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Agron v. Illinois Bell Telephone Co.

September 22, 1971

ROBERT C. AGRON, ON BEHALF OF HIMSELF AND ALL OTHER TELEPHONE SUBSCRIBERS OF ILLINOIS BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY WHO ARE SITUATED SIMILARLY TO HIM, PLAINTIFF APPELLANT,
v.
ILLINOIS BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY AND UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES. ROBERT C. AGRON, ETC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, V. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. ROBERT E. CLEVELAND AND FRANCES H. CLEVELAND, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHER TELEPHONE SUBSCRIBERS AND CUSTOMERS OF ILLINOIS BELL TELEPHONE CORPORATION SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS APPELLANTS, V. ILLINOIS BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, AND UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Swygert, Chief Judge, Duffy, Senior Circuit Judge, and Fairchild, Circuit Judge.

Author: Swygert

SWYGERT, Chief Judge.

The substantive issue in these three appeals*fn1 is whether certain occupation taxes imposed on Illinois Bell Telephone Company (IBT) by the State of Illinois and various Illinois municipalities are properly includable in the base on which is computed the federal excise tax on "amounts paid for * * * communication services" under section 4251 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954. Our resolution of this issue disposes of all three appeals.

Since there was no dispute as to any material fact, the Agron case was determined on cross-motions for summary judgment. Indeed, the case turns wholly on the interpretation and application of various state and federal statutes. The plaintiff, Robert C. Agron, a Chicago resident, is furnished telephone service by IBT. As a telephone subscriber, he is subject to the federal communications tax imposed by section 4251. IBT is required by section 4291 of the Code to collect the federal taxes which are imposed upon its customers, and under section 7501(a) it must hold them in "a special fund in trust for the United States." The amounts collected are paid over to the Internal Revenue Service each month. Treas. Reg. § 49.6302(c)-1. Agron contends that IBT, by including in the federal tax base those amounts identified on his telephone bills as attributable to state and local taxes, has improperly computed the federal tax which it collects from its subscribers and pays over to the United States.*fn2

For years the State of Illinois has imposed a "Messages Tax" on "persons engaged in the business of transmitting messages" which is measured by the "gross receipts from such business." Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 120, §§ 467.1, 467.2 (1969). This tax was generally imposed at the rate of three percent until 1965 when the rate was increased to four percent. In 1967 the rate was further increased to five percent. In addition to the state tax, IBT is subject to certain local messages taxes. In 1955 Illinois authorized municipalities to tax "Persons engaged in the business of transmitting messages by means of electricity, at a rate not to exceed 5% of the gross receipts from such business originating within the corporate limits of the municipality." Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 24, § 8-11-2 (1969). Many Illinois municipalities, including the City of Chicago, have exercised this authority to tax IBT.

At the same session at which municipalities were authorized to tax IBT, the Illinois legislature added subsection (a) to Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 111 2/3, § 36 (1969). That addition provided that whenever a municipality exercised the authority to impose an occupation tax on a utility:

such utility may charge its customers, in addition to any rate authorized by this Act, an additional charge equal to the sum of (1) an amount equal to such municipal tax, or any part thereof, (2) 3% of such tax, or any part thereof, as the case may be, to cover costs of accounting, and (3) an amount equal to the increases in taxes and other payments to governmental bodies resulting from the amount of such additional charge.

IBT imposes this additional charge by filing a supplemental schedule applicable to the municipality which had imposed the tax. Such a supplemental schedule, if it falls within the legislative authorization cannot be suspended by the Illinois Commerce Commission.*fn3 Section 36(a) also provides that the additional charge:

shall be made by the addition of a uniform percentage to the amounts payable for intrastate utility service in such municipality and shall be shown separately on the utility bill to each customer.

In 1965, when Illinois increased the rate of the state messages tax, the legislature again amended section 36 by adding subsection (b). This addition performed essentially the same function as subsection (a); it authorized an additional charge to offset any increase in the state tax rate above the prior rate of three percent and provided that IBT could file immediately effective supplemental schedules to recoup any such tax increase.*fn4

IBT has computed the federal excise tax which it collects for the government from its customers on a base which includes the separately stated state and local taxes imposed on it. According to Agron this procedure resulted in an overstatement of his federal tax. His efforts to recover the alleged overpayment began in 1967 when he filed a class action against IBT. The suit was eventually dismissed for lack of jurisdiction apparently on the ground that it was essentially a tax refund suit and the jurisdictional requirement of section 7422(a) of the Internal Revenue Code that the taxpayer file a refund claim before bringing such a suit was not complied with. Agron then filed two refund claims, one on behalf of himself individually and another on behalf of himself and all similarly situated subscribers to IBT's services and also on behalf of IBT, and brought the instant suit for refund.

Agron initially named IBT and the United States as defendants in all three counts of his complaint. Count I sought recovery of the amount of Agron's individual tax refund claim; Count II asserted a claim for refund of taxes on behalf of a class consisting of all of IBT's subscribers; and Count III sought a refund not only on behalf of all IBT subscribers, but also on behalf of IBT. The Government moved that all three counts be dismissed, but suggested that Count I would state a jurisdictionally sound cause of action if IBT were not joined as a defendant.*fn5 Agron then voluntarily dismissed IBT from Count I and moved for summary judgment on all three counts. The Government answered Count I and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on that count while persisting in its claim that the court lacked jurisdiction over Counts II and III. IBT moved for summary judgment on Counts II and III on the ground that it was not a necessary or a proper party.

The district court granted Agron's motion for summary judgment against the United States on Count I*fn6 and subsequently denied Agron's motion for summary judgment on Counts II and III, ruling in effect that the refund claims filed by the plaintiff on behalf of IBT and the members of the class he purports to represent were not sufficient to satisfy the jurisdictional requirement for maintaining a statutory refund suit. Int. Rev. Code of 1954, § 7422(a). The district court granted Agron judgment for $23.98 against the United States on Count I and dismissed Counts II and III for lack of jurisdiction. Agron appeals the dismissal of Counts II and III and the Government appeals the judgment for Agron on Count I.

We hold that IBT properly computed the federal tax which it collects from its customers and that the district court erred in entering judgment for Agron on Count I. That holding disposes of these appeals and we need not consider the ...


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