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United States v. Sheffield

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

October 1, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
ROBERTA SHEFFIELD, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 1:15-cr-00403-MHC-AJB-2

          Before TJOFLAT, JORDAN, and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.

          JORDAN, Circuit Judge.

         Roberta 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.

         The 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.

         We 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.").

         I

         At 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.

         Although 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 duplicative entries:

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 million.

D.E. 225 at 7.

         In 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.

         The 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, ...


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