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Government Files Its Brief in Auer Deference Case

As we discussed in a prior post and in our article for Law360, the Supreme Court is poised to decide in Kisor v. Wilkie whether to overrule the Auer deference doctrine. This doctrine, which originated in the 1945 Seminole Rock case, generally affords controlling deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations. To date, the petitioner has filed its brief, several amici have filed briefs and the government has filed its brief (links to these documents can be found here). Argument is currently scheduled for March 27, 2019, and an opinion is anticipated by the end of June 2019.

The government’s brief, filed on February 25, 2019, acknowledges that Auer deference raises serious concerns. Specifically, the government states that the basis for the doctrine is unclear, the doctrine is in tension with the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and overly broad deference to agency interpretations can have harmful practical consequences. However, relying on principles of stare decisis, the government advocates for maintaining Auer deference subject to certain prerequisites that would limit the doctrine. These prerequisites include applying deference only after all traditional tools of construction have been exhausted and only if the agency’s interpretation has reasonably interpreted any ambiguity. In deciding whether to defer to the agency’s interpretation, a reviewing court should look at whether the interpretation: (1) was issued with fair notice to regulated parties, (2) is not inconsistent with the agency’s prior views, (3) rests on the agency’s expertise and (4) represents the agency’s considered view (i.e., not merely the views of “mere field officials or other low-level employees”). Presumably these limits would curtail the application of Auer deference in circumstances where the agency’s interpretation is first widely known only because of a litigating position.

Practice Point: The Supreme Court’s decision in Kisor v. Wilkie will be important for taxpayers and their representatives in light of the substantial regulatory guidance issued in the wake of tax reform. We will continue to follow this case and provide updates after argument is held and the case is decided.




DC Circuit Reverses Tax Court and Holds Section 883 Regulations Invalid under Chevron Test

On March 28, 2017, the US Tax Court (Tax Court) issued its opinion in Good Fortune Shipping SA v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 10, upholding the validity of Treas. Reg. § 1.883-4. The taxpayer had challenged the validity of the regulation’s provision that stock in the form of “bearer shares” cannot be counted for purposes of determining the more-than-50-percent ownership test under Internal Revenue Code (Code) section 883(c)(1), but the Tax Court held that the regulation was valid under the two-step analysis of Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984), and applied it in ruling for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). We previously discussed the Tax Court’s opinion here. The taxpayer appealed the Tax Court’s decision to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (DC Circuit).

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Fifth Circuit Dismisses Anti-Inversion Regulation Case

We previously posted on the Order by the US District Court for the Western District of Texas in Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, et al. v. Internal Revenue Service, Dkt. No. 1:16-CV-944-LY (W.D. Tex. Sept. 29, 2017). To recap, the district court held that Treas. Reg. § 1.7874-8T was unlawfully issued because it violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) by not providing affected parties with notice and an opportunity to comment on the temporary regulations. In addition to the APA analysis, the court’s Order was noteworthy for its conclusion that the plaintiff’s claims were not barred by the Anti-Injunction Act because the regulations did not involve assessment or collection of tax.

As we updated our readers, the government appealed the Order to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. However, the case was stayed while the regulation underwent notice and comment. And, on July 11, 2018, Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service issued final regulations addressing inversion standards. On July 26, 2018, the government moved to dismiss its appeal with prejudice as moot. The Fifth Circuit has granted the government’s motion, thus ending the dispute.

Because the case was dismissed by the Fifth Circuit, the district court’s Order remains on the books. But what value does that Order have? As a technical matter, district court opinions are not precedential. However, lack of precedential value does not render the Order meaningless. If another court addressing a similar issue were to find the district court’s analysis to be well-reasoned and thorough, it might consider it persuasive on deciding the issue. One would certainly expect that a subsequent court would, at a minimum, have to address the Order if faced with a similar issue. For more reading on the precedential and persuasive value of opinions and order, see here.

Practice Point: The Order in the Chamber of Commerce case may be helpful to taxpayers desiring to challenge regulations on APA grounds and provides authority for a pre-enforcement challenge. It remains to be seen whether other courts will find the Order persuasive.




Senate Attempts to Repeal Chevron Deference

In Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. 467 US 837 (1984), the Supreme Court of the United States established a framework for assessing an agency’s interpretation of statutory provisions. First, a reviewing court must ask whether Congress “delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law,” and whether the agency’s interpretation was promulgated under that authority. United States v. Mead Corporation, 533 US 218, 226–27 (2001). Delegation may be shown in a variety of ways, including “an agency’s power to engage in adjudication or notice-and-comment rulemaking, or by some other indication of a comparable congressional intent.” Id. at 227. If an agency has been delegated the requisite authority, the analysis is segmented into two steps.

Under step one, the reviewing court asks whether Congress has clearly spoken on the precise question at issue. See Chevron, 467 US at 842. If so, both the court and agency must follow the “unambiguously expressed intent of Congress,” and the inquiry ends. Id. at 842–43.

If the statute under review is ambiguous or silent, the reviewing court moves to step two: whether the agency’s interpretation is based on “a permissible construction of the statute.” Id. at 842. This inquiry asks whether the interpretation is reasonable and not “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.” Chevron, 467 US at 843; see also Judulang v. Holder, 565 US 42, 53 n.7 (2011); Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, 579 US ____, 136 S. Ct. 2117, 2125 (2016). If the agency’s interpretation passes muster, then the agency’s interpretation is given Chevron deference, and afforded the force of law. The Chevron two-part analysis applies to tax regulations issued by the United States Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education & Research v. United States, 562 US 44, 55 (2011). (more…)




Tax Court Holds Section 883 Regulations Valid under Chevron Test

On March 28, 2017, the US Tax Court issued its opinion in Good Fortune Shipping SA v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 10, upholding the validity of regulations issued under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 883.

Code Section 887(a) imposes a four percent tax on a foreign corporation’s US-source gross transportation income for each year. Code Section 883(c)(1) exempts from US tax a foreign corporation’s gross income from the international operation of ships if the foreign country in which the corporation is organized grants an equivalent exemption to corporations organized in the United States. Code Section 883(c)(1) provides that this exemption does not apply if 50 percent or more of the value of a foreign corporation’s stock is owned, directly or indirectly, by individuals who are not residents of a foreign country that grants an equivalent exemption to US corporations. Regulations issued under Section 883 provide that ownership through shares of a foreign corporation issued in bearer form is disregarded in determining whether the corporation passes the 50 percent or more test (Ownership Regulations).

The taxpayer in Good Fortune Shipping challenged the validity of the Ownership Regulations. It based its challenge on its claim that the Ownership Regulations do not satisfy the two prongs of the test under Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). This argument, in turn, was based primarily—if not exclusively—on the taxpayer’s assertion that US Congress had left no “gap” in Code Section 883 for US Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to fill; this is because the operative term “own” that appears in the statute has a common, ordinary meaning such that further interpretation by the IRS is not necessary. Thus, the taxpayer argued, the Ownership Regulations fail step one of the Chevron analysis. (more…)




Court Opinions – A Year In Review

Several notable court opinions were issued 2016 dealing with a variety of substantive and procedural matters. In our previous post – Tax Controversy 360 Year in Review: Court Procedure and Privilege – we discussed some of these matters. This post addresses some additional cases decided by the court during the year and highlights some other cases still in the pipeline.

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Altera Corporation Files Answering Brief in Commissioner’s Ninth Circuit Appeal of Altera

In Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. No. 3 (July 27, 2015), the Tax Court, in a unanimous reviewed opinion, held that regulations under Section 482 requiring parties to a qualified cost-sharing agreement (“QCSA”) to include stock-based compensation costs in the cost pool to comply with the arm’s-length standard were procedurally invalid because Treasury and the IRS did not engage in the “reasoned decisionmaking” required by the Administrative Procedures Act and the cases interpreting it. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue (“Commissioner”) appealed this holding to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Dkt. Nos. 16-70496, 16-70497. The Commissioner filed his opening brief on June 27, 2016. Two groups of law school professors filed amicus briefs in support of the Commissioner’s position. On September 9, 2016, Altera Corporation (“Altera”) filed its answering brief with the Ninth Circuit.

Altera begins with the observation that the Commissioner “has remarkably little to say” about the Tax Court’s rationale in holding the QCSA regulation invalid. According to Altera, the Commissioner either did not respond to the salient points in the Tax Court’s analysis or, more often, actually admitted that those points were correct. Instead, the Commissioner advanced a “new, litigation-driven position” that Section 482’s “commensurate with income” requirement is an independent “internal standard” that “does not require consideration of transactions between unrelated parties.” Indeed, Altera notes, the Commissioner now argues “that the arm’s-length standard may be applied without considering any facts at all.” Thus, rather than engage with the Tax Court’s reasoning, the Commissioner “mistakenly accuses the Tax Court of overlooking an argument that is missing from the administrative record.”

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Supreme Court Issues Opinion Addressing Interplay between APA Procedural Compliance and Chevron Difference

In Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, Sup. Ct. No. 15-415 (June 20, 2016), the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated a regulation issued by the US Department of Labor (DOL) under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In doing so, it affirmed long-standing precedent regarding the procedural requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and addressed the effect of noncompliance with those requirements on the deference, if any, courts must afford agency pronouncements. Thus, even though it is not a tax case, it is likely to have an effect on cases in which taxpayers argue that a treasury regulation is invalid.

The Court’s holding here is based upon an agency’s unexplained change in a long-standing position. The FLSA requires employers to pay overtime compensation to covered employees who work more than 40 hours in a given week. It exempts from this requirement “any salesman, partman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles” at a covered dealership. From 1978 to 2011, the DOL’s position was that such employees were exempt from the overtime-pay rule. This position was set forth in a number of published pronouncements, including proposed regulations in 2008. However, when the regulations were finalized in 2011, the DOL took the opposite position. In a suit brought by a number of service advisors against a dealership for overtime pay, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit resolved the matter by giving Chevron deference to the DOL’s interpretation embodied in the 2011 regulations, holding for the plaintiff employees. The Supreme Court majority denied Chevron deference and remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings on the meaning of the underlying statutory language. (more…)




Commissioner Files Opening Brief in Ninth Circuit Appeal of Altera

In Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, 145 T.C. No. 3 (July 27, 2015), the Tax Court, in a unanimous reviewed opinion, held that regulations under Section 482 requiring parties to a qualified cost-sharing agreement (QCSA) to include stock-based compensation costs in the cost pool to comply with the arm’s-length standard were procedurally invalid because the US Deparment of Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) did not engage in the “reasoned decisionmaking” required by the Administrative Procedures Act and the cases interpreting it. For a discussion of the Tax Court’s Altera opinion, see our prior On the Subject. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue (Commissioner) appealed this holding to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; he filed his opening brief on June 27, 2016.

According to the Commissioner, the Tax Court’s holding was based on several related errors: (1) the Tax Court mistakenly concluded that promulgation of the QCSA regs required the IRS to engage in an “essentially empirical” analysis; (2) this led the court to apply the wrong standard; (3) in its analysis, the court relied heavily on its holding in Xilinx, Inc. v. Commissioner, 125 T.C. 37 (2005), that analysis of QCSAs must comport with the arm’s-length standard, meaning that a taxpayer can defend a QCSA by reference to comparable behavior between unrelated parties; and (4) the Tax Court failed to take into account that the finalization of the new QCSA regulations worked a “change in the legal landscape,” which should have altered the court’s analysis of the new regulations’ validity. Moreover, “the coordinating amendments [to the existing QCSA regulations] supersede [the Ninth Circuit’s] understanding of the arm’s-length standard as reflected in its own Xilinx opinion.” (more…)




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