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.

Tax Lawyers Can Fight the Coronavirus Crisis with the Internal Revenue Code

Today, we welcome guest blogger Bob Rubin. Bob practices in Sacramento, California as a partner in Boutin Jones, Inc. While he primarily focuses on tax procedure in both federal and state matters, he gets involved in other tax issues as well. Today, he writes about a possible use of one of the disaster provisions passed by Congress at an earlier time to protect workers today. He and I started working in the same branch of Chief Counsel, IRS 43 years ago this month. Keith

Under section 139, gross income does not include any amount received by an individual as a qualified disaster relief payment. A qualified disaster relief payment is one of four types of payments made to, or for the benefit of, an individual, but only to the extent any expense compensated by the payment is not otherwise compensated for by insurance or otherwise. The first and most relevant type of payment is any amount paid to reimburse or pay reasonable and necessary personal, family, living, or funeral expenses incurred as a result of a qualified disaster. President Trump’s Stafford Act Declaration for New York, California and Washington made section 139 applicable.

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The section 139 grants are not income to the employee/grantees, are not subject to employment taxes, are deductible by the employer/grantor and are not subject to information reporting under section 6041. The section 139 plan cannot discriminate based upon length of service or position. The grant cannot be in the nature of income replacement.

Besides section 139, see J. Comm. on Taxation, Technical Explanation of the Victims of Terrorism Relief Act of 2001, JCX-93-01 (Dec. 21, 2001) and Revenue Ruling 2003-12.  This is situation 3 in the revenue ruling:

Situation 3. Employer R makes grants to its employees who are affected by the flood described in Situation 1. The grants will pay or reimburse employees for medical, temporary housing, and transportation expenses they incur as a result of the flood that are not compensated for by insurance or otherwise. R will not require individuals to provide proof of actual expenses to receive a grant payment. R’s program, however, contains requirements (which are described in the program documents) to ensure that the grant amounts are reasonably expected to be commensurate with the amount of unreimbursed reasonable and necessary medical, temporary housing, and transportation expenses R’s employees incur as a result of the flood. The grants are not intended to indemnify all flood-related losses or to reimburse the cost of nonessential, luxury, or decorative items and services. The grants are available to all employees regardless of length or type of service with R.

Section 139 allows employers to assist employees who cannot meet their personal living expenses such as rent, mortgage payments or car payments on a tax-efficient basis. There should be a section 139 plan document that provides the benefits are payable without regard to length of service or position. The plan should require some type of modest substantiation such as a copy of a lease and a signed statement providing that the grantee cannot afford to pay $X of the rent.

California conforms to the income tax provisions of section 139. Employment taxes in California are administered by the California Employment Development Department (“EDD”). EDD Information Sheet State of Emergency or Disaster provides that section 139 grants are not subject to Personal Income Tax Withholding, but are subject to Unemployment Insurance contributions, the Employment Training Tax and State Disability Insurance contributions.

Many employees are being furloughed because they cannot work from home. Others are being furloughed due to a decline in economic activity. Section 139 is a tax-efficient tool employers can use to soften the blow on employees.

In addition to Bob’s thoughts on this subject, we have also gathered thoughts from Omeed Firouzi. Omeed is an ABA Tax Section Christine Brunswick fellow who works with Philadelphia Legal Aid specializing in employment tax issues of low income taxpayers. He prepared this for people working with individuals who receive Form 1099 wages summarizing the FFCRA provisions. Keith

SICK LEAVE for 1099 worker

The credit for COVID-19-related sick leave is 100% of the self-employed person’s “sick-leave equivalent amount” if they themselves are self-quarantined/diagnosed. It is 67% of the SE person’s “sick-leave equivalent amount” if the SE taxpayer is “taking care of [their] child following the closing of the child’s school.”

The “sick-leave equivalent amount” = *to take care of yourself,* the lesser of 1) your average daily SE income or 2) $511 per day for up to 10 days (up to $5,110 in total) OR to *care for a sick family member or your child following the child’s school closure,* $200 per day for up to 10 days ($2,000).

Daily self-employment income in FFCRA is defined as the net earnings for the year divided by 260 (i.e. 260 days).

FAMILY LEAVE for 1099 worker 

The COVID-19-related “emergency family-leave credit” – eligible for up to 50 days – is 100% of the SE taxpayer’s “qualified family leave equivalent.”

The “qualified family leave equivalent” = the lesser of 1) $200 or 2) the average daily SE income for the taxable year per day. As MarketWatch put it, “the maximum total family-leave credit would be $10,000 (50 days times $200 per day).” The House Appropriations Democrats summarized it such that “in calculating the qualified family leave equivalent amount, an eligible self-employed individual may only take into account those days that the individual is unable to work for reasons that would entitle the individual to receive paid leave pursuant to the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act.”

Further, there is no “double benefit” allowed for both of these credits. So these credits are “proportionally reduced for any days that the individual also receives qualified sick leave wages from an employer,” so this is especially relevant for our clients who work both W-2 and 1099 jobs simultaneously. (https://appropriations.house.gov/sites/democrats.appropriations.house.gov/files/Families%20First%20Summary%20FINAL.pdf). The statute specifically states that in such a scenario, “your self-employed equivalent benefit ‘shall be reduced (but not below zero) to the extent that the sum of the amount described…exceeds $2,000 ($5,110 in the case of any day any portion of which is paid sick time described in paragraph).”

Working Through an Employer’s Failure to File Form W-2 or 1099 with the IRS

We welcome guest blogger Omeed Firouzi to PT. Omeed is a Christine A. Brunswick public service fellow with Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s low-income taxpayer clinic, and he is an alum of the Villanova Law Clinical Program. His fellowship project focuses on worker classification. In this post, Omeed examines a recent case where the taxpayer unsuccessfully sought relief under section 7434 for her employer’s failure to report her compensation to the government at all. Litigation in this area is likely to continue. Christine

Tax season is upon us so I would be remiss if I did not cite fellow Philadelphian Ben Franklin’s famous maxim that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But whether you are filing your return as soon as possible or at 11:59 PM on April 15, there is one thing that is uncertain for many taxpayers: whether your employer filed an information return.

As we have seen in our clinic at Philadelphia Legal Assistance and more broadly, employers are increasingly not filing income reporting information returns with the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The Internal Revenue Manual, at IRM 21.3.6.4.7.1, describes the proper procedure for IRS employees to follow should a taxpayer not receive an information return. The IRS website also provides tips and tools for how taxpayers should proceed in such situations.

Under the Internal Revenue Code and regulations promulgated under the Code, employers could be held liable – and subject to penalties – for failure to file correct information returns. However, the IRC and its accompanying regulations lack a clearly defined legal recourse for individual taxpayers when the employer fails to file any information return at all. No explicit cause of action exists for workers in this predicament. Recently, a taxpayer in New York unsuccessfully tried to make the case that 26 U.S.C. Section 7434 encompasses this situation.

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The statute states, in part:

If any person willfully files a fraudulent information return with respect to payments purported to be made to any other person, such other person may bring a civil action for damages against the person so filing such return.

This statute has been the subject of several previous Procedurally Taxing posts. As these posts described in detail, courts are in consensus that the statute at least encompasses an employer’s willful misstatement on an information return of the amount of money paid to a worker. The legislative history of Section 7434 reveals that when Congress drafted the legislation in 1996, its authors were concerned with the prospect of “taxpayers suffer[ing] significant personal loss and inconvenience as the result of the IRS receiving fraudulent information returns, which have been filed by persons intent on either defrauding the IRS or harassing taxpayers.” 

The case law is split on whether misclassified taxpayers can use Section 7434 to file suit against their employers for fraudulently filing a 1099-MISC rather than a W-2, if the dollar amount reported is correct. No circuit court has ruled on the issue but most courts have followed the lead of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and its Liverett decision that found that Section 7434 does not apply to misclassification.

However, one aspect of Section 7434 where there is judicial consensus is that the statute does not encompass the non-filing of an information return.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York recently joined the chorus of courts on this issue. In Francisco v. Nytex Care, Inc., the aforementioned New York taxpayer argued that her former employer, NYTex Care, Inc., violated Section 7434 by “failing to report payments made” to the taxpayer and other workers. The facts of the case are straightforward. Taxpayer Herlinda Francisco alleged NYTex Care, a dry cleaning business, “fail[ed] to identify [her] and other employees as employees” by failing to file information returns for tax years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. Francisco filed suit under Section 7434 alleging that NYTex “willfully and fraudulently filed false returns…by failing to report” employees’ income.

The court principally cited Second Circuit precedent, set in Katzman v. Essex Waterfront Owners LLC, 660 F.3d 565 [108 AFTR 2d 2011-7039] (2d Cir. 2011) (per curiam), in dismissing the case. Katzman established that Section 7434 “plainly does not encompass an alleged failure to file a required information return.” In Nytex, the employer “did not report payments made” to the taxpayer and other employees but the court found that Section 7434 was not the appropriate remedy.

More broadly, the Nytex court examined the plain language of Section 7434, its legislative history, and other relevant case law in foreclosing this claim. The plain text of the statute, the court noted, necessitates a filing by definition; there must be a filed information return in order for it to be fraudulent. The court also looked to Katzman’s parsing of congressional intent for guidance; in Katzman, the Second Circuit ruled explicitly that “nothing in the legislative history suggests that Congress wished to extend the private right of action it created to circumstances where the defendant allegedly failed to file an information return.”

Further, the court even relied upon another case the same plaintiffs’ attorney brought in the Southern District of New York. In Pacheco v. Chickpea at 14th Street, Inc., the plaintiff there also brought suit under Section 7434 on the basis of the failure of their employer to file information returns but the Southern District “found [that situation] was not covered by the statute.” Ultimately, the Nytex court granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because the court found no cognizable claim for alleged failure to file an information return under Section 7434.

The result in Nytex leaves it frustratingly unclear what remedies exist for workers who find themselves in this taxpayer’s predicament. Had the employer here actually filed a 1099-MISC with the IRS, a potential argument could’ve been made about misclassification and whether that is encompassed by Section 7434. There is more division in the courts about that issue as opposed to the question posed in Nytex. Had the employer willfully overstated the amount the taxpayer was paid, the court could’ve found a clear Section 7434 violation, based on the reporting of a fraudulent amount.

Of course, neither of those things happened here. Instead, there is an aggrieved taxpayer ultimately unable to rely on a statute that is both ambiguous and seemingly limiting all at once. Practically, she is left with no clear way to sort out her own tax filing obligations when no information returns were filed. The court interestingly does not identify an alternative course of action, or judicial remedy, the taxpayer could seek.

In relying on congressional intent, the court leaves the reader wondering if Congress ever envisioned that an employer’s failure to file an information return could cause “significant personal loss and inconvenience” to the worker. If it means a frozen refund check as part of an IRS examination, there is certainly loss and inconvenience there. As Stephen Olsen described at length previously, courts have deeply examined the statutory language in terms of whether the phrase “with respect to payments made” only modifies “fraudulent” or if the information return itself could be fraudulent even if the payment amount is correct.

That discussion raises an interesting question as it relates to Nytex: if a court found an actionable claim for non-filing under section 7434, how would it determine whether the failure to file was fraudulent or whether there was willfulness in the non-filing? Since there would be no information return, would the court be forced to look at what kind of regular pay the taxpayer got to ascertain what the information return likely would’ve been?

Then, the court would have to find that there was “willfulness” on the part of the employer, not merely an inadvertent oversight. To make matters more complex, the court would have to likely wrestle with how there could be a willful act in a case where the employer did not even act at all. If a court found willfulness, a potential argument could be that a non-filing is analogous to filing an information return with all zeroes on it thus leading the court to say it is, in effect, fraudulent in the amount.

For now though: what can a taxpayer do in such a situation? When employers fail to provide or file information returns, the IRS recommends that workers attempt to get information returns from their employers. If that fails, the IRS advises workers to request letters on their employer’s letterhead describing the pay and withholding. Should an employer not comply with these requests, the IRS can seek this information from an employer while taxpayers can file Substitute W-2s attaching other proof of income and withholding – such as bank statements, paychecks, and paystubs. If a taxpayer got an information return but the employer never filed it with the government, that might ease the burden on the taxpayer but the IRS will still seek additional verification.

Even then, taxpayers could get mired in lengthy audits and examinations all while waiting for a critical refund check they rely on to make ends meet every year. We have seen this pattern play out in our own clinic and I suspect as it befalls more taxpayers, there may be either a congressional or judicial reexamination of Section 7434 or another effort to address the problem of non-filing of information returns.