Tax Liability Review by Tax Court Limited

Published Categorized as IRS Debts, IRS Liens & Levies, IRS Penalties, Tax Litigation, Tax Procedure

The collection due process hearing law has provided taxpayers with another avenue for challenging their underlying tax liabilities.

With this option, taxpayers can let the IRS assess the additional tax or penalties and then wait for the IRS to attempt enforced collection for the balance. They can then file a collection due process hearing request to challenge the tax or penalty determination.

This was the case until recently. In Johnson v. Commissioner, 117 T.C. 204 (U.S.T.C. 2001), the court held that it would no longer allow these types of challenges in some cases. This is a significant change that limits the ability to use the collection due process hearing in some cases.

Facts & Procedural History

The taxpayers amended their tax returns to show that their Form W-2 wages were not taxable income. The IRS assessed a frivolous return penalty under Section 6702. The IRS then began enforced collection actions, including issuing a notice of levy and tax lien.

The taxpayers filed a collection due process hearing to challenge the IRS’s collection actions. As part of the CDP hearing, the taxpayers challenged the underlying liability for the penalties.

The court had to decide whether it had jurisdiction or the ability to consider the taxpayers challenge.

About CDP Hearing Requests

Congress created CDP hearings as a check on the IRS’s collections powers. They are intended to pause the IRS collection’s efforts and allow for an independent IRS employee to review that the IRS has followed the law before proceeding with collections.

The statute for CDP hearing requests allows taxpayers to challenge the underlying tax liability:

The person may also raise at the hearing challenges to the existence or amount of the underlying tax liability for any tax period if the person did not receive any statutory notice of deficiency for such tax liability or did not otherwise have an opportunity to dispute such tax liability.

This brings us to the question in this case. The taxpayers did not receive a notice of deficiency or might not have had an opportunity to dispute the tax liability. The frivolous return penalty is an assessable penalty. An assessable penalty is one that the IRS can assess without giving taxpayers a statutory notice of deficiency or an opportunity to dispute the liability. So if that was the case, it would seem that the taxpayer can challenge the underlying penalty in U.S. Tax Court by way of the CDP hearing.

The U.S. Tax Court’s Limited Jurisdiction

The U.S. Tax Court is in some ways, not a real court. It is part of the executive branch and not the judicial branch. This is important as the court can only hear those cases that Congress specifically authorized the court to hear.

Congress specifically authorized the U.S. Tax Court to hear disputes involving CDP hearings. Since the law also allows the taxpayer to dispute the tax liability in CDP hearings, one would think that the U.S. Tax Court could hear challenges to any liability that was in dispute in the CDP hearing.

The court in this case reached the opposite conclusion. It reasoned that the court can only consider challenges to the underlying liability if the court could consider challenges to the liability outside of the collection due process hearing. Put another way, if the taxpayer could not originally challenge the tax in the U.S. Tax Court, they cannot do so using the collection due process hearing rules.

The Takeaway

Given this case, the CDP hearing request is more narrow in scope. Taxpayers may not be able to use this process to challenge the underlying liability for taxes that the court would not have subject matter jurisdiction over. This includes assessable penalties, like the frivolous return penalty in this case.

Taxpayers who have balances for assessable penalties may have to pay the penalties and file refund claims and litigate the cases in district court. The same concept applies for other penalties too, such as the trust fund recovery penalty. This is less advantageous than being able to take advantage of the pre-payment remedy of a collection due process hearing and litigation in the U.S. Tax Court.

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