In a recent case, the IRS failed to recover a large erroneous refund of $21 million that it gave to a company called Starr International Co. Inc. (“Starr”). The opinion was released on January 31, 2018 by the District Judge Christopher R. Cooper (U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia) who granted Starr’s summary judgment motion. Let’s delve deeper into why the IRS was not able to recover this erroneous refund.
The Starr Case: Initial 2007 Request for Erroneous Refund
The story that led to a such a large erroneous refund is very interesting and related to the US-Swiss tax treaty. In 2007, as a shareholder of AIG stocks, Starr received dividends from AIG. In December of 2007, Starr filed a request with the US Competent Authority (“CA”) to claim a reduced withholding tax rate on the AIG dividends.
Then, without waiting for the CA response, Starr filed a refund claim with the IRS for the tax year 2007, seeking a refund in the amount it would have been entitled to had the CA granted the request for treaty benefits. It should be pointed out that Starr indicated on its Form 1120-F the this was a protective refund claim (to avoid the later Statute of Limitations problems) and informed the CA of the claim.
Once it was informed about the Starr’s protective refund claim, the CA instructed the Ogden Service Center not to issue a refund for 2007. Moreover, in October of 2010, the CA denied Starr’s request for treaty benefits for 2007.
The Starr Case: Request for 2008 Large Erroneous Refund Granted
This denial did not have the intended effect. On the contrary, Starr filed another refund request with the IRS for $21 million for 2008 and amended its refund claim for 2007. Starr also did it in a very clean and honest manner – on its 2008 Form 1120-F (next to the line indicating the refund amount), Starr wrote “see statement 1”. Statement 1 disclosed that CA did not grant treaty benefits to Starr and presented its counter-arguments arguing that CA’s decision was erroneous.
In 2011 the IRS erroneously granted Starr’s refund request for 2008 and issued a refund for $21,151,745.75. At the same time, the IRS did not issue any refund for the amended 2007 claim.
The Starr Case: Erroneous Refund for 2008 Leads to Lawsuit to Recovery Refund for 2007 and IRS Lawsuit to recover the 2008 Erroneous Refund
Emboldened by its 2008 erroneous refund, Starr decided to file a lawsuit in the D.C. District court to see a refund for 2007. The lawsuit was filed in 2014 after Starr must have believed that the Statute of Limitations for the IRS to recover the 2008 erroneous refund had expired. It appears that this part of the case still continues as Starr has appealed the recent ruling in the government’s favor.
In the meantime, in response to Starr’s ever expanding appetite for refunds, the IRS decided to attempt to curb the Starr’s ambitions by recovering the 2008 erroneous refund. In 2015, the government amended its answer to Starr’s 2014 lawsuit and added a counterclaim seeking to recover the 2008 refund. Here, the most interesting part of the case begins.
The Starr Case: the IRS Arguments for the IRS Statute of Limitations to Recover 2008 Erroneous Refund
Generally, the IRS has only two years to initiate a lawsuit to recover a refund. There is, however, an exception. If a taxpayer obtains any part of the refund through fraud or misrepresentation, the Statute of Limitations may be extended to five year. The government bears the burden of proof to show that an extension of the statute of limitations is justified.
The IRS based its claim for the extension of the Statute of Limitations on three different arguments. First, the IRS stated that Starr made a misrepresentation when it indicated on line 9 of Form 1120-F that Starr was entitled to a $21 million refund; the IRS argued that it should have put “0″ on it.
Additionally, the IRS also made a second variation on the same argument, relying on Rev. Proc. 2006-54, which sets forth the procedures for requesting treaty benefits from the CA. Section 12.04 expressly states that denials of requests for discretionary treaty benefits are final and not subject to administrative review. Based on this section, the government asserted that Starr, in contradiction to the established procedure, sought an administrative review of the CA’s denial of its refund claim by not making it clear that it was not entitled to a refund claim .
Second, the IRS argued that the Starr’s failure to inform the CA about it 2008 refund claim was another misrepresentation. Here, the IRS again relied on Rev.Proc. 2006-54, which states that a taxpayer must update the CA on all material changes regarding issues under consideration.
Finally, the government argued that Starr made the third misrepresentation when it failed to notify the Ogden Service Center (where the Starr’s claim for 2008 erroneous refund was filed) that it lacked the jurisdiction to issue the 2008 refund.
The Starr Case: the Court Refuted All IRS Arguments and Denied the IRS Request to Recover 2008 Erroneous Refund
The district court judge disagreed with all of the three IRS arguments. With respect to the first argument, the court disagreed with the government’s position, because had Starr requested $0 on its refund claim and then litigated the merits of the claim in court, it would have been entitled only to $0 even if it won. The court noted that this has been the government’s position in the past. Moreover, Treas. Reg. §301.6402-3(a)(5) requires that refund claims contain a statement of the amount overpaid.
In this context, the court addressed the government’s argument that, by filing a refund claim, Starr was looking for a back-door administrative review of the CA’s denial of its claim. The court noted that a refund claim is not a request for administrative review, but a normal way for a taxpayer to obtain a refund that the IRS already withheld.
Moreover, the refund claim was an absolute jurisdictional requirement for seeking a judicial review of CA’s denial of Starr’s claim for refund. Had Starr failed to file a refund claim before going to court, the court would have lacked the subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case.
With respect to the government’s second argument, the court stated that it is irrelevant because Starr filed its 2008 refund claim when CA already made the final decision to deny the refund claim. In other words, there were no issues under CA’s consideration at the time when Starr filed its refund claim.
Finally, the court completely disagreed with the government’s argument that Starr should have informed the Ogden Service Center that it lacked jurisdiction to issue the refund. The court stated that there is simply no regulation, statute or an IRS instruction that would require the taxpayers to inform the IRS of what falls and what does not fall within its jurisdiction.
Since the government failed its burden of proof that Starr obtained its refund through misrepresentations, the court granted Starr’s motion for summary judgment and found that the IRS was not entitled to extend the Statute of Limitations to five years.
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