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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Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division have both argued that interpretations taken in unpublished guidance are eligible for Auer deference, even if such positions are articulated for the first time on brief in a pending case in which the agency is a party. Courts have not been uniform in their application of Auer. For example, the Tax Court has indicated that to receive deference the IRS’s position should be in published guidance while some courts have given deference to statements made on brief.

The death of Justice Scalia, who ironically wrote Auer but later advocated for its demise, seemed to strike a blow to those seeking to overrule it. However, with the recent additions of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, it appears that the Supreme Court many now have a majority of Justices in the anti-Auer camp given that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito have all expressed doubts about the doctrine in the past. Additionally, the continuing role of Chevron deference has been questioned and, if Auer is overruled, Chevron could be the next deference battleground.

We will continue to follow this case closely and provide updates in the future. In the meantime, the links below contain prior discussions on Auer and other forms of deference in the tax context.




White House Intends to Nominate Michael J. Desmond to High-Level Roles in the IRS and the Department of Treasury

The White House announced on March 2 that the president intends to nominate Michael J. Desmond, a prominent tax lawyer, to be the Chief Counsel for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Assistant General Counsel in the Department of Treasury. Subject to approval by the Senate, Mr. Desmond’s new roles will entail providing legal guidance and interpretive advice to taxpayers, the IRS, and the Department of Treasury.

Mr. Desmond clerked for Judge Ronald S.W. Lew of the United States District Court from 1994 until 1995. Mr. Desmond went on to serve as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice Tax Division and as tax legislative counsel for the Department of Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy. After leaving the public sector, Mr. Desmond became a partner with Bingham McCutchen LLP in the Washington, DC office until he opened the Law Offices of Michael J. Desmond in 2012. While operating his own practice, Mr. Desmond has represented clients at every stage of the tax controversy process. He has been a frequent author and speaker on tax topics. More information about Mr. Desmond can be found at his firm’s website.

Mr. Desmond is a very well-known and respected tax practitioner. He is a fixture in the tax community. We congratulate him on his nomination.




What to Expect During a Change of Administration

With the inauguration of President Trump, and the accompanying change of administration, the American people have been promised great change in all areas of the federal government. One question we at McDermott have been frequently asked since the election is: what should a taxpayer expect from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division while the transitions in the executive branch are taking place? Major tax policy changes are being discussed, but what about the immediate practical effects of a turnover in high-level personnel within these agencies, particularly if a taxpayer is under audit or investigation?

During a change in administration, taxpayers may be affected by any of the following:

  • If under audit, the exam team may ask for longer statute extensions than would otherwise apply, to account for possible delays in internal managerial-level approvals.
  • If a taxpayer is negotiating a settlement, and that settlement requires approval by the IRS National Office or the Assistant Attorney General for Tax, settlement approvals may be delayed due to personnel changes.
  • This applies to civil settlements reached with IRS Appeals, in Tax Court litigation, or in federal district court litigation. Delays are also possible for criminal agreements, including plea agreements, deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements.
  • Ongoing litigation (particularly appellate litigation) may be stayed or delayed, to the extent a case involves a policy position that the administration may want to change.
  • The regulatory freeze enacted by the Trump administration also affects procedural regulations, including proposed regulations related to the new partnership audit rules.

Initial comments from prospective Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin indicate that he believes IRS staffing should be increased, which would be a welcome change.  Any significant changes like this are likely to be long-term, however, so we are unlikely to see their effect for some time.




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