Wells Fargo & Company v. United States, No. 17-3578 (8th Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
Wells Fargo, a U.S. corporation, entered into a structured trust advantaged repackaged securities transaction (STARS) with Barclays, a United Kingdom corporation. Wells Fargo asserts its purpose was to borrow money at a favorable interest rate, to diversify its funding sources, to reduce its liquidity risk, and to provide a stable source of funding for five years. The government claimed that STARS was an unlawful tax avoidance scheme, designed to exploit the differences between the tax laws of the two countries and generate U.S. tax credits for a foreign tax that Wells Fargo did not, in substance, pay. Wells Fargo claimed foreign-tax credits on its 2003 federal tax return arising from STARS. The IRS disallowed those credits and notified Wells Fargo that it owed additional taxes. Wells Fargo paid the resulting deficiency and sued to obtain a refund. The government sought to impose a “negligence penalty” as an offset defense because Wells Fargo underpaid its 2003 taxes after claiming this credit.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed that Wells Fargo was not entitled to a tax credit and was liable for a “negligence penalty.” The "sham-transaction" or "economic-substance" doctrine allows the IRS and courts “to distinguish between structuring a real transaction in a particular way to obtain a tax benefit, which is legitimate, and creating a transaction to generate a tax benefit, which is illegitimate.” STARS’s trust component had no real potential for profit outside of its tax implications and Wells Fargo had no valid purpose other than tax considerations.