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Supreme Court Justice Breyer Announces Upcoming Retirement—A Look Back at His Tax Opinion in Home Concrete

On January 27, 2022, Supreme Court of the United States Justice Stephen Breyer formally announced his retirement, effective when the Supreme Court breaks for summer recess in June or July later this year—after his successor has been nominated and confirmed. Justice Breyer has served on the Supreme Court since 1994 and is the second-most senior justice after Justice Clarence Thomas.

Although Justice Breyer did not author a substantial number of tax opinions, the ones he did author are extremely important and include:

This post focuses on the Home Concrete case.

Home Concrete involved a challenge to the validity of US Department of the Treasury (Treasury) regulations issued during litigation that purported to overrule existing case law. In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court rejected both the government’s statutory interpretation of the “substantial omission from gross income” exception to the normal three-year statute of limitations and the interpretation advanced in retroactive regulations issued during pending litigation. In doing so, the Court first applied principles of stare decisis and adhered to its prior opinion in Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, which interpreted almost identical statutory language from the predecessor statute. It then held that, because it already interpreted the statute, there is no longer any different interpretation that is consistent with that precedent and available for adoption by the agency.

The history and procedural background are fascinating, and some of the issues highlighted in the case, but not directly decided, have been—and continue to be—developed. Further background on the case can be found in our 2012 Tax Executive article, “Home Concrete: The Story Behind the IRS’s Attempt to Overrule the Judiciary and Lessons for the Future.

Practice Point: Home Concrete remains important today as there are several cases in the administrative and judicial pipeline involving challenges to tax reform and transfer pricing regulations. It is a must-read for any taxpayers who are currently, or are considering in the future, challenging the validity of Treasury regulations.

Andrew Roberson was one of the lawyers representing Home Concrete before the Supreme Court.




Eighth Circuit Holds the Mayo in Tax Regulation Invalidity Case

In the latest tax regulation deference case, the Eighth Circuit provided guidance to taxpayers and tax practitioners on the “analytical path” to resolve the question of whether a tax regulation is a valid interpretation of the Internal Revenue Code. The court held that the regulation was invalid in part because it unreasonably added conditions to the statutory requirements for qualified educational organizations, however, it was valid as to its interpretation regarding the permissible scope of the taxpayer’s activities to fit within the applicable statute. The opinion is noteworthy for its detailed examination of statutory and legislative history, judicial interpretations and agency position during legislation in its analysis of Congress’ intent.

Deference is one topic that captivates many, and tax cases referencing Chevron, Skidmore and Auer (and more recently Kisor) always grab attention. The latest deference case in the tax area is Mayo Clinic v. United States, No. 19-3189 (8th Cir. May 13, 2021). For some background on deference, including the district court proceedings in the Mayo Clinic case, see here.

In the Mayo Clinic case, the question was whether the taxpayer was a “qualified organization” exempted from paying unrelated business income tax (UBIT) on unrelated debt-financed income under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 514(c)(9)(C)(i). Answering this question required determining whether the taxpayer was an “educational organization which normally maintains a regular faculty and curriculum and normally has a regularly enrolled body of pupils or students in attendance at the place where its educational activity are regularly carried on” within the meaning of Code Section 170(b)(1)(A)(ii). Relying in part on Treasury Regulation Section 1.170A-9(c)(1), the government asserted that the taxpayer was not a qualified organization because it was not an educational organization because its primary function was not the presentation of formal instruction (primary-function requirement) and its noneducational activities were not merely incidental to the educational activities (merely-incidental requirement). The district court – Mayo Clinic v. United States, 412 F.Supp.3d 1038 (D. Minn. 2019) – held in favor of the taxpayer and invalidated the regulation, holding that the primary-function requirement and the merely-incidental requirement were not intended by Congress to be included in the statute. The Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded the decision. Implementing the longstanding two-pronged deference test under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. NRDC, 467 U.S. 837 (1984) and acknowledging recent precedent in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S.Ct. 2400 (2019), the Mayo Clinic court emphasized that the question before it was whether the government “stayed within the bounds of its statutory authority.” To answer this question, the court stated that to determine whether the statute was unambiguous required examining the statutory history and applying traditional tools of statutory construction. This led the Eighth Circuit to trace the evolution of the Code over more than a century, focusing on changes to statutory language, legislative history, agency positions during the legislative process and judicial interpretations of the law.

Based on this exhaustive analysis of the evolution of [...]

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IRS Required to Obtain Supervisory Approval to Assert Penalties

We have written several times about penalty defenses, including substantial authority, issues of first impression and tax reporting disclosures. Additionally, we previously covered  the 2016 case of Graev v. Commissioner, where a divided US Tax Court (Tax Court) held that supervisory approval was not necessary before determining a penalty in a deficiency proceeding because the statutory language of Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 6751(b)(1) couched such approval in terms of a proposed penalty assessment. For those not well-versed in procedural tax lingo, an “assessment” is merely the formal recording of a tax liability in the records of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In cases subject to the deficiency procedures—i.e., where taxpayers have a right to contest the IRS’s position in the Tax Court—no assessment can be made until after the Tax Court’s decision is final. (more…)




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