February 3, 2014
The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in United States v. Clarke, No. 13-301, to explore the circumstances under which an entity is entitled to an evidentiary hearing before an IRS summons is enforced, so that it can question IRS officials about their motives for issuing the summons. The parties’ different views of the case are aptly captured by the dueling questions presented. The government says the case presents the question “whether an unsupported allegation” that the IRS issued a summons for an improper purpose entitles an opponent to examine IRS officials at an evidentiary hearing. The entities contesting the summons say the case presents the question whether the court erred in ordering such an evidentiary hearing “in light of [their] substantial allegations that the IRS had issued summonses to them for an improper purpose.”
The basic summons enforcement rules are long established, but the devil can be in the details. Under United States v. Powell, 379 U.S. 48 (1964), a summons is to be enforced if the IRS demonstrates that: (1) “the investigation will be conducted pursuant to a legitimate purpose”; (2) “the inquiry may be relevant to the purpose”; (3) the IRS does not already have the information; and (4) the IRS followed the proper administrative steps. The IRS generally carries its initial burden simply by producing an affidavit from the investigating agent, which then shifts the burden to the party contesting the summons. At that point, it gets a little murkier. If the party contesting the summons raises a “substantial question” as to whether the summons is an abuse of process, then it is entitled to an “adversary hearing” at which it “may challenge the summons on any appropriate ground.” Id. at 58.
What happened here is that the IRS wanted to look more carefully into a partnership’s tax returns, particularly its claim of $34 million in interest expenses over two years. Although the partnership agreed to two extensions of the statute of limitations, it declined to extend the period a third time. Shortly thereafter, the IRS issued six summonses to third parties connected to the partnership, but those parties did not comply with the summonses. Just before the limitations period closed, the IRS issued a notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment (FPAA) to the partnership, and the partnership challenged the FPAA by filing a petition in the Tax Court. A couple of months later, the IRS filed summons enforcement actions.
The summoned parties, who are the respondents in the Supreme Court, responded by contending that the summonses were not issued for a legitimate purpose and requesting an evidentiary hearing and discovery. They basically made two arguments. First, they contended that the summons was issued in retaliation for the partnership’s refusal to extend the statute of limitations, pointing to the fact that the summonses were issued very soon after that refusal was communicated. Second, they contended that the summonses were designed to circumvent the Tax Court’s restrictions on discovery. They advanced some evidence to support this contention, including the IRS’s request for a continuance in the Tax Court on the ground that the summonses were outstanding.
The district court (for the Southern District of Florida) ordered the summonses enforced, stating that a hearing is not required based on a “mere allegation of improper purpose” to retaliate. With respect to respondents’ second contention, the district court said that a finding that the IRS was using the summons process to avoid discovery limitations in the Tax Court would not be a valid ground for quashing a summons.
The Eleventh Circuit reversed in an unpublished opinion. It ordered the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing at which respondents could question the IRS examining agent about his motives for issuing the summonses (though the court declined to authorize discovery). The court explained that the district court had abused its discretion because the respondents were entitled to a hearing “to explore their allegation” that the summonses were issued “solely in retribution for [the partnership’s] refusal to extend a statute of limitations deadline.”
The difference in the way the two parties have phrased the question presented reflects the two different grounds on which the respondents challenged the summonses. The allegation that the summonses were a form of retaliation or punishment, instead of for a legitimate investigative purpose, is pretty close to an “unsupported allegation.” That the summons followed closely on the heels of the decision not to extend the statute of limitations is weak evidence of an improper retaliatory purpose, though, as the respondents point out, it is hard to have strong evidence of a retaliatory purpose without having discovery or a hearing. Thus, the respondents may have a hard time defending the court of appeals decision on its own terms.
On the other hand, the respondents will be able to advance their second basis for challenging the summonses as an alternate ground for affirmance, even though the court of appeals did not rely upon it. On that ground, the respondents have more than an “unsupported allegation” – they are more like “substantial allegations” – that the summonses were designed to obtain evidence for use in the Tax Court proceedings that could not have been obtained through discovery. The government’s response on this point is the same as that of the district court – namely, that these allegations, if true, would not demonstrate an illegitimate purpose and would not be grounds for quashing the summons. Two courts of appeals have reached this issue and have agreed with the government. On the other hand, respondents have a logical argument that a summons is an investigative tool and the investigation phase is over by the time the FPAA has issued and the case has been docketed in the Tax Court. Respondents note in this connection that the IRS’s own Summons Handbook states that, “[i]n all but extraordinarily rare cases, the Service must not issue a summons” after a notice of deficiency is mailed because at that point “the Service should no longer be in the process of gathering the data to support a determination because the [notice of deficiency] represents the Service’s presumptively correct determination and indicates the examination has been concluded.” This second ground not reached by the court of appeals thus may prove to be the more interesting and closely contested aspect of this case.
To add a little more spice to this case, the Court’s determination to revisit summons enforcement comes at a time when the IRS may significantly increase its use of its summons power. On January 2, 2014, a new policy went into effect for audits of the largest taxpayers that threatens the issuance of a summons when a taxpayer fails to timely respond to requests for documents and/or information. The new policy sets out a mandatory timeline for warning letters and a drop-dead due date, after which the examining agent will initiate procedures for the issuance of a summons. This policy could well lead to many more summons enforcement proceedings. For more information on the IRS’s new IDR enforcement policy, please contact George A. Hani (email@example.com) or Mary W. Prosser (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The government’s opening brief is due February 24. The case will be argued in late April and a decision is expected by the end of June.