November 5, 2014
The Second Circuit did not make the parties wait very long to learn the outcome of the Barnes Group’s appeal from the Tax Court’s imposition of dividend treatment on its multi-step transaction that enabled it to use in the United States cash that was located in Singapore. See our prior reports here and here. Little more than a month after oral argument, the court of appeals today issued a summary order affirming the Tax Court in all respects. The first page of such unpublished orders recites that they “do not have precedential effect,” but they can be cited in future cases pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 (albeit only in limited circumstances in the Second Circuit, see 2d Cir. Local Rule 32.1.1). In any event, the court issued a nine-page opinion briefly touching on the issues.
First, the court of appeals quickly agreed with the Tax Court that the IRS had not run afoul of the principle that it should not argue against its own revenue rulings. Even though Barnes had relied on Rev. Rul. 74-503 in determining the tax consequences of a key step in the transaction, the court of appeals accepted the Tax Court’s explanation that Rev. Rul. 74-503 could be disregarded because it “addressed the tax treatment of an isolated exchange of stock, and therefore provided no guidance on when the individual steps in an integrated series of transactions will be disregarded under the step transaction doctrine.”
The court then upheld the application of the step-transaction doctrine, agreeing with the Tax Court that the intermediate steps would have been fruitless unless they were part of a single integrated plan. The court rejected the taxpayer’s argument that the doctrine should not apply because the steps had a valid business purpose, finding that the Tax Court’s contrary finding of no valid business purpose was not clearly erroneous. Specifically, the court of appeals stated that “any non-tax benefit of including the financing subsidiaries was, at best, a mere afterthought.” Similarly, the court held that the Tax Court did not clearly err in premising its constructive dividend conclusion on a finding that Barnes failed to show that certain interest or preferred dividend payments were ever made.
Finally, the court of appeals upheld the imposition of the 20% accuracy-related penalty. It ruled that its previous distinction of Rev. Rul. 74-503 as not applying to a situation involving multiple steps also made that ruling unavailable as “substantial authority” that could eliminate the penalty. And it ruled that Barnes had no “reasonable cause and good faith” defense because the PwC opinion on which it had relied “does not advise as to the tax consequences of the entire series of transactions transferring funds from ASA to Barnes.”
June 16, 2014
All of the briefs have now been filed in the Barnes case. The government’s response brief defends the Tax Court’s decision as a run-of-the-mill application of substance over form principles. Quoting from True v. Commissioner, 190 F.3d 1165 (10th Cir. 1999), it argues that the step-transaction doctrine applies because the “Bermuda/Delaware exchanges did not ‘make[ ] any objective sense standing alone’ without contemplation of the other steps.” In arguing that these steps served no business purpose, the government relies heavily on evidence that the “reinvestment plan” was based on tax planning that the taxpayer’s accountants had previously done for another client. The government asserts that “Barnes and PwC went to great lengths to create out of whole cloth a business purpose for a tax-avoidance plan that originated in PwC’s database.” Rather than a legitimate business plan, the government alleges that “the entire repatriation scheme consists of essentially nothing more than a circular flow of funds among Barnes and its wholly owned subsidiaries.”
The government’s brief also notes that, if the court of appeals is unpersauded by the Tax Court’s opinion, it should remand for additional factual determinations to resolve two alternative government arguments that were not reached by the Tax Court: 1) that the transaction had the principal purpose of tax evasion and therefore deductions could be disallowed under Code section 269; and (2) that the Delaware preferred stock was held under the anti-abuse rule of Treas. Reg. § 1.956-1T(b)(4).
With respect to the issue discussed in our previous post regarding the taxpayer’s argument that the government was prohibited from disavowing Rev. Rul. 74-503, the brief largely tracks the Tax Court’s discussion. In other words, the government does not question the soundness of the principle stated in Rauenhorst that the IRS cannot argue against its Revenue Rulings. Rather, the brief simply doubles down on the step-transaction point and argues that the taxpayer could not reasonably rely on that ruling here because this case does not involve “bona fide § 351 exchanges.”
With respect to the penalty issue, the government again criticizes PwC’s role, arguing that PwC had a “conflict of interest” in issuing an opinion regarding the transaction because it had an interest in a favorable tax result that would allow PwC to “market [the tax plan] to other corporations seeking to repatriate funds from a controlled foreign corporation.” Accordingly, the government argues that the taxpayer could not reasonably rely on the PwC letter for “objective advice.” The government also argues that the taxpayer could not reasonably rely on the opinion because “PwC did not opine on the integrated repatriation scheme as a whole.”
The taxpayer’s reply brief argues that the government’s brief “mischaracterizes the substance of the plan” because the Bermuda and Delaware subsidiaries did not operate as conduits for a dividend payment. Instead, it accuses the government of making a policy-based argument that would “impermissibly convert Section 956 into an anti-abuse rule.” The brief then disputes in detail the government’s description of the transaction and underlying facts.
With respect to the penalty issue, the reply brief states that the government “essentially rewrites the Tax Court’s factual findings” in criticizing reliance on the PwC opinion. The brief notes that PwC was Barnes’ long-time tax advisor and did not market the transaction to Barnes. It also states that the Tax Court held that the PwC advisor “was a competent professional who had sufficient expertise to justify reliance” and that Barnes “provided necessary and accurate information to the advisor.” In particular, the reply brief responds to the government’s “conflict of interest” accusation against PwC by noting that the Tax Court specifically observed that there was nothing “nefarious” about PwC keeping tax planning ideas in a database and by asserting that “the government’s unfounded assertions that PwC did not provide an adverse opinion in order to sell the transaction to others is ludicrous and without any factual basis.” The reply brief also argues that the government is incorrect in stating that the PwC opinion did not address the entire transaction, quoting the PwC opinion itself as stating that it “is premised on all steps of the proposed transaction.”
Oral argument has not yet been scheduled.
Briefing Underway in Barnes as Second Circuit Considers Application of Step-Transaction Doctrine to Impose Dividend Treatment on Movement of Foreign Cash
February 21, 2014
In Barnes Group v. Commissioner, the Tax Court (Goeke, J.) looked askance at the taxpayer’s strategy for minimizing the tax consequences of a movement of foreign cash to U.S. affiliates. As the taxpayer explained it, its foreign subsidiary in Singapore had excess cash and borrowing capacity that Barnes wanted to use to finance international acquisitions. For the time being, however, there was no suitable acquisition target, and the cash was earning only 3% in short-term deposit accounts while it could have been used more profitably in the U.S. to reduce Barnes’s expensive long-term debt. Barnes hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to help it develop an approach to allow the foreign cash to be used in the U.S. without incurring the adverse U.S. tax consequences of a direct loan or distribution to the U.S. parent.
The resulting “reinvestment plan” involved the creation of two new subsidiaries, one in Bermuda and one in Delaware, and two successive contributions of cash in section 351 exchanges – first from Singapore to Bermuda and second from Bermuda to Delaware. The Delaware subsidiary then loaned the cash to Barnes. Feel free to examine the opinion linked below for the details of the transaction, but suffice it to say here that a linchpin of the tax planning was reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503, which concluded that when two corporations exchange their own stock under circumstances similar to the section 351 exchange between the Bermuda and Delaware subsidiaries, they take a zero basis in the stock received. (Rev. Rul. 74-503 was revoked by Rev. Rul. 2006-2, but the earlier ruling is still relevant in this case because Rev. Rul. 2006-2 is prospective and provides that the IRS will not challenge positions already taken by a taxpayer that reasonably relied on Rev. Rul. 74-503.) Although Bermuda’s ownership of stock in its Delaware affiliate was an investment in U.S. property under section 956 and therefore would typically result in adverse U.S. tax consequences similar to a distribution, Barnes argued that Bermuda’s basis was zero and therefore that its section 956 inclusion should be zero.
The Tax Court disagreed, holding that the U.S. tax consequences of the transaction were different from those anticipated by Barnes. The court first determined that Rev. Rul. 74-503 did not preclude the IRS from challenging the taxpayer’s position, giving two reasons. First, the court briefly stated that, because it believed that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend from [Singapore] to Barnes” (as it would explain later in the opinion), the court did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” and therefore the ruling was irrelevant. Second, the court said that the ruling was irrelevant in any event because of the “substantial factual differences” between the ruling and this case. The court acknowledged that the section 351 exchanges, “considered alone, do have factual similarities to the revenue ruling,” but noted that they also were different in that they involved new subsidiaries, including a controlled foreign corporation. In addition, the Tax Court emphasized that the Barnes transaction was more complex than the one described in the ruling and listed seven “vast factual disparities” between the two situations. The court, however, devoted little attention to explaining why these factual differences were material to whether the principle of the ruling should apply here. Instead, the court simply recited the factual differences and then concluded that, “because the reinvestment plan far exceeded the scope of the stock-for-stock exchange addressed in Rev. Rul. 74-503,” the IRS was not precluded from challenging the taxpayer’s position.
The court then applied a step-transaction analysis to support its holding that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend” from Singapore to Barnes and should be taxed as such. According to the court, the step-transaction doctrine provides that “a particular step in a transaction is disregarded for tax purposes if the taxpayer could have achieved its objective more directly but instead included the step for no other purpose than to avoid tax liability.” The court stated that the doctrine applies if any of three tests are satisfied: (1) the binding commitment test; (2) the end result test; and (3) the interdependence test. Finding the third test to be the most appropriate, the Tax Court concluded that the various steps were “so interdependent that the legal relations created by one step would have been fruitless without completion of the later steps.” The key premise underlying that ultimate conclusion was the court’s determination that there was no “valid and independent economic or business purpose . . . served by the inclusion of Bermuda and Delaware in the reinvestment plan.” This analysis is an aggressive application of the step-transaction doctrine, taking it beyond its usual sphere, given that the steps ignored by the court were not transitory and that the characterization of the transaction as a dividend did not leave the parties in an economic position consistent with their legal rights and obligations following the actual transaction.
The court further found that Barnes did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” as Barnes made no interest payments to Delaware on the loan (even though interest had been accrued) and did not provide sufficient evidence that Delaware made any preferred dividend payments to Bermuda.
Finally, the court rejected the taxpayer’s contention that the reinvestment plan was intended to be a temporary structure under which the Singapore funds would ultimately be invested overseas when the right target appeared, noting that Barnes did not return any funds to Singapore.
The Tax Court also upheld the government’s imposition of a 20% accuracy-related penalty. The taxpayer raised two defenses to the penalty, arguing that its position was based on “substantial authority” and that it reasonably and in good faith relied on the PwC opinion letter. The court gave the “substantial authority” argument short shrift, simply repeating that Rev. Rul. 74-503 was “materially distinguishable” and hence should be afforded little weight. In response to the taxpayer’s additional citation of a 1972 General Counsel Memorandum, the court stated that GCMs “over 10 years old are afforded very little weight.” Given that taxpayers are generally invited to rely on the legal principles set forth in revenue rulings as precedent (see Treas. Reg. § 601.601(d)(2)(v)(d)), the court’s perfunctory dismissal of the taxpayer’s reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503 as substantial authority – and consequent imposition of a penalty – appears fairly harsh.
With respect to reliance on the PwC opinion, the court rested its decision on its finding that Barnes and its subsidiaries did not respect the structure of the reinvestment plan by failing to pay loan interest or preferred stock dividends. In the court’s view, “by failing to respect the details of the reinvestment plan set up by PwC, . . . [the taxpayer] forfeited any defense of reliance on the opinion letter.”
The taxpayer’s opening brief contends that all of these determinations by the Tax Court are erroneous. The first and longest section of the brief criticizes the court’s step-transaction analysis and ultimate conclusion that the transactions simply amounted to a dividend from Singapore to Barnes. In the taxpayer’s view, the court’s analysis “invent[s] a new step” of a constructive dividend that “fails to account for all of the commercial realities that continue to this day for the four legally separate corporate entities.” For example, the taxpayer argues that the evidence showed that Barnes intended to repay the loans and therefore it could not be a constructive dividend. Much of this portion of the taxpayer’s brief argues that the Tax Court’s key factual findings were clearly erroneous – namely, that the two new subsidiaries lacked a non-tax business purpose; that Barnes paid no interest to Delaware; that no preferred dividends were paid; and that the reinvestment plan was not intended to be temporary.
Second, the brief argues that the government impermissibly disavowed Rev. Rul. 74-503. The taxpayer points to Rauenhorst v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 157 (2002), for the proposition that the IRS cannot challenge the legal principles set forth in its own revenue rulings. It then argues that the factual differences identified by the Tax Court are irrelevant to the rationale for Rev. Rul. 74-503 and thus provide no basis for the government’s failure to abide by that rationale.
It will be interesting, and instructive for other cases, to see how the government deals with this point. If it is true that revenue rulings are supposed to provide guidance on legal principles on which taxpayers can rely, and if the IRS is constrained to some extent by its own rulings, it would seem apparent that merely identifying factual differences is not enough of a justification for disregarding the legal principles articulated in a revenue ruling. There are always going to be factual differences, especially when the ruling at issue contains only a brief and generic description of the facts, like Rev. Rul. 74-503. Will the government question the premise of the taxpayer’s argument in any way? Or will it accept the taxpayer’s statements about Rauenhorst and limit itself to defending the Tax Court’s position that the facts at issue are so materially different that the rationale of Rev. Rul. 74-503 cannot reasonably be applied here? Will it try to buttress the Tax Court’s reliance on the “vast factual disparities” between the two situations or will it simply focus on the argument that the tax effect of any individual step viewed in isolation is irrelevant (and therefore so is the ruling) because the transactions in substance amounted to a dividend?
Third, the taxpayer contests the court’s penalty determination. With respect to “substantial authority” the taxpayer relies primarily on the earlier discussion in the brief and maintains that it was reasonable to rely on the revenue ruling. With respect to the good faith argument, the taxpayer repeats its earlier discussion disputing the Tax Court’s finding that it did not respect the form of the transaction. It also argues that the PwC opinion, in any event, did not even address the loan and preferred dividend details on which the Tax Court rested its findings, and therefore the taxpayer’s alleged failures regarding those details do not undermine its claim of reasonable reliance on the PwC opinion. Finally, the taxpayer argues broadly that the Tax Court could not rest its good cause determination “on events that occurred after the returns were filed.”
The government’s brief is due May 15.
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.
January 16, 2014
That didn’t take long. Less than two weeks after learning that the parties would not be mediating their dispute (see our previous report here), the Ninth Circuit issued a brief five-page unpublished opinion affirming the Bergmann case in favor of the government. The court held that the time for filing a qualified amended return for an undisclosed listed transaction terminates when the promoter (here, KPMG) is first contacted by the IRS about examining the transaction, not when the IRS later determines the transaction is a tax shelter.
To recap the issue (see our original report here), under Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii), as in effect when the Bergmanns filed their amended return, the time to file a qualified amended return terminates when the IRS first contacts a “person” concerning liability under 26 U.S.C. § 6700 (a promoter investigation) for an activity with respect to which the taxpayer claimed a tax benefit. The Bergmanns claimed tax benefits from a Short Option Strategy promoted by KPMG on their 2001 tax return. The IRS served summonses on KPMG in March 2002 for its role in promoting the Short Option Strategy transactions. The Bergmanns did not file their qualified amended return until March 2004, shortly after KPMG identified the Bergmanns as among those taxpayers who participated in the transaction. The Bergmanns argued that “person” as used in the regulation meant only those persons liable for a promoter penalty under 26 U.S.C. § 6700.
The Ninth Circuit quickly dispatched the taxpayers’ argument, characterizing their interpretation of the regulation as “impermissibly rendering its text and purpose nonsensical.” Under the express language of the regulation, it applies when the promoter is “first contacted,” not found liable. The court of appeals concluded by observing that the purpose of qualified amended returns is to encourage and reward taxpayers who “voluntarily disclose abusive tax practices, thereby saving IRS resources.” Here, the taxpayers did not amend their return until after KPMG gave their names to the IRS.
December 9, 2013
In a somewhat unusual move, the Ninth Circuit issued an order last week suggesting that the parties pursue mediation in the Bergmann case. The order came two days after the court heard oral argument. The order states that “the court believes this case may be appropriate for mediation” and therefore it is being referred to the Ninth Circuit’s Mediation Office. A mediator will then contact the parties to determine their interest, but the parties are not required to elect mediation. The Circuit Mediator is directed to report back to the panel by January 4. In the meantime, the court will not act on the appeal.
The oral argument in this case was held on December 3 before Ninth Circuit Judges Gould, Paez, and District Court Judge Marilyn Huff, sitting by designation. As we have previously reported, the issue in this case is whether the taxpayer was insulated from penalties for participating in a tax shelter because he filed a qualified amended return. The outcome turns on the applicability of Treasury regulations that delineate when it is, in effect, too late for a taxpayer to save himself by filing an amended return because it is understood that he is doing so only because IRS actions have tipped him off that the shelter is being audited. As the parties framed the issue at oral argument, the dispute boils down to whether the current Treasury regulation (which describes what IRS actions are to be understood as tipping off the taxpayer) was merely a clarification of the previous regulation that was in effect at the time that the taxpayer filed his amended return. The taxpayer’s counsel conceded that applying the terms of the current regulation would have terminated the right to avoid penalties by filing an amended return; government counsel conceded that it is the older regulation, not the current one, that applies.
A couple of questions were asked at oral argument of each side, but nothing unexpected arose that obviously should have prompted the panel to suggest mediation. Towards the end of the argument, however, after the panel had established that few, if any, taxpayers remain governed by the terms of the older regulation, District Judge Huff asked government counsel whether the parties had considered mediation (noting that she did not even know if the Ninth Circuit had a mediation program). Not surprisingly, both government counsel and later taxpayer counsel said that they would not rule anything out and would be willing to entertain mediation.
The Ninth Circuit, of course, has an established mediation program — to which this case is now being referred — but that program ordinarily kicks in at the outset of the appeal, not after briefing and oral argument. In fact, in this case the parties participated in the first stage of that process, a telephone settlement assessment conference, back in March 2012. Thereafter, on March 15, 2012, the Court issued an order stating that the case was not selected for the mediation program, and it then proceeded to briefing.
The panel is now suggesting that the parties take a fresh look and decide whether they can reach a middle ground. There is no middle ground if the appeal proceeds to a decision: either the qualified amended return was timely and effective to protect against penalties or the taxpayer’s ability to achieve that protection was terminated before he filed the amended return. The panel perhaps decided that a fairer result lies somewhere in the middle — given that the text of the older regulation appears to lean towards the taxpayer but resolving the case on that basis might be regarded as allowing the taxpayer to benefit from a poorly drafted regulation when it should have been too late, as a policy matter, to avoid penalties by filing an amended return. Whatever the court was thinking, the oral argument and this order have given each side reason for concern that it might lose if the appeal proceeds to judgment. On the one hand, the judges did not question the government’s assertions that its interpretation of the regulation was entitled to deference and that it would be a bad policy result to allow the taxpayer to escape penalties here. On the other hand, the court — particularly Judge Gould who questioned government counsel on this point — did not appear entirely convinced that the current regulation can be viewed as a “clarification” because the text of the older regulation is not easily read to support the government’s position. It is entirely possible that both sides will seize this opportunity to split the baby and will reach a settlement through the mediation process.
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.
March 13, 2013
The government has asked the Supreme Court to resolve a longstanding conflict in the circuits on the applicability of the penalty for valuation misstatements in United States v. Woods, No. 12-562.
The Code contains a variety of civil penalty provisions for conduct connected with underreporting of tax. The basic penalty is found in section 6662, which imposes an accuracy-related penalty for underpayments of tax “attributable to” different kinds of conduct, including negligence, substantial understatements of tax, and substantial overvaluations. The penalty is 20% of the portion of the underpayment “attributable to” the misconduct. I.R.C. § 6662(a), (b). Section 6662(e) applies the 20% penalty in the case of a “substantial valuation misstatement,” which is defined as occurring when “the value of any property (or the adjusted basis of any property) claimed on any [tax return] is 150 percent or more of the amount determined to be the correct amount of such valuation or adjusted basis.” I.R.C. § 6662(e)(1)(A). That 20% penalty is doubled, however, to 40% in the case of a “gross valuation misstatement,” which is defined in the same way, except that the overvaluation is 200% or more of the correct amount. I.R.C. § 6662(h)(2)(A)(i). (Prior to 2006, the relevant percentages were 200% for a substantial valuation misstatement and 400% for a gross valuation misstatement.)
Congress’s focus in originally enacting this penalty was to address a specific problem of overvaluation. It found that many taxpayers were severely overvaluing difficult-to-value assets like artwork, anticipating that the dispute would ultimately be resolved by “dividing the difference.” Thus, the severe penalties were enacted as a deterrent to these overvaluations. See generally H.R. Rep. No. 97-201, at 243 (1981).
In the last decade or so, however, the government has most frequently invoked this penalty regime in its efforts to combat tax shelters. Oversimplifying a bit, many tax shelters work by using a series of transactions that have the effect of creating a high basis in some particular asset. Disposal of that asset then generates a large tax loss. The IRS often argues in these cases that the high basis is artificially inflated because the transactions lack economic substance. If that argument succeeds, the high basis and attendant tax loss goes away. In such cases, the government also frequently argues that the 40% gross valuation overstatement penalty applies on the theory that the taxpayer claimed a high basis in an asset ultimately found to have a much lower basis; hence, the adjusted basis “claimed on” the return exceeded by more than 200% or 400% “the amount determined to be the correct amount of” the adjusted basis. I.R.C. § 6662(h)(2)(A)(i). The government has not been able to apply this approach in a uniform way across the country, however, because of a persistent disagreement in the circuits over how to construe the penalty statute.
The crux of the dispute centers on the “attributable to” language in the statute. More than 25 years ago, the IRS contested certain taxpayers’ deductions and credits claimed as a result of transactions involving the purchase of refrigerated containers. It argued both that the taxpayers had overstated their bases in the property and that the containers had not been placed in service in the years in which the deductions had been taken. The court ruled for the IRS based on the latter argument. The Fifth Circuit held that, in these circumstances, the valuation overstatement penalty did not apply because the tax underpayment was not “attributable to” the valuation overstatement; even if there were such an overstatement, the deductions were completely disallowed for a reason independent of the overstatement. Todd v. Commissioner, 862 F.2d 540, 541-45 (5th Cir. 1988). Two years later, the Fifth Circuit applied Todd to a case where the two grounds for disallowance were more closely connected, the IRS having contended that the units were overvalued and that the taxpayers did not have a profit motive for the transactions. Heasley v. Commissioner, 902 F.2d 380, 383 (5th Cir. 1990).
The Fifth Circuit has continued to apply Heasley in tax shelter cases, holding that when an asset is found to have an artificially inflated basis because transactions lack economic substance, the tax underpayment is “attributable to” the economic substance conclusion, not to an overvaluation. Last year, it reaffirmed its adherence to that approach in Bemont Invs. L.L.C. v. United States, 679 F.3d 339 (5th Cir. 2012), although the judges indicated that they thought the Fifth Circuit precedent was probably wrong. Shortly thereafter, a different panel rejected the government’s position in a one-paragraph per curiam opinion in Woods v. Commissioner, No. 11-50487 (June 6, 2012), that describes Todd, Heasley, and Bemont as “well-settled,” and the court denied a petition for rehearing en banc. As a result, the 40% penalty is unavailable in the Fifth Circuit in the typical tax shelter case, although a 20% penalty usually will still apply because of negligence or a substantial understatement of tax (I.R.C. §§ 6662(c), (d)(1)).
The government asks the Court to grant certiorari in Woods, contending in its petition that “[t]here is a lopsided but intractable division among the circuits over whether a taxpayer’s underpayment of tax can be ‘attributable to’ a misstatement of basis where the transaction that created an inflated basis is disregarded in its entirety as lacking economic substance.” Although the Ninth Circuit has followed the Fifth Circuit’s approach, the petition states that eight other circuits have gone the other way. Several of those decisions have expressly disagreed with the Fifth Circuit precedent. The petition says the circuit conflict is “ripe for resolution” given that the Fifth and Ninth Circuit have recently denied petitions for rehearing en banc asking them to reconsider their minority view on this issue.
The case is a strong candidate for Supreme Court review, unless the Court concludes that the issue is “overripe.” In 2010, Congress passed section 6662(i), which imposes a 40% penalty on any underpayment of tax attributable to a “nondisclosed noneconomic substance transaction” entered into after March 30, 2010. That new section would make the penalty applicable in such economic substance situations even in the Fifth and Ninth Circuits, and thus makes resolution of the conflict less important for future years. The cert petition addresses this concern, stating that the new statute “has no application to the thousands of taxpayers who engaged in abusive, basis-inflating tax shelters before the provision’s effective date.” In addition, the government argues that the new provision will not affect cases “where value- or basis-related deductions are disallowed in full on a ground other than lack of economic substance.”
In its brief in opposition, the taxpayer does not deny the existence of the circuit conflict. He argues, however, that the issue does not warrant the Court’s attention, largely because the 2010 legislation has resolved the issue presented for future years. In addition, the taxpayer argues that “the imposition of the 40% penalty in cases where the 20% penalty applies is not an important matter” and expresses skepticism about the government’s “sensationalized claim” that “hundreds of millions of dollars” in penalties are riding on this issue. In response, the government identifies a group of eight cases docketed within the Fifth Circuit that involve aggregate basis misstatements of approximately $4 billion.
The Court is expected to announce whether it will hear the case on March 18.
February 8, 2013
The Bergmanns participated in a listed transaction promoted by KPMG, known as the Short Option Strategy. When the Bergmanns filed their amended return in March 2004, the IRS had already served KPMG with summonses targeted at KMPG’s promotion of the Short Option Strategy. As discussed in an earlier post, the Tax Court held that the Bergmanns failed to timely file a qualified amended return and thus were subject to the 20-percent accuracy related penalty. Under the regulations in effect when the taxpayers filed their return, the time for filing a qualified amended return terminated when “any person described in § 6700(a) (relating to the penalty for promoting abusive tax shelters) is first contacted by the Internal Revenue Service concerning an examination of an activity described in § 6700(a) with respect to which the taxpayer claimed any benefit on the return . . . .” Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii). The Tax Court rejected the Bergmanns’ argument that the promoter provision of the qualified amended return regulations required the IRS to establish that KPMG was liable for the § 6700 promoter penalty.
On appeal, the Bergmanns’ principal argument is that the Tax Court erroneously applied the current qualified amended return regulation rather than the regulation in effect when the amended return was filed. The current regulation, Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(i)(B), which applies to amended returns filed on or after March 2, 2005, treats as a terminating event the “date any person is first contacted by the IRS concerning an examination of that person under § 6700 . . . for an activity with respect to which the taxpayer claimed any benefit on the return,” rather than the date “any person described in § 6700(a)” is contacted. The Bergmanns acknowledge that their amended return would be untimely under the current regulations.
The Bergmanns argue that the Tax Court must have relied on the current regulations because its paraphrase of the regulation tracks the language of current regulation. In its brief, the Government argues that it was clear from both the post-trial briefing and the Tax Court’s decision that the Tax Court was fully aware of which regulation was controlling and in fact cited the correct version. The Government then argues that the Tax Court correctly interpreted the operative regulation. Because the terminating event is the “first contact” with the promoter, the timing should not turn on the ultimate results of the § 6700 investigation of the promoter. And, the Government argues, any ambiguity in the regulations should be resolved by deference to the agency’s interpretation of the regulation. The Treasury Decision accompanying the amended version of the promoter provision explained that the new language was intended to “clarify the existing rules,” and, specifically, that the language “clarifies that the period for filing a qualified amended return terminates on the date the IRS first contacts a person concerning an examination under section 6700, regardless of whether the IRS ultimately establishes that such person violated section 6700.” T.D. 9186, 2005-1 C.B. at 791-82. The taxpayers’ reply brief largely ignores the Government’s arguments. Oral argument has not yet been scheduled.
Ninth Circuit to Rule on Timing for Filing a Qualified Amended Return for an Undisclosed Listed Transaction
May 1, 2012
The taxpayers in Bergmann v. Commissioner are appealing an adverse Tax Court decision, 137 T.C. No. 10, holding that they failed to timely file a qualified amended return for 2001 and thus are liable for the 20-percent accuracy related penalty. The taxpayers participated in a listed transaction promoted by KPMG, known as the Short Option Strategy. In 2004, two years after the IRS issued a summons to KPMG specifically identifying the Short Option Strategy transaction, the Bergmanns filed an amended return disclaiming the tax benefits of the transaction. The case concerns the interpretation of Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii) (2004), which establishes rules on the timing of filing a qualified amended return for undisclosed listed transactions. If an amended return is filed before certain terminating events, additional tax reported on the amended return will be treated as if it were reported on the original return. Under the “promoter provision,” the amended return must be filed before the IRS first contacts a person concerning liability under section 6700 (a promoter investigation). The Tax Court rejected the taxpayers’ argument that the IRS must establish that the target of the promoter investigation is in fact liable for a promoter penalty. The Tax Court also held that, in investigating the promoter, the IRS need only identify the “type” of transaction in which the taxpayer engaged, not the specific transaction or the identity of the taxpayer.
In 2000-2001, taxpayer Jeffrey Bergmann was a tax partner in KPMG’s Stratecon Group, which the Tax Court characterizes as “focused on designing, promoting and implementing aggressive tax planning strategies for high-net-worth individuals.” In tax years 2000 and 2001, Bergmann entered into a “Short Option Strategy” transaction promoted by fellow KPMG partner Jeffrey Greenberg. This transaction was identified by the IRS as an abusive tax shelter in Notice 2000-44, 2000-2 C.B. 255 (transactions generating losses by artificially inflating basis). The taxpayers (Bergmann and his wife) claimed losses for the 2000 and 2001 Short Option Strategy transactions on their 2001 return, but filed an amended return in March 2004 removing the losses attributable to the transactions and paying approximately $200,000 in additional tax. The IRS treated the qualified amended return as untimely and assessed accuracy-related penalties.
Under Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii), as in effect when the Bermanns filed their amended return, the time to file a qualified amended return terminates when the IRS first contacts a person “concerning” liability under section 6700 (a promoter investigation) for an “activity” with respect to which the taxpayer claimed a tax benefit. The IRS served KPMG with two summonses in March 2002, one of which was specifically targeted at KPMG’s involvement in promoting transactions covered by Notice 2000-44. Attempting to disassociate their transaction from those that were the subject of the KPMG investigation, the taxpayers argued that Greenberg acted in his individual capacity in advising them, not as an agent of KPMG. The Tax Court rejected this argument, concluding that the transactions in which the taxpayers engaged were within the scope of Greenberg’s responsibilities as a KPMG partner and also concluding that KPMG had not limited Greenberg’s authority to engage in Notice 2000-44 transactions with other KPMG partners, including Bergmann. The Tax Court also rejected the taxpayers’ argument that the promoter investigation must specifically identify the “activity” that gave rise to the tax benefit. The Tax Court held that the summons need only refer to the “type” of transaction in which the taxpayer participated. The court found that the March 2002 summons met this requirement because it specifically identified the transaction as the same or substantially similar to the transaction identified in Notice 2000-44.
The Tax Court noted that disclosure of the transaction after the Notice 2000-44 summons was served on KPMG would not have been voluntary. The Tax Court explained that the purpose of the promoter provision is to encourage taxpayers to voluntarily disclose abusive tax shelters. That purpose is effectuated by terminating the period to file a qualified amended return when disclosure would no longer be voluntary.
The Tax Court addressed a second issue as well. At first glance, the taxpayers appeared to be subject to the 40% gross overvaluation penalty because the scheme depended on what was found to be an artificially inflated based. They argued, however, that the tax underpayment was not “attributable to” the overvaluation because the Commissioner contended (and the taxpayers eventually conceded) that the entire transaction should be disallowed for lack of economic substance, thereby making the valuation irrelevant. The Tax Court noted that this type of bootstrapping argument has been rejected by several circuits, which have held that the 40% penalty applies when overvaluation is intertwined with a tax avoidance scheme, but that Ninth Circuit precedent has accepted the argument. Keller v. Commissioner, 556 F.3d 1056. Accordingly, the Tax Court rejected the IRS’s attempt to impose a 40% penalty, and the taxpayers were assessed only the standard 20% accuracy-related penalty. The IRS has not appealed this issue.
The taxpayers’ opening brief is due on May 16. The case is docketed in the Ninth Circuit as No. 12-70259.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.