Subpoenas in the Virtual Tax Court Age: Designated Orders 9/28/20 to 10/2/20

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The focus for this blog post will primarily be about how the Tax Court is handling subpoenas in this age of virtual trials. There are some miscellaneous designated orders I will also touch on for the week I monitored. Also for those of you keeping track – I also monitored the week of August 31 through September 4, but did not write a report because there were no designated orders submitted that week. Perhaps the judges were ready for the Labor Day holiday?

Subpoenas and Virtual Tax Court

Docket Nos. 14546-15, 28751-15 (consolidated), YA Global Investments, LP f.k.a. Cornell Capital Partners, LP, et al., Order available here.

I was listening to the UCLA Extension’s 36th Annual Tax Controversy Conference’s panel on “Handling Your Tax Court Matter in the Covid-19 Environment” on October 20. The panel was moderated by Lavar Taylor (Law Offices of Lavar Taylor) and panelists were Judge Emin Toro (U.S. Tax Court), Lydia Turanchik (Nardiello and Turanchik), and Sebastian Voth (Special Trial Counsel, IRS Office of Chief Counsel). The topic turned to subpoenas and Ms. Turanchik cited the YA Global order in question as being a good example of the Tax Court’s, specifically Judge Halpern’s, approach to subpoenas in our virtual Tax Court era.

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YA Global made a previous appearance in designated orders write-ups concerning scheduling issues in the pandemic. Now, the issue is that that the IRS requested an order setting the cases for remote hearing and a notice of remote proceeding in order to provide a return date and location for subpoenas duces tecum that they would like to issue. The petitioners requested a protective order precluding the IRS from issuing the subpoenas.

First of all, the Tax Court has a document with instructions on subpoenas for remote proceedings. With respect to subpoenas for production of documents from a third party, if a Tax Court litigant needs to obtain documents from a third party for use in a case set for trial, the litigant should, no later than 45 days before the trial session, file a motion for document subpoena hearing. If the motion is granted, the judge will issue an order setting the case for a remote hearing and issue a notice of remote proceeding. The hearing date will be approximately two weeks before the first day of the trial session. The litigant should immediately serve the subpoena for documents on the third party. The third party may voluntarily comply with the subpoena by delivering the documents and the Court will cancel the hearing. Otherwise, the third party may (assuming the party does not object to the subpoena) elect to present the relevant documents on the day of the hearing.

In the YA Global order, the IRS followed that procedure – their motion requested an order setting these cases for a remote hearing and a notice of remote proceeding. The notice then provides the date and location for the subpoenas duces tecum that the IRS would like to issue. That motion, however, triggered a motion from the petitioners for a protective order on the grounds that the IRS is trying an end run around the discovery deadline that the parties agreed to (May 1, 2020, which the Court incorporated into its pretrial order).

Tax Court Rule 147 is the rule on subpoenas, but we need some guidance on how it applies to this situation. Rule 147(d) subpoenas are time-bound by the period allowed to complete discovery, but Rule 147(b) subpoenas are not limited in the same way. Those subpoenas command the person who receives the subpoena to appear at the time and place specified (a hearing or trial). Does that mean a 147(b) trial subpoena allows a party to have additional discovery time?

There is relatively little authoritative Tax Court precedent regarding claims of misuse regarding 147(b) trial subpoenas. In Hunt v. Commissioner, the Court quashed subpoenas issued on the eve of trial for large quantities of documents not reviewed during discovery as impermissible. There, the Court stated “respondent simply cast an all-encompassing net in the search for information with which to build a case. Rule 147 was not intended to serve as a dragnet with which a party conducts discovery.”

There is, instead, larger authority in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (regarding civil actions and proceedings in United States district courts). In fact, when the Tax Court set up Rule 147, the goal was to have a rule governing subpoenas substantially similar to Fed. R. Civ. P. 45 (“Subpoenas”). Rule 45 has been subsequently amended to authorize the issuance of subpoenas to compel nonparties to produce evidence independent of a deposition. This is a different direction from Tax Court Rule 147.

Yet, it “is black letter law that parties may not issue subpoenas pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 ‘as a means to engage in discovery after the discovery deadline has passed’” (Joseph P. Carroll Ltd. v. Baker). To expand and explain, Moore’s Federal Practice – Civil states “once the discovery deadline established by a scheduling order has passed, a party may not employ a subpoena to obtain materials from a third party that could have been procured during the discovery period.”

In reviewing the IRS actions in these cases regarding the subpoenas, some fall in the category of opportunities passed up for discovery and others allude to a purpose to learn facts or resolve uncertainty. The Court states those subpoenas fall under the current Tax Court Rules for discovery, which apply appropriately here. Overall, the Court denies the IRS motion as the subpoenas would be used for an inappropriate purpose, the conduct of discovery.

Only one subpoena is excepted from the denied subpoenas. This subpoena is intended to facilitate authorization to view and potentially use documents already produced by that individual that he may not have been authorized to produce previously. The proposed IRS subpoena is to rectify the individual’s possible lack of authority in producing documents that the IRS already has in hand and may use (presumably at trial). The Court is allowing this subpoena as an appropriate use of a trial subpoena. The Court then grants the IRS motion to set a remote hearing and notice of remote proceeding with regard to that one third party subpoena.

Miscellaneous Cases

Another Scattershot Petition

  • Docket No. 13130-19, William George Spadora v. C.I.R., Order available here.

In my last designated orders post, I wrote about scattershot petitions. Bob Probasco made a comment and I sent him a follow-up email. His theory is that these scattershot petitions may actually be a promoter scheme for tax protestors to get the dismissal in Tax Court and then file a refund suit in district court or the Court of Federal Claim with the argument that “the IRS has no jurisdiction” and the usual result of no success in that court either. That may be a possibility as there seem to be several such petitions filed in the Tax Court.

Which brings us to Mr. Spadora (whatever his motivations are) as his petition refers to tax years 2000 through 2018.  The IRS checked and there were notices of deficiency for 2004 and 2010-2012 only, but all of those were expired.  Instead of immediately granting the IRS motion to dismiss, Judge Gale strikes the case from the San Francisco calendar scheduled for October 19. The petitioner has until November 18 to respond with his reasoning why the Court has jurisdiction and to submit the applicable notices of deficiency or determination.

A Day Late and a FedEx Receipt Short

  • Docket No. 13949-19, Artur Robert Smus v. C.I.R., Order of Dismissal for Lack of Jurisdiction available here.

Mr. Smus filed his Tax Court petition 91 days after the Notice of Deficiency was sent by the IRS. He was supposed to file a response to the IRS Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction, but did not. He was also supposed to appear at the remote hearing for Denver to explain at the hearing regarding the motion to dismiss. Mr. Smus did not appear so the IRS Counsel explained to the Court about the attempts to reach him and why the motion should be granted. The Court tried to contact Mr. Smus, but they were unsuccessful.

What did Mr. Smus do? He electronically filed his response to the motion ten minutes prior to the scheduled remote hearing. In his response, he states he petitioned the Court on the evening of July 23, 2019 (day 90), but FedEx did not ship out the package until the morning of July 24 (day 91). He is not able to find his FedEx receipt. Because of his late response and failure to appear at the hearing combined with admitting the mailing occurred on the 91st day, the Court grants the motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

My advice? Do not wait until the last minute to file the Tax Court petition. If you are close to the deadline, you have to make sure the filing gets done absolutely right.

How Old Is Old and Cold?

  • Docket Nos. 27268-13, 27309-13, 27371-13, 27373-13, 27374-13, 27375-13 (consolidated), Edward J. Tangel & Beatrice C. Tangel, et al., v. C.I.R., Order available here.

The Tangels appeared in a prior designated orders post I wrote concerning how the IRS was nonresponsive to discovery requests in this case about the research credit. This time, they are seeking to seal 2,472 trial exhibits. 2,417 relate to “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense” while the other 55 relate to “Capstone” (no, not Treadstone). About 75% of the first group of exhibits have a warning stamp concerning technical information where the export is restricted by federal law. The petitioners argue that disclosure of the proprietary information will irreparably harm their business, violate trade secret protections, and may impact national security.

In the Court’s analysis, there is not enough evidence to support those claims. The motion for protective order is two pages long and without supporting affidavits – a party must provide appropriate testimony and factual data to support claims of harm resulting from disclosure and not rely on conclusory statements.

Next, the tax years at issue are 2008-2010 so the documents in question are presumably at least 10 years old. Sensitive documents lose saliency over time and become “old and cold.” In other cases, documents that were older than certain years (examples: 5, 7, or 10 years old) were excluded from being confidential information. The petitioners have not addressed how the age of the documents affects their confidential nature.

The Court was inclined to believe that a protective order may be necessary, but not for all 2,472 documents. The Court proposed that the parties work to submit a joint protective order or to submit their own separate proposed protective orders if they cannot agree. The current motion for a protective order from the petitioners was denied.

About William Schmidt

William Schmidt joined Kansas Legal Services in 2016 to manage cases for the Kansas Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and became Clinic Director January 2017. Previously, he worked on pro bono tax cases for the 3 Kansas City metro area Low Income Taxpayer Clinics. He records and edits a tax podcast called Tax Justice Warriors and is now an adjunct professor for Washburn University School of Law.

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