Ninth Circuit Affirms Tax Court in Amazon.com

In a unanimous opinion issued today, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the taxpayer’s victory in the Tax Court in Amazon.com. We previously covered the case and oral argument here. We will take some time to digest the opinion and post on its finer points soon. In the meantime, one key sentence in the opinion is worth noting because it appears to capture the thrust of the Ninth Circuit’s decision about the disputed scope of the relevant regulatory definition for the term “intangible”: “Although the language of the definition is ambiguous, the drafting history of the regulations shows that ‘intangible’ was understood to be limited to independently transferable assets.”

Amazon.com Ninth Circuit Opinion

Petition for Rehearing En Banc Filed in Altera

As most expected, Altera filed a petition for rehearing en banc after the reconstituted three-judge panel decided to reverse the Tax Court’s invalidation of Treasury’s cost-sharing regulations. (A link to the petition is below.) As we explained previously, those regulations have been the subject of much controversy over the last two decades, and the success that Xilinx had with its petition for rehearing several years ago made it likely that Altera would ask for rehearing.

The petition picks up on one of the themes we discussed in our most recent post here. The taxpayer takes aim at the majority’s conclusion that the “commensurate with income” language added to section 482 in 1986 is relevant in the cost-sharing context. The taxpayer argues that language was aimed at addressing a different issue from the one before the court here—“how to value transfers of existing intangible property from one related entity to another” and not “intangible property yet to be created.”

The taxpayer makes four or five (the petition combines arguments (3) and (4) below) arguments for why its petition should be granted:

(1) The decision upsets settled principles about the application of the arm’s-length standard because the majority permitted Treasury to “cast aside the settled arm’s-length standard” for “a new standard” that is “purely internal.”

(2) The decision “validates bad rulemaking” because, contrary to the majority’s account of the regulation’s history, “[n]o one involved in the rulemaking thought the IRS was interpreting ‘commensurate with income’ to justify a new standard that did not depend on empirical evidence.” And under the law in Chenery, the court must assess the “‘propriety of [the agency’s] action solely by the grounds invoked by the [agency]’ in the administrative record.”

(3) The decision is irreconcilable with the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Xilinx, which held that parties would not share in employee stock option costs at arm’s length.

(4) The decision “threatens the uniform application of the tax law” because, under the Golsen rule, the Tax Court will continue to apply its unanimous decision declaring the regulation invalid to cases arising anywhere outside the Ninth Circuit.

(5) As evidenced by the glut of amicus briefs, the treatment of employee stock options in cost-sharing arrangements is “exceptionally important.”

It is likely that additional amicus briefs will be filed in support of the rehearing petition. And given the prominence of the issue, we anticipate that the court will order the government to file a response to the petition. We will report on further developments as warranted.

Altera Petition for Rehearing En Banc July 2019

Observations on Changes in the Ninth Circuit’s Second Altera Decision

As we posted earlier here (with a link to the new decision), the Ninth Circuit issued a new decision in Altera after replacing the late Judge Reinhardt with Judge Graber on the panel. But the result was the same as the withdrawn July 2018 decision—the Ninth Circuit upheld the validity of Treasury’s cost-sharing regulation that requires taxpayers to include the cost of employee stock options under qualifying cost sharing arrangements (QCSAs). Today, we present some observations after comparing the majority and dissent in the new decision with those in the Ninth Circuit’s withdrawn decision.

In the new decision, Judge Thomas recycled much of the language and logic from his withdrawn opinion, and Judge O’Malley reused much of her original dissent. Although they are few, some changes in the two opinions are interesting and notable. Overall, the changes serve to sharpen the disagreements between the parties (and the disagreements between the majority and dissent) in ways that will focus the discussion in the likely event of a rehearing en banc petition (or possible petition for certiorari). We focus here on two aspects of the changes.

Was There a Transfer of Intangibles that Implicated the Commensurate-With-Income Language in the Second Sentence of Section 482?

The majority did not address this issue in its withdrawn opinion, so some background is in order. When Treasury proposed cost-sharing regulations that explicitly required related parties to include employee-stock-option costs in the pool of shared costs, commenters put forward evidence that unrelated parties do not share employee-stock-option costs. But Treasury did not heed those comments and ultimately determined that the arm’s-length standard would be met if the regulations required taxpayers in QCSAs to include the cost of employee stock options in the pool of shared costs, regardless of what a comparability analysis might show about whether unrelated parties share those costs. So in order to uphold the Treasury Regulations, the majority had to conclude that the arm’s-length standard under section 482 does not mandate the use of comparable transactions.

In reaching that conclusion, the majority relied on the history of section 482 and especially on the addition of the second sentence of section 482. That second sentence provides that “[i]n the case of any transfer (or license) of intangible property…, the income with respect to such transfer or license shall be commensurate with the income attributable to the intangible.” The majority held that the Congressional intent behind the addition of that language in 1986 is what made it reasonable for Treasury to conclude that it was permitted “to dispense with a comparable transaction analysis in the absence of actual comparable transactions.”

Was there a “transfer (or license) of intangible property” such that Treasury could invoke the commensurate-with-income language to justify dispensing with a comparable-transaction analysis? There was indeed a transfer of intangibles at the outset of the QCSA in this case; Altera transferred intangible property to its QCSA with its foreign subsidiary. But that initial transfer is unrelated to the disputed employee-stock-option costs. Those stock-option costs relate to subsequently developed intangibles, not to the value of the pre-existing intangibles that Altera initially contributed. Then-applicable Treasury Regulation § 1.482-7A(g)(2) required a buy-in payment only for “pre-existing intangibles.”

It is, then, wholly unclear how those employee-stock-option costs for as-yet undeveloped intangibles constitute a “transfer (or license) of intangible property” such that the commensurate-with-income language is implicated at all. The taxpayer argued—both in its initial and supplemental briefing—that by its own terms, the commensurate-with-income language is not implicated once a QCSA is in place and therefore that language is irrelevant to the dispute. The taxpayer reasoned that “no ‘transfer (or license)’ occurs when entities develop intangibles jointly” because jointly developed intangibles “are not transferred or licensed between the parties, but rather are owned upon their creation by each participant.”

The majority said little about this issue in its withdrawn opinion and did not address the taxpayer’s argument. In its new opinion, the majority addressed the argument and declared itself “unpersuaded.” It held that “[w]hen parties enter into a QCSA, they are transferring future distribution rights to intangibles, albeit intangibles that are yet to be developed.” The majority does not, however, explain how “intangibles that are yet to be developed” are “pre-existing intangible property” under Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7A(g)(2) or, perhaps more importantly, how such undeveloped future intangibles can constitute intangible assets at all under the words of the statute. Instead, the majority leaned on the language in the second sentence of section 482 providing that the commensurate-with-income standard applies to “any” transfer of intangible property, holding that “that phrasing is as broad as possible, and it cannot reasonably be read to exclude the transfers of expected intangible property.”

The dissent seized on whether there was any transfer of intangibles that implicated the commensurate-with-income language. The dissent stated that “[t]he plain text of the statute limits the application of the commensurate with income standard to only transfers or licenses of intangible property.” And it observed that there is a contradiction between the majority’s conclusion that QCSAs “constitute transfers of already existing property” and Treasury’s own characterization (in the very preamble of the disputed regulations) of QCSAs “as arrangements ‘for the development of high-profit intangibles,’” inferring that parties cannot transfer something that is not yet developed. The dissent concluded that Treasury’s failure to make “a finding that QCSAs constitute transfers of intangible property” should be, as a matter of review under the APA, fatal to Treasury’s cost-sharing regulations.

Has the Arm’s-Length Standard Historically Required a Comparable-Transaction Analysis?

The majority made several changes from its withdrawn opinion in its account of the history of the arm’s-length standard under section 482. The changes appear to be aimed at bolstering the majority’s conclusion that Treasury was justified in concluding that the arm’s-length standard does not necessitate a comparable-transaction analysis. These changes take a couple of forms.

First, the changes add justifications for the proposition that the arm’s-length standard has not always mandated a comparable-transaction analysis in all cases. The withdrawn opinion included some evidence for this historical account, recounting the Tax Court’s Seminole Flavor decision from 1945 (where the Tax Court “rejected a strict application of the arm’s length standard in favor of an inquiry into whether the allocation…was ‘fair and reasonable’”). In its new opinion, the majority added the observation that Treasury provided for an unspecified fourth method for pricing intangibles in its 1968 regulations. And the majority refined its discussion of the Ninth Circuit’s 1962 decision in Frank, still quoting the language from that opinion denying that “‘arm’s length bargaining’ is the sole criterion for applying” section 482 (as it did in the withdrawn opinion) but then adding the new assertion that the “central point” of Frank is that “the arm’s length standard based on comparable transactions was not the sole basis” for reallocating costs and income under section 482. (As the dissent pointed out, a later Ninth Circuit decision limited the holding in Frank to the complex circumstances in that case and noted that the parties in Frank had stipulated to apply a standard other than the arm’s-length standard.)

Second, the majority made changes to add a series of new and more sweeping assertions that under section 482, Treasury has always had the leeway to dispense with comparable-transaction analyses in deriving the correct arm’s-length price. For instance, as a rejoinder to the taxpayer’s argument that the arm’s-length standard requires a comparable-transaction analysis, the majority wrote that “historically the definition of the arm’s length standard has been a more fluid one” and that “courts for more than half a century have held that a comparable transaction analysis was not the exclusive methodology to be employed under the statute.” It added similarly broad historical statements elsewhere in the new opinion, all in service of concluding that Treasury acted reasonably in dispensing with a comparable-transaction analysis in its cost-sharing regulations: “[a]s demonstrated by nearly a century of interpreting § 482 and its precursor, the arm’s length standard is not necessarily confined to one methodology” (p. 33); “the arm’s length standard has historically been understood as more fluid than Altera suggests” (p. 41); and “[g]iven the long history of the application of other methods…Treasury’s understanding of its power to use methodologies other than a pure transactional comparability analysis was reasonable” (p. 49).

In one of the subtler but more interesting changes from the withdrawn opinion, the majority’s new opinion removed a single word. In its withdrawn opinion, the majority said that Treasury’s 1988 White Paper “signaled a dramatic shift in the interpretation of the arm’s length standard” by advancing the “basic arm’s length return method…that would apply only in the absence of comparable transactions….” (emphasis added). But consistent with its conclusion in the new opinion that “for most of the twentieth century the arm’s length standard explicitly permitted the use of flexible methodology,” the majority appears to have concluded that shift in the White Paper was not so “dramatic,” dropping that word altogether in its new opinion. (In this vein, the majority also removed its assertion in the withdrawn opinion that “[t]he novelty of the 1968 regulations was their focus on comparability.”)

The new dissenting opinion disputed the majority’s historical account, stating that the first sentence of section 482 “has always been viewed as requiring an arm’s length standard” and that before the 1986 amendment, the Ninth Circuit “believed that an arm’s length standard based on comparable transactions was the sole basis for allocating costs and income under the statute in all but the narrow circumstances outlined in Frank.” And the dissent observed that even with the 1986 addition of the commensurate-with-income language, “Congress left the first sentence of § 482—the sentence that undisputedly incorporates the arm’s length standard—intact,” thus requiring a comparable-transaction analysis everywhere that comparable transactions can be found. The dissent pointed out that the White Paper clarified that this was true “even in the context of transfers or licenses of intangible property,” quoting Treasury’s own statement in the White Paper that in that context the “‘intangible income must be allocated on the basis of comparable transactions if comparables exist.’”

Both Parties Face Tough Questions in Amazon.com Ninth Circuit Argument

As we previewed here, the Ninth Circuit heard oral argument in Amazon.com v. Commissioner on Friday, April 12. Before giving a detailed recap of that oral argument, some background on the dispute is in order.

The Primary Issue in Dispute

Amazon.com, the U.S. parent company (Amazon US), entered into a qualified cost-sharing agreement with its Luxembourg subsidiary (AEHT) in 2005. Amazon US contributed the intangible assets required to operate its European website business to that cost-sharing agreement. Then effective Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7(g)(2) provided that AEHT owed Amazon US a buy-in payment for the “pre-existing intangibles” that Amazon US contributed. Although AEHT made a buy-in payment for that contribution of over $100 million, the IRS determined that the buy-in should have been $2.7 billion higher.

At trial, the parties submitted competing valuations of the contributed pre-existing intangibles—the taxpayer used comparable uncontrolled transactions (CUTs) to separately price the website technology, marketing intangibles, and European customer information that Amazon US contributed; the Commissioner used a discounted-cash-flow (DCF) method to determine the present value of the projected future income that AEHT would earn using the contributed intangibles. Underlying the methodological differences between the parties, however, is a fundamental dispute about the scope of the pre-existing intangibles for which AEHT owed a buy-in payment.

The taxpayer’s position was that AEHT owed a buy-in payment for only those intangibles enumerated in the definition of “intangible” in Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b), which definition does not expressly include so-called “residual” business assets like goodwill and going-concern value, and that the taxpayer’s CUT method accurately priced the enumerated intangibles that Amazon US contributed. The Commissioner argued that despite not explicitly naming residual business assets, any such assets are included in the definition of “intangible” in Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b)(6) and that only his DCF method captured the value of those residual business assets. He also argued that the bundle of compensable pre-existing intangibles that Amazon US made available in the cost-sharing arrangement included its “culture of continuous innovation” and other unspecified “growth options.”

Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) provides that “[f]or purposes of section 482, an intangible is an asset that comprises any of the following items and has substantial value independent of the services of any individual—” and then lists 28 specified intangibles in the first five subparagraphs (like patents and trademarks) and concludes with a sixth subparagraph that states that the definition encompasses “[o]ther similar items.” That subparagraph goes on to say that “[f]or purposes of section 482, an item is considered similar to those listed in paragraph (b)(1) through (5) of this section if it derives its value not from its physical attributes but from its intellectual content or other intangible properties.”

The Tax Court sided with the taxpayer’s reading of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b), concluding that the Commissioner’s DCF included the value of residual business assets that were not “pre-existing intangibles” under the cost-sharing regulations. The Tax Court made some material adjustments to the taxpayer’s CUTs, ultimately finding that AEHT owed a higher buy-in, albeit nowhere near the size of the Commissioner’s proposed adjustment. The government appealed the Tax Court’s decision on legal grounds, arguing that the pertinent Treasury Regulations do not foreclose the DCF method that was the basis for the Commissioner’s adjustments. The government argued in its brief that “[t]he Treasury Regulations broadly define intangibles and do not exclude residual-business assets from the scope of the buy-in requirement.” Oral argument at the Ninth Circuit was held before the three-judge panel of Judges Fletcher, Callahan, and Christen. (The video is available here.)

Plain Language of the Regulation

Government counsel started oral argument by asserting that the plain language of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) favored the government’s position because the regulatory definition of “intangible” was so broad that it must include residual business assets like “growth options” and “corporate culture.” In support, she argued that the sixth regulatory category of “other similar items” is “written so broadly to include any item that derives its value from anything other than physical attributes.”

Amazon’s counsel responded that the government’s argument proves too much. If the definition of “intangible” truly encompassed any asset that is not tangible, then it would belie the regulation’s enumeration of 28 items that count as “intangibles” under the regulatory definition. As Amazon argued in its brief, “[i]f Treasury intended to capture all intangibles, there would have been no reason to specify any particular types of intangibles, let alone list 28 of them.” Amazon’s brief went on to argue that the court should be guided by the interpretive canon of ejusdem generis. That canon requires the court to “focus ‘on the common attribute’ of the list of items that precedes the catch-all.”

This meant, however, that Amazon’s counsel had to explain what that “common attribute” is. He argued that the 28 listed items share characteristics that the residual business assets do not have—the 28 listed items are independently transferable and created by expenditures, but residual intangibles are not independent of the business and are the product of the operation’s income-producing success. As for why the list includes only items that are independently transferable, taxpayer’s counsel argued that only those assets that can be transferred independent of the entire business are susceptible to valuation while residual business assets like goodwill or so-called “growth options” were inextricable from the entire business and impossible to value with any precision.

But the panel questioned Amazon’s invocation of ejusdem generis. Judge Callahan asked why the court should apply that canon here where the regulation defines what it means to be similar (providing that “an item is considered similar to those listed in paragraph (b)(1) through (5) of this section if it derives its value not from its physical attributes but from its intellectual content or other intangible properties”). And in his only remarks of the day, Judge Fletcher called the taxpayer’s ejusdem generis argument “somewhat peculiar.” He went on to remark that he understood Amazon counsel’s explanation of what the 28 enumerated items had in common “but it’s not the one the text gives me,” going on to state that if he were “a pure textualist, you lose.” (Judge Fletcher’s remarks may not indicate how he will vote; he prefaced his remarks with the assertion that “I’m not sure that in the end that I would disagree with your position.”)

The description of “other similar items” was not the only regulatory language that drew the panel’s attention. Judge Christen questioned government counsel about how to reconcile the government’s reading of “other similar items” to include residual business assets like “corporate culture” with the regulation’s limitation that the universe of intangibles was limited to only those assets that have “substantial value independent of the services of any individual.” (That language played a role in the Tax Court’s decision; it found that residual business assets like goodwill and growth options “often do not have ‘substantial value independent of the services of any individual.’”) Amazon made the same point in its brief, arguing that its purported “culture of innovation” is “inseparable from the individuals in the company’s workforce.” And Judge Christen appeared unmoved by government counsel’s attempt to explain away that language by arguing that while the “value” of the intangible needs to be independent of services, the “intangible itself” does not need to be independent and that other expressly listed items—like “know-how”—were not entirely independent of services.

Regulatory History

Taxpayer’s counsel attacked the government’s case as based on reading the regulatory language in the abstract, divorced entirely from its context and history. The applicable definition of “intangibles” in Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(b) was the result of regulatory changes in 1994. Before making those regulatory changes, Treasury asked for comments on whether it should “expand” the definition of “intangibles” to include observed assets like goodwill and going concern. It received comments that the definition should not be expanded, and when Treasury issued revised regulations, it noted that it added language to the “other similar items” subparagraph but described the change as a “clarifi[cation].” Amazon’s counsel recounted this history and argued that since Treasury acknowledged that the definition would have to be expanded to include residual business assets, “Treasury could not thereafter ‘clarify’ that these intangibles had been included all along.” This was, in the words of taxpayer’s counsel, a classic case of “regulator’s remorse.”

In questioning government counsel, both Judge Callahan and Judge Christen recounted the same regulatory history and observed that Treasury asked if it should expand the definition and ultimately called its change a clarification. Judge Callahan asked whether the government could point the panel to specific language where Treasury said it intended to expand its definition to include residual business assets.

Government counsel acknowledged that Treasury used the word “clarified” in the preamble but offered a different history of the regulatory language. She argued that some initial Treasury guidance included “goodwill, consumer acceptance, and market share” as intangibles (all of which could not be transferred independent of the business) and pointed to other statutory changes and another court decision as narrowing the definition beyond what Treasury initially intended.

Government counsel also had to explain why, if Treasury had in fact expanded the definition of “intangibles” to include residual business assets, it did so by amending the definition of “other similar items” rather than just adding residual business assets to the list. She argued that Treasury opted for the latter because merely listing residual business assets like “goodwill” would just precipitate fights about whether intangibles (like the so-called “growth options” that the government says Amazon US contributed to its cost-sharing agreement) fell within the scope of the listed residual business assets. Judge Callahan acknowledged that potential issue but replied that if Treasury had expressly included “goodwill” or “going concern” the taxpayers “wouldn’t have had as good of an argument” that the disputed residual business assets here are excluded, and government counsel conceded that it was less likely that the taxpayer would have won below in that circumstance.

Subsequent Statutory Changes

In the tax reform legislation enacted in 2017 (the TCJA), Congress took steps to address the concern that government counsel raised at oral argument—the transfer of residual business assets without compensation. Congress amended section 936(h) (which is the operative definition of “intangible” for purposes of section 482 by cross-reference) to expressly include goodwill and going concern. Government counsel acknowledged that with the TCJA, “Congress has codified our interpretation of” the “other similar items” provision.

Judge Callahan observed that Congress did not say that they were clarifying what has always been true, and government counsel agreed. And Judge Callahan rehearsed Amazon’s argument that if Congress needed to amend that definition, then it’s reasonable to infer that—contrary to the government’s interpretation—the definition did not always include those residual business assets. She then gave Amazon’s counsel the opportunity to identify what he thought was the best indication in the legislative history that the statutory addition of goodwill and going concern value is a revision and not a clarification of the definition of “intangible.” He answered that the best indicator is the conference report’s description of the change as a “revision” of the definition. He then went on to argue that given the statutory language, no one could “realistically think that isn’t a vast shift” in the definition’s scope. And he added that because the TCJA effected an enormous rewrite to the Code, it is only reasonable to think that the change to add goodwill and going concern was a substantial revision.

But the legislative change did not categorically favor Amazon’s case. Although Judge Christen remarked that the legislative history for the TCJA change is “compelling,” she pressed Amazon’s counsel on the tension between, on the one hand, the new statutory requirement to include the value of goodwill and going concern as pre-existing intangibles and, on the other hand, Amazon’s argument that Treasury opted to exclude those assets from the definition of “intangibles” because they are “impossible” to value independent of the entire business. And government counsel tried to capitalize on this tension in her rebuttal, arguing that although it is difficult to value residual business assets, the DCF—which values all intangibles together—is the panacea to this problem and that is why the government seeks the Ninth Circuit’s endorsement of that method.

Cost Sharing and the Arm’s-Length Standard

One cornerstone of government counsel’s argument was that the government’s interpretation of the definition of intangible must be correct because “nothing of value can be transferred for free.” And the government—both on brief and in oral argument—made much of the taxpayer’s expert’s admission on cross-examination that parties at arm’s length would have paid for all the value associated with residual business assets because “‘no company is going to give away something of value without compensation.’” The government tried to tie this admission in with the arm’s length principle that is the lodestar of section 482. The government argued on brief that the Tax Court was “not free to disregard” the arm’s-length principle, which meant, according to the government, that the Tax Court was required to adopt a valuation that included residual business assets.

Amazon observed in its brief, however, that the arm’s-length principle also arguably supports its position. The Commissioner conceded that residual business assets “generally cannot be transferred independently from the business enterprise” and thus are not independently transferred in an arm’s-length transaction (absent the extraordinary alternative of selling the entire business), thus making it all the more plausible to think that Treasury did not contemplate taxpayers valuing them and paying a buy-in for those residual business assets in a cost-sharing agreement.

At oral argument, taxpayer’s counsel observed that the government’s argument is hard to reconcile with the very existence of the safe harbor created by the cost-sharing regulations. He argued that those regulations contemplated precisely what happened here—AEHT paid a buy-in for static intangibles, the parties shared R&D and other costs for developing new and better intangibles going forward “in a way that’s formulaic,” and then the parties benefitted from those co-developed intangibles according to that formula. Government counsel flatly disputed the notion that the 1986 and 1994 changes created a safe-harbor for cost-sharing arrangements. Although it didn’t receive significant attention at oral argument, whether the Ninth Circuit agrees with the taxpayer or the government on this point might be pivotal in the outcome.

The Nature and Life of the Residual Business Assets

One interesting feature of the government’s argument—both on brief and at oral argument—was its attempt to articulate the precise nature of the residual business assets that Amazon US transferred to its cost-sharing agreement “for free.” Counsel closely hewed to the brief’s description of those assets in oral argument, saying that the “other similar items” category was broad enough to include residual business assets like “growth options” and “corporate culture” (although the latter of these raises the obvious question of whether that culture can be independent of the services of any individual).

Amazon raised other problems with these purported assets in its brief, including the observation that the residual business assets (at least as the government conceives them) have apparently perpetual useful lives. If the government were to conceive of the assets as having unlimited useful lives, then its theory runs headlong into caselaw and the common-sense notion that no asset, however valuable, lasts forever. The government nevertheless bit the bullet on this issue, arguing in its brief that “[q]uite simply, existing technology begets new technology.” Judge Christen asked government counsel to answer for this position, and government counsel conceded that the government’s argument assumes perpetual lives for “certain assets in the bundle,” stating that under the government’s theory, “the corporate culture will last as long as the corporation is there.” But government counsel tried to downplay this concession, arguing that the terminal value of the perpetual assets was very small and that the Tax Court could have done with those residual assets what it had done with some marketing intangibles in the case—limit their useful lives to something like 20 years.

Taxpayer’s counsel reminded the panel of this useful-life problem in the context of responding to the government allegations that taxpayer transferred assets to the cost-sharing agreement for free. He argued that the Tax Court assigned substantial value to the intangibles that Amazon US contributed to the cost-sharing agreement, and in so doing, characterized those assets “static intangibles” with values that will ultimately dissipate.

Other Issues

A couple of other items from oral argument are worth noting. First, the government had argued on brief that the IRS’s interpretation of the regulation was owed deference. Perhaps wary that this deference principle may disappear in a few months when the Supreme Court decides the Kisor case (see our reports here), government counsel was quick to downplay that argument when Judge Callahan probed the topic: “That is a back-up argument; I don’t think the court needs to get there.” And the panel took issue with the fact that the government had no argument for the reasonableness of the IRS’s interpretation other than pointing to Congress’s 2017 change to the pertinent law as after-the-fact evidence. It was clear that deference argument did not sit well with Judge Callahan or Judge Christen, both of whom questioned how taxpayers were conceivably on notice of the interpretation of “other similar items” that the government was advocating in this case.

Second, Judge Callahan expressed a keen interest in how the court’s decision would affect other taxpayers, including those without Amazon’s “firepower.” Government counsel conceded that if the government were to prevail, the IRS could pursue other taxpayers using the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of the 1994 regulations. Amazon’s counsel argued that the “entire business community” relied on the understanding that residual business assets were not compensable and structured their cost-sharing arrangements accordingly. But when the panel asked whether a reversal would affect taxpayers in all years before the TCJA, he acknowledged that the 2009 changes to the cost-sharing regulations that require a buy-in for “platform contributions,” which arguably already include some residual business assets.

Finally, at oral argument, government counsel repeatedly raised the “realistic alternatives” principle (which is now part of section 482 and was in the 482 regulations already), arguing that principle is “central to the arm’s-length standard” because no entity is going to accept a price that is less than one of its realistic alternatives and that the Tax Court’s opinion amounted to a “rewriting” of that principle. But on brief, the government posed no alternative transaction that achieved the ends of the cost-sharing agreement. Instead, it argued that the “realistic alternative” to the cost-sharing arrangement was “not entering into the cost-sharing arrangement and continuing to operate the European Business as it had before.” The taxpayer’s brief took this point head on, arguing that the regulations implementing the realistic-alternatives principle “did not allow the Commissioner to consider alternatives to cost-sharing itself.” The Tax Court had rejected the Commissioner’s argument at trial, finding that empowering the Commissioner to use the realistic-alternatives principle to price the transaction as if it never happened at all would “make the cost sharing election, which the regulations explicitly make available to taxpayers, altogether meaningless.”

On balance, the panel’s questions and remarks appear to favor affirmance of the Tax Court. But both parties faced hard questions at oral argument. There is no deadline for the court’s ruling, and it will likely be several months before a decision is issued.

Amazon.com Tax Court Opinion

Ninth Circuit to Hear Oral Argument in Amazon Transfer-Pricing Dispute Friday

April 10, 2019 by  
Filed under Amazon, International, Transfer Pricing

We wanted to alert our readers that oral argument in the Ninth Circuit in Amazon.com Inc. v. Commissioner will be held this Friday. Similar to Veritas Software Corp. v. Commissioner, this transfer-pricing dispute is about the value of intangibles that the U.S. parent contributed to a cost-sharing arrangement with a foreign subsidiary. In particular, the parties dispute whether particular intangibles, like goodwill and going concern values, are compensable and thus require a buy-in payment upon their contribution to a cost-sharing arrangement. The government lost in the Tax Court.

The briefs are below. The Ninth Circuit will stream the oral arguments (held in Seattle) live on its website here; Amazon is the last of five oral arguments to be heard beginning at 9:00 a.m. Pacific/12:00 p.m. Eastern Friday. There are 90 minutes of oral argument scheduled before Amazon (see the schedule here). You can also watch or listen to oral arguments after the fact in the Ninth Circuit’s archive here.

Amazon.com Government Opening Brief

Amazon.com Taxpayer Response Brief

Amazon.com Government Reply Brief

Altera Case Submitted for Decision

The reargument of the Altera case was held on October 16. Chief Judge Thomas, who penned the original majority decision, was quiet during the argument, asking only one question. But both Judge O’Malley, who wrote the original dissent, and Judge Graber, who is the new judge on the panel and who might reasonably be expected to cast the deciding vote, were very active questioners. A video tape of the argument can be viewed at this link.

The oral argument was not quite the last gasp in the parties’ presentations to the panel. At the end of the week, counsel for Altera filed a post-argument letter further addressing some of the points that were raised at the argument. The letter stated that some of the statements made by government counsel at the argument were contrary to the provisions of Treas. Reg. § 1.482-4(f)(2)(ii), and that these departures from the existing regulations underscored why adminstrative law principles “do not permit an abandonment of arm’s-length evidence and the parity principle, even if the statute permitted it, without complying with the rules governing administrative procedure.” The government filed its own letter in response, asserting that its counsel’s statements did “not contradict any Treasury regulations” and did not implicate the administrative law principles referenced by Altera.

These letters are attached below.

The case is now submitted for decision. Ordinarily, one would expect several months to elapse after argument before a decision from the Ninth Circuit would issue in a complex case. (The original opinion in this case was issued more than nine months after the oral argument.) Given that Judges Thomas and O’Malley have already written opinions in the case, however, it is very possible that a decision could come much sooner.

Altera – Altera post-argument letter

Altera – Government post-argument letter

 

Supplemental Briefing Completed in Altera

Attached are the four supplemental briefs filed by the parties in the Altera case.  First, in anticipation of the reargument of the case, with Judge Graber now sitting on the panel in place of the deceased Judge Reinhardt, the court invited the parties to file supplemental briefs limited to half of the length of a normal court of appeals brief.  This briefing opportunity was designed to give the parties the chance to restate or add to their arguments on the issues previously addressed in the case, having now had the opportunity to read the competing opinions of Judges Reinhardt and O’Malley that had been vacated.  Although the court’s order took pains to tell the parties that they were “permitted, but not obligated,” to file “optional” supplemental briefs, it will surprise no one that both parties took advantage of the option and filed supplemental briefs on September 28 that pressed right up against the 6500 word limit.  In addition to the parties’ briefs, four supplemental amicus briefs were filed by:  1) the Chamber of Commerce; 2) a group of trade associations; 3) Cisco; and 4) a group of law school professors, with that last one being in support of the government.

This deluge of paper, however, was not enough for the panel.  On the same day that the supplemental briefs were due, the court issued the following order inviting another set of supplemental briefs on the question whether Altera’s suit was barred by the statute of limitations:

“The parties should be prepared to discuss at oral argument the question as to whether the six-year statute of limitations applicable to procedural challenges under the Administrative Procedure Act, 28 U.S.C. 2401(a), applies to this case and, if it does, what the implications are for this appeal. Perez-Guzman v. Lynch, 835 F.3d 1066, 1077-79 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 138 S. Ct. 737 (2018). Additionally, the parties are permitted, but not obligated, to file optional simultaneous supplemental briefs on this question on or before October 9, 2018. The briefs should be no longer than 6,500 words [that is, half the length of an ordinary appellate brief].”

The court’s injection of this new issue into the case was potentially a very significant development.  If the court were to conclude that Altera’s APA challenge was barred by the statute of limitations, the Ninth Circuit decision in Altera would not shed any light on any of the important issues thought to be presented involving the APA or the substance of the cost-sharing regulations.

In the end, however, it appears that the court’s latest order will not amount to anything.  Altera filed a full-fledged supplemental brief in response to the court’s order in which it raised several objections to the court’s suggestion, including an argument that the government had waived any possible statute of limitations claim.

More significantly, the government did not embrace the court’s suggestion either.  The government simply filed a short letter brief in which it stated that any prepayment suit filed by Altera within the six-year limitations period would have been barred by the Tax Anti-Injunction Act.  (In this connection, the government cited to its brief in the Chamber of Commerce case; see our coverage of that appeal here.)  Hence, the government acknowledged that it would be “unfair” to Altera if that six-year period were held to bar its later suit because that would have the effect of depriving Altera of any ability to sue in the Tax Court.   Moreover, the government noted that the limitations period is not “jurisdictional” and therefore, even if it would otherwise be applicable, the government had waived its right to invoke a limitations defense just as Altera argued in its brief.  The government concluded by stating its position that the six-year statute of limitations that is generally applicable to  APA challenges “does not apply to this case.”  Thus, there is no realistic possibility that the Ninth Circuit will toss the case on statute of limitations grounds, and it can be expected to address the important issues presented by the Tax Court’s opinion.

The oral argument is scheduled for October 16.

Altera – Altera Supplemental Brief

Altera – Government Supplemental Brief

Altera – Altera Statute of Limitations Supplemental Brief

Altera – Government Statute of Limitations Letter Brief

Altera Opinion Withdrawn

In a surprising move, the Ninth Circuit announced today that it has withdrawn its opinion in Altera “to allow time for the reconstituted panel to confer on this appeal,” even though no petition for rehearing has been filed yet.  See our prior report on the Altera decision here.  The mention of  the “reconstituted panel” refers to an order issued by the court last week that appointed Judge Graber as a replacement judge for Judge Reinhardt, who passed away in March.

At the time, the order appointing Judge Graber seemed to be an exercise in closing the barn door after the horse is gone.  But it now appears that Judge Graber is being asked to review the case and give her independent judgment regarding the issues, notwithstanding the decision issued in July.  If so, that would place the outcome in doubt again, since the two other living judges, Chief Judge Thomas and Judge O’Malley, differed on their views of the case.

In some courts, the death of a judge while a case is under consideration automatically means that the judge’s vote will not count.  Unless the remaining two judges agree, that death would necessitate appointing a third judge to render a decision.  But the Ninth Circuit does not follow that approach.  The now-withdrawn opinion recited that “Judge Reinhardt fully participated in this case and formally concurred in the majority opinion prior to his death.”  For whatever reason, the court now seems to have decided on its own that it made a mistake in allowing Judge Reinhardt to cast the decisive vote from the grave in such an important case.

Altera – Ninth Circuit order substituting Judge Graber

Altera – Ninth Circuit order withdrawing opinions

 

Ninth Circuit Reverses Altera and Revives Cost-Sharing Regulations

The Ninth Circuit today by a 2-1 vote reversed the Tax Court’s Altera decision that had invalidated Treasury regulations requiring taxpayers to include employee stock options in the pool of costs shared under a cost-sharing agreement. See our previous reports here. The court’s decision (authored by Chief Judge Thomas) held that the regulations were a permissible interpretation of Code section 482 in imposing that requirement even in the absence of any evidence that taxpayers operating at arm’s length actually share such costs in similar arrangements. The court also held that Treasury’s rulemaking did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

The court’s opinion follows the structure of the government’s brief in first analyzing section 482, even though the Tax Court decision rested on the APA. The court began with a detailed history of the development of section 482 and the related regulations. Quoting a law review article, the court stated that Congress and the IRS gradually realized in the years after 1968 that the arm’s-length standard “did not work in a large number of cases” and therefore they made “a deliberate decision to retreat from the standard while still paying lip service to it.” Relying heavily on legislative history, the court stated that the addition of the “commensurate with income” language in the 1986 Act was intended “to displace a comparability analysis where comparable transactions cannot be found.”

Armed with that conclusion, the court found that there was no violation of the APA. The court explained that the commenters had attacked the regulation as inconsistent with the arm’s-length standard, but Treasury in its notice had “made clear that it was relying on the commensurate with income provision”; therefore, the comments in question were just “disagree[ing] with Treasury’s interpretation of the law,” and there was no reason for Treasury to address those comments in any detail. The taxpayer argued that the notice of rulemaking indicated that Treasury would be applying the arm’s-length standard and therefore the Chenery principle of administrative law did not permit the regulations to be defended on the ground that the arm’s-length standard did not apply. See our prior summary of the parties’ arguments here. The court rejected this argument in cursory fashion, stating that it “twists Chenery . . . into excessive proceduralism.” It maintained that the citation of legislative history in the notice was a sufficient indication that Treasury believed that it could dispense with comparability analysis, and therefore the regulations were not being upheld on a different ground from the one set forth by the agency.

Having concluded that there was no APA violation in issuing the regulations, the court then applied the Chevron standard of deferential review to analyze the regulations, and it concluded that they were a reasonable interpretation of the statute. Pointing to the legislative history, the court ruled that the “commensurate with income” language was intended to create a “purely internal standard . . . to ensure that income follows economic activity.” The court added that “the goal of parity is not served by a constant search for comparable transactions.” Rather, by amending section 482 in 1986, Congress had “intended to hone the definition of the arm’s length standard so that it could work to achieve arm’s length results instead of forcing application of arm’s length methods.”

Finally, the court rejected the argument that the new regulations were inconsistent with treaty obligations. It remarked that “there is no evidence that the unworkable empiricism for which Altera argues is also incorporated into our treaty obligations,” describing the arm’s-length standard as “aspirational, not descriptive.”

Judge O’Malley (of the Federal Circuit, sitting by designation) dissented. She approached the case along the lines of the taxpayer’s argument and concluded that the Tax Court had correctly found an APA violation because “[i]n promulgating the rule we consider here, Treasury repeatedly insisted that it was applying the traditional arm’s length standard and that the resulting rule was consistent with that standard.” And “Treasury never said . . . that the nature of stock compensation in the [cost-sharing] context rendered arm’s length analysis irrelevant.” Accordingly, “Treasury did not provide adequate notice of its intent to change its longstanding practice of employing the arm’s length standard.” Finally, Judge O’Malley also noted her disagreement with the majority’s conclusion on the merits that the regulations are consistent with section 482. She explained that the plain language of the commensurate with income provision restricts its application to a “transfer (or license) of intangible property,” which would not encompass a cost-sharing agreement, even if the agreement relates to joint development of intangibles.

It is likely that the taxpayer will seek rehearing of the decision by the full Ninth Circuit, especially since such a rehearing petition was successful a decade ago in Xilinx. A rehearing petition would be due on September 7. If the taxpayer elects not to seek rehearing, a petition for certiorari would be due October 22.

Altera – Ninth Circuit opinion

 

Ninth Circuit Briefing Completed in Altera

The parties have now completed briefing in the Ninth Circuit in the Altera case, in which the Tax Court struck down Treasury regulations that require taxpayers to include employee stock options in the pool of costs shared under a cost-sharing agreement.  As described in our previous reports, the Tax Court’s decision implicated both the specific issue of whether the cost-sharing regulations are a lawful implementation of Code section 482 and the more general administrative law issue of the constraints placed on Treasury by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in issuing rules that involve empirical conclusions.

The government’s opening brief focuses only on the specific section 482 issue, maintaining that the Tax Court erred in believing that the challenged regulations involved empirical conclusions. Specifically, the government relies heavily on what it terms the “coordinating amendments” to the regulations promulgated in 2003.  Those amendments, which purport to apply the “commensurate with income” language added to section 482 in 1986 for intangible property, state in part that a “qualified cost sharing arrangement produces results that are consistent with an arm’s length result . . . if, and only if, each controlled participant’s share of the costs . . . of intangible development . . . equals its share of reasonably anticipated benefits attributable to such development.”  Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7(a)(3).  By its terms, this regulation states that determining whether a cost-sharing agreement meets the longstanding section 482 “arm’s length” standard has nothing whatsoever to do with how parties actually deal at “arm’s length” in the real world.  On that basis, the government argues that the APA rules are not implicated because the regulations did not rest on any empirical conclusions.  And for the same reason, the government argues that the Ninth Circuit’s earlier decision under the prior cost-sharing regulations, Xilinx v. Commissioner, 598 F.3d 1191 (9th Cir. 2010), is irrelevant since that decision was premised on the understanding (now allegedly changed by the amended regulations) that how parties actually deal at “arm’s length” was relevant to whether the section 482 “arm’s length” standard was met under those prior regulations, which did not explicitly provide a rule for stock-based compensation.  Finally, the government defends the validity of the regulation’s approach to “arm’s length” in the cost-sharing context as being in line with statements made in the House and Conference Reports on the 1986 amendments to section 482, which noted the general difficulty in finding comparable arm’s-length transfers of licenses of intangible property.

In its response brief, the taxpayer takes the government to task for relying on a “new argument” rather than directly addressing the reasoning of the Tax Court. The taxpayer first observes that Treasury never took the position in the rulemaking that the traditional “arm’s-length” standard in section 482 can be completely divorced from how parties actually operate at arm’s length—a position that assertedly “would have set off a political firestorm.”  Accordingly, the taxpayer argues that the government’s position on appeal violates the bedrock administrative law principle of SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80 (1943), that courts must evaluate regulations on the basis of the reasoning contemporaneously given by the agency, not justifications later advanced in litigation.  And in any event, the taxpayer argues, this position cannot be sustained because it is an unexplained departure from Treasury’s longstanding position that the 1986 amendments to section 482 “did not change the arm’s-length standard, but rather supplied only a new tool to be used consistently with arm’s-length analysis rooted in evidence.”

The taxpayer describes the government’s reliance on the “coordinating amendments” in the regulations as “circular reasoning” that simply purports to define “arm’s length” to mean something other than “arm’s length.”  Even if that is what the regulations say, the taxpayer continues, the regulations could not be sustained because they depart “from the recognized purpose of Section 482 to place controlled taxpayers at parity with uncontrolled taxpayers” and conflict with “the arm’s-length analysis implicit in the statute’s first sentence.”

The government’s reply brief criticizes the taxpayer for not even arguing that its cost-sharing agreement clearly reflects income, and it therefore characterizes the taxpayer as arguing that “the arm’s-length standard gives related taxpayers carte blanche to mismatch their income and expenses.”  With respect to the correct interpretation of section 482, the government repeats its position from the opening brief, maintaining that the term “arm’s length” does not necessarily connote equivalence with real-world transactions.  Instead, the government argues that it is the taxpayer that departs from the statute by failing to give proper effect to the “commensurate with the income attributable to the intangible” language added in 1986.

The government responds to the Chenery argument by denying that it is arguing a different ground for the regulation than that advanced by Treasury.  Rather, the government states that its brief simply further develops the basis advanced by Treasury because it was clear in the regulations that emerged from the rulemaking that Treasury was rejecting the position that an “arms-length” standard can be applied only by looking at empirical evidence of transactions between uncontrolled taxpayers.

Although the briefs are quite long, the basic dispute can be stated fairly succinctly. The parties purport to agree that an “arm’s-length” standard must govern.  The taxpayer says that application of this standard always depends on analyzing actual transactions between uncontrolled parties, where available.  The government says no; in its view, “arm’s length” does not necessarily require reference to such transactions.  Instead, according to the government, in the cost-sharing context “Treasury prescribed a different means of ascertaining the arm’s-length result,” one that “is determined by reference to an economic assumption rather than by reference to allegedly comparable uncontrolled transactions.”

The intense interest in this case is illustrated by the filing of many amicus briefs. The government, which rarely benefits from amicus support in tax cases, is supported by two different amicus briefs filed by groups of law professors—six tax law professors joining in one of the briefs and 19 other tax and administrative law professors joining the second brief.  The taxpayer’s position is supported by seven amicus briefs—including one from the Chamber of Commerce and one from a large group of trade associations.  Four briefs were filed by individual companies—Cisco, Technet, Amazon, and Xilinx.  The seventh brief was filed by three economists—a business school professor (who testified as an expert witness for the taxpayer in Xilinx), a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a managing director at the Berkeley Research Group.  They profess no financial interest in the outcome but argue, based on their experience in dealing with issues relating to stock-based compensation, that, as a matter of economics, the government’s approach is not consistent with how parties acting at arm’s length would proceed.

Notwithstanding the interest in the case, no decision is expected in the near future. The Ninth Circuit has a backlog of cases awaiting the scheduling of oral argument.  In recent years, oral arguments in tax cases typically have not been scheduled until at least a year after the briefing is concluded, and often closer to 18 months.  Thus, oral argument in this case should not be expected before next winter.  And then it will likely be several months after the argument before the court issues its decision.  So at this point, it would be surprising if there were a decision in Altera before mid-2018.

Altera – Taxpayer brief

Altera- Gov’t Opening Brief

Altera – Gov’t Reply Brief

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