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Cleveland appeals 'jock tax' ruling to U.S. Supreme Court

October 7, 2015

The city of Cleveland says it is within its rights to tax visiting professional athletes based on the number of games they play a year because taxation is a matter of local jurisdiction.

In a filing Tuesday, the city asked the U.S. Supreme Court to back its position after the Ohio Supreme Court struck down Cleveland's system earlier this year.

The state court ruled that Cleveland's method for taxing athletes violates players' due process rights. It ruled the city must assess taxes based on the total number of days each visiting player works in a year, as is common elsewhere.

At issue were challenges by former Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and retired Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday. The city argued the appeal to the nation's high court was necessary because of the decision's widespread implications.

Hillenmeyer and Saturday sued the city’s tax board last year, challenging payments they made from 2004 to 2006 and in 2008, respectively.

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 in April.

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 worked.

Hillenmeyer, a linebacker for the Bears for eight seasons, said instead of using a “games-played” calculation, Cleveland should determine taxes by dividing days worked in the city by total work 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 for 20 games 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 his time in Cleveland as $38,557, according to a court filing.

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