The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York last month told the real tax expert to stand up, and it turned out not to be the lawyer from the Internal Revenue Service.
The judges decided that the tax collectors had gone overboard in trying to deny hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax credits to the creators of "To Tell the Truth" on the grounds that their programs were of no lasting interest.
Producers of many other television game shows also benefit from the Jan. 29 ruling.
The fight was over whether Goodson-Todman Enterprises Inc. could take an investment tax credit for episodes of "To Tell the Truth" produced in the 1970s. For that show alone, the credit reduced the producer's tax bill by more than $500,000.
Under the law then in effect, films and tapes qualified for the credit only if it seemed that they would have a useful life akin to that of more ordinary capital goods. The credit was denied to programs "the market for which is primarily topical or is otherwise essentially transitory in nature."
The lawmakers had in mind news shows and sports events as the sort of transitory programming that would not qualify for the credit. But in its regulations, the IRS went further and decided that game shows were enough like sporting events that they should be denied the credit.
But the appellate judges deciding Goodman-Todman Enterprises v. Commissioner ruled that the IRS' interpretation did not jibe with reality. The judges did not even have to look to the continuing viewership of Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" or the nostalgic reruns of "What's My Line?" on public broadcasting stations to decide that there was nothing very topical about a celebrity panel trying to decide which contestant was the real bullfighter and which were just figuratively throwing the bull. The questioning often is designed "to provide stars with openings for cute rejoinders," Judge Thomas J. Meskill noted, and the broadcasts "are watched for their entertainment value without regard to which contestants win or lose."
In fact, he pointed out, the programs were designed specifically to avoid current concerns and "to have the shelf life demanded by the syndication method of distribution," under which programs might be run many months after they are taped.
Meskill agreed with the IRS that its expertise in interpreting the language of the Tax Code should be respected by the courts, but insisted that "the deference paid to Treasury regulations is not boundless." The denial of investment tax credits to game shows, he said, is one of those holdings that has to be struck down as "unreasonable or clearly contrary to the language or spirit of the statute."
In other cases, courts ruled that:
*Federal agencies must check the truth of pejorative reports before they can keep them in a personnel file. The State Department argued that it had complied with the Privacy Act by including in the file of a job applicant her rebuttal of allegations that she had lied and cheated the government out of benefits. But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that the law demands more. The agency never decided whether the charges were true because the applicant decided that she didn't want the job after all.
Nonetheless, the court ruled, State Department brass must hold a hearing or otherwise investigate the claim, and can keep the report of wrongdoing in the file only if they are convinced that it is true. (Doe v. U.S., Jan. 17)
*A company can be forced to sue in a federal court far from its headquarters, even if its home state forbids enforcement of such "forum selection clauses." In Alabama, it is against public policy to let a contract curb a citizen's right to sue. So when a local distributor ran into trouble with his New York suppliers, he sued in federal court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta said that the case had to be moved to New York. The federal court system does not ban "forum selection clauses," the judges explained, so if the distributor wants to use the federal courts, he is bound by a contract provision that all litigation must be in the Big Apple.(Stewart v. Ricoh, Jan. 10)
*A television station has no right to copy and broadcast videotaped testimony introduced in a trial. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the trial court judge denying a broadcaster access to the tape, saying that the judge had acted reasonably. The witness -- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- would not have agreed to the videotaped testimony had he known that it would be broadcast. The judge reasoned that the Bhagwan, not the state, actually owned the tape, and that if the station could broadcast it, witnesses in the future would refuse to use the videotape alternative that the court finds valuable. (State ex rel KOIN-TV v. Olsen, Dec. 24)
*A state cannot use the power of the purse to force companies to hire residents. The Alaska Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a state law demanding that virtually all workers on construction projects using state money had to be residents.
After the U.S. Supreme Court threw out an earlier Alaska law applying to all state building jobs, it approved a local hiring preference plan adopted by Camden, N.J. But the Alaska justices ruled that the Camden precedent wouldn't save the new Alaska law. The justices noted that cities have more leeway than states in favoring residents, that the Camden plan sets a hiring goal of 40 percent locals while the Alaska law mandates that at least 90 percent of the workers be Alaskan, and that Camden was in dire economic straits while Alaska is booming. (Robinson v. Francis, Jan. 17)