Sunday, November 28, 2004

Let the Mishegaas Begin

The TaxProf Blog reports here on the pending Tax Court case of Michael and Marla Sklar, who are trying to deduct their children's private school tuition based on the IRS's closing agreement entered into with the Church of Scientology. In essence, the Sklars are arguing that the tuition they pay is deductible because (i) the religious instruction their children receive is the same as that received by Scientologists, and (ii) that there is an administrative inconsistency in the Service's treatment of Scientologists and its position vis a vis the Sklars.

My sense is that the Service has the far better argument here. Indeed, I have always wondered why the Service entered into a consent agreement with the Church of Scientology in the first instance. However, the purpose of this post is not to discuss tax law. Rather, it is to highlight the great opportunity for humor that the Sklar case presents.

The TaxProf's recent post was triggered by an article in the National Law Journal entitled Scientology Settlement Puts IRS in a Kosher Pickle. In his concurring opinion in the Sklar case when it was before the Ninth Circuit, Judge Silverman mused "Why is Scientology training different from all other religious training?" He went on to state that "The sole issue before us is whether the Sklars' claimed deduction is valid, not whether members of the Church of Scientology have become the IRS's chosen people."

Clearly, this is a case that is ripe for non-sexual double-entendre. In this regard, the case of Paul V. Hornung, 47 T.C. 428 (1967) comes to mind where the Tax Court stated in part:
In making this argument, petitioner shifts into a shotgun formation, contending that his accomplishments in the championship football game constitute educational, artistic, scientific, and civic achievements within the meaning of section 74(b). We believe that petitioner should be caught behind the line of scrimmage on this particular offensive maneuver.
(By the way, am I showing my age? Do I have to point out to the young that Mr. Hornung was one of the greatest running backs in pro football history?)

In any event, I hereby announce a contest for the most clever double-entendre commentary concerning the Sklar case. Commentary can be as short as one line.

The deadline is the date the Sklar case becomes final and non-appealable. I am the sole judge of the quality of the entries and my decision as to the winner is final and non-appealable. The prize: The pure satisfaction of having your witticism broadcast far and wide over the blogisphere.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Calling Arliss Michaels

On November 1, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the cases of Commissioner v. Banks and Commissioner v. Banaitis. (The Circuit Court opinions in the two cases can be found here and here.) Two revenue rulings issued by the Service this week highlight the importance of these two cases.

Both Banks and Banaistis address the question of whether that portion of a settlement or award paid to the claimant's lawyer in the form of a contingent fee is part of the claimant's gross income. The position of the Service is that the contingent fee portion of the settlement is gross income and is merely deductible by the claimant. If the Service's position is sustained, any legal fee paid in the course of a lawsuit concerning, for instance, the breach of an employment contract, will generally get added back into income when computing the claimant's liability for alternative minimum tax. Since such fees are not deductible for alternative minimum tax purposes, they are, in essence, not deductible at all.

The issue before the Court is vividly summarized by Alexis Garamfalvi of the Medill News Service of Northwestern University as follows:
Plaintiffs sitting across wide conference room tables from a flotilla of lawyers probably don't always consider how large a bite Uncle Sam will take out of the amount they are being offered to settle a lawsuit. Even fewer of them consider that they may be taxed on a large chunk of the settlement they never see - the perhaps 33 percent going to their lawyer. Of course, their lawyer is paying taxes on that amount too. So, trial lawyers aren't the only beneficiaries of our increasingly litigious society. Uncle Sam is smiling too.
Garamfalvi illustrates the problem by pointing out that if the Service prevails, Banaitis, who settled an employment claim against the Bank of America for $8.73 million, would be left with only $1.98 million, or 22.7 percent of the settlement amount.

In Rev. Rul. 2004-109 the Service addressed the question of whether upfront bonuses for signing or ratifying an employment contract are wages for purposes of FICA and FUTA. Two specific situations were considered. In one, a baseball prospect was given a "signing" bonus. To earn the bonus, the player needed only to show up for spring training. In the second example, various union members who were employees at the time a collective bargaining agreement was ratified became entitled to a "ratification" bonus. In both cases, the bonuses were not contingent upon whether the bonus recipients subsequently rendered services.

Rev. Rul. 2004-109 concluded that both sorts of payments constitute remuneration for employment and were thus subject to FICA and FUTA. The Service explicitly revoked Rev. Rul. 58-145, 1958-1 C.B. 360, which had held that a signing bonus did not constitute remuneraton for services and thus did not constitute wages for withholding tax purposes.

In Rev. Rul. 2004-110 the Service addressed the backend of the employment relationship. There, an employment contract for a period of several years had a provision that it could be terminated with the mutual agreement of the parties. The parties agreed that the employee would accept a payment from the employer in consideration of his agreement to cancel the contract before the expiration of the stated term. The ruling holds that the payment was part of the remuneration paid for the employee's employment because "[t]he employee [did] not provide clear, separate, and adequate consideration for the employer’s payment that is not dependent upon the employer-employee relationship and its component terms and conditions." Thus the payment was ordinary income, not capital gain income, and was subject to withholding, FICA, and FUTA.

While the precise questions addressed in the two revenue rulings are different from the question before the Court in Banks and Banaistis, they will frequently pop up in similar situations.

For instance, pro athletes typically have professional agents negotiate their contracts for them. Under Rev. Rul. 2004-109, all of the remuneration under those contracts are wages subject to withholding, FICA, and FUTA. If the Service prevails in Banks and Banaistis, as a practical matter, pro athletes will not be able to deduct the consideration paid to their agents since virtually all of these athletes are subject to the alternative minimum tax. Of course, this dramatically increases the transactional costs that they incur in the course of the negotiation.

In the case of "termination" payments, a similar warping of the negotiation process takes place, putting the employee at a severe disadvantage when negotiating the end of an employment relationship gone sour.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Knee Jerk Under-Reaction

One of the problems with blogging is the pressure to react swiftly to new developments. Often, this leads to comments which may a little too heated than would be the case if some time had passed to allow measured reflection.

However, after further consideration of the Court of Appeals' opinion in the Conte case, I think that the opposite might have occured. Upon reflection, I think that my comments were not critical enough of the Court's action.

The Court's opinion squarely presents what might be called a "theoretical defect." That is, the majority opinion undercuts the principle of the objective interpretation of contracts. Instead of determining what the parties meant by certain terms in a contract (i.e., what constitutes cause), factfinders in employment contract disputes are limited to:
determin[ing] the objective reasonableness of the employer’s decision to discharge, which means that the employer act[ed] in objective good faith and base[d] its decision on a reasoned conclusion and facts reasonably believed to be true by the employer.
However, the Court's reasoning is also faulty with respect to the perceived need of businesses to be able to act with certainty when discharging employees.

First, except for top actors and professional athletes, employers almost always have the upper hand when negotiating an employment agreement. Even a little knowledge of game theory will tell you that if the employee holds out for better terms, he or she is risking 100% of a limited and irreplacable resource, his or her time. The employer, on the other hand, more often than not has the luxury of walking away from the negotiating table and simply seeking another employment candidate. Thus, the employer is in a position to demand a contract with more and larger escape hatches. Where, as in Conte, the employer agrees to a contract with a limited set of escape hatches (i.e., the employer could only terminate the employee for cause), the courts should presume that the employer knew what it was doing and enforce the contract according to its objective terms.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is what I will term the "HR Problem." It is simply this: Most employers with even a modest number of employees have, at the least, a "human relations" staffer if not a "human relations" staff or department. As a consequence, there is an institutional dossier regularly kept on the employee's job performance. Every failure to perform can be reflected in this dossier--every instance of tardiness, every instance where the employee lost his or her temper, every act of performance with any job task that someone acting for management thought was less than par. Of course, this dossier will have a management spin on it, with each story told from the perspective of the employer. Few employees keep a analogous record of their successes.

In the event that the employer decides to terminate the employee, the employer is well armed for any lawsuit alleging that it breached the employment contact. Each failure of the employee recorded in his or her personnel file (and even the best employee will have some failures) will be the subject of close scrutiny and thus magnified. After the fact, given a detailed, but employer-biased, employment history, duly recorded in the ordinary course of business, most factfinders will likely conclude that the employer acted reasonably.

I am not moved by the argument that a rule allowing the factfinder to examine whether there truly was cause for termination would cause the courts to act "as a super personnel officer, or of second-guessing a company’s decisions." Most cases, after all, result in a compromise settlement. I suspect that this is as true of employment contract disputes as it is with other sorts of litigation. The Court's opinion seriously weakens the employee's ability to negotiate a honorable termination of the contract. After all, in most cases, it will be the employer who has shuffled and then cut the cards. And, given the disparity in negotiating power, it will be the employer who gets to deal the cards as well. At the least, the employee should be entitled to have an impartial arbiter determine whether the shuffle was clean.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Subjective Objective

As a general matter of principle, I do not post comments on cases that I am either involved in or have been involved in. Since this is my first substantive posting in over a year, I will make an exception to that rule. In further defense, I would note that the matters at issue during the period of my involvement are no longer at issue. The various disputes between my client, Michael Conte, Ph.D., and Towson University continued to fester after my representation of Dr. Conte ended. Litigation ensued and the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued an opinion in that case today.

Dr. Conte was the director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. He held that position pursuant to the terms of a written employment agreement.

The employment agreement provided that he could only be discharged for "cause." Cause was defined to "include" eight specific grounds set forth in the written document. The University terminated Dr. Conte's contract alleging "incompetence" and "wilful neglect of duty"—two of the grounds that constituted "cause" enumerated in the written agreement. Dr. Conte filed suit for breach of contract in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County.

At trial held before a jury, Dr. Conte prevailed and obtained a judgment for over $900,000 for breach of contract. The jury had been instructed that the "University [had] the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that one or more of the [causes in Dr. Conte's] contract existed for [his] termination." (Emphasis added by the Court of Appeals.) The Circuit Court rejected a request by the University to instruct the jury that the University was nevertheless permitted to terminate Dr. Conte for "common law cause" or cause that goes to the "essence of the contract."

The Court of Appeals considered a spectrum of three different provisions concerning the right of employers to terminate an employee.

At one end of the spectrum is the at-will contract of employment. Here, the employee is subject to termination "for any reason, even a reason that is arbitrary, capricious, or fundamentally unfair." Manifestly, the written contract between Dr. Conte and the University did not allow such an unbridled right of termination.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is the so-called "satisfaction contract" in which:
[T]he employer has the right to terminate the contract and discharge the employee, whenever he, the employer, acting in good faith is actually dissatisfied with the employee's work. This applies, even though the parties to the employment contract have stipulated that the contract shall be operative during a definite term, if it provides that the services are to be performed to the satisfaction of the employer. It is not necessary that there exist grounds deemed adequate by the trier of facts for the employer's dissatisfaction. He is the judge as to whether the services are satisfactory. However, this dissatisfaction, to justify the discharge of the employee, must be real and not pretended, capricious, mercenary, or the result of a dishonest design. If the employer feigns dissatisfaction and dismisses the employee, the discharge is wrongful. The employer in exercising the right of dismissal because of dissatisfaction must do so honestly and in good faith.
(Emphasis by the Court of Appeals.)

However, the contract between Dr. Conte and the University was a "just cause" contract. That is, it could be terminated only for cause as set forth in the written document itself. The Court held that in reviewing a breach of contract claim for wrongful termination under a "just cause" contract:
[T]he proper role of the jury is to review the objective motivation [of the employer], i.e., whether the employer acted in objective good faith and in accordance with a reasonable employer under similar circumstances when he decided there was just cause to terminate the employee. The jury's inquiry should center on whether an employer's termination was based upon any arbitrary, capricious, or illegal reason, or based on facts not reasonably believed to be true by the employer. But the fact-finding prerogative will remain with the employer, absent some express intention otherwise.
In other words, the jury need not determine whether there was actually "cause" for termination as set forth in the contract. Instead, the inquiry is only whether the employer, in good faith, thought there was cause for termination at the time it terminated the employee. As noted by Chief Judge Bell in his dissent, underlying the majority opinion is the "the strong judicial policy against interfering with the business judgment of private business entities." (Judge Eldridge also dissented, but on other grounds.)

However, the majority opinion was also based in large measure on the question of whether the "fact-finding perogative" to determine if cause for termination exists rests with the employer. Presumably, a contract could be drafted that states that whether or not cause for termination exists is a matter of objective fact and that, in the event of a dispute, either a judicial tribunal or an arbitrator can make a determination as to whether appropriate grounds for termination existed.

I think that Chief Judge Bell has the better part of the argument here. Succinctly put, the majority opinion offers "little, if any, distinction between the test [it enunciates] for the review of 'just cause' contracts and that applicable to satisfaction contracts." Quoting Toussaint v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Michigan, 292 N. W. 2d 880, 896 (Mich. 1980), he notes that:
Where the employee has secured a promise not to be discharged except for cause, he has contracted for more than the employer’s promise to act in good faith or not to be unreasonable. An instruction which permits the jury to review only for reasonableness inadequately enforces that promise.
For some years, courts have been under fire by conservatives and pro-business groups for allegedly "legislating" and dictating what the law is based upon their normative views of what the law should be. In the Conte opinion, the Court ruled in favor of an employer being allowed to exercise its "business judgment," thus preventing a independent third-party from making an objective factual analysis that might lead to a contrary conclusion. I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for conservative, pro-business criticism of the decision.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

I'm Coming Back

I am currently in the process of refreshing and redesigning this weblog. I expect to be fully back on line in a week.