The Difference between Proposed and Determined, Designated Orders August 26 – August 30

Four orders were designated during the week of August 26, including a bench opinion in favor of petitioners in Cross Refined Coal, LLC, et. al v. C.I.R. which is summarized at the end of this post. The only order not discussed found no abuse of discretion in the IRS’s determination not to withdraw a lien (order here).

Docket No. 1312-16, Sheila Ann Smith v. C.I.R. (order here)

First is another attempted development in the ever-expanding universe that is section 6751(b)(1). Petitioner moves to compel discovery related to section 6751 supervisory approval for the section 6702 penalties asserted against her while the Court’s decision is pending.

The Court first explains that some district courts have incorrectly held that the 6702 penalty is automatically calculated through electronic means, and thus, does not require supervisory approval. This is incorrect, because although the penalty is easily calculated since it is a flat $5,000 per frivolous return, it still requires supervisory approval pursuant to IRM section 4.19.13.6.2(3).

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Since the penalty requires supervisory approval and the record already contains some proof of approval, the Court goes on to evaluate the timing at issue (and whether additional discovery is warranted) in this case by looking to Kestin v. Commissioner, 153 T.C. No. 2, which it decided at the end of August. Like petitioner’s case, in Kestin, a section 6702 penalty for filing a frivolous tax return was at issue and a Letter 3176C was sent to the taxpayer warning of the imposition of the penalty. The Court held a Letter 3176C is not an “initial determination” of penalty for purposes of section 6751(b)(1), so approval is not required prior to the letter being sent.

This is an unsurprising result. The letter warns the taxpayer that the penalty may be imposed, but also provides the taxpayer with an opportunity to withdraw and correct their frivolous return to avoid the penalty. By providing a taxpayer with an opportunity to act to avoid the penalty, the letter does not need the protection afforded by the section 6751(b) approval requirement. Supervisory approval is required when there is a determination of a penalty, rather than “an indication of a possibility that such a liability will be proposed,” like the Letter 3176C.

The Court denies petitioner’s motion as moot, since the evidence she seeks to compel is already in the record showing that section 6751 approval was timely obtained after the issuance of the Letter 3176C.

Docket No. 26734-14, Daniel R. Doyle and Lynn A. Doyle (order here)

In this designated order, petitioners move the Court to reconsider its decision about whether they can deduct the legal expenses they paid in settlement of a discrimination suit. Unfortunately, petitioners didn’t make this argument during their trial. They had originally argued the expenses were related to petitioner husband’s consulting business, but the fees were not related to his business because they were for a suit against his former employer.

The Court denies petitioners’ motion to reconsider because they are raising a new legal theory that is not supported by the record and they did not allege new evidence, fraud, nor newly voided judgments which would allow the Court to vacate and revise its decision under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).

Docket No. 19502-17, Cross Refined Coal, LLC, et. al. v. C.I.R. (order and opinion here)

Petitioners are victorious in Cross Refined Coal – a case involving a partnership in the coal refining industry and the section 45 credits. The section 45 credits are for refined coal that is produced and sold to an unrelated party in 10 years, subject to certain requirements. The bench opinion consists of 24 pages of findings of fact and 22 pages of legal analysis, so I only highlight some aspects here.

The IRS’s main issue is whether the partnership was a bona fide partnership under the Culbertson test and Tax Court’s Luna test. The IRS had an issue with two (of the eight) factors in Luna which help establish whether there was a business purpose intent to form a partnership.

First, the IRS posits that the contributions the parties made to the venture were not substantial, even though the partners made multi-million dollar contributions of their initial purchase price and to fund ongoing operating expenses. The Court disagrees and points out that the contributions are not required to meet any objective standard, the partners’ initial investments were at risk, and they continued to make contributions to fund operating expenses even when the tax credits were not being generated.

Second, the IRS argues that the partners did not meaningfully in share profits and losses, because the arrangement should justify itself in pre-tax terms in order to be respected for tax purposes. Disagreeing with the IRS, the Court finds petitioners shared in profits and losses, even though the arrangement resulted in net losses because the credit amounts increased as the profits increased.

The IRS also argues that partners shared no risk of loss because the partners joined the partnership after the coal refining facility had been established. The Court points out that the IRS’s own Notice 2010-54 allows for lessees of coal refining operations to receive tax credits. The Court also distinguishes this case from a Third Circuit decision, Historic Boardwalk v. CIR, 694 F.3d 425 (3rd Cir. 2012), rev’g 136 T.C. 1 (2011), where the Court held there was no risk of loss when taxpayer became a partner after a rehabilitation project had already begun. Historic Boardwalk, however, dealt with investment credits. The credits at issue in this case are production credits, so what the IRS argues is the “11th hour” (because the coal refining facility had already been established) is actually the first hour because it is the production of coal that generates the credit, rather than the establishment of the facility.  

An overarching theme in the IRS’s position is that the existence of the credits make it less likely that the partners had a true business purpose, and the Court should find abuse when a deal is undertaken only for tax benefits. The Court responds to this argument at multiple points in the opinion explaining that the congressional purpose behind section 45 credits is to incentivize participation in the coal industry, an industry that no one would participate in otherwise. As a result, the credits should not be subject to a substance over form analysis in the way that the IRS seeks.

I encourage those interested in more detailed aspects of the analysis to read the opinion itself, but overall, this seems like the correct result for petitioners.

New Circuit Precedent on Issue of Litigating Tax Merits in Bankruptcy

In Bush v. United States, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 28533 (7th Cir. 2019), the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court and held that a bankruptcy court can determine the amount of a debtor’s tax obligations even when the debtor is unlikely to pay them.  I wrote about the Bush case back in August of 2016, when the district court found that the bankruptcy court did not have jurisdiction to determine the debtors’ tax liability. We have also discussed this issue before here, here and here although perhaps not in the precise context presented by the Seventh Circuit.  Here, the court looks at the same Supreme Court precedent that we have frequently talked about in the context of the Tax Court’s jurisdiction.  For those who have not tired of our discussion of that issue or are new to the blog, you can find samples of that discussion here and here.

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So, what’s at issue and why might this decision be important? 

The bankruptcy code in section 505(a) gives the bankruptcy court authority (I am carefully avoiding the word jurisdiction at this point) to hear and decide the merits of a debtor’s tax liability.  The principle reason for this grant of authority derives from the need for a determination of the tax liability in order to know how to divvy up a debtor’s assets among the creditors.  If the debtor owes a huge tax debt, that has a significant impact on how the bankruptcy court distributes the debtor’s assets.  Normal tax litigation can take a long time. If the bankruptcy court did not have the authority to decide the tax issues, either the distribution of assets could wait interminably for the outcome of the tax litigation, or assets might leave the estate to wrong creditor.

The general purpose of section 505(a) has led to much discussion regarding when the bankruptcy should, or even could, exercise its authority.  If, as appears to be the case in Bush, the outcome of the decision has no bearing on the distribution of assets, many have questioned whether the bankruptcy court should, or could, exercise this authority.  This type of questioning of the bankruptcy court’s authority usually arises when the debtor seeks relief in a chapter 7 no asset or low asset case.  The argument against having the bankruptcy court exercise its authority to hear the tax merits of a case stems from the belief that this grant of authority only has meaning if the exercise of the authority has meaning.  In situations in which the debtor’s estate has no money to pay either the IRS or the other creditors, little point exists for the bankruptcy court to serve as the arbiter of the tax dispute – best to leave the forum for tax disputes with the “normal” channels for deciding these disputes, viz., the Tax Court, the district courts or the Court of Federal Claims.

With this background, looking at the facts in the Bush case provides a helpful context.  The IRS proposed a deficiency of about $100,000 against the Bushes and the 75% fraud penalty.  The Bushes agreed that they owed the tax but contested the application of the fraud penalty.  Instead, they argued that the 20% negligence penalty should apply.  On the date set for their Tax Court trial, the Bushes file a bankruptcy petition.  This triggered the automatic stay of B.C. 362(a)(8) which stops the commencement or continuation of Tax Court proceedings.  From the 7th Circuit opinion I gather that the IRS filed a motion to lift the automatic stay to allow the Tax Court case to move forward, but the bankruptcy judge denied this motion and instead scheduled a trial on the merits at the request of the Bushes.  The tax years at issue in this case are 2009-2011.  The Tax Court petition was filed on September 23, 2013 and the bankruptcy petition on September 30, 2014.  We are not talking about a speedy resolution in this case but the timing of the resolution may not matter too much, since the Bushes do not appear able to pay the liability whether it ends up in the neighborhood of $120,000 or $175,000.

The IRS argued before the bankruptcy court that B.C. 505 does not grant subject matter jurisdiction to the bankruptcy court to decide a case of this type and “only a potential effect on creditors’ distributions justifies a decision by a bankruptcy judge about any tax dispute.”  The Seventh Circuit characterizes the argument about jurisdiction as “unfortunate” while acknowledging that other circuits have used the jurisdictional characterization in discussing 505.  The Seventh Circuit observes “we do not see what 505 has to do with jurisdiction, a word it does not use.  Section 505 simply sets out a task for bankruptcy judges.”  It points out that the Supreme Court insists that judges “distinguish procedural and substantive rules from jurisdictional ones”, citing to the same Supreme Court precedent noted in the litigation over the Tax Court’s jurisdiction.  For an extensive discussion of this issue, see the recent motion filed by the Tax Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School.

The Seventh Circuit notes that most truly jurisdictional issues appear in Title 28 of the United States Code and quotes extensively from the Title 28 section 1334 provisions regarding bankruptcy.  The IRS argued that no waiver of sovereign immunity exists to allow merits litigation under B.C. 505 through 28 U.S.C. 1334; however, the Seventh Circuit pointed to the waiver of sovereign immunity in B.C. 106(a)(1) which “waives that defense for subjects within 505.”  The court then analyzes three potentially relevant sources of jurisdiction in 1334 – those “arising in” bankruptcy litigation, those “arising under” the Bankruptcy Code, and those “related to” the resolution of the bankruptcy proceeding. 

The court finds that that the tax dispute does not “arise in” bankruptcy but rather outside of bankruptcy.  It also finds that the tax dispute does not “arise under” the Bankruptcy Code since the tax merits dispute arises under the Tax Court.  The “related to” basis for jurisdiction, however, does form a basis for allowing the bankruptcy court to hear this case.  The court points out that an Article 1 Tax Court judge or an Article 1 Bankruptcy Court judge would decide the dispute and that decision would be subject to review by an Article III judge.  This presents no constitutional issues that might exist in a state tax issue.

The IRS did not argue that tax disputes never relate to bankruptcy but only that the tax dispute in this case did not relate to bankruptcy, since no money exists in the estate to make the dispute meaningful as it relates to the entitlements of other creditors. The IRS cited to In re FedPak Systems, Inc., 80 F.3d 207, 213-14 (7th Cir. 1996) where this court held that “related to” meant that the decision impacts property for distribution or allocation of property among creditors.  The Seventh Circuit states that rather than controlling the outcome of the “related to” jurisdiction, the FedPak decision needs refinement to make it clear that “related to” jurisdiction does not depend on how things look at the end of bankruptcy but rather at its beginning.  When the Bushes filed their 505 request in this case, just two months into their bankruptcy case, only three creditors had filed claims. 

The IRS argues that even though few claims existed at the time of the 505 request by the time the bankruptcy judge proposed to resolve the dispute “it seemed unlikely that the amount the Bushes owe in taxes and penalties would affect other creditors.”  The Seventh Circuit counters that taking the ex post view contradicts the norm that jurisdictional issues must be resolved ex ante.  It finds that looking at the issue at the proper time the 505 motion met the related to jurisdictional requirements because the outcome of the tax issue could have mattered if no other creditors filed claims.  The court points out that it shares the ex ante view of the appropriate time for testing as the nine other circuits that have addressed the issue.  So, the bankruptcy judge has subject matter jurisdiction to hear the tax dispute.

Even though the bankruptcy judge has the authority to hear the tax dispute, a question still exists of whether it should exercise that authority.  The Seventh Circuit analyzes the situation today and determines that no reason exists at the moment for the bankruptcy judge to hear the case rather than the Tax Court.  Therefore, the exercise of authority to hear the case “is no longer appropriate.”  The court then vacated the district court’s decision regarding jurisdiction and remanded the case with instructions for the bankruptcy judge to enter an order sending the tax dispute back over to the Tax Court, where some lucky judge will get to try a very stale penalty case.

The jurisdictional decision seems right but the somewhat tortured nature of the path to the decision, as well as the return of the case to the Tax Court, provides insight into the difficult nature of what to do in these cases.  Here, the Seventh Circuit spends little time describing when a bankruptcy judge should decide not to exercise the jurisdiction over the merits litigation that it has.  More guidance on that issue would be helpful, because individuals will continue to seek a merits decision in bankruptcy court due to the harsh application of the Flora rule and the current state of merits litigation in Collection Due Process cases. 

Section 505 offers a last chance for taxpayers to obtain a judicial ruling regarding the merits of their case when the opportunity for Tax Court has passed them by, and they lack enough money to fully pay the tax.  Here, the Bushes have the Tax Court option, both because of the type of liability at issue and their diligence in pursuing Tax Court litigation prior to filing bankruptcy.  Many taxpayers do not have the fallback to Tax Court but want a judicial review of the decision of the IRS.  Congress despaired of this situation during the debates leading up to the creation of the Board of Tax Appeals, the Tax Court’s predecessor.  With so many liabilities now assessed without deficiency proceedings, Congress needs to take a new look at the situation.

Should the Tax Court Allow Remands in Light of the Taxpayer First Act Innocent Spouse Provisions?

The Taxpayer First Act amended section 6015 to add a new subsection (e)(7) that provides for a Tax Court de novo standard of review of a section 6015 determination of the IRS based on (1) “the administrative record established at the time of the determination” and (2) “any additional newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence”.  Thus, the statute appears to contemplate that there be an administrative record in a section 6015 case and that the IRS had made a determination in such case before the Tax Court “review[s]” that determination.  But, the administrative record in section 6015 cases is often incomplete or nonexistent (e.g., in cases where the IRS hadn’t yet ruled after a 6015 request or because 6015 was first raised in response to a notice of deficiency). 

In the past, the Tax Court has never remanded in section 6015(e) stand-alone cases or in deficiency cases seeking innocent spouse relief, but then those cases were not to be tried primarily based on the administrative record.  In Friday v. Commissioner, 124 T.C. 220 (2005), citing the de novo nature of its proceedings under section 6015, the Tax Court denied an IRS motion to remand a stand-alone section 6015(e) case to Cincinnati Centralized Innocent Spouse Office (CCISO). The IRS had argued that CCISO had previously erroneously failed to consider section 6015(f) equitable relief on the merits.  

In light of the Taxpayer First Act amendment no longer making Tax Court innocent spouse proceedings fully de novo, the Tax Court should overrule Friday, and it should also allow remands in deficiency cases, though limited to the section 6015 issue.  Any taxpayer currently facing a limit on getting additional pertinent evidence not in the administrative record before the Tax Court beyond what is indisputably newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence should move to remand his or her case to CCISO and ask the Tax Court to overrule Friday, so that the pertinent evidence can be proffered to the IRS in the remand and become part of the administrative record before the case is returned to the Tax Court (if it returns at all).

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Let me first say that I have read the legislative history of section 1203 of the Taxpayer First Act (the section that added subsection (e)(7)), and it provides no useful guidance or even hints about what Congress had in mind about remands.  The Committee Report just parrots the new statute in explaining the workings of the new subsection.  See H. Rep. 116-39, Part I, at 38-40.

So, let’s begin by looking at the reasons for the Tax Court’s ruling in Friday prohibiting a remand in a section 6015(e) stand-alone case that was not one of the rare ones commenced 6 months after the Form 8857 was filed but before an IRS determination had been issued.  This was a case where the IRS did not consider relief under subsection (f) apparently because the IRS thought the request too late based upon the now-overruled regulation that provided that subsection (f) relief requests had to be made within 2 years of the commencement of “collection activity”.  In McGee v. Commissioner, 123 T.C. 314 (2004), the Tax Court held that an IRS failure to include in a refund offset notice any mention of the offset’s consequences regarding section 6015 relief debarred the IRS from relying on the offset as “collection activity”.  In Friday, the IRS told the court that the case was governed by McGee, presumably meaning CCISO had thought a refund offset taking place more than 2 years before the Form 8857 was filed constituted “collection activity”, but IRS attorneys in the Tax Court now realized the offset notice had not included the proper section 6015 language.  Thus, CCISO had never considered subsection (f) relief on the merits, but should have under McGee.

Here’s what the Tax Court wrote in Friday:

In support of his request, respondent relies on Natl. Nutritional Foods Association v. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 688, 701 (2d Cir. 1975), Camp v. Pitts, 411 U.S. 138, 143 (1973), and Asarco, Inc. v. EPA, 616 F.2d 1153, 1160 (9th Cir. 1980).  Those cases, however, are examples where courts, in reviewing administrative action, remanded for further factual determinations that were deemed necessary to complete an inadequate administrative record or to make an adequate one.

In certain specific cases where statutory provisions reserve jurisdiction to the Commissioner, a case can also be remanded to the Commissioner’s Appeals Office. Under sections 6320(c) and 6330(d)(1), this Court may consider certain collection actions taken or proposed by the Commissioner’s Appeals Office. Under paragraph (2) of section 6330(d), the Commissioner’s Appeals Office retains jurisdiction with respect to the determination made under section 6330. As part of the process, a case may be remanded to the Appeals Office for further consideration. See, e.g., Parker v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2004-226.

The situation is different, however, in a section 6015 proceeding, which is sometimes referred to as a “stand alone” case. Although entitled “Petition for Review by Tax Court”, section 6015(e) gives jurisdiction to the Court “to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section”. The right to petition is “In addition to any other remedy provided by law” and is conditioned upon meeting the time constraints prescribed in section 6015(e)(1)(A)(i) and (ii). Even if the Commissioner fails to do anything for 6 months following the filing of an election for relief (where there is nothing to “review”), the individual may bring an action in this Court. See sec. 6015(b), (e)(1)(A)(i)(II). A petition for a decision as to whether relief is appropriate under section 6015 is generally not a “review” of the Commissioner’s determination in a hearing but is instead an action begun in this Court. There is in section 6015 no analog to section 6330 granting the Court jurisdiction after a hearing at the Commissioner’s Appeals Office.

124 T.C. at 221-222 (footnotes omitted).

After the Taxpayer First Act, the statutory situation is clearly different from that on which the Tax Court relied in Friday.  Section 6015(e)(7) now discusses a “review” by the Tax Court of a “determination made under this section” and specifically mentions an “administrative record” that is part of the basis for the judicial record.  At least for section 6015 cases where there was a determination made and an administrative record created, the Tax Court proceeding is now much more like that of the Tax Court’s Collection Due Process (CDP) jurisdiction.  Although section 6015 does not discuss who in the IRS is to make the determination that is reviewed (unlike section 6330, which makes clear that the IRS Appeals Office both makes the determination and has retained jurisdiction), the Tax Court can fill in that blank by remanding to the case back to the IRS function (either CCISO or the Appeals Office) that made the final determination.

Relying on what the Tax Court has done in CDP cases, the Tax Court should remand such 6015 cases for pretty much any good reason proposed by either party.  See, e.g., Churchill v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2011-182 at *12-*16 (discussing various previous reasons for remanding CDP cases to Appeals and adding a new one – where there were changed financial circumstances such that remand would be “helpful, necessary, or productive”) (Holmes, J.).  And, as in CDP, the IRS should be asked to create a “determination” or “supplemental determination” letter, and the Tax Court should only review the latest IRS determination letter.  Kelby v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. 79, 86 (2008) (“When a [CDP] case is remanded to Appeals and supplemental determinations are issued, the position of the Commissioner that we review is the position taken in the last supplemental determination.”).

In a previous post on the whistleblower award review case of Kasper v. Commissioner, 150 T.C. 8 (2018) (Holmes, J.), Les noted that the Tax Court held that there are numerous judge-created exceptions to the administrative record rule that the Tax Court will follow in whistleblower cases – making the Kasper opinion arguably very important for all Tax Court jurisdictions where the Tax Court review is based on the administrative record.  Those record-review exceptions are also being followed in CDP cases appealable to those the Circuits holding that the Tax Court proceeding is limited to the administrative record. See, e.g., Robinette v. Commissioner, 439 F. 3d 455, 459-462 (8th Cir. 2006) (allowing Tax Court “testimony from the appeals officer that further elucidated his rationale” to supplement the administrative record).  Les has more recently raised the question whether those judicial exceptions to the administrative record rule survive section 6015(e)(7), which, on its face, specifies only two items beyond the administrative record that are to be part of the Tax Court record on review – i.e., newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence.  Arguably, expressio unius est exclusio alterius (the expression of one thing implies the exclusion of another thing).  This is a serious question to which I have no answer, though I certainly hope that the judicial exceptions to the administrative record rule survived the statute’s enactment.  As Les put it in an e-mail to me recently, “Is the concern that the statutory language (previously unavailable or newly discovered) preempts the exceptions Judge Holmes discussed in Kasper? Or is there a desire for systemic pressure on a better administrative process?”

But, this Kasper question of Les’ becomes moot if the Tax Court is willing to remand section 6015 cases to supplement the record not just to address concerns underlying the judicial exceptions to the administrative record rule, but also to add any other pertinent materials to the record that may aid the proper determination.

I would also note that earlier this year, the Tax Court held that it could remand a whistleblower award case to the IRS Whistleblower Office.  Whistleblower 769-16W v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. No. 10 (April 11, 2019).  That opinion compares and contrasts the Tax Court’s CDP and innocent spouse provisions (pre-Taxpayer First Act) and says the Tax Court does not consider it dispositive that section 7623(b)(4) contains no retained jurisdiction provision like section 6330(d)(2) for CDP.  The court points out that section 7623(b)(4) says nothing either way about remands.  The court held that remands were permitted because that is normal when review of agency action is on an abuse of discretion standard and under the administrative record rule.  Those were the standard and scope of review adopted in Kasper.  Section 6015 is somewhere between CDP and section 7623(b)(4), with a de novo standard of review, but a limit mostly to reviewing the administrative record.

I would hope that the Tax Court would liberally remand section 6015 cases to the IRS for the IRS to consider any material not previously included in the administrative record that might significantly alter the outcome of the case.  This would include both newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence, but not be limited to that.  Let me give you an example of material falling outside section 6015(e)(7) of the type I am worried about:  I have seen Tax Court cases that have been brought to me as a clinician after the taxpayer has filed a pro se Tax Court petition.  Pro se petitioners often do a bad job in creating the administrative record.  I have known cases where the taxpayer has been the subject of abuse and there are police records to prove it – in addition sometimes to orders of protection – yet the taxpayer never sent the police records or orders of protection to the CCISO examiner.  Such items are not previously unavailable or newly discovered, but they would likely have strongly affected the IRS’ determination had it seen such documents before issuing the notice of determination denying relief.  It is hard for me to imagine that Congress would have wanted this evidence of abuse to be excluded from the Tax Court record merely because the unrepresented taxpayer did not think to find and submit this evidence to the IRS earlier.  If the Tax Court were to be presented with such documentation, I would think the best course would be to remand the case to the IRS.  There is a good chance such evidence would moot the case, as the IRS would probably concede in most cases.

Next, the statute as written discusses Tax Court review of IRS determinations, but leaves unstated what the scope and standard of Tax Court review is to be where the IRS hasn’t made a determination under section 6015 yet.  This can happen when a taxpayer files a Form 8857 and brings suit after 6 months in the absence of an IRS determination or when the taxpayer responds to a deficiency notice by, for the first time, raising an innocent spouse request in the Tax Court petition.  Legislative history of section 6015(e)(7) does not address these “no determination” situations.  But, for the reasons that Congress thought it would be better for the Tax Court to review IRS determinations (and using the administrative record), I would urge the court to remand all such cases to CCISO for an initial determination.  That way, regardless of the procedure by which the case came to the Tax Court, the case would be decided on a similar standard of review and record of review to the cases Congress specifically addressed.  Current Tax Court case law holds that section 6015 review is done on a de novo record and standard, regardless of the procedure by which the case came to the court.  Porter v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. 115 (2008), and 132 T.C. 203 (2009).  In Porter I, the Tax Court expressed concern that the IRS’ proposal to limit the review of section 6015(f) determinations in cases under section 6015(e) to the administrative record would provide inconsistent procedures in similar cases, since review in deficiency cases or where a case was brought under section 6015(e) before the IRS ruled would be on a de novo record.  130 T.C. at 124-125.  Frankly, if the Tax Court doesn’t allow remands in these “no determination” cases, it appears that the Tax Court is currently bound by its precedent to allow a de novo trial record.

My final observation is one I have been repeating since the adoption of the Taxpayer First Act:  The best solution here is to amend section 6015(e)(7) to provide for a de novo record for Tax Court determinations under section 6015 – thus reestablishing Porter I as the controlling authority for all Tax Court section 6015 cases.  Such an amendment would make the need for remands of such cases moot.

First Tax Court Opinions Mentioning Section 6015(e)(7)

On October 10, 2019, Christine wrote about the provision added to the innocent spouse section by the Taxpayer First Act and the discussion of that section during the Fall ABA Tax Section meeting.  Christine’s post highlights some of the issues concerning this section that we have discussed before, here with links to two posts by Carl that came out when the language in the statute first appeared.  The new provision concerns and confuses those of us practicing in this area and Christine provides a link to the first response on IRC 6015(e)(7) filed by the IRS in the Tax Court.  If you haven’t read Christine’s post or the earlier posts on this issue, you might want to do that as background to the new information presented today. 

On October 15, 2019, the Tax Court issued two innocent spouse opinions — one relieving the taxpayer (Kruja, under (c)), the other not (Sleeth, under (f)).  These are the first two opinions that even mention section 6015(e)(7), adopted by the Taxpayer First Act.  Carl Smith noticed the opinions and sent a message to the rest of us on the blog team.  Most of what follows is taken from Carl’s email as he discusses what two Tax Court judges said about the new provision in each case.  There have been two other opinions concerning 6015 relief issued after the Taxpayer First Act added subsection (e)(7) on July 1, but these opinions did not mention subsection (e)(7): Ogden v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2019-88 (issued 7/15/19), and Welwood v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2019-113 (issued 9/4/19). Thus, today’s opinions are the first to even acknowledge the new subsection’s application to currently-pending Tax Court cases.

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In Kruja v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2019-136 the court said: 

Because the trial evidence was merely cumulative of what was already included in the administrative record, section 6015(e)(7) does not affect the outcome of this case. As a result, we have not addressed the effect of section 6015(e)(7).

In Sleeth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2019-138 the court said:

We decide this case pursuant to section 6015(e)(7) as the administrative record has been stipulated into evidence and the testimony taken at trial was not available in the administrative record.

In Kruja the taxpayer was unrepresented.  The taxpayer appears to have resided in Arizona at the time of filing her petition.  In Sleeth the taxpayer was represented by counsel.  The taxpayer lived in Alabama at the time of filing her petition.  In both cases the husband intervened.  Sleeth is a rare case in which the petitioning spouse loses after an intervention.

Sleeth’s statement that the testimony “was not available in the administrative record” could mean that everything on which testimony was taken in Tax Court was newly discovered or previously unavailable at the time the determination was made.  However, I seriously doubt that is the case if one carefully read through the testimony. I hope Judge Goeke is making a ruling that anything testified to at trial (regardless of whether it is newly discovered or previously unavailable at the time the determination was made) is admissible as part of what the Tax Court reviews.  That would be a readoption of Porter I’s holding of a de novo scope of Tax Court record. See Porter v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. 115 (2008) (en banc).  But, I seriously doubt that is what Judge Goeke intends to say.

Thanks for Carl for finding these opinions and providing his insight.  As you can see from these opinions the new provision applies to innocent spouse cases already tried as well as those pending.  Since the first two opinions do not require a retrial, reopening the record or additional briefs, perhaps that pattern will follow in decisions to come.  Anyone with a pending innocent spouse case needs to pay careful attention to this issue and develop the record accordingly.

The EITC Ban – Further Thoughts, Part Three

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the third and final post on the ban for recklessly or fraudulently claiming refundable credits. Part Three tackles the ban process.

The first two parts of this series (here and here) addressed judicial review of the EITC ban. The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Special Report on the EITC also made several recommendations about improvements during the Exam stage. The report is very persuasive (go read it if you haven’t already). In Part One, I quoted Nina’s preface to the report, which says that she is “hopeful that it will lead to a serious conversation about how to advance the twin goals of increasing the participation rate of eligible taxpayers and reducing overclaims by ineligible taxpayers.” Part Three is my small contribution to the conversation, concerning the ban determination process.

About that “disregard of rules and regulations” standard

The ban provision refers to a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit was due to “reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations.” This standard seems to have been imported from section 6662, although there it covers not only reckless or intentional disregard but also negligent disregard. It seems a strange standard in this context, though.

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The accuracy-related penalty regulations, § 1.6662-3(b)(1), state that disregard of rules and regulations is not negligent, let alone reckless or intentional, if there is a reasonable basis for the return position. But the definition of reasonable basis, § 1.6662-3(b)(3), cross-references the types of authority, § 1.6662-4(d)(3)(iii), applicable to determining whether there was substantial authority for a return position. And those are legal authorities. Arguably, the “disregard of rules and regulations” standard – for the EITC ban as well as the accuracy-related penalty – carries with it an unexamined implication that the facts are known and indisputable; only the application of the law to those facts is at issue.

Such a standard may make a lot of sense with respect to the accuracy-related penalty, at least for sophisticated taxpayers with good records. Those of us who deal a lot with low-income taxpayers and the EITC, however, know that often the credit is disallowed because the taxpayer’s proof is not considered sufficient. It’s a factual dispute, rather than a dispute as to what the law means.

Osteen v. Commissioner, 62 F.3d 356 (11th Cir. 1995) has some interesting discussion of this distinction in the context of the substantial understatement penalty. The very first sentence of the case mentions “certain tax deductions attributable to their farming and horse breeding operations,” so we know that section 183 is going to be the focus. The taxpayers, both of whom were employed full-time, were breeding and raising Percheron horses with the expressed intent to train them, show them, use them to operate a horse-powered farm, and then sell them. The Tax Court opinion, 66 T.C.M. 1237 (1993), determined that the taxpayers did not have “an actual and honest objective of making a profit,” and the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the court’s determination was not clearly erroneous.

The penalty discussion took much longer than the analysis of the profit objective issue. The Tax Court had rejected the petitioners’ penalty defense, which was based on substantial authority, and that puzzled the Eleventh Circuit:

The application of a substantial authority test is confusing in a case of this kind. If the horse breeding enterprise was carried on for profit, all of the deductions claimed by the Osteens would be allowed. There is no authority to the contrary. If the enterprise was not for profit, none of the deductions would be allowed. There is no authority to the contrary. Nobody argues, however, not even the Government, that because the taxpayers lose on the factual issue, they also must lose on what would seem to be a legal issue.

The court reversed on the penalty issue and said that “substantial authority” for a factual issue is met if a decision in the taxpayers’ favor would not have been clearly erroneous:

If the Tax Court was deciding that there was no substantial authority because of the weakness of the taxpayers’ evidence to establish a profit motive, we reverse because a review of the record reveals there was evidence both ways. In our judgment, under the clearly erroneous standard of review, the Tax Court would be due to be affirmed even if it had decided this case for the taxpayers. With that state of the record, there is substantial authority from a factual standpoint for the taxpayer’s position. Only if there was a record upon which the Government could obtain a reversal under the clearly erroneous standard could it be argued that from an evidentiary standpoint, there was not substantial authority for the taxpayer’s position.
 
If the Tax Court was deciding there was not substantial legal authority for the deductions, we reverse because of the plethora of cases in which the Tax Court has found a profit motive in the horse breeding activities of taxpayers that were similar to those at hand.

For those interested in the “factual issue versus legal authority” question, there was also an interesting article by Bryan Skarlatos in the June-July 2012 issue of the Journal of Tax Practice & Procedure: “The Problem With the Substantial Authority Standard as Applied to Factual Issues.”

This is not directly applicable to the EITC ban but a similar approach seems reasonable. A determination in Exam to disallow the EITC often merely means “the taxpayer didn’t prove that she met the requirements,” rather than “the taxpayer didn’t meet the requirements.” But I suspect that some or many of those who make the ban determination proceed with an assumption, implicit if not explicit, that the former is the equivalent of the latter. If the taxpayer doesn’t meet her burden of proof, that may suffice for denying the credit in the conduct year but may not be enough to impose the ban for future years.

For example, one of the three scenarios in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (7), used as a starting point to help determine whether the ban is appropriate, addresses situations in which the taxpayer provided insufficient documentation but “indicates they clearly feel they are eligible, and is attempting to prove eligibility and it is clear they do not understand.” In those circumstances, the technician is supposed to “[c]onsider the taxpayer’s lack of understanding” before asserting the ban. There is no reference to the relative strength or weakness of the support offered. That formulation strongly supports an assumption by the technician that (understanding the rules + insufficient documentation), rather than (understanding the rules + not meeting the requirements), is sufficient to assert the ban. If so, that’s a problem.

Recommendations for a revised ban recommendation process

The Office of Chief Counsel issued Significant Service Center Advice in 2002 (SCA 200245051), concluding that neither the taxpayer’s failure to respond to the audit nor a response that fails to provide adequate substantiation is enough by itself to be considered reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations. That conclusion is also set forth in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (1): “A variety of facts must be considered by the CET [correspondence examination technician] in determining whether the 2-Year Ban should be imposed. A taxpayer’s failure to respond adequately or not respond at all does not in itself indicate that the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded the rules and regulations.”

But, as the Special Report points out, the guidance in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (7) is erroneous and/or woefully inadequate for the CET’s. And research described in the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2013 Annual Report to Congress showed an incredibly high error rate in the ban determination. The Special Report recommends that the IRS develop a ban examination process independent from the audit process, modeled on other means-tested programs, to improve accuracy and provide adequate due process protections. The report also mentions several recommendations from earlier annual reports. For example, in the 2014 Annual Report to Congress, the NTA recommended (again) that a single IRS employee be assigned to work any EITC audit in which the taxpayer calls or writes to respond.

The Special Report didn’t, and couldn’t, define the appropriate process in depth. That is something that the IRS, in consultation with TAS, will have to develop, and it may take a significant amount of time. But while we’re waiting for that, here are suggestions for some specific parts of a revised process that would be on my wish list.

First, the ban determination process should incorporate the concept of the strength of evidence for and against eligibility. The ban should be asserted only when the evidence against eligibility is significantly stronger than evidence for eligibility. The inability to provide evidence for eligibility is not equivalent to deemed evidence against eligibility. And some types of evidence against eligibility will be stronger or weaker than other types.

Second, the process for determining eligibility for the credit should expand the types of evidence that can be submitted and considered, which in turn will affect the relative strength of evidence to be considered during the ban determination phase. The standard audit request and the IRM 4.19.14-1 list focus on third-party documents. Third-party documents are strong evidence but they’re not the only evidence; they’re just the only evidence Exam seems to accept. The IRS experimented with allowing third-party affidavits in test cases from 2010-2013. Starting with tax year 2018, taxpayers can submit third-party affidavits (signed by both the taxpayer and the third party) to verify the residency of qualifying children (IRM 4.19.14.8.3). Why not for other aspects of the eligibility determination? Why not talk directly with the taxpayer and assess credibility?

This is a pet peeve of mine. It’s frustrating to receive a notice of deficiency (because the technician did not accept other types of evidence) and then get a full concession by the government in Tax Court (because the IRS attorney understands the validity of testimony as evidence). I like getting the right result but would prefer to avoid the need to go to Tax Court, delaying the resolution. As the Special Report points out, the IRS cannot properly determine whether to assert the ban without talking to the taxpayer. If a technician/examiner is talking to the taxpayer for that, and assessing their understanding of the rules and regulations, why not also accept verbal testimony (or statements by neighbors and relatives) and evaluate credibility, to accurately evaluate the strength of the evidence for eligibility and therefore the propriety of imposing the ban?

Conclusion

The Special Report would, if its recommendations were implemented, transform a critically important benefit to low-income taxpayers. Nina, Les, and the rest of the team did a fantastic job. It will be a long, hard fight to achieve that transformation but it will be worth it.

The EITC Ban – Further Thoughts, Part Two

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the second of a three-part post on the ban for recklessly or fraudulently claiming refundable credits. In today’s post Bob looks at legislative solutions to the issue of Tax Court jurisdiction.

My last post summarized previous arguments by Les and Carl Smith that the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction to review the proposed imposition of the EITC ban and then examined what the Tax Court is actually doing.  Some cases have ruled on the ban, but some cases have expressed uneasiness about this area and have declined to rule at all.  Congress has clearly stated its intent that judicial review would be available, but it’s appropriate to clarify that by an explicit grant of jurisdiction – preferably in a deficiency proceeding for the year in which the alleged conduct – the taxpayer intentionally or recklessly disregarded rules and regulations – occurred.  The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Special Report on the EITC recommended that Congress provide an explicit grant of jurisdiction to the Tax Court to review the ban determination.  This post offers suggestions – some sparked by Tax Court decisions and/or previous posts here on PT – about exactly how that should be implemented.  The point at which recommendations turn into legislation is a danger zone where flawed solutions can create problems that take years to fix.

Grant Tax Court jurisdiction in a deficiency proceeding for the “conduct year,” not the “ban years”

Les explained the benefits of this approach in his “Problematic Penalty” blog post.  Ballard saw the “attractiveness,” as do I.  It’s even more attractive today.  Although challenging the ban in a proceeding with respect to the conduct year is a better solution, back in 2014 taxpayers at least would have the opportunity to challenge the ban in a proceeding with respect to the ban year. (The “conduct year” is the year for which the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded rules or regulations to improperly claim the EITC and the “ban year” is a subsequent year for which the taxpayer cannot claim the EITC.)  As Les pointed out, and the Office of Chief Counsel explained in 2002 guidance (SCA 200228021), summary assessment procedures were available for post-ban years (for failure to re-certify) but the IRS would have to issue a notice of deficiency to disallow EITC in a ban year.  But since then, summary assessment authority for the ban years was added by the PATH Act of 2015, in section 6213(g)(2)(K), and the IRS is using it.  There is still an opportunity for judicial review after a summary assessment, but that opportunity has a lot of problems, as described in the Special Report.

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The Special Report, Part IV, also recommends changes in summary assessment authority, under which some adjustments are not subject to the deficiency procedures, for an initial determination in the conduct year that the taxpayer is not entitled to the EITC.  Although I’m not entirely sure, I think the report is not recommending any change to the summary assessment authority under section 6213(g)(2)(K) for automatic disallowances in the ban year.  That’s understandable, as normally the correct application of the ban will be straight-forward and not require a separate examination in the ban year.  But there may some instances where the ban shouldn’t be applied automatically.  I’ll return to that below in the discussion of the application of the determination in the ban year.

Require that the proposed ban be set forth in a notice of deficiency for the conduct year

Of course, judicial review will be difficult if not impossible unless imposition of the ban is explicitly asserted and at issue in a case for the conduct year.  In all seven of the Tax Court cases discussed in my last post, the ban was explicitly asserted in an amended answer (Taylor) or the NOD itself (the other cases).  But that doesn’t always happen.

Carl Smith mentioned, in comments to the “Ballard” blog post, seeing a lot of cases where the ban was imposed by letter (presumably Notice CP79) rather than NOD.  I’ll quote his final sentence:

I wonder why some 32(k) sanctions are imposed by a simple letter and others (though apparently very few) are imposed in notices of deficiency.

My answer might be along the lines of: “Because the IRS thinks it can do that, unless Congress explicitly says otherwise, and it’s easier.”  My experiences with the EITC ban have made me more cynical.

My experience is consistent with Carl’s.  In just the past couple of years, my clinic has had four cases in which the IRS imposed the ban and issued Notice CP79.  Only one of the NOD’s explicitly stated the intent to impose the EITC ban.  In the other three cases, there was no indication whatsoever. 

In fact, in one case, there was an indication that an examiner had decided not to impose the ban.  After the NOD was issued, the taxpayer provided additional information and received a response from the IRS declining to change the proposed tax increase.  The letter included Form 886-A Explanation of Items that, again, did not propose the ban.  It also included a separate attachment, explaining why the additional information provided was insufficient.  That attachment stated at one point (emphasis added):

For future reference on the EITC BAN (Earned Income Tax Credit Ban) – The ban was considered.  If you continue to claim XXXXXXX for the credit and disallowed for no relationship, you could be subject to a 2-year earned income tax ban if you are found reckless and intentionally disregard the tax laws, rules and regulations.  You must meet the relationship test, residency test, age test and support test to be eligible for the credits.

That certainly sounds as though the determination required for the ban had not been made when the NOD was issued.  Nevertheless, when the taxpayer failed to file a petition timely, the IRS imposed the ban.

Given all the evidence that the IRS is asserting the ban without ever mentioning it in a notice of deficiency, the grant of jurisdiction to the Tax Court should be carefully crafted.  It should include not just jurisdiction to review the determination but also incorporate safeguards like those found in Section 6213(a) for tax assessments:

  • The determination required by section 32(k) is not a final determination until: (a) a notice of deficiency setting forth the determination has been properly mailed to the taxpayer; and (b) the expiration of the 90-day or 150-day period or, if a petition is filed in Tax Court, the decision of the Tax Court has become final.
  • Any disallowance of the credit in subsequent years based on the ban, before the determination is final, can be enjoined by a court proceeding, including in the Tax Court, despite the Anti-Injunction Act.

Applying the ban in the ban year

The cases I discussed in the last post suggested some specific issues that may need to be addressed when legislation is drafted to grant Tax Court jurisdiction to review the ban.  The first is obvious and fairly straight-forward.  Congress may need to modify section 7463(b) to specify that the determination in a small case with respect to the ban will be treated as binding for a proceeding in a future ban year.

How do we address the problem (discussed in Ballard and Griffin) that the court may not know yet whether the ban even had an effect in the ban years, because (for example) the taxpayer may not yet have filed returns claiming the credit for those years?  I don’t consider this concern an insurmountable obstacle.  Consider an analogy to the TEFRA partnership rules.  Under those rules, the court makes a redetermination of proposed adjustments on one return (the partnership’s).  The effect of that adjustment on other returns (the partners’) is authorized by provisions for computational adjustments.  The redetermination might turn out to have no effect on the partners’ returns, but the court doesn’t have to consider that in making its ruling in the partnership proceeding.

Currently, any credit claimed in the ban years can be disallowed automatically through the summary assessment authority in section 6213(g)(2)(K).  I don’t like that solution and think that instead Congress and/or the IRS should consider an approach similar to that in TEFRA: providing for some assessments without requiring a notice of deficiency in the ban year, but in other circumstances requiring a notice of deficiency because new fact determinations are needed.

Why might new fact determinations be needed?  Primarily because some exceptions or limitations should be carved out.  An all-or-nothing approach simply doesn’t make sense all the time.  What if:

A. The credit was reduced, but not disallowed, because some of the taxpayer’s earned income was disallowed.

B. The credit was claimed for 3 children and was only disallowed with respect to one.

C. The credit was disallowed because Husband’s earned income could not be verified.  Husband later married Wife, who has earned income and children from a previous marriage, and filed a joint return.  (See page 48 of the Special Report.)

Should we consider for future years, in situations like those: (A) allowing the credit but solely with respect to the taxpayer’s earned income from a Form W-2; (B) allowing the credit solely with respect to the children who qualified in the conduct year; or (C) allowing the credit but solely with respect to Wife’s earned income and qualifying children?

Lopez (situation A) suggested that there might be an exception for a partial disallowance:

It would appear that our findings will result in the reduction of petitioner’s claimed earned income tax credit for each year, but we expect that the credit will not be entirely disallowed for either year.  Consequently, we make no comment in this proceeding regarding the application of section 32(k).

A recent CCA (situation B) mentioned in Les’s blog post, however, concluded that partial disallowance was enough to trigger the ban.  The CCA’s reasoning was that section 32(k) doesn’t prohibit imposition of the ban for partial disallowances; thus, any disallowance is enough to trigger the ban.  “Disallowance” is not explicitly restricted to “total disallowance.”

Fair enough, but that doesn’t seem to be how Lopez interpreted the statute.  I don’t think it is entirely clear under current law.  Section 32(k) doesn’t refer to a disallowance (without explicitly specifying “total”) in the conduct year; it refers to the taxpayer’s “claim of credit” due to disregard of rules and regulations.  If the taxpayer could not legitimately claim any credit at all, that could meet the requirement (if done intentionally or recklessly).  In Lopez, was the “claim of credit” contrary to rules and regulations?  Or was the “claim of [at least some amount of] credit” consistent with rules and regulations but the amount excessive?  Lopez suggests the latter.  Does the answer depend on the reason for the excessive amount?  These questions deserve more thought.  The conclusion in the CCA may not be the best answer.

Another wrinkle came up in Griffin.  The court found the taxpayer was not entitled to EITC at all for 2013 because the taxpayer did not establish that any of the claimed dependents met the necessary tests.  However, the court found the taxpayer might be entitled to EITC for 2014, subject to applicable AGI limitations and thresholds after adjustments, because one of the two dependents claimed as qualifying children did meet all of the tests.  Should the ban be imposed if the taxpayer is not entitled to the EITC at all for one year but is entitled to at least some EITC in another year included in the same NOD, particularly if it’s the latest year included in the NOD?

Even if the CCA above is correct, current law is not immutable.  Congress should consider carving out exceptions or limitations to the ban.  If it doesn’t, we can try to change the law by persuading a court concerning the proper interpretation of the statute.  If the law changes, either through Congress or a court decision, we may want to use a more nuanced approach, like that in TEFRA, rather than blanket summary assessment authority.

Conclusion

This finishes my discussion of judicial review.  Establishing robust judicial review with all the flourishes will provide significant protection to low-income taxpayers who claim the EITC.

Some protection but, given current IRS practices, not enough.  Not all cases even go to Tax Court, so our primary goal should be to reduce the need for judicial review by improving the ban determination process in Exam.  The Special Report offered several suggestions along those lines.  I have some additional thoughts, coming up in Part Three of this series.

The EITC Ban – Further Thoughts, Part One

Guest blogger Bob Probasco returns with the first of a three-part post on the ban for recklessly or fraudulently claiming refundable credits. In today’s post Bob looks at how the Tax Court has addressed the ban. Part Two will suggest legislative solutions to the issue of Tax Court jurisdiction. Part Three tackles the ban process.

As Bob mentions, in the recent Special Report to Congress on the EITC that I helped write, we flagged the ban as an issue that potentially jeopardizes taxpayer rights. The Senate Appropriations Committee in a committee report accompanying the IRS funding for FY 2020 directs the IRS to “make the elimination of improper payments an utmost priority.” S. Rep. No. 116-111, at 26-27. At the recent Refundable Credits Summit at the IRS National Office that I attended IRS executives explored ways to reduce overpayments (in addition to increasing participation and improving administration more generally). The ban is part of the IRS toolkit. As Bob highlights today, there are fundamental questions concerning the path that taxpayers can employ to get independent review of an IRS determination. Les

One of Nina Olson’s last acts as National Taxpayer Advocate was the release of the Fiscal Year 2020 Objectives Report to Congress.  Volume 3 was a Special Report on the EITC; Les discussed it in a recent post.  If you are interested in issues affecting low-income taxpayers, you’ve probably already read it.  It’s definitely worth your time.  Kudos to Nina and to Les and the rest of the team that worked on the Special Report.  There are a lot of innovative, creative suggestions, backed up by thorough research, that would not just improve but transform how the IRS administers this program.

Nina’s preface to the report says that she is “hopeful that it will lead to a serious conversation about how to advance the twin goals of increasing the participation rate of eligible taxpayers and reducing overclaims by ineligible taxpayers.”  In that spirt, I’d like to offer my small contribution to the conversation, with additional thoughts about some of their suggestions.  The entire Special Report is important, but after a client’s recent “close encounter of the worst kind” with the EITC ban of section 32(k)(1), I have a particular interest in Part V.  This post will address the need for judicial review and what the Tax Court is actually doing.  Part Two will provide some further thoughts about how the Tax Court’s jurisdiction (when clarified by Congress) should be structured.  Part Three will address suggested changes to the ban determination process.

Does the Tax Court have jurisdiction to review the imposition of the ban?

Congress clearly envisioned the opportunity for pre-payment judicial review.  According to the legislative history for the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, “[t]he determination of fraud or of reckless or intentional disregard of rules or regulations are (sic) made in a deficiency proceeding (which provides for judicial review).”  H. Conf. Rpt. 105-220, at 545.  But there is no jurisdictional statute that clearly and unequivocally covers this, at least not until the ban is actually imposed in a future year.

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The question of Tax Court jurisdiction has been discussed here on Procedurally Taxing several times: 

I will follow Les’s terminology and refer to the year in which the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded rules and regulations by claiming the EITC as the “conduct year,” and to the subsequent years in which the taxpayer is not allowed to claim the credit because of the ban as the “ban years.”

Les and Carl Smith advanced arguments, in the “Problematic Penalty” and “Ballard” blog posts, that the Tax Court does not have jurisdiction to review an EITC ban in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year.  The Tax Court has jurisdiction to redetermine the amount of a deficiency stated in a notice of deficiency as well as accuracy-related penalties applicable to the understatement, but explicitly does not have jurisdiction to determine any overpayment or underpayment for other years.  Although the EITC ban looks somewhat like a “penalty,” it does not fall within the scope of penalties that are treated like taxes, which are limited to Chapter 68.  Ruling on whether the ban was valid, in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year, would therefore be a declaratory judgement for which the court has no jurisdiction.  The ban years will only be subject to the court’s deficiency jurisdiction if/when a notice of deficiency is issued with respect to them.

What has the Tax Court actually been doing?

I’m persuaded by Les’s and Carl’s arguments.  The Tax Court may not be, though.  It has addressed the issue of the ban in seven cases to date: Campbell v. Commissioner (2011 decision concerning 2007-2009 tax years), Garcia v. Commissioner (2013 decision concerning 2008 tax year), Baker v. Commissioner (2014 decision concerning 2011 tax year), Ballard v. Commissioner (2016 decision concerning 2013 tax year), Lopez v. Commissioner (2017 decision concerning 2012-2013 tax years), Griffin v. Commissioner (2017 decision concerning 2013-2014 tax years), and Taylor v. Commissioner (2018 decision concerning 2013 tax year).  All were either summary opinions, bench opinions, or orders granting a decision for the government when the taxpayer did not participate.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here concerning the cases.  The PT blog posts above have already discussed Campbell (in the blog comments only),Garcia, Baker, Ballard, and Taylor – only Lopez and Griffin appear to be new here.  (The Lopez case was actually discussed here, but that was with respect to an earlier order dealing with a different issue.)  But I do want to summarize how the Tax Court responded to the issue, with a couple of additional observations.

Campbell and Taylor imposed the ban, when the taxpayers did not respond to a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Prosecution and a Motion for Default Judgment respectively, without any discussion of jurisdiction to do so.  In addition to the jurisdictional issue, it’s noteworthy that there was – or could have been – evidence supporting a determination of intentional or reckless disregard of regulations.  In Taylor, as previously noted in William Schmidt’s blog post, the court granted a motion to deem Respondent’s allegations, including those relevant to civil fraud and the ban, as admitted when the Petitioners did not respond to the amended answer.  (Because the ban was apparently not proposed in the notice of deficiency but was instead asserted in the notice of deficiency, the government would have the burden of proof.)  In Campbell, Respondent filed a motion to show cause why statements in a proposed stipulation of facts should not be deemed admitted.  The court granted the motion, Petitioners did not respond, and the court could have deemed those statements (which presumably would have covered the ban) as admitted.  Instead, the court simply granted the motion to dismiss for lack of prosecution.

These decisions to impose the ban demonstrate an interesting quirk.  The Office of Chief Counsel issued Significant Service Center Advice in 2002 (SCA 200245051), concluding that neither the taxpayer’s failure to respond to the audit nor a response that fails to provide adequate substantiation is enough by itself to be considered reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations.  That conclusion is also set forth in IRM 4.19.14.7.1 (1): “A variety of facts must be considered by the CET [correspondence examination technician] in determining whether the 2-Year Ban should be imposed. A taxpayer’s failure to respond adequately or not respond at all does not in itself indicate that the taxpayer recklessly or intentionally disregarded the rules and regulations.”  In these cases, and assuming the taxpayers were equally uncooperative during the audit, arguably the IRS should never have asserted the ban.  But that’s during the audit.  If the IRS does assert the ban, challenging that in Tax Court (if the taxpayer remains uncooperative) opens the door for deemed admissions supporting the ban.  It’s better to cooperate.

Garcia and Baker disallowed the EITC but concluded that claiming the credit was not due to a reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations and therefore that the taxpayers were not subject to the ban for following years.  Reliance on a paid return preparer was significant for both decisions.  Neither case discussed the court’s jurisdiction to rule on the validity of the proposed ban.

Ballard and Griffin declined to rule on the ban.  Both made the same argument: there was no information in the record as to whether returns had been filed, and whether the EITC had even been claimed, for the ban years.  Further, both pointed out that any ruling in an S-case is not precedential in any other case.  It was questionable whether a ruling in a proceeding with respect to the conduct year would have any effect at all in the ban years.  Ballard seemed to suggest that this factor was the most critical:

Respondent made that determination for the year in dispute here, but the determination obviously has no consequence to the deficiency determined in the notice – the consequences of the determination take effect in years other than the year before us.  Normally, in a deficiency case the Court is reluctant to make findings or rulings that have no tax consequences in the period or periods presently before us.  Nevertheless, we can see the attractiveness in making the determination in the same year that the earned income credit is disallowed albeit on other grounds and we have addressed the issue in other non-precedential opinions, see
Section 7463(b).
 
In this case not only does the application of section 32(k) have no tax consequence to Petitioner’s Federal income tax liability for the year before us, the record does not reveal whether a finding or ruling on the point would have any Federal tax consequence in either 2014 or 2015.

The court “is reluctant,” rather than “has no jurisdiction,” and even that is qualified as “normally.”  The court’s concern may have been jurisdiction but the language in the opinion suggests that the court might have been willing to rule if the record included appropriate information about the future years.  As far as I know, though, Campbell, Taylor, Garcia, and Baker also did not have such information in the record.

Ballard did, however, rule that the petitioner (who relied on a paid return preparer) was not liable for an accuracy-related penalty for negligence.  That strongly suggested that the ban should not apply; if the taxpayer was not negligent with respect to erroneously claiming the EITC, how would the IRS demonstrate the higher culpability of “reckless or intentional”?

Lopez also declined to rule on the ban, for a slightly different stated reason.  The IRS had disallowed the total gross receipts reported on Schedule C, eliminating the earned income required for claiming EITC.  The court allowed gross receipts in an amount less than the taxpayer had claimed.  With respect to the ban, it said:  “It would appear that our findings will result in the reduction of petitioner’s claimed earned income tax credit for each year, but we expect that the credit will not be entirely disallowed for either year.  Consequently, we make no comment in this proceeding regarding the application of section 32(k).”

Thus, in four cases the court ruled on the ban – two upholding it and two rejecting it – apparently without considering the jurisdictional issue.  Although Ballard, Griffin, and Lopez all declined to rule on the ban, none of them simply stated that the court had no jurisdiction with respect to the proposed ban.  Ballard and Griffin pointed out that a decision would not be precedential in an S-case.  The court, however, explained the primary justification not as lack of jurisdiction but what appears to be more like a concern about ripeness.  Lopez, on the other hand, did not mention that a summary opinion has no precedential effect for any other case.  Although far from clear, that decision sounds as though it assumed an implicit requirement for the ban – that it applies only when the credit was improperly claimed, not when it was properly claimed but in an excessive amount.  (I’ll return to that point in my next post.)

Despite the court (sometimes) being willing to rule on the issue, it would be better if the court’s jurisdiction to do so were firmly established.  The lack of explicit jurisdiction creates a serious problem.  What happens if the IRS asserts the ban in a notice of deficiency, the court disallows at least a portion of the EITC, but the court does not rule on the ban?  I suspect that the IRS will impose the ban in the future years.  It would be interesting to know what happened to Mr. Ballard, after the strong hint in the bench opinion. 

The taxpayer could still contest the validity of the ban in a deficiency proceeding for a ban year; that clearly would come within the scope of section 6214.  But the “Problematic Penalty” blog post pointed out pragmatic problems with that solution, which lead Les to conclude that it wouldn’t make sense from a policy perspective.  Since that blog post, an additional problem has arisen, making that solution even worse.  Summary assessment authority for the ban years was added by the PATH Act of 2015, in section 6213(g)(2)(K), and the IRS is using it.  Although the taxpayer still has an opportunity for judicial review after a summary assessment, the opportunity is less obvious than with a notice of deficiency and may be missed by unrepresented taxpayers.  It also comes with a shorter time to respond.

Thus, we are left with two alternatives for Tax Court review of the assertion of the ban.  Doing so in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year is by far the best alternative and is consistent with Congress granting summary assessment authority for the ban years.  I suspect that is what Congress had in mind, but if so, it forgot to clearly grant jurisdiction.  Reviewing the assertion of the ban in a deficiency proceeding for a ban year has the advantage of fitting within the Tax Court’s existing jurisdiction but is a horrible solution for a number of reasons. 

Even if the court were willing to rely on the legislative history as implicit jurisdiction to address the ban in a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year, it would still be worthwhile to establish appropriate guidelines.  There are some obvious questions about exactly how the entire process should work.  Setting those guidelines proactively in legislation or regulation would also be helpful for the vast majority of these cases that never make it to Tax Court. 

The Special Report recommends a ban determination process independent of the audit process.  That is a great idea that would go a long way in solving some of the problems the report points out.  But for simplicity, and in case the IRS is reluctant to implement the Special Report’s recommendation, Part Two will discuss how Tax Court jurisdiction could be structured within the framework of a deficiency proceeding for the conduct year.

What the Tax Court Might Learn from the Chinese

Given the shortage of free and low-cost legal help, many courts and researchers are working to improve access to justice by making court systems more accessible to self-represented parties. Efforts have included developing software to generate pleadings through guided interviews, among many other approaches. Today Bob Kamman alerts us to similar efforts in China, and suggests harnessing technology to improve self-represented petitioners’ ability to navigate a Collection Due Process appeal. Christine

The Beijing Internet Court has launched an online litigation service center featuring an artificially intelligent female judge, with a body, facial expressions, voice, and actions all modeled off a living, breathing human (one of the court’s actual female judges, to be exact). As one report points out, though, the robot judge is used only for the completion of “repetitive basic work” only, like litigation reception and online guidance.

If “repetitive, basic work” reminds you of Collection Due Process cases in Tax Court, then let’s consider whether some form of automation can help expedite and resolve them. Has the Independent Office of Appeals turned down your request for help with a lien or levy? We don’t have an app for that, yet. But we could.

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The start of computer-assisted pleading, I propose, would be “check the box” petitions that might eliminate some hopeless cases and refine the procedures for others. At IRS, tax compliance is forms-driven. It seems to work for most people. Tax Court should also consider it, at least as an option.

Here is what I mean. A CDP petition would look something like this:

– – –

1) My CDP hearing was based on
O  Doubt as to liability;
O  Request for collection alternative;
O  Both.

2) If based on doubt as to liability,
O  The tax was shown on my original return, but I later amended it.
O  The tax was assessed after an IRS examination, but I did not receive a Statutory Notice of Deficiency (“90-Day Letter).
O  Other (explain).

3) If based on a request for a collection alternative, I proposed:
O   An offer in compromise.
O   An installment agreement.
O   A “currently not collectible” determination.
O   Something else (explain).

4) The Appeals Settlement Officer did / did not request a current financial statement showing my income, expenses, assets and liabilities. If requested,
O   I provided this information.
O   I did not provide complete information.

5) The Appeals Settlement Officer did / did not request that I file all tax returns currently due. If requested,
O   I have filed all required returns.
O   I have not filed all required returns.

6) The Appeals Settlement Officer did / did not determine a “Reasonable Collection Potential” based on my financial information. If a determination was made:
O   I agreed with it.
O   I did not agree with it because of these circumstances which I asked to be considered:

7) I do / do not request help with Alternative Dispute Resolution under Rule 124(c) of the Tax Court, (“Nothing contained in this Rule shall be construed to exclude use by the parties of other forms of voluntary disposition of cases.”) For example, if IRS agrees I would allow this case to be decided by a mediator from a recognized tax clinic affiliated with a university or professional organization.

– – –

Does this look like a way to discourage taxpayers with no reasonable prospect for success, from wasting everyone’s time?  If so, that would be useful, provided it does not close the courthouse door to those who might prevail. It would not discourage those who are filing a petition simply to delay the inevitable. That problem can be alleviated by identifying losers early and putting them on a fast track to closure. For example, Congress could help (but won’t) by increasing the Tax Court filing fee to $250, with a refundable credit for the prevailing party.

“Check the box” pleading can help taxpayers and the Court. Another improvement would be to require, as many federal and local courts have, a “cover sheet” that must accompany a petition. The cover sheet could, for example, require a statement that either the filing fee, or a waiver request is attached.

I recently noticed that the Tax Court is issuing dozens of notices each month, setting the Place of Trial for petitioners who have not done so. They may not think it’s urgent, since the Tax Court website states that the Form 5 can be electronically filed later. A cover sheet could also identify the type of case (tax, CDP, innocent spouse, whisteblower, passport, etc.), not just for real-time statistical purposes but for work-flow scheduling.

I hope some of these suggestions are criticized, by people who can come up with better ones. Meanwhile, maybe we don’t have to look to China for inspiration. Maybe Utah is close enough, for finding judges willing to let a hundred flowers bloom. Utah’s Supreme Court has created a “sandbox”, for testing new ideas about the administration of justice.

The idea is to encourage legal providers and even nonlawyers to suggest and test products that they think can help improve access to legal services. “With oversight from the courts, applicants can test their product without worrying about the strict rules that attorneys have been forced to follow for years.”