Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Gone Fishin'

I do not typically post to my weblog during working hours. However, I just came across an opinion that's so newsworthy that it's clearly an exception to the general rule.

In Townsend Industries, Inc. v. U.S., the Eighth Circuit overruled a District Court judgment for the government and held that the amounts paid by an employer for an annual fishing trip for its employees were ordinary and necessary business expenses and not additional compensation for the employees.

The employer was the manufacturer of a product that allows offset printers to produce two-color documents in a single pass through the printing press. For the last forty years, the manufacturer, Townsend Industries, had gathered its personnel for an annual, two-day meeting at its headquarters involving its corporate staff and some factory workers. Following that meeting, the company has sponsored a four day expense-paid fishing trip to a resort in Ontario, Canada.

While there was only one specific organized business function during the four day period, business discussions were conducted on an on-going basis during the trip. While employees were not compelled to attend, nearly all of the company's employees who testified stated that they felt obligated to attend and that they viewed the trip as part of their employment duties for the company. And, there was substantial evidence of specific business discussions that took place over the course of the trip. (Time and space do not allow me, for instance, to detail at length the discussion concerning the importance of the factory workers removing burrs on metal parts or the discussion of the relative merits of molleton and aqua-flowparts. I found the latter particularly fascinating. You'll just have to take my word for it or read the opinion yourself.)

Given the detail provided, the Court concluded "that Townsend had a realistic expectation to gain concrete future benefits from the trip based on its knowledge of its own small company, its knowledge of the utility of interpersonal interactions that probably would not occur but for the trip, and its knowledge of its own past experience. As such, the trips and their expenses qualified as working condition fringe benefits under Section 132 and a bona fide business expense under Sections 162 and 274 of the Internal Revenue Code."

Despite my somewhat humorous treatment of the opinion, I think that it's actually fairly significant. The number of hours that Americans work has been sliding steadily upward over the last 20--25 years. And, with both spouses typically working full time, the centrality of the workplace in peoples' lives has grown apace. Quasi-social events paid for by employers, whether as extensive as those offered by Townsend or only an occasional company barbeque, will become increasingly necessary to build in the business world what is referred to in the military as "unit cohesion." There is no reason that the Internal Revenue Code cannot take cognizance of this changing social reality.

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