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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Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division have both argued that interpretations taken in unpublished guidance are eligible for Auer deference, even if such positions are articulated for the first time on brief in a pending case in which the agency is a party.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.




Don’t File Fraudulent Returns Because Amending Them Will Not Help

The US Tax Court (Tax Court), in a short opinion, provided a reminder to taxpayers that penalties for filing fraudulent returns cannot be avoided by subsequently filing amended returns. In Gaskin v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2018-89, the taxpayer admitted his original returns were fraudulent. While under criminal investigation, he attempted to cure the fraudulent filings by filing amended returns, reporting more than $100,000 of additional tax. Ultimately, the tax due exceeded the amount reported on the amended returns.

Despite admitting his original fraud, the taxpayer argued that the fraud penalty did not apply because the tax due only modestly exceeded the tax reported on his amended returns. The Tax Court disagreed. Relying on the regulations and Supreme Court precedent, the court held that the amount of the underpayment and the fraudulent intent are both determined by reference to original—not amended—returns. It therefore upheld imposition of the fraud penalty.

Practice Point: Don’t file fraudulent returns! All joking aside, this case reminds us that although filing an amended return can cure some infirmities on your return, you have to be very careful in choosing whether to amend a return. As long as you did your best to accurately calculate your tax due on your original return, you are not required to amend that return if you later find out you were wrong. This is true even if the statute of limitations is still open. Indeed, there is no requirement to amend a return. However, there may be reasons to file an amended return; for example, if you know that you will need to base a future return’s position on a previous return’s position (e.g., the amount of earnings and profits stated on the return). Taxpayers need to be mindful, however, that if you amend your return, it must be accurate to the best of your knowledge when you sign it as to all items and any other errors discovered after the original return was filed must also be corrected. Accordingly, you cannot amend only the favorable positions discovered after you filed your original return.




Treasury Moves Forward on Proposing Withdrawal of Regulations

As we previously discussed, the US Department of the Treasury (Treasury) announced a plan in October 2017 to repeal more than 200 regulations. The plan appears is moving forward based on remarks by Acting Chief Counsel William M. Paul earlier this week at the New York State Bar Association Section meeting that the Internal Revenue Service will soon propose 200 – 300 tax regulations (including longstanding temporary and proposed regulations) for withdrawal as part of President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order creating a Treasury Regulatory Reform Task Force. Practitioners will have the opportunity to comment before the regulations are withdrawn.

Practice Point: Comments from taxpayers and practitioners will be instrumental in ensuring that seemingly obsolete regulations do not still have effect in other areas or negatively impact tax reporting positions. We will continue to monitor Treasury’s plan and provide more information once the proposal is released.




The Slow Death of the Section 385 Regulations

Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 385 provides that the US Department of the Treasury (Treasury) is authorized to issue regulations to determine whether an interest in a corporation is to be treated for purposes of the Code as stock or indebtedness. After decades of inaction, proposed regulations were issued on April 14, 2016. The proposed regulations were not well-received; the tax bar had serious and substantial comments to the proposed regulations. Among the most important critiques, there were criticisms for the potential overbreadth of the regulations’ application to foreign-to-foreign transactions, the lack of a de minimis exception for smaller companies and for the anticipated burden of the contemporaneous documentation requirements.

Treasury released final regulations under Code Section 385, which are effective as of October 21, 2016. Although the proposed regulations were changed in some respects, the final regulations retained strict documentation requirements.

In Executive Order 13789, the President called on Treasury to identify and reduce tax regulatory burdens that impose undue financial burdens on US taxpayers, or otherwise add undue complexity to federal tax law. In response, Treasury indicated on October 2, 2017, that it would potentially revoke the documentation requirements under the proposed regulations. (more…)




IRS Releases 2017-2018 Priority Guidance Plan

The US Department of Treasury (Treasury) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issue Priority Guidance Plans each year to identify the tax issues they believe should be addressed through regulations, revenue rulings, revenue procedures, notice and other published administrative guidance. On October 20, 2017, the IRS and Treasury released the 2017-2018 Priority Guidance Plan.

  • Part 1 focuses on the eight regulations from 2016 that were identified pursuant to Executive Order 13789 (see here for prior coverage on Treasury’s report in response to this Order) and the intended actions related to those regulations.
  • Part 2 describes certain projects that Treasury and the IRS have identified as burden reducing and that they believe can be completed in the eight and a half months remaining in the plan year.
  • Part 3 describes the various projects related to the implementation of the new statutory partnership audit regime. See here for prior coverage.
  • Part 4 describe specific projects by subject area that will the focus of the balance of Treasury’s and the IRS’s efforts for the plan year.

Practice Point: The Priority Guidance Plan is a useful tool for taxpayers in that it highlights areas in which Treasury and the IRS are focused, both in the short-term and the long-term. Although items in the Priority Guidance Plan are subject to modification, they provide a blueprint for issues that the government views as important. For example, the plan reports guidance projects relating to Internal Revenue Code Section 199, focused on the treatment of computer software and films. These issues have created substantial controversy for the IRS and taxpayers, as we have previously reported. See https://www.taxcontroversy360.com/2017/04/the-irss-assault-on-section-199-computer-software-doesnt-compute/ and https://www.taxcontroversy360.com/2017/03/irs-campaign-focuses-on-definition-of-qualified-film-under-section-199/. Additional guidance would be welcomed.




Treasury to Withdraw Controversial Proposed Estate Tax Valuation Rules

On October 4, 2017, the US Department of the Treasury (Treasury) announced that it would withdraw more than 200 regulations, including the proposed regulations under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 2704. The announcement is part of President Trump’s initiative to lessen the regulatory burden on taxpayers due to excessive regulations. In a press statement, Treasury explained that the Code Section 2704 proposed regulations were being withdrawn because they:

…would have hurt family-owned and operated businesses by limiting valuation discounts. The regulations would have made it difficult and costly for a family to transfer their businesses to the next generation. Commenters warned that the valuation requirements of the proposed regulations were unclear and could not be meaningfully applied.

Numerous practitioners were critical of the proposed regulations because they disregarded restrictions for valuation purposes on the ability to liquidate family-controlled entities. Since the release of the proposed regulations in the summer of 2016, estate tax planning and valuation professionals have noted that the proposed regulations were vague, difficult to apply and resulted in inaccurately high estate valuations. Indeed, if finalized, the proposed regulations would have disallowed discounts for lack of control and marketability commonly used by families in wealth transfer planning.

Practice Point: With the withdraw of the proposed Code Section 2704 regulations, the use of liquidation restrictions to reduce the valuation of a closely-held family business continues to be an effective wealth transfer planning tool. For further context, we covered the initial rollout of the 2016 regulations proposed by Treasury and the withdrawal of the same.




IRS Guidance Says IRS Can Disclose Confidential Taxpayer Information to Whistleblower with Impunity

Every taxpayer should be aware of the real risk that its own employees could disclose the taxpayer’s confidential and privileged information to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for a whistleblower fee. Pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 7623, the IRS is permitted to pay a “whistleblower” who discloses information about a taxpayer who has violated the tax laws. The amount of the payment ranges from 15 to 30 percent of the recovery. We have previously reported about issues pertaining to whistleblowers.

While the flow of information is usually from the whistleblower to the IRS, there is also a risk that the IRS can disclose the taxpayer’s return information to the whistleblower. Code Section 6103(a) deems tax returns and return information as confidential and prohibits the disclosure absent an express statutory exception. Return information is broadly defined and includes the information received by the IRS, from any source, during the course of audit. There are several exceptions to this general rule. For example, Code Section 6103(n) authorizes that tax returns and return information may be shared with the IRS pursuant to a “tax administration contract.” The relevant regulations explain when the IRS may disclose information to a whistleblower and its representative.

A recent memo from the IRS’s Whistleblower Office provides the reasoning behind the IRS decision to enter into a whistleblower contract in order to share the taxpayer’s feeling empowered to share otherwise confidential protected information with whistleblowers. (more…)




Tax Court Reinforces Plain Meaning Approach in Interpreting Tax Statutes

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and taxpayers frequently spar over the meaning and interpretation of tax statutes (and regulations). In some situations, one side will argue that the statutory text is clear while the other argues that it is not and that other evidence of Congress’ intent must be examined. Courts are often tasked with determining which side’s interpretation is correct, which is not always an easy task. This can be particularly difficult where the plain language of the statute dictates a result that may seem unfair or at odds with a court’s views as the proper result.

The Tax Court’s (Tax Court) recent opinion in Borenstein v. Commissioner, 149 TC No. 10 (August 30, 2017), discussed the standards to be applied in interpreting a statute and reinforces that the plain meaning of the language used by Congress should be followed absent an interpretation that would produce an absurd result.

In Borenstein, the taxpayer made tax payments for 2012 totaling $112,000, which were deemed made on April 15, 2013. However, she failed to file a timely return for that year and the IRS issued a notice of deficiency. Before filing a petition with the Tax Court, the taxpayer submitted return reporting a tax lability of $79,559. The parties agreed that this liability amount was correct and that the taxpayer had an overpayment of $32,441 due to the prior payments. However, the IRS argued that the taxpayer was not entitled to a credit or refund of the overpayment because, under the plain language of Internal Revenue Code Sections 6511(a) and (b)(2)(B), the tax payments were made outside the applicable “lookback” period keyed to the date the notice of deficiency was mailed. (more…)




Third Circuit Upholds One Deduction Tax Court Ruling

In Duquesne Light Holdings, Inc. v. Commissioner, 3d Cir., No. 14-01743 (June 29, 2017), the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a Tax Court decision that disallowed a second deduction for the same economic loss claimed by a consolidated group with respect to stock of a member. The court concluded that the “loss duplication” regulations for member stock in effect at the time of the transaction were sufficiently clear to disallow the second deduction. Although the result is not surprising, the case is noteworthy because it extensively discusses the Ilfeld doctrine (double deductions cannot be claimed for the same economic loss in the absence of clear authorization under the language of the Code or regulations), and implies that the doctrine may be limited to consolidated return issues.




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