Nicholas v. United States, 650

Decision Date13 June 1966
Docket NumberNo. 650,650
Citation384 U.S. 678,16 L.Ed.2d 853,86 S.Ct. 1674
PartiesJohn NICHOLAS, Trustee of the Estate of Beachcomber Motel, Inc., Bankrupt, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

John H. Gunn, Miami, Fla., for petitioner.

C. Moxley Featherston, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether a superseding trustee in bankruptcy is liable for interest and penalties on federal taxes incurred by a debtor in possession during an arrangement proceeding under Chapter XI of the Bankruptcy Act. The facts are not in dispute.

On August 6, 1958, Beachcomber Motel, Inc., a Florida corporation operating a motel in Miami Beach, filed an original petition for an arrangement with its unsecured creditors under Chapter XI. Bankruptcy Act § 322, 11 U.S.C. § 722 (1964 ed.). During the pendency of the arrangement proceeding, the corporation was permitted to operate its business as a debtor in possession under the authority of the bankruptcy court. In the course of its business operations, the corporation withheld federal income taxes1 and social security taxes 2 from the wages paid to its employees and collected federal excise taxes on the receipts from its cabaret.3 Subsequently, the corporation was dispossessed of its property and the motel premises were closed.

Unable to proceed with a plan of arrangement with its creditors, the corporation filed a petition in bankruptcy on September 17, 1958, and was adjudged a bankrupt on the same date. Bankruptcy Act § 376(2), 11 U.S.C. § 776(2) (1964 ed.). On September 19, 1958, a trustee in bankruptcy, the petitioner in this case, was appointed. On October 31, 1958, the federal income taxes withheld, as well as the social security taxes and the cabaret taxes, were due to be paid. On January 31, 1959, the payroll tax imposed on employers by the Federal Unemployment Tax Act was due.4 The trustee in bankruptcy neither paid these taxes nor filed any of the returns required with respect to them. On April 11, 1963, the United States submitted an administrative expense statement in the bankruptcy proceeding, claiming as administrative expenses the principal of the taxes due, penalties assessed for the trustee's failure to file the returns for the taxes,5 and interest that had accumulated and would continue to accumulate on the taxes and penalties until they were paid.6

The referee in bankruptcy allowed the Government's claim for the principal of the taxes but disallowed the claims for penalties and interest.7 The referee's order was affirmed in all respects by the District Court. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of the District Court and allowed the claims for penalties and interest on the taxes. 5 Cir., 346 F.2d 32. Shortly after that decision, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reached the opposite result with respect to a similar claim by the Government for interest on taxes incurred during a Chapter XI proceeding,8 and we granted certiorari to resolve this conflict. 382 U.S. 971, 86 S.Ct. 541, 15 L.Ed.2d 464.

I.

It is a well-settled principle of American bankruptcy law that in cases of ordinary bankruptcy, the accumulation of interest on claims against a bankrupt estate is suspended as of the date the petition in bankruptcy is filed. Sexton v. Dreyfus, 219 U.S. 339, 31 S.Ct. 256, 55 L.Ed. 244.9 That rule, grounded in historical considerations of equity and administrative convenience, was specifically made applicable to the accumulation of interest on claims for taxes by the decision of this Court in City of New York v. Saper, 336 U.S. 328, 69 S.Ct. 554, 93 L.Ed. 710.10

The debts in Sexton, like the taxes in Saper, were incurred during the regular business operations of the taxpayer, prior to the invocation of any procedures under the Bankruptcy Act, whereas the taxes in the present case were incurred after a petition invoking Chapter XI of the Act had been filed. On the basis of that distinction, the Government contends that the taxes here in question were entitled to bear interest throughout the bankruptcy period. We draw no such conclusion from that distinction.

We believe that the decisions of this Court in Sexton and Saper, reflect the broad equitable principle that creditors should not be disadvantaged vis-a -vis one another by legal delays attributable solely to the time-consuming procedures inherent in the administration of the bankruptcy laws.11 In the context of interest-bearing debts, the equitable principle enunciated in Sexton and Saper rests at bottom on an awareness of the inequity that would result if, through the continuing accumulation of interest in the course of subsequent bankruptcy proceedings, obligations bearing relatively high rates of interest were permitted to absorb the assets of a bankrupt estate whose funds were already inadequate to pay the principal of the debts owed by the estate.12

To be sure, the amount of interest that accumulates on a debt incurred during a Chapter XI arrangement depends upon the duration of a proceeding that takes place under the direction and authority of the bankruptcy court. Bankruptcy Act §§ 342, 343, 11 U.S.C. §§ 742, 743 (1964 ed.). But interest claimed on such a debt does not arise through a 'delay' of the law in any meaningful sense. The underlying obligation of the debtor in possession is incurred as part of a judicial process of rehabilitation of the debtor that the pro- cedures of Chapter XI are designed to facilitate. Interest on a current Chapter XI obligation is therefore different in kind from interest claimed during the arrangement period on a debt incurred before the Chapter XI petition was filed. From the vantage point of pre-arrangement creditors, the panorama of a Chapter XI proceeding is intimately bound up with the intrusion of the bankruptcy law into the previously untrammelled relationship between a debtor and his creditors. For these creditors, the filing of the Chapter XI petition may legitimately be regarded as introducing the very sort of legal delay that bankruptcy courts, in denying claims for interest, have traditionally characterized as inequitable. On the other hand, from the vantage point of the creditor whose credit relationship arose during the Chapter XI proceeding itself, it is the subsequent filing of a petition in bankruptcy that marks the intervention of meaningful legal delays. The equitable rationale underlying our decisions in Sexton and Saper is therefore fully applicable to cases in which a Chapter XI proceeding is superseded by a liquidating bankruptcy.13

The principle that our past decisions thus establish is that the accumulation of interest on a debt must be suspended once an enterprise enters a period of bankruptcy administration beyond that in which the underlying interest-bearing obligation was incurred. In Saper, there were two relevant periods to be considered—the pre-petition period, before the petition in bankruptcy was filed, and the post-petition period, during the bankruptcy liquidation. The Court there upheld the accumulation of interest throughout the pre-petition period on taxes incurred during that period; it rejected only the claim for post-petition interest on the pre-petition taxes. By contrast, the circumstances of the present case commend a division into three periods—the pre-arrangement period, the arrangement period, and the liquidating bankruptcy period. A tax incurred within any one of these three periods would we think, be entitled to bear interest against the bankrupt estate until, but not beyond, the close of the period in which it was incurred. Thus, in a case concerning taxes incurred during the first period—that is, before the filing of a petition for a Chapter XI arrangement—the Court has summarily affirmed a judgment holding that the accumulation of interest must be suspended as of the date the Chapter XI petition was filed.14 Where, as in the present case, the taxes have been incurred in the Chapter XI proceeding itself, application of the principle enunciated in Sexton and Saper permits interest to accrue throughout the arrangement proceeding; the principle requires only that the accumulation of interest be suspended once a petition in bankruptcy is filed.

The allowance of interest on Chapter XI debts until the filing of a petition in bankruptcy promotes the availability of capital to a debtor in possession and enhances the likelihood of achieving the goal of the proceeding, the ultimate rehabilitation of the debtor.15 Disallowance of interest on Chapter XI debts might seriously hinder the availability of such funds and might in many cases foreclose the prospect of the debtor's recovery.16 No such significant detriment to the viability of a Chapter XI proceeding is imposed by the suspension of interest once the proceeding enters the liquidating bankruptcy period, since potential creditors can readily adjust their interest rates to accommodate their prognosis of the particular debtor's chances of rehabilitation.

The division of the proceedings in the present case into three separate periods defining the permissible accumulation of interest is supported by the threefold hierachy of priorities for tax claims under the Bankruptcy Act. Taxes incurred in the pre-arrangement period must be content with a fourth priority under § 64a(4) of the Bankruptcy Act.17 On the other hand, taxes incurred during the arrangement period are expenses of the Chapter XI proceedings and are therefore technically a part of the first priority under § 64a(1).18 The final sentence of that section, however, subordinates arrangement expenses within that priority to the expenses of the superseding bankruptcy administration. Tax claims incurred during Chapter XI proceedings are therefore in fact junior to claims for expenses incurred in subsequent bankruptcy proceedings. The suspension of interest on taxes incurred during...

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