The Intersection of Foreclosure and Innocent Spouse

In United States v. Charles LeBeau, No. 3:17-cv-01046 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 16, 2018) the district court stayed a foreclosure action brought by the IRS to allow the taxpayer’s wife to pursue her innocent spouse claim. Because the innocent spouse claim has a ways to go from a procedural perspective, it may be some time before the foreclosure case starts back up. The case provides an interesting look at the intersection of foreclosure and innocent spouse and deserves some discussion.

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Victoria and Charles LeBeau were married at some point prior to 1980. They remain married though they are now legally separated. While the separation is legal, they continue to reside in the same house in La Jolla, California. For anyone not familiar with La Jolla, it generally has very nice houses near the ocean just north of San Diego. I will leave it to Bob Kamman to fill in the rest of the story on the value and location of the house. I am sure that Bob will find some interesting facts here that the opinion does not contain and that I am not tracking down. Keep a lookout in the comment section.

They bought the house in 1980 as joint tenants; however, they deeded the house to Victoria for no consideration in 1987. In 1988 Victoria transferred the property back to both of them for no consideration. Five days later they executed a deed of trust in favor of Security Allied Services to secure a loan of just over $300,000. In August of 1989, the couple transferred the property solely to Victoria again for no consideration. Charles created an entity known as Casa de Erin, LLC which the court describes as the alter ego/nominee of Charles and/or Victoria and in 2003 Victoria transferred the property to Casa de Erin for no consideration. In 2006 Casa de Erin rescinded the deed and transferred the property back to Victoria for no consideration and she remains the property’s nominal owner. The court notes that “upon information and belief, Charles LeBeau has continued to reside at the Property and has retained all the benefits and burdens of ownership.”

The IRS has already reduced its assessments to judgment and this case seeks to foreclose its lien on the property.

Given the recitation of facts in this case, I would not place a high value on Victoria’s chances of achieving innocent spouse status. If she was actively engaged in all of these transfers, innocence is not the word that comes to mind. In fact, the IRS denied her request for relief for many years though it did apparently grant her partial, but significant ($193,272) relief for 1995. She filed a petition with the Tax Court seeking review of the denial of relief on June 22, 2018. Charles has intervened in her Tax Court case presumably to argue that she should not be relieved of liability. (This is one of those cases where it might be really interesting to follow the pleadings if it did not require a trip to DC to the clerk’s office and 50 cents per page.) She asks that the district court stay the foreclosure of what I am presuming is a very nice place where they live and engage in deed swapping at a prodigious pace.

In the discussion section of the opinion the court first says that “the district court has no jurisdiction to decide an innocent spouse claim” citing to United States v. Boynton, 2007 WL 737725 (S.D. Cal. 2007) and Andrews v. United States, 69 F.Supp. 2d 972 (N.D. Ohio 1999). I do not necessarily agree with the court on this issue as discussed in the post in the Chandler case; however, the DOJ Trial Section attorney would have had difficulty arguing the opposite side of that issue.

The court next notes that it has broad discretion to stay proceedings noting that it must consider:

  • the possible damage which may result from the granting of a stay, (2) the hardship or inequity which a party may suffer in being required to go forward, and (3) the orderly course of justice measured in terms of the simplifying or complicating of issues, proof, and questions of law which could be expected to result from a stay.

The defendants made the following arguments in support of a stay:

On the third factor, Defendants seek a stay pending resolution of the issues of “fraudulent transfers” and “nominee theory of ownership” now before the U.S. Tax Court arguing that Court lacks jurisdiction to consider these issues and a stay would avoid inconsistent rulings. On the second factor, they argue that a stay would cause hardship by being required to pursue litigation in two different courts. Lastly, on the first factor, Defendants content that a stay would not prejudice the government.

The court cites the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Rodgers, 461 U.S. 677 (1983) regarding its discretion to foreclose a federal tax lien on taxpayer’s property. We have discussed Rodgers before here in a case blogged by Les with some similarities to the LeBeau’s situation. After discussing the general Rodgers factors a court should weigh in deciding whether to permit foreclosure, the district court here cites to two prior cases in which someone claiming innocent spouse status sought to use that status as a basis for postponing foreclosure based on the Rodgers’ factors. In the first case, United States v. Battersby, 390 F. Supp. 2d 865 (N.D. Ohio 2005) the court did stay the action while in the second case, United States v. McGrew, 2014 WL 7877053 (C.D. Cal. 2014), aff’d, 669 Fed. App’x 831 (9th Cir. 2016) the court concluded Rodgers was inapplicable stating that “innocent spouse protection does not entitle [non-liable spouse] to prevent foreclosure on the Government’s tax liens.”

A third case exists out of South Carolina, which the LeBeau court does not mention, in which Carl Smith and Joe DiRizzo sought to assist the wife in her effort to stop foreclosure and seek innocent spouse relief, United States v. Dew. The IRS brought a foreclosure proceeding to sell some jointly owned property for liabilities of both Mr. and Mrs. Dew.  Late during the proceeding, Mrs. Dew filed a Form 8857, which had not yet been ruled on by the IRS.  The DOJ first asked the district court to ignore this belated filing.  And the court essentially did so in 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112979 (D. S.C. 2015), where it wrote in footnote 1:

The Court notes that Mrs. Dew filed objections asserting an “innocent spouse” defense pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6015(f). Even assuming such a claim can properly be raised for the first time in the objections, the innocent spouse defense cannot be considered by this Court because it lies within the exclusive jurisdiction of the tax court. See Jones v. C.I.R., 642 F.3d 459, 461 (4th Cir. 2011) (noting that § 6015(f) authorizes the “Secretary of the Treasury” to grant an innocent spouse relief; see also United States v. Elman, No. 10 CV 6369, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173026, 2012 WL 6055782, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 6, 2012) (stating that “exclusive jurisdiction over [the defendant’s] innocent spouse defense under § 6015(f) lies with the Tax Court.”).

The Dews filed an appeal to the 4th Circuit arguing that the collection suit could not go forward.  Section 6015(e)(1)(B)(i) provides:

Except as otherwise provided in section 6851 or 6861 [26 USCS § 6851 or 6861], no levy or proceeding in court shall be made, begun, or prosecuted against the individual making an election under subsection (b) or (c) or requesting equitable relief under subsection (f) for collection of any assessment to which such election or request relates until the close of the 90-day period referred to in subparagraph (A)(ii), or, if a petition has been filed with the Tax Court, until the decision of the Tax Court has become final.

Mrs. Dew filed a response with the District Court arguing that 6015(e)(1)(B) was mandatory and asked, therefore, that foreclosure be stayed.  In response to this filing, the government finally agreed that it could not pursue collection against her for the taxes subject to the Form 8857, but still asked the court to foreclose and sell the property to satisfy Mr. Dew’s tax debts and Mrs. Dew’s tax debts that were not covered by the Form 8857.  See attached response. The court went ahead with the sale and instructed the distribution of proceeds in accordance with the government’s revised listing (excluding the Form 8857 liabilities). See the final revised order confirming the sale here.  The 4th Cir. then decided the appeal and held against the Dews.  670 Fed. Appx. 170 (4th Cir. 2016).  The entire text of the 4th Cir. opinion is as follows:

James and Veronica Dew (Appellants) appeal the district court’s order and judgment granting the United States’ motion for summary judgment in the United States’ action seeking to reduce to judgment Appellants’ federal income tax liabilities, and to foreclose the federal tax liens securing those liabilities on Appellants’ jointly owned real property. We have reviewed the record and have considered the parties’ arguments and discern no reversible error. Accordingly, we grant James Dew’s application to proceed in forma pauperis and affirm the district court’s amended judgment. United States v. Dew, No. 4:14-cv-00166-TLW (D.S.C. May 19, 2016). We dispense with oral argument because the facts [**2]  and legal contentions are adequately presented in the materials before this court and argument would not aid the decisional process.

In the Lebeau’s case the district court determined that the foreclosure case should be stayed against the LeBeaus until the end of the innocent spouse case. I do not find this result satisfying. Even if the Tax Court finds Victoria innocent, the IRS can still foreclose on the house and sell it subject to her interest. The decision would be much more satisfying if the court had explained why the Rodgers factors might weigh against allowing foreclosure to go forward. Was there something special about Victoria’s need for the house or even Charles’ need? I am assuming that they are not young at this point since they bought the house almost 40 years ago. Absent something special, I would allow the sale to go forward and hold her half in escrow. Since the innocent spouse determination does not prevent the sale, it does not seem that, by itself, it should hold up the sale.

It is possible that I am also someone jaundiced about her innocence given all of the transfers of the property recounted by the court but I recognize that there could be facts that would support a finding of innocent spouse status not brought out in this opinion. The significant delay that the court has provided here does prejudice the IRS unless one assumes that the property will continue to go up in value and that delay will ultimately benefit the IRS in that fashion.

 

Bankruptcy Court Declines to Exclude Retirement Plan from Estate

Congratulations to Keith Fogg on his new grandchild, Samuel! And now, back to tax procedure. Christine  

The case of In re Xiao, No. 13-51186 (Bankr. D. Conn 2018) presents the unusual situation of a bankruptcy court analyzing whether the pension plan of debtor’s corporation met the qualifications required by the Internal Revenue Code for such a plan. Here, it was not the IRS attacking the validity of the pension plan, though it might have if it had noticed. Rather, the bankruptcy trustee brought the action seeking a determination that the plan did not qualify in order to bring the money in the pension plan into the bankruptcy estate. Because the plan held over $400,000 in assets, it provided a rich target for creditors of the estate. Of course, the trustee also has a financial incentive to bring assets into the estate since the more assets the estate contains the larger the fee received by the trustee. Regardless of the financial incentive, bringing the asset into the estate for use to pay the unsecured creditors also fulfills the trustee’s obligation to the estate.

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As a general rule B.C. 541(c)(2) excludes a debtor’s pension plan from the bankruptcy estate. The Supreme Court confirmed this reading of the statute a quarter of a century ago in Patterson v. Shumate, 504 U.S. 753 (1992). The exclusion from the bankruptcy estate does not cover everything labeled as a pension plan. Excluded plans must meet certain criteria. Even if not excluded by BC 541(c)(2), funds could be exempted from the estate under B.C. 522. Few cases exist in which trustees have successfully attacked a plan to bring its assets into the bankruptcy estate. The trustee’s success in this case demonstrates the possibilities of such an action and also the perils to someone who fails to follow all of the necessary formalities for maintaining a proper plan. Even if you believe that the IRS has so few people looking at these plans that the chances of an IRS audit remain slim, the Xiao case shows another way in which failure to properly maintain a pension plan can create problems.

The court here spends several pages recounting the inappropriate manner in which the pension plan of debtor’s corporation was established and administered. The details of the administration of this plan suggested many lapses in following the necessary formalities to properly maintain a plan. The trustee hired an expert to examine plan activity and to testify concerning plan failures. In effect, the expert hired by the trustee acted like a revenue agent performing an audit of the plan. He explained in great detail the plan’s failures. The trustee charges the estate for the cost of the expert and the cost of the litigation attacking the plan. In essence, the plan assets will pay for the cost of the attack. The debtor’s creditors do not mind because even though these costs reduce the funds available from the plan, the trustee still brings into the estate money not otherwise available. The loser here is the debtor who sees his entire pension plan used to fund the attack on the plan and to pay creditors who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to get paid from this asset.

Debtor also hired an expert who testified about the plan in order to prove it was appropriately administered. Debtor himself testified on this point as well. The court did not find the debtor credible and did not find his expert persuasive.

After a detailed examination of the plan, the court found that it did not operate in a manner that allowed the debtor to exclude or exempt this asset. The concluding paragraph of the opinion provides the best overview of the court’s reasoning:

…the Plan failures at issue in this case do not merely constitute technical defaults, but instead are operational failures that ‘are substantial violations of the core qualification requirements for a retirement’ plan as set forth in the IRC Section 401(a)(2). … it appears that LXEng [debtor’s corporation] operated the Plan in order to solely benefit Mr. Xiao and his then spouse, Ms. Chen. According to the Treasury Regulations, a plan cannot act as a subterfuge for the distribution of profits to the owners of the employer. 26 C.F.R 1.401-1(b)(3). It appears to have been so here.

The opinion does not explain how the trustee came to the conclusion that the debtor’s plan did not meet muster. Because I have seen few of these cases over the years, I do not think that many trustees key in on this issue and perhaps the taxpayer’s failure to follow plan formalities represents a rare aberration. I suspect that there may be a number of plans of small businesses with problems that could be attacked by a trustee if the business owner seeks bankruptcy relief and tries to shelter assets in a pension plan. The former employees of the business that this plan did not properly cover could have had claims against the bankruptcy estate. Such employees may have provided the trustee a roadmap to unlocking the assets in the plan. While I am just speculating that one of the employees the plan sought to stiff provided critical information about the inadequacies of the plan, this serves as yet another reminder why employers should keep employees happy and not overtly antagonize them.

The court stresses that it tests qualification of the plan as of the date of the filing of the bankruptcy petition. For any small business where the owner is headed for bankruptcy, the Xiao case should serve as a significant wake-up call regarding the proper administration of a pension plan. The debtor here loses an asset that the creditors could not have reached had the plan been properly administered. Conversely, the case also serves as a reminder to attorneys for creditors that they should pay attention to pension plans in the case of small businesses to look for improper administration of the plan as a way to pull the asset into the bankruptcy estate that might otherwise have few assets for the unsecured creditors. Hiring an expert to do the analysis of the plan and pursuing the litigation to get information about the plan serve as barriers where the plan assets are not significant and information about plan administration does not suggest problems worth pursuing.

 

Litigating Innocent Spouse Cases in District Court – Does the Department of Justice Tax Division Trial Section Talk to Its Appellate Section?

Jurisdiction is not something that the Department of Justice can confer upon the courts, but it is interesting when one part of the Tax Division files motions to dismiss cases for lack of jurisdiction for seeking a refund based on innocent spouse relief while another part argues to appellate courts that a party seeking a refund based on innocent spouse relief could do so in district court. The recent decision in Chandler v. United States, 122 AFTR 2d 2018-XXXX, (N.D. Tex. Sept. 17, 2018) highlights the division between sections at the Department of Justice. The decision in the Chandler case was written by the magistrate to whom the case was referred.  The District Court judge has since issue an order adopting the decision and a judgment.  Since the Chandler case could now move from one section to the other if an appeal occurs, the Appellate Section might get the chance to let the court know it disagrees with the Trial Section. [The case of Hockin v. United States (PACER login required), Civil No. 3:17-CV-1926-PK, pending in the District of Oregon raises the same issue and the Federal Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School may file an amicus brief in that case.] read more...

Ms. Chandler filed a joint return with her then husband for the tax years 1997 through 2002. The IRS made adjustments to the returns and ultimately additional assessments. In 2011 Ms. Chandler, now divorced from her husband with whom she filed the joint returns, requested innocent spouse relief claiming, inter alia, that she did not know exactly what was on the returns and had simply signed them in the appropriate box when the returns were placed in front of her after preparation by an accounting firm.

The IRS denied her relief and she failed to file a Tax Court petition within 90 days thereafter. She then filed another request for innocent spouse relief and the IRS considered her new request before denying it as well. Her attorney tried three more times with the IRS denying each attempt for lack of new information.

In June of 2013 she received a CDP notice and timely made a CDP request. The IRS denied her relief in the CDP process and thereafter began collecting from her. It collected $22,890 through levy before writing off the balance based on the statute of limitations. In July 2015 she filed a claim for refund seeking return of the levied money. The IRS denied the claim and she brought suit in the Northern District of Texas to recover her refund.

The government filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The magistrate judge determined that the court did not have jurisdiction, citing United States v. Elman, 110 AFTR 2d 2012-6993 (N.D. Ill. 2012) which stated “although the statute itself does not address whether the Tax Court’s jurisdiction is exclusive, courts interpreting the statute have concluded that it is.” This quote, in part, refers to the language in IRC § 6015(e) providing for Andrews v. United States Tax Court jurisdiction which makes no mention of district court jurisdiction. The magistrate judge went on to cite the cases of United States v. LeBeau, 109 AFTR 2d 2012-1369 (S.D. Cal. 2012) and Andrews v. United States, 69 F. Supp. 2d 972, 978 (N.D. Ohio 1999) which held that district courts did not have jurisdiction to decide an innocent spouse issue unless the taxpayer files a refund suit while an innocent spouse case is pending in the Tax Court. Here, the taxpayer missed her chance to bring a Tax Court case. The court also cited United States v. Stein, 116 AFTR 2d 2015-6504 (W.D. Ky. 2015) holding “no part of § 6015 confers jurisdiction to the federal district courts to determine innocent spouse claims in the first instance.”

This seems like a lot of precedent in favor of dismissing the case; however, none of the district court opinions on which the court in Chandler relied involve refund lawsuits, nor does the court cite the three opinions, discussed below, where refund suits proceeded under § 6015 without objection by the DOJ as to jurisdiction.  The cited cases all involve § 6015 raised as a defense in a suit brought by the government for collection. Further, no Circuit court has yet weighed in on this jurisdictional issue either in the context of refund suits or of collection suits.

For decades, the courts have allowed district court and Court of Federal Claims refund suits considering relief under § 6015 and its predecessor innocent spouse provision without discussion or government objection. In enacting and amending § 6015, Congress expressed its understanding that district court refund suits raising innocent spouse relief were permitted under former § 6013(e). Congress did not repeal this prior law by implication when, in 1998, it added new, additional ways to raise innocent spouse relief in the Tax Court under §§ 6015(e)(1)(A), 6320, and 6330.

Several cases held that former § 6013(e)(1) relief, the code section for innocent spouse relief from 1971 to 1998, could be raised by a taxpayer who paid an assessed deficiency in full and brought a refund suit in district court or the Court of Federal Claims. These cases existed in several circuits: Yuen v. United States, 825 F.2d 244 (9th Cir. 1987); Busse v. United States, 542 F.2d 421, 425-427 (7th Cir. 1976); Sanders v. United States, 509 F.2d 162 (5th Cir. 1975); Dakil v. United States, 496 F.2d 431 (10th Cir. 1974); Mlay v. IRS, 168 F. Supp. 2d 781 (S.D. Ohio 2001). In research for an amicus brief on this issue, the tax clinic at Harvard could not find that any party ever argued that such a suit was barred because the taxes were not “erroneously or illegally assessed or collected”, within the meanings of § 7422(a) and 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1).

Several cases have also held that taxpayers claiming innocent spouse status under former § 6013(e)(1) could raise that status as a defense to reduce tax assessments to judgment under § 7402 in district court suits brought by the United States; United States v. Grable, 946 F.2d 896 (6th Cir. 1991); United States v. Diehl, 460 F. Supp. 1282 (S.D. Tex. 1976), aff’d per curiam, 586 F.2d 1080 (unpublished opinion) (5th Cir. 1978); or to foreclose on tax liens under § 7403. United States v. Shanbaum, 10 F.3d 305 (5th Cir. 1994); United States v. Hoffmann, 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15872 (D. Utah 1993). They also held that former § 6013(e)(1) relief could be raised in a bankruptcy proceeding. In re Hopkins, 146 F.3d 729 (9th Cir. 1998); In re Lilly, 76 F.3d 568 (4th Cir. 1996).

In the 1998 legislation in which the new IRC § 6015 was enacted, the Ways and Means Committee explained:

The proper forum [under present law] for contesting a denial by the Secretary of innocent spouse relief is determined by whether an underpayment is asserted or the taxpayer is seeking a refund of overpaid taxes. Accordingly, the Tax Court may not have jurisdiction to review all determinations of innocent spouse relief . . . . The Committee is concerned that the innocent spouse provisions of present law are inadequate. . . . The bill generally makes innocent spouse status easier to obtain. The bill eliminates all of the understatement thresholds and requires only that the understatement of tax be attributable to an erroneous (and not just a grossly erroneous) item of the other spouse. . . . The bill specifically provides that the Tax Court has jurisdiction to review any denial (or failure to rule) by the Secretary regarding an application for innocent spouse relief. The Tax Court may order refunds as appropriate where it determines the spouse qualifies for relief . . . .

Rep. 105-364 (Part 1), at 61 (emphasis added).

In the first two quoted sentences above, Congress implicitly acknowledged that it understood that § 6013(e) issues could be raised in refund suits in district courts or the Court of Federal Claims brought under 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) and nowhere did it state in its Committee reports that it intended to remove the jurisdiction of those courts to hear innocent spouse refund suits.

The transfer provision now at § 6015(e)(3) also provides support for the conclusion that district courts have refund jurisdiction over innocent spouse cases. The only jurisdictional basis of a “suit for refund . . . begun by either individual filing the joint return pursuant to section 6532” (i.e., the suit to which the Tax Court proceeding would be transferred) is 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1). Even if language in § 7422(a) and 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) might arguably not cover innocent spouse relief under the government’s reading, Congress clearly legislated in 1998 on the assumption that refund suits raising innocent spouse relief had been proceeding under the 1971 legislation and should continue to proceed under the 1998 legislation. The language of § 7422(a) and 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) should be given a practical construction regarding innocent spouse relief in accordance with Congress’s clear intentions.

At least three cases since the enactment of § 6015 have moved forward in district court with no finding of a jurisdictional bar. In Jones v. United States, 322 F. Supp. 2d 1025 (D.N.D. 2004) – a refund suit predicated originally on former § 6013(e) relief – during the course of the case, Congress enacted § 6015, and thereafter, the taxpayer filed a Form 8857 requesting § 6015 relief and sought a refund under the new provision for some taxable years. There is no evidence in the opinion that the government made the claim that it makes here that the district court lacked jurisdiction to conduct a refund suit under § 6015 in the absence of a petition to the Tax Court under § 6015(e). Probably for that reason, the court does not even discuss this potential jurisdictional issue.

In Favret v. United States, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21969 (E.D. La. 2003), the court denied a government motion to dismiss an innocent spouse refund suit for failure to state a claim (i.e., a motion on the merits). The case later settled. There is again no evidence in the opinion that the government made any claim that the court lacked jurisdiction of § 6015 refund suits in the absence of a prior petition to the Tax Court under § 6015(e).

In Flores v. United States, 51 Fed. Cl. 49 (2001), the Court of Federal Claims heard a refund suit where the taxpayer sought relief under § 6015(f). The court found the taxpayer entitled to relief. In a footnote, the court indicated that it had considered whether it had jurisdiction to so hold and explained (rather summarily) that both the government thought so and the court did, as well. The court wrote:

The court initially was concerned with whether it had jurisdiction to review a determination made by the Secretary of the Treasury not to render innocent spouse relief under section 6015(f) of the Code (discussed, infra). In their supplemental memoranda, both parties argue that this court has such jurisdiction, directing this court to the legislative history of section 6015, the cases construing that legislative history, and the amendments made to section 6015 by section 1(a)(7) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 106-554, 114 Stat. 2763. Based on its review of these materials, the court now agrees that it has jurisdiction to review whether the Commissioner has abused his discretion under section 6015(f), as well as to determine whether that subsection is applicable to plaintiff under the effective date provisions of the Act. See, e.g., Butler v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 276, 290 (2000) (concluding that Congress did not intend to commit the determination under section 6015(f) to unreviewable agency discretion).

So, in a few instances, refund suits involving § 6015 have been allowed to proceed in the absence of a petition to the Tax Court under § 6015(e).

IRS National Taxpayer Advocate (“NTA”) Nina Olson agrees with the position that district courts can hear refund claims based on innocent spouse status. Since 2007, Ms. Olson has been alerting Congress to the incorrect district court rulings under § 7402 and § 7403. NTA 2007 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, p. 631; NTA 2008 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, p. 525; NTA 2009 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I , pp. 494-495; NTA 2010 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, pp. 504-505; NTA 2012 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I., pp. 648, 652; NTA 2015 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, pp. 532-536. In her 2013 report, Ms. Olson wrote:

As the National Taxpayer Advocate has pointed out, these district court decisions are inconsistent with the statutory language of IRC § 6015, which does not give the Tax Court exclusive jurisdiction to determine innocent spouse claims, but rather confers Tax Court jurisdiction “in addition to any other remedy provided by law.” Nothing in IRC § 6015 prevents a district court from determining, in a collection suit, whether innocent spouse relief is available. . . . Moreover, the refusal to allow a taxpayer to raise IRC § 6015 as a defense in a collection suit may create hardship because a taxpayer may be left without a forum in which to raise IRC § 6015 as a defense before losing her home to foreclosure by the IRS.

NTA 2013 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, pp. 416-417. Ms. Olson has asked that, if the courts do not correct their rulings, Congress adopt legislation that would make it even more clear that § 6015 relief is available as a defense in a district court collection suit. NTA 2007 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, pp. 549-550; NTA 2009 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, pp. 378-380; NTA 2010 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. I, p. 378-382; NTA 2017 Annual Report to Congress, Purple Book, p. 53.

In a series of recent court of appeals cases brought by the tax clinic at Harvard, the Clinic has represented taxpayers who had filed late pro se stand-alone petitions in the Tax Court under § 6015(e)(1)(A) seeking relief under § 6015(b), (c), and/or (f). In each case, the IRS misled the taxpayer with respect to the last date to file such petition. The Tax Court dismissed the petitions for lack of jurisdiction as untimely. In each case, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) Tax Division Appellate Section attorneys assured the courts, both in their briefs and at oral argument, that the courts should not worry that the taxpayers were left without a remedy because each taxpayer could pay the liability in full and sue for a refund in district court or the Court of Federal Claims, where each could still seek relief under § 6015. For example, at page 48 of its appellee’s brief in the Nauflett case, the Appellate Section attorneys wrote:

We note, however, that this does not mean that taxpayers who miss the deadline in § 6015(e)(1)(A) may never seek judicial review of the IRS’s determination that they are not entitled to innocent-spouse relief. As the Tax Court recognized (A. 29-30), a taxpayer like Nauflett who misses the 90-day filing window may nevertheless pay any assessment made by the IRS, file a timely administrative claim for refund, and then file a refund suit in either a federal district court or the Court of Federal Claims six months later (or earlier, if the refund claim is denied before the expiration of that six-month period). See I.R.C. §§ 6511(a), 6532(a)(1), 7422(a); see also id. § 6015(e)(3) (stating that jurisdiction over any pending petition for relief under § 6015 is transferred from the Tax Court to any district court that acquires jurisdiction over the relevant years as part of a refund suit filed by either spouse pursuant to I.R.C. § 6532).

At oral argument in the Matuszak and Nauflett cases, the tax clinic at Harvard pointed out that the taxpayers could not afford to fully pay all asserted liabilities for all years before filing district court refund suits, so the alternative remedy of a suggested refund suit was of little practical use to them. Doubtless for this impracticality reason, at footnote 5 of Matuszak, the court wrote:

Although the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction to review an untimely petition for innocent spouse relief, taxpayers who miss the ninety‐day deadline in § 6015(e)(1)(A) may have other means, outside the Tax Court, to seek review of the IRS’s determination. See Appellee’s Br. 47 (suggesting that a taxpayer may pay the assessed deficiency and then seek review of the IRS’s denial of innocent spouse relief in a refund suit in federal district court or the Federal Court of Claims). We express no opinion on the availability of those alternative remedies in this case. [Emphasis added.]

The argument by the Trial Section attorney in Chandler directly contradicts what the DOJ Tax Division Appellate Section has recently argued in the cases of the clients of the tax clinic at Harvard. The government should get its story straight. The Appellate Section is right and the Trial Section is wrong. The court in Chandler gets it wrong because of the argument made by the Trial Section. The Tax Division should come to the court and get its position straight.

 

 

 

Unpacking the Collection Due Process Case of Melasky v. Commissioner Part 3: The Installment Agreement

As discussed in three prior posts, the Tax Court issued two opinions in the Collection Due Process (CDP) case involving the Melaskys. In 151 T.C. No. 8 it issued a precedential opinion holding that a challenge to the crediting of payment is reviewed pursuant to an abuse of discretion standard and not de novo. In 151 T.C. No. 9 it issued a fully reviewed precedential opinion addressing the collection issues raised in the case before sustaining the determination of the Appeals employee and allowing the IRS to move forward toward levy. See our prior posts on the case here, here and here.  In this third and final post on the second opinion, the issue discussed concerns the taxpayers proposed collection alternative. Even though the IRS rejected the taxpayers’ attempt to make a voluntary payment, they could still have reached an agreement had the IRS accepted their proposed partial pay installment agreement. The majority decided that the Appeals employee did not abuse his discretion in refusing to accept the proposed agreement.

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From the prior posts you know that the Melaskys owe taxes for many years dating back to 1995. Over the years from 1996 until they filed their CDP request in 2011, they made various attempts to settle the debt through offers in compromise (OIC) and installment agreements (IA). When they filed their CDP request, they asked the IRS to give them a partial pay installment agreement. This type of IA allows the taxpayers to achieve a result similar to an OIC because it involves resolving the tax debt for less than full payment.

Appeals rejected the proposed IA because the Melaskys “have not paid over the equity in all of their assets” and because they declined to commit all of their monthly income to the IA. Either the failure to pay all assets or the failure to commit available income could provide a basis for rejecting the IA. The Tax Court concluded that Appeals had a sound basis based on both grounds. IRM 5.14.2.1 (March 11, 2011) provides that “Before a [partial payment installment agreement] may be granted, equity in assets must be addressed and, if appropriate, be used to make payment.” Generally, once the taxpayer gives the IRS all of their assets, the IA can be reached if the taxpayer will commit to paying the maximum monthly payment based on the taxpayer’s ability to pay taking into account the taxpayer’s necessary expenses and their income.

Before going into CDP the Melaskys had previously had two installment agreements. After meeting with Appeals in the CDP hearing, they were again told they had to provide the IRS with the equity in all of their assets. On December 2, 2011, they were given until December 16, 2011 to do this. By this point they had been in CDP 10 months. They came back on December 11 and said that they needed to use some of the assets to pay for the medical expense of their daughter. The Settlement Officer agreed to this as long as they provided proof and extended the time to provide payment from the assets until the first week of January 2012. On January 24, the Melaskys as for a further extension and the SO agreed while again requesting proof of the use of the funds for medical expenses. On February 9 they asked for another extension but this time they did not mention the need to use the funds for medical expenses. On April 4, the SO extended the deadline again to April 11. On April 20, 2012, the SO issued the determination letter and at that time the Melaskys still had not provided the equity in four of their assets: an IRA; a 401(k); a life insurance cash value and jointly owned stock.

The Tax Court found that in giving the taxpayers four and one-half months the SO gave them enough time to perform with respect to the assets and did not abuse his discretion in sending out the determination letter rejecting the IA. This is an unremarkable basis for sustaining a CDP determination.

With respect to the income side of the equation, the facts become more difficult because Mrs. Melasky had become the beneficiary of a trust under the will of her father. Based on the facts here it appears that her father died not long before petitioners made their CDP request. This raises strategy issues for individuals who stand to inherit property and who owe taxes. If you find yourself in that situation and you want to make a deal with the IRS either through an OIC or a partial pay installment agreement, you should strive to do so before the person dies. Her father’s death makes it hard for the Melaskys to get to the income number that they seek since the trust could provide funds for their support.

The court looked at the trust instrument and agreed with Appeals that it provided a source of funds which the IRS could use in calculating the Melaskys’ ability to pay a monthly amount to the IRS. The Melaskys disagreed with the IRS and the Court on this point but the Court goes through the trust document and determines what it allowed. If you represent someone with a trust who faces collection issues, you might the Court’s analysis helpful in deciding how much your client can pay.

As with the voluntary payment issue, Judge Holmes dissents. His dissent on this issue does not draw the same level of push back he received regarding his analysis of the voluntary payment issue but footnote 26 of the majority opinion does push back concerning the full payment issue. Judge Holmes again cites the Chenery rule because he finds that the majority have “saved” the SO by finding reasons for sustaining the determination that were not in the Appeals determination. Judge Holmes points out that partitioning the stock Mr. Melasky owned with his former spouse could have created real practical problems in terms of value. This is an issue that arises regularly when a taxpayer owns a partial interest in an asset of marginal value. How much effort and expense should the taxpayer expend to break free their fractional equity? Similarly with the cash value of the life insurance, its small value may have been outweighed by the fact it might cause the taxpayers to lose life insurance coverage altogether.

Because the SO did not consider, or did not record how he considered the difficulty in liquidation of certain assets, Judge Holmes would send the case back. On this point I think the taxpayers’ delays hurt them together with a failure to build out the record with proof of the difficulties. Judge Holmes makes good points about the difficulties with the two specific assets but the fact that the taxpayers changed their tune about the need to use the assets for medical expense and that after four and one-half months they still had not liquidated their IRA and 401(k) plans, something that should not take very long to do, left the taxpayers in a bad situation to defend against the decision of Appeals.

On the income side Judge Holmes does not agree with the way in which the Court sustained the decision of Appeals regarding Mrs. Melasky’s rights under the trust instrument. The SO had to determine what the trust instrument allowed her to withdraw in order to determine how much the couple could pay the IRS each month. Judge Holmes point here is one of administrative law and what role the Tax Court plays in the review of a determination by Appeals of the meaning of a trust instrument governed by state law. He states:

We have instead [instead of doing a full analysis of the intent of the trust document] a fact-intensive subsidiary (or “preludal”) legal issue that presented itself in a CDP hearing, before an SO incapable as a matter of training of deciding it as a trial judge would; and, more importantly, deprived of all the extensive and expensive fact finding weapons a trial judge could wield. This may harm taxpayers in some cases, while the lower cost of informal adjudication benefits them in others. It’s up to Congress to decide which is best; and here congress has opted for informal adjudication. That makes our review of such mixed questions an appropriate place to depart from the stricter standard that we would apply on purely legal issues. Doing so would also nudge us closer to the mainstream of administrative law.

In the end Judge Holmes states that he would not hold that the SO reached the right conclusion in deciding that the trust would allow the Melaskys to pay more money than they offer but that the SO “acted reasonably in answering this question and therefore did not abuse his discretion in rejecting the Melaskys’ proposed collection alternative on this ground. This makes good sense to me. Although it reaches the same result as the majority, I like this framing of the role of the Tax Court in these cases.

 

Unpacking the Collection Due Process Case of Melasky v. Commissioner Part 2: The Payment

As discussed in two prior posts, the Tax Court issued two opinions in the Collection Due Process (CDP) case involving the Melaskys. In 151 T.C. No. 8 it issued a precedential opinion holding that a challenge to the crediting of payment is reviewed pursuant to an abuse of discretion standard and not de novo. In 151 T.C. No. 9 it issued a fully reviewed precedential opinion addressing the collection issues raised in the case before sustaining the determination of the Appeals employee and allowing the IRS to move forward toward levy. See our prior posts on the case here and here.  In this second post on the second opinion, the issue discussed concerns the attempt to make a voluntary payment. The majority decided that the attempt fails leaving the taxpayers with outstanding debt on more recent, but still old, years.

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The Melaskys owe taxes for many years dating back to 1995. Over the years from 1996 until they filed their CDP request in 2011, they made various attempts to settle the debt through offers in compromise (OIC) and installment agreements (IA). They had also made at least one designated payment of a lump sum to one of their more recent tax years.

On Thursday, January 27, 2011, the Melaskys hand-delivered a check for $18,000 to the IRS office in Houston handling their case, directing the IRS to apply the check against their 2009 income tax liability. On Monday, January 31, 2011, the IRS Campus Collection function in Philadelphia issued a levy to the same bank on which the check was drawn. The levy caused the bank to place a 21 day hold on their account and the hold occurred prior to the payment on the January 27th check.

Regular readers of this blog know that a taxpayer can make a voluntary payment and direct the IRS where to apply the check; however, if the IRS collects funds involuntarily the IRS can decide where to apply the levy proceeds and it does so in a manner that best protects the government. We have discussed the general issue of the voluntary payment rule here, here and here.

There are many reasons for a taxpayer to want to make a voluntary payment. In the employment tax context, a corporate taxpayer will almost always want to designate a payment to outstanding trust fund portion of the liability in order to protect corporate officers from the trust fund recover penalty found in IRC 6672. For individual income taxes such as the ones at issue here, taxpayers almost always want to designate payments to the most recent tax years, or the most recently assessed tax years, in order to obtain the possible benefit of older periods falling off the books due to the statute of limitations on collection or due to positioning for a bankruptcy petition in which the priority rules of bankruptcy will allow discharge of older tax years. Whatever was motivating the Melaskys, their strategy followed the normal pattern for taxpayers with multiple periods of outstanding tax liabilities.

The abnormal aspect of this case results from the timing of the levy vis a vis the voluntary payment. While I imagine that this fact pattern may occur in other cases, it would not occur often. The fact pattern also raises the question of whether the IRS sought to levy quickly after receiving a check in order to reorder the application of payments. The court addresses whether the voluntary submission of the check prior to the levy on the bank account permits the Melaskys to designate the application of the payment here or whether the fact that the payment to the IRS actually comes via the levy rather than the check allows the IRS to post the payment to the earliest outstanding liability.

On the same day that the IRS issued the levy to the Melaskys bank, it also sent them a CDP Notice for the years 2002-2003, 2006, 2008 and 2009. They timely requested a CDP hearing and subsequently petitioned the Tax Court upon receiving an adverse determination letter from Appeals. The Tax Court found two issues in the CDP case: (1) did the IRS abuse its discretion in not treating the check as a voluntary payment and (2) did the IRS abuse its discretion in rejecting a proposed installment agreement. Part 3 of this series will focus on the installment agreement aspect of the case while this post focuses on the voluntary payment issue.

The court notes that “a payment by check is a conditional payment because it is subject to the condition subsequent that the check be paid upon presentation to the drawee.” It also notes that delivery of a check does not discharge a debt. Anyone who has ever received a bad check can easily identify with that rule. If, however, a check is honored the payment relates back to the time of delivery of the check.

Here, the bank never honored the check because by the time it went to clear the account had no funds. Since the check did not clear, it could not constitute payment and since it did not constitute payment, any instructions regarding what to do with the payment because irrelevant. The court found that “taxpayers may direct the application of a payment only if payment occurs.” This seems like a rather straightforward application of the law but the petitioners want equity and not law. They argued that the Tax Court should create an equitable exception for situations in which the check does not clear due to that actions of the IRS.

The Melaskys cited no authority for the adoption of such an equitable rule which is not to say they cited no authority. The court finds no reason to create an equitable exception to the normal rule of allowing designation only if a payment occurs. The IRS levy appears procedurally sound in its execution and logical in its use given the long history of non-payment. The court states that “Respondent did not cause petitioners’ check to bounce; petitioners’ check bounced because they owed and have chronically failed to pay various taxes, a portion of which was collected by levy after respondent’s man attempts at compromise failed to reach a voluntary resolution.”

On this point Judge Homes raises a vigorous dissent; however, he makes clear in footnote 6 that his dissent is not grounded in equity.  One could almost get the feeling equity is a bad word here. As an aside, you may be wondering how Judge Holmes can even participate in a fully reviewed opinion since his term as an appointed Tax Court judge ended on June 29, 2018, causing him to assume senior status while Congress works through its amazingly quick appointment process to approve his reappointment. Because he is the trial judge in this case, he is allowed to participate in court conference on this case and to have his voice heard in the fully reviewed opinion.

Judge Holmes has concerns that the majority’s failure to create an equitable rule in this situation stems from the incredibly bad tax payment behavior exhibited by the Melaskys across the decades leading up to this opinion. On the point of his dissent, Judge Lauber writes a spirited concurring opinion in which he is joined by several judges. Judges Buch and Pugh write a narrow concurring opinion pointing out that on the facts of this case it appears the IRS followed all procedures but on similar facts it might be possible to find that the levy interfered with the attempted voluntary payment. All in all, the opinion gets very long because of the depth of the disagreement and the Tax Court shows more fractures in its personal relationships than we might normally observe. For this inside glimpse, you might read the entire opinion.

In footnotes, Judge Holmes raises interesting points about the IRS hitting the Melaskys with a bad check penalty. He expresses concerns about whether in doing so it followed the requirement of IRC 6751(b) to obtain proper approval and why it would impose such a penalty when IRC 6657 has a good faith and reasonable cause exception. It’s hard to imagine how this penalty would apply on these facts when they tendered payment with sufficient funds in the account and had no reason to know of the impending levy. Because the amount is small relative to the overall liabilities and maybe because of the timing of the imposition of the penalty vis a vis the CDP case, the Melaskys did not raise an objection to the imposition of this penalty. So, that issue will wait for another day.

Judge Holmes finds that the Appeals employee handling the CDP case did not provide an adequate explanation of the basis for concluding the payment did not meet the voluntary payment rules and, therefore, the court should remand the case. The primary concern raised by Judge Homes brings in the Chenery doctrine which binds the agency to the reasons expressed for its decision. He provides a detailed analysis of federal tax cases regarding the timing of application of payment when made by check. The concurring opinion does not spend much time addressing this collection of cases but focuses on Judge Holmes analysis of contract law and the interference the levy created with the ability of the Melaskys to complete performance of the payment of their check.

While Judge Holmes acknowledges that the parties had no express contract he points to the Melaskys’ reliance on Rev. Proc. 2002-26. He proposes a bright line rule that if the IRS causes a check to bounce the taxpayers should receive the benefit of the voluntary payment rule. The concurring opinion pushes back hard on the use of contract principles, the application of the Chenery doctrine in the way described by Judge Holmes and in the idea that the Appeals employee did anything wrong in making his decision. As always I learned a lot by reading Judge Holmes dissent but I am persuaded here that the majority got it right. Whether the IRS inadvertently caused the attempted voluntary payment to fail or the cause had been some third party, the failure of the check to clear keeps a taxpayer from gaining the benefits of the voluntary payment rule. As the concurrence points out, the Melaskys could have obtained a cashier’s check had they wanted to make sure the funds were in the account when the IRS sought to cash the check. That may be the greatest lesson for those seeking to make a voluntary payment and who want to avoid unpleasant surprises.

 

Unpacking the Collection Due Process Case of Melasky v. Commissioner Part 1: The Delay

The Tax Court issued two opinions in the Collection Due Process (CDP) case involving the Melaskys. In 151 T.C. No. 8 it issued a precedential opinion holding that a challenge to the crediting of payment is reviewed pursuant to an abuse of discretion standard and not de novo. See our post on the case here. In 151 T.C. No. 9 it issued a fully reviewed precedential opinion addressing the collection issues raised in the case before sustaining the determination of the Appeals employee and allowing the IRS to move forward toward levy. As discussed more fully below, this case took way too long to resolve. We suggest that it serve as a sign that the process needs to change in order to go back to its original design.

I acknowledge that by suggesting the system move more quickly some low income taxpayers who gather information slowly may be disadvantaged.  The IRS already closes cases based on lack of taxpayer responsiveness – and it should.  Except for taxpayer who seek to use CDP to delay, I think that quicker movement by Appeals and the Court actually benefits most low income taxpayers because they stay engaged in the process.  When their case goes on the shelf for six months or a year, they disengage.  At the Appeals stage taxpayers generally have a relatively short time to reengage and that hurts low income taxpayers.  I would rather see early engagement with a slightly longer time to respond.

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The Melaskys filed their Tax Court petition on May 21, 2012. The Tax Court rendered its opinion on October 10, 2018. That’s way too long. When Congress created CDP it only gave taxpayers 30 days to file their request for a CDP hearing after the mailing of the CDP notice and only gave taxpayers 30 days to file their Tax Court petition after mailing of the CDP determination. The extremely short time frame provided to taxpayers in CDP cases reflected Congressional intent that these cases move quickly because delay in collection often proves fatal to successful collection. Congress placed no time limits on either Appeals or the Tax Court even though it placed these tight time frames on taxpayers. Carl Smith and I wrote about the disparity in a pair or articles, here and here, back in 2009 and 2011 analyzing that both Appeals and the Tax Court took longer to resolve CDP cases than deficiency cases. This could not have been what Congress intended. Since our articles, my non-empirical observation is that CDP cases may be moving faster in Tax Court because IRS counsel is filing more motions for summary judgment, the court rules require that they be filed earlier and the Tax Court disposes of most of the cases slightly quicker. The Melasky case shows the opposite side of the coin.

The Tax Court has decided not to adopt procedures that would move CDP cases on a faster track than deficiency cases. This case provides a perfect demonstration of why Bryan Camp calls CDP the 11th Taxpayer Bill of Rights provision – the right to delay. Appeals also has not created procedures that fast track CDP cases. Maybe it’s time to rethink the process and move these cases through the system with the speed Congress anticipated. Congress would not have anticipated it created a process that caused a case to take almost six and ½ years to work its way through the Tax Court to the point of an opinion.

Can it be so hard to move CDP case quickly through the system of Appeals and Tax Court review? In addition to the six plus years this case has spent in Tax Court to this point, the case spent 14 months in Appeals. Taxpayers filed their CDP request on February 9, 2011. Appeals held the initial hearing over six months later on August 25, 2011. The hearing occurred back in a bygone era when taxpayers could obtain a face to face hearing. I read that part of the opinion with nostalgia wondering how they received a face to face meeting until I looked at the dates. Appeals issued the notice of determination on April 20, 2012.

These taxpayers were no strangers to collection by the time they made their CDP request. They have liabilities going back to 1995 with multiple proposals for offers in compromise and installment agreements strewn along the way. Maybe it took six months just to send their undoubtedly voluminous collection file over to the Appeals Office but it seems that Appeals could create a system of moving these cases quickly into hearing. CDP was loosely modeled on CAP appeals which are to take place within five business days after the request. That time frame would not allow Appeals to perform the verification required by the statute but it should not take months to engage in the verification and the evaluation of taxpayer’s collection proposal.

The Appeals employee working this case gave the taxpayers months to liquidate their assets. As will be discussed in Part 3, taxpayers failed to liquidate all of their assets and that ultimately led to the determination to sustain the levy. The taxpayers here were able to actively delay the case because Appeals lacks a triage system. Appeals needs to adopt a triage system that gets to the taxpayer quickly to engage in a conversation about what is expected and necessary for a successful outcome. Then it can perform its verification and balancing while the taxpayer provides the necessary information to support its request. Treat the initial hearing like a CAP hearing to get the process going. By waiting six months just to hold the initial hearing, the CDP process will necessarily move slowly. In our article from nine years ago Carl and I made the following proposals:

To carry out the intent of the creators of CDP for an expedited process, the authors propose that the tolling of the statute of limitations on collection end six months after the CDP notice is sent if the taxpayer makes a timely CDP request. However, the authors would not propose altering one current protection of the CDP statute that in no event can the collection period expire before the 90th day after the date on which there is a final determination by the IRS or the courts) in that hearing….

To address the issue of mounting interest and time sensitive penalties, another possible avenue for revision of the statue is to adopt a provision similar to section 6404 (b) to stop the further accrual of interest and penalties once the administrative portion of the hearing exceeds six months.

The Tax Court also could adopt procedures to move these cases faster. It could give the IRS 30 days to file the answer instead of 60 days. It does not take very long to deny everything. It could schedule a telephonic conference within 30 days of the case coming at issue and encourage summary judgment motions from the parties at that point. In our article seven years ago Carl and I made the following proposals:

We recommend that the Tax Court amend its rules and adopt procedures that foster the early movement of CDP cases through the court. Under a new rule in Title XXXII of the Tax Court Rules (perhaps Rule 335) Chief Counsel should be required to file within 14 days after the case is at issue (1) the administrative record and (2) a current literal transcript of the taxpayer’s account for the years at issue.

Following this filing, the court should either issue an order to show cause or an order for the filing of a report by the parties. This would require the taxpayer to state how the administrative record might be inaccurate or incomplete, and it would require both parties to state why the case should not be decided on the administrative record. This order should also note that supplementing the administrative record may be possible on a party’s request and any needed discovery should be raised with the court at that time. The parties should be given a relatively short time to identify any additional evidence they think is needed to supplement the record or to convince the court that additional discovery is necessary We recommend that the period for the parties to respond to the Court’s order be no more than 30 days.

This case should be a wake-up call that the CDP process is broken and that in 20 years the players have not taken steps to avoid making it Collection Delay Process instead of Collection Due Process. Of course a fraction of the cases will take more time to resolve but none should take six and ½ years and the vast majority should be resolved within months and not years allowing collection to proceed when needed and stop when appropriate. Cases involving a merits or an innocent spouse determination would obviously move on a slower track more in line with regular cases of those types while pure collection cases would get resolved quickly to allow the process to work as intended.

 

Upcoming Appellate Arguments on Cases PT Has Blogged

Frequent guest blogger Carl Smith keeps us up to date with many items that he tracks. Carl is headed to Hawaii for a well-deserved vacation from his busy retirement but before he left he provided us with an update on a number of cases on which we have previously reported. Because we usually pick cases of some importance on which to write, it is not surprising that many of them continue on past the initial decision. For those interested in knowing what is happening on some of the cases on which we have blogged, Carl has left us with a guide to the cases moving forward to oral argument on appeal in the next couple of months.

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  1. The first case is one on which Les blogged here and here over two years ago. The issue in the case concerns the effect of fraud on the return by a third party and whether that fraud can hold open the statute of limitations even if the taxpayer did not commit fraud in filing the return. On Nov. 8, the 11th Cir. will hear the appeal of Finnegan v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2016-188, in which the Tax Court held that the fraudulent conduct of a return preparer extended the SOL of 6501 indefinitely (per its Allen opinion).  The Tax Court refused to follow the Fed. Cir.’s BASR’s holding to the contrary, but which is possibly distinguishable as a TEFRA partnership case.  Frank Agostino will do oral argument for the taxpayers.  The DOJ argues that the Tax Court’s interpretation of 6501 is correct and that the taxpayers waived raising any argument that the Tax Court’s position in Allen is wrong. The briefs are here: Appellant; Appellee; Reply. We note in our earlier posts that fellow bloggers Jack Townsend and Bryan Camp think Allen is wrong. I happen to think it is right. Aside from obviously turning on the language of the statute, the issue is one of where should the focus lie. Should the IRS receive an unlimited time period within which to make an assessment because of the deceit on the return or should the taxpayer have a normal statute of limitations since the taxpayer did not engage in fraud even if the taxpayer benefited from the action. It would not be surprising to find that this issue eventually ended up in the Supreme Court.
  2. On Nov. 9, the 9th Cir. will hear oral argument in Crim v. Commissioner, one of the cases in which Joe DiRuzzo is arguing the Kuretski issue.  Carl blogged about the case here mentioning the forthcoming oral argument and providing links to the briefs. The Kuretski issue for those of you not following it closely involves the power of the President to remove Tax Court judges which raises issues of separation of powers depending on where the Tax Court lands inside the government. Is it a part of the executive branch as the D.C. Circuit determined in Kuretski making the removal provision constitutional sound or is it a part of one of the other two branches of government as signaled by the Supreme Court in an earlier case not involving the removal provision. Should the 9th Circuit decide to place the Tax Court in the Judicial or Legislative branch, this case to could end up in the Supreme Court.
  1. Any regular reader of PT knows that the most blogged about issue in 2018 involves the Graev decision and its many permutations. On April 4, 2018, Carl blogged about the RERI case which involves the application of IRC 6751(b) to penalties imposed on partnerships. On Nov. 9, the D.C. Cir. will have oral argument in this TEFRA partnership case, among whose arguments are that the IRS did not prove compliance with 6751(b).  This may result in getting a Court of appeals to accept the Tax Court’s holding in Dynamo Holdings that 7491(c) does not put the burden on the IRS to prove compliance with 6751(b) because TEFRA partnerships are not “individuals”.
  1. On Nov. 13, the 2d Cir. hears oral argument in Borenstein v. Commissioner. I blogged about this case here. The Federal Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School together with the tax clinic at Georgia State filed an amicus brief in the Tax Court and again in the Second Circuit.  This case has to do with the Tax Court’s overpayment jurisdiction under 6512(b) in an odd fact pattern in which the taxpayer filed a late return seeking a refund. The timing of the refund falls into a legislative donut hole because she requested an extension of time to file her return.  The case will not have broad applicability though it is possible that others could fall into this potential trap. The issue requires parsing the language of the statute and discerning its meaning in the overall context of filing a late tax return which contains a refund claim.
  1. On Dec. 4, the D.C. Cir. will hear oral argument from Joe DiRuzzo (again) in the whistleblower case of Myers v. Commissioner. Carl blogged this case on May 21, 2018 in which he linked to the appellants brief and to the brief filed by the Federal Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard, but not the later-filed appellee and reply briefs).  The issue in this case concerns whether the IRS sent a valid determination letter to the whistleblower. In whistleblower cases the statute does not make clear exactly what must be sent to provide a ticket to the Tax Court. The IRS sent him by regular mail a series of letters, none of which said that he should file in the Tax Court if he disagreed.  After many months contacting various other people in government for help with his claim, Mr. Myers eventually took a flyer on filing a Tax Court petition.  The Court decided that each letter in the series had been a ticket to the Tax Court, and Mr. Myers had filed late — dismissing his case for lack of jurisdiction. Because Congress has created new jurisdictional bases for the Tax Court in whistleblower and in passport revocation without setting out the type and formality of correspondence that the IRS must send to provide the ticket to court, these types of cases are needed in order to sort out when to come to court. Because Mr. Meyers is pro se, he may be one of many unrepresented individuals who will struggle to pick the right correspondence if the correspondence does not clearly alert him to its importance as a ticket to court.

 

 

 

Suspending the Priority Claim Period and an Update on Clothier v. IRS

On August 17, 2018, I wrote about the bankruptcy case of Clothier v. IRS which held that a debtor’s prior bankruptcy did not suspend the time period for the IRS to retain priority status. I will come back to that case in a postscript to this post. Clothier involved the issue of whether a taxpayer’s prior bankruptcy case tolled the time for the IRS to claim priority status. The case of Tenholder v. United States, No. 3-17-cv-01310 (S.D. Ill. 2018) looks at the same issue but examines a different basis for tolling – a Collection Due Process (CDP) request. The district court, affirming the decision of the bankruptcy court, concludes that taxpayers’ CDP request did toll the time period for claiming priority status.

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Debtors filed a chapter 7 petition on December 30, 2015. At issue in this discharge litigation is tax year 2011. Debtors requested an extension of time to file their 2011 return making the return due date October 15, 2012. That extended due date falls more than three years before the date of their bankruptcy petition. As such, the priority claim provision of BC 507(a)(8)(A)(i) did not apply nor did the other two rules that allow the IRS to file a priority claim for assessments within 240 days of the bankruptcy petition and for taxes not yet assessed but still assessable. So, the IRS sought to hold open the three years from the extended due date for filing by resorting to the flush language added to the end of 507(a)(8) in the 2005 legislative changes.

That language provides:

An otherwise applicable time period specified in this paragraph shall be suspended for any period during which a governmental unit is prohibited under applicable nonbankruptcy law from collecting a tax as a result of a request by the debtor for a hearing and an appeal of any collection action taken or proposed against the debtor, plus 90 days; plus any time during which the stay of proceedings was in effect in a prior case under this title or during which collection was precluded by the existence of 1 or more confirmed plans under this title, plus 90 days.

Applying this language suspends the three year period for 207 days in the debtors’ case because that was the time between their CDP request on July 22, 2013, and the end of the CDP hearing on February 14, 2014. In addition to the 207 days, the flush language also tacks on an additional 90 days. Adding 297 days to the end of the period three years from the extended due date of October 15, 2015, yields a date of August 7, 2016. Since debtors filed their bankruptcy petition prior to August 7, 2016 the IRS filed its claim for 2011 as a priority claim. Based on its claim of priority status for 2011, the IRS argued that the debt was excepted from discharge by BC 523(a)(1)(A).

Debtors disagreed with the application of the flush language because the language of the paragraph says taxes for “which a governmental unit is prohibited under applicable non-bankruptcy law from collecting a tax.” Debtors acknowledge that the IRS could not levy while their CDP case was pending but argued that the IRS could offset or could bring a collection suit while the CDP case was pending and, since it was not totally prohibited from collecting, the flush language does not apply to suspend the priority period.

Debtors were not the first to make this argument. At least three prior cases addressed the same issue but the district court did its own analysis of the provision. It found IRC 6330, the CDP provision, was a non-bankruptcy law prohibiting collection. The court disagreed with debtors’ argument that the language provided a clear statement requiring broad prohibition of any type of collection and agreed with the argument of the IRS that the statute does not say all collection and it clearly covers the collection prevented by a CDP hearing. In holding for the IRS the court found the language of the statute ambiguous but the legislative history clear in its intent to cover the CDP situation. As a result it found that debtors filed within the period during which the IRS could claim priority status. This decision aligns with the prior decisions interpreting the language of this paragraph.

The harsh result here points to the care that a debtor must take in choosing the timing of a bankruptcy petition where discharge of a tax for a specific year serves as the goal of the filing of the bankruptcy petition. Had the debtor realized the impact of the filing of the CDP request, and assuming no other factors drove the timing of the filing of the petition, the debtor could have realized the discharge of this tax debt by simply waiting a little longer to file.

This brings us back to the Clothier case which raised a similar issue of timing but did not discuss the flush language of 507(a)(8) added in 2005. As I mentioned in the earlier post about Clothier, the Court’s decision essentially overturned the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. United States, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).

Following the post, I received an email from Ken Weil in Seattle who specializes in bankruptcy and tax matters citing me to the hanging paragraph at the end of 507(a)(8). Ken’s cite to this part of 507 is perfect because in this hanging paragraph Congress codified the decision in the Young case. I am getting too rusty on bankruptcy and should have questioned in my post why the government did not vigorously argue this language.

Coincidentally, I had a conversation with someone familiar with the case who informed me that the case was argued by an assistant United States Attorney rather than a Department of Justice Tax Division attorney. The AUSA would not be as familiar with tax issues in bankruptcy and did not cite the court to the hanging paragraph. So, the judge missed it as well.

We have not yet confirmed that the IRS appealed the Clothier decision. I expect that it will and that the outcome of the decision will change. We will see.