A Question of Identity – Interest Netting, Part 2

Today, guest blogger Bob Probasco brings us the second part of his post on interest netting. At the end of this part he refers to an article in the most recent edition of The Tax Lawyer. If you are a member of the ABA Tax Section you can link through to the article after signing in as a member. If you are not a member but have access to Heinonline, Westlaw or Lexis you can also get to articles of The Tax Lawyer. As the editor of that law review, I invite you to look at the articles there which explore issues in much more depth than we are able to do on the blog. I hope you would agree with me that after 70 years it continues to be a premier tax law review. If you have a law review article on tax you want to publish, consider sending it to The Tax Lawyer. Keith

We’re continuing to explore the “same taxpayer” issue for interest netting under Section 6621(d), for which the Federal Circuit issued an important decision in November. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed other approaches to netting, the background of Section 6621(d), early IRS guidance, and the first of four major cases that have addressed this question. In Part 2, I’ll wrap up with the remaining cases plus some thoughts about the future.

read more...

The evolution of “same taxpayer”

Section 6621(d) allows netting only of equivalent overpayments and underpayments “by the same taxpayer.” Part 1 covered what I consider one of the more interesting attempts at IRS guidance on this issue, Field Service Advice 2002-12028,. It concluded that to qualify for this benefit, one must “both be liable for the underpayment of tax, and entitled to the overpayment of tax.” This kept the restrictive adjective “same” while creating exceptions for mergers and consolidated returns by attributing overpayments or underpayments of one corporation to another. As taxpayers starting filing cases for expansive interpretations of “same taxpayer,” the DOJ retreated from the IRS guidance to very narrow interpretations that would, in practice, make interest netting virtually impossible for the large corporations that most need it.

Balances that arose prior to consolidation: Energy East Corp. v. United States, 645 F.3d 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2011), aff’g 92 Fed. Cl. 29 (2010). This case involved acquisitions in which the subsidiaries survived as members of an affiliated group and tried to net overpayments and underpayments for pre-acquisition tax years. The taxpayers lost. That was probably the right result, although I still have some reservations. The case was decided by a “temporal requirement” that later cases borrowed. Read Part I for the gory details.

And now on to the other three cases.

Attribution of an overpayment on a consolidated return to its members: Magma Power Co. v. United States, 101 Fed. Cl. 562 (2011). Magma Power had an underpayment for its 1993 tax return; it was acquired by CalEnergy on February 24, 1995; it was included thereafter on consolidated tax returns with CalEnergy and other subsidiaries; and the consolidated group overpaid its taxes for 1995-1998. The question was whether Magma’s 1993 underpayment could be netted against the consolidated group’s overpayments. If the situation were reversed – a 1993 overpayment by Magma and consolidated group underpayments for 1995-1998 – it would be an easier decision because all group members are severally liable for group underpayments. But this fact pattern is the one that FSA 200212028 answered as “theoretically possible.”

Magma provided an affidavit to the effect that a substantial portion of the overpayments by the consolidated group were attributable to Magma. How substantial? More than 100% of the reduction of consolidated taxable income resulting in the 1995 and 1997 overpayments; 92% of the reduction of consolidated taxable income resulting in the 1996 overpayment; and 79% of the reduction of consolidated taxable income resulting in the 1998 overpayment. The government disputed the plaintiff’s methodology and amounts but conceded that some portion of the overpayments were attributable to Magma.

The Court of Federal Claims’ opinion is one of the best and most comprehensive analyses of this issue I’ve read – kudos to the court and the litigants. I think it’s also potentially the most important for future developments in interpretation of Section 6621(d). The court interpreted “same taxpayer” as “same TIN.” In that respect it accepted the government’s argument. But the court also concluded that overpayments could be attributed to individual members of a consolidated group, not just underpayments (for which all members are severally liable per regulation); the government appeared to concede neither. The court also rejected the “complete identity” or “exact DNA identity” argument of the government. Key to the decision was the court’s observation that the group is not itself a taxpayer, merely a method of combining all the members for computing tax liability; the members of the group are the taxpayers. Further, the tax liability of the consolidated group must be allocated to individual members as part of tracking E&P for each member pursuant to Section 1552. Either individual members pay their allocated share of the tax liability or the amount they don’t pay would be treated as a contribution from the other member who did pay, Treas. Reg. section 1.1502-33(d)(1). Because the tax liability is allocated and payments by the group are allocated, that should be enough to allocate overpayments to individual members as well, shouldn’t it?

After a careful consideration of legislative history, previous IRS guidance, and the remedial nature of the legislation, the court held that pre-merger Magma Power and post-merger Magma Power “should be properly considered the same taxpayer to the extent the consolidated group’s overpayment can be traced to the company” (emphasis added). Because there had not yet been an agreement by the parties or determination by the court of how much of the overpayments could be attributed, the court ordered the parties to propose further proceedings to resolve the case.

The parties entered a stipulation as to the amount owed about eleven months later – interest computations can be difficult and securing the required government approvals for settlement can drag out – and the court entered judgment. The government filed a notice of appeal on November 20, 2012, and then filed a motion in the Federal Circuit to dismiss the appeal on December 12, 2012. We have no assurance of how the Federal Circuit would rule on this issue but apparently, DOJ was not confident or at least wanted to avoid the risk of an adverse precedent.

This analysis seems to follow the “attribution to a single entity” framing of FSA 200212028 rather than a “two entities are treated as the same taxpayer” framing.

Statutory mergers, various scenarios: Wells Fargo & Co. v. United States, 827 F.3d 1026 (Fed. Cir. 2016), aff’g in part and rev’g in part 119 Fed. Cl. 27 (2014). Stephen Olsen posted here a few years ago when the Court of Federal Claims and Federal Circuit opinions came out.

This case included many different factual circumstances, resulting from a series of seven mergers and 64 separate refund claims. The government and Wells Fargo identified three “test claims”; the principles would govern all of the claims. Wells Fargo (represented by the same firm that represented Magma Power) argued that merged corporations are always treated as the “same taxpayer,” regardless of the timing of the payments. The government argued that taxpayers are only the “same taxpayer” if they have the same TIN at the time of the payments.

Scenario One: Wachovia had an overpayment for 1993; First Union had an underpayment for 1999. The two merged in a statutory merger in 2001, and First Union survived. The government argued that the netting was not available because the two corporations had different TINs and were unaffiliated at the time of both the overpayment and the underpayment.

Scenario Two: First Union had an overpayment for 1993, underwent four statutory mergers between 1993 and 1999 (in each of which it was the surviving corporation), and First Union had an underpayment for 1999. The government conceded the availability of netting in this situation; “the underpaying and overpaying company retained the same TIN because it was the surviving corporation in the mergers.”

Scenario Three: CoreStates had an overpayment for 1992 and merged with First Union in 1998 with First Union surviving. Then First Union had an underpayment for 1999. The government argued that netting was not available because the two corporations had different TINs.

The Federal Circuit mentioned the “same taxpayer = same TIN” rule from Magma Power, without explicitly adopting the rule. But it mischaracterized the Court of Federal Claim’s application of the rule as that “the consolidated group or corporations met the ‘same taxpayer’ requirement because they shared a single TIN.” As discussed above, that is not what the CFC did in Magma Power. The court focused on the TIN of the subsidiary, Magma Power, rather than the consolidated group. It allowed netting, but only if the consolidated return’s overpayment could be traced or attributed to the company.

Based on merger law, the Federal Circuit concluded that two merging corporations are the “same” regardless of which survives. The Court of Federal Claims declined to apply the temporal requirement from Energy East because joining an affiliated group (when both corporations maintain their separate identity) differs from a statutory merger (in which only once corporation survives). But the Federal Circuit disagreed, applied the temporal requirement, and allowed netting in Scenario Three but not in Scenario One.

In Energy East, the Federal Circuit seemed to say that the taxpayer must be the same before both the underpayment and the overpayment. Of course, that was the situation being decided; the court wasn’t dealing with a situation with an overpayment made prior to the acquisition. But in Wells Fargo, the court allowed netting in Scenario Three, when the overpayment was made prior to the merger. Apparently, the requirement is that the taxpayer must be the same when the overpayments or underpayments are made. That seems plausible; there are no overlapping balances to be netted until the second balance comes into existence.

I don’t find the temporal requirement imposed in Energy East and Wells Fargo completely persuasive. The court interpreted an overpayment or underpayment as being associated with a particular date rather than a period. That’s understandable, given the language in Sections 6601(a) and 6611(b). But I think the antiquated language of the Code has effectively been superseded by Avon Products Co. v. United States, 588 F.2d 342 (2d Cir. 1978), and the realities of tax administration. In Avon Products, the Second Circuit concluded that individual transactions must be netted into a single balance before computing interest. The IRS has acquiesced in not only the result of that case but also the reasoning. Over a period of time, the single balance required by Avon Products may change from underpayment to overpayment back to underpayment, and the traditional determinations of the “date” of an overpayment and underpayment no longer fit well. They are better considered in terms of a period rather than a particular date when they arise. Admittedly, no court has yet reached the same conclusion.

Further, the “last antecedent rule” is simply an interpretative standard, not an ironclad rule any more than other canons of statutory construction. Given the remedial nature of netting, it would have been possible to interpret the provision more broadly. Even if both the underpayments and overpayments began before the merger or joining into an affiliated group, netting might be permissible if both are still outstanding afterward. At that point, once the two corporations become the “same taxpayer,” the harm that Section 6621(d) is intended to remedy exists. Netting might be allowed from that point. This argument is likely stronger for mergers than for affiliated groups that file consolidated returns.

But that’s not what the court ruled.

Not part of the parent’s consolidated return: In Ford Motor Company v. United States, 908 F.3d 805 (Fed. Cir. 2018), aff’g 132 Fed. Cl. 104 (2017), the court concluded that Ford Motor Company (“Ford”) and a wholly-owned subsidiary were not the “same taxpayer” for purposes of interest netting. Against the backdrop of the earlier cases, Ford seems an even harder case for the taxpayer to win. Ford formed Ford Export Services B.V. (“Export”), its wholly-owned subsidiary, in 1984 as a foreign sales corporation. Because FSCs must be foreign rather than domestic corporations and a consolidated group cannot include foreign corporations, Ford and Export filed separate U.S. income tax returns between 1990 and 1998. Ford had an overpayment for the 1992 tax year and Export underpaid its taxes for 1990-1993 and 1995-1998. Ford claimed that Ford and Export were the same taxpayer because Ford “exercised near complete control over Export’s operations” and “Export never performed any activity that Ford did not direct.”

Instead of relying on a dictionary, the Federal Circuit concluded that the meaning of “same taxpayer” depended on “background legal principles” at the time Congress enacted Section 6621(d). One of those background legal principles was that a parent corporation and its subsidiaries are separate taxable entities. (Cases cited in the opinion concluded that even if the parent and subsidiaries join to file a consolidated return, the group is not as a single entity and individual members retain their identity.) The court identified “the unique legal effects of a merger” as an exception to that general rule, citing Wells Fargo. Ford argued that the FSC statute was another relevant background legal principle that would constitute an exception to the general rule, but the court disagreed. There was no statutory provision for FSCs comparable to the continuation of the identity of the acquired corporation in the successor corporation after a merger.

The plaintiff’s arguments here were based on control and direction because of the factual situation: Export was not a member of the affiliated group that filed a consolidated return. That suggests that the decision may be relatively narrow in scope and may also help explain why the court reached this decision. This level of “control and direction” will most often occur with a subsidiary that meets the 80% voting and value test for an includible corporation in an affiliated group (even if not includible for other reasons such as being a foreign corporation). Consider three categories such subsidiaries might fall into: (a) included in the affiliated group; (b) not included in the affiliated group but a foreign corporation with no US income; and (c) not included in the affiliated group but a corporation that files a US tax return. If the Federal Circuit eventually blesses netting involving attribution from consolidated returns, similar to FSA 2001-12028 and Magma Power, the effect of the decision in Ford may be limited to category (c). Further, allowing netting based on control and direction, rather than attribution from a consolidated return, would impose more of an administrative burden on the IRS because the factual determination is more difficult. It’s not well suited for a general background legal principle to apply as an interpretation of “same taxpayer.” On the other hand, netting with subsidiaries who meet the 80% test but are not includible for other reasons, might be a viable test.

What does the future hold?

The boundaries of “same taxpayer” are still not entirely clear. Because most netting claims include a request for additional overpayment interest, these cases will usually be brought in the Court of Federal Claims rather than district court. Review by the Supreme Court and legislative action both seem unlikely in the extreme. So the Federal Circuit’s decisions carry a lot of weight. But there are some possibilities the Federal Circuit has not yet ruled on.

In a statutory merger, the Federal Circuit will allow netting of a pre-merger balance against a post-merger balance but not if both balances are from pre-merger years. If a taxpayer or the government wants to change that, it will be difficult to do just through litigation.

The Federal Circuit has never directly ruled on netting in the context of consolidated returns. Energy East and Wells Fargo involved mergers; a Magma Power appeal was dismissed on the government’s request; and Ford involved a subsidiary that was not consolidated. The opinion in Ford seems to suggest that these situations are not an exception to the general rule that a parent and its subsidiaries are separate entities and therefore are not the same taxpayer. I don’t think that necessarily precludes netting, though.

First, I suspect that as a practical matter the IRS has been allowing netting administratively, and thus there have been no lawsuits, in circumstances where one member has an overpayment based on a separate tax return and the consolidated return has an underpayment. We haven’t seen such a case in the Federal Circuit and I would expect to by now if the IRS were disallowing the claims. If that’s correct, I’m not sure that the opinion in Ford will be enough for the IRS to change its administrative practice.

Second, treating a parent and its subsidiaries as separate entities does not preclude netting if you allow attribution of underpayment and overpayments to individual members of the affiliated group. Then, as in Magma Power, you are dealing with a single taxpayer; the attribution results in one taxpayer having equivalent overpayments and underpayments outstanding at the same time. The Federal Circuit has not addressed the attribution theory and, based on its mischaracterization of Magma Power in Wells Fargo, may not have considered it yet.

Netting in the context of consolidated returns, under an attribution theory, will still create administrative issues. Even in simple netting claims, the taxpayer cannot use balances if it has previously used them for netting. For example, if Corporation A nets a 2001 underpayment against a 2004 overpayment, Corporation A cannot later net the same 2001 underpayment against a 2006 overpayment. This would apply for netting under an attribution theory in the context of consolidated returns. Further, the netting claim would have to provide documentation to support the attribution. But such administrative issues should not be an impediment. Revenue Procedure 2000-26 simply shifts the burden to the taxpayer requesting netting. A more significant problem with netting in the context of consolidated returns might arise with respect to disputes between members of the group about the attribution – particularly after a member has left the group but still wants to net past balances as part of the group against post-departure balances.

Are there situations other than mergers and consolidated returns that might supply “background legal principles” to justify netting? Contractual assignments of tax liabilities and the right to refunds of overpayments might be a possibility, although courts are often reluctant to be bound by those when deciding tax issues. There may be others.

Even if the Federal Circuit is unlikely to approve netting in the consolidated return context or other situations, it’s worth still contesting issues on which the Federal Circuit has not yet ruled. Interest disputes for the largest corporations can involve significant amounts, which alone justifies taking a shot. Ford, as an example, involved a $20 million claim while Wells Fargo involved a $350 million claim (although that included items other than netting).

Postscript

As I was finishing this post up, I received the latest volume of The Tax Lawyer, which includes an article “More of the ‘Same’: Section 6621(d) in the Federal Circuit” by David Berke, an associate at Skadden, Arps. He and I are not in complete agreement, but for those with an interest in a different perspective on this topic, it’s worth perusing.

 

A Question of Identity – Interest Netting, Part 1

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco who brings us a discussion of an important recent decision in the Federal Circuit. Bob directs the low income taxpayer clinic at Texas A&M Law School but he comes to that position after a career or representing large taxpayers while working at a large law firm (Thompson and Knight). His background representing large taxpayers gives him a perspective on this issue which turns on who is a sufficiently related corporate entity to allow interest owed to the IRS to net with interest owed to a taxpayer. For most of our clients interest is a painful reminder of consequences of owing additional taxes but for some large taxpayers the issue of netting can have consequences in the millions of dollars. Keith

On November 9, 2018, the Court of the Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Ford Motor Company v. United States, 908 F.3d 805 (Fed. Cir. 2018), aff’g 132 Fed. Cl. 104 (2017). The Court concluded that Ford Motor Company and a wholly-owned subsidiary were not the “same taxpayer” for purposes of the interest netting provision in Section 6621(d).

Procedurally Taxing addressed this issue a few years ago when the last major case on Section 6621(d) was decided. With the decision by the Federal Circuit in Ford, now seems a good time to revisit the issue – both in Ford and the earlier cases – as well as speculate where it may be heading.

In Part 1, I will review the background of Section 6621(d), other netting methods, early IRS guidance on the “same taxpayer” question, and the first of four major cases interpreting that aspect of the provision. In Part II, I’ll cover the other three cases as well as take a look at the future.

Spoiler alert: this is a complex, confusing area of tax procedure. I think some of the cases could have, and perhaps should have, come out differently. But this is what we have.

read more...

Why interest netting?

With some exceptions, the government charges taxpayers interest on unpaid tax liabilities and pays taxpayers interest on refunds. There were some rate differences in the earliest years of the modern income tax, but for a long period of time the government used the same interest rate for both underpayments and overpayments. That’s still the case for non-corporate taxpayers but changed for corporate taxpayers over 30 years ago.

In the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Congress created a 1% difference in Section 6621(a) between the base rate it charges corporations on underpayments of tax (the federal short-term rate + 3%) and the base rate it pays corporations on overpayment of tax (the federal short-term rate + 2%). As a result of subsequent changes, the gap can be much larger. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 added Section 6621(c), establishing the “large corporate underpayment” or “hot interest” rate (the federal short-term rate + 5%) for underpayments exceeding $100,000. The Uruguay Round Agreements Act of 1994 added the flush language at the end of Section 6621(a)(1), establishing the “GATT interest” rate (the federal short-term rate 0.5%) for overpayments exceeding $10,000. The proper application of hot interest and GATT interest is itself a complex issue beyond the scope of this post, but many large corporations will be subject to rates that differ by as much as 4.5%.

What happens when a corporation has both an outstanding overpayment of tax and an outstanding underpayment of tax, accruing interest during the same period of time? Might a corporation find itself paying more interest than it receives on equivalent amounts? Prior to the enactment of interest netting, taxpayers had two protections against that.

“Annual interest netting” addresses situations where a taxpayer has both an overpayment and an underpayment with respect to the same tax return outstanding during a given period. For example, Big Corp’s income tax return for 2012, filed on 3/15/2013, shows an overpayment of $3,000,000, which the IRS does not refund until 1/5/2015. After an audit, the IRS assesses additional tax of $5,000,000 for 2012. The IRS might try to assess interest on the $5,000,000 underpayment, from 3/15/2013 until paid, while paying Big Corp interest (at a lower rate) on the $3,000,000 original overpayment, from 3/15/2013 until 1/5/2015. In Avon Products Co. v. United States, 588 F.2d 342 (2d Cir. 1978), the Second Circuit concluded that individual transactions must be netted into a single balance before computing interest. Thus, the IRS would assess interest only on the net $2,000,000 underpayment from 3/15/2013 until 1/5/2015, and on $5,000,000 thereafter until paid. The IRS acquiesced not only in the result but also in the reasoning of Avon Products, although it has occasionally argued for a different result in particular cases. Revenue Procedure 94-60 and Revenue Ruling 99-40 are interpretations of the Avon Products doctrine; in recent years the IRS changed interest computation software and (somewhat) its methodology. (Revenue Ruling 99-40 actually – and likely unintentionally – mischaracterizes Avon Products in a subtle manner that obscures another procedural problem concerning recovery of excessive overpayment interest. The problem is potentially significant, although few people seem to be aware of it. But that is beyond the scope of this post.) However, “annual interest netting” only applies when the overpayment and underpayment are for not only the same type of tax but also the same tax return.

In other circumstances, the IRS exercise of its authority under Section 6402(a) to credit overpayments against outstanding tax liabilities, rather than issuing a refund, results in the elimination of the rate differential problem. A Section 6402(a) credit, of course, is not intended to and does not by itself accomplish netting. It is merely a collection method, almost always applied automatically to credit an overpayment under one TIN against an underpayment for exactly the same TIN. When the IRS makes such a credit, however, any interest rate differential is eliminated because of specific interest computation provisions. If an overpayment for 2010 is applied to an underpayment for 2011, for example, Section 6611(b)(1) provides that interest on the overpayment runs only to the due date of the 2011 underpayment – the same date that interest on 2011 underpayment starts accruing. If an overpayment for 2011 is applied to an underpayment for 2010, Section 6601(f) provides that there is no interest on that portion of the underpayment “for any period during which, if the credit had not been made, interest would have been allowable with respect to such overpayment.” This avoids an overlap period with interest accruing both on an overpayment and an underpayment, but a Section 6402(a) offset is only available if both balances are still outstanding. If the overpayment was refunded or the underpayment was paid, Section 6402(a) won’t help.

Those two solutions still left unresolved some instances of overlapping overpayments and underpayments. When Congress created the 1% rate differential in 1986, it asked the IRS to implement “the most comprehensive netting procedures that are consistent with sound administrative practice.” It continued to request IRS action as the rate differential widened to 3% and then 4.5%, and again when it enacted the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but Treasury pushed back because it had no statutory authority for such netting. Congress eventually enacted Section 6621(d) in the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. That provision requires that for any period when there are “equivalent underpayments and overpayments by the same taxpayer of tax imposed by this title, the net rate of interest under this section on such amounts shall be zero for such period.” I’ve always referred to this as “global interest netting,” to differentiate it from “annual interest netting,” but I’ve dealt with some DOJ attorneys who prefer “net interest rate of zero.” For the remainder of this post, I’ll use “netting” to refer only to Section 6621(d).

Netting is available, under its terms, for taxes other than income tax. However, it only applies if underpayment interest is payable and overpayment interest is allowable during that period. Various “restricted interest” provisions of the Code state that under appropriate circumstances interest is not payable/allowable. Thus, if during the relevant period the taxpayer’s overpayment balance does not earn interest, there is no elimination or reduction of the interest rate on the equivalent underpayment balance. (Annual interest netting, however, does effectively net balances even if interest is not payable/allowable for one of the balances. In fact, that was the situation in Avon Products.)

The IRS computers cannot readily identify situations in which netting would be available. As a result, the IRS requires taxpayers to specifically request such netting on a refund claim. Revenue Procedure 2000-26 sets forth the requirements.

The evolution of “same taxpayer”

The legislative history for Section 6621(d) didn’t really explain what “same taxpayer” means. The meaning would be clear if we were talking about individuals. But corporations can change their corporate identity, through mergers, and join affiliated groups that file consolidated tax returns. What effect does that have? The IRS issued guidance as it began dealing with how to apply netting, and courts decided at least four major cases, including Ford, to clarify the boundaries of the term.

One of the IRS early attempts at guidance, Field Service Advice 2002-12028, required that one corporation “both be liable for the underpayment of tax, and entitled to the overpayment of tax.” This kept the restrictive adjective “same” while creating exceptions for mergers and consolidated returns. The principles it applied were:

  • In a statutory merger, as a matter of law the surviving corporation is liable for any underpayment and entitled to any overpayment of the non-surviving corporation, so netting is permissible even for balances from tax years prior to the merger. (Situations 5 and 7)
  • But in an acquisition in which both corporations survive, netting is impermissible because neither is liable for underpayments or entitled to overpayments of the other. Actual payment of the underpayment is not sufficient, absent legal liability for it. (Situation 6)
  • All members of an affiliated group are severally liable for underpayments of the consolidated return, Treas. Reg. section 1502-6(a), so they can net their own overpayments against the group’s underpayments. (Implied from the reasoning for Situations 8 and 9)
  • But a subsidiary is not liable for the group’s underpayment for tax years for which it was not a member of the group. Therefore, the subsidiary can’t net the group’s underpayment against its own overpayments. This applies when the subsidiary was acquired or came into existence after the year of the group’s underpayment (Situations 3 and 4), or if the subsidiary was owned by the parent during that year but was not part of the affiliated group (Situations 8 and 9).
  • It is unclear whether subsidiaries would be entitled to some or all of the group’s overpayments for tax years when they were members of the groups and therefore able to net the group’s overpayments against their own underpayments. It is theoretically possible but that will depend on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. (Situations 1 and 2) The IRS reiterated this position in Chief Counsel Advice 2004-11003 but later walked back this concession in Chief Counsel Advice 2007-07002.

This was not a perfect, or complete, analysis but it was a good start. When I first read it years ago, I thought it was an interesting way to frame the analysis. Although we sometimes use a shortcut and say that this issue is whether Company A and Company B are the “same taxpayer,” this FSA focuses on whether a single taxpayer – Company A – has equivalent overlapping overpayment and underpayment. But in doing so, it allows under appropriate circumstances the attribution of overpayments or underpayments on Company B’s tax returns to Company A. There is solid support for many of the attributions in FSA 200212028.

Litigation ensued and the courts began fleshing out the nuances. In that litigation, the government pushed for a much more restrictive interpretation than in FSA 200212028. At various times, DOJ advanced three alternative arguments that would substantially limit or eliminate the ability of affiliated groups to obtain the benefits of netting. First, the TIN associated with the overpayment must be identical to the TIN associated with the underpayment. Thus, an overpayment or underpayment of the affiliated group could never be netted against an underpayment/overpayment of individual members; further, balances of the surviving corporation in a statutory merger could never be netting against pre-merger balances of the non-surviving corporation. Second, even if the TIN were identical, the taxpayer must not have undergone any substantial change between the two years. Thus, any addition or removal of members of an affiliated group or merger with another corporation – among other changes – would eliminate the ability to net interest. This would effectively eliminate netting for the largest corporations, which are those most likely to benefit from netting. Third, Congress did not intend netting to be available for overpayments or underpayments by consolidated returns at all. The Federal Circuit has accepted the first argument, with exceptions carved out, but has not (yet) adopted the more extreme interpretations.

Balances that arose prior to consolidation: Energy East Corp. v. United States, 645 F.3d 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2011), aff’g 92 Fed. Cl. 29 (2010). Energy East Corporation acquired Central Maine Power Company (“CMP”) in 2000 and Rochester Gas & Electric Corporation (“RG&E”) in 2002. Both subsidiaries became part of Energy East’s affiliated group and were included in consolidated returns from that point forward. The refund claim requested that CMP’s and RG&E’s overpayments for 1995, 1996, and 1997 be netted against Energy East’s underpayment for 1999. Thus, all of the balances began before the subsidiaries were acquired by Energy East.

The Court of Federal Claims used a dictionary definition of “same” – “being one without addition, change, or discontinuance: identical.” By that definition, CMP and RG&E were no longer the same taxpayers after the acquisition by Energy East, as they became part of an affiliated group. I’m often uneasy about a court’s use of dictionary definitions and this is no exception. Not only did it open the door for DOJ to argue for an overly narrow definition, but it also fails to recognize multiple different shades of meaning. For example, since I got married 31 years ago, I have moved twice, got a law degree, changed jobs four or five times and professions twice, lost weight, qualified for Medicare, etc. In one sense, yes, people would say I’m “not the same person” I was 31 years ago. But “same person” is also commonly used more broadly so that “not the same person” would refer to, say, major psychological changes – or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Same” just raises the questions “to what extent” or “in what essentials” and becomes a vaguely ontological inquiry. So, dictionary definitions are a (minor) pet peeve just because of the flexibility and nuances of human language makes them too susceptible to manipulation and an ineffective guide to Congressional intent. I’m not a fan of the CFC’s definition of “same” for this issue.

The CFC also noted that “although they later became members of the consolidated group, [Energy East], CMP, and RG&E were different taxpayers with different employer identification numbers at the time of their overpayments and underpayments.” There was no support for treating them as the same for tax years prior to joining the group. This temporal requirement became an important part of the analytical framework, although I argue in Part 2 that it’s not necessarily the right way to look at this issue.

The Federal Circuit agreed that the consolidated return regulations provided no basis for concluding that individual members of the group should be treated as the “same” for years prior to their joining the group. It also rejected Energy East’s alternative argument that the focus of the “same taxpayer” determination should be when interest (to be netted) was accruing. Instead, the court concluded that they had to be the “same taxpayer” on the date of the underpayment and overpayments, based on the “last antecedent rule.” It said that “by the same taxpayer” referred to “equivalent overpayments and understatements” in Section 6621(d); thus, “the statute provides an identified point in time at which the taxpayer must be the same [by virtue of being members of an affiliated group], i.e., when the overpayments and underpayments are made.” As I’ll discuss in Part 2, this may not be precisely correct, at least in other contexts.

The court did not state that these three companies were the same taxpayer for years in which they were included in consolidated returns. That determination was not necessary for the decision, as the parties agreed the companies were not the same taxpayer for the years when the overpayments and underpayments were made.

Under the “attribution to a single entity” framing of FSA 200212028, this decision was clearly right. CMP and RG&E had no connection to Energy East’s underpayment for 1999 that would allow attribution under existing rules. Under a “two entities are treated as the same taxpayer” framing, it’s not as clear. I’ll return to that in Part 2, in the discussion of the Wells Fargo case.

That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2, where the action heats up.

 

The EITC Ban – It’s Worse Than You Realized

We welcome back guest blogger Bob Probasco. Bob tells a disaster story with a happy ending but we must keep in mind that the happy ending only occurred because the low income taxpayer had found her way to a clinic where she received free and highly competent representation. Other stories similar to this one exist in the system without the happy ending provided here.  

As we have written before, the time for contesting the EITC ban in Tax Court is unclear. Another possible avenue for taxpayers in the position of Bob’s client is to seek orders regarding the ban from the Tax Court. I cannot say whether the taxpayer would have obtained relief in the Tax Court but the existence of the prohibited assessments would provide a basis for an injunction which might have gotten the client to the right place. Keith

There is a film genre often referred to, because of the primary plot device, as “disaster movies.” The golden age was the 1970s, with films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno. Minor actions or problems interact in ways that create huge challenges. Each time the characters survive one obstacle, losing a few members of the group in the process, a new threat arises. How many, and which, characters will eventually survive?

The tax administration equivalent is the earned income tax credit (EITC) ban.

The EITC ban process is seriously flawed, as has been pointed out frequently. Les discussed it here on Procedural Taxing in blog posts in January 2014 and July 2014. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson has been complaining about it for years, with the most detailed coverage in her 2013 Annual Report to Congress. Patrick Thomas made a presentation on it (outline available on the LITC Toolkit website, if you have access) at the December 2016 LITC Grantee Conference. Les and William Schmidt addressed the specific issue of Tax Court jurisdiction over the ban in 2016 and 2018 respectively. I strongly recommend a thorough review of all of the above – including comments to the blog posts! – to anyone who deals with taxpayers who claim the EITC.

This post discusses the IRS administrative process for applying (and correcting?) the ban. It also points out how the interaction of the EITC ban process with problems elsewhere in the tax administration process can turn a serious issue into an absolute disaster. This is the story of one such disaster.

read more...

Background

Section 32(k)(1), added by the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, establishes that the EITC shall not be allowed for

the period of 2 taxable years after the most recent taxable year for which there was a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit under this section was due to reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations (but not due to fraud)

If there is a final determination that the taxpayer’s claim of credit was due to fraud, the disallowance period is 10 taxable years instead.

This is an absolute ban but there is also an indefinite potential disallowance, in Section 32(k)(2):

In the case of a taxpayer who is denied credit under this section for any taxable year as a result of the deficiency procedures under subchapter B of chapter 63, no credit shall be allowed under this section for any subsequent taxable year unless the taxpayer provides such information as the Secretary may require to demonstrate eligibility for such credit.

Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(b) explains that

Denial of the EIC as a result of the deficiency procedures occurs when a tax on account of the EIC is assessed as a deficiency (other than as a mathematical or clerical error under section 6213(b)(1)).

And Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(c) specifies Form 8862 as the information required to demonstrate eligibility. The instructions make clear that the taxpayer should not file Form 8862 during the years that a ban applies, but it will be required if the EITC is disallowed, even absent a final determination of fraud or reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, to claim the EITC in any other years. If the form is properly completed and the IRS determines the taxpayer is eligible for the EITC, then the taxpayer is re-certified and need not submit Form 8862 again – unless the EITC is denied again.

Under Section 6213(g)(2)(K), the IRS can adjust the tax return by math error correction, rather than the deficiency procedures, if the taxpayer claims the credit during the ban period or without providing the required information for recertification. Nina Olson fought against that idea for years but it was eventually enacted in the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015.

First obstacle: Location and language

Our LITC client – let’s call her “Maria” – was originally audited with respect to her 2014 return. She did a very good job of responding to the audit before even coming to our clinic. Most often, issues in an EITC audit concern proving relationship to the qualifying child or that the child lives with the taxpayer. Maria resolved those to the satisfaction of Exam/Appeals but one stumbling block remained: filing status. She filed her return as “single,” which of course should have been “Head of Household,” but the IRS insisted that she was married. Section 32(d) specifies that married taxpayers can claim the EITC only if they file joint returns. The IRS reclassified her filing status as “Married Filing Separately.” That was where the resolution bogged down, because Maria was adamant that she was not married.

Unfortunately, Maria lives in Texas, one of only ten states (plus the District of Columbia) that recognize common law marriage. She didn’t know that and she didn’t realize what the IRS was arguing from the correspondence she received. Maria doesn’t speak English and the “common law” part got lost in the translation by her son, who may not be familiar with the concept either. When she came to our clinic, we were able to explain the problem to her. We also determined that she had two arguments for claiming the credit.

First, she arguably did not meet the requirements under Texas law for a common law marriage. She had lived with her putative husband – let’s call him “Jose” – but she did not intend to be married and did not hold herself out to others as being married. We were persuaded as to the absence of intent by her obvious surprise when we explained what the IRS was saying. While corresponding with Exam/Appeals, before she came to the clinic, she submitted proof that she was not married: a certificate from the county clerk’s office that there was no record of a legal marriage between Maria and Jose. That’s not the type of evidence you’re likely to submit if you are aware of the existence of common law marriage. And if you’re not aware, that certainly suggests that you lacked the intent.

The more difficult aspect was the “holding out” requirement, because Maria and Jose had filed joint tax returns for several years prior to 2014. Jose may have held himself out to the IRS as married to Maria but I don’t think she did. She didn’t realize what the tax returns she signed meant. She thought Jose was claiming her as a dependent, not that she was presenting herself as his spouse. But it was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, to prevail on the first argument.

Our second argument was better. Under Section 7703(b), Maria could file her return as Head of Household, even though married, if (a) she maintained a household for a child who lived there and (b) she and Jose lived apart for at least the last six months of the year. Under Reg. 1.32-2(b)(2), such a return is not subject to the limitation of Section 32(d).  Jose had moved out in 2013; he was working in the oil fields in South Texas and living in his truck to save money to start a business. When he moved out, she even began paying him rent.

Second obstacle: Exam/Appeals and evidence

Unfortunately, there was no documentary evidence that Jose no longer lived there. He still received mail at the address where Maria lived and continued to use that address on subsequent tax returns he filed. You can’t get mail addressed to a truck and you can’t use the truck as your address on a tax return. There was no rental agreement or utility bill for the truck either, so the IRS could find no records showing a different address for him. So as far as Exam and Appeals were concerned, he still lived with Maria.

The IRS also was not satisfied with the substantiation for the agreement to pay rent. Maria and Jose documented that arrangement with a very formal rental agreement. (How many taxpayers would think to do that?) Unfortunately, Maria’s copy of the agreement was unsigned and it was only for a term of one year, which did not cover all of 2014. Maria continued paying rent after that but they did not think to prepare a new agreement until she was audited. Also, Maria didn’t have records of the payments to Jose, because she paid him in cash.

Maria’s case stumbled over what appears to be a larger problem with correspondence audits. During my limited time at the LITC, Exam and Appeals both appear to rely exclusively on documentary evidence. That may be understandable, given drastic reductions in staffing and the absence of face-to-face meetings in correspondence audits, but I don’t think it’s reasonable – particularly on something like this that had huge potential consequences. We offered to arrange a telephone conference (including translator) with Maria and could have put together an affidavit if they preferred that. But they just rejected the idea of testimony. Luckily, Counsel can and does accept testimonial evidence, so we were still hopeful. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to go to Tax Court, when we encountered another obstacle.

Shortly after we filed the Tax Court petition for the 2014 tax year, the IRS sent an audit notice for 2015. The same process repeated with the same result – Exam and Appeals rejected our explanations due to a lack of documentary evidence and Maria received a notice of deficiency. The IRS had frozen the refund for 2015 during the audit, so further delay did create some financial hardship.

Third obstacle: Error in a ministerial or administrative action

Once Appeals returned the docketed case for 2014 to Counsel, we submitted a declaration by Maria setting forth what her testimony would be. Within a week, the IRS attorney agreed to concede the case in full. The stipulated decision for 2014 was filed a day after we filed the petition for 2015. And in less than three months, we had a full concession from Counsel for 2015 and another stipulated decision. So, great results for Maria, right? Alas, here’s where we ran into an unrelated issue that had a very unfortunate interaction with the EITC ban.

I had never given much thought to the question of how Exam and Appeals proceed after issuing a notice of deficiency. I should have, although I’m not sure I could have avoided this problem. Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) sections 4.8.9.25 and 4.8.9.26 set forth the process when the taxpayer petitions and when the taxpayer defaults, respectively, after a notice of deficiency. It seems to be an elaborate process with many safeguards – a tax litigation counsel automated tracking system, a related docketed information management system, and checking the Tax Court website if not in those systems to confirm that the taxpayer defaulted. There is even a follow-up process for the occasional situation when the responsible employee receives the docket list after tax was assessed.

For both 2014 and 2015, we filed Tax Court petitions timely. As we all know, Section 6213(a) states in unequivocal terms that

no assessment of a deficiency . . . shall be made, begun, or prosecuted until such notice [of deficiency] has been mailed to the taxpayer, nor until the expiration of such 90-day or 150-day period, as the case may be, nor, if a petition has been filed with the Tax Court, until the decision of the Tax Court has become final.

This is a disaster story, though, so you’ve undoubtedly guessed (correctly) that for both years the IRS assessed tax and reversed the EITC, while there was a pending Tax Court case. The IRS imposed the EITC 2-year ban in both cases and issued Notice CP 79A.

Why did this happen? I really don’t know. While I was writing this post, out of curiosity I reviewed the limited number of Tax Court deficiency cases our clinic handled in our two years of existence. For all the non-EITC cases, transaction code 520 “bankruptcy or other legal action filed” was posted to the transcript consistently in less than a month after the date the petition was posted to the Tax Court online docket. But for three of our six EITC cases in Tax Court, including Maria’s cases for 2014 and 2015, transaction code 520 was posted to the transcript significantly later: 64, 212, and 221 days after the respective petition was posted to the Tax Court docket. Every process is only as strong as its weakest link – in this case, human error or delay. Someone somewhere didn’t realize that we had challenged the notice of deficiency and didn’t get the information into the computer, so the assessments – and EITC bans – proceeded for those three cases. (Our other client made it to safety relatively early in the process.)

I reported the issue of premature assessments from these cases in the Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS) last year, and I suspect other people have done so as well. It’s always a problem, but the consequences can be worse when the EITC ban is put into play.

Fourth obstacle: The difficulty of reversing an illegitimate assessment and EITC ban

Section 6213(a) provides a remedy if the IRS assesses or takes collection actions while a Tax Court case is pending:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 7421(a), the making of such assessment or the beginning of such proceeding or levy during the time such prohibition is in force may be enjoined by a proceeding in the proper court, including the Tax Court, and a refund may be ordered by such court of any amount collected within the period during which the Secretary is prohibited from collecting by levy or through a proceeding in court under the provisions of this subsection.

It doesn’t provide for enjoining the imposition of the EITC ban, though. In addition, IRM 4.13.3.17 provides that errors concerning an EITC assessment can be resolved through the audit reconsideration process, although presumably this is intended to apply when the taxpayer provides additional documentation after a legitimate assessment.

Perhaps foolishly, we tried to resolve the problem for 2014 informally. I gave the IRS attorney assigned to the case a copy of the notices issued by the IRS and asked if she could have it corrected. Because she had already referred the docketed case to Appeals, she passed that documentation along to the Appeals Officer. I followed up with the Appeals Officer twice, with no response. But the problem was eventually resolved; the assessment was reversed, and the IRS mailed Notice CP 74, recertifying Maria for EITC. Problem solved, and since the Tax Court case was still pending, no harm, no foul.

For 2015, I responded directly to the assessment and Notice CP 79A. That notice presents the ban as a fait accompli; there was no reference to what the taxpayer should do if she disagreed with the IRS action. As noted above, the recertification process applies only after the ban period. The accompanying Notice CP 22E for the assessment suggested the taxpayer call if she disagreed with the changes. Instead, I wrote a letter – remarkably polite under the circumstances – pointing out that the assessment and imposition of the ban were illegal because of the pending Tax Court case and requesting the IRS “take all necessary corrective actions immediately.” Exactly one month later (which qualifies as “immediately” in any large bureaucracy), the assessment was reversed. We had filed the stipulated decision in the meantime and finally, almost six months after our letter and five months after the stipulated decision, the IRS issued a refund. This was a long time for a low-income taxpayer to wait for a refund, but better late than never.

Let’s summarize the timeline, because this is getting confusing.

2014 tax year

  • Notice of deficiency – 11/30/2016
  • Tax Court petition filed (timely) – 2/24/2017
  • Assessment/ban – 4/17/2017
  • “Bankruptcy or other legal action” posted per transcript – 5/3/2017
  • Clinic contacts Counsel and Appeals regarding the premature assessment – 6/5/2017, 6/21/2017, 7/24/2017
  • Assessment reversed – 11/13/2017
  • Tax Court stipulated decision – 1/23/2018

2015 tax year

  • Notice of deficiency – 10/16/2017
  • Tax Court petition filed (timely) – 1/16/2018
  • Assessment/ban – 2/26/2018
  • Clinic letter to IRS – 3/2/2018
  • Assessment reversed – 4/2/2018
  • Tax Court stipulated decision – 4/5/2018
  • Refund issued – 8/3/2018
  • “Bankruptcy or other legal action” posted per transcript – 8/29/2018

Fifth obstacle: Enter the math error adjustment

Just when we thought Maria’s problems were over, on 7/2/2018 she received Notice CP 12, a math error adjustment denying EITC, for her 2016 tax return. We either didn’t notice or didn’t realize the significance at the time, but when the IRS reversed the premature assessment for her 2015 tax year, it did not issue Notice CP 74 recertifying her for EITC.

There had been an assessment of tax, on account of the EITC, as a deficiency for 2015, so it met the requirements of Treas. Reg. section 1.32-3(b) and Section 32(k)(2). Of course, that assessment for 2015 was illegal and had been reversed. The stipulated decision in the Tax Court case meant there never was and never would be a legitimate final assessment or determination of reckless or intentional disregard of rules or regulations for 2015. Because there is no process to confirm the validity of the EITC ban first, the failure to recertify automatically resulted in issuance of the math error adjustment.

Luckily, although a math error adjustment can be assessed without judicial review, taxpayers can simply request that the adjustment be reversed within 60 days, although – if appropriate – it can be re-asserted through the deficiency process. Section 6213(b)(1) and (2). That’s exactly what we requested for the 2016 tax year, by letter on 7/24/2018.

And, of course, since this is a disaster story, you know that Maria also received Notice CP 12 for her 2017 tax return.

Sixth obstacle: Further delay for an audit?

The IRS mis-handled our protest of the math error adjustment for 2016. Of course. Notice CP 12 states:

If you contact us in writing within 60 days of the date of this notice, we will reverse the change we made to your account. However, if you are unable to provide us additional information that justifies the reversal and we believe the reversal and we believe the reversal is in error, we will forward your case for audit. This step gives you formal appeal rights, including the right to appeal our decision in the United States [Tax] Court before you have to pay additional tax. After we forward your case, the audit staff will contact you within 5 to 6 weeks to fully explain the audit process and your rights. If you do not contact us within the 60-day period, you will lose your right to appeal our decision before payment of tax.

That’s consistent with Section 6213(b) as well as IRM 21.5.4.5.3 to 21.5.4.5.5 (general math error procedures) and IRM 21.6.3.4.2.7.13 (EITC math errors specifically). A substantiated protest can result in just reversing the math error adjustment; an unsubstantiated protest will result in referral to Exam.

The IRS treated our protest of the math error adjustment for 2016 as an unsubstantiated protest and referred it to Exam. Perhaps they misclassified our protest because they expect a substantiated EITC protest to provide documentation regarding relationship or residence or SSNs. Our protest was based on a premature assessment and assertion of the ban, and the failure to reverse the ban imposed as a result of the audit of 2015. We certainly had substantiated our basis for that. But when you provide a type of substantiation that they’re not anticipating . . .

So we received an audit letter dated November 9th. Further delay before Maria will receive her refund. To add insult to injury, the notification of what was happening was inadequate and would have been confusing to an unrepresented taxpayer. There was no response to the protest, telling us that they were referring the case to Exam for review. That might have provided an opportunity to clarify the nature of our protest before initiation of the audit. The audit letter did not explain the connection with the math error adjustment. For that matter, the IRS did not – as specified in the IRM – abate the disputed adjustment.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the same thing would have happened when we protested the math error adjustment for 2017 as well. Luckily . . .

The rescue party arrives! Maria makes it to safety!

Our efforts hadn’t met with much success, so we contacted our Local Taxpayer Advocate office in mid October. The case advocate spent a lot of time and effort, chasing from one office to another on Maria’s behalf. He pointed out the premature bans, the decisions by the Tax Court, and the IRS policy against auditing an issue that were examined in either of the two preceding years with no change or a nominal adjustment. Even after he elevated the discussion to managers in the operating units, there was still a lot of resistance. I’m not sure he would have succeeded without the gentle reminder of the possibility of a Taxpayer Assistance Order. Just as I was finishing this post, he called us with the good news. The 2-year ban is being lifted, the two math error adjustments are being reversed, and the examination of 2016 is being closed. Soon Maria will be getting the remainder of the refunds she requested on her 2016 and 2017 tax returns.

Final thoughts

I’m getting used to the unfortunate difficulty of convincing Exam/Appeals that our clients are entitled to the EITC. I didn’t worry that much about the EITC ban because most of the time either we prevail or our clients aren’t entitled to the EITC and won’t claim it in the future anyway. I certainly didn’t anticipate how much trouble the EITC ban can cause even when we win the battle over the EITC itself.

TAS Systemic Advocacy also continues to look at these issues. They approached me after hearing about the case, before I even got around to reporting it in SAMS. Nina Olson has been fighting the problems with the EITC ban for years but still meets with resistance. Maybe this example of how much can go wrong will help in that fight. We can only hope.

The positive part of any ordeal like this is that, amid all the mindless adherence to byzantine and flawed processes, you can still encounter the IRS working the way it should: getting the right result, protecting the government fisc while also protecting taxpayer rights. In Maria’s case, those bright spots were Counsel, the case advocate at LTA, and the folks at TAS Systemic Advocacy. Without people like them, these tax issues can be devastating, not just for Maria but also for a lot of other taxpayers in similar situations.

 

Paresky– A Mirror Image of Pfizer

Today we welcome back Bob Probasco. Bob directs the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth. In this post Bob discusses the Paresky case in the Court of Federal Claims and follows up on issues he discussed in his post last month on the Pfizer case and the difficult issues arising from suits for overpayment interest. For good measure this terrific post sweeps in Bernie Madoff, equitable tolling and the possibility of some refund suits with no statutes of limitation.  Les

 I wrote a blog post recently on a jurisdictional issue in the Pfizer case, concerning claims for overpayment interest.  The district court for the Southern District of New York denied the government’s first motion to dismiss (based on lack of jurisdiction) but granted its second motion to dismiss (based on expiration of the statute of limitations).  Pfizer appealed and we’re still waiting to hear from the Second Circuit.

In the meantime, the Court of Federal Claims issued its decision on August 15th in the case Paresky v. United States, docket no. 17-1725, another suit for overpayment interest that involved essentially a mirror image of the jurisdiction issue in Pfizer. It also had some other interesting procedural twists and turns.

read more...

Background

Here’s a recap of what the CFC called “[t]wo different, divergent, and conflicting jurisdictional paths . . . proffered by the parties.”  The first jurisdictional path is that set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1)– district courts and the CFC have concurrent jurisdiction over

Any civil action against the United States for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority or any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected under the internal-revenue laws.

Let’s call this “tax refund jurisdiction,” because that is its primary use – although Pfizer argued about whether that is the only use.

The second jurisdictional path is “Tucker Act jurisdiction” – 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2)for district courts and 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1) for the CFC – which authorizes suits for

any claim against the United States . . . founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United States, or for liquidated or unliquidated damages in cases not sounding in tort.

What about statutes of limitation?  There is a general six-year statute of limitations for actions in federal courts – 28 U.S.C. § 2401 or 2501, for district courts and the CFC respectively. The Code also sets forth a statute of limitations.  Specifically, Section 7422 of the Code requires a refund claim be filed first for any suit

for the recovery of any internal revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or of any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority, or of any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected.

And Section 6532 precludes a suit under Section 7422 begun more than 2 years after the IRS mails a notice of disallowance of the claim.

One might infer a link between the jurisdictional grant itself, for “tax refunds” or under the Tucker Act, and the corresponding statute of limitations.  That is, suits brought under the “tax refund” jurisdictional grant would be subject, based on similar language, to Code sections 7422 and 6532. Suits brought under the Tucker Act, however, would be subject to the general six-year statute of limitations for the district courts and the CFC.  However, the plaintiffs in both of these cases argued for a disconnect – either “tax refund” jurisdiction + the general six-year statute of limitations, or Tucker Act jurisdiction + the Code’s refund suit statute of limitations.  And there is actually a footnote in E.W. Scripps Co. v. United States, 420 F.3d 589 (6th Cir. 2005) stating that the similarity of the language in Section 7422 and 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) doesn’t necessarily mean they are interpreted the same way.

 (Some cases have applied both statutes of limitations to tax refund suits, so the statute of limitations doesn’t remain open indefinitely when the IRS doesn’t issue a notice of disallowance of the claim.  See, e.g., Wagenet v. United States, 104 A.F.T.R.2d (RIA) 2009-7804 (C.D. Cal.). The Court of Claims, on the other hand, held that the six-year statute of limitations doesn’t apply to tax refund suits and allowed a refund suit filed 2 years after the notice of disallowance, which wasn’t issued until 28 years after the original refund claim.  Detroit Trust v. United States, 131 Ct. Cl. 223 (1955).  The IRS agrees with the latter position.  Chief Counsel Notice 2012-012.  But we’re wandering far afield from the issues in Pfizer and Paresky.)

Pfizer– recap

Pfizer brought its suit in district court under tax refund jurisdiction.  Its issue revolved around whether a taxpayer is entitled to overpayment interest when: (a) the IRS issued a refund within 45 days of the claim (when overpayment interest is not required under the exception in Section 6611(e)), (b) the check was not received, and (c) a replacement check was issued more than 45 days after the refund claim.  Pfizer wanted to rely on a favorable Second Circuit precedent on this issue, so it wanted to file in the SDNY rather than the CFC, but Tucker Act jurisdiction for district courts is limited to claims for $10,000 or less.  Thus, Pfizer filed its suit asserting tax refund jurisdiction.

Because Pfizer filed its suit late under the Section 6532 statute of limitations, it argued that its “tax refund suit” was subject instead to the general six-year statute of limitations.  The SDNY agreed that suits for overpayment interest qualified for tax refund jurisdiction, following Scripps.  So the taxpayer won on the government’s first motion to dismiss. But the court concluded tax refund jurisdiction carries with it the Section 6532 statute of limitations.  So the taxpayer lost on the government’s second motion to dismiss.  On appeal, Pfizer continues to argue for tax refund jurisdiction + Tucker Act statute of limitations.

Enter the Pareskys

The Pareskys had a different problem.  They filed their suit in the CFC as a Tucker Act claim.  But in their case, the two-year statute of limitations in Section 6532 was still open although the six-year statute of limitations for Tucker Act claims was not.  Two years is less than six years, but the two different limitation periods began running at different times.  So the Pareskys argued that a Tucker Act claim was nevertheless subject to the statute of limitations for tax refund suits.  Again, they argued for one jurisdictional grant coupled with a statute of limitations apparently applicable to a different jurisdictional grant. As with Pfizer, but in reverse.

The Pareskys’ problems traced back to investments with Bernie Madoff.  They reported substantial income for 2005 through 2007 that turned out to be fictitious.  On their tax return for 2008, they claimed a net operating loss from the Ponzi scheme. Revenue Procedure 2009-20 provides an optional safe harbor method of treating losses from investments in fraudulent schemes. That method precludes double-dipping: taxpayers claim the entire loss in the year the fraud was discovered but cannot file amended returns to exclude the fictitious income (never received) that was reported in taxable years before the discovery year.

The Pareskys did not follow the optional Revenue Procedure method.  Instead, in October 2009, they filed amended returns on Forms 1040X for years 2005 – 2007, to exclude the fictitious income reported in those years. The claimed a loss on their 2008 tax return, when they discovered the fraud.  In December 2009, they filed Form 1045s, claiming tentative carryback refunds under Section 6411for years 2003 – 2007, by carrying back the net operating loss from 2008. But the net operating loss was reduced by the amount of the fictitious income for 2005 – 2007, so there was still no double-dipping.  The overpayment interest claim involves solely the tentative carryback refunds, not the refunds associated with the amended returns on Forms 1040X.

The refunds claimed on Forms 1045 for tentative carrybacks, totaling almost $10 million, were issued in April and May of 2010, just a few months after the Pareskys filed the Forms 1045 in December 2009.  The government paid no interest on those refunds, even though it issued the refunds more than 45 days after it received the Forms 1045, because it argued the applications were not in processible form when originally submitted.  The Pareskys, of course, disagreed.

The IRS examination of the Pareskys’ tax liabilities for 2003 through 2008, trigged by the amended returns, also included the refunds sought on the Forms 1045 as well as the Pareskys’ claim for overpayment interest on the Form 1045 refunds.  The examination continued until October 2011, during which time the parties agreed to an extension of the limitations period. In October 2011, the IRS began preparing a report to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), required under Section 6405 for large refunds.  (Section 6405(a) prohibits the IRS from issuing such large refunds until 30 days after the IRS submits the report to JCT, but that restriction does not apply to refunds made under Section 6411.  Section 6411 provides for only a “limited examination” of the tentative carryback applications before issuing the refund.)  The IRS submitted the report to JCT on January 25, 2013, stating that the refunds sought on the Forms 1045 had been approved.

The Pareskys filed a protest with the IRS on June 6, 2014, concerning the resolution of the examination. Appeals determined, on September 4, 2014, that no overpayment interest was due on the Form 1045 refunds because the refunds were issued within 45 days after the applications were submitted in processible form.  That determination letter instructed the Pareskys to file a formal claim on Form 843 by September 12, 2014, which they did.  The claim was denied on September 24, 2015, and the Pareskys filed their complaint in the CFC on September 15, 2017.

Was it timely? 

The government argued that, under the Tucker Act, the claim accrued in May 2010 and the plaintiffs did not file suit within the six-year statute of limitations.  The plaintiffs asserted three alternative arguments.  First, they argued that the tax refund statute of limitations, rather than the six-year period applicable to Tucker Act claims, applied and began running when their claim was denied on September 24, 2015. Second, they argued that if the six-year limitations period applied, their claim didn’t accrue until the report to JCT on January 25, 2013.  Finally, they argued that under the “accrual suspension rule” the claim doesn’t accrue until the plaintiff is aware of the claim.  The court rejected all three arguments.

The Sixth Circuit in Scripps and the SDNY in the Pfizercase agreed that taxpayers could bring a suit for overpayment interest under the “tax refund jurisdiction” provision.  But the CFC didn’t buy that argument.  There were too many precedents in that court, the Federal Circuit, or the Court of Claims to the contrary.  The Federal Circuit might decide to overrule those, but the CFC would not.

The court also rejected the argument that the suit was filed within the six-year limitations period. The claim accrued when the underlying tax refunds were “scheduled.”  There was an evidentiary dispute regarding when the refunds had been scheduled; the Pareskys therefore argued that the date of the report to JCT was the earliest moment when it was certainthat the refunds had been allowed.  But the government pointed out that the report to JCT has nothing to do with the date a tentative carryback refund is allowed, and the court found the government’s evidence sufficient to establish that the refunds were scheduled in early 2010.

The accrual suspension rule didn’t save the Pareskys either.  The IRS may not have explicitly disclosed to the taxpayers the date that the refunds were scheduled, but they received the refunds and knew they did not include overpayment interest.  Those were the relevant facts that established their claim and the IRS did not conceal those.

Equitable tolling or estoppel?

In both Pfizer and Paresky, the IRS sent the taxpayers a letter stating a different statute of limitations than the court determined applied to their respective situations.  Appeals sent Pfizer a letter stating that the six-year statute of limitations applied, presumably because the claim involved overpayment interest, without addressing the impact of which jurisdictional grant Pfizer would rely on.  The Pareskys received the determination by Appeals concerning their protest and also a denial of their subsequent refund claim, both of which stated the Section 6532 statute of limitations, without addressing potential different treatment for claims involving overpayment interest.

That misinformation certainly seems to provide a potential factual predicate for equitable tolling or estoppel of filing deadlines, but many courts have been resistant to that.  Carl Smith and Keith Fogg are continuing their quest to overcome that resistance including by filing an amicus brief in Pfizer, which I am shamelessly paraphrasing for the following summary.

In brief, statutory deadlines that are “jurisdictional” cannot be waived or extended for equitable reasons.  Unfortunately, as the Supreme Court observed in 2004, courts have been careless in applying that label.  “Clarity would be facilitated if courts and litigants used the label ‘jurisdictional’ not for claim-processing rules, but only for prescriptions delineating the classes of cases (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the persons (personal jurisdiction) falling within a court’s adjudicatory authority.”  Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455 (2004).  The Supreme Court has also held that time periods in which to act are almost never jurisdictional, unless Congress makes a “clear statement” to that effect.  In particular, if the filing deadline and the jurisdictional grant are not part of the same provision, that likely indicates that the time bar is non-jurisdictional. United States v. Wong, 135 S. Ct. 1625 (2015).

Carl and Keith are arguing in Pfizer that Section 6532’s statute of limitations is not jurisdictional and is subject to estoppel under the standard set forth in recent Supreme Court decisions.  The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the Section 6532(a) deadline is jurisdictional or subject to estoppel or equitable tolling.  However, before the recent Supreme Court decisions, the Second Circuit applied estoppel to prevent the government from arguing that the filing deadline barred the court from hearing the case.  Miller v. United States, 500 F.2d 1007 (2nd Cir. 1974).  Although some other circuits had disagreed, the Second Circuit could rely on that precedent to estop the government in the Pfizer case.

Theoretically, the same result should apply to the six-year filing deadline in 28 U.S.C. § 2501. Alas, this argument would not work for the taxpayers in the Pareskycase.  The Supreme Court has not ruled on Section 6532’s deadline but it has ruled on 28 U.S.C. § 2501, and concluded that it was jurisdictional and therefore not subject to equitable tolling or estoppel. John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, 552 U.S. 130 (2008). However, that was more a matter of stare decisisbecause the Court had called the deadline jurisdictional in a number of opinions over decades.  In the Wongcase, the Court held that the FTCA filing deadline in 28 U.S.C. 2401(b) was non-jurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling, while observing that the John R. Sand & Gravel Co.did not follow the Court’s current thinking because of those precedents.

So – hopefully Carl and Keith will persuade the Second Circuit in Pfizer, as well as other courts in other cases.  The National Taxpayer Advocate also proposed, in her most recent annual report to Congress, a legislative fix by amending the Code to provide that judicial filing deadlines are non-jurisdictional.  We wish them well!

Where do we go from here?

The Court of Federal Claims agreed to transfer the case, at the plaintiffs’ request and over the government’s objections, so the Pareskys are headed to the Southern District of Florida. They hope to persuade the SDF that a suit for overpayment interest fits within “tax refund jurisdiction” and the suit therefore would be timely under the tax refund statute of limitations in Section 6532.  There is a split between the Federal Circuit and the Sixth Circuit – add the Second Circuit if it affirms the District Court in the Pfizer case.  Neither party cited precedents from the Eleventh Circuit, so it’s at least possible that the SDF will follow Scrippsand find it has jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, Pfizer is still waiting for a ruling by the Second Circuit.  Paresky offers arguments for both sides in PfizerParesky held that the six-year statute of limitations applies (good for Pfizer) but that tax refund jurisdiction is not available (bad for Pfizer).  Pfizer has requested, if the Second Circuit affirms the SDNY, that it also transfer the case to the CFC.  It seems that court would clearly have jurisdiction under the Tucker Act, and Pfizer met the six-year statute of limitations, so the CFC apparently would hear the merits of the case.  The favorable Doolin precedent in the Second Circuit wouldn’t carry as much weight in the CFC but Pfizer might still prevail on the merits.

The government stated in its brief that it may or may not oppose transfer, depending on whythe Second Circuit (hypothetically) rules against Pfizer.  If the Second Circuit rules that “tax refund jurisdiction” does not apply to suits for overpayment interest, the government would not oppose transfer.  But if the Second Circuit agrees that “tax refund jurisdiction” applies to the case and rules against Pfizer only on the basis that Pfizer did not file its suit within two years of the notice of disallowance, the government asked that transfer be denied.

Another Jurisdictional Issue in Pfizer

Today we welcome Bob Probasco in his first guest appearance on Procedurally Taxing. Bob directs the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth. He has had a long and varied career in the tax world, having moved from accounting to tax law and most recently to teaching. In this post Bob describes the pending dispute over which forum a taxpayer can use to sue for overpayment interest. Christine

Carl Smith blogged earlier this year about the Pfizer case. The attention on Procedurally Taxing, and the amicus briefs filed by Carl and Keith in several cases, focused on an issue that could affect a large number of tax controversies: whether filing deadlines are “claim-processing” rather than “jurisdictional” rules and therefore can be equitably tolled. It’s an interesting and very important issue.

But there’s also a smaller issue Carl alluded to briefly, in an area with which some readers may not be familiar, that hasn’t received as much attention. The issue arises in lawsuits seeking overpayment interest under section 6611. The procedural differences might be of interest while we’re waiting for Second Circuit’s decision in Pfizer.

read more...

Underpayment interest under section 6601, owed by taxpayers to the government on taxes and penalties that have not yet been paid, is explicitly treated as equivalent to the underlying tax for most purposes by section 6601(e)(1). (The exception is that underpayment interest is not subject to deficiency procedures.) Treating underpayment interest as equivalent to tax makes sense – assessment of additional tax will often result in assessment of underpayment interest and an abatement of tax will often result in abatement of previously assessed underpayment interest. But overpayment interest under section 6611 has no provision equivalent to section 6601(e)(1) and additional overpayment interest is “allowed” and paid rather than assessed.

If a taxpayer does not receive the overpayment interest to which it is entitled, how can the taxpayer challenge the IRS in court? If the tax overpayment was determined as part of a Tax Court case, the taxpayer can seek the court’s review of an erroneous determination of associated interest under Rule 261. But if the underlying tax overpayment was claimed on the original return (as in Pfizer) or a refund claim that is resolved administratively rather than in court, how does the taxpayer seek judicial review of an erroneous determination of overpayment interest?

Pfizer filed its suit under the jurisdiction (concurrent to district courts and the Court of Federal Claims) to hear tax refund suits, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1). But it’s not at all clear that provision applies to a stand-alone claim for additional overpayment interest. The jurisdictional provision applies to

Any civil action against the United States for the recovery of any internal-revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority or any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected under the internal-revenue laws.

With an action for additional overpayment interest, there was no assessment or collection – simply a failure to “allow” and pay.

The Sixth Circuit, in E.W. Scripps Co. v. United States, 420 F.3d 589 (6th Cir. 2005), concluded that courts do have jurisdiction under § 1346(a)(1) to hear a stand-alone claim for overpayment interest. It looked to the last part of the provision: “any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected under the internal-revenue laws.” You may be wondering how the court concluded that a failure to allow and pay interest equates to overpayment interest that is “excessive” or “wrongfully collected.” The answer: “If the Government does not compensate the taxpayer for the time-value of the tax overpayment, the Government has retained more money than it is due, i.e., an ‘excessive sum.’”

I’ve never found Scripps very convincing, and to the best of my knowledge no other Circuit has reached the same conclusion. The government disagrees with Scripps and continues to challenge efforts to bring stand-alone claims for overpayment interest under § 1346(a)(1). That doesn’t mean taxpayers are without recourse, of course. Suit can be brought under the Tucker Act, which provides jurisdiction to both district courts and the Court of Federal Claims for

any claim against the United States . . . founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress or any regulation of an executive department, or upon any express or implied contract with the United States, or for liquidated or unliquidated damages in cases not sounding in tort.

Even better, the six-year statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2401 or 2501 applies to Tucker Act suits and there is no requirement to file a refund claim first.

So why didn’t Pfizer just claim jurisdiction under the Tucker Act, to avoid any question about jurisdiction? As you might expect, this was probably a case of forum shopping. The Tucker Act jurisdiction for the Court of Federal Claims, at 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1), is not limited as to the amount of the claim. Pfizer wanted to bring suit in district court instead, where the Tucker Act jurisdiction (sometimes referred to as the “little Tucker Act”), at 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2), adds a limitation: “not exceeding $10,000 in amount.” (Judges in the Court of Federal Claims have more experience with claims against the federal government than typical district court judges; the jurisdictional provisions funnel most large and complex disputes there instead of to district court.) But Pfizer was seeking more than $8 million. If there is any way to do that in district court, it would have to be § 1346(a)(1).

The district court in Pfizer followed Scripps and ruled for the taxpayer in a preliminary motion to dismiss based on whether jurisdiction was proper under § 1346(a)(1). But Pfizer’s suit was filed beyond the two-year limit of section 6532 and the court granted the government’s second motion to dismiss because the suit was not filed timely. On appeal, the government is challenging the first ruling and the taxpayer is challenging the second ruling.

In addition to the argument based on equitable tolling, the taxpayer is also making a second argument: no refund claim was required at all, and therefore section 6532 doesn’t apply. That seems odd when suit was brought under the jurisdictional provision we think of as governing refund suits, Section 7422, which requires a refund claim be filed first for any suit

for the recovery of any internal revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or of any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority, or of any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected.

The language is almost identical to that in § 1346(a)(1) but the taxpayer argues the two provisions should not be interpreted the same way.

The Sixth Circuit agreed, in Scripps. The taxpayer had filed a refund claim timely but the court addressed section 7422 anyway. The government had cited a case suggesting a link between section 7422 and § 1346(a)(1). If so, since section 7422 and related provisions apply most naturally to refunds of “tax,” arguably § 1346(a)(1) also should be limited to “tax.” Certainly some requirements associated with section 7422, such as the “look-back” provision in section 6511(b)(2) and the Flora rule, would seem nonsensical for a stand-alone claim for overpayment interest. But the Sixth Circuit simply distinguished these two provisions that use virtually identical language:

. . . the two provisions serve different functions and thus have their own independent meanings. . . . Thus, even though a claim for statutory interest on an overpayment of tax might not fall within the scope of § 7422(a), this does not prevent statutory interest from being included with the ‘‘any sum’’ clause of § 1346(a)(1).

Will the Second Circuit rule for the taxpayer by following Scripps and also by concluding that the section 6532 statute of limitations either doesn’t apply or can be equitably tolled? If so, with two Circuits now giving an expansive reading to § 1346(a)(1), will more taxpayers be likely to file these claims – and other, non-tax claims – in district court instead of the Court of Federal Claims?

Or will the Second Circuit rule for the government? Will it conclude that Pfizer was “in the right place but it must have been the wrong time” (agreeing with Scripps that jurisdiction is proper in district court under § 1346(a)(1) but dismissing the suit as not filed timely) and/or “in the wrong place but it must have been the right time” (timely filing for a suit under the Tucker Act, but plaintiff didn’t claim that as jurisdiction and also needed to be in the Court of Federal Claims)? Pfizer might wind up in the Court of Federal Claims after all.