In two recent cases, the United States Tax Court (Tax Court) has explored the bounds of the anonymity protection afforded to potential whistleblowers under the court’s rules and other authorities. Tax Court Rule 345 relates to privacy protections for filings in whistleblower actions. Under paragraph (a), a whistleblower may move the court for permission to proceed anonymously. In order to proceed anonymously, the whistleblower must provide a sufficient, fact-specific basis for anonymity. Specifically, the Tax Court has held that “[a] whistleblower is permitted to proceed anonymously if the whistleblower presents a sufficient showing of harm that outweighs counterbalancing societal interest in knowing the whistleblower’s identity.” (Whistleblower 10949-13W v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-94, at 5). However, the balance of harm to societal interest may shift as the case progresses, thereby justifying disclosure after anonymity has been granted. See Tax Court Rule 345(b). Continue Reading Tax Court Requires Specific Factual Showing of Harm for Whistleblower Anonymity
Female tax professionals gathered in McDermott Will & Emery’s New York office for an annual New York rendition of Tax in the City®: A Women’s Tax Roundtable on Thursday, September 14. Featuring a CLE/CPE presentation about Privilege and the Ethics of Social Media by Kristen Hazel and Robin Greenhouse, an update on tax reform by Sandra McGill and an overview of recent state and local tax news by Alysse McLoughlin, the event culminated in a networking reception over cocktails.
Topics covered at the event included:
- Best practices for preserving attorney-client privilege and work product protection; strategies to prevent an inadvertent waiver.
- Ethics of social media (think before you post).
- Tax reform:
- Where are we now (framework to be issued week of September 25 and legislation sometime in October, possibly after budget).
- What could tax reform look like (e.g., reduced tax rate, one-time tax on unrepatriated foreign earnings, move to territorial tax with DRD and corresponding changes to foreign tax credit system, changes to IRS Subpart F, elimination of certain deductions and/or adjustments to the taxation of carried interests).
- What should taxpayers be thinking about (e.g., taking steps to best position your organization to proactively react to tax reform both now and when the reform measures become effective).
- Status of certain tax regulations identified in Notice 2017-38 per mandate of EO 13789: Treasury provided recommendations to President Trump on September 18, 2017, and its report should be published sometime this month. We discussed possible change/revocation/deferred effective dates for regulations under Sections 367, 385 and 987 and steps taxpayers are taking today to address these regulations.
- Partnership Update:
- New TEFRA rules are effective January 1, 2018: TEFRA partnership agreements should be reviewed; assess whether the agreement should be amended (or other agreements implemented) to address these new rules.
- Grecian Magnesite Mining: Tax Court held that gain derived by foreign person from disposition of its interest in a partnership engaged in US trade or business was treated as the disposition of a capital asset not as the disposition of the partner’s share of the underlying partnership assets and was not subject to US federal income tax as effectively connected income. It is unclear whether this case will be appealed.
- State tax apportionment issues: We discussed the difficulty in establishing the proper level of reserves due to both the uncertainty in applying the statutory sourcing methods and the state taxing authorities’ ability to use their discretionary authority to revise the statutory sourcing methods.
We invite all tax professionals who identify as female to join Tax in the City®’s official LinkedIn group to continue the conversation and share tax developments in between events and meetings! Click here to join.
Established in 2014 by McDermott Will & Emery LLP, Tax in the City® is a discussion and networking group for women in tax that fosters collaboration and mentorship and facilitates in-person connections and roundtable events around the country. This New York edition of Tax in the City® was the third event this year, and there are two more events in the works—an inaugural Seattle event on October 12, and then an end-of-year event in our Chicago office on December 14.
Courts continue to strike down the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as it continues to test the bounds of the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine through the issuance of improper summonses. In the last several years, the IRS has filed numerous summons enforcement proceedings related to the production of documents generally protected by the attorney-client privilege, tax-practitioner privilege, and/or work product doctrine. These summonses include overt requests for “tax advice” and “tax analysis,” which several courts have refused to enforce. For example, see Schaeffler v. United States, 806 F.3d 34 (2d Cir. 2015).
Once again, in United States v. Micro Cap KY Insurance Co., Inc. (Eastern District of Kentucky), a federal district court rejected the IRS’s arguments and refused to enforce an inappropriate summons. The opinion is available here. The IRS filed this enforcement proceeding seeking to compel the production of confidential communications between taxpayers and the lawyers that assisted them in forming a captive insurance company. After conducting an in camera review (where the judge privately reviewed the documents without admitting them in the record), the judge found the taxpayers had properly invoked privilege since each document “predominately involve[d] legal advice within the retention of  counsel.”
The court also rejected the government’s argument that the attorney-client privilege was waived by raising a reasonable cause and reliance on counsel defense to penalties in the taxpayers’ case filed in Tax Court. Because the government’s argument was untimely, it was waived and rejected outright. The court, however, proceeded to explain how the argument also failed on its merits. Continue Reading The IRS Is Struck Down Again in Privilege Dispute
Not only should companies worry about the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) auditing their returns, but they also have to be aware of a potential assault from within. Indeed, current and former employees have an incentive to air all of your tax issues with the hope of being rewarded for the information.
Section 7623(b) was added to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) in 2005, and pays potentially large monetary rewards for so-called tax whistleblowers. To qualify for remuneration, a whistleblower must meet several conditions to qualify for the Section 7623(b) award program: (1) submit the confidential information under penalties of perjury to the IRS’s Whistleblower Office; (2) the information must relate to a tax issue for which the taxpayer (if the IRS found out) would be liable for tax, penalties and/or interest of more than $2 million; and (3) involve a taxpayer whose gross income exceeds $200,000 the tax year at issue. If the information substantially contributes to an administrative or judicial action that results in the collection, the IRS will pay an award of at least 15 percent, but not more than 30 percent of the collected proceeds resulting from the administrative or judicial action (including related actions).
Section 7623(b) has spawned a collection of law firms around the country dedicated to signing up scores of whistleblowers who are hoping to cash in big! Our clients routinely ask us how to best protect themselves. We typically tell our clients that the best defense is a good offense. Consider the following:
- Use of non-disclosure agreements with employees who work on sensitive projects like mergers and acquisitions;
- Limit employee access to the companies tax accrual workpapers and other documents that indicate the tax savings involved in a transaction or a position claimed on a return;
- Review your procedures to ensure that privilege and confidentiality is maintained (this would include training employees and managers);
- Review company’s internal procedures for employee complaints to ensure that you have robust procedures in place that offer an independent review and allow for anonymous submissions; and
- Be vigilant, and look for signs that an employee is “disgruntled.”
Practice Point: If you are under examination by the IRS, you may be able to discern a whistleblower issue based on the questions being asked by the IRS and whether those questions could only be formed based on information provided by a whistleblower. If this situation exists, it is important to determine whether you should raise the issue with the IRS, particularly if you believe that any confidential and/or privileged information has been provided to the IRS without your consent. To make sure you are protected and adequately prepared, consult with your tax controversy lawyer.
This week, a French court announced an indictment against UBS related to its alleged treatment of Nicholas Forissier, a former audit manager who provided information to French authorities a decade ago in a tax evasion investigation of UBS. According to at least one press account, the indictment alleges that Forissier was “forced to work under difficult conditions, including internal criticism and eventual dismissal for gross misconduct in 2009” in retaliation for his cooperation with French authorities. Forissier’s case is apparently one of several whistleblower retaliation claims percolating in the French courts against UBS regarding non-disclosure of offshore accounts for tax purposes.
US law provides significant protections of potential whistleblowers for alleged tax violations. Revisions to IRC section 7623, effective from December 20, 2006, make whistleblower awards mandatory in some cases. The revised law has resulted in several large, public awards (the $104 million award given to Bradley Birkenfeld, for example, also related to UBS disclosures).
Protection for IRS whistleblower claimants is found under a number of statutes and rules. IRC section 6103(i)(6) provides stringent confidentiality rules (including personal liability for government violators) regarding the government’s disclosure of information tending to reveal the existence of a whistleblower or confidential informant. Also, the grand jury secrecy rule, Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e), may provide an additional protection in an ongoing grand jury investigation. Further, OSHA, the False Claims Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act may provide protections against termination of whistleblowers and against adverse employment decisions related to a current employee’s status as a whistleblower, in an appropriate case.
Practice point: It is also worth noting that these protections are not absolute. In fact, because an IRS whistleblower claimant may be in a privileged relationship with the target of an investigation, the IRS has more recently been called upon to clarify that the agency cannot and should not gather or use privileged information to develop a case, or else undermine the entire case as a violation of that privilege, i.e., the “fruit of the poisonous tree”. See our prior coverage on this issue here.
In its Annual Report to Congress, the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) recently reported summons enforcement actions under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Sections 7602, 7604, and 7609 as one of the “Most Litigated Issues” this year. Below, we summarize the general law related to summons enforcements actions and the findings set forth in the Annual Report.
On November 17, 2016, John Woodruff and Laura Gavioli gave a presentation to the Houston Chapter of the Tax Executives Institute (TEI) regarding the contours of privilege and work-product protection for in-house tax practitioners. Joining them on the panel were Paul Broman of BP and Susan Musch of Sasol. The group addressed potential waiver concerns over the life of a tax case, spanning from the reasons, pre-transaction, that a company may obtain a tax opinion to audit defense. McDermott greatly appreciates its relationship with TEI’s Houston Chapter and the opportunity to speak on these topics, which are of heightened interest in today’s tax enforcement environment.
On November 2, 2016, we participated in a panel discussion at TEI’s Houston Global Tax Symposium regarding the effects of the newly-finalized section 385 regulations. Of interest from a controversy perspective, we discussed the potential compliance burdens and privilege concerns raised by the new documentation requirements in the rules, and the potential problems with the non-rebuttable per se presumption in the transaction rules. We also discussed how the Internal Revenue Service has endeavored, in the regulations’ lengthy preamble, to address potential procedural challenges by responding to public comments and by providing justifications for the regulations, particularly in light of recent challenges to other regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act. It remains to be seen how the new 385 rules will affect businesses in practice, and how the IRS intends to apply them, consistent with its statutory mandate.
In today’s tax environment and with the potential monetary awards to whistleblowers under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 7623, taxpayers are facing the increased possibility that their confidential and privileged materials may be provided to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) without the taxpayer’s consent. This raises serious privilege and ethical issues related to the attorney-client, work product and Code Section 7525 tax practitioner privileges.
In a welcome development, Drita Tonuzi, Associate Chief Counsel (Procedure & Administration), stated at a DC Bar Association event on September 8, 2016, that if someone who is not authorized to release a taxpayer’s documents turns them over to the government, they will first be reviewed to determine if the information is protected by federal laws or the Code. The Whistleblower Office will then redact confidential information before releasing it to examination agents. However, this leaves some unanswered questions.
Case law reflects that the unauthorized production of privileged materials by an ex-employee or by an employee without the authority to waive the privilege for the taxpayer should not be viewed as a waiver of the privilege. The problem is that taxpayers may not know that privileged materials have been provided to the IRS without the IRS’s consent and therefore would not be able to take steps to assert the privilege and request the return of such documents from the IRS. Taxpayers may want to make a request to the IRS at the beginning of an audit to provide it with a list of all materials received by third-parties so that the taxpayer can assess whether any privileged documents have been provided to the IRS without the taxpayer’s consent. If the IRS does not provide the list or refuses to acknowledge the taxpayer’s request, the taxpayer may have at least preserved its right to later assert privilege if it turns out privileged materials were provided to the IRS without the taxpayer’s consent.
If an IRS attorney receives privileged documents and does not return them to the taxpayer, this raises potential ethical issues. Attorneys who receive privileged documents where it is clear that such documents are privileged and were not intended to be disclosed by the taxpayer or the privilege was intended to be waived, may have a duty to not examine those materials and instead return them to the taxpayer. The IRS’s recent comment about reviewing and redacting what it believes is privileged before sending to the examining agent appears at odds with this duty.
In fact, since at least 2009, the IRS has demonstrated a growing awareness of the privilege concerns raised by whistleblowers that stand in a privileged relationship to a taxpayer, even while the IRS’s current policies have not fully addressed the problem. In August 2015, the Internal Revenue Manual was amended to provide that the IRS generally must assume that any “current employee whistleblower has access to information that may be subject to a privilege that has not been affirmatively waived by the taxpayer.” I.R.M. 188.8.131.52.4. That same section of the Manual and periodic TIGTA reports on the IRS Whistleblower Office recognize that the IRS’s ability to use whistleblower information in subsequent proceedings could be severely limited—if not prohibited outright—if that information was obtained in violation of the taxpayer’s attorney-client privilege.
The better, and probably more appropriate approach, in situations where an ex-employee or whistleblower provides documents to the IRS that may be privileged is for the IRS to immediately notify the taxpayer and provide it with the opportunity to assert any applicable privileges. Allowing the IRS to review the documents first and make its own privilege determinations is fundamentally contrary to the way in which privilege determinations are made. Taxpayers and their advisors should be aware of the IRS’s recent comments and plan accordingly by taking affirmative steps to protect against the IRS reviewing privileged materials without the taxpayer’s consent.
Facebook is in a protracted battle with the IRS related to its off-shoring of IP to an Irish affiliate. Read more here. The IRS issued an administrative summons for the documents, and Facebook has refused to comply with the summons. The IRS is asking the court to enforce the summons and force Facebook to turn over the requested documents. The court agreed that on its face, the summons was issued for a legitimate purpose. Facebook will now have to tell the court why it refuses to turn over the documents. Review the court order here. Assumedly, Facebook is asserting that it is not required to disclose the requested materials based upon a claim of privilege. The case demonstrates that the IRS is aggressively seeking documents and information from taxpayers and their representatives in cases involving international tax issues.