In a stunning blow to the Internal Revenue Service’s efforts to regulate the tax preparation profession, a federal judge struck down the IRS’s licensing requirements for tax preparers on Friday, including testing and continuing education.
Three independent tax preparers—Sabina Loving of Chicago, John Gambino of Hoboken, N.J., and Elmer Kilian of Eagle, Wisc.—joined forces with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, in filing suit against the IRS in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg ruled against the IRS and in favor of the tax preparers in enjoining the agency against enforcing its Registered Tax Return Preparer requirements.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for hundreds of thousands of tax preparers across the country and the tens of millions of taxpayers who rely on them to prepare their taxes,” said lead attorney Dan Alban. “This was an unlawful power grab by one of the most powerful federal agencies and thankfully the court stopped the IRS dead in its tracks. The court ruled today that Congress never gave the IRS the authority to license tax preparers, and the IRS can’t give itself that power.”
The opinion is available online at http://www.ij.org/images/pdf_folder/economic_liberty/irs_tax_preparers/irs-opinion-1-18-13.pdf. The court enjoined the IRS from enforcing its new licensing scheme for tax preparers. The ruling does not affect CPAs, Enrolled Agents and tax attorneys, who were exempted from the RTRP regime as they are already regulated under Circular 230 requirements.
“Through these regulations, the IRS set itself up as king and sought to license hundreds of thousands of tax preparers without being authorized to so do under the law,” said Institute for Justice senior attorney Scott Bullock. “But as Judge Boasberg noted, under our system of law, ‘statutory text is king.’”
Former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman made tax preparer regulation a priority, aiming to root out tax preparers who were unqualified, filed fraudulent refund claims and even cheated clients, with the further goal of improving tax compliance. Shulman ended his term last November and is now a guest scholar at the Washington, D.C., think tank, the Brookings Institution. His successor, IRS Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller will now have to deal with the fallout from the lawsuit.
Boasberg recognized that the IRS recently did a “flip-flop” with regard to its ability to license tax preparers, the Institute for Justice noted, declaring for years it did not have the authority to do so but only recently claiming that it did have that power.
The IRS can appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The IRS had no immediate comment on the ruling, according to IRS spokesman Dean Patterson.
“They may very well appeal, but the District Court ruled that the IRS is enjoined from enforcing the RTRP licensing regulations,” said Alban. “Assuming the ruling stands, tax preparers no longer are going to need to comply with the IRS licensing requirements. It returns things to the way they were before the IRS passed those regulations in the first place. No longer do you have to get the IRS’s permission to work as a tax return preparer.”
He noted that the IRS’s continuing education requirements only just went into effect on January 1. “The timing on this really couldn’t have been any better,” said Alban. “Tax preparers should be able to prepare tax returns in this 2013 tax season without getting permission from the IRS. Tens of thousands of tax preparers who would have otherwise been put out of business, including two of our clients, can now continue to prepare returns.”
All three prongs of the IRS tax preparer regulation regime were affected by the ruling, including the testing, continuing education and RTRP registration requirements. However, the Preparer Tax Identification Number, or PTIN, which is part of the registration requirements, is not affected by the lawsuit.
“Anything that’s part of the RTRP regulations is struck down by this decision today,” Alban explained. “The PTIN is a separate regulation and it’s done under separate statutory authority. It’s a ‘shall issue’ type of permit. If you pay the fee, if you pay that amount of about $65, you’ll get a PTIN. The IRS was going to make the PTINs conditional on having the RTRP credentials, but now they’re not allowed to do that. It will go back to how it was last year, when you had to get a PTIN, but anyone could get one and you didn’t have to pass an exam or complete any continuing education.”
It is unclear how the IRS will deal with tax preparers who were scheduled to take the competency exam. “I don’t know how the IRS is going to wind things down,” said Alban. “As of the court’s ruling today, those regulations are null and void. Tax preparers don’t have to take that exam and they don’t have to comply with those regulations. The court ruled that these regulations did not have statutory authority.”
Judge Boasberg found that the text of the relevant statute does not support what the IRS claims as its authority to regulate tax preparers.
“Without deciding whether any of these three textual points alone would be dispositive, the Court concludes that together the statutory text and context unambiguously foreclose the IRS’s interpretation of 31 USC Section 330,” the judge wrote, adding, “The IRS also makes a number of nontextual arguments in favor of its interpretation, but none of these can overcome the statute’s unambiguous text here. In the land of statutory interpretation, statutory text is king.”
“They found that the IRS misinterpreted the statute and was basically trying to use it to expand its own authority in ways that the statute didn’t authorize,” said Alban. “On the first page of the opinion, they said that ‘the statute’s text and context unambiguously foreclose the IRS’s interpretation.’”
“With an invalid regulatory regime on the IRS’s side of the scale and a threat to plaintiff’s livelihood on the other, the balance of hardships tips strongly in favor of plaintiffs,” Boasberg wrote later in the ruling.
There was no trial in the case because there were no disputed facts, Alban noted. The ruling came after cross-motions for summary judgment. The lawsuit was originally announced in March (see Tax Preparers Sue IRS over New Requirements). The Institute for Justice filed a motion for summary judgment in September, and the IRS filed a cross-motion for summary judgment in October. “We trialed a couple of reply briefs, and that was it,” said Alban. “It was just in front of the court on the papers to rule on the case.”
The IRS had argued that the statute was unambiguous and could be read expansively to give the agency the authority that it claimed. “They also claimed that they had inherent authority as an agency to regulate anything related to what they do and the court rejected both of those arguments,” said Alban.
On the first page of the opinion, the court said, “Agency action, however, requires statutory authority. The IRS interpreted an 1884 statute as enabling these new regulations. That statute allows the IRS to regulate ‘representatives’ who ‘practice’ before it. Believing that tax-return preparers are not covered under the statute, and thus cannot be regulated, Plaintiffs—three independent tax-return preparers—brought this suit.”
“That was pretty much the basis of its decision,” Alban explained. “An agency can’t act without statutory authority, without Congress giving them authorization to do something.”
If the IRS appeals the ruling, which it is almost certain to do, Alban said the Institute would then argue the case in front of the D.C. Circuit court, and to higher courts if necessary. “If the IRS loses again in front of the D.C. Circuit, we’d be happy to argue it in front of the Supreme Court if they take the case. But all of that is speculative. I have no idea if the IRS is going to appeal the decision on this. We’ll certainly take it as far as it goes. We’re willing to represent the rights of independent tax preparers.”
Washington, D.C. (January 18, 2013)
By Michael Cohn