431 F.3d 1055 (7th Cir. 2005), 05-1941, In re Payne

Docket Nº:05-1941.
Citation:431 F.3d 1055
Party Name:In re: John Howard PAYNE, Debtor-Appellee. Appeal of: United States of America.
Case Date:December 14, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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431 F.3d 1055 (7th Cir. 2005)

In re: John Howard PAYNE, Debtor-Appellee.

Appeal of: United States of America.

No. 05-1941.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 14, 2005

Argued Sept. 27, 2005.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, No. 04 CV 2740 – Amy J. St. Eve, Judge.

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Kenneth L. Greene, Ellen P. Delsole (argued), Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for United States of America.

S. Ira Miller (argued), Chicago, IL, for Debtor-Appellee.

Before Cudahy, Posner, and Easterbrook, Circuit Judges.

Posner, Circuit Judge.

the question presented by this appeal is whether a debtor may obtain a discharge in bankruptcy from a tax debt owed to the Internal Revenue Service if he failed to file a return until after the IRS assessed the tax that he owed. The bankruptcy judge, seconded by the district judge, answered yes, and the government appeals.

Payne filed no federal income tax return for 1986 until 1992, which was of course too late. In 1989, however, the Internal Revenue Service, probably on the basis of an information return submitted by someone from whom Payne had obtained income in 1986 from which income tax had not been withheld, had discovered that Payne had not filed a return for that year and might owe income tax. The following year, after investigating the matter, the IRS assessed Payne for federal income tax due for 1986 of some $64,000, and after crediting him with the amount of tax that had been withheld by his employer ($44,000) began efforts to collect the balance. In 1992, months after the belated filing of his 1986 tax return, Payne offered to compromise his tax liability with the IRS. The IRS rejected his offer. In 1997 Payne filed for bankruptcy and sought, and the following year received, a discharge of his unpaid 1986 tax liability. The government argues that he was not entitled to a discharge.

Section 523(a)(1)(B)(i) of the Bankruptcy Code forbids the discharge of federal income tax liability with respect to which a "return" was required to be filed but "was not filed." Payne argues that he filed a return for 1986, all right, albeit six years late and after the IRS had gone to the trouble of figuring out what he owed for that year and assessing him the amount. The government argues that an untimely post-assessment return is not a "return" within the meaning of the statute

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and that therefore Payne has never filed a 1986 return and so cannot be discharged from liability for the taxes that he owes for that year.

The Bankruptcy Code does not define "return." Nor for that matter does the Internal Revenue Code. But there is case law interpreting it because a lot can turn on whether a submission to the IRS qualifies as a return. Taxpayers are required to file tax returns, so a taxpayer who files a document that purports to be, but is held not to be, a return can be in serious trouble.

The cases hold that to be deemed a return, a document filed with the IRS must (1) purport to be a "return," (2) be signed under penalty of perjury, (3) contain enough information to enable the taxpayer's tax liability to be calculated, and (4) "evince [] an honest and genuine endeavor to satisfy the law." Zellerbach Paper Co. v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 172, 180 (1934); United States v. Moore, 627 F.2d 830, 834-35 (7th Cir. 1980). "Genuine" is vague, however, and later cases sensibly substitute "reasonable." In re Moroney, 352 F.3d 902, 905 (4th Cir. 2003); In re Hatton, 220 F.3d 1057, 1060-61 (9th Cir. 2000); In re Hindenlang, 164 F.3d 1029, 1033 (6th Cir. 1999); Beard v. Commissioner, 82 T.C. 766, 779 (Tax Court 1984), aff'd, 793 F.2d 139 (6th Cir. 1986). A purported return that does not satisfy all four conditions does not play the role that a tax return is intended to play in a system, which is our federal tax system, of self-assessment. So while a "return" that satisfies the first three conditions comports with the literal meaning of the word, it does not comport with the functional meaning.

All but the fourth condition is satisfied by Payne's belated return. That condition – that the purported return evidence an "honest and reasonable" endeavor to comply with the law – is not satisfied, and not only or even mainly because Payne offers no excuse for having failed to file his 1986 return until six years after it was due. (At argument, his lawyer claimed without elaboration that the period from 1986 to 1992 was a "difficult" one in his client's life. That assertion is not evidence and is entitled to no weight in our consideration of the appeal.) More important, the belated "return" was not a reasonable endeavor to satisfy Payne's tax obligations. It may have been intended to induce the IRS to talk compromise with him, although it was only later that the IRS adopted a rule requiring the filing of a return as a prerequisite to negotiating a compromise. The belated filing may also or instead have been intended to set the stage for Payne's attempt to discharge his tax debt in bankruptcy. That is speculation; what is certain is that the belated filing was not a reasonable effort to satisfy the requirements of the tax law, namely, the requirements of filing a timely return and paying the amount of tax calculated on the return. When Payne filed, the IRS had already calculated the tax due from him, which means that he had succeeded in defeating the main purpose of the requirement that taxpayers file income-tax returns: to spare the tax authorities the burden of trying to reconstruct a taxpayer's income and income-tax liability without any help from him. A return filed after the authorities have borne that burden does not serve the purpose of the filing requirement.

Had Payne filed his 1986 return on time, rather than filing for bankruptcy a decade...

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