Court Rejects Taxpayer’s Claim for US-Swiss Treaty Coverage

On August 14, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (DC District Court) decided Starr International Company, Inc. v. United States. In Starr International, the DC District Court held that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was not arbitrary or capricious in finding at least one of the taxpayer’s principal purposes for moving its residency to Switzerland was to obtain tax benefits under the US-Swiss Treaty.

Before discussing the facts and holding in Starr International, it is helpful to set the stage for the dispute. The United States has a bilateral tax treaty with a number of nations to avoid double taxation and encourage cross-border investments. Bilateral tax treaties provide benefits to residents of the two contracting states. The United States has a bilateral tax treaty with Switzerland (the US-Swiss Treaty). Treaty benefits under the US-Swiss Treaty are generally desirable for qualified taxpayers because treaty coverage reduces the tax on certain types of transactions, such as US-source dividend income for Swiss residents.

Article 1 of the US-Swiss Treaty provides, except as otherwise provided, the Treaty shall apply to persons who are residents of Switzerland. A person generally is treated as a resident of Switzerland if that person, under Swiss law, is liable to tax therein by reason of his domicile, residence or other similar criteria. However, Article 22, Limitation on Benefits, provides additional criteria to claim benefits provided for in the US-Swiss Treaty.

The Limitation on Benefits provision of the US-Swiss Treaty contains multiple objective tests to claim benefits provided for in the US-Swiss Treaty. All the tests provided in Article 22 aim to identify entities with legitimate, non-tax purposes for residency in Switzerland. This provision intends to stop taxpayers from “treaty shopping” and establishing residency in Switzerland with the principal purpose of obtaining benefits of the US-Swiss Treaty.

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Sovereign Immunity Principles Bar Taxpayers from Challenging John Doe Summonses

We recently wrote here about “John Doe” summonses and a case where an anonymous “John Doe” was allowed to intervene in a summons enforcement action. To refresh, under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 7602 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has broad authority to issue administrative summonses to taxpayers and third parties to gather information to ascertain the correctness of any return. If the IRS does not know the identity of the parties whose records would be covered by the summons, the IRS may issue a “John Doe” summons to a third party to produce documents related to the unidentified taxpayers.

In Hohman v. United States, Case No. 16-cv-11429 (E.D. Mich. July 11, 2017), two John Doe summonses directed a banking institution to deliver to the IRS records related to three accounts, which were identified only by account numbers. Two of the accounts were held by limited liability companies (LLCs) and the other was held by an individual. The banking institution notified some of the account-holders that it had received a John Doe summons that sought records for accounts relating to them.

The account-holders filed a civil action, alleging that the IRS’s efforts to obtain their financial records through the use of John Doe summonses violated the federal Right to Financial Privacy Act (RFPA). The RFPA accords customers of banks and similar financial institutions certain rights to be notified of and to challenge in court administrative subpoenas of financial records in the possession of banks.  The individual account-holder did not allege that the IRS actually obtained or disclosed any records of account information as a result of the John Doe summons.

The government moved, under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), to dismiss the RFPA claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The government asserted that it has sovereign immunity from the account-holders’ RFPA claims. The waiver of sovereign immunity under the RFPA applies only to claims that a government authority disclosed or obtained financial records.

The court agreed with the government. First, the court concluded that the RFPA’s waiver of sovereign immunity applies only to “customers,” and the LLCs were not “customers” as defined under the RFPA. The court reasoned that the plain language of the RFPA does not state that an LLC is either a “person” or a “customer” and the court was not at liberty to expand the definitions. Second, the court concluded that sovereign immunity was not waived with respect to the individual’s claim because the individual had not alleged that the IRS actually obtained or disclosed any financial records or information from the account as a result of the John Doe summons.

Practice point:  Although waivers of sovereign immunity are often construed strictly, taxpayers should consult with their advisors to determine whether their particular facts may allow an action against the government.

Grecian Magnesite Mining v. Commissioner: Foreign Investor Not Subject to US Tax on Sale of Partnership Interest

In a long-awaited decision, the US Tax Court recently held that gain realized by a foreign taxpayer on the sale of a partnership engaged in a US trade or business was a sale of a capital asset not subject to US tax, declining to follow Revenue Ruling 91-32. The government has yet to comment regarding its intentions to appeal.

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McDermott Named “Law Firm of the Year” at 2017 US Captive Services Awards

McDermott Will & Emery is pleased to announce our Captive Insurance team was named “Law Firm of the Year” at the 2017 US Captive Services Awards in Burlington, Vermont. Elizabeth Erickson, partner in our US & International Tax practice group, was on-site to accept the award on behalf of the Firm.

The judges noted that, “McDermott Will & Emery’s varied legal practice ensures captive clients can go to the firm on a range of issues – from claims and tax to regulatory and transactional.” The judges were impressed by the Firm’s “impressive book of case work and deep understanding of the captive sector.”

This is the second year in a row that McDermott earned a significant award from Captive Review. In 2016, the Firm received the “Onshore Law Firm of the Year” award for its contributions to the captive market through legal expertise and innovation, strategic vision and business winning client care. In past years, the Firm has also been named “Tax Advisory Firm of the Year” and “Captive Healthcare Specialist of the Year.”

McDermott’s Captive Insurance team provides integrated tax, corporate, regulatory and insurance coverage, and reinsurance claims and disputes services to captives and industry participants in high-profile matters affecting the global insurance and reinsurance markets. The team includes McDermott’s insurance coverage practitioners who have decades of experience litigating and resolving high-exposure coverage and reinsurance disputes throughout the United States and in offshore jurisdictions, as well as precedential and other sensitive matters affecting CGL, D&O, E&O, EPL, property, crime, marine, legacy and other lines of business.

For more information on the 2017 US Captive Service Awards, please click here.

by Reciprocity Studio

The IRS Is Struck Down Again in Privilege Dispute

Courts continue to strike down the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as it continues to test the bounds of the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine through the issuance of improper summonses. In the last several years, the IRS has filed numerous summons enforcement proceedings related to the production of documents generally protected by the attorney-client privilege, tax-practitioner privilege, and/or work product doctrine. These summonses include overt requests for “tax advice” and “tax analysis,” which several courts have refused to enforce. For example, see Schaeffler v. United States, 806 F.3d 34 (2d Cir. 2015).

Once again, in United States v. Micro Cap KY Insurance Co., Inc. (Eastern District of Kentucky), a federal district court rejected the IRS’s arguments and refused to enforce an inappropriate summons. The opinion is available here. The IRS filed this enforcement proceeding seeking to compel the production of confidential communications between taxpayers and the lawyers that assisted them in forming a captive insurance company. After conducting an in camera review (where the judge privately reviewed the documents without admitting them in the record), the judge found the taxpayers had properly invoked privilege since each document “predominately involve[d] legal advice within the retention of [] counsel.”

The court also rejected the government’s argument that the attorney-client privilege was waived by raising a reasonable cause and reliance on counsel defense to penalties in the taxpayers’ case filed in Tax Court. Because the government’s argument was untimely, it was waived and rejected outright. The court, however, proceeded to explain how the argument also failed on its merits. Continue Reading

TIGTA Pounces on IRS Federal Records Retention Policies; Recommends Changes

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) recently summarized several critical deficiencies in how the IRS handles electronically stored federal records in a recent report, available here. The lapses identified by TIGTA may affect the availability of those electronic records for future Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, litigation and Congressional review. The report does not address the IRS’s retention policy for physical documents.

Federal law mandates the retention of the government’s federal records. Unfortunately, prior to May 22, 2013, IRS electronic asset disposal policies included instructions to “wipe” and “reimage” computer hard drives that were no longer needed by IRS users. If those computers were the only repository for electronically stored federal records, that information would be lost. TIGTA noted that, even though the IRS revisited those policies several times, computers were still being wiped and reimaged as part of the IRS’s migration to Windows 7 through January 14, 2016. This also affects email retention since users are often required to manually identify and store or print their email records. An upgraded email solution that will permit the automatic retention and storage of email records is being implemented.

Further, TIGTA determined the IRS’ storage and retention policies for computers that were not wiped or reimaged were ineffective. For example, TIGTA found that the IRS has approximately 32,000 laptops and desktops in storage, but an inventory report identifying the number and location of computing devices currently in storage from specific employees could not be readily produced, rendering electronic federal records on those devices essentially unavailable.

These inadequate electronic record retention policies have resulted in the destruction of material subject to litigation holds, delays in the FOIA process, and the unavailability of responsive documents for FOIA requests. TIGTA made the following recommendations, which the IRS agreed to:

  • An enterprise email system should be implemented that enables the IRS to comply with federal records management requirements.
  • A methodology for developing one list of executives for the permanent and 15-year email retention groups should be documented.
  • The newly issued policy on the collection and preservation of federal records associated with separated employees should be disseminated broadly within the agency.
  • The director should ensure that the policy for documenting search efforts is followed by all employees involved in responding to FOIA requests.
  • The director should develop a consistent policy for the search of federal records associated with separated employees.

Practice Point: When drafting FOIA requests and discovery requests for electronic records, practitioners should be aware of record-retention challenges facing the IRS since they will impact the IRS’s ability to fully respond to FOIA requests and adequately implement litigation holds for years to come.

President Trump Nominates Copeland and Urda to US Tax Court

On August 3, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated two judges to the US Tax Court. The nominations were received in the US Senate (Senate) and referred to the Committee on Finance.

One of the nominees, Elizabeth Copeland, was previously nominated by President Barack Obama. Her previous nomination expired with the conclusion of the 114th Congress in January 2017. The Committee on Finance unanimously approved her previous nomination, but the nomination was never voted on by the full Senate. Copeland is a partner at the law firm Strasburger & Price, LLP. If confirmed, she will be assuming the position left vacant by the 2015 retirement of Judge James S. Halpern. Judge Halpern still performs judicial duties as a Senior Judge on recall.

The second nominee, Patrick Urda, is counsel to the deputy assistant attorney general in the US Department of Justice’s Tax Division. If confirmed, he will be assuming the position left vacant by the 2014 retirement of Judge Diane L. Kroupa. We previously covered the circumstances of Judge Kroupa’s retirement and related criminal proceedings.

A 360-Degree View: July and August 2017

Wrapping up July—and Looking Forward to August

Tax Controversy Activities in August:

August 7, 2017: Elizabeth Erickson and Kristen Hazel will be representing McDermott Will & Emery at the 2017 US Captive Awards in Burlington, Vermont. McDermott has been shortlisted in the Law Firm category.

August 8, 2017: Tom Jones is presenting an update on Captive Insurance Tax in Burlington, Vermont, at the Vermont Captive Insurance Association Annual Conference “Mission: Possible”— the largest captive insurance conference in the US by number of paid attendees.

August 18, 2017: Todd Welty is speaking at the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants Advanced Estate Planning Conference about:

  • Current developments in federal transfer taxes
  • Current state of federal tax reform
  • Proposed changes to state death tax laws and the impact of those changes on estate
  • Gift and trust planning
  • Consistent basis regulations
  • The state of valuation discounts
  • Recent rulings on defined value clauses and charitable gifts

August 23, 2017: Tom Jones is presenting an update on Annual Federal & State Tax at the North Carolina Captive Insurance Association Annual Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Wrapping up July:

Our July 2017 blog posts are available on taxcontroversy360.com, or read each article by clicking on the titles below. To receive the latest on state and local tax news and commentary directly in your inbox as they are posted, click here to subscribe to our email list.

July 14, 2017: Tracking Tax Guidance and Court Cases

July 17, 2017: New IRS CbC Resource

July 18, 2017: Courts Rejects Challenge to OVDP Transition Rules

July 19, 2017: Tax Court Rejects IRS Reliance on “Cursory” Analysis in Revenue Ruling

July 21, 2017: John Doe Intervenes in Virtual Currency Summons Enforcement Case

July 24, 2017: BEWARE: Whistleblowers Can “Out” You to the IRS!

July 26, 2017: Virtual IRS Appeals – A New Frontier?

July 27, 2017: IRS Rules (Again) That Taxpayers Are Not Entitled to Claimed Refined Coal Credits

July 28, 2017: Tax Court Hands Eaton a Complete Victory on the Cancellation of its Advance Pricing Agreements

July 31, 2017: Senate Attempts to Repeal Chevron Deference

Tax Court Addresses “Issue of First Impression” Defense to Penalties

We previously posted on what we called the “issue of first impression” defense to penalties and the recent application of this defense by the United States Tax Court (Tax Court) in Peterson v. Commissioner, a TC Opinion. We noted that taxpayers may want to consider raising this defense in cases where the substantive issue is one for which there is no clear guidance from the courts or the Internal Revenue Service. Yesterday’s Memorandum Opinion by the Tax Court in Curtis Investment Co., LLC v. Commissioner, addressed the issue of first impression defense in the context of the taxpayer’s argument that it acted with reasonable cause and good faith in its tax reporting position related to certain Custom Adjustable Rate Debt Structure (CARDS) transactions. For the difference between TC and Memorandum Opinions, see here.

The Tax Court (and some appellate courts) has addressed the tax consequences of CARDS transactions in several cases, each time siding with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In its opinions in those other cases, the Tax Court has found that the CARDS transaction lacks economic substance. The court in Curtis Investment concluded that the CARDS transactions before it was essentially the same as the CARDS transactions in the other cases with only immaterial differences. Applying an economic substance analysis, the Tax Court held the taxpayer issue lacked a genuine profit motive and did not have a business purpose for entering into the CARDS transactions. Continue Reading

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