Section 7433's Statute of Limitations: How Courts Have Wrongly Turned a Taxpayer's Exclusive Sword into the IRS’ Shield Against Damages
University of Connecticut - School of Law
August 15, 2012
Cleveland State Law Review, Vol. 61, 2012
Over twenty years ago, Congress took the extraordinary step of authorizing taxpayers to sue the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) for damages if the IRS engaged in “unauthorized collection action” when trying to collect a federal tax debt. For many years the IRS has generally been immune from any private action by three laws. Thus, fashioning a private cause of action against the IRS for damages was an extraordinary act.
Congress expressly authorized taxpayers to bring a private cause of action against the United States for economic damages caused by “unauthorized collection.” Codified as section 7433 of the Internal Revenue Code, this statute provides taxpayers with the exclusive remedy for abuses by IRS employees in connection with the collection of taxes. The legislative history, although sparse, reflects Congress’ concern that unless taxpayers were given the right to bring a private cause of action against the IRS for abusive tortious tax collection action, such activities would go unchecked. Because the IRS was and continues to be shielded from other private causes of action by the Tax Anti-Injunction Act and the Declaratory Judgment Act, without a specific private right of action to sue the government taxpayers would never have the ability to stop excessive and illegal collection action by the IRS.
Despite the importance of section 7433 to check government unauthorized tortious collection activity, federal courts have turned section 7433 into a shield against excessive or unsupported IRS action, rather than maintain it as the small, but important, sword that Congress intended to give taxpayer. This article contributes to the sparse literature on section 7433 by demonstrating that federal courts have effectively vitiated section 7433 by misreading its statute of limitations to: (1) require a taxpayer to be put on notice that all collection action taken by the IRS is unauthorized and to therefore file section 7433 actions from the first time collection action is taken; and (2) prevent continuous unauthorized collection action to extend the statute of limitations start date until the last of such series.
These readings contravene the purpose of section 7433 in two ways. First, as the legislative history of section 7433 demonstrates Congress intended section 7433’s statute of limitations to be interpreted no less liberally then the statute of limitations for actions brought under the Federal Torn Claims Act.
Second, even absent the legislative history, the purpose and goal of section 7433 are best advanced by reading section 7433 not to start when the taxpayer notified of the first collection action taken by the IRS. In so ruling, the courts have made a simple category mistake. The courts have treated section 7433 like a typical tax claims procedure- i.e., a procedure for a taxpayer to file a claim with the IRS to get back a taxpayer’s monies that that he claims the IRS wrongfully collected. The statutes of limitations for such typical tax claims procedures actions are properly strictly construed against the taxpayer because they reflect the policy that taxpayers may not sit on their rights to get their money back.
The mistake is that section 7433 is not a typical tax claims procedure statute, but a statute to protect citizens against tortious acts by government employees in the course of their work. In this respect, a claim under section 7433 belongs in the category of tort claims against federal employees under the Federal Tort Claim Act (“FTCA”). This is further supported by Congress’ action to make section 7433 the exclusive private action for tortious acts by IRS employees in connection with the collection of tax. Once the courts treat section 7433 claims like tort claims, not typical tax claim actions, courts will see why they should read section 7433’s statute of limitations just as they read the statute of limitations under FTCA.
Keywords: 7433, IRS Unauthorized Collection, Federal Tort Claims Act
Date posted: January 2, 2013
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