Aquilino v. United States

Decision Date20 June 1960
Docket NumberNo. 1,1
Citation80 S.Ct. 1277,363 U.S. 509,4 L.Ed.2d 1365
PartiesRobert AQUILINO and Joseph Spero, d/b/a Home Maintenance Company, and Colonial Sand and Stone Co., Inc., Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES of America, Ada Bottone, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Charles S. Friedman, Mount Vernon, for petitioners.

Mr. Howard A. Heffron, Washingon, D.C., for respondents.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we are asked to determine which of two competing claimants—the Federal Government by virtue of its tax lien, or certain petitioning subcontractors by virtue of their rights under Section 36—a of the New York Lien Law—is entitled to a sum of money owed under a general construction contract which was performed by the taxpayer.

The taxpayer, Fleetwood Paving Corporation, is a general contractor, which in July or August 1952, agreed to remodel a restaurant belonging to one Ada Bottone, herein referred to as the owner. The petitioners in August and September of that year entered into a subcontract with the taxpayer to supply labor and materials for the remodeling job. Shortly thereafter, the petitioners performed their obligations under the subcontract, but were not fully compensated by the contractor-taxpayer. Therefore on November 3, 1952, and on November 10, 1952, they filed notices of their mechanic's liens on the owner's realty in the office of the Clerk of Westchester County. In June 1953, they instituted actions in the New York Supreme Court to foreclose those liens.

By order of court, the owner was permitted to deposit with the Clerk of the court the $2,000 which she still owed under the original construction contract, and she was thereafter dismissed as a defendant in the action. The Government, having previously levied upon the owner's alleged indebtedness to the taxpayer, was permitted by the court to enter the case as a party defendant.

The Government asserted precedence over the claims of petitioners because of the following facts: The Director of Internal Revenue in December 1951 and March 1952 received assessment lists containing assessments against the taxpayer for unpaid federal withholding and social security taxes. On October 31, 1952, the Director filed a notice of federal tax liens in the office of the Clerk of the City of Mount Vernon, New York, which is the city wherein the taxpayer maintained its principal place of business. The Government claimed priority for its tax lien under Sections 3670 and 3671 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, 26 U.S.C.A. §§ 3670, 3671.1 The petitioners contended that since the contractor-taxpayer owed them more than $2,200 for labor and materials supplied to the job, under the New York Lien Law, Section 36—a,2 he had no property interest in the $2,200 which the owner still owed under the original remodeling contract.

The New York Supreme Court, Special Term, 140 N.Y.S.2d 355, granted petitioners' motion for summary judgment. The ground for the decision was that the Government's tax lien was ineffective since it had not been filed in the office designated by New York law for the filing of liens against realty. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, but on the ground that there was no debt due from the owner to the taxpayer to which the Government's lien could attach, 2 A.D.2d 747, 153 N.Y.S.2d 268. The court reasoned that the fund deposited by the owner was a substitute for her realty to which the mechanic's liens had attached; and that since the Government had no lien on the owner's property, it could have no lien on the fund substituted for that property. On appeal, the New York Court of Appeals held that the tax lien had taken effect prior to the petitioners' claims. It therefore reversed the lower New York courts, and ruled that the motion of the United States for summary judgment, rather than that of petitioners, should have been granted by the Supreme Court, Special Term. 3 N.Y.2d 511, 169 N.Y.S.2d 9, 146 N.E.2d 774. We granted certiorari, 359 U.S. 904, 79 S.Ct. 577, 3 L.Ed.2d 570.

The threshold question in this case, as in all cases where the Federal Government asserts its tax lien, is whether and to what extent the taxpayer had 'property' or 'rights to property' to which the tax lien could attach. In answering that question, both federal and state courts must look to state law, for it has long been the rule that 'in the application of a federal revenue act, state law controls in determining the nature of the legal interest which the taxpayer had in the property * * * sought to be reached by the statute.' 3 Morgan v. Commissioner, 309 U.S. 78, 82, 60 S.Ct. 424, 426, 84 L.Ed. 585. Thus, as we held only two Terms ago, Section 3670 'creates no property rights but merely attaches consequences, federally defined, to rights created under state law * * *.' United States v. Bess, 357 U.S. 51, 55, 78 S.Ct. 1054, 1057, 2 L.Ed.2d 1135.4 However, once the tax lien has attached to the taxpayer's state-created interests, we enter the province of federal law, which we have consistently held determines the priority of competing liens asserted against the taxpayer's 'property' or 'rights to property.'5 United States v. Vorreiter, 355 U.S. 15, 78 S.Ct. 19, 2 L.Ed.2d 23, reversing 134 Colo. 543, 307 P.2d 475; United States v. White Bear Brewing Co., 350 U.S. 1010, 76 S.Ct. 646, 100 L.Ed. 871, reversing 7 Cir., 227 F.2d 359; United States v. Colotta, 350 U.S. 808, 76 S.Ct. 82, 100 L.Ed. 725, reversing 224 Miss. 33, 79 So.2d 474, 86 So.2d 19; United States v. Scovil, 348 U.S. 218, 75 S.Ct. 244, 99 L.Ed. 271; United States v. Liverpool & London & Globe Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 215, 75 S.Ct. 247, 99 L.Ed. 268; United States v. Acri, 348 U.S. 211, 75 S.Ct. 239, 99 L.Ed. 264; United States v. City of New Britain, 347 U.S. 81, 74 S.Ct. 367, 98 L.Ed. 520; United States v. Gilbert Associates, 345 U.S. 361, 73 S.Ct. 701, 97 L.Ed. 1071; United States v. Security Trust & Sav. Bank, 340 U.S. 47, 71 S.Ct. 111, 95 L.Ed. 53; People of State of Illinois ex rel. Gordon v. Campbell, 329 U.S. 362, 67 S.Ct. 340, 91 L.Ed. 348; United States v. Waddill, Holland & Flinn, Inc., 323 U.S. 353, 65 S.Ct. 304, 89 L.Ed. 294. The application of state law in ascertaining the taxpayer's property rights and of federal law in reconciling the claims of competing lienors is based both upon logic and sound legal principles. This approach strikes a proper balance between the legitimate and traditional interest which the State has in creating and defining the property interest of its citizens, and the necessity for a uniform administration of the federal revenue statutes.

Petitioners contend that the New York Court of Appeals did not make its determination in the light of these settled principles. Relying upon the express lan- guage of Section 36—a of the Lien Law and upon a number of lower New York court decisions interpreting that statute, petitioners conclude that the money actually received by the contractor-taxpayer and his right to collect amounts still due under the construction contract constitute a direct trust for the benefit of subcontractors, and that the only property rights which the contractor-taxpayer has in the trust are bare legal title to any money actually received and a beneficial interest in so must of the trust proceeds as remain after the claims of subcontractors have been settled. The Government, on the other hand, claims that Section 36—a merely gives the subcontractors an ordinary lien, and that the contractor-taxpayer's property rights encompass the entire indebtedness of the owner under the construction contract.

This conflict should not be resolved by this Court, buy by the highest court of the State of New York. We cannot say from the opinion of the Court of Appeals that it has been satisfactorily resolved.6 We find no discussion in the court's opinion to indicate the nature of the property rights possessed by the taxpayer under state law. Nor is the application to be made of federal law clearly defined. We believe that it is in the interests of all concerned to have these questions decided by the state courts of New York. We therefore vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand the case to that court so that it may ascertain the property interests of the taxpayer under state law and then dispose of the case according to established principles of law.

Vacated and remanded.

Mr. Justice HARLAN, dissenting in Nos. 1 and 23.*

I am unable to subscribe to the reasoning which underlies the Court's disposition of these cases. By holding that they both turn on whether the taxpayer had 'property' under state law to which the Government's lien could attach, the Court has sanctioned a result consistently prohibited by us in a line of cases dealing with the priority of federal tax liens.1

In both cases, the delinquent taxpayer is a defaulting general contractor whose subcontractors remain unpaid. The Government's lien is asserted against the chose in action which the general contractor allegedly holds against the owner of the real estate on which the improvements were made, in respect of amounts due from the owner under the construction contract. If the subcontractors had sought to enforce their claims by imposing a lien on that chose in action, there is no question that the Government's lien would prevail. Under the decisions of this Court cited in note 1, supra, a federal tax lien asserted against a taxpayer's property under §§ 3670 and 3671 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, 26 U.S.C.A. §§ 3670, 36712 prevails over all other claims against such property except (1) those which attach and become 'choate' before the federal lien attaches, and (2) those specifically protected by § 3672(a), 26 U.S.C.A. § 3672(a).3 It is conceded that the interests of the subcontractors in the present cases are not protected by § 3672(a) and would not be considered choate under the applicable decisions. See United States v. Kings County Iron...

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