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