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BURNET v. HARMEL

decided: November 7, 1932.

BURNET, COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE
v.
HARMEL



CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Stone

[ 287 U.S. Page 104]

 MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, the owner in fee of Texas oil lands, executed oil and gas leases of the lands for three years and as long thereafter as oil or gas should be produced from them by the lessee, in return for bonus payments aggregating $57,000 in cash, and stipulated royalties, measured by the production of oil and gas by the lessee. In making his income tax returns under the Revenue Act of 1924 for the years 1924 and 1925, respondent reported the cash payments as gain from a sale of capital assets, taxable under the applicable section of the statute at a lower rate than other income. The Commissioner treated the payments

[ 287 U.S. Page 105]

     as ordinary income taxed at the higher rate, and gave respondent notice of assessment for the deficiency. The order of the Board of Tax Appeals upholding the assessment, 19 B. T. A. 376, was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 56 F.2d 153, following its earlier decision in Ferguson v. Commissioner, 45 F.2d 573. It was held that because Texas law, unlike that of other states, regards an oil and gas lease as a present sale of the oil and gas in place, the gain resulting from the cash payment received as consideration for the leases was taxable only as gain from the sale of capital assets. This Court granted certiorari, 286 U.S. 536, to resolve a conflict of the decision below with that of the Court of Claims, under corresponding provisions of the Revenue Act of 1921, in Hirschi v. United States, 67 Ct. Cls. 637.

The Revenue Act of 1924, c. 234, 43 Stat. 262, like that of 1921, c. 136, 42 Stat. 232, taxed certain income derived from capital gains at a lower rate than other income. By § 208 (a) (1) "The term 'capital gain' means taxable gain from the sale or exchange of capital assets consummated after December 31, 1921." By § 208 (a) (8) "capital assets" means property held by the taxpayer for more than two years but does not include property "which would properly be included in the inventory of the taxpayer if on hand at the close of the taxable year, or property held by the taxpayer primarily for sale in the course of his trade or business." Related provisions of the section define "capital loss" and "capital deductions" which, in some circumstances, are allowed as deductions from capital gain in order to arrive at the net gain taxed at the lower rate. The only question presented here is whether the bonus payments to the respondent, after allowed deductions, if any, are "gain from the sale or exchange of capital assets" within the meaning of the taxing act.

[ 287 U.S. Page 106]

     Before the Act of 1921, gains realized from the sale of property were taxed at the same rates as other income, with the result that capital gains, often accruing over long periods of time, were taxed in the year of realization at the high rates resulting from their inclusion in the higher surtax brackets. The provisions of the 1921 revenue act for taxing capital gains at a lower rate, reenacted in 1924 without material change, were adopted to relieve the taxpayer from these excessive tax burdens on gains resulting from a conversion of capital investments, and to remove the deterrent effect of those burdens on such conversions. House Report No. 350, Ways and Means Committee, 67th Cong., 1st Sess. on the Revenue Bill of 1921, p. 10; see Alexander v. King, 46 F.2d 235.

It is an incident of every oil and gas lease, where production operations are carried on by the lessee, that the ownership of the oil and gas passes from the lessor to the lessee at some time and the lessor is compensated by the payments made by the lessee for the rights and privileges which he acquires under the lease. But notwithstanding this incidental transfer of ownership, it is evident that the taxation of the receipts of the lessor as income does not ordinarily produce the kind of hardship aimed at by the capital gains provision of the taxing act. Oil and gas may or may not be present in the leased premises, and may or may not be found by the lessee. If found, their abstraction from the soil is a time-consuming operation and the payments made by the lessee to the lessor do not normally become payable as the result of a single transaction within the taxable year, as in the case of a sale of property. The payment of an initial bonus alters the character of the transaction no more than an unusually large rental for the first year alters the character of any other lease, and the taxation of the one as ordinary income does not act as a deterrent upon conversion of capital assets, any more than the taxation of the other.

[ 287 U.S. Page 107]

     Moreover, the statute speaks of a "sale," and these leases would not generally be described as a "sale" of the mineral content of the soil, using the term either in its technical sense or as it is commonly understood. Nor would the payments made by lessee to lessor generally be denominated the purchase price of the oil and gas. By virtue of the lease, the lessee acquires the privilege of exploiting the land for the production of oil and gas for a prescribed period; he may explore, drill, and produce oil and gas if found. Such operations with respect to a mine have been said to resemble a manufacturing business carried on by the use of the soil, to which the passing of title of the minerals is but an incident, rather than a sale of the land or of any interest in it or in its mineral content. Stratton's Independence v. Howbert, 231 U.S. 399, 414, 415; see Von Baumbach v. Sargent Land Co., 242 U.S. 503, 521.

Long before the enactment of the capital gains provision in the 1921 Revenue Act, this Court had to determine whether a mining lease was to be regarded as a sale. In interpreting the Corporation Tax Law of 1909, it had occasion to consider the nature of the proceeds derived by the owner of mineral land from his own mining operations or from payments made to him by the lessee under a mining lease. That Act imposed an excise tax on corporations, measured by their income. Unlike the later revenue acts, it made no provision for a depletion allowance to be deducted from the proceeds of mining in order to arrive at the statutory income. It was argued that since the net result of the mining operation is a conversion of capital investment as upon a sale, the money received by the corporate owner or lessor, being its capital in a ...


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