Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Sunnen

Citation92 L.Ed. 898,68 S.Ct. 715,333 U.S. 591
Decision Date05 April 1948
Docket NumberNo. 227,227
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 591-593 intentionally omitted] Mr. Arnold Raum, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. C. Powell Fordyce, of St. Louis, Mo., for respondent.

Mr. Justice MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The problem of the federal income tax consequences of intra-family assignments of income is brought into focus again by this case.

The stipulated facts concern the taxable years 1937 to 1941, inclusive, and may be summarized as follows:

The respondent taxpayer was an inventor-patentee and the president of the Sunnen Products Company, a corporation engaged in the manufacture and sale of patented grinding machines and other tools. He held 89% or 1,780 out of a total of 2,000 shares of the outstanding stock of the corporation. His wife held 200 shares, the vice-president held 18 shares and two others connected with the corporation held one share each. The corporation's board of directors consisted of five members, including the taxpayer and his wife. This board was elected annually by the stockholders. A vote of three directors was required to take binding action.

The taxpayer had entered into several non-exclusive agreements whereby the corporation was licensed to manufacture and sell various devices on which he had applied for patents.1 In return, the corporation agreed to pay to the taxpayer a royalty equal to 10% of the gross sales price of the devices. These agreements did not require the corporation to manufacture and sell any particular number of devices; nor did they specify a minimum amount of royalties. Each party had the right to cancel the licenses, without liability, by giving the other party written notice of either six months or a year.2 In the absence of cancellation, the agreements were to continue in force for ten years. The board of directors authorized the corporation to execute each of these contracts. No notices of cancellation were given. Two of the agreements were in effect throughout the taxable years 19371941, while the other two were in existence at all pertinent times after June 20, 1939.

The taxpayer at various times assigned to his wife all his right, title and interest in the various license contracts.3 She was given exclusive title and power over the royalties accruing under these contracts. All the assignments were without consideration and were made as gifts to the wife, those occurring after 1932 being reported by the taxpayer for gift tax purposes. The corporation was notified of each assignment.

In 1937 the corporation, pursuant to this arrangement, paid the wife royalties in the amount of $4,881.35 on the license contract made in 1928; no other royalties on that contract were paid during the taxable years in question. The wife received royalties from other contracts totaling $15,518,68 in 1937, $17,318.80 in 1938, $25,243.77 in 1939, $50,492,50 in 1940, and $149,002.78 in 1941. She included all these payments in her income tax returns for those years, and the taxes she paid thereon have not been refunded.

Relying upon its own prior decision in Estate of Dodson v. Commissioner, 1 T.C. 416,4 the Tax Court held that, with one exception, all the royalties paid to the wife from 1937 to 1941 were part of the taxable income of the taxpayer. 6 T.C. 431. The one exception concerned the royalties of $4,881.35 paid in 1937 under the 1928 agreement. In an earlier proceeding in 1935, the Board of Tax Appeals dealt with the taxpayer's income tax liability for the years 19291931; it concluded that he was not taxable on ther oyalties paid to his wife during those years under the 1928 license agreement. This prior determination by the Board caused the Tax Court to apply the principle of res judicata to bar a different result as to the royalties paid pursuant to the same agreement during 1937.

The Tax Court's decision was affirmed in part and reversed in part by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. 161 F.2d 171. Approval was given to the Tax Court's application of the res judicata doctrine to exclude from the taxpayer's income the $4,881.35 in royalties paid in 1937 under the 1928 agreement. But to the extent that the taxpayer had been held taxable on royalties paid to his wife during the taxable years of 1937-1941, the decision was reversed on the theory that such payments were not income to him. Because of that conclusion, the Circuit Court of Appeals found it unnecessary to decide the taxpayer's additional claim that the res judicata doctrine applied as well to the other royalties (those accruing apart from the 1928 agreement) paid in the taxable years. We then brought the case here on certiorari, the Commissioner alleging that the result below conflicts with prior decisions of this Court.

If the doctrine of res judicata is properly applicable so that all the royalty payments made during 1937-1941 are governed by the prior decision of the Board of Tax Appeals, the case may be disposed of without reaching the merits of the controversy. We accordingly cast our attention initially on that possibility, one that has been explored by the Tax Court and that has been fully argued by the parties before us.

It is first necessary to understand something of the recognized meaning and scope of res judicata, a doctrine judicial in origin. The general rule of res judicata applies to repetitious suits involving the same cause of action. It rests upon considerations of economy of judicial time and public policy favoring the establishment of certainty in legal relations. The rule provides that when a court of competent jurisdiction has entered a final judgment on the merits of a cause of action, the parties to the suit and their privies are thereafter bound 'not only as to every matter which was offered and received to sustain or defeat the claim or demand, but as to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose.' Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U.S. 351, 352, 24 L.Ed. 195. The judgment puts an end to the cause of action, which cannot again be brought into litigation between the parties upon any ground whatever, absent fraud or some other factor invalidating the judgment. See von Moschzisker, 'Res Judicata,' 38 Yale L.J. 299; Restatement of the Law of Judgments, §§ 47, 48.

But where the second action between the same parties is upon a different cause or demand, the principle of res judicata is applied much more narrowly. In this situation, the judgment in the prior action operates as an estoppel, not as to matters which might have been litigated and determined, but 'only as to those matters in issue or points controverted, upon the determination of which the finding or verdict was rendered.' Cromwell v. County of Sac, supra, 353 of 94 U.S. And see Russell v. Place, 94 U.S. 606, 24 L.Ed. 214; Southern Pacific R. Co.v . United States, 168 U.S. 1, 48, 18 S.Ct. 18, 27, 42 L.Ed. 355; Mercoid Corp. v. Mid-Continent Co., 320 U.S. 661, 671, 64 S.Ct. 268, 273, 88 L.Ed. 376. Since the cause of action involved in the second proceeding is not swallowed by the judgment in the prior suit, the parties are free to litigate points which were not at issue in the first proceeding, even though such points might have been tendered and decided at that time. But matters which were actually litigated and determined in the first proceeding cannot later be relitigated. Once a party has fought out a matter in litigation with the other party, he cannot later renew that duel. In this sense, res judicata is usually and more accurately referred to as estoppel by judgment, or collateral estoppel. See Restatement of the Law of Judgments, §§ 68, 69, 70; Scott, 'Collateral Estoppel by Judgment,' 56 Harv.L.Rev. 1.

These same concepts are applicable in the federal income tax field. Income taxes are levied on an annual basis. Each year is the origin of a new liability and of a separate cause of action. Thus if a claim of liability or non-liability relating to a particular tax year is litigated, a judgment on the merits is res judicata as to any subsequent proceeding involving the same claim and the same tax year. But if the later proceeding is concerned with a similar or unlike claim relating to a different tax year, the prior judgment acts as a collateral estoppel only as to those matters in the second proceeding which were actually presented and determined in the first suit. Col- lateral estoppel operates, in other words, to relieve the government and the taxpayer of 'redundant litigation of the identical question of the statute's application to the taxpayer's status.' Tait v. Western Md. R. Co., 289 U.S. 620, 624, 53 S.Ct. 706, 707, 77 L.Ed. 1405.

But collateral estoppel is a doctrine capable of being applied so as to avoid an undue disparity in the impact of income tax liability. A taxpayer may secure a judicial determination of a particular tax matter, a matter which may recur without substantial variation for some years thereafter. But a subsequent modification of the significant facts or a change or development in the controlling legal principles may make that determination obsolete or erroneous, at least for future purposes. If such a determination is then perpetuated each succeeding year as to the taxpayer involved in the original litigation, he is accorded a tax treatment different from that given to other taxpayers of the same class. As a result, there are inequalities in the administration of the revenue laws, discriminatory distinctions in tax liability, and a fertile basis for litigious confusion. Compare United States v. Stone & Downer Co., 274 U.S. 225, 235, 236, 47 S.Ct. 616, 71 L.Ed. 1013. Such consequences, however, are neither necessitated nor justified by the principle of collateral estoppel. That principle is designed to prevent repetitious lawsuits over matters which have once been decided and which have remained...

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