Justia Summary

The Bank Secrecy Act requires U.S. persons with financial interests in foreign accounts to file an “FBAR” annual Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts; 31 U.S.C. 5314 delineates legal duties while section 5321 outlines the penalties, with a maximum $10,000 penalty for non-willful violations. Bittner—a dual citizen of Romania and the U.S.—learned of his reporting obligations in 2011 and subsequently submitted reports covering 2007-2011. The government deemed Bittner’s late reports deficient because they did not address all accounts as to which Bittner had either signatory authority or a qualifying interest. Bittner filed corrected FBARs providing information for 61 accounts in 2007, 51 in 2008, 53 in 2009 and 2010, and 54 in 2011. The government asserted that non-willful penalties apply to each account not accurately or timely reported. Bittner’s reports collectively involved 272 accounts; the government calculated a $2.72 million penalty. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. The $10,000 maximum penalty for non-willful failure to file a compliant report accrues on a per-report, not a per-account, basis. Section 5314 does not address accounts or their number. An individual files a compliant report or does not. For cases involving willful violations, the statute tailors penalties to accounts. When one section of a statute includes language omitted from a neighboring section, the difference normally conveys a different meaning. The Act’s implementing regulations require individuals with fewer than 25 accounts to provide details about each account while individuals with 25 or more accounts do not need to list each account or provide account-specific details unless requested by the Secretary.