According to an article published by Kristi Eaton of the Associated Press (“AP”) on February 20, 2014, NBA star Kevin Durant filed a lawsuit against his former accountant, Joel Lynn Elliott, CPA, for alleged mistakes made in the preparation of income tax returns. As a result of the mistakes, Durant alleges he will have to amend certain income tax returns, pay additional taxes, and possibly be subjected to penalties.
The lawsuit, filed in California, where CPA Elliott practices accounting, alleges that the accountant made numerous errors in the preparation of Kevin Durant’s income tax returns, including deducting as business expenses the costs of personal travel and the costs of a personal chef. According to the AP, the complaint provides with respect to the travel expenses: “In preparing a client’s tax returns, a reasonable prudent accountant would have conducted a basic inquiry and sought documentation to confirm that each travel expense for which a deduction was recorded was truly business related.”
As a general proposition, if a tax return preparer gives a client incorrect advice about the deductibility of certain expenses or mistakenly includes non-deductible expenses on the client’s tax return, what are the client’s damages? The taxes, the interest on the underpayment of taxes, the penalties and/or the cost to amend the tax return? If the client ends up engaging a new preparer to amend his or her tax return, and pays the tax, interest on the underpayment of taxes and penalties, it seems logical the preparer could be liable for the cost of amending the returns and the penalties. The client owes the tax; nothing the preparer did likely changes that conclusion. Unless the client would have refrained from incurring the non-deductible expenses in the first place had he or she been given a correct recitation of the tax laws, how can the preparer be liable for the tax? Interest is a bit trickier. Since the client got the use of the money (from the time the taxes were originally due until actually paid), one can argue the preparer is not liable for the interest. Assuming the preparer gave incorrect advice or mistakenly included non-deductible expenses on the client’s tax return, he or she will likely be liable for the cost of amending the tax return and the penalties. Obviously, there may be facts that would cause a court to rule differently.
Larry J. Brant
Larry J. Brant is a Shareholder and the Chair of the Tax & Benefits practice group at Foster Garvey, a law firm based out of the Pacific Northwest, with offices in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; New York, New York, Spokane, Washington; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Beijing, China. Mr. Brant is licensed to practice in Oregon and Washington. His practice focuses on tax, tax controversy and transactions. Mr. Brant is a past Chair of the Oregon State Bar Taxation Section. He was the long-term Chair of the Oregon Tax Institute, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Portland Tax Forum. Mr. Brant has served as an adjunct professor, teaching corporate taxation, at Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. He is an Expert Contributor to Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Catalyst. Mr. Brant is a Fellow in the American College of Tax Counsel. He publishes articles on numerous income tax issues, including Taxation of S Corporations, Reasonable Compensation, Circular 230, Worker Classification, IRC § 1031 Exchanges, Choice of Entity, Entity Tax Classification, and State and Local Taxation. Mr. Brant is a frequent lecturer at local, regional and national tax and business conferences for CPAs and attorneys. He was the 2015 Recipient of the Oregon State Bar Tax Section Award of Merit.