Fourth Circuit Reverses Tax Court in Virginia Historic

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March 31, 2011

On March 29, 2011, the Fourth Circuit rendered its opinion in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Comm’r, No. 10-1333 (opinion linked below).  As described in our previous coverage, the case involved an IRS challenge to the taxpayer’s treatment of partnerships used as marketing vehicles for state tax credits derived from historic rehabilitation projects.  Agreeing with the government’s disguised sale theory, the court reversed the Tax Court and ruled that the transactions at issue were taxable sales of state tax credits, as opposed to non-taxable capital contributions followed by partnership distributions.

After quickly dispensing with the taxpayer’s argument that the tax credits received by investors were not “property” under the statute, and skipping over the question of whether the funds’ investors were bona fide partners for federal tax purposes, the court took a decidedly statutory approach to resolving the case by focusing on the disguised sale regime under I.R.C. § 707(b).  In applying the statute, the court largely relied on the guidance in Treas. Reg. § 1.707-3, which sets forth a presumption that reciprocal transfers between a partner and a partnership within a two-year period constitute a disguised sale unless facts and circumstances clearly establish otherwise.  The regulation also lists ten factors to consider in determining whether the second transfer in a non-simultaneous pair of transfers is “dependent on the entrepreneurial risks of partnership operations.”

In addition to finding that the transfers-within-two-years presumption required the taxpayer to “clearly establish” that the transfers did not constitute a sale, the court focused on five of the Treas. Reg. § 1.707-3 factors.  First, the court found the timing and amount of the second transfer (the allocation of tax credits to the investors) were determinable with reasonable certainty at the time of the first transfer (the alleged contributions to capital made by the investors), and each investor knew with specificity the size of the credits that he or she could expect.  Second, the investors had legally enforceable rights to the credits per their subscription agreements; they had been promised state credits in exchange for their capital contributions.  Third, the investors’ rights to the credits were secured through a promise of refunds if sufficient state credits were not delivered to the investors.  Fourth, the transfers of credits to the investors were disproportionately large compared to the negligible (0.01 percent) interest that most investors held in the partnerships.  Significantly, in this regard the court found that “the transfer of tax credits to each investor by the partnership had no correlation to each investor’s interest in partnership profits whatsoever.”  Finally, the investors had no further obligations or relationship with the partnership after they received their credits.  In light of the presumption, the court opined that these factors “strongly counsel for a finding that these transactions were sales.”

Further girding its rationale, the court noted that the taxpayer did not follow the form of the subscription agreements, assigning each investor a 0.01 percent interest regardless of their capital contributions.  The Fourth Circuit further noted that the partnership status of the investors was transitory in nature, which echoed a concern expressed in the legislative history to section 707(b).  Also, the court noted that the Tax Court did not analyze the factors in Treas. Reg. § 1.707-3 but rather relied on its own analysis of the investors’ level of entrepreneurial risk.  As an interesting aside (from a regulatory deference point of view), the court opined that the Tax Court was not bound to “tick through [the factors] mechanically[,]” but was “free to” conduct its own evaluation of risk, because the regulation “simply reflects those characteristics the Department of the Treasury, given its experience and expertise, thinks significant.”  Nonetheless, the court found the Tax Court’s independent analysis of entrepreneurial risk unconvincing, viewing the risks cited as “both speculative and circumscribed.”  In the final analysis, the court held that the only risk borne by the investors was “that faced by any advance purchaser who pays for an item with a promise of later delivery.  It is not the risk of the entrepreneur who puts money into a venture with the hope that it might grow in amount but with the knowledge that it may well shrink.”

VA Historic Opinion 3-29-11

Notice of Supplemental Authority Filed in Virginia Historic

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January 19, 2011

On January 18, 2011, the taxpayers filed a Notice of Supplemental Authority, drawing the court’s attention to the Tax Court’s recent opinion in Historic Boardwalk Hall, LLC v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 1 (Jan. 3, 2011). According to the taxpayers in Virginia Historic, the new Tax Court case involves many factual and legal issues similar to those in the instant case. We’ll have an analysis of the recent decision and its potential impact on the issues in Virginia Historic in the near future.

Oral argument is scheduled in Virginia Historic for January 25, 2011.

Reply Brief Filed in Virginia Historic

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September 4, 2010

The government filed its reply brief in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001, LLC v. Commissioner, No. 10-1333 (4th Cir.), on September 1, 2010.  The brief is linked below.  See our prior coverage of this partnerships/disguised sale case here and here and here.

In its reply, the government argues that the tax characterization of the investor transactions, i.e., whether the investments were equity contributions or merely the purchase of state tax credits, is subject to the de novo standard of review.  Accordingly, the government contends that the Tax Court’s determination that the taxpayers were bona fide equity investors is a question of law not subject to the more deferential “clear error” standard of review, as argued by the taxpayers.

In addition to reiterating its positions presented in the opening brief, the government also contends that the IRS has the power to recharacterize, for tax purposes, a transaction according to its substance, in spite of the fact that the parties may have adopted the form of the transaction for purposes other than tax avoidance.  The taxpayers argue that the form of the transactions was adopted in order to comply with state law limitations on the transfer of historic preservation tax credits, and therefore the form of the transactions should be respected for federal tax purposes.

The government also supplements its statutory disguised sale theory with the arguments that the transactions were “transfers” of “property” as those terms are employed in I.R.C. § 707 and the regulations thereunder, and that the taxpayers’ arguments regarding the existence of meaningful entrepreneurial risk are not supported by the record.

IRS Reply Brief (9-1-10)

State of Virginia Weighs in Against the IRS in Virginia Historic

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August 11, 2010

Virginia has filed an amicus brief in the Fourth Circuit in support of the taxpayers in the Virginia Historic case.  (See here and here for previous coverage of the appeal).  The brief focuses primarily on policy, arguing that Virginia created these tax credits to facilitate historic preservation and expected that partnership vehicles might be necessary for businesses and individuals to make use of the credits.  According to the Commonwealth, “the IRS’s aggressive position threatens the effectiveness of the program and its benefits for all Virginians.”  Although the amicus brief is light on analysis of the federal tax issues, it may well help persuade the Fourth Circuit that this is not a case where it needs to step in to prevent some kind of taxpayer “hanky-panky,” but rather that going along with the Tax Court would be “doing the right thing.”

Virginia Historic – Amicus Brief of Commonwealth of Virginia

Appellees’ Response Filed in Virginia Historic

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July 27, 2010

The Appellees filed their response brief yesterday in Virginia Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Comm’r, No. 10-1333 (4th Cir.) (linked below).  Our previous discussion of the case is here.

The government has advanced two basic arguments.  First, it argues that the partners of the state tax credit partnerships were not bona fide partners that made capital contributions; rather, the government contends, the alleged partners were, in substance, purchasers of state tax credits.  As such, the proceeds of these sales transactions are gross income to the partnerships, not non-taxable contributions to capital.  In making this argument, the government focuses on the fact that the alleged partners had no possibility of realizing any economic benefit from their purported investments other than the acquisition of state tax credits at a discount from their face value.  Second, the government argues that even if the partners were bona fide partners, the disguised sale rules under I.R.C. § 707 apply to recharacterize the transactions as taxable sales of property by the partnership to the partners acting in non-partner capacities.

The Appellees (comprised of two of the tax credit funds at issue and their tax matters partner) contend that the investors in the tax credit funds were bona fide partners for federal income tax purposes because they pooled their capital with the intent of sharing in a pool of non-federal-tax economic benefits pursuant to partnership allocation provisions under state law.  Relying on Frank Lyon Co. v. United States, 435 U.S. 561 (1978), Appellees further contend that the partnership form of the transactions at issue was compelled by state-law regulatory realities (Virginia law prohibits the direct transfer of historic preservation tax credits), and thus the form should be respected.  With respect to the government’s I.R.C. § 707 argument, Appellees argue that the disguised sale rules do not apply where, as here, the partners were acting in their capacities as partners, the alleged consideration constitutes a contribution to capital, the partnership allocates tax attributes as opposed to transferring property (i.e., the state tax credits are not property), and there is a meaningful sharing of risk among partners.

Stay tuned—the Fourth Circuit’s decision could have a substantial impact on the question of the nature of a partner for federal income tax purposes and the scope of the disguised sale rules, as well as substance-over-form principles generally.

Virginia Historic Appellee Brief

Fourth Circuit Briefing Underway in Partnership Disguised Sale Case

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June 20, 2010

The Tax Court and the U.S. District Court in New Jersey recently issued the first two opinions construing I.R.C. section 707(a)(2)(B), which is somewhat remarkable given that the partnership disguised sale rules have been on the books since 1984. See Va. Historic Tax Credit Fund 2001 LP v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2009-295; United States v. G-I Holdings Inc. (In re: G-I Holdings, Inc.), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115850 (D.N.J. Dec. 14, 2009).  The Government has appealed the Tax Court’s decision in Virginia Historic to the Fourth Circuit.

In Virginia Historic, the Tax Court rejected the IRS’s challenge to the use of partnerships as marketing vehicles for state tax credits.  Under Virginia law, taxpayers can receive tax credits for investment in historical renovation projects.   The tax credits are made available to stimulate investment in such projects because they are often unprofitable, and as a result, financing for the projects is often difficult to obtain.   Because of restrictions on the direct transfer of the tax credits, the taxpayers in this case set up several investment partnerships that pooled funds from many investors and then contributed the funds to several lower-tier developer-partnerships.   In exchange for investment in the developer-partnerships the upper-tier partnerships received partnership interests that entitled them to tax credits generated by specific projects.   The tax credits would then be pooled by the upper-tier partnerships and distributed to the investors.  The IRS took the position that the scheme was a disguised sale of tax credits in exchange for the investors’ cash.

In a memorandum opinion by Judge Kroupa, the Tax Court rejected the IRS’s disguised-sale contention largely on the basis that the investments were subject to the entrepreneurial risks of the enterprise.   There was a possibility that developers would not complete the projects on time or in a manner acceptable to the state agency overseeing the projects, which placed receipt of the tax credits at risk.   There was also the possibility that the upper-tier partnerships would not be able to pool sufficient credits to be able to make all of the promised distributions.  Although distribution of the credits was guaranteed by the partnerships, there was no guarantee that the partnerships would have sufficient resources to make the investors whole.  Accordingly, the court held that the investors’ capital was sufficiently at risk in order to avoid disguised sale treatment.  Significantly, the degree of risk associated with the acquisition of state tax credits was relatively small, especially given that the investment partnerships spread risk through the pooling of resources and the dispersion of those resources over many developer-partnership projects.

The government has filed its opening brief.  The taxpayer’s brief in response is due July 26, 2010.   We will continue to monitor the case and post the briefs as soon as they are available.

The district court in GI-Holdings, by contrast, did apply the disguised-sale rule of Code section 707(b).  The unpublished decision, linked below, contains a detailed discussion of the issue, but it is not yet an appealable order.  Proceedings in the district court have been stayed until September 2010, but there is a strong possibility that the case will be appealed to the Third Circuit after the remaining issues are resolved in the district court.

Virginia Historic Tax Court opinion

U.S. Opening Brief in Virginia Historic

GI-Holdings district court opinion