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TEFRA + LCU = Confusion, Part 2


In Part Two of this three-part series, Bob Probasco examines the dissenting view in the recent General Mills case out of the Federal Circuit. Part One can be found here. Christine

In Part 1, I described the decision by the Court of the Appeals for the Federal Circuit in General Mills, Inc. v. United States, 957 F.3d 1275 (Fed. Cir. 2020), aff’g 123 Fed. Cl. 576 (2015). The parties’ briefs on appeal can be read here: Opening Brief, Answer, and Appellant’s Reply. The taxpayer’s refund suit sought recovery of $6 million of excessive underpayment interest, but the court dismissed the case based on a jurisdiction issue from a special TEFRA provision.  I thought that the court made a crucial assumption, never clearly stated, as to the conceptual framework for adjustments resulting from a TEFRA proceeding. 

Part 2 explains why an alternative framework, that would have supported the taxpayer’s position instead of the government’s, is not only possible but perhaps the best way to think about these issues.  This case involved the intersection of TEFRA and the complex interest provisions of the Code.  The combination is messy. 

Brief Recap of the Facts and the Majority’s Position The case involved partnership audits and adjustments for partnership tax returns for General Mills Cereals, LLC (“Cereals”).  Different members of the General Mills (GMI) consolidated group were partners in Cereals, so the tax returns—and any audit adjustments—for Cereals flowed through to GMI.  The IRS audited the 2002-2003 tax returns (both corporate and partnership) and later the 2004-2006 tax returns (same).  Although there are some slight differences between the audits for those two periods, for simplicity I will focus on the 2002-2003 tax returns.

Audits began for Cereals in 2005 for these years.  The partners in Cereals entered into settlement agreements in July 2010.  On August 27, 2010, the IRS issued a “notice of computational adjustment” to GMI, identifying additional underpayments resulting from the Cereals audit, of about $16 million for 2002 and more than $33 million for 2003. 

The IRS assessed additional taxes, penalties, and interest resulting from the Cereals audit in September 2010.  GMI paid all outstanding balances for these years, including interest, on April 11, 2011.  The IRS sent GMI detailed interest computation schedules for these years, apparently for the first time, on April 18, 2011 and April 20, 2011.  The schedules reflected that the IRS began charging a higher underpayment interest rate (“hot interest”) on July 15, 2007.  GMI filed refund claims on March 28, 2013, arguing that the higher interest rate should not have started until September 26, 2010.  It then filed this refund suit on January 30, 2014.

The government argued, and the majority agreed, that the relevant statute of limitations for such refund claims was the six-month period specified in section 6230(c)(2) for challenging erroneous computational adjustments rather than the two-year limitation period of section 6511.  As a result, the refund claims were filed untimely, and the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

The Dissent

The Federal Circuit’s decision was 2-1.  Judge Newman dissented and would have reversed the dismissal for lack of jurisdiction.  She thought section 6511, rather than 6230(c), applied to these refund claims.  Section 6231(a)(6) defines a computational adjustment as “the change in the tax liability of a partner which properly reflects the treatment under this subchapter of a partnership item.”  She concluded that the “payment of interest is not a ‘tax liability.’”  Further, “partnership item” should not be construed so “‘broadly as to cover claims that depend on the unique circumstances of an individual partner.’” (quoting Prochorenko v. United States, 243 F.3d 1359 (Fed. Cir. 2001)).  Thus, the refund claims were not correcting errors in computational adjustments of a partnership item; they were for refund of an overpayment of interest, to which the two-year limitation period in section 6511 apply.

Judge Newman found no hint in the TEFRA legislative history of any Congressional intent to truncate the two-year limitations period in section 6511.  She also quoted a 2001 Supreme Court case:  “[I]n cases such as this one, in which the complex statutory and regulatory scheme lends itself to any number of interpretations, we should be inclined to rely on the traditional canon that construes revenue-raising laws against their drafter.”

Possible Confusion Regarding the Conceptual Framework?

As I read the majority opinion and the applicable Code sections, it occurred to me that the analysis—as well as the regulation that defined resulting interest as a computational adjustment—rested in part on an assumption about the governing framework.  Specifically, the IRS, DOJ, and Court seem to think of adjustments to the partners’ returns as falling into two categories only:

  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 
  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are not required.  This encompasses those for which partner-level determinations are not necessary. 

That seems consistent with the structure of former section 6230.  Section 6230(a)(2)(A) provides circumstances under which deficiency procedures apply and section 6230(a)(1) effectively is “everything else.”

The government puts interest in the second category, even though partner-level determinations are necessary.  (They certainly were in this case because the interest computations depended on information that was not part of the TEFRA proceedings.  The notice, and therefore applicable date used by the IRS, were part of the corporate audit.)  The decision to put interest into the second category perhaps was because interest doesn’t fit into the first category, which “shall apply to any deficiency attributable to . . ..”  Interest is not a tax liability and therefore is not included in the definition of deficiency and therefore does not fall within section 6230(a)(2)(A).  Where else can it be?  Only section 6230(a)(1).

But that is only the case if assessments of additional interest are computational adjustments.  The dissent concluded that interest assessments don’t fit within the definition of a computational adjustment.  An alternative framework would be that adjustments to partners’ returns, resulting from a partnership-level proceeding, fall into three categories:

  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 
  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 
  • Computational adjustments for which deficiency proceedings are required.  This encompasses (a) those for which partner-level determination are not necessary as well as (b) those for penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts. 

In that case, the six-month period in section 6230(c)(2) only applies to the first two categories.  The third falls under the two-year period of section 6511 for normal refund claims.

This certainly seems as though it could have been what Congress intended.  Before TEFRA, we just had deficiency procedures and interest was not subject to those; it was just assessed after tax was assessed.  Did Congress intend partnership proceedings and computational adjustments to only address the same types of adjustments that deficiency proceedings covered—underlying tax, penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts?  And then rely on the existing process for assessing interest, which is to simply assess it and require the taxpayer to pay and file a refund claim?  I haven’t done a deep dive into the legislative history, but that seems very plausible to me.  It’s also arguably the best interpretation under the definition of a computational adjustment quoted above in the discussion of the dissent.

There is a technical argument to the contrary that could support the majority’s position. 

  • Section 6601(e)(1) says that references to “tax” shall be deemed also to refer to interest, except for such references in subchapter B of chapter 63 (sections 6211-6216). 
  • So “tax” in section 6230(a)(2)(A) would include interest, but that section doesn’t mention “tax,” it refers to “deficiency”. 
  • And the reference to “tax” in section 6211(a), defining “deficiency,” doesn’t include interest.  Therefore, interest is not part of a deficiency. 

Thus, interest is included in the definition of a computational adjustment in section 6231(a)(6), which has a direct reference to “tax.”  But section 6230(a)(2)(A) has only an indirect reference (through section 6211) to tax, so interest is not included to the category of computational adjustments for which a deficiency proceeding is appropriate. 

But that’s highly technical and formal.  Common sense would say that—for purposes of the TEFRA provisions—if interest is not included in a deficiency for purposes of section 6230(a)(2)(A), it shouldn’t be included in a change to tax liability for the definition of computational adjustment in section 6231(a)(6).

The Court of Federal Claims opinion addressed this question, whether interest is incorporated in the definition of a computational adjustment, in more detail than the Federal Circuit’s decision.  The CFC didn’t rely entirely on the regulation and in fact suggested that would be insufficient by itself.  It cited several cases, some of which addressed a former version of section 6621(c), which increased the interest rate for “tax-motivated transactions” (TMT); the CFC, along with other courts, considered TMT interest analogous to hot interest.  But those cases never addressed the definition of computational adjustment, other than in the regulation.

For example, in N.C.F. Energy Partners v. Commissioner, 89 T.C. 741 (1987), the partnership sought to challenge penalties and TMT interest in its proceeding, although they were not asserted in the final notice of partnership administrative adjustment.  The IRS moved to dismiss those portions of the case for lack of jurisdiction.  The court concluded that additional findings of fact with respect to individual partners would be required, so those issues should not be addressed in the partnership proceeding.  The court did not directly interpret the definition of a computational adjustment, although it seemed to suggest that TMT interest would be addressed in a deficiency proceeding.

In White v. Commissioner, 95 T.C. 209 (1990), the IRS issued a notice of deficiency including TMT interest after the conclusion of the partnership proceeding.  The IRS moved to dismiss the interest determination from the deficiency proceeding.  The court agreed, 13-2 in a reviewed opinion.  That case, however, turned on the question of whether interest was included in a “deficiency.”  The court did not address how a later assessment of interest should be handled, as a computational adjustment or just a normal assessment of interest.

In Pen Coal Corp. v. Commissioner, 107 T.C. 249 (1996), the notices of deficiency had included tax, penalties, additions to tax, and additional amounts and had also determined that hot interest applied, without determining the amount.  The IRS sought to strike the interest determinations from the deficiency proceeding.  The court agreed, following White, but again did not interpret section 6231(a)(6).

Finally, in Olson v. United States, 172 F.3d 1311 (Fed. Cir. 1999), the taxpayers filed refund suits in the Court of Federal Claim.  They argued that various assessments (including TMT interest) resulting from a settlement of a partnership proceeding were invalid because they had received no notices of deficiency.  The CFC granted the government’s motion for summary judgement, concluding that notices of deficiency were not required and noting that no other basis for the refund was asserted.  The Federal Circuit agreed.  There was a brief reference to interest being included in the definition of a computational adjustment, but that mentioned only the regulation with no interpretation of the applicable Code section. 

Practical Considerations

The regulation stating that interest is included in a computational adjustment may have been influenced by an assumption—possibly shared by the DOJ and court—that interest computations are generally straight-forward and easy to verify.  If so, it might seem simplest to include interest in a computational adjustment not subject to deficiency procedures.  As with the allocation of the previously determined change in the underlying tax, errors would be rare but easily detected.  A computational adjustment, even with the abbreviated period within which to file a refund claim, would be a reasonable compromise.

However, while interest calculations for most taxpayers are indeed straight-forward and easy to verify, that is often not the case with large businesses who may have multiple changes to tax liability implicating several different issues of interest calculation.  Sometimes the law is not clear; other times the law is clear, but errors occur frequently.  Specialist firms provide taxpayers with reviews of interest computations to identify potential problems.  That process, however, can take a long time.

This also means that an abbreviated period within which to file refund claims relating to interest is not a good idea from a policy perspective.  The description in the Federal Circuit’s decision suggests that by the time GMI received the April 2011 interest computation schedules it had all the necessary information to identify the basis for a refund claim based on when hot interest rates should apply.  But that was more than six months after the August 2010 notice that the CFC considered the initial notice of computational adjustment.  It was even more than six months after the assessment of interest in September 2010.  I defy anyone to look at a lump sum assessment of interest for a large corporate taxpayer and be able to determine how that amount was calculated.

Even if the Federal Circuit decided that the April 2011 schedules were the initial notice of computational adjustment with respect to interest, six months is still not a lot of time within which to file a comprehensive refund claim covering all interest errors that might have been contained in those computations.  Rushing to file a refund claim based only on the issue concerning hot interest might have risked forfeiting claims based on other issues.

Thus, even if the correct legal determination were that the six-month period to file refund claims applied to computational adjustments relating to interest, it seems like a bad policy choice.

Conclusion  

Between the dissent, the alternative framework for classifying adjustments arising from a TEFRA proceeding, and the practical considerations, there seems to be at least a reasonable argument that interest should not be included in the definition of computational adjustments and not subject to the accelerated refund claim provisions of section 6230(c).  But that’s now what the regulation the IRS wrote say—and challenging the validity of the regulation would be difficult—and that’s not what the Federal Circuit decided.

This concludes the discussion of the TEFRA jurisdictional issue.  Part 3 addresses the substantive issue: exactly when the higher hot interest rate should have started.  It’s a complicated issue in these specific circumstances and, to my knowledge, has not yet been ruled on by any court.



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