A federal judge on Tuesday certified a class-action lawsuit against the IRS for its political targeting, advancing the cause of more than 200 tea party groups who said they were denied their First Amendment rights by the tax agency’s actions.
Judge Susan J. Dlott in the Southern District of Ohio issued an order certifying the class, though she sealed the order for now to protect private taxpayer information.
Edward Greim, one of the lawyers advancing the tea party groups’ case, said the certification is a major step because it means the judge has agreed that the IRS did systematically target more than 200 groups for special scrutiny.
“It’s the court recognizing that all the plaintiffs were treated the same way,” he said. “The only remaining question at that point is whether it was legally permissible to treat the plaintiffs that way.”
The IRS said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
In the past the agency had argued that the targeting was not an organized policy but rather an overzealous pursuit by individual employees confused about how to handle nonprofit groups’ applications after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
But Mr. Greim said the judge’s ruling punctures that explanation, finding that the IRS singled out tea party groups’ applications based on four criteria.
The tax agency delayed those applications while it demanded answers to extensive questionnaires — including questions the agency has since admitted were intrusive and shouldn’t have been asked.
The delays persisted for years in many cases, and some groups still haven’t been approved nearly three years after the IRS said it stopped the targeting. One of those, the Texas Patriots Tea Party, which was one of the original plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, applied in 2012 and is still awaiting approval, Mr. Greim said.
Certifying the class allows any of the more than 200 groups that were subjected to the criteria to join the lawsuit.
Now that the class has been certified, the case moves to the discovery stage, where the tea party groups’ lawyers will ask for all of the agency’s documents related to the targeting and will depose IRS employees about their actions.
The lawyers hope they’ll be able to learn details Congress was unable to shake free in its own investigations.
Mr. Greim said he hopes former IRS senior executive Lois G. Lerner will be one of the employees he deposes in the case.
Ms. Lerner was at the center of the targeting, and was the one who revealed the scandal after she planted a question at a forum.
She refused to talk to Congress, asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The House held her in contempt of Congress, but the Obama administration refused to pursue the case.
The Justice Department has concluded its own criminal investigation into the IRS and said the targeting was the result of bad management. But investigators said they found no criminal behavior, and specifically cleared Ms. Lerner, saying her fellow employees said she tried to correct the problems when she learned of them.
Republicans dismissed the investigation as a whitewash by the Obama administration.
The class action case is NorCal Tea Party Patriots v. Internal Revenue Service.The case is being funded by Citizens for Self-Governance, and is being fought by several law firms on behalf of tea party groups.
The case is being heard in Ohio because the office responsible for handling nonprofit applications is based in Cincinnati.