United States Tax Court Decision for the Week – You be the Judge

A recent Tax Court decision was reported that may be of interest to individuals potentially dealing with tax litigation. J. Frank Best, Certified Public Accountant and United States Tax Court Litigator works to stay current on all IRS decisions concerning tax litigation to ensure we are fully informed and prepared for our clients.

Court Calls Taxpayer’s Arguments “Heavy on Chutzpah”; Duty of Consistency Prevents Additional Deductions-CIVIL FRAUD

The Tax Court held that a restaurant owner who underreported his employees’ wages for years that were outside of the three-year assessment period could not later amend his returns to increase the amount of wages he paid in order to claim additional deductions. The duty of consistency prevented him from taking a contradictory position after the statute of limitations had run in order to change a previous representation to the detriment of the IRS. Musa v. Comm’r, 2017 PTC 200 (7th Cir. 2017).

Background

Alaa Musa owns and operates a restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For the years 2006 to 2010, the IRS determined that Musa underreported his income taxes by more than $500,000 and made numerous other misrepresentations on his tax returns. Musa employed his family members and did not report their wages to the company he hired to assist with payroll. The payroll company’s services included withholding the required taxes from employees’ paychecks, issuing Forms W-2 to the employees and the IRS, and filing Musa’s quarterly employment tax returns. Between 2006 and 2008, Musa did not include any of his family members’ earnings when he reported his employees’ information to the payroll company. For 2009 and 2010, he included only two family members’ wages. He also underreported the restaurant’s revenues on his individual tax returns by giving inaccurate information to his accountant.

In 2009, the IRS audited Musa starting with his 2007 return, then expanded the audit to include his returns from 2006 to 2008. The IRS reviewed the bank statements for Musa and the restaurant and found that the amount of credit card deposits in the restaurant’s account exceeded what Musa had reported on his returns. The IRS decided to pursue Musa for civil tax fraud. While under audit, Musa hired a new accountant to prepare his 2009 and 2010 returns and to file amended employment tax returns for 2006 to 2008. He made these corrections, however, only after the statute of limitations had run on the IRS’s ability to collect the correct amounts of employment taxes that Musa’s amended returns admitted were due.

In 2012, the IRS sent Musa a notice of income tax deficiency for 2006 to 2010. Musa challenged the notice in the Tax Court. In 2013, Musa responded to a discovery request by providing a list of employees who he claimed had been paid additional wages. Musa claimed he was entitled to additional deductions for these wages in calculating his income tax liabilities.

The IRS argued that Musa’s duty of consistency prevented him from claiming new expense deductions on his income tax returns for wages paid between 2006 and 2009 because the IRS had relied on representations made by Musa in his original reports of employee wages in the restaurant’s quarterly tax returns and because the three-year period under Code Sec. 6501 for assessing employment taxes on those wages had expired. The Tax Court ruled in the IRS’s favor and determined that Musa had understated his income, failed to keep adequate records, concealed income, failed to file Forms W-2 and 1099-MISC for all employees, filed false documents, and failed to make estimated tax payments. The Tax Court found him liable for over $500,000 in income tax for 2006 to 2010, and over $380,000 in fraud penalties.

Analysis

The duty of consistency is an equitable tax doctrine which prevents a party from prevailing in a court proceeding by taking one position and then taking a contradictory position in a later case. It applies when there has been a representation by the taxpayer on which the IRS has relied followed by an attempt after the statute of limitations has run to change the previous representation or to recharacterize the situation in a way that harms the IRS.

Musa appealed to the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, Musa conceded that he had filed fraudulent income and employment tax returns but said the Tax Court had erred in its ruling on the duty of consistency. Calling Musa’s arguments “heavy on chutzpah but light on reasoning or any sense of basic fairness,” the Seventh Circuit affirmed the Tax Court.

The Seventh Circuit agreed with the IRS that Musa violated the duty of consistency. First, Musa made representations on his employment tax filings for 2006 to 2009 that the restaurant paid its employees certain sums in non-tip wages. Then, in 2013, Musa amended his filings to add wages that he had paid to his employees but failed to report for those same years. The court found that the IRS had relied on Musa’s original representations because it assessed employment taxes based on the original filings.

Musa argued that the IRS did not rely on the employment returns because it should have known that the returns were inaccurate. Musa claimed that the IRS either had all the facts available to it or had the opportunity to gain such knowledge before the limitations period expired, so the IRS did not “rely” on Musa’s false representations. In other words, Musa argued, after the IRS discovered his income tax fraud and he submitted amended income tax returns, the IRS should have induced from the amended income tax returns that the restaurant’s quarterly employment tax returns had also been incorrect.

The Seventh Circuit found there was no merit to Musa’s claim that the IRS lost its ability to rely on Musa’s employment tax returns because Musa amended his income tax returns. The court reasoned that the tax system is based on self-reporting and the IRS must be able to rely on truthful reporting for the system to function. In the court’s view, the IRS was permitted to take at face value the representations on Musa’s original employment tax returns and the duty of consistency prevented Musa from claiming the additional deductions which Musa tried to use to offset the consequences of his own fraud.

 

United States Tax Court Decision for the Week – You be the Judge

A recent Tax Court decision was reported that may be of interest to individuals potentially dealing with tax litigation. J. Frank Best, Certified Public Accountant and United States Tax Court Practitioner, works to stay current on all IRS decisions concerning tax litigation to ensure we are fully informed and prepared for our clients.

Wife Who Spent Time Caring for Disabled Son Was Not a Responsible Person for Payroll Tax Purposes

The Tax Court held in Fitzpatrick v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2016-199 that the wife of a silent owner of a restaurant and wine bar was not a responsible person and was not liable for trust fund recovery penalties with respect to unpaid employment taxes. The court noted that the woman spent most of her time taking care of her severely disabled son and her role at the restaurant was ministerial.

In 2004, James Stamps and Edward Fitzpatrick purchased the franchise rights to a wine bar and restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida, called the Grape. They agreed to be equal partners with James being the president and managing partner overseeing the business operations while Edward would be a silent partner and passive investor with some executive authority but no day-to-day duties.

Edward’s wife, Christina, has a high school education had no ownership interest in the business. Her primary responsibility during the years at issue was to serve as caregiver to her disabled son, Evan, who suffers from a rare metabolic disorder called citrullinemia. As a result of the disorder, Evan has severe autism, cerebral palsy, and limited mobility. He is required to take over 50 pills a day and cannot be left for any significant amount of time without adult supervision. Because of the substantial amount of attention Evan required, Christina was unable to devote significant effort to any business enterprise.

James and Edward formed Dey Corp., Inc. Dey Corp. purchased and operated the Grape franchise. James was the only person listed in the articles of incorporation as an officer and director. Shortly after James and Edward began engaging in preliminary business matters, James was unexpectedly hired for a short-term job at a beverage distributor in Puerto Rico. Therefore most of the preopening responsibilities fell upon Edward. Because of his busy schedule, Edward directed Christina to carry out some of those responsibilities. She opened bank accounts and engaged the services of Paychex, a payroll company. One of the services provided by Paychex was the payment of payroll taxes and electronically filing Forms 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return.

The Grape opened in March 2005 and was run primarily by James and a general manager he hired, Kris Chislett. Kris was responsible for carrying out the day-to-day business operations and was Paychex’s main contact during the periods at issue, and he maintained control over the payroll process.

Christina did not have a significant role at the Grape. Her main responsibilities were delivering checks, relaying electronic bank account balances to Kris, and delivering the business’ mail that was sent to her private mailbox. She occasionally transferred funds to and from the corporate bank account at the direction of James or her husband and sometimes issued checks at their direction for some of the business’ recurring monthly expenses. Christina made no operational decisions and did not have the background, education, or training to hold a management position at the Grape. Because no one was usually at Grape on the Tuesday morning the PayChex payroll package was delivered, Paychex started delivering the Grape’s payroll package to Christina and Edward’s home. It was usually necessary for Christina to sign the checks because Tuesday was Kris’s day off and there was no one else onsite available to sign the payroll checks. Christina was not responsible for and did not review statements included in the Paychex package.

Within a year of opening, the Grape was losing money. In 2008, Paychex attempts to withdraw money from the Dey Corp bank account to cover payroll taxes were rejected. Paychex continued to produce payroll checks and reference copies of Forms 941 and debit the funds from the Dey Corp bank account. However, it did not debit the payroll tax portion from the account, make payroll deposits on the business’ behalf, or file Forms 941. Christina was unaware these services had been canceled.

The Grape closed in 2011 and shortly thereafter, an IRS investigator went to the office of Dey Corp.’s CPA to discuss unpaid payroll taxes from the third quarter of 2008 through the closing of the restaurant. The CPA contacted Edward and Christina and notified them of the unpaid payroll taxes. This was the first time the couple had knowledge that federal payroll deposits had not been made for various quarters and that Forms 941 remained unfiled.

After conducting an investigation, an IRS officer recommended assessing trust fund recovery penalties (TFRPs) under Code Sec. 6672 against James, Kris, and Christina. Both James and Kris successfully administratively contested the assessments. James filed a request for abatement which was granted and Kris was granted relief by the IRS Office of Appeals. Christina challenged the liabilities during her CDP hearing but the IRS found her to be liable for the penalties which added up to over $150,000. Christina then took her case to the Tax Court.

Before the Tax Court, the IRS argued that Christina exercised substantial financial control over Dey Corp. and that at all times was a de facto officer of the corporation because she opened two corporate bank accounts, had signatory authority on both accounts, and signed checks on behalf of the corporation.

Christina argued that she lacked decision-making authority and did not exercise significant control over corporate affairs. She further asserted that despite her signatory authority, she was not a responsible person within the meaning of Code Sec. 6672 because she had a limited role in the business’ payroll process and merely signed payroll checks for the convenience of the corporation. According to Christina, James and Kris were responsible for running the corporation day to day and her duties were ministerial.

The Tax Court held that Christina was not a responsible person and thus was not liable for the TFRPs assessed against her. The court began by noting that liability for a TFRP is imposed only on (1) a responsible person who (2) willfully fails to collect, account for, or pay over the withheld tax. The court also commented on the credibility of the nine witnesses called to testify. The court found Christina and Edward, as well as a couple other witnesses to be credible. However, the court did not find the testimony of James, Kris, and another individual to be credible. The court also had little confidence in any of the documents the IRS obtained from Kris. The court found that the preponderance of the evidence showed that Christina’s role was ministerial and that she lacked decision-making authority.

The court also noted that Christina spent most of her time taking care of her disabled son and, that as a result of having to constantly lift Evan, she developed spinal stenosis which required periodic injections and epidurals. Consequently, she usually visited the corporation only once a week, on Tuesdays, for less than an hour each time.

Finally, the court said it was puzzled by the fact that James, the president of the corporation and a hands-on owner, and Kris, the day to-day manager, successfully evaded in the administrative phase any personal liability for the TFRPs.