I blogged previously about section 6673(a)(1) penalties assessed against taxpayers (here). But this is the first case I have seen - albeit I have only been blogging for two months - where the Court assessed section 6673(a)(2) costs against a taxpayer's attorney for "unreasonably and vexatiously" delaying proceedings before the Court.
The taxpayer, Mr. Powell, conducted research of the Internal Revenue Code, case law, etc., which led him to the conclusion that he was not required to file a tax return or pay taxes. This false conclusion resulted in his failure to file tax returns from 1999 through 2002 and his failure to pay some $434,796 in outstanding liabilities.
In October 2005, the IRS sent Mr. Powell a Notice of Intent to Levy and Notice of Your Right to a Hearing. Mr. Powell, however, persisted in his ways even after reading the IRS's publication, "The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments." In response to Mr. Powell's belligerence, the IRS sent him a Notice of Determination Concerning Collection Action(s) Under Section 6320 and/or 6330, dated August 11, 2006, sustaining the levy and warning him of potential 6673 sanctions. In September 2006, Mr. Powell filed a petition with Tax Court challenging the levy notice.
Almost a year later, the IRS filed its first Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court denied the IRS’s motion stating, “satisfaction of the requirements of section 6330 [Notice and Opportunity for Hearing Before Levy] should be demonstrated at trial rather than in a summary adjudication,” (as we will see, this comes back to haunt the IRS.) In November 2008, the IRS filed its second Motion for Summary Judgment and a Motion to Impose a Penalty Under section 6673.
In the interim, Mr. Powell retained the services of an attorney, Mr. Barringer, to represent him in the proceedings before the Tax Court. Mr. Barringer responded the IRS’s second motion for summary judgment by seeking more time for discovery and requesting the Court deny the IRS’s motion until Mr. Powell receives satisfactory answers to his questions regarding the meaning of “taxpayer” and “individual” under the Internal Revenue Code.
The Court grants the IRS's second motion for summary judgment. In addition, the Court set an April 20, 2009 hearing for Mr. Barringer to Show Cause why he should not be required to pay attorney’s fees under section 6673(a)(2). In its Order to Show Cause, the Court points out that Mr. Barringer employed the discovery process to delay trial.
Petitioner’s argument [i.e. Mr. Barringer] that respondent’s motions [i.e. IRS] should be denied because they are premature until petitioner secures responses to his various inquiries is patently for the purpose of delay. Petitioner’s interrogatories [interrogatories are written questionnaires] indirectly assert stale tax defiance arguments about terms such as “taxpayer”, “person”, “non-resident alien”, “income”, and other non-meritorious arguments about delegated authority.
On May 20, 2009, Mr. Barringer filed his Response and Objection stating he did not cause delay of the proceedings, but that “his conduct…was consistent with the demands of his [client].” And further, “[his client] sought to know exactly how all the provisions of the I.R.C. apply to him.”
Time and Costs Awarded: Abuse of Discovery Process and Second Motion for Summary Judgment
The Court rejects the IRS’s request for time and costs for the second motion for summary judgment because it was a choice by the IRS to file the first motion, which the Court warned against. Accordingly, Mr. Barringer – though not completely blameless – is not required to pay time and costs for the IRS’s attorneys in the second motion for summary judgment.
Mr. Barringer protests the abuse of discovery charge, stating that he was simply representing his client based on his client’s directive, and that it would have been futile to try and convince his client, Mr. Powell, otherwise.
Mr. Barringer’s reasoning is rejected by the Court because section 3.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, incorporated into proceedings before the Tax Court by Rule 201(a) of the Tax Court Rules of Procedure, prevent an attorney from “defending a proceeding…unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” Under these Model Rules, Mr. Barringer was prohibited from defending Mr. Powell's frivolous claims. Consequently, the Court grants the IRS’s motion for time and costs for abuse of the discovery process, and awards the IRS $4,725 under section 6673(a)(2).
In the middle of its opinion, the Court references section 3.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and states, “[I]n the absence of any acknowledgement of current law, there is no indication of a good-faith attempt to change it.” Mr. Barringer, or any other attorney, no doubt should represent his client zeolously. But all attorneys are bound by the Model Rules of Professionl Conduct. These rules are incorporated into proceedings before the Tax Court by rule 201(a) of the Tax Court Rules of Procedure. Here, neither the taxpayer nor his counsel had any interest in putting forth a good faith argument for “extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.”
The Court's decision here imposes section 6673 costs because the attorney abused the discovery process by advancing Mr. Powell's position. The implication of this particular decision is that an attorney is effectively barred, by both the Model Rules and section 6673, from even representing a taxpayer whose only grounds for challenging his or her tax liability are frivolous.