Court of Federal Claims Construes “Same Taxpayer” Requirement for Interest Netting

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December 9, 2011

In Magma Power v. United States, Case No. 09-419T, the Court of Federal Claims tackled the arcane topic of interest netting.  The issue in Magma Power was a narrow question of statutory interpretation, but the broader topic of interest netting warrants a word of explanation. 

The government charges interest on tax underpayments at a higher rate (under section 6601) than it pays on tax overpayments.  Because it often takes several years or more to determine whether a taxpayer has an overpayment or underpayment for a particular tax year and the amount of that overpayment or underpayment, there are sometimes post-return periods during which a taxpayer has overlapping overpayments and underpayments.  When this occurs, the taxpayer should owe no interest on the overlapping amount.  If the overlapping amounts are not netted, however, the rate disparity results in net interest in the government’s favor.  To correct this inequity, Congress enacted section 6621(d), which provides that “to the extent that, for any period, interest is payable . . . and allowable . . . on equivalent underpayments and overpayments for the same taxpayer, . . . the net rate of interest on such amounts shall be zero.” 

The narrow statutory-interpretation issue in Magma Power is the meaning of the term “same taxpayer” under section 6621(d).  The IRS had denied section 6621(d) relief to Magma Power on the theory that Magma Power was no longer the “same taxpayer” after becoming a member of a consolidated group. 

Magma Power filed a return for its 1993 tax year sometime in 1994.  In February 1995, CalEnergy Company acquired Magma Power and subsequently included Magma Power on its consolidated tax returns.  The IRS later determined a deficiency for Magma Power’s 1993 tax year, and Magma Power paid that deficiency and over $9 million in associated underpayment interest in 2000 and 2002.  The CalEnergy consolidated group overpaid its taxes in four consecutive tax years from 1995 through 1998.  Despite some disagreement between the parties, the court found that some portion of these overpayments were attributable to Magma Power’s activities.  In 2004 and 2005, the IRS refunded those overpayments plus the associated overpayment interest to the consolidated group agent (which by then was MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company).  There were overlapping underpayments and overpayments for the period that began with the filing of the 1995-98 returns and ended with the satisfaction of Magma Power’s 1993 underpayment.  Magma Power claimed interest-netting refunds for that period.  The IRS denied the refund on the theory that the consolidated group could not net its overpayments with Magma Power’s underpayments because of the “same taxpayer” requirement of section 6621(d). 

The court’s plain-language analysis of section 6621(d) is straightforward and decisively rebuts what appears to be a flimsy position taken by the IRS.  The essence of the court’s conclusion is that becoming a member of a consolidated group does not fundamentally alter a taxpayer’s identity.  The court rests this decision on the uncontroversial premise that the taxpayer identification number (or EIN, for corporations like Magma Power) is the sine qua non of taxpayer identity.  And because Magma Power retained the same EIN (and therefore same identity) after its inclusion in the consolidated group, the court held that Magma Power was the same taxpayer for section 6621(d) purposes for the 1993 underpayment and its allocable portion of the 1995-98 overpayments. 

Although the court addresses several arguments made by the government, the only notable bump in the court’s road to its conclusion was some language in another Court of Federal Claims decision, Energy East v. United States, 92 Fed. Cl. 29 (2010), aff’d 645 F.3d 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2011).  Interpreting the meaning of “same taxpayer” for interest-netting purposes in Energy East, the lower court cited the dictionary definition of “same” and decided that section 6621(d) requires that the taxpayer must be “identical” and “without addition, change, or discontinuance.”  (The issue on appeal was narrower and the Federal Circuit did not reject or adopt this aspect of the lower court’s opinion.)

The court in Magma Power had little difficulty distinguishing Energy East:  Energy East was trying to net the overpayment years of acquired companies against its own underpayment years.  The hitch was that both the underpayment years and overpayment years came before Energy East acquired those companies.  In Magma Power, the court held that the Energy East situation was “radically different” than Magma Power’s attempt to net its own 1993 underpayment against its own later overpayments (albeit encompassed within the Cal Energy consolidated group).

The government may well appeal Magma Power based on the broad language in the lower court’s decision in Energy East.  If they do, we’ll keep you posted. 

Magma Power opinion 10.28.2011

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