On June 22, 2016, I wrote a post about the case of Bush v. United States in which the Tax Division of the Department of Justice argued that B.C. 523(a)(7) did not limit the exception to discharge with respect to the fraud penalty to a fraud penalty arising within three years of the date of the bankruptcy petition. In the Bush case the court ruled against the government and followed the precedent of three circuit court decisions from the early 1990s. After those three decisions the IRS had decided to abandon the argument that B.C. 523(a)(7) limited the exception to discharge to fraud penalty assessments arising within three years of the petition. I speculated in that post that maybe the government had changed its position though it was possible that the case merely reflected the arguments of an Assistant United States Attorney, similar to the situation in a recent post, who made a logical argument unaware of the history of the issue and the position of the government.
In the recently decided case of United States v. Joel No. 3:13-cv-01102 (W.D. Ky. Oct. 18, 2018) the taxpayer made the argument that the government lost in Bush and in the earlier cases. The government goes back to arguing that the circuit court cases were correctly decided, which suggests either that the Bush case was argued by a “rogue” government attorney or that the government has returned to the position it adopted following the three circuit losses in the early 1990s. The court ruled against the taxpayer and spent a little time parsing the confusing language of the statute. The Joel case concerns a post-bankruptcy effort by the IRS to reduce its assessment to judgment and to foreclose its lien on property held by an alleged nominee/alter ego. Most of the opinion focuses on the discharge of the underlying taxes and the effect of the prior bankruptcy case on the statute of limitations on collection.
Depending on the impact of the prior bankruptcy, the statute could have expired prior to the filing of suit by the government. The court goes through a lengthy analysis in determining that the prior bankruptcy suspended the statute of limitations for a sufficient period of time to make the filing of the suit timely. Anyone interested in the interplay of the filing of a bankruptcy petition on the statute suspension for collection may find the case instructive. What makes this case somewhat unique and causes the taxpayer to argue about the fraud penalty is that the bankruptcy court granted Mr. Joel a discharge in his bankruptcy case and later revoked the discharge when his fraud came to light.
The fraud penalty was a minor point in the case, though because of the dollar amounts at issue the taxpayer may not have thought of it as minor. The tax years at issue are 1991, 1992 and 1993. Mr. Joel filed his first bankruptcy on November 8, 2001. He filed a chapter 7 petition and the court granted a discharge on February 7, 2002. The timing of the discharge reflects a normal time period of about three months for a debtor to obtain a discharge in a chapter 7 case with no objections. At the time of the discharge, the IRS would have written off the fraud penalty assessments as discharged pursuant to B.C. 523(a)(7) and made no further effort to collect those assessments because the discharge injunction of B.C. 524 bars creditors from collection against discharged debts.
After the grant of the discharge, the trustee became aware that Mr. Joel might not be a routine bankruptcy case. On January 29, 2003, the trustee brought an adversary proceeding in Mr. Joel’s bankruptcy case seeking to revoke the discharge because the debtor failed to list assets in the bankruptcy schedules and failed to surrender estate assets to the trustee. Additionally, on January 4, 2005, the IRS indicted Mr. Joel for IRC 7201 evasion of payment of his 1991-1993 taxes. In 2007, Mr. Joel pled guilty to evasion of payment and subsequent to that plea, the bankruptcy court ruled that he committed perjury in the filing of the bankruptcy schedules and revoked his discharge. This is where the position of the parties with respect to the discharge arguments gets somewhat reversed.
The IRS argues that the statute of limitations on collection should be suspended from the time of the bankruptcy filing until the time of the discharge revocation. Prior to the discharge, the IRS was prohibited from collecting the fraud assessment because of the automatic stay of B.C. 362(a). After the discharge, the IRS was prohibited from collecting because B.C. 523(a)(7) caused it to abate the assessment. It wasn’t until after the bankruptcy court revoked the discharge on June 20, 2007, that the IRS could reverse the abatement of any discharged taxes and penalties and begin to try to collect the liabilities again.
The debtor, in a quasi role reversal, argues that the fraud penalties were not discharged because of the language of 523(a)(7). Because the statute did not require the discharge of the taxes, the IRS had the ability to collect the taxes after the initial discharge lifted the automatic stay. So, the statute of limitations suspension lifted at the time of the initial discharge in 2002 and not the revocation in 2007. Because it lifted five years earlier, it had run by the time the IRS brought the suit.
The court looked carefully at the language of 523(a)(7) which provides:
A discharge under 727… of this title does not discharge an individual debtor from any debt-
(7) to the extent such debt is for a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit, and is not compensation for actual pecuniary loss, other than a tax penalty –
(A) relating to a tax of a kind not specified in paragraph (1) of this subsection; or
(B) imposed with respect to a transaction or event that occurred before three years before the date of the filing of the petition….
The debtor first argued that (A) and (B) were conjunctive conditions and not disjunctive, such that a penalty must meet both conditions. The fraud penalty cannot meet the first condition because it relates to taxes on which the taxpayer has committed fraud, which are excepted from discharge under B.C. 523(a)(1)(C). It would make logical sense that the fraud penalty should be excepted from discharge. In many instances the IRS does not impose the fraud penalty until long after three years from the due date of the return because the IRS must amass evidence prior to imposing this penalty. The fraud penalty also represents the type of penalty that policy would dictate that the debtor should continue to owe. The legislative history of the statute implies that Congress intended the fraud penalty to continue.
The debtor’s problem here is the same one faced by the government when it litigated the meaning of this provision almost three decades ago. Subsections (A) and (B) are joined by the word “or.” The word “or” places (A) and (B) in a disjunctive and not conjunctive posture. Therefore, if either the condition of (A) or the condition of (B) applies, the provision discharges the fraud penalty. Subsection (B) refers to transactions occurring before three years before the petition date. The fraud penalty relates back to the due date of the return. Those due dates here occurred in the early 1990s, long before the filing of the bankruptcy petition.
Since the condition of (B) is met, the fraud penalty is discharged. The IRS correctly abated the fraud penalty when the bankruptcy court entered the discharge and the IRS receives the benefit of the period between the initial discharge and the revocation in calculating the statute suspension.
While this is not a huge issue, Congress should consider fixing B.C. 523(a)(7) to except from discharge the fraud penalty. Allowing the discharge of this penalty is not good policy. In most instances, I suspect the IRS will struggle to collect the fraud penalty because the individual who committed the fraud will have run through most or all of their assets before the IRS collection personnel arrive on the scene; however, cases exist in which the individual who committed fraud still has assets and the bankruptcy discharge should not protect those assets from collection.