United States v. Bittner, No. 20-40597 (5th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Bittner non-willfully failed to report his interests in foreign bank accounts on annual FBAR forms, as required by the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 (BSA), 31 U.S.C. 5314. The Act imposes no penalty for a non-willful violation if “such violation was due to reasonable cause.”The government assessed $2.72 million in civil penalties against him—$10,000 for each unreported account each year from 2007 to 2011. The district court found Bittner liable and denied his reasonable-cause defense but reduced the assessment to $50,000, holding that the $10,000 maximum penalty attaches to each failure to file an annual FBAR, not to each failure to report an account.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of Bittner’s reasonable-cause defense. Bittner did not exercise ordinary business care and prudence in failing to fulfill his reporting obligations. In assessing reasonable cause, the most important factor is the extent of the taxpayer’s effort to assess his proper liability. The court reversed with respect to the application of the $10,000 penalty. Each failure to report a qualifying foreign account constitutes a separate reporting violation subject to penalty. The penalty applies on a per-account, not a per-form, basis.