Code Section 6751
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IRS Changes Position on Approval for Assertion of Codified Economic Substance Doctrine

In March 2010, Congress codified the economic substance doctrine in Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 7701(o). The codification clarified that a conjunctive analysis applies in determining if the doctrine applies. The codified economic substance doctrine applies when a transaction does not have economic substance or lacks a business purpose. When the doctrine applies, a taxpayer is subject to a 20% strict liability penalty (40% in the case of undisclosed transactions) on any underpayment attributable to the disallowed tax benefit claimed.

Congress acknowledged that the codified economic substance doctrine should be applied sparingly, and the Joint Committee on Taxation, in a report issued prior to the enactment of the doctrine, provided detailed guidance on when the doctrine should apply. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued guidance shortly after the codification acknowledging these points. The IRS also put in place detailed procedures for examiners to follow in determining whether to assert the codified economic substance doctrine.

One of the procedures put in place was the approval by the Director, Field Operation before the codified economic substance doctrine could be formally asserted. An approval request was to be made after consultation with the revenue agent’s manager and local counsel. Additionally, taxpayers were to be provided “the opportunity to explain their position.”

On April 22, 2022, the IRS’s Large Business & International (LB&I) Division issued a memorandum—LB&I-04-0422-0014—to all LB&I and Small Business/Self Employed examination employees (Updated Guidance). The Updated Guidance removes the requirement to obtain executive approval before asserting the codified economic substance doctrine. The Updated Guidance states that this change aligns penalties for lack of economic substance with other assessable penalties which do not require executive approval. However, the changes do not remove the supervisory approval requirement under Code Section 6751.

In connection with the Updated Guidance, revisions are being made to the relevant provisions of the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM). The IRM revisions eliminate some of the considerations previously set forth in the four-step process that revenue agents were required to undertake in determining whether the doctrine should be applied.

Practice Points: Although the Updated Guidance has no impact on the substance of the codified economic substance doctrine itself, the change is disappointing news. As a result of the relaxed rules for the doctrine’s assertion, taxpayers can reasonably assume that the doctrine may more frequently be asserted on audit. Thus, it is now even more important to properly document transactions to demonstrate they have sufficient economic substance and a business purpose.




Tax Court Holds IRS Chief Counsel Attorneys May Make Initial Penalty Determination

In general, section 6751 requires that a supervisor give written approval before penalties can be asserted against a taxpayer. In Koh v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-77, authored by the US Tax Court’s (Tax Court) most recent addition—Judge Travis Greaves—the Tax Court affirmed that an attorney from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Chief Counsel may be authorized to assert such penalties in an answer to a Tax Court petition.

In Koh, the IRS sent the taxpayer a notice of deficiency that included a determination related to penalties under section 6662(j). The taxpayer filed a petition with the Tax Court contesting the IRS’s determination. In its answer, the IRS Chief Counsel attorney asserted that the taxpayer was liable for accuracy-related penalties under section 6662(b)(1) or (2), in the alternative to the section 6662(j) penalties assessed in the original deficiency notice.

The taxpayer sought partial judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that IRS Chief Counsel attorneys are not authorized to assert penalties in the answer. Under section 6751(b)(1), a penalty may not be assessed unless the “the initial determination of such assessment” was “personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination.”

The Tax Court reasoned that as the IRS’s representative, the Chief Counsel attorney (or a delegate) may assert additional penalties in an answer to a Tax Court petition. Moreover, the Tax Court ruled that Chief Counsel attorneys had authority to assert penalties in an answer in Roth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-248, aff’d, 922 F.3d 1126 (10th Cir. 2019). That opinion was based on numerous cases holding that the IRS may assert penalties in an answer. However, Roth pre-dated the Tax Court’s opinion in Clay v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. 223 (2019), which cited US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit authority for the proposition that “written approval is required no later than the issuance of the notice of deficiency rather than the assessment of the tax.”

Practice Point: Taxpayers continue to face risk from penalties being asserted for the first time in an answer in a Tax Court Proceeding. We believe that there is a strong likelihood that Koh will be appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. We will continue to follow new developments related to penalties and the supervisory approval requirement.




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