A recent case decided by the United States Court of Appeals of the Tenth Circuit reminds taxpayers to be aware that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is not necessarily locked in to the positions and arguments stated in the Notice of Deficiency. In particular, the IRS is allowed to revise penalty determinations, or to make penalty determinations for the first time, during litigation in the Tax Court, notwithstanding any arguably inconsistent determination in the Notice of Deficiency.

In Roth v. Commissioner, 123 AFTR.2d 2019-1676 (10th Cir. 2019) , the taxpayers owned 40 acres of land in Prowers County, Colorado. In 2007, the taxpayers donated to the Colorado Natural Land Trust a conservation easement, which prohibited them from mining gravel upon the land. The taxpayers valued the easement at $970,000 and claimed charitable contribution deductions with respect to this amount on their 2007 and 2008 income tax returns.

The IRS examined the position, and determined that the easement was worth only $40,000. The revaluation resulted in underpayments of tax. The IRS revenue agent assigned to the case imposed an enhanced 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 6662(h), because the claimed value of the easement had exceeded 200% of its actual value. The 40% penalty was approved on IRS administrative review, but due to an alleged clerical error, the Notice of Deficiency sent to the taxpayers listed only the standard 20% accuracy-related penalty under IRC section 6662(a).

The taxpayers filed a Petition in the US Tax Court. In its Answer, the IRS reasserted the 40% penalty. The taxpayers challenged the imposition of the enhanced penalty, citing IRC section 6751(b), which provides that a penalty can only be assessed pursuant to an approved “initial determination.” The taxpayers argued that the Notice of Deficiency was the “initial determination,” and because the enhanced penalty was not stated in the Notice of Deficiency, the IRS did not have the authority to impose a penalty in excess of the amount indicated thereon. The Tax Court ruled in favor of the IRS, considering itself bound by its decision Greav v. Commissioner (Graev III), 149 T.C. 485 (2017), which allows the IRS to assert additional penalties in an Answer to a taxpayer’s Tax Court petition.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the Tax Court’s ruling. The Tenth Circuit rejected the taxpayers’ argument that the “initial determination” of a penalty was the amount shown on a Notice of Deficiency. The Tenth Circuit noted that IRC section 6212(a) provides that the IRS is authorized to send a Notice of Deficiency after having determined a tax deficiency, suggesting that the “initial determination” of a tax deficiency or penalty can occur prior to the sending of a Notice of Deficiency. The Tenth Circuit concluded that the 40% penalty determined by the IRS revenue agent was the “initial determination” for purposes of IRC section 6751(b).

The Tenth Circuit also cited Graev III for the proposition that an IRC section 6751(b) initial determination can be made by an IRS attorney in Tax Court proceedings. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that, even if the Notice of Deficiency was an initial determination of a 20% penalty, the IRS’s answer to the taxpayer’s Petition constituted a separate initial determination that a 40% penalty should apply instead. The Tenth Circuit rejected the taxpayers’ argument that only one initial determination could be made in a given case, noting that such an interpretation would deprive the Tax Court of the jurisdiction it possesses under IRC section 6214(a) to redetermine the amounts of tax deficiencies and additions to tax in the course of Tax Court proceedings.

Practice Point: Taxpayers cannot escape a tax penalty merely because it was not determined before a court proceeding. So why is this important? Because in each tax matter that goes to court you must consider the possibility of a penalty and how to defend against it.