Friday, July 4, 2014

How Choosing The Correct Court Made The Difference

I am looking at a District Court case worth discussing, if only for the refresher on how to select a court of venue. Let’s set it up.

ABC Beverage Corporation (ABC) makes and distributes soft drinks and non-alcoholic beverages for the Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. Through a subsidiary it acquired a company in Missouri. Shortly afterwards it determined that the lease it acquired was noneconomic. An appraisal determined that the fair market rent for the facility was approximately $356,000 per year, but the lease required annual rent of $1.1 million. The lease had an unexpired term of 40 years, so the total dollars under discussion were considerable.

The first thing you may wonder is why the lease could be so disadvantageous. There are any number of reasons. If one is distributing a high-weight low-value product (such as soft drinks), proximity to customers could be paramount. If one owns a franchise territory, one may be willing to pay a premium for the right road access. Perhaps one’s needs are so specific that the decision process compares the lease cost to the replacement cost of building a facility, which in turn may be even more expensive. There are multiple ways to get into this situation.

ABC obtained three appraisals, each of which valued the property without the lease at $2.75 million. With the lease the property was worth considerably more.

NOTE: Worth more to the landlord, of course. 

ABC approached the landlord and offered to buy the facility for $9 million. The landlord wanted $14.8 million. Eventually they agreed on $11 million. ABC capitalized the property at $2.75 million and deducted the $6.25 million difference.

How? ABC was looking at the Cleveland Allerton Hotel decision, a Sixth Circuit decision from 1948. In that case, a hotel operator had a disastrous lease, which it bought out. The IRS argued that that the entire buyout price should be capitalized and depreciated. The Circuit Court decided that only the fair market value of the property could be capitalized, and the rest could be deducted immediately. Since 1948, other courts have decided differently, including the Tax Court. One of the advantages of taking a case to Tax Court is that one does not have to pay the tax and then sue for refund. A Tax Court filing suspends the IRS’ ability to collect. The Tax Court is therefore the preferred venue for many if not most tax cases.

However and unfortunately for ABC, the Tax Court had decided opposite of Cleveland Allerton (CA), so there was virtually no point in taking the case there. ABC was in Michigan, which is in the Sixth Circuit. CA had been decided in the Sixth Circuit. To get the case into the District Court (and thus the Circuit), ABC would have to pay the tax and sue for refund. It did so.

The IRS came out with guns blazing. It pointed to Code Section 167(c)(2), which reads:

            (2) Special rule for property subject to lease
If any property is acquired subject to a lease—
(A) no portion of the adjusted basis shall be allocated to the leasehold interest, and
(B) the entire adjusted basis shall be taken into account in determining the depreciation deduction (if any) with respect to the property subject to the lease.

The IRS argued that the Section meant what it said, and that ABC had to capitalize the entire buyout, not just the fair market value.  It trotted out several cases, including Millinery Center and Woodward v Commissioner. It argued that the CA decision had been modified – to the point of reversal – over time. CA was no longer good precedent.

The IRS had a second argument: Section 167(c)(2) entered the tax Code after CA, with the presumption that it was addressing – and overturning – the CA decision.

The Circuit Court took a look at the cases. In Millinery Center, the Second Circuit refused to allow a deduction for the excess over fair market value. The Sixth Circuit pointed out that the Second Circuit had decided that way because the taxpayer had failed its responsibility of proving that the lease was burdensome. In other words, the taxpayer had not gotten to the evidentiary point where ABC was.

In Woodward the IRS argued that professional fees pursuant to a stockholder buyout had to be capitalized, as the underlying transaction was capital in nature. Any ancillary costs to the transaction (such as attorneys and accountants) likewise had to be capitalized. The Sixth Circuit pointed out the obvious: ABC was not deducting ancillary costs. ABC was deducting the transaction itself, so Woodward did not come into play.

The Court then looked at Section 167(c)(2) – “if property is acquired subject to a lease.” That wording is key, and the question is: when do you look at the property? If the Court looked before ABC bought out the lease, then the property was subject to a lease. If it looked after, then the property was not. The IRS of course argued that the correct time to look was before. The Court agreed that the wording was ambiguous.

The Court reasoned that a third party purchaser looking to acquire a building with an extant lease is different from a lessee purchaser. The third party acquires a building with an income stream – two distinct assets - whereas the lessee purchaser is paying to eliminate a liability – the lease. Had the lessee left the property and bought-out the lease, the buy-out would be deductible.

The Court decided that the time to look was after. There was no lease, as ABC at that point had unified its fee simple interest. Section 167(c)(2) did not apply, and ABC could deduct the $6.25 million. The Court decided that its CA decision from 1948 was still precedent, at least in the Sixth Circuit.

ABC won the case, and kudos to its attorneys. Their decision to take the case to District Court rather than Tax Court made the case appealable to the Sixth Circuit, which venue made all the difference.

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