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U.S. Supreme Court

Container Corp. v. Franchise Tax Bd., 463 U.S. 159 (1983)

Container Corporation of America v. Franchise Tax Board

No. 81-523

Argued January 10, 1983

Decided June 27, 1983

463 U.S. 159


California imposes a corporate franchise tax geared to income. It employs the "unitary business" principle and formula apportionment in applying that tax to corporations doing business both inside and outside the State. The formula used -- commonly called the "three-factor" formula -- is based, in equal parts, on the proportion of a unitary business' total payroll, property, and sales that are located in the State. Appellant paperboard packaging manufacturer is a Delaware corporation headquartered in Illinois and doing business in California and elsewhere. It also has a number of overseas subsidiaries incorporated in the countries in which they operate. In calculating for the tax years in question in this case the share of its net income that was apportionable to California under the three-factor formula, appellant omitted all of its subsidiaries' payroll, property, and sales. Appellee Franchise Tax Board issued notices of additional assessments, the gravamen of which was that appellant should have treated its overseas subsidiaries as part of its unitary business, rather than as a passive investment. After paying the additional assessments under protest, appellant brought an action for a refund in California Superior Court, which upheld the additional assessments. The California Court of Appeal affirmed.


1. California's application of the unitary business principle to appellant and its foreign subsidiaries was proper. Pp. 463 U. S. 175-180.

(a) The taxpayer has the burden of showing by "clear and convincing evidence" that the state tax results in extraterritorial values being taxed. This Court will, if reasonably possible, defer to the judgment of state courts in deciding whether a particular set of activities constitutes a "unitary business." The Court's task is to determine whether the state court applied the correct standards to the case, and, if it did, whether its judgment was within the realm of a permissible judgment. Pp. 463 U. S. 175-176.

(b) Here, there is no merit to appellant's argument that the Court of Appeal, in important part, analyzed the case under the incorrect legal standard. Rather, the factors relied upon by the court in holding that appellant and its foreign subsidiaries constituted a unitary business --

Page 463 U. S. 160

which factors included appellant's assistance to its subsidiaries in obtaining equipment and in filling personnel needs that could not be met locally, the substantial role played by appellant in loaning funds to the subsidiaries and guaranteeing loans provided by others, the considerable interplay between appellant and its subsidiaries in the area of corporate expansion, the substantial technical assistance provided by appellant to the subsidiaries, and the supervisory role played by appellant's officers in providing general guidance to the subsidiaries -- taken in combination, clearly demonstrate that the court reached a conclusion "within the realm of permissible judgment." Pp. 463 U. S. 177-180.

2. California's use of the three-factor formula to apportion the income of the unitary business consisting of appellant and its foreign subsidiaries was fair. Appellant had the burden of proving that the income apportioned to California was out of all appropriate proportions to the business transacted in the State. This burden was not met by offering various statistics that appeared to demonstrate not only that wage rates are generally lower in the foreign countries in which appellant's subsidiaries operate, but also that those lower wage rates are not offset by lower levels of productivity. It may well be that, in addition to the foreign payroll going into the production of any given corrugated container by a foreign subsidiary, there is a California payroll, as well as other California factors, contributing to the same production. The mere fact that this possibility is not reflected in appellant's accounting does not disturb the underlying premises of the formula apportionment method. Pp. 463 U. S. 180-184.

3. California had no obligation under the Foreign Commerce Clause to employ the "arm's length" analysis used by the Federal Government and most foreign nations in evaluating the tax consequences of intercorporate relationships. Japan Line, Ltd. v. County of Los Angeles, 441 U. S. 434, distinguished. Pp. 463 U. S. 184-197.

(a) The double taxation occasioned by the California scheme is not impermissible. Due in part to the difference between a tax on income and a tax on tangible property, California would have trouble avoiding double taxation of corporations subject to its franchise tax even if it adopted the "arm's length" approach. Moreover, the California tax does not result in "inevitable" double taxation. It would be perverse, simply for the sake of avoiding double taxation, to require California to give up one allocation method that sometimes results in double taxation in favor of another allocation method that sometimes has the same result. Pp. 463 U. S. 189-193.

(b) The California tax does not violate the "one voice" standard established in Japan Line, supra, under which a state tax at variance with federal policy will be struck down if it either implicates foreign policy issues which must be left to the Federal Government or violates a clear

Page 463 U. S. 161

federal directive. Three factors weigh strongly against the conclusion that the tax might lead to significant foreign retaliation. The tax does not create an automatic "asymmetry" in international taxation, it is imposed on a domestic corporation and not on a foreign entity, and even if foreign nations had a legitimate interest in reducing the tax burden of domestic corporations, appellant is amenable to be taxed in California one way or another, and the tax it pays is more the function of California's tax rate than of its allocation method. Moreover, the California tax is not preempted by federal law or fatally inconsistent with federal policy. There is no claim that the federal tax statutes themselves provide the necessary preemptive force. The requirement of some tax treaties that the Federal Government adopt some form of arm's length analysis in taxing the domestic income of multinational enterprises is generally waived as to taxes imposed by each of the contracting nations on its own domestic corporations. Tax treaties do not cover the taxing activities of States. And Congress has never enacted legislation designed to regulate state taxation of income. Pp. 463 U. S. 193-197.

117 Cal.App.3d 988, 173 Cal.Rptr. 121, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 463 U. S. 197. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 463 U. S. 162

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