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COMMISSIONER INTERNAL REVENUE v. WILCOX ET AL.

decided: February 25, 1946.

COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE
v.
WILCOX ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Stone, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Rutledge, Burton; Jackson took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Murphy

[ 327 U.S. Page 405]

 Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE MURPHY, announced by MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE.

The sole issue here is whether embezzled money constitutes taxable income to the embezzler under § 22 (a) of the Internal Revenue Code.*fn1

The facts are stipulated. The taxpayer was employed as a bookkeeper by a transfer and warehouse company in Reno, Nevada, from 1937 to 1942. He was paid his salary promptly each month when due, it not being the custom to allow him to draw his salary in advance. In June, 1942, the company's books were audited and it was discovered for the first time that the taxpayer had converted $12,748.60 to his own use during 1941.*fn2 This amount was

[ 327 U.S. Page 406]

     composed of miscellaneous sums of money belonging to the company which he had received and collected at various times in his capacity as bookkeeper. He failed to deposit this money to the credit of the company. Instead he pocketed and withdrew payments in cash made to him by customers, neglecting to credit the customers' accounts or the company's accounts receivable with the funds received.

The taxpayer lost practically all of this money in various gambling houses in Reno. The company never condoned or forgave the taking of the money and still holds him liable to restore it. The taxpayer was convicted in a Nevada state court in 1942 of the crime of embezzlement. He was sentenced to serve from 2 to 14 years in prison and was paroled in December, 1943.

The Commissioner determined that the taxpayer was required to report the $12,748.60 embezzled in 1941 as income received in that year and asserted a tax deficiency of $2,978.09. The Tax Court sustained the Commissioner but the court below reversed. 148 F.2d 933. We granted certiorari because of a conflict among circuits as to the taxability of embezzled money.*fn3

Section 22 (a) of the Internal Revenue Code defines "gross income" to include "gains, profits, and income derived from . . . dealings in property . . . growing out of the ownership or use of or interest in such property; also from . . . the transaction of any business carried on for gain or profit, or gains or profits and income derived from any source whatever." The question thus is whether the wrongful acquisition of funds by an embezzler should be included in the statutory phrase "gains or profits and

[ 327 U.S. Page 407]

     income derived from any source whatever," thereby constituting taxable income to the embezzler.

The Commissioner relies upon the established principle that orthodox concepts of ownership fail to reflect the outer boundaries of taxation. As this Court has stated, tax liability "may rest upon the enjoyment by the taxpayer of privileges and benefits so substantial and important as to make it reasonable and just to deal with him as if he were the owner, and to tax him on that basis." Burnet v. Wells, 289 U.S. 670, 678. See Helvering v. Clifford, 309 U.S. 331; Helvering v. Horst, 311 U.S. 112. Applying that rule to this case, the Commissioner urges that the act of appropriating the property of another to one's own use is an exercise of a major power of ownership even though the act is consciously and entirely wrongful. As against all the world except the true owner the embezzler is the legal owner, at least while he remains in possession. The money or property acquired in this unlawful manner, it is said, should therefore be treated as taxable income to the wrongdoer under § 22 (a). We cannot agree.

Section 22 (a) is cast in broad, sweeping terms. It "indicates the purpose of Congress to use the full measure of its taxing power within those definable categories." Helvering v. Clifford, supra, 334. The very essence of taxable income, as that concept is used in § 22 (a), is the accrual of some gain, profit or benefit to the taxpayer. This requirement of gain, of course, must be read in its statutory context. Not every benefit received by a taxpayer from his labor or investment necessarily renders him taxable. Nor is mere dominion over money or property decisive in all cases. In fact, no single, conclusive criterion has yet been found to determine in all situations what is a sufficient gain to support the imposition of an income tax. No more can be said in general than that all relevant facts and circumstances must be considered. See Magill, Taxable Income (1945).

[ 327 U.S. Page 408]

     For present purposes, however, it is enough to note that a taxable gain is conditioned upon (1) the presence of a claim of right to the alleged gain and (2) the absence of a definite, unconditional obligation to repay or return that which would otherwise constitute a gain. Without some bona fide legal or equitable claim, even though it be contingent or contested in nature, the taxpayer cannot be said to have received any gain or profit within the reach of § 22 (a). See North American Oil v. Burnet, 286 U.S. 417, 424. Nor can taxable income accrue from the mere receipt of property or money which one is obliged to return or repay to the rightful owner, as in the case of a loan or credit. Taxable income may arise, to be sure, from the use or in connection with the use of such property. Thus if the taxpayer uses the property himself so as to secure a gain or profit therefrom, he may be taxable to that extent. And if the unconditional indebtedness is cancelled or retired, ...


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