Failure to Timely Raise Financial Disability Argument

We have written on several occasions about the exception to the two and three-year lookback periods of IRC 6511 that exist as a possibility if the taxpayer can show financial disability.  You can find posts on the subject here, here and here.  This year my clinic represented someone making the financial disability argument in Tax Court, where petitioners can make refund claims but do so less frequently than through district court litigation.  We succeeded in obtaining a concession of the refund despite the client’s primary use of providers not described in Rev. Proc. 99-21; however, the case of Schmidt v. Internal Revenue Service, No. 2:20-cv-02336 (E.D. CA. 2021) provides another example in the government’s streak of victories against individuals seeking to extend the statute of limitations through financial disability.  Like the majority of litigants raising this issue, she proceeded pro se.

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Ms. Schmidt filed her 2013 return late on February 22, 2015.  On December 15, 2017, she filed an amended return seeking a refund of $31,904.  The IRS sent her a letter informing her that it intended to disallow her claim due to lateness.  She wrote back, obviously confused by the somewhat confusing construct of IRC 6511, arguing that she filed her amended return timely within three years of the filing of her tax return.  She did file the amended return within three years of filing her original return for 2013; however, the filing of the return within three years was not the important fact here.  Most important, as the IRS pointed out, was the three-year lookback rule of IRC 6511(b)(2), which limited her refund to payments with three years.  Since the payments occurred on the original due date of the return because withholding credits get credited on that date, she filed her amended return too late to recover any money even though she filed her amended return within three years of filing the original return.

Once Ms. Schmidt understood the lookback rule, she pivoted and began arguing that she missed the time period for timely filing the amended claim due to financial disability.

Plaintiff acknowledges the Refund Claim did not demonstrate financial disability to the IRS and argues it would have been illogical to submit the information at that time because she was still sick and still meeting the requirements for financial disability for all of 2017.1 In addition, when plaintiff received notice of the IRS’s intent to disallow the Refund Claim, plaintiff believed the IRS was rejecting the Refund Claim for a reason other than the time limits of 26 U.S.C. § 6511(b)(2).  Plaintiff asks the court to consider the evidence submitted with her complaint of her financial disability based on the special circumstances of her case, including the fact that the IRS issued a Private Letter Ruling (PLR) declaring the 2013 disability income tax-exempt.

Now, she hits another roadblock for those seeking a refund – variance.  While I think the court imposes the variance rule against her, it does not use that term, but instead discusses how her refund claim fails to meet the onerous requirements of Rev. Proc. 99-21.  It lists the requirements set forth in the Rev. Proc. and notes that she met none of them.  She submitted no information about financial disability with her amended return.  The court does not offer her a chance to submit it at this point.  Some of the prior cases in which IRC 6511(h) has been raised did allow the taxpayer to supplement their submissions, though in those cases the taxpayer may have engaged in more signaling about the possibility of financial disability than Ms. Schmidt did in filing her amended return.

She appears to have disability issues.  The information in the opinion does not provide a basis for deciding if she might have succeeded had she submitted her request with the amended return.  It also does not make clear whether she has a valid refund claim.  I don’t blame the court for these omissions since that information has nothing to do with the basis for denial of her claim; however, the result is harsh.  A pro se individual will struggle to take the correct procedural steps.  A disabled and sick pro se individual will struggle even more.  The law does not need to require such precision that she must file with her claim a full blown statement as required by the Rev. Proc. and the Rev. Proc. does not need to make the requirements as draconian as it does.

I have sympathy for Ms. Schmidt but the financial disability provision designed to assist people struggling to make life work offers little sympathy.  The mismatch between the purpose for the law and the administration of the law continues.

Unsigned and Electronically Signed Refund Claims

Last year I blogged on the case of Gregory v. United States, 149 Fed. Cl. 719 (2020), in which the Court of Federal Claims denied a refund claim because the taxpayers did not sign the amended return.  It turns out the Gregory case is part of a larger group of cases involving the same or similar issues.  The tax clinic at Harvard filed an amicus brief in the Federal Circuit regarding one of the cases in the group, Brown, on behalf of the Center for Taxpayer Rights.  The Court of Federal Claims has recently addressed another case in the group and one that has a slightly different fact pattern.

In Mills v. United States, No. 1:20-cv-00417 (Fed. Cl. 2021), the CFC issued another opinion in the long line of cases caused by accountant and lawyer John Anthony Castro, who is doing contingency fee refund suits involving IRC 911 exclusions for numerous people overseas. The first case decided by the Court of Federal Claims was last year and Gregory was among the first wave.

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In the earlier cases, the problem was that the Forms 1040X were substantively reviewed by the IRS and denied on their merits.  Only when the cases got to the CFC did the DOJ object that Castro signed the Forms 1040X, though his POA did not authorize him to sign for the taxpayers.  In these earlier cases, the taxpayers, relying on a Supreme Court opinion from the 1940s, Angelus Milling Co. v. Commissioner, 325 U.S. 293 (1945), argued that the IRS waived the signature defect by disallowing the claims on the merits rather than based on the lack of signature. 

In all of the cases decided so far, the Court of Federal Claims has held that the signature requirement is jurisdictional and not subject to waiver.  The judges dismissed all such suits without deciding whether a waiver might have occurred if the requirement were not jurisdictional.  An appeal to the Fed. Cir. has been taken only in one such suit, Brown, where the Center for Taxpayer Rights, as amicus, has argued that the whole requirement to file a refund claim is no longer jurisdictional under recent Supreme Court case law, so the signature requirement is also one that can be waived or forfeited by IRS inaction.

The Center cited, among other things, an opinion of the Fed. Cir. from 2020 named Walby, a case Carl Smith blogged here.  In Walby v. United States, 957 F.3d 1295 (Fed. Cir. 2020), a pro se tax protester case, a panel of the Federal Circuit joined a panel of the Seventh Circuit in Gillepsie v. United States, 670 F. Appx. 393 (7th Cir. 2016), in questioning, in dicta, their Circuits’ precedents holding that the administrative tax refund claim filing requirement at section 7422(a) is a jurisdictional requirement to the bringing of a refund suit, as probably no longer good law under recent Supreme Court case law

Mills differs from the prior cases in that, after the first set of Forms 1040X were signed by Castro, the IRS denied them on the grounds that Castro improperly signed them — i.e., not on the merits.  So, there could be no argument in Mills (unlike in the prior cases) that the IRS waived the signature requirement.  Castro responded by getting the CFC to dismiss without prejudice a prior suit Mills had brought and tried again. 

Mills filed new Forms 1040X on which to bring suit.  Mills was in Afghanistan, however, where he could not print out the Forms 1040X and sign them.  So, he affixed his digital signature to the new Forms 1040X.  This was done before the IRS authorized using digital signatures on Forms 1040X.  Waiting more than 6 months after the second amended returns were filed, Mills brought suit for refund.  The opinion just issued (which had initially been issued 2 weeks ago as a sealed opinion, but is no longer sealed) again holds that the claim filing requirement is jurisdictional — citing prior Fed. Cir. case law, but not mentioning Walby.  The court goes on to hold that Forms 1040X at the time these were filed could not be electronically signed.  Thus, the court dismisses this second Mills suit for lack of jurisdiction. All may not be lost for Mills, however, who can now, if he so chooses, go back and perfect his Forms 1040X for the third time, this time complying with IRS procedures for electronic signatures.

It is Carl’s view that Mills would not make a good test case for asking the Fed. Cir. to overrule its prior precedent on whether claim filing is jurisdictional to a refund suit because there is no possible way for Mills to argue for waiver on these facts (and, indeed, no waiver argument was ever made by Mills in this case).  Although the Court of Federal Claims in Mills may have been wrong to call the requirement jurisdictional, in any appeal, the Fed. Cir. would likely duck the jurisdictional question as not necessary to decide the case — just as it did in Walby.  In Brown, deciding whether or not the filing requirement is jurisdictional cannot be avoided, since the taxpayer has an argument for waiver that has not yet been considered by the CFC.

Fellow blogger, Jack Townsend, wrote to Les and I with the following comment:

In the conclusion, the court says:

“This result here is admittedly harsh. Mr. Mills was working overseas under difficult circumstances and made demonstrable efforts to sign the returns as best he could. The IRS could have accepted his digital initials as an appropriate signature but chose not to do so. If it is to process millions of tax-forms each year, the IRS may insist on strict compliance with its procedural requirements. The plaintiff’s second amended returns did not comply with IRS requirements and were therefore not duly filed. Under these facts, the Court lacks jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s refund suit and must dismiss the complaint.” (emphasis added by Jack)

In the bold-face, the court says IRS had authority/discretion to accept the returns but chose not to do so.  Could that decision be reviewed under the APA arbitrary and capricious standard or some review of discretionary decisions?

Les responded “I would think that an APA claim under 706(2)(A) could have been brought as part of the refund suit. Having failed to raise it the taxpayer is out of luck as the APA would not confer independent jurisdiction.”

Unintentionally, a whole group of taxpayers has been keeping lawyers interested in procedural issues occupied.  It’s possible that the Brown case could create some new precedent in the Federal Circuit that could have an impact on other circuits.  The digital signature problem faced by Mr. Mills is in some ways similar to the mailing problem faced by Guralnik and Organic Cannabis.  In both situations, the rules changed shortly after their failure to follow the old rules.  The old rules were changed because they no longer fit the circumstances but the last taxpayers to incorrectly attempt action under the old rules are paying the price.

The Newest Time Machine

Yesterday in Part 1Monte A. Jackel, discussed issues relating to the extension of deadlines due to COVID-19. In today’s post Monte considers whether in light of retroactive law changes in CARES the IRS can force a partner to amend a return when the original tax return filed was correct. Les

Revenue Procedure 2020-23 (originally discussed on PT by Marilyn Ames) sets forth the terms and conditions for a partnership subject to the BBA audit regime to file an amended tax return for the 2018 and 2019 tax years. The revenue procedure provides welcome relief for cases where the retroactive law changes allowing 5-year loss carrybacks and the technical correction for QIP (qualified improvement property) would not otherwise have been available because section 6031(b) generally disallows amended returns by such partnerships; AARs are the preferred route. 

The revenue procedure, however, assumes that all partners would favor such retroactive relief. However, that may not always be the case. This brings to the forefront the issue of whether one or more partners of such a partnership that wants to file an amended form 1065 must also ensure that all of its partners file amended form 1040s. That is not directly addressed in the revenue procedure. There is only a reference to section 6222 and the amended form 1065 substituting for the original form 1065. This strongly suggests that the IRS believes that the partners have a legal duty to file amended form 1040s. 

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Revenue Procedure 2020-25 sets forth the options for taxpayers, including partnerships, to obtain relief due to the retroactive law change making QIP eligible for bonus depreciation under section 168(k). This revenue procedure essentially provides for amended forms 1040 or 1065 or automatic changes via a form 3115 to obtain relief due to the retroactive QIP change in the law. The revenue procedure assumes, without citing any supporting law, that when the law relating to a timing of income statute, such as section 168(k), is retroactively changed by Congress, that the taxpayer is now using an impermissible method of accounting. There does not appear to be any law that expressly supports that treatment although it may be the correct policy result. 

Further, there does not appear to be any law that expressly supports mandating the filing of an amended tax return where the original return  was true and correct at the time it was filed. Both reg. §§1.451-1(a) and 1.461-1(a)(3) state that to correctly treat an item of income or deduction in a different tax year than originally reported, the taxpayer “should”, if within the period of limitations, file an amended return. The word “shall” is not in the regulations; only “should”. (See, also, reg.§1.453-11(d) (an amended return for an earlier year “may” not “must” be filed.)

Further, under sections 6662 and 6694, the taxpayer tests a position of substantial authority either at the end of the tax year or when the tax return is filed, and the return preparer tests the level of authority when the tax return is filed. And, at those times, the method of accounting for QIP over a long useful life was the only permissible method to use. The retroactive law change does not change that. And neither Circular 230 or the ABA model rules of professional conduct change that result either.

If the taxpayer does not want to amend either a form 1040 or a form 1065 and the government cannot force the taxpayer to amend its tax return, what is the government remedy? There has been no change in method initiated by the taxpayer and the taxpayer properly adopted the original method and never changed that method. How is the government to force the taxpayer from the retroactively determined impermissible method to the now permissible method? And AARs are voluntary. It is not uncommon for revenue procedures to mandate accounting method changes where there is a prospective change in the law. And, at times, accounting method changes have been mandated (such as the Rule of 78s issue in the 1980s) where the method change applies to a tax year but a return for the prior year may or not have been already filed before the mandate to change (the issue is not discussed). However, I am not aware and could not find any authority that deals with a statutory retroactive law change and applying that change to a prior year where a true and correct tax return containing the prior treatment has already been filed. 

If the taxpayer  cannot be forced off the 39-year method, what does the taxpayer report for future years? Zero or 1/39? If the property is sold after year one but before year 39, section 1245 will only recapture the depreciation actually taken. It would seem that the duty of consistency would mandate continuing to depreciate over a 39-year period although the same tax adviser for year one may not be able to continue to advise the taxpayer because that person would arguably be perpetuating an error. 

The solution may be to mandate the filing of an amended return because the government can only collect from the partnership an imputed underpayment spread over the remaining years in the 39-year period because presumably there is no underpayment in year one by imposing bonus depreciation in that earlier year. But forcing an amended return will create a huge quagmire.

AndA, as noted earlier, what if one or more partners do not want to amend their 1040s but the partnership does amend its form 1065 under Rev. Proc. 2020-23? This revenue procedure does reference the duty to file consistent returns under section 6222, but is this to be read as mandating the filing of an amended tax return? It seems so but doing that would be an issue of first impression to me under existing law. A true time machine.