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Exxon Prevails in $200 Million Tax Penalty Case

On January 13, 2021, the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in favor of Exxon Mobil Corporation (“Exxon”) in its battle against the government over tax penalties. Exxon filed amended returns for its 2006-2009 tax years seeking a $1.35 billion tax refund based upon a change of character of certain transactions (from mineral leases to purchase transactions). The government disallowed the refund claims and imposed a $200 million penalty pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 6676. Exxon paid the penalty and filed suit for a refund.

We have written extensively concerning IRC section 6676, warning taxpayers of this potential landmine. See, e.g., Taxpayers Should Prepare for the Next Penalty Battleground” Roberson, Spencer and Walters, Law360 (May 21, 2019) and “Expect More Civil Tax Penalties—So, Now What?” Roberson and Spencer, Tax Executive (Sept. 27, 2019). To recap, IRC Section 6676 was enacted in 2007 in response to the high number of meritless refund claims being filed at the time. It imposes a 20% penalty to the extent that a claim for refund or credit with respect to income tax is made for an “excessive amount.” An “excessive amount” is defined as the difference between the amount of the claim for credit or refund sought and the amount that is actually allowable. For example, if the taxpayer claims a refund of $2 million and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows only $1 million, the taxpayer can still be penalized $200,000.Significantly, IRC section 6676 does not require the IRS to show any fault or culpability on the part of the taxpayer—e.g., negligence, disregard of rules or regulations, etc. IRC section 6676(a) originally provided a “reasonable basis” defense (which is applicable to the Exxon case), but in 2015 Congress amended the statute and now requires a showing of “reasonable cause.” Neither the Code nor the regulations provide for any other defense to the IRC section 6676 penalty. Moreover, the penalty is immediately assessable, meaning taxpayers cannot fight the IRS in a pre-payment forum like the US Tax Court but must first pay the penalty and seek redress in a refund form.

In Exxon, the government argued that the court should overlay a subjective element on “reasonable basis,” as the US Circuit Court for the Eighth Circuit did in Wells Fargo & Co. v. United States, 957 F.3d 840 (8th Cir. 2020). Our prior coverage of this case can be found here. The Exxon court declined the invitation. Instead, the court explained IRC section 6676 “focuses on whether the claim had a reasonable basis, not on whether the taxpayer had a reasonable basis.” The court agreed with Exxon that its position in the refund claim that its transactions were purchases was reasonable based on the relevant authorities. It further found that the company had “colorable support for its legal contention that a change that affects whether, not when, an item comes into income is not [...]

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Prepare for Examination Season

The tax bar is abuzz with the talk of tax reform. Clients are in modeling purgatory, trying to calculate its effects and plan for the future. Public accounting firms are suggesting how to accelerate deductions in 2017 to take advantage of the massive tax rate decline in 2018. Now more than ever, there are substantial economic incentives to accelerate deductions in 2017 and defer income until 2018. Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and the end to what bodes to be a historic year for federal tax!

Not to be a Grinch, but consider the following as you prepare for year end. If you attempt to accelerate any deductions, make sure to have a complete, “audit-ready” file if the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) decides to test your position. Consider how you will protect against the assertion of any penalties; typically, your ticket to get of out penalty “prison” is to maintain proper substantiation and to establish a reasonable cause defense. An opinion of counsel is one method to meet your burden of establishing that defense. It is always better to be proactive and anticipate an IRS audit than to be reactive and try to compile the proper documentation after-the-fact.




Tax Court Says IRS’s “Drift-Net” Argument to Expand Privilege Waiver Must Be Anchored in Principles

In Estate of Levine v. Commissioner, the US Tax Court (Tax Court) rejected an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) attempt to expand upon the privilege waiver principles set forth in AD Inv. 2000 Fund LLC v. Commissioner. As background, the Tax Court held in AD Investments that asserting a good-faith and reasonable-cause defense to penalties places a taxpayer’s state of mind at issue and can waive attorney-client privilege. We have previously covered how some courts have narrowly applied AD Investments.

In Estate of Levine, the IRS served a subpoena seeking all documents that an estate’s return preparer and his law firm had in their files for a more-than-ten-year period, beginning several years before the estate return was filed and ending more than four years after a notice of deficiency (i.e., which led to the Tax Court case) was issued. The law firm prepared the estate plan and the estate tax return in issue. The law firm represented the estate during the audit, and after the notice of deficiency was issued, the law firm was engaged to represent the estate in “pending litigation with the IRS.”   (more…)




The IRS Is Struck Down Again in Privilege Dispute

Courts continue to strike down the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as it continues to test the bounds of the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine through the issuance of improper summonses. In the last several years, the IRS has filed numerous summons enforcement proceedings related to the production of documents generally protected by the attorney-client privilege, tax-practitioner privilege, and/or work product doctrine. These summonses include overt requests for “tax advice” and “tax analysis,” which several courts have refused to enforce. For example, see Schaeffler v. United States, 806 F.3d 34 (2d Cir. 2015).

Once again, in United States v. Micro Cap KY Insurance Co., Inc. (Eastern District of Kentucky), a federal district court rejected the IRS’s arguments and refused to enforce an inappropriate summons. The opinion is available here. The IRS filed this enforcement proceeding seeking to compel the production of confidential communications between taxpayers and the lawyers that assisted them in forming a captive insurance company. After conducting an in camera review (where the judge privately reviewed the documents without admitting them in the record), the judge found the taxpayers had properly invoked privilege since each document “predominately involve[d] legal advice within the retention of [] counsel.”

The court also rejected the government’s argument that the attorney-client privilege was waived by raising a reasonable cause and reliance on counsel defense to penalties in the taxpayers’ case filed in Tax Court. Because the government’s argument was untimely, it was waived and rejected outright. The court, however, proceeded to explain how the argument also failed on its merits. (more…)




The “Issue of First Impression” Defense to Penalties

The Internal Revenue Code (Code) contains various provisions regarding the imposition of penalties and additions to tax. The accuracy-related penalty under section 6662(a), which imposes a penalty equal to 20 percent of the amount of any understatement of tax, is commonly asserted on the grounds that the taxpayer was negligent, disregarded rules or regulations, or had a substantial understatement of tax. Over the years, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has become increasingly aggressive in asserting penalties and generally requires that taxpayers affirmatively demonstrate why penalties should not apply, as opposed to the IRS first developing the necessary facts to support the imposition of penalties.

There are many different defenses available to taxpayers depending on the type and grounds upon which the penalty is asserted. These defenses include the reasonable basis and adequate disclosure defense, the substantial authority defense, and the reasonable cause defense.

Another defense available to taxpayers is what we will refer to as the “issue of first impression” defense. The Tax Court’s recent opinion in Peterson v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 22, reconfirms the availability of this defense. In that case, the substantive issue was the application of section 267(a) to employers and employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) participants. The court, in a published T.C. opinion (see here for our prior discussion of the types of Tax Court opinions) held in the IRS’s favor on the substantive issue but rejected the IRS’s assertion of an accuracy-related penalty for a substantial understatement of tax on the ground that it had previously declined to impose a penalty in situations where the issue was one not previously considered by the Tax Court and the statutory language was not entirely clear.

The Tax Court’s opinion in Peterson is consistent with prior opinions by the court in situations involving the assertion of penalties in cases of first impression. In Williams v. Commissioner, 123 T.C. 144 (2004), for instance, the substantive issue was whether filing bankruptcy alters the normal Subchapter S rules for allocating and deducting certain losses. The Tax Court agreed with the IRS’s position, but it declined to impose the accuracy-related penalty because the case was an issue of first impression with no clear authority to guide the taxpayer. The court found that the taxpayer made a reasonable attempt to comply with the code and that the position was reasonably debatable.

Similarly, in Hitchens v. Commissioner, 103 T.C. 711 (1994), the court addressed, for the first time, an issue related to the computation of a taxpayer’s basis in an entity. Despite holding for the IRS, the court rejected the accuracy-related penalty. It stated “[w]e have specifically refused to impose additions to tax for negligence, etc., where it appeared that the issue was one not previously considered by the Court and the statutory language was not entirely clear.” Other cases are in accord. See Braddock v. Commissioner, 95 T.C. 639, 645 (1990) (“as we have previously noted, this issue has never before, as far as [...]

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