Monday, July 21, 2003

Spy v. Spy

In Robinson v. U.S., the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit allowed the employer a substantial deduction for the "bargain element" inherent in stock distributed to an employee, even though the employee had filed a Section 83(b) election that valued the bargain element at zero. The opinion has been praised by Janell Grenier at Benefitsblog (see here). Regardless of the merits of the decision as a matter of tax law, the facts are vaguely reminiscent of an installment of Spy v. Spy.

The Robinsons owned all of the stock of a related group of corporations known as Morgan Creek. In 1995, they granted the COO, Gary Barber, 10% of the stock in the enterprise. Barber paid $2 million for the stock and filed a Section 83(b) election stating that the bargain element in the transaction, that is the fair market value of the stock in excess of what he had paid for it, was zero. As required by the regulations under Section 83, he sent a copy of the election to the corporation, namely himself acting as the COO.

In 1998, the Robinsons and Barber had a falling out. To resolve the dispute, in June of 1998, Morgan Creek redeemed Barber's stock for $13.2 million. Morgan Creek (presumably after the closing on the purchase of Barber's stock) issued him a revised W-2 for 1995 reflecting additional compensation of $26,759,800 (i.e., a stock valuation of $28,759,800, less the $2 million paid for the stock by Barber) as a result of the bargain element inherent in the 10% of the company's stock he received in that year. And, of course, Morgan Creek claimed an ordinary deduction for compensation paid to Barber in 1995 of the $26,759,800 bargain element.

The Service argued that Morgan Creek was barred from taking the deduction since the corporation's deduction was limited to the amount included in Barber's income. Since Barber had included nothing in his income, the Service's position was that Morgan Creek was not entitled to any deduction. The Court of Appeals, reversing the Claims Court, disagreed, holding that the term "included" means not the amount actually shown on the employee's return, but also the amount that, as a matter of law, should have been included on the return.

I will leave the analysis of the legal questions involved in the decision to commentators like Grenier. Instead, I will focus on the human factors behind the case.

I don't know whether in 1995 the parties addressed the Section 83 issues inherent in the stock grant to Barber. I'm willing to bet that they did not and that Barber, finding a vacuum, seized upon it to structure the transaction to confer some tax benefits on himself. Later, however, in the course of what must have been acrimonious negotiations over Barber's departure from the company, the company (read: the Robinsons) realized that it could settle its dispute with Barber and, as soon as the ink was dry on the contract, amend the 1995 returns to obtain tax benefits that would substantially fund the settlement. Thus, Morgan Creek paid Barber $13.2 million, but its amendment of the 1995 income tax returns resulted in federal income tax benefits of over $8.85 million, plus interest from 1995. Of course, Morgan Creek will likely enjoy additional state income tax benefits as well. Assuming the state tax benefits to be about $2 million, the company virtually broke even on the deal, since Barber had paid $2 million for the stock. (The arithmetic: $8.85 million, plus $2 million, plus $2 million, plus interest, comes pretty damn close to $13.2 million.) Barber, on the other hand, could end up with additional tax on $26,759,800, plus substantial penalties and interest from 1995, and a long term capital loss in 1998, that he may or may not be able to use, of about $15 million. Not a pretty picture.

The case illustrates the virtue of having both sides (i) recognize that there are Section 83(b) issues inherent in any grant of an equity interest to an employee, and (ii) agree to a consistent (and reasonable) position with respect to the manner in which the "bargain element" is to be reported.

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