Hort v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

Decision Date31 March 1941
Docket NumberNo. 517,517
Citation61 S.Ct. 757,85 L.Ed. 1168,313 U.S. 28
PartiesHORT v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Walter J. Rosston and Edwin Hort, both of New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Richard H. Demuth, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

We must determine whether the amount petitioner received as consideration for cancellation of a lease of realty in New York City was ordinary gross income as defined in § 22(a) of the Revenue Act of 1932, 47 Stat. 169, 178, 26 U.S.C.A. Int.Rev.Acts, page 487, and whether in any event, petitioner sustained a loss through cancellation of the lease which is recognized in § 23(e) of the same Act, 47 Stat. 169, 180, 26 U.S.C.A. Int.Rev.Acts, page 490.

Petitioner acquired the property, a lot and ten-story office building, by devise from his father in 1928. At the time he became owner, the premises were leased to a firm which had sublet the main floor to the Irving Trust Co. In 1927, five years before the head lease expired, the Irving Trust Co. and petitioner's father executed a contract in which the latter agreed to lease the main floor and basement to the former for a term of fifteen years at an annual rental of $25,000, the term to commence at the expiration of the head lease.

In 1933, the Irving Trust Co. found it unprofitable to maintain a branch in petitioner's building. After some negotiations, petitioner and the Trust Co. agreed to cancel the lease in consideration of a payment to petitioner of $140,000. Petitioner did not include this amount in gross income in his income tax return for 1933. On the contrary, he reported a loss of $21,494.75 on the theory that the amount he received as consideration for the cancellation was $21,494.75 less than the difference between the present value of the unmatured rental payments and the fair rental value of the main floor and basement for the unexpired term of the lease. He did not deduct this figure, however, because he reported other losses in excess of gross income.

The Commissioner included the entire $140,000 in gross income, disallowed the asserted loss, made certain other adjustments not material here, and assessed a deficiency. The Board of Tax Appeals affirmed. 39 B.T.A. 922. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed per curiam on the authority of Warren Service Corp. v. Helvering, 2 Cir., 110 F.2d 723. 2 Cir., 112 F.2d 167. Because of conflict with Commissioner v. Langwell Real Estate Corp., 7 Cir., 47 F.2d 841, we granted certiorari limited to the question whether, 'in computing net gain or loss for income tax purposes, a taxpayer (can) offset the value of the lease canceled against the consideration received by him for the cancellation'. 311 U.S. 641, 61 S.Ct. 174, 85 L.Ed. —-.

Petitioner apparently contends that the amount received for cancellation of the lease was capital rather than ordinary income and that it was therefore subject to §§ 101, 111—113, and 117, 47 Stat. 169, 191, 195—202, 207, 26 U.S.C.A. Int.Rev.Acts, pages 504, 510—514, 524, which govern capital gains and losses. Further, he argues that even if that amount must be reported as ordinary gross income he sustained a loss which $23(e) authorizes him to deduct. We cannot agree.

The amount received by petitioner for cancellation of the lease must be included in his gross income in its entirety. Section 22(a), copied in the margin,1 expressly defines gross income to include 'gains, profits, and income derived from * * * rent, * * * or gains or profits and income from any source whatever'. Plainly this definition reached the rent paid prior to cancellation just as it would have embraced subsequent payments if the lease had never been canceled. It would have included a prepayment of the discounted value of unmatured rental payments whether received at the inception of the lease or at any time thereafter. Similarly, it would have extended to the proceeds of a suit to recover damages had the Irving Trust Co. breached the lease in- stead of concluding a settlement. Compare United States v. Safety Car Heating Co., 297 U.S. 88, 56 S.Ct. 353, 80 L.Ed. 500; Burnet v. Sanford & Brooks Co., 282 U.S. 359, 51 S.Ct. 150, 75 L.Ed. 383. That the amount petitioner received resulted from negotiations ending in cancellation of the lease rather than from a suit to enforce it cannot alter the fact that basically the payment was merely a substitute for the rent reserved in the lease. So far as the application of $ 22(a) is concerned, it is immaterial that petitioner chose to accept an amount less than the strict present value of the unmatured rental payments rather than to engage in litigation, possibly uncertain and expensive.

The consideration received for cancellation of the lease was not a return of capital. We assume that the lease was 'property', whatever that signifies abstractly. Presumably the bond in Helvering v. Horst, 311 U.S. 112, 61 S.Ct. 144, 85 L.Ed. 75, 131 A.L.R. 655, and the lease in Helvering v. Bruun, 309 U.S. 461, 60 S.Ct. 631, 84 L.Ed. 864, were also 'property', but the interest coupon in Horst and the building in Bruun nevertheless were held to constitute items of gross income. Simply because the lease was 'property' the amount received for its cancellation was not a return of capital, quite apart from the fact that 'property' and 'capital' are not necessarily synonymous in the Revenue Act of 1932 or in common usage. Where, as in this case, the disputed amount was essentially a substitute for rental payments which § 22(a) expressly characterizes as gross income, it must be regarded as ordinary income, and it is immaterial that for some purposes the contract creating the right to such payments may be treated as 'property' or 'capital'.

For the same reasons, that amount was not a return of capital because petitioner acquired the lease as an incident of the realty devised to him by his father. Theoretically, it might have been possible in such a case to value realty and lease separately and to label each a capital asset. Compare Maass v. Higgins, 312 U.S. 443, ...

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