Saturday, June 20, 2009

Two Cases on Tax Shelter Exception to FATP-7525 Privilege

In Valero Energy Corp. v. United States, ___ F.3d ___ (7th Cir. 2009), available here, the Seventh Circuit blew the hopes of some taxpayers and professions that the tax shelter exception to the Federally Authorized Tax Practitioner ("FATP") privilege would apply only to mass-marketed, so called cookie-cutter tax shelters. Section 7525 confers the equivalent of attorney-client communications privilege for communications between a client and an FATP. SEction 7525(b)(2) excepts from the privilege "in connection with the promotion * * * in any tax shelter (as defined in section 6662(d)(2)(C)(ii))." Valero argued that the word "promotion" -- interpreted both literally and with recourse to the legislative history -- should confine the application of the exception to widely promoted tax shelters and not to one-on-one tax advice for a specific client for a special situtation. The Seventh Circuit disagreed. The opinion is straight-forward, well-written and short. I feel that would disserve the reader by trying to summarize the opinion beyond its bottom-line holding.

I will provide a short quote where the Court gives useful background and analysis for the FATP privilege that should serve as a guide for practitioners desiring to protect client communications:
We begin by noting that there is no general accountant-client privilege. United States v. Frederick, 182 F.3d 496, 500 (7th Cir. 1999). In 1998, Congress provided a limited shield of confidentiality between a federally authorized tax practitioner and her client. This privilege is no broader than the existing attorney-client privilege. It merely extends the veil of confidentiality to federally authorized tax practitioners who have long been able to practice before the IRS, see 5 U.S.C. § 500(c); 31 C.F.R. § 10.3, to the same extent communications would be privileged if they were between a taxpayer and an attorney. 26 U.S.C. § 7525(a)(1) (privilege does not apply in criminal proceedings). Nothing in the statute "suggests that these nonlawyer practitioners are entitled to privilege when they are doing other than lawyers' work. . . ." Frederick, 182 F.3d at 502; see also United States v. BDO Seidman, 337 F.3d 802, 810 (7th Cir. 2003) (BDO II). Accounting advice, even if given by an attorney, is not privileged.

This means that the success of a claim of privilege depends on whether the advice given was general accounting advice or legal advice. Admittedly, the line between a lawyer's work and that of an accountant can be blurry, especially when it involves a large corporation like Valero seeking advice from a broad-based accounting firm like Arthur Anderson. But we have set some guideposts to help distinguish between the two. For starters, the preparation of tax returns is an accounting, not a legal service, therefore information transmitted so that it might be used on a tax return is not privileged. In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 220 F.3d 568, 571 (7th Cir. 2000); Frederick, 182 F.3d at 500-01; United States v. Lawless, 709 F.2d 485, 487 (7th Cir. 1983). On the other side of the spectrum, communications about legal questions raised in litigation (or in anticipation of litigation) are privileged. In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 220 F.3d at 571; Frederick, 182 F.3d at 502. Of course, there is a grey area between these two extremes, but to the extent documents are used for both preparing tax returns and litigation, they are not protected from the government's grasp. In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 220 F.3d at 571; Frederick, 182 F.3d at 501. This circumscribed reading of the tax practitioner-client privilege is in sync with our general take on privileges, which we construe narrowly because they are in derogation of the search for truth. United States v. Evans, 113 F.3d 1457, 1461 (7th Cir. 1997).
I should also note to balance this discussion that the Tax Court recently gave a relatively taxpayer friendly application of the tax shelter exception to the FATP. In Countryside Limited Partnership v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. No. 17 (2009), here, the Tax Court held that, once the taxpayer establishes that the FATP privilege is applicable, the Government then bears the burden of showing that an exception -- there the tax shelter exception -- makes the privilege inapplicable. There, the long-time tax advisor merely responded to inquiries from the taxpayer and gave advice. The Tax Court held that the IRS had not established that these actions were a "promotion" of a tax shelter, reasoning:

Respondent has focused on Mr. Egan as "promoting the Countryside transactions." We read the conferees' statements quoted above as distinguishing tax advice given in the course of a relationship such as that between Mr. Egan and the Winn organization from the "promotion" of a client's participation in a tax shelter. There may be a point at which an FATP's actions cross the line, and will no longer be encompassed within the routine relationship between an FATP and his client and will amount to tax shelter promotion. Respondent has, however, failed to show us that Mr. Egan's communications with the Winn organization with respect to the partnership redemptions and associated transactions before us crossed that line. He rendered advice when asked for it; he counseled within his field of expertise; his tenure as an adviser to the Winn organization was long; and he retained no stake in his advice beyond his employer's right to bill hourly for his time. Respondent has failed to show us that he crossed the line from trusted adviser to promoter.