Should Taxpayers File Amicus Briefs in Tax Court Cases?

Amicus–or “friend of the court”–briefs are not uncommon in Supreme Court and appellate court cases.  The purpose of an amicus brief is generally to provide assistance to the court by presenting additional arguments either in support or opposition of one of the litigant’s positions.  Amicus briefs should not rehash the same arguments presented by one of the parties, but rather should provide insights and a different perspective that is not presented by the parties, and to inform the court of the impact of the issues in the case on other affected parties.  The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure provide detailed rules on how and when to file an amicus brief.  See here for Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 29, which governs amicus filings.

Sometimes, amicus parties want to get involved at the trial court level before the trial record is fixed.  Thus, increasingly, amicus briefs are being filed in trial courts, and in particular in the United States Tax Court (Tax Court).  When, why and how to file an amicus brief in a trial court is not clear.  Indeed, most trial courts do not have procedural rules that directly address those filings.  This post provides an overview of some of the considerations and procedures for filing such briefs in a Tax Court case.

Whether to allow an amicus to participate in a case is within the sound discretion of the court.  Because the filing of an amicus brief is discretionary, the typical practice is to file a motion seeking permission or“leave” of the court to file an amicus brief accompanied with a statement stating that the litigants do, or do not, object to the filing of the amicus brief.

In deciding whether to grant permission to file anamicus brief, the Tax Court generally examines whether “the proffered information is timely, useful or otherwise helpful.”  The court also considers whether amici are advocates for one of the parties, have an interest in the outcome of the case and possess unique information or perspective.  This is consistent with the standards applied by other courts in making the determination.

Practice Point:  Several factors should be considered by taxpayers in deciding whether to file an amicus brief in Tax Court.  In addition to the cost, taxpayers may want to consider whether their position is being adequately represented by another taxpayer’s case and whether they believe that they can provide arguments that might persuade the court to adopt their position.  Participation as an amicus can also be helpful to taxpayers in coordinating legal positions and ensuring that the best possible arguments are presented on issues of first impression.  An effective amicus brief has the potential to persuade the court, and can be an effective tool to resolve an issue favorably.  This is especially true when, because of the specific facts of the taxpayer, the perspectives of other taxpayers are not adequately addressed.

Busy Start to Trump Administration Bodes Major Changes Are on the Way

In the first few weeks of the Trump administration, we have seen several indications that tax lawyers are going to be busy keeping up with the shifting sands of tax reform.

We learned from an Executive Order released on January 30, 2017 that for every new regulation that will be issued, two regulations must be eliminated In a release on February 2, 2017, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) clarified the edict explaining that it applies only to significant regulatory actions issued between January 20 and September 30, 2017.  This would apply to any regulation that:  (1) has annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affects the economy; (2) created serious inconsistencies or otherwise interferes with action taken or planned by another agency; or (3) raises a novel legal or policy issue.

Officials at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have stated that the IRS will not issue much guidance in the near future, but will be focusing its limited resources on comprehensive tax reform. Accordingly, other than necessary releases (for example, monthly interest rates), we expect based on comments from the IRS that there will be a substantial slow-down in the issuance of revenue rulings, revenue procedures and other types of published guidance. However, the IRS will continue to release private guidance, such as private letter rulings and chief counsel advice memoranda. Indeed, the IRS has indicated that it will look to open up the process for private letter rulings, and is seeking input from practitioners regarding important subjects.

In other news, the Senate last night confirmed Steven Mnuchin as the Secretary of the Treasury by a narrow margin of 53-47. With a new captain at the helm, and the Trump Administration’s stated desire for major tax reform, we expect a new direction for Treasury and substantial resources devoted to what our tax system may look like in the future.

Practice Point: It remains to be seen how the recent Executive Order will impact guidance from the Treasury and IRS, but all signs point to a slow-down in the issuance of published guidance. We expect that with less guidance, there is a potential for more controversy. For the foreseeable future, taxpayers and their advisors should to continue to monitor these new developments and how it may impact their operations.

Tax Court Affirms That Reportable Transaction Penalty Is Constitutional

In Thompson v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 3 148 (2017), the US Tax Court confirmed that the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 6662A penalty for reportable transactions is constitutional and does not violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

IRC Section 6662A(a) imposes a penalty on any “reportable transaction understatement.” A “reportable transaction understatement” generally refers to the difference between the increase in the amount of federal income tax that is calculated from the proper treatment of an item that results from a reportable or listed transaction and the taxpayers actually treatment of that item.  IRC Section 6662A(b). If a taxpayer fails to adequately disclose a reportable transaction giving rise to an understatement under IRC section 6662A, the penalty is imposed at a rate of 30 percent, and there are no available defenses. IRC Section 6662A(c). However, if a taxpayer sufficiently discloses the details of the transaction, the penalty rate is 20 percent of the amount of the reportable transaction understatement. IRC Section 6662A(a). In this latter instance, a taxpayer may avoid the penalty if he shows reasonable cause and good faith, as well as that there is substantial authority for a position he claimed on the tax return, and the taxpayer reasonably believed that such treatment was more likely than not the proper treatment of the transaction in question. IRC Section 6664(d)(1) and (3).

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Battat v. Commissioner: A Primer on the History of the US Tax Court

In Battat v. Commissioner, the US Tax Court recently affirmed its own constitutionality, in releasing an opinion relating to the President’s authority to remove Tax Court Judges.  The taxpayer filed a motion asking the court to disqualify all Tax Court Judges and to declare unconstitutional IRC Section 7443(f), which provides circumstances by which the President can remove Tax Court Judges.  The court denied this motion, holding that the President’s limited removal authority does not violate separation of powers principles.  The opinion describes the court’s operations, including procedures for the removal of judges, statutory provisions relating to the establishment and government of the court, and caselaw relating to the jurisprudence of the court.  Most interestingly, it provides a detailed history of the Tax Court—from its creation by Congress in 1924 as the Board of Tax Appeals and its reestablishment as the US Tax Court in 1969 through present day.

Revenue Procedure 2017-23: IRS Releases Guidance on Form 8975 and Country by Country Reporting

As a follow-up to regulations issued last June, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued Revenue Procedure 2017-23, which sets forth the process for filing Form 8975, Country-by-Country (CbC) Report, and accompanying Schedules A, Tax Jurisdiction and Constituent Entity Information (collectively, Form 8975), by ultimate parent entities of US multinational enterprise (MNE) groups for reporting periods beginning on or after January 1, 2016, but before the applicability date of §1.6038-4 (early reporting periods).

The Treasury Department and the IRS published final regulations on June 30, 2016 –Treas. Reg. 1.6038-4– that require ultimate parent entities of US MNE groups to report CbC information about the group’s income, taxes paid and location of economic activity. The impacted taxpayers must report this information annually via Form 8975. The CbC reporting regulations apply to reporting periods of ultimate parent entities of US MNE groups that begin on or after the first day of the first taxable year of the ultimate parent entity that begins on or after June 30, 2016.

For annual accounting periods beginning on or after January 1, 2016, some jurisdictions have adopted CbC reporting that would require an entity in that jurisdiction to report CbC information if it is part of an MNE group in which the ultimate parent resides in a jurisdiction without CbC reporting requirements for the same annual accounting period. This can result in constituent entities of a US MNE group being subject to various local CbC filing requirements for early reporting periods unless the ultimate parent entity files a Form 8975 in the US, or reports CbC information through surrogate filing in another jurisdiction.

The preamble to the US CbC reporting regulations addressed this issue by indicating that the Treasury Department and the IRS would provide a procedure for ultimate parent entities of US MNE groups to file Form 8975 for early reporting periods; Revenue Procedure 2017-23 is the resulting procedure.

The Revenue Procedure provides that, beginning on September 1, 2017, taxpayers may file Form 8975 for an early reporting period with their income tax return or other return as provided in the Instructions to Form 8975 for the taxable year of the ultimate parent entity of the US MNE group with or within which the early reporting period ends. Taxpayers can amend an income tax return for a taxable year that includes an early reporting period without a Form 8975 attached if they follow the normal procedures for filing an amended return, and attach the Form 8975 to the amended return within twelve months of the close of the taxable year that includes the early reporting period. Filing an amended return for the sole purpose of attaching Form 8975 will have no effect on the statute of limitations. Ultimate parent entities are encouraged to file their returns and Forms 8975 electronically through the IRS Modernized e-File system in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. The IRS plans to provide information on the Form 8975 to the software industry to allow time for developers to make Form 8975 available in their software prior to the September 1, 2017 implementation date.

Practice point: CbC reporting requirements are continuing to evolve in the US and abroad, and the IRS has provided welcome guidance through the new Revenue Procedure. MNEs are well-advised to continue to monitor developments in this area closely to ensure their compliance programs are up-to-date.

Change in Leadership at DOJ Tax Division

The Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division is responsible for litigating tax refund claims brought in Federal district courts and the Court of Federal Claims and handling appeals from decisions of the United States Tax Court (the Chief Counsel’s office is responsible for Tax Court litigation).  Effective January 23, 2017, David A. Hubbert became the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ Tax Division.  He replaces Carolyn Ciraolo, who resigned on January 20, 2017.  A copy of the DOJ press release, which includes biographical information on Mr. Hubbert, can be found here.  In accordance with the change, the Internal Revenue Service on January 31, 2017, announced corresponding changes in the address for correspondence to the DOJ Tax Division and the signature block for any Notice of Appeal from a Tax Court case.

Practice Note:  The changing of the guard is routine when there is a change in the administration, as demonstrated by the prior resignation of William J. Wilkins as Chief Counsel.  However, this year may be a little different as the new administration seems determined to “shake things up.”  In the coming weeks and months, we expect a lot of personnel changes.  Stay tuned!

IRS Issues IPU on Summons of Foreign Owned US Businesses

On January 30, 2017, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released an International Practice Unit (IPU) on the use of a summons under IRC Section 6038A (IRC Section 6038A Summons) when a US corporation is 25-percent owned by a foreign shareholder.  See IPU here. The IPU describes the steps that the IRS should take when issuing an IRC Section 6038A Summons, and what to do when the US corporation does not substantially comply with the summons.

In general, IRC Section 6038A imposes reporting and recordkeeping requirements (together with certain procedural compliance requirements) on domestic corporations that are 25-percent foreign-owned, which the regulations refer to as a domestic reporting corporation (DRC).  Among other requirements, a DRC is required to keep permanent books of account or records per IRC Section 6001 that are sufficient to establish the correctness of the federal income tax return of the DRC, including information, documents, or records to the extent they may be relevant to determine the correct US tax treatment of transactions with related parties. See Treas. Reg. Section 1.6038A-3.

The IRS may issue an IRC 6038A Summons when:  (i) the taxpayer under exam is a DRC; (ii) there was a transaction between the DRC and the 25 percent foreign shareholder or any foreign person related to the DRC or to such 25 percent foreign shareholder; and (iii) the DRC is appointed to act as a limited agent with respect to any request by the IRS to examine its records or produce testimony that may be relevant to the tax treatment of any transaction between the DRC and a foreign related party.  If the DRC does not substantially comply in a timely manner with the IRC 6038A Summons, the IRS has sole discretion to determine the amount of the DRC’s deductions related to transactions with, and the cost of property purchased from (or transferred to), the foreign related party.

The IPU is particularly relevant in light of final regulations published in the Federal Register on December 13, 2016 (TD 9796) which treat a domestic disregarded entity wholly owned by a foreign person as a domestic corporation for purposes of the reporting, record maintenance and associated compliance requirements under IRC Section 6038A.  The regulations are effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2016, and ending on or after December 13, 2017.  The IPU refers to these regulations in describing the criteria which must be met before the IRS issues an IRC Section 6038A Summons.

Practice Point:  For US entities that are owned by foreign entities and file US tax returns, it is crucial to have all of the relevant information for the entity in the US. US taxpayers are required to support all of the positions claimed on a return.  For example, if there are expenditures of the US entity that are paid for by the foreign affiliate, there should be adequate documentation in the US to support those payments.

Run for Cover—IRS Unveils Initial “Campaigns” for LB&I Audits

They’re here!  On January 31, 2017, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Large Business & International (LB&I) division released its much-anticipated announcement related to the identification and selection of campaigns.  The initial list identifies 13 compliance issues that LB&I is focused on and lists the specific practice area involved and the lead executive for each campaign.  Prior coverage of audit campaigns can be found here.

The initial list, along with descriptions of each campaign, is as follows:

Domestic Campaigns

  • Section 48C Energy Credits

This campaign is designed to ensure that only taxpayers whose advanced energy projects were approved by the Department of Energy, and who have been allocated a credit by the IRS, are claiming the credit.  Apparently, there has been confusion regarding which taxpayers are entitled to claim the credits.

  • Micro-Captive Insurance

This campaign addresses certain transactions described in Notice 2016-66 in which a taxpayer reduces aggregate taxable income using contracts treated as insurance contracts and a related company that the parties treat as a captive insurance company.  We previously blogged about Notice 2016-66 here. Captive insurance, along with basketing and inbound distribution, were three subject-matter specific campaigns announced during LB&I’s initial rollout last summer, as we discussed in our prior post on the subject.

  • Deferred Variable Annuity Reserves & Life Insurance Reserves

This campaign seeks to address uncertainties on issues important to the life insurance industry, including amounts to be taken into account in determining tax reserves for both deferred variable annuities with guaranteed minimum benefits, and life insurance contracts.

  • Distributors (MVPD’s) and TV Broadcasts

This campaign is targeted at multichannel video programming distributors and television broadcasters that may claim that groups of channels or programs are a qualified film for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 199 deduction.  The description indicates that LB&I has developed a strategy to identify taxpayers impacted by the issue and that it intends to develop training, including the development of a publicly published practice unit, published guidance, and issue based exams, to aid revenue agents.  It appears that this campaign stems from various private guidance issued in 2010, 2014 and 2016 on these issues.

  • Related Party Transactions

This campaign is focused on transactions among commonly controlled entities that the IRS believes might provide a taxpayer a means to transfer fund from the corporation to related pass-through entities or shareholders.  The campaign is aimed at the mid-market segment.

  • Basket Transactions

This campaign focuses on certain financial transactions described in Notices 2015-73 and 74, which relate to so-called basket transactions.  Basketing was a topic named during LB&I’s initial campaign announcement last summer, along with captive insurance and inbound distribution.

  • Land Developers – Completed Contract Method

This campaign addresses the Service’s concern that large land developers that construct residential communities may improperly be using the completed contract method.  This campaign appears to be a response to the Tax Court’s opinion in the Shea Homes case (available here.

  • TEFRA Linkage Plan Strategy

This campaign is focused on developing new procedures and technology to work collaboratively with revenue agents conducting TEFRA partnership examinations to identify, link, and assess tax to terminal investors that pose the most significant compliance risk.

  • S Corporation Losses Claimed in Excess of Basis

This campaign is in response to LB&I’s views that shareholders in S corporations may be claiming losses and deductions in excess of stock or debt basis.

International Campaigns

  • Repatriation

This campaign focuses on tax transactions that LB&I believes are being used for purposes of tax-free repatriation of funds into the U.S. in the mid-market population.  The goal of the campaign is to improve issue selection filters while conducting examinations on identified, high risk repatriation issues to increase taxpayer compliance.

  • Form 1120-F Non-Filer

This campaign is designed to identify and contact foreign companies doing business in the United States that are not meeting their Form 1120-F filing obligations.  The goal is to increase voluntary compliance, starting with soft letter outreach and escalating to examinations.

  • Inbound Distributor

This campaign addresses transfer pricing in the context of United States distributors of goods sourced from foreign-related parties that may have reported gains or losses that are no commensurate with the functions performed and the risk assumed.  This campaign, along with the captive insurance and basketing campaigns, were among those announced last summer by LB&I.

  • OVDP Declines-Withdrawals

This campaign addresses situations where taxpayers that have sought to enter the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) have been either denied access to OVDP or have withdrawn from OVDP. After seven years of the program, with a number of very old offshore cases still unresolved, this campaign appears to be the first formal effort to deal with rejected OVDP cases in an expressly coordinated manner.  It will be interesting to see how this campaign develops in light of recent suggestions that the formal OVDP may be nearing an end.

Practice Point: Taxpayers with any of the above issues should be prepared for focused audits directed at the issue and would be well-served preparing in advance for audits. The above is the “initial” list of the IRS’s focused examination program.  Taxpayers should be prepared for the roll-out of additional IRS “campaigns” in the coming months.  It is clear that the IRS is mounting a coordinated attack, leveraging its ever-shrinking resources in overly complicated tax-environment.

National Taxpayer Advocate 2016 Report – Penalties

Every year, the Taxpayer Advocate Service’s (TAS) Annual Report to Congress provides a unique perspective regarding the workings of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and how the IRS relates to the vast majority of taxpayers. That insight is particularly valuable when the IRS chooses to assert penalties—one of the most policy-driven decisions that the IRS can make. In its 2016 report, the TAS makes a number of important observations and recommendations related to three of the most commonly asserted types of penalties—accuracy-related penalties, failure-to-file and failure-to-pay penalties, and the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty.

Accuracy-Related Penalties

The TAS identified 122 cases litigated between June 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016 (the reporting period), involving accuracy-related penalties.  Of those cases, the IRS prevailed in full in 86 cases (70 percent), taxpayers prevailed in full in 20 cases (16 percent), and 16 cases were split decisions (13 percent) (percentages were rounded down in the original report). Unusual this year were the number of split decisions and the number of taxpayer wins in pro se cases. Many cases involving the negligence penalty turned upon the taxpayer’s failure to maintain adequate books and records related to the adjustments at issue.

In 2013, the TAS issued a study noting that the IRS’s imposition of accuracy-related penalties, subsequently abated after an assessment and a successful taxpayer appeal (among other fact patterns), could lead to a perception of unfairness among taxpayers regarding the IRS’s manner of assertion of these penalties. The TAS cited this study in its 2016 report, and noted again that this conduct could be detrimental to voluntary taxpayer compliance and could undermine the purpose of accuracy-related penalties.

In fact, a main priority of the Annual Report overall is to improve voluntary compliance, a fundamental element of our tax system. The TAS notes that “unnecessary coercion” by the IRS—whether through unsustained penalties or otherwise—could have the effect of reducing voluntary compliance.

Failure-to-File / Failure-to-Pay Penalties

The TAS identified 45 total decisions involving failure-to-file and failure-to-pay penalties in the reporting period.  Of these, 28 cases involved taxpayers representing themselves. The majority of cases involved full or partial taxpayer losses.

The TAS noted, consistent with our experience, that the IRS frequently relies upon selection of failure-to-file and failure-to-pay cases through its Reasonable Cause Assistant software, which makes the initial decision to impose the relevant penalties in most cases without significant human involvement.  Personal review of the penalty decision does not generally occur until after the taxpayer files an administrative appeal.  The TAS advocated for heightened personal review of these penalties and heightened consideration of relevant facts and circumstances potentially supporting abatement.

Trust Fund Recovery Penalties

The TAS noted that several Trust Fund Recovery Penalty cases this year had successfully challenged whether the penalty was properly noticed and assessed. United States v. Appelbaum, 117 A.F.T.R.2d 2016-633 (W.D.N.C.); Romano-Murphy v. United States, 816 F.3d 707 (11th Cir. 2016).

The TAS further discussed a number of unsuccessful taxpayer challenges to assessment of the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty on grounds of responsibility and willfulness. Consistent with the TAS’s previous positions, the TAS argued for a more generous standard of willfulness under Internal Revenue Code Section 6672 that would permit businesses to remain open, using “working capital,” while payment arrangements are worked out with the IRS.

Practice Note:  Even if they would not be eligible for assistance from the TAS, both large and small taxpayers are well-advised to review information gathered annually by the TAS and the TAS’s policy positions when mounting a defense against penalties asserted by the IRS.  The TAS continues to be a valuable resource and a key advocate for fairness in the penalty arena.

What to Expect During a Change of Administration

With the inauguration of President Trump, and the accompanying change of administration, the American people have been promised great change in all areas of the federal government. One question we at McDermott have been frequently asked since the election is: what should a taxpayer expect from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division while the transitions in the executive branch are taking place? Major tax policy changes are being discussed, but what about the immediate practical effects of a turnover in high-level personnel within these agencies, particularly if a taxpayer is under audit or investigation?

During a change in administration, taxpayers may be affected by any of the following:

  • If under audit, the exam team may ask for longer statute extensions than would otherwise apply, to account for possible delays in internal managerial-level approvals.
  • If a taxpayer is negotiating a settlement, and that settlement requires approval by the IRS National Office or the Assistant Attorney General for Tax, settlement approvals may be delayed due to personnel changes.
  • This applies to civil settlements reached with IRS Appeals, in Tax Court litigation, or in federal district court litigation. Delays are also possible for criminal agreements, including plea agreements, deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements.
  • Ongoing litigation (particularly appellate litigation) may be stayed or delayed, to the extent a case involves a policy position that the administration may want to change.
  • The regulatory freeze enacted by the Trump administration also affects procedural regulations, including proposed regulations related to the new partnership audit rules.

Initial comments from prospective Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin indicate that he believes IRS staffing should be increased, which would be a welcome change.  Any significant changes like this are likely to be long-term, however, so we are unlikely to see their effect for some time.

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