T.S. Ellis, III, United States District Judge.
In this employment dispute, plaintiff Grant Liverett alleges that his employer, defendant Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions LLC, (i) violated the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA")
Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P. The motions were fully briefed and argued. At the conclusion of oral argument, a bench ruling issued denying the motions in substantial part, but deferring ruling on one count pending further briefing. Specifically, defendant's motion for summary judgment was denied pursuant to Rule 56(d)(1), Fed. R. Civ. P., and the motion to dismiss was denied with respect to Count I, alleging FLSA violations, and Count III, alleging breach of contract. See Liverett v. Torres Advanced Ent. Solutions LLC, No. 16-cv-339 (E.D.Va. June 17, 2016) (Order) (Doc. 23). The motion to dismiss Count II, alleging tax fraud, was taken under advisement, and the parties were directed to file supplemental briefs addressing a question of statutory interpretation pertinent to plaintiff's claim in Count II, an issue that neither party addressed in the initial briefing. The parties were directed to brief whether 26 U.S.C. § 7434(a) creates a private cause of action for tax fraud where, as here, the alleged misrepresentation giving rise to the action is unrelated to the amount of payments the defendant reported paying to the plaintiff. See id. For the reasons that follow, it does not.
The relevant factual allegations may be succinctly summarized.
Importantly, the fraudulent tax scheme that plaintiff alleges concerns the type of
The Internal Revenue Code provides as follows:
26 U.S.C. § 7434(a). This statute, at first glance, appears quite simple and straightforward. But, a more careful reading reveals that it harbors a significant ambiguity, the resolution of which impacts this case.
The source of the ambiguity in § 7434(a) is the phrase "with respect to payments purported to be made to any other person." Simply put, there is ambiguity as to what the phrase "with respect to ..." modifies. On the one hand, § 7434(a) may refer to an "information return with respect to payments purported to be made to any other person" that is "fraudulent." On this reading, "with respect to ..." describes "information return," and such an information return that is false or misleading in any respect aimed at obtaining something of value is "fraudulent" and therefore actionable. On the other hand, "with respect to payments purported to be made to any other person" may be read as limiting "fraudulent." Under this interpretation, the filing of an information return is actionable only if the information return is false or misleading as to the amount of payments purportedly made.
Resolving this ambiguity is of consequence here, as the Amended Complaint states a claim for relief under the former interpretation, but not under the latter. To clarify, a Form 1099 that identifies plaintiff as an independent contractor when he is in fact an employee is an information return that is false with respect to plaintiff's employment status, but so long as the Form 1099 accurately reports the amount of wages defendant paid to plaintiff, the return is not fraudulent with respect to the amount of the payments made. Because the Amended Complaint contains no allegation that defendant willfully misrepresented the amount of wages paid to plaintiff, plaintiff's tax fraud claim rises or falls on whether willfully misrepresenting an employee as an independent contractor constitutes actionable fraud for purposes of § 7434(a). Thus, the question presented is whether § 7434(a) creates a private cause of action where, as here, the alleged misrepresentation is the filing of the wrong type of information return rather than a misrepresentation as to the amount of the payments made.
Interestingly, no court of appeals has addressed § 7434(a)'s ambiguity.
When resolving the meaning of a statute, "the starting point ... is the language of the statute itself." Consumer Prod. Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108, 100 S.Ct. 2051, 64 L.Ed.2d 766 (1980). Indeed, it is axiomatic that "[i]f the statutory language is plain," a court "must enforce it according to its terms." King v. Burwell, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 2480,
The language of § 7434(a) provides the first clue. The placement of "with respect to ..." following "information return" fairly supports the broader reading of § 7434(a), insofar as one might expect the modifying phrase to follow the term it modifies. Yet, to give this clue significant weight is to assume (i) that Congress acted with care in drafting the language of § 7434, (ii) that Congress adhered to a particular rule of syntax, and (iii) that Congress accordingly placed the modifying phrase directly following the modified term. Although such assumptions are fair and reasonable, it is commonly accepted that interpretive presumptions based on congressional care in drafting and adherence to particular rules of syntax "can assuredly be overcome by other indicia of meaning." United States v. Hayes, 555 U.S. 415, 425, 129 S.Ct. 1079, 172 L.Ed.2d 816 (2009) (so stating as to the last antecedent rule).
And indeed, context provides two significant and weightier clues that § 7434(a)'s "with respect to ..." language is intended to limit the scope of "fraudulent" rather than to describe the "information return." The first contextual clue is found in § 7434(f), which defines "information return" as "any statement described in section 6724(d)(1)(A)." Section 6724(d)(1)(A), in turn, provides a definition of the term "information return," namely "any statement of the amount of payments to another person required by" any of ten provisions of law. See 26 U.S.C. § 6724(d)(1)(A) (emphasis added). Thus, if § 7434(a) is read together with § 7434(f), the private cause of action addresses "a fraudulent [statement of the amount of payments to another person] with respect to payments
The second contextual clue is found in § 7434(e), which requires that "[t]he decision of the court awarding damages in an action brought under subsection (a) shall include a finding of the correct amount which should have been reported in the information return." This language demonstrates that Congress contemplated that actionable fraudulent representations would relate to the amount paid to the aggrieved person. Indeed, suppose plaintiff's tax fraud count here were adjudicated on the merits and plaintiff proved the facts as alleged. In such a scenario, the final order entering judgment for plaintiff would need to recite that the Form 1099s reported the correct amount of wages even though the fraud had nothing to do with the amount reported. Surely Congress did not intend to require a court to make findings about the correct amount that should have been reported where there is no allegation that the defendant misrepresented the amount. Rather, the obvious inference from § 7434(e) is that Congress intended for the actionable frauds to stem only from misrepresentations concerning the amounts paid.
On balance, when § 7434(a) is read in the statute's broader context, there are sufficient indicia of congressional intent to conclude that "with respect to ..." modifies "fraudulent" rather than "information return." Indeed, "[g]iven how common misplaced modifiers are in daily usage," the most plausible conclusion requires "candidly acknowledg[ing]" that Congress drafted § 7434(a) without due care for conveying the intended meaning as clearly as possible. See Payless Shoesource, Inc., 585 F.3d at 1371-72. To conclude otherwise would be to accept both (i) that Congress employed superfluous language in § 7434(a) and (ii) that Congress imposed a requirement via § 7434(e) that has no purpose in many possible instances of liability. To the contrary, the relevant contextual clues point conclusively to the understanding that § 7434(a) creates a private cause of action only where an information return is fraudulent with respect to the amount purportedly paid to the plaintiff.
This conclusion finds further support in § 7434's legislative history and purpose. The history is scant — a mere few paragraphs in a House Report — but instructive.
Moreover, this narrow view of the scope of actionable frauds under § 7434(a) accords with Congress's express desire "not ... to open the door to unwarranted or frivolous actions or abusive litigation practices," such as "an unfounded or frivolous action ... by a current ... employee of an employer who is not pleased with one or more items that his or her current or former employer has included on the employee's Form W-2." House Report at 35. Thus, to the extent any inference is warranted from the legislative history and purpose of § 7434, that inference supports the conclusion that "with respect to ..." limits the types of actionable fraud, a conclusion consistent with the contextual clues previously discussed.
Further, the conclusion that plaintiff's tax fraud claim fails is consistent with Congress's intended scheme for redressing violations of the sort plaintiff alleges. At its core, plaintiff's complaint is that defendant improperly classified plaintiff as an independent contractor rather than as an employee. Yet, plaintiff is not complaining simply because he desires one title over another. Rather, plaintiff desires the benefits that follow employee status under the FLSA, namely guaranteed minimum and overtime wages. In this respect, the Fourth Circuit has observed that the FLSA creates a comprehensive enforcement scheme that precludes enforcement through other federal and state law means. See Anderson v. Sara Lee Corp., 508 F.3d 181, 194 (4th Cir.2007) (holding that the FLSA preempts certain state law claims); Kendall v. City of Chesapeake, Va., 174 F.3d 437, 442 (4th Cir.1999) (holding that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not provide a remedy for FLSA violations). To read § 7434(a) as creating a private cause of action for the injury plaintiff alleges here would essentially read § 7434(a) as encroaching on the territory that the FLSA occupies. Indeed, there can be no doubt that Congress intended for claims arising from misclassification
In sum, Congress's goal in enacting § 7434 was to give redress to taxpayers aggrieved by the filing of information returns that fraudulently misrepresent the amount paid to the taxpayer. In expressing this intent, Congress drafted § 7434 poorly, such that it is susceptible to more than one meaning, including the meaning upon which plaintiff seizes, a meaning that runs counter to the purpose of the statute and, in some circumstances, to the exclusive and comprehensive nature of the FLSA.
For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff's tax fraud allegations in the Amended Complaint fail to state a claim for relief under § 7434(a), and Count II must therefore be dismissed.
An appropriate Order will issue.