Exxon Prevails in $200 Million Tax Penalty Case

On January 13, 2021, the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in favor of Exxon Mobil Corporation (“Exxon”) in its battle against the government over tax penalties. Exxon filed amended returns for its 2006-2009 tax years seeking a $1.35 billion tax refund based upon a change of character of certain transactions (from mineral leases to purchase transactions). The government disallowed the refund claims and imposed a $200 million penalty pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 6676. Exxon paid the penalty and filed suit for a refund.

We have written extensively concerning IRC section 6676, warning taxpayers of this potential landmine. See, e.g., Taxpayers Should Prepare for the Next Penalty Battleground” Roberson, Spencer and Walters, Law360 (May 21, 2019) and “Expect More Civil Tax Penalties—So, Now What?” Roberson and Spencer, Tax Executive (Sept. 27, 2019). To recap, IRC Section 6676 was enacted in 2007 in response to the high number of meritless refund claims being filed at the time. It imposes a 20% penalty to the extent that a claim for refund or credit with respect to income tax is made for an “excessive amount.” An “excessive amount” is defined as the difference between the amount of the claim for credit or refund sought and the amount that is actually allowable. For example, if the taxpayer claims a refund of $2 million and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows only $1 million, the taxpayer can still be penalized $200,000.Significantly, IRC section 6676 does not require the IRS to show any fault or culpability on the part of the taxpayer—e.g., negligence, disregard of rules or regulations, etc. IRC section 6676(a) originally provided a “reasonable basis” defense (which is applicable to the Exxon case), but in 2015 Congress amended the statute and now requires a showing of “reasonable cause.” Neither the Code nor the regulations provide for any other defense to the IRC section 6676 penalty. Moreover, the penalty is immediately assessable, meaning taxpayers cannot fight the IRS in a pre-payment forum like the US Tax Court but must first pay the penalty and seek redress in a refund form.

In Exxon, the government argued that the court should overlay a subjective element on “reasonable basis,” as the US Circuit Court for the Eighth Circuit did in Wells Fargo & Co. v. United States, 957 F.3d 840 (8th Cir. 2020). Our prior coverage of this case can be found here. The Exxon court declined the invitation. Instead, the court explained IRC section 6676 “focuses on whether the claim had a reasonable basis, not on whether the taxpayer had a reasonable basis.” The court agreed with Exxon that its position in the refund claim that its transactions were purchases was reasonable based on the relevant authorities. It further found that the company had “colorable support for its legal contention that a change that affects whether, not when, an item comes into income is not an impermissible change in accounting method,” and, accordingly, no penalty applied related to an impermissible change in accounting method.

Practice Point:

Exxon is helpful in defining “reasonable basis” for purposes of IRC section 6676, as well as for other penalties, like IRC section 6662. However, the case may be of limited impact to taxpayers going forward given the 2015 statutory change to impose the higher “reasonable cause” standard. Taxpayers should be mindful of IRC section 6676 when filing a refund claim. If this penalty could apply to your refund claim, we strongly suggest you prepare for a reasonable cause defense by, for example, obtaining a tax opinion from a learned and fully informed tax professional. Just be cognizant that if you raise the reasonable cause defense you will be waiving any protections of the attorney-client privilege over that advice and all communications related to the subject matter of the advice.



Weekly IRS Roundup January 11 – January 15, 2021

Presented below is our summary of significant Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance and relevant tax matters for the week of January 11, 2021 – January 15, 2021. Additionally, for continuing updates on the tax impact of COVID-19, please visit our resource page here.

January 11, 2021: The IRS released TD 9948 containing final regulations relating to the excise taxes imposed on certain amounts paid for transportation of persons and property by air.

January 11, 2021: The IRS released TD 9938 setting forth final regulations related to the excise tax on remuneration in excess of $1 million and any excess parachute payment paid by certain tax-exempt organizations to covered employees.

January 12, 2021: The IRS released TD 9946 containing final regulations related to the deduction and reporting of certain fines, penalties and other amounts.

January 13, 2021: The IRS released TD 9949 providing final regulations concerning the application of the employer shared responsibility provisions and certain nondiscrimination rules to health reimbursement arrangements and certain other health plans.

January 14, 2021: The IRS released Rev. Proc. 21-11 providing methods for calculating W-2 wages for purposes of the wage limitation for the section 199A(g) deduction.

January 14, 2021: The IRS released Rev. Proc. 21-12 extending, in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the expiration date relevant to the application of certain safe harbors protecting the tax status of certain real estate mortgage investment conduits (REMICs) and investment trusts.

January 15, 2021: The IRS released Rev. Rul. 21-03 providing tables of covered compensation related to the contribution and benefit bases under the Social Security Act.

January 15, 2021: The IRS released Notice 21-12 providing temporary relief, due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, from certain requirements for qualified low-income housing projects and qualified residential rental projects.

January 15, 2021: The IRS released its weekly list of written determinations (e.g., Private Letter Rulings, Technical Advice Memorandums and Chief Counsel Advice).

January 15, 2021: The IRS released Internal Revenue Bulletin 2021-3, dated January 19, 2021, containing the following highlights: Notice 2021-7 (Administrative, Employment); TD 9932 (Employee Plans, Income Tax); REG-114615-16 (Excise Tax); Notice 2021-2 (Income Tax); Notice 2021-5 (Income Tax); Rev. Proc. 2021-9 (Income Tax); TD 9939 (Income Tax); TD 9941 (Income Tax); and TD 9942 (Income Tax).

Special thanks to Brian Moore in our Washington, DC, office for this week’s roundup.



Weekly IRS Roundup December 28, 2020 – January 8, 2021

Presented below is our summary of significant Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance and relevant tax matters for the weeks of December 28, 2020 – January 8, 2021. Additionally, for continuing updates on the tax impact of COVID-19, please visit our resource page here.

December 29, 2020: The IRS released Revenue Procedure 21-09 providing a procedure for a trade or business that manages or operates a qualified residential living facility to elect to be treated as a real property trade or business for purposes of section 163(j).

December 31, 2020: The IRS issued Notice 21-05 clarifying and modifying the beginning of construction requirement for qualified facility and energy property projects under sections 45 and 48.

December 31, 2020: The IRS released its weekly list of written determinations (e.g., Private Letter Rulings, Technical Advice Memorandums and Chief Counsel Advice).

December 31, 2020: The IRS released Internal Revenue Bulletin 2021-1, dated January 4, 2021, containing the following highlights: Rev. Proc. 2021-1 (Administrative); Rev. Proc. 2021-2 (Administrative); Rev. Proc. 2021-3 (Administrative); Rev. Proc. 2021-4 (Employee Plans); Rev. Proc. 2021-5 (Exempt Organizations); and Rev. Proc. 2021-7 (Income Tax).

January 4, 2021: The IRS issued Notice 21-07 providing temporary relief for employers and employees using the automobile lease valuation rule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

January 5, 2021: The IRS issued Revenue Procedure 21-08 modifying Revenue Procedure 2021-5 to provide that the exclusive means of submitting Form 1024-A, after the 90-day transition relief period, is through the electronic submission process.

January 5, 2021: The IRS issued Revenue Procedure 21-10 providing procedures for issuers of tax-advantaged bonds who received adverse determinations by the Office of Tax Exempt Bonds to request an administrative appeal from the Independent Office of Appeals.

January 5, 2021: The IRS released TD 9943 containing the final regulations under section 163(j) related to the limitation on the deduction for business interest expense.

January 6, 2021: The IRS issued Revenue Ruling 21-02 declaring Notice 2020-32 and Rev. Rul. 2020-27, both of which provided that certain taxpayers could not deduct expenses related to loans forgiven under the Paycheck Protection Program, as obsolete.

January 6, 2021: The IRS released TD 9944 containing the final regulations under section 45Q related to the credit for carbon oxide sequestration.

January 7, 2021: The IRS released TD 9945 containing the final regulations under section 1061 related to the characterization of gains for taxpayers directly or indirectly holding applicable partnership interests in connection with the performance of substantial services.

January 8, 2021: The IRS released its weekly list of written determinations (e.g., Private Letter Rulings, Technical Advice Memorandums and Chief Counsel Advice).

January 8, 2021: The IRS released Internal Revenue Bulletin 2021-2, dated January 11, 2021, containing the following highlights: TD 9940 (Administrative); Notice 2021-03 (Employee Plans); Notice 2021-04 (Excise Tax); REG-130081-19 (Excise Tax); Notice 2021-01 (Exempt Organizations); Rev. Rul. 2021-01 (Income Tax); and TD 9925 (Income Tax).

Special thanks to Brian Moore in our Washington, DC, office and Samuel DiPietro in our Chicago office for this week’s roundup.



Weekly IRS Roundup December 21 – December 26, 2020

Presented below is our summary of significant Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance and relevant tax matters for the week of December 21 – December 26, 2020. Additionally, for continuing updates on the tax impact of COVID-19, please visit our resource page here.

December 21, 2020: The IRS released TD 9941 containing final regulations regarding the timing of income inclusion under an accrual method of accounting, including the treatment of advance payments for goods, services and certain other items.

December 22, 2020: The IRS issued Notice 21-02 providing the standard mileage rate for 2021.

December 22, 2020: The IRS issued Notice 21-03 extending temporary relief from the physical presence requirement for spousal consents under certain qualified retirement plans.

December 22, 2020: The IRS issued Notice 21-04 extending temporary relief for certain dyed fuel removals related to the West Shore Pipeline shutdown.

December 23, 2020: The IRS released TD 9942 containing final regulations implementing simplifications to certain tax accounting provisions for certain businesses with annual gross receipts less than $25 million (as adjusted for inflation).

December 24, 2020: The IRS released its weekly list of written determinations (e.g., Private Letter Rulings, Technical Advice Memorandums and Chief Counsel Advice).

December 26, 2020: The IRS released Internal Revenue Bulletin 2020-53, dated December 28, 2020, containing the following highlights: Rev. Proc. 2020-55 (Administrative); Notice 2020-88 (Administrative, Income Tax); Rev. Proc. 2020-54 (Administrative, Income Tax); Notice 2020-86 (Employee Plans); Notice 2020-87 (Employee Plans); Notice 2020-78 (Income Tax); TD 9921 (Income Tax).

Special thanks to Brian Moore in our Washington, DC, office for this week’s roundup.



Weekly IRS Roundup December 14 – December 18, 2020

Presented below is our summary of significant Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance and relevant tax matters for the week of December 14 – December 18, 2020. Additionally, for continuing updates on the tax impact of COVID-19, please visit our resource page here.

December 14, 2020: The IRS released Notice 2020-88 updating and amplifying procedures for Phase III of the section 48A advanced coal credit.

December 16, 2020: The IRS issued Revenue Ruling 21-01 providing various rates for determining the issue price of certain debt instruments issued for property.

December 16, 2020: The IRS issued Notice 21-01 delaying mandatory e-filing of Form 4720 by private foundations and announcing certain other changes.

December 18, 2020: The IRS released TD 9932 containing final regulations under Section 162(m) related to the employer deduction for certain employee remuneration in excess of $1 million.

December 18, 2020: The IRS released Internal Revenue Bulletin 2020-52, dated December 21, 2020, containing the following highlights: Rev. Rul. 2020-81 (Administrative); TD 9912 (Administrative); TD 9933 (Exempt Organizations); TD 9934 (Income Tax); TD 9935 (Income Tax).

December 18, 2020: The IRS released Practice Units on “Determining Liability Allocations” and “Recourse vs. Nonrecourse Liabilities” relating to partnership audits.

December 18, 2020: The IRS released its weekly list of written determinations (e.g., Private Letter Rulings, Technical Advice Memorandums and Chief Counsel Advice).

Special thanks to Brian Moore in our Washington, DC, office for this week’s roundup.



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