Significant Changes For Tax Litigation

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We welcome back frequent guest blogger Bob Probasco who writes about an announcement on Friday by the Tax Court setting forth the way forward in Tax Court cases.  The announcement does not tell us when the court will start holding trials again but now we have a process.  There is still much to unpack but Bob does a good job getting us started.  My first reaction is that the Court has produced a thoughtful way forward.  My one small disappointment in the path concerns the checklist “Getting Ready for Trial Checklist.”  I would have preferred the checklist include a line that pro se litigants should reach out to Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs) early to obtain assistance, but I suspect there may be more pre-trial conferences moving forward and that in those pre-trial conferences judges may make reference to the assistance taxpayers might receive from LITCs.  Keith

On Sunday, I was reviewing the Tax Court’s website and happened to notice a new press release that came out on Friday.  We’ve all seen previous changes to Tax Court operations as a result of COVID-19.  The court cancelled trial sessions, the clerk’s office closed, and the judges were working remotely, while encouraging the parties to continue trying to resolve cases.  Now the court is moving on to the next stage of adapting to the pandemic, as have other courts: remote trial sessions.

The press release itself was brief, just announcing the change and the issuance of orders with details:

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present public health risks and challenges, particularly where multiple individuals come together in a courtroom. In response, and until further notice, Court proceedings will be conducted remotely. See Administrative Order 2020-02 regarding remote proceedings and Administrative Order 2020-03 regarding Limited Entries of Appearance. If you have any questions, contact the Public Affairs Office at (202) 521-3355.

Another press release the same day informed us that on June 1st the court will resume accepting requests for copies of documents from non-parties.  But the process will be more flexible than before; requests can be made by phone and received by email.  You won’t have to – because you can’t – visit the court building in person.

So, what all is changing and what is still unclear?  This is a preliminary, incomplete assessment – what stood out to me, based on a quick review.

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What we know so far

The decision to go to remote trial sessions is not surprising.  Most other courts are pursuing this as well, if they haven’t implemented yet.  The basic structure of remote trial sessions also will probably not be tremendously surprising if you’ve devoted much thought to it.  The court operated the way it did pre-COVID for (mostly) good reasons and those reasons would drive the design of remote sessions in a (mostly) foreseeable fashion.

Administrative Order 2020-02 moves the trial sessions to Zoom.  Parties scheduled for a particular trial session will receive, in the notice setting the case for trial, a meeting id and password.  Litigants will be able to access the trial session by computer without having a Zoom account; if they don’t have access to a computer, they apparently will be able to dial in by phone.  Just as non-parties are free to attend an in-person trial session, public access will be offered in the new regime.  That will be available by real-time audio; the court website will post dial-in information for each session.  (Presumably, the public access dial-in will only allow non-parties to listen, not to speak and participate.)

Some of the changes may have been harder to anticipate but will have significant effect on litigants.  The standing pretrial order (SPO) addresses these items, among others, specifically:

  1. Motions for summary judgment – no later than 60 days before the first day of the trial session.  This was not specified in the previous SPO, but is consistent with Rule 121.
  2. Motions related to discovery or stipulations – no later than 45 days before the first day of the trial session.  This was not specified in the previous SPO, but is consistent with Rule 70.
  3. Motions for Leave to File an Expert Report – no later than 30 days before the first day of the trial session.  This was not specified in the previous SPO, but is consistent with Rule 143(g).
  4. Motions for continuance – no later than 31 days before the first day of the trial session.  This was not specified in the previous SPO.  This seems stricter than Rule 133, which establishes only a presumption that a later motion would be deemed dilatory and denied.  Now parties would have to request an extension.
  5. Preparation for trial – the parties shall file either a Proposed Stipulated Decision, a Pretrial Memorandum, a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Prosecution, or a Status Report, no later than 21 days before the first day of the trial session.  The Status Report appears designed only to report that the parties have settled but a Proposed Stipulated Decision could not be filed timely.  The previous SPO mentioned only a Pretrial Memorandum, if a basis for settlement had not been reached, no later than 14 days before the first day of the trial session.
  6. Stipulation of Facts – the parties shall file such no later than 14 days before the first day of the trial session.
  7. Proposed Trial Exhibits (not encompassed in the Stipulation of Facts) – may not be allowed into evidence unless filed not later than 14 days before the first day of the trial session.  This is consistent with the language in pre-trial orders for many years; however, the enforcement of this provision of the pre-trial order may become much more vigorous.

These requirements fall into three broad categories, all of which seemed designed to facilitate a quick, efficient calendar call.  There is only so much time you can spend in a Zoom meeting before your attention starts to flag.  First, simply making explicit in the SPO what was already in the Rules (items 1-3).  That seems to be the court trying to communicate those requirements to those who aren’t already familiar with the deadlines, hopefully only unrepresented taxpayers and not members of the tax bar.  Second, accelerating communications with the court from current timelines – the change from 14 days to 21 days before the trial session in item 5, and the stricter deadline in item 4. 

The third category establishes new deadlines for documents that sometimes were presented only at the calendar call itself: Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Prosecution (item 5), Stipulation of Facts (item 6), and unagreed trial exhibits (item 7).  Effectively, all documents will need to be filed in advance; handing the document to the trial clerk is no longer a simple process.  Along the same lines, Administrative Order 2020-03 requires representatives entering a limited appearance to file it electronically, unless exempt from e-filing requirements.  (There are also several other changes involving limited appearances from Administrative Order 2019-01, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The accelerated or new deadlines will take some getting used to for tax practitioners.  It may be significantly more difficult for petitioners, especially since the new Standing Pretrial Order for Small Tax Cases has similar requirements and deadlines.  The old Standing Pretrial Notice didn’t specify a deadline for the stipulation of facts and specified a Pretrial Memorandum only had to be submitted 7 days before the trial session.  And as we all know, very few unrepresented taxpayers filed a Pretrial Memorandum.

What don’t we know yet?

Probably a lot of things.  There are always a lot of problems that are not identified until after implementation of a new program and these changes certainly will encounter that.  The Tax Court judges put a lot of thought into these changes but it’s impossible to anticipate everything.  All you can do is prepare as best you can, implement, and then adapt when problems crop up.

But one “known unknown” did stand out to me on first reading Administrative Order 2020-02.  What do these changes mean for pro bono volunteers who attended in-person trial sessions to assist unrepresented taxpayers?

Pro bono volunteers don’t receive copies of the notice setting cases for trial unless they happen to already have a client scheduled for that trial session.  Will there be some process to disseminate the meeting id and password to them ahead of time?  Will they instead have to merely listen in through public access?  If so, how will they communicate to the judge or petitioners that they are present and available to assist?

Will separate Zoom meetings be set up, on the fly, to allow pro bono volunteers and petitioners to meet privately?  If so, who will match up this petitioner to that volunteer?  How will the meeting ids and passwords be communicated to them without allowing those listening in through public access to here and join the meeting?  How would the pro bono volunteer and petitioner invite Counsel into that private meeting in order to discuss possible settlement?

I assume the pro bono volunteers could, at the beginning of a private meeting, quickly e-file a limited entry of appearance and then gain access to documents filed in that case.  That would alleviate some of the problems associated with transferring documents between petitioner and volunteer.  Presumably that is one reason Administrative Order 2020-02 was issued concurrently with Administrative Order 2020-03.  Will someone e-filing a limited entry of appearance have immediate access to all documents on the docket?

This seems to have the potential to be a complicated, difficult process.  The court may have worked out these details already and we may hear more soon.  I’m currently part of groups working with IRS Counsel for two different Virtual Settlement Days, one for Dallas cases and the other for San Antonio and El Paso cases.  (Here is the Virtual Settlement Days Best Practices Guide, for those interested.)  Perhaps the process for those events can be adapted to the remote trial sessions. 

Or will the Virtual Settlement Days ultimately replace pro bono assistance at the trial sessions?  Particularly with the requirements in the new Standing Pretrial Orders, there will be an increasing need for assistance well in advance of the trial session.  That will be difficult to achieve; not all petitioners will independently contact a clinic based on the “stuffer notice” or request an appointment at a Virtual Settlement Day, even with the scarier Standing Pretrial Order.  But without early assistance, the Tax Court’s remote trial sessions will not work as effectively and low income, unrepresented taxpayers will be worse off.

Those are my observations and questions about the new regime.  What are yours?

Comments

  1. Bob Kamman says

    Time to remember the mission that Congress gave the Tax Court: To allow every taxpayer accused by IRS a day in court, not just a few minutes to phone it in. Efficiency and economy were not primary goals. An impartial face to address was the objective.

    In January 2019, some of those days in court were postponed because of the federal government shutdown. Many had still not been rescheduled a year later in pre-Covid days. Now the judges are telling the Administration it doesn’t believe that a vaccine can be available by the end of the year. Nor do I, but neither they nor I are scientists. So for the time being let’s make these procedures voluntary, for tech-savvy litigants who might even prefer them. Petitioners requesting a continuance should be freely accommodated.

    If Congress still cares about the Tax Court mission, it could legislate relief. For example, IRS could be instructed to settle current “S” cases under an amnesty program that would allow abatement of most penalties and $10,000 of tax or half the amount owed, whichever is greater. The cost might not be much more than the savings already booked from the Tax Court travel budget. Congress may no longer be interested in the Tax Court mission, but could someone at least ask?

    CDP trials are a different matter. Petitioners should be required to file a motion pointing out the specifics of where their procedural rights were abused. Many of these can be adjudicated with telephone hearings.

  2. Bob Probasco says

    As Keith noted, the announcement of remote trial sessions did not tell us *when* the court will start holding trials again. But today, the calendar for Fall trial sessions (from 9/14 through 11/20) was posted on the Court’s website: https://ustaxcourt.gov/court_schedules/Fall_2020.pdf

    It’s not clear whether the Court is trying to catch up *quickly* with the backlog resulting from cancelling earlier trial sessions. But the number of trial sessions for Dallas and Houston seem consistent with, or even less than, our normal experience. It might be a while before the Court catches up.

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