A US federal district court judge recently endorsed the broad investigative powers of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in United States v. Eaton Corp., No. 1:23-mc-00037, May 16, 2024 (N.D. Ohio). During its audit of Eaton’s transfer pricing of a royalty arrangement with Eaton’s Irish affiliate, the IRS sought performance evaluations of certain employees of the affiliate. Eaton declined to provide the evaluations citing relevancy and legal objections based on EU privacy laws. The IRS subsequently served Eaton with an administrative summons seeking the evaluations.

In the ensuing summons enforcement action, Eaton initially prevailed before a magistrate judge on both grounds. However, the IRS persuaded the district court judge to reject the magistrate’s recommendation and enforce the summons.

The district court judge rejected Eaton’s position that a heightened relevancy standard applies when the IRS seeks personal information, such as employee valuations. The judge distinguished between civil discovery disputes where such a standard might apply and summons enforcement disputes, which engage the broad authority of the IRS to seek information that may be relevant to its audit. While the IRS’s case for relevancy could have been stronger, the judge nonetheless found that the IRS had sufficiently supported the connection between potential information in the evaluations and its audit of the royalty arrangement.

The district court judge also ruled that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) did not bar the IRS’s legitimate exercise of its audit powers. The judge acknowledged that the GDPR generally prohibits the transfer of personal information, such as employee valuations, outside of the EU. However, the judge also found that exceptions to that prohibition applied where the IRS properly requested the information as part of its audit function and the EU Member State (in this case Ireland) had entered into a treaty with the United States that addressed corporate cross-border relationships and sought generally to combat tax evasion by resident entities. Comity concerns did not prevent enforcement of the summons according to the judge.

Practice Point: Given the effort the IRS expended in this case to obtain marginally relevant information, we clearly see the effects of increased audit resources at work and of the IRS’s mandate to target large corporate taxpayers. While there are certainly instances in every audit where a taxpayer should not expend resources just to fight a battle, the difficulty in cases like this is that absent this decision, Eaton likely felt bound to adhere to the GDPR for the sake of the employees working for its Irish affiliate.

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