California Federal Court First To Outline Factors Governing FIRREA Civil Penalty Awards

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On March 6, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California identified for the first time factors for courts to consider when assessing a civil penalty under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA). United States v. Menendez, No. CV 11-06313, 2013 WL 828926 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 6, 2013). The DOJ sued a real estate broker, alleging he committed bank fraud when he submitted a false certification on behalf of a homeowner to HUD in connection with the homeowner’s short sale. The DOJ claimed the certification was false because it represented that there were no hidden terms or special understandings with the buyer of the property, when in fact the broker himself, through a company he controlled, also was the buyer of the property and intended to immediately resell the property for a profit of nearly $40,000. Drawing upon principles applied by courts in other civil penalty contexts, the court considered eight factors to assess the civil penalty under FIRREA: (i) the good or bad faith of the defendant and the degree of scienter; (ii) the injury to the public and loss to other persons; (iii) the egregiousness of the violation; (iv) the isolated or repeated nature of the violation; (v) the defendant’s financial condition and ability to pay; (vi) the criminal fine that could be levied for the conduct; (vii) the amount of the defendant’s profit from the fraud; and (viii) the penalty range available under FIRREA.

In this case, the court found that the first three weighed in favor of a substantial civil penalty: (i) the broker acted with intent to defraud; (ii) HUD suffered a loss; and (iii) the broker’s bank fraud was egregious. The court found that the next two factors favored the broker: (iv) the admissible evidence reflected only a single instance of bank fraud, and (v) the broker recently received a discharge from bankruptcy court and had limited ability to pay. Finally, the court found that the civil penalty requested by the government — nearly $1.1 million — was excessive, considering that (vi) the amount of the criminal penalty for bank fraud was capped at $1 million, and the likely fine under the sentencing guidelines would have been “in the $20-30,000 range;” (vii) the broker’s profit was only approximately $40,000; and (viii) FIRREA precluded a penalty in excess of $1 million when the gain or loss was less than $1 million, as it was in this case. The court awarded a civil penalty of $40,000, an amount proportionate to the broker’s profit.