Briefing Completed in SIH Partners

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December 14, 2018

The final briefs have now been filed in the SIH Partners case.  The government’s response to the taxpayer’s opening brief is long, but hammers extensively on one point — namely, that the regulation is “categorical” in establishing that a loan guarantee issued by a CFC will be treated as taxable.  (The word “categorical” appears 29 times in the government’s brief.).  And the government maintains that this “bright-line” rule flows directly from the statutory text.  Given that premise, the government is able to give most of the taxpayer’s arguments short shrift.

In particular, the government says that the settled legal landscape made it easy for tax planners.  If the taxpayer chose to use its CFC to guarantee the loan, then it should accept the predictable tax consequences of that choice, rather than allegedly seeking a “sea change” in the governing rules that would replace a bright-line rule with a facts and circumstances inquiry.  Whether or not the loan guarantee reflects something like an “actual repatriation,” or was actually necessary for credit purposes, or is affected by other guarantors are all “wholly irrelevant” in the government’s view.  

The government similarly disposes of the taxpayer’s administrative law argument.  It states that the statutory text established a categorical rule and the commenters did not argue that Treasury should adopt a non-categorical rule; therefore, the relatively sparse explanation for the regulation was not problematic.  In the government’s words, “that an explanation is brief does not mean that it is inadequate.”  Interestingly, the government goes on to make a fallback argument that it acknowledges was not presented to the Tax Court.  It argues that, even if the regulation is invalid for failure to comply with the APA, the outcome of the case would not change because the statute is “self-executing,” and therefore the statute itself would make the loan guarantee a taxable event.

Finally, the government states that the taxpayer has provided no sound reason for the court not to follow Rodriguez and other lower court decisions that reach the same result, and therefore the taxpayer is not entitled to be taxed at the lower qualified dividend rate.

The taxpayer begins its reply brief by citing to a notice of proposed rulemaking issued 11 days before the government’s brief was filed.  The proposed regulations would “reduce the amount determined under section 956” in certain instances in light of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  The taxpayer argues that the reasoning in the notice contradicts the government’s position because the notice describes the IRS’s “longstanding practice” as trying to “conform the application of section 956 to its purpose,” and thus to try to achieve symmetry between section 956 taxation and actual repatriations of earnings.

Apart from the new proposed regulations, the government argues that the statutory language governing guarantees did not establish a categorical rule, but rather left the proper tax treatment to be determined by regulation.  Therefore, Treasury had to make a choice and was required to explain the bright-line choice that it made.  And similarly, regulation was required, and the statute cannot be treated as self-executing.  

With respect to the dividend rate issue, the taxpayer urges the court not to follow Rodriguez.  In that connection, it states that the Rodriguez court mistakenly believed that Congress specifically designates when section 951 inclusions are to be treated as dividends, when in fact there are Treasury regulations that treat inclusions as dividends without specific statutory authorization.

Supreme Court to Reconsider Important Administrative Law Precedent

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December 10, 2018

The Supreme Court granted certiorari this morning in a non-tax case that should be of considerable interest to tax litigators because of the important administrative law principle that will be decided.  In Kisor v. Shulkin, the Federal Circuit applied the government’s interpretation of the governing regulation in ruling against a veteran’s claim for disability benefits.  The court found that the regulation was ambiguous, and therefore it ruled that it should defer to the government’s interpretation under the longstanding Supreme Court precedents of Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945), and Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997).  The court denied rehearing en banc, although three judges joined an opinion dissenting from that denial.  The Supreme Court has now granted certiorari specifically to address the question “[w]hether the Court should overrule Auer and Seminole Rock.”

Auer deference has played an increasingly prominent role in tax cases since the Supreme Court’s decision in Mayo Foundation made tax cases subject to general administrative law principles.  Revenue Rulings and other lower level administrative interpretations of Treasury regulations are pervasive in the tax area and are subject to being relied upon by courts under Auer deference principles.  And the government has even argued for Auer deference to interpretations stated in its briefs, with the Second Circuit agreeing with that argument.  See, e.g., our prior coverage of the MassMutual and Union Carbide cases here and here.  If Auer is overruled, taxpayers will likely benefit in future litigation involving conflicting views of the meaning of a Treasury regulation.

In recent years, several individual Justices have expressed concern about the wisdom of Auer or Seminole Rock deference, pointing out that it potentially allows an end run around the notice-and-comment procedure for issuing regulations and arguably violates separation-of-powers principles.  Instead of noticing clear regulations that can reasonably be commented upon, Auer enables agencies to promulgate ambiguous regulations and then later to provide administrative interpretations of those regulations (outside the notice-and-comment framework) that create a rule to which courts must defer.  Justice Scalia (who ironically was the author of Auer) was the first to suggest publicly back in 2011 that the Court should reconsider the Auer deference doctrine.  See Talk Am., Inc. v. Michigan Bell Tel. Co., 564 U.S. 50 (2011) (Scalia, J., concurring). In Decker v. Northwest Envtl. Def. Center, 568 U.S. 597, 615 (2013), Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito remarked that Justice Scalia had raised “serious questions” about the doctrine.  More recently, in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers, 135 S. Ct. 1199 (2015), Justice Scalia stated flatly that Auer should be “abandoned,” and Justice Thomas wrote a long concurring opinion explaining his view that Auer deference was “constitutionally suspect.”  Justice Alito added that those two Justices had “offered substantial reasons why the Seminole Rock doctrine may be incorrect.”  And just this past March, Justice Gorsuch joined an opinion of Justice Thomas dissenting from the Court’s denial of certiorari in which the latter again described Auer as “constitutionally suspect.”  Garco Construction, Inc. v. Speer, No. 17-225 (Mar. 19, 2018).  Thus, even with Justice Scalia no longer on the Court, four sitting Justices have indicated great skepticism, to put it mildly, about the continuing vitality of Auer deference.  In addition, in a keynote address at a 2016 conference at the Antonin Scalia (George Mason) Law School, Justice Kavanaugh spoke approvingly of Justice Scalia’s criticism of Auer deference and predicted that Justice Scalia’s view would become the law.  Things can change when cases are fully briefed and argued in the Supreme Court, but for now the future of Auer/Seminole Rock deference looks bleak.

The petitioner’s opening brief is due January 31, and the case should be argued in the spring and decided by June 2019. 

Kisor – Petition for Certiorari