Commissioner v. P.G. Lake, Inc.
356 U.S. 260 (1958)

  • Lake was a company that produced oil and gas. They owned some oil and gas leases, which entitled them to a percentage of the profits from selling oil and gas from certain wells.
    • Those profits were taxable as ordinary income.
  • Lake owed their President $600k. Instead of paying him in cash, they gave him their interest in an oil lease, so he'd get the profits from it instead of them.
  • When they filed their taxes, Lake claimed that they had sold a capital asset and therefore reported the $600k as a capital gain. The IRS assessed a deficiency.
    • Lake argued that there was an actual asset sold (the lease), and they were not in the business of buying and selling leases, so it was a capital gain.
    • The IRS argued that the oil leases were nothing more than a contractual agreement to get a stream of income. Therefore by using the leases to pay off a debt, all Lake was doing was collecting the $600k of income they would have normally gotten over the next few years all at once.
  • The Tax Court found for the IRS. Lake appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The IRS appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and found for the IRS.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the lease was a transparent device. Collecting income now instead of later is just an acceleration of ordinary income and not eligible to be a capital gain.
    • Basically, the Court said that the lease wasn't a capital asset (like an office building or a piece of machinery) would be. It was just a license to get some money (which would be ordinary income) later. When Lake sold it they weren't selling a capital asset, they were giving up the right to get money later in order to get money now. That's just ordinary income received on a different timetable.