Ninth Circuit Reverses Tax Fraud Conviction Where Returns Were Not “Filed” With Internal Revenue Service

Yesterday the Ninth Circuit addressed the question of whether an individual can be convicted of filing false tax returns pursuant to 26 U.S.C. 7206(1) where the tax returns in question were tendered to an IRS agent during an audit, and were not filed with an IRS Service Center in the normal course. See United States v. Boitano, No. 14-10139 (slip opinion available here). The defendant (who was also an accountant) had been convicted following a jury trial of making a false statement under penalty of perjury on personal income tax returns, and he appealed his conviction to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion summarizes the pertinent facts as follows:

During the period relevant to this appeal, Boitano was a partner in Boitano, Sargent & Lilly, an accounting firm. His responsibilities included preparing tax returns and representing clients during IRS audits, but Boitano did not file his own income tax returns for the years 1991 to 2007.

The IRS undertook an examination in 1992/1993 and in 2004. Boitano still did not file any returns, and his case was referred to the IRS’s Special Enforcement Program.

In June 2009, Special Enforcement Program Agent Nick Connors requested a meeting with Boitano regarding his failure to file returns for 2001 through 2007. Connors and Boitano ultimately met three times. During the third meeting, Boitano handed Connors income tax returns for 2001, 2002, and 2003. The returns were signed under penalty of perjury by Boitano and his wife. Connors stamped the first page of the returns “Internal Revenue Service, SB/SE – Compliance Field, Sep 04, 2009, Area 7, San Francisco, CA,” and hand wrote “delinquent return secured by exam” on the first page of each. Per Boitano’s request, Connors copied the first page of the returns and gave the copies to Boitano as receipts.

The returns Boitano handed to Connors reported “estimated tax payments” that had not been made. The 2001 return reported a $26,000 payment, the 2002 return reported a $38,000 payment, and the 2003 return reported a $57,000 payment. In fact, the government calculated that Boitano owed the IRS $52,953.80 for 2001, $72,797.00 for 2002, and $104,545.94 for 2003.

Agent Connors quickly realized that the IRS did not have record of receiving the claimed estimated tax payments. Therefore, instead of sending the returns to the IRS service center for processing, he confronted Boitano with the discrepancy. According to Connors, Boitano “physically got a little pale and said that he was not sure why there [were] differences.” Soon thereafter, Connors sent Boitano a letter asking that he substantiate the estimated tax payments, or, if those estimates were not correct, that he identify the correct estimated amounts with “a written statement dated and signed explaining in detail why you believed the estimated payments to be the amounts reported on the delinquent returns filed on 9/4/09.” Boitano never responded.

Boitano was indicted and charged with three counts of making false statements under 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1). Section 7206(1) establishes that it is a felony for any person to “[w]illfully make[] and subscribe[] any return, statement, or other document, which contains or is verified by a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury, and which he does not believe to be true and correct as to every material matter.” Boitano was also charged with three misdemeanor counts of failure to file taxes under 26 U.S.C. § 7203. He pleaded guilty to the three misdemeanors, but proceeded to trial on the felony charges.

The defendant argued at trial that filing is an essential element of § 7206(1) and that his act of handing the returns to Agent Connors did not constitute “filing” within the applicable IRS statute and regulations. The government agreed that filing is an element of the charged offense, but argued the filing element was satisfied by the uncontradicted evidence showing that the defendant handed fraudulent returns to Agent Connors. The district court agreed with the government. Over objection, Connors was permitted to testify that the defendant “filed 2001, 2002, and 2003 delinquent tax returns with me.” Connors provided additional foundational testimony that the IRS “treat[ed] the[] returns as having been filed” on September 4, 2009, the day the defendant handed them to Connors.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion notes that the defendant’s opening appellate brief reiterates the position he argued unsuccessfully in the district court – that the evidence did not show the subject returns were “filed” within the meaning of the applicable IRS statutes and regulations when he handed them to Agent Connors. The court of appeals noted, however, that the government’s response brief contained an “unusual twist”:

Reversing its prior position, the government now concedes that “there is a single definition of ‘filing’ that applies in both the civil and criminal context,” and that “the record does not support that the returns here were filed.” The government agrees with Boitano that Connors’s testimony that the returns were “filed” when Boitano handed them to him was incorrect. The government’s new argument is that filing is not an element of the charged offense because, “by its own terms, [§] 7206(1) does not require the government to prove ‘filing’ as defined by the IRS regulations to establish a violation of the statute.” The government reasons, “under a correct understanding of Section 7206(1), [Boitano’s] actions violated the statute by his completing a return, signing it, and taking actions by which he gave up any right of self-correction.” (Emphasis added.) Notably, the government concedes that if it had to prove the returns were filed within the meaning of the IRS regulations, then Boitano’s convictions must be reversed.

The Ninth Circuit quickly dispensed with the government’s new argument, concluding that binding precedent supported the defendant’s position:

Our court has long held that “filing” is an element of a § 7206(1) violation. In United States v. Hanson, we affirmed a conviction for making false statements in violation of § 7206(1) where the defendant “fil[ed] false IRS forms that reported payments [defendant] had never made and claimed a tax refund [defendant] was not due.” 2 F.3d 942, 944 (9th Cir. 1993). In so ruling, we stated that “[t]o prove a violation of § 7206(1), making false statements, the government must prove that the defendant (1) filed a return, statement, or other document that was false as to a material matter . . . .” Id. at 945.

The government cites numerous reasons for its new contention that § 7206(1) does not require filing, but it offers no intervening authority for its argument that it should only be required to show that Boitano gave up the right of selfcorrection. It argues: (1) the statute, by its own terms, does not require proof of filing; (2) the Supreme Court has not identified filing as an element of the offense; (3) interpreting the statute not to require filing makes sense because the statute is not limited in its scope to tax returns; (4) the statute’s legislative history does not establish that filing is an element of the offense; and (5) filing a document is one way, but not the only way, to satisfy the statute. We are bound, however, by Hanson’s plain and explicit identification of “filing” as an element of a § 7206(1) offense. Id. (“To prove a violation of § 7206(1) . . . the government must prove that the defendant (1) filed a return. . . .”); see also United States v. Tucker, 133 F.3d 1208, 1218 (9th Cir. 1998).

The Ninth Circuit concluded that because binding circuit precedent establishes that “filing” is an element of a conviction under § 7206(1), and the government conceded on appeal that the record does not support that the returns here were filed, the defendant’s felony convictions must be reversed.

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