On Monday, satellite radio personality Howard Stern was hit with a lawsuit initiated by a woman named Judith Barrigas for allegedly airing a private conversation with an IRS agent on his talk show.
Per the complaint filed in Massachusetts federal court, Barrigas called the IRS’s service center on May 19, 2015 to discuss the potential misapplication of her tax refund for the previous year. The agency’s switchboard forwarded her call to Jimmy Forsyth, an IRS agent. In our previous post, IRS Notices Decoded: What your IRS Notice Means we discussed how an IRS notice does not always mean you owe taxes. It may be to inform you that a refund is due.
Forsyth had called into the Howard Stern show (for reasons unknown) and was placed on hold by a producer moments before Barrigas’ call came through on a different line. While waiting for some Stern air-time, Forsyth and Barrigas had a lengthy discussion about her 2014 tax liability.
This is the turning point; and if you’ve ever played the game telephone, you can appreciate how quickly lines get crossed and things get weird.
During their conversation, the private discussion was aired live on satellite radio, allowing millions of Howard Stern’s fans to listen in. Along with details of Barrigas’s tax liability, the call also revealed her personal phone number to the subscribers listening in. Consequently, Barrigas immediately began receiving a bombardment of text messages and phone calls from complete strangers informing her that her personal information was being shared on the radio show.
In case you didn’t know tax returns are expected to be confidential. Specifically, Section 7431 of the Internal Revenue Code permits a taxpayer to seek civil damages from the IRS for the Service’s unauthorized disclosure of tax returns and return information, stating,
“if any officer or employee of the United States knowingly, or by reason of negligence, inspects or discloses any return or return information with respect to a taxpayer…such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against the United States in a district court.”
Furthermore, that same code also safeguards taxpayers from non-IRS leaks. This is the potential big problem for the Howard Stern show.
Using Section 7431 of the IRS Code as the foundation for her complaint, Barrigas filed a civil suit alleging that the breach of information caused her great emotional harm and anxiety, loss of sleep and irregular eating patterns. Thus, the suit charges the IRS with the unlawful disclosure of tax information and Stern with negligence and invasion of privacy.
Although Howard Stern fans may be wildly amused by this situation, violations of this nature are serious business. If you have any questions about your rights or liabilities involving the Internal Revenue Service, contact a Boxelder Consulting representative for a free consultation right away.