Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Gillette Motor Transport, Inc

Citation364 U.S. 130,4 L.Ed.2d 1617,80 S.Ct. 1497
Decision Date27 June 1960
Docket NumberNo. 359,359
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. Wayne G. Barnett, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Joseph A. Maun, St. Paul, Minn., for respondent.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a sum received by respondent from the United States as compensation for the temporary taking by the Government of its business facilities during World War II represented ordinary income or a capital gain. The issue involves the con- struction and application of s 117(j) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, 26 U.S.C.A. § 117(j).

In 1944, respondent was a common carrier of commodities by motor vehicle. On August 4, 1944, respondent's drivers struck, and it completely ceased to operate. Shortly thereafter, because of the need for respondent's facilities in the transportation of war materiel, the President ordered the Director of the Office of Defense Transportation to 'take possession and assume control of' them. The Director assumed possession and control as of August 12, and appointed a Federal Manager, who ordered respondent to resume normal operations. The Federal Manager also announced his intention to leave title to the properties in respondent and to interfere as little as possible in the management of them. Subject to certain orders given by the Federal Manager from time to time, respondent resumed normal operations and continued so to function until the termination of all possession and control by the Government on June 16, 1945.

Pursuant to an Act of Congress creating a Motor Carrier Claims Commission, 62 Stat. 1222, 49 U.S.C.A. § 305 note, respondent presented its claim for just compensation. The Government contended that there had been no 'taking' of respondent's property but only a regulation of it. The Commission, however, determined that by assuming actual possession and control or respondent's facilities, the United States had deprived respondent of the valuable right to determine freely what use was to be made of them. In ascertaining the fair market value of that right, the Commission found that one use to which respondent's facilities could have been put was to rent them out, and that therefore their rental value represented a fair measure of respondent's pecuniary loss. The Commission noted that in other cases of temporary takings, it has typically been held that the market value of what is taken is the sum which would be arrived at by a willing lessor and a willing lessee. Accordingly, it awarded, and the respondent received in 1952, the sum of $122,926.21, representing the fair rental value of its facilities from August 12, 1944, until June 16, 1945, plus $34,917.78, representing interest on the former sum, or a total of $157,843.99.

The Commission of Internal Revenue asserted that the total compensation award represented ordinary income to respondent in 1952. Respondent contended that it constituted an amount received upon an 'involuntary conversion' of property used in its trade or business and was therefore taxable as long-term capital gain pursuant to § 117(j) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939.* The Tax Court, adopting its opinion in Midwest Motor Express, Inc., 27 T.C. 167, affirmed 8 Cir., 251 F.2d 405, which involved substantially identical facts, held that the award represented ordinary income. The Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting, in this instance reversed. 265 F.2d 648. We granted certiorari because of the conflict between the decisions of the two Circuits. 361 U.S. 881, 80 S.Ct. 151, 4 L.Ed.2d 118.

Respondent stresses that the Motor Carrier Claims Commission, rejecting the Government's contention that only a regulation, rather than a taking, of its facilities had occurred, found that respondent had been deprived of property, and awarded compensation therefor. That is indeed true. But the fact that something taken by the Government is property compensable under the Fifth Amendment does not answer the entirely different question whether that thing comes within the capital-gains provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. Rather, it is necessary to determine the precise nature of the property taken. Here the Commission determined that what respondent had been deprived of, and what the Government was obligated to pay for, was the right to determine freely what use to make of its transportation facilities. The measure of compensation adopted reflected the nature of that property right. Given these facts, we turn to the statute.

Section 117(j), under which respondent claims, is an integral part of the statute's comprehensive treatment of capital gains and losses. Long-established principles govern the application of the more favorable tax rates to long-term capital gains: (1) There must be first, a 'capital asset,' and second, a 'sale or exchange' of that asset (§ 117(a)); (2) 'capital asset' is defined as 'property held by the taxpayer,' with certain exceptions not here relevant (§ 117(a)(1)); and (3) for purposes of calculating gain, the cost or other basis of the property (§ 113(b), 26 U.S.C.A. § 113(b)) must be subtracted from the amount realized on the sale or exchange (§ 111(a), 26 U.S.C.A. § 111(a)).

Section 117(j), added by the Revenue Act of 1942, effects no change in the nature of a capital asset. It accomplishes only two main objectives. First, it extends capital-gains treatment to real and depreciable personal property used in the trade or business, the type of property involved in this case. Second, it accords such treatment to involuntary conversions of both capital assets, strictly defined, and property used in the trade or business. Since the net effect of the first change is merely to remove one of the exclusions made to the definition of capital assets in § 117(a)(1), it seems evident that 'property used in the trade or business,' to be eligible for capital-gains treatment, must satisfy the same general criteria as govern the definition of capital assets. The second change was apparently required by the fact that this Court had given a narrow construction to the term 'sale or exchange.' See Helvering v. William Flaccus Oak Leather Co., 313 U.S. 247, 61 S.Ct. 878, 85 L.Ed. 1310. But that change similarly had no effect on the basic notion of what constitutes a capital asset.

While a capital asset is defined in § 117(a)(1) as 'property held by the taxpayer,' it is evident that not everything which can be called property in the ordinary sense and which is outside the statutory exclusions qualifies as a capital asset. This Court has long held that the term 'capital asset' is to be construed narrowly in accordance with the purpose of Congress to afford capital-gains treatment only in situations typically involving the realization of appreciation in value accrued over a substantial period of time, and thus to ameliorate the hardship of taxation of the entire gain in one year. Burnet v. Harmel, 287 U.S. 103, 106, 53 S.Ct. 74, 75, 77 L.Ed. 199. Thus the Court has held that an unexpired lease, Hort v. Commissioner, 313 U.S. 28, 61 S.Ct. 757, 85 L.Ed. 1168, corn futures, Corn Products Refining Co. v. Commissioner, 350 U.S. 46, 76 S.Ct. 20, 100 L.Ed. 29 and oil payment rights, ...

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