decided*fn*: May 20, 1968.
COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE
GORDON ET UX.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT.
Warren, Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Fortas; Marshall took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
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MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
These cases, involving the interpretation of § 355 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, have an appropriately complex history.
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American Telephone and Telegraph Company (hereafter A. T. & T.) conducts its local communications business through corporate subsidiaries. Prior to July 1, 1961, communications services in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho were provided by Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company (hereafter Pacific). A. T. & T. held about 90% of the common stock of Pacific at all relevant times. The remainder was widely distributed.
Early in 1961, it was decided to divide Pacific into two separate corporate subsidiaries of A. T. & T. The plan was to create a new corporation, Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company (hereafter Northwest) to conduct telephone business in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, leaving the conduct of the California business in the hands of Pacific. To this end, Pacific would transfer all its assets and liabilities in the first three States to Northwest, in return for Northwest common stock and debt paper. Then, Pacific would transfer sufficient Northwest stock to Pacific shareholders to pass control of Northwest to the parent company, A. T. & T.
Pacific had, however, objectives other than fission. It wanted to generate cash to pay off existing liabilities and meet needs for capital, but not to have excess cash left over. It also feared that a simple distribution of the Northwest stock would encounter obstacles under California corporation law.*fn1 Consequently, the "Plan for Reorganization" submitted to Pacific's shareholders on
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February 27, 1961, had two special features. It provided that only about 56% of the Northwest common stock would be offered to Pacific shareholders immediately after the creation of Northwest. It also provided that, instead of simply distributing Northwest stock pro rata to shareholders, Pacific would distribute to its shareholders transferable rights entitling their holders to purchase Northwest common from Pacific at an amount to be specified by Pacific's Board of Directors, but expected to be below the fair market value of the Northwest common.
In its February 27 statement to shareholders, Pacific said that it was seeking a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service
"with respect to the tax status of the rights to purchase which will be issued in connection with the offerings of capital stock of the New Company to shareholders of the Company . . . ."
The statement warned, however, that "taxable income to the holders of such shares may result with respect to such rights."
The plan was approved by Pacific's shareholders on March 24, 1961. Pacific transferred its assets and liabilities in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho to Northwest, and ceased business in those States on June 30, 1961. On September 29, 1961, Pacific issued to its common stockholders one right for each outstanding share of Pacific stock. These rights were exercisable until October 20, 1961. Six rights plus a payment of $16 were required to purchase one share of Northwest common. The rights issued in 1961 were sufficient to transfer about 57% of the Northwest stock.
By September 29, 1961, the Internal Revenue Service had ruled that shareholders who sold rights would realize
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ordinary income in the amount of the sales price, and that shareholders who exercised rights would realize ordinary income in the amount of the difference between $16 paid in and the fair market value, measured as of the date of exercise, of the Northwest common received. The prospectus accompanying the distributed rights informed Pacific shareholders of this ruling.
On June 12, 1963, the remaining 43% of the Northwest stock was offered to Pacific shareholders. This second offering was structured much as the first had been, except that eight rights plus $16 were required to purchase one share of Northwest.
The Gordons, respondents in No. 760, and the Baans, petitioners in No. 781, were minority shareholders of Pacific as of September 29, 1961. In the rights distribution that occurred that day the Gordons received 1,540 rights under the plan. They exercised 1,536 of the rights on October 5, 1961, paying $4,096 to obtain 256 shares of Northwest, at a price of $16 plus six rights per share. The average price of Northwest stock on the American Stock Exchange was $26 per share on October 5. On the same day, the Gordons sold the four odd rights for $6.36. The Baans received 600 rights on September 29, 1961. They exercised them all on October 11, 1961, receiving 100 shares of Northwest in return for their 600 rights and $1,600. On October 11, the agreed fair market value of one Northwest share was $26.94.
In their federal income tax returns for 1961, neither the Gordons nor the Baans reported any income upon the receipt of the rights or upon exercising them to obtain Northwest stock at less than its fair market value. The Gordons also did not report any income on the sale of the four rights. The Commissioner asserted deficiencies against both sets of taxpayers. He contended, in a joint proceeding in the Tax Court, that the taxpayers received
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ordinary income in the amount of the difference between the sum they paid in exercising their rights and the fair market value of the Northwest stock received. He contended further that the Gordons realized ordinary income in the amount of $6.36, the sales price, upon the sale of their four odd rights.
The Tax Court upheld the taxpayers' contention that the 1961 distribution of Northwest stock met the requirements of § 355 of the Code, with the result that no gain or loss should be recognized on the receipt by them or their exercise of the rights. The Tax Court held, however, that the Gordons' sale of the four odd rights resulted in ordinary income to them. The Commissioner appealed the Baan case to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and the Gordon case to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; in the latter, the Gordons cross-appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed the Tax Court, holding that the spread between $16 and fair market value was taxable as ordinary income to the Baans. The Second Circuit disagreed, sustaining the Tax Court on this point in the Gordon case, Judge Friendly dissenting. The Second Circuit went on to hold that the amount received by the Gordons for the four odd rights was taxable as a capital gain rather than as ordinary income, reversing the Tax Court on this point.
Because of the conflict, we granted certiorari. 389 U.S. 1033, 1034. We affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on both points.
Under §§ 301 and 316 of the Code, subject to specific exceptions and qualifications provided in the Code, any distribution of property by a corporation to its shareholders out of accumulated earnings and profits is a dividend
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taxable to the shareholders as ordinary income.*fn2 Every distribution of corporate property, again except as otherwise specifically provided, "is made out of earnings and profits to the extent thereof."*fn3 It is here agreed that on September 28, 1961, Pacific's accumulated earnings and profits were larger in extent than the total amount the Commissioner here contends was a dividend -- the difference between the fair market value of all Northwest stock sold in 1961 and the total amount, at $16 per share, paid in by purchasers.
Whether the actual dividend occurs at the moment when valuable rights are distributed or at the moment when their value is realized through sale or exercise, it is clear that when a corporation sells corporate property to stockholders or their assignees at less than its fair market value, thus diminishing the net worth of the corporation, it is engaging in a "distribution of property" as that term is used in § 316.*fn4 Such a sale thus results in a
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dividend to shareholders unless some specific exception or qualification applies. In particular, it is here agreed that the spread was taxable to the present taxpayers unless the distribution of Northwest stock by Pacific met the requirements for non-recognition stated in § 355, or § 354, or § 346 (b) of the Code.*fn5 Since the Tax Court
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concluded that the requirements of § 355 had been met, it did not reach taxpayers' alternative contentions. Under the disposition that we make here upon the § 355 question, these alternative contentions remain open for further proceedings in the Tax Court.
Section 355 provides that certain distributions of securities of corporations controlled by the distributing corporation do not result in recognized gain or loss to the distributee shareholders.*fn6 The requirements of the
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section are detailed and specific, and must be applied with precision. It is no doubt true, as the Second Circuit emphasized, that the general purpose of the section was to distinguish corporate fission from the distribution of
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earnings and profits. However, although a court may have reference to this purpose when there is a genuine question as to the meaning of one of the requirements Congress has imposed, a court is not free to disregard requirements simply because it considers them redundant or unsuited to achieving the general purpose in a particular case. Congress has abundant power to provide that a corporation wishing to spin off a subsidiary
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must, however bona fide its intentions, conform the details of a distribution to a particular set of rules.
The Commissioner contends that the 1961 distribution of Northwest stock failed to qualify under § 355 in several respects.*fn7 We need, however, reach only one. Section 355 (a)(1)(D) requires that, in order to qualify for non-recognition of gain or loss to shareholders, the distribution must be such that
"as part of the distribution, the distributing corporation distributes --
"(i) all of the stock and securities in the controlled corporation held by it immediately before the distribution, or
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"(ii) an amount of stock in the controlled corporation constituting control within the meaning of section 368 (c), and . . . ."
Section 368 (c) provides in relevant part that
"the term 'control' means the ownership of stock possessing at least 80 percent of the total combined voting power of all classes of stock entitled to vote and at least 80 percent of the total number of shares of all other classes of stock of the corporation."*fn8
On September 28, 1961, the day before the first rights distribution, Pacific owned all of the common stock of Northwest, the only class of securities that company had issued. The 1961 rights offering contemplated transferring, and succeeded in transferring, about 57% of the Northwest common to Pacific shareholders. It therefore could not be clearer that this 1961 distribution did not transfer "all" of the stock of Northwest held by Pacific prior to it, and did not transfer "control" as that term is defined in § 368 (c).
Nevertheless, taxpayers contend, and the Second Circuit agreed, that the requirements of subsection (a)(1)(D) were here met because Pacific distributed the remaining 43% of the Northwest stock in 1963. The court said that the purpose of the subsection "in no way requires
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a single distribution."*fn9 The court apparently concluded that so long as it appears, at the time the issue arises, that the parent corporation has in fact distributed all of the stock of the subsidiary, the requirements of § (a)(1)(D)(i) have been satisfied.
We are forced to disagree. The Code requires that "the distribution" divest the controlling corporation of all of, or 80% control of, the controlled corporation. Clearly, if an initial transfer of less than a controlling interest in the controlled corporation is to be treated for tax purposes as a mere first step in the divestiture of control, it must at least be identifiable as such at the time it is made. Absent other specific directions from Congress, Code provisions must be interpreted so as to conform to the basic premise of annual tax accounting.*fn10 It would be wholly inconsistent with this premise to hold that the essential character of a transaction, and its tax impact, should remain not only undeterminable but unfixed for an indefinite and unlimited period in the future, awaiting events that might or might not happen. This requirement that the character of a transaction be determinable does not mean that the entire divestiture must necessarily occur within a single tax year. It does, however, mean that if one transaction is to be characterized as a "first step" there must be a binding commitment to take the later steps.*fn11
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Here, it was little more than a fortuity that, by the time suit was brought alleging a deficiency in taxpayers' 1961 returns, Pacific had distributed the remainder of the stock. The plan for reorganization submitted to shareholders in 1961 promised that 56% of that stock would be distributed immediately. The plan went on,
"It is expected that within about three years after acquiring the stock of the New Company, the Company by one or more offerings will offer for sale the balance of such stock, following the procedures described in the preceding paragraph. The proceeds from such sales will be used by the Company to repay advances then outstanding and for general corporate purposes including expenditures for extensions, additions and improvements to its telephone plant.
"The prices at which the shares of the New Company will be offered pursuant to the offerings referred to . . . will be determined by the Board of Directors of the Company at the time of each offering."
It was further stated that such subsequent distributions would occur "at a time or times related to its [Pacific's] need for new capital." Although there is other language in the plan that might be interpreted as preventing Pacific management from dealing with the Northwest stock in any way inconsistent with eventual sale to Pacific shareholders, there is obviously no promise to sell any particular amount of stock, at any particular time, at any particular price. If the 1961 distribution played a part in what later proved to be a total divestiture of the Northwest stock, it was not, in 1961, either
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a total divestiture or a step in a plan of total divestiture.
Accordingly, we hold that the taxpayers, having exercised rights to purchase shares of Northwest from Pacific in 1961, must recognize ordinary income in that year in the amount of the difference between $16 per share and the fair market value of a share of Northwest common at the moment the rights were exercised.
The second question presented by the petition in No. 760, whether the $6.36 received by taxpayers Gordon upon the sale of four rights was taxable as ordinary income, as a capital gain, or not at all, does not require extended discussion in light of our view upon the first question. Since receipt and exercise of the rights would have produced ordinary income, receipt and sale of the rights, constituting merely an alternative route to realization, also produced income taxable at ordinary rates. Helvering v. Horst, 311 U.S. 112; Gibson v. Commissioner, 133 F.2d 308 (C. A. 2d Cir.).
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL took no part in the consideration or decision of these cases.
No. 760, 382 F.2d 499, reversed; No. 781, 382 F.2d 485, affirmed.