Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New Sixth Circuit Failure to Pay Over Case

In United States v. Blanchard, ___ F.3d ___ (6th Cir. 2010), the defendant was "convicted of fifteen counts of Failure to Account for and Pay Over Withholding and FICA Taxes, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7202, and three counts of Making and Causing the Making of a False Claim for a Tax Refund, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 287." The decision in the case is useful because it covers a lot of the key issues presented in failure to pay over cases which seem to be coming more frequently in recent years

1. Statute of Limitations. The Court holds that the statute of limitations under § 6531 is 6 years. The defendant's argument was that "pay" in the 6 year statute (§ 6531(4)) was a different concept than "pay over" which is the concept in § 7202 and thus that the default tax crimes statute of limitations of 3 years applied. The defendant argued that, not only was it a different concept, but analysis of the 1954 Code predecessor -- the 1939 Code -- supported this reading of § 6531(4). The Court rejected the argument, consistent with the mainstream (but not unanimous) holdings. The Sixth Circuit provides a good discussion of the cases on the subject.

2. Admission of Evidence of Discretionary Expenditures. The Court held that the evidence of defendant's discretionary expenditures was relevant to his willfulness and thus was properly admitted at trial.

3. Ability to Pay is Not An Element. Following the Ninth Circuit's holding in Easterday (discussed here), the Court rejects the argument that the Government must prove ability to pay as an element of the offense. The essence of the holding is that a defendant cannot immunize himself or herself from criminal tax charges by avoiding having the resources to pay -- such as by spending the money otherwise available to pay.

4. Failure to Instruct on the Defendant's Theory of the Case. Failure to properly instruct on a defendant's theory of defense is viewed as reversible error (at least if not harmless), as we noted in discussing Kottwitz. But, unlike Kottwitz, the Sixth Circuit finds no reversible error because the other instructions covered the gravamen of the defense. So, let's see. The defendant's claim was that he relied upon his accountant / return preparer. There was sufficient evidence that he did so, at least sufficient to support the requested instruction on the defense. The Sixth Circuit held that there was no reversible error because the defense was subsumed in the willfulness and good faith instructions the trial court did properly give to the jury. In other words, if the jury understood those instructions, it would have known that the defendant would have a defense if he indeed relied upon the accountant / return preparer. This notion, of course, relies upon the legal construct that juries understand jury instructions as given and are able to extend the concepts beyond the instructions. Finally, the Court does state as its final sentence that there was "no error here." I read the analysis as being a no reversible error opinion. I think that in a case with the proper evidentiary predicate for a reliance defense, the defendant is entitled to the instruction and the general willfulness and good faith instructions will not cover the ground. Hence, I think the Court's concluding sentence is unfortunate.

5. The Net Wage Entitlement to Credit for Withheld Taxes. In reporting his personal income tax liability, the defendant claimed a credit for the tax he was supposed to cause his "employer" to withhold and pay over but did not; based on this notion, the defendant claimed that he could not be guilty under 18 USC § 287 (false claims) for claiming those credits. The general scheme for withholding is that, upon payment of net wages, the employee gets the credit for taxes withheld whether or not the withholding agent (the employer) ever pays over those withheld (or deemed withheld) amounts to the IRS. Of course, that is the general scheme. This general scheme was not designed to benefit the person who is responsible for the failure to pay over in the first instance. Interestingly, in this regard, the Sixth Circuit relied (or at least found persuasive) an unpublished decision affirming a § 7201 conviction in a similar circumstance. The defense is just a bit too cute.

6. Amount of Restitution for Tax Crimes. The Court reversed the imposition of restitution related to the tax crimes (as opposed to the Title 18 crimes). Restitution is just not available for tax crimes except as a condition for some benefit (such as condition of probation) conferred on the defendant.

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