TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The IRS Scandal, Day 1456:  The Impact Of The Sixth Circuit's Decision In NorCal Tea Party Patriots

IRS Logo 2Haley A. Stence (J.D. 2017, Cumberland), Comment, United States v. NorCal Tea Party Patriots: Has the IRS's Ability to Engage in Political Activities, Negatively Target Nonprofit Organizations, and Hide Behind 26 U.S.C. § 6103 Ended?, 40 Am. J. Trial Advoc. 201 (2016):

In the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election, it is difficult to think that debates, billboards, and television commercials are not the only sources of political uproar. Although it is common knowledge that the media can often times portray and even promote a political agenda, it is disturbing to uncover litigation accusing government entities of promoting their own positions on public policy and hiding behind statutory law to protect those decisions. In 2013, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and its employees were accused of improperly targeting conservative political organizations that apply for tax-exempt status as nonprofit organizations. To protect its internal actions regarding the alleged improper targeting, the IRS invoked 26 U.S.C. § 6103 in order to keep controversial documents confidential and out of the hands of disgruntled plaintiffs. Section 6103 asserts that tax returns and the information contained within them are confidential and that no representative of the government can disclose this information unless one of the specific and limited exceptions within the statute has been met. Using 26 U.S.C. § 6103 as a shielding device, the IRS claimed the information disgruntled plaintiffs sought-mostly applications and internal documents- was taxpayer "return information" and thus "protected from disclosure by § 6103."' Giving deference to tax courts, circuit courts have historically upheld this determination in similar situations.

Nonetheless, on March 22, 2016, in the case of United States v. NorCal Tea Party Patriots, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed with this interpretation and determined that tax exempt application information is not "return information," and thus not protected from § 6103 disclosure. The Sixth Circuit's ruling directly contravenes a previous District of Columbia Circuit ruling on the issue and is likely to expose attempts by the IRS to intervene in United States politics via the tax-exemption application process and 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3). This Comment discusses the basics of §§ 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4), the attempts by the IRS to engage in politics using § 501(c), the conflicting holdings and United States circuit courts' various interpretations of § 6013 protection for the IRS, and the future implications of the circuit split created by the Sixth Circuit's holding in NorCal. ...

Conclusion:  The Possible Impact of the Sixth Circuit's Interpretation of "Return Information
"The fervent hope of many is that the Sixth Circuit's decision in United States v. NorCal Tea Party Patriots will force into the light any possible wrongdoing on the part of the IRS. Although the Sixth Circuit's holding is considered a narrow interpretation, some believe practitioners should not get the impression that much has changed outside the Sixth Circuit. An important item of note is that the holding would apply only to documents already in the possession of the IRS that include upon submission "names, addresses, and taxpayer-identification numbers of applicants for recognition of exemption, not to other information included in their applications." IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has expressed concern that such personal and identifying information on other types of IRS filings might not be covered by § 6103 after the Sixth Circuit's holding. "Additional filings with the IRS that may not be returns under section 6103 include requests for taxpayer advocate service assistance (Form 911) and applications for filing extensions...."

Admittedly, it is possible that additional information that had previously been determined confidential under § 6103, may not remain confidential, even if the taxpayer would prefer that it did. Primarily, the interpretation of the Sixth Circuit was in regards to information provided on applications for tax-exempt status. "[F]ormer IRS Exempt Organizations Division Director Marcus Owens has suggested ... the decision should not reach identifying information for applicants under section 501(c)(3) because such applicants are required to file to claim tax-exempt status .... Thus, it is possible the information provided within a 501(c)(3) application would have been information previously filed in a tax return, and thus considered return information protected from disclosure by § 6103. Additionally, the Sixth Circuit's interpretation "only applies to identifying information for the applicant, not the rest of the information contained in the application." Lastly, NorCal arguably only applies within the Sixth Circuit, and the many cases from other jurisdictions may instead follow the D.C. Circuit's precedent or may undertake the issue as a matter of first impression.

All things considered, for plaintiffs hoping to bring IRS political activity into the public light, the Sixth Circuit appears ready to take on in-depth analysis in order to help shine light into the dark recesses of historical targeting by an agency that should not be engaging in politics.

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2017/05/the-irs-scandal-day-1456the-impact-of-the-sixth-circuits-decision-in-norcal-tea-party-patriots.html

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Comments

Funny how liberals didn't object to the IRS fighting unreasonably to keep this info secret using the confidentiality statute to the detriment of taxpayers and suppress political organizations, but they're grasping at straws for ways to get the IRS to reveal President Trump's returns.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | May 4, 2017 6:51:55 AM

We've got at least one regular around here who's literally argued that the pubic has no right to know about any details regarding disciplinary actions that've been taken or not taken against IRS employees for malfeasance.

And yes, there's a complete lack of consistency WRT the President's confidentiality rights as a taxpayer. Absolutely gorgeous...

Posted by: MM | May 4, 2017 9:03:14 PM