A Forest Grove renter has filed a federal lawsuit against his landlord for using an Internal Revenue System (IRS) website to check whether he and fellow tenants received their coronavirus stimulus checks from the federal government.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by tenant Austin Goodrich, accuses Goodrich's property management company, TLC Bookkeeping and Tax Prep Inc. of violating a federal law against inspecting another person's IRS information and illegally invading his privacy.
Goodrich lost his job as a security guard due to coronavirus closures in March. After getting this news, Goodrich informed his property management company, TLC Bookkeeping and Tax Prep Inc., that he wouldn't be able to pay April rent for his apartment. Goodrich followed the guidance of Gov. Kate Brown's COVID-19 eviction moratorium, introduced on March 22, by telling his landlords prior to April 1.
On April 15, Goodrich received a $1,200 coronavirus stimulus check from the IRS. Later that day, he received this text message from his landlord (who remains unnamed in the lawsuit): "You got your stimulus, just asking are you going to pay rent or part of rent with any. I am trying to close out the books for April."
In response, Goodrich asked how his landlord had obtained this information. "Online," she replied. "IRS." She confirmed that she had plugged Goodrich's Social Security number into an IRS website to verify.
"I did this for everyone who called me today and yesterday," she wrote. "So are you going to be making a payment towards rent?'
Editor's note: After this story was published, the Mercury was informed that Goodrich's current landlord is his grandmother. In a statement, Goodrich said his landlord has been a relative since October 2019, when the previous owner of TLC Bookkeeping and Tax Prep Inc. left the company. Oregon's Secretary of State website lists Lois Ranstead as the current owner of TLC Bookkeeping and Tax Prep Inc. In an email to the Mercury, Goodrich confirmed Ranstead was his "father's mother," adding, "I do not have a relationship with my father's side of the family."
Goodrich's legal complaint, filed by Portland lawyers Michael Fuller, Alan Kessler, and Kelly Jones, accuses his landlord of violating his privacy in "an attempt to coercively collect rent from him."
"[TLC Bookkeeping and Tax Prep Inc.] caused plaintiff actual damages including feeling overwhelmingly violated and vulnerable, and interference with normal life activities," it continues.
Goodrich originally shared screenshots of the text message conversation in a Facebook group for Portland-area renters last weekend, and his post quickly went viral. Since Multnomah County passed its eviction moratorium, tenants have flooded the Facebook group with similar screenshots of emails and notices from local landlords giving misinformation about the county's order.
In an email to the Mercury, Goodrich said he hopes his lawsuit inspires other tenants to challenge landlords who abuse their civil rights.
"It is the time of tenants right now," he wrote, "and it is time we put our foot down against these injustices we experience nearly every day."
Goodrich also shared his thoughts on the IRS' faulty privacy loopholes on Twitter:
You have probably heard the story about my landlord circling the internet, but I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the gaping holes @IRSnews security and verification system which allows for anyone to access it using minimal information.
See my statement below pic.twitter.com/dVopGWLr9B
— Austin Goodrich (@CascadianRebel) April 20, 2020