Yesterday, in the case of Murphy v. IRS, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (per Ginsburg, C.J.) determined that, as a matter of Constitutional law, "compensation for a non-physical personal injury is not income under the Sixteenth Amendment if . . . it is unrelated to lost wages or earnings."
The taxpayer had "filed a complaint with the Department of Labor alleging that her former employer . . . in violation of various whistle-blower statues, had 'blacklisted' her and provided unfavorable references to potential employers after she had complained to state authorities of environmental hazards . . . ." The Secretary of Labor found in favor of the taxpayer and the case was remanded to an administrative law judge for a determination of the amount of compensatory damages to which she was entitled.
submitted evidence that she had suffered both mental and physical injuries as a result of the . . . .blacklisting . . . . A physician testified [that the taxpayer] had sustained "somatic" and "emotional" injuries. One such injury was "bruxism," or teeth grinding often associated with stress, which may cause permanent tooth damage. Upon finding [that the taxpayer] had also suffered from other "physical manifestations of stress" including "anxiety attacks, shortness of breath, and dizziness," the ALJ recommended compensatory damages totaling $70,000, of which $45,000 was for "emotional distress or mental anguish," and $25,000 was for "injury to professional reputation" from having been blacklisted. None of the award was for lost wages or diminished earning capacity.IRC Section 104(a) provides that "gross income [under IRC Section 61] does not include the amount of any damages (other than punitive damages) received ... on account of personal physical injuries or physical sickness." Since 1996 it has further provided that, for purposes of this exclusion, "emotional distress shall not be treated as a physical injury or physical sickness." The taxpayer had contended that the award was not taxable because she had suffered physical injury (e.g., the bruxism). However, that argument was rejected by the Court which stated that:
[The taxpayer] no doubt suffered from certain physical manifestations of emotional distress, but the record clearly indicates [that she was] awarded . . . compensation only "for mental pain and anguish" and "for injury to professional reputation."The Court then turned to the argument that makes this case remarkable. Specifically, is IRC Section 104(a)(2), which does not permit the award to be excluded from income, constitutional? The Court held that it was not.
In its analysis, the Court extensively reviewed the history of the Sixteenth Amendment. Ultimately, it agreed with the taxpayer's contention that:
a damage award for personal injuries-- including nonphysical injuries -- is not income but simply a return of capital -- "human capital," as it were. See Gary S. Becker, Human Capital (1st ed. 1964); Gary S. Becker, "The Economic Way of Looking at Life," 43-45 (Nobel Lecture, Dec. 9, 1992).In a footnote, the Court remarked:
[The taxpayer's point] is that as with compensation for a harm to one's financial or physical capital, the payment of compensation for the diminution of a personal attribute, such as reputation, is but a restoration of the status quo ante, analogous to a "restoration of capital," [Commissioner v.] Glenshaw Glass, 348 U.S. [426 (1955)] at 432 n.8; in neither context does the payment result in a "gain" or "accession to wealth," id. at 430-31.In Commissioner v. Banks, the Supreme Court determined that when a litigant's recovery constitutes income, the litigant's income includes the portion of the recovery paid to the attorney as a contingent fee. As a practical matter, any legal fee paid in the course of a lawsuit except one for personal injury will, under IRC Section 104, 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. See my comments here made before Banks was handed down.
The decision in Murphy re-establishes balance to the equation, at least in those situations where the award sought is for "personal injury." (This would not include, however, awards for economic injuries such as lost wages, etc. In my previous comments on Banks, I pointed out some of the practical problems that employees face in attempting to use attorneys or other paid agents in negotiating contracts or other compensation awards.)
Murphy is a conservative opinion in the traditional sense of the word "conservative." It is doubtful whether a "conservative court" in the post-20th Century meaning of the term (the Fourth Circuit, for instance) would have reached the same conclusion as did the D.C. Circuit.