We have previously written about QinetiQ U.S. Holdings. Inc.’s (QinetiQ) fight to apply the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to notices of deficiency issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). (See below for our recent coverage.)

In short, the Tax Court and the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected QinetiQ’s argument that a one-sentence reason for a deficiency determination contained in a notice of deficiency violated the APA because it was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” Undeterred, QinetiQ filed a petition for certiorari seeking review from the Supreme Court. Alas, the saga ends for QinetiQ as the Supreme Court denied the petition this morning.

Practice Point:  Although QinetiQ was not successful in its APA arguments, other APA arguments in the tax law have gained considerable traction in recent years. We will be posting soon on the recent order out of the Western District of Texas invaliding Treas. Reg. § 1.7874-8T on the grounds that this temporary regulations was unlawfully issued without adherence to the APA’s notice-and-comment requirements. Additionally, as we previously noted, other procedural arguments exists when a notice of deficiency contains a minimal explanation, such as potentially shifting the burden of proof to the IRS.

See past coverage:

 

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). Continue Reading Senate Attempts to Repeal Chevron Deference

On July 26, 2017, the United States Tax Court (Tax Court) handed a complete victory to Eaton Corporation (Eaton) relating to the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) cancellation of two Advance Pricing Agreements (APA). Eaton Corporation v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2017-147. The Tax Court held that the IRS had abused its discretion in cancelling the two successive unilateral APAs entered into by Eaton and its subsidiaries with respect to the manufacturing of circuit breaker products in Puerto Rico, and it found no transfer of any intangibles subject to Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 367(d). In 2011, the IRS cancelled Eaton’s first APA effective January 1, 2005, and the renewal APA effective January 1, 2006, on the ground that Eaton had made numerous material misrepresentations during the negotiations of the APAs and during the implementation of the APAs. As a result of the APA cancellations, the IRS issued notice of deficiencies for 2005 and 2006 determining that a transfer pricing adjustment under Code Section 482 was necessary to reflect the arm’s-length result for the related party transactions. Eaton disputed the deficiency determinations, contending that the IRS abused its discretion in cancelling the two APAs.

The Tax Court considered whether Eaton made misrepresentations during the negotiations or the implementation. With respect to the APA negotiations, the court established the standard for misrepresentation as “false or misleading, usually with an intent to deceive, and relate to the terms of the APA.” Based on the evidence of the negotiations presented at trial, the court concluded that there were no grounds for cancellation of the APAs; “Eaton’s evidence that it answered all questions asked and turned over all requested material is uncontradicted.” Additionally, the court rejected the IRS’s contention that more information was needed; “The negotiation process for these APAs was long and thorough.” Thus, the IRS “had enough material to decide not to agree to the APAs or to reject petitioner’s proposed TPM and suggest another APA. Cancelling the APAs on the grounds related to the APA negotiations was arbitrary.” Continue Reading Tax Court Hands Eaton a Complete Victory on the Cancellation of its Advance Pricing Agreements

On April 4, 2017, QinetiQ U.S. Holdings, Inc. petitioned the US Supreme Court to review the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s decision that the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 (APA) does not apply to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Notices of Deficiency. We previously wrote about the case (QinetiQ U.S. Holdings, Inc. v. Commissioner, No. 15-2192) here, here, here and here. To refresh, the taxpayer had argued in the US Tax Court that the Notice of Deficiency issued by the IRS, which contained a one-sentence reason for the deficiency determination, violated the APA because it was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” The APA provides a general rule that a reviewing court that is subject to the APA must hold unlawful and set aside an agency action unwarranted by the facts to the extent the facts are subject to trial de novo by the reviewing court. The Tax Court disagreed, emphasizing that it was well settled that the court is not subject to the APA and holding that the Notice of Deficiency adequately notified the taxpayer that a deficiency had been determined under relevant case law. The taxpayer appealed to the 4th Circuit, which ultimately affirmed the Tax Court’s decision. Continue Reading APA Challenge to Notice of Deficiency: QinetiQ Requests Supreme Court Review

On January 6, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, by published opinion, affirmed the US Tax Court’s (Tax Court) earlier ruling in QinetiQ US Holdings, Inc. v. Commissioner.  We previously wrote about the case here, here, and here.  To refresh, the taxpayer had argued in Tax Court that the Notice of Deficiency issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which contained a one-sentence reason for the deficiency determination, violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) because it was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”  The APA provides a general rule that a reviewing court that is subject to the APA must hold unlawful and set aside an agency action unwarranted by the facts to the extent the facts are subject to trial de novo by the reviewing court. The Tax Court disagreed, emphasizing that it was well settled that the court is not subject to the APA and holding that the Notice of Deficiency adequately notified the taxpayer that a deficiency had been determined under relevant case law.  The taxpayer appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

In an opinion written by Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan, the court concluded that the IRS complied with all applicable procedural requirements.  The court reasoned that the Internal Revenue Code (Code) provided a unique system for judicial review that should govern the content requirements for a Notice of Deficiency.  Per the court, it “is that specific body of law, rather than the more general provisions for judicial review authorized by the APA, that governs the content requirements of a Notice of Deficiency.”  The court cited a Fourth Circuit opinion from 1959, in which it held that the Code’s provisions for de novo review are incompatible with limited judicial review of final agency actions allowed under the APA.

The court held that the APA’s requirement of a reasoned explanation in support of a “final” agency action does not apply to a Notice of Deficiency issued by the IRS.  A Notice of Deficiency, the Court reasoned, cannot be a “final” agency action within the meaning of the APA, because the agency action is not one “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”  After issuing a Notice of Deficiency, the IRS may later assert in Tax Court new theories and allege additional deficiencies.  Moreover, a taxpayer may also raise new matters in Tax Court.  In addition, the court cited to the Supreme Court’s 1988 opinion in Bowen v. Massachusetts, emphasizing that Congress did not intend for the APA “to duplicate the previously established special statutory procedures relating to specific agencies.”

The court also held that the Notice of Deficiency issued to QinetiQ satisfied the requirement of Code section 7522(a), which requires that the IRS “describe [in the Notice] the basis for, and identify the amounts (if any) of, the tax due, interest, additional amounts, additions to the tax, and assessable penalties.”  The court explained that the Notice of Deficiency informed QinetiQ that the IRS had determined a deficiency in an exact amount for a particular tax year and that QinetiQ could contest the deficiency determination in court.  The court also discerned no prejudice to QinetiQ, in light of QinetiQ’s burden to show entitlement to a particular deduction.  The court acknowledged that different US Courts of Appeals have invalidated Notices of Deficiency for insufficient stated reasoning.

Practice Point:  Unlike recent APA arguments in other tax contexts, such arguments relating to insufficient reasoning in a Notice of Deficiency have not been well-received.  Yet, as the court acknowledged, the Code’s requirements may still help safeguard taxpayers who receive insufficiently explained IRS determinations.  Taxpayers should review any IRS determinations carefully to determine whether a procedural challenge may be beneficial, including but not limited to shifting the burden of proof to the IRS.

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.

Continue Reading Court Opinions – A Year In Review

On October 26, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard oral argument in QinetiQ U.S. Holdings, Inc. v. Commissioner, No. 15-2192. We previously wrote about the case here and here. To refresh, the taxpayer had argued in the US Tax Court (Tax Court) that the notice of deficiency issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which containing a one-sentence reason for the deficiency determination, violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) because it was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” The APA provides a general rule that a reviewing court that is subject to the APA must hold unlawful and set aside an agency action unwarranted by the facts to the extent the facts are subject to trial de novo by the reviewing court. The Tax Court disagreed, emphasizing that it was well settled that the court is not subject to the APA and holding that the notice of deficiency adequately notified the taxpayer that a deficiency had been determined under relevant case law. The taxpayer appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The substance of the oral argument focused on two issues: (1) whether the IRS’s notice of deficiency in this case violated the APA and was invalid; and (2) whether, on the merits, the taxpayer was entitled to a particular deduction. We focus on the former issue here.

Continue Reading APA Challenge to Notice of Deficiency: QinetiQ Oral Arguments

Two groups of law school professors have filed amicus briefs with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of the government’s position in Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, Dkt Nos. 16-70496, 16-70497. Read more on the appeal of Altera here and the US Supreme Court’s opinion addressing interplay between the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) procedural compliance and Chevron deference here. Each group argues that Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7 represents a valid exercise of the Commissioner’s authority to issue regulations under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 482 and that the US Tax Court (Tax Court) erred in finding the regulation to be invalid under section 706 of the APA.

One group of six professors (Harvey Group) first notes its agreement with the arguments advanced by the government in its opening brief. In particular, the Harvey Group concurs with the argument that “coordinating amendments promulgated with Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7(d)(2) vitiate the Tax Court’s analysis in Xilinx that the cost-sharing regulation conflicts with the arm’s-length standard.” It then goes on to note its agreement with the government’s argument that “the ‘commensurate with the income’ standard … contemplates a purely internal approach to allocating income from intangibles to related parties.”

Having thus supported the government’s commensurate-with income-based arguments, the Harvey Group argues that the regulation in question is, in any event, consistent with the general arm’s-length standard of Code Section 482. It does so based principally on the proposition that “[s]tock-based compensation costs are real costs, and no profit-maximizing economic actor would ignore them.” However, that said, “there are material differences between controlled and uncontrolled parties’ attitudes, motivations and behaviors regarding stock-based compensation.” Thus, according to the Harvey Group, the Tax Court erred when it concluded that “Treasury necessarily decided an empirical question when it concluded that the final rule was consistent with the arm’s-length standard,” because “[n]o empirical finding that uncontrolled parties do, or might, share stock-based compensation costs is required to support Treasury’s regulation.” Accordingly, the Tax Court’s reliance on State Farm and the cases following it was a “key misstep” by the Tax Court.

The Harvey Group also proposes that, should the Ninth Circuit find that the term “arm’s length standard” or the meaning of the “coordinating regulations” is ambiguous, the government’s interpretation embodied in Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7 should be afforded Auer deference. Read more on deference principles in tax cases and the unique challenges of Auer deference. Auer deference is a special level of deference that can apply when an agency interprets its own regulations, although there are several limitations on its use.  Finally, if the Ninth Circuit decides that the regulations “have an infirmity,” the Harvey Group argues that “[t]he best remedy is to remand to Treasury for further consideration.”

A second group of nineteen professors (Alstott Group) similarly agrees with the government’s arguments to the Ninth Circuit. The Alstott Group argues that the 1986 addition of the “commensurate with income” standard to Code Section 482 effectively overrode the long-standing arm’s-length standard with respect to related-party transactions involving intangible assets. This leads the Alstott Group to make four “key points”: (1) the 2003 cost-sharing regulation is “substantively reasonable under the commensurate-with-income standard”; (2) the Tax Court misunderstood a basic principle of administrative law; (3) even if the Treasury’s explanation of the regulation were determined to be inadequate, “the taxpayer bears the burden of establishing that any error affected the procedure used or the substance of the decision reached”; and (4) invalidating the regulation would have “significant policy consequences, resulting in billions of dollars of lost tax revenue.”

According to the Alstott Group, in cases involving intangible property, the commensurate-with-income principle “looks to the income generated by the intangible property – it does not look to comparable transactions (because they may not exist).” For this reason, the commensurate-with-income authority “allows the IRS to make adjustments based on the income generated by the [intangible property] in the hands of the [related party]” – (i.e.), without reference to unrelated-party behavior. Accordingly, the emphasis in the regulation – which “simply acts as a safe harbor for taxpayers” – on factors other than arm’s-length behavior “should be upheld as consistent with congressional intent.”

Consistent with its own analysis of the effect of the commensurate-with-income principle, the Alstott Group observes that the preamble to the final regulation invokes that principle as a sufficient independent basis for the cost-sharing rule. It criticizes the Tax Court’s determination that because the Treasury did not rely exclusively on the commensurate-with-income standard, it could not sustain the final rule solely on that basis as a “fatal mistake of administrative law.” In effect, the Alstott Group argues that the Treasury’s explanation of its reasoning underlying the final regulation, while perhaps “of less than ideal clarity,” was nonetheless sufficient for its path to be “reasonably discerned,” thereby satisfying the standards of  the APA.

Finally, the Alstott Group proposes that, if the Ninth Circuit finds that the Treasury did not adequately explain the basis for the regulation, “that failure does not justify the drastic step of invalidating the regulation.” It asserts that “any error by Treasury was harmless” and that if the court finds the Treasury’s explanation to be insufficient, it should remand the regulation to the Treasury without vacating it, “so that Treasury can clarify its explanation.” It suggests that a taxpayer challenging a regulation on APA grounds must show that the Treasury “would have reached a different conclusion had it determined that, as an empirical matter, unrelated companies do not include stock options as costs in similar agreements.”

The taxpayer’s reply brief is due on August 26, 2016, and it remains to be seen whether other amici will support its position. It appears that the government is being mindful of the Tax Court’s analysis in Altera, as evidenced by media reports regarding recent comments by Russell Kwiat, senior manager of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) advance pricing and mutual agreement program. According to those reports, the IRS is considering the comments received on proposed Code Section 367 regulations that draw on the procedural challenges raised by the taxpayer in Altera.