Thursday, June 22, 2017
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 20, 2017
Cassady V. (Cass) Brewer (Georgia State), Lisa A. Runquist (Lisa A. Runquist, Attorney at Law), and Elizabeth Carrott Minnigh (Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney) have published Nonprofit LLCs in the ABA's Business Law Today (March 2017). Here is the introduction:
LLCs increasingly intersect with the nonprofit sector. LLCs are used within the sector as tax-exempt subsidiaries (see, e.g., IRS Announcement 99-102 (requiring I.R.C. section 501(c)(3) organizations to report the activities of their single-member LLCs (SMLLCs) on the organization’s annual IRS Form 990)); as vehicles for charitable giving (see e.g., IRS Notice 2012-52 (allowing contributions to an SMLLC owned by a (c)(3) to qualify for a charitable contribution deduction under I.R.C. section 170); see also Priv. Ltr. Rul. 200150027 (Dec. 14, 2001) (disregarded SMLLC established by (c)(3) to receive contribution of real property subject to potential environmental liabilities)); as private foundation substitutes; and as stand-alone, tax-exempt entities in lieu of nonprofit corporations or unincorporated nonprofit associations (see Reg. § 301.7701-3(c)(1)(v)(A) (submission of application for (c)(3) status constitutes an election to be treated as a corporation for federal income tax purposes)). A few states even have a nonprofit form of the LLC (see Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 275.520–540 (2017); Minn. Stat. § 322B.975 (2017); N.D. Cent. Code §§ 10-36-01 to -09 (2017); Tenn. Code Ann. § 48-101-809 (2017)).
Furthermore, because it is so flexible, the LLC has proven useful for hybrid for-profit/nonprofit endeavors (i.e., the benefit LLC and the L3C) (see generally Cassady V. Brewer, Elizabeth Carrott Minnigh & Robert A. Wexler, Social Enterprise by Non-Profits and Hybrid Organizations, 489 Tax. Mgmt. at A-33) and joint ventures between tax-exempt and nontax-exempt entities (see, e.g., Rev. Rul. 2004-51 (attributing “insubstantial” activities of an ancillary LLC joint venture to an exempt member); Rev. Rul. 98-15 (attributing “substantial” activities of a whole hospital LLC joint venture to an exempt member)).
Using a hypothetical to illustrate, this article summarily explores the use of LLCs within the nonprofit sector, including a few words about their use as hybrid for-profit/nonprofit enterprises.
Roger Colinvaux (Catholic) has posted Defending Placed-Based Philanthropy by Defining the Community Foundation, BYU Law Review (forthcoming). Here is the abstract:
The article is about the changing role of the community foundation in conducting philanthropy in the United States. The historic place-based mission of the community foundation is under threat, in part because of competition with national charities that, like community foundations, sponsor donor advised funds (DAFs). The mass-market success of national DAFs is putting pressure on community foundations to conform to a national, passive, individual-based model of advised giving. Community foundations also have become caught up in a legal and policy debate that is directed primarily at national, commercially affiliated DAF sponsors. As a result, community foundations risk becoming subject to rules and regulations devised for others. Part I of the article provides a historical overview of the tax-exempt status of community foundations. Part II shows how the settled wisdom on the tax status of community foundations has been upset by the rise of the nationally sponsored DAF, the extent to which community foundations are different from national DAF sponsors, and whether it would be beneficial to define the community foundation for tax purposes in order to make them more distinct. Part III then considers the possible content of a definition of the community foundation in terms of its purpose, governance, and operations, taking into account longstanding policy concerns about donor control of foundation assets and income accumulations. The article concludes that a strong affirmative Code-based definition of community foundation could help preserve place-based philanthropy.
James Fishman (Pace) has posted Rethinking Riley: Applying Commensurate and Intermediate Scrutiny Standards to Judicial Evaluation of Charitable Solicitation Regulation. Here is the abstract:
In Riley v. National Federation of the Blind, 487 U.S. 781 (1988), the Supreme Court struck down as unduly burdensome and unconstitutional a North Carolina statute requiring professional fundraisers to disclose to those solicited the average percentage of gross receipts actually turned over to the charity for all charitable solicitations conducted in the state within the previous twelve months. The Court applied a strict scrutiny standard of review of the regulated speech, rather than a more deferential intermediate or rational standard of scrutiny. The Court’s reasoning was that the commercial speech elements of the charity’s message were inextricably intertwined with the fully protected educational portions. It also held North Carolina’s regulations governing application of the statute were not narrowly tailored to achieve the state’s valid interests in protecting charities and informing donors how money contributed was spent.
This article disagrees with Riley’s rationale that the educational elements in charitable solicitations are always so interwoven with commercial speech that a governmental regulation that impinges on a charity’s message should always be subject to strict judicial scrutiny review, and as a matter of course protected by the First Amendment. (Fraudulent solicitations do not receive constitutional protection.) The reality is that the educational component of many charitable solicitations is formulaic or an afterthought unconnected to the solicitation message. The article contends that if a charity’s costs of fundraising over several years exceeds eighty-five percent of the amount raised, and the actual amount that is used for the charity’s philanthropic mission is miniscule, should create a rebuttable presumption that the charitable program is not commensurate with the resources contributed to the organization. Absent certain exceptions, such organizations should lose their tax exempt status.
Judicial review of such revocations should be subject to a lesser, intermediate standard of scrutiny of review by the courts. There are both common law and federal tax precedents for using a commensurate standard in evaluating whether a charity serves a public purpose relative to its resources and abilities. This approach should pass constitutional muster, and will protect the public from deception and manipulation.
The hybrid organizational forms designed with social enterprises in mind have proven to be hothouse flowers. Flourishing in state legislatures, even those with the most distinguished pedigrees—such as Delaware’s public benefit corporation—have so far failed to thrive in the marketplace. Fortunately, hybrid financial instruments offer a source of strength and stability that can help social enterprise to take root. This Article examines the valuable role that financial instruments can play in providing social enterprises with the capital they need to grow. Debt with equity features and equity with debt characteristics constitute the lion’s share of such financial tools. More exotic financial tools, including some tailor-made for social enterprise, can be deployed alongside hybrid debt and equity instruments that any venture might use. To set the stage, Part I provides a brief overview of the achievements of the benefit corporation to date. These include their incredible success in state legislatures and their consciousness-raising about the legitimacy and value of companies dedicated both to achieving profits and generating social good. Part II considers next steps. In particular, it lays out the challenges faced by benefit corporations and other social enterprises seeking capital to enable them to survive and scale. Part III, which makes up the bulk of the essay, considers a variety of financial tools that could be harnessed to meet these challenges. Although common stock and standard corporate bonds will often fail to align the interests of entrepreneurs and investors in double-bottom line ventures, a variety of less conventional financial instruments offer considerable promise.
This Article uncovers and names a phenomenon of pressing importance for healthcare policy and religious liberty law: the rise of zombie religious institutions without attachments to churches or associations of religious people. It argues that when religion and commerce combine, commercial transactions shape religious compliance and identity. Contract creates religion—sometimes in perpetuity—for facilities that are not, or never have been, religious and for providers who do not share the institution’s religious precepts. “Religious” institutions far-removed from the paradigm of the church populate the marketplace.
The Article details religion’s spread across healthcare through affiliations, mergers, and—most surprisingly—sales of hospitals that continue religious practice after their connection to a church ends. Secular and religious, public and private, for-profit and non-profit hospitals comply with religion by contract. Private law impedes public policy by expanding the universe of institutions eligible for religious exemption from otherwise applicable laws, including employment antidiscrimination law and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. As the category of religious institution loses its specialness, theories of religious institutionalism founder. The presumption of autonomy of religious institutions from regulation cannot survive in the marketplace, where religious identity can be bought and sold.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Massachusetts Representative David Nangle recently gave more details on his proposal to levy taxes on nonprofits. The Bill would require nonprofits to pay their share of property taxes if the combined compensation for their top-five highest paid employees exceeds $2.5 million.
Nangle claims that his Bill could reach hundreds of nonprofits in the state, with hospitals and universities having the largest impact. However, places of worship and religious organizations would remain exempt. Additionally, individual cities and towns can elect to follow the new Bill or not.
Nangle’s rationale behind the Bill is simple, “If they’re getting paid like Fortune 500 companies, they should be taxed like Fortune 500 companies.”
David A. Brennen
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
Friday, May 26, 2017
Maja Adena, Jeyhun Alizade, Frauke Bohner, Julian Harke and Fabio Mesters have posted Quality Certifications for Nonprofits, Charitable Giving, and Donor's Trust: Experimental Evidence on SSRN with the following abstract:
In an experiment, we test the impact of quality certificates on donations to a charity. When presented with a quality certificate, participants chose higher donations by approximately 10%. This effect is significant for donations out of prize money and actual own money donations, and not significant but positive for own money intended donations. Moreover, this effect persists over time. We also find a negative but not significant effect of information about certificate fees. We find that the certificate increases trust in the nonprofit organization. There is some evidence pointing to the causal role of trust for donation probability.
-- Eric C. Chaffee
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Qian Wei has posted CEO Power and Nonprofit Performance: Evidence from Chinese Philanthropic Foundations on SSRN with the following abstract:
CEO power and its implications have been largely neglected in research on nonprofit governance. This lack of attention is surprising considering the crucial role of CEOs and the importance of power analysis in understanding governance. This paper is an initial attempt to address this gap by developing a two-dimensional framework for conceptualizing CEOs structural power and strategic power in nonprofits and proposing several indicators to operationalize these two kinds of power. Drawing data from an original survey on 163 CEOs of Chinese foundations, this study is among the first to specifically assess how much power a CEO has and the relationship between a CEO’s power and nonprofit effectiveness. My findings suggest that CEOs structural power is positively associated with private donations while strategic power has a negative impact on nonprofits’ social performance.
-- Eric C. Chaffee
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Anthony Victor Alfieri has posted Inner-City Anti-Poverty Campaigns on SSRN with the following abstract:
This Article offers a defense of outsider, legal-political intervention and community triage in inner-city anti-poverty campaigns under circumstances of widespread urban social disorganization, public and private sector neglect, and nonprofit resource scarcity. In mounting this defense, the Article revisits the roles of lawyers, nonprofit legal services organizations, and university-housed law school clinics in contemporary anti-poverty, civil rights, and social justice movements, in part by chronicling the emergence of a faith-based municipal equity movement in Miami, Florida. The Article proceeds in four parts. Part I introduces the notion of community triage as a means of addressing the impoverished and segregated aftermath of urban development in a cluster of postindustrial inner cities. Part II examines the First Wave of antipoverty campaigns launched by pioneering legal services and public interest lawyers and their evolving community triage models. Part III surveys the Second Wave of anti-poverty campaigns pressed by more client- and community-centered legal services and public interest lawyers and their alternative community triage paradigms. Part IV appraises the Third Wave of anti-poverty campaigns kindled by a new generation of legal services and public interest lawyers and their site-specific community triage approaches in the fields of community economic development, environmental justice, low-wage labor, immigration, and municipal equity in order to discern legal-political lessons of inner-city advocacy and organizing. Taken together, the four parts forge a larger legal-political vision imagined and reimagined daily by a new generation of social movement activists and scholars — a renewed vision of theory-driven, clinical practice tied to empirical research and experiential reflection about law and lawyers in action.
-- Eric C. Chaffee
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Aprill: Section 501(C)(3) Organizations, Single Member Limited Liability Companies, and Fiduciary Duties
Ellen Aprill has posted her forthcoming article entitled "Section 501(C)(3) Organizations, Single Member Limited Liability Companies, and Fiduciary Duties" to SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Tax-exempt organizations, including section 501(c)(3) organizations and their philanthrocapitalists, use single member limited liability companies (SMLLCs) for a variety of purposes. Exempt section 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations (which, for convenience, I will refer to as charities) that have a number of facilities, be they schools, hospitals, or real estate investments, may form a separate SMLLC for each of them, primarily to protect other assets from liability. Charities may wish to place activities with a high risk of tort liability, such as an overnight summer camp, in its own SMLCC. SMLLCs may be used to isolate unrelated business activities from related activities. They may be used to isolate risky investments from more conservative ones. Philanthrocapitalists may structure donations through SMLLCs. They may use them to control aspects of the tax exempt entity’s activities, as according to press reports, the Koch Brothers may do with some of their noncharitable tax-exempt entities.
A SMLLC leads a schizophrenic existence. An entity under state law, it is disregarded for most purposes under federal tax law. Furthermore, the leading theoretical approaches to LLCs and to nonprofit organizations stand in sharp contrast to each other regarding reliance on contract. These very different sets of applicable laws and theory allow for regulatory arbitrage, which involves takes advantage of inconsistencies between the applicable rules.
The potential for regulatory arbitrage is especially acute in connection with governance issues that arise when charities employ SMLLCs. On one hand, the extent to which an entity’s governing body has responsibility to manage an entity, including a SMLLC, and what fiduciary duties members of the governing body of the SMLCC owe to the entity, are assigned to state law, and some state laws permit LLCs to reduce or eliminate fiduciary duties of care and loyalty. In contrast, state law does not permit elimination of fiduciaries duties for charities. Moreover, charities are subject to federal tax as well as state entity law. Under federal tax rules, charities must serve a public purpose, and federal tax laws themselves apply requirements regarding self-dealing. In addition, the IRS has shown particular interest in the governance of tax-exempt organizations more generally.
This paper examines possible tensions between governance and fiduciary duties of the charity and of its SMLCC. It concludes that waiver of fiduciary duties is not appropriate for SMLLCs of charities, even if such waiver is permitted under state law. In the case of SMLLCs of charities, moreover, the issues related to fiduciary duties have important consequences for the tax law. The paper thus argues that, as it has in analogous situations, the IRS should issue guidance ensuring that the governing body of a section 501(c)(3) has control of all aspects of its activities, including those conducted by any SMLLC. This guidance should be explicit as to what control of a SMLCC entails. While the recommendation made is a specific one, it underscores the importance of adhering to the special rules to which nonprofit tax-exempt charities are subject in order for these entities to fulfill their particular role they have been assigned in our society.
On May 1, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled for-profit college Sanford-Brown College Grand Rapids was not required to pay property taxes on its personal property. Two Michigan statutes exempt property owned by charitable and educational institutions from taxation. Section 211.7n exempts real property owned by "nonprofit theater, library, educational, or scientific institutions," while section 211.9(1)(a) exempts personal property owned by "charitable, educational, and scientific institutions." Note that the word nonprofit is missing from the latter section. (It is unclear whether this omission was intentional or not.)
The Michigan Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the language in section 211.9(1)(a) was "unambiguous. This statute allows the exemption of personal property from taxes imposed on institutions that are educational in nature. Conspicuously absent from the statute is any language indicating that the tax exemption applies only to nonprofit entities." The College's obligations to pay real property taxes were unaffected by the ruling, but now the College shares the same personal property tax exemptions as any charitable or nonprofit educational institution in the State.
Monday, May 8, 2017
Many white supremacist groups enjoy tax-exempt status. As such, these hate groups do not have to pay federal taxes and people who give money to support these groups may take deductions on their personal taxes. This recognition not only results in potential lost revenue for government programs, but it also serves as a public subsidy of racist propaganda and operates as the federal government’s imprimatur of white supremacist activities. This is all due to an unnecessarily broad definition of “educational” that somehow encompasses the activities of universities, symphonies, and white supremacists. This Essay suggests a change in the Treasury regulations to restrict the definition of educational organizations to refer only to traditional, degree-granting institutions, distance learning organizations, or certain other enumerated entities. With this change, we would no longer allow white supremacists to call themselves charities, remove the public subsidy of such reprehensible organizations, and eliminate the government’s implicit blessing of hate groups.
Through Twitter, Sam Brunson (@smbrnsn) and David Herzig (@professortax) briefly responded to this argument:
Here's a link to their forthcoming article, "A Diachronic Approach to Bob Jones: Religious Tax Exemptions after Obergefell." Last December, Eugene Volokh weighed in to conclude that it would be unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination for the IRS to deny tax exemption on the ground that a group engages in hate speech:
But the IRS can’t deny tax exemptions on the grounds that a group “hold[s] views that millions of Americans may find abhorrent” — or “espouse[s] values that are incompatible with most Americans” — whether those views are socialist, Islamist, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, pro-illegal-immigrant, anti-immigrant, pro-gay-rights, anti-gay-rights, white nationalist, black nationalist or anti-nationalist.
It is rare to for nonprofit law to be in the federal spotlight as vividly as it was last week when President Trump signed an Executive Order on "Free Speech and Religious Liberty." Section 2 of the EO addresses the Johnson Amendment (which prohibits partisan political activity by 501c3 nonprofits):
Sec. 2. Respecting Religious and Political Speech. All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech. In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term "adverse action" means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.
During the signing ceremony, President Trump explained:
“Under this rule, if a pastor, priest or imam speaks about an issue of political or public importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status, a crippling financial punishment. Very, very unfair. But no longer... This financial threat against the faith community is over... So you’re now in a position where you can say what you want to say. And I know you’ll only say good and what’s in your heart. And that’s what we want."
Before the final text of the order was released, commentators raised numerous objections to the order that was anticipated: a broad commitment not to enforce the Johnson Amendment against religious groups. However, the text of the signed order says nothing concrete in terms of legal or policy. Indeed, the ACLU initially promised a lawsuit, but ultimately backtracked, concluding that the order "signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome." Undeterred, the Freedom from Religion Foundation is going ahead with its planned lawsuit, reading between the lines of the EO to perceive a clear "stop enforcement" signal to the IRS.