United States v. Cutler, No. 05-2516(L) (2d Cir. March 17, 2008) (Jacobs, Kearse, Pooler, CJJ)
In this case, the government successfully appealed the exceptionally lenient sentences that Judge Preska imposed on two defendants convicted of a multi-million dollar fraud. The circuit found that the sentences were both procedurally and substantively unreasonable, and remanded the case for resentencing.
James Cutler was the CFO of a holding company that owned hotels; Sanford Freedman was its general counsel. Together, they helped the company and its principals cheat a number of banks out of more than $100 million. In very brief, the scheme worked like this:
In the 1990’s, the holding company restructured its debt, and its principals executed deficiency notes that made them personally liable for those debts. Around the same time, they sold key assets of their company to another company for stock worth more than $100 million. Although they therefore had sufficient resources to meet the deficiency notes, they instead decided to invest that money in another venture, and to trick their creditors into settling for less than the balances due. They hid their assets, then approached the creditors and claimed that they did not have the resources to pay the notes. They also threatened to declare bankruptcy if the creditors did not enter into repayment agreements.
During these negotiations, defendant Freeman repeatedly made false claims about the principals’ supposed financial distress, even while completing paperwork for their new venture that indicated that each was worth more than $30 million. Freeman also assisted in creating a sham foreign investor whom he held out as willing to purchase the principals’ debts from the banks for pennies on the dollar. Cutler’s role was to appease those creditors who were unconvinced by Freeman’s representations by sending them false financial statements.
In the end, the banks capitulated, and lost $106 million, the difference between the balances on the notes and the amount they sold them for.
After a jury trial, Freedman was convicted of bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud, making false statements to banks, and perjury (for testifying falsely in a related bankruptcy proceeding). Cutler was likewise convicted of bank fraud and conspiracy, false statements, and several counts relating to a $29 million tax fraud (he helped the company’s principals hide their income).
Cutler’s Guideline range was 78-97 months. He moved for a downward departure under Application Note 10 to § 2F1.1, arguing that the loss overstated the seriousness of the offense, and under § 5H1.6, claiming extraordinary family circumstances.
The district court granted the motions, and went down by 15 levels. It knocked off 6 levels on its finding that the loss overstated the seriousness of Cutler’s role (although the court had refused to grant a role reduction under § 3B1.2), conduct and offense. The court also granted a 9-level departure for family circumstances in light of his children’s economic circumstances. These departures brought Cutler from level 28 to level 13, with a range of 12 to 18 months’ imprisonment.
Turning to the statutory considerations, the court again cited Cutler’s lower level of culpability with respect to the bank frauds (but not the tax fraud), the fact that he received “little, if any” direct compensation from the scheme, the need to provide restitution, and his family obligations. She sentenced him to one year and one day in prison. This was within the departure-generated Guideline range, but the judge also indicated that she would give the same sentence under the statute.
Freedman did even better. His Guideline range was 103 to 135. The court found that the loss overstated his culpability, and downwardly departed. It also granted a family circumstances departure because of his relationships with his mother-in-law and elderly, mentally retarded brother, and a § 5H1.4 departure due to his age (he was 69) and physical condition. In doing so, the court rejected the BOP’s repeated assurances that it could provide Freedman with adequate care.
The court did not fix an ultimate Guideline range. Instead, it relied solely on § 3553(a). Citing the departure grounds noted above, and the “humiliation” and loss of livelihood associated with Freeman’s prosecution, Judge Preska sentenced him to 3 years of probation.
The Circuit’s Ruling
The circuit identified numerous problems with the district court’s approach, and vacated both sentences.
With respect to Cutler, the circuit first rejected the notion that the loss amount overstated his role or level of culpability. Under § 1B1.3, Cutler was properly held accountable for all of the losses caused by him and his confederates. Here, the $106 million in actual loss was not just foreseeable, it was the explicit goal of the scheme. As far as the circuit was concerned, Judge Preska “misinterpreted the Guidelines,” made “an error of law,” and “clearly erred,” all at the same time. The circuit also noted that the Application Note 10 departure applies in cases where the loss figure is driven by intended loss, not actual loss. The circuit seemed deeply offended that the Cutler’s sentence was within the range that would apply to a $70,000 loss. It held that the “implicit finding that a fraud causing losses of more than $100,000,000 is no more serious than one causing losses of little more than $70,000” did not comply with § 3553(a)(2)(A)’s requirement of “just” punishment.
The court next rejected the district court’s finding that Cutler received only a small gain from the scheme. It first held that this is not a ground for a downward departure but also noted that, in any event, the $1.3 million that Cutler pocketed hardly constituted “little, if any, personal gain.”
The court next rejected the district court’s stated view that this type of fraud did not warrant a long sentence because, since imprisonment is itself a deterrent in white collar offenses, the length of the sentence is immaterial. Some of Cutler’s convictions related to tax fraud, and that there is a Guideline policy statement for tax cases that directly contradicts this view. While a court can disagree with a Guideline-based policy consideration, it has to give a sufficient reason for the disagreement, which the court here did not do.
The court was particularly skeptical of the family circumstances departure. Cutler’s children lived with his ex-wife and, while they would likely suffer hardship without his financial support, this case was not outside the “mainstream of family hardships.” More importantly, the circuit believed that there was evidence that Cutler would still be able to support his children while incarcerated if he wanted to. It turns out that he had used some of the proceeds from the scheme to purchase assets that he placed in his second wife’s name, out of reach of his ex-wife and the children: “That Cutler chose to put [assets] into his new wife’s name to provide for her, rather than leaving it in his own name to provide for his children, may be an exceptional circumstance, but it is surely not one that authorizes a downward departure.”
Finally, the court rejected the district court’s seemingly excessive reliance on the need for restitution, out of concern that this would “imply that virtually all defendants who are required to pay restitution in amounts exceeding their net worth should receive short prison terms.”
The circuit had similar qualms about Freedman’s sentence. First, it faulted the district court’s refusal to consider an obstruction of justice enhancement based on Freeman’s initial false statements to IRS investigators. Next, as with Cutler, the court disagreed with the district court’s belief that the loss amount overstated Freedman’s culpability, particularly given Freedman’s “pervasive” participation in the scheme, and his “multi-million-dollar” compensation. On this point, the circuit found a “clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence in the record as to the nature and pervasiveness of [Freedman’s] actions and his substantial financial interest in the success of the frauds.”
The appellate court also rejected the district court’s view that, given Freedman’s humiliation and disbarment, probation would be “just punishment for the offense.” Those consequences – not even “punishment,” in reality – were “hardly unusual,” and thus the district court’s reasoning risked creating unwarranted sentencing disparities.
As with Cutler, the court rejected the family circumstances departure. The disabled brother lived in an assisted living center, and they did not interact frequently in person. Moreover, there was another sibling nearby to help manage the brother’s affairs.
Lastly, the court rejected the downward departure based on Freedman’s age and health, concluding that the district judge made clearly erroneous assessments both of Freedman’s actual condition and of the BOP’s ability to care for him. “[W]e see no support in the record for the district court’s finding that the BOP could not or would not provide that care.”
In the end, for both defendants, given “the procedural errors, the clear factual errors, and the misinterpretations of the § 3553(a) factors” the lenient sentences here were “substantively unreasonable and constituted an abuse of discretion.”
In a short concurrence, Judge Pooler noted that, while she agreed that a remand was necessary, she believed that it was premature to conduct substantive reasonableness review because the lower court had not yet imposed a “procedurally adequate sentence.” Under Judge Pooler’s method, the district court should first be given an opportunity to correct the procedural errors. That sentence, if appealed, would then be subject to review for substantive reasonableness.
Is this the end of leniency in this circuit? It does not seem so. At least based on the facts as presented by the circuit, these two guys were particularly bad candidates for short sentences. Their conduct was unusually brazen, its consequences unusually serious, and their arguments for mitigation did not come close to outweighing the seriousness of the offense. Even under this decision, then, there is clearly still room for short prison sentences, or even probation, in white collar cases, where the equities genuinely support it.