Can Intentionally Filing an Improper Information Return Justify a Claim for Damages Under Section 7434?…Part IV

We welcome back guest blogger Omeed Firouzi who brings us up to date on litigation over the scope of section 7434’s cause of action for the fraudulent filing of information returns. Christine

Internal Revenue Code Section 7434 has been the subject of numerous posts here. In the aftermath of the Liverett decision in the Eastern District of Virginia in 2016, courts have largely agreed that while  intentionally wrongful overreporting of income  on an information return constitutes “fraudulent filing,” misclassification itself (actually receiving a 1099-MISC instead of a W-2 with no dispute about the income amount) is not actionable under section 7434.

Nevertheless, a small handful of federal district court decisions very recently have left the door open, at least in the preliminary stages of litigation, to the possibility that Section 7434 could encompass misclassification claims. The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in September became the most recent court to address the matter.

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The facts in Ranko v. Gulf Maine Products Co. Inc., Et. Al. involve taxpayer William Ranko and his work for seafood processor and wholesaler Gulf Marine. Ranko filed suit in King County Superior Court but Gulf Marine removed the case to the federal district court, on the basis of diversity of citizenship. Mr. Ranko alleges several causes of action, including violations of Section 7434 and various employment-related claims.

With regard to the specific federal tax issue at hand, Mr. Ranko alleged that Gulf Marine misclassified him as an independent contractor in tax years 2016, 2017, and 2018. Mr. Ranko was referred to as an Outside Sales Manager and was treated as an employee, he alleged, yet his employer failed to withhold taxes. As a result of such misclassification, Mr. Ranko owed more federal taxes than he should have. While there is no evidence in the case that Mr. Ranko filed a Form SS-8 to challenge his misclassification before the IRS, the facts alleged do seem to support Mr. Ranko’s contention that he was an employee.

Mr. Ranko attested that such misclassification was itself a violation of Section 7434. Though Mr. Ranko separately claimed nonpayment of wages, he did not allege that the actual amounts on the 1099-MISC filed by Gulf Marine were incorrect. Rather, he alleged that the “fraudulent filing” under 7434 was the wrongful, intentional filing of 1099s rather than the W-2s that he should have received.

Interestingly, unlike several other courts that have analyzed Section 7434 at length, the court here did not engage in an extensive analysis of the Liverett decision and its interpretation of the legislative history behind Section 7434. Rather, the court focused on the intentionality of the employer’s alleged misconduct in allowing Mr. Ranko’s claim to move forward. Indeed, the court noted that “the misclassification enabled Gulf Marine to avoid tax liability by failing to ‘pay one half of the payroll taxes” and that such “allegations are sufficient to raise a reasonable inference that Gulf Marine willfully filed a fraudulent information return with respect to payments purported to have been made to” Mr. Ranko. Consequently, the court denied Gulf Marine’s motion to dismiss this cause of action.

The Ranko court appears to be part of the aforementioned trend of district courts that have refused to dismiss outright the possibility that misclassification on its own is actionable under Section 7434. Part of how the Ranko court got here too relied on the Greenwald v. Regency Mgmt. Servs., LLC decision in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in 2019.

The Greenwald case was brought by Maryland employment attorney Richard Neuworth (who I’ve incidentally had the privilege of getting to know at various ABA Tax Section conferences and who has been a resource on misclassification work) as he has sought to protect wronged employees in such cases. In Greenwald, the workers alleged that their information returns did not include commissions (on which taxes were not withheld) that they received after their employment ended, and so those information returns constituted “fraudulent filing.” The court there agreed there were sufficient grounds for a claim under 7434. But the Ranko court here appears to be going even further in stating that even when there is no dispute at all about the dollar amount reported on the information return, there can be a 7434 claim.

The Ranko court may be helping to break new ground here. Then again, the District of New Jersey recently again ruled the other way on this matter. Ultimately, as discussed extensively on this blog, the issue is one of statutory interpretation. Whether “fraudulent” is an adjective that describes the filing in a broad sense or whether “fraudulent” only relates to “payments” will continue to vex courts for some time to come, absent congressional action. Notably though, the statutory text at Section 7434(a) does not include the words “amount,” “compensation” or “income.”

Rather, the statute states the willful filing must be “with respect to payments purported to be made.” The Ranko court appears to be construing the statute broadly to understand that the phrase, “payments purported to be made,” encompasses any payments and fraud that is present with respect to such payments. In other words, fraud “with respect to [the] payments” is not limited solely to fraud in the amount of the payment reported.

Instead, the argument is that the payments should have been reported or handled differently. This could encompass different specific acts, but the Ranko court is clearly concerned that the employer’s treatment and reporting of the payments as non-employee compensation burdens the employee with taxes they should not owe. This is not only due to the lack of withholding but also simply due to the different FICA/Medicare tax burdens on employees versus non-employees. Should the case move further along, it will be fascinating to see whether the court will find that it was Congress’ intent to protect such individuals from employer misconduct.

Can Intentionally Filing an Improper Information Return Justify a Claim for Damages Under Section 7434?

In today’s post, guest blogger Omeed Firouzi discusses the availability of civil damages for misclassified workers who receive inaccurate information returns from their employer. Christine

One of the most intriguing issues in tax law involves the interpretation of 26 U.S.C. Section 7434. As discussed extensively in various posts here, Section 7434 clearly encompasses situations in which taxpayers are issued income-reporting information returns that intentionally misstate the amount of their income. It is less clear if Section 7434 applies to situations in which a taxpayer is given the wrong kind of information return even if the amount of income is correct. Most courts that have ruled on this issue have found that a taxpayer who is misclassified as an independent contractor – and thus receives a Form 1099-MISC rather than a Form W-2 – does not have a cause of action under Section 7434.

These courts have largely followed the lead of the Liverett court, where the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia undertook a thorough analysis of the statutory language and the legislative history of the law and found that it does not encompass pure misclassification. No circuit court has ruled on the issue but a consensus in the lower courts has emerged. The United States District Court for the District of Maryland recently also followed the lead of Liverett in Alan Wagner v. Economy Rent-A-Car Corp., et al.

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Wagner involves a Maryland taxpayer who filed suit under various Maryland employment-related statutes and Section 7434 as he alleged willful misclassification through the fraudulent reporting of payments on a 1099 instead of a W-2. In November 2013, the taxpayer initially signed a contract that agreed to “a fixed monthly salary of $5,000 per month plus commission…based on the value of contracts [he] procured for” the company. Ultimately, the taxpayer became a “full-time…employee” and received a W-2 for several consecutive tax years.

Then in 2016, the taxpayer alleges that his employer “began to pressure” him to accept 1099 classification and “when [he] refused, it is alleged that [the employer] began to withhold his commission payments.” The two parties subsequently entered into a “separation agreement” pursuant to which the taxpayer’s employer agreed to pay him “a ‘net’ sum of $45,000 in three installments ‘in exchange for a non-solicitation agreement.’” These payments were issued on a Form 1099 rather than on a W-2.

However, yet again, the court joined the growing consensus in rejecting the notion that Section 7434 applies here.  The court noted that Section 7434 “creates a private cause of action only where an information return is fraudulent with respect to the amount purportedly paid to the plaintiff.” The court also held that “the first rule of Liverett [is that] … plaintiffs cannot prevail under § 7434 by merely alleging that they have been misclassified as independent contractors, or received the wrong type of information return.”

The court recognized that Greenwald v. Regency Mgmt. Servs., LLC, 372 F. Supp. 3d 266, 270 (D. Md. 2019) carved out an exception such that “if the misclassification causes the underreporting of paid wages,” there may be a 7434 cause of action. The case was distinguishable from Greenwald though in that there was no misstatement in the amount of income in question the taxpayer received; the receipt of the aforementioned $45,000 was never in dispute. The proper classification of this income was the central tenet of the taxpayer’s 7434 claim. Consequently, the court found that “on its face, this is a ‘misclassification’ claim which cannot support a § 7434 action.” As such, the claim was dismissed.

The complexity here lies in the modifiers within 7434, as Stephen Olsen has previously described here. A “fraudulent information return with respect to payments purported to be made” clearly applies to reported compensation but when taxpayers are issued 1099s instead of W-2s, the amounts on those information returns will be different anyway. W-2s include withholding and deductions which typically do not appear on Forms 1099-MISC. If an employer willfully misclassifies a taxpayer as an independent contractor and the employer intentionally disregards obligations to withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes, is that information return not, per se, “fraudulent…with respect to payments”?

Further, that the term “fraudulent” comes before “information return” suggests that the type of information return itself, not just the amount, is relevant. This adjective-based analysis might seem overly simplistic but pre-Liverett case law – which is still good law – made it clear in a straightforward manner. For instance, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida found in a pair of misclassification cases that that “to establish a claim of tax fraud under 26 U.S.C. Section 7434,” one of the necessary elements was simply that the “information return was fraudulent.” In both Seijo v. Casa Salsa, 2013 WL 6184969 (SD Fla. 2013) and Leon v. Taps & Tintos, Inc., 51 F.Supp.3d 1290 (SD Fla. 2014), the willful issuance of a 1099 rather than a W-2 was sufficient proof for this prong of the claim. Strikingly, the Seijo court found that because a 1099 is a “form used to record payments made to an independent contracto[r] and [the worker] was not an independent contractor,” the intentional misclassification was actionable. It cited Pitcher v. Waldman, 2012 WL 5269060, at *4 (S.D. Ohio 2012) for support of the proposition that even if the “amount of the payment [is] not in dispute…[if] the form used to report that payment and the tax implications that went along with that form” are at issue, there could be a claim.

The specter of the “tax implications” that result from misclassification challenge a Liverett-based analysis like the one the Wagner court adopted. Liverett cited the legislative history of 7434 in that it noted how Congress was concerned with “malcontents who ‘sometimes file fraudulent information returns reporting large amount of income for judges, law enforcement officers, and others who have incurred their wrath.” The tax implications though that arise from such efforts are as similarly harmful for workers as misclassification itself. When a taxpayer is issued an information return that overstates their income, it creates additional, unwarranted tax burdens for them. When a taxpayer is issued an information return that is correct in income amount but wrong in the type of return because they were misclassified, it also creates an additional, unwarranted burden.

Congress was concerned with “significant personal loss and inconvenience” for taxpayers as a “result of the IRS receiving fraudulent information returns.” When taxpayers are willfully misclassified as independent contractors, they lose out on myriad benefits employees enjoy under various laws and they are saddled with a self-employment tax that can be onerous for low-income workers. Though the specific examples described in the legislative history do not exactly mirror misclassification cases, they provide a useful window into the broader purpose of the statute: the protection of taxpayers from fraudulent actors who create unnecessary burdens for them. Misclassification is such a burden. Further, one canon of statutory interpretation that was not advanced in Wagner but could arise in a future 7434 case is the notion that if Congress wanted to explicitly clarify that 7434 applied strictly to amounts, it could have done so in the intervening years. Since the law’s enactment in 1996, various, sweeping tax laws have passed under four presidents and misclassification has only grown as a problem in the meantime. Nevertheless, Congress has not amended 7434 to provide more clarity here. Considering the increasingly salient issue of misclassification, it may be that Congress will soon reexamine this vexing statute.