HOLYWELL CORPORATION v. SMITH
Nos. 90-1361, 90-1484
Argued December 4, 1991
Decided February 25, 1992
Petitioner debtors, four affiliated corporate entities and an individual, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy petitions after one of them defaulted on a real estate loan. The Bankruptcy Court consolidated the cases and the debtors represented their own bankruptcy estates as debtors in possession. Creditors approved a Chapter 11 plan that provided, inter alia, for placement of the debtors' property into a trust and appointment of a trustee to liquidate all of the trust property and to distribute it to the creditors of the various bankruptcy estates. The plan said nothing about whether the trustee had to file income tax returns or pay any income tax due, but the United States did not object to the plan's confirmation. The plan took effect in October, 1985. One of the corporate debtors filed a tax return for the fiscal year ending July 31, 1985, including as income capital gains earned in the postbankruptcy sale of certain properties in its estate, but requested respondent Smith, the appointed trustee, to pay the taxes owed. Neither the corporate debtors nor Smith filed income tax returns for succeeding fiscal years, in which there was capital gains and interest income. Over the objections of the United States and the debtors, the Bankruptcy Court granted Smith's request for a declaratory judgment that he had no duty under the Internal Revenue Code (Code) to file income tax returns or pay income taxes. Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Smith is required by the Code to file income tax returns and pay taxes on the income attributable to the property of both the corporate debtors and Gould. Pp. 52-59.
THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
Kent L. Jones argued the cause for the United States in No. 90-1484 and petitioners in No. 90-1361. With him on the briefs for the United States were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Peterson, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Gary D. Gray, and Francis M. Allegra. [503 U.S. 47, 49] Dennis G. Lyons, Stuart E. Seigel, and Kent A. Yalowitz filed briefs for petitioners in No. 90-1361.
Herbert Stettin argued the cause for respondents on both cases. With him on the brief for respondent Smith were Louis R. Cohen, F. David Lake, Jr., and John Aramburu. Vance E. Salter, Thomas F. Noone, Edward P. Zujkowski, Mortimer M. Caplin, Walter B. Slocombe, Albert G. Lauber, Jr., Julia L. Porter, and James E. Salles filed a brief for respondent Bank of New York. Barbara E. Vicevich filed a brief for respondent Shutts & Bowen.Fn
Fn [503 U.S. 47, 49] A brief of amici curiae was filed for the State of California et al. by Mary Sue Terry, Attorney General of Virginia, H. Lane Kneedler, Chief Deputy Attorney General, K. Marshall Cook, Deputy Attorney General, Barbara M. Rose, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Martha B. Brissette and John Patrick Griffin, Assistant Attorneys General, Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General of Connecticut, Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware, John Payton, Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia, Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General of Florida, Michael J. Bowers, Attorney General of Georgia. Warren Price III, Attorney General of Hawaii, Ronald W. Burris, Attorney General of Illinois, Linley E. Pearson, Attorney General of Indiana, Bonnie J. Campbell, Attorney General of Iowa, Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas, William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana, Michael E. Carpenter, Attorney General of Maine, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General of Massachusetts, Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General of Michigan, Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota, Michael C. Moore, Attorney General of Mississippi, William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri, Marc Racicot, Attorney General of Montana, Robert J. Del Tufo, Attorney General of New Jersey, Tom Udall, Attorney General of New Mexico, Robert Abrams, Attorney General of New York, Nicholas J. Spaeth, Attorney General of North Dakota, Dave Frohnmayer, Attorney General of Oregon, Ernest D. Preate, Jr., Attorney General of Pennsylvania, James E. O'Neil, Attorney General of Rhode Island, T. Travis Medlock, Attorney General of South Carolina, Charles W. Burson, Attorney General of Tennessee, Dan Morales, Attorney General of Texas, R. Paul Van Dam, Attorney General of Utah, Mario J. Palumbo, Attorney General of West Virginia, and Victor A. Kovner, Corporation Counsel of the City of New York. [503 U.S. 47, 50]
Miami Center Limited Partnership borrowed money from the Bank of New York (Bank) to develop "Miami Center," a hotel and office building complex in Miami, Florida. In August, 1984, after it defaulted on the loan, MCLP and four affiliated debtors, Holywell Corporation, Chopin Associates, Miami Center Corporation, and Theodore B. Gould each filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy petitions. The Bankruptcy Court consolidated the five cases.
Prior to confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan, the debtors represented their own bankruptcy estates as debtors in possession. See 11 U.S.C. 1101(1). The estates of Gould and Holywell contained two principal assets: equity in Miami Center and cash proceeds from the postbankruptcy sale of certain real estate in Washington, D.C., known as the Washington Properties.
In August, 1986, the Bank and other creditors approved a "Consolidated Plan of Reorganization." The plan required the debtors to give up their interests in Miami Center and the proceeds from the sale of the Washington Properties, but otherwise permitted them to remain in business. Part V of the plan provided:
The plan took effect on October 10, 1985. The trustee appointed by the court, respondent Fred Stanton Smith, immediately sold Miami Center to the Bank in consideration for cash and cancellation of the Bank's claim. The trustee then distributed these and other assets to third-party creditors. Holywell Corporation filed a tax return for the fiscal year ending July 31, 1985. The income for this fiscal year included capital gains earned in the sale of the Washington Properties. Holywell asked the trustee to pay the taxes owed. Neither the corporate debtors nor the trustee filed federal income tax returns for any fiscal year ending after July 31, 1985. The income for these years included the capital gains earned in the sale of Miami Center and interest earned by reinvesting the proceeds.
In December, 1987, the trustee sought a declaratory judgment from the Bankruptcy Court that he had no duty to file income tax returns or pay income tax under the federal income tax laws. The United States and the debtors opposed the action. The Bankruptcy Court declared that the trustee did not have to make any federal tax returns or pay any taxes. 85 B.R. 898 (Bkrtcy.S.D.Fla. 1988). The District Court, in an unreported opinion, and the Court of Appeals, 911 F.2d 1539 (CA11 1990), both affirmed. The United States, in No. [503 U.S. 47, 52] 90-1484, and the debtors, in No. 90-1361, each petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari. We granted review. 500 U.S. 941 (1991).
The Internal Revenue Code ties the duty to pay federal income taxes to the duty to make an income tax return. See 26 U.S.C. 6151(a) ("when a return of a tax is required . . . the person required to make such return shall . . . pay such tax"). We conclude in this case that the trustee must pay the tax due on the income attributable to the corporate debtors' property because 6012(b)(3) requires him to make a return as the "assignee" of the "property . . . of a corporation." We further hold that the trustee must pay the tax due on the income attributable to the individual debtor's property because 6012(b)(4) requires him to make a return as the "fiduciary" of a "trust." Finally, we decide that the United States did not excuse the trustee from these duties by failing to object to the plan.
We first consider the trustee's duties with respect to the corporate debtors. Section 6012(b)(3) provides:
The plan, as noted above, transferred the corporate debtors' estates to respondent Smith as trustee for the Miami Center Liquidating Trust. The respondents do not dispute that the trustee meets the usual definition of the word "assignee" in both ordinary and legal usage. See Webster's Third New International Dictionary 132 (1986) (defining an "assignee" as "one to whom a right or property is legally transferred"); Black's Law Dictionary 118-119 (6th ed. 1990) (defining an "assignee" as "[a] person to whom an assignment is made" and an "assignment" as "[t]he act of transferring to another all or part of one's property, interest, or rights"); cf. 26 CFR 301.6036-1(a)(3) (1991) (defining an "assignee for the benefit of . . . creditors" as any person who takes possession of and liquidates property of a debtor for distribution to creditors). They argue, however, that courts have applied 6012(b)(3) only in situations in which a person winds up the business of a dissolving corporation, see, e.g., First Nat'l Bank of Greeley, Colo. v. United States, 86 F.2d 938, 942 (CA10 1936), or a person stands in the place of management in operating the day-to-day business of a distressed corporation, see, e.g., Louisville Property Co. v. Commissioner, 140 F.2d 547, 548 (CA6 1944). They conclude that 6012(b)(3) cannot apply to the trustee in this case, because he did neither. We find this argument unpersuasive.
Nothing in 6012(b)(3) suggests that the word "assignee" is limited in the manner proposed by the respondents. The statute does not make dissolution necessary; it applies whether the corporation transfers "all" or "substantially all" of its property. It does not require the assignee to manage the corporation's business after the transfer of property; it [503 U.S. 47, 54] expressly requires the assignee to make a return "whether or not [the assigned] property or business is being operated." Ibid. We therefore conclude that 6012(b)(3) applies to the trustee in this case. As the assignee of "all" or "substantially all" of the property of the corporate debtors, the trustee must file the returns that the corporate debtors would have filed had the plan not assigned their property to the trustee.
We next consider the trustee's duties with respect to the individual debtor, Theodore J. Gould. The parties agree that 6012(b)(3) does not require the trustee to file a return as the "assignee" of Gould's estate because the section applies only to the assignee of the property of a corporation. Section 6012(b)(4), however, provides:
Whether or not the Bankruptcy Code permits a plan to place a new fiduciary in charge of an estate after confirmation, as the United States contends, we do not believe that a mere substitution occurred in this case. The plan, as quoted above, "declared and established" the new Miami Center Liquidating Trust. It then vested all of the assets of Gould's estate to respondent Smith as trustee. The plan did not simply substitute the trustee for Gould as the fiduciary of the estate. Rather, it created a separate and distinct trust holding the property of the estate, and gave the trustee control of this property. The Bankruptcy Code expressly permits this arrangement. See 11 U.S.C. 1123(a)(5)(B) (authorizing a plan to transfer "all or any part of the property of the estate to one or more entities, whether organized before or after the confirmation of such plan"). The trustee, therefore, is not acting as the fiduciary of Gould's bankruptcy estate.
The trustee, nonetheless, must make a return. Section 6012(b)(4), as the debtors assert, applies to the fiduciary of a trust as well as the fiduciary of a bankruptcy estate. We see no way for the respondents to deny that the Miami Center Liquidating Trust is a "trust," and that respondent Smith is its "fiduciary." A Treasury Regulation states:
Respondent Smith, moreover, acted as the fiduciary of this trust. The Internal Revenue Code defines "fiduciary" as a "guardian, trustee, executor, administrator, receiver, conservator, or any person acting in any fiduciary capacity for any person." 26 U.S.C. 7701(a)(6). A Treasury Regulation further specifies:
The respondents raise two principal objections to this conclusion. First, they argue that Gould must pay the Miami Center Liquidating Trust's income taxes under the so-called "grantor trust" rules in the Internal Revenue Code. See 26 U.S.C. 671-677. They note, in particular, that a Treasury Regulation 1.677(a)-1(d) specifies that "a grantor is, in general, treated as the owner of a portion of a trust whose [503 U.S. 47, 57] income is . . . applied in discharge of a legal obligation of the grantor." 26 CFR 1.667(a)-1(d) (1991). They assert that Gould is the grantor of the liquidating trust and that, under this regulation, he owns the trust's income and must pay taxes on it. To support this position, the respondents cite In re Sonner, 53 B.R. 859 (Bkrtcy.E.D.Va. 1985), which applied the grantor trust provisions to a postconfirmation liquidating trust.
While we express no opinion on the results in Sonner, the facts are distinguishable. In Sonner, the property of the bankruptcy estate, by the terms of the plan, appears to have revested in the debtor upon confirmation. The debtor pursuant to a plan then placed some of this property in a trust created to pay his creditors. Under these circumstance, the bankruptcy court concluded, the debtor had created a grantor trust under Treasury Regulation 1.677(a)-1(d). See Sonner, supra, at 860, 864. In this case, however, the property of Gould's bankruptcy estate did not revest in Gould. The plan, instead, placed all of the estate's property directly in Miami Center Liquidating Trust. Gould himself did not contribute anything to the trust, and we thus fail to see how the respondents can characterize him as the grantor.
Second, the respondents argue that the trustee did not act as a fiduciary, because he had almost no discretion in performing his duties under the plan. They assert that the trustee merely acted as a "disbursing agent" who distributed liquidated funds to the creditors. As the dissenting judge noted below, labels and characterizations cannot alter the trustee's status for the purpose of the tax law. 911 F.2d at 1547. Because the liquidating trust is a trust under the Internal Revenue Code, and because respondent Smith's duties under the plan satisfy the description of a fiduciary in [503 U.S. 47, 58] the regulations, the restrictions on the trustee's discretion do not remove him from coverage under 6012(b)(4). *
The respondents finally assert that the trustee may ignore the duties imposed by 6012 and 6161 because the Chapter 11 plan does not require him to pay taxes. They note that 1141(a) of the Bankruptcy Code states that "the provisions of a confirmed plan bind . . . any creditor" whether or not the creditor has accepted the plan. They conclude that 1141(a) precludes the United States, as a creditor, from seeking payment of any taxes. They add that the United States should have objected to the plan if it had wanted a different result. We disagree.
The United States is not seeking from the trustee any taxes that became due prior to his appointment. See Reply Brief for United States 13, n. 16. It simply asserts that the trustee, after his appointment, must make tax return under 6012(b) in the same manner as the assignee of the property of any corporation or the trustee of any trust. No tax liability becomes due under 6151 until the time required for making those returns. See Hartman v. Lauchli, 238 F.2d 881, 887 (CA8 1956); Pan American Van Lines v. United States, 607 F.2d 1299, 1301 (CA9 1979). Even if 1141(a) binds creditors of the corporate and individual debtors with respect to claims that arose before confirmation, we do not see how it can bind the United States or any other creditor with respect to postconfirmation claims. Cf. 11 U.S.C. 101(10) [503 U.S. 47, 59] (1988 ed., Supp. II) (defining "creditor" as used in 1141(a) as an entity with various kinds of preconfirmation claims). For these reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is
[ Footnote * ] The respondents also argue that the trustee does not have to pay taxes because the petitioners conceded in the Bankruptcy Court that "the trust is not a separate taxable entity." 85 B.R. 898, 900 (Bkrtcy.S.D.Fla. 1988). This "concession" cannot help the respondents. The petitioners asserted that the trust was not a separate taxable entity when they argued that the plan did not create a new trust, but instead simply substituted the trustee for Gould as the fiduciary of the bankruptcy estate. If the respondents accept this position, which we reject above, then they would have to agree that respondent Smith has to make a return as the fiduciary of an estate. [503 U.S. 47, 60]