Switzerland vs Coffee Machine Group, April 2020, Federal Supreme Court, Case No 2C_354/2018

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Coffee Machine Ltd. was founded in Ireland and responsible for the trademark and patent administration as well as the management of the research and development activities of the A group, the world’s largest manufacturer of coffee machines. A Swiss subsidiary of the A group reported payments of dividend to the the Irish company and the group claimed that the payments were exempt from withholding tax under the DTA and issued a claim for a refund.

Tax authorities found that the Irish company was not the beneficial owner of the dividend and on that basis denied the companies claim for refund.

The lower Swiss court upheld the decision of the tax authorities.

Judgement of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court and supplemented its findings with the argument, that the arrangement was also abusive because of the connection between the share transfer in 2006 and the distribution of pre-acquisition reserves in 2007 and the total lack of substance in the Irish company.

“…the circumstantial evidence suggests with a probability bordering on certainty that the complainant and the other companies involved wanted to secure a tax saving for themselves with the transfer of the shareholding in the subsidiary and the subsequent distribution of a dividend to the complainant, which they would not have been entitled to under the previous group structure. The economic objective asserted by the complainant – locating the research and development function, including the shareholding in the subsidiary, under the Irish grandparent company responsible for overseeing the licensing agreements – does not explain why the complainant went heavily into debt in order to ultimately use this borrowed capital to buy the subsidiary’s liquid funds, which were subject to latent withholding tax. It would have been much simpler for all parties involved and would have led to the same economic result if the subsidiary had instead distributed these funds to the sister company immediately before the transfer of the shareholding and the sister company had thus recorded an inflow of liquidity in the form of a dividend instead of a purchase price payment. Against this background, the chosen procedure appears to be outlandish and the legal arrangement artificial. Since the arrangement chosen by the complainant mainly served to obtain advantages from the DTA CH-IE and the AEOI-A CH-EU and the three characteristics of tax avoidance are met, the complainant must be accused of abuse of law both from the perspective of international law and from the perspective of internal law. “

A person who, like the complainant, fulfils the criteria of abuse of the agreement and tax avoidance as defined by the practice cannot invoke the advantage pursuant to Art. 15 para. 1 aAIA-A CH-EU. As a result, the lower court did not violate either federal or international law by completely refusing to refund the withholding tax to the complainant on the basis of Art. 15 para. 1 aAIA-A CH-EU.”

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Swiss BO 2c_354-2018

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