Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Tax Law
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The IRS allows affiliated corporations to file a consolidated federal return, 26 U.S.C. 1501, and issues any refund as a single payment to the group’s designated agent. If a dispute arises, federal courts normally turn to state law to resolve the question of distribution of the refund. Some courts follow the “Bob Richards Rule,” which initially provided that, absent an agreement, a refund belongs to the group member responsible for the losses that led to it. The Rule has evolved, in some jurisdictions, into a general rule that is always followed unless an agreement unambiguously specifies a different result. Soon after the bank suffered huge losses, its parent, Bancorp, was forced into bankruptcy. When the IRS issued a $4 million tax refund, the bank’s receiver, the FDIC, and Bancorp’s bankruptcy trustee each claimed it. The Tenth Circuit examined the parties’ allocation agreement, applied the more expansive version of Bob Richards, and ruled for the FDIC.The Supreme Court vacated. The Rule is not a legitimate exercise of federal common lawmaking. Federal judges may appropriately craft the rule of decision in only limited areas; claiming a new area is subject to strict conditions. Federal common lawmaking must be necessary to protect uniquely federal interests. The federal courts applying and extending Bob Richards have not pointed to any significant federal interest sufficient to support the rule, nor have these parties. State law is well-equipped to handle disputes involving corporate property rights, even in cases involving bankruptcy and a tax dispute. Whether this case might yield a different result without Bob Richards is a matter for the court of appeals on remand. View "Rodriguez v. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp." on Justia Law

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Rice formed a trust for the benefit of his children in his home state, New York, and appointed a New York resident as the trustee. The trustee has “absolute discretion” to distribute the trust’s assets to the beneficiaries. In 1997, Rice’s daughter, Kaestner, moved to North Carolina. The trustee later divided Rice’s initial trust into three subtrusts. North Carolina assessed a tax of $1.3 million for tax years 2005-2008 on the Kaestner Trust under a law authorizing the state to tax any trust income that “is for the benefit of” a state resident. During that period, Kaestner had no right to and did not receive, any distributions. Nor did the Trust have a physical presence, make any direct investments, or hold any real property in North Carolina. The trustee paid the tax under protest and then sued, citing the Due Process Clause. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed state court decisions in favor of the trustee. The presence of in-state beneficiaries alone does not empower a state to tax trust income that has not been distributed to the beneficiaries where the beneficiaries have no right to demand that income and are uncertain to receive it. The Due Process Clause limits the states to imposing only taxes that “bea[r] fiscal relation to protection, opportunities and benefits given by the state.” When a state seeks to base its tax on the in-state residence of a trust beneficiary, due process demands a pragmatic inquiry into what the beneficiary controls or possesses and how that interest relates to the object of the tax. The residence of the beneficiaries in North Carolina alone does not supply the minimum connection necessary to sustain the tax. View "North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberley Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust" on Justia Law

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The State of Washington taxes “motor vehicle fuel importer[s]” who bring large quantities of fuel into the state by “ground transportation,” Wash. Code 82.36.010(4), (12), (16). Cougar, a wholesale fuel importer owned by a member of the Yakama Nation, imports fuel over Washington’s public highways for sale to Yakama-owned retail gas stations located within the reservation. In 2013, the state assessed Cougar $3.6 million in taxes, penalties, and licensing fees for importing motor vehicle fuel. Cougar argued that the tax, as applied to its activities, is preempted by an 1855 treaty between the United States and the Yakama Nation that reserves the Yakamas’ “right, in common with citizens of the United States, to travel upon all public highways,” 12 Stat. 953. The Washington Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The statute taxes the importation of fuel, which is the transportation of fuel, so travel on public highways is directly at issue. In previous cases involving the treaty, the Court has stressed that its language should be understood as bearing the meaning that the Yakamas understood it to have in 1855; the historical record adopted by the agency and the courts below indicates that the treaty negotiations and the government’s representatives’ statements to the Yakamas would have led the Yakamas to understand that the treaty’s protection of the right to travel on the public highways included the right to travel with goods for purposes of trade. To impose a tax upon traveling with certain goods burdens that travel. View "Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc." on Justia Law

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Loos sued BNSF under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act for injuries he received while working at BNSF’s railyard. A jury awarded him $126,212.78, ascribing $30,000 to lost wages. BNSF asserted that the lost wages constituted “compensation” taxable under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA) and asked to withhold $3,765 of the $30,000. The district court and the Eighth Circuit rejected the requested offset. The Supreme Court reversed. A railroad’s payment to an employee for work time lost due to an on-the-job injury is taxable “compensation” under the RRTA. RRTA refers to the railroad’s contribution as an “excise” tax, 26 U. S. C. 3221, and the employee’s share as an “income” tax, section 3201. Taxes under the RRTA and benefits under the Railroad Retirement Act, 45 U.S.C. 231, are measured by the employee’s “compensation,” which both statutes define as “any form of money remuneration paid to an individual for services rendered as an employee.” The Court noted similar results under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act and the Social Security Act. View "BNSF Railway Co. v. Loos" on Justia Law

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After Dawson retired from the U.S. Marshals, his home state, West Virginia, taxed his federal pension benefits as it does all former federal employees. The pension benefits of certain former state and local law enforcement employees, however, are exempt from state taxation, W. Va. Code 11–21–12(c)(6). Dawson alleged that the state statute violates the intergovernmental tax immunity doctrine, 4 U.S.C. 111, under which the United States consents to state taxation of the pay or compensation of federal employees, only if the state tax does not discriminate on the basis of the source of the pay or compensation. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rejected Dawson’s argument.A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court reversed. A state violates section 111 when it treats retired state employees more favorably than retired federal employees and no significant differences between the two classes justify the differential treatment. West Virginia expressly affords state law enforcement retirees a tax benefit that federal retirees cannot receive. The state’s interest in adopting the discriminatory tax is irrelevant. The Court noted that the West Virginia statute does not draw lines involving job responsibilities and that the state courts agreed that there are no “significant differences” between Dawson’s former job responsibilities and those of the tax-exempt state law enforcement retirees. View "Dawson v. Steager" on Justia Law

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Many states tax the retail sales of goods and services in the state. Sellers are required to collect and remit the tax; if they do not in-state consumers are responsible for paying a use tax at the same rate. Under earlier Supreme Court decisions, states could not require a business that had no physical presence in the state to collect its sales tax. Consumer compliance rates are low; it is estimated that South Dakota lost $48-$58 million annually. South Dakota enacted a law requiring out-of-state sellers to collect and remit sales tax, covering only sellers that annually deliver more than $100,000 of goods or services into the state or engage in 200 or more separate transactions for the delivery of goods or services into the state. State courts found the Act unconstitutional. The Supreme Court vacated, overruling the physical presence rule established by its decisions in Quill (1992), and National Bellas Hess (1967). That rule gave out-of-state sellers an advantage and each year becomes further removed from economic reality and results in significant revenue losses to the states. A business need not have a physical presence in a state to satisfy the demands of due process. The Commerce Clause requires “a sensitive, case-by-case analysis of purposes and effects,” to protect against any undue burden on interstate commerce, taking into consideration the small businesses, startups, or others who engage in commerce across state lines. Without the physical presence test, the first inquiry is whether the tax applies to an activity with a substantial nexus with the taxing state. Here, the nexus is sufficient. Any remaining Commerce Clause concerns may be addressed on remand. View "South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2004-2009, the IRS investigated Marinello’s tax activities. In 2012, Marinello was indicted for violating 26 U.S.C. 7212(a) (the Omnibus Clause), which forbids “corruptly or by force or threats of force . . . obstruct[ing] or imped[ing], or endeavor[ing] to obstruct or impede, the due administration” of the Internal Revenue Code. The judge instructed the jury that it must find that Marinello “corruptly” engaged in at least one specified activity, but was not told that it needed to find that Marinello knew he was under investigation and intended corruptly to interfere with that investigation. The Second Circuit affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court reversed. To convict a defendant under the Omnibus Clause, the government must prove the defendant was aware of a pending tax-related proceeding, such as a particular investigation or audit, or could reasonably foresee that such a proceeding would commence. The verbs “obstruct” and “impede” require an object. The object in 7212(a) is the “due administration of [the Tax Code],” referring to discrete targeted administrative acts rather than every conceivable task involved in the Tax Code’s administration. In context, the Omnibus Clause serves as a “catchall” for the obstructive conduct the subsection sets forth, not for every violation that interferes with routine administrative procedures. A broader reading could result in a lack of fair warning. Just because a taxpayer knows that the IRS will review her tax return annually does not transform every Tax Code violation into an obstruction charge. View "Marinello v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (42 U.S.C 18001) includes “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” requirements, which bar insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums based on health; requires individuals to maintain health insurance coverage or make a payment to the IRS, unless the cost of buying insurance would exceed eight percent of that individual’s income; and seeks to make insurance more affordable by giving refundable tax credits to individuals with household incomes between 100 per cent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line. The Act requires creation of an “Exchange” in each state— a marketplace to compare and purchase insurance plans; the federal government will establish “such Exchange” if the state does not. The Act provides that tax credits “shall be allowed” for any “applicable taxpayer,” only if the taxpayer has enrolled in an insurance plan through “an Exchange established by the State under [42 U.S.C. 18031],” An IRS regulation interprets that language as making credits available regardless of whether the exchange is established by a state or the federal government. Plaintiffs live in Virginia, which has a federal exchange. They argued Virginia’s Exchange does not qualify as “an Exchange established by the State,” so they should not receive any tax credits. That would make the cost of buying insurance more than eight percent of their income, exempting them from the coverage requirement. The district court dismissed their suit. The Fourth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. Tax credits are available to individuals in states that have a federal exchange. Given that the text is ambiguous, the Court looked to the broader structure of the Act and concluded that plaintiffs’ interpretation would destabilize the individual insurance market in any state with a federal exchange. It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in that manner. Congress made the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements applicable in every state, but those requirements only work when combined with the coverage requirement and tax credits. View "King v. Burwell" on Justia Law

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Maryland has a “state” income tax, Md. Tax-Gen. Code 10–105(a), and a “county” income tax, sections 10–103, 10–106. Residents who pay income tax to another jurisdiction for income earned in that other jurisdiction get a credit against the state tax but not the county tax. Nonresidents who earn income from Maryland sources must pay the state income tax; nonresidents not subject to the county tax must pay a “special nonresident tax.” Residents who earned pass-through income from a Subchapter S corporation that earned income in several states claimed an income tax credit on their Maryland tax return for taxes paid to other states. The Comptroller allowed a credit against state income tax but not against county income tax and assessed a tax deficiency. The Court of Appeals of Maryland held that the tax unconstitutionally discriminated against interstate commerce. The Supreme Court affirmed: Maryland’s personal income tax scheme violates the dormant Commerce Clause. The Court noted previous decisions invalidating state tax schemes that might lead to double taxation of out-of-state income and that discriminated in favor of intrastate over interstate economic activity. That conclusion is not affected by the fact that these cases involved a tax on gross receipts rather than net income, and a tax on corporations rather than individuals. Maryland’s income tax scheme fails the internal consistency test; if every state adopted its tax structure, interstate commerce would be taxed at a higher rate than intrastate commerce. The scheme is inherently discriminatory and operates as a tariff. The Court rejected an argument that, by offering residents who earn income in interstate commerce a credit against the state portion of the tax, Maryland receives less tax revenue from residents who earn interstate, rather than intrastate, commerce income; the total tax burden on interstate commerce is higher. View "Comptroller of Treasury of Md. v. Wynne" on Justia Law

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Alabama imposes sales and use taxes on railroads purchasing or consuming diesel fuel, but exempts their competitors: trucking companies and companies that transport goods interstate through navigable waters. Motor carriers pay an alternative fuel-excise tax on diesel, but water carriers pay neither sales tax nor excise tax. CSX, an interstate rail carrier, alleged discrimination against a rail carrier under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulation Reform Act, 49 U.S.C. 11501(b)(4). The Supreme Court held that a tax “discriminates” when it treats “groups [that] are similarly situated” differently without sufficient justification. On remand, the Eleventh Circuit held that CSX could establish discrimination by showing that Alabama taxed rail carriers differently than their competitors, but rejected Alabama’s argument that the fuel-excise tax on motor carriers justified the sales tax on rail carriers. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. CSX’s competitors are an appropriate comparison class; the class need not consist of “general commercial and industrial taxpayers.” The Act’s subsections (b)(1) to (b)(3), addressing property taxes, limits the comparison class to commercial and industrial property in the same assessment jurisdiction. Subsection (b)(4) contains no such limitation, so the comparison class is based on the claimed theory of discrimination. When a railroad alleges discrimination compared to transportation industry competitors, its competitors in that jurisdiction are the comparison class. The comparison class must consist of individuals similarly situated to the claimant. Discrimination in favor of competitors frustrates the Act’s purpose of restoring railways’ financial stability while fostering competition among all carriers. The Eleventh Circuit erred in refusing to consider Alabama’s proposed justification. An alternative, roughly equivalent tax is one possible justification. On remand, the court is to consider whether Alabama’s fuel-excise tax is the rough equivalent of sales tax on diesel fuel and whether any alternative rationales justify the water carrier exemption. View "Ala. Dep't of Revenue v. CSX Transp., Inc." on Justia Law