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 realized by a foreign partner upon disposing of its interest in a United States partnership should be analyzed on an asset-by-asset basis, and that to the extent the partnership’s assets would give rise to effectively connected income (ECI) if sold by the partnership, the departing partner’s pro rata share of such gain should be treated as ECI. Despite this conclusion, the Tax Court rejected the IRS’s argument that the ruling was entitled to deference and required upholding the IRS’s deficiency determination. Rather, the court noted that the ruling’s discussions of the relevant partnership provisions was “cursory in the extreme” and it criticized the ruling’s treatment of the United States taxation of international transactions. As a result, the court declined to accord any deference to the ruling and ultimately found that the taxpayer’s position was correct as to the issue addressed in the ruling.
Practice Point: Although many revenue rulings contained detailed discussions and analysis of the tax laws, some are based on blanket statements of law that are not supported by relevant authorities. In these situations, taxpayers and their advisors should carefully consider whether a court would afford any deference to such a blanket statement.