February 27, 2013
The Fifth Circuit has scheduled oral argument in the Rodriguez case for April 3 in New Orleans. As discussed in our prior posts, the issue in the case is whether section 951 inclusion income should be taxed at the lower rate applicable to qualified dividends. The identities of the three judges who will hear the case will be announced the week before the argument.
February 25, 2013
[Note: Miller & Chevalier filed a brief in this case in support of PPL on behalf of American Electric Power Co.]
Seven Justices (all but Justices Thomas and Alito) asked questions in the oral argument in PPL on February 20, but they did not obviously coalesce around any particular view of the case. Even in cases where the questioning can be more neatly categorized, it is always hazardous to try to predict the outcome based on the questioning at oral argument. At this point, the parties’ work is done, and they are reduced to waiting for a decision, which is likely to come down in May or June — certainly no later than the end of June.
Former Solicitor General Paul Clement argued first on behalf of PPL. Justice Sotomayor began the questioning of Mr. Clement and asked him the most questions. She pressed him on why the tax could not be regarded as a tax on value. She also expressed “fear” over what she saw as the breadth of the taxpayer’s position, characterizing PPL as seeking a rule that a tax is creditable “anytime a tax uses estimates of profits.” Mr. Clement responded that this “emphatically” was not the taxpayer’s position, explaining that normal valuation is prospective and hence taxes that use future estimates for valuation will always fail the realization requirement for creditability. In response to Justice Sotomayor’s suggestion that using actual profits was a reasonable way to “find the original flotation value,” Mr. Clement responded that “you would never do that in any normal valuation” because “the first rule of thumb” for those kinds of historical valuations “is to avoid hindsight bias.”
Several other Justices also asked questions of Mr. Clement, focusing on different issues of interest to them. Justice Kennedy asked a series of questions exploring the significance of the tax being labeled as a tax on value, or reasonably viewed in part as “a tax on low value,” notwithstanding that it is also logically seen as a tax on profits. Mr. Clement responded that the substance of the tax is “exactly like a U.S. excess profits tax” but did not “look at a normal rubric of value” because “the only measure of value here is by looking at retrospective earnings over a 4-year period.” Justice Ginsburg asked whether there were other examples of taxes like the U.K. Windfall Tax. Justice Breyer asked a series of questions exploring the operation and rationale of the tax as it applied to companies that had not been in operation for the full four-year period in which historical profits were measured. Mr. Clement stated that even these companies did not pay an amount of tax that exceeded their profits and, moreover, that creditability is to be determined by the “normal circumstances in which it applies,” not by the outliers.
One perhaps surprising aspect of the argument was the attention paid to the amicus brief filed by a group of law professors. Justice Kagan’s extensive questioning of Mr. Clement focused on an argument introduced by that amicus brief – namely, that the tax should not be treated as an income tax because of the way it treats the “short-period” outliers by looking to their average profits, not total profits, in determining the amount of the taxable “windfall” received. Specifically, the tax rate on those few companies who did not operate for the entire four-year period was higher than for the vast majority of the companies. Mr. Clement noted that the reason for this was because the taxing authorities “were trying to capture the excess profits during a period in which there is a particular regulatory environment” conducive to excess profits; for the short-period taxpayers the way to do this was to “hit them with a reasonably tough tax in year one but year two, three, and four they were in a favorable regulatory environment and they get no tax at all.” (Justice Breyer later stated that, “because time periods vary, rates will vary, but I don’t know that that matters for an income tax.”) Mr. Clement also emphasized here, as he did later to Justice Breyer, that the outlier case does not control creditability, which is determined based on the normal circumstances in which the tax applies. The amicus brief was also mentioned briefly by Justice Sotomayor.
After Assistant to the Solicitor General Ann O’Connell took the podium, Chief Justice Roberts engaged her on the amicus brief as well, pointing out that the argument discussed by Justice Kagan was “not an argument that you’ve made.” When Ms. O’Connell agreed, but pointed to the amicus brief, the Chief Justice remarked that “I don’t think we should do a better job of getting money from people than the IRS does.” In response to Justice Sotomayor, Ms. O’Connell sought to clarify the government’s position by distinguishing between two different points made in the amicus brief. With respect to the “aspect of the amicus brief that says if it’s bad for one, it’s bad for all,” that is not the government’s position; the government agrees with PPL that outliers do not control credibility. But with respect to the argument of the amicus that Justice Kagan had discussed in connection with the outliers – namely, that “it taxes average profits, not total profits” – Ms. O’Connell maintained that she was not saying that the argument was wrong, only that the government’s “principal argument” was that the predominant character of the tax “is not an income tax because of the way that it applies to everybody else.” Justice Kagan took the opportunity to state that she believed the argument developed in the amicus that had formed the basis for her questioning was “the right argument.”
Apart from the amicus brief discussion, Ms. O’Connell was questioned by Justices Scalia and Breyer on whether true valuations are based on historical profits, rather than direct market evidence of value. She responded that this was a good way to determine the value of the companies at the time of flotation. In response to questioning from the Chief Justice about how to treat a tax laid on income, Ms. O’Connell stated that a tax just “based on last year’s income” would be an income tax regardless of its label, but if the income were multiplied by a price/earnings ratio, it would be a tax on value. The topic of deference also made a brief appearance, with Justice Breyer suggesting that deference might be owed to the experts at the Tax Court and Justice Ginsburg wondering whether deference was owed to the government’s interpretation of its own regulations. The Chief Justice responded to the latter point by remarking that there did not appear to be a major dispute about the meaning of the regulatory language and hence that sort of deference “does not seem to move the ball much.”
Justice Breyer chimed in with a detailed discussion of the mechanics of the tax, suggesting that this indicated that the “heart of the equation in determining this so-called present value is nothing other than taking average income over the four-year period.” Ms. O’Connell disagreed, and after considerable back-and-forth, Justice Breyer remarked that he had “said enough” and he would go back and study the transcript to decide who was right.
Towards the end of the argument, Justice Ginsburg asked whether the regulation could be changed “so it wouldn’t happen again” if the taxpayer prevailed. Ms. O’Connell said that perhaps it could be made “even more clear than it already is,” but Justice Breyer wondered why it should be changed to make American companies “in borderline cases have to pay tax on the same income twice.” Ms. O’Connell disputed that characterization, stating that the taxpayer did get a foreign tax credit for payments it made of the standard British income tax and it would still get a deduction for the U.K. Windfall Tax payments if the government prevailed. Ms. O’Connell closed her argument by stating that the tax was “written as a valuation formula, and it’s not just written that way, but that’s the substance of what it’s trying to do.”
February 20, 2013
To close the loop on yesterday’s post on the Union Carbide certiorari petition, the taxpayer has now filed its reply brief in support of the petition. The reply brief focuses primarily on the Auer deference issue, distinguishing the cases cited by the government in its defense of the application of Auer deference. The reply brief also vigorously disputes the government’s contention that the Second Circuit would have reached the same result if it had not deferred to the government’s interpretation of the regulation.
February 19, 2013
The government has filed a brief in opposition to Union Carbide’s request for review of the Second Circuit’s decision denying its research credit claim. See our prior reports on the cert petition and the court of appeals’ decision here and here. With respect to the basic legal issue, the government’s concise analysis tracks that of the Second Circuit, arguing that the taxpayer would get a “windfall” if it received “a credit for the cost of supplies that the taxpayer would have incurred regardless of any qualified research.” The government emphasizes that there is no circuit conflict on this issue that warrants Supreme Court review, describing this as “the first case since the enactment of the research credit in 1981 that has presented the question of what supply costs are eligible for the credit when a taxpayer simultaneously performs research on a production process and produces products for sale in the ordinary course of its business.”
The government spills more ink addressing Union Carbide’s argument that Supreme Court review is appropriate in order to reject the Second Circuit’s allegedly overbroad application of “Auer deference” to the government’s interpretation of its research credit regulations. Clearly unenthused about the prospect of the Court re-examining this issue, the government gives a plethora of reasons why it should stay away: (1) the taxpayer did not raise in the court of appeals its objection that the government should not be entitled to Auer deference when it has a financial interest in the outcome of the case (because the government had not explicitly requested Auer deference in its brief); (2) no other court of appeals has “expressly addressed” this argument; (3) although the Second Circuit invoked Auer deference, that did not affect its decision because it would have interpreted the regulation the same way even without resort to deference principles; (4) Union Carbide’s argument is wrong; and (5) Union Carbide did not claim the credit in question on its tax return and therefore the agency could not apply its interpretation of the regulations until after litigation had commenced.
Given the absence of a conflict and the government’s strong opposition, Union Carbide’s petition faces a steep,a nd likely insurmountable, uphill climb. The Court is expected to act on the cert petition on March 18.
February 13, 2013
[Note: Miller & Chevalier filed an amicus brief in this case on behalf of American Electric Power Co. in support of PPL.]
PPL has filed its reply brief in the Supreme Court, thus completing the briefing. The brief responds at length to the government’s contention that the U.K. Windfall Tax should be viewed as a tax on value because it assertedly resembles “familiar” and “well-established” methods of measuring value. In fact, the reply brief maintains, the tax “is a tax on value in name only.” The reply brief observes that the tax involves “a backward-looking calculation driven entirely by actual, realized profits” and that it is “imposed on the income-generating companies themselves,” rather than on “the holder of the valuable asset.” The reply brief then states that the rest of the government’s arguments “all depend on the flawed premise that form trumps substance when it comes to the base of a foreign tax.” The difficulties with that premise were addressed extensively in PPL’s opening brief and are further addressed in the reply brief.
Oral argument is set for February 20.
February 11, 2013
[Note: Miller & Chevalier filed an amicus brief in the Third Circuit in this case on behalf of National Trust for Historic Preservation]
We have previously reported extensively (see previous reports here) on the Third Circuit’s decision in Historic Boardwalk denying a claim for historic rehabilitation tax credits by the private partner in a public/private partnership that rehabilitated a historic property on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Although the Third Circuit declined to rehear the case, the taxpayer has now filed a petition for certiorari seeking Supreme Court review (docketed as No. 12-901).
With no conflict in the circuits on the issue presented, the petition argues that Supreme Court review is needed because of the issue is new and has potentially broad ramifications, stating: “This is the first litigated case in the country where the Internal Revenue Service has made a broad based challenge to the allocation of Congressionally-sanctioned federal historic rehabilitation tax credits by a partnership to a partner.”
The petition elaborates by proffering three reasons why the case should be viewed as presenting tax law issues of exceptional national importance. First, the Third Circuit’s ruling that the taxpayer was not a bona fide partner is asserted to squarely conflict with Commissioner v. Culbertson, 337 U.S. 733 (1949). Second, the petition criticizes the court of appeals’ holding that the allocation of tax credits “should be considered a ‘sale’ or ‘repayment’ of ‘property’” as “utterly baseless” and at odds with Supreme Court precedent. Third, the petition criticizes the Third Circuit for considering the credits themselves as a component of the substance over form analysis.
The petition urges the Court to hear the case because of its importance, stating that it undermines Congress’s intent “to encourage private investment in the restoration of historic properties” and that the issues “bear broadly on . . . thousands of [historic rehabilitation tax credit] partnership investment transactions across the nation involving billions of dollars.” The breadth of the impact of a decision is an important factor in the Court’s consideration of whether to grant review, but the petition still faces an uphill battle, as the Court rarely grants certiorari in technical tax cases in the absence of a circuit conflict – unless the government urges it to do so. Here, there is every reason to expect that the government will oppose the petition.
The government’s brief in response is currently due, after one 30-day extension, on March 25.
February 8, 2013
The Bergmanns participated in a listed transaction promoted by KPMG, known as the Short Option Strategy. When the Bergmanns filed their amended return in March 2004, the IRS had already served KPMG with summonses targeted at KMPG’s promotion of the Short Option Strategy. As discussed in an earlier post, the Tax Court held that the Bergmanns failed to timely file a qualified amended return and thus were subject to the 20-percent accuracy related penalty. Under the regulations in effect when the taxpayers filed their return, the time for filing a qualified amended return terminated when “any person described in § 6700(a) (relating to the penalty for promoting abusive tax shelters) is first contacted by the Internal Revenue Service concerning an examination of an activity described in § 6700(a) with respect to which the taxpayer claimed any benefit on the return . . . .” Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii). The Tax Court rejected the Bergmanns’ argument that the promoter provision of the qualified amended return regulations required the IRS to establish that KPMG was liable for the § 6700 promoter penalty.
On appeal, the Bergmanns’ principal argument is that the Tax Court erroneously applied the current qualified amended return regulation rather than the regulation in effect when the amended return was filed. The current regulation, Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(i)(B), which applies to amended returns filed on or after March 2, 2005, treats as a terminating event the “date any person is first contacted by the IRS concerning an examination of that person under § 6700 . . . for an activity with respect to which the taxpayer claimed any benefit on the return,” rather than the date “any person described in § 6700(a)” is contacted. The Bergmanns acknowledge that their amended return would be untimely under the current regulations.
The Bergmanns argue that the Tax Court must have relied on the current regulations because its paraphrase of the regulation tracks the language of current regulation. In its brief, the Government argues that it was clear from both the post-trial briefing and the Tax Court’s decision that the Tax Court was fully aware of which regulation was controlling and in fact cited the correct version. The Government then argues that the Tax Court correctly interpreted the operative regulation. Because the terminating event is the “first contact” with the promoter, the timing should not turn on the ultimate results of the § 6700 investigation of the promoter. And, the Government argues, any ambiguity in the regulations should be resolved by deference to the agency’s interpretation of the regulation. The Treasury Decision accompanying the amended version of the promoter provision explained that the new language was intended to “clarify the existing rules,” and, specifically, that the language “clarifies that the period for filing a qualified amended return terminates on the date the IRS first contacts a person concerning an examination under section 6700, regardless of whether the IRS ultimately establishes that such person violated section 6700.” T.D. 9186, 2005-1 C.B. at 791-82. The taxpayers’ reply brief largely ignores the Government’s arguments. Oral argument has not yet been scheduled.
Briefing Underway in Ninth Circuit on Question of Mortgage Interest Deduction for Non-married Couples
February 6, 2013
Last spring, the Tax Court held in Sophy v. Commissioner, that the limitations on indebtedness for the mortgage interest deduction are applied on a per residence rather than per taxpayer basis. The taxpayers appealed to the Ninth Circuit (Nos. 12-73257 and 12-73261), and filed their opening brief on January 30. The government’s response is due in March.
Under I.R.C. § 163(h)(3), taxpayers are allowed to deduct “qualified residence interest,” which includes interest paid or accrued on acquisition indebtedness with respect to any qualified residence of the taxpayer, or home equity indebtedness with respect to any qualified residence of the taxpayer. For purposes of the deduction, acquisition indebtedness is capped at $1 million and home equity indebtedness is capped at $100,000, for a total indebtedness limit of $1.1 million on up to two residences. The taxpayers, an unmarried couple registered as domestic partners with the State of California, had approximately $2.7 million of indebtedness associated with their primary residence in Beverly Hills and secondary residence in Rancho Mirage, California. They argued that, together, they should be able to deduct interest paid on up to $2.2 million of indebtedness, or $1.1 million each. The Tax Court rejected this position. Parsing the language of the statute, the Tax Court noted repeated references to “residence” in the provisions on the indebtedness limitations and concluded that the limitations are “residence focused rather than taxpayer focused.” The Tax Court also found support for treating the $1.1 million limitation as a per residence rather than per taxpayer limitation in the subsection of § 163(h) that provides that married taxpayers who file separate returns are limited to half of the otherwise allowable amount of indebtedness, and in the general rule that married couples filing jointly are subject to the $1.1 million limitation.
On appeal, the taxpayers argue that § 163(h) should be construed consistently with I.R.C. § 121, which limits the exclusion of gain from the sale of a taxpayer’s “principal residence” to $250,000. Under the regulations, the limitation is applied on a per taxpayer, not per residence basis. Section 163(h) defines “principal residence” with reference to § 121. The taxpayers also argue there is no reason to treat non-married couples the same as married couples for purposes of § 163(h) because differential treatment “is consistent with various provisions of the Code where there is a different result for similarly situated taxpayers based on filing status.”
February 3, 2013
[Note: Miller & Chevalier filed amicus briefs in this case on behalf of American Electric Power Co. in support of PPL in both the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court.]
A group of legal academics, led by Professor Michael Graetz of Columbia who authored the brief, has filed an amicus brief in PPL in support of the government. The brief argues that the UK tax should be treated as a tax on value, in line with the labels attached to it by Parliament, because it “was designed to redress both undervaluation at privatization . . . and subsequent lax regulation.” Maintaining that adopting PPL’s position “would open the door to claims of foreign tax credits for foreign levies based on value, not income,” the brief advances a somewhat creative policy rationale for affirming the Third Circuit that goes beyond anything argued by the government. Taking a perhaps unduly optimistic view of the political process, the brief claims that a reversal by the Supreme Court “would provide a road map to foreign governments, encouraging them to shift the costs of privatization to U.S. taxpayers by initially undervaluing public assets and companies sold to private interests and subsequently imposing a retroactive levy to compensate for the previous undervaluation.”
Although he has spent most of his career in academia (serving stints at Treasury from 1969-72 and 1990-92), Professor Graetz is not without Supreme Court experience. He briefed and argued Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U.S 680 (1989) on behalf of the taxpayer, arguing (unsuccessfully) for the position that adherents of the Church of Scientology were entitled to a charitable contribution deduction for payments made to the Church for “auditing” and “training” services.
Also linked below is the amicus brief filed by Patrick Smith, et al., which was noted in an earlier post, but was not available in an electronic version at the time.