Workers’ Severance Pay Can Be Taxed, U.S. Supreme Court Rules

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The U.S. Capitol building is seen past a statue at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Close

The U.S. Capitol building is seen past a statue at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

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Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The U.S. Capitol building is seen past a statue at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the Obama administration in a dispute over taxes on severance compensation, overturning a lower court decision that could have forced the IRS to refund more than $1 billion.

The court said payments to laid-off workers are subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA. It was a victory for the Internal Revenue Service, which has been fighting more than 2,400 refund claims from companies and their ex-employees.

The justices’ unanimous ruling yesterday came in the case of Quality Stores Inc., once the country’s largest agricultural specialty retailer. The defunct company fired 3,100 workers when it closed its stores in 2001 and 2002, paid the taxes on their severance and then asked a bankruptcy judge to order the IRS to refund $1 million.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the payments were subject to tax. He rejected the company’s contention that what it called supplemental unemployment compensation was exempt from the FICA.

“The severance payments here were made to employees terminated against their will, were varied based on job seniority and time served and were not linked to the receipt of state unemployment benefits,” he wrote. “Under FICA’s broad definition, these severance payments constitute taxable wages.”

Unresolved Lawsuits

Lower courts were divided on the issue. The high court ruling came in the government’s appeal of a September 2012 decision by a Cincinnati-based U.S. appeals court that said Quality Stores was entitled to a refund. The money would have gone to 1,850 ex-employees who paid their share of the taxes and authorized Muskegon, Michigan-based Quality Stores to try to recoup the payments on their behalf.

“The decision is a huge blow for employers and employees alike,” said Bob Hertzberg, the lawyer who represented Quality Stores at the Supreme Court. “In addition to the impact on Quality Stores and its former employees, this ruling has far-reaching implications for the thousands of other organizations and workers fighting for refunds.”

Kathryn Keneally, head of the Justice Department’s tax division, said the government is “pleased that the Supreme Court recognized that there should be no difference in how severance pay is taxed for social security and income tax purposes.”

Program Financing

FICA uses payroll taxes to finance Social Security and part of the Medicare health-care program for the elderly and disabled. Employers and employees each pay 6.2 percent in Social Security taxes on wages up to a cap, which is $113,700 this year, and they each pay 1.45 percent of all wages toward Medicare. High-income taxpayers are subject to additional payroll levies.

According to a brief filed by the Obama administration, the claims for refunds have been made in 11 unresolved lawsuits and 2,400 administrative cases “with a total amount at stake of more than $1 billion.”

“That figure is expected to grow,” the brief said.

The case is United States v. Quality Stores, 12-1408.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Patrick Oster at poster@bloomberg.net Mark McQuillan, Steven Komarow

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