Thursday, December 17, 2015

Good Discussion of the Burden of Proof When the Trier of Fact Bases Decision on a Preponderance of the Evidence (12/17/15)

A case decided yesterday by the Fifth Circuit has a pretty good discussion on the effect of § 7491's shift of the burden of proof when the Tax Court may have improperly assigned the burden of proof under that section but had decided the case based on a preponderance of the evidence.  Brinkley v. Commissioner, ___ F.3d ___, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 21838 (5th Cir. 2015), here.

This is cumulative to what I state in the text book, but is probably a good reminder for students and new practitioners.  I incorporate the entire discussion on that subject:
A. The Allocation of the Burden of Proof 
"The allocation of the burden of proof [under I.R.C. § 7491] is a legal issue reviewed de novo." Whitehouse Hotel Ltd. P'ship v. Comm'r, 615 F.3d 321, 332 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Marathon Fin. Ins., Inc., RRG v. Ford Motor Co., 591 F.3d 458, 464 (5th Cir. 2009)). 
As a general rule, the Commissioner's determination of a tax deficiency is presumed correct, and the taxpayer has the burden of proving the determination to be erroneous. See Tax Ct. R. 142(a); Welch v. Helvering, 290 U.S. 111, 115 (1933). However, I.R.C. §§ 6201(d) and 7491(a) set forth exceptions to this rule. Under § 6201(d), "if a taxpayer asserts a reasonable dispute with respect to any item of income . . . and the taxpayer has fully cooperated with the Secretary . . ., the Secretary shall have the burden of producing reasonable and probative information concerning such deficiency." Similarly, under § 7491(a), if "a taxpayer [(1)] introduces credible evidence with respect to any factual issue relevant to ascertaining the liability of the taxpayer for any tax," n7 (2) complies with certain substantiation requirements, (3) "maintain[s] all records required under this title," and (4) "cooperate[s] with reasonable requests by the Secretary for witnesses, information, documents, meetings, and interviews," then "the Secretary shall have the burden of proof with respect to such issue." Nevertheless, this Court has held that the operation of this burden-shifting scheme is irrelevant when both parties have met their burdens of production and the preponderance of the evidence supports one party. See Whitehouse Hotel, 615 F.3d at 332; Knudsen v. Comm'r, 131 T.C. 185, 189 (2008) ("[A]n allocation of the burden of proof is relevant only when there is equal evidence on both sides.").
   n7 Although this Court has yet to speak on what constitutes "credible evidence," the Eighth and Tenth Circuits have defined the term to mean "the quality of evidence, which after critical analysis, the court would find sufficient upon which to base a decision on the issue if no contrary evidence were submitted. . . ." Blodgett v. Comm'r, 394 F.3d 1030, 1035 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Griffin v. Comm'r, 315 F.3d 1017, 1021 (8th Cir. 2003)); accord Rendall v. Comm'r, 535 F.3d 1221, 1225 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Blodgett, 394 F.3d at 1035). 
Here, the tax court initially found that Brinkley "did not introduce credible evidence regarding the tax character of the income in issue that merited a shifting of th[e] burden [of proof] to [the Commissioner]" under §§ 6201(d) and 7491(a). But the court ultimately declined to hold Brinkley to his burden, concluding instead that "[t]he preponderance of the evidence, without regard to burden of proof, is that [under letter agreement II] petitioner received the value of his stock and compensation for service previously rendered or to be rendered in the future." Accordingly, the resolution of this issue turns on the tax court's finding that the preponderance of the evidence supports the Commissioner's position that the $3.1 million payout in letter agreement II amounted to compensation for both his stock and his services to Zave and/or Google -- and therefore was properly characterized as ordinary income. 
We agree with the tax court's finding that the preponderance of the evidence favors the Commissioner's deficiency determination, so any error in the court's allocation of the burden of proof is harmless. See Whitehouse Hotel, 615 F.3d at 332; Blodgett v. Comm'r, 394 F.3d 1030, 1039 (8th Cir. 2005).
Addendum 12/18/15 9:00am: