Reflections on the Ninth Circuit’s Decision in

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October 17, 2019

Although some time has passed (and we’ve fallen short of our hope here to get something up “soon”), we nevertheless wanted to post some thoughts on the Ninth Circuit’s unanimous affirmance of the taxpayer’s victory in the Tax Court in while also revisiting some of the topics that we covered here after oral argument. The panel’s opinion is brief, but it touched on several important aspects of the law under section 482.

Finding Ambiguity in the Regulatory Definition of “Intangible”

As you’ll recall, the primary dispute on appeal was whether the regulatory definition of “intangible” under Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) included residual business assets like goodwill, going concern, and the amorphous notions of “growth options” and “culture of continuous innovation” that the government theorized the taxpayer made available in its cost-sharing agreement.

The taxpayer argued that the definition excluded such residual business assets because it did not expressly list them in any of the six subparagraphs of the definition. And the taxpayer argued that the 28 specified items in the regulation all “can be sold independently” from the business while the residual business assets cannot, invoking the statutory-interpretation canon of ejusdem generis to reason that the regulation therefore excludes residual business assets (which cannot be sold without a sale of the entire business).

The government argued that those residual business assets fell under the sixth subparagraph of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b), which provides that “intangible” includes “other similar items” and that “an item is considered similar … if it derives its value not from its physical attributes but from its intellectual content or other intangible properties.” Since residual business assets do not derive their value from physical attributes but from other intangible properties, the government reasoned, they must be included here. And the government went on to argue that residual business assets must be compensable because otherwise, taxpayers could have transferred assets of value to a cost-sharing arrangement without compensation, which the government asserts would have violated the arm’s-length principle that undergirds section 482 and its regulations.

The panel held that although the taxpayer’s “focus on the commonality of the 28 specified items has some force,” that argument did not carry the day. The panel drew this conclusion from the plain language in the sixth subparagraph: that paragraph does not state that the commonality is that each item “can be sold independently” but rather states that each item “derives its value … from its intellectual content or other intangible properties.” The panel reasoned that the regulation therefore “leaves open the possibility of a non-listed item being included in the definition even if it doesn’t share the attribute of being separately transferable.” The panel thus echoed the concern that Judge Fletcher raised at oral argument—that while the 28 specified items share the commonality of being independently transferable, that commonality is “not the one the text [describing what constitutes a ‘similar item’ under the regulation] gives me.”

Resolving the Ambiguity by Looking to the Drafting History of the Regulation

After concluding that the regulatory definition “is susceptible to, but does not compel, an interpretation that embraces residual-business assets,” the panel looked to the overall regulatory scheme but held that to be inconclusive. The panel then turned to the drafting history of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) and found it to show that Treasury’s 1994 final regulations (which amended the sixth subparagraph of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b)) both (1) exclude residual business assets from the definition of intangible and (2) provide reason to think that the definition of “intangible” includes only independently transferable assets.

The panel described how when Treasury issued temporary and proposed regulations in 1993, it asked “whether the definition of intangible property … should be expanded to include … goodwill or going concern value.” The panel concluded that since Treasury asked whether the definition should be “expanded” to include residual business assets, those assets were not included in the then-existing definition. And when Treasury issued final regulations in 1994 without expressly enumerating goodwill or going concern value in that definition, Treasury stated that its final rule “merely ‘clarified’ when an item would be deemed similar to the 28 items listed in the definition.” The panel concluded that by its own admission, Treasury would have needed to “expand” the definition to include residual business assets but instead opted to merely “clarif[y]” its definition, and therefore Treasury did not intend for the 1994 final regulations to include residual business assets.

Moreover, Treasury’s 1993 regulations limited the universe of compensable intangibles to “any commercially transferable interest.” But when it issued final regulations in 1994, Treasury dropped the “commercially transferable interest” language because “it was superfluous: if the property was not commercially transferable, then it could not have been transferred in a controlled transaction.” The panel concluded that the transfer-pricing regulations thus “contemplate a situation in which particular assets are transferred from one entity to another.” Since Treasury stated that it would have been “superfluous” to expressly state that the definition of “intangible” includes only commercially transferable assets, the panel held that the regulatory history “strongly supports Amazon’s position that Treasury limited the definition of ‘intangible’ to independently transferable assets.”

That the panel found this history dispositive comes as no surprise. We observed in our prior post that both Judge Callahan and Judge Christen recounted the regulatory history, with Judge Callahan questioning government counsel about whether Treasury ever expressed an intent to expand the definition to include residual business assets.

What Is the Rationale for Including Only Independently Transferable Assets in the Definition of Intangible?

Although the panel’s explanation for how it concluded that the definition of intangibles includes only independently transferable assets is explicit, the rationale for why Treasury would include only independently transferable assets is markedly subtler. It’s possible, however, to cobble together an explanation from other statements in the decision.

The first clue is when the panel looked to the genesis of the cost-sharing regulations, where Treasury identified “intangibles as being the product of R&D efforts.” In that sense, the panel reasoned, the “regulations seem to exclude” residual business assets, “which ‘are generated by earning income, not by incurring deductions.’” This distinction is clear enough—businesses incur expenses in undertaking R&D efforts, while goodwill and going concern value are byproducts of a well-run and successful business.

Why does this distinction matter? One answer lies in the legislative history and policy underpinnings for the statutory definition of “intangibles.” As the panel observed in a footnote, the “Senate Report states that the Committee viewed the bill as combatting the practice of transferring intangibles ‘created, developed or acquired in the United States’ to foreign entities to generate income tax free.” Which is to say that one animating concern in defining intangibles was to prevent U.S. entities from developing intangibles domestically but then transferring those intangibles to foreign affiliates whose income is not subject to U.S. tax.

And the reason why this is a concern for intangibles that result from R&D and other independently transferrable assets but not goodwill or going-concern value should be apparent: while the former involve expenditures that are deductible against U.S. income (but where the asset transfer will prevent the income from being taxed in the U.S.), the latter involve assets that exist only if the taxpayer has generated business income in the U.S. in the first place. In other words, the definition of “intangible” was initially meant to prevent taxpayers from incurring expenses to create intangibles in the U.S. and deducting those expenses against U.S. income, but then turning around and transferring those intangibles to foreign affiliates that may not owe U.S. tax on the income resulting from those intangibles.

Distinguishing the Definition of “Intangibles” from the Value of Those Intangibles

On brief and at oral argument, the government repeatedly cited deposition testimony by one of the taxpayer’s experts in which that expert admitted that parties at arm’s length would pay for residual business assets. The government tried to leverage that admission to argue that the arm’s-length standard itself means that residual business assets are compensable because “it is undisputed that a company entering into the same transaction under the same circumstances with an unrelated party would have required compensation.”

The panel addressed that argument in a footnote, holding that the government’s argument “misses the mark.” The panel explained that while the arm’s-length standard “governs the valuation of intangibles; it doesn’t answer whether an item is an intangible.” This is a decisive response to the government’s arguments; it cannot be the case that any value associated with a business falls under the definition of “intangible.”

Putting Footnote 1 in Context

One aspect of the panel’s decision that is certain to receive attention in future transfer-pricing disputes is the discussion in the first footnote. In that footnote, the panel described the 2009 changes to the cost-sharing regulations as “broadening the scope of contributions for which compensation must be made” and explained that the TCJA “amended the definition of ‘intangible property’” in section 936(h)(3)(b). The footnote then stated that “[i]f this case were governed by the 2009 regulations or by the 2017 statutory amendment, there is no doubt the Commissioner’s position would be correct.”

There are a few things worth noting about this footnote, the first of which is arguably the most important: It’s dicta. The question of whether residual assets are compensable under the 2009 cost-sharing regulations or the 2017 statutory amendment was not before the court. And since the panel says nearly nothing in the footnote about the language in those 2009 regulations or the TCJA amendment, there is no reason to think that the panel gave material consideration to whether the outcome in the case would have been different under either.

Second, given some of the panel’s other statements, it is not so clear that “there is no doubt the Commissioner’s position would be correct” for years after the 2009 changes to the regulations. Recall that the government’s case was predicated on charging a higher buy-in for the purported transfer of “growth options” and a “culture of continuous innovation” to the cost-sharing arrangement. Although the 2009 regulatory amendments changed the cost-sharing regulations and TCJA amended the statutory definition for “intangibles,” there was no change to the definition under Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b). That regulation provides that an item not otherwise specified is an intangible only if it “has substantial value independent of the services of any individual.” The panel itself expressed serious doubt about whether the purported intangibles in this case met that requirement, stating that “residual business assets, such as ‘growth options’ and a ‘culture of innovation,’ are amorphous, and it’s not self-evident whether such assets have ‘substantial value independent of the services of any individual.’”

Finally, the TCJA amendments would affect the result in the case only if the purported “growth options” and “culture of continuous innovation” are items of property that fall under the new statutory category of “goodwill, going concern value, or workforce in place” or constitute an item “the value or potential value of which is not attributable to … the services of any individual.” But there is reason to think that the government is itself unconvinced that “growth options” and “culture of continuous innovation” fall under that new statutory category. At oral argument, the panel asked government counsel why, if Treasury meant to expand the definition of “intangible” with its 1994 changes, Treasury didn’t just add “goodwill and going concern” to the list. In response, government counsel argued that merely adding “goodwill and going concern” to the list would not have solved anything because then taxpayers would just fight about whether particular assets fell under those additions to the list. The government cannot coherently maintain both that (1) Treasury could not have achieved the Commissioner’s desired result in this case by expanding the regulatory list to include goodwill and going concern in 1994 and (2) Congress’s addition of goodwill and going concern to the list in TCJA would change the result in this case. Even though Congress meant to change the result in cases like this, government counsel’s argument suggests an absence of faith that expanding the list succeeds in changing the result.

Whether the Commissioner’s Litigating Position Warrants Auer Deference

The government also argued that under Auer, the Tax Court should have deferred to the Commissioner’s interpretation of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) as including residual business assets. The panel rejected this argument for two reasons.

First, the panel found that pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in Kisor, the Commissioner’s interpretation warrants Auer deference only if the regulation is “genuinely ambiguous.” The panel states that Auer thus implicates a higher standard for ambiguity. Under that standard, a regulation is “genuinely ambiguous” for Auer purposes only if ambiguity remains once the court has exhausted the traditional tools of construction, which requires it to consider “the text, structure, history, and purpose of a regulation.” The panel concluded that the text of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b), its place in the transfer-pricing regulations, and its rulemaking history “leave little room for the Commissioner’s proffered meaning.” The panel’s holding is therefore that the definition of “intangible” under Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) is ambiguous but not genuinely ambiguous.

Second, the panel also rejected the government’s deference argument because the government first advanced an interpretation of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) in the litigation that had never appeared in the drafting history of the regulations or anywhere else. As we remarked earlier, reliance concerns loomed large at oral argument, and especially in Judge Callahan’s questions. The panel’s conclusion that “Amazon and other taxpayers were not given fair warning of the Commissioner’s current interpretation of the regulatory definition of an ‘intangible’” was thus foreseeable from oral argument.

Whether the Cost-Sharing Regulations Provide a Safe Harbor

As we observed in our prior post, at oral argument the government disavowed the notion that the Treasury Regulations create a safe-harbor for cost-sharing arrangements. We surmised that whether the Ninth Circuit agreed with the government on this point might be pivotal in the outcome.

While the extent to which that issue factored into the panel’s decision is not evident, the panel’s decision is entirely consistent with the notion that cost sharing operates as a safe harbor. First, the panel described cost sharing as “an alternative to licensing … under which [the parties to the cost-sharing arrangement] become co-owners of intangibles as a result of the entities’ joint R&D efforts.” If the cost-sharing arrangement qualifies, then it “provides the taxpayer the benefit of certainty because … new intangibles need not be valued as they are developed.” But the panel explained that the certainty comes at a price—the R&D payments by the foreign cost-sharing participants “serve to reduce the deductions the [domestic] taxpayer can take for the R&D costs (thereby increasing tax liability).” What the panel thus described operates like a safe harbor—taxpayers that ensure that their cost-sharing arrangements qualify and sacrifice some deductions for intangible development costs can gain certainty that their intangibles need not be re-valued. The panel’s decision will hamper any future IRS arguments that cost-sharing does not operate like a safe harbor.

Procedural Status

The government did not file a petition for rehearing in the case; the mandate issued on October 8. There is still time for the government to file a petition for certiorari; it is due November 14.