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The (Potential) Demise of Auer Deference?

On December 10, 2018, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of James L. Kisor v. Peter O’Rourke, Acting Secretary of Veteran Affairs, S.Ct. Dkt. No. 18-15. Although this is not a tax case, it has significant implications for taxpayers and tax practitioners. The reason: the Court will finally squarely address the issue of whether it should overrule its controversial opinions in Auer v. Robbins, 519 US 452 (1997) and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 US 410 (1945). Those opinions held that an agency is uniquely positioned to interpret any ambiguity in its own regulations and, therefore, such interpretations should be afforded controlling deference so long as reasonable. The Court’s decision to grant certiorari in Kisor is significant because the sole question to be considered is “[w]hether the Court should overrule Auer and Seminole Rock” and not how to apply that doctrine. In the tax context, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the...

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Senior Tax Court Judge Robert A. Wherry, Jr. Retires

On January 3, 2018, Chief Judge Marvel of the US Tax Court (Tax Court) announced that Senior Judge Robert A. Wherry, Jr. fully retired as of January 1, 2018, and would no longer be recalled for judicial service. Judge Wherry was appointed on April 23, 2003, by President George W. Bush. In 2014, Judge Wherry took senior status and continued to try cases. By statute, the Tax Court is composed of 19 presidentially appointed judges. Judges are appointed for a term of 15 years and after an appointed term has expired, or they reach a specified age, may serve as a “senior judge” if recalled by the Tax Court. The Tax Court also has several special trial judges, who generally preside over small tax cases. Over his almost 15-year tenure at the US Tax Court, Judge Wherry authored more than 260 Division Opinions, Memorandum Opinions and Summary Opinions. (We have previously discussed the differences between each type of opinion.) Prior to joining the Tax Court, Judge...

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Tax Court: Mailbox Rule Can Apply with Stamps.com Postage Label

Within the Internal Revenue Code (Code) is a rule commonly known as the “mailbox rule” or the “timely mailed, timely filed rule.” Under Code Section 7502(b), the date that an item—including a Tax Court petition—is postmarked and mailed can also be the date the item is considered filed. When an item is received after the filing deadline, the mailbox rule can make all the difference. There are, however, procedural requirements which must be satisfied. In Pearson v. Commissioner, the Tax Court, in a court-reviewed opinion, held that a Tax Court petition mailed with a Stamps.com postage label was timely filed under the mailbox rule. Taxpayers generally have 90 days to file a petition with the Tax Court after receiving a notice of deficiency. In Pearson, the Tax Court received the taxpayers’ petition one week after the 90-day period expired, but the envelope in which the petition was mailed bore a Stamps.com postage label dated within the 90-day period. The...

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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...

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Tax Court Rejects IRS Reliance on “Cursory” Analysis in Revenue Ruling

We have previously discussed, in March and October of 2016, the various levels of deference given to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance, whether it is in published or private form. For revenue rulings, courts traditionally apply Skidmore deference, which essentially looks at the persuasiveness of the ruling. Under this standard, and the IRS’s position in its procedural regulations, if a ruling contains the same material facts and its analysis is persuasive, courts will generally defer to it. The Tax Court’s recent opinion in Grecian Magnesite Mining, Industrial & Shipping Co., SA, v. Commissioner, 149 TC No. 3 (July 13, 2017), is a friendly reminder that just because a revenue ruling addresses the same material facts present in a taxpayer’s case does not automatically mean that courts will side with the IRS. In Grecian, a revenue ruling contained three fact patterns which were essentially the same as the taxpayer’s facts. The ruling held that gain...

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Deference Denied to IRS Notice Issued Post-Litigation

Sometimes a loss in a discovery battle is really a win. That is certainly the outcome in Sunoco, Inc. v. United States, 2016 WL 334578 (Fed. Cl., No. 1:15-cv-00587, 10/6/16). In Sunoco, Judge Wheeler of the Court of Federal Claims denied Sunoco’s motion to compel production of the background file documents for Notice 2015-56 (Aug. 15, 2015). The court, however, denied the motion on the grounds that the requested documents are unnecessary because the Notice is not entitled to Skidmore deference. Under Skidmore v. Swift, courts may give deference to an agency’s interpretation of its governing laws even when the agency does not use its rulemaking powers. In deciding whether to give deference to the agency’s interpretation, courts consider the interpretation’s “thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those factors which give it power to persuade, if lacking power to...

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Auer Deference Debate Remains Unresolved

As we previously discussed, the issue of deference is a hot topic in the tax arena.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of the United States recently passed on the opportunity to address the continuing validity of what is commonly known as Auer deference.  This level of deference sometimes applies when an agency interprets its own regulations. In United Student Aid Funds, Inc. v. Bryana Bible, S.Ct. No. 15-861, the Supreme Court denied a petition for writ of certiorari, leaving in place an opinion by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that deferred to the Department of Education’s interpretation in an amicus brief of the regulatory scheme that it enforces.  In a scathing dissent from the denial of certiorari, Justice Thomas stated that the Auer doctrine “is on its last gasp” and that the Court should have taken the opportunity to reconsider and re-evaluate the doctrine.  The Supreme Court’s rules require that at least four Justice must vote to accept...

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Update on Deference to IRS Positions

As we discussed here, and in our recent article in The Federal Lawyer, deference to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) pronouncement is an important issue for taxpayers and their advisors. Our prior writings dealt generally with the three levels of deference in tax cases and how they have been applied by the courts. A recent Tax Court case looks at the level of deference owed to statements in preambles to tax regulations. In Estate of Morrissette v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. No. 11 (Apr. 13, 2016), the taxpayer cited to the preamble to regulations dealing with split-dollar life insurance arrangements. Those regulations dealt with two mutually exclusive regimes for taxing these types of arrangements entered into after September 17, 2013. The preamble to the regulations included an example that was structurally identical to the arrangements at issue in the Tax Court case. In reviewing the preamble, the court noted that while it had previously been unpersuaded by a...

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Deference Principles in Tax Cases and the Unique Challenges of Auer Deference

The Federal Lawyer recently published an article we wrote which discusses how deference principles are applied in tax cases. The article can be accessed here. The Supreme Court of the United States, in Mayo Found. for Med. Educ. & Research v. United States, 562 U.S. 44, 55 (2011), confirmed that tax laws are subject to the same deference principles as other federal laws. In general, these deference principles can be grouped into three levels, commonly referred to as Chevron, Skidmore, and Auer deference.  Chevron is often regarded as the strongest level of deference, and can apply where Congress explicitly leaves a gap for an agency to fill and the agency intends for its interpretation to have the force of law. Tax regulations can be entitled to Chevron deference. Skidmore deference, which is limited to an interpretation’s persuasive power, can apply to other IRS interpretations that are thoroughly considered, well-reasoned, and consistent with earlier...

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