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Pleasant Summit Land Corp. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. George Prussin and Sharon Prussin

filed: November 25, 1988.


On Appeal from the United States Tax Court, Tax Court Nos. 30159-82 & 28283-85.

Higginbotham, Mansmann, and Greenberg, Circuit Judges.

Author: Greenberg


GREENBERG, Circuit Judge.

Appellants, Pleasant Summit Land Corporation (PSLC) and George and Sharon Prussin, appeal from adverse decisions entered by the Tax Court following a consolidated trial on their petitions to redetermine deficiencies determined by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. PSLC challenges the Tax Court's conclusion that it was a "personal holding company" subject to the tax on personal holding companies in its tax year in issue. Resolution of its appeal depends on whether its sale of the Summit House apartments in West Orange, New Jersey, was of a capital asset and thus resulted in a capital gain, as it claims, or whether the Summit House was a property it held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of its trade or business so that its sale resulted in ordinary gross income.

George Prussin is an investor in a limited partnership, Pleasant & Summit Associates (PSA), which indirectly purchased Summit House from PSLC. The Prussins challenge the Tax Court's conclusions that: (1) nonrecourse financing of the Summit House purchase exceeded its fair market value; (2) the nonrecourse financing would not support depreciation and interest deductions which they claimed by reason of George Prussin's limited partnership interest in PSA; and (3) these deductions would be disallowed in full rather than only to the extent that they were the product of financing in excess of the fair market value of Summit House. Furthermore, they argue that the complete disallowance of the deductions unconstitutionally violated their right to due process of law.

This court has jurisdiction under section 7482(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954.*fn1 The Tax Court had jurisdiction under I.R.C. §§ 6213(a), 6214(a), and 7442. Inasmuch as PSLC was a New Jersey corporation with its principal place of business in New Jersey when it filed its petition and filed its appeal to this court and the Prussins were a married couple residing in New Jersey at all times relevant to their petition and appeal, the venue for these appeals properly lies in this court.*fn2

We will affirm the Tax Court's decision with respect to PSLC. We will reverse the Tax Court's decision to the extent it completely disallowed the Prussins' deductions and will remand for a determination of the fair market value of Summit House and for calculation of the appropriate deductions allowable to the Prussins. Since we hold that the Prussins' deductions may be disallowed only in part, their constitutional claim is moot and we do not address it.


A. The Underlying Business Transaction

On May 3, 1978, in an arm's length transaction, PSLC entered into an agreement to purchase the Summit House, a property on Summit Street, West Orange, New Jersey, containing two apartment buildings and a small separate resident manager's apartment for $4,200,000. The purchase was closed on or about June 1, 1978 and the consideration was paid by $250,000 in cash, by delivery of a $1,350,000 note secured by a purchase money mortgage, and by PSLC taking title subject to a previously existing $2,600,000 nonrecourse mortgage.

Contemporaneously with the purchase, PSLC created a wholly owned subsidiary, Mount Orange Realty Corp. (MORC), to which it then sold the Summit House buildings while retaining the land beneath them. The sale price to MORC was $5,200,000, consisting of $500,000 in cash which MORC borrowed or owed and a $4,700,000 nonrecourse mortgage which wrapped around and was subject to the prior two mortgages.*fn3 The note which this mortgage secured permitted accumulation of interest and principal through December 31, 1988, except that annual interest payments were required up to the available cash flow. This conveyance of the property placed the depreciable buildings in one entity while leaving the nondepreciable land in another.

PSLC then sold its MORC stock to the newly created PSA, which was organized to acquire the Summit House, for $2,559,200, paid in the form of a nonrecourse note secured by the MORC shares, for which a mortgage of Summit House to PSLC was immediately substituted. This note had provisions for accumulation of interest and principal through December 31, 1988, similar to those in the $4,700,000 note. PSA then dissolved MORC, took direct ownership of the Summit House buildings and took over MORC's obligations including the $500,000 due on the purchase of the Summit House and the $4,700,000 nonrecourse wraparound mortgage. Thus, the cost to PSA for acquisition of Summit House was the $2,559,200 indebtedness for the purchase of the MORC shares, assumption of MORC's $500,000 obligation, and assumption of MORC's $4,700,000 nonrecourse wraparound mortgage for a total of $7,759,200. The record, however, does not clearly establish that PSA paid the $500,000. Of course, this assumption of obligations did not transform the nonrecourse debts to recourse obligations. The consequence of these transactions was to leave PSA with large debts with interest charges and a substantial depreciable asset, a situation setting up the possibility for it to claim large tax deductions. Additionally, PSLC leased the land under the buildings to PSA for $10,000 a year under an agreement allowing rent to be accumulated and deferred at a fixed rate of interest. This provision caused PSA to generate additional tax deductions for the interest which accrued on the unpaid rent.

PSA sold thirty limited partnership units to a group of investors including George Prussin for a total of $1,980,000 paid with down payments and subsequent installments. The offering memorandum to the investors indicated that the $500,000 due on the sale from PSLC would be paid from the investors' down payments, leading the Commissioner in his brief to indicate that it appears that MORC's $500,000 obligation for its down payment was satisfied from the investors' funds. Inexplicably, the agreement for sale of the MORC shares between PSLC and PSA included a warranty by PSLC that MORC had no liabilities. Some months after PSA acquired Summit House, a new nonrecourse mortgage was substituted for the prior $2,600,000 mortgage but this did not enhance PSA's risk in the transaction. Most of the foregoing transactions were nearly contemporaneous and thus they formed part of one large structured undertaking.

PSA reported losses on its income tax returns for 1978 and 1979, and later years, largely attributable to interest deductions and depreciations. These losses were passed through to the limited partners who used them to off-set income on their individual tax returns. On December 19, 1985 an unrelated third party purchased the Summit House land from PSLC and the buildings and lease from PSA for a total of $7,000,000.

B. The Assessment of Deficiencies Against PSLC

On its corporate income tax return for its taxable year ending May 31, 1979, PSLC indicated that: (1) it had realized a gain of $3,742,704 on the sale of certain improvements to land in West Orange, New Jersey (Summit House); (2) it elected to use the cost recovery method for reporting this profit; and (3) under this method none of the gain was includable in its gross income for the taxable year covered by the return.

On October 7, 1982, the Commissioner issued a deficiency notice to PSLC. This notice stated that: (1) PSLC was required to recognize gain on the sale of its real property in the year of the sale;*fn4 (2) PSLC was not entitled to use the cost recovery method of accounting, (3) under the installment method of accounting; which PSLC had elected as an alternative to the cost recovery method, PSLC was required to report a gain in the amount of $464,069 for the taxable year ending May 31, 1979; (4) the $464,069 sum was a capital gain to PSLC in the taxable year ending May 31, 1979; (5) PSLC was a "personal holding company" because more than sixty percent of its adjusted ordinary gross income was from interest because the $464,069 was a capital gain and not ordinary income, and (6) inasmuch as PSLC was a personal holding company it owed an additional $106,832 under the personal holding company tax imposed by I.R.C. § 541.

C. The Assessment of Deficiencies Against the Prussins

The Prussins reported a loss of $417,012 from George Prussin's distributive share of the 1978 losses of PSA on their joint federal income tax return for 1978, and a loss of $345,170 from George Prussin's distributive share of PSA's 1979 losses on their 1979 income tax return. On April 22, 1985, the Commissioner issued a deficiency notice to the Prussins entirely disallowing his share of the partnership losses on the ground that the Prussins had not established the amount and character of any of the partnership items on which their individual loss claims were based.

D. This Litigation

PSLC and the Prussins brought these actions challenging the Commissioner's deficiency notices. Prior to the consolidated trial, PSLC conceded all issues other than its status as a personal holding company. A trial then ensued before Judge Cohen of the United States Tax Court whose opinion is reported as Pleasant Summit Land Corporation v. Commissioner, T.C.M. (CCH) 1987-469 at 566-76 (Sept. 17, 1987) [hereinafter PSLC]. Judge Cohen held that PSLC qualified as a personal holding company subject to the personal holding company tax and, accordingly, she upheld the Commissioner's assessment of a $236,840 deficiency for PSLC's taxable year ending May 31, 1979. On this appeal PSLC challenges the Tax Court's finding that PSLC was a personal holding company, though it does not contend that, if it was a personal holding company, the assessment was erroneously calculated.

Judge Cohen determined that the Prussins had deficiencies for their taxable years ending December 31, 1978, and December 31, 1979, respectively, of $264,571.00 and $141,496, attributable to her sustaining the disallowance of deductions that PSA passed through to its limited partners including the Prussins.*fn5 The disallowance of PSA's deductions was based on Judge Cohen's factual finding that the nonrecourse debt underlying its purchase of Summit House was greater than its fair market value, which did not exceed $4,200,000. The judge held that as a matter of law nonrecourse indebtedness in excess of fair market value would not support deductions for either depreciation or interest payments as there was no investment in the property and no genuine indebtedness for its purchase. She explained that no depreciable basis in Summit House had been established and consequently no portion of the nonrecourse indebtedness would support tax deductions. On appeal the Prussins challenge Judge Cohen's findings of fact, her application of legal standards, and the constitutionality of the legal standards applied.


This court has plenary review of the Tax Court's construction of the Internal Revenue Code. See Minizza v. Stone Container Corp., 842 F.2d 1456, 1459 (3d Cir. 1988); Creque v. Luis, 803 F.2d 92, 93 (3d Cir. 1986). This standard of review applies with regard to three issues on appeal. First, it is a question of law whether a single factor test or a multiple factor analysis is employed to determine if a property is held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of a taxpayer's trade or business. Second, it is a question of law whether nonrecourse indebtedness in excess of fair market value may support depreciation and interest deductions. Third, it is a question of law whether deductions based on such indebtedness should be completely disallowed when a taxpayer fails to meet his burden of proof of the fair market value of the property.

The Tax Court's conclusion that the nonrecourse indebtedness on the underlying transaction exceeded the fair market value of Summit House was a finding of fact subject to review for clear error only. See Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-76, 105 S. Ct. 1504, 1511-12, 84 L. Ed. 2d 518 (1985); Commissioner v. Duberstein, 363 U.S. 278, 289, 80 S. Ct. 1190, 1198-99, 4 L. Ed. 2d 1218 (1960); B.B. Rider Corp. v. Commissioner, 725 F.2d 945, 948 (3d Cir. 1984).

PSLC argues that while factual findings are generally subject to review under the clearly erroneous standard, the Tax Court finding that the underlying transaction was not of property held primarily for sale to customers within the ordinary course of its trade or business, constituted an "ultimate fact" subject to plenary review. The Commissioner, however, urges that we accept this finding unless it was clearly erroneous. We have indicated that we no longer recognize the ultimate fact exception to the standard that factual findings are reviewed only for clear error. American Home Products Corp. v. Barr Laboratories, Inc., 834 F.2d 368, 370 n.2 (3d Cir. 1987). Further, the Supreme Court has rejected the ultimate fact exception and has stated that the clearly erroneous standard applies to findings of ultimate fact. See Pullman-Standard v. Swint, 456 U.S. 273, 285-90, 102 S. Ct. 1781, 1788-91, 72 L. Ed. 2d 66 (1982). Thus, our earlier decisions permitting plenary review of ultimate fact determinations, see, e.g., Jersey Land & Development Corp. v. United States, 539 F.2d 311, 315 (3d Cir. 1976); Pennroad Corp. v. Commissioner, 261 F.2d 325, 328 (3d Cir. 1958), cert. denied, 359 U.S. 958, 79 S. Ct. 797 (1959), cannot be taken to represent the present position of this court. Therefore, to the extent that the Tax Court's conclusion regarding the character of the underlying transaction was predicated on a factual finding, it must be accepted unless clearly erroneous. We add, however, that even under a plenary standard of review we would reach the same conclusion as the Tax Court on this issue. Finally, we point out that PSLC contends that, as a matter of law, the undisputed facts require a reversal of the finding in the Tax Court that the sale of Summit House was not of a property held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of PSLC's trade or business. Thus, as we make a plenary determination of legal issues, the dispute over the standard of review is of limited significance in this case.


Determination of whether PSLC was properly held to be a personal holding company turns solely on whether Summit House was "property held by [PSLC] primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of [its] trade or business" within I.R.C. § 1221(1). The Tax Court's opinion provided a clear explanation of the purpose of the personal holding company tax which we need not repeat. We do note that the personal holding company tax is ...

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