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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Appeals for the Ninth Circuit answered this question in the context of tax motivated transactions involving the since-repealed foreign service corporation (FSC) regime that was complied with all the formalities required by the Internal Revenue Code but which the Internal Revenue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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Tax Court Holds IRS Chief Counsel Attorneys May Make Initial Penalty Determination

In general, section 6751 requires that a supervisor give written approval before penalties can be asserted against a taxpayer. In Koh v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-77, authored by the US Tax Court’s (Tax Court) most recent addition—Judge Travis Greaves—the Tax Court affirmed that an attorney from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Chief Counsel may be authorized to assert such penalties in an answer to a Tax Court petition.

In Koh, the IRS sent the taxpayer a notice of deficiency that included a determination related to penalties under section 6662(j). The taxpayer filed a petition with the Tax Court contesting the IRS’s determination. In its answer, the IRS Chief Counsel attorney asserted that the taxpayer was liable for accuracy-related penalties under section 6662(b)(1) or (2), in the alternative to the section 6662(j) penalties assessed in the original deficiency notice.

The taxpayer sought partial judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that IRS Chief Counsel attorneys are not authorized to assert penalties in the answer. Under section 6751(b)(1), a penalty may not be assessed unless the “the initial determination of such assessment” was “personally approved (in writing) by the immediate supervisor of the individual making such determination.”

The Tax Court reasoned that as the IRS’s representative, the Chief Counsel attorney (or a delegate) may assert additional penalties in an answer to a Tax Court petition. Moreover, the Tax Court ruled that Chief Counsel attorneys had authority to assert penalties in an answer in Roth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-248, aff’d, 922 F.3d 1126 (10th Cir. 2019). That opinion was based on numerous cases holding that the IRS may assert penalties in an answer. However, Roth pre-dated the Tax Court’s opinion in Clay v. Commissioner, 152 T.C. 223 (2019), which cited US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit authority for the proposition that “written approval is required no later than the issuance of the notice of deficiency rather than the assessment of the tax.”

Practice Point: Taxpayers continue to face risk from penalties being asserted for the first time in an answer in a Tax Court Proceeding. We believe that there is a strong likelihood that Koh will be appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. We will continue to follow new developments related to penalties and the supervisory approval requirement.




Alta Wind: Federal Circuit Reverses Trial Court and Kicks Case Back to Answer Primary Issue

On July 27, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Alta Wind v. United States, reversed and remanded what had been a resounding victory for renewable energy. The US Court of Federal Claims had ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to claim a Section 1603 cash grant on the total amount paid for wind energy assets, including the value of certain power purchase agreements (PPAs).

We have reported on the Alta Wind case several times in the past two years:

Government Appeal of Alta Wind Supports Decision to File Suit Now

Court Awards $206 Million to Alta Wind Projects in Section 1603 Grant Litigation; Smaller Award to Biomass Facility

Court Awards $206 Million to Alta Wind Projects in Section 1603 Grant Litigation; Smaller Award to Biomass Facility

Act Now To Preserve Your Section 1603 Grant

SOL and the 1603 Cash Grant – File Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

In reversing the trial court, the appellate court failed to answer the substantive question of whether a PPA that is part of the sale of a renewable energy facility is creditable for purposes of the Section 1603 cash grant.

Trial Court Decision

The Court of Federal Claims awarded the plaintiff damages of more than $206 million with respect to the cash grant under Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Section 1603 Grant). The court held that the government had underpaid the plaintiff its Section 1603 Grants arising from the development and purchase of large wind facilities when it refused to include the value of certain PPAs in the plaintiffs’ eligible basis for the cash grants. The trial court rejected the government’s argument that the plaintiffs’ basis was limited solely to development and construction costs. Instead, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the arm’s-length purchase price of the projects prior to their placed-in-service date informed the projects’ creditable value. The court also determined that the PPAs specific to the wind facilities should not be treated as ineligible intangible property for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant. This meant that any value associated with the PPAs would be creditable for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant.

Federal Circuit Reverses and Remands 

The government appealed its loss to the Federal Circuit. In its opinion, the Federal Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision, and remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions. The Federal Circuit held that the purchase of the wind facilities should be properly treated as “applicable asset acquisitions” for purposes of Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 1060, and the purchase prices must be allocated using the so-called “residual method.” The residual method requires a taxpayer to allocate the purchase price among seven categories. The purpose of the allocation is to discern what amount of a purchase price should be ascribed to each category of assets, which may have significance for other parts of the IRC. For example, if the purchase price includes depreciable [...]

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Law School Professors File Amicus Briefs in Support of Commissioner’s Position in Altera

Two groups of law school professors have filed amicus briefs with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of the government’s position in Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, Dkt Nos. 16-70496, 16-70497. Read more on the appeal of Altera here and the US Supreme Court’s opinion addressing interplay between the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) procedural compliance and Chevron deference here. Each group argues that Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7 represents a valid exercise of the Commissioner’s authority to issue regulations under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 482 and that the US Tax Court (Tax Court) erred in finding the regulation to be invalid under section 706 of the APA.

One group of six professors (Harvey Group) first notes its agreement with the arguments advanced by the government in its opening brief. In particular, the Harvey Group concurs with the argument that “coordinating amendments promulgated with Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7(d)(2) vitiate the Tax Court’s analysis in Xilinx that the cost-sharing regulation conflicts with the arm’s-length standard.” It then goes on to note its agreement with the government’s argument that “the ‘commensurate with the income’ standard … contemplates a purely internal approach to allocating income from intangibles to related parties.”

Having thus supported the government’s commensurate-with income-based arguments, the Harvey Group argues that the regulation in question is, in any event, consistent with the general arm’s-length standard of Code Section 482. It does so based principally on the proposition that “[s]tock-based compensation costs are real costs, and no profit-maximizing economic actor would ignore them.” However, that said, “there are material differences between controlled and uncontrolled parties’ attitudes, motivations and behaviors regarding stock-based compensation.” Thus, according to the Harvey Group, the Tax Court erred when it concluded that “Treasury necessarily decided an empirical question when it concluded that the final rule was consistent with the arm’s-length standard,” because “[n]o empirical finding that uncontrolled parties do, or might, share stock-based compensation costs is required to support Treasury’s regulation.” Accordingly, the Tax Court’s reliance on State Farm and the cases following it was a “key misstep” by the Tax Court.

The Harvey Group also proposes that, should the Ninth Circuit find that the term “arm’s length standard” or the meaning of the “coordinating regulations” is ambiguous, the government’s interpretation embodied in Treas. Reg. § 1.482-7 should be afforded Auer deference. Read more on deference principles in tax cases and the unique challenges of Auer deference. Auer deference is a special level of deference that can apply when an agency interprets its own regulations, although there are several limitations on its use.  Finally, if the Ninth Circuit decides that the regulations “have an infirmity,” the Harvey Group argues that “[t]he best remedy is to remand to Treasury for further consideration.”

A second group of nineteen professors (Alstott Group) similarly agrees with the government’s arguments to the Ninth Circuit. The Alstott Group argues that the 1986 addition of the “commensurate with income” standard [...]

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