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UNITED STATIONERS, INC. v. UNITED STATES

October 16, 1997

UNITED STATIONERS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: NORGLE

 CHARLES R. NORGLE, SR., District Judge:

 Before the district court is the issue of an IRS denial of a tax credit to a corporate taxpayer, Plaintiff United Stationers, Inc. ("Stationers"). The district court must also rule on the objections of Stationers to the Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge. Pursuant to Local General Rule 2.41(b), the district court referred to the Magistrate Judge the sole question of whether Stationers was entitled to a tax credit under Internal Revenue Code 26 U.S.C. § 41 (1986) ("§ 41") for increasing research activities. The Magistrate Judge conducted a hearing and filed a Report and Recommendation ("Report"), recommending the denial of Stationers' claim for a tax credit under § 41. *fn1" For the following reasons, the district court overrules all of Stationers' objections except for objection number four (addressing the Magistrate Judge's discussion of the term "innovative"). The district court's opinion not only deals with the objections, but also includes a comprehensive ruling on the merits.

 II. BACKGROUND

 The only issue before the district court is whether Stationers' implementation of eight computer software projects qualifies for a tax credit under § 41. The district court has reviewed all submissions of counsel. With no facts in dispute, the parties filed an agreed statement of facts, some of which are incorporated into this opinion.

 Stationers, through its subsidiaries, is the nation's largest independent office supplies wholesaler. Beginning in 1979, Stationers grew at a rapid pace, with annual sales increasing from $ 100 million to almost $ 1 billion by 1988. Along with this growth, Stationers began experiencing certain operating inefficiencies which had an adverse effect on customer services.

 To become more efficient and to provide better services to its customers, Stationers began to automate and computerize most of its business operations during its fiscal year ending August 31, 1988. Pursuant to this plan, Stationers purchased a software package ("DCS") for $ 956,000 from a business consulting firm. Stationers purchased DCS for some of its file structure and data access segments, to use as building blocks in the development of its automation project. Stationers used only the file structure and access code elements of part of the full DCS product. Also, Stationers designed all application codes to meet Stationers' particular needs. Finally, Stationers could not have used DCS as delivered, and it was not Stationers' intention to use it in any way other than as a building block.

 Stationers used the projects generally in its business and did not attempt to sell them. In addition, part of Stationers' business was to permit customers and suppliers to access and utilize the projects to a certain extent.

 In its original tax return for the taxable year ending August 31, 1988, Stationers deducted the costs of developing the projects under 26 U.S.C. § 174 ("§ 174"), which allows a current deduction for research and experimental expenditures. Based on an examination of Stationers' tax return, the IRS agreed to the amounts that Stationers took as deductions under § 174. Good news, for awhile.

 In an amended tax return for the taxable year ending August 31, 1988, Stationers claimed a refund for $ 156,457 based upon § 41's credit for increasing research activities. Stationers computed its § 41 credit wholly upon those amounts that the IRS had previously agreed were properly deducted under § 174. This suit is for the refund of income taxes and interest which Stationers contends were erroneously and illegally assessed against and collected from it prior to Stationers' claim of a § 41 credit for the taxable year ending August 31, 1988. Stationers asserts that it is entitled to the tax credit because it expended considerable amounts of time and money developing the projects for purposes of increasing productivity and to make Stationers more competitive within the office supply industry.

 II. DISCUSSION

 A. Standard of Review

 Tax credits, like deductions, are matters of legislative grace, and the taxpayer must clearly demonstrate entitlement to the credit. Hauptli v. Commissioner, 951 F.2d 1193, 1195 (10th Cir. 1991); Schiff v. United States, 942 F.2d 348, 352 (6th Cir. 1991); see also New Colonial Ice Co. v. Helvering, 292 U.S. 435, 440, 54 S. Ct. 788, 78 L. Ed. 1348 (1934) (deductions are a matter of legislative grace).

 "In a tax refund suit the taxpayer bears the burden of proving the amount he is entitled to recover." United States v. Janis, 428 U.S. 433, 440, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1046, 96 S. Ct. 3021 (1976) (citing Lewis v. Reynolds, 284 U.S. 281, 76 L. Ed. 293, 52 S. Ct. 145 (1932)). "The Commissioner's tax deficiency assessments are entitled to the 'presumption of correctness.' This presumption imposes upon the taxpayer the burden of proving that the assessment is erroneous." Pittman v. C.I.R., 100 F.3d 1308, 1313 (7th Cir. 1996) (quoting Gold Emporium, Inc. v. Commissioner, 910 F.2d 1374, 1378 (7th Cir. 1990)). "The presumption is not irrebuttable however." Pittman, 100 F.3d at 1313. "To rebut the presumption of correctness and shift the burden to the Commissioner, the taxpayer must demonstrate that the Commissioner's deficiency assessment lacks a rational foundation or is arbitrary and excessive." Id.

 B. Section 41

 Section 41, entitled "Credit for increasing research activities," provides a tax credit for "qualified research" activities. 26 U.S.C. § 41(d)(1) (1986). Even if a taxpayer's research project meets the general requirements for a tax credit under § 41(d)(1), certain exclusions may apply, limiting the availability of the credit. See 26 U.S.C. § 41(d)(4). Most relevant here is the exclusion which states that qualified research shall not include, "except to the extent provided in regulations, any research with respect to computer software which is developed by (or for the benefit of) the taxpayer primarily for internal use by the taxpayer . . . ." 26 U.S.C. § 41(d)(4)(E).

 Though § 41 was enacted over 11 years ago, the Treasury Department has yet to adopt Final Regulations for § 41. Nonetheless, the first step toward adopting a final version of Regulations for § 41 recently went underway when the Treasury promulgated Proposed Regulations in January 1997. See Prop. Treas. Reg. § 1.41-4(e), 62 Fed Reg. 82 (1997). We look forward to the adoption of the Final Regulations to aid taxpayers and the courts. At this point, however, the court is aware that Proposed Regulations carry no more weight than a position espoused in a brief. See F.W. Woolworth Co. v. Commissioner, 54 T.C. 1233, 1265-66 (1970).

 In any event, even if Stationers initially qualifies for the tax credit under § 41(d)(1), it must still overcome the exclusionary hurdle under § 41(d)(4)(E). Because the Magistrate Judge denied Stationers' claim under both § 41(d)(1) and § 41(d)(4)(E), the court will ...


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