Successful Judicial Review Of Taxpayer Relief Application: NRT Technology Corp V. AG Canada

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The taxpayer in this case, NRT Technology Corp, successfully applied before the Federal Court for judicial review in respect of a decision of an Assistant Director of the Toronto Tax Services Office of the Canada Revenue Agency denying NRT’s request for the cancellation of a penalty under the Taxpayer Relief Provisions pursuant to subsection 220(3.1) of the Income Tax Act (Canada). The style of cause is NRT Technology Corp v. Attorney General of Canada, 2013 FC 200.

Background

On February 26, 2006, NRT paid a bonus to its President in the amount of $7,093,000 (the “Bonus”). On March 14, 2006, NRT remitted corresponding withholding payroll taxes in the amount of $2,848,548.80. On March 23, 2006, CRA assessed NRT for a 10% late remitting penalty in the amount of $284,805 as NRT had accelerated remitter status which it was notified of by the CRA in November 2005. CRA determined that NRT ought to have remitted the $2,848,548.80 on March 3, 2006 and its failure to do so warranted the assessment of a penalty.

Upon payment of the Bonus, NRT was advised by its tax advisor to hold off on the payroll remittances to the CRA until further instruction was received by her. On March 13, 2006, NRT’s tax advisor indicated that she had been advised by the CRA that NRT was obliged to withhold and remit the full amount of tax due on the payment of the Bonus by March 15, 2006. On March 14, 2006, NRT remitted the payroll taxes on account of the payment of the Bonus.

The First Taxpayer Relief Request

On November 9, 2006, in response of a relief request dated September 13, 2006 by NRT, the CRA denied the request stating that a “review of the account history and the circumstances outlined in [NRT’s] letter [had] failed to substantiate that [NRT was] prevented from complying with the [CRA’s] requirements.” The CRA further indicated that NRT failed to demonstrate that the lateness was the result of extenuating circumstances or the result of CRA departmental error and that as a result, the directors of NRT did not exercise reasonable care with respect to the remittance.

The Second Taxpayer Relief Request

On July 18, 2007, NRT filed for a second administrative review in relation to the taxpayer relief request. In a letter dated December 14, 2007, the Director denied the requested relief.

Under the second level review process, an officer reviews the applicant’s second level review submissions and prepares a recommendation report for the review of the Director. The Director then decides whether to grant the relief sought. In this case, the officer’s report and ultimate decision made by the Director and communicated to NRT by letter dated December 14, 2007 were at issue (the “Decision Letter”).

The officer’s report recommended that relief should not be granted on the basis that NRT exhibited a degree of carelessness in its handling of the Bonus and failed to act quickly to remedy the error. In accepting the recommendation in the officer’s report, the Decision Letter indicated that there was no evidence that NRT was misdirected by the CRA or that the CRA failed to provide information to NRT in a timely manner. It was further stated that NRT was careless in its handling of the bonus and was not quick to remedy the error.

The focus of the Federal Court’s analysis was on the reasonableness of the impugned second level decision.

The Applicant’s Argument

It was NRT’s contention that given the broad authority available to the Minister to grant relief under s. 220(3.1) and the extraordinary circumstances, the Minister’s decision to deny relief was unreasonable. Further, no reasons were given as to how NRT failed to quickly act to remedy the error that had been committed. NRT noted that once its tax advisor had advised it to remit, it did so without delay.

The Respondent’s Argument

In noting that deference was owed to the CRA under the reasonableness standard of review, the Crown reiterated its reasons as outlined in the Decision Letter in support of its position.

The Decision of the Federal Court

The Federal Court noted that it was not clear what exactly the “error” was which was not acted upon quickly enough. If the “error” was failing to remit on or before March 3, 2006, this error was rectified with NRT’s remittance on March 14, 2006, a day after it was advised by its tax advisor that such remittance was required immediately, contrary to NRT’s belief that the remittance was required by March 15, 2006.

If the “error” was not paying the penalty in a timely manner, the Federal Court noted that the offsetting amount pursuant to the flow-through shares acquired by NRT was not accounted for until August 2006. As such, there was no way for NRT to know how much was owed until that time. Moreover, the reduced amount owing was offset against GST refunds in November 2006. If this was in fact the “error” referenced in the Decision Letter, NRT had taken steps to reduce the amount and ultimately settle the balance in a timely manner.

As there was no indication in the Decision letter as to what the “error” was, why NRT’s rectification was not sufficiently prompt, or how NRT could have rectified the situation more quickly, the Federal Court concluded that the reasoning in the Decision Letter was equivocal. The steps taken by NRT were supportive of its claim that it quickly remedied its failure to remit the amount due and that it took steps to address the penalty owed. The Court therefore found in favor of NRT, concluding that the “…Director’s decision that NRT failed to quickly remedy the error to be unreasonable as it fails the requirements of being justified, transparent and intelligible as required under Dunsmuir.”

Reflections

The impact of this decision goes beyond merely chastising the CRA for a poorly written letter. There appears to be a “cut and paste” approach applied by the CRA from time to time which may cause a reasonable observer to believe that the taxpayer’s circumstances were not fully considered, particularly where the taxpayer’s conduct reflects a considerable degree of due diligence.  It is hoped that this decision will cause those at the CRA who are responsible for reviewing taxpayer relief requests to thoroughly consider the circumstances of each case, particularly where quick action was taken in the direction of compliance - taxpayers deserve no less.