Two former National Football League players who challenged Cleveland’s tax on their income won refunds after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the way the city calculated their taxes was improper.
Former Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and former Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday sued the city’s tax board last year challenging payments they made from 2004 to 2006 and 2008, respectively. The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled Saturday was entitled to a full refund and Hillenmeyer a partial refund.
Seven other cities besides Cleveland that are home to major professional sports teams tax visiting players. The issue in the Ohio case centers on how Cleveland imposes its 2-percent income tax. The city stands to lose at least $1 million a year if it calculates taxes due as the players wish based on days worked in a season instead of games played, according to a 2013 city analysis.
Cleveland had said its approach is legal and reasonable. Just as entertainers are paid only for performances regardless of how much they rehearse, athletes are paid to perform in games, the city said.
Saturday, a six-time Pro Bowl center who played 13 years with the Indianapolis Colts and won a Super Bowl in 2007 before finishing his career with the Green Bay Packers in 2012, argued that he should not have been taxed because he was injured and didn’t travel to Cleveland for a 2008 game.
He was still hit with a $3,594 tax because of city regulations that count payments an employer makes to a sick and absent employee.
Cleveland lacked the authority to tax Saturday’s income, the Supreme court ruled.
“A professional athlete whose team plays a game in Cleveland but who remains in his home city participating in team-mandated activities is not liable for Cleveland municipal income tax,” the court said.
Saturday, now an analyst with ESPN, said he was pleased with the result and what it means for other players.
“This wasn’t about the money; it was the principle of it,” Saturday said. “I’m excited for the guys who won’t be unfairly taxed by Cleveland.”
The court also criticized the city’s method for calculating taxes, noting that other municipalities and states, including Ohio, that have chosen to tax professional athletes do so based on days played.
Hillenmeyer, a linebacker for the Chicago Bears for eight seasons, said instead of using a “games-played” calculation Cleveland should determine taxes by dividing days in the city by days in a season.
The city calculated his taxable income for a 2006 preseason game as $162,002, based on his $3.2 million total salary that year, according to papers Hillenmeyer filed with the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals. The state, using a different method, calculated the taxable income for the game as $38,557, according to a court filing.
“Nobody likes paying taxes — that’s obvious — but they should be fair,” Hillenmeyer said in a 2014 telephone interview. “It was just such an egregious and shameless money grab by the city of Cleveland, it just felt wrong not to try to do anything about it.”
Cleveland city officials had no immediate comment on the ruling. Stephen W. Kidder, an attorney for the players, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call for comment.