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Ninth Circuit Holds Tax Form is Substance

The substance over form doctrine (and related step transaction and economic substance doctrines) are often invoked by courts to disallow tax consequences that seem too good to be true. Courts have struggled for years with how to properly apply these doctrines. Those advocating against application usually rely on the famous passage by Judge Learned Hand in Helvering v. Gregory, 69 F.2d 809, 810 (2d Cir. 1934): “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” Those advocating for this position seek shelter in cases like Commissioner v. Court Holding Co., 324 U.S. 331, 334 (1945), in which the Supreme Court of the United States stated, “the incidence of taxation depends upon the substance of a transaction. …. To permit the true nature of a transaction to be disguised by mere formalisms, which exist solely to alter tax liabilities, would seriously impair the effective administration of the tax policies of Congress.” But ultimately, as the Supreme Court explained in Gregory v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465, 469 (1935), “the question for determination is whether what was done, apart from the tax motive, was the thing which the statute intended.”

However, what the statute intended is not always easy to determine. In Mazzei v. Commissioner, No. 18-82451 (9th Cir. June 2, 2021), the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit answered this question in the context of tax motivated transactions involving the since-repealed foreign service corporation (FSC) regime that was complied with all the formalities required by the Internal Revenue Code but which the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) asserted should nonetheless be recharacterized under the substance over form doctrine. The Court noted it is a “black-letter principle” and courts follow “substance over form” in construing and applying the tax laws. However, this doctrine is not a “smell test” but rather a tool of statutory construction that must be applied based on the statutory framework at issue. Thus, in appropriate situations where Congress indicates that form should control, the substance over form doctrine is abrogated.

That is exactly what happened in Mazzei. Agreeing with the First, Second and Sixth Circuits, which had previously addressed similar issues, the Ninth Circuit found that the statutory framework and history indicated that Congress did not intend for the substance over form doctrine to apply to the FSC regime. While “[i]t may have been unwise for Congress to allow taxpayers to pay reduced taxes” under the statutory scheme, “it is not our role to save the [IRS] from the inescapable logical consequence of what Congress has plainly authorized.”

Practice Point: The distinction between tax avoidance (permissible) and tax avoidance (impermissible) is not always an obvious line. Taxpayers should be able to rely on the words used by Congress when enacting tax laws, but courts [...]

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Supreme Court Opens Door to APA Challenge of Overreaching IRS Information Reporting Regime

In CIC Services, LLC v. Internal Revenue Service, a unanimous US Supreme Court allowed CIC, a tax advisor, to proceed with a pre-enforcement challenge to the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) “reportable transaction” regime. CIC alleged that the IRS violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when it issued Notice 2016-66 (Notice), deeming certain micro-captive insurance transactions as “reportable transactions” and sought an order enjoining enforcement of the Notice. The IRS sought to avoid judicial review by hiding behind the Anti-Injunction Act’s (AIA) bar on suits brought “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax.” Disagreeing with the trial and appellate courts, the Supreme Court allowed CIC’s suit to proceed, finding that CIC was challenging a regulatory mandate separate from any tax. As the Court explained, “The tax appears on the scene – as criminal penalties do too – only to sanction that mandate’s violation.” By choosing to address their concerns about micro-captive transactions by imposing a non-tax reporting obligation, Congress and the IRS “took suits to enjoin their regulatory response outside the Anti-Injunction Act’s domain.”

On remand, the Court’s decision leaves open questions that the lower courts must now address while also providing meaningful clues about how the Court may approach future disputes over IRS enforcement strategies. Such questions include: (1) does the reportable transaction regime as the IRS currently administers it violate the APA (See: Mann Construction, Inc. v. United States, No. 1:20-cv-11307 (E.D. Mich. May 13, 2021) (holding that IRS Notice requiring disclosure of listed transactions was not subject to APA’s notice-and-comment requirement); (2) would the AIA bar a suit to enjoin enforcement of a reporting obligation brought by a taxpayer, as opposed to an advisor; (3) how onerous must the challenged requirement be; (4) how disconnected from the tax penalty must the challenged requirement be and (5) is the existence of criminal penalties sufficient and/or necessary to exempt a challenge from the AIA?

Practice Point: APA challenges in tax cases have steadily increased since the Supreme Court’s rejection of tax exceptionalism 10 years ago in Mayo Foundation for Medical Education & Research v. United States, 562 U.S. 44 (2011). As tax law continues to get more complicated and the IRS issues additional guidance, we can expect this trend to continue. Understanding how to use the APA to challenge the overreaching of the IRS is an important tool for taxpayers and tax advisors alike. In the absence of a clear congressional mandate, any new enforcement policy issued by the IRS may be fair game for an APA challenge. The Supreme Court has opened the door to judicial review of unsanctioned IRS programs that place unfair burdens on taxpayers. And, this issue extends beyond the reportable transaction regime, including to the information reporting proposals recently announced by the Biden Administration.




Let’s All Stop and Reflect for a Moment

In a recent article for the American Bar Association’s ABA Tax Times, McDermott partner Andrew R. Roberson reflected on 2020 and the importance of giving back.

“From COVID-19 to the Black Lives Matter movement; from home office and Zoom to remote learning for students; and so on—these events have impacted us all, both on professional and personal levels.”

Access the article.




2020’s Key Tax Controversy Developments

In the face of the pandemic and all the challenges that came with 2020, tax controversy marched on. In this article, we explore several important cases, including one of the most closely watched Supreme Court cases, CIC Services LLC v. Internal Revenue Service, which raises important questions regarding the scope of the Anti-Injunction Act and impacts the ability of taxpayers to engage in preenforcement challenges to regulations.

We also look into the latest updates in the transfer pricing area, changes to the Compliance Assurance Process, what to expect during the audit of a campaign issue and more.

Read the full article.




Senior Tax Court Judge Robert A. Wherry, Jr. Retires

On January 3, 2018, Chief Judge Marvel of the US Tax Court (Tax Court) announced that Senior Judge Robert A. Wherry, Jr. fully retired as of January 1, 2018, and would no longer be recalled for judicial service.

Judge Wherry was appointed on April 23, 2003, by President George W. Bush. In 2014, Judge Wherry took senior status and continued to try cases. By statute, the Tax Court is composed of 19 presidentially appointed judges. Judges are appointed for a term of 15 years and after an appointed term has expired, or they reach a specified age, may serve as a “senior judge” if recalled by the Tax Court. The Tax Court also has several special trial judges, who generally preside over small tax cases. (more…)




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