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Courts Defer Hearings, IRS Limits Travel Amid Virus Concerns

Posted on Mar. 10, 2020

U.S. federal courts and the IRS have begun taking precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.

The Tax Court announced March 9 that it will “make reasonable accommodations and reschedule appearances, hearings, and trials as needed” for people required to appear in court who are experiencing flu-like symptoms, have a fever, or are coughing or sneezing.

The Tax Court said that effective March 9, it will limit the number of people allowed in the courtroom at one time.

Precautionary measures are being urged throughout the federal government, including at the IRS. National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon issued a statement March 9 saying the IRS has suspended all nonessential travel for 30 days. Reardon said he met with IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to discuss how NTEU and the agency can work together to implement safety precautions and keep employees informed.

The IRS didn’t immediately respond to a request for confirmation on the travel ban.

As of March 9, the coronavirus has infected more than 109,500 people worldwide, including 213 Americans, 11 of whom have died, according to the World Health Organization.

The same day, the Ninth Circuit said it has canceled all en banc hearings and non-case-related meetings scheduled for the week of March 9. Oral argument hearings will proceed unless an order is issued to the contrary, the Ninth Circuit statement said. Counsel who wish to appear remotely may file a motion, the court said.

The Ninth Circuit could announce further cancellations at the discretion of the three-judge panels for the week of March 16, the court said.

In a separate statement March 9, the Federal Circuit said that while “there has been no adjustment in court operations,” it is following preparedness guidance from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The View From Seattle

John Colvin of Colvin + Hallett in Seattle noted that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington — in an area hard hit by the coronavirus — has canceled all jury trials and in-person courtroom proceedings until further notice.

Colvin told Tax Notes that that decision will likely delay an April sentencing in a case he has before the district court.

“Outside of Seattle, my estimation is that the COVID-19 pandemic will have an effect on judicial proceedings” that will be almost as extreme as the government shutdown, Colvin said. That is, courts will likely continue to decide motions, but not hold trials or other evidentiary hearings. But those precautionary measures “will have the potential to last far longer, perhaps for as much as 12 to 18 months,” he said.

“My guess is that the Tax Court will start canceling trial calendars in areas with a large number of cases of the coronavirus,” Colvin added. 

The Tax Court will probably start looking for alternative methods of case management, including more telephone status conferences, in an effort to keep cases moving toward resolution, Colvin said. “These methods may be geared at being sure that any backlog of cases are ready to go to trial when the threat recedes,” he added.

“Unlike the government shutdown, there is no ‘compromise’ that can end the assault of the novel coronavirus,” Colvin said. “If any of the projections about the potential infection rate and hospital bed shortage are close to accurate, we probably should not worry a whole lot about the status of tax cases, and concentrate on health.”

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