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

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The first two installments of this trilogy covered arguments that you are likely to raise in the hearing itself (the underlying liability), then moved to issues you might not be aware of until after the notice of determination is issued (procedural defects in assessment, or at least defects in the Appeals Officer verifying that the “applicable law or administrative procedures have been met.” IRC § 6330(c)(1). We end with an issue that is really only relevant after the hearing and in litigation: the record the Court will be able to review.

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Issue Three: The Administrative Record is Incomplete (Mitich v. C.I.R., Dkt. # 4489-19W (here))

Full disclosure: this order is not a CDP case (it’s a whistleblower case). But the admin record is critical for CDP cases. (And whistleblower cases. And innocent spouse cases.) So questions on the completeness of the administrative record are worth focusing on.

In cases where the reviewing court is confined to the administrative record, the agency is the party that submits that record. But that doesn’t mean the agency gets to dictate everything that is or should be in it. Still, the agency does have a fair amount of control over that record. And perhaps (though perhaps not -more on that later) the agency has even more control over what constitutes the administrative record in the first place when they promulgate regulations specifically defining the contents of administrative record.

It just so happens that whistleblower cases (like CDP cases) have a regulation on point for what comprises the administrative record. For whistleblower cases, the regulation is at Treas. Reg. § 301.7623-3(e) which provides in relevant part that the administrative record is comprised of “all information contained in the administrative claim file that is relevant to the award determination and not protected by one or more common law or statutory privileges.” In turn, the “administrative claim file” includes pretty much everything the Whistleblower Office reviews, as well as a final, catch-all category of all “other information considered by the official making the award determination.”

In the Mitich order, the whistleblower-petitioner thinks the tax return of the person they “blew the whistle” on should be in the administrative record. The IRS thinks that the return is not part of the administrative record, because the return was “not considered” in denying the whistleblower’s request. That may appear to be something of a head-scratcher, because in this instance the IRS clearly looked at the return (and the whistleblower’s information pertaining to it) before deciding not to pursue the tip. Indeed, the initial notes recommending denying pursuing the tip state “Rejecting claim as speculative after reviewing the taxpayers returns.” [emphasis added.]

There is nuance to the IRS’s position, however. The IRS argues that the official making the award determination didn’t rely on the return but rather relied on the initial employee (the “classifier”). Yes, the classifier relied on the return, but the classifier isn’t the official that made the determination, and in this case isn’t even a member of the IRS Whistleblower Office.

Judge Halpern isn’t entirely sold on that rationale, which leads to this order: that the parties provide a legal memo on why the return is or is not a part of the administrative record. This isn’t the first time the Tax Court has grappled with these sorts of issues. I was reminded of a previous order I covered in Whistleblower 6388-17W v. C.I.R. There, Judge Guy assigned extra homework to the parties (again, legal memos) on the tensions between IRC § 6103 and the parties’ (specifically, the whistleblowers) need to see the administrative file. Obviously, the IRS does not want to disclose any protected, confidential information, which may also provide some reason for them pushing so hard on why the tax return is not part of the administrative record here.

In any event, I somewhat doubt that whether the return is part of the record will have any bearing on Ms. Mitich getting any money. If the IRS never acted on her tip, and no proceeds were ever recovered, I am at a loss for how the tax returns help her. Yet looking at the order more broadly one can draw some other important lessons relevant beyond just the whistleblower context.

And this is where I return to the question, teased earlier: how much (legal) control does an agency have to restrict the administrative record? Because judicial review of whistleblower cases is limited by the “record rule,” exactly what the administrative record is and contains carries great importance. Two issues come to mind on that.

First, there is the issue of what should be in the record when both parties agree on the types of information that comprise the record rule but disagree on the contents. When problems arise under this category, the dispute is usually about the “completeness” of the record, and not the sorts of things that properly should be in it. For example, if both parties agree that all communications between the taxpayer and Appeals should be part of the record but a fax that the taxpayer sent to Appeals is not included, that would be an argument about completeness. This can be more fraught than it would otherwise appear.

One reason for discord is that the agency is generally the custodian of the administrative record. Taxpayers should be vigilant and keep their own “mirror” file and be ready to challenge the IRS’s version. And the Tax Court will likely entertain these challenges: in whistleblower cases, the Tax Court has held that “the Commissioner cannot unilaterally decide what constitutes an administrative record.” (T.C. 145 No. 8 (2015)) Problem (basically) solved.

But there is a second issue that I think is worth exploring: when the parties dispute the scope of the administrative record. Specifically, my concern is whether an agency can shield information from court review through promulgation of regulations narrowly defining the administrative record. Because I am more familiar with CDP than whistleblower cases, I will use CDP as the example.

The applicable regulation (Treas. Reg. § 301.6330-1(f)(2)(A-F4)), defines the administrative record in CDP cases pretty broadly, so arguments about its scope would likely be rare. Further, even where the “record rule” is in effect, it doesn’t render the administrative record unassailable: a petitioner can supplement the record where something needs to be explained. This, I believe, is most common with “call notes” from Appeals. Whatever notes Appeals takes during a call are part of the administrative record. Notes from the petitioner… not so much (at least not under the regulation). As a matter of course, my tax clinic always sends a fax to Appeals memorializing the conversation after a call so that it becomes “written communication […] submitted in connection with the CDP hearing.”

To be sure, I don’t have serious problems with the definition of the administrative record as provided by the regulation. But it isn’t impossible for me to imagine things I’d like to have as part of the administrative record which, by a strict reading of the regulation, might not be. One that comes to mind are communications made with Appeals after the Notice of Determination. On this point you may say, “well those conversations are plainly irrelevant since the Court is only looking at the Notice of Determination. Also, didn’t you write something about the Chenery doctrine before?”

I have. Also, it is entirely plausible to read the regulation such that those conversations would be part of the administrative file. My cause for concern is that when you’re dealing with a genuine abuse of discretion from IRS Appeals, you are often dealing with a constellation of questionable behaviors that does not end with the Notice of Determination. When IRS Appeals is being unreasonable I want every incidence of their unreasonable behavior to be in the administrative record. “Abuse of discretion” is a mushy and extremely difficult standard for the Tax Court (or practitioners) to work with. I would argue that demonstrating a pattern of IRS Appeals behavior, even if some if it occurs after the Notice of Determination is written, is relevant to that determination. I also think that regulations limiting court review, absent pretty explicit Congressional language supporting it, raises separation of powers concerns and arguably could be subject to being stricken down (see Carl Smith’s post on a related matter, here.)

Perhaps I am making a big deal of nothing in the CDP context, given the expansive language of the regulation. But what about in Innocent Spouse cases?

Recall that the Taxpayer First Act changed the scope of review in Innocent Spouse cases to “the administrative record established at the time of the [IRS] determination.” (IRC § 6015(e)(7)(A)) What does that administrative record entail?

Bad news for those who look to the regulations: they haven’t been updated since 2002. At numerous points, the regulations do not apply present law and are essentially obsolete. The regulation specifically dealing with Tax Court review (Treas. Reg. § 1.6015-7) provides one such example, taking the position that collection activity need not be suspended while requests are pending for equitable relief under IRC § 6015(f). This is not the case under the law as it currently stands (see IRC § 6015(e)(1)(B)(i)).

But apart from getting the law wrong, the regulation is also completely silent on the issue of what comprises the administrative record. Perhaps after the IRS crawls out from the heap of CARES Act and other guidance projects it has been tasked with, updates to that regulation may also be in order (it isn’t presently on the IRS priority guidance plan). But what is the Tax Court to do until then? What should be in the administrative record?

The Supreme Court has provided a little guidance on that topic. Judge Halpern cites to Citizens to Protect Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 420 (1971) for the proposition that “the record amassed by the agency consists of ‘the full administrative record’ before the agency.” Judge Halpern emphasizes the word “full” and notes that lower courts have interpreted that “fullness” to entail “all documents and materials that the agency directly or indirectly considered.” That seems pretty expansive. But I suppose we’ll have to wait and see… the issue is likely to come up sooner than later now that petitions being filed are subject to this record rule (see Christine’s post here).

About Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith is 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.

Comments

  1. Sandy Boxerman says

    I’m looking at the last paragraph, which speaks of a “full” record as being everything that the agency considered. But shouldn’t the definition be a little broader, perhaps something like, “everything that the agency had available to it when making its decision.” I am thinking of a situation where a document or other information is part of the agency’s file and the taxpayer’s argument is that the agency should have considered it but either failed or outright refused to do so. Shouldn’t that be covered too?

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