Sixth Circuit Follows Second on Overpayment Interest for Not-for-Profit Corps

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In late April of this year, I wrote a post on the Second Circuit case, Maimondies, where the Court determined if a not-for-profit corporation that was exempt from income tax under Section 501(c)(3) was a “corporation” for overpayment and underpayment interest rates.  The same issue was decided by the Sixth Circuit in August in United States v. Detroit Medical Center.

The issue in Detroit Medical is that “corporations” under Section 6621(a)(1) receive interest at a lower rate  that non-corporations on overpayments of tax.  The not-for-profit corporation had an overpayment of employment taxes paid on medical residents (exact same issue as Maimondies) and believed it should receive interest at the non-corporate rate.  Detroit Medical’s argument is based on a blend of policy arguments and statutory construction.   The IRS disagreed, arguing a corporation is a corporation, profit or not.  Here is the issue as stated by the Court:

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Consider our task today. The question at hand sounds simple enough: Should a nonprofit corporation be treated like a for-profit corporation when it comes to the interest it receives on overpaid taxes? Now consider the question in the context of the Internal Revenue Code:

(a) General rule:

(1) Overpayment rate. The overpayment rate established under this section shall be the sum of—

(A) the Federal short-term rate determined under subsection (b), plus

(B) 3 percentage points (2 percentage points in the case of a corporation).

To the extent that an overpayment of tax by a corporation for any taxable period (as defined in subsection (c)(3), applied by substituting “overpayment” for “underpayment”) exceeds $10,000, subparagraph (B) shall be applied by substituting “0.5 percentage point” for “2 percentage points.”

(2) Underpayment rate. The underpayment rate established under this section shall be the sum of—

(A) the Federal short-term rate determined under subsection (b), plus

(B) 3 percentage points.

. . .

(c) Increase in underpayment rate for large corporate underpayments

(1) In general. For purposes of determining the amount of interest payable under section 6601 on any large corporate underpayment for periods after the applicable date, paragraph (2) of subsection (a) shall be applied by substituting “5 percentage points” for “3 percentage points”.

. . .

(3) Large corporate underpayment. For purposes of this subsection—

(A) In general The term “large corporate underpayment” means any underpayment of a tax by a C corporation for any taxable period if the amount of such underpayment for such period exceeds $100,000.

(B) Taxable period. For purposes of subparagraph (A), the term “taxable period” means— (i) in the case of any tax imposed by subtitle A, the taxable year, or (ii) in the case of any other tax, the period to which the underpayment relates.

What starts as a basic question gets less basic the more one reads. Yes, this is a tax case. Some complexities—different rules for overpayments and underpayments, different interest rates for different taxpayers, some exceptions to some rules—come with the territory. But the first sign that the author of this provision was not thinking of his readers appears in the parenthetical of the flush paragraph: “To the extent that an overpayment of tax by a corporation for any taxable period (as defined in subsection (c)(3), applied by substituting ‘overpayment’ for ‘underpayment’) exceeds $10,000, subparagraph (B) shall be applied by substituting ‘0.5 percentage point’ for ‘2 percentage points.’” The meaning of this exception turns on a cross reference to another subsection that applies to the opposite form of payment mentioned in the first subsection but only for “C corporation[s],” not “corporations” in general.

The Sixth takes a strict statutory construction look at the statute, first determining if the entity is a “corporation”, finding if the statute does not specifically define a term fully then Congress intends to adopt its customary meaning.  The Court found “corporation” generally includes not-for-profit corporations, looking to Chief Justice Marshall 1819 holding in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward.  The Second Circuit had cited to this case, and, not to be outdone, the Sixth Circuit decided to look even further back through legal history, citing to the 1612 holding in The Case of Sutton’s Hospital where the nonprofit was treated as a corporation.  And, to the writings of William Blackstone in 1753, who listed three general types of corporations, including charitable or “eleemosynary” as he termed them.  The Court then looks to various places in the Code where charitable entities are referred to as corporations, and various other everyday uses of the term.

Finding the entity was clearly a “corporation”, the Court then looked to the hanging language and the reference to (c)(3).  There the Court held that the parenthetical modified only the taxable period, and not the remainder of the paragraph, so the c-corporation language did not modify (a)(1) to only apply to c-corporations.  The Sixth Circuit provides a lengthy discussion about why this is the correct statutory interpretation, which is similar to that in the Second Circuit holding.

The Court does note that this is a strange statutory design, to have the nonprofit receiving less interest than Warren Buffett, musing that perhaps Congress had not thought it through because nonprofits don’t pay income tax.

In the final paragraph, the Court does note that it is in agreement with the Second Circuit (the first reference to the case).  This is probably on appeal in other circuits at this point, as it appears there were a lot of nonprofit hospitals in the same position following Mayo.  As the Tax Court has previously held that the S-corporations were not subject to the lower rate based on the same provisions, there is at least some potential for another circuit to hold differently regarding not-for-profits, providing a split.  We shall see.

Stephen Olsen About Stephen Olsen

Stephen J. Olsen’s practice includes tax planning and controversy matters for individuals, businesses and exempt entities for the law firm Gawthrop Greenwood, PC.

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