Deduction Allowed in Full for Officer Salaries and Administration Fee Paid to Related Organization

Under IRC §162, generally deductions are allowed for “ordinary and necessary” business expenses.  However, the IRS is known to pay special attention to any such expenses paid to related parties, which was the IRS’s concern in the case of H. W. Johnson, Inc. v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2016-95.  In this case the IRS was questioning both compensation paid to two corporate officers and payments made for “administration fees” to an LLC owned by the same two officers.

While the IRS believed the amounts were not justified in either case, the Tax Court did not agree, finding instead that the corporation had justified the amounts paid as reasonable ordinary and necessary expenses.

The taxpayer is a successful concrete contractor operating in Arizona, handling curb, gutter and sidewalk construction.  The majority shareholder, Margaret who held 51% of the stock, had founded the company with her husband many years ago.  The remaining stock was held by her two sons, Bruce and Donald, who were the corporate officers.

During the years in question the officers were paid the following salaries:

The company computed bonuses under a formula that had been adopted in 1991 and amended in 1999 that created a running “bonus pool.”

The company had run into trouble obtaining the concrete it needed to operate due to shortages caused by a construction boom in Arizona and changes in the market for concrete supplies.  As the Court noted, this lead to the following:

Faced with the possibility of disruptions in petitioner’s supply of concrete, Bruce and Donald suggested to Margaret that petitioner invest in a concrete supplier so as to have a reliable supply. Margaret, holding a controlling share in petitioner, refused to involve the company in such a venture because she judged it too risky.

On March 21, 2003, Bruce and Donald, acting through D.B.J. Enterprises, LLC (DBJ),3 partnered with other investors, including a former executive of a local concrete supplier that had been acquired by a large multinational firm, to form Arizona Materials, LLC (Arizona Materials), to conduct a concrete supply business. DBJ owned a 52% interest in Arizona Materials. Bruce and Donald, through DBJ, invested substantial sums in, and guaranteed the indebtedness of, Arizona Materials.

The Company was able to obtain materials at preferred prices via Arizona Materials and, in recognition of the work being done by the sons in obtaining this benefit for the corporation, an “administration fee” of $500,000 was paid to DBJ.

The IRS believed that the officer’s salary was unjustifiably high, and that the corporation had not shown it had received any services or other items of value for the “administration fee” paid to DBJ.

Turning first to the officer compensation issue, the Tax Court noted that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which would hear any appeal in this case, tested compensation for reasonableness based on the following factors:

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, to which an appeal in this case would normally lie, applies five factors to determine the reasonableness of compensation, with no factor being determinative: (1) the employee’s role in the company; (2) a comparison of compensation paid by similar companies for similar services; (3) the character and condition of the company; (4) potential conflicts of interest; and (5) the internal consistency of compensation arrangements. Elliotts v. Commissioner, 716 F.2d at 1245-1247. In analyzing the fourth factor, the Court of Appeals emphasizes evaluating the reasonableness of compensation payments from the perspective of a hypothetical independent investor, focusing on whether the investor would receive a reasonable return on equity after payment of the compensation. Id. at 1247; see also Metro Leasing Dev. Corp. v. Commissioner, 376 F.3d 1015, 1019 (9th Cir. 2004), aff’g T.C. Memo. 2001-119.

The IRS focused on the question of whether a reasonable investor would have agreed to this salary, arguing the return on investment would be insufficient to please a theoretical independent investor.  The Tax Court had a clear preference for the analysis of the taxpayer’s expert for the rate of return that would be expected in the industry, but even that analysis found that the company’s rate of return was below the industry average for the two years in question.

Specifically, the return was 0.3% below the industry average in 2003 (return of 10.2%) and 1.9% below the average in 2004 (return of 9%). 

However, the Tax Court, noting the long term success of the company, did not find the IRS view persuasive.  As the Court held:

Respondent cites no authority for the proposition that the required return on equity for purposes of the independent investor test must significantly exceed the industry average when the subject company has been especially successful, and we have found none in the caselaw. Instead, in applying the independent investor test the courts have typically found that a return on equity of at least 10% tends to indicate that an independent investor would be satisfied and thus payment of compensation that leaves that rate of return for the investor is reasonable. See, e.g., Thousand Oaks Residential Care Home I, Inc. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2013-10; Multi-Pak Corp. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-139. Indeed, compensation payments that resulted in a return on equity of 2.9% have been found reasonable. Multi-Pak Corp. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-139. It is compensation that results in returns on equity of zero or less than zero that has been found to be unreasonable. See, e.g., Mulcahy, Pauritsch, Salvador & Co., Ltd. v. Commissioner, 680 F.3d 867 (7th Cir. 2012), aff’g T.C. Memo. 2011-74; Multi-Pak Corp. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-139. We consequently find that petitioner’s returns on equity of 10.2% and 9% for 2003 and 2004, respectively, tend to show that the compensation paid to Donald and Bruce for those years was reasonable. As petitioner’s expert points out, mere reductions in their collective compensation of $9,847 and $75,277 in 2003 and 2004, respectively—differences of approximately 1% -- would have placed petitioner’s return on equity at exactly the average for comparable companies in the concrete business. Consequently, this factor favors a finding that the compensation at issue was reasonable.

But what about that “administration fee” to the partnership of the two officers?  The Court notes:

Respondent contends on several grounds that the $500,000 payment was not an ordinary and necessary business expense, including: (1) that there was no written agreement or evidence of any oral agreement obligating petitioner to compensate DBJ, and therefore the $500,000 payment was voluntary; (2) that DBJ performed no compensable services on behalf of petitioner; and (3) that the $500,000 payment was made not for services that DBJ provided, but for services Bruce and Donald performed in their capacities as officers of petitioner.

With regard to the lack of a written agreement between the corporation and DBJ, the Court noted:

We are satisfied on this record that Bruce and Donald, acting through DBJ, used DBJ’s controlling position in Arizona Materials to cause Arizona Materials to supply concrete to petitioner during times of shortage at favorable prices. Third-party testimony—to the effect that petitioner was able to obtain concrete in 2004 at times when other concrete contractors could not—corroborates the brothers’ account. Moreover, Bruce and Donald, acting in their individual capacities when their more risk-averse, controlling-shareholder mother would not allow petitioner to do so, made arrangements to form Arizona Materials to ensure petitioner’s concrete supply in the face of looming shortages. They brought in other investors with industry contacts, including existing relationships with cement suppliers, cement being a critical ingredient of concrete and also exhibiting shortages. The brothers, again acting in their individual capacities and using DBJ as their vehicle, invested substantially in and guaranteed the indebtedness of Arizona Materials. Having assumed the risks associated with Arizona Materials’ formation and operation in their individual capacities, Bruce and Donald could reasonably expect to be compensated by petitioner for doing so when it substantially benefited from the fruits of their efforts.12 Petitioner also benefited from Bruce’s and Donald’s foresight and business acumen in finding a solution to the concrete shortage, even when petitioner’s controlling shareholder was unwilling to commit petitioner’s resources to do so.

In view of the foregoing, respondent’s contention that petitioner’s payment to DBJ was voluntary, given the absence of a written agreement or evidence of an oral agreement to compensate DBJ, is unavailing. “Closely held corporations, as is well known, often act informally, ‘their decisions being made in conversations, and oftentimes recorded not in the minutes, but by action.’” Levenson & Klein, Inc. v. Commissioner, 67 T.C. 694, 714 (1977) (quoting Reub Isaacs & Co. v. Commissioner, 1 B.T.A. 45, 48 (1924)). We are satisfied that petitioner’s board, including majority shareholder Margaret, concluded at the close of 2004 that the $500,000 payment to DBJ was appropriate to compensate Bruce and Donald for the substantial benefit they conferred on petitioner in their individual capacities. In short, the action in making the payment undoubtedly reflected an informal understanding among petitioner’s shareholders, Margaret, Bruce, and Donald, that the latter two ought to be compensated for their individual efforts and their assumption of the risks entailed in averting the consequences of a concrete shortage for petitioner during 2004.

Readers should take care not to take too much comfort from this.  The existence of a written agreement certainly would have helped, including outlining what the partnership was being compensated for.  In this case it appears the Court found the brothers believable (a crucial component in any such case) and, in reality, the story made sense.

With regard to the question of what the sons had actually done, a reader should consult the much less favorable result in the case of Mulcahy, Pauritsch, Salvador & Co. v. Commissioner, 680 F.3d 867 (7th Cir. 2012), aff’g T.C. Memo. 2011-74 and compare it with the case at hand.  In this case the Court found that there had been services performed, noting:

In the same vein, we do not agree with respondent that DBJ provided no compensable services to petitioner. As Bruce’s and Donald’s wholly owned limited liability company, DBJ was merely the entity through which the brothers implemented their plan to form and finance Arizona Materials. Through DBJ, then, petitioner received two distinct benefits: (1) Bruce’s and Donald’s management acumen behind a successful strategy to avert a potentially crippling concrete shortage,13 and (2) Bruce’s and Donald’s assumption in their individual capacities of the risks associated with Arizona Material’s formation and operation, because Bruce and Donald invested their own funds in, and guaranteed the debt of, Arizona Materials. Because Bruce and Donald each owned 50% of DBJ, the payment to DBJ compensated them for the foregoing services received by petitioner.

Similarly, unlike Mulcahy and the case Stewart v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2002-199, the court did not find that they were paid for what was effectively work that they were required to as officers of the corporation, noting:

For essentially the same reasons, we reject respondent’s argument, premised on Stewart v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2002-199, that the $500,000 payment to DBJ was actually a payment to Bruce and Donald in their capacities as officers of petitioner. In Stewart, the taxpayer sought to deduct payments made to his wholly owned corporation on the grounds that they were for the taxpayer’s management services provided through the corporation to his sole proprietorship. We rejected that claim, finding that the taxpayer had provided the services in his individual capacity directly to the sole proprietorship and not as an employee of the corporation. Stewart is readily distinguishable, because here Bruce and Donald were clearly acting in their individual, rather than corporate officer, capacities in forming and financing Arizona Materials. Petitioner’s controlling shareholder had expressly rejected the brothers’ proposal that it acquire a concrete supplier. The brothers thereupon put their own funds and creditworthiness into Arizona Materials as individuals. The $500,000 payment petitioner made in consideration of the resulting benefits was therefore earned and received by Bruce and Donald (through DBJ) in their individual capacities.

Thus the Court allowed a deduction for the $500,000 payment.

The major lesson to be learned from this case is that these cases are very much fact dependent, and if the payments have a bad smell (as they did in Mulcahy and Stewart) the taxpayer will generally not see this sort of result.  Conversely, if taxpayers have been somewhat informal and haven’t created the document we might like, nevertheless if the facts are good the taxpayers can eventually prevail (albeit in this case, after incurring the costs of having to Tax Court to obtain that result).