You are here

Expense or Capital: Protecting Stock Investment or Protecting Employment

30 July, 2015 - 14:28

United States v. Generes, 405 U.S. 93 (1972)

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

A debt a closely held corporation owed to an indemnifying shareholder employee became worthless in 1962. The issue in this federal income tax refund suit is whether, for the shareholder employee, that worthless obligation was a business or a nonbusiness bad debt within the meaning and reach of §§ 166(a) and (d) of the ... Code 1 and of the implementing Regulations § 1.166-5. 2

The issue’s resolution is important for the taxpayer. If the obligation was a business debt, he may use it to offset ordinary income and for carryback purposes under § 172 of the Code ... On the other hand, if the obligation is a nonbusiness debt, it is to be treated as a short-term capital loss subject to the restrictions imposed on such losses by § 166(d)(1)(B) and §§ 1211 and 1212, and its use for carryback purposes is restricted by § 172(d)(4). The debt is one or the other in its entirety, for the Code does not provide for its allocation in part to business and in part to nonbusiness.

In determining whether a bad debt is a business or a nonbusiness obligation, the Regulations focus on the relation the loss bears to the taxpayer’s business. If, at the time of worthlessness, that relation is a “proximate” one, the debt qualifies as a business bad debt and the aforementioned desirable tax consequences then ensue.

The present case turns on the proper measure of the required proximate relation. Does this necessitate a “dominant” business motivation on the part of the taxpayer, or is a “significant” motivation sufficient?

Tax in an amount somewhat in excess of $40,000 is involved. The taxpayer, Allen H. Generes, [footnote omitted] prevailed in a jury trial in the District Court. On the Government’s appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed by a divided vote. Certiorari was granted to resolve a conflict among the circuits. [footnote omitted.]


The taxpayer, as a young man in 1909, began work in the construction business. His son-in law, William F. Kelly, later engaged independently in similar work. During World War II, the two men formed a partnership in which their participation was equal. The enterprise proved successful. In 1954, Kelly Generes Construction Co., Inc., was organized as the corporate successor to the partnership. It engaged in the heavy-construction business, primarily on public works projects.

The taxpayer and Kelly each owned 44% of the corporation’s outstanding capital stock. The taxpayer’s original investment in his shares was $38,900. The remaining 12% of the stock was owned by a son of the taxpayer and by another son-in law. Mr. Generes was president of the corporation, and received from it an annual salary of $12,000. Mr. Kelly was executive vice-president, and received an annual salary of $15,000.

The taxpayer and Mr. Kelly performed different services for the corporation. Kelly worked full time in the field, and was in charge of the day-to-day construction operations. Generes, on the other hand, devoted no more than six to eight hours a week to the enterprise. He reviewed bids and jobs, made cost estimates, sought and obtained bank financing, and assisted in securing the bid and performance bonds that are an essential part of the public project construction business. Mr. Generes, in addition to being president of the corporation, held a full-time position as president of a savings and loan association he had founded in 1937. He received from the association an annual salary of $19,000. The taxpayer also had other sources of income. His gross income averaged about $40,000 a year during 1959-1962.

Taxpayer Generes from time to time advanced personal funds to the corporation to enable it to complete construction jobs. He also guaranteed loans made to the corporation by banks for the purchase of construction machinery and other equipment. In addition, his presence with respect to the bid and performance bonds is of particular significance. Most of these were obtained from Maryland Casualty Co. That underwriter required the taxpayer and Kelly to sign an indemnity agreement for each bond it issued for the corporation. In 1958, however, in order to eliminate the need for individual indemnity contracts, taxpayer and Kelly signed a blanket agreement with Maryland whereby they agreed to indemnify it, up to a designated amount, for any loss it suffered as surety for the corporation. Maryland then increased its line of surety credit to $2,000,000. The corporation had over $14,000,000 gross business for the period 1954 through 1962.

In 1962, the corporation seriously underbid two projects and defaulted in its performance of the project contracts. It proved necessary for Maryland to complete the work. Maryland then sought indemnity from Generes and Kelly. The taxpayer indemnified Maryland to the extent of $162,104.57. In the same year, he also loaned $158,814.49 to the corporation to assist it in its financial difficulties. The corporation subsequently went into receivership and the taxpayer was unable to obtain reimbursement from it.

In his federal income tax return for 1962 the taxpayer took his loss on his direct loans to the corporation as a nonbusiness bad debt. He claimed the indemnification loss as a business bad debt and deducted it against ordinary income. 3 Later, he filed claims for refund for 1959-1961, asserting net operating loss carrybacks under § 172 to those years for the portion, unused in 1962, of the claimed business bad debt deduction.

In due course, the claims were made the subject of the jury trial refund suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. At the trial, Mr. Generes testified that his sole motive in signing the indemnity agreement was to protect his $12,000-a-year employment with the corporation. The jury, by special interrogatory, was asked to determine whether taxpayer’s signing of the indemnity agreement with Maryland “was proximately related to his trade or business of being an employee” of the corporation. The District Court charged the jury, over the Government’s objection, that significant motivation satisfies the Regulations’ requirement of proximate relationship. 4 The court refused the Government’s request for an instruction that the applicable standard was that of dominant, rather than significant, motivation. 5

... The jury found that the taxpayer’s signing of the indemnity agreement was proximately related to his trade or business of being an employee of the corporation. Judgment on this verdict was then entered for the taxpayer.

The Fifth Circuit majority approved the significant motivation standard so specified and agreed with a Second Circuit majority in Weddle v. Commissioner, 325 F.2d 849, 851 (1963), in finding comfort for so doing in the tort law’s concept of proximate cause. Judge Simpson dissented. 427 F.2d at 284. He agreed with the holding of the Seventh Circuit in Niblock v. Commissioner, 417 F.2d 1185 (1969), and with Chief Judge Lumbard, separately concurring in Weddle, 325 F.2d at 852, that dominant and primary motivation is the standard to be applied.


A. The fact responsible for the litigation is the taxpayer’s dual status relative to the corporation. Generes was both a shareholder and an employee. These interests are not the same, and their differences occasion different tax consequences. In tax jargon, Generes’ status as a shareholder was a nonbusiness interest. It was capital in nature, and it was composed initially of tax-paid dollars. Its rewards were expectative, and would flow not from personal effort, but from investment earnings and appreciation. On the other hand, Generes’ status as an employee was a business interest. Its nature centered in personal effort and labor, and salary for that endeavor would be received. The salary would consist of pre-tax dollars.

Thus, for tax purposes, it becomes important and, indeed, necessary to determine the character of the debt that went bad and became uncollectible. Did the debt center on the taxpayer’s business interest in the corporation or on his nonbusiness interest? If it was the former, the taxpayer deserves to prevail here. [citations omitted.]

B. Although arising in somewhat different contexts, two tax cases decided by the Court in recent years merit initial mention. In each of these cases, a major shareholder paid out money to or on behalf of his corporation and then was unable to obtain reimbursement from it. In each, he claimed a deduction assertable against ordinary income. In each, he was unsuccessful in this quest:

1. In Putnam v. Commissioner, 352 U. S. 82 (1956), the taxpayer was a practicing lawyer who had guaranteed obligations of a labor newspaper corporation in which he owned stock. He claimed his loss as fully deductible ... The Court ... held that the loss was a nonbusiness bad debt subject to short-term capital loss treatment ... The loss was deductible as a bad debt or not at all. See Rev. Rul. 60-48, 1961 Cum. Bull. 112.

2. In Whipple v. Commissioner, 373 U. S. 193 (1963), the taxpayer had provided organizational, promotional, and managerial services to a corporation in which he owned approximately an 80% stock interest. He claimed that this constituted a trade or business, and, hence, that debts owing him by the corporation were business bad debts when they became worthless in 1953. The Court also rejected that contention, and held that Whipple’s investing was not a trade or business, that is, that “[d]evoting one’s time and energies to the affairs of a corporation is not, of itself, and without more, a trade or business of the person so engaged.” 373 U.S. at 202. The rationale was that a contrary conclusion would be inconsistent with the principle that a corporation has a personality separate from its shareholders, and that its business is not necessarily their business. The Court indicated its approval of the Regulations’ proximate relation test:

Moreover, there is no proof (which might be difficult to furnish where the taxpayer is the sole or dominant stockholder) that the loan was necessary to keep his job or was otherwise proximately related to maintaining his trade or business as an employee. CompareTrent v. Commissioner, [291 F.2d 669 (CA2 1961)]. 373 U.S. at 204.

The Court also carefully noted the distinction between the business and the nonbusiness bad debt for one who is both an employee and a shareholder. 6

These two cases approach, but do not govern, the present one. They indicate, however, a cautious, and not a free-wheeling, approach to the business bad debt. Obviously, taxpayer Generes endeavored to frame his case to bring it within the area indicated in the above quotation from Whipple v. Commissioner.


We conclude that, in determining whether a bad debt has a “proximate” relation to the taxpayer’s trade or business, as the Regulations specify, and thus qualifies as a business bad debt, the proper measure is that of dominant motivation, and that only significant motivation is not sufficient. We reach this conclusion for a number of reasons:

A. The Code itself carefully distinguishes between business and nonbusiness items. It does so, for example, in § 165 with respect to losses, in § 166 with respect to bad debts, and in § 162 with respect to expenses. It gives particular tax benefits to business losses, business bad debts, and business expenses, and gives lesser benefits, or none at all, to nonbusiness losses, nonbusiness bad debts, and nonbusiness expenses. It does this despite the fact that the latter are just as adverse in financial consequence to the taxpayer as are the former. But this distinction has been a policy of the income tax structure ever since the Revenue Act of 1916 ...

The point, however, is that the tax statutes have made the distinction, that the Congress therefore intended it to be a meaningful one, and that the distinction is not to be obliterated or blunted by an interpretation that tends to equate the business bad debt with the nonbusiness bad debt. We think that emphasis upon the significant rather, than upon the dominant, would have a tendency to do just that.

B. Application of the significant motivation standard would also tend to undermine and circumscribe the Court’s holding in Whipple, and the emphasis there that a shareholder’s mere activity in a corporation’s affairs is not a trade or business. As Chief Judge Lumbard pointed out in his separate and disagreeing concurrence in Weddle, supra, 325 F.2d at 852-853, both motives – that of protecting the investment and that of protecting the salary – are inevitably involved, and an inquiry whether employee status provides a significant motivation will always produce an affirmative answer and result in a judgment for the taxpayer.

C. The dominant motivation standard has the attribute of workability. It provides a guideline of certainty for the trier of fact. The trier then may compare the risk against the potential reward and give proper emphasis to the objective, rather than to the subjective. As has just been noted, an employee-shareholder, in making or guaranteeing a loan to his corporation, usually acts with two motivations, the one to protect his investment and the other to protect his employment. By making the dominant motivation the measure, the logical tax consequence ensues and prevents the mere presence of a business motive, however small and however insignificant, from controlling the tax result at the taxpayer’s convenience. This is of particular importance in a tax system that is so largely dependent on voluntary compliance.

D. The dominant motivation test strengthens, and is consistent with, the mandate of § 262 of the Code, ... that “no deduction shall be allowed for personal, living, or family expenses” except as otherwise provided. It prevents personal considerations from circumventing this provision.

E. The dominant motivation approach to § 166(d) is consistent with that given the loss provisions in § 165(c)(1), see, for example, Imbesi v. Commissioner, 361 F.2d 640, 644 (CA3 1966), and in § 165(c)(2), seeAustin v. Commissioner, 298 F.2d 583, 584 (CA2 1962). In these related areas, consistency is desirable. See alsoCommissioner v. Duberstein, 363 U. S. 278, 286 (1960).

F. ...

G. The Regulations’ use of the word “proximate” perhaps is not the most fortunate, for it naturally tempts one to think in tort terms. The temptation, however, is best rejected, and we reject it here. In tort law, factors of duty, of foreseeability, of secondary cause, and of plural liability are under consideration, and the concept of proximate cause has been developed as an appropriate application and measure of these factors. It has little place in tax law, where plural aspects are not usual, where an item either is or is not a deduction, or either is or is not a business bad debt, and where certainty is desirable.


The conclusion we have reached means that the District Court’s instructions, based on a standard of significant, rather than dominant, motivation are erroneous, and that, at least, a new trial is required. We have examined the record, however, and find nothing that would support a jury verdict in this taxpayer’s favor had the dominant motivation standard been embodied in the instructions. Judgment n.o.v. for the United States, therefore, must be ordered. SeeNeely v. Eby Construction Co., 386 U. S. 317 (1967).

As Judge Simpson pointed out in his dissent, 427 F.2d at 284-285, the only real evidence offered by the taxpayer bearing upon motivation was his own testimony that he signed the indemnity agreement “to protect my job,” that “I figured, in three years’ time, I would get my money out,” and that “I never once gave it [his investment in the corporation] a thought.” [footnote omitted]

The statements obviously are self-serving. In addition, standing alone, they do not bear the light of analysis. What the taxpayer was purporting to say was that his $12,000 annual salary was his sole motivation, and that his $38,900 original investment, the actual value of which, prior to the misfortunes of 1962, we do not know, plus his loans to the corporation, plus his personal interest in the integrity of the corporation as a source of living for his son-in law and as an investment for his son and his other son-in law, were of no consequence whatever in his thinking. The comparison is strained all the more by the fact that the salary is pre-tax and the investment is tax-paid. With his total annual income about $40,000, Mr. Generes may well have reached a federal income tax bracket of 40% or more for a joint return in 1958-1962. §§ 1 and 2 of the 1954 Code ... The $12,000 salary thus would produce for him only about $7,000 net after federal tax and before any state income tax. This is the figure, and not $12,000, that has any possible significance for motivation purposes, and it is less than 1/5 of the original stock investment. [footnote omitted]

We conclude on these facts that the taxpayer’s explanation falls of its own weight, and that reasonable minds could not ascribe, on this record, a dominant motivation directed to the preservation of the taxpayer’s salary as president of Kelly Generes Construction Co., Inc.

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded with direction that judgment be entered for the United States.

It is so ordered.

MR. JUSTICE POWELL and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, concurring (omitted).


While I join Parts I, II, and III of the Court’s opinion and its judgment of reversal, I would remand the case to the District Court with directions to hold a hearing on the issue of whether a jury question still exists as to whether taxpayer’s motivation was “dominantly” a business one in the relevant transactions ...

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting. [omitted.]

Notes and questions:

  1. What were the stakes in the outcome of the case? See §§ 1211(b) ($1000 limit at the time the Court decided Generes), 1212(b).
  2. What information should be critical to the valuation of taxpayer’s stock? In a closely-held corporation in which shareholders, officers, employees, and creditors are usually the same people who wear different hats on different occasions – is it ever realistic to say that a bad debt is “one or the other in its entirety?”