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Court Orders Release of IRS Documents Despite Deliberative Process Privilege

Posted on Nov. 14, 2017

Government agencies enjoy the cloak of the deliberative process privilege to protect from discovery in court or in FOIA proceedings internal deliberations that are part of their decision making process. Anadarko Petroleum v United States, a recent district court magistrate’s order, illustrates that the protection is not absolute, resulting in possible disclosure of a range of IRS documents that perhaps will shed light on how the agency apparently changed its view on a technical loss deferral regulation under Section 267.

I will summarize the issue and case below.

Anadarko brought a $25 million refund suit; the substantive issue involved its taking a loss that arose from a liquidation of one of its subsidiaries. The precise question concerned whether a deferral of the loss ended in 2007, when Anadarko liquidated its subsidiary in a taxable liquidation. The government argued that the deferral should have continued, consistent with a regulation Treasury promulgated under Section 267 in 2012 and which Treasury claimed at the time was clarifying existing rules.

In the suit, Anadarko served interrogatories and sought a variety of documents that it felt showed that the 267 regulations did not clarify existing rules because IRS had previously taken differing views on the issue. It asked for documents relating to private letter ruling, a Chief Counsel advisory opinion and even an ABA Tax Section presentation at or around the time of finalizing the regs.

The government argued that the deliberative process privilege insulated the documents from discovery. That privilege essentially keeps from FOIA requests or court discovery agency predecisional documents, including the types that Anadarko sought.

While the privilege is a powerful cloak, it is not absolute. Courts are supposed to weigh the government’s strong interest in protecting full access to how it comes to a decision with the need of the party seeking the requested documents.

In concluding that Anadarko’s need trumped the agency’s interest the magistrate focuses on how agency changes on an issue may be relevant in a court’s legal interpretation. It did not matter, in the magistrate’s view, that the request considered documents that did not in and of themselves directly relate to precedential agency determinations.

In concluding that the government had to comply with the discovery, the court also felt that the request was proportional and reasonable, in light of the amount at issue and the costs to the government in complying. Backstopping its proportionality conclusion was its view that the nonprecedential documents had a bearing on the court’s ultimate task of sorting out the merits of the taxpayer and government’s views of  Section 267 and the regs.

Conclusion

Anadarko is an important taxpayer victory. I am not well versed with the substantive issue in this case. I suspect, however, that the court’s willingness to allow discovery has a lot to do with what the magistrate believes is at a minimum a less than complete explanation accompanying the regs. If IRS takes differing views on a technical issue, and yet when promulgating a final regulation Treasury claims that it is merely clarifying what the law had been all along, a court (and taxpayers) are justifiably curious as to how that explanation jives with what came before the final reg.

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