Donald Trump never did sue The New York Times for revealing he took a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns. He threatened, but to date, no lawsuit has come. That leaves some unanswered questions about the legality of a media outlet disclosing one’s tax information, since there are many statutes that broadly guard the confidentiality of tax returns. Can Howard Stern fill the void?
On Monday, Stern was sued by a woman named Judith Barrigas, whose tax information was disseminated in the oddest way.
According to her complaint filed in Massachusetts federal court, she called the IRS’s service center on May 19, 2015, to discuss how the tax agency had applied prior year liabilities to her tax refund. She got connected to Jimmy Forsythe, an IRS agent.
Before the two connected, Forsythe had called into the Howard Stern Show using another phone line. While on hold, Forsythe took Barrigas’ call and proceeded to spend 45 minutes with her discussing her tax case. Apparently, during this conversation, someone at Stern’s show heard what was happening and decided to air the discussion live on satellite radio.
“While on the phone with Agent Forsythe, Mrs. Barrigas suddenly began to receive a barrage of text messages and phone calls from unknown callers/individuals,” states the complaint. “The text messages were informing Mrs. Barrigas that her personal information and phone number was being aired live on The Stern Show.”
The lawsuit says that the phone call in question can still be accessed on the internet, and after what happened, Forsythe was put on administrative leave. Barrigas claims the “outrageous violation” of her privacy has resulted in difficulty finding employment, anxiety, loss of sleep and irregular eating patterns.
She is suing the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act and for an unlawful disclosure of her tax return.
But she’s also asserting negligence and an invasion of her privacy against Stern and his show.
“The defendants breached their duty of reasonable care by broadcasting the private phone conversation between Mrs. Barrigas and the IRS on May 19, 2015, and thereby publicly disseminating private tax return and identity information of Mrs. Barrigas’s to over one million people worldwide,” states the lawsuit demanding compensatory and punitive damages.
In Bartnicki v. Vopper, the Supreme Court protected a radio broadcaster who disclosed the contents of an illegally intercepted communication. That case turned on a media outlet’s lawful obtainment of tapes and the First Amendment. Here, the IRS agent called in, but arguably there wasn’t much newsworthy about Barrigas’ tax situation. Plus, it all happened live.
Now, Stern and the government under Trump are co-defendants in a suit over tax disclosures. We’ll provide updates on this case as it develops. In the meantime, here’s the full complaint.
by Eriq Gardner