Death of Taxpayer Extinguishes Claims for Wrongful Collection and Failure to Release Lien

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The recent case of Pansier v United States addressed whether a taxpayer’s death extinguishes claims for improper collection and failure to release a lien. In deciding that the taxpayer’s death extinguished the claims, a federal district court focused on the text of Section 7432 and 7433 and the analogous statue applicable to damages for improper IRS disclosures of tax return information, as well as the principle that waivers of sovereign immunity are narrowly construed.

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A summary of the facts tees up the issue in the case. In 2017, the US sued in federal court and sought a judgment for Gary Pansier’s unpaid 1995 through 1998 assessed federal tax liabilities and for Joan and Gary Pansiers’ 1999 through 2006 and 2014 assessed federal tax liabilities. The Pansiers then filed for bankruptcy. The Pansiers then filed a separate lawsuit alleging that the statute of limitations on Gary’s 1996-98 liabilities had expired prior to the government’s collection suit. In that suit they sought approximately $28,000 in damages under Section 7432 for the IRS failure to release a federal tax lien and under Section 7433 for the IRS’s alleged unauthorized collection activities, both of which related to Gary’s separate 96-98 liabilities. 

While the Pansiers’ suit under Sections 7432 and 7433 was pending, Gary passed away. Joan filed a motion to substitute claiming that she as the surviving spouse was the sole representative and proper party in the action. The government filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that she was not the proper party, given that the alleged improper collection actions and failure to release the tax lien only pertained to Gary’s sole tax liabilities, even though some of the collection action reached marital property under Wisconsin law. 

The court agreed with the government. In reaching its decision the court looked to both statutes and their reference to the particular taxpayer:

Section 7432 provides that, when an officer or employee of the IRS “knowingly, or by reason of negligence, fails to release a lien . . . on property of the taxpayer, such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against the United States.”  (emphasis added). And Section 7433 states that, when an officer or employee of the IRS recklessly or intentionally, or by reason of negligence, “disregards any provision of [ Title 26], or any regulation promulgated under [ Title 26], such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against the United States.”  (emphasis added).

A the court notes, there is longstanding law where courts have routinely dismissed Section 7432 and 7433 claims where a party claims that improper IRS collection activities were undertaken to satisfy a spouse’s tax liability. 

The somewhat more difficult issue was whether Gary’s claims survived his death, and would allow the court under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to substitute Joan for Gary.  FRCP 25 provides the following: 

If a party dies and the claim is not extinguished, the court may order substitution of the proper party. A motion for substitution may be made by any party or by the decedent’s successor or representative. If the motion is not made within 90 days after service of a statement noting the death, the action by or against the decedent must be dismissed.

Pointing to the narrow language in 7432 and 7433 that allows claims only for “such taxpayer” the government opposed the motion. In deciding against Joan, the court noted that there were no cases it found that directly addressed the issue, but that courts have applied similar language in 7431 and refused to allow a substitution when the claim involved an alleged improper disclosure of tax return information. That statute also restricts suits for improper disclosure and provides:

If any officer or employee of the United States knowingly, or by reason of negligence, inspects or discloses any return or return information with respect to a taxpayer in violation of any provision of Section 6103 such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against the United States in a district court of the United States.

There is case law on the survivability of 7431 claims. For example, in US v Garrity,  a district court case from 2016, the government sought to collect a civil penalty from the estate of a taxpayer (as an aside whether a penalty survives death and can be collected is an important issue, one I discussed years ago in Death, Taxes and Civil Penalties: Does the Taxpayer’s Death End IRS’s Ability to Collect Penalties?, which Stephen Olsen and I discuss further in Saltzman & Book ¶7B. That issue has gotten lots of attention in recent years due in part to FBAR and other potentially large penalties). The estate in Garrity counterclaimed and sought damages under 7431 due to alleged improper IRS disclosure of return information. In deciding against the estate, the court stated that “[g]iven the clear text of the statute and the strict construction of waivers of sovereign immunity,” …”the private cause of action in Section 7431 is limited to claims brought by taxpayers whose return information has been disclosed.”

In deciding against allowing a substitution, the district court in Pansier looked to the case law under Section 7431 as well as the longstanding principle that waivers of sovereign immunity are to be narrowly construed against the government.  As such, the court granted the government’s motion to dismiss. While the government may pursue the estate for any tax liability, and even for possible civil penalties, this case shows that the government enjoys special status and is free from any consequences from alleged misconduct in collecting those taxes when the taxpayer was alive.

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

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

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