470 U.S. 869 (1985), 83-1274, Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Ward

Docket Nº:No. 83-1274
Citation:470 U.S. 869, 105 S.Ct. 1676, 84 L.Ed.2d 751, 53 U.S.L.W. 4399
Party Name:Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Ward
Case Date:March 26, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 869

470 U.S. 869 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 1676, 84 L.Ed.2d 751, 53 U.S.L.W. 4399

Metropolitan Life Ins. Co.

v.

Ward

No. 83-1274

United States Supreme Court

March 26, 1985

Argued October 31, 1984

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF ALABAMA

Syllabus

An Alabama statute imposes a substantially lower gross premiums tax rate on domestic insurance companies than on out-of-state (foreign) insurance companies. The statute permits foreign companies to reduce but not to eliminate the differential by investing in Alabama assets and securities. Appellant foreign insurance companies filed claims for refunds of taxes paid, contending that the statute, as applied to them, violated the Equal Protection Clause. The State Commissioner of Insurance denied the claims. On consolidated appeals to a county Circuit Court, in which several domestic companies intervened, the statute was upheld on summary judgment. The court ruled that the statute did not violate the Equal Protection Clause because, in addition to raising revenue, it served the legitimate state purposes of encouraging the formation of new insurance companies in Alabama and capital investment by foreign insurance companies in Alabama assets and securities, and that the distinction between foreign and domestic companies was rationally related to those purposes. The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the finding as to legitimate state purposes, but remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of rational relationship. On certiorari to the Alabama Supreme Court, appellants waived their rights to such an evidentiary hearing, and the court entered judgment for the State and the intervenors on appellants' equal protection challenge to the statute.

Held: The Alabama domestic preference tax statute violates the Equal Protection Clause as applied to appellants. Pp. 874-883.

(a) Under the circumstances of this case, promotion of domestic business by discriminating against nonresidents is not a legitimate state purpose. Western & Southern Life Ins. Co. v. State Board of Equalization of California, 451 U.S. 648, distinguished. Alabama's aim to promote domestic industry is purely and completely discriminatory, designed only to favor domestic industry within the State, no matter what the cost to foreign corporations also seeking to do business there. Alabama's purpose constitutes the very sort of parochial discrimination that the Equal Protection Clause was intended to prevent. A State may not constitutionally favor its own residents by taxing foreign corporations at a higher rate solely because of their residence. Although the McCarran-Ferguson Act exempts the insurance industry from Commerce Clause

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restrictions, it does not purport to limit the applicability of the Equal Protection Clause. Equal protection restraints are applicable even though the effect of the discrimination is similar to the type of burden with which the Commerce Clause also would be concerned. Pp. 876-882.

[105 S.Ct. 1678] (b) Nor is the encouragement of the investment in Alabama assets and securities a legitimate state purpose. Domestic insurers remain entitled to the more favorable tax rate regardless of whether they invest in Alabama assets. Moreover, since the investment incentive provision does not enable foreign insurers to eliminate the statute's discriminatory effect, it does not cure, but reaffirms, the impermissible classification based solely on residence. Pp. 882-883.

447 So.2d 142, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post p. 883.

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POWELL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether Alabama's domestic preference tax statute, Ala.Code §§ 27-4-4 and 27-4-5 (1975), that taxes out-of-state insurance companies at a higher rate than domestic insurance companies, violates the Equal Protection Clause.

I

Since 1955,1 the State of Alabama has granted a preference to its domestic insurance companies by imposing a substantially lower gross premiums tax rate on them than on out-of-state (foreign) companies.2 Under the current statutory provisions, foreign life insurance companies pay a tax on their gross premiums received from business conducted in Alabama at a rate of three percent, and foreign companies selling other types of insurance pay at a rate of four percent. Ala.Code § 27-4-4(a) (1975). All domestic insurance companies, in contrast, pay at a rate of only one percent on all types of insurance premiums. § 27-4-5(a).3 As a result, a foreign

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insurance company doing the same type and volume of business in Alabama as a domestic company generally will pay three to four times as much in gross premiums taxes as its domestic competitor.

Alabama's domestic preference tax statute does provide that foreign companies may reduce the differential in gross premiums taxes by investing prescribed percentages of their worldwide assets in specified Alabama assets and securities. § 27-4-4(b). By investing 10 percent or more of its total assets in Alabama investments, for example, a foreign life insurer may reduce its gross premiums tax rate from 3 to 2 percent. Similarly, a foreign property and casualty insurer may reduce its tax rate from four to three percent. Smaller tax reductions are available based on investment of smaller percentages of a company's assets. Ibid. Regardless of how much of its total assets a foreign company places in Alabama investments, it can never reduce its gross premiums tax rate to the same level paid by comparable domestic companies. These are entitled to the one-percent tax rate even if they have no investments in the State. Thus, the investment provision permits foreign insurance companies to reduce, but never to eliminate, the discrimination inherent in the domestic preference tax statute.

Appellants, a group of insurance companies incorporated outside of the State of Alabama, filed claims with the Alabama Department of Insurance in 1981, contending that the domestic preference tax statute, as applied to them, violated the Equal Protection Clause. They sought refunds of taxes paid for the tax years 1977 through 1980. The Commissioner of Insurance denied all of their claims on July 8, 1981.

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Appellants appealed to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, seeking a judgment declaring the statute to be unconstitutional and requiring the Commissioner to make the appropriate refunds. Several domestic companies intervened, and the court consolidated all of the appeals, selecting two claims as lead cases4 to be tried and binding on all claimants. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the court ruled on May 17, 1982, that the statute was constitutional. Relying on this Court's opinion in Western & Southern Life Ins. Co. v. State Board of Equalization of California, 451 U.S. 648 (1981), the court ruled that the Alabama statute did not violate the Equal Protection Clause because it served

at least two purposes, in addition to raising revenue: (1) encouraging the formation of new insurance companies in Alabama, and (2) encouraging capital investment by foreign insurance companies in the Alabama assets and governmental securities set forth in the statute.

App. to Juris. Statement 20a-21a. The court also found that the distinction the statute created between foreign and domestic companies was rationally related to those two purposes, and that the Alabama Legislature reasonably could have believed that the classification would have promoted those purposes. Id. at 21a.

After their motion for a new trial was denied, appellants appealed to the Court of Civil Appeals. It affirmed the Circuit Court's rulings as to the existence of the two legitimate state purposes, but remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of rational relationship, concluding that summary judgment was inappropriate on that question because the evidence was in conflict. 437 So.2d 535 (1983). Appellants petitioned the Supreme Court of Alabama for certiorari on the affirmance of the legitimate state purpose issue, and the State and the intervenors petitioned for review of

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the remand order. Appellants then waived their right to an evidentiary hearing on the issue whether the statute's classification bore a rational relationship to the two purposes found by the Circuit Court to be legitimate, and they requested a final determination of the legal issues with respect to their equal protection challenge to the statute. The Supreme Court denied certiorari on all claims. Appellants again waived their rights to an evidentiary hearing on the rational relationship issue and filed a joint motion with the other parties seeking rehearing and entry of a final judgment. The motion was granted, and judgment was entered for the State and the intervenors. 447 So.2d 142 (1983). This appeal followed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 466 U.S. 935 (1984). We now reverse.

III

Prior to our decision in Western & Southern Life Ins. Co. v. State Board of Equalization of California, supra, the jurisprudence of the applicability of the Equal Protection Clause to discriminatory tax statutes had a somewhat checkered history. Lincoln National Life Ins. Co. v. Read, 325 U.S. 673 (1945), held that so-called "privilege" taxes, required to be paid by [105 S.Ct. 1680] a foreign corporation before it would be permitted to do business within a State, were immune from equal protection challenge. That case stood in stark contrast, however, to the Court's prior decisions in Southern R. Co. v. Greene, 216 U.S. 400 (1910), and Hanover Fire Ins....

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