Fifth Circuit Poised to Consider Validity of Temporary Regulations Aimed at Curbing Inversions

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March 7, 2018

We present here a guest post by our colleague Katherine Zhang.

In Chamber of Commerce v. Internal Revenue Service, the Fifth Circuit will consider whether “tax exceptionalism” exists in the context of temporary regulations. At issue in the case are Treasury regulations that provide special rules for calculating the “ownership fraction” for entities engaged in inversion transactions. The district court set aside the regulations as promulgated in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and the government has appealed.

Since the Supreme Court consigned the broad notion of “tax exceptionalism” to the scrap heap in Mayo Foundation, 562 U.S. 44 (2011) (see our prior reports here and here), by applying Chevron deference principles to Treasury regulations, the courts have increasingly grappled with the extent to which the APA constrains the promulgation of Treasury regulations. The Altera case pending in the Ninth Circuit presents another important facet of the general interplay between the APA and Treasury regulations (see our reports on Altera here). In this case, the focus is on APA constraints on the issuance of temporary regulations.

Generally, an “inversion transaction” occurs where a foreign corporation replaces the U.S. parent of a multinational group. If the transaction meets certain criteria, then Code section 7874 applies to impose adverse U.S. tax consequences on the parties involved. One key criterion is that, after the transaction, former shareholders of the U.S. parent hold at least 60 percent of the stock of the new foreign parent. This percentage is commonly referred to as the “ownership fraction,” and it may be measured by either vote or value. If the ownership fraction is at least 60 percent and less than 80 percent, then in the ten-year period after the transaction, U.S. tax is imposed on income or gain recognized in this period from transfers or licenses that are part of the transaction or that are made to foreign related persons after the transaction. The resulting liability cannot be reduced by tax attributes such as net operating losses or foreign tax credits. If the ownership fraction is at least 80 percent, then the new foreign parent is treated as a domestic corporation.

In April 2016, the Treasury Department invoked its broad regulatory authority under section 7874 to adopt special rules for calculating the ownership fraction. Under one of these rules, the denominator of the ownership fraction (by value) disregards stock of the foreign corporation attributable to certain prior domestic entity acquisitions. As a result, the ownership fraction increases, and the 60 percent threshold brings more transactions within the ambit of section 7874. The rule is designed to prevent companies from using a series of transactions to safely achieve an inversion that would fall within section 7874 if done all at once or as part of a single plan. The rule was issued both as a temporary regulation that was effective immediately and as a proposed regulation.

This rule is the central focus of Chamber of Commerce. In August 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Association of Business filed suit in the Western District of Texas, arguing that the rule was invalid for failure to meet the requirements of the APA. The government contested both the plaintiffs’ power to bring suit and the merits of the APA objections.

The district court first rejected the government’s jurisdictional challenges that were raised in a motion to dismiss. A plaintiff generally must establish standing by demonstrating that it suffered an “injury in fact” that was caused by the defendant’s conduct and that likely would be redressed by a favorable decision. But an association has standing to bring suit on behalf of its members if, among other elements, the members would have standing to sue in their own right. The court agreed that both plaintiffs had standing because Allergan plc was a member of each trade association.

Shortly after Treasury and the IRS issued the rule in April 2016, Allergan announced the cancellation of a previously announced merger with Pfizer Inc. According to the plaintiffs, the rule eliminated the tax benefits of the merger—because Allergan’s “corporate composition” included several prior acquisitions of domestic corporations, the rule would have applied to cause the entity resulting from the merger to be treated as a domestic corporation subject to U.S. federal income tax. On this basis, the court found that Allergan would have standing to sue in its own right. Although Allergan did not have a specific transaction pending, there was no need for it to “engage in futile negotiations” for a transaction that the rule has “altogether foreclosed or made economically impracticable.” Instead, it was sufficient that Allergan “identified a specific transaction that was thwarted by the Rule and asserted that it would actively pursue other inversions if this court were to set aside the challenged Rule.” The court went on to conclude that the plaintiffs demonstrated “injury in fact” by showing that Allergan was the “targeted object” of the rule. Therefore, the plaintiffs “have alleged an actual, concrete injury, that is fairly traceable to implementation of the Rule, and that would be redressed by a decision setting aside that Rule.”

The court also determined that the suit was not barred by the Anti-Injunction Act, which prohibits suits “restraining the assessment or collection of any tax.” According to the court, the plaintiffs’ suit did not seek to restrain the assessment or collection of tax. Citing Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, 135 S. Ct. 1124 (2015), which analyzed the analogous Tax Injunction Act applicable to state taxes, the court reasoned that “[a]ssessment and collection of taxes does not include all the activities that may improve the government’s ability to assess and collect taxes.” Here, rather than trying to restrain the assessment or collection of tax, the plaintiffs merely challenged the validity of a rule “so that a reasoned decision can be made about whether to engage in a potential future transaction that would subject them to taxation under the Rule.” The rule itself did not constitute the assessment or collection of tax, but only determined who was subject to tax and facilitated the assessment or collection of tax.

The court then turned to the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, which raised the substantive claims of an APA violation. Broadly speaking, the APA governs agency actions and judicial review of such actions. Provisions of the APA governing agency rulemaking require agencies to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register and to provide “interested persons” with an opportunity to comment. The proposed rule must be published no less than 30 days before its effective date, to allow for adequate opportunity to comment. The APA also directs a reviewing court to “hold unlawful and set aside” certain types of agency action, including actions that exceed statutory jurisdiction, actions that are arbitrary and capricious, and actions taken without procedure required by law. The plaintiffs challenged the rule on all three of these grounds.

The district court rejected the government’s first two arguments, finding that the rule did not exceed Treasury and the IRS’s statutory jurisdiction and did not constitute arbitrary and capricious rulemaking. The court reached a different result, however, with respect to the plaintiffs’ third argument, ruling that issuance of the rule as an immediately effective temporary regulation violated the APA’s notice-and-comment requirements.

The government argued for a form of “tax exceptionalism” based on Code section 7805(e), which states that Treasury can issue temporary regulations (subject to automatic expiration after three years), as long as those temporary regulations are accompanied by proposed regulations that are subject to notice and comment. Although that provision contains no language restricting temporary regulations from becoming effective immediately, the court was not persuaded. The APA specifically contemplates that subsequent statutes might override its notice-and-comment requirements, but it requires that statutes make this change “expressly.” 5 U.S.C. § 559. According to the court, section 7805 did not make any such change “expressly”—it refers to effective dates of regulations in connection with limitations on retroactivity in section 7805(b), but “neither explicitly states nor suggests congressional intent to allow a regulation to become effective earlier in relation to publication than provided for in the APA.” The court also declined to look for any such intent in the legislative history, saying that it “will not disregard explicit directives of the APA in favor of legislative history.”

The court also held that the rule did not qualify for the APA’s exception for “interpretative” rules, which exempts such rules from notice-and-comment requirements. 5 U.S.C § 553(b)(A). As described by the court, an interpretative rule advises the public as to the “agency’s construction of the statutes and rules which it administers,” while a substantive rule “affects individual rights and obligations” and “is issued by an agency pursuant to statutory authority.” The court determined that the rule at issue was a substantive rule—it was promulgated pursuant to subsections of section 7874 that authorized Treasury to issue regulations to provide for “adjustments to the application of this section” and to “treat stock as not stock.” These types of rules are “modifications to the application of the statute,” not mere interpretations.

The impact of the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Chamber of Commerce could extend well beyond its effect on the particular inversion rule that is directly at issue. If the court of appeals agrees with the district court’s approach, its decision could well cast doubt on the validity of all temporary Treasury regulations. Conversely, the court of appeals may decide that, under section 7805, tax still is exceptional in at least one important respect.

The government’s opening brief is due March 16.

Chamber of Commerce – District Court opinion