United States v. Carlton

Decision Date13 June 1994
Docket Number921941
Citation129 L.Ed.2d 22,114 S.Ct. 2018,512 U.S. 26
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Jerry W. CARLTON
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus *

As adopted in October 1986, 26 U.S.C. § 2057 granted an estate tax deduction for half the proceeds of "any sale of employer securities by the executor of an estate" to "an employee stock ownership plan" (ESOP). In December 1986, respondent Carlton, acting as an executor, purchased shares in a corporation, sold them to that company's ESOP at a loss, and claimed a large § 2057 deduction on his estate tax return. In December 1987, § 2057 was amended to provide that, to qualify for the deduction, the securities sold to an ESOP must have been "directly owned" by the decedent "immediately before death." Because the amendment applied retroactively, as if it were incorporated in the original 1986 provision, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) disallowed Carlton's § 2057 deduction. The District Court entered summary judgment against him in his ensuing refund action, rejecting his contention that the amendment's retroactive application to his transactions violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that such application was rendered unduly harsh and oppressive, and therefore unconstitutional, by Carlton's lack of notice that § 2057 would be retroactively amended and by his reasonable reliance to his detriment on pre-amendment law.

Held: The 1987 amendment's retroactive application to Carlton's 1986 transactions does not violate due process. Under the applicable standard, a tax statute's retroactive application must be supported by a legitimate legislative purpose furthered by rational means. See, e.g., Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. v. R.A. Gray & Co., 467 U.S. 717, 729-730, 104 S.Ct. 2709, 2717-2718, 81 L.Ed.2d 601. Here, Congress' purpose in enacting the 1987 amendment was neither illegitimate nor arbitrary. Section 2057 was originally intended to create an incentive for stockholders to sell their companies to their employees, but the absence of a decedent-stock-ownership requirement resulted in the deduction's broad availability to virtually any estate, at an estimated loss to the Government of up to $7 billion in anticipated revenues. Thus, Congress undoubtedly intended the amendment to correct what it reasonably viewed as a mistake in the original provision. There is no plausible contention that it acted with an improper motive, and its decision to prevent the unanticipated revenue loss by denying the deduction to those who made purely tax-motivated stock transfers was not unreasonable. Moreover, the amendment's retroactive application is rationally related to its legitimate purpose, since Congress acted promptly in proposing the amendment within a few months of § 2057's original enactment and established a modest retroactivity period that extended only slightly longer than one year. The Court of Appeals' exclusive focus on the taxpayer's notice and reliance held § 2057 to an unduly strict standard. Pp. ____.

972 F.2d 1051 (CA9 1992), reversed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and STEVENS, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined.

Kent L. Jones, Washington, DC, for petitioner.

Russell G. Allen, Newport Beach, CA, for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1987, Congress amended a provision of the federal estate tax statute by limiting the availability of a recently added deduction for the proceeds of sales of stock to employee stock-ownership plans (ESOPs). Congress provided that the amendment would apply retroactively, as if incorporated in the original deduction provision, which had been adopted in October 1986. The question presented by this case is whether the retroactive application of the amendment violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

I

Congress effected major revisions of the Internal Revenue Code in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, 100 Stat. 2085. One of those revisions was the addition of a new estate tax provision applicable to any estate that filed a timely return after the date of the Act, October 22, 1986. The new provision, codified as 26 U.S.C. § 2057 (1982 ed., Supp. IV),1 granted a deduction for half the proceeds of "any sale of employer securities by the executor of an estate" to "an employee stock ownership plan." § 2057(b).2 In order to qualify for the deduction, the sale of securities had to be made "before the date on which the [estate tax] return . . . [was] required to be filed (including any extensions)." § 2057(c)(1).

Respondent Jerry W. Carlton, the executor of the will of Willametta K. Day, deceased, sought to utilize the § 2057 deduction. Day died on September 29, 1985. Her estate tax return was due December 29, 1986 (after Carlton had obtained a 6-month filing extension). On December 10, 1986, Carlton used estate funds to purchase 1.5 million shares of MCI Communications Corporation for $11,206,000, at an average price of $7.47 per share. Two days later, Carlton sold the MCI stock to the MCI ESOP for $10,575,000, at an average price of $7.05 per share. The total sale price thus was $631,000 less than the purchase price. When Carlton filed the estate tax return on December 29, 1986, he claimed a deduction under § 2057 of $5,287,000, for half the proceeds of the sale of the stock to the MCI ESOP. The deduction reduced the estate tax by $2,501,161. The parties have stipulated that Carlton engaged in the MCI stock transactions specifically to take advantage of the § 2057 deduction.

On January 5, 1987, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that, "[p]ending the enactment of clarifying legislation," it would treat the § 2057 deduction as available only to estates of decedents who owned the securities in question immediately before death. See IRS Notice 87-13, 1987-1 Cum.Bull. 432, 442. A bill to enact such an amendment to § 2057 was introduced in each chamber of Congress on February 26, 1987. See 133 Cong.Rec. 4145 and 4293 (1987).

On December 22, 1987, the amendment to § 2057 was enacted. As amended, the statute provided that, to qualify for the estate tax deduction, the securities sold to an ESOP must have been "directly owned" by the decedent "immediately before death." Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987, § 10411(a), 101 Stat. 1330-432.3 The 1987 amendment was made effective as if it had been contained in the statute as originally enacted in October 1986. § 10411(b).

The IRS disallowed the deduction claimed by Carlton under § 2057 on the ground that the MCI stock had not been owned by his decedent "immediately before death." Carlton paid the asserted estate tax deficiency, plus interest, filed a claim for refund, and instituted a refund action in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. He conceded that the estate did not qualify for the deduction under the 1987 amendment to § 2057. He argued, however, that retroactive application of the 1987 amendment to the estate's 1986 transactions violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The District Court rejected his argument and entered summary judgment in favor of the United States.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. 972 F.2d 1051 (1992). The majority considered two factors paramount in determining whether retroactive application of a tax violates due process: whether the taxpayer had actual or constructive notice that the tax statute would be retroactively amended, and whether the taxpayer reasonably relied to his detriment on pre-amendment law. The court concluded that both factors rendered retroactive application of the amendment in this case unduly harsh and oppressive and therefore unconstitutional. Judge Norris dissented. In his view, the 1987 amendment was within the wide latitude of congressional authority to legislate retroactively in regulating economic activity. We granted certiorari, --- U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 55, 126 L.Ed.2d 25 (1993).

II

This Court repeatedly has upheld retroactive tax legislation against a due process challenge. See, e.g., United States v. Hemme, 476 U.S. 558, 106 S.Ct. 2071, 90 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); United States v. Darusmont, 449 U.S. 292, 101 S.Ct. 549, 66 L.Ed.2d 513 (1981); Welch v. Henry, 305 U.S. 134, 59 S.Ct. 121, 83 L.Ed. 87 (1938); United States v. Hudson, 299 U.S. 498, 57 S.Ct. 309, 81 L.Ed. 370 (1937); Milliken v. United States, 283 U.S. 15, 51 S.Ct. 324, 75 L.Ed. 809 (1931); Cooper v. United States, 280 U.S. 409, 50 S.Ct. 164, 74 L.Ed. 516 (1930). Some of its decisions have stated that the validity of a retroactive tax provision under the Due Process Clause depends upon whether "retroactive application is so harsh and oppressive as to transgress the constitutional limitation." Welch v. Henry, 305 U.S., at 147, 59 S.Ct., at 126, quoted in United States v. Hemme, 476 U.S., at 568-569, 106 S.Ct., at 2077-2078. The "harsh and oppressive" formulation, however, "does not differ from the prohibition against arbitrary and irrational legislation" that applies generally to enactments in the sphere of economic policy. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. v. R.A. Gray & Co., 467 U.S. 717, 733, 104 S.Ct. 2709, 2719-2720, 81 L.Ed.2d 601 (1984). The due process standard to be applied to tax statutes with retroactive effect, therefore, is the same as that generally applicable to retroactive economic legislation:

"Provided that the retroactive application of a statute is supported by a legitimate legislative purpose furthered by rational means, judgments about the wisdom of such legislation remain within the exclusive province of the legislative and executive branches. . . .

"To be sure, . . . retroactive legislation does have to meet a...

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