Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Uncertainty in the Law and Willfulness (10/13/09)

In an article in today's New York Times here, Adam Liptak discusses Justice Scalia's dissent from denial of certiorari in Sorich v. United States, 129 S.Ct. 1308 (2009). Justice Scalia's lament is that the "honest services" crime does not provide an intelligible standard for criminal conduct. This theme is presented in the tax cases from James forward requiring a knowable law for tax crimes. Since the tax law requires willfulness, defined as the intentional violation of a known legal duty, then the legal standard must be knowable so that the defendant -- any defendant, even the hypothetical reasonable defendant -- charged with the crime must be able to ascertain the legal standard in order to intend to violate the standard.

Mr. Liptak notes with respect to "honest services" that "If you can make sense of that phrase, you have achieved something that has so far eluded the nation’s appeals courts." As a result, it is fair to say that citizens cannot ascertain the legal standard with any certainty and, correspondingly, judges and juries cannot predictably hold them to that uncertain standard. This phenomenon, Justice Scalia notes, violates fundamental constitutional principles, and gives the prosecutors too much unchecked power to pick and choose their defendants in a wide swath of conduct. Liptak notes:
The bottom line, Justice Scalia said in February, is that the courts have not been able to define what separates “the criminal breaches, conflicts and misstatements from the obnoxious but lawful ones.” The honest services law, he said, “invites abuse by headline-grabbing prosecutors in pursuit of local officials, state legislators and corporate C.E.O.’s who engage in any manner of unappealing or ethically questionable conduct.”
I ask my readers -- criminal tax afficionados all -- to consider Justice Scalia's lament in a different context -- the context of criminal allegations based on alleged lack of economic substance. As those readers know, even in civil cases, the courts have been and still are in substantial disagreement as to the parameters and application of the economic substance doctrine. Not only is this a problem in terms of setting the appropriate standard to guide conduct, but it also is a problem for a judge in instructing a criminal jury how to assess a defendant' conduct and for a jury in then assessing the conduct. It thus might be helpful to review an actual jury charge. I include at the end of this blog relevant portions of the jury charge in United States v. Larson (S.D. N.Y. No. 05 CR 888 (LAK)), which is the remnant trial after the dismissal of 13 defendants in the same case then under the caption of United States v. Stein. Suffice it to say at this point, Judge Kaplan gave the economic substance charge with respect to the tax due and owing element for tax evasion (for more on this element, see here), but it seems to me that economic substance is also relevant to the issue of the defendant’s willfulness, a different element of the evasion crime. If the courts are all over the lot as to what economic substance means, then one must ask as Justice Scalia does in the honest services context how the any defendant – a hypothetical reasonable defendant – could have intended to violate the standard (in an objective sense) and how the particular defendant in fact intended to do so (in a subjective sense to the extent that, because he knew of the uncertainty, there was no law that he intended to violate).

Thus, if the uncertain state of the law still passes the James-required gate-keeping function of the judge to determine that the law is knowable, then there still remains the jury’s function to determine whether the defendant knew the law so that he could intend to violate it. It seems to me that, if the defendant is a tax practitioner, uncertainty in the scope of the law in the professional community bears upon whether the defendant formulated that the intent to violate the law.

Maybe I’ll come back to this subject because there is a lot of meat behind this limited discussion and, I might add, a lot of contrary argument and even precedent. But I must stop now and move on to other matters. After all this is a blog and not a law review or court brief.

Finally, for a diversion for those noting Mr. Liptak's diversion to Judge Posner's diversion on the ostrich instruction in United States v. Black, 530 F.3d 596 (7th Cir. 2009), cert. granted Black v. United States, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 3513 (2009), see the opinion here.

UPDATE 10/13/2009 1:15 PM
The WSJ Law Blog reports here that the Supreme Court has agreeed to tackle honest services fraud in the Skilling (of Enron fame) case. It already has two other cases. So we will get something out of the Supreme Court on the issue and, perhaps even, we will get some discussion apropos to the tax crimes area.


Following is Judge Kaplan’s charge to the jury in United States v. Larson (S.D. N.Y. No. 05 CR 888 (LAK)), dated 12/11/08, pp. 5225- 5232.

In order to prove that element in this case, we focus on the doctrine of economic substance. In this case, the government contends that the taxpayers whose tax returns are the subject of each count of tax evasion, owed more federal income tax then they reported on the returns for one reason only, in each case the taxpayer took a deduction from his taxable income due to a loss that the tax return attributed to one of the four tax strategies at issue in this case. You remember them, FLIP, OPIS, BLIPS and SOS.

The government argues that every one of those tax strategies lacked economic substance. That the tax deduction each one of those taxpayers took was improper, for that reason, and, therefore, that each taxpayer owed more federal income tax than was declared on the tax return. The defendants dispute that. They contend, among other things, that the tax strategies did not lack economic substance, that the deductions were proper, and that the tax returns, therefore, accurately stated the amounts of tax that were due and owing.

This means that your task here, with respect to the first element, is to decide for each count, whether the tax strategy that gave rise to the loss claimed as a deduction on that tax return, lacked economic substance in order to decide whether the relevant taxpayer owed more federal tax, income tax, than was shown that was due on the tax return. So I am now going to instruct you with respect to your consideration of the economic substance issue.

A transaction that lacks economic substance cannot enter into tax computations. Any deduction claimed for a tax loss that allegedly was sustained in such a transaction, therefore, is not properly claimed on a tax return.

In order to establish that a transaction lacks economic substance, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt both of two factors. The first factor is that the relevant taxpayer had no business purpose for engaging in the transaction apart from creating the tax deduction.

The second factor is that there was no reasonable possibility that the transaction would result in a profit.

Now, let me define one term and say a few things about each one of these factors.

First the definition. The word profit, as I use it in this context, means a return in excess of the cost of the investment, disregarding entirely any tax benefits. Let me give you an example. If somebody puts a million dollars into a deal, he would have to get a return of more than a million dollars without considering any tax benefits in order for the transaction to be profitable. Common sense. A return of $750,000 on a million dollar investment results in a loss of $250,000, not a profit. That's what I mean by profit. Forget the tax benefits, look at the investment and the return.

Now, let me discuss the first element that I mentioned, whether the taxpayer had any business purpose for entering into the deal. In deciding that question, you, of course, may consider any direct evidence of the taxpayer's motive. But you are not limited to direct evidence in deciding why a taxpayer did a transaction. You can consider circumstantial evidence as well.

I am going to talk to you later about what circumstantial evidence means. But for purposes of the present, think of it just as common sense, and then I will explain it later on.

For example, you may consider the manner in which the transaction was sold to the taxpayer. In other words, you are entitled to consider whether and to what extent it was sold to the taxpayer as a way to create a tax deduction to offset other taxable income, and/or as a way to generate a return, a profit, exclusive of tax benefits on the investment. You are entitled to consider that.

You may consider also whether a reasonable taxpayer would have paid the fees necessary to do the transaction in order to gain the chance of whatever profit potential existed if the transaction did not also carry with it tax benefits.

Now, let me try to put this into plain English. What helped me think about it, maybe it will help you, I am going to give you a couple of examples, so bear with me on the examples. Let's take an example in which a taxpayer has to put up $2 million to enter into some deal or strategy. Suppose further that the strategy in question offers a five percent chance, that's one chance out of 20, resulting in a payout, when all is said and done of $2,050,000. In other words, it's a one in 20 chance of making $50,000 on a $2 million investment.

Assume also that the taxpayer has a huge amount of income, and that there is a very big tax benefit to the strategy, maybe a $10 million tax loss or deduction.

Now, common sense will tell you that few, if any, people, no matter how rich they are, would put up $2 million for a five percent chance, a one out of 20 chance, of making $50,000. So on those facts you might conclude that there must have been only one reason for the taxpayer to have paid the $2 million. And that the $10 million tax loss or deduction probably was the only reason.

Let me give you another example, also an example in which the same taxpayer has to put up the same $2 million.

What's different in this example is this, assume there is a 33 percent chance, now it's one out of three we are talking about, of getting a payout of $3 million. And thus a profit of a million dollars within a year. Now, a 33 percent chance, a one out of three chance of making a profit, is not bad odds, it's pretty good odds. And a million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, even if you are very rich.

In this second example, the high likelihood, relatively high likelihood, and the large size of the potential profit, would be circumstances that might tend to show that the taxpayer had a nontax reason for doing the deal.

Many people might consider it a very good investment opportunity, without regard whether there was any tax benefit.

In the end, what you would do, is to consider all the evidence, direct, if there is any, and circumstantial, to decide whether the government had proved that the tax benefits were the only reason for doing the deal.

Those are my examples.

So let me come back to this case. If you find that the government has proved that the tax benefits were the only reason for doing the deal involved in any particular count, you will go on to consider the second part of the economic substance test that I gave you a moment ago. And that I am going to talk about more in a minute.

If you find, however, that the government has not proved that the tax benefits were the only reason for doing the deal, you must reject the government's economic substance argument. And you, therefore, must reject its contention that there was additional tax due and owing. That in turn would require you to find the defendant or defendants in question, not guilty on the particular tax evasion count that related to the particular taxpayer and year in question.

Now, let me say a word about the second fact in the economic substance test, which is whether there was a reasonable possibility that the strategy involved on the count you are considering would result in a profit.

Now, at one level this is largely self-explanatory, but I want to emphasize to you that this factor requires you to come to an objective judgment about whether the government has proved that there was no reasonable possibility that the strategy would result in a profit. In other words, this doesn't depend on what the taxpayer believed about the tax potential -- excuse me, the profit potential -- it requires you to consider all the evidence that you have, and reach a conclusion about whether the government has proved beyond a reasonable doubt, that there was no reasonable possibility of a profit.

In doing this, you are going to have to consider the evidence concerning investment aspects of each of the four tax strategies at issue in this case. For example, the transactions involving the Argentine peso and the Hong Kong dollar that were involved in the BLIPS strategy, and the foreign currency options that were involved in the SOS strategy. Of course, you have to consider the particulars of the other two strategies, as well, I mentioned those because they come immediately to mind.

Now, in considering whether the government has met its burden on the second factor, you should take into account whether the taxpayer, considering all the aspects of the strategy, had any reasonable chance of making a profit or suffering a loss as a result of changes in the market.

To take one example, if you are considering a BLIPS deal, you should consider whether the taxpayer had any reasonable chance of making a profit or suffering a loss as a result of changes in the value of the Argentine peso and the Hong Kong dollar, given the terms of the deal. If you find that the government has proved beyond a reasonable doubt both prongs of the economic substance test, in other words, both that the taxpayer had no nontax reason for doing the deals on the count in question, and that there was no reasonable possibility of making a profit, you may find that the requirement of additional tax due and owing will have been satisfied, and you will go on to consider whether the government has proved that the additional tax due and owing was substantial.

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