Conservation Easement Donation and the Validity of Tax Regulations

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Monte Jackel returns to discuss the Tax Court’s latest attempt at squaring the APA and the tax regulation process. Les

In Oakbrook Land Holdings LLC (154 T.C. No. 10, May 12, 2020), the Tax Court, in a reviewed opinion, upheld the validity of a Treasury regulation (reg. §1.170A-14(g)(6)) issued under section 170 of the Code relating to conservation easement donations and the perpetuity requirement. A concurrently issued memorandum opinion issued the same day (T.C. Memo 2020-54) had held that if the regulation was valid, the taxpayer was in violation of it. 

At issue in the opinion was the validity of the regulation at issue. This commentary focuses its attention on the requirement of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) that a “legislative rule” contain a concise statement of the basis and purpose of the proposed rule. The Chevron doctrine, also addressed by the court, is not discussed here. 

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The majority opinion first stated that the regulation at issue was a legislative rule and not an interpretative one because it set forth a substantive requirement (sharing of proceeds if easement terminated) that was not set forth in the statute and which, if violated, would cause loss of the deduction. 

Underlying this conclusion was the majority’s view of a legislative rule:

“Administrative law distinguishes between interpretive and legislative agency rules. “An interpretive rule merely clarifies or explains preexisting substantive law or regulations….A legislative rule, on the other hand, “creates rights, assigns duties, or imposes obligations, the basic tenor of which is not already outlined in the law itself.”…Legislative rules have “the force and effect of law.”….

The majority then turned to the APA that sets forth the notice and comment requirement for legislative rules:

“Legislative rules are subject to APA notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. See 5 U.S.C. sec. 553(b)…To issue a legislative regulation consistently with the APA an agency must: (1) publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register; (2) provide “interested persons an opportunity to participate…through submission of written data, views, or arguments”; and (3) “[a]fter consideration of the relevant matter presented,…incorporate in the rules adopted a concise general statement of their basis and purpose.” See 5 U.S.C. sec. 553(b) and (c).”

It was the third requirement that was in dispute in the case (the “concise general statement of basis and purpose requirement”). The majority opinion concluded that the concise general statement of basis and purpose requirement was satisfied in this case. 

“The APA provides that a reviewing court shall set aside agency action that is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” 5 U.S.C. sec. 706(2)(a). The scope of our review “is a narrow one” because “[t]he court is not empowered to substitute its judgment for that of the agency.”…We consider only whether the agency “articulate[d] a satisfactory explanation for its action.”…. While we cannot provide a reasoned basis for agency action that the agency itself did not supply, we will “uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the agency’s path may reasonably be discerned.”….“So long as an agency’s rationale can reasonably be discerned and that rationale coincides with the agency’s authority and obligations under the relevant statute, a reviewing court may not ‘broadly require an agency to consider all policy alternatives in reaching decision.’” …Indeed, “regulations with no statement of basis and purpose have been upheld where the basis and purpose w[ere] considered obvious.”….

The majority concluded that this test had been met even though the final regulation preamble did not specifically address the comment that pertained specifically to the regulation provision at issue. This was so principally because the point raised in the comments was only one comment out of many submitted and that specific comment did not fully address the provision at issue and alternatives to what was proposed. The majority stated:

“[A]n agency cannot reasonably be expected to address every comment it received. The APA “has never been interpreted to require the agency to respond to every comment, or to analyze every issue or alternative raised by the comments, no matter how insubstantial.” …“We do not expect the agency to discuss every item of fact or opinion included in the submissions made to it.” …“An agency need not respond to every comment.”…. In any event, “[t]he administrative record reflects that no substantive alternatives to the final rules were presented for Treasury’s consideration.” …“A comment is * * * more likely to be significant if the commenter suggests a remedy for the purported problem it identifies.”…. The APA requires “consideration of the relevant matter presented” during the rulemaking process. 5 U.S.C. sec. 553(c). 

The majority then laid out the reasons for denying the assertion of an APA violation:

“Our review of the administrative record leaves us with no doubt that Treasury considered the relevant matter presented to it…. And we find equally little merit in petitioner’s assertion that Treasury failed to “incorporate in the rules adopted a concise general statement of their basis and purpose.” See 5 U.S.C. sec. 553(c)…. No court has ever construed the APA to mandate that an agency explain the basis and purpose of each individual component of a regulation separately. “[T]he detail required in a statement of basis and purpose depends on the subject of the regulation and the nature of the comments received.” …This statement need only “contain sufficient information to allow a court to exercise judicial review.”….

There was also a concurring opinion and a dissenting opinion in the case. 

The concurring opinion, among other issues, separately addressed the APA procedural point. After concluding that the text of the statute precluded the deduction, the concurring opinion nevertheless set forth its views on both Chevron and the APA. 

On the latter point, which is the focus of this commentary, the concurrence states:

“Treasury might not have found itself in this predicament under Chevron if it had followed more carefully the APA’s procedural requirements, which are designed to help agencies consider exactly this type of issue before a rule becomes final. 

And then came the dissenting opinion. The dissent, as one would expect, disagreed with the majority’s reasoning on the APA procedural point. It states:

“In today’s case, we hold that the Treasury Department gets to ignore basic principles of administrative law that require an agency “to give reasoned responses to all significant comments in a rulemaking proceeding.” ….A court is supposed to ensure that an agency has taken “a ‘hard look’ at all relevant issues and considered reasonable alternatives.”…But if the majority is right, the Treasury Department can get by with the administrative-state equivalent of a quiet shrug, a knowing wink, and a silent fleeting glance from across a crowded room…. [T]he majority, I fear, has missed the main root of [the taxpayer’s] argument–that at the time of the regulation’s promulgation, commenters made significant comments, and Treasury failed to address them in its statement of the regulation’s basis and purpose…. The Final Rule’s statement of basis and purpose shows absolutely no mention of the [regulation provision at issue]–and no reasoned response to any of the public’s comments on those provisions…. 

The dissent then zeroed in on its objections to the conclusions of the majority:

“[W]hile we don’t demand a perfect explanation for Treasury’s decisionmaking, …we should demand some,… And here, there wasn’t any….. [T]he analysis shouldn’t stop there–what is the nature of a comment that triggers an agency’s obligation to respond? The caselaw tells us to look at a comment’s significance. Agencies must “give reasoned responses to all significant comments in a rulemaking proceeding.”….This is because “the opportunity to comment is meaningless unless the agency responds to significant points raised by the public.”….“It is not in keeping with the rational process [of APA section 553(c)] to leave vital questions, raised by comments which are of cogent materiality, completely unanswered”). So, though an agency doesn’t have to respond to all comments, it must respond to all significant comments.

The dissent then cites a series of Treasury decisions that, as a matter of fact, make the same statement that “all comments were considered” or words of similar import. But, as the dissent states, “the APA,…has no provision for agencies to use ritual incantations to ward off judicial review.” 

Where does this take us? This case shows that the Treasury and IRS need to pay more attention as to (1) what is a legislative rule as compared to an interpretative rule, and (2) has it considered all “significant” public comments and fully addressed them in the final rule. 

And for commenters to regulations, this case seems to indicate that a comment letter should state that the issue is material, fully discuss the issue, and propose a practical alternative if one is available.

All of this is clearly an area to watch in the near future.

Comments

  1. Monte, Great post summarizing the holding in the case.

    I just want to comment only about the Tax Court’s treatment of the regulation as a legislative regulation.

    1. I think the regulation was an interpretive regulation rather than a legislative regulation. I have summarized my views in a blog post yesterday on the case. See Tax Court Sustains Key Conservation Easement Regulation But Wobbles on Legislative/Interpretation Issue (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 5/14/20). The link to the blog entry is here:
    http://federaltaxprocedure.blogspot.com/2020/05/tax-court-sustains-key-conservation.html

    2. I don’t think the proper characterization of the regulation as interpretive or legislative was outcome determinative in the case because, under either characterization, the same analysis would be required. The Court would have had to address and reject the claim that the procedures in promulgating the regulation failed the “arbitrary and capricious” / State Farm test. And the Court would have to address and reject the claim that the interpretation in the regulation was unreasonable under Chevron.

    3. Recall that the Tax Court made a similar analysis of the legislative/interpretive distinction in Altera where it declared the § 482 regulation legislative and then proceeded in its analysis, but with a different outcome (at least until reversed on appeal). I think the Tax Court erred in Altera in its characterization of the regulation as legislative. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit just ignored the characterization except, in the majority opinion, in describing the Tax Court’s opinion. And, in the Solicitor General’s brief in opp in Altera filed just yesterday, the words legislative rule or regulation and interpretive rule or regulation are not mentioned. So, in terms of outcome in real cases, courts may futz about the issue, but I suspect that it is real nothingburger in terms of affecting the outcome. (Sort of like a court waxing on for pages about burden of proof issues and then finding the facts by a preponderance of the evidence, in which case the predicate discussion of burden of proof does not contribute to the outcome in the case; even so, if courts are going to futz about non-outcome determinative issues, they should get the futzing right.)

    The Solictor General’s brief in opp in Altera filed yesterday is here:
    https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-1009/143544/20200514144449398_19-1009%20Altera%20Corp.%20Opp..pdf

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