What Is A Preamble Worth?

We welcome back guest blogger Monte Jackel, Of Counsel at Leo Berwick, who discusses the legal significance of preambles to regulations. Les

Introduction

Regulation preambles are a part of the reading cycle of a tax professional. If I can be taken as a typical or average tax regulation reader, the first thing I do when reviewing a regulation package as a reader is to look carefully through the regulation preamble before I review the text of a regulation. This is because the regulation preamble, much like legislative history to a statute, provides meaning and context to the regulation text.

Regulation preambles add one additional feature that is more difficult to discern as to its legal significance. Often, or at least not infrequently, a regulation preamble contains a substantive rule that is not in the regulation text itself. (A recent example is the final section 163(j) regulations issued within the past week or so that contains a rule only in the preamble that items omitted from the final regulation but that are contained in the proposed regulations can be relied on until new final rules are issued for the omitted items. There are more.)

At that point it would be appropriate to ask the question: What legal import, if any, does this “special preamble rule”, if I may call it that, have?

read more...

It Is Just Not Clear

Unfortunately, it is not clear that a taxpayer can rely on statements in a preamble that are not in the text of the regulation as “authority” for purposes of avoiding accuracy related penalties under section 6662 of the Internal Revenue Code. Regulation §1.6662-4(d)(3)(iii), which determines the types of authority that can be relied on to avoid the substantial understatement penalty, states that “[P]roposed, temporary and final regulations construing [the Internal Revenue Code]” is an authority.

However, the next question to ask is: Whether the regulation preamble is considered part of “the regulation” construing the statute for this purpose as the quoted language from section 1.6662-4(d)(3)(iii) does not say anything on this question one way or the other. (A search for the regulatory history on this particular regulation has not turned up anything relevant to this discussion. The ability to rely on regulations for this purpose is derived from section 6661, the predecessor to section 6662, which references only “Treasury regulations”. JCS-38-82, Dec. 31, 1982, p.217.).

So Can We Rely On Preambles Then?

As much as logic dictates that the preamble should be considered part of “the regulation” for this purpose, where does it expressly say that in the regulation text or even in a regulation preamble dealing with the subject? I can find nothing.

It is not subject to doubt that a regulation preamble can be used as background and context much like legislative history in interpreting a regulation. But the key question at issue here is what if the preamble contains a substantive rule of law that is not contained in the text of the regulation itself as sometimes occurs? Is that naked (non-textual) statement in the preamble an “authority” that can be relied on?

The Office of the Federal Register Document Drafting Handbook, chapter 2.2, requires a preamble, for whatever it is worth, to be part of the submission to the Federal Register. However, the preamble is not published in the Code of Federal Regulations as it is not regulation text. (1 CFR sec. 18.12 also requires a preamble to be part of a regulation in order to be published in the Federal Register). The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) at 5 USC sec. 552 requires federal agencies to publish their regulations in the Federal Register in order to be legally effective, and 5 USC 553(c) sets forth the requirement for a regulation to contain the basis and purpose of or for the rule.

The reg. §1.6662-4 rules were issued in December 1991 (T.D. 8381) but 1 CFR sec. 18.12 was issued in 1976 and thereafter amended in 1989. Thus, there can be no doubt that the requirement to have a regulation preamble existed before reg. §1.6662-4 was finalized or even proposed.

Does this mean that the reference to the term “regulation” in §1.6662-4 must mean it includes a preamble because regulations had to have one to be published in the Federal Register? Or, since the CFR does not include regulation preambles when they are published there (IRS regulations are in title 26 of the CFR), does it mean that the term “regulation” does not include preambles because they are not expressly included when published there? Which inference should you draw here?

This needs regulatory text clarification, more urgently now than ever as there is an increasing trend to include substantive or applicability date rules and reliance rules in only the regulation preamble.

A Closing Comment On Avoiding the 60-Day CRA Rule For Regulations

The Congressional Review Act (CRA) contains a requirement that absent “good cause”, regulations shall not take effect for 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register (or when submitted to Congress if later). 5 USC 801(a)(3), 808. In a recent slate of regulations scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on January 19, the day before inauguration day (and the assumed date of a Biden regulatory freeze order for regulations not published by then), the IRS asserted that there was “good cause” for the waiving of the 60-day CRA period. This was done so the regulations could be both effective and published before the new administration assumes power on January 20.

The statute provides that “good cause” means that the 60-day delay is impractical, unnecessary or contrary to the public interest. 5 USC 808(2). (The good cause language also appears in the APA at 5 USC 553(b)(3)(B)). The justifications used by the IRS in these waiver cases is principally that the rules at issue explain or clarify the law and therefore should be effective immediately. Well, if that is the case, then a vast number of regulations could avoid the 60-day period because most rules explain or clarify the law-that is their principal purpose.

If either the new administration (or a court) finds that the CRA was violated, that should mean that the regulations were not legally effective when filed with the Federal Register, and therefore not lawfully published there and can, as a result, be subject to any regulatory freeze order of the Biden administration when it comes into power. Can taxpayers safely assume that the CRA 60-day delay rule was effectively waived for reliance purposes? Could a court years later make the determination that the waiver was invalid and the regulation is and always was void?

Comments and insight to this blog are clearly welcome.

A Brief Look At Section 7805(b)

We welcome back Monte Jackel, Of Counsel at Leo Berwick, who returns to discuss regulations that are made public but that are not published in the federal register prior to the end of a presidential administration. Les

Section 7805 was amended as part of the second Taxpayer Bill of Rights in 1996, P.L. 104-68, JCS-12-96, p. 44. Subsection (b), headed “Retroactivity of regulations”, describes the circumstances where retroactivity, that is where a “taxable period”, an undefined term, cannot be subject to a regulation filed or issued before certain dates, is permitted. Section 7805(b)(1)(A) references the date the regulation is filed with the Federal Register. The date of filing is a clearly known term given that the Office of the Federal Register uses that term as the date the document is available for public inspection before it is published there. Section 7805(b)(1)(B) also uses the filing date with the Federal Register to set the retroactivity that is permitted. However, section 7805(b)(1)(C) uses the term “issued” to the public when referencing the permitted retroactivity. That term is not defined although 5 USC 552(a)(1) (the APA) requires federal agencies to publish their regulations in the Federal Register. The term “issued” is not used there. Section 7805(b)(2), relating to promptly issued regulations, references the term “filed or issued” but defines neither. The legislative history does not add anything to this either. However, it is probably safe to assume that “issued” means “published”. 

read more…

There has been some commentary recently about the upcoming change in administrations and what happens to regulations that are made available to the public before they are filed with the Federal Register but are not published there by the time a new incoming administration orders that all regulations not yet published (and maybe even those that are) be returned to the issuing agency. Attached at the end of this post is the text of a letter to the editor that I recently published in Tax Notes describing some of these issues. 

The practice of the IRS and Treasury releasing to the public a copy of a regulation with a disclaimer at the top of the first page saying that only the copy published in the Federal Register is the legal copy, should be discouraged. I can find no provision in either the Internal Revenue Code or the APA that authorizes this practice or gives any legal significance to it. And while this is not the first time in our history that presidential orders of a new administration put a “freeze” on the publication of regulations to evaluate them first, this practice only adds to the natural confusion created when a new administration takes power. The situation is exasperated when the text of the regulations are made available to the public but those regulations do not apply to any taxable period beginning before the regulations are published. What positions do taxpayers take in the interim. 

I think there should be a new federal statute that prohibits the issuance of regulations within 60 to 90 days before a new administration comes on board absent “extreme need” or other such standard, which is subject to review later. Alternatively, a new statute could describe the legal impact of these regulatory freezes. I much prefer the former. What do others think?

Text of Letter to the Editor, “Potential Danger of Making Public Pre-Release Versions of Regulations”
170 Tax Notes Federal 299, Jan. 11, 2021

To the Editor:

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs website says that the final section 163(j) regulations were released from OIRA on December 30, 2020. These regulations were, based on past IRS practice, posted on IRS.gov on January 5, 2021. Under the Congressional Review Act, the final regulations state that they will be effective on the date filed with the Federal Register. That date was either yesterday or today or will be shortly thereafter. But those regulations may not make it to be published in the Federal Register by January 20. That day, or the next day or so by the latest, a presidential executive order will be issued by the new administration ordering the Federal Register to return regulations not yet published there.
Emily L. Foster addressed the issue in her story last week [in Tax Notes] titled “Final Interest Regs Provide Clarifications for Taxpayers” but the story is a bit misleading when it discusses what happens if the regulations are pulled back by a new administration before they’re published in the Federal Register. It’s true that the regulations are effective on the date filed with the Federal Register under the CRA (assuming that the explanation given for the expedited effective date by the IRS stands up to challenge if it comes to it). That date was either January 5 or 6, or will be shortly thereafter.

But that only means that the regulations are legal documents upon filing with the Federal Register. However, the applicability date of the regulations is for tax years beginning on or after 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register. If the regulations are never published or publication is delayed for months, the regulations will not be mandatorily applicable to taxpayers and neither will the proposed regulations.

However, the final regulations state that taxpayers can elect to apply the final regulations to periods before they are applicable. Also, the final regulation preamble (but not the text of the regulation) says that prior to the applicability date, taxpayers can apply the proposed regulations instead. In addition, the final regulation preamble (but not the text of the regulation) states that if there is a rule from the proposed regulations that is not in the final regulations, taxpayers can nevertheless apply the proposed regulation rule until final regulations are published at a later date that deal with the omitted items. It is unclear what happens if the final regulations are never published in the Federal Register. In other words, can taxpayers rely on the proposed omitted items forever like they have for the proposed section 465 regulations (since the late 1970s)?

Eric Yauch wrote about the omitted items and other partnership rules in the final regulations in a story titled “Trading Partnership Approach Remains in Final Interest Regs”. The omitted rules from the proposed regulations were, principally, the creation of inside tax basis “out of thin air” upon a complete redemption of a partner and the application of section 734(b), and all the tiered partnership rules.
The latter rules were incoherent and difficult to follow and apply, even for partnership experts. But the final regulation preamble (but not the regulation text) says if a rule is omitted from the final regulations that was in the proposed regulations, a taxpayer can apply the proposed rules anyway.

That action could end up with the omitted rules being like the proposed section 465 regulations, which, as noted, have been proposed and not finalized since the late 1970s. This “can rely on the omitted rules” rule will literally be the case even if the final regulations are never published in the Federal Register or are published months from now. In the interim period before the omitted rules are addressed and finalized in one form or another, taxpayers are not obligated to apply the missing omitted rules from the proposed regulations, but they will have to apply a reasonable approach based on the statute and its legislative history.

Since the IRS does not explain why the omitted rules were not finalized, what other approach would be considered reasonable? Would a pure aggregate approach to tiered partnerships suffice? Can there be a situation when the “create basis out of thin air rule” applies without relying on how the proposed regulations handle that rule? How long will it be until these issues are resolved, if ever? The final regulation preamble states only that the partnership rules continue to be studied. Although that explanation sounds good, it’s probably truer to say that the omitted rules had technical and other issues and that the IRS could not figure out what changes should be made. They then ran out of time because the IRS powers that be wanted the final regulations pushed out the door before the new administration comes into power.

Is this course of behavior by the current IRS and Treasury advisable? The other regulations now pending at OIRA may also get posted to IRS.gov by January 20, but it is unlikely that those regulations will make it out as published in the Federal Register by that date. The section 1061 carried interest regulations come to mind. [Those regulations ended up being released to the public after this letter was submitted to Tax Notes]. That means that all those pre-publication regulations will most likely not be mandatorily applicable to taxpayers for months, if ever. Taxpayers can elect to apply those unpublished rules in the interim, but they don’t have to. Why do this?

In other words, if the OIRA-reviewed regulations have already been returned to the IRS, they may end up being a set of pre-publication regulations posted on IRS.gov which has, as a matter of law, absolutely no legal effect unless taxpayers elect that they apply. But what if they don’t so elect?

Such is the case with the section 163(j) final regulations. And it will be a race for other federal agencies to get their regulations filed and then published in the Federal Register by no later than the close of business on January 19, the day before inauguration day. If not, the same mess as with section 163(j) applies.

If pre-publication regulations that have been publicly released don’t make the January 19 Federal Register publication date, there will, as noted, be an executive order by the new administration shortly thereafter sending all unfiled and/or unpublished regulations back to the agency issuing them. At this point, it will likely be months before activity occurs on those regulations.

In the interim, how many taxpayers will gamble on the “new rules” that would apply to them once the regulations are resubmitted to the Federal Register by the new administration, and how many taxpayers will just apply the proposed regulations? Is it even safe to assume that the statements made by the current administration in the final section 163(j) regulations (that taxpayers can rely on those rules today) will not be changed by the new administration?
That latter action would be the height of unfairness but what stops a new administration from doing so? At that point, the Administrative Procedure Act would come into play in terms of how to render uneffective those regulations deemed effective by the good cause exception under the CRA? Would it be revocation and reissuance, or would it just be revocation under the CRA?
Is this good or bad tax policy for the current administration? To me, the answer is that it is resoundingly bad. What do others think?

Phantom Regulations Under The APA

Today’s guest post by Monte A. Jackel explores whether courts can and should fill the gap when Treasury fails to exercise discretionary regulatory authority. Les

Introduction 

In recently finalized small business accounting regulations (T.D. 9942, Dec. 23, 2020), the IRS and Treasury refused to promulgate regulations dealing with providing an exception to the syndicate tax shelter rule for small business taxpayers. The grant of regulatory authority was discretionary in this case (Congress used the words “if the Secretary determines”) and, ordinarily, that would mean that the taxpayer and the courts are and were powerless to compel such promulgation and for the courts to fill in the gap. 

However, in today’s environment where the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) is taking more prominence in tax rulemaking, the question has become whether, if the IRS and Treasury take it upon themselves to address the reasons why they are not exercising their discretionary regulation authority and the explanation does not “jive with reality”, meaning that it is arbitrary and not grounded in sound reasoning, can the courts fill in the gaps if a taxpayer litigates the issue and, in effect, force the government to in substance issue the very same regulations it refused to issue? See my prior PT post, Conservation Easement Donation and the Validity of Tax Regulations  I think the answer is or should be yes. 

read more...

Analysis

In the seminal article dealing with the issue of the courts filling in the gaps for missing tax regulations (See Philip Gall,  Phantom Tax Regulations: The Case Of Spurned Delegations, 56 Tax Law 413 (2002-2003)), the author correctly described the case law at that time as precluding the courts from filling in the gaps with phantom regulations where the regulatory delegation was what is called a “policy delegation”, that is, a delegation where it is discretionary with the IRS whether to issue regulations or not. 

I am not disputing the correctness of that assertion in the article generally but, rather, I am questioning the correctness of that statement today in cases where the IRS offers a reason(s) for its refusal to issue regulations in response to public comments asking for the regulatory grant to be exercised and that explanation(s) is not sufficiently well reasoned and responsive to the intent of the Congressional grant as to pass muster. In those cases, I believe that the courts should be free to promulgate phantom regulations on the issue. 

The key question for a future court is did the IRS provide an adequate answer (see below) to taxpayer comments asking it to exercise its regulatory authority? I think not because the grant of authority in section 1256(e)(3)(C)(v) (“if the Secretary determines (by regulations or otherwise) that such interest [in an entity] should be treated as held by an individual who actively participates in the management of such entity, and that such entity and such interest are not used (or to be used) for tax avoidance purposes”) was added in the tax act of 1981 to allow certain passively held interests to be treated as active and thus not a syndicate under section 1256 and thereby eligible for the hedging exception to mark to market treatment under section 1256. 

The fact that the TCJA in 2017 did not say anything about providing an exception for certain syndicates as tax shelters, as the IRS asserted as an explanation in the final regulation preamble for not issuing regulations, should not lead to any inference one way or the other. The Congress merely provided statutory cross references in the TCJA to other statutes in providing an exception to the small business carve-out for tax shelters, and the grant of regulatory authority should be viewed in that light. (For background and analysis of this tax shelter carve-out generally, see Monte Jackel, Small Business Tax Shelters Under the Business Interest Expense Limitation, 165 Tax Notes Federal 607, Oct. 28, 2019). 

The principal defect in the government’s position on the syndicate issue is that the explanation(s) given for the refusal to issue regulations would lead to the conclusion that all passive investments are established or maintained for tax avoidance purposes. Without the government explaining why that is the case, I believe that the failure to issue regulations in at least some cases involving passive investment is contrary to the Congressional intent that there could be cases where passive investment should be deemed active and, thus, not a tax shelter. The government’s statement in the final regulation preamble that allowing a passive investment exception would be “overbroad” and lead to the conclusion that no syndicates are tax shelters is and was just plain wrong. It is the failure of the government to either state (1) that all passive investment syndicates are tax shelters per se and explain why that is so, or (2) that it is not administratively possible to provide for any passive investments to not be syndicates, that results in an arbitrary application of the tax law that a court should not allow to stand. What do you think?

FROM THE FINAL SMALL BUSINESS ACCOUNTING REG PREAMBLE

“Several comments were received concerning issues related to tax shelters, including the definition of “syndicate,” under proposed §1.448-2(b)(2)(i)(B). Some commenters recommend using the authority granted under section 1256(e)(3)(C)(v) to provide a deemed active participation rule to disregard certain interests held by limited entrepreneurs or limited partners for applying the Section 448(c) Gross Receipts Test if certain conditions were met. For example, conditions of the rule could include that the entity had not been classified as a syndicate within the last three taxable years, and that the average taxable income of the entity for that period was greater than zero.

“The final regulations do not adopt this recommendation. The Treasury Department and the IRS have determined that it would be inappropriate to provide an exception to the active participation rules in section 1256(e)(3)(C)(v) by “deeming” active participation for small business taxpayers. The Treasury Department and the IRS believe that the deeming of active participation in this context would be overbroad and would run counter to Congressional intent. Sections 448(b)(3) and (d)(3), 461(i)(3) and 1256(e)(3)(C) were not modified by the TCJA, and the legislative history to section 13012 of the TCJA does not indicate any Congressional intent to modify the definition of “tax shelter” or “syndicate.” By not modifying those provisions, Congress presumably meant to exclude tax shelters, including syndicates, from being eligible to use the cash method of accounting and the small business taxpayer exemptions in section 13102 of the TCJA, even while otherwise expanding eligibility to meet the Section 448(c) Gross Receipts Test.”

PROPOSED REGULATION PREAMBLE

“One commenter expressed concern that the definition of syndicate is difficult to administer because many small business taxpayers may fluctuate between taxable income and loss between taxable years, thus their status as tax shelters may change each tax year. The commenter suggested that the Treasury Department and the IRS exercise regulatory authority under section 1256(e)(3)(C)(v) to provide that all the interests held in entities that meet the definition of a syndicate but otherwise meet the Section 448(c) gross receipts test be deemed as held by individuals who actively participate in the management of the entity, so long as the entities do not qualify to make an election as an electing real property business or electing farm business under section 163(j)(7)(B) or (C), respectively. The Treasury Department and the IRS decline to adopt this recommendation. The recommendation would allow a taxpayer that meets the Section 448(c) gross receipts test to completely bypass the “syndicate” portion of the tax shelter definition under section 448(d)(3). Neither the statutory language of section 448 nor the legislative history of the TCJA support limiting the application of the existing definition of tax shelter in section 448(d)(3) in this manner.”  

Consistency and the Validity of Regulations

Guest contributor Monte Jackel discusses guaranteed payments and how differing regulations inconsistently approach whether such guaranteed payments are indebtedness. While the post highlights substantive technical issues it also flags a procedural issue: the difficulty in challenging tax regulations outside normal tax enforcement procedures. That procedural issue, present in the current teed up Supreme Court case CIC v Commissioner which is now set for oral argument on December 1, as Monte suggests and as I discussed last year in Is It Time To Reconsider When IRS Guidance Is Subject to Court Review?, may call for a legislative fix. Les

How can a guaranteed payment on capital under section 707(c) of the Internal Revenue Code be both an actual item of “indebtedness” if, but only if, there is a tax avoidance motive for purposes of section 163(j)’s limitation on business interest expense but only be “equivalent to” but not actually be indebtedness for purposes of the foreign tax credit? Well, if you are the IRS with the “pen in hand”, anything is possible.

read more...

Section 163(j)(5) defines “business interest” for purposes of section 163(j) as “any interest paid or accrued on indebtedness properly allocable to a trade or business.” Thus, the key term here is “indebtedness”. More on that later. 

Similarly, income equivalent to interest is referenced in section 954(c)(1)(E) and in regulation §§1.861-9(b)(1) and 1.954-2(h)(2) and specifically refers to guaranteed payments on capital as equivalent to interest expense at regulation §1.861-9(b)(8). On the other hand, the very same guaranteed payment on capital is treated as actual interest expense under regulation §§1.469-2(e)(2)(iii) and 1.263A-9(c)(2)(iii). 

It is very hard to either see or to justify treating guaranteed payments on capital under section 707(c) as both actual interest expense or as equivalent to interest expense for purposes of different provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. Either a guaranteed payment represents interest on indebtedness under all provisions of the Internal Revenue Code or it does not, unless a specific provision of the Code expressly treats guaranteed payments on capital a certain way. Merely because a statute or implementing regulation treats a guaranteed payment on capital as equivalent to interest does not mean that it can be both actual indebtedness for some but not all provisions of the Code and as equivalent to but not actual interest on indebtedness for purposes of other provisions of the Code. 

The recently finalized foreign tax credit regulations, T.D. 9922, had this to say about the issue:

The Treasury Department and the IRS have determined that guaranteed payments for the use of capital share many of the characteristics of interest payments that a partnership would make to a lender and, therefore, should be treated as interest equivalents for purposes of allocating and apportioning deductions under §§1.861-8 through 1.861-14 and as income equivalent to interest under section 954(c)(1)(E). This treatment is consistent with other sections of the Code in which guaranteed payments for the use of capital are treated similarly to interest. See, for example, §§1.469-2(e)(2)(ii) and 1.263A-9(c)(2)(iii). In addition, the fact that a guaranteed payment for the use of capital may be treated as a payment attributable to equity under section 707(c), or that a guaranteed payment for the use of capital is not explicitly included in the definition of interest in §1.163(j)-1(b)(22), does not preclude applying the same allocation and apportionment rules that apply to interest expense attributable to debt, nor does it preclude treating such payments as “equivalent” to interest under section 954(c)(1)(E). Instead, the relevant statutory provisions under sections 861 and 864, and section 954(c)(1)(E), are clear that the rules can apply to amounts that are similar to interest.

OK, so the IRS is saying here that a guaranteed payment on capital is not and does not have to “indebtedness” for the item to be treated the same as interest expense under the enumerated statutory provisions. This is so without regard to there being a tax avoidance reason for the taxpayer to have used a guaranteed payment on capital instead of actual indebtedness. Technically true in the case of the enumerated provisions but does it make good policy sense or is it merely “talking out of both sides of your mouth” and, thus ultra vires? 

Take a look at how guaranteed payments on capital recently fared under the final section 163(j) regulations (T.D. 9905). The final regulation preamble had this to say about the issue:

Proposed §1.163(j)-1(b)(20)(iii)(I) provides that any guaranteed payments for the use of capital under section 707(c) are treated as interest. Some commenters stated that a guaranteed payment for the use of capital should not be treated as interest for purposes of section 163(j) unless the guaranteed payment was structured with a principal purpose of circumventing section 163(j). Other commenters stated that section 163(j) never should apply to guaranteed payments for the use of capital….In response to comments, the final regulations do not explicitly include guaranteed payments for the use of capital under section 707(c) in the definition of interest. However, consistent with the recommendations of some commenters, the anti-avoidance rules in §1.163(j)-1(b)(22)(iv)…include an example of a situation in which a guaranteed payment for the use of capital is treated as interest expense and interest income for purposes of section163(j).

Without getting into the merits of the example the IRS added to the anti-avoidance rule, suffice it to say that acting “with a principal purpose” of tax avoidance in preferring a guaranteed payment on capital to actual interest on indebtedness is a very low barrier for the IRS to meet. After all, “a principal purpose”, based on existing authority is merely an important purpose but need not be the predominant purpose and the test can be met even if there is a bona fide business purpose for using the guaranteed payment in lieu of actual indebtedness and even though the transaction has economic substance. 

But what about how the U.S. Supreme Court and the IRS itself treated a short sale for purposes of interest deductibility and the unrelated business income tax, respectively? In Rev. Rul. 95-8, 1995-1 C.B. 107, the issue was whether a short sale of property created “acquisition indebtedness” for purposes of the unrelated business income tax under section 514. The IRS concluded, in a revenue ruling that is still outstanding, that the answer was no:

Income attributable to a short sale can be income derived from debt-financed property only if the short seller incurs acquisition indebtedness within the meaning of section 514 with respect to the property on which the short seller realizes that income. In Deputy v. du Pont, 308 U.S. 488, 497-98 (1940), 1940-1 C.B. 118, 122, the Supreme Court held that although a short sale created an obligation, it did not create indebtedness for purposes of the predecessor of section 163.

In turn, the U.S. Supreme Court had this to say about what is “indebtedness” under the Internal Revenue Code (Deputy v. du Pont, 308 U.S. 488 (1940)): 

There remains respondent’s contention that these payments are deductible under § 23 (b) as “interest paid or accrued . . . on indebtedness.” Clearly [the taxpayer] owed an obligation….But although an indebtedness is an obligation, an obligation is not necessarily an “indebtedness” within the meaning of § 23 (b)…. It is not enough….that “interest” or “indebtedness” in their original classical context may have permitted this broader meaning.  We are dealing with the context of a revenue act and words which have today a well-known meaning. In the business world “interest on indebtedness” means compensation for the use or forbearance of money. In [the] absence of clear evidence to the contrary, we assume that Congress has used these words in that sense. (footnotes omitted). 

And so, the U.S. Supreme Court says that “interest on indebtedness” means “compensation for the use or forbearance of money”. A guaranteed payment on capital is a return on equity and cannot be transformed into interest on indebtedness based on some general regulatory authority under section 7805(a), no matter how abusive the IRS views a transaction. And effectively treating a guaranteed payment on capital as “equivalent to interest” but not actually indebtedness for purposes of certain enumerated provisions (such as section 901) seems to be overreaching given the mandate of the U.S. Supreme Court on an economic equivalent to interest on indebtedness at that time, a short sale. 

Can the IRS write a regulation that circumvents the dictates of the U.S. Supreme Court using a general grant of regulatory authority under section 7805(a)? I would think that the answer is clearly and obviously no. But what is the price that the IRS will ultimately pay if the results enumerated here are overruled by a court several years down the road? Other than spending taxpayer dollars unnecessarily, it does not appear that there is any downside in doing so. 

Note that this bifurcated treatment of a guaranteed payment on capital “infects” other recent regulations because in one case (T.D. 9866, the GILTI final regulations) there is an explicit cross reference to the definition of interest income and expense under section 163(j) (which presumably includes the application of the interest expense anti-abuse rule in those final regulations), and in another case (T.D. 9896, the section 267A final regulations) the substance of the definition of interest expense and the anti-avoidance rule exception were incorporated into those regulations.

How can this practice be effectively stopped? Will it require court litigation and years of uncertainty or is there a mechanism for, in effect, penalizing the IRS for taking positions that, if the IRS were a tax advisor to a client other than itself, it could not have concluded the way it does without disclosure on the equivalent of form 8275? 

Could section 7805(a) be amended to curtail this IRS practice? For example, could a sentence or two be added there to say that “the IRS cannot issue regulations or other guidance inconsistent with the literal words of a provision of the Internal Revenue Code unless Congress expressly grants that power”? 

Now, some will say that doing such a thing contravenes the ability of the courts to adjudicate tax disputes and so is perhaps unconstitutional but clearly inadvisable. Others will say that the regulatory guidance process would grind to a halt because of the forceful taking by the Congress of administrative discretion and expertise. 

I don’t think the status quo is acceptable. On the other hand, I do recognize the implementation problems. Is there any solution other than to throw up your hands in disgust and move on to something else? 

The APA: The Other Taxpayer Bill of Rights

The Taxpayer First Act (TFA) provides that the Tax Court apply a de novo standard of review of a section 6015 determination of the IRS based on (1) “the administrative record established at the time of the determination” and (2) “any additional newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence”.  In today’s guest post practitioner Steve Milgrom advances a novel argument, that the TFA’s changes to Section 6015 open the door to the possibility that IRS innocent spouse hearings should be subject to the formal adjudication rules under the APA. Steve’s provocative post raises the soon to be very important problem of ensuring that parties requesting relief from joint and several liability are entitled to present relevant evidence that may be difficult or impossible to present administratively. While I am skeptical of the solution that Steve proposes, it is likely that at a minimum the Tax Court will be wrestling with the terms “newly discovered” or “previously unavailable” in fashioning broad exceptions that will allow the Tax Court to evaluate difficult cases that often implicate circumstances (like abuse) that may not be fully developed via centralized correspondence-based determinations that are the hallmarks of the current regime under Section 6015. Les

Unlike other Federal government agencies that routinely hold trial like hearings on the record, the IRS stopped doing so back in the 1920’s.  In the case of §6015 innocent spouse determinations, this may be about to change. 

The road to this change in IRS procedure begins with a bill of rights.  No, not that Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution (although even this Bill of Rights may come to play a critical role).  I’m not even referring to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, Code §7803(a)(3).  Here I refer to the bill of rights Congress passed in 1946 to protect us against the Federal government:

[A] bill of rights for the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose affairs are controlled or regulated in one way or another by agencies of the Federal Government.  S.Doc. No. 248, at 298.

The 1946 bill of rights is the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which is found at 5 U.S.C §551-§706. While the Taxpayer Bill of Rights has not gotten much traction in the courts, the APA is a significant restraint on Federal administrative agencies.

read more...

Before I delve into the mysteries of the APA keep in mind that, like all statutes, standing atop the APA is the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.  Whether or not the APA applies to agency action, compliance with the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution is also required.    PBGC v. LTV Corp., 496 U.S. 633, 655 (1990).  See also, Wong Yang Sung v. McGrath, 339 U.S. 33, at 49 (1950) (The constitutional requirement of procedural due process of law derives from the same source as Congress’ power to legislate and, where applicable, permeates every valid enactment of that body.)

Another preliminary matter is APA §559, dealing with the effect of subsequent statutes on the APA.  §559 states that a “[s]ubsequent statute may not be held to modify” the APA “except to the extent that it does so expressly.”  Faced with the prospect of having to comply with the APA’s formal procedural requirements the IRS might argue that the recent amendment to Code §6015 that I discuss below expressly modified the APA.  Arguments that tax law provisions are express modifications of the APA have gotten traction when made in connection with the judicial review of IRS proceedings.  See Kasper v. Commissioner, 150 TC 8 (2018).  However, these cases do not deal with how the agency itself must proceed and the change to §6015 doesn’t modify the APA in any way.  §6015 states that the procedures for the IRS to make a determination are to be prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury.    Clearly the procedures prescribed by Treasury have to comply with the APA.  Mayo Foundation for Medical Education v. U.S., 131 S.Ct. 704 (2011).  

The APA covers a lot of ground.  It sets forth rules for agency rule making, agency adjudications, and for judicial review of agency proceedings.  To understand the APA one must first study the definitions.  “Rule making” is defined as an agency’s process for formulating, amending, or repealing a rule.  An “adjudication” is any agency process for the formulation of an order.  An “order” is a final disposition of an agency in a matter other than rule making.  APA §§551(5), (6), and (7).  Basically, adjudications are the things that agencies do other than rule making.  

Another important distinction made by the APA is between what are known as formal vs. informal agency proceedings, both in the context of rule making and adjudications.  The formal vs. informal dichotomy determines which set of procedural requirements apply to agency action.  Both rule making and adjudications are allowed to proceed informally unless the statute governing the agency activity requires it to hold a hearing on the record.  In the tax world, the statute governing agency activity is the Internal Revenue Code (Code).  If the statute calls for a hearing on the record, then the formal procedural requirements of the APA must be following by the agency.  Formal rule making is governed by §§556 and 557.  Formal adjudications are covered in §§554, 556, and 557.  Informal rule making and informal adjudications are covered by §553 and §555, respectively.

Agency adjudication can still avoid being subject to the formal procedural requirements of the APA based upon six specific exemptions, one of which is relevant to this discussion.  APA §554(a)(1) provides that any matter “subject to a subsequent trial of the law and the facts de novo in a court” is exempt from the formal procedural requirements of the APA.  Note that this is not an exemption from the APA itself, only from the formal rules. It is this exemption that has historically allowed the IRS to proceed, in APA parlance, informally.

The exception of matters subject to a subsequent trial of the law and facts de novo in any court exempts such matters as the tax functions of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (which are triable de novo in the Tax Court).  S. Comm. On the Judiciary, 79th Cong., 1st Sess., Administrative Procedure Act.  (emphasis in original).

Last year, in the Taxpayer First Act (TFA), Congress rewrote the rules applicable to the Tax Court’s determination of the availability of innocent spouse relief.  See Taxpayer First Act, Pub. L. No. 116-25, §1203, adding Code §6015(e)(7).  While §6015(e)(7) retains the rule that the Court’s review of an IRS determination is de novo, it is now to be based on the administrative record.  No more trial of the facts de novo.  The exemption provided by APA §554(a)(1) no longer applies.  Does this change mean that the IRS must now comply with the formal procedural requirements of the APA when making an innocent spouse determination? Only if the Code requires the adjudication “to be determined on the record after opportunity for an agency hearing …” See APA §554(a) prefatory language.

The Code says nothing about the IRS holding a hearing when it makes an innocent spouse determination. Might we find the hearing requirement elsewhere?  US v. Florida East Coast Railway Company, 410 U.S. 224, 245 (1973), deals with agency rule making.  However, the language of the APA for adjudications is the same.  In both rule making and adjudications the triggering language is identical, for the formal rules to apply the APA states that the operative statute must require agency action “on the record after opportunity for an agency hearing.”   In Florida East Coast Railway Company the Supreme Court had this to say about these key terms:

… the actual words ‘on the record’ and ‘after … hearing’ used in §553 were not words of art, and that other statutory language having the same meaning could trigger the provisions of §§556 and 557 in rulemaking proceedings. Id, at 238.  (emphasis added)

Other courts have confirmed that there are no magic words. 

[W]hether the formal adjudicatory hearing provisions of the APA apply to specific administrative processes does not rest on the presence or absence of the magical phrase “on the record.”  Marathon Oil Co. v. Environmental Protection Agency, 564 F.2d 1253, 1263 (9th Cir. 1977).

Courts often rely upon the Attorney General’s Manual on the Administrative Procedure Act (1947) in interpreting the APA.  See Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.S. 519, 546 (1978).  The AG Manual gives examples of statutes that require formal adjudications where the governing statute requires a hearing but says nothing about it being on the record:

[W]hile the … Act does not expressly require orders … to be made “on the record”, such a requirement is clearly implied in the provision for judicial review of these orders … Other statutes authorizing agency action which is clearly adjudicatory in nature … specifically require the agency to hold a hearing but contain no provision expressly requiring decision “on the record”.

The examples in the AG’s Manual deal with statutes that require a hearing but make no reference to its being “on the record.”  Is there any less of an implication when the missing language is reversed, when the statute calls for judicial review of an administrative record but makes no reference to the agency holding a hearing?  

Due process requires every agency adjudication to involve some type of hearing.  Even where there is no “adjudication required by statute,” the APA’s formal procedures have been imposed based upon the hearing requirement of the due process clause.  Wong Yang Sung v. McGrath, 339 US 33 (1950).  The APA provision stating that it is only applicable to hearings “required by statute” exempts agency hearings that are conducted by a lesser authority than a statute, such as by regulation or rule, not hearings that are held out of compulsion, either by statute or constitutional requirement.  Wong Yang Sung, at 50.  So when the Supreme Court referred to “other statutory language having the same meaning” in Florida East Coast Railway Company, to be consistent with Wong Yang Sung it would have been clearer to say “other statutory or constitutional language having the same meaning.”  

Now that §6015(e)(7) requires the Tax Court to perform its review of an IRS innocent spouse determination based upon the administrative record, the IRS must make its determination “on the record.”  While §6015 leaves it to the IRS to establish procedures for making its determinations, as the Attorney General said some 70 years ago, a requirement that an agency act on the record is “clearly implied in the provision for judicial review.”  §6015(e)(7) is just such a provision for judicial review and here you don’t have to search for an “implied” requirement.  The requirement for an administrative record is explicit.

Did Congress intend to force the IRS to hold formal hearings on the record when making a §6015 determination?  While the number of words used to impose the requirement are few, they are unique, this is the only place where the Code uses the phrase “administrative record.”  By adopting a new approach to Tax Court procedure, using a phrase that comes from the world of administrative law, it does seem that this change in judicial review should also change the agency level procedure applicable to innocent spouse determinations.  

Having decided to limit the Tax Court to reviewing the administrative record, maybe Congress was familiar with Wilson v Commissioner, 705 F.3d 980 (9th Cir. 2013).  In Wilson, the 9th Circuit rejected the IRS’s argument that the Tax Court should be restricted to a review of the administrative record in a §6015(f) case.  Wilson rejected what Congress has now made the law.  The rationale of the 9th Circuit explains why it is so important that the IRS be required to follow the formal procedural requirements of the APA in §6015 cases.  The Wilson decision is based in large part on the fact that the pre-TFA process used by the IRS for making a §6015(f) determination did not result in a sufficient record for the Tax Court to review:

There is no formal administrative procedure for a contested case at which the taxpayer may present her case before an administrative law judge.  At no time during the process is the taxpayer afforded the right to conduct discovery, present live testimony under oath, subpoena witnesses for trial, or conduct cross-examination. … [I]t is before the Tax Court that the taxpayer has the vehicle to conduct discovery … subpoena witnesses and documents … and submit evidence at trial.  Wilson, at 990.

The 9th Circuit continued its explanation of the importance of trial like proceedings:

The ability to supplement the administrative record is particularly important in equitable relief cases, which require a fact-intensive inquiry of sensitive issues that may not come to light during the administrate phase of review.  The threshold requirements for innocent spouse relief may present a complicated and contradictory dilemma for the taxpayer.  The innocent spouse must show that he or she is ignorant of the spouse’s tax misdeeds, yet must marshal documentary support to prove it.  The taxpayer often has limited or no access to critical records.  The innocent taxpayer who has been misled by a spouse often may not understand the full extent or scope of the erring spouse’s misdeeds.  Compounding these difficulties is an administrative system where the only opportunity to present a case is through telephonic interviews with an agent in a remote location.  Wilson, at 991.

Since the Tax Court is no longer permitted to decide the facts de novo, the administrative record which the Tax Court reviews must be created by the IRS using the formal procedural requirement of the APA, allowing for discovery, testimony under oath, cross-examination of witnesses, and the many other procedures that are designed to lead to a full and fair determination of the facts.

The last time Congress set up an agency of the Executive branch that conducted the sort of hearings that the APA requires for formal adjudications was 1924.  That agency was named the Board of Tax Appeals (BTA).  In 1969 Congress moved the functions of the BTA out of an administrative agency and placed them in the Judicial branch, in a court known as the United States Tax Court.   Harold Dubroff and Brant J. Hellwig, The United States Tax Court, an Historical Analysis, 49 (2nd ed. 2014).  When the activities of the BTA were moved to the Tax Court, the job of holding formal hearings to determine the facts of a case likewise moved to the judicial branch of our government.  While the 1924 Act that created the BTA did not provide for any direct appellate review of its decisions, the decisions could be collaterally attacked in a suit for a refund where the findings of the BTA were prima facie evidence.  In 1926 the law was amended to permit review of BTA decisions in the Court of Appeals, where review was limited to questions of law.  Why return to a system of agency level factual determinations followed by judicial review of the agency record? The IRS is constantly underfunded.  The Tax Court is fully capable of hearing the facts of §6015 cases de novo.  What can possibly be gained by forcing the IRS to build a whole new infrastructure just for 6015 cases? 

How might the IRS implement this new requirement?  Currently, requests for §6015 relief are handled by a special office in the IRS, known as CCISO.  There is no need for the operations of this office to change.  When Congress changed the §6015 judicial review provisions it also established a new office within the IRS, known as the Internal Revenue Service Independent Office of Appeals.  This office is required to be fair and impartial to both the government and the taxpayer.  While I don’t know what was in the mind of the drafters of the TFA but it seems like this new office was specifically created to, among other things, handle the task of complying with the APA formal procedural hearing requirements. 

The IRS has long argued that the Tax Court’s review of innocent spouse determinations should be restricted to the administrative record.  Since the argument was not based upon a statutory requirement, had the Tax Court agreed with this proposition it would not have triggered the APA’s formal procedural requirements at the agency level.  While the IRS lost in Tax Court, it prevailed in some Courts of Appeal, but not others.  Congress stepped in to resolve the circuit split by adopting the position advocated by the IRS.  There is now a statute that requires judicial review based upon the administrative record, the operative requirement for application of the formal procedural requirements of the APA.  I am reminded of Marty Ginsberg’s maxim of Moses’ rod:

Every stick crafted to beat on the head of a taxpayer will metamorphose sooner or later into a large green snake and bite the commissioner on the hind part.  Ginsburg, Making Tax Law Through the Judicial Process, 70 ABA J. 74, 76 (1984).

Court Rules Against Government in CARES Litigation Challenging Statute’s Denial of Payments to Mixed Status Couples

Earlier this year MALDEF filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Maryland on behalf of US citizens who were denied the COVID stimulus benefits under Section 6428 because they filed a joint return with spouses who use an ITIN. In response to a government motion to dismiss the suit, earlier this week in Amador v Mnuchin a federal district court in Maryland ruled against the government and allowed the suit to proceed to the merits.

The case is one of a handful of lawsuits that is challenging CARES’ failure to benefit mixed status couples and one of a number of other legal challenges to the CARES legislation. [Disclosure: I am co-counsel on two such cases, one challenging the IRS’s failure to rapidly and effectively distribute economic impact payments to the eligible children of parents and caretakers who do not file federal income tax returns and the other challenging the  exclusion of U.S. citizen children from the benefits of emergency cash assistance based solely on the fact that one or both of their parents are undocumented immigrants.] 

All of the cases raise interesting tax procedure issues, and many raise important constitutional law issues. In this post, I will discuss the tax procedure issue relating to sovereign immunity that Amador implicates, and save for another day the standing and the constitutional issues.

read more...

The Amador suit targets CARES identification requirements that effectively deny any EIP or later 6428(a) credit to taxpayers who file a joint return and are married to someone with an ITIN rather than a social security number. The complaint alleges that CARES discriminates against mixed-status couples because it treats them differently than other married couples, in violation of the Constitution, including the Fifth Amendment guarantees of equal protection and due process. The government filed a preliminary motion to dismiss the lawsuit on a number of grounds, including that 1) the government had not waived sovereign immunity, 2) the plaintiffs failed to establish standing, and 3) the plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments failed to state valid claims for relief. The district court ordered an abbreviated and accelerated briefing on the government’s motion.

In Amador, of most immediate relevance for tax procedure was the government’s argument that the plaintiffs’ suit should be dismissed because it failed to establish a waiver of sovereign immunity. Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the federal government and its agencies from suit. In a nutshell the government argued that the plaintiffs had to wait until the filing of a 2020 tax return or separate refund claim and the passage of six months or the denial of the refund claim before bringing suit to challenge Congress’ decision to not allow payments under Section 6428 to US citizens who are married to undocumented immigrants. In other words, the placement of Section 6428 in the Code meant, according to the government, that the taxpayers had to exhaust through normal refund procedures after or with the filing of a 2020 tax return to get a court to pass on the merits of the constitutional challenge. 

In response, the plaintiffs argued that they were not seeking a tax refund, and as a result they did not need to go through the typical refund process. Instead, they argued that their suit seeks injunctive and declaratory relief, with the APA serving as the source for the waiver of sovereign immunity.

Where in the APA is the source for a waiver? 5 U.S.C. § 702 provides that  “[a]n action in a court of the United States seeking relief other than money damages and stating a claim that an agency . . . acted or failed to act . . . shall not be dismissed nor relief therein be denied on the ground that it is against the United States or that the United States is an indispensable party.” 

The government in response argued that 5 USC § 704 provides a backstop against using the APA as a source for challenging the CARES provisions because it authorizes review of agency action under the APA only if “there is no other adequate remedy in a court.”  In other words, what 5 USC § 704 provides is that the APA does not generally displace procedures that provide a specific means to challenge a particular agency action. This, along with the Anti-Injunction Act, is why most challenges to tax law, including allegations that IRS/Treasury failed to comply with APA procedural requirements in rulemaking, have traditionally been shoehorned into the normal baskets of deficiency cases or refund cases (though as we have discussed in PT the Supreme Court in CIC will likely be addressing the AIA’s role in insulating IRS practice from pre-enforcement scrutiny). 

This gets us back to the government’s view in Amador that the individuals had an alternate remedy that served to defeat the APA’s separate source of jurisdiction for the suit. The court disagreed with the government and held that the APA did serve as a waiver of sovereign immunity, looking to the nature of the EIP and the absurdity of requiring exhaustion for a benefit that Congress sought to deliver as rapidly as possible:

Forcing plaintiffs to exhaust their administrative remedies would be an “arduous, expensive, and long” process, Hawkes, 136 S. Ct. at 1815-16, that serves none of the goals underlying § 7422. Before plaintiffs could challenge § 6428(g)(1)(B), they would first have file a 2020 tax return, which they cannot do until 2021. Then, plaintiffs would have to wait until the IRS invariably denies their request for a refund in the amount of the CARES Act payment, because they are ineligible per § 6428(g)(1)(B). Once that happens, plaintiffs would have to file an administrative claim with the IRS, asking it to reconsider its position. But, here too, the IRS will reject plaintiffs’ claim, citing § 6428. Thus, administrative exhaustion under § 7422 is guaranteed to be an exercise in futility because there is no possibility that it could provide plaintiffs with relief. See Cohen v. United States, 650 F.3d 717, 732 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (en banc) (concluding that the § 7422 was not an adequate alternative to APA where administrative exhaustion could not remedy plaintiff’s complaint). This Kafkaesque scenario is at odds with the very purpose of the impact payments—to assist Americans grappling with the economic fallout of a public health catastrophe. (emphasis added)

In addition, the court held Congress did not explicitly create a separate path to challenge the payment of EIP, given that Section 7422 presupposes a recovery of tax that had been previously collected or assessed:

Plaintiffs do not seek the recovery of any monies wrongfully “assessed” because they do not allege that the IRS improperly calculated their tax liability. See Hibbs v. Winn, 542 U.S. 88, 100 (2004) (“As used in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), the term ‘assessment’ involves a ‘recording’ of the amount the taxpayer owes the Government.”). Nor do plaintiffs complain of taxes wrongfully “collected.” Instead, they challenge the discriminatory effect of a refundable tax credit under the First and Fifth Amendments.

In finding that there was no previous assessment or collection, the court suggested that refund procedures for the EIP itself were likely inappropriate in the first instance:

Certainly, the mismatch between the plain language of § 7422 and the nature of plaintiffs’ suit does not support the finding that Congress intended § 7422 to replace the APA. In fact, if anything, it leaves the Court “doubtful,” Bowen, 487 U.S. at 901, that § 7422 can serve as a statutory basis for plaintiffs to challenge § 6428(g)(1)(B). (citation omitted).

Conclusion

Amador now proceeds to the merits, though the opinion notes that due to the accelerated briefing on the preliminary issues the government may re-raise the procedural challenges later, including at the likely next summary judgment stage.

While this is a preliminary decision and not directly addressing the merits, the Amador district court’s discussion of the relationship between Section 6428(g), Section 7422 and the APA is significant. It reflects a growing judicial recognition that the mere placement of a benefit in the tax code does not mean that procedures ill-designed to accommodate the financial reality of Americans and the actual nature of the Code-based emergency benefits should serve to bar a court’s review of good faith constitutional challenges. The issues that the Amador suit raises are serious and the stakes are very high. Traditional paths for challenges to tax statutes should not serve as a bar to effectively shield suspect legislation from judicial review.

Center for Taxpayer Rights Files Amicus Brief in Support of CIC in Supreme Court

Readers are likely familiar with CIC v IRS, which we originally discussed back in 2017 when a federal district court in Tennessee dismissed a suit that a manager of captive insurance companies and its tax advisor had brought that sought to invalidate IRS disclosure obligations on advisors and participants in certain micro captive insurance arrangements. Having made its way through a Sixth Circuit opinion affirming the district court and a colorful and divided denial of a request for an en banc hearing, the Supreme Court granted cert earlier this spring. 

This week the Center for Taxpayer Rights, under the leadership of Nina Olson, filed an amicus brief in support of CIC, with Keith, Carl Smith, and Meagan Horn of Thompson & Knight LLC, on behalf of the Harvard Tax Clinic, and I, all as counsel for the Center.

The issue in the case involves whether the Anti Injunction Act (AIA) shields the IRS’s information gathering requirements issued in IRS Notice 2016-66 from APA scrutiny outside traditional tax enforcement proceedings. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that the presence of a potential penalty for failing to comply with the Notice that would be assessed in the same manner as taxes shielded the IRS from pre-payment APA review. 

The case provides an opportunity to explore the reach of the AIA in light of a number of recent developments, including the 2015 Supreme Court opinion in Direct Marketing Association v Brohl and recent scholarship from Professor Kristin Hickman and Gerald Kerska calling into question whether the AIA should bar pre-enforcement challenges.

Our brief requests that the Supreme Court reverse the decision of the Sixth Circuit because in our view it improperly restricts taxpayers from challenging certain IRS requests for information in situations where the taxpayer is not bringing suit to contest the underlying merits of the tax liability. 

In our brief, consistent with the mission of the Center for Taxpayer Rights, which is dedicated to furthering taxpayers’ awareness of and access to taxpayer rights, we highlight the potential negative effect that the Sixth Circuit’s approach may have for a wide spectrum of taxpayers, including low income taxpayers. To bring that point home we explore past IRS practices requiring information from refundable credit claimants and the possible harm that future information reporting efforts could have on participation and the welfare of low income taxpayers .

As we discuss in the brief, we believe that the Sixth Circuit’s holding is inconsistent with the Court’s holding in Direct Marketing Ass’n v. Brohl:

[Direct Marketing] demonstrates that the AIA’s reach is limited with respect to challenges to requests for information by taxing authorities. The Internal Revenue Service cannot avoid this limitation by threatening taxpayers with a penalty if they do not comply with the rule-making (even if such penalty is “assessed and collected in the same manner as taxes” under the Code). If the Sixth Circuit’s overly broad interpretation stands, low-income taxpayers will be subjected to potentially severe adverse effects. The IRS will hold the unilateral right to shield their rule-making from APA scrutiny by choosing to include the right to impose a potential penalty for noncompliance. The low-income taxpayer will be at the mercy of the IRS in these circumstances with no practical ability to contest the rule-making authority of the IRS without first violating the rule established by the IRS and then paying the full amount of the penalty imposed.

The case is teed up for the fall term, and there will likely be many amicus briefs filed in the coming days.

Update: late yesterday CIC filed its opening brief, emphasizing that challenges to tax reporting requirements that are backstopped by penalties should not implicate the AIA. The brief explores the implications of Direct Marketing, questions whether the presence of an assessable penalty should meaningfully distinguish the case from Direct Marketing, argues that the Sixth Circuit’s holding furthers neither the interest of the APA or the AIA, and considers the practical consequences of an approach that prevents challenges until after a potentially sizable penalty is assessed.

For readers interested in a nuance, I note that CIC’s brief raises an issue that lurks below the main issue, namely whether the AIA is a jurisdictional statute or merely a claim processing rule (see page 23). That issue is teed up because CIC argues that the principle that jurisdictional rules should be clear merits a finding that it should be able to bring the challenge. The brief does not, however, concede on the issue that the AIA is jurisdictional , and in so doing refers to a concurring opinion by now Justice Gorsuch in the 2013 Tenth Circuit Hobby Lobby opinion. I explore the issue of whether the AIA is jurisdictional in the upcoming update to Chapter 1.6 in Saltzman Book IRS Practice and Procedure. The issue of whether the AIA is jurisdictional may be more important if the Supreme Court affirms the Sixth Circuit.

In Altera Reply Brief, Taxpayer Doubles Down on Flawed Argument That the Government Changed Its Tune.

We welcome back guest bloggers Susan C. Morse and Stephen E. ShayThey bring us a further update on the efforts of the taxpayer in the Altera case to have the Supreme Court accept the case for argument.  Keith

Previously we blogged here (crossposted at Yale JREG Notice & Comment) about the government’s May 14 brief in opposition to the taxpayer’s petition for certiorari in Altera v. Commissioner. On June 1,  Altera replied to the government’s brief, as explained here by Chris Walker. The case has been distributed for a Supreme Court conference later in June.

The Altera reply brief doubles down on an argument that the government brief has already persuasively dispatched: that Treasury gave the impression during the rulemaking process that comparability analysis – i.e., the analysis of comparable transactions between unrelated parties – was relevant to the determination of an arm’s length result under the transfer pricing regulation at issue, and that then the government changed its tune.

read more...

First, some background to level-set for any new readers. In its cert petition, the taxpayer asked the Supreme Court to review a Ninth Circuit decision upholding a 2003 amendment to an existing tax regulation governing intra-group cost-sharing arrangements for the development of intangible property. (We submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the government to the Ninth Circuit in earlier stages of this litigation here (with coauthors Leandra Lederman and Clint Wallace), here and here.)

The regulation conditions the benefits of a qualified cost sharing arrangement, or QCSA, on including stock-based compensation deductions related to developing intangible property in the pool of costs to be shared. If this (and other) QCSA conditions are met, the cost-sharing party — typically an offshore subsidiary of a U.S. multinational firm — owns a share of the rights in intangible property, even though this intangible property is often developed within the United States. Allowing an offshore subsidiary to own a share of intangible property means that a U.S. multinational firm can attribute some profit from intangibles to the offshore subsidiary. This in turn means that the U.S. multinational firm can avoid paying U.S. corporate income tax on some of its profit.

Altera proposes that the Supreme Court should take this case because it is an opportunity to place limits on an inappropriate exercise of administrative agency power. The taxpayer’s cert petition argues that Treasury did not provide a reasoned explanation for the regulation as required under  State Farm, in light of evidence cited by commenters that unrelated parties to similar types of arrangements did not share stock-based compensation costs; that the government in litigation engaged in post hoc rationalization to defend the regulation, in violation of Chenery I; and that the Ninth Circuit accorded Chevron deference to a procedurally defective regulation.

The government in response observed that the taxpayer conflates the arm’s length standard with comparability analysis. It explained that the government has maintained a consistent argument throughout the rulemaking process and this litigation.  That is, the government has consistently maintained that the 2003 regulation’s rejection of comparability analysis as a means of determining an arm’s-length result in this limited context is consistent with both the “commensurate with income” language of the statute adopted in 1986 and the accompanying legislative history.

The core of Altera’s argument is that the government surprised taxpayers and tax advisers by making a “sea change in tax law without providing any notice of the change or opportunity to comment on it” (Reply Br. 1) and by taking a “new position” in litigation (Reply Br. 2) about the meaning of the arm’s length standard.  Altera’s reply brief states this claim in at least three ways. None hold up.

The first thing Altera claims is that “The arm’s length standard has a settled meaning: A transaction meets the arm’s length standard if it is consistent with evidence of how unrelated parties behave in comparable arm’s length transactions.” (Reply Br. 5) Altera may wish that this sentence stated doctrinal transfer pricing tax law, but it does not. As the government’s brief in opposition to the cert petition correctly explains, Altera’s statement conflates the arm’s length standard with comparability analysis. Comparability analysis is not a predicate for determining an arm’s length result. One clear indication of that reality is the residual profit split transfer pricing method contained in regulations promulgated in 1994.

The second claim Altera makes is that the government initially suggested that comparability analysis is relevant to the determination of an arm’s-length result under the regulation at issue in this case, but then changed its mind. This is also incorrect. As the government’s brief explains, Treasury promulgated the 2003 amendment to make explicit what it had consistently argued was implicit in the prior (1995) cost-sharing regulation: that QCSA stock-based compensation costs must be shared to produce an arm’s-length result, without regard to evidence of allegedly comparable transactions. And it consistently pointed to the commensurate-with-income language of the statute and the related legislative history to support its position. It referred to commensurate-with-income both in the 2002 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and in the 2003 Preamble.

This government’s position in this regard has been at the heart of a longstanding and well-known disagreement between taxpayers and the government. In 2002, lawyers at Baker & McKenzie explained the already-long history, in a comment to the proposed regulations written on behalf of Software Finance and Tax Executives Council:

On audit, in Advance Pricing Agreement negotiations, in docketed Tax Court cases, in published field service advice, and in speeches by Service officials … the Service has taken the position that stock-based compensation … must be included in related parties’ cost sharing pools. … Taxpayers have steadfastly and vehemently disagreed[, … absent] any evidence that unrelated parties … share stock option “costs” in their own cost sharing pools. 

The third claim that Altera makes is that taxpayers did not realize that the government was promulgating a rule that did not rest on comparables and were caught by surprise. It writes that “none of the companies, industry groups, or tax professionals that participated in the rulemaking noticed” (Reply Br. 2) that the 2003 amendment made evidence of allegedly comparable uncontrolled transactions not determinative of an arm’s length result in this context. This claim also does not hold up.  Indeed, the amended regulation itself – in both its proposed and final form – unequivocally states that a QCSA will achieve an arm’s-length result “if, and only if,” the parties share all development-related costs (including stock-based compensation costs) in proportion to anticipated benefits.

In written submissions and at the 2002 hearing to consider the proposed regulation, commenters certainly realized that the regulation was not based on evidence of comparables. A representative for the American Electronics Association stated that the regulation identified an arm’s-length result “by fiat,” implicitly acknowledging that the government had rejected a comparables-based inquiry. A Fenwick & West partner explained that the regulation “deem[ed] a result to be arm’s length without providing any evidence.” A tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers noted the perception that the amendment “seem[s] contrary to the arm’s length standard as evidenced by actual transactions ….”  The rest of the regulatory record is consistent. Commenters understood. Taxpayers and tax advisers knew exactly what Treasury was doing.

Altera says it is making an administrative law argument, but it is really interested in a tax policy outcome. The asserted “immense prospective importance” (Reply Br. 4) is illusory. Even if the Court were to grant the petition and then hold that the 2003 amendment is procedurally defective, Treasury could simply re-promulgate the rule without substantive change but with a more detailed explanation. As for past tax years, Altera’s and similarly-situated companies’ financial statements have already incorporated the possibility that corporate income tax will be due based on compliance with the regulation. The real importance of the case for taxpayers lies in the hope that the Supreme Court goes beyond the administrative law issue and expresses a pro-taxpayer view as to the merits. But this tax issue is not presented.

Rather, the cert petition raises a procedural administrative law issue. It works for the taxpayer only if the government changed its tune. But to the contrary, the government has been singing the same tune for two decades or more.

The government did not surprise taxpayers and tax advisers with never-before-seen interpretations of the arm’s length standard. The government consistently explained that evidence of allegedly comparable transactions is not determinative of an arm’s-length result in this context. It consistently referred to the commensurate-with-income statutory language and legislative intent in support of its position. The government has been faithful to its argument and explanation since before the 2003 amendment and continuing through every stage of this litigation. There has been no surprise or change of course. Rather, this case involves the government making the same argument and explanation, over and over again.