As reported on March 8, 2017, the U.S. Tax Court issued a taxpayer-friendly decision in Estate of George H. Bartell, et. al. v. Commissioner, 147 TC 5 (June 10, 2016). The ruling seemed too good to be true. I advised readers to proceed with caution!
Many taxpayers, exchange accommodators, and real estate professionals have been touting the ruling as a clear green light for reverse parking exchanges exceeding the 180-day period pronounced in Revenue Procedure 2000-37 despite the facts that:
- Judge Gale of the U.S. Tax Court clearly said in the opinion that the court was not giving any opinion with respect to reverse exchanges that exceed the 180-day safe harbor; and
- The Bartell case involved transactions that pre-dated the effective date of Revenue Procedure 2000-37 and Treasury’s issuance of the deferred exchange regulations.
In 2015, the U.S. Tax Court issued its ruling in the case of David W. Laudon v. Commissioner, TC Summary Option 2015-54 (2015). The case may not raise or even resolve any novel tax issues, but it reminds us of what is hopefully the obvious relative to the deductibility of business expenses. The Court’s opinion and its recitation of the underlying facts, however, make for an extremely interesting and entertaining read.
For more than a year, I have been discussing the potential that Oregon lawmakers will pass a corporate gross receipts tax. On May 26, 2017, we discussed recent events that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the dream of a corporate gross receipts tax was definitely alive and well in Oregon. In fact, the passage of it certainly appeared to be gaining steam in the legislature. Maybe that is not the case – at least for now.
Late yesterday, Oregon Democrats announced that they are abandoning any efforts to enact a corporate gross receipts tax this year as they have been unable to garner adequate legislative support to pass such a measure. Article IV, Section 25 of the Oregon Constitution requires a three-fifths majority of all members elected to each house of the legislative assembly to pass bills for raising revenue and that the presiding officer of each respective house sign the bill or resolution. So, it appears a three-fifths vote in favor of a corporate receipts tax in each the house and the senate is not currently attainable.
After Oregon Measure 97’s drubbing at the polls in November 2016, for many, it suggested the quashing of any notion of a gross receipts tax in the state. For Oregon Senator Mark Hass (D) and Representative Mark Johnson (R), it got them thinking creatively about alternatives to such an approach, spawning Legislative Concept 3548, and subsequently, the births of Senate Joint Resolution 41 and House Bill 2230. Both resemble the now defunct Measure 97—and in the same way can be viewed as a hidden sales tax, essentially. While finding a palatable path to reform is certainly a tall order, the new tax proposals could pose a serious threat to the Oregon business community and present a thorny solution to addressing the state’s budgetary needs.
In an April 2017 State Tax Notes article, titled “The Idea That Would Not Die: Beyond Oregon’s Measure 97,” my colleague Michelle DeLappe and I discuss these new Oregon tax proposals and their key differences with Measure 97, the benefits and shortcomings of a gross receipts tax, and the likelihood of a gross receipts tax in Oregon becoming a reality.
In most areas of law, substance prevails over form. Code Section 1031 is possibly one of the few exceptions to this time-honored rule of jurisprudence. Under Code Section 1031, form may prevail over substance. The U.S. Tax Court’s decision in Estate of George H. Bartell, et. al. v. Commissioner, 147 TC 5 (June 10, 2016), supports this thesis.
Estate of George H. Bartell et. al. v. Commissioner
The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. Bartell Drug, an old family-owned chain of retail drugstores located in the state of Washington, was owned by the petitioner and his two children. In 1999, the company entered into an agreement to purchase a parcel of land upon which it intended to build a new drugstore (“Replacement Property”). Bartell Drug had a store located on a property it owned in White Center, Washington, and it anticipated selling this property (“Relinquished Property”) to fund, in part, the cost of the Replacement Property. In order to lawfully avoid paying taxes on the gain from the sale of the Relinquished Property, the stage was set for an exchange of real property that would qualify for tax deferral under Code Section 1031. A few obstacles, however, stood in the taxpayer’s way, namely: (i) the Replacement Property was found by the taxpayer before a buyer for the Relinquished Property could be found; (ii) the Replacement Property was land without the improvements needed to operate a drugstore (i.e., a building); and (iii) in order to defer all of the gain from the sale of the Relinquished Property, the taxpayer would need to buy the Replacement Property once it was improved.
As I reported previously, Oregon Measure 97 was overwhelmingly defeated by voters in the state’s general election this past November. It certainly appeared that the voters spoke loudly and clearly on November 8, 2016, when they voted to defeat the ill-designed amendments to the Oregon corporate minimum tax regime contained in Measure 97. Flaws in the legislation included:
- Measure 97 contained a corporate alternative tax based on Oregon gross receipts – a tax that has no relationship to profits.
- Measure 97 proposed a corporate alternative tax applicable only to C corporations. S corporations, entities taxed as partnerships and Oregon benefit companies would have escaped the proposed tax altogether.
- While Oregon benefit companies would have escaped the proposed tax, non-Oregon benefit companies were to be subject to the tax. As a result, Measure 97 was clearly in conflict with the Interstate Commerce Clause.
Enter Legislative Concept 3548
On February 13, 2017, Oregon Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mark Hass (D) requested that Legislative Concept 3548 (“LC 3548”) be released. LC 3548 is a legislative referendum to amend the Oregon Constitution in order to create a “Business Privilege Tax” based on gross receipts. It looks a lot like Measure 97. There are, however, some key differences, including:
As a general rule, in accordance with IRC § 162(a), taxpayers are allowed to deduct, for federal income tax purposes, all of the ordinary and necessary expenses they paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on a trade or business. There are, however, numerous exceptions to this general rule. One exception is found in IRC § 280E. It provides:
“No deduction or credit shall be allowed for any payment paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business if such trade or business (or the activities which comprise such trade or business) consists of trafficking in controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law or the law of any state in which such trade or business is conducted.”
Congress enacted IRC § 280E as part of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, in part, to support the government’s campaign to curb illegal drug trafficking. Even though several states have now legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana, IRC § 280E may come into play. The sale or distribution of marijuana is still a crime under federal law. The impact of IRC § 280E is to limit the taxpayer’s business deductions to the cost of goods sold.
On October 22, 2015, the U.S. Tax Court issued its opinion in Canna Care, Inc. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2015-206. In that case, Judge Haines was presented with a California taxpayer that is in the business of selling medical marijuana, an activity that is legal under California law.
The facts of this case are interesting. Bryan and Lanette Davies, facing significant financial setbacks and hefty educational costs for their six (6) children, turned to faith for a solution. After “much prayer,” Mr. Davies concluded that God wanted him to start a medical marijuana business. Unfortunately, it does not appear that he consulted with God or a qualified tax advisor about the tax implications of this new business before he and his wife embarked upon the activity.
The good news for the Davies is that their business blossomed. In fact, they employ ten (10) people in the business and have enjoyed financial success. They timely filed state and federal income tax returns, reported income and paid, what they believed, was the proper amount of taxes. The bad news for the Davies is the fact that the IRS did not agree with their computation of the tax liability.
The IRS issued a notice of deficiency. Not able to resolve the matter at IRS appeals, the Davies found themselves in the U.S. Tax Court. The sole issue in the case was whether the taxpayers’ business deductions were properly disallowed by the Service under IRC § 280E.
To no avail, the Davies presented numerous arguments as to why marijuana should no longer be a controlled schedule I substance. They also asserted that their new business created employment opportunities for others, cured their family’s financial woes, and allowed them to participate in civic and charitable activities.
Judge Haines quickly dismissed the Davies’ arguments, concluding the sale of marijuana is prohibited under federal law—marijuana is a schedule I controlled substance. Accordingly, IRC § 280E prevents taxpayers from deducting the expenses incurred in connection with such activity (other than the cost of goods sold).
Faced with a tax assessment exceeding $800,000, the Davies argued that their business does more than sell marijuana. In fact, it sells books, shirts and other items related to medical marijuana. Citing other cases, they argued that their expenses should be apportioned among the various activities (i.e., the sale of medical marijuana and the sale of other items), and that they should be able to deduct the expenses related to the sale of the non-marijuana items.
The court explained that, where a taxpayer is involved in more than one distinct trade or business, it may be able to apportion its ordinary, necessary and reasonable expenses among the different trades or businesses. Unfortunately for the Davies, they could not show that they operated two (2) or more trades or businesses. In this case, the facts indicated that the sale of shirts, books and other items was merely incidental to the sale of medical marijuana. There was not more than one (1) trade or business.
PRACTICE ALERT: Whether more than one (1) trade or business exists is a question of facts and circumstances. Under CHAMP v. Commissioner, 128 T.C. 182 (2007), if a taxpayer operates more than one (1) distinct trade or business, it may be allowed to apportion its expenses among the trades or businesses. If only one (1) of the businesses is impacted by IRC § 280E, only the expenses relating thereto should be denied. The key is establishing that more than one (1) trade or business exists, and reasonably be able to apportion the expenses among those trades or businesses. Keeping separate books and records, and accounting for business expenses in a separate manner, is likely the best approach. The more separation and distinction among the businesses the better the chances of showing more than one (1) trade or business exists. Maintaining separate entities or business names for each activity may be warranted.
The Davies lost the case and are now faced with a hefty tax bill. Unless IRC § 280E is amended, taxpayers involved in the sale of medical and/or recreational marijuana, despite state legalization, will be presented with the same dilemma faced by the Davies in Canna Care, Inc. v. Commissioner.
On May 11, 2015, after serving as Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility (“OPR”) for approximately six (6) years, Ms. Karen Hawkins announced her intention to step-down and retire, effective July 11, 2015.
The OPR is responsible for interpreting and applying the Treasury Regulations governing practice before the Internal Revenue Service (commonly known as “Circular 230”). It has exclusive responsibility for overseeing practitioner conduct and implementing discipline. For this purpose, practitioners include attorneys, certified public accountants, enrolled agents, enrolled actuaries, appraisers, and all other persons representing taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service.
The vision of the OPR is “to be the standard-bearer for integrity in tax service.” As stated on OPR’s website, its “vision, mission, strategic goals and objectives support effective tax administration by ensuring all tax practitioners, tax preparers, and other third parties in the tax system adhere to professional standards and follow the law.” Its specific goals include: increasing tax advisor awareness and understanding of Circular 230; applying the principals of due process in all investigations and proceedings; and building, training and motivating its administrative team.
Ms. Hawkins will undoubtedly be missed by her work government colleagues. She will also be missed by the tax community. During her tenure at the OPR, she not only cleared the decks of a large backlog of pending disciplinary cases, she increased tax practitioner awareness and understanding of Circular 230. Ms. Hawkins consistently made herself available to the tax community, speaking at numerous tax institutes and forums (including the Oregon Tax Institute). In a direct, clear and concise manner, she reminded practitioners of their obligations under Circular 230. Ms. Hawkins did not shy away from tough questions raised by tax practitioner audiences. Instead, she hit the questions head on and provided complete and earnest answers. Ms. Hawkins was likely responsible, in whole or in part, for the amendments to Circular 230 that alleviated the need for tax advisors to insert the silly disclaimers on all written communications that may contain federal tax advice.
While I have to assume Ms. Hawkins was a tough adversary in any disciplinary proceeding, especially given her no-nonsense approach to matters, she gave good and well-needed guidance to the tax community following amendments to Circular 230. The tax community should be thankful for all of Ms. Hawkins’ hard work and her strong dedication to the tax profession. She will be greatly missed.
As of the writing of this blog post, the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service had not named a successor Director. I assume that Lee Martin, the Deputy Director, will serve as acting Director until a successor is named.
Acts of dishonesty can cost a tax practitioner his or her ability to practice before the IRS. Charles M. Edgar (“Edgar”), formerly a licensed CPA and attorney in Massachusetts, recently learned this lesson.
On May 1, 2014, the Service issued a news release (“IR-2014-58”), announcing the disbarment of Edgar. While the saga of Edgar is long and somewhat convoluted, it illustrates a significant point—failure to act honestly in matters before the IRS constitutes a violation of Circular 230. It will cost you severely.
The Secretary of Treasury has express authority to regulate practice before the IRS, including the power to suspend or disbar an individual from practice before the Service for failing to comply with Circular 230. In such instances, the practitioner must be provided notice and an opportunity for a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Circular 230 grants the Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility authority to bring proceedings to suspend or disbar practitioners from practice before the Service. Generally, an administrative law judge, not the Office of Professional Responsibility, determines the appropriate sanction, if any, taking into consideration all relevant facts and circumstances.
Circular 230 specifically provides that a practitioner may be sanctioned for giving “false or misleading” information to the Treasury or any officer or employee thereof. For this purpose, “information” means any facts or statements made in testimony, on federal tax returns, financial statements, and other documents or statements (written or oral).
Circular 230 also provides that a practitioner may be sanctioned if he or she is disbarred or suspended from practice as an attorney, CPA, PA, or actuary.
Edgar was a CPA, but his license was revoked in 2010 by the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Public Accountancy, in part, due to a 1995 felony conviction for knowingly making false statements to the government and for mail fraud. In 2011, Revenue Agent Adrienne Howley contacted Edgar in regard to an on-going audit of a corporation he previously had been designated as the authorized representative. She apparently told Edgar that the Service was going to audit the corporation’s shareholders. The agent specifically asked Edgar if he was going to represent the shareholders in the audit. Edgar told Ms. Howley that he would be representing the shareholders, and he would be submitting powers of attorney to memorialize the representation.
About six months following his disbarment as a CPA, Edgar submitted a separate IRS Form 2848, Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative, for each of the corporation’s two shareholders. On the Forms 2848, which are signed under the penalty of perjury, Edgar represented he was a CPA duly qualified to practice in Massachusetts.
After receiving the Forms 2848, Agent Howley conducted an on-line search, a routine practice, to determine if the representative held a valid license. The search revealed Edgar’s CPA license had been revoked on December 23, 2010. Consequently, Agent Howley referred the matter to the Office of Professional Responsibility.
After an investigation, the Office of Professional Responsibility sought to discipline Edgar. The matter ended up in a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Walter J. Brudzinski. At hearing, several bad facts came out, including:
- Edgar had been convicted of a felony for making false statements and for mail fraud. As a result, he lost his CPA license;
- Edgar filed with the IRS Forms 2848 representing he was a CPA when, in fact, his license had been revoked months earlier;
- Edgar never told Agent Howley he had been disbarred;
- Edgar never told the corporate taxpayer or its shareholders he had been disbarred;
- In Edgar’s answer to the Office of Professional Responsibility’s complaint, seeking discipline, he denied his CPA license had been revoked;
- At hearing, Edgar appeared to have a memory lapse in that he could not remember his conversations with the auditor; and
- At hearing, Edgar at one point claimed he did not sign or submit the Forms 2848 to the IRS. Rather, he claimed one of the shareholders had done so. Unfortunately, it was clear from the evidence submitted at hearing that the signatures on the forms were, in fact, his signatures.
The Administrative Law Judge concluded Edgar demonstrated “a pattern of conduct and occurrences that demonstrate [he] is not fit to practice before the IRS.” His “lack of truthfulness, is troubling and bears directly on his fitness to represent taxpayers before the IRS.”
Edgar’s disbarment from practice before the IRS clearly places him on the bench. If, however, he can show he is rehabilitated in terms of fitness to practice, he could re-apply to practice before the Service after five (5) years have elapsed. Given his track record, that may be an uphill battle.
Karen L. Hawkins, Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility, stated “[t]he representations made by practitioners on powers of attorney forms are not mere procedural niceties. The forms are signed under the penalty of perjury. Claiming a nonexistent licensure status puts the IRS in the position of potentially discussing taxpayer information with an unauthorized or unqualified person.” Ms. Hawkins went on to say: “[w]e will not tolerate that type of abuse of the tax administration process by anyone.”
Caution is advised. When dealing with the Service, other government agencies, clients and others, practitioners must act with honesty and integrity.
Larry J. Brant is a Shareholder in Garvey Schubert Barer, a law firm based out of the Pacific Northwest, with offices in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; New York, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Beijing, China. Mr. Brant practices in the Portland office. His practice focuses on tax, tax controversy and transactions. Mr. Brant is a past Chair of the Oregon State Bar Taxation Section. He was the long term Chair of the Oregon Tax Institute, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Portland Tax Forum. Mr. Brant has served as an adjunct professor, teaching corporate taxation, at Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. He is an Expert Contributor to Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Catalyst. Mr. Brant is a Fellow in the American College of Tax Counsel. He publishes articles on numerous income tax issues, including Taxation of S Corporations, Reasonable Compensation, Circular 230, Worker Classification, IRC § 1031 Exchanges, Choice of Entity, Entity Tax Classification, and State and Local Taxation. Mr. Brant is a frequent lecturer at local, regional and national tax and business conferences for CPAs and attorneys. He was the 2015 Recipient of the Oregon State Bar Tax Section Award of Merit.
Upcoming Speaking Engagements
- New York, NY, 10.22.17-10.27.17
- San Francisco, CA, 11.12.17-11.17.17
- "A Look at Worker Classification Under Federal, State and Local Law," Willamette Law Review Tax SymposiumSalem, OR, 2.2.18