Federal Circuit Plunges Deep Into the Weeds of Chevron Analysis in Grapevine Oral Argument

It took less than a day for the government to try out its new Mayo Foundation toy – that is, the Supreme Court’s ruling that deference to Treasury regulations is governed by the same Chevron principles that apply to regulations issued by other agencies.  (See our report on the Mayo decision here.)  The Intermountain­-type litigation posed the perfect opportunity to examine the impact of Mayo, as the regulations at issue in those cases clearly are more vulnerable under the National Muffler approach of looking to factors like whether the regulation is contemporaneous or designed to reverse judicial decisions.  Accordingly, the government promptly filed notices of supplemental authority in those cases calling the various courts’ attention to Mayo.

The Federal Circuit did not have much time to ruminate on the supplemental filing, as oral argument in Grapevine was set for the next day.  Even so, the government was not bashful about embracing Mayo.  Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gil Rothenberg began his argument by telling the court that Mayo “foreshadows” how the case should be decided because of the “striking . . . parallels” between Mayo and Grapevine.  That opening triggered immediate pushback from an active panel (Judges Bryson and Prost, with Judge Lourie remaining mostly silent during the argument).  The judges pointed to the obvious difference between the cases, the existence of a Supreme Court decision (The Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, 357 U.S. 28, 32-33 (1958)) that has already construed the statutory language at issue in Grapevine.  What ensued was a lively oral argument that focused almost entirely on the rules for Chevron analysis and very little on any topics that would be standard fare for a tax practitioner.

The Chevron jurisprudence issue that dominated the argument is the scope of the Supreme Court’s decision in Nat’l Cable and Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967 (2005).  As noted in our first post on these cases, Brand X says that Chevron deference is owed even to a regulation that conflicts with judicial precedent – as long as that judicial precedent did not hold that the statute was unambiguous (a so-called Chevron Step 1 conclusion that would leave no room for interpretation by the agency).  That limiting principle arguably defeats the deference argument in the Intermountain cases because the Supreme Court in Colony had construed the “omission from gross income” language as not covering cases of overstated basis.  On the other hand, in reaching that conclusion, the Court had remarked that the statutory text was not “unambiguous” and had looked to legislative history as well.  357 U.S. at 33.  Thus, the government argues that the Brand X limiting principle does not apply because the Supreme Court did not declare the statutory text unambiguous.

The case thus raises a fundamental question of Chevron jurisprudence:  to what extent, if any, can a court look beyond the statutory text at Chevron Step 1?  Chevron itself clearly answered this question.  In defining Step 1 in which no deference is owed if the regulation conflicts with the “unambiguously expressed intent of Congress,” the Court explained in a footnote that a court is to determine Congress’s intent “employing traditional tools of statutory construction,” which presumably allows reference to legislative history.  Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843 n.9 (1984).  Brand X stated that “[t]he Chevron framework governs our review.”  545 U.S. at 980.  So did Brand X reaffirm the statement in Chevron that the Step 1 analysis goes beyond the text and includes analysis of the legislative history?  Not so fast.  The Brand X opinion was authored by Justice Thomas, no fan of legislative history, and that opinion’s formulation of Chevron Step 1 in Brand X was notably more restrictive; deference is owed unless the “prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute.”  545 U.S. at 982 (emphasis added).

The judges at the Grapevine argument focused on this question – in particular pressing government counsel on the contours of the government’s position.  Counsel tried to walk a fine line, hoping to significantly marginalize the role of legislative history at Step 1 without blatantly disregarding the language of Chevron.  He stated that legislative history is relevant at Step 1 only for the very limited purpose of determining the meaning of a “term” in the statute, but not for determining the general purpose of the statute and using that as an aid to statutory construction.  (This approach is more nuanced that the position advanced in the government’s brief, which appeared to argue that legislative history can never be examined at Chevron Step 1.)  The court questioned both whether this line could truly be drawn and whether in any event it would aid the government’s position in this case where the Colony Court had used legislative history to construe the statutory phrase “omission from gross income.”  Judge Prost specifically asked government counsel whether he was arguing that Brand X had overruled Chevron.  In response, he characterized Brand X as “narrowing” the broad language of Chevron and later acknowledged that he believed that Brand X is “not completely consistent” with footnote 9 of Chevron.  With respect to the question whether his argument failed in any event because Colony had construed a statutory term, government counsel argued that Colony had construed the 1939 Code and therefore was not authoritative on the meaning of the same language in the 1954 Code.

Taxpayer’s counsel got a similar grilling from the panel when he took the podium and tried to argue that the court should simply follow Chevron footnote 9 and not worry about any possible retrenchment from that position found in Brand X.  Judge Bryson observed that there is only a “tiny sliver” left of Chevron deference if one applies footnote 9 aggressively –  that is, by allowing a determination of general congressional intent through legislative history to play a significant role at Step 1.  Taxpayer’s counsel looked to Mayo for help, observing that Mayo had cited approvingly to pp. 842-43 of Chevron, the very pages that included footnote 9.  Judge Bryson, however, quickly retorted that the Mayo citation did not mention footnote 9.

Taxpayer’s counsel spent some of his argument time seeking affirmance on narrower grounds, such as that the new regulations could not apply to Grapevine’s case either because they were promulgated after the trial court issued its final judgment or because, as the Tax Court majority held, the new regulations by their terms did not apply to cases outside the three-year statute of limitations.  But the Federal Circuit showed little sympathy for these arguments. Instead, it appears likely that the Federal Circuit’s decision will wade into the question of how Chevron and Brand X apply to the new regulations.  The court did not tip its hand, although to this observer it appeared more likely to conclude that the taxpayer should prevail – because Colony was a sufficiently definitive interpretation of the statutory text under Chevron Step 1 that Brand X does not leave room for it to be overruled by regulation.

One interesting aspect of the argument was the failure of anyone to discuss the point made by Justice Stevens in his one-paragraph concurring opinion in Brand X.  Justice Stevens noted that he fully joined the majority opinion, “which correctly explains why a court of appeals’ interpretation of an ambiguous provision in a regulatory statute does not foreclose a contrary reading by the agency.”  545 U.S. at 1003 (emphasis added).  Justice Stevens added, however, that “[t]hat explanation would not necessarily be applicable to a decision by this Court that would presumably remove any pre-existing ambiguity.”  Id.  Justice Stevens’ suggested distinction between court of appeals decisions and Supreme Court decisions makes Grapevine an easy case.  If Colony is understood to remove any ambiguity in the statutory text, then there is no room for Chevron deference to the new regulations and no need to get into the morass of determining whether Brand X modified Chevron.  Taxpayer’s counsel did not raise this point, however, and none of the judges asked about it.  (We note that the Tenth Circuit has addressed and rejected Justice Stevens’ suggested distinction between courts of appeals and the Supreme Court in applying Brand XHernandez-Carrera v. Carlson, 547 F.3d 1237, 1246-48 (10th Cir. 2008).).

A decision from the Federal Circuit would ordinarily be expected sometime in the spring.  Judge Prost did ask government counsel about the status of the other Intermountain cases, and he responded that Grapevine marked the fifth case to be argued, with argument scheduled in the D.C. Circuit in April.  But the Federal Circuit did not give the impression that it planned to sit tight and let other circuits sort out these issues.  As we report elsewhere, the Seventh Circuit got the ball rolling today by deciding the Beard case – ruling for the government on statutory grounds without relying on the regulations.  That decision should not have much impact on the Federal Circuit, which has already rejected the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning in Salman Ranch Ltd. v. Commissioner, 573 F.3d 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2009).  If the Federal Circuit determines to rule for the government, it will have to rely on the regulations.

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