Are Alleged Alter Egos, Successors in Interest and/or Transferees Entitled to Their Own Collection Due Process Rights Under Sections 6320 And 6330? Part 5

Lavar Taylor brings us the fifth installment of his series on Collection Due Process and third parties. Today he addresses strategies in litigating the issues. Lavar promises one more post on the topic after this one. When complete his work on this topic will be the equivalent of a law review article but with a very practical bent. For practitioners with clients who have derivative liabilities, Lavar provides significant insight into the law and the practice of representing parties operating in the dark shadows of the code and administrative practice. Although Lavar does not discuss the issue, it is interesting how the Taxpayer Bill of Rights promises of the right to challenge the IRS position and be heard and the right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum intersect with the way that these third parties are treated by the IRS. Keith

In Part 4 of this series, I discussed the questions of 1) how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the Tax Court to raise the questions of whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under sections 6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability, 2) whether the government can take administrative collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment or making a separate assessment, and 3) whether the Tax Court has the ability to address issues 1 and 2 above, given that no notice of determination is ever issued by the IRS in these situations.

This post addresses the question of how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the District Court to raise the questions of 1) whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under sections 6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability, and 2) whether the government is prohibited from taking collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of the taxpayer without first obtaining a District Court judgment against the putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, based on the arguments set forth in Part 3 of this series.

This post also discusses the factors affecting the decision of whether to litigate these issues in Tax Court or District Court. In addition, this post discusses why assertions of “nominee” status by the IRS are treated differently under the CDP rules.

read more...

1. Litigating in District Court

An alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee has always had a remedy in District Court to challenge levy action against them in the form of a wrongful levy action brought under §7426. See, e.g., Towe Antique Ford Found. v. IRS, 999 F.2d 1387 (9th Cir. 1993). These lawsuits, however, have focused on whether the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee was substantively liable for the tax liability under state law.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no reported decisions where the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee has argued that the IRS levy action was improper because the IRS failed to send the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy before taking levy action against them. Nor am I aware of any reported cases where the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee brought a wrongful levy action claiming that the IRS cannot take any administrative collection action against a purported alter ego/successor in interest/transferee prior to the government obtaining a District Court judgment they are liable for the taxpayer’s taxes as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer, based on the theory articulated in Part 3 of this series.

Frequently, the previously unannounced levy action against the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee financially destroys them and deprives them of the resources needed to challenge the IRS’s assertion of liability. Under the law as interpreted by the IRS, the playing field is decidedly tilted in favor of the IRS. While there are undoubtedly many meritorious assertions of liability by the IRS, I am aware of a number cases in which the issue of liability as an alter ego/successor in interest/transferee was at best questionable or debatable. In our now-settled Tax Court case, for example, there was a state Supreme Court decision which made clear that, based on the undisputed facts in our case, it was not possible for our client to be an alter ego of the taxpayer. Yet the IRS, without properly investigating the facts, pursued levy action against our client, with the blessing of Area Counsel’s Office, based on the unsound premise that our client was an “alter ego” of the taxpayer.

Even where a third party is conceding that they are liable as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer under state law, they can bring a wrongful levy action to challenge the procedural validity of the levy action, based on the failure of the IRS to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the third party prior to taking levy action against the third party.  The mere opportunity to seek administrative collection alternatives, such as an installment agreement, or even an offer in compromise based on doubt as to liability, without having to deal with unannounced levy action may often be the difference between financial life and death for an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee.

For these reasons, any alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, even if they agree that they are liable for the taxes assessed against the taxpayer can bring suit, either in District Court or in Tax Court to challenge the failure of the IRS to issue a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to them prior to taking levy action.   In such a suit they can also challenge the underlying ability of the government to ever take administrative collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee prior to obtaining a District Court judgment in favor of the government (or prior to making a separate assessment), based on the theory articulated in Part 3 of this series.

Similar options exist to challenge the validity of an alter ego/successor in interest/transferee notice of federal tax lien. A petition can be filed with the Tax Court, although care should be taken to file the petition promptly after the filing of the lien notice, to minimize the risk that such a petition might be deemed untimely by the Court. Such a petition will be subject to the same jurisdictional challenges as a levy petition.

Alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees likewise have always had the opportunity to file a quiet title action in District Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2410 in order to challenge the validity of the tax lien. See Spotts v. United States, 429 F.3d 248 (6th Cir. 2005). There is no reason why an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee could not file a quiet title action in District Court based on the grounds that 1) the IRS failed to give them their own lien CDP rights as required by section 6320 after the filing of the notice of federal tax lien, and 2) the government is not permitted to take collection action against them in the absence of a separate assessment against them or a District Court judgment imposing liability as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer, for reasons outlined in Part 3 of this series.

2. Tax Court or District Court: Making a Choice

If an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee wishes to pursue litigation to challenge the ability of the IRS to levy without first issuing a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to challenge the ability of the IRS to take administrative collection action against a purported alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, choosing between Tax Court and District Court as a litigation forum can be difficult. District Court offers a forum where the court clearly has jurisdiction to rule on the issues at hand. District Court also is much quicker than Tax Court. Indeed, in our now-settled case, at the time of the settlement, the IRS’s motion to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction had been pending with the Tax Court for over 12 months without any opinion being issued.

District Court Judges, however, often lack even basic familiarity with tax laws in general and with CDP laws in particular. Tax Court Judges have significant expertise in tax law and regularly deal with CDP procedures in their cases. They certainly have more expertise in determining the extent of their own jurisdiction than do District Court Judges. Page limitations on filings in District Court may hamper the ability of an alleged alter ego/successor in interest to fully brief all of the issues, which are complex and arcane, even to the most dedicated tax procedure junkies.

In addition, once the Department of Justice acquires jurisdiction over a case, settling that case can become much more difficult. There can be a dramatic difference in the levels of approval needed to settle a case with the Office of Chief Counsel and the levels of approval needed to settle a case with the Department of Justice.   See the Department of Justice Tax Division Settlement Reference Manual. Furthermore, the differences between the rules governing discovery in Tax Court and the rules governing discovery in the District Court generally make it far more expensive to litigate in District Court than in Tax Court.

An alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee who ventures into District Court in a wrongful levy action or a quiet title action also faces the possibility that the Department of Justice will seek an affirmative judgment against them, including a judgment for the foreclosure of real property owned by the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee which the government contends can be reached in an effort to satisfy the taxes owed by the taxpayer. No such counterclaims can be filed by the government in Tax Court litigation; IRS must refer the matter to the Department of Justice for a separate lawsuit.

Yet, until the Tax Court has issued an opinion in this area, anyone who chooses Tax Court as their litigation forum currently faces the possibility that the Tax Court will eventually dismiss their petition for lack of jurisdiction in a way that fails to resolve the underlying question of whether alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees are entitled to their own independent CDP rights or whether the IRS may ever pursue administrative collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment. And however the Tax Court rules on this issue, the Tax Court’s ruling can be appealed to the relevant Court of Appeals.

The specific facts in each case will also be an important factor, as will the proclivities of the local District Court Judges. The rulings of the District Courts can also be appealed to the relevant Court of Appeals, but there will never be any appeal on the issue of whether the District Court lacks jurisdiction over such a suit, as long as the suit is brought within the applicable statute of limitations for wrongful levy actions and quiet title actions. (The statute of limitations for wrongful levy actions is now two years. 26 U.S.C. §6532(c). The statute of limitations on quiet title actions is six years. See Nesovic v. United States, 71 F.3d 776 (9th Cir. 1995). )

3. The Long, Hard Road Ahead

Given the circumstances described in this series of posts, it is likely to be quite some time before there is a definitive answer to the questions of whether alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees are entitled to their own independent CDP lien and levy rights and whether the IRS may ever take administrative collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment or making a separate assessment. The speed at which the case law develops will depend in large part on how the Tax Court rules in its first published opinion on these issues. If the Tax Court rules that it has jurisdiction, that holding will drive litigation of these issues to the Tax Court. The IRS will then likely appeal the Tax Court’s holding(s) to multiple Courts of Appeal, possibly leading to a split in the Circuits and Supreme Court review of the issue(s) that split the Circuits.

If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction but refuses to follow Adolphson and holds adversely to the government on the procedural issues in dismissing the petition for lack of jurisdiction, this holding will also drive litigation to the Tax Court. This will likely be followed by government appeals to multiple Courts of Appeal and possibly an eventual Supreme Court ruling in this area.

If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction and follows Adolphson, a few brave hardy souls may continue to litigate in Tax Court, with the idea of taking their cases to the relevant Courts of Appeal But most litigation involving these issues will be driven to the District Courts, many of which may be reluctant to second guess the Tax Court’s holding on the jurisdictional issue. But the District Courts will still be able to rule on the substantive CDP issue, as well as on the issue of whether the government is required to obtain a District Court judgment (or make a separate assessment) against purported alter egos/successors in interest before the government can take collection action against them.

One or more of these issues are likely to end up being argued before the Supreme Court, absent any future legislative action by Congress. But it is likely to be a number of years before that happens.

4. “Nominee” Liens and Levies- Why The CDP Rules Are Different

In writing this series of posts, I have purposefully avoided including “nominee” liens and levies within the scope of my discussion of the extent to which the CDP provisions may be invoked by third party non-taxpayers against whom the IRS is pursuing collection action to collect taxes owed by the original taxpayer. Putative “nominees” are different from putative alter egos/successors in interest/transferees in that “nominees” are not themselves personally liable for the tax liability. Rather, a true nominee holds “property or rights to property” of a taxpayer as the agent of the taxpayer.   They are not personally liable for the tax. This distinction is critical for purposes of determining the rights of putative “nominees” under the CDP procedures.

In Part 1 of this series I noted that there are important differences between §§6320 and 6330, and their counterparts, §§ 6321 and 6331. Section 6321 imposes a lien against all “property and rights to property” of a person who is “liable for the tax.” Thus, there must be a personal liability for a tax obligation before a lien can arise against a person’s “property or rights to property” under §6321.

The language of §6320 makes clear that a lien CDP notice is only required to be sent to the “the person described in section 6321,” i.e., a person who is personally liable for the tax. Thus, a putative nominee of the taxpayer is not entitled to notice under §6320 and cannot invoke the lien CDP procedures if the IRS files a “nominee” notice of federal tax lien. Note, however, that a true “nominee” notice of federal tax lien should make clear that the IRS lien only attaches to the specific property, real or personal, which the putative nominee is supposedly holding as an agent of the taxpayer. As I will discuss in Part 6 of this series, virtually all “nominee” notices of federal tax lien flunk this test.

Section 6331, on the other hand, authorizes the IRS to levy on all “property and rights to property” of a person who is personally liable for a tax and to levy on all property on which there is a tax lien. Thus, it is possible that the IRS could levy on property that is possessed or owned by a third party which the IRS claims is encumbered by a tax lien, even though the person who possesses or owns that property is not personally liable for the tax.

Section 6330 provides that “[n]o levy may be made on any property or right to property of any person” unless notice is given to “such person” under §6330. Importantly, §6330 uses the phrase “any person,” not the phrase “person liable for the tax.” Section 6330 also does not refer specifically to the “person” described in §6331(a). I personally believe that this a distinction with a difference, and that Congress intended for any person who has a facially recognizable possessory or ownership interest in property under state law upon which the IRS intends to levy is entitled to notice under section 6330 and thus is entitled to invoke the collection due process procedures.

But the IRS thinks otherwise, and issued regulations which define the term “person” in §6330 as the “person liable for the tax.” Treasury Regulation §301.6330-1(a)(3), Question and Answer 1. If this regulation is valid, only persons who are personally liable for the tax are entitled to notice under §6330 and may invoke the CDP levy procedures. No true “nominees” can invoke CDP levy procedures under the IRS’s interpretation of the law.

If the cited Treasury Regulation is struck down as being inconsistent with the statute, however, true nominees would be entitled to notice under §6330 and would be entitled to avail themselves of the CDP levy appeal process. I believe this regulation is inconsistent with the statute. The phrase “any person” is about as broad as you can get, and the contrasting language of §6320 supports the conclusion that Congress’ use of the phrase “any person” in section 6330 was deliberate. Limiting the availability of the levy CDP appeal procedures to persons who are personally liable for the tax is contrary to the language of the statute.

I leave a more detailed analysis of why I believe that this regulation is not valid for another day. Suffice to say that anyone who is the subject of true nominee collection action, where the IRS merely claims that the property held by or ostensibly belonging to a third party on which the IRS has levied is being held by the third party putative nominee for the benefit of the taxpayer and is not asserting that the third party is personally liable for the taxes owed by the taxpayer, will have to convince the Court that this regulation is invalid should they bring an action in Tax Court or District Court to challenge the IRS “nominee” levy action on the grounds that the IRS failed to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the third party prior to levying on property owned or held by the third party.

Because alleged “nominees” are in a more perilous legal position than alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees when it comes to invoking the CDP procedures, It may be that the IRS will, in the future, show a greater interest in pursuing “nominee” collection activity as opposed to pursuing “alter ego/successor in interest/transferee” collection activity.   I have seen some evidence of this here in southern California, after the IRS read our pleadings in our now-settled case.

My experience is that many people in the IRS throw around the terms “alter ego,” “transferee,” and “nominee” like these terms are interchangeable body parts. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Alter egos and transferees are personally liable for the taxpayer’s taxes, based on applicable state law. Under California law, for example, the legal test for holding a third party liable as an alter ego is different from holding a third party liable as a transferee. The legal test for holding a third party liable as a successor in interest is likewise distinct from the tests for imposing liability as an alter ego or transferee. Nominees are not personally liable for the taxpayer’s tax liability.

Private practitioners should be prepared to call out the IRS if it attempts to sidestep efforts to hold the IRS accountable under the CDP provisions by improperly labeling all third party collection action as “nominee” collection action.

I have one more post to add to this series of posts. In Part 6, I will explain why virtually all IRS “nominee” notices of federal tax lien are improper in a way which can cause legal detriment to the alleged nominees. I have also seen a “transferee” notice of federal tax lien with this same impropriety. In addition to explaining the impropriety, I will offer a suggestion to the IRS on how it can cure this impropriety.

 

When Does Interest Start Running on a Transferee Liability

We welcome back guest blogger Marilyn Ames. Marilyn is retired from Chief Counsel’s office but works with us on IRS Practice and Procedure assisting with many chapters because of the breadth of her knowledge. She has done a lot of writing on transferee liability and provides insight on a recent case in that area. Keith

When a taxpayer has an unpaid income tax liability, the Internal Revenue Code is clear that interest on the unpaid tax accrues from the original due date of the return. However, when the Internal Revenue Service attempts to collect liability under Internal Revenue Code § 6901, the transferee liability section, questions arise as to the ability of the IRS to collect interest on the unpaid tax debt.  Because Section 6901 is merely a procedural law, the Internal Revenue Service must look to state law or other federal law for the substantive provisions that allow collection of taxes from a person who receives property from the taxpayer. The Internal Revenue Code provides that a transferee is liable for interest on the unpaid tax debt after the Internal Revenue Service issues a notice of transferee liability, but does state law govern the collection of interest before this date? The Ninth Circuit addressed this in the recent case of Tricarichi v. Comm’r, 122 AFTR2d 2018-6634 (9th Cir. Nov. 13, 2018). 

read more...

The transferee in this case, Michael Tricarichi, was the sole shareholder of West Side Cellular, Inc., which received a $65 million settlement in 2003. Before its return for 2003 was due, Mr. Tricarichi, who was then a resident of Ohio, sold his West Side stock in a “Midco” tax-shelter transaction, leaving West Side Cellular with insufficient assets to pay its corporate income taxes for 2003. Mr. Tricarichi received about $35.2 million in the transaction, and then moved to Nevada to enjoy the fruits of his labors. (The workings of the Midco transaction, which have been the subject of frequent litigation in the recent past, are outlined in Diebold Foundation, Inc. v. Comm’r, 736 F3d 172 (2d Cir. 2013)).

In 2012, the Internal Revenue Service issued a notice of transferee liability to Mr. Tricarichi, which was duly litigated in the Tax Court, the result being that the Tax Court determined that Mr. Tricarichi was liable for the full amount of West Side’s tax deficiency and the associated penalties and interest in the tidy total sum of about $35.1 million. In a separate opinion, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the Tax Court’s conclusion that Mr. Tricarchi was liable as a transferee under Internal Revenue Code § 6901 and the Ohio Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, leaving the question of when and whether a transferee is liable for the amount of interest due on the transferor’s tax liability before the notice of transferee liability is issued to this opinion.

Mr. Tricarichi, the transferee, argued that Ohio law determined his liability for any interest before the notice of transferee liability was interested. Under Ohio law, Mr. Tricarichi would have owed nothing instead of the nearly $13.9 million that accrued between the due date for the 2003 return and the issuance of the notice of transferee liability in 2012. He cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Commissioner v. Stern, 357 US 39 (1958), for the proposition that state law should determine the existence and extent of transferee liability, including the amount of the interest that can be collected on the underlying claim – which in Mr. Tricarichi’s view would be the tax and penalties owed by the taxpayer, but not the interest that accrued between the due date of the taxpayer’s 2003 return and June of 2012 when the IRS issued the notice of transferee liability.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding that Internal Revenue Service’s claim is computed under the Internal Revenue Code, and will include statutory interest. The extent of the liability to be determined under state law is actually a question of the amount of the claim that can be recovered from the assets transferred. When the taxpayer transfers sufficient assets to pay the underlying claim, including the interest that has been accruing under the Internal Revenue Code for the unpaid tax liability, it is unnecessary to look to state law for the creation of a right to interest. It is only necessary to look to state law for interest when the assets transferred are insufficient to satisfy the total claim for the liability of the transferor/taxpayer. In that case, the relevant state law determines whether the Internal Revenue Service may recover any prejudgment interest beyond the value of the assets transferred. The Ninth Circuit adopted the “simple rule” formulated by the First Circuit in Schussel v. Werfel, 758 F3d 82 (1st Cir. 2014) that “the IRS may recover from [the transferee] all amounts [the transferor] owes to the IRS (including section 6601 interest accruing on [the transferor’s] tax debt), up to the limit of the amount transferred to [the transferee], with any recovery of prejudgment interest above the amount transferred to be determined in accord with [state] law.”

Under this relatively simple rule, because West Side’s tax deficiency, including interest and penalties was $35.1 million, and Mr. Tricarichi received $35.2 million in assets from West Side, an amount in excess of West Side’s tax liability, Mr. Tricarichi was liable for the full amount of the $35.1 million. The fact that Mr. Tricarichi will also be liable for interest as a transferee from the issuance of the notice of transferee liability in 2012 is irrelevant to the determination that he received more from West Side in assets than the tax claim against West Side. As a resident of Nevada, Mr. Tricarichi should understand that his attempt to break the bank in his litigation with the IRS has left him busted.

 

 

 

 

Calculating Insolvency: A Technical Minefield for Taxpayers

We welcome first-time guest blogger Krzysztof Wendland of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, who writes about a recent insolvency case he litigated before the Tax Court. We have discussed cancellation of debt and the insolvency exclusion a few times recently on PT, including a post in May and two in July here and here. Christine 

Taxpayers who receive 1099-C forms informing them of debts that have been cancelled and reported to the IRS face the challenge of calculating the value of their assets and liabilities at a time immediately before the debt was cancelled.  This requires taxpayers to not only gather financial information from many financial institutions, but also try to calculate fair market values of their property.  An issue that most taxpayers do not often consider is whether debts that they list as a liability qualify as a liability for insolvency purposes.  Additionally, taxpayers who don’t receive the forms from the creditor and first learn of the cancelled debt after receiving a notice from the IRS, face a much larger burden as they must now gather financial information, often from years ago, and face higher scrutiny on the assets and liabilities they include in their calculation. 

Our LITC recently had the opportunity to represent otherwise Pro Se petitioners during this year’s Albany Trial calendar.  The clients received a statutory notice from the IRS Automated Underreporter Unit (AUR) proposing to increase their income based on unreported cancellation of debt income.  Three credit card companies had cancelled debt on their own.   Predictably, all three 1099-C forms were mailed to an outdated address, hence the taxpayer was unaware that any of the debt had been cancelled and that cancellation of debt should be included on his return.  After petitioning the U.S. Tax Court, the taxpayer attempted to exclude this income by claiming insolvency.  One of the largest debts in his liability column, and the only disputed issue in this case, was the balance of an agreement owed to his New York State pension.  

read more...

The taxpayer had returned to employment with the State of New York after an absence of many years.  When reentering the Civil Service, rather than being returned to his previous retirement tier, he was instead placed in the less advantageous retirement tier that was then available to all new State employees enrolling for the first time.  This tier required a perpetual contribution of 3% by the employee towards their retirement plan, rather than capping contributions at 10 years as his original tier had done.  The taxpayer was later informed that he could opt into his previous and more beneficial tier.  In order to opt in and be relieved of this ongoing expense, he was required to agree to repay the funds that were originally distributed from his retirement account, plus the interest that would have accrued.  The agreement contained a contingency that the repayment would cease if and when his employment was terminated. 

At the time immediately preceding the cancellation of debt events, the outstanding amount owed by the taxpayer to the New York State Local Employee Retirement System (NYSLRS) was over $50,000. If this amount was a liability under section 108 of the I.R.C., the taxpayer would have been considered insolvent and all cancellation of debt income would have been excluded.  Neither section 108 of the I.R.C nor the regulations related to the provision define the term “liabilities”.   Chief Counsel objected to allowing this liability to be considered in the insolvency equation, and Judge Guy ultimately agreed.  In this case, Judge Guy took issue with three peculiarities of the agreement between the taxpayer and NYSLRS.

  1. The agreement resulted in an immediate and ongoing benefit to the taxpayer; 
  2. The calculation for insolvency would be distorted if the agreement would be considered a liability, without regard to the taxpayer’s increased future benefit; and 
  3. The payments were contingent on the taxpayer’s continued state employment

I agree that the agreement the taxpayer entered into was financially sound and did substitute a debt for an ongoing expense.  However, I believe that the reclassification of the taxpayer’s retirement contributions should not affect the legal reality that an ongoing expense has been extinguished and a new liability created.

I agree that the agreement the taxpayer entered into was financially sound and did substitute a debt for an ongoing expense.  However, I believe that the reclassification of the taxpayer’s retirement contributions should not affect the legal reality that an ongoing expense has been extinguished and a new liability created. 

I also agree that allowing including the balance owed on this agreement would distort the net asset analysis; however, I do not believe it does so improperly.  The insolvency exclusion serves to determine the accession to wealth at the time of an identifiable event.  When determining the value of assets and liabilities in a snapshot of time, there can be many distortions.  Here, the taxpayer’s agreement resulted in a balance that was owed to NYSLRS.  Correspondingly, his interest in a future defined benefit pension was increasing.  However, due to the structure of this pension, any contributions to the pension would not result in a corresponding increase in the value of the asset.  In Schieber v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2017-32, the court determined that a State pension that did not allow the beneficiary to “convert their interest in the plan to a lump-sum amount, sell the interest, assign the interest, borrow against the interest, or borrow from the plan,” was not available to pay income tax that resulted from cancellation of debt and was therefore not an asset within the meaning of section 108(d)(3).  The difference between this taxpayer’s pension and the Schiebers’ was that the NYSLRS pension would allow the taxpayer to borrow against their interest.  However, since a loan would result in a corresponding liability, I do not believe this difference would matter.   

The most difficult hurdle in this case was whether this agreement resulted in a bona-fide debt or whether the debt was illusory, overly contingent, or non-recourse.  The agreement required that the agreed upon repayment amount be drawn from taxpayer’s bi-weekly paycheck.   While the agreement was irrevocable and the consequences for non-payment of the periodic payments did exist, the agreement did not include an event that could trigger an acceleration of the amount owed.   

While the contingency of the debt alone did not doom this agreement; the totality of the circumstances resulted in a determination that this obligation should not be considered for the purposes of I.R.C. section 108.    

While this is a small tax court case and does not have precedential value, it highlights some of the hurdles a taxpayer may have a duty to overcome.  In this case, the taxpayer worked diligently with IRS chief counsel to ascertain his liabilities and assets at the time of the debt cancellation.  Several days before trial, the taxpayer believed that the sole issue remaining in this case was the correct valuation of the pension as an asset.  Taxpayers who claim insolvency may be required to prove, not only the correct value of assets and liabilities at the time immediately before the cancellation of debt, but also that the liabilities qualify as liabilities for insolvency purposes.    

I expect insolvency cases to become more frequent, particularly as student loan debtors begin to experience debt forgiveness that has not been statutorily excluded from cancellation of debt income.

The EITC Ban – It’s Worse Than You Realized

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco. Bob tells a disaster story with a happy ending but we must keep in mind that the happy ending only occurred because the low income taxpayer had found her way to a clinic where she received free and highly competent representation. Other stories similar to this one exist in the system without the happy ending provided here.  

As we have written before, the time for contesting the EITC ban in Tax Court is unclear. Another possible avenue for taxpayers in the position of Bob’s client is to seek orders regarding the ban from the Tax Court. I cannot say whether the taxpayer would have obtained relief in the Tax Court but the existence of the prohibited assessments would provide a basis for an injunction which might have gotten the client to the right place. Keith

There is a film genre often referred to, because of the primary plot device, as “disaster movies.” The golden age was the 1970s, with films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno. Minor actions or problems interact in ways that create huge challenges. Each time the characters survive one obstacle, losing a few members of the group in the process, a new threat arises. How many, and which, characters will eventually survive?

The tax administration equivalent is the earned income tax credit (EITC) ban.

The EITC ban process is seriously flawed, as has been pointed out frequently. Les discussed it here on Procedural Taxing in blog posts in January 2014 and July 2014. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson has been complaining about it for years, with the most detailed coverage in her 2013 Annual Report to Congress. Patrick Thomas made a presentation on it (outline available on the LITC Toolkit website, if you have access) at the December 2016 LITC Grantee Conference. Les and William Schmidt addressed the specific issue of Tax Court jurisdiction over the ban in 2016 and 2018 respectively. I strongly recommend a thorough review of all of the above – including comments to the blog posts! – to anyone who deals with taxpayers who claim the EITC.

This post discusses the IRS administrative process for applying (and correcting?) the ban. It also points out how the interaction of the EITC ban process with problems elsewhere in the tax administration process can turn a serious issue into an absolute disaster. This is the story of one such disaster.

read more...

Background

Section 32(k)(1), added by the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, establishes that the EITC shall not be allowed for

the period of 2 taxable years after the most recent taxable year for which there was a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit under this section was due to reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations (but not due to fraud)

If there is a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit was due to fraud, the disallowance period is 10 taxable years instead.

This is an absolute ban but there is also an indefinite potential disallowance, in Section 32(k)(2):

In the case of a taxpayer who is denied credit under this section for any taxable year as a result of the deficiency procedures under subchapter B of chapter 63, no credit shall be allowed under this section for any subsequent taxable year unless the taxpayer provides such information as the Secretary may require to demonstrate eligibility for such credit.

Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(b) explains that

Denial of the EIC as a result of the deficiency procedures occurs when a tax on account of the EIC is assessed as a deficiency (other than as a mathematical or clerical error under section 6213(b)(1)).

And Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(c) specifies Form 8862 as the information required to demonstrate eligibility. The instructions make clear that the taxpayer should not file Form 8862 during the years that a ban applies, but it will be required if the EITC is disallowed, even absent a final determination of fraud or reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, to claim the EITC in any other years. If the form is properly completed and the IRS determines the taxpayer is eligible for the EITC, then the taxpayer is re-certified and need not submit Form 8862 again – unless the EITC is denied again.

Under Section 6213(g)(2)(K), the IRS can adjust the tax return by math error correction, rather than the deficiency procedures, if the taxpayer claims the credit during the ban period or without providing the required information for recertification. Nina Olson fought against that idea for years but it was eventually enacted in the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015.

First obstacle: Location and language

Our LITC client – let’s call her “Maria” – was originally audited with respect to her 2014 return. She did a very good job of responding to the audit before even coming to our clinic. Most often, issues in an EITC audit concern proving relationship to the qualifying child or that the child lives with the taxpayer. Maria resolved those to the satisfaction of Exam/Appeals but one stumbling block remained: filing status. She filed her return as “single,” which of course should have been “Head of Household,” but the IRS insisted that she was married. Section 32(d) specifies that married taxpayers can claim the EITC only if they file joint returns. The IRS reclassified her filing status as “Married Filing Separately.” That was where the resolution bogged down, because Maria was adamant that she was not married.

Unfortunately, Maria lives in Texas, one of only ten states (plus the District of Columbia) that recognize common law marriage. She didn’t know that and she didn’t realize what the IRS was arguing from the correspondence she received. Maria doesn’t speak English and the “common law” part got lost in the translation by her son, who may not be familiar with the concept either. When she came to our clinic, we were able to explain the problem to her. We also determined that she had two arguments for claiming the credit.

First, she arguably did not meet the requirements under Texas law for a common law marriage. She had lived with her putative husband – let’s call him “Jose” – but she did not intend to be married and did not hold herself out to others as being married. We were persuaded as to the absence of intent by her obvious surprise when we explained what the IRS was saying. While corresponding with Exam/Appeals, before she came to the clinic, she submitted proof that she was not married: a certificate from the county clerk’s office that there was no record of a legal marriage between Maria and Jose. That’s not the type of evidence you’re likely to submit if you are aware of the existence of common law marriage. And if you’re not aware, that certainly suggests that you lacked the intent.

The more difficult aspect was the “holding out” requirement, because Maria and Jose had filed joint tax returns for several years prior to 2014. Jose may have held himself out to the IRS as married to Maria but I don’t think she did. She didn’t realize what the tax returns she signed meant. She thought Jose was claiming her as a dependent, not that she was presenting herself as his spouse. But it was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, to prevail on the first argument.

Our second argument was better. Under Section 7703(b), Maria could file her return as Head of Household, even though married, if (a) she maintained a household for a child who lived there and (b) she and Jose lived apart for at least the last six months of the year. Under Reg. 1.32-2(b)(2), such a return is not subject to the limitation of Section 32(d).  Jose had moved out in 2013; he was working in the oil fields in South Texas and living in his truck to save money to start a business. When he moved out, she even began paying him rent.

Second obstacle: Exam/Appeals and evidence

Unfortunately, there was no documentary evidence that Jose no longer lived there. He still received mail at the address where Maria lived and continued to use that address on subsequent tax returns he filed. You can’t get mail addressed to a truck and you can’t use the truck as your address on a tax return. There was no rental agreement or utility bill for the truck either, so the IRS could find no records showing a different address for him. So as far as Exam and Appeals were concerned, he still lived with Maria.

The IRS also was not satisfied with the substantiation for the agreement to pay rent. Maria and Jose documented that arrangement with a very formal rental agreement. (How many taxpayers would think to do that?) Unfortunately, Maria’s copy of the agreement was unsigned and it was only for a term of one year, which did not cover all of 2014. Maria continued paying rent after that but they did not think to prepare a new agreement until she was audited. Also, Maria didn’t have records of the payments to Jose, because she paid him in cash.

Maria’s case stumbled over what appears to be a larger problem with correspondence audits. During my limited time at the LITC, Exam and Appeals both appear to rely exclusively on documentary evidence. That may be understandable, given drastic reductions in staffing and the absence of face-to-face meetings in correspondence audits, but I don’t think it’s reasonable – particularly on something like this that had huge potential consequences. We offered to arrange a telephone conference (including translator) with Maria and could have put together an affidavit if they preferred that. But they just rejected the idea of testimony. Luckily, Counsel can and does accept testimonial evidence, so we were still hopeful. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to go to Tax Court, when we encountered another obstacle.

Shortly after we filed the Tax Court petition for the 2014 tax year, the IRS sent an audit notice for 2015. The same process repeated with the same result – Exam and Appeals rejected our explanations due to a lack of documentary evidence and Maria received a notice of deficiency. The IRS had frozen the refund for 2015 during the audit, so further delay did create some financial hardship.

Third obstacle: Error in a ministerial or administrative action

Once Appeals returned the docketed case for 2014 to Counsel, we submitted a declaration by Maria setting forth what her testimony would be. Within a week, the IRS attorney agreed to concede the case in full. The stipulated decision for 2014 was filed a day after we filed the petition for 2015. And in less than three months, we had a full concession from Counsel for 2015 and another stipulated decision. So, great results for Maria, right? Alas, here’s where we ran into an unrelated issue that had a very unfortunate interaction with the EITC ban.

I had never given much thought to the question of how Exam and Appeals proceed after issuing a notice of deficiency. I should have, although I’m not sure I could have avoided this problem. Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) sections 4.8.9.25 and 4.8.9.26 set forth the process when the taxpayer petitions and when the taxpayer defaults, respectively, after a notice of deficiency. It seems to be an elaborate process with many safeguards – a tax litigation counsel automated tracking system, a related docketed information management system, and checking the Tax Court website if not in those systems to confirm that the taxpayer defaulted. There is even a follow-up process for the occasional situation when the responsible employee receives the docket list after tax was assessed.

For both 2014 and 2015, we filed Tax Court petitions timely. As we all know, Section 6213(a) states in unequivocal terms that

no assessment of a deficiency . . . shall be made, begun, or prosecuted until such notice [of deficiency] has been mailed to the taxpayer, nor until the expiration of such 90-day or 150-day period, as the case may be, nor, if a petition has been filed with the Tax Court, until the decision of the Tax Court has become final.

This is a disaster story, though, so you’ve undoubtedly guessed (correctly) that for both years the IRS assessed tax and reversed the EITC, while there was a pending Tax Court case. The IRS imposed the EITC 2-year ban in both cases and issued Notice CP 79A.

Why did this happen? I really don’t know. While I was writing this post, out of curiosity I reviewed the limited number of Tax Court deficiency cases our clinic handled in our two years of existence. For all the non-EITC cases, transaction code 520 “bankruptcy or other legal action filed” was posted to the transcript consistently in less than a month after the date the petition was posted to the Tax Court online docket. But for three of our six EITC cases in Tax Court, including Maria’s cases for 2014 and 2015, transaction code 520 was posted to the transcript significantly later: 64, 212, and 221 days after the respective petition was posted to the Tax Court docket. Every process is only as strong as its weakest link – in this case, human error or delay. Someone somewhere didn’t realize that we had challenged the notice of deficiency and didn’t get the information into the computer, so the assessments – and EITC bans – proceeded for those three cases. (Our other client made it to safety relatively early in the process.)

I reported the issue of premature assessments from these cases in the Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS) last year, and I suspect other people have done so as well. It’s always a problem, but the consequences can be worse when the EITC ban is put into play.

Fourth obstacle: The difficulty of reversing an illegitimate assessment and EITC ban

Section 6213(a) provides a remedy if the IRS assesses or takes collection actions while a Tax Court case is pending:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 7421(a), the making of such assessment or the beginning of such proceeding or levy during the time such prohibition is in force may be enjoined by a proceeding in the proper court, including the Tax Court, and a refund may be ordered by such court of any amount collected within the period during which the Secretary is prohibited from collecting by levy or through a proceeding in court under the provisions of this subsection.

It doesn’t provide for enjoining the imposition of the EITC ban, though. In addition, IRM 4.13.3.17 provides that errors concerning an EITC assessment can be resolved through the audit reconsideration process, although presumably this is intended to apply when the taxpayer provides additional documentation after a legitimate assessment.

Perhaps foolishly, we tried to resolve the problem for 2014 informally. I gave the IRS attorney assigned to the case a copy of the notices issued by the IRS and asked if she could have it corrected. Because she had already referred the docketed case to Appeals, she passed that documentation along to the Appeals Officer. I followed up with the Appeals Officer twice, with no response. But the problem was eventually resolved; the assessment was reversed, and the IRS mailed Notice CP 74, recertifying Maria for EITC. Problem solved, and since the Tax Court case was still pending, no harm, no foul.

For 2015, I responded directly to the assessment and Notice CP 79A. That notice presents the ban as a fait accompli; there was no reference to what the taxpayer should do if she disagreed with the IRS action. As noted above, the recertification process applies only after the ban period. The accompanying Notice CP 22E for the assessment suggested the taxpayer call if she disagreed with the changes. Instead, I wrote a letter – remarkably polite under the circumstances – pointing out that the assessment and imposition of the ban were illegal because of the pending Tax Court case and requesting the IRS “take all necessary corrective actions immediately.” Exactly one month later (which qualifies as “immediately” in any large bureaucracy), the assessment was reversed. We had filed the stipulated decision in the meantime and finally, almost six months after our letter and five months after the stipulated decision, the IRS issued a refund. This was a long time for a low-income taxpayer to wait for a refund, but better late than never.

Let’s summarize the timeline, because this is getting confusing.

2014 tax year

  • Notice of deficiency – 11/30/2016
  • Tax Court petition filed (timely) – 2/24/2017
  • Assessment/ban – 4/17/2017
  • “Bankruptcy or other legal action” posted per transcript – 5/3/2017
  • Clinic contacts Counsel and Appeals regarding the premature assessment – 6/5/2017, 6/21/2017, 7/24/2017
  • Assessment reversed – 11/13/2017
  • Tax Court stipulated decision – 1/23/2018

2015 tax year

  • Notice of deficiency – 10/16/2017
  • Tax Court petition filed (timely) – 1/16/2018
  • Assessment/ban – 2/26/2018
  • Clinic letter to IRS – 3/2/2018
  • Assessment reversed – 4/2/2018
  • Tax Court stipulated decision – 4/5/2018
  • Refund issued – 8/3/2018
  • “Bankruptcy or other legal action” posted per transcript – 8/29/2018

Fifth obstacle: Enter the math error adjustment

Just when we thought Maria’s problems were over, on 7/2/2018 she received Notice CP 12, a math error adjustment denying EITC, for her 2016 tax return. We either didn’t notice or didn’t realize the significance at the time, but when the IRS reversed the premature assessment for her 2015 tax year, it did not issue Notice CP 74 recertifying her for EITC.

There had been an assessment of tax, on account of the EITC, as a deficiency for 2015, so it met the requirements of Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(b) and Section 32(k)(2). Of course, that assessment for 2015 was illegal and had been reversed. The stipulated decision in the Tax Court case meant there never was and never would be a legitimate final assessment or determination of reckless or intentional disregard of rules or regulations for 2015. Because there is no process to confirm the validity of the EITC ban first, the failure to recertify automatically resulted in issuance of the math error adjustment.

Luckily, although a math error adjustment can be assessed without judicial review, taxpayers can simply request that the adjustment be reversed within 60 days, although – if appropriate – it can be re-asserted through the deficiency process. Section 6213(b)(1) and (2). That’s exactly what we requested for the 2016 tax year, by letter on 7/24/2018.

And, of course, since this is a disaster story, you know that Maria also received Notice CP 12 for her 2017 tax return.

Sixth obstacle: Further delay for an audit?

The IRS mis-handled our protest of the math error adjustment for 2016. Of course. Notice CP 12 states:

If you contact us in writing within 60 days of the date of this notice, we will reverse the change we made to your account. However, if you are unable to provide us additional information that justifies the reversal and we believe the reversal and we believe the reversal is in error, we will forward your case for audit. This step gives you formal appeal rights, including the right to appeal our decision in the United States [Tax] Court before you have to pay additional tax. After we forward your case, the audit staff will contact you within 5 to 6 weeks to fully explain the audit process and your rights. If you do not contact us within the 60-day period, you will lose your right to appeal our decision before payment of tax.

That’s consistent with Section 6213(b) as well as IRM 21.5.4.5.3 to 21.5.4.5.5 (general math error procedures) and IRM 21.6.3.4.2.7.13 (EITC math errors specifically). A substantiated protest can result in just reversing the math error adjustment; an unsubstantiated protest will result in referral to Exam.

The IRS treated our protest of the math error adjustment for 2016 as an unsubstantiated protest and referred it to Exam. Perhaps they misclassified our protest because they expect a substantiated EITC protest to provide documentation regarding relationship or residence or SSNs. Our protest was based on a premature assessment and assertion of the ban, and the failure to reverse the ban imposed as a result of the audit of 2015. We certainly had substantiated our basis for that. But when you provide a type of substantiation that they’re not anticipating . . .

So we received an audit letter dated November 9th. Further delay before Maria will receive her refund. To add insult to injury, the notification of what was happening was inadequate and would have been confusing to an unrepresented taxpayer. There was no response to the protest, telling us that they were referring the case to Exam for review. That might have provided an opportunity to clarify the nature of our protest before initiation of the audit. The audit letter did not explain the connection with the math error adjustment. For that matter, the IRS did not – as specified in the IRM – abate the disputed adjustment.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the same thing would have happened when we protested the math error adjustment for 2017 as well. Luckily . . .

The rescue party arrives! Maria makes it to safety!

Our efforts hadn’t met with much success, so we contacted our Local Taxpayer Advocate office in mid October. The case advocate spent a lot of time and effort, chasing from one office to another on Maria’s behalf. He pointed out the premature bans, the decisions by the Tax Court, and the IRS policy against auditing an issue that were examined in either of the two preceding years with no change or a nominal adjustment. Even after he elevated the discussion to managers in the operating units, there was still a lot of resistance. I’m not sure he would have succeeded without the gentle reminder of the possibility of a Taxpayer Assistance Order. Just as I was finishing this post, he called us with the good news. The 2-year ban is being lifted, the two math error adjustments are being reversed, and the examination of 2016 is being closed. Soon Maria will be getting the remainder of the refunds she requested on her 2016 and 2017 tax returns.

Final thoughts

I’m getting used to the unfortunate difficulty of convincing Exam/Appeals that our clients are entitled to the EITC. I didn’t worry that much about the EITC ban because most of the time either we prevail or our clients aren’t entitled to the EITC and won’t claim it in the future anyway. I certainly didn’t anticipate how much trouble the EITC ban can cause even when we win the battle over the EITC itself.

TAS Systemic Advocacy also continues to look at these issues. They approached me after hearing about the case, before I even got around to reporting it in SAMS. Nina Olson has been fighting the problems with the EITC ban for years but still meets with resistance. Maybe this example of how much can go wrong will help in that fight. We can only hope.

The positive part of any ordeal like this is that, amid all the mindless adherence to byzantine and flawed processes, you can still encounter the IRS working the way it should: getting the right result, protecting the government fisc while also protecting taxpayer rights. In Maria’s case, those bright spots were Counsel, the case advocate at LTA, and the folks at TAS Systemic Advocacy. Without people like them, these tax issues can be devastating, not just for Maria but also for a lot of other taxpayers in similar situations.

 

Are Alleged Alter Egos, Successors in Interest and/or Transferees Entitled to Their Own Collection Due Process Rights Under Sections 6320 and 6330? Part 4

Guest blogger Lavar Taylor continues his series on Collection Due Process and third parties. The series provides a deep dive into the jurisprudence of CDP cases and the rights of third parties to have an outlet to challenge the liens and levies made against these non-taxpayer parties held liable for the taxpayer’s obligations. Keith

This post looks at the question of how a putative alter ego, successor in interest or transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the Tax Court to raise the question of whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under §§6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability. This discussion assumes, of course, that the IRS has the legal ability to pursue administrative collection action against a putative alter ego or successor in interest of the taxpayer, without first obtaining a judgment in District Court or without first making a separate assessment against the third party under section 6901.   As is explained in Part 3 of this series, such an assumption may not be correct.

This post also discusses how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee might pursue litigation in the Tax Court to raise the issue discussed in Part 3, namely, whether the government can ever take administrative collection action against the putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee in the absence of a District Court judgment holding that the putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee is liable for some or all of the taxpayer’s tax liability.

read more...
  1. Existing Tax Court Jurisprudence Regarding Tax Court Jurisdiction

The Tax Court has stated on numerous occasions that a notice of determination under the CDP provisions is a taxpayer’s “ticket” to the Tax Court in CDP cases, see Weber v. Commissioner, 122 T.C. 258, 263 (2004), and that a failure to file a timely petition in response to a notice of determination requires the Court to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction. Id. The Tax Court has also held that, in a situation where the IRS issued a notice of intent to levy under §6330 and the taxpayer failed to request a CDP hearing, the Court lacked jurisdiction because no CDP hearing had been requested and no notice of determination had been issued by the IRS. Offiler v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 492 (2000).

Thus, in situations where the IRS takes levy action, whether against a taxpayer or against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, without first issuing a CDP notice of intent to levy under §6330, and the party against which levy action files a petition with the Tax Court to challenge the validity of the levy action as having been taken in violation of §6330, the IRS will likely argue that the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction over the petition. Indeed, that is exactly what the IRS did in the case in which we filed petition with the Tax Court on behalf of our client, an alleged alter ego/successor in interest, after the IRS levied on our client’s bank accounts without providing any notice or other advanced warning whatsoever to our client.

The IRS can take this position even if the failure to issue a §6330 notice of intent to levy is in clear violation of the law. Of course, even if the IRS were to “concede” that the Tax Court has jurisdiction over a petition in this situation, such a “concession” would not be binding on the Tax Court. The Court has an independent duty to determine whether it has jurisdiction over a petition, regardless of the positions taken by the parties. SECC Corp. v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. 225 (2014).

The Tax Court has never held that it lacks jurisdiction over a petition in this precise situation, however. In one case where the Tax Court concluded that the IRS improperly levied on a taxpayer’s bank account without first issuing a Notice of Intent to Levy, the Court held that it had jurisdiction over the case because the IRS made a de facto “determination” for purposes of section 6330 in response to which a petition was filed and thus formed the basis of the Court’s jurisdiction. See Chocallo v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2004-152, 87 T.C.M. (CCH) 1432 (2004). In Chocallo, the Court also held that it had the ability to order the IRS to refund to the Petitioner all funds which Respondent had improperly seized or levied from the taxpayer.

[Curiously, it is not possible to access the docket sheet in the Chocallo case electronically. The Tax Court’s website indicates that the case is filed under seal. This seems to me to be very strange.   I have a distinct memory, from a number of years ago, of reading another Memorandum Decision, the name of which I cannot recall, which seemingly was issued either in the Chocallo case or in another case involving facts that were very similar to the facts in Chocallo, prior to the date of 2004 Chocallo opinon. Since I have not able to locate any other Memorandum Decision with similar facts, it would be nice if the seal in Chocallo were somehow lifted. I would then be able to figure out whether my memory is correct about the existence of the other Memorandum Decision or instead be able to confirm that my memory has been completely corrupted from lead poisoning. (Most of my ill-spent youth was spent growing up on the site of a defunct lead-smelting plant in southern Illinois. I blame all of my mistakes on this fact.)]

The aspect of the Chocallo opinion dealing with the ability of the Tax Court to exercise jurisdiction in this situation has been discussed by the Tax Court in TC opinions, see Greene-Thapedi v. Commissioner, 126 T.C. 1, 9 n.13 (2006), and Bussell v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. 222, 245 (2008), but it has never been disavowed by the Court. Thus, it is an open question as to how the Tax Court would rule in a Reviewed Opinion or a TC Opinion by one Division of the Court on the issue of whether the Tax Court can acquire jurisdiction in the fact pattern that was faced by our clients. If the Tax Court does acquire jurisdiction, however, it would appear that it can exercise equitable powers to restore the status quo ante and order the IRS to undo the effects of an illegal levy. See Zapara v. Commissioner, 652 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir.2011), affirming 124 T.C. 223 (2005).

Notwithstanding this uncertainty, there is one step which practitioners can take to increase the chances that the Tax Court will hold that it has acquired jurisdiction in a case where the IRS has taken levy action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of the taxpayer without sending a separate notice of intent to levy to the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee. That step is well illustrated by the opinion in Grover v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2007-176, 94 T.C.M. 28 (2007). In Grover, the taxpayer filed a petition asserting that the IRS had issued levies without first sending the taxpayer a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy.   The IRS moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, based on the grounds that no Notice of Determination had ever been issued to the taxpayer. The IRS also noted that it had previously issued a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the taxpayer well before the taxpayer filed a Tax Court petition.

In dismissing the petition for lack of jurisdiction, the Tax Court stated as follows:

The parties agree that respondent issued no notice of determination. Petitioner does not contend that respondent otherwise made any section 6330 determination. Cf. Chocallo v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2004-152 (describing an order denying a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction predicated on the nonissuance of any notice of determination, where the Court had found that the taxpayer had received a “‘determination’ within the contemplation of section 6330” on the basis of “various discrepancies” in the transcripts of account). But as suggested in Boyd v. Comm’r, supra at 303, even if we were to conclude that the notice of levy was “evidence of a concurrent section 6330 determination”, we would be required to dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction because petitioner did not file his petition until November 17, 2006, which was more than 30 days after the October 9, 2006, notice of levy.

This quote makes clear that, if an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer wants to have a fighting chance to convince the Tax Court to take jurisdiction over a petition filed in a case where the IRS took levy action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of the taxpayer without first sending a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, the alleged alter ego/successor in interest must file the petition within 30 days of the date of the initial IRS levy. In our now-settled Tax Court case, we made sure to file a petition within this 30 day period.

It is possible to argue that a petition filed under these circumstances is timely if filed within 30 days of the date on which the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee receives notice of the levy action. But the prudent course of action is to file a petition within 30 days of the date of the initial levy action if possible.

Even then, it is possible that the Tax Court will end up holding that it lacks jurisdiction in this situation. In our case, we argued in the alternative that, even if the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction in this situation because there was no “determination,” the Tax Court can dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction in a way that makes clear that the IRS’s levy action was illegal. I now turn to those alternative arguments.

  1. Alternative Arguments- Getting the Case Dismissed for Lack of Jurisdiction for the Right Reasons

The Tax Court has issued opinions in a number of cases in which taxpayers filed petitions claiming that the IRS had failed to send a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the taxpayer’s last known address before taking levy action. In these situations, the Tax Court has dismissed the petition based on lack of jurisdiction due to the failure of the IRS to send a valid notice of intent to levy prior to taking levy action. See, e.g., Buffano v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2007-32, 93 T.C.M. (CCH) 901 (2007). This approach is consistent with the Tax Court’s jurisprudence involving the failure of the IRS to issue a notice of deficiency to a taxpayer’s last known address. See King v. Commissioner, 88 T.C. 1042 (1987), aff’d,  857 F.2d 676 (9th Cir. 1988).

The Ninth Circuit has held that a failure of the Tax Court to explain the reasons for dismissing a petition for lack of jurisdiction where a taxpayer has alleged that the IRS failed to send a notice of deficiency to the taxpayer’s last known address is legal error. See Rosewood Hotel, Inc. v. Commissioner, 275 F.2d 786 (9th Cir. 1960).

In our now-settled case, we argued in the alternative that, if the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction over our petition, it should dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that the IRS was required to issue a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to our client prior to taking levy action and had failed to do so.   We cited to Rosewood and other case law involving for the proposition that the Court could not simply dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction without explanation in the face of an argument that the IRS had violated the law by levying on our client’s property without first issuing our client a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy

We also argued in the alternative that the Tax Court should dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that the IRS could not pursue levy action at all against our client, because the Code does not permit collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee in the absence of a judgment (or separate assessment) against the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee. In essence, we raised the argument discussed in Part 3 of this series of blog posts, based on the fact that the IRS could not take administrative collection action against alleged transferees of a taxpayer prior to the enactment of the predecessor to what is now section 6901 of the Code, as another alternative argument.

In raising these arguments, however, we had to deal with the case of Adolphson v. Commissioner, 842 F. 3d 478 (7th Cir. 2016). Adolphson held that the Tax Court erred in cases such as Buffano v. Commissioner, supra, when the Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction while explaining that Respondent had failed to issue the Notice of Determination to the petitioner’s last known address. The Seventh Circuit held that this latter topic should not have been addressed at all when the Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction. Instead, per the Seventh Circuit, the Tax Court should have just dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction, without further comment.

Ironically, the Seventh Circuit, in reaching its conclusion, violated the very rule which it pronounced in its own opinion. The Seventh Circuit discussed the IRS’s failure to send the Notice of Determination to the petitioner’s “last known address” at length. Aside from the Seventh Circuit’s failure to adhere to its own holding in its opinion, my biggest concern about the Seventh Circuit’s holding is that it permits the IRS to unilaterally deprive taxpayers, along with putative alter egos/successors in interest, of the ability to challenge levy action in the Tax Court. This ruling forces parties to vindicate their CDP rights in District Court, a forum that, since 2006, has no familiarity whatsoever with these rights. The notion that only District Courts, and not the Tax Court, can decide the scope of the Tax Court’s jurisdiction in CDP cases where the IRS refuses or fails to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy seems to me to be utterly absurd and contrary to Congressional intent.

When we settled our case, we deprived the Tax Court of the opportunity to rule on whether it will continue to follow its prior holding in Buffano in cases which are not appealable to the Seventh Circuit. The Tax Court will face that issue in the not too distant future, and the Tax Court’s holding in that case will impact the ability of alleged alter egos/successors in interest to obtain a dismissal of a petition based on lack of jurisdiction with a discussion and analysis by the Tax Court of the IRS’s alleged procedural irregularities.

If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction in these types of cases and, in doing so, follows the holding of the Seventh Circuit in Adolphson, alleged alter egos/successors in interest will be forced to litigate in District Court the question of whether they are entitled to their own independent CDP rights.

This concludes Part 4 of this series. Part 5 of this series will address how these issues can be raised in District Court litigation. Part 5 will also discuss why assertions by the IRS of “nominee” status require a different analysis regarding the potential applicability of the CDP procedures than assertions by the IRS of “alter ego,” “successor in interest” or “transferee” status.   I will also explain why virtually all “nominee” notices of federal tax lien that have been filed by the IRS, along with some “transferee” notices of federal tax lien filed by the IRS, are likely improper in one important respect, to the legal detriment of most, if not all of the persons/entities against whom/which these lien notices have been filed.

 

Questions of Fact, Questions of Law, and How and When to Argue Them: Designated Orders, November 5 – 9, 2018

Caleb Smith of the University of Minnesota brings us this week’s designated order blog post. The Nordberg case Professor Smith discuses was tried at the most recent Boston calendar where my students were watching the case with me.  I told them that as a retired federal employee, I was 100% behind Mr. Nordberg and as a tax professor I was 100% sure he would lose.  I do not often have that degree of certainty. Keith

Is It Enough That The Parties Agree There Is No Issue of Material Fact? Gage v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 23874-17 (here)

There have been no shortage of orders denying summary judgment to the IRS covered at PT (Judge Gustafson, as covered here, has been one of the leading proponents). What makes the order in Gage slightly different is that both parties move for summary judgment, and neither receive it.

As a matter of policy, the purpose of summary judgment is fairly straightforward: to preserve judicial resources and avoid needless trials when there really isn’t anything else needed for the Court to render a decision. Even so, as demonstrated in Gage, parties can’t simply agree to the applicability of summary judgment as a “shortcut” to an early decision.

read more...

Gage involves what appears to be a simple (or at least narrow) legal question: whether a particular $875,000 payment to the US government is deductible as a business expense. The payment arose from a lawsuit brought against the petitioner’s business by the U.S. government under the National Housing Act. The record in Gage appears to be fairly developed at the time of the summary judgment motions, and much, if not all, of the case appears to hinge on the nature of the resulting settlement payment. In a nutshell, if the payment at issue was a “fine or similar penalty” to the government then the payment is not deductible and the petitioner loses. See IRC 162(f) and Treas. Reg. 1.162-21. The case, therefore, is almost entirely an issue of the characterization of the payment.

In dismissing both motions for summary judgment, Judge Panuthos lists three large issues of “material fact” that he believes continue to be genuinely in dispute: “(1) the characterization and purpose of the $875,000 settlement payment made by petitioners to the government; (2) whether that $875,000 payment represented compensation to the government or double damages; and (3) if that $875,000 payment represents double damages, whether the parties to the settlement agreement intended the payment to compensate the government for its losses or to deter and punish defendants for their conduct.”

I’m not positive, however, that I agree with Judge Panuthos in describing these three outstanding issues as ones of “material fact.” The problem with characterization cases like this is the blurring/blending of issues of “fact” and issues of “law.” Is the first point Judge Panuthos lists (the “characterization and purpose of the $875,000 settlement payment”) really an issue of “material fact” or a matter of law? I would say the petitioner is arguing that the (undisputed) facts in the record necessarily lead to the characterization of the payment as compensatory damages. If the fact that the payment was compensatory damage is found, the law should apply in their favor. Full stop. Conversely, the IRS is arguing that those same (undisputed) facts necessarily lead to the characterization of the payment as a fine or penalty. If that fact is found the law should apply in their favor. Full stop. In other words, the parties are agreeing on the “facts” (the background of the settlement) but disagreeing on how they should be interpreted as “ultimate facts” leading necessarily to the legal outcome. One may wonder if a dispute on the “ultimate facts” isn’t the same as a dispute on the law as applied to the facts. If that were the case, this could be a good candidate for summary judgment: the Court would simply fulfill its role as arbiter of determining the side that was “entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”

And yet, both summary judgment motions are denied. Why might this be?

In the end, I think the parties are arguing that there are enough undisputed facts in the record for the Court to reach a judgment as a matter of law and Special Trial Judge Panuthos is just saying, “No: the Court needs more.” It isn’t necessarily that there remains a disputed issue of material fact, but just that there aren’t enough facts in the record for either side to prevail. All Judge Panuthos has is the background facts of the transaction -but the characterization issue requires a lot more before anyone is “entitled to judgement as a matter of law.” I’d note that this is the case even though the burden is on the petitioner to show that they are entitled to the deduction. (See INDOPCO, Inc. v. C.I.R., 503 U.S. 79 (1992).) It would be a different case if it were being submitted fully stipulated under T.C. Rule 122 rather than summary judgment under T.C. Rule 121. The IRS can’t say “the petitioner hasn’t met their burden, so we are entitled to judgment” at the earlier stage, since the petitioner still could put evidence into the record. In that respect, even though this order denies the IRS summary judgment, I’d read this as a warning to petitioner: you probably won’t win unless you put a little more into the record.

All of which may all be my long-winded way of saying that blended issues of law and fact are generally bad candidates for summary judgment.

Another Characterization Issue: Is Your Underperforming Pension Really a Roth IRA? Nordberg v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 1426-17 (here)

Procedurally, there isn’t much of interest to this order -a bench decision finding against the taxpayer on a novel legal argument. Further, there wasn’t really much suspense to the decision: the novel argument put forth by the taxpayer (that his government pension should be taxed the same as a Roth IRA) was pretty quickly dismissed by Judge Gustafson.

However, the case does provide one more addition to the list of judicial phrases that signal you’re going to lose, or at least going to lose in Tax Court. To wit: “The principle flaw in [the petitioner’s] argument is that there is no basis for it in the Code.” That is a pretty big flaw when arguing in Tax Court. And in that way Nordberg serves as a somewhat useful teaching tool: a reminder that the Tax Court is not a court of equity, and not all arguments are created equally.

Although doomed to fail, it is possible the pro-se petitioner had a greater legal background (or at least believed he did) than most: Mr. Nordberg was an employee of a member of the US House of Representatives for almost 20 years. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and the style of argument put forth by Mr. Nordberg demonstrates that.

Mr. Nordberg’s primary argument is based on “general principles” of the Code, rather than focusing on the specific Code sections at issue. With regards to retirement income, Mr. Nordberg has derived the following general principle from the Code: if your contributions to the retirement plan are deductible, you have an IRA with the interest and principal taxable on receipt. If your contributions to the retirement plan are non-deductible, you have a Roth IRA with neither the interest or the principal taxable on receipt.

Mr. Nordberg made non-deductible contributions to his pension so, he reasons, all of his pension should be taxed like a Roth IRA. To repeat Judge Gustafson, the problem with this argument is that it has no basis for it in the Code. A second problem, however, is that it also only looks at half of the contributions to the pension (conveniently, the non-deductible portion).

Mr. Nordberg had a government pension through the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). The terms of the pension were that Mr. Nordberg made mandatory after-tax contributions (somewhat similarly to a Roth IRA). However, the employer also matched these payments (which were effectively “pre-tax” to Mr. Nordberg). The Code and the court in Malbon v. U.S., 43 F.3d 466 (9th Cir. 1994), treat annuity payments from these arrangements as partially taxable and partially non-taxable. The non-taxable portion being only that amount which represents the post-tax contributions by the taxpayer (with that amount determined pro-rata based on life-expectancy tables). Everything that isn’t the taxpayer’s contribution (including interest) is taxable. As Judge Gustafson puts it, Malbon “resolves the issues in this case: Mr. Nordberg’s CSRS annuity payments are not excluded from taxable income. Only a portion of them are non-taxable.” In other words, the Code and case law conclusively determines that an annuity payment is taxed unlike either a Roth IRA or regular IRA. There is no “general principle” of tax law that will save you when Congress and the Courts have spoken otherwise.

Similarly, and as a closing point, arguing about general notions of fairness is unlikely to get you very far in Tax Court. One of the main concerns of Mr. Nordberg appeared to be both that his government pensions rate of return was less than a private Roth IRA may have been, and that he perceived the tax consequences to be worse. Without a hint of irony speaking to a long-time employee of a US House Representative, Judge Gustafson notes that the Court doesn’t have the “authority to depart from the law Congress has enacted and to instead devise rules of taxation based on felt fairness.” In other words, if you want fairness take it up with your former boss.

Odds and Ends: Failing to Show Up

The remaining four designated orders concerned taxpayers that failed to show up, literally or figuratively, for their case. On the literal side, you have Nuss v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 22655-17S (here): a bench opinion by Judge Carluzzo against a petitioner that didn’t show up for his own trial. Similarly, Judge Gustafson dismissed the petitioners case in Hochschild v. C.I.R. (here) for failure to properly prosecute when the taxpayer failed to show up to trial or otherwise respond to numerous inquiries about her case. Moving to the more figurative side of failing to show up, you have McHenry Jr. v. C.I.R. (here) granting the IRS summary judgment in a CDP case where the petitioner didn’t provide IRS appeals any financial information, but insisted they should be placed in Currently Not Collectible status.

Lastly, and decidedly on the figurative side of the failing-to-show-up spectrum, you have Tunsill v. C.I.R. (here), which involves the increasingly popular motion of dismissing for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. The petitioner, perhaps dazzled by the claims of hobbyist tax “lawyers” found online, goes out of their way to make clear that they are not, in any real way, showing up for their tax court case. Generally when a taxpayer feels the need to state, in their petition, that they are “making a special appearance before the court” (perhaps intending to demonstrate that they are not consenting to jurisdiction by sending a petition?) it actually means they aren’t really showing up at all. This case does not appear to be an exception, and Judge Leyden grants the dismissal.

The petition reads slightly unlike most tax protestor arguments, but maintains that same critical misunderstanding of what a Notice of Deficiency (and indeed, tax assessment) entails. The taxpayer’s words in their petition illustrates the confusion better than I could hope to: “In conclusion, [the taxpayer] is being accused of a commercial crime (offense against revenue laws). Pursuant to law, the person making the claim must register their claim to make a proper assessment, so that there can be a demand for performance. Without a demand for performance, there can be no neglect. Without neglect, there can be no crime. Without a crime, there can be no court proceeding.”

Tax law and tax procedure is confusing, even for those that work in the field. That the petitioner in this case referenced things like a phantom Form 1099 OID, the UCC and the 4th and 5th Amendments leads me to believe that he may have been the victim of some dubious online research. I commend the Tax Court for reaching out to the taxpayer and IRS with a conference call before moving forward with the dismissal. Psychologically it is much easier to believe things that benefit you: like the tax protestor that recently assured me that he does not need to file or pay taxes because of the “privacy act.” I only hope Mr. Tunsill’s dismissed case will be the wake-up call to seek qualified professional advice rather than a signal to him that the Court systems are a part of the IRS conspiracy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Private Debt Collection – Since When Does Cash Positive Equal Success?

Today we welcome back guest blogger Mandi Matlock. Mandi is Of Counsel to the National Consumer Law Center. With a significant background in consumer law combined with tax controversy practice experience, Mandi brings us the consumer advocate’s perspective on the Private Collection Agency debate. As you will read, Mandi is not a fan of having private debt collectors collect federal taxes. Keith has written before how he is also not a fan of this practice. For more background, you can read our earlier posts on this topic here, here, and here, as well as a recent Quartz article quoting Mandi. Christine

If you’ve been keeping up with recent news coverage of the IRS’s private debt collection (PDC) program, you might be under the misapprehension that things are going swimmingly. The IRS released its latest quarterly report card last month evaluating the PDC program, showing $51 million in net revenue. In response, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the program’s most vocal Congressional proponent, asserted that the program “continues to prove its value.”

He is joined in this sentiment by, well, no one really, unless you count the Partnership for Tax Compliance, the debt collection industry trade group formed just to promote this program. According to the industry group, it is “crystal clear” the PDC program is “very profitable.”

read more...

Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), a key supporter of the legislation that forced the IRS to try to resurrect the twice-failed program, kept quiet about its value to taxpayers when the report card came out. To the extent he commented at all on the updated data, he characterized it as a boon to New Yorkers, stating that it was “all about” debt collection agency jobs for his constituents. (Yes, one of the four private collection agencies participating in the PDC program is headquartered in New York. Two of the remaining three are headquartered in Grassley’s backyard.)

Meanwhile, the National Treasury Employee’s Union President acerbically commented, “It took a year-and-a-half and millions of taxpayer dollars, but [the PDC program] has finally brought in more money than it cost.” The National Taxpayer Advocate has studied and written extensively about the PDC program in many of her annual reports to Congress. Her focus has primarily been on what she considers to be the significant burden the IRS’s operation of the program places on low-income and vulnerable taxpayers. Senator Warren and others in Congress have expressed similar concerns.

And, of course, there was that bombshell TIGTA report two months ago that thoroughly savaged the PDC program. In its report, TIGTA concluded that while the program is minimally cash-positive, it generally harms taxpayers and jeopardizes tax compliance. The IRS rejected all but one of TIGTA’s recommendations to improve the program.

Setting aside for just a moment the prodigious valid concerns about harms to taxpayers and to tax collection generally, did much change in the program’s profitability between the TIGTA report and the recent report card?

The best, honest spin I could find was this: The PDC program is slightly more minimally cash positive. Here are the indisputable facts:

  • Private collection agencies are collecting an average of 1.7% of assigned receivables (up a whopping 0.3% since the previous report card). Compare this with the debt collection industry standard of 9.9%.
  • The return on investment for collection by the IRS is 21 to 1 (according to fiscal year 2017 Treasury data). Meaning, IRS collected $21 for every $1 spent on its collection program. Current return on investment in the PDC program? 2.64 to 1. And the 2.64 figure is artificially high because the IRS has thus far not tracked and shared the estimated opportunity costs involved, as it did in previous iterations of the PDC program. (“Opportunity costs” would be the dollars the IRS could have collected if resources had not been diverted to operate the PDC program.)
  • Grassley’s presser lauds $14.5 million in collections that the IRS retains. But that only adds about one third of one percent to the IRS’s enforcement budget.

The PDC program makes no financial sense. None. Well, except for maybe to the PCAs – who are happily hoovering up cash from the public fisc and out of the pockets of low-income and vulnerable taxpayers. Add to this the potential for hardball collection tactics, a system that relies on PCAs to self-report debt collection abuses (!), the reduced collection alternatives available to taxpayers contacted by PCAs, and so much more that is wrong with the PDC program.

When will lawmakers fairly weigh the real harms against the illusory benefits of this program? In its current form the PDC program makes sense for PCAs, and no one else. Unless we start to see some hard scrutiny of the real numbers, taxpayers shouldn’t expect change soon.

District Court Equitably Tolls 2-Year Deadline to File Refund Suit

Frequent guest blogger Carl Smith discusses an important recent decision holding that the time to file a refund suit is not a jurisdictional time frame. In the case discussed by Carl, the facts allowed the taxpayer to successfully argue for an extended time period within which to file based on equitable tolling. Keith

PT readers know that Keith and I – through the Harvard clinic – have been arguing in a lot of cases that judicial filing deadlines in the tax area are no longer jurisdictional and are subject to equitable tolling under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law limiting the use of the term “jurisdictional” and expanding the use of equitable tolling. So far, we have lost on Tax Court innocent spouse and Collection Due Process filing deadlines; appellate cases on Tax Court deficiency and whistleblower awards jurisdiction deadlines are pending.

But, while I was still running a tax clinic at Cardozo School of Law, as an amicus, I helped persuade the Ninth Circuit to hold that the then-9-month filing deadline at section 6532(c) to bring a district court wrongful levy suit is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling. Volpicelli v. United States, 777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015). Relying both on the recent Supreme Court non-tax case law and Volpicelli, a district court has just held that the 2-year deadline at section 6532(a) to bring a district court or Court of Federal Claims tax refund suit is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling. Wagner v. United States, E.D. Wash. Docket No. 2:18-CV-76 (Nov. 16, 2018).

read more...

In Wagner, a couple filed a 2012 joint income tax return showing an overpayment of $1,364,363 and asked that $500,000 of the overpayment be refunded and the rest be applied as a credit to 2013 estimated taxes. I quote the remainder of the brief facts from the opinion:

In November, 2014, the IRS sent a letter disallowing some of the refund. . . .

Specifically, the IRS indicated it was allowing only $839,999 of the claim, and disallowing the remainder because “we are unable able to verify the total amount of your withholding based on information provided by the Social Security Administration.” Id. The amount of the disallowed claim was $524,364.

Plaintiffs replied by letter on December 5, 2014, indicating they were requesting a formal Appeal to the findings and also requesting an oral hearing. . . . They also provided additional information regarding the requested refund.

Nothing happened until May, 2016 when the IRS sent another letter, this time stating it was disallowing the entire $1,364,363 refund claim. . . .Specifically, the letter stated:

This letter is your notice that we’ve partially disallowed your claim for credit for the period shown above. We allowed only $.00 of the claim.  Id. 

The letter also indicated that Plaintiffs were now going to owe interest and penalties. Although it did not explicitly say so in the letter, the determination of the $.00 allowance of the claim meant the IRS was also disallowing $839,999 of the refund claim that it has previously allowed as indicated in the November, 2014 letter. Because of this, Plaintiffs were now being assessed an outstanding liability of $859,557.84. As a result, the IRS took $335,871 from the 2014 refund and applied it to the 2012 tax liability since this amount had come from Plaintiffs’ request to forward the remainder of the 2012 refund claim to the next year’s tax bill.

In early 2018, the taxpayers filed suit seeking a refund of $839,999 – i.e., only part of the original overpayment shown on the return. The DOJ moved to dismiss the suit for lack of jurisdiction as untimely, arguing that the 2-year period in section 6532(a) to bring such a suit commenced when the IRS sent its first letter in November 2014.

The district court ruled in the alternative. It held that the filing deadline for the refund suit commenced in May 2016, when the second IRS letter was issued. In the alternative, because of the confusing nature of the IRS correspondence, if the filing deadline actually started in November 2014, the filing deadline was tolled because of “equitable considerations” generated by this confusing correspondence, “including the fact that Plaintiffs were informed that $839,999 of the requested refund claim was not going to be allowed less than 6 months before the statute of limitations expired . . . .”

Before applying the alternative holding of equitable tolling, the court examined whether the filing deadline was jurisdictional under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law summarized in United States v. Wong, 135 S. Ct. 1625 (2015) (finding the filing deadlines for Federal Court Claims Act suits in 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b) nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling). In Wong, the Court held that filing deadlines are normally nonjurisdictional claims processing rules. Congress could, though, make such deadlines jurisdictional through a “clear statement” in the statute, but “Congress must do something special, beyond setting an exception-free deadline, to tag a statute of limitations as jurisdictional and so prohibit a court from tolling it.” Id. at 1632.

The district court in Wagner also looked to Volpicelli – a Ninth Circuit opinion holding the then-9-month filing deadline in section 6532(c) to bring a district court wrongful levy suit nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling. We blogged on Volpicelli numerous times in 2015: here, here, here, and here. Volpicelli had been decided a few months before Wong. The DOJ had asked for reconsideration of Volpicelli by the Ninth Circuit en banc, since Volpicelli disagreed with holdings of at least one other Circuit that were made prior to the 2004 change in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on jurisdiction. When the Ninth Circuit declined to hear the Volpicelli case en banc, and the Supreme Court shortly thereafter issued its opinion in Wong, apparently the Solicitor General lost interest in appealing Volpicelli to the Supreme Court, since it is hard to imagine the SG winning Volpicelli after losing Wong (where the statutory language appeared even more mandatory). In all the subsequent cases that Keith and I have been litigating, though, the DOJ always states that it still disagrees with Volpicelli.

The district court in Wagner concluded that Congress had done nothing special in section 6532(a) to make it jurisdictional and not subject to the usual presumption that filing deadlines are subject to equitable tolling. The district court wrote:

First, Congress’ separation of the filing deadline in § 6532(a) from the waiver of sovereign immunity found in 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), as well as the placement of § 6532 in the Tax Code under subtitle of the Internal Revenue Code labeled “Procedure and Administration, is a strong indication that the time bar is not jurisdictional. Second, [unlike section 6511 discussed in United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997),] the time limitation is purely procedural and has no substantive impact on the amount of recovery. It speaks only to a claim’s timeliness and not to a court’s power. Third, the recovery of a wrongfully withheld refund is akin to the traditional common law torts of conversion. Fourth, the deadline set forth in § 6532(a) is not cast in jurisdictional terms and the language/text used does not have any jurisdictional significance. Finally, the text does not define a federal court’s jurisdiction over tort claims generally, does not address its authority to hear untimely suits, or in any way limit its usual equitable powers.

Observations 

Although the DOJ will be hopping mad about the Wagner ruling, the DOJ will not be able to appeal it to the Ninth Circuit until the district court determines the amount, if any, of the appropriate refund. So, stay tuned.

The holding in Wagner is entirely predictable, since an earlier district court in the Ninth Circuit had stated that, in light of Volpicelli, “it remains an open question” whether the filing deadline in section 6532(a) is subject to equitable tolling in an appropriate case”. Hessler v. United States, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1210 (E.D. Cal. 2016). Accord Drake v. United States, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22563 (D. AZ. 2011) (doubting but not deciding whether the filing deadline in § 6532(a) is still jurisdictional in light of recent Supreme Court case law)

Whether the section 6532(a) filing deadline is jurisdictional or subject to estoppel are two of the issues that are currently being litigated in the Second Circuit in Pfizer v. United States, Docket No. 17-2307. Oral argument was had in Pfizer on February 13, 2018, and an opinion could come out any day – though the court has alternative ways of deciding the case that might avoid addressing these issues. The Harvard clinic submitted an amicus brief in Pfizer arguing that the section 6532(a) filing deadline is not jurisdictional under recent non-tax Supreme Court case law. Our brief parallels the reasoning of the Wagner court. Here’s a link to our amicus brief. We have discussed Pfizer and its various issues in posts here, here, here, and here.

As we noted in our Pfizer brief, some Circuits have previously held the filing deadline in section 6532(a) to be jurisdictional. But they did so at a time before the Supreme Court in 2004 narrowed the use of the word “jurisdictional” generally to exclude filing deadlines and other “claims processing” rules. Compare Kaffenberger v. United States, 314 F.3d 944, 950-951 (8th Cir. 2003) (deadline jurisdictional); Marcinkowsky v. United States, 206 F.3d 1419, 1421-1422 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (same); RHI Holdings, Inc. v. United States, 142 F.3d 1459 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (same); with Miller v. United States, 500 F.2d 1007 (2d Cir. 1974) (deadline subject to estoppel). The Wagner opinion did not mention any of the pre-2004 Circuit court precedent, but decided the issue purely based on the recent Supreme Court case law that Volpicelli applied to section 6532(c) in 2015. Indeed, I think Wagner is the first opinion of any court to grapple, beyond speculation, with the impact of the recent Supreme Court case law on the nature of the section 6532(a) deadline. Certainly, no court of appeals has yet done so. Maybe the Second Circuit in Pfizer will be the first?