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Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Gordon

decided: July 26, 1967.

COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, PETITIONER,
v.
IRVING GORDON AND MARGARET GORDON, RESPONDENTS. IRVING GORDON AND MARGARET GORDON, PETITIONERS, V. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, RESPONDENT



Moore and Friendly, Circuit Judges; Bryan,*fn* District Judge. Friendly, Circuit Judge (dissenting).

Author: Moore

MOORE, Circuit Judge.

The taxpayers, Irving and Margaret Gordon (husband and wife) in 1961 owned 1,540 shares of Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company (Pacific) common stock. Their stock certificate represented a fractional part, in theory at least, of all the assets of this company. Although collectively the stockholders owned these assets, the corporate form was not within the control of the individual stockholder but, for all practical purposes, in the control of the company's management. Therefore, when Pacific decided to have its assets held by two corporations instead of one, the position of the Gordons remained unchanged. They merely needed to have another piece of paper to evidence their same fractional asset ownership. This, in substance, Pacific supplied. However as a result of the transaction, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue (the Commissioner) has assessed an income tax against the Gordons who properly ask, probably in some wonderment, how this corporate change of asset ownership brought income to them and, if so, where is it?

Before considering the facts, which are not in dispute, the trite statement that an income tax should be a tax on income may serve as a beacon. All too frequently, Commissioners and courts launch into an analysis of tax sections, subsections, paragraphs and subparagraphs which practically exhaust the alphabet and Roman and Arabic numbers. In this intellectual exercise, the taxpayer often is only an incidental (though necessary) figure. Therefore, this review will be based on the principle that the ultimate question to be answered is: did the Gordons receive taxable income within the meaning of the Code because of their ownership of a Pacific stock certificate? It must be presumed that in enacting all the sections of the Code, relating to corporate changes, Congress adhered to the fundamental purpose of taxing income. The Tax Court, 45 T.C. 71, has held that they did not as to 1,536 shares; the Commissioner appeals. As to four (4) stock rights sold, the Tax Court held that income resulted and the Gordons appeal. We affirm the Tax Court as to the Commissioner's appeal and reverse as to the Gordons' (taxpayers') appeal.

The principal question presented by this petition to review the decision of the Tax Court is whether the nonrecognition provisions of Section 355 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 can be applied to a spin-off by Pacific of a part of its assets. Pacific is a subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T which at all times owned over 80% of Pacific's common stock. Prior to July 1, 1961, Pacific provided the telephone services for California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.*fn1 This is a rapidly growing area of the country and for purely business reasons, Pacific decided to divide the corporation. To this end a new corporation, Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company (Northwest), was formed to take over the non-California business of Pacific. Pacific's management studied a variety of methods by which to effect the division, one of which was a conventional spin-off which clearly would have qualified under Section 355.*fn2 This method was rejected partly because of state law obstacles and, presumably, partly because the AT&T family filed a consolidated tax return which eliminated intercorporate dividends and thus qualification under Section 355 was not of great importance to the corporate management. It is, however, vital to the minority Pacific stockholders and to the taxpayers Gordon, who owned 1,540 shares of Pacific common stock. It is their position that regardless of what the Pacific management intended, the distribution should be given the preferred tax treatment provided by Section 355.

The plan ultimately agreed upon required Pacific to transfer to Northwest all of the non-California assets and liabilities plus $110,000 in cash in return for the issuance of 30,460,000 shares of Northwest common stock and an interest bearing demand note in the amount of $200,000,000. The result of these arrangements was to give Northwest a capital structure similar to that of Pacific. On June 30, 1961, Pacific ceased all non -California business. This Plan, which had been accepted by the Pacific shareholders in March of 1961, further required Pacific to offer to its shareholders the right to purchase all of the Northwest stock held by Pacific on a pro rata basis. It was left to the sole discretion of the Pacific management, however, to determine the number of offerings of Northwest stock to the Pacific shareholders and the price at which the stock would be made available. The Plan, nevertheless, made it clear that these decisions were to be made in response to the capital requirements of Pacific and it was anticipated that all of the Northwest stock would be distributed within three years. On September 20, 1961, Pacific issued one transferable stock right for each outstanding share of Pacific stock. Six such rights plus a payment of $16 were required to subscribe to one share of Northwest stock, which at this time had a fair market value of $26 per share. This initial distribution involved approximately 57% of the Northwest stock held by Pacific, an amount selected in order to pass control of Northwest to AT&T immediately following the first stage of the distribution. A second and final offering, the terms of which required eight rights plus $16 to obtain one share of Northwest stock, was made on June 12, 1963, of the remaining 43% of the stock.

Pacific adopted this more complex mechanism for distribution to enable it to satisfy simultaneously its very large requirements for additional capital to finance expansion. In each annual period prior to 1961, Pacific had been required to issue common stock or debentures in an average amount of nearly 200 million dollars per year. In the three years following 1961, however, these capital requirements were satisfied through the funds received from its distribution of Northwest stock and no common stock or debentures were issued.

In response to a request by Pacific, the Commissioner issued a ruling letter prior to the first offering which concluded that the sale of the rights would produce ordinary income and that their exercise would constitute a dividend under Section 301. He further stated that Section 355 would not be applicable.

This appeal involves only the tax year of 1961. The taxpayers exercised 1,536 of the 1,540 rights they received that year. On their income tax return, the taxpayers took the position that this aspect of the transaction was not subject to tax and therefore reported no gain or loss. The other four rights were sold for a total amount of $6.36, which was reported as a capital gain. On July 19, 1963, the Commissioner assessed a deficiency of $895.10 based on these transactions.

I.

It is not disputed that the Pacific-Northwest corporate division fulfilled a valid business purpose. Nor is it disputed that the method selected by Pacific to accomplish this division was dictated by valid business reasons. In fact, it does not appear to be disputed that there was no possibility under this transaction for turning ordinary income into capital gains -- the evil which Section 355 was designed to prevent. Rather, the government contends that in a number of technical respects, the requirements of that Section were not met and that, therefore, the distribution of Northwest stock must be treated as a dividend. While the government raises a number of purely technical questions to which we shall shortly turn, the truly decisive question before this Court is how Section 355 shall be construed. The taxpayers argue that Section 355 is the embodiment of a Congressional decision that corporate divisions are desirable as a matter of public policy and should not be impeded by tax considerations. Congress recognized, of course, that corporate divisions are a perfect vehicle for bail-outs of earnings and profits and, therefore, hedged in the use of Section 355 with a number of conditions which must be met. But when the division presents no opportunity for a bail-out, these conditions should not be so construed as to frustrate the basic Congressional purpose. The Commissioner, for his part, argues that Section 355 is merely a tax concession granted by Congress to permit certain narrowly defined transactions. He concludes that, as with all such privileges, the statute is to be narrowly construed.

In evaluating the jurisprudential philosophy of the government, we are not required to limit our search to the instant case in which it serves the Commissioner's purpose to argue for a narrow construction. Initially, we note the long line of cases holding that mere compliance with the reorganization sections does not ensure a tax-free exchange if there is lacking a business purpose or, perhaps, a continuity of interest in the transaction. See. e.g., Gregory v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465, 55 S. Ct. 266, 79 L. Ed. 596 (1935); Bazley v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 331 U.S. 737, 67 S. Ct. 1489, 91 L. Ed. 1782 (1947). While, obviously, the converse of this proposition is not true, these cases properly stand for the proposition that in determining tax results, the courts do not merely look to the literal language of the statute but also view the business transaction as a whole in conjunction with the underlying purpose of the taxing statute. We are not aware of any rule of law that preserves such a salutary tenent of construction for the exclusive benefit of the Commissioner. See Helvering v. Alabama Asphaltic Limestone Co., 315 U.S. 179, 62 S. Ct. 540, 86 L. Ed. 775 (1942).*fn3

Furthermore, we note that the Commissioner has not always taken such a constricted view of the reorganization sections. When it serves his purpose, the Commissioner has argued that when a reorganization has in fact occurred, it should be taxed under the reorganization sections of the Code even though the strict requirements of the statute have not been met. See, e.g., Gallagher v. Commissioner, 39 T.C. 144 (1962); Berghash v. Commissioner, 43 T.C. 743 (1965), aff'd, 361 F.2d 257, (2 Cir. 1966).

While we think it beyond dispute that the courts are permitted a certain flexibility in applying the Code, it should be added that cases in which the courts must stray from the literal language of the Code in order to achieve its underlying objectives will not be frequent. Conversely, however, undermining the general purposes of the Code through an overly literal application of each of its technical provisions cannot be justified. Here it is evident that the taxpayers' investment remained in corporate solution (aside from the $6.36) and merely changed its form. The only additional factor was the payment of $16 per share which was in reality tantamount to a contribution to capital and that, of course, is no occasion for the imposition of a tax. Nor was there any opportunity for the taxpayers to use this transaction for a bail-out of earnings and profits. On the other hand, if the Commissioner prevails, taxpayers' equity investment will be turned into ordinary income.

Wholly aside from these considerations of a general nature, an examination of the specific objections made by the Commissioner reveals that at the maximum, this division strayed from the literal ...


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