Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Eleventh Circuit Makes Clarity from Confusion as to the Written Supervisor Approval in § 6751(b) (9/20/22)

In Kroner v. Commissioner, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 25650 (11th Cir. 9/13/22), CA11 here and GS here, the Eleventh Circuit has become the second Circuit to push against the machinations courts, principally the Tax Court, in trying to apply the written supervisor requirement of § 6751(b). In my Federal Tax Procedure book 370 (2022 Practitioner Edition) (available on SSRN here), I introduce the problem in the nonsensical statutory text (footnotes omitted):

Second, § 6751(b)(1) prohibits the assessment of a penalty “unless the initial determination of such assessment is personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination or such higher level official as the Secretary may designate.” Although not stated in the statute, the purpose of the requirement is to prevent agents from improperly using the threat of a penalty as inappropriate leverage–a “bargaining chip”–to extract concessions when the IRS institutionally had not made a determination to  assert a penalty. The wording of the statute, however, is facially nonsensical because there is no such thing in the tax law as the determination of an assessment and, in any event, the assessment comes long after the threat of penalties could have been made to bully taxpayers. In statutory interpretation lingo, if not nonsensical, the statutory text is “ambiguous,” a characterization which has spawned many opinions as the courts try to deal with the deficiencies in the statutory text through purposive interpretation strategies to apply the text as the courts think or speculate Congress intended but did not say in the statutory text. Section 6751(b) is a quintessential case illustrating this struggle to interpret and apply “ambiguous” statutory text on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis to interpret the “law” that can then be applied in future cases.

I then provide in the following pages (371-377) wanderings through the maze of opinions trying to make sense of this landscape. Basically, the wanderings show courts’ attempts to construct policy (or law) on an ad hoc basis around a statute with facially nonsensical text. These opinions behind these wanderings focus on IRS communications to the taxpayer rather than “the initial determination of such assessment,” as if communications were a proxy for that statutorily required initial determination.

The Eleventh Circuit decided that it could, and should, decide the case before it on the basis of the statutory text rather than the meanderings of courts crafting solutions, based principally on a purpose stated in the legislative history.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Second Circuit NonTax Opinion on Glitches in the Appellate Process with JAT War Story (9/11/22)

Most readers of this Federal Tax Procedure Blog do not have such tunnel vision that developments outside the tax procedure area are ignored. Many readers will have read or heard about a major bank, Citibank, mistakenly making payments to hedge funds aggregating almost $1 billion on not yet due amounts. Some of the hedge funds tried to keep the mistaken payments (about $500 million) because, they claimed, they were eventually entitled to them anyway. Citibank sued those hedge funds to recover. The district court (SDNY) held that the hedge funds were entitled to retain the mistaken payments based on some arcane creditor concepts in New York law and in the Restatement of Restitution. The Second Circuit reversed and held that the funds must be returned to Citibank. Citibank, N.A. v. Brigade Capital Management, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 25250 (2d Cir. 9/28/22), CA2 here and GS here [to come].  I won’t get into the merits of that resolution. I focus instead on the procedural trajectory of the case in the Court of Appeals.

I pick up this procedural trajectory from David Lat’s Judicial Notice (09.10.22): Weird, Wild Stuff (Original Jurisdiction Notice 9/10/22), here. I excerpt the following:

[T]he intricacies of the discharge-for-value doctrine, ably explored in 131 pages of opinions-a majority opinion by Judge Pierre Leval for himself and Judge Robert Sack, and a concurrence in the judgment by Judge Michael Park-are far less interesting than all the meta-commentary about the judicial process and the breaking of the fourth wall.

            In his concurrence, Judge Park complained that "this is a straightforward case that many smart people have grossly overcomplicated and that we should have decided many months ago." In response, Judge Leval added an addendum to his opinion in which he acknowledged that the judgment "has taken a long time to produce," for which he accepted "sole responsibility."

            Pulling back the curtain on the judicial decision-making process, Judge Leval explained that one reason for the delay was a change in disposition: he and Judge Sack originally decided to certify the question to the New York Court of Appeals, prepared a draft opinion to that effect, but then decided against certification-mainly because it would add another year of delay, and also because they "became increasingly persuaded, despite initial uncertainties," that Citibank deserved to win.

             Judge Leval then went on to discuss the nature of appellate judging:

            A decision of a court of appeals must satisfy two requirements, which pull it in different directions. It should, as rapidly as reasonably possible, tell the parties who wins. At the same time, recognition that the decision serves as precedential law requires that it rest on, and clearly explain, sound legal principles. In a money dispute, the parties ordinarily care little for the precedential effect of the decision; their interest is to get a rapid answer to who gets the money. A court, however, must pay careful attention to the decision's precedential function…. Finding the best accommodation between the objectives of speed and legal soundness is not always easy.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Freeman International Tax Law Symposium October 20 & 21 (9/5/22)

The following international tax program may be of interest to FTPB readers:  Freeman Law International Tax Symposium (link for information and registration here).  The Symposium has some great participants, some well-known to tax procedure and tax controversy enthusiasts, and covers topics such as international tax topics, including civil and criminal penalty enforcement, cryptocurrency enforcement trends, and global tax reform.  The program qualifies for CLE, CPE and CE.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Tax Court Sustains Accuracy-Related Penalty for Offshore Accounts, Rejecting Taxpayer's QAR, Statute of Limitations, and § 6751(b) Arguments (9/1/22)

 This blog will alert readers of a new Tax Court opinion, Lamprecht v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2022-91, involving the accuracy-related penalty for failure to report income from foreign accounts. (The opinion may be retrieved at docket entry 181 from the docket entries, here.) I will set up my discussion from the syllabus for the key points decided (on the value of the syllabus see point 6 at the end of this blog):

            Ps are citizens of Switzerland who lawfully resided in the United States, where P–H worked as an investment consultant managing investments for himself and his clients. Ps filed U.S. income tax returns for 2006 and 2007 which understated their income in both years by omitting income that Ps treated as foreign sourced.

            In 2008 the IRS issued to Swiss Bank a John Doe summons which sought to discover the identities of U.S. taxpayers using foreign entities and Swiss bank accounts to avoid reporting income on their U.S. tax returns.

            In 2010 Ps filed amended returns for 2006 and 2007 on which they reported the previously omitted income. Upon examination of Ps’ 2006 and 2007 returns, R determined an accuracy-related penalty under I.R.C. § 6662 against Ps for each year on the basis of the tax attributable to the income omitted from the original returns, and issued to Ps a notice of deficiency. Ps timely filed a petition to challenge the penalty determinations in the notice of deficiency, arguing (1) that the IRS failed to comply with I.R.C. § 6751(b)(1) requiring written supervisory approval of penalties, (2) that their amended returns for 2006 and 2007 are “qualified amended returns” within the meaning of Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3), [*2] precluding penalty liability, and (3) that assessment of the accuracy-related penalties for 2006 and 2007 is barred by the statute of limitations under I.R.C. § 6501.

            Held: The amended returns are not “qualified amended returns” under Treas. Reg. § 1.6664-2(c)(3)(i)(D) because they were filed after the service of a John Doe summons.

            Held, further, assessment of the accuracy-related penalties is not barred by the statute of limitations under I.R.C. § 6501 because the limitations period was suspended by the service of the John Doe summons pursuant to I.R.C. § 7609(e)(2).

            Held, further, the IRS complied with the written supervisory approval requirement of I.R.C. § 6751(b)(1).

            Held, further, Ps are liable for the I.R.C. § 6662 accuracy-related penalties as determined by R for the 2006 and 2007 years.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Eaton Wins Big on Appeal in Long-Running Contentious Litigation Over APAs (8/27/22)

In Eaton Corp. v. United States, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 23853 (6th Cir 8/25/22), here and GS here [to come], the Court gave Eaton a victory on all points of contention in long-running and highly contentious litigation over the Advance Pricing Agreement (APA). The APA is an advance agreement as to how the taxpayer will report its covered transfer pricing products or intangibles in future years so that, provided the taxpayer reports pursuant to the agreement, the IRS will not audit except to confirm reporting consistent with the agreement. (At least in earlier audits I handled, the APA methodology could be spread to past open years, if appropriate, but past years were not in issue in Eaton.)  The Court signals its holdings in its opening short paragraph:

            Taxes may well be “what we pay for civilized society,” Compania Gen. de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87, 100 (1927) (Holmes, J., dissenting), but that doesn’t mean the tax collector is above the law. This case arises from the IRS’s efforts to circumvent basic contract law.

Not an auspicious start for the IRS.

In holding for Eaton, the Court resolved the following issues.

1. In a section captioned “Wrongful Cancellation: Burden of Proof,” the Court resolved a burden of proof issue. (Slip Op. 8-12.) The IRS argued that, since it made the § 482 adjustments in the notice of deficiency because Eaton violated the APA agreement, the standard was “arbitrary and capricious.”  The Court held that, because the predicate issue was whether Eaton violated the APA, the issue is one of contract interpretation as to whether Eaton breached the contract. (Under that notion, only If Eaton breached the contract, would Eaton then have the burden to prove that the IRS’s § 482 adjustments were arbitrary and capricious.)  As to the contract interpretation issue, the IRS bore the burden of proving that Eaton had breached the contract.

2. On the issue of whether Eaton violated the contract, the Court held (Slip Op. 12), applying contract law, that Eaton had not breached the agreement and therefore the IRS did not have the right to cancel the contract and issue the notice of deficiency with § 482 adjustments.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Transfer Pricing: Finite Valuation and Ranges (8/20/22)

        I have just started reading a tax, more or less, history, at least anecdotal history. Michael Keen, & Joel Slemrod, Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue, (Princeton University Press 2021), here.   Early in my reading, something caught my eye because of a case I perused earlier in the day, Medtronic, Inc. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2022-84 (Decided 8/18/22), T.C. docket entry 74 at docket entries for the case here and GS here [to come]). I say I perused because the opinion is 75 pages (with three-page appendix of the experts’ brief biographies). I read closely only certain parts, including the part I discuss here. Medtronic involves transfer pricing for intangibles, which most commonly involve transactions between a U.S. taxpayer and a foreign affiliate offering opportunities to manipulate (lower) the U.S. tax base and thus achieve major U.S. tax “savings.”  The drill in these cases for the taxpayer is to lower the U.S. tax base and for the IRS to increase the U.S. tax base. That’s an oversimplification, but not much of one. The theoretical mechanism for achieving that is to peg the tax results of the related party transaction to a standard of an uncontrolled transaction between unrelated parties. This standard is notoriously difficult for intangible assets.

           Professors Keen and Slemrod offer a good tongue-in-cheek description (pp. xvi-xvii):

Many of the tax episodes we look at may at first seem far-fetched or ridiculous. Some are stories of disastrous missteps and cruelty. Some, we admit, teach no useful lesson that we can discern, but are just pleasingly gaudy and preposterous. But along with the follies there are also episodes of remarkable wisdom. For it is a theme of the book that, when it comes to designing and implementing taxes, our ancestors were addressing fundamentally the same problems that we struggle with today. And they were no less ingenious—not just in creating taxes, but also in avoiding and evading them—than we are. We should not feel too superior to our forebears, given the taxes we have nowadays. The idea of taxing chimneys may seem quaint to us. But we suspect our descendants will find some of the things that we do today more than a little peculiar, such as taxing multinationals by trying to figure out what some entirely different and hypothetical set of companies would have done in the unlikely (possibly inconceivable) event that they found themselves in the same circumstances. And they would be right.

        My observation of transfer pricing over the years is that these transfer pricing cases are just valuation cases, with a lot of zeroes to justify litigation with a lot of commotion to prompt a lot of legal and expert fees. My anecdotal observation of this type of case over the years is that many unnecessary legal and expert fees are generated in litigating them. But that is another story. 

        For now, I want to focus on Medtronic (this opinion rather than the earlier Tax Court and Eighth Circuit opinions, Medtronic, Inc. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2016-112 (sometimes Medtronics I), vacated and remanded, T.C. Memo. 2016-112, 900 F.3d 610 (8th Cir. 2018) (sometimes Medtronic II). As an aside, the petition in the Medtronic case was filed in 2011, Medtronic I was decided in 2016, Medtronic II was decided on August 18, 2018, and Medtronic III was decided 8/16/18, and Medtronic III was decided on remand is dated 8/18/22. Interesting.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Chevron Deference: Much Ado About Not Much (8/15/21)

This is my third offering on the most recent D.C. Circuit opinion in Guedes v. ATF, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 21998 (D.C. Cir. 8/9/22), DCCir here,  and GS here. My prior offerings are (chronological order):  Important DC Circuit Opinion That Chevron Deference is Irrelevant if Agency Interpretation is Best Interpretation (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 8/9/22; 8/10/22), here; and § 7805(b) Time Limits Do Not Apply to Agency Best Interpretations of the Statute (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 8/11/22), here.  (Note that I omitted from my original discussion the parallel Fifth Circuit opinion in Cargill v. Garland, 20 F.4th 1004 (5th Cir. 12/14/21), CA 5 here and GS here; see Fifth Circuit Affirms Agency Best Interpretation of Statute, thus Not Applying Chevron (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 12/20/21; 12/21/21), here.)

The point I want to make here explicit that which may be only implicit in my prior offerings. When courts defer (or parties (usually the Government) argue that a court should defer) to a “reasonable” agency interpretation, they often do not differentiate between (i) those reasonable agency interpretations that are the best interpretations and (ii) those agency interpretations that are not the best interpretations but are only reasonable agency interpretations qualifying for Chevron deference.  Thus, by chanting "reasonable" and Chevron and appearing to defer, many (I think most) cases involve agency interpretations that are the best interpretations so there is no deference at all.  That is the key point of this new Guedes opinion (and the Cargill opinion). 

And, that is why courts should, as did the court in the new Guedes and in Cargill opinions, make clear what the best interpretation is so that they can either (i) apply that interpretation without any nonsense about Chevron or (ii) apply Chevron only when Chevron deference is outcome determinative – i.e., when the agency interpretation is not the best interpretation.  Keep in mind that, in making the determination as to the best interpretation, courts should give Skidmore respect (not deference) to the agency's interpretation because the agency, not the courts, has been assigned to administer the administrative scheme and is in a better position to deal with subtleties in administration than a court is.  See Really, Skidmore "Deference?" (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 5/31/20; 2/14/21).

As to the latter applying Chevron deference only when the agency interpretation is not the best interpretation, I point readers to some discussion in my article John A. Townsend. The Report of the Death of the Interpretive Regulation Is an Exaggeration  (SSRN December 14, 2021), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3400489:

In the postscript to the article (pp. 122-123) I offer the following reformulation of steps preserving Chevron's basic teaching but isolating when it is outcome determinative (footnotes omitted):

Thursday, August 11, 2022

§ 7805(b) Time Limits Do Not Apply to Agency Best Interpretations of the Statute (8/11/22)

I recently posted a blog on Guedes v. ATF, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 21998 (D.C. Cir. 8/9/22), DCCir here,  and GS here. See Important DC Circuit Opinion That Chevron Deference is Irrelevant if Agency Interpretation is Best Interpretation (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 8/9/22; 8/10/22), here. The essence of this new Guedes case is that an interpretation that is the best interpretation of the statute applies without any deference to the agency interpretation. The best interpretation controls, not because it is the agency interpretation, but because it is the best interpretation. So, for example, even if that best interpretation is in an interpretive regulation, the best interpretation controls. And the best interpretation controls even if the regulation is procedurally invalid. I have made that point (not much discussed in the mainstream claims) in several blog posts. I list only a few:  11th Cir. Invalidates Proportionate Sharing Regulations As Procedurally Arbitrary and Capricious for Failing to Address a Significant Comment (12/30/21; 12/31/21), here; Regulations Interpreting Pre-1996 Code Provisions; Fixing Hewitt (1/6/22; 1/7/22), here; and Sixth Circuit Creates Circuit Conflict with Eleventh Circuit on Conservation Easement Regulations (3/15/22), here.

I focus here on the consequences of this key point—the best interpretation of the statute controls independently of the validity or characterization of the regulation in which the best interpretation may appear. Readers may recall that § 7805(b) limits retroactivity for § 7805(a) regulations interpreting Code sections enacted after the effective date of the 1996 amendments to § 7805(b). For regulations interpreting Code sections enacted before the 1996 effective date, the interpretations may be fully retroactive to the date of enactment of the Code sections being interpreted. So, imagine a hypothetical Code section enacted after 1996, say enacted in 1997, so that § 7805(b) applies to limit the retroactivity of an interpretive regulation. Suppose that, in 2022, the IRS adopts a regulation interpreting the Code section. The regulation qua regulation cannot apply retroactively to 1997. But, the best interpretation can and should apply retroactively to 1997. (I need to clarify what retroactive means in this context; the interpretation has to be within the range of reasonable interpretations since the date of enactment so, in that sense, the interpretation is not retroactive; but the retroactive language is often used to describe the concept of the interpretation later recognized (in the example, in 2022) as the best interpretation applying from the date of enactment.)

The point is that an interpretation in a Treasury regulation (Temporary or Final) otherwise subject to the § 7805(b) time limits will avoid those time limits if the interpretation is the best interpretation of the statute.   Let me repeat that so that it sinks in:  An interpretation that is the best interpretation can and should apply retroactively without regard to § 7805(b). Indeed the best interpretation is effective even if announced in subregulatory guidance (such as Revenue Ruling or Notice). What that necessarily means is that § 7805(b)’s time limits practically apply only to an agency regulation interpretation that is not the best interpretation and thus needs a valid regulation (in this case within the § 7805(b) time limits) for Chevron deference.

This raises some questions:

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Important DC Circuit Opinion That Chevron Deference is Irrelevant if Agency Interpretation is Best Interpretation (8/9/22; 8/15/22)

In Guedes v. ATF, ___ F.4th ___, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 21998 (D.C. Cir. 8/9/22), DCCir here and GS here, the Court rendered an important decision.  Although it is not a tax case, it deals with administrative law themes – APA and deference – important in the tax area.  The case involved the proper interpretation of the statutory term “machine guns” [I split the statutory word "machineguns" as is common] includes so-called “bump stocks.”  There was an earlier Circuit opinion in Guedes, Guedes v. ATF, 920 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2019), here, cert. denied cert. denied, 589 U. S. ___, 140 S.Ct. 789 (2020); see Guedes Cert Denial on Bump Stock as Machinegun, Justice Gorsuch's Cryptic Statement and My Digression (Federal Tax Procedure Blog 3/2/20; 3/5/20), here.

The Court summarized the key conclusion of the opinion in the opening (Slip Op. p. 3):

The central question on appeal is whether the Bureau had the statutory authority to interpret “machine gun” to include bump stocks. Employing the traditional tools of statutory interpretation, we find that the disputed rule is consistent with the best interpretation of “machine gun” under the governing statutes. We therefore affirm.

 The Court expounds (Slip Op. pp. 8-10)

             The threshold question is whether to treat this case as a matter of pure statutory interpretation or to apply the Chevron framework. Both parties advocate for the former. Plaintiffs argue that Chevron does not apply for a multitude of reasons: the rule is interpretive in nature; the government waived Chevron deference; the Court may not apply Chevron to a statute with criminal penalties; and the rule of lenity must supersede Chevron in the criminal context. The Bureau also characterizes the Rule as interpretive, and it likewise urges us to analyze the Rule under a statutory interpretation framework.

            The Guedes II panel employed the Chevron framework—just as the District Court had done—in denying the motion for preliminary injunction. The panel concluded that the Bump Stock Rule was a legislative rule; the Bureau explicitly relied on Chevron in crafting it; the government cannot recharacterize a rule as legislative or interpretative during litigation; and the government cannot waive Chevron. 920 F.3d at 18, 21–23.

            Ultimately, we need not wrestle with the Chevron framework here. Rather, the parties have asked us to dispense with the Chevron framework, and in this circumstance, we think it is appropriate to do so. See Am. Hosp. Ass’n v. Becerra, 142 S. Ct. 1896 (2022) (rejecting agency’s interpretation “after employing traditional tools of statutory interpretation,” rather than inquiring into the interpretation’s reasonableness under Chevron). Using a statutory interpretation lens, we decide that the Bureau offered the best construction of the statute without wading into the subsidiary questions that the Chevron analysis poses.

Precedential Effect of Published Plurality Appellate Opinion That Majority of Panel Doesn't Accept (8/9/22)

In Trafigura Trading v. United States, 29 F.4th 286 (5th Cir. 3/25/21), CA5 here and GS here, the Court affirmed the district court judgment that the taxpayer was entitled to a refund.  The district court held that the reason for the refund was that the tax violated the Export Clause of the Constitution.  (For purposes of this blog, getting into the merits of the reason the tax violated the Export Clause is not important.)  On the Government’s appeal, the Fifth Circuit 3-judge panel affirmed, with one judge (Judge Ho) issuing a “plurality” opinion, another judge (Judge Wiener) concurring only in the judgment but not Judge Ho's opinion, and a third judge (Judge Graves) dissenting from Judge Ho's opinion.

The question that I and some colleagues have discussed recently, perhaps without definitive conclusion, is:

What is the precedential effect of the Fifth Circuit plurality opinion by Judge Ho, which as the F.4th citation indicates was published?

Judge Ho’s opinion was only his opinion and was not approved by either Judge Wiener (concurring in judgment only) or by Judge Graves (dissenting).  The only judge on the panel who addressed the issue of precedential effect was Judge Graves who, in his dissenting opinion says (p. 796 n. 1):

    n2  Judge Wiener concurs only in the judgment, which means that Judge Ho’s opinion does not have a quorum and does not constitute precedent in this Circuit. Indest v. Freeman Decorating, Inc., 168 F.3d 795, 796 n.1 (5th Cir. 1999) (Wiener, J., concurring). Thus, I refer to it as the plurality when referencing any portion other than the judgment. 

This seems a straight-forward bar (if accurate) to precedential effect of Judge Ho’s opinion, but there is some confusion (at least in my mind) about the last sentence (saying Judge Ho’s non-precedential plurality opinion includes only “any portion other than the judgment.”  What does that mean?  Judge Ho’s opinion itself does not have a judgment.  There is a Fifth Circuit judgment (here) but it only says in relevant part that “the judgment of the District Court is affirmed.”  Presumably, this Fifth Circuit judgment is the judgment that Judge Graves refers to. 

 By contrast to the Fifth Circuit judgment, the district court judgment, here, says

Having determined that § 4611(b) violates the Export Clause of the United States Constitution, the Court orders the Government to refund Trafigura $5,215,924 in § 4611(b) taxes that Trafigira paid for the tax periods in issue, as well as statutory interest pursuant to 28 U.S.C.A. § 2422.  This is a Final Judgment and finally disposes of all claims and causes of action asserted by any party.

Technically, as I understand it, the district court judgment is only the amount that the United States owes the taxpayer.  The reason for that debt amount is not part of the judgment and in many judgments with which I am familiar the judgment only states that the taxpayer is entitled to a refund without elaboration of the reasons.  (Similarly in the Tax Court where judgment-equivalent “decisions” are rendered, they do not state the reasons for the tax, refund determined, or no deficiency.)  For the limited effect for which judgments are important (such as enforcing the judgment), merely stating the amounts is all that is required and, I think, is the judgment.

So, I infer that, since Judges Graves and Wiener did not concur with the Judge Ho’s opinion, Judge Ho’s opinion is not precedential.