July 31, 2013
The taxpayers have filed their response brief in the Supreme Court in the Woods case, contending first that the courts lacked jurisdiction to impose the penalties requested by the IRS and, second, that, if jurisdiction exists, the Fifth Circuit correctly held that the valuation misstatement penalty could not be imposed.
On the jurisdictional point, the brief emphasizes the same basic point made by the courts that have questioned jurisdiction in similar partnership cases (see our previous report here) – namely, that the statute allows for partnership-level jurisdiction in a TEFRA proceeding only over a penalty that relates to adjustment of a “partnership item.” It is undisputed that outside basis is not a partnership item, and the taxpayers contend that the “penalty at issue in this case undeniably relates to the adjustment of a nonpartnership item—outside basis—not to a partnership item.” The taxpayers’ brief dismisses the government’s argument on this point as having “an Alice-in-Wonderland feel to it” and, at any rate, as proving too much. The taxpayers concede that the outside basis determination does relate to the adjustment of a partnership item, specifically, whether the partnership transaction should be disregarded for lack of economic substance. But the brief maintains that, if that attenuated connection were enough for jurisdictional purposes, then the statute’s jurisdictional limitation “would be rendered essentially meaningless and could be readily circumvented.” The result would be to “rewrite Section 6226(f) to create precisely the jurisdiction that Congress withheld.”
On the merits of the penalty, the brief begins with a different argument from the one relied upon by the Fifth Circuit – maintaining that “there was no ‘valuation misstatement’ to begin with.” Pointing to the common meaning of the word “valuation” in the statutory text, and to the legislative history, the taxpayers argue that “Congress meant the penalty to address misstatements about valuation—an inherently factual concept concerning the worth or cost of property.” Therefore, the penalty should not be “triggered by transactions that are accurately reported but deemed not to exist based on a legal conclusion that they lack economic substance,” even if the result of that legal conclusion is to restate the basis claimed by the taxpayer.
The government argues, of course, that the text of the penalty provision is not limited strictly to classic “valuation” misstatements, because the statute defines those misstatements as occurring when “the value of any property (or the adjusted basis of any property)” is overstated on the return. The taxpayers argue, however, that the government is overreading the parenthetical “adjusted basis” reference and, read in context, it should apply “only when basis is incorrectly reported due to a factual misrepresentation of a property’s worth or cost.” For the government to read this language as authorizing application of the valuation overstatement penalty to cases where there is a “basis overstatement that is in no way dependent on a valuation error” – that is, one that is traceable to a legal conclusion that the transaction creating the basis was devoid of economic substance – is in the taxpayers’ view “essentially blowing [the penalty provision] up and transforming it into a penalty scarcely recognizable to the one Congress intended.”
The taxpayers also point to the penalty provision added in Congress’s recent enactment of an economic substance provision. They argue that the penalty associated with that provision (see Code section 6662(b)(6) and (i)) could impose a 40% penalty for the reporting in this case and therefore its enactment indicates that the existing valuation misstatement penalty should not be construed to cover economic substance cases.
As a fallback argument, the taxpayers argue for adopting the rationale of the Fifth Circuit – namely, that the underpayment of tax is “attributable to” a finding of no economic substance and hence is not attributable to a basis overstatement. Finally, the taxpayers rely on language from Supreme Court decisions in the 1930s to argue that doubts about the meaning of ambiguous tax statutes should be resolved in favor of the taxpayer.
An amicus brief in support of neither party was filed by Professor Andy Grewal. That brief discusses the state of the law in the courts of appeals regarding the substance of the economic substance doctrine, but urges the Court to “reserve its opinion on the broader economic substance issues implicated in this case.” Four amicus briefs were filed in support of the taxpayers, on either one or both issues, by other taxpayers involved in pending litigation that would potentially be affected by the Court’s holding. See here, here, here, and here.
The government’s reply brief is due August 18. Oral argument has been scheduled for October 9.
July 12, 2013
The Fifth Circuit has issued its opinion in Rodriguez, unanimously affirming the Tax Court in an opinion authored by Judge Prado. As forecasted in our earlier report on the oral argument (see here), the Court saw no way for the taxpayer to get around the technical obstacle that a section 951 inclusion is neither an actual dividend nor expressly denominated by Congress to be a “deemed dividend.” On the first point, the court stated that “actual dividends require a distribution by a corporation and receipt by the shareholder; there must be a change in ownership of something of value.” Hence, “Section 951 inclusions do not qualify as actual dividends because no transfer occurs.” On the second point, the court stated that the taxpayers’ “deemed dividends” argument was “unpersuasive . . . because, when Congress decides to treat certain inclusions as dividends, it explicitly states as much,” pointing to several provisions where Congress has explicitly stated that certain amounts should be treated as dividends.
The court did not express much angst over the unfairness argument made by the taxpayers — namely, that they could have obtained qualified dividend treatment through the formal declaration of a dividend had they only known that Congress was going to implement a more favorable rate for such dividends. The court recognized that fact, but did not agree that it led to a “harsh and unjust result.” To the contrary, the court said that the taxpayers had the opportunity to declare a dividend, or take other steps with the accumulated earnings, and those would have carried different tax implications. But they could not “now avoid their tax obligation simply because they regret the specific decision they made.” The court also gave short shrift to the taxpayers’ reliance on language in earlier legislative history and IRS pronouncements that described “a conceptual equivalence” between section 951 inclusions and dividend income.” The court said that these pronouncements carried little weight because the distinction between these inclusions and formal dividends “was treated loosely at the time because it did not carry tax implications” until 2003 when the preferential rate for qualified dividends was implemented.
The taxpayers have 45 days from the July 5 date of decision to seek rehearing, and 90 days to seek certiorari, though there is no reason to believe that either of those avenues for further review would prove to be fruitful.
July 7, 2013
In an unpublished opinion, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the Tax Court’s decision in Peco Foods. As we described in our earlier coverage here, the Tax Court held that the taxpayer could not subdivide broader classes of assets acquired in two transactions into discernible subcomponents for depreciation purposes because the taxpayer had agreed to an express allocation (in both agreements at issue) to the broader classes “for all purposes (including financial accounting and tax purposes).” The Tax Court decided that because of that express allocation, the Danielson rule and language in section 1060 prevented the taxpayer from subdividing the asset classes (and thereby getting accelerated depreciation for some of those subclasses).
The taxpayer challenged the Tax Court’s application of the Danielson rule on appeal (among other things). The taxpayer argued that under the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Fort, the Danielson rule applies only where a taxpayer challenges the form of a transaction. And since the subdivision of assets for depreciation purposes is not a challenge to form, the taxpayer argued that the Danielson rule did not apply.
The Eleventh Circuit made no mention of its decision in Fort, nor did it explain whether Peco’s attempt to subdivide the acquired asset classes for depreciation purposes was a challenge to the form of the transactions. Instead, the Eleventh Circuit summarily affirmed the Tax Court’s holding that the express allocation in the agreements was unambiguous and binding under section 1060 and the Danielson rule. So unfortunately for taxpayers—for whom the Danielson rule is a one-way street in the IRS’s favor—the Eleventh Circuit did nothing to explain how its decision in Fort limits the breadth of the Danielson rule.
July 3, 2013
The taxpayer has obtained an extension until July 31 to respond to the government’s petition for certiorari in Quality Stores.