Making All Your Arguments in Collection Due Process Cases. Designated Orders, August 10 – 14, 2020 (Part One)

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My tax clinic has had a run of Collection Due Process (CDP) hearings lately -four in two weeks- after months of basically no action. I’ve found that historically my workload increases significantly this time of year, where cases that were long dormant suddenly spring to life with tight deadlines just before the holiday season.

Most of these “hearings” end up being a 2-minute phone call confirming that the Appeals officer received our Offer in Compromise and will wait for the Offer unit to make their preliminary determination before checking in again. Because most of my Offer cases are clear winners, the next step is usually just insisting on a Determination Letter (I am wary of waiving my rights to Court review for reasons detailed here) from Appeals months later when the Offer is accepted.

But there are times when my Clinic and Appeals doesn’t see eye-to-eye in the hearing, and we file a tax court petition (in addition to our four hearings, we’ve also filed two petitions under CDP jurisdiction in the last month). I’ve found that drafting these petitions is a bit more difficult for my students than the traditional deficiency petitions are, mainly because the assignments of error are not as straightforward as when you are reading off a Notice of Deficiency. But if you don’t raise an issue, you potentially concede it (Tax Court Rule 331(b)(4)) so we want to cover all of our bases -especially when we think the conduct of Appeals was objectionable in myriad ways, and want to highlight all of the relevant facts showing that.

Often my students want to argue two things: (1) the IRS abused their discretion by [whatever specific thing they failed to consider] rejecting the Offer, and (2) Something else. But they’re not really sure what that something else is, so it often starts out as some version of “and Appeals was mean when they did it.” Three of the designated orders for the week of August 10, 2020 provide something of a checklist for what arguments you may want to raise in CDP litigation -a way to supplement or supplant the “something else” assignment of error. (The remaining fourth order of the week is not substantive but can be found here.)

Let’s take a look at the three, and the issues they raise, in something close to a chronological order of when the issue would come about.

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Issue One: The IRS Should Have Let Me Argue the Underlying Tax! (Iaco v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 19694-18L (here))

Metaphorical barrels of metaphorical ink have been spilled on this blog about when taxpayers are entitled to argue the underlying tax in a CDP hearing under IRC § 6330(c)(2)(B). The thorny issue centers on what comprises a “prior opportunity” to contest the tax. Some of the blog’s coverage can be found here, here, and here.

In my humble opinion, the Tax Court has taken an overly broad view of what comprises a “prior opportunity” precluding taxpayers from raising the underlying tax. Thus, a taxpayer that wants to raise that argument (like Iaco in the above order) already has an uphill battle. For Iaco it is perhaps less of a hill and more of a wall.

The taxes at issue are excise (a tax on wagers under IRC § 4401(a)(2), which I’ll confess I was wholly ignorant of prior to now) which are not subject to deficiency procedures. Where a Notice of Deficiency is not required, under Lewis v. C.I.R., 128 T.C. 48 (2007), the inquiry is usually “did you already take your shot with IRS Appeals before the CDP hearing?” Here, Mr. Iaco did indeed take that shot, and now wants to take it again with a new Appeals officer in the CDP hearing.

(For those interested, the Iaco order could also provide a good lesson on the importance of record keeping. It appears Mr. Iaco ran an illegal gambling operation, busted in part because of a one-day wiretap. The IRS used the information from that one-day tap and extrapolated additional wagers based on it. Mr. Iaco said, “no way is that accurate!” but refused to provide any actual records of what the right amount of wagers was. In other words, Mr. Iaco failed to keep records like he is required to (see Treas. Reg. § 1.6001-1). This puts the ball firmly in the IRS’s court. And while they can’t just pick a random number, there is case law that allows the IRS to multiply the amount of wagers documented for one day by the likely period of wagering.)  

If your argument boils down to “I want to argue the tax with Appeals again because I don’t like what Appeals decided the first time,” you aren’t going to get very far. But there is perhaps a sliver of a kernel of an argument that you can still make: instead of arguing with the outcome of the first Appeals hearing, you argue with the process.

Mr. Iaco wants to argue that he never really had a prior opportunity, because the first Appeals conference was not a “fair and impartial hearing.” IRS Appeals is supposed to be independent and there is at least some statutory authority geared at ensuring that impartiality (see IRC § 7803(e)). Might there be a baseline standard of conduct from Appeals for the hearing to qualify as an “opportunity?” If so, how do we determine that baseline?

Judge Halpern has some thoughts on that question and looks to Supreme Court precedent to guide his analysis -specifically, Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).

Mathews is one of the handful of name cases I recall from law school and it is all about “procedural” due process. If I were to dredge up my old flash cards, my bet is they would have something to the effect of “Issue: how much process is due?” The other side of the flash card would (hopefully) lay out this abridged three factor test: (1) what’s the private interest being affected, (2) what’s the risk of the current procedures erroneously depriving that interest, and (3) weigh those considerations against the government’s interest/costs were the procedures changed. Swirl those factors around and you will get an idea for the amount of process (for example, providing an evidentiary hearing) that is due before the deprivation of the private interest (in Mathews, the denial of social security disability payments).

Constitutional procedural due process does not require that the IRS provide a “Collection Due Process” hearing before depriving an individual of their property (i.e. levying) to pay back tax. Indeed, the IRS did not provide CDP hearings prior to 1998 and their collection methods certainly weren’t unconstitutional up to that point. So what value does Mathews have here, when a facial attack on the constitutionality of the IRS’s collection procedures would be sure to fail?

Remember, Mr. Iaco’s issue is mostly with the first Appeals hearing he received, where he argued against the IRS calculation of wagers and didn’t feel as if he were being heard. There is a specific line in Mathews which Judge Halpern quotes: “The fundamental requirement of due process is the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.” Mathews at 333 [internal quotes omitted]. This gets at the issue of looking beyond procedures broadly to how they are applied individual specifically. Yes, these procedures exist and meet the requirements of constitutional due process, but were they properly administered? Mr. Iaco says Appeals was just a rubber-stamp for the initial tax determination. The question is, did Mr. Iaco have a meaningful opportunity to explain himself and be heard by the Appeals Officer?

The Tax Court finds Mr. Iaco did, so he is out of luck. Other taxpayers, however, may have better facts, which is why I think this order is worth considering in the constitutional dimension that Judge Halpern raises. As I’ve noted before, I think the Tax Court has narrowed taxpayers’ opportunity to argue the underlying tax in a CDP hearing beyond what the statutory language requires or Congress intended. The current state of the law is such that if you had a hearing with Appeals arguing the tax (even through audit reconsideration), you have now blown your chance to raise it in a CDP hearing and get Tax Court review. I think this creates a massive trap for the unwary, and perversely incentivizes waiting until CDP to argue your tax rather than dealing with it at an earlier stage. My hope is that circuit courts will take up the issue and reverse the Tax Court interpretation of the statute.

For now, an opportunity with Appeals essentially always equals a “prior opportunity” to dispute the tax under IRC § 6330(c)(2). The only (possible) way around it that I can see is to argue that the first opportunity with Appeals wasn’t an opportunity at all, because it wasn’t meaningful. At the very least, Judge Halpern appears to contemplate that as a precondition under Mathews. I imagine you’ll need a lot of facts for that heavy lift, showing any number of IRS Appeals abuses, to make that showing.

Until that happens, we have to look for a new argument in our CDP petition…

About Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith is Visiting Associate Clinical Professor and the Director of the Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School. Caleb has worked at Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics on both coasts and the Midwest, most recently completing a fellowship at Harvard Law School's Federal Tax Clinic. Prior to law school Caleb was the Tax Program Manager at Minnesota's largest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance organization, where he continues to remain engaged as an instructor and volunteer today.

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