[Note: Miller and Chevalier represented the taxpayer Exxon Mobil Corp. in this case.]
We previously reported on the Second Circuit’s consideration of the interest netting issue that had been resolved against the taxpayer by the Federal Circuit in FNMA v. United States, 379 F.3d 1303 (2004). Although we did not follow up with a timely report on the Second Circuit’s decision in that case in favor of the taxpayer, the decision is now final, with the government having allowed the time to seek certiorari to expire. To close the loop, we provide here a summary of the decision and a link to the opinion.
As explained in our prior post, the issue concerned a “special rule” enacted when Congress passed the interest netting rule of section 6621(d) in 1998. The statute operates prospectively, but Congress also allowed taxpayers to file interest netting claims for pre-1998 periods subject to a statute of limitations constraint. The dispute was over the scope of that constraint, with the taxpayer arguing that interest netting is available so long as the statute of limitations was still open on the 1998 effective date for either of the years used in the interest netting calculation. The government, by contrast, argued that the statute of limitations must have been open on the relevant date for both the underpayment and overpayment years that are used in the interest netting calculation. The Federal Circuit in Fannie Mae had ruled for the government, reasoning that the statutory text is ambiguous and should be construed narrowly in favor of the government because the “special rule,” the court concluded, is a waiver of sovereign immunity. The Tax Court, however, declined to follow Fannie Mae in this case and ruled for the taxpayer.
The Second Circuit affirmed the Tax Court in a comprehensive decision that closely tracked the taxpayer’s brief. The court rejected the sovereign immunity argument and then concluded “that the structure, context, and evident purpose of section 6621(d) and the special rule indicate that the special rule is to be read broadly, such that global interest netting may be applied when at least one leg of the overpayment/underpayment overlapping period is not barred by the applicable statute of limitations.”
The court did not dwell on the statutory text, finding that “the provision is susceptible to both proffered interpretations and that the intended meaning of the special rule cannot be derived from the text alone.” Therefore, the court stated that it was necessary “to consult the provision’s structure, historical context, and purpose–as well as applicable canons of statutory construction–in order to determine its meaning.” The court added that it would be “particularly mindful” of one pro-taxpayer canon of construction that is sometimes mentioned by courts but also often ignored in favor of competing pro-government canons — namely, “where ‘the words [of a tax statute] are doubtful, the doubt must be resolved against the government and in favor of the taxpayer,’ United States v. Merriam, 263 U.S. 179, 188 (1923).”
The court then stated that it agreed with the portion of the Fannie Mae opinion that rejected the government’s requests for deference to the relevant Revenue Procedure or to the “Blue Book” summary of the special rule. It is a bit surprising that the court addressed these arguments since the government had not made them in its brief in ExxonMobil; the court noted that “it appears . . . that the Commissioner has abandoned these arguments in this appeal.” Apparently, the court wanted to make sure that its opinion left no room for further litigation of the interest netting issue.
The court then turned to the main bone of contention, the holding in Fannie Mae that the special rule was a waiver of sovereign immunity that must be narrowly construed in favor of the government. The court’s analysis was succinct, observing that a “waiver of sovereign immunity is a consent on the part of the government to be sued,” and “[t]he special rule at issue here does no such thing.” Specifically, the special rule “does not create jurisdiction or authorize claims against the United States. Other provisions of the tax code perform that function.”
If the case was not to be resolved on the basis of sovereign immunity, the court explained, it should be resolved using the basic rules of statutory interpretation, which pointed towards a ruling for the taxpayer. First, “[t]he structure of § 6621(d) as a whole–and particularly its use of interest equalization–strongly suggests that the special rule is meant to apply whenever the period of limitations for at least one leg of the overlapping period of reciprocal indebtedness remains open.” Under that approach, it is “not necessary to adjust the computation of interest” for both legs “to achieve the zero net rate,” and therefore “it is not necessary for the limitations period to be open for both legs.” The court also noted that the government conceded that only one leg needed to be open when the statute was being applied prospectively, and it saw no reason for different treatment for retrospective interest netting claims. Finally, the court found support for the taxpayer’s position by examining “the historical context from which section 6621(d) emerged.” Given Congress’s repeated efforts to urge the IRS “to ameliorate the inequitable effects of the interest rate differential,” the court found that section 6621(d) and the special rule are “best understood as remedial provisions, and should therefore be interpreted broadly to effectuate Congress’s remedial goals.”
The Second Circuit’s holding in ExxonMobil is of limited significance to other taxpayers going forward. This is likely why the government chose not to seek certiorari despite the clearest circuit conflict imaginable. The holding applies only to the availability of interest netting for periods ending before July 22, 1998, so the number of remaining interest netting claims governed by the special rule at all is not large. And even within that universe, for many taxpayers the only available jurisdictional route will be through a refund suit in the Court of Federal Claims, where Fannie Mae remains binding precedent.
The court’s reasoning, however, could come into play in other settings, particularly where the government seeks to invoke sovereign immunity principles to support its position in a tax case. See, e.g., Ford Motor Co. v. United States, 2013-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) ¶ 50,102 (6th Cir. Dec. 17, 2012). The Second Circuit’s thoughtful approach to the definition of waivers of sovereign immunity will stand as a strong counterweight to the exceedingly expansive approach taken by the Fannie Mae court.
Second Circuit to Resolve Disagreement Between Tax Court and Federal Circuit Over Availability of Interest Netting for Pre-1998 Tax Periods
[Note: Miller & Chevalier represents the taxpayer Exxon Mobil Corp. in this case.]
The government has appealed the Tax Court’s decision on interest netting in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. No. 5 (Feb. 3, 2011). The briefing is now complete, and the Second Circuit (Judges Cabranes, Walker, and Winter) is scheduled to hear oral argument on April 25.
Congress expressly required global interest netting by enacting Code section 6621(d) in 1998. Before then, the IRS had sometimes taken advantage of the differential interest rates established in 1986 to collect net interest when no net tax was due. Specifically, for periods of overlapping indebtedness where the taxpayer owed money to the government for one tax year but the government owed money to the taxpayer for a different tax year, the government would not net the overlapping amounts, but rather would collect interest at the higher underpayment rate while paying interest to the taxpayer at the lower overpayment rate on the same amount. Section 6621(d) ended this practice by providing that “the net rate of interest . . . on such amounts” of overlapping indebtedness “shall be zero.” That net rate of zero can be implemented either by increasing the overpayment rate or decreasing the underpayment rate from what they would otherwise be in the absence of interest netting. Section 6621(d) applies prospectively without restriction, but Congress also enacted a “special rule” that makes the interest netting rule also apply to pre-1998 periods of overlapping indebtedness in certain circumstances. The Exxon Mobil case involves the construction of that special rule.
The special rule provides that section 6621(d) applies to past periods “[s]ubject to any applicable statute of limitation not having expired with respect to either a tax underpayment or a tax overpayment” on the July 22, 1998, effective date of section 6621(d). Taxpayers interpret this provision to mean that interest netting is available for past periods so long as the statute of limitations for either of the overlapping periods of indebtedness was open on the effective date. The IRS, however, has interpreted the special rule to mean that interest netting is available for past periods only if the statute of limitations for both of the overlapping periods of indebtedness was open on the effective date.
The issue was first litigated by Fannie Mae in the Court of Federal Claims, which held that the special rule was best read in accordance with the taxpayer’s position. The Federal Circuit, however, reversed. Federal National Mortgage Ass’n v. United States, 379 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2004), rev’g, 56 Fed. Cl. 228 (2003). The Federal Circuit did not take issue with the statutory analysis of the Court of Federal Claims, but instead relied on an argument that was not presented below. The Federal Circuit reasoned that the special rule was a waiver of sovereign immunity that must be strictly construed in favor of the government; since the statutory language was capable of being read to support either position, the court concluded, that strict construction principle required a ruling in the government’s favor.
The Exxon Mobil case raises the same issue, but it arises in a different procedural posture and hence in a different jurisdiction. Exxon petitioned the Tax Court for a redetermination of deficiencies for its 1979-1982 tax years, and the Tax Court’s determination eventually resulted in an overpayment. The IRS paid interest on that overpayment at the regular overpayment rate, unadjusted for the fact that interest netting principles would have called for a higher rate because there was a period of overlapping indebtedness with underpayments that Exxon owed for the 1975-78 tax years. Exxon Mobil then filed a motion for redetermination of interest under Code section 7481 seeking additional overpayment interest through application of the interest netting rule of section 6621(d).
The IRS argued that interest netting did not apply because the statutes of limitations for the 1975-78 tax years were no longer open on July 22, 1998, although it acknowledged that the statutes of limitations for the overpayment leg of the overlap period were open on that date. The Tax Court declined to follow the Federal Circuit’s view and rejected the IRS’s argument. The Tax Court stated that “the special rule is not a waiver of sovereign immunity but an interest rate provision.” It added that, even if it were a waiver of sovereign immunity, that would not require the court to adopt a reading that contravened Congress’s intent to achieve the remedial purpose of relieving taxpayers from paying interest when no net tax was due.
The government’s brief on appeal relies heavily on the Federal Circuit’s decision in Fannie Mae. It argues that the Tax Court erred in rejecting the basic principle of that decision, asserting that “the special rule is a waiver of sovereign immunity because it authorizes recovery of certain retroactive refund claims for overpaid interest and thus ‘discriminates between those claims for overpaid interest Congress has authorized and those it has not’” (quoting Fannie Mae, 379 F.3d at 1310). Exxon Mobil’s brief first addresses the special rule independently, asserting that the natural reading of the text and the evident purpose of the special rule both indicate that Congress intended to allow interest netting for pre-1998 periods so long as one leg of the overpayment period was open. The brief then addresses the government’s sovereign immunity argument, arguing that the special rule is not a waiver of sovereign immunity and, even if it were, the canon of construction would not justify adopting an interpretation that would thwart the evident intent of Congress.