Tax Anti-Injunction Act Issue Set to Lead Off Supreme Court Consideration of Health Care Act

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March 16, 2012

The Supreme Court is preparing to hold oral arguments on its long-awaited consideration of the constitutionality of the health care legislation.  The arguments will cover four distinct issues in three different cases and occur over three days, March 26-28.  The most prominent issue, of course, is whether the “individual mandate” requiring almost everyone to have health insurance is constitutional.  Additional issues are “severability” (whether the entire law must be struck down if the individual mandate provision is unconstitutional or whether other portions of the law can survive) and whether the Medicaid expansion provisions of the law are impermissibly “coercive.”

But leading all of this off on March 26 in HHS v. Florida, No. 11-398, is a tax issue – whether the challenges to the law are barred by Code section 7421, the Tax Anti-Injunction Act.  Former Solicitor General Paul Clement is slated to argue the other three issues for the challengers to the law, but has left the tax issue for someone else.  He remarked (tongue-in-cheek, I believe) that the Court was playing a “practical joke” on the public in its scheduling and that the folks who wait in line all night to attend the first day of arguments on March 26 are going to end up sitting through “the most boring jurisdictional stuff one can imagine.”  Tax lawyers might disagree (or they might not).  Either way, the section 7421 issue could hijack the case and have the effect of prolonging the uncertainty over the constitutionality of the law for several more years.

The issue is simple on its face.  Section 7421 forbids federal courts from maintaining any suit “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax.”  Rather, one generally must wait until the tax is imposed and then contest the liability through a refund claim or in defending against an enforcement proceeding. The individual mandate in the statute is enforced by imposing a “penalty” on individuals who are required to purchase insurance but fail to do so.  The relevant provision is section 5000A of the Internal Revenue Code, which requires individuals to report on their tax return information about their compliance with the mandate and pay a penalty if necessary.  That Code section also generally provides that the amounts owed are to be assessed and collected in the same manner as other penalties under the Code.

If the health insurance penalty is a “tax” subject to section 7421, then the current challenges to the mandate (which in essence are challenging the imposition of a penalty for failure to purchase insurance) are premature.  Rather, the legality of the penalty would have to be contested after it is imposed, like other taxes.  The individual mandate does not kick in until 2014, so an income tax return that self-reports penalty liability, thereby potentially triggering an assessment, would not be filed until 2015.  The Fourth Circuit adopted this view and dismissed a suit challenging the health care statute, telling the plaintiffs to come back in a few years.  Other circuits have disagreed, finding that, despite its presence in the Code and linkage to the assessment procedures for more conventional tax penalties (which are generally treated as “taxes”), the health care penalty has nothing to do with income tax and ought not to be governed by section 7421.  Of course, the issue is not that simple.   A concise and more nuanced summary of the respective arguments can be found in this article (see page eight) by our colleague George Hani.

One interesting sidelight to the Court’s consideration of this issue is that the Court had to appoint counsel to argue that section 7421 bars the suit.  The challengers, of course, have argued all along that section 7421 is no bar.  The government initially raised section 7421 as a defense, but later reversed course and abandoned that position because it did not want uncertainty over the legislation’s legality to linger.  Thus, in the Supreme Court, both sides are arguing that section 7421 does not bar the lawsuit.  The Court appointed Robert Long, an experienced Supreme Court practitioner, as an amicus curiae to brief and argue the position that section 7421 does bar the suit.

The oral argument on the morning of March 26 will proceed as follows:  Robert Long, arguing as amicus for 40 minutes that the challenges are barred; Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, arguing for the government for 30 minutes that section 7421 does not bar the challenges, and Gregory Katsas, arguing for the challengers for 20 minutes also that section 7421 does not bar the challenges.

The Court has annouced that a transcript and audio of the argument will be posted on its website by 2:00 that afternoon.  We will be back sometime after that with some observations on the argument.

The Supreme Court briefs filed on this issue can be found here.  The Court is likely to issue its decision during the last week of June.

NPR Oral Argument

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March 1, 2012

On December 7th, oral argument was held in the Fifth Circuit in the NPR case before Judges Dennis, Clement, and Owen.  You can find a detailed explanation of the issues here but in summary the questions involve whether, in the context of a Son of BOSS case: the gross valuation penalty applies when the basis producing transaction is not invalidated solely due to a bad valuation; whether other penalties apply; how the TEFRA jurisdictional rules function as to those penalties; and whether an FPAA issued after a non-TEFRA partnership no-change letter falls afoul of the no-second-FPAA rule. 

Although both parties appealed, as the initial appellant DOJ began the argument.  DOJ counsel argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Nat’l Cable & Telecomm. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 982 (2005), allowed Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-5(d) to override the Fifth Circuit’s position in Heasley v. Commissioner, 902 F.2d 380 (5th Cir. 1990), that a valuation misstatement cannot apply where there are grounds for invalidating the transaction other than an incorrect valuation — such as where the transaction is totally disallowed under economic substance or on technical grounds.  In this regard, DOJ requested that the court submit the matter for en banc review to address this issue and to consider the impact of Weiner v. United States, 389 F.3d 152 (5th Cir. 2004), which counsel characterized (as DOJ had in the brief) as calling the “total disallowance” rule into question. 

As to the substantive application of penalties, DOJ argued that the complete concession by the taxpayer of the substance of the transaction compelled the conclusion that the position lacked substantial authority.  Furthermore, counsel argued that there was no substantial authority at the time the transaction was reported on the taxpayer’s return.  In this regard, DOJ posited that although Helmer v. Commissioner, 34 T.C.M. (CCH) 727 (1975), had held that a contingent liability was not a liability for purposes of section 752, it did not address the questions of buying and selling offsetting options and of contributing them to a partnership only to arrange for a distribution and sale.  As to these points, the only authority on point was Notice 2000-44, which stood for the proposition that the transaction did not work.  This appears to be a repackaged version of the argument that there can never be substantial authority for transactions lacking economic substance. 

Argument transitioned to the question of whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider a penalty defense put on by the partners and not by the partnership in this partnership action.  For a prior discussion of this confusing question see our analysis here.  Citing Klamath Strategic Inv. Fund, LLC v. United States, 568 F.3d 537 (5th Cir. 2009), DOJ counsel argued that the Fifth Circuit had already decided that an individual reasonable cause argument (such as one based on a legal opinion issued to the partner) cannot be raised in a TEFRA proceeding.  The court seemed to recognize the impact of Klamath on this point.  DOJ counsel then attempted to box the partnership in (as it had in the brief) on the question of whether the defense was raised by the partner or the partnership (several statements in the district court’s opinion seem to view the defense as a partner-level defense).  

Moving on to the question of the merits of the reasonable cause position, DOJ argued that the district court erred in considering reliance on the tax opinion (which was written by R.J. Ruble) to be reasonable.  Initially, counsel questioned whether the partners’ testimony that they did not believe Ruble had a conflict was reasonable in light of the partners’ knowledge of fee sharing and of the fact that Ruble had written opinions for other shelters for the same promoter.  The court seemed to be honed in on this question.  In closing, DOJ attempted to poison the well of partner good faith by reminding the Court that the partners in this case were repeat tax-shelter offenders and had attempted to hide the Son-of-BOSS losses as negative gross revenue from their law firm business. 

Perhaps indicating a weakness on the penalty issues raised by DOJ, taxpayer’s counsel spent most of his time on the question of whether the second FPAA was invalid.  The Court focused counsel on the fact that an error on the tax return (the Form 1065 did not check the TEFRA box although it did check the flow-through partner box (which would indicate a TEFRA partnership)) led the agent originally to pursue the case as non-TEFRA.  Undeterred, counsel argued that this error was not material and that the agent had indicated in a deposition that he eventually learned that the partnership was TEFRA.  Testimony was also offered in the district court that the reporting was an innocent mistake and not negligent or deceptive.  The Court spent significant time questioning why the agent did not testify at trial (which appears to have been due to a mix-up on the part of DOJ).  In summarizing his position, taxpayer’s counsel tried to focus the court on the language of the partnership no-change letter but to us it appears that the real question has to be whether the agent intended this to be a TEFRA audit.  An FPAA simply cannot come out of a non-TEFRA audit.  Based on the agent’s deposition transcript it seems clear that he did not believe he was involved in a TEFRA audit when he opened the audit and thus it is impossible that the initial notice was an FPAA. 

Rebutting DOJ’s reasonable cause position, taxpayer’s counsel focused on the trial testimony and factual determinations by the district court that the taxpayers were acting reasonably and in good faith.  On the question of jurisdiction, the taxpayer reverted to the tried and true (but not very strong) argument that requiring a later refund suit to address the reasonable cause question would be a waste of judicial resources and, in essence, a meaningless step.  A cynic might say that the purpose of TEFRA is to waste judicial resources and create meaningless steps. 

In rebuttal, DOJ counsel focused on the no-second-FPAA question and did a good job from our perspective.  He noted that you have to have a TEFRA proceeding to have a TEFRA notice.  Undermining the district court’s determination that the finality of the notice is relevant, counsel noted that all non-TEFRA notices are “final” but that doesn’t mean they are FPAAs.  TEFRA is a parallel audit procedure and it is simply not enough that the IRS intended a final determination in a non-TEFRA partnership audit.  The question is whether the IRS intended to issue a final notice in a TEFRA proceeding; since there was no “first” TEFRA proceeding, there was no “first” FPAA.  We think this argument is right on target. 

With limited questions coming from the Court it is difficult to see where this is headed.  Our best guess is that the partnership will prevail on the reasonable cause position (it is difficult for an appellate court to overturn credibility determinations of witnesses) but lose on everything else including the no-second-FPAA issue.