxpayer was not negligent with respect to erroneously claiming the EITC, how would the IRS demonstrate the higher culpability of “reckless or intentional”?

Lopez also declined to rule on the ban, for a slightly different stated reason.  The IRS had disallowed the total gross receipts reported on Schedule C, eliminating the earned income required for claiming EITC.  The court allowed gross receipts in an amount less than the taxpayer had claimed.  With respect to the ban, it said:  “It would appear that our findings will result in the reduction of petitioner’s claimed earned income tax credit for each year, but we expect that the credit will not be entirely disallowed for either year.  Consequently, we make no comment in this proceeding regarding the application of section 32(k).”

Thus, in four cases the court ruled on the ban – two upholding it and two rejecting it – apparently without considering the jurisdictional issue.  Although Ballard, Griffin, and Lopez all declined to rule on the ban, none of them simply stated that the court had no jurisdiction with respect to the proposed ban.  Ballard and Griffin pointed out that a decision would not be precedential in an S-case.  The court, however, explained the primary justification not as lack of jurisdiction but what appears to be more like a concern about ripeness.  Lopez, on the other hand, did not mention that a summary opinion has no precedential effect for any other case.  Although far from clear, that decision sounds as though it assumed an implicit requirement for the ban – that it applies only when the credit was improperly claimed, not when it was properly claimed but in an excessive amount.  (I’ll return to that point in my next post.)

Despite the court (sometimes) being willing to rule on the issue, it would be better if the court’s jurisdiction to do so were firmly established.  The lack of explicit jurisdiction creates a serious problem.  What happens if the IRS asserts the ban in a notice of deficiency, the court disallows at least a portion of the EITC, but the court does not rule on the ban?  I suspect that the IRS will impose the ban in the future years.  It would be interesting to know what happened to Mr. Ballard, after the strong hint in the bench opinion. 

The taxpayer could still contest the validity of the ban in a deficiency proceeding for a ban year; that clearly would come within the scope of section 6214.  But the “Problematic Penalty” blog post pointed out pragmatic problems with that solution, which lead Les to conclude that it wouldn’t make sense from a policy perspective.  Since that blog post, an additional problem has arisen, making that solution even worse.  Summary assessment authority for the ban years was added by the PATH Act of 2015, in section 6213(g)(2)(K), and the IRS is using it.  Although the taxpayer still has an opportunity for judicial review after a summary assessment, the opportunity is less obvious than with a notice of deficiency and may be missed by unrepresented taxpayers.  It also comes with a shorter time to respond.

Thus, we are left with two alternatives for Tax Court review of the assertion of the ban.  Doing so in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year is by far the best alternative and is consistent with Congress granting summary assessment authority for the ban years.  I suspect that is what Congress had in mind, but if so, it forgot to clearly grant jurisdiction.  Reviewing the assertion of the ban in a deficiency proceeding for a ban year has the advantage of fitting within the Tax Court’s existing jurisdiction but is a horrible solution for a number of reasons. 

Even if the court were willing to rely on the legislative history as implicit jurisdiction to address the ban in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year, it would still be worthwhile to establish appropriate guidelines.  There are some obvious questions about exactly how the entire process should work.  Setting those guidelines proactively in legislation or regulation would also be helpful for the vast majority of these cases that never make it to Tax Court. 

The Special Report recommends a ban determination process independent of the audit process.  That is a great idea that would go a long way in solving some of the problems the report points out.  But for simplicity, and in case the IRS is reluctant to implement the Special Report’s recommendation, Part Two will discuss how Tax Court jurisdiction could be structured within the framework of a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year.