$396.08 Million…and the Meter Is Still Running

A Las Vegas jury told California’s Franchise Tax Board in no uncertain terms that the FTB’s conduct towards Gilbert Hyatt was reprehensible. I had speculated that the jury would award Mr. Hyatt $250 million in punitive damages; that was exactly how much he received.

Mr. Hyatt had accused the FTB of several torts, including invasion of privacy, outrageous conduct, abuse of process, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. Earlier, the same jury had awarded $138.8 million in actual damages.

Bill Leonard, a member of California’s Board of Equalization, said that the FTB spent $8.8 million fighting this case to date. If we add that, the $138.8 million of actual damages awarded earlier, and the punitive damages, the total is $396.08 million. Meanwhile, California has yet to receive any of the $7.4 million it assessed Mr. Hyatt (which is now nearly $50 million including penalties and interest). Mr. Hyatt is still fighting that decision.

Interestingly I could only find one news report on this story (the Sacramento Bee story I’ve linked to)—a story that is perhaps one of the most significant tax stories of the year. Mr. Hyatt’s lead counsel, Mark Hutchison, told the Bee, “Government agencies should pause and reflect on the significance of this verdict.” Mr. Hyatt noted, “[I hope] this will prevent other taxpayers from going through the same nightmare that I have had to endure for over a decade.”

The Bee story quotes the FTB’s former lead auditor, Brian Toman: “As far as I know, and I’ve been around a long time, there has never been an award of tort damages against the Franchise Tax Board in any kind of audit.” Well, there’s a good reason for that—Californians cannot sue the FTB for tort damages. California law grants state agencies sovereign immunity from lawsuits such as Mr. Hyatt’s (§860.2 of the Government Code). As noted in my previous post, Mr. Hyatt was able to sue because the actions the FTB took occurred in Nevada.

I fully expect the FTB to appeal the decision though officially no decision has been made. Interest will accrue to Mr. Hyatt during any appeal, so the total could easily exceed half a billion dollars. In the meantime it will be interesting to see if the FTB auditors realize that there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

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