How to Apply the Gross Valuation Misstatement When a Gift is a Sham

As we are reviewing cases from the past few months for the next update in Saltzman and Book IRS Practice and Procedure I have noted a few developments that we have not discussed in PT. A number involve civil penalties. One case is Fakiris v Commissioner, where in November the Tax Court issued a supplemental opinion from a 2017 opinion where it applied the gross valuation misstatement penalty to a purported charitable contribution of a vaudeville era Staten Island movie theater. Fakiris involves restrictions on that gift, leading the Tax Court to conclude that donation was conditional and that there was no completed gift or contribution under Section 170. That in turn triggered Section 6662(h), which imposes an accuracy-related equal to 40% of the portion of the underpayment of tax attributable to a gross valuation misstatement. Following the 2017 opinion, the IRS filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the original opinion improperly applied the 6662(h) accuracy-related penalty.

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The original Fakiris opinion (Fakiris 1) was rich with interesting procedural issues, including affirming that 2006 legislative changes, which lowered the threshold for gross valuation misstatements from 400% to 200% and eliminated the reasonable cause exception, applied when the original contribution arose prior to the law’s effective date but the deduction continued to a year when the taxpayer took a carryover deduction. How could a pre-legislation transaction be covered by legislation that was not retroactive? According to the Tax Court, a taxpayer who takes carryover deductions reaffirms its original misstatement in later post-effective date years.

In addition, Fakiris 1 held that the penalty applied even when the court found that there was no effective contribution or gift for federal tax purposes. It reached that conclusion by citing to and briefly discussing the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Woods v United States. Prior to Woods, some courts of appeal had held that when deduction or credit is disallowed in full, any underpayment is not “attributable to” a valuation misstatement for purposes of the accuracy-related penalties. Woods rejected that approach and held that the accuracy-related penalty for valuation misstatements applies when the relevant transaction is disregarded for lack of economic substance. As the Tax Court said in its 2017 opinion, “[w]hen the correct value of contributed property is zero and the value claimed is greater than zero, the gross valuation misstatement penalty applies.”

Despite the IRS’s 2017 win in Fakiris 1, the IRS filed a motion for reconsideration. In its motion, the IRS agreed with the original opinion’s conclusion that the transfer of the theater was not a gift but argued that the original opinion misapplied Woods. In particular the motion argued that the original opinon failed to properly apply the gross valuation misstatement penalty, contrasting how courts have approached the valuation penalty post-Woods in façade and conservation easement cases. 

In a somewhat unusual move, the Tax Court granted the motion for reconsideration. Last year the Tax Court issued its supplemental opinion, which affirmed its prior holding and expanded on its original rationale. As an initial matter, it explained why the original transfer was not effective to be treated as a gift or contribution for tax purposes, with a sharper focus on the degree of dominion and control that the donor/seller maintained over the property. In addition it more closely aligned its analysis with cases analogizing failed gifts to shams. After expanding on its rationale for finding that there was no gift, the supplemental opinion turns to the main issue on reconsideration:

What is the “correct value” of “property” that is claimed to be donated but is not actually donated? Or, more precisely: Is the value that of the property that was reported to have been contributed, as respondent would have it be, or the value of the property that was actually contributed? 

All of this is important because of the triggering rules in Section 6662. Recall that accuracy-related penalties apply when there is a substantial valuation misstatement as per Section 6662(b)(3), The base penalty is 20 percent, but that is doubled in certain cases that involve a gross valuation misstatement, as per Section 6662(h)(1). A “substantial” valuation misstatement arises if the value of transferred property is overstated by 150 percent or more of the correct value. The penalty is classified as a “gross” valuation misstatement and the penalty rate is doubled to 40% if the value is overstated by 200% or more of the correct value. 

The penalty is more important since the Supreme Court decided United States v. Woods, 571 U.S. 31 (2013), which held that a valuation penalty applied even when an entire transaction was disregarded (some courts had previously held that the understatement was not attributable to valuation misstatements when an entire transaction was disregarded). Regulations under Section 6662 also provide that there is a gross valuation misstatement  (and thus a steep 40% penalty) when the correct value of property is zero and the value claimed on the return for such property is greater than zero.

Back to Fakiris 2. The IRS on reconsideration argued that the trigger for the penalty required a comparison between the actual value of the theater and the value of what was in fact transferred to the donee/buyer. Under the IRS’s approach on reconsideration either the 20% substantial misstatement or 40% gross misstatement penalty would not automatically apply to Fakaris. The IRS essentially argued for the court to compare the value of the theater without restrictions with the value of what was in fact transferred, i.e., a theater with substantial restrictions. Under the IRS’s approach, if the value of the theater without any restrictions was greater than or equal to twice the value of the theater with the restrictions, the taxpayer would be subject to a 40% accuracy related penalty. This differed from Fakaris 1, which had held that the gross valuation penalty automatically applied when the court found that the restrictions effectively rendered the purported gift a sham.

The Tax Court disagreed with the IRS, mainly distinguishing two easement cases. While in those cases the courts had disallowed deductions due to donors failing to comply with substantiation requirements there also was a valid transfer of something of value. In contrast on reconsideration the Tax Court held that its holding in Fakiris 1 was directly premised on the finding that the donee transferred nothing: 

In both [easement] cases we proceeded on the assumption that a discernible property right had been validly transferred from the donor to the donee. In other words, some quantum of property rights had been transferred from donor to donee, and the charitable contribution deduction was disallowed for failure to satisfy statutory requirements of substantiation. For that reason, a determination of the value of that quantum of property transferred was necessary to calculate the applicability and amount of the section 6662(h) penalty. The same is not true here; the transfer itself was a sham, with the result that the value of the property claimed to have been contributed is zero for purposes of the penalty.

As a final matter, the Tax Court emphasized that even if it were inclined to accept the IRS’s approach on reconsideration and conclude that there was some transfer/gift for federal income tax purposes, the record “is devoid of any evidence supporting a value for whatever could be said to have been transferred.” 

Conclusion

With the IRS urging a taxpayer friendly interpretation of the valuation misstatement penalty, the procedural posture of Fakiris is somewhat unusual. To be sure, the IRS could effectively disregard the Tax Court’s reasoning and choose to apply penalties regime consistent with what its position on reconsideration. Under Fakiris 1 and 2 if a purported charitable contribution is disallowed due to a finding that restrictions placed on the donee effectively render an initial gift or contribution as incomplete the effect is likely an automatic 40% penalty.

On the other hand, as a practical matter I am not sure that the difference matters much. Once misstatement penalties apply when the disallowance stems from threshold legal determinations in cases where a court (as in Fakiris) find that the donor maintains a degree of control over the supposedly gifted asset, I assume that the value of the asset is likely to be sufficiently low enough to trigger the 40% gross valuation misstatement anyway. 

Padda v Comm’r: Possible Opening in Defending Against Late Filing Penalty When Preparer Fails to E-file Timely

Courts have generally not excused taxpayers from late filing penalties when the taxpayer defense is that that the return preparer was responsible for the delinquency.  Decades ago the Supreme Court in Boyle held that reliance on a third party to file a return does not establish reasonable cause because “[i]t requires no special training or effort to ascertain a deadline and make sure that it is met.”  We have previously discussed how Boyle seems incongruent with e-filing. As I noted last year in Update on Haynes v US: Fifth Circuit Remands and Punts on Whether Boyle Applies in E-Filing Cases “the basic question is whether courts should reconsider the bright line Boyle rule when a taxpayer provides her tax information to her preparer and the preparer purports to e-file the return, but for some reason the IRS rejects the return and the taxpayer arguably has little reason to suspect that the return was not actually filed.”

So far taxpayers have not been successful in arguing that courts should distinguish BoylePadda v Commissioner is the latest case applying Boyle in these circumstances. Like other cases where the taxpayer’s late filing was due to a preparer’s mistake the court did not relieve the taxpayer from penalties. What is unusual though is that in rejecting the defense Padda implicitly acknowledges that differing circumstances might lead to a taxpayer win.

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I will summarize the facts and discuss the slight opening the opinion suggests.

The opinion nicely summarizes what went wrong:

Padda and Kane’s 2012 federal individual income tax return was due October 15, 2013. On October 15, 2013, Padda and Kane signed IRS Form 8879, “IRS e-file Signature Authorization” to authorize Ehrenreich’s accounting firm to electronically file their 2012 Form 1040, “U.S. Individual Income Tax Return”. On October 15, 2013, Ehrenreich’s accounting firm was electronically filing several tax returns just before midnight. Ehrenreich’s accounting firm created an electronic version of Padda and Kane’s return on October 15, 2013, at 11:59 p.m. It transmitted the electronic version to the IRS on October 16, 2013, at 12 a.m. On October 16, 2013, the IRS rejected the return as a duplicate submission. Ehrenreich’s accounting firm electronically resent the return on October 25, 2013, and it was received and accepted by the IRS the same day.

Prior to trial, the IRS and spouses Padda and Kane stipulated that the return was filed on October 25, 2013. The IRS had proposed late filing penalties under Section 6651, which trigger a 5% penalty of the amount required to be shown on the return if the failure to file is under a month, as the case here. In arguing that they had exercised reasonable care and prudence, the taxpayers explained that “1) Ehrenreich’s accounting firm pressed a button only a few seconds late, (2) they relied on Ehrenreich’s accounting firm to timely file the return, and
(3) they themselves could not have pressed the button to timely file the return.”

In rejecting the defense, the Padda opinion cites to Boyle and other cases which provide that taxpayers cannot delegate their filing obligation other than in circumstances where the advice pertains to whether a return needs to be filed at all. 

What I find interesting is that the opinion could have just cited Boyle and stopped there. Instead, it suggested that a relationship with a preparer who had history with the taxpayer of submitting e-filed returns on time might have led to a different outcome:

Even if sometimes it might be reasonable for a taxpayer to rely on his or her accountant to timely file his or her returns (contrary to the caselaw), it was not reasonable in this particular case for Padda and Kane to rely on Ehrenreich’s firm to timely file their return. Padda and Kane have relied on Ehrenreich’s firm to file their returns every year since at least 2006. And every year since then, except for 2011, their return was filed late. Yet they have continued to use Ehrenreich’s firm to file their return year after year. Padda and Kane’s failure to ensure that Ehrenreich’s firm timely filed their 2012 return demonstrates a lack of ordinary business care, particularly in the light of the firm’s history of delinquent filings.

Given the the firm’s delinquent filing history, the opinion concluded that the taxpayers failed to establish that they had reasonable cause for the late filing.

Conclusion

We wait for perhaps better facts for a court to distinguish Boyle. The Boyle-blanket rule seems out of place in today’s world where there may be little way to monitor preparers who taxpayers should be able to expect can meet a deadline. Padda suggests, though does not explicitly embrace, that some reliance may be reasonable, but when there is a long past history of delinquency, even if the taxpayer was not in a position to monitor the particular filing, it will be difficult to find that the taxpayer has a winning reasonable cause defense.

Imposing the Fraud Penalty after Prosecution While Satisfying IRC 6751(b)

In Minemyer v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2020-99 the Tax Court determined that the IRS failed to prove it made a timely approval of the fraud penalty and determined that the IRS could not assess the penalty in this case.  Because Mr. Minemyer had the fraud penalty imposed after a successful prosecution of him for tax evasion under IRC 7201, I found the application of IRC 6751(b) here produced a surprising result, though I cannot say the decision is incorrect and sympathize with any effort to parse through the language of this statute.  The Tax Court seeks to enforce a bright line rule even though the circumstances of this case which follows a criminal conviction present a somewhat different situation than the ordinary imposition of a civil penalty

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In a case like this, IRS policy ties the hands of the revenue agent and the immediate supervisor making the imposition of the fraud penalty against Mr. Minemyer a foregone conclusion.  In some respects, the imposition of the penalty here acts somewhat like the penalties imposed by computer because the IRS imposes the penalty automatically by virtue of its policy and not imposing the penalty requires the agent to obtain approvals.  The apparent legislative goal in passing IRC 6751(b) was to prevent the IRS from using penalties as a bargaining chip.  The goal serves a laudable purpose and a more clearly written statute enforcing that goal would receive support from everyone.  We have written before on many occasions, samples found here and here, about the defects in the statutory language of IRC 6751(b).

Here, the goal of the statute really plays no part in the imposition of the penalty.  If the IRS makes a determination that someone has committed tax evasion and refers the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution, the imposition of the fraud penalty could come as no surprise – and particularly so when the person is actually convicted of tax evasion.  In a case such as this, the imposition of the penalty must occur pursuant to the Internal Revenue Manual 25.1.6.2(9) unless the revenue agent or the supervisor get permission at a high level to not impose the fraud penalty.

The revenue agent apparently visited Mr. Minemyer in prison to secure his signature on Form 4549 consenting to the assessment of the tax and the fraud penalty.  Mr. Minemyer apparently did sign the Form 4549 but later withdrew his consent asserting that he signed it under duress.  At the Tax Court trial, the IRS did not produce the Form 4549.

This case involves the tax years 2000 and 2001.  So, the years come after the passage of IRC 6751(b) in 1998 but well before the IRS focused on compliance with IRC 6751(b).  The conviction here occurred in 2009 before the passage of the statute permitting restitution based assessments discussed here.

Nonetheless, the revenue agent actually obtained the signature of the immediate supervisor before the IRS sent the 30-day letter.  The problem the Court has with the penalty approval here turns again on the language of the poorly crafted statute, which requires the supervisor’s signature before the “initial determination” regarding the imposition of the penalty.  Here, the effort to have Mr. Minemyer sign the Form 4549 occurred prior to the sending of the 30-day letter and may have been the initial determination, which may require the IRS demonstrate supervisory approval at an earlier stage than the 30-day letter.  Here’s what the Court says:

In Frost v. Commissioner, 154 T.C. ___, ___ (slip op. at 21-22) (Jan. 7, 2020), we held that “the Commissioner’s introduction of evidence of written approval of a penalty before a formal communication of the penalty to the taxpayer is sufficient to carry his initial burden of production under section 7491(c) to show that he complied with the procedural requirement of section 6751(b)(1).” As in Frost, respondent here introduced evidence of written approval of the penalty before a formal communication (i.e., the 30-day letter). Also as in Frost, petitioner has not claimed that there was a prior initial penalty determination. Unlike Frost, our record does support the conclusion that respondent may have formally communicated his initial penalty determination to petitioner before the 30-day letter. Cf. Frost v. Commissioner, 154 T.C. at ___ (slip op. at 23) (“[P]etitioner has not claimed, nor does the record support a conclusion, that respondent formally communicated his initial penalty determination to petitioner before the date that the examining agent’s manager signed the Civil Penalty Approval Form.” (Emphasis added.)).

When the revenue agent visited petitioner in prison, he provided petitioner a Form 4549, which petitioner signed. Petitioner contends that he was under duress to sign the Form 4549 and for that reason he withdrew his consent. During respondent’s counsel’s opening statement at trial he contended that petitioner [*8] received a preliminary form before the formal communication in the 30-day letter and that petitioner signed it, agreeing to the fraud penalty for 2001. This statement is an acknowledgment that the Form 4549 communicated an intention to impose a penalty.

Respondent did not offer this Form 4549 into evidence. Therefore, we cannot determine whether the Form 4549 or the 30-day letter was the initial determination for the purpose of section 6751(b). Without the Form 4549 we cannot determine whether that form clearly reflected the revenue agent’s conclusion that petitioner should be subject to a penalty. See Carter v. Commissioner, at *30. If the Form 4549 was the initial determination of the fraud penalty for 2001, there is no evidence of its timely written approval. 

Accordingly, we conclude respondent has not met the burden of production for the determination of the section 6663(a) fraud penalty for 2001. Therefore, petitioner is not liable for the fraud penalty for 2001.

The tossing of the fraud penalty against someone convicted of tax evasion on this technicality seems a bit harsh and out of sync with the purpose of the statute but the Court must deal with a poorly written statute and seeks to establish bright line rules.  Perhaps this situation would not occur going forward because of the heightened emphasis on IRC 6751(b) at the IRS due to all of the litigation.  Maybe Congress did not care when the IRS lost lots of penalties due to the application of IRC 6751(b), since the IRS takes an approach to penalties that many might view as too zealous.  Imposing the fraud penalty against someone convicted of tax evasion can hardly fall into the over-zealous category and failing to impose the penalty on a convicted tax felon for a technicality like this should cause Congress to think about writing this provision in language that fits with the language of the tax code.

As mentioned above, the imposition of the fraud penalty against Mr. Minemyer occurred as automatically as the penalty imposed by computers.  Individuals convicted of violations of IRC 7201 always get the fraud penalty.  The IRS views it as inappropriate to ask the Department of Justice to prosecute someone for tax evasion with a guilt beyond a reasonable doubt standard and not pursue the civil fraud penalty thereafter.  My thinking on this case is no doubt colored by my view that to not impose the fraud penalty here the revenue agent and the immediate supervisor would have needed to move heaven and earth and that everyone knew this.  I realize those penalty administrative norms do not match the language of this poorly worded statute, but Mr. Minemyer’s civil fraud penalty was, in reality, approved the day his case was referred to DOJ for prosecution.  The revenue agent and the immediate supervisor served as no more than window dressing in the imposition of the penalty in a case such as this.

The decision in this case was entered on July 1, 2020, just three months and six days short of the 10-year anniversary of the filing of the petition in this case back in October of 2010.  The IRS must regret that the case did not reach a decision point during the first five years of its existence before the jurisprudence on Graev developed.  This would have been a slam dunk case for the IRS back during that period.

ACA Penalty Notices May Not Meet Section 6751(b) Requirements

We welcome back guest blogger Rochelle Hodes.  Rochelle is a Principal in Washington National Tax at Crowe LLP and was previously Associate Tax Legislative Counsel with Treasury. As we prepare to gear back up for IRS enforcement activity, she provides a timely discussion of the ever popular IRC 6751(b) and another way it may help your client when the IRS seeks to penalize.  Keith

Section 6751(b)(1) generally provides that no penalty can be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved in writing by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate.  Written supervisory approval is not required to impose a penalty under Section 6651, 6654, or 6655.  Written supervisory approval also is not required to impose a penalty that is automatically calculated through electronic means. 

Section 6751(b) has been covered many times in the Procedurally Taxing blog. Generally, the Tax Court will not sustain the IRS’s assertion of a penalty if the IRS cannot demonstrate that written supervisory approval is not obtained prior to the initial determination of assessment of the penalty.  The latest in this line of cases is Kroner v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-73 (June 1, 2020), which further fine-tunes earlier holdings regarding when the initial determination of the penalty is made. 

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Prior to Kroner, the Tax Court ruled in Clay v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. 223, 249 (2019), blogged here, and Belair Woods, LLC v. Commissioner, 154 T.C. ___ (Jan. 6, 2020), blogged here, that the initial determination is the date on which the IRS formally communicates to the taxpayer Examination’s determination to assert a penalty and notifies the taxpayer of their right to appeal that determination.  In Clay, that court held that the initial determination was the date that the IRS issued the revenue agent’s report (RAR) and the 30-day letter. In Belair, the court held that the initial determination was the date that the IRS issued the 60-day letter, which in the case of a TEFRA partnership is the notice that communicates Examination’s determination that penalties should be imposed and notifies the taxpayer of their right to go to Appeals. 

In Kroner, the IRS issued a Letter 915, which is an examination report transmittal, to notify the taxpayer that Examination is proposing penalties and that the taxpayer has a right to go to Appeals.  Later, the IRS sent the taxpayer an RAR and a 30-day letter.  The written supervisory approval for penalties was issued after the Letter 915 was sent and before the RAR and 30-day letter were sent.  The Tax Court held that regardless of what the IRS calls the notice that provides the taxpayer with its determination of penalties and notification of the right to go to Appeals and regardless of the IRS’s intent, the initial determination for purposes of section 6751(b) is the first time examination determines that it will assert the penalty and notifies the taxpayer that they have a right to appeal that determination.  In Kroner, the court held that this occurred when the IRS issued the Letter 915.  Accordingly, written supervisory approval was issued after the initial determination for purposes of section 6751(b), and the penalty was not sustained.

On May 20, 2020, the IRS issued an immediately effective interim IRM 20.1.1.2.3.1 on the timing of supervisory approval:

For all penalties subject to section 6751(b)(1), written supervisory approval required under section 6751(b)(1) must be obtained prior to issuing any written communication of penalties to a taxpayer that offers the taxpayer an opportunity to sign an agreement or consent to assessment or proposal of the penalty.

Not long before Kroner was decided and the interim IRM guidance above was released, I had a client who received an IRS form letter, Form 5005-A (Rev 7-2018), imposing immediately assessable information reporting penalties under section 6721 and section 6722 for 2017 for failure to timely file Forms 1094-C and 1095-C.  This letter is one of several form letters that are being issued under the IRS’s ACA employer compliance initiative. Under section 6056, employers are required to file and furnish these ACA-related forms to report offers of health coverage. 

The Form 5005-A states that the taxpayer can agree with the penalty and pay it.  If the taxpayer disagrees, the letter states that the taxpayer will “have the opportunity to appeal the penalties after we send you a formal request for payment.” A Form 866-A, Explanation of Items, is attached explaining the basis for assertion of penalties.  The conclusion section states: “Subject to managerial approval, because the Employer failed to file Form(s) 1094-C and 1095-C and furnish Forms 1095-C as required pursuant to section 6056, the employer is subject to the penalties under IRC 6721 and IRC 6722 calculated above.”

The Letter 5005-A and Form 866-A are striking in three regards:  1) The letters clearly communicate Examination’s determination to impose the penalty; 2) the Letter 5005-A is less clear about the opportunity to go to appeals because it delays the opportunity until a formal request for payment is made, but there is clear notification that the right to go to Appeals exists and can be exercised; and 3) the Form 866-A takes the guess work out of whether there was supervisory approval—it states affirmatively that there has not yet been supervisory approval. 

Kroner makes it clear that the name or number of the form the IRS uses to communicate the determination and right to appeal is of no consequence.  As applied to the Letter 5005-A, there is a determination and arguably there is notification of the right to appeal, therefore, the date of this notice is the initial determination of the penalty.  Since according to the Form 866-A there was no supervisory approval before the date the Letter 5005-A was issued, the IRS has failed to satisfy section 6751(b) and the penalties should not apply. 

Even if the “notice of the right to go to Appeals” prong of Kroner is not satisfied, the Letter 5005-A clearly meets the standard for when supervisory approval is required under the interim IRM provisions because the taxpayer is provided the opportunity to agree with and pay the penalty.  While the interim IRM provisions were issued on May 20, 2020, they represent the IRS interpretation of how they should be complying with section 6751(b).  Therefore, failure to comply with the interim IRM provisions in the past should be a failure to comply with section 6751(b). 

IRS is currently sending penalty notices that were being held back due to the pandemic.  For penalties other than sections 6651, 6654, and 6655, practitioners should carefully review notices to evaluate whether section 6751(b) applies and if so, whether the letter is an initial determination required to be preceded by written supervisory approval.

Is IRS Too Soft on People Claiming EITC? Treasury Says Yes and Also Suggests No

The pressure on the IRS to deliver the economic impact payment (EIP) highlights some of the general challenges the IRS faces when Congress tasks the IRS to deliver benefits.  With respect to the EIP, faced with a public that needs the money that Congress has earmarked, IRS has had to move quickly. In times like these, when balancing speed with accuracy, IRS should and admirably has erred on the side of speed.  With lives upended and millions of Americans struggling, this is the right call. 

As an administrator that regularly gets taken to task when it comes to its administration of refundable credits like the EITC, IRS faces a similar trade off in its more routine day to day work.  IRS knows that millions of Americans rely on those Code-based benefits. At the same time, about 25% of the EITC is classified as an improper payment, as Congress has been sure to remind Commissioner Rettig when he has been up on the Hill.

Two recent publications highlight the competing pressures the IRS faces as a result of it having responsibility for administering the EITC.  One is a TIGTA report taking the IRS to task for failing to impose civil penalties and bans on individuals who appear to be improperly claiming the EITC. The other is a Treasury Office of Tax Analysis (OTA) working paper that emphasizes that the vast majority of people claiming the EITC have an eligible familial relationship with a claimed qualifying child.

For folks who are looking for differing perspectives on an issue I suggest that you read both, back to back.  If reading TIGTA reports and OTA working papers is not your ideal way of spending an afternoon, in this post I will discuss the highlights of both.

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TIGTA: IRS Not Doing Enough to Deter and Punish Improper Claimants

First, the TIGTA Report. TIGTA’s steady drumbeat on EITC and refundable credits is that IRS is not using the enforcement tools that Congress has given to it. 

Congress provided the IRS with tools to address taxpayers identified as submitting fraudulent or reckless refundable credit claims. These tools include the authority to assess the erroneous refund penalty and require taxpayers to recertify that they meet refundable credit eligibility requirements for credits claimed on a return filed subsequent to disallowance of a credit, and the ability to apply two-year or 10-year bans on taxpayers who disregard credit eligibility rules. However, the IRS does not use these tools to the extent possible to address erroneous credit payments. 

What are the consequences of IRS not using its robust power to sanction taxpayers? In TIGTA’s view,

[t]he ineffective use of the various authorities provided in the I.R.C. is a contributing factor in the high rate of improper payments. The IRS estimates that 25 percent ($18.4 billion) of EITC payments made in Fiscal Year 2018 were improper payments. The IRS also estimates that nearly 33 percent ($8.7 billion) of ACTC payments made during Tax Years 2009 through 2011, and more than 31 percent ($5.3 billion) of AOTC payments made during Tax Year 2012, were potentially improper. 

The main gripe TIGTA emphasizes is that the IRS has failed to use its power to impose a 20% erroneous refund penalty under Section 6676, a power that Congress amended a few years ago to specifically apply to individuals erroneously claiming refundable credits like the EITC:

In Years 2015, 2016, and 2017, the IRS assessed the erroneous refund penalty on 3,190 erroneous claims totaling $2.7 million. However, our analysis identified 494,555 withholding and refundable credits disallowed for Tax Years 2015, 2016, and 2017 (as of December 27, 2018). These taxpayers filed 798,504 tax returns that claimed more than $2.6 billion in improper withholding or refundable credits. Applying the 20 percent erroneous penalty rate to the disallowed credits computes to almost $534.7 million in penalties that the IRS potentially could have assessed. 

TIGTA goes on state that IRS has studied the impact of the few cases when IRS has in fact imposed the 6676 penalty, and it appears that IRS is teeing up some recommendations based upon its study (FYI – I have not seen the study nor do I know if IRS is planning on releasing it; it would be interesting as well to see how much tax is collected out of previously assessed penalties—I suspect not much). 

The report also criticizes IRS for failing to systematically impose a two-year ban on taxpayers who in TIGTA’s view are recklessly or intentionally disregarding rules and faulty IRS processes for allowing individuals to recertify eligibility for the EITC (and other disallowed credits). As to the ban, TIGTA notes that in successive years people appear to be incorrectly claiming the EITC. ( Note: as advocates know appearances may be misleading as claimants may be unaware of the rules or simply not able to document meeting eligibility criteria. For more on the ban, see Bob Probasco’s excellent three part series, The EITC Ban-Further Thoughts Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.) In a heavily redacted section, TIGTA suggests that the IRS should impose the ban earlier and more frequently. This would free scarce audit resources to investigate other individuals and prevent erroneous claims.

The TIGTA report also discusses recertification. For individuals who have had credits denied through deficiency procedures, Section 32(k) provides that “no credit shall be allowed under this section for any subsequent taxable year unless the taxpayer provides such information as the Secretary may require to demonstrate eligibility for such credit.” TIGTA highlights IRS problems with its processes to ensure that taxpayers who recertify are in fact eligible for the claimed credits.

OTA: The “Improper” EITC Claimants Look Like the Proper Claimants

The OTA paper looks at the EITC very a different perspective. While noting the stubborn 25% or so improper payment rate, OTA attempts to study the characteristics of the people who are not eligible or who appear to be overclaiming the credit. The reason for the inquiry is to help frame the debate around improper payment rates. As OTA notes, 

from the social welfare perspective, policymakers might view a case where a child lived with her low-income grandmother for 6 months of the year differently from a case where an unrelated person claimed a child she did not live with at all; but, both cases would be counted equally in computing the EITC error rate.

What the improper payment rates alone fail to tell us is context. 

When a taxpayer fails to meet the qualifying child tests for an EITC claim, it is generally unknown how closely this taxpayer is related to the child and whether another taxpayer could have correctly claimed the child. 

It is possible for more than one taxpayer to have provided some care for the child during the year, but no single taxpayer to be eligible to claim the EITC for that child under the law (e.g., the child does not live with any taxpayer for more than half the year). In other cases, the erroneous claim may have precluded the actual caregiver from claiming the child. 

What OTA does in the paper is to provide more detail to allow for a “more nuanced consideration of EITC qualifying child errors and the associated social welfare implications.”

What kind of nuance did OTA look to identify? Essentially OTA looked to see if there was a family relationship between the adult and the child claimed as a qualifying child:

Specifically, we analyzed the intensity of the familial relationship between the child and the actual claimant as well as the length of the shared residency, providing information about whether the claim, despite being erroneous, might nonetheless have supported a low-income worker caring for a child. In addition, we studied possible reasons why the “wrong” taxpayer may have claimed the child—whether this occurred due to complicated family circumstances, intentional credit-maximizing behavior, or other reasons—to better understand the causes of EITC noncompliance. Finally, we estimated the credit that could have been received by the parent who did not already claim the child and was potentially the actual caregiver. This result offers an insight into the extent to which the EITC improper payment estimates may overstate not only the social welfare loss but also the monetary loss to the government. 

OTA’s study showed that in the overwhelming number of cases, when there was an error, there still was a close familial relationship between the adult and the child or children, though typically the adult was not the child’s biological parent:

Our analysis suggests an intense relationship between the child and the claiming taxpayer in most cases. About 87 percent of the children, despite being claimed with qualifying child errors, had a valid familial relationship (84 percent) or lived with the taxpayer for more than half of the year (7 percent) or both. However, compared to children who met all of the qualifying child tests, the children in our sample were much less likely to be the son or daughter of the taxpayer, and more likely to have other valid familial relationships (e.g., grandchild or nephew/niece) with the taxpayer. 

The whole paper deserves a careful read, but the bottom line conclusion is that the majority of children claimed with qualifying child errors had an eligible familial relationship with their claimants and in a majority of the cases there was no parent who under current eligibility criteria could in fact be eligible to claim a child.

Furthermore, about 60 percent of the children did not appear to have a parent who could be the “right” taxpayer, as stipulated by law, who could file a claim. We conclude that a substantial portion of erroneous EITC claims likely helped support children in low-income families despite those children being claimed in error. Parents of another 4 percent of children were found to have filed a duplicate claim with the taxpayer under audit. For the remaining 36 percent of children, who had a tax-filing parent not already claiming the child, the family members’ filing patterns were consistent with the credit-maximizing motive in 85 percent of cases. We offer a few explanations, including taxpayer confusion about EITC rules or law changes, to account for the claiming pattern of the remaining 15 percent of cases. Finally, we estimate that the forgone credit that could have been received by non-claiming parents amounted to about 10 percent of the total overclaims attributable to qualifying child errors, or 4 percent of all EITC overclaims. Taken together, these results suggest that the official improper payment rate overstates the social welfare loss and monetary loss to the government.  (emphasis added)

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the OTA study and TIGTA report are likely to appeal to differing parts of the trade off I discussed in the introduction. It could very well be that administrators (and readers and Congress for that matter) do not necessarily value social welfare concerns in the same way that I or others do.  People could place a higher value on rule following. After all, Congress is responsible for determining the eligibility criteria, and it could change the criteria to reach some of the adults who are improperly claiming the credit (I and others have suggested this in past papers, most recently from me in the special report to Congress on the EITC that was part of the TAS FY 2020 Objectives Report). 

How does the current pandemic and economic crisis influence this issue? If I were in the IRS now, I would be strongly advocating for the IRS to slow down on the TIGTA recommendation to impose more civil penalties and sanctions on EITC claimants. Context matters. People are struggling. While it should not mean a green light for allowing erroneous claims to go out of the door, OTA helps us understand that the overwhelming majority of Americans who appear to be improperly claiming the credit have a close family relationship with the children identified on their tax return. 

When the current crisis clears, Congress should take a hard look at the EITC and other credits. It could help the IRS by boosting the childless EITC, which in addition to helping millions of working Americans will also likely decrease incentives for people to share children to ensure eligibility. Congress should also reconsider the eligibility requirements that are difficult and expensive for the IRS to verify and which make less sense in today’s world, like pegging eligibility on arbitrary residency rules that 1) may understate the importance of family members who are connected financially and emotionally but who do not live with a child for more than 6 months and 2) do not work well when there are multigenerational families living together.

In Wells Fargo 8th Circuit Holds Reasonable Basis Defense to Negligence Penalty Requires Taxpayers Prove Actual Reliance on Authorities

In an important opinion the 8th Circuit in Wells Fargo v US held that the reasonable basis defense to the negligence penalty requires a taxpayer to prove that they actually relied on relevant legal authority rather than just show that objectively the authority supported the taxpayer’s position. Wells Fargo is the first appellate opinion to hold that reasonable basis for penalty defense purposes is based on a subjective rather than objective standard. The earlier district court opinion had attracted significant interest, and as I discuss below, the court’s holding may force taxpayers to waive attorney client privilege if they want to use the defense to the negligence penalty.

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Some Background

Before getting to the 8th Circuit opinion I will give some context.

The transaction at issue involved interest deductions and a complex foreign tax credit generating transaction. At the district court, the government lost in its effort to use the economic substance doctrine to disallow interest expense deductions for a transaction that lacked a non tax business purpose but won on its use of the doctrine to disallow the foreign tax credits arising from a trust structure. The district court also sustained the negligence penalty attributable to the tax due from the disallowed foreign tax credits. 

There are a couple of tangential issues that that I need to address before I get to the main parts of this post. I am not analyzing Wells Fargo’s economic substance issue; for readers looking for more background see Stu Bassin’s post Wells Fargo Decision Answers Economic Substance Question that followed the district court opinion. In addition, the negligence penalty in this case was not asserted on audit but arose as part of the government’s offset defense in the district court litigation. That is important for purposes of a separate Section 6751(b) managerial approval/Graev issue that I do not analyze in this post. Essentially the 8th Circuit in this opinion held that supervisory approval is not required when the government asserts a penalty as an affirmative defense in refund litigation, as done in this case. For readers wanting more on 6751(b), I direct you to many posts on the issue or newly revised ¶ 7B.24 in Saltzman and Book.

To the negligence penalty and reasonable basis. 

Section 6662 imposes a 20 percent penalty on any underpayment of tax that is attributable to the taxpayer’s “negligence or disregard of rules or regulations.” Treasury regulations under Section 6662 provide a defense to the negligence penalty if the taxpayer’s “return position” was “reasonably based on one or more of the authorities set forth in § 1.6662-4(d)(3)(iii) (taking into account the relevance and persuasiveness of the authorities, and subsequent developments).” The Wells Fargo opinion cross references regs under Section 6114 (addressing treaty based return positions) which provide that a “taxpayer is considered to adopt a ‘return position’ when the taxpayer determines its tax liability with respect to a particular item of income, deduction or credit.” 

As I discussed following the district court opinion in Wells Fargo and The Negligence Penalty for A Transaction Lacking Reasonable Basis, the penalty issue was “teed up for the district court in a somewhat odd manner, with Wells Fargo stipulating that if the foreign credit generating transaction was a sham, it should not be subject to the penalty because ‘there was an objectively reasonable basis for Wells Fargo’s return position under the authorities referenced in § 1.6662–3(b)(3).’  In finding that the transaction was a sham, the district court also held that Wells Fargo was subject to the penalty because it had to prove that it in fact consulted with the authorities before adopting its position on the return. 

In my 2017 post I noted that the penalty aspect of the opinion was controversial:

At or around the time of the opinion, Jim Malone of Post & Schell wrote a terrific blog post critiquing the district court opinion, suggesting that perhaps Wells Fargo deserved to be penalized but that the court’s approach to the issue was “troubling”. There was also a piece in Bloomberg that quoted Jim and former PT guest poster Andy Grewal, with Andy saying that “it would be more sensible to apply Section 1.6662-3(b)(1) in accordance with its plain meaning and examining all relevant authorities supporting the treatment of a position, whether or not the taxpayer was aware of them.”

Practitioners have been closely following the case. For example, a February 2020 article in Tax Notes co-written by my old Davis Polk colleague Mario Verdolini and Christopher Baratta The Objectivity of the Reasonable Basis Defense to Tax Penalties (subscription needed) criticized the district court opinion and urged the 8th Circuit to adopt an objective approach in applying reasonable basis.

The 8th Circuit Majority Opinion on Reasonable Basis

The 8th Circuit, in affirming the district court, disagreed, finding that reasonable basis requires evidence that a taxpayer actually relied on relevant legal authority in support of its positions taken on tax returns. In so doing the 8th Circuit sidestepped the possible thorny administrative law issue concerning whether IRS is entitled to deference regarding an interpretation of its own regulations because it concluded that the regs were not ambiguous. (Aside: Deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations is the so-called Auer issue I discussed in my earlier post on the case. Last year the Supreme Court addressed Auer in Kisor v. Wilkie, where it tightened the standard under which courts are to defer to agency interpretations of their own regulations. For those wanting more on this, see Saltzman and Book IRS Practice & Procedure ¶ 3.6, where Greg Armstrong and I recently added a revised discussion of the importance of Auer deference in light of Kisor; I discuss this a bit more below in reviewing the dissent.  See also an earlier post discussing Kisor.)

Citing Black’s Law Dictionary, the opinion stressed that the “plain or common usage of the word “base” suggests that one is relying on particular information in order to form an opinion or a position about something.”

As the district court noted, “[i]t is difficult to know how a taxpayer could ‘base’ a return position on a set of authorities without actually consulting those authorities, just as it is difficult to know how someone could ‘base’ an opinion about the best restaurant in town on Zagat ratings without actually consulting any Zagat ratings.” Indeed, the regulation does not require the taxpayer’s position to be simply “consistent with” or “supported by” the relevant legal authority. If it did, then it might be sufficient that the relevant authorities supported the taxpayer’s position, regardless of whether the taxpayer relied upon them. But in order for a taxpayer to “base” its position on relevant authority, it must have actually known about those authorities and actually relied upon them when forming its return position. (emphasis added though citations omitted, including cites to some district court opinions taking a contrary view of the issue)

In addition to its use of a plain language analysis, the opinion also notes that the subjective approach to the reasonable basis defense is “sensible in light of the broader context of the statute and accompanying regulatory definition.” In reaching that conclusion, the opinion looks to the underlying issue relating to a penalty, and how that suggests some foundation in actual taxpayer behavior:

Again, the government is seeking to impose a “negligence penalty,” which suggests that the focus of the inquiry must be, at least in part, on the taxpayer’s actual conduct—whether it met the requisite standard of care in preparing its tax return and considering its return position—rather than simply determining whether its legal position finds support in the relevant legal authority. See 26 U.S.C. § 6662(c) (defining “negligence” as “any failure to make a reasonable attempt to comply with the provisions of this title”). 

In support of its view that considering actual conduct is at least part of the inquiry, the opinion notes that in a 1996 case, Chakales v Comm’r, the 8th Circuit stressed that “the burden is on the taxpayer to prove that he did not fail to exercise due care or do what a reasonable and prudent person would do under similar circumstances.” 

The opinion does spend time directly addressing the arguments that Wells Fargo offered, including that other regulations directly require taxpayers or third parties to analyze authorities or facts and circumstances (recall that the reasonable basis regs employ the passive voice “is based” approach rather than directly requiring that the taxpayer base its position on authorities):

That other statutory provisions or regulations use different language in creating an actual reliance requirement does not mean that the provision at issue in this case requires only that the taxpayer’s position be objectively reasonable with respect to the relevant legal authorities. 

While it brushed that away the passive voice argument, the opinion noted that Wells Fargo’s concern that a subjective standard “would likely require a taxpayer to waive attorney-client privilege in order to prove that it actually relied on the relevant legal authority” had more “appeal.” Despite that appeal, the opinion noted that other defenses (like actual reliance) trigger similar concerns and that this argument “standing alone” was insufficient to carry the day.

As a final matter, Wells Fargo argued that policy issues supported its view of the regulations and that it should not matter if a taxpayer gets to a reasonable position by luck or design. The opinion disagreed:

[T]here is a sound policy reason underlying a subjective or actual reliance requirement—it incentivizes taxpayers to actually conform to the requisite standard of care rather than simply taking the chance that there may be a reasonable basis for their underpayment of tax. It also reflects the understanding that a taxpayer who carefully studies the relevant legal authorities but arrives at an incorrect conclusion of law, albeit with a reasonable basis for its position, is perhaps less blameworthy or culpable than a taxpayer which simply ignored the existing authorities in forming its tax position and attempts to generate a reasonable basis as a post-hoc justification for its underpayment.

The Dissent

There is a brief but powerful dissenting opinion by Judge Grasz. The dissent disagrees with the majority opinion’s finding that the regulation was unambiguous. In so doing, the dissent is persuaded by Wells Fargo’s argument that the reasonable basis regulations on their face do not impose a reliance argument, and is cast in “objective terms”, unlike the reasonable belief defense, which directly requires that taxpayers “analyze the pertinent authorities.”

The Supreme Court has explained that when “Congress includes particular language in one section of a statute but omits it in another section of the same Act, it is generally presumed that Congress acts intentionally and purposely in the disparate inclusion or exclusion.” Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 23 (1983) (quotation omitted). I see no reason why the same canon of statutory construction would not apply when interpreting the regulation here. See Black & Decker Corp. v. C.I.R., 986 F.2d 60, 65 (4th Cir. 1993) (“Regulations, like statutes, are interpreted according to canons of construction.”). If the IRS wanted to require actual reliance on the specified authorities to satisfy the reasonable-basis defense, it could have expressly said so, as it did in setting forth eligibility for the reasonable-belief defense. Its failure to do so indicates actual reliance is not required. 

Judge Grasz also returns to the Zagat’s restaurant review analogy (i.e., it is difficult to know how someone could ‘base’ an opinion about the restaurant in town on Zagat ratings without actually consulting any Zagat ratings) in the original district court opinion that the majority also used. While Judge Grasz notes that the analogy is “incisive and colorful” it in his view is based on the faulty premise that the consulting has to be done before the taxpayer takes a position on the return: 

It assumes the taxpayer must base its position on the specified authorities before the return is filed. The regulation makes no such demand. Instead, 26 C.F.R. § 1.6662-3(b)(3) simply provides that a return position will generally be considered — presumably by the agency or the courts — to have a reasonable basis if it is based on one of the authorities designated in 26 C.F.R. § 1.6662-4(d)(3)(iii). And § 1.6662- 4(d)(3)(iii) further indicates that the agency or courts should consider only such designated authority to make its determination. Reading these regulations together, I believe the agency and/or the courts — not the taxpayer — are to make the determination whether there was a reasonable basis for a return position based on the specified authorities. 

The dissent extends the analogy to show why he believes that the majority’s view strays from the regulations:

To illustrate this distinction [that is that the agency or the courts and not the taxpayer are to make the determination under the regs], let us alter the district court’s restaurant analogy. Suppose three friends try to decide where to go for dinner. Two of the friends, Friend A and Friend B, offer differing suggestions, each claiming his suggestion is the best restaurant in town. Tasked with resolving the dispute, Friend C consults Zagat to see which of the two recommended restaurants is indeed “the best,” and, after doing so, sides with Friend A. Friend C’s decision was indeed based on the Zagat ratings. But Friend A did not rely on the Zagat ratings when taking his position. In other words, Friend C’s determination was based on Zagat, regardless of whether Friend A ever relied on the service. 

Once establishing that there is at least ambiguity in the regs, that tees up the Auer/Kisor issue.  Kisor essentially looks to see if five additional factors are present before a court is to give an agency’s view greater deference. Here, according to Judge Grasz, three of those factors were absent, that the interpretation must be the agency’s authoritative or official position; the interpretation must in some way implicate the agency’s substantive expertise; and the interpretation must reflect fair and considered judgment. 

In light of his view that the regulations did not require a subjective standard and in light of Kisor, Judge Grasz felt that the court effectively improperly gave deference to the IRS’s own view of the regulation. That did not mean necessarily mean that Wells Fargo established that it had reasonable basis. He would have remanded it to the district court to see if in the court’s view Wells Fargo’s foreign tax credit had a reasonable basis in the authorities. (Those few readers still with me might wonder what exactly is reasonable basis? Well that is for another day but most observers peg a position as having a reasonable basis if it has a 20% or more probability of winning).

Conclusion

This case is sure to attract attention and is a powerful tool in the government’s arsenal to penalize aggressive tax positions, or at least put taxpayers in a bind of waiving privilege claims to successfully assert a reasonable basis defense.

I do believe that the majority opinion perhaps overstates its position that the broader context of the statute and regulations support the conclusion that the regs require a taxpayer to show that it actually relied on the authorities. For example, as the Verdolini & Baratta article in Tax Notes earlier this year notes, the reasonable basis regulations take into account subsequent developments. If, as Verdolini and Baratta note,  “a taxpayer had to rely on the authorities when filing a return, it would be impossible for the taxpayer to rely on any developments after the filing of the return.”  

I anticipate that this will not be the last appellate word on this issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The additional facts did not help: 

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

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

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

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

(emphasis added; citations omitted)

Conclusion

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

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

Graev and the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty

The Tax Court is marching through the penalty provisions to address how Graev impacts each one.  It had the opportunity to address the trust fund recovery penalty (TFRP) previously but passed on the chance.  In Chadwick v. Commissioner, 154 T.C. No. 5 (2020) the Tax Court decides that IRC 6751(b) does apply to TFRP and that the supervisor must approve the penalty prior to sending Letter 1153.  Having spoiled the ending to the story, I will describe how the court reached this result. See this post by Bryan Camp for the facts of the case and further analysis.

This is another decided case with a pro se petitioner, in which the petitioner essentially dropped out and offered the court very little, if any, assistance.  The number of precedential cases decided with no assistance from the petitioner continues to bother me.  I do not suggest that the Tax Court does a bad job in deciding the case or seeks to disadvantage the taxpayer, but, without thoughtful advocacy in so many cases that the court decides on important issues, all taxpayers are disadvantaged — and not just the taxpayer before the court.  Clinics and pro bono lawyers have greatly increased the number of represented petitioners in the Tax Court over the past two decades, but many petitioners remain unrepresented. These unrepresented petitioners, by and large, do not know how to evaluate their cases and how to represent themselves, which causes the court to write opinions in a fair number of pro se cases relying on the brief of the IRS and the research of the judge’s clerk in creating a precedential opinion.  Should there be a way to find an amicus brief when the court has an issue of first impression, so that subsequent litigants do not suffer because the first party to the issue went forward unrepresented?

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The real question here is whether the TFRP is a tax or a penalty.  The IRS argues that IRC 6751(b) does not apply to the TFRP because it is a tax.  We know it’s a tax because the Supreme Court has told us so in Sotelo v. United States, 436 U.S. 268, 279 n.12 (1978).  In Sotelo the Supreme Court sought to characterize the TFRP for purposes of bankruptcy.  In bankruptcy getting characterized as a penalty has very negative consequences with respect to priority classification, discharge and even chapter 7 priority of secured claims.  We have written about several code sections that bankruptcy courts have characterized from tax to penalty or vice versa based on the Supreme Court’s analysis in Sotelo.  You can find a couple of those posts here, and here

So, if TFRP acts as a tax for purposes of bankruptcy, should it, could it act as a penalty for purposes of 6751(b)?  While the Tax Court had skirted the issue previously, the Southern District of New York had decided it head on in United States v. Rozbruch, 28 F. Supp. 3d 256 (2014), aff’d on other grounds, 621 F. App’x 77 (2nd Cir. 2015).  In Rozbruch the court held the TFRP a tax that did not require penalty approval under IRC 6751(b).

The TFRP does not seem like the kind of penalty Congress intended when it worried about using penalties as a bargain chip.  The TFRP is the chip.  It imposes on the responsible person or persons the unpaid tax liability of the taxpayer charged with collecting taxes on behalf of the United States, who failed to fulfill that responsibility.  Good reasons exist not to apply IRC 6751(b) in the TFRP context.  The reasons could have made for another contentious Tax Court conference in the Graev Conference Room, but no one at the court seemed up for the fight.

Instead, the Tax Court settles for a straightforward determination that Congress put the TFRP in the penalty sections of the code, Congress called the TFRP a penalty, and it has some features of a penalty to support its label as a penalty.  While acknowledging that the Supreme Court has held that for bankruptcy purposes TFRP will act as a tax, the Tax Court says that does not mean it isn’t a penalty, citing the wilfullness element necessary to impose the TFRP.  It also finds that the assessable feature of the TFRP supports the penalty label.  So, without a decent fight between Tax Court judges, we get the result that the Tax Court finds the TFRP to be a penalty.  This fight may not be over if the IRS wants to bring it up again.  Unlike lots of liabilities that primarily if not exclusively get decided in Tax Court, matters involving the TFRP primarily get decided in district courts.  Only in the CDP context will the Tax Court see a TFRP case.  So, this may not be the end of road for this issue.

Having decided that the TFRP is a penalty, the Tax Court then decided when the “initial determination” occurred.  Relying on its recent opinion in Belair Woods LLC v. Commissioner, 154 T.C. 1 (2020), the Tax Court decided that the initial determination of the penalty assessment was the letter sent by the IRS to formally notify the taxpayer that it had completed its work.  In the TFRP context this is Letter 1153.  Here the IRS had obtained the right approval prior to the sending of this letter and the court upheld the TFRP.

The Court reaches a taxpayer-friendly conclusion that the IRS must obtain supervisory approval prior to the application of this unusual provision and perhaps did not find any judges putting up a fight against that result because it was taxpayer-friendly.  As with most 6751 decisions, it’s hard to say what Congress really wanted in this situations.  The result here does not bother me.  Certainly, the result has logical support, but the opposite result would have logical support as well.  It will be interesting to see if the IRS wants to fight about this further in the district courts or if it will just acquiesce.  At the least the IRS will want to cover its bases by timely giving the approval, even if it thinks the approval is unnecessary.  The first time a large TFRP penalty gets challenged and the approval was not timely given, the IRS will have to swallow hard before giving up the argument entirely.