Thursday, October 22, 2020

FTPB 2020 Update 05 - New IRM Summary of the § 6751 Written Supervisor Approval Requirement (10/22/20)

One of the most frequent high-profile items in tax procedure in the last couple of years has been § 6751(b)’s written supervisor approval timing requirement.  In the absence of regulations, the Tax Court has struggled on a case-by-case basis to apply the requirement in various factual situations – seemingly a myriad – that can arise.  To put it mildly, the ad hoc treatment is daunting to the Tax Court, the IRS and practitioners.  

The IRM was recently revised to cut through the smog of this ad hoc treatment.  The provision is here and I quote in full: (10-19-2020)
Timing of Supervisory Approval

For all penalties subject to IRC 6751(b)(1), written supervisory approval required under IRC 6751(b)(1) must be obtained prior to issuing any written communication of penalties to a taxpayer that offers the taxpayer an opportunity to:

Sign an agreement, or
Consent to assessment or proposal of the penalty

For a little background, I cut and paste from my Tax Procedure Book (this is from the working draft for the 2021 editions, with some of the text changed from the 2020 editions and with footnotes omitted; note that the only change that I specifically note here is to reflect the new IRM provision with the font in red):

Second, § 6751(b)(1) prohibits the assessment of a penalty “unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate.”  Although not stated in the statute, the purpose of the requirement is to prevent agents from improperly using the threat of a penalty as inappropriate leverage–a “bargaining chip”–to extract concessions when the IRS institutionally had not made a determination to assert a penalty.  The wording of the statute, however, is facially nonsensical because there is no such thing in the tax law as the determination of an assessment and, in any event, the assessment comes long after the threat of penalties could have been made to bully taxpayers.  In statutory interpretation lingo, if not nonsensical, the statutory text is “ambiguous,” a characterization which has spawned many opinions as the courts try to deal with the deficiencies in the statutory text through purposive interpretation strategies to apply the text as the courts think or speculate Congress intended but did not say in the statutory text. Section 6751(b) is a quintessential case illustrating this struggle to interpret and apply “ambiguous” statutory text on an ad hoc, case by case basis to interpret the “law” that can then be applied in future cases.

I attempt to bullet-point key features of the statutory prohibition under the current state of play.  I state the current state of play in general overview, but do not develop many of the nuances, some of which are yet to come.  There undoubtedly will be further refinements as the courts address various unique fact patterns, so stay tuned.  With those caveats, here is my summary:

The most significant issue has been the timing of the written approval.  Once the courts accepted that timing must be before the assessment despite the statutory text, the issue is to identify the timing of the initial determination required for the written approval.  The statutory text provides no guide for determining that earlier timing, but by focusing on the requirement for an “initial determination” and the purpose indicated in the legislative history, courts have concluded that initial determination is “the document by which the Examination Division formally notifies the taxpayer, in writing, that it has completed its work and made an unequivocal decision to assert penalties.”  In the context of an income tax audit, the latest date for the initial determination is the 30-day letter (or an equivalent (including the 60-day letter in a TEFRA audit) sent to the taxpayer) stating Examination’s determination to assert one or more penalties and offering the taxpayer a right to contest the determination in Appeals.  Mere notice to the taxpayer that the agent is considering asserting penalties and asking the taxpayer to discuss the penalties is not the determination requiring written approval.  Further, a communication offering a reduced penalty as part of a campaign to settle issues such as abusive shelters involved many taxpayers which say that, if the settlement is not accepted, an examination will be conducted and may result in penalties is not an initial determination.  However, a Revenue Agent’s Report (“RAR”) including penalties delivered to the taxpayer is the written determination requiring written approval.  And, even a notice that the IRS has preliminarily determined to assert a penalty that the taxpayer can avoid by action on his part is not the initial determination requiring written approval.  Cutting through all this, the IRM was recently revised to state guidance to agents succinctly (perhaps cryptically) that the “written supervisory approval required under IRS 6751(b)(1) must be obtained prior to issuing any written communication of penalties to a taxpayer that offers the taxpayer an opportunity to [i] Sign an agreement, or [ii] Consent to assessment or proposal of the penalty.”  While that guidance may not be outcome determinative in cases arising from audits where the operative facts preceded the date of the new IRM, it perhaps might be the solution going forward to render the commotion around timing moot.

Those wanting to view the 2020 editions (can be downloaded here) discussing these matters with footnotes, they may be viewed here:  Practitioner Edition, pp. 362-368 and Student Edition pp. 252-254 (I link the first page of each to go directly to the page on the web).

Even if the IRS can conform its practices to the new IRM guidance, there will be other issues left in § 6751(b)’s written approval requirement.  These issues include (i) which penalties in § 6662 are separate penalties for which there is a separate written approval requirement, and (ii) what exactly qualifies as the written approval (this might merge into the timing requirement).

JAT Comment:

1, I still would like the Treasury to adopt interpretive regulations dealing comprehensively and holistically with the requirement.  Those regulations would be entitled to deference under Chevron and Brand X (and depending on content under Skidmore as well).

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