Proving a Federal Tax Lien Has Expired

In the 1980s the IRS adopted self-releasing notices of federal tax lien (FTL).  The self- releasing lien saves the IRS time and effort of going to all of the courthouses where it files liens and recording a release.  One of the problems taxpayers have with the self-releasing lien comes from the lack of a specific piece of paper, the release, demonstrably showing the end of the lien.  Other problems can result from the self-releasing lien such as the failure of the IRS to refile all of the lien notices it has on file allowing one or more of several lien notices to self-release while refiling others.  This post will not address that problem though it does pose one of the difficulties with the self-releasing system.

The IRS filed a notice of federal tax lien (NFTL) against Todd Gordon in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania in 2005.  In the recent case of Gordon v. United States, No. 3:19-cv-00187 (W.D. Pa. 2020) the court examines the situation of the self-releasing lien and resolves some confusion in the state court regarding the NFTL.

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Not to belabor the background of FTLs but to quickly cover the basics for anyone not familiar with such liens, the FTL arises with the occurrence of three things: (1) assessment of the federal tax liability; (2) proper issuance of notice and demand pursuant to IRC 6303 (mailing the taxpayer a demand letter); and (3) neglect or refusal to pay the tax.  Take note that the existence of the FTL has nothing to do with recordation of the lien.

Because only the IRS and the taxpayer know about the FTL, Congress designed protections for competing creditors to allow the smooth flow of commerce.  The 1966 Federal Tax Lien Act established the system for the filing of the NFTL and the resolution of competition between the FTL and other creditors or persons with interest, such as purchasers, in property encumbered by a FTL.  IRC 6323 requires the IRS to record the FTL by way of a NFTL in order to perfect the FTL against certain parties.  The Gordon case concerns a filed NFTL and its self-releasing feature.

Although the court does not specifically talk about Mr. Gordon’s federal tax issues, I assume that he owed some amount of federal taxes which went unpaid after assessment.  The IRS then decides whether it wants to perfect its tax lien by filing an NFTL.  That decision embodies some policy concerns regarding the amount of the liability and the likelihood of the NFTL providing a benefit to the IRS in collecting the taxes.  I discuss these issues in a paper here.

In Mr. Gordon’s case, the IRS decided to file the NFTL and appears to have recorded it in the county where he lived.  That location follows the requirement in IRC 6323 that the IRS record the NFTL in the county where the taxpayer resides in order to perfect the FTL with respect to all of the taxpayer’s personal property.  It also usually results in perfecting the FTL with respect to the taxpayer’s home since the home is located where the taxpayer lives.  The NFTL perfects the FTL with respect to any real property the taxpayer owns in the county where the IRS records it.  If the taxpayer owns real property in jurisdictions outside the county of residence, the IRS must file a NFTL in each of those counties in order to perfect the FTL with respect to the real property in those other locations.

The statute of limitations on collection limits both FTL and the NFTL.  The statute of limitations on collection lasts for ten years unless something suspends it, e.g., an offer in compromise, a Collection Due Process request, living outside the US continuously for more than six months and several other actions.  Here, the IRS filed the NFTL on September 6, 2005.  Because it normally takes several months after the assessment before the IRS files the NFTL, the statute of limitations on assessment would run from the date of the earlier assessment and not from the date of the recording of the NFTL.  Although it filed the NFTL against Mr. Gordon, the IRS did not bring suit against him nor did anything else suspend the statute of limitations on assessment.  The ten years from assessment ran at some point before September 6, 2015.  The NFTL self-released.  Release is a term of art here defined in IRC 6325(a) and it means, inter alia, that the lien is unenforceable.

Probably because the self-releasing feature of the lien does not provide a sufficiently affirmative statement of the death of the NFTL, Mr. Gordon brought an action in 2019 in the state court in the county where the IRS filed the NFTL to strike the lien.  The IRS, as it almost always does when sued in state court, removed the case to the federal district court.  The IRS does not like to engage in litigation in state courts.  After removal, the IRS moved to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim.  After all, the NFTL itself provided for exactly the relief Mr. Gordon sought in suing the IRS.  The IRS, no doubt, felt that defending the suit wasted its time and defeated the purpose of the time saving self-releasing feature of the NFTL.

The court states that “Gordon’s petition seeks to strike the NFTL, but all parties agree that the NFTL is no longer active, and therefore there is no active controversy over which this Court has jurisdiction.”  Mr. Gordon, however, argues that because of a judgment entered by the state court on its docket an active controversy exists.  The court disagrees with Mr. Gordon and states “this case is moot because there are no longer live issues before this Court and it is unable to effectively render relief.  The USA has also granted Gordon the relief he seeks to the extent that it can.”

The only dispute remaining is not a dispute with the IRS but with the state court which filed a judgment in error.  So, the court remands the case to the state court but with the IRS out of the picture.  I hope that Mr. Gordon can get the state court to remove the judgment.  The issue of seeking a clearer statement of release arises occasionally and taxpayers seek from the IRS some affirmative statement that the lien no longer exists rather than trying to rely on the negative implication of the self-releasing lien.  The IRS has a procedure for taxpayers to use in order to obtain a statement of the release that they could show to prospective creditors in order to clear up any uncertainty.  The provisions exists in IRM 5.12.3. I do not know if these provisions would assist Mr. Gordon in resolving his problem with the lien, but there may be others who want something more than a self-released lien to prove that the NFTL no longer actively reflects a liability owed to the IRS.

Taxpayer Wins Rare Reversal in CDP Lien Appeal

Last week we covered Collection Due Process in the Federal Tax Clinic seminar at Villanova. Each student had to find a CDP opinion authored by a judge coming to Philadelphia this spring, and present the opinion to the class. I like this exercise, but it is somewhat discouraging. In all the cases presented this semester (and most semesters), the taxpayers were self-represented, and they all lost their appeals. As one student after another explains why the IRS did not abuse its discretion in their case, the exercise shows the wide discretion that the IRS enjoys in the collection domain, and the Tax Court’s deferential standard of review.

Collection Due Process is not always a futile exercise, however. Carl Smith alerted the PT team to an interesting bench opinion posted in December 2019, Cue v. Comm’r, where the Tax Court flatly rejected the IRS’s lien determination. The Cue opinion is unusual not just because the Court found abuse of discretion on a lien determination, but also because the Court did not remand the case to Appeals.

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The Secret Lien, the NFTL, and Collection Due Process

Before we get to the Cue case, a brief reminder of the lay of the land. The Notice of Federal Tax Lien is a powerful compliance tool. While a “secret lien” in favor of the government arises by operation of law, the Notice of Federal Tax Lien (NFTL) perfects this lien and alerts the world (and the taxpayer’s other creditors) to the government’s claim on the taxpayer’s property. The unperfected “secret” lien can be defeated by creditors who would have to fall in line behind a perfected lien.

So when a taxpayer fails to pay the government, it makes sense that the government would protect its priority against other creditors by filing an NFTL. However, this can cause a hardship for taxpayers, as prospective landlords, lenders, suppliers, and customers may see the lien and decline to do business with the taxpayer. Taxpayers without stable housing are particularly vulnerable. The NFTL also seems excessively punitive where the taxpayer has no significant assets and no realistic chance of acquiring any. NFTLs are filed against taxpayers, not against particular pieces of property, and there is no requirement that a taxpayer own real estate or significant assets before the government can perfect its lien. Keith wrote about the problems caused by systematic lien filings in low-dollar cases here. Since Keith’s article was published, the IRS Fresh Start Initiative raised the filing threshold from $5,000 to $10,000. Still, NFTL filing remains a concern for low-income taxpayers, and it is still a tool wielded systemically by the IRS’s automated collection system.

Collection Due Process acts as a check on the juggernaut of automated collections by requiring Appeals to engage in a balancing test, finding that the IRS’s proposed collection action “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).

One might think, at least for taxpayers who own little to no property, that the balancing test would favor restraint. But where IRS policy requires a lien determination, the taxpayer faces an uphill battle to prove that the NFTL will cause a specific serious hardship or impair their ability to pay the tax debt. And the Tax Court reviews the IRS’s determination for abuse of discretion. This leads to cases like Richards v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2019-89, in which Judge Vasquez held that it was not abuse of discretion for Appeals to sustain an NFTL filing against taxpayers in Currently Not Collectible status whose only income was from Social Security.

Mr. Richards pointed out that the NFTL was doing the government no good, whereas on his side of the balancing test it hurt his credit rating and he feared it would hurt his chances of getting a car loan. Unfortunately, the Court found this “bare assertion is insufficient to establish that lien withdrawal would facilitate collection or would be in the United States’ best interests.” Regarding the balancing test, the Court noted,

petitioners do not contend that [Settlement Officer] Piro misinterpreted the IRM in making her determination. Nor did petitioners present any concrete evidence during the CDP hearing to demonstrate how the NFTL would negatively affect their financial circumstances and credit standing.

…SO Piro actually considered Mr. Richards’ argument about petitioners’ credit standing and pursued a followup inquiry. Specifically, SO Piro asked whether the NFTL would affect petitioners’ ability to earn income. After learning from Mr. Richards that their only income source was Social Security, SO Piro determined that the NFTL was not overly intrusive and was necessary to protect the Government’s interest. This determination was well within her discretion.

So the first hurdle a taxpayer faces in fighting a NFTL determination is proving that there is a specific harm caused by the public lien filing, and this should be a harm which impedes collectability of the tax debt. Carl Smith gave a good example in an email:

At Cardozo, I once got a lien withdrawn at a CDP hearing for a person who had virtually no money, but had been working on a screenplay with a big Hollywood producer. I got a letter from the producer saying that he could not have my taxpayer listed among the creative team (or paid) if he was going to seek financing for the film, since investors do tax lien searches on creative teams before investing money. In order to help her possibly earn money from her screenplay work, the SO agreed to remove the filed lien (she had no other property the lien would secure) and leave her in CNC. But, I almost never hear of anyone else successfully getting a lien withdrawn.

Eberto Cue v. Commissioner

Finally we get to today’s case and taxpayer Eberto Cue. Carl Smith described the case:

There was a pro se CDP case on Judge Goeke’s Nov. 12 calendar involving a banker who owed money for taxes reported on two older returns.  The debt had gone into CNC.  Then, the IRS filed a tax lien.  (He owns a condo.)  It appears he had recently gotten a job as a banker that, like many in the financial industry, prohibits his having a notice of federal tax lien filed against him.  In his Form 12153, he asked for the lien filing to be withdrawn, explaining that he would lose his license and his job if the lien notice were not withdrawn. 

Mr. Cue did not propose any collection alternatives. The Appeals settlement officer (SO) offered him three options under which she would withdraw the NFTL:

  1. a direct debit installment agreement under which the total liability would be paid off within 60 months;
  2. immediate full payment; or
  3. documentation that Mr. Cue would lose his job if the notice was not withdrawn.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Cue chose Option 3. On 8/14/18 Mr. Cue sent the SO a letter with information about his banking license. This showed that federal tax liens “would be noted by the licensing officials adversely to his request to renew his license, which he had to renew every year…”

The SO then essentially reneged on her offer. She found that Mr. Cue “was already in breach of the licensing requirements, apart from the Notice of Federal Tax Lien filing,” because he “owed the federal government, and [his] home was foreclosed.” Therefore, she disregarded his documentation and his argument. In a Notice of Determination dated 9/26/18, the SO determined that the account would remain in CNC status, but the lien filing was sustained. Mr. Cue filed a timely petition to the Tax Court.

The Court’s opinion notes that during the CDP appeal, Mr. Cue discussed the NFTL with his employer as required by his banking license. On 8/19/18 he was advised, “You are ineligible to remain in your current position due to your outstanding tax lien.” It is unclear from the opinion whether the SO had this evidence to consider before the Notice of Determination.

Carl Smith:

…the SO did not withdraw the lien notice, and the taxpayer thereafter lost both the job he had at the bank requiring the license and any other job at the bank.  He has been unemployed ever since, relying on being supported by his wife.  So, ultimately, the IRS got nothing by its collection efforts (except possibly priority if the condo gets sold, assuming there is any equity in it).

The IRS had moved for summary judgment exactly 60 days before the calendar call.  Judge Goeke set the motion to be argued at the calendar call. 

At the calendar call on November 12, Attorney Karen Lapekas entered a limited entry of appearance for Mr. Cue. Judge Goeke denied the IRS’s motion for summary judgment and held the trial that same day.

If one goal of CDP is to find an appropriate collection alternative benefiting both the taxpayer and the Treasury, it seems odd that neither petitioner nor the SO in this case proposed an affordable monthly payment as a way to avoid a NFTL. To Judge Goeke, the SO’s reasoning (Mr. Cue was already exposed to losing his license, so the NFTL would not matter) “overlooked the fact that the petitioner had been employed for some time, and was in a position to generate income…”

…it was unreasonable for the settlement officer to overlook the impact of the lien and its public filing on the petitioner’s employment. Her failure to seriously consider the petitioner’s assertions that he would lose his position demonstrates that the settlement officer did not seriously intend to act on the third condition that she provided the petitioner in the telephonic hearing. …the fact that the settlement officer did not seek a reasonable payment from the petition[er] demonstrates that the settlement officer was not actually interested in generating collection from the petitioner, but merely wished to sustain the Notice of Federal Tax Lien.

The Court went on to hold

Given these circumstances, we believe the settlement officer’s actions were arbitrary and capricious, and we sustain the petitioner’s argument that the Notice of Federal Tax Lien should be withdrawn. … We do not look at his current situation [and re-weigh the balancing test]. Rather, we look at the actual analysis of the settlement officer, contemporaneous with the determination, … [and] that analysis we find to be arbitrary and capricious.

Reverse or Remand?

Generally, where abuse of discretion is found the Court will remand the case to Appeals for a supplemental hearing. The lien determination cases of Budish v. Comm’r and Loveland v. Comm’r (blogged by Keith here) and the levy case Dang v. Commissioner (blogged by Keith here) are all good examples of this practice. Keith wrote about the frustration that can result from repeated remands in CDP cases here.

In Mr. Cue’s case however, Judge Goeke simply reversed the Settlement Officer and declined to sustain the Notice of Determination. Under the circumstances, this seems appropriate. The NFTL clearly had cost Mr. Cue his ability to work in banking and had destroyed his ability to make payments towards his tax debts. Under these facts, no reasonable settlement officer could sustain the notice of federal tax lien.

 

Lien Priority Litigation

The case of Shirehampton Drive Trust v. JP Morgan Chase Bank et al.; No. 2:16-cv-02276 (D. Nev. 2019) presents a relatively straightforward lien priority fight.  The case shows the continued fallout from the great recession.  It also shows the perils of purchasing property at a foreclosure sale.  When a federal tax lien exists, such a purchase becomes especially perilous, as the purchaser discovers here.  I remember as a district counsel attorney having to deal with a few unsophisticated purchasers at foreclosure sales who discovered to their sorrow that the property which they thought they had purchased at such a bargain, would cost them much more than anticipated because of a federal tax lien that the sale did not defeat.  The Shirehampton case does not break new ground but merely serves as a cautionary tale.

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In 2008 Louisa Oakenell purchased property located at 705 Shirehampton Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89178 (“the property”). The property sits in a community governed by the Essex at Huntington Homeowners Association (“HOA”). The HOA requires its community members to pay dues.  At the time she purchased the property, she already owed the IRS significant income tax liabilities for 2005 and 2006.  The court described the relevant facts as follows:

This matter concerns a nonjudicial foreclosure on a property located at 705 Shirehampton Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89178 (“the property”). The property sits in a community governed by the Essex at Huntington Homeowners Association (“HOA”). The HOA requires its community members to pay dues.
 
Louisa Oakenell borrowed funds from MetLife Home Loans, a Division of MetLife Bank, N.A. (“MetLife”) to purchase the property in 2008. To obtain the loan, Oakenell executed a promissory note and a corresponding deed of trust to secure repayment of the note. The deed of trust, which lists Oakenell as the borrower, MetLife as the lender and Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., (“MERS”) as the beneficiary, was recorded on December 24, 2008. MERS assigned the deed of trust to Chase in May 2013.
 
Oakenell fell behind on HOA payments. The HOA, through its agent Red Rock Financial Services, LLC (“Red Rock”) sent Oakenell a demand letter by certified mail for the collection of unpaid assessments on June 26, 2009. On July 21, 2009, the HOA, through its agent, recorded a notice of delinquent assessment lien. The HOA sent Oakenell a copy of the notice of delinquent assessment lien on July 24, 2009. The HOA subsequently recorded a notice of default and election to sell on October 21, 2009 and then a notice of foreclosure sale on September 18, 2012. Red Rock mailed copies of the notice of default and election to sell to Oakenell, the HOA, Republic Services, the IRS, and Metlife Home Loans. Red Rock did not mail a copy of the notice of default and election to sell to MERS. On January 28, 2013, the HOA held a foreclosure sale on the property under NRS Chapter 116. Shirehampton purchased the property at the foreclosure sale. A foreclosure deed in favor of Shirehampton was recorded on February 7, 2013.

In addition to falling behind on her HOA payments, however, Oakenell also stopped paying federal income taxes. The IRS subsequently filed notices of federal tax liens against Oakenell at the Clark County Recorder’s office on May 1, 2009 and June 24, 2009. As of October 1, 2018, Oakenell had accrued $250,953. 37 in income tax liability plus daily compounding interest.

For any reader not familiar with the federal tax lien, a quick detour into lien law may help.  For a more detailed discussion of this lien law, refer to Saltzman and Book, “IRS Practice and Procedure” at chapter 14.04, et seq.  When the IRS makes an assessment, it sends a notice and demand letter (required by IRC 6303) almost immediately thereafter.  If the taxpayer fails to pay the tax within the time prescribed in the notice and demand letter, the federal tax lien comes into existence relates back to the date of assessment and attaches to all of the taxpayer’s property and right to property.  The lien also attaches to all after-acquired property as long as the lien remains in existence.  In this case the federal tax lien would have attached to the property Ms. Oakenell purchased immediately upon closing; however, at that time the lien was known only to the IRS and Ms. Oakenell, since the IRS had not yet made the lien public by filing a notice of the lien.

In 1966 Congress passed the legislation establishing the lien priority rules that still apply today.  Congress gave the federal tax lien the broadest possible power; however, it limited that power by creating a first in time rule in IRC 6323(a).  That first in time rule allows a competing interest to defeat the federal tax lien if perfected prior to perfection of the federal tax lien.  Perfection of the federal tax lien occurs when the IRS files the notice in the appropriate place.  In this case the fight concerns the timing of the filing of the lien and not the location.

Because the notice of federal tax lien was filed here prior to the filing of the lien for the HOA, the federal tax lien defeats the lien of the association.  HOA fees seem a lot like local real estate taxes; however, if competing with the federal tax lien, the two types of ownership liens operate differently.  The real estate taxes, even though they arise after the existence of the filing of federal tax lien, come ahead of the filed federal tax lien because of IRC 6323(b)(6)(a).  Congress added this subparagraph in 1966 to avoid circular priority problems which arose when a real estate taxes went unpaid after the filing of a notice of federal tax lien.  Prior to 1966 courts had to struggle with the situation, because the purchase money mortgage defeated the IRS lien, the IRS lien defeated the later arising real estate taxes and the real estate taxes defeated the purchase money mortgage.  With the passage of this provision, Congress had the IRS step back in order to allow the real estate taxes to come before the IRS; however, it did not do the same for HOA fees.  As a consequence, the IRS defeats HOA fees that get recorded after the notice of federal tax lien.  Since that happened here, the purchaser bought the property subject to the substantial tax liabilities secured by the federal tax lien.  A very unfortunate result for the purchaser and one that should never occur but which does with surprising frequency.

In addition to the Shirehampton case, another lien priority case was recently decided, United States v. Patrice L. Harold et al.; No. 2:18-cv-10223.  I will discuss the Harold case in an upcoming post.

Will the IRS Take My Home?

LITC practitioners hear recurring worries from taxpayers with IRS problems: will I go to jail? will the IRS take my home? For the vast majority of people who owe taxes, the answer to both questions is no. Someone who simply owes a tax debt usually does not need to worry about going to jail or having their home taken by the IRS. However, this is not to say it never happens. There are perhaps one or two cases per month reported on daily tax news services, and the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2017 Annual Report to Congress identified 60 opinions in that fiscal year involving section 7403Recent cases illustrate the steps the government must take and the factors courts consider when evaluating a request to foreclose. 

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The government has two separate legal mechanisms to seize a taxpayer’s home in order to collect a tax debt. The National Taxpayer Advocate explains in her 2017 ARC Purple Book: 

The IRS has two options, which cannot be used concurrently, to collect against the principal residence of a taxpayer or a residence that is owned by the taxpayer but occupied by the taxpayer’s spouse, former spouse, or minor child. One option is to obtain a court order allowing administrative seizure of a principal residence under IRC § 6334(e)(1). … The other option is a suit to foreclose the federal tax lien against a principal residence under IRC § 7403.

The IRS makes use of both options, by way of making a recommendation and referral to the Department of Justice Tax Division, which represents the IRS in Federal District Court. The IRM explains that  

[s]uits should still be brought to foreclose the federal tax lien and reduce the tax liability to judgment in lieu of bringing a section 6334(e)(1) proceeding whenever it is determined that such suits would be optimal. A lien foreclosure suit may be preferable to a section 6334(e)(1) proceeding when there are questions regarding title or lien priority that create an unfavorable market for administrative sale. See 35.6.3.2 for discussion of lien foreclosure suits. A lien foreclosure suit may also be a specific option when the collection statute of limitations is about to run.  

34.6.2.5.1 (06-12-2012), Procedures for Instituting a 6334(e)(1) Proceeding.  So, taxpayer representatives should be familiar with the requirements for both actions.

Administrative seizure with judicial approval 

In August of 2018, Keith blogged about an Eighth Circuit decision under section 6334United States v. Brabant-Scribner, No. 17-2825 (8th Cir. Aug. 17, 2018). Keith explains: 

The 1998 Restructuring and Reform Act added IRC 6334(e)(1)(A) to require that prior to seizing a taxpayer’s principal residence the IRS must obtain the approval of a federal district court judge or magistrate in writing. Before the passage of this provision, the IRS could seize a taxpayer’s home with the same amount of prior approval needed to seize any other asset owned by the taxpayer. No approval was necessary to seize any asset of the taxpayer.

The government has adopted Treasury Regulation 301.6334-1(d) incorporating additional procedures and standards. Keith summarizes: 

To convince the court to allow the sale of a personal residence, the IRS must show compliance with all legal and procedural requirements, show the debt remains unpaid and show that “no reasonable alternative” for collection of the debt exists. 

… the taxpayer has a right to object after the IRS makes its initial showing and “will be granted a hearing to rebut the Government’s prima facie case if the taxpayer … rais[es] a genuine issue of material fact demonstrating … other assets from which the liability can be satisfied.”  

Also, the regulation provides for written notice to family members and occupants of the property.  

Unfortunately for taxpayers, judicial approval may not be difficult for the IRS to obtain despite the above standards and procedures. In Brabant-Scribner, the court reasoned that an alternative “for collection” must provide for payment of the debt; therefore, it held that the IRS was not required to consider the taxpayer’s offer in compromise. Similar reasoning has been followed by other courts. E.g. United States v. Gower, No. 3:16-cv-01247 (M.D. FlaJul. 10, 2018). Nevertheless, the administrative collection statutes and regulations provide some procedural protections for the taxpayer and certain family members living in a home owned by the taxpayer. IRM procedures also provide significant safeguards, which the National Taxpayer Advocate has recommended that Congress codify in section 7403

Suit to foreclose judgment lien 

The government’s second option, if it seeks to seize a taxpayer’s home, is to foreclose the federal tax lien by filing suit pursuant to section 7403Les has discussed section 7403 previously, and I will borrow his summary:

Under Section 7403, a federal district court can “determine the merits of all claims to and liens upon the property, and, in all cases where a claim or interest of the United States therein is established, may decree a sale of such property,…, and a distribution of the proceeds of such sale according to the findings of the court. 

Yet that power to force a sale and distribution of the proceeds is limited. In the 1983 case US v Rodgers the Supreme Court said that while the government has broad discretion to force a sale, “Section 7403 does not require a district court to authorize a forced sale under absolutely all circumstances, and that some limited room is left in the statute for the exercise of reasoned discretion.” Keith has discussed the application of Rodgers in prior posts here and here. 

To assist courts in exercising that discretion, Rodgers identifies factors: 

1) “the extent to which the Government’s financial interests would be prejudiced if it were relegated to a forced sale of the partial interest actually liable for the delinquent taxes[;]” 

(2) “whether the third party with a nonliable separate interest in the property would, in the normal course of events (leaving aside § 7403 and eminent domain proceedings, of course), have a legally recognized expectation that that separate property would not be subject to forced sale by the delinquent taxpayer or his or her creditors[;]” 

(3) “the likely prejudice to the third party, both in personal dislocation costs and … practical undercompensation [;]” and 

(4) “the relative character and value of the nonliable and liable interests held in the property ….”

Once the government has decided to sue for foreclosure, the taxpayer and others hoping to prevent that outcome face an uphill battle. The government prevailed in 58 of the 60 cases identified by TAS in the 2017 Annual Report to Congress, and one case resulted in a split decision. The taxpayer prevailed in only one case. These lopsided statistics are consistent with prior years’ reports.  

At times courts’ analysis of the Rodgers factors is cursory or nonexistent, but sometimes the factors do make a difference and judicial discretion is exercised. In United States v. Kwitney, No. 6:18-cv-1366-Orl-37TBS (M.D. Fla. Feb. 8, 2019), the district court rejected a magistrate’s recommendation in favor of foreclosure, because the interests of a third party had not yet been adjudicated.  

A less happy outcome for the interested third party occurred on January 30 in United States v. Jackson, No. 3:16-cv-05096 (W.D. Mo. Jan. 30, 2019). Mr. Jackson’s wife jointly owned properties with him, but she was not liable for the tax debt. Unfortunately for her, Mrs. Jackson came to the court with unclean hands, having previously collaborated with Mr. Jackson in what the court found were fraudulent transfers of the property. The court nevertheless examined the Rodgers factors: 

With respect to the first factor, the Court finds Plaintiff’s financial interests would be prejudiced if it were relegated to the forced sale of only Phil Jackson’s interest in the Properties. As a practical matter, if Plaintiff foreclosed on Phil Jackson’s interests only, Sharon Jackson retains her interests in the Properties. Thus, the sale of Phil Jackson’s interests would not decrease the judgment amount Phil Jackson owes to Plaintiff. 

Translation: it will be hard, perhaps impossible, to find a buyer for Mr. Jackson’s half-interest in the property. The government is likely to collect nothing under this alternative.  

With respect to the second factor, Sharon Jackson lacks an expectation that the Properties would not be subject to sale. Sharon Jackson, as owner with Phil Jackson, participated in the fraudulent transfers (since disclaimed) of the Properties. In the Court’s view, this conduct “tilts the balance of legal expectation against” her under this factor. United States v. Bierbrauer, 936 F.2d 373, 376 (8th Cir. 1991). 

With respect to the third factor, Sharon Jackson will receive full compensation for her interests in the Properties. … 

Finally, with respect to the fourth factor, because Phil Jackson’s and Sharon Jackson’s interests in the Properties are equal, forced sale could net Plaintiff as much as half the value of each of the properties to apply to the tax judgment against Phil Jackson. Under these circumstances, the Plaintiff is likely to recover more than “a fraction of the value of the property.” Bierbrauer, 936 F.2d at 375. 

Mrs. Jackson also argued that if the properties were sold, she should receive half of the sale price before any of the sale expenses were deducted and before certain property tax liens were paid. The Court held against her on both counts. As co-owner Mrs. Jackson was equally liable for the property taxes, and the court reasoned that her legal interest in the property is subject to those liens. Regarding the administrative costs of sale,  

[The Jacksons] cite no legal authority for the premise that the sale costs for the Properties should be borne by Plaintiff. Thus, the Court relies on “the Government’s paramount interest in prompt and certain collection of delinquent taxes” to conclude that Plaintiff net proceeds from the sale of the Properties should be distributed to PALS first. Rodgers, 461 U.S. at 712. 

The government’s “paramount interest” certainly makes these cases very difficult for taxpayers and their family members to win.

The bottom line 

The case numbers are low: the government probably won’t try to seize your home for back taxes. However, it’s in taxpayers’ interests to resolve their collection disputes rather than ignore the IRS. And certainly, don’t try any funny business with fraudulent transfers.

Ponzi Scheme Victims Seek to Defeat the Federal Tax Lien with Constructive Trust Argument

All too often a person cheating others ends up pitting the defrauded individuals against the IRS in a battle over the remaining assets of the cheater. The most recent version of this longstanding problem exists now in the Ninth Circuit case of Wadsworth v. Talmage, 123 AFTR 2d 2019-305 (911 F.3d 994), (9th Cir. 2018) (order certifying question to the Supreme Court of Oregon). On December 27, 2018, the Ninth Circuit declined to sustain the dismissal of the action by the district court and certified the issue of the meaning of a constructive trust in Oregon to the Oregon Supreme Court. Presumably, the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision on the application of constructive trusts in that state will allow the Ninth Circuit to reach a decision on whether property existed to which the federal tax lien could attach.

These types of cases put the IRS in the awkward position of taking the assets of the thief to satisfy outstanding tax debts resulting from the theft. By taking those assets, the IRS prevents the actual victims of the theft from receiving restitution. I am always pulling for the victims in these cases because it does not seem right to me that the tax authority should take the money instead of the actual victims of the theft. I have written about these types of situations previously in the bankruptcy context, here and here, in circumstances in which the issue was whether the court could order a clawback of the money from the IRS.

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The Ninth Circuit describes the basic facts regarding the use of the money fraudulently obtained from investors:

John Wadsworth and other members of the RBT Victim Recovery Trust (collectively, “the Trust”) allege that Ronald Talmage, an investment manager, began fraudulently diverting his clients’ funds in the 1990s as part of a Ponzi scheme. Members of the Trust entrusted Talmage with “over $55 million” between 2002 and 2015.

In 1997, Talmage and his first wife purchased RiverCliff for almost $1 million. The property was purchased with the proceeds of Talmage’s Ponzi scheme. From 1998 to 2008, Talmage spent over $12.5 million of entirely stolen funds to improve the property. Talmage paid his first wife $1.5 million dollars in 2005 using money “stolen . . . from . . . Trust beneficiaries” to purchase her half-interest in RiverCliff after the couple divorced. Throughout this time, Talmage resided at RiverCliff.

Unlike the debtors in the bankruptcy cases linked above in which the issue was a clawback of money paid to the IRS, here the perpetrator of the scheme also failed to pay his taxes. Because he failed to pay his federal taxes, the IRS filed a notice of federal tax lien. The lien attached to RiverCliff and all of the property owned by Mr. Talmage. The IRS brought suit to foreclose its lien on the property. The Recovery Trust sought to intervene in that action and was denied. The Recovery Trust then brought this action seeking to quiet title to the property. At the district court level the IRS succeeded in having the suit dismissed. The referral to the Oregon Supreme Court comes because the Ninth Circuit sees the possibility that under Oregon law the Recovery Trust may have a superior property interest to the lien of the IRS.

Although the priority of the federal tax lien is determined under federal law, whether the taxpayer has a property interest to which the lien can attach is a question of state law. Looking at Oregon law, the Ninth Circuit found that opinions existed supporting both the majority and minority views of constructive trust:

The rights of the legal title-holder, and of lienors such as the Government, depend on when the constructive trust arises. Under the laws of the several states, a constructive trust can arise either at the moment a purchase is made with the fraudulently-obtained funds, or at the moment a court imposes the trust as an equitable remedy. Under the majority rule, a trust arises automatically at the moment of purchase. See In re Leitner, 236 B.R. 420, 424 (Bankr. D. Kan. 1999) (“[U]nder the majority state law rule, a constructive trust arises at the time of the occurrence of the events giving rise to the duty to reconvey the property, not at the date of final judgment declaring the trust . . .”); see also RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF RESTITUTION AND UNJUST ENRICHMENT § 55 cmt. e (2011). In states following this rule, the legal title-holder is a constructive trustee who holds no rights beyond bare legal title. For purposes of the federal tax lien statute, 26 U.S.C. §6321, property held in a constructive trustee-taxpayer’s name therefore does not “belong” to the taxpayer, and tax liens cannot attach. See, e.g., FTC v. Crittenden, 823 F. Supp. 699, 704 (C.D. Cal. 1993) (finding that an “IRS lien does not attach” to business funds that are subject to a constructive trust under California law); Mervis Indus., Inc. v. Sams, 866 F. Supp. 1143, 1147 (S.D. Ind. 1994) (finding tax liens could not attach to property whose title is held by an embezzler because Indiana law “is clear” that “an embezzler, from the beginning, acquires no beneficial ownership in property purchased with stolen funds”).

Under the minority rule, a constructive trust arises only once it is imposed as a judicial remedy. In that case, the legal title-holder retains all the rights of a property owner until such a remedy is imposed by a court. Until that time, the property “belongs” to the title-holder for purposes of 26 U.S.C. § 6321 and federal tax liens against the title-holder can attach. If no court has imposed a trust when the tax liens attach, the beneficiaries of a potential constructive trust hold at most an inchoate claim to the property. For example, in Blachy v. Butcher, 221 F.3d 896, 905 (6th Cir. 2000) (quoting Soo Sand & Gravel Co. v. M. Sullivan Dredging Co., 244 N.W. 138, 140 (Mich. 1932)), the Sixth Circuit found that “[u]nder Michigan law, a ‘constructive trust is strictly not a trust at all, but merely a remedy administered in certain fraudulent breaches of trusts.’” Because “a constructive trust does not arise until a judicial decision imposes such a trust under Michigan law,” beneficiaries of the trust alleged in that case held only an inchoate state-created lien, over which an attached federal tax lien takes priority. Id.

Because state law controls a critical question concerning the competition between the parties due to the issue of what property interest in the taxpayer held, the Ninth Circuit correctly certified the question to the Oregon Supreme Court. The specifics of Oregon law may impact few readers but the issue of constructive trust and the ways that states have construed ownership in these situations has broad application. The lawyers for the trust have done a great job of keeping the case going in the face of significant adversity after being rebuffed in their effort to intervene and being dismissed in the quiet title action. They have one more hurdle to leap before the defrauded investors (and probably the lawyers themselves) have a chance at using the value of the property purchased by Talmage to satisfy their claims.

Ninth Circuit Affirms Earlier Decisions Denying Debtor Right to Alter IRS Lien after Bankruptcy

On November 7, 2017, I posted on the case of In re Nomillini in which the debtor sought to limit the secured claim of the IRS based on the confirmation of his chapter 13 plan. The Ninth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion dated December 18, 2018, denied the debtor’s motion to cut off the rights of the IRS lien in debtor’s property. Here, the debtor’s plan did not seek to limit the rights of the IRS as a secured creditor. The court relied on the normal rule that a lien against a debtor passes through the bankruptcy unaltered absent a specific attack on the lien as a part of the bankruptcy proceeding.

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The Ninth Circuit stated the general rule as follows:

For a debtor to avoid a creditor’s lien or otherwise modify the creditor’s in rem rights, the debtor’s confirmed plan must do so explicitly and provide the creditor with adequate notice that its interests may be impacted. Id. at 873. Any ambiguity in the plan will be interpreted against the debtor. Id. at 867.

Mr. Nomillini did not mention the IRS lien in his chapter 13 plan. He gave no notice to the IRS during his bankruptcy proceeding that he sought to reduce or eliminate its lien on his property. He sold his home. He entered into an agreement with the IRS that its lien would attach to the proceeds. The sale of the home brought a greater price than anticipated by the IRS when it filed its original lien. Based on the sale price, the IRS amended its claim to increase the amount of its lien claim to match the proceeds. Mr. Nomillini sought to limit the IRS lien claim to the amount of the original claim. He then brought an action seeking to avoid the IRS lien to the extent that it exceeded the original claim. The lower courts dismissed the case and the 9th Circuit affirmed.

Lien claims not only pass through bankruptcy unimpacted (absent a specific challenge) but the amount of a lien claim can change during or after a bankruptcy as the value of the property increases or decreases. When the IRS filed its original claim in this case, it had to value its lien claim and claim any portion not covered by equity in Mr. Nomillini’s property as an unsecured claim. Here, the value of the secured property turned out to be low either because the IRS made a wrong determination at the outset or because the property continued to increase in value. In either event the debtor does not receive a windfall because of the low value in the initial claim.

Once the property was sold, the value of the property was set and the IRS amended its claim up to the amount of the sales proceeds. The Ninth Circuit joins the lower courts in determining that the IRS has the right to do this. Had the property sold for less than the amount of the lien claim that the IRS made, the value of the lien claim would have decreased rather than increased. For this reason creditors often seek to protect themselves from a downward movement of value in secured property by seeking adequate protection. The IRS does not do this often because of the time involved to seek adequate protection and, in cases in which its lien is secured by real property, because of the difficulty in proving that the property will decrease in value.

The case resolves the issue in a manner consistent with existing law. The lesson here is that the value of a lien claim is not fixed at the time of filing bankruptcy.

The Federal Tax Lien and the Homestead Exemption

The case of In re Selander, No. 16-43505 (Bankr. W.D. Wash. Oct. 19, 2018) pits the bankruptcy trustee against the IRS. The trustee attempts to use a provision in Chapter 7 to take from property secured by the federal tax lien in order to pay his fees and other administrative costs. The IRS argues that when its lien attaches to property claimed by the debtor as a homestead, the provision allowing the trustee to use an asset secured by the federal tax lien does not apply. The case allows for an explanation of B.C. 724(b), in which Congress allows the use of money that would otherwise come to the government because of its secured position to pay unsecured priority creditors, and the interplay between the federal tax lien and the homestead exemption. The bankruptcy court here gets the law right and does a good job of explaining it.

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Mr. Selander filed a Chapter 7 petition on August 22, 2016. The Umpqua Bank filed a claim for over $5 million and the IRS filed one for over $700,000. The bank had liens against the debtor that predated the IRS’s federal tax lien. The debtor owned a ½ interest as a tenant in common of a home in the Seattle area. Other assets may have existed, but the house occupied the attention of the court.

The trustee of the bankruptcy estate found a buyer for the house for a gross sales price of $825,000. After paying off the mortgage, closing costs and the other owner, about $200,000 came to the bankruptcy estate. Washington is one of the states that allows debtors to choose between the federal bankruptcy exemptions in B.C. 522, or its own state-level exemptions, including a pretty generous homestead exemption of $125,000. The debtor elected to receive that amount as his homestead exemption.

The homestead exemption seeks to allow debtors something to get going after bankruptcy as part of their fresh start. While some states provide generous homestead exemptions and other states provide very little, the exemption in all states comes to the debtor subject to the federal tax lien. So, debtors owing federal taxes do not get the benefit of the homestead exemption that the state might intend since the state homestead law lacks the ability to pass property to the debtor in a way that overrides federal law. The operation of the federal tax lien vis-à-vis the homestead exemption has frustrated many debtors and provides one of many reasons to pay down federal tax debt prior to bankruptcy rather than to pay ordinary creditors.

The trustee ordinarily cannot use the homestead amount to pay his fees or to pay the claims of creditors of the estate. B.C. 522 carves the homestead amount out of the estate and gives it to the debtor as property exempt from the estate.

B.C. 724(b) allows the trustee to take an amount that would ordinarily go to the IRS because of the federal tax lien and use that amount to pay unsecured creditors of the bankruptcy estate entitled to priority status. The trustee is one of the creditors entitled to priority status. In the B.C. 724 analysis of Mr. Selander’s bankruptcy estate, nothing would go to the IRS because of the higher priority lien of Umpqua. That higher priority lien and the value of the assets in the estate prevents the IRS from having a secured claim against the estate. Without a secured claim held by the IRS, the trustee could not use B.C. 724(b) to carve out money to pay priority claimants.

Even though the IRS could not take from the estate, it stood to receive the homestead amount. The trustee argued that the payment of the homestead amount should allow the B.C. 724(b) carve out to occur even though the basis for the payment occurred from money not a part of the bankruptcy estate.

The court rejects the trustee’s argument, citing to relevant case law and finding:

There is no conflict between § 724(b) and § 522(k) because those two sections speak to different kinds of property. Section 724(b) involves property of the estate where the IRS holds a valid lien. In this scenario, Congress has made the decision that the bankruptcy trustee may subordinate the secured tax claim to pay administrative expenses. What § 724(b) does not address is the property a debtor removes from the estate by exemption, but still subject to a continuing lien of the IRS. This property is not covered by the plain language of § 724(b), which provides that it only applies to property ‘in which the estate has an interest….’ Exemptions remove property, or a certain value of that property, from the estate. Alsberg v. Robertson (In re Alsberg), 68 F.3d 312, 315 (9th Cir. 1995). Debtor’s Homestead Exemption removed the value of $125,000 from the estate but such exemption was powerless to eliminate the interest of the IRS in those funds claimed with the exemption.

The court noted that in the absence of the federal tax lien, the trustee’s attempt here would be a naked effort to take exempt funds to pay his fees, and that B.C. 522(k) prohibits that action. The bankruptcy court found that by claiming the homestead exemption, the debtor removed the property from both the estate and the application of B.C. 724(b).   It further found that the IRS need not bring a separate action to seize the money in the debtor’s bank account, but that the trustee should remit the $125,000 to the IRS. This victory by the IRS may benefit the debtor if the taxes were excepted from discharge. If the taxes would have been discharged by the bankruptcy, the debtor loses as well as the trustee since the debtor’s homestead exemption turns out to provide him with no benefit. Prior to filing bankruptcy, debtors should check the impact of a federal tax lien if they hope that bankruptcy will allow them to take certain assets with them. Mr. Selander’s case leaves him with a bankruptcy discharge but no major asset to take with him as he leaves bankruptcy.

 

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.