Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

by
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued summonses to four individuals, seeking information and records relevant to the tax obligations of Dynamo, 26 U.S.C.7602. When they failed to comply, the IRS brought an enforcement action. The individuals challenged the IRS’s motives in issuing the summonses and sought to question the responsible agents. The district court denied the request and ordered the summonses enforced. The Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that refusal to allow questioning of the agents was an abuse of discretion. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated and remanded. A taxpayer has a right to examine IRS officials regarding reasons for issuing a summons when the taxpayer points to specific facts or circumstances plausibly raising an inference of bad faith. The proceedings at issue are “summary in nature,” and the only relevant question is whether the summons was issued in good faith. Prior cases support a requirement that a summons objector offer not just naked allegations, but some credible evidence to support a claim of improper motive. Circumstantial evidence can suffice; a fleshed out case is not required. The objector need only present a plausible basis for the charge. The Eleventh Circuit erroneously applied a categorical rule demanding the examination of IRS agents without assessing the plausibility of the claims. View "United States v. Clarke" on Justia Law

by
Quality Stores made severance payments to employees who were involuntarily terminated in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The payments were made pursuant to plans that did not tie payments to the receipt of state unemployment insurance and varied based on job seniority. Quality Stores paid and withheld taxes required under FICA, 26 U.S.C. 3101. Later, believing that the payments should not have been taxed as FICA wages, Quality Stores sought a refund on behalf of itself and about 1,850 former employees. The IRS neither allowed nor denied the refund, Quality Stores initiated proceedings in the Bankruptcy Court, which granted summary judgment in its favor. The district court and Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the severance payments were taxable FICA wages. FICA defines “wages” broadly as “all remuneration for employment.” Severance payments are a form of remuneration made only to employees in consideration for employment. By varying according to a terminated employee’s function and seniority, the Quality Stores severance payments confirm the principle that “service” “mea[ns] not only work actually done but the entire employer-employee relationship for which compensation is paid.” FICA’s exemption for severance payments made because of "retirement for disability,” would be unnecessary were severance payments generally not considered wages. FICA has contained no general exception for severance payments since 1950. The Internal Revenue Code, section 3401(a), also has a broad definition of “wages” and specifies that “supplemental unemployment compensation benefits,” which include severance payments, be treated “as if” they were wages; simplicity of administration and consistency of statutory interpretation indicate that the meaning of “wages” should generally be the same for income-tax withholding and for FICA calculations. View "United States v. Quality Stores, Inc." on Justia Law

by
The IRS advised Ford Motor that it had underpaid its taxes from 1983 until 1989. Ford remitted $875 million to stop the accrual of interest that Ford would otherwise owe once audits were completed and the amount of its underpayment was finally determined. Eventually it was determined that Ford had overpaid its taxes in the relevant years, entitling Ford to a return of the overpayment and. Ford argued that “the date of overpayment” for purposes of 26 U.S.C. 6611(a) was the date that it first remitted the deposits to the IRS. The IRS countered that the relevant date was the date that Ford requested that the IRS treat the remittances as payments of tax. The difference between the competing interpretations is worth some $445 million. The district court granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of the government. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that section 6611 is a waiver of sovereign immunity that must be strictly construed in favor of the government. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, noting that the government was arguing, for the first time, that the only general waiver of sovereign immunity that encompasses Ford’s claim is the Tucker Act, 28 U. S. C. 1491(a). Although the government acquiesced in jurisdiction in the district court, the Tucker Act applies, jurisdiction over this case was proper only in the Court of Federal Claims. The Sixth Circuit should have the first opportunity to consider the argument. View "Ford Motor Co. v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Woods and McCombs participated in a tax shelter to generate paper losses to reduce their taxable income. They purchased currency-option spread packages consisting of a long option, for which they paid a premium, and a short option, which they sold and for which they collected a premium. Because the premium paid was largely offset by that received, the net cost of the packages was substantially less than the cost of the long option alone. Woods and McCombs contributed the spreads, plus cash, to partnerships, which used the cash to purchase stock and currency. In calculating their basis in the partnership interests, they considered only the long component of the spreads and disregarded the nearly offsetting short component. When the partnerships’ assets were disposed of for modest gains, they claimed huge losses. Although they had contributed $3.2 million in cash and spreads to the partnerships, they claimed losses of more than $45 million. The IRS sent notices, finding that the partnerships lacked “economic substance,” disallowing related losses, and concluding that the partners could not claim a basis greater than zero for their partnership interests and that tax underpayments would be subject to a 40-percent penalty for gross valuation misstatements. The district court held that the partnerships were properly disregarded as shams but that the penalty did not apply. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, first holding that the district court had jurisdiction to make the determination. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act authorizes courts in partnership-level proceedings to provisionally determine the applicability of any penalty that could result from an adjustment to a partnership item, even though imposing the penalty requires a subsequent, partner-level proceeding. In the later proceeding, a partner may raise reasons why the penalty may not be imposed on him personally. However, the valuation-misstatement penalty applies in this case. Once the partnerships were deemed shams, no partner could legitimately claim a basis greater than zero. Any underpayment resulting from use of a non-zero basis would be attributable to a partner having claimed an adjusted basis that exceeded the correct amount. When an asset’s adjusted basis is zero, a valuation misstatement is automatically deemed gross. The valuation¬misstatement penalty encompasses misstatements that rest on both legal and factual errors, so it is applicable to misstatements that rest on use of a sham partnership. View "United States v. Woods" on Justia Law

by
Windsor and Spyer, two women, married in Canada in 2007. Their home state, New York, recognized the marriage. Spyer died in 2009 and left her estate to Windsor, who sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. Her claim was barred by section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 28 U.S.C. 1738C, which defined “marriage” and “spouse” to exclude same-sex partners for purposes of federal law. Windsor paid $363,053 in taxes and sought a refund, which the IRS denied. Windsor sued, challenging DOMA. The Department of Justice declined to defend section 3’s constitutionality. The district court ordered a refund, finding section 3 unconstitutional. The Second Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, 5-4, first holding that the government retained a stake, sufficient to support Article III jurisdiction, because the unpaid refund is “a real and immediate economic injury.” There was sufficient argument for section 3’s constitutionality to satisfy prudential concerns. DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons under the Fifth Amendment. Regulation of marriage has traditionally been within the authority of the states. DOMA, applicable to more than 1,000 federal statues and all federal regulations, was directed to a class of persons that the laws of New York and 11 other states have sought to protect. DOMA is inconsistent with the principle that marriage laws may vary from state to state, but are consistent within each state. A state’s decision to give a class of persons the right to marry confers a dignity and status of immense import. New York’s decision was a proper exercise of its sovereign authority. By seeking to injure the class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violated basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government. Constitutional guarantees of equality “must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot” justify disparate treatment of the group. DOMA’s history and text indicate a purpose and practical effect to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and a stigma upon those entering into same-sex marriages made lawful by the states. The law deprived some couples married under the laws of their states, but not others, of rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same state; it diminished the stability and predictability of basic personal relations. View "United States v. Windsor" on Justia Law

by
In 1997, the United Kingdom imposed a one-time “windfall tax” on 32 U. K. companies privatized between 1984 and 1996 by the Conservative government. The companies had been sold to private parties through an initial sale of shares, known as “flotation.” Many of the companies became more efficient and earned substantial profits in the process. PPL, part owner of a privatized company, claimed a credit for its share of the bill in its 1997 federal income-tax return, relying on IRC section 901(b)(1), which states that any “income, war profits, and excess profits taxes” paid overseas are creditable against U. S. income taxes. Treasury Regulation 1.901–2(a)(1) states that a foreign tax is creditable if its “predominant character” “is that of an income tax in the U. S. sense.” The IRS rejected PPL’s claim, but the Tax Court held that the U. K. windfall tax was creditable. The Third Circuit reversed. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed, holding that the U. K. tax is creditable under section 901. Creditability depends on whether the tax, if enacted in the U. S., would be an income, war profits, or excess profits tax. A tax’s predominant character is that of an income tax “[i]f ... the foreign tax is likely to reach net gain in the normal circumstances in which it applies.” The windfall tax’s predominant character is that of an excess profits tax, a category of income tax in the U. S. sense. The Labour government’s conception of “profit-making value” as a backward¬-looking analysis of historic profits is not a typical valuation method; it is a tax on realized net income disguised as a tax on the difference between two values, one of which is a fictitious value calculated using an imputed price-to-earnings ratio. The windfall tax is economically equivalent to the difference between the profits each company actually earned and the amount the Labour government believed it should have earned given its flotation value. For most companies, the substantive effect was a 51.71 percent tax on all profits above a threshold, “a classic excess profits tax.” View "PPL Corp. v. Comm'r of Internal Revenue" on Justia Law

by
This case arose when petitioners filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy and then sold their farm. Under Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code, farmer debtors could treat certain claims owed to a governmental unit resulting from the disposition of farm assets as dischargeable, unsecured liabilities. 11 U.S.C. 1222(a). The Court held that federal income tax liability resulting from petitioners' post-petition farm sale was not "incurred by the estate" under 11 U.S.C. 503(b) of the Bankruptcy Code and thus was neither collectible nor dischargeable in the Chapter 12 plan. Therefore, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit. View "Hall v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Ordinarily, the Government must assess a deficiency against a taxpayer within "3 years after the return was filed." 26 U.S.C. 6501(a). The 3-year period was extended to 6 years, however, when a taxpayer "omits from gross income an amount properly includible therein which is in excess of 25 percent of the amount of gross income stated in the return." Section 6501(e)(1)(A). At issue was whether this latter provision applied when the taxpayer overstated his basis in property that he has sold, thereby understating the gain that he received from the sale. Following Colony, Inc. v. Commissioner, the Court held that the provision did not apply to an overstatement of basis. Therefore, the 6-year period did not apply. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit. View "United States v. Home Concrete & Supply, LLC" on Justia Law

by
Petitioners, natives and citizens of Japan who have been lawful permanent residents of the United States since 1984, appealed a removal order after husband pleaded guilty to one count of willfully making and subscribing a false tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. 7206(1) and wife pleaded guilty to one count of aiding and assisting in the preparation of a false tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. 7206(2). At issue was whether aliens who commit certain federal tax crimes were subject to deportation as aliens who have been convicted of an aggravated felony. The Court held that violations of section 7206(1) and (2) were crimes "involv[ing] fraud or deceit" under 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(43)(M)(i) and were therefore aggravated felonies as that term was defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq., when the loss to the Government exceeded $10,000. Because petitioners were subject to deportation as aliens who have been convicted of aggravated felonies, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. View "Kawashima v. Holder" on Justia Law

by
Respondents filed a complaint against AT&T Mobility LLC ("AT&T"), which was later consolidated with a putative class action, alleging that AT&T had engaged in false advertising and fraud by charging sales tax on phones it advertised as free. AT&T moved to compel arbitration under the terms of its contract with respondents and respondents opposed the motion contending that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and unlawfully exculpatory under California law because it disallowed classwide procedures. The district court denied AT&T's motion in light of Discover Bank v. Superior Court and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. At issue was whether the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"), 9 U.S.C. 2, prohibited states from conditioning the enforceability of certain arbitration agreements on the availability of classwide arbitration procedures. The Court held that, because it "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress," quoting Hines v. Davidowitz, California's Discover Bank rule was preempted by the FAA. Therefore, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit's ruling and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.