Whistleblower Jurisdiction: Is Anyone Listening? – Designated Orders: July 22 – 26, 2019

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This week featured three orders from Judge Armen, along with another brief order from Judge Kerrigan that extended the time for responding to a discovery request.

These will be among the last orders from Judge Armen. The Tax Court recently announced that Judge Armen retired from the bench, effective August 31, 2019. I’ve appeared before Judge Armen numerous times for trial sessions in Chicago. In those sessions, I always found him to be fair, thorough, and thoughtful. He always took time to walk pro se petitioners through the Court’s procedures, carefully listened to them, and explained the applicable law in an approachable manner. His presence on the bench will, indeed, be missed.

His first order is relatively unremarkable, save the exacting detail that Judge Armen uses to walk a pro se taxpayer through a relative simple issue (unsurprising, given his similar willingness to do so at trial sessions). Petitioner had contended that including unemployment income in gross income is “cruel, short-sighted, and runs afoul any theory of economic success.” That may well be, but Judge Armen painstakingly runs through the Code to demonstrate that unemployment income is specifically included in gross income under § 85 (and is otherwise generally includable under § 61(a)).

The other two orders are in pro se Whistleblower cases. Both grant summary judgment to the government because there was no administrative or judicial action to collect unpaid tax or otherwise enforce the internal revenue laws. For the Tax Court to obtain jurisdiction under IRC § 7623(b)(4), the IRS must commence such an action.

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Docket No. 17586-18W, Hammash v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Petitioner submitted a Form 211, Application for Award for Original Information, with the IRS Whistleblower office, alleging that a certain business underreported taxes, and that the Petitioner had previously reported the business to the “IRS in California”. (One wonders whether Petitioner means an IRS office in California, or the California Franchise Tax Board; my clients often refer to the Indiana Department of Revenue as the “Indiana IRS”.) But, there wasn’t any further explanation or supporting documentation of the alleged malfeasance.

According to Respondent’s exhibits, the Whistleblower Office denied an award and didn’t otherwise refer the case for further investigation. The Petitioner timely filed a petition; from a review of the docket, it seems he may been represented by a POA at the administrative level, as a motion to proceed anonymously was originally filed by someone not admitted to practice before the Tax Court. The Court struck it from the record soon thereafter.

In any case, the particulars don’t really matter here. The limited information provided in the Form 211 isn’t what dooms Petitioner’s case; rather, it’s that the IRS never initiated an administrative or judicial proceeding to collect tax from the allegedly delinquent taxpayer.

For the Tax Court, this is a jurisdictional requirement under IRC § 7623(b)(4). The Tax Court is authorized to review a “determination regarding an award under [§ 7623(b)(1)-(3)]. IRC § 7623(a)(1), (2), and (3) provide for various awards. Paragraph (1) authorizes an award “[i]f the Secretary proceeds with any administrative or judicial action” related to detecting underpayments of tax or detecting and bringing to trial and punishment criminal tax violators. See IRC § 7623(a), (b)(1); see also Cohen v. Commissioner,139 T.C. 299, 302 (2012). Paragraph (2) and (3) awards are likewise premised upon an “action described in paragraph (1)”. Moreover, the government must collect some unpaid tax from the target taxpayer pursuant to such action, for the Tax Court to obtain jurisdiction.  

Neither an investigative action nor collection of proceeds occurred here. Petitioner didn’t provide any evidence to the contrary in the Tax Court proceeding; indeed, after the Tax Court struck his representative’s motion to proceed anonymously, he seemed to not participate at all. Therefore, summary judgment was appropriate and the Court sustained Respondent’s whistleblower determination.

Docket  No. 19512-18W, Elliott v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

This whistleblower claim contained substantially more detail than Hammash, but nevertheless Petitioner finds herself in the same situation.

Petitioner filed a Form 211, which according to the Court, alleged “a brokerage services firm . . . that was custodian for a certain qualified retirement plan was mishandling former plan participants’ accounts.” Unlike in Hammash, where it appears no outside review occurred, here the Whistleblower Office did forward the claim to a Revenue Agent at the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities division. The RA sent the claim back to the Whistleblower Office, noting that TEGE does not investigate custodians, but rather investigates qualified plans themselves.

The Whistleblower Office didn’t send the claim on to any other division of the IRS. Instead, it issued a denial letter essentially identical to the one in Hammash, noting that the information provided was speculative, lacked credibility, and/or lacked specificity.

Petitioner argued that her information was, in fact, credible and specific, and asked the Court to compel Respondent to investigate the claim.

While this case involved a much more engaged Petitioner with facially troubling allegations, one fact remains: it’s undisputed that the IRS did not conduct an administrative or judicial action to recoup any unpaid tax or otherwise prosecute violations of the internal revenue laws. No proceeds were collected either. Further, the Court cannot, under the limited jurisdiction provided in IRC § 7623, determine the proper tax liability of the target taxpayer or require the IRS to initiate an investigation. See Cooper v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 597, 600 (2011).

Thus, the Court granted Respondent’s motion for summary judgment and sustained Respondent’s administrative denial of the whistleblower award claim.

One small nitpick: here and in Hammash, the Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction. Yet it “sustained” Respondent’s administrative determination. While it arrives at the same conclusion, I don’t believe that’s the proper result under Cohen or Cooper. Under those cases, the Court lacks the power to sustain or overturn the determination to deny the claim; it should therefore dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, rather than sustaining Respondent’s determination.

About Patrick Thomas

Patrick W. Thomas is the founding director of Notre Dame Law School’s Tax Clinic, in which he trains and supervises law students representing low-income clients in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service. Prior to joining the law school faculty in 2016, he received an ABA Tax Section Public Service Fellowship to work as a staff attorney for the LITC at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis.

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