AB 2570
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False Claims Never Die in California

Recently, AB 2570 has cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which authorizes tax-based false claims actions—allowing private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement lawsuits. The bill is now on the Assembly floor for consideration and faces a June 19 house-of-origin deadline for passage. The bill is similar to a bill that failed to pass last year (AB 1270) after encountering intense opposition.

California’s current False Claims Act (FCA) bars its use in tax cases, a similar practice followed by most states with FCAs. This leaves initiation of tax enforcement to tax agencies that interpret and enforce those laws. In states where a FCA has been expanded to tax cases, such as in Illinois and New York, very few cases involve internal whistleblowers, actual fraud or reckless disregard of clear law. Instead, they typically involve inadvertent errors or good-faith interpretations of murky tax law. FCA expansion undermines taxpayer reliance on tax agency interpretations and guidance, since alternative interpretations can be used by plaintiffs as the basis for their lawsuits against taxpayers.

Who brings FCA tax actions? Claims in the tax realm are primarily developed and driven by a cottage industry of plaintiffs’ law firms with profit-motivated incentives seeking to exploit an area of the law that leans in their favor. In a hearing before the Illinois House Revenue and Finance Committee, former Illinois Revenue Director Brian Hamer described the Illinois cases as being brought by a financially motivated third party adept at manipulating the qui tam process to victimize businesses that at most made an inadvertent mistake. At that hearing, several witnesses described being forced into settlements for amounts far exceeding any tax owed because the costs of litigation are so high. Mark Dyckman, the former General Counsel for the Illinois Department of Revenue, has said that “the cases have clearly interfered with the administration and enforcement of tax law and may have even ultimately cost the state money, though it’s impossible to quantify how much.” A 2007 study by Columbia Law Review concluded that 73 percent of qui tam actions are frivolous.

Why does FCA expansion to taxes lead to such rampant abuse? The treble damages financial incentive encourages profit-motivated bounty hunters to develop theories of liability not established or approved by the agency responsible for tax administration. In Illinois alone, the number of claims by one filer is in the thousands. Other problematic provisions in the California proposal that would tilt the playing field are a separate statute of limitations, a lenient burden of proof and use of sealed complaints, and extremely punitive damages (actual damages times three, plus $5,500 or more civil penalty for each alleged violation). The private attorneys deputized to act as tax enforcers get a percentage of the payment.

Supporters point to “tax gap” estimates of uncollected tax revenue and claim this bill will bring in billions in tax revenues. However, the vast majority of the “tax gap” consists not of missing corporate tax payments, but individual income taxes subject to little or no information reporting, with the Treasury Department particularly [...]

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Alert: California False Claims Expansion Bill Preparing to Advance

The revived False Claims expansion bill in California, A.B. 2570, is on the agenda to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on May 11 at 10:00 am PDT. The proposal would authorize tax-based false claims actions, allowing private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement lawsuits—an abusive practice that is prohibited under current law consistent with the vast majority of other states with similar laws. A nearly identical bill sputtered out last summer but has now been revived, as our colleagues covered in February:

AB 2570 is replete with problematic provisions, including: (1) the imposition of a separate statute of limitations that will arguably trump any shorter limitations periods imposed by the Revenue & Taxation Code (See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12654(a) which permits claims under the CFCA to be pursued for up to 10 years after the date the violation was committed, compared to standard three or four years for tax audits); (2) a more lenient burden of proof for elements of an alleged violation; and, (3) extremely punitive damages—violators are subject to treble damages (i.e., three times the amount of the underreported tax, interest and penalties), an additional civil penalty of $5,500 to $11,000 for each violation, plus the costs of the civil action to recover the damages and penalties including attorney’s fees.

Few of these cases will involve internal whistleblowers, actual fraud, or reckless disregard of clear law. Instead, the cases in Illinois (a state that has adopted false claims expansion to tax) usually involve inadvertent errors or good-faith interpretations of murky tax law. With the party bringing the case able to keep up to 50% of the proceeds, the only winners in the proposal is the cottage industry of money hungry plaintiffs’ attorneys that will descend and harass good-faith taxpayers in an effort to pad their own pockets.




AB 2570: Déjà vu All over Again as California Attempts to Amend CFCA

California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, and Assembly Member Mark Stone have again advanced legislation that would amend the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to enlist private bounty hunters to go after California taxpayers. Becerra described the latest bill, AB 2570, as an additional tool to combat against “corporate cheats” whom Becerra claimed cost the state billions in lost revenue in 2019. Of course, the state already possesses an arsenal of tools to combat any underreporting: currently, the power to investigate cases of suspected tax fraud rests with the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) and the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA). Thus, as many of the predecessor bill’s critics have adeptly noted, AB 2570 is more appropriately characterized as a “solution in search of a problem.”

The text of AB 2570 is almost identical to its predecessor, AB 1270, which failed to make it out of the legislature last year, and has likely given California’s business-savvy taxpayers a sense of dread-filled déjà vu. AB 1270 came under intense opposition last summer because, as seen in other states, allowing qui tam plaintiffs to initiate civil suits for state and local tax issues leads to abusive practices and undermines the goal of voluntary compliance in tax administration.

Like AB 1270, AB 2570 is replete with problematic provisions, including: (1) the imposition of a separate statute of limitations that will arguably trump any shorter limitations periods imposed by the Revenue & Taxation Code (See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12654(a) which permits claims under the CFCA to be pursued for up to 10 years after the date the violation was committed, compared to standard three or four years for tax audits); (2) a more lenient burden of proof for elements of an alleged violation; and, (3) extremely punitive damages—violators are subject to treble damages (i.e., three times the amount of the underreported tax, interest and penalties), an additional civil penalty of $5,500 to $11,000 for each violation, plus the costs of the civil action to recover the damages and penalties including attorney’s fees.

Unfortunately, private enforcement of state tax code violations has erupted over the past few years after whistleblowers in New York and Illinois purportedly have racked up multimillion dollar settlements as the result of such claims. If enacted, AB 2570 will open the floodgates to a slew of financially incentivized plaintiffs’ attorneys who are eager to enter the litigation lottery in hopes of winning a jackpot settlement payout from California’s taxpayers.

As discussed in our blog post from August 26, 2019, Vultures Circling as Bill to Expand California FCA to Tax Looms in Legislature, regarding AB 1270, when a false claims suit is filed by a private plaintiff (or relator) in a qui tam action, the recovered damages or settlement proceeds are divided between the state and the relator, with the relator permitted to recover up to 50% of the proceeds. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12652(g)(3). Thus, this practice can be very lucrative for aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys.

Even [...]

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