An IRC 6751 Decision Regarding the Initial Penalty Determination

In Palmolive Building Investors, LLC v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. No. 4 (2019) the Tax Court addressed one of the issues presented by the language of IRC 6751 regarding the initial determination of a penalty. Unlike the Walquist case involving IRC 6751 discussed here, the petitioner in the Palmolive case had excellent counsel and pursued the case without the distractions present in Walquist. Still, the taxpayer lost in is effort to knock out the penalty for IRS’s failing to follow the statute.

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The petitioner in Palmolive filed a partnership return claiming a huge charitable contribution for a façade easement. In an earlier decision the Tax Court sustained the IRS determination disallowing the deduction. At issue in this opinion is the correctness of the related penalty determination. The IRS not only disallowed the claimed contribution deduction, but the revenue agent (RA) examining the case asserted two penalties in the alternative – a 40% penalty for gross valuation misstatement and a 20% negligence penalty. The RA obtained the approval of the immediate supervisor on a Form 5701 attached to the Notice of Proposed Adjustments.

Petitioner requested an Appeals conference. The Appeals Officer (AO) proposed issuing an FPAA asserting four alternative penalties: the two proposed by the RA plus penalties for substantial understatement and substantial valuation misstatement. The AO’s immediate supervisor signed Form 5402-c on the approval line and an FPAA was eventually issued determining the imposition of all four penalties in the alternative.

An issue that the court does not decide concerns whether the 40% gross valuation misstatement also includes the 20% penalty. The IRS position was that approval of the 40% penalty necessarily included the lesser penalty if the valuation ultimately supported the lower penalty amount. Taxpayer contested this assertion. The court found that since the notice issued by Appeals included both and since the court found the additional penalties added by Appeals met the requirements of IRC 6751, deciding the issue of whether the 40% penalty necessarily included the lower penalty was unnecessary here.

The Tax Court begins its analysis by noting the statutory language.

Section 6751(b)(1) provides: No penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination * * * .

At issue here is whether there can be more than one initial determination. The court noted that Congress sought to keep the IRS from using penalties as a bargaining chip in passing IRC 6751. The court finds:

on the undisputed facts, we hold that the “initial determinations” are those by Agent Wozek on or before July 2008 and by Appeals Officer Holliday in June 2014.

Petitioner argued that the RA did not propose and his supervisor did not approve all of the penalties. Therefore, because the RA’s determination was the initial determination, the subsequent determination by the AO does not meet the requirement of the statute. The court dismisses this argument stating:

Section 6751(b)(1) includes no requirement that all potential penalties be initially determined by the same individual nor at the same time.

Petitioner also argued that the IRS failed to follow its Internal Revenue Manual provisions which require that the case history reflect the decision to impose the penalty. The court replied that the IRM

does not have the force of law, is not binding on the IRS, and confers no rights on taxpayers.’” Thompson v. Commissioner, 140 T.C. 173, 190 n.16 (2013) (quoting McGaughy v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-183, slip op. at 20).

The court found that the supervisory approval need not occur on a specific form and that the form used need not reference the employee recommending the imposition of a penalty.

This decision gives the IRS much more flexibility in meeting the requirement of IRC 6751 than the taxpayer’s arguments would have permitted. The IRS still must show supervisory approval at each level at which a new penalty is imposed, but the decision provides it with much latitude in how to accomplish the approval. The term “initial” in the statute does not limit the IRS to getting it right at the first step or else forgoing a penalty. The decision lines up with the purpose of the statute. Since the statute provides a difficult procedural roadmap for the court to follow, perhaps having the decision line up with the purpose is the primary goal to seek when writing an opinion on this topic.

Automatically Generated Penalties Do not Require Managerial Approval

This is the first of several posts on precedential cases decided by the Tax Court earlier this year regarding the IRC 6751 provision requiring preapproval by a manager before the assertion of certain penalties. The case of Walquist v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. No. 3 (February 25, 2019) represents the type of case that one might wish had been litigated by a petitioner other than a pro se petitioner that did not engage in the process; however, the outcome would almost certainly have been the same with a more robust litigation participant. In the Walquist case the Tax Court addresses the imposition of a penalty in a setting in which the IRS argues that automation removes the need for prior managerial approval. The court agreed.

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The IRS sent the Walquists a statutory notice of deficiency for 2014 determining a liability over $13,000 and a related accuracy penalty. Although petitioners earned almost $100,000 in 2014, on their return they claimed a deduction for almost the same amount based upon a “Remand for Lawful Money Reduction,” a tax protestor type claim. The IRS disallowed this claimed deduction resulting in the deficiency determined. The IRS handled the case through its Automated Exam Correspondence Unit designed to minimize the amount of human involvement in the audit.

The Automated Exam process generated a 30-day letter to petitioners. Because the amount of the liability determined through the process exceeded $5,000, the program automatically placed on the notice an accuracy related penalty of 20% of the liability. Petitioners did not respond to the 30-day letter, resulting in the issuance of the SNOD. Petitioners timely filed a petition with the Tax Court in which they continued to assert tax protestor type arguments. The tax protestor activity did not stop and the court gives a detailed accounting of the time wasting efforts of petitioners before it ultimately imposes the IRC 6673 penalty because of their post-petition actions. I will not describe this aspect of the case as it is relatively boring.

The ultimate finding of the court with respect to the requirement for managerial approval is that:

Because the penalty was determined mathematically by a computer software program without the involvement of a human IRS examiner, we conclude that the penalty was ‘automatically calculated through electronic means,’ sec. 6751(b)(2)(B), as the plain text of the statutory exception requires.

The court goes on to say that this conclusion is consistent with the description of the imposition of a penalty in this situation as described in the Internal Revenue Manual and the context in which the statutory exception appears in IRC 6751. Computer generated penalties do not raise the concerns that caused Congress to enact IRC 6751 because no one is imposing them in order to influence to taxpayer to accept the liability or otherwise to coerce an outcome. The court stated that if the penalty imposed under these circumstances fails to meet the statutory exception it is difficult to imagine a penalty that would meet the exception.

The court noted that its conclusion in this precedential opinion was consistent with unpublished orders that it had issued in recent years. Another reason for paying attention to those orders.

The result here makes perfect sense. The IRS did not impose this penalty as a bargaining chip. The court provides a detailed analysis for its decision. Perhaps the only thing surprising about the opinion is that a precedential opinion on this issue did not previously exist. Although petitioners did nothing to advance their argument that the exception should not apply, their failure did not create the result in this case.

The decision here was the first of several precedential IRC 6751 opinions issues in the first few months of the year as the court continues to answer the questions raised by this unusual statute. We will cover all of the opinions in the coming days.

Tenth Circuit Agrees with Graev II – IRS Attorney Can Impose Penalties

The case of Roth v. Commissioner raises again the issue of whether the IRS can raise a penalty once the case arrives in Tax Court. In certain cases the IRS attorney assigned to a case once the taxpayer files a Tax Court petition sees a penalty issue that the examination division did not. In the Roth case, the IRS attorney raised an additional penalty in answering the petition. Because the answer will always receive a review from the docket attorney’s supervisor, the raising of the penalty in the answer does receive supervisory approval in the Office of Chief Counsel. At issue is whether IRC 6751 permits the raising of the penalty at that stage of the case.

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The Roths donated land to a conservation easement and valued the contribution at almost $1 million. The Tenth Circuit characterized their case as follows:

The Roths’ case is one of the so-called “gravel-pit cases” in which Colorado taxpayers claimed large deductions based on the appraisal and donation of conservation easements prohibiting the mining of gravel on what had historically been farmland. The IRS later determined these easements to be effectively worthless (or worth drastically less than the taxpayers claimed) because the subject farmland was more valuable as farmland than it would be if mined for gravel. Esgar Corp. v.Comm’r, 744 F.3d 648, 658 (10th Cir. 2014).

The revenue agent who audited the case disallowed the easement deduction almost in its entirety and imposed the 40% gross overvaluation penalty after obtaining the appropriate managerial approval. The Roths went to Appeals where the appeals officer made what the IRS characterized as a clerical error by reducing the penalty from 40% to 20%. The manager in the Appeals Office approved the report of the appeals officer and the notice of deficiency contained the 20% penalty. The Roths then filed a Tax Court petition. In answering the petition, the IRS attorney, and her supervisor, responded by asserting the 40% penalty. While appeals officers almost never raise new issues in a case, Chief Counsel attorneys regularly raise new issues that they spot when working a case. The ability and the willingness of Chief Counsel attorneys to raise new issues should cause taxpayers to think about potential issues in their cases before filing a Tax Court petition in knee jerk fashion. As happened here, filing the petition can result in more taxes than the IRS asserted in the notice of deficiency.

The Tax Court sustained the penalty, noting that the IRS had obtained the appropriate approvals at every step and that the IRS can change the penalty at the Tax Court stage if it acts appropriately in obtaining the penalty approval.

On appeal, the Roths acknowledged that the IRS obtained supervisory approval at every step but argued that the notice of deficiency contains the initial determination of the penalty locking the IRS into the amount of penalty in the notice. While the Tax Court and the Second Circuit had approved the initial raising of a penalty by a Chief Counsel attorney at the Tax Court stage, the issue was one of first impression in the Tenth Circuit and only the second time this issue has reached a circuit court. The Roths also framed the issue in a slightly different way than prior cases. The Tenth Circuit described the issue before it as follows:

In short, the Roths raise a narrow question of statutory construction: whether the statutory notice of deficiency constitutes the IRS’s § 6751(b) initial determination. To answer this question, after stating the standard for our review, we consider the meaning of § 6751(b) generally before applying that meaning to the facts before us.

The Tenth Circuit noted that the Roths raised a legal question which required it to give a de novo review. So, like other courts before it the Tenth Circuit began to try to interpret the puzzling language of IRC 6751 in order to determine if the word “initial” in the statute had the meaning offered in the taxpayer’s arguments. Because of prior cases seeking to make this same determination, the Tenth Circuit did not operate without the guidance of the prior judges who had struggled to fit the language of the statute into the norms of tax procedure. It stated:

Given these accepted definitions, § 6751(b)’s phrase “the initial determination of such assessment” poses an obstacle to plain-language interpretation. The Code does not require, or even contemplate, that “assessments” will be “determined.” See Chai, 851 F.3d at 218–19 (“[O]ne can determine a deficiency, and whether to make an assessment, but one cannot ‘determine’ an ‘assessment.’” (quoting Graev v. Commissioner (Graev II), 147 T.C. 16, No. 30638-08, 2016 WL 6996650 (2016) at *31 (Gustafson, J., dissenting) (internal citations omitted))). Indeed, the IRS has seemingly little discretion to make any determination with respect to the assessment of a liability.

The Tenth Circuit agreed with the Second Circuit that the language of IRC 6751 is ambiguous. So, it began to look at legislative history in order to find an answer to the meaning of the language. It found that the purpose of IRC 6751 was to prevent “rogue” IRS agents from proposing penalties in order to get taxpayers to agree to their adjustments. Having determined why Congress enacted the provision, the Tenth Circuit then set off to determine how it should apply the language of the statute given the facts in the Roths’ case.

According to the Tenth Circuit, nothing in the statute requires that the IRS include its initial determination in the notice of deficiency. It finds that the determination of the revenue agent could be viewed as the initial determination but also that the determination of the IRS attorney could be viewed as the initial determination as well. The court noted that the statutory scheme for the Tax Court clearly contemplates that the IRS can add additional liabilities and that adopting the position of the Roths would undermine that statutory context in which this question arose.

As its final reason for rejecting the argument of the Roths, the Tenth Circuit mentions that to accept their argument would upset Tax Court jurisprudence and it does not want to lightly do that. It cites to the Supreme Court case of Dobson v. Commissioner, 320 U.S. 489, 502 (1943). In the Dobson case the Supreme Court briefly flirted with the notion that Tax Court decisions should be given special deference because of the expertise of the Tax Court. Justice Jackson, a former Chief Counsel, IRS, argued for such a result but I had thought the case had very little viability at this point.

The decision here follows the decisions in the Second Circuit and the Tax Court. It adds little to the jurisprudence other than adding another circuit to those interpreting IRC 6751 to allow Chief Counsel attorneys to add penalties. Since the statute makes little internal sense, the court’s decision to pursue legislative history in trying to find an answer makes sense and fits with the approach of earlier courts that have wrestled with the provision. Still, it’s possible that other taxpayers will continue to attack this position in hopes that a court will back another interpretation of a confusing statute.

Application of Chenery to Supervisory Affidavits in Graev Cases

Ray Cohen, a faithful reader and a CPA in Paramus, New Jersey, asks the following question of other readers and invites them to send comments to the post to help him work through the answer. Keith

When the original signature of the immediate supervisor is missing, the IRS attempts to get around this by using an affidavit of the immediate supervisor. Attempts have been made to defeat the affidavit by calling it hearsay. Unfortunately, the court have not accepted this argument. SEC v Chenery Corp (Chenery II) 332 U.S.194 (1947) might be the answer. Does anybody think so?

Section 6751(b)(1) states that “[n]o penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination….”
According to Notice CC-2018-006 from the Office of Chief Counsel, supervisory approval is required when the IRS “files an answer or amended answer asserting penalties. In Graev v Commissioner III, it states that “IRC Sec. ‘6751(b)(1) requires written approval of the initial penalty determination no later than the date the IRS issues the notice of deficiency ((or files an answer or amended answer)asserting such penalty’, id. At 221.

While the Federal Rules of evidence permit the use of affidavits, the IRS rules and chief counsel require original signatures in asserting a penalty.

SEC v Chenery Corp (Chenery II)332 U.S.194 (1947) states “ That rule is to the effect that a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency. If those grounds are inadequate or improper, the court is powerless to affirm the administrative action by substituting what it considers to be a more adequate or proper basis. To do so would propel the court into the domain which Congress has set aside exclusively for the administrative agency.“

Putting IRS Records at Issue: Proving Supervisory Approval and Receipt of Notice of Deficiency. Designated Orders 9/10/28 – 9/14/18

We welcome designated order blogger Caleb Smith from the University of Minnesota with this week’s discussion of the orders the Tax Court has deemed important. Keith

Taxpayers routinely get into problems when they don’t keep good records. At least in part because of the information imbalance between the IRS and taxpayer, when the IRS reviews a return and says “prove it” the burden is (generally) on the taxpayer to do so. Attempts by the taxpayer to turn the tables on the IRS (“prove you, the IRS, have good reason to challenge my credit, etc.”) are unlikely to succeed.

However, there are areas where demanding the IRS “prove it” can be a winning argument. Not unsurprisingly, these are areas where the information imbalance tips to the IRS -in other words, procedural areas where the IRS would have better knowledge of whether they met their obligations than the taxpayer would. We will dive into two designated orders that deal with these common areas: (1) proving supervisory approval under IRC § 6751, and (2) proving mailing in Collection Due Process (CDP) cases. Because it gives a better glimpse into the horrors of IRS recordkeeping, we’ll start with the CDP case.

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Summary Judgment Haunts the IRS Once More: Johnson & Roberson v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 22224-17L (order here)

Judge Gustafson has tried on numerous occasions to explain what is required for a motion for summary judgment to succeed. Those lessons generally involved motions that failed to fully address relevant legal questions or put forth necessary facts through affidavits, exhibits, and the like.

The IRS motion for summary judgment in this case goes, perhaps, one step further: claiming that facts aren’t “subject to genuine dispute” and, as evidence, attaching documents that seem to prove only that the facts ARE subject to genuine dispute. More on the nature of those documents (and what they say about IRS recordkeeping) in a second. But first, for those keeping score at home, this order also provides a new addition to the list of “signs the judge is not going to rule in your favor”: when the judge finds it necessary to remind a party that they are “responsible for what is asserted in a motion that he signs and files.”

Law students are taught about the potential horrors and responsibilities of FRCP Rule 11. The idea is to imprint upon their mind the responsibilities in making representations to the court, such that Rule 11 will not become something they will need to be reminded of later in practice. A Tax Court judge referencing Rule 33(b) in response to your motion is fairly close to a reminder of that 1L Civil Procedures lecture, and may on its own trigger some unwanted flashbacks.

So what went so horribly wrong in this motion for summary judgment that the IRS needed to be reminded of the “effect of their signature” on that motion? To understand that, we need to first understand what is at issue.

The pro se petitioners in this case wanted to argue their underlying tax liability in the CDP hearing, but were denied the opportunity to do so by Appeals. For present purposes, if the petitioners could show they “did not receive any statutory notice of deficiency (SNOD)” then they can raise the underlying tax as an issue in the CDP hearing. See IRC § 6330(c)(2)(B). Also for present purposes, receiving a SNOD means actual receipt, not just that it was mailed to the last known address.

When a petitioner puts actual receipt of an SNOD at issue in a CDP hearing, the typical song-and-dance is for the IRS to offer evidence that the SNOD was properly mailed to the actual residence of the taxpayer at the time. Since there is a presumption that the USPS does its job (that is, properly delivers the mail), it is usually an uphill battle for the taxpayer to argue “yes, I lived there, but no, I never got that piece of mail” -especially since SNODs are sent certified and refusing to accept the mail is just as good as receiving it. See Sego v. C.I.R., 114 T.C. 604 (2000).

So for this summary judgment motion the IRS basically needs to put out evidence showing that the SNOD was mailed and received by the petitioners, and that the fact of receipt is not subject to genuine dispute. The evidence the IRS puts forth on that point is, shall we say, lacking.

Judge Gustafson immediately finds some issues with the IRS records that, while not proving a lack of mailing, “does not inspire confidence.” First is a dating issue: the SNOD is dated 3/28/2016, but the mailing record only shows a letter (not necessarily the SNOD) going out 3/24/2016 (that is, four days earlier than the SNOD is dated). I don’t put much faith in the dates printed on IRS letters, so this is not particularly surprising to me, but the inconsistency does throw a little doubt on the credibility of the IRS records. Further, Judge Gustafson notes that there is no “certified mail green card bearing a signature of either petitioner” that the IRS can point to.

It seems pretty obvious from the outset that the actual receipt of the SNOD is a fact “subject to genuine dispute.” First, the taxpayers request for a CDP hearing (Form 12153) appears to reflect ignorance of any SNOD being sent. But far, far, more damning are the IRS Appeals CDP records on that point. The “Case Activity Record” speaks for itself:

Dated March 30, 2017: “Tracked certified mail number and found that as of April 16, 2016, the status of the SNOD is still in transit for both taxpayers, therefore, it is determine[d] that the taxpayers did not receive the SNOD.”

There you have it. IRS Appeals has found that there was no receipt of SNOD. The taxpayer is also arguing there was no receipt of SNOD. IRS Counsel is arguing that “petitioners had a prior opportunity to dispute their underlying liability pursuant to the notice of deficiency” and therefore are precluded from raising it in the CDP hearing. With utmost charity, the IRS argument could potentially be saved if it was arguing that there was another opportunity to argue the tax (which, of course, would require other facts). But that is not what is happening.

The IRS motion explicitly asserts (as a fact) receipt of the SNOD by petitioners on March 28. 2016. As evidence of that fact, the IRS attaches “Exhibit 1” and “Rubilotta Declaration, Exhibit D.”

Unfortunately, “Exhibit 1” is just the mailing list (which simply shows a letter being sent four days before the SNOD date, and says nothing about receipt), while “Exhibit D” is apparently just the SNOD itself. Basically, the IRS is trying to get summary judgment against pro se taxpayers based on evidence that, at best, shows that the only thing certain in the matter is that there is a big, genuine issue of material fact. Judge Gustafson is not impressed, finds against the IRS on every point, casually mentions Counsel’s responsibilities vis a vis Rule 33(b), and appears on the verge of remanding to Appeals.

One may read this order as a FRCP Rule 11/Tax Court Rule 33(b) lesson, and the importance of due diligence before the court. It definitely provides a lot to think about on those points. But I would note that IRS Counsel’s follies in this case did not go unassisted. Specifically, IRS Appeals did not do their job. Although the settlement officer (SO) specifically found that the SNOD was not received by the taxpayers, the SO also determined “the taxpayer is precluded from raising the tax liability due to prior opportunity” to argue the tax. That is arguably what led to the taxpayer bringing this petition in the first place. Without SNOD receipt this outcome could conceivably be correct, but it would take more explanation from the SO as to what the prior opportunity was. Instead, the poor record-keeping and poor file review was preserved from Appeals to Counsel, culminating in the rather embarrassing order being issued.

Chai/Graev Ghouls and Recordkeeping: Tribune Media Company v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 20940-16 (order here)

Analysis of the IRS burden of proof in penalty cases, and specifically in proving compliance with IRC § 6751 need not be rehashed here (but can be reviewed here among many other places, for those that need a refresher).  Tribune Media Company doesn’t break any new ground on the issue, but it does provide some practical lessons for both the IRS and private practitioners in litigating IRC § 6751 issues.

The first lesson is one that I suspect the IRS already is in the process of correcting, post-Graev. That lesson is on the value of standardizing penalty approval procedures. The IRS loves standardized forms. This isn’t an arbitrary love: the constraints of the IRS budget and the sheer volume of work that goes into administering the IRC pretty much requires a heavy reliance on standardized forms.

The IRS already has standardized forms that it can and does use for penalty approval, but the Service was likely far more lax in tracking (or actually using) those forms pre-Graev. And although Graev/IRC § 6751 does not require a specific “form” as proof of supervisory approval (it simply must be written approval), things can get needlessly complicated if you draw outside the lines. Tribune Media Company demonstrates this well.

As a (presumably) complicated partnership case, there were numerous IRS employees assigned to Tribune Media Company at the audit stage. At the outset there was both a revenue agent and an attorney from local IRS counsel assigned to assist the revenue agent. Both of these parties, apparently, came to the determination that a penalty should be applied, and both received oral approval from their separate immediate supervisors before issuing the notice of proposed adjustment.

Of course, oral approval of the penalty is not enough. So the IRS has to provide something more… What would usually, or hopefully, be a readily available and standardized penalty approval form. Only that form does not appear to exist in this case. The IRS tries to comply with Tribune Media Company requests for documents showing supervisory approval largely through memoranda of the supervisor, email chains and handwritten notes (pertaining to the penalties, one assumes). But these “irregular approvals” aren’t good enough for Tribune Media Company… so formal discovery requests ensue.

Which leads to the second lesson: don’t expect success when you ask the Court to “look behind” IRS documents.

Judge Buch’s order does a good job of detailing the standards of discovery in tax court litigation. Generally, the scope of discoverable information in Tax Court Rule 70(b) is not significantly different from the Rules of Federal Civil Procedure. However, because the Tax Court will not examine “the propriety of the Commissioner’s administrative policy or procedure underlying his penalty determinations” (see Raifman v. C.I.R., T.C. Memo. 2018-101), any discovery requests that could only be used to “look behind” the IRS determination will be shot down.

So when Tribune Media Company requests documents (1) “related to the Commissioner’s consideration, determination, or approval of penalties” and (2) “all forms, checklists, or other documents” the IRS generally uses for memorializing penalty approval they are going a step too far. The IRS has to provide proof of written supervisory approval for the penalties. Full stop. They do not have to provide any detail on the reasoning that went into the penalties, or (arguably) what the typical approval documents would be in this sort of case. (I wonder about this latter issue, as it seems to me it could properly be used by Tribune Media Company for impeachment purposes).

In the end, there appears to me some irony to the Tribune Media Company case. It seems highly likely that there was supervisory penalty approval, or at least a reasoned process leading to the penalty determination. The IRS is better off from a litigating perspective, however, streamlining penalty determination with rubber stamp (or worse, “automated”) approval on standardized forms.

I understand the Congressional desire to keep the IRS from using penalties as “bargaining chips,” but am not convinced that “written supervisory approval” really does much to advance that goal. What I am more worried about, especially in working with low-income taxpayers, is when accuracy penalties are more-or-less arbitrarily tacked on to liabilities in ways that do nothing to help compliance. In those cases, at least with the proper training, I think that supervisory approval could actually result in reducing the number of ill-advised penalties -they aren’t really being proposed as “bargaining chips” in the first place. Instead you have what increasingly looks like a bad-actor loophole -one which may, depending on how things develop with IRC § 6751(b)(2)(B) as applied to AUR, not even be available for the most vulnerable and least culpable taxpayers.

Odds and Ends: Other Designated Orders.

Two other designated orders were issued which will not be discussed. One fits the usual narrative of taxpayers losing in CDP when they do not participate in the CDP hearing, or do much of anything other than file a timely tax court petition (found here). The other provides a quick-and-dirty primer on IRC 351 transfers, and easily disposes the matter in favor of the IRS (found here).

 

 

Designated Orders 9/3/18 to 9/7/18: A Plea Agreement, a Follow-up, and More Graev

We welcome designated order guest blogger William Schmidt from the Legal Aid Society of Kansas who writes on this week’s designated orders. In the first case petitioners make an argument that has been made before and failed. It fails again because their agreement in the criminal case about the scope of prosecution does not prohibit the IRS from pursuing them to determine their correct civil tax liability. Keith

For the week of September 3 to 7, there were 6 designated orders from the Tax Court. The first two are regarding two separate petitioners requesting to consolidate their cases and filing motions for summary judgment based on a plea agreement from prior litigation. The next 2 are a pair of orders that follow up from a previous posting (March). There is another Graev follow-up case. The final order, here, deals with a Collection Due Process hearing where petitioners question why they were audited for a home office expense when they were not audited in prior years.

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The Plea Agreement Does Not Cover Tax Court

Docket No. 22616-17, Krystina L. Szabo v. C.I.R., available here.

Docket No. 22560-17, Michael P. Martin v. C.I.R., available here.

This pair of Tax Court designated orders for a married couple are very similar, but distinct. In fact, the cases have so much in common, the couple filed motions to consolidate their cases, but those motions are denied.

Both petitioners were responsible for the daily activities of Pony Express Services, LLC. The company provided foster care and related services to persons with mental handicaps in western Virginia and maintained and operated three group homes there. Mr. Martin was the owner while Ms. Szabo was an employee and program manager.

In December 2006, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia filed charges against the couple for conspiracy to defraud Medicare, Medicaid and the IRS. Among the charges were that the object of the conspiracy was to enrich the couple by falsely and fraudulently billing Medicaid for residential services not rendered and services not provided in the manner envisioned and required by Medicaid, plus maximizing the couple’s proceeds by utilizing what is called the foster home tax credit [actually referring to IRC section 131] when falsely informing their accountant they resided separately in two of the residential facilities.

The couple filed a plea agreement, acknowledged by the assistant U.S. attorney, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Within the plea agreement, it states there will be no further prosecution regarding the couple in the Western District of Virginia. The plea agreement is limited to the Western District of Virginia. The plea agreement does not address potential civil tax liabilities or agreements regarding those liabilities. Ms. Szabo and Mr. Martin were each sentenced to 27 months imprisonment and three years of supervised release and paid a joint and several restitution to the U.S. Department of Medical Assistance Services of $173,174.65. They satisfied the judgment.

In separate notices of deficiency to Ms. Szabo and Mr. Martin, dated August 2, 2017, the IRS determined separate liabilities and penalties for each of them regarding tax years 2003 and 2004. The parties timely filed their separate petitions with Tax Court.

Each party filed a separate motion for summary judgment, contending that the plea agreement prevents the IRS from civilly determining, assessing or collecting the deficiencies in income tax or penalties for 2003 and 2004. They also contend that the government did not preserve its rights to pursue the criminal defendants for tax assessments and penalties after the entry of criminal judgment. Even though Mr. Martin’s motion was filed prematurely, the Court determined that it would be refiled anyway so chose to proceed on a substantive basis on his motion.

The Court determined that the plea agreement did not address the civil assessment and collection of taxes and does not bar the IRS from proceeding civilly. The plea agreement does not prevent the IRS from its determination, assessment or collection of tax, penalties, and additions to tax for the years at issue. The Court denied the motions for summary judgment of both petitioners.

Regarding the motions to consolidate, the Court admits the cases have much in common. The Court states the decision for consolidation is best left to the discretion of the trial judge. The Court denied the motions to consolidate without prejudice to the petitioners, allowing them the chance to refile the motions when calendared for trial.

Takeaway: I am not sure whether the petitioners believed their plea agreement would apply to the IRS or United States Tax Court or they were taking a chance on that legal argument, but I would suggest being more familiar with documents like the plea agreement in question before arguing that it is a document controlling for the IRS or the United States Tax Court.

Followup for Ms. March

Docket No. 6161-17 L, Debra L. March v. C.I.R.

I previously wrote about Ms. March regarding Tax Court designated orders here. While the first order there had the issue of how the IRS could reinstate an assessment after potentially being abated, the other order concerned a motion to show cause. Both of the orders this week follow up on that order on the motion to show cause.

Ms. March did not file her tax returns for 2009 and 2010. The IRS audited her for not reporting her income, assessed tax and filed notices of lien against her. She requested a collection due process hearing before IRS Appeals. Appeals issued a notice of determination sustaining the lien filings. Ms. March petitioned Tax Court and the IRS proposed facts and evidence be established as provided in Rule 91(f). They filed a motion for an order to show cause on August 8, 2018. The Tax Court granted the motion by an order on August 10, 2018.

As of this order, Ms. March did not file a response in compliance with the Court’s August 10 order. Instead, she mailed to the Court a document entitled “Amended Petition,” received August 29, 2018. The document does not respond or refer to the proposed stipulation, but alleges defects in how the IRS handled her case.

Since an amended petition cannot be filed as a matter of course, but only by order of the Court in response to a motion for leave in Rule 41(a) (which Ms. March did not file), the Court ordered that it was to be filed as a response to the order to show cause.

The Court orders that the order to show cause is absolute, deeming the facts stipulated regarding her receipt of income and non-filing of the tax returns. She does have the ability to move to be relieved from the deemed stipulations at trial, but would need to present proof of contrary facts.

Her filing stated, “The IRS did not read or address the issues I brought up in my letters about IRS’ failure to issue and mail valid Notices of Deficiency to me.” The Court is unsure whether this statement means that she believes the IRS did not issue valid notices of deficiency or whether she did not receive those notices. As stated above, she would be able to make these arguments at trial but would need to show evidence.

In the Court’s order, it provides that Ms. March is welcome to contact the Chambers Administrator to schedule a telephone conference with the Court and the IRS.

The Court received filings from Ms. March on September 4, 2018, deemed to be a motion for reconsideration of the order above (dated August 31), making absolute the August 10 order to show cause, and a declaration in support of that motion.

Even though Ms. March was a day late in her response, the Court exercised its discretion to treat it as a motion for reconsideration under Rule 161 and addressed its merits. She does not address the issues of her receipt of income or non-filing of returns. Instead, she criticizes how the IRS handled her case and argues that the Tax Court review is limited to the administrative record in a collection due process case (citing Robinette v. Commissioner, an 8th Circuit case).

The Court’s view is that it is not confined to the administrative record in collection due process cases, especially when the case involves a challenge to the underlying liability, pursuant to IRC section 6330(c)(2)(B), resembling a more typical deficiency case. In this instance, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is the appellate court with jurisdiction (not the 8th Circuit), but the 10th Circuit has not spoken on the issue. Ms. March citied Olenhouse v. Commodity Credit Corp., which is a 10th Circuit case, but it is not a collection due process case, does not relate to tax, and was decided before IRC section 6330 was enacted.

While the Court does not address whether 6330(c)(2)(B) prevents Ms. March from challenging her underlying liability as the IRS states she had a prior “opportunity to dispute such tax liability,” the Court states both parties are permitted to provide evidence outside the administrative record.

As Ms. March did not respond to the proposed stipulations from the IRS, the Court did not vacate the order making the order to show cause absolute and the deemed stipulations still stand.

Additionally, Ms. March explains that she has health problems that would make it difficult for her to appear at trial. She would like the case to be fully stipulated and decided pursuant to Rule 122. She also suggests that the contents of the administrative record be stipulated. The Court does not agree the stipulation should be limited to the administrative record, but encourages the parties to attempt a comprehensive stipulation for the case under Rule 122. That is not an order as the case was not submitted that way yet, but will be addressed if presented that way later. Again, the Court encourages the parties to schedule a telephone conference.

Takeaway: Ms. March has some sophistication as a litigation since she is citing case law. However, her lack of responsiveness to the IRS and the Court do not help her case. Perhaps she was able to address these issues or deal with the stipulations under Rule 122 in time before her September trial date.

More Graev Fallout

Docket Nos. 23621-15 and 23647-15, Nathaniel A. Carter & Stella C. Carter, et al., v. C.I.R., (consolidated cases) available here.

Here are more cases affected by Graev v. Commissioner. The Carters have deficiencies and penalties for 2011 through 2013 while Mr. Evans has deficiencies and penalties for 2011 and 2012.

The Graev decision allowed for Court interpretation of IRC section 6751(b)(1). Specifically, the case held the IRS has a burden of production under section 7491(c) showing compliance with supervisory approval as required under 6751(b). Since the petitioners in these cases would be affected by section 6662 accuracy-related penalties, the IRS filed its motion to reopen the record to admit evidence to establish that the 6751(b)(1) requirements for supervisory approval have been met.

The factors the Court has to examine to determine whether to reopen a record are the timeliness of the motion, the character of the testimony to be offered, the effect of granting the motion, and the reasonableness of the request. The third factor, the effect of granting the motion, is the most relevant.

The IRS seeks to reopen the record to admit declarations of Donald Maclennan, a Supervisory Internal Revenue Agent, and a separate Civil Penalty Approval Form in each case. The petitioners object, stating the exhibits contain inadmissible hearsay. Additionally, one Civil Penalty Approval Form shows a printed date in April 2014, more than a year earlier than Mr. Maclennan’s signature block in May 2015. The two forms call for a signature but show only his printed name. Each of the forms lack justification for his approval.

The Court finds that the forms fall under the exception to the hearsay rule for records of a regularly conducted activity and the declarations fit into evidence that is self-authenticating. The Court admits that the lack of signatures on the forms will go to the weight of the evidence, but are not part of the hearsay evaluation. They show approval by a “Group Manager” and do not explicitly indicate the manager was an “immediate supervisor,” as required under 6751(b)(1). The forms lack evidence of facts necessary for the IRS to meet the required burden. The declarations are meant to bolster the forms but the Court determines that the IRS cannot rely on the declarations for purposes of meeting the burden of production to show the “immediate supervisor” approved the penalty determinations.

Having determined to open the record to allow the IRS to offer evidence that the 6751(b)(1) requirements are satisfied, the Court is allowing the IRS the opportunity to offer admissible evidence or make argument to show the requisite managerial approval. The petitioners have 30 days to conduct discovery regarding whether Mr. Maclennan was Mr. Dickerson’s immediate supervisor (as part of meeting the requirements). The parties may stipulate if they agree by filing a supplemental stipulation of facts. If they do not, either party may move for a supplementary evidentiary hearing to introduce evidence. The IRS may make further argument there are grounds sufficient for the Court to infer Mr. Maclennan’s supervisory status.

The Court grants the IRS motion and received the forms into evidence and the declarations are received into evidence as supporting documents for the forms. The petitioners are ordered to have 30 days to conduct discovery. Either party may move for a supplemental hearing on or before October 9. If neither party requests that hearing, petitioners have until October 19 to notify the court regarding their argument as to Mr. Maclennan’s supervisory role. If notifying the Court, they have until November 9 to file a memorandum of law making that argument.

Takeaway: From my observation, the IRS seemed to be broadly winning the arguments that they met the factors needed to reopen the record to admit evidence in prior cases. In this case, both parties are providing evidence that the Court will evaluate. I think this a balanced approach to weighing the factors regarding reopening the record in a Tax Court case affected by Graev.

 

 

Designated Orders for the week of August 27, 2018: A Pause for Coffey, a New Flavor of Chai, and the Court and Technology.

Professor Samantha Galvin from University of Denver’s Sturm School of Law brings us this week’s designated orders.  Keith

The week of August 27th was light, in typical pre-holiday week fashion, with a total of five orders designated. The two orders not discussed involve: 1) the final decision on a petitioner’s request to dismiss his case without prejudice (a case Patrick Thomas previously blogged about) (here), and 2) an order to show cause for the non-imposition of a section 6673(a)(1) penalty (here).

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A Pause for Coffey

Docket No: 7976-14, Bradley A. Hite v. C.I.R. (Order here)

The Tax Court’s opinion in Coffey v. Commissioner issued earlier this year held that U.S. Virgin Island (“USVI”) territorial income tax returns submitted to an IRS office constitute the filing of a federal income tax return and start the clock on the assessment statute under section 6051(a). Patrick Thomas also blogged about two orders that were recently designated as part of the Coffey case here and here and the Coffey case was covered by Kandyce Korotky and Joe DiRuzzo (if interested, see links in Patrick’s first post).

In this designated order the Court contemplates granting respondent’s Motion for Leave to File Out of Time First Amendment to Answer in a case involving USVI returns. The case itself involves a question of whether petitioner’s 2002 and 2003 USVI territorial tax returns should be treated as filed with the IRS.  Petitioner had initially alleged that his USVI territorial tax returns should be treated as federal income tax returns for purpose of the assessment statute but did not allege that he had actually filed the returns at issue with the IRS. Petitioner later admitted in a reply to respondent’s answer that he did not file the returns at issue with the IRS.

In response to petitioner’s statements and the decision in Coffey, respondent wants to amend his answer to clarify that if the returns are treated as filed with the IRS, then the January 2014 notice of deficiency was sent before the expiration of the assessment statute under section 6501(a) and the parties executed agreements to extend the assessment statute under section 6501(c)(4). It is a little difficult to discern from the order itself but it appears the reason for this is that even though petitioner admitted to not filing a return with the IRS, if his filing with the Virgin Islands Bureau of Internal Revenue (“VIBIR”) is somehow treated as a filing with the IRS then respondent wants to make it clear that the ASED did not expire before the notice of deficiency was issued.

Pursuant to Rule 41(a) a party can amend a pleading only by leave of Court or by written consent of the adverse party, and leave shall be given freely when justice so requires. The Court looks to the underlying circumstances including whether there is a reason for the delay and whether the opposing party would be harmed if the motion to amend was granted.

Here the Court looks to petitioner’s statements and its recent decision in Coffey and finds that respondent’s delay in seeking to amend his answer is understandable. Petitioner’s counsel also concedes that since the case has not been set for trial, allowing respondent to amend his answer will not prejudice petitioner so the Court grants respondent’s motion.

A New Flavor of Chai

Docket Nos: 14619-10, 14687-10, 7527-12, 9921-12, 9922-12, 9977-12, 30196-14, 31483-15, Ernest S. Ryder & Associates, Inc., APLC, et al. v. C.I.R. (Order here) 

“This species [of Chai ghoul] involves documentation that we have not seen the Commissioner offer in any other case,” states Judge Holmes in this designated order. I wrote on this case in my April 5, 2018 designated order post and another designated order for this case (which I did not write about) was issued during my last “on” week, but this order deserves some attention.

The cases were tried in two special trial sessions in 2016 and involve all sorts of taxpayers: C Corporations, a TEFRA partnership, and individuals. In all but two of the cases, the IRS asserted accuracy-related and/or fraud penalties.

The parties are now in the briefing process, but respondent has moved for the Court to reopen the record to allow in evidence that shows compliance with section 6751(b)(1) for some of the penalties. Petitioners object to this motion.

The motion is only for penalties asserted against the Ryders individually because respondent’s position is that he doesn’t have the burden to show compliance with section 6751(b)(1) for penalties asserted against a C Corporations and TEFRA partnerships.

The Court outlines the timeline in which that IRS proposed deficiencies and accuracy-related penalties in three separate deficiency notices issued to the Ryders for tax years 2002-2010. The IRS did not propose any section 6663 fraud penalties in any of the deficiency notices but raised the fraud penalties for all years in amended answers on March 21, 2016.

At trial in July and August of 2016, no evidence was raised as to respondent’s compliance with section 6751(b)(1) for the accuracy-related or fraud penalties and the parties did not stipulate to compliance. Then came Graev II and Chai and respondent still did not mention compliance with section 6751(b)(1) in his opening seriatim brief nor amended opening seriatim brief. Then the Court adopted Chai as its own in Graev III.

Due to the complexity of the cases and respondent’s very long opening brief, the Court granted petitioners more time to file their answering brief on three separate occasions, and during this time, the respondent moved to reopen the record.

The Court ponders whether it should reopen the record to admit respondent’s evidence against petitioner’s objection. Petitioner argues that respondent cannot use ignorance of the law as a defense and respondent was aware that section 6751(b)(1) would be an issue, so failure to introduce evidence beforehand shows a lack of diligence. Petitioners also argue that reopening the record would cause them prejudice because do not have a chance to cross-examine the IRS employees who made declarations about the evidence respondent now seeks to admit.

The decision to reopen the record is within the Court’s discretion, but that discretion is not limitless, so the Court evaluates each item.

First is an examination case processing sheet. Respondent has sought to admit penalty approval forms in other post-Graev III cases, and some have been admitted under the business records exception or as a verbal act to show a supervisor approved the penalty (and specifically not used to determine whether the penalty was justified or what the supervisor was thinking when it was approved). The Court does not think the business record or verbal-act analysis applies to the examination case processing sheet because the document itself does not indicate that a supervisor approved the initial determination of penalties. The case processing sheet needs an accompanying declaration from revenue agent, Ms. Phan, (which respondent also seeks to admit, but the Court finds is inadmissible hearsay) to make sense of it.

Second is several documents that allegedly support the section 6663 fraud penalty, the documents consists of: an email with an attached amendment to answer raising fraud, a redacted Significant Case Report, a 2016 employee evaluation, and a declaration from a different IRS employee explaining the significance of these documents.

The Court finds these documents are also inadmissible because they mean nothing without an explanation, and again, finds the IRS employee’s declaration to be inadmissible hearsay.

The Court declines to evaluate whether respondent was diligent or whether admitting the evidence would prejudice the petitioners because it finds that IRS has not shown that admitting this evidence would change the outcome of the case and denies respondent’s amended motion to reopen the record.

Technology Helps the Court

Docket No. 27759-15, George E. Joseph v. C.I.R. (Order here)

The Court has been slow to adopt technological advances and highlights the helpfulness of petitioner providing the cutting-edge technology (sarcasm intended) of a thumb drive containing his brief and exhibits in this designated order.

Petitioner filed a seriatim brief with the Court along with five files containing exhibits, but also mailed the Court a thumb drive containing an electronic version of his brief with hyperlinks to the exhibit files. The Court finds the thumb drive and hyperlinks to be helpful to all involved, but respondent has some objections. Some of the exhibits on the thumb drive are not in the record of the case and other exhibits (which are in the record of the case) contain notations that are not on the original exhibits.

The Court allows petitioner leave to file an amended brief without exhibits and provide a thumb drive with the exhibits that were actually received into evidence. It orders, among other things, that the files not received into evidence be deemed stricken from the case and that the thumb drive be returned to petitioner.

 

District Court Holds That Premature Withdrawal from Retirement Account Under Threat of Levy Subject to 10 Percent Additional Tax

In this post I will discuss Thompson v US, an opinion from the Northern District of California that explores the limits to an exception to the 10% penalty on early withdrawals from tax favored retirement plans when the distribution is used to pay an assessed federal tax liability on account of a levy.

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The facts of Thompson are straightforward. Facing a significant tax liability and “under imminent threat of levy and lien collection by Field Collections,” the Thompsons withdrew over a million dollars from a retirement account.  There are a number of exceptions to the additional 10% tax on levied on the gross distributions from a retirement plan. The most commonly known is the exception for distributions after an employee turns 59 1/2; another is found in Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii), which provides that the 10% additional tax does not apply if the distribution is “on account of a levy under Section 6331.”

The Thompons paid the tax and filed a claim for refund, arguing that they were not subject to the early distribution additional tax under the Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii) “on account of a levy” exception.

After IRS rejected the claim and the Thompsons sued for a refund in federal court, the government filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the Thompsons’ withdrawal was voluntarily made and thus not “on account” of a levy and thus outside the exception in 72(t)(2)(A)(vii). The Thompsons in response did not deny that there was no actual levy, but instead argued that the government “took all the legally required steps to set in motion a levy, issuing Final Notices/Notices of Intent to Levy on December 12, 2012.” In addition, facing the threat of a Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which posed a “threat to Mr. Thompson’s business, his livelihood and his ability to generate funds sufficient to pay the balance of the liability over time,” meant that the withdrawal was not truly voluntary and and therefore should not be subject to the penalty.

For support, the Thompsons pointed to Murillo v Comm’r, where there was a distribution from a retirement plan that arose due to a forfeiture order and the Tax Court held that the taxpayer was not subject to the penalty, and to an earlier case, Laratonda v Comm’r, where the Tax Court, prior to the statutory exemption for levies now found in Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii), found that a taxpayer whose funds from a retirement account were withdrawn pursuant to an IRS levy was not subject to the penalty.

The district court distinguished the Thompsons’ facts from the exception the Tax Court fashioned in Murillo and Laratonda:

Plaintiffs rely on the court’s emphasis on the involuntary nature of the withdrawals in Murillo and Laratonda in support of their assertion that they have stated a valid claim. Yet the limited facts alleged here are distinguishable from both Murillo and Laratonda in a crucial respect. Here, Plaintiffs’ retirement account was not, in fact, levied and the distribution was triggered not by any act of the IRS but by Plaintiffs’ own acts. In other words, Plaintiffs were actively involved in the distribution.

For good measure the district court noted that the legislative history to Section 72(t)(2)(A)(vii) explicitly referred to the exception as not applying to voluntary withdrawals to pay in the absence of an actual levy, as well as a 2009 Tax Court case, Willhite v Comm’r, which held that a taxpayer who had withdrawn funds from a retirement account following receipt of a notice of intent to levy was subject to the 10 % penalty.

Conclusion

In finding for the government and granting dismissal of the complaint, the district court did, however, throw a lifeline to the Thompsons. It noted that cases like Murillo suggest that there “may be circumstances other than a levy (for instance, a forfeiture) where a withdrawal is involuntary and therefore does not trigger the 10% penalty under § 72(t).” While noting that the Thompsons did not allege facts to support a plausible inference that the exception applies, it dismissed the complaint without prejudice, meaning that the Thompsons can file an amended complaint, which could include facts that would support such an inference.

In dismissing the complaint the district court held that it “need not decide at this juncture whether Plaintiffs might be able to state a claim based on allegations that the withdrawal was involuntary and coerced for reasons other than the fact that the IRS had set in motion a levy.”

I suspect that the Thompsons may have a difficult time navigating the narrow exception that Murillo supports. The issue of avoiding the 10% additional tax based on the levy exception is one Keith discussed most recently here, when he updated readers on Dang v Commissioner, involving a taxpayer who requested that IRS levy on his retirement account to ensure that the 10% tax did not apply. That post generated thoughtful comments, and Joe Schimmel suggested that perhaps IRS should draft a revenue procedure that allows the taxpayer to elect a levy on a retirement account. If the IRS listened to Joe that would have allowed the Thompsons to avoid what seems like a fairly punitive result of paying what amounts to an additional fairly harsh penalty for their tax troubles–admittedly of their own doing.

One other issue that the Thompons apparently did not raise is whether Section 72(t) is a penalty for purposes of Section 6751(b). As one might expect, another of our longtime readers and pioneer on this issue, Frank Agostino (joined by Malinda Sederquist) has weighed in on this in the latest issue of the Monthly Journal of Tax Controversy. Frank and Malinda point to analogous authority in the bankruptcy context, which has held that Section 72(t) is a penalty for purposes of determining priority status, and they recommend that taxpayers challenge the Section 72(t) 10% addition under Section 6751(b). Frank and Malinda do note that there is a summary non precedential Tax Court opinion holding that Section 72(t) is not a penalty for purposes of Section 6751(b) and they also acknowledge El v Commissioner, a 2015 opinion that held that Section 72(t) is not a penalty for purposes of Section 7491(c).

Whether this can be raised by the Thompsons in an amended complaint is unclear, as they would run into a likely variance challenge if they had not raised the 6751(b) issue in their original claim. I have no doubt, however, that Frank and friends and others will be pressing this issue.