Can Tax Preparer Recover Damages for Revoked EFIN

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The recent decision rendered by the Court of Federal Claims in Snyder & Associates v. United States provides a stark reminder about the perils of building a business based on a government privilege or license – in this case the ability to electronically file tax returns for clients.  It also provides a reminder of the limitations of federal employees to bind the government for which they work.

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Snyder & Associates engaged in return preparation in the Los Angeles area.  It had a symbiotic relationship with a lender that funded refund anticipation loans (RALs).  Even though RALs ended several years ago, at least in their first decade of the 21st Century form, this case relates back to that era.  The same person owned both the return preparation firm and the lender.  Nothing in the opinion suggests that the businesses or the owner of the businesses engaged in inappropriate activity; however, one of the associates of the business, Nancy Hilton, who prepared returns there in the capacity of an independent contractor, did engage in fraudulent activity.

Ms. Hilton approached the IRS criminal investigators and advised them of the scheme in which she participated.  The scheme used stolen identities to seek benefits through tax filing.  After she brought the scheme to the IRS, Special Agents sought to use her to set up a sting.  For the sting to work, the IRS wanted Ms. Hilton’s co-conspirators to cash the checks written as refund anticipation loans.  Cashing those checks meant pulling money out of the lender side of the business.  The owner initially balked at the plan because of concerns of losing the money.  One of the special agents directly stated or implied that the IRS would make the lender whole.  The sting went forward.  In the end, the IRS declined to make the lender whole and, to add insult to injury, it terminated the EFIN license held by Snyder & Associates – an act which effectively terminated the return preparation business.

The business sued to recover the funds lost through the sting operation and to restore its EFIN privileges.  It lost on both counts.

With respect to the money lost in the sting, the issue turned on the authority of the special agent to bind the government.  I am probably oversimplifying this, but my experience working in the federal government for over 30 years suggests that first line employees like special agents, revenue agents, revenue officers, attorneys, etc., have extremely limited ability to bind the government.  Almost everything that they do which might create a monetary liability for the government must first be approved by their supervisors.  The principle extends beyond contracting for repayment of a sting obligation or other monetary obligations to matters such as settlement authority or referral authority.  There is a fairly elaborate system of delegation orders granting authority for certain acts.  The system generally does not go lower than the front line manager and frequently does not go that low.

Snyder & Associates ran full force into this system.  The special agent who told it that the money used to pay the fraudulent RALs would be repaid to the business by the government simply did not have the authority to bind the IRS.  The Court expended little effort in denying this claim for relief because the IRS had not committed itself to repayment of losses.  Based on my experience, the special agent who made the representation will receive counseling about their scope of employment which will include a discussion about not doing this again.  Such counseling will be cold comfort to the business that has lost the money with little or no hope of recovering it from the participants in the fraudulent scheme who will also owe the IRS and whose debt to the IRS will generally have a higher priority than the debt to the business.

Having lost the money spent to support the sting, the business then sought to reobtain the right to electronically file returns which the IRS pulled at approximately the same time the business cooperated with the sting operation.  The business argued that the termination of the EFIN rights was an improper taking of a property interest.  The Court points out that the IRS did not take the business or in any way deny the business use of the business.  The termination of the EFIN certainly impacted the business but the business had “no cognizable property interest in their EFIN in the first place.”  Citing Mitchell Arms v. United States, the Court stated that “when a party receives a permit to engage in an activity ‘which, from the start, is subject to pervasive Government control,’ no cognizable property interest capable of supporting a takings claim ever arises in that permit.”

Although the Mitchell Arms case involved the import and sale of assault rifles rather than electronic filing of returns, the Court found the action of ATF in that case exactly paralleled the action of the IRS in this one.  Because no property interest attached to the EFIN, the termination of the right to electronically file could not constitute a taking under the constitution.

Conclusion

The decision here, though harsh, does not cover new ground.  The business had good reason to expect the IRS would make it whole for assisting with the sting operation based on the representations of the special agent.  Not everyone knows of the limitations governing federal employees.  The case reminds us to take care in contracting or thinking we have contracted with the federal government.  Authority is critical.  Here, the special agent did not have proper authority to bind the IRS and the actions of other IRS officials did not act to ratify the actions of the special agent.

Similarly, licenses like EFINs do not come with a guarantee or with special protections.  When a business relies on the EFIN for its financial life, it must take extreme care to avoid actions that can result in its removal.  Even though the actions here appear to be those of an independent contractor working with the business, the concern of the IRS about fraudulent return filing schemes ends up punishing the business as well as the individual perpetrator in an effort to keep the system clean.  The result here reaches a much different result for the preparer than the D.C. Circuit in Loving because of the difference in the nature of the fight.  In Loving, the IRS sought to assert its authority over a previously unregulated matter – tax return preparation.  Here, the IRS exercised control over use of its electronic filing procedures something which it has carefully regulated from the start.  The challenge was not to the IRS ability to regulate electronic filing but whether the business had a property interest in the ability to electronically file.

 

Comments

  1. Arnold Handler says:

    Keith, fascinating account of an interesting case. Don’t the plaintiffs still have a possible claim against the government though in light of the statement in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion “Because § 2680(c) does not confer absolute immunity on the IRS, and because, construing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the IRS’s sting operation did not ‘aris[e] in respect of the assessment or collection of any tax,’ we reverse the district court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings”?

    • We put up a link to the wrong case initially. I think the link to the correct case which is now up will make more sense as you try to digest the post.

  2. Arnold Handler says:

    Keith, as always your write-up makes for good reading. One question though. Were there two cases decided in July involving ” Snyder & Associates v. United States”? I think the website you provide in the first sentence is for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case decided several days ago, but that the case you are discussing above is a Court of Federal Claims case decided on July 13.

  3. Robert Weinberger says:

    I have not read the opinion but revocation of an EFIN may be justified based on rules in the Handbook for Authorized IRS e-file Providers of Individual Income Tax Returns (IRS Pub. 1345, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p1345.pdf, pp. 44-45), which effectively prohibit e-File Providers from being both a lender and the tax return preparer:

    “Authorized IRS e-file Providers (Providers) that assist taxpayers in applying for a tax refund-related financial product have additional responsibilities and may be sanctioned by the IRS if they fail to adhere to the requirements below….

    The Provider must:
    ****
    o Ensure that if it is also the return preparer that it is not a related taxpayer (within the meaning of §267 or §707A) to the financial institution or other lender that makes a RAL agreement… “

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