Steep Slope — Vermont Supreme Court Finds AIG Not Unitary With a Ski Resort Based On a Clear and Cogent Evidence Burden of Proof
In the first Vermont Supreme Court decision addressing combined unitary reporting since Vermont’s combined reporting regime became effective in 2006, the court affirmed a lower court’s decision that AIG, the multinational insurance company, was not unitary with a ski resort operated by a subsidiary in Vermont; accordingly, a combined report covering the two businesses was not required. The decision is important because it lays the foundation for future unitary cases in Vermont.
The court agreed with AIG that there were no economies of scale between the operations of AIG and the ski resort. “Because [the entity] is a ski resort and therefore its business type is not similar to AIG’s insurance and financial service business, there is no opportunity for common centralized distribution or sales, and no economy of scale realized by their operations.” On centralization of management, the court noted that although AIG controlled the appointments to the ski resort’s board and management, this did not translate into “actual control” over the ski resort’s operations. Lastly, the Vermont Department of Taxes attempted to argue functional integration based primarily on AIG’s influx of working capital to the ski resort. The court rejected this assertion stating the funding “served an investment rather than operational function. The financing was not part of an AIG operational goal to grow part of its business. Further, there is no operational integration between AIG’s insurance and financial businesses and the ski resort operated by [the resort].”
The case is interesting because it involved whether an instate entity was unitary with its parent. For the year at issue, Vermont had a three factor apportionment formula with a double-weighted sales factor. Presumably, the ski resort had a high Vermont apportionment factor and relatively little income, so including AIG in the combined group increased AIG’s Vermont apportionment factor without significantly diluting its income.
Interestingly, the court addressed AIG’s burden of proof on the unitary issue. The taxpayer argued that a preponderance of the evidence standard should apply. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed. Looking to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Container Corp. as well as to decisions of other states, the taxpayer has the burden of proving by “clear and cogent” evidence that its operations are not unitary. Interestingly, the court suggested that one California court decision that applied a preponderance of the evidence standard to a unitary question was distinguishable because that case involved a taxpayer claiming that unity existed — and AIG was claiming that unity did not exist. This disparate burden depending on the direction of the unitary argument may prove important to taxpayers seeking to bring entities or operations into a combined report in Vermont.
State tax professionals may react to this decision in a manner similar to the way many reacted when the Court of Appeals of Arizona decided Talley Industries and Woolworth. Those decisions engendered substantial hope that courts — and, ultimately, state revenue agencies — would analyze unitariness not on the basis of a “checklist” or as a knee-jerk reaction to some superficial facts, but rather on the basis of seeking to implement the whole purpose of unitary apportionment. That purpose is, of course, reflecting the amount of income earned in a particular taxing jurisdiction. In other words, was the profitability of the ski resort affected by the operations of AIG? It would seem that merging the incomes and apportionment factors of the ski resort with those of AIG would cause a gross distortion of the profitability of the two distinct businesses.