Why More Taxpayers Should Pursue Attorney’s Fees through Qualified Offers

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Today we welcome back guest bloggers Maria Dooner and Linda Galler, who in this post urge representatives use the qualified offer provisions more often. Statistics that Maria and Linda received though FOIA show that surprisingly few cases result in attorneys fees given the volume of Tax Court litigation. Regular readers will be familiar with some of the reasons why this may be the case – we have discussed the hurdles to winning fees in many posts (e.g. here, here, and here). Taxpayers in the Ninth Circuit may have a slightly easier time thanks to the Knudsen precedent, but the road is not easy. However, as Maria and Linda explain, there are benefits to submitting a qualified offer even if it does not result in the government paying fees. Christine

Over the past decade, advancements in data collection and analytics at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have led to better insights into the world of federal tax administration. The agency has significantly relied on data to enhance both criminal investigation and civil enforcement.  The ability to access and analyze IRS data also can be valuable to practitioners who desire a better understanding of the use and impact of certain procedural provisions that benefit taxpayers.

As the authors of Chapter 18 in the upcoming 8th edition of Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS, we requested and obtained data from the IRS regarding the pursuit and recovery of attorney’s fees through IRC 7430.  This blog post summarizes that data and offers our observations and thoughts on using qualified offers (“QOs”) for strategic, rather than monetary, purposes.

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What the data show (and do not show)

There is very little data on the pursuit and recovery of attorney’s fees in tax disputes because the IRS only partially tracks it. For example, the IRS does not track the total number of cases in which recovery of administrative or litigation costs is sought under the general provisions of IRC § 7430. Nor does the IRS track or maintain any information on QOs (e.g., number of QOs submitted, number of QOs that resulted in settlement of the underlying case, number of QOs that resulted in an award, or whether an award was for administrative or litigation costs). Such information would be useful both to the government and to practitioners, and we were surprised to learn how little the IRS knows.

The IRS does track the number of cases in which the Office of Chief Counsel (Procedure and Administration) processed a payment of an award from the General Judgment Fund, which includes all cases in which attorney’s fees are awarded in cases before the U.S. Tax Court:

YearNumber of Cases
20158
201613
20177
201810
Attorneys’ Fee Awards in Tax Court Litigation

To place this data in context,  Chief Counsel reported approximately 25,000 cases for fiscal year 2018, 27,000 cases for fiscal year 2017, 30,000 cases for fiscal year 2016, and 32,000 cases for fiscal year 2015 in the U.S. Tax Court.  Consequently, the extremely low number of cases that resulted in an award of fees suggests that practitioners may be overlooking the ability to pursue an award of attorney’s fees and, we suspect, are greatly underutilizing QOs.

What is a qualified offer?

A QO is essentially a written offer made by the taxpayer to the government in a case involving the validity of a tax liability or refund. The taxpayer offers a specific amount (tax liability or refund) to resolve the taxpayer’s case. If the government rejects the offer and there is a court judgment that is equal to or more favorable (to the taxpayer) than the offer, the taxpayer can be awarded attorney’s fees. Thus, for those serious about recovering attorney’s fees, the amount detailed in a QO (which can be a dollar amount or a percentage of the adjustments at issue) should be a realistic estimate of what the taxpayer truly believes to be the correct liability or refund. Though it may be tempting, submitting an offer that is too favorable to the taxpayer (in terms of merit) will likely result in a quick rejection by the IRS and can be a waste of time for all parties.

In terms of timing, a taxpayer can submit a QO any time after they receive a notice of proposed deficiency (i.e., “30-day letter”), which provides rights to administrative review in Appeals.  While a taxpayer can submit a QO up until the day before trial begins, a taxpayer should submit a QO as soon as practical. (Under Reg. § 301.7430-7(a), a taxpayer is entitled to recover only fees incurred subsequent to the offer.) A QO is open for acceptance or rejection by the IRS for 90 days or until the date the trial begins, whichever is earlier. For QOs to be successful, taxpayers must exhaust all administrative remedies with the IRS and not unreasonably protract the proceedings, as well as satisfy a net worth requirement. 

What are the benefits of submitting a qualified offer?

As compared to pursuing costs and fees under the general provisions of IRC § 7430, QOs do not require proof that the government’s position was not substantially justified.  Proving a lack of substantial justification is often the main challenge in recovering attorney’s fees.  Therefore, a taxpayer who submits a QO (and receives a court judgment that is equal to or better than the offer), can expect a more straightforward path toward receiving an award.

The benefits of submitting QOs go beyond monetary compensation; a major benefit is quick case resolution. (The Internal Revenue Manual explicitly instructs Appeals Officers to expedite QOs.)  Efficient case resolution is equally important to LITC/pro bono and compensated attorneys.  For example, given the challenges facing the IRS at the moment, even cases with a predictable outcome can take a long time to make their way through the administrative process.  For clients of LITCs or pro bono counsel, refunds can be held up for lengthy periods, causing financial difficulties to taxpayers who ultimately will prevail.  Moreover, these cases take up unnecessary time and resources for tax professionals on both sides.  Indeed, LITCs and nonprofit organizations themselves are harmed by lengthy administrative processes; pro bono attorneys have less time and bandwidth to represent other clients while struggling to resolve what they reasonably thought were predictable cases. 

In Chapter 18 of the forthcoming edition of Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS,  we discuss in more detail the rules on how to submit a QO and when one is warranted.  Ultimately, we explain why QOs are the “easy way” to recover costs and fees and how they serve to encourage the settlement of tax disputes.  While a QO is not and should not be a panacea for every case, QOs should be considered in strong cases that encounter time-consuming challenges or delays in resolution through no fault of the taxpayer. 

Comments

  1. For what it’s worth a search of Lexis revealed 25 cases decided in the U.S. Tax Court that mention the phrase qualified offer.

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