Individual Income Tax Insights: Off-Field Victory for NFL Players Seeking Jock Tax Refunds from Cleveland, Ohio

Hunter Hillenmeyer, former Chicago Bears linebacker, and Jeffrey Saturday, former Indianapolis Colts center, were victorious in the Supreme Court of Ohio’s arena on April 30. The court granted their requests for refunds of jock taxes paid to Cleveland for football games played against the Browns in previous years.

Jock Taxes

“Jock taxes” are income taxes paid by nonresident athletes to states and cities where they perform. An athlete’s income is apportioned by either the percentage of duty days performed in or the percentage of total game days played within a taxing state or city.

“Duty days” typically include all days that the athlete rendered a service, including days spent playing, practicing, training, attending strategy sessions and performing promotional activities. As explained by Erin McManus in Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Tax Report, the games played method captures a larger portion of an athlete’s income because determining apportionment on the basis of game days includes significantly fewer days than using duty days.

Cleveland calculates its jock tax by using a “games-played” method, which Hillenmeyer and Saturday argued was in violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Hillenmeyer’s Case

In the 2004, 2005 and 2006 tax years, Hillenmeyer spent two days each year playing football in Cleveland. Hillenmeyer only played 20 games per season, but he was on duty for approximately 160 days when his practice, training and post-season performance is taken into account. Using the games-played method, Cleveland taxed 5 percent of his income, whereas only 1.25 percent of his income would have been taxed under the duty-days method.

Hillenmeyer’s equal protection argument arose from a municipal law excluding professional athletes from a grace period for nonresidents who perform services for 12 or fewer days in Cleveland, which he argued was discriminatory against professional athletes like himself. The court rejected this argument because it found a rational relationship between the disparate treatment of athletes and the government’s purpose. Specifically, Cleveland’s tax is rationally related to the athletic performance’s burden on municipal resources, such as police protection and crowd control.

However, Hillenmeyer’s due process argument prevailed. Ohio’s supreme court held that Cleveland’s jock tax is extraterritorial, violating the due process clause. The court found that it is extraterritorial because “the games-played method reaches income for work that was performed outside of Cleveland” and fails to consider the full range of time for which Hillenmeyer was compensated.

Saturday’s Case

Saturday sought a refund for all Cleveland income tax paid in the 2008 tax year because he, in no capacity whatsoever, attended the game in Cleveland since he was in Indianapolis that day for rehabilitation. Saturday presented similar arguments as Hillenmeyer, but the court ruled in favor of Saturday on different grounds.

Cleveland argued that the day Saturday spent in rehabilitation was a paid sick day and taxable compensation under Cleveland law. The court found, however, that required rehabilitation for injuries is a performance of job duties and concluded that “Saturday was performing his job duties in Indianapolis on game day.” As a result, the court held that the language of Cleveland’s laws and regulations do not allow for the city to tax income connected to services in no way performed in Cleveland.

Cleveland’s unsportsmanlike conduct did not get by the referees in the Supreme Court of Ohio, providing a small victory to professional athletes facing onerous jock taxes.

Continue the conversation on Bloomberg BNA’s State Tax Group’s LinkedIn page: Did the Ohio Supreme Court make the right call?

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