Does IRS Bear the Responsibility to Affirmatively Obtain a Ruling from the Bankruptcy Court before Pursuing Collection after Discharge?

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We welcome back guest blogger Marilyn Ames. Marilyn is retired from Chief Counsel’s office and works with Les, Steve and me on updates to the treatise “IRS Practice and Procedure” which Les edits. Since her last guest post, she has moved from Alaska back to Texas where she lives much nearer to her grandchildren. She writes today about a recent First Circuit opinion that imposes a liability on the IRS for failing to prove that a debt was excepted from discharge. The failure of proof resulted from an unusual situation; however, the important issue in the case focuses on the responsibility of the IRS at the conclusion of a bankruptcy case. I have written about the fraud exception to discharge on several occasions. Here is a sample post on the topic if you want background on the underlying discharge issue. Keith

Both the Internal Revenue Code and the Bankruptcy Code are statutory schemes of almost mind-numbing complexity, and when the two collide, the results are generally ugly. Such was the case in Internal Revenue Service v. Murphy, a case of first impression from the First Circuit issued on June 7, 2018, which can be found here. The majority opinion, as noted by the dissent, has the result of “hiding an elephant in a mouse hole” and could significantly change the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to collect debts that are otherwise not discharged in a bankruptcy case.

The hiding of the elephant began in 2005, when Mr. Murphy filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing debts of $601,861.61. Of that amount, $546,161.61 was owed to the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid taxes for a number of years, and to the State of Maine for one year. The bankruptcy court entered Mr. Murphy’s discharge in February of 2006, which provided that the “discharge prohibits any attempt to collect from the debtor a debt that has been discharged.” For those without either personal or professional experience with a Chapter 7 discharge order, it does not list the specific debts that are or are not discharged. The Internal Revenue Service was given notice of the entry of the discharge.

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For three years after the entry of the discharge, the Internal Revenue Service informed Mr. Murphy that it believed his tax debts were not discharged under the provisions of Bankruptcy Code § 523(a)(1)(C), as Mr. Murphy had either filed fraudulent returns or had made some other “attempt to evade or defeat [these] taxes in any manner.” In 2009, the Internal Revenue Service levied on property belonging to Mr. Murphy, which caused him to file suit against the Internal Revenue Service in the bankruptcy court, seeking a declaration that the tax liability had been discharged. Although the IRS continued to take the position that the taxes were nondischargeable as they were due to Mr. Murphy’s fraudulent actions, the AUSA did little to present evidence to show this when Mr. Murphy filed a motion for summary judgment, and the bankruptcy court granted the summary judgment motion, holding that the taxes were discharged. The government did not appeal. The AUSA was subsequently diagnosed with a form of dementia, and had probably been experiencing it when he defended the Internal Revenue Service in the dischargeability case.

Mr. Murphy then filed a complaint under Internal Revenue Code § 7433(e), seeking damages for willful violation of the injunction created by the discharge in the bankruptcy case. After some initial procedural skirmishing over the effects of the earlier discharge litigation and the AUSA’s illness, the Internal Revenue Service agreed that the summary judgment ruling determined that the taxes were discharged, and to the amount of the damages Mr. Murphy had suffered. The only issue remaining was the question of whether the Internal Revenue Service had willfully violated the discharge injunction such that Mr. Murphy was entitled to monetary damages under Section 7433(e).

The bankruptcy court held that Mr. Murphy was entitled to damages, as the term “willfully violates” means that “when, with knowledge of the discharge, [a creditor] intends to take an action, and that action is determined to be an attempt to collect a discharged debt.” The bankruptcy court’s decision was affirmed by the district court, and the Court of Appeals also found in favor of Mr. Murphy, agreeing that the Internal Revenue Service only had to intend to take the actions resulting in collection of the discharged taxes. A good faith belief that the taxes were not dischargeable was not a defense. The Court of Appeals also rejected the IRS argument that because Section 7433(e) is a waiver of sovereign immunity, it must be construed narrowly by permitting a good faith defense. The end result of the Court of Appeals’ opinion is that, for all practical purposes, the Internal Revenue Service must litigate dischargeability before it begins collection of taxes it reasonably believes have not been discharged, or risk having monetary damages imposed against it. This requirement of pre-collection litigation, not contained in the Bankruptcy Code, is the elephant the dissent believes the majority is hiding in a mouse hole.

As noted by Judge Lynch in the dissenting opinion, the majority got this one wrong. In reaching its decision, the majority opinion creates a standard of near strict liability by stripping the government of a reasonable good faith defense, rather than reading this waiver of sovereign immunity narrowly and construing ambiguities in favor of the sovereign, as generally required. Judge Lynch notes that the majority picks and chooses among circuit and lower court opinions in reaching its definition of willful violation, ignoring a Supreme Court opinion issued in Kawaauha v. Geiger, 523 US 57 (1998), a case decided just months before Section 7433(e) was passed. (This is an interesting omission by the majority, given that retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter was one of the two judges signing on the majority opinion.) In Kawaauhau, which interpreted the phrase “willful injury” in connection with another provision of Bankruptcy Code § 523, the Supreme Court held that the word “willful” modified “injury” and required a deliberate or intentional injury, rather than merely a deliberate or intentional act that leads to injury. The same rationale would appear to apply to Internal Revenue Code § 7433(e), leading to the dissent’s conclusion that a “willful violation” requires a deliberate or intentional violation, not just a deliberate or intentional act. If the IRS acts reasonably and in good faith, the violation cannot be willful. Judge Lynch notes that this conclusion is consistent with other Supreme Court decisions construing the phrase “willful violation.”

But Judge Lynch’s most convincing argument is that the majority’s opinion changes the tax collection scheme without an express mandate from Congress. Under the majority’s opinion, the Internal Revenue Service must first go to court and prove the taxes are still owed before instituting any collection action after a discharge, even though not expressly required by Bankruptcy Code § 523. The treatment of tax liabilities under Section 523(a)(1)(C) should be compared to the debts listed in Bankruptcy Code § 523(c)(1). For these types of debts, Congress has provided that they are automatically deemed to be included in the discharge injunction unless the creditor obtains a judicial determination that the debt is not discharged. When Congress wanted a creditor to sue first, then collect, it knew how to provide for it. It did not hide the requirement in a statute allowing for damages that is not even in the Bankruptcy Code, but in a provision of the Internal Revenue Code. An elephant in a mouse hole, indeed.

 

 

Comments

  1. It has long been my contention that discharge orders should SPECIFICALLY LIST all debts that are discharged and this further shows why.

    How interesting that a retired Supreme Court Justice decides to occasionally sit on lower court cases. I would venture a guess that 99% of Americans have no idea he does so. Oops, let me correct that. 99.99%

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