Tax Preparers Beware! 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of Tax Refund Suit Due to Inability to Prove Timely Filing of Amended Return
The 6th Circuit recently taught an expensive lesson to a Michigan couple about carefully following procedure when dealing with IRS Tax Problems. In Stocker v. United States (6th Cir. 2013), the 6th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Robert and Laurel Stocker's suit against the IRS challenging the IRS' denial of a $64,000 tax refund, holding that because the Stockers could not prove the timely filing of their amended federal tax return under the methods established in Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 7502, the District Court for the Western District of Michigan was correct in dismissing the case.
The Stockers' tax problems and subsequent loss of their $64,000 refund occurred because of a seeming minor error. Following an IRS tax audit of a business in which the Stockers had invested and lost money, Mr. Stocker's CPA prepared amended 2003 federal tax returns for the Stockers that entitled them to a $64,000 refund. Mr. Stocker's CPA advised him that the returns had to be mailed by October 15, 2007 to comply with the tax law. Unfortunately, though Mr. Stocker testified that he mailed the returns on that day, he neglected to bring copies of the certified mail receipts to the post office, therefore failing to obtain date-stamped receipts. Apparently this was because although the CPA's office manager prepared postage prepaid, certified mail return receipted requested envelopes for the Stockers she mistakenly retained the customer copies of the certified mail receipts for the 2003 amended returns, rather than giving these copies to Mr. Stocker so that he could present them at the post office as he mailed the returns.
This left the Stockers at a disadvantage when their tax dispute began, as the IRS' records stated that the envelope containing the Stockers' amended 2003 return was postmarked four days late. Compounding the Stockers' tax problems, the IRS failed to retain the postmarked envelope in question. Seeking help in their tax dispute the Stockers brought suit, but the District Court granted the IRS' motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction due to the suit being barred as past the three-year period for filing a claim for a tax refund. On appeal, the 6th Circuit affirmed.
The 6th Circuit was unmoved by the Stockers' attempts to prove the mailing date of their return through means other than those set forth in IRC Section 7502. As the IRS' records indicated that the returns were postmarked four days late, the Stockers could not prove timely delivery under IRC Sec. 7502(a)(1), which states that the postmark of the returns establishes the date of mailing. Additionally, Mr. Stocker's failure to obtain the certified mail receipt precluded the use of IRC section 7502(c)(1), which states that the "date of registration shall be deemed the postmark date". The court rebuffed the Stockers' attempts to prove timely delivery through circumstantial evidence; rather, the Court stated that its own precedent prevented any other method of proof. Finally, the court held that the District Court had not abused its discretion in refusing to draw the inference that the Stockers had timely filed their returns because of the IRS' failure to retain the postmarked envelope in violation of internal policy.
Despite the seemingly minor nature of the Stockers' mistakes, the 6th Circuit was highly unsympathetic to their plight. Ultimately, the court reiterated that only certain procedures are available to prove timely filing, and the Stockers' own mistakes precluded them from receiving relief, despite their innocent nature. While calling it "unfortunate" that the Stockers could not prove the timeliness of their return, the court sent a strong message to taxpayers that it was unwilling to make exceptions for even the most innocent of mistakes.