Tax Court Decides Scope and Standard of Review in Whistleblower Cases

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In a fully reviewed Tax Court opinion, Kasper v Commissioner, the Tax Court held that the scope of review in whistleblower cases is subject to the record rule and that the standard of review is abuse of discretion. The opinion is an important development in the progression of treating tax cases as a subset of cases within the mainstream of administrative law generally and the Administrative Procedure Act.

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The opinion concerns whistleblower claim relating to a former employee’s allegations that his employer had a longstanding pattern of uncompensated overtime for its employees. The whistleblower claim connected to taxes because it claimed that the millions of dollars in unpaid overtime would have led to substantial employment tax on the compensation.

The IRS rejected the claim in 2011, and in so doing sent a boilerplate rejection that was not really responsive to the particulars of the claim. In a bankruptcy proceeding involving Kasper’s former employer, IRS collected over $37 million in taxes relating to unpaid withholdings. Kasper wanted some of that, connecting his whistleblower claim to the IRS actions in the bankruptcy proceeding.

The opinion notes that the parties tried the case to “establish the contents of the administrative record and ordered the parties to brief the issues of the scope and standard of review in whistleblower cases to help us figure out both what we can look at and how to look at the IRS’s work in whistleblower cases.”

The opinion clears the fog on the scope and standard of review in whistleblower cases. In so doing, it explores an issue we have covered in PT and an area that I have discussed extensively in IRS Practice and Procedure, especially in revised Chapter 1.7, namely the precise relationship between the APA and the workings of the IRS.

The importance of Kasper is that it establishes that whistleblower cases, unlike deficiency cases which predate the APA and which have a defined set of procedures establishing a clear legislative exception to the path of judicial review of agency action, are subject to the same rules as applied to court review of other agency adjudications. There are there main aspects of that principle:

  • Scope of Review: Tax Court review of whistleblower determinations are subject to the record rule, meaning that the parties are generally bound to the record that the agency and party made prior to the agency determination
  • Standard of Review: the Tax Court will review whisitleblower determinations on an abuse of discretion basis; and
  • Chenery Rule Applies: The Tax Court can uphold the Whistleblower Office determination only on the grounds it actually relied on when making its determination.

What makes Kasper one of the most significant tax procedure cases of the new year is that in reaching those conclusions it walks us through and synthesizes scope and standard of review and Chenery principles in other areas, such as spousal relief under Section 6015 and CDP cases under Section 6220 and 6330.

In what I believe is potentially even more significant is its discussion of exceptions within the record rule that allow parties to supplement the record at trial.   To that end the opinion lists DC Circuit (which it notes in an early footnote would likely be the venue for an appeal even though the whistleblower lived in AZ ) summary of those exceptions:

  • when agency action is not adequately explained in the record;
  • when the agency failed to consider relevant factors;
  • when the agency considered evidence which it failed to include in the record;
  • when a case is so complex that a court needs more evidence to enable it to understand the issues clearly;
  • where there is evidence that arose after the agency action showing whether the decision was correct or not; and
  • where the agency’s failure to take action is under review

As I observe in IRS Practice and Procedure, the clarity so to speak of cases such as Kasper in bringing categories of tax cases within the confines of administrative law is belied by the complexity and at times uncertainty surrounding basic administrative law principles. As  Kasper notes, there can be (and often are) disputes about what is the agency record, and nontax cases establish that the agency itself does not have the final word on what constitutes the record.

On the merits, the Tax Court concluded that the information that Kasper provided did not lead to the collection of the employment taxes in the bankruptcy case. Even though the whistleblower office did not consider the evidence pertaining to the bankruptcy court proceedings, the opinion notes that the IRS would have filed its proof of claim in the ordinary course, so its error in note considering the information was harmless.

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Comments

  1. Norman Diamond says:

    “the record rule”
    “Chenery Rule”

    I was about to rant again about how these rules prevent due process, since the IRS doesn’t reveal administrative records until after the case is in court (and sometimes not even then), and the IRS doesn’t reveal during administrative hearings what grounds it intends to use or create when making its determination.

    But then, here came spectacular relief:

    “In what I believe is potentially even more significant is its discussion of exceptions within the record rule that allow parties to supplement the record at trial. To that end the opinion lists DC Circuit […] summary of those exceptions:”

    Yes, what an excellent list of exceptions. If someone can get these into the Supreme Court, maybe every circuit will have to provide due process.

    “As Kasper notes, there can be (and often are) disputes about what is the agency record”

    No kidding, including IRS record v. IRS record.

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