Federal Court of Appeal hears argument on whether “break fees” are income (Morguard)

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Is a “break fee” received in return for withdrawing from a takeover bid a capital receipt or an income receipt?

That was the issue before a panel of the Federal Court of Appeal (“FCA”) on November 20, 2012 in Morguard Corporation v. The Queen on appeal from a decision of the Tax Court of Canada. The panel consisted of Justice Evans, Justice Sharlow and Justice Stratas. At the conclusion of the hearing, judgment was reserved.

For the facts of the case and our analysis of the trial decision, see here. For a brief review of the issues raised in the factum filed by each party in the FCA, see here.

Arguments of the Taxpayer

Counsel for the appellant argued the trial judge had made an “error of law” in determining that Acktion Corporation (“Acktion”) was “essentially in the business of doing acquisitions and takeovers” (Acktion was the name under which Morguard Corporation (“Morguard”) operated during the period at issue). Counsel argued that Acktion was a holding company and that it had sought the takeover to increase its capital holdings. The standard of review for an error of law is “correctness”.

The panel asked counsel whether there was any error of law. Justice Stratas asked whether the issue was really a factual one, for which the standard of review is much higher, namely, “palpable and overriding error”.

Counsel argued that it is settled law that a corporation cannot conduct a “business” of acquiring capital assets. Accordingly, counsel argued that the trial judge erred in concluding that Acktion had done so. In support of this proposition, counsel cited the 1978 FCA decision in Neonex International Ltd. v The Queen (78 DTC 6339). 

It was not clear whether the panel agreed with counsel on this point, as their other questions focused on whether the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) decision in Ikea Ltd. v. Canada ([1998] 1 SCR 196) had displaced Neonex by instituting a “modern approach” that supports an organic assessment of the circumstances around the receipt.

Counsel argued the break fee was received in the pursuit of a capital acquisition and that, according to the modern approach, it should be characterised as a capital receipt. Counsel stressed that the expert evidence adduced at trial by both parties was that break fees are intended to support the acquisition of capital by deterring other bidders or to compensate for the various costs incurred in a failed takeover bid.

The panel sought clarification of the appellant’s position that there should be no tax liability arising from the receipt of the break fee. In its written submissions, the appellant argued that the break fee should not be taxed as a capital gain because there were no proceeds of disposition. Justice Sharlow noted that, according to this theory, the break fee could only be characterized either as income or a non-taxable capital gain.

Arguments of the Crown

Counsel for the Crown had to answer fewer questions from the panel. Counsel argued that the characterization of an “unusual receipt” such as a break fee requires a factual determination (relying on the SCC’s decision in Ikea on this point), which the Tax Court had made in this case.

Justice Evans asked about the distinction between conducting a real estate business that acquires companies as capital and being a real estate company in the business of acquisitions and takeovers. Counsel argued that, instead of acquiring real estate directly, Acktion’s business strategy was to acquire businesses that already owned real estate. Counsel further submitted that the corporate information distributed to its shareholders described the corporation as a real estate company and not as a holding company.

Justice Sharlow questioned the Crown’s reliance on the commercial description of Acktion’s business, noting that the technical distinction between income and capital is a legal distinction that would not generally be expected to appear in a commercial context. In response, counsel argued that Acktion treated the takeover bid as part of its regular business. After losing its takeover bid, Acktion negotiated a higher price for its remaining “toehold” in the company, then took the break fee and the proceeds of disposition of its shares and immediately sought to purchase another business. Counsel argued this course of conduct shows that Acktion considered the negotiation of break fees to be part of its real estate business.

In response to the appellant’s position that the break fee was a non-taxable capital gain, counsel submitted that the trial judge was correct in applying the factors set out by the FCA in Canada v. Cranswick ([1982] CTC 69) to determine whether a payment was a windfall. In this respect, the break fee was the product of an enforceable claim negotiated by the Appellant according to common practices in takeover bids and, thus, could not be characterised as a windfall.

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The panel reserved judgment. We will report on the judgment when it is released.