January 10, 2017
As we have previously reported, after the Clarke case was remanded by the Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit ruled for the government and upheld the district court’s order enforcing the summonses. Yesterday the Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari filed by the parties who were contesting the summonses. The gist of the petition asked the Court to consider whether the district court had abused its discretion in handling the dispute after the remand–a request that is more case-specific than the kinds of issues that would normally be reviewed by the Supreme Court. This order marks the end of the line for the efforts to resist the summonses, and the parties will have to comply.
June 22, 2016
The Eleventh Circuit today denied the petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc filed by the appellants in the Clarke summons enforcement case. The petition did not focus on the broader legal issue that we have previously addressed here concerning the standards for allowing an evidentiary hearing on the basis of allegations of improper motive in issuing a summons. Instead, the petition asked the court of appeals to reconsider whether the trial court erred in refusing to allow the appellants to make new submissions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s remand of the case.
The appellants now have 90 days (until September 20) to file a petition for certiorari asking the Court to consider the case for a second time.
March 16, 2016
The Eleventh Circuit this morning affirmed the district court’s decision in Clarke that had enforced a group of IRS summonses. The court’s legal analysis provides a glimmer of hope for taxpayers who desire to contest future summonses on grounds of bad faith, but there are daunting factual challenges to being able to actually make use of that legal analysis.
As evidenced by our prior reports, this case has a long history that now encompasses a Supreme Court opinion and three decisions by the Eleventh Circuit. To recap, the summoned parties sought an evidentiary hearing at which they could examine the IRS agent who issued the summonses to explore whether the summonses were issued in bad faith. The Eleventh Circuit had originally ordered such a hearing, but the Supreme Court reversed on the ground that the Eleventh Circuit’s standard was too lenient in requiring a hearing on the basis of a “bare allegation” of improper motive. Instead, the Supreme Court held that the correct standard requires the taxpayer to “point to specific facts or circumstances plausibly raising an inference of bad faith.”
On remand from the Supreme Court, the district court accepted all of the government’s arguments. It declined to allow the taxpayers to introduce additional evidence to make their case. And it dismissed all of their bad faith allegations as “improper as a matter of law.” The court of appeals took issue with that statement and explained that two of the taxpayers’ allegations were legally sound, but held that the “facts and circumstances” to which the summoned parties pointed were not sufficient to raise a plausible inference of bad faith in this case.
First, the court of appeals emphasized that “issuing a summons only to retaliate against a taxpayer would be improper as a matter of law.” The court found, however, that the taxpayers had not established a plausible basis for a retaliation accusation simply by pointing out that the IRS did not seek to enforce the summonses until six months after they were issued and the matter was already in the Tax Court. The taxpayer argued that this timeline showed that the investigating agents did not need the information sought in the summonses and therefore must have issued them for a retaliatory motive. The court of appeals responded that this argument “requires substantial conjecture that is both implausible and unsupported by the record.”
Second, the court of appeals stated that issuing a summons as a way of circumventing Tax Court discovery limitations would be an improper purpose. As we noted in our report on the oral argument in the Supreme Court, the taxpayers had arguably made a reasonable case that the IRS’s decision to enforce the summonses was motivated by a desire to obtain evidence that could help with the Tax Court proceedings; six months passed before the IRS sought to enforce the summonses and lead counsel in the Tax Court proceeding—not the examining agent—conducted the examination of an individual who chose to comply with the summons issued to her.
The strength of this argument, however, turned on being able to examine the IRS’s decision to enforce, rather than its decision to issue, the summonses because the summonses were issued well before there was any Tax Court proceeding. The Supreme Court had left that question unanswered, but the Eleventh Circuit determined to adhere to its “well-established” precedent “that the validity of a summons is tested at the date of issuance.” Given that proposition, along with the rule that commencing Tax Court proceedings does not extinguish the IRS’s summons power, the court of appeals acknowledged that it would be difficult for a taxpayer to make out a claim of bad faith based on circumvention of Tax Court limitations on discovery. The court of appeals stated that “the circumstances under which a taxpayer could successfully allege improper circumvention of tax discovery are exceptionally narrow” and described such claims are “rarely tenable.” In this case, the court explained that it was “of no consequence” that the summoned information could assist the IRS in its Tax Court litigation; because the summonses were issued pursuant to a valid investigation and before the Tax Court proceedings commenced, the summoned parties were obligated to provide the information. That obligation did not evaporate just because an FPAA was issued or a Tax Court petition was filed. Indeed, the court of appeals noted its agreement with the government’s argument that “it is the domain of the tax court to control discovery in the pending tax litigation.”
In sum, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision gives some theoretical grounds for taxpayers to get the opportunity to examine IRS agents at an evidentiary hearing, but as a practical matter, the decision is unlikely to lead to many such examinations. The long saga of the Clarke case has apparently ended with a result that the government will likely find satisfactory.
P.S. We hope that our readers enjoy the new, updated look of the blog, which coincides with Miller & Chevalier’s move to new office space.
January 8, 2016
The summoned parties have filed their reply brief in the Clarke case. The brief focuses more on the particular facts of the case and less on legal principles of broad applicability. In particular, the brief criticizes the district court’s decision not to allow introduction of new evidence on remand, arguing that the court made that determination at the initial post-remand status conference, which was earlier than the summoned parties should have been expected to make an offer of proof.test
Oral argument is tentatively scheduled for the last week in February.
District Court Orders Microsoft Summonses Enforced, Finding No Legal Obstacle to Involvement of Outside Law Firm
December 3, 2015
The district court has ordered enforcement of the IRS’s summonses in its high-profile audit of Microsoft. As we have previously discussed, Microsoft’s objections to the summonses centered on the IRS’s novel decision to bring in an outside law firm (Quinn Emanuel) as a consultant to whom certain tasks would be delegated. The objections also touched on the issue being litigated in the Clarke case concerning the appropriateness of enforcing a summons that is arguably designed to assist the IRS in Tax Court litigation. (See prior posts on Clarke here.) The district court’s decision in Microsoft turns on its analysis of the factual record and does not break any new legal ground.
With respect to the law firm’s involvement, the essence of the court’s holding was its conclusion that nothing in Code section 7602 prohibits the degree of involvement by an outside contractor that had been shown by the evidence. (Microsoft had argued that, by its terms, section 7602 authorizes only the Secretary of the Treasury (or his specified delegates within Treasury) to “take testimony” or otherwise exercise the summons power.) The court did not affirmatively endorse the IRS’s involvement of the law firm. To the contrary, the court remarked that it was “troubled by Quinn Emanuel’s level of involvement in this audit. The idea that the IRS can ‘farm out’ legal assistance to a private law firm is by no means established by prior practice, and this case may lead to further scrutiny by Congress.” But the court held that it would take further action by Congress to prohibit such involvement; current law does not impose any bar. Because it found no statutory problem, the court saw no need to consider Microsoft’s arguments challenging the validity of the recent temporary regulation that explicitly addresses the IRS’s use of outside contractors.
In reaching its conclusion, the court pressed counsel for Microsoft to specify where the law draws the line between permissible and impermissible involvement of an outside contractor, and the court ultimately found Microsoft’s answers unpersuasive. As summarized by the court, Microsoft admitted at the hearing that the contractor “is permitted under law to examine Microsoft’s books and records, formulate questions to ask witnesses under oath, attend those interviews, and even ask questions via a notepad so long as it is the IRS lawyer who speaks the words.” In the court’s view, nothing in Code section 7602 “prevents the IRS from taking this a step further and having the contractor ask a question while an IRS lawyer continues to run the interview.” The court’s statements imply that it could well be prohibited for an outside contractor to “run the interview” and certainly for it to control the audit. But the court found that the record in this case provided “no factual basis” for Microsoft’s assertion that Quinn Emanuel would be “conducting the audit.” (This finding is hardly surprising given that the only witness at the evidentiary hearing was an IRS official.) Rather, the court concluded, the evidence indicated that Quinn Emanuel “will be gathering limited information for the IRS under the direct supervision of the IRS.”
Distinct from the issues directly raised by Quinn Emanuel’s involvement, Microsoft argued that the summons was issued for the illegitimate purpose of preparing for Tax Court litigation, not for conducting an audit. As we have discussed elsewhere, the legal issue raised by efforts to enforce a summons to aid in Tax Court litigation is more squarely presented in the Clarke case currently pending in the Eleventh Circuit on remand from the Supreme Court. Here, the district court found that there was no factual predicate for Microsoft’s argument, noting that “the record does not contain any direct evidence that these summonses were issued to circumvent the discovery procedures of tax court.” The court pointed to the testimony at the evidentiary hearing, where the IRS witness stated that the investigation was still in the audit phase and the summonses were issued to help the IRS “get to the right number.” Microsoft’s counter to this testimony was to ask the court to draw an inference from the involvement of Quinn Emanuel—namely, that a firm known for trial litigation likely was providing advice on trial preparation and the subsequently issued summonses therefore were an aspect of that trial preparation. The court characterized this evidence as “entirely speculative” and concluded that “Microsoft has entirely failed to meet its burden of proof necessary to prevent the enforcement of these summonses.”
The district court’s decision appears to end this aspect of the Microsoft litigation, as Microsoft is likely to comply with the summons enforcement order rather than seek to have it stayed so that it could appeal. The action on the question of the IRS’s ability to use the summons power to aid in Tax Court litigation now shifts to the Eleventh Circuit, where briefing is nearly complete in the Clarke case and the court has indicated that oral argument will likely be scheduled for the last week of February 2016.
November 4, 2015
After obtaining a one-month extension, the government has now filed its response brief in the Eleventh Circuit in the Clarke summons enforcement case. See our prior reports here. The brief raises three points in response to the appellants’ argument that the IRS had an improper purpose in seeking to enforce the summonses after Tax Court litigation had begun.
First, the government argues that the appellants are essentially arguing for a blanket rule that a summons cannot be enforced once litigation has commenced in the Tax Court. Such a restriction is not found in the statute, and accordingly the government argues that the appellants’ position violates the Supreme Court’s instruction that “restrictions upon the IRS summons power should be avoided absent unambiguous directions from Congress.” Tiffany Fine Arts v. Commissioner, 469 U.S. 310, 318 (1985). Second, the government argues that, in any event, the appellants are misguided in arguing that the enforcement decision was an improper evasion of the Tax Court’s discovery rules. The government contends that Ash v. Commissioner, 96 T.C. 459, 472 (1991), establishes to the contrary that “the Tax Court has categorically ruled that summonses issued prior to the commencement of litigation . . . do not threaten the integrity of its discovery rules.” The government adds that, if summons enforcement is judged to be an evasion of the Tax Court’s discovery rules, the proper remedy would be for the Tax Court itself to issue a protective order limiting the use of evidence obtained through the summons, not for the district court to quash the summons. Third, the government argues that, as a matter of law, the enforceability of a summons must be judged as of the time it is issued. If the summons was issued for a valid investigative purpose, that is enough, and it is irrelevant what the motivation may have been for deciding to bring an enforcement action months later.
With respect to the appellants’ objection to the district court’s failure to allow introduction of new evidence on remand, the government argues that the appellants did not make an offer of proof and hence they failed to preserve their objection. In any event, the government continues, the court acted well within its discretion in declining to delay the enforcement action further when there was no apparent need for further evidentiary proceedings.
The appellants’ reply brief is due December 14.
August 31, 2015
The government has filed its opening brief in the Eleventh Circuit in the Clarke case. The case is now back in that court for the second time after a remand from the Supreme Court that did not persuade the district court to retreat from its prior denial of an evidentiary hearing. See our previous report here.
On the merits, the appellants’ primary argument is that they are entitled to a hearing to explore their allegation that the government is misusing the summons enforcement process to obtain discovery for pending Tax Court proceedings. To that end, the appellants ask the court not to restrict its consideration of the validity of the summons to the situation existing on the date it was issued, but instead to look at the later decision to enforce the summons – well after the statute of limitations had expired. Secondarily, the appellants argue that the district court erred in refusing to allow them to make supplemental submissions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s remand, which arguably changed the legal standard to be applied to appellants’ contentions.
The government’s response brief is due in late September.
In the Microsoft case, the district court held an evidentiary hearing on August 25 and has ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefs on September 2.
July 9, 2015
While the Eleventh Circuit begins the process of reconsidering the Clarke summons enforcement case following the Supreme Court’s remand (see our prior reports here), a federal district court is poised to address similar issues much sooner in a case that has garnered extensive publicity. (Incidentally, briefing is now underway in Clarke, with the respondents’ opening brief on appeal due on August 14.).
As most readers probably know, the government is engaged in a major transfer pricing audit of Microsoft in connection with its cost-sharing arrangements with affiliates in Puerto Rico and Asia. The IRS has hired the law firm of Quinn Emanuel as a consultant to assist in the audit, including participating in interviews. That unusual course of action by the IRS has attracted much attention, including from the Senate Finance Committee, which sent a letter to the IRS demanding an explanation and requesting that the IRS halt the use of such private contractors “for both the examination of records and the taking of sworn testimony.”
Microsoft has vigorously challenged the legality of the IRS’s engagement of Quinn Emanuel. The IRS contends that its action is authorized by a temporary regulation promulgated without notice-and-comment on June 9, 2014, which provides that third-party contractors “may receive books, papers, records, or other data summoned by the IRS and take testimony of a person who the IRS has summoned.” 26 C.F.R. § 301.7602-IT(b)(3). The IRS contends that Quinn Emanuel did not commence work under the contract until approximately a month after the regulation was issued, although technically it was retained earlier.
Microsoft has pursued its challenge on multiple fronts. It submitted several FOIA requests to the IRS, and its FOIA requests for documents relating to promulgation of the temporary regulation and its contacts with the private law firms are the subject of pending lawsuits in federal district court in Seattle (Western District of Washington). (An earlier FOIA suit was dismissed after the IRS capitulated and turned over its contract with Quinn Emanuel.) The immediate action, however, lies in a summons enforcement suit pending before the same judge as the FOIA cases (Judge Ricardo Martinez).
After issuing more than 200 IDRs, the IRS issued several designated summonses seeking additional information. Microsoft forced the IRS to go to court to seek enforcement of the summonses and then argued that it was entitled to an evidentiary hearing (and discovery of the documents being sought in the FOIA litigation) before being required to comply. Microsoft’s objections centered on the Quinn Emanuel engagement, with Microsoft contending that the IRS had improperly delegated key aspects of the tax audit and that it was entitled to a hearing to explore exactly what was the firm’s role.
On June 17, the district court granted Microsoft’s motion to conduct an evidentiary hearing. Citing repeatedly to Clarke, the court remarked that Microsoft needed to carry only a “fairly slight burden to trigger an evidentiary hearing.” The court found the hearing appropriate because Microsoft had made a “plausible” showing that the regulation is invalid. The court first observed that the statutory provisions establishing the summons authority do not appear to leave room for delegation to non-government officials. In particular, the term “delegate” of the Secretary of the Treasury is defined as “any officer, employee, or agency of the Treasury Department duly authorized by the Secretary” to perform the delegated task. I.R.C. § 7701(a)(12)(A)(i). Although the court acknowledged that this argument based on the plain language of the statute raised a question of law, the court added that there were “factual questions” raised as well. In support, it pointed to Microsoft’s contention that the IRS had not satisfied the requirements for an exception from notice-and-comment procedures and that the regulation is fatally flawed for being “issued without reasoned analysis.” The court also stated that the timing of the regulation in close proximity to the Quinn Emanuel contract “plausibly raises an inference of improper motive.”
With respect to Microsoft’s specific objection to Quinn Emanuel’s participation, the court made a more convincing case for a hearing to explore factual issues. The court found that the language of the contract suggested that the firm “may be participating in components of the audit examination for which delegation is statutorily proscribed, such as inspecting books and taking testimony.” The court also found that, given the timing of the firm’s retention, Microsoft had plausibly raised an inference that the firm had “played an unauthorized role in the issuance of several IDRs” and might have been provided taxpayer information in violation of section 6103.
The court, however, stated that it was not prepared to accede to Microsoft’s request for document discovery regarding the issuance of the summons. Asserting that a “more stringent” showing of wrongdoing is required to warrant discovery, the court ruled that it would consider the discovery request after the evidentiary hearing, which it scheduled for July 21.
The parties have been skirmishing in advance about how the hearing should be conducted, and those disputes give concrete expression to the concerns the government expressed in Clarke about burdensomeness if evidentiary hearings are too readily allowed in summons enforcement proceedings. The IRS has put forth an official to testify at the hearing who it asserts has the most knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the summons. Microsoft, however, wants to examine a more senior official about the bigger picture and has urged the court to require the IRS to make available at the hearing or for deposition Heather Maloy, the soon-to-be ex-Commissioner of LB&I. (Ms. Maloy’s last scheduled day at the IRS is tomorrow, July 10.) Microsoft has also asked the court to order the IRS to provide, 10 days in advance, summaries of the substance of the testimony it intends to introduce at the hearing. The government, for its part, has asked the court to clarify several evidentiary and procedural matters surrounding the hearing. The court heard argument on these various pre-hearing requests at a telephone conference on July 7.
Thus, in addition to the remand decision in Clarke itself, the high-profile Microsoft case promises to shed further light on how the lower courts will approach evidentiary hearings in summons enforcement actions in the wake of Clarke.
Eleventh Circuit Set to Consider Whether IRS Impermissibly Used Summons Power to Obtain “Discovery” in the Tax Court
July 1, 2015
As we previously reported, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Clarke summons enforcement case was not a complete victory for the government. The Court set forth a standard that appeared to leave a little more room than before for summoned parties to obtain an evidentiary hearing in resisting summons enforcement actions. The Court left open the possibility that the lower courts on remand could require a hearing in Clarke itself at which IRS officials would have to testify.
The Eleventh Circuit elected not to address this question in the first instance after the Supreme Court remand. Instead, it sent the case straight back to the district court with instructions to reconsider its original enforcement order in light of the Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court opinions. But the district court saw no reason to change its tune on remand. First, it refused the private respondents’ request to introduce additional evidence in opposition to the summons enforcement request. The district court then issued a six-page opinion rejecting point-by-point—in some instances for lack of evidence—the arguments made by the respondents for why the summons might be thought to be improperly motivated. The respondents have now appealed that latest decision back up to the Eleventh Circuit.
As noted in our previous report, an important aspect of the Supreme Court’s decision was how it dealt with the respondents’ objection that the government sought summons enforcement in order to obtain “discovery” in a Tax Court case that was filed soon after issuance of the summons. The government had argued that this objection carried no weight because the validity of a summons must be judged as of the time of its issuance, and therefore a later action to seek enforcement to aid litigation in the Tax Court could not be invoked as a ground for challenging the summons. The district court had endorsed this argument, but the Supreme Court declined to do so. Instead, the Supreme Court remarked that it was expressing “no view on the issue” and left this question open for the court of appeals to decide on remand. The Court emphasized that, in deciding this issue, the court of appeals would not be confined by the deference ordinarily owed to the district court’s decision on whether or not to order the questioning of IRS agents in a summons enforcement action. Rather, the Supreme Court ruled that this argument implicated a “legal issue about what counts as an illicit motive” on which the court of appeals would have “no cause to defer to the district court.”
That legal issue is now teed up for the court of appeals. The district court’s new opinion on remand essentially repeated the brief analysis of this point from its first opinion, stating that “events occurring after the date of issuance but prior to enforcement should not affect enforceability.” The court of appeals will review that ruling de novo. Having reversed the district court and ordered an evidentiary hearing when it last considered the case, it would not be surprising to see the court of appeals reach the same outcome as before and hold that the government’s conduct in the Tax Court proceedings provides enough justification for the court to hold an evidentiary hearing to explore the IRS’s motivation for issuing the summons.
The Eleventh Circuit has not yet issued a briefing schedule.
Supreme Court’s Clarke Decision Sets Forth General Guidelines for When Evidentiary Hearings Should Be Required in Summons Enforcement Proceedings
June 19, 2014
As expected, the Court this morning reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Clarke based on the Court’s agreement with the government’s position that the Eleventh Circuit erroneously had required an evidentiary summons enforcement hearing based on nothing more than the bare allegation of an improper purpose. See our previous report here. But the Court’s unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Kagan, went on to attempt to provide guidance for future disputes over the availability of such hearings, including the resolution of this case on remand, and that guidance could perhaps lead courts to allow such hearings more often than in the past.
The Court summarized the standard to be applied by a court in considering the summoned party’s request for a hearing as follows: “whether the [summoned party has] pointed to specific facts or circumstances plausibly raising an inference of improper motive.” It elaborated on that standard to some extent elsewhere in the opinion, although the general language still leaves considerable room for interpretation by the lower courts:
“[T]he taxpayer is entitled to examine an IRS agent when he can point to specific facts and circumstances plausibly raising an inference of bad faith. Naked allegations of improper purpose are not enough: The taxpayer must offer some credible evidence supporting his charge. But circumstantial evidence can suffice to meet that burden; after all, direct evidence of another person’s bad faith, at this threshold stage, will rarely if ever be available. And although bare assertion or conjecture is not enough, neither is a fleshed out case demanded: The taxpayer need only make a showing of facts that give rise to a plausible inference of improper motive. That standard will ensure inquiry where the facts and circumstances make inquiry appropriate, without turning every summons dispute into a fishing expedition for official wrongdoing.”
The immediate result of the decision is a remand to the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether the district court’s refusal to order an evidentiary hearing comported with this standard. The Court did not express a view on whether the evidence that the private parties had put forth (alleging retaliation for failure to agree to a statute of limitations extension and an ulterior motive to conduct the equivalent of discovery for the Tax Court case) met the standard, stating that whether those purposes would be improper was not within the question presented to the Court. But the Court did set forth some principles for how the Eleventh Circuit should go about reviewing the district court’s decision.
At the outset, the district court’s decision is entitled to deference and is reviewed for abuse of discretion. But the Court emphasized “two caveats” to that discretion. First, no deference is owed if the district court did not apply the correct standard. Second, no deference is owed to the district court’s decision on “legal issues about what counts as an illicit motive.”
In that connection, the Court proceeded to state that this second caveat encompassed the issue to which the private parties have attached considerable importance – namely, the contention that the IRS was seeking to enforce the summons only in order to obtain discovery for the Tax Court proceedings. The district court had agreed with the government that this would not constitute an improper purpose because the validity of a summons should be judged as of the time of issuance (which was before the Tax Court proceedings were initiated), not as of the time the IRS moves to enforce the summonses. The Supreme Court declined to endorse that argument, inviting the Eleventh Circuit to consider it as a legal issue on which it owes no deference to the Tax Court.
Thus, the government has dodged a bullet in Clarke, with the Supreme Court reversing the Eleventh Circuit and rejecting the proposition that IRS agents can be hauled into an evidentiary hearing on the basis of a bare allegation of improper purpose. But the government could well find itself facing a loss again on remand when the Eleventh Circuit applies the standard set forth in Clarke to the evidence in this case. There is nothing in the Supreme Court’s opinion to discourage the Eleventh Circuit (presumably the same judges who already voted once to afford an evidentiary hearing in this case) from concluding that the private parties here did make a sufficient showing because, as a matter of law, it is improper for the IRS to move to enforce a summons for the purpose of obtaining information to be used in pending Tax Court proceedings. It will be worth following the remand proceedings in the court of appeals to see how the Eleventh Circuit deals with this issue.
June 17, 2014
It is now six weeks since the Supreme Court heard argument in Clarke regarding the circumstances under which a court must convene an evidentiary hearing in a summons enforcement proceeding to allow IRS officials to be questioned regarded their reasons for issuing the summons. Based on the way the case was litigated and the questions at oral argument, the government is likely rooting for a relatively narrower opinion, whereas taxpayers who might someday be disputing a summons hope that the Court will take this opportunity to elaborate and provide new guidance on summons enforcement proceedings.
The dichotomy between a broad approach and a narrow approach has been reflected all through this case, beginning with the divergent ways in which the two parties framed the summons dispute in their questions presented. See our prior coverage here. The government has sought to focus narrowly on the precise holding of the court of appeals, while the private parties have asked the Court to look more broadly at all the circumstances of the case and to take a fresh look at how summons enforcement proceedings are generally conducted.
Specifically, the government contended from the start that the Eleventh Circuit had laid down an indefensible blanket rule that a party is entitled to an evidentiary hearing to challenge a summons so long as it alleges an improper purpose. That rule, according to the government, would dramatically increase the extent to which IRS agents are hauled into court for evidentiary hearings and is inconsistent with longstanding summons enforcement law. The parties challenging the summons enforcement proceeding, conversely, have argued that the Eleventh Circuit decision was narrower, pointing to the facts in this case that supported their allegations, albeit facts that for the most part were not relied upon by the court of appeals. Notably, the government has acknowledged that a district court has considerable discretion in deciding when an evidentiary hearing should be held and conceded that a district court appropriately could have scheduled a hearing here. The government objects only to the court of appeals ordering the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing when the district court had already exercised its discretion to deny the private parties’ hearing request.
The Justices inquired into both approaches to the case during the oral argument. It appeared that the Court was in harmony with the government’s narrow view of the Eleventh Circuit’s holding and thus of the bare minimum that has to be decided in the case. In fact, when government counsel began the argument by attacking the court of appeals’ specific statements, Justice Scalia quickly interjected to say that the other side “concedes all that” and that “nobody defends what the lower court said here.”
But the questioning also suggested that the Court might not be content to write an opinion that does the bare minimum – that is, one that just reverses the court of appeals for requiring an evidentiary hearing based on no more than a bare allegation of an improper purpose. Rather, the Court expressed plenty of interest in other aspects of the summons enforcement procedure and raised the possibility that it would use this decision as a way of giving more guidance to trial courts on when hearings would be appropriate in handling these proceedings. Indeed, Justice Alito criticized one of government counsel’s suggestions as not being “very helpful to a district judge” and the Chief Justice noted a desire to give “clearer guidance.” Thus, there appears to be a good possibility of a decision reversing the Eleventh Circuit, and thus ruling for the government, but containing language to guide district courts in the future that the government could find problematic.
In particular, the Justices showed interest in the point on which the private parties laid the most stress in arguing that they had evidence of an improper purpose – namely, the circumstances strongly indicating that the IRS was seeking to enforce the summonses as a way of developing evidence for the Tax Court proceeding rather than for the audit. The government had argued that this issue was not before the Court since the Eleventh Circuit did not rely on it, and also contended that there was no caselaw holding that this was an improper purpose. It also argued that the improper purpose determination relates to the issuance of the summonses and therefore is not to be based on the situation at the time of the enforcement proceedings. It is not apparent, however, that these arguments will carry the day. At least four Justices (Kennedy, Alito, Breyer, Ginsburg) showed interest in this point and evinced some degree of concern whether it would be proper for the IRS to enforce the summonses to aid its position in the Tax Court proceedings. Justice Breyer did question whether, given the posture of the case, the Court could decide the legal question whether aiding the Tax Court proceedings would be an improper purpose. Thus, there is a good chance that the Court’s opinion will leave this issue to be resolved on remand.
At the end of the argument, Justice Kagan asked government counsel to elaborate on what kind of evidence the government would agree would overcome the presumption that a summons was issued for a proper purpose. Counsel pointed to the two improper purposes identified in Powell – harassment and an attempt to pressure the taxpayer into settlement in a collateral matter – asserting that the taxpayer ought to have some evidence in its possession if the latter purpose existed. The Court may be tempted in Clarke to crack open the door a bit more for allegations of improper purpose, but it is unlikely to throw the door open as wide as the Eleventh Circuit appears to have done.
In any event, the answer will come soon. The Court could issue its decision as early as Thursday, and will almost certainly act by the end of June.
April 7, 2014
The parties resisting summons enforcement have filed their brief in the Supreme Court in Clarke responding to the government’s opening brief. Underlying the two sets of briefs is a fundamentally different perspective on the significance of holding an evidentiary hearing at which the agent issuing the summons can be questioned about his motives. For the government, such a hearing is a big deal, and the courts should not impose that burden on the IRS on the basis of a mere allegation of an improper purpose. For the summoned parties, such a hearing is a very limited intrusion that must be allowed upon a plausible allegation of bad faith if the notion of judicial oversight of summonses is to have any teeth at all. They argue that, “[f]or the judiciary to fulfill its function of safeguarding against abusive summonses, it cannot be entirely dependent on one-sided submissions by the government attesting in conclusory fashion that its summons is being pursued for a proper purpose.”
Thus, the summoned parties argue that the government’s position would “transform summons enforcement into an ex parte affair” because there would be no effective way to challenge the “pro forma showing” of government good faith made by an agent’s affidavit. The summoned party in most cases cannot realistically meet the government’s requirement that it show independent evidence of bad faith before having a hearing because that knowledge “is peculiarly within the knowledge or files of the Service”; the government’s proposed rule thus imposes a “circular burden” because the point of the hearing is give the summoned party the opportunity to develop that evidence. The brief rejects the government’s accusation that the Fifth Circuit has created a presumption of government irregularity. Rather, the brief argues that the presumption of regularity is intact, but the Fifth Circuit’s approach “simply allows the taxpayer an opportunity to overcome that presumption.” As the summoned parties see it, the government’s “position is not merely that it should receive the benefit of the doubt, but that in practice it should be immune from questioning.”
The brief then addresses why the Court should agree that the summoned parties have made a sufficiently plausible showing of bad faith to justify a hearing. As with its brief at the petition stage, this argument focuses primarily on the evidence showing that the government was interested in getting information that would assist with the Tax Court litigation, not in conducting an administrative investigation into tax liability. As noted in our first report on this case, the court of appeals did not rely on that evidence, and the courts thus far have not held that a motivation to assist with Tax Court litigation is an improper purpose that justifies denying enforcement of a summons. Perhaps recognizing that it may be tough to win in the Supreme Court on the present state of the record, the summoned parties specifically request an opportunity to litigate that issue, stating “if this Court vacates the judgment below, it should remand so that the court of appeals can consider whether evidence that the IRS is using a summons only to circumvent Tax Court discovery rules provides grounds for denying enforcement of the summons.”
Oral argument is set for April 23.
March 3, 2014
The government has filed its opening brief in Clarke. The brief, which is quite short for a Supreme Court brief, hews closely to the arguments made in the petition for certiorari. As we noted in our previous report, the government and the parties resisting summons enforcement took a very different view at the petition stage of the quantum of evidence that formed the basis for requiring the evidentiary hearing in this case. The private parties contended that they had made “substantial allegations” that the summonses were for an improper purpose, while the government referred to those allegations as “unsupported.”
The brief begins by emphasizing that, however the private parties choose to describe the evidence supporting their allegations, the holding of the Fifth Circuit was that a party is entitled to an evidentiary hearing at which it can question IRS officials about their motives in issuing a summons “whenever a taxpayer makes an ‘allegation of an improper purpose.’” Indeed, the government argues, the court of appeals specifically rejected the idea that the taxpayer’s allegations must be “substantial” or supported by evidence, pointing to the court’s statement that “requiring the taxpayer to provide factual support for an allegation of an improper purpose, without giving the taxpayer a meaningful opportunity to obtain such facts, saddles the taxpayer with an unreasonable circular burden.”
Thus, the government is willing to concede that, “if an objector presents evidence to support an inference of improper motive—or if a district court otherwise believes that such an opportunity for examination is appropriate—the district court may hold a hearing and require IRS agents to justify their actions.” But here, the government maintains, the court of appeals “erroneously reduced to zero the amount of evidence that is required to rebut a showing of good faith.”
With the question framed in this way, the government presents its arguments concisely. It argues that requiring an evidentiary hearing based on a mere allegation of improper purpose undermines Congress’s intent that summons enforcement proceedings be summary and expeditious. Instead, it would afford summoned parties the opportunity to “delay the resolution of summons-enforcement proceedings merely by alleging that the summons was issued for an improper purpose.” In addition, the government argues that the court of appeals’ approach infers wrongdoing on the part of a government official without evidence, which violates the “presumption of regularity” that public officials are presumed to have properly discharged their duties.
The response brief of the parties resisting the summons is due in mid-March. Oral argument has been scheduled for April 23.
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.