Ninth Circuit Affirms Decision in Favor of Guamanian Taxpayers Against the Government

September 8, 2015

A unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling Wednesday, August 26, affirming the district court’s summary judgment and permanent injunction in favor of class action plaintiffs and a class of Guamanian taxpayers against the government of Guam. Gibbs Law Group partner David Stein argued on behalf of the taxpayers.

The ruling affirms that the Guamanian government and several of its officers violated the law first by delaying the payment of income tax refunds and second through the “starkly unequal treatment of refund requests” under Guam’s expedited refund program. It also upholds the district court’s injunction that requires Guam to pay tax refunds within six months.

“A troubling picture of Guam’s tax-refund practices”

The Ninth Circuit noted that the unchallenged findings of fact “paint a troubling picture of Guam’s tax-refund practices,” which include failing to pay tax refunds in a timely manner and sometimes paying no refunds at all, despite two statutes requiring the government to set money aside for that purpose. The Court also sided with the taxpayers in holding that Guam’s territorial officials are subject to suit for injunctive relief under federal civil rights statutes.

The opinion, written by Judge Berzon, indicates that “Guam raised no substantive challenge to the district court’s holding that Guam violated equal protection” with the implementation of its expedited refund process, which was supposed to permit “taxpayers facing, for example, medical or funeral expenses, [to] move to the front of the line and be granted refunds without waiting for Guam to make good on the huge backlog of claims.” In practice, however, the expedited refund program was “effectively standardless, and it devolved into arbitrariness and favoritism,” with expedited refunds often going to “those with the right political connections,” Department of Revenue and Taxation employees, their family, and friends.

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