In Wendell Falls Development, LLC v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-45, the Tax Court denied a charitable contribution deduction for a taxpayer’s contribution of a conservation easement because the taxpayer expected to receive a substantial benefit from the donation.

The taxpayer purchased 27 contiguous parcels of unimproved land, comprising 1,280 acres. The taxpayer planned to subdivide the 1,280 acres into a master-planned community with residential areas, commercial spaces, an elementary school, and a park. The taxpayer would then sell the lots to builders.

The taxpayer identified 125 acres of the 1,280 acres as land upon which a park would be placed. The taxpayer and the County discussed the County acquiring the 125 acres for use as a county park. The taxpayer sought to ensure that the 125 acres would be restricted to park use and proposed placing a conservation easement on the 125 acres. Ultimately, the taxpayer and the County entered into a purchase agreement for the 125 acres, and placing a conservation easement on the land was a precondition to the sale. The taxpayer granted a conservation easement on the 125 acres in favor of a land trust and transferred ownership of the 125 acres to the County. The taxpayer claimed a charitable deduction for its contribution of the conservation easement on its tax return.

The issue here is the “substantial benefits” test. No deduction for a charitable contribution is allowed if the taxpayer expects a substantial benefit from the contribution. The taxpayer owned and intended to sell the 1,280 acres of land adjoining the 125 acres that was designated as park land. The taxpayer’s master-planned community was designed so that all residential areas would have access to the 125-acre park.  According to the Court, the taxpayer expected a substantial benefit from the donation because it sought to ensure that the 125 acres was restricted to park use, and as the prospective seller of the lots the taxpayer “would benefit from the increased value to the lots from the park as an amenity.” Because the taxpayer expected a substantial benefit from the donation, the Court disallowed the charitable deduction. (Note: alternatively, the Court determined that the value of the easement was zero because the park land did not diminish the value of the 125 acres).

Recently, the written supervisory approval requirement of Section 6751(b) has been one of the primary issues in Tax Court litigation concerning penalties that the IRS has asserted against taxpayers. The focus of this litigation is the effect of Section 6751(b) and its interplay with the Commissioner’s burden of production as to penalties in court proceedings under Section 7491(c). In Dynamo Holdings v. Commissioner, 150 T.C. No. 10 (May 7, 2018), the Tax Court addressed these issues in a partnership-level proceeding.

Section 6751(b)(1) provides that “[n]o penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination…” (note that Section 6751(b)(2) provides certain exceptions to this general rule).

Section 7491(c) provides that the IRS “shall have the burden of production in any court proceeding with respect to the liability of any individual for any penalty, addition to tax, or additional amount imposed by this title.”

Until the Chai and Graev III opinions, there had been little litigation over the effect of Section 6751(b).

In Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2nd Cir. 2017), the taxpayer argued in his post-trial brief that compliance with the written-approval requirement in Section 6751(b)(1) is an element of the Commissioner’s claim for penalties and is therefore part of the Commissioner’s burden of production under Section 7491(c). The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding that Section 6751(b)(1) requires written approval of the initial penalty determination no later than the date the IRS issues the notice of deficiency (or files an answer or amended answer) asserting such penalty. Chai held that Section 6751(b) is part of the Commissioner’s burden or production in a deficiency case in which a penalty is asserted.

In Graev v. Commissioner (Graev III), 149 T.C. No. 23 (Dec. 20, 2017), the Tax Court held that the Commissioner’s burden of production under Section 7491(c) includes establishing compliance with the written supervisory approval requirement of Section 6751(b). Thus, in a deficiency case in which a penalty is asserted, it is the IRS’s burden to introduce sufficient evidence establishing compliance with the supervisor approval requirement.

In Dynamo Holdings, the Tax Court addressed the interplay between the supervisor approval requirement and the IRS’s burden of production in a partnership-level proceeding. The Court held that the IRS does not bear the burden of production with respect to penalties under Section 7491(c) in a partnership-level proceeding. The Court reasoned that Section 7491(c) provides that the IRS has the burden of production “with respect to the liability of any individual for any penalty…” Because partnership-level proceedings do not determine liabilities and are not with respect to individuals, the IRS does not bear the burden of production as to penalties. In a similar vein, the IRS does not bear the burden of production with respect to penalties asserted against corporations.

The Court further held that where the IRS does not bear the burden of production as to penalties, the lack of supervisory approval of penalties may be raised as a defense to those penalties. However, taxpayers should note that they must affirmatively argue that the IRS failed to comply with the supervisory approval requirements of Section 6751. Failure to make such an argument can be costly, as the taxpayer will be deemed to have waived the defense.

On May 30, the newly-formed Philadelphia Chapter of the Federal Bar Association’s Section on Taxation will host a meet-and-greet event with the Honorable Mark V. Holmes of the United States Tax Court. The event is free and open to all tax practitioners in the greater Philadelphia area. To RSVP for this event, please email events@foxrothschild.com.

Judge Holmes was appointed to the Tax Court by President George W. Bush in 2003, and was recently re-appointed for a second fifteen-year term. Judge Holmes is a prolific jurist known for delightfully colorful opinions that bring to life often dreary tax concepts. In recent years, he has authored numerous opinions addressing cutting edge tax issues, including his decision last year in Avrahami, the first judicial opinion to tackle the validity of micro-captive insurance arrangements. Judge Holmes also presided over the lengthy trial involving a dispute between the Internal Revenue Service and the estate of pop star Michael Jackson, and practitioners are eagerly awaiting his decision in this closely-watched case. In recent months, Judge Holmes has authored multiple opinions addressing the fallout from the Chai and Graev decisions, which held that IRS supervisory approval is required before penalties may be asserted, including decisions involving the aforementioned Jackson estate as well as pro football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. In another case that is generating significant interest, Judge Holmes is set to rule on the application of Internal Revenue Code section 280E to a marijuana business in Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corporation.

Established in February 2018, the Philadelphia Chapter is the newest chapter of the Federal Bar Association Section on Taxation. The Philadelphia Chapter is co-chaired by Matthew D. Lee of Fox Rothschild and Kevin M. Johnson of Baker Hostetler.

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Earlier this week the United States Tax Court announced that Judge Maurice B. Foley has been elected Chief Judge to serve a two-year term beginning on June 1, 2018.

Judge Foley was appointed President William J. Clinton on April 9, 1995. He was reappointed by President Barack Obama on November 25, 2011, for a second term ending November 24, 2026. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Swarthmore College, a juris doctor from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a master of laws in taxation from Georgetown University Law Center. Before his appointment to the Tax Court, he was an attorney for the Legislation and Regulations Division of the Internal Revenue Service, Tax Counsel for the United States Senate Committee on Finance, and Deputy Tax Legislative Counsel in the United States Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy. Judge Foley is an adjunct professor at American University Washington College of Law, the University of Colorado Law School, and the University of Baltimore School of Law.

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In Rajagopalan v. Commissioner, Judge Holmes confronted what he called the Chai ghoul.  See Rajagopalan v. Commissioner, Docket No. 21394-11, Order, Dec. 20, 2017.  In Chai v. Commissioner, the Second Circuit held that the section 6751(b)(1) written approval requirement “requires written approval of the initial penalty determination no later than the date the IRS issues the notice of deficiency (or files an answer or amended answer) asserting such penalty.”  Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017), aff’g in part, rev’g in part 109 T.C.M. 1206.  The Tax Court agreed with the Second Circuit’s holding in Chai soon after it was released.  See Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. __ (Dec. 20, 2017).

These decisions prompted the Commissioner to ask the court to reopen the record in Rajagopalan (and in a number of other cases) so that he could introduce penalty-approval forms to show he complied with section 6751(b)(1) for the 20% accuracy-related penalties.  Trial and briefing in Rajagopalan took place long before Chai and Graev, and the Commissioner did not introduce evidence that he complied with section 6751 at trial.

In support of his motion, the Commissioner submitted an IRS supervisor’s declaration to authenticate the penalty-approval forms and to show how the supervisor approved the penalty determination.  The forms also listed the applicable IRS examiner.  In her declaration, the supervisor stated that she was the examiner’s immediate supervisor and that she signed the forms approving the examiner’s penalty determination.

As a general rule, the Tax Court has broad discretion to reopen the record.  But its discretion is not unlimited.  The court will not reopen the record to admit evidence that is merely cumulative or impeaching.  Instead, the evidence must be material and likely to change the outcome of the case.  Butler v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 276, 287 (2000), abrogated on other grounds by Porter v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 203 (2009).  The court must also weigh the Commissioner’s diligence against the possibility of prejudice to the petitioners.  Prejudice here turns on whether the submission of evidence after trial prevents the petitioners from questioning the evidence as they could have during trial.

Judge Holmes found that the penalty-approval forms met the first requirement, and would have actually been admissible at trial under the business-records exception to the hearsay rule.  Judge Holmes was also unconvinced that the petitioners would be prejudiced by the court’s decision to reopen the record.  The petitioner’s main argument was that they should have been “entitled to question” the supervisor and examiner to confirm that the penalties “were properly asserted and whether [the Commissioner] complied with Code section 6751(b).”  But it was unclear how the petitioners would have benefited from cross-examination.  Judge Holmes pointed out that the penalty-approval forms either did or did not answer those questions, and would have been admitted under the business-records exception regardless.

As a result, Judge Holmes granted the Commissioner’s motion to reopen the record.  Despite the court’s decision to admit the penalty-approval forms, Chai continues to present the Commissioner with major challenges as he seeks to assert penalties in cases tried before Chai.

The Tax Court’s recent opinion in Roth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-248, raises interesting issues about the need for supervisor approval when the IRS asserts penalties.  In 2007, the petitioners in Roth donated a conservation easement encumbering 40 acres of land in Colorado to a charitable organization.  The petitioners claimed a charitable contribution deduction of $970,000, but the IRS disallowed the deduction.

On examination, the IRS determined that the petitioners improperly valued the conservation easement and that the easement was actually worthless.  The examiner also determined that the petitioners were liable for a 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty under section 6662, and his determination was approved in writing by his immediate supervisor.  The examiner determined that the petitioners were alternatively liable for a 20% accuracy-related penalty.

The petitioners submitted a protest letter to IRS Appeals.  The parties did not reach an agreement, however, and Appeals ultimately issued a notice of deficiency.  In a closing memorandum, the Appeals officer informed the petitioners that “[t]he proposed penalties are fully sustained for the government.”  The closing memorandum was signed by the Appeals officer’s immediate supervisor.

The notice of deficiency omitted the 40% penalty and included only the 20% accuracy-related penalty.  The petitioners then filed a petition in Tax Court.  In its answer – which was signed by an IRS senior counsel and her immediate supervisor – the IRS asserted the 40% penalty.

The parties eventually settled the case.  They agreed that the petitioners were entitled to a charitable contribution deduction of $30,000 and that the petitioners had reasonable cause for the value of the conservation easement.  As a result, the IRS conceded that the petitioners were not liable for a 20% accuracy-related penalty.

The difference between the settlement value of $30,000 and the claimed value of $970,000, however, met the gross valuation misstatement test under section 6662(h).  Unlike for the 20% accuracy-related penalty, taxpayers cannot claim reasonable cause to avoid liability for the 40% penalty.  So the petitioners tried another escape route – they argued that the 40% penalty was inappropriate because the IRS failed to comply with the procedural requirements of section 6751(b).

Section 6751(b)(1) states that “[n]o penalty under this title shall be assessed unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate.”  Complying with this requirement is part of the IRS’ burden of production under section 7491(c).  See Graev v. Commissioner, 149 T.C. __ (Dec. 20, 2017), supplementing 147 T.C. __ (Nov. 30, 2016).

The petitioners argued that “initial determination” means the issuance of the notice of deficiency.  Although written approval for the 40% penalty was obtained before the notice of deficiency was issued, the petitioners argued that the Appeals officer made the “initial determination,” not the examiner.  As a result, the petitioners argued that, because the Appeals officer did not receive approval from his immediate supervisor before issuing the notice of deficiency, the IRS did not comply with section 6751(b) and could not assess the penalty.

The court observed that this issue was controlled by its decision in Graev and Chai v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017), vacating and remanding in part, aff’g in part, and rev’g in part T.C. Memo. 2015-42.  The court held that each time the IRS sought to assert penalties, the individual proposing the penalties received approval from his or her immediate supervisor.  The examiner who proposed the 40% penalty received written approval from his group manager.  The Appeals officer received written approval from his team manager.  The senior counsel who filed the IRS’ answer received written approval from her associate area counsel, which was demonstrated by the associate area counsel’s signature on the answer.

The Tax Court held that regardless of which of these instances was the initial determination of the 40% penalty, section 6751(b) was satisfied because each instance was approved in writing by an immediate supervisor.  Thus, the court concluded that the IRS complied with section 6751(b) and found the petitioners liable for the 40% penalty.

The recent Tax Court decision in Woodley v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-242, demonstrates the hazards of trust fund recovery penalties (TFRPs) for taxpayers.  A TFRP is a penalty imposed by section 6672(a) on anyone who is responsible for paying payroll taxes but who willfully fails to do so.  Generally, the TFRP is the amount the employer withheld from its employees’ wages that was not paid to the IRS.

The petitioner in Woodley was an officer, employee, and part owner of LAJE, a corporation that operated a sandwich shop in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  LAJE became delinquent on its employment taxes, and the IRS assessed employment taxes against it for seven quarters in 2007 and 2008.  The IRS sent the petitioner a trust fund recovery penalty letter, informing her that it had determined that she was one of the people required to collect and pay over LAJE’s employment taxes.  The IRS also assessed TFRPs against another owner of LAJE for the same trust fund tax liabilities.

The petitioner argued that the IRS could not collect the TFRPs from her because it was receiving payments from another party for the same underlying tax liabilities.  The Tax Court disagreed.  It noted that section 6672 imposes liability on “[a]ny person required to collect . . . and pay over any tax imposed by this title” but who willfully did not.  The Tax Court observed that employers are liable for trust fund taxes that should have been withheld.  Importantly, when TFRPs are assessed, multiple individuals and entities may be liable for the same penalties from the same unpaid tax.  The IRS can try to collect simultaneously from an employer, as well as other responsible persons.

This case serves as a reminder of the extensive liability taxpayers face if they fail to pay trust fund taxes.

 

We have all heard the old proverb “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.” In the tax world, this proverb might as well be referred to as the economic substance doctrine. Generally, taxpayers are free to structure their business transactions in a manner of their choosing. However, the economic substance doctrine permits a court to disregard a transaction for Federal income tax purposes if the transaction has no effect other than generating an income tax loss.  In the case of Smith v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-218, the taxpayers violated this doctrine by trying to transform cash and securities into a loss through a series of transfers involving an S corporation and a limited partnership.

The Plan

In Smith v. Commissioner, Mr. Smith retired from National Coupling in 2009. Upon retirement, he received a bonus and total employee compensation of approximately $664,000. Mr. Smith’s financial adviser referred him to a tax and estate planning attorney (who was also a CPA) for tax planning services. With the intention of offsetting the compensation income Mr. Smith received from National Coupling, the attorney recommended the following tax planning structure:

  • In 2009, Mr. Smith and his wife (the “taxpayers”) would create an S corporation (wholly owned by the taxpayers) and a family limited partnership.
  • The S corporation (along with a management company) would own the family limited partnership.
  • The taxpayers would transfer cash and marketable securities to the S corporation. The S corporation, in turn, would immediately transfer the cash and marketable securities to the family limited partnership.
  • The S corporation would dissolve in 2009 (the same year it was created). Upon dissolution, the S corporation would distribute limited partnership interests in the family limited partnership to the taxpayers.
  • The fair market value of the distributed partnership interests would be discounted for lack of marketability and lack of control, generating a tax loss equal to the difference between the fair market value of the discounted partnership interests that were distributed over the cash and marketable securities the S corporation transferred to the family limited partnership.

The taxpayers agreed to the structure, and in 2009 they transferred a total of approximately $1.8 million in cash and marketable securities to a newly formed S corporation. The S corporation transferred an approximately equal amount to the newly created family limited partnership. At the end of 2009, the taxpayers and the attorney dissolved the S corporation. In the dissolution, the S corporation transferred a 49% limited partnership interest to each Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The attorney determined that the fair market value of the distributed partnership interests were approximately $1.1 million after discounting the value for lack of marketability and lack of control. The S corporation reported a loss of approximately $700,000 ($1.1 million in gross receipts (equal to the discounted value of the distributed partnership interests) less $1.8 million cost of goods sold (equal to the cash and marketable securities transferred to the family limited partnership)).

The Problem

The S corporation did not have any business activity whatsoever. It did not have a bank account, did not issue stock certificates, did not keep minutes of meetings, and did not follow corporate formalities. The S corporation existed solely to generate an artificial tax loss to offset Mr. Smith’s income. Consequently, the Court determined that the economic substance doctrine prevented the taxpayers from claiming the loss.

The Kicker

The IRS also asserted that the taxpayers were liable for a $125,000 accuracy-related penalty for a substantial understatement of tax. Taxpayers have a defense to accuracy-related penalties for reasonable reliance on the advice of a tax professional if they can prove three elements: (1) the taxpayer reasonably believed that the professional was a competent adviser with sufficient expertise to justify reliance, (2) the taxpayer provided necessary and accurate information to the adviser, and (3) the taxpayer actually relied in good faith on the adviser’s judgment. Further, due care does not require that the taxpayer challenge his or her attorney’s advice or independently investigate its propriety. Surely, the taxpayers would be able to establish that they reasonably relied on the faulty advice of their attorney, right? The Court determined that the taxpayers proved the first two elements of the defense, but not the third. What was the taxpayers’ fatal flaw? The Court thought they lied during trial. In the Court’s own words:

“They understood, early in the process, that [the S corporation] would be organized and dissolved in 2009 but continued to represent, even at trial, that [the S corporation] had a business purpose. This is not acting in good faith. They knew from the beginning that [the S corporation] would not last past 2009, it did not have a genuine business purpose, and its sole purpose was tax avoidance. That knowledge alone negates a reliance defense.”

Consequently, the Court determined that the taxpayers were liable for the accuracy-related penalty.

We highly recommend that taxpayers understand every aspect of transactions they enter into, especially when targeted to tax planning.  If a proposal seems too complicated or if you can’t make sense of something, get a second opinion, or…RUN!

Tax Court

The issue before the Tax Court in Huzella v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-210, centered around a coin business on eBay, and whether the petitioner, Thomas Huzella, could substantiate his cost of goods sold and expense deductions for his business.

The petitioner had been collecting coins as far back as 1958.  The problem was that the petitioner did not keep records to establish the basis in any of his coins.  In 2013, the petitioner actively bought and sold coins on eBay and was paid through PayPal.  PayPal issued the petitioner a Form 1099-K, Payment Card and Third Party Network Transactions, which reflected the payments he received from PayPal.  The petitioner earned $37,000 from almost 400 separate transactions in 2013.  But he also incurred eBay fees and Paypal fees, as well as packaging and shipping costs.

When he filed his tax return, the petitioner did not report anything on his Schedule C, and the IRS audited his return and issued a notice of deficiency.  The IRS alleged that the petitioner had unreported income of $37,000 from his eBay business and asserted penalties.  At trial, the IRS conceded that the petitioner was engaged in a trade or business in 2013.  The IRS also conceded that the petitioner was entitled to deduct the eBay and PayPal fees, and the Tax Court held that he was entitled to deduct $700 of postage and packaging costs.  The petitioner conceded that he earned – but did not report – gross proceeds of $37,000 from his eBay business.

The court then turned to the cost of goods sold issue.  Taxpayers are required to substantiate any amount they claim as cost of goods sold, and they must maintain sufficient records.  If a taxpayer with insufficient records, however, proves he incurred expenses but cannot substantiate the exact amount, the Tax Court may, in certain circumstances, estimate the amount.

Here, the Tax Court (and the petitioner) relied on the Cohan decision.  See Cohan v. Commissioner, 39 F.2d 540 (2d Cir. 1930).  In that case, the taxpayer was an actor, playwright, and producer who spent large sums travelling and entertaining actors, employees, and critics.  Although Cohan did not keep a record of his spending on travel and entertainment, he estimated that he incurred $55,000 in expenses over several years.

The Board of Tax Appeals, now the Tax Court, disallowed these deductions in full based on Cohan’s lack of supporting documentation.  On appeal, however, the Second Circuit concluded that Cohan’s testimony established that legitimate deductible expenses had been incurred, holding that “the Board should make as close an approximation as it can, bearing heavily if it chooses upon the taxpayer whose inexactitude is of his own making.”  The Cohan rule has been followed by the Tax Court and other federal courts in numerous decisions.

The petitioner in Huzella did not have any records to establish his cost or bases in the coins.  He purchased some coins and inherited others.  But the Tax Court relied on Cohan and, after evaluating the evidence and the petitioner’s testimony, held that the petitioner could substantiate a cost of goods sold of $12,000.  Thus, the petitioner had taxable income of just under $20,600 (gross receipts of $37,000, less cost of goods sold and deductions).

Today, the Tax Court issued its opinion in Feinberg v. Commissioner, a case involving an ongoing and hard fought battle between the IRS and a medical marijuana dispensary, Total Health Concepts, LLC.  The IRS examined THC’s 2009 through 2011 tax returns.  As a result of the examination, the IRS adjusted the member taxpayers’ returns to reflect a cost of goods sold allowance in excess of the amount originally claimed on the return by reclassifying expenses that were originally claimed as below-the-line expenses.  However, the IRS also disallowed expenses not reclassified as cost of goods sold.  Accordingly, the IRS computed deficiencies on the member’s individual tax returns.

During earlier phases of this case, the taxpayer argued that the Commissioner did not have jurisdiction to administratively determine whether petitioners committed a federal crime outside of the U.S. tax code, that section 280E as applied by the Commissioner is unconstitutional as it violates petitioners rights against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and that section 280E exceeds the authority granted to Congress under the Sixteenth Amendment of the Constitution.  The Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s request for summary judgment and compelled them to respond to IRS discovery requests.  The taxpayer’s sought a writ of mandamus, seeking review of the Tax Court’s order compelling them to produce documents.  The Tenth Circuit determined that if the discovery request harmed them, the proper time to address that harm would be after the Tax Court case was fully resolved.  As a result, the taxpayer’s case proceeded to trial.

At trial, the taxpayer did not submit documentation to substantiate the cost of goods sold allowance or the ordinary and necessary business expenses.  Instead, an expert report was submitted to substantiate a cost of goods sold allowance in excess of what the IRS allowed during the examination.  The Tax Court ruled that the expert report was unreliable because it contained statements which failed to refer to underlying source information, failed to include underlying source information which the expert relied upon, and failed to include sufficient information and data to support the report’s conclusions.  As a result, the expert report was inadmissible.

Next, the court looked to evidence which would support a higher cost of goods sold allowance than the allowance determined in the IRS report.  Without documentation, the court concluded that the IRS determination of cost of goods sold would stand.  Further, because there was no substantiation of ordinary and necessary business expenses claimed under Section 162, the court determined that it did not need to address the application of Section 280E (the code section which disallows ordinary and necessary business deductions for businesses trafficking in controlled substances).

What is the lesson here?  This case provides no guidance on the limits that will be applied to cannabis companies in determining cost of goods sold.  Rather, this case tells us that a cannabis company should prepare for an IRS examination the same way any other taxpayer should, by maintaining documentation to support the deductions claimed on the return and by provided that documentation when the IRS requests it.  This is especially true in this case, where the court determined that “there was not enough evidence in the record to make a finding of fact that THC sold medical marijuana.”  Based on this statement, if the taxpayer would have substantiated its below-the-line expenses, they would not have been subject to Section 280E, which would have been a huge win for the taxpayer.