Suit Against TSA for Lost Tax Documents Fails Since It Was Actually a Claim for a Tax Refund

Traveling is always a bit stressful, but it’s even worse than normal if something that was in your checked baggage isn’t in there when you arrive at your destination.  In the case of Schlieker v. US Transportation Security Administration, DC Colorado, No. 1:17-cv-01284 the items that turned up missing were tax documents that Mr. Schlieker claimed cost him a $5,000 refund.

Mr. Schlieker had checked bags for a flight from Phoenix to Denver in February of 2016.  His complaint indicated that he had “multiple files, folders and paperwork” that related to his tax return for 2015 in his luggage when he checked it.  However, when he arrived in Denver he discovered that the paperwork was no longer in his bag.  Rather, he had a notice from the TSA that his bags had been opened and inspected.  He concluded the paperwork had simply not been repacked when the TSA completed its inspection of his bag.

Mr. Schlieker claimed that the lack of this paperwork cost him a $5,000 refund as he was no longer to document his right to that refund.  He sought compensation from TSA for the refund he argued he was no longer able to claim.

The TSA denied his claim for compensation, which lead to the filing of a suit against the agency.  But the Court agreed that it lacked jurisdiction in this case because it was fundamentally a suit for a federal tax refund.  Thus, IRC provisions related to claiming refunds were triggered.

Specifically, IRC §7422(a) barred the Court from hearing the case at this point.  That provision reads:

(a) No suit prior to filing claim for refund

No suit or proceeding shall be maintained in any court for the recovery of any internal revenue tax alleged to have been erroneously or illegally assessed or collected, or of any penalty claimed to have been collected without authority, or of any sum alleged to have been excessive or in any manner wrongfully collected, until a claim for refund or credit has been duly filed with the Secretary, according to the provisions of law in that regard, and the regulations of the Secretary established in pursuance thereof.

The opinion cites the U.S Supreme Court’s opinion in United States v. Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Co., 553 U.S. 1, 9 (2008), noting that the Supreme Court held that the tax refund provision applies anytime the issue involves a tax refund.

The Supreme Court examined § 7422(a) in Clintwood Elkhorn Mining, with Chief Justice Roberts writing that “[f]ive ‘any’s’ in one sentence and it begins to seem that Congress meant the statute to have expansive reach.” 553 U.S. at 7. Clintwood concerned the Tucker Act, which provides the Court of Federal Claims with jurisdiction over certain claims for money damages against the Government. 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1). The plaintiffs’ argument that they could sue “directly under the Tucker Act” for refund of certain taxes on coal exports, the Court said, “does not matter. If the [plaintiffs’] claims are subject to [Internal Revenue] Code provisions, those claims are barred whatever the source of the cause of action,” without an IRS administrative claim. Clintwood Elkhorn Mining, 553 U.S. at 9 (emphasis added).

The Court notes that although the plaintiff argues he is making a claim under other provisions of federal law, at the base he is looking for a tax refund.  The opinion notes:

  • He was asking for damages exactly equal to the amount of his estimated lost income tax refund;

  • He never claimed these documents had any value aside from their ability to be used to support his claim for an income tax refund; and 

  • He did not claim that the TSA failed to repack any other items, so this was solely a claim for an inability to claim a federal tax refund.

The opinion concludes:

Here, Plaintiff — in substance, if not in form — seeks the $5,000 tax refund. In other words, although Plaintiff cites the FTCA as the statutory basis for his claim, the amount and nature of Plaintiff’s damages request indicate that Plaintiff seeks the $5,000 tax refund. Given Plaintiff’s decision not to file the required IRS administrative claim, however, the Government’s sovereign immunity remains in place and deprives the Court of subject matter jurisdiction.