United States v. Arthur Young & Co.,
465 U.S. 805 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Arthur Young & Co., 465 U.S. 805 (1984)

United States v. Arthur Young & Co.

No. 82-687

Argued January 16, 1984

Decided March 21, 1984

465 U.S. 805


Respondent certified public accountant firm, as the independent auditor for respondent corporation, was responsible for reviewing the corporation's financial statements as required by the federal securities laws. In the course of reviewing these statements, the accounting firm verified the corporation's statement of its contingent tax liabilities, and, in so doing, prepared tax accrual workpapers relating to the evaluation of the corporation's reserves for such liabilities. When a routine audit by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to determine the corporation's income tax liability for certain years revealed that the corporation had made questionable payments from a "special disbursement account," the IRS instituted a criminal investigation of the corporation's tax returns. In that process, the IRS, pursuant to § 7602 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 -- which authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to summon and "examine any books, papers, records, or other data which may be relevant or material" to a particular tax inquiry -- issued a summons to the accounting firm requiring it to make available to the IRS all of its files relating to the corporation, including its tax accrual workpapers. When the corporation instructed the accounting firm not to comply with the summons, the IRS commenced an enforcement action in Federal District Court, which, upon finding that the tax accrual workpapers were relevant to the IRS investigation within the meaning of § 7602 and refusing to recognize an accountant-client privilege that would protect the workpapers, ordered the summons enforced. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. While agreeing that the workpapers were relevant to the IRS investigation, the court held that the public interest in promoting full disclosure to public accountants, and in turn ensuring the integrity of the securities markets, required protection under a work-product immunity doctrine for the work that independent auditors perform for publicly owned corporations. Accordingly, because it found that the IRS had not made a sufficient showing of need to overcome the immunity and was not seeking to prove fraud on the corporation's part, the court refused to enforce the summons insofar as it sought the tax accrual workpapers.


1. The tax accrual workpapers are relevant within the meaning of § 7602. As § 7602's language indicates, an IRS summons is not to be

Page 465 U. S. 806

judged by the relevance standards used in deciding whether to admit evidence in court. The language "may be" reflects Congress' intention to allow the IRS to obtain items of even potential relevance to the ongoing investigation, without reference to its admissibility. As a discovery tool, a § 7602 summons is critical to the IRS's investigative and enforcement functions. That the tax accrual workpapers are not actually used in the preparation of tax returns by the taxpayer or its accountants does not bar a finding of relevance within the meaning of § 7602. Pp. 465 U. S. 813-815.

2. The tax accrual workpapers are not protected from disclosure under § 7602. Pp. 465 U. S. 815-821.

(a) While § 7602 is subject to traditional privileges and limitations, any other restrictions upon the IRS summons power should be avoided "absent unambiguous directions from Congress." United States v. Bisceglia, 420 U. S. 141, 420 U. S. 150. There are no such unambiguous directions that would justify a judicially created work-product immunity doctrine for tax accrual workpapers summoned under § 7602. Indeed, § 7602 reflects a congressional policy favoring disclosure of all information relevant to a legitimate IRS inquiry. Pp. 465 U. S. 815-817.

(b) In light of Couch v. United States, 409 U. S. 322, which held that no confidential accountant-client privilege exists, the Court of Appeals' creation of a work-product privilege was misplaced, and conflicts with Congress' clear intent. P. 465 U. S. 817.

(c) Nor is a work-product immunity for accountants' tax accrual workpapers a fitting analogue to the attorney work-product doctrine. An independent certified public accountant performs a different role from an attorney, whose duty, as his client's confidential adviser and advocate, is to present the client's case in the most favorable possible light. In certifying the public reports that depict a corporation's financial status, the accountant performs a public responsibility transcending any employment relationship with the client, and owes allegiance to the corporation's creditors and stockholders, as well as to the investing public. Pp. 465 U. S. 817-818.

(d) The integrity of the securities markets will not suffer absent some protection for accountants' tax accrual workpapers. The independent auditor's obligation to serve the public interest assures that that integrity will be preserved, without the need for a work-product immunity for such workpapers. Pp. 465 U. S. 818-819.

(e) Nor does enforcement of an IRS summons for accountants' tax accrual workpapers give the IRS an unfair advantage in negotiating and litigating tax controversies. Since the Securities and Exchange Commission or a private plaintiff in securities litigation would be entitled to obtain the tax accrual workpapers at issue, there is no good reason, in

Page 465 U. S. 807

light of § 7602's broad congressional command, for conferring lesser authority upon the IRS. Pp. 465 U. S. 820-821.

677 F.2d 211, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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