Federal Circuit Adds to Intermountain Conflict by Deferring to New Regulations That Apply Six-Year Statute to Overstatements of Basis

The Federal Circuit has ruled for the government in Grapevine, throwing the circuits into further disarray by adopting an approach that differs from all three of the courts of appeals that have previously addressed the Intermountain issue subsequent to the issuance of the new regulations.  Because the Federal Circuit had already rejected the government’s construction of the statute in Salman Ranch, the Grapevine case starkly posed the question whether the new regulations had the effect of requiring the court to disregard its prior decision and reach the opposite result.  As we previously reported, at oral argument the day after the decision in Mayo Foundation, the government told the Federal Circuit that Mayo compelled that result.  The court has now agreed.

A key section of the court’s opinion considers whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Colony defeats the government’s deference argument.  The court says it does not because Colony itself stated that it did not regard the statutory text as unambiguous and, even considering the Colony court’s review of the legislative history, the court did not believe that “Congress’s intent was so clear that no reasonable interpretation could differ.”  Therefore, Colony did not resolve the case under Chevron Step 1 and, under Brand X, Treasury was free to issue a regulation that contradicts Colony.  (In its analysis, the Federal Circuit appears to have sided with the view, based on footnote 9 of Chevron, that legislative history can be considered at Chevron Step 1 (see our previous post)).  The court then applies the Chevron analysis to the new regulations and concludes that they are reasonable based on exactly the same government arguments that the court rejected in Salman Ranch when it was construing the statute in the absence of a regulation.  Finally, the court rules that Treasury did not abuse its discretion in applying the new regulations retroactively to years that were still open under the six-year statute.

The Grapevine decision is significant in the specific context of the Intermountain cases, as it virtually ensures that a circuit conflict on the issue will persist even if the Seventh Circuit reconsiders its decision in Beard.  And it is the first appellate decision to address in detail the merits of the government’s primary argument that it can overturn the prior adverse decisions in this area by regulation.  More generally, the case is a great illustration of Treasury’s power under the combination of Mayo and Brand X.  The Federal Circuit was keenly aware of the implications of its decision, summarizing it as follows:  “This case highlights the extent of the Treasury Department’s authority over the Tax Code.  As Chevron and Brand X illustrate, Congress has the power to give regulatory agencies, not the courts, primary responsibility to interpret ambiguous statutory provisions.”   Presumably, Treasury will continue to test the limits of how far it can go in exercising that “primary responsibility.”

Federal Circuit opinion in Grapevine

Fifth Circuit Rules for Taxpayer on Intermountain Issue and Cautions on the Limits of Mayo

The Fifth Circuit announced today its ruling in favor of the taxpayer in the two consolidated cases pending before it on the Intermountain issue, Burks v. United States, and Commissioner v. MITA.  As we previously noted, the Fifth Circuit had decided what the government regarded as the most favorable precedent on this issue before the Son-of-BOSS cases, Phinney v. Chambers, 392 F.2d 680 (5th Cir. 1968), but the court at oral argument appeared to be leaning towards finding that case distinguishable.  And so it did, creating the anomaly that the Seventh Circuit in Beard has given Phinney a much broader reading than the Fifth (see here).  In any event, the Fifth Circuit rejected the reasoning of Beard and concluded that Colony is controlling with respect to the meaning of the phrase “omits from gross income” in the 1954 Code.  The court addressed this argument in some detail, relying heavily on the “comprehensive analysis” of the Ninth Circuit in favor of the taxpayer’s position in Bakersfield Energy Partners, LP v. Commissioner, 568 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009).

The court devoted comparatively little attention to the government’s reliance on the new regulations.  It concluded that the statute was unambiguous and therefore there was no basis for affording deference to the regulations.  In addition, the court stated that the new regulations by their terms were inapplicable because they should be read as reaching back no more than three years — an argument accepted by the Tax Court majority but that does not appear to be among the taxpayers’ strongest, especially after the final regulations were issued.

The most provocative discussion in the opinion is a long footnote 9 near the end, which points out some possible limitations on the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Mayo Foundation decision (discussed here).  Although its conclusion that the statute is unambiguous made the regulations irrelevant, the court went on to state that it would not have deferred to the regulations under Chevron even if the statute were ambiguous.  On this point, the court emphasized an important difference between Mayo and the Intermountain cases — namely, the retroactive nature of the regulations at issue in the latter cases.  Noting that the Supreme Court has said that it is inappropriate to defer “to what appears to be nothing more than the agency’s convenient litigating position” (quoting Bowen v. Georgetown Univ. Hosp., 488 U.S. 204, 213 (1988)), the Fifth Circuit stated that the “Commissioner ‘may not take advantage of his power to promulgate retroactive regulations during the course of a litigation for the purpose of providing himself with a defense based on the presumption of validity accorded to such regulations'” (quoting Chock Full O’Nuts Corp. v. United States, 453 F.2d 300, 303 (2d Cir. 1971)).  In addition, the court questioned the efficacy of the government’s request for deference to final regulations that were largely indistinguishable from the temporary regulations:  “That the government allowed for notice and comment after the final [perhaps should read “temporary”] Regulations were enacted is not an acceptable substitute for pre-promulgation notice and comment.  See U.S. Steel Corp. v. U.S. EPA, 595 F.2d 207, 214-15 (5th Cir. 1979).”

Thus, we have perfect symmetry between the conflicting decisions of the Fifth and Seventh Circuits.  The Seventh Circuit says that the statutory language supports the government, so there is no need to consider the regulations.  But if it did consider the regulations, it would defer.  The Fifth Circuit says that statutory language unambiguously supports the taxpayer, so there is no justification for considering the regulations.  But if it did consider the regulations, it would not defer.  The Supreme Court awaits, and it may well have something to say about the Fifth Circuit’s observations in footnote 9.

Fifth Circuit opinion in Burks

Fourth Circuit Rules for Taxpayer on Intermountain Issues

The Fourth Circuit, in an opinion authored by Judge Wynn and joined by Judges Wilkinson and Gregory, has solidified the circuit conflict on the Intermountain issue by ruling for the taxpayer in the Home Concrete case.  (See our original post on these cases here.)  First, the court held that the statutory issue was resolved by the Supreme Court’s decision in Colony, rejecting the argument recently accepted by the Seventh Circuit in Beard (see here) that Colony addressed the 1939 Code and should be understood as applying to identical language in the 1954 Code only to the extent that the taxpayer is in a trade or business.  The court concluded that “we join the Ninth and Federal Circuits and conclude that Colony forecloses the argument that Home Concrete’s overstated basis in its reporting of the short sale proceeds resulted in an omission from its reported gross income.”

Second, the court held that the outcome was not changed by the new Treasury regulations.  The court held that the regulations by their terms could not apply to the 1999 tax year at issue, because “the period for assessing tax” for that year expired in September 2006.  See Treas. Reg. § 301.6501(e)-1(e).  The government argued that the new regulations apply to all taxable years that are the subject of pending cases, but the court held that this position could not be squared with the statutory text of Code section 6501.  In any event, the court continued, no deference would be owed to the regulations under the principles of Brand X because the Supreme Court had already conclusively construed the term “omission from gross income” in Colony and therefore there was no longer any room for the agency to resolve an ambiguity by regulation.

Judge Wilkinson wrote a separate concurring opinion to elaborate on this last point.  He observed that Brand X allows a regulation to override a prior court decision only if that decision was not based on a Chevron “step one” analysis — that is, on a conclusion that the statute is unambiguous.  This can be a difficult inquiry when examining pre-Chevron decisions in which the court had no reason to analyze the case through the lens of the two-step Chevron framework.  Judge Wilkinson explains why he “believe[s] that Colony was decided under Chevron step one,” concluding that the Supreme Court’s statement that it could not conclude that the 1939 Code language is unambiguous was “secondary in importance  to the thrust of the opinion” and the Court’s assessment of the statutory purpose.  (As previously discussed here, this question of whether Colony should be viewed as a “step one” decision, and the related question of how relevant legislative history is at “step one,” was the focus of the Federal Circuit’s attention in the oral argument in Grapevine.)

Judge Wilkinson then goes on to make some more general observations about the limits of Chevron deference in the wake of the Mayo Foundation case.  He states that Mayo “makes perfect sense” in affording “agencies considerable discretion in their areas of expertise.”  He cautions, however, that “it remains the case that agencies are not a law unto themselves.  No less than any other organ of government, they operate in a system in which the last words in law belong to Congress and the Supreme Court.”  In Judge Wilkinson’s view, the government’s attempt to reverse Colony by regulation “pass[es] the point where the beneficial application of agency expertise gives way to a lack of accountability and a risk of arbitrariness.”  He concludes that “Chevron, Brand X, and more recently, Mayo Foundation rightly leave agencies with a large and beneficial role, but they do not leave courts with no role where the very language of the law is palpably at stake.”

The Fourth Circuit’s decision seems to eliminate the slim possibility that the Intermountain issue could be definitively resolved short of the Supreme Court.  There are now two circuits (the Fourth and the Seventh) that have come down on opposite sides, though both had the opportunity to consider the recent developments of the final regulations and the Mayo decision.  At this point, the government is likely to seek Supreme Court review, either by acquiescing in a taxpayer certiorari petition (possibly in Beard) or by filing its own petition in Home Concrete.  Unless petitions for rehearing are filed, the parties have 90 days from the date of final judgment to file a petition for certiorari in these cases.

Government Files Reply Brief in Intermountain

The government has filed its reply brief in the D.C. Circuit in Intermountain.  Although there are no surprises, the brief is a useful resource because it contains in one place the government’s arguments concerning three recent developments favorable to its case, which it has been calling to the attention of other courts piecemeal in supplemental filings.  Those developments are the Seventh Circuit’s Beard decision (see here); the Supreme Court’s decision in Mayo Foundation (see here), and the issuance of final regulations (see here).  Despite its recent victory in Beard on purely statutory grounds, the government still seems to believe that Chevron deference to the new regulations is its best bet.  The reply brief devotes 3 pages to the statutory argument and 23 pages to the regulatory deference argument.

Oral argument is scheduled for April 5.

Intermountain – US reply brief

Seventh Circuit Sets Up Likely Supreme Court Showdown By Reversing Tax Court on Intermountain Issue

The Seventh Circuit today became the first court of appeals to weigh in on the Intermountain issue subsequent to the issuance of the temporary regulations, and it handed the government a big victory.  Interestingly, the court did not rely on the regulations, instead ruling that the term “omission from gross income” is best read to include overstatements of basis – at least in “non-trade or business situations.”  The Court ruled that Colony did not control this issue because that case involved a construction of the 1939 Code, not the 1954 Code.  Describing it as a “close call,” the Seventh Circuit ruled that “a close reading of Colony” (which includes explaining away the Colony Court’s observation that the language in the 1954 Code is unambiguous) justifies the conclusion that “an overstatement of basis can be treated as an omission from gross income under the 1954 Code.”

The Seventh Circuit acknowledged that its decision directly conflicts with the two court of appeals decisions that prompted the Treasury Department to attack this issue by issuing temporary regulations, Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009); Bakersfield Energy Partners, LP v. Commissioner, 568 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2009), aff’g, 128 T.C. 207 (2007).  The court explained that it disagreed with the reasoning in those decisions, and cited approvingly to Judge Newman’s dissenting opinion in Salman Ranch.  Thus, there is a clear conflict in the circuits, and the only way that conflict could disappear would be if the government prevails in every single circuit (including the Federal and Ninth Circuits) on its post-regulation appeals.  Such a clean sweep is unlikely.  With the government anxious to have this issue heard by the Supreme Court, and claiming that $1 billion is at stake, it appears almost inevitable that the Court will ultimately decide the Intermountain issue sometime in 2012.

As we noted in our original post on these cases, the Seventh Circuit panel was the most sympathetic to the government at oral argument and seemed particularly troubled by the bottom line outcome of allowing the taxpayers to retain massive tax benefits from what the court regarded as a tax shelter.  That attitude is reflected in the opinion as well, which goes out of its way to commend the government’s description of the transaction as an “abusive . . . tax shelter.”  Thus, the court’s reliance on a somewhat strained statutory interpretation might be understood as the least disruptive way to reach what it believed to be the “right result,” while avoiding having to make broad pronouncements on difficult issues of deference owed to temporary regulations.  The court indeed stated explicitly that, “[b]ecause we find that Colony is not controlling, we need not reach” the issue of deference to the regulations.

Curiously, though, the court then added two sentences stating in conclusory fashion that it “would have been inclined to grant the temporary regulation Chevron deference,” simply citing some cases in which the court had previously accorded deference to Treasury regulations.  Whatever the court’s motivation for adding this dictum, it does not address the difficult issues involved in deferring to these particular regulations.  Accordingly, the dictum is unlikely to carry much weight with other courts of appeals that do not agree that Colony is irrelevant to construing the statutory text and therefore are struggling with the question of the degree of deference owed to the regulations.

Seventh Circuit decision in Beard

« Previous Page