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.
December 3, 2013
The Supreme Court this morning ruled 9-0 in favor of the government on both issues in Woods, holding that: (1) there is partnership-level TEFRA jurisdiction to consider the appropriateness of a penalty when the partnership is invalidated for lack of economic substance; and (2) the 40% valuation overstatement penalty can apply in that setting on the theory that the basis of a sham partnership is zero and therefore the taxpayers overstated their basis. See our prior coverage here. The opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, is concise and appears to resolve definitively both issues that had previously divided the lower courts.
On the jurisdictional issue, the Court began by pointing to Code section 6226(f), which establishes partnership-level jurisdiction for “the applicability of any penalty . . . which relates to an adjustment to a partnership item.” Accordingly, the Court found, the question “boils down to whether the valuation-misstatement penalty ‘relates to’ the determination” that the partnerships were shams. On that point, the Court agreed with the government’s “straightforward” argument that “the penalty flows logically and inevitably from the economic-substance determination” because the trigger for the valuation overstatement calculation is the conclusion that a sham partnership has zero basis.
The Court rejected the taxpayer’s argument (previous adopted by the Federal and D.C. Circuits) that there can be no partnership-level determination regarding “outside basis” because some partner-level determinations are necessarily required to conclude that outside basis has been overstated. The Court found that this approach is inconsistent with TEFRA’s provision that the applicability of some penalties must be determined at the partnership level. If the taxpayer’s position were correct, the Court stated, it “would render TEFRA’s authorization to consider some penalties at the partnership level meaningless.” The Court stressed that the partnership-level applicability determination is “provisional,” meaning that individual partners can still raise partner-level defenses, but the partnership-level proceeding can determine an overarching issue such as whether the economic-substance determination was categorically incapable of triggering the penalty. In the Court’s view, “deferring consideration of those arguments until partner-level proceedings would replicate the precise evil that TEFRA sets out to remedy: duplicative proceedings, potentially leading to inconsistent results, on a question that applies equally to all of the partners.”
With respect to the merits issue of the applicability of the 40% penalty, the Court relied on what it regarded as the “plain meaning” of the statute. The text applies the penalty to tax underpayments attributable to overstatements of “value . . . (or the adjusted basis)” of property. Finding that the parentheses did not diminish or narrow the import of the latter phrase, the Court concluded that a substantial overstatement of basis must trigger the 40% penalty and that such an overstatement occurred in this case. Because the term “adjusted basis” “plainly incorporates legal inquiries,” the Court was unpersuaded by the taxpayer’s argument that the penalty applies only to factual misrepresentations of an asset’s value or basis. As we have previously noted (see here and here), both the taxpayer and an amicus brief filed by Prof. David Shakow set forth considerable evidence that the intent of Congress in enacting the 40% penalty was to address factual overstatements, not overstatements that flow from legal errors. The Court, however, stated that it would not consider this evidence, which is found in legislative history and in the IRS’s prior administrative practice, because “the statutory text is unambiguous.”
In addition, the Court rejected the reasoning of the Fifth Circuit that the underpayment of tax was “attributable to” a holding that the partnership was a sham, not to an overstatement of basis. The Court instead adopted the reasoning of Judge Prado’s opinion in the Fifth Circuit (which had questioned the correctness of binding circuit precedent) that, “in this type of tax shelter, ‘the basis understatement and the transaction’s lack of economic substance are inextricably intertwined.'”
At the end of the opinion, the Court addressed an issue of statutory interpretation that has broader implications beyond the specific context of Woods. The taxpayer had relied on language in the Blue Book, and the Court stated in no uncertain terms that the Blue Book is not a relevant source for determining Congressional intent. Rather, it is “post-enactment legislative history (a contradiction in terms)” that “is not a legitimate tool of statutory interpretation.” The Court acknowledged that it had relied on similar documents in the past, but suggested that such reliance was a mistake, stating that more recent precedents disapprove of that practice. Instead, the Blue Book should be treated “like a law review article”— relevant only if it is persuasive, but carrying no special authority because it is a product of the Joint Committee on Taxation.
October 11, 2013
The Supreme Court held oral argument in United States v. Woods on October 9. As we have previously reported, the case presents two distinct questions: (1) a TEFRA jurisdictional question concerning whether the court could determine the applicability of the valuation overstatement penalty in a partnership-level proceeding; and (2) the merits question whether the 40% penalty applied when the partnership was found not to have economic substance and therefore the basis claimed by the taxpayers in the partnership was not recognized.
Most of the argument time for both advocates was spent on the jurisdictional issue, as the Justices often seemed genuinely confused about how TEFRA is generally supposed to work and about the respective positions of the parties on how the statutory provisions should be interpreted in the circumstances of this case. [For example, Justice Sotomayor: “what is this case a fight about?” “Could you give me a concrete example, because I’m not quite sure about what you’re talking about.” Justice Breyer: “I am genuinely confused. I have read this several times.”] Thus, a higher percentage of the Justices’ questions than usual appeared designed simply to elicit information or alleviate confusion, rather than to test the strength of the advocate’s position.
Justice Sotomayor began the questioning by suggesting to government counsel, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, that there was an “incongruity” in its position in that it was acknowledging that there were partner-level issues that precluded a final determination of penalty liability until the partner-level proceeding, yet it was insisting that the penalty could be imposed without a notice of deficiency prior to the partner-level proceedings. Mr. Stewart responded that a taxpayer would have an opportunity before the penalty is imposed to make the kinds of broad objections that are at issue in this case. He would have to file a partner-level refund suit only if he had undeniably partner-specific issues like a good faith reasonable cause defense, and Congress contemplated that there would not be a prepayment forum for those kinds of issues.
Justice Kagan suggested that the government’s position essentially was “what you do at the partnership level is anything that doesn’t require looking at an individual’s tax return”; Mr. Stewart agreed, but he said that he preferred to state the position as “any question that will necessarily have the same answer for all partners should presumptively be resolved at the partnership level.”
Chief Justice Roberts asked Mr. Stewart about the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning in Petaluma that the penalty issue related to outside basis and therefore could not be resolved at the partnership level even if the answer was obvious. Mr. Stewart began his response by agreeing (as the government has throughout the litigation) with the proposition that “outside basis, in and of itself, is not a partnership item,” but this observation triggered some questions looking for clarification. Justice Scalia asked why outside basis would vary from partner to partner, and Justice Kennedy suggested that the government was arguing that “outside basis in this case is necessarily related to inside basis” – a formulation that Mr. Stewart rejected. The result was that the last few minutes of Mr. Stewart’s argument on the jurisdictional point were diverted into explaining that the government was not making certain arguments being suggested by the Court.
When Gregory Garre began his argument for the taxpayers, Justice Kagan zeroed in on the statutory text and asked if the case didn’t just boil down to whether the “related to a partnership item” language in the statute required that the relationship be direct [taxpayers’ view] or could be satisfied if the relationship were indirect [government’s view]. Mr. Garre responded by arguing that the government’s position was more at variance with the statutory text than she had suggested because the statute gives a partnership-level proceeding jurisdiction over “partnership items” and outside basis concededly was not a partnership item. Justice Scalia, and later Justice Kagan, pushed back against that answer by noting that the statute establishes jurisdiction over more than partnership items. Justice Kennedy chimed in to note that penalties are always paid by the partners, not the partnership itself, yet TEFRA contemplates that some penalties are determined at the partnership level.
Mr. Garre then emphasized that this penalty could not be determined at the partnership level because “outside basis isn’t reported anywhere at all on the partnership” return. Justices Scalia and Breyer both blurted out “so what” in response. There followed a long colloquy in which Mr. Garre argued to Justice Breyer that the difference between overstatements of outside basis and inside basis was of jurisdictional significance. Justice Breyer appeared unconvinced, suggesting instead that the partnership itself is a partnership item, and therefore the penalty based on shamming the partnership should also be regarded as a partnership item. Mr. Garre replied that the penalty was for overstating outside basis, which concededly is not a partnership item.
Justice Ginsburg showed great interest in the recently enacted economic substance penalty, asking about it on three different occasions. Although that new penalty is not applicable to the tax years at issue in this case, the taxpayers had argued that its enactment showed that Congress did not agree with the government’s position – namely, that the valuation overstatement penalty already on the books would apply when partnerships are found to lack economic substance. With respect to jurisdiction, Mr. Garre confirmed that the new penalty could be imposed at the partnership level because it is based on shamming the transaction, a partnership-level determination. With respect to the merits, the advocates unsurprisingly responded differently to Justice Ginsburg’s questions. Mr. Stewart stated that, although there was some overlap between the new penalty and the overstatement penalty at issue in this case, the overlap was not total, and it is not anomalous to have some degree of overlap. Therefore, enactment of the new penalty was not inconsistent with the government’s position. Mr. Garre, by contrast, asserted that the new penalty “that Congress passed to cover this situation here solves all the problems,” and thus it would be wrong for the Court “to fit a square peg into a round hole” by applying the valuation overstatement penalty to this situation. Chief Justice Roberts later asked about how the new penalty operates as well.
Mr. Garre then emphasized the “practical consequences” of resolving the penalty issue at the partnership level – specifically, that it would allow the government to impose the penalty without making a prepayment forum available for the taxpayer to contest it. Justice Sotomayor had begun the argument by asking Mr. Stewart about this point, and now she switched sides and asked Mr. Garre why that was inappropriate when it was “obvious” that the partner was going to claim a nonzero basis. Mr. Garre responded that, obvious or not, the court could not create jurisdiction by “assuming a fact necessary to the penalty.”
Justice Scalia had asked Mr. Stewart whether pushing the penalty determination to the partner level would open the door to inconsistent outcomes on the same legal issue. That was a friendly question, and Mr. Stewart happily agreed. When Justice Scalia asked Mr. Garre the same question, it led to a more extended discussion with several Justices. Mr. Garre initially responded that there was no danger of inconsistent outcomes on the merits issue because the Supreme Court’s resolution of that issue would be binding on everyone. Although different outcomes could occur because different partners have different outside basis, that is what Congress intended and is the reason why TEFRA provides for partner-level proceedings. Justice Scalia then asked about the possibility of different results on whether the partnership was a sham, but Mr. Garre pointed out that this determination was properly made at the partnership level and would apply equally to all partners. Chief Justice Roberts, however, questioned whether the asserted need for a partner-level determination of outside basis was mostly theoretical, asking: “does your case hinge on the perhaps unusual situations where you have one of these partners having a fit of conscience and decides to put down the real number or has some other adjustment to it?” Mr. Garre responded “largely, yes,” but added that the statute did not allow these determinations to be made at the partnership level even if they are obvious, and that where individual transactions are shammed (instead of the entire partnership), it will not be obvious that the basis is overstated. Justice Sotomayor remarked that she was confused by the individual transaction point, but she did not press Mr. Garre on the point after he explained it a second time.
The jurisdictional discussions left so little time for the advocates to address the merits that the argument did not shed much light on the Justices’ views on the applicability of the valuation overstatement penalty. During the government’s argument, Justice Ginsburg finally moved the discussion to the merits by asking the question about the new economic substance penalty discussed above. One other question followed from Chief Justice Roberts in which he asked Mr. Stewart to respond to one of the taxpayers’ main arguments – namely, that there is not an overvaluation of an amount here but instead a determination wiping out the entire transaction. Mr. Stewart responded that it was appropriate to apply the valuation overstatement penalty because “the whole point of the avoidance scheme was to create an artificially inflated basis.”
Mr. Garre also moved to the merits issue late in his argument. He began by emphasizing that Congress clearly aimed this penalty at the fundamentally different situation where the taxpayer misstated the amount of the value. Justice Kagan interjected to say that he was describing “the prototypical case,” but that didn’t have to be the only case, and the statute was drafted more broadly. Mr. Garre responded that “context, punctuation, pre-enactment history, post-enactment history and structure” supported the taxpayers’ position, but Justice Kagan rejoined skeptically that “you’re saying they have text, and you have a bunch of other things.” Mr. Garre then expanded on his answer, stating that the reference to “basis” in the statute “comes in a parenthetical, subordinate way” and thus must be related to an overvaluation, not to a situation where “the thing doesn’t exist at all.” He then ended his argument by noting that tax penalties are to be strictly construed in favor of the taxpayer and by inviting the Court to review the amicus brief filed by Prof. David Shakow for examples of other situations that would be mistakenly swept into the valuation overstatement penalty if the government were to prevail.
On rebuttal, Justice Breyer quickly interrupted to ask about his theory that the jurisdictional issue must be resolved in the government’s favor because the existence of the partnership is a “partnership item,” noting his concern that this approach might be too “simple” given that three courts had gone the other way and that he did not “want to say that you are right for the wrong reasons.” Before Mr. Stewart could respond, however, Chief Justice Roberts asked if he could “pose perhaps a less friendly question.” He then asked Mr. Stewart to comment on an analogy drawn by Mr. Garre to a taxpayer who claims a deduction for donating a $1 million painting when in fact he never donated a painting at all. That situation would involve a misstatement, but not a valuation misstatement, and Mr. Garre argued that in both situations the valuation misstatement penalty would be inapplicable. Mr. Stewart, however, sought to distinguish the painting example from this case because the IRS did not determine that the underlying currency transactions did not occur, just that the partnerships were shams. Chief Justice Roberts appeared unpersuaded by this distinction, commenting that calling the partnerships shams was “like saying that there were no partnerships,” so it seemed that the situations were “pretty closely parallel.”
Given the nature of the questioning, it is harder than usual to draw any conclusions from the oral argument, except perhaps that the Court (or at least the Justice who is assigned to write the opinion) is regretting its decision to add the jurisdictional question to the case. Justice Scalia appeared solidly on the side of the government on the jurisdictional question. Justice Breyer appeared to be leaning that way as well, but on a theory not espoused in the briefs that he himself seemed to recognize might not withstand more rigorous analysis. Conversely, Chief Justice Roberts referred several times to the D.C. Circuit’s Petaluma decision, perhaps indicating that he finds its reasoning persuasive. In the end, most of the Justices seem still to be figuring the case out, and we will have to wait to see where they come out.
October 2, 2013
It has been almost two years since the Fifth Circuit heard oral argument in the NPR Investments case, which involves a “son-of-BOSS” tax shelter and associated questions regarding penalties and jurisdiction under TEFRA. See our previous reports on the oral argument and describing the issues. Last week, the court issued an order directing the parties to file short “letter briefs,” answering some specific questions involving TEFRA jurisdiction over penalties. In particular, the court asked the parties to address how NPR compares to the Petaluma (D.C. Cir.) and Jade Trading (Fed. Cir.) cases in which the courts found a lack of jurisdiction in partnership-level proceedings to impose a valuation misstatement penalty where a basis-inflating transaction was found to lack economic substance. As we have reported, the Supreme Court is preparing to hear argument in U.S. v. Woods, which involves the validity of such a penalty and the same jurisdictional issue addressed in Petaluma and Jade Trading.
It is not clear whether the Fifth Circuit panel considering NPR was aware that the Supreme Court is poised to decide these questions in Woods (though Woods is a case that comes from the Fifth Circuit), but it certainly is aware of it now. The government’s response to the court’s order points the court to the government’s brief in Woods and explicitly states that “the issue whether Petaluma and Jade Trading were correctly decided is at the heart of the jurisdictional issue before the Supreme Court in Woods, scheduled for argument on October 9.” Given that a Supreme Court decision will be coming down in the next several months that, at a minimum, will bear closely on the issues in NPR Investments and quite possibly resolve them definitively, it is hard to see why the Fifth Circuit would press ahead to decide the NPR case. Most likely, it will continue to sit on the case until Woods is decided. But that is not certain. The responses to the court’s request for supplemental briefs demonstrated some level of agreement between the government and the taxpayer. If the Fifth Circuit has an opinion almost ready to go, but for a couple of areas of uncertainty that have now been cleared up by the supplemental briefs, it might go ahead and issue its opinion. If it does, however, the ultimate result in the case likely will still remain in play until the Supreme Court speaks in Woods.
August 28, 2013
The government has filed its reply brief in the Supreme Court in Woods. See our reports on the opening briefs here and here. The discussion of the jurisdictional issue focuses less on the textual analysis set forth in the government’s opening brief and more on the policy implications of adopting the taxpayers’ position. The government asserts that the taxpayers’ reading of the statute would effectively “negate Congress’s grant of authority to courts in partnership-level proceedings to determine the applicability of penalties.”
On the merits, the reply brief devotes most of its attention to responding to the taxpayers’ threshold argument that the penalty is inapplicable because there was no valuation misstatement to begin with, which was not the rationale of the court of appeals’ opinion. The government relies heavily on the statutory reference to “adjusted basis,” noting that it is stated in the disjunctive and therefore should be read to apply to basis overstatements that have nothing to do with “fact-based” valuation misstatements. The merits discussion also adverts to policy, stating that there is nothing “objectionable about the fact that basis overstatements arising from sham transactions will nearly always trigger the 40% penalty for gross misstatements.” That is because “the most egregious misconduct–engaging in phony transactions to create an artificial basis–warrants the most severe sanction.”
We also link to an amicus brief inadvertently omitted from our previous report. This brief, filed by Penn Law School Professor David Shakow because the issue is one “in which he has a special interest and about which he has been engaged for some time in writing,” supports the taxpayers’ primary argument on the merits. The brief analyzes the statutory language in context, and examines the history of the statute — both the legislative history and its application before tax shelters became rampant — and concludes that the valuation misstatement penalty should not apply in the absence of an actual valuation misstatement. According to Professor Shakow, the IRS, with the acquiescence of many courts, is improperly “using the valuation misstatement penalty as a surrogate for a ‘tax shelter’ penalty that Congress has not authorized.”
Oral argument is scheduled for October 9.
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.
June 5, 2013
The government has filed its opening brief in the Supreme Court in the Woods case, which involves whether the 40% gross valuation overstatement penalty applies in the context of a basis-inflating transaction held not to have economic substance. See our earlier report here.
The government’s arguments on the question whether the penalty can be applied in these circumstances are similar to those discussed here previously and addressed in several court of appeals decisions. It relies on the “plain text” of the statute, arguing that “[t]he word ‘attributable’ means ‘capable of being attributed’” and therefore a finding of lack of economic substance does not defeat the conclusion that the tax underpayment is “attributable” to a basis overstatement. And the brief responds at length to the Fifth Circuit’s reliance on the “Blue Book” to justify a narrower interpretation of the statute. The government characterizes the court’s approach as reflecting “a misinterpretation of the relevant passage” in the Blue Book and goes on to say that, “[i]n any event, the Blue Book, a post-enactment legislative report, could not trump the plain text of Section 6662.” Finally, the government asserts that a contrary rule “would frustrate the penalty’s purpose of deterring large basis overstatements.”
The brief also addresses a question not presented in the petition for certiorari, but instead added to the case by the Supreme Court – namely, whether the district court had jurisdiction under Code section 6226 to decide the penalty issue. This issue concerns the two-level structure established by TEFRA for judicial proceedings involving partnerships. Partnerships are not taxable entities themselves; tax attributes from the partnership flow through to the tax returns of the individual partners. Accordingly, before 1982, tax issues raised by a partnership tax return could be resolved only through litigation with individual partners, leading to duplicative proceedings and often inconsistent results. The TEFRA scheme calls for proceedings at the partnership level to address “the treatment of any partnership item,” which would be issues common to all the individual partners. Adjustments that result from those proceedings flow down to the individual partners, and the IRS can make assessments on the individual partners based on those partnership-level determinations without having to issue a notice of deficiency or otherwise initiate a new proceeding. Issues that depend on the particular circumstances of individual partners, however, are determined in separate partner-level proceedings.
In this case, the penalty determination was made at the partnership level. That seems logical in one sense because the conclusion that the transaction lacked economic substance – and therefore did not have the effect on basis claimed by the taxpayer – was a partnership-level determination that would not depend on an individual partner’s circumstances. The Tax Court agrees with that approach, but the D.C. Circuit and the Federal Circuit have stated that such determinations do not involve “partnership items” within the meaning of TEFRA and hence a penalty determination like the one in this case should be made at the individual partner level. See Jade Trading, LLC v. United States, 598 F.3d 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2010); Petaluma FX Partners, LLC v. Commissioner, 591 F.2d 649 (D.C. Cir. 2010). The reason is that the basis at issue here is an “outside basis,” that is, the partner’s basis in his or her partnership interest. A partner’s outside basis is not a tax attribute of the partnership entity (unlike, for example, the basis of an asset held by the partnership). These courts did not dispute the assertion that outside basis is an “affected item” (that is, an item affected by a partnership item) and that the conclusion underlying the penalties obviously follows from the partnership item determination; it is obvious that there is zero outside basis in a partnership that must be disregarded on economic substance grounds. But these courts ruled that obviousness is not a good enough reason to get around the jurisdictional limitations of the statutory text; “affected items” must be determined in a partner-level proceeding.
In its brief in Woods, the government argues that the statutory text allows the penalty determination to be made at the partnership level because the text affords jurisdiction over a penalty that “relates to an adjustment to a partnership item.” I.R.C. § 6226(f) (emphasis added). According to the government, “[w]hen a partnership item is adjusted in a way that requires an adjustment to an affected item and triggers a penalty, the penalty ‘relates to’ the adjustment to the partnership item.” The statute thus should be understood as providing that “the court [considering the partnership-level issues] should decide whether an error with respect to a partnership item, if reflected in a partner’s own return, could trigger the penalty.” The government’s brief then argues forcefully that its interpretation “best effectuates the objectives” of TEFRA because requiring this kind of penalty determination – involving “a pure question of law whose resolution does not depend on factors specific to any individual partner” – to be made at the partner level “would restore the inefficient scheme that Congress intended to do away with.”
The taxpayer’s brief is due July 22.
March 25, 2013
The Court this morning granted the government’s petition for certiorari in United States v. Woods, No. 12-562. As we recently reported, the issue presented in the petition concerns the applicability of the valuation overstatement penalty — specifically, whether tax underpayments are “attributable to” overstatements of basis when the inflated basis claim has been disallowed based on a finding that the underlying transactions lacked economic substance.
The Court also added a second question for the parties to brief — “Whether the district court had jurisdiction in this case under 26 U.S.C. section 6226 to consider the substantial valuation misstatement penalty.” This issue involves the general question under TEFRA of which issues are to be resolved in a partner-level proceeding and which should be resolved at the partnership level. See Petaluma FX Partners, LLC v. Commissioner, 591 F.3d 649, 655-56 (D.C. Cir. 2010).
The government’s opening brief is due May 9. Oral argument will likely be scheduled for late 2013, with a decision expected by June 2014.
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.
October 23, 2012
The Third Circuit yesterday denied the taxpayer’s petition for rehearing en banc in Historic Boardwalk in what seems like record time (the petition was filed on October 10). The taxpayer’s last hope is to seek Supreme Court review, though the case does not look like one that could pique the Court’s interest. A petition for certiorari would be due on January 22.
October 11, 2012
The taxpayer has filed a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc in Historic Boardwalk, asking the Third Circuit to reconsider its decision denying the taxpayer’s claim for historic rehabilitation credits. Among other points, the petition criticizes the panel’s decision for analogizing this case to the Second Circuit’s Castle Harbour decision, TIFD III-E, Inc. v. United States, 459 F.3d 220 (2d Cir. 2006), which found that the partner there had no downside risk that it would not recover its capital contribution. The taxpayer argues that there was a risk here that the partner would not recover its capital contribution from the partnership, and the court erred in finding that there was no risk by taking the tax credits into account. Specifically, the petition argues, “the Opinion wrongfully treats the allocation of the historic rehabilitation tax credits to [the investor] by operation of law (i.e., under the Code) as a repayment of capital to” the investor by the partnership.
There is no due date for a response by the government. Under Rules 35 and 40 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, a party is prohibited from responding to a petition for rehearing unless it is directed to do so by the court.
August 30, 2012
[Note: Miller & Chevalier filed a brief in this case on behalf of National Trust for Historic Preservation]
In a detailed 85-page opinion, the Third Circuit has reversed the Tax Court’s opinion that upheld 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. See our earlier report here. The government had argued both that the transaction lacked economic substance and that the private partner, Pitney Bowes, was not a bona fide partner in the enterprise. The Third Circuit agreed with the government’s second argument and therefore found it unnecessary to decide whether there was economic substance. Given that approach, the court stated that it would “not opine on the parties’ dispute” on whether the Ninth Circuit was correct in Sacks v. Commissioner, 69 F.3d 982 (9th Cir. 1995), in stating that the policy of providing a rehabilitation credit as a tax incentive is relevant “in evaluating whether a transaction has economic substance.” Slip op. 54 n.50. The court did make some general observations on economic substance, however, noting its agreement with amicus that the government’s position had inappropriately blurred the line between economic substance and the substance-over-form doctrine, which are “distinct” doctrines. Slip op. 52 n.50. Citing Southgate Master Fund, L.L.C. v. United States, 659 F.3d 466, 484 (5th Cir. 2011), the court added that “even if a transaction has economic substance, the tax treatment of those engaged in the transaction is still subject to a substance-over-form inquiry to determine whether a party was a bona fide partner in the business engaged in the transaction.” Slip op. 53 n.50.
Turning to the issue that it found dispositive, the court concluded that Pitney Bowes was not a bona fide partner because it “lacked a meaningful stake in either the success or failure of [the partnership].” Slip op. 85. In reaching that conclusion, the court relied heavily on two recent court of appeals’ decisions, the Second Circuit’s analysis of bona fide equity partnership participation in TIFD III-E, Inc. v. United States, 459 F.3d 220 (2d Cir. 2006) (“Castle Harbour”) and the Fourth Circuit’s analysis of “disguised sales” in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Commissioner, 639 F.3d 129 (4th Cir. 2011). Although the taxpayer had objected that the latter case was irrelevant because no disguised sale issue was present, the court agreed with the government’s argument in its reply brief that “the disguised-sale analysis in that case ‘touches on the same risk-reward analysis that lies at the heart of the bona fide-partner determination.’” Slip op. 67 n.54 (quoting U.S. Reply Br. 9). See our previous report here. The court elaborated on this point as follows: “Although we are not suggesting that a disguised-sale determination and a bona fide-partner inquiry are interchangeable, the analysis pertinent to each look to whether the putative partner is subject to meaningful risks of partnership operations before that partner receives the benefits which may flow from that enterprise.” Id. at 69 n.54.
The taxpayer had relied heavily on the Tax Court’s findings regarding the essentially factbound question of bona fide partnership, but the Third Circuit found that the deferential standard of review of factual findings was not an obstacle to reversal. The court first stated that “the record belies” the Tax Court’s conclusion that Pitney Bowes faced a risk that the rehabilitation would not be completed. Id. at 73. To deal with the standard of review, the court of appeals drew a hair-splitting distinction between the factual issue of “the existence of a risk” and what the court believed to be a “purely . . . legal question of how the parties agreed to divide that risk,” which “depends on the . . . documents and hence is a question of law.” Id. at 73 n.57. The court of appeals directly rejected other Tax Court findings regarding risk as “clearly erroneous.” Id. at 76.
The court did not dwell on the policy implications of its decision. It stated that it was “mindful of Congress’s goal of encouraging rehabilitation of historic buildings” and had not ignored the concerns expressed by the amici that a ruling for the government could “jeopardize the viability of future historic rehabilitation projects.” Id. at 84. But the court brushed aside those concerns, taking comfort in the response of the government’s reply brief that “[i]t is the prohibited sale of tax credits, not the tax credit provision itself, that the IRS has challenged.” Id. at 85. Be that as it may, decisions like this are likely to diminish the practical effectiveness of the credit as an incentive and thus to frustrate to some extent Congress’s desire to encourage historic rehabilitation projects.
A petition for rehearing would be due on October 11.
May 29, 2012
Long-time readers of the blog may recall our coverage of the Federal Circuit’s stumbles through TEFRA in the Bush litigation, where a panel issued a surprising decision finding that a notice of deficiency was required to make what was previously understood as a mere TEFRA computational adjustment, but that the IRS’s failure to issue the notice was harmless error. Both sides cried foul, and the en banc court overturned the panel’s decision. The Supreme Court this morning today denied the taxpayers’ petition for certiorari, meaning that the case has reached the end of the line, which turns out to be pretty much where the Court of Federal Claims put the case in the first place.
March 1, 2012
On December 7th, oral argument was held in the Fifth Circuit in the NPR case before Judges Dennis, Clement, and Owen. You can find a detailed explanation of the issues here but in summary the questions involve whether, in the context of a Son of BOSS case: the gross valuation penalty applies when the basis producing transaction is not invalidated solely due to a bad valuation; whether other penalties apply; how the TEFRA jurisdictional rules function as to those penalties; and whether an FPAA issued after a non-TEFRA partnership no-change letter falls afoul of the no-second-FPAA rule.
Although both parties appealed, as the initial appellant DOJ began the argument. DOJ counsel argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Nat’l Cable & Telecomm. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 982 (2005), allowed Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-5(d) to override the Fifth Circuit’s position in Heasley v. Commissioner, 902 F.2d 380 (5th Cir. 1990), that a valuation misstatement cannot apply where there are grounds for invalidating the transaction other than an incorrect valuation — such as where the transaction is totally disallowed under economic substance or on technical grounds. In this regard, DOJ requested that the court submit the matter for en banc review to address this issue and to consider the impact of Weiner v. United States, 389 F.3d 152 (5th Cir. 2004), which counsel characterized (as DOJ had in the brief) as calling the “total disallowance” rule into question.
As to the substantive application of penalties, DOJ argued that the complete concession by the taxpayer of the substance of the transaction compelled the conclusion that the position lacked substantial authority. Furthermore, counsel argued that there was no substantial authority at the time the transaction was reported on the taxpayer’s return. In this regard, DOJ posited that although Helmer v. Commissioner, 34 T.C.M. (CCH) 727 (1975), had held that a contingent liability was not a liability for purposes of section 752, it did not address the questions of buying and selling offsetting options and of contributing them to a partnership only to arrange for a distribution and sale. As to these points, the only authority on point was Notice 2000-44, which stood for the proposition that the transaction did not work. This appears to be a repackaged version of the argument that there can never be substantial authority for transactions lacking economic substance.
Argument transitioned to the question of whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider a penalty defense put on by the partners and not by the partnership in this partnership action. For a prior discussion of this confusing question see our analysis here. Citing Klamath Strategic Inv. Fund, LLC v. United States, 568 F.3d 537 (5th Cir. 2009), DOJ counsel argued that the Fifth Circuit had already decided that an individual reasonable cause argument (such as one based on a legal opinion issued to the partner) cannot be raised in a TEFRA proceeding. The court seemed to recognize the impact of Klamath on this point. DOJ counsel then attempted to box the partnership in (as it had in the brief) on the question of whether the defense was raised by the partner or the partnership (several statements in the district court’s opinion seem to view the defense as a partner-level defense).
Moving on to the question of the merits of the reasonable cause position, DOJ argued that the district court erred in considering reliance on the tax opinion (which was written by R.J. Ruble) to be reasonable. Initially, counsel questioned whether the partners’ testimony that they did not believe Ruble had a conflict was reasonable in light of the partners’ knowledge of fee sharing and of the fact that Ruble had written opinions for other shelters for the same promoter. The court seemed to be honed in on this question. In closing, DOJ attempted to poison the well of partner good faith by reminding the Court that the partners in this case were repeat tax-shelter offenders and had attempted to hide the Son-of-BOSS losses as negative gross revenue from their law firm business.
Perhaps indicating a weakness on the penalty issues raised by DOJ, taxpayer’s counsel spent most of his time on the question of whether the second FPAA was invalid. The Court focused counsel on the fact that an error on the tax return (the Form 1065 did not check the TEFRA box although it did check the flow-through partner box (which would indicate a TEFRA partnership)) led the agent originally to pursue the case as non-TEFRA. Undeterred, counsel argued that this error was not material and that the agent had indicated in a deposition that he eventually learned that the partnership was TEFRA. Testimony was also offered in the district court that the reporting was an innocent mistake and not negligent or deceptive. The Court spent significant time questioning why the agent did not testify at trial (which appears to have been due to a mix-up on the part of DOJ). In summarizing his position, taxpayer’s counsel tried to focus the court on the language of the partnership no-change letter but to us it appears that the real question has to be whether the agent intended this to be a TEFRA audit. An FPAA simply cannot come out of a non-TEFRA audit. Based on the agent’s deposition transcript it seems clear that he did not believe he was involved in a TEFRA audit when he opened the audit and thus it is impossible that the initial notice was an FPAA.
Rebutting DOJ’s reasonable cause position, taxpayer’s counsel focused on the trial testimony and factual determinations by the district court that the taxpayers were acting reasonably and in good faith. On the question of jurisdiction, the taxpayer reverted to the tried and true (but not very strong) argument that requiring a later refund suit to address the reasonable cause question would be a waste of judicial resources and, in essence, a meaningless step. A cynic might say that the purpose of TEFRA is to waste judicial resources and create meaningless steps.
In rebuttal, DOJ counsel focused on the no-second-FPAA question and did a good job from our perspective. He noted that you have to have a TEFRA proceeding to have a TEFRA notice. Undermining the district court’s determination that the finality of the notice is relevant, counsel noted that all non-TEFRA notices are “final” but that doesn’t mean they are FPAAs. TEFRA is a parallel audit procedure and it is simply not enough that the IRS intended a final determination in a non-TEFRA partnership audit. The question is whether the IRS intended to issue a final notice in a TEFRA proceeding; since there was no “first” TEFRA proceeding, there was no “first” FPAA. We think this argument is right on target.
With limited questions coming from the Court it is difficult to see where this is headed. Our best guess is that the partnership will prevail on the reasonable cause position (it is difficult for an appellate court to overturn credibility determinations of witnesses) but lose on everything else including the no-second-FPAA issue.
February 2, 2012
[Note: Miller and Chevalier represents amicus National Trust for Historic Preservation in this case]
The government has filed its reply brief in the Historic Boardwalk case in the Third Circuit. (See our prior report and the other briefs here.) The brief mostly goes over the same ground as the opening brief in seeking to deny section 47 historic rehabilitation credits to the private investor partner in the partnership that rehabilitated East Hall on the Atlantic City boardwalk. It attempts to side-step the Ninth Circuit’s economic substance analysis in Sacks by arguing that the Third Circuit did not explicitly endorse Sacks when it distinguished that case in other decisions. The brief urges the court instead to follow the Fourth Circuit’s Virginia Historic decision (see our coverage here), even though that case involved the disguised sale provisions, arguing that the case “touches on the same risk-reward analysis that lies at the heart of the bona-fide partner determination.” The government also argues that Congress’s intent in passing section 47 would not be thwarted because the private investor allegedly “made no investment in the Hall.”
Indeed, the reply brief includes a special “postscript” “in response to the amicus brief” filed for the National Trust for Historic Preservation that seeks to deflect the charge that the government’s position would undermine Congress’s purpose to facilitate historic rehabilitation. Not so, says the government. It is only “the prohibited sale of federal tax credits — not the rehabilitation tax credit provision itself — that is under attack here.”
Oral argument in the case has been tentatively scheduled for April 20.
January 12, 2012
[Note: Miller and Chevalier represents amicus National Trust for Historic Preservation in this case]
We present here a guest post by our colleague David Blair who has considerable experience in this area and authored the amicus brief in this case on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The government has appealed to the Third Circuit its loss before the Tax Court in Historic Boardwalk Hall, LLC v. Comm’r, which involves a public/private partnership that earned historic rehabilitation tax credits under Code section 47. The partnership rehabilitated East Hall, which is located on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. East Hall was completed in 1929, hosted the Miss America Pageant for many years, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The IRS sought to prevent the private partner, Pitney Bowes, from claiming the historic rehabilitation tax credits, but the Tax Court upheld the taxpayer’s position after a four-day trial.
In its opening brief, the government advances the same three arguments in support of its disallowance that it made in the Tax Court. First, it asserts that Pitney Bowes was not in substance a partner because it did not have a meaningful stake in the partnership under the Culbertson-Tower line of cases. Second, it argues that the partnership was a sham for tax purposes under sham partnership and economic substance cases. Third, it argues that the partnership did not own the historic building for tax purposes and thus was not eligible for the section 47 credits for rehabilitating the building. In making the first two arguments, the government relies heavily on its recent victory in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Comm’r, where the Fourth Circuit overturned the Tax Court and found a disguised sale of state tax credits. (See our previous reports on that case here.) Similarly, the government’s brief places heavy reliance on its first-round victory before the Second Circuit in TIFD III-E, Inc. v. Comm’r (Castle Harbor), which is now back up on appeal. (See our previous reports on that case here.) In support of its sham partnership theory, the government cites provisions in the partnership agreement that protect investors from unnecessary risks, including environmental risks. On the third argument, the government asserts that the partnership never owned the building for tax purposes because the benefits and burdens of ownership never transferred.
Having won at trial, the taxpayer’s brief emphasizes the Tax Court’s factual findings in its favor. It also emphasizes the historic character of the building and the Congressional policy of using the tax laws to encourage private investment to preserve this type of historic structure. The taxpayer argues that the partnership was bona fide because the partners joined together with a business purpose of rehabilitating East Hall and earning profits going forward. The taxpayer also argues that the partnership has economic substance. In this regard, the taxpayer argues that the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Sacks v. Comm’r, 69 F.3d 982 (9th Cir. 1995), requires a modification of the normal economic substance analysis where Congress has offered tax credits to change taxpayers’ incentives. The taxpayer also argues that the partnership owned East Hall for tax purposes and therefore was eligible for the section 47 credits.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation filed an amicus brief in support of the taxpayer. That brief sets out the longstanding Congressional policy of offering the section 47 credit to encourage taxpayers to invest in historic rehabilitation projects that would not otherwise make economic sense. It further explains that historic rehabilitation projects typically involve partnerships between developers and investors that are motivated in part by the availability of the credit. It also is typical for these partnership agreements to protect the investors from unnecessarily taking on business risks. The amicus brief argues that, in applying the economic substance doctrine, courts should not override the narrowly focused Congressional policy of encouraging rehabilitation projects through the section 47 credit. Thus, courts should not simply review the non-tax business purpose and pre-tax profitability of investments in historic rehabilitation projects, but should acknowledge that the taxpayer can properly take into account the credits that Congress provides for historic rehabilitation projects. To do otherwise, as the Ninth Circuit observed in Sacks, “takes away with the executive hand what [the government] gives with the legislative.” The amicus argues that, at any rate, the transaction met the economic substance doctrine under Third Circuit precedent and that the partnership and Pitney Bowes interests were bona fide. It also points out that the Virginia Historic case is inapplicable because it involved a disguised sale, which the government has not alleged in this case. Similarly, the Castle Harbor case is distinguished on its facts due to the differences in the partnership agreements in the two cases.
The Real Estate Roundtable also filed an amicus brief, which highlights to the court that the recent codification of the economic substance doctrine in Code section 7701(o) places significant pressure on the distinction between, on the one hand, the economic substance doctrine, and on the other hand, substance-over-form and other “soft doctrine” attacks on transactions. This is due to the strict liability penalty that can apply to transactions that violate the economic substance doctrine. As the IRS has recognized in recent guidance under section 7701(o), it is necessary for the IRS and courts to carefully distinguish between cases where the economic substance doctrine is “relevant” and those where other judicial doctrines apply. The Real Estate Round Table then argues that the transaction at issue had economic substance.
The government’s reply brief is due January 31.
December 13, 2011
In our earlier discussion of the disguised sale cases, we noted that the federal district court in New Jersey had issued an unpublished opinion in the GI Holdings case that applied the disguised sale rule of 26 U.S.C. § 707(a)(2)(B) to undo a transaction. We noted that there was not yet an appealable order in that case, but at some point an appeal to the Third Circuit was possible. It now appears that the case has been settled and will be formally dismissed in the coming weeks. Thus, there will be no appeal to the Third Circuit, and the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in Virginia Historic (see our report here) remains as the sole appellate ruling on disguised sales.
November 7, 2011
The NPR case (involving penalty application and TEFRA issues in the context of a Son of BOSS transaction: see latest substantive discussion here) has been calendared for argument in New Orleans on December 7th in the East Courtroom.
August 24, 2011
The Federal Circuit’s en banc opinion is out. It affirms the Court of Federal Claims on the reasoning set out in our prior posts and rejects the harmless error analysis of the prior panel opinion. We are pleased to see the Federal Circuit safely emerge (albeit clutching map and compass) from the TEFRA forest.
August 18, 2011
As we mentioned in our last post, the only brief remaining to be filed in NPR was the taxpayer’s reply brief. That brief has now been filed and with it a DOJ motion to strike part of that reply as an inappropriate sur-reply. The motion concerns a section in the reply in which the taxpayer takes on DOJ for arguing (in its previously filed reply brief ) that the only relevant factor in determining the incidence of the valuation misstatement penalty (between partnership and partner) is whether there are partnership items involved and not where the specific misstatement results in a loss.
The taxpayer’s view is that DOJ is trying to have its cake and eat it too – arguing that the penalty applies at the partnership level because it is related to partnership items but refusing to allow section 6664 arguments to be heard on the grounds that those are specific to the partner. DOJ’s position is that it would be barred from raising the penalty outside of the context of a partnership proceeding because the penalty relates to a partnership item (or items) and that it is not inconsistent to require section 6664 intent to be evaluated at the partner level (and, in any event, it is required by the regulations). All of this, as we have extensively discussed, is intertwined in the silliness of trying to separate partner and partnership intent between TEFRA levels something the regulations perhaps should not have done but clearly do. It will be interesting to see how the Fifth Circuit handles the case.
August 12, 2011
It has been a while since we published an update on NPR (please no comments on Supreme Court Justices, schoolchildren, and bloggers taking summers off). Since our last post discussing the government’s opening brief, the taxpayer filed its brief responding to the government and opening the briefing on their cross-appeal. The government also filed its response/reply. All that remains now is the taxpayer’s reply brief on its cross-appeal, currently due on August 15. There are a slew of technical TEFRA issues that are raised by the parties. The taxpayer is appealing the district court’s rulings regarding whether a no change letter can ever be an FPAA and, if it can be, whether an erroneously checked box on the tax return (claiming that the partnership was not a TEFRA partnership) can constitute a misrepresentation of a material fact such that the no-second-FPAA rule of section 6223(f) is inapplicable. As we discussed last post, the parties are jointly briefing — in the government’s appeal — the application of the Heasley/Weiner line of cases to the taxpayer’s concession strategically made to circumvent the gross valuation misstatement penalty. Mayo is implicated by the application of Treasury Regulation section 1.6662-5(d) (DOJ relies on Brand X to argue that the regulation controls over the contrary rule previously announced in Heasley).
However, as we discussed in prior posts, the main issue here is good faith reliance on counsel — R.J. Ruble — by the taxpayer for purposes of the section 6664 reasonable cause defense and when, procedurally, that defense can be raised. The government continues to hew to the line that reliance is inappropriate (because of a technical conflict and because reliance was just not reasonable under the circumstances). DOJ also argues that the defense can be raised only in a partner-level proceeding pursuant to then Temporary Treasury Regulation section 301.6221-1T(d) (the judges may want to get a cholesterol test with all of this Mayo being spread around). For its part, the taxpayer argues that the district court already determined — after seeing the witness testimony — that the reliance was in good faith. Furthermore, since one of the partners is the TMP, the reasonable cause defense is being raised by the partnership as much as by the partners. Setting aside whether you believe the testimony (which the district court judge did), if we could decide cases based on the fact that section 301.6221-1T(d) of the TEFRA penalty regulations is stupid, this would be easy. As we have said before, separating partner and partnership intent in a transaction involving a partnership that was purposefully created by the partners to implement that very same transaction is like trying to dance on a headless pin. With deference under Mayo, however, “stupid is as stupid does” is not the test for striking down regulations. We will just have to wait and see how much patience the Fifth Circuit has for this Forrest Gump of a regulation.
June 22, 2011
The D.C. Circuit yesterday reversed the Tax Court in Intermountain, handing the government more ammunition to use if, as appears increasingly likely, the Supreme Court considers the question of the applicability to overstatements of basis of the six-year statute of limitations found in Code sections 6229(c)(2) and 6501(e)(1)(A). This now makes the score 4-2 for the government and represents the third straight court of appeals to adopt the government’s primary argument that courts owe Chevron deference to the relatively recent Treasury regulations interpreting the six-year statutes to apply to overstatements of basis.
The D.C. Circuit’s opinion is comprehensive, tracing the same ground as the Federal Circuit’s Grapevine decision, but also supplementing that court’s analysis. In particular, the D.C. Circuit explores in detail the background of Colony and the legislative history of the 1954 Code in order to justify the conclusion that section 6501 does not unambiguously provide that overstatements of basis do not trigger the six-year statute — even though the same statutory term “omission from gross income” in the 1939 Code was construed in Colony not to include overstatements of basis. Having reached that conclusion, the D.C. Circuit found that the Chevron step two analysis was “easy,” and there was no justification for suggesting that the Treasury regulation was an unreasonable interpretation of the statute.
One item of interest is the court’s refusal to address a couple of arguments made by Intermountain’s counsel because they were not raised in a timely fashion. The court’s analysis distinguishing current law from the 1939 Code provision addressed in Colony relies heavily on the 1954 addition of section 6501(e)(1)(A)(i), which specifically addresses “gross income” in the case of a trade or business. Intermountain contended at oral argument that this analysis ought to be irrelevant in a case that involved only section 6229, not section 6501. The court, however, refused to consider that argument, stating that Intermountain had never before argued “that the two sections have different meanings outside the trade or business context.” The court also refused to consider, as raised too late, Intermountain’s reliance on positions taken by the Commissioner on the meaning of Colony before the son-of-BOSS cases arose. One might see these arguments raised and addressed in the Supreme Court down the road.
The Intermountain opinion also governs the companion UTAM case that was argued in tandem. The D.C. Circuit did issue a separate opinion in UTAM addressing an issue unique to that case — whether a final partnership administrative adjustment (FPAA) tolls an individual partner’s limitations period under section 6501 in the same way section 6229(d) tolls the section 6229(a) “minimum period.” The court ruled for the government on that issue as well, and we plan to address that opinion in another post.
Intermountain is likely the last that will be heard from the courts of appeals on the six-year statute issue before it moves to the Supreme Court. (The Federal Circuit, as expected, denied rehearing in Grapevine on June 6. Reynolds Properties v. Commissioner, No. 10-72406, has been fully briefed in the Ninth Circuit, but oral argument is not yet scheduled.) The government’s recent successes in the courts of appeals give it a lot of momentum heading to the Court. Of course, it is often said that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, and in the end the Supreme Court will make up its own mind without regard to the score in the courts of appeals. The government’s anticipated petition for certiorari in Home Concrete is due July 5.
May 13, 2011
The en banc Federal Circuit heard oral argument in the Bush TEFRA case on Wednesday the 10th of May. For those still interested after reading this, you can listen to the argument here. As we indicated in our prior analysis, we think the resolution of this case is simple. Unfortunately, although the parties and the court almost escaped the weeds several times, with one of the judges asking a question very close to the mark, it was a dissatisfying oral argument (from our perspective). The point that needed to be made is that an agreement to “no change” a partnership item is “treatment” of a partnership item in and of itself — you have just treated it the same as it was originally treated. Thus, a change in tax liability that “reflects” a partnership no change is a computational adjustment.
To put some more meat on that, section 6221 illustrates the purpose of TEFRA to require “the tax treatment of any partnership item [to be] determined at the partnership level.” Section 6230(a) coordinates the Code’s deficiency proceedings with TEFRA and mandates that, aside from converted items, notices of deficiency are required only for “affected items which require partner level determinations.” Claims arising out of erroneous “computational adjustments” can be litigated but the underlying treatment of partnership items resolved in a TEFRA proceeding cannot be re-litigated. Section 6230(c). Section 6231(a)(6) defines a “computational adjustment” as a “change in the tax liability of a partner which properly reflects the treatment … of a partnership item.”
Where you have a change in tax liability of a partner that “reflects” the “treatment” (not the “change” in treatment, just the treatment) of a partnership item and no partner-level determinations are necessary, then no notice of deficiency is required. In Bush, the partners settled the “treatment” of the partnership items as a no change and agreed to all of the necessary partner level determinations so there was no need for a partner-level determination to determine tax consequences. Accordingly, no notice of deficiency was necessary. Contrary to the taxpayers’ position at oral argument (and in the briefs), the fact that there could be other (non-partnership) items contested in a notice of deficiency is irrelevant. Likewise, it is irrelevant that the partnership items or treatment of those items never changed. You don’t need a change in a partnership item or a change in the treatment of that item to have a computational adjustment. Instead, you need a change in tax liability that reflects the treatment of partnership items. Any TEFRA-based adjustment does that even if the partnership items stay as they are on the original return because their treatment is reflected in that tax liability. That is the whole point of TEFRA: partnership item treatment is relegated to TEFRA proceedings and everything flows out of that treatment. So a change in tax liability driven by a change in allowed partnership losses based on a change in a partner’s at-risk amount reflects the treatment of a partnership item (the losses, which are no-changed, which is a form of “treatment”) and thus is a computational adjustment.
Although the court asked several questions on the period of limitations and assessment issues and asked other questions to determine the scope of the problem, the rest of the taxpayers’ arguments are a sideshow. It is always tough to tell how a case will be decided based on the arguments, but, even though it was less than satisfying, the court’s questioning indicates to us that the government will prevail and the court will find its way out of this part of the TEFRA forest.
April 27, 2011
The Government has filed its brief in its Fifth Circuit appeal from the denial of penalties in the NPR Investments case (for prior discussion go here). There are no surprises. The Government takes the position that the district court’s reliance on Heasley v. Commissioner, 902 F.2d 380 (5th Cir. 1990) (likely abrogated by Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-5(g) and certainly weakened on these facts by Weiner v. United States, 389 F.3d 152 (5th Cir. 2004)) is misplaced. Thus, the government argues that the mere fact that the taxpayer’s entire transaction (and not just a valuation or basis item) was concededly devoid of substance is not a bar to valuation misstatement penalties. The Government also takes issue with the alleged consideration by the district court of the partners’ (as opposed to the partnership’s) reasonable cause defenses in this TEFRA proceeding contrary to Temp. Treas. Reg. § 301.6662-1T(c)-(d). At a big picture level, the Government is still none-too-pleased with the district court’s open reliance on an R.J. Ruble opinion as contributing to such defenses, an act of reliance that it argues is contrary to case law prohibiting a taxpayer from relying on conflicted advisers for reasonable cause and also contrary to, among other things, the restriction on relying on a legal opinion that is based on representations the taxpayer knows are untrue. Treas. Reg. Sec. 1.6662-4(c)(1)(i).
This case has the potential to be another Mayo/Brand X battle-royale (what tax case doesn’t these days?) given that there are at least three regulations explicitly relied on by the Government some of which post-date contrary court opinions. But at bottom the case is just about a district court judge who looked into the eyes of the taxpayers and found not malice but, rather, an objectively good faith belief in the adviser who was hired to bring them safely past the landmines and snipers that fill the no-man’s land also known as the tax code. Although they didn’t make it across (the taxpayers abandoned defense of the claimed tax benefits and R.J. – metaphorically shot – is serving time), the district court apparently couldn’t fault them for trying. The government’s view is much harsher. In essence, it thinks that in trying to find a way to make it to the tax-free promised land, the taxpayers should have tried a little harder to explore the obstacles in their way before taking their guide’s word for it. At least their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
The taxpayer’s brief is due May 17th. We will keep you posted.
March 31, 2011
On March 29, 2011, the Fourth Circuit rendered its opinion in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Comm’r, No. 10-1333 (opinion linked below). As described in our previous coverage, the case involved an IRS challenge to the taxpayer’s treatment of partnerships used as marketing vehicles for state tax credits derived from historic rehabilitation projects. Agreeing with the government’s disguised sale theory, the court reversed the Tax Court and ruled that the transactions at issue were taxable sales of state tax credits, as opposed to non-taxable capital contributions followed by partnership distributions.
After quickly dispensing with the taxpayer’s argument that the tax credits received by investors were not “property” under the statute, and skipping over the question of whether the funds’ investors were bona fide partners for federal tax purposes, the court took a decidedly statutory approach to resolving the case by focusing on the disguised sale regime under I.R.C. § 707(b). In applying the statute, the court largely relied on the guidance in Treas. Reg. § 1.707-3, which sets forth a presumption that reciprocal transfers between a partner and a partnership within a two-year period constitute a disguised sale unless facts and circumstances clearly establish otherwise. The regulation also lists ten factors to consider in determining whether the second transfer in a non-simultaneous pair of transfers is “dependent on the entrepreneurial risks of partnership operations.”
In addition to finding that the transfers-within-two-years presumption required the taxpayer to “clearly establish” that the transfers did not constitute a sale, the court focused on five of the Treas. Reg. § 1.707-3 factors. First, the court found the timing and amount of the second transfer (the allocation of tax credits to the investors) were determinable with reasonable certainty at the time of the first transfer (the alleged contributions to capital made by the investors), and each investor knew with specificity the size of the credits that he or she could expect. Second, the investors had legally enforceable rights to the credits per their subscription agreements; they had been promised state credits in exchange for their capital contributions. Third, the investors’ rights to the credits were secured through a promise of refunds if sufficient state credits were not delivered to the investors. Fourth, the transfers of credits to the investors were disproportionately large compared to the negligible (0.01 percent) interest that most investors held in the partnerships. Significantly, in this regard the court found that “the transfer of tax credits to each investor by the partnership had no correlation to each investor’s interest in partnership profits whatsoever.” Finally, the investors had no further obligations or relationship with the partnership after they received their credits. In light of the presumption, the court opined that these factors “strongly counsel for a finding that these transactions were sales.”
Further girding its rationale, the court noted that the taxpayer did not follow the form of the subscription agreements, assigning each investor a 0.01 percent interest regardless of their capital contributions. The Fourth Circuit further noted that the partnership status of the investors was transitory in nature, which echoed a concern expressed in the legislative history to section 707(b). Also, the court noted that the Tax Court did not analyze the factors in Treas. Reg. § 1.707-3 but rather relied on its own analysis of the investors’ level of entrepreneurial risk. As an interesting aside (from a regulatory deference point of view), the court opined that the Tax Court was not bound to “tick through [the factors] mechanically[,]” but was “free to” conduct its own evaluation of risk, because the regulation “simply reflects those characteristics the Department of the Treasury, given its experience and expertise, thinks significant.” Nonetheless, the court found the Tax Court’s independent analysis of entrepreneurial risk unconvincing, viewing the risks cited as “both speculative and circumscribed.” In the final analysis, the court held that the only risk borne by the investors was “that faced by any advance purchaser who pays for an item with a promise of later delivery. It is not the risk of the entrepreneur who puts money into a venture with the hope that it might grow in amount but with the knowledge that it may well shrink.”
March 18, 2011
The Second Circuit has announced a May 16 oral argument date in TIFD III-E, Inc. v. United States, which is the second go-round for the case better known as Castle Harbour after the district court ruled again for the taxpayer on remand from the Second Circuit’s previous reversal. (See our prior reports and the briefs here, here, and here.) The identity of the three-judge panel will not be revealed until a later date.
February 22, 2011
We have added the taxpayer’s reply brief to the original post. We will update you as soon as we hear what the en banc court does.
February 2, 2011
We have added DOJ’s brief to the original post. Nothing much surprising in it; the arguments adopted reflect the same approach taken in our initial post (and in the Court of Federal Claims). A point of interest is that there are 30 related cases holding at the Court of Federal Claims that depend on its resolution. We will update you as soon as we hear what the en banc court does.
January 19, 2011
On January 18, 2011, the taxpayers filed a Notice of Supplemental Authority, drawing the court’s attention to the Tax Court’s recent opinion in Historic Boardwalk Hall, LLC v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 1 (Jan. 3, 2011). According to the taxpayers in Virginia Historic, the new Tax Court case involves many factual and legal issues similar to those in the instant case. We’ll have an analysis of the recent decision and its potential impact on the issues in Virginia Historic in the near future.
Oral argument is scheduled in Virginia Historic for January 25, 2011.
January 18, 2011
As can be seen by the sheer number of our posts that deal with it, the unified partnership audit procedures of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (“TEFRA”) can cause confusion. In fact, they can be downright bewildering. It is particularly easy to get lost if one walks into the TEFRA wilderness without keeping one eye fixed at all times on the overarching purpose of TEFRA. The case of Bush v. United States, et. al., Fed Cir. Nos. 2009-5008 and 5009, is a textbook example of what happens when you lose sight of that landmark. An apparently innocuous TEFRA proceeding resulted in a startling panel opinion authored by Judge Dyk and joined by Judge Linn that has baffled TEFRA practitioners. (Judge Prost concurred in the result on a theory that comports with the common understanding of TEFRA.) Bush v. United States, et. al., 599 F.3d 1352 (Fed. Cir. 2010). Instead of ending the case, that opinion has triggered a flurry of activity that should eventually lead to an en banc decision by the full court. Thus far, the panel decision has generated two sets of petitions for rehearing and responses, a vacated panel opinion, an order from the en banc court identifying four sets of questions to be addressed in new briefs, and at least one new amicus brief. And the en banc briefing process is just getting started. In order to keep from drawing the reader too far into the wilds ourselves, we describe the issue and the law first and then explain what happened to get us to where we are.
The facts in Bush are relatively simple. The taxpayers had TEFRA partnerships. Those TEFRA partnerships were audited, and a TEFRA partnership proceeding was brought. That proceeding was settled by the taxpayers. The Internal Revenue Service sent notices of computational adjustment to the taxpayers to reflect the adjustments agreed in the settlement; no notices of deficiency were sent. The taxpayers paid the amounts reflected in the notices of computational adjustment. Later, the taxpayers filed claims for refund with respect to the amounts they paid pursuant to the settlement and eventually sued in the Court of Federal Claims seeking to recover those amounts.
Now for the law. The purpose of TEFRA is to determine the tax treatment of “any partnership item” at “the partnership level.” Section 6221. This ensures “consistent . . . treatment” among partners and between the partners and the partnership. Section 6222. Consistency and unity is so important that the Service is empowered to issue “computational adjustments” to make the partners’ individual returns consistent with the partnership return. Section 6222(c)(2). Section 6226 provides the sole mechanism to judicially challenge the Service’s proposed adjustment of a “partnership item” – namely, filing a petition in court in response to the notice of final partnership adjustment issued by the Service. The notice of deficiency process, found in subchapter B of Chapter 63 of the Code, is specifically integrated with the TEFRA process outlined above (which is found in subchapter C of Chapter 63 of the Code), by section 6230. As relevant here, section 6230(a) contains the rules for when the IRS is required to issue a notice of deficiency under subchapter B with respect to various items, and section 6230(c) contains rules that allow a taxpayer to challenge a computational adjustment.
Section 6230 leaves a relatively narrow gap within which the standard notice of deficiency process is to operate in TEFRA partner-level proceedings. Setting aside a very specific (and irrelevant for our purposes) innocent spouse rule, section 6230(a)(2) provides that a notice of deficiency must be issued with respect to “affected items which require partner level determinations” and “items which [although they had been partnership items] have become nonpartnership items.” For all other “computational adjustments” related to: (i) partnership items; or (ii) affected items that do not require partner level determinations “subchapter B of this chapter shall not apply.” Section 6230(a)(1). This limitation on the notice of deficiency requirement, however, does not leave the partner facing a computational adjustment without recourse. Section 6230(c) allows the partner to file a claim for refund in several cases including, among others: (i) to apply a partnership settlement; or (ii) to seek a credit or refund of an overpayment attributable to the application of such a settlement. Section 6230(c)(1)(A)(ii) and (B). Critically, under either of these refund claim provisions, substantive review of the “treatment of partnership items” resolved in the settlement is verboten. Section 6230(c)(4). This is necessarily the case because the whole unifying purpose of TEFRA would be undermined if a later proceeding could affect the treatment of items properly agreed in a settlement by the parties at the partnership level.
Readers that are still awake will see that there are really only two nuts to crack in order to resolve Bush. First, were the items subject to the settlement either partnership items or affected items that do not require partner level determinations (which would mean that there was no notice of deficiency requirement)? Second, assuming they were, did the questions raised in the claim attempt to substantively re-review the determination of those items (which, again, is a statutory no-no)? As to the first question, the item at issue in Bush was the section 465 “at-risk” amount (basically, the amount that the taxpayer has placed at risk in the venture and thus as to which deductions are allowed). At-risk amounts are affected items to the extent they are not partnership items. Treas. Reg. §301-6231(a)(5)-1(c). The settlement agreement set out that the taxpayers’ at-risk amounts were equal to their capital contributions to the partnership and actually specified the dollar amount. Thus, it is arguable that the affected item in Bush is actually a partnership item. See Treas. Reg. §301-6231(a)(3)-1(a)(4)(i) (considering capital contributions generally as partnership items). Regardless, it is certainly not an “affected item which require[s] partner level determinations” because it was finally resolved in the settlement agreement and the partner’s specific situation doesn’t affect it at all. Therefore, no notice of deficiency was required under section 6230. Having made it this far, even a blind squirrel in the dark TEFRA forest can find and crack the second nut; if the settlement agreement resolved the item, and if that item doesn’t require a partner-level determination, then a claim challenging the substantive application of that item is barred by section 6230(c)(4).
The foregoing analysis is consistent with Federal Circuit precedent. Olson v. United States, 172 F.3d 1311, 1318 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (no notice of deficiency required where the computational notices involved “nothing more than reviewing the taxpayers’ returns for the years in question, striking out the [items] that had been improperly claimed, and re-summing the remaining figures”). It is also essentially the analytical methodology applied by the Court of Federal Claims in denying the taxpayers’ refund claim. See Bush v. United States, 78 Fed. Cl. 76 (Fed. Cl. 2007). But someplace between here and there, the Federal Circuit majority got turned around over the definition of a computational adjustment vis-à-vis section 6230(a)(1). It affirmed the trial court, but only after a convoluted analysis that began with the conclusion that the Service had erred in failing to issue a notice of deficiency to the taxpayers as a prerequisite to assessing the amounts agreed to in the settlement.
Section 6231(a)(6) defines a computational adjustment as “the change in the tax liability of a partner which properly reflects the treatment under this subchapter of a partnership item.” Perhaps this language, like much in TEFRA, could be clearer, but it is hard to imagine that Congress intended to give it the construction adopted by the Federal Circuit majority. The majority read the statute as associating the term “change,” at the beginning of the subsection, with the term “partnership item,” at the end of the subsection; meaning that there always has to be a “change” in a “partnership item” in order for any adjustment to be “computational.” However, based on the language itself, the statute is better read as including all situations involving a change in tax liability driven by any “treatment of a partnership item,” and not just those involving a “change” in that treatment. The word “change” directly modifies only tax liability and the use of the word “treatment” (as opposed to “change”) to define the connection to a partnership item appears to be an intentional distinction. Furthermore, any computational adjustment “affect items,” and “affected item” is defined as an item “to the extent such item is affected [not necessarily “changed”] by a partnership item.” If the partner’s tax liability changed (which it did), and that change “properly reflect[ed] the treatment” of a partnership item (and didn’t require any partner-level determinations), it is a computational adjustment. This reading also harmonizes sections 6230 and 6231 and is consistent with the broader purpose of TEFRA in unifying partnership proceedings and making partners’ returns consistent with partnership returns. See generally section 6222 (which contemplates changes to partner returns by “computational adjustment” to make them consistent with partnership returns); see also Judge Prost’s concurrence, 599 F.3d at 1366.
But the majority disagreed. And having made it this far into the woods, it turned around only to find that all of its breadcrumbs had been eaten. Worse, it could see the right answer (the taxpayer loses), but couldn’t easily get there from its entanglement in the thicket of TEFRA. Creatively, the majority got to the desired destination by stepping out of the TEFRA forest to stand on the federal harmless error statute, 28 U.S.C. §2111 (a provision, it is fair to say, that is not regularly seen in tax cases). The Federal Circuit applied section 2111 to find that the Service’s failure to issue a notice of deficiency was harmless because the taxpayer had other methods to challenge the underlying issue including both their original proceeding and a hypothetical collection due process hearing. See section 6330. If you are not badly in need of a GPS at this point, you are doing very well.
The parties filed dueling petitions for rehearing. The taxpayers did their best to take advantage of the panel opinion’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that were created by the majority getting so tangled up in TEFRA it had to reach out of the tax code to solve the problem). Positing that a valid assessment was a prerequisite for the Government to retain timely made payments, the taxpayer argued that section 6213 must be mechanically followed in order to legitimately assess taxes, and therefore the alternative methods suggested by the Federal Circuit would be ineffective and could not render the error harmless. For its part, the Government tried to reorient the court to the correct reading of “computational adjustment” and pointed to Lewis v. Reynolds, 284 U.S. 281 (1932), which might allow the taxpayers a refund (due to some of the payments apparently being made after the assessment statute had closed) in spite of the court’s harmless error analysis. (As an aside, on the valid assessment point, Judge Allegra’s recent opinion in Principal Life Ins. Co. v. United States, 2010 U.S. Claims LEXIS 856 (Fed. Cl. 2010), drawing from Lewis, nicely slays the chimera that is the “requirement” of “valid assessment” for non-time-barred years)
Thankfully, the Court vacated the panel opinion and granted rehearing en banc limited to the following four issues:
a) Under I.R.C. § 6213, were taxpayers in this case entitled to a pre-assessment deficiency notice? Were the assessments the results of a “computational adjustment” under § 6230 as the term “computational adjustment” is defined in § 6231(a)(6)?
b) If the IRS were required to issue a deficiency notice, does § 6213 require that a refund be made to the taxpayers for amounts not collected “by levy or through a proceeding in court”?
c) Are taxpayers entitled to a refund under any other section of the Internal Revenue Code? For example, what effect, if any, does an assessment without notice under § 6213 have on stopping the running of the statute of limitations?
d) Does the harmless error statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2111, apply to the government’s failure to issue a deficiency notice under I.R.C. § 6213? If so, should it apply to the taxpayers in this case?
The parties are in the process of briefing these issues. We are hopeful that the Court has found its compass and is diligently working its way out of the trees. Harmless error has nothing to do with the resolution of this case and neither do the technicalities of assessment. The taxpayers agreed to the treatment of various items in a partnership proceeding. There was no need for a partner-level determination in order to compute an adjustment with respect to those items. Therefore, no notice of deficiency was required. If the taxpayers had a complaint about how those calculations were performed that did not involve a substantive challenge to the agreed at-risk amount, they would have a claim. They don’t, so they lose.
January 7, 2011
The taxpayer has filed its response brief in the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain. The brief does not add much new to the debate, which is hardly surprising at this point. It relies in the alternative on all of the different rationales advanced by the various Tax Court opinions for rejecting the IRS’s position (and adds an additional argument that the basis was adequately disclosed on the return). The taxpayer does not jump into the National Muffler Dealers vs. Chevron debate, content to argue that there is no Chevron deference owed in these circumstances under the established rules for Chevron analysis. The taxpayer does not directly address whether the issuance of final regulations changes that analysis, instead arguing that it is too late for the government to rely on the issuance of the final regs because it did not refer to them in its opening brief.
In the companion UTAM case, the briefing lags the Intermountain schedule by a month. The government has just opened the briefing in that case, and the taxpayer’s response brief is due February 7, 2011. Again not surprisingly, the government’s brief looks a lot like the brief it filed in Intermountain a month ago, though it does refer to the final regulations. The new briefs in the two cases are attached below.
The cases are both scheduled for oral argument on April 5, 2011.
December 13, 2010
We recently surveyed the nationwide litigation addressing the government’s efforts to apply a six-year statute of limitations to Son-of-BOSS cases, including its efforts to have the courts defer to a late-issued temporary regulation. The government has now filed its opening brief in the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain, the case in which the Tax Court addressed the issue. Of note, the brief contains an extensive argument for applying Chevron deference to the temporary regulation, rather than “the differing standards of pre-Chevron jurisprudence” (an apparent reference to National Muffler Dealers, though the brief declines to acknowledge that case by name), and notwithstanding the lack of opportunity for notice and comment. As we have discussed before here and here, the Supreme Court may shed some light in the next few months on the extent to which Chevron deference applies to Treasury regulations.
The taxpayer’s response brief is due January 5, 2011.
November 30, 2010
The government has successfully challenged understatements of income attributable to stepped-up basis in so-called Son-of-BOSS tax shelters. See, e.g., American Boat Co., LLC v. United States, 583 F.3d 471, 473 (7th Cir. 2009). But it has been stymied in some cases by the three-year statute of limitations for issuing notices of deficiency. Code section 6501(e)(1)(A) provides for a six-year statute “[i]f the taxpayer omits from gross income an amount” that exceeds the stated gross income by 25 percent. Section 6229(c)(2) provides a similar six-year statute for cases governed by the TEFRA partnership rules. The IRS has argued, unsuccessfully so far, that this section applies when there is a substantial understatement of income that is attributable not to a direct omission of income but rather to an overstatement of basis of sold assets.
The major obstacle to the government’s argument is that the Supreme Court long ago rejected essentially the same argument with respect to the predecessor of section 6501(e)(1)(A) (§ 275(c) of the 1939 Code). The Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, 357 U.S. 28, 32-33 (1958). The IRS argued there that the six-year statute applies “where a cost item is overstated” and thus causes an understatement of gross income. Id. at 32. The Court agreed with the taxpayer, however, that the six-year statute “is limited to situations in which specific receipts or accruals of income items are left out of the computation of gross income.” Id. at 33. The Court added that, although this was the best reading, it did not find the statutory language “unambiguous.” Id. Accordingly, the Court noted that its interpretation derived additional support from the legislative history and that it was “in harmony with the unambiguous language of [the newly enacted] section 6501(e)(1)(A).” Id. at 37. Based largely on the precedent of Colony, the Tax Court and two courts of appeals have already rejected the government’s attempts to invoke the six-year statute of limitations in Son-of-BOSS cases. See Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009); Bakersfield Energy Partners, LP v. Commissioner, 568 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009), aff’g, 128 T.C. 207 (2007).
Seeking to rescue numerous other cases that were still pending in the courts or administratively, the government responded by issuing temporary regulations on September 24, 2009, that purported to provide a regulatory interpretation of the statutory language to which the courts would afford Chevron deference. The temporary regulations provide that “an understated amount of gross income resulting from an overstatement of unrecovered cost or other basis constitutes an omission from gross income for purposes of [sections 6229(c)(2) and 6501(e)(1)(A)].” Temp Regs. §§ 301.6229(c)(2) – 1T, 301.6501(e)-1T.
The Tax Court was the first tribunal to consider the efficacy of this aggressive (one might say, desperate) effort to use the regulatory process to trump settled precedent, as the IRS moved the Tax Court to reconsider its adverse decision in Intermountain Ins. Service v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2009-195, in the wake of the temporary regulations. The reception was underwhelming. The Tax Court denied the motion for reconsideration by a 13-0 vote, generating three different opinions. The majority opinion, joined by seven judges, was the only one to base its ruling on rejecting the substance of the government’s argument that courts should defer to the regulations notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s Colony decision. (Four judges stated simply that the new contention about the temporary regulations should not be entertained on a motion for reconsideration; two judges stated that the temporary regulations are procedurally invalid for failure to submit them for notice and comment.)
The government’s deference argument rests on Nat’l Cable and Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 982 (2005), which ruled that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” (In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens stated his view that this rule would not apply to a Supreme Court decision, since that would automatically render the statute unambiguous, but that remains an open question.). The Tax Court majority ruled that the Supreme Court’s statement in Colony that the statute was ambiguous “was only a preliminary conclusion,” but “[a]fter thoroughly reviewing the legislative history, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress’ intent was clear and that the statutory provision was unambiguous.” Accordingly, the majority concluded that Brand X did not apply, and “the temporary regulations are invalid and are not entitled to deferential treatment.” (The two judges who found the regulations procedurally invalid questioned the majority’s reasoning and suggested that the Court should not have reached the substantive issue).
The Tax Court’s decision in Intermountain is just the first skirmish in what will be an extended battle over the temporary regulations. The Justice Department has asserted that there are currently 35-50 cases pending in the federal courts that raise the same issue, with approximately $1 billion at stake. Accordingly, the government is pursuing an appeal to the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain, and it is arguing for deference to the temporary regulations in other cases pending on appeal in other circuits, even where those regulations were not considered by the trial court. The government seems determined to litigate the issue in every possible court of appeals, presumably hoping that it can win somewhere and then persuade the Supreme Court to grant certiorari and reconsider Colony. The current map looks like this:
D.C. Circuit: Briefing schedules have been issued in Intermountain, No. 10-1204, and in an appeal from another Tax Court case, UTAM Ltd. v. Commissioner, No. 10-1262. The government’s opening brief is due in Intermountain on December 6, 2010, and in UTAM on January 6, 2011. The panel assigned to both cases is Judges Sentelle, Tatel, and Randolph.
Federal Circuit: Grapevine Imports, Ltd. v. United States, No. 2008-5090, is fully briefed and scheduled for oral argument on January 12, 2011. The Federal Circuit has already rejected the government’s invocation of the six-year statute in Salman Ranch, but the government is arguing in Grapevine that the Federal Circuit should reverse its position in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.
Fourth Circuit: Home Concrete & Supply, LLC v. United States, No. 09-2353, is fully briefed and was argued on October 27, 2010, before Judges Wilkinson, Gregory, and Wynn. In that case, the district court had ruled for the government, distinguishing Colony as limited to situations in which the taxpayer is in a trade or business engaged in the sale of goods or services. That was the rationale of the Court of Federal Claims in the Salman Ranch case, but that decision was reversed by the Federal Circuit.
Fifth Circuit: Burks v. United States, No. 09-11061 (consolidated with Commissioner v. MITA, No. 09-60827) is fully briefed and was argued on November 1, 2010, before Judges DeMoss, Benavides, and Elrod. In its briefs on this issue in various courts, the government has often invoked the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Phinney v. Chambers, 392 F.2d 680 (1968), the only court of appeals decision that has applied the six-year statute in the absence of a complete omission of gross income. In Phinney, the taxpayer on her return had mislabeled proceeds from payment of an installment note as proceeds from a sale of stock with basis equivalent to the proceeds, reporting no income from that sale. The Fifth Circuit accepted the government’s contention that the six-year statute applied, finding that it applies not only in the Colony situation where there is “a complete omission of an item of income of the requisite amount,” but also where there is a “misstating of the nature of an item of income which places the Commissioner . . . at a special disadvantage in detecting errors.” 392 F.2d at 685. The government has argued that Phinney essentially involved an overstatement of basis, and therefore strongly supports its position in the Son-of-BOSS cases. Indeed, the district court in Burks ruled for the government based on Phinney. The government therefore likely viewed the Fifth Circuit as the most favorable appellate forum for the current dispute.
At oral argument, however, the panel appeared sympathetic to the taxpayer’s position that Phinney involved a situation where the taxpayer had taken steps akin to a direct omission that would make it difficult for the IRS to discover the potential tax liability. Therefore, the taxpayer maintains, Phinney is fully consistent with the position that the six-year statute does not generally apply to overstatements of basis.
In addition, the discussion of the temporary regulation at oral argument specifically addressed the debate over whether deference to Treasury regulations is governed by Chevron principles or by the less deferential National Muffler Dealers standard. As we have discussed elsewhere, the Supreme Court may resolve that question in the next few months in the Mayo Foundation case.
Seventh Circuit: Beard v. Commissioner, No. 09-3741 is fully briefed and was argued on September 27, 2010, before Judges Rovner, Evans, and Williams. Although the panel, particularly Judge Rovner, expressed skepticism about some of the IRS’s legal arguments, Judges Williams and Evans appeared troubled by the prospect of allowing the taxpayer to escape scrutiny on statute of limitations grounds. Judge Williams suggested that the taxpayer still ought to have the relevant records and that there was no apparent reason why a misstatement should be treated different from an omission. Judge Evans emphasized that the taxpayer’s position with respect to tax liability was very weak and suggested that Colony might be distinguishable because it involved a return that was much easier for the IRS to decipher than the complex return involved in Beard. Thus, to some extent, the government seemed to have found a sympathetic ear in the Seventh Circuit, though that will not necessarily translate into a reversal of the Tax Court.
Ninth Circuit: Reynolds Properties, L.P. v. Commissioner, No. 10-72406. The court of appeals vacated the briefing schedule to allow the parties to participate in the court’s appellate mediation program. The government, however, has indicated that the case is not suitable for mediation, and therefore a new briefing schedule is likely to be issued soon. The Ninth Circuit has already ruled in Bakersfield that the six-year statute does not apply to overstatements of basis. Presumably, the government will ask the court to reverse itself in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.
Tenth Circuit: Salman Ranch Ltd. v. United States, No. 09-9015, is fully briefed and was argued on September 22, 2010, before Judges Tacha, Seymour, and Lucero. This case comes from the Tax Court, but involves the same partnership that prevailed in front of the Federal Circuit.
Attached below as a sampling are the briefs filed in the Fourth and Seventh Circuit cases.
October 22, 2010
On October 15, 2010, the government filed its reply brief in TIFD III-E Inc. v. United States, No. 10-70 (2d Cir.) (“Castle Harbour”). The brief is linked below. For our prior coverage of the case, see here and here.
In its reply, the government contends that I.R.C. section 704(e)(1) is inapplicable to the facts of the case, and that the provision only applies in the family partnership context, where parties are related. The government asserts that section 704(e)(1) was not intended to apply, and indeed has never before been applied (and upheld) to an arm’s length transaction between two or more corporate entities.
Even assuming section 704(e)(1) applies, the government argues that the Dutch banks did not possess “capital interests” under the statute, because “capital interests” are legally equivalent to bona fide partnership interests, which the Second Circuit has already determined the Dutch banks did not possess. In essence, the government argues that the test under section 704(e)(1) is the same as the test under Commissioner v. Culbertson, 337 U.S. 733 (1949), and the Second Circuit having made its determination under that test, it is now law of the case that the Dutch banks did not have “capital interests.”
On a similar tack, the government also argues that under the facts of the case, the banks did not possess capital interests in the purported partnership. The government attempts to rebut the taxpayer’s fact arguments by arguing that a number of these fact issues were previously considered by the Second Circuit, with the court rejecting them as support for the conclusion that the banks had a meaningful equity participation in the partnership.
With respect to section 704(b), the government asserts that the taxpayer’s discussion of 704(c) is a red herring, and that the section 704(b) substantial economic effect test requires that tax results follow economic results; i.e., tax benefits and burdens must coincide with the related economic benefits and burdens. The government argues that the transaction at issue plainly fails that test: the taxpayer received $288 million of the partnership’s actual income, but only paid tax on $6 million. Meanwhile, the Dutch banks received $28 million of the partnership’s actual income, but were allocated $310 million of it.
The government also reiterates its position regarding penalties: the District Court’s misconstruction of the facts and misapplication of the law do nothing to abrogate asserted penalties, and that the taxpayer really did not have substantial authority for its return position.
September 17, 2010
On September 14, 2010, the tax matters partner (“TMP”) for Castle Harbour LLC filed its response brief in TIFD III-E Inc. v. United States, No. 10-70 (2nd Cir.) (brief linked below). For our prior coverage of this case, see here. As many readers are no doubt aware, this is the second time this case is before the Second Circuit.
In the response brief , the TMP frames the issues as: (1) whether the district court, upon remand, correctly determined the investment banks were partners under I.R.C. section 704(e)(1), (2) whether the IRS can reallocate income under I.R.C. section 704(b) despite the section 704(c) “ceiling rule,” and (3) whether the district court correctly decided that I.R.C. section 6662 accuracy-related penalties were not applicable.
First, the TMP argues that section 704(e)(1) creates an independent, objective alternative to the Culbertson test, with the critical issue being whether the purported partner holds a “capital interest.” The TMP contends that, because the banks’ interests were economically and legally equivalent to preferred stock, and because preferred stock is treated as equity for tax purposes even though it possesses many characteristics of debt, the banks held “capital interests” under section 704(e)(1). Accordingly, the TMP argues that the banks were bona fide partners in Castle Harbour, the Second Circuit’s application of Culbertson notwithstanding.
Second, the TMP contests the IRS’s ability to reallocate income under I.R.C. section 704(b) in spite of application of the section 704(c) ceiling rule (assuming the banks were bona fide partners). The regulations under section 704(c) were amended to allow such a reallocation for property contributions occurring after December 20, 1993, which is after the contributions at issue in the case. Accordingly, the TMP takes the position that the IRS is attempting an end-run around the effective date of the amended regulations.
Finally, the TMP also argues that victory at trial, based on the careful findings of fact by the district court, demonstrates that the transactions were primarily business-motivated, and furthermore, that substantial authority existed for the TMP’s return position. Accordingly, the TMP contends that accuracy-related penalties should not apply, even if the IRS’s adjustment is ultimately upheld.
September 13, 2010
We have been promising a post on the application of the section 6664 reasonable cause and good faith defense to tax penalties as it relates to reliance on tax advisers. Here it is.
There has been much activity in this area in the district courts and the Tax Court and not much winnowing or rule setting in the circuits. This is understandable; the application of the standards is highly factual and is well-placed in the hands of trial judges. We will analyze here some potential inconsistencies in two recent high-profile section 6664 decisions, Canal Corp. v. Commissioner, (Slip Op. attached) (August 5, 2010) (which found reasonable cause and good faith lacking) and NPR Invs., LLC v. United States, (E.D. Tex. Aug. 10, 2010) (which found reasonable cause and good faith met).
In Canal Corp., the Tax Court considered the application of section 6664 to a should-level PricewaterhouseCoopers opinion. (In the parlance, a “should-level” opinion means that the transaction “should” be upheld; it is a higher standard than more-likely-than-not, which means only that the transaction is more, perhaps only 51% more, likely to be upheld than not.) The Canal Corp. transaction emerged from the decision of a predecessor of Canal Corp., Chesapeake Corporation, to dispose of its tissue business, WISCO. After seeking advice from PwC and others, Chesapeake decided to dispose of the business by forming a partnership with Georgia Pacific to which WISCO would contribute its assets and liabilities and from which WISCO would receive a distribution of cash. The cash was funded by the new partnership borrowing money, and that debt was indemnified by WISCO. In essence, the substantive question presented to the court was whether the contribution/distribution amounted to the formation of a partnership (which would not trigger the built-in gain on the WISCO assets) or, rather, a sale of those assets to GP (which would).
In addition to helping structure and advise on the transaction, PwC was asked to prepare the aforementioned opinion. The partner writing the opinion was not the historic PwC engagement partner but rather an expert from the Washington National Tax group of PwC. PwC charged a flat fee of $800,000 for the opinion. Because the area of the law was relatively unclear, the opinion relied on analogy and analytics to reach its conclusions (including a withdrawn revenue procedure that set out tests to apply for advance rulings in a different area); there was apparently little direct authority available to cite. The parties effectuated the transaction on the day that PwC issued the opinion.
The Tax Court determined that the transaction was a disguised sale. This was based largely on the court’s conclusion that the indemnity by WISCO was illusory and thus that WISCO should not be allocated any amount of the partnership’s liabilities. If WISCO had been allocated these partnership liabilities then the transaction would be viewed as a financing transaction and not a sale. After all, you can’t call something a sale if the seller gets left holding the bag for the purchase price. But the court found WISCO’s bag empty and proceeded to penalties.
The Canal Corp. court began its analysis of section 6664 by recognizing that “[r]easonable cause has been found when a taxpayer selects a competent tax adviser, supplies the adviser with all relevant information and, in a manner consistent with ordinary business care and prudence, relies on the adviser’s professional judgment as to the taxpayer’s tax obligations.” Slip Op. at 31. However, the court noted that such advice “must not be based on unreasonable factual or legal assumptions” and cannot be relied upon when given by an advisor “tainted by an inherent conflict of interest.” Id. at 32. Citing Pasternak v. Commissioner, 990 F.2d 893 (6th Cir. 1993), a case involving promoters of master recording leasing programs, the Court concluded that a “professional tax adviser with a stake in the outcome has such a conflict of interest.” Id.
Applying these conceptual standards to the PwC opinion, the Tax Court found it lacking. At the outset, the court thought it incredible that significant time had been spent on an opinion so “littered with typographical errors, disorganized and incomplete.” Id. at 33. The Court’s confidence in the opinion was further undermined by the fact that only a draft could be found and the author (even after presumably being prepared for trial) did not recognize parts of the opinion when asked about them in court. On the question of assumptions generally, the lack of specific citation in support of the opinion’s premises and the frequent use of terms such as “it appears” in the place of hard analysis was also troubling for the court, which found it unreasonable that anyone would issue a should-level opinion on analogy and analytics with no direct support for the position. The Court found the author’s testimonial responses to challenges on these points unsettling and bluntly concluded that the only reason the opinion was issued at the should level was that “no lesser level of comfort would have commanded the $800,000 fixed fee that Chesapeake paid for the opinion.” Id. at 35.
On the question of a conflict of interest, the Court found a large one. Commenting that it “would be hard pressed to identify which of his hats” the author was wearing when he rendered the opinion, the Court concluded that the author’s work in developing, planning, structuring, and implementing the transaction took away too much of his independence (which the Court found to be “sacrosanct to good faith reliance”) to allow him to objectively analyze the merits of the transaction. Slip Op. at 36-38. Given that the only hurdle to closing the transaction was, in the end, the $800,000 flat fee opinion, the Court found that Chesapeake was attempting to buy “an insurance policy as to the taxability of the transaction.” Id. at 37. The Court voided the policy.
NPR involved a transaction the IRS characterized as a “Son of BOSS” transaction involving offsetting foreign currency options. As explained by the Court, the IRS’s view of a Son of BOSS transaction is “a series of contrived steps in a partnership interest to generate artificial tax losses designed to offset income from other transactions.” Slip Op. at 2 n.3. It is fair to say that Son of BOSS transactions are considered by the IRS to be one of the “worst of the worst,” so much so that they are the only transaction that is specifically barred from being considered by IRS Appeals. See Announcement 2004-46, Sec. 5 (May 24, 2004). Indeed, NPR conceded the merits of the transactions at issue prior to the decision. Accordingly, the only items considered by the district court were a period of limitations issue (which we will not discuss here) and the penalties.
After working through the background elements of section 6662, the district court in NPR began its analysis in a similar way to the Tax Court in Canal Corp., setting out both the restrictions on relying upon unreasonable assumptions and on a conflicted adviser. Slip Op. at 24-26. The conclusion, however, was quite different. Finding that the taxpayers were “not tax lawyers” and were not “learned in tax law” the court held that their reliance on the more-likely-than-not opinion of R.J. Ruble (who, at the time of the court’s ruling, had already been convicted of tax evasion associated with the rendering of tax opinions) was reasonable based on its findings that the opinion reached “objectively reasonable conclusions” and detailed a “reasonable interpretation of the law” (albeit one that the taxpayers conceded before trial). Id. at 27-28. Critically, the Court found persuasive the taxpayer’s plea that they, as unsophisticated men, sought out the advice of professionals who they did not know were conflicted and followed that advice; “what else could we have done except follow their advice?” Id. at *28.
As shown above, the differences between Canal Corp. and NPR are not differences in legal standards but differences in fact-finding. Both courts invoked and applied the same standards and prior interpretations of those standards; they just applied them to different facts as each judge found those facts. That is exactly what trial courts are supposed to do; take legal standards and do the hard work of applying them to the myriad fact patterns that arise. Viewed from that perspective, there is nothing in conflict between the two rulings; different facts support different results.
In a sense, the “inconsistencies” give a certain comfort in the decisions of both courts. Judges say what the law is, that is true. But more relevant to a trial lawyer, in a bench trial, they say what the facts are. In both Canal Corp. and NPR, the judges reached a conclusion based on their common-sense perceptions of what happened in the courtroom. While they can (and likely will) be second-guessed, that is their job. The NPR court was not swayed by all of the IRS’s anti-Son-of-BOSS rhetoric. Rather, the court evaluated the honesty and integrity of the specific taxpayers before it, their options (not the foreign currency kind) and their knowledge, and decided that no more could reasonably be asked of them. Similarly, the Canal Corp. court wasn’t swayed by the involvement of a major accounting firm in a business transaction between two large, sophisticated companies. Instead, the court looked at the analytics and thoroughness of the opinion, the involvement of the author in the transaction (including what he was paid), and his credibility on the stand, and concluded that it was unreasonable for a sophisticated consumer of tax advice to rely on his opinion. Whether you agree with the fact-finding (which is tough to do if you didn’t sit through both trials), the fact-finding has to be separated from the analytics; the analytics were sound (and consistent).
Viewed from the perspective of the tax planner, however, justifying the different outcomes on the basis of different fact-finding does not provide much comfort. Most tax planners would turn up their nose at a Son of BOSS opinion given to a group of individual investors to generate relatively large foreign currency options losses on a relatively minor investment. Yet a significant number have criticized the Tax Court’s opinion in Canal. Perhaps the distinction is just based on an “I know [a good transaction] when I see it” analysis, but many view what Canal Corp. did as “legitimate” tax planning and believe that a PwC advisor from the esteemed Washington National Tax group should have been viewed as more credible than a convicted felon. However, when a judge looks into the eyes of the adviser and doesn’t like what she sees, the taxpayer is at grave risk on penalties. Similarly, when the written product is capable of being analytically questioned, even undermined, based on sloppiness and lack of support or detail, a judge can be expected to have a negative reaction to that work product. That negative reaction will carry over to the credibility of its author, particularly where a substantial fee was received. On the flip side of the coin, if the judge finds the taxpayer honest and forthcoming about what he believed and what he tried to do to confirm that belief, the judge is likely to find reasonable cause and good faith. In short, the way the judge perceives the facts determines the outcome; that is why they call it a facts and circumstances based test.
Asking for “consistency” in such matters amounts to nothing less than the neutering of the trial court. “The ordinary lawsuit, civil or criminal, normally depends for its resolution on which version of the facts in dispute is accepted by the trier of fact.” NLRB v. Pittsburgh S.S. Co., 337 U.S. 656, 659 (1949). Indeed, rather than chasing the siren song of legal consistency, it is better to accept that fact-based tests like section 6664 belong to the trial lawyers to prove and to the trial judges to find. While that may appear to create a lack of consistency, it doesn’t. As we have shown, the inconsistency some see in Canal Corp. and NPR does not flow from an inconsistency in the law. Rather, there is always unpredictability as to how the facts will be perceived by different decision-makers. That is merely the uncertainty of litigation: the risk that a given judge on a given day may or may not believe your witnesses or your theory of the case. This is necessarily so; “[f]indings as to the design, motive and intent with which men act depend peculiarly upon the credit given to witnesses by those who see and hear them.” United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 338 U.S. 338, 341 (1949). Said differently, what a lawyer (or a client) thinks the facts are doesn’t matter if they can’t convince the judge they draw to perceive the facts as they see them. Making choices between “two permissible views of the weight of evidence” (id.) is precisely what trial judges are supposed to do and precisely what both of the judges in these cases did. Appeals in both cases, if they are filed, will have to take this into account.
September 4, 2010
The government filed its reply brief in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001, LLC v. Commissioner, No. 10-1333 (4th Cir.), on September 1, 2010. The brief is linked below.
In its reply, the government argues that the tax characterization of the investor transactions, i.e., whether the investments were equity contributions or merely the purchase of state tax credits, is subject to the de novo standard of review. Accordingly, the government contends that the Tax Court’s determination that the taxpayers were bona fide equity investors is a question of law not subject to the more deferential “clear error” standard of review, as argued by the taxpayers.
In addition to reiterating its positions presented in the opening brief, the government also contends that the IRS has the power to recharacterize, for tax purposes, a transaction according to its substance, in spite of the fact that the parties may have adopted the form of the transaction for purposes other than tax avoidance. The taxpayers argue that the form of the transactions was adopted in order to comply with state law limitations on the transfer of historic preservation tax credits, and therefore the form of the transactions should be respected for federal tax purposes.
The government also supplements its statutory disguised sale theory with the arguments that the transactions were “transfers” of “property” as those terms are employed in I.R.C. § 707 and the regulations thereunder, and that the taxpayers’ arguments regarding the existence of meaningful entrepreneurial risk are not supported by the record.
August 12, 2010
The last post in this series discussed differences in procedural posture that cause differences in the application of penalties. Court splits in how the various and sundry penalty provisions in the Code are applied is an even more confusing area. The two principal confusions are in the areas of TEFRA and valuation misstatements. We will deal with TEFRA in this post.
Partnerships are not taxpaying entities. They flow income, losses, deductions, and credits through to their partners who pay the tax. Nevertheless, since Congress enacted the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, Pub. L. No. 97-248, 96 Stat. 324, 648-71 (TEFRA), some partnerships have been subject to audit (and litigation of those audit adjustments in court) directly at the partnership level. Because individual partners still have tax issues that are not related to the partnership, tax items have to be divided between those that are handled in the partnership proceeding (so-called “partnership items”) and those that are handled at the level of the partners (so-called “non-partnership items”). (There is a third category of items that are affected by partnership items, appropriately named “affected items,” which we don’t need to address for purposes of this discussion.) As one can imagine, dividing the partnership tax world up into these two sorts of items is not always the easiest thing to do where you have items that are factually affected both by actions taken by the partnership and by actions taken by the partners.
In an apparent attempt to clarify this treatment in a small way, in 1997 Congress decreed that penalties that relate to partnership items are determined at the partnership level (i.e., the penalties themselves are partnership items). Seesection 6221. The difficulty implementing this provision is that, although partnerships are subject to audit, they are often owned and run by people and those people are often the partners. When one takes this fact into account in the context of the various penalty defense provisions, such as section 6664, which protects against penalties if a taxpayer has “reasonable cause and good faith,” you have a dilemma. Namely, if penalties are determined at the partnership (and not partner) level, whose conduct can you look at to determine if the partnership (and not the partners) had reasonable cause and good faith?
Regulations require that if an individual partner invokes section 6664 as a personal defense, that invocation has to be done in a partner level proceeding (generally, a refund action after the TEFRA proceeding is completed). Treas. Reg. § 301.6221-1(d). The IRS position as to how this applies in practice appears to be that the only conduct that is relevant for purposes of applying section 6664 in a TEFRA proceeding is what the partnership did through its own non-partner employees or, perhaps (it is unclear), the “tax matters partner” who manages the tax affairs of the partnership. From the IRS perspective, if a partner asserts conduct for purposes of section 6664, that assertion has to be parsed to see if the partner intended his or her conduct to be attributed to the partnership or, rather, asserted it on their own behalf. See Pet. for Rehearing at 8-10, Klamath Strategic Investment Fund v. United States, 568 F.3d 537 (5th Cir. 2009) (Docket No. 07-40861) (the petition was denied, it is included here to show the IRS position). Exactly how one is to conduct this hair-splitting (some might say hare-brained) analysis is hard to fathom. The best evidence of whether a partner’s conduct was on his or her behalf, or the partnership’s, will be the partner’s own statement. Presumably, any well-advised partner will say that he or she intended the conduct on behalf of the partnership if the desire is to raise the defense on behalf of the partnership, and only badly advised partners won’t. Surely, this is not a sustainable test.
Courts are split. The Fifth Circuit in Klamath rejected the IRS theory and looked to the actions of partners to impute reasonable cause and good faith to the partnership. 568 F.3d at 548. The Court of Federal Claims had at least two competing views. Stobie Creek Investments, LLC v. United States, 82 Fed. Cl. 636, 703 (2008) generally went the same way as Klamath, looking to the managing partners’ actions. But in what has to be the most thorough analysis of the issue, Judge Allegra in Clearmeadow Invs., LLC v. United States, 87 Fed. Cl. 509, 520 (2009) ruled for the Government giving deference to: (i) the regulatory edict that actions of the partners are only to be considered in the later refund proceeding and not in the TEFRA proceeding; and (ii) the language of section 6664 and regulations thereunder, which focuses on “taxpayers” and distinguishes partnerships from taxpayers. Based on the docket, Clearmeadow is not being appealed.
Regardless of your persuasion, at least Clearmeadow seemed to have debunked the idea that it could somehow matter (and, even more strangely, somehow be determined by the judge) whether the partner intended the conduct on his or her own behalf or on behalf of the partnership. Id. at 521. Relying on the discretion of a litigant to determine jurisdiction does seem off-base. Yet that is exactly what the Federal Circuit did on appeal in Stobie Creek, affirming on the basis that the Court had jurisdiction because the partnership “claim[ed] it had reasonable cause based on the actions of its managing partner.” Stobie Creek Invs. LLC v. United States, 608 F.3d 1366, 1381 (Fed. Cir. 2010). Given that the Court went on to find that there was no reasonable cause, a cynic might say that the Court was anxious to give itself jurisdiction so it could reject the penalty defense definitively and prevent the taxpayer from taking another bite at the apple in a later refund proceeding, perhaps in district court. In any event, Stobie Creek has reignited the debate about whether a self-serving statement about intent controls jurisdiction and doesn’t seem to resolve the questions of: (i) when a partner is acting on his or her own behalf versus the partnership’s or (ii) whether the rules apply differently to managing versus non-managing partners. The state of the law in this area of penalty application is indeed still schizophrenic.
The next post in the penalties series will skip past valuation allowances (where there is also a circuit split we will come back to) and deal with reasonable reliance on tax advisers (for which we will surely get some hate mail).
August 11, 2010
Virginia has filed an amicus brief in the Fourth Circuit in support of the taxpayers in the Virginia Historic case. (See here and here for previous coverage of the appeal). The brief focuses primarily on policy, arguing that Virginia created these tax credits to facilitate historic preservation and expected that partnership vehicles might be necessary for businesses and individuals to make use of the credits. According to the Commonwealth, “the IRS’s aggressive position threatens the effectiveness of the program and its benefits for all Virginians.” Although the amicus brief is light on analysis of the federal tax issues, it may well help persuade the Fourth Circuit that this is not a case where it needs to step in to prevent some kind of taxpayer “hanky-panky,” but rather that going along with the Tax Court would be “doing the right thing.”
July 29, 2010
Based our recent post on the Sala decision here, we have had several comments inquiring about the varied application of penalties in the “tax shelter” cases. This is the first in a planned series of responses to those comments that will try to explain, iron out, or at least flag, some of the irregularities.
When looking at the application of penalties to “shelter” cases generally, procedural posture matters. A good example of this is Sala. Why did the 10th Circuit discussion in Sala omit penalties? Because it was a refund case in which the taxpayer appears to have filed a qualified amended return (“QAR”) prior to being “caught” by the IRS. See generally 26 C.F.R. § 1.6664-2(c)(2). There is a discussion of whether Sala’s amended return was qualified in the district court opinion and that ruling apparently was not a subject of the appeal. Sala v. United States, 552 F. Supp. 2d 1167, 1204 (D. Colo. 2008). Thus, in a refund suit posture, there may be procedural reasons why penalties are inapplicable.
The refund claim situation is contrasted for penalty purposes with either deficiency proceedings or TEFRA proceedings. In either of the latter, penalties cannot be abated by a QAR (at least as to the matter at issue) because the taxpayer must have a deficiency or adjustment (to income) in order to bring either action. See generally sections 6212 and 6225-6. Thus, in cases such as Gouveia v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2004-25 (2004), the Tax Court addressed (and imposed) penalties in a deficiency context. And, in Castle Harbor, the courts addressed (but did not impose) penalties in the context of a TEFRA proceeding. TIFD III-E Inc. v. United States, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93853 (D. Conn 2009). (We previously discussed the pending appeal in Castle Harbour here.)
While there is nothing mysterious about the foregoing, the different routes tax cases take can often cause an illusion that there is inconsistency in the application of penalties when, in fact, the cases are just procedurally different. One other area in which this confusion is particularly common (and an area in which there is a bit of a dispute as to the correct application of the law) concerns whose behavior “counts” for purposes of the sections 6662 (reasonable basis) and 6664 (reasonable cause and good faith) defenses in the context of a TEFRA proceeding. We will address that issue in our next post on penalties.
July 27, 2010
The Appellees filed their response brief yesterday in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Comm’r, No. 10-1333 (4th Cir.) (linked below). Our previous discussion of the case is here.
The government has advanced two basic arguments. First, it argues that the partners of the state tax credit partnerships were not bona fide partners that made capital contributions; rather, the government contends, the alleged partners were, in substance, purchasers of state tax credits. As such, the proceeds of these sales transactions are gross income to the partnerships, not non-taxable contributions to capital. In making this argument, the government focuses on the fact that the alleged partners had no possibility of realizing any economic benefit from their purported investments other than the acquisition of state tax credits at a discount from their face value. Second, the government argues that even if the partners were bona fide partners, the disguised sale rules under I.R.C. § 707 apply to recharacterize the transactions as taxable sales of property by the partnership to the partners acting in non-partner capacities.
The Appellees (comprised of two of the tax credit funds at issue and their tax matters partner) contend that the investors in the tax credit funds were bona fide partners for federal income tax purposes because they pooled their capital with the intent of sharing in a pool of non-federal-tax economic benefits pursuant to partnership allocation provisions under state law. Relying on Frank Lyon Co. v. United States, 435 U.S. 561 (1978), Appellees further contend that the partnership form of the transactions at issue was compelled by state-law regulatory realities (Virginia law prohibits the direct transfer of historic preservation tax credits), and thus the form should be respected. With respect to the government’s I.R.C. § 707 argument, Appellees argue that the disguised sale rules do not apply where, as here, the partners were acting in their capacities as partners, the alleged consideration constitutes a contribution to capital, the partnership allocates tax attributes as opposed to transferring property (i.e., the state tax credits are not property), and there is a meaningful sharing of risk among partners.
Stay tuned—the Fourth Circuit’s decision could have a substantial impact on the question of the nature of a partner for federal income tax purposes and the scope of the disguised sale rules, as well as substance-over-form principles generally.
June 28, 2010
As many if not most tax practitioners are aware, Castle Harbour is the nickname of a partnership taxation case that has been the subject of a great deal of attention in recent years. See TIFD III-E Inc. v. United States, 342 F. Supp. 2d 94 (D.Conn. 2004), rev’d, 459 F.3d 220 (2d Cir. 2006). The case involved a partnership arrangement that allocated 98% of the taxable income derived from fully depreciated aircraft leases to two foreign banks, even though the banks received only a relatively meager debt-like return on their partnership interests. The IRS attacked the structure on two basic grounds: (1) that the overall arrangement was a sham, and (2) that the foreign banks were not bona fide equity partners, but rather held interests economically in the nature of secured loans.
The district court decided the case in the taxpayer’s favor, holding that the partnership arrangement was not a sham because there were legitimate business purposes for the deal, and the arrangement did have appreciable economic effects, even though the partners had tax avoidance motives in entering into the deal. The Second Circuit reversed the district court on the IRS’ second argument, namely that the banks were not bona fide partners because they had no meaningful stake in the entrepreneurial success or failure of the venture. The court’s holding was based on an application of the Supreme Court’s facts and circumstances test for bona fide partner status set forth in Commissioner v. Culbertson, 337 U.S. 733 (1949). The Second Circuit remanded the case for further consideration of an alternative argument by the taxpayer—that the partnership was a “family partnership” under I.R.C. section 704(e).
In a somewhat surprising turn, the district court held that the banks were partners in a partnership under section 704(e), irrespective of the Second Circuit’s ruling applying Culbertson. The government, of course, has appealed to the Second CIrcuit, No. 10-70. The government’s brief is linked below. The taxapayer’s brief is due September 14, 2010.
June 20, 2010
The Tax Court and the U.S. District Court in New Jersey recently issued the first two opinions construing I.R.C. section 707(a)(2)(B), which is somewhat remarkable given that the partnership disguised sale rules have been on the books since 1984. See Va. Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2009-295; United States v. G-I Holdings Inc. (In re: G-I Holdings, Inc.), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115850 (D.N.J. Dec. 14, 2009). The Government has appealed the Tax Court’s decision in Virginia Historic to the Fourth Circuit.
In Virginia Historic, the Tax Court rejected the IRS’s challenge to the use of partnerships as marketing vehicles for state tax credits. Under Virginia law, taxpayers can receive tax credits for investment in historical renovation projects. The tax credits are made available to stimulate investment in such projects because they are often unprofitable, and as a result, financing for the projects is often difficult to obtain. Because of restrictions on the direct transfer of the tax credits, the taxpayers in this case set up several investment partnerships that pooled funds from many investors and then contributed the funds to several lower-tier developer-partnerships. In exchange for investment in the developer-partnerships the upper-tier partnerships received partnership interests that entitled them to tax credits generated by specific projects. The tax credits would then be pooled by the upper-tier partnerships and distributed to the investors. The IRS took the position that the scheme was a disguised sale of tax credits in exchange for the investors’ cash.
In a memorandum opinion by Judge Kroupa, the Tax Court rejected the IRS’s disguised-sale contention largely on the basis that the investments were subject to the entrepreneurial risks of the enterprise. There was a possibility that developers would not complete the projects on time or in a manner acceptable to the state agency overseeing the projects, which placed receipt of the tax credits at risk. There was also the possibility that the upper-tier partnerships would not be able to pool sufficient credits to be able to make all of the promised distributions. Although distribution of the credits was guaranteed by the partnerships, there was no guarantee that the partnerships would have sufficient resources to make the investors whole. Accordingly, the court held that the investors’ capital was sufficiently at risk in order to avoid disguised sale treatment. Significantly, the degree of risk associated with the acquisition of state tax credits was relatively small, especially given that the investment partnerships spread risk through the pooling of resources and the dispersion of those resources over many developer-partnership projects.
The government has filed its opening brief. The taxpayer’s brief in response is due July 26, 2010. We will continue to monitor the case and post the briefs as soon as they are available.
The district court in GI-Holdings, by contrast, did apply the disguised-sale rule of Code section 707(b). The unpublished decision, linked below, contains a detailed discussion of the issue, but it is not yet an appealable order. Proceedings in the district court have been stayed until September 2010, but there is a strong possibility that the case will be appealed to the Third Circuit after the remaining issues are resolved in the district court.