Phelps v. United States
421 U.S. 330 (1975)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Phelps v. United States, 421 U.S. 330 (1975)

Phelps v. United States

No. 74-121

Argued April 16, 1975

Decided May 19, 1975

421 U.S. 330




After the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had made federal tax assessments against a company and the company failed to pay the taxes after formal demand, the company transferred its assets to an assignee for the benefit of creditors, who converted the assets into cash. The IRS then filed a notice of tax lien respecting the assessments and served a levy notice on the assignee, who did not, however, comply with the IRS's payment demand. The company was thereafter adjudicated bankrupt, and petitioner receiver in bankruptcy made application to the bankruptcy Referee for an order requiring the assignee to turn over the cash proceeds. The IRS opposed the application on the ground that the bankruptcy court lacked jurisdiction over the subject matter of the application because the United States was entitled to possession of the cash proceeds held by the bankrupt's assignee. The Referee rejected the IRS's contention, holding that the assignment passed inalienable title to the assets of the company to the assignee, and the District Court upheld the Referee. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The United States, by serving the bankrupt taxpayer's assignee with a valid notice of levy, took constructive custody of the cash proceeds in the assignee's possession, and neither the bankrupt nor petitioner as receiver could assert a claim to those proceeds. The receiver's recourse is limited to a plenary suit under § 23 of the Bankruptcy Act. Pp. 421 U. S. 333-337.

495 F.2d 1283, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 421 U. S. 331

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Between March and June, 1971 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) made assessments of federal taxes in the amount of $140,831.59 against Chicagoland Ideel Cleaners, Inc. Chicagoland failed to pay the taxes after formal demand. Instead, on June 28, 1971, Chicagoland transferred its assets to an assignee for the benefit of creditors. The assignee promptly converted the assets into cash of approximately $38,000. On August 25, 1971, the IRS filed a notice of tax lien respecting the March-June assessments in the office of the Recorder of Deeds of Cook County, Ill., and, on the same day, served a notice of levy on the assignee. The notice of levy stated that the proceeds in the assignee's hands "are hereby levied upon and seized for satisfaction" of the taxes, "and demand is hereby made upon you for the [proceeds]." On September 14, 1971, an involuntary petition in bankruptcy was filed against Chicagoland. Chicagoland was adjudicated bankrupt, and petitioner Phelps was appointed receiver in bankruptcy.

Petitioner receiver, on October 19, 1971, filed an application with the Referee in Bankruptcy for an order requiring the assignee, who had not complied with the IRS demand for payment, to turn over to petitioner the $38,000 proceeds from the sale of Chicagoland's assets. The IRS opposed the application on the ground that

"[t]his court of bankruptcy lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter of the application because the United States is entitled to the possession of the moneys now held by [the] assignee of the bankrupt. . . ."

The Referee in Bankruptcy rejected the contention, holding that "the

Page 421 U. S. 332

assignment . . . passed inalienable title to the assets of Chicagoland . . . to the assignee," and therefore "the notice of levy of the Internal Revenue Service is a nullity. . . ." The Referee accordingly entered an order directing the assignee to "surrender and turn over to" petitioner "all sums in his possession. . . ." The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, on petition for review on behalf of the IRS, approved the Referee's turnover order. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed. 495 F.2d 1283 (1974). The Court of Appeals held:

"Since possession of the property resided in the United States as against the [petitioner] receiver, the bankruptcy court lacked jurisdiction summarily to adjudicate the controversy without the Government's consent. . . . The United States is now entitled to have its claim adjudicated in a plenary suit. We respectfully decline to follow the contrary holding [of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit] in In re United General Wood Products Corp., 483 F.2d 975 (9th Cir.1973)."

495 F.2d at 1285-1286. We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict between the Courts of Appeals, 419 U.S. 1068 (1974). [Footnote 1] We agree with the holding of the

Page 421 U. S. 333

Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and affirm its judgment. [Footnote 2]


The assignee claims no interest in the proceeds of the $38,000. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in In re United General Wood Products Corp., 483 F.2d 975, 976 (1973), held that that circumstance, without more, subjected property to the bankruptcy court's summary jurisdiction to enter a turnover order. Wood Products Corp. relied on the statement in Taubel-Scott-Kitzmiller Co. v. Fox,264 U. S. 426, 264 U. S. 432-433 (1924), that constructive possession of the property by the bankruptcy court "exists . . . where the property is held by some other person who makes no claim to it." That reliance is misplaced. The statement, read in the context of the facts of that case and its holding, applied only to property in the hand of a nonadverse

Page 421 U. S. 334

third person who was not holding it as agent for a bona fide adverse claimant. Taubel itself held that the bankruptcy court had not been given jurisdiction by summary proceedings to avoid a lien created by levy under a judgment of a state court where the sheriff possessed the property for the judgment creditor, and neither he nor the judgment creditor had consented to adjudication of the controversy by the bankruptcy court. Similarly, in this case, the United States is a bona fide adverse claimant to the $38,000 proceeds held by the assignee, and has not consented to adjudication of its claim by the bankruptcy court.

The levy of August 25, 1971, created a custodial relationship between the assignee and the United States, and thereby reduced the $38,000 to the United States' constructive possession. Neither Chicagoland nor the petitioner as receiver could assert a claim to the proceeds in that circumstance. For when Chicagoland failed to pay the taxes after assessment and demand, a lien in favor of the United States attached to "all property and rights to property, whether real or personal, belonging to [the taxpayer]." 26 U.S.C. § 6321. The assignee took Chicagoland's property subject to this lien. [Footnote 3] The lien attached to the proceeds of the sale. [Footnote 4] See Sheppard v. Taylor, 5 Pet. 675, 30 U. S. 710 (1831); Loeber v. Leinmer, 175 Ill. 484, 51 N.E. 703 (1898).

"The lien reattaches to the thing and to whatever is substituted for it. . . . The owner and the lien holder, whose claims have been

Page 421 U. S. 335

wrongfully displaced, may follow the proceeds wherever they can distinctly trace them."

Sheppard v. Taylor, supra at 30 U. S. 710. [Footnote 5]

The notice of levy and demand served on the assignee were an authorized means of collecting the taxes from the $38,000 held by him. Title 26 U.S.C. § 6331(a) provides:

"[I]f any person liable to pay any tax neglects or refuses to pay the same within 10 days after notice and demand, it shall be lawful for the Secretary . . . to collect such tax . . . by levy upon all property . . . on which there is a [tax] lien . . . ;"

"[t]he term levy' . . . includes the power of distraint and seizure by any means." § 6331(b). Treasury Regulations, 26 CFR § 301.6331-1(a)(1) (1974), provide that a "[l]evy may be made by serving a notice of levy," and that levy gave the United States the right to the proceeds. See United States v. Pittman, 449 F.2d 623, 627 (CA7 1971). Title 26 U.S.C. § 6332(a) requires that any person holding property levied upon must surrender it to the Government, or become liable for the tax, § 6332(c). With surrender, however, any duty owed the taxpayer is extinguished. § 6332(d).

Thus, following the levy of August 25, 1971, actual possession of the $38,000 was held by the assignee on behalf of the United States, and

"where possession is assertedly held not for the bankrupt, but for others prior to bankruptcy . . . the holder is not subject to summary

Page 421 U. S. 336


2 J. Moore & R. Oglebay, Collier on Bankruptcy

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