A pair of recent bankruptcy cases deserve some mention. Conard v. IRS and In re Colony Beach & Tennis Club take a look at IRS claims from two perspectives and provide some insight on whether a bankruptcy petition will prove beneficial in certain circumstances. In the Conard case, the husband gets no relief but his wife will get the opportunity to fully litigate the issue of discharge. In Colony Beach, a defunct partnership’s liability gets classified in a way that will help other creditors of the debtor if not the debtor itself; however, in fashioning the equitable remedy that subordinates the IRS claim, the bankruptcy court loses sight of the true party to blame for the problem and creates an inequitable result at odds with earlier precedent and good sense.
Evasion of Payment
Conard involves the application of facts to BC 523(a)(1)(C). This bankruptcy code section excepts from discharge tax debts incurred through evasion of a tax debt either in the filing or a return or the payment of the tax. The Conrads’ case involves evasion of a tax debt though efforts taken not to pay the tax. The amount of the liability was not in dispute and the IRS did not argue that the Conards did anything to keep the IRS from knowing the correct amount of the liability. Instead, the IRS seeks to deny the Conards a discharge because they have attempted to evade payment of the debt prior to filing their bankruptcy petition. The IRS must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the Conards did not pay their taxes in an improper effort to avoid doing so. Guest blogger Lavar Taylor discussed this issue previously here and here. I wrote about it here, in a case involving evasion of the creation of the liability and not evasion of payment but the post has links to a couple of earlier discussions of the issue.
Mr. Conard operated a life insurance agency in Northern Virginia. The case caused me to notice that in the district where I practiced bankruptcy law while representing the IRS a new bankruptcy judge had been appointed, Judge Keith Phillips, who I knew and liked as a practitioner. Judge Phillips describes Mr. Conard as someone who “chose to put his federal tax obligations ‘on the back burner’ in favor of paying business expenses ‘to keep the business … afloat’ and expanding his business to generate more income.” Mr. Conard placed his federal taxes so far on the back burner that by the time he arrives in bankruptcy court he owed the IRS almost $700,000 for the years 2004-2009.
Of course, as is common in these types of cases, he made purchases that make it very difficult to have sympathy for him. He bought an $86,000 Mercedes Benz, a $47,000 BMW, a $50,000 Buick Lacrosse, and a $4,000 Harley motorcycle. In addition, he spent $48,000 on his son’s tuition as well as a litany of other goods and services that did not reflect the lifestyle of someone scuffling to get by. Judge Phillips found Mr. Conard’s case so straightforward that he ruled for the IRS on a motion for summary judgment. He finds, citing cases from the 3rd, 5th, 6th and 10th Circuits, that the IRS need to meet the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt for evasion of payment. The IRS needs to prove that Mr. Conrad attempted to evade the payment of his taxes – essentially the same, if not the same, proof as in a 7201 evasion of payment case; however, the proof does not need to be beyond a reasonable doubt or even clear and convincing in order to have the taxes determined to be excepted from discharge under BC 523(a)(1)(C). The IRS can have the taxes excepted from discharge if they can prove the attempt to evade payment by a preponderance of the evidence.
However, the Court determined that the IRS had not shown that Mrs. Conard was sufficiently willful in not paying her taxes. It refused to rule on summary judgment with her and will hold a trial to determine her role in the non-payment. I do not know enough about the case against her to have an opinion. With respect to Mr. Conard, he presents the classic case of someone excepted for discharge for seeking to avoid the payment of taxes. If you are not going to pay your taxes, try not to purchase expensive cars and other big ticket items during the period of non-payment.
Reasonable Cause and Equitable Subordination
The Colony Beach case involves a situation in which the IRS seeks to have a penalty claim elevated to administrative claim status. If the claim achieves that status, it will get paid before all other unsecured claims. The debtor, a limited partnership, filed its chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in October, 2009, but by August of 2010 it followed the path of many businesses that start in chapter 11 and converted to a chapter 7 liquidation. It was a fiscal year taxpayer whose year ended on April 30. The return for the year ending in 2011 was initially due July 15 and the extended due date, had it requested an extension, would have been due on January 15, 2012. The trustee filed the return on January 7, 2012 apparently operating under the mistaken impression that his accountant had requested an extension. Because neither the trustee nor his accountants requested an extension, even though they could have done so, and because this penalty applies at the partnership level, the IRS filed a proof of claim for a penalty of $356,695.46.
The trustee, the same person who filed the return late, objected to the claim arguing that reasonable cause existed for late filing. Additionally, the trustee argued that it would be inequitable to allow the IRS to have a priority claim for the penalty and get paid ahead of all other unsecured creditors of the bankruptcy estate. (I do not know exactly how much money was in the estate but it is possible that the penalty claim made the estate “administratively insolvent” which would have meant the trustee would not receive his full fees.)
The first sentence of the reasonable cause portion of the opinion contained a citation to Boyle, which I have noted before is almost always a signal that things will not go well for the party arguing reasonable cause. My use of Boyle as a predictor on this point proved accurate again. The trustee argued that he was involved in “complex litigation which required his full attention.” He also argued that the business was in disarray impeding his ability to reconcile accounts. These all seem like reasons for requesting an extension of time to file which would only have taken a few moments and would have bought the trustee the time he needed to put things together. The court pointed out that the trustee did not file an application to employ accountants to prepare and file the 2011 return until five days before the extended deadline for filing the return. He testified that he thought the debtor’s former accountants would take care of requesting an extension though he never checked on whether they had done so. Consequently, the court had little trouble turning back his reasonable cause claim.
“Nevertheless, it is appropriate in this case to deny the United States’ claim as an administrative expense under 503(b) and to equitably subordinate it.” So, losing the reasonable cause argument in this case does not have any apparent negative impact on the trustee or most of the creditors of the estate. The court notes that penalties can achieve administrative claim status; however, to do so they must relate to a tax incurred by the estate. Here, the taxes related to the late file return are the responsibility of the partners and not the partnership in bankruptcy. So, the claim does not qualify for administrative claim status under section 503((b)(1)(C).
The IRS wants this money so it argued even if the penalty claim does not qualify under (b)(1)(C) it should qualify as a “generic” administrative expense, citing In re 800Ideas.com, Inc., 527 B.R. 701, 702 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. 2015). That case involved a late filed S Corporation return which had the same tax passthroughs as the partnership return and the same late filing penalty application at the corporate level. The bankruptcy court here, acknowledging the appropriateness of the citation, declines to accept the reasoning of that case concluding that “it is appropriate to give meaning to the exclusion of penalties that are unrelated to taxes owed by the bankruptcy estate.” The court also points out the real elephant in the room which is the impact of allowing the penalty claim as an administrative claim on the unsecured creditors who had no hand in the late filing of the return.
Here is where I disagree with the court. It states that in the 800ideas.com case “the impact of the penalty fell on the trustee because the claim, as an administrative expense, reduced the trustee’s compensation.” The court further states that in this case “the trustee will be paid in full, regardless of the United States’ claim receiving administrative status or not….” That makes no sense. The court could have the IRS claim for the late penalty paid in lieu of the trustee’s payment and subordinate the trustee’s payment, to the extent of the penalty claim to general unsecured status. The trustee in this case need not be paid in full while the IRS gets stiffed on its penalty claim that arose because of the trustee’s failure. I totally agree with the court that this penalty should not be borne by the other unsecured claimants but allowing the trustee to take ahead of the IRS cannot be reconciled with equity.
The bankruptcy court in 800ideas.com understood how to fashion an equitable remedy in this situation. I hope the IRS appeals the case to a district judge who has a similar understanding of equity. If the trustee in a situation like this receives his full fee, he learns that filing late has no consequence. That should not be the lesson learned from filing late. This court loses sight of how to fashion an equitable remedy no matter how sorry one feels for a busy trustee.