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Court Tosses Suit Blaming TSA for Lost Tax Docs

POSTED ON Feb. 11, 2019
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A federal judge dismissed a Colorado man’s claim that the Transportation Security Administration’s removal of tax files from his luggage cost him a $5,000 tax refund.

Magistrate Judge Kristen L. Mix of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado held in a February 7 order that the court lacked jurisdiction because John Schlieker was essentially seeking a tax refund, even though his lawsuit against the TSA was for tort damages arising from the loss of his tax files.

Schlieker claimed that after flying from Phoenix to Denver in February 2016, he discovered that tax-related files, folders, and paperwork were missing from his checked bag. The TSA had left a notice of inspection inside his bag, he said.

Unable to retrieve the files after several months of phone calls and emails with the TSA, Schlieker — proceeding pro se — brought a federal tort claim against the agency for “loss of personal property due to negligence.”

Schlieker contended that the TSA’s failure to repack the documents after inspecting the bag left him “unable to completely, honestly, and truthfully document his 2015 tax returns, resulting in a $5,000 loss of tax refund.”

Schlieker said his CPA had determined the amount of his tax refund loss. “The monetary figure found in the 2015 IRS 1040 . . . was significantly reduced from past and present tax years,” he explained in his complaint, adding that his Colorado tax returns indicated comparable discrepancies.

As support for his lawsuit, Schlieker pointed to 28 U.S.C. section 1346(b)(1), which states that district courts “shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages . . . for injury or loss of property . . . caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment.”

Refund Claim in Substance

The government filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, contending that Schlieker was improperly invoking the court’s jurisdiction under the Federal Tort Claims Act when his suit was actually a tax refund claim subject to IRC section 7422(a).

That provision requires that a taxpayer bringing a refund suit first file an administrative claim for refund with the IRS, an action the government said Schlieker hadn’t done.

Mix agreed with the government. Despite Schlieker’s “adamant insistence that the factual circumstances of his [Federal Tort Claims Act] suit do not implicate the Code and IRS, Plaintiff, essentially, seeks the $5,000 tax refund,” Mix wrote, adding that “to hold otherwise, the Court would weigh form over substance.”

Mix pointed out that Schlieker wasn’t seeking compensation for the value of the documents themselves. Rather, he was asking for the value of his purported tax refund, which the documents might have been able to help secure, she said.

“It is highly unlikely that the value of the documents, themselves, would amount to anything resembling Plaintiff’s $5,000 damages request,” Mix said.

Because Schlieker hadn’t filed a refund claim with the IRS, the court had no jurisdiction to hear his case, Mix concluded.

The case is Schlieker v. TSA, No. 1:17-cv-01284 (D. Colo. 2019).