Press coverage of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court has noted his intelligent and accessible writing style, including use of a sentence diagram (left) in a criminal case that turned on what elements of the crime required proof of intent. In the same spirit, in dissent from the denial of en banc rehearing in a highly technical case about protection of the dusky gopher frog (right), Judge Edith Jones used a pair of Venn diagrams to illustrate her view of how the Endangered Species Act should operate (below left), contrasted with the panel opinion’s (below right). Markle Interests v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, No. 14-31008 (Feb. 14, 2017).
The “Gulf Council” manages fisheries in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.With respect to red snapper, its statutory grant of authority requires it to establish “seprate quotas for recreational fishing . . . and commercial fishing.” A group of private anglers complained that the authority to set those two quotas precluded the ability to set a quota for fishing from charter vessels. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that neither the canon that “expressing one item of a commonly associated group or series excludes another left unmentioned,” nor that “a specific statute prevails over an inconsistent general statute” compelled a ruling in favor of the anglers: “Amendment 40 does not create a separate quota for charter fishing; it subdivides the recreational sector into private and charter components.” Coastal Conservation Association v. U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, No. 16-30137 (revised Jan. 26, 2017).
The issue in Moneygram Int’l v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue was whether MoneyGram could take advantage of a favorable deduction rule for “banks,” unhelpfully defined in the Internal Revenue Code with a sentence beginning: “[T]he term ‘bank’ means a bank or trust company . . . .” Turning to the specific requirements of the definition, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the Tax Court “erred by interpreting ‘deposit’ to include the requirement that MoneyGram ‘hold its customers’ funds for extended periods of time,'” and by requiring that a “loan” be made for interest. A dissent criticized the majority’s “[n]itpicking some of the definitions of a loan . . . .” No. 15-60527 (Nov. 15, 2016, unpublished).
Jeff Heck sought to buy property at a foreclosure sale for $63,000; given 20 minutes to obtain a cashier’s check for that amount, he did not return in time and the property was sold to another buyer. The underlying Texas Property Code provision — the product of a surprising amount of controversy over the years — provides: “The purchase price in a sale held by a trustee . . . is due and payable without delay on acceptance of the bid or within such reasonable time as may be agreed upon[.]” Here, Heck did not pay without delay on acceptance, and he took more time than had been agreed upon, meaning that no violation of the statute occurred. Heck v. Citimortgage, Inc., No. 15-40964 (Jan. 29, 2016, unpublished).
The Howard Hughes Company sold lots, and provided necessary infrastructure, in a planned development near Las Vegas. The IRS did not let it take advantage of a special gain calculation for “home construction contracts,” and the Fifth Circuit agreed. The key statutory interpretation principle (after the basic one that tax exemptions are strictly construed) was “the rule against superfluities,” under which an argument about one statutory provision fails if it makes another one redundant. Howard Hughes Co. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, No. 14-60915 (revised Dec. 7, 2015).
An accident occurred while a dredge attempted to anchor itself in the seabed. The legal issue was whether the dredge’s activity triggered the notice requirements of a Louisiana statute involving “excavation.” The Fifth Circuit reasoned: “The plaintiffs may well be right that the movement of earth is an inevitable result of anchoring, and thus that a person who engages in anchoring does so knowing that he will cause the movement of earth. But under the [statute], an activity constitutes ‘excavation’ only if the ‘purpose’ — the actual object — of engaging in it is the ‘movement . . . of earth.’ And the object of ‘anchoring’ is, unmistakably, the securing of a ship, not the movement of earth.” Plains Pipeline LP v. Great Lakes Dredge, No. 14-31046 (Aug. 12, 2015, unpublished).
Pursuant to section 965 of the Internal Revenue Code, BMC Software repatriated to the United States several hundred million dollars of income earned by a foreign subsidiary. It earned a substantial tax deduction for the year, as this provision is intended to incentivise the fresh investment of foreign cash into the U.S. by companies with international operations. BMC Software v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, No. 13-60684 (March 13, 2015). Some time later, BMC settled a dispute about the tax treatment of royalties paid to it by the same subsidiary. The IRS then took the position that BMC’s accounting for that dispute amounted to a loan, which would lead to the disallowal of some of the section 965 deduction (loaning money to a subsidiary who then returns it to the US would not be fresh investment). The Fifth Circuit rejected that position and reversed the Tax Court, finding no support for it in either the statute or the settlement document. Because the accounts receivable created as a result of the settlement were not created until after the applicable tax year, the statutory exception for loaned funds could not apply.
As part of a sale transaction, the board of “Gold Kist” (more widely known as Pilgrim’s Pride), decided to abandon certain securities for no consideration. For tax purposes, the company then reported a $98.6 million ordinary loss. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, No. 14-60295 (Feb. 25, 2015). The IRS contended that this was a capital loss, rather than an ordinary loss, creating a tax deficiency of close to $30 million. The Court agreed with the company, finding: “By its plain terms, [26 U.S.C.] § 1234A(1) applies to the termination of rights or obligations with respect to capital assets (e.g. derivative or contractual rights to buy or sell capital assets). It does not apply to the termination of ownership of the capital asset itself.” In rejecting a contrary view of the statute, Judge Elrod gives a powerful summary of several canons of construction: “We disagree. Congress does not legislate in logic puzzles . . . “
The Fifth Circuit revised its original opinion in BNSF Railway Co. v. United States to expand and revise the discussion of ambiguity as part of the Chevron analysis of an IRS regulation; the outcome remained unchanged. No. 13-10014 (Jan. 15, 2015). The new discussion includes a reminder about the limited role of dictionaries, from the venerable en banc opinion about regulations for chicken processing in Mississippi Poultry Association, Inc. v. Madigan, 31 F.3d 293 (5th Cir.1994). The canon of “noscitur a sociis” (“an ambiguous term may be given more precise context by the neighboring words with which it is associated” also makes one of its infrequent appearances.
In Forrte v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the Fifth Circuit affirmed a finding of liability under the Texas Optometry Act, based on dealings between Wal-Mart and optometrists who leased space in its stores. No. 12-40854 (revised, Aug. 25, 2014). While the plaintiff optometrists did not claim actual damages, they obtained judgment for over $1,000,000, plus attorneys fees, based on mandatory statutory penalties. Noting that the Act used the phrase “civil penalty,” the Fifth Circuit found that the damages fell within the cap set by Section 41.008(b) of the Civil Practice & Remedies Code — “two times the amount of economic damages [plus] economic damages.” In this case, that was zero, since the plaintiffs sought no other recovery. The Court distinguished Vanderbilt Mortgage v. Flores, 692 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 2012), based on the terms of the statutes at issue. As the Texas Lawbook notes, this opinion has the potential to introduce uncertainty into other “Private Attorney General” statutes in Texas.
Even by the standards of tax cases, BNSF Railway Co. v. United States is arcane, but the underlying statutory analysis is of broad general interest. No. 13-10014 (March 13, 2014). The first issue — the taxability of certain stock options — turned on whether a Treasury regulation about the meaning of the term “compensation” was entitled to Chevron deference. The Fifth Circuit held that it was — as to the first Chevron factor, the Court found the term ambiguous, noting (1) the lack of a similar statute using the term, (2) variation among dictionary definitions, and (3) ambiguity in business usage, such as there was, at the time the relevant statute was passed in the 1920s-40s. [Unintentional capitalist wit appears in footnote 63, which refers to the “Rand House Dictionary” rather than the “Random House Dictionary” in a citation about “capital or finance.”] The Court then found the regulation reasonable, noting its general consistency with the goals and structure of the statute and its legislative history. A second holding illustrates the application of the “specific-general canon” and “the rule against superfluities.”