The Fifth Circuit has issued its opinion in Rodriguez, unanimously affirming the Tax Court in an opinion authored by Judge Prado. As forecasted in our earlier report on the oral argument (see here), the Court saw no way for the taxpayer to get around the technical obstacle that a section 951 inclusion is neither an actual dividend nor expressly denominated by Congress to be a “deemed dividend.” On the first point, the court stated that “actual dividends require a distribution by a corporation and receipt by the shareholder; there must be a change in ownership of something of value.” Hence, “Section 951 inclusions do not qualify as actual dividends because no transfer occurs.” On the second point, the court stated that the taxpayers’ “deemed dividends” argument was “unpersuasive . . . because, when Congress decides to treat certain inclusions as dividends, it explicitly states as much,” pointing to several provisions where Congress has explicitly stated that certain amounts should be treated as dividends.
The court did not express much angst over the unfairness argument made by the taxpayers — namely, that they could have obtained qualified dividend treatment through the formal declaration of a dividend had they only known that Congress was going to implement a more favorable rate for such dividends. The court recognized that fact, but did not agree that it led to a “harsh and unjust result.” To the contrary, the court said that the taxpayers had the opportunity to declare a dividend, or take other steps with the accumulated earnings, and those would have carried different tax implications. But they could not “now avoid their tax obligation simply because they regret the specific decision they made.” The court also gave short shrift to the taxpayers’ reliance on language in earlier legislative history and IRS pronouncements that described “a conceptual equivalence” between section 951 inclusions and dividend income.” The court said that these pronouncements carried little weight because the distinction between these inclusions and formal dividends “was treated loosely at the time because it did not carry tax implications” until 2003 when the preferential rate for qualified dividends was implemented.
The taxpayers have 45 days from the July 5 date of decision to seek rehearing, and 90 days to seek certiorari, though there is no reason to believe that either of those avenues for further review would prove to be fruitful.
The Fifth Circuit held oral argument in the Rodriguez case before Circuit Judges DeMoss, Dennis, and Prado. As we have previously reported here and here, the issue in this case is whether the taxpayers can receive qualified dividend income treatment for amounts included in their income under section 951. Taxpayers’ counsel stated that he had three main arguments: (1) section 951 is just an anti-deferral statute, not concerned with characterizing the income as dividend or ordinary income; (2) Private Letter Rulings and other Executive Branch announcements had previously characterized section 951 inclusions as “deemed dividends”; and (3) it was unfair, akin to a penalty, to deny dividend treatment to these income inclusions when the taxpayers concededly would have received qualified dividend treatment if they had actually made the distribution that was being imputed.
The court’s questioning at first focused on challenging the taxpayers’ basic point that the section 951 inclusion is essentially indistinguishable from a dividend. The court pointed out that at best what was involved was something “similar” to a dividend, not an actual dividend, noting that there was no actual distribution. When taxpayers’ counsel argued that the Code deems other kinds of income to be dividends even in the absence of a distribution, the court rejoined that these examples were distinguishable because they involved explicit statutory language providing that the income should be treated as a dividend. The taxpayers’ argument appeared to get more traction on the fairness point. The court observed that the taxpayers probably received legal advice and ought to suffer the consequences if they failed to make a dividend distribution and instead allowed the money to stay in the CFC and be subject to section 951 inclusion. But this position appeared to soften when taxpayers’ counsel explained that this choice would not have been apparent at the relevant time because it was not until the Bush-era tax cuts were enacted (including the reduced tax rate for qualified dividends) that it made any difference whether the inclusion was treated as a dividend or not.
Government counsel was met with questions as soon as she took the podium and overall had to entertain more questions than did taxpayers’ counsel. The court initially focused on the fairness point, remarking that the taxpayers had just done what was normally done at the time (before the Bush-era tax cuts) and wondering why they ought not to get the same treatment as if they had actually distributed the dividend. Government counsel acknowledged that Congress had no specific intent to impose a penalty on people in the taxpayers’ situation, but maintained that there was no basis for giving the taxpayers the relief they seek. Congress wanted to establish a reduced rate for dividends, but this was not a dividend nor any kind of distribution; it was just imputed income. Later, government counsel emphasized that there were other respects (apart from the reduced qualified dividend rate) in which the income included under section 951 is not treated as a dividend, such as the effect on earnings and profits. In response to a question about Congress’s understanding, she argued that Congress did understand that section 951 inclusions were not being treated as dividends and chose not to change that, pointing to a bill that did not get very far that would have explicitly treated them as dividends. Before the government’s argument concluded, however, the court returned to its starting point, and government counsel conceded that the taxpayers would have received the reduced tax rate if they had just formally distributed the included amount as a dividend.
On rebuttal, the court suggested to taxpayers’ counsel that the taxpayers perhaps ought to live with the consequences of their failure to take advantage of the option of declaring a dividend. The court also confirmed that the taxpayers could not cite to any binding precedent on point, but instead relied primarily on district court decisions from other jurisdictions.
Given the relative balance in the court’s questioning, neither affirmance nor reversal would be startling. If I were to hazard a guess, however, the most likely outcome appeared to be the conclusion that the reduced rate applies to “dividends,” and section 951 inclusions, while they may be similar, are not technically “dividends” nor have they been deemed dividends by statute. If so, the taxpayers may be out of luck.
The Fifth Circuit has scheduled oral argument in the Rodriguez case for April 3 in New Orleans. As discussed in our prior posts, the issue in the case is whether section 951 inclusion income should be taxed at the lower rate applicable to qualified dividends. The identities of the three judges who will hear the case will be announced the week before the argument.
The parties have now filed their opening briefs in the Fifth Circuit in Rodriguez, an appeal from the Tax Court’s decision that section 951 inclusion income is not to be taxed at the lower rate applicable to qualified dividends. See our prior report here.
As they argued in the Tax Court, the taxpayers emphasize a policy argument, stating that “Subpart F’s general purpose and mechanics should govern” and “Subpart F treats the amount included in the U.S. shareholder’s gross income essentially like a dividend.” The taxpayer also invokes substance vs. form principles and statements in the legislative history of Subpart F characterizing section 951 inclusions as deemed dividends. The taxpayers also point to GCMs, private letter rulings, and Internal Revenue Manual sections that support deemed dividend treatment.
The government’s response, like the Tax Court, focuses mostly on the text of the Code. It argues that the section 951 inclusion income is not literally a dividend; that the Code decrees that it should be treated as a dividend for other purposes but makes no such provision concerning the qualified dividend tax rate; and that there are some contexts in which section 951 inclusion income is not treated as a dividend, such as the earnings and profits calculation.
With respect to policy, the government asserts that the policy underlying enactment of the favorable tax rate for qualified dividends was to provide “an incentive for corporations to distribute their earnings to shareholders instead of retaining them.” Accordingly, the government argues, it does not advance that policy to provide the preferential tax rate in a situation where the corporation did not distribute the earnings.
Finally, the government urges the court to ignore the taxpayers’ argument that the IRS had previously treated section 951 inclusions as dividends in prior pronouncements. It states that those pronouncements did not specifically address the preferential tax rate question at issue here and that they are not the kind of IRS pronouncements that can be cited as authoritative precedent. In any event, the government states, the Commissioner “may change an erroneous administrative interpretation if he determines that such a position is incorrect.”
The taxpayers have appealed to the Fifth Circuit from the Tax Court’s decision in Rodriguez v. Commissioner, No. 13909-08 (Dec. 7, 2011), which rejected qualified dividend treatment for certain amounts included in their income pursuant to Code Section 951. In 2003, Congress established a preferential tax rate for “qualified dividend income,” which includes dividends received from a qualified foreign corporation. Separately, section 951 contains provisions designed to limit tax deferrals by a “controlled foreign corporation” (CFC). Section 951 requires a taxpayer to include in income earnings of a CFC that are derived from investments in U.S real estate. The taxpayers in this case included such earnings in their income but sought to have them taxed at the favorable qualified dividend rate. In a comprehensive opinion, the Tax Court held that they were not “dividends” and hence should be taxed as ordinary income.
The taxpayers’ position was largely policy-based, arguing that the effect of the income inclusion was similar to that of a dividend, but their argument lacked strong direct support in the statutory text. As the Tax Court noted, legislative history and case law had described the section 951 inclusions as substantially equivalent to receiving dividends. See, e.g., Gulf Oil Corp. v. Commissioner, 87 T.C. 548, 571 (1986) (“Subpart F treats the amount of the increased investment much like a constructive dividend to the U.S. shareholders”). But the Tax Court concluded that this similarity did not resolve the case, observing that “to say that section 951 treats a CFC’s investments in U.S. property ‘much like’ a constructive dividend is a far cry from saying that such amounts actually constitute dividends.”
Instead, the Tax Court focused on a textual analysis. First, the court said that the section 951 inclusion did not meet the statutory definition of a dividend (Code section 316(a)) because there was no “distribution” by the corporation; a distribution cannot occur unless there is a “change in ownership of corporate property.” The court noted that the Code expressly provides that section 951 inclusions should be treated as a dividend for certain other purposes, but there is no such express provision for qualified dividend rates. See I.R.C. §§ 851(b), 904(d)(3)(G), 960(a)(1). The court also pointed to several provisions directing that other kinds of non-dividend income, such as redemptions and undistributed foreign personal holding company income, should be treated as dividends. See, e.g., I.R.C. §§ 302(a), 551(b). Given these examples of explicit dividend treatment elsewhere in the Code, the Tax Court concluded that the lack of an explicit textual basis for dividend treatment was a fatal flaw in the taxpayers’ position.
The Tax Court acknowledged that the taxpayers’ position drew support from the original 1962 Senate Report, which explained that, under Subpart F, “earnings brought back to the United States are taxed to the shareholders on the grounds that this is substantially the equivalent of a dividend being paid to them.” S. Rep. No. 1881, 87th Cong., 2d Sess. 794 (1962). But the court found that this sentence was not controlling, pointing to other ways in which treatment of section 951 inclusions differs from dividends (for example, effect on earnings and profits). The court added that affording qualified dividend treatment would not advance the stated legislative purpose for the preferential interest rate.
The impact of this decision is not necessarily confined to the context of qualified dividends. Rather, its reasoning seems applicable to other contexts in which one might argue that section 951 inclusions should be treated as dividends, but where there is no explicit provision to that effect. And the shoe might be on the other foot. For example, the new health care surtax on investment income for taxpayers earning more than $250,000 defines “net investment income” as including “income from interest, dividends, annuities, royalties, and rents.” I.R.C. § 1411(c)(1)(A)(i). If the IRS would like to impose the surtax on section 951 inclusion income, its victory in Rodriguez would appear to pose an obstacle to that position.