The Government has filed its brief in its Fifth Circuit appeal from the denial of penalties in the NPR Investments case (for prior discussion go here). There are no surprises. The Government takes the position that the district court’s reliance on Heasley v. Commissioner, 902 F.2d 380 (5th Cir. 1990) (likely abrogated by Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-5(g) and certainly weakened on these facts by Weiner v. United States, 389 F.3d 152 (5th Cir. 2004)) is misplaced. Thus, the government argues that the mere fact that the taxpayer’s entire transaction (and not just a valuation or basis item) was concededly devoid of substance is not a bar to valuation misstatement penalties. The Government also takes issue with the alleged consideration by the district court of the partners’ (as opposed to the partnership’s) reasonable cause defenses in this TEFRA proceeding contrary to Temp. Treas. Reg. § 301.6662-1T(c)-(d). At a big picture level, the Government is still none-too-pleased with the district court’s open reliance on an R.J. Ruble opinion as contributing to such defenses, an act of reliance that it argues is contrary to case law prohibiting a taxpayer from relying on conflicted advisers for reasonable cause and also contrary to, among other things, the restriction on relying on a legal opinion that is based on representations the taxpayer knows are untrue. Treas. Reg. Sec. 1.6662-4(c)(1)(i).
This case has the potential to be another Mayo/Brand X battle-royale (what tax case doesn’t these days?) given that there are at least three regulations explicitly relied on by the Government some of which post-date contrary court opinions. But at bottom the case is just about a district court judge who looked into the eyes of the taxpayers and found not malice but, rather, an objectively good faith belief in the adviser who was hired to bring them safely past the landmines and snipers that fill the no-man’s land also known as the tax code. Although they didn’t make it across (the taxpayers abandoned defense of the claimed tax benefits and R.J. – metaphorically shot – is serving time), the district court apparently couldn’t fault them for trying. The government’s view is much harsher. In essence, it thinks that in trying to find a way to make it to the tax-free promised land, the taxpayers should have tried a little harder to explore the obstacles in their way before taking their guide’s word for it. At least their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
The taxpayer’s brief is due May 17th. We will keep you posted.