Treasury and IRS Issue Joint Policy Statement on the Tax Regulatory Process

Earlier this week, the Treasury Department issued a policy statement on the tax regulatory process.  A significant section of the statement describes the approach that will be taken in Tax Court litigation to arguments based on judicial deference to regulations.  Treasury states that it will not claim Auer deference in such litigation to interpretations set forth in subregulatory guidance, such as revenue rulings, nor will it claim Chevron deference to such interpretations.  That apparent abandonment of Auer deference arguments goes beyond the position the Justice Department has taken in the Supreme Court in the Kisor case, where the government has argued for a significant narrowing of Auer but stops short of stating that it should be overruled.  See our reports on Kisor here.  Note that the Treasury Department statement by its terms applies only to Tax Court litigation, which is handled by the IRS, not to refund suits where the Justice Department handles the litigation.

The Treasury Department statement also addresses topics other than judicial deference, including: when to issue subregulatory guidance; legislative vs. interpretative regulations; and temporary regulations.  For a fuller analysis of the Treasury Department statement, please read this Miller & Chevalier Tax Alert.

Government Brief Filed in Kisor

The government was faced with something of a dilemma in filing its response brief in the Kisor case addressing the level of deference owed to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation. See our prior reports here. On the one hand, the government was defending the agency action in this case and the decision below, which rested on paying Auer deference to the agency’s interpretation. On the other hand, conservative legal theorists have long been critical of Auer deference, following Justice Scalia’s lead, and the views of the political appointees in this administration about Auer likely range from unenthused to hostile. But on the third hand, the government’s institutional interests would generally be better served by a strong principle of Auer deference, since that would make challenges to agency action more difficult.

The government’s brief attempts to juggle these conflicting imperatives, and the result is a bit schizophrenic. The bottom line is that the government argues that Auer should not be overruled, but that its applicability should be substantially narrowed. In the end, the government does not rely on Auer to defend the agency action in this case, but instead argues that the regulation is clear on its face without the need to consider the agency interpretation at all.  (Although outgunned by the cascade of amicus briefs filed in support of the petitioner, two amicus briefs were filed on the government’s side, including one by a group of administrative law professors (linked below) who argue that Auer “is sound and should be maintained.”)

The first, and longest, section of the government’s brief is a full-fledged assault on the doctrine of Auer deference. The government contends that the doctrine: (1) is not well grounded historically; (2) is not supported by any consistent rationale; (3) is in tension with the APA’s distinction between interpretive and legislative rules; and (4) can have harmful practical consequences by discouraging agency resort to notice-and-comment rulemaking. Notably, the government states that the reasons that support Chevron deference do not apply to Auer, and thus the brief does not signal that the current administration will argue against Chevron deference in a future case.

The government argues, however, that Auer should not be overruled because of stare decisis considerations, including that doing so “would upset significant private reliance interests” because it allegedly “could call into question” earlier decisions that rested on Auer deference. In contrast to the opening part of its brief, this section praises Auer deference where it is limited to “its core applications,” such as “when the agency announces its interpretation in advance in a widely available guidance document.” The government states that the task of choosing among reasonable interpretations is more appropriately performed by administrators than by judges, that Auer deference would promote national uniformity, that it recognizes the technical expertise of agencies, and that it fosters regulatory certainty and predictability—in contrast to a system “in which the meaning of a regulation must be determined de novo in every judicial proceeding.” In addition, the government disagrees with the petitioner’s argument that Auer deference poses a separation-of-powers problem, stating that an agency’s actions in making rules and conducting adjudications are both exercises of “executive power.”

Accordingly, the government proposes “significant limits” on the doctrine that will thread the needle, neither overruling Auer nor further entrenching it. First, the government states that deference should not be paid to an agency interpretation that is “unreasonable,” describing this seemingly benign limitation as a “rigorous predicate.” If the agency interpretation is judged to be within the range of reasonable readings of the regulation, then the government argues that deference is appropriate “only if the interpretation was issued with fair notice to regulated parties; is not inconsistent with the agency’s prior views; rests on the agency’s expertise; and represents the agency’s considered view, as distinct from the views of mere field officials or other low-level employees.”

It is hard to say at this point what the Court will do with the various permutations that have been presented to it for moving forward, but it appears that Auer deference in its current form stands on very shaky ground.

Oral argument is scheduled for March 27.

Kisor – Government Response Brief

Kisor – Amicus Brief by Administrative Law Scholars in Support of Auer

Briefing Underway in Kisor

The opening salvo has been filed in the Supreme Court challenge to the continuing vitality of what is usually called either Seminole Rock or Auer deference – the rule that a court owes deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations. See our prior report here. The petitioner, a Vietnam veteran seeking disability benefits, has filed his opening brief, supported by 25 different amicus briefs.

The petitioner argues that Auer deference is unjustified for three principal reasons. First, petitioner contends that it is incompatible with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) because it allows an agency to exercise lawmaking authority through administrative interpretation without adhering to the APA’s procedural safeguards of public participation and agency accountability through notice-and-comment rulemaking.

Second, petitioner argues that Auer is a judge-made rule that destabilizes administrative law because it allows an agency to receive deference to what may not be the best interpretation of a regulation, even if it is “reasonable.” That can unfairly confound an individual who can only try to conform his or her conduct to what appears to be the best interpretation of the regulation. Petitioner adds that Auer deference is “especially suspect . . . where the agency has an economic interest in the outcome,” such as when the interpretive issue relates to a monetary claim against the government.

Third, petitioner contends that Auer is incompatible with separation-of-powers principles because it “renders an agency simultaneously a law’s maker and its expositor.” That is in contrast to Chevron deference, which respects Congress’s power because it “rests on agency compliance with the APA.”

The petitioner adds that principles of stare decisis should not deter the Court from overruling Auer. He notes that this is a purely judge-made rule and that the seminal 1945 decision in Seminole Rock provided no reasoning for the doctrine. The petitioner also argues that “no private reliance interests rest on Auer’s continuing vitality” and that reexamination is warranted because of the substantial expansion of the role of administrative agencies in our government since Seminole Rock was decided.

Linked below is the petitioner’s brief and the amicus brief of Professor Thomas Merrill, a leading academic expert on administrative law, who argues that Auer should be overruled and that instead agency interpretations of regulations should be afforded the much more modest recognition of so-called Skidmore deference, which gives weight to an agency interpretation to the extent it has the “power to persuade.” Professor Merrill argues that “the persuasiveness standard would require reviewing courts to engage with and give respectful consideration to the agency’s experience in implementing the statutory regime and familiarity with its own regulations, respect that de novo review would not require.” Like the petitioner, Professor Merrill states that Chevron deference is consistent with the APA, and he does not suggest that the Court should retreat from Chevron. The other 24 amicus briefs can be found on the Supreme Court’s website.

The government’s response brief is due February 25. Oral argument has been scheduled for March 27.

Kisor – Petitioner’s Opening Brief

Kisor – Amicus Brief of Professor Merrill

Supreme Court to Reconsider Important Administrative Law Precedent

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

Taxpayer Brief Filed in MassMutual

The taxpayer has filed its response brief in the Federal Circuit in the MassMutual case. See our previous coverage here. With respect to the primary issue of whether its policyholder dividend guarantee was a “fixed liability” within the meaning of the “all events test,” the taxpayer relies heavily on Washington Post Co. v. United States, 405 F.2d 1279 (Ct. Cl. 1969). (The Court of Claims was the predecessor court to the Federal Circuit and its pre-1982 decisions are binding precedent in the Federal Circuit.) According to the taxpayer, Washington Post establishes that “a company can fix a liability to an existing class of beneficiaries, even though the class composition may change before the liability is ultimately satisfied.” In contrast to the government’s brief, the taxpayer does not dwell at length on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Hughes Properties and General Dynamics, but argues that both of those cases are fully consistent with the more-directly-on-point decision in Washington Post.

The brief also addresses the Second Circuit’s decision in New York Life, arguing that the cases are distinguishable. (The Second Circuit had suggested a distinction, but without great conviction, suggesting that it believed the Court of Federal Claims was wrong in MassMutual.) The critical difference, according to the taxpayer, is that “New York Life addressed thousands of separate liabilities to individual policyholders, any one of which could cease to be a policyholder at any time,” whereas MassMutual involves a guarantee to “a class of policyholders” that “does not depend on identifying individual policyholder liability.”  Finally, the taxpayer rejects the government’s argument that the dividend guarantees were “illusory,” stating that the trial court correctly ruled that “Board resolutions can fix liability.”

With respect to the second issue of whether the liability fell within the “recurring item exception,” the taxpayer argues that its position comports with “the only sound interpretation of the regulation.” It further argues that the government’s administrative deference argument is waived for failure to raise it below and, in any event, fails because the government is seeking deference to what is no more “than a convenient litigating position” that has not been shown to have been approved at any level by IRS or Treasury.

The taxpayer’s brief is linked below. Also linked below is the government’s brief in opposition to the petition for certiorari filed by the taxpayer in New York Life. That petition was denied by the Supreme Court on April 28.

MassMutual – Taxpayer Response Brief

New York Life – Brief in Opposition

 

 

 

Government Brief Filed in MassMutual

The government has filed its opening brief in MassMutual contesting the Court of Federal Claims’ conclusion that the taxpayer could accrue the amount of certain policyholder dividends in the year before they were paid.  See our prior post on this case and the New York Life case here.  The government’s brief raises three distinct objections to the decision.

The primary argument is that the liability to pay the dividends was not “fixed” under the all-events test.  The government contends that no individual obligation was fixed at the close of the year, even if all the premiums had been paid, because the dividend would not be paid unless the policy remained in force on the anniversary date.  This is the same argument that was accepted by the Second Circuit in New York Life, and the government’s brief here argues that the cases are indistinguishable (asserting that the Second Circuit’s effort to distinguish them was based on a misperception of the facts in MassMutual).

The brief argues that the case “clearly fits the General Dynamics fact pattern,” which it describes as one where the “potential obligee has taken some action that renders him preliminarily eligible to receive the payment, subject only to some other condition that is within his exclusive control” – here, “forgoing the right to surrender the policy for its cash value prior to the next anniversary date.”  It rejects the proposition argued by the taxpayer that this alleged final condition is not a genuine “event,” but rather just a continuation of the status quo.  The government points to a comment in the Restatement (Second) of Contracts stating that “a duty may be conditioned upon the failure of something to happen . . ., and in that case its failure to happen is the event” that constitutes a condition precedent.  And it rejects the contrary suggestion in Burnham Corp. v. Commissioner, 878 F.2d 86 (2d Cir. 1989), as misguided.  Finally, the brief argues that the taxpayer’s all-events-test interpretation proves too much because its logical implication is that the amount of the dividend could be accrued even if the company had not passed a board resolution in the taxable year guaranteeing an aggregate dividend – a position that the taxpayer has not argued.

Second, the government argues that the dividend guarantees did not even give rise to an obligation, fixed or otherwise, because they were not communicated to the persons who were to benefit from them.  Thus, the government argues, the taxpayer could have walked away from the guarantees at any time.  In addition, the government argues, the guarantees were not a meaningful “substantive undertaking” because, based on the historical data, the guaranteed payments were “already virtually certain to occur in the ordinary course of the companies’ business operations, independent of any ‘guarantee’ to that effect.”  There is some degree of irony in this argument; on its face, certainty that the amounts will be paid would appear to be an argument in favor of accrual, not against it.  But the certainty of which the government speaks refers to the aggregate amount of payment; it is not a concession with respect to an individual obligation being fixed.

Third, the government contests the Court of Federal Claims’ holding that the dividends fell within the “recurring item” exception.  The government’s primary point here is that this determination turns on the meaning of “rebate, refund, or similar payment” in Treas. Reg. § 1.461-4(g)(3), and therefore the court should have deferred to the IRS’s interpretation of that regulation – even if that interpretation did not conclusively emerge until this litigation and is at odds with some earlier internal guidance on the regulation’s meaning.  The general principle of so-called Auer or Seminole Rock deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations has come under fire recently, with Justice Scalia stating that it should be abandoned and Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito indicating that they are at least open to reconsidering it.  See Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, No. 11-338 (Mar. 20, 2013).  So it will be interesting to see how the Federal Circuit responds to this argument, which presents a relatively weak case for deference because the claimed agency interpretation is just based on its litigation position.

The taxpayer’s brief is due April 4.

MassMutual – Gov’t Opening Brief