April 10, 2013
[Note: Miller & Chevalier member and former Commissioner of Internal Revenue Lawrence B. Gibbs is among the five former Commissioners who filed an amicus brief in support of the Government in the Loving appeal.]
Five former IRS Commissioners filed an amicus brief in support of the Government’s appeal of the district court decision invalidating the IRS’s registration regime for paid tax return preparers. The former Commissioners “take no position regarding whether the manner in which the Treasury has chosen to regulate tax return preparers is advisable, but they strongly disagree with the District Court’s view that Congress has not empowered Treasury to do so.” Under 31 U.S.C. § 330, the Treasury Department is authorized to “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of Treasury.” The district court held that, although the statute did not define “the practice of representatives,” the surrounding statutory text made clear that Congress used “practice” to refer to “advising and assisting persons in presenting their case,” not simply preparing returns. In their amicus brief, the former Commissioners argue that filing a tax return does, in fact, constitute presenting a case. The amicus brief explains that an increasingly wide variety of government assistance programs are administered through the federal income tax system, including a number of refundable tax credits (the earned income credit, health insurance cost credit, etc.). Accordingly, the tax return preparer is not simply calculating tax liability; he or she also is often representing the taxpayer in pursuing claims for federal assistance. Because disbursements of benefits under these government assistance programs is administered largely through self-reporting on a tax return, it is essential, the former Commissioners argue, that paid tax return preparers be regulated so that taxpayers can identify the credits and benefits to which they are entitled and so that both the government and taxpayers are protected against fraud.
The National Consumer Law Center and National Community Tax Coalition also filed a joint amicus brief arguing for reversal of the district court’s decision. That brief documents “rampant” fraud and incompetence in the paid preparation industry, especially on the part of fringe return preparers, such as payday loan stores.
April 5, 2013
The Government has filed its brief in the taxpayers’ appeal to the Ninth Circuit of the Tax Court’s decision that the mortgage interest deduction applies on a per residence rather than per taxpayer basis. See our previous coverage here. Section 163(h)(3) limits deductible mortgage interest to “acquisition indebtedness” of $1,000,000 and “home equity indebtedness” of $100,000. With their Beverly Hills home and Rancho Mirage secondary residence, domestic partners Bruce Voss and Charles Sophy had considerably more indebtedness, and argued that, together, they should be able to deduct interest paid on up to $2.2 million of acquisition and home equity indebtedness because the limitations should be applied on a per taxpayer rather than per residence basis. In its opposition brief, the Government argues that the statutory text supports a per residence limitation. The statute refers to acquisition or home equity indebtedness “with respect to any qualified residence of the taxpayer.” According to the Government, “the word ‘indebtedness’ is used in direct relation to the ‘residence,’ and the word ‘taxpayer’ is used only in connection with the ‘residence,’ not with the ‘indebtedness.’” The Government also finds support for its position in the Code’s definition of “acquisition indebtedness” as indebtedness incurred in acquiring a residence, not as indebtedness secured in acquiring a taxpayer’s portion of a residence. Turning to policy arguments, the Government observes that the taxpayers’ interpretation would create an unintended marriage penalty. Married taxpayers filing separately are limited to acquisition and home equity indebtedness of one-half the otherwise allowable amount, or $500,000 and $50,000 respectively.
In their reply brief, the taxpayers argue that the general rule of section 163(a) (“There shall be allowed as a deduction all interest paid within the taxable year on indebtedness.”) must be read as referring to the taxpayer’s indebtedness. This “clearly implied” meaning, they argue, should inform the interpretation of the mortgage interest deduction provisions. The taxpayers also seek support for their interpretation in references in the legislative history to the indebtedness on the qualified residence as being “the taxpayer’s debt.” With respect to the Government’s marriage penalty argument, the taxpayers note that the Code often treats married couples as a single taxpayer, and married couples enjoy many benefits from that treatment, benefits that are not enjoyed by domestic partners. The reply brief concludes with the following: “Once Congress made the decision to treat spouses as a single taxpayer, the resulting benefits and burdens must be respected equally. In this case, Taxpayers should not be assigned the burden (or penalty) that results from the Tax Court’s convoluted reading of section 163(h)(3) which treats Taxpayers as a married couple, when they receive none of the marriage benefits.”
April 3, 2013
The Supreme Court has granted the government’s request for a one-month extension to file its petition for certiorari in Quality Stores, extending the due date from April 4 to May 3. As we have previously observed, we believe there is a strong likelihood that the government will petition in this case and that the Court will grant certiorari to resolve the circuit conflict on the treatment for FICA purposes of supplemental unemployment compensation benefits. See our previous coverage here.
With this extension, however, the Court likely will not decide whether to grant certiorari until early October, after the summer recess. If Quality Stores were to file its response to the cert petition early, however, without taking its full 30 days to respond, then the petition could still be ready for a ruling by the Court before the summer recess. In either event, if the Court were to grant certiorari, the case would probably be argued in late 2013, with a decision on the merits expected by June 2014.
April 2, 2013
Two days after the D.C. Circuit denied its motion for stay pending appeal, the Government moved for an expedited appeal and concurrently filed its opening brief. The Government seeks an expedited resolution of its appeal of the decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Judge James E. Boasberg) invalidating a licensing regime for paid federal tax return preparers. Under the Government’s proposed briefing schedule, briefing would be complete by May 31, 2013. The Appellees have consented to the Government’s proposed briefing schedule.
In its opening brief, the Government argues that the tax return preparer regulations are a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statutory grant of authority to regulate the “practice of representatives before the Department of Treasury.” The district court had held that the Treasury Department was not entitled to any Chevron deference because the statute, 31 U.S.C. 330(a)(1) unambiguously did not authorize the regulation of individuals whose only role is the preparation of the return. The Government argues that “neither the actual language nor the overall context of 31 U.S.C. 330(a) unambiguously forecloses the Secretary’s interpretation that the term ‘ practice of representatives before the Department of the Treasury’ includes the practice of tax-return preparers.” The Government pointed to the absence of a definition — either in the Code or in ordinary meaning — of “practice” that would exclude mere return preparation. The Government also seizes on language in 31 U.S.C. 330(a)(2) authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to require that representatives who practice before it demonstrate “necessary qualifications to enable the representative to provide to persons valuable service.” The Government reasons that, because tax return preparers provide a “valuable service,” they should be deemed to “practice” before the Treasury Department. Acknowledging that the statute authorizes the Treasury Department to require a representative to demonstrate “competency to advise and assist persons in presenting their cases,” the Government contends that Congress did not intend by that language to limit the Treasury Department’s authority to regulate tax-return preparers whose representation ends with preparing the tax return.
April 1, 2013
With oral argument scheduled for April 18 in Peco Foods v. Commissioner, No. 12-12169, the Eleventh Circuit will soon decide a case that involves the scope of the Danielson rule. That rule, established in Danielson v. Commissioner, 378 F.2d 771, 775 (3d Cir. 1967), provides that “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.” The Eleventh Circuit has expressly adopted the Danielson rule.
In Peco Foods, the Commissioner used that rule (along with the allocation rules under section 1060) to prevent the taxpayer from subdividing broader classes of purchased assets (to which the purchase agreement had expressly allocated a portion of the purchase price) into discernible subcomponents for depreciation purposes. The taxpayer is a poultry processor that purchased the assets at two poultry processing plants in the mid- to late-1990s. In each of the purchase transactions, Peco and the seller agreed to allocate the purchase price among listed assets “for all purposes (including financial accounting and tax purposes).” The first agreement allocated purchase price among 26 listed assets; the second allocated purchase price among three broad classes of assets.
Prompted by the Tax Court’s decision in Hospital Corporation of America v. Commissioner, 109 T.C. 21 (1997), Peco commissioned a cost segregation study that subdivided the listed assets into subcomponents. Some of these subcomponents fell into asset classes that are subject to accelerated depreciation methods. For instance, Peco subdivided the class of assets listed as “Real Property: Improvements” on the original allocation schedule into subcomponents that were tangible personal property subject to a 7- or 15-year depreciation period under section 1245. If they were classified as structural components of nonresidential real property, the assets would have been subject to a 39-year depreciation period under section 1250.
With the segregation study in hand, Peco applied to change its accounting method for those subcomponents with its 1998 return and claimed higher depreciation deductions on subsequent returns. The IRS disallowed these deductions and issued a notice of deficiency; the taxpayer filed a petition in Tax Court.
In a Tax Court Memorandum opinion by Judge Laro, T.C. Memo 2012-18, the Tax Court upheld the Commissioner’s deficiencies. The Tax Court’s decision was based on both the Danielson rule and section 1060(a), the latter of which provides that if the parties in an applicable asset acquisition “agree in writing as to the allocation of any consideration,” the agreement “shall be binding on both the transferee and transferor unless the Secretary determines that such allocation . . . is not appropriate.” The taxpayer argued that section 1060 serves only to allocate purchase price among assets under the residual method of section 338(b)(5) and that section 1060 does not bar further subdivision of the allocation for purposes of determining useful lives for depreciation. The Tax Court held that the directive in section 1060 that an allocation by the parties “shall be binding” trumps the application of the residual method of section 338(b)(5).
The Tax Court also rejected the taxpayer’s argument that Danielson was inapposite. The taxpayer had relied on United States v. Fort, 638 F.3d 1334 (11th Cir. 2011), in which the Eleventh Circuit held that “the Danielson rule applies if a taxpayer ‘challenge[s] the form of a transaction.’” (citation omitted) Since the taxpayer in Fort had challenged the specific tax consequences of the form of the transaction but not the form itself, the Eleventh Circuit found that Fort fell outside the scope of the Danielson rule. The Tax Court held that while the taxpayer in Fort had not challenged the form of the transaction, the taxpayer in Peco—by “seeking to reallocate the purchase price among assets not listed in the original allocation schedules”—sought to challenge the form of the transaction. Therefore, reasoned the Tax Court, because there was no ambiguity to the allocations in the purchase agreements under the applicable contract laws of the states in which the agreements were entered, Danielson applies to prevent the taxpayer from subdividing the listed into distinct components for depreciation purposes.
On appeal, the taxpayer contests the Tax Court’s holdings with respect to both section 1060 and Danielson. In its brief, the taxpayer argues that whether an asset is tangible personal property or a structural component of a building is a matter of facts and circumstances and that the words used to describe the asset “are of no utility in connection with its categorization as a structural component.” The taxpayer also argues that classifying assets for depreciation purposes is not a challenge to the form of the transaction (unlike, for example, treating the transaction as a merger or lease rather than an asset acquisition, which would have been a challenge to form) and therefore, under the holding in Fort, the Danielson rule does not apply.
In his opposition brief, the Commissioner echoes the Tax Court’s holding that the taxpayer’s subdivision of listed assets for depreciation purposes is an attempt to “restructure the form of the transaction” and therefore falls within the purview of the Danielson rule (and is not excluded by the rule articulated in Fort). The Commissioner then goes a step further, arguing that the taxpayer was not merely “changing the classification of assets” but also “added assets.” Moreover, the Commissioner insists that what the taxpayer did with respect to depreciation “goes considerably deeper than merely a change to the classification for depreciation purposes.”