Seventh Circuit Affirms Tax Court’s Discretion to Weigh Actual Knowledge More Heavily than Four Positive Factors for Innocent Spouse Relief

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Last summer, I alerted PT readers here to an innocent spouse case, Jacobsen v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-115, that Keith and I were litigating in the Seventh Circuit on behalf of the Harvard tax clinic.  We took on the appeal of one year (2011) where the taxpayer did not get equitable innocent spouse relief from the Tax Court under section 6015(f) from the unreported taxes on the taxpayer’s former wife’s embezzlement income.  For that year, the Tax Court held that because the former wife was already jailed when the return was filed and because the taxpayer helped a CPA prepare the return, the taxpayer had actual knowledge of the deficiency.  Of course, while actual knowledge is fatal to relief under subsections (b) and (c), it is not supposed to be fatal under subsection (f) equitable relief.  Knowledge (whether actual or reason to know) is only supposed to be one factor of seven factors to consider under subsection (f), as elaborated on by Rev. Proc. 2013-34, 2013-2 C.B. 397.  Under the liberalizing 2013 Rev. Proc., unlike under the earlier Rev. Proc. 2003-61, 2003-2 C.B. 296, actual knowledge was now to be weighed no more heavily than reason to know in the factor analysis.  And, in the case, the Tax Court held that of the remaining factors, four were positive for relief – marital status, lack of significant benefit, compliance with future tax filing and payment obligations, and serious health issues.  So, it struck Keith and me as wrong – and as not consistent with what most Tax Court judges were doing – for the court to have still denied relief in this case.  It seemed to us that the Tax Court had not, in substance, applied the Rev. Proc. (which, concededly is not binding on the court, but which the court generally follows and purported to follow in the case).

Keith and I hoped a reversal of the Tax Court in the Jacobsen case would have a salutary effect on Tax Court judges not to overweigh the actual knowledge factor.  And, this would be the first appeals court to ever have to apply Rev. Proc. 2013-34 (surprisingly).  Then, during briefing of the appeal, Congress enacted the Taxpayer First Act, which amended section 6015(e) to add paragraph (7) providing that the Tax Court should decide innocent spouse cases on a de novo standard and a supplemented administrative record.  Because the amendment applied to pending cases, the Jacobsen Seventh Circuit opinion would also be the first to consider the impact of subsection (e)(7) on appellate review.

Well, we lost. In Jacobsen v. Commissioner, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 4544 (7th Cir. Feb. 13, 2020), in a published opinion, the Seventh Circuit upheld the Tax Court’s ruling, though noted that this was a close case and that, had it been the trier of fact (and not employing deferential appellate review), it might have ruled for the taxpayer.

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Given Jacobsen, I am not sure that any court of appeals will ever reverse the Tax Court on a section 6015 ruling against a taxpayer.  My research before the clinic’s taking on the appeal revealed that, while taxpayers occasionally obtained a reversal of the Tax Court under the former innocent spouse provision at section 6013(e) (in effect from 1971 to 1998); see, e.g., Resser v. Commissioner, 74 F.3d 1528 (7th Cir. 1996); no taxpayer since 1998, in 14 tries, had obtained a reversal of the Tax Court under section 6015.  See Asad v. Commissioner, 751 Fed. Appx. 339 (3d Cir. 2018); Nunez v. Commissioner, 599 Fed. Appx. 629 (9th Cir. 2015); Deihl v. Commissioner, 603 Fed. Appx. 527 (9th Cir. 2015); Karam v. Commissioner, 504 Fed. Appx. 416 (6th Cir. 2012); Maluda v. Commissioner, 431 Fed. Appx. 130 (3d Cir. 2011); Greer v. Commissioner, 595 F.3d 338 (6th Cir. 2010); Golden v. Commissioner, 548 F.3d 487 (6th Cir. 2008); Aranda v. Commissioner, 432 F.3d 1140 (10th Cir. 2005); Feldman v. Commissioner, 152 Fed. Appx. 622 (9th Cir. 2005); Alt v. Commissioner, 101 Fed. Appx. 34 (6th Cir. 2004); Doyle v. Commissioner, 94 Fed. Appx. 949 (3d Cir. 2004); Mitchell v. Commissioner, 292 F.3d 800 (D.C. Cir. 2002); Cheshire v. Commissioner, 282 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2002); Wiksell v. Commissioner, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 5857 (9th Cir. 2000).  The taxpayer losing string continues.

An interesting issue in the Seventh Circuit in Jacobsen was its discussion of the appellate standard of review in light of section 6015(e)(7).  As to what would be “inequitable” under section 6015(f), the IRS argued for abuse of discretion review, and the taxpayer argued for clear error review.  There isn’t much of a difference between the two standards, but (e)(7) was designed to prevent the Tax Court from giving deference to IRS rulings under (f), which had been held though, until Porter v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 203 (2009), to be reviewed by the Tax Court on an abuse of IRS discretion standard.  In Porter, the Tax Court held it would henceforth decide (f) issues on a de novo standard – the position adopted by statute in (e)(7).  And at least some Tax Court judges had said that the Tax Court does not exercise equitable discretion under (f), but merely makes a factual finding of what would be “unfair”.  Cf. Hall v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 374, 391-392 (2010) (Thornton and Holmes, JJ., dissenting) (arguing that by using the word “inequitable” in § 6015(f), Congress did not imply the rules of equity practice, but rather only meant that it would be “unfair” to hold the taxpayer liable;  “A request for relief under section 6015(f) is called a request for ‘equitable relief’ not because it is a request for reformation, rescission, specific performance, or accounting, but because to a reasonable decisionmaker at the IRS it would be unfair to hold one spouse jointly liable with another for a particular tax debt.”).  Factual findings are usually reviewed by appellate courts for clear error.  

In Jacobsen, the Seventh Circuit dodged the appellate review standard issue in the following discussion:

Although the parties agree generally that we review the Tax Court’s decisions “in the same manner and to the same extent as we review district court decisions from the bench in civil actions,” 26 U.S.C. § 7482(a)(1); Gyorgy v. C.I.R., 779 F.3d 466, 472–73 (7th Cir. 2015); Resser, 74 F.3d at 1535, they disagree as to whether that means we review the denial of relief under § 6015(f) for clear error or an abuse of discretion.

The parties’ differing views on the standard of review hinge in part on the Taxpayer First Act, legislation that was passed shortly after the parties filed their briefs. See Pub. L. No. 116-25, 133 Stat. 981 (July 1, 2019). As relevant here, § 1203 of the Taxpayer First Act added a new paragraph at the end of § 6015(e) codifying the existing practice of de novo review by the Tax Court of appeals from the denial of innocent spouse relief. Because this addition to § 6015 simply “clarified,” see Pub. L. No. 116-25, § 1203 (“Clarification of equitable relief from joint liability.”), the existing standard and scope of Tax Court review, the Commissioner maintains it has no effect on our standard of review. Thus, argues the Commissioner, denial of relief under § 6015(f) should be reviewed in the same manner as any determination of equitable relief in the district court—for abuse of discretion. See, e.g., Bowes v. Ind. Sec. of State, 837 F.3d 813, 817 (7th Cir. 2016) (explaining general applicability of abuse of discretion standard to equitable determinations).

Jacobsen, however, insists that the Taxpayer First Act confirms his position that we review decisions under § 6015(f) for clear error. Jacobsen explains his reasoning as follows: (1) the Taxpayer First Act makes equitable relief under § 6015(f) mandatory as opposed to discretionary; (2) mandatory relief under subsection (f) “is now the same as mandatory relief under subsection (b),” which also contains an inequity condition; and so (3) Tax Court rulings under subsection (f) should be reviewed under the same standard as subsection (b). Jacobsen finds further support for his position with the fact that subsection (b) is a continuation and expansion of former § 6013(e), which we held in Resser was subject to clear error review, 74 F.3d at 1535.

We are unconvinced, however, that the Taxpayer First Act (which settled only the Tax Court’s standard of review of IRS determinations) sheds any particular light on our standard of review as to relief under § 6015(f), which multiple courts have recognized as for abuse of discretion. See Greer v. C.I.R., 595 F.3d 398, 344 (6th Cir. 2010) (innocent spouse relief under § 6015(b) reviewed for clear error but equitable relief under § 6015(f) reviewed for abuse of discretion); Cheshire v. C.I.R., 282 F.3d 326, 338 (5th Cir. 2002) (same). Fortunately, we need not resolve the issue today, as we would affirm the Tax Court’s decision under either deferential standard.

Slip op. at 9-11 (emphasis in original; some citations omitted).

As to the underlying issue of whether the Tax Court could let actual knowledge outweigh four positive factors for relief, the Seventh Circuit wrote:

Because each of the factors for consideration was either neutral or favored relief, Jacobsen claims the Tax Court must have weighed knowledge more heavily than the other factors, in contravention of Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03(2)(c)(i)(A). Nothing in the Tax Court’s opinion, however, suggests that it believed knowledge of the embezzled funds necessarily precluded Jacobsen from equitable relief or automatically outweighed the other factors for consideration. Although the 2013 regulations make clear that knowledge is no longer necessarily a strong factor weighing against relief, as Jacobsen himself acknowledges in his brief, they do not prohibit the Tax Court from assigning more weight to petitioner’s knowledge if such a conclusion is supported by the totality of the circumstances. As explained in the Revenue Procedures, “no one factor or a majority of factors necessarily determines the outcome.” Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03. And although knowledge no longer weighs heavily against relief, nothing in the statute or revenue procedures forecloses the decisionmaker from concluding that in light of “all the facts and circumstances,” § 6015(f), knowledge of the understatement weighs heavily against granting equitable relief. There is thus no reason to believe the Tax Court’s decision was necessarily erroneous because only one of the nonexhaustive factors for consideration weighed against relief.

Jacobsen also suggests it was inappropriate for the Tax Court to factor his “participation in preparing the 2011 return” into its assessment, characterizing it as “another way for the court to extra-count” Jacobsen’s knowledge of the embezzlement. In assessing the role of Jacobsen’s knowledge in his entitlement to equitable relief, the court noted that in addition to Jacobsen’s actual knowledge on account of Lemmens’ criminal conviction and sentence, in 2011 Jacobsen himself provided the tax information to the paid preparer, whereas in previous years Lemmens had always prepared and submitted the tax information. Far from demonstrating that the Tax Court erred, the court’s consideration of his role in preparing the 2011 return demonstrates its commitment to heed the Revenue Procedure’s directive that the seven listed factors merely provide “guides” as opposed to an “exclusive list” and that “[o]ther factors relevant to a specific claim for relief may also be taken into account.” Rev. Proc. 2013-34 § 4.03(2).

It is clear from its opinion that the Tax Court considered the factors relevant to Jacobsen’s specific claim for relief. The court considered Jacobsen’s individual circumstances as it analyzed each of the listed factors. Jacobsen does not argue, nor could he, that the Tax Court misapprehended the facts or otherwise overlooked information relevant to Jacobsen’s claim.

We are sympathetic to Jacobsen’s situation, and recognize that the Tax Court could have easily decided on this record that Jacobsen was entitled to equitable relief under § 6015(f). Indeed, were we deciding the case in the first instance as opposed to on deferential review, we may have decided the case differently. But notwithstanding the existence of many factors favoring relief and only Jacobsen’s knowledge counseling against it, nothing in the record indicates the Tax Court misapprehended the weight to be accorded Jacobsen’s knowledge or treated it as a decisive factor barring relief. Indeed, its discussion of each of the factors as well as the relevance of Jacobsen’s involvement in preparing the 2011 taxes demonstrate that the Tax Court did not engage in a mechanical balancing of the factors where the number of factors favoring relief necessarily counterbalanced the ultimate question of whether it was inequitable to hold Jacobsen liable for the 2011 deficiencies. We thus cannot say the Tax Court either abused its discretion or clearly erred in its denial of relief for 2011.

Slip op. at 16-18 (emphasis in original; some citations omitted).

Based on our research (much of which we incorporated in the briefing in Jacobsen), the Jacobsen case is unusual in letting so many positive factors be outweighed by only one negative factor.  But, if other Circuits are going to be so deferential in reviewing the Tax Court’s weighing of factors, it is hard to imagine any taxpayer ever being able to mount a successful attack on a Tax Court judge’s weighing of the factors.  About the only chance for reversing the Tax Court may be if the Tax Court made a factual error as to whether a particular factor was positive, negative, or neutral for relief.

That brings me to Sleeth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2019-138.  Like Jacobsen, Sleeth is one of those outlier cases where the Tax Court unusually treated knowledge as outweighing multiple other factors for relief.  Sleeth is an underpayment case, where the taxpayer signed returns showing balances due (two of which were being filed late), but where the taxpayer’s husband, a doctor making $418,000 a year, failed to later fully pay the balances due that initially aggregated, in tax alone, about $354,000.  The Tax Court held that the taxpayer had reason to know that the taxes would never be fully paid because the taxpayer knew that in a prior year, the husband had once used an installment agreement.  As in Jacobsen, the Tax Court in Sleeth held that the taxpayer had not proved she would suffer economic hardship if forced to pay the liabilities, so this factor was neutral.  As in Jacobsen, the court in Sleeth found three other factors favored relief:  marital status, lack of significant benefit, and compliance with later tax return filing and payment obligations.  The main difference between the two cases is that, while Jacobsen had a serious health issue that favored relief, Sleeth did not.

Sleeth had paid counsel in the Tax Court, but she could not afford to pay counsel for an appeal.  The Harvard tax clinic, pro bono, is now representing her in an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit (Docket No. 20-10221).  If the Eleventh Circuit is as deferential as to the weighing of factors as the Seventh Circuit was in Jacobsen, Sleeth will have a hard time in obtaining victory.  However, there are arguments that the Tax Court erred in its holdings with respect to the knowledge and financial hardship factors.  So, it is still possible that Sleeth will break the unbroken string of taxpayer losses in appeals of innocent spouse cases from the Tax Court.  The appellate briefing in Sleeth has only just begun.

About Carlton Smith

Carlton M. Smith worked (as an associate and partner) at Roberts & Holland LLP in Manhattan from 1983-1999. From 2003 to 2013, he was the Director of the Cardozo School of Law tax clinic. In his retirement, he volunteers with the tax clinic at Harvard, where he was Acting Director from January to June 2019.

Comments

  1. This result is consistent with a recent case, Lassek, that would have been appealable to the Eighth Circuit. Knowledge seems to trump all other factors combined.

    • Howard,

      Keith and I saw Lassek. It seems to be one of a mini-trend in this area on knowledge — even though most judges won’t let knowledge outweigh multiple positive factors. Part of why we decided to take Sleeth on appeal (as well as Jacobsen) was because of seeing cases such as Lassek. But, since Lassek already had counsel (you), we left that case alone.

  2. I just received an answer to a petition I filed and it looks like the IRS is pushing for the knowledge factor to weigh more heavily than the rest as well. I also have concerns about the new TFA language that seems to limit the de novo scope of review for my client’s case. I’ve spoken w/Professor Book about this via message as well.

  3. Lavar Taylor says

    We have appealed Judge Ashford’s ruling in the Jones case, decided late last year, to the Ninth Circuit. If the case does not settle, there is a good chance that the Court of Appeals will throw out Judge Ashford’s opinion. I’ll save my explanation for why I’m likely to prevail for the brief, if we don’t settle. Will let you know if the appeal goes forward.

  4. Lavar,

    Given the unbroken string of IRS victories in taxpayer appeals in 6015 cases, I am skeptical that your case will settle. The government, in appellate mediation, only offered Mr. Jacobsen 15% off his tax liability to settle what even the 7th Cir. thought was a close case. We were surprised at this nuisance offer and rejected it.

    • Lavar Taylor says

      Carl

      Thanks for the heads up re settlement. I’m the eternal optimist. I think that DOJ will want to avoid having the 9th Circuit get its hands on our case. I’m going to win if the appeal goes forward.

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