Thanks to Christine who invited me at the suggestion of Richard Furlong, Senior Stakeholder Liaison at the IRS Communications & Liaison office in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation and listening session by the Executives in Appeals on January 26, 2021. The executives had a brief slide presentation but primarily gave the relatively small audience the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. It’s hard to know in these types of events what the long-term impact of the discussion will be, but I appreciated the opportunity to hear from Appeals on its current thinking and to have the ability to make comments. I will discuss a few of the topics that arose during the call but mostly riff on the thoughts the discussion triggered for me.
Appeals Customer Service
One thing I learned from this presentation is that Appeals has a customer service phone line. Here is information about the line from the presentation:
If you submitted a request for Appeals consideration on your case, contact the IRS office that offered the Appeals request for an update on the status. If the IRS office states that your request was sent to the Office of Appeals and you have not received anything from Appeals after 60 days after the government has reopened, call Appeals Customer Service at 559-233-1267.
Question: is this Appeals Customer Service helpful in checking on status of an Appeals protest assigned to an Appeals Officer?
Since I did not know Appeals had such a number, I obviously could not answer the question. Christine observed to the gathered Appeals executives that she had called the number and not received a response. In response to her observation she was told that a response is only given if a case is assigned to an Appeals Officer and perhaps in her case the matter had not been assigned. This practice obviously limits the effectiveness of the customer service line.
Certainly exceptions exist but my experience with individual Appeals Officers both inside and outside the government is quite positive. An area of disappointment with Appeals involves finding the Appeals Officer assigned to a case. This disappointment is especially present in Tax Court cases. After the answer is filed, cases are referred by Chief Counsel’s office to Appeals unless the case previously went through Appeals. In most cases there is a long dead time between the referral and the time the Appeals Officer alerts you to their existence.
This long delay creates several problems. For Counsel and Appeals this long dead zone is what caused the Tax Court to reimpose the requirement of an answer in small tax cases back in 2006, since taxpayers resorted to calling the Tax Court for information about their cases due to an inability to hear from the IRS for months on end. For the system, I think, without empirical evidence, that the long delay is a causative factor in the high number of defaulted Tax Court petitions. Unrepresented individuals who have enough interest in their cases to take the effort to file a petition go into a lengthy dead zone before they have the opportunity to move forward on their case. I think this causes some to simply lose interest. For practitioners the long delay can make it hard to keep the client engaged. At an academic clinic it almost always means that the student who is invested in the case and prepares the petition will not still be working in the clinic when the Appeals Officer reaches out. This means that documents collected to present the case languish in our files and then someone must relearn the case when it is assigned to an AO. In many of our cases we have the material to quickly resolve the matter but cannot do so without someone to engage with on the other side.
I would prefer a system in which the AO, or someone in Appeals, was assigned almost immediately after the submission of whatever document triggers the visit to Appeals. This would allow early engagement for those pro se individuals or practitioners interested in engagement but would not necessarily require the AO to push those not actively coming forward to provide information until the AO was ready. It would also allow AOs who were able to engage early to alert the taxpayer or practitioner about documents or testimony needed at a point when the case was not getting close to aging in the AO’s inventory. AOs, like many government employees, have internal time frames for working cases. Exceeding those time frames can require the AO to engage in internal reporting necessary if a case when past an internally created time period. This, in turn, can cause the AO to push to close a case. The closer to the internal reporting deadline the AO starts working on the case, the less time the taxpayer has to gather information before the AO feels the internal pressure. I know that my desire for early assignment of the AO, or Settlement Officer, faces practical issues that the Appeals executives would have to overcome.
In Tax Court cases, the Chief Counsel assigned attorney is known relatively quickly because of the time period built in by the answer, even though after the answer the attorney may put the case on the shelf in order to work on other more pressing cases. However, at least the taxpayer or the practitioner knows who has the case. Could Appeals build an assignment model similar to that of Chief Counsel? In small tax cases the practical person assigned may be a paralegal but you have someone with whom to engage to keep the case moving.
I like the idea of a customer service number and am glad that I finally learned that it exists. If, however, the information I would usually want from the number, viz., the identity of the person assigned to my case, is something that the number would not provide, maybe I am unlikely to use it even though I now know it exists.
Impact of COVID on Appeals Workload
Slide 6 of the slides used during the meeting shows a year by year comparison of the Appeals inventory for the year prior to COVID and for last year. A fairly dramatic reduction occurs in 2020. This is not shocking but does provide a stark example of the impact of COVID on this function. Also interesting is that the mix of work remains constant in the various categories of Appeals inventory. The list also shows the impact of the shift of work over the past two decades since RRA 98 to collection. In the almost 100-year history of Appeals the last couple decades have dramatically altered its workload from the first 75 years of its existence.
Revision of Form 12153 and Triage of Cases
It was only a glancing part of the discussion but the effort by Appeals to redesign Form 12153 did receive some mention. In December I had the opportunity with several other low income tax clinicians to engage with members of Appeals who were redesigning this form. Form 12153 is used by taxpayers to request a CDP hear. I think it is one of the easier forms for taxpayers to use but applaud Appeals for working to make it better. They put a lot of thought into their new design and were very polite about listening to my suggestions.
The redesign may signal a willingness to rethink how CDP cases move through Appeals. Generally, CDP cases get worked on a first in, first out basis. This can create problems for taxpayers and for the IRS. For taxpayers requesting a hearing based on a lien filing, a quick hearing would help since they want to remove the lien. In cases in which the taxpayer was pyramiding taxes of some type, a quick hearing is needed by the IRS. CDP cases come in many shapes and sizes. Getting a handle on which ones might benefit from early intervention could provide for a better system.
The Appeals executives indicated that they intended to repeat this presentation in other areas of the country. If you want to engage with Appeals leadership you might reach out to your local IRS stakeholder liaison to see if the opportunity is available to you.