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Supreme Court of the United States
April 22, 1974, Argued ; June 19, 1974, Decided
[*642] [***377] [**2432] MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.
We granted certiorari in this case, 414 U.S. 1091 (1973), to resolve the conflict among the Courts of Appeals [*643] on the questions of whether [****3] ] an income tax refund is "property" under § 70a (5) of the Bankruptcy Act 1 [****4] and whether, assuming that all or part of such tax refund is property which passes to the trustee, the Consumer Credit Protection Act's 2 limitation on wage garnishment serves to exempt 75% of the refund from the jurisdiction of the trustee. 3
[****5] [*644] [**2433] The petitioner was employed for the first three months of 1971. He was then unemployed from April [***378] 1971 until late in December of that year. He was re-employed for about the last week and a half of December 1971. While employed, petitioner claimed two exemptions for federal income tax purposes, the maximum number of deductions to which he was entitled, and his employer withheld the appropriate portion of his wages. 26 U. S. C. § 3402. During the year 1971, petitioner had a gross income of $ 2,322.
On January 5, 1972, petitioner filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy. With the exception of a 1962 Corvair automobile which the trustee abandoned as an asset upon the bankrupt's payment of $ 25, the sole asset claimed by the trustee in bankruptcy was an income tax refund entitlement for $ 250.90. On February 3, 1972, the referee in bankruptcy entered an ex parte order directing petitioner to turn the refund over to the trustee upon its receipt. The bankrupt moved to vacate that order and, after a hearing, the referee denied the motion. In mid-February 1972, petitioner filed his income tax return for the calendar year [****6] 1971. Several weeks later, he received his refund check from the Internal Revenue Service. Upon its receipt, petitioner complied with the order of the trustee but filed a petition for review of the referee's decision in the United States District Court. 4 The District Court denied relief. Petitioner was granted [*645] leave to appeal. 5 On May 18, 1973, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the order of the District Court, holding that the tax refund was property within the meaning of § 70a (5) of the Bankruptcy Act and that it therefore vested in the trustee. 479 F.2d 990. The court further held that the limitations on garnishment contained in the Consumer Credit Protection Act did not apply to bankruptcy situations and that, consequently, the trustee was entitled to the entire refund. Petitioner seeks review of these questions here.
[****7] We turn first to the question of whether petitioner's income tax refund was "property" within the meaning of § 70a (5) of the Bankruptcy Act. The term has never been given a precise or universal definition. On an earlier occasion, in Segal v. Rochelle, 382 U.S. 375 [***379] (1966), the Court noted that "'it is impossible to give any categorical definition to the word "property," nor can we attach to it in certain relations the limitations which would be attached to it in others.'" Id., at 379, quoting Fisher v. Cushman, 103 F. 860, 864 (CA1 1900). In determining the term's scope -- and its limitations -- the purposes of the Bankruptcy Act "must ultimately govern." 382 U.S., at 379. See also Lines v. Frederick, 400 U.S. 18 (1970); Local Loan Co. v. Hunt, 292 U.S. 234 (1934).
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417 U.S. 642 *; 94 S. Ct. 2431 **; 41 L. Ed. 2d 374 ***; 1974 U.S. LEXIS 78 ****; 74-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) P9570; 34 A.F.T.R.2d (RIA) 5196; 1 Collier Bankr. Cas. (MB) 9
KOKOSZKA v. BELFORD, TRUSTEE IN BANKRUPTCY
Prior History: [****1] CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT.
Disposition: 479 F.2d 990, affirmed.
bankrupt, Bankruptcy Act, refund, wages, garnishment, exempt, fresh start, tax refund, Consumer Credit Protection Act, earnings, income tax refund, vacation
Banking Law, Consumer Protection, Equal Credit Opportunity, General Overview, Tax Law, State & Local Taxes, Administration & Procedure, Credits, Overassessments & Refunds, Bankruptcy Law, Bankruptcy, Estate Property, Contents of Estate, Exemptions, Federal Nonbankruptcy Law Exemptions, Labor & Employment Law, Wage & Hour Laws, Assignments & Deductions, Judicial Review, Examiners, Officers & Trustees, Duties & Functions, Reorganizations, Bankruptcy Code Exemptions, Constitutional Law, Commerce Clause, Interstate Commerce, Prohibition of Commerce, Governments, Legislation, Interpretation