United States v. Woods
571 U.S. ___ (2013)

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Justia Opinion Summary
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.
  • Syllabus
  • Opinion (Antonin Scalia)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

UNITED STATES v. WOODS

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 12–562. Argued October 9, 2013—Decided December 3, 2013

Respondent Gary Woods and his employer, Billy Joe McCombs, participated in an offsetting-option tax shelter designed to generate large paper losses that they could use to reduce their taxable income. To that end, they purchased from Deutsche Bank a series of currency-option spreads. Each spread was a package consisting of a long option, which Woods and McCombs purchased from Deutsche Bank and for which they paid a premium, and a short option, which Woods and McCombs sold to Deutsche Bank and for which they received a premium. Because the premium paid for the long option was largely offset by the premium received for the short option, the net cost of the package to Woods and McCombs was substantially less than the cost of the long option alone. Woods and McCombs contributed the spreads, along with cash, to two partnerships, which used the cash to purchase stock and currency. When calculating their basis in the partnership interests, Woods and McCombs considered only the long component of the spreads and disregarded the nearly offsetting short component. As a result, when the partnerships’ assets were disposed of for modest gains, Woods and McCombs claimed huge losses. Al-though they had contributed roughly $3.2 million in cash and spreads to the partnerships, they claimed losses of more than $45 million.

          The Internal Revenue Service sent each partnership a Notice of Final Partnership Administrative Adjustment, disregarding the partnerships for tax purposes and disallowing the related losses. It concluded that the partnerships were formed for the purpose of tax avoidance and thus lacked “economic substance,” i.e., they were shams. As there were no valid partnerships for tax purposes, the IRS determined that the partners could not claim a basis for their partnership interests greater than zero and that any resulting tax underpayments would be subject to a 40-percent penalty for gross valuation misstatements. Woods sought judicial review. The District Court held that the partnerships were properly disregarded as shams but that the valuation-misstatement penalty did not apply. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Held:

     1. The District Court had jurisdiction to determine whether the partnerships’ lack of economic substance could justify imposing a valuation-misstatement penalty on the partners. Pp. 6–11.

          (a) Because a partnership does not pay federal income taxes, its taxable income and losses pass through to the partners. Under the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), the IRS initiates partnership-related tax proceedings at the partnership level to adjust “partnership items,” i.e., items relevant to the partnership as a whole. 26 U. S. C. §§6221, 6231(a)(3). Once the adjustments become final, the IRS may undertake further proceedings at the partner level to make any resulting “computational adjustments” in the tax liability of the individual partners. §§6230(a)(1)–(2), (c), 6231(a)(6). Pp. 6–7.

          (b) Under TEFRA’s framework, a court in a partnership-level proceeding has jurisdiction to determine “the applicability of any penalty . . . which relates to an adjustment to a partnership item.” §6226(f). A determination that a partnership lacks economic substance is such an adjustment. TEFRA 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 that later proceeding, each partner may raise any reasons why the penalty may not be imposed on him specifically. Applying those principles here, the District Court had jurisdiction to determine the applicability of the valuation-misstatement penalty. Pp. 7–11.

     2. The valuation-misstatement penalty applies in this case. Pp. 11–16.

          (a) A penalty applies to the portion of any underpayment that is “attributable to” a “substantial” or “gross” “valuation misstatement,” which exists where “the value of any property (or the adjusted basis of any property) claimed on any return of tax” exceeds by a specified percentage “the amount determined to be the correct amount of such valuation or adjusted basis (as the case may be).” §§6662(a), (b)(3), (e)(1)(A), (h). The penalty’s plain language makes it applicable here. Once the partnerships were deemed not to exist for tax purposes, no partner could legitimately claim a basis in his partnership interest greater than zero. Any underpayment resulting from use of a non-zero basis would therefore be “attributable to” the partner’s having claimed an “adjusted basis” in the partnerships that exceeded “the correct amount of such . . . adjusted basis.” §6662(e)(1)(A). And under the relevant Treasury Regulation, when an asset’s adjusted basis is zero, a valuation misstatement is automatically deemed gross. Pp. 11–12.

          (b) Woods’ contrary arguments are unpersuasive. The valuation-misstatement penalty encompasses misstatements that rest on legal as well as factual errors, so it is applicable to misstatements that rest on the use of a sham partnership. And the partnerships’ lack of economic substance is not an independent ground separate from the misstatement of basis in this case. Pp. 12–16.

471 Fed. Appx. 320, reversed.

     Scalia, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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