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Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in One Tax Case, Denies it in Several Others

Historically, the Supreme Court of the United States rarely grants petitions for certiorari in tax cases, and it appears this trend continues in the current term.

On September 30, 2021, the Supreme Court granted the petition for certiorari in Boechler, P.C. v. Commissioner. The case presents the question of whether Internal Revenue Code Section 6330(d)(1), which establishes a 30-day time limit for filing a petition in the US Tax Court to review a notice of determination by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in a collection due process matter, is a jurisdictional requirement or a claim-processing rule subject to the equitable tolling doctrine.

On October 4, 2021, the Supreme Court denied petitions for certiorari in Healthcare Distribution Alliance v. James and Taylor Lohmeyer Law Firm PLLC v. United States. The former involved a challenge to a US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decision that held that an opioid stewardship surcharge was a tax within the meaning of the Tax Injunction Act. The Court also found that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to rule on the challenge to the payment. The latter case involved a law firm’s challenge to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s decision that the IRS could use a “John Doe” summons to seek the identifies of taxpayers who it believed may have taken the firm’s advice to hide income offshore.

The Supreme Court also denied petitions for certiorari in the following cases:

  • Perkins v. Commissioner: A case regarding the taxability of income derived from the sale of land and gravel mined from treaty-protected land by an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation
  • Kimble v. United States: A case focused on Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts penalties and
  • Razzouk v. United States: A case involving restitution for tax and bribery convictions

Still pending are petitions in Willis v. United States (which involves the value of collectible coins seized by the government and deposited into an IRS account) and Clay v. Commissioner (which deals with a dispute over whether to follow guidance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the IRS).

Practice Point: Although the Supreme Court rarely reviews tax cases, when it does, the decision is usually important because it’s applicable to numerous taxpayers. For example, cases such as Mayo Found. for Med. Educ. & Research v. United States and United States v. Home Concrete & Supply LLC both provided significant guidance for taxpayers regarding the IRS’s scope of regulatory authority. Additionally, non-tax cases from the Supreme Court can contain general principles that are also applicable and impact tax positions taken, or being considered, by taxpayers. Thus, it is important that taxpayers and their representatives stay abreast on what is happening at the Supreme Court.




Santander Holdings USA Asks the Supreme Court to Address Economic Substance Doctrine

From 2003 to 2007, Sovereign Bancorp, Inc. (Sovereign) – now known as Santander Holdings USA, Inc. (Santander) – engaged in a so-called STARS transaction with Barclays Bank. According to Santander, “[b]y engaging in the STARS transaction, Sovereign transferred some of its income tax liability from the United States to the United Kingdom,” it “secured a loan of $1.15 billion,” and it received a payment “which effectively reduced its lending costs.” On its Federal corporate income tax returns for those years, Sovereign claimed foreign tax credits (FTCs) for UK taxes it paid in connection with the STARS transaction. It also claimed deductions for the interest paid on the $1.15 billion loan.

In 2009, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a Notice of Deficiency disallowing Sovereign’s FTCs and its deductions for interest paid on the $1.15 billion loan. The IRS did not challenge Sovereign’s compliance with the statutory and regulatory rules governing FTCs, instead arguing that Sovereign’s STARS transaction lacked “economic substance.” Sovereign paid the deficiency and sued for a refund in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts. When the district court held for Sovereign on both issues, the IRS appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, but only with respect to the FTC issue. The crux of the issue was how to treat the UK taxes and the related FTCs for purposes of the “economic substance” analysis. Relying on Salem Financial, Inc. v. U.S., 786 F.3d 932 (Fed. Cir. 2015), and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. v. Comm’r, 801 F.3d 104 (2d Cir. 2015), the IRS argued that the UK taxes should be treated as an expense but that the related FTCs should be ignored in determining pre-tax profit. Citing IES Indus., Inc. v. U.S., 253 F.3d 350 (8th Cir. 2001), and Compaq Computer Corp. v. Comm’r, 277 F.3d 778 (5th Cir. 2001), Sovereign argued that either both should be included in the profit analysis or both should be ignored. The First Circuit held that Sovereign’s STARS transaction lacked “economic substance,” and upheld the disallowance of the FTCs at issue. In doing so, it treated the UK taxes as expenses that reduced pre-tax profit and ignored the related FTCs, following the Federal and Second Circuit’s approach. Santander Holdings USA, Inc. v. U.S., 844 F.3d 15 (1st Cir. 2016).

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IRS Opposes Granting of Certiorari in Cases Addressing Definition of Return

Two petitions for certiorari pending before the Supreme Court of the United States ask the Court to resolve the question of whether a tax return filed after an assessment by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is a “return” for purposes of the Bankruptcy Code (BC). The answer to this question will determine whether a bankrupt taxpayer’s tax debts can be discharged or are permanently barred from discharge. According to these petitions, the courts of appeal are divided as to the answer.

BC § 523(a) generally allows a debtor to discharge unsecured debt, except for, inter alia, tax debts of debtors who: (1) failed to file tax returns; (2) filed fraudulent tax returns; or (3) filed late tax returns, where a bankruptcy petition is filed within two years of the date the late return was filed. See BC § 523(a)(1)(B)(i), (B)(ii), (C).

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US Supreme Court Denies Petitions for Certiorari Filed In Two Federal Tax Cases

On January 9, 2017, the US Supreme Court denied the petitions for certiorari filed in two federal tax cases.

In Chemtech Royalty Assoc. LP v. United States, Sup. Ct. Dkt. No. 16-810 (2016), 823 F.3d 282 (5th Cir. 2016),

Dow Chemical Co. challenged the decisions by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit finding that the partnerships were a “sham” that should be disregarded for tax purposes and imposing the 40 percent substantial understatement penalty. In its petition, Dow complained of the “especially stringent” scrutiny applied by the Fifth Circuit to review a taxpayer’s decision to use the partnership form. “Applying that improper presumption against partnerships, the court became the first court in the nearly seventy years since Culbertson [337 US 733 (1949)] to hold that an investor that contributes its own capital in exchange for an equity interest in the partnership can be disregarded for tax purposes if its equity stake, like preferred stock, is relatively protected against fluctuations in profits and losses.”

The US Supreme Court also denied the petition filed by Dynamo Holdings Ltd. Partnership, Dynamo Holdings Limited Partnership v. United States, Sup. Ct. Dkt. No. 16-358 (2016) 816 F.3d 1310 (11th Cir. 2016),seeking review of an Eleventh Circuit decision that upheld the enforcement of IRS summonses.   Dynamo asked the Supreme Court to consider whether it was unfairly denied a request to amend the case submission to support an evidentiary hearing under then new standard established by this Court in an earlier appearance of this case. Dynamo complained that “this Court held for the first time, United States v. Clarke, 573 US ___, 134 S. Ct. 2361 (2014), that an individual or entity that receives an IRS summons is entitled to a limited evidentiary hearing to obtain discovery to support the claim that the summons should be quashed where that party points to specific facts or circumstances plausibly raising an inference of bad faith.” In contrast,  “[W]hen this case began in 2011, the standard in the Eleventh Circuit was that an individual or entity was entitled to an evidentiary hearing based upon the mere allegation of improper purpose . . . [and Dynamo was found by] the Eleventh Circuit to have satisfied that standard.  On remand from Clarke, the district court denied Petitioners request to make amended submissions to meet the new standard, and the district court and Eleventh Circuit ruled that Petitioners’ former submissions did not meet the new standard.”

Practice Tip:

In deciding whether to file a petition for certiorari, the party should consider the likelihood of the petition being granted and whether the Court’s denial of the petition will result in an adverse negative inference for a continuing issue that is being litigated in other jurisdictions. These cases illustrate how difficult it is to have the Supreme Court grant review.  The Supreme Court accepts few petitions each year and in the absence of a split in the circuits, a petition is unlikely to succeed [...]

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