Tax Court Adopts Final Rules For BBA Partnership Audit Regime

Today we welcome Greg Armstrong and Rochelle Hodes to the community of Procedurally Taxing guest posters. Greg is a Director with KPMG, LLP Washington National Tax in the Practice, Procedure, & Administration group in Washington D.C. and former Senior Technician Reviewer with the IRS Office of Chief Counsel. Rochelle is a Principal in Washington National Tax at Crowe LLP and was previously Associate Tax Legislative Counsel with Treasury.  Both Greg and Rochelle in their immediate prior positions with IRS and Treasury respectively spent considerable time working on the new partnership audit regime enacted to replace TEFRA as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA) and as revised in subsequent technical legislative corrections. Rochelle is a Contributing Author on the BBA chapter that will be published this fall for Saltzman and Book IRS Practice & Procedure, and Greg has contributed over the years in updating and revising the treatise.

In this post, Greg and Rochelle discuss the Tax Court’s amendments to its Rules of Practice as relating to the BBA regime. Les

On July 15, 2019 the United States Tax Court announced that it had adopted final amendments to its Rules of Practice and Procedure to address actions under the new partnership audit regime enacted by BBA. The final amendments, which were first introduced as proposed and interim amendments on December 19, 2018, add a new Title XXIV.A (Partnership Actions under BBA Section 1101) and also make conforming and miscellaneous amendments.  New Title XXIV.A is effective as of December 19, 2018 and generally applies to partnership actions commenced with respect to notices of final partnership adjustment (FPAs) for partnership taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017.  The new rules also apply to actions commenced with respect to FPAs for partnership taxable years for which an election under §301.9100-22 is in effect.    

The following post offers a high level summary of the highlights of the Court’s new rules with respect to the BBA regime.  Because this post is focused on the new Tax Court rules, only a summary of the BBA provisions relevant to understanding the Court’s rules are discussed.  For a more robust discussion of the BBA provisions, see the latest update to Saltzman and Book, IRS Practice and Procedure, which includes a new chapter 8A entitled “Examination of Partnership Tax Returns under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015”.

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The Tax Court’s rules reflect the prominent and powerful role of the partnership representative (PR) under the BBA.  The PR is the individual or entity that has the sole authority to act on behalf of the partnership for purposes of the BBA and replaces the Tax Matters Partner (TMP) concept that existed under TEFRA.  Pursuant to section 6223(a) and the regulations thereunder, a partnership subject to BBA must designate a PR for each taxable year.  If the IRS determines that there is no PR designation in effect for the taxable year, the IRS may select the PR.  If the partnership designates an entity as the PR, the regulations require that the partnership also appoint a designated individual to act on behalf of the entity PR.

Rule 255.2 provides that a BBA partnership action is commenced like any other action in the Tax Court – by filing a petition.  The caption of the petition, and any other paper filed in a BBA partnership action, must state the name of the partnership as well as the name of the PR.  Rule 255.1(d).  This is consistent with TEFRA Rule 240(d), Form and Style of Papers, which requires the caption to state the name of the partnership and the partner filing the petition, and whether the partner is the TMP.  Since under BBA only a PR can bring a partnership action in Tax Court, and because no partner (unless they are the PR) can file a petition, it makes sense that the PR is named in the caption in addition to the partnership.  The body of the petition must also identify the PR’s place of legal residence or principal place of business if the PR is not an individual.  Rule 255.2(b).  Interestingly, Rule 255.2(b) does not require the petition to provide the name or address of the designated individual.  The rule does require the petition to indicate whether the PR was designated by the partnership or selected by the IRS.

Identification and Removal of a Partnership Representative by the Court

New Rule 255.1(b)(3) defines the PR for purposes of BBA partnership actions to mean the partner (or other person) designated by the partnership or selected by the IRS pursuant to section 6223(a), “or designated by the Court pursuant to Rule 255.6.”  Rule 255.6 sets out circumstances in which the Court may act to identify or remove a PR in a partnership action under BBA.  The first such circumstance is if at the time of commencement of the action the PR is not identified in the petition.  Rule 255.6(a).  The second such circumstance is if after the commencement of the case the Court “may for cause remove a partnership representative for purposes of the partnership action.”  Rule 255.6(b).  The Court’s rule requires that before removal there must be notice and an opportunity for a hearing.  Neither Rule 255.6(b) nor the explanation to the rule delineate what causes would warrant removal.

Rule 255.6(a) provides that where there is no PR identified in the petition at the beginning of the case, the Court “will take such action as may be necessary to establish the identity” of the PR.  Rule 255.6(a) is vague as to what action might be necessary to establish the identity of the PR.  If no PR is identified, one possible outcome may be that the case is dismissed on the ground that a proper party did not file the petition.

Rule 255.6(b) provides that “if a partnership representative’s status is terminated for any reason, including removal by the Court, the partnership shall then designate a successor partnership representative in accordance with the requirements of section 6223 within such period as the Court may direct.”  Rule 255.6(b) does not address what happens if the partnership is unable or unwilling to designate a successor PR.  It is also interesting that Rule 255.6(b), while referencing the requirements of section 6223, only cites the authority of the partnership to designate a PR, and does not cite the Commissioner’s authority to select a PR.  The ability of the Commissioner to select a PR for the partnership raises intriguing issues that also arose in the early days of TEFRA.  See, e.g., Computer Programs Lambda v. Comm’r, 90 TC 1124, 1127-28 (1988).

Per the explanation to Rule 255.6, the authority to identify or remove a PR “flows from the Court’s inherent supervisory authority over cases docketed in the Court.” The explanation to Rule 255.6 also states, however, that the rule “does not take a position on whether the Court may appoint a partnership representative.”  In the context of a TEFRA partnership action, Rule 250 permits the Court to appoint a TMP in certain circumstances.  Notably, Rule 250(a) provides that if there is no TMP at the outset of the TEFRA action, the Court “will effect the appointment of a tax matters partner.”  Similarly, Rule 250(b) provides that where the TMP has been removed by the Court or the TMP’s status has otherwise terminated, the Court “may appoint another partner as the tax matters partner” if the partnership has not designated one in the time frame prescribed by the court.  Consistent with the explanation to Rule 255.6, and unlike Rule 250, Rule 255.6 does not contain language permitting the Court to appoint a partnership representative.   However, the explanation to Rule 255.6 appears to leave the door open for the Court to appoint a PR if the facts warrant such action, though it is unclear what those facts might be.

Jurisdiction Over the Imputed Underpayment and Modifications

Rule 255.2(b) also reflects the fact that the partnership as a result of an action under BBA may be liable for tax, i.e., an imputed underpayment determined under section 6225.  An imputed underpayment is initially computed by the IRS during the administrative proceeding, but may be modified if timely requested by the partnership and approved by the IRS.  The modified imputed underpayment and any modifications approved or denied by the IRS will be reflected in the FPA mailed to the partnership. 

Rule 255.2(b)(5) requires that the petition reflect the amount of the imputed underpayment determined by the Commissioner and “if different from the Commissioner’s determination, the approximate amount of the imputed underpayment in controversy, including any proposed modification of the imputed underpayment that was not approved by the Commissioner.”  Further, Rule 255.2(b)(6) requires the petition to clearly and concisely state each error that the Commissioner allegedly committed in the FPA “and each and every proposed modification of the imputed underpayment to which the Commissioner did not consent.”  Rule 255.2(b)(7) provides the petition should also include “[c]lear and concise lettered statements of the facts on which the petitioner bases the assignments of error and the proposed modifications.”

The petition requirements set forth in Rule 255.2(b) make clear that the Tax Court will have jurisdiction to redetermine an imputed underpayment reflected in the FPA, including any “proposed modifications” to the imputed underpayment that were not approved by the Commissioner.  Prior to the Tax Technical Corrections Act of 2018, Public Law 115-141 (TTCA), the issue of jurisdiction over imputed underpayments and modifications was unsettled.  By amending the definition of partnership-related item to specifically include an imputed underpayment while also amending section 6234(c) to provide the court with jurisdiction “to determine all partnership-related items” for the taxable year to which the FPA relates, the TTCA amendments make clear that the court has jurisdiction to determine an imputed underpayment.  Therefore, the Code provides the court with jurisdiction to determine an imputed underpayment, including any modifications to that imputed underpayment that were denied by the Commissioner.  This is reflected in Rule 255.2(b).   

Binding Effect of Tax Court’s Decision

Rule 255.7 provides that any decision that the Tax Court enters in a partnership action under BBA is binding on the partnership and all of its partners.  The term “partner” is not defined under New Title XXIV.A.  However, under Rule 240 “partner” is defined for purposes of a TEFRA action to mean “a person who was a partner as defined in Code section 6231(a)(2)” at any time during the taxable year before the Court.  Section 6231(a)(2), prior to amendment by the BBA, defined partner for TEFRA purposes to mean a partner in the partnership and “any other person whose income tax liability under subtitle A is determined in whole or in part by taking into account directly or indirectly partnership items of the partnership.” 

Unlike TEFRA, the BBA does not define the term “partner”.  However, the BBA does define a partnership-related item broadly to include items or amounts “relevant in determining the tax liability of any person” under chapter 1 (emphasis added).  See section 6241(2)(B)(i).  In addition, the Joint Committee on Taxation explanation accompanying TTCA explicitly states that the scope of BBA is not narrower than TEFRA, “but rather, [is] intended to have a scope sufficient to address those items described as partnership items, affected items, and computational items in the TEFRA context…, as well as any other items meeting the statutory definition of a partnership-related item.” See Technical Explanation of the Revenue Provisions of the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 1625 (Rules Committee Print 115-66), p.37, JCX-6-19 (March 22, 2018). 

Consistent with the broad scope of partnership-related item under BBA, when describing the binding nature of final decisions in proceedings under the BBA, Treas. Reg. §301.6223-2(a) provides that such decisions are binding on the partnership, its partners, and “any other person whose tax liability is determined in whole or in part by taking into account directly or indirectly adjustments determined under the [BBA]”.   Whether the Tax Court follows this regulation in extending the binding effect of its own decisions in BBA partnership actions remains to be seen.

Two tickets to Tax Court, by way of § 6015 and Collection Due Process

Today we again welcome guest blogger Carolyn Lee who practices tax controversy and litigation in the San Francisco offices of Morgan Lewis. Carolyn represents individual and business clients, including pro bono and unrepresented taxpayers while volunteering with the low income tax clinic of the Justice & Diversity Center of The Bar Association of San Francisco.

Carolyn asks that we add a reminder about the CDP Summit Initiative she is involved with, to reform and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of collection due process procedures, benefitting everyone who engages with them. Registration is open for the upcoming ABA Tax Section meeting in San Francisco on October 4 and 5, when there will be three CDP Summit programs. In addition, there will be a CDP Summit in Washington, D.C. on the morning of December 3. Contact Summit participants Carolyn (carolyn.lee@morganlewis.com), William Schmidt schmidtw@klsinc.org, or Erin Stearns (erin.stearns@du.edu) if you would like to be involved. Christine

The recent case of Francel v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2019-35, provides a wealth of tax procedure lessons.  In Francel, a denial of § 6015 relief collided with a CDP determination, resulting in two tickets to Tax Court – one more valuable than the other.

Thomas Francel was (and is) a cosmetic surgeon with a solo practice that generated almost $1 million in income to the Francel household during each of the 2003-2006 tax years in issue. Patients paid their fees in three ways: currency, cashier’s checks (together, “cash”) or credit cards. Fees were accepted by the practice receptionist who turned them over to the office manager, Sharon Garlich. Ms. Garlich entered currency payments less than $100 and cashier’s checks in amounts of $10,000 or greater in the practice’s accounting system. Credit card payments also were entered in the practice’s accounting system. Ms. Garlich gave all other cash to Dr. Francel’s wife (nameless to the Court except as “Francel’s wife”) who also was employed at the medical office. These diverted fees ranged between $194,000 and $264,000 for each of the 2003-2006 tax years.

Ms. Garlich recorded by hand in a green ledger the cash payments she gave to Ms. Francel – or to Dr. Francel if Ms. Francel was not available. The medical practice’s CPA had direct access to the practice’s accounting system. No one gave the CPA the green ledger. No one told the CPA about the cash diverted to Ms. Francel (or Dr. Francel). The Francels filed joint income tax returns. The medical practice filed its tax return as an S corporation, with income passing through to the Francels.

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The Opinion does not indicate whether Dr. Francel personally directed the use of any of the diverted fees, though there are hints he was aware some cash was held separate from the practice’s accounts. For example, Ms. Garlich testified she gave diverted fees to Dr. Francel if Ms. Francel was not at the office. Also, when Ms. Garlich discussed the practice’s cash flow problems with Dr. Francel, she testified that his solution, after speaking with Ms. Francel, was “instead of keeping all of the cash for a while they would just go ahead and put half of it into the business.” Nonetheless, Dr. Francel could have known about the unconventional (in the Court’s view) fee handling method and still have believed the income tax reporting was correct.

The facts do tell us that Ms. Francel had a drug habit, which she kept hidden from Dr. Francel. We also learned that the strain of keeping two sets of books wore on Ms. Garlich, who retained legal counsel and reported the scheme to the US Attorney’s Office and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.

Further into the engaging 48-page Opinion we learn that Ms. Francel (and not Dr. Francel) was indicted by the US Attorney’s Office and charged with a violation of § 7201, for attempting to evade or defeat federal income tax owed. Ms. Francel plead guilty to the federal tax charges, agreeing that the total tax underpayment for the 2003-2006 tax years was $344,121. Ms. Francel was sentenced to one year and one day imprisonment with supervised release. She was ordered to pay restitution to the government in the amount of $344,124 (the opinion acknowledges the $3.00 difference). Ms. Francel paid the restitution in full, using funds from a 401(k) account she owned. The restitution payments were credited to Dr. Francel’s account since a payment by either jointly liable spouse reduces the liability owed by both spouses. As an aside, Ms. Garlich has a whistleblower claim pending related to her role in securing the collected tax.

Many more pages later, recounting the successful civil litigation brought by Dr. Francel’s medical practice against Ms. Francel for embezzlement; a divorce suit and reconciliation between the Francels (still married and working together at Dr. Francel’s practice); and the recurring appearances of the same few lawyers representing the Francels individually and together and the medical practice, as plaintiff or defense, variously, throughout the years leading to the Tax Court trial (not so subtly noted by the Court), we arrive at the procedural history section of the Opinion. It is a delight for persons interested in the finer technical points of collection due process, § 6015 relief jurisdiction and Tax Court standard and scope and standard of review.

Dr. Francel Engages with the IRS and the Tax Court.

Due to interest and other computational quirks, after the restitution was paid the Francels still owed approximately $144,400 for the 2003-2006 years. Dr. Francel submitted a Form 8857 – Request for Innocent Spouse Relief on May 18, 2015 for all four tax years. The Opinion does not include any facts about an administrative review of the 6015 request by the IRS’s Innocent Spouse unit. We only know Dr. Francel’s claim was assigned to Appeals (“§ 6015 Appeals”).

On September 22, 2015, the IRS mailed Dr. Francel a notice of intent to levy to collect the 2003-2006 income tax liabilities, despite statutory prohibitions and Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) instructions to suspend collection when a processable request for § 6015 relief is received. The Opinion provides no indication of collection jeopardy. See § 6015(e)(B)(i); IRM 25.15.2.4.2; and IRM 8.21.5.5.7. Dr. Francel timely requested a collection due process (CDP) hearing with respect to the notice of intent to levy, asserting that he was entitled to § 6015 relief. The Appeals Officer assigned to the CDP hearing request (the “CDP Appeals Officer”) paused the CDP proceedings pending the decision regarding Dr. Francel’s § 6015 request.

Dr. Francel’s request for relief was denied. A report initiated by the § 6015 Appeals Officer, unsigned and undated, was sent to the CDP Appeals Officer who reviewed the report and adopted the decision without change. (We do not know the basis for the administrative denial.) The CDP Appeals Officer had a telephone conference with the attorney representing Dr. Francel for the CDP hearing, and confirmed the § 6015 request was denied.

On February 14, 2017, the IRS mailed Dr. Francel a notice of determination following the CDP hearing, sustaining the levy collection. This notice of determination with respect to the CDP hearing was a ticket to Tax Court for Dr. Francel, to seek review of the determination.

The notice stated that Dr. Francel would receive a separate “Final Appeals Notice” regarding his rejected relief request. Presumably this communication would have been issued as Notice of Determination by § 6015 Appeals. Such a notice would also have been a ticket to Tax Court for Dr. Francel. The notice was not sent, however. Because the IRS did not issue a response to Dr. Francel regarding the Form 8857, his application for relief itself became a ticket to Tax Court. See § 6015(e).

On March 14, 2017, Dr. Francel petitioned the Court to review the February 14, 2017 notice of determination, asserting error in denying him § 6015 relief. The petition was filed within thirty (30) days of the February notice. Ms. Francel intervened to support his request for relief. (The Francels were living together again.) Ms. Francel failed to appear for trial; she was dismissed as a party for failure to prosecute the case.

Dr. Francel had two tickets to Tax Court. The § 6015 rejection, with or without a formal determination denying relief initiated by § 6015 Appeals, entitled Dr. Francel to Tax Court review under § 6015(e). In addition, the CDP determination allowed Dr. Francel into Tax Court under § 6330(d)(1).

Does it matter which ticket Dr. Francel tendered to the Court?

Two Tickets to Tax Court

Consider the § 6015(e) ticket. First, when is a petition from a 6015 ticket timely? The Court explained a petition pursuant to § 6015(e) was timely regardless of whether there was a final determination issued by § 6015 Appeals (i.e., the promised Final Appeals Notice). The clock to petition for Court review of denial of § 6015 relief starts ticking on the date the IRS mails, by certified or registered mail to the taxpayer’s last known address, notice of the Service’s final determination. The taxpayer may petition for relief not later than the 90th day after such date. Here there was no notice from § 6015 Appeals. But taxpayers are not held hostage by slow determinations of § 6015 applications. Instead, they may petition the Court for review of their requests after six (6) months have passed since the request was made to the IRS. § 6015(e)(A)(i)(II). The Court determined Dr. Francel’s petition was timely pursuant to § 6015(e)(A) because it was filed March 14, 2017; that is, significantly longer than six (6) months after May 18, 2015 when the processable Form 8857 was submitted to the IRS.

Second, what standard and scope of review apply to the 6015 ticket? In cases arising under § 6015(e)(1), the Court employs a de novo standard of review and a de novo scope of review. Porter v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 203, 210 (2009). (As a bonus for readers, the Porter opinion includes an extensive dissent asserting the proper standard of review for § 6015 cases should be abuse of discretion (with a de novo scope of review) – written by Judge Gustafson and joined by Judge Morrison who decided this Francel case.)

The de novo standard of review and scope of review affords taxpayers the benefit of the Court’s fresh consideration of all relevant evidence. IRS determinations are not granted deference. In some instances, particularly when an administrative record is under-developed when the matter reaches the Court, de novo review can make all the difference with respect to a full hearing of the facts and law, and a decision that is correct on the merits rather than based solely on the administrative record. Unfortunately, this summer Congress limited the Court’s scope of review in § 6015(e) cases so it is no longer fully de novo. It remains to be seen how litigants and the Tax Court will interpret the Taxpayer First Act’s changes to § 6015(e). Steve Milgrom and Carl Smith raised several concerns and questions in a recent PT post.

Now turn to the § 6330(d)(1) CDP ticket to Tax Court. The default application of § 6330(d)(1) provides that a petition must be made within thirty (30) days of a CDP determination – significantly shorter than the period to request review of a § 6015 relief rejection. Nonetheless, Dr. Francel met the 30-day deadline. The Court would have had jurisdiction to review the rejection of § 6015 relief by the CDP Appeals Officer based on Dr. Francel’s § 6330(d)(1) ticket.

The advantage of one ticket over the other in this case comes into sharp relief with respect to the standard and scope of review. In contrast to the Court’s full de novo review of § 6015 matters, collection due process review is constrained. The standard of review when the liability is not at issue – which it was not in Francel – is abuse of discretion. Sego v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 604, 609-610 (2000), quoting the legislative history of § 6330, because the statute itself does not prescribe the standard the Court should apply when reviewing the IRS’s administrative decisions.

Even more material in CDP matters, the standard of review is abuse of discretion. Sego v. Commissioner, supra; Goza v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 176, 181-182 (2000); Robinette v. Commissioner, 439 F.3d 455, 459 (8th Cir. 2006, rev’g 123 T.C. 85 (2004). (Of course, review is de novo if the underlying liability is properly at issue.) Also, the Court often is bound by the record rule, in that it may only consider evidence contained in the administrative record if the case is appealable to the 1st, 8th, or 9th Circuits. In cases appealable to the other circuits, the Court does not limit the scope of its review to the administrative record, following Robinette. Judge Halperin recently reviewed the messy case law on scope and standard of review in CDP appeals in Hinerfeld v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2019-47. In many cases, particularly those involving self-represented taxpayers, the record rule forecloses a full hearing of relevant facts. Here, however, Dr. Francel did not suffer from lack of representation.

So for a case involving a § 6015 issue and a CDP issue, one ticket is more valuable than the other. The § 6015(e)(1) ticket offers a longer period to petition for Court review and it offers a de novo standard and scope of review. The § 6030(d)(1) ticket requires a 30-day dash to petition and it is burdened by the abuse of discretion standard and scope of review. In the Francel matter, the § 6015(e)(1) ticket would be more valuable.

In fact, the Court took jurisdiction pursuant to § 6015(e)(1) without an explanation for the selection. Perhaps it did so because the rejected request for § 6015 relief preceded the unfavorable CDP determination which sustained the § 6015 denial. Thus, Dr. Francel had the benefit of the Court’s full de novo review. This may have been small comfort, however, because the Court sides with the IRS, deciding that Dr. Francel did not qualify for any relief.

By comparison to the lead in, a fairly uneventful conclusion

From this point, the Opinion accelerates to a close with the § 6015 analysis. Fundamentally, the unreported income was attributable to Dr. Francel. Relief may not be granted under § 6015(b) or (c) for tax arising from a liability attributable to the requesting spouse. Dr. Francel’s S corporation medical practice was required to report all fees as income. As sole shareholder of the practice, Dr. Francel was then required to include the fees in his income. The question of income attribution did not rest on who was responsible for the under-reporting, or embezzlement, or criminal tax evasion.

In addition, the Court decided it would not be inequitable to hold Dr. Francel liable for the deficiencies. (Section 6015(f) permits relief even when the liability is attributable to the requesting spouse, if an analysis of the facts and circumstances establishes equitable relief is justified.) According to the Court, Dr. Francel benefitted from the unreported cash fees because Ms. Francel spent some of the cash on home improvements for the residence Dr. Francel still occupied. He also owned the car restored using the unreported income. Dr. Francel’s accumulated wealth was attributable in part to the unreported cash and the unpaid tax from the 2003-2006 tax years. These facts weighed against a grant of relief. If Dr. Francel had actual knowledge, or reason to know, of the diverted cash and unreported income as the facts imply, this would have weighed against relief as well. Not mentioned but possibly also a factor: Dr. Francel may have failed the economic hardship test because he had the financial resources to pay the liability and still maintain a standard of living well above IRS national, regional and local standards (remember, Dr. Francel continued his cosmetic surgical medical practice).

In close, what a bountiful Opinion this is, presenting facts that would be NCI-episode-worthy if there had been a dead body; a generous tutorial regarding § 6015 relief, collection due process, as well as standard and scope of Court review; and – best of all – an elegant profiling of two tickets to the Tax Court. As a bonus, for readers who teach professional responsibility for tax practitioners, I recommend mining the Opinion for an exam fact pattern regarding an attorney’s duty of loyalty and conflicts of interest, extracting the many representation scenarios the Court helpfully flags. 

The Broad Impact of Guralnik

On July 12, 2019, I wrote about one case in which the Tax Court applied the reasoning in Guralnik v. Commissioner to extend the time within which a taxpayer could file their Tax Court petition during the government shutdown. We picked up that case through the Tax Court’s designated order feature. As we have discussed before the order feature of the Tax Court’s web site allows users to perform word searches. Inspired by the first case and expecting there should be others, Carl Smith did such a search and found others to which he alerted me. I had my research assistant, Michael Waalkes, follow up on Carl’s research and this post will identify the cases we have found in which Guralnik has made a difference as well as a few where it did not. Leading into the shutdown, we reminded readers on December 31, 2018, not to forget Guralnik. It’s clear from these orders that the Tax Court did not forget it and that the earlier case we wrote about was part of a concerted effort on the part of the court to identify cases in which the court opened its doors to cases which would otherwise have been late but for the application of Guralnik to the situation.

In each of these cases the IRS moved to dismiss. At some point perhaps the IRS will accept Guralnik and no longer file a motion to dismiss or it will seek to litigate it in the circuits. At least for this round of government shutdown, the IRS seems content to raise the issue in every case but accept the outcome in every case without filing an appeal. Of course, if the IRS accepts Guralnik without filing a motion to dismiss, we would not find the case through an order search so it may have accepted many more cases than it contested. Perhaps the issue is a function of getting the word to the field offices. The possibility also exists that it wants to bring each situation to the court’s attention and have the court make the specific decision allowing the case to move forward.

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Per the search of the Tax Court orders: here are the cases involving Guralnik’s application to the government shutdown, in which the Court denied an IRS motion to dismiss for a petition due during the shutdown: Coleman v. Commissioner, Docket No. 1856-19; Baird v. Commissioner, Docket No. 1706-19; Meaut v. Commissioner, Docket No.: 1851-19; Crager v. Commissioner, Docket No. 2191-19; Vlach v. Commissioner, Docket No. 614-19S; Wilson v. Commissioner, Docket No. 0691-19S; Hamilton v. Commissioner, Docket No. 436-19S; Doherty v. Commissioner, Docket No. 101-19; Cajuste v. Commissioner, Docket No. 2190-19; Witt v. Commissioner, Docket No. 2071-19; Kendrick v. Commissioner, Docket No. 806-19S; Baird v. Commissioner, Docket No. 1706-19; Worku v. Commissioner, Docket No. 1864-19; Gettys v. Commissioner, Docket No.1686-19S; Hager v. Commissioner, Docket No. 1854-19.

The Tax Court appears to have adopted a standard policy in cases where the IRS files a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction on timeliness for petitions due during the government shutdown. The Court first issues a generic order (sample linked here) citing Guralnik and requiring that the IRS supplement its motion, which leads to the IRS conceding timeliness in its supplement and the Court then denying the motion to dismiss. 

Despite the 14 cases listed above in which the Tax Court did open its doors, some petitioners still remained outside of the benefit created by the extra time resulting from the government shutdown. These cases deserve a closer look since they do not follow the cookie cutter results of the cases listed above. In Bancroft v. Commissioner, Docket No. 2063-19, the Tax Court issued its standard order for the IRS to file a supplement to its motion to dismiss, which the IRS did. The Tax Court then granted the motion to dismiss without issuing an order, so it’s unclear why the Court wasn’t convinced that the shutdown affected the timeliness of the petition filing. It would have been nice to have some reasoning here given the importance of the issue. We did not pay to obtain the response filed by the IRS which might have made it clear why the court granted the motion to dismiss in this case.

And in Barnhart v. Commissioner, Docket No. 5783-19S, in response to an IRS motion to dismiss for late-filing a petition that was due on December 24, 2018 (several days before December 28, 2018 when the Tax Court stopped operating), the petitioners argued that their efforts to administratively resolve their issue with the IRS had been hampered by the government shutdown, as the IRS began its furlough earlier on December 22, 2018, two days before the filing deadline. But Judge Foley granted the motion to dismiss and issued an order finding that a government shutdown at the administrative level was not sufficient to alter the filing deadline with the Tax Court, which at the time was still unaffected. This case demonstrates the confusion that some petitioners might have had between the shutdown of the IRS (and most of the government) and the shutdown of the Tax Court (and most of the courts). The non-budget funds available to the courts allowed them to remain open for a short period after the rest of the government shut its doors. Perhaps this confusion should not matter from a jurisdictional standpoint but the whole issue of shutdown must have caused confusion for some parties seeking a remedy.

Finally, in Janjic v. Commissioner, Docket No. 2003-19, the petitioner was a taxpayer who lived abroad and did not return to the U.S. until during the period of the IRS furlough. The petitioner argued that she was unaware that the Tax Court was still operational during this time and thus the Court should still consider the case. The Tax Court disagreed, and Judge Foley granted the IRS motion to dismiss, while noting his sympathy for the petitioner’s situation. The Janjic case most clearly raises the issue of confusion and provides a possible basis for equitable tolling should the time frame for filing a petition in a deficiency proceeding prove not to be jurisdictional.

The issue of jurisdictional nature of the timing of the filing of a deficiency case will be argued in the 9th Circuit in San Francisco on October 22, 2019, in the cases of Organic Cannabis Foundation LLC v. Commissioner, Ninth Circuit Docket No. 17-72874 and Northern California Small Business Assistants, Inc. v. Commissioner, Ninth Circuit Docket No. 17-72877.  We will be closely watching those cases as the decision there could impact other petitioners like Ms. Janjic who file their Tax Court petitions late but have a reason for doing so that would support a finding of equitable tolling. Although we have not written as standalone post on Organic Cannabis and Northern California Small Business Assistants, we did discuss them in the December 31, 2018 post linked above. Just as a reminder, here is what we wrote in that post:

There are currently before the Ninth Circuit two companion cases of petitions sent in around the same time as Guralnik, also by FedEx First Overnight, that arrived a day late. In these cases, Organic Cannabis Foundation LLC v. Commissioner, Ninth Cir. Docket No. 17-72874, and Northern California Small Business Assistants, Inc. v. Commissioner, Ninth Circuit Docket No. 17-72877, it is not clear why the petitions were filed late, but it appears that the Federal Express driver could not access the open Tax Court Clerk’s Office on the last day – either because of construction work, police activity, or some other reason – so the driver returned the following day (one day too late if section 7502 can’t be used). In unpublished orders issued on July 25, 2017 (here and here), the Tax Court declined to extend Guranik to cover situations where the Clerk’s Office was in fact open.

In the Ninth Circuit, the taxpayers not only seek to extend Guralnik, but also argue (as the tax clinic at Harvard did in Guralnik) that the deficiency petition filing deadline is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling. The DOJ relies on the holding in Guralnik, but argues that Guralnik cannot be stretched to cover the situation where the Clerk’s office is actually open. Since the parties cannot confer jurisdiction in a case merely by not making certain arguments, it would not be impossible for the Ninth Circuit to eventually rule both in these cases that the filing deadline is jurisdictional and that the Tax Court cannot import into its own rules any rule from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that extends the filing deadline when the Clerk’s Office is formally closed. That is, nothing stops the Ninth Circuit from rejecting the latter holding in Guralnik. Thus, until there are some court of appeals rulings on this fact pattern, it may be wise not to try to rely on the closure of the government as a reason for not mailing a Tax Court petition on time or attempting hand delivery to the court on the first date it reopens. The cases before the Ninth Circuit are fully briefed… Among the briefs there are amicus briefs from the Harvard tax clinic arguing that the filing deadline is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling.

Of course, we are closely following the jurisdictional nature of the timing of filing Tax Court petitions in several of the bases for jurisdiction. With respect to the recent decision of the D.C. Circuit that the time for filing a petition in a whistleblower case is not jurisdictional, blogged here, the Department of Justice has requested more time to decide whether to request an en banc review of the decision. As discussed in the blog post on the Myers case, because the language in the whistleblower statute essentially mirrors the language in the Collection Due Process statute passed several years earlier, the Myers decision essentially sets up a split between the D.C. Circuit and the 9th Circuit on this issue which creates at the least the possibility of a trip to the Supreme Court.

Statistics on Cases in Litigation from ABA Tax Section Meeting in May

In May, the ABA Tax Section held its annual meeting in DC. Because of the location, this meeting has more government attendees than the other two meetings during the year. Since the government attendees were unable to attend the previous ABA meeting due to the shutdown, there was a fair amount of information disseminated by them at this meeting. My comments come from the first session of the Court Procedure and Practice Committee. This committee opens with a panel which includes government representatives from different parts of the tax world. There is a representative from the Office of Chief Counsel, from the Tax Court (usually the Chief Judge) and from the Tax Division of the Department of Justice. Chief Judge Foley announced the Court’s decision to allow limited representation starting in September and focused his remarks on that coming change. I expect that we will be writing more about that in coming weeks.

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Rich Goldman from Procedure and Administration provided lots of statistical information in the form of slides. Because the slides were not made a part of the material available to attendees, I requested them informally. Because the slides were not made available to me based on the informal request, I obtained them through FOIA. For that reason it has taken a little time after the meeting to make these slides available. The slides cover a few different types of cases in litigation and provide different perspectives on the cases. The slides not only provide a perspective of what’s happening in tax litigation over the arc of the last decade but they can provide context in some types of litigation where letting the court know of the numbers of certain types of cases can be useful.

Inventory of Cases in Litigation

The first set of slides (slides 2 and 3) discusses the dollars in dispute pending in Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims and the district courts filed in the last decade. As you will see in later slides the vast majority of tax litigation by number of cases occurs in the Tax Court. Because so many of the cases in Tax Court involve small dollar amounts the amount of money in dispute in the other two courts can make their dockets look bigger. Just focusing on dollars the Tax Court is the clear winner but the contrast gets much starker when looking at number of case filed which you can find in the following slides, 4 and 5.

The data then moves from graphs to pie charts to provide a greater breakdown of the Tax Court’s inventory (slide 6). The pie chart is followed by another graph showing dollars in dispute by type of Tax Court case. It comes as no surprise that a small percentage of Tax Court cases dominate the amount of dollars at issue (slide 7).

Tax Court Filings by Category

The next slide provides a 10-year arc of the filings in Tax Court by category (slide 8). This graph shows that the number of Tax Court cases have declined in recent years but the decline has not been as significant as I might have expected given the cut back in some of the audit activity by the IRS. These slides do not show the percentage of cases petitioned based on the number of statutory notices or determinations issued by the IRS. A long time ago the percentage of cases filed in the Tax Court by taxpayers receiving notices that provided a ticket to Tax Court was around 3%. If that percentage still holds or provides even a reasonably close approximation of the number of filings per notice, you can see that a drop off at the Tax Court of 1,000 cases reflects a much more significant drop off at the IRS of the number of cases in which it sends a notice.

Receipts and Closures at the Tax Court

A trio of slides shows the number of receipts and closures at the Tax Court (slides 10, 11, and 18). The Tax Court has been closing cases faster than it receives them for several years. I have not seen statistics on how this has impacted the length of time a case spends in the Tax Court. I expect that the length of time from filing to conclusion has decreased but that type of statistic was not included in the package of statistics provided at the ABA meeting. Another pair of slides shows the receipts and closures by case category type (slides 12 & 13).

Sources of Cases Petitioned to Tax Court

One slide shows the sources of case petitioned to the Tax Court. No big surprise that Service Center notices provide the vast majority of cases. I go to the Tax Court fairly regularly and sit in the docket room looking at cases on upcoming calendars in Boston. It’s interesting when you go through a calendar to see the types of case that make it to the Court. I have been struck in the last few years how few earned income tax credit cases appeared on the calendars. A large number of cases involved unreported income picked up by the automated underreporter unit which matches the information returns against the information reported on the return. Without these computer audits, the number of Tax Court cases would plummet.

Settlement

Two of the slides focus on settlements showing cases settled in Appeals and in Chief Counsel’s office (slides 15 & 16). The vast majority of cases do not go through Appeals on the way to Tax Court because the vast majority of cases involve pro se taxpayers who do not avail themselves of the opportunity to go through Appeals. It would be interesting to see what would happen to the Tax Court inventory if exhausting your remedies by going to Appeals was made mandatory instead of voluntary as a part of getting to Tax Court. All Collection Due Process (CDP) cases take the Appeals route prior to coming to court.

Pro Se Cases in Tax Court

One slide shows the number of cases filed by pro se petitioners in Tax Court and the dollars at issues in those cases. While many of the petitioners filing pro se meet the criteria as low-income taxpayers under IRC 7526 which pegs qualification at 250% of poverty, a large percentage of the petitioners in this group file pro se because the cost of representation exceeds the amount at issue. For many middle income or even high income taxpayers a dispute with the IRS that involves less than $15-20,000 may not justify the cost of obtaining representation. For individuals working calendar call, it is not unusual to encounter these petitioners. Of course, many of the more sophisticated pro se petitioners, whether low, middle or high income, can navigate the system and settle with Appeals or IRS Counsel. Still, some of the pro se individuals from each income level need assistance to effectively manage their case to the best result.

Refund Cases

There are five slides depicting various facets of refund litigation (slides 19-23). The striking aspect of refund litigation is how few cases end up in refund litigation anymore. The number of refund cases has historically been much less than the number of Tax Court cases but that trend has significantly accelerated in the past couple of decades. Some cases must go the refund route because the Tax Court route is unavailable, either because of the type of tax or the taxpayer’s initial decision to report the tax and allow the IRS to make an assessment. Larger corporations with sophisticated counsel tended to go the refund route if the forum shopping opportunity provided the best path to victory. The reduction in refund cases may reflect the significant decrease in audits of the types of taxpayers who made this type of choice in years past.

Collection Due Process

Four slides show the numbers of CDP cases in the Tax Court. The number of these cases is not as large as one might expect. It is unclear why so few taxpayer who elect CDP choose to go to Tax Court.

It’s worth noting that the Chief Counsel’s office did not display in any of the slides the number of cases in litigation in the bankruptcy courts. Section 505(a) of the bankruptcy code gives taxpayers going through bankruptcy the opportunity to litigate their liability in bankruptcy. No statistics were provided to show how many and what type of taxpayers avail themselves of this opportunity. Despite this absence, the group of slides provides a fairly detailed look at the tax litigation system and the cases going through it.

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. 

Jurisdiction Cannot Be Manufactured: Designated Orders 6/3/19 – 6/7/19

The most exciting designated order during the week of June 3, 2019, by far, was in Docket No. 14307-18, Scott Allan Webber v. CIR. It was so exciting that it was worthy of its own post, which is here (and I’m thankful to William Schmidt for giving it the attention it deserves).

Docket No. 15445-18, Stephen E. Haney v. CIR (order here), Docket No. 15435-18, Ricardo C. Lacey & Cynthia V. Lacey v. CIR (order here), and Docket No. 15315-18, Steven E. Ayers & Donna J. Ayers v. CIR (order here)

Typically, when I come across three designated orders with nearly identical language it is because the same order was issued in a consolidated docket. But that was not the case during the week of June 3; rather there were three separate cases involving the same bad actor. What he did was bad, but not bad enough to rise to the level of the Court making a Department of Justice referral – which is a little surprising.

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Detailed facts about each petitioner’s specific case were not included in the orders, but each one is before the Court on a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, and the same oddity happened in all three cases. A petition was filed with the Court, which included a copy of a notice of deficiency, but the date on the petitioner’s notice of deficiency didn’t match the date on the version the IRS had. The IRS produced its version as well as a certified mailing list reflecting the date that matched the IRS’s version.

The Court conducted an evidentiary hearing to develop a record that would explain why there was a discrepancy between the dates on the notices.

The Court noted other similarities in the cases: all three petitions originated from the same tax preparation company (according to the return address labels), and appear to have been signed by the same person, but there are no markings or disclosures to indicate that a third party signed on behalf of the petitioners.

In an effort to gather information, the IRS subpoenaed the accountant associated with the tax preparation company (the “accountant”) on the return address labels. They directed him to appear and testify at the evidentiary hearing, but he did not.

Instead, a taxpayer unrelated to any of the three cases came to testify for the IRS about his experience with the accountant. In his testimony, the taxpayer explained that he invested in a company and later took substantial losses related to the investment on his federal income tax return. The IRS proposed to disallow the losses and on the advice of his tax preparer, the taxpayer met with the accountant (who was the tax preparer for the company the taxpayer invested in). The accountant assured him that the IRS was incorrect, and he would take care of the matter and the taxpayer signed a power of attorney allowing the accountant to represent him.

Then, the taxpayer received a notice of deficiency and forwarded it to the accountant, who he believed was still his representative at the time. The taxpayer reached out to the accountant several times to inquire about whether a petition had been filed with the Court and did not receive a response from the accountant but did receive a bill from the IRS.

Sometime later, the taxpayer received notice from the Court that it had received a petition on the taxpayer’s behalf. The IRS filed a motion to dismiss in the case alleging that the petition was not timely filed. The IRS alleged that the notice of deficiency had been altered to make it appear timely filed. The taxpayer hired an attorney to help him respond to the motion, and in his response claimed that he believed his former representative, the accountant, had altered the dates.

Based on the taxpayer’s testimony and IRS records, the Court finds that the accountant was responsible for altering the dates in all three designated order cases. The Court also warns the accountant against misleading the Court, harming taxpayers and wasting the Court’s and IRS’s resources in the future.

It is unclear from the orders (and from some additional research) whether the accountant actually has the authority to represent individuals before the IRS and Tax Court. In all three cases petitioners are designated as pro se, and presumably, the petitioners would have needed to ratify their petitions if they did not authorize the initial petition’s filing.

One last oddity is that motions for continuance were filed by petitioners in all three cases on the exact same day, a week after the orders were issued and the cases had been dismissed, which may suggest an attempt at continued involvement by the accountant.

Docket No. 19502-17, Cross Refined Coal, LLC, USA Refined Coal, LLC, Tax Matters Partner v. CIR (order here)

This next order addresses discovery motions; more specifically, both parties’ motion to compel the production of documents. The parties have decided to utilize a “quick peek” review and the Court approves. Procedurally Taxing covered this uncommon procedure back in 2016 in a post by Les, here. Since it has been a few years (and I assume educating the public on this option was the reason the Court designated the order), here is a quick refresher:

The procedure originates from Federal Rule of Evidence 502, which states, “A federal court may order that the privilege or protection is not waived by disclosure connected with the litigation pending before the court.”  As a result, the procedure can speed up the discovery process by allowing parties to review substantial amounts of information without the risk of waiving any privilege.

In the remaining designated orders, the Court calculates the value of a donated building façade in a case involving a disputed charitable contribution deduction after the parties couldn’t reach an agreement (order here), and the Court grants a summary judgment motion in a CDP special circumstances offer in compromise case (order here).

Losing Jurisdiction through Excessive Payments – Designated Orders: May 27 – 31, 2019

Another week with only two designated orders (likely caused by the Memorial Day holiday). The first comes from Judge Carluzzo, but is a fairly unremarkable order that grants a petitioner’s motion to dismiss his own CDP case. There was a motion for summary judgment pending from Respondent; perhaps Petitioner agreed to a collection alternative or otherwise came to a realization that defending against summary judgment would be futile. We don’t know, as there remains no electronic access to documents on the Tax Court’s docket other than orders and opinions.

The other order from Judge Leyden likewise dismisses a case, but for a different reason: the petitioners in this deficiency case had paid the Service’s proposed tax before it issued a notice of deficiency. Nevertheless, the Service ended up issuing a Notice of Deficiency, from which the Petitioners timely petitioned the Tax Court.

Ordinarily, when dealing with jurisdictional motions in the deficiency context, we see two failures of jurisdiction: (1) the Petitioner hasn’t timely filed their petition, or (2) the Service issued an invalid notice of deficiency—most often because the Service failed to mail the notice to the Petitioner’s last known address.

Here, Respondent filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Judge Leyden finds the Notice of Deficiency is invalid, but not because it was inappropriately mailed. Rather, the Notice is invalid because, the Court concludes, no deficiency exists.

Conceptually, this feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Isn’t the question of whether a deficiency exists a determination to be made on the merits? Why is the Court deprived of jurisdiction? Payment of a deficiency and the deficiency itself seem to be independent concepts. Why is the Tax Court not empowered, as a statutory matter, to determine the propriety of a deficiency—even if it’s been paid before the Notice of Deficiency is issued?

The Court doesn’t cite to any caselaw in the order, but a number of Courts of Appeals agree with Judge Leyden’s analysis. For example, in Conklin v. Commissioner,  897 F.2d 1027 (10th Cir. 1990), a Notice of Deficiency was issued for a joint liability. However, prior to the Notice of Deficiency, the wife paid the entire proposed joint liability in full. The husband sought to challenge the liability in Tax Court. The Tax Court determined the merits of the issue, but the 10th Circuit reversed, holding that the no deficiency existed under I.R.C. § 6211, because it had been fully paid prior to the husband’s Notice of Deficiency. Therefore, the Tax Court had no jurisdiction to hear the case and determine the merits.

What’s the statutory underpinning of this decision? It begins and ends with IRC § 6211, which defines a deficiency. I teach this section each year to my Tax Clinic class, which results in some mild bewilderment. Let’s look at the statute:

For purposes of this title in the case of income . . . taxes imposed by subtitles A… the term “deficiency” means the amount by which the tax imposed by subtitle A …exceeds the excess of—

  • The sum of  
  •  The amount shown as the tax by the taxpayer upon his return . . . plus
  • The amounts previously assessed (or collected without assessment) as a deficiency, over—
  • The amount of rebates, as defined in subsection (b)(2), made.

Clear as mud. I try to frame this as a mathematical equation in class. As elements in the equation, we have:

  1. TaxA: The tax imposed by subtitle A—i.e., what the tax actually should be, under the Internal Revenue Code;
  2. TaxR: The amount shown as the tax by the taxpayer upon his return;
  3. A: Amounts previously assessed as a deficiency;
  4. C: Amounts collected without assessment—the critical issue in this order; and
  5. R: The amount of rebates.

As much as I try to tell students wanting to enroll in Tax Clinic that there’s minimal math involved, it’s time to express this as a proper equation.

Deficiency = TaxA  – ((TaxR  + A + C) – R)  

And, remembering with much appreciation my high school algebra classes, we can simply the equation as follows:

Deficiency = TaxA  – TaxR  – A – C + R  

(My wife—who majored in mathematics—tells me that this is an example of the “distributive property”.)

For simple cases, this makes some conceptual sense. A deficiency primarily equals the tax under subtitle A, less the tax that the taxpayer reported on the tax return.

Let’s add some complexity. If there were previous deficiency assessments made, then those amounts should be reduced from the new deficiency. If there were rebates made (as would occur if, for example, a previous audit resulted in an additional refund to the taxpayer), those amounts should be added to the new deficiency.

That brings us to the issue in this case—“amounts previously . . . collected without assessment.” Those too must be reduced from the definition of a deficiency under section 6211. And if the Notice of Deficiency is issued after the “amounts collected without assessment” exceed the amount of any proposed deficiency, then no deficiency existed when the Notice was issued—or at least, no deficiency that the Commissioner is asserting.  In effect, the Notice is asserting something that cannot exist under section 6211, and it’s therefore invalid. In contrast, if payment occurs after the Notice is issued, the Notice itself remains valid as a deficiency existed at the time of the Notice.

Ultimately, taxpayers in this situation still have an option to dispute the merits of an IRS audit determination: they may file a refund claim with the Service and (upon denial) sue for a refund in District Court or the Court of Federal Claims. This isn’t the most helpful result for pro se taxpayers, given the relative procedural complexity in those courts. Yet, it remains the sole option for these taxpayers.

There are some practical problems with this approach, however. In Judge Leyden’s order, the Petitioners didn’t object to Respondent’s motion. Presumably they agreed that they owed a deficiency, had paid it, and wanted to simply finalize the matter with the IRS.

But there’s still a potential problem. The Service issued a Notice of Deficiency several months after the Petitioners fully paid the proposed deficiency. It seems likely that when they made the payment the Petitioners would have signed Form 4549, Income Tax Examination Changes, which waives the restrictions in section 6213 on assessment and collection. If they did, and the IRS made an assessment pursuant to the Form 4549 at that time, then there is potentially a risk that the Service could assess the same tax again subsequent to the Notice of Deficiency. Stranger things have happened; indeed, Judge Leyden references this possibility in the order itself, and notes that the Service has assured the Court it will take care not to make a duplicate assessment.

What happens if the Service does make that mistake? Can the Petitioner return to Tax Court to enforce the Service’s promise reflected in the order? Maybe, as a practical matter. Perhaps the Court would exercise such jurisdiction as in similar cases involving improper mailings that invalidate the Notice of Deficiency.

At present, this case represents a cautionary tale to taxpayers and their representatives wishing to dispute a tax deficiency in the U.S. Tax Court, yet also wish to prevent the running of penalties and interest. Either (1) they should designate their payment as a “deposit” or (2) they should wait until after issuance of the Notice of Deficiency to make payment. Otherwise, any dispute is heading to District Court or the Court of Federal Claims.


Petitioners Cannot Raise New Issues at Rule 155 Stage of Tax Court Case

In Vento, et al, v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. No. 1 (2019) the Tax Court determined that petitioners could not raise a new substantive issue during the computational phase of the case. During the trial of the Tax Court case the court concluded that petitioners, three sisters who resided in the United States during the year at issue, could not get credit for foreign taxes paid when they attempted unsuccessfully to receive tax treatment as residents of the Virgin Islands. At the conclusion of the Tax Court case and the issuance of the opinion, the court ordered the parties to calculate the tax resulting from its opinion based on the provisions of Tax Court Rule 155.

The parties complied with the court order to calculate the taxes resulting from the opinion; however, they did not agree on the amount of taxes due. When this happens, the Tax Court usually schedules a hearing so that the parties can argue (explain) the basis for their computations. The purpose of the hearing is to determine which of the parties, if either, has properly calculated the tax so that the court can enter a decision upon which the IRS can base an assessment of additional taxes due. In some cases the court can decide the correct computation based on the explanations submitted with the conflicting computations.

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In their Rule 155 computation petitioners determined liabilities about 60% less than the liability determined by the IRS. Petitioners’ computation acknowledged that they could not obtain a foreign taxes paid reduction of their taxes under IRC 901 as determined by the court’s opinion but argued instead that they were entitled to a reduction for state and local taxes paid. Petitioners argued that the court could consider the reduction of their taxes on this basis because the parties tried this issue by mutual consent even though petitioners did not place it into their pleadings, citing Tax Court Rule 41(b)(1). This rule allows a party to conform the pleadings to the proof essentially allowing the consideration of an argument not raised in the pleadings if the information came out during trial without an objection.

Petitioners subsequently amended their Rule 155 argument to add a request for a deduction under IRC 31. The court noted that it had not mentioned this section at any point in the litigation prior to the Rule 155 computation phase. The IRS responded to petitioners’ request to make either of these two new arguments with an objection, saying that it had not consented to the arguments during the trial and did not consent at this point. The court denied petitioners’ motion to raise either of these new arguments noting, among other reasons, that raising these arguments would be futile and would not result in the relief requested.

The Tax Court issued a fully reviewed opinion meaning that essentially all of the presidentially appointed active judges sat in the court’s conference room, discussed the case, and worked out how they should decide it. This type of opinion usually happens 5 or 6 times a year. We have written about this type of opinion before and particularly in a guest post by Kandyce Korotky. After the discussion the Chief Judge would have appointed someone in the majority to write the opinion and usually that would be the judge who handled the case prior to the conference. Here, the judge who had the case prior to the court conference, Judge Halpern, did not end up in the majority and could not write the majority opinion. The case has a majority opinion, a concurrence and a concurrence in result only. Judge Halpern writes the concurrence in result only.

The majority opinion, written by Judge Lauber and joined by 9 of the 12 judges who participated in decision in the case approaches the case in the matter of fact, “it’s too late” fashion that I expected. (The opinion says that Judge Gustafson did not participate. Although the Tax Court is missing some judges who have not cleared the appointment process to reach its statutory maximum level of 19, I might have expected a couple of other judges who I thought were still on the court to be mentioned either as joining in one of the opinions or as not participating. It does not matter but the numbers here do not quite add up for me.)

Writing in a separate concurrence and joined by 5 judges, Judge Thornton opened my eyes to why this case is precedential because he spends the majority of his concurrence explaining why the separate concurring opinion in result only of Judge Halpern is incorrect. Judge Halpern was joined by one other judge in his concurrence in result only.

The majority opinion cites a litany of cases holding that parties cannot raise new issues during the Rule 155 phase of a case. This issue is so well settled I struggled to determine why the court issued a precedential opinion in this case. Many prior parties have tried to make new arguments at this phase of the case and a relatively full body of case precedent exists on the subject. Petitioners’ position was even more difficult because the parties submitted the case under Rule 122 – a process for submitting Tax Court cases on the written stipulations of the parties. In such a situation neither party has much room to argue that an issue arose tangentially since they stipulate the issues the court will decide as well as all of the facts. While facts not covered by a stipulation and not raised in the pleadings regularly come out during a trial, the Rule 122 process usually keeps the parties focused on the issues raised in the pleadings. Finding extra arguments in the stipulation of a Rule 122 case presents significant challenges unless the IRS attorney handling the case paid no attention to the issues raised in the pleadings. The majority opinion covers all of the points I would have expected in a case with this issue.

Judge Halpern does not join in the majority because he believes that petitioners have the right to raise overpayment claims citing to the court’s decision in Hulett v. Commissioner, 150 T.C. _ (2018). He explains why petitioners will lose their arguments for a different outcome than the one computed by the IRS in its Rule 155 computation, but he gets to the end result through a different analytical process than the one employed by the majority. He states:

Thus, the majority appears to announce a new dictum: “Thou shalt not, ever, under any circumstances raise a new issue during a Rule 155 proceeding.” That dictum, however, is untenable; It contravenes the plain text of the relevant provisions of our Rules and cannot be reconciled with our prior case law – including that on which the majority purports to rely.

He is particularly concerned about the interplay of Rule 155 with Rule 41. It seems from the concurring opinion written by Judge Thornton that the other members of the court came to an understanding of Judge Halpern’s concern but simply disagreed with it. One of the biggest concerns expressed by Judge Halpern is that the majority’s opinion will prevent consideration of potentially important facts or law that impacts the computation of an opinion because it will prevent the party from raising it. The concurring opinion by Judge Thornton disagrees with this conclusion. Note that even though the petitioners seek to raise something new in this case, the possibility exists that in another case it might be the IRS trying to do so.

Generally, raising a new issue at the Rule 155 stage of a case will prove very difficult. This case provides an internal look at the court’s thinking on when it might occur. For someone seeking to use factors not contained in the court’s opinion ordering the computation, reading and understanding the discussion here could be very useful.