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Most, if not all, Payroll Protection Program (PPP) borrowers are focused on the question of whether they will be able to have their PPP loan forgiven.  Many questions have arisen, and some but not all, have been answered by the Loan Forgiveness Application and instructions   released by the SBA on Friday, May 15, 2020.  Here are some of the highlights.

  • Annual “cash” payroll costs are capped at $100,000 per employee. While this is not news, the SBA calculates that this amount on a pro-rata basis for the 8 week “Covered Period” is $15,385. If you do the math, that is equal to 8 weeks per year divided by 52 weeks multiplied by $100,000. Some were hoping that those on a semi-monthly pay schedule could use a larger amount based upon 24 pay periods per year. Apparently not.
  • Alternative Payroll Covered Period. The Covered Period is generally eight weeks (actually 56 days) beginning on the date the loan is first funded. The Alternative Payroll Covered Period is only for employers with bi-weekly or more frequent payroll schedules. Therefore, it doesn’t appear to apply to employers who pay semi-monthly. It begins on the on the first day of the first payroll period following the PPP Loan Disbursement Date and ends 56 days later.  The following example is provided:  Alternative Payroll Covered Period: “… if the Borrower received its PPP loan proceeds on Monday, April 20, and the first day of its first pay period following its PPP loan disbursement is Sunday, April 26, the first day of the  Alternative Payroll Covered Period is April 26 and the last day of the Alternative Payroll Covered Period is Saturday, June 20.”  This suggests that one cannot include payments for a payroll period that begins before the PPP Loan Disbursement Date but is paid after that date. However, that is inconsistent with the Press Release issued concurrently by the SBA which states that the form and instructions provide “Flexibility to include eligible payroll and non-payroll expenses paid OR incurred during the eight-week period after receiving their PPP loan.” (emphasis supplied).  See more below.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the IRS has provided relief to taxpayers by extending filing and other deadlines. Now, in an internal memorandum from Fred Schindler the Director of Headquarters Collection (SBSE), the IRS continues to provide relief to taxpayers with tax debt by suspending most tax collection activities. These changes mirror the previous relief provided by the IRS, and restates the relief contained in the People First Initiative.  Our tax litigation attorneys are advising our clients that they can expect enforced tax collection activities to be suspended unless there is an exigent circumstance including the loss of the opportunity for the government to collect taxes due. The expiration of the statute of limitations is one example.

The importance of the memo is that while it mostly repeats and fleshes out the People First Initiative, it is a direct “order” from the head of SBSE Collection to all Collection Executives. The People First Initiative is a bit more nebulous in terms of its actual impact on the activities of rank and file employees.  The collection activities outlined in the memo include most activities related to the collection process such as meeting with taxpayers, filing new Notices of Federal Tax Liens (NFTL), issuing levies, taking or scheduling seizures actions, and pursuing civil suit proceedings. Automated tax levy programs are also suspended. The memorandum also directs Collections not to default installment agreements for missed payments due between April 1 and July 15, 2020 (the suspension period).  Due to the ongoing and ever changing nature of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States, the IRS may extend the suspension period and the incorporated relief provisions further.

It is important for taxpayers and their advisors to remember that even though collection enforcement activity will be rare from now through July 15th, once the suspension period ends the IRS may begin filing liens and levies with a vengeance. Our tax lawyers are therefore recommending to our clients that, to the extent practicable, they position themselves to take appropriate action to forestall collection after the suspension period ends. This includes submitting offers in compromise, and requesting installment agreements now.

In a 2019 U.S. Tax Court case, Palmolive Building Investors, LLC v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. No. 4, (2019) (Palmolive II), the Tax Court held that both penalties determined by the Revenue Agent in a tax audit and additional penalties later determined  by an Appeals Officer in the IRS Independent Office of Appeals met the written approval requirements of I.R.C. § 6751; thus making Palmolive Building Investors, LLC (Palmolive) a two-time loser. Palmolive was initially in Tax Court in 2017 (Palmolive I) over a disallowed charitable deduction for a façade easement.  As the owner of a historical building in Chicago, it had donated a façade easement to a conservation organization and took a large charitable deduction for the easement. In addition to questioning the $33,410,000 valuation of the easement, the IRS argued that the mortgages on the building limited the easement’s protection in perpetuity. The Tax Court agreed and concluded that the façade easement was not protected in perpetuity and therefore failed to qualify for a charitable deduction under I.R.C. § 170(h)(5)(A).

Following the disallowance in Palmolive I, the taxpayer returned to the Tax Court to dispute whether the penalties assessed by the IRS complied with the provisions of IRC Section 6751(b)(1).  During a tax audit, a Revenue Agent had asserted in a 30-day letter that Palmolive was responsible for a 40% penalty for a gross valuation misstatement and a 20% negligence penalty. These two penalties were approved on Form 5701 by the Revenue Agent’s supervisor. Subsequently, a 60-day letter was issued. The taxpayer took its case to the IRS Office of Appeals. The Appeals Officer assigned to the case proposed four penalties: the two assessed by the Revenue Agent and the Substantial Understatement and Substantial Valuation Misstatement penalties. The Appeals Officer’s immediate supervisor approved all of these penalties on Form 5402-c. In Tax Court, Palmolive argued that the initial determination of penalties was made by the Revenue Agent who did not assert the Substantial Understatement and Substantial Valuation Misstatement penalties; therefore the penalties asserted by the Appeals Officer were not approved as part of the first determination of the penalties.

In examining the validity of the penalty assessments, the court cited I.R.C. § 6751(b)(1) which states that penalties can only be assessed when the initial determination of such penalties are approved in writing by the immediate supervisor of the person making the determination. The court also pointed out that the Congressional motive behind enacting this provision was to make sure penalties were not used as bargaining chips. The court first noted that all penalties were approved in writing. The next issue was what defines an “initial determination” for the purposes if I.R.C. § 6751(b)(1). The court held that the initial determination is when the penalties were first communicated to the taxpayer. The court stated that the Revenue Agent’s 2008 mailing of the 30-day letter was the date of the initial determination and the Appeals Officer’s 2014 issuance of the Notice of Final Partnership Administrate Adjustment are both initial determinations. Since the IRS forms were signed by the respective supervisors prior to the time of the initial determinations, the penalties met the requirements of Section 6751(b) (1).

An article this summer in Tax Notes Today examined the United States government’s ability to tax cryptocurrencies. The article came days before cryptocurrencies saw another bullish run in which the value of a single unit of bitcoin once again passed $10,000. Additionally, the article references the comments of IRS special agent Gary Alford who stated the IRS is ready to enforce the taxation of a U.S. taxpayer’s gains from cryptocurrencies. Special agent Alford argues that the public’s familiarity with cryptocurrencies will make it easier for the IRS to file criminal tax cases against some taxpayers who evade their tax reporting obligations. Given this new warning from Alford, criminal tax attorneys need to be prepared to defend their clients who hold cryptocurrencies.

In Notice 2014-12, the IRS wrote that it considers cryptocurrencies to be property and, as such, the disposition or exchange of cryptocurrencies will be taxable. A clear example of a taxable event is where a bitcoin holder exchanges a single bitcoin (or any fraction thereof) for fiat currency. Fiat currency is understood to be currency backed by a national government, e.g. the Euro or U.S. dollar.

A tricky issue for taxpayers may be determining the adjusted basis of their holdings in a cryptocurrency to determine realized gain. Sometimes a single unit of cryptocurrency may have been involved in multiple exchanges and transactions before the taxpayer finally reports to the IRS he or she holds the cryptocurrency. The taxpayer is placed in the difficult task of proving the correct basis of the cryptocurrency. A taxpayer who provides an inaccurate basis is likely to be subject to penalties in addition to the amount in taxes owed.

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus is punished by the gods and forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill only for it to roll down as it nears the top. No matter how much effort Sisyphus puts into attempting to push the boulder over the crest of the hill, it always come tumbling back down. He is doomed to push the boulder up the hill for all eternity. Sometimes collecting payroll taxes can be a “Sisyphean task” for the IRS. At least, that is what the 11th Court of Appeals wrote in a recent decision.

United States v. Askins & Miller Orthopedics, involved a private medical practice which refused to pay payroll taxes. The IRS first tried to negotiate an installment agreement with the medical practice’s business owners, but the business owners would ultimately renege on any agreement. Then the IRS issued a tax levy on property held by the medical practice in various entities, but the business owners would simply shift property to new entities out of reach of the power of the levies. Believing it was out of options, the IRS requested a permanent injunction from the district court to compel the taxpayers to perform and pay their employment taxes now and into the future.

The district court rejected the IRS request because the court argued that the IRS had yet to suffer irreparable harm. The district court reasoned that the IRS could still sue for monetary damages once the taxpayers again failed to pay their employment taxes. This is in spite of the fact that the district court conceded that the taxpayers exhibited a pattern of unlawful conduct likely to persist. In other words, the taxpayers would continue to find ways to not pay their taxes.

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