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The (Potential) Demise of Auer Deference?

On December 10, 2018, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of James L. Kisor v. Peter O’Rourke, Acting Secretary of Veteran Affairs, S.Ct. Dkt. No. 18-15. Although this is not a tax case, it has significant implications for taxpayers and tax practitioners. The reason: the Court will finally squarely address the issue of whether it should overrule its controversial opinions in Auer v. Robbins, 519 US 452 (1997) and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 US 410 (1945). Those opinions held that an agency is uniquely positioned to interpret any ambiguity in its own regulations and, therefore, such interpretations should be afforded controlling deference so long as reasonable. The Court’s decision to grant certiorari in Kisor is significant because the sole question to be considered is “[w]hether the Court should overrule Auer and Seminole Rock” and not how to apply that doctrine.

In the tax context, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division have both argued that interpretations taken in unpublished guidance are eligible for Auer deference, even if such positions are articulated for the first time on brief in a pending case in which the agency is a party. Courts have not been uniform in their application of Auer. For example, the Tax Court has indicated that to receive deference the IRS’s position should be in published guidance while some courts have given deference to statements made on brief.

The death of Justice Scalia, who ironically wrote Auer but later advocated for its demise, seemed to strike a blow to those seeking to overrule it. However, with the recent additions of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, it appears that the Supreme Court many now have a majority of Justices in the anti-Auer camp given that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito have all expressed doubts about the doctrine in the past. Additionally, the continuing role of Chevron deference has been questioned and, if Auer is overruled, Chevron could be the next deference battleground.

We will continue to follow this case closely and provide updates in the future. In the meantime, the links below contain prior discussions on Auer and other forms of deference in the tax context.

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In 1934 E.H. McDermott opened a law practice that focused exclusively on taxes. As chief counsel to the Joint Committee on Taxation of the United States Congress, McDermott observed firsthand how the rapidly expanding federal tax laws were affecting businesses and individuals. He recognized the need for a law firm to assist people and their businesses to understand and comply with their changing tax obligations.

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