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7th Circuit: expenses were capital expenditures

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An Indianapolis-based health insurer can't deduct its settlement payments or legal expenses from the litigation because the insurer's payments were actually capital expenditures, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed today.

In WellPoint Inc. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, No. 09-3163, WellPoint challenged the U.S. Tax Court's ruling that upheld the IRS' refusal to allow the insurer to deduct a $113 million settlement to three states or the nearly $1 million in legal fees from the litigation as "ordinary and necessary business expenses."

The 7th Circuit briefly addressed the parties' arguments about the scope of appellate review and held it would still affirm the tax court's decision under either standard proposed.

WellPoint, the nation's largest health insurer based on membership, is a for-profit company. When it was still Anthem in the 1990s, the company acquired three Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance companies, which had been formed as non-profits. Attorneys general from Connecticut, Kentucky, and Ohio sued WellPoint alleging it was using the acquired assets to make profits in violation of those companies' charitable statuses. The case was settled, and WellPoint attempted to write off the settlement and legal expenses as ordinary and necessary business expenses.

WellPoint claimed its expenses were "ordinary" because it was defending against claims that it was improperly using its property - the assets of the acquired companies. The government argued WellPoint was defending its title to the acquired assets, which the 7th Circuit Court has said aren't ordinary expenses.

The 7th Circuit judges pointed out the remedy sought or agreed to is a clue to the nature of the claim in the instant case. The attorneys general were trying to strip WellPoint of its equitable ownership, its right to use the acquired assets for profit.

An alternative argument raised was that the settlement was in effect a partial restoration of the acquired assets to their rightful owners and that like any other repayment of money, it wasn't a capital expenditure and shouldn't have any tax consequences at all. The judges declined to accept this alternative option.

"It is true that if you receive money as a loan and repay it, the repayment is not deductible from your taxable income, because you never claimed to own the money you had borrowed," wrote Judge Richard Posner. "But WellPoint always claimed (it still claims) to have equitable title to the assets it acquired. The expenses that it reasonably incurred to defend that claim - the claim to own the assets free and clear - are capital expenditures, not repayments."

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