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Gordon v. United States

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Bloomberg Law

Brief Fact Summary.

The Defendant partners were convicted of violating a law prohibiting the sale of items on credit as a result of an employee’s sale of sewing machines without the requisite down payment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

An Employer is chargeable with willfulness or guilty knowledge of employee who violates law in the course of performing his job.


The Defendants, as partners in a business, were convicted for violating a law against selling items on credit based on the actions taken by an employee in selling sewing machines without requisite down payment. The trial court instructed the jury that the Defendants could be charged with willfulness or guilty knowledge of an employee who violates the law.


Is an employer chargeable with the willfulness or guilty knowledge of an employee who violates the law in the course of performing his business responsibilities?


Yes. Affirmed. The court’s instruction to the jury did not remove the element of willfulness from the offense. Rather, it instructed that the Defendants, as employers, were chargeable with the willfulness of its employees in violating the law. This is to merely hold the employer responsible for the knowledge of records he is required to keep and acts he is forbidden to do himself or through his agents and employees.


Employers were entitled to jury instructions stating they were not criminally liable for the acts of their employees, acting in the scope of their employment, without evidence they directed such activities or had knowledge of them. Invoking the rule of law used in holding corporations liable is inappropriate in this case, as a corporation can only act through its agents and employees. Here, a principal is being charged with the actual intent or knowledge of criminal acts committed by his employee.


This case applies the rule used in holding corporations criminally responsible for the acts of its agents to employer-employee relationships generally. The case was later reversed by the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) on the ground that the element of “willfulness” required by the law could not be transferred from the employee who committed the offense to the employer who did not.

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