Clift v. United States Internal Revenue Service

Filing 28

ORDER granting 21 Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff may file an Amended Complaint by 11/4/2016. Signed by Judge Benjamin H. Settle. (MGC)

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1 2 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT TACOMA 3 4 5 STEVEN C. CLIFT, 6 Plaintiff, 7 v. 8 UNITED STATES INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, 9 Defendant. 10 CASE NO. C16-5116 BHS ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS AND GRANTING LEAVE TO AMEND 11 This matter comes before the Court on the United States of America’s (“United 12 States”) motion to dismiss (Dkt. 21). The Court has considered the pleadings filed in 13 support of and in opposition to the motion and the remainder of the file and hereby grants 14 the motion and grants leave to amend for the reasons stated herein. 15 I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY 16 On February 16, 2016, Plaintiff Steven Clift (“Clift”) filed a pro se complaint 17 against the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”),1 alleging the IRS improperly assessed civil 18 penalties for frivolous tax submissions and issued false levies. Dkt. 1. Clift asserted six 19 claims in his complaint: (1) abuse of process; (2) breach of fiduciary duty; (3) conspiracy; 20 21 1 The IRS is not an entity subject to suit, and therefore the United States is the proper defendant. See Krouse v. U.S. Gov’t Treasury Dep’t I.R.S., 380 F. Supp. 219, 221 (C.D. Cal. 22 1974) (citing Blackmar v. Guerre, 342 U.S. 512 (1952)). ORDER - 1 1 (4) fraud; (5) infliction of emotional distress; and (6) negligence. Id. at 3–4. Liberally 2 construed, Clift’s complaint appeared to assert a damages claim under 26 U.S.C. § 7433 3 and a refund claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1346. See Dkt. 1 at 2–5. Clift sought damages, as 4 well as an order directing the IRS to process his tax returns, remove all liens and levies, 5 and return all levied funds. Id. at 5. 6 On April 18, 2016, the United States moved to dismiss. Dkt. 8. The next day, the 7 United States filed a corrected motion to dismiss. Dkt. 11. On May 10, 2016, Clift 8 responded. Dkt. 14. On May 13, 2016, the United States replied. Dkt. 15. The Court 9 granted the United States’ motion and granted Clift leave to amend his complaint in order 10 to cure the deficiencies in his claims for damages under 26 U.S.C. § 7433 and his claim 11 for refund under 28 U.S.C. § 1346. Dkt. 18. 12 On July 22, 2016, Clift filed an amended complaint against the United States. Dkt. 13 19. On August 5, 2016, the United States moved to dismiss the amended complaint. Dkt. 14 21. On August 10, 2016, Clift responded. Dkt. 23. On September 2, the United States 15 replied. Dkt. 26. 16 II. DISCUSSION 17 The United States moves to dismiss Clift’s claims for lack of subject matter 18 jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. Dkt. 21 at 2–4. 19 A. Legal Standards 20 Rule 12(b)(1) provides for dismissal of claims if the Court lacks subject matter 21 jurisdiction. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, “possess[ing] only that 22 power authorized by Constitution and statute.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of ORDER - 2 1 Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). When jurisdiction is challenged in a Rule 12(b)(1) 2 motion, “[i]t is to be presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction, and the 3 burden of establishing the contrary rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction.” Id. 4 (internal citations omitted). 5 Motions to dismiss brought under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on either the lack of 6 a cognizable legal theory or the absence of sufficient facts alleged under such a theory. 7 Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep’t, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). Material 8 allegations are taken as admitted and the complaint is construed in the plaintiff’s favor. 9 Keniston v. Roberts, 717 F.2d 1295, 1301 (9th Cir. 1983). To survive a motion to dismiss, 10 the complaint does not require detailed factual allegations but must provide the grounds 11 for entitlement to relief and not merely a “formulaic recitation” of the elements of a cause 12 of action. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. at 1965. A plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a 13 claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 1974. 14 B. Damages Claim 15 Clift asserts a damages claim under 26 U.S.C. § 7433. Dkt. 19 at 1. The United 16 States raises several arguments as to why this claim should be dismissed. Dkt. 21 at 7–18. 17 The United States first moves for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) on the premise that the 18 Court lacks jurisdiction. Id. at 7–9, 14–18. The United States alternatively seeks dismissal 19 pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) on the basis that Clift’s claims are barred by the statute of 20 21 22 ORDER - 3 1 limitations and that Clift has otherwise failed to state a cognizable claim.2 Dkt. 21 at 9– 2 14. 3 1. 4 Under § 7433, a taxpayer may sue the United States for damages “only for tax Jurisdiction and Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies 5 collection activity that violates some provision of the Revenue Code or the regulations 6 promulgated thereunder.” Shwarz v. United States, 234 F.3d 428, 433 (9th Cir. 2000). 7 “[A] taxpayer cannot seek damages under § 7433 for improper assessment of taxes.” 8 Miller v. United States, 66 F.3d 220, 223 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Shaw v. United States, 9 20 F.3d 182, 184 (5th Cir. 1994)). The Court has already dismissed Clift’s damages claim 10 for lack of jurisdiction insofar as his claim was based on the IRS’ alleged improper 11 assessment of civil penalties. Dkt. 18 at 6 (citing Miller, 66 F.3d at 223). 12 However, Clift also alleges in his amended complaint that the IRS wrongfully 13 levied 100 percent of his Social Security retirement benefits. Dkt. 19 at 2–3. The United 14 States argues that the Court must dismiss any action based on this allegation pursuant to 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 2 The United States argues that Clift’s failure to comply with the statute of limitations under 26 U.S.C. § 7433(d)(3) deprives the Court of subject matter jurisdiction. Dkt. 21 at 7, 9– 12. However, it appears such an argument would be addressed more appropriately under a theory of dismissal for failure to state a claim. See United States v. Marsh, 89 F. Supp. 2d 1171, 1173 (D. Haw. 2000) (citing Capital Tracing, Inc. v. United States, 63 F.3d 859, 862 n.3 (9th Cir. 1995)); cf., Anderson v. United States, 220 Fed. Appx. 479, 481 (9th Cir. 2007). While the requirement to file a timely administrative claim under 26 U.S.C. § 7422(a) is jurisdictional in nature, as addressed infra, the period of limitations set forth in 26 U.S.C. § 7433(d)(3) does not appear to contain similar jurisdictional language. Accordingly, the Court will address the United States’ period of limitations argument under the 12(b)(6) standard. ORDER - 4 1 Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) because Clift failed to raise the issue in an 2 administrative claim. Dkt. 21 at 11 n.3.3 3 Exhausting an administrative claim for damages within the IRS is a prerequisite to 4 a successful action under 26 U.S.C. § 7433. 26 U.S.C. § 7433(d)(1). Despite exisitng 5 Ninth Circuit precedent that states the failure to exhaust the administrative remedies 6 requirement in 26 U.S.C. § 7422(a) deprives the Court of jurisdiction, it is debatable 7 whether the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies for a damages claim under 8 26 U.S.C. § 7433(d) is actually jurisdictional and, therefore, whether it may properly be 9 addressed in a 12(b) motion. Compare Conforte v. United States, 979 F.2d 1375, 1377 10 (9th Cir. 1992), as amended (Jan. 28, 1993) with Ramer v. United States, 620 F. Supp. 2d 11 90, 99–100 (D.D.C. 2009). See also Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 515–16 12 (2006). Nonetheless, even if the Court agrees with the reasoning of courts like the D.C. 13 Circuit in Ramer, it appears that the Ninth Circuit has not abandoned its precedent in 14 Conforte. See Johnson v. Paul, 225 Fed. Appx. 642 (9th Cir. 2007); Manant v. United 15 States, 498 Fed. Appx. 752 (9th Cir. 2012); Joseph v. United States, 517 Fed. Appx. 543 16 (9th Cir. 2013). 17 Moreover, if the failure to exhaust administrative remedies is not a jurisdictional 18 issue, it appears the Ninth Circuit would still consider the issue properly raised in a 12(b) 19 20 3 The United States did not approach its page limit in its motion to dismiss. When the page limit prohibits a party from adequately stating their position, the Court will grant a proper 21 request for additional pages. Accordingly, the Court encourages the parties to refrain from placing their substantive arguments in footnotes because such arguments are significantly more 22 likely to be inadvertently overlooked. ORDER - 5 1 motion to dismiss. Clark v. United States, 462 Fed. Appx. 719, 721 n.1 (9th Cir. 2011) 2 (citing Morrison v. Nat’l Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247, 254 (2010)) (“Even if the 3 failure to exhaust administrative remedies is not technically jurisdictional, dismissal for 4 failure to exhaust was still proper.”). Accordingly, under the applicable Ninth Circuit 5 precedent, the Court is compelled to treat Clift’s failure to exhaust administrative 6 remedies as an issue properly raised in a 12(b) motion. 7 As the United States has indicated, nowhere has Clift indicated that he filed an 8 administrative claim for the asserted100 percent levy on his Social Security retirement 9 benefits. Dkt. 21 at 11 n.3. Indeed, the administrative claim attached to Clift’s amended 10 complaint instead indicates that he alleged a levy of 15 percent of his benefits starting in 11 2011 which was increased to only 60 percent in 2013. Dkt. 19-1 at 11–12; Dkt. 19-2 at 12 55, 57. Having failed to show that he exhausted his administrative remedy within the IRS 13 in regards to any claim for a 100 percent levy, the Court must dismiss Clift’s claim based 14 on this allegation. 15 2. 16 Liberally reading Clift’s amended complaint, it appears that he may be alleging Statute of Limitations and Failure to State a Claim 17 that the IRS wrongfully levied 60 percent (and 100 percent at some subsequent 18 unspecified time) of his Social Security retirement benefits in an amount wrongfully 19 exceeding 15 percent. Dkt. 19 at 2–3; Dkt. 19-1 at 11–12; Dkt. 19-2 at 55, 57. He also 20 seems to argue that the IRS otherwise wrongfully levied funds from his employers. Id. 21 Thus, Clift’s claim could be construed as being based on tax collection activity. 22 ORDER - 6 1 Insofar as Clift’s claim is based on the 60 percent levy, the United States has 2 argued that Clift failed to bring his claim within the statute of limitations. Dkt. 21 at 9– 3 12. The United States addressed the period of limitation in its previous motion to dismiss 4 Clift’s first complaint. Dkt. 11-1 at 12–13. The Court declined to decide the issue at that 5 time as the United States had not fully briefed the issue and another basis for granting the 6 motion existed. See Dkt. 18 at 6. While the United States has more fully briefed the issue 7 in their present motion, it has still failed to address the doctrine of equitable tolling and 8 whether Clift’s administrative claim extended the date whereby he needed to file the 9 present action. See United States v. Marsh, 89 F. Supp. 2d 1171, 1177 n. 9 (D. Haw. 10 2000). Therefore, the Court declines to dismiss the amended complaint based on the 11 United States’ statute of limitations argument where, as before, the Court may rely upon 12 other grounds for dismissal. 13 Finally, the United States argues that Clift has failed to state a claim under § 7433. 14 Dkt. 11-1 at 14–15. To state a claim under § 7433, Clift must allege that the IRS 15 “recklessly or intentionally” disregarded a federal tax statute or regulation and that he 16 suffered “actual, direct economic damages” as a result. See 26 U.S.C. § 7433. Although 17 Clift alleges that it was unlawful for the IRS to levy more than 15 percent of his social 18 security benefits, it is unclear what law Clift relies upon in forming this allegation. The 19 law cited in Clift’s administrative claim, 42 U.S.C. § 407, makes no reference to a 15 20 21 22 ORDER - 7 1 percent limit.4 Even if 42 U.S.C. § 407 did create a 15 percent limit for levies of Social 2 Security benefits, 42 U.S.C. § 407 does not prohibit levies made pursuant to a statute 3 expressly referencing 42 U.S.C. § 407. See 42 U.S.C. 407(b). The statute that sets forth 4 the exclusive list of limits on the IRS’ authority to levy social security benefits does just 5 that. 26 U.S.C. § 6334(c). 6 Accordingly, Clift’s amended complaint fails to allege a cognizable claim for 7 damages based on the alleged levies. The Court therefore grants the United States’ 8 motion. Nonetheless, “[d]ismissal of a pro se complaint without leave to amend is proper 9 only if it is absolutely clear that the deficiencies of the complaint could not be cured by 10 amendment.” Schucker v. Rockwood, 846 F.2d 1202, 1203–04 (9th Cir. 1988). It remains 11 unclear whether Clift can amend his complaint in order to (1) reference a specific law 12 that prohibits the IRS from levying more than 15 percent of his benefits and (2) provide 13 sufficient facts to support that the alleged 60 percent levy was a reckless and intentional 14 violation of that law. Accordingly, the Court again grants Clift leave to amend his 15 complaint. 16 17 18 4 Moreover, even if Clift had referenced the 15 percent limit set forth in in 26 U.S.C. § 6331(h), he has failed to allege that the 60 or 100 percent levies of which he complains were the 20 type of automated payments to which 26 U.S.C. § 6331(h) applies—as opposed to a levy pursuant to 26 U.S.C. 6331(a) which may be authorized for up to 100 percent of the benefit. 21 Nonetheless, the United States has not submitted argument on the IRS’ authority to levy differing amounts of Social Security benefits depending on which procedure is used under 26 U.S.C. § 6331. Therefore, the Court will not base its decision on the IRS’ authority to levy up to 22 100 percent of one’s Social Security benefits pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6331(a). 19 ORDER - 8 1 C. Refund Claim 2 Clift’s amended complaint asserts a refund claim under 26 U.S.C. § 7422. Dkt. 19 3 at 3. Construing his amended complaint liberally by incorporating the attached 4 administrative claim for damages, Clift could be seeking refunds for alleged 5 overpayments on his taxes from 1995–1998, 2000, or 2003–2010. Dkt. 19-1 at 4–10. The 6 United States argues the Court lacks jurisdiction to consider this claim and seeks 7 dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Dkt. 11-1 at 7–8. “Title 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) waives the sovereign immunity of the United States 8 9 to permit suit in the United States District Courts for the recovery of taxes which have 10 been erroneously collected.” Imperial Plan, Inc. v. United States, 95 F.3d 25, 26 (9th Cir. 11 1996). Nonetheless, before a taxpayer may bring a refund claim in federal court, he or she 12 must (1) timely file an administrative claim with the IRS that satisfies the requirements 13 set forth in 26 C.F.R. § 301.6402–2 and (2) pay the full amount of the contested 14 assessment. Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145, 177 (1960); 26 U.S.C. § 7422(a). 15 Compliance with these requirements is a prerequisite to subject matter jurisdiction. 16 Quarty v. United States, 170 F.3d 961, 972 (9th Cir. 1999); Hutchinson, 677 F.2d at 17 1325. 18 With respect to the first requirement, Clift alleges generally that he filed an 19 administrative claim with the IRS. See Dkt. 19 at 3. However, the only administrative 20 claim that Clift alleges to have made was his claim for damages. Dkt. 19-1. The United 21 States indicates that Clift’s allegation is insufficient to show that he filed a timely 22 administrative claim for refund as required by 26 U.S.C. § 7422(a) and 26 C.F.R. § ORDER - 9 1 301.6402–2. Dkt. 21 at 14–16. Despite Clift’s general statement in the amended 2 complaint that he filed an administrative claim, Clift’s wholesale reliance on his 3 administrative claim for damages suggests that he has failed to file the appropriate 4 administrative claims for refund for each separate tax year in accordance with the 5 particular requirements of 26 C.F.R. § 301.6402–2. On a 12(b)(1) motion the burden is 6 on the plaintiff to show that jurisdiction exists, Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377, and Plaintiff 7 has failed to satisfy that burden. Accordingly, the Court lacks jurisdiction over Clift’s 8 claim for refund 9 Moreover, the declaration submitted with the motion to dismiss also shows that 10 Clift has failed to pay contested assessments for the years 2005–2010.5 Dkt. 21-1. The 11 United States has also demonstrated that there were no assessments or credits made in 12 1998. Id. Accordingly, even if Clift had timely commenced any administrative claims for 13 refund, he demonstrably failed to satisfy the Flora full payment requirement for the years 14 1998 or 2005–2010. 15 Clift’s complaint fails to allege sufficient facts to establish this Court’s 16 jurisdiction. Without jurisdiction, this Court has no authority to enter judgment on the 17 merits of his refund claims and those claims must be dismissed. In light of the fact that 18 Clift has not paid the contested assessments for the years 1998 or 2005–2010 and it is too 19 late for him to timely file an administrative claim, see 26 C.F.R. § 301.6402–2, the Court 20 5 The Court may properly consider the documents supporting the United State’s 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss in order “to resolve factual disputes concerning the existence of jurisdiction.” McCarthy v. United States, 850 F.2d 558, 560 (9th Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1052 22 (1989). 21 ORDER - 10 1 dismisses with prejudice any claims for refund based on those assessments. Insofar as 2 Clift raises refund claims for the years 1995–1997, 2000, and 2003–2004, dismissal is 3 based on Clift’s failure to show that he has filed separate timely administrative claims for 4 each year that satisfy every requirement of 26 C.F.R. § 301.6402–2. Because it is not 5 absolutely clear that Plaintiff has failed to pay those assessments and file administrative 6 claims, or that the statute of limitations was not somehow tolled for the past two decades, 7 the Court dismisses those claims without prejudice. 8 III. 9 ORDER Therefore, it is hereby ORDERED that the United States’ motion to dismiss (Dkt. 10 11) is GRANTED as follows: 11 Clift’s damages claim is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. Clift’s refund 12 claims for the years 1995–1997, 2000, and 2003–2004 are DISMISSED WITHOUT 13 PREJUDICE. Clift’s refund claims for the years 1998 and 2005–2010 are DISMISSED 14 WITH PREJUDICE. 15 Clift is GRANTED leave to amend his damages claim for the alleged levy of 60 16 percent of his social security benefits occurring in 2013, if possible, as explained above. 17 Clift shall file a second amended complaint, if warranted, no later than November 4, 18 2016. 19 Dated this 14th day of October, 2016. A 20 21 BENJAMIN H. SETTLE United States District Judge 22 ORDER - 11

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