Four owners of a trucking company sold the business’s sole remaining asset–a warehouse–and retired. After selling the warehouse, the businessmen sold their company stock to an investment company that promised to pay the company’s taxes. The investment company never did pay those taxes, and the IRS came after the former owners of the trucking company for the tax bill, which was in the neighborhood of $880,000. The IRS said the transaction with the investment company was a tax shelter scam, but the Tax Court sided with the former owners of the trucking company. A split panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Judge Davis wrote the opinion for the Court in Starnes v. Commissioner, in which Judge Niemeyer joined. Judge Wynn wrote a dissenting opinion.
Depending on one’s view of the facts, either (a) the former owners of the trucking company were victims of unscrupulous cheats, persecuted by an overeager federal government out to take away their hard-earned retirement money, or (b) they pulled a fast one on the federal government, saving themselves over $100,000 each in taxes. Depending on one’s view of the law, either (a) the government should have stayed its hand because it misunderstood North Carolina law, or (b) the government was denied the benefit of federal law elevating substance over form in evaluating the tax consequences of transactions like the one at issue here.
The first few paragraphs of Judge Wynn’s dissent summarize his view of the case:
This case involves a straightforward transaction made complicated so as to facilitate the fraudulent avoidance of a tax liability. Simply put, the petitioners, former shareholders of Tarcon, reduced the sole asset of Tarcon to cash by selling that asset, a warehouse, for $3,180,000. After that October 30, 2003 sale, Tarcon had $3,091,955 in its bank account and no tangible assets. As a result of the warehouse sale, Tarcon incurred a federal tax liability of $733,699 and a North Carolina tax liability of $147,931, for a total of $881,628. If the story had ended there, the four former shareholders, each of whom owned 25 percent of Tarcon, would have completed the liquidation of Tarcon by paying those tax liabilities and dividing the remaining sum, allowing each to receive a distribution of approximately $552,582.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, MidCoast entered with a fraudulent scheme that would allow the former shareholders to avoid paying their $881,628 tax liability. Under its proposal, MidCoast would pay the former shareholders $2,621,136 for their Tarcon stock and legal fees; in return, Tarcon would transfer its sole asset, roughly $3.1 million in cash, to MidCoast. Why, though, would the shareholders turn over Tarcon’s $3.1 million to MidCoast and receive only $2.6 million in return?
The answer is evident when Tarcon’s outstanding tax liabilities of $881,627 are factored into the equation. Indeed, it then becomes clear that the former shareholders actually negotiated to be paid $2.6 million in cash—for cash that in reality totaled only $2,210,425, resulting in a windfall of $410,711. That windfall was, in fact, a cut from Tarcon’s $881,627 tax liability, transferred to MidCoast when it purchased the former shareholders’ stock, and which it undoubtedly was scheming to avoid under the guise of offering an “asset recovery premium.” While I recognize the intricacies of MidCoast’s subsequent actions to avoid paying the full liability of $881,627, this transaction cannot escape its ultimately simple label: a transparent scam designed by the parties to fraudulently evade paying taxes. Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.