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Exxon Prevails in $200 Million Tax Penalty Case

On January 13, 2021, the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled in favor of Exxon Mobil Corporation (“Exxon”) in its battle against the government over tax penalties. Exxon filed amended returns for its 2006-2009 tax years seeking a $1.35 billion tax refund based upon a change of character of certain transactions (from mineral leases to purchase transactions). The government disallowed the refund claims and imposed a $200 million penalty pursuant to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 6676. Exxon paid the penalty and filed suit for a refund.

We have written extensively concerning IRC section 6676, warning taxpayers of this potential landmine. See, e.g., Taxpayers Should Prepare for the Next Penalty Battleground” Roberson, Spencer and Walters, Law360 (May 21, 2019) and “Expect More Civil Tax Penalties—So, Now What?” Roberson and Spencer, Tax Executive (Sept. 27, 2019). To recap, IRC Section 6676 was enacted in 2007 in response to the high number of meritless refund claims being filed at the time. It imposes a 20% penalty to the extent that a claim for refund or credit with respect to income tax is made for an “excessive amount.” An “excessive amount” is defined as the difference between the amount of the claim for credit or refund sought and the amount that is actually allowable. For example, if the taxpayer claims a refund of $2 million and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows only $1 million, the taxpayer can still be penalized $200,000.Significantly, IRC section 6676 does not require the IRS to show any fault or culpability on the part of the taxpayer—e.g., negligence, disregard of rules or regulations, etc. IRC section 6676(a) originally provided a “reasonable basis” defense (which is applicable to the Exxon case), but in 2015 Congress amended the statute and now requires a showing of “reasonable cause.” Neither the Code nor the regulations provide for any other defense to the IRC section 6676 penalty. Moreover, the penalty is immediately assessable, meaning taxpayers cannot fight the IRS in a pre-payment forum like the US Tax Court but must first pay the penalty and seek redress in a refund form.

In Exxon, the government argued that the court should overlay a subjective element on “reasonable basis,” as the US Circuit Court for the Eighth Circuit did in Wells Fargo & Co. v. United States, 957 F.3d 840 (8th Cir. 2020). Our prior coverage of this case can be found here. The Exxon court declined the invitation. Instead, the court explained IRC section 6676 “focuses on whether the claim had a reasonable basis, not on whether the taxpayer had a reasonable basis.” The court agreed with Exxon that its position in the refund claim that its transactions were purchases was reasonable based on the relevant authorities. It further found that the company had “colorable support for its legal contention that a change that affects whether, not when, an item comes into income is not [...]

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Weekly IRS Roundup July 27 – July 31, 2020

Presented below is our summary of significant Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance and relevant tax matters for the week of July 27, 2020 – July 31, 2020. Additionally, for continuing updates on the tax impact of COVID-19, please visit our resource page here.

July 28, 2020: The IRS issued final regulations providing guidance about the limitation on the deduction for business interest expense after amendment of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). The regulations provide guidance to taxpayers on how to calculate the limitation, what constitutes interest for purposes of the limitation, which taxpayers and trades or businesses are subject to the limitation and how the limitation applies in consolidated group, partnership, international and other contexts.

July 28, 2020: The IRS published a notice of proposed rulemaking concerning rules that provide additional guidance on various business interest expense deduction limitation issues not addressed in the final regulations, including more complex issues related to the amendments made by the CARES Act.

July 28, 2020: The IRS added frequently asked questions regarding the aggregation rules under section 448(c)(2) that apply to the section 163(j) small business exemption.

July 29, 2020: The IRS posted a practice unit on issues concerning the receipt of dividends or interest from a related controlled foreign corporation.

July 29, 2020: The IRS posted a practice unit on accuracy-related penalties under section 6662.

July 29, 2020: The IRS published a notice of proposed rulemaking concerning regulations to implement legislative changes to sections 263A, 448, 460 and 471 that simplify the application of those tax accounting provisions for certain businesses having average annual gross receipts that do not exceed $25 million, adjusted for inflation. The notice also contains proposed regulations regarding certain special accounting rules for long-term contracts under section 460 to implement legislative changes applicable to corporate taxpayers. The proposed regulations generally affect taxpayers with average annual gross receipts of not more than $25 million (adjusted for inflation). The IRS also requested comments regarding the application of section 460 (or other special methods of accounting) to a contract with income that is accounted for in part under section 460 (or other special method) and in part under section 451. Comments must be received by September 14, 2020.

July 31, 2020: The IRS published a notice of proposed rulemaking concerning proposed regulations that provide guidance under section 1061. Section 1061 recharacterizes certain net long-term capital gains of a partner that holds one or more applicable partnership interests as short-term capital gains. The regulations also amend existing regulations on holding periods to clarify the holding period of a partner’s interest in a partnership that includes in whole or in part an applicable partnership interest and/or a profits interest. The regulations affect taxpayers who directly or indirectly [...]

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