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Sun Oil Co. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

filed: September 7, 1977; As Amended November 29, 1977, January 26, 1978.

SUN OIL COMPANY, TRANSFEREE, SUNRAY DX OIL COMPANY AND SUBSIDIARIES, TRANSFEROR,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Decision of the United States Tax Court.

Seitz, Chief Judge, and Rosenn, circuit Judge, and Lord, Chief Judge.*fn*

Author: Rosenn

Opinion OF THE COURT

ROSENN, Circuit Judge

In the quest to obtain capital, to generate business liquidity, or to minimize taxes, private enterprise often resorts to the sale of property and a simultaneous leaseback to the seller. A recurring question in transactions of this sort is whether after the transfer of title to the property some or all of the critical incidents of ownership still remain with the grantor despite his newly designated status as lessee.

This case concerns conveyances of 320 parcels of unimproved service station sites at cost by Sunray DX Oil Company ("Sunray") to a tax-exempt trust and simultaneous leasebacks to the grantor. The sole question is whether the transaction was a mere financing arrangement between the parties or an authentic sale. The Commissioner disallowed Sunray's deduction of its rental payments on the ground that the transaction did not constitute a true sale and that the rental payments were not a bona fide business expense deductible under section 162(a)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 ("the Code").*fn1 In a proceeding for redetermination of the deficiency brought by Sun Oil Co., Sunray's successor in interest, the United States Tax Court held that the rental payments were deductible. The Commissioner appealed and we reverse.

I.

During the taxable years in issue (1965-1968), Sunray, together with its subsidiaries and predecessors, was an integrated oil company engaged in all phases of the petroleum business, including marketing of petroleum and petroleum products. It was merged on October 25, 1968, into Sun Oil Company, a New Jersey corporation which was subsequently restructured as the Sun Oil Company, the appellee taxpayer herein. During the 1950's and early 1960's Sunray was actively involved in acquiring service station sites primarily in seventeen central states along interstate highways and in certain urban areas. For a variety of business reasons, Sunray concluded that the most preferable means of obtaining working capital would be to convey its service station sites and then simultaneously lease them back rather than to mortgage the properties and incur a debt obligation on its books. After deciding to pursue this course of action, Sunray ascertained that General Electric Pension Trust (the "Trust") was interested in taking title to the properties, advancing funds to Sunray equal to the cost of the properties, and then entering into lease agreements with Sunray on a long term basis together with options to purchase.*fn2

After extensive negotiations concerning terms and conditions of the proposed sale and leasebacks, Sunray and the Trust entered into their first letter agreement, dated October 13, 1964, under the terms of which Sunray agreed to convey by general warranty deed and the Trust agreed to purchase approximately 120 service station sites. The agreed purchase price for the parcels of land, mostly unimproved, was equal to Sunray's cost*fn3 of acquisition and in the aggregate was not to exceed six million dollars. Simultaneous with purchase, Sunray agreed to lease the properties from the Trust for a primary term of 25 years with quarterly rentals sufficient to enable the Trust to amortize its investment in full over such initial term at an interest return of 4 5/8 percent on its investment. The lease contained options exercisable by Sunray to renew the lease for two five-year terms at annual rentals equivalent to 2 1/2 percent of the purchase price of the land and for an additional eleven five-year terms at annual rentals equivalent to 1 1/2 percent of the purchase price.

On April 24, 1967, Sunray entered into a second letter agreement with the Trust under the terms of which the Trust agreed to purchase and Sunray agreed to sell approximately 200 additional service station sites at a price equal to Sunray's acquisition costs but not to exceed an aggregate price of eleven million dollars. Sunray again agreed to leaseback the properties for a primary term of 25 years with quarterly rentals sufficient to amortize the Trust's investment in full over such initial term at an interest return of 5 3/8 percent with similar renewal options to Sunray as in the first letter; the annual rentals for the first two five-year terms were equivalent to 3 percent of the purchase price, for five additional five-year terms were equivalent to 2 1/2 percent of the purchase price, and for six final five-year terms equaled 2 percent of the purchase price.

Sunray consummated the second letter agreement by conveying 213 separate parcels of land each by separate warranty deed. At or about the same time, Sunray leased the properties for rentals under the terms set out in the letter agreement. Sunray and the Trust executed master leases at each of the closings, the terms of such leases being essentially the same except for the effective dates, properties described, and the quarter-annual payments. The leases require that the basic rent be payable absolutely net to the Trust throughout the term without deduction or setoff and that Sunray, as lessee, pay all taxes, assessments, or similar charges assessed against the premises.

The major provisions of the leases were capsulized by the Tax Court as follows:

Each lease afforded Sunray an option to purchase any of the leased properties on specified dates, provided Sunray had discontinued or would discontinue the then business use of the property to be purchased. In each instance the price to be paid for the property was to equal its "fair appraised value * * * * to Lessor." The appraisal of the property was to be conducted by three appraisers: one chosen by the lessor, one chosen by the lessee, and one chosen by the other two appraisers. The decision of any two appraisers was to be conclusive.

Sunray required that it be able to terminate its obligations to lease any property that might prove uneconomical to operate as a service station. Each lease was therefore made to provide:

During the Primary Term of this Lease, Lessee may, if Lessee intends to discontinue or has discontinued the use of the Leased Premises for its then business use, make a rejectable offer to purchase the Leased Premises as of any Basic Rent payment date occurring in the Primary Term at a price in cash equal to the sum of the present values * * * * of all quarterly Basic Rent payments to become due on and after the proposed purchase date * * * *

plus an amount sufficient to insure the Trust of a return of 5 percent per annum over the term of the investment.

Each lease further provided that if on any one of several specified dates

Offers to purchase made pursuant to this clause were to be identical to those offers that might have been made by Sunray had it discontinued the then business use of the property.

The Trust was given 30 days in which to consider any rejectable offer that might be made and was nowise obligated to accept such an offer. In the event such an offer were rejected, however, Sunray would be released from its ...


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