The Second Circuit did not make the parties wait very long to learn the outcome of the Barnes Group’s appeal from the Tax Court’s imposition of dividend treatment on its multi-step transaction that enabled it to use in the United States cash that was located in Singapore. See our prior reports here and here. Little more than a month after oral argument, the court of appeals today issued a summary order affirming the Tax Court in all respects. The first page of such unpublished orders recites that they “do not have precedential effect,” but they can be cited in future cases pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 (albeit only in limited circumstances in the Second Circuit, see 2d Cir. Local Rule 32.1.1). In any event, the court issued a nine-page opinion briefly touching on the issues.
First, the court of appeals quickly agreed with the Tax Court that the IRS had not run afoul of the principle that it should not argue against its own revenue rulings. Even though Barnes had relied on Rev. Rul. 74-503 in determining the tax consequences of a key step in the transaction, the court of appeals accepted the Tax Court’s explanation that Rev. Rul. 74-503 could be disregarded because it “addressed the tax treatment of an isolated exchange of stock, and therefore provided no guidance on when the individual steps in an integrated series of transactions will be disregarded under the step transaction doctrine.”
The court then upheld the application of the step-transaction doctrine, agreeing with the Tax Court that the intermediate steps would have been fruitless unless they were part of a single integrated plan. The court rejected the taxpayer’s argument that the doctrine should not apply because the steps had a valid business purpose, finding that the Tax Court’s contrary finding of no valid business purpose was not clearly erroneous. Specifically, the court of appeals stated that “any non-tax benefit of including the financing subsidiaries was, at best, a mere afterthought.” Similarly, the court held that the Tax Court did not clearly err in premising its constructive dividend conclusion on a finding that Barnes failed to show that certain interest or preferred dividend payments were ever made.
Finally, the court of appeals upheld the imposition of the 20% accuracy-related penalty. It ruled that its previous distinction of Rev. Rul. 74-503 as not applying to a situation involving multiple steps also made that ruling unavailable as “substantial authority” that could eliminate the penalty. And it ruled that Barnes had no “reasonable cause and good faith” defense because the PwC opinion on which it had relied “does not advise as to the tax consequences of the entire series of transactions transferring funds from ASA to Barnes.”
All of the briefs have now been filed in the Barnes case. The government’s response brief defends the Tax Court’s decision as a run-of-the-mill application of substance over form principles. Quoting from True v. Commissioner, 190 F.3d 1165 (10th Cir. 1999), it argues that the step-transaction doctrine applies because the “Bermuda/Delaware exchanges did not ‘make[ ] any objective sense standing alone’ without contemplation of the other steps.” In arguing that these steps served no business purpose, the government relies heavily on evidence that the “reinvestment plan” was based on tax planning that the taxpayer’s accountants had previously done for another client. The government asserts that “Barnes and PwC went to great lengths to create out of whole cloth a business purpose for a tax-avoidance plan that originated in PwC’s database.” Rather than a legitimate business plan, the government alleges that “the entire repatriation scheme consists of essentially nothing more than a circular flow of funds among Barnes and its wholly owned subsidiaries.”
The government’s brief also notes that, if the court of appeals is unpersauded by the Tax Court’s opinion, it should remand for additional factual determinations to resolve two alternative government arguments that were not reached by the Tax Court: 1) that the transaction had the principal purpose of tax evasion and therefore deductions could be disallowed under Code section 269; and (2) that the Delaware preferred stock was held under the anti-abuse rule of Treas. Reg. § 1.956-1T(b)(4).
With respect to the issue discussed in our previous post regarding the taxpayer’s argument that the government was prohibited from disavowing Rev. Rul. 74-503, the brief largely tracks the Tax Court’s discussion. In other words, the government does not question the soundness of the principle stated in Rauenhorst that the IRS cannot argue against its Revenue Rulings. Rather, the brief simply doubles down on the step-transaction point and argues that the taxpayer could not reasonably rely on that ruling here because this case does not involve “bona fide § 351 exchanges.”
With respect to the penalty issue, the government again criticizes PwC’s role, arguing that PwC had a “conflict of interest” in issuing an opinion regarding the transaction because it had an interest in a favorable tax result that would allow PwC to “market [the tax plan] to other corporations seeking to repatriate funds from a controlled foreign corporation.” Accordingly, the government argues that the taxpayer could not reasonably rely on the PwC letter for “objective advice.” The government also argues that the taxpayer could not reasonably rely on the opinion because “PwC did not opine on the integrated repatriation scheme as a whole.”
The taxpayer’s reply brief argues that the government’s brief “mischaracterizes the substance of the plan” because the Bermuda and Delaware subsidiaries did not operate as conduits for a dividend payment. Instead, it accuses the government of making a policy-based argument that would “impermissibly convert Section 956 into an anti-abuse rule.” The brief then disputes in detail the government’s description of the transaction and underlying facts.
With respect to the penalty issue, the reply brief states that the government “essentially rewrites the Tax Court’s factual findings” in criticizing reliance on the PwC opinion. The brief notes that PwC was Barnes’ long-time tax advisor and did not market the transaction to Barnes. It also states that the Tax Court held that the PwC advisor “was a competent professional who had sufficient expertise to justify reliance” and that Barnes “provided necessary and accurate information to the advisor.” In particular, the reply brief responds to the government’s “conflict of interest” accusation against PwC by noting that the Tax Court specifically observed that there was nothing “nefarious” about PwC keeping tax planning ideas in a database and by asserting that “the government’s unfounded assertions that PwC did not provide an adverse opinion in order to sell the transaction to others is ludicrous and without any factual basis.” The reply brief also argues that the government is incorrect in stating that the PwC opinion did not address the entire transaction, quoting the PwC opinion itself as stating that it “is premised on all steps of the proposed transaction.”
Oral argument has not yet been scheduled.
Briefing Underway in Barnes as Second Circuit Considers Application of Step-Transaction Doctrine to Impose Dividend Treatment on Movement of Foreign Cash
In Barnes Group v. Commissioner, the Tax Court (Goeke, J.) looked askance at the taxpayer’s strategy for minimizing the tax consequences of a movement of foreign cash to U.S. affiliates. As the taxpayer explained it, its foreign subsidiary in Singapore had excess cash and borrowing capacity that Barnes wanted to use to finance international acquisitions. For the time being, however, there was no suitable acquisition target, and the cash was earning only 3% in short-term deposit accounts while it could have been used more profitably in the U.S. to reduce Barnes’s expensive long-term debt. Barnes hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to help it develop an approach to allow the foreign cash to be used in the U.S. without incurring the adverse U.S. tax consequences of a direct loan or distribution to the U.S. parent.
The resulting “reinvestment plan” involved the creation of two new subsidiaries, one in Bermuda and one in Delaware, and two successive contributions of cash in section 351 exchanges – first from Singapore to Bermuda and second from Bermuda to Delaware. The Delaware subsidiary then loaned the cash to Barnes. Feel free to examine the opinion linked below for the details of the transaction, but suffice it to say here that a linchpin of the tax planning was reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503, which concluded that when two corporations exchange their own stock under circumstances similar to the section 351 exchange between the Bermuda and Delaware subsidiaries, they take a zero basis in the stock received. (Rev. Rul. 74-503 was revoked by Rev. Rul. 2006-2, but the earlier ruling is still relevant in this case because Rev. Rul. 2006-2 is prospective and provides that the IRS will not challenge positions already taken by a taxpayer that reasonably relied on Rev. Rul. 74-503.) Although Bermuda’s ownership of stock in its Delaware affiliate was an investment in U.S. property under section 956 and therefore would typically result in adverse U.S. tax consequences similar to a distribution, Barnes argued that Bermuda’s basis was zero and therefore that its section 956 inclusion should be zero.
The Tax Court disagreed, holding that the U.S. tax consequences of the transaction were different from those anticipated by Barnes. The court first determined that Rev. Rul. 74-503 did not preclude the IRS from challenging the taxpayer’s position, giving two reasons. First, the court briefly stated that, because it believed that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend from [Singapore] to Barnes” (as it would explain later in the opinion), the court did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” and therefore the ruling was irrelevant. Second, the court said that the ruling was irrelevant in any event because of the “substantial factual differences” between the ruling and this case. The court acknowledged that the section 351 exchanges, “considered alone, do have factual similarities to the revenue ruling,” but noted that they also were different in that they involved new subsidiaries, including a controlled foreign corporation. In addition, the Tax Court emphasized that the Barnes transaction was more complex than the one described in the ruling and listed seven “vast factual disparities” between the two situations. The court, however, devoted little attention to explaining why these factual differences were material to whether the principle of the ruling should apply here. Instead, the court simply recited the factual differences and then concluded that, “because the reinvestment plan far exceeded the scope of the stock-for-stock exchange addressed in Rev. Rul. 74-503,” the IRS was not precluded from challenging the taxpayer’s position.
The court then applied a step-transaction analysis to support its holding that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend” from Singapore to Barnes and should be taxed as such. According to the court, the step-transaction doctrine provides that “a particular step in a transaction is disregarded for tax purposes if the taxpayer could have achieved its objective more directly but instead included the step for no other purpose than to avoid tax liability.” The court stated that the doctrine applies if any of three tests are satisfied: (1) the binding commitment test; (2) the end result test; and (3) the interdependence test. Finding the third test to be the most appropriate, the Tax Court concluded that the various steps were “so interdependent that the legal relations created by one step would have been fruitless without completion of the later steps.” The key premise underlying that ultimate conclusion was the court’s determination that there was no “valid and independent economic or business purpose . . . served by the inclusion of Bermuda and Delaware in the reinvestment plan.” This analysis is an aggressive application of the step-transaction doctrine, taking it beyond its usual sphere, given that the steps ignored by the court were not transitory and that the characterization of the transaction as a dividend did not leave the parties in an economic position consistent with their legal rights and obligations following the actual transaction.
The court further found that Barnes did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” as Barnes made no interest payments to Delaware on the loan (even though interest had been accrued) and did not provide sufficient evidence that Delaware made any preferred dividend payments to Bermuda.
Finally, the court rejected the taxpayer’s contention that the reinvestment plan was intended to be a temporary structure under which the Singapore funds would ultimately be invested overseas when the right target appeared, noting that Barnes did not return any funds to Singapore.
The Tax Court also upheld the government’s imposition of a 20% accuracy-related penalty. The taxpayer raised two defenses to the penalty, arguing that its position was based on “substantial authority” and that it reasonably and in good faith relied on the PwC opinion letter. The court gave the “substantial authority” argument short shrift, simply repeating that Rev. Rul. 74-503 was “materially distinguishable” and hence should be afforded little weight. In response to the taxpayer’s additional citation of a 1972 General Counsel Memorandum, the court stated that GCMs “over 10 years old are afforded very little weight.” Given that taxpayers are generally invited to rely on the legal principles set forth in revenue rulings as precedent (see Treas. Reg. § 601.601(d)(2)(v)(d)), the court’s perfunctory dismissal of the taxpayer’s reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503 as substantial authority – and consequent imposition of a penalty – appears fairly harsh.
With respect to reliance on the PwC opinion, the court rested its decision on its finding that Barnes and its subsidiaries did not respect the structure of the reinvestment plan by failing to pay loan interest or preferred stock dividends. In the court’s view, “by failing to respect the details of the reinvestment plan set up by PwC, . . . [the taxpayer] forfeited any defense of reliance on the opinion letter.”
The taxpayer’s opening brief contends that all of these determinations by the Tax Court are erroneous. The first and longest section of the brief criticizes the court’s step-transaction analysis and ultimate conclusion that the transactions simply amounted to a dividend from Singapore to Barnes. In the taxpayer’s view, the court’s analysis “invent[s] a new step” of a constructive dividend that “fails to account for all of the commercial realities that continue to this day for the four legally separate corporate entities.” For example, the taxpayer argues that the evidence showed that Barnes intended to repay the loans and therefore it could not be a constructive dividend. Much of this portion of the taxpayer’s brief argues that the Tax Court’s key factual findings were clearly erroneous – namely, that the two new subsidiaries lacked a non-tax business purpose; that Barnes paid no interest to Delaware; that no preferred dividends were paid; and that the reinvestment plan was not intended to be temporary.
Second, the brief argues that the government impermissibly disavowed Rev. Rul. 74-503. The taxpayer points to Rauenhorst v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 157 (2002), for the proposition that the IRS cannot challenge the legal principles set forth in its own revenue rulings. It then argues that the factual differences identified by the Tax Court are irrelevant to the rationale for Rev. Rul. 74-503 and thus provide no basis for the government’s failure to abide by that rationale.
It will be interesting, and instructive for other cases, to see how the government deals with this point. If it is true that revenue rulings are supposed to provide guidance on legal principles on which taxpayers can rely, and if the IRS is constrained to some extent by its own rulings, it would seem apparent that merely identifying factual differences is not enough of a justification for disregarding the legal principles articulated in a revenue ruling. There are always going to be factual differences, especially when the ruling at issue contains only a brief and generic description of the facts, like Rev. Rul. 74-503. Will the government question the premise of the taxpayer’s argument in any way? Or will it accept the taxpayer’s statements about Rauenhorst and limit itself to defending the Tax Court’s position that the facts at issue are so materially different that the rationale of Rev. Rul. 74-503 cannot reasonably be applied here? Will it try to buttress the Tax Court’s reliance on the “vast factual disparities” between the two situations or will it simply focus on the argument that the tax effect of any individual step viewed in isolation is irrelevant (and therefore so is the ruling) because the transactions in substance amounted to a dividend?
Third, the taxpayer contests the court’s penalty determination. With respect to “substantial authority” the taxpayer relies primarily on the earlier discussion in the brief and maintains that it was reasonable to rely on the revenue ruling. With respect to the good faith argument, the taxpayer repeats its earlier discussion disputing the Tax Court’s finding that it did not respect the form of the transaction. It also argues that the PwC opinion, in any event, did not even address the loan and preferred dividend details on which the Tax Court rested its findings, and therefore the taxpayer’s alleged failures regarding those details do not undermine its claim of reasonable reliance on the PwC opinion. Finally, the taxpayer argues broadly that the Tax Court could not rest its good cause determination “on events that occurred after the returns were filed.”
The government’s brief is due May 15.
The Fifth Circuit has finally issued its opinion in NPR (as reflected in our prior coverage, this case was argued almost two years ago), a case involving a Son-of-BOSS tax shelter in which the district court absolved the taxpayers of penalties. The taxpayers were not as fortunate on appeal, as the Fifth Circuit handed the government a complete victory.
The court’s consideration of the two issues before the court of broadest applicability were overtaken by events — specifically, the Supreme Court’s December 2013 decision in United States v. Woods. See our report here. In line with that decision, the NPR court held that the penalty issue could be determined at the partnership level and that the 40% penalty was applicable because the economic substance holding meant that the basis in the partnership was overstated. This latter holding reversed the district court, which had relied on the Fifth Circuit precedents that were rejected in Woods.
The other issues resolved by the Court were mostly of lesser precedential value. First, the court affirmed the district court’s conclusion that a second FPAA issued by the IRS was valid because NPR had made a “misrepresentation of a material fact” on its partnership return.
Second, the court rejected the district court’s holding that the taxpayers could avoid penalties on the ground that there was “substantial authority” for their position. It criticized the district court for basing its “substantial authority” finding in part on the existence of a favorable tax opinion from a law firm (authored by R.J. Ruble who eventually went to prison as a result of his activities in promoting tax shelters). The court explained that a legal opinion cannot provide “substantial authority”; that can be found only in the legal authorities cited in the opinion. Here, the legal opinion had relied on the “Helmer line of cases,” which establish that contingent obligations generally do not effect a change in a partner’s basis. The court of appeals held that Helmer did not constitute substantial authority in a situation in which the transactions lack economic substance and in which the partnership lacked a profit motive. The court also observed that the IRS was correct in arguing that its Notice 2000-44 should be considered as adverse “authority” for purposes of the “substantial authority” analysis — albeit entitled to less weight than a statute or regulation.
Finally, the court overturned the district court’s finding that the taxpayers had demonstrated “reasonable cause” for the underpayment of tax. With respect to the partnership, the court stated flatly that “the evidence is conclusive that NPR did not have reasonable cause.” With respect to the individual partners, the court left a glimmer of hope, ruling that an individual partner’s reasonable cause can be determined only in a partner-level proceeding. Thus, the court merely vacated the district court’s finding of reasonable cause and left the individual partners the option of raising their own individual reasonable cause defenses (whatever those might be) in a partner-level proceeding.
That didn’t take long. Less than two weeks after learning that the parties would not be mediating their dispute (see our previous report here), the Ninth Circuit issued a brief five-page unpublished opinion affirming the Bergmann case in favor of the government. The court held that the time for filing a qualified amended return for an undisclosed listed transaction terminates when the promoter (here, KPMG) is first contacted by the IRS about examining the transaction, not when the IRS later determines the transaction is a tax shelter.
To recap the issue (see our original report here), under Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii), as in effect when the Bergmanns filed their amended return, the time to file a qualified amended return terminates when the IRS first contacts a “person” concerning liability under 26 U.S.C. § 6700 (a promoter investigation) for an activity with respect to which the taxpayer claimed a tax benefit. The Bergmanns claimed tax benefits from a Short Option Strategy promoted by KPMG on their 2001 tax return. The IRS served summonses on KPMG in March 2002 for its role in promoting the Short Option Strategy transactions. The Bergmanns did not file their qualified amended return until March 2004, shortly after KPMG identified the Bergmanns as among those taxpayers who participated in the transaction. The Bergmanns argued that “person” as used in the regulation meant only those persons liable for a promoter penalty under 26 U.S.C. § 6700.
The Ninth Circuit quickly dispatched the taxpayers’ argument, characterizing their interpretation of the regulation as “impermissibly rendering its text and purpose nonsensical.” Under the express language of the regulation, it applies when the promoter is “first contacted,” not found liable. The court of appeals concluded by observing that the purpose of qualified amended returns is to encourage and reward taxpayers who “voluntarily disclose abusive tax practices, thereby saving IRS resources.” Here, the taxpayers did not amend their return until after KPMG gave their names to the IRS.
In a somewhat unusual move, the Ninth Circuit issued an order last week suggesting that the parties pursue mediation in the Bergmann case. The order came two days after the court heard oral argument. The order states that “the court believes this case may be appropriate for mediation” and therefore it is being referred to the Ninth Circuit’s Mediation Office. A mediator will then contact the parties to determine their interest, but the parties are not required to elect mediation. The Circuit Mediator is directed to report back to the panel by January 4. In the meantime, the court will not act on the appeal.
The oral argument in this case was held on December 3 before Ninth Circuit Judges Gould, Paez, and District Court Judge Marilyn Huff, sitting by designation. As we have previously reported, the issue in this case is whether the taxpayer was insulated from penalties for participating in a tax shelter because he filed a qualified amended return. The outcome turns on the applicability of Treasury regulations that delineate when it is, in effect, too late for a taxpayer to save himself by filing an amended return because it is understood that he is doing so only because IRS actions have tipped him off that the shelter is being audited. As the parties framed the issue at oral argument, the dispute boils down to whether the current Treasury regulation (which describes what IRS actions are to be understood as tipping off the taxpayer) was merely a clarification of the previous regulation that was in effect at the time that the taxpayer filed his amended return. The taxpayer’s counsel conceded that applying the terms of the current regulation would have terminated the right to avoid penalties by filing an amended return; government counsel conceded that it is the older regulation, not the current one, that applies.
A couple of questions were asked at oral argument of each side, but nothing unexpected arose that obviously should have prompted the panel to suggest mediation. Towards the end of the argument, however, after the panel had established that few, if any, taxpayers remain governed by the terms of the older regulation, District Judge Huff asked government counsel whether the parties had considered mediation (noting that she did not even know if the Ninth Circuit had a mediation program). Not surprisingly, both government counsel and later taxpayer counsel said that they would not rule anything out and would be willing to entertain mediation.
The Ninth Circuit, of course, has an established mediation program — to which this case is now being referred — but that program ordinarily kicks in at the outset of the appeal, not after briefing and oral argument. In fact, in this case the parties participated in the first stage of that process, a telephone settlement assessment conference, back in March 2012. Thereafter, on March 15, 2012, the Court issued an order stating that the case was not selected for the mediation program, and it then proceeded to briefing.
The panel is now suggesting that the parties take a fresh look and decide whether they can reach a middle ground. There is no middle ground if the appeal proceeds to a decision: either the qualified amended return was timely and effective to protect against penalties or the taxpayer’s ability to achieve that protection was terminated before he filed the amended return. The panel perhaps decided that a fairer result lies somewhere in the middle — given that the text of the older regulation appears to lean towards the taxpayer but resolving the case on that basis might be regarded as allowing the taxpayer to benefit from a poorly drafted regulation when it should have been too late, as a policy matter, to avoid penalties by filing an amended return. Whatever the court was thinking, the oral argument and this order have given each side reason for concern that it might lose if the appeal proceeds to judgment. On the one hand, the judges did not question the government’s assertions that its interpretation of the regulation was entitled to deference and that it would be a bad policy result to allow the taxpayer to escape penalties here. On the other hand, the court — particularly Judge Gould who questioned government counsel on this point — did not appear entirely convinced that the current regulation can be viewed as a “clarification” because the text of the older regulation is not easily read to support the government’s position. It is entirely possible that both sides will seize this opportunity to split the baby and will reach a settlement through the mediation process.
The Supreme Court this morning ruled 9-0 in favor of the government on both issues in Woods, holding that: (1) there is partnership-level TEFRA jurisdiction to consider the appropriateness of a penalty when the partnership is invalidated for lack of economic substance; and (2) the 40% valuation overstatement penalty can apply in that setting on the theory that the basis of a sham partnership is zero and therefore the taxpayers overstated their basis. See our prior coverage here. The opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, is concise and appears to resolve definitively both issues that had previously divided the lower courts.
On the jurisdictional issue, the Court began by pointing to Code section 6226(f), which establishes partnership-level jurisdiction for “the applicability of any penalty . . . which relates to an adjustment to a partnership item.” Accordingly, the Court found, the question “boils down to whether the valuation-misstatement penalty ‘relates to’ the determination” that the partnerships were shams. On that point, the Court agreed with the government’s “straightforward” argument that “the penalty flows logically and inevitably from the economic-substance determination” because the trigger for the valuation overstatement calculation is the conclusion that a sham partnership has zero basis.
The Court rejected the taxpayer’s argument (previous adopted by the Federal and D.C. Circuits) that there can be no partnership-level determination regarding “outside basis” because some partner-level determinations are necessarily required to conclude that outside basis has been overstated. The Court found that this approach is inconsistent with TEFRA’s provision that the applicability of some penalties must be determined at the partnership level. If the taxpayer’s position were correct, the Court stated, it “would render TEFRA’s authorization to consider some penalties at the partnership level meaningless.” The Court stressed that the partnership-level applicability determination is “provisional,” meaning that individual partners can still raise partner-level defenses, but the partnership-level proceeding can determine an overarching issue such as whether the economic-substance determination was categorically incapable of triggering the penalty. In the Court’s view, “deferring consideration of those arguments until partner-level proceedings would replicate the precise evil that TEFRA sets out to remedy: duplicative proceedings, potentially leading to inconsistent results, on a question that applies equally to all of the partners.”
With respect to the merits issue of the applicability of the 40% penalty, the Court relied on what it regarded as the “plain meaning” of the statute. The text applies the penalty to tax underpayments attributable to overstatements of “value . . . (or the adjusted basis)” of property. Finding that the parentheses did not diminish or narrow the import of the latter phrase, the Court concluded that a substantial overstatement of basis must trigger the 40% penalty and that such an overstatement occurred in this case. Because the term “adjusted basis” “plainly incorporates legal inquiries,” the Court was unpersuaded by the taxpayer’s argument that the penalty applies only to factual misrepresentations of an asset’s value or basis. As we have previously noted (see here and here), both the taxpayer and an amicus brief filed by Prof. David Shakow set forth considerable evidence that the intent of Congress in enacting the 40% penalty was to address factual overstatements, not overstatements that flow from legal errors. The Court, however, stated that it would not consider this evidence, which is found in legislative history and in the IRS’s prior administrative practice, because “the statutory text is unambiguous.”
In addition, the Court rejected the reasoning of the Fifth Circuit that the underpayment of tax was “attributable to” a holding that the partnership was a sham, not to an overstatement of basis. The Court instead adopted the reasoning of Judge Prado’s opinion in the Fifth Circuit (which had questioned the correctness of binding circuit precedent) that, “in this type of tax shelter, ‘the basis understatement and the transaction’s lack of economic substance are inextricably intertwined.'”
At the end of the opinion, the Court addressed an issue of statutory interpretation that has broader implications beyond the specific context of Woods. The taxpayer had relied on language in the Blue Book, and the Court stated in no uncertain terms that the Blue Book is not a relevant source for determining Congressional intent. Rather, it is “post-enactment legislative history (a contradiction in terms)” that “is not a legitimate tool of statutory interpretation.” The Court acknowledged that it had relied on similar documents in the past, but suggested that such reliance was a mistake, stating that more recent precedents disapprove of that practice. Instead, the Blue Book should be treated “like a law review article”— relevant only if it is persuasive, but carrying no special authority because it is a product of the Joint Committee on Taxation.
The Supreme Court held oral argument in United States v. Woods on October 9. As we have previously reported, the case presents two distinct questions: (1) a TEFRA jurisdictional question concerning whether the court could determine the applicability of the valuation overstatement penalty in a partnership-level proceeding; and (2) the merits question whether the 40% penalty applied when the partnership was found not to have economic substance and therefore the basis claimed by the taxpayers in the partnership was not recognized.
Most of the argument time for both advocates was spent on the jurisdictional issue, as the Justices often seemed genuinely confused about how TEFRA is generally supposed to work and about the respective positions of the parties on how the statutory provisions should be interpreted in the circumstances of this case. [For example, Justice Sotomayor: “what is this case a fight about?” “Could you give me a concrete example, because I’m not quite sure about what you’re talking about.” Justice Breyer: “I am genuinely confused. I have read this several times.”] Thus, a higher percentage of the Justices’ questions than usual appeared designed simply to elicit information or alleviate confusion, rather than to test the strength of the advocate’s position.
Justice Sotomayor began the questioning by suggesting to government counsel, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, that there was an “incongruity” in its position in that it was acknowledging that there were partner-level issues that precluded a final determination of penalty liability until the partner-level proceeding, yet it was insisting that the penalty could be imposed without a notice of deficiency prior to the partner-level proceedings. Mr. Stewart responded that a taxpayer would have an opportunity before the penalty is imposed to make the kinds of broad objections that are at issue in this case. He would have to file a partner-level refund suit only if he had undeniably partner-specific issues like a good faith reasonable cause defense, and Congress contemplated that there would not be a prepayment forum for those kinds of issues.
Justice Kagan suggested that the government’s position essentially was “what you do at the partnership level is anything that doesn’t require looking at an individual’s tax return”; Mr. Stewart agreed, but he said that he preferred to state the position as “any question that will necessarily have the same answer for all partners should presumptively be resolved at the partnership level.”
Chief Justice Roberts asked Mr. Stewart about the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning in Petaluma that the penalty issue related to outside basis and therefore could not be resolved at the partnership level even if the answer was obvious. Mr. Stewart began his response by agreeing (as the government has throughout the litigation) with the proposition that “outside basis, in and of itself, is not a partnership item,” but this observation triggered some questions looking for clarification. Justice Scalia asked why outside basis would vary from partner to partner, and Justice Kennedy suggested that the government was arguing that “outside basis in this case is necessarily related to inside basis” – a formulation that Mr. Stewart rejected. The result was that the last few minutes of Mr. Stewart’s argument on the jurisdictional point were diverted into explaining that the government was not making certain arguments being suggested by the Court.
When Gregory Garre began his argument for the taxpayers, Justice Kagan zeroed in on the statutory text and asked if the case didn’t just boil down to whether the “related to a partnership item” language in the statute required that the relationship be direct [taxpayers’ view] or could be satisfied if the relationship were indirect [government’s view]. Mr. Garre responded by arguing that the government’s position was more at variance with the statutory text than she had suggested because the statute gives a partnership-level proceeding jurisdiction over “partnership items” and outside basis concededly was not a partnership item. Justice Scalia, and later Justice Kagan, pushed back against that answer by noting that the statute establishes jurisdiction over more than partnership items. Justice Kennedy chimed in to note that penalties are always paid by the partners, not the partnership itself, yet TEFRA contemplates that some penalties are determined at the partnership level.
Mr. Garre then emphasized that this penalty could not be determined at the partnership level because “outside basis isn’t reported anywhere at all on the partnership” return. Justices Scalia and Breyer both blurted out “so what” in response. There followed a long colloquy in which Mr. Garre argued to Justice Breyer that the difference between overstatements of outside basis and inside basis was of jurisdictional significance. Justice Breyer appeared unconvinced, suggesting instead that the partnership itself is a partnership item, and therefore the penalty based on shamming the partnership should also be regarded as a partnership item. Mr. Garre replied that the penalty was for overstating outside basis, which concededly is not a partnership item.
Justice Ginsburg showed great interest in the recently enacted economic substance penalty, asking about it on three different occasions. Although that new penalty is not applicable to the tax years at issue in this case, the taxpayers had argued that its enactment showed that Congress did not agree with the government’s position – namely, that the valuation overstatement penalty already on the books would apply when partnerships are found to lack economic substance. With respect to jurisdiction, Mr. Garre confirmed that the new penalty could be imposed at the partnership level because it is based on shamming the transaction, a partnership-level determination. With respect to the merits, the advocates unsurprisingly responded differently to Justice Ginsburg’s questions. Mr. Stewart stated that, although there was some overlap between the new penalty and the overstatement penalty at issue in this case, the overlap was not total, and it is not anomalous to have some degree of overlap. Therefore, enactment of the new penalty was not inconsistent with the government’s position. Mr. Garre, by contrast, asserted that the new penalty “that Congress passed to cover this situation here solves all the problems,” and thus it would be wrong for the Court “to fit a square peg into a round hole” by applying the valuation overstatement penalty to this situation. Chief Justice Roberts later asked about how the new penalty operates as well.
Mr. Garre then emphasized the “practical consequences” of resolving the penalty issue at the partnership level – specifically, that it would allow the government to impose the penalty without making a prepayment forum available for the taxpayer to contest it. Justice Sotomayor had begun the argument by asking Mr. Stewart about this point, and now she switched sides and asked Mr. Garre why that was inappropriate when it was “obvious” that the partner was going to claim a nonzero basis. Mr. Garre responded that, obvious or not, the court could not create jurisdiction by “assuming a fact necessary to the penalty.”
Justice Scalia had asked Mr. Stewart whether pushing the penalty determination to the partner level would open the door to inconsistent outcomes on the same legal issue. That was a friendly question, and Mr. Stewart happily agreed. When Justice Scalia asked Mr. Garre the same question, it led to a more extended discussion with several Justices. Mr. Garre initially responded that there was no danger of inconsistent outcomes on the merits issue because the Supreme Court’s resolution of that issue would be binding on everyone. Although different outcomes could occur because different partners have different outside basis, that is what Congress intended and is the reason why TEFRA provides for partner-level proceedings. Justice Scalia then asked about the possibility of different results on whether the partnership was a sham, but Mr. Garre pointed out that this determination was properly made at the partnership level and would apply equally to all partners. Chief Justice Roberts, however, questioned whether the asserted need for a partner-level determination of outside basis was mostly theoretical, asking: “does your case hinge on the perhaps unusual situations where you have one of these partners having a fit of conscience and decides to put down the real number or has some other adjustment to it?” Mr. Garre responded “largely, yes,” but added that the statute did not allow these determinations to be made at the partnership level even if they are obvious, and that where individual transactions are shammed (instead of the entire partnership), it will not be obvious that the basis is overstated. Justice Sotomayor remarked that she was confused by the individual transaction point, but she did not press Mr. Garre on the point after he explained it a second time.
The jurisdictional discussions left so little time for the advocates to address the merits that the argument did not shed much light on the Justices’ views on the applicability of the valuation overstatement penalty. During the government’s argument, Justice Ginsburg finally moved the discussion to the merits by asking the question about the new economic substance penalty discussed above. One other question followed from Chief Justice Roberts in which he asked Mr. Stewart to respond to one of the taxpayers’ main arguments – namely, that there is not an overvaluation of an amount here but instead a determination wiping out the entire transaction. Mr. Stewart responded that it was appropriate to apply the valuation overstatement penalty because “the whole point of the avoidance scheme was to create an artificially inflated basis.”
Mr. Garre also moved to the merits issue late in his argument. He began by emphasizing that Congress clearly aimed this penalty at the fundamentally different situation where the taxpayer misstated the amount of the value. Justice Kagan interjected to say that he was describing “the prototypical case,” but that didn’t have to be the only case, and the statute was drafted more broadly. Mr. Garre responded that “context, punctuation, pre-enactment history, post-enactment history and structure” supported the taxpayers’ position, but Justice Kagan rejoined skeptically that “you’re saying they have text, and you have a bunch of other things.” Mr. Garre then expanded on his answer, stating that the reference to “basis” in the statute “comes in a parenthetical, subordinate way” and thus must be related to an overvaluation, not to a situation where “the thing doesn’t exist at all.” He then ended his argument by noting that tax penalties are to be strictly construed in favor of the taxpayer and by inviting the Court to review the amicus brief filed by Prof. David Shakow for examples of other situations that would be mistakenly swept into the valuation overstatement penalty if the government were to prevail.
On rebuttal, Justice Breyer quickly interrupted to ask about his theory that the jurisdictional issue must be resolved in the government’s favor because the existence of the partnership is a “partnership item,” noting his concern that this approach might be too “simple” given that three courts had gone the other way and that he did not “want to say that you are right for the wrong reasons.” Before Mr. Stewart could respond, however, Chief Justice Roberts asked if he could “pose perhaps a less friendly question.” He then asked Mr. Stewart to comment on an analogy drawn by Mr. Garre to a taxpayer who claims a deduction for donating a $1 million painting when in fact he never donated a painting at all. That situation would involve a misstatement, but not a valuation misstatement, and Mr. Garre argued that in both situations the valuation misstatement penalty would be inapplicable. Mr. Stewart, however, sought to distinguish the painting example from this case because the IRS did not determine that the underlying currency transactions did not occur, just that the partnerships were shams. Chief Justice Roberts appeared unpersuaded by this distinction, commenting that calling the partnerships shams was “like saying that there were no partnerships,” so it seemed that the situations were “pretty closely parallel.”
Given the nature of the questioning, it is harder than usual to draw any conclusions from the oral argument, except perhaps that the Court (or at least the Justice who is assigned to write the opinion) is regretting its decision to add the jurisdictional question to the case. Justice Scalia appeared solidly on the side of the government on the jurisdictional question. Justice Breyer appeared to be leaning that way as well, but on a theory not espoused in the briefs that he himself seemed to recognize might not withstand more rigorous analysis. Conversely, Chief Justice Roberts referred several times to the D.C. Circuit’s Petaluma decision, perhaps indicating that he finds its reasoning persuasive. In the end, most of the Justices seem still to be figuring the case out, and we will have to wait to see where they come out.
It has been almost two years since the Fifth Circuit heard oral argument in the NPR Investments case, which involves a “son-of-BOSS” tax shelter and associated questions regarding penalties and jurisdiction under TEFRA. See our previous reports on the oral argument and describing the issues. Last week, the court issued an order directing the parties to file short “letter briefs,” answering some specific questions involving TEFRA jurisdiction over penalties. In particular, the court asked the parties to address how NPR compares to the Petaluma (D.C. Cir.) and Jade Trading (Fed. Cir.) cases in which the courts found a lack of jurisdiction in partnership-level proceedings to impose a valuation misstatement penalty where a basis-inflating transaction was found to lack economic substance. As we have reported, the Supreme Court is preparing to hear argument in U.S. v. Woods, which involves the validity of such a penalty and the same jurisdictional issue addressed in Petaluma and Jade Trading.
It is not clear whether the Fifth Circuit panel considering NPR was aware that the Supreme Court is poised to decide these questions in Woods (though Woods is a case that comes from the Fifth Circuit), but it certainly is aware of it now. The government’s response to the court’s order points the court to the government’s brief in Woods and explicitly states that “the issue whether Petaluma and Jade Trading were correctly decided is at the heart of the jurisdictional issue before the Supreme Court in Woods, scheduled for argument on October 9.” Given that a Supreme Court decision will be coming down in the next several months that, at a minimum, will bear closely on the issues in NPR Investments and quite possibly resolve them definitively, it is hard to see why the Fifth Circuit would press ahead to decide the NPR case. Most likely, it will continue to sit on the case until Woods is decided. But that is not certain. The responses to the court’s request for supplemental briefs demonstrated some level of agreement between the government and the taxpayer. If the Fifth Circuit has an opinion almost ready to go, but for a couple of areas of uncertainty that have now been cleared up by the supplemental briefs, it might go ahead and issue its opinion. If it does, however, the ultimate result in the case likely will still remain in play until the Supreme Court speaks in Woods.
The government has filed its reply brief in the Supreme Court in Woods. See our reports on the opening briefs here and here. The discussion of the jurisdictional issue focuses less on the textual analysis set forth in the government’s opening brief and more on the policy implications of adopting the taxpayers’ position. The government asserts that the taxpayers’ reading of the statute would effectively “negate Congress’s grant of authority to courts in partnership-level proceedings to determine the applicability of penalties.”
On the merits, the reply brief devotes most of its attention to responding to the taxpayers’ threshold argument that the penalty is inapplicable because there was no valuation misstatement to begin with, which was not the rationale of the court of appeals’ opinion. The government relies heavily on the statutory reference to “adjusted basis,” noting that it is stated in the disjunctive and therefore should be read to apply to basis overstatements that have nothing to do with “fact-based” valuation misstatements. The merits discussion also adverts to policy, stating that there is nothing “objectionable about the fact that basis overstatements arising from sham transactions will nearly always trigger the 40% penalty for gross misstatements.” That is because “the most egregious misconduct–engaging in phony transactions to create an artificial basis–warrants the most severe sanction.”
We also link to an amicus brief inadvertently omitted from our previous report. This brief, filed by Penn Law School Professor David Shakow because the issue is one “in which he has a special interest and about which he has been engaged for some time in writing,” supports the taxpayers’ primary argument on the merits. The brief analyzes the statutory language in context, and examines the history of the statute — both the legislative history and its application before tax shelters became rampant — and concludes that the valuation misstatement penalty should not apply in the absence of an actual valuation misstatement. According to Professor Shakow, the IRS, with the acquiescence of many courts, is improperly “using the valuation misstatement penalty as a surrogate for a ‘tax shelter’ penalty that Congress has not authorized.”
Oral argument is scheduled for October 9.