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.”

A Tax Court Procedural Anomaly: the Trial Subpoena Duces Tecum, Designated Orders July 29 – August 2

Subpoenas, morphing motions and a protestor’s use of the Tax Court judgment finality rule were covered in orders issued during the week of July 29th. Judge Leyden also made sincere efforts to help petitioners help themselves and prevent dismissal of their case (here), and the petitioners heeded her advice.

Docket No. 19502-17, Cross Refined Coal, LLC, U.S.A. Refined Coal, LLC, Tax Matters Partner v. C.I.R. (order here)

This first order was not actually designated, but Bob Kamman raised it as one that perhaps should have been, because it involves a distinctive aspect of Tax Court procedure: the trial subpoena duces tecum.

Information and documents can (and should) be requested well in advance of trial but if they are not provided, then the mechanism available to the parties to demand the production of documents is with a trial subpoena duces tecum. Section 7456(a)(1) requires subpoenaed third parties to appear and produce discovery-related documents at the “designated place of hearing,” rather than some other location at another time as allowed by other Courts (see Fed. R. Civ. P. 45). The rule is in contrast with typical Tax Court procedures that encourage the parties to exchange information informally and as early as possible.

In this order, the petitioner moves to quash the trial subpoenas that the IRS served on six non-parties. Petitioner argues that the issuance of subpoenas is the IRS’s attempt to obtain discovery from petitioner in violation of Rule 70(a)(2), which requires that discovery between parties be completed no later than 45 days prior to the calendar call date. The Court disagrees that the rule applies because the subpoenas were served on non-parties, rather than the petitioner or another party in the case.

Petitioner’s issue with the subpoenas is the IRS’s timing. The subpoenas were served on the non-parties 25 to 21 days before the calendar call, and since the subpoenas order the non-parties appear at trial it means there may be very little time for the petitioner to review any newly produced documents.

A rule governing the timing for subpoenas does not seem to exist in the Code or Tax Court rules. The Tax Court’s website suggests that the subpoena form can be obtained from the trial clerk at the trial session (it is also available on the Tax Court’s website, here). There are some references to timing in the Internal Revenue Manual which instructs IRS employees that, “[t] he time for the issuance of necessary subpoenas will vary from case to case depending to a large extent upon the finalization of stipulations,” and “[t]o be effective in enforcing the attendance of the witness, a subpoena must be served on the witness a reasonable time in advance of its return date. A ‘reasonable time’ will vary from witness to witness depending upon the location of the residence of the witness and the place of trial and, in the case of a subpoena duces tecum, the nature of the documents and records called for by the subpoena.” I.R.M. 35.4.4.4.1.1

The Court points out that its standing pretrial order requires exhibits be exchanged before trial, but an exception to the requirement can be made if the documents are received from a third-party at the trial session, when the proffering party had no prior opportunity to receive and exchange them.

That being said, the Court is somewhat suspicious of the IRS’s timing in this case and states, “[i]f respondent’s use of the subpoenas in this case were to result in a large number of previously undisclosed documents being offered at trial, we would expect to inquire about whether the last-minute production of the documents was actually imposed on respondent through no fault of his own, or whether instead the subpoenas were a blameworthy last-minute attempt to obtain documents that he could have attempted to obtain in time to comply with the standing pretrial order.”

The Court also sympathizes with petitioner’s concerns, but believes they are premature – because it is not guaranteed that the third parties will submit documents nor that the IRS will offer any submitted documents into evidence. Petitioner will still have the option to object later if the information produced by the subpoenas results in prejudice.

The flip side of the subpoena issue involves the timing of their return.  Neither the IRS nor a taxpayer who issues a subpoena duces tecum has the ability to force the third party to provide the documents prior to calendar call.  While the IRS could have summoned the documents prior to issuing the notice of deficiency, once in Tax Court the summons procedure no longer applies.  It may be fair to fault the IRS for not using its summons power to obtain necessary third party information prior to issuing the notice but if the need for the third party documents does not become apparent until after the notice has gone out, the IRS has no way to force the third party to turn over the documents before calendar call.  This is not ideal for either party since neither party may know what the documents will provide.  Usually, a party issuing a subpoena duces tecum will try to get the recipient of the document to produce the documents before calendar call in order to avoid the problem of having to come down to court.  This informal process can circumvent the problems described here.  However, if the third party does not want to turn over the documents until calendar call, the party seeking the documents does not have easy tools in the Tax Court to force their hand prior to calendar call.

Docket Nos. 17038-18L & 17353-18L, The Diversified Group Incorporated, et al. v. C.I.R. (order here)

Next up is yet another section 6751(b)(1) case, in a consolidated docket, addressing the timeliness standard established in Clay, but this order also involves the application of a Tax Court rule that allows the Court to treat the petitioners’ motion for judgment on the pleadings as a motion for summary judgment. This is permissible when matters outside the pleadings are presented to the Court, and not excluded, which then allows the motion to be governed by Rule 121.

A judgment on the pleadings is appropriate when it is clear from the pleadings themselves that the case presents no genuine issues of fact and only issues of law. The basis for the judgment is limited to the pleadings and admissions already presented, so there is no option to present additional information.

A motion for summary judgment is appropriate when there are issues raised by the pleadings, but the issues are not genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A motion for summary judgment can address matters outside of the pleadings and the parties are given a reasonable opportunity to present all information pertinent to the motion pursuant to Rule 121.

In this case, petitioners moved for a judgment on the pleadings because the IRS included proof that it had met the timeliness standard under Graev III in the pleadings, but the time frame established by the pleadings is too late under Clay. In response, however, the IRS presented (and the Court did not exclude) the declaration of the immediate supervisor of the revenue agent involved in the case, and exhibits showing that supervisory approval was obtained much earlier than the date on the Form 8278 included in the pleadings. The Court finds the IRS’s information sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding when, and in what fashion, managerial approval was obtained. As a result, the Court denies the petitioners’ motion for summary judgment.

Docket No. 335-19, Jalees Muzikir v. C.I.R. (order here)

In this designated order, the IRS’s motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted. Petitioner had previously filed a “years petition” for the year at issue. According to a footnote in the order, “a ‘years petition’ does nothing other than allege that for a substantial number of consecutive taxable years the taxpayer did not receive any jurisdictionally-relevant IRS notice, such as a notice of deficiency or a notice of determination, that would permit an appeal to the Tax Court. A ‘years petition’ is the manifestation of protest from tax deniers and tax protestors.” The case petitioner instituted with the “years petition” was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, but then he subsequently received a notice of deficiency for one of the years which is the year at issue in this order.

Petitioner argues that since the Court dismissed his initial case, the IRS doesn’t have jurisdiction over the year at issue now because of the Tax Court judgment finality rule under section 7481. The Court disagrees with this analysis and grants the IRS’s motion, because petitioner did not raise any issues other than the IRS’s lack of jurisdiction.

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.