The taxpayer has filed its response brief in the Federal Circuit in the MassMutual case. See our previous coverage here. With respect to the primary issue of whether its policyholder dividend guarantee was a “fixed liability” within the meaning of the “all events test,” the taxpayer relies heavily on Washington Post Co. v. United States, 405 F.2d 1279 (Ct. Cl. 1969). (The Court of Claims was the predecessor court to the Federal Circuit and its pre-1982 decisions are binding precedent in the Federal Circuit.) According to the taxpayer, Washington Post establishes that “a company can fix a liability to an existing class of beneficiaries, even though the class composition may change before the liability is ultimately satisfied.” In contrast to the government’s brief, the taxpayer does not dwell at length on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Hughes Properties and General Dynamics, but argues that both of those cases are fully consistent with the more-directly-on-point decision in Washington Post.
The brief also addresses the Second Circuit’s decision in New York Life, arguing that the cases are distinguishable. (The Second Circuit had suggested a distinction, but without great conviction, suggesting that it believed the Court of Federal Claims was wrong in MassMutual.) The critical difference, according to the taxpayer, is that “New York Life addressed thousands of separate liabilities to individual policyholders, any one of which could cease to be a policyholder at any time,” whereas MassMutual involves a guarantee to “a class of policyholders” that “does not depend on identifying individual policyholder liability.” Finally, the taxpayer rejects the government’s argument that the dividend guarantees were “illusory,” stating that the trial court correctly ruled that “Board resolutions can fix liability.”
With respect to the second issue of whether the liability fell within the “recurring item exception,” the taxpayer argues that its position comports with “the only sound interpretation of the regulation.” It further argues that the government’s administrative deference argument is waived for failure to raise it below and, in any event, fails because the government is seeking deference to what is no more “than a convenient litigating position” that has not been shown to have been approved at any level by IRS or Treasury.
The taxpayer’s brief is linked below. Also linked below is the government’s brief in opposition to the petition for certiorari filed by the taxpayer in New York Life. That petition was denied by the Supreme Court on April 28.
The Federal Circuit is preparing to consider a government appeal in Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. United States, on an issue involving accrual of annual dividends paid by a mutual insurance company to its policyholders. This issue was also recently addressed by the Second Circuit, and it turns on an application of the “all events test.”
First, a quick refresher course. The “all events test” is described as the “touchstone” for determining when a liability has been incurred and a deduction can be accrued. Dating back to United States v. Anderson, 269 U.S. 422, 441 (1926), and now codified at I.R.C. § 461(h)(4), it originally provided for accrual when “all events have occurred which determine the fact of liability and the amount of such liability can be determined with reasonable accuracy.” In the mid-1980s, litigation over the application of this two-pronged test yielded two Supreme Court decisions in rapid succession, with the taxpayer prevailing in the first one and the government prevailing in the second.
In United States v. Hughes Properties, Inc., 476 U.S. 593 (1986), the Court held that a casino could treat as a fixed liability the amounts shown on the jackpot meters of its progressive slot machines at the close of the taxable year. In United States v. General Dynamics Corp., 481 U.S. 239 (1987), the Court held that a self-insuring employer could not accrue amounts that it had reserved for payment of employee medical claims not yet filed for services already performed, even assuming that the amount of the liability had been determined with reasonable accuracy. The Court held that the fact of liability was not established until the employee filed a claim for reimbursement, which it termed a “condition precedent” to the establishment of liability that was not “a mere technicality” or a mere “ministerial” act. Id. at 242-45 & nn.4-5. Three dissenters argued that the case was essentially indistinguishable from Hughes Properties, where the Court had rejected the government’s argument that the fact of liability did not arise until the winning patron pulled the handle because until then it was possible that the jackpot would never be paid – for example, if the casino went out of business or declared bankruptcy. Id. at 248-49. The majority, by contrast, held that failing to file a claim was not “the type of ‘extremely remote and speculative possibility’” that was found in Hughes Properties not to “render an otherwise fixed liability contingent.” Id. at 244-45.
In 1984, Congress codified the traditional all events test in Code section 461(h)(4) and added a third prong for future years by enacting section 461(h)(1), which provides that generally “the all events test shall not be treated as met any earlier than when economic performance with respect to such item occurs.” The Code, however, contains an exception from the economic performance requirement for “certain recurring items” if economic performance occurs within a reasonable period after the close of the taxable year and certain other conditions are met. I.R.C. § 461(h)(3). In the case of policyholder dividends issued by mutual insurance companies, the taxpayers have contended that the section 461(h)(3) exception is satisfied and therefore that their right to accrue those dividend payments turns on whether the original two-pronged all events test has been satisfied.
The insurer in MassMutual adopted Board Resolutions before the close of the taxable year guaranteeing an aggregate amount of policyholder dividends that would be paid in the upcoming year on each individual policyholder’s anniversary date. The government argued that the all events test was not satisfied until the year in which the dividends were paid because the Board Resolution could be revoked (though government counsel apparently characterized this as a “weak argument” at oral argument) and also because no precise dividend amounts could be allocated at the time of the resolution to an identifiable policyholder, since any individual policy might not still be in force on the anniversary date.
After a trial, the Court of Federal Claims rejected these arguments and allowed the taxpayer to accrue the amount of the dividends in the year before they were paid. Citing to Hughes Properties, the court said that it was not necessary that the identity of the individual recipients be known at the time of accrual. The court also stated that, “[a]lthough a condition precedent can prevent a liability from being fixed, if the only event(s) still to occur are the passage of time and/or the payment, the liability is considered fixed.” The court added that “the group of policyholders with paid-up policies were not at risk for their policies lapsing,” so the company “had an unconditional obligation” to those policyholders “to pay the guaranteed amounts of policyholder dividends.” The court then ruled that the dividends were “rebates” or “refunds” falling within the “recurring item” exception of section 461(h)(3), and therefore “economic performance” was not required before the expenses could be accrued.
After the Court of Federal Claims decision issued, but before it was ripe for appeal, the Second Circuit came to the opposite conclusion in a case involving policyholder dividends accrued by New York Life. That mutual insurance company also paid annual dividends on the anniversary date, but only if the policy was still in force and fully paid up (payment was required a month in advance). The taxpayer sought to accrue dividend payments due in January of the following year, since those policies had been fully paid up in December. The Second Circuit, however, ruled that the all events test was not satisfied for the January anniversary date policies, because of the possibility that the policyholder might choose to cash in the policy in January before the anniversary date and thus the policy would no longer be in force when the dividend came due.
The Second Circuit reasoned that the case was analogous to General Dynamics, stating that “‘the last link in the chain of events creating liability’—the policyholder’s decision to keep his or her policy in force through the policy’s anniversary date—did not occur until January of the following year.” The taxpayer argued that an “event” that would defeat accrual must be something that marks a change in the status quo, rather than a non-event like the policyholder’s failure to cash in a policy. The court, however, rejected this position, stating that the fact of liability “depend[ed] upon an actual choice by the third-party policyholder: her decision not to redeem her policy for cash, for example, and invest her money elsewhere.”
The court suggested that the MassMutual decision was distinguishable on its facts because there “the policy was considered ‘in force’ simply ‘if the premiums for the policy [had been] paid through its anniversary date,’” whereas in New York Life the company defined eligibility as “requiring both that the policyholder have paid all premiums and that she not have surrendered her policy for cash prior to the policy’s anniversary date.” Recognizing that this distinction might be viewed as less than compelling, the Second Circuit added that, “to the extent the reasoning of the MassMutual court is at odds with ours . . ., we respectfully disagree with that court’s approach.”
New York Life has filed a petition for certiorari seeking review of the Second Circuit’s decision. The petition focuses on the court of appeals’ reliance on the possibility that the policyholder might not receive a dividend because she chose to cash in her policy before the January anniversary date. The question presented in the petition is whether the court erred in holding that “the continuation of the status quo is a required event, and thus a ‘condition precedent,’ needed to establish the fact of liability under the all-events test.”
The petition’s main contention is that the Second Circuit’s decision cannot be squared with Hughes Properties. Because MassMutual is just a trial court decision, the cert petition rests its claim of a circuit conflict primarily on older cases that predate General Dynamics, arguing that the Second Circuit’s decision “recreates a multi-circuit conflict resolved by this Court in Hughes Properties.” The timing of the respective decisions is such that MassMutual is not likely to provide much help in this regard; the Supreme Court can be expected to act on the cert petition by the end of May at the latest, well before a Federal Circuit decision is likely in MassMutual.
The government’s opening brief in MassMutual is due February 20. Its opposition to the petition for certiorari in New York Life is due, after one extension, on March 20.