Bruning v. United States

Decision Date23 March 1964
Docket NumberNo. 423,423
Citation11 L.Ed.2d 772,84 S.Ct. 906,376 U.S. 358
PartiesPaul F. BRUNING, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Ernest R. Mortenson, Pasadena, Cal., for petitioner.

Philip B. Heymann, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

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

The issue presented in this case is whether the United States is entitled to recover, out of assets acquired by a debtor after his adjudication of bankruptcy, post-petition interest on a tax assessment which (under § 17 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act, 30 Stat. 544, 550, as amended, 11 U.S.C. § 35) was not discharged in the bankruptcy proceedings. The essential facts are not in dispute. Petitioner incurred withholding and federal insurance contributions taxes during the fourth quarter of 1951 but failed to pay those taxes when due. In March 1952, an assessment of those taxes was made against petitioner. On July 6, 1953, petitioner filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy and was adjudicated a bankrupt in the Fed- eral District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. The District Director of Internal Revenue filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceedings for the assessed amount owed by petitioner, and the United States received a small distribution out of the assets of the bankruptcy estate. Petitioner was granted a discharge in bankruptcy in October 1953, and the case was closed in June 1954.

In 1957, petitioner filed claims for refund of income taxes paid for the years 1953 and 1954, which resulted in his being allowed a credit for income taxes and interest in respect of those years. On March 7, 1958, the Director of Internal Revenue applied the entire 1953 credit and art of the 1954 credit 1 to the balance of the assessment of the withholding and F.I.C.A. taxes owed for 1951, plus interest to date—including interest which had accrued during the period between the filing of petitioner's petition in bankruptcy (July 6, 1953) and the date of payment (March 7, 1958). This post-petition interest, which totals about $795, is the subject of the present controversy. Petitioner did not question the Director's right to collect from assets acquired by petitioner after bankruptcy the unpaid principal of the tax debt and the pre-petition interest. However, contending that he was not liable for interest accruing on the assessment after his petition in bankruptcy was filed, petitioner brought suit in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California for refund of that portion of the interest. The District Court held that petitioner's personal liability for post-petition interest on the unpaid taxes was not discharged by the bankruptcy proceedings, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Due to an apparent conflict between circuits2 and the potentially recurring nature of the question involved, we granted certiorari, 375 U.S. 920, 84 S.Ct. 264, 11 L.Ed. 164. We affirm the decision below.

Section 17 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act, 11 U.S.C. § 35, provides in relevant part:

'A discharge in bankruptcy shall release a bankrupt from all of his provable debts, whether allowable in full or in part, except such as (1) are due as a tax levied by the United States * * *.'

It is undisputed that, under § 17, petitioner remained personally liable after his discharge for that part of the principal amount of the tax debt and prepetition interest not satisfied out of the bankruptcy estate. The courts below held that, under § 17, petitioner also remained personally liable for post-petition interest on the tax debt, and we find no substantial reason to reverse that holding. Initially, one would assume that Congress, in providing that a certain type of debt should survive bankruptcy proceedings as a personal liability of the debtor, intended personal liability to continue as to the interest on that debt as well as to its principal amount. Thus, it has never been seriously suggested that a creditor whose claim is not provable against the trustee in bankruptcy loses his right to interest in a post-bankruptcy action brought against the debtor personally. In most situations, interest is considered to be the cost of the use of the amounts owing a creditor and an incentive to prompt repayment and, thus, an integral part of a continuing debt. Interest on a tax debt would seem to fit that description. Thus, logic and reason indicate that post-petition interest on a tax claim excepted from discharge by § 17 of the Act should be recoverable in a later action against the debtor personally, and there is no evidence of any congressional intent to the contrary

Petitioner suggests that the Government might have ignored the bankruptcy proceeding entirely and later brought suit upon its undischarged claim against petitioner personally and collected both principal and interest. But petitioner asserts that once the Government filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding, its rights became limited to the recovery of unpaid sums allowed by the trustee, not including post-petition interest. This argument is based on § 6873(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, which provides:

'Any portion of a claim for taxes allowed in * * * any proceeding under the Bankruptcy Act which is unpaid shall be paid by the taxpayer upon notice and demand from the Secretary or his delegate after the termination of such proceeding.'

We find no indication in the wording or history of § 6873(a) that the section was meant to limit the Government's right to continuing interest on an undischarged and unpaid tax liability. Nor is petitioner aided by the now-familiar principle that one main purpose of the Bankruptcy Act is to let the honest debtor begin his financial life anew. As the Court of Appeals noted, § 17 is not a compassionate section for debtors. Rather, it demonstrates congressional judgment that certain problems—e.g., those of financing...

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