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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:Joyce and Victor Caracci started Sta-Home Health Agency Inc. in 1976 to provide an area of rural Mississippi with health care. The next year the couple formed two more agencies, Sta-Home Health Agency Inc. of Forest and Sta-Home Health Agency Inc. of Grenada. The organizations were non-stock, tax-exempt corporations. At the time, in order to participate in the Medicare plan, they also had to be tax-exempt under the Internal Revenue Code. Mississippi law required home-healthcare agencies to operate under a Certificate of Need, but in 1983, the state imposed a moratorium on the issuance of CONs, meaning that in order to enter into the home-healthcare field new competitors had to purchase an existing CON. Sta-Home CONs in 19 Mississippi counties, held a commanding market share in 14 of those counties, was a recognized name in the area and was recognized for outstanding quality of patient care. Between 95 percent and 97 percent of Sta-Home’s income was from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Under the reimbursement system, which involved periodic interim payments and subsequent quarterly upward or downward adjustments based on allowable actual costs, home-healthcare agencies like Sta-Home had no ability to realize profits. Consequently, despite the continued rise in Sta-Home’s revenues in the early 1990s, its expenses were still greater. Sta-Home used creative ways to deal with the negative cash flow. For instance, it required new employees to forego their first month’s pay, paying out the withheld amount when the employee left the company. Also, Sta-Home underpaid salaries, including the Caraccis’ salaries, making up the difference with a year-end “bonus.” In the mid-1990s, Medicare changed its rules for reimbursement from periodic payments and retroactive adjustments to a prospective payment system, requiring healthcare providers to bill Medicare for a service rendered and then wait for its claim to be processed and paid. Concerned about the impact on its cash flow, and because the rules about being tax-exempt changed in 1980, Sta-Home consulted two attorneys about converting from tax-exempt status to non-exempt status. After learning that its liabilities exceeded its assets and that the value of its CONs was low (because the company’s assets had been consistently unprofitable), Sta-Home first approached several hospitals to see if they would be willing to purchase Sta-Home’s assets. No potential buyer emerged, so Sta-Home proceeded with its plans to convert to non-exempt status. The exempt agencies transferred their tangible and intangible assets to a for-profit corporation in exchange for that corporation’s assumption of the exempt agencies’ $18.5 million in debt. The new corporation continued to operate in all other respects as it did as exempt entities. In 1999, the commissioner of internal revenue issued deficiency notices to the Caraccis and the Sta-Home corporations. The notices, which were admittedly based on an “intermediate determination of value . . . not [to] be considered final,” said that the value of the assets transferred during the conversion exceeded the value of the liabilities and debts assumed. Invoking I.R.C. �4958, the commissioner concluded that the parties owed excise taxes totaling more than $256 million for the “excess benefit transactions.” The Caraccis and Sta-Home challenged the deficiencies in the U.S. Tax Court. On motion for partial summary judgment, the taxpayers noted that the deficiency assessment did not take into account that the new, non-exempt corporations assumed the debts and liabilities of the exempt agencies. The commissioner insisted that the notices were valid, despite acknowledging two years later, at trial, that the notices were “excessive,” “incorrect” and “erroneous.” Both the taxpayers and the commissioner presented extensive expert testimony. The taxpayers’ expert, Allen Hahn, had years of experience valuing home-healthcare entities. He spent eight weeks in Mississippi studying the assets and liabilities of Sta-Home, and he studied the home-healthcare industry in the area. Hahn’s analysis focused on other companies that relied almost entirely on Medicare reimbursements. Hahn prepared an adjusted balance-sheet method to value Sta-Home’s assets. Preparing a best case and “base case” scenario, the range of value for the assets was between $10.5 million to $11.5 million, and found the corporation’s total liabilities ranged from between $12 million to $12.5 million. Using a market approach as a check, Hahn then compared Sta-Home Medicare transactions to similar transactions made by publicly traded companies, though he noted that the two scenarios, as well as the entities themselves, were too dissimilar from one another to be a reliable primary indication of value. Combining the two analyses, Hahn concluded that the liabilities the non-exempt Sta-Home entities agreed to assume from the exempt entities exceeded the value of the assets received by $600,000 to $2.5 million, that is, no net excess and therefore no excise tax liability. By contrast, the commissioner, who wanted to hire Hahn but was unable to, hired Charles Wilhoite, a certified public accountant and business-valuation specialist. Wilhoite did not have any experience in the home-healthcare field and of the two days he spent in Mississippi, only one of them involved direct investigation of Sta-Home. “In short, neither the Commissioner nor his expert witness did the work necessary to perform an asset-valuation analysis of the Sta-Home entities throughout the extended audit period or during the Tax Court litigation.” Despite Sta-Home’s history of operating losses, Wilhoite based his analysis on the assumption that Sta-Home’s intangible assets would be of significant value to potential purchasers. Wilhoite used a “market value of invested capital” analysis (MVIC), which was derived from combining a “revenue pricing multiple” with a company’s annual revenues. Wilhoite used publicly traded companies as one set of comparable businesses and merged or acquired entities as another set of comparables. With these variables in place, Wilhoite determined that the value of Sta-Home’s assets was either $11 million, $11.3 million or $13.5 million. Wilhoite made further adjustments to each of the three valuations, arriving at the conclusion that Sta-Home’s assets as of the 1995 conversion was $20.8 million. The Tax Court rejected Wilhoite’s income method while adopting parts of his MVIC analysis and came up with other valuation methods on its own. For instance, the Tax Court agreed that other publicly traded companies should be used as comparables to Sta-Home. The Tax Court rejected Hahn’s primary adjusted balance sheet valuation analysis, as well as his market approach. The Tax Court justified its actions on its conclusion that in 1995, Sta-Home generated nearly $45 million in revenue, but had reported an operating loss that year, in part because it took a deduction for depreciation of its automobile fleet and because they had declared more than $1.7 million in nontaxable employee bonuses. Combined, these would have eliminated the accumulated deficit in net assessed value, the Tax Court concluded. The Tax Court eventually came up with its own valuation method, agreeing with the commissioner that there was a deficiency, but also finding that the amount due was less than originally assessed. The Tax Court ordered the Caraccis and Sta-Home to pay $69.7 million in excise taxes (instead of $256 million). HOLDING:Reversed and rendered. “There are so many legal and factual errors � many of which the Commissioner acknowledges � infecting this case from the outset that reversal must result.” The court starts by noting how the commissioner “began the cascade of errors” based on the deficiency notices prepared after only a brief, intermediate internal audit. Then, despite its assurances to the taxpayers that the deficiency determination was only temporary, continued to insist it was the proper valuation right up until trial two years later. To further compound that error, once it was clear that the commissioner’s valuation was arbitrary and erroneous, the Tax Court should have shifted the burden to the commissioner to prove the correct amount. It did not. And when it rejected much of the government’s analysis (through Wilhoite) at trial, again, it should have found for the taxpayers. Its failure to do so was error as a matter of law. The court further faults the Tax Court for devising a valuation method of its own. “The Tax Court’s use of Wilhoite’s modified MVIC-Revenue method for valuing Sta[-]Home’s assets, particularly its intangible assets, is wrong as a matter of law,” the court says. “Wilhoite had no experience in appraising healthcare companies and knew very little about the Sta-Home entities or their assets and liabilities.” Furthermore, despite the undisputed fact that Sta-Home operated at a loss in 1995, the Tax Court’s analysis (derived in part from Wilhoite) used as comparables solvent, publicly traded companies with significant equity and an ability to generate profits. Nor did any of the companies rely as heavily on Medicare transactions, a fact the Tax Court acknowledged but which it decided, without explanation, could be adjusted for through various adjustments. As for the Tax Court’s dismissal of the legitimate deduction Sta-Home took for its automobile fleet, the court says the Tax Court ignored the fact that the fleet represented a very real cost to a company that provided home-based services across a wide swath of rural Mississippi. As for the Tax Court’s criticism of the bonuses, the court finds the Tax Court ignored the fact that these “bonuses” were not discretionary bonuses at all, but instead were deferred employee salary. The Tax Court further misapprehended the situation when it attributed Sta-Home’s lack of profit from their tax-exempt status. Instead, the Tax Court should have found that Sta-Home did not make a profit because it was almost entirely dependent on Medicare’s reimbursement system, which prohibits profit-taking regardless of tax status. The court confirms that the Tax Court’s errors were not harmless, as urged by the commissioner. “The Tax Court opinion itself defeats the argument,” the court states. “This case began and ends with the Commissioner’s refusal to recognize the legal effect of its own errors. The Commissioner issued erroneous and excessive deficiency notices, yet persisted in defending them for nearly two years of litigation before the Tax Court. After the Commissioner admitted his erroneous deficiency notices, he failed to meet his burden of proving that the excise taxes he sought to collect were correct. The Commissioner presented an expert who used an inappropriate valuation method and lacked basic factual information essential to the asset valuation he was called on to provide. The Tax Court erred as a matter of law when it failed to find for the taxpayers after it rejected much of the Commissioner’s expert’s opinion and instead proceeded to use bits and pieces from that opinion to value the Sta-Home assets transferred to the newly created nonexempt entities. The Tax Court erred as a matter of law in the valuation method it selected. In the process of arriving at and applying that method, and in struggling to make that method make sense, the Tax Court made a number of clearly erroneous factual findings. These errors led the Tax Court to reject the taxpayers’ expert, whose adjusted balance sheet valuation method provided the only rational and justifiable valuation available in the record, and to find that a willing buyer would have paid $18.6 million for the Sta-Home exempt agencies despite their unprofitability. These errors require this court to reverse and render.” OPINION:Per curiam; Jolly, Wiener and Rosenthal, J.J.

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