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Hinkle v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 15, 2018

R. BRYAN HINKLE AND MATILDA GARCIA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant “United States' Motion for Summary Judgment, ” filed October 26, 2017. (Doc. 33). Plaintiffs responded on November 9, 2017, and Defendant replied on November 29, 2017. (Docs. 37 and 40). Having considered the parties' briefs and proffered exhibits, the Court grants Defendant's Motion.

         I. Background[1]

         Plaintiffs[2] filed their complaints[3] in this Court seeking a refund of penalties imposed under 26 U.S.C. § 6707A by the IRS for tax years 2007 and 2008. In April and May 2009, Plaintiffs were notified by Internal Revenue Agent (“IRA”) Russell Gadway, on behalf of the IRS, that their 2007 tax return had been selected for examination.[4] (Doc. 34-1) at 1-2, 23-24, and 44-45. On June 14, 2010, each set of Plaintiffs received a letter from IRA Gadway referencing tax years 2007 and 2008, stating, in pertinent part: “[t]his correspondence is to see if I can convince you to agree to the enclosed examination change report. This report is different from previous ones in that the penalties have been waved (sic) if you agree at my level when you relied on your preparer for taking the deduction.” Id. at 3, 25, and 46. Each letter was accompanied with a Form 4549 document titled “Income Tax Examination Changes, ” and this form assessed an accuracy-related penalty under 26 U.S.C. § 6662. Id. at 4-5, 26-27, and 47-48. On July 7, 2010, William D. Hinkle signed a Form 4549 document which assessed neither a § 6662 penalty nor any other penalty. Id. at 49-50. On July 11, 2010, Gene E. and Betty L. Hinkle also signed a Form 4549 document which assessed neither a § 6662 penalty nor any other penalty; and, R. Bryan Hinkle and Matilda Garcia signed their Form 4549 document which assessed neither a § 6662 penalty nor any other penalty on July 12, 2010, and July 13, 2010, respectively. Id. at 6-7, and 28-29.

         On July 19, 2010, the IRS notified R. Bryan Hinkle and Matilda Garcia, and William D. Hinkle, that it was considering assessing penalties under 26 U.S.C. § 6707A for failure to disclose a listed transaction under 26 C.F.R. § 301.6011-4(b)(2) and 26 U.S.C. § 6111 and § 6112. (Doc. 34-1) at 31, 51. On September 4, 2010, Gene E. and Betty L. Hinkle received a letter from Deborah M. Daub on behalf of William P. Marshall, North Atlantic Area Director of the IRS, stating “[w]e've reviewed and accepted the examination report that we previously gave to you regarding the examination of your tax return for [2007 and 2008]. We do not plan to make any additional changes to your return(s) unless we change a partnership, S-Corporation, trust, or estate tax return in which you have an interest.”[5] Id. at 8.

         In late March 2011, each Plaintiff received a Form 4549-A titled “Income Tax Discrepancy Adjustments” assessing a civil penalty under § 6707A.[6] (Doc. 34-1) at 9-10, 32-33, and 52-54. On April 10, 2011, Robert E. Bivins, the Plaintiffs' accountant, sent a letter to IRA Gadway protesting the § 6707A penalty in the March 2011 Form 4549-A documents. Id. at 11-12, 34-35, and 55-56. Mr. Bivins notes “[t]he taxpayer was further assured no penalties would be assessed through acceptance and payment of taxes alleged to be due, which assurance has apparently been broken.” Id. at 12, 35, and 56.

         Over a year later, on September 3, 2012, the Plaintiffs received “Notice of Penalty Charge” from the IRS for tax years 2007 and 2008. Id. at 13-16, 36-39, and 57-60. A week later, Mr. Bivins responded with a letter protesting the assessment of § 6707A penalties against Plaintiffs in the Notice of Penalty Charges. Id. at 17, 40, and 61. On September 19, 2013, Mr. Bivins completed and submitted Form 843 documents for the Plaintiffs for tax years 2007 and 2008, requesting an abatement of the § 6707A penalty. Id. at 19-20, 42-43, and 63-64. On December 26, 2013, Gene E. and Betty L. Hinkle received a letter from Jeffrey E. Barrett, Operations Manager, AM Operations 1, on behalf of the IRS, referencing correspondence on September 19, 2013.[7] Id. at 21. This letter states, in pertinent part: “Dear Taxpayer: Thank you for your correspondence dated 09/09/13. In reviewing your account, our records show that all penalties have been waived for the tax years listed above, as agreed by Internal Revenue Agent Mr. Russell Gadway.” Id.

         Turning to the instant matter, the Court construes Plaintiffs' complaints as asserting breach of contract and, alternatively, equitable estoppel against the United States. Defendant moves for summary judgment on both claims.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary Judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). When applying this standard, the Court examines the factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Applied Genetics Intl, Inc. v. First Affiliated Securities, Inc., 912 F.2d 1238, 1241 (10th Cir. 1990). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing there is no genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). The burden then shifts to the non-movant to come forward with evidence showing a genuine issue of material fact. Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991). An issue of material fact is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant. Kaul v. Stephan, 83 F.3d 1208, 1212 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). The non-moving party may not avoid summary judgment by resting upon mere allegations or denials of his or her pleadings. Bacchus, Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d at 891.

         III. Discussion

         A. Enforceable Contract

         “The IRS's authority to settle disputed tax liabilities (including refund claims) is described in Tax Code [26 U.S.C. §§ 7121 and 7122] and in the Treasury Department's implementing regulations.”[8] Brach v. United States, 443 Fed.Appx. 543, 548 (Fed. Cir. 2011). “Purported agreements that do not meet these requirements are not enforceable as contracts binding the IRS.” Id. (citing Botany Worsted Mills v. United States, 278 U.S. 282, 288-289 (1929)).

         Under § 7121(a), “[t]he Secretary is authorized to enter into an agreement in writing with any person relating to the liability of such person (or of the person or estate for whom he acts) in respect of any internal revenue tax for any taxable period.” Further, “[a]ll closing agreements shall be executed on forms prescribed by the Internal Revenue Service.” 26 C.F.R. § 301.7121-1(d)(1). The appropriate forms are Form 866 or Form 906. Rev. Proc. 68-16, Sec. 6. Generally, Form 4549 documents do not create closing agreements settling disputed tax liability. Brach, 443 Fed.Appx. at 548 (“But these [Form 4549] documents do not satisfy the regulations under which the IRS may settle a disputed tax liability. To begin with, they are not on the forms identified for such agreements….[n]either do the Form 4549 documents include the formal legal language indicating the IRS's intent to settle that the IRS has prescribed for use in such agreements.”); see also Shrader v. Tomecek, 1980 WL 1766, at *2 (S.D. Ohio) (“Form 4549 does not constitute a formal closing agreement pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7121.”).

         Here, the evidence in the record before the Court construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs would not allow a reasonable jury to find that there was a binding contract on the IRS precluding it from assessing the § 6707A penalty. There is no evidence of a closing agreement in a Form 866 document or a Form 906 document between the IRS and Plaintiffs. Nonetheless, Plaintiffs argue that an enforceable settlement agreement exists between the IRS and Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs point to the December 26, 2013, letter from the IRS as evidence of an offer, specifically that part stating, “all penalties have been waived for the tax years [2007 and 2008].” (Doc. 34-1) at 21. Plaintiffs then assert they accepted this offer by signing the ...


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