Court Rejects Prior Settlement From Barring Release of Documents in FOIA Claim

“Some on the street say snitches get stitches, but in this case they become the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests.” So starts Montgomery v US, one of the more interesting FOIA cases I have come across in this round of updates for the Saltzman Book IRS Practice and Procedure treatise.

I start by noting that “FOIA” and “interesting” do not usually find themselves paired. But in Montgomery, a district court opinion from earlier this year, the two fit nicely. In an opinion written by Judge James Boasberg, the same district court judge who wrote the opinion a few years ago in Loving v IRS, which struck down the testing and continuing education requirements for return preparers, Montgomery addresses a FOIA issue I had not previously seen-namely whether a prior settlement agreement can serve as a nonstatutory basis for the government’s withholding documents in a FOIA case.

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This case had its origins in the IRS’s examination of the taxpayers’ complex partnership transactions many years ago. As the opinion describes, the partnership transactions attracted the attention of the IRS, leading to opinions that upheld the determination that the partnerships were shams and that the IRS properly issued final partnership administrative adjustments, but also a separate refund suit that the IRS ultimately settled, leading to an almost $500,000 refund for the Montgomerys.

The settlement did not end the dispute. The Montgomerys filed a FOIA claim, convinced that the IRS troubles with the partnerships were the result of information that an informant provided to the IRS. The FOIA claim sought general information pertaining to the IRS investigation, but also specific forms the IRS uses when confidential informants trigger an investigation.

The case implicates FOIA Exemption 7D, which we discuss in Chapter 2 of the treatise, and which provides protection for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes [which] could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source…”

7D has a lot to unpack, and there has been a substantial amount of case law getting into its nooks and crannies, and we discuss that in Chapter 2.03[6] of the treatise.

This opinion, however, involves a preliminary defense that the Service raised in a motion for summary judgment. In settling the refund suit in 2014, the IRS and Montgomery entered into an agreement that “fully and final resolve[d] all ongoing disputes” among the IRS, the Montgomerys and their partnerships; the language in the agreement also referred to resolving all issues in “pending” lawsuits.

In justifying its refusing to hand over documents that the Montgomerys requested in the FOIA request, the government argued that the refund suit settlement agreement’s final resolution language barred the Montgomerys from bringing their FOIA case.

The problem, however, is that the settlement agreement, which resolved the ongoing disputes and pending litigation, predated the FOIA claim, which was filed a year or so after the agreement. Despite that challenge, the government argued that the Montgomerys in their refund suit had sought similar information in a motion for disclosure, and thus there was an “ongoing dispute” that brought the FOIA claim within the parties’ settlement agreement.

The court disagreed:

Where the IRS goes off track, however, is in conflating the underlying information that Plaintiffs seek with the device through which they are pursuing documents…. The Service cannot try to shoehorn this action into the Settlement Agreement simply because Plaintiffs’ end game is the same.

While the opinion rejected the government’s argument, the opinion notes that the outcome might have differed if in the prior litigation the taxpayers had sought information pursuant to Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows for inspection of documents or electronically stored information and which the opinion notes  “might arguably be more akin to a FOIA request.”

Conclusion

For readers with an interest in FOIA, there is a bit more to this case, as the  opinion also rejects strained res judicata and collateral estoppel arguments the government raised in its motion.

Despite the initial win for the Montgomerys, the dispute continues, however, as the parties differ on the reach of the statutory basis for withholding of documents, as well as the applicability of a so-called Glomar denial, which is when the government refuses to confirm or deny information pertaining to a request. A Glomar denial has its origins in a case involving the CIA and the government’s withholding information relating to Project Azorian, a massive project to uncover a sunk Soviet sub. Its reach in FOIA cases involving the IRS and its possible use of informants is now squarely at issue in this case. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

The Freedom of Information Act and the Office of Professional Responsibility

Working for over three decades for Chief Counsel’s office, one of my goals was to avoid disclosure issues both on a personal and professional level. On a personal level, I wanted to know enough to keep out of trouble and on a professional level I wanted to avoid getting labeled as someone who knew disclosure law because that could lead to more assignments regarding disclosure issues which I did not want. At Chief Counsel’s office, FOIA was lumped in with IRC 6103 and the Privacy Act. Practicing at a clinic, I only want to know enough about the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) to avoid having contact with it. Just as I did not want to know more about section 6103 than I needed in order to avoid trouble while working at Chief Counsel’s office, I do not want to learn more about OPR. I want to know the ethical rules but not what happens when you break them, because I hope that is knowledge I will never need.

Today’s case takes me into the confluence of two things I try to avoid and yet the case has important lessons worth discussion. In Waterman v. IRS, 121 AFTR2d 2018-__(D.D.C. 1-24-2018), the issue before the court is a request for records from OPR regarding an investigation of an attorney. The attorney, Brad Waterman, practices in D.C. and has for several decades. He graduated from my law school the year before me and we have met on several occasions. He has an excellent practice and the last time we met he was splitting his time between D.C. and Florida, depending on the season. The fact that he is seeking records from OPR concerning an investigation does not mean he engaged in inappropriate behavior. I know nothing about the investigation other than it was quickly closed which, it turns out, is his problem in this case. His case caused OPR to change its procedures despite, or maybe because of, his FOIA difficulties to make it easier for someone in his situation to obtain records from OPR.

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In representing a client in a matter involving a tax exempt bond, Mr. Waterman caused the revenue agent in the IRS Tax Exempt Bond office to feel that Mr. Waterman engaged in misconduct. The revenue agent, through his manager, made a referral to OPR. After investigation, OPR determined that “the allegation against Waterman did not warrant further inquiries or action.” I recently attended the ABA Tax Section meeting, at which I attended the Standards of Practice committee meeting in an effort to keep up on ethical issues. At that meeting, the director of OPR, Steve Whitlock, spoke and he talked about this case. I began writing this post on the plane to San Diego to attend the meeting. So, when the director started talking about this case, I woke up from my normal meeting stupor and started listening carefully. I hope I heard and understood him correctly.

Apparently, OPR decided not to pursue this case without sending out a letter to Mr. Waterman asking him for information. OPR regularly determines that many of the referrals it receives do not warrant further investigation and do not require making the referred individual submit material. When it makes this decision at the internal investigation stage, the case is closed with a letter to the individual informing the individual of the closure of the case without need for input from the individual. This was the normal procedure at the time OPR closed Mr. Waterman’s case. It was also, and still is I believe, the normal procedure for the OPR letter informing the individual of its conclusion to also inform the individual that OPR would retain the file on the matter for 25 years and that it reserved the right to reference the file in any future OPR investigations. Ouch. I suspect that receiving such a letter with the language about retention drove Mr. Waterman to want to know as much about the referral and investigation as possible in the event that it might have future ramifications.

The problem Mr. Waterman faced in trying to obtain information about the referral is that because OPR closed its investigation at the time of the sending of the letter, he could not use the section 6103 procedures, see here and here, that OPR suggests individuals use to obtain information about the referral. Had his case not been closed with an early letter, he would have instead received a far more ominous letter informing him of the investigation and asking him to respond to the allegations. In that situation, OPR would not have a closed investigation but a very open one. During an open investigation, OPR suggests that individuals use the section 6103 process to obtain information about the investigation. Because his investigation was closed by the time Mr. Waterman knew he wanted information, he could not use the section 6103 procedure and instead had to revert to FOIA in order to try to obtain the information.

The OPR director stated at the ABA meeting that because of this case, OPR was changing its procedures. Now, instead of issuing the one letter and closing the case immediately, it is going to issue a preliminary letter giving the target individual 60 days to make a statement to OPR and to obtain information about the investigation through section 6103. See the following paragraph for a link to this letter. Now, a recipient of this “good” OPR letter, if there is such a thing, can use the section 6103 procedures for obtaining information before OPR closes its case 60 days later. If someone receiving this good letter fails to ask for information about the investigation under section 6103 during that 60 day period, then they will face the same FOIA obstacles which Mr. Waterman encountered and which I will discuss below. I hope that neither I nor any reader will need the benefit of this knowledge, but just in case I provide it for any who have the misfortune of a referral.

Attached to the outline created by the director of OPR for his presentation at the ABA meeting were samples of the three letters sent by OPR. The first letter is called the pre-allegation letter. This is the letter alerting the recipient of an OPR investigation that is not being dropped after the initial internal review by OPR. The second letter is called the “soft conduct letter – initial” This is the letter giving the recipient the chance to request information from OPR using IRC 6103 and avoiding the problems faced by Mr. Waterman. This letter would be sent to someone that OPR determines not to investigate further after reviewing the incoming allegations. The third letter is called the “soft conduct letter” which should be sent about 60 days after the initial soft conduct letter and which would inform the recipient that OPR was closing its investigation.

The FOIA case does not discuss the merits of the investigation. From the opinion, it is clear that Mr. Waterman made informal requests for information about the investigation and did not receive everything that he wanted. So, he made a formal FOIA request. In responding to the FOIA request, the IRS withheld certain information asserting primarily FOIA exemption 5, which “allows agencies to withhold information that would not be available by law to a party … in litigation with the agency.”

In the FOIA case, Mr. Waterman agreed that the IRS search for the requested records was adequate. I want to take a brief detour here to mention another recent FOIA case, Ayyad v. IRS, No. 8-16-cv-03032 (D. Md. 2-2-2018). In the Ayyad case, the requester did not agree that the search for the records was adequate and for good reason. An examination of the taxpayer was pending for about a decade when they filed the FOIA request seeking records, which included the administrative file developed by the revenue agent including all written correspondence relating to the examination. With relatively amazing speed for a FOIA case, the IRS identified 2,885 pages of responsive records but did not produce a Vaughn index detailing the redacted and withheld records. After the taxpayers filed their FOIA suit, the IRS informed the Court it found an additional 872 pages. Later, after the taxpayer stated records were still missing, the IRS found another 6,568 pages. Needless to say, the IRS did not cover itself in glory in this case and did not prevail. Its inadequate searches and its failures to submit proper Vaughan indices resulted in an unfavorable FOIA decision. So, it is not unimportant that Mr. Waterman agreed with the IRS search. His case was much less involved and he undoubtedly knew what records were out there, but the Ayyad case provides a note of caution in relying on the first submission of records from the IRS.

In Mr. Waterman’s case, the court found that the Vaughn index properly described the withheld documents and the basis for the exemption (also a major issue in the Ayyad case). The documents at issue were pre-deliberative and involved material created by the revenue agent who made the referral, his manager, preliminary findings of the OPR investigator, and an email between OPR and counsel. The court finds all of the documents meet the test under FOIA exemption 5. If I understood Mr. Whitlock correctly, Mr. Waterman would have received the referring documents under a section 6103 request made during an open OPR investigation. I do not believe he would receive the other two documents under section 6103.

I am very sympathetic with Mr. Waterman’s right to know the basis for the investigation. Because OPR is retaining the records for 25 years, he has genuine concerns. I applaud OPR for changing its procedures to allow other similarly situated individuals to obtain records under the more friendly section 6103 procedures. I hope the information in this post is information you and I will never need to know.

 

Court Orders Release of IRS Documents Despite Deliberative Process Privilege

Government agencies enjoy the cloak of the deliberative process privilege to protect from discovery in court or in FOIA proceedings internal deliberations that are part of their decision making process. Anadarko Petroleum v United States, a recent district court magistrate’s order, illustrates that the protection is not absolute, resulting in possible disclosure of a range of IRS documents that perhaps will shed light on how the agency apparently changed its view on a technical loss deferral regulation under Section 267.

I will summarize the issue and case below.

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Anadarko brought a $25 million refund suit; the substantive issue involved its taking a loss that arose from a liquidation of one of its subsidiaries. The precise question concerned whether a deferral of the loss ended in 2007, when Anadarko liquidated its subsidiary in a taxable liquidation. The government argued that the deferral should have continued, consistent with a regulation Treasury promulgated under Section 267 in 2012 and which Treasury claimed at the time was clarifying existing rules.

In the suit, Anadarko served interrogatories and sought a variety of documents that it felt showed that the 267 regulations did not clarify existing rules because IRS had previously taken differing views on the issue. It asked for documents relating to private letter ruling, a Chief Counsel advisory opinion and even an ABA Tax Section presentation at or around the time of finalizing the regs.

The government argued that the deliberative process privilege insulated the documents from discovery. That privilege essentially keeps from FOIA requests or court discovery agency predecisional documents, including the types that Anadarko sought.

While the privilege is a powerful cloak, it is not absolute. Courts are supposed to weigh the government’s strong interest in protecting full access to how it comes to a decision with the need of the party seeking the requested documents.

In concluding that Anadarko’s need trumped the agency’s interest the magistrate focuses on how agency changes on an issue may be relevant in a court’s legal interpretation. It did not matter, in the magistrate’s view, that the request considered documents that did not in and of themselves directly relate to precedential agency determinations.

In concluding that the government had to comply with the discovery, the court also felt that the request was proportional and reasonable, in light of the amount at issue and the costs to the government in complying. Backstopping its proportionality conclusion was its view that the nonprecedential documents had a bearing on the court’s ultimate task of sorting out the merits of the taxpayer and government’s views of  Section 267 and the regs.

Conclusion

Anadarko is an important taxpayer victory. I am not well versed with the substantive issue in this case. I suspect, however, that the court’s willingness to allow discovery has a lot to do with what the magistrate believes is at a minimum a less than complete explanation accompanying the regs. If IRS takes differing views on a technical issue, and yet when promulgating a final regulation Treasury claims that it is merely clarifying what the law had been all along, a court (and taxpayers) are justifiably curious as to how that explanation jives with what came before the final reg.

District Court Pokes Facebook FOIA Request

Like many social media and tech companies, Facebook has drawn IRS scrutiny over its licensing of technology to low tax offshore affiliates. That dispute is in Tax Court. Seeking to obtain information about the IRS audit, Facebook filed a FOIA request seeking documents related to the dispute. The FOIA request has now generated its own separate litigation.

Not surprisingly, the files IRS has on the Facebook exam are voluminous and it asked Facebook to extend the time to respond to the request. While the IRS served up thousands of pages of records, it did not provide all Facebook wanted. Facebook sought to compel the IRS to issue responsive documents in electronic format. Last month’s district court opinion held that Facebook was not entitled to the records in that format.

While we do not discuss FOIA frequently in PT, we have recently revised our FOIA discussion in the Saltzman and Book treatise. FOIA is an important tool for practitioners seeking information relating to tax disputes. There are some interesting procedural aspects of the Facebook FOIA case.

Facebook emphasizes that if a requester wants documents in electronic format, the request itself must clearly say so. The original Facebook request did not indeed indicate the format that the company wanted the documents. As the opinion notes, [i]t asked for all records ‘whether maintained in electronic or hardcopy format,’ but did not specify the format for production.”

While the Facebook opinion stated that “metadata is an important part of electronic records in today’s world…” the opinion emphasized that without a specific request for a document in a particular form the courts have no basis to order production because there was no valid FOIA request in the first instance:

With respect to its request for electronic-format documents, then, Facebook did not submit a valid FOIA request in compliance with the IRS’s regulations. The request did not trigger the IRS’s FOIA obligations, the IRS did not have an opportunity to exercise its discretion in analyzing the request, and so Facebook has not exhausted its administrative remedies.

A separate and somewhat academic discussion in the opinion considered whether the exhaustion requirement was jurisdictional. There is a split on that issue; some courts have concluded that the exhaustion requirement is a prudential consideration rather than a jurisdictional prerequisite. Facebook argued that even in fact it was a jurisdictional requirement the court could find that ordering Facebook to submit a revised FOIA request was futile (thus allowing the court to compel production in electronic format).

The court declined to resolve the jurisdictional versus prudential dispute, emphasizing that even if the request were not jurisdictional courts waive the exhaustion requirement only if the waiver was consistent with the purpose of the exhaustion requirement:

Whether analyzed prudentially or jurisdictionally (with a futility exception), the ultimate question is the same: does the failure to exhaust undermine the purposes and policies of FOIA exhaustion — i.e. to give the IRS a chance to exercise its discretion and to review its decisionmaking process before judicial intervention? Put another way: would dismissal promote that purpose?

The answer here is yes. Judicial intervention now would deprive the IRS the opportunity to exercise its discretion and analyze Facebook’s (now clarified) request for electronic documents and metadata, and dismissal would give the IRS the chance to do so. The court is not convinced that Facebook’s refiling of a revised FOIA request to specify the format (and content) of the records it seeks would be futile.

Conclusion

The opinion is a careful reminder that what often takes the form of boilerplate requests for information in fact can have practical significance if a FOIA dispute winds up in court. As some disputes can relate to administrative files with millions of documents, and as the world increasingly becomes digital, litigants seeking information from the IRS must be careful and precise when seeking information.

What is a “Record” for FOIA

In today’s post, I am covering a somewhat stale, non-tax holding in American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review (“AILA”), a case dealing with a FOIA request “seeking disclosure of records related to complaints about the conduct of immigration judges.”  It will also touch on the DOJ response to the case, which was issued in January.  Perfect for a tax procedure blog that tries to stay somewhat current.  The case, decided by the DC Circuit, is important, however, because the determination of what could be redacted from a record, once it is determined the record was responsive to the FOIA request.  Specifically, whether non-responsive aspects of the record could be redacted (spoiler – Sri Srinivasan says “no”). This has far reaching potential consequences with FOIA requests beyond the narrow scope of the request, including to FOIA requests made in relation to tax cases or requests for information about how the Service administers the laws.

The substance of the case does not matter much for this discussion, although it is interesting that such terrible allegations have repeatedly been made against the immigration judges.  Various complaints included disrespectful and at times racist treatment of defendants, and sometimes fairly reprehensible treatment of counsel.  Unfortunately, this is probably old hat for people who work in this system; makes me somewhat thankful when I do catch a helpful Appeals Officer or Revenue Agent or the quality work usually done by the tax court.  In this case, AILA requested all information relating to complaints about the immigration judges.  Interestingly, I believe some faulty redacting relating to this case may have resulted in the summary of the complaints being released, along with the judges’ names. I just redacted the heck out of about 1500 pages using Adobe, and now I am a little nervous.  I would assume the FOIA folks redact far more frequently than me.

Procedurally, FOIA generally requires the feds to make certain information available to the public, but subject to nine exceptions.  See 5 USC § 552(a).   The pubic is allowed to request the documents, and the agency must provide them, but has the ability to withhold the documents if the entire document is subject to an exemption, or can redact portions that are properly withheld and provide the rest of the document.  The exemptions can be found listed here.  For those of you interested in learning all about the intersection of FOIA and tax practice and procedure, Les recently updated chapter 2 of SaltzBook, which covers this in great detail, including all the exemptions and how to use FOIA requests in your practice.

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In AILA, what is important is that various documents were found that were responsive to the extensive requests made.  Many of those documents contained portions that were responsive to the request, and portions that were responsive but also fit into one of the exemptions.  Aspects of some of the documents were also non-responsive.  Meaning, portions of the documents did not relate to the request that was made.  Agency practice, I believe including the IRS, was to redact all portions of the document that were exempt, and also to redact all the portions of the document that were non-responsive to the request.  When in doubt, keep it out.

This practice had been somewhat sanctioned by various district courts, and was in question in AILA.  The DC Circuit, however, disagreed with the district courts.  In discussing the “ostensibly non-responsive material” (you know this isn’t going to go your way when “ostensibly” is applied to your position), the Court noted that the government’s position was that it was not under any obligation to release information concerning matters unrelated to the FOIA request.  Not a wholly absurd position.  In the Vaughn index, examples were given as to why the portions of the documents were not responsive, such as information relating to the judge needing to clean his/her office, and vacation plans.   That is all interesting, but not germane to the request.

Although the lower court and other district courts had addressed this issue, it was the first time the DC Circuit had taken the matter up.  The Court began by providing some background information, stating FOIA requires “’each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules stating time, place, fees (if any), and procedures to be followed, shall make the records promptly available to any person.’ 5 USC § 552(a)(3)(A).” Further, in “responsive records” certain portions may be redacted pursuant to the exemptions.  The only provisions, however, related to responsive records, and withholding information, is found within those exemptions.  The court stated, FOIA creates a process for an agency to follow when responding to a FOIA request:

First, identify responsive records; second, identify those responsive records or portions of responsive records that are statutorily exempt from disclosure; and third, if necessary and feasible, redact exempt information from the responsive records. The statute does not provide for…redacting non-exempt information within responsive records.

Relying on a handful of SCOTUS cases that required FOIA exemptions to be narrowly construed, the Court did not see how it could authorize the redacting of aspects of records that were found to be responsive.  As stated above, the manner in which agencies generally redacted was contrary to this holding.

We do not know the exact significance of the holding yet, and the Court somewhat foreshadowed what impact this case may have.  The Court stated:

The practical significance of FOIA’s command to disclose a responsive record as a unit…depends on how one conceives of a “record.”  Here the parties have not addressed the antecedent question of what constitutes a distinct “record” for FOIA purposes…for purposes of this case, we simply take as a given [the government’s] own understanding of what constitutes a responsive “record,” as indicated by its disclosures…

Although FOIA includes a definition section…that sections provides no definition of the term “record.”  Elsewhere, the statute describes the term record as ‘include[ing] any information that would be an agency record…when maintained by an agency in any format, including an electronic format’…but that description provides little help in understanding what is a “record” in the first place.”

In the text of the case, the Court compares the definition of “record” under FOIA to the definition of record under the Privacy Act, which states it is “any item, collection, or grouping of information.” See 44 USC § 2201(2).  Although not completely clear, it is more instructive than no definition at all.

In AILA, the Court’s holding was clearly not going to sit well with the government, but the Court provided the framework for each agency to rethink how it approached FOIA requests in a manner that mitigated what the agencies viewed as a negative holding.  The DOJ somewhat took them up on that offer.  In January of 2017, Office of Information Policy released guidance entitled, “Defining a ‘Record’ Under FOIA” addressing the holding in AILA.  The guidance notes that after AILA, “it is not permissible to redact information within a record as “non-responsive.”  It also highlighted the fact that the Court looked to the “sister statute” of FOIA, The Privacy Act, 5 USC 552a(a)(4) for the potential definition of “record” as “any item, collection, or grouping of information.”

From this, the guidance encouraged the agencies to use the Privacy Act definition and use a “more fine-tuned, content-based approach to the decision,” as to what a record is, and determine if an entire document is the record, or just a page, or just a paragraph.  In AILA, the Court stated it may be impossible to withhold one sentence of a paragraph, and DOJ agreed.  The guidance provided some practical pointers about how an agency must then report the number of records the agency has that is responsive.  It should also clearly identify each record and if it contains multiple subjects so “the requester can readily see why and how the agency divided the document into distinct ‘records’.”

AILA was a substantial departure from how agencies, including Treasury, and the Service, handled FOIA responses.  The case, however, provided a roadmap to mitigate the shift, which the Government apparently will seek to implement.  The practical impact may be less overall pages, but with less redaction.

 

Procedure Grab Bag – Making A Grab for Attorney’s Fees and Civil Damages

Your clients love the idea, and always think the government should pay, but it isn’t that easy.  Below are a summary of a handful of cases highlighting many pitfalls, and a few helpful pointers, in recovering legal fees and civil damages from the government (sorry federal readers) that have come out over the last few months.

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3rd Party Rights

The Ninth Circuit, in US v. Optional Capital, Inc., held that a third party holding a lien on property could not obtain attorney’s fees for an in rem proceeding to determine its rights in real estate that had also been subject to government liens pursuant to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, 28 USC 2465(b)(1)(A), or Section 7430.  The Court determined the 3rd party was not the prevailing party “in any civil proceeding to forfeit property,” as required by CAFRA.  The government had lost in a related hearing regarding the lien, but the 3rd party had “not pointed to any work it performed that was ‘useful’ or ‘necessary to secure’ victory against the Government,” so it was not the prevailing party.  It would seem, however, this leaves open the possibility of other 3rd parties prevailing, if meaningful work was done in the underlying case.  This case is a good reminder of another potential option under CAFRA in attempting to claim fees in certain collection matters.

As to Section 7430, the Court found, contrary to the 3rd party’s claims, it had not actually removed the government’s liens from the property, and therefore could not be considered the prevailing party, which is required under Section 7430 to obtain fees.

When You Are Rich Is Important

In Bryan S. Alterman Trust v. Comm’r, the Tax Court held that a trust could not qualify to recover litigation costs under Section 7430 because its net worth was over $2MM.  Section 7430 references 28 USC 2412(d)(2)(B), which states an individual must have under $2MM in net worth in order to recover litigation costs.  That is extended to trusts by Section 7430(c)(4)(D).  The taxpayer argued the eligibility requirement should be as of the time the deficiency notice was issued or the date the petition was filed.  That “reading” of the statute was found incorrect, as Section 7430(c)(4)(D)(i)(II) states the provision applies to a trust, “but shall be determined as of the last day of the taxable year involved in the proceeding.”  At that time, the trust had over $2MM in net worth, saving the IRS from potentially having to shell out capital.  And, that’s why I always keep my trust balances below $2MM…and right around zero dollars.

Key Questions: Are you the Taxpayer?  Did you Exhaust the Administrative Remedies?

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed the government’s motion for summary judgment in Garlovsky v. United States on fees under Section 7433, but also gave clear indication that the claim is in danger.  In Garlovsky, the government sought collection on trust fund recovery penalties against an individual for his nursing home employer that allegedly failed to pay employment taxes.  Prior to that collection action, the individual died, and notices were sent to his surviving spouse (who apparently was some type of fiduciary and received his assets).  The taxpayer’s wife paid a portion, and then sued for a refund.  As to damages, the Court found that the taxpayer’s wife failed to make an administrative claim for civil damages before suing in the District Court, which is required under Section 7433.

In addition, although the surviving spouse received the collection notices, none were addressed to her and the Service had not attempted to collect from her.  Section 7433 states, “in connection with any collection of…tax…the [IRS] recklessly or intentionally, or by reason of negligence, disregards any provisions of this title…such taxpayer may bring a civil action…”  The Court found that the spouse was not “such taxpayer”, and likely did not have a claim.  Although I have not researched this matter, I would assume the estate of the decedent could bring this claim (unlike Section 7431, pertaining to claims for wrongful disclosure of tax information, which some courts have held dies with the taxpayer – see Garrity v. United States –a case I think I wrote up, but never actually posted).

Qualifying as a Qualified Offer

The 9th Circuit held that married taxpayers were not entitled to recover attorney’s fees under Section 7430 in Simpson v. Comm’r, where the taxpayer did not substantially prevail on its primary argument, even though they did prevail on an alternative argument.  In Simpson, the wife received a substantial recovery in an employment lawsuit.  The Simpsons only included a small portion as income, arguing it was workers comp proceeds (not much evidence of that).  The Tax Court held 90% was income.  This was upheld.  The 9th Circuit held that the taxpayer was clearly not successful on its primary claim.  They did raise an ancillary claim during litigation, which the IRS initially contested, but then conceded.  The Court held the Service was substantially justified in its position, as the matter was raised later in the process and was agreed to within a reasonable time.  Finally, the Court held that the taxpayer’s settlement offer did not qualify as a “qualified offer”, since the taxpayers indicated they could withdraw it at any time.  Qualified offers must remain open until the earliest of the date it is rejected, the date trial begins, or the 90th day after it is made.  Something to keep in mind when making an offer.

Making the Granite State Stronger – No Fees For FOIA

Granite seems pretty sturdy, but Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire are hoping for something even sturdier.  The District Court for the District of New Hampshire in Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire v. IRS has denied Strong New Hampshire’s request for attorney’s fees under 5 USC 552(a)(4)(E)(i) for fees incurred in bringing its FOIA case.  That USC section authorizes fees and litigation costs “reasonably incurred in any case under [FOIA] in which the complainant has substantially prevailed.”  The statute defines “substantially prevailing” as obtaining relief through “(I) a judicial order, or an enforceable written agreement or consent decree; or (II) a voluntary…change in position by the agency…”

Strong New Hampshire requested documents through a FOIA request regarding various New Hampshire politicians.  It took the IRS a long time to get back to Strong New Hampshire, and it withheld about half the applicable documents as exempt under FOIA.  Strong New Hampshire continued to move forward with the suit, and the Service moved for summary judgement arguing it complied.  Aspects remained outstanding, but the Court held that the Service had not improperly withheld the various documents.  The IRS did a second search, moved for summary judgement, and Strong New Hampshire did not contest.

The Court held that the voluntary subsequent search by the Service did not raise to the level of substantially prevailing by Strong New Hampshire.  As required by the statute, there was not a court order in favor of Strong New Hampshire, and the actions taken by the Service unilaterally in doing the second search was not sufficient to merit fees.

District Court Holds Tax Court Exempt From FOIA as a “Court of the United States”

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith.  Today Carl writes about a recent case looking at whether FOIA applies to the Tax Court.  Les

In June 2015, I did a post warning readers that the litigious Mr. Ronald Byers was about to bring a FOIA suit against the Tax Court. Previously, Mr. Byers had gotten a ruling from the D.C. Circuit in a Collection Due Process (CDP) levy case allowing all CDP cases not involving challenges to underlying tax liability to be appealed from the Tax Court to the D.C. Circuit. See Byers v. Commissioner, 740 F.3d 668 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (venue ruling legislatively overruled going forward in December 2015). Mr. Byers is currently in the midst of a CDP lien case in the Tax Court. In 2015, he made a FOIA request to the Tax Court for various unpublished documents. The Tax Court refused the request, saying that it was exempt from FOIA because it was one of the “courts of the United States”, within the meaning of 5 U.S.C. § 551(1)(B).

Mr. Byers had a hard time intellectually reconciling (1) the holding in Kuretski v. Commissioner, 755 F.3d 929 (D.C. Cir. 2014), that the Tax Court, for constitutional purposes, is located in the Executive Branch with (2) the idea that the Tax Court is one of the “courts of the United States” for purposes of the FOIA exemption. So, he brought suit against the Tax Court in the district court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the Tax Court is an Executive agency or other entity covered by FOIA and is not described in the exemption to FOIA for “courts of the United States”. In an opinion from the district court issued on September 30, the court agrees with the Tax Court that FOIA doesn’t apply to the Tax Court. Byers v. United States Tax Court.

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5 U.S.C. sec. 552(a) requires that “[e]ach agency shall make available to the public information . . . .”   An “agency,” for purposes of FOIA, “as defined in section 551(1) of this title includes any executive department, military department, Government corporation, Government controlled corporation, or other establishment in the executive branch of the Government (including the Executive Office of the President), or any independent regulatory agency.”  5 U.S.C. sec. 552(f)(1).  5 U.S.C. sec. 551(1), in relevant part, states that “‘agency’ means each authority of the Government of the United States, whether or not it is within or subject to review by another agency, but does not include– . . . (B)  the courts of the United States”.  IRC sec. 7441 establishes the Tax Court as a “court of record” under Article I.

Byers argued that the Tax Court – per Kuretski – was either an agency or “other establishment in the executive branch of the Government”. Essentially, the district court agreed with Byers on this point, but it noted that the D.C. Circuit in Kuretski speculated that the Tax Court might be one thing for constitutional purposes, yet another thing for statutory purposes, and left open that question.  This district court opinion decided the question left open in Kuretski.

However, the district court held that the Tax Court was exempt from FOIA, holding that it is one of the “courts of the United States”. Byers argued that the phrase “courts of the United States” was a term of art in several places of the United States Code that limited the phrase to Article III courts.

The opinion correctly notes that two courts in other Circuits have previously decided that the Tax Court is exempt from FOIA as one of the “courts of the United States”.   Megibow v. Clerk of the United States Tax Court, 432 F.3d 387 (2d Cir. 2005), aff’g 94 AFTR 2d 5804 (S.D.N.Y. 2004 (holding that the Tax Court is not an “agency” for purposes of FOIA); Ostheimer v. Chumbley, 498 F.Supp. 890,892 (D. Mont. 1980) (same), aff’d, 746 F.2d 1487 (9th Cir. 1984). Thus, the D.C. district court Byers opinion does not break new ground in its holding. No court has held otherwise. At least one of those courts relied, in part, for its holding that the Tax Court was a “court”, on the functional analysis that the Supreme Court did of the Tax Court for constitutional purposes in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991). In Freytag, the Supreme Court held that the Tax Court, despite not being an Article III court, held a portion of the judicial power of the United States. The district court in Byers supported its holding, as well, in part by the Freytag functional analysis of the Tax Court.

However, unlike the prior court opinions on this FOIA issue, the D.C. district court in Byers had to deal with the December 2015 amendment to IRC § 7441 that added the following sentence to respond to the Kuretski opinion:  “The Tax Court is not an agency of, and shall be independent of, the executive branch of the Government.”  Of course, the D.C. Circuit in Kuretski held that the Tax Court was part of the Executive Branch for constitutional purposes.  The Byers district court agreed with the Tax Court’s argument that this added sentence did nothing to change existing law or overrule Kuretski.  Interesting for the Tax Court to make that argument, since it must have been the Tax Court that asked Congress to amend § 7441.  Why make a pointless amendment?  I think the answer may be for public perception – i.e., individuals reading the Code should learn of the Tax Court’s independence from the Executive Branch (i.e., independence from the IRS) not by having to read and parse Freytag and Kuretski (which only lawyers would do).

The Byers district court also rejected applying to FOIA the definition of “the courts of the United States” in 28 U.S.C. § 451 – one that limits that phrase only to Article III courts. The district court noted that the § 451 definition is explicitly limited in effect to Title 28, so does not apply to Title 5, where FOIA is located.

The Byers district court still had to deal with two provisions of the IRC that also seem to use the phrase “courts of the United States” to refer only to Article III courts:

In footnote 6, the district court wrote:

Section 7457 provides for witness fees and mileage in the Tax Court that are the same as those provided for “witnesses in courts of the United States.” 26 U.S.C. § 7457(a). Mr. Byers argues that this statute shows that the Tax Court is not one of the “courts of the United States.” See Compl. Ex. C at 27. But the Court is persuaded by the Tax Court’s argument that this provision was enacted when the precursor to the Tax Court was still an “independent agency,” thus requiring the comparison to existing courts. See Def.’s Mem. At 16–17; see also Internal Revenue Code of 1954, Pub. L. No. 83-591, § 7457, 68A Stat. 730, 886 (1954); supra Part II.B (explaining that the Tax Court was not “established” as an Article I court until 1969).

Of course, the response to the district court’s statement is that Congress continued the language in § 7457 after it adopted the 1969 amendments, thus suggesting that, after 1969, Congress still did not feel that the Tax Court was one of the “courts of the United States” for Title 5 FOIA exemption purposes.

On page 17, the Byers court noted “possible contradictions in the recent legislation”, since in December, Congress newly adopted § 7470, which provides:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Tax Court may exercise, for purposes of management, administration, and expenditure of funds of the Court, the authorities provided for such purposes by any provision of law (including any limitation with respect to such provision of law) applicable to a court of the United States (as that term is defined in section 451 of title 28, United States Code), except to the extent that such provision of law is inconsistent with a provision of this subchapter.

The court thinks the amendment of § 7441 essentially trumps the implication of § 7470 that the Tax Court is an agency of the United States that did not already have the powers of management give in § 7470 because the Tax Court isn’t a court of the United States.

Mr. Byers tells me that he plans to appeal the district court’s ruling to the D.C. Circuit, perhaps after filing a motion for reconsideration.

 

 

The Interplay between the Freedom of Information Act and IRC 6103

In Goldstein v. IRS the District Court for the District of Columbia found that the IRS misconstrued the relationship between the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Section 6103.  It remanded large parts of the case to the IRS for further action because the Court finds that the IRS did not properly follow its own regulations and did not properly interpret the relationship between FOIA and Section 6103.  Because this decision comes from the District of Columbia, it carries significant weight.  The case involves an heir seeking information about his father’s estate and income taxes.  The case provides a guide to obtaining information as an heir as well as a glimpse at the IRS processing of such requests.  It shows that the privacy wall around tax information which protects taxpayers from having their tax information seen by others may not rise as high in the context of an heir.  The case offers hope to those who need information about an estate to protest their interest but who do not control the estate or a trust.  The case also views the return of information provided by a whistleblower differently than the IRS.  We do not post in this area often.  Les ventured into disclosure last year in a post involving another case that deserves attention if you did not receive an adequate explanation from the IRS for denying your request for information.

As a Chief Counsel attorney I always felt that demonstrating knowledge of disclosure law operated as a close second to demonstrating knowledge of TEFRA.  Such knowledge created a path to case assignments in which I had no interest.  Yet, I always had a fascination with knowledge of the disclosure laws because these laws provided a path to important information.  Representing clinic clients, I do not use FOIA as much as I should.  Perhaps, my failure stems from my old fears of demonstrating knowledge of matters regarding disclosure but more likely it stems from a failure to know how to use the disclosure laws to the best advantage of my clients.  The Goldstein case shows FOIA opening the door to information that will assist the plaintiff in evaluating his interest in the assets of a complicated estate and whether the actions of the executor have best preserved his interest.  A guest post on FOIA may provide a guide if you seek to use FOIA to gain information.

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The plaintiff made a FOIA request for 10 discreet items from the IRS.  In the context of a summary judgment motion, the Court goes through each of the ten items, grouping a few together, and discusses how the IRS treatment of the request did, or did not, comply with the law.  Prior to the litigation, the IRS had determined that either FOIA or 6103 allowed plaintiff to receive the documents; however, it denied the release of many other documents on the grounds that the IRS did not have authority to release them.  The Court started its legal discussion pointing out the flaw in the IRS treatment of information requests that created a distinction between FOIA and 6103.  Citing to a 1986 D.C. Circuit court case of Church of Scientology of California v. IRS the Court quoted “FOIA is a structural statute, designed to apply across-the-board to many substantive programs; it explicitly accommodates other laws [under FOIA Exemption 3] by excluding from its disclosure requirement documents ‘specifically exempted from disclosure’ by other statutes.”

Section 6103 is one of the “other statutes” referred to in FOIA similar to other provisions elsewhere in the United States Code that prohibit the disclosure of certain information.  So, 6103 and FOIA work in harmony rather than as separate stovepipes as the IRS treated them.  Because a request for information, even one that implicates 6103 still comes under the FOIA umbrella, plaintiff here appropriately made the request for the information under FOIA and the IRS must follow FOIA (and 6103) in making its determination whether to provide the information requested.  The separate non-FOIA process that the IRS developed for information covered by 6103 does not work as a process to prevent a plaintiff from moving forward for resolution under a FOIA action.  Section 6103 still plays a role in whether the information will be turned over but the IRS cannot hold up 6103 as a shield to prevent a party from seeking information by bringing a FOIA suit.  Having decided that the FOIA litigation itself provided the appropriate vehicle for examining the requests for information, the Court then went through each separate request.

Item 1 of Plaintiff’s request sought the entire examination file with respect to the audit of the estate of Plaintiff’s father.  The relevant statute governing this request, IRC 6103(e)(1)(E) has two requirements.  A relationship requirement and a material interest requirement.  Plaintiff met the relationship requirement as an heir of the estate.  The IRS found that he did not meet the material interest requirement which requires that the person “will be affected by the information contained therein.”  The IRS found Plaintiff had a material interest in only part of the examination records.  Plaintiff sent two more letters seeking to show the material interest but the IRS remained unconvinced and it sought summary judgment that its determination regarding material interest correctly followed the statutory standard.  The Court, however, determined that the IRS failed to follow another part of the same regulations it sought to use to deny the request because the IRS did not advise the Plaintiff in writing “in what respect” his request failed 26 C.F.R. 601.702(c)(1)(i)  and (c)(4)(i).  So, it remanded the case to allow the IRS to provide the Plaintiff with specific guidance and to evaluate his response.

Item 2 of the FOIA request sought the estate tax return and return information.  The IRS provided some of the estate tax return but Plaintiff complained that the response failed to provide “the full and complete return [including all schedules] nor the amendments to the return, as agreed upon, in an estate tax audit.”  The Court remanded again saying the that IRS failed to appreciate the breadth of the request and that it failed to advise the Plaintiff in writing of the specific reason for its denial so that he could respond to the stated concern.

Items 3 and 4 sought fiduciary income tax returns of the estate and of a living trust.  Because the IRS treated the request for income tax returns as falling within its 6103 procedures and outside of the FOIA procedures, the affidavits it provided to the Court concerning its response to this request failed to address the information the Court needed in order to properly evaluate the FOIA request and it remanded this aspect of the case for further information gathering on the basis for the IRS denial of the request pointing again to the IRS failure to follow its own regulations by providing Plaintiff a detailed statement regarding the deficiencies in the information request.

Items 5 and 7 concerned information about a partnership in which the decedent had invested.  The IRS refused to provide this information because Plaintiff was not a “general partner, limited partner or special limited partner.”  The court found clear error in the IRS determination that Plaintiff was not a beneficiary of the living trust established by the decedent and remanded this part of the case to the IRS to “re-evaluate its determination.”  The court went further on the legal issue applicable here to direct the IRS to consider whether the definition of partner advanced by Plaintiff was correct essentially ordering the IRS to reconsider who may receive partnership information.

Item 8 seeks information submitted to the IRS by attorney David Capes who submitted the information to the IRS at the request of Plaintiff.  The information submitted by Mr. Capes alleged civil and criminal fraud by the estate.  The IRS denied the request and argued in the proceeding that this information, if it exists, was return information of a third party protected under 6103 for which Plaintiff did not have a release.  The Court looked at the IRM which states that “information furnished to the IRS by third parties (e.g. informants) may be returned to the third party upon request in most instances provided the material has remained in its original state.”  The Court said that the IRS appeared not to have considered the rules that should apply when a whistleblower requests the return of documents.

The case offers many possible bases for challenging IRS denials for request of information.  The primary focus of the opinion concerns those whose interest arises through a will but the last item discussed also challenges IRS assumptions regarding return of information provided by informants.  The tone of the opinion challenges another vestige of tax exceptionalism.  The IRS bifurcated 6103 responses from FOIA responses but the Court found the two bound together in a statutory scheme that recognizes the importance of the disclosure provisions under 6103 but does not place them outside the scope of the broader FOIA framework for requesting information from the government.