Sentencing Panel Amends Guidelines for Mortgage Fraud

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Responding to a requirement in the Dodd-Frank Act that it review, and if appropriate, amend, the federal sentencing guidelines for mortgage fraud, the U.S. Sentencing Commission set forth on April 13, 2012, two new provisions that will affect sentencing for this type of crime.

Mortgage fraud became a significant issue in the recent financial crisis and the housing downturn, so the Commission’s changes are being closely watched in the financial services industry.

First, the Commission’s proposals, which will take effect on November 1, 2012, if not disapproved by Congress, add language to the “credits against loss” rule that affects the amount of loss to be considered for sentencing purposes in mortgage fraud cases. The determination of loss must be reduced by any money returned to the victim before the offense was detected and by the fair market value of any collateral that may not have been disposed of at the time of sentencing.

The problem is that often, if the collateral has not been disposed of by the time of sentencing, its fair market value may be hard to determine, and the absence of a uniform process for determining the value may result in disparities in sentencing.

The Commission decided that the value of the collateral should be determined as of the date on which the guilt of the defendant was established, and it established a rebuttable presumption that the most recent tax assessment value of the collateral constitutes a reasonable estimate of its fair market value. The commission said its intent is to provide a uniform practicable method for determining the fair market value of undisposed collateral while providing sufficient flexibility for courts to address differences among jurisdictions regarding how closely the most recent tax assessment tracks the fair market value.

Second, the Commission amended the application of an existing four-level increase in sentence if the offense involved specific types of financial harms such as jeopardizing the safety and soundness of a financial institution – such as making the institution insolvent, forcing it to reduce its benefits to pensioners or insureds, and the like.

The amendment adds as a new consideration whether one of the listed harms was likely to result from the offense, but did not in fact occur because of federal government intervention, such as a bailout. The Commission took the view that a defendant should not avoid the application of the four-level increase merely because the harm that was otherwise likely to result from the conduct did not occur because of fortuitous federal government intervention.

In some circumstances, this amendment could have the result of significantly increasing an offender’s sentence. We would expect prosecutors to argue that many interventions by the government, short of a fully announced “bailout,” should be taken into account and that sentences should be increased because of the “but-for” aspect of the defendant’s conduct: Had the government not stepped in, the defendant’s actions would have jeopardized a financial institution.