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Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Non-willful FBAR Penalty Case, A. Bittner, CA-5, 2021-2 USTC ¶50,242

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted a petition for certiorari in the case of A. Bittner, CA-5, 2021-2 USTC ¶50,242 . In Bittner, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that each failure to report a qualifying foreign account on the annual Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) constituted a separate reporting violation subject to penalty. This means that the penalty applies on a per-account basis, not a per-form basis. The Fifth Circuit disagreed with a Ninth Circuit panel that adopted a per-form interpretation ( J. Boyd, CA-9, 2021-1 USTC ¶50,112).

Background

U.S. citizens and residents must keep records and/or file reports when the person makes a transaction or maintains a relation for any person with a foreign financial agency ( 31 USC 5314). Each person with a financial interest in a financial account in a foreign country must report the relationship to the IRS for each year the relationship exists by providing specified information on and filing the FBAR. The FBAR generally must be filed by June 30 of each calendar year for foreign financial accounts over $10,000 maintained during the previous calendar year (31 C.F.R. §§1010.350, 1010.306).

If the person fails to file the FBAR, the IRS can impose a penalty of up to $10,000 for non-willful violations, unless the violation was due to reasonable cause. For a willful violation, the maximum penalty is the greater of $100,000 or 50 percent of (1) the amount of the transaction when a violation involves a transaction, or (2) the balance in the account at the time of the violation when a violation involves a failure to report the existence of an account. There is no reasonable cause exception for willful violations ( 31 USC 5321).

Fifth Circuit: FBAR Penalty Per Account

In A. Bittner, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the text, structure, history, and purpose of the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions showed that the “violation” of 31 USC 5314 contemplated by the 31 USC 5321 penalty was the failure to report a qualifying account, not the failure to file an FBAR. Therefore, the $10,000 penalty cap applied on a per-account basis, not a per-form basis.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with the government that the district court had erred in determining what constituted a “violation” under 31 USC 5314 by focusing on the regulations under section 5314 to the exclusion of section 5314 itself. Section 5314 does not create the obligation to file a single report, stated the Fifth Circuit, but instead gives the Treasury Secretary discretion to prescribe how to fulfill the statute’s requirement of reporting qualifying accounts.

The Fifth Circuit observed that by authorizing a penalty for any “violation of … any provision of section 5314,” as opposed to the regulations under section 5314, section 5314 “naturally reads” as referring to the statutory requirement to report each account, not the regulatory requirement to file FBARs in a particular manner. Further, the circuit court stated that the reasonable cause exception for non-willful violations was framed in terms of “the transaction” and “the account,” and thus it also “naturally reads” as excusing the failure to report a transaction or account, not the failure to file an FBAR.

Ninth Circuit: FBAR Penalty Per Form

In J. Boyd, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the IRS can impose only one non-willful penalty when an untimely but accurate FBAR is filed, regardless of the number of foreign financial accounts. The Ninth Circuit determined that the statutory and regulatory scheme under 31 USC 5314 authorizes a single non-willful penalty for the failure to file a timely FBAR, and that the taxpayer’s conduct in failing to timely file the FBAR amounted to one non-willful violation.

The Ninth Circuit was not persuaded by the government’s argument that, based on the statutory scheme as a whole and legislative intent, the penalty amount could be assessed on a per-account basis. The Ninth Circuit found nothing in the statute or regulations to suggest that the penalty could be calculated that way for a single failure to file a timely FBAR that is otherwise accurate. The Ninth Circuit presumed that Congress had purposely excluded the per-account language from the non-willful penalty provision because it had included such language in the previously-enacted willful penalty provision. Further, the inclusion of per-account language in the reasonable cause exception supported the view that Congress had intentionally omitted per-account language from the non-willful penalty provision.

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