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AT&T Loses Tax Refund Case: Wanted USF Income Treated As “Contributions to Capital”

Phillip Dampier October 4, 2011 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband No Comments

AT&T has lost a case it appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to win favorable tax treatment for income it received from the Universal Service Fund program, designed to help underwrite the costs of providing rural telephone service.

AT&T was seeking a $500 million income tax refund on its 1998 and 1999 federal taxes from money the government provided AT&T.

Federal tax law requires phone companies to treat the USF revenue as income, subject to regular taxation.  AT&T argued the money was actually a “contribution to capital,” which would have substantially reduced the company’s tax burden.  Contribution to capital, as a concept, has been the subject of several corporate lawsuits over the years.  The genesis of court challenges comes from a 1925 case — Edwards v. Cuba Railroad Co., that held government subsidies provided to induce the construction of facilities and provision of service were not taxable income within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment.

AT&T believed that USF funding subsidized the delivery of phone service, so it cannot be considered taxable income.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.  The justices elected to leave intact a lower court ruling that threw AT&T’s arguments aside.

Considering the long history of court losses for other corporate entities who have argued similar cases all the way back to the 1950s, the decision should not come as a surprise to the phone company, and AT&T’s reaction was muted.

“We are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision,” the company said in a statement. “However, AT&T does not expect any impact to our financial statements.”

The case is AT&T v. United States, 10-1204.

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