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Dewees v. United States

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 8, 2017




         The arm of the U.S. tax man is long, but in this case it needed extend only over our northern border to find Plaintiff Donald Dewees. Dewees is a U.S. citizen living in Canada, where he operates a consulting business. Because the business is incorporated abroad, Dewees was required to furnish certain annual information about the company to the IRS. 26 U.S.C. § 6038(b). Unfortunately for Dewees, he neglected to do so for over a decade.

         Enter the tax man. After Dewees voluntarily disclosed his failure to file the required informational returns, the IRS assessed a statutory penalty of $120, 000, $10, 000 for each year of non-compliance. Dewees challenged the penalty before the IRS without success and refused to pay it. But what Dewees likely did not anticipate is that, pursuant to the U.S.-Canada tax treaty, the Candian tax authority would hold Dewees' domestic tax refund in abeyance until the IRS penalty was paid in full. After paying the penalty, Dewees filed suit in this Court challenging the relevant treaty provisions as unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment and both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fifth Amendment. The Government now moves to dismiss. Finding that Dewees has failed to state a claim for relief on his Eighth Amendment and due process claims, and lacks standing to bring his equal protection claim, the Court will grant the Government's motion and dismiss the case.

         I. Background

         U.S. citizens who hold controlling interests in foreign corporations must annually file IRS Form 5471, which discloses certain ownership and financial information about the corporation. In addition, U.S. citizens living abroad must disclose holdings in foreign bank accounts over certain thresholds by filing a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (“FBAR”). See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss (“MTD”) 7; Compl. ¶ 12. In 2009, Dewees learned that he had failed to comply with these requirements, and, on the advice of a tax specialist, applied to participate in the IRS's Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”). See Compl. ¶¶ 13-16. OVDP is intended to encourage taxpayers who have not disclosed their offshore assets, and who are not already under investigation by the agency, to voluntarily comply with applicable disclosure requirements. See IRS, 2009 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program,; Maze v. IRS (“Maze I”), 206 F.Supp.3d 1, 5-6 (D.D.C. 2016), aff'd, 2017 WL 2989488 (D.C. Cir. July 14, 2017). In return for their disclosures, the program offers taxpayers compromise terms on penalties for outstanding taxes, assurance that the IRS will not refer the matter to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, and finality regarding previous non-disclosures. See Maze I, 206 F.Supp.3d at 6-7. The IRS assessed a penalty of $185, 862 against Dewees for not filing FBARs from 2003 to 2008, but did not at that time calculate a penalty for Dewees' failure to file Form 5471. See Compl. ¶¶ 22, 24-25; IRS, Taxpayers with Foreign Assets May Have FBAR and FATCA Filing Requirements in June, assets-may-have-fbar-and-fatca-filing-requirements-in-june. Dewees refused to pay the assessed penalty and withdrew from the OVDP. See id. ¶¶ 26-27.

         In September 2011, the IRS notified Dewees that it had assessed a different penalty of $120, 000 against him for failing to file Form 5471 from 1997 to 2008. See id. ¶¶ 1, 29. Section 6038(c) of the Tax Code authorizes the IRS to impose a $10, 000 penalty for each missed filing. See 26 U.S.C. § 6038(c). The total penalty was based entirely on Dewees' failure to file; he was not liable for any unpaid taxes. See Compl. ¶ 47. Dewees requested an abatement of this penalty for reasonable cause, which was denied, as was his subsequent appeal of that decision. See id. ¶¶ 35-36.

         Well after Dewees' appeal had been rejected, the IRS introduced another program to encourage taxpayers to voluntarily disclose offshore assets-the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures (“SFCP”). The SFCP differs from the OVDP in several respects: The SFCP involves less paperwork and imposes lower penalties than the OVDP, but only covers three years of non-compliance as opposed to the OVDP's eight-year coverage period. See Def.'s MTD 3-4; Compl. ¶ 50; Maze v. IRS, 2017 WL 2989488, at *1 (D.C. Cir. July 14, 2017) (“Maze II”). And, unlike the OVDP, the SFCP does not offer immunity from criminal prosecution. See id., at *4 n.2. Transferring between the two programs is generally disfavored, but taxpayers who are otherwise eligible for the SFCP and made their OVDP submissions before July 1, 2014, may remain in the OVDP while requesting the more favorable terms available under the SFCP. See Maze I, 206 F.Supp.3d at 7-8.

         In May 2015, the Canadian Revenue Agency notified Dewees that it was holding his Canadian tax refund in abeyance due to his outstanding $120, 000 debt to the IRS. See Compl. ¶ 37. This international collection assistance is permitted by Article XXVI(A) of the United States-Canada Income Tax Convention. See Def.'s MTD 9-10; Compl. ¶ 37. Dewees promptly sent the Canadian Revenue Agency a check for $134, 116.34, representing the $120, 000 penalty plus interest. See Compl. ¶ 38. In September 2015, he filed a claim seeking a refund of that amount, which was rejected in May 2016. See Compl. ¶ 5. He then brought this action, requesting that the Court find the collection assistance provisions of the United States-Canada Tax Convention unconstitutional for violating (1) the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, (2) the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and (3) the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment. See id. ¶¶ 42-47, 66-67, 52-53.

         II. Standards of Review

         The Government moves to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted with respect to all three of Dewees' claims. See Def.'s MTD 1. Alternatively, it asks that Dewees' equal protection claim be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Id. at 18. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), the Court must dismiss any action over which it cannot properly exercise jurisdiction. “[D]efect[s] of standing” constitute “defect[s] in subject matter jurisdiction.” Haase v. Sessions, 835 F.2d 902, 906 (D.C. Cir. 1987). The “plaintiff bears the burden of . . . establishing the elements of standing, ” and each element “‘must be supported in the same way as any other matter on which the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, i.e., with the manner and degree of evidence required at the successive stages of the litigation.'” Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992)).

         To survive a 12(b)(6) motion, a “complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A court “accept[s] as true all of the allegations contained in [the] complaint, ” disregarding “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action” and “mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The court then examines the remaining “factual content [to determine if it may] draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. A court must also consider “documents incorporated into the complaint by reference.” Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007).

         III. Analysis

         A. Excessive Fines Claim

         “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” U.S. Const. amend. VIII. In analyzing an excessive fines claim, the Court must first decide whether a penalty is a fine before determining if it is unconstitutionally excessive. See United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321, 334 (1998). A payment to the government is only considered a “fine” under the Eighth Amendment if it is “punishment for some offense.” Bajakajian, 524 U.S. at 328 (quoting Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 609- 10 (1993)). In other words, the purpose of the penalty must be primarily retributive or deterrent rather than remedial. Id. In the ...

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