Getting to Meaningful Court Review in Collection Due Process Cases: Designated Orders, February 25 – March 1, 2019

There were three designated orders for the final week of February 2019, and all of them concerned Collection Due Process (CDP) cases. Two of the orders (Savanrola Editoriale Inc. here and McDonald here feature the time-honored determination that it is not an abuse of discretion for the IRS to sustain a collection action when the taxpayer refuses to provide financial information or otherwise take any part in CDP hearing. The orders are not particularly novel in that regard, but they do provide a good contrast to the third order where the Court actually finds against the IRS and remands to Appeals.

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Since abuse of discretion is a fairly vague standard, even the easy cases can be useful. Savonrola involves a taxpayer that wanted to challenge the underlying tax liability leading to the notice of federal tax lien (NFTL). However, apart from requesting a CDP hearing (blaming a faulty 1099-Misc for the liability) and then petitioning the court after receiving the determination sustaining the NFTL, it does not appear that the taxpayer engaged in the process much at all. The order does not reference any content from the CDP hearing itself, and it is not clear if the taxpayer engaged in the one that was offered. At the very least, the taxpayer does not appear responsive to the Tax Court once the petition was filed -the case was on the verge of being dismissed for failure to respond to an order to show cause. Because the taxpayer made no showing (and raised no argument) that they should be able to argue the underlying liability under IRC 6330(c)(2)(B) the Court had an easy time disposing of the case.

In McDonald the taxpayer did engage a bit more, but still not enough to give themselves a chance of winning on review. Here, the taxpayer apparently wanted to enter an installment agreement but had been unable to (which can happen to the best of us). However, the taxpayer had a back-year tax return that was “rejected” (that is, not-processed) by the IRS which complicated matters. At the CDP hearing, IRS Appeals was understandably unwilling to set up an installment agreement without that return being properly filed. Appeals also requested a Form 433-A for the installment agreement -the reasonableness of that request depending a bit more on the terms of the installment agreement being proposed. In response, the taxpayer sent an unsigned 2015 return and a Form 433-A lacking supporting documentation. When the signature and supporting documents were not forthcoming after multiple requests, Appeals rejected the installment agreement request and issued a determination sustaining the levy. As can be guessed, based on the failure of filing compliance alone, the Court had very little trouble finding there to be no abuse of discretion.

One can read the frequent, easy cases of Savonrola and McDonald to mean simply that the taxpayer will lose if they don’t comply with IRS requests during CDP hearings. But there is a deeper lesson to be learned: the Court needs something to look at to see how IRS discretion was exercised. By failing to comply or otherwise engage with the IRS during the hearing, you are building a record for review that can only ask one question: was it a reasonable exercise of discretion for the IRS to request the information in the first place? Almost (but importantly not always) the Court will find requests for unfiled tax returns or financial statements are not unreasonable and, by consequence, there was no abuse of discretion for the IRS to sustain the collection action when the requests were not complied with.

The important difference is that taxpayers may succeed even without providing requested information if they have readily engaged in the process. By so doing, they create a record for the Court to review and, possibly, come to a determination that discretion, properly exercised, would not require the information. The most famous of these cases is Vinatieri v. C.I.R.. In Vinatieri, the taxpayer provided a Form 433-A and demonstrated serious financial hardship and medical issues during the CDP hearing, but acknowledged that she had unfiled tax returns. The financial hardship was obvious, as was the fact that it would be exacerbated by levy. The IRS policy (that back year returns must be filed before releasing a levy under IRC 6343(a)(1)(D)) was not so obvious, and blindly following it was an abuse of discretion. Ms. Vinatieri was, it should be remembered, a pro se low-income petitioner with serious health issues. She is the prototypical taxpayer that CDP is meant to protect before disastrous levies take place. Nonetheless, it is not clear she would have prevailed (especially not in a “record-rule” jurisdiction) had she not engaged with the IRS at the hearing.

CDP hearings can also help the more affluent (and represented) taxpayers on non-equitable grounds -and again, engaging is key. Sometimes, a taxpayer may not have to comply with an IRS request for information by adequately showing that the information is unnecessary -for instance, where updated financials are cumulative, because the real issue is a matter of law (See the earlier designated order from McCarthy v. C.I.R., here). When you turn the inquiry into a question of law (not always an easy, or possible task with low-income taxpayers) you change the Court’s rubric. And that is exactly what happens in the third and final designated order of the week

Tax Court to IRS: High School Math Rules Apply. Show Your Work or Face Remand. McCarthy v. C.I.R., Dkt. No. 21940-15L (here)

We’ve blogged briefly about Mr. McCarthy before. The case boils down to whether the petitioner or a trust is the real owner of two pieces of property. If petitioner owns it his collection potential should be upwardly adjusted and the IRS rejection of his Offer in Compromise (or partial pay installment plan) likely constitutes a reasonable exercise of discretion. The issue, then, is mostly legal: does the trust own the property, or is the trust merely the petitioner’s “nominee”?

When the issue before the Court is a question of law, the vagueness of “abuse of discretion” goes largely out the window. It is always an abuse of discretion to erroneously interpret the law at issue (See Swanson v. C.I.R., 121 T.C. 111 at 119 (2003)). McCarthy, however, involves a slightly different lesson: it isn’t necessarily that the IRS erroneously interpreted the law (thereby reaching the wrong determination). It is that the IRS didn’t sufficiently back up the determinations it did reach.

The IRS tried to determine whether the petitioner was the true “beneficial owner” of the properties in the trust by analyzing how the petitioner and trust actually treated the property. The first property at issue (the “Stratford” property) was rented out to a corporation (American Boiler) that was apparently controlled by the petitioner. American Boiler made rental payments to the trust for many years, though in apparently inconsistent amounts.

The IRS believed this string of relationships, peculiar circumstances, as well as the fact that there was no written lease agreement between American Boiler and the trust, adds up to nominee. But the Court sees some gaps between those circumstances and the ultimate conclusion. The Court characterized the argument as “inviting us to speculate that petitioner caused the Trust to use in some fashion for its own benefit the rental income it received from American Boiler.” In other words, the IRS hasn’t adequately shown how they get from point A to point B, and their failure to show their work is fatal. The Tax Court “will not indulge in such speculation.”

The IRS fares no better with the second piece of property (the “Charlestown” property). This time, the IRS inferences seem even more threadbare. The trust (with petitioner as trustee) purchased the Charlestown property. The IRS argues that it was “reasonable for [the Settlement Officer] to have inferred that the funds to purchase the Charlestown property must have come from petitioner.” Unfortunately, there are other beneficiaries (apart from petitioner) of the trust that may have led to other contributions to it, even aside from the aforementioned rental income the trust received. Accordingly, the Court finds no basis for the IRS determination that petitioner was the beneficial owner of the Charlestown property as well.

The point isn’t that the IRS was clearly wrong that the trust was not the nominee of the petitioner (it may very well be his nominee: he hasn’t exactly been a “good actor” in other tax matters –the first footnote of the order mentions his involvement in a criminal tax case).  The point is that the IRS did not do its job in showing how they reasonably came to that conclusion apart from general inferences, which was the issue put before the Court. The taxpayer here may well be the polar opposite of Ms. Vinatieri: represented by counsel, likely affluent (at one time or another), and without the cleanest of hands. But like Vinatieri, (and unlike McDonald or Savonrola) they succeeded by engaging in the process and presenting a question (and record) the Court could reasonably rule in their favor on.

Arguments to Raise in Collection Due Process, Naked Assessment Concerns, and the Supremacy Clause: January 28 – February 1 Designated Orders (Part II)

In Part I we focused mostly on summary judgment motions in deficiency cases, and particularly on how important it is to frame the issue as a matter of law rather than fact. The remaining designated orders of that week provide lessons on (1) burden shifting arguments, (2) state privilege and federal rules of evidence conflicts, and (3) arguments to raise (or not raise) in collection due process (CDP) litigation. We begin our recap with the latter.

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CDP Argument One: Did the IRS Engage in a Balancing Analysis? Jackson v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 3661-18L

Judicial review of a CDP hearing may sometimes seem a bit perfunctory -it can be difficult to make legal arguments in abuse of discretion review where the IRS appears to have quite a bit (though not unbounded) of discretion to take their proposed collection action. The statutes governing the usual “collection alternatives” (Offer in Compromise at IRC 7122, Installment Agreements at IRC 6159, and Currently Not Collectible at, more-or-less, IRC 6343) similarly do not provide a robust set of rules that the IRS cannot violate.

But that isn’t to say that judicial review in a CDP hearing provides no benefit. As I’ve written about before, CDP can be an excellent venue for putting the IRS records at issue -not asking the Court to rule on a collection alternative, but to prove that they followed the rules they are supposed to (proper mailing, supervisory approval, etc.). The statutory hook for these issues is the CDP statute itself -specifically, IRC 6330(c)(1) and (c)(3)(A). The orders discussed below rely (with varying success) on different statutory or common-law arguments.

In something of a rarity, all three CDP hearing cases involve parties that are either represented by counsel or, in this instance, are attorneys themselves. The lawyerly imperative to focus on the text of the statute is what drives Mr. Jackson’s argument: in this case the requirement that the IRS “balances the need for efficient collection of taxes with the legitimate concern of the person that any collection action be no more intrusive than necessary.” IRC 6330(c)(2)(A)

The crux of Mr. Jackson’s argument is that the IRS didn’t balance these interests when they denied his installment request. Judge Gustafson (tantalizingly) mentions that there is a part of the Notice of Determination that specifically talks about the “balancing analysis” the merits of which the Court could review… but that, quite unfortunately, is not how Mr. Jackson frames the issue. Rather, the reference to the balancing test by Mr. Jackson is just a disguised, repackaged argument that the IRS should have accepted the proposed installment agreement.

There is good reason why it fails on that point. Namely, that Mr. Jackson was not filing compliant (he was delinquent on estimated tax payments) and the Tax Court has already held such a rejection not to be an abuse of discretion in Orum v. C.I.R. 123 T.C. 1 (2004). Since the crux of the argument is just “the IRS should accept my installment agreement” made twice (once as an issue raised under IRC 6330(c)(2)(ii) and once under IRC 6330(c)(3)(C)) it is doomed to fail.

I characterized Judge Gustafson’s mention of court review of real “balancing analysis” arguments as tantalizing because (1) I see them so rarely, and (2) they may provide new and fertile ground for court review. In my experience, a Notice of Determination always includes a boilerplate, conclusory paragraph on the “balancing analysis” conducted by Appeals. That appears to be the case here as well, where the “balancing analysis” is a statement that conveniently covers all the issues of IRC 6330(c):

“The filing of the notice of federal tax lien is sustained as there were legitimate balances due when the lien was filed and the taxes remain outstanding. All legal and procedural requirements prior to the filing of the Federal Tax Lien have been met. The decision to file the lien has been sustained. This balances the need for efficient collection of the tax with your concern that the action be no more intrusive than necessary.”

Judge Gustafson refers to this language in the notice of determination when he writes “there was at least a purported balancing, whose merits we might review.” Emphasis in original. The present facts and posture of the case before Judge Gustafson leave much to be desired, but I wouldn’t bet against other cases potentially gaining traction on that line of argument. It is true that, in my quick research, petitioners historically haven’t had much success on “balancing analysis” argument. But many of the taxpayers in such cases were either non-individuals (i.e. corporate) see Western Hills Residential Care, Inc. v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2017-98, non-compliant on filing, or the determination actually demonstrated the IRS did balance the equities, see Estate of Myers v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2017-11. I’d like to see a case where the taxpayer legitimately raises such equity concerns in the hearing and the IRS determination blithely repeats the boilerplate language. I believe under those circumstances you may just have an argument for remand -particularly if the administrative record gives no insight to the Appeal’s reasoning such that abuse of discretion could be properly determined.

CDP Argument Two: Invoking Res Judicata and Challenging Treasury Regulations: Ruesch v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 2177-18L

There is a lot going on in this case but, depending partly on your view of the validity of Treas. Reg. 301.6320-1(d)(2), Q&A-D1, the eventual resolution may seem inevitable. By breaking up the collection into two discrete issues (income tax vs. penalty) one can better trace the contrasting ideas of petitioner and the Court.

2010 Income Tax Liability

The taxpayer had a small balance due and was offered a CDP hearing after the IRS took their state tax refund (one of the few exceptions to a “pre-collection” CDP hearing: see IRC 6330(f)(2)). The taxpayer timely requested the CDP hearing. However, by the time the hearing actually was dealt with by Appeals it was moot because the balance (somewhere around $325 originally) now showed $0. Appeals issued a decision letter (erroneously but in this case harmlessly treating the original CDP request as an equivalent hearing) stating that there was no case because “your account has been resolved.” Nonetheless (and probably anticipating the next point), the taxpayer timely petitioned the court on that determination letter.

2010 IRC 6038(b) Penalty

A little more than a month after receiving that decision letter, the taxpayer gets a new Notice for 2010, this time saying that she had a balance of $10,000. Only it wasn’t for any income tax assessment: it was a penalty under IRC 6038(b) for failure to disclose information to the IRS. The IRS issued a CP504 Notice for this penalty which, though frustratingly similar to a CDP letter (see Keith’s article here) will not ordinarily lead to a CDP hearing. Nonetheless, the taxpayer requested a CDP hearing (as well as a Collection Appeals Request) after receiving the CP504 Notice. Still later, however, the taxpayer did receive a Notice of Federal Tax Lien for the penalty conveying CDP rights, which they also timely requested. Most important, however, is just this: at the time of the trial no determination was reached and no determination letter issued regarding the penalty as a result of a CDP hearing.

If you are treating the matter as two discrete tax issues, the answer seems straightforward: dismiss for mootness. The only tax issue properly before the court (the income tax liability, not the penalty for which no CDP hearing or determination letter has issued) has a $0 balance. From that perspective, there is no real notice of determination or collection action to review.

Having their day in court, however, the taxpayer wishes to argue otherwise. Rather than dismiss for mootness, the Court should exercise jurisdiction by granting a motion to restrain assessment or collection because: (1) the case is not moot (the IRS says the taxpayer still owes a balance (penalty) for that year, after all), (2) the IRS previously said (in the Notice of Determination for the since-paid liability) that there was no balance due for that tax year and should be held to that under res judicata, and (3) there can be no further CDP hearings on this matter because the Treasury Regulation that (seems to) allow more than one hearing for a given tax period (Treas. Reg. 301-6320-1(d)(2), Q&A-D1) is invalid.

The Court basically says “no” to each of these arguments or premises. In reverse order, the Court says (1) it doesn’t need to touch the regulation validity argument because ta prior case that explicitly allows more than one CDP hearing per period (Freije II) doesn’t rely on the Regulation; (2) res judicata is not applicable to IRS determinations that are administrative rather than judicial in nature; and (3) the case is moot because the notice of determination before the court pertains to fully paid tax. The argument the taxpayer wants to make pertains to a penalty which has not yet even had a CDP hearing (or determination).

Collectability As a Matter of Law: McCarthy v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 21940-15L

Lastly, we have the rare case where a taxpayer’s inaction (failure to fill out updated financial statements) is actually quite appropriate. In this instance, the case has been remanded to Appeals already, so court is waiting for parties to work things out. The IRS, as it often does, has since requested updated financial documents. But the taxpayer has not complied for the simple reason that it would be futile to do so: The determination of collectability, it appears, all circles around a legal question of whether a trust is the taxpayer’s nominee. Since the two parties are at loggerheads about that question, it is likely that will be a question for the Court and one of the reasons the judicial review of collection decisions can be important. Though, frustratingly for those of us working with low-income taxpayers, such wins seem to only appear to help those with trusts… See Campbell v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2019-4.

Naked Assessments… In Employment Law? Drill Right Consultants, LLC v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 16986-14

There were two orders issued in the same day for the above case, and only the docket number was listed as “designated” (there was no link to a particular order) so I’m just going to treat both as designated orders, with greater detail on the more substantive of the two.

One of the orders (here) was a fairly quick denial of a summary judgment motion by the petitioner. The case concerns worker classification which, as Judge Holmes remarks, “is a famously multifactor test.” Generally, it is difficult to prevail in summary judgment on multi-factor (and highly fact intensive) tests. Here, the IRS disagrees with some of the “facts” (informal interrogatory responses) provided by petitioner in support of the motion for summary judgment. And that is all that it takes. Motion dismissed.

What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the accompanying order (here) that addresses who (petitioner or the IRS) has the burden of proof moving forward in this case. Those rules are pretty well set in deficiency cases, and the applicable Tax Court Rule 142(a)(1) also seems to make it an easy answer: the burden is on the taxpayer unless a statute or the court says otherwise.

There isn’t a direct statute on point. The most appropriate statute on point does not actually address the underlying type of tax at issue here: IRC 7491 burden shifting rules apply to income, estate and gift taxes but not employment taxes. Arguably, this could be interpreted as an intentional omission by Congress, such that there should be no burden shift with employment taxes. But, lacking a “direct hit” from Congress, might the taxpayer find some room for judge-made exceptions?

Here, the analysis goes to that most well-known of exceptions: the “naked assessment.” Judge Holmes quickly describes what appear to be two strains of naked assessment cases applicable to deficiency cases. The “pure” strain is a complete failure of the Commissioner to engage in a determination related to the taxpayer and completely ruins the validity of the Notice of Deficiency. This strain is derived from the well-known Scar v. C.I.R. case that taxpayers have rarely been able to use. The Scar strain actually won’t help petitioner, because he needs there to be jurisdiction in order to get court review of the employment status leading to the employment taxes (which are not subject to deficiency procedures).

Fortunately for petitioner, there is also a diluted strain of the naked assessment: the Portillo v. C.I.R. strain. The Portillo strain doesn’t ruin the validity of the notice of deficiency (thereby ruining jurisdiction), but simply removes the presumption of correctness. To get the Portillo outcome, you need to argue that there was a determination relating to the taxpayer, but that there was no “ligament of fact” behind that determination, and it should not be afforded a presumption of correctness. This is the judge-made exception the taxpayer wants here, and it certainly makes sense in omitted income cases (where the taxpayer has to prove a negative).

It appears that petitioner tries to get Portillo treatment by relying on a particular worker classification case, SECC Corp. v. C.I.R., 142 T.C. 225 (2014). In SECC Corp., both sides agreed that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction because the IRS didn’t issue its standard “Notice of Determination of Worker Classification” (NDWC) letter. Instead the IRS issued “Letter 4451” which both parties agreed (for different reasons) wasn’t a proper ticket to get into tax court. But the tax court found that they had jurisdiction anyway, because both parties were putting form over substance in contravention of the underlying statute’s (IRC 7436) intent. Essentially, the statute requires a determination by the IRS and the letter reflects the final determination: it doesn’t much matter what the letter is labeled and the legislative history buttressed the reading that a specific letter was not needed.

So why does the jurisdictional “substance over form” SECC Corp. case matter for petitioners here? It matters because they SECC Corp. never answered whether these “informal determinations” should be afforded the same presumption of correctness that a formal determination gets. And presumably, petitioner’s case is dealing with the same informal determination that SECC Corp. did.

Unfortunately, Judge Holmes isn’t buying that the SECC Corp. case created a new Portilla-style burden shift for worker classification issues. Petitioner has to point to something (statute or case law) that says the burden should shift. The only statute on point implies that it doesn’t. The only case(s) on point deal with notices of deficiency (SECC Corp. doesn’t speak one way or another on the issue). And so, with nothing to hang their hats on, they cannot prevail on the burden shift.

Where State and Federal Law Collide: Rules of Evidence and Supremacy: Verde Wellness Center Inc. v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 23785-17

The final designated order addresses who wins in the battle of State privilege vs. federal rules of evidence. Appropriately, it involves a medical marijuana dispensary in Arizona -once more highlighting the potential tensions of state and federal law. The IRS is trying to get more information about the dispensary via subpoena to a state department, and the state department (not the taxpayer) is saying “sorry Uncle Sam: that information is privileged.”

As far as Arizona state law goes, the department is correct on that point. Unfortunately, this is a federal tax case which, under IRC 7453 is governed by the federal rules of evidence, particularly FRE 501 which provides that federal law governs privilege questions in federal cases. And federal law in both the D.C. circuit and 9th Circuit (where the instant case would be appealable) make clear that no “dispensary – state” privilege is recognized.

Since it isn’t privileged under the rules that matter it doesn’t matter that it would be a crime under state law to disclose. That’s the gist of what the Constitution is getting at when it says “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Art. VI, Cl. 2

Or, to parse, in conflict of state and federal law, Uncle Sam is the superior sovereign. Sorry Arizona.

 

Trends and Tactics in Collection Due Process Litigation During 2018

Despite reaching the age of 20 this past July, CDP continues to create new issues for practitioners to learn and advocate. Twenty years ago I headed the project to write the regulation for the new CDP statute. Writing the regulation proved challenging because CDP was such a departure from federal tax collection practice to that point.   As we have learned over the past 20 years, we failed to anticipate many CDP issues as we wrote the regulations and new issues continue to present themselves.

Over the course of 2018, we have written a number of CDP posts. I have collected the posts here. The issues are broken down into categories for ease of organization. Along with panelist Tom Thomas (who presided over the publication of the CDP regulations 20 years ago), Steve Milgrom, an attorney who is the Litigation and Volunteer coordinator for San Diego Legal Aid, and Scott Hovey, an attorney with the Washington, D.C. field office of Chief Counsel (IRS)(and an intern in the Richmond District Counsel’s office 20 years ago when I headed that office), I participated in a panel on the CDP developments in 2018 at a recent ABA Tax Section conference for low income taxpayers.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the presentation was that when we ran over our time, we were the last panel of the day, and the moderator went to stop the discussion the audience insisted that Steve finish telling his story of the Dang case. This is a case which he handled/continues to handle in which the IRS refused to levy on his client’s IRA in order to help the client by allowing the client to satisfy the tax liability without incurring the 10% excise tax under IRC 72(t). Steve’s persistent and effective advocacy for his client in that case resulted in the client paying tax due without having to pay a penalty for making the payment. Read more about the case in the link below if you missed it when we first wrote about that case.

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Jurisdiction (The Request) – CDP cases have two separate 30 day periods that taxpayers must successfully navigate in order to obtain an administrative and then a judicial review of their case. The first 30 day period starts with the issuance of a CDP Notice. The IRS must issue a CDP notice prior to taking most levy action. The IRS also must issue a CDP notice when it files a notice of federal tax lien. Because it does not know exactly when the local court will file the notice of federal tax lien, the IRS builds five days into the period after it sends the notice of federal tax lien to the local courthouse for filing. When it issues the CDP notice the taxpayer has 30 days (or 35 days for a lien notice) to send a request to the IRS seeking an administrative hearing with Appeals. The IRS has not made it easy to send in the requests and will deny a CDP hearing to taxpayers who do not carefully follow its procedures. The issue with which the Tax Court is now grappling is whether the failure to strictly follow the IRS procedures is a basis for denying a CDP hearing or whether substantial compliance might suffice. (For those with a subscription to Tax Notes, I published an article entitled “The Jurisdictional Ramifications of Where You Send a CDP Request,” there on November 12, 2018 that covers this issue in greater detail than our blog posts.)

Untimely CDP request – https://procedurallytaxing.com/eleventh-circuit-says-untimely-made-cdp-arguments-may-deserve-attention-from-the-bench-and-bar/

 

https://procedurallytaxing.com/cdp-requests-timely-filed-in-wrong-irs-office-tax-court-judges-disagree-on-jurisdictional-consequences/

 

Jurisdiction (The Petition) – If the taxpayer successfully requests a CDP hearing and Appeals decides to sustain the lien or levy, it will issue a determination letter giving the taxpayer 30 days within which to petition the Tax Court. If the taxpayer misses the 30 day deadline for a good reason, can the Tax Court accept the case based on equitable tolling or is the 30 day period to file the petition jurisdictional such that the Tax Court must deny the taxpayer entry into the court no matter how compelling the reason for late filing might be?

Is time to file CDP petition in Tax Court jurisdictional – http://procedurallytaxing.com/ninth-circuit-holds-period-to-file-tax-court-collection-due-process-petition-jurisdictional-under-current-supreme-court-case-law-usually-treating-filing-deadlines-as-nonjurisdictional/

 

https://procedurallytaxing.com/fourth-circuit-declines-to-rule-on-whether-cdp-filing-period-is-jurisdictional-but-holds-against-taxpayer-since-it-says-facts-do-not-justify-equitable-tolling/

 

Starting the 30 day period – The taxpayer has 30 days to file the request or petition the Tax Court in a CDP case but when does that 30 day period begin? IRS letters do not always get mailed on the date on the letter. Many IRS employees flex and generate letters from their home which they do not print and mail until they come to work in the office on a later date. The date on the letter may be the date it was generated and not the date it was mailed. In the Weiss case the Revenue Officer dated the CDP Notice and took it to the taxpayer’s house; however, he did not personally deliver the notice as he had intended because the taxpayer had a large dog. The Revenue Officer mailed the letter two days later but the letter still contained the original date on which he had intended to effect personal service. The Tax Court decided that the date of mailing and not the date stamped or written on the letter that controlled.

When does period begin for arguing CDP – https://procedurallytaxing.com/when-does-the-period-begin-for-filing-a-cdp-request/

 

Impact of CDP Request or Petition on the Statute of Limitations on Collection – Taxpayers who receive a CDP Notice must decide whether to request a hearing in part based on the impact the request will have on the statute of limitations on collection. Sometimes taxpayers do not seem cognizant of the impact their actions will have downstream. Every action in a CDP case should be taken with an eye on the statute of limitations clock. In addition to the cases discussed in the blog post see also Gilliam v. Commissioner, 121 AFTR 2d 2018-2211 (4th Cir. 2018)(unpublished opinion holding that taxpayer’s incorrect request for the IRS to review a levy could be perfected after the 30 day period and result in a CDP hearing rather than an equivalent hearing.)

Statute of Limitations and CDP – https://procedurallytaxing.com/some-developments-on-cdp-statutes-of-limitation-us-v-hendrick-and-weiss-v-commissioner/

 

Should Taxpayer Sign the Waiver Form Ending CDP – If the taxpayer reaches an agreement with Appeals, the Settlement Officer will ask the taxpayer to sign a waiver form terminating their CDP rights. While signing the form seems logical in some ways, what happens if the IRS does not follow the bargain you think you have struck? Would it be best to have the determination letter issued and go to Tax Court in order to get a more formal recordation of the agreement?

Waiving CDP rights – https://procedurallytaxing.com/when-to-waive-cdp-rights/

 

Standard of Review – When the Tax Court reviews the CDP case it generally reviews the issue de novo if the taxpayer contests the underlying liability and reviews for an abuse of discretion if the taxpayer seeks a collection alternative. If the taxpayer contests the application of a payment made by the taxpayer to the IRS, what is the standard of review for that contest?

Standard of review – https://procedurallytaxing.com/tax-court-clarifies-standard-of-review-in-cdp-payment-disputes/

 

Summary Judgment – When a taxpayer files a CDP petition in Tax Court seeking review of an issue decided on an abuse of discretion standard, Chief Counsel IRS frequently seeks to resolve the case by filing a motion for summary judgment. In seeking the motion for summary judgment, the government must follow certain steps and prove certain items. The Tax Court has criticized Chief Counsel attorneys regularly for seeking summary judgment without following the correct steps. How can you identify when you might have a defense to summary judgment based on the failure of the motion to include all necessary items?

Filing a correct summary judgment motion – https://procedurallytaxing.com/designated-orders-one-two-punch-for-respondent-in-cdp-disputes-before-judge-gustafson/

 

TBOR and CDP – CDP is a natural place to argue the application of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. It could apply to the balancing test. The IRS could be required to verify that its actions complied with TBOR. In the recent case of Dang v. Commissioner, taxpayer argued that requiring him to liquidate his IRA in order to pay the tax liability violated the TBOR provision that a taxpayer should pay no more than the correct amount of tax. The taxpayer argued that the IRS should levy on the retirement account in order to save the cost of the 10% excise tax under IRS 72(t).  The Appeals officer who first heard the CDP case issued a determination letter saying that Appeals did not have the authority to grant the requested relief.  When the case reached Tax Court the Chief Counsel attorney almost immediately requested a remand to Appeals to allow Appeals to make a determination based on the requested relief.  The taxpayer opposed the requested remand as a waste of time but the Court granted the request and back in Appeals the relief requested by the taxpayer was granted.

There is another interesting TBOR case brewing in Tennessee, Freels v. Commissioner, Dk. No. 26674-17L.  Petitioner, like the petitioner in the Dang case discussed in the link below, faced a motion to remand filed by the IRS when the IRS attorney realized that the position taken by Appeals and Collection would not result in an affirmation by the Tax Court of the position taken in the determination letter.  Unlike the Dang case in which Judge Armen granted the requested remand, Judge Guy denied the remand in Freels in an order dated December 19, 2018.  Mr. Freels’ counsel, Mary Gillum who directs the low income taxpayer clinic at Legal Services of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, made arguments similar to the arguments made by Steve Milgrom in Dang.  She argued that the IRS had failed to provide Mr. Freels with due process and violated his rights.  While the underlying nature of the violation of TBOR in the Freels case differs from the violation alleged in Dang, the nature of the argument is similar.  The Tax Court’s willingness to deny the remand and push forward for a resolution of the case (in taxpayer’s favor) may signal a new willingness to short circuit the dance back through Appeals to reach the right result and a victory for TBOR.

Arguing TBOR in CDP cases – https://procedurallytaxing.com/follow-up-on-tbor-and-cdp/

 

Seeking a Refund in a CDP case – The Tax Court position is that taxpayers cannot obtain a refund in a CDP case. Although the court issued a precedential opinion on this issue over a decade ago, it revisited the issue in some detail this year perhaps in anticipation of a challenge of the issue in the circuits.

Refund Jurisdiction in CDP cases – https://procedurallytaxing.com/does-the-tax-court-sometimes-have-refund-jurisdiction-in-cdp-cases/

 

Third parties and CDP – The IRS files nominee and alter ego liens and occasionally collects administratively from a third party. The IRS takes the position that third parties have no CDP rights. Third parties continue to push for some type of due process protection.

CDP rights of non-taxpayers – https://procedurallytaxing.com/are-alleged-alter-egos-successors-in-interest-and-or-transferees-entitled-to-their-own-cdp-rights/

 

When is CDP case in Tax Court over – Because of the unlimited ability to have a CDP case bounce back and forth between the Tax Court and Appeals, an issue exists concerning the end of the case. At some point the Tax Court case concludes. When that time arises, anything further the Tax Court has to say does not matter.

Ability of Tax Court to comment on CDP case after dismissal – https://procedurallytaxing.com/after-the-tax-court-finds-it-lacks-cdp-jurisdiction-seventh-circuit-says-it-should-keep-quiet-about-other-collection-issues/

 

Can the Settlement Officer in a CDP case take actions that would trigger an action for wrongful collection – Occasionally, the Appeals employee handling a CDP case will do something that the IRS believes violates their rights. If the action occurs during the CDP phase of the case, is that a collection phase such that the wrongful action gives the taxpayer a right to bring an action for wrongful collection or is the CDP process something different from collection action?

Misconduct in CDP case does not permit wrongful collection case – https://procedurallytaxing.com/sixth-circuit-holds-potential-misconduct-in-cdp-hearing-does-not-give-rise-to-wrongful-collection-action/ 

 

What is an administrative proceeding – A taxpayer can bring a CDP case to challenge the merits of a liability if the taxpayer did not have a prior opportunity to do so. The issue of prior opportunity implicates the ability to raise the innocent spouse issue as well. If the taxpayer can show that it did not have a prior administrative hearing in the innocent spouse context the taxpayer should have the ability to raise innocent spouse as a defense in a CDP hearing.

Administrative hearing – https://procedurallytaxing.com/what-is-a-prior-administrative-hearing/

 

Consideration of non-CDP Years – Can the IRS or the Tax Court consider years not included in the CDP notice in fashioning a remedy? Administratively, CDP would not prevent the IRS from providing relief if it chose to do so but the Tax Court is limited to the years in the notice. Morgan v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2018-98

 

 

 

Gambling Addiction Does Not Justify Effective Tax Administration Offer

Gillette v Commissioner is a collection due process case arising from the tax consequences of prematurely withdrawing funds from an IRA and underpaying taxes while a taxpayer was suffering from compulsive gambling that she claimed was attributable to an addiction to prescription medication. The taxpayer sought an effective tax administration offer in compromise. While unsuccessful, the case warrants attention as there is very little law around this type of offer.

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The opinion situates the sad tale that led to the sizable underpayment of taxes on her 2012 tax return. Ms. Gillette is a veteran and former firefighter who managed and owned a stable of rental properties. After retiring from firefighting, she developed a serious gambling addiction that she attributed to the side effects of pramipexole, a prescription medication.

Occasionally she would go days without sleep and at times slept in her car if she wasn’t given a complimentary night’s stay at a casino. Other times she would fall asleep at blackjack tables and slot machines only to be awakened by dealers and casino attendants. Nearly all of the money she collected from her rental properties went to casinos. When she ran out of money, she borrowed from friends and didn’t pay them back, took money and credit cards from her husband’s wallet, and eventually withdrew money from her retirement account in 2012.

In 2013, following the intervention of her son who recognized that the side effects of the medication she was taking were likely contributing to her gambling, she sought medical care to wean off the drug. Within a couple of years she was no longer taking the drug and was able to stop gambling. One lingering effect though was the 2012 alternative minimum tax (AMT) of about $17,000 and early IRA withdrawal penalty of about $10,500, both of which contributed to a tax balance due of almost $76,000 on her and her husband’s 2012 tax return.

Following a notice of intent to levy, the taxpayers requested a CDP hearing, challenging the underlying AMT liability and eventually offering $38,968 to compromise the liability based on effective tax administration (ETA). The ETA offer was sought because they were not a candidate for an offer based on doubt as to collectability, as the equity in assets (including the rental properties) exceeded the tax due (in fact Appeals determined that the reasonable collection potential in light of the assets was over $800,000).

The main part of the opinion dealt with Appeals’ rejection of the ETA offer and the Tax Court’s refusal to find any abuse of discretion in Appeals’ rejection.

The case originally went up to Tax Court a couple of years ago, but the Tax Court on the IRS’s motion remanded the case back to Appeals for a supplemental hearing because the original determination had an insufficient discussion of the reasons why Appeals agreed with the offer specialist’s decision to reject the ETA offer. By requesting a remand, the IRS avoided reversal for failure to consider the taxpayer’s equitable arguments. Guest blogger Professor Scott Schumacher previously discussed this requirement on PT.

After going back to Appeals, the settlement officer considered the taxpayer’s argument and again rejected the offer, in part on a finding that the side effect of the medications, including compulsive gambling, were known since 2006 and that the taxpayer made a choice to continue taking the medication anyway. In rejecting the offer on remand, Appeals did not refer the offer to the IRS’s ETA Non-economic Hardship Group, the group the IRM states should review ETA offers in “appropriate” cases.

Before exploring this further, it is worth emphasizing the law that applies to offers based on effective tax administration. The regulations provide the standard:

If there are no grounds for compromise under paragraphs (b)(1) [doubt as to liability], (2) [doubt as to collectability], or (3)(i) [economic hardship] of this section, the IRS may compromise to promote effective tax administration where compelling public policy or equity considerations identified by the taxpayer provide a sufficient basis for compromising the liability. Compromise will be justified only where, due to exceptional circumstances, collection of the full liability would undermine public confidence that the tax laws are being administered in a fair and equitable manner. A taxpayer proposing compromise under this paragraph (b)(3)(ii) will be expected to demonstrate circumstances that justify compromise even though a similarly situated taxpayer may have paid his liability in full.

Reg. Sec. 301.7122-1(b)(3).

Thus, the regulations provide that the IRS may accept a compromise where there are “compelling public policy or equity considerations.”  Unlike offers based on doubt as to collectability, which essentially default to a more mechanical comparison of the offer amount relative to the taxpayer’s collection potential, this standard is relatively vague. The regs do provide some examples of cases that should be considered under a public policy or equity ETA offer:

(1) a taxpayer with a serious illness requiring hospitalization for a number of years who, at the time, was unable to manage his or her financial affairs, including filing tax returns and (2) a taxpayer who learns after an audit that incorrect advice was given by the Commissioner and is now facing additional taxes and penalties because of that advice.

The IRM also provides guidance for IRS, providing additional factors and examples:

  • where the taxpayer’s liability was the result of the Commissioner’s processing error,
  • following the Commissioner’s erroneous advice or instructions,
  • the Commissioner’s unreasonable delay, or
  • the criminal or fraudulent act of a third party

In addition the IRM states that accepting a public policy or equity offer-in-compromise may be appropriate where rejecting it would cause a significant negative impact on the taxpayer’s community or “the taxpayer was incapacitated and thus unable to comply with the tax laws.”

The main argument that the taxpayers made was that because of the drug use Ms. Gillette was mentally impaired and incompetent, essentially claiming that this was akin to an incapacitation that would justify acceptance of an offer below the collection potential.

The Tax Court disagreed, primarily by distinguishing her situation from the examples and factors cited in the regs and the IRM:

Ms. Gillette and Mr. Szczepanski argue that their public policy or equity offer-in-compromise should be accepted because Ms. Gillette’s mental illness was caused by her prescription medication. While Ms. Gillette’s circumstances are unfortunate, Ms. Gillette and Mr. Szczepanski did not provide grounds for treating them differently from a similarly situated taxpayer who paid his or her liability in full. Their situation also differs from the examples given in the regulations: Ms. Gillette did not require hospitalization for a number of years, she was able to file her tax returns, she collected rents from her rental properties, and she did not receive incorrect advice from the Commissioner.

In addition, the opinion, while acknowledging the impact of the gambling addiction, distinguished the incapacity from others that would render an inability to comply with the tax laws:

Finally Ms. Gillette and Mr. Szczepanski do not meet any of the compelling factors outlined in the IRM. Ms. Gillette was not so incapacitated that she was unable to comply with the tax laws, rejection of their public policy or equity offer- in-compromise would not have had a significant negative impact on their community, and their 2012 tax liability was not caused by an error or delay of the Commissioner or the fraudulent or criminal conduct of a third party.

Conclusion

This is a close case. No doubt the taxpayers come away feeling that the system did not adequately address their legitimate concerns. From a process standpoint, I feel their pain; the initial Appeals determination did little in explaining why the offer was originally rejected; on remand Appeals did not refer the case to the unit specifically that hears ETA offers (a point the opinion notes was not an abuse of discretion as the decision to do so is essentially one completely in Appeals’ wheelhouse); and at trial the Tax Court did not allow the testimony of the taxpayer’s doctor or VA social worker, among other witnesses.

I am not equipped to evaluate the level of the taxpayer’s incapacity or the degree to which the medication contributed to or caused the gambling that led to the liability and underpayment of taxes. It would seem to me, however, that the Tax Court might have benefited from the testimony of the doctor. While some circuits follow the record rule and limit review of CDP cases to the evidence in the administrative record, the Seventh Circuit, where the case is appealable, has declined to decide that issue. In addition, given the lack of guidance in this area, the IRM factors and examples have heightened importance, a curious result again from a process standpoint given the absence of any public input in their promulgation.

To be sure, as the opinion notes, and as the IRS emphasized, there is no explicit unfairness hook that would require the IRS to accept an ETA offer. In addition, the taxpayer has significant assets. Given the lack of case law in this area, it is likely that this case will be one that the IRS will lean on when taxpayers seek to resolve a liability even after a taxpayer makes a credible case that substance abuse has contributed to the taxpayer’s liability.

For readers interested in more on ETA offers, including suggestions on how the IRS can improve standards for evaluating the offers, check out Rutgers Law School Professor Sandy Freund’s 2014 Virginia Tax Review article Effective Tax Administration Offers-Why So Ineffective.

 

 

 

Are Alleged Alter Egos, Successors in Interest and/or Transferees Entitled to Their Own Collection Due Process Rights Under Sections 6320 And 6330? Part 5

Lavar Taylor brings us the fifth installment of his series on Collection Due Process and third parties. Today he addresses strategies in litigating the issues. Lavar promises one more post on the topic after this one. When complete his work on this topic will be the equivalent of a law review article but with a very practical bent. For practitioners with clients who have derivative liabilities, Lavar provides significant insight into the law and the practice of representing parties operating in the dark shadows of the code and administrative practice. Although Lavar does not discuss the issue, it is interesting how the Taxpayer Bill of Rights promises of the right to challenge the IRS position and be heard and the right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum intersect with the way that these third parties are treated by the IRS. Keith

In Part 4 of this series, I discussed the questions of 1) how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the Tax Court to raise the questions of whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under sections 6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability, 2) whether the government can take administrative collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment or making a separate assessment, and 3) whether the Tax Court has the ability to address issues 1 and 2 above, given that no notice of determination is ever issued by the IRS in these situations.

This post addresses the question of how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the District Court to raise the questions of 1) whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under sections 6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability, and 2) whether the government is prohibited from taking collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of the taxpayer without first obtaining a District Court judgment against the putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, based on the arguments set forth in Part 3 of this series.

This post also discusses the factors affecting the decision of whether to litigate these issues in Tax Court or District Court. In addition, this post discusses why assertions of “nominee” status by the IRS are treated differently under the CDP rules.

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1. Litigating in District Court

An alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee has always had a remedy in District Court to challenge levy action against them in the form of a wrongful levy action brought under §7426. See, e.g., Towe Antique Ford Found. v. IRS, 999 F.2d 1387 (9th Cir. 1993). These lawsuits, however, have focused on whether the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee was substantively liable for the tax liability under state law.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no reported decisions where the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee has argued that the IRS levy action was improper because the IRS failed to send the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy before taking levy action against them. Nor am I aware of any reported cases where the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee brought a wrongful levy action claiming that the IRS cannot take any administrative collection action against a purported alter ego/successor in interest/transferee prior to the government obtaining a District Court judgment they are liable for the taxpayer’s taxes as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer, based on the theory articulated in Part 3 of this series.

Frequently, the previously unannounced levy action against the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee financially destroys them and deprives them of the resources needed to challenge the IRS’s assertion of liability. Under the law as interpreted by the IRS, the playing field is decidedly tilted in favor of the IRS. While there are undoubtedly many meritorious assertions of liability by the IRS, I am aware of a number cases in which the issue of liability as an alter ego/successor in interest/transferee was at best questionable or debatable. In our now-settled Tax Court case, for example, there was a state Supreme Court decision which made clear that, based on the undisputed facts in our case, it was not possible for our client to be an alter ego of the taxpayer. Yet the IRS, without properly investigating the facts, pursued levy action against our client, with the blessing of Area Counsel’s Office, based on the unsound premise that our client was an “alter ego” of the taxpayer.

Even where a third party is conceding that they are liable as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer under state law, they can bring a wrongful levy action to challenge the procedural validity of the levy action, based on the failure of the IRS to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the third party prior to taking levy action against the third party.  The mere opportunity to seek administrative collection alternatives, such as an installment agreement, or even an offer in compromise based on doubt as to liability, without having to deal with unannounced levy action may often be the difference between financial life and death for an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee.

For these reasons, any alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, even if they agree that they are liable for the taxes assessed against the taxpayer can bring suit, either in District Court or in Tax Court to challenge the failure of the IRS to issue a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to them prior to taking levy action.   In such a suit they can also challenge the underlying ability of the government to ever take administrative collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee prior to obtaining a District Court judgment in favor of the government (or prior to making a separate assessment), based on the theory articulated in Part 3 of this series.

Similar options exist to challenge the validity of an alter ego/successor in interest/transferee notice of federal tax lien. A petition can be filed with the Tax Court, although care should be taken to file the petition promptly after the filing of the lien notice, to minimize the risk that such a petition might be deemed untimely by the Court. Such a petition will be subject to the same jurisdictional challenges as a levy petition.

Alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees likewise have always had the opportunity to file a quiet title action in District Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2410 in order to challenge the validity of the tax lien. See Spotts v. United States, 429 F.3d 248 (6th Cir. 2005). There is no reason why an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee could not file a quiet title action in District Court based on the grounds that 1) the IRS failed to give them their own lien CDP rights as required by section 6320 after the filing of the notice of federal tax lien, and 2) the government is not permitted to take collection action against them in the absence of a separate assessment against them or a District Court judgment imposing liability as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer, for reasons outlined in Part 3 of this series.

2. Tax Court or District Court: Making a Choice

If an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee wishes to pursue litigation to challenge the ability of the IRS to levy without first issuing a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to challenge the ability of the IRS to take administrative collection action against a purported alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, choosing between Tax Court and District Court as a litigation forum can be difficult. District Court offers a forum where the court clearly has jurisdiction to rule on the issues at hand. District Court also is much quicker than Tax Court. Indeed, in our now-settled case, at the time of the settlement, the IRS’s motion to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction had been pending with the Tax Court for over 12 months without any opinion being issued.

District Court Judges, however, often lack even basic familiarity with tax laws in general and with CDP laws in particular. Tax Court Judges have significant expertise in tax law and regularly deal with CDP procedures in their cases. They certainly have more expertise in determining the extent of their own jurisdiction than do District Court Judges. Page limitations on filings in District Court may hamper the ability of an alleged alter ego/successor in interest to fully brief all of the issues, which are complex and arcane, even to the most dedicated tax procedure junkies.

In addition, once the Department of Justice acquires jurisdiction over a case, settling that case can become much more difficult. There can be a dramatic difference in the levels of approval needed to settle a case with the Office of Chief Counsel and the levels of approval needed to settle a case with the Department of Justice.   See the Department of Justice Tax Division Settlement Reference Manual. Furthermore, the differences between the rules governing discovery in Tax Court and the rules governing discovery in the District Court generally make it far more expensive to litigate in District Court than in Tax Court.

An alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee who ventures into District Court in a wrongful levy action or a quiet title action also faces the possibility that the Department of Justice will seek an affirmative judgment against them, including a judgment for the foreclosure of real property owned by the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee which the government contends can be reached in an effort to satisfy the taxes owed by the taxpayer. No such counterclaims can be filed by the government in Tax Court litigation; IRS must refer the matter to the Department of Justice for a separate lawsuit.

Yet, until the Tax Court has issued an opinion in this area, anyone who chooses Tax Court as their litigation forum currently faces the possibility that the Tax Court will eventually dismiss their petition for lack of jurisdiction in a way that fails to resolve the underlying question of whether alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees are entitled to their own independent CDP rights or whether the IRS may ever pursue administrative collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment. And however the Tax Court rules on this issue, the Tax Court’s ruling can be appealed to the relevant Court of Appeals.

The specific facts in each case will also be an important factor, as will the proclivities of the local District Court Judges. The rulings of the District Courts can also be appealed to the relevant Court of Appeals, but there will never be any appeal on the issue of whether the District Court lacks jurisdiction over such a suit, as long as the suit is brought within the applicable statute of limitations for wrongful levy actions and quiet title actions. (The statute of limitations for wrongful levy actions is now two years. 26 U.S.C. §6532(c). The statute of limitations on quiet title actions is six years. See Nesovic v. United States, 71 F.3d 776 (9th Cir. 1995). )

3. The Long, Hard Road Ahead

Given the circumstances described in this series of posts, it is likely to be quite some time before there is a definitive answer to the questions of whether alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees are entitled to their own independent CDP lien and levy rights and whether the IRS may ever take administrative collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment or making a separate assessment. The speed at which the case law develops will depend in large part on how the Tax Court rules in its first published opinion on these issues. If the Tax Court rules that it has jurisdiction, that holding will drive litigation of these issues to the Tax Court. The IRS will then likely appeal the Tax Court’s holding(s) to multiple Courts of Appeal, possibly leading to a split in the Circuits and Supreme Court review of the issue(s) that split the Circuits.

If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction but refuses to follow Adolphson and holds adversely to the government on the procedural issues in dismissing the petition for lack of jurisdiction, this holding will also drive litigation to the Tax Court. This will likely be followed by government appeals to multiple Courts of Appeal and possibly an eventual Supreme Court ruling in this area.

If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction and follows Adolphson, a few brave hardy souls may continue to litigate in Tax Court, with the idea of taking their cases to the relevant Courts of Appeal But most litigation involving these issues will be driven to the District Courts, many of which may be reluctant to second guess the Tax Court’s holding on the jurisdictional issue. But the District Courts will still be able to rule on the substantive CDP issue, as well as on the issue of whether the government is required to obtain a District Court judgment (or make a separate assessment) against purported alter egos/successors in interest before the government can take collection action against them.

One or more of these issues are likely to end up being argued before the Supreme Court, absent any future legislative action by Congress. But it is likely to be a number of years before that happens.

4. “Nominee” Liens and Levies- Why The CDP Rules Are Different

In writing this series of posts, I have purposefully avoided including “nominee” liens and levies within the scope of my discussion of the extent to which the CDP provisions may be invoked by third party non-taxpayers against whom the IRS is pursuing collection action to collect taxes owed by the original taxpayer. Putative “nominees” are different from putative alter egos/successors in interest/transferees in that “nominees” are not themselves personally liable for the tax liability. Rather, a true nominee holds “property or rights to property” of a taxpayer as the agent of the taxpayer.   They are not personally liable for the tax. This distinction is critical for purposes of determining the rights of putative “nominees” under the CDP procedures.

In Part 1 of this series I noted that there are important differences between §§6320 and 6330, and their counterparts, §§ 6321 and 6331. Section 6321 imposes a lien against all “property and rights to property” of a person who is “liable for the tax.” Thus, there must be a personal liability for a tax obligation before a lien can arise against a person’s “property or rights to property” under §6321.

The language of §6320 makes clear that a lien CDP notice is only required to be sent to the “the person described in section 6321,” i.e., a person who is personally liable for the tax. Thus, a putative nominee of the taxpayer is not entitled to notice under §6320 and cannot invoke the lien CDP procedures if the IRS files a “nominee” notice of federal tax lien. Note, however, that a true “nominee” notice of federal tax lien should make clear that the IRS lien only attaches to the specific property, real or personal, which the putative nominee is supposedly holding as an agent of the taxpayer. As I will discuss in Part 6 of this series, virtually all “nominee” notices of federal tax lien flunk this test.

Section 6331, on the other hand, authorizes the IRS to levy on all “property and rights to property” of a person who is personally liable for a tax and to levy on all property on which there is a tax lien. Thus, it is possible that the IRS could levy on property that is possessed or owned by a third party which the IRS claims is encumbered by a tax lien, even though the person who possesses or owns that property is not personally liable for the tax.

Section 6330 provides that “[n]o levy may be made on any property or right to property of any person” unless notice is given to “such person” under §6330. Importantly, §6330 uses the phrase “any person,” not the phrase “person liable for the tax.” Section 6330 also does not refer specifically to the “person” described in §6331(a). I personally believe that this a distinction with a difference, and that Congress intended for any person who has a facially recognizable possessory or ownership interest in property under state law upon which the IRS intends to levy is entitled to notice under section 6330 and thus is entitled to invoke the collection due process procedures.

But the IRS thinks otherwise, and issued regulations which define the term “person” in §6330 as the “person liable for the tax.” Treasury Regulation §301.6330-1(a)(3), Question and Answer 1. If this regulation is valid, only persons who are personally liable for the tax are entitled to notice under §6330 and may invoke the CDP levy procedures. No true “nominees” can invoke CDP levy procedures under the IRS’s interpretation of the law.

If the cited Treasury Regulation is struck down as being inconsistent with the statute, however, true nominees would be entitled to notice under §6330 and would be entitled to avail themselves of the CDP levy appeal process. I believe this regulation is inconsistent with the statute. The phrase “any person” is about as broad as you can get, and the contrasting language of §6320 supports the conclusion that Congress’ use of the phrase “any person” in section 6330 was deliberate. Limiting the availability of the levy CDP appeal procedures to persons who are personally liable for the tax is contrary to the language of the statute.

I leave a more detailed analysis of why I believe that this regulation is not valid for another day. Suffice to say that anyone who is the subject of true nominee collection action, where the IRS merely claims that the property held by or ostensibly belonging to a third party on which the IRS has levied is being held by the third party putative nominee for the benefit of the taxpayer and is not asserting that the third party is personally liable for the taxes owed by the taxpayer, will have to convince the Court that this regulation is invalid should they bring an action in Tax Court or District Court to challenge the IRS “nominee” levy action on the grounds that the IRS failed to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the third party prior to levying on property owned or held by the third party.

Because alleged “nominees” are in a more perilous legal position than alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees when it comes to invoking the CDP procedures, It may be that the IRS will, in the future, show a greater interest in pursuing “nominee” collection activity as opposed to pursuing “alter ego/successor in interest/transferee” collection activity.   I have seen some evidence of this here in southern California, after the IRS read our pleadings in our now-settled case.

My experience is that many people in the IRS throw around the terms “alter ego,” “transferee,” and “nominee” like these terms are interchangeable body parts. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Alter egos and transferees are personally liable for the taxpayer’s taxes, based on applicable state law. Under California law, for example, the legal test for holding a third party liable as an alter ego is different from holding a third party liable as a transferee. The legal test for holding a third party liable as a successor in interest is likewise distinct from the tests for imposing liability as an alter ego or transferee. Nominees are not personally liable for the taxpayer’s tax liability.

Private practitioners should be prepared to call out the IRS if it attempts to sidestep efforts to hold the IRS accountable under the CDP provisions by improperly labeling all third party collection action as “nominee” collection action.

I have one more post to add to this series of posts. In Part 6, I will explain why virtually all IRS “nominee” notices of federal tax lien are improper in a way which can cause legal detriment to the alleged nominees. I have also seen a “transferee” notice of federal tax lien with this same impropriety. In addition to explaining the impropriety, I will offer a suggestion to the IRS on how it can cure this impropriety.

 

Are Alleged Alter Egos, Successors in Interest and/or Transferees Entitled to Their Own Collection Due Process Rights Under Sections 6320 and 6330? Part 4

Guest blogger Lavar Taylor continues his series on Collection Due Process and third parties. The series provides a deep dive into the jurisprudence of CDP cases and the rights of third parties to have an outlet to challenge the liens and levies made against these non-taxpayer parties held liable for the taxpayer’s obligations. Keith

This post looks at the question of how a putative alter ego, successor in interest or transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the Tax Court to raise the question of whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under §§6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability. This discussion assumes, of course, that the IRS has the legal ability to pursue administrative collection action against a putative alter ego or successor in interest of the taxpayer, without first obtaining a judgment in District Court or without first making a separate assessment against the third party under section 6901.   As is explained in Part 3 of this series, such an assumption may not be correct.

This post also discusses how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee might pursue litigation in the Tax Court to raise the issue discussed in Part 3, namely, whether the government can ever take administrative collection action against the putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee in the absence of a District Court judgment holding that the putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee is liable for some or all of the taxpayer’s tax liability.

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  1. Existing Tax Court Jurisprudence Regarding Tax Court Jurisdiction

The Tax Court has stated on numerous occasions that a notice of determination under the CDP provisions is a taxpayer’s “ticket” to the Tax Court in CDP cases, see Weber v. Commissioner, 122 T.C. 258, 263 (2004), and that a failure to file a timely petition in response to a notice of determination requires the Court to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction. Id. The Tax Court has also held that, in a situation where the IRS issued a notice of intent to levy under §6330 and the taxpayer failed to request a CDP hearing, the Court lacked jurisdiction because no CDP hearing had been requested and no notice of determination had been issued by the IRS. Offiler v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 492 (2000).

Thus, in situations where the IRS takes levy action, whether against a taxpayer or against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, without first issuing a CDP notice of intent to levy under §6330, and the party against which levy action files a petition with the Tax Court to challenge the validity of the levy action as having been taken in violation of §6330, the IRS will likely argue that the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction over the petition. Indeed, that is exactly what the IRS did in the case in which we filed petition with the Tax Court on behalf of our client, an alleged alter ego/successor in interest, after the IRS levied on our client’s bank accounts without providing any notice or other advanced warning whatsoever to our client.

The IRS can take this position even if the failure to issue a §6330 notice of intent to levy is in clear violation of the law. Of course, even if the IRS were to “concede” that the Tax Court has jurisdiction over a petition in this situation, such a “concession” would not be binding on the Tax Court. The Court has an independent duty to determine whether it has jurisdiction over a petition, regardless of the positions taken by the parties. SECC Corp. v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. 225 (2014).

The Tax Court has never held that it lacks jurisdiction over a petition in this precise situation, however. In one case where the Tax Court concluded that the IRS improperly levied on a taxpayer’s bank account without first issuing a Notice of Intent to Levy, the Court held that it had jurisdiction over the case because the IRS made a de facto “determination” for purposes of section 6330 in response to which a petition was filed and thus formed the basis of the Court’s jurisdiction. See Chocallo v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2004-152, 87 T.C.M. (CCH) 1432 (2004). In Chocallo, the Court also held that it had the ability to order the IRS to refund to the Petitioner all funds which Respondent had improperly seized or levied from the taxpayer.

[Curiously, it is not possible to access the docket sheet in the Chocallo case electronically. The Tax Court’s website indicates that the case is filed under seal. This seems to me to be very strange.   I have a distinct memory, from a number of years ago, of reading another Memorandum Decision, the name of which I cannot recall, which seemingly was issued either in the Chocallo case or in another case involving facts that were very similar to the facts in Chocallo, prior to the date of 2004 Chocallo opinon. Since I have not able to locate any other Memorandum Decision with similar facts, it would be nice if the seal in Chocallo were somehow lifted. I would then be able to figure out whether my memory is correct about the existence of the other Memorandum Decision or instead be able to confirm that my memory has been completely corrupted from lead poisoning. (Most of my ill-spent youth was spent growing up on the site of a defunct lead-smelting plant in southern Illinois. I blame all of my mistakes on this fact.)]

The aspect of the Chocallo opinion dealing with the ability of the Tax Court to exercise jurisdiction in this situation has been discussed by the Tax Court in TC opinions, see Greene-Thapedi v. Commissioner, 126 T.C. 1, 9 n.13 (2006), and Bussell v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. 222, 245 (2008), but it has never been disavowed by the Court. Thus, it is an open question as to how the Tax Court would rule in a Reviewed Opinion or a TC Opinion by one Division of the Court on the issue of whether the Tax Court can acquire jurisdiction in the fact pattern that was faced by our clients. If the Tax Court does acquire jurisdiction, however, it would appear that it can exercise equitable powers to restore the status quo ante and order the IRS to undo the effects of an illegal levy. See Zapara v. Commissioner, 652 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir.2011), affirming 124 T.C. 223 (2005).

Notwithstanding this uncertainty, there is one step which practitioners can take to increase the chances that the Tax Court will hold that it has acquired jurisdiction in a case where the IRS has taken levy action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of the taxpayer without sending a separate notice of intent to levy to the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee. That step is well illustrated by the opinion in Grover v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2007-176, 94 T.C.M. 28 (2007). In Grover, the taxpayer filed a petition asserting that the IRS had issued levies without first sending the taxpayer a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy.   The IRS moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, based on the grounds that no Notice of Determination had ever been issued to the taxpayer. The IRS also noted that it had previously issued a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the taxpayer well before the taxpayer filed a Tax Court petition.

In dismissing the petition for lack of jurisdiction, the Tax Court stated as follows:

The parties agree that respondent issued no notice of determination. Petitioner does not contend that respondent otherwise made any section 6330 determination. Cf. Chocallo v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2004-152 (describing an order denying a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction predicated on the nonissuance of any notice of determination, where the Court had found that the taxpayer had received a “‘determination’ within the contemplation of section 6330” on the basis of “various discrepancies” in the transcripts of account). But as suggested in Boyd v. Comm’r, supra at 303, even if we were to conclude that the notice of levy was “evidence of a concurrent section 6330 determination”, we would be required to dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction because petitioner did not file his petition until November 17, 2006, which was more than 30 days after the October 9, 2006, notice of levy.

This quote makes clear that, if an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer wants to have a fighting chance to convince the Tax Court to take jurisdiction over a petition filed in a case where the IRS took levy action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of the taxpayer without first sending a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, the alleged alter ego/successor in interest must file the petition within 30 days of the date of the initial IRS levy. In our now-settled Tax Court case, we made sure to file a petition within this 30 day period.

It is possible to argue that a petition filed under these circumstances is timely if filed within 30 days of the date on which the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee receives notice of the levy action. But the prudent course of action is to file a petition within 30 days of the date of the initial levy action if possible.

Even then, it is possible that the Tax Court will end up holding that it lacks jurisdiction in this situation. In our case, we argued in the alternative that, even if the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction in this situation because there was no “determination,” the Tax Court can dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction in a way that makes clear that the IRS’s levy action was illegal. I now turn to those alternative arguments.

  1. Alternative Arguments- Getting the Case Dismissed for Lack of Jurisdiction for the Right Reasons

The Tax Court has issued opinions in a number of cases in which taxpayers filed petitions claiming that the IRS had failed to send a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the taxpayer’s last known address before taking levy action. In these situations, the Tax Court has dismissed the petition based on lack of jurisdiction due to the failure of the IRS to send a valid notice of intent to levy prior to taking levy action. See, e.g., Buffano v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2007-32, 93 T.C.M. (CCH) 901 (2007). This approach is consistent with the Tax Court’s jurisprudence involving the failure of the IRS to issue a notice of deficiency to a taxpayer’s last known address. See King v. Commissioner, 88 T.C. 1042 (1987), aff’d,  857 F.2d 676 (9th Cir. 1988).

The Ninth Circuit has held that a failure of the Tax Court to explain the reasons for dismissing a petition for lack of jurisdiction where a taxpayer has alleged that the IRS failed to send a notice of deficiency to the taxpayer’s last known address is legal error. See Rosewood Hotel, Inc. v. Commissioner, 275 F.2d 786 (9th Cir. 1960).

In our now-settled case, we argued in the alternative that, if the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction over our petition, it should dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that the IRS was required to issue a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to our client prior to taking levy action and had failed to do so.   We cited to Rosewood and other case law involving for the proposition that the Court could not simply dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction without explanation in the face of an argument that the IRS had violated the law by levying on our client’s property without first issuing our client a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy

We also argued in the alternative that the Tax Court should dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that the IRS could not pursue levy action at all against our client, because the Code does not permit collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee in the absence of a judgment (or separate assessment) against the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee. In essence, we raised the argument discussed in Part 3 of this series of blog posts, based on the fact that the IRS could not take administrative collection action against alleged transferees of a taxpayer prior to the enactment of the predecessor to what is now section 6901 of the Code, as another alternative argument.

In raising these arguments, however, we had to deal with the case of Adolphson v. Commissioner, 842 F. 3d 478 (7th Cir. 2016). Adolphson held that the Tax Court erred in cases such as Buffano v. Commissioner, supra, when the Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction while explaining that Respondent had failed to issue the Notice of Determination to the petitioner’s last known address. The Seventh Circuit held that this latter topic should not have been addressed at all when the Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction. Instead, per the Seventh Circuit, the Tax Court should have just dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction, without further comment.

Ironically, the Seventh Circuit, in reaching its conclusion, violated the very rule which it pronounced in its own opinion. The Seventh Circuit discussed the IRS’s failure to send the Notice of Determination to the petitioner’s “last known address” at length. Aside from the Seventh Circuit’s failure to adhere to its own holding in its opinion, my biggest concern about the Seventh Circuit’s holding is that it permits the IRS to unilaterally deprive taxpayers, along with putative alter egos/successors in interest, of the ability to challenge levy action in the Tax Court. This ruling forces parties to vindicate their CDP rights in District Court, a forum that, since 2006, has no familiarity whatsoever with these rights. The notion that only District Courts, and not the Tax Court, can decide the scope of the Tax Court’s jurisdiction in CDP cases where the IRS refuses or fails to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy seems to me to be utterly absurd and contrary to Congressional intent.

When we settled our case, we deprived the Tax Court of the opportunity to rule on whether it will continue to follow its prior holding in Buffano in cases which are not appealable to the Seventh Circuit. The Tax Court will face that issue in the not too distant future, and the Tax Court’s holding in that case will impact the ability of alleged alter egos/successors in interest to obtain a dismissal of a petition based on lack of jurisdiction with a discussion and analysis by the Tax Court of the IRS’s alleged procedural irregularities.

If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction in these types of cases and, in doing so, follows the holding of the Seventh Circuit in Adolphson, alleged alter egos/successors in interest will be forced to litigate in District Court the question of whether they are entitled to their own independent CDP rights.

This concludes Part 4 of this series. Part 5 of this series will address how these issues can be raised in District Court litigation. Part 5 will also discuss why assertions by the IRS of “nominee” status require a different analysis regarding the potential applicability of the CDP procedures than assertions by the IRS of “alter ego,” “successor in interest” or “transferee” status.   I will also explain why virtually all “nominee” notices of federal tax lien that have been filed by the IRS, along with some “transferee” notices of federal tax lien filed by the IRS, are likely improper in one important respect, to the legal detriment of most, if not all of the persons/entities against whom/which these lien notices have been filed.

 

Unpacking the Collection Due Process Case of Melasky v. Commissioner Part 3: The Installment Agreement

As discussed in three prior posts, the Tax Court issued two opinions in the Collection Due Process (CDP) case involving the Melaskys. In 151 T.C. No. 8 it issued a precedential opinion holding that a challenge to the crediting of payment is reviewed pursuant to an abuse of discretion standard and not de novo. In 151 T.C. No. 9 it issued a fully reviewed precedential opinion addressing the collection issues raised in the case before sustaining the determination of the Appeals employee and allowing the IRS to move forward toward levy. See our prior posts on the case here, here and here.  In this third and final post on the second opinion, the issue discussed concerns the taxpayers proposed collection alternative. Even though the IRS rejected the taxpayers’ attempt to make a voluntary payment, they could still have reached an agreement had the IRS accepted their proposed partial pay installment agreement. The majority decided that the Appeals employee did not abuse his discretion in refusing to accept the proposed agreement.

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From the prior posts you know that the Melaskys owe taxes for many years dating back to 1995. Over the years from 1996 until they filed their CDP request in 2011, they made various attempts to settle the debt through offers in compromise (OIC) and installment agreements (IA). When they filed their CDP request, they asked the IRS to give them a partial pay installment agreement. This type of IA allows the taxpayers to achieve a result similar to an OIC because it involves resolving the tax debt for less than full payment.

Appeals rejected the proposed IA because the Melaskys “have not paid over the equity in all of their assets” and because they declined to commit all of their monthly income to the IA. Either the failure to pay all assets or the failure to commit available income could provide a basis for rejecting the IA. The Tax Court concluded that Appeals had a sound basis based on both grounds. IRM 5.14.2.1 (March 11, 2011) provides that “Before a [partial payment installment agreement] may be granted, equity in assets must be addressed and, if appropriate, be used to make payment.” Generally, once the taxpayer gives the IRS all of their assets, the IA can be reached if the taxpayer will commit to paying the maximum monthly payment based on the taxpayer’s ability to pay taking into account the taxpayer’s necessary expenses and their income.

Before going into CDP the Melaskys had previously had two installment agreements. After meeting with Appeals in the CDP hearing, they were again told they had to provide the IRS with the equity in all of their assets. On December 2, 2011, they were given until December 16, 2011 to do this. By this point they had been in CDP 10 months. They came back on December 11 and said that they needed to use some of the assets to pay for the medical expense of their daughter. The Settlement Officer agreed to this as long as they provided proof and extended the time to provide payment from the assets until the first week of January 2012. On January 24, the Melaskys as for a further extension and the SO agreed while again requesting proof of the use of the funds for medical expenses. On February 9 they asked for another extension but this time they did not mention the need to use the funds for medical expenses. On April 4, the SO extended the deadline again to April 11. On April 20, 2012, the SO issued the determination letter and at that time the Melaskys still had not provided the equity in four of their assets: an IRA; a 401(k); a life insurance cash value and jointly owned stock.

The Tax Court found that in giving the taxpayers four and one-half months the SO gave them enough time to perform with respect to the assets and did not abuse his discretion in sending out the determination letter rejecting the IA. This is an unremarkable basis for sustaining a CDP determination.

With respect to the income side of the equation, the facts become more difficult because Mrs. Melasky had become the beneficiary of a trust under the will of her father. Based on the facts here it appears that her father died not long before petitioners made their CDP request. This raises strategy issues for individuals who stand to inherit property and who owe taxes. If you find yourself in that situation and you want to make a deal with the IRS either through an OIC or a partial pay installment agreement, you should strive to do so before the person dies. Her father’s death makes it hard for the Melaskys to get to the income number that they seek since the trust could provide funds for their support.

The court looked at the trust instrument and agreed with Appeals that it provided a source of funds which the IRS could use in calculating the Melaskys’ ability to pay a monthly amount to the IRS. The Melaskys disagreed with the IRS and the Court on this point but the Court goes through the trust document and determines what it allowed. If you represent someone with a trust who faces collection issues, you might the Court’s analysis helpful in deciding how much your client can pay.

As with the voluntary payment issue, Judge Holmes dissents. His dissent on this issue does not draw the same level of push back he received regarding his analysis of the voluntary payment issue but footnote 26 of the majority opinion does push back concerning the full payment issue. Judge Holmes again cites the Chenery rule because he finds that the majority have “saved” the SO by finding reasons for sustaining the determination that were not in the Appeals determination. Judge Holmes points out that partitioning the stock Mr. Melasky owned with his former spouse could have created real practical problems in terms of value. This is an issue that arises regularly when a taxpayer owns a partial interest in an asset of marginal value. How much effort and expense should the taxpayer expend to break free their fractional equity? Similarly with the cash value of the life insurance, its small value may have been outweighed by the fact it might cause the taxpayers to lose life insurance coverage altogether.

Because the SO did not consider, or did not record how he considered the difficulty in liquidation of certain assets, Judge Holmes would send the case back. On this point I think the taxpayers’ delays hurt them together with a failure to build out the record with proof of the difficulties. Judge Holmes makes good points about the difficulties with the two specific assets but the fact that the taxpayers changed their tune about the need to use the assets for medical expense and that after four and one-half months they still had not liquidated their IRA and 401(k) plans, something that should not take very long to do, left the taxpayers in a bad situation to defend against the decision of Appeals.

On the income side Judge Holmes does not agree with the way in which the Court sustained the decision of Appeals regarding Mrs. Melasky’s rights under the trust instrument. The SO had to determine what the trust instrument allowed her to withdraw in order to determine how much the couple could pay the IRS each month. Judge Holmes point here is one of administrative law and what role the Tax Court plays in the review of a determination by Appeals of the meaning of a trust instrument governed by state law. He states:

We have instead [instead of doing a full analysis of the intent of the trust document] a fact-intensive subsidiary (or “preludal”) legal issue that presented itself in a CDP hearing, before an SO incapable as a matter of training of deciding it as a trial judge would; and, more importantly, deprived of all the extensive and expensive fact finding weapons a trial judge could wield. This may harm taxpayers in some cases, while the lower cost of informal adjudication benefits them in others. It’s up to Congress to decide which is best; and here congress has opted for informal adjudication. That makes our review of such mixed questions an appropriate place to depart from the stricter standard that we would apply on purely legal issues. Doing so would also nudge us closer to the mainstream of administrative law.

In the end Judge Holmes states that he would not hold that the SO reached the right conclusion in deciding that the trust would allow the Melaskys to pay more money than they offer but that the SO “acted reasonably in answering this question and therefore did not abuse his discretion in rejecting the Melaskys’ proposed collection alternative on this ground. This makes good sense to me. Although it reaches the same result as the majority, I like this framing of the role of the Tax Court in these cases.

 

Unpacking the Collection Due Process Case of Melasky v. Commissioner Part 2: The Payment

As discussed in two prior posts, the Tax Court issued two opinions in the Collection Due Process (CDP) case involving the Melaskys. In 151 T.C. No. 8 it issued a precedential opinion holding that a challenge to the crediting of payment is reviewed pursuant to an abuse of discretion standard and not de novo. In 151 T.C. No. 9 it issued a fully reviewed precedential opinion addressing the collection issues raised in the case before sustaining the determination of the Appeals employee and allowing the IRS to move forward toward levy. See our prior posts on the case here and here.  In this second post on the second opinion, the issue discussed concerns the attempt to make a voluntary payment. The majority decided that the attempt fails leaving the taxpayers with outstanding debt on more recent, but still old, years.

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The Melaskys owe taxes for many years dating back to 1995. Over the years from 1996 until they filed their CDP request in 2011, they made various attempts to settle the debt through offers in compromise (OIC) and installment agreements (IA). They had also made at least one designated payment of a lump sum to one of their more recent tax years.

On Thursday, January 27, 2011, the Melaskys hand-delivered a check for $18,000 to the IRS office in Houston handling their case, directing the IRS to apply the check against their 2009 income tax liability. On Monday, January 31, 2011, the IRS Campus Collection function in Philadelphia issued a levy to the same bank on which the check was drawn. The levy caused the bank to place a 21 day hold on their account and the hold occurred prior to the payment on the January 27th check.

Regular readers of this blog know that a taxpayer can make a voluntary payment and direct the IRS where to apply the check; however, if the IRS collects funds involuntarily the IRS can decide where to apply the levy proceeds and it does so in a manner that best protects the government. We have discussed the general issue of the voluntary payment rule here, here and here.

There are many reasons for a taxpayer to want to make a voluntary payment. In the employment tax context, a corporate taxpayer will almost always want to designate a payment to outstanding trust fund portion of the liability in order to protect corporate officers from the trust fund recover penalty found in IRC 6672. For individual income taxes such as the ones at issue here, taxpayers almost always want to designate payments to the most recent tax years, or the most recently assessed tax years, in order to obtain the possible benefit of older periods falling off the books due to the statute of limitations on collection or due to positioning for a bankruptcy petition in which the priority rules of bankruptcy will allow discharge of older tax years. Whatever was motivating the Melaskys, their strategy followed the normal pattern for taxpayers with multiple periods of outstanding tax liabilities.

The abnormal aspect of this case results from the timing of the levy vis a vis the voluntary payment. While I imagine that this fact pattern may occur in other cases, it would not occur often. The fact pattern also raises the question of whether the IRS sought to levy quickly after receiving a check in order to reorder the application of payments. The court addresses whether the voluntary submission of the check prior to the levy on the bank account permits the Melaskys to designate the application of the payment here or whether the fact that the payment to the IRS actually comes via the levy rather than the check allows the IRS to post the payment to the earliest outstanding liability.

On the same day that the IRS issued the levy to the Melaskys bank, it also sent them a CDP Notice for the years 2002-2003, 2006, 2008 and 2009. They timely requested a CDP hearing and subsequently petitioned the Tax Court upon receiving an adverse determination letter from Appeals. The Tax Court found two issues in the CDP case: (1) did the IRS abuse its discretion in not treating the check as a voluntary payment and (2) did the IRS abuse its discretion in rejecting a proposed installment agreement. Part 3 of this series will focus on the installment agreement aspect of the case while this post focuses on the voluntary payment issue.

The court notes that “a payment by check is a conditional payment because it is subject to the condition subsequent that the check be paid upon presentation to the drawee.” It also notes that delivery of a check does not discharge a debt. Anyone who has ever received a bad check can easily identify with that rule. If, however, a check is honored the payment relates back to the time of delivery of the check.

Here, the bank never honored the check because by the time it went to clear the account had no funds. Since the check did not clear, it could not constitute payment and since it did not constitute payment, any instructions regarding what to do with the payment because irrelevant. The court found that “taxpayers may direct the application of a payment only if payment occurs.” This seems like a rather straightforward application of the law but the petitioners want equity and not law. They argued that the Tax Court should create an equitable exception for situations in which the check does not clear due to that actions of the IRS.

The Melaskys cited no authority for the adoption of such an equitable rule which is not to say they cited no authority. The court finds no reason to create an equitable exception to the normal rule of allowing designation only if a payment occurs. The IRS levy appears procedurally sound in its execution and logical in its use given the long history of non-payment. The court states that “Respondent did not cause petitioners’ check to bounce; petitioners’ check bounced because they owed and have chronically failed to pay various taxes, a portion of which was collected by levy after respondent’s man attempts at compromise failed to reach a voluntary resolution.”

On this point Judge Homes raises a vigorous dissent; however, he makes clear in footnote 6 that his dissent is not grounded in equity.  One could almost get the feeling equity is a bad word here. As an aside, you may be wondering how Judge Holmes can even participate in a fully reviewed opinion since his term as an appointed Tax Court judge ended on June 29, 2018, causing him to assume senior status while Congress works through its amazingly quick appointment process to approve his reappointment. Because he is the trial judge in this case, he is allowed to participate in court conference on this case and to have his voice heard in the fully reviewed opinion.

Judge Holmes has concerns that the majority’s failure to create an equitable rule in this situation stems from the incredibly bad tax payment behavior exhibited by the Melaskys across the decades leading up to this opinion. On the point of his dissent, Judge Lauber writes a spirited concurring opinion in which he is joined by several judges. Judges Buch and Pugh write a narrow concurring opinion pointing out that on the facts of this case it appears the IRS followed all procedures but on similar facts it might be possible to find that the levy interfered with the attempted voluntary payment. All in all, the opinion gets very long because of the depth of the disagreement and the Tax Court shows more fractures in its personal relationships than we might normally observe. For this inside glimpse, you might read the entire opinion.

In footnotes, Judge Holmes raises interesting points about the IRS hitting the Melaskys with a bad check penalty. He expresses concerns about whether in doing so it followed the requirement of IRC 6751(b) to obtain proper approval and why it would impose such a penalty when IRC 6657 has a good faith and reasonable cause exception. It’s hard to imagine how this penalty would apply on these facts when they tendered payment with sufficient funds in the account and had no reason to know of the impending levy. Because the amount is small relative to the overall liabilities and maybe because of the timing of the imposition of the penalty vis a vis the CDP case, the Melaskys did not raise an objection to the imposition of this penalty. So, that issue will wait for another day.

Judge Holmes finds that the Appeals employee handling the CDP case did not provide an adequate explanation of the basis for concluding the payment did not meet the voluntary payment rules and, therefore, the court should remand the case. The primary concern raised by Judge Homes brings in the Chenery doctrine which binds the agency to the reasons expressed for its decision. He provides a detailed analysis of federal tax cases regarding the timing of application of payment when made by check. The concurring opinion does not spend much time addressing this collection of cases but focuses on Judge Holmes analysis of contract law and the interference the levy created with the ability of the Melaskys to complete performance of the payment of their check.

While Judge Holmes acknowledges that the parties had no express contract he points to the Melaskys’ reliance on Rev. Proc. 2002-26. He proposes a bright line rule that if the IRS causes a check to bounce the taxpayers should receive the benefit of the voluntary payment rule. The concurring opinion pushes back hard on the use of contract principles, the application of the Chenery doctrine in the way described by Judge Holmes and in the idea that the Appeals employee did anything wrong in making his decision. As always I learned a lot by reading Judge Holmes dissent but I am persuaded here that the majority got it right. Whether the IRS inadvertently caused the attempted voluntary payment to fail or the cause had been some third party, the failure of the check to clear keeps a taxpayer from gaining the benefits of the voluntary payment rule. As the concurrence points out, the Melaskys could have obtained a cashier’s check had they wanted to make sure the funds were in the account when the IRS sought to cash the check. That may be the greatest lesson for those seeking to make a voluntary payment and who want to avoid unpleasant surprises.