Update: IRS, SEC, and Courts Diverge on Nature of Disgorgement
We previously wrote about decisions in SEC v. Graham from the Eleventh Circuit, __ F.3d __, No. 14-13562, 2016 WL 3033605 (11th Cir. May 26, 2016), and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, 21 F. Supp. 3d 1300 (S.D. Fla. 2014), considering whether disgorgement claims and other remedies were subject to five-year statute of limitations on actions “for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture” codified in 28 U.S.C. § 2462. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower court that the SEC’s disgorgement claims were time-barred, holding that “disgorgement” is synonymous with the plain meaning of “forfeiture” as it is used in the statute.
On May 6, 2016—shortly before the Eleventh Circuit issued its ruling in Graham—the IRS published non-precedential Chief Counsel Advice (“CCA”) on whether Internal Revenue Code Section 162(f) bars business expense deductions for disgorgement paid to the SEC of profits stemming from alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”). The disgorgement payments were part of a consent agreement between the SEC and the taxpayer, whose subsidiary allegedly falsified accounting records in order to conceal gifts it made to officials of a foreign government in exchange for business benefits. The taxpayer paid additional penalties for which it specifically agreed it would not seek a tax deduction in a parallel agreement with the DOJ relating to the criminal case against taxpayer’s subsidiary. The IRS concluded that the taxpayer’s disgorgement payments were not deductible business expenses under § 162(f), which prohibits deduction of any “fine or similar penalty paid to a government for the violation of any law” as a business expense.
As explained in the CCA, § 162(f) has been interpreted to bar deductions of civil penalties where they are “imposed for purposes of enforcing the law and as punishment,” but to allow deduction of civil penalties if “imposed to encourage prompt compliance with a requirement of the law”—for example, “late filing charges or other interest charges”—or “as a remedial measure to compensate another party.” Emphasizing that disgorgement in securities cases has deterrent aims, is a discretionary remedy, and might be required even if there is no injured party or in amounts exceeding actual losses, the IRS determined that whether disgorgement is primarily punitive or primarily compensatory for the purpose§ 162(f) is a fact-specific inquiry. Additionally, disgorgement imposed as a “discretionary equitable remedy” or where the proceeds are used to compensate victims might still be primarily punitive if it resembles forfeiture, which remains non-deductible even when used to compensate victims. With respect to the FCPA disgorgement the taxpayer had made to the SEC, the IRS concluded that its purpose was primarily punitive, and therefore it could not be deducted, because there was no evidence that it was meant to compensate the government or some other party for loss.
The SEC, the IRS, and the Eleventh Circuit have thus articulated three distinct characterizations of disgorgement. To avoid the limitations period of § 2462, the SEC’s position, adopted by the D.C. Circuit in Johnson v. SEC, 87 F.3d 484 (D.C. Cir. 1996), has been that disgorgement is a non-punitive equitable remedy. In the IRS’s view, disgorgement to the SEC may—but perhaps does not always—have a punitive purpose that bars tax deduction. The Eleventh Circuit has equated the statutory definitions of disgorgement and forfeiture, without commenting on whether disgorgement to the SEC is a “penalty.”