Listeners of Howard Stern’s show know how the infamous talk show host loves to take phone calls from his loyal fan base. But one call has led to a lawsuit after a woman’s personal tax information and phone number were revealed on the air.
Forbes reported that, on May 19, 2015, “Jimmy from Long Island” called into the show. He was placed on hold for an extended period of time, so Jimmy — who is actually IRS agent Jimmy Forsythe — went about his work, which included talking to Judith Barrigas about her 2014 tax liability.
When the show’s producers picked up on Forsythe, they heard the conversation with Barrigas and proceeded to listen in on the call — along with millions of listeners. In addition to disclosing details about Barrigas’ tax liability, the call revealed her phone number, which led to a barrage of text messages and phone calls to Barrigas from complete strangers.
Of course, tax returns are meant be confidential, so Barrigas has grounds to sue. According to Section 7431 of the Internal Revenue Code, a taxpayer can seek civil damages from the IRS for the service’s unauthorized disclosure of tax returns and return information: “If any officer or employee of the United States knowingly, or by reason of negligence, inspects or discloses any return or return information with respect to a taxpayer … such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against the United States in a district court of the United States.”
Here’s where Stern comes in: Section 7431 also provides a taxpayer protection from non-IRS leaks, adding: “If any person who is not an officer or employee of the United States knowingly, or by reason of negligence, inspects or discloses any return or return information with respect to a taxpayer … such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against such person in a district court of the United States.”
And Barrigas did indeed file a civil suit this week, alleging that the breach of information caused her great emotional harm, resulting in anxiety, loss of sleep and irregular eating patterns. In addition, Barrigas — who was between jobs at the time of her call — also claims that the notoriety surrounding her situation has made it difficult to find work, resulting in lost wages and fringe benefits.
The suit charges the IRS with the unlawful disclosure of tax information and Stern with negligence and invasion of privacy. It seeks payment of attorney costs, court fees and compensatory and punitive damages. If she does win, though, she’ll still wind up owing Uncle Sam money since damages paid for emotional distress are fully taxable.