Venue on Appeals from Tax Court Attorney Sanctions

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Frequent guest blogger Carl Smith writes about appellate venue in a yet unsettled corner of tax litigation.  Congress cleaned up some ambiguities last year but did not address the issue of appellate venue where the Tax Court sanctions the taxpayer’s counsel for frivolous actions in the Tax Court.  Keith

Hopefully, readers of PT will never have to consider this issue, but what is the proper venue on appeal from sanctions imposed by the Tax Court on attorneys under IRC sec. 6673(a)(2)?  The answer is not clear.  But recent appeals of the rulings in Best v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-72 and T.C. Memo. 2016-32, and May v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-194 and T.C. Memo. 2016-43, will try to dodge the issue, since both the taxpayers and the same counsel in each case (all of whom were sanctioned) have protectively appealed to the Ninth Circuit (Docket Nos. 16-71777(Best) and 16-71795(May)) and the D.C. Circuit (Docket Nos. 16-1188(Best) and [not yet assigned](May)).

Compounding the venue confusion is that both the Best and May cases are Collection Due Process (CDP) cases filed in the Tax Court prior to December 2015, when section 7482(b)(1) was amended to prospectively overrule the holding of Byers v. Commissioner, 740 F.3d 668 (D.C. Cir. 2014), for petitions filed thereafter.  In Byers, the D.C. Circuit held that, absent stipulation otherwise, only the D.C. Circuit was the proper venue on appeal from Tax Court CDP cases that did not include challenges to the underlying liability.  For Les’ post on Byers when it came out, see here.  For Les’ post on the overruling of Byers by the PATH Act, see here.  To quote Les from the latter post:

“The upshot of the PATH legislation with respect to CDP appeals is to push CDP and innocent spouse appeals into the same general rule as deficiency cases, that is the venue on appeal is tied to an individual’s residence (or principal place of business for other taxpayers) of the petitioner at the time of petition filing unless the parties stipulate otherwise.”

But, that legislation, sadly, did not resolve the issue of the proper venue on appeal from Tax Court attorney sanctions under section 6673(a)(2).

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The taxpayers in Best and May all lived in the Ninth Circuit when they filed their Tax Court petitions in 2010 and 2012, respectively.  In neither case were the taxpayers contesting the amount of underlying liability.  In both cases, the taxpayers were represented by a Phoenix attorney named Donald MacPherson.  In the Tax Court, MacPherson’s arguments were only [21]  that (1) the Appeals Settlement Officer abused her discretion in relying only on computer transcripts to verify that the taxpayers’ unpaid tax had been properly assessed and (2) collection could not proceed because the IRS had failed to furnish the taxpayers with Form 23C or RACS 006 (including the name and signature of the assessment officer and the date of the assessment), rather than the Form 4340 transcripts that the IRS had furnished the taxpayers.

The judges in the Best and May cases (Halpern and Lauber, respectively) rejected these arguments as so frivolous at this point that the judges considered the cases to have been filed by the taxpayers primarily for delay.  Section 6673(a)(1) allows the court to sanction taxpayers who bring or maintain suits primarily for delay or who maintain frivolous or groundless positions in their cases.  In their initial opinions in the cases, the judges both held that collection could proceed and the taxpayers were subject to penalties under section 6673(a)(1) of $5,000 and $500, respectively.

In follow-up opinions in both cases issued earlier this year, the judges decided to impose penalties on MacPherson under section 6673(a)(2) of $19,837.50 and $7,188, respectively.  That section provides that “[w]henever it appears to the Tax Court that any attorney . . . has multiplied the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously,” the court may require that the attorney “pay personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct.” The judges computed the excess costs using a well-settled “lodestar” amount for the work of IRS attorneys and law clerks.

In the second Best opinion, the court applied a rule of the Ninth Circuit and most appeals courts that bad faith is needed to impose sanctions, even though not all courts of appeal require this. In part, the Tax Court did this to make the split irrelevant by holding that the IRS passed the higher test (bad faith), writing:

Moreover, appellate venue regarding section 6673(a)(2) is uncertain.  Venue for appeal of Tax Court decisions is governed by section 7482(b). The venue for appeal is likely either the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (because of the legal residence of petitioners), see sec. 7482(b)(1)(A), or the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, see sec. 7482(b)(1) (flush language). . . .  Because we are unsure of appellate venue, and because we find that Mr. MacPherson’s conduct would constitute bad faith under the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s test for bad faith, we will for purposes of this case (and without deciding the standard in this Court), adopt that standard.

T.C. Memo. 2016-32, slip op. at *11- *12.

In the second May opinion, the Court stated that it was following the reasoning of the second Best opinion and cited opinions on sanction standards both from the Ninth Circuit and D.C. Circuit, as follows:

We find that Mr. MacPherson knowingly or recklessly advanced arguments that he knew were frivolous and lacking in any legal basis. Because his actions thus manifested subjective bad faith, they are deserving of sanction under section 6673(a)(2). See Moore v. Keegan Mgmt. Co. (In re Keegan Mgmt. Co., Sec. Litig.), 78 F.3d 431, 436 (9th Cir. 1996); Reliance Ins. Co. v. Sweeney Corp., 792 F.2d 1137, 1138 (D.C. Cir. 1986); Takaba v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 285, 296-297 (2002).

T.C. Memo. 2016-43, slip op. at *15 (footnote omitted).

In early June, notices of appeal were filed in both cases in the Ninth and D.C. Circuits. All four of the notices attach the rulings of the Tax Court in the opinions that sanctioned MacPherson, but not the earlier opinions concerning the taxpayers. All notices of appeal nominally are in the names of the taxpayers, but are signed only by MacPherson. While the notices of appeal are a bit confusing (and may not be jurisdictionally-sufficient for all of the parties desiring to appeal), it appears that the appeals are intended to be both on behalf of the taxpayers and MacPherson, even though MacPherson has not put his name in the captions of the appeals as an appellant.

In the notices of appeal to the D.C. Circuit, MacPherson explains (without citing Byers) that venue on appeal of CDP cases such as Best and May is unclear, and so the filings in the D.C. Circuit are essentially protective. He states that the appellants prefer that the appeals be heard by the Ninth Circuit and that he has asked counsel for the government to stipulate to the Ninth Circuit as the proper venue.

I expect that the government will agree to the requested stipulation – both for the taxpayers and MacPherson’s penalty appeals.

First, in Notice CC-2015-006 (issued before Byers was legislatively repealed), and on which I blogged here, Chief Counsel expressed its disagreement with the D.C. Circuit’s venue holding in Byers that, absent a stipulation otherwise, CDP cases not involving underlying liability issues are appealable only to the D.C. Circuit, writing:

When evaluating appellate venue after a taxpayer files a notice of appeal, if the taxpayer appeals a non-liability case to the D.C. Circuit, and the case is not enumerated in section 7482(b), Chief Counsel attorneys should not recommend objecting to venue since Byers is controlling in the D.C. Circuit. If a taxpayer appeals a non-liability case to the proper regional circuit, Chief Counsel attorneys should likewise not object to venue as the taxpayer’s choice of venue is consistent with our position.

(Emphasis added.)  It is thus the IRS preference to litigate CDP cases in the regional Circuits of the taxpayers’ residence.

Second, I don’t expect the IRS to object to venue of MacPherson’s penalty appeals in the Ninth Circuit, either, since judicial economy (and government briefing expenses) would be served by hearing the taxpayers’ and their lawyer’s appeals together.

But, I do want to discuss the open question as to the proper venue for an attorney who is appealing penalties imposed by the Tax Court under section 6673(a)(2).

Recall that section 7482(b)(1)’s flush language provides a general rule that appeals from the Tax Court go to the D.C. Circuit, unless one of a series of lettered subparagraphs applies.  Subparagraph (A) directs appeals by individuals from rulings involving petitions seeking redetermination of tax liability to the Circuit of the individual’s residence.  Just as in Byers, where the D.C. Circuit held CDP petitions not to fall within subparagraph (A), in Dornbusch v. Commissioner, 860 F.2d 611 (5th Cir. 1988), the Fifth Circuit held that an appeal from a Tax Court criminal contempt order against a third-party witness could not be heard by the Circuit of the petitioner’s residence but had to be heard by the D.C. Circuit under the flush language of section 7482(b)(1).  In that case, the Fifth Circuit transferred the criminal contempt appeal to the D.C. Circuit.

More recently and to the point, the Tax Court has speculated that appeals of its section 6673(a)(2) penalties on attorneys also probably don’t fall within subparagraph (A) of section 7482(b)(1) or any other subparagraph, so, absent stipulation otherwise,  should go only to the D.C. Circuit. Takaba v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 285, 297 (2002); Edwards v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2003-149, aff’d, 119 Fed. Appx. 293 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (D.C. Cir. opinion lacks any discussion of venue); Davis v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2007-201, taxpayer’s appeal only aff’d, 301 Fed. Appx. 389 (6th Cir. 2008) (attorney’s appeal dismissed because notice of appeal did not make clear that attorney was appealing).

The issue of venue for appeals of section 6673(a)(2) penalties once came up in a D.C. Circuit opinion.  The taxpayer had appealed his case, Powell v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2009-174, to the Sixth Circuit, where the appeal was pending when the taxpayer’s attorney appealed his section 6673(a)(2) sanctions in the case to the D.C. Circuit.  The DOJ apparently moved to transfer the attorney’s appeal to the Sixth Circuit, but the D.C. Circuit directed briefing on the entire case (including the transfer issue), and when the D.C. Circuit issued its opinion in Barringer v. U.S. Tax Court, 408 Fed. Appx. 381 (D.C Cir. 2010)[free copy unavailable], it affirmed the Tax Court without transferring the case, writing:  “Because the appeal has been fully briefed and argued, the judicial economy rationale of the Tax Court’s suggestion this appeal be transferred to the Sixth Circuit where the taxpayer’s appeal is pending, no longer exists.” Thus, the Barringer opinion also does not decide the normally-correct venue on appeal for a section 6673(a)(2) penalty case.

In hunting around for other venue rulings on section 6673(a)(2) penalties, I found one opinion from a regional Circuit, Johnson v. Commissioner, 289 F.3d 452 (7th Cir. 2002). In the Tax Court case related thereto, the taxpayer, Johnson, lived in Indiana (within the Seventh Circuit). Johnson v. Commissioner, 116 T.C. 111, 112 (2001). After ruling against the taxpayer, the Tax Court also sanctioned her attorney, Joe Izen, under section 6673(a)(2). Izen was from Texas. Apparently, only Izen appealed the case to the Seventh Circuit to contest his penalties. The Seventh Circuit held that the penalties were warranted, but did not discuss the venue on appeal – leading me to assume the DOJ did not raise the issue of possible improper venue.

In sum, there are no appellate court opinions – precedential or otherwise – on the correct venue on appeal from attorney penalties imposed by the Tax Court under section 6673(a)(2), just Tax Court speculation that proper appellate venue, absent stipulation otherwise, probably is only the D.C. Circuit.

May readers never have to be involved in a case where this issue has to be resolved.

 

About Carlton Smith

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

Comments

  1. nick paleveda says

    Ugh. Ly

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