The parties have now completed briefing in the Ninth Circuit in the Altera case, in which the Tax Court struck down Treasury regulations that require taxpayers to include employee stock options in the pool of costs shared under a cost-sharing agreement. As described in our previous reports, the Tax Court’s decision implicated both the specific issue of whether the cost-sharing regulations are a lawful implementation of Code section 482 and the more general administrative law issue of the constraints placed on Treasury by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in issuing rules that involve empirical conclusions.
The government’s opening brief focuses only on the specific section 482 issue, maintaining that the Tax Court erred in believing that the challenged regulations involved empirical conclusions. Specifically, the government relies heavily on what it terms the “coordinating amendments” to the regulations promulgated in 2003. Those amendments, which purport to apply the “commensurate with income” language added to section 482 in 1986 for intangible property, state in part that a “qualified cost sharing arrangement produces results that are consistent with an arm’s length result . . . if, and only if, each controlled participant’s share of the costs . . . of intangible development . . . equals its share of reasonably anticipated benefits attributable to such development.” Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7(a)(3). By its terms, this regulation states that determining whether a cost-sharing agreement meets the longstanding section 482 “arm’s length” standard has nothing whatsoever to do with how parties actually deal at “arm’s length” in the real world. On that basis, the government argues that the APA rules are not implicated because the regulations did not rest on any empirical conclusions. And for the same reason, the government argues that the Ninth Circuit’s earlier decision under the prior cost-sharing regulations, Xilinx v. Commissioner, 598 F.3d 1191 (9th Cir. 2010), is irrelevant since that decision was premised on the understanding (now allegedly changed by the amended regulations) that how parties actually deal at “arm’s length” was relevant to whether the section 482 “arm’s length” standard was met under those prior regulations, which did not explicitly provide a rule for stock-based compensation. Finally, the government defends the validity of the regulation’s approach to “arm’s length” in the cost-sharing context as being in line with statements made in the House and Conference Reports on the 1986 amendments to section 482, which noted the general difficulty in finding comparable arm’s-length transfers of licenses of intangible property.
In its response brief, the taxpayer takes the government to task for relying on a “new argument” rather than directly addressing the reasoning of the Tax Court. The taxpayer first observes that Treasury never took the position in the rulemaking that the traditional “arm’s-length” standard in section 482 can be completely divorced from how parties actually operate at arm’s length—a position that assertedly “would have set off a political firestorm.” Accordingly, the taxpayer argues that the government’s position on appeal violates the bedrock administrative law principle of SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80 (1943), that courts must evaluate regulations on the basis of the reasoning contemporaneously given by the agency, not justifications later advanced in litigation. And in any event, the taxpayer argues, this position cannot be sustained because it is an unexplained departure from Treasury’s longstanding position that the 1986 amendments to section 482 “did not change the arm’s-length standard, but rather supplied only a new tool to be used consistently with arm’s-length analysis rooted in evidence.”
The taxpayer describes the government’s reliance on the “coordinating amendments” in the regulations as “circular reasoning” that simply purports to define “arm’s length” to mean something other than “arm’s length.” Even if that is what the regulations say, the taxpayer continues, the regulations could not be sustained because they depart “from the recognized purpose of Section 482 to place controlled taxpayers at parity with uncontrolled taxpayers” and conflict with “the arm’s-length analysis implicit in the statute’s first sentence.”
The government’s reply brief criticizes the taxpayer for not even arguing that its cost-sharing agreement clearly reflects income, and it therefore characterizes the taxpayer as arguing that “the arm’s-length standard gives related taxpayers carte blanche to mismatch their income and expenses.” With respect to the correct interpretation of section 482, the government repeats its position from the opening brief, maintaining that the term “arm’s length” does not necessarily connote equivalence with real-world transactions. Instead, the government argues that it is the taxpayer that departs from the statute by failing to give proper effect to the “commensurate with the income attributable to the intangible” language added in 1986.
The government responds to the Chenery argument by denying that it is arguing a different ground for the regulation than that advanced by Treasury. Rather, the government states that its brief simply further develops the basis advanced by Treasury because it was clear in the regulations that emerged from the rulemaking that Treasury was rejecting the position that an “arms-length” standard can be applied only by looking at empirical evidence of transactions between uncontrolled taxpayers.
Although the briefs are quite long, the basic dispute can be stated fairly succinctly. The parties purport to agree that an “arm’s-length” standard must govern. The taxpayer says that application of this standard always depends on analyzing actual transactions between uncontrolled parties, where available. The government says no; in its view, “arm’s length” does not necessarily require reference to such transactions. Instead, according to the government, in the cost-sharing context “Treasury prescribed a different means of ascertaining the arm’s-length result,” one that “is determined by reference to an economic assumption rather than by reference to allegedly comparable uncontrolled transactions.”
The intense interest in this case is illustrated by the filing of many amicus briefs. The government, which rarely benefits from amicus support in tax cases, is supported by two different amicus briefs filed by groups of law professors—six tax law professors joining in one of the briefs and 19 other tax and administrative law professors joining the second brief. The taxpayer’s position is supported by seven amicus briefs—including one from the Chamber of Commerce and one from a large group of trade associations. Four briefs were filed by individual companies—Cisco, Technet, Amazon, and Xilinx. The seventh brief was filed by three economists—a business school professor (who testified as an expert witness for the taxpayer in Xilinx), a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a managing director at the Berkeley Research Group. They profess no financial interest in the outcome but argue, based on their experience in dealing with issues relating to stock-based compensation, that, as a matter of economics, the government’s approach is not consistent with how parties acting at arm’s length would proceed.
Notwithstanding the interest in the case, no decision is expected in the near future. The Ninth Circuit has a backlog of cases awaiting the scheduling of oral argument. In recent years, oral arguments in tax cases typically have not been scheduled until at least a year after the briefing is concluded, and often closer to 18 months. Thus, oral argument in this case should not be expected before next winter. And then it will likely be several months after the argument before the court issues its decision. So at this point, it would be surprising if there were a decision in Altera before mid-2018.
We have previously reported on the Tax Court’s important decision in Altera, which has significant implications both for IRS regulation of cost-sharing agreements under the transfer pricing rules and, more broadly, for how the Administrative Procedure Act might operate as a constraint on rulemaking by the Treasury Department in the tax area. Although there were some tactical considerations that could have made the government hesitant to seek appellate review from its defeat in Altera (see here), the government has now filed a notice of appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
The court of appeals will issue a briefing schedule in due course, and we will keep you posted on the progress of the appeal.
We reported earlier on the Tax Court’s important decision in Altera, which invalidated a transfer-pricing regulation for failure to satisfy the “reasoned decisionmaking” standard for rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act. At the time, there were outstanding issues that prevented the Tax Court from entering a final decision. The parties have now submitted agreed-upon computations, and on December 1 the Tax Court entered a final decision. The government has 90 days to file a notice of appeal from that decision.
As we noted previously, the government will be motivated to appeal this decision both because of its specific impact on the regulation of cost-sharing agreements and, more broadly, because it could open the door to APA challenges to other regulations, including but not limited to other transfer pricing rules. On the other hand, the government could make a judgment that this particular case is not an ideal vehicle for litigating the broader APA issue, in part because an appeal would go to the Ninth Circuit where the Xilinx precedent on cost-sharing is on the books (see here for a report on Xilinx). It might then make the tactical choice to forego appeal in this case and await a stronger setting in which to litigate the APA issue for the first time in an appellate court. The Department of Justice will be weighing these competing considerations, and its conclusion should be evident when the 90-day period expires next March.
Tax Court Relies on APA to Invalidate the Cost-Sharing Regulation Governing Stock-Based Compensation
We present here a guest post from our colleagues Patricia Sweeney and Andrew Howlett. A longer version of this post is published here.
In Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. No. 3 (July 27, 2015), the Tax Court put the IRS and Treasury on notice that, when promulgating regulations premised on “an empirical determination,” the factual premises underlying those regulations must be based on evidence or known transactions, not on assumptions or theories. Otherwise, the regulations do not comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq. Applying the arm’s-length standard of Code section 482, the Altera decision provides another example of transfer-pricing litigation being decided on the basis of evidence of actual arm’s-length dealings rather than economic theories. Looking more broadly beyond the section 482 context, the decision is an important reminder to the IRS and Treasury that, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Mayo Foundation (562 U.S. 44 (2011), see our prior reports on the decision and oral argument in that case here and here), tax regulations are subject to the same APA procedures as regulations issued by other federal agencies. As a result, Treasury cannot ignore the evidence and comments submitted during the rulemaking process. If it is to reject that evidence, Treasury must engage in its own factfinding, and it must explain the rationale for its decision based upon the factual evidence.
Because of its specific impact on the regulation of cost-sharing agreements and, more generally, because it could open the door to APA challenges to other regulations, including but not limited to other transfer pricing rules, the government will strongly consider an appeal of this decision to the Ninth Circuit. A notice of appeal will be due 90 days after the Tax Court enters its final decision, but there is not yet a final, appealable order in Altera.
The Context for the Dispute. Code section 482 authorizes the Commissioner to allocate income and expenses among related parties to ensure that transactions between them clearly reflect income. Treas. Reg. § 1.482-1(b)(1) provides that “the standard to be applied in every case is that of a taxpayer dealing at arm’s length with an uncontrolled taxpayer.” In 1986, Congress amended section 482 to provide that, “in the case of any transfer (or license) of intangible property . . ., the income with respect to such transfer or license shall be commensurate with the income attributable to the intangible.” As noted by the Tax Court, Congress enacted this amendment to section 482 in response to concerns regarding the lack of comparable arm’s-length transactions, particularly in the context of high-profit-potential intangibles. Congress did not intend, however, to preclude the use of bona fide cost-sharing arrangements under which related parties that share the cost of developing intangibles in proportion to expected benefits have the right to separately exploit such intangibles free of any royalty obligation. See H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 99-841 (Vol. II), at II-637 to II-638 (1986).
In 1995, Treasury issued detailed new cost-sharing regulations that generally authorized the IRS “to make each controlled participant’s share of the costs . . . of intangible development under the qualified cost sharing arrangement equal to its share of reasonably anticipated benefits attributable to such development.” In Xilinx, Inc. v. Commissioner, 598 F. 3d 1191 (9th Cir. 2010), the Ninth Circuit affirmed the Tax Court’s holding that the regulations did not require the taxpayer to include employee stock options (“ESOs”) granted to employees engaged in development activities in the pool of costs shared under the cost-sharing arrangement. The court reasoned that the term “costs” in the regulation did not include ESOs because that would not comport with the “dominant purpose” of the transfer pricing regulations as a whole, which is to put commonly controlled taxpayers at “tax parity” with uncontrolled taxpayers. Because of the overwhelming evidence that unrelated parties dealing at arm’s length in fact do not share ESOs in similar co-development arrangements, the court concluded that such tax parity is best furthered by a holding that the ESOs need not be shared. (For a more detailed examination of Xilinx, see our contemporaneous analysis here.)
In 2003 (prior to the Xilinx decision), Treasury had amended the transfer pricing regulations that were applicable to the years at issue in Xilinx. The amended regulations explicitly address the interaction between the arm’s-length standard and the cost-sharing rules, as well as the treatment of ESOs. Treas. Reg. § 1.482-1(b)(2)(i) now states that “Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7 provides the specific methods to be used to evaluate whether a cost sharing arrangement . . . produces results consistent with an arm’s length result.” Contrary to Xilinx, Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7(d)(2), as amended, specifically identifies stock-based compensation as a cost that must be shared.
Altera did not include ESOs or other stock-based compensation in the cost pool under the cost-sharing agreement it entered into with a Cayman Islands subsidiary. In accordance with the 2003 regulations, the IRS asserted that those costs should be included in the pool, and that, as a result, Altera’s income should be increased by approximately $80 million in the aggregate.
The Tax Court’s Analysis. Ruling on cross motions for summary judgment, the Tax Court, in a 14-0 decision reviewed by the full court, agreed with the taxpayer that the 2003 amendments to the cost-sharing regulations were invalid under the APA because Treasury did not adequately consider the evidence presented by commentators during the rulemaking process that stock-based compensation costs are not shared in actual third-party transactions.
The Tax Court first addressed the threshold issue of whether the 2003 regulations were governed by the rulemaking requirements of section 553 of the APA. To that end, it analyzed whether the regulations were “legislative” (regulations that have the force of law promulgated by an administrative agency as the result of statutory delegation) or “interpretive” (mere explanations of preexisting law). (This legislative/interpretive distinction under the APA is different from the distinction between legislative and interpretive Treasury regulations that was applied for many years in tax cases, but rendered largely obsolete by the Supreme Court’s Mayo decision.) Relying on Hemp Indus. Ass’n v. DEA, 333 F.3d 1082 (9th Cir. 2003), the Tax Court found that the 2003 cost-sharing regulations were legislative because there would be no basis for the IRS’s position that the cost of stock-based compensation must be shared under section 482 absent the regulation and because Treasury invoked its general legislative rulemaking authority under Code section 7805(a) with respect to the regulation.
APA section 553 generally requires the administrative agency to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register, to provide interested persons an opportunity to participate in the rulemaking through written comments, and to incorporate in the adopted rules a concise general statement of their basis and purpose. APA section 706(2)(A) empowers courts to invalidate regulations if they are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law.” The Tax Court cited Motor Vehicles Mfrs. Ass’n v. State Farm, 463 U.S. 29 (1983), as holding that this standard requires “reasoned decisionmaking” and that a regulation may be invalidated as arbitrary or capricious if it is not based on consideration of the relevant factors and involves a clear error of judgment.
The Tax Court found that the stock-based compensation rule did not comply with the reasoned decisionmaking standard because the rule lacked a factual basis and was contrary to evidence presented to Treasury during the rulemaking process. The Tax Court stated that, although the preamble to the 2003 rule stated that unrelated parties entering into cost-sharing agreements typically would share ESO costs (thereby relating the regulation to the arm’s-length requirement of section 482), Treasury had no factual basis for this assertion. Commentators had provided substantial evidence that stock-based compensation costs were not shared in actual third-party agreements, which the Tax Court itself had found (and which the government conceded) in Xilinx. Treasury could draw no support from any of the submitted comments nor did it engage in any of its own factfinding to support its position. Absent such factfinding or other evidence, the Tax Court concluded that “Treasury’s conclusion that the final rule is consistent with the arm’s-length standard is contrary to all of the evidence before it.”
The Tax Court also stated that Treasury’s failure to respond to any of the comments submitted was evidence that the regulation did not satisfy the State Farm standard, stating “[a]lthough Treasury’s failure to respond to an isolated comment or two would probably not be fatal to the final rule, Treasury’s failure to meaningfully respond to numerous relevant and significant comments certainly is [because m]eaningful judicial review and fair treatment of affected persons require an exchange of views, information and criticism between interested persons and the agencies.” As a result, the final rule failed to satisfy State Farm’s reasoned decisionmaking standard.
Challenges for Treasury. The Altera decision highlights the limitations of the Treasury Department’s rulemaking authority when the regulation is based on a factual determination. In that situation, the deference normally given to Treasury because of its expertise as an administrative agency carries little weight unless it is supported by specific factfinding Treasury has done with respect to the rule at issue. In other words, Treasury cannot expect tax regulations that seek to implement a fact-based standard to be upheld simply because Treasury believes that they reach the right theoretical result. Instead, Treasury must explicitly cite the evidence and explain how that evidence provides a rational basis for the regulation.
The Altera decision should motivate Treasury to incorporate responses to submitted comments in its descriptions of final regulations. By specifically citing Treasury’s failure (1) to respond to comments or (2) to engage in independent factfinding as being important components of judicial review under the APA, the Tax Court’s decision effectively directs Treasury to spend more resources during the rulemaking process.
More broadly, the Altera decision underscores the constraints placed on Treasury and other administrative agencies under the APA. Although Mayo announced that Chevron deference principles would apply to Treasury regulations in the future, that was not a radical shift in the law because Treasury regulations had always been subjected to a deference analysis that bore considerable similarity to Chevron. By contrast, as the Tax Court noted, Treasury regulations have not traditionally been measured by APA standards, and Treasury’s notice-and-comment procedures have not been analyzed under State Farm. The Tax Court’s unanimous decision in Altera shows that judicial review under the State Farm standard is more than a mere paper tiger; where Treasury does not demonstrate that it adequately considered the relevant factors, including submitted comments, its regulation is at risk of being overturned. Although Altera as of now is binding authority only in Tax Court cases, challenges to Treasury regulations in other forums likely will cite its reasoning with respect to what constitutes reasoned decisionmaking for purposes of judicial review under the APA.
Considerations for Taxpayers. Absent reversal on appeal, Altera will have an impact on all related-party cost-sharing agreements. Although cost-sharing agreements governed by the 2003 regulations typically have provided for a sharing of stock-based compensation, they often have provided for a retroactive adjustment back to the start of the agreement if there is any relevant change in law. Taxpayers with cost-sharing agreements should carefully review their agreements and tax positions to determine whether their agreement provides for an adjustment mechanism or whether if claims for refund for open years are appropriate based on the Altera holding.
In addition, taxpayers should consider whether Altera has opened the door for additional regulatory challenges, both in the transfer pricing arena and elsewhere, in contexts where the regulations were premised on factual or theoretical assumptions by Treasury that lack sufficient evidentiary support. The Altera case already has been brought to the attention of the district court handling the Microsoft summons litigation in the Western District of Washington as relevant to determining whether the Treasury regulations at issue there are valid, and the case will likely also be cited in cases involving the validity of other transfer pricing regulations, such as the regulations currently under review by the Tax Court in 3M Co. et al. v. Commissioner; No. 005816-13. In addition, the transfer pricing regulations governing services transactions, which were developed following the regulations at issue in Altera, also define the term “cost” to include stock-based compensation and therefore may be vulnerable to reasoning similar to that in Altera.
Finally, taxpayers and other commentators should consider the Tax Court’s reasoning in Altera in developing comments to proposed regulations. Altera demonstrates that such comments can be important in laying a foundation for future judicial challenge even if the commentators are not successful in persuading Treasury to adopt their position.