Home Concrete Decision Leaves Administrative Law Questions Unsettled While Excluding Overstatements of Basis from Six-Year Statute of Limitations
May 3, 2012 by Alan Horowitz
Filed under Beard, Burks, Grapevine, Home Concrete, Intermountain, Regulatory Deference, Salman Ranch, Statute of Limitations, Statutory Interpretation, Supreme Court, UTAM
[A shorter version of this blog post appears on SCOTUSblog.]
The Supreme Court last week ruled 5-4 in favor of the taxpayer in Home Concrete, thus putting an end to the long-running saga of the Intermountain litigation on which we have been reporting for the past 18 months. The opinion was authored by Justice Breyer and joined in full by three other Justices, but Justice Scalia joined only in part. The result is a definitive resolution of the specific tax issue – the six-year statute of limitations does not apply to an overstatement of basis. But the Court’s decision provides a much less definitive resolution of the broader administrative law issues implicated in the case.
As foreshadowed by the oral argument (see our previous report here), the tax issue turned on the continuing vitality of the Court’s decision in The Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, 357 U.S. 28 (1958). To recap, the Court held in Colony that the “omits from gross income” language in the 1939 Code did not encompass situations where the return understates gross income because of an overstatement of basis, and hence the extended six-year statute of limitations did not apply in those situations. The government argued that Colony did not control the interpretation of the same language in current section 6501(e) of the 1954 Code, because changes elsewhere in that section suggested that Congress might have intended a different result in the 1954 Code.
The administrative law issues came into play because, after two courts of appeals had ruled that Colony controlled the interpretation of the 1954 Code, the government tried an end run around that precedent. Treasury issued regulations interpreting the “omits from gross income” language in the 1954 Code as including overstatements of basis, thus bringing those situations within the six-year statute of limitations. Under National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005), the government argued, an agency is empowered to issue regulations that define a statute differently than an existing court decision, so long as the court decision did not declare the statutory language unambiguous. Because the Colony opinion had indicated that the 1939 Code language standing alone was “not unambiguous,” the government argued that Treasury’s new regulations were entitled to Chevron deference, which would supplant any precedential effect that Colony would otherwise have on the interpretation of the 1954 Code provision.
The Court’s Opinion
Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court, joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas. Justice Scalia joined Justice Breyer’s analysis of the statute, but departed from his analysis of the administrative law issues.
The opinion dealt straightforwardly with the basic tax issue. First, the Court emphasized that the critical “omits from gross income” language in the current statute is identical to the 1939 Code language construed in Colony, and it recounted the Colony Court’s reasoning that led it to conclude that the language does not encompass overstatements of basis. Colony is determinative, the Court held, because it “would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to give the same language here a different interpretation without effectively overruling Colony, a course of action that basic principles of stare decisis wisely counsel us not to take.” With respect to the statutory changes made elsewhere in section 6501(e), the Court concluded that “these points are too fragile to bear the significant argumentative weight the Government seeks to place upon them.” The Court addressed each of these changes and concluded that none called for a different interpretation of the key language (and that one of the government’s arguments was “like hoping that a new batboy will change the outcome of the World Series”).
The Court then turned to the administrative law issues, reciting the government’s position that, under Brand X, the new regulations were owed deference despite the Court’s prior construction of the language in Colony. The opinion first responded to that position with a two-sentence subsection: “We do not accept this argument. In our view, Colony has already interpreted the statute, and there is no longer any different construction that is consistent with Colony and available for adoption by the agency.”
Standing alone, that was not much of a response to the government’s Brand X argument, because Brand X said that the agency can adopt a construction different from that provided in a prior court decision so long as the statute was ambiguous. These two sentences were enough for Justice Scalia, however, and he ended his agreement with Justice Breyer’s opinion at this point. In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Scalia explained that he is adhering to the view expressed in his dissent in Brand X that an agency cannot issue regulations reinterpreting statutory language that has been definitively construed by a court.
With the other Justices in the majority not feeling free to ignore Brand X, Justice Breyer’s opinion (now a plurality opinion) then proceeded to explain why Brand X did not require a ruling for the government. According to the plurality, Brand X should be given a more nuanced reading than that urged by the government, one that looks to whether a prior judicial decision found a statute to be “unambiguous” in the sense that the court concluded that Congress intended to leave “‘no gap for the agency to fill’ and thus ‘no room for agency discretion.’” Under Chevron jurisprudence, the opinion continued, unambiguous statutory language provides a “clear sign” that Congress did not delegate gap-filling authority to an agency, while ambiguous language provides “a presumptive indication that Congress did delegate that gap-filling authority.” That presumption is not conclusive, however, and thus this reading of Brand X leaves room for a court to conclude that a judicial interpretation of ambiguous statutory language can foreclose an agency from issuing a contrary regulatory interpretation. In support of that proposition, the plurality quoted footnote 9 of Chevron, which states that “[i]f a court, employing traditional tools of statutory construction, ascertains that Congress had an intention on the precise question at issue, that intention is the law and must be given effect.”
The plurality then ruled that the Court in Colony had concluded that Congress had definitively resolved the legal issue and left no gap to be filled by a regulatory interpretation. Given its analysis of the scope of Brand X, the plurality explained that the Colony Court’s statement (26 years before Chevron) that the statutory language was not “unambiguous” did not necessarily leave room for the agency to act. Rather, the Colony Court’s opinion as a whole – notably, its view that the taxpayer had the better interpretation of the statutory language and had additional support from the legislative history – showed that the Court believed that Congress had not “left a gap to fill.” Therefore, “the Government’s gap-filling regulation cannot change Colony’s interpretation of the statute,” and the Court today is obliged by stare decisis to follow it.
The Concurring and Dissenting Opinions
Justice Kennedy’s dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, reached a different conclusion on the basic tax dispute. The dissent looked at the statutory changes made in the 1954 Code and concluded that they are “meaningful” and “strongly favor” the conclusion that the “omits from gross income” language in the 1954 Code should not be read the way the Colony Court read that same language in the 1939 Code. Given that view, the administrative law issue – and the resolution of the case – became easy. The dissent stated that the Treasury regulations are operating on a blank slate, construing a statute different from the one construed in Colony, and therefore they are owed Chevron deference without the need to rely on Brand X at all.
Justice Scalia’s concurring opinion declared a pox on both houses. He was extremely critical of the plurality’s approach, accusing it of “revising yet again the meaning of Chevron . . . in a direction that will create confusion and uncertainty.” He also criticized the dissent for praising the idea of a “continuing dialogue among the three branches of Government on questions of statutory interpretation,” when the right approach should be to say that “Congress prescribes and we obey.” Justice Scalia concluded: “Rather than making our judicial-review jurisprudence curiouser and curiouser, the Court should abandon the opinion that produces these contortions, Brand X. I join the judgment announced by the Court because it is indisputable that Colony resolved the construction of the statutory language at issue here, and that construction must therefore control.”
What Does It Mean?
The Home Concrete decision provides a clear resolution of the specific tax issue. The six-year statute of limitations does not apply to overstatements of basis. The multitude of cases pending administratively and in the courts that involve this issue will now be dismissed as untimely, leaving the IRS unable to recover what it estimated as close to $1 billion in unpaid taxes.
Indeed, in a series of orders issued on April 30, the Court has already cleared its docket of the other Intermountain-type cases that had been decided in the courts of appeals and kept alive by filing petitions for certiorari. In Burks and the other Fifth Circuit cases in which the taxpayers had prevailed, the Court simply denied certiorari, making the taxpayers’ victory final. For the certiorari petitions filed from courts of appeals that had sided with the government, such as Grapevine (Federal Circuit), Beard (Seventh Circuit), Salman Ranch (Tenth Circuit), and Intermountain and UTAM (D.C. Circuit), the Court granted the petitions and immediately vacated the court of appeals decisions and remanded the cases to the courts of appeals for reconsideration. Now constrained by Home Concrete, those courts will enter judgments in favor of the taxpayers in due course.
Notably, although the retroactive nature of the Treasury regulations was a significant point of contention in the litigation, retroactivity did not play a role in the final resolution. The Court held that Colony is controlling and leaves no room for the agency to construe the “omits from gross income” language differently. Thus, Treasury does not have the ability to use its regulatory authority to extend the six-year statute to overstatements of basis even prospectively. Any such extension will have to come from Congress.
The effect of the decision on administrative law generally is considerably more muddled. First, a couple of observations on what the Court did not do. It did not signal any retreat from Mayo. Treasury regulations addressed to tax issues will continue to be judged under the same Chevron deference principles that apply to regulations issued by other agencies. Furthermore, as noted above, the Court did not rely on the retroactive aspect of the regulations. Thus, the decision does not provide guidance one way or another on the extent to which Treasury is constrained in its ability to apply regulations to earlier tax years.
What the Court did do, however, is to weaken the authority of Brand X. Under the reasoning of Justice Breyer’s plurality opinion, courts are now free to decline to defer to a regulatory interpretation that construes ambiguous statutory language – if the court concludes that a prior court decision, using “traditional tools of statutory construction” that go beyond the text, determined that Congress intended to resolve the issue rather than leave a gap for the agency to fill. Although there were only four votes for that proposition, Justice Scalia’s approach would lead him to agree with such a result just as he did in Home Concrete, so lower courts may treat the plurality opinion as controlling. There is, however, room for debate about the impact of the Home Concrete approach. Justice Breyer’s opinion emphasizes the fact that Colony was decided long before Chevron, and lower courts may disagree regarding its impact when the court decision at issue is post-Chevron and, in particular, post-Brand X. At a minimum, the Home Concrete decision should make agencies less confident in their ability to use regulations to overturn judicial interpretations of statutes and should give taxpayers more ammunition to challenge such regulations if necessary.
Interestingly, Justice Breyer’s approach, and in particular his invocation of Chevron’s footnote 9 reference to “traditional tools of statutory construction,” was previewed in the argument in the Federal Circuit in the Grapevine case. As we reported at the time, that argument involved considerable discussion of whether the determination of “ambiguous” at Chevron step 1 must be based entirely on the statutory text, as Brand X suggests, or can be based on other “traditional tools of statutory construction,” as Chevron footnote 9 declares. In its decision, the Federal Circuit stuck to the statutory text and ruled for the government.
Justice Breyer’s opinion, however, supports the proposition that Chevron step 1 analysis can look beyond the statutory text. If that portion of Justice Breyer’s opinion had commanded a majority, it would be extremely significant because it would justify looking beyond the statutory text not only in assessing the impact of Brand X when there is a court decision on the books, but also in considering a Chevron deference argument in the first instance. A court could decide, under the approach suggested by Justice Breyer, that a statute whose text standing alone is ambiguous nonetheless leaves no room for agency interpretation – if other tools of statutory construction show that Congress intended to resolve the issue rather than leaving a gap for the agency. On this point, however, the plurality opinion cannot be treated as controlling because Justice Scalia would surely look askance at a decision that used legislative history to find a lack of ambiguity at Chevron Step 1. By the same token, the dissenters had no occasion to address this point, so we do not know if any of them would have agreed with Justice Breyer’s approach. For now, it is fair to say that Justice Breyer has heightened the visibility and potential importance of Chevron footnote 9, but that Home Concrete alone probably will not yield a significant change in how courts approach Chevron step 1.
In sum, Home Concrete may be a bit of a disappointment to those observers who thought that the decision would bring great clarity to the administrative law issues presented. In that respect, it joins a long list of administrative law cases that reach the Supreme Court and seem to yield as many questions as answers. But for the taxpayers with millions of dollars riding on the difference between a three-year and six-year statute of limitations, the decision is not disappointing at all. It is a huge victory.
Ninth Circuit to Rule on Timing for Filing a Qualified Amended Return for an Undisclosed Listed Transaction
The taxpayers in Bergmann v. Commissioner are appealing an adverse Tax Court decision, 137 T.C. No. 10, holding that they failed to timely file a qualified amended return for 2001 and thus are liable for the 20-percent accuracy related penalty. The taxpayers participated in a listed transaction promoted by KPMG, known as the Short Option Strategy. In 2004, two years after the IRS issued a summons to KPMG specifically identifying the Short Option Strategy transaction, the Bergmanns filed an amended return disclaiming the tax benefits of the transaction. The case concerns the interpretation of Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii) (2004), which establishes rules on the timing of filing a qualified amended return for undisclosed listed transactions. If an amended return is filed before certain terminating events, additional tax reported on the amended return will be treated as if it were reported on the original return. Under the “promoter provision,” the amended return must be filed before the IRS first contacts a person concerning liability under section 6700 (a promoter investigation). The Tax Court rejected the taxpayers’ argument that the IRS must establish that the target of the promoter investigation is in fact liable for a promoter penalty. The Tax Court also held that, in investigating the promoter, the IRS need only identify the “type” of transaction in which the taxpayer engaged, not the specific transaction or the identity of the taxpayer.
In 2000-2001, taxpayer Jeffrey Bergmann was a tax partner in KPMG’s Stratecon Group, which the Tax Court characterizes as “focused on designing, promoting and implementing aggressive tax planning strategies for high-net-worth individuals.” In tax years 2000 and 2001, Bergmann entered into a “Short Option Strategy” transaction promoted by fellow KPMG partner Jeffrey Greenberg. This transaction was identified by the IRS as an abusive tax shelter in Notice 2000-44, 2000-2 C.B. 255 (transactions generating losses by artificially inflating basis). The taxpayers (Bergmann and his wife) claimed losses for the 2000 and 2001 Short Option Strategy transactions on their 2001 return, but filed an amended return in March 2004 removing the losses attributable to the transactions and paying approximately $200,000 in additional tax. The IRS treated the qualified amended return as untimely and assessed accuracy-related penalties.
Under Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(ii), as in effect when the Bermanns filed their amended return, the time to file a qualified amended return terminates when the IRS first contacts a person “concerning” liability under section 6700 (a promoter investigation) for an “activity” with respect to which the taxpayer claimed a tax benefit. The IRS served KPMG with two summonses in March 2002, one of which was specifically targeted at KPMG’s involvement in promoting transactions covered by Notice 2000-44. Attempting to disassociate their transaction from those that were the subject of the KPMG investigation, the taxpayers argued that Greenberg acted in his individual capacity in advising them, not as an agent of KPMG. The Tax Court rejected this argument, concluding that the transactions in which the taxpayers engaged were within the scope of Greenberg’s responsibilities as a KPMG partner and also concluding that KPMG had not limited Greenberg’s authority to engage in Notice 2000-44 transactions with other KPMG partners, including Bergmann. The Tax Court also rejected the taxpayers’ argument that the promoter investigation must specifically identify the “activity” that gave rise to the tax benefit. The Tax Court held that the summons need only refer to the “type” of transaction in which the taxpayer participated. The court found that the March 2002 summons met this requirement because it specifically identified the transaction as the same or substantially similar to the transaction identified in Notice 2000-44.
The Tax Court noted that disclosure of the transaction after the Notice 2000-44 summons was served on KPMG would not have been voluntary. The Tax Court explained that the purpose of the promoter provision is to encourage taxpayers to voluntarily disclose abusive tax shelters. That purpose is effectuated by terminating the period to file a qualified amended return when disclosure would no longer be voluntary.
The Tax Court addressed a second issue as well. At first glance, the taxpayers appeared to be subject to the 40% gross overvaluation penalty because the scheme depended on what was found to be an artificially inflated based. They argued, however, that the tax underpayment was not “attributable to” the overvaluation because the Commissioner contended (and the taxpayers eventually conceded) that the entire transaction should be disallowed for lack of economic substance, thereby making the valuation irrelevant. The Tax Court noted that this type of bootstrapping argument has been rejected by several circuits, which have held that the 40% penalty applies when overvaluation is intertwined with a tax avoidance scheme, but that Ninth Circuit precedent has accepted the argument. Keller v. Commissioner, 556 F.3d 1056. Accordingly, the Tax Court rejected the IRS’s attempt to impose a 40% penalty, and the taxpayers were assessed only the standard 20% accuracy-related penalty. The IRS has not appealed this issue.
The taxpayers’ opening brief is due on May 16. The case is docketed in the Ninth Circuit as No. 12-70259.
The taxpayer has filed its response brief in the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain. The brief does not add much new to the debate, which is hardly surprising at this point. It relies in the alternative on all of the different rationales advanced by the various Tax Court opinions for rejecting the IRS’s position (and adds an additional argument that the basis was adequately disclosed on the return). The taxpayer does not jump into the National Muffler Dealers vs. Chevron debate, content to argue that there is no Chevron deference owed in these circumstances under the established rules for Chevron analysis. The taxpayer does not directly address whether the issuance of final regulations changes that analysis, instead arguing that it is too late for the government to rely on the issuance of the final regs because it did not refer to them in its opening brief.
In the companion UTAM case, the briefing lags the Intermountain schedule by a month. The government has just opened the briefing in that case, and the taxpayer’s response brief is due February 7, 2011. Again not surprisingly, the government’s brief looks a lot like the brief it filed in Intermountain a month ago, though it does refer to the final regulations. The new briefs in the two cases are attached below.
The cases are both scheduled for oral argument on April 5, 2011.
November 30, 2010 by Alan Horowitz
Filed under Beard, Burks, Grapevine, Home Concrete, Intermountain, Partnerships, Regulatory Deference, Reynolds Properties, Salman Ranch, Statute of Limitations, UTAM
The government has successfully challenged understatements of income attributable to stepped-up basis in so-called Son-of-BOSS tax shelters. See, e.g., American Boat Co., LLC v. United States, 583 F.3d 471, 473 (7th Cir. 2009). But it has been stymied in some cases by the three-year statute of limitations for issuing notices of deficiency. Code section 6501(e)(1)(A) provides for a six-year statute “[i]f the taxpayer omits from gross income an amount” that exceeds the stated gross income by 25 percent. Section 6229(c)(2) provides a similar six-year statute for cases governed by the TEFRA partnership rules. The IRS has argued, unsuccessfully so far, that this section applies when there is a substantial understatement of income that is attributable not to a direct omission of income but rather to an overstatement of basis of sold assets.
The major obstacle to the government’s argument is that the Supreme Court long ago rejected essentially the same argument with respect to the predecessor of section 6501(e)(1)(A) (§ 275(c) of the 1939 Code). The Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, 357 U.S. 28, 32-33 (1958). The IRS argued there that the six-year statute applies “where a cost item is overstated” and thus causes an understatement of gross income. Id. at 32. The Court agreed with the taxpayer, however, that the six-year statute “is limited to situations in which specific receipts or accruals of income items are left out of the computation of gross income.” Id. at 33. The Court added that, although this was the best reading, it did not find the statutory language “unambiguous.” Id. Accordingly, the Court noted that its interpretation derived additional support from the legislative history and that it was “in harmony with the unambiguous language of [the newly enacted] section 6501(e)(1)(A).” Id. at 37. Based largely on the precedent of Colony, the Tax Court and two courts of appeals have already rejected the government’s attempts to invoke the six-year statute of limitations in Son-of-BOSS cases. See Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009); Bakersfield Energy Partners, LP v. Commissioner, 568 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009), aff’g, 128 T.C. 207 (2007).
Seeking to rescue numerous other cases that were still pending in the courts or administratively, the government responded by issuing temporary regulations on September 24, 2009, that purported to provide a regulatory interpretation of the statutory language to which the courts would afford Chevron deference. The temporary regulations provide that “an understated amount of gross income resulting from an overstatement of unrecovered cost or other basis constitutes an omission from gross income for purposes of [sections 6229(c)(2) and 6501(e)(1)(A)].” Temp Regs. §§ 301.6229(c)(2) – 1T, 301.6501(e)-1T.
The Tax Court was the first tribunal to consider the efficacy of this aggressive (one might say, desperate) effort to use the regulatory process to trump settled precedent, as the IRS moved the Tax Court to reconsider its adverse decision in Intermountain Ins. Service v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2009-195, in the wake of the temporary regulations. The reception was underwhelming. The Tax Court denied the motion for reconsideration by a 13-0 vote, generating three different opinions. The majority opinion, joined by seven judges, was the only one to base its ruling on rejecting the substance of the government’s argument that courts should defer to the regulations notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s Colony decision. (Four judges stated simply that the new contention about the temporary regulations should not be entertained on a motion for reconsideration; two judges stated that the temporary regulations are procedurally invalid for failure to submit them for notice and comment.)
The government’s deference argument rests on Nat’l Cable and Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 982 (2005), which ruled that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” (In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens stated his view that this rule would not apply to a Supreme Court decision, since that would automatically render the statute unambiguous, but that remains an open question.). The Tax Court majority ruled that the Supreme Court’s statement in Colony that the statute was ambiguous “was only a preliminary conclusion,” but “[a]fter thoroughly reviewing the legislative history, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress’ intent was clear and that the statutory provision was unambiguous.” Accordingly, the majority concluded that Brand X did not apply, and “the temporary regulations are invalid and are not entitled to deferential treatment.” (The two judges who found the regulations procedurally invalid questioned the majority’s reasoning and suggested that the Court should not have reached the substantive issue).
The Tax Court’s decision in Intermountain is just the first skirmish in what will be an extended battle over the temporary regulations. The Justice Department has asserted that there are currently 35-50 cases pending in the federal courts that raise the same issue, with approximately $1 billion at stake. Accordingly, the government is pursuing an appeal to the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain, and it is arguing for deference to the temporary regulations in other cases pending on appeal in other circuits, even where those regulations were not considered by the trial court. The government seems determined to litigate the issue in every possible court of appeals, presumably hoping that it can win somewhere and then persuade the Supreme Court to grant certiorari and reconsider Colony. The current map looks like this:
D.C. Circuit: Briefing schedules have been issued in Intermountain, No. 10-1204, and in an appeal from another Tax Court case, UTAM Ltd. v. Commissioner, No. 10-1262. The government’s opening brief is due in Intermountain on December 6, 2010, and in UTAM on January 6, 2011. The panel assigned to both cases is Judges Sentelle, Tatel, and Randolph.
Federal Circuit: Grapevine Imports, Ltd. v. United States, No. 2008-5090, is fully briefed and scheduled for oral argument on January 12, 2011. The Federal Circuit has already rejected the government’s invocation of the six-year statute in Salman Ranch, but the government is arguing in Grapevine that the Federal Circuit should reverse its position in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.
Fourth Circuit: Home Concrete & Supply, LLC v. United States, No. 09-2353, is fully briefed and was argued on October 27, 2010, before Judges Wilkinson, Gregory, and Wynn. In that case, the district court had ruled for the government, distinguishing Colony as limited to situations in which the taxpayer is in a trade or business engaged in the sale of goods or services. That was the rationale of the Court of Federal Claims in the Salman Ranch case, but that decision was reversed by the Federal Circuit.
Fifth Circuit: Burks v. United States, No. 09-11061 (consolidated with Commissioner v. MITA, No. 09-60827) is fully briefed and was argued on November 1, 2010, before Judges DeMoss, Benavides, and Elrod. In its briefs on this issue in various courts, the government has often invoked the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Phinney v. Chambers, 392 F.2d 680 (1968), the only court of appeals decision that has applied the six-year statute in the absence of a complete omission of gross income. In Phinney, the taxpayer on her return had mislabeled proceeds from payment of an installment note as proceeds from a sale of stock with basis equivalent to the proceeds, reporting no income from that sale. The Fifth Circuit accepted the government’s contention that the six-year statute applied, finding that it applies not only in the Colony situation where there is “a complete omission of an item of income of the requisite amount,” but also where there is a “misstating of the nature of an item of income which places the Commissioner . . . at a special disadvantage in detecting errors.” 392 F.2d at 685. The government has argued that Phinney essentially involved an overstatement of basis, and therefore strongly supports its position in the Son-of-BOSS cases. Indeed, the district court in Burks ruled for the government based on Phinney. The government therefore likely viewed the Fifth Circuit as the most favorable appellate forum for the current dispute.
At oral argument, however, the panel appeared sympathetic to the taxpayer’s position that Phinney involved a situation where the taxpayer had taken steps akin to a direct omission that would make it difficult for the IRS to discover the potential tax liability. Therefore, the taxpayer maintains, Phinney is fully consistent with the position that the six-year statute does not generally apply to overstatements of basis.
In addition, the discussion of the temporary regulation at oral argument specifically addressed the debate over whether deference to Treasury regulations is governed by Chevron principles or by the less deferential National Muffler Dealers standard. As we have discussed elsewhere, the Supreme Court may resolve that question in the next few months in the Mayo Foundation case.
Seventh Circuit: Beard v. Commissioner, No. 09-3741 is fully briefed and was argued on September 27, 2010, before Judges Rovner, Evans, and Williams. Although the panel, particularly Judge Rovner, expressed skepticism about some of the IRS’s legal arguments, Judges Williams and Evans appeared troubled by the prospect of allowing the taxpayer to escape scrutiny on statute of limitations grounds. Judge Williams suggested that the taxpayer still ought to have the relevant records and that there was no apparent reason why a misstatement should be treated different from an omission. Judge Evans emphasized that the taxpayer’s position with respect to tax liability was very weak and suggested that Colony might be distinguishable because it involved a return that was much easier for the IRS to decipher than the complex return involved in Beard. Thus, to some extent, the government seemed to have found a sympathetic ear in the Seventh Circuit, though that will not necessarily translate into a reversal of the Tax Court.
Ninth Circuit: Reynolds Properties, L.P. v. Commissioner, No. 10-72406. The court of appeals vacated the briefing schedule to allow the parties to participate in the court’s appellate mediation program. The government, however, has indicated that the case is not suitable for mediation, and therefore a new briefing schedule is likely to be issued soon. The Ninth Circuit has already ruled in Bakersfield that the six-year statute does not apply to overstatements of basis. Presumably, the government will ask the court to reverse itself in light of the temporary regulations, which were not previously before the court.
Tenth Circuit: Salman Ranch Ltd. v. United States, No. 09-9015, is fully briefed and was argued on September 22, 2010, before Judges Tacha, Seymour, and Lucero. This case comes from the Tax Court, but involves the same partnership that prevailed in front of the Federal Circuit.
Attached below as a sampling are the briefs filed in the Fourth and Seventh Circuit cases.
Based our recent post on the Sala decision here, we have had several comments inquiring about the varied application of penalties in the “tax shelter” cases. This is the first in a planned series of responses to those comments that will try to explain, iron out, or at least flag, some of the irregularities.
When looking at the application of penalties to “shelter” cases generally, procedural posture matters. A good example of this is Sala. Why did the 10th Circuit discussion in Sala omit penalties? Because it was a refund case in which the taxpayer appears to have filed a qualified amended return (“QAR”) prior to being “caught” by the IRS. See generally 26 C.F.R. § 1.6664-2(c)(2). There is a discussion of whether Sala’s amended return was qualified in the district court opinion and that ruling apparently was not a subject of the appeal. Sala v. United States, 552 F. Supp. 2d 1167, 1204 (D. Colo. 2008). Thus, in a refund suit posture, there may be procedural reasons why penalties are inapplicable.
The refund claim situation is contrasted for penalty purposes with either deficiency proceedings or TEFRA proceedings. In either of the latter, penalties cannot be abated by a QAR (at least as to the matter at issue) because the taxpayer must have a deficiency or adjustment (to income) in order to bring either action. See generally sections 6212 and 6225-6. Thus, in cases such as Gouveia v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2004-25 (2004), the Tax Court addressed (and imposed) penalties in a deficiency context. And, in Castle Harbor, the courts addressed (but did not impose) penalties in the context of a TEFRA proceeding. TIFD III-E Inc. v. United States, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93853 (D. Conn 2009). (We previously discussed the pending appeal in Castle Harbour here.)
While there is nothing mysterious about the foregoing, the different routes tax cases take can often cause an illusion that there is inconsistency in the application of penalties when, in fact, the cases are just procedurally different. One other area in which this confusion is particularly common (and an area in which there is a bit of a dispute as to the correct application of the law) concerns whose behavior “counts” for purposes of the sections 6662 (reasonable basis) and 6664 (reasonable cause and good faith) defenses in the context of a TEFRA proceeding. We will address that issue in our next post on penalties.
In what is considered by many an anomaly among the so-called “Son-of-BOSS” cases, the IRS lost the trial of a refund claim before the United States District Court for the District of Colorado in 2008. See Sala v. United States, 552 F. Supp. 2d 1167 (D. Colo. 2008). As many readers are no doubt aware, “Son-of-BOSS” is the nickname given to a type of loss-generating transaction described in IRS Notice 2000-44 (“BOSS” stands for “Bond and Option Sales Strategy”). In one variation of such transactions, a taxpayer both buys and sells options on a given position and then contributes these options to an investment partnership. Relying on Helmer v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1975-160, which held that liabilities created by short option positions are too contingent to affect a partner’s basis in a partnership, the taxpayer takes a basis in its partnership interest equal to the value of the long options position (i.e., not offset by the short options position). Later, the investment partnership is liquidated and the assets sold, or the taxpayer’s interest is sold, with the taxpayer claiming substantial losses on what, economically speaking, was a pretty safe bet.
In Sala, the taxpayer invested in foreign currency options and contributed them to a partnership managed by renowned foreign currency trader, Andrew Krieger. The amount of losses generated by the transactions at issue coincidentally offset a huge slug of income the taxpayer had in 2000 (approximately $60 million). Despite the government’s best efforts, the court found for the taxpayer, holding that the transactions possessed economic substance. The court also rejected the government’s attempt to retroactively apply regulations that reject the Helmer decision mentioned above.
The government appealed the case to the Tenth Circuit (briefing is linked below). The government argues that the trial court erred in a number of respects, including: (1) determining that the transactions to be analyzed for economic substance are the entire array of transactions associated with a “legitimate” investment program, as opposed to the discrete options transactions giving rise to the claimed losses; (2) implicitly determining that the loss was a bona fide loss within the meaning of I.R.C. § 165; (3) invalidating or refusing to apply Treas. Reg. § 1.752-6 (which contains a basis-reduction rule designed to nullify “Son-of-BOSS” transactions); and (4) denying the government’s motion for a new trial after one of the taxpayer’s key witnesses (Krieger) recanted his testimony after accepting a plea agreement on criminal charges of promoting illegal tax shelters.
The taxpayer responded by arguing that: (1) the rule of Helmer was applicable law at the time of the contested transactions and should be followed; (2) the court blessed each phase of the contested transactions as having substance, not just the entirety; (3) the government did not adequately raise the § 165 argument at trial, and the provision nonetheless does not disallow the taxpayer’s loss; (4) Treas. Reg. § 1.752-6, as applied, is beyond the authority granted by the statute; and (5) the government did not meet its burden for obtaining a new trial.
Oral argument was held on November 16, 2009, and subsequently the government has directed the court’s attention pursuant to FRAP 28(j) to three of its recent wins in similar cases (supplemental submissions linked below). Given that the case has been fully submitted for several months now, a decision could be imminent. The length of deliberation also may indicate that the court will engage in a detailed analysis that could depart from the opinions of other courts. Should the taxpayer prevail, the case could be viewed as giving rise to a circuit split on the appropriate framework for analyzing alleged tax shelters, which could also have far-reaching implications for the recently codified economic substance doctrine.