from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 1:15-cr-00403-MHC-AJB-2
TJOFLAT, JORDAN, and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.
JORDAN, Circuit Judge.
Sheffield pled guilty to numerous criminal charges relating
to her involvement with others in a fraudulent tax credit
scheme. Generally speaking, the scheme involved the
submission of thousands of tax returns falsely claiming a $1,
000 tax credit. The returns were fraudulent because the
taxpayers had not incurred the $4, 000 in educational
expenses needed to qualify for the tax credit. Based on the
fraudulent returns, the IRS issued a $1, 000 refund to each
taxpayer for each tax credit claimed.
district court sentenced Ms. Sheffield to 37 months'
imprisonment followed by a term of supervised release. The
court fixed the amount of loss from the fraudulent tax credit
scheme at $3, 461, 638, and ordered Ms. Sheffield to pay
restitution in that amount jointly and severally with her
co-defendants. In this appeal, Ms. Sheffield contests only
the restitution order.
agree with Ms. Sheffield that the restitution order must be
set aside. The refunds issued by the IRS due to the
fraudulent tax credit scheme were all for the same exact
amount - $1, 000 - and the evidence the government submitted
in support of its restitution request was admittedly and
demonstrably inaccurate. Where, as here, the appropriate
restitution amount is definite and easy to calculate, the
government cannot satisfy its burden of proof by relying on
the oft-stated (but not always applicable) principle that
restitution can be based on a reasonable estimate of loss.
Cf. Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations 639
(Yale University Press 2006) (quoting Frank Robinson:
"Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades.").
sentencing, the government bore the burden of demonstrating
the loss sustained by the IRS by a preponderance of the
evidence. See 18 U.S.C. § 3664(e); United
States v. Baldwin, 774 F.3d 711, 728 (11th Cir. 2014).
Without objection from Ms. Sheffield, the government
introduced a spreadsheet purportedly listing each fraudulent
tax return, along with the name of the taxpayer and the
amount of the tax credit refund issued by the IRS. According
to the spreadsheet, the loss from the tax credit scheme
totaled $3, 461, 638.
Ms. Sheffield did not object to the introduction of the
spreadsheet, she argued that the restitution amount should be
lower than $3, 461, 638 because the spreadsheet contained
I believe that [the figure] included not just the actual loss
but some of the duplicates, like, some of the things were
counted twice. There were some entries that I reviewed that
appeared to be duplicates. So I'm not sure what the exact
restitution amount should be because that's, frankly, the
government's burden, but I believe it was lower than $3.4
D.E. 225 at 7.
response to Ms. Sheffield's objection, the government
asserted that "restitution does not have to be
calculated with absolute precision, " and maintained
that "the burden lies on the defendant, if this is an
inaccurate number, to point out why it's
inaccurate." Id. at 8. The government
acknowledged that the spreadsheet might contain duplicate
entries, and conceded that one taxpayer was listed twice for
the same tax year. But it again argued that "the burden
is on the defendant to point out what the restitution amount
should be if this is inaccurate." Id.
district court said that it could not tell whether there were
duplicate entries, and invited Ms. Sheffield to provide a
list of the entries she believed were duplicative. It also
noted that, "unless Ms. Sheffield hits the lottery
sometime between now and the end of her life, the odds of her
and her co-defendants paying this money back are below
slim." Id. at 9. When Ms. Sheffield said she
did not have such a list, ...