Update on Premature Assessments

At the recent ABA Tax Section meeting the Tax Court announced that it had eliminated its backlog of cases which should stop the premature assessment problem it has created during the past two years because of the significant delays in getting petitioners over to IRS Chief Counsel’s office.  As we have discussed before here and here, when the IRS sends out a notice of deficiency, it puts a time frame on hearing that the taxpayer has filed a petition in Tax Court in response to the notice.  The notice suspends the statute of limitations on assessment for 90 days plus 60 days but the IRS must act relatively quickly after the 90 days runs in order to insure that it makes a timely assessment.  So, if it has not heard that the taxpayer filed a Tax Court petition by the date it selects after sending the notice – something like 90 days plus an additional 20 days – it assesses the liability shown in the statutory notice and begins the collection process.

The Tax Court eventually acknowledged the problem its petition processing delays caused the IRS, and hence the petitioner, and several months ago worked out a system for notifying Chief Counsel of new petitions even before it formally sent the petition to Chief Counsel for answer.  The system seems to have worked well and eliminated or significantly reduced the number of premature assessments.  Judge Toro noted in his comments that because the Tax Court has caught up with its backlog, the Court is winding down the early warning system created to avert premature assessments.  In a later panel Paul Butler, an executive with Chief Counsel in SBSE, stated that petitions generally arrive at Chief Counsel now about 3-4 weeks after filing but some still take a few months. So, it seems that we have a happy ending.

Professor Elizabeth Maresca, the director of the tax clinic at Fordham law school, raised an interesting point at the recent ABA Tax Section meeting that I had not considered.  I pass it along in case others have also not thought of the potential problem caused by the premature assessments and the cases in the settlement pipeline.

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The problem of premature assessments has been around for as long as I remember; however, the incidence of premature assessments prior to the pandemic was low.  In my experience, it usually happened for cases filed around the holiday period at the end of the year when the Tax Court clerk’s office probably operated at a skeletal level due to both holiday leave and end of year use or lose leave.  Each year it seemed some cases would not make it from the Tax Court to Chief Counsel.  For represented petitioners the premature assessment usually caused little problem because their representative would contact the local Chief Counsel office and the assigned attorney would fix the problem rather promptly causing an abatement of the assessment.  For pro se taxpayers who did not know the assessment should not have occurred, fixing the problem did not necessarily occur quickly because they failed to ask for an abatement.  The number of problem cases, however, would generally be quite low which does not mean it did not adversely impact individuals unaware that an easy fix existed.

Now we have quite a large number of premature assessments in the system.  Chief Counsel attorneys are on the alert for premature assessments but may not catch them all.  The possibility exists that the IRS has made premature assessments yet to be reversed and it has collected money on those assessments by offset or otherwise.  Now these cases filed a year or two ago are coming to the end which will cause the preparation of a decision document.  I hope that in every case in which the IRS prepares a decision document, it pulls a transcript and carefully checks to determine if a premature assessment occurred and if payments were made that need to be reflected in the decision document.  I am not sure that it does.

Professor Maresca recommended that attorneys representing petitioners in Tax Court cases request from Counsel a transcript of account for the year(s) before the Tax Court in order to make a check for any premature assessment and payment before signing the decision document.  The advice makes sense to me.  If the taxpayer has made payments on the account and the decision document does not reflect those payments, the taxpayer could lose them unless the problem is found within 30 days of the entry of the decision document.

While I mentioned above that the Chief Counsel assigned to the case will quickly fix it if the premature assessment is brought to their attention, the possibility exists that delays will occur.   Chief Counsel’s office has created a form for making a referral of a premature assessment and has a special email address.  You can find the form here.  The email address is on the form.

If calling your favorite Chief Counsel attorney, or the attorney assigned to the case, or emailing the form does not quickly result in fixing the premature assessment, you could consider filing a Tax Court Rule 55 motion.  Here is a template memorandum that could accompany such a motion for anyone in need of this resource.  Thanks to Frank Agostino for providing this resource.

Hopefully, we will soon be back to the good old days of rare premature assessments.  Until we get all of the assessments from the pandemic worked through the system, be on the lookout for problem cases.

What to Do After Receiving a Notice of Claim Disallowance

The National Taxpayer Advocate wrote a blog post last month highlighting a potential trap for the unwary who receive a notice of claim disallowance and think that they have worked out or are working out a resolution.  In oversized bolded letters, she stated:

If you are working with the IRS or the IRS Independent Office of Appeals (“Appeals”), do not make the mistake and assume that working toward a resolution equates to the IRS’s ability to pay a refund or allow a credit once the IRC § 6532 statute has expired.

The NTA made this statement because IRC 6214(a)(2) “prohibits the IRS from paying the refund or allowing the credit” if more than two years has passed from the notice of claim disallowance.  In order to preserve the right to obtain payment beyond the two-year period, the taxpayer must either file suit or ensure that they and an authorized IRS employee sign a Form 907, Agreement to Extend the Time to Bring Suit.

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The NTA felt it necessary to write the post highlighting this issue because of the significant and unusual delays the pandemic has caused.  Taxpayers might think they have worked something out with the IRS to resolve an issue after the notice of claim disallowance, but unless the IRS actually takes action within the two years to pay the refund or allow the credit, the taxpayer can lose out.  In the current climate, matters can take more than two years to resolve.

The advocate lays out the problem in stark terms as she describes the administrative process of contesting a claims disallowance letter:

Once the notice of claim disallowance is received, a taxpayer needs to send a protest to the issuing office contesting the disallowance. This assumes the taxpayer understands the notice and the requirements, as these notices are not always clear. (See the National Taxpayer Advocate 2014 Annual Report to Congress, Refund Disallowance Notices Do Not Provide Adequate Explanations.) With the delays in processing correspondence, these protests may sit for many, many months before being addressed. Once assigned, the IRS employee assigned to the case needs to obtain the administrative file, bundle it with the taxpayer’s protest, and send it to Appeals for consideration. Unfortunately, the backlog adds more delays to this process. Once a protest is assigned to Appeals, it still needs to be assigned to an Appeals Officer and worked, which could be an additional six to 12 months. If the issue involves whether the claim was timely, and the Appeals Officer concludes that it was, the case may be transferred back to Exam for a determination on the merits of the refund claim. If the IRS and the taxpayer do not agree on the merits, the taxpayer can file another protest with Appeals to contest the merits of the underlying claim and the process starts all over. It is not surprising that this process may take over two years to be resolved, exceeding the two-year period in which a refund could have been issued (or a credit allowed).

While the Form 907 extension exists to remove the pressure of the two-year time period in this circumstance, executing that form may not always solve the problem.  The blog also points out that representatives must ensure that their power of attorney designates the Form 907 as an act within their scope of representation.  Of course, the IRS must agree to the Form 907.  A taxpayer cannot unilaterally execute a binding extension agreement.  Look to IRM 8.7.7.3.3(1) to find the reasons that will cause the IRS to agree to extend the time.

The NTA also points out that sometimes no one at the IRS has the case under assignment.  In that situation the taxpayer will struggle to find someone at the IRS willing and authorized to sign Form 907.  For this reason, the NTA suggests starting the process of getting the Form 907 filed 4-6 months before the running of the two-year period. 

If a taxpayer cannot obtain the necessary signature as the two-year period approaches, filing a refund suit may provide the taxpayer’s only option.  The NTA states the IRS could extend the time period by exercising its authority under IRC 7508 as it has done for several pandemic-related matters; however, it has not done so for the two-year period for refund.

Be aware that filing a refund suit has slightly different timing rules than the filing of a petition in Tax Court.  The timely mailing is timely filing rule of IRC 7502 does not apply.  Carl discussed this in a post a few years ago.  A recent unpublished opinion of the Federal Circuit also addresses this issue.  In Weston v. United States, No. 22-1179 (Fed Cir. 2022), an unpublished opinion [appearing in Tax Notes Federal on April 14, 2022], the Fed. Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a pro se complaint for Lack of Jurisdiction for late filing under the 2-year rule of 6532(a).  No new law was made, and there was no way the taxpayer could have won her case under 6511, anyway.  The taxpayer filed joint 2012 and 2013 returns with her deceased husband in mid-2017 – more than 3 years late.  The returns showed overpayments.  The claims were timely under 6511(a) (filed on the same day as the returns), but would be limited to zero under 6511(b)(2)(A).  The IRS sent her notifications of claim disallowance on April 4, 2018 (for 2013) and April 11, 2018 (for 2012).  She mailed a complaint to the Court of Federal Claims on April 11, 2020, which arrived at the CFC and was filed on April 20, 2020.  Of course, the 2013 disallowance 2-year period ran before she mailed.  But, she argued for timely filing for the 2012 year because of timely mailing of the complaint.  She lost because 7502 applies to filings with the IRS and the Tax Court, but not with any other court. 

The NTA’s post provides a good reminder of yet another hurdle created by the pandemic.  Don’t let this hurdle prevent your client from obtaining a refund.

Default Judgment

A recent case in which the defendants lost for not responding to a suit filed against them by the IRS caught my eye.  Default judgments are a dime a dozen but this one involved an injunction against a return preparer.  I have recently picked up a case involving a ghost preparer which caused me to take a second look at this case seeking an injunction against the preparer.

Default judgments also represent the flip side of filing a late petition showing that timeliness matters not only in filing the suit but also in responding.  Since we have written so much recently about the importance of timely filing, focusing on the importance of timely responding also deserves a moment in the spotlight.  Don’t get excited, however, if you want to obtain a default judgment against the government.  That is not allowed and for many good reasons.

In United States v. Erica McGowan et al, No. 2:21-cv-10624 (E.D. Mich.), the IRS filed suit on March 22, 2021, seeking:

to obtain (i) an injunction barring Defendants “from engaging in the business of preparing federal tax returns and employing any person acting as a federal tax return preparer” and (ii) an order “requiring Defendants to disgorge to the United States their receipts for preparing federal tax returns making false or fraudulent claims.”

Apparently, one or more of the defendants proved difficult to locate, causing the IRS on June 17, 2021 to seek additional time to serve them.  Service occurred the same day as the motion, making the answer due date July 8, 2021 – 21 days after service.  Defendants failed to file an answer and the IRS obtained a default judgment on August 6, 2021, setting up this case to set aside that judgment.

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On September 1, 2021, defendants filed a motion to set aside the default judgment arguing, inter alia, that the failure to timely file an answer did not result from their culpable conduct.  A reason given for the failure was the mistaken belief that defendants had 60 days to file an answer.  The magistrate judge to whom this motion was assigned was unmoved by this argument because (1) the summons specifically stated the period was 21 days and (2) the defendants did not file an answer within 60 days.

The court looked at three factors in deciding whether to set aside the default judgement:

(1) whether the party seeking relief is culpable; (2) whether the party opposing relief will be prejudiced; and (3) whether the party seeking relief has a meritorious claim or defense.

In order to get to a consideration of factors (2) and (3), the moving party must demonstrate a lack of culpability.  Here, the court found that they could not as it reviewed the determination of the magistrate judge.

Defendants argued that the magistrate judge focused exclusively on their failure to show excusable neglect and did not mention the separate bases for relief of mistake or inadvertence.  The district court, agreeing with the magistrate, pointed out that defendants failed to raise these alternate grounds in its motion.  Having failed to raise them in its argument to the magistrate judge, it could not raise them on appeal.

Defendants then attacked the magistrate judge’s definition of culpability, arguing that the court must find “an intent to thwart judicial proceedings or a reckless disregard for the effect of its conduct on these proceedings.”   Sixth Circuit law, however, does not allow relief from a default judgment where the default results “from a party’s or counsel’s carelessness or ignorance of the law.”  

Defendants next argued that the court should balance the factors necessary for overcoming a default judgment and not stop upon a finding of culpability.  Here again, the district court found that the law clearly created a barrier if the moving party could not overcome the issue of culpability.

In the opinion in this case we don’t even get to learn what the defendants did that caused the IRS to seek the injunction in the first place.  That information can be found in the petition.  The defendant’s motion contains some explanation but their attempt to raise the merits of their possible defense falls to their failure to show good cause for not answering the complaint. 

Twenty one days is not a long time.  It’s even less than the short period allowed for responding to a Collection Due Process notice; however, ignoring the complaint creates a result that proves impossible for the defendants here to overcome.  They needed an excuse similar to the type of excuse we have spoken of in recent posts regarding the late filing of Tax Court petitions and they did not have it.  The case provides another example of the importance of acting on time.  Even if defendants have the greatest reasons for arguing against an injunction barring them from filing tax returns, their failure to respond within the necessary time period keeps them from raising those arguments.

What’s Happening in Myers and Whistleblower Cases After the Decision the Statute is a Claims Processing Rule

In 2019 the D.C. Circuit held in Myers v. Commissioner, 928 F.3d 1025, that the language creating the Tax Court’s basis for jurisdiction to hear whistleblower cases did not create a jurisdictional filing deadline.  It also held the time period subject to equitable tolling.  So, can the subsequent history of Myers provide insight into how the Tax Court will handle equitable tolling cases in Collection Due Process cases (CDP)?  No, it cannot because the Court held off on looking into equitable tolling waiting for the outcome in Boechler, but the post-Myers cases do provide insight into what happens when no one raises the issue of late filing.

Since the Myers decision, it does not appear that the Tax Court has issued any other rulings on whistleblower cases deciding an equitable tolling issue.  This signals how rarely equitable tolling issues present themselves. The IRS Whistleblower Office Annual Report to Congress (of which the most recent report posted to IRS.gov is for FYE 2020; see https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p5241.pdf) says in Table 3 on page 24 that there were 118 IRC 7623(b) claims in litigation as of 9/30/20, but then confusingly notes:  “There are closed claims that are in litigation. Table 3 identifies only open claims.”  Does that mean that Tax Court cases are not in the 118 or are in the 118?  This probably means that the 118 cases in litigation are pending Tax Court cases.  The Tax Court has reported to Congress that during FYE 2021 there were 63 whistleblower (WB) cases filed.  https://www.ustaxcourt.gov/resources/budget_justification/FY_2023_Congressional_Budget_Justification.pdf

The benefit of Myers to taxpayers who file late, however, appears to be in prohibiting the Tax Court from issuing orders to show cause why a whistleblower case should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction (LOJ).  This post will discuss four opinions below, each of which suggests that the Tax Court would have issued orders to show cause to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction due to late filing, had the filing deadline been jurisdictional.  This provides a window into what will happen with late filed CDP cases where the IRS does not raise the timing of the filing.    In Myers any benefit from the D.C. Circuit opinion as confirmed by the Supreme Court in Boechler will come from the application of equitable tolling.

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Looking at the whistleblower cases decided since the Myers decision, Carl Smith found the following cases:

(1)  In Whistleblower 15977-18W, T.C. Memo. 2021-143 (12/29/21), the taxpayer lost on summary judgment because the Tax Court upheld a determination by the WB office that the WB did not provide specific enough information.  (Query whether the more recent D.C. Circuit case, Li v. Commissioner, would have required the Tax Court to dismiss this case for LOJ because the WB office did not appear to take any action on the claim beyond asking SB/SE to look into the claim.  There is no mention of any proceeding done against the taxpayer.)  The WB office issued a notice of determination to the WB on Oct. 16, 2017.  The WB, who lived overseas, may not have received the notice of determination until after the 30 days to petition expired.  In any event, the WB petitioned the Tax Court on Aug. 16, 2018.  The IRS did not raise to the Tax Court that the case should be dismissed for late filing.  Here’s footnote 3 from the opinion:

Petitioner resided outside of the United States when the petition was filed.  In Myers v. Commissioner, 928 F.3d 1025, 1036-1037, 442 U.S. App. D.C. 110 (D.C. Cir. 2019), rev’g and remanding 148 T.C. 438 (2017), the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the 30-day period for filing a petition to initiate a whistleblower action is subject to equitable tolling. The D.C. Circuit is the appellate venue for this case. See sec. 7482(b)(1) (penultimate sentence). We thus follow its precedent. See Golsen v. Commissioner, 54 T.C. 742, 757 (1970), aff’d, 445 F.2d 985 (10th Cir. 1971). Consistently with Myers, we hold that we have jurisdiction to consider this case. And since neither party has questioned the filing of the petition after the 30-day period or addressed the subject of equitable tolling, we will proceed to consider the pending motions.

The Tax Court did exactly what it should have.  It no longer has the right to raise timeliness issues on its own.  This will happen more and more now that the CDP cases have entered the pool of cases subject to the claims processing rule. 

(2)  Similar is Damiani, T.C. Memo. 2020-132, where the court saw that, obviously, the petition was not timely filed.  Here’s a bit from the Damiani opinion:

The Office agreed with Mr. Wiggins’ recommendation and on June 14, 2019, issued a final determination letter rejecting petitioner’s claims. The letter stated in pertinent part that “[t]he claim has been rejected because the information submitted did not identify an issue regarding tax underpayments or violations of internal revenue laws.” The letter informed petitioner: “If you disagree with this determination, you have 30 days from the date of this letter to file a petition with the Tax Court.”

Petitioner petitioned this Court for review of the Office’s determination. Her petition was mailed from Germany, postmarked by Deutsche Post on July 31, 2019, and was received and filed by the Court on August 12, 2019. 

. . . .

Consistently with Myers, we hold that we have jurisdiction to consider this case. And since neither party has questioned the filing of the petition after the 30-day period or addressed the subject of equitable tolling, we will proceed to consider respondent’s motion for summary judgment.

(3) Also similar is Friedel, T.C. Memo. 2020-131.  Here’s a bit from the Friedel opinion:

The Office agreed with both recommendations and issued on April 30 and May 8, 2019, final determination letters rejecting petitioner’s claims. Each letter stated in pertinent part that “[t]he claim has been rejected because the IRS decided not to pursue the information you provided.” The letters informed petitioner: “If you disagree with this determination, you have 30 days from the date of this letter to file a petition with the Tax Court.”

Petitioner petitioned this Court for review of the Office’s determinations. His petition was mailed from Germany, postmarked by Deutsche Post on June 11, 2019, and was received and filed by the Court on June 24, 2019. 

. . . .

[S]ince neither party has questioned the filing of the petition after the 30-day period or addressed the subject of equitable tolling, we will proceed to consider respondent’s motion for summary judgment.

(4)  Also similar is Stevenson, T.C. Memo. 2020-137, where the court expressed concern that the petition might not have been timely, but did not actually find facts as to the 30-day deadline.  The court there wrote:

Section 7623(b)(4) provides that “[a]ny determination regarding an award * * * may, within 30 days of such determination, be appealed to the Tax Court (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with  respect to such matter).” The Office issued its determination letter to petitioner on April 10, 2019. He signed his petition on May 2, 2019, but the mailing date is unclear. See sec. 7502(a). The petition was received and filed by the Court on May 13, 2019, more than 30 days after the date on which the Office issued the determination letter.

. . . .

Since neither party has questioned the filing of the petition after the 30-day period or addressed the subject of equitable tolling, we will proceed to consider respondent’s motion for summary judgment.

In all of these cases, the IRS successfully moved for summary judgment.  Perhaps the IRS was so confident it would win on summary judgment that it did not bother to raise the petition untimeliness issues. In the amicus brief the Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School filed for the Center for Taxpayer Rights in Boechler at the cert. stage, we predicted this outcome.  It may well turn out that it is more important to taxpayers that the Tax Court can’t raise timeliness issues on its own if a deadline is not jurisdictional than that the taxpayers can also raise equitable tolling. 

As the recent post on the application of 7459 pointed out by detailing the number of dismissals in deficiency, CDP, innocent spouse, and WB cases, there will be more (1) cases in which the IRS just misses the late filing and so doesn’t raise the issue than (2) cases where the IRS will raise the issue and the taxpayer will argue for equitable tolling.  It may be that the WBs in each of the above cases had an equitable tolling argument (e.g., non-receipt during the 30-day period, like Ms. Castillo), but they never had to present one.

Boechler Challenge to Tax Court Position on IRC 6213

Hallmark Research Collective, Tax Court Dk. No. 21284-21, filed a petition on September 2, 2021, in response to a notice of deficiency. The IRS answered the case on November 10, 2021; however, the Tax Court in policing cases to determine if it had jurisdiction issued a show cause order on November 17, 2021, seeking a response from the parties regarding why it should not dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.

The parties responded to the show cause order and the Tax Court decided that it lacked jurisdiction because the petition in the case was filed one day late. On April 1, 2022, the Tax Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Yesterday, Hallmark filed a Motion to Vacate Order of Dismissal for Lack of Jurisdiction and accompanied the motion with a legal memorandum setting out in detail why IRC 6213 does not create a jurisdictional time period and why prior Tax Court precedent driving dismissal of its case should be overturned following the Supreme Court’s decision in Boechler. Hallmark also argues that the filing deadline is subject to equitable tolling, and Hallmark seeks to present evidence on that issue later in the case. Shortly after the filing of the motion, the Court issued an order giving the IRS 30 days to respond.

While the Tax Court dismisses many deficiency cases for lack of jurisdiction, Hallmark may be the first case to squarely raise the issue of jurisdiction after the Boechler decision. The legal memorandum goes into great detail to explain the reasons why the Court’s prior jurisprudence has lost its underpinnings.

The Tax Court will undoubtedly give the IRS the opportunity to agree with Hallmark before rendering a decision.  I anticipate that the Tax Court will endeavor to act swiftly because of the volume of dismissals each year and the impact of the jurisdictional decision on practice at the Court.

The legal memorandum provides an outline for others who may seek to challenge the Tax Court’s decisions regarding jurisdiction in deficiency cases and details of case dismissals in recent months in order to show the impact of the issue.

What Happens to Employees When the Employer Fails to Pay Over to the Government Withheld Taxes

In Plazzi v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc., No. 1:21:-cv-12130 (D. Mass. 2022), three employees sued their employer because their withheld wages were not paid over to the government.  I do not remember seeing such a suit previously, but this is a matter that I discuss with my students each semester.  Most of us pay taxes through third-party intermediaries.  Understanding the relationship between the third-party intermediary and you, the taxpayer, and the government is important.  The case provides a nice analysis of what I explain to my students each semester.  In addition to explaining how the system works, the court dismisses the complaint, finding that it is barred by statute.  If you are looking for a good explanation of how the third-party intermediary system of tax payment works, this relatively short opinion offers it up.

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At some point each semester I ask the students if they have ever worked as an employee.  Almost all say yes.  I then ask what happens if their employer does not pay over the withheld taxes and how many of them checked to make sure their employer actually paid over to the government the taxes it withheld from their wages.  The students have almost never thought about what happens to their withheld wages and some have a concerned look as they begin to think about the possibility of the failure of their employer to send to the government the amount taken from their wages.  Usually, after a bit of mild prompting, at least one of the students will express the view that the responsibility for failing to pay over the withheld taxes should fall on the employer and not the individual.  We then discuss why it should work that way and a look of relief comes over those who began to have concerns.

Mr. Plazzi and the others who brought this suit had not had the opportunity to have such a discussion.  I understand why they would have concerns.  I am puzzled that they did not find a lawyer who could explain the way the system works to them before they went to the trouble to file the suit.

Major corporations like FedEx basically never fail to pay over the taxes they withheld.  So, I was a little surprised to see FedEx as the defendant in such a suit. The failure to pay over trust fund taxes regularly occurs in small businesses with cash flow problems usually run by an individual or a small group of individuals who are all in financially.  Executives of a major corporation should never put themselves in this position.

My surprise lifted as the court explained the facts.  Apparently, FedEx contracts with independent companies to deliver packages in some areas.  Learning this should not surprise me.  The US Postal Service does the same thing as do many other large enterprises.  Mr. Plazzi and his fellow plaintiffs worked for Eloah Delivery rather than directly for FedEx.  The court described the arrangement as follows:

Eloah was an “independent service provider” (“ISP”) of FedEx. ISPs typically handle three or more FedEx delivery routes and follow FedEx’s policies and procedures. FedEx maintains strict control over the way in which Plaintiffs and other delivery drivers working under ISPs perform their work. Delivery drivers hired by FedEx ISPs are classified as “employees” of the ISPs. For example, under its ISP Agreement with FedEx, Eloah agreed that it would “assign only Personnel, including officers and managers, that [Eloah] ensures are treated as employees of [Eloah] in the provision of Services under this Agreement.” Further, Eloah agreed under the ISP Agreement to “assume sole responsibility for payroll deductions and maintenance of payroll and employment records, and for compliance with Applicable Law, including . . . wage payment, final payment of wages, required withholdings from wages, deductions, overtime, and rest and meal periods.”

Like many small businesses, Eloah withheld taxes from its employees’ wages as required; however, it did not pay over the withheld taxes to the government.  Somehow, unexplained in the opinion, plaintiffs found out about this failure.  Plaintiffs argued that FedEx violated their rights under the Massachusetts Wage Act.  FedEx countered that their claim is barred by state and federal law.  In finding for FedEx, the court explained why such a claim is barred.

While I say that it was unexplained in the opinion how the employees knew the money was not paid over to the IRS, the opinion did provide an explanation of how they knew problems existed. 

Prado [the supervisor at the company] told Plaintiffs he was withholding taxes equaling twenty-three percent of their gross pay per week. Plaintiffs were under the impression that Prado was withholding all required state and federal taxes and that they would receive a W-2 tax form from the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) reflecting their gross wages following the 2020 calendar year. Plaintiffs never received their W-2 forms.

So, these employees have even more problems than not having their wages withheld.  They also appear not to have a statement sent to the IRS (or Social Security) reflecting the amount paid to them and the amount withheld.  If an employer never files these forms, employees struggle to get credit.  A procedure exists for creating a substitute W-2 but that usually relies on paystubs or a statement from the company.  This is a major procedural problem by itself which can be compounded where an employer insists on making wage payments through a platform like Zelle or a similar middleman.  The lack of receipt of W-2s may have played a large role in their decision to bring a case though it is not resolved through the decision.

The employees get credit for the withheld taxes regardless of whether the employer pays the money over to the government, though proving the money was withheld can, in situations like this, prove difficult.  Assuming the employees can establish their wages were withheld, any fight about the unpaid taxes becomes a fight between the government and the employer (and potentially any responsible persons under IRC 6672) and not a fight between the employees and the employer.  In explaining this, the court stated:

Employees, however, are barred from suing employers for failing to pay withheld taxes to the IRS: the Internal Revenue Code provides that “[t]he employer shall be liable for the payment of the tax required to be deducted and withheld . . . and shall not be liable to any person for the amount of any such payment.” 26 U.S.C. § 3403. “[T]his statute makes clear that while . . . the employer may be penalized by IRS for failure to pay the tax to it, suits against it by employees for taxes withheld from the pay of such employees are statutorily barred.” Chandler, 520 F. Supp. at 1156 (dismissing employee’s suit against employer for alleged conversion of money withheld from employee’s paycheck); see Bright v. Bechtel Petroleum, Inc., 780 F.2d 766, 770 (9th Cir. 1986) (citing Chandler, 520 F. Supp. at 1156) (affirming dismissal of claim seeking to recover withheld income tax as “statutorily barred”); Haggert v. Philips Med. Sys., Inc., No. 91-cv-30060-MAP, 1994 WL 673508, at *2 (D. Mass. Mar. 24, 1994), aff’d, 39 F.3d 1166 (1st Cir. 1994) (dismissing similar claim on same grounds). Similarly, Massachusetts law on tax withholding “tracks” the Internal Revenue Code and “is intended to replicate the effect of its counterpart in the federal code.” In re Nash Concrete Form Co., 159 B.R. 611, 615 (D. Mass. 1993).

So, it doesn’t matter to the employees that the employer failed to pay over the withheld taxes, but it does matter to employees that this withholding is documented.  They do not need to keep tabs on their employer or worry in any way about what happens to their money after it is withheld as long as they have the proper proof of withholding. 

This system of giving employees credit for any amount withheld makes perfect sense and explains why normally employees do not think about the issue.  Here, the shady method of making payroll and the apparent failure to send a year in statements puts these employees in an especially bad situation.

I am a bit troubled by the fact that the system also credits the responsible officers whose wages are withheld, but I guess that’s not a big enough concern for anyone to change the statute.  For anyone interested in my longer writings on the subject of trust fund taxes and what happens when the party holding the money in trust fails to pay it over, you can find my law review articles here, here and here.

What Happens After Boechler – Part 4: The IRS Argues That Equitable Tolling Would Not Apply in Deficiency Cases

As discussed in the prior three posts of this series, the Supreme Court decision in Boechler clearly rejected the Tax Court’s position set out in the portion of its opinion in Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230 (2016) that held the time period for filing a petition in the Tax Court in a Collection Due Process (CDP) case is jurisdictional.  Petitioners who file a late Tax Court petition in a CDP case, joining petitioners in whistleblower cases and passport cases, will no longer find themselves tossed from the court automatically based on the date of court filing, but still face significant hurdles.  Petitioners seeking relief in the Tax Court outside of the three types of cases where decisions have removed the time period as a jurisdictional barrier still have some work to do in persuading the Tax Court as to how far the Boechler opinion applies.  Today’s post, part 4 in a four part series looking at the impact of Boechler, discusses the Supreme Court’s approach to the application of equitable tolling, including what CDP petitioners must do to overcome the hurdle of equitable tolling and the application of equitable tolling to deficiency proceedings once the courts determine the time for filing no longer provides a barrier. 

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The Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School wrote its entire amicus brief in the Boechler case on the equitable tolling issue.  It did so because of the importance that the Supreme Court determine not only that the time for filing a petition pursuant to IRC 6330 does not create a jurisdictional barrier but also that petitioners could demonstrate through equitable factors the right to have the merits of their case heard by the Tax Court.  The IRS argued that even if the statute did not create a jurisdictional barrier petitioners should nonetheless still not have the opportunity to come into Tax Court because equitable tolling should not apply to a tax case.  The IRS relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997).  The IRS has cited to Brockamp in every case leading up to and including Boechler, essentially arguing that it created a special exception for tax cases making equitable tolling inapplicable.  The Supreme Court soundly rejected this argument.

The Supreme Court started the equitable tolling section of the opinion with a broad statement about the general applicability of equitable tolling:

Equitable tolling is a traditional feature of American jurisprudence and a background principle against which Congress drafts limitations periods. Lozano, 572 U. S., at 10–11. Because we do not understand Con­gress to alter that backdrop lightly, nonjurisdictional limi­tations periods are presumptively subject to equitable toll­ing. Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U. S. 89, 95–96 (1990).

In a footnote it took a mild swipe at a passing argument by the IRS that equitable tolling only applies in Article III courts, noting that it had already applied equitable tolling to non-Article III courts and citing, inter alia, to its decision in favor of the IRS in Young v. United States, 535 U.S. 43, 47 (2002) in which it, at the request of the IRS, granted equitable tolling to determine that the IRS could have a priority claim in a bankruptcy case.  It’s hard to imagine how the IRS could even make a passing argument on this issue given that it sought, and received, equitable tolling in a non-Article III court just two decades ago.

Applying the general principle of equitable tolling to the CDP statute the Supreme Court said:

We see nothing to rebut the presumption here. Section 6330(d)(1) does not expressly prohibit equitable tolling, and its short, 30-day time limit is directed at the taxpayer, not the court. Cf. id., at 94–96 (holding that a statutory time limit with the same characteristics is subject to equitable tolling). The deadline also appears in a section of the Tax Code that is “‘“unusually protective”’” of taxpayers and a scheme in which “‘laymen, unassisted by trained lawyers,’” often “‘initiate the process.’” Auburn, 568 U. S., at 160. This context does nothing to rebut the presumption that nonjurisdictional deadlines can be equitably tolled.

Count on the IRS arguing that the “unusually protective” aspect of CDP prevents equitable tolling from applying in deficiency cases.  As I discussed in the first post of this series, however, CDP should not be viewed as a unique provision and the same reasons that equitable tolling applies in a CDP case should also apply to deficiency cases.

The Court spent the next couple paragraphs explaining why Brockamp does not apply to CDP cases.  For the same reasons discussed in Boechler, Brockamp should not apply in deficiency cases.  Even though far more deficiency cases are filed in Tax Court than CDP cases, the total number of cases bears no comparison to the number of refund claims at issue in Brockamp.  One can only hope that this explanation resonates with the IRS, and it will refrain from citing Brockamp every time someone wants equitable tolling.  We will soon find out.

The Court then addressed the IRS’s final argument regarding equitable tolling – that creating uncertainty in the timing of the collection injunction of IRC 6330(d)(1) will cause big problems.  Here the Court states:

The Commissioner protests that if equitable tolling is available, the IRS will not know whether it can proceed with a collection action after §6330(d)(1)’s deadline passes. The Commissioner acknowledges that the deadline is al­ready subject to tolling provisions found elsewhere in the Tax Code—for example, tolling is available to taxpayers lo­cated in a combat zone or disaster area. Tr. of Oral Arg.37–40. But he says that the IRS can easily account for these contingencies because it continuously monitors whether any taxpayer is in a combat zone or disaster area. Ibid. Tolling the §6330(d)(1) deadline outside these circum­stances, the Commissioner insists, would create much more uncertainty.

In its brief to the Supreme Court the Solicitor General cited unsupported data not in the record of the case about numbers of cases and IRS internal processes.  I do not understand how that is allowed.  This is not information the Supreme Court could take judicial notice of.  In reviewing the information provided, I did not understand how the IRS arrived at the information the Solicitor General cited to the Supreme Court.  The information did not seem correct but it’s hard to argue against unsupported information that just magically appears. 

Aside from the fact that the Solicitor General feels it is appropriate to raise new information not in the record and not publicly available in its brief, which undermines the whole point of having a record, the data was, in fact, wrong.  It later sent a letter to the Supreme Court walking back the information in its brief and stating that the data was wrong but offering new unsupported data.  I found this offensive to the system.  The Court did not comment on it.  Perhaps it’s normal for the Solicitor General and the agency to toss non-public data into a Supreme Court brief, but I cannot understand how that is appropriate.

The IRS has to deal with uncertainty that a Tax Court case has begun and the collection injunction has come into existence all the time.  No better example exists than what has happened at the Tax Court during the pandemic.  By failing to notify the IRS of the filing of a Tax Court petition for a few months, the Tax Court set the IRS off into collection mode.  This has created problems for taxpayers and for the IRS but they are problems that get worked out and this has happened with thousands of cases.  Arguing that allowing the taxpayer to raise equitable tolling because it will create a problem when the problem already exists and gets fixed on a regular basis should not serve as a reason for preventing equitable tolling.  That solution is anything but equitable for individuals who miss the deadline for a good reason.

In responding to the IRS’s equitable tolling statute of limitations and levy authority uncertainty argument, the Supreme Court avoided discussing the two statutory extensions that the IRS said it could easily deal with (i.e., the IRC 7508 combat zone and IRC 7508A disaster declaration extensions) and simply focused on the more common statutory extension provided in IRC 7502, the timely-mailing-is-timely-filing extension.  The Court wrote:

We are not convinced that the possibility of equitable tolling for the relatively small number of petitions at issue in this case will appreciably add to the uncertainty already present in the process. To take the most obvious example, petitions for review are considered filed when mailed. 26 U. S. C. §7502(a)(1). The 30-day deadline thus may come and go before a petition “filed” within that time comes to the IRS’s attention. Presumably, the IRS does not monitor when petitions for review are mailed. So it is not as if the IRS can confidently rush to seize property on day 31 anyway.

Thus, one would expect that the equitable tolling statute of limitations and levy authority uncertainty argument will be rejected as well in a future court case involving equitable tolling of the IRC 6213(a) deficiency petition filing deadline.

The Supreme Court’s decision sends the Boechler law firm back to the Tax Court which will now decide if the late petition meets the equitable tolling tests.  Because the Tax Court has previously determined all of its deadlines for hearing cases are jurisdictional, it has not developed a body of law on equitable tolling.  Undoubtedly, it will now look to equitable tolling jurisprudence developed in other jurisdictions that did not bar its consideration.  What should we expect?

As the Tax Clinic’s brief points out, courts have generally developed three bases for applying equitable tolling: 1) actively misleading taxpayers about the filing deadline as the IRS did in Rubel, Matuszak and Nauflett; 2) extraordinary circumstances which prevent taxpayers from timely filing as occurred in Castillo and Atuke; and 3) timely filing petitions in the wrong forum as regularly happens and as we discussed here.

One of the first cases that the Tax Court may hear is the Castillo case which has been held by the Second Circuit awaiting the decision in Boechler.  The Fordham Tax Clinic represents Ms. Castillo who has yet to receive her CDP notice of determination even though it was mailed by the IRS to her last known address more than two years ago.  Postal records show it has never been delivered.  She filed her CDP petition late after finding out about the CDP notice of determination through an informal channel long after the deadline for filing passed. Castillo should provide the Tax Court with a slam dunk opportunity to grant equitable tolling and begin to develop its jurisprudence on this issue.  Undoubtedly petitioners will seek the benefit of equitable tolling without the favorable facts present in the Castillo case and the Tax Court will have the opportunity over the next few years to set the standards it will apply in letting in the handful of cases with deserving facts.  If you are bringing an equitable tolling case to the Tax Court look at the factors other courts have developed and bring deserving cases to the Court with well-developed arguments.

What Happens After Boechler – Part 3:  The IRS Argues that IRC 7459 Requires that IRC 6213(a) Treat the Time for Filing a Tax Court Petition as Jurisdictional

After Congress created the predecessor statute to IRC 6213 in 1924 (and created the Board of Tax Appeals – the predecessor to the Tax Court) it came back in 1926 and 1928 to create a separate statute which is now IRC 7459.  Section 7459 provides that a dismissal from a Tax Court case on jurisdictional grounds does not prevent the taxpayer from paying the tax and suing for refund.

When Carl Smith and I began making the argument that time periods for filing a Tax Court petition are not jurisdictional time periods, we initially confined our arguments to Collection Due Process (CDP) and innocent spouse cases out of concern that succeeding in deficiency cases might harm taxpayers because of 7459.  As we thought about this further over time, we could not remember a single incidence of a taxpayer being dismissed from the Tax Court on jurisdictional grounds and subsequently full paying the tax and suing for refund.  Of course, this does not mean it has never happened, but it does suggest it happens rarely.

This post will explain why IRC 7459 should not factor into the decision of whether IRC 6213 is a jurisdictional provision or a claims processing rule.  That conclusion results from both the language of the two statutes as well as the goal to protect taxpayers.

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In the prior two posts we have explained why the Supreme Court’s decision in Boechler knocks out all of the arguments that IRC 6213 is a jurisdictional provision previously made by the IRS, the Tax Court, and other courts, including the 9th Circuit in Organic Cannabis.  This post looks at the arguments regarding IRC 7459 and the cases the Tax Court dismisses in order to provide an explanation for removing the last argument from consideration.

In Organic Cannabis the 9th Circuit explained the various types of suits a taxpayer could bring to contest a tax liability and pointed out that:

if the taxpayer does file a petition in the Tax Court, then a decision “dismissing the proceeding shall be considered as its decision that the deficiency is the amount determined by the [IRS],” id. § 7459(d), and such decision as to “amount” is entitled to preclusive effect in subsequent proceedings between the taxpayer and the IRS, see Malat v. Commissioner, 302 F.2d 700, 706 (9th Cir. 1962). [emphasis added]

We have written before about the effect of a Tax Court dismissal, and we have explained that petitioners to the Tax Court cannot voluntarily dismiss a Tax Court case once jurisdiction has attached.  After setting up the general rule, the 9th Circuit went on to explain the exception in IRC 7459(d) when the Tax Court dismisses a case because it lacks jurisdiction:

there is no such “decision” as to “amount,” and no preclusive effect, if the Tax Court’s “dismissal is for lack of jurisdiction.” 26 U.S.C. § 7459(d) (emphasis added)

Then the 9th Circuit used as one of its bases for finding IRC 6213 to be a jurisdictional provision with regard to the time of filing the problem that would attach if it were not jurisdictional:

Under Appellants’ non-jurisdictional reading of § 6213(a), the Tax Court’s dismissal of a petition as untimely could potentially have the perverse effect of barring the taxpayer from later challenging the amount in a refund suit—ironically yielding precisely the sort of “harsh consequence[]” that the Supreme Court’s recent “jurisdictional” jurisprudence has sought to avoid.  Kwai Fun Wong, 575 U.S. at 409.  That peculiar outcome is avoided if § 6213(a) is read as being jurisdictional, because then dismissals for failure to meet its timing requirement would fall within § 7459(d)’s safe-harbor denying preclusive effect to Tax Court dismissals “for lack of jurisdiction.” 

So, the 9th Circuit used what it thought would be a negative effect of finding IRC 6213 to be a claims processing rule as a basis for justifying its decision.  This is wrong both as statutory interpretation and wrong in thinking that keeping IRC 6213 as a jurisdictional provision would not harm taxpayers, while making that deadline non-jurisdictional would harm taxpayers.

With respect to statutory interpretation, IRC 7459 simply has no role to play.  The argument for the role of IRC 7459(d), at least based on the IRS argument, is that interpreting the jurisdictional dismissal exception of that subsection to exclude dismissals for late filing would render the exception superfluous.  The IRS has argued that the only dismissals that are currently jurisdictional (other than those when no notice of deficiency was issued and so the amount of a deficiency cannot be set out in the dismissal order) are from late filing. This argument fails because many reasons exist why a petition may be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction other than merely late filing or the lack of a notice of deficiency.  The most obvious situation occurs when the Tax Court dismisses a petition for lack of jurisdiction due to an invalid notice of deficiency because the IRS did not send the notice to the taxpayer’s last known address.  See, e.g., Crum v. Commissioner, 635 F.2d 895 (D.C. Cir. 1980).  Another example occurs when the automatic stay in bankruptcy bars the filing of a Tax Court petition, see, e.g., Halpern v. Commissioner, 96 T.C. 895 (1991).  Another example occurs when a corporation lacks capacity to file the petition, see, e.g., Vahlco Corp. v. Commissioner, 97 T.C. 428 (1991) (Texas law).  The biggest reason for dismissal from Tax Court for lack of jurisdiction occurs for failure to pay the filing fee – almost 2/3rds of the dismissals occur for this reason.  So, the IRS is wrong when it argues that determining IRC 6213 is a claims processing rule renders IRC 7459(d) superfluous.

The legislative history of IRC 7459(d) also does not support the conclusion that Congress enacted the statute to preserve the rights of taxpayers who file late in the Tax Court to avoid res judicata in a subsequent refund suit involving the same deficiency.  There is no such legislative history.  There is also nothing in the language of IRC 7459 that speaks to the time frame for filing a Tax Court petition as a jurisdictional time frame.  There is simply no language to parse.

After you leave the legal arguments that have no merit, you move to the apparent presumption by the 9th Circuit that somehow IRC 7459 helped taxpayers.  First, there’s the problem that Congress gave no indication it sought that result, either in the language of the statute or its legislative history. Second, the actual effect of the 9th Circuit’s take on the statute hurts far more taxpayers than it helps.

Carl Smith looked at the dismissals for lack of jurisdiction due to late filing in February and March of 2022 searching DAWSON using the search words “lack of jurisdiction and timely.”  He found 103 cases which suggests 618 dismissals over the entire year or some similar number.  Each of those individuals could theoretically be adversely impacted if section 7459(d)’s exception for jurisdictional dismissal could not apply, so that res judicata would prohibit their filing later refund suits.

To know how the loss of 7459(d) protection could adversely impact this group, it’s necessary to know how many taxpayers in this group paid the tax and filed a suit for refund.  For this fiscal year ending September 30, 2020, 188 refund suits in total were brought in the Court of Federal Claims and the district courts.  Not all of the 188 complainants filed after a prior Tax Court dismissal for late filing and perhaps none of them did.  Indeed, Carl looked at all district court and CFC opinions issued in 2021 using the search terms “refund and (Tax Court) and dismiss!” and could not find a single refund suit in which it was clear that the IRS had issued a notice of deficiency, the taxpayer had then late-filed a Tax Court suit, and, after the suit’s dismissal, the taxpayer sued for a refund. 

Carl did come across one 2021 opinion where a taxpayer’s Tax Court deficiency suit had been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, purportedly for late filing, and a CFC refund suit ensued — see my post of June 4, 2021 on the case, Jolly.  However, in that case, it was unclear whether the IRS had ever issued a notice of deficiency, with the IRS arguing in the Tax Court that a notice of deficiency had been issued, but arguing in the CFC that the IRS had never issued one and that the Tax Court dismissal was wrong for saying there had been a late-filed petition rather than a petition lacking an underlying notice of deficiency.  And, in Jolly, the taxpayer did not fully pay the tax before bringing the CFC suit.    Reading the 2021 opinions, Carl also found a citation to a pre-2021 opinion in a refund suit where a taxpayer brought a CFC suit after his Tax Court deficiency suit was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction for late filing and where there was no dispute that a notice of deficiency had been issued, Wall v. United States, 141 Fed. Cl. 585 (2019), but the taxpayer in the suit was only seeking relief from liens, not a refund, and, in any event, had not fully paid the deficiency before bringing the suit.

It’s probable that no refund suits resulted from the Tax Court dismissals for failure to timely file the petition because a very high percentage of the petitioners dismissed were pro se taxpayers who lack knowledge of tax procedure and funds to full pay.  Only in a rare cases does the taxpayer benefit from IRC 7459(d), and not one that we know of.  Yet, we know there are cases in which taxpayers could benefit from the interpretation of IRC 6213 as a claims processing rule.

Petitioners who would especially benefit from the interpretation of IRC 6213 as a claims processing rule are petitioners with a good basis for equitable tolling.  While this is not a large number, the individuals with a good reason for filing late present very sympathetic cases in which the petitioners deserve the chance to have the merits of their case heard.  The next post will talk about the equitable tolling rules and who these petitioners might be. 

In addition, petitioners who would benefit are the petitioners dismissed because the Tax Court spent the time and effort to carefully review each case to determine if it had jurisdiction and issued an order to show cause when it had concerns about its jurisdiction even though Chief Counsel did not raise an issue.  In February and March of 2022, Carl searched for this type of order to show cause and found 34 cases.  This means that about 204 petitioners a year might benefit if the Tax Court did not need to spend time carefully scouring each case to check on its jurisdiction.  This would not only give these taxpayers a chance to have the merits of their argument heard but would save the Tax Court all of the time it currently spends looking at each case to determine if it has jurisdiction. 

To determine how many of the cases in which the Tax Court show cause orders resulted in a dismissal, Carl went back to April and May of 2021 expecting that most of those cases would have cleared through the system by now, offering a percentage of cases dismissed after a show cause order.  His research suggests that about 75% of the cases identified were dismissed as untimely.  The 9th Circuit’s effort to “help” taxpayers by citing to IRC 7459(d) instead created a misguided view of the system.  The actual cases show that few, if any, taxpayers receive a benefit from IRC 7459(d) but quite a few taxpayers might benefit from a claims processing rule, either because they have a basis for equitable tolling or, more likely assuming the Chief Counsel attorneys continue to fail to identify issues of timely filing, because taxpayers will no longer face orders to show cause for dismissal for lack of jurisdiction on account of late filing.