Court Sustains Competent Authority Decision to Not Grant Treaty Relief

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The other day I discussed Starr International v US, and the lead up to an opinion earlier this month concerning the application of the US –Swiss income tax treaty. Before the court was able to resolve the matter on the merits, the district court addressed its jurisdiction to hear a challenge to the US Competent Authority’s decision to not grant discretionary relief under the treaty. While concluding that it could not order monetary relief, its prior opinion opened the door to Starr challenging the Competent Authority’s decision not to grant a lower withholding rate under the APA.

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The amount at issue was substantial. Starr was one of the largest shareholders in AIG. It received about $190 million in dividends. The US has treaties with many countries; those treaties generally provide exceptions or reduction to the default 30% withholding on some US sources of income, including dividends. The US Swiss treaty reduced withholding to either 5% or 15 %, depending on the Swiss entity’s ownership of the US corporation.

Most treaties have some form of anti-treaty shopping provisions that are meant to ensure that only bona fide residents of contracting states can take advantage of the treaty. The Swiss treaty has such a provision, Article 22, which, according to the treaty’s technical explanation (sort of treaty analogue to legislative history, which Treasury staffers draft and present to the Senate during the Senate’s treaty ratification process), denies treaty benefits to those who establish “legal entities . . . in a Contracting State with a principal purpose to obtain [treaty] benefits.”

Article 22 has a number of objective tests; an entity can establish that it is a bona fide resident if it meets any of the objective tests. The treaty recognized, however, that a party might be entitled to treaty relief even if it were unable to satisfy any of the objective tests. To effectuate that policy, the treaty provides:

A person that is not entitled to the benefits of this Convention pursuant to the provisions of the preceding paragraphs may, nevertheless, be granted the benefits of the Convention if the competent authority of the State in which the income arises so determines after consultation with the competent authority of the other Contracting State.

It was this discretionary benefit position that was at issue in Starr International. For international tax folks, the opinion has an important discussion of the precise contours of the anti-treaty shopping provision; Starr wanted a more mechanical approach to the issue but the opinion agreed with the government that the test is one that pivots off of a finding that the party seeking the benefits “has or had as one of its principal purposes the obtaining of [treaty] benefits.”

After agreeing that the treaty rule revolves around a principal purpose analysis, the court turned to the APA. Under the APA a reviewing court must “hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be . . . arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” 5 USC 706(2). As we have discussed, this is generally a deferential standard; the opinion, citing the Supreme Court State Farm decision, notes that by way of example that “[a]gency action is arbitrary and capricious…if the agency ‘entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.’”

In arguing that the Competent Authority decision was arbitrary and capricious, Starr essentially made two main points: the Competent Authority considered irrelevant information and failed to consider the relevant information.

In finding that the Competent Authority did not consider irrelevant information, the opinion squarely addresses how much it should consider Starr’s prior moves. One of the main points Starr made was that its move to Switzerland was from Ireland, which had an automatic treaty reduction; in other words, it could not have had a principal purpose to get treaty benefits if it moved from a jurisdiction where it already was entitled to benefits. The government noted that Starr had moved previously, and wanted to consider the entity’s history of moving as to show that tax was often a if not the main reason for location.

The court agreed with the government, looking mainly to the treaty’s explanation:

[Starr’s] argument, however, assumes a much narrower inquiry than is called for by the Technical Explanation, which directs the Competent Authority to determine “whether the establishment, acquisition, or maintenance” of a company in the relevant jurisdiction had a principal purpose of obtaining treaty benefits. Technical Explanation 72. Notably, the Explanation does not direct the Competent Authority to ask merely what made a company’s current jurisdiction more favorable than its previous one—although that might be part of the analysis—but rather why a company chose to “establish” or “maintain” itself where it did. In other words, here the question was not simply why Starr chose Switzerland over Ireland, but rather why Starr chose Switzerland over any other jurisdiction where it might have moved.

This broader inquiry required not just a look at Starr’s recent move, but also its overall history of moves.

Starr also argued that the Competent Authority failed to consider the implications of how other bilateral treaties automatically allow treaty benefits to similarly structured entities (a for profit company owned by a charitable entity). Starr argued that there was strong evidence that the US and the Swiss did not consciously exclude that structure from benefits. The opinion gives short shrift to this point:

This argument is a nonstarter. Starr essentially asks the Court to find that the Competent Authority acted arbitrarily and capriciously because it failed to definitively conclude that the text of the U.S.-Swiss Treaty should be overwritten by text in other bilateral tax treaties, and because there is no legislative history to the contrary. But “[t]he interpretation of a treaty, like the interpretation of a statute, begins with its text.” Starr I, 139 F. Supp. at 226 (quoting Abbott v. Abbott, 560 U.S. 1, 10 (2010)). So at the very least, it was not unreasonable for the Competent Authority to decline to read into the treaty a provision that was not there. Moreover, it bears emphasizing that the Competent Authority reached no conclusion one way or the other on the matter, and therefore the analysis appears not to have grounded its final determination. It is therefore misleading for Starr to characterize it as a “justification,” although perhaps accurate to call it “irrelevant.”

Conclusion

On the merits, the opinion is a major victory for the government. Yet it is  an important procedural victory for taxpayers. It is another defeat of the reflexive government argument that some of its decisions are completely insulated from court review. It also is a roadmap for showing how parties can use the APA to challenge the somewhat murky world of Competent Authority decisions under treaties.

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

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