June 11, 2014
Reiss on GSE Transfer Taxes
Law360 quoted me in Fannie, Freddie Look Unstoppable In Transfer Tax Fight (behind a paywall). It reads in part,
Class actions against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid transfer taxes in states and cities around the country continue to pile up, but experts say any attempt to challenge the housing giants’ exempt status is likely futile as court after court rules in their favor.
The Eighth Circuit on Friday joined the Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh circuits in ruling that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are exempt from local transfer taxes when it ruled in favor of the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, after reviewing a suit brought by Swift County, Minnesota.
Swift County, as with a multitude of counties, municipalities and states before it, sought to dispute Fannie and Freddie’s claim that while they must pay property taxes, they are exempt from additional taxes on transfers of assets. But in what some experts say has come to seem like an inevitable answer, the Eighth Circuit found in favor of Fannie and Freddie.
“The federal statutes that set forth the charters of Fannie and Freddie are pretty clear that the two companies have a variety of regulatory privileges that other companies don’t,” David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said. “One of the privileges is an exemption from nearly all state and local taxation.”
The legal onslaught against the GSEs began in 2012 after U.S. District Judge Victoria A. Roberts ruled in March that they should not be considered federal agencies. In a suit filed by Oakland County, Michigan, over millions in unpaid transfer taxes, Judge Roberts rejected the charter exemption argument and, citing a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Wells Fargo, found that “all taxation” refers only to direct taxes and not excise taxes like those imposed on asset transfers.
Counties, municipalities and states across the country were emboldened by the decision. Putative class actions soon followed in West Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Florida, Rhode Island, Georgia and elsewhere as plaintiffs rushed to see if they could elicit a similar ruling and recoup millions of dollars allegedly lost thanks to the inability to tax Fannie and Freddie’s mortgage foreclosure operations.
But Judge Roberts’ decision was later overturned by the Sixth Circuit, as were other similar orders, though many district judges found in favor of Fannie and Freddie from the start.
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Many cases remain in the lower courts as well, but experts say the outcomes will likely echo those that played out in the Third, Fourth Sixth, Seventh and Eighth circuits, because the defendants’ chartered exemption defense appears waterproof.
“I find the circuit court decisions unsurprising and consistent with the letter and spirit of the law,” Reiss said. “I am guessing that other federal courts will follow this trend.”| Permalink