A war is currently waging in the tax world over when courts should give deference to the US Department of the Treasury’s regulations. (We have written extensively on this subject here and here.) However, another potential war looms: Can courts disregard validly promulgated regulations relied on by taxpayers in favor of their own statutory interpretation? This question lies at the heart of the Whirlpool case.
On June 30, 2022, Whirlpool asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s decision that income earned by a Luxembourg controlled foreign corporation was foreign base company sales income (FBCSI) under the branch rule of Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 954(d)(2) and taxable to the corporation as “subpart F income.”
During the trial phase of the litigation, the US Tax Court held that the branch income regulations (and the regulatory manufacturing exception therein), were validly promulgated and interpreted the regulations in a manner favorable to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). (See 154 T.C. 142 (2020).)
Whirlpool appealed, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed in a 2-1 decision. (See 19 F.4th 944 (6th Cir. 2021).) Unlike the Tax Court, which reached its decision by harmoniously reading the statute and regulations, the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the IRS based solely on its interpretation of IRC section 954(d)(2), ignoring the relevant regulations and how the IRS and other courts have interpreted them. For an excellent dissection of the Court’s ruling, please see our colleagues’ article, “Implications of the Sixth Circuit’s Whirlpool Opinion.”
Whirlpool sought rehearing and rehearing en banc in the Sixth Circuit. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Silicon Valley Tax Directors Group also filed amicus briefs supporting Whirlpool (McDermott acted as counsel for NAM in this capacity). However, the Sixth Circuit denied Whirlpool’s request for rehearing and rehearing en banc.
Now, Whirlpool is seeking the guidance of the Supreme Court, asking “whether or in what circumstances a statute that is expressly conditioned on regulations to be promulgated by an agency may be enforced without regard to such regulations.” In seeking certiorari, Whirlpool argues:
The divided Sixth Circuit below held that a tax statute explicitly conditioned on regulations to be promulgated by the Secretary of the Treasury delineating the income subject to taxation could be enforced without consulting the Secretary’s regulations, even though the regulations bound the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) and the IRS actually imposed tax based on the regulations. That decision directly contravenes [the Supreme] Court’s precedents and settled administrative-law principles. It upsets the reliance interests of taxpayers who, for more than 50 years, have relied on the regulations in structuring their operations. And this issue is outcome-determinative because — as the dissent below concluded — the income at issue is not taxable under a proper reading of the regulations (emphasis in original).
Whirlpool further argues that left unchecked, the Sixth Circuit’s decision will have enormous practical consequences as numerous US businesses have relied on the regulations to organize their foreign operations for more than 50 years:
As numerous commentators and amici curiae have made clear, the decision will directly affect many other taxpayers and produce billions of dollars of unjustified tax liability. Moreover, the Sixth Circuit’s decision in this case creates two different tax regimes across the nation — in the Sixth Circuit, whether branch income is FBCSI is determined based solely on the statute; elsewhere, it is determined based on the statute and regulations called for by Congress.
Practice Point: The Whirlpool case continues the seemingly never-ending battle over when, if and how to interpret and apply tax regulations, albeit in the context of whether agencies and courts must follow validly promulgated regulations. We hope that the Supreme Court, once again, accepts the challenge to add clarity in this area and specifically addresses situations where taxpayers rely on validly promulgated regulations.