Tuesday, December 22, 2015

U.S. Taxpayer Seeks Declaratory Judgment that Government Must Prove Willfulness for the FBAR Willful Penalty by Clear and Convincing Evidence (12/22/15)

Former Swiss account holders who joined the OVDP program and, upon opt out, are potentially subject to the willful penalty have filed a complaint, Gubser v. IRS (SD TX No. 15-00298), here, seeking a declaratory judgment as follows (from the complaint prayer for relief, p. 13 of the Complaint):
A judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 declaring that the Defendants must establish willful violations of the FBAR filing requirement of 31 U.S.C. § 5314 by clear and convincing evidence when seeking to impose civil penalties under 31 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(5)(C)-(D).
The gravamen of the legal claim as to the proper evidentiary standard is in the following paragraph:
21. Congress’ use of the term “willful” with respect to the civil FBAR penalty reflects a level of wrongdoing commensurate with civil fraud [which is subject to the clear and convincing standard].
Most of the rest of the complaint seems to go far beyond the requirements of "notice" pleadings required by FRCP Rule 8(a), here, and seems more directed to an audience other than the judge and the opposing party.

Readers will recall that I have visited the issue of the proper burden of proof frequently and believe that the correct standard should be clear and convincing.  I link to some of those blog entries at the end of today's blog.  That is the same issue presented in this declaratory judgement format.  Normally, this issue would be presented after the FBAR is assessed, some of it paid, and suit to recover the payment as illegal.  (Note that this is not a tax refund suit subject to Flora's full payment requirement.)

As to the ripeness of the case in terms of the fundamental requirement of case or controversy, the key part of the complaint's introduction is as follows (emphasis supplied by JAT):
4. An actual controversy exists between Gubser and Defendants because: (i) the IRS has notified Gubser of a proposed civil FBAR penalty for a willful violation; (ii) an IRS Appeals Officer has indicated that, were the clear and convincing evidence standard applied, the IRS could not establish a willful violation by Gubser; (iii) the civil FBAR penalty for a non-willful violation is $10,000; and, thus, (iv) this Court’s declaration that the clear and convincing standard applies will prevent government confiscation of one-half of Gubser’s retirement savings, or approximately $1.35 million, as well as the opprobrium and other negative consequences of a finding that Gubser willfully violated U.S. law.
The current posture is that the IRS has made a proposed decision now being reviewed by Appeals, but that is just a proposed decision.  Even if the Appeals Officer has stated an inclination to apply the preponderance of the evidence standard in assessing the hazards of litigation (see par. 36, p. 12), that seems to just be stating at most a preliminary inclination rather than a decision on behalf of the IRS.  Moreover, I am not sure how much independent authority the Appeals Officer exercises for the FBAR willful penalty; when I handled an appeal on a proposed willful penalty, the Appeals Officer clearly signaled that the ultimate authority was not his.  So, I would expect that a significant "defense" to the case will be that the case is not yet ripe.  And, when it does become ripe -- by assessment -- Gubser will have an adequate remedy once the decision is made and an assessment pursuant to the decision is made.

I do not know that I can add anything that I have not said before.  I think the ultimate legal position is the correct one.  And I think the issue is an important one.  That is why proper presentation and ultimate resolution of the issue is so important.  As I have argued before, the two cases to date are of limited authority, if any, so the issue should still reasonably be in play when presented and properly litigated in a proper venue.  I am just not sure that the current action presents a proper venue for litigating the issue.

Here are some but not all of my previous blogs (presented in reverse chronological order):

  • ABA Tax Lawyer Publication Comment on FBAR Willful Penalty (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 2/16/15), here.
  • More on Recklessness as Cheek Willfulness (Including for FBAR Civil Penalty) or Willful Blindness (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 7/22/14), here.
  • Willful Blindness / Conscious Avoidance and Crimes Requiring Intent to Violate a Known Legal Duty (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 7/21/14), here.
  • 11th Circuit Holds Clear and Convincing Evidence Required for Section 6701 Penalty; Can Reasoning be Extended to FBAR Willful Penalty? (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 6/14/14), here.
  • McBride #2 - Proof of Willfulness (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 11/13/12), here.
  • McBride #1 - Court Holds Government Must Prove FBAR Willful Penalty by a Preponderance (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 11/11/12), here.
  • Fourth Circuit Reverses Williams on Willfulness (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 7/20/12; revised 7/24/12), here.
  • Burden of Proof for Willfulness in FBAR Violations (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 9/6/11), here.

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