A case earlier this week in Tax Court, Namen v Commissioner, presents two issues worthy of highlighting: one concerns when a settlement becomes binding, and the other concerns the taxpayer/podiatrist’s efforts to prove up his basis relating to his interest in an LLC that ran a surgery center.
First on the settlement issue. The taxpayer’s lawyer argued on brief that he had accepted an IRS offer to settle the case that IRS counsel made after trial.
Counsel for the government disagreed:
[IRS counsel] states in her answering brief that she “made an oral offer of settlement to…[taxpayer’s counsel] based on the parties not writing briefs in this case, as well as on petitioner’s spouse’s consent to the assessment of tax and additions to tax against her.”
According to IRS counsel, taxpayer’s counsel “did not call to accept the offer until the day that briefs were due and after she had already filed her opening brief.” As a result, she claimed that by filing the brief she revoked her offer.
The opinion agreed with the IRS. It did so by first noting that a settlement is a contract subject to general principles of contract law. Citing Dorchester Industries v Commissioner the opinion notes that “contract requires ‘an objective manifestation of mutual assent to its essential terms’, and mutual assent is typically established through an offer and an acceptance.” Keith wrote a three part series on this issue last year, which you can read here, here and here.
A main issue in the case was there was no evidence in the record that would allow the court to find objective manifestation of mutual assent. The taxpayer’s counsel made his argument that the case was settled only on brief, and there was no evidence in the record “apart from the unsworn statements of counsel.” Unfortunately, counsel for the taxpayer did not move to reopen the record, though the opinion notes that counsel for the government failed to move to strike. Even without evidence in the record (and I guess accepting at face value the unsworn allegations), the opinion notes that the parties’ briefs failed to spell out the terms of the alleged settlement. As such, there was not enough for the court to find that the evidence before it proved that the parties’ counsel agreed on a settlement.
The merits issue essentially turned on the podiatrist’s inability to establish his basis in the LLC. The LLC was taxed as a partnership, and the podiatrist attempted to establish that he had a basis in the interest in the LLC to allow him to deduct the distributive share of the LLC’s losses. Losses are allowed to the extent of a member’s basis in the LLC; losses in excess of the basis can be carried forward. Basis can be established by contributions and are increased by the partner’s distributive share of partnership income, and decreased by all cash distributions and the partner’s distributive share of partnership losses. The taxpayer argued as well that he was personally liable for a share of loans that were made to the LLC; that is another way to juice basis in an LLC treated as a partnership.
As with the first issue, the taxpayer lost in part because the record did not support his allegations:
However, no corroborating documents supporting his testimony were admitted into the record. Petitioner also failed to provide any credible testimony or other evidence regarding the amount of his distributive share of partnership losses and the extent of any prior adjustments to his basis. Under these circumstances, we find petitioner’s generally uncorroborated testimony inadequate to establish his basis in RMSC; we also find his testimony inadequate to establish the extent to which he is entitled to a distributive share of any losses.
Facts at trial are key. The record that counsel makes is crucial. If the facts exist outside the record the court will generally not be able to consider those facts in resolving the dispute. Counsel must carefully consider when it wishes to bring facts to the attention of the court and pay attention carefully to evidence beyond testimony, especially when one would expect there to exist corroborating documentation that could have perhaps surfaced. Testimonial evidence can win an issue. For certain issues the court knows that limited, or no, written evidence may exist. The residence test for dependency exemption provides a common example of a situation in which little or no direct evidence often exists. With an issue where the absence of written evidence is common, the court readily accepts testimonial evidence after weighing the credibility of the testimony. By contrast, with issues in which one would expect documentary evidence, testimonial evidence often carries little weight because the absence of the documents itself undercuts the credibility of the testimony. There is an old case the Tax Court sometimes cites in these situations (Wichita Terminal Elevator Co. v Commissioner) which holds that where a party has the ability to bring forward evidence and it does not the failure to bring forward the evidence creates a presumption that the evidence would be unfavorable.
When dealing with settlements, it is important to put offers and acceptances in writing. As Keith discussed in the prior posts dealing with settlements, holding the government to a settlement that did not involve a statement in open court is very difficult. The failure here to accept the settlement prior to the preparation of the briefs may itself prove fatal to the settlement because of the argument that timing was a condition of the settlement but even without that fact the proof here lacked the kind of proof that has formed the basis of binding settlements in earlier cases with this issue. If you want to bind the government, get the offer in writing and, if possible, get the terms before the Court in a manner that implicates the Court’s schedule. Remember that in addition to other considerations you face an argument that the attorney in the case did not have authority to settle the case without the permission of a manager. Here there was no proof of managerial consent to the settlement offer and that might have proved fatal had the issue moved further. The case also lacked the element of reliance. Petitioner showed little or no harm in reliance on the alleged settlement and no action taken in reliance.