The Federal Court has set aside an Administrative Appeal Tribunal (AAT) decision that income derived by a business analyst through a company was subject to the personal services income (PSI) rules: Fortunatow v FCT [2019] FCA 1247 (Federal Court, Griffiths J, 12 August 2019).

Background

The taxpayer was a business analyst and the sole director of Fortunatow Pty Ltd. He provided his services through the company to various large organisations such as government departments, universities, banks and utilities. In the 2012 and 2013 income years, the company disclosed income of approximately $166,000 and $121,000 respectively from the provision of his personal services to eight different clients. The company did not pay him any remuneration and he returned no income in his personal tax returns for those years.

The company transferred income generated by the taxpayer's personal services to a family trust, characterising the amounts as "management fees". These fees were claimed as tax deductions, effectively reducing the company's taxable income to nil. The trust income was offset against the trust's rental losses. As a result, the taxpayer, the company and the family trust all paid zero tax on the income generated by the personal services the taxpayer supplied as a business analyst in 2012 and 2013.

The ATO concluded that the PSI rules in Div 86 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (ITAA 1997) applied to include all of the income received by the company in the taxpayer's assessable income for 2012 and 2013. The taxpayer, however, argued that Div 86 did not apply because the unrelated clients test in s 87-20 was satisfied, and therefore the income was from conducting a personal services business.

Under s 87-20 of ITAA 1997, the relevant services must be provided as a direct result of the individual or personal services entity (PSE) – the company, in this case – making offers or invitations (eg by advertising) to the public to provide the services. The individual (or PSE) "is not treated … as having made offers or invitations to provide services merely by being available to provide the services through an entity that conducts a business of arranging for persons to provide services directly for clients of the entity" (s 87-20(2)).

The AAT (in Fortunatow and FCT [2018] AATA 4621) decided, in favour of the ATO, that the work the taxpayer obtained and carried out in the relevant years was through an intermediary. According to the AAT, the taxpayer was not operating a genuine business as an independent contractor because he, in effect, received referrals from intermediaries (recruitment companies) and allowed those intermediaries to take responsibility for obtaining and dealing with customers.

The issues for determination on appeal were whether the taxpayer made any offers or invitations to the public at large or to a section of the public to provide his services (the fourth element of the unrelated clients test) and, if so, whether the services to the unrelated entities were provided as a direct result of the taxpayer making those offers or invitations (the fifth element of the unrelated clients test).

The taxpayer argued he met the fourth element because of his active profile on LinkedIn and his marketing by word-of-mouth at industry functions. Although the AAT accepted that the taxpayer's advertising on LinkedIn constituted the making of an offer or invitation to the public, it concluded that the law operates in a way that means the fourth element (and therefore the fifth element) was not satisfied.

Decision

The Federal Court held that the AAT had misconstrued s 87-20(2) of ITAA 1997 and misapplied its interaction with s 87-20(1)(b). In the Court's view, the exclusion or exception in s 87-20(2) did not apply where there was evidence that the taxpayer (or the company) advertised his services to the public or a segment of the public through a forum such as LinkedIn, and also obtained work through the involvement of an intermediary.

According to the Court, simply because an individual or PSE is able to provide services through an intermediary, such as a recruitment or similar agency, does not constitute the making of an offer or invitation for the purposes of s 87-20(1)(b). More than that is required for the purposes of the unrelated clients test. But that does not mean that the exclusion in s 87-20(2) necessarily applies, as found by the AAT, where an individual or PSE is in fact available to provide personal services through such an intermediary and there is evidence (as in this case) that the individual or PSE has taken other steps to make offers or invitations to the public at large or a section of the public to provide the services.

The Court remitted the matter to the AAT for further reconsideration according to law, as it was not appropriate for the Court itself to resolve the issues remaining in dispute. It said the issues were not straightforward and there was uncertainty about the extent to which the misconstruction may have affected the AAT's fact-finding.