COVID-19 has hit the United States and developments are coming fast and furious. As the federal government seeks to reach a deal on a coronavirus aid package today, the IRS has created a webpage for coronavirus announcements and guidance, barred employees’ nonessential travel, federal tax filing deadlines might be extended, and much more. Bloomberg Tax reported today that the National Treasury Employees Union is concerned for employees and seeking to limit in-person help at Taxpayer Assistance Centers (link requires subscription). Meanwhile, tax professionals are struggling to find safe and effective ways to serve their clients who face serious hardships, or whose cases have deadlines that cannot be tolled or that have not yet been extended. Some VITA clinics have closed, and many firms and academic tax clinics have moved work online.
State and federal courts are taking measures as well, but policies vary widely from asking sick folks to stay home, to canceling all in-person court appearances. The U.S. Tax Court canceled its remaining March trial sessions, but so far April and May sessions remain scheduled. And, as long as the court is open for business, filing deadlines remain in force.”read
Many of the tax administration and procedure problems we saw during the 2019 shutdown (discussed in many posts here) could be relevant again very soon. Last summer Keith reviewed the law on Tax Court filing deadlines looking back at the shutdown, linking to several excellent posts by Bryan Camp and others. We have also covered cases pushing (generally unsuccessfully) to expand equitable tolling in tax cases, in myriad situations.
Since the Tax Court process already takes a long time, and the cumulative effects of cancelling trial sessions are substantial, it would make sense for the Court to follow the lead of universities and law firms and conduct as much business remotely as possible during the COVID-19 epidemic.
The Tax Court is in a difficult situation, because the vast majority of its hearings and trials are held in person. Unlike some other courts, the Tax Court does not routinely hear testimony by telephone or other means. However, the Tax Court could expand this practice under Rule 143:
(b) Testimony: The testimony of a witness generally must be taken in open court except as otherwise provided by the Court or these Rules. For good cause in compelling circumstances and with appropriate safeguards, the Court may permit testimony in open court by contemporaneous transmission from a different location.
This rule seems perfectly reasonable, but it is quite broad and open to very different interpretations. Is the standard to be applied individually, based on one’s fear of the coronavirus or vulnerability to it? Or, can the court take a public health approach and determine that flattening the curve is good cause and a compelling reason to permit remote testimony no matter how young or healthy the litigant? Surely the court could take that position.
The next question is what appropriate safeguards should exist. Several years ago I was on a rules committee of the Vermont Supreme Court while the committee debated, drafted, and ultimately recommended a rule for telephone testimony in family court, which the Supreme Court adopted. (I looked up the date and was surprised to see that the rule was adopted in 2009 – time flies.) We were concerned about verifying the identity of the witness and about getting clear testimony from the witness for the record. There was no technology for video appearance so it was all done by speaker phone, on sometimes very patchy connections. (Vermont has notoriously spotty cell phone service, even on interstate freeways.) Despite some frustrating situations involving poor phone service, the rule worked fairly well and it allowed time-sensitive matters to go forward when witnesses had trouble getting to court. Last year the Vermont Supreme Court adopted a uniform rule on remote appearances in civil actions, including family court. Vermont’s procedures and standards are quite detailed and provide significant guidance to attorneys, litigants, and judges.
Several other courts allow remote appearances under various conditions. The Self-Represented Litigation Network issued a report on remote appearances in 2017, which
presents the author’s conclusions about the current state of remote appearances in the United States based on his review of existing state statutes and federal, state and local court rules on the topic and discussions with knowledgeable persons throughout the country. The report has two appendices – a compendium of all the statutes and rules …, and a technology assessment …
The Federal Judicial Center likewise issued a 2017 report on Remote Participation in Bankruptcy Proceedings. Perhaps the issue will gather additional interest and we will see updated reports on remote access to justice.