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Huge Win for Refined Coal: DC Appeals Court Permits Tax Credits

On August 5, 2022, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the US Tax Court’s bench opinion in favor of partners and investors in a refined coal business. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has consistently fought taxpayers’ attempts to claim a tax credit for refining coal despite a clear congressional mandate in Internal Revenue Code section 45(c)(7)(A). The IRS has repeatedly taken the position that the partnerships formed to utilize the tax credits generated by the refined coal business are not bona fide because the partnerships could never make an economic profit without the tax credits.

In Cross Refined Coal LLC, the IRS examined the partnership’s 2011 and 2012 tax years and disallowed $25.8 million of refined coal production tax credits and $25.7 million of claimed operating losses. The IRS argued that:

  • The partnership did not exist as a matter of fact.
  • The partnership was not, in substance, a partnership for federal income tax purposes because it was not formed to carry on a business or for the sharing of profits and losses from the production or sale of refined coal by its purported members/partners, but rather was created to facilitate the prohibited transaction of monetizing refined coal tax credits.
  • The transaction was entered into solely to purchase refined coal tax credits and other tax benefits.
  • Claimed expenses were not ordinary and necessary or credible expenses in connection with a trade or business or other activity engaged in for profit.

After a two-week trial involving several witnesses and thousands of exhibits, the Tax Court held that the partnership was legitimate because its partners made substantial contributions to the partnership, participated in its management and shared in its profits and losses. The IRS appealed to the DC Circuit.

In affirming the Tax Court, the DC Circuit held that the partners intended to form a partnership and had legitimate non-tax motives for the business. The Court diffused any concern that the partnership included tax benefits, explaining that “there was nothing untoward about seeking partners who could apply the refined-coal credits immediately, rather than carrying them forward to future tax years.” The Court also recognized that “Congress expressly provided for coal refiners to employ this investment strategy, for the tax code specifies how the credit must be divided when a refining facility has multiple owners.” The Court was not persuaded by the IRS’s concern that the partners did not enter the partnership to obtain a pre-tax profit: “[a]ccording to the Commissioner, Cross’s partners did not have the requisite intent to carry on a business together because Cross was not ‘undertaken for profit or for other legitimate nontax business purposes.’” The Court disagreed, explaining:

As a general matter, a partnership’s pursuit of after-tax profit can be legitimate business activity for partners to carry on together. This is especially true in the context of tax incentives, which exist precisely to encourage activity that would not otherwise be profitable.

The DC Circuit found [...]

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Is the IRS Finally Receiving Increased Funding?

After months of back and forth, it appears that additional funding is on its way to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) released a statement yesterday on his agreement with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) on the FY2022 Budget Reconciliation legislation and plans to hold a vote in the US Senate next week. A summary of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (Act) provides the following topline estimates:

Total Revenue Raised $739 billion 15% Corporate Minimum Tax $313 billion* Prescription Drug Pricing Reform $288 billion** IRS Tax Enforcement $124 billion** Carried Interest Loophole $14 billion* Total Investments $433 billion Energy Security and Climate Change $369 billion** Affordable Care Act Extension $64 billion** Total Deficit Reduction $300+ billion * = Joint Committee on Taxation Estimate ** = Congressional Budget Office Estimate

 

With respect to taxes, the summary states that the Act will “[m]ake the biggest corporations and ultra-wealthy pay their fair share” and “[t]here are no new taxes on families making $400,000 or less and no new taxes on small business – we are closing tax loopholes and enforcing the tax code.”

Section 10301 of the Act, entitled “Enhancement of Internal Revenue Service Resources,” provides the following appropriations:

  • IRS: $78,911,000,000
    • Taxpayer Services: $3,181,500,000
      • Provide taxpayer services, including pre-filing assistance and education; filing and account services; taxpayer advocacy services; and other services authorized by 5 U.S.C. 3109 (relating to employment of excerpts and consultants on a temporary or intermittent basis)
    • Enforcement: $45,637,400,000
      • Conduct tax enforcement activities to determine and collect owed taxes; provide legal and litigation support; conduct criminal investigations; provide digital asset monitoring and compliance activities; enforce criminal statutes related to violations of internal revenue laws and other financial crimes; purchase and hire passenger motor vehicles; and provide other services authorized by 3109
    • Operations Support: $25,326,400,000
      • Support taxpayer services and enforcement programs, including rent payments; facilities services; printing; postage; physical security; headquarters and other IRS-wide administrative activities; research and statistics of income; telecommunications; information technology development, enhancement, operations, maintenance and security; hire of passenger motor vehicles, operations of the IRS Oversight Board; and other services authorized by 3109
    • Business Systems Modernization: $4,750,700,000
      • Improve the business systems modernization program, including development of callback technology and other technology to provide a more personalized customer service experience but do not include the operation and maintenance of legacy systems.
    • Report on IRS-Run Free “Direct Efile” Tax Return System: $15,000,000
      • Deliver to US Congress (within nine months) a report on the cost of developing and running a free direct efile tax return system; taxpayer opinions, expectations and level of trust—based on surveys—for such a system; and opinions of an independent third party on the overall feasibility, approach, schedule, cost, organizational design and the IRS’s capacity to deliver such a system
    • Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA): $403,000,000



Sixth Circuit Denies Proceeds Regulation Rehearing Request, Sets Up a Circuit Split

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently denied a taxpayer’s request for a rehearing en banc in Oakbrook Land Holdings, LLC v. Commissioner, No. 20-2117, leaving a highly contested conservation easement regulation in place and setting up a split between the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits.

In Oakbrook, the taxpayer argued that Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(6)(ii), known as the “proceeds regulation,” was invalid because it did not satisfy the Administrative Procedure Act’s (APA) notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. The regulation addresses how to allocate proceeds between donors and donees if an easement is judicially extinguished and the property is sold. In May 2020, the US Tax Court held that the regulation was “procedurally and substantively valid” under the APA. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the Tax Court, upholding the regulation.

The Sixth Circuit’s order issued July 6, 2022, indicated that neither the judges on the original panel nor any other judge on the full court requested a vote for a suggested rehearing. Last year, however, the Eleventh Circuit reached the opposite conclusion in Hewitt v. Commissioner, finding that the same regulation was invalid because it violated the APA. Thus, there is a clear circuit split on the issue.

Practice Point: The government did not seek a review of the Hewitt decision from the Supreme Court of the United States, so that ruling stands in the Eleventh Circuit. It remains to be seen whether the taxpayer in Oakbrook files a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. With a split between the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits, it is possible this conservation easement battle could be headed to the Supreme Court to determine the fate of the proceeds regulation.




Will the Supreme Court Rule on Whirlpool’s Subpart F Income Case?

A war is currently waging in the tax world over when courts should give deference to the US Department of the Treasury’s regulations. (We have written extensively on this subject here and here.) However, another potential war looms: Can courts disregard validly promulgated regulations relied on by taxpayers in favor of their own statutory interpretation? This question lies at the heart of the Whirlpool case.

On June 30, 2022, Whirlpool asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s decision that income earned by a Luxembourg controlled foreign corporation was foreign base company sales income (FBCSI) under the branch rule of Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 954(d)(2) and taxable to the corporation as “subpart F income.”

During the trial phase of the litigation, the US Tax Court held that the branch income regulations (and the regulatory manufacturing exception therein), were validly promulgated and interpreted the regulations in a manner favorable to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). (See 154 T.C. 142 (2020).)

Whirlpool appealed, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed in a 2-1 decision. (See 19 F.4th 944 (6th Cir. 2021).) Unlike the Tax Court, which reached its decision by harmoniously reading the statute and regulations, the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the IRS based solely on its interpretation of IRC section 954(d)(2), ignoring the relevant regulations and how the IRS and other courts have interpreted them. For an excellent dissection of the Court’s ruling, please see our colleagues’ article, “Implications of the Sixth Circuit’s Whirlpool Opinion.”

Whirlpool sought rehearing and rehearing en banc in the Sixth Circuit. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Silicon Valley Tax Directors Group also filed amicus briefs supporting Whirlpool (McDermott acted as counsel for NAM in this capacity). However, the Sixth Circuit denied Whirlpool’s request for rehearing and rehearing en banc.

Now, Whirlpool is seeking the guidance of the Supreme Court, asking “whether or in what circumstances a statute that is expressly conditioned on regulations to be promulgated by an agency may be enforced without regard to such regulations.” In seeking certiorari, Whirlpool argues:

The divided Sixth Circuit below held that a tax statute explicitly conditioned on regulations to be promulgated by the Secretary of the Treasury delineating the income subject to taxation could be enforced without consulting the Secretary’s regulations, even though the regulations bound the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) and the IRS actually imposed tax based on the regulations. That decision directly contravenes [the Supreme] Court’s precedents and settled administrative-law principles. It upsets the reliance interests of taxpayers who, for more than 50 years, have relied on the regulations in structuring their operations. And this issue is outcome-determinative because — as the dissent below concluded — the income at issue is not taxable under a proper reading of the regulations (emphasis in original).

Whirlpool further argues that left unchecked, the Sixth Circuit’s decision [...]

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Judge Kathleen Kerrigan Begins Term as Tax Court’s Chief Judge

On June 1, 2022, Judge Kathleen Kerrigan began her two-year term as Chief Judge of the US Tax Court. Her election as Chief Judge was announced earlier this year and covered on the blog here. Chief Judge Kerrigan replaces Judge Maurice B. Foley, who served as Chief Judge from June 1, 2018, through May 31, 2022.




IRS Appeals Acknowledges Massive Backlog of Cases, Shares Plan to Catch Up

In a memorandum dated April 19, 2022, the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Independent Office of Appeals (IRS Appeals) acknowledged that it has a large backlog of cases that is slowing down the process of resolving cases with taxpayers. In the memorandum, IRS Appeals details its multipoint plan to get back on track. Apparently, there is a “significant inventory” of cases docketed in the US Tax Court that have been referred back to IRS Appeals. To solve this problem, IRS Appeals is:

  • Dedicating additional resources to work these cases
  • Prioritizing docketed casework
  • Making faster initial contact with the taxpayer or their representative by telephone shortly after the case is filed in the Tax Court
  • Applying streamlined case processing, such as specific dollar settlements, expedited tax computation requests and the use of Form 5402, Appeals Settlement Memorandum, to document settlements
  • Resolving cases without an IRS Appeals conference for matters that result from pandemic miscommunication rather than actual tax disputes
  • Obviating an actual trial to develop the facts and instead relying on oral statements to resolve cases more efficiently.

All of the above measures are welcome developments. Timely first contact with taxpayers and streamlined case processing should result in faster settlements and closure of matters while reducing interest expenses for taxpayers with deficiencies. Acknowledging that the controversy stems from a pandemic miscommunication (e.g., the IRS not processing or responding to taxpayer submissions before issuing a notice of deficiency) should eliminate unnecessary conferences and promote the dismissal of matters that never should have ended up before the Tax Court.

The acceptance of oral statements should also help resolve matters faster. In many situations, the documents necessary to substantiate a position may not be available or there may not be any documents in the first instance, so the only way to prove a factual point is through oral testimony. IRS Appeals should also consider declarations or affidavits signed under penalties of perjury as an appropriate means for substantiating facts to resolve cases more efficiently. Indeed, the use of such written statements is commonplace in litigation when parties seek summary adjudication.

We have discussed IRS Appeals numerous times on this blog. It remains one of the best forums to resolve tax disputes with the IRS and avoid court, meaning a substantial slow down at IRS Appeals is a real problem for taxpayers who cannot come to an agreement with an IRS examination team.

Practice Point: We applaud the IRS’s attempt to break the bottleneck at IRS Appeals. The measures that IRS Appeals is employing seem reasonable and appropriate and most of them should be employed even after IRS Appeals becomes updated on its caseload. In the meantime, if you have a case that will go to IRS Appeals, consider trying to expedite your appeal by requesting the 30-day letter as soon as it becomes clear you will be having an unagreed-case.




Late CDP Petitions May Still Be Entitled to Tax Court Review

In a unanimous decision in Boechler, P.C. v. Commissioner issued on April 21, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit’s ruling (which affirmed the US Tax Court) and held that the 30-day time limit to file a petition with the Tax Court in a collection due process (CDP) case is a non-jurisdictional deadline subject to equitable tolling. The Supreme Court remanded the case to determine whether the taxpayer is entitled to equitable tolling.

The one-day-late showdown started in 2015, when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified Boechler, P.C. (Boechler), a North Dakota law firm, of a tax discrepancy. Boechler did not respond, which triggered the assessment of an “intentional disregard” penalty along with a notice that the IRS intended to seize Boechler’s property to satisfy the penalty. Boechler requested a CDP hearing before the IRS Independent Office of Appeals (IRS Appeals), arguing that: (1) there was no discrepancy in its tax filings and (2) the penalty was excessive. IRS Appeals rejected these arguments and sustained the proposed levy. Boechler then had 30 days to file its Tax Court petition but missed the deadline by one day. The Tax Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction, holding that the 30-day filing deadline is jurisdictional and cannot be equitably tolled. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari. The US government argued that the deadline was jurisdictional and the Tax Court lacks the power to accept a tardy filing by applying the doctrine of equitable tolling. Boechler argued that equitable tolling applied, and the Tax Court had jurisdiction over its case. The Supreme Court, continuing a trend of distinguishing between claim processing rules and jurisdictional rules, agreed with Boechler.

Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 6330(d)(1) states, “[t]he person may, within 30 days of a determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter).” The Supreme Court explained that a procedural requirement is treated as jurisdictional “only if Congress ‘clearly states’ that it is” Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U. S. 500, 515 (2006), although US Congress need not “incant magic words.” Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center, 568 U. S. 145, 153 (2013).

The Supreme Court clarified that the question was whether the statutory language limits the Tax Court’s jurisdiction to petitions filed within that timeframe. That answer turned on the meaning of the phrase “such matters.” The first independent clause explains what a taxpayer may do, (“The person may, within 30 days of a determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination.”) However, the phrase “such matters” does not clearly mandate the jurisdictional reading and lacks clear antecedent. In addition, the Supreme Court also explained that Code Section 6330(d)(1) lacked in comparable clarity as to other tax provisions enacted around the same time. Finally, the Supreme [...]

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Tax Court Special Trial Judge Daniel A. Guy Retires

On April 1, 2022, the US Tax Court announced that Special Trial Judge (STJ) Daniel A. Guy has retired, effective March 31, 2022. STJ Guy served the Tax Court in various roles for more than 30 years, the last 10 in the capacity of STJ. He was recently honored with the J. Edgar Murdock Award for his distinguished service to the Tax Court. McDermott wishes STJ Guy the best in his post-Tax Court endeavors.




Tax Court Proposes New Rules of Practice and Procedure

On March 23, 2022, the US Tax Court announced new proposed rules for practicing before it. The Court proposed three new rules, amendments to existing rules and changes to conform the existing rules to various forms. The proposed changes also reflect the Court’s move toward conformity with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

OVERVIEW OF THE NEW PROPOSED RULES

The new rules include Rule 63, Rule 92 and Rule 152. Rule 63 provides rules to parties seeking to intervene in a Court proceeding who have an unconditional right and a conditional right to intervene by a federal statute.

Rule 92 provides rules to identify and certify an administrative record in certain actions. The explanation to the proposed rule states that proposed Rule 92 is meant,

[T]o fill a gap in the Court’s Rules of Practice and Procedure. Although the Court has longstanding Rules governing the submission of the administrative record in declaratory judgment cases, see Title XXI of the Court’s Rules, the Court has not adopted a rule of procedure or a uniform process governing the submission of the administrative record to the Court in other actions where judicial review is normally limited to the administrative record or where judicial review requires an examination of the administrative record and other relevant evidence, as appropriate.

Rule 152 provides a uniform rule for the Court to accept briefs filed by amicus curiae. The explanation to the rule states that proposed Rule 152 is a corollary to Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and Rule 7(o) of the local rules for the US District Court for the District of Columbia. We previously discussed amicus briefs in the Court, and this change is a welcome development to provide specific procedures in the area.

NOTABLE REVISIONS TO EXISTING RULES

Proposed Rule 21, Service of Papers, makes service of pleadings through the Court’s electronic system the default method for serving papers upon the Court and opposing parties.

Proposed Rule 23, Form and Style of Papers, omits all prefixes (e.g., Mr., Ms.) from pleadings. The amendment would also permit the use of a typed written name on a pleading that is filed electronically with the Court to constitute that person’s signature.

Proposed Rule 70, Scope of Discovery, would add the following rule:

Discovery must be proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.

Additionally, the amendment proposes that any information withheld under a claim of privilege must be expressly made and describe the nature of the documents, communications, etc., not produced to enable the other party the ability to assess the privilege claim. The rule also adds provisions for the return of privileged documents that were inadvertently disclosed to the opposing [...]

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An Update on Section 6751 Penalties

Tax penalties are always a hot topic here. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a large arsenal when it comes to grounds for asserting penalties on income tax deficiencies, ranging from the common 20% penalty under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 6662(a) to higher penalties ranging from 40% (gross valuation or basis misstatements and economic substance) to 75% (fraud).

However, before the IRS can assert most penalties against taxpayers, it must comply with the procedural requirement in Code Section 6751(b): That the “initial determination” to assert the penalty be “personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination.” As the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit explained in Chai v. Commissioner, US Congress imposed this requirement because it “believes that penalties should only be imposed where appropriate and not as a bargaining chip” and “[t]he statute was meant to prevent IRS agents from threatening unjustified penalties to encourage taxpayers to settle.”

Over the past several years, there has been substantial litigation over the proper interpretation and application of Code Section 6751(b). The US Tax Court’s recent opinion in Oxbow Bend, LLC v. Commissioner is the latest development. In Oxbow Bend, the Tax Court rejected the taxpayer’s position that the “initial determination” was made on the date that the examining agent prepared a penalty lead sheet reflecting her recommendation to assert penalties and stated in a telephone conference with the taxpayer’s representative on that same day that penalties were being considered. Approximately three months later, the examining agent’s supervisor approved the penalty lead sheet, and the IRS issued a Notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment asserting the penalties. The Tax Court, relying on its prior precedent, held that the word “determination”:

  1. “has an established meaning in the tax context and denotes a communication with a high degree of concreteness and formality”
  2. “signifies a consequential moment of IRS action”
  3. is not a “mere suggestion, proposal, or initial informal mention of penalties”
  4. “will be embodied in a formal written communication that notifies the taxpayer of the decision to assert penalties.”

Thus, under the Tax Court’s analysis, an “initial determination” can only be made in a “written” document that is provided to the taxpayer.

Oxbow Bend is a memorandum opinion of the Tax Court and, therefore, is limited to its facts and technically not precedential, as we have discussed in the past. However, memorandum opinions are often cited by litigants, and the Tax Court does not disregard these types of opinions lightly. One has to wonder whether, under different facts where an examining agent makes an explicit oral statement to a taxpayer that penalties “will” be asserted, courts might reach a different result given Congress’s express intent that examining agents should not threaten penalties and use them as a bargaining chip for settlement purposes. Further, Code Section 6751(b) expressly requires that the supervisory approval be “in writing” but contains a written requirement for purposes of the [...]

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