Yesterday, the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Loving v. IRS, that the IRS lacks statutory authority to regulate tax-return preparers. See our previous coverage here. In its February 11 decision, the court characterized the IRS’s interpretation as “atextual and ahistorical,” and, more humorously, as a large elephant trying to emerge from a small mousehole.
In 2011, the IRS for the first time attempted to regulate tax-return preparers, issuing regulations requiring that paid tax-return preparers pass an initial certification, pay annual fees, and complete at least 15 hours of continuing education courses each year. The IRS estimated that the regulations would apply to between 600,000 and 700,000 tax-return preparers. Before 2011, the IRS had never taken the position that it had the authority to regulate tax-return preparers. According to the D.C. Circuit panel (Kavanaugh, Sentelle, and Williams): “In light of the text, history, structure, and context of the statute, it becomes apparent that the IRS never before adopted its current interpretation for a reason: It is incorrect.”
The IRS claimed that 31 U.S.C. § 330 provided statutory authority for the regulations. That statute authorizes the IRS to “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of Treasury.” 31 U.S.C. § 330(a)(1). The D.C. Circuit cited the familiar two-step Chevron standard of review: (1) is the statute ambiguous, and (2) if so, is the agency’s interpretation reasonable. The court of appeals concluded that the “IRS’s interpretation fails at Chevron step 1 because it is foreclosed by the statute,” and, in any event, “would also fail at Chevron step 2 because it is unreasonable in light of the statute’s text, history, structure, and context.” The court of appeals cited six reasons foreclosing the IRS’s interpretation of the statute:
First, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the term “representative” generally is understood to refer to an agent with authority to bind others. “Put simply, tax-return preparers are not agents. They do not possess legal authority to act on the taxpayer’s behalf.” Second, the preparation of a tax return does not constitute “practice . . . before the Department of the Treasury.” “Practice before” an agency generally implies an investigation, adversarial hearing, or other adjudicative proceeding. Moreover, a related section of the statute allows the Secretary of the Treasury to require that a representative admitted to practice before the agency demonstrate four qualities, one of which is “competency to advise and assist persons in presenting their cases.” 31 U.S.C. § 330(a)(2). Filing a tax return is not understood in ordinary usage to be “presenting a case.” Third, the original version of the statute, enacted in 1884, referred to “agents, attorneys, or other persons representing claimants before [the] Department.” The court of appeals concluded that this original language clearly would not encompass tax return preparers. When the statute was recodified in 1982, the phrase, “agents, attorneys, or other persons representing claimants” was simplified to “representatives of persons,” but the language change expressly was not intended to effect a substantive change. Fourth, the IRS’s interpretation is inconsistent with the “broader statutory framework,” in which Congress has enacted a number of statutes specifically directed at tax-return preparers and imposing civil penalties. Those statutes would not have been necessary, the court reasoned, if the IRS had authority to regulate tax-return prepares. Fifth, if Congress had intended to confer such broad regulatory authority upon the IRS, allowing it to regulate “hundreds of thousands of individuals in the multi-billion dollar tax-preparation industry,” the statute would have been clearer. Referring to the statutory language, the court of appeals concluded: “we are confident that the enacting Congress did not intend to grow such a large elephant in such a small mousehole.” Sixth, the court noted that the IRS in the past had made statements and issued guidance indicating that it did not believe it had authority to regulate tax-return preparers. The court found it “rather telling that the IRS had never before maintained that it possessed this authority.”
The decision ends with the court of appeals noting that new legislation would be needed to allow the IRS to regulate tax-return preparers.
Given that the membership of the D.C. Circuit has recently expanded to include three additional judges, the government might believe that it is worthwhile to seek rehearing en banc before the full court. A petition for rehearing would be due on March 28. If the government does not seek rehearing, a petition for certiorari would be due on May 12. Whether it pursues the litigation further or not, the government can be expected to seek new legislation that would give the IRS the regulatory authority that the court of appeals refused to find.
We recently reported on the oral argument before the D.C. Circuit in Loving, in which the court considered the validity of the recently promulgated Treasury regulations addressing registration of tax return preparers. Subsequent to that argument, former IRS Commissioner Lawrence Gibbs published an article defending the IRS’s authority to promulgate those regulations and discussing their importance to tax administration. The government has now filed a FRAP Rule 28(j) letter bringing the article to the attention of the court and highlighting some points made in the article. The plaintiffs have responded to that letter, arguing that the article is not the kind of supplemental authority that is covered by Rule 28(j) and briefly addressing some of the points made in the article. Copies of the letters are attached below (the article itself is appended to the government’s letter).
[Note: Lawrence Gibbs is a member of Miller & Chevalier.]
The D.C. Circuit heard oral argument on September 24 in the government’s appeal in Loving from the district court decision enjoining the IRS from enforcing its new registration regime for paid tax return preparers. The panel consisted of Judges Sentelle, Williams, and Kavanaugh. The court was active, jumping in with questions in the first minute of the government’s opening presentation. The court asked several questions of the plaintiffs’ counsel as well, but those questions seemed to evince less skepticism of the advocate’s position. While it is always hazardous to predict the outcome based on the oral argument, the court of appeals certainly seemed to be leaning towards affirming the district court.
As we have previously discussed, the government’s position relies heavily on Chevron deference to its new tax return preparer regulations. It argues that the statutory authority to regulate practice before Treasury is sufficiently broad to encompass tax return preparers — specifically, that the term “practice of representatives of persons before the Department of the Treasury” is ambiguous and could reasonably be construed by the regulations to include persons who prepare tax returns. The relevant language is currently codified at 31 U.S.C. § 330(a)(1), but it dates back to 1884, when Congress responded to complaints about misconduct by claims agents who represented soldiers with claims for lost horses or other military-related compensation from the Treasury.
Just 30 seconds after the argument began, Judge Sentelle stepped in to challenge the premise of government counsel Gil Rothenberg that the Treasury regulations were valid because the statute did not “foreclose” them. Judge Sentelle maintained that the question instead was whether the statute “empowered” Treasury to regulate in this area, and the case could not be analyzed by assuming that Treasury had unlimited power except to the extent that Congress had explicitly foreclosed it. Shortly thereafter, Judge Williams questioned the government’s failure, in his view, to provide any support for the notion that the ordinary use of the statutory terms, like “representative” or “practice,” could encompass a tax return preparer who merely helps a taxpayer “fill out a form” that he is obliged to file with the IRS. Mr. Rothenberg responded that, although there were no cases on point, return preparers do more than “fill out a form” and that the statutory term “representative” cannot be limited to an agency relationship because the term was intended to retain the same meaning as the original 1884 statute, which applied to “agents, attorneys, or other persons representing claimants.”
Judge Sentelle then suggested that the fact that Treasury had not claimed any authority to regulate tax return preparers until now, even though the statute had been on the books for more than a century, cast some doubt on the existence of that authority. Judge Kavanaugh added that Congress’s enactment of legislation regulating tax return preparers during that period also suggested that Congress did not think that it had delegated that authority to the Treasury Department. Mr. Rothenberg responded that the administrative process is an “evolving process,” and Treasury was free to “choose” not to regulate for many years and then later to invoke its latent authority to regulate. Later, he added that the need to regulate the competence of tax return preparers is greater today than it was decades ago when taxpayers could more easily avail themselves of direct assistance from the IRS in filling out their return. With respect to the legislation, Mr. Rothenberg distinguished laws that impose after-the-fact sanctions on return preparers from the Treasury initiative to impose up-front “admission” requirements. Judge Sentelle questioned why the regulations are limited to paid return preparers, but do not cover persons who prepare tax returns for free. Mr. Rothenberg responded that Treasury was tackling the problem one step at a time and reasonably believed that the biggest problem was with unqualified persons marketing their ability to prepare returns.
Judge Kavanaugh then zeroed in on the statutory text, pointing out that section 330 (a)(2)(D) states that Treasury “may . . . require” that “representatives” demonstrate their “competency to advise and assist persons in presenting their cases.” That language indicates that Congress understood that the “representatives” who could be regulated were persons who would assist in “presenting cases,” not just filling out returns. Mr. Rothenberg disagreed, arguing that Treasury was not compelled to impose all of the requirements set forth in subsection (a)(2) and that the other three requirements could apply to tax return preparers. Judge Sentelle expressed some doubt whether that position was consistent with the statutory use of the conjunctive “and” in joining the four subsections of (a)(2). Judge Williams then suggested that these were four different characteristics of representatives, but that the language of (a)(2)(D) in that case still bore some relevance to interpreting the term “representatives” in (a)(1). Mr. Rothenberg again disagreed, stating that the discussion was now focused on what he believed to be the fundamental error of the district court — namely, treating all four characteristics of section (a)(2) as mandatory, because that would exclude otherwise able practitioners from representing taxpayers before Treasury simply because they lacked advocacy skills. He also noted the position taken in the amicus brief of former IRS Commissioners that the “presenting a case” language could encompass preparing a tax return, but Judge Sentelle retorted that this would be an “awfully strange” use of the language.
Mr. Rothenberg then closed his argument by reiterating the government’s position that the district court erred in reading (a)(2) as limiting the language of (a)(1) and that (a)(1) itself did not foreclose Treasury from regulating tax return preparers. Therefore, Chevron deference is owed to those regulations.
Counsel for the plaintiffs, Dan Alban, began his argument by maintaining that there was no statutory authorization for the regulation. He described the statute as clearly focused on Treasury’s controversy and adjudicative functions, such as examination of returns and appeals before the agency, and not on what he described as “compliance” functions like filing a tax return. He also pointed to the “presenting their cases” language in subsection (a)(2), stating that no “case” exists until there is a dispute over the taxpayer’s return. Judge Williams asked about evidence that the scope of the original 1884 statute was limited to claims that were being resisted by the government — that is, controversies. Mr. Alban replied that it was clear that the statute was addressing claims that the claimants chose to bring, rather than a mandatory function like filing a tax return. In addition, he noted, the legislative history indicates that these were “contested” claims and that the representatives were standing in the shoes of the claimants. Here, by contrast, tax return preparers are not “representatives” before the agency. Judge Kavanaugh then asked who the preparers are representing. Mr. Alban replied that they are not representatives of anyone; they are just performing a service in assisting preparation of the return, but the taxpayer himself has to sign it. He noted in that connection that tax return preparers are not required to obtain a power of attorney, unlike taxpayer representatives in agency proceedings.
The court challenged Mr. Alban when he argued that the “level of policy decision” here warranted caution in allowing an agency, rather than Congress, to implement this new regulatory regime. Judge Sentelle noted that counsel couldn’t get much “traction” with that argument when the D.C. Circuit frequently deals with “sweeping regulations” that create major changes in the regulatory landscape. Judge Kavanaugh observed that, even if counsel was merely stating that the significance of the change ought to color the court’s approach to finding ambiguity, the suggestion was unworkable because it is hard for a court to decide what is “major.”
Finally, Judge Sentelle asked about the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in City of Arlington holding that Chevron deference is owed to an agency’s determination of the scope of its jurisdiction. Mr. Alban stated that the decision was not directly applicable, but in any case the Supreme Court had made clear in that case the importance of seriously applying the limitations on Chevron deference. Here, because the statute was not ambiguous, Mr. Alban stated, the government’s position fails at Chevron Step 1, and therefore no deference is owed. Putting aside the discussion of broader administrative law principles, it was not apparent that any of the judges on the panel disagreed with the plaintiffs on that basic point regarding section 330(a).
Mr. Rothenberg began his rebuttal with a general discussion of Chevron principles, stating that all the prior cases in which the D.C. Circuit had invalidated regulations at Chevron Step 1 were situations where the agency action was more clearly foreclosed by a specific Congressional determination found in the statutory text, but he was met with considerable resistance. The judges observed that his list did not appear to be “exhaustive.” In particular, Judge Sentelle suggested that this case was perhaps analogous to the American Bar Ass’n case, which he described as invalidating FTC regulations directed at the legal profession on the ground that Congress had not empowered the FTC to regulate that profession. When Mr. Rothenberg answered in part that Chevron Step 1 sets a “low bar,” Judge Kavanaugh disagreed, stating that a court is to use all the tools of interpretation at Step 1 and that City of Arlington did not reflect a “low bar.”
Finally, Judge Kavanaugh asked Mr. Rothenberg to respond to Mr. Alban’s point that the IRS does not require tax return preparers to obtain a power of attorney. He replied that the power of attorney is required for “agents,” and tax return preparers are not agents. Mr. Rothenberg then repeated the point made in his opening remarks that the original 1884 statute covered “agents,” but other persons as well. Judge Williams interjected that the government appeared to be placing too much weight on the statutory reference to “other persons,” because canons of statutory construction provide that the scope of broad language like that is limited by the specific terms that precede it — here, “agents” and “attorneys.” Mr. Rothenberg noted that he disagreed, but his time expired before he could elaborate.
The case was heard on an expedited schedule, and therefore it is reasonable to expect that a decision will issue in the next couple of months.
Attached below is the plaintiffs’ response brief and the government’s reply brief, which were not previously posted on the blog. The government’s opening brief and two amicus briefs in support of the government were previously posted here and here.
[Note: Miller & Chevalier member and former Commissioner of Internal Revenue Lawrence B. Gibbs is among the five former Commissioners who filed an amicus brief in support of the Government in the Loving appeal.]
Five former IRS Commissioners filed an amicus brief in support of the Government’s appeal of the district court decision invalidating the IRS’s registration regime for paid tax return preparers. The former Commissioners “take no position regarding whether the manner in which the Treasury has chosen to regulate tax return preparers is advisable, but they strongly disagree with the District Court’s view that Congress has not empowered Treasury to do so.” Under 31 U.S.C. § 330, the Treasury Department is authorized to “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of Treasury.” The district court held that, although the statute did not define “the practice of representatives,” the surrounding statutory text made clear that Congress used “practice” to refer to “advising and assisting persons in presenting their case,” not simply preparing returns. In their amicus brief, the former Commissioners argue that filing a tax return does, in fact, constitute presenting a case. The amicus brief explains that an increasingly wide variety of government assistance programs are administered through the federal income tax system, including a number of refundable tax credits (the earned income credit, health insurance cost credit, etc.). Accordingly, the tax return preparer is not simply calculating tax liability; he or she also is often representing the taxpayer in pursuing claims for federal assistance. Because disbursements of benefits under these government assistance programs is administered largely through self-reporting on a tax return, it is essential, the former Commissioners argue, that paid tax return preparers be regulated so that taxpayers can identify the credits and benefits to which they are entitled and so that both the government and taxpayers are protected against fraud.
The National Consumer Law Center and National Community Tax Coalition also filed a joint amicus brief arguing for reversal of the district court’s decision. That brief documents “rampant” fraud and incompetence in the paid preparation industry, especially on the part of fringe return preparers, such as payday loan stores.
Government Seeks Appellate Stay of Order Enjoining Enforcement of New Registration Regime for Paid Tax Return Preparers
The Government has appealed to the D.C. Circuit from the district court decision enjoining the IRS from enforcing its new registration regime for paid tax return preparers. Loving v. IRS, D.C. Cir. No. 13-5061. The Government has also asked the court of appeals to stay the decision pending appeal, after the district court declined to grant a stay. The Government’s stay motion recites that, the appeal has not yet been authorized by the Solicitor General’s office, but that, if the appeal is authorized, the Government intends to file its opening brief in March and to move for an expedited oral argument.
To recap the district court’s decision: In 2011, the Treasury Department promulgated regulations that extended Circular 230 (the regulations that govern practice before the IRS) to non-attorney, non-CPA tax-return preparers who prepare and file tax returns for compensation. Under the new regulations, tax-return preparers must register before they can practice before the IRS, and they are deemed to practice before the IRS even if their only function is to prepare and submit tax returns. In order to register initially, tax return preparers must pass a qualification exam and pay a fee. To maintain their registration each year, they must pay a fee and take at least fifteen hours of continuing education courses. The IRS estimated that the new regulation sweeps in 600,000 to 700,000 new tax return preparers who were previously unregulated at the federal level.
Three tax return preparers who were not previously regulated by Circular 230 brought suit challenging the 2011 regulations and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. In January 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Boasberg, J.) granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. The court recognized that, under Mayo Foundation, the two-step analysis of Chevron should be applied to determine the validity of the regulations. The court explained, however, that “the battle here will be fought and won on Chevron step one” because “Plaintiffs offer no independent argument for why, if the statute is ambiguous, the IRS’s interpretation would be ‘arbitrary or capricious . . .’ under Chevron step two.” Focusing in this way on the unambiguous statutory text, the court held that the Treasury Department lacked statutory authority to issue the regulations.
The court rejected the Government’s argument that the agency had inherent authority to regulate those who practice before it, because a statute (31 U.S.C. § 330) specifically defined the scope of the Treasury Department’s authority. Under that statute, the Treasury Department is authorized to “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of Treasury.” The district court held that, although the statute did not define “the practice of representatives,” the surrounding statutory text made clear that Congress used “practice” to refer to “advising and assisting persons in presenting their case,” not simply preparing returns. Turning to provisions in the Internal Revenue Code that regulate tax return preparers, the court reasoned that Congress could not have intended § 330 to be the authority for regulating tax return preparers because “statutes scattered across Title 26 of the U.S. Code create a careful, regimented schedule of penalties for misdeeds by tax-return preparers.” The court rejected the Government’s resort to policy arguments. “In the land of statutory interpretation, statutory text is king.” Holding that the new regulations were ultra vires, the court enjoined the IRS from enforcing the registration regime.
In the motion for a stay pending appeal filed with the district court, the Government argued that the injunction substantially disrupted the IRS’s tax administration and that shutting down the program would be costly and complex. The district court was not persuaded, concluding that “[t]hese harms, to the extent they exist are hardly irreparable, and some cannot even be traced to the injunction.”
The Government’s stay motion in the court of appeals, filed February 25, argues that “[f]ailure to grant the stay will work a substantial and irreparable harm to the Government and the taxpaying public, crippling the Government’s efforts to ensure that individuals who prepare tax returns for others are both competent and ethical.” According to the Government’s brief, the “IRS estimates that fraud, abuse, and errors cost the taxpaying public billions of dollars annually.” In their March 8 response, the Plaintiffs/Appellees argue that the Government failed to establish any imminent irreparable harm traceable to the injunction, noting that even the Government acknowledged that most of the alleged harms would not occur until 2014. The tax return preparers also emphasize that the injunction merely preserves the historical status quo.