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Sixth Circuit Weighs in On Sovereign Immunity and Exceptions to Notice in Third-Party Summons Case

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When IRS issues a summons to third parties it generally has to notify the taxpayer whose records are identified. That right to notice is key, as it triggers a correlative right to bring an action in district court to challenge the summons and allows for limited judicial review of IRS’s vast information gathering powers.

It may come as a surprise that not all summonses the IRS issues result in notice to the taxpayer. Section 7609(c)(2) excludes five categories of summonses. I discuss this extensively in Chapter 13 of Saltzman and Book IRS Practice and Procedure. Gaetano v US, a recent Sixth Circuit case, discusses the nature of the exclusion and its relationship to subject matter jurisdiction, standing and sovereign immunity. It also highlights inconsistent approaches that courts have taken to characterizing the exceptions, and concludes that the 7609(c)(2) notice exceptions relate to the court’s underlying jurisdiction to hear challenges to the summons.

Gaetano involves an IRS criminal tax investigation into the taxpayers’ Michigan-based cannabis dispensary business. IRS sought the records pertaining to the Gaetanos from Portal 42, a software company that provides the cannabis industry with point-of-sale systems. Those systems allow businesses to track customer sales data or delete the data remotely with a “kill switch.”

The opinion discusses how an IRS CID agent interviewed the owners of Portal 42 and then served a summons ordering that the owners “give testimony and produce various records “and other data relating to the tax liability or the collection of the tax liability or for the purpose of inquiring into any offense connected with the administration or enforcement of the internal revenue laws concerning [the Gaetanos] for the periods shown.”

The IRS did not notify the Gaetanos, but within two weeks of the service of the summons on Portal 42, the taxpayers filed a petition to quash, alleging that IRS should have given them notice and alleging that the summons was issued in bad faith.

The district court, adopting the magistrate judge’s key holding, dismissed the Gaetanos’ petition to quash, and concluded that they did not have standing under 7609(c)(2)(E).

The (E) exception to notice applies when the summons issued by an IRS criminal investigator in connection with an IRS criminal investigation and the summoned party is not a third-party recordkeeper. Portal 42 was not a third-party recordkeeper (that is statutorily defined in 7603(b)(2)).

There was a dispute about whether the summons was issued in connection a criminal investigation. The Gaetanos’ main argument was that the summons was deficient because it failed to specify the tax periods that the IRS was criminally investigating, but the opinion held that the statute only required that the summons identify the tax periods which IRS sought information.

The Sixth Circuit opinion affirms the district court but in so doing explores and clarifies the import of the five exceptions to notice in Section 7609(c)(2).  As the opinion notes, courts have viewed the exceptions as either “limitations on statutory standing or (as the Government argues) exceptions to [Section 7609’s] sovereign immunity waiver.”

The opinion nicely collects cases that have viewed the exceptions to notice as triggering standing limits or sovereign immunity waivers.

The lower court opinion, in dismissing the challenge for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, was not clear if the dismissal relied exclusively on standing or was also based on the sovereign immunity waiver. The Sixth Circuit viewed this issue as a matter of first impression, and while the result in this case did not hinge on the difference, the opinion discusses why the difference matters, including most importantly that 1) the government cannot waive sovereign immunity and 2) a court can bring that jurisdictional issue up at any stage of litigation.

As we have discussed numerous times, the Supreme Court’s case law on whether a statute confers jurisdictional status has evolved over time. As the opinion notes, the “Supreme Court, however, has cautioned that a statutory condition — even one attached to a waiver of the United States’ sovereign immunity — is not accorded jurisdictional status unless “Congress has ‘clearly state[d]’ as much.” United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 575 U.S. 402, 409, 418-20 (2015) (citation omitted).

Gaetano analogizes the language in the 7609(c) exceptions as similar to the Federal Tort Claims Act, where the Court has found that the exceptions suspend the whole statute, leaving the “bar of sovereign immunity” and hence concluding that the (c)(2) exceptions are jurisdictional.

The opinion has one more wrinkle. While typically a plaintiff bears the burden of proving that there is a waiver of sovereign immunity, Gaetano holds that the government has the burden for establishing that the exception applies when the petition to quash is not facially within one of the exceptions:

The basic rationale for treating sovereign immunity exceptions as affirmative defenses is that a plaintiff should not be required to prove a negative for each enumerated exception, and the government will generally possess the relevant facts to prove that a particular exception does apply. 

That burden for the government is pretty low, and the CID agent’s affidavit was sufficient to connect the summons to a criminal investigation. That the CID agent may have not fully complied with the IRM (including specifying all time periods involved in the investigation) and “goes to the merits of whether a summons should be enforced or quashed. We cannot proceed to the Powell test when 7609 does not confer jurisdiction over this action.”

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