Patrick Thomas

About Patrick Thomas

Patrick W. Thomas is the founding director of Notre Dame Law School’s Tax Clinic, in which he trains and supervises law students representing low-income clients in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service. Prior to joining the law school faculty in 2016, he received an ABA Tax Section Public Service Fellowship to work as a staff attorney for the LITC at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis.

Assessment Statute Extension under 6501(c)(8); Changes of Address; and Lessons for Counsel – Designated Orders: December 9 – 13, 2019

My apologies for this delayed post; I had my head so buried in the Designated Orders statistics from our panel at the ABA Tax Section’s Midyear Meeting that I neglected the substantive orders from December. Worry no longer: here are the orders from December 9 – 13. Not discussed in depth is an order from Judge Guy granting Respondent’s motion for summary judgment in a routine CDP case, along with an order from Judge Gustafson sorting out various discovery disputes in Lamprecht, Docket No. 14410-15, which has appeared in designated orders now for the seventh time. Bill and Caleb covered earlier orders here and here.

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As I mentioned during the panel, Designated Orders often resolve difficult, substantive issues on the merits. These orders are no exception. There were two cases that dealt with the deductibility of conservation easements. (Really, there were four dockets resulting in an order disposing of petitioner’s motion for summary judgment from Judge Buch, and one case resulting in a bench opinion from Judge Gustafson.) I’m not going to get into the substance of conservation easements, as clients in a low income taxpayer clinic seldom run afoul of these rules. Interestingly, this is also the first time we’ve seen a bench opinion in a TEFRA case—at least one that was also a designated order.

I must wonder, however, whether the Court strikes the appropriate balance in resolving substantively complex cases, on the merits, in either manner. While neither Judge Buch’s order nor Judge Gustafson’s bench opinion could have been entered as a Tax Court division opinion—as far as I can tell, they do not break any new ground—they could both easily qualify as memorandum opinions. As a practitioner, I find value in the ability to research cases that appear in reporters—precedential or otherwise. Relegating these cases to the relatively unsophisticated search functions found on the Tax Court’s website often makes it quite difficult to efficiently conduct case research.

Perhaps the Court’s new electronic system in July will remedy some of these issues. Nevertheless, any solution that doesn’t integrate with the systems that practitioners utilize to conduct case research—namely, reporters and the third-party services that catalogue and analyze the cases issued in those reporters—strikes me as inferior.

I fully understand and appreciate the value that the Court and individual judges place on efficiently resolving cases; that is no minor concern. I’ve been informed that issuing a memorandum opinion, as opposed to resolving a case through an order or bench opinion, can tack on months to the case.

But individual judges and the Court as an institution ought to carefully consider (1) whether the Court suffers from systemic problems in efficiently issuing memorandum opinions (and whether anything can be done to remedy these problems) and (2) whether the efficiency concern outweighs practitioners’ and the public’s interest in effective access to the Court’s opinions. 

More to come on this point in future posts. But for now, let’s turn to this week’s orders.

Docket No. 13400-18, Fairbank v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

First, a foray into the world of foreign account reporting responsibilities, which Megan Brackney ably covered in this three part series in January. Here, the focus lies not on the penalties themselves, but on another consequence of failing to comply with foreign account reporting requirements: the extension to the assessment statute of limitations under section 6501(c)(8).

Petitioner filed a motion for summary judgment in this deficiency case, on the grounds that the statute of limitations on assessment had long since passed. Petitioners timely filed returns for all of the tax years at issue, but the Service issued a Notice of Deficiency for tax years 2003 to 2011 on April 12, 2018—long after the usual 3 year statute of limitations under section 6501(a).

But this case involves allegations that the Petitioners hid their income in unreported foreign bank accounts. And section 6501(c)(8) provides an exception to the general assessment statute where a taxpayer must report information to the IRS under a litany of sections relating to foreign assets, income, or transfers. If applicable, the assessment statute will not expire until 3 years after the taxpayer properly reports such information to the IRS.

The statute applies to “any tax imposed by this title with respect to any tax return, event, or period to which such information relates . . . .” This appears to be the same sort of broad authority in the 6 year statute of limitations (“the tax may be assessed . . . .”) that the Tax Court found to allow the Service to assess additional tax for the year in question, even if it didn’t relate to the underlying item that caused the statute extension. See Colestock v. Commissioner, 102 T.C. 380 (1994). While the Tax Court hasn’t explicitly ruled on this question, it is likely that it would reach a similar conclusion for this statute.  

Respondent claimed that Ms. Fairbank was a beneficial owner of a foreign trust, Xavana Establishment, from 2003 to 2009, and thus had a reporting requirement under section 6048—one of the operative sections to which 6501(c)(8) applies. Further, for 2009 and 2011, Respondent claimed that Ms. Fairbank was a shareholder of a foreign corporation, Xong Services, Inc.—again triggering a reporting requirement under section 6038 and a potential statute extension under 6501(c)(8). Respondent finally claimed that Ms. Fairbank didn’t satisfy these reporting requirements for Xong Services until June 18, 2015—thus the April 12, 2018 notice would have been timely. Moreover, Respondent claimed, Ms. Fairbank hadn’t satisfied the reporting requirements for Xavana Establishment at all.

It’s important to pause here to note that the reporting requirements under sections 6048 and 6038 are separate from the FBAR reports required under Title 31. While the Petitioners filed an FBAR report for Xong Services, they seem to argue that this filing alone satisfies their general reporting requirements for this interest. That’s just not true; foreign trusts and foreign corporations have independent reporting requirements under the Code, under sections 6048 and 6038, respectively. Specifically, Petitioners needed to file Form 3520 or 3520-A for their foreign trust; they needed to file Form 5471 for their interest in a foreign corporation. And it is failure to comply with these reporting requirements that triggers the assessment statute extension under section 6501(c)(8)—not the failure to file an FBAR (which, of course, would have its own consequences). 

Petitioners claimed that they had, in fact, satisfied all reporting requirements for Xavana Establishment at a meeting with a Revenue Agent on July 18, 2012. But it seems that the Petitioner’s didn’t submit any documentation, such as a submitted Form 3520, to substantiate this. As noted above, they further claim the FBAR filed for Xong Services in 2014 satisfied their reporting requirements. Respondent disagreed, but did allow that the reporting requirements were satisfied later in 2015 when Petitioners filed the Form 5471. 

Because Petitioner couldn’t show that they had complied with the 6038 and 6048 reporting requirements quickly enough to cause the assessment statute to expire, they likewise couldn’t show on summary judgment that the undisputed material facts entitled them to judgment as a matter of law. Indeed, many of the operative facts here remain disputed. Thus, Judge Buch denies summary judgment for the Fairbanks, and the case will proceed towards trial.

Docket No. 9469-16L, Marineau v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This case is a blast from the past, hailing from the early days of our Designated Orders project in 2017. Both Bill Schmidt and I covered this case previously (here and here). Presently, this CDP case was submitted to Judge Buch on cross motions for summary judgment. Ultimately, Judge Buch rules for Respondent and allows the Service to proceed with collection of this 2012 income tax liability. 

They say that 80% of life is simply showing up. Petitioner had many chances to show up, but failed to take advantage of them here. Petitioner didn’t file a return for 2012; the Service sent him a notice of deficiency. While Petitioner stated in Tax Court that he didn’t receive the notice, he didn’t raise this issue (or any issue) at his first CDP hearing.

Nonetheless, the Tax Court remanded the case so he could raise underlying liability, on the theory that he didn’t receive the notice of deficiency and could therefore raise the underlying liability under IRC § 6330(c)(2)(B)—but Petitioner didn’t participate in that supplemental hearing either!

Back at the Tax Court again, Petitioner argued that not only did he not receive the notice of deficiency, but that it was not sent to his last known address. This would invalidate the notice and Respondent’s assessment. The validity of the notice also isn’t an issue relating to the underlying liability; rather, this is a verification requirement under IRC § 6330(c)(1). So, if the Settlement Officer failed to verify this fact, the Tax Court can step in and fix this mistake under its abuse of discretion standard of review.

Petitioner changed his address via a Form 8822 in 2014 to his address in Pensacola. On June 8, 2015, he submitted a letter to the IRS national office in Washington, D.C., which purported to change his address to Fraser, Michigan. The letter contained his old address, new address, his name, and his signature—but did not include his middle name or taxpayer identification number. The IRS received that letter on June 15.

The Tax Court recently issued Judge Buch’s opinion in Gregory v. Commissioner, which held that neither an IRS power of attorney (Form 2848) nor an automatic extension of time to file (Form 4868) were effective to change a taxpayer’s last known address. We covered Gregory here. (Keith notes that the Harvard clinic has taken the Gregory case on appeal.  The briefing is now done and the case will be argued in the 3rd Circuit the week of April 14 by one of the Harvard clinic’s students.) Similarly, Judge Buch deals in this order with what constitutes “clear and concise” notification to the Service of a taxpayer’s change of address.

Judge Buch held that Petitioner didn’t effectively change his address. Under Revenue Procedure 2010-16, a taxpayer must list their full name, old address, new address, and taxpayer identification number on a signed request to change address. Taxpayers do not have to use Form 8822 in order to change their address, but this form contains all the required information to do so under the Rev. Proc. Because Petitioner failed to include his middle name and taxpayer identification number, the letter was ineffective.

Judge Buch ultimately holds that the letter was ineffective because the IRS received the letter on June 15—three days before the NOD was issued. The Rev. Proc. provides that a taxpayer’s address only changes 45 days after the proper IRS offices receives a proper change of address request. The national office is not the proper office; even if it was, the IRS only had three days to process the request prior to sending out the NOD. The lesson here is that if you know a NOD is coming, you can’t quickly trick the IRS into sending it to the wrong

If that wasn’t enough, Petitioner argued that because the USPS rerouted the NOD to a forwarding address in Roseville, Michigan, the NOD should be invalidated. However, the NOD was valid because Respondent send it, in the first instance, to Petitioner’s last known address prior to any subsequent rerouting.

There being no issue with the NOD’s validity—and because Petitioner didn’t participate in the supplemental hearing—Judge Buch granted Respondent’s motion and allowed the Service to proceed with collections.

Docket Nos. 12357-16, 16168-17, Provitola v. C.I.R. (Orders Here & Here)

The Court seems a little frustrated with Respondent’s counsel in this case. These orders highlight a few foot-faults that counsel—whether for Respondent or Petitioner—ought to be careful not to make.

This case is also a repeat player in designated orders; previous order include Petitioners’ motion for summary judgment from Judge Leyden here and Petitioners’ motion for a protective order here, which I made passing mention of in a prior designated order post.

Regarding the present orders, the first order addresses Respondent’s motion in limine, which asked that the Court “exclude all facts, evidence, and testimony not related to the circular flow of funds between petitioners, their Schedule C entity, and petitioner Anthony I. Provitola’s law practice.” Judge Buch characterizes this as a motion to preclude evidence inconsistent with Respondent’s theory of the case—i.e., that the Schedule C entity constituted a legitimate, for profit business. That doesn’t fly for Judge Buch, and he accordingly denies the motion.

He then takes Respondent to task for suggesting that “The Court ordinarily declines to consider and rely on self-serving testimony.” I’m just going to quote Judge Buch in full, as his response speaks for itself:

The canard that Courts disregard self-serving testimony is simply false. We disregard self-serving testimony when there is some demonstrable flaw or when the witness does not appear credible. If we were to disregard testimony merely because it is self-serving, we would disregard the testimony of every petitioner who testifies in furtherance of their own case and of all the revenue agents or collections officers who testify that they do their jobs properly, because that testimony would also be self-serving.

Ouch. In general though, I appreciate Judge Buch’s statement.  I recall being mildly annoyed reading court opinions that disregard a witness’s testimony because it was “self-serving.” For all the reasons Judge Buch notes, quite a lot of testimony will be self-serving. That’s not, without more, a reason to diminish the value of the testimony. It’s certainly not a reason to prohibit the testimony through a motion in limine. 

The second motion was entitled Respondent’s “unopposed motion to use electronic equipment in the courtroom.” (emphasis added). Apparently, the courthouse in Jacksonville has some systemic issues in allowing courts and counsel access to electronic equipment. Of what kind, the order does not make clear, though many district courts or courts of appeals where the Tax Court sits limit electronic equipment such as cell phones, tape recorders, and other devices that litigants may wish to bring as evidence to court. IRS counsel is likely the best source of knowledge on such restrictions; here, Judge Buch notes that the Court’s already taken care of these matters on a systemic basis for the upcoming trial session.

But Respondent’s counsel again makes a foot-fault here that draws an avoidable rebuke from Judge Buch. Respondent noted in his motion that he “called petitioners to determine their views on this motion, and left a voicemail message. Petitioners did not return this call as of the date of the motion, and as a result, petitioners’ views on this motion are unknown.” 

That’s not an unopposed motion! In Judge Buch’s words again, “The title of the motion (characterizing [it] as “unopposed”) is either misleading or false. . . . Consistent with Rule 50(a), we will treat the motion as opposed.”

Of course, because the Court had already resolved the issue with electronic equipment, Judge Buch denies the motion as moot.

Trial was held on 12/16 and 12/17. Judge Buch issued a bench opinion that held for Respondent, and designated the order transmitting the bench opinion on January 27. That’s Caleb’s week, so I’ll leave it to him to cover the underlying opinion.

Rescinding the NOD; Prior Opportunities; and Non-Requesting Spouses Behaving Badly – Designated Orders: November 11 – 15, 2019

Three orders from three judges this week. Of note, I discuss the Service’s authority under section 6212(d) to rescind a Notice of Deficiency (and its futility), along with the Court’s contempt authority under section 7456(c) (and its disuse). Let’s jump right in.

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Docket No. 12248-18 L, Augustine v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Gustafson grants Respondent’s motion for summary judgment in this CDP case—though only in part, as Respondent conceded noncompliance with section 6751. While the result is fairly straightforward, Petitioner’s history in interfacing with the IRS and TAS—but not the Tax Court—suggests that the importance of seeking Tax Court review wasn’t apparent.

The IRS assessed additional tax liabilities from an audit of 2013 and 2014, which disallowed various Schedule C deductions. The IRS issued a Notice of Deficiency on January 19, 2016; instead of filing a petition, the taxpayer continued corresponding with the IRS. The IRS reaffirmed its decision in a letter dated April 13, 2016—five days before the deadline to file a Tax Court petition.

I’ve seen numerous taxpayers who, desiring not to go to court and believing they can still prevail upon the IRS, continue corresponding with the IRS. In so doing, they often give up their right to go to Tax Court and to obtain meaningful review of the IRS’s underlying decision.  In fact, I’ve seen tax preparers and even CPAs make the same choice. In my view, there is almost never a reason to avoid the Tax Court once the IRS issues a Notice of Deficiency.

Nonetheless, Petitioner did not petition the Tax Court in response to the Notice of Deficiency. Instead, it seems she sought help from TAS, which requested that the IRS “rescind” the Notice of Deficiency.

The IRS does have authority under section 6212(d) to rescind a Notice of Deficiency. If the rescission occurs, the Notice no longer functions as a valid Notice of Deficiency (though does still toll the assessment statute of limitations between the Notice’s issuance and its rescission). Faced with a rescinded Notice, the IRS could not assess additional tax, and the taxpayer could not petition the Tax Court for review.

Unsurprisingly, the IRS does not like to rescind Notices of Deficiency, and so refused TAS’s request to do so here. The criteria for rescinding a Notice of Deficiency are found in IRM 4.8.9.28.1, and include situations where (1) the notice was issued for an incorrect tax amount; (2) the notice was issued to the wrong taxpayer or for the wrong tax period; (3) the notice was issued without considering a properly filed consent to extend the assessment statute of limitation; (4) the taxpayer submits information establishing the actual tax due is less than the amount shown in the notice; or (5) the taxpayer requests a conference with the appropriate Appeals office, but only if Appeals decides that the case is susceptible to agreement. While TAS agreed that the notice should be rescinded—and presumably that one or more of these criteria were met—the IRS apparently did not. Moreover, if TAS’s decision came after the expiration of the 90 day period, the IRM explicitly provides that the IRS should not rescind the Notice. And of course, at that time, the taxpayer has no right to petition the Tax Court.

I’m not sure how long the IRS takes to process requests for rescission, and I’m not sure how long that occurred in this case. But it’s far safer and more productive, in my book, to request review in the Tax Court, ensure oneself of review from IRS Appeals, and resolve the case in this forum.

In this case, TAS did eventually prevail on the IRS to allow Petitioner to have a hearing with IRS Appeals. Still, Appeals made no changes to those in the Notice of Deficiency.

Accordingly, Petitioner was barred from raising the underlying liability under section 6330(c)(2)(B), because Petitioner (1) did receive a notice of deficiency, and (2) had a prior opportunity to dispute the tax before IRS Appeals. While the latter point has been subject to (largely unsuccessful) litigation regarding whether a “prior opportunity” should be limited to a prior judicial opportunity (see our coverage here and here), petitioner clearly loses on the former point.

The remainder of the order is unremarkable. The Settlement Officer offered a payment plan of $490 per month, even though Petitioner never submitted a Form 433-A or filed a delinquent tax return. Unsurprisingly, Judge Gustafson found that Respondent’s decision to sustain the levy notice was not an abuse of discretion. 

Docket No. 20945-17 L, Simon v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

We have another CDP case, this time from Judge Halpern who grants Respondent’s motion for summary judgment to sustain both a levy and a notice of federal tax lien as to trust fund recovery penalties. There are a couple wrinkles that bear mentioning in this case: (1) the definition of a “prior opportunity” under section 6330(c)(2)(B); and (2) designation of payments.

Prior Opportunity

After the TFRP was assessed, Petitioner requested review from IRS Appeals. That appeals “hearing” proceeded as many Appeals hearings do: through exchanges of correspondence and telephone calls. Petitioner never had the opportunity to present his case face-to-face with IRS Appeals. And thus, he argued in the Tax Court that he did not have a true “prior opportunity” under section 6330(c)(2)(B) to dispute the underlying liability, and so wished to do so in the CDP context. (Unlike in the order above, TFRP assessments are not subject to deficiency procedures, so Petitioner accordingly never received a Notice of Deficiency).

Judge Halpern disagreed. In a previous case, Estate of Sblendorio v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2007-94, the Court held on similar facts that “correspondence and telephone conversations between [petitioner] and the Appeals officer are sufficient to constitute a conference with Appeals,” which would constitute a “prior opportunity” to dispute the underlying liability. It’s unclear whether the Tax Court has held similarly in a precedential case; the Court has, however, held that face-to-face hearings are not absolutely required in the CDP context. See Katz v. Commissioner, 115 T.C. 329, 335 (2000). But see Charnas v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2015-153 (finding an abuse of discretion based upon the cumulative effect of the SO’s conduct—including failure, upon request, to offer a face-to-face hearing in light of complicated facts).

Of course, the administrative record shows that the petitioner in Simon failed to request a face-to-face hearing during the underlying administrative appeal of the TFRP. The cases cited above uniformly suggest that requesting such a hearing is a pre-requisite to finding an abuse of discretion in the context of a valid CDP hearing. So too, one might suggest, in the context of a prior opportunity. The lesson here: if you believe a face-to-face hearing is important to resolving the underlying liability, request one at the earliest opportunity.

Designation of Payments

The underlying business filed for bankruptcy under chapter 7. During the bankruptcy case, the bankruptcy trustee sent a check for $91,850 to the IRS, which referenced the bankruptcy case number and the company’s name. Neither the check nor the letter accompanying it designated to which tax periods or tax types the payment should be applied.

The IRS applied the payments to the earliest tax period (June 30, 2010), and applied the payments first to the non-trust fund portion of the liability. Petitioner did receive a large credit for the trust fund portion of this liability in the amount of $67,261. Petitioner argued in his Form 12153 and at the CDP hearing that the full amount of the trustee’s payment should have been credited towards the liability, not just the $67,261.

If a taxpayer designates a payment to a particular tax period or particular type of liability (i.e., the trust fund portion of employment taxes vs. the non-trust fund portion), the IRS must honor that designation. Rev. Proc. 2002-26, § 3.01. However, if the payment is not so designated, the IRS will apply the payment “in the best interests of the government.” See id. § 3.02.That usually means applying the payment to (1) the tax period on which the collection statute of limitation will most quickly run, and (2) tax periods and types that have only one potential collection source. Here, the IRS could collect the non-trust fund portion of employment tax liability only from the underlying company; responsible officer of the company never bear personal liability for this type of employment tax debt. In contrast, because the IRS had assessed the TFRP against Petitioner, it could collect the trust fund portion of the company’s employment tax liability both from the company and from petitioner.

So, it makes sense—and indeed, is enshrined in the IRM as policy—that the IRS will apply undesignated payments first to the non-trust fund portion of a liability, absent a designation from the taxpayer. Thus, Judge Halpern finds no abuse of discretion with Respondent’s application of the bankruptcy trustee payment here.

Judge Halpern’s language, however, does raise an interesting question to me. He notes “neither the check nor the letter designates the tax period to which the payment is to be applied, or whether the payment is to be applied towards the trust fund taxes or non-trust fund taxes.”

What if it did? Is there a plausible situation in which a bankruptcy trustee would, in practice, designate a payment on behalf of the debtor? If so, would that designation on behalf of the taxpayer be effective? The language of Rev. Proc. 2002-26 requires that the “taxpayer [provide] specific written directions as to the application of the payment.” § 3.01. I leave it to my colleagues and readers who are better versed in bankruptcy to opine.

Docket No. 17455-16, Hefley v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Finally, a short jaunt into the difficulties of an innocent spouse defense in a jointly filed petition. The joint petition in this case responded to two IRS notices: a Notice of Deficiency for tax years 2011, 2012, and 2013; and a Notice of Determination regarding an administrative innocent spouse request for the same tax years.

Earlier this year, the non-requesting spouse, Mr. Hefley, filed a Motion for Leave to File Amended Petition to withdraw any dispute regarding the Notice of Determination. Judge Gale notes that he “purported to do so as ‘Counsel for Petitioner’”, and included a signature page apparently bearing the signatures of both spouses. The Court granted this motion shortly thereafter.

In the intervening time, the Court became aware of these facts: specifically, that Mr. Hefley had purported to act on behalf of his spouse as “Counsel”, though lacked authority to do so, given that he was not a member of the Tax Court bar. Further, any such representation would be ethically problematic, given that his interests with regard to the Notice of Determination are diametrically opposed Mrs. Hefley’s interests. Even more problematically, Mrs. Hefley stated in a conference call that she did not sign the Amended Petition, and that it appears to contain a fraudulent signature.

So, Judge Gale decided to void the Amended Petition and deny the motion for leave to file the Amended Petition. Problematically, the case was already set for trial on November 18 and discovery was conducted on the premise that no innocent spouse claim would be raised at trial. The trial would therefore be bifurcated: all issues related to the underlying deficiency would be tried on November 18, and all issues related to the innocent spouse claim would be tried, if at all, at a later date. 

A final note: while the Court’s actions are certainly warranted, I believe that Mr. Hefley should face more serious consequences. He, in essence, tried to pull the wool over the eyes of the Court, opposing counsel, and his own spouse. The facts indicate he likely produced a fraudulent signature on the Amended Petition. That’s serious misconduct.

The Court’s tools in sanctioning this conduct, however, seem somewhat limited. Section 6673 does not seem to provide a remedy; his actions do not constitute (1) proceedings instituted merely for purposes of delay; (2) a frivolous or groundless position; or (3) an unreasonable failure to pursue administrative remedies. The Court has rules for sanctions in the discovery context, see T.C. Rule 104, but that likewise seems inapposite to the misconduct at hand.

The Tax Court’s contempt powers authorized under section 7456(c) might provide an avenue for sanctioning such misconduct. It provides that “the Tax Court . . . shall have power to punish by fine or imprisonment, at its discretion, such contempt of its authority, and none other, as (1) misbehavior of any person in its presence or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice . . . .” In a prior case, Williams v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 276 (2002), the Court found the petitioner in criminal contempt of the Court; it imposed no term of imprisonment, but rather assessed a $5,000 fine. The taxpayer there fraudulently informed the Court that he had filed a bankruptcy petition, which would have invoked the automatic stay and thus delayed the case in Tax Court.  (I’d be curious to understand how the Court collects such a fine, as unlike the section 6673 penalty, it is not subject to the Service’s normal assessment and collection procedures).

It appears, however, that the Tax Court doesn’t make much use of its contempt authority (at least, not in published opinions or in its orders). The Court has only cited its authority in 7456(c) in orders five times since June 2011; no order actually found a taxpayer or third party in contempt. Other than Williams, only one recent opinion, Moore v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2007-200, substantively discusses the Court’s contempt power under 7456(c)—though ultimately the Court declines to sanction the petitioner in Moore.

I’d suggest that the Court ought to rediscover its authority under section 7456(c) for situations where, as here, the petitioner has engaged in fraudulent conduct, yet the section 6673 penalty is unavailable.

Affidavits in Summary Judgment – Designated Orders: September 16 – 21, 2019

Only one order this week, but it’s a meaty one. Judge Halpern disposed of three pending motions from Petitioner in Martinelli v. Commissioner, a deficiency case. Let’s jump right in.

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Docket  No. 4122-18, Martinelli v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

So begins the tale of the brothers Martinelli: Giorgio, the Petitioner in this Tax Court case, and Maurizio, the generous yet problem-causing sibling who—according to Giorgio—created an Italian bank account in Giorgio’s name in 2011. Giorgio argues that he never had knowledge of or control over the Italian bank account; he was a mere “nominee” on the account. He first learned of the account in September 2012.

The IRS, as one might expect, alleged that Giorgio didn’t report the income from the account on his federal income tax returns for 2011 through 2016. To boot, the IRS assessed a penalty under section 6038D(d) for failure to disclose information regarding a foreign financial assets where an individual holds foreign financial assets exceeding $50,000 in value. (NB: This penalty is distinct from the Foreign Bank Account Reporting, or FBAR, penalty found at 31 U.S.C. § 5321. Unlike the FBAR penalty, the IRS may collect the section 6038D(d) penalty using its ordinary collection mechanisms, including the federal tax lien).

Petitioner filed three motions: first, a motion for partial summary judgment to determine that the Tax Court has jurisdiction regarding the section 6038D(d) penalty; second, a motion to restrain assessment and collection of the penalty while the Tax Court case is pending; and third, a motion for partial summary judgment regarding the underlying income tax deficiency.

Jurisdictional Motion

The Court rightly held that it lacks jurisdiction as to the 6038D(d) penalty. As the Tax Court likes to repeat, it is a court of limited jurisdiction. Congress must provide the Tax Court with the authority to hear particular cases. While certain penalties fit into Congress’ grant of authority under the Tax Court’s general deficiency jurisdiction under section 6211(a) and section 6214, this penalty simply doesn’t.  

Judge Halpern reviews the Court’s jurisdiction under section 6211(a). It includes taxes imposed under subtitle A or B, or under chapters 41, 42, 43, or 44. But section 6038D is in Chapter 61 of subtitle F. So no luck there.

Likewise, the penalty isn’t an “additional amount” under section 6214. Tax Court precedent has confined this jurisdictional grant to penalties under subchapter A of chapter 68. See Whistleblower 22716-13W v. Commissioner, 146 TC 84, 93-95 (2016). Failing to find a jurisdictional hook, the Court denies summary judgment on this matter, holding that the Court does not have jurisdiction with respect to this penalty.

Is this the right result as a policy matter? I think not. The IRS likely assessed this penalty during the audit of Mr. Martinelli’s tax return, in addition to the deficiency it proposed. One result of the audit is subject to challenge in the U.S. Tax Court; the other isn’t. Yet a challenge to both may rely on the same set of facts. Why require a taxpayer to litigate twice?

Motion to Restrain Assessment & Collection

The Court’s disposition of the first motion makes the second easy. If the Court can’t determine the amount of the penalty, it certainly can’t tell the IRS not to collect the penalty. This motion is likewise denied.

The Deficiency

Giorgio alleges that he was a mere “nominee” of the account, and that in fact, his brother Maurizio controlled the account. Thus, Giorgio shouldn’t be subject to tax on the interest and dividend income from the account.

Judge Halpern takes issue with the nominee argument. He notes that a nominee analysis doesn’t really fit here; that analysis is usually used to determine whether a transferor of property remains its beneficial owner. Here, the parties disagree on whether Maurizio used his own assets to fund account and then listed Giorgio as the nominee owner. This analysis would allow the Court to determine whether Maurizio had an income tax liability, but would only allow a negative implication as to Giorgio.

Instead, the Court focuses on whether Giorgio exercised sufficient dominion and control over the account. The Court asks whether Giorgio had freedom to use funds at his will. While Petitioner did submit affidavits from himself and Maurizio, there was no other evidence to show that Petitioner didn’t enjoy the typical rights of an account owner (i.e., the right to access funds in the account). So, it appears there’s still a genuine dispute of material fact regarding Giorgio’s ability to access these funds.  

Judge Halpern did, however, allow for the possibility that Giorgio didn’t have any knowledge of the account until after 2011. After all, one can’t withdraw funds from an account that remains secret from the nominal owner. Giorgio says that he didn’t have knowledge until September 2012.

Here’s where we enter a problem for the typical analysis of a motion for summary judgment. Petitioner provided an affidavit that he had no knowledge of the account until September 2012. Respondent denied this, but didn’t provide any other evidence showing that Giorgio did, in fact, have this knowledge. Under Rule 121(d), Respondent can’t rest on mere denials in response to a motion for summary judgment; instead, a party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine dispute for trial.”  

What’s Respondent to do? There may be no evidence demonstrably showing that Giorgio knew about the account. The only evidence is Giorgio and Maurizio’s affidavit.

Rule 121(e) provides a safety valve: if a “party’s only legally available method of contravening the facts set forth in the affidavits or declarations of the moving party is through cross-examination of such affiants or declarants . . . then such a showing may be deemed sufficient to establish that the facts set forth in such supporting affidavits or declarations are genuinely disputed.” In other words, Petitioner can’t simply provide an affidavit and rest on his laurels. Respondent must have an opportunity to cross-examine the affiant—in this case, Petitioner and his brother.

Thus, because Respondent showed under Rule 121(e) that they had no other way to refute the facts alleged in Petitioner’s affidavits, the knowledge issue is a genuinely disputed material fact for 2011. Whether petitioner controlled and could withdraw funds from the account is likewise a genuinely disputed material fact for the other tax years. As such, Judge Halpern denies Petitioner’s motion for summary judgment.

The case is now set for trial on February 10, 2020 in New York.  

A Journey Through Rule 81(i) – Designated Orders: August 19 – 23, 2019

There were only four orders this week. The first and most interesting order explores Rule 81, which governs the taking and use of depositions in the Tax Court. Two CDP orders and a tax protester in a deficiency case round out this week’s orders.

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Docket  Nos. 16634-17L, 15789-17, Raley v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This short order from Judge Buch strikes from the record Respondent’s lodging of a document entitled “Respondent’s Designation of Deposition Testimony To Be Used At Trial.” Judge Buch characterizes Respondent’s filing as “an attempt to put into the evidentiary record of this case a deposition of a non-party taken pursuant to a stipulation under Rule 81(d) . . . .” For those practitioners who don’t often take depositions in cases before the Tax Court (myself included), a brief review of Rule 81 is called for.

Rule 81 provides that a party may take depositions only where (1) the parties agree to do so under Rule 81(d), or (2) the party seeking the deposition applies for permission from the Court under Rule 81(b). Compared to Rule 30 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires an application only in limited circumstances, the Tax Court has much more discretion under its Rules to allow an unconsented deposition. But here, the parties stipulated, and so didn’t need Court permission to take the deposition.

Now we have a deposition. But what can we do with it? Rule 81(i) governs use of the deposition in the Court. Rule 81(i) is analogous, but not identical, to FRCP 32.

At the trial . . . any part or all of a deposition, so far as admissible under the rules of evidence applied as though the witness were then present and testifying, may be used against any party who was present or represented at the taking of the deposition or who had reasonable notice thereof, in accordance with the following provisions:

1. The deposition may be used by a party for the purpose of contradicting or impeaching the testimony of the deponent as a witness;

2. The deposition of a party may be used by an adverse party for any purpose;

3. The deposition may be used for any purpose if the Court finds: (A) That the witness is dead; (B) that the witness is at such a distance from the place of trial that it is not practicable for the witness to attend, unless it appears that the absence of the witness was procured by the party seeking to use the deposition; (C) that the witness is unable to attend or testify because of age, illness, infirmity, or imprisonment; (D) that the party offering the deposition has been unable to obtain attendance of the witness at trial, as to make it desirable in the interests of justice, to allow the deposition to be used; or (E) that such exceptional circumstances exist, in regard to the absence of the witness at the trial, as to make it desirable in the interests of justice, to allow the deposition to be used.

So, to summarize, the deposition may be used in three circumstances: (1) impeaching the deponent as a witness at trial; (2) for any purpose, if the deponent is a party; and (3) purposes related to the unavailability of a witness at trial, including death, distance, inability to attend or compel attendance, or other exceptional circumstances.

Here, Respondent, according to Judge Buch, simply attempted to put the entire deposition into the record. That won’t work, because Respondent didn’t even identify how Respondent intended to use the deposition. Without at least this, the Court has no basis to determine whether the deposition will be permissibly used under Rule 81(i).

Respondent’s counsel didn’t take this lying down. A week later, Judge Buch issued a subsequent order in this case. The parties held a conference call with Judge Buch, and explained that the deponent would be unavailable for trial—one of the reasons a deposition can be used, for any reason, under Rule 81(i)(3). Judge Buch accordingly vacated the August 21 order, retitled Respondent’s filing of the deposition as a “Motion Under Rule 81(i),” and ordered the parties to stipulate to the admissibility of so much of the deposition as possible. That stipulation was filed on September 6, and the Court accordingly granted Respondent’s motion under Rule 81(i) on September 18.

Docket  Nos. 5227-18L, 4986-18L, Koham v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This CDP case from Judge Buch involves petitioners who don’t appear sympathetic. The liability arose from the taxpayer’s self-assessment of income tax liabilities on returns they filed for 2013 and 2014. The taxpayers filed an OIC, but listed “patently excessive” expenses (e.g., $9,500 for housing expenses). In the interim, the Service filed a NFTL, and so Petitioners elected to pursue the OIC through the CDP procedures.

The settlement officer calculated a monthly net income for the taxpayers of $987, after reducing their monthly expenses to the IRS collection standards amounts. The SO found a reasonable collection potential of $312,361—far greater than the corresponding tax liability of $35,117 and dwarfing petitioners’ offer of $2,500.

The SO offered a streamlined installment agreement of $332 per month (i.e., the total liability divided by 72 months). But Petitioner didn’t accept it and the SO issued a Notice of Determination that sustained the NFTL. Petitioners proceeded to the Tax Court, arguing in their response to Respondent’s eventual motion for summary judgment that the SO made a “blanket rejection” of the OIC.

There was simply nothing here for the Court—or frankly, the IRS—to work with. Petitioners provided no evidence of an IRS error with the expense calculation to lower the “reasonable collection potential”; no purported special circumstances that would justify acceptance of an offer for less than the reasonable collection potential; and no further allegations (e.g., that the SO failed to verify all applicable statutory and procedural requirements). They complained of the SO’s “blanket rejection” of the OIC; instead it seems the SO considered the circumstances and rejected the OIC for a fair reason. Pro se CDP litigants should take note: your reasons for seeking reversal must be well-grounded in the facts and law.

Docket  No. 24599-17L, Marra v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Another CDP case, this time from Chief Special Trial Judge Carluzzo. Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment, while Petitioner moved to remand the case to IRS Appeals. The primary issue is whether Petitioner may challenge the underlying liability pursuant to IRC § 6330(c)(2)(B). Respondent objects because they believe Petitioner did not raise the underlying liability during the CDP hearing itself, and is therefore precluded from raising that issue before the Tax Court. See Giamelli v. Commissioner, 129 T.C. 107, 112-13 (2007). Petitioner responded that, in fact, he raised the issue in a Form 1127, Application for Extension of Time for Payment of Tax Due to Hardship, which he allegedly submitted during the CDP hearing.Judge Carluzzo notes a further disagreement to whether Petitioner had reasonable cause for failure to pay the underlying liability, in addition to the liability itself.

Because Judge Carluzzo finds there to be a continuing dispute regarding the underlying liability, he denies Respondent’s motion for summary judgment, because genuine issues of material fact remain in dispute (though the order does not detail precisely what facts are material or in dispute).

Further, Judge Carluzzo denies Petitioner’s motion to remand—likely because the issue centers on the underlying liability. If the Court finds that Petitioner did raise the underlying liability at the hearing, then the Court may consider it de novo without need for remand. See Sego v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 604, 610 (2000). If not, then it’s a moot point anyway. In any case, remand doesn’t make sense here.

Docket No. 322-19, Barfield v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Finally, Judge Guy defeats a classic tax protester tactic. In an earlier proceeding, Petitioner alleged an issue regarding tax year 2015. But at that time, the Service hadn’t issued a notice of deficiency for 2015. So, Respondent moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction as to 2015, which the court granted.

Later, the Service did issue a notice of deficiency for 2015. Petitioner asked the Tax Court for review, and filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the earlier proceeding had dismissed the 2015 tax year, and thus, was res judicata as to this new proceeding. Respondent filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings in response. 

Judge Guy parries this tax protester’s attempt to nullify the Service’s notice of deficiency and grants Respondent’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. Because Petitioner didn’t allege any errors or facts with respect to Respondent’s notice—aside from the baseless res judicata argument—Judge Guy found that “the petition . . . fails to raise any justiciable issue.” Judge Guy also warns petitioner about the section 6673 penalty, but does not impose one. A review of the case’s docket suggests that Petitioner heeded Judge Guy’s warning, as there have been no further filings in this docket. 

Whistleblower Jurisdiction: Is Anyone Listening? – Designated Orders: July 22 – 26, 2019

This week featured three orders from Judge Armen, along with another brief order from Judge Kerrigan that extended the time for responding to a discovery request.

These will be among the last orders from Judge Armen. The Tax Court recently announced that Judge Armen retired from the bench, effective August 31, 2019. I’ve appeared before Judge Armen numerous times for trial sessions in Chicago. In those sessions, I always found him to be fair, thorough, and thoughtful. He always took time to walk pro se petitioners through the Court’s procedures, carefully listened to them, and explained the applicable law in an approachable manner. His presence on the bench will, indeed, be missed.

His first order is relatively unremarkable, save the exacting detail that Judge Armen uses to walk a pro se taxpayer through a relative simple issue (unsurprising, given his similar willingness to do so at trial sessions). Petitioner had contended that including unemployment income in gross income is “cruel, short-sighted, and runs afoul any theory of economic success.” That may well be, but Judge Armen painstakingly runs through the Code to demonstrate that unemployment income is specifically included in gross income under § 85 (and is otherwise generally includable under § 61(a)).

The other two orders are in pro se Whistleblower cases. Both grant summary judgment to the government because there was no administrative or judicial action to collect unpaid tax or otherwise enforce the internal revenue laws. For the Tax Court to obtain jurisdiction under IRC § 7623(b)(4), the IRS must commence such an action.

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Docket No. 17586-18W, Hammash v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Petitioner submitted a Form 211, Application for Award for Original Information, with the IRS Whistleblower office, alleging that a certain business underreported taxes, and that the Petitioner had previously reported the business to the “IRS in California”. (One wonders whether Petitioner means an IRS office in California, or the California Franchise Tax Board; my clients often refer to the Indiana Department of Revenue as the “Indiana IRS”.) But, there wasn’t any further explanation or supporting documentation of the alleged malfeasance.

According to Respondent’s exhibits, the Whistleblower Office denied an award and didn’t otherwise refer the case for further investigation. The Petitioner timely filed a petition; from a review of the docket, it seems he may been represented by a POA at the administrative level, as a motion to proceed anonymously was originally filed by someone not admitted to practice before the Tax Court. The Court struck it from the record soon thereafter.

In any case, the particulars don’t really matter here. The limited information provided in the Form 211 isn’t what dooms Petitioner’s case; rather, it’s that the IRS never initiated an administrative or judicial proceeding to collect tax from the allegedly delinquent taxpayer.

For the Tax Court, this is a jurisdictional requirement under IRC § 7623(b)(4). The Tax Court is authorized to review a “determination regarding an award under [§ 7623(b)(1)-(3)]. IRC § 7623(a)(1), (2), and (3) provide for various awards. Paragraph (1) authorizes an award “[i]f the Secretary proceeds with any administrative or judicial action” related to detecting underpayments of tax or detecting and bringing to trial and punishment criminal tax violators. See IRC § 7623(a), (b)(1); see also Cohen v. Commissioner,139 T.C. 299, 302 (2012). Paragraph (2) and (3) awards are likewise premised upon an “action described in paragraph (1)”. Moreover, the government must collect some unpaid tax from the target taxpayer pursuant to such action, for the Tax Court to obtain jurisdiction.  

Neither an investigative action nor collection of proceeds occurred here. Petitioner didn’t provide any evidence to the contrary in the Tax Court proceeding; indeed, after the Tax Court struck his representative’s motion to proceed anonymously, he seemed to not participate at all. Therefore, summary judgment was appropriate and the Court sustained Respondent’s whistleblower determination.

Docket  No. 19512-18W, Elliott v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This whistleblower claim contained substantially more detail than Hammash, but nevertheless Petitioner finds herself in the same situation.

Petitioner filed a Form 211, which according to the Court, alleged “a brokerage services firm . . . that was custodian for a certain qualified retirement plan was mishandling former plan participants’ accounts.” Unlike in Hammash, where it appears no outside review occurred, here the Whistleblower Office did forward the claim to a Revenue Agent at the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities division. The RA sent the claim back to the Whistleblower Office, noting that TEGE does not investigate custodians, but rather investigates qualified plans themselves.

The Whistleblower Office didn’t send the claim on to any other division of the IRS. Instead, it issued a denial letter essentially identical to the one in Hammash, noting that the information provided was speculative, lacked credibility, and/or lacked specificity.

Petitioner argued that her information was, in fact, credible and specific, and asked the Court to compel Respondent to investigate the claim.

While this case involved a much more engaged Petitioner with facially troubling allegations, one fact remains: it’s undisputed that the IRS did not conduct an administrative or judicial action to recoup any unpaid tax or otherwise prosecute violations of the internal revenue laws. No proceeds were collected either. Further, the Court cannot, under the limited jurisdiction provided in IRC § 7623, determine the proper tax liability of the target taxpayer or require the IRS to initiate an investigation. See Cooper v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 597, 600 (2011).

Thus, the Court granted Respondent’s motion for summary judgment and sustained Respondent’s administrative denial of the whistleblower award claim.

One small nitpick: here and in Hammash, the Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction. Yet it “sustained” Respondent’s administrative determination. While it arrives at the same conclusion, I don’t believe that’s the proper result under Cohen or Cooper. Under those cases, the Court lacks the power to sustain or overturn the determination to deny the claim; it should therefore dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, rather than sustaining Respondent’s determination.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost; But At What Cost? – Designated Orders: June 24 – 28, 2019

We have four designated orders this week covering a wide array of substantive and procedural issues. Highlights include a review of allowable expenses for over-the-road truckers; the continuing (and perhaps now ended?) saga of Bhramba v. Commissioner in our Designated Orders; and a couple of permutations on our old friend, section 6751(b).

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Docket No. 15601-17L, Horner v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This order from Judge Armen grants Respondent’s motion for summary judgment. It’s fairly unremarkable—a nonresponsive Petitioner often loses on a motion for summary judgment in a CDP case. Here, however, the summary judgment motion followed a supplemental CDP hearing, which Respondent’s counsel requested to determine the merits of the underlying liability. Apparently, Counsel couldn’t find in its records that the Petitioner had received the Notice; so the underlying liability could be at issue.

One is left to wonder why Respondent’s counsel did that. Introducing the Notice of Deficiency into evidence creates a presumption that the taxpayer received the notice (so long as Respondent mailed it via certified mail). See Conn v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2008-186.The taxpayer may, of course, rebut that presumption. But that’s hard to do when one doesn’t meaningfully participate in the administrative or judicial proceedings, as it seems Petitioner failed to do.

Alas, Petitioner also failed to meaningfully participate in the supplemental CDP hearing, making allegations that tended towards tax protesting. According to the settlement officer and Judge Armen, the underlying liability was originally assessed pursuant to a substitute-for-return, which in turn was based on three Forms 1099-MISC.  To hammer the point home that Petitioner was, in fact, in the moving business, Judge Armen quoted extensively from Petitioner’s website that advertised his business.

Docket  No. 5849-09, Davidson v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Leyden resolves this discovery dispute in a fair manner—at least, for the time being. Respondent sent Petitioner a request for admissions, to which Petitioner responded. Apparently, Respondent thought that the responses were inappropriate, and so filed a motion under Rule 90(e) to review the sufficiency of the answers and/or objections. Petitioner objected to the motion, noting that he is incarcerated until December 2019. As such, it’s difficult for him to accurately answer the questions that Respondent poses.

Judge Leyden agrees with Petitioner and orders instead that Petitioner serve an amended response on Respondent on January 22, 2020—30 days after his released from incarceration. This seems like a fair resolution—though we’ll need to set our Designated Order alarms to check in this January.

Docket No. 6174-18S, Gillespie v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Leyden provides another Designated Order through this bench opinion, which involves travel expenses deducted as unreimbursed employee expenses under section 162 and the accuracy penalty under section 6662(a).

This over-the-road trucker deducted $40,897 as unreimbursed employee expenses—including $16,001 of meals and entertainment expenses, calculated at 80% of the national per diem rate (transportation workers may deduct 80% of these costs, rather than the normal 50% of meal and entertainment costs for other taxpayers), and $24,896 for other travel expenses. These latter expenses included hotel costs and rental car expenses.  He primarily slept in his truck, but would rent a hotel when his truck had to undergo a repair overnight. During these times, he’d also rent a car to “see the sights” in whatever locale he happened to stop. Petitioner essentially lived in his truck year-round, though he rented a room near Salt Lake City for 26 days in the tax year. His employer didn’t reimburse their employees for any expenses, including hotels, meals, or other travel expenses.

Judge Leyden denies the deduction for all claimed expenses because Petitioner was never “away from home” such that he would qualify to claim any travel expenses—whether lodging, meals, or otherwise. See, e.g., Barone v. Commissioner, 85 T.C. 462, 465 (1985).The Tax Court has long held that to claim travel expenses, taxpayers must be “away from home” when they incur those expenses. And if a taxpayer doesn’t have a “home”, then as a logical consequence, they can never be “away from home.”

But where is a taxpayer’s “home”? It’s primarily a taxpayer’s principal place of business. Howard v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2015-38. If the taxpayer doesn’t have a principal place of business, it’s their permanent place of residence—a useful fallback for the vast majority of taxpayers. Barone,85 T.C. at 465.

But to use this fallback, taxpayers must incur substantial continuing living expenses. James v. United States, 308 F.2d 204, 207-08 (9th Cir. 1962); Sapson v. Commissioner, 49 T.C. 636, 640 (1968). Petitioner’s 26 days in Salt Lake City were apparently not substantial and continuous enough to place his principal place of residence at the rented room. So on these issues, he’s out of luck.

For taxpayers who are truly transient, the Tax Court has long held that these taxpayers are never “away from home” and therefore cannot deduct any travel expenses whatsoever. And for taxpayers like Petitioner here, failure to establish a permanent place of residence (or principal place of business) translates to thousands of dollars in additional tax. The deficiency in this case is over $7,000; this doesn’t take any additional state tax into account. In some cases, it may be possible to incur housing costs that are substantially less than any additional tax amount caused by failure to establish a permanent place of residence.

It’s also important to note that this is a largely moot point for employee truck drivers during tax years 2018 to 2025, as miscellaneous itemized deductions, such as the deduction for unreimbursed employee expenses, are unavailable to claim because of the 2017 tax law.  Still, the implications here drastically affect self-employed over-the-road truck drivers, who may continue to deduct their operating expenses.

Petitioner also lost on his other claimed deductions: (1) for cell phone expenses for failure to their prove business use and to prove that his employer didn’t reimburse him; (2) truck repair expenses for failure to prove that his employer didn’t reimburse him; and (3) rental car expenses because they were personal expenses.

What about the accuracy penalty in this case? Judge Leyden quickly disposes of this issue—and this time in Petitioner’s favor. Fatal in this case were the timing issues with managerial approval of penalties under section 6751(b) that arose in Clay v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. No. 13 (2019). Samantha Galvin blogged about Clay last month.

To recap the issue, Respondent did introduce evidence of managerial approval, dated November 6, 2017. So what’s the problem? The statute requires that a manager approve in writing the initial determination of any asserted penalty. And Respondent also introduced evidence of a 30-day letter asserting the penalty, which was issued on October 2, 2017. No evidence of managerial approval prior thereto. So Judge Leyden quickly notes that Respondent failed to meet his burden of production, and finds no penalty for Petitioner.

Docket No. 1395-16L, Bhambra v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Bhambra is now a familiar name in the Designated Orders series, though this may be his last appearance. I previously covered this case in a post from July 2018, where Judge Halpern granted Petitioner’s motion to remand the case to consider the underlying liability—here, a civil fraud penalty under section 6663. Bill Schmidt covered the case in a post from February 2019, carrying the apt subtitle, “How Not to Deal with Tax Fraud”. As one might expect from the title, the Tax Court entered a decision upholding the civil fraud penalty in March of this year.

Apparently Petitioner has read up on section 6751(b)’s recent legal development, and so he filed a motion to vacate the Tax Court’s decision, because—allegedly—the Tax Court didn’t require Respondent to comply with the supervisory approval requirements of section 6751(b). Respondent objected to the motion on the basis of timeliness, not on the merits. Petitioner, it seems, postmarked the motion one day after the 30-day deadline applicable to motions to vacate under Tax Court Rule 162. So, the Court denied the motion on that basis (and because Petitioner filed no motion for leave to file the motion to vacate out of time). Judge Halpern also noted that Respondent included a penalty approval form that demonstrates managerial approval regarding the penalties in question. This seems to leave the door open for Petitioner to file a motion for leave; are there perhaps Clay problems lurking here as well? I wouldn’t foreclose the prospect of further activity in this docket.  

Losing Jurisdiction through Excessive Payments – Designated Orders: May 27 – 31, 2019

Another week with only two designated orders (likely caused by the Memorial Day holiday). The first comes from Judge Carluzzo, but is a fairly unremarkable order that grants a petitioner’s motion to dismiss his own CDP case. There was a motion for summary judgment pending from Respondent; perhaps Petitioner agreed to a collection alternative or otherwise came to a realization that defending against summary judgment would be futile. We don’t know, as there remains no electronic access to documents on the Tax Court’s docket other than orders and opinions.

The other order from Judge Leyden likewise dismisses a case, but for a different reason: the petitioners in this deficiency case had paid the Service’s proposed tax before it issued a notice of deficiency. Nevertheless, the Service ended up issuing a Notice of Deficiency, from which the Petitioners timely petitioned the Tax Court.

Ordinarily, when dealing with jurisdictional motions in the deficiency context, we see two failures of jurisdiction: (1) the Petitioner hasn’t timely filed their petition, or (2) the Service issued an invalid notice of deficiency—most often because the Service failed to mail the notice to the Petitioner’s last known address.

Here, Respondent filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Judge Leyden finds the Notice of Deficiency is invalid, but not because it was inappropriately mailed. Rather, the Notice is invalid because, the Court concludes, no deficiency exists.

Conceptually, this feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Isn’t the question of whether a deficiency exists a determination to be made on the merits? Why is the Court deprived of jurisdiction? Payment of a deficiency and the deficiency itself seem to be independent concepts. Why is the Tax Court not empowered, as a statutory matter, to determine the propriety of a deficiency—even if it’s been paid before the Notice of Deficiency is issued?

The Court doesn’t cite to any caselaw in the order, but a number of Courts of Appeals agree with Judge Leyden’s analysis. For example, in Conklin v. Commissioner,  897 F.2d 1027 (10th Cir. 1990), a Notice of Deficiency was issued for a joint liability. However, prior to the Notice of Deficiency, the wife paid the entire proposed joint liability in full. The husband sought to challenge the liability in Tax Court. The Tax Court determined the merits of the issue, but the 10th Circuit reversed, holding that the no deficiency existed under I.R.C. § 6211, because it had been fully paid prior to the husband’s Notice of Deficiency. Therefore, the Tax Court had no jurisdiction to hear the case and determine the merits.

What’s the statutory underpinning of this decision? It begins and ends with IRC § 6211, which defines a deficiency. I teach this section each year to my Tax Clinic class, which results in some mild bewilderment. Let’s look at the statute:

For purposes of this title in the case of income . . . taxes imposed by subtitles A… the term “deficiency” means the amount by which the tax imposed by subtitle A …exceeds the excess of—

  • The sum of  
  •  The amount shown as the tax by the taxpayer upon his return . . . plus
  • The amounts previously assessed (or collected without assessment) as a deficiency, over—
  • The amount of rebates, as defined in subsection (b)(2), made.

Clear as mud. I try to frame this as a mathematical equation in class. As elements in the equation, we have:

  1. TaxA: The tax imposed by subtitle A—i.e., what the tax actually should be, under the Internal Revenue Code;
  2. TaxR: The amount shown as the tax by the taxpayer upon his return;
  3. A: Amounts previously assessed as a deficiency;
  4. C: Amounts collected without assessment—the critical issue in this order; and
  5. R: The amount of rebates.

As much as I try to tell students wanting to enroll in Tax Clinic that there’s minimal math involved, it’s time to express this as a proper equation.

Deficiency = TaxA  – ((TaxR  + A + C) – R)  

And, remembering with much appreciation my high school algebra classes, we can simply the equation as follows:

Deficiency = TaxA  – TaxR  – A – C + R  

(My wife—who majored in mathematics—tells me that this is an example of the “distributive property”.)

For simple cases, this makes some conceptual sense. A deficiency primarily equals the tax under subtitle A, less the tax that the taxpayer reported on the tax return.

Let’s add some complexity. If there were previous deficiency assessments made, then those amounts should be reduced from the new deficiency. If there were rebates made (as would occur if, for example, a previous audit resulted in an additional refund to the taxpayer), those amounts should be added to the new deficiency.

That brings us to the issue in this case—“amounts previously . . . collected without assessment.” Those too must be reduced from the definition of a deficiency under section 6211. And if the Notice of Deficiency is issued after the “amounts collected without assessment” exceed the amount of any proposed deficiency, then no deficiency existed when the Notice was issued—or at least, no deficiency that the Commissioner is asserting.  In effect, the Notice is asserting something that cannot exist under section 6211, and it’s therefore invalid. In contrast, if payment occurs after the Notice is issued, the Notice itself remains valid as a deficiency existed at the time of the Notice.

Ultimately, taxpayers in this situation still have an option to dispute the merits of an IRS audit determination: they may file a refund claim with the Service and (upon denial) sue for a refund in District Court or the Court of Federal Claims. This isn’t the most helpful result for pro se taxpayers, given the relative procedural complexity in those courts. Yet, it remains the sole option for these taxpayers.

There are some practical problems with this approach, however. In Judge Leyden’s order, the Petitioners didn’t object to Respondent’s motion. Presumably they agreed that they owed a deficiency, had paid it, and wanted to simply finalize the matter with the IRS.

But there’s still a potential problem. The Service issued a Notice of Deficiency several months after the Petitioners fully paid the proposed deficiency. It seems likely that when they made the payment the Petitioners would have signed Form 4549, Income Tax Examination Changes, which waives the restrictions in section 6213 on assessment and collection. If they did, and the IRS made an assessment pursuant to the Form 4549 at that time, then there is potentially a risk that the Service could assess the same tax again subsequent to the Notice of Deficiency. Stranger things have happened; indeed, Judge Leyden references this possibility in the order itself, and notes that the Service has assured the Court it will take care not to make a duplicate assessment.

What happens if the Service does make that mistake? Can the Petitioner return to Tax Court to enforce the Service’s promise reflected in the order? Maybe, as a practical matter. Perhaps the Court would exercise such jurisdiction as in similar cases involving improper mailings that invalidate the Notice of Deficiency.

At present, this case represents a cautionary tale to taxpayers and their representatives wishing to dispute a tax deficiency in the U.S. Tax Court, yet also wish to prevent the running of penalties and interest. Either (1) they should designate their payment as a “deposit” or (2) they should wait until after issuance of the Notice of Deficiency to make payment. Otherwise, any dispute is heading to District Court or the Court of Federal Claims.


The Perils of Sealing (and Designated Orders: April 29 – May 3, 2019)

Bill Schmidt and I had been debating whether the Tax Court judges had grown tired of my writing style. No designated orders at all were issued in my last assigned week of April 1 through 5, and no orders were released through May 1 either. But thankfully for our loyal readers, Judges Buch and Halpern each came through with an order on May 2.  Judge Halpern’s order discusses a clarification in this CDP case as to the proper scope of Appeals’ review on remand. The order itself is not very substantive. So let’s move on to Judge Buch’s order…

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Docket No. 4891-18W, Whistleblower 4891-18W v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Well, we did have two cases this week. At some point between when our Designated Orders team logged the cases and now, Judge Buch ordered this docket to be sealed—a relatively rare occurrence in the U.S. Tax Court, but certainly one that occurs more often in the whistleblower context. It’s unclear whether the order of May 2 itself ordered sealing (if so, why designate the order?) or if that came in a subsequent order. Moving forward, I’ll remember to actually download whistleblower orders rather than simply noting the web link. Otherwise, I might again feel like Obi-Wan Kenobi looking for hidden records in the Jedi archives.

Since there’s nothing more to discuss regarding the order itself, I’ll use the remainder of this post to discuss the logistics of seeking to seal part (or all) of a record in Tax Court. I will also suggest changes for the Court’s sealing process in whistleblower cases.  Prior posts from Sean Akins and Bob Kamman discuss the substantive rationales for sealing or redacting documents in Tax Court.

Privacy Protections in the Tax Court

Whistleblowers often have an incentive to seal the information disclosed in a Tax Court case, especially their identity. After all, the Whistleblower has revealed damaging information about another taxpayer and understandably might face adverse consequences if the taxpayer learns of it. Yet, the Tax Court has ruled that not all Whistleblower cases are automatically sealed and not all taxpayers may proceed anonymously. See Whistleblower 14377-16W v. C.I.R., 148 T.C. 510 (2017).

So, how does one seal all or part of a case in the Tax Court? There are different rules for different case types. Tax Court Rule 345 sets forth privacy protections for petitioners in a Whistleblower action; Rule 103 governs Protective Orders in discovery disputes; and Rule 27 governs privacy protections generally, including redactions, sealing individual documents, and limiting electronic access to case information.  

Let’s put aside those categorizations for a moment and think about these protections functionally. Conceptually, there could be three possible levels of privacy protection:

  • Level 1: Redaction or abbreviation of sensitive information within a publicly available document.
  • Level 2A: Sealing or redaction of an entire document, within a publicly available docket.
  • Level 2B: Sealing of all documents within a publicly available docket.
  • Level 3: Sealing the entire docket, with no public access to the docket.

Most Tax Court practitioners are familiar with Level 1 privacy protections. These appear routinely for LITCs that file petitions for taxpayers challenging the denial of refundable tax credits. We must often allege facts regarding minor children (i.e., where the child lived, their age, and their relationship to the taxpayer). Rule 27(a) provides that filings “should refrain from including or should take appropriate steps to redact . . . [1] Taxpayer identification numbers, [2] Dates of birth, [3] Names of minor children, and [4] Financial account numbers,” and provides guidance on how to redact this information (e.g., listing a child’s initials instead of the full name). Beyond these prescribed redactions, the Court may also require further redactions under Rule 27(d), including issuing a protective order under Rule 103(a).

Rule 27(c) also provides the possibility of Level 2 protection for information protected under Rule 27(a) if the Court orders it. The party would file an unredacted document under seal, while filing a redacted copy publicly. Presumably, this would allow the Court to view the unredacted information to the extent that the information would prove useful to a case’s disposition.

In the discovery context, Rule 103(a) provides for both Level 1 and Level 2 protection, within the discretion of the Court. For example, the Court may order “that a deposition or other written materials, after being sealed, be opened only by order of the Court.” Rule 103(a)(6). The Rule provides for other instances whereby the Court can order nondisclosure of a certain fact—which could presumably be accomplished by either Level 1 or Level 2 protection, again subject to the Court’s discretion.

Finally, Rule 345 provides for Level 2A and 2B protections in the Whistleblower context. While Rule 340 through 344 were promulgated shortly after the introduction of the Tax Court’s whistleblower jurisdiction in 2008, Rule 345 was promulgated in 2012 after the IRS and the National Taxpayer Advocate raised concerns primarily regarding the confidentiality of the target taxpayer, who is not a party to a whistleblower proceeding. Accordingly, Rule 345(b) provides protections for the taxpayer against whom the whistle was blown. The Rule specifically requires that parties “shall refrain from including … the name, address, and other identifying information of the taxpayer to whom the claim relates.” The Rule also requires filers to include a reference list, to be filed under seal, such that each redaction is appropriately identified.  Note the difference between Rule 27(a) (“should refrain from including, or should take appropriate steps to redact”) and Rule 345(b) (“shall refrain from including, or shall take appropriate steps to redact…”). Rule 345 redactions are mandatory.

Rule 345(a) Motions to Proceed Anonymously—and the Related Sealing of the Tax Court Docket

On the other hand—and at issue in the whistleblower cases I discuss below—Rule 345(a) provides anonymity to the whistleblower only if he or she asks for it in the Tax Court proceeding and the Tax Court deems an anonymous proceeding appropriate. (The explanatory note accompanying Rule 345’s promulgation does not fully explain the necessity for or expound on the mechanics of an anonymity motion—though it does so for Rule 345(b)). To proceed anonymously, the petitioner must, along with the petition, file a motion, which must set forth “a sufficient, fact-specific basis for anonymity.” Upon filing the motion “the petition and all other filings shall be temporarily sealed pending a ruling by the Court . . . .” (emphasis added).

This seems to require automatic Level 2B protection (i.e., sealing all documents in the record), but not necessarily Level 3 protection (i.e., sealing the record itself) while the motion is adjudicated. But after the Court rules on the motion, there is no provision within Rule 345(a) for further privacy protections beyond anonymity of the petitioner and accompanying redactions in filed documents.

Nevertheless, the Tax Court’s current practice—as I discovered with the designated order this week—is to seal the entire docket pending resolution of the motion—and potentially thereafter as well. Because the entire docket is sealed, it’s frankly hard to tell when or why the Court would unseal a docket. Had Judge Buch’s order not been publicly accessible weeks earlier when we noted its existence, we wouldn’t even know that this particular docket existed.

What would justify an anonymous proceeding under Rule 345(a)? The Court engages in a balancing test between (1) the public’s right to know the whistleblower’s identity and (2) the potential harm to the whistleblower if his or her identity is revealed. See Whistleblower 14377-16W v. Comm’r, 148 T.C. 510, 512 (2017). The whistleblower, per Rule 345(a) must allege a “sufficient, fact-specific basis for anonymity.” The Court has determined that plausible threats of physical harm (see Whistleblower 12568-16W v. Comm’r, 148 T.C. 103, 107 (2017); Whistleblower 11332-13W v. Comm’r, 142 T.C. 396, 398 (2014); Whistleblower 10949-13W v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2014-94), damage to employment relationships (see Whistleblower 14106-10W v. Comm’r, 137 T.C. 183 (2011)), and risk of losing employment-related benefits (see Whistleblower 13412-12W v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2014-93) all constitute sufficient privacy interests for the petitioner to proceed anonymously.

But under this analysis, it’s merely the petitioner’s identity that remains confidential. Upon filing a motion to proceed anonymously, the record is automatically sealed as a precautionary matter, even though Rule 345(a) does not mandate this practice (“The petition and all other filings shall be temporarily sealed . . . .”) Sealing the record as a substantive matter is another question entirely. The Court addressed this matter in Whistleblower 14106-10W v. Commissioner, where the petitioner had requested the record to be sealed and, in the alternative, to proceed anonymously. The Court granted petitioner the alternative relief sought, as a “less drastic” form of relief that would still preserve the public’s right to an open court system. See Whistleblower 14106-10W, 137 T.C. at 189-91, 206-07. (This case occurred before the Court’s introduction of Tax Court Rule 345 in 2012.) Unfortunately, the Court didn’t delve too deeply into possible considerations that would justifying sealing the record.

So, here we are. The Tax Court apparently believes it has the inherent authority to seal the record in its entirety (as its current practice makes abundantly clear). As a statutory matter, notwithstanding any textual deficiency in Rule 345(a), the Tax Court could rely on its broad authority under section 7461(b)(1), and under its own rules. The Court can, under Rule 27(d), “require redaction of additional information” and may issue a protective order under Rule 103(a). That “additional information” and/or the protective order could presumably cover the entire docket.

Why Seal the Entire Docket? A Proposal for Change

What’s the normative basis for withholding all information from the public after a motion to proceed anonymously has been filed? There could be information in the petition or other filings that reveal the Whistleblower’s identity, trade secrets, or other confidential information. This is an understandable concern. However, the Rule’s automatic and complete approach sweeps too far against the public’s right to an open court system, including access to court records.

Under the common law, the public has a right to access judicial records. Openness and access are the baselines. As Judge Thornton intones in Whistleblower 14106-10W:

“[T]his country has a long tradition of open trials and public access to court records. This tradition is embedded in the common law, the statutory law, and the U.S. Constitution . . . . Consistent with these principles, section 7458 provides that hearings before the Tax Court shall be open to the public. And section 7461(a) provides generally that all reports of the Tax Court and all evidence received by the Tax Court shall be public records open to the inspection of the public.”

Whistleblower 14106-10W at 189-90.

Indeed, secret dockets were completely unheard of in English common law or during the country’s founding. See Press-Enterprise Co. v. Sup. Ct. Cal., 464 U.S. 501, 505-08 (1984). For an entertaining dive into this history and a review of other sealed dockets in more recent history, see Stephen W. Smith, Kudzu in the Courthouse: Judgments Made in the Shade, 3 Fed. Cts. L. Rev. 177 (2009).

This history has provided a basis for some courts to find that sealing dockets in their entirety violates the public’s First Amendment right of access to the courts. For example, Connecticut state courts maintained a “secret docket” throughout the 80s and 90s, hiding the misadventures of the state’s rich and famous litigants. The Second Circuit held that the public generally had a First Amendment right to access the courts’ docket information, subject to a case-by-case balancing of the individual litigants’ privacy interests. See Hartford Courant Co. v. Pellegrino, 380 F.3d 83 (2d. Cir. 2004). Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Middle District of Florida’s completely sealed criminal docket violated the First Amendment. See United States v. Valenti, 987 F.2d 708, 715 (11th Cir. 1993).

Of course, any court, including the Tax Court, may seal as much of the record as necessary. The Tax Court possesses statutory authority to do so in IRC § 7461(b)(1) and under its own Rules as previously described. The Supreme Court has recognized that a right of public access must be balanced against other interests. See Globe Newspaper Co. v. Sup. Ct., 457 U.S. 596, 606-07 (1982); Press-Enterprise Co., 464 U.S. at 510.

But when is sealing necessary and to what extent? No statutory mandate binds the Tax Court’s hands (unlike in, for example, qui tam actions under 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b), which in a 2009 study represented a plurality of sealed civil cases in federal district court). The appropriate use of its sealing authority lies entirely in the Court’s discretion.

Outside the Tax Court, openness of records is a presumption, able to be overcome only “where countervailing interests heavily outweigh the public interests in access.”  United States v. Pickard, 733 F.3d 1297, 1302 (10th Cir. 2013) (citing Colony Ins. Co. v. Burke, 698 F.3d 1222, 1241 (10th Cir. 2012). Other circuits have adopted the Supreme Court’s test from the criminal context in Globe Newspaper Co., where the Court held that “the presumption of openness may be overcome only by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and isnarrowly tailored to serve that interest.” 457 U.S. at 606-07; see, e.g., United States v. Ochoa-Vasquez, 428 F.3d 1015, 1030 (11th Cir. 2005).

The Court’s current approach strikes the wrong balance, as it hides cases from public view in their entirety. This automatic and complete approach also portends serious First Amendment concerns. This prophylactic approach allows for no individualized assessment of the privacy interests at stake; while that interest is adjudicated later, this only relates to the anonymity decision, not whether to seal the entire docket. Further, the automatic and complete sealing that occurs seems decidedly untailored.  

In my view, a more reasonable and less constitutionally problematic approach would be that of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. We can run through an example to see this difference. In Tax Court Docket 14377-16W, the case is sealed. Trying to pull up the case on the Tax Court’s website reveals the following:

But, we have some insight into what occurred in this case because the Court issued a reviewed opinion in Whistleblower 14377-16W v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. 510 (2017). The Court denied petitioner’s motion to proceed anonymously, but, allowing for the possibility that petitioner would appeal that interlocutory decision, changed the case’s caption and continued to seal the docket to preserve petitioner’s anonymity.

Petitioner took the Tax Court up on its invitation and appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit. The IRS objected to venue, because under the catchall provision of section 7482, proper venue for whistleblower cases lies in the D.C. Circuit, where the case was eventually transferred.

The dockets for both the Eighth Circuit and D.C. Circuit proceedings are partially open to the public—or at least, the part of the public that pays for PACER access. The Eighth Circuit docket even allows for access to some underlying motions, orders, and other documents. Notably, the Tax Court record and petitioner’s appellate motion to proceed under seal themselves remain sealed. This approach has some drawbacks, however, as petitioner revealed his identity in one of the unsealed filings. I will not do the same on this blog, but the filing remains available to anyone with a PACER account. Additionally, petitioner’s address is listed on the docket itself. While the former may be a foot fault on petitioner’s part, the latter seems an oversight by the Eighth Circuit. 

The D.C. Circuit docket, in contrast, allows for no public access to any underlying document. It does helpfully list every proceeding on the docket itself. For example, we know that after the initial briefs were filed, the D.C. Circuit appointed an amicus to argue petitioner’s position (and file subsequent briefs). Oral argument was held on April 2, 2019 in a sealed courtroom and we’re now awaiting the D.C. Circuit’s opinion.

Could the Tax Court follow suit? The Court need not amend its Rule 345(a) to do so, given that textually, it requires only that the underlying filings are sealed. If the Court is concerned about petitioners inadvertently disclosing their private information, the Court may wish to amend Rule 345(b), which requires the filing of various identifying information on the petition itself in all cases. The Court could require any petitioner seeking anonymity to file an original petition under seal, while filing a redacted petition for public view. The petitions are not available online in any case, and so the Court could alternatively deny access to the underlying filings to parties who request hard copies while it adjudicates the motion for anonymity.

Anonymity would still need to be maintained online, but only orders and opinions are available online to non-parties. For these documents, the Court would have responsibility to ensure appropriate redactions. The Petitioner is also identified in the online docket, but it seems easy enough to change a petitioner’s name to “Whistleblower [Docket Number]” online.

The D.C. Circuit’s approach seems to strike the right balance: let the public know what’s going on generally, while preserving petitioners’ potential right to anonymity. By releasing select, non-sensitive information, the Court instills confidence in the public that secrecy has not affected the Court’s adherence to procedure and precedent. The Tax Court, which has in the past remedied its prior opaque nature, seems to have the legal and technical ability to follow the same approach; it ought to do so.