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United States of America v. Edward P. Bond

September 15, 2012

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE,
v.
EDWARD P. BOND, LIQUIDATING TRUSTEE OF THE LIQUIDATING TRUST FOR PT-1 COMMUNICATIONS, INC., PT-1 LONG DISTANCE, INC. AND PT-1 TECHNOLOGIES, INC. DEFENDANT/APPELLEE/ CROSS-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cogan, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

Before me is an appeal from a final order of the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York, which incorporated four interlocutory orders. The United States (hereinafter the "IRS") challenges these interlocutory orders and the final order on eight separate grounds, most of which have sub-arguments. The Liquidating Trustee ("the Trustee") appeals on one ground. The final order of the Bankruptcy Court is hereby affirmed, substantially for the reasons set forth in the four interlocutory orders and the denial of a motion for reconsideration filed by the Liquidating Trustee and issued subsequent to the final order, with one exception. I conclude that the Bankruptcy Court was without jurisdiction to enjoin the IRS's future exercise of its rights to setoff and recoupment. I write here to explain my reasoning for that conclusion, as well as to clarify my reasons for affirmance on certain issues and to address issues not discussed in the Bankruptcy Court's decisions.

BACKGROUND

This case concerns the income tax treatment of three related telecommunications entities, PT-1 Communications, Inc., PT-1 Long Distance, Inc., and PT-1 Technologies, Inc. (hereinafter "PT-1" or the "PT-1 Entities"). In 2000, WorldCom engineered a hostile takeover of both PT-1 and its parent company, the Star Group, which culminated in PT-1 and the Star Group filing for bankruptcy in 2001. WorldCom itself filed for bankruptcy in 2002. During PT-1's decade-old bankruptcy proceedings, numerous disputes have arisen with regard to PT-1's tax treatment during this tumultuous period. These disputes have now been resolved by the Bankruptcy Court and are before this Court on appeal. Roughly $16 million plus a decade of interest is at stake, with the United States seeking to recover $7 million in post-petition taxes, and the trustee seeking to recover alleged pre- and post-petition overpayments totaling $8.8 million.

I.PT-1's Business

PT-1 principally performed two services, each of which allowed for phone calls to be completed through long-distance switches it either owned or had a right to use. First, it sold pre-paid calling cards. Second, it provided dial-around long distance, which allowed a telephone caller to avoid his default long-distance carrier by dialing a prefix, such as "10-10," prior to the ten-digit telephone number.

For a time, PT-1 was a successful and independent group of companies. In the mid-1990s, the three PT-1 Entities filed their own consolidated income tax returns, with their tax year ending June 30. The exception was an eight-month return that ended February 4, 1999, because on that date PT-1 was taken over through a merger with the Star Group, a larger group of telephone industry companies. For the 1998 tax year, PT-1 paid $6.2 million in corporate income tax, some portion of which the parties agree was an overpayment arising from the carryback to this tax year of the net operating loss ("NOL") from PT-1's eight-month tax period ending February 28, 1999.

With Star's acquisition of PT-1 in 1999, PT-1 was included in the Star Group's consolidated income tax return for the periods ending December 31, 1999 (ten months) and December 31, 2000 (twelve months). Both returns report net operating losses, with the returns containing an allocation of losses to its constituent entities, including PT-1. However, a problem arose for the 2001 return. In late 2000, WorldCom had taken control of PT-1 pursuant to a stock pledge agreement with Star on which Star defaulted. Under WorldCom control, the PT-1 Entities then filed for bankruptcy in the Eastern District of New York on March 1, 2001, and later that year Star filed in the District of Delaware. However, for some undisclosed reason, neither WorldCom nor Star included PT-1 on its consolidated return for any portion of the 2001 year. PT-1 was unaware of this fact for quite some time, due largely in part to Star's March 2002 request for an extension of time to file its return, which extension included PT-1.

II.PT-1's Tax Returns

The Star Group has not yet filed any type of return for any portion of 2001. PT-1 thus became self-described "tax orphans," with neither of their putative parents willing to include them on their consolidated income tax returns for the 2001 tax year or years going forward. Choosing then to file their own return, the PT-1 Entities in September 2002 filed a consolidated income tax return for the post-petition portion of 2001 (the "Short Period"), reporting tax due of $6,706,172 based on $19,160,492 in taxable income, which reflected $20,455,135 of taxable income before the application of an NOL carry-forward allocated to PT-1 from the Star Group 2000 return in the amount of $1,294,643. The Short Period return was not accompanied by a request made under 11 U.S.C. § 505(b) for a prompt determination of tax.*fn1 PT-1 paid that administrative tax expense of $6.7 million with the return in the ordinary course of business as the debtor in possession. The Trustee has been attempting to recover this tax ever since on the grounds that PT-1 in fact had no tax liability for the Short Period.

PT-1 did not at that time file a return for the pre-petition portion of 2001 -- the period referred to by the parties as the "Stub Period." It did, however, file an amended return for its tax year ending June 30, 1998, seeking a refund of over $2 million as a result of NOL carrybacks from the subsequent two tax periods. The IRS did not respond to this refund request until January 27, 2004, stating that because PT-1 had not filed a tax return for the Stub Period, PT-1 might potentially have owed additional tax to the Government which could offset the refund claim amount. PT-1 then sent to the IRS two unsigned returns; one purporting to address the tax for the Stub Period, the other purporting to address the tax for the full 2001 calendar year. PT-1 also requested that the IRS deal with it on its own for the 2001 tax year because Star no longer existed, which the IRS refused to do.

For the 2002 tax year, PT-1 filed its own consolidated income tax return, which included a request made under section 505(b) for a prompt determination of tax. The 2002 return included a bad-debt deduction of $21,648,496 and an NOL of $5,590, 832. The IRS examined the 2002 return, and eventually disallowed all but around $900,000 of that claimed bad-debt deduction, which converted that NOL to positive taxable income of around $14 million, with a $5.1 million tax claimed by the IRS on that income. The IRS's examination was not completed within the time allowed under § 505(b). Instead, the IRS filed on August 1, 2006 a request for payment of administrative expense for the 2002 year in the sum of $7.8 million related to the disallowance of the bad-debt deduction.

For the 2003 tax year, PT-1 again filed its own consolidated income tax return and again included a request for a prompt determination of tax under section 505(b). The IRS did not examine this return, and has never charged tax or filed a request for payment for the 2003 tax year. The 2003 return reported a loss of $4,062,803, which the Trustee has sought to carry back to the 2001 Short Period.

III.PT-1's Pre-Paid Business and its Sale

On PT-1's books, when a pre-paid calling card was sold, the proceeds of the sale were classified as deferred revenue and were not immediately recognized as income. PT-1 contended that it was not required to consider any payments as income (for tax purposes) until it rendered the service of completing the call under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Although the IRS disagrees, this dispute is not at issue here.

In February 2001, one month before declaring bankruptcy, PT-1 sold its prepaid calling card business to a third party, IDT. At that time, its deferred revenue account contained $27.7 million in cash that had not yet been reported. The parties agree that as part of the sale, IDT purchased the assets of the phone card business, including inventory and all accounts receivable, and agreed to service the remaining calls for outstanding cards in circulation. However, how much the business was sold for is in dispute.

The face of the sale agreement identified a one-dollar price tag,*fn2 and Rosalind Gaffney, head of PT-1 tax, testified at trial to the same price. However, the agreement also required IDT to indemnify PT-1 for up to $5 million against certain then pending litigation claims. Under the agreement, if those claims were not resolved within a 120-day period, IDT would give PT-1 cash equal to 70% of the indemnity obligations, or $3.5 million. More importantly, IDT agreed to compensate PT-1 for PT-1 providing "termination services" for the cards already in circulation. IDT agreed to deposit $4 million in escrow, which was to be paid to PT-1 upon closing as a "deposit" for these future obligations.

In March 2001, IDT and STAR amended the agreement with IDT, causing PT-1 to execute the amendment as well. A significant change to the agreement was that IDT was no longer required to pay the indemnity or the $4 million deposit, which evidently had not been placed in escrow or paid to PT-1 upon closing of the sale as the original sales agreement had required. According to the Trustee, PT-1 performed its post-sale obligations under the contract, but IDT never paid.

PT-1 initiated an adversary proceeding against IDT in its own bankruptcy on July 25, 2002. The complaint includes claims for unpaid services rendered in excess of $10 million, the failure to pay the $5 million indemnity, and the failure to pay the escrow deposit. Further, the complaint asserts a claim for fraudulent conveyance based on the allegation that Star caused PT-1's prepaid calling card receivables (worth about $22 million) to be transferred to IDT in exchange for assuming service obligations that would cost a fraction of the value of the receivables, while IDT simultaneously agreed to pay $9 million to Star in exchange for stock that ended up being worthless as Star soon filed for bankruptcy. The complaint also asserted that IDT and Star caused the $4 million payment that the contract required to be paid to PT-1 to be made to Star instead.

In 2004, prior to the confirmation of the plan, the debtor in possession and IDT settled and agreed that the debtor would receive IDT common stock to be sold in installments with a guaranteed value of $14.3 million. The proceeds of that settlement were made part of the assets of the Liquidating Trust. The income tax consequences of the sale of the phone-card business are disputed in this case, but PT-1's accounting of the sale can be described as follows.

On PT-1's 2001 proposed Stub Period return (apparently filed in 2004), it reported approximately $5.9 million in income. This figure was derived from recognizing the $27.7 million in PT-1's deferred revenue account, then subtracting approximately $22 million for the account receivables it had transferred to IDT, as wells as $665,000 in inventory. In addition, PT-1 purportedly received $1 in consideration from IDT for the sale. The difference is a net gain of $5.9 million. However, when netting this gain with a deduction of approximately $12 million for debt that was allegedly uncollectible, the Trustee reported a loss for the Stub Period of over $6 million.

IV.PT-1's Long Distance Business

PT-1's dial-around long distance business allowed long-distance callers to bypass their default long-distance carrier by using switches owned either by PT-1 or Star. A long distance caller who wanted to dial-around his default long distance provider would place a phone call using a prefix (usually "10-10"), the call would be routed to a PT-1 switch, and PT-1 would complete the call from that point forward, collecting data from its switches for billing. The PT-1 switch would collect from the dialer the local phone number from which the call was being made, the date and time of call, the duration of the call, and information about the local-exchange carrier that transmitted the call from the caller's telephone to the PT-1 switch.

PT-1 booked income using this raw information from its switches immediately upon placement of the calls. Then, because it knew nothing more than the phone number of its customers, it relied on a third-party billing intermediary to attempt to collect the PT-1 charges from the local carriers that had contracts with the callers. Each local carrier, in turn, would attempt to collect the charges for the calls by including charges on the bills that they sent to their customers.

PT-1 was paid by the billing intermediary through a two-step "true-up" process. After calls that were too short to be billed were removed, the remaining calls were deemed accepted for billing by the billing intermediary, which provided the local-exchange carriers with the billing information. The local-exchange carriers would provide an upfront payment back to the billing intermediary, which would remit that payment to PT-1, taking out a percentage for commission. In making this upfront payment, each local-exchange carrier held back a portion of the money claimed in a reserve to protect itself from turning over to the billing intermediary more than what the local-exchange carrier could be expected to collect from the callers. Periodically, the billing intermediary would conduct a reconciliation process with each local-exchange carrier. This included so called "chargebacks," which meant that the local-exchange carrier had charged that call back to the billing intermediary if it learned that a call could not be completed or if a phone number was not correct. A second, final payment made to PT-1 reflected this true-up process. A document prepared by PT-1's accounting department provided evidence of the results of the true-up process through the end of 2002 and was introduced into evidence by the IRS over the Trustee's objection at an evidentiary hearing held by the Bankruptcy Court in July and August 2009.

Because PT-1 reported income that it ended up not receiving at the end of the true-up process, it would claim on its tax returns bad-debt deductions. The Government concedes that this is appropriate, but challenges the substantiation that the Trustee has offered for these deductions.

V.Proofs of Claim, Requests for Payment of Administrative Expenses, and "Counterclaims" by the Trustee On February 4, 2004 (one week after disallowing PT-1's refund request for overpaid

taxes from 1998), the IRS filed its first prepetition proof of claim and post-petition request for administrative tax expenses that is relevant to the disputes at issue here. The claim was for approximately $35 million and consisted of a demand for taxes, penalties, and interest for the two-month pre-petition Stub Period, penalties and interest for the post-petition Short Period, and penalties and interest for 2002 (also clearly post-petition).

On August 10, 2004, the IRS amended the February 4, 2004, claim, withdrawing its claim for pre-petition Stub Period taxes. The amended proof of claim still contained a request for administrative expenses for Short Period penalties of $1,628,582.11 and interest on the penalties of $436,277.97.

On March 14, 2005, the Trustee filed a motion to disallow the IRS's requests for administrative expense payments. The Trustee also sought a declaration that PT-1 was permitted to file a tax return for PT-1 and its subsidiaries for the Stub Period. Additionally, the Trustee sought to carry forward and carry back net operating losses against the taxable income for the Short Period; to recover a tax refund of $2,178,891 for the tax period that ended June 30, 1998 plus interest; and to recover a refund of the $6,913,228.53 paid with the Short Period tax return. PT-1 had previously requested a tax refund from the IRS for the 1998 tax year, but had not requested a refund for the Short Period at the time it filed this motion. It did, however, file what it called a "protective" refund with the IRS in September 2005, which it attached to its second motion for summary judgment, filed in September 2007.

On March 17, 2005, the IRS filed another request, this time seeking unpaid taxes from the Short Period in the amount of $453,125 in addition to penalties and interest totaling approximately $200,000. This claim was filed after plan confirmation and appointment of the Trustee.

Finally, by request for administrative expenses filed August 1, 2006, the IRS dropped its demand for penalties with respect to the alleged Short Period tax, but added a new penalty request of $260,207.25 and interest on the penalty of $209,789.29. The IRS also requested $7.8 million in tax, interest on tax, and penalties based on its disallowance of all but $900,000 of PT-1's $21 million bad-debt deduction for the 2002 tax period.

VI.Bankruptcy Court Decisions

The Bankruptcy Court issued four decisions, a final order, and an order denying the Trustee's motion for partial reconsideration.

1)Decision I: 357 B.R. 217, Issued December 7, 2006

In Decision I, the Bankruptcy Court expunged the IRS proof of claim, as amended, which sought payment of administrative taxes of $7.8 million for the 2002 tax year. The Bankruptcy Court held that the debtor had made a proper request for an expedited determination of tax liability for that year pursuant to Bankruptcy Code § 505(b)(2), and because the IRS did not act timely to examine the return, the debtor and the Liquidating Trust were discharged of all tax liabilities not reflected on the 2002 return.

2)Decision II: 386 B.R. 402, Issued March 26, 2007

In Decision II, the Bankruptcy Court disallowed the IRS's administrative claim for three kinds of penalties related to $6.7 million in tax reported and paid for the 2001 Short Period. Regarding that portion of the IRS February 4, 2004 proof of claim, as amended on August 30, 2004, which sought penalties and interest based upon the debtor's purported failure to timely file the Short Period return, the Bankruptcy Court noted that the IRS had withdrawn this claim. Regarding the IRS's August 1, 2006, request for penalties for the Debtors' alleged failure to pay estimated taxes for the Short Period, the Bankruptcy Court held these to be time-barred given their filing after the administrative bar date.

3)Decision III: 403 B.R. 250, Issued March 31, 2009

Decision III granted the Trustee's request for summary judgment on one of his two "counterclaims" for a refund of $2,178,891 for taxes paid for the tax year ending on June 30, 1998. It also expunged that portion of the IRS's proofs of claim that sought taxes and interest for the Short Period, and which had not been expunged in Decision II.

In so holding, the Bankruptcy Court made the following rulings: (a) it disallowed the IRS's administrative tax claim for the 2001 Short Period on the grounds that the IRS's request for payment under § 503(b) was not filed by the administrative claims bar date; (b) it rejected the IRS's arguments that sovereign immunity barred the refund suit; (c) it ruled that filing a claim for refund with the IRS was not required where the refund claim is a counterclaim to a proof of claim filed in a bankruptcy case and the claims arose from the same transaction; (d) it rejected the IRS's contention that the Tax Anti-Injunction Act barred it from directing the IRS to accept an income tax return for the 2001 Stub Period that addressed the income and expense items only of the PT-1 entities; (e) it ruled that the APA allowed it to order the IRS to accept a de-consolidated income tax return of PT-1 for the 2001 Stub Period; (f) it held that the IRS's failure to object to the anti-setoff and anti-recoupment provisions of the plan prior to confirmation bound it to the injunction in the confirmation order; (g) it granted the Liquidating Trustee's refund claim for 1998 in the amount of $2,178,891 based on a carryback of PT-1's allocable portion of the Star Group loss in 1999; and (h) it ruled that an evidentiary hearing was needed to determine PT-1's NOLs from the other years without which the Trustee would not be entitled to a refund for the 2001 Short Period.

4)Decision IV: 447 B.R. 115, Issued March 3, 2011

The Bankruptcy Court issued Decision IV on March 3, 2011, following a three-day evidentiary hearing and two rounds of post-trial briefs and oral arguments. The Bankruptcy Court held that: a) an undisputed net operating loss allocable to the PT-1 Entities from the Star Group 2000 income tax return (in the amount of $7,423,328.00) could be applied toward taxable income of the PT-1 Entities for the post-petition portion of the 2001 year, after passing through the 2001 Stub Period; (b) it held that the approximate $27.7 million in deferred revenue had to be recognized upon the sale of PT-1's prepaid calling card business as argued by the IRS, but held this was offset by an approximate $22 million loss on that sale; (c) it sustained a deduction reported on PT-1's proffered return for the 2001 Stub Period in the amount of $11,868,413 that allegedly related to bad debts written off in connection with the same sale of the pre-paid phone-card business; (d) it denied the IRS's motion to re-open the evidentiary record to take judicial notice of PT-1's adversary complaint against IDT and the settlement agreement; (e) it allowed deductions related to operational long-distance bad debt of $3,892,212.42 for the 2001 Stub Period, $10,656,606 for 2001 Short Period, and $8,133,202.04 for the 2002 tax year; (f) it denied claimed long-distance bad-debt deductions in the amounts of $2,353,526 for the 2001 Stub Period, $12,467,028 for the 2002 tax year, and the entire $5,470,721 reported for the 2003 tax year.

5)Final Order, Issued April 29, 2011

The final order specified the particular relief appropriate under the four prior decisions and provided for (a) the recovery of an overpayment of $2,178,891 for the 1998 year (based on a loss carried back from 1999); (b) the recovery of an overpayment of $3,806,512 for the 2001 Short Period (based on losses carried forward from 2000 and the 2001 Stub Period); and (c) an injunction directing the IRS to accept a de-consolidated income tax return reporting the income tax liability of the PT-1 Entities for the 2001 Stub ...


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