September 20, 2011
The Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Samueli v. Commissioner, Nos. 09-72457 and 09-72458, on September 15, 2011, largely affirming the Tax Court (opinion linked below, and see our prior coverage here). In upholding the decision in favor of the IRS, the Ninth Circuit added a couple of wrinkles to the Tax Court’s rationale in responding to the taxpayers’ arguments on appeal.
The court first dispensed with the taxpayers’ argument that, contrary to the Tax Court’s finding, the transactions at issue did not reduce the purported lenders’ opportunity for gain (a statutory element of I.R.C. § 1058 non-recognition). The court found that not only did taxpayers have an extremely limited right to recall the securities (the interest strips were recallable on two days out of approximately 450), thereby limiting the opportunity to take advantage of potential short term swings in value, but also the lending agreement further constrained taxpayers by adding another layer of pricing risk that could have made recalling the securities economically infeasible. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit ruled that section 1058 was inapplicable as a more or less routine matter of statutory interpretation.
But the court didn’t stop there. Responding to the taxpayers’ argument that section 1058 is merely a safe harbor and does not definitively delineate securities loans that should be afforded non-recognition treatment, the court held that taxpayers’ purported loan did not align with the policy animating section 1058 (the facilitation of liquidity for the securities markets), and therefore the transaction was not eligible for tax-favored treatment. The court was clearly exercised by its assessment that the taxpayers’ “loan, a tax shelter marketed as such for which the borrowing broker did not pay the lender any consideration, clearly was not ‘the thing which the statute intended.’” (quoting Gregory v. Helvering, 293 U.S at 469). The court reasoned that, because the taxpayers’ transaction was inconsistent with the purpose of the statutory provision at issue, taxpayers could not avail themselves of some sort of common law penumbra around the statute (assuming one exists in the first instance–a debatable proposition).
As we noted in our earlier post, the taxpayers argued in their reply brief that irrespective of section 1058, the transactions were in substance the purchase of a contractual right later terminated, and therefore eligible for capital gains treatment pursuant to I.R.C. § 1234A. Noting that the government had successfully argued application of substance-over-form, the court nonetheless opined that “[it] does not mean that [the taxpayers] therefore must have the right to call the transaction whatever they want after the fact.” Tacitly applying a version of what some practitioners refer to as the Danielson doctrine, the court held that the taxpayers were stuck with their form and could not recast the transactions to avoid the tax consequences of the Service’s recharacterization. See, e.g., Comm’r v. National Alfalfa Dehydrating & Milling Co., 417 U.S. 134, 149 (1974) (“while a taxpayer is free to organize his affairs as he chooses, nevertheless, once having done so, he must accept the tax consequences of his choice, whether contemplated or not, . . .and may not enjoy the benefit of some other route he might have chosen to follow but did not”); Comm’r v. Danielson, 378 F.2d 771, 775 (3d Cir. 1967) (“a party can challenge the tax consequences of his agreement as construed by the Commissioner only by adducing proof which in an action between the parties to the agreement would be admissible to alter that construction or to show its unenforceability because of mistake, undue influence, fraud, duress, etc.”).