Saturday, December 30, 2017
The end of 2017 brought significant new tax legislation. Although the Johnson Amendment remained intact, the increase in the standard deduction means that fewer people will itemize deductions, which, in turn, effectively eliminates the value of the charitable deduction for many US taxpayers. The Washington Post article "Charities fear tax bill could turn philanthropy into a pursuit only for the rich" catalogs worries by major nonprofits' leaders that donations will drop and the shift will be towards wealthier donors. On his blog, Alan Cantor warns that "An earthquake just hit the nation," and the tax changes will reduce the funds to the sector and increase the power of the wealthiest at the very time when nonprofits will face greater demands. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, however, was unimpressed, publishing a sharp critique entitled "Uncharitable Charities:"
These nonprofits want to keep millions of Americans filing more complicated tax forms and paying higher tax rates. They also sell Americans short by assuming that most donate mainly because of the tax break, rather than because they believe in a cause or want to share their blessings with others. How little they respect their donors.
How will the nonprofit sector fare in 2018?
Saturday, November 18, 2017
First, two months ago the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not reopen the criminal investigation of former IRS Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner, to howls of fury from her critics in Congress.
Then the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration released a new report that found a number of left-leaning organizations that had applied for section tax-exempt status had also had their applications subject to additional review and/or been subject to unnecessary questions. The report did not undermine TIGTA's previous finding that the IRS had used inappropriate criteria to identify applications for additional scrutiny, or that many right-leaning organizations had been selected as a result of that criteria, but it muddied the waters regarding how politically biased the application process actually was and provided further support for the argument that the problems with that process likely reflected incompetence more than malevolent intent. (More coverage: Washington Post.)
Late last month the U.S. Department of Justice announced the settlement of two pending lawsuits relating to the controversy, including the one class action suit. According to a report by a CNN, the settlements did not involve the payment of any monetary damages but included an apology from the IRS. The NY Times later reported, however, that one of the settlements involved a seven-figure payment, although the exact amount and other details were not available. The two settled cases (assuming court approval of the settlement in the class action case) are NorCal Tea Party Patriots v. IRS (the class action) and Linchpins of Liberty v. United States. (More coverage: Fox News, Washington Post.) By my count there is still a pending lawsuit brought by True the Vote against the IRS, as well as Freedom Path's lawsuit against the IRS (set for trial in summer 2018), so this settlement is not quite the end of all litigation.
Finally, earlier this month IRS Commissioner John A. Koskinen reached the end of his 5-year term. Despite calls for his removal or even impeachment because of the IRS' handling of the controversy's investigation, President Trump chose not to ask him to step down and Congress did not take any steps to begin the impeachment process. The Administration has not nominated his successor, with Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy David Kautter currently serving as interim IRS Commissioner. Coverage: N.Y. Times.
Officials from Illinois, New York, and other states announced earlier this month that approximately two dozen states have acted to dissolve VietNow National Headquarters, Inc., an Illinois nonprofit corporation. The grounds for the action against the section 501(c)(19) veterans organization was deceptive telemarketing solicitations that mislead potential donors regarding the use of donated funds, including the fact that less than five percent of such funds actually went to charitable programs. If the name looks familiar, it is because this is the organization involved in the 2003 (yes, 2003) Supreme Court of the United States case brought by Illinois against for-profit telemarketers for alleged fraud.
More specifically, the settlement agreement includes provisions requiring VietNow to dissolve and certain of its officers and directors not to ever work for or serve in a fiduciary position with any charitable organization, as well as provision for division of VietNow's few remaining assets. The agreement also notes that a total of 27 states had "expressed interest in VietNow's solicitation activities in their respective states," although only 21 states signed the agreement (and two more states entered into separate agreements with similar terms).
Thursday, November 16, 2017
The Tax Reform Moving Target: The Shrinking Charitable Contribution Deduction (+ Slamming Rich (Private) Universities)
Given the uncertainty regarding whether Congress will enact tax reform, much less what will be in it, trying to analyze how it could affect charities and other tax-exempt nonprofits is probably a lost cause. But there are at least two aspects of the current proposals that are worth consideration, if only because they likely will resurface even if Congress does not enact them this time around.
Overall Changes Will Shrink the Charitable Contribution Deduction: Despite all the uncertainty, certain overall changes have remained constant: sharply increasing the standard deduction, lowering tax rates for at least some taxpayers, and reducing or repealing the estate tax. All of these changes will reduce or eliminate the importance of the charitable contribution deduction for many taxpayers and so reduce the incentives for charitable giving. How much? No one knows for sure, although the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy made some estimates last May and the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution has made a more recent reduced giving estimate of between $12 billion and $20 billion in 2018 giving based on the House bill).
Today's Bad Guys: Rich (Private) Universities: Several provisions that provide modest revenues are targeted at wealthy colleges and universities, including a small investment income tax on large (relative to student population) endowments. In addition, several more general provisions would hit colleges and universities particularly hard, including the elimination of tax-exempt bonds as a source of financing for tax-exempt charities, an excise tax on compensation over $1 million paid by tax-exempt entities, and the repeal of many education-related tax benefits. It appears, however, that some of these provisions do not reach public colleges and universities, specifically the endowment investment income tax and the tax-exempt bond financing provisions. If not rectified, these differences would give public colleges and universities an advantage over their private counterparts, although how significant and advantage is unclear. For more, see the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO)'s website summarizing and raising concerns about these and other education-related tax reform provisions.
Friday, September 15, 2017
As the use of donor advised funds grows, so does the legal attention to donor advised funds. All of this attention started in (what seems like forever ago…) 2006, with the passage of the Pension Protection Act. Since that time, we have seen the PPA-mandated Treasury study released in 2011, as well as a Congressional Research Service study on DAFs in 2012. In addition, the National Philanthropic Trust releases an annual DAF report, the 2016 version of which can be found here. Information and opinions abound, and yet, we still wait patiently for regulations under the donor advised fund excise taxes passed in 2006. I’m quite certain those regulations will be arriving Soon.™
In the latest installment in the DAF oversight drama, Congress may now be considering mandatory payouts from DAFs as part of a larger tax reform effort. Earlier this summer, Professors Ray Madoff of Boston College and Roger Colinvaux of Catholic University wrote to the Senate Finance committee to suggest a number of DAF reforms, including a mandatory payout proposal for DAFS (the Madoff/Colinvaux letter can be found here).
This week, the DAFs responded. In their own letter to Senate Finance, a number of DAF sponsors set out the arguments in opposition to a mandatory DAF payout. WealthMangement.com has a good summary of the DAF executive letter here, although I admit I can’t yet find a copy of the letter itself (if anyone has it ... please share if you can!)
Personally, I think that the term “DAF” covers such a wide variety of accounts that a mandatory proposal might be harmful for some and yet not enough regulation for others. But that’s another blog post, or maybe an article ….
Thursday, September 14, 2017
- Nonprofit compensation has gone up over the last year, returning to pre-recession levels; and
- A gender gap persists in nonprofit compensation (not that that is particularly shocking to anyone in the sector, but it is nice to have some evidence to that effect)
Friday, August 18, 2017
Politics: Facts & Circumstances Test Survives Constitutional Challenge; Donor Disclosure Decision & Debate
In a little noticed decision, but perhaps only because of the conclusion it reached, a federal district court in one of the cases arising out of the IRS application controversy rejected a constitutional challenge to the facts and circumstances test for political campaign activity embodied in Revenue Ruling 2004-6. In Freedom Path v. IRS (N.D.Tex. July 7, 2017), the court considered a motion for partial summary judgment asserting that the test was unconstitutionally vague in violation of both the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the First Amendment, as well as being overbroad and promoting viewpoint discrimination in further violation of the First Amendment. The court found that the identification of eleven specific and objective, although non-exclusive, factors in the Revenue Ruling was sufficient to defeat the facial challenge to the ruling based on vagueness. With respect to the First Amendment claims, the court distinguished decisions in the campaign finance area on the grounds that the tax rules relate to what types of speech will be subsidized through the federal tax system, as opposed to banning, restraining, or punishing speech, and concluded that the ruling therefore surveyed First Amendment challenge.
The other currently hot constitutional and policy topic relating to politics and nonprofits is the extent to which the government can or should compel the disclosure of information relating to nonprofits involved in political activities or politically sensitive areas. There have two recent interesting developments in this area. First, in Matter of Evergreen Assn. v. Schneiderman (June 21, 2017), a state appellate court in New York limited the scope of a subpoena to a nonprofit organization on the grounds that it "infringed on the First Amendment right of the [nonprofit and its staff] to freedom of association, and was not sufficiently tailored to serve the compelling investigative purpose for which it was issued." The nonprofit at issue operates crisis pregnancy centers and the investigation related to the alleged unauthorized practice of medicine at those centers. The subpoena sought, among other information, a broad range of information relating to individuals and organizations associated with the nonprofit, including all of its staff; the court ordered that the subpoena be limited to information pertaining to the alleged unauthorized practice of medicine, with the trial court to conduct an in camera review of responsive documents to determine which ones satisfied this requirement.
Finally, there was an interesting addition to the ongoing debate about "dark money" and politically active nonprofits. Writing in the American Prospect, Nan Aron and Abby Levine of the Alliance for Justice argue against blanket disclosure of donors to politically active nonprofits such as social welfare organizations, instead supporting an approach that distinguishes between groups that "are funded by a small group of big donors and those that receive broad support from many people." Their arguments echo some of the more thoughtful supporters of campaign finance disclosure rules (see, for example, Richard Briffault (Columbia)), who recognize that the purported goals of such disclosure are not furthered by publicly identifying the many relatively small donors to candidates and political parties, so so such disclosure should be "rightsized" to target the information that is actually helpful to voters.
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Both Terri Helge and Joseph Mead previously reported in this space on the tax benefits that many organizations often identified as "hate groups" enjoy because of the broad and vague requirements for qualifying as an educational organization under Internal Revenue Code sections 501(c)(3) and 170(c)(2). Not surprisingly, the events in Charlottesville have led to a renewed discussion of this topic. Recent coverage includes a Business Insider story on this topic and a fascinating blog post by Sam Brunson (Loyola Chicago) on the conflict almost a hundred years ago between the IRS and the KKK (and from which the photo shown here is borrowed).
The N.Y. Times reports that the Cambodian Prime Minister has ordered U.S.-based Agape International Missions to end its operations in that country after it was featured in a CNN report on the sex trade there. As detailed in the story, the Prime Minister accused the NGO of possibly misleading CNN regarding the extent of the sex trade in Cambodia and thereby violating the terms of its operating agreement with the government. At this time it is not clear how Agape will respond or whether the Prime Minister's statements have in fact led to the expulsion of the group from that country.
Regardless of the details of this particular situation, there is a growing trend of foreign NGOs, domestic NGOs with foreign support, and sometimes domestic NGOs more generally being targeted for burdensome regulation or worse by the governments of many countries, as I have detailed in this space previously. These concerns have led Helmut K. Anheier (President of the Hertie School of Governance in Germany) to call on the G20 to address this issue in a recent G20 Policy Paper. Here is the abstract:
The roles of non-governmental or civil society organizations have become more complex, especially in the context of changing relationships with nation states and the international community. In many instances, state–civil society relations have worsened, leading experts to speak of a “shrinking space” for civil society nationally as well as internationally. The author proposes to initiate a process for the establishment of an independent high-level commission of eminent persons (i) to examine the changing policy environment for civil society organizations in many countries as well as internationally, (ii) to review the reasons behind the shrinking space civil society encounters in some parts of the world and its steady development in others, and (iii) to make concrete proposals for how the state and the international system on the one hand and civil society on the other hand can relate in productive ways in national and multilateral contexts.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Over the summer, the United States Tax Court in RERI Holdings I, LLC v. Commissioner upheld the disallowance of a $33 million charitable contribution deduction because of the failure of RERI Holdings I, LLC to state on its required Form 8283 appraisal summary the "Donor's cost or other adjusted basis" for the property. The court further held that the failure could not be excused by substantial compliance because the omission "prevented the appraisal summary from achieving its intended purpose" of alerting the IRS of potential overvaluations of contributed property (and thereby deterring taxpayers from claiming excessive deductions). In this instance the omitted basis would have been approximately $3 million, or roughly one-tenth the value claimed for the contributed property.
While failures to substantiate charitable contributions adequately occur frequently in tax cases, they usually do not affect such large claimed deductions because presumably as the numbers get larger the care and expertise of the professionals involved becomes greater. There may have been more going on here, however. At least one commentator, Peter J. Reilly over at Forbes, concludes that the "brazeness of the charitable plan . . . revealed in the Tax Court RERI Holdings I decision is stunning" in an article titled Billionaire Stephen Ross And the Ten for One Charitable Deduction. Assuming the IRS took a similar view, it very well could have been looking for any possible flaw in the deduction that could be used to disallow it, and the substantiation omission provided a simple way to do so (as opposed to getting into a messy valuation dispute, although the court's opinion goes there anyway in order to determine if certain penalties applied).
No word yet on whether RERI Holdings I will appeal.
How large is the potential for hard-to-detect and even harder-to-counter abuse when it comes to the federal income tax deduction for "qualified conservation contributions" under Internal Revenue Code section 170(h)? As Peter J. Reilly highlights at Forbes, the potential appears to be pretty large based on early responses to Notice 2017-10's addition of syndicated easements to the list of listed transactions that must be reported to the IRS. In a July 13, 2017 letter to Senator Ron Wyden, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, IRS Commissioner Koskinen reported that the 40 fully completed and processed reporting forms, out of 104 processed and 200 received to date, showed an aggregate charitable contribution deduction of over $217 million with preliminary calculations finding that the average deduction was nine times the amount of the investment in the transaction. Other coverage: Tax Analysts.
Such syndicated easements are only part of the conservation easement universe, but the continuing stream of federal court decisions rejecting in whole or in part deductions claimed for such easements highlight the broader issues with this deduction. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently affirmed disallowance of a $16.4 million deduction for a failure to protect the conservation purpose in perpetuity (RP Golf v. Commissioner). Not all IRS challenges are necessarily successful, however; for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently reversed disallowance of $15.9 million in deductions, although the court remanded the case for consideration of additional reasons for disallowance asserted by the IRS (BC Ranch II, L.P. v. Commissioner).
Recent reports also highlight the broader concerns with such deductions. In May, Adam Looney of the Brookings Institute issued Charitable Contributions of Conservation Easements, listing general tax policy concerns that predated the recent surge in such contributions:
- "Donations are concentrated in transactions that seem unrelated to conservation benefits," including with respect to type of transaction, geographic area, and donee organizations.
- "A small handful of donee organizations are responsible for a disproportionate share of donations," with 25 organizations (as compared to 1,700 land trusts nationwide) receiving between 2010 and 2012 about half of all such contributions, measured by dollar value.
- "Most organizations that receive donations of easements do not report them as gifts or revenues on their public tax returns," impeding transparency, public accountability, and IRS enforcement.
- "Donations of 'partial interests' are difficult to administer," including with respect to determining the fair market value of the contribution for deduction purposes.
The report is also available through the Urban Institute & Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center.
Nancy McLaughlin (Utah) has also continued her excellent coverage of this topic. Here is the abstract for her latest article, Tax Deductible Conservation Easements and the Essential Perpetuity Requirements, Virginia Tax Review (forthcoming):
Property owners who make charitable gifts of perpetual conservation easements are eligible to claim federal charitable income tax deductions. Through this tax-incentive program the public is investing billions of dollars in easements encumbering millions of acres nationwide. In response to reports of abuse in the early 2000s, the Internal Revenue Service (Service) began auditing and litigating questionable easement donation transactions, and the resulting case law reveals significant failures to comply with the deduction’s requirements. Recently, the Service has come under fire for enforcing the deduction’s “perpetuity” requirements, which are intended to ensure that the easements will protect the subject properties’ conservation values in perpetuity and that the public’s investment in the easements will not be lost. Critics claim that the agency is improperly discouraging easement donations by denying deductions for technical foot faults, and some have called for a change to the law that would allow taxpayers to cure their failures to comply with the perpetuity requirements if they are discovered on audit.
This Article illustrates that noncompliance with the perpetuity requirements should not be viewed as technical foot faults. To the contrary, compliance is essential to the integrity of the tax-incentive program and the easements subsidized through the program. In addition, allowing taxpayers to cure failures to comply with the perpetuity requirements if they are discovered on audit would significantly increase noncompliance and abuse and, given the reliance nationwide on deductible easements to accomplish conservation goals, risk fatally undermining an entire generation of conservation efforts. This Article recommends a more prudent approach: the Treasury’s issuance of guidance that would greatly facilitate compliance with the perpetuity requirements, reduce transaction costs for taxpayers, and significantly shore up the integrity of the program.
Friday, June 23, 2017
This may be because I have been writing in this area (shameless plug), but there seem to be numerous recent stories about various countries increasing the legal restrictions on nonprofits and especially nonprofits with foreign connections. Here are several examples:
In India, the government refused a license to receive foreign funds to Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship group, forcing the nonprofit to abandon its services to 145,000 children in India after 48 years in the country. If this had been an isolated incident the government's concerns about proselytization might have been plausible, but the N.Y. Times noted that Compassion was only the most recent of 11,000 nonprofits that had similarly lost such licenses since 2014.
In Turkey, the government revoked the registration of Mercy Corps, forcing that nonprofit to abandon its efforts based on Turkey to aid Syrian refugees, according to reports from the Washington Post and other news outlets.
In Hungary, the government enacted laws to require nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign financing to publicly identify themselves and their donors in what some observers believed was an attempt to shut down nonprofits supported by George Soros, including the Central European University, as reported by the N.Y. Times.
In perhaps the most dramatic action, the President of Egypt signed a new law that imposes restrictions on all domestic nongovernmental organizations, regardless of their sources of funding, by making their work subject to approval by a new regulatory body that may be a front for interference by the country's security agencies, also as reported by the N.Y. Times.
Unfortunately there appear to be few viable ways for affected nonprofits to counter these new rules in most of the countries involved, as detailed in my forthcoming article linked to above.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
No one knows what is going to happen with tax reform, which means now is the perfect time to speculate wildly about how Congress may help or hurt tax-exempt nonprofits if and when it actually does something.
Tax Simplification: If Congress follows the President's lead and simplifies in part by sharply increasing the standard deduction, it will make the charitable contribution deduction irrelevant to an even greater proportion of U.S. households as the number of itemizers shrinks significantly. According to an Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy report, this change alone could reduce charitable giving by an estimated $11 million annually, and if combined with a lower top tax rate of 35% they could together reduce charitable giving by $13.1 billion. To put these figures in perspective, the most recent Giving USA report reported $282 billion in donations from individuals for 2016.
Non-Itemizer Deduction: One proposal to counter this effect is a charitable contribution deduction for non-itemizers, as long advocated for by Independent Sector among others. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy report estimates that allowing non-itemizers to deduct their charitable contributions would more than offset the negative effect on contributions from the standard deduction increase and rate reduction proposals. That said, it is hard to see how this proposal could have much chance of success given both its revenue cost and the administrative and enforcement complexity it introduces, particularly in an era of reduced IRS examinations. For an analysis of some of these issues, see this October 2016 Urban Institute report.
The Ghost of Rep. Camp: While Dave Camp is not dead he is no longer in Congress, which you would think would limit his influence over current tax legislation. But he did something brilliant when he was driving the tax reform bus as Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee several year ago: he went through the laborious process of actually drafting legislative language and having the result analyzed and scored by the Joint Committee on Taxation. This means that both the specific language and revenue effects of each provision of the Tax Reform Act of 2014 is available to be pulled off the shelf and deployed immediately as part of any current tax reform legislation. As detailed on pages 535-598 of the JCT report, this includes numerous provisions relating to tax-exempt organizations, including a number of limitations on the existing charitable contribution deduction. Especially if some revenue raisers are needed to pay for other aspects of tax reform, I expect to see some of Rep. Camp's proposals reappear in current legislation.
The Charities Helping Americans Regularly Throughout the Year Act of 2017: Given the uncertainty about the content, timing, and even liklihood of major tax reform legislation, it is a good idea to have a backup plan. The CHARITY Act (I do not know where they got the "I" from) is a modest, bipartisan attempt to tweak the existing tax laws for tax-exempt charities. Its provisions include simplifying the private foundation investment tax under section 4940, making donor advised funds eligible for IRA rollover contributions, increasing the mileage rate applicable to personal vehicle use for volunteer charitable activities, creating an exception to the private foundation excess business holdings rules under section 4943 (can you say Newman's Own Foundation?), and an electronic return filing requirement for all tax-exempt nonprofits.
I look forward to months if not years of further crystal ball gazing on these topics.
Journalists have a constant interest in charity private benefit stories, particularly ones with a political angle. And unfortunately they seem to be able to find them. Recent reports raising questions about plain vanilla (non-political) private benefit have focused on a variety of donors and charities, including New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, the James G. Martin Memorial Trust in New Hampshire, and billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. But not surprisingly reporters have paid even greater attention to situations relating to politics and politicians, including ones involving the Eric Trump Foundation, Boston mayoral hopeful Tito Jackson, President Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon, and the Daily Caller News Foundation. These stories are distinct from ones relating to the use (and possible misuse) of charities for political purposes more generally, such as the recent article regarding the David Horwitz Freedom Center.
I should emphasize that none of these situations have resulted so far in any apparent civil or criminal penalties, and in some instances the facts described may not cross any legal lines. Indeed, the only one of these situations that appears to have drawn government scrutiny so far is the one involving the Eric Trump Foundation, which New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has said his office is looking into.
The same cannot be said of three other situations that involve the possible misuse of charitable assets. One, relatively minor situation relates to the admitted access of the Missouri Governor's political campaign to a charity's donor list without apparently the charity's knowledge or permission. Two other situations are more serious in that they each involve hundreds of thousands of dollars. In March, a federal grand jury indicted former U.S. Representative Stephen Stockman and an aide on charges relating to the alleged theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from conservative foundations to fund campaigns and pay for personal expenses. (More coverage: DOJ Press Release.) And last month a federal jury convicted former U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a scholarship charity, funds that she then used for her own personal and professional purposes. (More coverage: N.Y. Times.)
The various lawsuits that grew out of the IRS exemption application controversy continue their slow grind with discovery ordered in the Linchpins of Liberty and True the Vote cases (which are before the same judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia), a protective order keeping the depositions of Lois Lerner and Holly Paz confidential in the class action NorCal Tea Party Patriots case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, a court-ordered July 24th mediation conference in the same case, and an April 21st hearing on the motion for partial judgment pending in the Freedom Path case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, at which apparently nothing exciting happened as I could not find any media coverage of the hearing. In fact, as far as I can tell no one is paying any attention to these cases at this point except for the parties, their lawyers, a few minor conservative news outlets, and the Bloomberg BNA Daily Tax Report (the last two links are to stories by them (subscription required), and even they ignored the April 21st hearing).
In related news, the Federal Election Commission's inspector general's office recently concluded that FEC employees did not violate any rules when they communicated with the IRS about politically active groups. (More coverage: Bloomberg BNA (subscription required)). And Congress extended the various budget-related provisions it created in the wake of the controversy, including the prohibition on using any funds to issue guidance under section 501(c)(4) for the rest of the current fiscal year (so through September 30, 2017). Finally, the American Center for Law and Justice (which is representing the plaintiffs if some of the above lawsuits) announced that the Tri-Cities Tea Party received a favorable determination letter from the IRS under section 501(c)(4) seven years after filing its application.
As anyone who has represented a house of worship knows, they are subject to many legal exceptions and special rules. One of the more obscure but also more important ones is the exemption of church benefit and pension plans from the incredibly complex requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). At issue in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton was whether this statutory "church plan" exemption extends to pension plans offered by church-affiliated nonprofits that run hospitals and other healthcare facilities, as had been longstanding interpretation of the IRS, the Department of Labor, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The plaintiffs in these consolidated cases were current and former employees of the nonprofits who had successfully argued in the lower courts that the exemption is limited to plans established by churches and so the plans established by these church-affiliated nonprofits were subject to ERISA.
In a unanimous opinion (Justice Gorsuch not participating), the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions. Based on a careful reading of the statutory text, as well as consideration of the congressional intent with respect to the amendments to that text at issue in the case, the Court concluded that plans maintained by church-affiliated entities for their employees fell within the exemption, regardless of what type of entity had established the given plan. The case therefore resolved the uncertainty created by the lower court decisions in these consolidated cases, which had thrown the scope of the church plan exemption into doubt. While Justice Sotomayor wrote separately to highlight her concerns about the effect of the decision, she agreed with the Court's reading of the statute and so joined the Court's opinion in full. For more detailed coverage, see SCOTUSblog.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
While the IRS is underfunded and Congress is deadlocked, this does not mean there is no action by the federal government with respect to tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. For starters, the IRS' continues to report data like clockwork, including the always informative Data Book. Highlights from the FY 2016 Data Book include the miniscule examination rate (only 2,956 annual returns examined, including Forms 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, 990-PF, 1041-A, 1120-POL, and 5227), continued strong closures of exemption applications (92,129 for the year, of which the IRS approved 86,406, disapproved 54, and had another 5,669 closed for other reasons, including withdrawals), and now almost 1.6 million organizations recognized as exempt under section 501(c).
The IRS Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities has also had its charter renewed for two more years, and released its sixteenth Report of Recommendations earlier this month. The Committee has been restructured in a way that many of its current members feel is not helpful, as they shared at length in the report. More specifically, the Committee is now divided into subgroups not based on functional areas but instead on subject areas, specifically FICA Replacement Plans, Online Accounts, and, ironically, Future of the ACT.
Finally, the IRS and other federal authorities continue to pursue the most egregious wrongdoing by actors at tax-exempt nonprofits, including criminally. Recent news reports include two major stories along these lines. One involves a federal indictment against a bank officer and her husband who are alleged to have transferred embezzled funds from Bank of America totalling $1.2 million to a variety of charities, possibly in exchange for return payments or other benefits from those charities, according to reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Boston Globe. The other, separate situation involves a search by IRS and U.S. Postal Service investigators at the headquarters of televangelist Benny Hinn, as reported by the Dallas Morning News. No further public information is currently available regarding this investigation.
There have been some interesting developments from the states relating to their bread and butter issues of governance, fundraising, and property tax exemptions, as well as a new law in Texas relating to sermons.
With respect to governance, another round of amendments to the New York Nonprofit Revitalization Act went into effect last month (except for one provision that went into effect on January 1st of this year). The amendments clarified a number of important provisions as well as relaxing some of the stricter rules in the original Act, including those relating to related party transactions. For a helpful summary, see this National Law Review article by Pamela Landman (Cadwalader) and Paul W. Mourning (Cadwalader). One interesting nonprofit governance case under the Act is Schneiderman v. The Lutheran Care Network et al., in which New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office challenged the management fees charged by The Lutheran Care Network (TLCN) to one of its affiliates, in part because TLCN had exercised its authority over the affiliate to render the members of the affiliate's board of directors identical to the members of the TLCN board. The trial court rejected the AG office's position, citing the business judgment rule and the presumption that corporate officers and directors act in good faith, regardless of the decision by TLCN to make the affiliate board's membership mirror that of the TLCN board. The March 13th opinion does not appear to be publicly available, but for coverage see the Albany Times Union stories from March 21st, January 13th, and last October 1st.
NY AG Schneiderman office's was more successful in pursuing a fundraising-related claim against the Breast Cancer Survivors Foundation, Inc. (BCSF) and its President and Founder Dr. Yulius Poplyansky. In that case, the resulting settlement closed the "shell charity" BCSF nationwide and resulted in nearly $350,000 to be paid to legitimate breast cancer organizations. The settlement is one result of a broader NY AG "Operation Bottomfeeder" initiative aimed at such charities. The Nonprofit Quarterly noticed a troubling aspect of this case, however: the person apparently behind BCSF was Mark Gelvan, who has "a long history of such activity" and who also was banned for life from such fundraising by none other than the NY AG's office 13 years ago. What additional penalties he may face is unclear, as the investigation into BCSF is apparently continuing.
Turning to property tax exemptions, last year I mentioned that the Massachusetts Supreme Court was considering what counts as sufficiently "religious" use of real property to qualify for exemption as a house of religious worship under Massachusetts law. We now have an opinion in Shrine of Our Lady of La Sallette v. Board of Assessors, and religious organizations in Massachusetts can (mostly) breath a sigh of relief. While exemption statutes are strictly construed, the court rejected a narrow reading of the statute at issue here that would have subject some supporting facilities to tax. In doing so, the court stated "we recognize that a house of religious worship is more than the chapel used for prayer and the classrooms used for religious instruction. It includes the parking lot where congregants park their vehicles, the anteroom where they greet each other and leave their coats and jackets, the parish hall where they congregate in religious fellowship after prayer services, the offices for the clergy and staff, and the storage area where the extra chairs are stored for high holy days." The court then concluded that because the welcome center and a maintenance building both had a dominant purpose connected with religious worship and instruction they were fully exempt from tax, contrary to the position of the Board of Assessors, which had limited full exemption to a church, chapels, a monastery, and a retreat center. It agreed with the Board, however, that a safe house for battered women (leased to a another nonprofit for this purpose) and a wildlife sanctuary did not meet this test (although if the proper application had been filed, they might have been exempt because their dominant purpose was charitable). More coverage: WBUR News.
Finally, one other religious organization-related state law development. Several years ago attorneys for the mayor of Houston subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors who opposed a city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation during litigation relating to an attempt to repeal the ordinance. She dropped the subpoenas in the face of nationwide criticism, and the ordinance was repealed by Houston voters in November 2015. Nevertheless, the Houston Legislature and current Texas Governor Greg Abbott felt it was important to bar Texas government officials from ever compelling the disclosure of sermons in the future, and so they enacted legislation along those lines last month.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Jonathan Rockoff from the Wall Street Journal brought to light the decline in prostate-cancer drug sales after a federal investigation revealed that drug companies were making huge donations to nonprofits who helped patients cover the expense of these drugs.
According to the article, a mere $1,000,000 donation can lead to upwards of $21,000,000 in additional sales for the drug companies. The article is short, but a very interesting read. Follow the above link to see for yourself.
David A. Brennen
Sunday, June 11, 2017
Ruth McCambridge from The Nonprofit Quarterly reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has put an end to the practice of nonprofit payments being part of settlement agreements agreed upon by corporations and the U.S. Department of Justice.
This practice was made popular during the Obama administration, and would often include corporations making payments to nonprofits that operated in their general field. Some examples include JPMorgan Chase paying $7.5 million to the American Bankruptcy Institute, and Volkswagen paying $2 billion to “fund zero-emission technology and infrastructure and to promote zero-emission vehicles.
Now, The U.S. treasury will receive all settlement funds (minus a few exceptions) instead of said monies flowing to nonprofits in the field of the rule violator. For the time being, it appears “the use of settlement money to remediate a situation through a nonprofit . . . is prohibited.”
David A. Brennen