IRS Can File a Proof of Claim in Bankruptcy Court for the Full Amount of Tax Liability Even After an Accepted Offer in Compromise

Guest blogger Ted Afield today discusses the intersection of offers in compromise with bankruptcy. Professor Afield (with co-author Nancy Ryan) will be creating a chapter on Offers in Compromise for the next edition of Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS. Christine

In our clinic at GSU, we do a lot of collections work and routinely submit offers in compromise, which the IRS often accepts, on behalf of our clients. While our hope is always that the accepted offer will be a critical step that allows the taxpayer to get back in compliance with his or her tax obligations and get out from under the weight of a detrimental financial liability, unfortunately the accepted offer is sometimes not enough to prevent a taxpayer from continuing to be overwhelmed by other financial obligations. In situations like these, the taxpayer may in fact file bankruptcy during the 5-year compliance window for the offer in compromise. If this happens, the IRS potentially has a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding because the offer in compromise may have already been defaulted or may be defaulted in the future if the taxpayer fails to file tax returns and timely pay taxes. Accordingly, the IRS will file a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding, which raises the question of should this proof of claim be for the full amount of the tax liability or for the compromised amount of the tax liability.

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This was the question recently taken up in a memorandum opinion by the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, in In Re: Curtis Cole, No: 18-35182 (May 29, 2019). In this case, Mr. Cole and the IRS had entered into a compromise of tax liabilities for 2003-2014 totaling over $100,000 for the much more manageable sum of $1,000. During the five-year monitoring period, Mr. Cole started off well and timely filed and paid his 2016 income tax. For 2017, however, Mr. Cole recognized that he would not be able to timely file a return, and he accordingly requested and was granted an extension. Mr. Cole did then file his 2017 return and pay his 2017 tax bill on October 15, 2018.

PT readers who do a lot of OIC work will immediately recognize the potential problem that Mr. Cole created for his offer because an extension of time to file is not an extension of the time to pay taxes, raising the possibility that the IRS would default Mr. Cole’s offer for failing to pay his 2017 taxes in a timely manner. Compounding the problem was that Mr. Cole had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy one month earlier, on September 15, 2018. As a result, the IRS filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the full amount of the original tax liability that was compromised under exactly that theory (i.e., that Mr. Cole’s late payment of 2017 taxes caused his offer to default and thus caused the amount of the IRS’s claim to be the full amount of the tax liability).

Mr. Cole was not happy with this development and attempted to raise a couple of equitable arguments that did not have much of a leg to stand on. Mr. Cole’s first hope was that he would be simply forgiven his confusion over whether a filing extension also constituted a payment extension. This did not have much resonance in light of the fact that it is well established that filing extensions are not in fact payment extensions. Mr. Cole also attempted to argue that he effectively had rights under the Internal Revenue Manual by asserting that the IRS violated its own procedures when it did not offer him any opportunity to cure his late payment before declaring the offer to be in default. See I.R.M. 5.19.7.2.20, which states that in the event of a breach of the offer’s terms, the IRS should send the taxpayer a notice letter and provide an opportunity to cure before defaulting the offer. Again, this argument could not carry much weight in light of the well-established principle that the IRM does not give taxpayers any rights, and thus the IRS was not obligated to provide an opportunity to cure the default. Ghandour v. United States, 37 Fed. Cl. 121, 126 n.14 (1997).

Mr. Cole’s strongest argument was based on his reliance on a bankruptcy court opinion from the Eastern District of North Carolina that had ruled on a similar issue and had concluded that the proof of claim should be for the compromised amount rather than the full amount of the tax liability. In re Mead, No. 12-01222-8-JRL, 2013 WL 64758 (Bankr. E.D.N.C. Jan. 4, 2013). The Mead court found that the contractual language in Form 656 stating that the IRS may file a “tax claim” for the full amount of the tax liability if a taxpayer files for bankruptcy before the offer’s terms expire is ambiguous in regards to whether the “tax claim” refers to the full liability or the compromise amount. Accordingly, the Mead court held that the IRS violated the nondiscrimination rule of 11 U.S.C. § 525(a), on the grounds that it appeared that the IRS was trying to collect the full amount of the tax liability, rather than the compromised amount, solely because the taxpayer was in bankruptcy.

The Cole court, however, was not persuaded by its sister court in North Carolina and held that Mead was both distinguishable and simply incorrect.  Mead was distinguishable because, unlike in Cole, there was not an issue of whether the offer had been defaulted. However, even without that distinguishing characteristic, the Cole court noted that the outcome would be the same. In other words, regardless of whether the offer was in default, if the terms of the offer had not yet expired, the IRS would still need to file a proof of claim for the full amount of the tax liability in order to preserve its rights in case the taxpayer did subsequently default the offer. This is why the terms of the offer explicitly state in Section 7: “If I file for bankruptcy before the terms and conditions of the offer are met, I agree that the IRS may file a claim for the full amount of the tax liability, accrued penalties and interest, and that any claim the IRS files in the bankruptcy proceeding will be a tax claim.” I do not agree with the Mead court’s assertion that this language is ambiguous.

It’s not that the issue of whether the offer has been defaulted is irrelevant. Rather, that issue is simply premature at the moment when the IRS files its proof of claim. Even if the offer has unequivocally not yet been defaulted, the IRS must file a proof of claim for the full amount of the liability to protect its right to recover the full amount, should a default occur. So when can Mr. Cole attempt to make his likely to be very uphill arguments that he has not defaulted the offer? As the court notes, he does this when he submits his Chapter 13 plan, in which he will propose how to treat the IRS’s claim. If he believes he has not defaulted his offer, he can propose that the IRS only receive what it is owed if the offer is still in force. The IRS can then object if it believes that the offer is in default, and the issue can then be decided.

In comparing Cole and Mead, I think the Cole court likely has the better argument. The contractual language in Form 656 pretty unambiguously gives the IRS the right to file a claim for the full amount of the tax liability in a bankruptcy proceeding during the five-year monitoring period. That does not mean that the IRS will recover the full amount if the offer is not in default, but taxpayers should certainly expect such a claim to be filed and that they will have to litigate whether the offer is defaulted when they propose their bankruptcy plan.

Nominal Qualified Offers and TEFRA

We welcome guest blogger Ted Afield. Professor Afield directs the low income taxpayer clinic at Georgia State. The Georgia State tax clinic serves more clients that almost any clinic in the country and provides them with high quality service. The tax clinic at the Legal Services Center at Harvard and the Georgia State tax clinic have partnered on several amicus briefs and it’s always a pleasure to work with their clinic. The case discussed by Professor Afield provides important precedent for successful litigants seeking to recover fees after making a qualified offer. Paying attorney’s fees to a partnership that engaged in an abusive tax shelter promotion makes for a tough pill for the government to swallow which, I believe, caused it to argue the issues discussed here so vigorously. Even though I do not support the underlying tax position taken by the partnership, it had the winning issue on the statute of limitations and that formed the basis for successful litigation on the attorney’s fees issue. Perhaps the benefit of this opinion for parties seeking fees will outweigh the loss to a tax shelter promoter. Keith

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently issued an opinion in BASR Partnership, William F. Pettinati, Sr., Tax Matters Partner v. United States, in which the court determined whether a partnership was entitled to recover its reasonable litigation costs from the government when it submitted a nominal $1 qualified offer to the government in tax controversy litigation and subsequently prevailed at summary judgment.   This case was a Son of Boss case in which the IRS waited a decade before issuing a Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment (FPAA) disallowing BASR Partnership’s tax benefits.  Accordingly, the tax matters partner, William Pettinati, Sr., challenged the FPAA as untimely pursuant to the three year statute of limitations in IRC § 6501(a).  Given the confidence that the BASR partners had in their statute of limitations argument, they submitted a $1.00 qualified offer to the government, which the government rejected.  As it turns out, the BASR partners’ confidence was indeed justified, and they prevailed on summary judgment and then moved for an award of litigation costs under IRC § 7430(c)(4)(E), which the trial court granted. 

On appeal, the government raised five arguments for why the court should not have awarded litigation costs, three of which being of particular interest in that they explore the relationship between TEFRA and qualified offers as well as whether nominal offers are in fact permissible.  The government’s first argument was that BASR was not a “party” in the litigation because of TEFRA and therefore could not be a “prevailing party” as required under the qualified offer statute.  The government’s second and third arguments were that, even if BASR was a “party,” the tax liability was not “in issue” and BASR did not incur any litigation costs during the underlying TEFRA proceeding.  The government’s remaining arguments were that, even if IRC § 7430(a)’s eligibility requirements were satisfied, the trial court did not apply the real-party-in-interest doctrine and abused its discretion in granting the award.  These arguments presented an opportunity for the Federal Circuit to examine how the TEFRA and qualified offer rules interact with each other and, of particular interest to me and Keith, presented an opportunity for the court to determine whether nominal qualified offers, which are often utilized by low-income taxpayer clinics, would be considered per se unreasonable. 

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The Underlying Partnership is a Prevailing Party 

 The court rejected the government’s argument that only individual partners, rather than the partnership itself, can be parties in a TEFRA proceeding and that, accordingly, BASR Partnership could not be a “prevailing party.”  The court noted that the language in IRC § 6226 that permits individual partners to participate in the proceeding should be read inclusively rather than exclusively (i.e., just because the statute specifically indicates that partners can be parties, that does not mean that it prevents the partnership itself from also being a party).  The court noted that the cost-shifting language of IRC § 7430(c)(4)(A)(ii) supported this interpretation of IRC § 6226 because it specifically contemplated “any partnership” as being included in the definition of “prevailing party.” 

Tax Liability is “In Issue” in a TEFRA Proceeding 

 After determining that BASR Partnership could indeed be a prevailing party, the court next had to consider whether the tax liability was “in issue” in a TEFRA proceeding.  The government contended that the liability was not “in issue” because the tax liability is determined at the partner level rather than at the partnership level in such proceedings.  The Court rejected this narrow reading of the phrase “in issue”, however, and held that actual liability would not have to be determined at the partnership level for it to be “in issue”—rather, it was sufficient that the partnership determination would impact the partners’ individual tax liability. 

The partnership incurred litigation costs despite the fact that the costs were incurred in the partner’s name, and the partnership was the “real party in interest” 

Because the resolution turned more on an issue of contract and state partnership law than an issue of tax procedure, I will not overly dwell on the government’s argument that the partnership did not incur any litigation costs because the costs were incurred by the managing partner individually and the argument that the “real party in interest” doctrine prevented a recovery of costs because the real parties in interest were the partners, whose net worth would have made them ineligible to recover costs under IRC § 7430.  Suffice to say that the court rejected these arguments because the managing partner had brought an action in his capacity as tax matters partner under IRC § 6226, and the partnership agreement and the relevant state partnership law (in this case, it was Texas) obligated the partners to reimburse him for litigation costs.  It is worth noting, however, that the “real party in interest” issue is the one that provoked a dissenting opinion arguing that the fact that the partners were entitled to have their litigation costs reimbursed by the partnership made them the true beneficiaries of the award and thus the real parties in interest. 

Awarding litigation costs was not an abuse of discretion (i.e., the issue causing low-income taxpayer clinics to weigh in) 

The government’s final argument was that awarding litigation costs constituted an abuse of discretion because the taxpayer’s nominal $1.00 qualified offer “was not made in a good-faith attempt to produce a settlement.”  This was the argument that got Keith’s and my attention, because it seemed to us that the government was attempting to argue that nominal qualified offers were per se invalid.  If successful, this argument could have severely hindered a common litigation strategy that low-income taxpayers employ in frozen refund litigation.   

 Accordingly, our clinics (the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic of Georgia State University College of Law and the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic) filed a joint amicus brief in this case solely on the issue of whether taxpayers should be denied reasonable litigation and administrative costs based on the dollar value of a qualified offer.  The clinics argued that none of the requirements of IRC § 7430 state that an offer must be of a minimum amount or of a minimum percentage of the taxpayer’s possible liability in order to be valid.  The clinics were particularly concerned with the potential impact that a rule requiring a minimum qualified offer amount would have on low-income taxpayers, which motived them to submit the brief. Low-income taxpayers who have had their refunds frozen often submit $1 qualified offers when they believe that they will prevail in a tax court case in order to shorten the time it takes for them to resolve their case and receive their frozen refund.  Obtaining these frozen refunds is of critical importance to these vulnerable taxpayers because they often need the tax refunds generated by the earned income tax credit to meet their basic living expenses.  Submitting a qualified offer puts pressure on the government to consider the low-income taxpayer’s case more quickly than it otherwise would because of the risk that the government would have to pay fees and costs if the taxpayer prevails.   

 In looking at this issue, the court agreed that a nominal $1 qualified offer can be reasonable and that awarding litigation fees was not an abuse of discretion.  While the court did not discuss the impacts to low-income taxpayers directly in its opinion, the clinics are pleased that the court reached this result and that nominal qualified offers will remain a viable litigation tool for low-income taxpayers who rely on them to obtain improperly frozen refunds as quickly as possible.