Taxpayer’s Opening Brief Filed in BMC Software
January 28, 2014
The taxpayer filed its opening brief in the Fifth Circuit appeal of BMC Software v. Commissioner. As we described in our earlier coverage, the Tax Court relied on the legal fiction that accounts receivable created pursuant to Rev. Proc. 99-32 in a 2007 closing agreement were indebtedness for earlier years (2004-06) in order to deny some of the taxpayer’s section 965 deductions. There are three main avenues of attack in the taxpayer’s brief.
First, the taxpayer argues that the Tax Court incorrectly treated those accounts receivable as “indebtedness” as that term is used in the exception to section 965 for related-party indebtedness created during the testing period. The taxpayer contends that the Tax Court looked to the Black’s Law definition of “indebtedness” when it should have looked to the tax law definition. And the taxpayer argues that the tax law definition—that “indebtedness” requires “an existing unconditional and legally enforceable obligation to pay”—does not include the fictional accounts receivable created under Rev. Proc. 99-32. The taxpayer argues that those accounts did not exist and were not legally enforceable until 2007 (after the section 965 testing period) and therefore did not constitute related-party indebtedness during the testing period for purposes of section 965.
Second, the taxpayer argues that the Tax Court was wrong to interpret the 2007 closing agreement to constitute an implicit agreement that the accounts receivable were retroactive debt for purposes of section 965. The taxpayer observes that closing agreements are strictly construed to bind the parties to only the expressly agreed terms. And the taxpayer argues that the parties did not expressly agree to treat the accounts receivable as retroactive debt for section 965 purposes. Moreover, the taxpayer argues that the Tax Court misinterpreted the express language in the agreement providing that the taxpayer’s payment of the accounts receivable “will be free of the Federal income tax consequences of the secondary adjustments that would otherwise result from the primary adjustments.” The taxpayer then makes several other arguments based on the closing agreement.
Finally, the taxpayer makes some policy-based arguments. In one of these arguments, the taxpayer contends that the Tax Court’s decision is contrary to the purpose of section 965 and the related-party-indebtedness exception because the closing agreement postdated the testing period and therefore cannot be the sort of abuse that the related-party-indebtedness exception was meant to address.
Fifth Circuit to Address Section 965 Deduction in BMC Software Appeal
October 25, 2013
In BMC Software v. Commissioner, 141 T.C. No. 5, the Tax Court was faced with considering the effect that some legal fictions (created under a Revenue Procedure regarding transfer pricing adjustments) have on the temporary dividends-received deduction under section 965. And while both the section 965 deduction and the legal fictions under the Revenue Procedure appear to have been designed to benefit taxpayers by facilitating tax-efficient repatriations, the Tax Court eliminated that benefit for some repatriated amounts. The taxpayer has already appealed the decision (filed on September 18) to the Fifth Circuit (Case No. 13-60684), and success of that appeal may hinge in part on whether the Tax Court took the legal fictions in the Revenue Procedure too far.
First, some background on the section 965 deduction: In 2004, Congress enacted the one-time deduction to encourage the repatriation of cash from controlled foreign corporations on the belief that the repatriation would benefit of the U.S. economy. To ensure that taxpayers could not fund the repatriations from the United States (by lending funds from the U.S. to the CFC, immediately repatriating the funds as dividends, and then later treating would-be dividends as repayments of principal), Congress provided that the amount of the section 965 deduction would be reduced by any increase in related-party indebtedness during the “testing period.” The testing period begins on the earliest date a taxpayer might have been aware of the availability of the one-time deduction—October 3, 2004—and ends at the close of the tax year for which the taxpayer elects to take the section 965 deduction. Congress thus established a bright-line test that treated all increases in related-party debt during the testing period as presumptively abusive, regardless of whether the taxpayer had any intent to fund the repatriation from the United States.
BMC repatriated $721 million from a controlled foreign corporation (BSEH) and claimed the section 965 deduction for $709 million of that amount on its 2006 return. On that return, BMC claimed that there was no increase in BSEH’s related party indebtedness between October 2004 and the close of BMC’s 2006 tax year in March 2006. In the government’s view, however, this claim became untrue after the IRS reached a closing agreement with the IRS in 2007 with respect to BMC’s 2003-06 tax years.
That agreement made transfer pricing adjustments that increased BMC’s taxable income for the 2003-06 tax years. The primary adjustments were premised on the IRS’s theory that the royalties BMC paid to its CFC were too high. By making those primary adjustments and including additional amounts in income, BMC was deemed to have paid less to its CFC for tax purposes than it had actually paid.
The typical way of conforming BMC’s accounts in this circumstance is to treat the putative royalty payments (to the extent they exceeded the royalty agreed in the closing agreement) as deemed capital contributions to BSEH. If BMC were to repatriate those amounts in future, they would be treated as taxable distributions (to the extent of earnings and profits). But Rev. Proc. 99-32 permits taxpayers in this circumstance to elect to repatriate the funds tax-free by establishing accounts receivable and making intercompany payments to satisfy those accounts. The accounts receivable created under Rev. Proc. 99-32 are, of course, legal fictions—the taxpayer did not actually loan the funds to its CFC. BMC elected to use Rev. Proc. 99-32 and BSEH made the associated payments.
To give full effect to the legal fiction, Rev. Proc. 99-32 provides that each account receivable is “deemed to have been created as of the last day of the taxpayer’s taxable year for which the primary adjustment is made.” So although BMC’s accounts receivable from BSEH were not actually established until the 2007 closing agreement, those accounts receivable were deemed to have been established at the close of each of the 2003-06 tax years. Two of those years (those ending March 2005 and March 2006) fell into the testing period for BMC’s section 965 deduction. The IRS treated the accounts receivable as related-party debt and reduced BMC’s section 965 deduction by the amounts of the accounts receivable for those two years, which was about $43 million.
BMC filed a petition in Tax Court, arguing (among other things) that the statutory rules apply only to abusive arrangements and that the accounts receivable were not related-party debt under section 965(b)(3). The government conceded that BMC did not establish the accounts receivable to exploit the section 965 deduction, but argued that there is no carve-out for non-abusive transactions and the accounts receivable were indebtedness under the statute.
The court held that the statutory exclusion of related-party indebtedness from the section 965 deduction is a straightforward arithmetic formula devoid of any intent requirement or express reference to abusive transactions. The court also held that the accounts receivable fall under the plain meaning of the term “indebtedness” and therefore reduce BMC’s section 965 deduction under section 965(b)(3). So even though both the section 965 deduction and Rev. Proc. 99-32 were meant to permit taxpayers to repatriate funds with little or no U.S. tax impact, the mechanical application of section 965(b)(3) and Rev. Proc. 99-32 eliminated that benefit for $43 million that BMC repatriated as a dividend.
This does not seem like the right result. And here it seems the culprit may be the legal fiction that the accounts receivable were established during the testing period. The statute may not expressly address abusive intent, but that is because Congress chose to use the testing period in the related-party-debt rule as a blunt instrument to stamp out all potential abuses of the section 965 deduction. This anti-abuse intent is baked into the formula for determining excluded related-party debt because the opening date of the testing period coincides with the earliest that a taxpayer might have tried to create an intercompany debt to exploit the section 965 deduction. BMC did not create an intercompany debt during the testing period; the accounts receivable were not actually established until after the close of the testing period. Perhaps the court took the legal fiction that the accounts receivable were established in 2005 and 2006 one step too far. And perhaps the Fifth Circuit will address this legal fiction on appeal.
Government Faces Sharp Questioning from D.C. Circuit in Loving
September 25, 2013
The D.C. Circuit heard oral argument on September 24 in the government’s appeal in Loving from the district court decision enjoining the IRS from enforcing its new registration regime for paid tax return preparers. The panel consisted of Judges Sentelle, Williams, and Kavanaugh. The court was active, jumping in with questions in the first minute of the government’s opening presentation. The court asked several questions of the plaintiffs’ counsel as well, but those questions seemed to evince less skepticism of the advocate’s position. While it is always hazardous to predict the outcome based on the oral argument, the court of appeals certainly seemed to be leaning towards affirming the district court.
As we have previously discussed, the government’s position relies heavily on Chevron deference to its new tax return preparer regulations. It argues that the statutory authority to regulate practice before Treasury is sufficiently broad to encompass tax return preparers — specifically, that the term “practice of representatives of persons before the Department of the Treasury” is ambiguous and could reasonably be construed by the regulations to include persons who prepare tax returns. The relevant language is currently codified at 31 U.S.C. § 330(a)(1), but it dates back to 1884, when Congress responded to complaints about misconduct by claims agents who represented soldiers with claims for lost horses or other military-related compensation from the Treasury.
Just 30 seconds after the argument began, Judge Sentelle stepped in to challenge the premise of government counsel Gil Rothenberg that the Treasury regulations were valid because the statute did not “foreclose” them. Judge Sentelle maintained that the question instead was whether the statute “empowered” Treasury to regulate in this area, and the case could not be analyzed by assuming that Treasury had unlimited power except to the extent that Congress had explicitly foreclosed it. Shortly thereafter, Judge Williams questioned the government’s failure, in his view, to provide any support for the notion that the ordinary use of the statutory terms, like “representative” or “practice,” could encompass a tax return preparer who merely helps a taxpayer “fill out a form” that he is obliged to file with the IRS. Mr. Rothenberg responded that, although there were no cases on point, return preparers do more than “fill out a form” and that the statutory term “representative” cannot be limited to an agency relationship because the term was intended to retain the same meaning as the original 1884 statute, which applied to “agents, attorneys, or other persons representing claimants.”
Judge Sentelle then suggested that the fact that Treasury had not claimed any authority to regulate tax return preparers until now, even though the statute had been on the books for more than a century, cast some doubt on the existence of that authority. Judge Kavanaugh added that Congress’s enactment of legislation regulating tax return preparers during that period also suggested that Congress did not think that it had delegated that authority to the Treasury Department. Mr. Rothenberg responded that the administrative process is an “evolving process,” and Treasury was free to “choose” not to regulate for many years and then later to invoke its latent authority to regulate. Later, he added that the need to regulate the competence of tax return preparers is greater today than it was decades ago when taxpayers could more easily avail themselves of direct assistance from the IRS in filling out their return. With respect to the legislation, Mr. Rothenberg distinguished laws that impose after-the-fact sanctions on return preparers from the Treasury initiative to impose up-front “admission” requirements. Judge Sentelle questioned why the regulations are limited to paid return preparers, but do not cover persons who prepare tax returns for free. Mr. Rothenberg responded that Treasury was tackling the problem one step at a time and reasonably believed that the biggest problem was with unqualified persons marketing their ability to prepare returns.
Judge Kavanaugh then zeroed in on the statutory text, pointing out that section 330 (a)(2)(D) states that Treasury “may . . . require” that “representatives” demonstrate their “competency to advise and assist persons in presenting their cases.” That language indicates that Congress understood that the “representatives” who could be regulated were persons who would assist in “presenting cases,” not just filling out returns. Mr. Rothenberg disagreed, arguing that Treasury was not compelled to impose all of the requirements set forth in subsection (a)(2) and that the other three requirements could apply to tax return preparers. Judge Sentelle expressed some doubt whether that position was consistent with the statutory use of the conjunctive “and” in joining the four subsections of (a)(2). Judge Williams then suggested that these were four different characteristics of representatives, but that the language of (a)(2)(D) in that case still bore some relevance to interpreting the term “representatives” in (a)(1). Mr. Rothenberg again disagreed, stating that the discussion was now focused on what he believed to be the fundamental error of the district court — namely, treating all four characteristics of section (a)(2) as mandatory, because that would exclude otherwise able practitioners from representing taxpayers before Treasury simply because they lacked advocacy skills. He also noted the position taken in the amicus brief of former IRS Commissioners that the “presenting a case” language could encompass preparing a tax return, but Judge Sentelle retorted that this would be an “awfully strange” use of the language.
Mr. Rothenberg then closed his argument by reiterating the government’s position that the district court erred in reading (a)(2) as limiting the language of (a)(1) and that (a)(1) itself did not foreclose Treasury from regulating tax return preparers. Therefore, Chevron deference is owed to those regulations.
Counsel for the plaintiffs, Dan Alban, began his argument by maintaining that there was no statutory authorization for the regulation. He described the statute as clearly focused on Treasury’s controversy and adjudicative functions, such as examination of returns and appeals before the agency, and not on what he described as “compliance” functions like filing a tax return. He also pointed to the “presenting their cases” language in subsection (a)(2), stating that no “case” exists until there is a dispute over the taxpayer’s return. Judge Williams asked about evidence that the scope of the original 1884 statute was limited to claims that were being resisted by the government — that is, controversies. Mr. Alban replied that it was clear that the statute was addressing claims that the claimants chose to bring, rather than a mandatory function like filing a tax return. In addition, he noted, the legislative history indicates that these were “contested” claims and that the representatives were standing in the shoes of the claimants. Here, by contrast, tax return preparers are not “representatives” before the agency. Judge Kavanaugh then asked who the preparers are representing. Mr. Alban replied that they are not representatives of anyone; they are just performing a service in assisting preparation of the return, but the taxpayer himself has to sign it. He noted in that connection that tax return preparers are not required to obtain a power of attorney, unlike taxpayer representatives in agency proceedings.
The court challenged Mr. Alban when he argued that the “level of policy decision” here warranted caution in allowing an agency, rather than Congress, to implement this new regulatory regime. Judge Sentelle noted that counsel couldn’t get much “traction” with that argument when the D.C. Circuit frequently deals with “sweeping regulations” that create major changes in the regulatory landscape. Judge Kavanaugh observed that, even if counsel was merely stating that the significance of the change ought to color the court’s approach to finding ambiguity, the suggestion was unworkable because it is hard for a court to decide what is “major.”
Finally, Judge Sentelle asked about the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in City of Arlington holding that Chevron deference is owed to an agency’s determination of the scope of its jurisdiction. Mr. Alban stated that the decision was not directly applicable, but in any case the Supreme Court had made clear in that case the importance of seriously applying the limitations on Chevron deference. Here, because the statute was not ambiguous, Mr. Alban stated, the government’s position fails at Chevron Step 1, and therefore no deference is owed. Putting aside the discussion of broader administrative law principles, it was not apparent that any of the judges on the panel disagreed with the plaintiffs on that basic point regarding section 330(a).
Mr. Rothenberg began his rebuttal with a general discussion of Chevron principles, stating that all the prior cases in which the D.C. Circuit had invalidated regulations at Chevron Step 1 were situations where the agency action was more clearly foreclosed by a specific Congressional determination found in the statutory text, but he was met with considerable resistance. The judges observed that his list did not appear to be “exhaustive.” In particular, Judge Sentelle suggested that this case was perhaps analogous to the American Bar Ass’n case, which he described as invalidating FTC regulations directed at the legal profession on the ground that Congress had not empowered the FTC to regulate that profession. When Mr. Rothenberg answered in part that Chevron Step 1 sets a “low bar,” Judge Kavanaugh disagreed, stating that a court is to use all the tools of interpretation at Step 1 and that City of Arlington did not reflect a “low bar.”
Finally, Judge Kavanaugh asked Mr. Rothenberg to respond to Mr. Alban’s point that the IRS does not require tax return preparers to obtain a power of attorney. He replied that the power of attorney is required for “agents,” and tax return preparers are not agents. Mr. Rothenberg then repeated the point made in his opening remarks that the original 1884 statute covered “agents,” but other persons as well. Judge Williams interjected that the government appeared to be placing too much weight on the statutory reference to “other persons,” because canons of statutory construction provide that the scope of broad language like that is limited by the specific terms that precede it — here, “agents” and “attorneys.” Mr. Rothenberg noted that he disagreed, but his time expired before he could elaborate.
The case was heard on an expedited schedule, and therefore it is reasonable to expect that a decision will issue in the next couple of months.
Attached below is the plaintiffs’ response brief and the government’s reply brief, which were not previously posted on the blog. The government’s opening brief and two amicus briefs in support of the government were previously posted here and here.
Two Amicus Briefs Filed in Loving, Including One by a Group of Former IRS Commissioners
April 10, 2013
[Note: Miller & Chevalier member and former Commissioner of Internal Revenue Lawrence B. Gibbs is among the five former Commissioners who filed an amicus brief in support of the Government in the Loving appeal.]
Five former IRS Commissioners filed an amicus brief in support of the Government’s appeal of the district court decision invalidating the IRS’s registration regime for paid tax return preparers. The former Commissioners “take no position regarding whether the manner in which the Treasury has chosen to regulate tax return preparers is advisable, but they strongly disagree with the District Court’s view that Congress has not empowered Treasury to do so.” Under 31 U.S.C. § 330, the Treasury Department is authorized to “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of Treasury.” The district court held that, although the statute did not define “the practice of representatives,” the surrounding statutory text made clear that Congress used “practice” to refer to “advising and assisting persons in presenting their case,” not simply preparing returns. In their amicus brief, the former Commissioners argue that filing a tax return does, in fact, constitute presenting a case. The amicus brief explains that an increasingly wide variety of government assistance programs are administered through the federal income tax system, including a number of refundable tax credits (the earned income credit, health insurance cost credit, etc.). Accordingly, the tax return preparer is not simply calculating tax liability; he or she also is often representing the taxpayer in pursuing claims for federal assistance. Because disbursements of benefits under these government assistance programs is administered largely through self-reporting on a tax return, it is essential, the former Commissioners argue, that paid tax return preparers be regulated so that taxpayers can identify the credits and benefits to which they are entitled and so that both the government and taxpayers are protected against fraud.
The National Consumer Law Center and National Community Tax Coalition also filed a joint amicus brief arguing for reversal of the district court’s decision. That brief documents “rampant” fraud and incompetence in the paid preparation industry, especially on the part of fringe return preparers, such as payday loan stores.
Briefing Complete in Sophy on Treatment of Mortgage Interest Deduction for Non-Married Couples
April 5, 2013
The Government has filed its brief in the taxpayers’ appeal to the Ninth Circuit of the Tax Court’s decision that the mortgage interest deduction applies on a per residence rather than per taxpayer basis. See our previous coverage here. Section 163(h)(3) limits deductible mortgage interest to “acquisition indebtedness” of $1,000,000 and “home equity indebtedness” of $100,000. With their Beverly Hills home and Rancho Mirage secondary residence, domestic partners Bruce Voss and Charles Sophy had considerably more indebtedness, and argued that, together, they should be able to deduct interest paid on up to $2.2 million of acquisition and home equity indebtedness because the limitations should be applied on a per taxpayer rather than per residence basis. In its opposition brief, the Government argues that the statutory text supports a per residence limitation. The statute refers to acquisition or home equity indebtedness “with respect to any qualified residence of the taxpayer.” According to the Government, “the word ‘indebtedness’ is used in direct relation to the ‘residence,’ and the word ‘taxpayer’ is used only in connection with the ‘residence,’ not with the ‘indebtedness.’” The Government also finds support for its position in the Code’s definition of “acquisition indebtedness” as indebtedness incurred in acquiring a residence, not as indebtedness secured in acquiring a taxpayer’s portion of a residence. Turning to policy arguments, the Government observes that the taxpayers’ interpretation would create an unintended marriage penalty. Married taxpayers filing separately are limited to acquisition and home equity indebtedness of one-half the otherwise allowable amount, or $500,000 and $50,000 respectively.
In their reply brief, the taxpayers argue that the general rule of section 163(a) (“There shall be allowed as a deduction all interest paid within the taxable year on indebtedness.”) must be read as referring to the taxpayer’s indebtedness. This “clearly implied” meaning, they argue, should inform the interpretation of the mortgage interest deduction provisions. The taxpayers also seek support for their interpretation in references in the legislative history to the indebtedness on the qualified residence as being “the taxpayer’s debt.” With respect to the Government’s marriage penalty argument, the taxpayers note that the Code often treats married couples as a single taxpayer, and married couples enjoy many benefits from that treatment, benefits that are not enjoyed by domestic partners. The reply brief concludes with the following: “Once Congress made the decision to treat spouses as a single taxpayer, the resulting benefits and burdens must be respected equally. In this case, Taxpayers should not be assigned the burden (or penalty) that results from the Tax Court’s convoluted reading of section 163(h)(3) which treats Taxpayers as a married couple, when they receive none of the marriage benefits.”
Government Files Opening Brief in Loving; Seeks Expedited Appeal
April 2, 2013
Two days after the D.C. Circuit denied its motion for stay pending appeal, the Government moved for an expedited appeal and concurrently filed its opening brief. The Government seeks an expedited resolution of its appeal of the decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Judge James E. Boasberg) invalidating a licensing regime for paid federal tax return preparers. Under the Government’s proposed briefing schedule, briefing would be complete by May 31, 2013. The Appellees have consented to the Government’s proposed briefing schedule.
In its opening brief, the Government argues that the tax return preparer regulations are a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statutory grant of authority to regulate the “practice of representatives before the Department of Treasury.” The district court had held that the Treasury Department was not entitled to any Chevron deference because the statute, 31 U.S.C. 330(a)(1) unambiguously did not authorize the regulation of individuals whose only role is the preparation of the return. The Government argues that “neither the actual language nor the overall context of 31 U.S.C. 330(a) unambiguously forecloses the Secretary’s interpretation that the term ‘ practice of representatives before the Department of the Treasury’ includes the practice of tax-return preparers.” The Government pointed to the absence of a definition — either in the Code or in ordinary meaning — of “practice” that would exclude mere return preparation. The Government also seizes on language in 31 U.S.C. 330(a)(2) authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to require that representatives who practice before it demonstrate “necessary qualifications to enable the representative to provide to persons valuable service.” The Government reasons that, because tax return preparers provide a “valuable service,” they should be deemed to “practice” before the Treasury Department. Acknowledging that the statute authorizes the Treasury Department to require a representative to demonstrate “competency to advise and assist persons in presenting their cases,” the Government contends that Congress did not intend by that language to limit the Treasury Department’s authority to regulate tax-return preparers whose representation ends with preparing the tax return.
Reply Brief Filed on Stay Motion in Loving
March 15, 2013
Yesterday, in Loving v. IRS (the subject of a recent post), the Government filed its reply brief in support of its motion to stay the district court’s injunction of the new registration regime for paid tax-return preparers. With respect to its likelihood of success on the merits, the Government argued the ambiguity of the statute authorizing Treasury to “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before” it. With respect to the threat of irreparable harm, the Government argued that the injunction risked delaying the implementation of the regulatory regime until the 2015 return-preparation season and that the problem of unregulated return preparers represents a “major public concern.”
Government Seeks Appellate Stay of Order Enjoining Enforcement of New Registration Regime for Paid Tax Return Preparers
March 13, 2013
The Government has appealed to the D.C. Circuit from the district court decision enjoining the IRS from enforcing its new registration regime for paid tax return preparers. Loving v. IRS, D.C. Cir. No. 13-5061. The Government has also asked the court of appeals to stay the decision pending appeal, after the district court declined to grant a stay. The Government’s stay motion recites that, the appeal has not yet been authorized by the Solicitor General’s office, but that, if the appeal is authorized, the Government intends to file its opening brief in March and to move for an expedited oral argument.
To recap the district court’s decision: In 2011, the Treasury Department promulgated regulations that extended Circular 230 (the regulations that govern practice before the IRS) to non-attorney, non-CPA tax-return preparers who prepare and file tax returns for compensation. Under the new regulations, tax-return preparers must register before they can practice before the IRS, and they are deemed to practice before the IRS even if their only function is to prepare and submit tax returns. In order to register initially, tax return preparers must pass a qualification exam and pay a fee. To maintain their registration each year, they must pay a fee and take at least fifteen hours of continuing education courses. The IRS estimated that the new regulation sweeps in 600,000 to 700,000 new tax return preparers who were previously unregulated at the federal level.
Three tax return preparers who were not previously regulated by Circular 230 brought suit challenging the 2011 regulations and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. In January 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Boasberg, J.) granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. The court recognized that, under Mayo Foundation, the two-step analysis of Chevron should be applied to determine the validity of the regulations. The court explained, however, that “the battle here will be fought and won on Chevron step one” because “Plaintiffs offer no independent argument for why, if the statute is ambiguous, the IRS’s interpretation would be ‘arbitrary or capricious . . .’ under Chevron step two.” Focusing in this way on the unambiguous statutory text, the court held that the Treasury Department lacked statutory authority to issue the regulations.
The court rejected the Government’s argument that the agency had inherent authority to regulate those who practice before it, because a statute (31 U.S.C. § 330) specifically defined the scope of the Treasury Department’s authority. Under that statute, the Treasury Department is authorized to “regulate the practice of representatives of persons before the Department of Treasury.” The district court held that, although the statute did not define “the practice of representatives,” the surrounding statutory text made clear that Congress used “practice” to refer to “advising and assisting persons in presenting their case,” not simply preparing returns. Turning to provisions in the Internal Revenue Code that regulate tax return preparers, the court reasoned that Congress could not have intended § 330 to be the authority for regulating tax return preparers because “statutes scattered across Title 26 of the U.S. Code create a careful, regimented schedule of penalties for misdeeds by tax-return preparers.” The court rejected the Government’s resort to policy arguments. “In the land of statutory interpretation, statutory text is king.” Holding that the new regulations were ultra vires, the court enjoined the IRS from enforcing the registration regime.
In the motion for a stay pending appeal filed with the district court, the Government argued that the injunction substantially disrupted the IRS’s tax administration and that shutting down the program would be costly and complex. The district court was not persuaded, concluding that “[t]hese harms, to the extent they exist are hardly irreparable, and some cannot even be traced to the injunction.”
The Government’s stay motion in the court of appeals, filed February 25, argues that “[f]ailure to grant the stay will work a substantial and irreparable harm to the Government and the taxpaying public, crippling the Government’s efforts to ensure that individuals who prepare tax returns for others are both competent and ethical.” According to the Government’s brief, the “IRS estimates that fraud, abuse, and errors cost the taxpaying public billions of dollars annually.” In their March 8 response, the Plaintiffs/Appellees argue that the Government failed to establish any imminent irreparable harm traceable to the injunction, noting that even the Government acknowledged that most of the alleged harms would not occur until 2014. The tax return preparers also emphasize that the injunction merely preserves the historical status quo.
Home Concrete Decision Leaves Administrative Law Questions Unsettled While Excluding Overstatements of Basis from Six-Year Statute of Limitations
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 Rules in Kawashima, Finding That Section 7206 Offenses Can Justify Deportation
February 27, 2012
The Supreme Court (opinion attached below) has affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Kawashima, ruling that resident aliens who pled guilty to making (or assisting in making) a false tax return in violation of Code section 7206 had committed “aggravated felonies” that made them deportable. The vote was 6-3, with Justice Thomas writing the opinion and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan dissenting.
As we have previously reported, the Kawashima case involves the interplay between two subsections of the deportation statute’s definition of aggravated felonies, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43). Subsection (M)(i) broadly includes offenses “involv[ing] fraud or deceit”; subsection (M)(ii) adds violations of Code section 7201 (tax evasion). The Kawashimas argued that subsection (ii) is addressed to tax offenses and therefore the statute does not include the less serious tax offenses covered by section 7206. The government argued that section 7206 offenses involve “fraud or deceit,” and therefore they are covered by subsection (ii). (See here for a more detailed analysis of the Supreme Court briefing).
The majority agreed with the government, applying a literal and technical approach to the statutory language that did not afford much weight to the historical understanding of the criminal tax provisions. The Court first found that the conduct of willfully submitting a false tax return inherently involves ‘deceit” and therefore is encompassed within subsection (i). The Court then rejected the Kawashimas’ primary argument that this conclusion was untenable because it would make subsection (ii) entirely superfluous (since tax evasion also involves deceit). To support that conclusion, the Court accepted the government’s technical argument that subsection (ii) was not superfluous because there was theoretically a situation where tax evasion does not involve “deceit” – namely, when a taxpayer files a truthful tax return but evades payment by moving his assets beyond the reach of the IRS. Thus, the Court ruled that, “[a]lthough the Government concedes that evasion-of-payment cases will almost invariably involve some affirmative acts of fraud or deceit, it is still true that the elements of tax evasion pursuant to §7201 do not necessarily involve fraud or deceit.”
The dissenters characterized the majority’s construction of the statute as “dubious,” criticizing in particular its contortions to avoid the conclusion that its construction “effectively renders Clause (ii) superfluous.” According to the dissent, the government’s proposed instances of tax evasion not involving “deceit” are not just “rare,” they are “imaginary.” Given that the Court has previously “declined to interpret legislation in a way that ‘would in practical effect render [a provision] entirely superfluous in all but the most unusual circumstances,” the dissent argued that the majority’s reading is unsustainable. Pointing to an amicus brief filed by former IRS Commissioner Johnnie Walters, the dissent also stated that the Court’s decision would have adverse consequences for the efficient handling of tax prosecutions. In particular, it will discourage aliens from pleading guilty to the lesser section 7206 offense instead of going to trial on a tax evasion charge, because of the risk of deportation.