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State agencies claim information protected by deliberative process privilege

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An acrimonious fight between an Indiana businessman and the Indiana Department of Revenue has not only forced the Indiana Tax Court to take the unusual step of getting involved in the discovery process but also created a case of first impression.

The dispute, Nick Popovich v. Indiana Department of Revenue, 49T10-1010-TA-53, was sparked after the Department of Revenue assessed additional income tax, interest and penalties on Nick Popovich for 2002 through 2004.

Popovich, current owner of Sage-Popovich Inc., claimed he was entitled to deduct certain business expenses because he was a professional gambler. The Department of Revenue disagreed and upheld the proposed assessments after a 2010 hearing.

Next, Popovich appealed to the Tax Court and the contentious discovery process began in June 2011. The businessman filed two motions for discovery requests but the department objected, saying much of the information was protected, in part, by the deliberative process privilege.

The deliberative process privilege is part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and has been raised on the federal level in other cases. However in Indiana state courts, this procedural issue as far as its application and scope has not been addressed.

auberry Auberry

Brent Auberry, partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, said the use of deliberative process privilege could impact other taxpayers.

Every year, tax cases seem to be getting more litigious as taxpayers contest rulings on property taxes and income, he explained. The guidance given by the Tax Court on this privilege is important as plaintiffs determine what information they want in discovery.

Randal Kaltenmark, partner in the Barnes & Thornburg LLP tax department, agreed.

He noted parties involved in tax litigation in the last five to seven years have been doing more discovery than in the past. Taxpayers have the burden of proof so they are engaging in discovery to find out the Department of Revenue’s basis for making the adjustment to their tax liability.

Access to information is important, Kaltenmark said. Using the deliberative process privilege could hamper a taxpayer’s discovery.

The Department of Revenue argued Indiana has deliberative process privilege and that privilege provides a “wide shield” to protect certain documents and communications. It invoked this privilege to prevent the disclosure of all documents and communications regarding the thoughts and decision-making process of hearing officers, auditors and other employees involved in the administrative process.

In support of its contention that the state does have such a privilege, the Department of Revenue pointed to the privilege in Federal Rules and noted Indiana uses those rules as a model for its Trial Rules.

The Tax Court dismissed the department’s privilege claims.

“Accordingly, the Court fails to find that Indiana recognizes a deliberative process privilege applicable to the discovery rules and leaves it to the Legislature to elevate public policy regarding the protection of deliberative process privilege,” Judge Martha Wentworth wrote.

James Gilday, of Gilday & Associates P.C., represents Popovich. Both he and the Office of the Indiana Attorney General, representing the Department of Revenue, declined to comment on the case issues.

The Department of Revenue did not appeal Wentworth’s ruling. However, the agency could still contest the decision after the court issues a final opinion on Popovich’s appeal.

Tax attorneys doubt the court’s finding on the deliberative process privilege will have much impact outside of tax circles. However, one attorney has recently encountered the defense in his litigation against another state agency.

Irwin Levin, managing partner at Cohen & Malad LLP, said the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles is invoking the privilege to bar discovery in a second lawsuit his firm has filed against the agency. Plaintiffs claim the bureau overcharged for certain fees and have been trying to ascertain, through the discovery process, how the bureau found out about the incorrect fees and how it handled the problem.

irwin levin Levin

The BMV, Levin said, maintains that information is protected by the deliberative process privilege.

According to Levin, by using the privilege, the BMV is essentially saying, “We citizens have no right to know how it came to overcharge us and why it continued to overcharge us.”

More broadly, Levin worried the privilege could be used to cloud government transparency and hide wrongdoing. And he hoped the Legislature would not pass any measures that would ultimately prohibit the public’s right to know.

Since the Tax Court specifically noted the decisions regarding privilege are the purview of the General Assembly, Auberry expects the issue will come up in the Statehouse. He said he would not be surprised if the Department of Revenue makes an effort to get statutory language passed to address the issue of deliberative process privilege.

The chair of the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, was unavailable for comment as to whether the Legislature would take up this issue.

The Popovich case is continuing in the Tax Court. A hearing is scheduled for July 31 on a motion filed by Popovich for Trial Rule 37 sanctions.

In May, the attorney general’s office filed a motion to temporarily withdraw appearances as counsel for the Revenue Department. However, the issue became moot when the attorney general rescinded the request and continued its representation without interruption

According to Bryan Corbin, spokesman for the AG’s Office, the Department of Revenue asked the attorney general to withdraw. He did not elaborate why the request was made and later rescinded.

“While docket entries on such housekeeping matters can appear confusing absent context, when government agencies are litigants, it is not uncommon over the duration of a case for an attorney to appear for an agency, serve for a time, then withdraw and a different attorney appear,” Corbin said.•

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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