Our recent post on potential changes to the Tax Court’s procedure rules has been republished in the Corporate Tax Newsletter – USA by The International Law Office. See here for the article.
Are Changes Looming over the Tax Court’s Procedure Rules?
Tax controversy practitioners are undoubtedly aware of the gradual movement over the years to conform certain Tax Court procedure rules (Tax Court Rules) to those of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In many ways, this makes sense to ensure uniformity of tax cases regardless of whether a taxpayer litigates his tax dispute in a refund forum in the US District Court or the US Court of Federal Claims, or prior to payment of tax in the Tax Court. Below we note a few important areas of divergence between the different rules, and point out situations where the Tax Court Rules do not address a particular matter. These matters were discussed at the recent Tax Court Judicial Conference held in Chicago last week.
As we have discussed before, amicus briefs are not uncommon in other courts. However, the Tax Court does not have specific rules on the topic and, instead, permits each judge to decide a case-by-case basis whether to permit the filing of an amicus brief. Although the Tax Court has discussed standards for filing amicus briefs in unpublished orders, given the nationwide importance of many issues that arise in Tax Court litigation, it may be time for the court to issue specific rules addressing the issue. (more…)
Sovereign Immunity Principles Bar Taxpayers from Challenging John Doe Summonses
We recently wrote here about “John Doe” summonses and a case where an anonymous “John Doe” was allowed to intervene in a summons enforcement action. To refresh, under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 7602 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has broad authority to issue administrative summonses to taxpayers and third parties to gather information to ascertain the correctness of any return. If the IRS does not know the identity of the parties whose records would be covered by the summons, the IRS may issue a “John Doe” summons to a third party to produce documents related to the unidentified taxpayers.
In Hohman v. United States, Case No. 16-cv-11429 (E.D. Mich. July 11, 2017), two John Doe summonses directed a banking institution to deliver to the IRS records related to three accounts, which were identified only by account numbers. Two of the accounts were held by limited liability companies (LLCs) and the other was held by an individual. The banking institution notified some of the account-holders that it had received a John Doe summons that sought records for accounts relating to them.
The account-holders filed a civil action, alleging that the IRS’s efforts to obtain their financial records through the use of John Doe summonses violated the federal Right to Financial Privacy Act (RFPA). The RFPA accords customers of banks and similar financial institutions certain rights to be notified of and to challenge in court administrative subpoenas of financial records in the possession of banks. The individual account-holder did not allege that the IRS actually obtained or disclosed any records of account information as a result of the John Doe summons.
The government moved, under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), to dismiss the RFPA claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The government asserted that it has sovereign immunity from the account-holders’ RFPA claims. The waiver of sovereign immunity under the RFPA applies only to claims that a government authority disclosed or obtained financial records.
The court agreed with the government. First, the court concluded that the RFPA’s waiver of sovereign immunity applies only to “customers,” and the LLCs were not “customers” as defined under the RFPA. The court reasoned that the plain language of the RFPA does not state that an LLC is either a “person” or a “customer” and the court was not at liberty to expand the definitions. Second, the court concluded that sovereign immunity was not waived with respect to the individual’s claim because the individual had not alleged that the IRS actually obtained or disclosed any financial records or information from the account as a result of the John Doe summons.
Practice Point: Although waivers of sovereign immunity are often construed strictly, taxpayers should consult with their advisors to determine whether their particular facts may allow an action against the government.
John Doe Intervenes in Virtual Currency Summons Enforcement Case
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has broad authority under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 7602 to issue administrative summonses to taxpayers and third parties to gather information to ascertain the correctness of any return. If the IRS does not know the identity of the parties whose records are covered by the summons, the IRS may issue a “John Doe” summons only upon receipt of a court order. The court will issue the order if the IRS has satisfied the three criteria provided in IRC Section 7609(f):
- The summons relates to the investigation of a particular person or ascertainable group or class of persons,
- There is a reasonable basis for believing that such person or group or class of persons may fail or may have failed to comply with any provision of any internal revenue law, and
- The information sought to be obtained from the examination of the records (and the identity of the person or persons with respect to whose liability the summons is issued) is not readily available from other sources.
Tax Court Considering Requiring Notice of Non-Party Subpoenas
We previously wrote about the lack of a US Tax Court (Tax Court) rule requiring notice to other parties before service of non-party subpoenas for the production of documents, information, or tangible things and inconsistent practices for Judges at the Tax Court. See here and here. To recap, Tax Court Rule 147 allows a party to issue a subpoena to a non-party but does not require that prior notice be given to the other side of the issuance. Prior notice is required under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which govern federal cases before the US district courts. As previously discussed, this absence of a Tax Court rule has led to inconsistent orders from the Tax Court on the subject.
Change may be coming soon, according to comments from Tax Court Chief Judge Marvel on June 16, 2017 at the New York University School of Professional Studies Tax Controversy Forum. Judge Marvel indicated that the Tax Court is considering amendments to Tax Court Rule 147 to conform to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This would be a welcome development for taxpayers, as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would no longer be able to issue subpoenas and gather information from non-parties without a taxpayer’s knowledge and access to the same materials.
Practice Point: The Tax Court has not indicated when the next amendments to its Rules will be released. Until that time, taxpayers in litigation should not expect that the IRS will provide notice of subpoenas issued to non-parties. As we have pointed out before, taxpayers should routinely and regularly issue discovery requests on the IRS seeking: (1) a list of all third-party contacts, including the documents sent and received; (2) copies of all subpoenas, including a copy of all documents sent and received; and (3) a list of the dates on which the third-party contacts occurred, including phone calls and meetings. These requests should be made at the beginning of every case, and it should be stated that the requests are continuing in nature.
Court Procedure and Privilege – A Year in Review
This past year has seen a number of important developments in the areas of Tax Court procedure, federal court procedure, and privilege and non-disclosure. As the below cases and posts demonstrate, taxpayers’ reliance on experts, their efforts to protect privileged information, and their efforts to limit sweeping government discovery requests continue to be tested and closely scrutinized.
Tax Court Inconsistent on IRS’s Use of ‘Secret Subpoenas’
We have previously written about Judge Mark V. Holmes’ dislike of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) practice of issuing subpoenas to non-parties without informing the taxpayer. To recap, Tax Court Rule 147 allows a party to issue a subpoena to a non-party but does not specifically require that prior notice be given to the other side of the issuance of the subpoena. Rather, the subpoena is enforceable as of the beginning of the court’s trial session. In contrast, Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 45 requires notice to other parties before service of non-party subpoenas for the production of documents, information or tangible things. In two prior orders, Judge Holmes ordered that the IRS must serve on taxpayers all non-party subpoenas together with all responses and documents that the non-parties produced have been in the form of unpublished orders. In his orders, Judge Holmes adopted the notification requirement of Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 45, and explained his rationale for his orders.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, Tax Court orders are not to be treated as precedent under Tax Court Rule 50(f), and therefore are not binding on any other Judge of the Tax Court. This point is illustrated by Judge Carolyn P. Chiechi’s December 2, 2016, orders in six related cases (see, e.g., Tangel v. Commissioner), where she stated that “[a] party that issues a subpoena under Rule 147(a) and/or (b) is not required to give prior notice to the other party.” Judge Chiechi further noted that under the facts and circumstances presented the IRS did not issue the subpoenas to harass, annoy, embarrass, oppress or cause an undue burden on the taxpayers. (more…)
Protecting Confidential Taxpayer Information in Tax Court
Taxpayers value confidentiality, particularly if there is a dispute with the IRS that involves highly-sensitive trade secrets or other confidential information. Not surprisingly, complex tax litigation often raises the question of what confidential information has to be “made public”—through discovery responses or the introduction of exhibits or testimony in a deposition or at trial—so that a taxpayer can dispute IRS adjustments in court if administrative efforts to resolve the case are not successful. Fortunately, the Tax Court tends to protect highly-sensitive trade secrets or other confidential information from public disclosure even when the judge must review the information to decide the case.
In the Tax Court, the general rule is that all evidence received by the Tax Court, including transcripts of hearings, are public records and available for public inspection. See Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 7461(a). Code Section 7458 also provides that “[h]earings before the Tax Court . . . shall be open to the public.” Code Section 7461(b), however, provides several important exceptions. First, the court is afforded the flexibility to take any action “which is necessary to prevent the disclosure of trade secrets or other confidential information, including [placing items] under seal to be opened only as directed by the court.” Second, after a decision of the court becomes final, the court may, upon a party’s motion, allow a party to withdraw the original records and other materials introduced into evidence. In our experience, the trend appears to be erring on the side of protecting information from disclosure.
Tax Court Order Indicates That E-Discovery and Predictive Coding Are Here to Stay
On July 13, 2016, Judge Buch of the US Tax Court denied an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) motion to compel the production of electronically stored information (ESI) by Dynamo Holdings Limited Partnership and Beekman Vista, Inc., which was not delivered as part of a discovery response based on the mutually agreed-upon use of “predictive coding.” Predictive coding is an electronic discovery method that permits an efficient and effective approach when reviewing for relevance a large amount of data and documents. It is a relatively new discovery method that is gaining acceptance by courts around the country as an alternative to the costly and laborious physical review of data and documents. Judge Buch previously authorized the use of predictive coding in Dynamo Holdings, Ltd. vs. Commissioner, 143 T.C. No. 9 (2014).
The IRS and the taxpayers had agreed that the taxpayers would run a search for terms determined by the IRS on the potentially relevant documents. The taxpayers provided the IRS with samples of randomly selected documents from the universe of potentially relevant documents, from which the IRS identified the relevant documents. These selections were used to create a predictive coding model, which a computer can use to identify conceptually similar documents. The IRS also selected a “recall rate” of 95 percent. A search method’s recall rate is the percentage of all relevant documents in the search universe that are retrieved by that search method. The higher the recall rate, the fewer relevant but retrieved documents there will be. The taxpayers then delivered to the IRS all of the documents retrieved using the predictive coding model that were not privileged. More documents were identified in the initial search for terms than were identified using the predictive coding model. The IRS filed a motion to compel production of the documents identified in the initial terms search that were not produced.
The Tax Court denied the IRS’s motion, explaining that document review results are never perfect. The court stated that the IRS was seeking a perfect response, but that the Tax Court Rules and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require only that the responding party make a “reasonable inquiry” when making a discovery response. The court explained that “when the responding party is signing the response to a discovery demand, he is not certifying that he turned over everything, he is certifying that he made a reasonable inquiry and to the best of his knowledge, his response is complete.” The use of predictive coding does not change this standard, and the court held that the taxpayers satisfied the reasonable inquiry standard when they responded using predictive coding.
Practice Note: Due to the amount of data and documents generated by taxpayers in the normal course of business, discovery of ESI can be extremely burdensome and expensive for taxpayers. Nonetheless, it has become commonplace to see discovery requests for ESI. Although there is a substantial amount of guidance on this subject in other courts, the Tax Court has issued [...]