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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Vogel Fertilizer Co., 455 U.S. 16 (1982)

United States v. Vogel Fertilizer Co.

No. 80-1251

Argued November 3, 1981

Decided January 13, 1982

455 U.S. 16


Section 1561(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 limits a "controlled group of corporations" to a single surtax exemption. Section 1563(a)(2) provides that a "controlled group of corporations" includes a "brother-sister controlled group," defined as

"[t]wo or more corporations if 5 or fewer persons . . . own . . . stock possessing (A) at least 80 percent of the total combined voting power . . . or at least 80 percent of the total value . . . of each corporation, and (B) more than 50 percent of the total combined voting power . . . or more than 50 percent of the total value . . . of each corporation, taking into account the stock ownership of each such person only to the extent such stock ownership is identical with respect to each such corporation."

An implementing Treasury Regulation interprets the statutory term "brother-sister controlled group" to mean two or more corporations if the same five or fewer persons own "singly or in combination" the two prescribed percentages of voting power or total value. One shareholder, Vogel, owned 77.49 percent of the outstanding stock of respondent Vogel Fertilizer Co. Another shareholder, Crain, owned the remaining 22.51 percent. Vogel also owned 87.5 percent of the voting power in Vogel Popcorn Co. and 90.66-93.42 percent of the value of its stock. Crain owned no stock in Vogel Popcorn. Respondent claimed refunds for taxes paid in certain tax years for which it did not claim a full surtax exemption, asserting that respondent and Vogel Popcorn were not members of a controlled group and respondent was therefore entitled to a full surtax exemption for each taxable year. When the Internal Revenue Service disallowed the refund claims, respondent filed suit for a refund in the Court of Claims, which held that respondent was entitled to a refund.

Held: The implementing Treasury Regulation is invalid as not being a reasonable interpretation of the statute, which, as indicated by its language, structure, and legislative history, was intended to apply only where each person whose stock is taken into account for purposes of the 80-percent requirement owns stock in each corporation of the group. Pp. 455 U. S. 22-35.

(a) Since the Regulation was promulgated only under the Commissioner of Internal Revenue's general authority to prescribe all needful rules and regulations, it is owed less deference than a regulation issued under a specific grant of authority to define a statutory term. Moreover, the Regulation purports to do no more than add a clarifying gloss on a term already specifically defined by Congress. Pp. 455 U. S. 24-25.

Page 455 U. S. 17

(b) The statutory language is in closer harmony with respondent's interpretation than with the Regulation in question. The term the statute defines -- "brother-sister controlled group" -- connotes a close horizontal relationship between two or more corporations, suggesting that the same indivisible group of five or fewer persons must represent 80 percent of the ownership of each corporation. This interpretation is strengthened by the structure of the statute, which suggests that precisely the same shareholders must satisfy both the 80-percent and 50-percent requirements. Since, under Part (B)'s 50-percent requirement, stock ownership is taken into account only to the extent it is "identical," that part of the statutory test clearly includes a common ownership requirement. And the mere fact that there are no words in Part (A) explicitly requiring each shareholder to own stock in each corporation does not mean that the Regulation's interpretation, "singly or in combination," must be accepted as reasonable. Pp. 455 U. S. 226.

(c) The statute's legislative history makes it plain that the Regulation is not a reasonable statutory interpretation, where it appears that the intended targets of § 1563(a)(2) were groups of interrelated corporation -- corporations characterized by common control and ownership, and that Congress intended the 80-percent requirement, as an expanded version of the former statute, to be the primary requirement for defining the interrelationship between two or more corporations, the 50-percent requirement being an additional proviso necessary in light of the expanded number of shareholders whose overlapping interests were to be considered. The "singly or in combination" provision of the Regulation is clearly incompatible with this intent. Pp. 455 U. S. 26-32.

225 Ct.Cl. 15, 634 F.2d 497, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and MARSHALL, POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 455 U. S. 35.

Page 455 U. S. 18

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