Eleventh Circuit Affirms Disgorgement in Tax Return Preparer Case

We welcome first time guest blogger Matthew Mueller. Matt practices in Florida representing individuals with tax issues and white collar crime issues. Prior to moving to private practice, he had the perfect background for the work he currently does. He represented the IRS in criminal prosecutions at the Department of Justice Tax Division, Criminal Section and then he moved to the United States Attorney’s Office in Tampa. He brings to this discussion of disgorgement over a decade of experience with these types of cases both inside and outside the government. Keith

As this blog has covered previously, the Department of Justice Tax Division has increasingly sought disgorgement from tax return preparers in civil injunction cases. This growing trend has been on display nationwide, but especially in the Middle and Southern Districts of Florida. While the government experienced some initial growing pains in court—see this prior post discussing an MDFL case in which the district court denied disgorgement—the effort to disgorge return preparers from their profits has continued. Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion in United States v. Stinson affirming the district court’s judgment entering a permanent injunction against the return preparer and affirming a $949,952.47 disgorgement order.   Armed with favorable appellate precedent, return preparers and owners of tax preparation businesses should expect to see the government continue this trend.

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What is disgorgement?

Disgorgement is an equitable remedy employed by courts to prevent unjust enrichment. Case law defining the contours of disgorgement has largely evolved out of civil enforcement actions brought on behalf of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Relying on precedent from the securities fraud context, the Eleventh Circuit in Stinson described disgorgement as follows:

“Disgorgement is an equitable remedy intended to prevent unjust enrichment.” S.E.C. v. Levin, 849 F.3d 995, 1006 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting S.E.C. v. Monterosso, 756 F.3d 1326, 1337 (11th Cir. 2014)). To be entitled to disgorgement, the Government need only produce a reasonable approximation of the defendant’s ill-gotten gains. See S.E.C. v. Calvo, 378 F.3d 1211, 1217 (11th Cir. 2004). “Exactitude is not a requirement; so long as the measure of disgorgement is reasonable, any risk of uncertainty should fall on the wrongdoer whose illegal conduct created that uncertainty.” Id. (quotation marks omitted and alterations adopted).

United States v. Stinson, 2018 WL 2026928, at *6 (11th Cir. May 1, 2018). The Stinson Court affirmed that disgorgement was an available remedy under Title 26, United States Code, Section 7402(a).

Having established the authority to disgorge profits from a return preparer, the Court in Stinson went on to discuss the boundaries of this remedy in, at times, conflicting terms. The Court first points out that disgorgement is limited to the amount the defendant “profited from his wrongdoing.” Id. At the same time, the Court also asserts that courts have accepted gross receipts as a reasonable approximation of disgorgement “in cases involving the operation of a fraudulent business.” Id. The theory being that “wrongdoers are not entitled to deduct costs associated with committing their illegal acts.” Id. While gross revenue in a wholly fraudulent business might be a reasonable approximation of ill-gotten gains or profit, the issue is more complicated when applied to businesses that engage in legitimate business activity in conjunction with the alleged instances of fraud. In those instances, the government must show a link between the disgorgement amount they seek and the alleged fraudulent transactions.

Another outer boundary applicable to disgorgement is the five year statute of limitations found at Title 28, United States Code, Section 2462 for “an action, suit, or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” In 2017, the Supreme Court rejected the SEC’s argument that there was no statute of limitations for disgorgement in securities fraud cases. Kokesh v. S.E.C., 137 S.Ct. 1635, 1645 (2017). In applying the five-year statute of limitations in Kokesh, the Court stressed that disgorgement “bears all the hallmarks of a penalty: It is imposed as a consequence of violating a public law and it is intended to deter, not to compensate.” Id. at 1644. While the Court was addressing disgorgement in SEC cases in Kokesh, the rationale extends to disgorgement sought in tax preparer injunction cases in all significant respects.

How does the government prove disgorgement?

As the government has increasingly sought disgorgement in tax return preparer cases, district courts have predictably undertaken a highly fact-intensive inquiry into the amount of disgorgement sought. As a result, in United States v. Mesadieu the district court refused to order disgorgement because the government failed differentiate between compliant and noncompliant returns and asked the court to extrapolate from one tax year and one geographical area. 180 F.Supp.3d 1113 (M.D. Fla. 2016). Yet in Stinson, the very same district court judge in Orlando awarded $949,952.47 out of the greater than $1.5 Million sought by the government at trial. The trial in Stinson spanned six days and included testimony by more than 15 taxpayers and deposition testimony by 41 witnesses including taxpayers. That disgorgement figure included so-called “Category 1” calculations based on 1,861 returns containing unreimbursed business expenses on Schedule A. The total disgorgement amount also included “Category 2” calculations based on returns prepared by Stinson himself, as opposed to his employees. The Eleventh Circuit found these calculations reasonable and supported by the record.

The Eleventh Circuit also disposed of Stinson’s argument that disgorgement could only include fees from tax returns specifically proven to be false returns. The Court invoked as an analogy the United States Sentencing Guidelines–for the proposition that only a reasonable estimate was required:

Although this was a civil matter, in the analogous criminal context, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines “do not require that the sentencing court calculate the amount of loss with certainty or precision … [but only] a reasonable estimate based on the available facts.” United States v. Bryant, 128 F.3d 74, 75-76 (2d Cir. 1997). As we have held, a trial court may extrapolate from available evidence, and such extrapolation may occur without interviewing every customer and preparer for every allegedly false or fraudulent return. See United States v. Barber, 591 Fed.Appx. 809, 823-24 (11th Cir. 2014).

Clearly, the government’s ability to prove disgorgement in a given case will depend on its ability to demonstrate patterns and to persuade the court to make reasonable extrapolations from known samples.

Conclusion

In addition to defending against possible injunctions, and criminal charges in select cases, tax return preparers will have to continue to contend with disgorgement for the foreseeable future. The Department of Justice undoubtedly hopes the pain of separating preparers from their profits will serve as an additional deterrent against business practices that do not otherwise appear to be on the wane. Restitution is available as a remedy in criminal preparer prosecutions, but even that has posed some problems for the DOJ and IRS, see here, for example. In the meantime, practitioners who represent return preparation businesses and their owners can learn from cases like Stinson and the more developed body of law in the securities fraud context for guidance on how disgorgement should and should not be computed.