IRS taxing of non-wage damages is “unconstitutional”
August 22, 2006, Washington, D.C. -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the
District of Columbia Circuit issued a landmark ruling today holding
that wrongfully fired whistleblowers do not have to pay taxes on "make
whole" non-wage damage awards for loss of reputation and emotional
distress. Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous
three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit, decided in Murphy v. IRS, that
the Sixteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution limits Congress's
taxing authority to "income," thus making damages awarded for emotional
distress and reputational harm not "income" under the federal tax code.
The sole issue, decided by the court, was whether or not non-wage
damages for injuries to emotional distress and damage to reputation
were taxable as income. The case did not involve the taxing of any
wages or other income.
Since 1996, when Congress, for the first time, changed the law to tax
such emotional distress and reputational harm damages awarded in civil
suits, hundreds of whistleblowers and other victims of discrimination
have been forced to pay taxes on "make whole" remedies - regardless of
the extent of the harm.
In today’s opinion, the court ruled as follows:
Marrita Murphy brought this suit to recover income taxes she paid on
the compensatory damages for emotional distress and loss of reputation
she was awarded in an administrative action she brought against her
former employer. Murphy contends that under § 104(a)(2) of the Internal
Revenue Code (IRC), 26 U.S.C. § 104(a)(2), her award should have been
excluded from her gross income because it was compensation received 'on
account of personal physical injuries or physical sickness.' In the
alternative, she maintains § 104(a)(2) is unconstitutional insofar as
it fails to exclude from gross income revenue that is not 'income'
within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution of
the United States.
We hold, first, that Murphy's compensation was not 'received ... on
account of personal physical injuries' excludable from gross income
under § 104(a)(2). We agree with the taxpayer, however, that §
104(a)(2) is unconstitutional as applied to her award because
compensation for a non-physical personal injury is not income under the
Sixteenth Amendment if, as here, it is unrelated to lost wages or
Murphy v. IRS, Slip Op. at 2 (emphasis added).
The court also held:
Murphy's compensatory award in particular was not received “in lieu of”
something normally taxed as income; nor is it within the meaning of the
term “incomes” as used in the Sixteenth Amendment. Therefore, insofar
as § 104(a)(2) permits the taxation of compensation for a personal
injury, which compensation is unrelated to lost wages or earnings, that
provision is unconstitutional.
Murphy v. IRS, Slip Op. at 24 (emphasis added).
David K. Colapinto, who successfully argued the case, said, “The
government had the audacity to argue that non-wage compensatory damages
for emotional distress and loss of reputation can be taxed as income
because the economic value of human life is zero. The taxing of
non-wage damages is highly destructive and punishes whistleblowers and
other civil rights plaintiffs for prevailing in their cases. Hopefully,
today’s ruling will stop this arcane and regressive policy.”
Stephen M. Kohn, the Chairperson of the National Whistleblowers Center, also said the following:
For over four years the Center has supported Ms. Murphy's challenge to
the cruel and discriminatory practices of the IRS. By taxing their
"make whole" remedies, the IRS ensured that no whistleblower could ever
receive justice. Instead of limiting tax liability of prevailing
whistleblowers to wage claims, the IRS - with wanton disregard to the
U.S. Constitution - imposed taxes on whistleblowers for their non-wage,
emotional distress and reputational harm damages. These actions
resulted in numerous injustices and undermined Congress's intent to
ensure that whistleblowers - and other victims of intentional
discrimination, were made whole.