IRS Moves to Prevent Defrauded Borrowers from Massively Overpaying Taxes Through Adoption of a New Revenue Procedure

We welcome first-time guest blogger Alex Johnson to PT. Alex is a second year law student enrolled in Harvard’s Predatory Lending Clinic.  Prior to law school Alex worked as a financial statement auditor and holds an inactive CPA license.  The Predatory Lending Clinic does amazing work.  It regularly receives press coverage for the work it does on behalf of students who did not receive the education they sought.  You can see some of that coverage here, here and here.  Keith

The IRS recently issued revenue procedure 2020-11 which extends the relief provided under three prior IRS revenue procedures: 2015-57, 2017-24, and 2018-39.  Generally, revenue procedure 2020-11 provides relief to taxpayers who obtain a Federal or private student loan discharge under certain circumstances.  It also provides relief to those taxpayers’ respective creditors who were required to file information returns and payee statements pursuant to section 6050P of the IRC.  Through this revenue procedure the IRS takes the position that all borrowers who have their loans discharged under either a closed school discharge, defense to repayment discharge, or as part of a legal settlement discharging private loans based on claims of school misconduct do not have to include the prior loan amount as gross income.  Further, to prevent confusion and simplify the process of filing taxes, entities normally required to issue a 1099-C will not have to if one of the above situations applies.

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Harvard’s Project on Predatory Student Lending (the Project) represents students asserting their rights against predatory for-profit colleges and the Department of Education.  The Project uses individual cases and class actions to assist individuals who decided to better their life through higher education but were deceived by false promises and predatory practices.  Before the IRS issued this revenue procedure, the Project had taken steps to protect their clients against burdensome 1099-Cs and guard against the possibility that they would pay unnecessary tax on cancelled debt.  In one recent case, the Project worked to obtain a Private Letter Ruling from the IRS regarding a substantial amount of institutional debt cancellation won through litigation.

Defrauded students already face an uphill battle enforcing their legal right to a loan discharge.  Because many people defrauded by the for-profit college industry have high loan balances and low income, even when they were able to discharge their loans the tax consequences could be devastating.

The IRS and consumer advocates have taken multiple steps to try and mitigate this problem.  Prior IRS revenue procedures 2015-57, 2017-24, and 2018-39 provided the same relief that 2020-11 provides, but they only applied to schools owned by Corinthian College, Inc. or American Career Institutes, Inc.  In other cases, lawyers have obtained private letter rulings from the IRS as part of a legal settlement with predatory schools.  A defrauded borrower not covered by prior IRS revenue procedures or a private letter ruling was still likely able to exclude all or substantially all of the discharged amounts based on the insolvency exclusion or disputing the debt.  However, many borrowers are not aware of how to file a form 8725 or 982 and it would be impossible for any direct assistance or advocacy group to identify or contact them all.  This leads to many former borrowers including the discharged debt as income.

Defrauded borrowers’ debts can often be in the tens of thousands of dollars before their loans are discharged.  If their taxable income increases by the amount of the discharged loan it is very likely their higher income will disqualify them from several tax deductions and credits, raising their tax bill by thousands of dollars.  For the millions of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, an unexpected (and incorrect) tax bill of thousands of dollars can be devastating. 

IRS revenue procedure 2020-11, goes a long way to fixing this problem.  The IRS acknowledged that “most…student loan borrowers [who have debts discharged because of school misconduct or school closure] would be able to exclude from gross income all or substantially all of the discharged amount[.]” They also agree that determining which exclusions to use “would impose a compliance burden on taxpayers, as well as… the IRS, that is excessive in relation to the amount of taxable income that would result.” 

The revenue procedure is retroactive.  It is effective for federal student loans discharged on or after January 1, 2016.  If a taxpayer had student loan debt discharged due to school misconduct after January 1, 2016, and paid taxes on the discharged amount, they should be able to file an amended return to get their money back.  The IRS also announced that taxpayers will not have to amend prior year returns to reduce education tax credits they took in the past.  It should be noted that VITA tax sites will not be able to complete these amended returns as the forms required are outside of their scope of services.

We applaud the IRS for this change.  It drastically reduces risk that borrowers will overpay their taxes and at the same time reducing administrative costs to the government.

Suit Against H&R Block for Free File Violations

There has been much discussion of the failure of free file to deliver a free tax filing platform for low and moderate income taxpayers as initially promised.  You can find some great articles on the topic here, here and here.

This post does not address whether the IRS and its free file partners have done a good job with the free file program.  Rather, this post examines the attempt by the state of California to sue two of the free file participants under the unfair, fraudulent, and deceptive business practices act in that state.  The Los Angeles city attorney’s office is currently suing (on behalf of California) both H&R Block (complaint here) and Intuit (maker of TurboTax) (complaint here) over their implementation of the free file program.

The existence of suits like those brought by California may have a greater impact on the free file program than the oversight by the IRS which, as described in the articles cited above, seems less than robust.  If so, the lawsuit demonstrates a private litigation mechanism for changing some tax practice outside of the Internal Revenue Code, Congress and the ordinary administrative procedures.  Perhaps the state will succeed and perhaps it will lose, but the existence of lawyers primarily versed in consumer law bringing actions to change tax administration shows another path, in certain cases, to success in changing the system.

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California alleges several things about the free file program and these companies’ actions, which mirror the findings in some of the articles described above.  It alleges that Block & Intuit took affirmative actions to keep the public from appropriate awareness of the program in violation of the terms and spirit of the Free File Agreement.  It alleges that the free online program itself is inferior to another program with an almost identical name and that the companies made that program difficult to find.  It also alleges Block & Intuit made misrepresentations and employed deceptive marketing schemes.

I’ll focus here on the Block litigation, which has been more procedurally complicated than the Intuit suit (which is ongoing in California Superior Court). California brought the suit against Block in state court, but Block removed the case to federal district court on the basis that the state law claim implicates significant federal issues.  In this opinion the state seeks to return the case to state court and the federal district court agrees.

The court states that it must resolve all ambiguity in favor of remand to state court and that the party seeking removal to federal court bears the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction.  For this case to move forward in federal court the party seeking to have it heard in federal court must show, among other things, that a federal question is a necessary element of the state claim.

California argues that its complaint does not necessarily raise a substantial federal issue and resolution in state court remains possible without disrupting the balance of federal and state responsibilities.  Block argues that the relief sought necessarily depends on the interpretation of the Free File Agreement between Block, and other participants, with the IRS, a federal agency.  The court says that mere presence of a federal issue in a state suit does not automatically grant federal question jurisdiction but becomes one of federal jurisdiction when the federal issue raised is “basic, necessary, pivotal, direct or essential to the claim.”

Block sees the federal issue as central since the agreement the state seeks to enforce is an agreement between Block and the IRS.  The court discusses an earlier 9th Circuit case, Lippit v. Raymond James Fin. Servs., 340 F.3d 1033, 1040 (2003) raising an issue of deceptive practices in the selling of securities regulated by the SEC.  In that case the 9th Circuit determined that the plaintiff merely had to show the defendant acted unfairly or fraudulently which did not raise federal issues.

The court finds the suit by California similar to the Lippit case.  The proof of deceptive practices does not require an interpretation of federal law and the state court can properly decide the issue.

In the alternative, Block argued that even if the deceptive practices claim does not involve federal law, the other two claims in the case do.  The court determines that as long as the case could be decided under a state law claim remand to the state is appropriate.  The court looks at the unfairness part of the argument of California and determines that California could prevail on that claim irrespective of whether Block violated its federal agreement.  Similarly, it determined that the fraudulent or deceptive practices claim could be decided without resort to the Free File Agreement.

So, a state court may have a say in what happens to the Free File program and attorney generals have a way to police the program, even if the IRS has fallen down on its job of doing so.  In this somewhat rare area where state consumer law overlaps with IRS oversight, the consumer law provisions may provide a work-around to lax federal action and a path for taxpayers to actually receive the free file programs the program seemed to promise in its inception.

Remembering Dale Kensinger

On January 15, 2020, Dale Kensinger passed away leaving a big hole at the Tax Clinic at Harvard Law School.  You can find his obituary here.  Until very recently Dale put in a few days a week doing volunteer work at the tax clinic, where he had his own dedicated office as part of the supervising team.

I first met Dale on March 14, 1977, when I started working for Chief Counsel, IRS in Branch 3 of the Refund Litigation Division.  Dale was one of nine attorneys in the branch and was the second most senior.  As a newly minted law school graduate, I remember thinking Dale, who was about 35 at the time, was really old.  He was also extremely knowledgeable, generous with his time and kind.  I was fortunate to start my legal career in a small branch of attorneys that included someone like Dale.

Dale moved on to the Kansas City office of Chief Counsel only nine months after I arrived.  I moved on after just 18 months because of a reorganization that sent all of us to field offices across the country or to other National Office divisions.  Dale worked in the Kansas City office from 1978 to 1999 where he became the Assistant District Counsel.  Other than seeing him at the occasional training program, our paths essentially did not cross during these years though we both worked for the same large organization.

He retired in 1999 and founded the low income taxpayer clinic at University of Missouri – Kansas City.  He also became active in the ABA tax section and quickly rose to leadership in the low income taxpayer committee.  When I retired in 2007 and began teaching at Villanova, I reconnected with Dale through the ABA Tax Section.  Then Dale retired again in 2009 to move from Kansas City to Boston to be near his daughter, Elizabeth.  Following his retirement from the UMKC clinic, Dale became less active with the ABA but he was not finished helping low income taxpayers. 

My colleague at the Legal Services Center at Harvard, Dan Nagin, arrived in 2012 to start a veteran’s clinic and quickly found that he had many clients who needed tax assistance.  Dan searched around for someone who could help these clients and connected with Dale.  Dale worked with volunteer students from Harvard to service the veteran clients until Dan could convince the Harvard faculty to formally start a tax clinic.  When the tax clinic formally started in 2015, I came to Harvard as a visitor to get it going and had the incredibly good fortune to have Dale there already to guide me once again.

Dale served three years in the air force during the Vietnam War.  His time as a veteran, his kind and patient nature as well as his deep knowledge of tax practice, allowed him to fix the tax problems of many veterans, and others, during the five years I worked with him in the tax clinic at Harvard.  He not only handled a substantial docket but he mentored students, fellows and me.  The tax clinic misses him on many levels.  His clients miss him deeply and several have commented to me over the past two months how much he helped them and how much they hoped and prayed for his recovery.

Because of his extraordinary service to low income taxpayers in his retirement, Dale was selected in 2018 as the co-recipient of the Janet Spragens Pro Bono Award which is the only annual award given by the Tax Section.  The ABA Tax Section describes the award and the selection criteria as follows:

This award was established in 2002 to recognize one or more individuals or law firms for outstanding and sustained achievements in pro bono activities in tax law. In 2007 the award was renamed in honor of the late Janet Spragens, who received the award in 2006 in recognition of her dedication to the development of low income taxpayer clinics throughout the United States.

Throughout the 50+ years of his career as a tax lawyer, Dale provided a model of caring about finding the right answer through his legal skills and caring about his clients with his interpersonal skills.  At the tax clinic we are reminded daily of Dale’s work as we try to finish what he started with the clients he was representing.  We were very fortunate to have him as a colleague and a role model for so many years.  I will miss our regular talks about baseball, politics, difficult clients, difficult IRS employees and wonderful granddaughters.  Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family at this time.

9th Circuit Affirms Tax Court’s Ruling in Kollsman Disregarding the Report of Taxpayer’s Appraiser

We welcome back guest blogger Cindy Charleston-Rosenberg. Cindy is a past president and a certified member of the International Society of Appraisers. She and I both posted on the Tax Court’s earlier decision in the Kollsman case. Now, the 9th Circuit, in an unpublished opinion, has affirmed the Tax Court’s opinion. I am somewhat surprised that the taxpayer appealed this case because the burden to overturn the Tax Court’s decision was high. The 9th Circuit seemed to have little trouble finding that the Tax Court correctly relied on the appraiser used by the IRS and dismissing the taxpayer’s appraiser who came burdened with conflict problems and a desire not to use comparables in setting a value. The 9th Circuit stated “The Tax Court did not err in rejecting Wachter’s (the petitioner’s appraiser) opinion in part because he did not support his valuations with comparable sales data.” The 9th Circuit did not directly address the conflict of the taxpayer’s appraiser that greatly influenced the Tax Court to ignore or deeply discount his opinion but instead continued to focus on the deficiencies of his opinion stating “the Tax Court did not err in finding that Wachter failed to explain the nearly fivefold increase in value between his valuation and the sale price.” As Cindy explains and as we discussed in the prior posts, getting the right appraiser makes a huge difference in getting the “right” outcome. Trying to fix a problem with an appraisal through an appeal will generally not end well. Keith

On July 26, 2019, The Appraisal Foundation released a press statement urging legal advisors and wealth managers, in light of the recent affirmation of Kollsman v Commissioner, (T.C. Memo. 2017-40) to recognize the primacy of the personal property appraisal profession. The Appraisal Foundation is the nation’s foremost authority on valuation services, authorized by Congress as the source of appraisal standards and appraiser qualification criteria.

The 9th Circuit affirmation of Kollsman establishes that attorneys and other allied professionals should, as a minimum standard of care, recognize appraising as a professional discipline distinct from other types of art market expertise. From the Foundation’s release: 

with this ruling, the competency and professionalism of personal property appraisers has been confirmed for the second time by the judicial system in the United States … wealth managers and estate attorneys now have a greater fiduciary duty to their clients to fully understand appraiser qualification criteria and appraisal standards when vetting personal property appraisal experts.

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The Tax Court decision in Kollsman essentially disregarded an appraisal submitted by a high ranking executive of a premiere auction house as lacking basic qualification, credibility, support and objectivity. The decision relied almost exclusively on the opinion of the IRS expert, who was a relevantly credentialed, professional appraiser. The 9th Circuit opinion found the Tax Court did not err in rejecting the auction house expert’s opinion, in part because it was not supported by comparable sales data and failed to consider relevant past sales. In disregard to established caselaw and standard professional appraisal practice, the auctioneer testified that when he arrived at his valuations, he was “not interested” in comparables, and had only reviewed comparables after the IRS challenged his methodology. In finding the auction house appraisal to be “unreliable and unpersuasive” the Tax Court opinion deemed the omission of comparables supporting the valuations to be “remarkable”, stating; “we have repeatedly found sale prices for comparable works quite important to determining the value of art”. In contrast, the court found the credentialed appraiser engaged by the IRS explained his methodology, relied on comparables, and conducted research as to the impact of the subject property’s condition to an expected level of professional performance and objectivity. 

To help ensure a trustworthy level of professional competency, The Appraisal Foundation’s sponsoring professional personal property organizations, the International Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America, and the American Society of Appraisers, have embraced and are bound to implement the Personal Property Appraiser Minimum Qualification Criteria in issuing credentials to members. Each organization maintains a public registry where the appraiser’s level of credentialing, areas of specialization, education and experience may be accessed and confirmed. Members of these associations earn their credentials through a stringent admissions, training and testing process. They are required to comply with IRS guidelines and the Appraisal Foundation’s Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP), are bound to continuing education requirements and to submit to the oversight of their professional organization’s ethics committee. 

As a member of the Appraisal Foundation’s Board of Trustees, I welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the legal and wealth management professions on best practices in identifying and engaging qualified appraisers, particularly for IRS use appraisals. As we see here, every appraisal report submitted to the IRS has the potential to become the subject of litigation. Procedurally Taxing readers are invited to review my earlier post for an in-depth analysis of the implications of the original ruling, and Keith Fogg’s earlier coverage of this case highlighting the avoidable perception of bias when engaging an expert seeking any involvement in the sale of purchase of the subject of an appraisal. 

Last September the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) Regional Meeting in Baltimore hosted a panel addressing this issue. The feedback from the considerable post-presentation engagement from attendees was that the qualification criteria for real property appraisers are well understood by the legal profession. However, qualification criteria and practice standards for personal property and business valuation experts, sourced by the same authority, are clearly less so, often with devastating outcomes for consumers.

In the wake of the Kollsman affirmation,particularly as the ruling applies to the benefits of engaging relevantly credentialed experts for IRS valuations, and critically, the Appraisal Foundation’s now public stance on this issue, it will be increasingly difficult for tax and legal advisors to defend engagement of less than fully qualified valuation experts. 

Appointments Clause Errors in the Taxpayer First Act that the President is Deeming that He Corrected

On July 1, 2019, the President signed into law H.R. 3151, the Taxpayer First Act – bipartisan legislation primarily making a number of changes to the IRS. Section 1001 of the Act amends Code section 7803 to add a new subsection (e), creating the IRS “Independent Office of Appeals” as a separate office within the IRS, whose “Chief of Appeals” reports directly to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Section 2101 of the Act also amends Code section 7803 to add a new subsection (f), creating within the IRS a new position of IRS “Chief Information Officer” (CIO).

No doubt the drafters of the legislation (presumably, the staffs of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate Finance Committee, and the House Ways & Means Committee) have little experience with the requirements of the Constitution’s Appointments Clause (art. II, sec. 2, cl. 2), since there are so few appointed “Officers of the Unites States” in the IRS. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the only appointed “Officers” in that vast bureaucracy are the Commissioner, the Chief Counsel, and the members of the IRS Oversight Board (each appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate); sections 7802(b)(1)(A) and 7803(a)(1)(A) and (b)(1); and the National Taxpayer Advocate (appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury). Section 7803(c)(1)(B)(ii).

New Code section 7803(e)(2)(B) and (f)(1) provide that the Chief of Appeals and the CIO shall be appointed by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Unfortunately, assuming that those individuals are “inferior officers” under the Appointments Clause (as opposed to a mere governmental employee lacking “significant authority” to act on behalf of the government), those appointment delegations would be invalid.

Somebody at the White House or DOJ noticed this error before the President signed the bill and thought that the President had an easy work-around. So, in signing the bill into law, the President executed a signing statement that reads in its entirety:

Today, I have signed into law H.R. 3151, the “Taxpayer First Act” (the “Act”). Sections 1001(a) and 2101(a) of the Act require the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to appoint persons to positions responsible for significant functions of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Such persons are likely inferior officers under the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. Because the IRS is a component of the Department of the Treasury, the Commissioner is not the head of a department and thus lacks constitutional authority to appoint inferior officers. I therefore direct the Secretary of the Treasury, as the head of the department, to approve any appointments made pursuant to sections 1001(a) and 2101(a) of the Act. DONALD J. TRUMP

Having litigated a case involving the Appointments Clause; see Tucker v Commissioner, 676 F. 3d 1129 (D.C. Cir. 2012), aff’g 135 T.C. 114 (2010) (holding that Appeals Settlement Officers and their Team Managers holding Collection Due Process hearings are not inferior officers, but mere employees not needing appointment), I am quite familiar with case law under the Clause outside the tax area. And, it is my considered opinion that if the Supreme Court were asked if the President’s fix worked, the ghost of former Justice Scalia would cause the Court to call the President’s signing statement “applesauce”. In my view, only Congress can fix the problem, not the President.

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The Appointments Clause provides in relevant part:

[The President] . . . shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The Framers sought to prevent the diffusion of appointment power by limiting who may make appointments and to whom Congress, by enacting a law, may delegate appointing power. The default is that, assuming a delegation law is invalid, the appointment of inferior Officers must be made by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. There is little question that, if these new IRS individuals are “Officers of the United States” (which I am confident that they are), they are inferior officers, since they report to a higher officer, the Commissioner. Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651, 662 (1997) (“Generally speaking, the term ‘inferior officer’ connotes a relationship with some higher ranking officer or officers below the President: whether one is an ‘inferior’ officer depends on whether he has a superior.”)

In the case of Cabinet Departments, only the Department’s Secretary has been held to be the Head of a Department under Supreme Court Appointments Clause case law. Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868, 886 (1990) (“This Court for more than a century has held that the term ‘Department’ refers only to “‘a part or division of the executive government, as the Department of State, or of the Treasury,'” expressly ‘created’ and ‘giv[en] . . . the name of a department’ by Congress.”). (Note that, since Freytag, the Supreme Court has also held that independent agencies, such as the SEC, can also be “Departments”. See Free Enterprise Fund v. PCOAB, 561 U.S. 477, 510-511 (2010).) Thus, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, as the head of a mere unit within the Treasury Department, is not one of the individuals to whom Congress may delegate appointment power for an inferior officer. The Commissioner is not the Head of a Department.

This is not the first time Congressional drafters made an Appointments Clause error in naming an appointer who was not the Head of a Department. What happened most recently to the Patent and Trademark Judges is instructive. The history is set out in detail in Stryker Spine v. Biedermann Motech GmbH, 684 F. Supp. 2d 68, 80-88 (D.D.C. 2010). The Patent and Trademark Judges were part of the Patent and Trademark Office of the Department of Commerce. Congress had long given the Secretary of Commerce the power to appoint such judges. But, in 2000, some bright bulb in Congress changed the law so that the Director of the Patent and Trademark Office could appoint such judges. When Prof. John Duffy, in a 2007 blog post, questioned the constitutionality of this appointment if the judges, as he argued, were inferior officers, not employees, patent and trademark lawyers started to raise this issue in the courts in challenges to the post-2000 rulings of such judges. Congress solved the problem by enacting a law allowing the Secretary of Commerce to appoint such judges – i.e., reverting to the prior law. Congress purported to make the new law retroactive to cure any error, something at least Duffy thought not constitutional, either. But, no court has ever held the Congressional fix improper.

I don’t see how the Secretary of the Treasury has been authorized by law to appoint the new IRS officers. The President’s mere deeming the Secretary to be the proper co-appointer has not been approved by Congress.

On the bright side for Congress, though, they can clearly add this fix to a Technical Correction Act. And, when they do so, I expect that they will follow the lead of what they did in fixing the similar problem with the Patent and Trademark Judges – complete with making the fix retroactive.

Also on the bright side for both the President and the IRS, I have a hard time figuring out who has the standing to bring a legal challenge under the Appointments Clause to what the President just did. After all, who is aggrieved by the error? The Chief of Appeals doesn’t make individual taxpayer rulings within Appeals. Perhaps some government contractor, whose proposed information technology contract was turned down by the IRS CIO, though, might have standing to complain. But, really, would such a lawsuit really be worth it to anyone?

Seeking Clarity from the IRS for Foreign Entities

Today we welcome first-time guest blogger R. D. David Young of RDDY Consulting LLC. David specializes in transaction structuring and global tax planning. Here David explains IRS’s planned changes to the EIN application process, and proposes clarifications that would be helpful for foreign entities in need of an EIN. Christine

As the IRS prepares to update its Employer Identification Number (EIN) application process to enhance security, it should also update the process to add some needed clarity for foreign entities.

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The IRS announced on March 27, 2019 that it is revising its EIN application process to enhance security. As part of that process, the IRS indicated that starting May 13 only individuals with tax identification numbers may request an EIN. The announcement indicated that the change will provide greater security to the EIN application process by prohibiting entities from being “responsible parties” and using their own EINs to obtain additional EINs. Interestingly, since December 2017, the only entities that have been permitted to utilize their own EIN to obtain additional EINs are government entities, so it is unclear what security issue the IRS is seeking to address.

Clarification for Responsible Parties Ineligible to Obtain SSN or ITIN

While the details of the specific changes to the EIN application process aren’t yet available, if the revised process will truly allow only individuals with tax identification numbers to request an EIN as the responsible party, the revised process could make obtaining EIN’s more challenging for many foreign entities. Under the current EIN application process, if a responsible party of an entity does not have and is ineligible to obtain a social security number (SSN) or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), as is the case for responsible parties of many foreign entities, the instructions provide that they should leave line 7b (which requests the SSN, ITIN, or EIN of the responsible party) blank. It is possible that the IRS will continue to allow a responsible party that does not have and is ineligible to obtain an SSN or ITIN to leave line 7b blank, but clarification on this point would be welcomed.

Clarification of “Foreign Equivalent” of a Limited Liability Company

While the IRS is revising the EIN application process, another clarification that would be welcomed is with respect to the definition “foreign equivalent” of a limited liability company. Line 8a of Form SS-4 asks the question, “Is this application for a limited liability company (LLC) (or a foreign equivalent)?” The term “foreign equivalent” is not defined in the instructions to Form SS-4 and an applicant is instructed to “see Form 8832 and its instructions.” Unfortunately, instructions to Form 8832 are no more enlightening.

The instructions to Form 8832 correctly provide that a foreign eligible entity’s default characterization is an association taxable as a corporation if all members have limited liability, and either a disregarded entity or a partnership if the single owner, or at least one member, does not have limited liability, respectively. However, the term “foreign equivalent” does not appear in the instructions to Form 8832, leaving one to divine what the IRS means by its use of the term “foreign equivalent” on Line 8a of Form SS-4.

Since the hallmark of an LLC formed in the United States is generally that no member is obligated personally for any liability of the LLC solely by reason of being a member of the LLC, one would be reasonable in concluding that the “foreign equivalent” of a domestic LLC must be a foreign entity in which no member is obligated personally for any liability of the foreign entity solely by reason of being a member of the foreign entity.  Applying the default classification rules to such an entity results in such “foreign equivalent” being treated as an association taxable as a corporation. However, where such a foreign entity (such as a Cayman Islands LLC or a UK Private Limited Company) intuitively answers “yes” to Line 8a and identifies the appropriate default classification of such an entity as a corporation on Line 9a, such entity will be surprised to receive an EIN acceptance letter indicating that the IRS has assigned the entity an EIN as a disregarded entity or a partnership depending on the number of members.

Surprisingly, when processing Forms SS-4, the IRS interprets the term “foreign equivalent” to refer to a foreign eligible entity in which the single owner or at least one member does NOT have limited liability (precisely not the “equivalent” to a domestic LLC). The IRS appears to interpret “foreign equivalent” to mean a foreign eligible entity that has a default classification that is equivalent to the default classification of a domestic LLC. This interpretation ignores the fact that the default classification of a foreign eligible entity in which all members have limited liability is not equivalent to the default classification of a domestic LLC in which all members have limited liability.

Given that the IRS applies such a strained and counterintuitive interpretation of the term “foreign equivalent” to processing applications for EINs, the IRS should update the instructions for Form SS-4 to clearly explain that the IRS interprets the term “foreign equivalent” to mean a foreign eligible entity in which the single owner or at least one member does NOT have limited liability.

Procedurally Taxing at the ABA Tax Section 2019 May Tax Meeting

The American Bar Association Tax Section 2019 May Tax Meeting commences in Washington, D.C. and runs May 9 through 11, 2019. Several Procedurally Taxing contributors will be speaking at the conference and this is your guide to finding those sessions.

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Leslie Book –
Saturday, May 11, 9:30 – 10:30 a.m.
Pro Bono & Tax Clinics Committee
Procedural Due Process and the Tax System: A Fresh Look.

Procedural due process is rooted in the Magna Carta and is embedded in our constitution. The right to notice and the opportunity for a hearing are the two key ways that the constitution helps ensure that the sovereign does not erroneously deprive people of essential rights, including the right to property. Procedural due process, a concept closely related to procedural justice, ensures that the sovereign treats its subjects as human beings entitled to a sense of dignity and is a foundational aspect of good government in general and tax administration in particular. In this panel, we will explore the historical roots of procedural due process jurisprudence, consider the ways that that current and proposed IRS procedures relate to due process protections and procedural justice norms, and explore insights from areas other than tax when there have been challenges to agency actions that violate procedural due process protections.
Moderator: Sarah Lora, Legal Aid Services of Oregon, Statewide Tax Clinic. Portland, OR
Panelists: Professor Leslie Book, Charles Widger School of Law, Villanova University, Villanova, PA and Professor in Residence, Taxpayer Advocate Service, Washington, DC; Nina E. Olson, National Taxpayer Advocate, Taxpayer Advocate Service, Washington, DC; Professor Susannah Camic Tahk, University of Wisconsin School of Law, Madison, WI
Cosponsored by: Individual & Family Taxation and Teaching Taxation
Note: Professor Jamie Andree, Maurer School of Law, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, is no longer able to attend due to injury.

Keith Fogg –
Thursday, May 9, 1:45 – 2:45 p.m.
Tax Bridge to Practice, Sponsored by: Young Lawyers Forum and Diversity Committees
Statutes of Limitations in Tax Litigation: Friend or Foe?

Statutes of limitations are an important, but often overlooked, aspect of tax litigation that can work to the advantage or the detriment of a party. Most practitioners are familiar with the general three-year period of limitation on assessment, as well as basic exceptions, including those for a false return, no return, or a substantial omission of gross income. This panel will address more nuanced rules affecting statutes of limitations in tax, including the interplay of section 6511(a) and (b) in refund suits (and, as appropriate, Tax Court litigation), the failure to notify the IRS of certain foreign transfers, and the failure to disclose listed transactions. The panelists will also discuss strategies for navigating statute of limitation issues in litigation, as well as the effect of the government shutdown on both statute of limitations and filing deadlines with courts and the IRS.
Moderator: Kelley C. Miller, Reed Smith LLP, Washington, DC
Panelists: Paul Butler, Kostelanetz & Fink LLP, Washington, DC; Professor T. Keith Fogg, Director of the Federal Tax Clinic, Harvard Law School, Jamaica Plain, MA; Elie Mishory, Attorney, Office of Associate Chief Counsel (Procedure and Administration), IRS, Washington, DC; Lawrence A. Sannicandro, McCarter & English LLP, Newark, NJ; Rebecca M. Stork, Eversheds Sutherland LLP, Atlanta, GA
Co-sponsored by: Court Procedure & Practice and Young Lawyers Division Tax Law Committee

Keith Fogg & William Schmidt –
Friday, May 10, 9:00 – 10:00 a.m.
Individual & Family Taxation Committee
CDP – Beyond the Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth; What Can be Done to Fulfill CDP’s Beneficial Intent?

Collection due process (CDP) rights launched twenty years ago to provide additional procedural protections to taxpayers facing tax liabilities. CDP is an essential part of the practitioner’s toolkit: It offers independent review of IRS collection actions, including the chance for alternatives to enforced collection and, in certain instances, review of the liability itself. CDP may be used to achieve meaningful and lasting collection resolutions for both pro se and represented taxpayers. However, CDP also may be an expensive and emotionally wrenching experience for taxpayers who enter the process in good faith, only to be greeted by inflexible, unrealistic deadlines, overworked IRS professionals applying cookie cutter tactics to move a file off their desk, and a Court swamped with equally cookie cutter motions for summary judgment by the IRS against which pro se taxpayers are ill-equipped to defend. Even seasoned tax practitioners are frustrated by inadequate case records, inelastic government responses, and seemingly limited judicial remedies. This program will move beyond “let me tell you how it all went wrong” to brainstorm what realistically might be done to fulfill the promise of CDP.
Moderator: Carolyn Lee, Morgan Lewis and Brockius, San Francisco, CA
Panelists: The Honorable David Gustafson, US Tax Court, Washington, DC; Professor Keith Fogg, Harvard Law School, Boston MA; Mitchel Hyman, IRS Office of Chief Counsel, IRS, Washington, DC; William Schmidt, Kansas Legal Services Low Income Tax Clinic, Kansas City, KS; Professor Erin Stearns, University of Denver Low Income Tax Clinic, Denver, CO
Co-Sponsored by: Pro Bono & Tax Clinics

I will be speaking with Keith Fogg at the panel listed above. First of all, I want to thank Leslie Book for providing creative input at the starting stages of planning the panel. Next, I want to mention that the panel is not going to be a history or a gripe session about collection due process. It is a panel designed for dialogue between practitioners in several areas of tax law with the intent of finding solutions to improve taxpayer interactions with the IRS. We will be looking at the administrative and judicial levels, plus discussing creative remedies that may be available. We hope this panel brings more debate and leads to positive systemic change.
-William

Christine Speidel –
Saturday, May 11, 8:30 – 9:30 a.m.
Pro Bono & Tax Clinics Committee
Family Members as Caregivers

Section 131 promotes community care for disabled adults by excluding certain state payments from caregivers’ gross income. Historically, Service challenged the excludability of payments to a parent caring for an adult disabled child in the provider’s home. In 2014 the Service reversed this position for certain Medicaid waiver payments, effecting a major economic change for affected families. This panel will discuss the impact of the 2014 guidance, areas of continued uncertainty, and other remaining barriers to the uniform treatment of caregivers’ income.
Moderator: Camille Edwards Bennehoff, Attorney, IRS Office of Chief Counsel (Income Tax & Accounting), Washington, DC
Panelists: Victoria J. Driscoll, Senior Attorney, IRS Office of Chief Counsel (Income Tax & Accounting), Washington, DC; Professor Christine Speidel, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, Villanova, PA; Wayne Turner, Senior Attorney, National Health Law Program, Washington, DC
Cosponsored by: Individual & Family Taxation and Diversity

Caleb Smith –
Thursday, May 9, 3:45 – 5:00 p.m.
Low Income Taxpayer Representation Workshop (Pro Bono & Tax Clinics Committee)
EITC and Benefits Law: Conceptualizing, Understanding (and Navigating) the Interplay of EITC and Benefits Law

What makes the EITC “different” from other tax provisions? And when do those differences matter (in a legal sense)? This panel will discuss the history and purpose of the EITC, how it interfaces with other disparate areas of law like benefits and bankruptcy.

Moderator: Professor Caleb Smith, University of Minnesota Law School, Minneapolis, MN
Panelists: Margot Crandall-Hollick, Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC; Carrie Welton, Center for Law and Social Policy, Washington, DC

When A Promise to Pay Is Not A Debt

In this post, frequent guest blogger Bob Kamman provocatively explores possible links between the Thrift Savings Plan, tax refunds, and the federal debt limit. Christine

An army of accountants and lawyers is standing by while its employer cooks the books of their pension plan, but it’s nothing you should expect a special prosecutor to investigate.

That’s because their employer is the federal government, and the consent of IRS professionals along with all of their colleagues in other agencies and the military who participate in the Thrift Savings Plan was never requested. Like a shutdown with mandatory work hours, they have to take it or leave.

This situation arose when the federal debt limit returned on March 2, after being suspended for a year. Congress has told the Treasury not to borrow any more money. However, Congress has also told the government to spend more money than it collects. Treasury has a solution to this paradox, at least for the short term. It makes a side deal, off the books, with the employees who pay into the federal equivalent of a 401(k) retirement savings plan.

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The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), created in 1986, allows investments in several funds based on the stock or bond markets. The most popular is the “G” fund, which invests in a special variable-rate United States Treasury bond. Last year its rate of return was 2.91%. Today it earns 2.50%.

What could be safer than Treasury bonds, right? But right now the Treasury can’t issue those bonds, because of the pesky debt limit. So Treasury simply promises to sell them to TSP just as soon as Congress allows. Meanwhile, accounts are credited with interest as if these phantom bonds really existed. For those who want to withdraw their funds or take out an allowable loan, the account value includes this phantom interest.

On March 5, the Thrift Savings Plan assured federal employees that the TSP money in their “G” spot was safe. It issued a statement:

As of Tuesday, March 5, 2019, the U.S. Treasury was unable to fully invest the Government Securities Investment (G) Fund due to the statutory ceiling on the federal debt. However, G Fund investors remain fully protected and G Fund earnings are fully guaranteed by the federal government. This statutory guarantee has effectively protected G Fund investors many times over the past 30 years. G Fund account balances will continue to accrue earnings and will be updated each business day, and loans and withdrawals will be unaffected.

Further details on this scheme are provided in an article on the Govsmith website.

Why does this matter to tax law practitioners? Maybe it doesn’t. But in my mind, it’s a useful reminder that federal government employees, including those at IRS with whom we occasionally interact, face different challenges from many of the rest of us.

More importantly, the future of the IRS depends on recruiting qualified professionals to protect the Treasury’s revenue without violating taxpayer rights. The IRS “brain drain” is a real problem. The GAO recently reported that attrition is causing a serious risk to the IRS mission:

IRS officials told GAO that resource constraints and fewer staff with strategic workforce planning skills due to attrition required IRS to largely abandon strategic workforce planning activities. …

IRS staffing has declined each year since 2011, and declines have been uneven across different mission areas. GAO found the reductions have been most significant among those who performed enforcement activities, where staffing declined by around 27 percent (fiscal years 2011 through 2017). IRS attributed staffing declines primarily to a policy decision to strictly limit hiring. Agency officials told GAO that declining staffing was a key contributor in decisions to scale back activities in a number of program and operational areas, particularly in enforcement, where the number of individual returns audited from fiscal years 2011 through 2017 declined by nearly 40 percent.

While reduced budgets and government shutdowns bear most of the responsibility for the IRS brain drain, underfunding the Thrift Savings Plan can only make matters worse. Imagine a Chief Counsel recruiter at a law school campus, trying to answer questions about this make-believe bookkeeping.

On the other hand, the Thrift Savings Plan might be easier to sell because it is guided by BlackRock, one of the world’s largest money managers with nearly $6 trillion of assets under supervision. BlackRock recently disclosed  that its funds have an $11 million stake in Curaleaf Holdings, a Massachusetts-based medical cannabis company.

TSP does not yet have a W fund, for investments in the marijuana industry. But to my knowledge, no one has yet ruled it out.

Meanwhile, I am still wondering whether a record $45 billion in tax refunds was paid out on February 27, as I reported here, because the new debt limit was based on how much the federal government owed on March 1. Did Treasury tell IRS to clean out the bank account because the balance sheet needed to show as little cash as possible?

My suspicions grew when I saw the refund check my clients received that was dated March 1, based on an amended return they had filed in August. The explanation for the refund (“this is what you asked for with the amended return”) was not dated and mailed until March 11. Checks seldom arrive at the same time as the notices that explain them, but a ten-day lag seems unusual.

But I digress. At some point federal employees’ tolerance for TSP shenanigans may grow thin. Congress cannot afford to worsen the already critical brain drain at our nation’s revenue collection agency.