Summary Opinions for 10/10/14

Summary Opinions only touches on a few items this week, but they are all interesting and somewhat important.  More jurisdiction questions, both in the whistleblower context and on failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  Plus interest abatement, penalty abatement, and more on the Elkins case and the Yari case.

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  • Whistleblower cases are sort of like the IRS’s version of the Beatles’ Ringo songs.  Sort of quirky and entertaining, but not their best work.  If you have frequently read the Whistleblower opinions over the last few years, I think it would be understandable if you thought the Service was intentionally trying to thwart the program (were the Beatles trying to stop Ringo’s continued singing by giving him garbage?), or perhaps just incompetent (see Ringo’s singing), or nowhere near sufficient assets are allocated to the program (seems like the Beatles mailed a few of those Ringo songs in).  A recent Tax Court jurisdiction case, Ringo v. Comm’r, can be added to those prior cases.  In Ringo, the Service’s Whistleblower Office sent the petitioner a letter stating he was ineligible for an award under Section 7623, and not much else.  Petitioner disagreed, and appealed the determination to the Tax Court.  A few months later, the IRS sent a second letter saying, “just kidding, we are considering your claim”.  The Service then responded to the petition by filing a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, which Ringo did not oppose.  The Court, however, relying on law related to stat notices found that its jurisdiction is based on the facts at the time of the petition, and jurisdiction continues “unimpaired” until a decision is entered. (contrast this with CDP cases, which as Keith discussed here the parties can dismiss without the need for a decision) The Court found that the letter constituted a determination under Section 7623(b)(4), providing it with jurisdiction.

I think this is the correct result, and a good policy.  There could be negative implications in the Whistleblower context, and perhaps others, if the Court held the Service could divest the Court of jurisdiction simply by stating it was actually still reviewing the matter.  First, the Service could use this to prolong matters.  Second, and more troubling, the Service could start issuing such letters in all close situations, or even more broadly, so it wouldn’t have to deal with the matter until the taxpayer proved it was willing to go to court, or to attempt to thwart valid claims, only to retract the letter once the matter goes to court. In Ringo, none of this seems to have mattered much, because the petitioner appears to not have objected to the dismissal of the case, but other’s may want to force the issue, and it is better to not have a holding stating the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction.  For a far more succinct recitation of the facts and holding, check out Prof. Tim Todd’s write up on the Tax Litigation Survey blog.  Lew Taishoff also has a good post on the case found here.

  • The Tax Court had an interesting interest abatement holding in Larkin v. Comm’r.  I found two aspects interesting, and the case a little challenging to work through.  The quick facts; an incorrect overpayment in a later year was due to an incorrectly carried forward NOL, which should have been carried back.  The taxpayer amended the returns, resulting in a liability in the later year, and a larger overpayment in the prior carryback NOL year. Initially, my mind jumped to interest netting, which gets to the first interesting aspect of the case.  One argument the taxpayer made was that the Service failed to credit the prior year overpayment against the later year liability, as requested, and instead issued a refund, which it thought would have negated interest on the later year’s underpayment.  The Court found this argument moot, although the Service did not.  The Court stated, “[i]t appears that both parties may have assumed that a credit…would, no matter when it was administratively credited against the [later] liability, have been treated as if it had been paid at least as early as the due date of the [later return] and would therefore have precluded the accrual of any interest…But that is not the case.”  The Court looked to Section 6601(f) relating to the satisfaction of tax by credit, which it found precluded the erroneous assumption.  I have not had time to review this, so I am not saying the Court was correct on this point.  The main text of the holding does not fully flesh the point out, but I think Footnote 8 helps to explain the Section 6601(f) issue, stating:

Under section 6611(f)(1), for interest purposes the overpayment of 2003 tax was “deemed not to have been made prior to the filing date for” the loss year (2005), i.e., not before April 2006; and under subsection (f)(4)(B)(i)(I), the 2003 overpayment was “treated as an overpayment for the loss year”, i.e., for 2005. However, under subsection (f)(4)(B)(i)(II), the return for the loss year (2005) was treated as if “not filed before claim for such overpayment is filed”, i.e., in May 2008. That is, the 2003 overpayment was deemed to arise in April 2006, when the 2005 return was due; but the 2005 return (due in April 2006) was treated as not filed before May 2008 (and therefore as late), and the refund was made less than 45 days thereafter on July 9, 2008.

 The second major point I found interesting was the Court’s review of ministerial acts for abatement under Section 6404.  The taxpayers claimed that the IRS gave them erroneous advice regarding amending a different year, which was incorrect and the return was not processed.  The taxpayers claimed this caused delay in proper filing, resulting in interest.  The Court noted some evidentiary issues that made the taxpayers’ claim fail, but also stated that direction regarding amending prior returns, at least in this case, were “providing an interpretation of Federal tax law” which was not a ministerial or managerial act subject to Section 6404 abatement.

  • I’m not certain who is the “Chief Idea Guy” at Procedurally Taxing; probably Keith, maybe Les, definitely not me.  If we had such a position, our ideas would generally be tax related – at least the good ones.  In Suder v. Comm’r, that was not the case for Mr. Eric Suder who was CEO and CIG of his company Estech Systems.  His good ideas had something to do with telephones.  Not tax planning. Estech did some incorrect research credit tax planning, which resulted in an underpayment, which the Service assessed accuracy related penalties on.  The taxpayer argued reliance on a professional, and honest misunderstanding of law.  The reliance holding was fairly straightforward.  It is, however, less frequent that you see a misunderstanding of the law argument successfully made.  The Court held that the taxpayer had an honest misunderstanding of the tax law related to reasonable compensation under Section 174(e), which was reasonable under the facts and circumstances, and that this area was very complex.  It did seem like some of the pertinent facts and circumstances were that they relied on their longtime accountant to provide them with their misunderstanding, which makes it overlap with professional reliance.
  • In US v. Appelbaum the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina had the opportunity to review various procedural issues in a case involving Section 7433 damages claim following the Service attempting to claim Section 6672 penalties for not paying over a bankrupt company’s taxes.  Mr. Appelbaum, like almost all applicants for damages under this Section, failed to exhaust the administrative remedies under Section 7433, which allowed the District Court to provide its opinion on whether or not that requirement was jurisdictional.  Following Galvez and Hoogerheide, the Court found it was not a jurisdictional requirement, but failing to comply with the statute resulted in the taxpayer failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.  Regarding the counterclaim, it appears the taxpayer alleged latches, but not as some sort of equitable argument regarding the Section 7433.   I was initially excited to see “equitable” language following a determination that failure to exhaust administrative remedies was not jurisdictional (Courts don’t usually get to whether an equitable argument could prevail).  Unfortunately, it was a separate claim, which makes sense, since latches would not be the first equitable argument you would think should apply in that context.
  • Jack Townsend’s thoughts on the Elkins’ art valuation case can be found here.  We touched on that in the last SumOp, and this case is popping up everywhere.  Jack has a great discussion regarding burden of proof, which should be reviewed.  I’m thrilled that my family has a way to discount the value of our Star Trek commemorative plates.  The estate tax on those was going to be a bear when my folks died.
  • More on the Yari case, which considers the 6707A penalty in the context of an amended return; Les previously blogged on the case here.  This content is from David Neufeld, and was reproduced from the Leimberg Information Services, Inc. tax newsletter. In the post, Neufeld takes aim at the Tax Court holding in the case, and makes a spirited argument in favor of the taxpayer’s view that the penalty should be pegged to the amended return, and not the original filed return.

A Cogent Look at the “What is a Return?” Question

In Briggs v. United States, 511 B.R. 707 (Bankr. N.D. Ga. 2014), Bankruptcy Judge Wendy Hagenau carefully examined the facts of the case and the applicable law in concluding that a Form 1040 filed after the IRS assessed taxes based on a substitute for return procedures met the requirements for filing a return. I previously blogged about the mess created by the litigation and legislation in this area. Judge Hagenau worked her way through existing precedent and arrived at a conclusion that offers hope to many taxpayers who fail to timely file their return and later seek relief through bankruptcy. 

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The Briggs case presents a classic set of facts. The taxpayer did not file his 2002 return by the due date as extended. Eventually, the IRS calculated his liability using IRC 6020(b) procedures and sent him a statutory notice of deficiency. He did not petition the Tax Court within 90 days. The IRS assessed the tax (over $200,000) and began collection. He eventually filed a Form 1040 showing that his correct tax liability was $149,870 rather than the $226, 536 assessed. The IRS accepted the Form 1040 as a claim for abatement and abated his tax to the lower amount. The IRS partially collected the lower liability through levy and offset but he still owed a substantial liability for 2002 when he filed bankruptcy on March 23, 2013. 

The IRS made two arguments in support of its position that BC 523(a)(1)(B)(i) excepts the 2002 taxes from discharge. First, it argued that the tax “debt” arose from the IRS assessment and not from the late filed Form 1040, making the debt one from which the debtor had an unfiled return at the time it arose. This argument represents later thinking by the Government than its original position on this issue and seeks to create a bright line test not available through the Beard test. Second it made its original argument slightly modified by the passage of BC 523(a)(*), that an untimely return filed after assessment does not qualify as a “return” under applicable non-bankruptcy law. 

The Court first addressed the “debt” argument and used bankruptcy definitions to reject it. My guess is that the IRS will appeal the case because it has had several successful outcomes with this argument and it represents a clear path to victory. Judge Hagenau, citing Rhodes v. United States (In re Rhodes), 498 B.R. 357 (Bankr. N.D. Ga. 2013), rejected this argument because the term “debt” in bankruptcy focuses “on the nature and source of debt . . . not on the mechanism to determine debt.” Under bankruptcy law the debt to the IRS arises at the end of the tax period and not when assessment occurs. The assessment or non-assessment of a tax does not “change the fact that the right to payment existed.” So, Judge Hagenau placed no importance on the assessment as creating the debt before the later filed return since the debt for bankruptcy purposes arose long before either of these events. Her interpretation makes the most sense given the bankruptcy definition of debt. The IRS will continue making this argument because of its ability to create a clear statement regarding discharge. 

The Court next addressed whether the late-filed Form 1040 qualifies as a return. This is the original issue on which the IRS won in In re Hindenlang, 164 F.3d 1029 (6th Cir. 1999), although now with the overlay of BC 523(a)(*) adopted in 2005. Remembering the peculiar facts of Hindenlang provides important background information. Like Briggs, Mr. Hindenlang did not timely file his return and the IRS made an assessment after using the substitute for return procedures and issuing a notice of deficiency from which he did not petition the Tax Court. Mr. Hindenlang’s subsequent Form 1040, however, merely mirrored the substitute for return prepared by the IRS. He did not report any more tax or, like Mr. Briggs, any less tax than the IRS determined from its examination. That unusual fact pattern must have influenced the 6th Circuit as it reviewed the Hindenlang case. 

The late filed Form 1040 submitted by Mr. Briggs reported a tax liability over $75,000 less than the amount assessed by the IRS using the substitute for return procedures. The IRS accepted his Form 1040 and abated the liability down to the amount shown on the form. Mr. Briggs’ form had meaning while Mr. Hindenlang’s form really added nothing to the situation. A Form 1040, such as the one Mr. Hindenlang filed, really does not seem like an honest attempt to file a return under the circumstances; however, a return like the one Mr. Briggs filed had meaning and the IRS abated his liability based on that meaning. Judge Hagenau drew from that fact. Before simply applying the facts in the Briggs case to the Beard test she analyzed BC 523(a)(*) to determine what new requirements the 2005 changes imposed, if any, since the Hindenlang decision started the inquiry regarding late filed returns. 

Judge Hagenau’s analysis of the requirements led to a discussion of the cases decided after 2005. A line of cases, led by McCoy v. Miss. State Tax Comm’n (In re McCoy), 666 F.3d 924 (5th Cir. 2012), interprets the 2005 amendment to encompass a timeliness element that makes any untimely filed Form 1040, even if only one day late, something other than a return for purposes of the discharge provisions. The IRS does not agree with this interpretation but the Court here looked at this line of cases before concluding – correctly in my opinion – that the term applicable non-bankruptcy law in BC 523(a)(*) “does not incorporate the timeliness requirements of the tax code.” Judge Hagenau explained that the interpretation in McCoy and its progeny does violence to the overall workings of the bankruptcy code. 

Judge Hagenau then turned at last to the Beard test, which requires that a document must meet four tests to be a return: (1) purport to be a return, (2) be executed under penalty of perjury, (3) contain sufficient data to allow calculation of tax, and (4) represent an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of tax law. In these cases the focus is almost always on the fourth test. Remember that Hindenlang’s Form 1040 really served no purpose except to seek to start the two year period for discharge. Here, the Court agreed with the minority view of cases lead by In re Colson that a return such as the one Mr. Brigg’s filed does meet the Beard test. Therefore, the Court determined that the remaining 2002 taxes were discharged. 

This issue bears careful watching. The IRS chose not to file a petition for cert when it lost Colson in 2006. If its new argument that the debt arose before the late filed return fails and it does not adopt the McCoy argument, it is left with the fact specific Beard argument. Without a bright line legal argument the IRS takes on a lot of administrative risks with this issue because it is not discharging taxes in these situations. It leaves these liabilities on its books and restarts collection action after bankruptcy. If it ultimately must concede this issue, fifteen years or more of post-discharge taxes will exist on its books that it must address. Similar to the situation that now exists in the post-Rand concession, the IRS will need to clean up its assessment records and with the discharge injunction hanging over its head the burden will clearly be on the IRS and cannot be pushed off to the taxpayer. The path it has taken on post-Hindenlang is a risky path and one that is difficult to administer. It tried to fix the problem in 2005 but got language that has proven inadequate. Keep an eye on this issue if you have clients with late filed returns who may need bankruptcy as a refuge. 

 

Did Donald Rumsfeld Just Invalidate His Return?

On April 15th  of this year, Donald Rumsfeld performed his civic duty of filing his tax return, and sent the letter found at the bottom of this post to the Service to evidence what we all suspected, he is crotchety.  In the letter he states that “I have absolutely no idea whether our tax returns and our tax payments are accurate”, and “I know that I cannot have any confidence that I know what is being requested and therefore cannot and do not know…whether or not [my] tax return is accurate.”  He also complained that he was very upset Diagnosis Murder had switched nights.   All joking aside, this is a complaint shared by probably millions of Americans.  The Code is very complex.

Upon reading the letter, besides being mildly amused, I immediately wondered if the statements by Mr. Rumsfeld could actually have caused his return to be invalid.  When you execute your Form 1040, you sign off on a jurat stating, “[u]nder penalties of perjury, I declare that I have examined this return and the accompanying schedules and statements, and to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete.”   It would seem awful hard to swear something is true and correct if you “have absolutely no idea whether [it is] accurate.”  So, did Mr. Rumsfeld’s comments cause him to negate the jurat and fail to timely file his return?

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In general, to be a valid return a filed document must 1) be on the proper form, 2) contain sufficient information for the Service to perform the tax calculation, and 3) be properly executed under penalties of perjury.  That last bit is pure statute, found in Sections 6061 and 6064.  The test was somewhat restated in Beard v. Commissioner, and now referred to as the Beard test, and requires that the document must 1) purport to be a return, 2) be executed under penalty of perjury, 3) contain sufficient data to calculate tax, and 4) represent and honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law.

I doubt the Service would contend that the Rumsfelds filing was not purporting to be a return, or that it did not contain sufficient data. Though, this conjecture is a known unknown, it is helpful to think about the implications of statement as it relates to tax procedure. [Aside: Rumsfeld’s statement at a 2002 Defense Department press conference about known and unknown unknowns has inspired the title of filmmaker Errol Morris’ documentary on Rumsfeld, entitled The Unknown Known.] I assume the Rumsfelds filed the document believing it was an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law, especially since the letter complains about having to hire and pay an accountant to prepare the return.  The question is whether the statement invalidates the execution under penalty of perjury.

The Service and Courts have held that where portions of the jurat are crossed out, or other language has been added to the jurat, that the return is not valid.  This can allow failure to file penalties to be imposed, potentially the frivolous return penalty, and can result in no statute of limitations starting to run.  For instance, saying you are signing subject to “denial and disclaimer”, but paying the correct amount shown due has resulted in the return not being valid.  In a 2005 Revenue Ruling, the Service stated that “striking or otherwise altering the jurat in a manner that negates or casts doubt on its validity invalidates the return.”

One of the somewhat recent important cases in this area is Williams v. Comm’r, where the taxpayer filed two returns, both of which were altered.  The first had aspects whited out, and zeroed out all liability –complete garbage.  The second showed the amount of tax due, but had an asterisk in the jurat stating “[t]he admitted liability is zero”, and a disclaimer attached stating:

The above named taxpayer respectfully declines to volunteer concerning assessment and payment of any tax balance due on the return or any redetermination of said tax.  Be it known that the above said taxpayer, therefore, denies tax liability and does not admit that the stated amount of tax on return is due and collectable.

The Court grappled with whether the disclaimer in that case invalidated the jurat.  It reviewed the prior case law, where the Court previously found that crossing out the jurat, or crossing out the “under penalties of perjury” and/or “true, correct, and complete” all result in invalid returns.  The next set of cases dealt with adding language to the jurat, and again most invalidated the returns, including “denying” the accuracy of the information.  Williams was, however, the first case where the court considered disclaimer language outside of the jurat.  The Court held that the disclaimer negated the meaning of the jurat, and altered the Service form.

Williams is an easier case than Rumsfeld’s given the asterisk within the jurat; what is unknown here is whether Rumsfeld similarly asterisked or referred to his disclaimer in his tax return. (another known unknown). All of the cases invalidating returns pertain to tax protestors, who are denying the taxing authority of the federal government or denying that they owe any tax due to frivolous positions.  I could not find a particular case on point (likely because the Service would be disinclined to challenge a letter similar to Mr. Rumsfeld’s letter), but I suspect a Court would find that even if there was a reference to the letter in the jurat Mr. Rumsfeld did not intend to amend the jurat, and “to the best of [his] knowledge and belief” the returns were correct, as he had paid a competent professional to provide guidance. Further, he was not denying he owed tax or that the government could impose the tax; he just wanted to be able to understand how his tax bill was computed.  Overall, not an unreasonable position, but perhaps a pipedream.

This letter is one more snowflake from Mr. Rumsfeld, and, though this one likely has no legal effect, it adds to the growing public dissatisfaction with the nation’s tax laws.  Rather than send it to the IRS though, he probably should have sent it to Congress. IRS takes the Code as is.

Rumsfeld letter