The ability to remain anonymous throughout the administrative and judicial whistleblower award determination an appeal processes has been a common theme in the concerns that we hear from clients and something that I spoke about on a panel at the ABA Section of Taxation Meeting in May of 2016. This includes how to protect the whistleblower’s identity, the taxpayer’s information, and when a protective order is appropriate. This is a very complex area, which should be discussed with your attorney as you weigh the decision to pursue litigation in the Tax Court.
The ability of a whistleblower to proceed anonymously in the Tax Court is a balance of the public’s interest in open courts and the interest of protecting the identity of confidential informants. This balance has generally resulted in whistleblowers being able to proceed anonymously.
The Tax Court yesterday released Whistleblower 12568-16W v Commissioner. This opinion addresses a whistleblower’s ability to proceed anonymously (and for the taxpayer’s information to be redacted) where the whistleblower claims that the taxpayer committed tax fraud resulting in a $3 billion tax liability. This opinion walked through the Tax Court’s jurisprudence on a whistleblower’s ability to proceed anonymously, focusing on the balance between protecting a confidential informant’s identity and the public’s interest in open court proceedings. Judge Halpern points out in this opinion that this balance can shift as the case progresses, citing the explanatory notes that were included at the time the Tax Court adopted Rule 345. The Court stated that:
since we do not know what turns this case may take, and given the extraordinary amounts of uncollected tax and penalty liabilities petitioner alleges, with the possibility that petitioner might receive a whistleblower award up to 30%of the proceeds the Commissioner collects (an award that might equal or exceed $1 billion), see sec. 7623(b)(1), we cannot say that, at some future time in this action, we may not revisit the balancing between alleged harm to petitioner and the societal interest in knowing petitioner’s identity and determine that anonymity is no longer justified.
This serves as a reminder that the balancing test is something that we need to continue to look at throughout the litigation process, because balancing a whistleblower’s anonymity and the public’s interest in the proceedings can shift from the Tax Court’s perspective as the case proceeds. As always, consult your attorney for specifics about your case.