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Blue Mountain Energy, Inc. v. United States

United States District Court, D. Utah

September 27, 2019

BLUE MOUNTAIN ENERGY, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING [67] UNITED STATES’ SECOND MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          DAVID NUFFER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         District Judge David Nuffer Plaintiff, Blue Mountain Energy, Inc (“BME”) disputes the amount of tax assessed and the imposition of accuracy-related penalties by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”). BME’s Complaint contains a single cause of action against the United States of America (“Government”): a refund of the taxes and the penalty paid under protest for the years 2008–2012.[1]

         The prior Memorandum Decision and Order (“Prior Summary Judgment Order”)[2] in this case denied BME’s Motion for Summary Judgment and granted in part and denied in part the Government’s Motion for Summary Judgment.[3] Specifically, the Prior Summary Judgment Order determined that the assessed tax for 2008–2012 stands and that an issue of fact precluded summary judgment on the issue of whether the 20% accuracy related tax penalty was properly imposed for those years.[4] The Government now moves for summary judgment (“Second Motion for Summary Judgment”)[5] on this remaining issue.

         BME opposed the motion.[6] The Government replied.[7] Based on the following, the undisputed facts show that, as a matter of law, BME is not entitled to a refund of the accuracy related penalty because BME did not have a reasonable basis and it did not act in good faith and with reasonable cause as to its tax return position for the tax years in question. The penalty was appropriately imposed and BME will not be refunded for penalty paid under protest. The Second Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND ............................................................................................................................ 3

         UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS ............................................................................................ 7

         STANDARD OF REVIEW ............................................................................................................ 8

         DISCUSSION ................................................................................................................................. 9

         A. BME Is Subject to An Accuracy Related Tax Penalty Because Neither Underpayment Penalty Exception Applies. . ........................................................... 9

         1. BME’s Reliance on Its Own Interpretation of 26 U.S.C. § 4216(b) and Revenue Ruling 81-188 is Not A Reasonable Basis for Its Return Position in Its Tax Filings. . ....................................................................................... 9

         2. BME Reliance on Reliance on Its Own Interpretation of 26 U.S.C. § 4216(b) and Revenue Ruling 81-188 Does Not Show That BME Had Reasonable Cause or Acted in Good Faith with Respect to Its Return Position. . ................................................................................................... 13

         ORDER ......................................................................................................................................... 16

         BACKGROUND

         BME is contesting the IRS’s assessment of Black Lung Excise Taxes (“Excise Tax”).[8]The Excise Tax “provides benefits to coal-mine workers disabled by lung diseases caused by exposure to coal dust.”[9] The Excise Tax is assessed by tonnage of coal sold by the producer.[10]BME is a producer with operations in Utah and Colorado.[11]

         The tax is imposed by 26 U.S.C. § 4121, which provides:

(a) Tax imposed.--
(1) In general.--There is hereby imposed on coal from mines located in the United States sold by the producer, a tax equal to the rate per ton determined under subsection (b).
(2) Limitation on tax.--The amount of the tax imposed by paragraph (1) with respect to a ton of coal shall not exceed the applicable percentage (determined under subsection (b)) of the price at which such ton of coal is sold by the producer.
(b) Determination of rates and limitation on tax.--For purposes of subsection (a)--
(1) the rate of tax on coal from underground mines shall be $1.10,
(2) the rate of tax on coal from surface mines shall be $.55, and
(3) the applicable percentage shall be 4.4 percent.[12]

         The statute sets the Excise Tax at $1.10 per ton for underground coal, but the Excise Tax is capped at 4.4% of the “price at which such ton of coal is sold by the producer.”[13] “Thus, coal from underground mines that sells for less than $25.00 per ton is taxed at a rate of 4.4 percent ad valorem instead of the flat rate of $1.10 per ton (4.4 percent of $25 equals $1.10).”[14]

         BME is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Deseret Generation & Transmission Cooperative (“Deseret Power”).[15] BME owns and operates the Deserado Coal Mine, an underground coal mine near Rangely, Colorado (“Deserado Mine”).[16] Deseret Power owns and operates the Bonanza Electric Generating Unit in Uintah County, Utah (“Bonanza Plant”).[17] With the Bonanza Plant, Deseret Power provides electric generation and transmission services to its members primarily in rural areas of Utah and elsewhere.[18] Coal from the Deserado Mine is used exclusively by Deseret Power in providing primary fuel for the Bonanza Plaint.[19]

         As a producer of coal, BME filed Quarterly Federal Excise Tax Returns (Form 720) for each of the quarters at issue in this case.[20] “After BME filed original excise tax returns, BME was subsequently audited by [the] IRS, and as a result of the audit findings by the IRS was assessed additional amounts of Excise Tax for coal produced underground from the Deserado Mine for the years 2008 through [2012] . . . .”[21] “The IRS claimed that the non-arm’s length transfer amount used between Deseret and BME represents the ‘price at which [Deserado] coal is sold, ’ and that such transfer amount is high enough that no limitation on the statutory $1.10 per ton Excise Tax amount should apply.”[22] “BME paid in full [on October 8, 2013], under protest, all amounts of additional Excise Tax assessed by the IRS as a result of its disputed audit findings.”[23] BME eventually filed a protest and sought administrative appeals of the IRS’ decision regarding tax years 2008 through 2011, and tax year 2012.[24] After denial of its administrative protests and appeals, BME filed the present lawsuit arguing that it is entitled to reimbursement:, first for overpayment of Excise Tax for the years 2008 through 2012 in the amount of $6, 486, 919.39, plus interest and second, the penalty paid by BME in the amount of $1, 296, 124.60, totaling an overpayment of $7, 783, 043.99.[25]

         In cross-motions for summary judgment, [26] BME and the government presented arguments regarding the overpayment of the excise tax plus interest, an amount of $6, 486, 919.39.[27] BME argued that the assessed tax was inaccurately calculated because the coal it produced was “sold at retail, ” and therefore 26 U.S.C. § 4216(b) (the “Constructive Price Rule”) and its provisions related to an artificial constructive price should have been used when assessing the tax-not the amount paid from BME to Deseret.[28]

         However, this argument was rejected in light of the plain language of 26 U.S.C. § 4216(b).[29] The constructive price should not have been used because the coal was sold in a “non-arm’s length transaction” at an above market sales price; thus, the Constructive Price Rule does not apply.[30] The Prior Summary Judgment Order concluded that there was no ambiguity in the language of the statute, and even if there were, under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc, [31] the IRS interpretation of the statute receives deference.[32] Additionally, the Prior Summary Judgment Order concluded that the IRS interpretations of Treas. Reg. §§ 48.4216(b)-1 and -2 and § 48.4121-1-regulations BME relied on for their own interpretation of the Constructive Price Rule-also receive deference under Auer v. Robbins[33] and Chevron.[34]

         Although BME’s motion for summary judgment was denied, the Government’s motion for summary judgment was granted in part and denied in part because there remained an outstanding issue of fact as to the appropriateness of the accuracy related penalty.[35] Specifically, the Prior Summary Judgment Order identified narrow issues for consideration: if BME was aware of and relied on Revenue Ruling 81-188 (which discusses the Constructive Price Rule) when it filed its tax returns during the relevant times at issue and if that reliance could mitigate the imposed penalty.[36] The Government now seeks to resolve this question in its favor.[37]

         As established in 26 U.S.C. § 6662(b), the underpayment of taxes due to negligence is subject to a 20% penalty.[38] Federal statute and regulations provide that the penalty does not apply if the taxpayer can prove a reasonable basis for their return position[39] or can prove that their negligent underpayment was due to reasonable cause and good faith.[40]

         The Government asserts that the undisputed facts show that the penalty was appropriately imposed because BME was negligent and did not have a reasonable basis for its return position. Specifically, the government argues that Revenue Ruling 81-188 is inapplicable and BME cannot rely on it.[41] BME maintains that it was reasonable to rely on Revenue Ruling 81-188 even if there was no actual knowledge of the ruling, and that there was reasonable cause and good faith which should excuse BME from being penalized for negligence.[42] The Government replied, reiterating its original arguments from its First Motion for Summary Judgment and denying that BME could have had a reasonable cause or acted in good faith because BME exercised no diligence and disregarded the plain meaning of the statues to justify its position.[43]

         UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS[44]

         1. In preparing its Quarterly Excise Tax Returns at issue, BME relied on its interpretation of the following:

a. 26 U.S.C. § 4216;
b. Treas. Reg. §§ 48.4216(b)-1 and -2;
c. Treas. Reg. § 48.4121-1; and
d. The IRS’ Audit Technique Guide for Coal Excise Tax (May 2005).[45]

         2. BME was aware of and relied on Revenue Ruling 81-188 in preparing its Quarterly Excise Tax Return in the third quarter of 2011, beginning in September 2011, in addition to its understanding of: 26 U.S.C. § 4216, Treas. Reg. §§ 48.4216(b)-1 and -2, Treas. Reg. § 48.4121-1, and the IRS’ Audit Technique Guide for Coal Excise Tax (May 2005).[46]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[47]When analyzing a motion for summary judgment, the court must “view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment.”[48] However, “the nonmoving party must present more than a scintilla of evidence in favor of his position.”[49] A dispute is genuine only “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[50]

         DISCUSSION

         A. BME Is Subject to An Accuracy Related Tax Penalty Because Neither Underpayment Penalty Exception Applies.

         It is the taxpayer’s responsibility to prove that the penalty should not apply.[51] The 20% penalty for negligent underpayment of taxes under 26 U.S.C. § 6662 can be excused for two reasons. First, if the taxpayer had a reasonable basis for its negligence, then by IRS definition, the taxpayer is not considered to have been negligent and the penalty does not apply.[52] It is the taxpayer’s burden to prove this reasonable basis, and the penalty is waived if the taxpayer does prove this.[53] Second, the penalty can be excused-negligence notwithstanding-if the taxpayer can prove it had a reasonable cause and acted in good faith under 26 U.S.C. § 6664.[54] Here, BME argues it is exempt from the underpayment penalty because both exemptions apply: it had a reasonable basis for its negligence (and therefore cannot be considered negligent and subject to the penalty provisions of 26 U.S.C. § 6662), any negligence can be excused because BME acted in good faith with a reasonable cause.[55] However, BME has failed to meet its burden of proof that either of these exemptions apply.

         1. BME’s Reliance on Its Own Interpretation of 26 U.S.C. § 4216(b) and Revenue Ruling 81-188 is Not A Reasonable Basis for Its Return Position in Its Tax Filings.

         26 U.S.C. §6662, establishes that a penalty is to be imposed for any underpayment of taxes attributable to “negligence or disregard of the rules or regulations.”[56] The Government argues that BME has been negligent and disregarded the plain meaning of the statute and the Treasury Regulations and therefore should be subject to the penalty.[57] BME argues that it cannot be considered negligent because its filings had a reasonable basis in BME’s own reasonable interpretation of the Constructive Price Rule[58] and because it relied on guidance related to that rule offered in Revenue Ruling 81-188.[59]

         Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-3(b)(1) defines “negligence” under 26 U.S.C. §6662 as “any failure . . . to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in the preparation of a tax return . . . [a] return position that has a reasonable basis as defined in paragraph (b)(3) of this section is not attributable to negligence.”[60] Paragraph (b)(3) states,

Reasonable basis is a relatively high standard of tax reporting, that is, significantly higher than not frivolous or not patently improper. The reasonable basis standard is not satisfied by a return position that is merely arguable or that is merely a colorable claim. If a return position is reasonably based on one or more of the authorities set forth in § 1.6662–4(d)(3)(iii) (taking into account the relevance and persuasiveness of the authorities, and subsequent developments), the return position will generally satisfy the reasonable basis standard even though it may not satisfy the substantial authority standard as defined in § 1.6662–4(d)(2)…. In addition, the reasonable cause and good faith exception in § 1.6664–4 may provide relief from the penalty for negligence or disregard of rules or regulations, even if a return position does not satisfy the reasonable basis standard.[61]

         As an initial matter, BME cannot assert that its own interpretation of 26 U.S.C. § 4216(b) and related federal regulations can serve as a rational basis for its filings and return position for the years in question. Although “[a]pplicable provisions of the Internal Revenue Code and other statutory provisions” as well as “regulations construing such statutes”[62] are recognized as applicable authorities that can be used to show that a taxpayer had a reasonable basis for its return position, [63] the Prior Summary Judgment Order already concluded that 26 U.S.C. § 4216(b) was unambiguous[64] and that it was inapplicable to BME’s sales.[65] BME’s current argument relying its own interpretation of the Constructive Price Rule attempts to relitigate matters already decided. Given the determination ...


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