Caroline Moriarty, MJLST Staffer
Earlier this month, the U.S. Tax Court struck down an administrative notice issued by the IRS regarding conservation easements in Green Valley Investors, LLC v. Commissioner. While the ruling itself may be minor, the court may be signaling a shift away from tax exceptionalism to administrative law under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”), which could have major implications for the way the IRS operates. In this post, I will explain what conservation easements are, what the ruling was, and what the ruling may mean for IRS administrative actions going forward.
Conservation easements are used by wealthy taxpayers to get tax deductions. Under Section 170(h) of the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”), taxpayers who purchase development rights for land, then donate those rights to a charitable organization that pledges not to develop or use the land, get a deduction proportional to the value of the land donated. The public gets the benefit of preserved land, which could be used as a park or nature reserve, and the donor gets a tax break.
However, this deduction led to the creation of “syndicated conservation easements.” In this tax scheme, intermediaries purchase vacant land worth little, hire an appraiser to declare its value to be much higher, then sell stakes in the donation of the land to investors, who get a tax deduction that is four to five times higher than what they paid. In exchange, the intermediaries are paid large fees.
Conservation easements can be used to protect the environment, and proponents of the deduction argue that the easements are a critical tool in keeping land safe from development pressures. However, the IRS and other critics argue that these deductions are abused and cost the government between $1.3 billion and $2.4 billion in lost tax revenue. Some appraisers in these schemes have been indicted for “fraudulent” and “grossly inflated” land appraisals. Both Congress and the IRS have published research about the potential for abuse. In 2022, the IRS declared the schemes one of their “Dirty Dozen” for the year, writing that “these abusive arrangements do nothing more than game the tax system with grossly inflated tax deductions and generate high fees for promoters.”
Notice 2017-10 and the Tax Court’s Green Valley Ruling
To combat the abuse of conservation easements, the IRS released an administrative notice (the “Notice”) that required taxpayers to disclose any syndicated conservation easements on their tax returns as a “listed transaction.” The notice didn’t go through notice-and-comment procedures from the APA. Then, in 2019, the IRS disallowed over $22 million in charitable deductions on Green Valley and the other petitioners’ taxes for 2014 and 2015 and assessed a variety of penalties.
While the substantive tax law is complex, Green Valley and the other petitioners challenged the penalties, arguing that the Notice justifying the penalties didn’t go through notice and comment procedures. In response, the IRS argued that Congress had exempted the agency from notice-and-comment procedures. Specifically, the IRS argued that they issued a Treasury Regulation that defined a “listed transaction” as one “identified by notice, regulation, or other form of published guidance,” which should have indicated to Congress that the IRS would be operating outside of APA requirements when issuing notices.
The Tax Court disagreed, writing “We remain unconvinced that Congress expressly authorized the IRS to identify a syndicated conservation easement transaction as a listed transaction without the APA’s notice-and-comment procedures, as it did in Notice 2017-10.” Essentially, the statutes that Congress wrote allowing for IRS penalties did not determine the criteria for how taxpayers would incur the penalties, so the IRS decided with non-APA reviewed rules. If Congress would have expressly authorized the IRS to determine the requirements for penalties without APA procedures in the penalty statutes, then the Notice would have been valid.
In invalidating the notice, the Tax Court decided that Notice 2017-10 was a legislative rule requiring notice-and-comment procedures because it imposed substantive reporting obligations on taxpayers with the threat of penalties. Since the decision, the IRS has issued proposed regulations on the same topic that will go through notice and comment procedures, while continuing to defend the validity of the Notice in other circuits (the Tax Court adopted reasoning from a Sixth Circuit decision).
The Future of Administrative Law and the IRS
The decision follows other recent cases where courts have pushed the IRS to follow APA rules. However, following the APA is a departure from the past understanding of administrative law’s role in tax law. In the past, “tax exceptionalism” described the misperception that tax law is so complex and different from other regulatory regimes that the rules of administrative law don’t apply. This understanding has allowed the IRS to make multiple levels of regulatory guidance, some binding and some not, all without effective oversight from the courts. Further, judicial review is limited for IRS actions by statute, and even if there’s review, it may be ineffective if the judges are not tax experts.
This movement towards administrative law has implications for both taxpayers and the IRS. For taxpayers, administrative law principles could provide additional avenues to challenge IRS actions and allow for more remedies. For the IRS, the APA may be an additional barrier to their job of collecting tax revenue. At the end of the day, syndicated conservation easements can be used to defraud the government, and the IRS should do something to curtail their potential for abuse. Following notice-and-comment procedures could delay effective tax administration. However, the IRS is an administrative agency, and it doesn’t make sense to think they can make their own rules or act like they’re not subject to the APA. Either way, administrative law will likely continue to prevail in both federal courts and Tax Court, and it will continue to influence tax law as we know it.