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.

read more...

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.

read more...

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.

read more...

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.

read more...

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.

read more...

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.

 

 

Summary Opinions for 9/21/15 to 10/2/15

Running a little behind on the Summary Opinions.  Should hopefully be caught up through most of October by the end of this week.  Some very good FOIA, whistleblower, and private collections content in this post.  Plus fantasy football tax cheats, business on boats, and lots of banks getting sued.  Here are the items from the end of September that we didn’t otherwise write about:

read more...
  • Let’s start with some FOIA litigation. The District Court for the District of Columbia issued two opinions relating to Cause of Action, which holds itself out as an advocate for government accountability.  On August 28th, the Court ruled regarding a FOIA request by Cause for various documents relating to Section 6103(g) requests, which would include all request by the executive office of the Prez for return information, plus all such requests by that office that were not related to Section 6103(g), and all requests for disclosure by an agency of return information pursuant to Sections 6103(i)(1), (2), & (3)(A).   The IRS failed to release any information pursuant to the last two requests, taking the position that records discussing return information would be “return information” themselves, and therefore should be withheld under FOIA exemption 3.  There are various holdings in this case, but the one I found most interesting was the determination that the request by the Executive Branch and the IRS responses may not be “return information” per se, which would require a review by the IRS of the applicable documents.  Although the petition was drafted in broad terms, this Washington Times article indicates the plaintiff was seeking records regarding the Executive Branch looking into them specifically, presumably as some type of retaliation.

In a second opinion issued on September 16th, in Cause of Action v. TIGTA, Judge Jackson granted TIGTA’s motion for summary judgement because after litigation and in camera review, the Court determined none of the found documents were responsive.  This holding was related to the same case as above, but the IRS had shifted a portion of the FOIA request to TIGTA.  Initially, TIGTA issued a Glomar response, indicating it could not confirm or deny the existence (I assume for privacy reasons, not national defense).  The Court found that was inapplicable, and TIGTA was forced to do a review and found 2,500 records, which it still withheld.  Cause of Action tried to force disclosure, but the Court did an in camera review and found the responsive records were not actually applicable.

  • That was complicated.  Now for something completely different.  This HR Block infographic is trying to get you all investigated for tax fraud.  In summary, 75 million of the 319 million people in America play fantasy football, and roughly none are paying taxes on their winnings.  If you click on the infographic, we know you are guilty.  Thankfully, my teams this year are abysmal, so I won’t be committing tax fraud…my wife on the other hand has a juggernaut in our shared league…To all of our IRS readers, please ignore this post.
  • Now a couple whistleblower cases.  In Whistleblower One 10683W v. Comm’r, the Tax Court held that the whistleblower was entitled to review relevant information relating to the denial of the award based on information provided by the whistleblower.  The whistleblower had requested information relating to the investigation of the target, the disclosed sham transaction, and the amounts collected, but the IRS took the position that certain items requested were not in the Whistleblower Office’s file, and were, therefore, beyond the scope of discovery (denied, but we don’t have to explain ourselves).  The Court disagreed and found the information was relevant and subject to review by the whistleblower.  Further, the IRS was not unilaterally allowed to decide what was part of the administrative record.  Another case that perhaps casts a negative light on how the IRS is handling the whistleblower program.
  • On September 21st, the District Court for the Middle District of Florida declined a pro se’s request for reconsideration of a petition for injunctive relief against the IRS to force it to investigate his whistleblower claim in Meidinger v. Comm’r (sorry couldn’t find a free link to this order).  Mr. Meidinger likely knew the court lacked jurisdiction, and this was the purview of the tax court —  Here is a write up by fellow blogger, Lew Taishoff, on Mr. Meidinger’s failed tax court case.  Lew’s point back in 2013 on the case still rings true:  “But the administrative agency here has its own check and balances, provided by the Legislative branch.  There’s TIGTA, whose mission is ‘(T)o provide integrated audit, investigative, and inspection and evaluation services that promote economy, efficiency, and integrity in the administration of the internal revenue laws.’ Might could be y’all should take a look at how the Whistleblower Office is doing.”  The tax court really can’t force an investigation, but TIGTA could put some pressure on the WO to do so.  After taking a shot at the IRS, I should note I know nothing of the facts in this case, and Mr. Meidinger may have no right to an award, and TIGTA has flagged various issues in the program.  It just doesn’t feel like significant progress is being made.
  • I found Strugala v. Flagstar Bank  pretty interesting, which dealt with a taxpayer trying to bring a private action under Section 6050H.  Plaintiff Lisa Strugala filed a class action suit against Flagstar Bank for its practice of reporting, and then in future years ceasing to report, capitalized interest on the borrower’s Form 1098s.  Flagstar Bank apparently had a loan that allowed borrowers to pay less than all the interest due each month, resulting in interest being added to the principal amount due.  At year end, the bank would issue a 1098 showing the interest paid and the interest deferred.  In 2011, the bank ceased putting the deferred interest on the form.  Plaintiff claims that the bank’s practice violated Section 6050H, which only requires interest paid to be included.  The over-reporting of interest, she claims, causes tens of thousands of tax returns to be filed incorrectly.  Further, upon the sale of her home, Strugala believed that the bank received accrued interest income that it didn’t report to her.  A portion of the case was dismissed, but the remainder was transferred to the IRS under the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  The Court found the IRS had not stated how the borrower should report interest in this particular situation, and that it should determine whether or not this was a violation.  In addition, Section 6050H didn’t have a private right under the statute.  I was surprised that this was not a case of first impression.  The Court references another action from a few years ago with identical facts.  However, perhaps I shouldn’t not have been, as this is somewhat similar to the BoA case Les wrote about last year, where taxpayers sued Bank of America alleging fraudulent 1098s had been issued relating to restructuring of mortgage loans.
  • The Tax Court has held in Estate of John DiMarco v. Comm’r, that an estate was not entitled to a charitable deduction where individual beneficiaries were challenging the disposition of assets.  Under the statute, the funds have to be set aside solely for charity, and the chance of it benefiting an individual have to be  “so remote as to be negligible.”  Here, the litigation made it impossible to make that claim.
  • My firm has a fairly large maritime practice, which makes sense given our sizable port in West Chester, PA (there is not actually a port, but we do a ton of maritime work).  That made me excited about this crossover tax procedure and maritime  Chief Counsel Advice dealing with Section 1359(a).  Most of our readers probably do not run across Section 1359 too frequently.  Section 1359 provides non-recognition treatment for the sale of a qualifying vessel, similar to what Section 1031 does for like kind real estate transactions.  This applies for entities that have elected the tonnage tax regime under Section 1352, as opposed to the normal income tax regime.  In general, the replacement vessel can be purchased one year before the disposition or three years afterwards.  But, (b)(2) states, “or subject to such terms and conditions as may be specified by the Secretary, on such later date as the Secretary may designate on application by the taxpayer.  Such application shall be made at such time and in such manner as the Secretary may by regulations prescribe.”  Those regulations do not exist.  The CCA determined that even though the regulations do not exist, the IRS must consider a request for an extension of time to purchase a replacement vessel, as the Regs are clearly supposed to deal with extensions by request.
  • From The Hill, another article against the IRS use of private collection agencies.

 

 

 

The Right to Be Informed: Using the Freedom of Information Act and Internal Revenue Manual to Secure Taxpayer Records

Today we welcome first time guest blogger, Nicholas Xanthopoulos, who directs the low income taxpayer clinic at Nevada Legal Services.  Nick posted on the low income taxpayer listserv an experience he had when seeking records through FOIA in which an IRS FOIA Public Liaison suggested that he should request the information from the front line IRS employee.  You can read below how that worked. 

Sometimes IRS employees use FOIA as a way to shield themselves from possible disclosure violations, the charitable view, or just doing the work to copy appropriate documents from a taxpayer’s file, the less charitable view.  In my clinic this comes up most often in Tax Court cases where we first get involved after the case has gone to Appeals.  More often than not, the Appeals employee declines to provide information in the file referring us to the FOIA process if we want the information.  This is a shortsighted and incorrect response.  The Appeals employee has the ability to provide the information in the file almost all of which the taxpayer or the representative has the right to see.  Suggesting FOIA creates more work for everyone including the Appeals employee and greatly slows the process of information flow.  With cases in Tax Court in which Appeals declines to provide the requested information, my clinic simply makes a Branerton request to the Chief Counsel attorney which usually results in a call from the Attorney to the Appeals employee directing the Appeals employee to provide the information.  This tactic does not work, however, when no Tax Court case exists. 

TIGTA recently looked at the IRS performance in FOIA requests.  It found that the IRS was getting slower in responding but also that it failed to send response documents in certain cases.  That it takes longer should surprise no one given the staffing problems caused by the budget cuts.  TIGTA recommended providing more information to the parties requesting information during the search and response process.  This good idea does, however, take time away from actually responding.  Making a FOIA request can be a slow, painful process but can also produce important information necessary to proper representation of a client.  Nick provides some good insights and citations regarding the process.  Keith

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requires the Internal Revenue Service to “promptly” provide records when a person requests them.  5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A).  A request qualifies for FOIA treatment if it “reasonably describes” the records and follows agency policy.  Id.   The request must “fully comply” with various form requirements, such as stating whether the requestor wants to view the records before receiving copies of them.  26 C.F.R. § 601.702(c)(4).

read more...

Usually, a FOIA request “reasonably describes” the records if it provides “the name, taxpayer identification number (e.g. social security number…), subject matter, location, and years at issue of the requested records.  § 601.702(c)(5)(i).  In making a request, a practitioner must provide a completed “power of attorney, Privacy Act consent, or tax information authorization.”  § 601.702(c)(5)(iii)(C).  Sample FOIA requests are available from various sources, including the IRS.  The Treasury processes record requests under both FOIA and the Privacy Act of 1974, as amended, a topic outside the scope of this post.

FOIA deadlines for the IRS to provide requested records is slightly more complicated.  Within 20 days[1] of receiving the request, the IRS must decide whether to comply with it and notify the requestor about the decision.  5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(a)(i); 26 C.F.R. § 601.702(c)(9)(B)(ii).  The IRS can extend the deadline by up to 10 business days if it has “to search for and collect” the records from other locations.  5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B)(i), 552(a)(6)(B)(iii).  In one of my cases, the IRS invoked this “unusual circumstances” extension; I imagine such extensions are relatively common when requesting records from an examination administrative file.

If the IRS chooses to provide the records, it generally must mail them to the requestor at the time of the determination or “shortly thereafter.”  26 C.F.R. § 601.702(c)(9)(B)(iii).  (Section 601.702 does not define “shortly.”)  If the IRS does not notify the requestor of its determination within 20 days of receiving the request, then administrative remedies are considered exhausted.  5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i); 26 C.F.R. § 601.702(c)(12).  The requestor may then seek from the U.S. District Court an order for the IRS to produce the requested records.  5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B).  The Court may also order the IRS to pay reasonable attorney fees and costs if the requestor “substantially prevails” in the action.  5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(E).

I have a case where the IRS did not, within 20 days of receiving my FOIA request, notify me of its determination or invoke the unusual circumstances extension.  As a result, I called a FOIA Public Liaison to ask about the status of my request.  (A list of Liaisons’ names and phone numbers is available at http://www.irs.gov/uac/IRS-Disclosure-Offices.)  The Liaison told me that it may be more effective to request records directly from a representative in the relevant IRS division.  I was also told that, if the IRS representative wouldn’t release the records, I should cite the Internal Revenue Manual (“IRM”): section 5.1.22.6 for a “copy of the [collection] case file” and section 4.2.5.7 for “a copy of the examiner’s files or workpapers.”  Finally, a Liaison told me that the records provided might be broader than those disclosed in response to a FOIA request.

Both IRM sections refer to Internal Revenue Code section 6103(e) as authority for releasing taxpayer records.  For collection files, the IRM says that “[a] taxpayer or taxpayer representative has a right to information used to collect his/her tax liability, which includes a copy of the case file.”    IRM 5.1.22.6.  However, IRM 5.1.22 does not describe what a “case file” contains, and I have been unable to find a definition of the term elsewhere in the IRM.  When I requested a copy of a taxpayer’s case file, the representative agreed to fax it to me.  Due to technical difficulties, I only received the cover pages to the fax attempts.  When I spoke with a different collection representative, he told me that the “case file” I was faxed consisted only of an account transcript; he also told me that he didn’t know what documents a “case file” includes.

For exam cases, the IRM disclosure provisions read less strongly.  To be exact, “the examiner may be asked…for a copy of the examiner’s files or workpapers.” IRM 4.2.5.7.  The section adds that IRC section 6103(e) “advises that the Service shall [generally] give taxpayers access to their returns or return information.”  Id.  When I asked a representative for a copy of workpapers and cited to the IRM, she told me that the disclosure is not allowed.  I accepted her offer for a call back from a supervisor about my request, but I never received one.

The IRM disclosure provisions each offer a remedy to aggrieved requestors.  If a collections representative refuses to release a copy of a case file and a taxpayer can’t resolve the issue with managerial involvement, then a “[FOIA] or Privacy Act request process is available.”  IRM 5.1.22.6 at ¶ 7.  Likewise, a FOIA request is sometimes “necessary” for representatives to provide taxpayers with copies of examination files or workpapers.  IRM 4.2.5.7 at ¶ 6.

So far, my experiences with the IRM sections on disclosure and requesting hardship CNC when a taxpayer isn’t in filing compliance are similar: explain what they say, provide the citation, and hope the IRS representative is willing to listen.  If the representative is not responsiveand litigation isn’t pending, then FOIA and the Privacy Act are the only disclosure paths I’m aware of that offer a judicial remedy.