Today we welcome back Maria Dooner. Maria is a practitioner-in-residence at the Janet R. Spragens Federal Tax Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law. She returns to help us understand the 9th Circuit’s recent decision regarding attorney’s fees. Keith
As Keith discussed here, the Ninth Circuit recently issued its opinion on Tung Dang and Hieu Pham Dang v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-150. By finding the plaintiffs ineligible for an award of administrative and litigation costs, the court brought closure to the Dangs’ final pursuit of attorney’s fees. Yet, in doing so, it created some confusion (in its majority opinion) and clarity (in its concurrence) and provided another reason why the statute and regulation involving the recovery of administrative costs from administrative proceedings should be changed.
The Ninth Circuit’s Majority Opinion…
When explaining the Dangs’ ineligibility for administrative costs from the collection dispute, the court states the following:
…they are ineligible because no costs were incurred before the commencement date for the relevant administrative proceeding.
However, the parties were not simply disputing whether costs were incurred before the commencement datefor the relevant proceeding, which was a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing. Rather, the parties were debating the definition of reasonable administrative costs – they were specifically disputing the starting point in which reasonable administrative costs were incurred, if at all, in the context of a CDP hearing. For example, the government argued that the starting point was the notice of determination, which is the conclusion of the administrative proceeding in a collections matter. According to the government, the Dangs were ineligible for administrative costs because no costs were incurred after the issuance of the notice of determination.
In contrast, the Dangs argued that the commencement date for administrative costs in a collections matter was the 30-day letter, which allowed the taxpayer the opportunity for administrative review in the Internal Revenue Service Office of Appeals. The Dangs proclaimed that when Congress altered the definition of the commencement date within IRC § 7430(c)(2) to include the first letter of proposed deficiency (a 30-day letter)under the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 this also encompassed a 30-day letter that provided an administrative review to a CDP hearing.
Unfortunately for the Dangs, this argument not only failed to resonate with the court, but it also confused them. The court felt the Dangs were contesting administrative costs in a former examination dispute and included the following in its opinion:
To the extent that they seek administrative costs for their examination dispute with the IRS, their request is untimely, and they were not the prevailing party.
But, at no point in the Dangs’ brief did they argue that they were entitled to administrative costs from the examination dispute. And, at no point did the government rebut this. The statement of issues was confined to the administrative and litigation costs related to the collection proceeding. (By way of background, the IRS erred in this proceeding and this was recognized by IRS Counsel as well as Judge Armen in the U.S. Tax Court.)
Within its majority opinion, the court missed an opportunity to define administrative costs and explain why the Dangs were ineligible to recover them. The court stated that the Dangs had not incurred any costs prior to the commencement of the relevant proceeding, but what was its opinion on the time (and costs) incurred during the CDP Hearing, which occurred after its commencement? Or, did the court agree with the government that the starting point was the notice of determination and that no costs were incurred after the notice of determination?
Judge O’Scannlain’s Concurrence
Some clarity is provided within Judge O’Scannlain’s concurrence, which addresses the timing rule and the validity of the regulation (26 C.F.R. § 301.7430-3).
Judge O’Scannlain states that the regulation (26 CFR § 301.7430-3), which the government relies upon in its brief,is not a “permissible construction” of IRC § 7430. Though Judge O’Scannlain agrees with the government’s interpretation of the hanging paragraph, which precludes the recovery of administrative costs in collection hearings, he states that the regulation, which excludes collection hearings from the definition of administrative proceedings, contradicts the plain language of the statute.
First, the statute is confusing with respect to the recovery of administrative costs from collection proceedings. The statute begins by stating that a prevailing party may be awarded administrative costs from an administrative proceeding (see IRC § 7430(a)(1)). Then, it proceeds to eliminate most administrative costs from collection proceedings due to a timing rule (see hanging paragraph of IRC § 7430(c)(2)). But then, it reiterates that administrative proceeding means any administrative proceeding (see IRC § 7430(c)(5)).
Second, taxpayers struggle to make sense of a confusing statute and tackle the timing rule. For instance, the Dangs emphasized the statute’s broad coverage of administrative proceedings and how it explicitly includes the recovery of costs related to the collection of any tax (see IRC § 7430(a)(1)). To satisfy the timing rule, the Dangs stated that it is not the notice of determination that is relevant but the first letter of proposed deficiency because this is synonymous with any 30-day letter, which opens the door to an administrative proceeding. So rather than conflating a collection proceeding with a deficiency one (which may have been the belief of the court), the Dangs were essentially making a substance over form argument that if embraced by the court would have facilitated the recovery of the administrative costs from the CDP hearing.
Third, the government places significant reliance on a regulation (26 C.F.R. § 301.7430-3) that redefines “administrative proceeding” and excludes most collection proceedings from this definition. As Judge O’Scannlain articulates in his concurrence, the regulation is not aligned with the statute. (Remember, this conflicts with the statute that defines administrative proceeding as any administrative proceeding and specifically references the collection of tax.) So, in addition to the statute, the regulation is also a source of confusion in these cases.
This confusion is heightened by one of the regulation’s exceptions – it recognizes a CDP hearing, which specifically disputes the validity of the tax assessment under IRC § 6330 and IRC § 6320, as an administrative proceeding. (IRC § 6330(c)(2)(b) provides the opportunity for a taxpayer to contest the validity of the tax liability if the taxpayer “did not receive any statutory notice of deficiency for such tax liability or did not otherwise have an opportunity to dispute such tax liability.”) Here, the regulation changes the fundamental nature of a CDP hearing to fit its definition of an administrative proceeding. Under the regulation, a CDP hearing that involves a dispute over the underlying tax liability is considered an administrative proceeding (and not a collection action) whereas one that involves a pure collection dispute is not an administrative proceeding. This does not make logical sense because regardless of whether the taxpayer is disputing the underlying tax or providing a collection alternative within a CDP hearing, the taxpayer is still very much in the heart of a collection proceeding. The taxpayer is ultimately contesting a notice of intent to levy or notice of federal tax lien, has only 30 days (not 90 days) to petition to the U.S. Tax Court and still receives a notice of determination (not a notice of deficiency) at the end of the matter. IRC § 6330(d)(1).
Though the above exception is favorable to the taxpayer, there is also the question of how this exception satisfies the timing rule within IRC § 7430(c)(2). Ironically (for the Dangs), the IRS appears to be embracing a substance over form interpretation of the hanging paragraph of IRC § 7430(c)(2) and is viewing the notice of intent to levy or notice of federal tax lien as a notice of deficiency for those who did not have an opportunity to dispute their underlying tax under IRC § 6330(c)(2)(b). However, if taxpayers, such as the Dangs, attempt to raise this argument in their favor, such as viewing a 30-day letter, which provides an opportunity into a collection proceeding, as a first letter of proposed deficiency, they will most likely confuse the court.
The regulation (26 C.F.R. § 301.7430-3) should be altered…
While the government may believe it is simplifying (and perhaps streamlining) the law by relying on a regulation that eliminates most collection actions from the definition of administrative proceeding, the government’s reliance on this regulation only compounds the confusion that already stems from the statute. Since it is an inaccurate interpretation of the statute (as Judge O’Scannlain conveys in his concurrence), it forces an unnecessary dispute over the definition of an administrative proceeding when the real dispute should be over what constitutes reasonable administrative costs due to a timing rule.
Instead of defining the administrative proceeding as one that excluded most collection proceedings, the IRS should address the impact of statute’s timing rule within the regulation’s definition of administrative costs (26 CFR § 301.7430-4). By addressing it within “administrative costs,” the regulation would be more aligned with the statute. Again, there is no limitation on the definition of administrative proceeding in the statute – in fact, the statute states any (see IRC § 7430(c)(5)). Further, it is the subsection on administrative costs (IRC § 7430(c)(2)) where the hanging paragraph on the timing rule resides.
But better yet, Congress should change the statute to encompass the recovery of administrative costs from collection proceedings…
Without a modification to the timing rule within the statute, it seems nearly impossible to recover administrative costs related to the collection of tax.
While a notice of proposed levy may be viewed as notice of deficiency when a taxpayer is disputing the validity of the tax in a collection proceeding (and did not have the opportunity to do so earlier), taxpayers (like the Dangs) who are purely disputing the proposed collection action (and not the underlying tax) will face an uphill battle when trying to convince a court that the first letter of proposed deficiency in the law should be viewed as any 30-day letter into a collection proceeding.
Again, Congress could incorporate language, such as “the date of receipt by the taxpayer of a right to a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing” into the hanging paragraph of IRC § 7430(c)(2). Though taxpayers will continue to face challenges related to the prevailing party rules and “substantial justification” exception for the government, this will at least facilitate an opportunity to recover administrative costs, such as in the Dangs’ case.
As a final reminder, the Dangs asked for a levy on their retirement, which would have paid the tax in full. While the IRS is cautious with levying retirement accounts as a matter of policy, resistance to it as a collection alternative (when a taxpayer specifically requests it) is at odds with its intention to collect taxes as efficiently as possible. The agency needs additional incentives to follow published guidance in collection due process hearings, and by not allowing the recovery of administrative costs, Congress may not only harm taxpayers but also the IRS. By allowing for the recovery of administrative costs from a CDP hearing, Congress may see an added benefit that goes beyond just discouraging overreaching and abusive actions by the IRS – it may just enhance the efficiency of tax collection – a core purpose of the agency.