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DOJ Memorandum Clarifies Us Sentencing Guidelines’ Fine Reduction Determination Process

The US Sentencing Guidelines permit reductions of criminal penalties based on a business organization’s inability to pay criminal fines, but were unclear about how it would make such determinations. An October 8 memorandum issued by the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the DOJ helps to clarify the determination process.


On October 8, 2019, Brian A. Benczkowski, the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), issued a memorandum regarding inability-to-pay agreements for business organizations. The memorandum, entitled “Evaluating a Business Organization’s Inability to Pay a Criminal Fine or Criminal Monetary Penalty,” clarifies what factors DOJ’s Criminal Division considers when deciding whether to reduce criminal penalties based on a business organization’s inability to pay criminal fines. While the US Sentencing Guidelines already permit reductions under such circumstances, the Benczkowski memorandum clarifies DOJ’s position on certain things that were previously unclear in the Guidelines.

According to the memorandum, DOJ will continue to place the burden on business organizations to establish their inability to pay. To be considered, a company must complete DOJ’s Inability-to-Pay Questionnaire and respond to any follow-up inquiries. The Questionnaire requires that the company provide specific information, designed to assist Criminal Division lawyers in determining the company’s current assets, liabilities, anticipated cash flows and working capital needs. This information includes:

  • recent cash flow projections;

  • operating budgets and projections of future profitability;

  • capital budgets and projections of annual capital expenditures;

  • proposed changes in financing or capital structure;

  • acquisition or divestiture plans;

  • restructuring plans;

  • claims to insurers;

  • related or affiliated party transactions;

  • encumbered assets; and

  • liens on company assets.

As a note of interest, the questionnaire does not appear to include unencumbered assets. The failure to consider such assets may prove critical to companies in these circumstances. The memorandum emphasizes four factors (three of which are used to determine insolvency for fraudulent transfer purposes under state law in many jurisdictions) that Criminal Division lawyers must consider when deciding whether a business organization has demonstrated an inability to pay:

  1. The Company’s Current Financial Condition. In assessing the company’s current financial condition, DOJ will also scrutinize recent transactions. For example, if the company recently issued significant dividends, loans or other compensation to company ownership or management, the Criminal Division may take that into account when determining whether to reduce the company’s criminal fine.

  2. Alternative Sources of Capital. DOJ will also consider whether the company will be able to raise capital after the issuance of the fine, or whether the company is indemnified.

  3. Collateral Consequences. In addition, DOJ will consider whether the imposition of the fine will affect an organization’s ability to fund pension obligations or comply with federal laws. DOJ may also consider whether the fine will lead to layoffs, product shortages or significant disruptions in the competition of a market. In making this assessment, however, DOJ will not consider the adverse impact a fine may have on a company’s future growth, opportunities, dividends, executive compensation and bonuses, or hiring and retention.

  4. Victim Restitution Considerations. Finally, DOJ will look at whether the fine will affect an organization’s ability to make restitutions for crime victims.

Importantly, however, prosecutors still have significant flexibility. Indeed, the memorandum instructs that prosecutors “may, where appropriate, make an adjustment to a proposed criminal fine or monetary penalty based on the existence of significant adverse collateral consequences that, while severe, may not necessarily threaten the continued viability of the organization.” In these circumstances, prosecutors can adjust a penalty in an amount “not more than necessary” to avoid causing that collateral consequence.

The memorandum only applies to criminal fines, and only when the Criminal Division and defendants have reached “an agreement as to both the form of a corporate criminal resolution . . . and the monetary penalty that is appropriate based on the law and facts, irrespective of inability to pay considerations.” The memorandum, therefore, does not apply to ability-to-pay settlements in civil cases. Whether DOJ intends to issue guidance on civil settlements remains unclear. Also important to note is that such fines may not be discharged in bankruptcy, depending on the circumstances leading to the fine.

Practice Note

While the US Sentencing Guidelines have allowed reduced fines for corporate defendants that are genuinely unable to pay, it was unclear how DOJ would make such determinations. While the company retains the burden to seek a reduction in a criminal fine, the October 8 memorandum now provides a roadmap for the factors DOJ will consider in agreeing to such a reduction.

© 2020 McDermott Will & Emery


About this Author

Paul M. Thompson, McDermott Will Emery, White Collar Criminal Defense,

Paul M. Thompson is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and serves as the Partner-in-Charge of the Firm’s Washington, D.C., office.  Paul focuses his practice on white-collar criminal defense, congressional investigations and appellate matters.  Paul has been repeatedly recognized by the National Law Journal in its Appellate Hot List.  He was named as a “Star” in Benchmark Litigation 2015 for his work on white-collar matters and appeals. 

Paul is a former federal prosecutor.  He has represented clients...

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Jeffrey M. Reisner focuses his practice on corporate, litigation and reorganization and bankruptcy matters. He is the co-head of the Firm’s Restructuring and Insolvency Practice Group. With nearly 30 years of restructuring experience, Jeff represents formal and informal creditors’ committees, debtors, acquirers of assets, investors, independent directors, boards of directors, trustees, lenders and unsecured creditors in bankruptcy cases and out-of-court restructurings throughout the US. He also advises boards of directors and individual directors in complex circumstances.

Jeff has transaction experience in a wide range of industries, including defense contractors, automotive and trucking, restaurants and hospitality, convalescent and healthcare, energy, technology, building supply, sporting goods, textiles, lending, distribution, satellites, manufacturing, mortgages, payroll, aerospace, medical testing and devices, entertainment, communications technology, sporting goods and real estate. He is also experienced in counseling clients acquiring or disposing of assets from healthy and troubled companies in both traditional sales and auctions.

Jeff frequently leads boards of corporate investigations in an array of topics including alleged sexual misconduct and corporate and financial malfeasance. He also represents high-level executives in connection with separation, employment and related matters.

Jeff has also represented clients in both state and federal courts throughout the country involving claims of lender liability, avoidance actions, breach of fiduciary duty and other matters.

Tony Maida Health Care Attorney McDermott WIll Law Firm

Tony Maida is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in the Firm’s New York office.  Tony has extensive experience in health care fraud and abuse and compliance issues, including the federal Anti-Kickback and Physician Self-Referral/Stark laws, false claims and overpayments, and government investigations.    He works closely with our health and white collar teams on criminal, civil, and administrative investigations and counseling clients on corporate transactions and compliance programs.

Tony previously served...

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Sarah Walters, Mcdermott Will Emergy, Trial Lawyer

Sarah Walters is an experienced trial lawyer who focuses her practice on white collar criminal defense, regulatory enforcement and compliance matters, and complex civil litigation. In addition to both criminal and civil trial work, Sarah has substantial experience conducting internal investigations and assists companies in developing compliance policies and training programs.

Before joining McDermott, Sarah served 10 years as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Boston US Attorney’s office, holding the position of Chief of the Economic...

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Kerri A. Lyman Counsel Orange County Corporate & Transactional  Restructuring & Insolvency

Kerri A. Lyman focuses her practice on bankruptcy matters, with an emphasis on reorganizations and creditors’ rights. She represents companies seeking to file Chapter 11 cases as well as creditors’ committees and individual creditors.

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