Posted tagged ‘Tax Litigation’

Cleaning Up After The Elephants – A Practical Reminder On Document Preservation Policies and Litigation Holds In Tax Disputes

September 2, 2013

By Phil Karter

Any corporate tax executive who has ever been involved in contesting an audit adjustment knows all too well how unfavorable documents relating to the subject of the adjustment – particularly improvident comments reflected in email correspondences – can be an ongoing impediment to resolving a tax dispute from the audit phase right up to and through litigation with the IRS or Department of Justice.  When such documents exist, even where taken out of context, the government will zealously sink its teeth into them like a junkyard dog, making the prospects of reaching a reasonable settlement or gaining an IRS concession all the more difficult.  One can’t fault the government for taking a hardline position.  Precedent reflects that this is a good strategy, particularly in economic substance cases, as demonstrated by the numerous times these unfavorable documents work their way into the text of court opinions as the factual underpinning for an adverse finding against the taxpayer.  Like a Dickensian character, they will come back to haunt you again and again.

The solution, of course (conveniently ignoring the practical realities of many understaffed and overburdened tax departments), is for the tax function to do a better job of policing both document production and retention policies, particularly outside of its own direct jurisdiction and normal supervision.  Non-tax business justifications pervade so many tax disputes that it is incumbent on the tax executives to ensure that these justifications are not only well-documented, but consistently followed in practice after the transaction is put into place.  The tax folks are, after all, the ones ultimately on the front lines defending the non-tax business justification.  As they say, it’s like cleaning up after the elephants in the circus parade – unpleasant but necessary.

In the course of this process, it is important to remain mindful that once documents are created, particularly in connection with a transaction where future litigation may reasonably be anticipated, a duty to preserve via a litigation hold may override a company’s normal document destruction policies.  See e.g., Silvestri v. General Motors Corp., 271 F.3d 583, 591 (4th Cir.2001)  (duty to preserve evidence “arises not only during litigation but also extends to the period before the litigation when a party reasonably should know that the evidence may be relevant to anticipated litigation.”)  Indeed, the failure to put a litigation hold in place can have deleterious consequences, from waiver of attorney work product protection (see e.g., Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.. v. Rambus, Inc., 439 F. Supp. 2d 525 (ED Va. 2006) (rev’d on other grounds, 523 F.3d. 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2008)), to IRS challenges regarding the completeness of a taxpayer’s Schedule UTP disclosures (which does not require reserves to be recorded for positions “expected to be litigated”), a topic I have written about before.  Simply put, it is difficult to persuasively argue that an issue was reasonably anticipated to be litigated (e.g., for work product protection or UTP purposes), where there is a failure to implement a litigation hold predicated on that very anticipation.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin (S.D.N.Y.), author of the landmark Zubulake opinion on electronic discovery, raised the stakes further when she ruled, in Sekisui American Corp. v. Hart, 2013 WL 4116322 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2013), that a party who failed to preserve electronically stored information (ESI) by not implementing an adequate litigation hold was subject to an adverse inference about the content of such evidence.  The ruling was notable because it bucked the trend of courts to overlook a party’s destruction of ESI in the normal course of its business practices, notwithstanding the obligation the party may have had to implement a litigation hold to preserve such documents.  (See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e), requiring “exceptional circumstances” to impose sanctions.)  In Sekisui, Judge Scheindlin imposed the adverse inference sanction (in addition to monetary damages) even without finding any malevolent intent or substantial prejudice to the opposing party.  The court simply ruled that the failure to implement a litigation hold was enough to constitute a willful intent to destroy documents.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to appreciate that a ruling invoking an adverse influence as a result of the failure to preserve documents can be fatal, an even more likely outcome in a bench trial where the judge making the ruling is also the trier of fact.  At the very least, being slapped with such a sanction will preclude any benefit of the doubt that documents interpreted negatively by the IRS may be accorded a more favorable interpretation by the trier of fact.

I have heard – certainly more than once – government counsel advocate to a court words to the effect that “memories fade but documents never lie.”  It is true that the odds of prevailing in a tax dispute are not helped by poor recordkeeping practices, by which I include both shoddy documentation as well as carelessly policed documentation containing ill-conceived content readily subject to misinterpretation and misuse.

If nothing else, the ruling of an influential jurist like Judge Scheindlin should heighten tax departments’ sensitivities about monitoring company recordkeeping practices from the outset of a transaction.  These efforts should be quantitative in terms of fully apprehending the documents to be generated and maintained, and qualitative to reduce the risk that problematic documents are generated carelessly and maintained thoughtlessly.  No less thought should be put into the timely implementation of litigation holds to ensure that company records – hopefully those that will help it carry the day in a tax dispute – are adequately preserved, particularly when the ramifications of their destruction can exponentially increase the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome.

Tax Court May Be The Forum Of Choice For Taxpayers Seeking To Challenge Treasury Regulations

June 23, 2011

By Dustin Covello & Phil Karter

As Tax Blawg readers know, after the Supreme Court’s Mayo decision adopted the deferential Chevron standard for determining the validity of Treasury regulations (instead of the less deferential National Muffler standard that taxpayers preferred), taxpayers and practitioners have speculated that seeking to invalidate a regulation may be a fool’s errand.   Since Mayo, many of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (but not all) have shown a proclivity towards deference.  Extrapolating from these precedents, on the heels of the Mayo decision, it appears that the pendulum has swung heavily toward courts routinely deferring to Treasury regulations.  The question thus arises: is there a litigating forum where a challenge to regulatory deference might be more favorably received?  Surprisingly, the answer may be the U.S. Tax Court.

As reported in Tax Notes yesterday (subscription required), Judge Holmes of the Tax Court recently shared with practitioners a list of rarely utilized strategies for challenging the validity of Treasury regulations.   While the content of the Judge’s speech is useful information regardless of the litigating forum, the speech also reinforces a pattern that has emerged this year.  Despite the decision in Mayo, the Tax Court has exhibited a stubborn streak in resisting the routine deference towards Treasury Regulations that other courts now seem to prefer.

The Tax Court’s resistance to regulatory deference has been demonstrated in at least two opinions issued this year since Mayo.   In April, the Tax Court stuck to its guns in Carpenter Family Investments, LLC v. Commissioner by striking down for the second time Treasury regulations promulgated under section 6501(e), even though two Circuit Courts that deferred to the regulations did so while criticizing the Tax Court’s first opinion in Intermountain Insurance Services v. Commissioner.   Likewise, last month, in Pullins v. Commissioner, the Tax Court struck down regulations imposing an uncodified, two-year statute of limitations on innocent spouse cases under section 6015(f), even though the Seventh Circuit had reversed a 2009 opinion in which the Tax Court reached the same result.

Moreover, further reflecting the Tax Court’s general reluctance to defer to the IRS, Judge Holmes’ remarks were not limited solely to challenging the validity of Treasury Regulations.   In his speech, he also criticized so-called Auer deference, under which courts will generally defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own rules.   Although Auer has historically been accepted as well-settled, Judge Holmes cited a recent concurring opinion by Justice Scalia in Talk America, Inc. v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co., in which the Justice wrote that he would consider overturning Auer on separation-of-power grounds.

Challenging the validity of Treasury regulations has always been an uphill battle.   Nonetheless, Judge Holmes’ comments, coming on the heels of these recent decisions, demonstrates the Tax Court’s apparent reluctance to follow the trend of regulatory deference, which is important information to consider when choosing a litigating forum involving a regulatory challenge.

A final word of caution is that taxpayers would be well-advised to consider the law of the circuit to which an appeal of a favorable Tax Court result may lie, as reversals in cases such as Intermountain demonstrate.   Despite these concerns, the recent Tax Court developments suggest that, like any pendulum that has swung too far in one direction, the deference pendulum may eventually  swing back the other way.   Perhaps the Tax Court is where it is swinging back first.

The Tax Workpapers Conundrum – Will “Justice” Kagan Accept What Solicitor General Kagan Opposed?

July 1, 2010

By Phil Karter

In Tuesday’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, one topic on which there appeared to be agreement between the nominee and the panel was concern about the dwindling number of cases heard by the High Court. In response to questioning from Senator Arlen Specter, Kagan had no explanation for the precipitous decline in the Court’s docket over the last 20 years, but agreed that it has led to an increase in unresolved conflicts among the circuit courts on “vital national issues.”

Quite naturally, those of us in the tax field like to think of our livelihoods as involving “vital national issues,” so perhaps we take it a little personally when the Supreme Court appears to hold a different perspective. The Court certainly surprised many tax professionals in May by declining to hear the Textron case, which presented one of the most prominent “hot-button” tax issues to come along in years. What perfect irony (and timing) it was then on the heels of Kagan’s congressional testimony for the issuance of a decision by the D.C. Circuit the same day in United States v. Deloitte LLP et al., No. 09-5171, that once again accentuated the differing views of the circuit courts on an issue of considerable importance to tax professionals. (more…)

The Workpaper Battle Continues: United States v. Deloitte LLP

June 30, 2010

By Jonathan Prokup

Just when the Department of Justice must have thought that it could do no wrong in pursuing the workpapers of taxpayers and their auditors, it ran smack into the formidable blockade that is the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  In United States v. Deloitte LLP et al., No. 09-5171 (D.C. Cir. Jun. 29, 2010), the D.C. Circuit seems to have fired a shot across the bow of both the Department of Justice and the IRS’s brand-new Schedule UTP.  (You can find the opinion here.)

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After the Flood: Has Codification Changed Economic Substance?

March 27, 2010

By Jonathan Prokup

The passage of President Obama’s health-care legislation will no doubt have long-lasting consequences for the economy in general and the health-care industry in particular.  Less noticed by the general public, but central in the minds of tax professionals, has been a single provision in the accompanying reconciliation bill that codifies the so-called “economic substance” doctrine.  Having often been introduced in bills that eventually died in the catacombs of the legislative process, many practitioners were beginning to believe that codification was a cousin of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster – often spotted, but never confirmed.

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