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Eighth Circuit Applies Subjective Standard to Reasonable Basis Penalty Defense

On April 24, 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit published its opinion in Wells Fargo & Co. v. United States, No. 17-3578, affirming a district court’s holdings that the taxpayer was not entitled to certain foreign tax credits and was liable for the negligence penalty for claiming the credits. Much has been written about the substantive issue, which we will not discuss here. Instead, we focus on the Eighth Circuit’s divided analysis relating to the reasonable basis defense to the negligence penalty.

In Wells Fargo, the taxpayer relied solely on the reasonable basis defense to the government’s assertion of penalties. Under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 6662(b)(1), a taxpayer is liable for penalty of 20% of an underpayment of its taxes attributable to its “negligence.” Various defenses are potentially applicable to the negligence penalty, which we recently discussed in detail here. One such defense is if the taxpayer can show it had a “reasonable basis” for its position. Under Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-3(b), this defense applies if the taxpayer’s return position was “reasonably based on” certain authorities specified in the regulations.

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Fifth Circuit Rules that Law Firm Clients’ Identities Are Not Privileged

In Taylor Lohmeyer Law Firm P.L.L.C. v. United States, No. 19-50506, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a Texas-based estate and tax-planning law firm (Firm) could not invoke the attorney-client privilege against an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) summons seeking the identity of its clients.

According to an IRS revenue agent’s declaration submitted in support of the summons, the Firm became a target for IRS investigation following an audit of one of its clients, an individual who had used the Firm’s services to establish and operate various foreign accounts and entities, through which the individual had funneled millions of dollars of unreported income. The IRS issued a John Doe summons to the Firm seeking, amongst other things, the identities of other clients for whom it had established foreign accounts or entities.

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IRS Flexes Its Administrative Summons Power in Recent Tax Case

The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s recent opinion in Standing Akimbo, LLC v. United States, No. 19-1049 (10th Cir. April 7, 2020), reminds us of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) ability to obtain the information it needs to examine taxpayers’ returns using its powerful summons tool.

In May 2017, the IRS began auditing Standing Akimbo, LLC (Standing Akimbo), a Colorado limited liability company operating as a medical-marijuana dispensary. The audit focused on whether Standing Akimbo improperly claimed business deductions that were prohibited under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 280E. Generally, IRC section 280E provides that no deduction or credit is allowed for any amount paid or incurred in the carrying of a business if such business trafficks in controlled substances that are prohibited by Federal law. While legal under Colorado law, marijuana is still classified as a controlled substance under Federal law, and specifically the Controlled Substances Act. As a pass-through entity, any adjustments to Standing Akimbo’s returns would affect its owners’ (Taxpayers) individual tax returns.

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Supreme Court Tackles Tax-Related Cases

The United States Supreme Court has picked up the pace this week, already issuing eight regular opinions and four opinions relating to orders as of today. We discuss the tax-related items here.

In Rodriguez v. FDIC, the question was how to decide which member of a consolidated group of corporations is entitled to a tax refund. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a refund to the designated agent of an affiliated group, but the dispute centered on how that refund should be distributed among the group’s members. Some courts have looked at state law to resolve the distribution issue while others crafted a federal common law rule providing that, in the absence of an unambiguous tax allocation agreement, the refund belongs to the group member responsible for the losses that led to the refund. The Supreme Court rejected the latter common law rule, finding that it was not a legitimate exercise of federal common lawmaking. In reaching its decision, the Court noted that federal judges may craft such types of rules only in limited areas and it must be “necessary to protect uniquely federal interest.” The Court, however, did not decide who, in the case before it, was entitled to the refund, but remanded the case for further proceedings.

In Baldwin v. United States, Justice Thomas dissented from the denial of certiorari in a case asking the Court to reconsider National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005). We previously discussed Baldwin here, in which the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that, under Brand X, its prior construction of Internal Revenue Code section 7502 did not preclude a different interpretation by the IRS because the prior construction was based on filling a statutory gap in a reasonable manner. Because the IRS’s subsequent regulatory interpretation was reasonable (in light of ambiguous statutory language), the Ninth Circuit effectively overruled its prior precedent and accepted the IRS’s subsequent contrary interpretation.

Justice Thomas, the author of Brand X, had a change of heart and wrote that his dissent that the prior opinion appeared to be inconsistent with the Constitution, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and traditional tools of statutory construction. In his dissent, he called into question the continuing viability of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), expressing the view that Chevron “is in serious tension with the Constitution, the APA, and over 100 years of judicial decisions.”

Practice Point: These latest developments from the Supreme Court should be noted by taxpayers and practitioners. As with the highly contested opinion in Kisor v. Wilkie last term, it is clear that many Justices are uncomfortable with granting a high level of deference to government agencies. Deference issues continue to be in the forefront in several tax cases, and likely will continue to be highly relevant in forthcoming challenges to many regulations in the wake of tax reform in 2017.




Law360: Myers May Make It Easier to Find Equitable Relief in Tax Court

Laura L. Gavioli, PC, recently wrote an article for Law360 on a US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s decision that may provide an equitable avenue for hearing of late-filed petitions in US Tax Court. The Law360 article, “Myers May Make It Easier to Find Equitable Relief in Tax Court,” can be accessed here.




Trust Wins Due Process Challenge to North Carolina State Income Tax

Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina may not tax a trust’s income when the trust’s only contact with the state is the in-state residence of discretionary beneficiaries. The Due Process Clause requires a minimum connection between a state and the person it seeks to tax. The mere residency of the discretionary beneficiaries of a trust is not sufficient to satisfy this requirement.

Read the full article.




A Notice of Deficiency Is Not Set in Stone

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 [...]

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Seventh Circuit Upholds Lien Notice despite Incorrect Name

When you do not pay your taxes, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has the power to file a “lien” on your property under Internal Revenue Code section 6321. The lien attaches “upon all property and rights to property, whether real or personal, belonging to such person.” Practically, this means that the IRS is giving notice that you owe it money and its debt gets priority to most debts that occur after the lien notice is filed. Historically, the lien law has been interpreted strictly and “foot faults” can invalidate the lien. A recent case, however, provides that if the federal tax lien uses the incorrect name, the lien may still be established and enforceable.

The taxpayer and his wife purchased their home as joint tenants in 1975. The taxpayer became the sole owner of the property after his wife passed away. In July 2007, the taxpayer filed federal income tax returns for tax years 2000 to 2004. Based on those returns, the IRS assessed taxes, penalties and interest, which remained outstanding at the time of his death in July 2009. On August 9, 2010, the government recorded a notice of federal tax lien (the Tax Lien Notice) against the taxpayer with the appropriate recorder of deeds in an amount equal to the previously assessed amounts. The Tax Lien Notice omitted the second “l” in the taxpayer’s first name, and failed to include a legal description or permanent index number for the property. The Tax Lien Notice did identify the correct address. (more…)




Ninth Circuit Allows IRS to Overrule Common-Law Mailbox Rule

Most tax professionals are aware of the common-law “mailbox rule,” which provides that proof of proper mailing creates a rebuttable presumption that the document was physically delivered to the addressee. Internal Revenue Code (Code) section 7502 was enacted to codify the mailbox rule for tax purposes. Thus, for documents received after the applicable deadline, the document will be deemed to have been delivered on the date the document is postmarked. To protect taxpayers against a failure of delivery, Code section 7502 also provides that when a document is sent by registered mail, the registration serves as prima facie evidence that the document was delivered, and the date of registration is treated as the postmark date. In other words, if the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) claims not to have received a document, the presumption arises that such document was delivered so long as the taxpayer produces the registration.

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Second Circuit Weighs in on Tax Court’s Refund Jurisdiction

Borenstein v. Commissioner is an interesting opinion involving the intersection of canons of statutory construction and jurisdiction. Recently, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the US Tax Court’s holding in Borenstein that the court lacked jurisdiction to order a refund of an undisputed overpayment made by the taxpayer. The case, which we discussed in a prior post, involved interpreting statutory provisions dealing with claims for a refund after a notice of deficiency was issued. The Tax Court’s holding was based on the application of the plain meaning rule to Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 6512(b)(3), which limit its jurisdiction to order refunds of overpayments.

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