initial determination
Subscribe to initial determination's Posts

Courts Split on Supervisory Approval Requirement for Tax Penalties

Since Chai v. Commissioner, an opinion by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit subsequently followed by the US Tax Court in several opinions, there has been a substantial number of cases litigating issues involving supervisory approval of federal civil tax penalties. Two recent additions to that list include decisions from the Ninth and Eleventh Circuits, where both Courts departed from the Tax Court’s analysis and ruling on the issue. The disagreement centers on when approval must occur. (Some of our prior discussions on this topic are linked below.)

LAIDLAW’S AND THE NINTH CIRCUIT

In Laidlaw’s Harley-Davidson Sales, Inc. v. Commissioner, the Ninth Circuit, reversing the Tax Court’s ruling, applied a textualist approach and held that approval is required only before the assessment of a tax penalty and not before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) communicates a proposed penalty to the taxpayer. The Court reasoned that the “language of [Internal Revenue Code (Code) section 6571(b)] provides no reason to conclude that an ‘initial determination’ is transformed into ‘something more like a final determination’ simply because the revenue agent who made the initial determination subsequently mailed a letter to the taxpayer describing it.” While the Court was “troubled” by the manner in which the IRS communicated the potential imposition of the penalty, it explained that a court’s role is to “apply the law as it is written, not to devise alternative language.” In reaching its decision, the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the position developed by the Tax Court in recent years.

KRONER AND THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

In Kroner v. Commissioner, the Eleventh Circuit followed Laidlaw’s Harley Davidson Sales and similarly concluded that the IRS satisfies Code Section 6751(b) so long as a supervisor approves the penalty before it is assessed. The Court explained that this was the best reading of the statute because (1) it is more consistent with the meaning of the phrase “initial determination of such assessment,” (2) it reflects the absence of any express timing requirement in the statute, and (3) it is a workable reading in the light of the statute’s purpose. The Court suggested that the IRS may be wise “to have a supervisor approve proposed tax penalties at an early juncture…but the text of the statute does not impose an earlier deadline.”

The Eleventh Circuit was explicit in its departure from Chai and Tax Court precedent, stating that “the Chai court missed an important aspect of the statute’s purpose: it is not just about bargaining, it is also a check on the imposition of erroneous penalties.” The Court also explained that “appropriate penalties should be assessed and collected. Chai’s analysis of these competing interests leaned heavily on the former to the detriment of the latter when justifying its departure from the statutory text.”

Practice Point: It remains to be seen whether this issue will make its way to the Supreme Court of the United States given the apparent circuit split on the issue as [...]

Continue Reading




An Update on Section 6751 Penalties

Tax penalties are always a hot topic here. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a large arsenal when it comes to grounds for asserting penalties on income tax deficiencies, ranging from the common 20% penalty under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 6662(a) to higher penalties ranging from 40% (gross valuation or basis misstatements and economic substance) to 75% (fraud).

However, before the IRS can assert most penalties against taxpayers, it must comply with the procedural requirement in Code Section 6751(b): That the “initial determination” to assert the penalty be “personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination.” As the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit explained in Chai v. Commissioner, US Congress imposed this requirement because it “believes that penalties should only be imposed where appropriate and not as a bargaining chip” and “[t]he statute was meant to prevent IRS agents from threatening unjustified penalties to encourage taxpayers to settle.”

Over the past several years, there has been substantial litigation over the proper interpretation and application of Code Section 6751(b). The US Tax Court’s recent opinion in Oxbow Bend, LLC v. Commissioner is the latest development. In Oxbow Bend, the Tax Court rejected the taxpayer’s position that the “initial determination” was made on the date that the examining agent prepared a penalty lead sheet reflecting her recommendation to assert penalties and stated in a telephone conference with the taxpayer’s representative on that same day that penalties were being considered. Approximately three months later, the examining agent’s supervisor approved the penalty lead sheet, and the IRS issued a Notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment asserting the penalties. The Tax Court, relying on its prior precedent, held that the word “determination”:

  1. “has an established meaning in the tax context and denotes a communication with a high degree of concreteness and formality”
  2. “signifies a consequential moment of IRS action”
  3. is not a “mere suggestion, proposal, or initial informal mention of penalties”
  4. “will be embodied in a formal written communication that notifies the taxpayer of the decision to assert penalties.”

Thus, under the Tax Court’s analysis, an “initial determination” can only be made in a “written” document that is provided to the taxpayer.

Oxbow Bend is a memorandum opinion of the Tax Court and, therefore, is limited to its facts and technically not precedential, as we have discussed in the past. However, memorandum opinions are often cited by litigants, and the Tax Court does not disregard these types of opinions lightly. One has to wonder whether, under different facts where an examining agent makes an explicit oral statement to a taxpayer that penalties “will” be asserted, courts might reach a different result given Congress’s express intent that examining agents should not threaten penalties and use them as a bargaining chip for settlement purposes. Further, Code Section 6751(b) expressly requires that the supervisory approval be “in writing” but contains a written requirement for purposes of the [...]

Continue Reading




STAY CONNECTED

TOPICS

ARCHIVES