Court: NOM Can't Claim Punitive Damages in IRS Disclosure Suit
The National Organization for Marriage has suffered another setback in court, as a federal judge in Virginia dismissed the antigay group’s claim for punitive damages in its case regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s disclosure of donor information.
“NOM has made no showing from which a reasonable jury could find that the disclosure of its Schedule B was the result of willfulness or gross negligence,” which would be required for it to recover punitive damages, Judge James C. Cacheris of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia wrote in a ruling issued Tuesday. The IRS had sought dismissal of the NOM suit, and Judge Cacheris’s ruling dismisses the portion regarding the punitive damages, along with NOM’s claim that the IRS allowed unlawful inspection of the documents.
In 2011, the IRS supplied a man named Matthew Meisel a copy of of NOM’s 2008 Schedule B, which lists donors who have given $5,000 or more to the organization during the period covered, and he provided it to the Human Rights Campaign the following year, leading to publicity about donors. Schedule B is among the tax records that are publicly available to those who request them, but under law, the donor names are supposed to be redacted. The IRS employee who handled the request did not redact them, but agency officials argued it was merely an oversight, not an act of gross negligence or malice, and that the employee had no acquaintance with Meisel, nor any knowledge of NOM’s mission or HRC’s.
Judge Cacheris agreed with the IRS explanation, writing that the available evidence points to the disclosure being accidental, and “NOM has produced no evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude otherwise.” He added, “NOM’s argument that the disclosure was intentional because the Schedule B was given to a ‘known political activist’ and ‘altered to obscure its internal IRS markings’ is similarly unfounded,” and that “the record is equally deficient concerning NOM’s assertion of gross negligence.”
NOM may be able to recover “actual damages,” that is, legal fees associated with the disclosure. Cacheris did not dismiss this portion of the suit, saying the costs would likely not have arisen otherwise and that this claim can go to trial. NOM’s suit says the legal fees amount to about $58,500.
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court denied NOM’s request to halt same-sex marriages in Oregon, the latest in a string of legal defeats for the anti–marriage equality group.
Read Cacheris’s full opinion below.