352 U.S. 82 (1956), 25, Putnam v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

Docket Nº:No. 25
Citation:352 U.S. 82, 77 S.Ct. 175, 1 L.Ed.2d 144
Party Name:Putnam v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue
Case Date:December 03, 1956
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 82

352 U.S. 82 (1956)

77 S.Ct. 175, 1 L.Ed.2d 144

Putnam

v.

Commissioner of Internal Revenue

No. 25

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 3, 1956

Argued October 17, 1956

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In a business venture not connected with his law practice, petitioner, a lawyer, organized a corporation, supplied its capital, and financed its operations through advances and guaranties of its debts. He wound up the corporation's affairs and liquidated its assets, but did not terminate its corporate existence. Its assets were insufficient to pay its debts, and petitioner paid $9,005 of its debts in discharge of his obligation as guarantor.

Held: in computing petitioner's income tax, this $9,005 loss was a nonbusiness bad debt loss to be given short-term capital loss treatment under § 23(k)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, and it was not fully deductible under § 23(e)(2) as a loss "incurred in [a] transaction . . . for profit, though not connected with [his] trade or business." Pp. 83-93.

1. The loss sustained by a guarantor unable to recover from the debtor is by its very nature a loss from a bad debt to which the guarantor becomes subrogated upon discharging his liability as guarantor. Pp. 85-86.

2. There is no justification for consideration of petitioner's loss under § 23(e)(2) as an ordinary nonbusiness loss sustained in a transaction entered into for profit. As a loss attributable to a bad debt, it must be regarded as a bad debt loss, deductible as such or not at all. Spring City Co. v. Commissioner, 292 U.S. 182. Pp. 87-88.

3. Pollak v. Commissioner, 209 F.2d 57, Edwards v. Allen, 216 F.2d 794, and Cudlip v. Commissioner, 220 F.2d 565, turn upon erroneous premises. Pp. 88-90.

(a) A guarantor who pays a creditor in discharge of his obligation as guarantor of the debt of an insolvent does not voluntarily acquire a debt known by him to be worthless; he involuntarily suffers a loss on a bad debt. P. 88.

(b) A worthless new obligation does not arise in favor of a guarantor upon his payment to a creditor of an insolvent; he is subrogated to an existing debt which "becomes" worthless in his hands within the meaning of § 23(k). Pp. 88-89.

(c) Eckert v. Burnet, 283 U.S. 140, distinguished. Pp. 89-90.

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4. Application of § 23(k)(4) to the loss here involved is in accordance with the objectives sought to be achieved by Congress in providing short-term capital loss treatment for nonbusiness bad debts. Pp. 90-93.

224 F.2d 947 affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner, Max Putnam, in December, 1948, paid $9,005.21 to a Des Moines, Iowa, bank in discharge of his obligation as guarantor of the notes of Whitehouse Publishing Company. That corporation still had a corporate existence at the time of the payment, but had ceased doing business and had disposed of its assets eighteen months earlier. The question for decision is whether, in the joint income tax return filed by Putnam and his wife for 1948, Putnam's loss is fully deductible as a loss "incurred in (a) transaction . . . for profit, though not connected with (his) trade or business" within the meaning of § 23(e)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939,1 or whether it is nonbusiness bad debt within the

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meaning of § 23(k)(4) of the Code,2 and therefore deductible only as a short-term capital loss.

[77 S.Ct. 176] The Commissioner determined that the loss was a nonbusiness bad debt, to be given short-term capital loss treatment. The Tax Court3 and the Court of Appeals4 for the Eighth Circuit sustained his determination. Because of an alleged conflict with decisions of the Courts Appeals of other circuits,5 we granted certiorari.6

Putnam is a Des Moines lawyer who, in 1945, in a venture not connected with his law practice,7 organized Whitehouse Publishing Company with two others, a newspaperman and a labor leader, to publish a labor newspaper. Each incorporator received one-third of the issued capital stock, but Putnam supplied the property and cash with which the company started business. He also financed its operations, for the short time it was in business, through advances and guarantees of payment of salaries and debts.

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Just before the venture was abandoned, Putnam acquired the shares held by his fellow stockholders and in July, 1947, as sole stockholder, wound up its affairs and liquidated its assets. The proceeds of sale were insufficient to pay the full amount due to the Des Moines bank on two notes given by the corporation and guaranteed by Putnam for moneys borrowed in August, 1946, and March, 1947.

The familiar rule is that, instanter upon the payment by the guarantor of the debt, the debtor's obligation to the creditor becomes an obligation to the guarantor, not a new debt, but, by subrogation, the result of the shift of the original debt from the creditor to the guarantor who steps into the creditor's shoes.8 Thus, the loss sustained by the guarantor unable to recover from the debtor is by its very nature a loss from the worthlessness of a debt. This has been consistently recognized in the administrative and the judicial construction of the Internal Revenue laws9 which, until the decisions of the

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Courts of Appeals in conflict with the decision below, have always treated guarantors' losses as bad debt losses.10 The Congress recently confirmed this treatment in the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 by providing that a payment by a noncorporate taxpayer in discharge of his obligation as guarantor of certain noncorporate obligations "shall be treated as a debt."11

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There is, then, no justification or basis for consideration of Putnam's loss under the general loss provisions of § 23(e)(2), i.e., as an ordinary nonbusiness loss sustained in a transaction entered into for profit. Congress has legislated specially in the matter of deductions of nonbusiness bad debt losses, i.e., such a loss is deductible only as a short-term capital loss by virtue of the special limitation provisions contained in § 23(k)(4). The decision of this Court in Spring City Foundry Co. v. Commissioner, 292 U.S. 182, is apposite and controlling. There, it was held that a debt excluded from deduction under § 234(a)(5) of the Revenue Act of 1918 was not to be regarded as a loss deductible under § 234(a)(4). Chief Justice Hughes said for the Court:

Petitioner also claims the right of deduction under section 234(a)(4) of the Revenue Act of 1918 providing for the deduction of "losses sustained during the taxable year and not compensated for by insurance or otherwise." We agree with the decision below that this subdivision and the following subdivision (5) relating to debts are mutually exclusive. We so assumed, without deciding the point, in Lewellyn v. Electric Reduction Co., 275 U.S. 243, 246. The making of the specific provision as to debts indicates that these were to be considered as a special class, and that losses on debts were not to be regarded as falling under the preceding general provision. What was excluded from deduction under subdivision (5) cannot be regarded as allowed under subdivision (4). If subdivision (4) could be considered [77 S.Ct. 178] as ambiguous in this respect, the administrative construction which has been followed from the enactment of the statute -- that subdivision (4) did not refer to debts -- would be entitled to great weight. We see no reason for disturbing that construction.

292 U.S. at 189.

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Here also, the statutory scheme is to be understood as meaning that a loss attributable to the worthlessness of a debt shall be regarded as a bad debt loss, deductible as such or not at all.

The decisions of the Courts of Appeals in conflict with the decision below turn upon erroneous premises.12 It is said that the guarantor taxpayer who involuntarily acquires a worthless debt is in a position no different from the taxpayer who voluntarily acquires a debt known by him to be worthless. The latter is treated as having acquired no valid debt at all.13 The situations are not analogous or comparable. The taxpayer who voluntarily buys a debt with knowledge that he will not be paid is rightly considered not to have acquired a debt, but to have made a gratuity. In contrast, the guarantor pays the creditor in compliance with the obligation raised by the law from his contract of guaranty. His loss arises not because he is making a gift to the debtor, but because the latter is unable to reimburse him.

Next, it is assumed, at least in the Allen case, that a new obligation arises in favor of the guarantor upon his payment to the creditor. From that premise, it is argued that such a debt cannot "become" worthless, but is worthless from its origin, and so outside the scope of § 23(k). This misconceives the basis of the doctrine of subrogation, apart from the fact that, if it were true that the debt did not "become" worthless, the debt nevertheless would not be regarded as an ordinary loss under § 23(e). Spring City Foundry Co. v. Commissioner, supra. Under the doctrine of subrogation, payment by the guarantor, as we have seen, is treated not as creating a new debt and extinguishing the original debt, but as preserving the original debt and

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merely substituting the guarantor for the creditor. The reality of the situation is that the debt is an asset of full value in the creditor's hands because backed by the guaranty. The debtor is usually not able to reimburse the guarantor, and, in such cases, that value is lost at the instant that the guarantor pays the creditor. But that this instant is also the instant when the guarantor acquires the debt cannot obscure...

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