November 30, 2010
The government has successfully challenged understatements of income attributable to stepped-up basis in so-called Son-of-BOSS tax shelters. See, e.g., American Boat Co., LLC v. United States, 583 F.3d 471, 473 (7th Cir. 2009). But it has been stymied in some cases by the three-year statute of limitations for issuing notices of deficiency. Code section 6501(e)(1)(A) provides for a six-year statute “[i]f the taxpayer omits from gross income an amount” that exceeds the stated gross income by 25 percent. Section 6229(c)(2) provides a similar six-year statute for cases governed by the TEFRA partnership rules. The IRS has argued, unsuccessfully so far, that this section applies when there is a substantial understatement of income that is attributable not to a direct omission of income but rather to an overstatement of basis of sold assets.
The major obstacle to the government’s argument is that the Supreme Court long ago rejected essentially the same argument with respect to the predecessor of section 6501(e)(1)(A) (§ 275(c) of the 1939 Code). The Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, 357 U.S. 28, 32-33 (1958). The IRS argued there that the six-year statute applies “where a cost item is overstated” and thus causes an understatement of gross income. Id. at 32. The Court agreed with the taxpayer, however, that the six-year statute “is limited to situations in which specific receipts or accruals of income items are left out of the computation of gross income.” Id. at 33. The Court added that, although this was the best reading, it did not find the statutory language “unambiguous.” Id. Accordingly, the Court noted that its interpretation derived additional support from the legislative history and that it was “in harmony with the unambiguous language of [the newly enacted] section 6501(e)(1)(A).” Id. at 37. Based largely on the precedent of Colony, the Tax Court and two courts of appeals have already rejected the government’s attempts to invoke the six-year statute of limitations in Son-of-BOSS cases. See Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009); Bakersfield Energy Partners, LP v. Commissioner, 568 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009), aff’g, 128 T.C. 207 (2007).
Seeking to rescue numerous other cases that were still pending in the courts or administratively, the government responded by issuing temporary regulations on September 24, 2009, that purported to provide a regulatory interpretation of the statutory language to which the courts would afford Chevron deference. The temporary regulations provide that “an understated amount of gross income resulting from an overstatement of unrecovered cost or other basis constitutes an omission from gross income for purposes of [sections 6229(c)(2) and 6501(e)(1)(A)].” Temp Regs. §§ 301.6229(c)(2) – 1T, 301.6501(e)-1T.
The Tax Court was the first tribunal to consider the efficacy of this aggressive (one might say, desperate) effort to use the regulatory process to trump settled precedent, as the IRS moved the Tax Court to reconsider its adverse decision in Intermountain Ins. Service v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2009-195, in the wake of the temporary regulations. The reception was underwhelming. The Tax Court denied the motion for reconsideration by a 13-0 vote, generating three different opinions. The majority opinion, joined by seven judges, was the only one to base its ruling on rejecting the substance of the government’s argument that courts should defer to the regulations notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s Colony decision. (Four judges stated simply that the new contention about the temporary regulations should not be entertained on a motion for reconsideration; two judges stated that the temporary regulations are procedurally invalid for failure to submit them for notice and comment.)
The government’s deference argument rests on Nat’l Cable and Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 982 (2005), which ruled that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” (In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens stated his view that this rule would not apply to a Supreme Court decision, since that would automatically render the statute unambiguous, but that remains an open question.). The Tax Court majority ruled that the Supreme Court’s statement in Colony that the statute was ambiguous “was only a preliminary conclusion,” but “[a]fter thoroughly reviewing the legislative history, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress’ intent was clear and that the statutory provision was unambiguous.” Accordingly, the majority concluded that Brand X did not apply, and “the temporary regulations are invalid and are not entitled to deferential treatment.” (The two judges who found the regulations procedurally invalid questioned the majority’s reasoning and suggested that the Court should not have reached the substantive issue).
The Tax Court’s decision in Intermountain is just the first skirmish in what will be an extended battle over the temporary regulations. The Justice Department has asserted that there are currently 35-50 cases pending in the federal courts that raise the same issue, with approximately $1 billion at stake. Accordingly, the government is pursuing an appeal to the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain, and it is arguing for deference to the temporary regulations in other cases pending on appeal in other circuits, even where those regulations were not considered by the trial court. The government seems determined to litigate the issue in every possible court of appeals, presumably hoping that it can win somewhere and then persuade the Supreme Court to grant certiorari and reconsider Colony. The current map looks like this:
D.C. Circuit: Briefing schedules have been issued in Intermountain, No. 10-1204, and in an appeal from another Tax Court case, UTAM Ltd. v. Commissioner, No. 10-1262. The government’s opening brief is due in Intermountain on December 6, 2010, and in UTAM on January 6, 2011. The panel assigned to both cases is Judges Sentelle, Tatel, and Randolph.
Federal Circuit: Grapevine Imports, Ltd. v. United States, No. 2008-5090, is fully briefed and scheduled for oral argument on January 12, 2011. The Federal Circuit has already rejected the government’s invocation of the six-year statute in Salman Ranch, but the government is arguing in Grapevine that the Federal Circuit should reverse its position in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.
Fourth Circuit: Home Concrete & Supply, LLC v. United States, No. 09-2353, is fully briefed and was argued on October 27, 2010, before Judges Wilkinson, Gregory, and Wynn. In that case, the district court had ruled for the government, distinguishing Colony as limited to situations in which the taxpayer is in a trade or business engaged in the sale of goods or services. That was the rationale of the Court of Federal Claims in the Salman Ranch case, but that decision was reversed by the Federal Circuit.
Fifth Circuit: Burks v. United States, No. 09-11061 (consolidated with Commissioner v. MITA, No. 09-60827) is fully briefed and was argued on November 1, 2010, before Judges DeMoss, Benavides, and Elrod. In its briefs on this issue in various courts, the government has often invoked the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Phinney v. Chambers, 392 F.2d 680 (1968), the only court of appeals decision that has applied the six-year statute in the absence of a complete omission of gross income. In Phinney, the taxpayer on her return had mislabeled proceeds from payment of an installment note as proceeds from a sale of stock with basis equivalent to the proceeds, reporting no income from that sale. The Fifth Circuit accepted the government’s contention that the six-year statute applied, finding that it applies not only in the Colony situation where there is “a complete omission of an item of income of the requisite amount,” but also where there is a “misstating of the nature of an item of income which places the Commissioner . . . at a special disadvantage in detecting errors.” 392 F.2d at 685. The government has argued that Phinney essentially involved an overstatement of basis, and therefore strongly supports its position in the Son-of-BOSS cases. Indeed, the district court in Burks ruled for the government based on Phinney. The government therefore likely viewed the Fifth Circuit as the most favorable appellate forum for the current dispute.
At oral argument, however, the panel appeared sympathetic to the taxpayer’s position that Phinney involved a situation where the taxpayer had taken steps akin to a direct omission that would make it difficult for the IRS to discover the potential tax liability. Therefore, the taxpayer maintains, Phinney is fully consistent with the position that the six-year statute does not generally apply to overstatements of basis.
In addition, the discussion of the temporary regulation at oral argument specifically addressed the debate over whether deference to Treasury regulations is governed by Chevron principles or by the less deferential National Muffler Dealers standard. As we have discussed elsewhere, the Supreme Court may resolve that question in the next few months in the Mayo Foundation case.
Seventh Circuit: Beard v. Commissioner, No. 09-3741 is fully briefed and was argued on September 27, 2010, before Judges Rovner, Evans, and Williams. Although the panel, particularly Judge Rovner, expressed skepticism about some of the IRS’s legal arguments, Judges Williams and Evans appeared troubled by the prospect of allowing the taxpayer to escape scrutiny on statute of limitations grounds. Judge Williams suggested that the taxpayer still ought to have the relevant records and that there was no apparent reason why a misstatement should be treated different from an omission. Judge Evans emphasized that the taxpayer’s position with respect to tax liability was very weak and suggested that Colony might be distinguishable because it involved a return that was much easier for the IRS to decipher than the complex return involved in Beard. Thus, to some extent, the government seemed to have found a sympathetic ear in the Seventh Circuit, though that will not necessarily translate into a reversal of the Tax Court.
Ninth Circuit: Reynolds Properties, L.P. v. Commissioner, No. 10-72406. The court of appeals vacated the briefing schedule to allow the parties to participate in the court’s appellate mediation program. The government, however, has indicated that the case is not suitable for mediation, and therefore a new briefing schedule is likely to be issued soon. The Ninth Circuit has already ruled in Bakersfield that the six-year statute does not apply to overstatements of basis. Presumably, the government will ask the court to reverse itself in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.
Tenth Circuit: Salman Ranch Ltd. v. United States, No. 09-9015, is fully briefed and was argued on September 22, 2010, before Judges Tacha, Seymour, and Lucero. This case comes from the Tax Court, but involves the same partnership that prevailed in front of the Federal Circuit.
Attached below as a sampling are the briefs filed in the Fourth and Seventh Circuit cases.