U.S. District Court Flatly Denies Claims of Injury under FATCA and Title 31-FBAR Reporting Requirements: Upholds FATCA, IGAs and the FBAR Requirements to Encourage Tax Compliance and “Combat Tax Evasion”
There has been a case floating around since a complaint was filed this summer by Senator Rand Paul (current Presidential candidate) and various other current and former U.S. citizens including a Mr. Kisch who is resident in Toronto, Canada and a Mr. Crawford who lives in Albania; along with other individuals. Crawford v. United States Dep’t of the Treasury, 2015 U.S. Dist. The complaint asked for declaratory and injunctive relief.
The District Court granted neither and dismissed the case in favor of the government in a bold fashion upholding FATCA and FBAR/Title 31 reporting and information requirements. Importantly, the Court concluded by saying ” . . . The FATCA statute, the IGAs, and the FBAR requirements encourage compliance with tax laws, combat tax evasion, and deter the use of foreign accounts to engage in criminal activity. A preliminary injunction would harm these efforts and intrude upon the province of Congress and the President to determine how best to achieve these policy goals.”
See a prior post regarding how FATCA affects United States citizens (USCs) and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) residing outside the U.S.; as was the case of many of the complainants in the case, Part 1- Unintended Consequences of FATCA – for USCs and LPRs Living Outside the U.S., posted August 13, 2014.
Also, the tax publication/resource, Tax Analysts summarized the original complaint (which can be read in its entirety here) as follows:
The FATCA suit makes the following claims:
- the IGAs are unconstitutional sole executive agreements because they exceed the scope of the president’s independent constitutional powers, and because they override FATCA;
- the heightened reporting requirements for foreign financial accounts deny U.S. citizens living abroad the equal protection of the laws;
- the FATCA FFI penalty, passthrough penalty, and willfulness penalty are all unconstitutional under the excessive fines clause;
- FATCA’s information reporting requirements are unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment; and
- the IGAs’ information reporting requirements are also unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.
See, complete Tax Note’s article of July 15, 2015: Sen. Paul Files Lawsuit Challenging FATCA, by William R. Davis and Andrew Velarde.
Not unsurprisingly, the District Court ruled in favor of the government and dismissed the majority of the claims by a finding that the parties lacked standing to bring the suit and that ” . . . The FATCA statute, the IGAs, and the FBAR requirements encourage compliance with tax laws . . .”
Some highlights of the Court’s opinion [with my emphasis added] are set out below:
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A. FATCA Statute and Regulations
Congress passed the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in 2010 to improve compliance with tax laws by U.S. taxpayers holding foreign accounts. FATCA accomplishes this through two forms of reporting: (1) by foreign financial institutions (FFIs) about financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers or foreign entities in which U.S. taxpayers hold a substantial ownership interest, 26 U.S.C. § 1471; and, (2) by U.S. taxpayers about their interests in certain foreign financial accounts and offshore assets. 26 U.S.C. § 6038D.
President Obama signed FATCA into law on March 18, 2010. Senator Carl Levin, a co-sponsor of the FATCA legislation, declared that “offshore tax abuses [targeted by FATCA] cost the federal treasury an estimated $100 billion in lost tax revenues annually” 156 Cong. Rec. 5 S1745-01 (2010). FATCA became law as the IRS began its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP), which since 2009 has allowed U.S. taxpayers with undisclosed overseas assets to disclose them and pay reduced penalties. By 2014, the OVDP collected $6.5 billion through voluntary disclosures from 45,000 participants. “IRS Makes Changes to Offshore Programs; Revisions Ease Burden and Help More Taxpayers Come into Compliance,” http://www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/IRS-Makes-Changes-to-Offshore-Programs;-Revisions-Ease-Burden-and-Help-More-Taxpayers-Come-into-Compliance (last visited Sept. 15, 2015). The success of the voluntary program has likely been enhanced by the existence of FATCA.
C. Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Account
The third body of law at issue in this case pertains to the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Account (FBAR) requirements. U.S. persons who hold a financial account in a foreign country that exceeds $10,000 in aggregate value must file an FBAR with the Treasury Department reporting the account. See 31 U.S.C. § 5314; 31 C.F.R. § 1010.350; 31 C.F.R. § 1010.306(c). The current FBAR form is FinCEN Form 114. The form has been due by June 30 of each year regarding accounts held during the previous calendar year. § 1010.306(c). Beginning with the 2016 tax year, the due date of the form will be April 15. Pub. L. No. 114-41, § 2006(b)(11). A person who fails to file a required FBAR may be assessed a civil monetary penalty. 31 U.S.C. § 5321(a)(5)(A). The amount of the penalty is capped at $10,000 unless the failure was willful. See 5321(a)(5)(B)(i), (C). A willful failure to file increases the maximum penalty to $100,000 or half the value in the account at the time of the violation, whichever is greater. § 5321(a)(5)(C). In either case, whether to impose the penalty and the amount of the penalty are committed to the Secretary’s discretion. See § 5321(a)(5)(A) (“The Secretary of the Treasury may impose a civil money penalty[.]”) & § 5321(a)(5)(B) (“[T]he amount of any civil penalty . . . shall not exceed” the statutory ceiling). Plaintiffs seek to enjoin enforcement of the willful FBAR penalty under § 5321(a)(5). Prayer for Relief, part Q. They also ask for an injunction against “the FBAR account-balance reporting requirement” of FinCen Form 114. Prayer for Relief, part W.
The Government asserts that the information in the FBAR assists law enforcement and the IRS in identifying unreported taxable income of U.S. taxpayers that is held in foreign accounts as well as investigating money laundering and terrorism.
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Mark Crawford decries his bank’s policy against taking U.S. citizens as clients and claims the denial of his application for a brokerage account may have “impacted Mark financially,” ¶ 21, any such harm is not fairly traceable to an action by Defendants, which are not responsible for decisions that foreign banks make about whom to accept as clients. Crawford cannot establish standing indirectly when third parties are the causes of his alleged injuries. See Shearson, 725 F.3d at 592. Moreover, his discomfort with complying with the disclosures required by FATCA, see ¶23, does not establish the concrete, particularized harm that confers standing to sue. See, e.g., Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561 (requiring “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent” injury). Even if Crawford fears “unconstitutionally excessive fines imposed by 31 U.S.C. § 5321 if he willfully fails to file an FBAR,” ¶ 24, there is no allegation that he failed to file any FBAR that may have been required, much less that the Government has assessed an “excessive” FBAR penalty against him. Any harm that may come his way from imagined future events is speculative and cannot form the foundation for his lawsuit.
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None of the allegations states that Kuettel is presently being harmed by FATCA or the Swiss IGA, and neither FATCA nor the IGA apply to him as a non-U.S. citizen. See ¶¶ 51-58. His assertion of past harm because he was “mostly unsuccessful” in refinancing his mortgage due to FATCA does not convey standing. If that was a harm, it was due to actions of third-party foreign banks not those of Defendants. Regardless, having now renounced his American citizenship and obtained refinancing on terms he found acceptable, any past harm is not redressable here. See Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 210-11 (1995) (“[T]he fact of past injury . . . does nothing to establish a real and immediate threat that he would again suffer similar injury in the future.” (quotation omitted)). This leaves Kuettel’s claims concerning the FBAR requirement, in Counts 3 and 6, for which the Government concedes Kuettel has standing. Response, ECF 16, at 15, PAGEID 216.
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Donna-Lane Nelson is a citizen of Switzerland who has also renounced her U.S. citizenship. ¶ 59. She alleges that her Swiss bank “notified her that she would not be able to open a new account if she ever closed her existing one because she was an American. Fearing that she would eventually not be able to bank in the country where she lived, she decided to relinquish her U.S. citizenship.” ¶ 65. After she renounced, a Swiss bank “offered investment opportunities that were not available to her as an American.” Id. She “resents having to provide” “explanations” to Swiss banks that have requested information on her past U.S. citizenship and payments to her daughter, who lives in the United States, and she sees “threats implied by these requests which appear to be prompted by FATCA.” ¶ 68. Like other Plaintiffs, Nelson does not want to disclose financial information to the Government, and she fears willful FBAR penalties, even though no such penalty has been imposed or threatened against her. ¶¶ 69, 70. Unlike the preceding Plaintiffs, however, she adds that she fears the 30% withholding tax may be imposed against her “if her business partner,” who is now her husband, and with whom she has joint accounts, “opts to become a recalcitrant account holder.” ¶
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L. Marc Zell states that he is a practicing attorney and a citizen of both the United States and Israel who lives in Israel. He alleges that: (1) he and his firm have been required by Israeli banking institutions to complete IRS withholding forms for individuals whose funds his firm holds in trust, regardless of whether the forms are legally required, causing certain clients to leave his firm, ¶¶ 79 & 81; (2) Israeli banks have required his firm to close accounts, refused to open others, and requested conduct contrary to banking regulations, ¶¶ 79-80; and, (3) the compelled disclosure of his fiduciary relationship with clients impinges on the attorney-client relationship, ¶ 82. On request of clients, who claim their rights are violated by FATCA, Zell “has decided not to comply with the FATCA disclosure requirements whenever that alternative exists.” ¶ 83. He fears that the FATCA 30% withholding tax on pass-through payments to recalcitrant account holders could be imposed due to his refusal to provide identifying information about a client to an Israeli bank. ¶ He also has refused to provide information to his own bank and “fears that he will be classified as a recalcitrant account holder,” ¶ 85. Like the other Plaintiffs, he does not want his financial information disclosed, ¶ 86, and fears an FBAR penalty if the IRS determines that he willfully failed to file an FBAR, ¶ 87.
The majority of Zell’s allegations concern conduct of Israeli banks and his belief that the actions have been unfair to him or his clients. But conduct of third parties (even if related to the banks’ compliance with FATCA) does not confer standing to bring suit against Defendants. See, e.g., Ammex Inc. v. United States, 367 F.3d 530, 533 (6th Cir. 2004). Nor may Zell seek redress on behalf of third parties who have allegedly suffered harm, including unidentified clients. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 499 (1975). The third parties who have allegedly suffered harm are not plaintiffs, thus, alleged harm to them does not provide a basis for Zell to maintain this suit. The contention that disclosure of the identity of clients for whom Zell holds funds in trust violates the attorney-client privilege is also without merit. He gives no example of harm that has occurred or how he was harmed by disclosure of clients’ identities. He cannot raise the attorney-client privilege on his clients’ behalf, nor is the fact of representation privileged. See In re Special Sept. 1978 Grand Jury (II), 640 F.2d 49, 62 (7th Cir. 1980) (“[A]ttorney-client privilege belongs to the client alone[.]”); United States v. Robinson, 121 F.3d 971, 976 (5th Cir. 1997) (“The fact of representation . . . is generally not within the privilege.”). It is the fiduciary relationship, not the attorney-client relationship, that is the basis for the reporting requirement.
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“We begin, of course, with the presumption that the challenged statute”—FATCA—“is valid. Its wisdom is not the concern of the courts; if a challenged action does not violate the Constitution, it must be sustained[.]” INS v. Chadha, 426 U.S. 919, 944 (1983); see also National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius 132 S. Ct. 2566, 2594 (2012) (“‘[E]very reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.’” (quoting Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 648, 657 (1895))).
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Plaintiffs decry that U.S. citizens living in foreign countries are in this manner treated differently than U.S. citizens living in the United States. According to Plaintiffs, the federal government has no legitimate interest in knowing the amount of any income, gain, loss, deduction, or credit recognized on a foreign account, whether a foreign account was opened or closed during the year, or the balance of a foreign account.
Plaintiffs contend that the “heightened reporting requirements” imposed by FATCA, the FBAR information-reporting requirements, and the Canadian, Swiss, Czech, and Israeli IGAs, violate the Fifth Amendment rights of “U.S. citizens living in a foreign country” and should be enjoined. See Complaint ¶¶ 124-130
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Plaintiffs’ equal protection claims fail because the statutes, regulations, and executive agreements that they challenge simply do not make the classification they assert. None of the challenged provisions single out U.S. citizens living abroad. Instead, all Americans with specified foreign bank accounts or assets are subject to reporting requirements, no matter where they happen to live. The provisions Plaintiffs contend discriminate against “U.S. citizens living abroad” actually apply to all U.S. taxpayers, no matter their residence.
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The distinction that the regulations do make is rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The U.S. tax system is based in large part on voluntary compliance: taxpayers are expected to disclose their sources of income annually on their federal tax returns. The information reporting required by FATCA is intended to address the use of offshore accounts to facilitate tax evasion, and to strengthen the integrity of the voluntary compliance system by placing U.S. taxpayers that have access to offshore investment opportunities in an equal position with U.S. taxpayers that invest within the United States. Third party information reporting is an important tool used by the IRS to close the tax gap between taxes due and taxes paid. The knowledge that financial institutions will also be disclosing information about an account encourages individuals to properly disclose their income on their tax returns. See Leandra Lederman, Statutory Speed Bumps: The Roles Third Parties Play in Tax Compliance, 60 STAN. L. REV. 695, 711 (2007).
Unlike most countries, U.S. taxpayers are subject to tax on their worldwide income, and their investments have become increasingly global in scope. Absent the FATCA reporting by FFIs, some U.S. taxpayers may attempt to evade U.S. tax by hiding money in offshore accounts where, prior to FATCA, they were not subject to automatic reporting to the IRS by FFIs. The information required to be reported, including payments made or credited to the account and the balance or value of the account is to assist the IRS in determining previously unreported income and the value of such information is based on experience from the DOJ prosecution of offshore tax evasion. See Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations bipartisan report on “Offshore Tax Evasion: The Effort to Collect Unpaid Taxes on Billions in Hidden Offshore Accounts,” February 26, 2014; see also Cal. Bankers Ass’n v. Shultz, 416 U.S. 21, 29 (1974) (“when law enforcement personnel are confronted with the secret foreign bank account or the secret foreign financial institution they are placed in an impossible situation…they must subject themselves to time consuming and often times fruitless foreign legal process.”).
The FBAR reporting requirements, likewise, have a rational basis. As the Supreme Court noted in California Bankers, when Congress enacted the Bank Secrecy Act (which provides the statutory basis for the FBAR), it “recognized that the use of financial institutions, both domestic and foreign, in furtherance of activities designed to evade the regulatory mechanism of the United States, had markedly increased.” Id. at 38. The Government has a legitimate interest in collecting information about foreign accounts, including account balances held by U.S. citizens, for the same reason that it requires reporting of information on U.S.-based accounts. The information assists law enforcement and the IRS, among other things, in identifying unreported taxable income of U.S. taxpayers that is held in foreign accounts. Without FBAR reporting, the Government’s efforts to track financial crime and tax evasion would be hampered.
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In Count Six, Plaintiffs contend that the FBAR “Willfullness Penalty” is unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause. Plaintiffs decry that 26 U.S.C. § 5321 imposes a penalty of up to $100,000 or 50% of the balance of the account at the time of the violation, whichever is greater, for failures to file an FBAR as required by 26 U.S.C. § 5314 (the FBAR “Willfulness Penalty”). 31 U.S.C. § 5321(b)(5)(C)(i). 31
Plaintiffs allege the Willfulness Penalty is designed to punish and is therefore subject to the Excessive Fines Clause. Plaintiffs further allege the Willfulness Penalty is grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense.
Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment claims, however, are not ripe for adjudication because no withholding or FBAR penalty has been imposed against any Plaintiff . . .
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Plaintiffs have failed to establish that they are entitled to a preliminary injunction . . . The FATCA statute, the IGAs, and the FBAR requirements encourage compliance with tax laws, combat tax evasion,37 and deter the use of foreign accounts to engage in criminal activity. A preliminary injunction would harm these efforts and intrude upon the province of Congress and the President to determine how best to achieve these policy goals. Thus, Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction, ECF 8, is DENIED.
DONE and ORDERED in Dayton, Ohio, this Tuesday, September 29, 2015.
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For those U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents residing outside the U.S. who expected the Courts to be sympathetic to their legal arguments somehow invalidating Chapter 4/FATCA and the FBAR filing requirements under Title 31, they will surely be disappointed by the result.