United States Decision for the Week-Interest and Penalties on Criminal Restitution Award

A recent Tax Court decision was reported potentially dealing with tax litigation and interest and penalties added to a Criminal Restitution Award. J. Frank Best, Certified Public Accountant and United States Tax Court Litigator works to stay current on all IRS decisions concerning tax litigation to ensure we are fully informed and prepared for our clients.

IRS Cannot Add Interest and Penalties to Criminal Restitution Award

The Tax Court, in a case of first impression, held that the IRS may not assess and collect interest and penalties on a restitution award in a criminal conviction for failure to pay tax. The Tax Court found that restitution is treated as if it were a tax, but only for the limited purpose of allowing the IRS to create an account receivable against which the restitution can be credited. Klein v. Comm’r, 149 T.C. (2017).

Zipora and Samuel Klein, a married couple, pleaded guilty to willfully filing a false federal income tax return for 2006. Each was sentenced to prison and the couple was jointly ordered to pay restitution to the IRS. Mr. Klein admitted in his plea agreement that he had underreported income on the couple’s joint returns for 2003-2006. For sentencing purposes, the government presented a tax loss calculation of approximately $560,000 based on a reconstruction of the Kleins’ income for 2003-2006. The sentencing court disregarded the Kleins’ objections that the calculation did not include any deductions other than those reported on the returns filed for those years. U.S. sentencing guidelines permit the tax loss amount to be uncertain, and the sentencing court may make a reasonable estimate based on the available facts.

Pursuant to their plea agreements, the Kleins signed an IRS closing agreement acknowledging that their overall tax liabilities for 2003-2006 remained indeterminate. The Kleins waived all defenses, including the statute of limitations, and agreed that the IRS could audit their 2003-2006 returns at any time. Six years later, the IRS had not completed or even begun a civil examination for the Kleins’ 2003-2006 tax years.

In 2014, Mrs. Klein was released from custody and paid to the IRS the restitution amount in full. The government then released a previously filed notice of lien against her, stating that she had satisfied her payment obligations with respect to the restitution, together with all statutory additions. Two months later, the IRS filed a notice of federal tax lien (NFTL) against the Kleins, seeking interest and penalties for failure to pay with respect to the restitution amount. The IRS treated the tax loss amount as the underpayment for each year and used the original due dates of the returns as the commencement date for calculating interest.

The Kleins requested a collection due process hearing seeking withdrawal of the NFTL because they had paid the restitution. A settlement officer noted that the restitution portion of the assessment had been paid but that the assessed interest and penalties had not. The Kleins did not propose a collection alternative and the IRS issued notices of determination sustaining the NFTL filings. The notice showed a total balance due of almost $360,000, consisting entirely of assessed interest and penalties calculated on the amount of the restitution. The Kleins challenged the notice in the Tax Court.

Interest applies to any unpaid tax under Code Sec. 6601, and a penalty applies under Code Sec. 6651(a)(3) for the failure to pay the tax required to be shown on a return. Under Code Sec. 6201(a)(4), the IRS may assess and collect a criminal restitution award for failure to pay any tax in the same manner “as if” the amount were such a tax. The IRS acknowledged that restitution is not literally a tax, but argued that there was no meaningful difference between an amount that is assessed and collected as if it were a tax and an amount that is assessed and collected as a tax.

According to the IRS, interest and penalties are an inevitable adjunct of the civil tax collection procedure authorized by Code Sec. 6201(a)(4). The IRS cited language in the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) stating that, because criminal restitution is assessed and collected the same as any civil tax assessment, interest and failure to pay penalties would apply as they would for any other civil tax assessment. It also drew a negative inference from Code Sec. 6305(a), which authorizes the IRS to assess and collect delinquent spousal support as if it were a tax. The wording of Code Sec. 6305(a) is similar to Code Sec. 6201(a)(4), but explicitly provides that no interest or penalties can be assessed or collected. The IRS argued that Congress could have included the same limiting language in Code Sec.6201(a)(4) if it had intended such treatment to apply.

The Tax Court held that Code Sec. 6201(a)(4) does not authorize the IRS to add underpayment interest or failure-to-pay penalties to a title 18 restitution award, and the IRS cannot assess or collect from the Kleins underpayment interest or additions to tax without first determining their civil tax liabilities. The court reasoned that the purpose of the “as if” language in Code Sec. 6201(a)(4) is to treat restitution as a tax only for the limited purpose of enabling the IRS to assess the amount in order to create an account receivable against which the restitution payment can be credited. According to the Tax Court, the inclusion of the word “if” in Code Sec 6201 was significant and had to be given effect.

Reviewing the legislative history, the Tax Court determined that Congress’s intent was to address the IRS’s lack of a proper accounting mechanism to credit receipts of restitution payments by giving the IRS early assessment authority for such awards. The Tax Court noted that the IRS usually waits until after a criminal proceeding to begin an audit to determine the taxpayer’s civil liabilities, so the timing created a bookkeeping issue for the IRS. Although the legislative history included a legislator’s floor speech expressing the belief that the bill would permit the assessment and collection of restitution awards for victims of crime in the same manner as delinquent taxes are assessed and collected, the Tax Court found that contemporaneous remarks of a sponsor of legislation are not controlling in analyzing legislative history.

The Tax Court rejected the IRS’s reliance on the IRM, finding the relevant IRM provisions to be short on analysis. The Tax Court noted that IRM provisions do not bind the courts and reasoned that the deference due to an agency manual depends on its thoroughness, logic and expertness. According to the Tax Court, on a question of statutory construction, the IRM would have limited power to persuade in any event and especially given its lack of analysis on this issue.

The Tax Court also disagreed with the IRS’s conclusion that Code Sec. 6305(a) proved Congress knew how to draft limiting language and would have done so in Code Sec. 6201(a)(4) if it intended to limit assessments of interest and penalties on restitution awards. The Tax Court reasoned that such an inference is strongest when the provisions were considered simultaneously and that there was no reason to believe that the Congress that enacted Code Sec. 6201(a)(4)35 years after Code Sec. 6305(a)(4) considered, but decided against, providing such an exclusion in Code Sec. 6201(a)(4).

The Tax Court noted that the differences between a tax loss calculation in a criminal tax case and civil tax liability supported its conclusion. According to the Tax Court, restitution is designed to compensate the IRS for the loss caused by the wrongdoing, while civil tax liability is typically determined after the criminal proceeding. The civil tax liability may be higher or lower than the tax loss that formed the basis of the restitution award. To the Tax Court, this showed the basic flaw in the IRS’s argument that a restitution award should be equated with a tax. A tax loss calculation is a simplified calculation intended to avoid complex disputes over adjustments and deductions during sentencing, where the yardstick for measuring tax loss is typically not understated taxable income but underreported gross income. By contrast, unclaimed deductions for legitimate expenses are fully available to the taxpayer in determining civil tax liability in an IRS audit. To the Tax Court, the difference between a restitution award and civil tax liability showed why restitution could not be equated to a tax.

The Tax Court concluded that a restitution obligation is not a civil tax liability and that Congress did not change that fact when it authorized the IRS to assess and collect restitution in the same manner as if it were a tax. According to the Tax Court, the Kleins had waived all defenses so the IRS was free to begin an audit of their civil tax liabilities, to which interest and penalties could be imposed; in that event, the interest and penalties would be determined by reference not to the tax loss calculation but to the Kleins’ actual tax liabilities.