Leslie Book

About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Boyle and the AWOL Return Preparer: No Excuse for Late Filing

A recent case out of the Northern District of California, Willett v United States, illustrates the difficulty taxpayers face when trying to base a reasonable cause defense to the late filing of tax returns on the conduct of their return preparer.

I will summarize the facts and the court’s analysis.

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The Willetts had filed an extension for the 2014 year. In August of 2015, they delivered their K-1s, W-2s and 1099’s to their longtime preparer, who was a CPA. After dropping off the documents, for about three months their preparer did not respond to their phone calls. In October, the preparer contacted the Willets and told them that she had been seriously ill, would prepare the returns upon her release from an extended care facility, and would pay any penalties and interest associated with the late filing.

After another month or so of not hearing from the accountant, in November Mrs. Willett visited her preparer’s house to get an update. The preparer assured Mrs. Willett that she would complete the return. Unfortunately, despite the Willetts’ repeated efforts to contact her, that was the last that time that they heard from her (she in fact passed away in early 2017).  

The Willetts alleged that by December of 2015 they actively sought a replacement but were unable to get someone until June of 2016 due to other preparers claiming that (1) they were too busy or (2) the return was too complex. By June of 2016, they found someone and hired another CPA, and they filed the return in September of 2016. 

When the Willetts filed the delinquent return, IRS assessed over $34,000 and $6,000 of late filing and late payment penalties. The Willetts paid the penalties and filed a timely refund claim, alleging that their late filing should be excused based on their reasonably relying on their longtime accountant to prepare and file the returns on their behalf.  The IRS rejected the claim, and the Willetts filed suit in federal court. 

In response to the complaint, the government filed a motion to dismiss based on Boyle.  In response to the motion to dismiss, the Willetts amended their complaint and included even greater detail about the efforts they made to contact their longtime preparer after they dropped their tax documents off in August of 2016.   

The additional facts did not help: 

The Willetts’ allegations do not sufficiently plead reasonable cause entitling them to a refund for the late-filing penalties. Their allegations illustrate that they relied on their CPA, Ms. Goode, who possessed the original copies of their tax documents, became seriously ill, and was unable to complete their 2014 tax return on time.  In their Amended Complaint, the Willetts attempt to salvage their claims by providing a detailed timeline of the failed attempts to contact Ms. Goode. However, this timeline fails to demonstrate ordinary care, because it merely illustrates the numerous attempts to contact Ms. Goode.  But those allegations plead no excuse for the late-filing other than reliance on the Willetts’ agent, which is not “reasonable cause” under Boyle.

The Willett opinion does not break new ground. It refers to a couple of cases where the Tax Court held that a nonresponsive or ill accountant does not constitute reasonable cause for late filing. 

It also distinguishes Conklin Brothers of Santa Rosa, a post Boyle 1993 Ninth Circuit case which “held, in the case of a corporate-taxpayer, that reliance on an agent can establish reasonable cause if the taxpayer shows that “it was disabled from complying timely”—e.g., where its agent’s conduct was beyond the taxpayer’s control or supervision.” In distinguishing Conklin the opinion notes  (unpersuasively) that no court has extended it to individuals. More persuasively, the opinion explains that even if Conklin’s limited exception did apply to individuals, the facts as alleged did not support a finding that the Willetts were disabled from complying with their filing responsibilities:

The Willetts seem to imply that Ms. Goode’s possession of the original tax documents “disabled” them from filing their taxes themselves, and prevented them from hiring another CPA. They allege that they made attempts to contact other CPAs, and that those other CPAs would not take them as clients. The insufficiency of these allegations is apparent when compared to other cases holding that the disability exception did not apply. In Conklin, the agent in charge of Conklin’s tax obligations, the corporation’s controller, failed to timely file Conklin’s returns.  For over two years the controller also “intercepted and screened the mail,” “altered check descriptions and the quarterly reports,” and “concealed the deficiencies by undertaking the performance herself of all payroll functions.”  Although the controller’s concealment meant that Conklin’s officers were not aware of the IRS’s penalty assessments, the Ninth Circuit held that the controller’s “intentional misconduct” was not enough to establish that Conklin was disabled from timely complying.  The Willetts’ allegations do not suggest that their agent’s misbehavior was remotely comparable to the controller’s misconduct in Conklin.

(emphasis added; citations omitted)

Conclusion

Willett is a reminder that Boyle generally will prevent a reliance defense in the context of missing a return filing deadline. While there are grounds to challenge Boyle in the context of e-filing (as we have discussed before), Boyle casts a long shadow over taxpayers seeking to escape the hefty civil penalties for late filing. While the Willetts were mightily inconvenienced by their preparer’s failure to prepare the returns and the absence of their K-1s, W-2s and 1099s, the circumstances did not excuse the tardy filing.

As Willett demonstrates, the responsibility to file rests on the taxpayer. One of the barriers that the Willetts faced was that their old preparer had their tax information returns. To be sure the government could make it easier for taxpayers to comply by, for example, seamlessly providing taxpayers access to all information returns they receive from third parties. Last summer, I signed up for an online tax account from the IRS-one of its virtues is that by the time I got around to filing last October I was able to see in one spot the information returns that the IRS had on record for my 2018 year. Of course, most financial institutions and many employers provide access to the information returns if a taxpayer no longer has the original. At some point I suspect that the IRS will make a central portal more readily available for all taxpayers, thereby reducing the burdens of compiling (or retrieving) the returns that are necessary to file.

CIC: Supreme Court Review?

We have discussed CIC Services v IRS on the blog numerous times. As readers may recall, CIC involves an IRS Notice that imposes additional reporting obligations on captive insurance companies and their advisors. CIC, a manager of captives, and an individual who also managed captives and provides tax advice to them, sued. The suit claimed that the Notice imposed substantial costs and that the IRS in the Notice effectively promulgated legislative rules without complying with the APA’s mandatory notice and comment requirements. The plaintiffs sought an injunction prohibiting the IRS from enforcing the Notice and a declaratory judgment claiming that the notice was invalid. The Sixth Circuit, affirming the district court, held that the Anti-Injunction Act (AIA) barred an APA challenge to the Notice.

In August the Sixth Circuit denied a petition for rehearing (see here for my prior blog post discussing that denial). Judge Sutton in his concurring opinion accompanying the rehearing denial strongly encouraged that the Supreme Court grant cert to resolve open questions concerning the reach of the Anti-Injunction Act. 

Since that time CIC filed a cert petition. The Harvard Tax Clinic (through Keith, Carl and students Tyler Underwood, Lauren Hirsch and Oliver Roberts), Meagan Horn (at Thompson and Knight in Dallas serving as pro bono counsel to the clinic) and I have filed an amicus brief flagging the importance of the issue. In our amicus brief we emphasize that the implications of the case extend to low and moderate-income taxpayers. The amicus brief, as well as an amicus from the American College of Tax Counsel and the cert petition itself, can be found on the SCOTUSblog cite.  The government originally was supposed to respond by February 24th but it has asked the Court for a one- month extension.

As an aside, I, along with one of  my colleagues on the Saltzman/Book IRS Practice and Procedure treatise, Contributing Author Marilyn Ames, have posted on SSRN The Morass of the AIA: A Review of the Cases and Major Issues. The article will be published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Tax Lawyer and is based on the heavily rewritten Chapter 1.6 of the Saltzman Book treatise which likewise discusses and analyzes the AIA.  As the article is in draft form I encourage readers to offer comments. This, and other developments such as the Silver case Keith discussed here, suggest that the reach of the AIA is a very hot issue in tax procedure. Stay tuned.

Unreal and Real Audits: Surgeon Finds No Relief From IRS’s “Byzantine” Exam Procedures

The recent Tax Court case of Essner v Commissioner highlights a problem when the IRS conducts both a traditional examination of taxpayer’s books and records while simultaneously contacting the taxpayer under its automated underreporter program.

Here is a simplified version of the still somewhat messy Essner facts. In 2013, Essner, a surgeon, inherited an IRA from his mother, who in turn had inherited the IRA from her husband (Essner’s father).  In 2014 Essner took a distribution of over $360,000 from the IRA.  He researched on his own the tax treatment of the distribution and concluded that the distribution was not gross income because it reflected his father’s original investment in the account. Despite Essner’s belief that the IRA reflected a nontaxable distribution, the financial institution that held the IRA issued an information return both to the IRS and Essner reflecting the distribution as taxable. Essner’s 2014 return, however, did not include the distribution as gross income.

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In March and May of 2016, Essner received letters generated from the IRS automated underreporter (AUR) program essentially noting the discrepancy between the income reported on Essner’s return and the income reported by third parties. That discrepancy was attributable to the IRA distribution that Essner did not include as income on his return. In late June of 2016 Essner sent a handwritten letter to the AUR unit saying that he disagreed with the proposed changes. The next letter Essner received from the AUR unit was a January 3, 2017 notice of deficiency reflecting the full amount of the IRA distribution as gross income.

Here is where things get even messier. After Essner sent his letter in response to the AUR notices, but before the IRS sent the notice of deficiency, Essner received a letter from IRS Tax Compliance Officer Joshi saying that the IRS was examining his 2014 federal income tax return.  The letter Joshi sent mentioned that IRS was looking into Essner’s business expenses but did not mention the IRA distribution that the AUR unit had flagged.

The opinion states that Joshi was not aware of the AUR contact and continued with his examination, focusing on expenses. On January 10, 2017, a week after IRS sent Essen a notice of deficiency, Joshi sent an examination report and proposed adjustments. A month later, in February, Joshi sent a revised exam report for 2014. Neither the original or revised report included any income from the IRA distribution. 

On March 10, 2017 Essner sent a letter to Joshi requesting that Joshi send the report to confirm that the IRA distribution was not taxable. Essner received another report and it too did not include the IRA distribution as gross income.

Recall however that the AUR office generated a notice of deficiency reflecting the IRA distribution as gross income. Essner filed a timely pro se petition, arguing initially that the distribution was not gross income. Unfortunately for Essner, at trial he was unable to secure proof of the alleged nondeductible contributions, as well as any prior distributions or withdrawals of those contributions, so he was unable to carry his burden of proof on the issue.

At trial, he also alleged that the IRS actions amounted to a duplicative examination of the same year and tax. While IRS has broad powers to examine tax returns to ensure that the return reflects a taxpayer’s liability, Section 7605(b) contains a general statutory protection against unnecessary or repeat taxpayer examinations for the same tax year. The idea behind 7605(b) is to limit burdens on taxpayers, including time and expense associated with responding to multiple requests for information.

Essner’s argument was that because the AUR contacts and Joshi’s examination ran concurrently, taken together they violated the duplicate exam restriction of Section 7605(b). In addition, he argued that the correspondence showed that “Joshi’s examination was unnecessary (given that it extended past the date when the AUR program generated the notice of deficiency with respect to 2014) and that it required an unauthorized second inspection of petitioner’s books and records (given that Officer Joshi’s examination ran parallel to and appears to have come to positions at odds with the AUR adjustments that underlie the IRS’ position taken in the notice).” 

The IRS argued, as it has in the past, that any contact stemming from AUR is not an examination for purposes of 7605(b) because it derives from a review of third-party records and not the taxpayer’s books and records.

The opinion sympathized with Essner but held that 7605(b) provided no basis for relief on this case:

At the outset, we note that petitioner’s interactions with the IRS–both through the AUR program and his correspondence with Officer Joshi–would be confusing to an ordinary taxpayer. Various offices of the IRS contacted petitioner without coordination, without clarity as to what the other parts were doing, and without providing petitioner a clear explanation as to why the IRS was speaking out of many mouths. A taxpayer ought not to have been subjected to such a byzantine examination. However, we are not empowered to police what ought to have occurred in an examination; we are limited to considering whether section 7605(b), as written, was violated. See Greenberg’s Express, Inc. v. Commissioner, 62 T.C. 324, 327 (1974). (emphasis added)

The opinion continues and notes that 7605(b) does not address contacts that stem from the IRS’s receipt of information returns:

Under section 7605(b), the AUR program’s matching of third-party-reported payment information against petitioner’s already-filed 2014 tax return is not an examination of petitioner’s records. See Hubner, 245 F.2d at 38-39. Therefore, no second examination of petitioner’s books and records could have occurred, regardless of the concurrent actions of Officer Joshi. Additionally, as we have found above, petitioner failed to properly report income from the 2014 distribution from the retirement account, and he has conceded other adjustments for tax year 2014. Therefore, respondent’s examination of petitioner’s 2014 tax return was not unnecessary. While we understand petitioner’s frustration with the process of this examination, we cannot say that a failure to communicate and coordinate within the IRS–standing alone–violates section 7605(b). We therefore agree with respondent. 

Conclusion

The IRS’s failure to coordinate its communications as typified in Essner is likely to generate confusion. It is inconsistent with the right to finality, impinges on a taxpayer’s right to be informed and is in tension with a taxpayer’s right to a fair and just tax system. Carving out from 7605(b) protection “unreal” audits like AUR contacts is an issue that the Taxpayer Advocate Service has repeatedly flagged in its annual reports as a most serious problem. (For some more on the TAS view and IRS disagreement with TAS see the FY 2019 Objectives Report at page 38). 

The opinion in Essner rightly reflects concern with the IRS practice. IRS should revisit the limited rights taxpayers are afforded in unreal audits like AUR correspondence (including no right to Appeals review prior to the issuance of a 90-day letter), and should at a minimum strive to ensure that a concurrent examination sweeps in any issues that are raised in AUR correspondence.  Subjecting taxpayers to inconsistent and uncoordinated communication is far from best practice and creates burdens that are inconsistent with a taxpayer rights–based tax administration and the concerns that underlie Section 7605(b). Absent IRS policing itself perhaps it is time for a legislative fix that more directly addresses the growing importance of unreal audits and the burdens they impose.

Mail At Your Peril: Taxpayer Dodges A Bullet (For Now)

We have discussed many times the issues that practitioners and taxpayers face when trying to prove they have filed a tax return or other document with the IRS or Tax Court.  A recent case in Tax Court, Seely v Commissioner, involves a taxpayer’s attorney who mailed a petition to Tax Court via old fashioned first class postage and not via certified mail, registered mail or an authorized private delivery service. In Seely, the Tax Court received the petition, but not until 111 days after the date of the 90-day letter. Seely claimed that his lawyer mailed the petition four days before the 90-day period ended to file a petition timely and properly and fully secure the Tax Court’s jurisdiction to hear the case. Unfortunately for Seely (or so it seemed) the envelope containing the petition had no discernible postmark. The IRS argued that the taxpayer failed to petition the Tax Court within the 90-day period and moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction.

Our faithful readers know where this may be heading. Section 7502 provides, in general, that if a document is delivered to the IRS by the United States mail after the due date, then the date of the United States postmark on the envelope is deemed to be the date of delivery (i.e., filing). The statute also provides that for registered mail, the registration is prima facie evidence that the document was delivered, and that the date of registration is deemed to be the postmark date. For good measure, the statute says that Treasury can issue rules to flesh out how the statutory rules for registered mail filing can apply to mailing via certified mail or through an authorized private delivery service. IRS has issued regulations and other guidance that fills out the details on certified mail and the use of private carriers.

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Back to Seely. The regulations under Section 7502 do not directly address envelopes with no postmarks (they do addresses postmarks that are “not legible” and provide that the taxpayer has the burden of proving the postmark date when the postmark is not legible). As his lawyer did not send the petition by certified mail, registered mail or through an authorized private delivery service, and as there was no postmark at all, the rules generally default to the filing date equaling the date that the document was received (in this case by the Tax Court). Yet the opinion in Seely notes that there is precedent in Tax Court to allow taxpayers to prove the mailing date through extrinsic evidence, like testimony, the amount of time the document allegedly took to arrive as compared to the time that the document should take to arrive, and whether the document or envelope has the markings that indicate that they may have been misplaced or lost along the way. When relying on extrinsic evidence, the standard the taxpayer has to satisfy to prove the mailing date is proof by convincing evidence.

Seely opposed the motion to dismiss, and Seely had as part of the record a sworn statement by the attorney claiming that they deposited the petition in the US mail four days before the last date for filing the petition. The IRS submitted proof that it normally takes 8 – 15 business days for documents to be delivered to a government agency or office in DC (while this seems like an excessive amount of time, the opinion drops a footnote discussing how mail to Tax Court goes through an irradiation process adding an extra 5 to 10 days).  The government helpfully noted that Seely’s petition allegedly arrived 16 business days after his attorney claimed that he mailed it from Washington State. 

In light of the amount of time the document took to arrive, the IRS asked the court to consider the lawyer’s statement to fail to meet the standard that the taxpayer had convincing evidence that the petition was timely filed.

The Tax Court, in an opinion by Judge Vasquez, disagreed:

First, we note that the petition arrived at the Court only one business day late. We also note that the Fourth of July holiday. In prior cases holiday conditions at the post office (e.g., holiday closures, unusually large volumes of mail, or inefficiencies attributable to temporary staff) have been found to be a possible explanation for short delays in delivery. We are thus unpersuaded by respondent’s argument that Mr. Boyce’s declaration is not reliable because the petition’s alleged mailing date does not square with its actual delivery date. (citations and footnote omitted).

When one crunches the numbers, to get to the 21 actual days he allowed after the due date and to mesh with the lawyer’s sworn statement that he mailed the petition three days before the due date, Judge Vasquez effectively allows 24 days for the mailing, which includes eight weekend days and a holiday on top of the 15 business days to get to the needed 24 days.

At the end of the day, the sworn statement by the attorney, the 4th of July holiday and actual delivery close in time to the far end of estimated number of business days it takes for mail to get to DC were enough, and the Tax Court denied the government’s motion to dismiss.

Seely lives to fight the proposed deficiency on the merits.

Observations

This is the place where it makes sense to remind practitioners to fork over the extra few bucks to mail documents via registered mail, certified mail or through an authorized private delivery service. 

Readers may also recall US v Baldwin, a  9th circuit case that Carl Smith has written about (the circuit that would likely have venue in an appeal of Seely). In that case, the 9th Circuit held that 

  • regulations [the excerpt I quote below] that the IRS finalized in 2011 essentially supplanted the common law mailbox rule, 
  • the regulations were valid under the familiar two-step Chevron test, and 
  • under the Brand X doctrine the regulations essentially trumped prior 9th Circuit precedent that held that Section 7502 did not supplant the common law mailbox rule because the prior case law did not reflect the 9th circuit’s conclusion that the outcome it chose was based on an unambiguous reading of the statute .  

Those regulations provide as follows:

Other than direct proof of actual delivery, proof of proper use of registered or certified mail, and proof of proper use of a duly designated [private delivery service] . . . are the exclusive means to establish prima facie evidence of delivery of a document to the agency, officer, or office with which the document is required to be filed. No other evidence of a postmark or of mailing will be prima facie evidence of delivery or raise a presumption that the document was delivered.

I had read the regulations as applying in cases where the document was never delivered (as in Baldwin, involving a refund claim), as well as in cases where the document eventually made its way to the IRS or in Tax Court (as in Seely, where the Tax Court eventually did receive the petition). Yet Seely notes and distinguishes Baldwin because in Seely the document was actually delivered. That opened the door for the Tax Court, consistent with its approach in other cases, to consider the extrinsic evidence to prove when the petition was placed in the mail.

What about the reach of and validity of the 2011 regulations? As readers may be aware, the taxpayers have filed a cert petition in Baldwin (last month the government filed its opposition, here and the taxpayer filed their reply). The case is an interesting vehicle for possibly overruling the Brand X doctrine, which holds that a “prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” There is significant hostility to Brand X among some (see the numerous amici) and the doctrine raises interesting questions as to which branch should be responsible for the final say on a statute that on its face at least allows for competing reasonable interpretations.

While I am not sure that the Supreme Court will take the bait on Baldwin to consider overturning Brand X, I do expect that there will be plenty of additional litigation concerning the reach and validity of the 7502 regulations. After all, despite the relative low cost of avoiding these kinds of disputes by mailing in a way that guarantees evidence of mailing, and the increasing use of electronic filing (which has its own 7502 issues), there are enough taxpayers and practitioners who seem willing to roll the dice and courts (and practitioners) have been struggling with 7502 for decades.

I Do Not Have What You Want: The Affirmative Defense of Non-possession In Summons Enforcement Proceedings

I am prepping to teach tax procedure in Villanova’s Graduate Tax Program.  Most of the students in our program are full time tax professionals, both accountants and lawyers. Few of the students in the GTP specialize in tax procedure, so I try to teach the course with an eye toward what practitioners may find useful. One topic that generates intense interest is the IRS’s broad power to seek access to a taxpayer’s books and records, including its power to issue an administrative summons to compel a taxpayer to turn over records or documents. There have been lots of interesting developments in the summons world in the last few years. An area that generates lots of litigation, and occupies a large chunk of the material in the summons chapter in the Saltzman and Book IRS Practice and Procedure, is the various affirmative defenses that can be raised when fighting an IRS enforcement proceeding in district court.

A defense that has occasionally succeeded is that the summoned party claims and establishes that they do not have what the IRS is seeking. After IRS establishes a prima facie case that a court should order enforcement, a summoned party can establish non-possession of documents as an affirmative defense.  I previously wrote about this issue, and discussed the difficulty in proving non-possession in Summons Enforcement For Undisclosed Offshore Accounts: The I Don’t Have Em Defense Is Not an Easy One to Win.  The recent case of United States v Santoso  in a federal district court in Maryland is a nice example of a successful non-possession defense.

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In Santoso, the US was seeking three categories of documents: (1) ownership of entities and structures, (2) non-taxable sources of income, and (3) professionals that Santoso had engaged. After the IRS initially established a prima facie showing that the petition should be enforced, and a determination that Santoso had submitted sufficient evidence of non-possession to warrant a hearing, the court had an evidentiary hearing to allow for the possibility that she could meet the burden of proving that she did not have what the IRS sought.

The caselaw in this area establishes that to succeed in using this affirmative defense the party must demonstrate not only that she does not possess the documents, but also that she has taken reasonable steps to obtain them if they are within her control. Moreover, conclusory statements or self-serving testimony alone is not going to get over the hurdle. 

In finding that Santoso met her burden and established non-possession the opinion notes the following:

  1. She submitted two sworn statements and testified under oath about both her non-possession and efforts to track down what the IRS wanted; 
  2. She established that she obtained bank statements, hospital bills and tuition records, as well as reviewed emails that spanned a decade, as part of her effort to find responsive documents; 
  3. She authorized her attorney Andrew Feldman to contact people and entities who potentially had documents that might be responsive;
  4.  She provided testimony and documentary evidence establishing Feldman’s efforts, all of which resulted in no further documents, especially with respect to the taxpayer’s late mother and her estate documents.

 The latter two points seemed to matter a great deal in this case, as the opinion discusses in some detail the correspondence between Santoso’s attorney and the third parties. The correspondence between the attorneys and third parties, some of which was met by responses stating that the parties did not want to get involved or did not have information that was requested, showed to the judge a good faith effort to comply with the summons.  

The government argued that she could have done more to conduct a diligent search and that there were likely other records that related to transfers that the IRS believed that she received from her mother’s estate that were in her constructive control. As to the latter point, the court noted that she testified that she did not inherit anything from her mother’s estate, which suggested that she had no right to compel production of documents pertaining to the estate. In concluding that her search and efforts were diligent enough, the court noted that while the efforts were unsuccessful, it appeared to the judge that she was “sincere” in trying to obtain information the government sought:

While there may always be additional steps that could be taken, the actions taken by Santoso and her attorney, as described above, can hardly be considered inaction. Moreover, although there is a relative dearth of authority regarding what a taxpayer must do to show that she has taken “all reasonable steps” to identify and obtain documents, what has been established is that she must make more than a pro forma demand and cursory search for records….The actions taken by Santoso and Feldman are certainly more than that.

Conclusion

It is not easy to establish non-possession as an affirmative defense. It is helpful when one can demonstrate a significant amount of time and money spent trying to get what the IRS is seeking. This case should be in the practitioner’s toolkit.

Acting NTA Blog Highlights Role of TAS Recommendations on Taxpayer First Act Legislation and Challenges That The IRS Faces

Acting National Taxpayer Advocate Bridget Roberts’ recent blog post Highlights of the Taxpayer First Act and Its Impact on TAS and Taxpayer Rights discusses some of the main TFA provisions, including the impact of TFA on TAS and how many of TAS’ past recommendations have had a direct impact on the legislative changes.  While many of the provisions of TFA influence tax policy and administration rather than directly impacting tax procedure, the policy and administration changes will have direct and indirect influences on the tax procedures facing taxpayers and practitioners.

The post includes useful links to some of the major TFA changes. Some of the provisions are starting to generate litigation (see, for example, what evidence the Tax Court can consider in innocent spouse cases, a topic that PT has covered already a few times –see Christine’s discussion at TFA Update: Innocent Spouse Tangles Begin.)

In this post I will highlight the key parts of the post as well as offer some brief comments on some of the challenges the IRS faces as it marches toward meeting the TFA requirement of reporting on customer service and modernization.

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Highlights of NTA Post

First, the post is a reminder of how important TAS’s reports have been over the years as a contributing factor to legislative change. The Acting NTA notes that about 25 provisions within TFA were “recommended or strongly supported by the NTA or TAS.” The NTA blog post has a handy table with the TFA provisions, as well as links to underlying TAS work that relates to the TFA provisions.

Second, the post emphasizes that a few of the TFA changes directly implicate TAS, including the following:

  1. New rules on the next permanent NTA’s salary to limit the possibility that an NTA will face a personal financial conflict of interest when interacting with the Commissioner,
  2. A codification of the Taxpayer Advocate Directive (TAD) authority to make somewhat analogous the NTA’s ability to elevate systemic issues with its ability to raise individual case matters in Taxpayer Assistance Orders,
  3. Reducing the NTA’s annual reporting requirement on the most serious problems from 20 to 10,
  4. Requiring coordination with TIGTA on research studies, and
  5. Requiring the IRS to provide statistical support on TAS research studies, and requiring the NTA in the research reports to report in whether the IRS provided the support and determined the validity of the information.

Finally, the post praises for IRS and the way it is prioritizing implementing some of TFA’s sweeping changes, including the setting up of a dedicated “office within the IRS to oversee and coordinate the agency’s TFA implementation efforts.” While noting that the office includes the Commissioner’s Chief of Staff and executives from W&I, SBSE and IT, the Acting NTA notes one concern:

My one concern is that TAS has not been included as a core member of the TFA implementation team. Congress created the position of the NTA to serve as the statutory voice of the taxpayer within the IRS. To implement the aptly named “Taxpayer First Act,” I believe TAS should have a seat at the table to the same extent as key IRS operating divisions, particularly for purposes of implementing the TFA requirements that the IRS develop a comprehensive customer service strategy, modernize the IRS’s organizational structure, create online taxpayer accounts, and develop a comprehensive employee training strategy that includes taxpayer rights.

Concluding Brief Thoughts on TFA and Challenges the IRS Faces

In the run up to TFA and its requirement that IRS report on modernizing its structure and customer service strategy, IRS has dedicated a significant amount of time and energy around these issues. To that end see, for example the 2019 IRS Integrated Modernization Business Plan, released a few months before TFA became law this past summer. Part of the business plan had its origin in the IRS Future State initiative, as the GAO discussed in a 2018 letter with the subject Tax Administration: Status of IRS Future State Division to Senators Hatch and Wyden. That letter provides a nice historical perspective on Future State and its rebranding. Future State was a topic that inspired the recently retired NTA Nina Olson to conduct nationwide forums, which was a Special Focus in the NTA’s 2016 Annual Report to Congress.

In an era of scarce resources and rapid technological changes, tax administrators worldwide are focusing on how to efficiently deliver services. Online tools offer the promise of taxpayers able to help themselves, and minimize costly person-to-person exchanges.

Yet, one of the key themes that emerges from reading the transcripts of the 12 TAS led public forums on taxpayer needs and preferences is that there is a wide range of taxpayer resources and skills. Failing to recognize those differences when building models of service and enforcement can have an outsize impact on vulnerable taxpayers.

A Pew Research Center piece from earlier this year highlights the differing levels of access to technology across income classes, as well as the different ways that lower income individuals access the internet (see below). Simply put, lower income individuals have less access to the internet. When they do access the internet, they are often dependent on smart phones rather than tablets, laptops or desktops. The reliance on smart phones for internet access for more vulnerable taxpayers, combined with how important refundable credits are to the economic welfare of low and moderate income Americans, means that a tax system that fails to recognize the preferences and needs of these taxpayers is likely to fail to deliver quality service to many taxpayers who most need it.

This is a key challenge for those who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that we have a 21st century tax system that delivers to all taxpayers. There is no simple way to build a world class tax system, especially one that is charged with not just collecting revenues (a herculean task in itself) but also a system that is responsible for delivering benefits that can mean the difference between living in and out of poverty.

Time for the Supreme Court to Step In?: Sixth Circuit Denies Petition for Rehearing in CIC Services v IRS

Last month the Sixth Circuit declined to grant a petition for rehearing en banc in the case of CIC Services v IRS. The case, which I discussed following the original panel decision in In CIC Sixth Circuit Sides With IRS in Major Anti Injunction Act Case, involves the reach of the Anti Injunction Act (AIA). But the frank concurring opinions and the dissent accompanying the denial of the en banc petition reveal differing views on the role of the modern administrative state and how tax administration fits in with broader administrative law norms. At issue is when taxpayers or advisors can challenge tax rules: the AIA has pushed challenges to issues like IRS compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) rulemaking requirements (including whether the rule was issued under the APA’s notice and comment regime) to deficiency cases or refund proceedings. 

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CIC highlights some differences between the IRS and other federal agencies. First, tax practitioners and the IRS itself refer to regulations as guidance. IRS treats certain non-regulatory guidance published in its Internal Revenue Bulletin, including the Notice in the case at issue, as binding on the IRS (and for that matter taxpayers can rely on it). Other agencies distinguish between regulations and guidance, with those agencies treating regulations as binding but guidance as not.  In addition, other agencies generally expect that they will face pre-enforcement judicial challenges to the regulations that they issue. In contrast, pre-enforcement challenges to tax regulations or other binding IRS guidance are unusual, in large part because the AIA prevents suits to restrain the assessment or collection of tax.

So, tax administration rests somewhat uneasily within the broader framework of administrative law. To recap, the AIA generally pushes challenges to IRS rulemaking to traditional tax controversy venues, that is in Tax Court in deficiency cases (if the tax or penalty is subject to deficiency procedures) or federal courts in refund matters after having to fully pay and comply with the Flora full payment rule. Many other agencies gear up for challenges immediately after they promulgate binding rules rather than having to wait for enforcement proceedings. 

All of this comes into sharp focus in CIC. The IRS issued informal guidance (a Notice) without going through APA notice and comment. The Notice imposed additional reporting obligations on captive insurance companies and their advisors. Failure to comply with the requirements could trigger substantial civil penalties that are not subject to deficiency procedures. Failing to comply with the reporting theoretically could result in criminal sanctions for willful noncompliance. CIC, a manager of captive insurance companies, and an individual who also managed captives and provides tax advice to them, sued. They claimed that the Notice imposed substantial costs and that the IRS effectively promulgated legislative rules without complying with the APA’s notice and comment requirements. The plaintiffs sought to enjoin the IRS from enforcing the Notice and asked the district court to issue a declaratory judgment claiming that the notice was invalid.

The district court dismissed the suit, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. That led to the petition for rehearing and last month’s brief but telling order accompanied by two concurring opinions and a dissent. In rejecting the petition for rehearing, one of the concurring opinions (authored by Judge Clay, who wrote the majority Sixth Circuit opinion), largely stuck to his guns and framed the issue as one that is covered by existing AIA precedent:

A suit seeking to preemptively challenge the regulatory aspect of a regulatory tax “necessarily” also seeks to preemptively challenge the tax aspect of a regulatory tax because invalidating the former would necessarily also invalidate the latter. Bob Jones Univ.,; see also NFIB, (“The present challenge to the mandate thus seeks to restrain the penalty’s future collection.” (emphasis added)). Otherwise, a taxpayer could simply “characterize” a challenge to a regulatory tax as a challenge to only the regulatory aspect of the tax and thereby evade the AIA. Fla. Bankers,. And “as the Supreme Court has explained time and again . . . the [AIA] is more than a pleading exercise.” see also RYO Machine, LLC v. U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, (6th Cir. 2012) (“Regardless of how the claim is labeled, the effect of an injunction here is to interfere with the assessment or collection of a tax. The plaintiff is not free to define the relief it seeks in terms permitted by the [AIA] while ignoring the ultimate deleterious effect such relief would have on the Government’s taxing ability.” (quotation and many citations omitted)).

Judge Sutton also concurred in the opinion denying the petition but his concurrence has a different flavor altogether.

(As an aside, this summer  I listened to the very entertaining Malcom Gladwell podcast Revisionist History. Season 4 Episode 1 (Puzzle Rush) and Episode 2 (The Tortoise and the Hare) feature Judge Sutton as one of the protagonists in Gladwell’s take down of the LSAT and the metrics for deciding who should gain entry into the nation’s elite law schools. Spoiler: Judge Sutton, who clerked for the late Justice Scalia and who attended the very respectable but not top five Moritz College of Law at THE Ohio State University is Gladwell’s poster child for why the LSAT and for that matter the way most law schools test students are in need of a major makeover).  

For one thing, Judge Sutton states that he agrees with the dissent’s view on the merits of whether the AIA prevents the courts from hearing the challenge to the Notice. Yet, Judge Sutton still believes that the case was not appropriate for an en banc hearing. His reason is that the Supreme Court, rather than the entire Sixth Circuit, should step in: 

[T] his case does not come to us on a fresh slate. Whatever we might do with the issue as an original matter is not the key question. As second-tier judges in a three-tier court system, our task is to figure out what the Supreme Court’s precedents mean in this setting. That is not easy because none of the Court’s precedents is precisely on point and because language from these one-off decisions leans in different directions.

Judge Sutton notes that the views are fairly well drawn on the issue—between the dissent in the panel opinion and the dissent in the denial of the petition by Judge Thapar, as well as the Florida Bankers DC Circuit opinion (authored by now Justice Kavanaugh) there is enough fodder for the Supreme Court to put together the seemingly (although not necessarily) contradictory approaches in the Direct Marketing and circuit court precedent on the reach of the AIA:

The last consideration is that we are not alone. The key complexity in this case—how to interpret Supreme Court decisions interpreting the statute—poses fewer difficulties for the Supreme Court than it does for us. In a dispute in which the Court’s decisions plausibly point in opposite directions, it’s worth asking what value we would add to the mix by en-bancing the case in order to create the very thing that generally prompts more review: a circuit split. As is, we have Judge Thapar’s dissental and Judge Nalbandian’s dissent at the panel stage on one side and Judge Clay’s opinion for the court on the other. These three opinions together with then-Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion say all there is to say about the issue from a lower court judge’s perspective. All of this leaves the Supreme Court in a well-informed position to resolve the point by action or inaction—either by granting review and reversing or by leaving the circuit court decisions in place.

The final part of the denial is Judge Thapar’s stinging dissent. Taking up the mantle of Judge Nalbandian’s dissent in the Sixth Circuit panel opinion, Judge Thapar discusses the differing legal takes on the reach of the AIA (and whether challenges to reporting requirements that are backstopped by penalties really count as a challenge to a tax rather than a challenge to the reporting requirement), but he also ups the rhetoric around how the majority approach to the AIA is out of sorts with broader principles of fairness. He warns of the parade of horribles associated with unchecked IRS power and a read of the AIA that requires parties to violate tax rules (and possibly have to go to jail) to get their day in court. For good measure, he points to how the IRS (at Congress’ direction) has taken on a more expansive role in society beyond collecting revenues.  This mission creep of the IRS makes the exceptional approach to the timing of when agency guidance is subject to challenge less justifiable. Absence of a right to pre-enforcement challenge, according to Judge Thapar, is inconsistent with principles of our constitutional system of checks and balances:

The Founders gave Congress the “Power To lay and collect Taxes.” U.S. Const. art. I , § 8 , cl. 1. They limited this power to Congress because they understood full well that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.” M’Culloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 ,431 (1819) (Marshall, C.J.). But today, the IRS (an executive agency) exercises the power to tax and to destroy, in ways that the Founders never would have envisioned. E.g., In re United States ( NorCal Tea Party Patriots ), 817 F.3d 953 (6th Cir. 2016). Courts accepted this departure from constitutional principle on the promise that Congress would still constrain agency power through statutes like the Administrative Procedure Act. 5 U.S.C. § 500 et seq. We now see what many feared: that promise is often illusory.
 

Conclusion

Underlying the technical legal issues surrounding the reach of the AIA are fundamental policy questions concerning the power that the IRS has to issue guidance that is effectively and at times practically absent from meaningful court review. There are many good reasons for rethinking the path that requires taxpayers to not comply before having an institutional check on the IRS’s fidelity to the APA—especially if the challenged tax or penalty is not subject to deficiency procedures. As Judge Clay notes in his opinion affirming the denial of the petition, these policy questions raise issues that seem to call for a legislative fix. I discussed the need for possible legislation in a post earlier this year in the post Is it Time to Reconsider When IRS Guidance is Subject to Court Review?  In the absence of legislation, the opinions accompanying the denial of the request for en banc provide a strong signal that this issue is headed to the Supreme Court. CIC may be the vehicle that gets it there.

Review of Hemel and Kamin’s The False Promise of Presidential Indexation

In The False Promise of Presidential Indexation, which was recently published in the Yale Journal of Regulation, Professors Daniel Hemel and David Kamin have written an important article that considers whether the executive branch has the power to index capital gains for inflation.  In addition to critiquing the measure as a matter of policy, the authors make a persuasive case that Treasury, absent additional legislation, does not have the authority on its own to index capital gains.

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The article raises the question as to which institutional actor in our government should be responsible for generating a change in law that would have a major impact on both the fisc and the tax system.  This question periodically appears in tax administration; longtime readers of the blog may connect this to other issues; for example, in Loving v IRS a DC district court opinion affirmed by the DC Circuit held that without explicit Congressional authority the IRS could not administratively require hundreds of thousands of previously unlicensed preparers to take a competency test and be responsible for continuing education requirements. 

The article provides current and historical context for indexing capital gains, including a 2018 statement by President Trump that he is “thinking about it very strongly” and a discussion of the last time that there seemed to be serious executive consideration of this proposal, in the waning days of the first Bush administration.  The idea seems to be gaining momentum, as  reports from this summer indicate that President Trump has put this issue on the front burner.

The issue of capital gains indexing is really an issue of basis indexing, an issue that would apply to both capital assets and ordinary assets. Since as the authors point out over 98% of the gain reported was on capital assets (2015 figures), the shorthand way to refer to this issue is on the power to index capital gains. The technical issue turns on whether Treasury could index basis for inflation through regulations. 

The authors discuss why at the time of the proposal’s earlier consideration in the 1990’s  there was general (though not uniform) consensus that Treasury did not have the authority to unilaterally index basis for inflation, including legal opinions from Treasury’s General Counsel and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). As I gear up again to teach basic tax for the fall semester, as I tell my students at Villanova, it is crucial to start with the Internal Revenue Code when thinking about this issue. Section 1012(a) (first enacted as part of the Revenue Act of 1918), says that “[t]he basis of property shall be the cost of such property.” 

The article (starting at page 707) nicely summarizes the main reasons why in 1992 the OLC concluded that “cost” was not ambiguous, looking at its dictionary definition, early Treasury practice, court decisions, and other IRC provisions. Absent finding any ambiguity in the term cost, OLC concluded that cost meant the price paid for an item, and Treasury could not on its own change the meaning of it by regulation.

Hemel and Kamin’s article then discusses developments since the first Bush presidency, including case law outside tax that some proponents have suggested supports finding that cost is indeed an ambiguous term, general administrative law developments, and the tax law’s place within administrative law.  

As to general administrative law, the authors persuasively argue that developments since the early 1990’s make it even harder to support a regulation based capital gains indexing. A key part of the discussion is the authors’ discussion of the “major questions” doctrine, where a number of Supreme Court decisions deny Chevron deference to issues that have deep economic and social significance in the absence of clear Congressional direction to agencies. As the authors note, 

[t]he advent of the major questions doctrine is the most significant post-1992 doctrinal development bearing upon the legality of the presidential indexation proposal.  And it does not bode well for the idea. While the exact boundaries of the major questions doctrine remain unclear, there are compelling arguments that the decision to index basis for inflation or not should qualify as a major question.

As support for this type of change being considered within the major questions doctrine, the authors point to estimates that peg the cost of indexing to be in the magnitude of $10-20 billion a year. They also discuss Supreme Court cases warning against reading delegation into cryptic legislative language:

As Justice Scalia wrote for the Court in Whitman v. American Trucking Association, citing to both MCIand Brown &Williamson: “Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms . . . . [I]t does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.” And as we have emphasized, indexing basis for inflation would indeed be an elephant.

Drilling down deeper, the authors discuss general Chevron developments and the subtle but important difference in now Justice Kavanaugh’s take on the major questions doctrine-developments that they argue make the case for indexing even weaker. While now Justice Kavanaugh (who authored the DC Circuit Loving opinion, which in part relied on the major case doctrine as justification for concluding that IRS acted outside its authority in its efforts to require mandatory testing and education for unlicensed preparers) is just one member of the Court, Hemel and Kamin also discuss the general discomfort that many of the justices feel for Chevron, including their take that the current “judicial zeitgeist…is decidedly anti-Chevron.”

The authors also address somewhat more difficult questions when they consider whether any party would have standing to challenge regulations. After all, the regulations appear to only help taxpayers, and as the authors note, scholars such as Larry Zelenak considering the issue in the 1990’s felt that without there being a disadvantaged taxpayer, it would be difficult to find a party with standing to challenge the regulations. The authors again look to post 1990’s developments to sidestep the need for individual taxpayer harm, including the possibility that Congress or states could have standing to sue. In addition, the authors creatively argue that indexing would harm some, including brokers, who would bear additional costs to comply with reporting obligations, and taxpayers subject to the charitable deduction cap in Section 170.

Conclusion

The Hemel and Kamin article provides important legal context on this issue. If the Trump administration moves forward with the idea, this article will be required reading for those interested in and likely litigating the issue. Even if the Trump Administration declines to move forward with this idea, given current dysfunction in Washington and the strained relations between the branches, I suspect that there will be even greater temptation to use the IRS to sidestep Congress to achieve policy objectives that have at best a tenuous link to the statutory language. As such, the legal issues Hemel and Kamin discuss are generally important for tax administration, and will likely resurface even when this particular debate goes away, or perhaps hibernates for another generation to consider and likely discount.