Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Tax Law
by
After a bench trial, a district court decided that Defendants RaPower-3, LLC, International Automated Systems, Inc. (IAS), LTB1, LLC, Neldon Johnson, and R. Gregory Shepard had promoted an unlawful tax scheme. Defendants’ scheme was based on a supposed project to utilize a purportedly new, commercially viable way of converting solar radiation into electricity. There was no “third party verification of any of Johnson’s designs.” Nor did he have any “record that his system ha[d] produced energy,” and “[t]here [were] no witnesses to his production of a useful product from solar energy,” a fact that he attributed to his decision to do his testing “on the weekends when no one was around because he didn’t want people to see what he was doing.” Defendants never secured a purchase agreement for the sale of electricity to an end user. The district court found that Johnson’s purported solar energy technology was not a commercial-grade solar energy system that converts sunlight into electrical power or other useful energy. Despite this, Defendants’ project generated tens of millions of dollars between 2005 and 2018. Beginning in 2006, buyers would purchase lenses from IAS or RaPower-3 for a down payment of about one-third of the purchase price. The entity would “finance” the remaining two-thirds of the purchase price with a zero- or nominal- interest, nonrecourse loan. No further payments would be due from the customer until the system had been generating revenue from electricity sales for five years. The customer would agree to lease the lens back to LTB1 for installation at a “Power Plant”; but LTB1 would not be obligated to make any rental payments until the system had begun generating revenue. The district court found that each plastic sheet for the lenses was sold to Defendants for between $52 and $70, yet the purchase price of a lens was between $3,500 and $30,000. Although Defendants sold between 45,000 and 50,000 lenses, fewer than 5% of them were ever installed. Customers were told that buying a lens would have very favorable income-tax consequences. Johnson and Shepard sold the lenses by advertising that customers could “zero out” federal income-tax liability by taking advantage of depreciation deductions and solar-energy tax credits. To remedy Defendants' misconduct, the district court enjoined Defendants from continuing to promote their scheme and ordered disgorgement of their gross receipts from the scheme. Defendants appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "United States v. RaPower-3" on Justia Law

by
Claiming insolvency, taxpayer Vincent Hamilton sought to exclude nearly $160,000 in student loans that were forgiven from his taxable income. During the same tax year, however, he had received a non-taxable partnership distribution worth more than $300,000. His wife transferred those funds into a previously-unused savings account held nominally by their adult son. Using login credentials provided by their son, Mrs. Hamilton incrementally transferred almost $120,000 back to the joint checking account she shared with her husband. The Hamiltons used these funds to support their living expenses. In a late-filed joint tax return, they excluded the discharged student-loan debt on the theory that Mr. Hamilton was insolvent. In calculating his assets and liabilities, however, the Hamiltons did not include the funds transferred into the savings account. Had they done so, Mr. Hamilton would not have met the criteria for insolvency; and the couple would have owed federal income tax on the student-loan discharge. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue eventually filed a Notice of Deficiency, reasoning that the partnership distribution rendered Mr. Hamilton solvent, such that the Hamiltons were required to pay income tax on the cancelled student loan debt. debt. The Hamiltons petitioned for review from the Tax Court, which sustained both the deficiency and a significant late-filing penalty. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the Tax Court's judgment. View "Hamilton v. CIR" on Justia Law

by
The IRS conducted a civil audit of Peter Hermes, Kevin Desilet, Samantha Murphy, and John Murphy (collectively, the “Taxpayers”) to verify their tax liabilities for their medical- marijuana dispensary, Standing Akimbo, LLC. The IRS was investigating whether the Taxpayers had taken improper deductions for business expenses arising from a “trade or business” that “consists of trafficking in controlled substances.” Claiming to fear criminal prosecution, the Taxpayers declined to provide the audit information to the IRS. This left the IRS to seek the information elsewhere—it issued four summonses for plant reports, gross-sales reports and license information to the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (the “Enforcement Division”), which is the state entity responsible for regulating licensed marijuana sales. In Colorado federal district court, the Taxpayers filed a petition to quash the summonses. The government moved to dismiss the petition and to enforce the summonses. The district court granted the motion to dismiss and ordered the summonses enforced. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the Taxpayers failed to overcome the IRS' showing of good faith, and failed to establish that enforcing the summonses would constitute an abuse of process. View "Standing Akimbo, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

by
After John Worthen amassed over eighteen million dollars in unpaid tax liabilities, the federal government placed liens on properties it claimed belonged to his alter egos or nominees. Following a court- ordered sale of the properties, Worthen sought to exercise a statutory right to redeem under Utah state law. The district court concluded there were no redemption rights following sales under 26 U.S.C. 7403. The Tenth Circuit concurred, finding neither section 7403 nor 28 U.S.C. 2001, which governed the sale of realty under court order, explicitly provided for redemption rights. Moreover, federal tax proceedings provided sufficient protection for taxpayers and third parties. View "Arlin Geophysical Company v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Political subdivisions of the State of Colorado challenged Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (“TABOR”) under the Colorado Enabling Act and the Supremacy Clause, contending that TABOR contradicted the Enabling Act’s requirement that Colorado maintain a “republican form of government.” TABOR allowed the people of Colorado to raise or prevent tax increases by popular vote, thereby limiting the power of Colorado’s legislative bodies to levy taxes. The issue currently before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was whether certain school districts, a special district board, and/or a county commission had standing to challenge TABOR. On a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), the district court held that plaintiffs had Article III standing but that they lacked political subdivision standing and prudential standing. Accordingly, the court dismissed the complaint. The Tenth Circuit concluded that it could not properly reach its conclusions at this stage of litigation. Because the Court held the political subdivision plaintiffs were not barred by standing requirements, the district court was reversed. View "Kerr v. Hickenlooper" on Justia Law

by
Louis Hansen was indicted for tax evasion and tax obstruction. Before trial, Hansen purported to waive his right to counsel. The district court held a hearing to determine whether this waiver was made knowingly and intelligently. At that hearing, the district court asked Hansen, among other things, whether he understood he would be required to follow federal procedural and evidentiary rules if he proceeded without counsel. Hansen’s response was at best ambiguous and unclear; at one juncture, he specifically told the court that he did not understand that he would be required to abide by these rules. Without seeking clarification from Hansen, the court accepted the waiver. Hansen represented himself at trial, and the jury convicted him of both tax evasion and tax obstruction. On appeal, Hansen argued that his waiver of the right to counsel was invalid because it was not made knowingly and intelligently. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court incorrectly determined that Hansen’s waiver was knowing and intelligent. In particular, the Court determined the trial court failed to engage in a sufficiently thorough colloquy with Hansen that would properly warn him that if he proceeded pro se, he would be obliged to adhere to federal procedural and evidentiary rules. The district court’s waiver determination was reversed and the matter remanded to vacate Hansen’s conviction and to conduct further proceedings. View "United States v. Hansen" on Justia Law

by
Wendy and Daryl Yurek were charged with tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud. After a joint jury trial, the Yureks were convicted on both offenses. The district court then sentenced Mrs. Yurek to a prison term of 27 months, leading her to appeal the conviction and sentence. On appeal, Mrs. Yurek challenged the sufficiency of the evidence presented against her, and claimed the district court erred in denying her motions for severance and a new trial. The Tenth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part: affirming Mrs. Yurek’s conviction, but vacated her sentence. The Court determined the district court applied the wrong test when deciding whether to grant a mitigating-role adjustment. View "United States v. Yurek (Wendy)" on Justia Law

by
This appeal concerns the propriety of the timing of deductions by a Subchapter S corporation for expenses paid to employees who participate in the corporation’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Taxpayers Stephen and Pauline Petersen and John and Larue Johnstun were majority shareholders in Petersen Inc. (the Corporation), a Subchapter S corporation. The disputed liabilities arose from Taxpayers’ income-tax returns for 2009 (offset in small part by corrections in their favor for their 2010 returns). Because the Corporation was a Subchapter S corporation, it was a pass-through entity for income-tax purposes; taxable income, deductions, and losses were passed through to its shareholders. Taxpayers appealed the United States Tax Court’s decision holding them liable for past-due taxes arising out of errors in their income-tax returns caused by premature deductions for expenses paid to their Corporation’s ESOP. Taxpayers contended the Tax Court misinterpreted the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) and, even if its interpretation was correct, miscalculated the amounts of alleged deficiencies. The Commissioner agreed a recalculation was necessary. The Tenth Circuit affirmed Taxpayers’ liability but remanded for recalculation of the deficiencies. View "Petersen v. CIR" on Justia Law

by
Shawn Gorrell was an insurance salesman based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was an accountant in Tulsa whose clients included several dentists and Gorrell sold insurance to some of them. In 2009, Gorrell began to pitch investments to these dentists that were outside of his typical insurance products. Some dentists initially gave Gorrell modest sums to invest, but later the amounts ballooned to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Gorrell would ultimately be convicted by jury on three counts of wire fraud and three counts of tax evasion. He appealed only the tax evasion charges, seeking a new trial on those counts. He argued the trial court plainly erred when it instructed the jury to consider “specified theories of an affirmative act (an element of tax evasion), which were legally invalid theories of guilt as a matter of law, the jury was instructed to be unanimous in finding an affirmative act, and the jury returned a general verdict of guilt.” The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court did not err, “much less plainly err,” in its instructions to the jury. Given the evidence elicited at trial, in light of those instructions, Gorrell’s convictions for tax evasion were supported. View "United States v. Gorrell" on Justia Law

by
John and Deanne Roth appealed a Tax Court decision that imposed a 40% penalty for the Roths’ “gross misstatement” of the value of a conservation easement they donated to a land trust in Colorado. On appeal, the Roths largely argued that, before imposing the penalty, the IRS failed to obtain written, supervisory approval for its “initial determination” of a penalty assessment as required by I.R.C. 6751(b). The Roths also sought a deduction in 2007 for repayments they made on the proceeds from their sale of tax credits generated by their donation of a separate conservation easement in 2006. The Tenth Circuit disagreed as to both counts and therefore affirmed the Tax Court. View "Roth v. CIR" on Justia Law