In The

Supreme Court of the United States



TUFTS et al.

Decided May 2, 1983

Justice O’Connor, Concurring


Commissioner v. Tufts, 461 U.S. 300 (1983), was a unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court, which held that when a taxpayer sells or disposes of property encumbered by a nonrecourse obligation exceeding the fair market value of the property sold, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue may require him to include in the “amount realized” the outstanding amount of the obligation; the fair market value of the property is irrelevant to this calculation.

Topic: Federal Taxation*Court vote: 9–0
Note: No other Justices joined this opinion.
Holding: When a taxpayer sells or disposes of property encumbered by a nonrecourse obligation exceeding the fair market value of the property sold, the Commissioner may require him to include in the “amount realized” the outstanding amount of the obligation.
Citation: 461 U.S. 300 Docket: 81–1536Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concurring.

I concur in the opinion of the Court, accepting the view of the Commissioner. I do not, however, endorse the Commissioner's view. Indeed, were we writing on a slate clean except for the decision in Crane v. Commissioner, 331 U. S. 1 (1947), I would take quite a different approach -that urged upon us by Professor Barnett as amicus.

Crane established that a taxpayer could treat property as entirely his own, in spite of the "coinvestment" provided by his mortgagee in the form of a nonrecourse loan. That is, the full basis of the property, with all its tax consequences, belongs to the mortgagor. That rule alone, though, does not in any way tie nonrecourse debt to the cost of property or to the proceeds upon disposition. I see no reason to treat the purchase, ownership, and eventual disposition of property differently because the taxpayer also takes out a mortgage, an independent transaction. In this case, the taxpayer purchased property, using nonrecourse financing, and sold it after it declined in value to a buyer who assumed the mortgage. There is no economic difference between the events in this case and a case in which the taxpayer buys property with cash; later obtains a nonrecourse loan by pledging the property as security; still later, using cash on hand, buys off the mortgage for the market value of the devalued property; and finally sells the property to a third party for its market value.

The logical way to treat both this case and the hypothesized case is to separate the two aspects of these events and to consider, first, the ownership and sale of the property, and, second, the arrangement and retirement of the loan. Under Crane, the fair market value of the property on the date of acquisition -the purchase price -represents the taxpayer's basis in the property, and the fair market value on the date of disposition represents the proceeds on sale. The benefit received by the taxpayer in return for the property is the cancellation of a mortgage that is worth no more than the fair market value of the property, for that is all the mortgagee can expect to collect on the mortgage. His gain or loss on the disposition of the property equals the difference between the proceeds and the cost of acquisition. Thus, the taxation of the transaction in property reflects the economic fate of the property. If the property has declined in value, as was the case here, the taxpayer recognizes a loss on the disposition of the property. The new purchaser then takes as his basis the fair market value as of the date of the sale. See, e.g., United States v. Davis, 370 U. S. 65, 370 U. S. 72 (1962); Gibson Products Co. v. United States, 637 F.2d 1041, 1046, n. 8 (CA5 1981) (dictum); see generally Treas.Reg. § 1.10012(a)(3), 26 CFR § 1.1001-2(a)(3) (1982); 2 B. Bittker, Federal Taxation of Income, Estates and Gifts 41.2.2., pp. 41-10 41-11 (1981).

In the separate borrowing transaction, the taxpayer acquires cash from the mortgagee. He need not recognize income at that time, of course, because he also incurs an obligation to repay the money. Later, though, when he is able to satisfy the debt by surrendering property that is worth less than the face amount of the debt, we have a classic situation of cancellation of indebtedness, requiring the taxpayer to recognize income in the amount of the difference between the proceeds of the loan and the amount for which he is able to satisfy his creditor. 26 U.S.C. § 61(a)(12). The taxation of the financing transaction then reflects the economic fate of the loan.

The reason that separation of the two aspects of the events in this case is important is, of course, that the Code treats different sorts of income differently. A gain on the sale of the property may qualify for capital gains treatment, §§ 1202, 1221 (1976 ed. and Supp. V), while the cancellation of indebtedness is ordinary income, but income that the taxpayer may be able to defer. §§ 108, 1017 (1976 ed., Supp. V). Not only does Professor Barnett's theory permit us to accord appropriate treatment to each of the two types of income or loss present in these sorts of transactions, it also restores continuity to the system by making the taxpayer-seller's proceeds on the disposition of property equal to the purchaser's basis in the property. Further, and most important, it allows us to tax the events in this case in the same way that we tax the economically identical hypothesized transaction.

Persuaded though I am by the logical coherence and internal consistency of this approach, I agree with the Court's decision not to adopt it judicially. We do not write on a slate marked only by Crane. The Commissioner's longstanding position, Rev.Rul. 76-111, 1976-1 Cum.Bull. 214, is now reflected in the regulations. Treas.Reg. § 1.1001-2, 26 CFR § 1.1001-2 (1982). In the light of the numerous cases in the lower courts including the amount of the unrepaid proceeds of the mortgage in the proceeds on sale or disposition, see, e.g., Estate of Levine v. Commissioner, 634 F.2d 12, 15 (CA2 1980); Millar v. Commissioner, 577 F.2d 212 (CA3), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 1046 (1978); Estate of Delman v. Commissioner, 73 T.C. 15, 28-30 (1979); Peninsula Properties Co., Ltd. v. Commissioner, 47 B.T.A. 84, 92 (1942), it is difficult to conclude that the Commissioner's interpretation of the statute exceeds the bounds of his discretion. As the Court's opinion demonstrates, his interpretation is defensible. One can reasonably read § 1001(b)'s reference to "the amount realized from the sale or other disposition of property" (emphasis added) to permit the Commissioner to collapse the two aspects of the transaction. As long as his view is a reasonable reading of § 1001(b), we should defer to the regulations promulgated by the agency charged with interpretation of the statute. National Muffler Dealers Assn. v. United States, 440 U. S. 472, 440 U. S. 488 -489 (1979); United States v. Correll, 389 U. S. 299, 389 U. S. 307 (1967); see also Fulman v. United States, 434 U. S. 528, 434 U. S. 534 (1978). Accordingly, I concur.

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