On January 3, 2018, a decision of the Swiss Federal Court (the nation’s highest court) dated December 18, 2017, was published, prohibiting automatic disclosure of the Swiss bank staff details to the IRS and the US DOJ. Let’s analyze this decision in more detail.
Disclosure of Swiss Bank Staff Details: History of the Case
The lawsuit decided in 2017 is not the first time that the Swiss Federal Court is placing limits on the IRS ability to obtain information from Switzerland with respect to Swiss citizens. Already in 2016, the Court ruled that a Swiss bank could not disclose to the US authorities the names of financial advisers who helped US taxpayers set up secret Swiss bank accounts (“facilitators”). The reasoning was based on the inadequate level of data protection in the United States which is far below the Swiss Data Protection Act.
It should be emphasized, however, that in the same opinion, the Court also said that the names of facilitators could be disclosed to the US government despite the data protection concerns if the failure to do so would deepen the legal dispute between Switzerland and a the United States and harm the Swiss reputation as a financial center.
The lawsuit with respect to disclosure of Swiss bank staff details was initiated by an unnamed US taxpayer who lived in Switzerland. He filed a lawsuit to prevent the Swiss equivalent of the IRS, the Federal Tax Administration (“FTA”) from disclosing to the US government the name of third parties who were involved or might have been involved with his financial affairs. The lower Swiss court agreed with the taxpayer.
Automatic Disclosure of Swiss Bank Staff Details to the IRS Prohibited
The Swiss Federal Court also partially agreed with the unnamed US taxpayer, stating that FTA could not automatically turn over to the US government the names of Swiss bankers and others who might have helped US tax residents in evading their US tax reporting obligations. The reasoning behind the decision was based on relevance.
Basically, the Could stated that the Swiss bank staff details in this particular case were not necessary to the US government to prove its tax evasion case against the unnamed US account holder. “What is needed . . . is information about the existence and intervention of these third parties, not their identities,” the Court said.
The Court basically stated that administrative assistance requests should not be used for indirect purposes. In other words, the IRS cannot use such requests “in order to obtain information about the identities of alleged accomplices of the taxpayer . . . that could be subject to criminal prosecution if this information is not relevant to elucidate the tax situation of the same taxpayer.”
Obviously, this reasoning does not offer any decisive protection for Swiss bank staff details. It appears that, if the information would have been necessary for the US tax authorities to prove its tax evasion case, the transfer of Swiss Bank Staff details would have been permitted. Additionally, the decision might have come in a bit late as hundreds of documents with the Swiss bankers’ names have already been turned over to the IRS.
Swiss Bank Staff Case Offers No Protection to US Taxpayer’s Data Transfer
Moreover, the Court’s decision offered no hope for blocking the transfer of US taxpayers’ information. While the Court blocked the transfer of the Swiss bank staff details, it still allowed the FTA to provide to the US government the US account holder’s information. This means that the transfer of data concerning US tax residents from Switzerland to the United States will continue unimpeded.
Swiss Bank Staff Case Offers Insight Into IRS’ Next Target in Switzerland
This case also offers a good insight into the current IRS strategy concerning Switzerland. It appears that the IRS is compiling statistics concerning Swiss bank staff who might have helped US taxpayers evade their US tax reporting obligations. Most likely, the focus is on the bankers who provided this help regularly to a large amount of US taxpayers.
Sherayzen Law Office will continue to observe the IRS latest moves in Switzerland.