Lavar Taylor brings us the fifth installment of his series on Collection Due Process and third parties. Today he addresses strategies in litigating the issues. Lavar promises one more post on the topic after this one. When complete his work on this topic will be the equivalent of a law review article but with a very practical bent. For practitioners with clients who have derivative liabilities, Lavar provides significant insight into the law and the practice of representing parties operating in the dark shadows of the code and administrative practice. Although Lavar does not discuss the issue, it is interesting how the Taxpayer Bill of Rights promises of the right to challenge the IRS position and be heard and the right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum intersect with the way that these third parties are treated by the IRS. Keith
In Part 4 of this series, I discussed the questions of 1) how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the Tax Court to raise the questions of whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under sections 6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability, 2) whether the government can take administrative collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment or making a separate assessment, and 3) whether the Tax Court has the ability to address issues 1 and 2 above, given that no notice of determination is ever issued by the IRS in these situations.
This post addresses the question of how a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of a taxpayer might pursue litigation in the District Court to raise the questions of 1) whether they are entitled to Collection Due Process (“CDP”) rights under sections 6330 and 6320 of the Code, independent of the rights of the original taxpayer who incurred the liability, and 2) whether the government is prohibited from taking collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee of the taxpayer without first obtaining a District Court judgment against the putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, based on the arguments set forth in Part 3 of this series.
This post also discusses the factors affecting the decision of whether to litigate these issues in Tax Court or District Court. In addition, this post discusses why assertions of “nominee” status by the IRS are treated differently under the CDP rules.
1. Litigating in District Court
An alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee has always had a remedy in District Court to challenge levy action against them in the form of a wrongful levy action brought under §7426. See, e.g., Towe Antique Ford Found. v. IRS, 999 F.2d 1387 (9th Cir. 1993). These lawsuits, however, have focused on whether the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee was substantively liable for the tax liability under state law.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no reported decisions where the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee has argued that the IRS levy action was improper because the IRS failed to send the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy before taking levy action against them. Nor am I aware of any reported cases where the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee brought a wrongful levy action claiming that the IRS cannot take any administrative collection action against a purported alter ego/successor in interest/transferee prior to the government obtaining a District Court judgment they are liable for the taxpayer’s taxes as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer, based on the theory articulated in Part 3 of this series.
Frequently, the previously unannounced levy action against the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee financially destroys them and deprives them of the resources needed to challenge the IRS’s assertion of liability. Under the law as interpreted by the IRS, the playing field is decidedly tilted in favor of the IRS. While there are undoubtedly many meritorious assertions of liability by the IRS, I am aware of a number cases in which the issue of liability as an alter ego/successor in interest/transferee was at best questionable or debatable. In our now-settled Tax Court case, for example, there was a state Supreme Court decision which made clear that, based on the undisputed facts in our case, it was not possible for our client to be an alter ego of the taxpayer. Yet the IRS, without properly investigating the facts, pursued levy action against our client, with the blessing of Area Counsel’s Office, based on the unsound premise that our client was an “alter ego” of the taxpayer.
Even where a third party is conceding that they are liable as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer under state law, they can bring a wrongful levy action to challenge the procedural validity of the levy action, based on the failure of the IRS to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the third party prior to taking levy action against the third party. The mere opportunity to seek administrative collection alternatives, such as an installment agreement, or even an offer in compromise based on doubt as to liability, without having to deal with unannounced levy action may often be the difference between financial life and death for an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee.
For these reasons, any alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, even if they agree that they are liable for the taxes assessed against the taxpayer can bring suit, either in District Court or in Tax Court to challenge the failure of the IRS to issue a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to them prior to taking levy action. In such a suit they can also challenge the underlying ability of the government to ever take administrative collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee prior to obtaining a District Court judgment in favor of the government (or prior to making a separate assessment), based on the theory articulated in Part 3 of this series.
Similar options exist to challenge the validity of an alter ego/successor in interest/transferee notice of federal tax lien. A petition can be filed with the Tax Court, although care should be taken to file the petition promptly after the filing of the lien notice, to minimize the risk that such a petition might be deemed untimely by the Court. Such a petition will be subject to the same jurisdictional challenges as a levy petition.
Alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees likewise have always had the opportunity to file a quiet title action in District Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2410 in order to challenge the validity of the tax lien. See Spotts v. United States, 429 F.3d 248 (6th Cir. 2005). There is no reason why an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee could not file a quiet title action in District Court based on the grounds that 1) the IRS failed to give them their own lien CDP rights as required by section 6320 after the filing of the notice of federal tax lien, and 2) the government is not permitted to take collection action against them in the absence of a separate assessment against them or a District Court judgment imposing liability as an alter ego, successor in interest, or transferee of the taxpayer, for reasons outlined in Part 3 of this series.
2. Tax Court or District Court: Making a Choice
If an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee wishes to pursue litigation to challenge the ability of the IRS to levy without first issuing a separate §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to challenge the ability of the IRS to take administrative collection action against a purported alter ego/successor in interest/transferee, choosing between Tax Court and District Court as a litigation forum can be difficult. District Court offers a forum where the court clearly has jurisdiction to rule on the issues at hand. District Court also is much quicker than Tax Court. Indeed, in our now-settled case, at the time of the settlement, the IRS’s motion to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction had been pending with the Tax Court for over 12 months without any opinion being issued.
District Court Judges, however, often lack even basic familiarity with tax laws in general and with CDP laws in particular. Tax Court Judges have significant expertise in tax law and regularly deal with CDP procedures in their cases. They certainly have more expertise in determining the extent of their own jurisdiction than do District Court Judges. Page limitations on filings in District Court may hamper the ability of an alleged alter ego/successor in interest to fully brief all of the issues, which are complex and arcane, even to the most dedicated tax procedure junkies.
In addition, once the Department of Justice acquires jurisdiction over a case, settling that case can become much more difficult. There can be a dramatic difference in the levels of approval needed to settle a case with the Office of Chief Counsel and the levels of approval needed to settle a case with the Department of Justice. See the Department of Justice Tax Division Settlement Reference Manual. Furthermore, the differences between the rules governing discovery in Tax Court and the rules governing discovery in the District Court generally make it far more expensive to litigate in District Court than in Tax Court.
An alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee who ventures into District Court in a wrongful levy action or a quiet title action also faces the possibility that the Department of Justice will seek an affirmative judgment against them, including a judgment for the foreclosure of real property owned by the alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee which the government contends can be reached in an effort to satisfy the taxes owed by the taxpayer. No such counterclaims can be filed by the government in Tax Court litigation; IRS must refer the matter to the Department of Justice for a separate lawsuit.
Yet, until the Tax Court has issued an opinion in this area, anyone who chooses Tax Court as their litigation forum currently faces the possibility that the Tax Court will eventually dismiss their petition for lack of jurisdiction in a way that fails to resolve the underlying question of whether alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees are entitled to their own independent CDP rights or whether the IRS may ever pursue administrative collection action against an alleged alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment. And however the Tax Court rules on this issue, the Tax Court’s ruling can be appealed to the relevant Court of Appeals.
The specific facts in each case will also be an important factor, as will the proclivities of the local District Court Judges. The rulings of the District Courts can also be appealed to the relevant Court of Appeals, but there will never be any appeal on the issue of whether the District Court lacks jurisdiction over such a suit, as long as the suit is brought within the applicable statute of limitations for wrongful levy actions and quiet title actions. (The statute of limitations for wrongful levy actions is now two years. 26 U.S.C. §6532(c). The statute of limitations on quiet title actions is six years. See Nesovic v. United States, 71 F.3d 776 (9th Cir. 1995). )
3. The Long, Hard Road Ahead
Given the circumstances described in this series of posts, it is likely to be quite some time before there is a definitive answer to the questions of whether alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees are entitled to their own independent CDP lien and levy rights and whether the IRS may ever take administrative collection action against a putative alter ego/successor in interest/transferee without first obtaining a District Court judgment or making a separate assessment. The speed at which the case law develops will depend in large part on how the Tax Court rules in its first published opinion on these issues. If the Tax Court rules that it has jurisdiction, that holding will drive litigation of these issues to the Tax Court. The IRS will then likely appeal the Tax Court’s holding(s) to multiple Courts of Appeal, possibly leading to a split in the Circuits and Supreme Court review of the issue(s) that split the Circuits.
If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction but refuses to follow Adolphson and holds adversely to the government on the procedural issues in dismissing the petition for lack of jurisdiction, this holding will also drive litigation to the Tax Court. This will likely be followed by government appeals to multiple Courts of Appeal and possibly an eventual Supreme Court ruling in this area.
If the Tax Court holds that it lacks jurisdiction and follows Adolphson, a few brave hardy souls may continue to litigate in Tax Court, with the idea of taking their cases to the relevant Courts of Appeal But most litigation involving these issues will be driven to the District Courts, many of which may be reluctant to second guess the Tax Court’s holding on the jurisdictional issue. But the District Courts will still be able to rule on the substantive CDP issue, as well as on the issue of whether the government is required to obtain a District Court judgment (or make a separate assessment) against purported alter egos/successors in interest before the government can take collection action against them.
One or more of these issues are likely to end up being argued before the Supreme Court, absent any future legislative action by Congress. But it is likely to be a number of years before that happens.
4. “Nominee” Liens and Levies- Why The CDP Rules Are Different
In writing this series of posts, I have purposefully avoided including “nominee” liens and levies within the scope of my discussion of the extent to which the CDP provisions may be invoked by third party non-taxpayers against whom the IRS is pursuing collection action to collect taxes owed by the original taxpayer. Putative “nominees” are different from putative alter egos/successors in interest/transferees in that “nominees” are not themselves personally liable for the tax liability. Rather, a true nominee holds “property or rights to property” of a taxpayer as the agent of the taxpayer. They are not personally liable for the tax. This distinction is critical for purposes of determining the rights of putative “nominees” under the CDP procedures.
In Part 1 of this series I noted that there are important differences between §§6320 and 6330, and their counterparts, §§ 6321 and 6331. Section 6321 imposes a lien against all “property and rights to property” of a person who is “liable for the tax.” Thus, there must be a personal liability for a tax obligation before a lien can arise against a person’s “property or rights to property” under §6321.
The language of §6320 makes clear that a lien CDP notice is only required to be sent to the “the person described in section 6321,” i.e., a person who is personally liable for the tax. Thus, a putative nominee of the taxpayer is not entitled to notice under §6320 and cannot invoke the lien CDP procedures if the IRS files a “nominee” notice of federal tax lien. Note, however, that a true “nominee” notice of federal tax lien should make clear that the IRS lien only attaches to the specific property, real or personal, which the putative nominee is supposedly holding as an agent of the taxpayer. As I will discuss in Part 6 of this series, virtually all “nominee” notices of federal tax lien flunk this test.
Section 6331, on the other hand, authorizes the IRS to levy on all “property and rights to property” of a person who is personally liable for a tax and to levy on all property on which there is a tax lien. Thus, it is possible that the IRS could levy on property that is possessed or owned by a third party which the IRS claims is encumbered by a tax lien, even though the person who possesses or owns that property is not personally liable for the tax.
Section 6330 provides that “[n]o levy may be made on any property or right to property of any person” unless notice is given to “such person” under §6330. Importantly, §6330 uses the phrase “any person,” not the phrase “person liable for the tax.” Section 6330 also does not refer specifically to the “person” described in §6331(a). I personally believe that this a distinction with a difference, and that Congress intended for any person who has a facially recognizable possessory or ownership interest in property under state law upon which the IRS intends to levy is entitled to notice under section 6330 and thus is entitled to invoke the collection due process procedures.
But the IRS thinks otherwise, and issued regulations which define the term “person” in §6330 as the “person liable for the tax.” Treasury Regulation §301.6330-1(a)(3), Question and Answer 1. If this regulation is valid, only persons who are personally liable for the tax are entitled to notice under §6330 and may invoke the CDP levy procedures. No true “nominees” can invoke CDP levy procedures under the IRS’s interpretation of the law.
If the cited Treasury Regulation is struck down as being inconsistent with the statute, however, true nominees would be entitled to notice under §6330 and would be entitled to avail themselves of the CDP levy appeal process. I believe this regulation is inconsistent with the statute. The phrase “any person” is about as broad as you can get, and the contrasting language of §6320 supports the conclusion that Congress’ use of the phrase “any person” in section 6330 was deliberate. Limiting the availability of the levy CDP appeal procedures to persons who are personally liable for the tax is contrary to the language of the statute.
I leave a more detailed analysis of why I believe that this regulation is not valid for another day. Suffice to say that anyone who is the subject of true nominee collection action, where the IRS merely claims that the property held by or ostensibly belonging to a third party on which the IRS has levied is being held by the third party putative nominee for the benefit of the taxpayer and is not asserting that the third party is personally liable for the taxes owed by the taxpayer, will have to convince the Court that this regulation is invalid should they bring an action in Tax Court or District Court to challenge the IRS “nominee” levy action on the grounds that the IRS failed to issue a §6330 Notice of Intent to Levy to the third party prior to levying on property owned or held by the third party.
Because alleged “nominees” are in a more perilous legal position than alleged alter egos/successors in interest/transferees when it comes to invoking the CDP procedures, It may be that the IRS will, in the future, show a greater interest in pursuing “nominee” collection activity as opposed to pursuing “alter ego/successor in interest/transferee” collection activity. I have seen some evidence of this here in southern California, after the IRS read our pleadings in our now-settled case.
My experience is that many people in the IRS throw around the terms “alter ego,” “transferee,” and “nominee” like these terms are interchangeable body parts. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Alter egos and transferees are personally liable for the taxpayer’s taxes, based on applicable state law. Under California law, for example, the legal test for holding a third party liable as an alter ego is different from holding a third party liable as a transferee. The legal test for holding a third party liable as a successor in interest is likewise distinct from the tests for imposing liability as an alter ego or transferee. Nominees are not personally liable for the taxpayer’s tax liability.
Private practitioners should be prepared to call out the IRS if it attempts to sidestep efforts to hold the IRS accountable under the CDP provisions by improperly labeling all third party collection action as “nominee” collection action.
I have one more post to add to this series of posts. In Part 6, I will explain why virtually all IRS “nominee” notices of federal tax lien are improper in a way which can cause legal detriment to the alleged nominees. I have also seen a “transferee” notice of federal tax lien with this same impropriety. In addition to explaining the impropriety, I will offer a suggestion to the IRS on how it can cure this impropriety.