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Federal Court of Appeal Affirms Tax Court Decision that Payment to Extinguish Employee Stock Option Plan is Capital Expenditure: Imperial Tobacco Canada Limited v. The Queen

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On November 10, 2011, the Federal Court of Appeal (the “FCA”) delivered a unanimous decision in Imperial Tobacco Canada Limited v. The Queen, 2011 FCA 308. As discussed in an earlier post, the panel of Justice Marc Nadon, Justice Karen Sharlow and Justice Eleanor Dawson were asked to determine whether a one-time, lump sum payment of approximately $118 million made to employees to extinguish an employee stock option plan was a deductible expense or a payment on account of capital which is precluded from deduction by paragraph 18(1)(b) of the Income Tax Act (the “Act”).

The FCA dismissed the appeal of Imperial Tobacco Canada Limited (“Imasco”) and upheld Justice Bowie’s decision in favour of the Crown in Imperial Tobacco Canada Limited v. The Queen, 2010 TCC 648 noting that the decision of the Tax Court of Canada (the “Tax Court”) was “consistent with the evidence and the applicable legal principles.”         

Justice Sharlow found, notwithstanding the decision by Chief Justice Bowman of the Tax Court that a similar payment made in the course of the same series of transactions was fully deductible (Shoppers Drug Mart Limited v. The Queen), three factors that pointed to the conclusion that the payment was made on account of capital:

(i) the payment coincided with a reorganization of the capital of Imasco (the going private transaction and amalgamation);

(ii) the arrangements put in place for making the payment facilitated and were intended to facilitate the capital reorganization; and

(iii) the payment was intended to and did end all future obligations of Imasco to deal with its own shares, which can be described as a once and for all payment that resulted in a benefit of an enduring nature.

Justice Sharlow did acknowledge that there were two factors in favour of Imasco, namely, that (a) the employee stock option plan was entered into to provide a form of employee compensation and did make periodic cash payments for the surrender of options, and (b) the payment for the optioned shares represented only a small portion of the outstanding shares of Imasco (just over 1%).

In the end, the FCA followed its 1990 decision in Kaiser Petroleum Ltd. v. The Queen. Justice Sharlow agreed with Justice Bowie that the distinctions between the circumstances of Imasco and the facts in Kaiser were “distinctions without a difference”. Furthermore, the FCA rejected Imasco’s argument that Kaiser is not in step with current economic realities on the basis that it was decided at a time when employee stock option plans were not commonly used as part of the ordinary compensation package for employees of all levels.

In light of the significant difference in approach to the issue on substantially the same facts between the Federal Court of Appeal and Chief Justice Bowman in Shoppers, it would not be surprising if a leave application is filed with the Supreme Court of Canada.  As Justice Ian Binnie, formerly of the Supreme Court of Canada, noted in a recent interview, the function of counsel applying for leave is to kick the ball up in the air in an interesting way and the judges will grab it.”  That may very well be easier here than in many other tax disputes.

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