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Pont v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

March 6, 1941


Appeal from the United States Board of Tax Appeals.

Author: Clark

Before BIGGS, CLARK, and BUFFINGTON, Circuit Judges.

CLARK, Circuit Judge.

The two petitioners wished to reduce their income taxes. This desire is shared by many of their fellow citizens, rich or poor, and therefore is so far, so good. The Government contends, however, that too far is not so good and says that here the taxpayers employed a device that did go too far, in the legal sense at any rate. They went down a road which has not been marked by any very statisfactory judicial "dangerous curve ahead" signs. The relation (or lack of it) between ethics and tax avoidance (evasion) has puzzled judges and others who have considered the subject.*fn1

The road taken by the taxpayers was opened for travel by the legislative adoption of the realization, as contrasted with the accrual, method of determining capital gains and losses.*fn2 The attachment of an artificial importance to the fact of sale placed a powerful weapon in the hands of the taxpayer. In its selection of this arbitrary criterion, the Congress used the bare phrase "sale or exchange".*fn3 Standing alone, it imported too much unreality. The courts filled in the outline with the obviously indicated bona fides.*fn4 That qualification of the legal act sometimes faced them and now faces us with the embarrassment attendant upon delving into and appraising the human mind. For good faith, or the lack of it, is not always made outwardly manifest.

The difficulty of that appraisal led to some narrowing of the field of its exercise. When the courts find the unraveling too hard, the Congress cuts the knot. We all yield to that human instinct whose futility is expressed in an ancient and homely phrase.*fn5 Taxpayers are no exception. They insist upon claiming losses while retaining or regaining benefits inconsistent with a normal sale. To divest a sale of its fundamental incident of finality plainly requires a controlled or sympathetic vendee. Such dominion might be and was accomplished either boldly through contracts or options to repurchase and the creation of fictitious entities or it might be and was accomplished through the more subtle ties of affectionate interest found among families and friends, business or otherwise.

In placing one or another type of transaction within or without Mr. Justice Holmes' line the Congress had, of course, to follow some sort of principle of probable error. Fairness demanded a division based on a "likelihood of bad faith". Acting on this thesis the Congress has relieved and superseded the courts in the following instances, year-end wash sales,*fn6 the socalled boudoir sales,*fn7 and sales aiming to take advantage of the corporate fiction.*fn8 The Scylla of precise legislative definition and the Charybdis of an ad lib judicial process have been observed.*fn9 In the one alternative bona fides becomes too rigid, causing innocent and ordinary business relations to suffer,*fn10 while the wicked go about their wickedness.*fn11 In the other, the chaos of the cases is sufficient proof of trouble.

However all that may be, the Congress has not seen fit to sever our particular skein. It has attempted no delimitation of good faith here. It has not, as it might have, extended proscribed repurchases to include those not on the open market,*fn12 or those from persons in the theoretically less intimate relations. So, determination must be made by reading the mind of the taxpayer vendor - a task for which the medieval judge expressed distaste saying, " * * * for it is trite learning that the thought of man is not triable, for the devil himself knows not the thought of man * * * ."*fn13 The thought of homo-taxpayer for which a divining rod is needed here concerns only contemporaneous concert for the repurchase of the securities. If there is such "coexistent intention", the taxpayer has both his loss and his stocks and so has not shown the "good faith" his Government's revenue requires.

By definition almost, no help need be expected from the taxpayer. He is not usually going through expensive motions for the purpose of ultimately conceding himself out of court. Most judges have given little credence to any wide eyed disavowals from his direction.*fn14 But some courts are more trusting.*fn15 Here, as we shall see when we come to a recital of the facts, there is actual, although perhaps unconscious and involuntary, evidence of intention.

The selection of a particular sympathetic vendee is the keystone of the arch of feasibility of repurchase. Such choice in a wide field calls for an explanation. It has underlying it the logic of the rebuttable presumption. Explanations may be as varied as the possible combinations of facts and no one type is exclusive. One may observe at least one general thread - general because it goes to the core of the necessity to account. Sympathy along with many human emotions is evanescent. Whatever goes to its dispersal is relevant. The cases find lapse of time,*fn16 lack of contact,*fn17 and change of condition,*fn18 significant. Sympathy is apt to cool from any one of the three causes. With these governing considerations in mind, let us proceed to a more detailed analysis of the facts.

The mutual vendees are "sympathetic". This is rather less than denied. One followed the other up the ladder of financial success, starting in Ohio forty years ago. They occupied principal executive positions in du Pont and General Motors and held together the directorates generally appertaining to such industrial activity. The business association, as often, included social intimacy;*fn19 they shared offices in Wilmington and New York, and lived in the same apartment building in the latter place.

There are two transactions about which the Government complains. The first began on November 13, 1929, and ended on January 6, 1930, and involved the sums of $4,582,750 and $4,606,000 on direct and $5,254,125 and $5,989,500 on reversal. All the securities were listed on an exchange and the prices were within the market of the day. They could not, of course, by actual on the original sale and they seem to have been fancifully selected being neither high, low, open nor close. The two checks together with accompanying deposit slips were delivered in the same envelope to the receiving teller of the Bankers Trust Company in which the vendors-vendees had checking accounts and of which they were directors. On reversal the same stock certificates (with two exceptions) were returned. The prices this time (with one exception) were at low of the market for the day. This time the checks were mailed together from Wilmington to the Bankers Trust. Because of the price discrepancy, one gave the other an unsecured note for $700,000. The accounting between the parties was brought into balance by a short sale, which petitioners claim was a separate transaction, at the market prices of convenient dates.

The second reciprocal sale commenced on December 26 1929, and ended January 27, 1930, and was for the sums of $1,560,000 and $1,569,000 respectively. One of the stock was sold at 1/2 point off the low of the day. Again the checks were mailed in the same envelope and again the stock certificates (within this instance two exceptions) were the same. In this transaction, however, there occurred the previously mentioned involuntary evidence of the taxpayer's intention - an aid whose usual absence we have noted and regretted. One of the parties expected to spend part of the holiday in Florida. Before he left and on January 10, 1930 he signed two checks with dates and amounts blanks and two letters which were postdated. Obviously a coincident intention to repurchase follows inescapably from advance preparation to do so. The "disavowal" here was only to the best of the vendee's recollection and the plain testimony of the Government's document experts was allowed to stand.

Even the most cursory survey of these proceedings reveals no trace of the sympathy weakening factors of which we have spoken. The time elapsed was just about the shortest legally possible (53 and 32 days respectively); the contact between the participants was their routine one of close business and social intimacy - the record is replete with their conversations inter se, both face to face and over the telephone - and no change of status whatever occurred. Rather the petitioners attempt to give verisimilitude to their transactions by reliance upon their own protestations ...

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