Article I of the Constitution, which grants legislative powers to the Congress, contains several provisions concerning federal taxes.
Article I, § 2, clause 3: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. ...
Article I, § 7, clause 1: All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
Article I, § 8, clause 1: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.
Article I, § 9, clause 4: No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.
The Constitution does not delegate to any other branch of the government any authority to impose taxes. In Article I, § 9, cl. 4, the Constitution refers to “direct” taxes, and restricts them to impositions upon states according to their population. The founding fathers regarded consumption taxes as “indirect taxes” and regarded them as superior to “direct taxes” in terms of fairness and for purposes of raising revenue. See Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 21.
An income tax is a “direct tax.” Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 158 U.S. 601, 630 (1895) (tax on income from property). Imposition of an income tax required an amendment to the Constitution. That came in 1913:
Amendment 16: The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
Read § 61(a) of the Code. Notice that it encompasses “all” income “from whatever source derived.” The language of the Code tracks that of the Sixteenth Amendment, and it has been noted many times that in taxing income, Congress exercised all of the constitutional power that it has to do so. However, that point left open the question of what exactly is “income, from whatever source derived.” Taxpayers have argued many times that the “income” that Congress wants to tax is beyond the scope of “income” as the term is used in the Sixteenth Amendment. See Ann K. Wooster, Annot., Application of 16th Amendment to U.S. Constitution – Taxation of Specific Types of Income, 40 A.L.R. Fed.2d 301 (2010).
We consider here two cases in which the Supreme Court undertook to provide a definition of “gross income, ” the phrase that Congress used in § 61(a). In Macomber, notice the justices’ differing views on the internal accounting of a corporation.
- What does the Court mean by “capitalization?”
- What does the Court mean by “surplus?”
- By way of review: a demurrer is a creature of code pleading and is the equivalent of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. In Macomber, taxpayer sued for a refund. The Commissioner (Eisner) demurred. The federal district court overruled the demurrer, so taxpayer-plaintiff prevailed. The Supreme Court affirmed.
Eisner v. Macomber, 252 U.S. 189 (1919).
MR. JUSTICE PITNEY delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether, by virtue of the Sixteenth Amendment, Congress has the power to tax, as income of the stockholder and without apportionment, a stock dividend made lawfully and in good faith against profits accumulated by the corporation since March 1, 1913.
It arises under the Revenue Act of September 8, 1916, 39 Stat. 756 et seq., which, in our opinion (notwithstanding a contention of the government that will be noticed), plainly evinces the purpose of Congress to tax stock dividends as income. 1
The facts, in outline, are as follows:
On January 1, 1916, the Standard Oil Company of California, a corporation of that state, out of an authorized capital stock of $100,000,000, had shares of stock outstanding, par value $100 each, amounting in round figures to $50,000,000. In addition, it had surplus and undivided profits invested in plant, property, and business and required for the purposes of the corporation, amounting to about $45,000,000, of which about $20,000,000 had been earned prior to March 1, 1913, the balance thereafter. In January, 1916, in order to readjust the capitalization, the board of directors decided to issue additional shares sufficient to constitute a stock dividend of 50 percent of the outstanding stock, and to transfer from surplus account to capital stock account an amount equivalent to such issue. ...
Defendant in error, being the owner of 2,200 shares of the old stock, received certificates for 1,100 additional shares, of which 18.07 percent, or 198.77 shares, par value $19,877, were treated as representing surplus earned between March 1, 1913, and January 1, 1916. She was called upon to pay, and did pay under protest, a tax imposed under the Revenue Act of 1916, based upon a supposed income of $19,877 because of the new shares, and, an appeal to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue having been disallowed, she brought action against the Collector to recover the tax. In her complaint, she alleged the above facts and contended that, in imposing such a tax the Revenue Act of 1916 violated article 1, § 2, cl. 3, and Article I, § 9, cl. 4, of the Constitution of the United States, requiring direct taxes to be apportioned according to population, and that the stock dividend was not income within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment. A general demurrer to the complaint was overruled upon the authority of Towne v. Eisner, 245 U. S. 418, and, defendant having failed to plead further, final judgment went against him. To review it, the present writ of error is prosecuted.
We are constrained to hold that the judgment of the district court must be affirmed. ...
In view of the importance of the matter, and the fact that Congress in the Revenue Act of 1916 declared (39 Stat. 757) that a “stock dividend shall be considered income, to the amount of its cash value,” we will deal at length with the constitutional question, incidentally testing the soundness of our previous conclusion.
The Sixteenth Amendment ... did not extend the taxing power to new subjects, but merely removed the necessity which otherwise might exist for an apportionment among the states of taxes laid on income. Brushaber v. Union Pacific R. Co., 240 U. S. 1, 240 U. S. 17-19; Stanton v. Baltic Mining Co., 240 U. S. 103, 240 U. S. 112 et seq.; Peck & Co. v. Lowe, 247 U. S. 165, 247 U. S. 172-173.
A proper regard for its genesis, as well as its very clear language, requires also that this amendment shall not be extended by loose construction, so as to repeal or modify, except as applied to income, those provisions of the Constitution that require an apportionment according to population for direct taxes upon property, real and personal. This limitation still has an appropriate and important function, and is not to be overridden by Congress or disregarded by the courts.
In order, therefore, that ... Article I of the Constitution may have proper force and effect, save only as modified by the amendment, and that the latter also may have proper effect, it becomes essential to distinguish between what is and what is not “income,” as the term is there used, and to apply the distinction, as cases arise, according to truth and substance, without regard to form. Congress cannot by any definition it may adopt conclude the matter, since it cannot by legislation alter the Constitution, from which alone it derives its power to legislate, and within whose limitations alone that power can be lawfully exercised.
The fundamental relation of “capital” to “income” has been much discussed by economists, the former being likened to the tree or the land, the latter to the fruit or the crop; the former depicted as a reservoir supplied from springs, the latter as the outlet stream, to be measured by its flow during a period of time. For the present purpose, we require only a clear definition of the term “income,” as used in common speech, in order to determine its meaning in the amendment, and, having formed also a correct judgment as to the nature of a stock dividend, we shall find it easy to decide the matter at issue.
After examining dictionaries in common use (Bouv. L.D.; Standard Dict.; Webster’s Internat. Dict.; Century Dict.), we find little to add to the succinct definition adopted in two cases arising under the Corporation Tax Act of 1909 (Stratton’s Independence v. Howbert, 231 U. S. 399, 231 U. S. 415; Doyle v. Mitchell Bros. Co., 247 U. S. 179, 247 U. S. 185), “Income may be defined as the gain derived from capital, from labor, or from both combined,” provided it be understood to include profit gained through a sale or conversion of capital assets ...
Brief as it is, it indicates the characteristic and distinguishing attribute of income essential for a correct solution of the present controversy. The government, although basing its argument upon the definition as quoted, placed chief emphasis upon the word “gain,” which was extended to include a variety of meanings; while the significance of the next three words was either overlooked or misconceived. “Derived from capital;” “the gain derived from capital,” etc. Here, we have the essential matter: not a gain accruing to capital; not a growth or increment of value in the investment; but a gain, a profit, something of exchangeable value, proceeding from the property, severed from the capital, however invested or employed, and coming in, being “derived” – that is, received or drawn by the recipient (the taxpayer) for his separate use, benefit and disposal – that is income derived from property. Nothing else answers the description.
The same fundamental conception is clearly set forth in the Sixteenth Amendment – “incomes, from whatever source derived” – the essential thought being expressed with a conciseness and lucidity entirely in harmony with the form and style of the Constitution.
Can a stock dividend, considering its essential character, be brought within the definition? To answer this, regard must be had to the nature of a corporation and the stockholder’s relation to it. We refer, of course, to a corporation such as the one in the case at bar, organized for profit, and having a capital stock divided into shares to which a nominal or par value is attributed.
Certainly the interest of the stockholder is a capital interest, and his certificates of stock are but the evidence of it. They state the number of shares to which he is entitled and indicate their par value and how the stock may be transferred. They show that he or his assignors, immediate or remote, have contributed capital to the enterprise, that he is entitled to a corresponding interest proportionate to the whole, entitled to have the property and business of the company devoted during the corporate existence to attainment of the common objects, entitled to vote at stockholders’ meetings, to receive dividends out of the corporation’s profits if and when declared, and, in the event of liquidation, to receive a proportionate share of the net assets, if any, remaining after paying creditors. Short of liquidation, or until dividend declared, he has no right to withdraw any part of either capital or profits from the common enterprise; on the contrary, his interest pertains not to any part, divisible or indivisible, but to the entire assets, business, and affairs of the company. Nor is it the interest of an owner in the assets themselves, since the corporation has full title, legal and equitable, to the whole. The stockholder has the right to have the assets employed in the enterprise, with the incidental rights mentioned; but, as stockholder, he has no right to withdraw, only the right to persist, subject to the risks of the enterprise, and looking only to dividends for his return. If he desires to dissociate himself from the company, he can do so only by disposing of his stock.
For bookkeeping purposes, the company acknowledges a liability in form to the stockholders equivalent to the aggregate par value of their stock, evidenced by a “capital stock account.” If profits have been made and not divided, they create additional bookkeeping liabilities under the head of “profit and loss,” “undivided profits,” “surplus account,” or the like. None of these, however, gives to the stockholders as a body, much less to any one of them, either a claim against the going concern for any particular sum of money or a right to any particular portion of the assets or any share in them unless or until the directors conclude that dividends shall be made and a part of the company’s assets segregated from the common fund for the purpose. The dividend normally is payable in money, under exceptional circumstances in some other divisible property, and when so paid, then only (excluding, of course, a possible advantageous sale of his stock or winding-up of the company) does the stockholder realize a profit or gain which becomes his separate property, and thus derive income from the capital that he or his predecessor has invested.
In the present case, the corporation had surplus and undivided profits invested in plant, property, and business, and required for the purposes of the corporation, amounting to about $45,000,000, in addition to outstanding capital stock of $50,000,000. In this, the case is not extraordinary. The profits of a corporation, as they appear upon the balance sheet at the end of the year, need not be in the form of money on hand in excess of what is required to meet current liabilities and finance current operations of the company. Often, especially in a growing business, only a part, sometimes a small part, of the year’s profits is in property capable of division, the remainder having been absorbed in the acquisition of increased plant, equipment, stock in trade, or accounts receivable, or in decrease of outstanding liabilities. When only a part is available for dividends, the balance of the year’s profits is carried to the credit of undivided profits, or surplus, or some other account having like significance. If thereafter the company finds itself in funds beyond current needs, it may declare dividends out of such surplus or undivided profits; otherwise it may go on for years conducting a successful business, but requiring more and more working capital because of the extension of its operations, and therefore unable to declare dividends approximating the amount of its profits. Thus, the surplus may increase until it equals or even exceeds the par value of the outstanding capital stock. This may be adjusted upon the books in the mode adopted in the case at bar – by declaring a “stock dividend.” This, however, is no more than a book adjustment, in essence – not a dividend, but rather the opposite; no part of the assets of the company is separated from the common fund, nothing distributed except paper certificates that evidence an antecedent increase in the value of the stockholder’s capital interest resulting from an accumulation of profits by the company, but profits so far absorbed in the business as to render it impracticable to separate them for withdrawal and distribution. In order to make the adjustment, a charge is made against surplus account with corresponding credit to capital stock account, equal to the proposed “dividend;” the new stock is issued against this and the certificates delivered to the existing stockholders in proportion to their previous holdings. This, however, is merely bookkeeping that does not affect the aggregate assets of the corporation or its outstanding liabilities; it affects only the form, not the essence, of the “liability” acknowledged by the corporation to its own shareholders, and this through a readjustment of accounts on one side of the balance sheet only, increasing “capital stock” at the expense of “surplus”; it does not alter the preexisting proportionate interest of any stockholder or increase the intrinsic value of his holding or of the aggregate holdings of the other stockholders as they stood before. The new certificates simply increase the number of the shares, with consequent dilution of the value of each share.
A “stock dividend” shows that the company’s accumulated profits have been capitalized, instead of distributed to the stockholders or retained as surplus available for distribution in money or in kind should opportunity offer. Far from being a realization of profits of the stockholder, it tends rather to postpone such realization, in that the fund represented by the new stock has been transferred from surplus to capital, and no longer is available for actual distribution.
The essential and controlling fact is that the stockholder has received nothing out of the company’s assets for his separate use and benefit; on the contrary, every dollar of his original investment, together with whatever accretions and accumulations have resulted from employment of his money and that of the other stockholders in the business of the company, still remains the property of the company, and subject to business risks which may result in wiping out the entire investment. Having regard to the very truth of the matter, to substance and not to form, he has received nothing that answers the definition of income within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment.
We are clear that not only does a stock dividend really take nothing from the property of the corporation and add nothing to that of the shareholder, but that the antecedent accumulation of profits evidenced thereby, while indicating that the shareholder is the richer because of an increase of his capital, at the same time shows he has not realized or received any income in the transaction.
It is said that a stockholder may sell the new shares acquired in the stock dividend, and so he may, if he can find a buyer. It is equally true that, if he does sell, and in doing so realizes a profit, such profit, like any other, is income, and, so far as it may have arisen since the Sixteenth Amendment, is taxable by Congress without apportionment. The same would be true were he to sell some of his original shares at a profit. But if a shareholder sells dividend stock, he necessarily disposes of a part of his capital interest, just as if he should sell a part of his old stock, either before or after the dividend. What he retains no longer entitles him to the same proportion of future dividends as before the sale. His part in the control of the company likewise is diminished. Thus, if one holding $60,000 out of a total $100,000 of the capital stock of a corporation should receive in common with other stockholders a 50 percent stock dividend, and should sell his part, he thereby would be reduced from a majority to a minority stockholder, having six-fifteenths instead of six-tenths of the total stock outstanding. A corresponding and proportionate decrease in capital interest and in voting power would befall a minority holder should he sell dividend stock, it being in the nature of things impossible for one to dispose of any part of such an issue without a proportionate disturbance of the distribution of the entire capital stock and a like diminution of the seller’s comparative voting power – that “right preservative of rights” in the control of a corporation. Yet, without selling, the shareholder, unless possessed of other resources, has not the wherewithal to pay an income tax upon the dividend stock. Nothing could more clearly show that to tax a stock dividend is to tax a capital increase, and not income, than this demonstration that, in the nature of things, it requires conversion of capital in order to pay the tax.
Conceding that the mere issue of a stock dividend makes the recipient no richer than before, the government nevertheless contends that the new certificates measure the extent to which the gains accumulated by the corporation have made him the richer. There are two insuperable difficulties with this. In the first place, it would depend upon how long he had held the stock whether the stock dividend indicated the extent to which he had been enriched by the operations of the company; unless he had held it throughout such operations, the measure would not hold true. Secondly, and more important for present purposes, enrichment through increase in value of capital investment is not income in any proper meaning of the term.
It is said there is no difference in principle between a simple stock dividend and a case where stockholders use money received as cash dividends to purchase additional stock contemporaneously issued by the corporation. But an actual cash dividend, with a real option to the stockholder either to keep the money for his own or to reinvest it in new shares, would be as far removed as possible from a true stock dividend, such as the one we have under consideration, where nothing of value is taken from the company’s assets and transferred to the individual ownership of the several stockholders and thereby subjected to their disposal.
Thus, from every point of view, we are brought irresistibly to the conclusion that neither under the Sixteenth Amendment nor otherwise has Congress power to tax without apportionment a true stock dividend made lawfully and in good faith, or the accumulated profits behind it, as income of the stockholder. The Revenue Act of 1916, insofar as it imposes a tax upon the stockholder because of such dividend, contravenes the provisions of Article I, § 2, cl. 3, and Article I, § 9, cl. 4, of the Constitution, and to this extent is invalid notwithstanding the Sixteenth Amendment.
Mr. Justice Holmes, dissenting. [omitted]
MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the following opinion, in which MR. JUSTICE CLARKE concurred.
Financiers, with the aid of lawyers, devised long ago two different methods by which a corporation can, without increasing its indebtedness, keep for corporate purposes accumulated profits, and yet, in effect, distribute these profits among its stockholders. One method is a simple one. The capital stock is increased; the new stock is paid up with the accumulated profits, and the new shares of paid-up stock are then distributed among the stockholders pro rata as a dividend. If the stockholder prefers ready money to increasing his holding of the stock in the company, he sells the new stock received as a dividend. The other method is slightly more complicated. Arrangements are made for an increase of stock to be offered to stockholders pro rata at par, and at the same time for the payment of a cash dividend equal to the amount which the stockholder will be required to pay to the company, if he avails himself of the right to subscribe for his pro rata of the new stock. If the stockholder takes the new stock, as is expected, he may endorse the dividend check received to the corporation, and thus pay for the new stock. In order to ensure that all the new stock so offered will be taken, the price at which it is offered is fixed far below what it is believed will be its market value. If the stockholder prefers ready money to an increase of his holdings of stock, he may sell his right to take new stock pro rata, which is evidenced by an assignable instrument. In that event the purchaser of the rights repays to the corporation, as the subscription price of the new stock, an amount equal to that which it had paid as a cash dividend to the stockholder.
Both of these methods of retaining accumulated profits while in effect distributing them as a dividend had been in common use in the United States for many years prior to the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment. They were recognized equivalents. ...
It thus appears that, among financiers and investors, the distribution of the stock, by whichever method effected, is called a stock dividend; that the two methods by which accumulated profits are legally retained for corporate purposes and at the same time distributed as dividends are recognized by them to be equivalents, and that the financial results to the corporation and to the stockholders of the two methods are substantially the same, unless a difference results from the application of the federal income tax law.
It is conceded that, if the stock dividend paid to Mrs. Macomber had been made by the more complicated method [of] issuing rights to take new stock pro rata and paying to each stockholder simultaneously a dividend in cash sufficient in amount to enable him to pay for this pro rata of new stock to be purchased – the dividend so paid to him would have been taxable as income, whether he retained the cash or whether he returned it to the corporation in payment for his pro rata of new stock. But it is contended that, because the simple method was adopted of having the new stock issued direct to the stockholders as paid-up stock, the new stock is not to be deemed income, whether she retained it or converted it into cash by sale. If such a different result can flow merely from the difference in the method pursued, it must be because Congress is without power to tax as income of the stockholder either the stock received under the latter method or the proceeds of its sale, for Congress has, by the provisions in the Revenue Act of 1916, expressly declared its purpose to make stock dividends, by whichever method paid, taxable as income.
... Is there anything in the phraseology of the Sixteenth Amendment or in the nature of corporate dividends which should lead to a [conclusion] ... that Congress is powerless to prevent a result so extraordinary as that here contended for by the stockholder?
First. The term “income,” when applied to the investment of the stockholder in a corporation, had, before the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment, been commonly understood to mean the returns from time to time received by the stockholder from gains or earnings of the corporation. A dividend received by a stockholder from a corporation may be either in distribution of capital assets or in distribution of profits. Whether it is the one or the other is in no way affected by the medium in which it is paid, nor by the method or means through which the particular thing distributed as a dividend was procured. If the dividend is declared payable in cash, the money with which to pay it is ordinarily taken from surplus cash in the treasury. ...
... Whether a dividend declared payable from profits shall be paid in cash or in some other medium is also wholly a matter of financial management. If some other medium is decided upon, it is also wholly a question of financial management whether the distribution shall be, for instance, in bonds, scrip or stock of another corporation or in issues of its own. And if the dividend is paid in its own issues, why should there be a difference in result dependent upon whether the distribution was made from such securities then in the treasury or from others to be created and issued by the company expressly for that purpose? So far as the distribution may be made from its own issues of bonds, or preferred stock created expressly for the purpose, it clearly would make no difference, in the decision of the question whether the dividend was a distribution of profits, that the securities had to be created expressly for the purpose of distribution. If a dividend paid in securities of that nature represents a distribution of profits, Congress may, of course, tax it as income of the stockholder. Is the result different where the security distributed is common stock?
Second. It has been said that a dividend payable in bonds or preferred stock created for the purpose of distributing profits may be income and taxable as such, but that the case is different where the distribution is in common stock created for that purpose. Various reasons are assigned for making this distinction. One is that the proportion of the stockholder’s ownership to the aggregate number of the shares of the company is not changed by the distribution. But that is equally true where the dividend is paid in its bonds or in its preferred stock. Furthermore, neither maintenance nor change in the proportionate ownership of a stockholder in a corporation has any bearing upon the question here involved. Another reason assigned is that the value of the old stock held is reduced approximately by the value of the new stock received, so that the stockholder, after receipt of the stock dividend, has no more than he had before it was paid. That is equally true whether the dividend be paid in cash or in other property – for instance, bonds, scrip, or preferred stock of the company. The payment from profits of a large cash dividend, and even a small one, customarily lowers the then market value of stock because the undivided property represented by each share has been correspondingly reduced. The argument which appears to be most strongly urged for the stockholders is that, when a stock dividend is made, no portion of the assets of the company is thereby segregated for the stockholder. But does the issue of new bonds or of preferred stock created for use as a dividend result in any segregation of assets for the stockholder? In each case, he receives a piece of paper which entitles him to certain rights in the undivided property. Clearly, segregation of assets in a physical sense is not an essential of income. The year’s gains of a partner is [sic] taxable as income although there, likewise, no segregation of his share in the gains from that of his partners is had.
Third. The government urges that it would have been within the power of Congress to have taxed as income of the stockholder his pro rata share of undistributed profits earned even if no stock dividend representing it had been paid. Strong reasons may be assigned for such a view. [citation omitted]. The undivided share of a partner in the year’s undistributed profits of his firm is taxable as income of the partner although the share in the gain is not evidenced by any action taken by the firm. Why may not the stockholder’s interest in the gains of the company? The law finds no difficulty in disregarding the corporate fiction whenever that is deemed necessary to attain a just result. [citations omitted]. The stockholder’s interest in the property of the corporation differs not fundamentally, but in form only, from the interest of a partner in the property of the firm. There is much authority for the proposition that, under our law, a partnership or joint stock company is just as distinct and palpable an entity in the idea of the law, as distinguished from the individuals composing it, as is a corporation. No reason appears, why Congress, in legislating under a grant of power so comprehensive as that authorizing the levy of an income tax, should be limited by the particular view of the relation of the stockholder to the corporation and its property which may, in the absence of legislation, have been taken by this Court. But we have no occasion to decide the question whether Congress might have taxed to the stockholder his undivided share of the corporation’s earnings. For Congress has in this act limited the income tax to that share of the stockholder in the earnings which is, in effect, distributed by means of the stock dividend paid. In other words, to render the stockholder taxable, there must be both earnings made and a dividend paid. Neither earnings without dividend nor a dividend without earnings subjects the stockholder to taxation under the Revenue Act of 1916.
Sixth. If stock dividends representing profits are held exempt from taxation under the Sixteenth Amendment, the owners of the most successful businesses in America will, as the facts in this case illustrate, be able to escape taxation on a large part of what is actually their income. So far as their profits are represented by stock received as dividends, they will pay these taxes not upon their income, but only upon the income of their income. That such a result was intended by the people of the United States when adopting the Sixteenth Amendment is inconceivable. Our sole duty is to ascertain their intent as therein expressed. In terse, comprehensive language befitting the Constitution, they empowered Congress “to lay and collect taxes on incomes from whatever source derived.” They intended to include thereby everything which by reasonable understanding can fairly be regarded as income. That stock dividends representing profits are so regarded not only by the plain people, but by investors and financiers and by most of the courts of the country, is shown beyond peradventure by their acts and by their utterances. It seems to me clear, therefore, that Congress possesses the power which it exercised to make dividends representing profits taxable as income whether the medium in which the dividend is paid be cash or stock, and that it may define, as it has done, what dividends representing profits shall be deemed income. It surely is not clear that the enactment exceeds the power granted by the Sixteenth Amendment. ...
Capital and Surplus
The opinions in this case provide a primer on corporation law. A corporation’s shareholders are its owners. They pay money (or transfer other property) to the corporation to purchase shares that represent ownership of the corporation’s productive capital. Once the corporation begins to operate, it earns profits. The corporation might choose not to retain these profits but rather to distribute them profits to its shareholders as dividends. Alternatively, the corporation might not distribute the profits. Instead, it might hold the profits for later distribution and/or use the profits to acquire still more productive capital assets. Corporation law required that the “capital stock account” and the “surplus account” be separately accounted for.
- Sections 301 and 316 still implement this scheme. Dividends are taxable as income to a shareholder only if a corporation pays them from “earnings and profits.”
Notes and questions:
1. In Macomber, consider the different views of the excerpted opinions of a corporation. Recall that under the SHS definition of income, an addition to an investment is taxable income, but a mere change in the form in which wealth is held is not a taxable event. Consider how the two opinions implicitly 2 handle these points. Is one view better than the other? Why?
2. If ten shareholders each contribute $100,000 upon the formation of a corporation so that the corporation’s paid-in capital is $1M and two years later the fair market value (fmv) of the corporation’s assets has not changed but the corporation has accumulated undistributed profits of $200,000, what would be the fmv of each shareholder’s shares?
- Is it even possible to avoid merging the capital and profits accounts of a corporation when considering whether a shareholder has enjoyed an increment to his/her consumption rights?
- Should each shareholder pay income tax on a share’s increased fmv if the corporation does not distribute the profits?
Substance and Form
The argument of Justice Brandeis that two methods that accomplish the same thing should bear the same tax consequences – i.e., that substance should prevail over form – applies on many occasions in tax law. However, tax law does not treat the two methods he describes in the first paragraph of his opinion by which a corporation can in effect distribute its accumulated profits without increasing its indebtedness as “equivalent.” §§ 305(a), 305(b)(1).
- Moreover, the law of corporate tax does not treat equity interests (stock) and creditor interests (debt) as equivalent – and so treats distributions of stock and debt differently.
3. Does the concept of realization determine when taxpayer may spend an increment to his/her consumption rights on consumption as s/he sees fit? If the corporation will not pay out undistributed profits, why can’t the shareholder simply borrow against his/her share of the undistributed profits? The interest taxpayer must pay is simply the (nominal?) cost of spending money that s/he “owns” but is not entitled to receive.
4. What exactly is the holding of the majority with respect to the meaning of “income” under the Sixteenth Amendment? Which of the following are critical?
- That shareholder did not “realize” any income and that without realization, there is no “income?”
- That shareholder did not receive any property for his/her use and benefit and that in the absence of such receipt, there is no “income?”
- That a corporation’s undistributed accumulations do not constitute “income” to a shareholder?
- That if the corporation does not segregate particular assets for the shareholder, there is no “income?”
- That shareholder’s receipt of shares did not alter his/her underlying interest in the corporation or make him/her richer, so the receipt of such shares is not “income” within the Sixteenth Amendment?
The Corporation as Separate Entity
The most important point of any dissent is that it is a dissent. Notice that Justice Brandeis would tax shareholders in the same manner that partners in a partnership are taxed on undistributed earnings. His view did not prevail. This fact firmly established the identity of a corporation as separate from its shareholders – unlike a partnership and its partners.
5. This case is often said to stand for the proposition that “income” within the Sixteenth Amendment must be “realized?” True?
6. Justice Brandeis’s parade of horribles has come to pass. We tax dividends differently depending on how they are distributed. § 305. We tax partners on undistributed income but not corporate shareholders. Corporations do hold onto income so that shareholders do not have to pay income tax. The Republic has survived.
7. Is a stock dividend an increment to taxpayer’s store of rights of consumption? We tax all income once. When (and how) is a stock dividend taxed?
8. Income is taxed only once. “Basis” is money that will not again be subject to income tax, usually because it has already been subject to tax. Thus, basis is the means by which we keep score with the government. Mrs. Macomber owned 2200 shares of Standard Oil. Let’s say that she paid $220,000 for these shares, i.e., $100/share. After receiving the stock dividend, she owned 3300 shares.
- What should be her basis in both the original 2200 shares and the 1100 dividend shares?
- Suppose Justice Brandeis’s view had prevailed. What should be her basis in the original 2200 shares and in the 1100 dividend shares?
- Justice Brandeis acknowledged that he would tax corporate shareholders in the same manner as partners in a partnership are taxed.
- How do you think partners are taxed on undistributed partnership profits?
- How should that change a partner’s basis in his/her partnership interest?
- What should happen to the partner’s basis in his/her partnership interest if s/he later withdraws cash or property from the partnership?
Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass Co., 348 U.S. 426 (1955)
Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.
This litigation involves two cases with independent factual backgrounds yet presenting the identical issue. … The common question is whether money received as exemplary damages for fraud or as the punitive two-thirds portion of a treble-damage antitrust recovery must be reported by a taxpayer as gross income under [§ 61] of the Internal Revenue Code. [footnote omitted] In a single opinion, 211 F.2d 928, the Court of Appeals [for the Third Circuit] affirmed the Tax Court’s separate rulings in favor of the taxpayers. [citation omitted] Because of the frequent recurrence of the question and differing interpretations by the lower courts of this Court’s decisions bearing upon the problem, we granted the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue’s ensuing petition for certiorari. [citation omitted]
The facts of the cases were largely stipulated and are not in dispute. So far as pertinent they are as follows:
Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass Co. – The Glenshaw Glass Company, a Pennsylvania corporation, manufactures glass bottles and containers. It was engaged in protracted litigation with the Hartford-Empire Company, which manufactures machinery of a character used by Glenshaw. Among the claims advanced by Glenshaw were demands for exemplary damages for fraud [footnote omitted] and treble damages for injury to its business by reason of Hartford’s violation of the federal antitrust laws. [footnote omitted] In December, 1947, the parties concluded a settlement of all pending litigation, by which Hartford paid Glenshaw approximately $800,000. Through a method of allocation which was approved by the Tax Court, [citation omitted], and which is no longer in issue, it was ultimately determined that, of the total settlement, $324,529.94 represented payment of punitive damages for fraud and antitrust violations. Glenshaw did not report this portion of the settlement as income for the tax year involved. The Commissioner determined a deficiency claiming as taxable the entire sum less only deductible legal fees. …
Commissioner v. William Goldman Theatres, Inc. – William Goldman Theatres, Inc., a Delaware corporation operating motion picture houses in Pennsylvania, sued Loew’s, Inc., alleging a violation of the federal antitrust laws and seeking treble damages. … It was found that Goldman has suffered a loss of profits equal to $125,000 and was entitled to treble damages in the sum of $375,000. … Goldman reported only $125,000 of the recovery as gross income and claimed that the $250,000 balance constituted punitive damages and as such was not taxable. …
It is conceded by the respondents that there is no constitutional barrier to the imposition of a tax on punitive damages. Our question is one of statutory construction: are these payments comprehended by § (a)?
The sweeping scope of the controverted statute is readily apparent: …
This Court has frequently stated that this language was used by Congress to exert in this field ‘the full measure of its taxing power.’ [citations omitted] Respondents contend that punitive damages, characterized as ‘windfalls’ flowing from the culpable conduct of third parties, are not within the scope of the section. But Congress applied no limitations as to the source of taxable receipts, nor restrictive labels as to their nature. And the Court has given a liberal construction to this broad phraseology in recognition of the intention of Congress to tax all gains except those specifically exempted. [citations omitted] … [Our] decisions demonstrate that we cannot but ascribe content to the catchall provision of [§ 61(a)], ‘gains or profits and income derived from any source whatever.’ The importance of that phrase has been too frequently recognized since its first appearance in the Revenue Act of 1913 [footnote omitted] to say now that it adds nothing to the meaning of ‘gross income.’
Nor can we accept respondents’ contention that a narrower reading of [§ 61(a)] is required by the Court’s characterization of income in Eisner v. Macomber, 252 U.S. 189, 207, as “the gain derived from capital, from labor, or from both combined.” [footnote omitted] … In that context – distinguishing gain from capital – the definition served a useful purpose. But it was not meant to provide a touchstone to all future gross income questions. [citations omitted]
Here we have instances of undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, and over which the taxpayers have complete dominion. The mere fact that the payments were extracted from the wrongdoers as punishment for unlawful conduct cannot detract from their character as taxable income to the recipients. Respondents concede, as they must, that the recoveries are taxable to the extent they compensate for damages actually incurred. It would be an anomaly that could not be justified in the absence of clear congressional intent to say that a recovery for actual damages is taxable but not the additional amount extracted as punishment for the same conduct which caused the injury. And we find no such evidence of intent to exempt these payments.
Mr. Justice DOUGLAS dissents. ...
Notes and Questions:
- Taxpayers acknowledged that Congress could constitutionally impose a tax on punitive damages. Interestingly, the Supreme Court has indeed observed many times that Congress exercised all of the power granted it by the Sixteenth Amendment. How much room does this really leave for a taxpayer to argue that Congress could tax windfalls but had not?
- Memorize the elements of “gross income” stated in the first sentence of the last paragraph of the case. You’ll have to do this eventually, so save some time and do it now.
- SHS holds that income includes all rights exercised in consumption plus changes in a taxpayer’s wealth. Does the phrase “accessions to wealth” encompass more or less than that?
- Is the receipt of any accession to wealth, e.g., receiving exemplary damages, what most people think of as “income?” If not, what objectives does the Tax Code implicitly pursue by including all accessions to wealth in a taxpayer’s taxable income?
- The following case provides a good primer (review) of Congress’s constitutional power to tax, a matter of considerable importance in today’s controversies concerning the financing of health care.
- Read § 104(a)(2), including the carryout paragraph at the end of § 104(a).
Murphy v. Internal Revenue Service, 493 F.3d 170 (CADC 2007), cert. denied, 553 U.S. 1004 (2008).
GINSBURG, Chief Judge:
[After successfully complaining to the Department of Labor that her employer had blacklisted her in violation of various whistle-blower statutes, the Secretary of Labor ordered Marrita Murphy’s former employer to remove any adverse references about Murphy from the files of the Office of Personnel Management and remanded the case to determine compensatory damages. On remand, a psychologist testified that Murphy suffered both “somatic” and “emotional” injuries along with other “physical manifestations of stress, i.e., anxiety attacks, shortness of breath and dizziness. Also, Murphy’s medical records revealed she suffered from bruxism (teeth grinding), a condition often associated with stress that can cause permanent tooth damage. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recommended $70,000 in compensatory damages: $45,000 for past and future emotional distress, and $25,000 for damage to Murphy’s vocational reputation. The Department of Labor Administrative Review Board (Board) affirmed the ALJ’s recommendation. Murphy included the $70,000 in her gross income, but later filed an amended return claiming that she was entitled to a refund because I.R.C. § 104(a)(2) excluded the $70,000 from her gross income. Murphy provided medical records documenting her physical injury and physical sickness. The IRS concluded that Murphy failed to prove that the compensation damages were attributable to “physical injury” or “physical sickness” and that I.R.C. § 104(a)(2) applied to her case. Hence, it rejected her claim for a refund. Murphy sued the IRS and the United States in federal district court.
Murphy argued: (1) I.R.C. § 104(a)(2) excluded the compensatory damages from her gross income because the award was for “physical personal injuries;” (2) taxing her award is unconstitutional because her damages were not “income” within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment. The district court rejected all of Murphy’s claims, and granted summary judgment for the IRS and the Government. Murphy appealed. On appeal, the court, 460 F.3d 79 (CADC 2006), reversed the district court’s decision, concluding that I.R.C. § 104(a)(2) did not exclude Murphy’s award from her gross income, but that her award was not “income” within the Sixteenth Amendment. The Government petitioned for a rehearing and argued that even if Murphy’s award was not “income” within the Sixteenth Amendment, there was no “constitutional impediment” to taxing Murphy’s award because a tax on such an award is not a direct tax and the tax is imposed uniformly. On rehearing, the court held that Murphy could not sue the IRS but could sue the United States.]
... In the present opinion, we affirm the judgment of the district court based upon the newly argued ground that Murphy’s award, even if it is not income within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment, is within the reach of the congressional power to tax under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
B. Section 104(a)(2) of the IRC
Section 104(a) (“Compensation for injuries or sickness”) provides that “gross income [under § 61 of the IRC] does not include the amount of any damages (other than punitive damages) received ... on account of personal physical injuries or physical sickness.” 26 U.S.C. § 104(a)(2). Since 1996 it has further provided that, for purposes of this exclusion, “emotional distress shall not be treated as a physical injury or physical sickness.” Id. § 104(a). The version of § 104(a)(2) in effect prior to 1996 had excluded from gross income monies received in compensation for “personal injuries or sickness,” which included both physical and nonphysical injuries such as emotional distress. Id. § 104(a)(2) (1995); [citation omitted]. ...
Murphy ... contends that neither § 104 of the IRC nor the regulation issued thereunder “limits the physical disability exclusion to a physical stimulus.” In fact, as Murphy points out, the applicable regulation, which provides that § 104(a)(2) “excludes from gross income the amount of any damages received (whether by suit or agreement) on account of personal injuries or sickness,” 26 C.F.R. § 1.104-1(c), does not distinguish between physical injuries stemming from physical stimuli and those arising from emotional trauma ...
For its part, the Government argues Murphy’s focus upon the word “physical” in § 104(a)(2) is misplaced; more important is the phrase “on account of.” In O’Gilvie v. United States, 519 U.S. 79 (1996), the Supreme Court read that phrase to require a “strong[ ] causal connection,” thereby making § 104(a)(2) “applicable only to those personal injury lawsuit damages that were awarded by reason of, or because of, the personal injuries.” The Court specifically rejected a “but-for” formulation in favor of a “stronger causal connection.” The Government therefore concludes Murphy must demonstrate she was awarded damages “because of” her physical injuries, which the Government claims she has failed to do.
Indeed, as the Government points out, the ALJ expressly recommended, and the Board expressly awarded, compensatory damages “because of” Murphy’s nonphysical injuries. ... The Government therefore argues “there was no direct causal link between the damages award at issue and [Murphy’s] bruxism.”
Although the pre-1996 version of § 104(a)(2) was at issue in O’Gilvie, the Court’s analysis of the phrase “on account of,” which phrase was unchanged by the 1996 Amendments, remains controlling here. Murphy no doubt suffered from certain physical manifestations of emotional distress, but the record clearly indicates the Board awarded her compensation only “for mental pain and anguish” and “for injury to professional reputation.” ... We conclude Murphy’s damages were not “awarded by reason of, or because of, ... [physical] personal injuries,” O’Gilvie, 519 U.S. at 83. Therefore, § 104(a)(2) does not permit Murphy to exclude her award from gross income. 3
C. Section 61 of the IRC
Murphy and the Government agree that for Murphy’s award to be taxable, it must be part of her “gross income” as defined by § 61(a) ..., which states in relevant part: “gross income means all income from whatever source derived.” The Supreme Court has interpreted the section broadly to extend to “all economic gains not otherwise exempted.” Comm’r v. Banks, 543 U.S. 426, 433 (2005); see also, e.g., [citation omitted]; Comm’r v. Glenshaw Glass Co., 348 U.S. 426, 430 (“the Court has given a liberal construction to [“gross income”] in recognition of the intention of Congress to tax all gains except those specifically exempted”). “Gross income” in § 61(a) is at least as broad as the meaning of “incomes” in the Sixteenth Amendment. [footnote omitted]. SeeGlenshaw Glass, 348 U.S. at 429, 432 n. 11 (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 83-1337, at A18 (1954), reprinted in 1954 U.S.C.C.A.N. 4017, 4155); [citation omitted].
Murphy argues her award is not a gain or an accession to wealth and therefore not part of gross income. Noting the Supreme Court has long recognized “the principle that a restoration of capital [i]s not income; hence it [falls] outside the definition of ‘income’ upon which the law impose[s] a tax,” O’Gilvie, 519 U.S. at 84; [citations omitted], Murphy contends a damage award for personal injuries – including nonphysical injuries – should be viewed as a return of a particular form of capital – “human capital,” as it were. See Gary S. Becker, Human Capital (1st ed.1964); Gary S. Becker, The Economic Way of Looking at Life, Nobel Lecture (Dec. 9, 1992), in Nobel Lectures in Economic Sciences 1991-1995, at 43-45 (Torsten Persson ed., 1997). ...
... Murphy cites various administrative rulings issued shortly after passage of the Sixteenth Amendment that concluded recoveries from personal injuries were not income, such as this 1918 Opinion of the Attorney General:
Without affirming that the human body is in a technical sense the “capital” invested in an accident policy, in a broad, natural sense the proceeds of the policy do but substitute, so far as they go, capital which is the source of future periodical income. They merely take the place of capital in human ability which was destroyed by the accident. They are therefore “capital” as distinguished from “income” receipts.
31 Op. Att’y Gen. 304, 308; see T.D. 2747, 20 Treas. Dec. Int. Rev. 457 (1918); Sol. Op. 132, I-1 C.B. 92, 93-94 (1922) (“[M]oney received ... on account of ... defamation of personal character ... does not constitute income within the meaning of the sixteenth amendment and the statutes enacted thereunder”). ...
Finally, Murphy argues her interpretation of § 61 is reflected in the common law of tort and the provisions in various environmental statutes and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all of which provide for “make whole” relief. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 1981a; 15 U.S.C. § 2622. If a recovery of damages designed to “make whole” the plaintiff is taxable, she reasons, then one who receives the award has not been made whole after tax. Section 61 should not be read to create a conflict between the tax code and the “make whole” purpose of the various statutes.
Determining gain or loss on disposition of property
Section 1001 establishes a formula for determining gain or loss on the sale or other disposition of property. To determine gain, subtract adjusted basis from the amount realized. § 1001(a). We abbreviate this as AR − AB. To determine loss, subtract amount realized from adjusted basis. § 1001(a). Section 1001 does not impose any tax or determine any income; it simply provides a means of measuring gain or loss. Section 1012 defines “basis” to be the cost of property. Section 1011(a) defines “adjusted basis” to be “basis” as “adjusted.” Section 1016 names occasions for adjusting basis.
The Government disputes Murphy’s interpretation on all fronts. First, noting “the definition [of gross income in the IRC] extends broadly to all economic gains,” Banks, 543 U.S. at 433, the Government asserts Murphy “undeniably had economic gain because she was better off financially after receiving the damages award than she was prior to receiving it.” Second, the Government argues that the case law Murphy cites does not support the proposition that the Congress lacks the power to tax as income recoveries for personal injuries. In its view, to the extent the Supreme Court has addressed at all the taxability of compensatory damages, see, e.g., O’Gilvie, 519 U.S. at 86; Glenshaw Glass, 348 U.S. at 432 n. 8, it was merely articulating the Congress’s rationale at the time for not taxing such damages, not the Court’s own view whether such damages could constitutionally be taxed.
Third, the Government challenges the relevance of the administrative rulings Murphy cites from around the time the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified; Treasury decisions dating from even closer to the time of ratification treated damages received on account of personal injury as income. See T.D. 2135, 17 Treas. Dec. Int. Rev. 39, 42 (1915); T.D. 2690, Reg. No. 33 (Rev.), art. 4, 20 Treas. Dec. Int. Rev. 126, 130 (1918). Furthermore, administrative rulings from the time suggest that, even if recoveries for physical personal injuries were not considered part of income, recoveries for nonphysical personal injuries were. See Sol. Mem. 957, 1 C.B. 65 (1919) (damages for libel subject to income tax); Sol. Mem. 1384, 2 C.B. 71 (1920) (recovery of damages from alienation of wife’s affections not regarded as return of capital, hence taxable). Although the Treasury changed its position in 1922, see Sol. Op. 132, I-1 C.B. at 93-94, it did so only after the Supreme Court’s decision in Eisner v. Macomber, 252 U.S. 189 (1920), which the Court later viewed as having established a definition of income that “served a useful purpose [but] was not meant to provide a touchstone to all future gross income questions.” Glenshaw Glass, 348 U.S. at 430-31. As for Murphy’s contention that reading § 61 to include her damages would be in tension with the common law and various statutes providing for “make whole” relief, the Government denies there is any tension and suggests Murphy is trying to turn a disagreement over tax policy into a constitutional issue.
Finally, the Government argues that even if the concept of human capital is built into § 61, Murphy’s award is nonetheless taxable because Murphy has no tax basis in her human capital. Under the IRC, a taxpayer’s gain upon the disposition of property is the difference between the “amount realized” from the disposition and his basis in the property, 26 U.S.C. § 1001, defined as “the cost of such property,” id. § 1012, adjusted “for expenditures, receipts, losses, or other items, properly chargeable to [a] capital account,” id. § 1016(a)(1). The Government asserts, “The Code does not allow individuals to claim a basis in their human capital;” accordingly, Murphy’s gain is the full value of the award. SeeRoemer v. Comm’r, 716 F.2d 693, 696 n. 2 (9th Cir.1983) (“Since there is no tax basis in a person’s health and other personal interests, money received as compensation for an injury to those interests might be considered a realized accession to wealth”) (dictum).
Although Murphy and the Government focus primarily upon whether Murphy’s award falls within the definition of income first used in Glenshaw Glass [footnote omitted], coming within that definition is not the only way in which § 61(a) could be held to encompass her award. Principles of statutory interpretation could show § 61(a) includes Murphy’s award in her gross income regardless whether it was an “accession to wealth,” as Glenshaw Glass requires. For example, if § 61(a) were amended specifically to include in gross income “$100,000 in addition to all other gross income,” then that additional sum would be a part of gross income under § 61 even though no actual gain was associated with it. In other words, although the “Congress cannot make a thing income which is not so in fact,” Burk-Waggoner Oil Ass’n v. Hopkins, 269 U.S. 110, 114 (1925), it can label a thing income and tax it, so long as it acts within its constitutional authority, which includes not only the Sixteenth Amendment but also Article I, Sections 8 and 9. SeePenn Mut. Indem. Co. v. Comm’r, 277 F.2d 16, 20 (3d Cir.1960) (“Congress has the power to impose taxes generally, and if the particular imposition does not run afoul of any constitutional restrictions then the tax is lawful, call it what you will”) (footnote omitted). Accordingly, rather than ask whether Murphy’s award was an accession to her wealth, we go to the heart of the matter, which is whether her award is properly included within the definition of gross income in § 61(a), to wit, “all income from whatever source derived.”
Looking at § 61(a) by itself, one sees no indication that it covers Murphy’s award unless the award is “income” as defined by Glenshaw Glass and later cases. Damages received for emotional distress are not listed among the examples of income in § 61 and, as Murphy points out, an ambiguity in the meaning of a revenue-raising statute should be resolved in favor of the taxpayer. See, e.g., Hassett v. Welch, 303 U.S. 303, 314 (1938); Gould v. Gould, 245 U.S. 151, 153 (1917); [citations omitted]. A statute is to be read as a whole, however [citation omitted], and reading § 61 in combination with § 104(a)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code presents a very different picture – a picture so clear that we have no occasion to apply the canon favoring the interpretation of ambiguous revenue-raising statutes in favor of the taxpayer.
... In 1996 the Congress amended § 104(a) to narrow the exclusion to amounts received on account of “personal physical injuries or physical sickness” from “personal injuries or sickness,” and explicitly to provide that “emotional distress shall not be treated as a physical injury or physical sickness,” thus making clear that an award received on account of emotional distress is not excluded from gross income under § 104(a)(2). Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-188, § 1605, 110 Stat. 1755, 1838. As this amendment, which narrows the exclusion, would have no effect whatsoever if such damages were not included within the ambit of § 61, and as we must presume that “[w]hen Congress acts to amend a statute, ... it intends its amendment to have real and substantial effect,” Stone v. INS, 514 U.S. 386, 397 (1995), the 1996 amendment of § 104(a) strongly suggests § 61 should be read to include an award for damages from nonphysical harms. [footnote omitted]. ...
... For the 1996 amendment of § 104(a) to “make sense,” gross income in § 61(a) must, and we therefore hold it does, include an award for nonphysical damages such as Murphy received, regardless whether the award is an accession to wealth. [citation omitted].
D. The Congress’s Power to Tax
The taxing power of the Congress is established by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises.” There are two limitations on this power. First, as the same section goes on to provide, “all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.” Second, as provided in Section 9 of that same Article, “No capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken.” See also U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 3 (“direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers”). 4 We now consider whether the tax laid upon Murphy’s award violates either of these two constraints.
1. A Direct Tax?
Over the years, courts have considered numerous claims that one or another nonapportioned tax is a direct tax and therefore unconstitutional. Although these cases have not definitively marked the boundary between taxes that must be apportioned and taxes that need not be, seeBromley v. McCaughn, 280 U.S. 124, 136 (1929); Spreckels Sugar Ref. Co. v. McClain, 192 U.S. 397, 413 (1904) (dividing line between “taxes that are direct and those which are to be regarded simply as excises” is “often very difficult to be expressed in words”), some characteristics of each may be discerned.
Only three taxes are definitely known to be direct: (1) a capitation, U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, (2) a tax upon real property, and (3) a tax upon personal property. SeeFernandez v. Wiener, 326 U.S. 340, 352 (1945) (“Congress may tax real estate or chattels if the tax is apportioned”); Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 158 U.S. 601, 637 (1895) (Pollock II). 5 Such direct taxes are laid upon one’s “general ownership of property,” Bromley, 280 U.S. at 136; see alsoFlint v. Stone Tracy Co., 220 U.S. 107, 149 (1911), as contrasted with excise taxes laid “upon a particular use or enjoyment of property or the shifting from one to another of any power or privilege incidental to the ownership or enjoyment of property.” Fernandez, 326 U.S. at 352; see alsoThomas v. United States, 192 U.S. 363, 370 (1904) (excises cover “duties imposed on importation, consumption, manufacture and sale of certain commodities, privileges, particular business transactions, vocations, occupations and the like”). More specifically, excise taxes include, in addition to taxes upon consumable items [citation omitted], taxes upon the sale of grain on an exchange, Nicol v. Ames, 173 U.S. 509, 519 (1899), the sale of corporate stock, Thomas, 192 U.S. at 371, doing business in corporate form, Flint, 220 U.S. at 151, gross receipts from the “business of refining sugar,” Spreckels, 192 U.S. at 411, the transfer of property at death, Knowlton v. Moore, 178 U.S. 41, 81-82 (1900), gifts, Bromley, 280 U.S. at 138, and income from employment, seePollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429, 579 (1895) (Pollock I) (citing Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 586 (1881)).
Murphy and the amici supporting her argue the dividing line between direct and indirect taxes is based upon the ultimate incidence of the tax; if the tax cannot be shifted to someone else, as a capitation cannot, then it is a direct tax; but if the burden can be passed along through a higher price, as a sales tax upon a consumable good can be, then the tax is indirect. This, she argues, was the distinction drawn when the Constitution was ratified. See Albert Gallatin, A Sketch of the Finances of the United States (1796), reprinted in 3 The Writings of Albert Gallatin 74-75 (Henry Adams ed., Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott & Co. 1879) (“The most generally received opinion ... is, that by direct taxes ... those are meant which are raised on the capital or revenue of the people; by indirect, such as are raised on their expense”); The Federalist No. 36, at 225 (Alexander Hamilton) (Jacob E. Cooke ed., 1961) (“internal taxes[ ] may be subdivided into those of the direct and those of the indirect kind ... by which must be understood duties and excises on articles of consumption”). But see Gallatin, supra, at 74 (“[Direct tax] is used, by different writers, and even by the same writers, in different parts of their writings, in a variety of senses, according to that view of the subject they were taking”); Edwin R.A. Seligman, The Income Tax 540 (photo. reprint 1970) (2d ed.1914) (“there are almost as many classifications of direct and indirect taxes are there are authors”). Moreover, the amici argue, this understanding of the distinction explains the different restrictions imposed respectively upon the power of the Congress to tax directly (apportionment) and via excise (uniformity). Duties, imposts, and excise taxes, which were expected to constitute the bulk of the new federal government’s revenue, see Erik M. Jensen, The Apportionment of “Direct Taxes”: Are Consumption Taxes Constitutional?, 97 Colum. L. Rev. 2334, 2382 (1997), have a built-in safeguard against oppressively high rates: Higher taxes result in higher prices and therefore fewer sales and ultimately lower tax revenues. SeeThe Federalist No. 21, supra, at 134-35 (Alexander Hamilton). Taxes that cannot be shifted, in contrast, lack this self-regulating feature, and were therefore constrained by the more stringent requirement of apportionment. Seeid. at 135 (“In a branch of taxation where no limits to the discretion of the government are to be found in the nature of things, the establishment of a fixed rule ... may be attended with fewer inconveniences than to leave that discretion altogether at large”); see also Jensen, supra, at 2382-84.
Finally, the amici contend their understanding of a direct tax was confirmed in Pollock II, where the Supreme Court noted that “the words ‘duties, imposts, and excises’ are put in antithesis to direct taxes,” 158 U.S. at 622, for which it cited The Federalist No. 36 (Hamilton). Pollock II, 158 U.S. at 624-25. As it is clear that Murphy cannot shift her tax burden to anyone else, per Murphy and the amici, it must be a direct tax.
The Government, unsurprisingly, backs a different approach; by its lights, only “taxes that are capable of apportionment in the first instance, specifically, capitation taxes and taxes on land,” are direct taxes. The Government maintains that this is how the term was generally understood at the time. See Calvin H. Johnson, Fixing the Constitutional Absurdity of the Apportionment of Direct Tax, 21 Const. Comm. 295, 314 (2004). Moreover, it suggests, this understanding is more in line with the underlying purpose of the tax and the apportionment clauses, which were drafted in the intense light of experience under the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles did not grant the Continental Congress the power to raise revenue directly; it could only requisition funds from the States. See Articles of Confederation art. VIII (1781); Bruce Ackerman, Taxation and the Constitution, 99 Colum. L. Rev. 1, 6-7 (1999). This led to problems when the States, as they often did, refused to remit funds. See Calvin H. Johnson, The Constitutional Meaning of “Apportionment of Direct Taxes,” 80 Tax Notes 591, 593-94 (1998). The Constitution redressed this problem by giving the new national government plenary taxing power. See Ackerman, supra, at 7. In the Government’s view, it therefore makes no sense to treat “direct taxes” as encompassing taxes for which apportionment is effectively impossible, because “the Framers could not have intended to give Congress plenary taxing power, on the one hand, and then so limit that power by requiring apportionment for a broad category of taxes, on the other.” This view is, according to the Government, buttressed by evidence that the purpose of the apportionment clauses was not in fact to constrain the power to tax, but rather to placate opponents of the compromise over representation of the slave states in the House, as embodied in the Three-fifths Clause. 6 See Ackerman, supra, at 10-11. See generally Seligman, supra, at 548-55. As the Government interprets the historical record, the apportionment limitation was “more symbolic than anything else: it appeased the anti-slavery sentiment of the North and offered a practical advantage to the South as long as the scope of direct taxes was limited.” See Ackerman, supra, at 10. But see Erik M. Jensen, Taxation and the Constitution: How to Read the Direct Tax Clauses, 15 J.L. & Pol. 687, 704 (1999) (“One of the reasons [the direct tax restriction] worked as a compromise was that it had teeth – it made direct taxes difficult to impose – and it had teeth however slaves were counted”).
The Government’s view of the clauses is further supported by the near contemporaneous decision of the Supreme Court in Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 171 (1796), holding that a national tax upon carriages was not a direct tax, and thus not subject to apportionment. Justices Chase and Iredell opined that a “direct tax” was one that, unlike the carriage tax, as a practical matter could be apportioned among the States, id. at 174 (Chase, J.); id. at 181 (Iredell, J.), while Justice Paterson, noting the connection between apportionment and slavery, condemned apportionment as “radically wrong” and “not to be extended by construction,” id. at 177-78. [footnote omitted]. As for Murphy’s reliance upon Pollock II, the Government contends that although it has never been overruled, “every aspect of its reasoning has been eroded,” see, e.g., Stanton v. Baltic Mining Co., 240 U.S. 103, 112-13 (1916), and notes that in Pollock II itself the Court acknowledged that “taxation on business, privileges, or employments has assumed the guise of an excise tax,” 158 U.S. at 635. Pollock II, in the Government’s view, is therefore too weak a reed to support Murphy’s broad definition of “direct tax” and certainly does not make “a tax on the conversion of human capital into money ... problematic.”
Murphy replies that the Government’s historical analysis does not respond to the contemporaneous sources she and the amici identified showing that taxes imposed upon individuals are direct taxes. As for Hylton, Murphy argues nothing in that decision precludes her position; the Justices viewed the carriage tax there at issue as a tax upon an expense, see 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) at 175 (Chase, J.); see alsoid. at 180-81 (Paterson, J.), which she agrees is not a direct tax. SeePollock II, 158 U.S. at 626-27. To the extent Hylton is inconsistent with her position, however, Murphy contends her references to the Federalist are more authoritative evidence of the Framers’ understanding of the term.
Murphy makes no attempt to reconcile her definition with the long line of cases identifying various taxes as excise taxes, although several of them seem to refute her position directly. In particular, we do not see how a known excise, such as the estate tax, see, e.g., New York Trust Co. v. Eisner, 256 U.S. 345, 349 (1921); Knowlton, 178 U.S. at 81-83, or a tax upon income from employment, seePollock II, 158 U.S. at 635; Pollock I, 157 U.S. at 579; cf.Steward Mach. Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 580-81 (1937) (tax upon employers based upon wages paid to employees is an excise), can be shifted to another person, absent which they seem to be in irreconcilable conflict with her position that a tax that cannot be shifted to someone else is a direct tax. Though it could be argued that the incidence of an estate tax is inevitably shifted to the beneficiaries, we see at work none of the restraint upon excessive taxation that Murphy claims such shifting is supposed to provide; the tax is triggered by an event, death, that cannot be shifted or avoided. In any event, Knowlton addressed the argument that Pollock I and II made ability to shift the hallmark of a direct tax, and rejected it. 178 U.S. at 81-82. Regardless what the original understanding may have been, therefore, we are bound to follow the Supreme Court, which has strongly intimated that Murphy’s position is not the law.
That said, neither need we adopt the Government’s position that direct taxes are only those capable of satisfying the constraint of apportionment. In the abstract, such a constraint is no constraint at all; virtually any tax may be apportioned by establishing different rates in different states. SeePollock II, 158 U.S. at 632-33. If the Government’s position is instead that by “capable of apportionment” it means “capable of apportionment in a manner that does not unfairly tax some individuals more than others,” then it is difficult to see how a land tax, which is widely understood to be a direct tax, could be apportioned by population without similarly imposing significantly non-uniform rates. SeeHylton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) at 178-79 (Paterson, J.); Johnson, Constitutional Absurdity, supra, at 328. But see, e.g., Hylton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) at 183 (Iredell, J.) (contending land tax is capable of apportionment).
We find it more appropriate to analyze this case based upon the precedents and therefore to ask whether the tax laid upon Murphy’s award is more akin, on the one hand, to a capitation or a tax upon one’s ownership of property, or, on the other hand, more like a tax upon a use of property, a privilege, an activity, or a transaction, seeThomas, 192 U.S. at 370. Even if we assume one’s human capital should be treated as personal property, it does not appear that this tax is upon ownership; rather, as the Government points out, Murphy is taxed only after she receives a compensatory award, which makes the tax seem to be laid upon a transaction. SeeTyler v. United States, 281 U.S. 497, 502 (1930) (“A tax laid upon the happening of an event, as distinguished from its tangible fruits, is an indirect tax which Congress, in respect of some events ... undoubtedly may impose”); Simmons v. United States, 308 F.2d 160, 166 (4th Cir.1962) (tax upon receipt of money is not a direct tax); [citation omitted]. Murphy’s situation seems akin to an involuntary conversion of assets; she was forced to surrender some part of her mental health and reputation in return for monetary damages. Cf. 26 U.S.C. § 1033 (property involuntarily converted into money is taxed to extent of gain recognized).
At oral argument Murphy resisted this formulation on the ground that the receipt of an award in lieu of lost mental health or reputation is not a transaction. This view is tenable, however, only if one decouples Murphy’s injury (emotional distress and lost reputation) from her monetary award, but that is not beneficial to Murphy’s cause, for then Murphy has nothing to offset the obvious accession to her wealth, which is taxable as income. Murphy also suggested at oral argument that there was no transaction because she did not profit. Whether she profited is irrelevant, however, to whether a tax upon an award of damages is a direct tax requiring apportionment; profit is relevant only to whether, if it is a direct tax, it nevertheless need not be apportioned because the object of the tax is income within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment. Cf.Spreckels, 192 U.S. at 412-13 (tax upon gross receipts associated with business of refining sugar not a direct tax); Penn Mut., 277 F.2d at 20 (tax upon gross receipts deemed valid indirect tax despite taxpayer’s net loss).
So we return to the question: Is a tax upon this particular kind of transaction equivalent to a tax upon a person or his property? [citation omitted]. Murphy did not receive her damages pursuant to a business activity [citations omitted], and we therefore do not view this tax as an excise under that theory. SeeStratton’s Independence, Ltd. v. Howbert, 231 U.S. 399, 414-15 (1913) (“The sale outright of a mining property might be fairly described as a mere conversion of the capital from land into money”). On the other hand, as noted above, the Supreme Court several times has held a tax not related to business activity is nonetheless an excise. And the tax at issue here is similar to those.
Bromley, in which a gift tax was deemed an excise, is particularly instructive: The Court noted it was “a tax laid only upon the exercise of a single one of those powers incident to ownership,” 280 U.S. at 136, which distinguished it from “a tax which falls upon the owner merely because he is owner, regardless of the use or disposition made of his property,” id. at 137. A gift is the functional equivalent of a below-market sale; it therefore stands to reason that if, as Bromley holds, a gift tax, or a tax upon a below-market sale, is a tax laid not upon ownership but upon the exercise of a power “incident to ownership,” then a tax upon the sale of property at fair market value is similarly laid upon an incidental power and not upon ownership, and hence is an excise. Therefore, even if we were to accept Murphy’s argument that the human capital concept is reflected in the Sixteenth Amendment, a tax upon the involuntary conversion of that capital would still be an excise and not subject to the requirement of apportionment. But seeNicol, 173 U.S. at 521 (indicating pre-Bromley that tax upon “every sale made in any place ... is really and practically upon property”).
In any event, even if a tax upon the sale of property is a direct tax upon the property itself, we do not believe Murphy’s situation involves a tax “upon the sale itself, considered separate and apart from the place and the circumstances of the sale.” Id. at 520. Instead, as in Nicol, this tax is more akin to “a duty upon the facilities made use of and actually employed in the transaction.” Id. at 519. To be sure, the facility used in Nicol was a commodities exchange whereas the facility used by Murphy was the legal system, but that hardly seems a significant distinction. The tax may be laid upon the proceeds received when one vindicates a statutory right, but the right is nonetheless a “creature of law,” which Knowlton identifies as a “privilege” taxable by excise. 178 U.S. at 55 (right to take property by inheritance is granted by law and therefore taxable as upon a privilege); 7 cf.Steward, 301 U.S. at 580-81 (“[N]atural rights, so called, are as much subject to taxation as rights of less importance. An excise is not limited to vocations or activities that may be prohibited altogether.... It extends to vocations or activities pursued as of common right.”) (footnote omitted).
The Congress may not implement an excise tax that is not “uniform throughout the United States.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 1. A “tax is uniform when it operates with the same force and effect in every place where the subject of it is found.” United States v. Ptasynski, 462 U.S. 74, 82 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted); see alsoKnowlton, 178 U.S. at 84-86, 106. The tax laid upon an award of damages for a nonphysical personal injury operates with “the same force and effect” throughout the United States and therefore satisfies the requirement of uniformity.
For the foregoing reasons, we conclude (1) Murphy’s compensatory award was not received on account of personal physical injuries, and therefore is not exempt from taxation pursuant to § 104(a)(2) of the IRC; (2) the award is part of her “gross income,” as defined by § 61 of the IRC; and (3) the tax upon the award is an excise and not a direct tax subject to the apportionment requirement of Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution. The tax is uniform throughout the United States and therefore passes constitutional muster. The judgment of the district court is accordingly
Exclusions from Gross Income
Section 104(a)(2), which the court quoted, provides for an exclusion from gross income. Obviously $70,000 is money that taxpayer could spend. If an exclusion had applied, taxpayer would not have to count it in her gross income even though she clearly received it.
Notes and Questions:
1. Notice in the first footnote of the case, the court acknowledged an inconsistency between a regulation and the Code. Obviously, the Code prevails. See ch. 1, § VII supra.
2. In the first paragraph of part IIC, the court states our second guiding principle of tax law: “There are exceptions to [the principle that we tax all of the income of a particular taxpayer once], but we usually must find those exceptions in the Code itself.”
Basis, Restoration of Capital, and MONEY
The income tax is all about money, i.e., U.S. dollars. Basis is how we keep score with the government. We keep score in terms of dollars – not in terms of emotional well-being or happiness. These latter concepts are real enough, but not capable of valuation in terms of money. While tort law may structure an after-the-fact exchange of money for emotional well-being, tax law does not recognize the non-monetary aspects of the exchange – except as § 104 otherwise provides.
3. What is supposed to determine the measure of compensatory damages in tort law? Exactly what is the “restoration of capital” argument that the Attorney General bought into in the early days of the income tax? SeeClark v. Commissioner, infra.
- Why is this argument no longer persuasive?
4. What is a direct tax under the Constitution? What taxes do we know are direct taxes? What is the constitutional limitation upon Congress’s power to enact direct taxes?
- The Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncement on the subject came in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 2566 (2012):
A tax on going without health insurance does not fall within any recognized category of direct tax. It is not a capitation. ... The whole point of the shared responsibility payment is that it is triggered by specific circumstances—earning a certain amount of income but not obtaining health insurance. The payment is also plainly not a tax on the ownership of land or personal property. The shared responsibility payment is thus not a direct tax that must be apportioned among the several States.
Id. at ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2599.
5. What is an indirect tax under the Constitution? What taxes do we know are indirect taxes? What is the constitutional limitation upon Congress’s power to enact indirect taxes?
6. The court provides a good review of the power of Congress to impose taxes aside from the income tax. The court acknowledged that a tax on tort damages for emotional distress might not be a tax on income in the constitutional sense (i.e., Sixteenth Amendment) of the word. How should this affect the fact that all items of gross income are added together and form the bases of other important elements of the income tax, e.g., AGI, tax brackets applicable to all income. Might a tax upon such damages therefore render the constitutionality of the income tax questionable with respect to taxpayers such as Marrita Murphy?
7. Do you think that taxpayer Murphy would place more value on her pre-event emotional tranquility and happiness or on her post-event emotional tranquility, happiness, and $70,000?
- Is it possible that we tax events that actually reduce a taxpayer’s overall wealth?
8. The court cited the case of Penn Mut. Indem. Co. v. Comm’r, 277 F.2d 16, 20 (CA3 1960) with this parenthetical: “Congress has the power to impose taxes generally, and if the particular imposition does not run afoul of any constitutional restrictions then the tax is lawful, call it what you will.” In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 2566 (2012), the Supreme Court “confirmed” a “functional approach” to whether an assessment is a tax. 567 U.S. at ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2594-96 (“shared responsibility payment” actually a “tax,” even though called a “penalty”).
- In Eisner v. Macomber, the Supreme Court said: “Congress cannot by any definition [of “income”] it may adopt conclude the matter, since it cannot by legislation alter the
Constitution, from which alone it derives its power to legislate, and within whose limitations alone that power can be lawfully exercised.”
- Are these positions inconsistent?
- Does this imply that Congress can enact a tax – assuming that the legislative proposal originates in the House of Representatives – and later search for its constitutional underpinning?
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