Tax Dispute Evokes Clearly Erroneous Standard

Mead Corporation’s tax dispute with the Illinois Department of Revenue led to this appeal in the Illinois First District. Although there was substantial testimonial and documentary evidence, the chief facts were not disputed. The issue in this appeal concerned an application of those facts to the Illinois Income Tax Act, resulting in an intermediate standard of review.

. . . [W]here the fact finder examines the legal effect of a given set of facts, it decides a mixed question of law and fact which is subject to an intermediate standard of review . . . Under such circumstances, the decision is based on fact-finding that is inseparable from the application of law to fact and is reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard . . .. This standard is largely deferential to the decision maker.

Under the clearly erroneous standard, a finding of the lower court may be reversed only if, after careful review of the entire record in light of the applicable rule of law, the reviewing court is left with the ” ‘definite and firm conviction’ ” that the finding is in error.

How to discern a mixed question of law and fact is a continuing problem. Very few appeals involve pure questions of law. We’re always applying law to facts. You just as easily could say that fact-finding is inseparable from the application of law to fact in almost every summary judgment case. But summary judgments generally are reviewed de novo. This question requires clearer definition from the court.

Get the whole opinion in Mead Corp. v. Dept. of Revenue, No. 1-03-1164 (1/12/07), by clicking here.