Monday, October 26, 2020

Two Updates on Syndicated Conversation Easements (10/26/20)

I report in brief two recent developments in syndicated easement cases that have been the focus of so much IRS audit and investigation activity and Tax Court cases.

First, In Pine Mountain Preserve, LLLP v. Commissioner, ___ F.3d ___ (11th Cir. 2020), here, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the Tax Court and held “(1) that the 2005 and 2006 easements satisfy § 170(h)(2)(C)’s granted-in-perpetuity requirement, (2) that the existence of an amendment clause in an easement does not violate § 170(h)(5)(A)’s protected-in-perpetuity requirement, and (3) that the Tax Court applied the wrong method for valuing the 2007 easement.”  I will not dive into the legal issues in those holdings since they do not involve tax procedure (independent of the underlying substantive tax law issues).  

The valuation issue is interesting, though, because the Eleventh Circuit said that the Tax Court appeared to just "split the baby" on valuation.  (See Slip Op. pp. 9 & 21-24.)  At least, the myth is that courts having to deal with tough valuation issues often just split the baby (choose a mid-point between the parties' valuation positions) or come close to the midpoint with a variance masking that, really, they did just split the baby.  In valuation lingo, that looks like the fact finder (courts here) are in equipoise on some range of values around that mid-point.  See John A. Townsend, Burden of Proof in Tax Cases: Valuation and Ranges—An Update, 73 Tax Lawyer 389 (2020), available here on SSRN.

The Eleventh Circuit required that, on remand, the Tax Court value the easement contribution based on the regulations in  § 1.170(A)-14(h)(3)(i) which, as I understand in the case will require that the contribution be valued as follows: (i) value the whole property on the date of the contribution; (ii) value the taxpayer’s remaining interest in the property (as burdened by the easement), and (iii) deduct the difference.  In many of the conservation easement cases and certainly the abusive ones, the devil is in the valuations.  Taxpayers often overstate the “before” value and understate the “after” value resulting in inappropriate charitable contributions.  (That is setting aside unique abuse in unique methodologies other than the methodology in the regulations.)

Second, in AM 2020-010 (10/5/20), here, the IRS attorney gave advice on the following subject:  Determining the Fraud Penalty in TEFRA Syndicated Conservation Easement Cases.  The TEFRA audit and litigating regime has been replaced for years beginning in 2018 by the centralized partnership audit regime enacted in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, but there are still plenty of TEFRA cases in the audit and litigation pipeline that can be subject to the analysis in the memorandum.  The summary conclusion is:

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Corporate Taxpayer (AIG) "Settles" Tax Shelter Litigation Admitting Tax Shelters Were Shams (10/24/20)

 The SDNY U.S. Attorney (Acting) issued this stunning press release yesterday:  Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Settlement Of Tax Shelter Lawsuit Against AIG For Entering Into Sham Transactions Designed To Generate Bogus Foreign Tax Credits (USAO 10/23/20), here.   Key excerpts for this blog entry (most of the release) are:

Audrey Strauss, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today the settlement of a tax refund lawsuit brought by insurance and financial services company AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL GROUP, INC. (“AIG”) involving seven cross-border financial transactions that the United States asserted were abusive tax shelters designed to generate bogus foreign tax credits that AIG improperly attempted to use to reduce its tax liabilities in the United States.  AIG filed this tax refund lawsuit in 2009, seeking to recover disallowed foreign tax credits and other taxes related to the 1997 tax year.  The United States obtained overwhelming evidence that these transactions lacked any meaningful economic substance, were devoid of any legitimate business purpose, and instead were designed solely to manufacture hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits to which AIG was not entitled.  According to the terms of the settlement, approved yesterday by United States District Judge Louis L. Stanton, AIG agreed that all foreign tax credits that AIG claimed for the 1997 tax year and all later tax years for these same transactions, totaling more than $400 million, would be disallowed in their entirety.  AIG further agreed to pay a 10% tax penalty.

Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said:  “AIG created an elaborate series of sham transactions that were designed to do nothing – and in fact did nothing – other than generate hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten tax benefits for AIG.  Our system of taxation is built upon the premise that all citizens and corporations must pay the taxes they owe, no more and no less.  People and companies who game that system to avoid paying their fair share of taxes undermine public trust in our tax laws.  We will continue to be vigilant in holding accountable those who use economically empty transactions to avoid paying their taxes.”

As alleged in filings in Manhattan federal court:

During the mid-1990s, AIG Financial Products Corp. (“AIG-FP”), a wholly-owned subsidiary of AIG, designed, marketed, and entered into seven cross-border structured finance transactions with various foreign banks.  These complicated transactions, involving hundreds of agreements, numerous shell companies, and intricate cash flows, had no economic substance but rather exploited differences in U.S. and foreign tax laws to create profits from U.S. tax benefits.  In particular, the transactions generated more than $400 million in foreign tax credits that AIG used to reduce its U.S. tax liabilities.  The U.S. has a worldwide tax system that taxes companies on income earned abroad, but also grants credits for foreign taxes paid.  AIG, was able to turn a profit by obtaining credits from the U.S. Treasury for foreign taxes it did not actually pay in full.  AIG obtained more than $61 million in foreign tax credits during the 1997 tax year alone, the tax year resolved by the settlement. 

In 2008, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) issued a Notice of Deficiency to AIG that, among other things, disallowed the foreign tax credits AIG had claimed in connection with the seven transactions and asserted a 20% tax penalty.  In 2009, after paying the deficiency, AIG filed a lawsuit against the United States in Manhattan federal court challenging the IRS’s determination and demanding a refund.  In response, the United States asserted that the IRS had correctly disallowed the tax benefits because the transactions had no economic substance, a basic requirement for seeking tax benefits. 

According to the terms of the Settlement, AIG agreed that all foreign tax credits that AIG claimed in connection with the seven cross-border transactions that were the subject of the litigation would be disallowed in full for the 1997 tax year and all subsequent tax years during which the transactions were operating, totaling more than $400 million.  AIG further agreed to pay a 10% penalty.  The settlement allows AIG to retain certain income expense deductions relating to six of the transactions that were structured as borrowings, as well as remove certain amounts related to the transactions from its taxable income.  In addition, the settlement resolves certain of AIG’s tax refund claims unrelated to the cross-border transactions stemming from AIG‘s restatement of its publicly filed financials.

One nuance not in the press release is that the press release suggests that the penalty is 10%.  The IRS originally proposed a substantial understatement penalty and a negligence penalty.  Both of those penalties are 20% but only one can apply, so that the taxpayer's maximum exposure before the settlement was 20%.  Under the settlement, the taxpayer concedes the substantial understatement or negligence penalties for the bullshit transaction.  (See paragraph 7 of the Stipulation and Order of Settlement.)  That might suggest that the settlement could be read to imply some level of merit in the taxpayer's position, although I suspect that, from the Government's perspective, it was viewed that as simply a nuisance cost to the Government to resolve this bullshit litigation without expenditure of resources required to litigate the matter.

Of course, large corporations who should know better making sham (aka bullshit) tax shelter claims are not particularly unusual as I have noted on this blog.  But this litigation has one nuance that jumped out that I had not really focused on before – that is, the role of counsel bringing suits to sustain tax shelters that are shams.  I guess that problem lurked in all of the other civil litigation involving bullshit tax shelters.  But it just hit me here.  (I never personally had to face that issue because over my career of practice, I declined to represent taxpayers or promoters in civil tax cases involving bullshit tax shelters; although I do have an anecdote about that which I recount at the end of the blog.  See JAT Comments par. 2)

The question I ask is how exactly does an attorney sign the initial pleading and otherwise participate in a suit, either in the Tax Court or in one of the refund forums (district court or Court of Federal Claims), alleging that a sham tax shelter is entitled to the claimed tax benefits?  OK, I know, the argument is that sham is in the eye of the beholder so long as the technical tax traps appear to be checked off (even when sometimes they are not)?  The question I ask and cannot answer here is what is the role of the lawyers making such claims in litigation?  But, just think about how much energy (creative and  otherwise), time and resources were spent unnecessarily in creating the sham tax shelter to start with and then marshaling it through the administrative audit process (audit and appeals) and litigation before the taxpayer admitted the whole deal was a sham.  Isn’t there some better way to deploy our resources?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

FTPB 2020 Update 05 - New IRM Summary of the § 6751 Written Supervisor Approval Requirement (10/22/20)

One of the most frequent high-profile items in tax procedure in the last couple of years has been § 6751(b)’s written supervisor approval timing requirement.  In the absence of regulations, the Tax Court has struggled on a case-by-case basis to apply the requirement in various factual situations – seemingly a myriad – that can arise.  To put it mildly, the ad hoc treatment is daunting to the Tax Court, the IRS and practitioners.  

The IRM was recently revised to cut through the smog of this ad hoc treatment.  The provision is here and I quote in full: (10-19-2020)
Timing of Supervisory Approval

For all penalties subject to IRC 6751(b)(1), written supervisory approval required under IRC 6751(b)(1) must be obtained prior to issuing any written communication of penalties to a taxpayer that offers the taxpayer an opportunity to:

Sign an agreement, or
Consent to assessment or proposal of the penalty

For a little background, I cut and paste from my Tax Procedure Book (this is from the working draft for the 2021 editions, with some of the text changed from the 2020 editions and with footnotes omitted; note that the only change that I specifically note here is to reflect the new IRM provision with the font in red):

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 attempt to bullet-point key features of the statutory prohibition under the current state of play.  I state the current state of play in general overview, but do not develop many of the nuances, some of which are yet to come.  There undoubtedly will be further refinements as the courts address various unique fact patterns, so stay tuned.  With those caveats, here is my summary:

The most significant issue has been the timing of the written approval.  Once the courts accepted that timing must be before the assessment despite the statutory text, the issue is to identify the timing of the initial determination required for the written approval.  The statutory text provides no guide for determining that earlier timing, but by focusing on the requirement for an “initial determination” and the purpose indicated in the legislative history, courts have concluded that initial determination is “the document by which the Examination Division formally notifies the taxpayer, in writing, that it has completed its work and made an unequivocal decision to assert penalties.”  In the context of an income tax audit, the latest date for the initial determination is the 30-day letter (or an equivalent (including the 60-day letter in a TEFRA audit) sent to the taxpayer) stating Examination’s determination to assert one or more penalties and offering the taxpayer a right to contest the determination in Appeals.  Mere notice to the taxpayer that the agent is considering asserting penalties and asking the taxpayer to discuss the penalties is not the determination requiring written approval.  Further, a communication offering a reduced penalty as part of a campaign to settle issues such as abusive shelters involved many taxpayers which say that, if the settlement is not accepted, an examination will be conducted and may result in penalties is not an initial determination.  However, a Revenue Agent’s Report (“RAR”) including penalties delivered to the taxpayer is the written determination requiring written approval.  And, even a notice that the IRS has preliminarily determined to assert a penalty that the taxpayer can avoid by action on his part is not the initial determination requiring written approval.  Cutting through all this, the IRM was recently revised to state guidance to agents succinctly (perhaps cryptically) that the “written supervisory approval required under IRS 6751(b)(1) must be obtained prior to issuing any written communication of penalties to a taxpayer that offers the taxpayer an opportunity to [i] Sign an agreement, or [ii] Consent to assessment or proposal of the penalty.”  While that guidance may not be outcome determinative in cases arising from audits where the operative facts preceded the date of the new IRM, it perhaps might be the solution going forward to render the commotion around timing moot.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

New IRM provision on Offers in Compromise Including FBAR Penalties (10/8/20)

 I just picked up this provision in the IRM, here: (09-24-2020)

Foreign Bank and Financial Reporting (FBAR) Assessments

An offer may be submitted which includes FBAR assessments or a taxpayer who submitted an offer to compromise their tax liabilities also has assessments based on FBAR. Since, the IRS does not have authority to compromise assessments based on FBAR, the taxpayer should be requested to submit an amended offer to remove FBAR liabilities which are included on the Form 656.

Note: FBAR penalties are assessed under Title 31 and do not appear in IDRS.

If the taxpayer has a liability for assessments under FBAR, an offer for tax liabilities other than the FBAR may be investigated. During the review of the taxpayer’s financial information, the OE/OS should conduct additional investigation actions to determine if the taxpayer continues to have assets outside the United States. Review the ICS history to determine what research may have been conducted by a field revenue officer. The OE/OS may also issue an other investigation (OI) to an ATAT or International RO group to research FinCEN and/or CBRS to assist in identifying current foreign assets in which they retain an interest.

Note: The taxpayer may also have pending assessments related to Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative.

If the taxpayer is unable or unwilling to submit an amended offer removing the FBAR liabilities, the offer should be closed as a processable return.

JAT Comments:

1.  I am not sure how or if compromises of the FBAR penalties may be achieved.  I assume that there is some way to do that outside the IRS processes for tax liabilities.

2.  The known route to compromises of tax liabilities may be a side benefit of avoiding an FBAR penalty assessment under the various IRS programs (e.g., OVDP and Streamlined) where a substitute penalty is assessed as a miscellaneous tax penalty (sometimes called the “in lieu of” penalty).

This blog is cross-posted on the Federal Tax Crimes Blog, here.