Dobson v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Collins Estate v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Harwick v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

Decision Date20 December 1943
Docket Number46,47,45,Nos. 44,s. 44
Citation320 U.S. 489,88 L.Ed. 248,64 S.Ct. 239
PartiesDOBSON v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE (two cases). COLLINS' ESTATE v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE. HARWICK v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. William L. Prosser, of Minneapolis, Minn., for petitioners.

Mr. Samuel H. Levy, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

These four cases were consolidated in the Court of Appeals. The facts of one will define the issue present in all.

The taxpayer, Collins, in 1929 purchased 300 shares of stock of the National City Bank of New York which carried certain beneficial interests in stock of the National City Company. The latter company was the seller and the transaction occurred in Minnesota. In 1930 Collins sold 100 shares, sustaining a deductible loss of $41,600.80, which was claimed on his return for that year and allowed. In 1931 he sold another 100 shares, sustaining a deductible loss of $28,163.78, which was claimed in his return and allowed. The remaining 100 shares he retained. He regarded the purchases and sales as closed and completed transactions.

In 1936 Collins learned that the stock had not been registered in compliance with the Minnesota Blue Sky Laws and learned of facts indicating that he had been induced to purchase by fraudulent representations. He filed suit against the seller alleging fraud and failure to register. He asked recission of the entire transaction and offered to return the proceeds of the stock, or an equivalent number of shares plus such interest and dividends as he had received. In 1939 the suit was settled, on a basis which gave him a net recovery of $45,150.63, of which $23,296.45 was allocable to the stock sold in 1930 and $6,454.18 allocable to that sold in 1931. In his return for 1939 he did not report as income any part of the recovery. Throughout that year adjustment of his 1930 and 1931 tax liability was barred by the statute of limitations.

The Commissioner adjusted Collins' 1939 gross income by adding as ordinary gain the recovery attributable to the shares sold, but not that portion of it attributable to the shares unsold. The recovery upon the shares sold was not, however, sufficient to make good the taxpayer's original investment in them. And if the amounts recovered had been added to the proceeds received in 1930 and 1931 they would not have altered Collins' income tax liability for those years, for even if the entire deductions claimed on account of these losses had been disallowed, the returns would still have shown net losses.

Collins sought a redetermination by the Board of Tax Appeals, now the Tax Court. He contended that the recovery of 1939 was in the nature of a return of capital from which he realized no gain and no income either actually or constructively, and that he had received no tax benefit from the loss deductions. In the alternative he argued that if the recovery could be called income at all it was taxable as capital gain. The Commissioner insisted that the entire recovery was taxable as ordinary gain and that it was immaterial whether the taxpayer had obtained any tax benefits from the loss deduction reported in prior years. The Tax Court sustained the taxpayer's contention that he had realized no taxable gain from the recovery.1

The Court of Appeals (133 F.2d 732, 735) concluded that the 'tax benefit theory' applied by the Tax Court 'seems to be an injunction into the law of an equitable principle, found neither in the statutes nor in the regulations.' Because the Tax Court's reasoning was not embodied in any statutory precept, the court held that the Tax Court was not authorized to resort to it in determining whether the recovery should be treated as income or return of capital. It held as matter of law that the recoveries were neither return of capital nor capital gain, but were ordinary income in the year received.2 Questions important to tax administration were involved, conflict was said to exist, and we granted certiorari.3

It is contended that the applicable statutes and regulations properly interpreted forbid the method of calculation followed by the Tax Court. If this were true, the Tax Court's decision would not be 'in accordance with law' and the Court would be empowered to modify or reverse it.4 Whether it is true is a clear-cut question of law and is for decision by the courts.

The court below thought that the Tax Court's decision 'evaded or ignored' the statute of limitation, the provision of the Regulations that 'expenses, liabilities, or deficit of one year cannot be used to reduce the income of a subsequent year,'5 and the principle that recognition of a capital loss presupposes some event of 'realization' which closes the transaction for good. We do not agree. The Tax Court has not attempted to revise liability for earlier years closed by the statute of limitation, nor used any expense, liability, or deficit of a prior year to reduce the income of a subsequent year. It went to prior years only to determine the nature of the recovery, whether return of capital or income. Nor has the Tax Court reopened any closed transaction; it was compelled to determine the very question whether such a recognition of loss had in fact taken place in the prior year as would necessitate calling the recovery in the taxable year income rather than return of capital.

The 1928 Act provides that 'the Board in redetermining a deficiency in respect of any taxable year shall consider such facts with relation to the taxes for other taxable years as may be necessary correctly to redetermine the amount of such deficiency * * *.'6 The Tax Court's inquiry as to past years was authorized if 'necessary correctly to redetermine' the deficiency. The Tax Court thought in this case that it was necessary; the Court of Appeals apparently thought it was not. This precipitates a question not raised by either counsel as to whether the court is empowered to revise the Tax Court's decision as 'not in accordance with law' because of such a difference of opinion.

With the 1926 Revenue Act, Congress promulgated, and at all times since has maintained, a limitation on the power of courts to review Board of Tax Appeals (now the Tax Court) determinations. '* * * such courts shall have power to affirm or, if the decision of the Board is not in accordance with law, to modify or to reverse the decision of the Board * * *.'7 However, even a casual survey of decisions in tax cases, now over 5,000 in number, will demonstrate that courts including this Court have not paid the scrupulous deference to the tax laws' admonitions of finality which they have to similar provisions in statutes relating to other tribunals.8 After thirty years of income tax history the volume of tax litigation necessary merely for statutory interpretation would seem due to subside. That it shows no sign of diminution suggests that many decisions have no value as precedents because they determine only fact questions peculiar to particular cases. Of course frequent amendment of the statute causes continuing uncertainty and litigation, but all too often amendments are themselves made necessary by court decisions. Increase of potential tax litigation due to more taxpayers and higher rates lends new importance to observance of statutory limitations on review of tax decisions. No other branch of the law touches human activities at so many points. It can never be made simple, but we can try to avoid making it needlessly complex.

It is more difficult to maintain sharp separation of court and administrative functions in tax than in other fields. One reason is that tax cases reach circuit courts of appeals from different sources and do not always call for observance of any administrative sphere of decision. Questions which the Tax Court considers at the instance of one taxpayer may be considered by many district courts at the instance of others.

The Tucker Act authorizes district courts, sitting without jury as courts of claims, to hear suits for recovery of taxes alleged to have been 'erroneously or illegally assessed or collected.'9 District courts also entertain common law actions against collectors to recover taxes erroneously demanded and paid under protest. Trial may be by jury, but waiver of jury is authorized10 and in tax cases jury frequently is waived. In such cases the findings of the court may be either special or general. The scope of review on appeal may be affected by the nature of the proceeding, the kind of findings, and whether the jury was waived under a particular statutory authorization or independently of it.11 The multiplicity and complexity of rules is such that often it is easier to review the whole case on the merits than to decide what part of it is reviewable and under what rule. The reports contain many cases in which the question is passed over without mention.

Another reason why courts have deferred less to the Tax Court than to other administrative tribunals is the man- ner in which the Tax Court finality was introduced into the law.

The courts have rather strictly observed limitations on their reviewing powers where the limitation came into existence simultaneously with their duty to review administrative action in new fields of regulation. But this was not the history of the tax law. Our modern income tax experience began with the Revenue Act of 1913. The World War soon brought high rates. The law was an innovation, its constitutional aspects were still being debated, interpretation was just beginning, and administrators were inexperienced. The Act provided no administrative review of the Commissioner's determinations. It did not alter the procedure followed under the Civil War income tax by which an aggrieved taxpayer could pay under protest and then sue the Collector to test the correctness of...

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