The Fifth Circuit announced today its ruling in favor of the taxpayer in the two consolidated cases pending before it on the Intermountain issue, Burks v. United States, and Commissioner v. MITA. As we previously noted, the Fifth Circuit had decided what the government regarded as the most favorable precedent on this issue before the Son-of-BOSS cases, Phinney v. Chambers, 392 F.2d 680 (5th Cir. 1968), but the court at oral argument appeared to be leaning towards finding that case distinguishable. And so it did, creating the anomaly that the Seventh Circuit in Beard has given Phinney a much broader reading than the Fifth (see here). In any event, the Fifth Circuit rejected the reasoning of Beard and concluded that Colony is controlling with respect to the meaning of the phrase “omits from gross income” in the 1954 Code. The court addressed this argument in some detail, relying heavily on the “comprehensive analysis” of the Ninth Circuit in favor of the taxpayer’s position in Bakersfield Energy Partners, LP v. Commissioner, 568 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009).
The court devoted comparatively little attention to the government’s reliance on the new regulations. It concluded that the statute was unambiguous and therefore there was no basis for affording deference to the regulations. In addition, the court stated that the new regulations by their terms were inapplicable because they should be read as reaching back no more than three years — an argument accepted by the Tax Court majority but that does not appear to be among the taxpayers’ strongest, especially after the final regulations were issued.
The most provocative discussion in the opinion is a long footnote 9 near the end, which points out some possible limitations on the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Mayo Foundation decision (discussed here). Although its conclusion that the statute is unambiguous made the regulations irrelevant, the court went on to state that it would not have deferred to the regulations under Chevron even if the statute were ambiguous. On this point, the court emphasized an important difference between Mayo and the Intermountain cases — namely, the retroactive nature of the regulations at issue in the latter cases. Noting that the Supreme Court has said that it is inappropriate to defer “to what appears to be nothing more than the agency’s convenient litigating position” (quoting Bowen v. Georgetown Univ. Hosp., 488 U.S. 204, 213 (1988)), the Fifth Circuit stated that the “Commissioner ‘may not take advantage of his power to promulgate retroactive regulations during the course of a litigation for the purpose of providing himself with a defense based on the presumption of validity accorded to such regulations'” (quoting Chock Full O’Nuts Corp. v. United States, 453 F.2d 300, 303 (2d Cir. 1971)). In addition, the court questioned the efficacy of the government’s request for deference to final regulations that were largely indistinguishable from the temporary regulations: “That the government allowed for notice and comment after the final [perhaps should read “temporary”] Regulations were enacted is not an acceptable substitute for pre-promulgation notice and comment. See U.S. Steel Corp. v. U.S. EPA, 595 F.2d 207, 214-15 (5th Cir. 1979).”
Thus, we have perfect symmetry between the conflicting decisions of the Fifth and Seventh Circuits. The Seventh Circuit says that the statutory language supports the government, so there is no need to consider the regulations. But if it did consider the regulations, it would defer. The Fifth Circuit says that statutory language unambiguously supports the taxpayer, so there is no justification for considering the regulations. But if it did consider the regulations, it would not defer. The Supreme Court awaits, and it may well have something to say about the Fifth Circuit’s observations in footnote 9.