The Altera Oral Argument

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We welcome back guest bloggers Professor Susan C. Morse from University of Texas School of Law and my colleague Senior Lecturer on Law Stephen E. Shay from Harvard.  Professors Morse and Shay, build on their post last week to fill us in on what happened before the 9th Circuit in Altera. Keith

At the Ninth Circuit on Wednesday October 11, government counsel carefully threaded the needle of statutory and regulatory interpretation in Altera, a case about transfer pricing and administrative law. Taxpayer counsel appeared to overreach. It refused to concede that Treasury has any authority to regulate the pricing of intercompany intellectual property sharing under qualified cost sharing arrangements (QCSAs) unless the guidance proceeds from the starting data point of unrelated party dealings, otherwise known as comparability analysis.


The panel included Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Sidney Thomas, Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, and D.C. Circuit Judge Kathleen O’Malley, sitting by designation. Reinhardt joined the first Ninth Circuit Xilinx decision overturning the Tax Court decision, which interpreted the prior cost sharing regulation to allow the IRS to include stock option costs in the pool of shared costs. After a rehearing, Reinhardt dissented in the superceding Ninth Circuit Xilinx opinion that upheld the Tax Court. In Xilinx, he would have allowed the government to require inclusion of stock option costs in a cost-sharing pool even under earlier regulations that did not explicitly address stock options. The final regulations at issue in Altera, the current case, plainly say that stock option costs must be included in a QCSA cost pool, to the disadvantage of U.S. multinational groups which as a result may take fewer tax deductions resulting from the exercise of stock options. Billions of dollars of tax revenue are at stake in Altera.

The oral argument featured three important threads: The imposition of an administrative law framework with a Chevron starting point; the argument that “arm’s length” is not synonymous with “comparability analysis”; and the idea that the second sentence of section 482, which refers to “commensurate with income” payment for intellectual property “transfers”, specifically envisioned transfer pricing not tethered to unrelated party data points.

Judge O’Malley, who brought seven years’ worth of D.C. Circuit administrative law experience    to the hearing, repeatedly insisted on a textbook administrative law analysis. She asked both parties whether there is statutory authority for these regulations under Chevron. Yes, replied the government. Chief Judge Thomas asked whether the government has the statutory authority to “eliminate” comparability analysis altogether, for all transactions. No, replied the government, here trying to thread the needle. The statute does not say “arm’s length,” let alone comparability. Both are described in regulations. But there is “too much history.”

Well, then if the government cannot erase the arm’s length standard, how can it write regulations that set aside unrelated party data, like the agreements taxpayers point to under which unrelated parties develop technology together without mentioning stock options? Judge Reinhardt suggested that the validity of the regulation had to do with its subject: the sharing of intangible assets. Perhaps comparability analysis is not relevant for transactions involving intangibles in particular, he suggested. Agree, with respect to cost-sharing arrangements, replied the government.

But why doesn’t the departure from comparability analysis for intangibles violate the arm’s length standard? In response to prompts from the panel, the government agreed that arm’s length and comparability do not “go hand in hand” and are “not synonymous.” There are several “means to [the] end” of an arm’s length result. In the case of QCSAs, unrelated party data is “inherently not comparable” and cannot support clear reflection of income.

Taxpayer counsel, in contrast, contended that “it has to be an empirical analysis” and that “you have to take comparables as far as they will go,” and appeared to argue that this approach was required by the statute itself. “What if [the comparables] don’t go anywhere?” asked Chief Judge Thomas. Well, replied taxpayer counsel, then the government should “erase” regulations’ reference to an arm’s length standard. In rebuttal, the government further argued that the term “arm’s length standard” is a “term of art” and that Treasury’s interpretation is entitled to deference.

The second sentence of Section 482, added in 1986, allows the government to adjust related parties’ inclusions from “transfer” of intangibles so that they are “commensurate with income.” As the government pointed out, the legislative history clearly explains that unrelated party data points – i.e., comparability analysis – are not sufficient to allow clear reflection of income in these situations involving intangibles. This is strong evidence of statutory authority for the government to write regulations that depart from comparability analysis. Taxpayer counsel suggested that a QCSA might not qualify as a “transfer” under this sentence of the statute, so that perhaps it was not statutory authority at all. But government counsel disagreed, arguing that the word “transfer” was broad enough to encompass QCSAs and noting that this issue was apparently briefed, and ignored, in Xilinx.

The Tax Court cited State Farm, which requires reasonable explanation of policy changes, in its decision to set aside the Treasury’s regulations. Other reasonable explanation cases include Fox Television and Encino Motorcars, both of which came up during oral argument. O’Malley asked government counsel why the regulations requiring cost sharing were not a change; the government replied that the policy of requiring stock options costs to be included in pools had existed since 1997, years before the regulations were promulgated. Later, taxpayer counsel pushed the State Farm argument, insisting that some of the government’s arguments in litigation were “not what they said” in the preamble. But the panel did not pursue the specifics of the preamble’s language. And taxpayer counsel’s assertion that Chevron should be the “last step” of the analysis of regulatory validity was met with silence by the court.

Stay tuned for our analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s Altera decision – we’ll blog it here in due course.








  1. Patrick Smith says:

    Judge O’Malley sits on the Federal Circuit, not the D.C. Circuit. She is a specialist in patent law.

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