Home Concrete Decision Leaves Administrative Law Questions Unsettled While Excluding Overstatements of Basis from Six-Year Statute of Limitations
May 3, 2012 by Alan Horowitz
Filed under Beard, Burks, Grapevine, Home Concrete, Intermountain, Regulatory Deference, Salman Ranch, Statute of Limitations, Statutory Interpretation, Supreme Court, UTAM
[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 constrained 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.
The Court this morning granted certiorari in the Home Concrete case from the Fourth Circuit, thus paving the way for a definitive, nationwide resolution of the issues presented in the Intermountain cases. We had previously indicated that it was more likely that the Court would hear the Beard case, since the petition in that case was filed first. It is ironic that the Court chose to hear the Home Concrete case, since that is the one case that neither party urged the Court to take. (The government asked the Court to grant Beard and hold the Home Concrete case, and the taxpayer asked the Court to deny certiorari. See our previous report here.) Perhaps the Court thought that Home Concrete was the preferable vehicle because the court of appeals had addressed the applicability of the regulations; perhaps the Court was just being ornery and wanted to resist the government’s efforts to manipulate the docket by contriving to have the Beard case jump ahead of the earlier-decided Home Concrete case. See our previous report here.
In the long term, it does not appear to make much difference which case the Court agreed to review. The Court can be expected to resolve the six-year statute question in this case, likely addressing the effect of the regulation. In the short term, the Court’s choice does affect the briefing schedule. Since the government is the petitioner in Home Concrete, its brief will be due first, and it will have the opportunity to file a reply brief. This schedule gives taxpayers interested in filing an amicus brief a bit more time to prepare one than they would have had if Beard were the lead case, as such a brief would be due seven days after the taxpayer’s brief, which will now not be due until mid-December.
The Court took no action on the petitions in Beard and Grapevine. The petitions in these cases will likely be held and acted upon only after the Home Concrete case is decided.
The government’s opening brief in Home Concrete is due November 14. The case will likely be argued in January, or possibly February, and the Court will issue its decision before the end of June 2012.
September 15, 2011 by Alan Horowitz
Filed under Beard, Burks, Grapevine, Home Concrete, Intermountain, Regulatory Deference, Reynolds Properties, Salman Ranch, Statute of Limitations, Statutory Interpretation, Supreme Court, UTAM
Although our blog coverage might reasonably be accused of hibernating over the summer, court calendars inexorably marched on, and there were several developments in the various Intermountain cases. If the Supreme Court grants cert in Beard on September 26, as we have predicted, these developments will not be of much moment, since all of the cases will likely be governed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Beard. The one possible exception is the Federal Circuit’s decision in Grapevine, where the taxpayer’s cert petition has been fully briefed and is ready for consideration by the Supreme Court on September 26 together with Beard. In any event, for those keeping score, here is an update, along with a selection of the filings, which are somewhat duplicative.
Federal Circuit: The Federal Circuit denied rehearing in Grapevine on June 6. The taxpayer petitioned for certiorari, docketed as No. 11-163, and the government responded by asking the Court to hold the petition and dispose of it as appropriate in light of its decision in Beard. The government filed its response early, thus allowing the Court to consider the petition in tandem with Beard on September 26. Thus, the Court could conceivably agree to hear both cases, or agree to hear Grapevine alone (because the regulatory deference issue is fleshed out in the court of appeals opinion in that case). The government, however, does not urge either of those approaches. Instead, it asks the Court to grant cert in Beard alone, following its usual practice of hearing the earliest-filed case when two petitions raise the same issue.
D.C. Circuit: The taxpayers in both Intermountain and UTAM filed petitions for rehearing. The court denied the petition in Intermountain on August 18 and denied the petition in UTAM earlier today on September 15. In both cases, the court slightly amended its opinion to provide what it believed to be a better response to certain relatively narrow arguments made by the taxpayers.
Fourth Circuit: The government filed a petition for certiorari in Home Concrete, asking the Court to hold the case for Beard. The taxpayer filed a brief in opposition asking the Court to deny certiorari on the grounds that the Fourth Circuit got it right and that Congress has closed the son-of-BOSS loophole for future years. Good luck with that. The Home Concrete petition will also be considered at the Court’s September 26 conference. If the Court grants cert in Beard or Grapevine, it will surely hold the Home Concrete petition pending consideration of those cases.
Fifth Circuit: The government filed a cert petition in Burks, docketed as No. 11-178, and asking that that case also be held pending the disposition of Beard. The taxpayer did not file an early response, and that case will not be ready for consideration at the Court’s September 26 conference.
Ninth Circuit: The Ninth Circuit’s Reynolds Properties case lagged behind those in the other circuits because the briefing schedule was delayed for some time by the mediation process. Undeterred for now by the prospect that the Supreme Court will resolve the issue, the Ninth Circuit is marching ahead. The case is now fully briefed and is scheduled for oral argument on October 13, 2011.
Tenth Circuit: The court denied rehearing in Salman Ranch on August 9. The taxpayer obtained a stay of the mandate so that it can file a petition for certiorari, which will surely be held if the Court grants cert in one of the other cases.
We will be back soon with a report on what, if anything, the Court does at its September 26 conference.
The D.C. Circuit yesterday reversed the Tax Court in Intermountain, handing the government more ammunition to use if, as appears increasingly likely, the Supreme Court considers the question of the applicability to overstatements of basis of the six-year statute of limitations found in Code sections 6229(c)(2) and 6501(e)(1)(A). This now makes the score 4-2 for the government and represents the third straight court of appeals to adopt the government’s primary argument that courts owe Chevron deference to the relatively recent Treasury regulations interpreting the six-year statutes to apply to overstatements of basis.
The D.C. Circuit’s opinion is comprehensive, tracing the same ground as the Federal Circuit’s Grapevine decision, but also supplementing that court’s analysis. In particular, the D.C. Circuit explores in detail the background of Colony and the legislative history of the 1954 Code in order to justify the conclusion that section 6501 does not unambiguously provide that overstatements of basis do not trigger the six-year statute — even though the same statutory term “omission from gross income” in the 1939 Code was construed in Colony not to include overstatements of basis. Having reached that conclusion, the D.C. Circuit found that the Chevron step two analysis was “easy,” and there was no justification for suggesting that the Treasury regulation was an unreasonable interpretation of the statute.
One item of interest is the court’s refusal to address a couple of arguments made by Intermountain’s counsel because they were not raised in a timely fashion. The court’s analysis distinguishing current law from the 1939 Code provision addressed in Colony relies heavily on the 1954 addition of section 6501(e)(1)(A)(i), which specifically addresses “gross income” in the case of a trade or business. Intermountain contended at oral argument that this analysis ought to be irrelevant in a case that involved only section 6229, not section 6501. The court, however, refused to consider that argument, stating that Intermountain had never before argued “that the two sections have different meanings outside the trade or business context.” The court also refused to consider, as raised too late, Intermountain’s reliance on positions taken by the Commissioner on the meaning of Colony before the son-of-BOSS cases arose. One might see these arguments raised and addressed in the Supreme Court down the road.
The Intermountain opinion also governs the companion UTAM case that was argued in tandem. The D.C. Circuit did issue a separate opinion in UTAM addressing an issue unique to that case — whether a final partnership administrative adjustment (FPAA) tolls an individual partner’s limitations period under section 6501 in the same way section 6229(d) tolls the section 6229(a) “minimum period.” The court ruled for the government on that issue as well, and we plan to address that opinion in another post.
Intermountain is likely the last that will be heard from the courts of appeals on the six-year statute issue before it moves to the Supreme Court. (The Federal Circuit, as expected, denied rehearing in Grapevine on June 6. Reynolds Properties v. Commissioner, No. 10-72406, has been fully briefed in the Ninth Circuit, but oral argument is not yet scheduled.) The government’s recent successes in the courts of appeals give it a lot of momentum heading to the Court. Of course, it is often said that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, and in the end the Supreme Court will make up its own mind without regard to the score in the courts of appeals. The government’s anticipated petition for certiorari in Home Concrete is due July 5.
The Tenth Circuit, after a long period of deliberation, has reversed the Tax Court in Salman Ranch. (Opinion linked here.) This now makes the score 3-2 in favor of the government in the series of appeals that have spread to most circuits. See our original report here.
The Tenth Circuit’s opinion closely tracks the reasoning of the Federal Circuit in Grapevine. The court first looked at the Supreme Court’s decision in Colony and concluded that it should not be read as holding that the statute unambiguously supports the taxpayer’s position. (The Tenth Circuit did note its disagreement with the Seventh Circuit’s conclusion in Beard that the statute unambiguously resolves the issue in the government’s favor.) Having found that Colony was not an obstacle to the issuance of valid Treasury regulations, the court proceeded to apply the Chevron test to the regulations and, like the Federal Circuit, ruled that the regulations surmounted the relatively low bar of being a reasonable interpretation of the statute. The Tenth Circuit stated: “Although we are not convinced the IRS’s interpretation is the only permissible one or even the one we would have adopted if addressing this question afresh, we are satisfied that it is a ‘permissible construction’ within the mandate of Chevron.”
The Salman Ranch case presented one interesting wrinkle not found in the other Intermountain cases. The Salman Ranch partnership had already prevailed on the identical issue in the Federal Circuit for a different tax year. See Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009). Ordinarily, that decision would have collateral estoppel effect in other litigation on the same issue between the same parties, and therefore it would have controlled the outcome in the Tenth Circuit. The Tenth Circuit ruled, however, that there was no collateral estoppel effect because the “rules” had changed in the interim — because of the issuance of the new regulations. The Federal Circuit had observed in Grapevine that the Chevron doctrine gives “regulatory agencies, not the courts, primary responsibility to interpret ambiguous statutory provisions.” The Tenth Circuit’s decision goes that statement one better with respect to the power of agencies to make law, at least in this particular context. It potentially gives regulatory agencies more power than even Congress to change the law, as Congress usually does not act retroactively when it enacts new legislation to overturn a court decision. Without retroactive effect, new legislation would not destroy the collateral estoppel effect of a court decision.
If the taxpayer wishes to seek rehearing, the petition would be due on July 18. By that time, the issues could be on their way to the Supreme Court because the government’s deadline for seeking certiorari in Home Concrete, the most advanced of these cases, is July 5.
The taxpayer has filed a petition for rehearing en banc in the Federal Circuit in Grapevine. Because Grapevine is the first appellate decision to rely on the new regulations (see here), the petition focuses part of its argument on criticizing the Federal Circuit’s decision to defer to those regulations, especially after the same court in Salman Ranch had rejected the statutory interpretation embodied in the regulations. The petition also argues that applying the regulations to Grapevine is unlawful, even if the regulations could be controlling in future cases, because Grapevine had already obtained a favorable judgment from the Court of Federal Claims before the regulations were promulgated.
With the courts of appeals hopelessly conflicted already on the Intermountain six-year statute of limitations issue, it is a longshot to expect the Federal Circuit to want to wade into these issues en banc. At this point, that court most likely will be inclined to sit back and see what the Supreme Court has to say.
New Government Filings Try to Unify Courts of Appeals Behind the Six-Year Statute for Overstatements of Basis
As we have reported extensively (e.g. here and here), the courts of appeals appear to be hopelessly split on the “Intermountain” issue of whether a six-year statute of limitations applies to overstatements of basis. Nevertheless, the government has not given up on the possibility of winning this issue in all courts of appeals and thus eliminating the need for it to go to the Supreme Court. To that end, it filed in two cases at the rehearing stage yesterday.
In the Beard case in the Seventh Circuit, the government filed a response opposing the taxpayer’s petition for rehearing en banc. It argued that the Seventh Circuit’s pro-government decision was correct and pointed out that the Seventh Circuit “cannot by itself resolve this conflict” in the circuits even if it grants rehearing, because there are multiple circuits that have ruled on both sides of the issue.
In the Home Concrete case in the Fourth Circuit, the government filed its own petition for rehearing en banc. It argued that the Fourth Circuit erred and should instead adopt the reasoning of either the Seventh Circuit in Beard or the Federal Circuit in Grapevine. Lawyers being what they are, the government’s own petition managed to avoid pointing out to the Fourth Circuit that it “cannot by itself resolve this conflict.” The petition did state that the government also plans to seek rehearing in the next few days in the Burks case in Fifth Circuit — the other court of appeals that has rejected the government’s position even after the new regulations issued.
For now, these filings seem to put the Beard case back in the lead as the first case likely to be ready for Supreme Court review. But that can change depending on the respective speed with which the different courts of appeals rule on the rehearing petitions.
On March 7, the taxpayer filed a petition for rehearing en banc (attached below) with the Seventh Circuit in Beard, emphasizing that both the Fifth and Fourth Circuits had explicitly disagreed with that decision and reached the opposite result on the Intermountain issue. Although courts of appeals often deny such petitions without a response, the Seventh Circuit almost immediately directed the government to file a response, which is due March 23. Today’s pro-government decision by the Federal Circuit in Grapevine perhaps takes a little steam out of the possibility of rehearing since a circuit conflict will likely persist even if the Seventh Circuit rehears the case and reverses itself, but the full Seventh Circuit still may want to consider whether the panel had a sound basis for disagreeing with so many other courts. The Grapevine decision, of course, rests on a different ground from Beard — namely, deference to the new regulations. With respect to the statutory issue addressed by the Beard panel, the Federal Circuit also is in disagreement with the Seventh Circuit.
Federal Circuit Adds to Intermountain Conflict by Deferring to New Regulations That Apply Six-Year Statute to Overstatements of Basis
The Federal Circuit has ruled for the government in Grapevine, throwing the circuits into further disarray by adopting an approach that differs from all three of the courts of appeals that have previously addressed the Intermountain issue subsequent to the issuance of the new regulations. Because the Federal Circuit had already rejected the government’s construction of the statute in Salman Ranch, the Grapevine case starkly posed the question whether the new regulations had the effect of requiring the court to disregard its prior decision and reach the opposite result. As we previously reported, at oral argument the day after the decision in Mayo Foundation, the government told the Federal Circuit that Mayo compelled that result. The court has now agreed.
A key section of the court’s opinion considers whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Colony defeats the government’s deference argument. The court says it does not because Colony itself stated that it did not regard the statutory text as unambiguous and, even considering the Colony court’s review of the legislative history, the court did not believe that “Congress’s intent was so clear that no reasonable interpretation could differ.” Therefore, Colony did not resolve the case under Chevron Step 1 and, under Brand X, Treasury was free to issue a regulation that contradicts Colony. (In its analysis, the Federal Circuit appears to have sided with the view, based on footnote 9 of Chevron, that legislative history can be considered at Chevron Step 1 (see our previous post)). The court then applies the Chevron analysis to the new regulations and concludes that they are reasonable based on exactly the same government arguments that the court rejected in Salman Ranch when it was construing the statute in the absence of a regulation. Finally, the court rules that Treasury did not abuse its discretion in applying the new regulations retroactively to years that were still open under the six-year statute.
The Grapevine decision is significant in the specific context of the Intermountain cases, as it virtually ensures that a circuit conflict on the issue will persist even if the Seventh Circuit reconsiders its decision in Beard. And it is the first appellate decision to address in detail the merits of the government’s primary argument that it can overturn the prior adverse decisions in this area by regulation. More generally, the case is a great illustration of Treasury’s power under the combination of Mayo and Brand X. The Federal Circuit was keenly aware of the implications of its decision, summarizing it as follows: “This case highlights the extent of the Treasury Department’s authority over the Tax Code. As Chevron and Brand X illustrate, Congress has the power to give regulatory agencies, not the courts, primary responsibility to interpret ambiguous statutory provisions.” Presumably, Treasury will continue to test the limits of how far it can go in exercising that “primary responsibility.”
The Fourth Circuit, in an opinion authored by Judge Wynn and joined by Judges Wilkinson and Gregory, has solidified the circuit conflict on the Intermountain issue by ruling for the taxpayer in the Home Concrete case. (See our original post on these cases here.) First, the court held that the statutory issue was resolved by the Supreme Court’s decision in Colony, rejecting the argument recently accepted by the Seventh Circuit in Beard (see here) that Colony addressed the 1939 Code and should be understood as applying to identical language in the 1954 Code only to the extent that the taxpayer is in a trade or business. The court concluded that “we join the Ninth and Federal Circuits and conclude that Colony forecloses the argument that Home Concrete’s overstated basis in its reporting of the short sale proceeds resulted in an omission from its reported gross income.”
Second, the court held that the outcome was not changed by the new Treasury regulations. The court held that the regulations by their terms could not apply to the 1999 tax year at issue, because “the period for assessing tax” for that year expired in September 2006. See Treas. Reg. § 301.6501(e)-1(e). The government argued that the new regulations apply to all taxable years that are the subject of pending cases, but the court held that this position could not be squared with the statutory text of Code section 6501. In any event, the court continued, no deference would be owed to the regulations under the principles of Brand X because the Supreme Court had already conclusively construed the term “omission from gross income” in Colony and therefore there was no longer any room for the agency to resolve an ambiguity by regulation.
Judge Wilkinson wrote a separate concurring opinion to elaborate on this last point. He observed that Brand X allows a regulation to override a prior court decision only if that decision was not based on a Chevron “step one” analysis — that is, on a conclusion that the statute is unambiguous. This can be a difficult inquiry when examining pre-Chevron decisions in which the court had no reason to analyze the case through the lens of the two-step Chevron framework. Judge Wilkinson explains why he “believe[s] that Colony was decided under Chevron step one,” concluding that the Supreme Court’s statement that it could not conclude that the 1939 Code language is unambiguous was “secondary in importance to the thrust of the opinion” and the Court’s assessment of the statutory purpose. (As previously discussed here, this question of whether Colony should be viewed as a “step one” decision, and the related question of how relevant legislative history is at “step one,” was the focus of the Federal Circuit’s attention in the oral argument in Grapevine.)
Judge Wilkinson then goes on to make some more general observations about the limits of Chevron deference in the wake of the Mayo Foundation case. He states that Mayo “makes perfect sense” in affording “agencies considerable discretion in their areas of expertise.” He cautions, however, that “it remains the case that agencies are not a law unto themselves. No less than any other organ of government, they operate in a system in which the last words in law belong to Congress and the Supreme Court.” In Judge Wilkinson’s view, the government’s attempt to reverse Colony by regulation “pass[es] the point where the beneficial application of agency expertise gives way to a lack of accountability and a risk of arbitrariness.” He concludes that “Chevron, Brand X, and more recently, Mayo Foundation rightly leave agencies with a large and beneficial role, but they do not leave courts with no role where the very language of the law is palpably at stake.”
The Fourth Circuit’s decision seems to eliminate the slim possibility that the Intermountain issue could be definitively resolved short of the Supreme Court. There are now two circuits (the Fourth and the Seventh) that have come down on opposite sides, though both had the opportunity to consider the recent developments of the final regulations and the Mayo decision. At this point, the government is likely to seek Supreme Court review, either by acquiescing in a taxpayer certiorari petition (possibly in Beard) or by filing its own petition in Home Concrete. Unless petitions for rehearing are filed, the parties have 90 days from the date of final judgment to file a petition for certiorari in these cases.