Answering Brief Filed in Clarke
April 7, 2014
The parties resisting summons enforcement have filed their brief in the Supreme Court in Clarke responding to the government’s opening brief. Underlying the two sets of briefs is a fundamentally different perspective on the significance of holding an evidentiary hearing at which the agent issuing the summons can be questioned about his motives. For the government, such a hearing is a big deal, and the courts should not impose that burden on the IRS on the basis of a mere allegation of an improper purpose. For the summoned parties, such a hearing is a very limited intrusion that must be allowed upon a plausible allegation of bad faith if the notion of judicial oversight of summonses is to have any teeth at all. They argue that, “[f]or the judiciary to fulfill its function of safeguarding against abusive summonses, it cannot be entirely dependent on one-sided submissions by the government attesting in conclusory fashion that its summons is being pursued for a proper purpose.”
Thus, the summoned parties argue that the government’s position would “transform summons enforcement into an ex parte affair” because there would be no effective way to challenge the “pro forma showing” of government good faith made by an agent’s affidavit. The summoned party in most cases cannot realistically meet the government’s requirement that it show independent evidence of bad faith before having a hearing because that knowledge “is peculiarly within the knowledge or files of the Service”; the government’s proposed rule thus imposes a “circular burden” because the point of the hearing is give the summoned party the opportunity to develop that evidence. The brief rejects the government’s accusation that the Fifth Circuit has created a presumption of government irregularity. Rather, the brief argues that the presumption of regularity is intact, but the Fifth Circuit’s approach “simply allows the taxpayer an opportunity to overcome that presumption.” As the summoned parties see it, the government’s “position is not merely that it should receive the benefit of the doubt, but that in practice it should be immune from questioning.”
The brief then addresses why the Court should agree that the summoned parties have made a sufficiently plausible showing of bad faith to justify a hearing. As with its brief at the petition stage, this argument focuses primarily on the evidence showing that the government was interested in gettting information that would assist with the Tax Court litigation, not in conducting an administrative investigation into tax liability. As noted in our first report on this case, the court of appeals did not rely on that evidence, and the courts thus far have not held that a motivation to assist with Tax Court litigation is an improper purpose that justifies denying enforcement of a summons. Perhaps recognizing that it may be tough to win in the Supreme Court on the present state of the record, the summoned parties specifically request an opportunity to litigate that issue, stating “if this Court vacates the judgment below, it should remand so that the court of appeals can consider whether evidence that the IRS is using a summons only to circumvent Tax Court discovery rules provides grounds for denying enforcement of the summons.”
Oral argument is set for April 23.
Government Prevails in Quality Stores
March 25, 2014
The Supreme Court today ruled 8-0 in favor of the government in the long-running Quality Stores litigation, holding that severance payments are taxable FICA wages, even if they fall within the category of “supplemental unemployment compensation benefits” that are subject to income tax withholding under Code section 3402(o). See our prior coverage here. The Court’s opinion closely tracks the arguments made by the government in its brief.
The Court began by analyzing the definition of “wages” in the FICA statute, which it repeatedly characterizes as “broad.” That defintion — “remuneration for employment” — appears to encompass the payments at issue because “common sense dictates that the employees receive the payments ‘for employment.’” Specifically, they are paid only to employees and often vary according to the function and seniority of the particular employee who is terminated. The Court buttressed this statutory interpretation by pointing both to other aspects of the statutory definition and to its history. In particular, the Court noted that Code section 3121(a)(13(A) exempts severance payments made because of “retirement for disability” and that exception would appear superfluous if “wages” did not generally encompass severance payments. The Court also observed that in 1950 Congress had repealed a statutory exception for “dismissal payments,” thus suggesting that severance payments are not meant to be excepted from FICA “wages.”
The Court then turned to responding to the taxpayer’s argument that a contrary inference must be drawn from the treatment of SUB payments in the income tax withholding statute — specifically, that section 3402(o) directs that income tax should be withheld from such payments “as if” they were wages, which indicates that they are not in fact “wages.” The Court found this provision “in all respects consistent with the proposition that at least some severance payments are wages,” citing to the Federal Circuit’s analysis of the textual issue in the CSX case. The Court did not reject out-of-hand the taxpayer’s reliance on the heading of section 3402(o), which refers to “certain payments other than wages,” but said that the heading “falls short of a declaration that all the payments listed in section 3402(o) are not wages.”
The Court then embarked on a detailed discussion of the regulatory background against which section 3402(o) was enacted in order to demonstrate why it should not be understood as reflecting a Congressional determination that SUB payments are not FICA “wages,” despite the contrary inference that might logically be drawn from its text standing alone. Briefly, the Court explained that Congress was solely focused on solving a withholding conundrum created by the regulatory treatment of SUB payments when SUB plans proliferated in the 1950s. The IRS sought to impose income tax on these payments, but it did not want to characterize them as “wages” because that would have caused state unemployment benefit payments to stop in some cases (because some states would not pay unemployment compensation to people receiving “wages”). As a result, some individuals were being hit with big tax bills at the end of the year. Congress wanted to implement withholding for such payments and crafted section 3402(o) broadly so as to cover a spectrum of payments without regard to whether they qualified as FICA “wages.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that section 3402(o) sheds no light on the definition of FICA “wages.”
The Court added that its approach is consistent with its 1981 decision in Rowan, which had been invoked to support the taxpayer’s position. The Court stated that the government’s position, not the taxpayer’s, best advanced “the major principle recognized in Rowan: that simplicity of administration and consistency of statutory interpretation instruct that the meaning of ‘wages’ should be in general the same for income-tax withholding and for FICA calculations.”
Finally, the Court stated that it would not address the validity of the IRS’s currently applicable revenue rulings that exempt from both income-tax withholding and FICA taxation severance payments that are tied to the receipt of state unemployment benefits. As discussed in our report on the oral argument in this case, the government was questioned repeatedly about these rulings because they are hard to square with the broad reading of the FICA “wages” definition advanced by the government here and now adopted by the Court. Those rulings are more generous to taxpayers than would appear to be required under the broad FICA definition. It remains to be seen whether the IRS will revoke those rulings and try to collect FICA taxes on such payments and, if they do, whether that will have an effect on the payment of state unemployment benefits. With the Court having refrained from invalidating, or even directly criticizing, those rulings, it is possible that the IRS will let sleeping dogs lie and continue to abide by the rulings.
Opening Brief Filed in Clarke Summons Enforcement Case
March 3, 2014
The government has filed its opening brief in Clarke. The brief, which is quite short for a Supreme Court brief, hews closely to the arguments made in the petition for certiorari. As we noted in our previous report, the government and the parties resisting summons enforcement took a very different view at the petition stage of the quantum of evidence that formed the basis for requiring the evidentiary hearing in this case. The private parties contended that they had made “substantial allegations” that the summonses were for an improper purpose, while the government referred to those allegations as “unsupported.”
The brief begins by emphasizing that, however the private parties choose to describe the evidence supporting their allegations, the holding of the Fifth Circuit was that a party is entitled to an evidentiary hearing at which it can question IRS officials about their motives in issuing a summons “whenever a taxpayer makes an ‘allegation of an improper purpose.’” Indeed, the government argues, the court of appeals specifically rejected the idea that the taxpayer’s allegations must be “substantial” or supported by evidence, pointing to the court’s statement that “requiring the taxpayer to provide factual support for an allegation of an improper purpose, without giving the taxpayer a meaningful opportunity to obtain such facts, saddles the taxpayer with an unreasonable circular burden.”
Thus, the government is willing to concede that, “if an objector presents evidence to support an inference of improper motive—or if a district court otherwise believes that such an opportunity for examination is appropriate—the district court may hold a hearing and require IRS agents to justify their actions.” But here, the government maintains, the court of appeals “erroneously reduced to zero the amount of evidence that is required to rebut a showing of good faith.”
With the question framed in this way, the government presents its arguments concisely. It argues that requiring an evidentiary hearing based on a mere allegation of improper purpose undermines Congress’s intent that summons enforcement proceedings be summary and expeditious. Instead, it would afford summoned parties the opportunity to “delay the resolution of summons-enforcement proceedings merely by alleging that the summons was issued for an improper purpose.” In addition, the government argues that the court of appeals’ approach infers wrongdoing on the part of a government official without evidence, which violates the “presumption of regularity” that public officials are presumed to have properly discharged their duties.
The response brief of the parties resisting the summons is due in mid-March. Oral argument has been scheduled for April 23.
Government Brief Filed in MassMutual
February 27, 2014
The government has filed its opening brief in MassMutual contesting the Court of Federal Claims’ conclusion that the taxpayer could accrue the amount of certain policyholder dividends in the year before they were paid. See our prior post on this case and the New York Life case here. The government’s brief raises three distinct objections to the decision.
The primary argument is that the liability to pay the dividends was not “fixed” under the all-events test. The government contends that no individual obligation was fixed at the close of the year, even if all the premiums had been paid, because the dividend would not be paid unless the policy remained in force on the anniversary date. This is the same argument that was accepted by the Second Circuit in New York Life, and the government’s brief here argues that the cases are indistinguishable (asserting that the Second Circuit’s effort to distinguish them was based on a misperception of the facts in MassMutual).
The brief argues that the case “clearly fits the General Dynamics fact pattern,” which it describes as one where the “potential obligee has taken some action that renders him preliminarily eligible to receive the payment, subject only to some other condition that is within his exclusive control” – here, “forgoing the right to surrender the policy for its cash value prior to the next anniversary date.” It rejects the proposition argued by the taxpayer that this alleged final condition is not a genuine “event,” but rather just a continuation of the status quo. The government points to a comment in the Restatement (Second) of Contracts stating that “a duty may be conditioned upon the failure of something to happen . . ., and in that case its failure to happen is the event” that constitutes a condition precedent. And it rejects the contrary suggestion in Burnham Corp. v. Commissioner, 878 F.2d 86 (2d Cir. 1989), as misguided. Finally, the brief argues that the taxpayer’s all-events-test interpretation proves too much because its logical implication is that the amount of the dividend could be accrued even if the company had not passed a board resolution in the taxable year guaranteeing an aggregate dividend – a position that the taxpayer has not argued.
Second, the government argues that the dividend guarantees did not even give rise to an obligation, fixed or otherwise, because they were not communicated to the persons who were to benefit from them. Thus, the government argues, the taxpayer could have walked away from the guarantees at any time. In addition, the government argues, the guarantees were not a meaningful “substantive undertaking” because, based on the historical data, the guaranteed payments were “already virtually certain to occur in the ordinary course of the companies’ business operations, independent of any ‘guarantee’ to that effect.” There is some degree of irony in this argument; on its face, certainty that the amounts will be paid would appear to be an argument in favor of accrual, not against it. But the certainty of which the government speaks refers to the aggregate amount of payment; it is not a concession with respect to an individual obligation being fixed.
Third, the government contests the Court of Federal Claims’ holding that the dividends fell within the “recurring item” exception. The government’s primary point here is that this determination turns on the meaning of “rebate, refund, or similar payment” in Treas. Reg. § 1.461-4(g)(3), and therefore the court should have deferred to the IRS’s interpretation of that regulation – even if that interpretation did not conclusively emerge until this litigation and is at odds with some earlier internal guidance on the regulation’s meaning. The general principle of so-called Auer or Seminole Rock deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations has come under fire recently, with Justice Scalia stating that it should be abandoned and Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito indicating that they are at least open to reconsidering it. See Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, No. 11-338 (Mar. 20, 2013). So it will be interesting to see how the Federal Circuit responds to this argument, which presents a relatively weak case for deference because the claimed agency interpretation is just based on its litigation position.
The taxpayer’s brief is due April 4.
Briefing Underway in Barnes as Second Circuit Considers Application of Step-Transaction Doctrine to Impose Dividend Treatment on Movement of Foreign Cash
February 21, 2014
In Barnes Group v. Commissioner, the Tax Court (Goeke, J.) looked askance at the taxpayer’s strategy for minimizing the tax consequences of a movement of foreign cash to U.S. affiliates. As the taxpayer explained it, its foreign subsidiary in Singapore had excess cash and borrowing capacity that Barnes wanted to use to finance international acquisitions. For the time being, however, there was no suitable acquisition target, and the cash was earning only 3% in short-term deposit accounts while it could have been used more profitably in the U.S. to reduce Barnes’s expensive long-term debt. Barnes hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to help it develop an approach to allow the foreign cash to be used in the U.S. without incurring the adverse U.S. tax consequences of a direct loan or distribution to the U.S. parent.
The resulting “reinvestment plan” involved the creation of two new subsidiaries, one in Bermuda and one in Delaware, and two successive contributions of cash in section 351 exchanges – first from Singapore to Bermuda and second from Bermuda to Delaware. The Delaware subsidiary then loaned the cash to Barnes. Feel free to examine the opinion linked below for the details of the transaction, but suffice it to say here that a linchpin of the tax planning was reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503, which concluded that when two corporations exchange their own stock under circumstances similar to the section 351 exchange between the Bermuda and Delaware subsidiaries, they take a zero basis in the stock received. (Rev. Rul. 74-503 was revoked by Rev. Rul. 2006-2, but the earlier ruling is still relevant in this case because Rev. Rul. 2006-2 is prospective and provides that the IRS will not challenge positions already taken by a taxpayer that reasonably relied on Rev. Rul. 74-503.) Although Bermuda’s ownership of stock in its Delaware affiliate was an investment in U.S. property under section 956 and therefore would typically result in adverse U.S. tax consequences similar to a distribution, Barnes argued that Bermuda’s basis was zero and therefore that its section 956 inclusion should be zero.
The Tax Court disagreed, holding that the U.S. tax consequences of the transaction were different from those anticipated by Barnes. The court first determined that Rev. Rul. 74-503 did not preclude the IRS from challenging the taxpayer’s position, giving two reasons. First, the court briefly stated that, because it believed that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend from [Singapore] to Barnes” (as it would explain later in the opinion), the court did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” and therefore the ruling was irrelevant. Second, the court said that the ruling was irrelevant in any event because of the “substantial factual differences” between the ruling and this case. The court acknowledged that the section 351 exchanges, “considered alone, do have factual similarities to the revenue ruling,” but noted that they also were different in that they involved new subsidiaries, including a controlled foreign corporation. In addition, the Tax Court emphasized that the Barnes transaction was more complex than the one described in the ruling and listed seven “vast factual disparities” between the two situations. The court, however, devoted little attention to explaining why these factual differences were material to whether the principle of the ruling should apply here. Instead, the court simply recited the factual differences and then concluded that, “because the reinvestment plan far exceeded the scope of the stock-for-stock exchange addressed in Rev. Rul. 74-503,” the IRS was not precluded from challenging the taxpayer’s position.
The court then applied a step-transaction analysis to support its holding that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend” from Singapore to Barnes and should be taxed as such. According to the court, the step-transaction doctrine provides that “a particular step in a transaction is disregarded for tax purposes if the taxpayer could have achieved its objective more directly but instead included the step for no other purpose than to avoid tax liability.” The court stated that the doctrine applies if any of three tests are satisfied: (1) the binding commitment test; (2) the end result test; and (3) the interdependence test. Finding the third test to be the most appropriate, the Tax Court concluded that the various steps were “so interdependent that the legal relations created by one step would have been fruitless without completion of the later steps.” The key premise underlying that ultimate conclusion was the court’s determination that there was no “valid and independent economic or business purpose . . . served by the inclusion of Bermuda and Delaware in the reinvestment plan.” This analysis is an aggressive application of the step-transaction doctrine, taking it beyond its usual sphere, given that the steps ignored by the court were not transitory and that the characterization of the transaction as a dividend did not leave the parties in an economic position consistent with their legal rights and obligations following the actual transaction.
The court further found that Barnes did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” as Barnes made no interest payments to Delaware on the loan (even though interest had been accrued) and did not provide sufficient evidence that Delaware made any preferred dividend payments to Bermuda.
Finally, the court rejected the taxpayer’s contention that the reinvestment plan was intended to be a temporary structure under which the Singapore funds would ultimately be invested overseas when the right target appeared, noting that Barnes did not return any funds to Singapore.
The Tax Court also upheld the government’s imposition of a 20% accuracy-related penalty. The taxpayer raised two defenses to the penalty, arguing that its position was based on “substantial authority” and that it reasonably and in good faith relied on the PwC opinion letter. The court gave the “substantial authority” argument short shrift, simply repeating that Rev. Rul. 74-503 was “materially distinguishable” and hence should be afforded little weight. In response to the taxpayer’s additional citation of a 1972 General Counsel Memorandum, the court stated that GCMs “over 10 years old are afforded very little weight.” Given that taxpayers are generally invited to rely on the legal principles set forth in revenue rulings as precedent (see Treas. Reg. § 601.601(d)(2)(v)(d)), the court’s perfunctory dismissal of the taxpayer’s reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503 as substantial authority – and consequent imposition of a penalty – appears fairly harsh.
With respect to reliance on the PwC opinion, the court rested its decision on its finding that Barnes and its subsidiaries did not respect the structure of the reinvestment plan by failing to pay loan interest or preferred stock dividends. In the court’s view, “by failing to respect the details of the reinvestment plan set up by PwC, . . . [the taxpayer] forfeited any defense of reliance on the opinion letter.”
The taxpayer’s opening brief contends that all of these determinations by the Tax Court are erroneous. The first and longest section of the brief criticizes the court’s step-transaction analysis and ultimate conclusion that the transactions simply amounted to a dividend from Singapore to Barnes. In the taxpayer’s view, the court’s analysis “invent[s] a new step” of a constructive dividend that “fails to account for all of the commercial realities that continue to this day for the four legally separate corporate entities.” For example, the taxpayer argues that the evidence showed that Barnes intended to repay the loans and therefore it could not be a constructive dividend. Much of this portion of the taxpayer’s brief argues that the Tax Court’s key factual findings were clearly erroneous – namely, that the two new subsidiaries lacked a non-tax business purpose; that Barnes paid no interest to Delaware; that no preferred dividends were paid; and that the reinvestment plan was not intended to be temporary.
Second, the brief argues that the government impermissibly disavowed Rev. Rul. 74-503. The taxpayer points to Rauenhorst v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 157 (2002), for the proposition that the IRS cannot challenge the legal principles set forth in its own revenue rulings. It then argues that the factual differences identified by the Tax Court are irrelevant to the rationale for Rev. Rul. 74-503 and thus provide no basis for the government’s failure to abide by that rationale.
It will be interesting, and instructive for other cases, to see how the government deals with this point. If it is true that revenue rulings are supposed to provide guidance on legal principles on which taxpayers can rely, and if the IRS is constrained to some extent by its own rulings, it would seem apparent that merely identifying factual differences is not enough of a justification for disregarding the legal principles articulated in a revenue ruling. There are always going to be factual differences, especially when the ruling at issue contains only a brief and generic description of the facts, like Rev. Rul. 74-503. Will the government question the premise of the taxpayer’s argument in any way? Or will it accept the taxpayer’s statements about Rauenhorst and limit itself to defending the Tax Court’s position that the facts at issue are so materially different that the rationale of Rev. Rul. 74-503 cannot reasonably be applied here? Will it try to buttress the Tax Court’s reliance on the “vast factual disparities” between the two situations or will it simply focus on the argument that the tax effect of any individual step viewed in isolation is irrelevant (and therefore so is the ruling) because the transactions in substance amounted to a dividend?
Third, the taxpayer contests the court’s penalty determination. With respect to “substantial authority” the taxpayer relies primarily on the earlier discussion in the brief and maintains that it was reasonable to rely on the revenue ruling. With respect to the good faith argument, the taxpayer repeats its earlier discussion disputing the Tax Court’s finding that it did not respect the form of the transaction. It also argues that the PwC opinion, in any event, did not even address the loan and preferred dividend details on which the Tax Court rested its findings, and therefore the taxpayer’s alleged failures regarding those details do not undermine its claim of reasonable reliance on the PwC opinion. Finally, the taxpayer argues broadly that the Tax Court could not rest its good cause determination “on events that occurred after the returns were filed.”
The government’s brief is due May 15.
Federal Circuit to Consider Accrual of Policyholder Dividends
February 12, 2014
The Federal Circuit is preparing to consider a government appeal in Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. United States, on an issue involving accrual of annual dividends paid by a mutual insurance company to its policyholders. This issue was also recently addressed by the Second Circuit, and it turns on an application of the “all events test.”
First, a quick refresher course. The “all events test” is described as the “touchstone” for determining when a liability has been incurred and a deduction can be accrued. Dating back to United States v. Anderson, 269 U.S. 422, 441 (1926), and now codified at I.R.C. § 461(h)(4), it originally provided for accrual when “all events have occurred which determine the fact of liability and the amount of such liability can be determined with reasonable accuracy.” In the mid-1980s, litigation over the application of this two-pronged test yielded two Supreme Court decisions in rapid succession, with the taxpayer prevailing in the first one and the government prevailing in the second.
In United States v. Hughes Properties, Inc., 476 U.S. 593 (1986), the Court held that a casino could treat as a fixed liability the amounts shown on the jackpot meters of its progressive slot machines at the close of the taxable year. In United States v. General Dynamics Corp., 481 U.S. 239 (1987), the Court held that a self-insuring employer could not accrue amounts that it had reserved for payment of employee medical claims not yet filed for services already performed, even assuming that the amount of the liability had been determined with reasonable accuracy. The Court held that the fact of liability was not established until the employee filed a claim for reimbursement, which it termed a “condition precedent” to the establishment of liability that was not “a mere technicality” or a mere “ministerial” act. Id. at 242-45 & nn.4-5. Three dissenters argued that the case was essentially indistinguishable from Hughes Properties, where the Court had rejected the government’s argument that the fact of liability did not arise until the winning patron pulled the handle because until then it was possible that the jackpot would never be paid – for example, if the casino went out of business or declared bankruptcy. Id. at 248-49. The majority, by contrast, held that failing to file a claim was not “the type of ‘extremely remote and speculative possibility’” that was found in Hughes Properties not to “render an otherwise fixed liability contingent.” Id. at 244-45.
In 1984, Congress codified the traditional all events test in Code section 461(h)(4) and added a third prong for future years by enacting section 461(h)(1), which provides that generally “the all events test shall not be treated as met any earlier than when economic performance with respect to such item occurs.” The Code, however, contains an exception from the economic performance requirement for “certain recurring items” if economic performance occurs within a reasonable period after the close of the taxable year and certain other conditions are met. I.R.C. § 461(h)(3). In the case of policyholder dividends issued by mutual insurance companies, the taxpayers have contended that the section 461(h)(3) exception is satisfied and therefore that their right to accrue those dividend payments turns on whether the original two-pronged all events test has been satisfied.
The insurer in MassMutual adopted Board Resolutions before the close of the taxable year guaranteeing an aggregate amount of policyholder dividends that would be paid in the upcoming year on each individual policyholder’s anniversary date. The government argued that the all events test was not satisfied until the year in which the dividends were paid because the Board Resolution could be revoked (though government counsel apparently charcterized this as a “weak argument” at oral argument) and also because no precise dividend amounts could be allocated at the time of the resolution to an identifiable policyholder, since any individual policy might not still be in force on the anniversary date.
After a trial, the Court of Federal Claims rejected these arguments and allowed the taxpayer to accrue the amount of the dividends in the year before they were paid. Citing to Hughes Properties, the court said that it was not necessary that the identity of the individual recipients be known at the time of accrual. The court also stated that, “[a]lthough a condition precedent can prevent a liability from being fixed, if the only event(s) still to occur are the passage of time and/or the payment, the liability is considered fixed.” The court added that “the group of policyholders with paid-up policies were not at risk for their policies lapsing,” so the company “had an unconditional obligation” to those policyholders “to pay the guaranteed amounts of policyholder dividends.” The court then ruled that the dividends were “rebates” or “refunds” falling within the “recurring item” exception of section 461(h)(3), and therefore “economic performance” was not required before the expenses could be accrued.
After the Court of Federal Claims decision issued, but before it was ripe for appeal, the Second Circuit came to the opposite conclusion in a case involving policyholder dividends accrued by New York Life. That mutual insurance company also paid annual dividends on the anniversary date, but only if the policy was still in force and fully paid up (payment was required a month in advance). The taxpayer sought to accrue dividend payments due in January of the following year, since those policies had been fully paid up in December. The Second Circuit, however, ruled that the all events test was not satisfied for the January anniversary date policies, because of the possibility that the policyholder might choose to cash in the policy in January before the anniversary date and thus the policy would no longer be in force when the dividend came due.
The Second Circuit reasoned that the case was analogous to General Dynamics, stating that “‘the last link in the chain of events creating liability’—the policyholder’s decision to keep his or her policy in force through the policy’s anniversary date—did not occur until January of the following year.” The taxpayer argued that an “event” that would defeat accrual must be something that marks a change in the status quo, rather than a non-event like the policyholder’s failure to cash in a policy. The court, however, rejected this position, stating that the fact of liability “depend[ed] upon an actual choice by the third-party policyholder: her decision not to redeem her policy for cash, for example, and invest her money elsewhere.”
The court suggested that the MassMutual decision was distinguishable on its facts because there “the policy was considered ‘in force’ simply ‘if the premiums for the policy [had been] paid through its anniversary date,’” whereas in New York Life the company defined eligibility as “requiring both that the policyholder have paid all premiums and that she not have surrendered her policy for cash prior to the policy’s anniversary date.” Recognizing that this distinction might be viewed as less than compelling, the Second Circuit added that, “to the extent the reasoning of the MassMutual court is at odds with ours . . ., we respectfully disagree with that court’s approach.”
New York Life has filed a petition for certiorari seeking review of the Second Circuit’s decision. The petition focuses on the court of appeals’ reliance on the possibility that the policyholder might not receive a dividend because she chose to cash in her policy before the January anniversary date. The question presented in the petition is whether the court erred in holding that “the continuation of the status quo is a required event, and thus a ‘condition precedent,’ needed to establish the fact of liability under the all-events test.”
The petition’s main contention is that the Second Circuit’s decision cannot be squared with Hughes Properties. Because MassMutual is just a trial court decision, the cert petition rests its claim of a circuit conflict primarily on older cases that predate General Dynamics, arguing that the Second Circuit’s decision “recreates a multi-circuit conflict resolved by this Court in Hughes Properties.” The timing of the respective decisions is such that MassMutual is not likely to provide much help in this regard; the Supreme Court can be expected to act on the cert petition by the end of May at the latest, well before a Federal Circuit decision is likely in MassMutual.
The government’s opening brief in MassMutual is due February 20. Its opposition to the petition for certiorari in New York Life is due, after one extension, on March 20.
Supreme Court to Address the Right to an Evidentiary Hearing in Summons Enforcement Proceedings
February 3, 2014
The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in United States v. Clarke, No. 13-301, to explore the circumstances under which an entity is entitled to an evidentiary hearing before an IRS summons is enforced, so that it can question IRS officials about their motives for issuing the summons. The parties’ different views of the case are aptly captured by the dueling questions presented. The government says the case presents the question “whether an unsupported allegation” that the IRS issued a summons for an improper purpose entitles an opponent to examine IRS officials at an evidentiary hearing. The entities contesting the summons say the case presents the question whether the court erred in ordering such an evidentiary hearing “in light of [their] substantial allegations that the IRS had issued summonses to them for an improper purpose.”
The basic summons enforcement rules are long established, but the devil can be in the details. Under United States v. Powell, 379 U.S. 48 (1964), a summons is to be enforced if the IRS demonstrates that: (1) “the investigation will be conducted pursuant to a legitimate purpose”; (2) “the inquiry may be relevant to the purpose”; (3) the IRS does not already have the information; and (4) the IRS followed the proper administrative steps. The IRS generally carries its initial burden simply by producing an affidavit from the investigating agent, which then shifts the burden to the party contesting the summons. At that point, it gets a little murkier. If the party contesting the summons raises a “substantial question” as to whether the summons is an abuse of process, then it is entitled to an “adversary hearing” at which it “may challenge the summons on any appropriate ground.” Id. at 58.
What happened here is that the IRS wanted to look more carefully into a partnership’s tax returns, particularly its claim of $34 million in interest expenses over two years. Although the partnership agreed to two extensions of the statute of limitations, it declined to extend the period a third time. Shortly thereafter, the IRS issued six summonses to third parties connected to the partnership, but those parties did not comply with the summonses. Just before the limitations period closed, the IRS issued a notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment (FPAA) to the partnership, and the partnership challenged the FPAA by filing a petition in the Tax Court. A couple of months later, the IRS filed summons enforcement actions.
The summoned parties, who are the respondents in the Supreme Court, responded by contending that the summonses were not issued for a legitimate purpose and requesting an evidentiary hearing and discovery. They basically made two arguments. First, they contended that the summons was issued in retaliation for the partnership’s refusal to extend the statute of limitations, pointing to the fact that the summonses were issued very soon after that refusal was communicated. Second, they contended that the summonses were designed to circumvent the Tax Court’s restrictions on discovery. They advanced some evidence to support this contention, including the IRS’s request for a continuance in the Tax Court on the ground that the summonses were outstanding.
The district court (for the Southern District of Florida) ordered the summonses enforced, stating that a hearing is not required based on a “mere allegation of improper purpose” to retaliate. With respect to respondents’ second contention, the district court said that a finding that the IRS was using the summons process to avoid discovery limitations in the Tax Court would not be a valid ground for quashing a summons.
The Eleventh Circuit reversed in an unpublished opinion. It ordered the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing at which respondents could question the IRS examining agent about his motives for issuing the summonses (though the court declined to authorize discovery). The court explained that the district court had abused its discretion because the respondents were entitled to a hearing “to explore their allegation” that the summonses were issued “solely in retribution for [the partnership’s] refusal to extend a statute of limitations deadline.”
The difference in the way the two parties have phrased the question presented reflects the two different grounds on which the respondents challenged the summonses. The allegation that the summonses were a form of retaliation or punishment, instead of for a legitimate investigative purpose, is pretty close to an “unsupported allegation.” That the summons followed closely on the heels of the decision not to extend the statute of limitations is weak evidence of an improper retaliatory purpose, though, as the respondents point out, it is hard to have strong evidence of a retaliatory purpose without having discovery or a hearing. Thus, the respondents may have a hard time defending the court of appeals decision on its own terms.
On the other hand, the respondents will be able to advance their second basis for challenging the summonses as an alternate ground for affirmance, even though the court of appeals did not rely upon it. On that ground, the respondents have more than an “unsupported allegation” – they are more like “substantial allegations” – that the summonses were designed to obtain evidence for use in the Tax Court proceedings that could not have been obtained through discovery. The government’s response on this point is the same as that of the district court – namely, that these allegations, if true, would not demonstrate an illegitimate purpose and would not be grounds for quashing the summons. Two courts of appeals have reached this issue and have agreed with the government. On the other hand, respondents have a logical argument that a summons is an investigative tool and the investigation phase is over by the time the FPAA has issued and the case has been docketed in the Tax Court. Respondents note in this connection that the IRS’s own Summons Handbook states that, “[i]n all but extraordinarily rare cases, the Service must not issue a summons” after a notice of deficiency is mailed because at that point “the Service should no longer be in the process of gathering the data to support a determination because the [notice of deficiency] represents the Service’s presumptively correct determination and indicates the examination has been concluded.” This second ground not reached by the court of appeals thus may prove to be the more interesting and closely contested aspect of this case.
To add a little more spice to this case, the Court’s determination to revisit summons enforcement comes at a time when the IRS may significantly increase its use of its summons power. On January 2, 2014, a new policy went into effect for audits of the largest taxpayers that threatens the issuance of a summons when a taxpayer fails to timely respond to requests for documents and/or information. The new policy sets out a mandatory timeline for warning letters and a drop-dead due date, after which the examining agent will initiate procedures for the issuance of a summons. This policy could well lead to many more summons enforcement proceedings. For more information on the IRS’s new IDR enforcement policy, please contact George A. Hani (email@example.com) or Mary W. Prosser (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The government’s opening brief is due February 24. The case will be argued in late April and a decision is expected by the end of June.
Fifth Circuit Upholds Penalties in NPR
January 31, 2014
The Fifth Circuit has finally issued its opinion in NPR (as reflected in our prior coverage, this case was argued almost two years ago), a case involving a Son-of-BOSS tax shelter in which the district court absolved the taxpayers of penalties. The taxpayers were not as fortunate on appeal, as the Fifth Circuit handed the government a complete victory.
The court’s consideration of the two issues before the court of broadest applicability were overtaken by events — specifically, the Supreme Court’s December 2013 decision in United States v. Woods. See our report here. In line with that decision, the NPR court held that the penalty issue could be determined at the partnership level and that the 40% penalty was applicable because the economic substance holding meant that the basis in the partnership was overstated. This latter holding reversed the district court, which had relied on the Fifth Circuit precedents that were rejected in Woods.
The other issues resolved by the Court were mostly of lesser precedential value. First, the court affirmed the district court’s conclusion that a second FPAA issued by the IRS was valid because NPR had made a “misrepresentation of a material fact” on its partnership return.
Second, the court rejected the district court’s holding that the taxpayers could avoid penalties on the ground that there was “substantial authority” for their position. It criticized the district court for basing its “substantial authority” finding in part on the existence of a favorable tax opinion from a law firm (authored by R.J. Ruble who eventually went to prison as a result of his activities in promoting tax shelters). The court explained that a legal opinion cannot provide “substantial authority”; that can be found only in the legal authorities cited in the opinion. Here, the legal opinion had relied on the “Helmer line of cases,” which establish that contingent obligations generally do not effect a change in a partner’s basis. The court of appeals held that Helmer did not constitute substantial authority in a situation in which the transactions lack economic substance and in which the partnership lacked a profit motive. The court also observed that the IRS was correct in arguing that its Notice 2000-44 should be considered as adverse “authority” for purposes of the “substantial authority” analysis — albeit entitled to less weight than a statute or regulation.
Finally, the court overturned the district court’s finding that the taxpayers had demonstrated “reasonable cause” for the underpayment of tax. With respect to the partnership, the court stated flatly that “the evidence is conclusive that NPR did not have reasonable cause.” With respect to the individual partners, the court left a glimmer of hope, ruling that an individual partner’s reasonable cause can be determined only in a partner-level proceeding. Thus, the court merely vacated the district court’s finding of reasonable cause and left the individual partners the option of raising their own individual reasonable cause defenses (whatever those might be) in a partner-level proceeding.
Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Quality Stores
January 15, 2014
The Supreme Court heard oral argument on January 14 in Quality Stores. Whether it was because of a lack of interest in the subject matter or because it was the third argument of the day at the unusually late hour of 1:00 (the Court’s usual schedule in recent years calls for two (sometimes only one) arguments in the morning that finish before lunch), the Court was less active than usual in its questioning. Indeed, the government’s counsel began to sit down after using only five of his alloted 30 minutes for his opening argument (though he was then persuaded to remain at the podium by some additional questions). By the end, all of the Justices except Justice Thomas participated, and the advocates for each side had to deal with some hostile questions. The questioning was not so one-sided as to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, but the Court seemed to be leaning more towards the government’s position than the taxpayer’s. On the other hand, the Court seemed to be learning some of the nuances of the case as the argument proceeded, so there is the possibility that the views of some Justices could yet shift from where they appeared to be at oral argument.
Eric Feigin began the argument for the government, and he was allowed to make his basic presentation without interruption – namely, that the severance pay here comes within the broad definition of FICA wages and the Court should not have to worry about the text of section 3402(o), the income tax withholding statute on which the taxpayer relies. On the latter point, Justice Ginsburg interrupted to ask about the statement in Rowan indicating that wages should be interpreted the same way for FICA and income tax withholding. Mr. Feigin gave two responses: 1) Rowan does not say that the income tax statute should govern the substance of the FICA statute; and 2) the basic principle of Rowan is to establish congruence between FICA “wages” and income tax withholding “wages” for purposes of administrability, and that goal would be advanced by adopting the government’s position.
After Mr. Feigin described the background of the 1969 income tax withholding legislation, Justice Kennedy asked about the history of FICA withholding of supplemental unemployment benefits. Mr. Feigin responded that there is no FICA withholding of SUB payments, apparently referring to the government’s narrow definition of SUB payments that the revenue rulings exempt from FICA wages, rather than the broader concept of SUB payments as defined in section 3402(o). The Chief Justice then asked him to clarify the reason for the enactment of section 3402(o), and Mr. Feigin explained that the benefits were considered to be taxable income even if not subject to withholding. At that point, Mr. Feigin stated that he was prepared to sit down unless there were further questions. That suggestion proved to be premature, as it turned out that there were several Justices who still had questions.
Justice Ginsburg began by asking about the effect on state unemployment compensation. That question arises from the fact that some states will not pay unemployment compensation if the employee is receiving “wages,” even if the employee is out of work. To avoid having individuals in those states lose their state unemployment benefits as a result of receiving SUB payments from their employer, the IRS has drawn a strange distinction in its revenue rulings, currently providing that SUB payments must be “linked to state unemployment compensation in order to be excluded from the definition” of FICA wages. Rev. Rul. 90-72. That distinction is policy-driven, but makes no logical sense as an interpretation of the statutory text. Mr. Feigin sought at first to steer away from this problem by saying that the government was arguing for the status quo, so nothing would change. He added, however, that “if the court were to reach some other conclusion in this case than the one the government is urging” (which appears to be a reference to the possibility that the Court’s decision would wipe out the distinction in the revenue ruling), then that might have an effect on state unemployment benefits. The states, he argued, could then cure any problems by amending state law.
After a short response to Justice Kennedy’s question about whether some employees might prefer to have these payments treated as FICA wages, Mr. Feigin again began to sit down. This time Justice Alito asked whether it would make a difference if the payments were not keyed to length of service. Mr. Feigin responded that the government’s position would be the same. Justice Alito then followed up by citing the Coffy case and asking why the distinction drawn there “between compensation for services and payments that are contingent on the employee’s being thrown out of work” was not applicable. Mr. Feigin replied that the cases involved different issues and different definitions. He went on to argue that FICA does not distinguish “between payments that are part of the continuing employment and payments that occur at the end of the employment relationship,” stating that FICA wages include retirement pay and dismissal payments. At that point, Mr. Feigin again offered to end his presentation and was permitted to sit down after 12 minutes of argument.
Robert Hertzberg argued for the taxpayer and began by arguing that the SUB payments were not “remuneration for services” – and hence not FICA wages – because, as stated in Coffy, they were contingent on losing one’s job. Justice Sotomayor asked the first question, inquiring whether the taxpayer could prevail if the Court invalidated the government’s “regulation” (likely a reference to the applicable IRS revenue rulings). This question appears to have been prompted by the heavy criticism of the IRS rulings, particularly in the amicus briefs, with Justice Sotomayor wanting to put aside the rulings and focus on the statute. Mr. Hertzberg replied that the taxpayer should prevail because the statutory language is clear, and the FICA and income tax withholding statutes should have the same meaning under Rowan. Both Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg then suggested that it would be simpler and more appropriate to have the SUB payments treated the same way under the two statutes. Mr. Hertzberg replied that they were not “wages” under the statute. He added that different treatment made sense because the SUB payments are provided as a “safety net” and logically ought not to be reduced by FICA taxation in order to fund Medicare and Social Security.
Justice Scalia pointed out that the payments are “for faithful and good past services” because they are paid only to employees, and this comment led to a bevy of questions from all sides. Justice Ginsburg remarked that there “are some severance payments that do count for FICA purposes,” even under the taxpayer’s position. Justice Alito asked what would happen if section 3402(o) did not exist. Mr. Hertzberg replied that the term “supplemental unemployment benefits” has its own definition, going back to 1960 legislation dealing with trusts, and those benefits have not been regarded as FICA wages, even in the 1977 revenue ruling. He then emphasized that Congress reenacted the FICA statute in 1986 against that backdrop, and therefore that payments falling within the existing definition of SUB payments should not be within FICA wages.
Justice Breyer then objected that the FICA definition is very broad. With respect to income tax withholding, he questioned whether section 3402(o) shouldn’t be viewed as just being enacted to be on the safe side, but not necessarily indicating that Congress had concluded that SUB payments were not FICA wages. Mr. Hertzberg responded that it was clear from the text, the title of the section, and the legislative history that Congress did not understand SUB payments to fall within FICA wages. This triggered Justice Ginsburg to ask again what is the distinction between “dismissal payments” that are subject to FICA and those that are not. After Mr. Hertzberg described that distinction (that SUB payments must come from a plan and follow a mass layoff or plant closing), Justice Breyer came back to his question. Acknowledging now that Congress in 1969 probably did not view the SUB payments as FICA wages when it passed section 3402(o), he asked why that should be given weight in construing the FICA statute passed earlier by a different Congress. Mr. Hertzberg replied that the statutes were reenacted together in 1986, and therefore it was not just a matter of a later Congress commenting on what an earlier Congress had passed. Justice Breyer’s followup comment, however, indicated that he either did not understand or was not persuaded by this answer, as he noted that the statute was passed because there was “authority saying it wasn’t wages,” but the authority was not necessarily correct.
Justice Alito then asked about the government’s argument that the “treated as” language in section 3402(o) was necessary because the IRS had ruled that some SUB payments are not wages, but it did not mean that all such payments were not wages. Mr. Hertzberg replied that the language of 3402(o) was clear, particularly the title, which addresses payments “other than wages.” The argument closed with Justice Scalia promising to ask the government on rebuttal about Mr. Hertzberg’s point that, given the reenactment of both statutes at the same time, it appeared that section 3402(o) is superfluous under the government’s position.
Mr. Feigin begin his rebuttal by addressing Justice Sotomayor’s question about how the Court should approach the case if the IRS revenue rulings are invalid. He said that this would not affect the outcome of this case because the defect in the rulings would be that they exclude some SUB payments from wages, when in fact all such payments should be included. That is, any problem would be cured by making even more SUB payments subject to FICA taxation. Justice Sotomayor replied that this answer was “touching at what I was thinking,” and then asked Mr. Feigin to address Justice Scalia’s point about 3402(o) being superfluous. Mr. Feigin began by acknowlegding that “the revenue rulings are not consistent with the statutory text of FICA.” He attributed this defect to the fact that the rulings trace back to a “more freewheeling time in the history of statutory interpretation.”
Justice Scalia then jumped in to bring the discussion back to whether section 3402(o) was unnecessary, stating that the statute “contradicted itself” if the government’s position were correct. Mr. Feigin responded by making the same point that Justice Alito had made earlier (also reflected in the Federal Circuit’s CSX decision) that there was no contradiction if section 3402(o) was drafted as it was because there were some SUB payments that were not wages under the revenue ruling. Justice Scalia found that response unsatisfying since the title clearly refers to payments “other than wages.” Mr. Feigin answered by saying that the title refers to “certain payments” and the statute provides that they should be “treated as wages for a payroll period.” He then went on to reiterate his prior points about the history of the development of section 3402(o) and argued that it was drafted as it was to cover the possibility that the IRS would draw different distinctions in the future regarding which SUB payments constitute “wages.”
Finally, this discussion prompted Justice Ginsburg and Chief Justice Roberts to revisit the IRS revenue rulings, which the Chief Justice characterized as taking a narrower view of the FICA definition than the government was arguing for. Mr. Feigin responded that the rulings were not directly at issue here, but if the Court thought it had to rule on them, it should follow the government’s current arguments regarding the statutory text “notwithstanding the revenue rulings.” He then again assured Justice Ginsburg that the states could fix any bad results related to their own unemployment compensation schemes that might ensue from invalidating the revenue rulings.
It is always tricky to forecast a Supreme Court decision based on the oral argument. Still, it cannot have been encouraging for the taxpayer that its counsel was the recipient of most of the difficult questioning, with Justices Sotomayor and Breyer in particular seeming to exhibit agreement with the government’s position. On the other hand, as noted above, the Court appeared still to be digesting some of the complexities of this case, so the positions reflected at oral argument are not set in stone. For example, Justice Scalia showed more skepticism of the government’s position during rebuttal than he did during Mr. Feigin’s opening argument. Time will tell. A decision is expected this spring, likely issuing sometime between late March and early June. If the vote on the Court is 4-4, however (with Justice Kagan being recused), then the Court will announce that outcome as early as next week. That is because there will be no need to write an opinion; the result will just be a one-line announcement that the decision has been affirmed by an equally divided Court.
Ninth Circuit Consideration of Bergmann Is Back On
January 8, 2014
A court can lead the parties to mediation, but can’t make them drink. We reported last month that, after oral argument, the Ninth Circuit had suspended its consideration of the Bergmann case so that the parties could pursue court-sponsored mediation. Apparently, that effort never got off the ground. Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit entered a new order: “We previously withdrew submission pending an opportunity for mediation. Because mediation has not resolved this appeal, the case is ordered resubmitted as of the date of this order.” The Court will now proceed to write an opinion and issue its decision in due course. When that happens, one of the parties likely will be sorry that it wasn’t more flexible with the mediation process and the other will feel vindicated.