Saturday, May 31, 2003

On-Line EIN/TIN--It's Baaaaaack!

Thanks to Andy Sandler who brought to my attention that the IRS EIN/TIN website was back in operation.

One aspect of the site that appears to be different is its treatment of LLCs. When applying for an EIN/TIN for an LLC, for question 8.a., one needs to check the box for the tax classification of the LLC (sole proprietorshp, partnership, or corporation) and then, on the spot in the question 8.a. area marked "Other," state whether the LLC is a single member or multi-member LLC. However, you should not check the box marked "Other."

Got that? Now go there.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

A Depressing Opinion

I think that the general public believes that the answers to questions of law, in general, and tax law, in particular, are found by investigating arcane points of case law and statutory construction. Of course, that is often the case. However, just as often, answers turn on facts and knowledge that is outside of the hermetic world of cases and statutes. Oliver Wendell Holmes was right: "the path of law is experience, not logic." This basic precept was ignored by the U.S. Tax Court in the case of Keeley v. Commissioner.

In 1996, Mr. Keeley left a well-paying job because in each of the previous 3 to 4 years at the job his compensation had been cut. He attempted to become a commissioned life insurance agent without success. As a consequence, in 1997 he had a mental breakdown. He suffered from and was treated for moderate to severe depression. His income from employment suffered as a result.

In 1997 and 1998, as a result of this diminution in income, he and his wife had to make premature withdrawals from their qualified retirement plans. In order to avoid the imposition of the 10% penalty on these premature withdrawals, they attempted to invoke the provisions of I.R.C. Section 72(t)(2)(A)(iii). That section provides that a premature withdrawal of funds from a qualified plan is not subject to the penalty if the taxpayer is disabled within the meaning of Code Section 72(m)(7) which provides that "an individual shall be considered to be disabled if he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long-continued and indefinite duration. An individual shall not be considered to be disabled unless he furnishes proof of the existence thereof in such form and manner as the Secretary may require."

Section 1.72-17A(f)((2)(vi) of the Treasury Regulations gives, as an example of a disability, "Mental diseases (e.g., psychosis or severe psychoneurosis) requiring continued institutionalization or constant supervision of the individual." The Regulations also provide that an impairment that is remediable does not constitute a disability. Specifically, Treas. Reg. Section 1.72-17A(f)(4) provides that: "An individual will not be deemed disabled if, with reasonable effort and safety to himself, the impairment can be diminished to the extent that the individual will not be prevented by the impairment from engaging in his customary or any comparable substantial gainful activity."

The Court concluded that Keeley did not suffer from a mental disease because he did not require continued institutionalization or constant supervision. Additionally, the Court concluded, without any real discussion, that Keeley's condition was not irremediable.

The first part of the Court's conclusion is based on precedent (i.e., logic) not real world experience. Anyone who has walked through the District of Columbia or any other major city should be aware of the mentally impaired homeless who populate the streets. They're there because we have medications available that allow us to dump them there and we thus avoid the expense of "continued institutionalization or constant supervision" of these individuals. Nevertheless, no one would argue that they suffer from mental illness. To pretend otherwise is simply to ignore reality. And, in this case, it was clear from the evidence presented that Keeley actually suffered from mental illness. However, the court applied the restrictive definition of the concept found in the regulations (but absent from the statute).

The court may have reached the conclusion that Keeley's condition was not irremediable based on the fact that, by 1998, he had been able to obtain gainful employment. However, the test of whether the disability is reasonably expected to be of long-continued and indefinite duration should be made based upon the condition of the taxpayer when the withdrawal from the qualified plan is made. In this case, at least in 1997, it seemed clear that Keeley's depression met this standard and there was no evidence to the contrary.

The case is also troubling because the court ties the overly restrictive test for disability set forth in the regulations to the statutory provision in Section 72 that requires the taxpayer to provide "proof of the existence [of a disabling mental illness] in such form and manner as the Secretary may require." Here, the court mistakes the grant of authority to set forth the manner in which the disability must be reported with a grant of authority to the Treasury define what constitutes a long-term disability for purposes of the statute.

The best part of the decision is that it is a summary disposition and cannot be treated as precedent for any other case. Thus, the Court is not bound by the opinion and free to ignore the holding in the future.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Update on IRS Web EIN/TIN Applications

Apparently, the on-line TIN process has, at least temporarily, been suspended. No explanation has been offered by the Service.

If anyone has additional information on this, could you please pass it along through the posting of a comment. Thanks.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Humpty Dumpty On a Roll

Humpty Dumpty articulated a principle that remains the lodestone of contract interpretation: "When I use a word . . .it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less." The problem that gives rise to most contract litigation is HD’s admonition that: "The question is . . . which is to be master-that's all." (For the complete quote, go here.) A recent LLC case out of Connecticut, brought to my attention by Professor Gary Rosin, illustrates the hazards of not exercising the power of the master.

In Radding v. Freedom Choice Mortgage, LLC, Radding was an at-will employee of Freedom Choice, a mortgage broker. In late 1995, Freedom Mortgage instituted an incentive profit sharing plan for certain of its employees wherein the employees became members of the LLC. The LLC's operating agreement had a provision that no member of the company would be eligible to receive income from the production bonus or profit sharing programs until he or she had been a member for one full calendar year.

The admission of Radding and several other employees as members to the company was memorialized in an amendment to Freedom Choice's operating agreement that was dated December 12, 1995. That amendment stated that Radding and the other employees had become members of the LLC as of that date.

While Radding did not sign the operating agreement until December 28, 1995, he did execute a waiver of workers' compensation benefits on December 22, 1995, asserting that the company did not have to provide workers' compensation insurance coverage on him because he was a member of the LLC.

Radding and the principal owner of the company got into a dispute in late 1996. As a result, Radding was discharged as an employee on December 13,1996.

As a threshold matter, the company argued that Radding was not entitled to any benefits for the 1996 year since he had not been a member of the LLC for a full year. However, the court reviewed the terms of the operating agreement which provided that the date a person becomes a member "shall be stated on Schedule A [to the operating agreement]." The minutes to the meeting of the owners of the LLC, held on December 12, 1995, adopting the revised Schedule, stated that Schedule A was "hereby" amended to include Radding and the others as members. The court's conclusion was fortified by the fact that Radding was holding himself out as a member of the LLC at least by December 22, prior to the December 28, 1995, date that he executed the operating agreement.

What no doubt came as even a greater surprise to the principal owners of the company was the conclusion that Radding was still a member of the company even after he was discharged as an employee. The reason was that while the majority owners of the LLC could remove an individual as a member, they hadn’t bothered to formally do so. Thus, the court concluded that Radding remained a member of the LLC through at least 1998.

The lesson of Humpty Dumpty is not merely that one who drafts a contract can be the master of its terms. Humpty Dumpty also teaches that, because one is the master of the terms of a written document, one is bound by the common sense meaning of the words unless a "special meaning" (that is, a meaning defined by the master) is intended.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Look Before You Leap

A short opinion recently handed down by Judge Nickerson of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland illustrates the potential dangers inherent in entering into a settlement agreement without complete assurance that the terms of the agreement can be fully consummated.

Under the facts of the case, Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. had brought an action in federal court based upon a federal, as opposed to state, claims. The parties had entered into a settlement agreement that called for the action to be dismissed without prejudice, subject to the right of either party to move to reopen the case within thirty days. If neither party moved to reopen within the thirty day time period, the dismissal became a dismissal with prejudice.

After the thirty day period had expired, Columbia Gas moved to enforce the settlement agreement. The Court rejected the request holding that the settlement agreement was a state law contract that replaced the original claims. Since the settlement agreement was a state law contract and there were no longer any federal claims upon which the court's jurisdiction could be invoked, Columbia Gas's motion was dismissed.

As a consequence, Columbia Gas, which has now lost its previous (presumably greater) claims, must bring a totally new action in Maryland state court to enforce or obtain damages under the settlement agreement. While the state court action will likely be limited (i.e., what were the terms of the agreement, have they been breached, and, if so, what are the damages), Columbia Gas is still exposed to greater costs and will lack the advantage of having the matter heard by the judge who was presumably familiar with the settlement agreement and the underlying dispute. As a practical matter, Columbia Gas might have to make further concessions to the defendant since its upside is likely limited. Not a happy result.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Update on LLCs & EINs

The IRS website setting forth the directions for obtaining EINs over the web now has been modified to provide additional instructions for LLCs. These instructions make it clear that LLCs can apply for EINs over the web and direct how to do so. The revised web page can be reached by clicking here.

Saturday, May 03, 2003

God Bless The Child Who's Got His Own

Delauter v. Shafer, decided by the Court of Appeals on May 2, is a little outside of my normal haunts, but the facts are somewhat interesting. Going beyond the specific holding of the case, it gives an insight into the dynamics of dispute resolution through the courts.

In 1944, Shafer married one of the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Deibert. Shafer and his wife lived with his parents until 1968 when then moved to the Deibert family farm. Mr. and Mrs. Deibert had previously moved their personal residence to a parcel across the road that they had purchased, but, even after the Shafers moved in, they were on the farm virtually every working day.

The Shafers paid virtually nothing to the Deiberts over the years. In fact, they had borrowed money from the Deiberts from time to time. The Deiberts paid all of the property taxes on the farm, and, except for certain improvements that the Shafers had made, the Deiberts paid all of the insurance premiums on the farm and its improvements.

Mr. Shafer declared bankruptcy in 1996. He did not list the farm as an asset in his bankruptcy estate.

Mr. Diebert died in 1990 and Mrs. Diebert died in November, 1998. In May of 1998, Mrs. Shafer died. In Mrs. Diebert's will she made a provision with regard to the farm, declaring it to be an "advancement" on the bequest to Mrs. Shafer under the will, with the amount of the advancement being $125.00 times the number of months that the Shafers had lived on the farm from March 1, 1969. Subject to the advancement and some other advancements noted in the will, Mrs. Diebert bequeathed her estate in equal shares to her children.

Trouble had begun brewing even before Mrs. Diebert's death. Shortly before she died, Mrs. Diebert's two other daughters, acting under a power of attorney from their mother, entered into a contract to sell the farm for a little less than $600,000.00 and attempted to get Mr. Shafer to vacate the farm. Mr. Shafer refused to vacate the premises. After Mrs. Diebert's death, these same two daughters, acting as the personal representatives of her estate, brought an ejectment action against Mr. Shafer.

Shafer responded with a counterclaim that a lease had existed for over 20 years, but that no rent had been paid or demanded. Thus, under the provisions of Section 8-107 of the Real Property Article of the Maryland Annotated Code, he argued that the estate could not seek rent or any right of reversion with respect to the property.

The matter was tried before a jury. The jury returned a special verdict in favor of Shafer, finding that a lease existed and that no rent had been paid or demanded for more than twenty years. Consequently, the trial court entered a judgment declaring that Shafer had title to the property.

The Court of Appeals rejected Shafer's position, resting its conclusion on two principles.

First, one of the pivotal issues was whether Shafer's possession of the farm was pursuant to a license from his in-laws or pursuant to a lease. The Court concluded that, because there was no dispute as to the underlying facts, the question of whether the arrangement was a lease or a license was a question of law for the court to determine and should not have been submitted to the jury.

Second, the Court outlined the distinction between a license and a lease. In particular, two elements that would argue that Shafer had leased the farm, the right to exclusive possession and the obligation to pay rent, were not present. Shafer lacked the right of exclusive possession to the farm, since the Dieberts had both been present at the farm virtually every working day, ceasing that activity only when physical infirmity overtook them. Additionally, it was clear that there was never a request or demand that either of the Shafers pay rent. Thus, the Court concluded that the arrangement was a license, not a lease. Consequently, the Court held that the provisions of Section 8-107 were not applicable and it reversed the circuit court.

What are the lessons with respect to dispute resolution?

First, it is likely that, as a practical matter, the case could not be settled since Shafer lacked the financial resources to make a reasonable settlement. After all, for the first 24 years of his marriage he lived at home with his parents. Thereafter, he lived rent free on his in-laws' property. Even then, he had to declare bankruptcy.

Second, the circuit court had abdicated its role when it allowed a jury to make the legal conclusion that the property was held by Shafer pursuant to a lease. To the extent that trial judges allow basic legal questions (as opposed to factual questions) to be resolved by a jury, litigation becomes a crap shoot. Litigants such as Shafer, who feel that they have nothing to lose, thus have an incentive to go to the legal gaming table.