Ghertler: Eleventh Circuit Holds Abuse of Trust Federal Sentencing Enhancement Does Not Apply Where Criminal Defendant Impersonated a Trusted Person

This past Friday the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in U.S. v. Ghertler, a federal criminal case. The Court held that Ghertler, who had impersonated corporate officials to obtain urgent cash transfers from large corporations, did not abuse a position of trust in perpetrating his frauds because he had no relationship of trust to abuse. For that reason, the abuse of trust sentencing enhancement at U.S.S.G. § 3B1.3 should not have applied.

In 2006 and 2007, Mr. Ghertler researched the names of corporate officers, then called the company and identified himself as an officer, usually the general counsel. He claimed that some urgent matter, such as settlement of a lawsuit, required an immediate cash transfer and provided instructions for distribution of the funds. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of wire fraud in 2008, admitting to defrauding the seven companies named in the indictment. He was sentenced to concurrent 185-month sentences.

One of Ghertler’s arguments on appeal was that the District Court should not have applied U.S.S.G. § 3B1.3, a two-level sentencing enhancement for abuse of a position of trust. The District Court recognized that Ghertler did not actually hold a position of trust, but based its decision on Application Note 3, which provides for application of the enhancement where “the defendant provides sufficient indicia to the victim that the defendant legitimately holds a position of private or public trust when, in fact, the defendant does not.”

The Court held that “[a] relationship of trust between the defendant and the victim is the sine qua non of the abuse-of-trust enhancement.” In this case, there was no relationship of trust between Ghertler and the victims to abuse. The Court looked to the history to Application Note 3, pointing out that the Commission adopted the Note to ensure that the enhancement would apply to defendants who entered into relationships of trust with victims based upon misrepresentations. The relationship of trust remains the touchstone of the abuse-of-trust analysis. Without such a relationship, the enhancement cannot be applied.

The opinion in Ghertler is available here.