C.I.R. v. Neal, No. 06-14357.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtWilson
Citation557 F.3d 1262
PartiesCOMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Ruth E. NEAL, Respondent-Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 06-14357.
Decision Date10 February 2009
557 F.3d 1262
COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
Ruth E. NEAL, Respondent-Appellee.
No. 06-14357.
United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.
February 10, 2009.

[557 F.3d 1263]

Bethany B. Hauser, U.S. DOJ, Tax Div., Teresa E. McLaughlin, Tax Div., Dept. of Justice, Washington, DC, for Petitioner-Appellant.

John Larry Broyles, J. Larry Broyles, P.C., Augusta, GA, for Respondent-Appellee.

Appeal from the Decision of the United States Tax Court.

Before TJOFLAT, HULL and WILSON, Circuit Judges.

WILSON, Circuit Judge:


The Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (the "IRS") appeals the decision of the Tax Court granting Ruth E. Neal equitable relief pursuant to the innocent spouse provision of Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. § 6015(f), for the portion of unpaid federal income taxes attributable to the income of Neal's ex-husband for tax years 1993, 1994, and 1995. The total amount in controversy, exclusive of interest and penalties, is $278,996.

In this case, the Tax Court conducted a trial and granted Neal equitable relief. Both parties agree that the Tax Court appropriately used an abuse of discretion standard of review and that Neal at trial had to establish the Commissioner abused its discretion in denying her relief. They disagree about whether the Tax Court at trial may consider evidence not included in the administrative record or is limited to consideration of the administrative record.

Neal submits that the Tax Court properly followed its precedent in Ewing v. Commissioner, 122 T.C. 32, 2004 WL 158177 (2004), rev'd on other grounds, 439 F.3d 1009, 1014 (9th Cir.2006), and Porter v. Commissioner, 130 T.C. No. 10, 2008 WL 2065189 (2008), wherein the Tax Court held that in § 6015(f) cases it may conduct a "trial de novo" and consider evidence not included in the administrative record before the Commissioner. The Tax Court uses the term "trial de novo" to describe the form of its proceeding and applies an abuse of discretion standard of review in that trial de novo proceeding. However, the Commissioner contends that the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") governs all agency proceedings and thus, the scope of the Tax Court's inquiry is confined strictly to the administrative record.

This issue has divided the fourteen members of the Tax Court: the twelve judges in the Ewing/Porter majority concluded the Tax Court's determination of equitable relief in § 6015 cases is made in a trial de novo and is not confined to the administrative record. Eleven of these twelve believe that (1) a trial de novo gives

557 F.3d 1264

effect to the congressional mandate in § 6015(e) that the Tax Court "determine the appropriate relief available to [an] individual" in § 6015 equitable relief cases, (2) the Tax Court's 75-year history of conducting trials de novo under other statutes authorizing the Tax Court to make "determinations" of relief was well established when Congress enacted § 6015(e) using the "determine" language, and (3) the APA's record rule, limiting review to the administrative record, does not apply to the Tax Court's § 6015(e) determinations. Two members dissented and prefer a scope of Tax Court review limited to the administrative record.

We summarize § 6015, the statute at issue, the facts, and the procedural history in Part I. In Part II, we hold that the Tax Court did not err in refusing to limit its consideration to the administrative record and in conducting a trial de novo in this § 6015 case. In Parts III and IV, respectively, we hold that the Tax Court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Neal is entitled to equitable relief and we affirm the Tax Court's judgment.

I.
A.

Section 6015, through which Neal seeks relief, was added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1998 to broaden existing innocent spouse relief from joint and several liability. Congress first imposed joint and several liability on joint filers of tax returns in 1938. Revenue Act of 1938, Pub.L. No. 75-289, § 51(b), 52 Stat. 447, 476 (1938). Until the 1960s, the fairness of this concept was rarely questioned. In 1961, the Supreme Court held that embezzled funds were taxable. James v. United States, 366 U.S. 213, 221, 241, 81 S.Ct. 1052, 1056, 1067, 6 L.Ed.2d 246 (1961). Because many embezzlers were insolvent, the IRS began assessing underpayment of taxes to the joint filers of embezzlers, even if the spouses knew nothing of the embezzlement and had received none of the embezzled funds. See, e.g., Huelsman v. Comm'r, 416 F.2d 477, 478 (6th Cir.1969); Horn v. Comm'r, 387 F.2d 621, 622-23 (5th Cir. 1967); Moore v. United States, 360 F.2d 353, 357 (4th Cir.1966). Congress responded by adding to the I.R.C. § 6013(e), which allowed relief from joint liability in certain cases if (1) the underpayment was due to fraud on the part of the taxpayer's spouse; (2) the taxpayer did not know and had no reason to know of the underpayment; and (3) after considering the facts and circumstances, including whether the taxpayer benefitted from the underpayment, it was inequitable to hold the innocent spouse liable for the underpayment. Innocent Spouse Act of 1971, Pub.L. No. 91-679, 84 Stat. 2063, 2063-64 (1971). In 1984, Congress amended § 6013(e) and slightly broadened the grant of relief. Pub.L. No. 98-369, § 424(a), 98 Stat. 494, 801 (1984).

Congress repealed § 6013(e) and enacted § 6015 in the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 to make "innocent spouse status easier to obtain." H.R.REP. No. 105-599, at 249-51 (1998) (Conf. Rep.), reprinted in 1998 U.S.C.C.A.N. 288. Because this case involves § 6015(e) and (f), we quote those two subparts, which provide in pertinent part:

(e) Petition for review by Tax Court.

(1) In general.—In the case of an individual against whom a deficiency has been asserted and who elects to have subsection (b) or (c) apply, or in the case of an individual who requests equitable relief under subsection (f)—

(A) In general.—In addition to any other remedy provided by law, the individual may petition the Tax Court (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction) to determine the appropriate relief available

557 F.3d 1265

to the individual under this section ....

(f) Equitable relief.—Under procedures prescribed by the Secretary, if—

(1) taking into account all the facts and circumstances, it is inequitable to hold the individual liable for any unpaid tax or any deficiency (or any portion of either); and

(2) relief is not available to such individual under subsection (b) or (c), the Secretary may relieve such individual of such liability.

26 U.S.C. § 6015(e) and (f).

We start with subpart (f) of § 6015, which authorizes the Commissioner to grant equitable relief. Specifically, the Commissioner may grant relief to a taxpayer if, under procedures prescribed by the Commissioner, it would be "inequitable to hold the individual liable for any unpaid tax or any deficiency (or any portion of either)" and relief would not be available under subsection (b) or (c). 26 U.S.C. § 6015(f). The parties agree that relief is not available to Neal under § 6015(b) and (c), and that Neal may properly seek equitable relief under § 6015(f) as an alleged innocent spouse.1

In addition, subpart (e) of § 6015 authorizes a taxpayer who has been denied relief pursuant to subparts (b), (c), or (f) to petition the Tax Court for relief. Section 6015(e) expressly grants jurisdiction to the Tax Court to "determine the appropriate relief available to the individual." 26 U.S.C. § 6015(e). Section 6015(e) does not say the taxpayer "may appeal" the Commissioner's § 6015(f) decision to the Tax Court or that the Tax Court may hear an appeal. Rather, § 6015(e) authorizes the taxpayer to seek § 6015(f) relief from the Tax Court.2 Id. Section 6015(e) also states that a petition for relief from the Tax Court is "[i]n addition to any other remedy provided by law." Id.

B.

Neal and her ex-husband Alimam Neal ("Alimam") married in 1976, resided together until 1996, and divorced in 1998.

557 F.3d 1266

During the marriage, the couple kept largely separate finances, maintained separate checking accounts, and rarely discussed their financial arrangements.3 Neal, a radiologist employed by the Medical College of Georgia, paid most of the family expenses, including half of the monthly mortgage payment, groceries, and schooling and activities for the couple's three children. Alimam, a self-employed anesthesiologist, paid the other half of the mortgage, the housekeeper, and the utilities and car payments. Despite Neal's requests to Alimam, she was not privy to the financial aspects of Alimam's business.

Neal relied upon Alimam and his accountant to prepare and file the couple's joint federal income tax returns. She merely gave Alimam her W-2 forms and then signed the returns once Alimam received them from the accountant.4 Neal never spoke to the accountant nor did she examine the completed tax returns. Neal "imagined" that Alimam properly submitted their financial information to the accountant and filed the returns.

In fact, Alimam mailed the completed returns but, unbeknownst to Neal, assiduously failed to include payment of taxes relating to his income. Thus, while Neal's employer appropriately withheld taxes from Neal's salary, the portion of the taxes attributable to Alimam's business went unpaid.

Neal first learned that the couple owed money to the IRS when they sought bankruptcy protection in 1989. Alimam falsely told Neal that the IRS was a creditor because it disallowed certain tax shelters. The bankruptcy hearings revealed that Alimam had purchased in his name, without informing Neal, a boat, a Colorado villa, six or seven cars, and expensive fine art. After the bankruptcy, their home was foreclosed and their cars were repossessed. Over the next several years, Neal's wages were garnished, and she pawned a diamond ring to pay back taxes and a Rolex watch to pay utility bills.

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29 practice notes
  • Porter v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 132 T.C. No. 11 (U.S.T.C. 4/23/2009), No. 13558-06.
    • United States
    • United States Tax Court
    • April 23, 2009
    ...that the scope of review in a sec. 6015(f) review proceeding should not be limited to the administrative record. Commissioner v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir. 2009), affg. T.C. Memo. 2005-201. The standard of review was not in issue in Neal, as the parties had agreed that the standard was ......
  • Batchelor-Robjohns v. United States, No. 14–10742.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • June 5, 2015
    ...court's interpretation of a statute—here, various provisions of the Tax Code—is also a question of law we review de novo. Comm'r v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262, 1269 (11th Cir.2009).III. AnalysisFirst, we address the district court's application of res judicata to Counts I and II. Second, we addres......
  • Harkness v. Sec'y of the Navy, No. 13–cv–3003–SHL–dkv
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Western District of Tennessee
    • March 31, 2016
    ...to “determine” the appropriate remedies for the plaintiff and not simply “review” the agency's action. See also Commissioner v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir.2009) (holding the same). Here, where the court is asked to review the Secretary's determination, and not determine the plaintiff's r......
  • Goeller v. United States, No. 10-731T
    • United States
    • Court of Federal Claims
    • March 20, 2013
    ...federal tax case, but numerous cases apply its rule of construction in the latter context. See, e.g., Comm'r of Internal Revenue v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262, 1280 (11th Cir. 2009); United States v. Kjellstrom, 100 F.3d 482, 484 (7th Cir. 1996); Sharp v. United States, 14 F.3d 583, 587-88 (Fed. C......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
29 cases
  • Porter v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 132 T.C. No. 11 (U.S.T.C. 4/23/2009), No. 13558-06.
    • United States
    • United States Tax Court
    • April 23, 2009
    ...that the scope of review in a sec. 6015(f) review proceeding should not be limited to the administrative record. Commissioner v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir. 2009), affg. T.C. Memo. 2005-201. The standard of review was not in issue in Neal, as the parties had agreed that the standard was ......
  • Batchelor-Robjohns v. United States, No. 14–10742.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • June 5, 2015
    ...court's interpretation of a statute—here, various provisions of the Tax Code—is also a question of law we review de novo. Comm'r v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262, 1269 (11th Cir.2009).III. AnalysisFirst, we address the district court's application of res judicata to Counts I and II. Second, we addres......
  • Harkness v. Sec'y of the Navy, No. 13–cv–3003–SHL–dkv
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Western District of Tennessee
    • March 31, 2016
    ...to “determine” the appropriate remedies for the plaintiff and not simply “review” the agency's action. See also Commissioner v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir.2009) (holding the same). Here, where the court is asked to review the Secretary's determination, and not determine the plaintiff's r......
  • Goeller v. United States, No. 10-731T
    • United States
    • Court of Federal Claims
    • March 20, 2013
    ...federal tax case, but numerous cases apply its rule of construction in the latter context. See, e.g., Comm'r of Internal Revenue v. Neal, 557 F.3d 1262, 1280 (11th Cir. 2009); United States v. Kjellstrom, 100 F.3d 482, 484 (7th Cir. 1996); Sharp v. United States, 14 F.3d 583, 587-88 (Fed. C......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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