Home Concrete Decision Leaves Administrative Law Questions Unsettled While Excluding Overstatements of Basis from Six-Year Statute of Limitations

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May 3, 2012

[A shorter version of this blog post appears on SCOTUSblog.]

The Supreme Court last week ruled 5-4 in favor of the taxpayer in Home Concrete, thus putting an end to the long-running saga of the Intermountain litigation on which we have been reporting for the past 18 months.  The opinion was authored by Justice Breyer and joined in full by three other Justices, but Justice Scalia joined only in part.  The result is a definitive resolution of the specific tax issue – the six-year statute of limitations does not apply to an overstatement of basis.  But the Court’s decision provides a much less definitive resolution of the broader administrative law issues implicated in the case.

As foreshadowed by the oral argument (see our previous report here), the tax issue turned on the continuing vitality of the Court’s decision in The Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, 357 U.S. 28 (1958).  To recap, the Court held in Colony that the “omits from gross income” language in the 1939 Code did not encompass situations where the return understates gross income because of an overstatement of basis, and hence the extended six-year statute of limitations did not apply in those situations.  The government argued that Colony did not control the interpretation of the same language in current section 6501(e) of the 1954 Code, because changes elsewhere in that section suggested that Congress might have intended a different result in the 1954 Code.

The administrative law issues came into play because, after two courts of appeals had ruled that Colony controlled the interpretation of the 1954 Code, the government tried an end run around that precedent.  Treasury issued regulations interpreting the “omits from gross income” language in the 1954 Code as including overstatements of basis, thus bringing those situations within the six-year statute of limitations.  Under National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005), the government argued, an agency is empowered to issue regulations that define a statute differently than an existing court decision, so long as the court decision did not declare the statutory language unambiguous.  Because the Colony opinion had indicated that the 1939 Code language standing alone was “not unambiguous,” the government argued that Treasury’s new regulations were entitled to Chevron deference, which would supplant any precedential effect that Colony would otherwise have on the interpretation of the 1954 Code provision.

The Court’s Opinion

Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court, joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas.  Justice Scalia joined Justice Breyer’s analysis of the statute, but departed from his analysis of the administrative law issues.

The opinion dealt straightforwardly with the basic tax issue.  First, the Court emphasized that the critical “omits from gross income” language in the current statute is identical to the 1939 Code language construed in Colony, and it recounted the Colony Court’s reasoning that led it to conclude that the language does not encompass overstatements of basis.  Colony is determinative, the Court held, because it “would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to give the same language here a different interpretation without effectively overruling Colony, a course of action that basic principles of stare decisis wisely counsel us not to take.”  With respect to the statutory changes made elsewhere in section 6501(e), the Court concluded that “these points are too fragile to bear the significant argumentative weight the Government seeks to place upon them.”  The Court addressed each of these changes and concluded that none called for a different interpretation of the key language (and that one of the government’s arguments was “like hoping that a new batboy will change the outcome of the World Series”).

The Court then turned to the administrative law issues, reciting the government’s position that, under Brand X, the new regulations were owed deference despite the Court’s prior construction of the language in Colony.  The opinion first responded to that position with a two-sentence subsection:  “We do not accept this argument.  In our view, Colony has already interpreted the statute, and there is no longer any different construction that is consistent with Colony and available for adoption by the agency.”

Standing alone, that was not much of a response to the government’s Brand X argument, because Brand X said that the agency can adopt a construction different from that provided in a prior court decision so long as the statute was ambiguous.  These two sentences were enough for Justice Scalia, however, and he ended his agreement with Justice Breyer’s opinion at this point.  In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Scalia explained that he is adhering to the view expressed in his dissent in Brand X that an agency cannot issue regulations reinterpreting statutory language that has been definitively construed by a court.

With the other Justices in the majority not feeling free to ignore Brand X, Justice Breyer’s opinion (now a plurality opinion) then proceeded to explain why Brand X did not require a ruling for the government.  According to the plurality, Brand X should be given a more nuanced reading than that urged by the government, one that looks to whether a prior judicial decision found a statute to be “unambiguous” in the sense that the court concluded that Congress intended to leave “‘no gap for the agency to fill’ and thus ‘no room for agency discretion.’”  Under Chevron jurisprudence, the opinion continued, unambiguous statutory language provides a “clear sign” that Congress did not delegate gap-filling authority to an agency, while ambiguous language provides “a presumptive indication that Congress did delegate that gap-filling authority.”  That presumption is not conclusive, however, and thus this reading of Brand X leaves room for a court to conclude that a judicial interpretation of ambiguous statutory language can foreclose an agency from issuing a contrary regulatory interpretation.  In support of that proposition, the plurality quoted footnote 9 of Chevron, which states that “[i]f a court, employing traditional tools of statutory construction, ascertains that Congress had an intention on the precise question at issue, that intention is the law and must be given effect.”

The plurality then ruled that the Court in Colony had concluded that Congress had definitively resolved the legal issue and left no gap to be filled by a regulatory interpretation.  Given its analysis of the scope of Brand X, the plurality explained that the Colony Court’s statement (26 years before Chevron) that the statutory language was not “unambiguous” did not necessarily leave room for the agency to act.  Rather, the Colony Court’s opinion as a whole – notably, its view that the taxpayer had the better interpretation of the statutory language and had additional support from the legislative history – showed that the Court believed that Congress had not “left a gap to fill.”  Therefore, “the Government’s gap-filling regulation cannot change Colony’s interpretation of the statute,” and the Court today is obliged by stare decisis to follow it.

The Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

Justice Kennedy’s dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, reached a different conclusion on the basic tax dispute.  The dissent looked at the statutory changes made in the 1954 Code and concluded that they are “meaningful” and “strongly favor” the conclusion that the “omits from gross income” language in the 1954 Code should not be read the way the Colony Court read that same language in the 1939 Code.  Given that view, the administrative law issue – and the resolution of the case – became easy.  The dissent stated that the Treasury regulations are operating on a blank slate, construing a statute different from the one construed in Colony, and therefore they are owed Chevron deference without the need to rely on Brand X at all.

Justice Scalia’s concurring opinion declared a pox on both houses.  He was extremely critical of the plurality’s approach, accusing it of “revising yet again the meaning of Chevron . . . in a direction that will create confusion and uncertainty.”  He also criticized the dissent for praising the idea of a “continuing dialogue among the three branches of Government on questions of statutory interpretation,” when the right approach should be to say that “Congress prescribes and we obey.”  Justice Scalia concluded:  “Rather than making our judicial-review jurisprudence curiouser and curiouser, the Court should abandon the opinion that produces these contortions, Brand X.  I join the judgment announced by the Court because it is indisputable that Colony resolved the construction of the statutory language at issue here, and that construction must therefore control.”

What Does It Mean?

The Home Concrete decision provides a clear resolution of the specific tax issue.  The six-year statute of limitations does not apply to overstatements of basis.  The multitude of cases pending administratively and in the courts that involve this issue will now be dismissed as untimely, leaving the IRS unable to recover what it estimated as close to $1 billion in unpaid taxes.

Indeed, in a series of orders issued on April 30, the Court has already cleared its docket of the other Intermountain-type cases that had been decided in the courts of appeals and kept alive by filing petitions for certiorari.  In Burks and the other Fifth Circuit cases in which the taxpayers had prevailed, the Court simply denied certiorari, making the taxpayers’ victory final.  For the certiorari petitions filed from courts of appeals that had sided with the government, such as Grapevine (Federal Circuit), Beard (Seventh Circuit), Salman Ranch (Tenth Circuit), and Intermountain and UTAM (D.C. Circuit), the Court granted the petitions and immediately vacated the court of appeals decisions and remanded the cases to the courts of appeals for reconsideration.  Now constriained by Home Concrete, those courts will enter judgments in favor of the taxpayers in due course.

Notably, although the retroactive nature of the Treasury regulations was a significant point of contention in the litigation, retroactivity did not play a role in the final resolution.  The Court held that Colony is controlling and leaves no room for the agency to construe the “omits from gross income” language differently.  Thus, Treasury does not have the ability to use its regulatory authority to extend the six-year statute to overstatements of basis even prospectively.  Any such extension will have to come from Congress.

The effect of the decision on administrative law generally is considerably more muddled.  First, a couple of observations on what the Court did not do.  It did not signal any retreat from Mayo.  Treasury regulations addressed to tax issues will continue to be judged under the same Chevron deference principles that apply to regulations issued by other agencies.  Furthermore, as noted above, the Court did not rely on the retroactive aspect of the regulations.  Thus, the decision does not provide guidance one way or another on the extent to which Treasury is constrained in its ability to apply regulations to earlier tax years.

What the Court did do, however, is to weaken the authority of Brand X.  Under the reasoning of Justice Breyer’s plurality opinion, courts are now free to decline to defer to a regulatory interpretation that construes ambiguous statutory language – if the court concludes that a prior court decision, using “traditional tools of statutory construction” that go beyond the text, determined that Congress intended to resolve the issue rather than leave a gap for the agency to fill.  Although there were only four votes for that proposition, Justice Scalia’s approach would lead him to agree with such a result just as he did in Home Concrete, so lower courts may treat the plurality opinion as controlling.  There is, however, room for debate about the impact of the Home Concrete approach.  Justice Breyer’s opinion emphasizes the fact that Colony was decided long before Chevron, and lower courts may disagree regarding its impact when the court decision at issue is post-Chevron and, in particular, post-Brand X.  At a minimum, the Home Concrete decision should make agencies less confident in their ability to use regulations to overturn judicial interpretations of statutes and should give taxpayers more ammunition to challenge such regulations if necessary.

Interestingly, Justice Breyer’s approach, and in particular his invocation of Chevron’s footnote 9 reference to “traditional tools of statutory construction,” was previewed in the argument in the Federal Circuit in the Grapevine case.  As we reported at the time, that argument involved considerable discussion of whether the determination of “ambiguous” at Chevron step 1 must be based entirely on the statutory text, as Brand X suggests, or can be based on other “traditional tools of statutory construction,” as Chevron footnote 9 declares.  In its decision, the Federal Circuit stuck to the statutory text and ruled for the government.

Justice Breyer’s opinion, however, supports the proposition that Chevron step 1 analysis can look beyond the statutory text.  If that portion of Justice Breyer’s opinion had commanded a majority, it would be extremely significant because it would justify looking beyond the statutory text not only in assessing the impact of Brand X when there is a court decision on the books, but also in considering a Chevron deference argument in the first instance.  A court could decide, under the approach suggested by Justice Breyer, that a statute whose text standing alone is ambiguous nonetheless leaves no room for agency interpretation – if other tools of statutory construction show that Congress intended to resolve the issue rather than leaving a gap for the agency.  On this point, however, the plurality opinion cannot be treated as controlling because Justice Scalia would surely look askance at a decision that used legislative history to find a lack of ambiguity at Chevron Step 1.  By the same token, the dissenters had no occasion to address this point, so we do not know if any of them would have agreed with Justice Breyer’s approach.  For now, it is fair to say that Justice Breyer has heightened the visibility and potential importance of Chevron footnote 9, but that Home Concrete alone probably will not yield a significant change in how courts approach Chevron step 1.

In sum, Home Concrete may be a bit of a disappointment to those observers who thought that the decision would bring great clarity to the administrative law issues presented.  In that respect, it joins a long list of administrative law cases that reach the Supreme Court and seem to yield as many questions as answers.  But for the taxpayers with millions of dollars riding on the difference between a three-year and six-year statute of limitations, the decision is not disappointing at all.  It is a huge victory.

Supreme Court opinion in Home Concrete

Update on Intermountain Cases

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September 15, 2011

Although our blog coverage might reasonably be accused of hibernating over the summer, court calendars inexorably marched on, and there were several developments in the various Intermountain cases.  If the Supreme Court grants cert in Beard on September 26, as we have predicted, these developments will not be of much moment, since all of the cases will likely be governed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Beard.  The one possible exception is the Federal Circuit’s decision in Grapevine, where the taxpayer’s cert petition has been fully briefed and is ready for consideration by the Supreme Court on September 26 together with Beard.  In any event, for those keeping score, here is an update, along with a selection of the filings, which are somewhat duplicative.

Federal Circuit:  The Federal Circuit denied rehearing in Grapevine on June 6.  The taxpayer petitioned for certiorari, docketed as No. 11-163, and the government responded by asking the Court to hold the petition and dispose of it as appropriate in light of its decision in Beard.  The government filed its response early, thus allowing the Court to consider the petition in tandem with Beard on September 26.  Thus, the Court could conceivably agree to hear both cases, or agree to hear Grapevine alone (because the regulatory deference issue is fleshed out in the court of appeals opinion in that case).  The government, however, does not urge either of those approaches.  Instead, it asks the Court to grant cert in Beard alone, following its usual practice of hearing the earliest-filed case when two petitions raise the same issue.

D.C. Circuit:  The taxpayers in both Intermountain and UTAM filed petitions for rehearing.  The court denied the petition in Intermountain on August 18 and denied the petition in UTAM earlier today on September 15.  In both cases, the court slightly amended its opinion to provide what it believed to be a better response to certain relatively narrow arguments made by the taxpayers.

Fourth Circuit:  The government filed a petition for certiorari in Home Concrete, asking the Court to hold the case for Beard.  The taxpayer filed a brief in opposition asking the Court to deny certiorari on the grounds that the Fourth Circuit got it right and that Congress has closed the son-of-BOSS loophole for future years.  Good luck with that.  The Home Concrete petition will also be considered at the Court’s September 26 conference.  If the Court grants cert in Beard or Grapevine, it will surely hold the Home Concrete petition pending consideration of those cases.

Fifth Circuit:  The government filed a cert petition in Burks, docketed as No. 11-178, and asking that that case also be held pending the disposition of Beard.  The taxpayer did not file an early response, and that case will not be ready for consideration at the Court’s September 26 conference.

Ninth Circuit:  The Ninth Circuit’s Reynolds Properties case lagged behind those in the other circuits because the briefing schedule was delayed for some time by the mediation process.  Undeterred for now by the prospect that the Supreme Court will resolve the issue, the Ninth Circuit is marching ahead.  The case is now fully briefed and is scheduled for oral argument on October 13, 2011.

Tenth Circuit:  The court denied rehearing in Salman Ranch on August 9.  The taxpayer obtained a stay of the mandate so that it can file a petition for certiorari, which will surely be held if the Court grants cert in one of the other cases.

We will be back soon with a report on what, if anything, the Court does at its September 26 conference.

Grapevine – U.S. response

UTAM Order Denying Rehearing and Amending Opinion

Intermountain Order Denying Rehearing and Amending Opinion

Home Concrete – Cert petition

Home Concrete – Brief in Opposition

Taxpayer Seeks Rehearing in Salman Ranch

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July 22, 2011

While we wait to see what the government will say to the Supreme Court on the Intermountain issue, litigation continues in the courts of appeals.  (The government’s response to the certiorari petition in Beard is currently due on July 27.)   The taxpayer has filed a petition for rehearing en banc in Salman Ranch.  It is hard to imagine that the Tenth Circuit will head down that road when it appears that the Supreme Court will address the issue.  Salman Ranch, however, does present one wrinkle not present in the other cases — namely, whether the government was precluded by collateral estoppel from relitigating the issue against this taxpayer because Salman Ranch had prevailed in the Federal Circuit on the same issue in another tax year.  The Tenth Circuit panel ruled that collateral estoppel did not apply because, in light of the issuance of the regulations, it was not true that the “applicable legal rules remain unchanged.” 

The petition for rehearing, as well as the other briefs in this case, are linked below.

Salman Ranch – Taxpayer Petition for Rehearing

Salman Ranch – Government Opening Brief

Salman Ranch – Taxpayer Response Brief

Salman Ranch – Government Reply Brief

Tenth Circuit Sides With Government on Intermountain Issue

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May 31, 2011

The Tenth Circuit, after a long period of deliberation, has reversed the Tax Court in Salman Ranch.  (Opinion linked here.)  This now makes the score 3-2 in favor of the government in the series of appeals that have spread to most circuits.  See our original report here.

The Tenth Circuit’s opinion closely tracks the reasoning of the Federal Circuit in Grapevine.  The court first looked at the Supreme Court’s decision in Colony and concluded that it should not be read as holding that the statute unambiguously supports the taxpayer’s position.  (The Tenth Circuit did note its disagreement with the Seventh Circuit’s conclusion in Beard that the statute unambiguously resolves the issue in the government’s favor.)   Having found that Colony was not an obstacle to the issuance of valid Treasury regulations, the court proceeded to apply the Chevron test to the regulations and, like the Federal Circuit, ruled that the regulations surmounted the relatively low bar of being a reasonable interpretation of the statute.  The Tenth Circuit stated:  “Although we are not convinced the IRS’s interpretation is the only permissible one or even the one we would have adopted if addressing this question afresh, we are satisfied that it is a ‘permissible construction’ within the mandate of Chevron.” 

The Salman Ranch case presented one interesting wrinkle not found in the other Intermountain cases.  The Salman Ranch partnership had already prevailed on the identical issue in the Federal Circuit for a different tax year.  See Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009).  Ordinarily, that decision would have collateral estoppel effect in other litigation on the same issue between the same parties, and therefore it would have controlled the outcome in the Tenth Circuit.  The Tenth Circuit ruled, however, that there was no collateral estoppel effect because the “rules” had changed in the interim — because of the issuance of the new regulations.  The Federal Circuit had observed in Grapevine that the Chevron doctrine gives “regulatory agencies, not the courts, primary responsibility to interpret ambiguous statutory provisions.”  The Tenth Circuit’s decision goes that statement one better with respect to the power of agencies to make law, at least in this particular context.  It potentially gives regulatory agencies more power than even Congress to change the law, as Congress usually does not act retroactively when it enacts new legislation to overturn a court decision.  Without retroactive effect, new legislation would not destroy the collateral estoppel effect of a court decision.

If the taxpayer wishes to seek rehearing, the petition would be due on July 18.  By that time, the issues could be on their way to the Supreme Court because the government’s deadline for seeking certiorari in Home Concrete, the most advanced of these cases, is July 5.

Son-of-BOSS Statute of Limitations Issue Inundates the Courts of Appeals

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November 30, 2010

The government has successfully challenged understatements of income attributable to stepped-up basis in so-called Son-of-BOSS tax shelters.  See, e.g., American Boat Co., LLC v. United States, 583 F.3d 471, 473 (7th Cir. 2009).  But it has been stymied in some cases by the three-year statute of limitations for issuing notices of deficiency.  Code section 6501(e)(1)(A) provides for a six-year statute “[i]f the taxpayer omits from gross income an amount” that exceeds the stated gross income by 25 percent.  Section 6229(c)(2) provides a similar six-year statute for cases governed by the TEFRA partnership rules.  The IRS has argued, unsuccessfully so far, that this section applies when there is a substantial understatement of income that is attributable not to a direct omission of income but rather to an overstatement of basis of sold assets.

The major obstacle to the government’s argument is that the Supreme Court long ago rejected essentially the same argument with respect to the predecessor of section 6501(e)(1)(A) (§ 275(c) of the 1939 Code).  The Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, 357 U.S. 28, 32-33 (1958).  The IRS argued there that the six-year statute applies “where a cost item is overstated” and thus causes an understatement of gross income.  Id. at 32.  The Court agreed with the taxpayer, however, that the six-year statute “is limited to situations in which specific receipts or accruals of income items are left out of the computation of gross income.”  Id. at 33.  The Court added that, although this was the best reading, it did not find the statutory language “unambiguous.”  Id.  Accordingly, the Court noted that its interpretation derived additional support from the legislative history and that it was “in harmony with the unambiguous language of [the newly enacted] section 6501(e)(1)(A).”  Id. at 37.  Based largely on the precedent of Colony, the Tax Court and two courts of appeals have already rejected the government’s attempts to invoke the six-year statute of limitations in Son-of-BOSS cases.  See Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009); Bakersfield Energy Partners, LP v. Commissioner, 568 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009), aff’g, 128 T.C. 207 (2007).

Seeking to rescue numerous other cases that were still pending in the courts or administratively, the government responded by issuing temporary regulations on September 24, 2009, that purported to provide a regulatory interpretation of the statutory language to which the courts would afford Chevron deference.  The temporary regulations provide that “an understated amount of gross income resulting from an overstatement of unrecovered cost or other basis constitutes an omission from gross income for purposes of [sections 6229(c)(2) and 6501(e)(1)(A)].”  Temp Regs. §§ 301.6229(c)(2) – 1T, 301.6501(e)-1T. 

The Tax Court was the first tribunal to consider the efficacy of this aggressive (one might say, desperate) effort to use the regulatory process to trump settled precedent, as the IRS moved the Tax Court to reconsider its adverse decision in Intermountain Ins. Service v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2009-195, in the wake of the temporary regulations.  The reception was underwhelming.  The Tax Court denied the motion for reconsideration by a 13-0 vote, generating three different opinions.  The majority opinion, joined by seven judges, was the only one to base its ruling on rejecting the substance of the government’s argument that courts should defer to the regulations notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s Colony decision.  (Four judges stated simply that the new contention about the temporary regulations should not be entertained on a motion for reconsideration; two judges stated that the temporary regulations are procedurally invalid for failure to submit them for notice and comment.)

The government’s deference argument rests on Nat’l Cable and Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 982 (2005), which ruled that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.”  (In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens stated his view that this rule would not apply to a Supreme Court decision, since that would automatically render the statute unambiguous, but that remains an open question.).  The Tax Court majority ruled that the Supreme Court’s statement in Colony that the statute was ambiguous “was only a preliminary conclusion,” but “[a]fter thoroughly reviewing the legislative history, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress’ intent was clear and that the statutory provision was unambiguous.”  Accordingly, the majority concluded that Brand X did not apply, and “the temporary regulations are invalid and are not entitled to deferential treatment.”  (The two judges who found the regulations procedurally invalid questioned the majority’s reasoning and suggested that the Court should not have reached the substantive issue).

The Tax Court’s decision in Intermountain is just the first skirmish in what will be an extended battle over the temporary regulations.  The Justice Department has asserted that there are currently 35-50 cases pending in the federal courts that raise the same issue, with approximately $1 billion at stake.  Accordingly, the government is pursuing an appeal to the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain, and it is arguing for deference to the temporary regulations in other cases pending on appeal in other circuits, even where those regulations were not considered by the trial court.  The government seems determined to litigate the issue in every possible court of appeals, presumably hoping that it can win somewhere and then persuade the Supreme Court to grant certiorari and reconsider Colony.  The current map looks like this:

D.C. Circuit:  Briefing schedules have been issued in Intermountain, No. 10-1204, and in an appeal from another Tax Court case, UTAM Ltd. v. Commissioner, No. 10-1262.  The government’s opening brief is due in Intermountain on December 6, 2010, and in UTAM on January 6, 2011.  The panel assigned to both cases is Judges Sentelle, Tatel, and Randolph.

Federal CircuitGrapevine Imports, Ltd. v. United States, No. 2008-5090, is fully briefed and scheduled for oral argument on January 12, 2011.  The Federal Circuit has already rejected the government’s invocation of the six-year statute in Salman Ranch, but the government is arguing in Grapevine that the Federal Circuit should reverse its position in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.

Fourth CircuitHome Concrete & Supply, LLC v. United States, No. 09-2353, is fully briefed and was argued on October 27, 2010, before Judges Wilkinson, Gregory, and Wynn.  In that case, the district court had ruled for the government, distinguishing Colony as limited to situations in which the taxpayer is in a trade or business engaged in the sale of goods or services.  That was the rationale of the Court of Federal Claims in the Salman Ranch case, but that decision was reversed by the Federal Circuit.

Fifth CircuitBurks v. United States, No. 09-11061 (consolidated with Commissioner v. MITA, No. 09-60827) is fully briefed and was argued on November 1, 2010, before Judges DeMoss, Benavides, and Elrod.  In its briefs on this issue in various courts, the government has often invoked the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Phinney v. Chambers, 392 F.2d 680 (1968), the only court of appeals decision that has applied the six-year statute in the absence of a complete omission of gross income.  In Phinney, the taxpayer on her return had mislabeled proceeds from payment of an installment note as proceeds from a sale of stock with basis equivalent to the proceeds, reporting no income from that sale.  The Fifth Circuit accepted the government’s contention that the six-year statute applied, finding that it applies not only in the Colony situation where there is “a complete omission of an item of income of the requisite amount,” but also where there is a “misstating of the nature of an item of income which places the Commissioner . . . at a special disadvantage in detecting errors.”  392 F.2d at 685.  The government has argued that Phinney essentially involved an overstatement of basis, and therefore strongly supports its position in the Son-of-BOSS cases.  Indeed, the district court in Burks ruled for the government based on Phinney.  The government therefore likely viewed the Fifth Circuit as the most favorable appellate forum for the current dispute. 

At oral argument, however, the panel appeared sympathetic to the taxpayer’s position that Phinney involved a situation where the taxpayer had taken steps akin to a direct omission that would make it difficult for the IRS to discover the potential tax liability.  Therefore, the taxpayer maintains, Phinney is fully consistent with the position that the six-year statute does not generally apply to overstatements of basis. 

In addition, the discussion of the temporary regulation at oral argument specifically addressed the debate over whether deference to Treasury regulations is governed by Chevron principles or by ­­the less deferential National Muffler Dealers standard.  As we have discussed elsewhere, the Supreme Court may resolve that question in the next few months in the Mayo Foundation case.

Seventh CircuitBeard v. Commissioner, No. 09-3741 is fully briefed and was argued on September 27, 2010, before Judges Rovner, Evans, and Williams.  Although the panel, particularly Judge Rovner, expressed skepticism about some of the IRS’s legal arguments, Judges Williams and Evans appeared troubled by the prospect of allowing the taxpayer to escape scrutiny on statute of limitations grounds.  Judge Williams suggested that the taxpayer still ought to have the relevant records and that there was no apparent reason why a misstatement should be treated different from an omission.  Judge Evans emphasized that the taxpayer’s position with respect to tax liability was very weak and suggested that Colony might be distinguishable because it involved a return that was much easier for the IRS to decipher than the complex return involved in Beard.  Thus, to some extent, the government seemed to have found a sympathetic ear in the Seventh Circuit, though that will not necessarily translate into a reversal of the Tax Court.

Ninth CircuitReynolds Properties, L.P. v. Commissioner, No. 10-72406.  The court of appeals vacated the briefing schedule to allow the parties to participate in the court’s appellate mediation program.  The government, however, has indicated that the case is not suitable for mediation, and therefore a new briefing schedule is likely to be issued soon.  The Ninth Circuit has already ruled in Bakersfield that the six-year statute does not apply to overstatements of basis.  Presumably, the government will ask the court to reverse itself in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.

Tenth Circuit:  Salman Ranch Ltd. v. United States, No. 09-9015, is fully briefed and was argued on September 22, 2010, before Judges Tacha, Seymour, and Lucero.  This case comes from the Tax Court, but involves the same partnership that prevailed in front of the Federal Circuit. 

Attached below as a sampling are the briefs filed in the Fourth and Seventh Circuit cases.

Home Concrete – Taxpayer’s opening brief

Home Concrete – United States response brief

Home Concrete – Taxpayer’s reply brief

Beard – United States opening brief

Beard – Taxpayer’s response brief

Beard – United States reply brief