Qualified Offers for Wealthy Taxpayers, Looking Behind the Notice of Determination, and Unlawful Levies in CDP – Designated Orders: March 4 – 8, 2019

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This week brings five designated orders (technically six, but Judge Gale’s two orders granting Respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of prosecution in Maldonado are practically identical). I analyze three cases below. In the other case, Judge Guy granted Respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in a deficiency case.

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Docket Nos. 10346-10, 28718-10, 5991-11, Metz v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Holmes returns, as last time, to a motion for administrative and litigation costs under section 7430. The underlying decision was released last year (T.C. Memo. 2015-54) and the parties agreed recently to the precise deficiencies, leaving only this issue outstanding.

Thankfully, none of the TEFRA difficulties that plagued us last time are present today. Judge Holmes also notes that no dispute exists regarding whether a “qualified offer” was made, or whether that amount exceeded the deficiencies actually determined for 2004 and 2005. He also notes that, while taxpayers must exhaust their administrative remedies to claim fees under 7430, Respondent never raised that argument except for 2008 and 2009.

Instead, the net worth requirement under IRC § 7430(c)(4)(A)(ii) bedevils the Court this time. It is ultimately fatal to a claim for fees on any of the tax years. The net worth requirement applies equally to ordinary claims for fees and also to claims premised upon a qualified offer.

 Section 7430 itself contains no explicit net worth requirement, but references the general federal fee shifting statute under 28 U.S.C. § 2412. That statute defines a “party” eligible for fee shifting as “an individual whose net worth did not exceed $2,000,000” or “any owner of an unincorporated business, or any partnership, corporation, association, unit of local government, or organization, the net worth of which did not exceed $7,000,000 at the time the civil action was filed.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(B).

So, to win fees, Petitioners must be “an individual whose net worth did not exceed $2,000,000 at the time the civil action was filed” or meet the separate $7 million requirement for businesses, if it applies. Petitioners declared in their motion for costs that, at the time of filing the petition, their collective net worth was between $2 million and $4 million.

What limit applies to taxpayers filing a joint federal income tax return? Section 7430(c)(4)(D)(ii) states that “individuals filing a joint return shall be treated as separate individuals for purposes of [the net worth requirement].”  As it turns out, however, there’s much more to the story than meets the eye.

The first question, then, is what limits apply to Petitioners? Petitioners argued that Mrs. Metz was entitled to a $7 million limit, because she was an owner of an S corporation, not the general $2 million limit for individuals. Judge Holmes quickly dispatches this argument; it is the partnership, corporation, or other entity itself that must petition for costs under 7430 to be subject to the $7 million limit. While an “owner of an unincorporated business”, such as a sole proprietorship, could qualify as an individual, Mrs. Metz’s S corporation was incorporated.

But even accepting that the $2 million limit applies, do Petitioners really get a $4 million limit? A prior case, Hong v. C.I.R., holds that the net worth requirement isn’t violated if each spouse, individually, has a net worth below $2 million, but a joint net worth above $2 million. What if one spouse has $3 million and the other $500,000? Does one qualify, but not the other?

Turns out, this is a tricky issue. Hong was decided before Congress inserted section 743)(c)(4)(D)(ii) into the Code. And after Hong, Treasury issued a regulation attempting to overrule it. 26 C.F.R. § 7430(f)(1), T.D. 8542, 1994-29 I.R.B. 14. (“individuals filing a joint return shall be treated as 1 taxpayer.”) Unhelpfully, that regulation only concerned itself with administrative costs, rather than litigation costs. But in 1997, Congress passed the provision in 7430(c)(4)(D)(ii) that treats taxpayers separately. Treasury didn’t get around to conforming the regulation to the statute until 2016; Judge Holmes notes that Petitioners aren’t attempting to rely on this latter regulation, either.  Judge Holmes further questions whether Congress in 1997 attempted to adopt Hong, or simply decided to adopt an aggregate $4 million cap; the latter is supported by a direct quote in the legislative history, which the 2016 regulation adopted.

So, Judge Holmes ends up raising a litany of questions that, while interesting, are somewhat irrelevant to resolution of this case. He finds that the current regulation (applying a $4 million joint net worth limit) didn’t apply when these cases were filed. The old regulation doesn’t apply, because Congress overrode it in 1997 in some respect. And because Hong hasn’t been overruled andit finds a separate $2 million per person net worth requirement, Judge Holmes must defer to that decision. (Judge Holmes also notes that legislative history indicating a preference for a $4 million joint asset requirement cannot override Hong.) As such, he holds that Petitioners have a $2 million net worth requirement each.

Next, Judge Holmes must decide whether Petitioners’ assets exceed the $2 million limit, looking at each Petitioner individually. What counts in the “Net Worth” definition? Congress included more non-statutory language in the legislative history stating that “[i]n determining the value of assets, the cost of acquisition rather than fair market value should be used.” But that’s just non-binding legislative history right?

Both the Ninth Circuit and the Tax Court have issued precedential decisions applying a cost of acquisition value, consistent with the legislative history, rather than a fair market value. United States v. 88.88 Acres of Land, 907 F.2d 106, 107 (9th Cir. 1990); Swanson v. C.I.R., 106 T.C. 76, 96 (1996). So while the legislative history might not be binding, the Tax Court’s own precedent, and the Ninth Circuit’s precedent under the Golsen rule, surely is. 

I will spare readers the level of detail into which Judge Holmes delves to value the Metz’s assets. Suffice to say, Petitioners suffered heavy losses that substantially reduced the fair market value of their assets, to a level where both Petitioners would likely have satisfied the net worth requirement. Under a cost of acquisition valuation (which does allow for certain deductions from the cost alone, such as depreciation), however, both Petitioners have over $4 million in assets each.

Judge Holmes indicates a discomfort with this result as a policy matter, concluding:

There is also an old saw uncertainly attributed to Ambrose Bierce that defines stare decisis as “a legal doctrine according to which a mistake once committed must be repeated until the end of time.”

But because the Tax Court must defer to its precedent, Judge Holmes denies the motion for costs due to Petitioners’ failure to meet the net worth requirements.

As an aside, this case may also represent the first judicial shout-out to the Designated Orders crew. Judge Holmes, in defining the law applicable to Petitioners during the relevant time, notes:

We happily leave the herculean chore of cleaning this stall to any tax proceduralists whose interest in the field is strong enough to impel them to read our nonprecedential orders. But we need do only a quick hosedown.

I’m not sure how I feel about our blog series being compared to intense equine waste management. But as they say, all press is good press.

Docket No. 388-18L, Ansley v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Urda issued his first designated order in Ansley, and it contains quite the message to Respondent’s counsel.

Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment in this CDP case back in November. In the meantime, the parties held a conference call. Among other items, Petitioner alleged that Respondent levied his Social Security income while his Tax Court case was ongoing. Indeed, Petitioner provided a letter from Respondent’s counsel admitting that the Service had levied Petitioner’s Social Security from February 2018 until November 2018 (totaling nearly $2,200) to satisfy one of the years at issue in the Tax Court case. The letter also noted that the Service eventually issued Petitioner a refund last December.

This is a problem for Respondent, as section 6330(e)(1) prohibits levies after a CDP request is filed in response to a notice of intent to levy. The Service’s conduct here seems fairly egregious; the case was filed in July 2017 in the Tax Court. And because no motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction was filed, presumably the CDP request was timely submitted long before this point. The record is unclear on whether the underlying case was in Automated Collection Systems or with a Revenue Officer. So either the Service’s computers were not properly coded or the RO made an egregious error. 

On a closer look, however, we can understand how this could happen. Originally, Petitioner filed a letter on June 5, 2017 with the Tax Court, which the Court docketed at 12702-17L as an imperfect petition for tax years 2012, 2013, and 2014. But the Service hadn’t yet issued a Notice of Determination for those years. So, Respondent filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, which the Court granted on January 10, 2018.

However, in that same order, the Court noted that Petitioner had submitted another letter on July 24, 2017—after the Notice of Determination was issued. As the Tax Court received that letter within 30 days of the Notice of Determination, the Court—in January 2018—filed the letter as a new petition, docketed at 388-18, relating back to the letter’s date, July 24, 2017.

Levies started soon thereafter in February 2018.  One potential explanation is that the Service’s computers simply saw that the levy prohibition from docket 12702-17L had been removed. And because of the unorthodox way in which the new levy prohibition in docket 388-18L arose, they didn’t pick it up. Another could be that the Notice of Determination was listed in Petitioner’s 2012 account transcript as having been issued on September 26, 2017—not July 18, 2017, as it actually was. So perhaps the Service never picked up that a Petition was filed in the first place. The Court and Respondent’s counsel believe that the first explanation is correct, as explained in this order. Respondent’s counsel further assured Judge Urda that this unlawful levy was an “isolated error.”

However, Petitioner sent the Court another set of documents late this February, which included a levy notice for 2012, 2013, and 2014, dated May 18, 2018 to Petitioner’s employer—a separate levy from the Social Security levy previously disclosed.

To sort this out, Judge Urda orders (1) that Respondent may not levy on Petitioner for 2012 through 2014 while this case is pending; (2) that Respondent’s counsel file Petitioner’s Account Transcripts for 2012 through 2014 with the Court; and (3) that Respondent file a status report clarifying a number of uncertainties remaining in this matter, including when Respondent’s counsel first knew that a levy notice was sent to Petitioner’s employer. On March 18, Respondent’s counsel filed a reply. Unfortunately, I cannot access the reply’s text without traveling to Washington, D.C. or shelling out 50 cents per page for a copy of the reply.

Docket No. 9671-18L, Denton v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Finally, another CDP case, this time from Judge Gustafson. Here, Respondent filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction as to the two tax years at issue: 2005 and 2015. Judge Gustafson dismissed 2015; that year just came out of IRS Appeals on a Notice of Determination—long after the petition in this case was filed. Judge Gustafson advised Petitioners to file a new petition should he wish to litigate that year.

For 2005, the Service both issued a notice of intent to levy and filed a notice of federal tax lien. For the levy, Respondent argued the Court lacked jurisdiction because Petitioners did not timely request a CDP hearing. Specifically, Respondent stated that it issued the notice on February 5, 2009, making any CDP request due on March 9, 2009. Also in the record was an envelope from Petitioner to the Service dated March 18, 2009. On this evidence alone, Respondent’s argument seems strong.

But complicatedly for Respondent, they acknowledge that a CDP hearing occurred during 2017 and 2018, and that both 2005 and 2015 were considered. The Service then issued a “Notice of Determination” listing 2005 in May 2018. That’s quite a delay from when the Notice of Intent to Levy was purportedly issued.

Delay or not, Judge Gustafson notes that ordinarily, the Tax Court does not look behind a Notice of Determination based on “facts regarding procedures that were followed prior to the issuance of the notice of determination rather than on the notice of determination itself.” Lunsford v. C.I.R., 117 T.C. 159, 163 (2016). If that’s true, then the Court could, Judge Gustafson suggests, have jurisdiction over 2005. He necessarily implies, therefore, that that is so, even where the Service presents evidence indicating that the CDP hearing request itself was untimely. Therefore, Judge Gustafson denied the motion without prejudice as to 2005.

The Service also filed a NFTL for 2005, which by its terms required a response by April 2, 2009. The Court notes that evidence of a CDP request exists in the envelope dated March 18, 2009, so it’s not clear from the record that no request was filed. The Court also dismissed Respondent’s alternative argument that the lien self-released 10 years after filing. While true, taxpayers may request collection alternatives or other relief in response to a NFTL through a CDP hearing. Because the record was unclear on those points, Judge Gustafson likewise denied the motion to dismiss as to the 2005 lien hearing.

Patrick Thomas About Patrick Thomas

Patrick W. Thomas is the founding director of Notre Dame Law School’s Tax Clinic, in which he trains and supervises law students representing low-income clients in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service. Prior to joining the law school faculty in 2016, he received an ABA Tax Section Public Service Fellowship to work as a staff attorney for the LITC at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis.

Comments

  1. Those barnyard metaphors from Judge Holmes should be read in light of the facts – the case involves taxpayers who ran an Arabian-horse breeding facility.

    The real hidden message to us from his order is found in the numbering of the pages in this 16-page order. The first five pages are numbered. Then there is an unnumbered page, and then the page numbering starts over at 2 and ends at 11. That tells us all we need to know, about which initial letters of paragraphs to decode.

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