Appeals Court Apologizes for Unrepentant IRS
An egregious example of bureaucratic imperiousness
According to a former Internal Revenue Service commissioner, some of the agency’s employees “need more training on how to be courteous.” Would it were that simple. Unfortunately, the problem is worse; the top brass want their staffers to take no prisoners and, like that Edith Piaf song, have no regrets.
For an egregious example of bureaucratic imperiousness, reflect on what a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York had to say about the ordeal of Leona Weiner, a Long Islander. All she sought, said the judges, was "a prompt and courteous remedy from the IRS" for three erroneous seizures of money in her pension fund and bank accounts.
Those boners, Ms. Weiner testified, caused her to be denied credit, lose income from the accounts, suffer embarrassment at work, and become ill. So she sued the IRS to recover her money, as well as for damages and an apology. What follows are excerpts from the Second Circuit's opinion.
"Her efforts to resolve the situation resulted in repeated but unfulfilled verbal assurances from IRS staff that the errors would be corrected. Her correspondence to the IRS seemed to have been disregarded, and her personal visits to the office were similarly unhelpful . . . Illustrative of her experience was a letter telling her that writing the IRS within the next three months, while the agency underwent a computer-system conversion, would be futile and would, in fact, delay processing requests concerning her account."
What did the unrepentant federales have to say? They didn’t dispute that "computer error" caused them to mistakenly grab her money three times. In fact, those friendly folks entered into an agreement to return the funds filched from the pension, though, as the court emphasized, not "until two and one-half years after Weiner filed her lawsuit."
Having summarized the undisputed facts, the judges then addressed themselves to "Weiner's principal concern. . . . Not money damages, but what seems like a reasonable request under the circumstances that the IRS provide a letter acknowledging its multiple errors and why her return was handled in an unauthorized manner." Also, she wants the IRS to be "courteous and acknowledge and respond to communications. Finally, in a plea that evokes almost Orwellian imagery, she asks this court, 'Is there something in the IRS record that I should know about?'"
Unfortunately, concluded the court, she’s not entitled to damages for computer errors. Federal statutes immunize the IRS and its employees from liability for those kinds of damages.
Three frustrated federal judges ended their opinion with these words: "We are often expected to live with governmental actions that resist characterization as rational. And while modern urban life may bring to all its share of petty insults or injuries, we certainly sympathize with the plight of one like Weiner who, using all methods at her disposal, was still unable to secure a speedy resolution of such obvious governmental error. The reason she can not obtain the apology that she so clearly deserves is no doubt due, regrettably, to the fact that probably not one individual in the entire IRS bureaucracy believes that he or she did wrong. While this court cannot speak for the IRS, it may be some comfort to Weiner that she has convinced us that while she is entitled to no legal remedy, fair dealing and simple courtesy should have impelled the IRS to have corrected its error more expeditiously, to have apologized for having erred in the first place, and to have provided her with sufficient documentation of its error to enable her to undo some of the harm done to her."
My own view is that the judges are too restrained, by half, in their language. To their observations I would add that the quintessential oxymoron is IRS fairness.
Published April 16, 2010