Sunday, July 27, 2003


The law firm that I had been with since this before weblog unveiled will be dissolving at the end of the month. Thereafter, I will be at Fisher & Winner, LLP just a block up the street.

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.

Accepting an Invitiation

The SW Virginia Law Blog on the 20th noted two articles in the Virginian-Pilot (here and here) that reported that "[i]nsurance companies licensed to do business in Virginia can only underwrite group policies to cover family members defined as spouses or dependent children," thus excluding gay or lesbian partners and children of such a partner that the non-biological partner nevertheless considers as his or her progeny.

SW Virginia Law Blog then suggests that the problem was not one of state law, but rather of federal law, more particularly federal tax law, and it put out a request to other blogs that focus on business and tax issues, including yours truly, to offer their view of the locus of the issue. Well, here goes.

There is obviously a federal tax slant to this issue. As the SWVa Law Blog correctly noted, medical insurance benefits paid by an employer that provides insurance to a non-family member of the employee (meaning non-married "significant others" and children of such individuals) is taxable to the employee, unless the significant other or his/her child is (are) dependents of the employee. However, the authority cited by SWVa Law Blog, CCA 200117038 makes it clear that a plan may provide benefits to such individuals, even though the benefits are taxable.

I am not admitted to practice in Virginia, but I suspect that the concept that is at the core of the problem the news articles focus on is that of "an insurable interest." This is a well-known concept in insurance law. In essence, one can only be the owner of a policy of insurance that insures against some hazard occuring to some other individual if the owner has an "insurable interest" in the person insured. Thus, I cannot obtain a policy of insurance on the authors of the SWVa Law Blog because, even though I like reading their publication, I do not have an insurable interest in their lives. Going one step further, insurance companies have been found to be liable for damages for the tort of "insuring" when they enter into contracts of insurance with an individual with no insurable interest in the named insured party. (The damages are usually derived from the premature death of the named insured due to the active intervention of the policy owner. In simple English, someone buys a life insurance policy on someone else's life and then knocks them off to obtain the proceeds. I am willing to bet, however, that for every lawsuit for the tort of insuring, there have been fifty murder mysteries based on the practice.)

The question originally posed by the SWVa Law Blog was whether this was an instance of state law creating a due process or equal protection issue. To the extent that my hypothesis as to the derivation of the rule discussed in the newspaper articles is correct, I believe that the application of the state law does create a Constitutional issue. There would seem to be no question but that an individual has a strong interest in seeing to it that the medical needs of the others in his/her household are met. A state law that attempt to stretch the concept of "insurable interest" to bar the issuance of such coverage is nothing more than an attempt to limit the free association of individuals based upon their marital status or sexual orientation by making it difficult or more expensive for them to obtain medical insurance for everyone in their household.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Manic's Better Than Depressed

I previously commented on the case of Keeley v. Commissioner, a Tax Court summary decision that denied relief from the 10% penalty imposed on a premature withdrawal from a qualified plan. The relief had been sought because the taxpayer suffered from clinical depression and contended that he was entitled to relief because he was disabled. The Court denied relief because the taxpayer's condition did not require that he be institutionalized or have constant supervision.

I criticized the opinion, noting that it relied on a regulation that was more restrictive than the Code required and that was inconsistent with current treatment modalities.

Tuesday, in the case of Mary L. Coleman-Stephens v. Commissioner, the Tax Court reached an entirely different conclusion based on essentially identical facts. Because Keely was a summary disposition and could not be relied upon as precedent, the Court in Coleman-Stephens did not seek to harmonize its conclusion with that of the prior opinion.

Since Coleman-Stephens, like Keely, is a summary disposition, taxpayers cannot rely upon it for authority. Given the relative small amounts involved in these cases (Coleman-Stephens involved only $510 in taxes), they are unlikely to get appealed to the circuit court level. The Tax Court ought to step in and issue a formal opinion, even if it's only a memorandum decision, addressing the issue. Better yet, the Service might issue a ruling stating that it now concludes that the regulation is overly broad and, to the extent that it requires institutionalization or some other type of custodial care before the penalty can be avoided, it will be disregarded.

Monday, July 14, 2003

One Tough Veil

With the possible exception of claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, I doubt that there is no action that is bruited around more often and results in fewer successful prosecutions than attempts to pierce the corporate veil. The recent opinion in the case of Iceland Telecom, Ltd. v. Information Systems & Network Corp. illustrates the rather restrictive limits placed on this doctrine, particularly in Maryland.

Iceland Telecom brought the action against Information Systems & Networks Corp. ("ISN"), ISN Global Communications, Inc. ("Global"), and an individual, Arvin Malkani ("Malkani") for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. Neither ISN nor Malkani were parties to the disputed contract. Iceland Telecom sought to hold them liable for the obligations of Global via the application of the piercing the corporate veil doctrine, seeking to apply either the "instrumentality" theory or the "alter ego" theory, or because Global allegedly acted as the agent for ISN and Malkani.

To say the least, Global was operated on a fairly informal basis. It never held stockholder or director meetings. Two of the three individuals who the extant corporate documents indicated were directors (Malkani's mother and sister) apparently did not know that they were directors. ISN picked up most of Global's expenses and Malkani, Global's president, had his salary paid directly by Global. Global shared ISN's office space, with the rent being paid by ISN without any contribution from Global. Indeed, Global used ISN's phone numers, office furniture, and some of its office staff.

Significantly, in the negotiations leading up to the execution of the contract, it often appeared that Iceland Telecom was dealing with ISN. For instance, Malkani, negotiating on behalf of Global frequently referred to that company as ISN. In fact, the court specficially stated that Iceland Telecom "thought it was dealing with ISN." However, the written contract executed by Iceland Telecom identified Global as the other contracting party.

Nevertheless, the court concluded that neither the piercing the veil doctrine nor the agency doctrine applied to this case. The court emphasized that the Maryland courts had set the bar high with respect to the ability to pierce the corporate veil (quoting Dixon v. Process Corp., 38 Md.App. 644, 645 (1978) to the effect that it is a "herculean task" for a creditor to attempt to "rip away the corporate facade.") The court rejected the approach outlined in the well-known 4th Circuit case of DeWitt Truck Brokers v. W. Ray Fleming Fruit Co., 540 F.2d 681 (1976) where the court, applying South Carolina law, allowed the corporate veil to be pierced because of such factors as the lack of corporate formalities, gross undercapitalization, and the non-functioning of officers or directors other than the sole shareholder. Instead, the court concluded that, under Maryland law, nothing short of actual fraud would suffice to sustain a veil piercing effort.

Iceland Telecom's attempts to rely on an agency or an agency by estoppel theory to impose liability were similarly unavailing. Iceland Telecom had, after all, entered into a written contract that had clearly identified the other party as being Global. There was no evidence that it believed that Global was acting as ISN's agent nor that it entered into the contract upon reliance upon a belief that Global was acting as ISN's agent. Thus, neither of these two "agency" theories could apply.

Even though I've used it as authority, I've always thought that DeWitt Truck Brokers was problematic. After all, most, if not all, closely-held corporations have significant gaps in their adherence to corporate formalities. The rationale behind veil piercing should be anchored in the rational expectancies of the various actors. A plaintiff should not be able to look beyond the limited liability shield of a limited liability entity if it entered into a contract with full knowledge that there were limited liability walls in place. Only if the plaintiff suffers loss that is unexpected (e.g., being told that the entity was solvent, when, in fact, the owners were draining it of assets) should it be able to avoid the limitations in collectability that it tacitly acknowledged when it entered into the deal.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Seeing Double?

Subscribers may have noticed that they have been getting two copies of each posting. The reason is that for several months I have attempted to use a subscription service called Bloglet. While subscription requests found their way to Bloglet (via the subscription box on the right), for some reason the postings were never circulated. In response, I created a mailing list and copied all of the addresses in Bloglet to that list. Each posting was directed to circulate to the list.

This weekend, Bloglet suddenly began working again. Of course, subscribers began getting each posting twice, once from Bloglet and once from my mailing list. I will cure the problem tomorrow and subscribers will be back to getting only one copy of each posting. One other housekeeping note.

I have finally figured out how to syndicate this weblog via RSS coding. By the end of the week there should be a way to click and get the RSS syndication information.

Saturday, July 05, 2003

More on Verne

David Giacalone at ethicalEsq has offered some comments on my posting Putting Strains on My Friends about the Verne opinion. Although I agree with most of what he has to say (he does a good job, for instance in detailing most of the salient facts that were not presented in the opinion), I have one area of disagreement.

Specifically, Dave states that "[i]f Verne never held himself out as being an attorney and he reminded his clients that they might want to consider getting legal advice or having additional documents drafted for their business, he may have been giving them just what they wanted and needed -- and chose -- given their situation and their willingness to risk future problems." (Emphasis is Dave's.) I'm not at all certain that this clears Verne under the circumstances.

One of the lessons I learned in law school is that it is less important to know the answer to a question than it is to know the correct questions to ask. Theoretically at least, lawyers are by training supposed to be able to ask the right questions. Accountants, as to the majority of issues that go into operating agreements, for instance, simply do not have this training.

I think that Dave is on the right track when he suggests various elements of cost benefit analysis that should go into the decision as to whether Verne should be penalized for his actions or omissions. However, in many cases, even highly skilled and experienced counsel do not have the knowledge to make the appropriate cost benefit analysis. By way of example, assume that most small businesses, such as Verne's clients, typically rely on a form LLC operating agreement that does little more than restate the default provisions in the state's LLC act. Is the lawyer who prepares such a document (i) underlawyering, (ii) overlawyering, or (iii) getting it just right. As I suggested in my first post, I really don't know the answer to this question.

Friday, July 04, 2003

Government Undercover Uncovered

I don't ordinarily use my postings to announce links to specific websites, but I'll make an exception today.

MIT just opened its Open Government Information Awareness site. The site offers a remarkable amount of information about all three branches of the federal government. The amount of information now at your fingertips is simply daunting. By way of example (and certainly not in limitation), the site gives a list of contributors to the campaigns of members of Congress, a detailed listing of the expenditures of those members, and their financial disclosure filings.

Well designed sites such as this raise any number of questions. For instance, given the proliferation of bloggers of all stripes (both in topic choice and political viewpoint) and the ready accessibility of information, the market for commercial alternatives, newspapers for instance, would seem to be seriously eroding. The implications are huge.

In Baltimore, I grew up with three daily newspapers, The Sun (often known to residents as The Morning Sun), The Evening Sun, and The News American. We're now down to just The Sun. Since you can get The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal delivered to your home or office, The Sun becomes a secondary (or, given the web, a tertiary) source of national and international news. It is thus limited to being a primary source only of local news. And, even here, is challenged by The Washinton Post with respect to statewide coverage. Give The Sun the competition of a few good local bloggers and it's out of business. I suspect that the knowledge of its tenuous position by its reporters was one of the reasons they made significant concessions in their most recent contract negotiations with the paper.

2003 State Tax Update

The Spring issue of Tax Talk, the newsletter of the Section of Taxation of the Maryland State Bar Association has two summaries of tax legislation passed in the recent session of the Maryland General Assembly. One is by Evelyn Pasquier, the other by the Comptroller's Office.

H.B. 438 is worthy of note because it imposes upon various officers and owners of corporations and LLCs personal liability for unpaid vessel excise that the business entity is required to collect and pay over. The language is identical to a similar provision with respect to sales tax that I argued, to no avail, constituted a violation of due process. It’s significant because previously the sales tax provision stood alone in its sweeping imposition of personal liability. (OK, I'm a sore loser.)

Now that this broad imposition of liability has been extended with respect to another tax, there is a possibility that it might be further extended. For instance, the failure to collect and pay over withholding taxes might create personal liability by virtue of an individual's status rather than, as is currently the case, the individual's dereliction of duty.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Putting Strains On My Friends

While some of my best friends are accountants, I may be straining our friendship with this posting.

The Ohio Supreme Court, in the case of Columbus Bar Assn. v. Verne, recently enjoined an accountant from "preparing legal documents that constitute the unauthorized practice of law." Verne, the accountant in question, had formed an LLC on behalf of two of his clients by drafting and filing articles of organization with the Secretary of State. The articles used, as a baseline, forms that were available in the secretary of state's office.

In the real world, the practice of law by accountants, insurance agents, stock brokerage houses, and banks is rampant. A few good lawsuits resulting in liability might encourage a reduction in the unlicensed practice of law.

The opinion correctly focuses on the types of advice that clients need that are particularly within the province of attorneys, namely those issues that ought to be reflected in an operating agreement. However, in its conclusion, the Court focuses on the one area in which Verne’s transgression was relatively benign: the drafting of the articles of organization. Thus, the order merely enjoins him from "preparing legal documents."

In fact, as the opinion reveals, Verne's sins that caused his clients serious harm were not found in the simple document that he drafted, but in the complex document that he didn't even think about. Verne failed as a lawyer because he apparently did not even attempt to explain to his clients the importance of addressing and memorializing the various elements of their deal. The order does not focus on this problem. And, perhaps, it cannot. After all, it would come dangerously close to an infringement on free speech rights to block Verne from opining, to clients or prospective clients, as to the relative merits of different types of entities and the issues that should be addressed in organizing a business.

Going one step further, however, a more difficult issue underlies this case. What should it cost to form a relatively simple business deal? In this sense, law faces the same economic problem that medicine faces. In medicine, doctors often order or perform too many tests in order to reduce their exposure to malpractice claims. In forming a business, lawyers face the problem of how detailed an operating agreement (or shareholders' agreement or partnership agreement or lease or etc.) needs to be in order to meet the needs of the client and, to cover all of their bases, there is a tendency to "overlawyer" a deal.

Of course, "overlawyering" is in the eyes of the beholder.

Although no facts as to this are set forth in the opinion, I'm willing to bet that Verne's clients' business involved little initial capital and they were operating on a shoestring. How much upfront capital should they be willing to spend to draft the "appropriate" documents addressing all of the "pertinent" issues? Appropriateness and pertinency are, after all, fluid concepts. Maybe the default provisions in the Ohio LLC statute were sufficient for their purposes. Of course, Verne probably lacked the training (and certainly lacked the appropriate license) to give his clients the requisite information that would have allowed them to make a knowing choice with respect to these matters. Thus, his real crime was not the document he drafted, but the document he didn't draft.

Two other points about the opinion.

First, I had not previously been to the Ohio Supreme Court's website. The opinions give not only the "book" official citation (that is, a citation to the hard bound volumes of published opinions) but an official "cyber" citation as well. All courts should emulate this practice.

Second, the Court's opinion cited as authority Henning & McQuown, Ohio Limited Liability Company: Forms and Practice Manual (December 2001). A disclaimer: I have a slight (very slight) financial interest in that publication, but (and?) I was happy to see it relied upon as authority.