Saturday, May 19, 2018

District Court Caps IRS Authority to Assess Willful FBAR Penalty at $100,000 (5/19/18)

In United States v. Colliot (W.D. Texas No. AU-16-CA-01281-SS), a case brought by the U.S. to obtain judgment on an FBAR willful penalty, the Court granted Colliot's motion for summary judgment, holding that the IRS cannot assess a willful penalty in excess of $100,000 despite the statute allowing a penalty assessment of the higher of $100,000 or 50% of the maximum amount in the unreported foreign account(s).  The order granting summary judgment is here.  This is a major holding which will surely follow, could dramatically affect the landscape for cases in the pipeline until the IRS acts to change the regulations landscape on which the decision was based.

First, I offer the relevant documents as follows:

  • Colliot's Motion, here.
  • U.S. Response to Motion, here, with a diagram, here.
  • Colliot's Reply, here.
  • U.S. SurReply, here.
  • Court Order Granting Colliot's Motion for Summary Judgment, here.
  • The docket entries in the case through today, here.
The following is the Court's summary of the relevant facts and regulatory background which, I think, is consistent with the summary judgment submissions by the parties.
A. Legal Framework 
To understand Colliot's argument, it is first necessary to briefly review the history of the provision used to impose civil penalties upon Colliot, 31 U.S.C. § 532 1(a)(5). A previous version of § 5321(a)(5) allowed the Secretary of the Treasury to impose civil monetary penalties amounting to the greater of $25,000 or the balance of the unreported account up to $100,000. See Resp. Mot. Summ. J. [#57] at 2. A related regulation promulgated by the Department of the Treasury via notice-and-comment rulemaking, 31 C.F.R. § 103.57, reiterated that "[f]or any willful violation committed after October 26, 1986 . . . the Secretary may assess upon any person, a civil penalty[] . . . not to exceed the greater of the amount (not to exceed $100,000) equal to the balance in the account at the time of the violation, or $25,000." Amendments to Implementing Regulations Under the Bank Secrecy Act, 52 Fed. Reg. 11436, 11445-46 (1987).  
In 2002, the Treasury delegated the authority to assess penalties under § 532 1(a)(5) to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Treasury Order 180-01, 67 Fed. Reg. 64697 (2002). In addition to this delegation of enforcement authority, Treasury Order 180-01 provided that related regulations were unaffected by this transfer of power and should continue in effect "until superseded or revised." Id. Roughly six months later, FinCEN redelegated  the authority to assess penalties under § 532 1(a)(5) and its related regulation, § 103.57, to the IRS. Mot. Summ. J. [#52-5] Ex. E (Memorandum of Agreement and Delegation of Authority for Enforcement of FBAR Requirements). 
In 2004, Congress amended § 5321 to increase the maximum civil penalties that could be assessed for willful failure to file an FBAR. 31 U.S.C. § 532 1(a)(5); American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-357, § 821, 118 Stat. 1418 (2004). Under the revised statute, the civil monetary penalties for willful failure to file an FBAR increased to a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of 50 percent of the balance in the unreported account at the time of the violation. 31 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(5)(C). 
Despite this change, the regulations promulgated in reliance on the prior version of the statute remained unchanged. Thus, § 103.57 continued to indicate the maximum civil penalty for willful failure to file an FBAR was capped at $100,000. FinCEN subsequently renumbered § 103.57it is now 31 C.F.R. § 1010.820as part of a large-scale reorganization of regulatory provisions. It also amended part of the regulation to account for inflation. Civil Monetary Penalty Adjustment and Table, 81 Fed. Reg. 42503, 42504 (2016). FinCEN did not, however, revise the regulation to account for the increased maximum penalty now authorized under § 5321 (a)(5). 31 C.F.R. § 1010.820. Nevertheless, the IRS did not let § 103.57 (now § 1010.820) constrain its enforcement authority, and since 2004, the IRS has repeatedly levied penalties for willful FBAR violations in excess of the $100,000 regulatory cap. Resp. Mot. Summ. J. [#57] at 3. 
Based on this Framewor, the Court held that, as written, the subsequent legislation did not implicitly repeal the regulation as written which capped the penalty at $100,000.  The reason is that, in its discretion, FinCEN and the IRS can set willful penalties anywhere under the ceilings under the amended § 5321(a)(5)(C) (the higher of $100,000 or 50% of the amount in the accounts) so that, by leaving the regulation in place, FinCEN In effect said that it would exercise that discretion to have a cap of $100,000 despite the statute allowing willful penalties up to 50% in the account(s) if greater than $100,000.  FinCEN and the IRS certainly have that discretion under the statute and, by leaving the regulation in place, exercised that discretion.

The Court summarizes its holding (p. 5):
In sum, § 1010.820 is a valid regulation, promulgated via notice-and-comment rulemaking, which caps penalties for willful FBAR violations at $100,000. 31 C.F.R. § 1010.820. Rules issued via notice-and-comment rulemaking must be repealed via notice-and-comment rulemaking. See Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass 'n, 135 S. Ct. 1199, 1206 (2015) (requiring agencies to "use to the same procedures when they amend or repeal a rule as they used to issue the rule in the first instance"). Section 1010.820 has not been so repealed and therefore remained good law when the FBAR penalties in question were assessed against Colliot. Consequently, the IRS acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it failed to apply the regulation to cap the penalties assessed against Colliot. 5 U.S.C. § 706(2) (requiring agency action to be "in accordance with law"); see also Richardson v. Joslin, 501 F.3d 415, (5th Cir. 2007) ("[A]n agency must abide by its own regulations.") (citing United States ex rel. Accardi v. Shaughnessy, 347 U.S. 260 (1954)).
   fn 3  If FinCEN or the IRS wished to preserve their discretion to award the maximum possible penalty for willful FBAR violations under § 5321(a)(5), they might easily have written or revised § 1010.820 to do so. For example, § 1010.820 might have incorporated § 5321 (a)(5) 's maximum penalty thresholds by reference, or alternatively, the IRS might have revised § 1010.820 to reflect the increased penalty limits. Instead, FinCEN and the IRS enacted and then left in place the $100,000 penalty cap.
JAT comments:

1.  When I first heard of this case several weeks ago, I did not think there was much substance to it.  It is essentially an administrative law issue.  I thought that the law, as amended, would also be the applicable guide.  Generally, as the Government argues in its response, a subsequent statute trumps regulations.  The statute is the law, not the regulations.  But, that is a more simplistic approach than Colliot argued and the Court took.

2.  The Court focused on the IRS's abuse of discretion.  The penalties set forth in the regulations parallel the old statute but, under the new statute, were still within the discretion allowed to FinCEN and, by delegation, to the IRS.  I will just have to think more about that more nuanced approach.  I think the key fact for that approach is the wording of the delegation order (obviously not contemplating the law change) and the subsequent re-promulgation of the outdated regulation.

3.  The potential consequences of the Court's nuanced holding, should it be affirmed on appeal, are enormous.  Every FBAR willful penalty assessment in excess of $100,000 is illegal.  I believe the IRS has made many such assessments and has even obtained judgment on some of them.  Further, the risk of such excess assessments has driven the IRS OVDP where, in lieu of all other penalties (including the FBAR willful penalty), the taxpayer pays a miscellaneous offshore penalty (often referred to as "MOP").  Presumably, the holding would not directly affect such MOP assessments voluntarily entered by the taxpayers, unless the taxpayers can argue some type of duress or some such theory to avoid the agreement.  And even then, the statute of limitations on recovering may preclude relief.

4.  Obviously, for cases still in the pipeline, the argument should be raised to preserve it and, perhaps, the OVDP processing slowed down to insure that it is preserved.  And, for those still considering entering OVDP, this obviously substantially affect the cost-benefit analysis.  Of course, the certainty on the criminal side might still drive a person into OVDP despite the fact that the MOP is higher than it should be as a substitute for the FBAR penalty,

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