[Note: Miller and Chevalier represented the taxpayer Exxon Mobil Corp. in this case.]
We previously reported on the Second Circuit’s consideration of the interest netting issue that had been resolved against the taxpayer by the Federal Circuit in FNMA v. United States, 379 F.3d 1303 (2004). Although we did not follow up with a timely report on the Second Circuit’s decision in that case in favor of the taxpayer, the decision is now final, with the government having allowed the time to seek certiorari to expire. To close the loop, we provide here a summary of the decision and a link to the opinion.
As explained in our prior post, the issue concerned a “special rule” enacted when Congress passed the interest netting rule of section 6621(d) in 1998. The statute operates prospectively, but Congress also allowed taxpayers to file interest netting claims for pre-1998 periods subject to a statute of limitations constraint. The dispute was over the scope of that constraint, with the taxpayer arguing that interest netting is available so long as the statute of limitations was still open on the 1998 effective date for either of the years used in the interest netting calculation. The government, by contrast, argued that the statute of limitations must have been open on the relevant date for both the underpayment and overpayment years that are used in the interest netting calculation. The Federal Circuit in Fannie Mae had ruled for the government, reasoning that the statutory text is ambiguous and should be construed narrowly in favor of the government because the “special rule,” the court concluded, is a waiver of sovereign immunity. The Tax Court, however, declined to follow Fannie Mae in this case and ruled for the taxpayer.
The Second Circuit affirmed the Tax Court in a comprehensive decision that closely tracked the taxpayer’s brief. The court rejected the sovereign immunity argument and then concluded “that the structure, context, and evident purpose of section 6621(d) and the special rule indicate that the special rule is to be read broadly, such that global interest netting may be applied when at least one leg of the overpayment/underpayment overlapping period is not barred by the applicable statute of limitations.”
The court did not dwell on the statutory text, finding that “the provision is susceptible to both proffered interpretations and that the intended meaning of the special rule cannot be derived from the text alone.” Therefore, the court stated that it was necessary “to consult the provision’s structure, historical context, and purpose–as well as applicable canons of statutory construction–in order to determine its meaning.” The court added that it would be “particularly mindful” of one pro-taxpayer canon of construction that is sometimes mentioned by courts but also often ignored in favor of competing pro-government canons — namely, “where ‘the words [of a tax statute] are doubtful, the doubt must be resolved against the government and in favor of the taxpayer,’ United States v. Merriam, 263 U.S. 179, 188 (1923).”
The court then stated that it agreed with the portion of the Fannie Mae opinion that rejected the government’s requests for deference to the relevant Revenue Procedure or to the “Blue Book” summary of the special rule. It is a bit surprising that the court addressed these arguments since the government had not made them in its brief in ExxonMobil; the court noted that “it appears . . . that the Commissioner has abandoned these arguments in this appeal.” Apparently, the court wanted to make sure that its opinion left no room for further litigation of the interest netting issue.
The court then turned to the main bone of contention, the holding in Fannie Mae that the special rule was a waiver of sovereign immunity that must be narrowly construed in favor of the government. The court’s analysis was succinct, observing that a “waiver of sovereign immunity is a consent on the part of the government to be sued,” and “[t]he special rule at issue here does no such thing.” Specifically, the special rule “does not create jurisdiction or authorize claims against the United States. Other provisions of the tax code perform that function.”
If the case was not to be resolved on the basis of sovereign immunity, the court explained, it should be resolved using the basic rules of statutory interpretation, which pointed towards a ruling for the taxpayer. First, “[t]he structure of § 6621(d) as a whole–and particularly its use of interest equalization–strongly suggests that the special rule is meant to apply whenever the period of limitations for at least one leg of the overlapping period of reciprocal indebtedness remains open.” Under that approach, it is “not necessary to adjust the computation of interest” for both legs “to achieve the zero net rate,” and therefore “it is not necessary for the limitations period to be open for both legs.” The court also noted that the government conceded that only one leg needed to be open when the statute was being applied prospectively, and it saw no reason for different treatment for retrospective interest netting claims. Finally, the court found support for the taxpayer’s position by examining “the historical context from which section 6621(d) emerged.” Given Congress’s repeated efforts to urge the IRS “to ameliorate the inequitable effects of the interest rate differential,” the court found that section 6621(d) and the special rule are “best understood as remedial provisions, and should therefore be interpreted broadly to effectuate Congress’s remedial goals.”
The Second Circuit’s holding in ExxonMobil is of limited significance to other taxpayers going forward. This is likely why the government chose not to seek certiorari despite the clearest circuit conflict imaginable. The holding applies only to the availability of interest netting for periods ending before July 22, 1998, so the number of remaining interest netting claims governed by the special rule at all is not large. And even within that universe, for many taxpayers the only available jurisdictional route will be through a refund suit in the Court of Federal Claims, where Fannie Mae remains binding precedent.
The court’s reasoning, however, could come into play in other settings, particularly where the government seeks to invoke sovereign immunity principles to support its position in a tax case. See, e.g., Ford Motor Co. v. United States, 2013-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) ¶ 50,102 (6th Cir. Dec. 17, 2012). The Second Circuit’s thoughtful approach to the definition of waivers of sovereign immunity will stand as a strong counterweight to the exceedingly expansive approach taken by the Fannie Mae court.