On March 25, 2014, in a decision highly anticipated by employers, the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that certain severance payments paid to employees who were involuntarily terminated were taxable wages for purposes of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). United States v. Quality Stores, Inc., et al., No. 12-1408 (U.S. Mar. 25, 2014). The holding reversed a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision and was a blow to employers’ hopes that the Court would exempt severance payments from FICA and open the floodgates for refund claims, the backlog of which was estimated to be in excess of $1 billion. The decision leaves open whether the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can and will adhere to its long-held position on supplemental unemployment plans that, unlike the plans at issue in the case, are not paid in a lump sum and are tied to eligibility for state unemployment benefits. The IRS position on these plans has been that payments thereunder are not FICA “wages.” The decision specifically did not address such plans.
Having settled into the new year, we reflect on decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 that are likely to have a significant impact in the world of pension and welfare employee benefits and, in some cases, already have had such an impact. The issues addressed by the Supreme Court are wide ranging and are both substantive and procedural.
They include same sex marriage benefits, welfare plan reimbursement provisions, statute of limitations and class certification. Looking ahead into 2014, we see that the Supreme Court has already agreed to decide several significant benefits issues, including issues pertaining to Employee Retirement Income Security Act stock-drop litigation, the so-called “contraceptive mandate” under the Affordable Care Act and whether the Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax applies to reduction in force related severance pay.
Although some would argue that the next U.S. Supreme Court term is not shaping up to be as monumental as the last term, employers should have their eye on the recent decision of the Court to hear United States v. Quality Stores, Inc. The Court’s decision in this case in the next term will finally…
On September 7, 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held in United States v. Quality Stores, Inc. that severance payments to former employees pursuant to an involuntary reduction in force are not taxable “wages” for purposes of Social Security and Medicare withholding under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA. The decision is significant in two respects. First, the Sixth Circuit chose not to follow a contrary decision reached by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in CSX Corp. v. United States, 518 F.3d 1328 (2008), thereby creating a split in the federal circuits that may ultimately be resolved by the Supreme Court. Second, the Sixth Circuit’s pro-taxpayer decision substantially impacts unemployed workers and businesses that have reduced their workforce in recent years. On January 4, 2013, the Sixth Circuit denied the government’s petition for rehearing en banc. The government has until April 4, 2013 to petition the Supreme Court to address the case.
Many employers that paid FICA taxes on involuntary severance payments in calendar year 2009 or thereafter are considering filing a protective refund claim to preserve their right to a refund pending further guidance and resolution of this issue. This Client Alert summarizes some of the key issues to consider.