District Court Orders Microsoft Summonses Enforced, Finding No Legal Obstacle to Involvement of Outside Law Firm
December 3, 2015
The district court has ordered enforcement of the IRS’s summonses in its high-profile audit of Microsoft. As we have previously discussed, Microsoft’s objections to the summonses centered on the IRS’s novel decision to bring in an outside law firm (Quinn Emanuel) as a consultant to whom certain tasks would be delegated. The objections also touched on the issue being litigated in the Clarke case concerning the appropriateness of enforcing a summons that is arguably designed to assist the IRS in Tax Court litigation. (See prior posts on Clarke here.) The district court’s decision in Microsoft turns on its analysis of the factual record and does not break any new legal ground.
With respect to the law firm’s involvement, the essence of the court’s holding was its conclusion that nothing in Code section 7602 prohibits the degree of involvement by an outside contractor that had been shown by the evidence. (Microsoft had argued that, by its terms, section 7602 authorizes only the Secretary of the Treasury (or his specified delegates within Treasury) to “take testimony” or otherwise exercise the summons power.) The court did not affirmatively endorse the IRS’s involvement of the law firm. To the contrary, the court remarked that it was “troubled by Quinn Emanuel’s level of involvement in this audit. The idea that the IRS can ‘farm out’ legal assistance to a private law firm is by no means established by prior practice, and this case may lead to further scrutiny by Congress.” But the court held that it would take further action by Congress to prohibit such involvement; current law does not impose any bar. Because it found no statutory problem, the court saw no need to consider Microsoft’s arguments challenging the validity of the recent temporary regulation that explicitly addresses the IRS’s use of outside contractors.
In reaching its conclusion, the court pressed counsel for Microsoft to specify where the law draws the line between permissible and impermissible involvement of an outside contractor, and the court ultimately found Microsoft’s answers unpersuasive. As summarized by the court, Microsoft admitted at the hearing that the contractor “is permitted under law to examine Microsoft’s books and records, formulate questions to ask witnesses under oath, attend those interviews, and even ask questions via a notepad so long as it is the IRS lawyer who speaks the words.” In the court’s view, nothing in Code section 7602 “prevents the IRS from taking this a step further and having the contractor ask a question while an IRS lawyer continues to run the interview.” The court’s statements imply that it could well be prohibited for an outside contractor to “run the interview” and certainly for it to control the audit. But the court found that the record in this case provided “no factual basis” for Microsoft’s assertion that Quinn Emanuel would be “conducting the audit.” (This finding is hardly surprising given that the only witness at the evidentiary hearing was an IRS official.) Rather, the court concluded, the evidence indicated that Quinn Emanuel “will be gathering limited information for the IRS under the direct supervision of the IRS.”
Distinct from the issues directly raised by Quinn Emanuel’s involvement, Microsoft argued that the summons was issued for the illegitimate purpose of preparing for Tax Court litigation, not for conducting an audit. As we have discussed elsewhere, the legal issue raised by efforts to enforce a summons to aid in Tax Court litigation is more squarely presented in the Clarke case currently pending in the Eleventh Circuit on remand from the Supreme Court. Here, the district court found that there was no factual predicate for Microsoft’s argument, noting that “the record does not contain any direct evidence that these summonses were issued to circumvent the discovery procedures of tax court.” The court pointed to the testimony at the evidentiary hearing, where the IRS witness stated that the investigation was still in the audit phase and the summonses were issued to help the IRS “get to the right number.” Microsoft’s counter to this testimony was to ask the court to draw an inference from the involvement of Quinn Emanuel—namely, that a firm known for trial litigation likely was providing advice on trial preparation and the subsequently issued summonses therefore were an aspect of that trial preparation. The court characterized this evidence as “entirely speculative” and concluded that “Microsoft has entirely failed to meet its burden of proof necessary to prevent the enforcement of these summonses.”
The district court’s decision appears to end this aspect of the Microsoft litigation, as Microsoft is likely to comply with the summons enforcement order rather than seek to have it stayed so that it could appeal. The action on the question of the IRS’s ability to use the summons power to aid in Tax Court litigation now shifts to the Eleventh Circuit, where briefing is nearly complete in the Clarke case and the court has indicated that oral argument will likely be scheduled for the last week of February 2016.