Thursday, March 31, 2022

Summary of Tax Crimes for Tax Procedure Class (3/31/22)

 This past Tuesday, I was a guest lecturer at Jim Malone’s UVA Law Class on Tax Procedure.  My subject was tax crimes.  I circulated in advance a pdf summary of the topic here (which I have changed slightly as indicated in red).  The summary is taken from the corresponding section of my Federal Tax Procedure Book Practitioner Edition but stripping out the footnotes and modifying the text as I thought appropriate).  Readers of this blog can download the summary here.  SSRN links to download either the Student or Practitioner Editions of the book are here

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

More District Court Thrashing Around on Arbitrary and Capricious Calculation of Willful FBAR Penalties (3/30/21)

I have written before on the saga of Timberly Hughes.  Court Sustains Willful FBAR Penalty for Two of Four Years (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 10/15/21), here.  Hughes is back in the news, so to speak.  In United States v. Hughes (N.D. Cal 18-cv-05931-JCS 3/29/22), here, Magistrate Judge Spero is trying to wrap up the case so that it goes to the District Judge and then, apparently, to the Ninth Circuit.  (The docket entries in CourtListener are here.)

 In high level summary:

1. The court confirms that for the two years it previously found nonwillful, that while losing on the willful penalty for the 2 years, there would be no nonwillful penalty for those years.  The court says (p. 3, n 4):

   n4 “The United States does not seek nonwillful penalties against Ms. Hughes for 2010 and 2011, though the United States reserves its right to appeal the Court’s  willfulness determination as to 2010 and 2011.” Pl.’s Reply (dkt. 168) at 2

I have never thought about whether nonwillful and willful penalties can be assessed and litigated in the alternative (something like a lesser included offense concept).  Since the IRS never assessed the nonwillful penalty, I suppose it is out of time to assert assess.  I don't know whether such alternative assessments and/or litigation could be made under the statutes or procedures.  For example, in the Hughes case, applying the nonwillful penalty to the years the court found were not willful.

2. The Court found that there were errors in the calculations and methodology in several respects and remanded to the IRS to reconsider the penalties.  There is no discussion of potential statute of limitations issues from a recalculation and reassessment.  The issue is whether a new assessment would be permitted or only an adjustment downward to the prior assessment.  I am not sure whether the normal APA remand to the agency holds or forces open the statute of limitations (sort of the way a petition to the Tax Court in a deficiency cases suspends the statute of limitations so that the correct number after litigation gets assessed).

3.  In paragraph 2 my prior blog here, I discussed a potential glitch where the IRS uses its methodology to quantify the willful penalty by spreading the amount quantified at 50% of the single high amount over the willful years.  The example I gave was a high amount of $2 million over four willful years and for simplicity assumed that high amount was static at all times during the year.  The maximum penalty authorized by the statute would be 50% per year, for an aggregate of $4 million.  Under the IRS policy to apply only a 50% to the high amount for all willful years (that's not each year), the willful penalty would be the same $1,000,000, but applied to each of the four years.  Now, with two years dropping out, does $500,000 allocated to the now nonwillful years drop off or can the IRS re-allocate the lost $500,000 to the years in which the willful penalty was sustained.  I don’t know.  And, if you vary the amounts so that only in one year the high amount was $2 million, you can get weird results to this type of issue.  And what if in that varying scenario, the high amount were in a year judicially determined to be nonwillful?

Thursday, March 24, 2022

District Court Rejects Claim That Supreme Court Expansion of Defraud Conspiracy Is In Error (3/24/22; 3/27/22)

In United States v. Lucidonio,   (ED PA Criminal NO. 20-211 3/9/22), GS here and CL here and g, Lucidonio was charged with the Klein / defraud conspiracy (18 USC §371) counts of aiding and assisting (§ 7206(2)). The Court denied his motion to dismiss those counts. The denial addresses some major themes in tax crimes, and it is short. I recommend that tax crimes fans read the opinion. Perhaps read even more than once.

The opinion addresses two contexts tax crimes targets should consider the potential sweep of conduct subject to the crimes. First, there is the conspiracy charge in 18 USC 371. That statute includes two types of conspiracies:

(i)                The offense conspiracy to commit a specific statutory offense. The offense conspiracy requires the Government to prove that the object was to commit the conduct that meets each element of the offense. For example, for conspiracy to commit tax evasion, the Government must prove an intent to commit each element of the crime of tax evasion. The elements are of tax evasion are:  (i) substantial tax due and owing; (ii) an affirmative attempt to evade; and a willful attempt to evade.  Sometimes proving the elements of the conspiratorial object offense can be a burden, hence we turn to the other conspiracy in § 371.

(ii)              The defraud conspiracy (often called a Klein conspiracy in a tax setting). On the face of the statute, the object of the defraud conspiracy must be “to defraud the United States.”  Defraud normally in the criminal law means to take something of value from its rightful owner (or some variation). There is no reason to believe that, upon the original enactment of the predecessor of § 371 this crime in these words, Congress had any other definition of defraud for this element of the defraud conspiracy. Yet, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, the defraud conspiracy certainly means to cheat or attempt to cheat the Government out of property or money, but it also means to interfere with or obstruct lawful governmental functions “by deceit, craft or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest” even if no fraud is the object. Hammerschmidt v. United States, 265 U.S. 182, 188 (1924).  Through interpretation, Hammerschmidt effectively grafted into the defraud conspiracy criminalization of conduct beyond fraud onto the defraud conspiracy. For treatments showing Hammerschmidt’s embrace of a formulation of the crime beyond the normal meaning of defraud, see United States v. Coplan, 703 F.3d 46, 66 (2d Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 571 U.S. 819 (2013); John A. Townsend, Tax Obstruction Crimes: Is Making the IRS's Job Harder Enough, 9 Hous. Bus. & Tax. L.J. 255 (2009), here; see also United States v. Caldwell, 989 F.2d 1056 (9th Cir. 1993) (opening with the question: “We consider whether conspiring to make the government's job harder is, without more, a federal crime.”)  [Note: The defraud conspiracy as spun by Hammerschmidt may apply in other agency contexts, but its specific application in a tax context is usually referred to as a Klein conspiracy after the leading tax case apply the defraud conspiracy after Hammerschmidt.  See DOJ CTM 23.07[2][a] Generally.)] In short, the defraud conspiracy as currently interpreted, goes beyond the original meaning of the statutory text because the word defraud in the criminal statutes did not have that meaning until spun by the Supreme Court culminating in Hammerschmidt

In every practical sense, the Supreme Court added to the conduct that Congress required for the defraud conspiracy. Just stating that concept seems contrary to the oft-made statement that only Congress can create the elements of criminal statutes. Of course, it has always been the law that courts can spin the elements of criminal statutes, but just how much spinning is allowable. How far can courts wander from the statutory text?

That was the claim Lucidonio and others before him have unsuccessfully sought for the Hammerschmidt spin. The most prominent attack came in United States v. Coplan, 703 F.3d 46 (2d Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 571 U.S. 819 (2013). The Second Circuit questioned the Hammerschmidt spin on the defraud conspiracy but felt obligated to apply because it was the higher court’s spin; the Supreme Court denied cert thus carrying forward the Hammerschmidt spin as law. Coplan, 703 F.3d at 62. Recognizing that reality, Lucidonio made the argument to preserve the possibility that either his case or some other case while his was still alive might get the Supreme Court to reverse the Hammerschmidt spin. (See Slip Op. p.  6 n. 2).

Lucidonio claimed that the Hammerschmidt spin was inconsistent with United States v. Davis, ___ U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), SC here & GS here, and the concepts discussed and applied there. I urge readers considering this issue to review that case carefully because the conclusion of the Davis majority outside the context of tax crimes seems inconsistent with the Hammerschmidt spin on the defraud conspiracy.

For those interested in the issue of how far a court, even the Supreme Court can wander from the text of the criminal law elements, I recommend careful reading of Davis. This is a teaser from the introduction of the opinion (authored by Justice Gorsuch or his clerks (I have an anecdote on that at the end of this blog entry):

Saturday, March 12, 2022

District Court Rejects Summary Judgment for FBAR Civil Willful Penalty (3/12/22; 3/13/22)

In United States v. Schik, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41025 (SD NY 3/8/22), CL here, the Court denied the Government’s Motion for Summary Judgment for the FBAR willful penalty. In other cases with more or less similar facts (although Schik has some unusual facts, as I note below), the Government has been able to convince courts that objectively proved facts on the Motion for Summary Judgment (particularly answering “No” to the Schedule B question about foreign accounts) met the expansive civil definition of willfulness for FBAR purposes. But, probably because of the unique facts, the Court rejected the notion that a “No” answer suffices for willfulness on summary judgment. A key excerpt: 

            When Congress included penalties for “willful violations” of Section 5321(a)(5), it explicitly delineated between failures to report that are and are not willful. Willfulness, therefore, must mean something more than mere negligence. The Government’s suggested reading of the word—that willfulness should be found categorically even when an unsophisticated taxpayer did not know of an obligation to report and relied on a tax preparer— would abrogate that distinction. See Lowe v. SEC, 472 U.S. 181, 208 n.53 (1985) (a court “must give effect to every word that Congress used in the statute”); see also United States v. Schwarzbaum, 2020 WL 1316232, at *8 (S.D. Fl. Mar. 20, 2020) (“Imputing constructive knowledge of filing requirements to a taxpayer simply by virtue of having signed a tax return would render the distinction between a non-willful and willful violation in the FBAR context meaningless.”); Jones v. United States, 2020 WL 4390390, at *9 (C.D. Cal. May 11, 2020) (in the FBAR context, “signing a tax return on its own cannot automatically make the taxpayer’s violation ‘willful’ as that would collapse the willfulness standard to strict liability.”).

So, what were the unique facts? The Court has a good discussion in the case (pp. 2-5), but the Introduction to Schick’s opposition to the Motion offers a concise summary (See Dkt entry 38 here):


            Defendant Walter Schik (“Mr. Schik” or the “Defendant”) hereby opposes the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the government because there are numerous disputed issues of material fact in this case. The origination of Mr. Schik’s foreign bank accounts was not the nefarious scheme portrayed in the government’s brief, and the facts and circumstances present in Mr. Schik’s case are readily distinguishable from the cases cited by the government. Mr. Schik was born and grew up in eastern Europe before immigrating to the U.S. after experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust. This deeply traumatic experience has affected Mr. Schik’s entire life and, as relevant in this case, he justifiably believed that it was important to always maintain some funds in Switzerland, a neutral country during World War II, so that they could be accessed in the event of further religious persecution or some other catastrophe. This was Mr. Schik’s sole intent when he established the foreign accounts at issue; there was no intent to evade U.S. tax or reporting obligations. After the accounts were opened, Mr. Schik relinquished almost all control over the accounts to a local asset manager, David Beck, and he did not participate in investment decisions and did not have any understanding about how Mr. Beck structured the accounts. Mr. Schik, who lacks almost any formal education, had no knowledge concerning the offshore asset reporting requirements of U.S. taxpayers; his accountant during the relevant time period did not advise him concerning foreign accounts; and Mr. Schik did not believe that it was necessary to discuss non-U.S.-based accounts with his accountant. As soon as Mr. Schik became aware of his reporting obligations, he applied to the IRS’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”) and, even after he was inexplicably rejected from the OVDP, he nevertheless proceeded to file amended tax returns (and thereby incriminated himself and exposed himself to criminal prosecution) and pay back tax and interest on the income from his foreign accounts. These  [*2] factors raise numerous questions of fact with regard to Mr. Schik’s knowledge and intent. Therefore, summary judgment should be denied.