By Phil Karter and John Hackney
For companies that have implemented employee layoffs in the past several years and made severance payments to terminated employees, the prospect of eligibility for federal tax refunds for any FICA taxes withheld from such payments took another step forward with the Sixth Circuit’s January 4th denial of the government’s petition for rehearing en banc in United States v. Quality Stores (Civil No. 10-1563, 6th Cir. 2012).
The rehearing petition was filed after a government loss in September of last year in which the appellate court affirmed a lower court’s decision that supplemental unemployment compensation benefit (SUB) payments are not taxable as wages and are consequently exempt from FICA taxes. Under section 3402(o)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code, SUB payments are defined as “amounts which are paid to an employee, pursuant to a plan to which the employer is a party, because of an employee’s involuntary separation from employment (whether or not such separation is temporary), resulting directly from a reduction in force, the discontinuance of a plant or operation, or other similar conditions.”
The Sixth Circuit’s decision in Quality Stores directly conflicts with the Federal Circuit’s prior decision in CSX Corp. v. United States, 518 F.3d 1328 (Fed. Cir. 2008), which held that such payments were subject to FICA. With the denial of the petition for rehearing in Quality Stores, the stage is now set for the government to seek Supreme Court review. Because the eventual outcome of this conflict has enormous financial implications, a petition for certiorari is reasonably foreseeable. Such a petition would be due by April 4, 2013.
Although the final word on the issue may not yet be written, for companies located within the Sixth Circuit’s purview (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee), the taxpayer-friendly Quality Stores decision is currently binding authority which, unless reversed by the Supreme Court, will entitle those who have filed timely refund claims to the refund of FICA taxes paid over on SUB payments. In the rest of the country, Quality Stores is not binding on the IRS. Nonetheless, the case at least raises the prospect of a taxpayer victory on the issue when the dust finally settles.
Many companies have already filed protective tax refund claims to preserve their rights to receive potentially significant refunds of FICA tax. For those that haven’t, filing such claims for each open taxable year in which FICA was withheld on SUB payments is an absolute prerequisite to obtain any refunds. There is little cost associated with filing a protective refund claim but the potential benefit could be quite large. Accordingly, any eligible employers who have not already done so are advised to file their claims as soon as possible for all open years to avoid being barred by the applicable statute of limitations, which typically remains open for the later of three years after the return due date or two years after the date of payment.
A final point about which employers filing refund claims should take note is that under Treas. Reg. § 31.6402(a)-2, a refund claim seeking the refund or credit of an employee’s share of FICA taxes requires the employer to certify either that it has repaid or reimbursed the tax to its employee or that it has secured the employee’s written consent to the filing of the refund claim (except to the extent the taxes were not withheld from the employee). In Quality Stores, for example, roughly 1,800 of 3,000 former employees consented to the company filing FICA tax refund claims on their behalf. Consequently, the employer’s refund claim for its own share of FICA taxes exceeded the refund sought for its former employees’ share.