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:: Lawsuit Awards and Settlements

 

Table of Contents

 


Introduction

 


Note: Because a business entity cannot suffer a personal injury within the meaning of IRC section 104(a)(2), P & X Markets, Inc. v. Commissioner, 106 T.C. 441 (1996), aff'd in unpublished order, (9th Cir., Feb. 13, 1988), this guide applies to recoveries by individuals only.


The information and techniques presented in this guide for lawsuit settlement examinations were developed during a project in Alabama, which began with media coverage of relevant tax issues. Analyses of newspaper articles revealed that numerous lawsuits were being resolved in the state either by verdict or settlement for substantial amounts. As a result, a separate project relating only to lawsuit verdicts and settlements was initiated and approved.

Early results of the project revealed that the vast majority of these lawsuit verdicts and settlements were escaping taxation. Virtually none of the payments were reported on Forms 1099. For this reason, it has been easy for these payments to fall through the gap of unreported income.

In the examination of 1994 and 1995 returns, it was often found that the taxpayer had classified all or most of the settlement as "compensatory," usually for "personal injuries," and therefore arrived at the determination that the proceeds were nontaxable. This pattern was found to be repeated in virtually all of the lawsuit cases, regardless of whether the claims were for fraudulent actions, defamation of character, employment related disputes, product liability, negligence, wrongful death, etc., and also regardless of whether or not claims for punitive damages were involved in the cases.

On the surface, the issue seems quite simple: Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 61 states that all income from whatever source derived is taxable, unless specifically excluded by another Code section. In certain situations an amount of a lawsuit settlement might be paid to reimburse a taxpayer for losses, and no gain would have to be recognized under IRC section 1001 because the amount paid did not exceed the taxpayer's basis (return of capital). However, the only provision which specifically addresses income exclusions for any type of lawsuit proceeds is IRC section 104(a)(2). Prior to its amendment in 1996, this section excluded from income amounts paid by suit or agreement for personal injuries or sickness. This is the section which taxpayers have most often relied upon for authority to exclude from income lawsuit proceeds of all kinds, including punitive damages. This is where the appearance of a simple issue dissolves.

IRC section 104(a)(2) has been extensively litigated. The questions have centered on determining "what are personal injuries" for purposes of IRC section 104(a)(2). The issues have encompassed physical versus non-physical (mental anguish) injuries and sickness, and whether punitive damages are received on account of personal injuries. In 1989, Congress amended IRC section 104(a)(2) referencing punitive damages and non-physical injuries. However, due to the manner in which the statement was worded, the 1989 amendment only created more controversy. The Service's current position is that punitive damages are not received on account of personal injuries under IRC section 104(a)(2), and therefore are not excludable from gross income. In 1996, on the heels of several court decisions that had upheld the Service's position, Congress resolved the controversy and amended IRC section 104(a)(2). The 1996 changes clearly provide that punitive damages are not excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2), regardless of whether received in connection with a physical or non-physical injury or sickness. However, the 1996 amendment to IRC section 104(a)(2) has raised the issue whether punitive damages received in connection with a wrongful death are excludable from gross income. This question is discussed in detail in a subsequent section.

The 1996 changes further provide that amounts excludable for emotional distress are limited to actual "out of pocket" medical costs in cases of non-physical injuries, such as discrimination, fraud, etc. However, all amounts received on account of a physical injury, with the exception of punitive damages, are excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2), including amounts for emotional distress. These clarifying and limiting changes to the statute are effective for amounts received after August 20, 1996, unless received under a binding written agreement, court decree, or mediation award in effect on (or issued on or before) September 13, 1995.

Although lawsuit settlements of clearly designated punitive damages received after August 20, 1996, should be easily identified by the taxpayers and the preparers as taxable proceeds, there are still issues for examination. This guide will provide information on how to identify tax returns with lawsuit payment issues, suggestions on conducting the examination; detail of issues, explanations of applicable terminology, synopses of several related court cases, and exhibits of pertinent forms.

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Chapter 1, Issues

The following brief synopsis reflects the similarities and differences between the potential issues which may arise in lawsuit verdicts and settlements received prior to August 21, 1996, and those received on or subsequent to that date.

Issues for Lawsuit Proceeds Received Prior to August 21, 1996

  1. Settlement proceeds are unreported.

     

  2. All punitive damages are taxable whether received in relation to a physical or non-physical injury (caution: Alabama wrongful death cases).

     

  3. Determine if any of the settlement proceeds are designated as interest, and if so, whether such interest is reported as income.

     

  4. For out of court settlements, determine if the taxpayer reported correct allocations between taxable type awards, such as punitive, back wages, etc., and non-taxable amounts, such as emotional distress damages (caution: back pay may be excludable if received under circumstances described in Rev. Rul. 93-88, 1993-2 C.B. 61, obsoleted by Rev. Rul. 96-65, 1996-2 C.B. 6)

     

  5. Verify that the taxpayer reported taxable amounts at gross rather than reporting them net of legal fees.

     

  6. Allowable legal fees should be deducted on Schedule A as miscellaneous itemized deductions, unless the origin of the claim litigated is related to a Schedule C (independent contractor), or a capital transaction. This guide does not address the proper treatment of legal fees paid and deducted in taxable years prior to the year of recovery.

     

  7. The legal fees deducted on Schedule A are a tax preference item for purposes of Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).

     

  8. For purposes of the AMT Credit, the legal fees which created AMT, are not allowed to generate the credit. They are "exclusion" items.


 

Issues for Lawsuit Proceeds Received After August 20, 1996

  1. Lawsuit proceeds are unreported.

     

  2. All punitive damages are taxable whether received in relation to a physical or non-physical injury (caution: Alabama wrongful death cases).

     

  3. Determine if any of the settlement proceeds are designated as interest, and if so, such interest is reported as income.

     

  4. Verify that amounts excluded from income were received in a case of physical injury. If it was not a physical injury, the only amounts excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2) are out of pocket costs for medical expenses incurred to treat emotional distress.

     

  5. For out of court settlements for physical injury cases, determine if proper amounts were allocated between compensatory and punitive damages.

     

  6. Verify the amount of out of pocket expense excluded for emotional distress in a non-physical injury case (that is, discrimination, fraud, etc.).

     

  7. Verify that the taxpayer reported taxable amounts at gross rather than reporting them net of legal fees paid.

     

  8. Allowable legal fees should be deducted on Schedule A as miscellaneous itemized deductions, unless the origin of the claim litigated is related to a Schedule C (independent contractor), or a capital transaction. This guide does not address the proper treatment of legal fees paid and deducted in taxable years prior to the year of recovery.

     

  9. The legal fees deducted on Schedule A are a tax preference item for purposes of AMT.

     

  10. For purposes of the AMT Credit, the legal fees which created AMT, are not allowed to generate the credit. They are "exclusion" items.

This comparison of issues before and after the 1996 law changes clearly reflects the fact that there is still much potential for adjustments in the area of lawsuit payments. By the time this guide is available service wide, a large portion of the examinations will probably be relating to post- August 20, 1996, payments. However, there may still be some pre-August 21, 1996, cases as well. For this reason, this guide provides assistance in examining the taxability of settlement payments received both on or prior and subsequent to, the amendment to IRC section 104 on August 20, 1996. (Note the exception to the effective date of this amendment).

For taxable years beginning after August 20, 1996, there will still be issues relating to allocations in out-of-court settlements. The allocation issues will be particularly important in out-of-court settlements for physical injury cases. Because many cases are settled to avoid the imposition of punitive damages, it is anticipated that the some taxpayers may erroneously allocate amounts between excludable and punitive damages in these cases. The allocation issue will not be as important in the non-physical cases because only out-of-pocket expenses for emotional distress are excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2) after August 20, 1996.

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Chapter 2, Taxability of Lawsuit Payments

General rule relative to taxability of amounts received from lawsuit settlements:

IRC section 61 states that all income is taxable from whatever source derived, unless exempted by another section of the Code.

Terminology/Definitions

Types of Claims

Tort

  • May cause or constitute, but is not necessarily, a personal injury;

  • Any wrongful act, not involving breach of contract, for which a civil suit can be brought;

  • A wrongful act committed by one person against another person or his/her property;

  • The breach of a legal duty imposed by law, other than by contract.

Example 1:
X punches Y, thus committing the tort of battery.

Example 2
X sets foot on Y's property, thus committing the tort of trespass, but causing no personal injury.


 

Contractual

  • Claims based on rights given by contract.

Example 3
X forces Y to leave his employment before the time specified in an employment contract, thereby breaching the contractual agreement.

Example 4
X refuses to pay Y the amount specified in a homebuilding contract, thereby breaching the contractual agreement.


 

Punitive

The tort offense was committed:

  • Knowingly

  • Willingly

  • Deliberately

  • Negligently

  • Fraudulently.

Generally, punitive damages are not awarded for simple breach of contract, although lawsuits often combine claims for breach of contract and related tort claims in the same suit.

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Types of Damages/Awards

Tort

  • May be received from litigation or settlement of a claim for physical injury or illness; mental pain and suffering; interference with economic relations and/or property damage.

     

  • Usually non-taxable if received in connection with a physical injury or sickness. Property damages are not excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2). Damages received for invasions of economic interests are generally taxable. See Gregg v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1999-10.

 


Exceptions:

  1. Tax Benefit Rule - If prior deductions under IRC section 213 were taken (that is, medical deductions; interest expense, etc.) then amounts received for reimbursement of these expenses would be taxable to the extent includable under IRC section 111.

     

  2. Compensatory awards from tort claims which represent lost business receipts, or other categories of taxable income may be includable in income.


 

Contractual

  • A remedy provided specifically by the contractual agreement or as interpreted by a court.

     

  • Often paid for lost wages and benefits, profits and other forms of business receipts.

     

  • Usually taxable.

     

  • However, some amounts may be non-taxable, for example, X receives an insurance policy to replace one previously purchased that had lapsed due to an insurance agent's misappropriation of premiums paid.


 

Compensatory

Generally speaking, most people view the term "compensatory" to mean "nontaxable." However, as the above examples reflect, determinations of the taxability of lawsuit awards cannot always be made simply by referring to the terminology used, that is, compensatory or contractual.

The term "compensatory" merely means that the payment compensated the taxpayer for a loss. This loss may be purely economic, for example, arising out of a contract, or personal, for example, sustained by virtue of a physical injury. Furthermore, not all torts constitute personal injuries. Some torts may involve invasion of property rights, for example, conversion, or interference with economic interests, for example, tortious interference with contractual relations, or purely personal interests, for example, defamation. Further, even in tort cases, where the damages compensate for the aggravated manner in which the defendant committed the tortious act, such damages are not received on account of any personal injury.

The facts and circumstances of each lawsuit settlement must be considered to determine the purpose for which the money was received. Then, it can be determined whether these amounts are excludable.


 

Punitive

  • To Punish

     

  • Taxable. (Caution: Alabama wrongful death proceeds)

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Types of Settlements

Determining the correct allocations among taxable payments and non-taxable payments is usually the most difficult part of these examinations. There are two ways in which settlement proceeds are originally categorized:

Jury/Court Verdicts

If damages have been clearly allocated to an identifiable claim in an adversarial proceeding by judge or jury, the Service will usually not challenge their character because of the impartial and objective nature of the determinations. But see Robinson v. Commissioner, 102 T.C. 116, 122 (1994) and Kightlinger v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1998-357.

Settlements Out of Court

Many lawsuits are settled prior to a jury verdict. These settlements should be closely reviewed, and facts and circumstances should be carefully determined. The allocation among the various claims of the settlement can be challenged where the facts and circumstances indicate that the allocation does not reflect the economic substance of the settlement. See Phoenix Coal

Company, Inc. v. Commissioner (CA-2) 56-1 U.S.T.C. 9366, 231 F.2d 420 (2d Cir. 1956); Robinson v. Commissioner, 102 T.C 116, 122 (1994); Bagley v. Commissioner, 105 T.C. 396 (1995), aff'd, 121 F.3d 393 (8th Cir. 1997).

LeFleur v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1997-312 addresses the reallocation issue in a case involving claims for breach of contract, emotional distress, and punitive damages. In an out-of-court written settlement, the payment was allocated as $200,000 to contract, $800,000 to emotional distress, and $0 to punitive damages. The taxpayer excluded the $800,000 from income under IRC section 104(a)(2).

The Service disregarded the terms of the written settlement agreement and reallocated the $800,000 to contract/punitive damages. The Tax Court upheld the IRS reallocation. Referring to the settlement, the court stated that "the allocation did not accurately reflect the realities of the petitioner's underlying claims." In determining that the $800,000 was not excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2), the court stated:

"In light of the facts and circumstances, we conclude that petitioner suffered no injury to his health that could be attributed to the actions of the defendants, and we are not persuaded that such injury was the basis of any payment to him by Blount."

For additional information on issues dealing with allocation or reallocation, see the following sections on "Physical Personal Injury or Sickness" and "Non-Physical Personal Injury or Sickness."

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Tax Treatment of Awards and Settlements

Awards and settlements can basically be divided into two distinct groups. One group includes claims arising from a physical injury and the other group includes those arising from a non-physical injury. The claims from each of the two major groups will usually fall into three categories:

  1. Actual damages resulting from the physical or non-physical injury;

  2. Emotional distress damages arising from the actual physical or non-physical injury; and

  3. Punitive damages.

Physical Personal Injury or Sickness

Physical

IRC section 104(a)(2) provides for an exclusion from gross income for damages received (whether by suit or agreement and whether as lump sums or as periodic payments) on account of personal injury or sickness.

Section 7641 of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1989 amended IRC section 104(a)(2) by adding flush language: "Paragraph (2) shall not apply to any punitive damages in connection with a case not involving physical injury or physical sickness." This amendment applies to punitive damages received after July 10, 1989, in tax years ending after that date.

Nevertheless, some taxpayers have erroneously failed to report as income almost all types of awards/settlements under IRC section 104(a)(2) due to personal injury. The Service has consistently held that compensatory damages, including lost wages, received on account of a physical injury are excludable from gross income. Rev. Rul. 85-97, 1985-2 C.B. 50, amplifying Rev. Rul. 61-1, 1961-1 C.B. 14. See also Commissioner v. Schleier, 515 U.S. 323, 329-330 (1995), in which the Supreme Court, employing a similar set of facts as the ruling, held that medical expenses not previously deducted, pain and suffering damages, and lost wages received by accident victim are excludable from income.

IRC section 104(a)(2) was amended in 1996. The amended section 104(a)(2) excludes from gross income damages received on account of personal physical injury or physical sickness only. However, the limitation to personal physical injuries or physical sickness contained in the 1996 amendment does not apply to any amount received under a written binding agree-ment, court decree, or mediation award in effect on (or issued on or before) September 13, 1995.

The House Committee Report for the 1996 changes (excerpts attached as Appendix D) states:

If an action has its origin in a physical injury or physical sickness, then all damages (other than punitive) that flow therefrom are treated as payments received on account of physical injury or physical sickness whether or not the recipient of the damages is the injured party. For example, damages (other than punitive) received by an individual on account of a claim for loss of consortium due to the physical injury or physical sickness of such individual's spouse are excludable from gross income.

Emotional

The exclusion from gross income under IRC section 104(a)(2) also applies to any compensatory damages received based on a claim of emotional distress or mental/emotional injury that is attributable to a physical injury or physical sickness. For more information on damages paid for emotional injuries stemming from physical injury/sickness, see discussion under "Physical" above. Emotional claims pertaining to non-physical personal injury/sickness" is covered later on in this guide.

Determining the amounts allocable to mental/emotional injuries may not always be easy. The facts and circumstances of each award/settlement must be examined, and amounts which can be reasonably allocated to genuine mental injury should be allowed. The allocation is necessary when economic damages, for example, back pay, or punitive damages is requested as relief in a case involving a physical or non-physical personal injury.

  • Points to consider:

    • Did payor intend to compensate the recipient for his or her claim of mental distress? If so, how much? But see Hemelt v. United States, 122 F.3d at 208 ("the characterization of a settlement cannot depend entirely on the intent of the parties") citing Dotson v. United States, 87 F.3d at 687, and Mayberry v. United States, 151 F.3d at 859.

    • What did the payor think? That is, whether he/she/it could win or lose (elements of the claim).

    • Were there medical bills for mental disturbances?

    • Was there psychological treatment or counseling?

    • Were there lost workdays?

    • Is there documentation for medications, antidepressants, etc?

    • Did this situation cause taxpayer to be absent from work?

    • Was there sick leave used?

    • Did taxpayer continue to care for his/her family?

    • Did taxpayer continue with daily affairs?

    For the allocation, start with the total payment less the actual, obvious losses, then allocate between compensatory and punitive.

    Punitive Damages

  • Punitive damages are not excludable from gross income under IRC section 104(a)(2).

    The position of the IRS on the taxation of punitive damages has not been constant. In Rev. Rul. 58-418, 1958-2 C.B. 18, the Service published its position that punitive damages do not qualify for exclusion under IRC section 104(a)(2). See Thomson v. Commissioner, 406 F.2d 1006, 69-1 U.S.T.C. 9199 (9th Cir. 1969). In Rev. Rul. 75-45, 1975-1 C.B. 47, the Service changed its position and concluded that punitive damages were excludable. See Roemer v. Commissioner, 716 F.2d 693, 83-2 U.S.T.C. 9600 (9th Cir. 1983), following the Service reluctantly on this issue. Addressing the Alabama wrongful death statute, the Service ruled that punitive damages were again taxable. Rev. Rul. 84-108, 1984-2 C.B. 32. Accordingly, Rev. Rul. 75-45 was revoked. See Burford v. United States, 642 F. Supp. 635 (N.D. Ala. 1986), disagreeing with Rev. Rul. 84-108. Prior to 1989, the courts, however, often did not agree. After 1989, some commentators believed that the courts would interpret the additional verbiage to IRC section 104(a)(2) to exclude punitive damages paid relative to a physical injury or physical sickness.

    However, in the Tenth Circuit's decision in O'Gilvie v. United States, 95-2 U.S.T.C., 50,508, 66 F.3d 1550, the court ruled that "non-compensatory punitive damages are not received on account of personal injuries, and thus are not excludable from gross income under IRC section 104(a)(2)."

    In O'Gilvie, the Tenth Circuit applied the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Commissioner v. Schleier, (1995 S.Ct.), 75 AFTR 2d 95-2675; 115 S.Ct. 2159, 515 U.S. 323, involving employment discrimination, to a case involving wrongful death. Schleier held that there are two independent tests which must be met for the IRC section 104(a)(2) exclusion to apply: (1) The underlying cause of action giving rise to the recovery must be based on tort or tort-type rights; and (2) the damages must "have been received on account of personal injuries or sickness."

    Prior to this time, some of the courts had relied on only the first requirement of a tort-type underlying claim in holding that the damages were excludable. See, for example, Hill v. United States, 733 F. Supp. 88, 1990-1 U.S.T.C. 50,170 (D. Kan. 1990) (damages for tort of misrepresentation excludable from gross income).

    The Supreme Court upheld the Tenth Circuit's decision. O'Gilvie 519 U.S. 79, 117 S. Ct. 452; 96-2 U.S.T.C. 50,664; 78 AFTR 2d 7454 (1996). With this decision, the courts finally have clear guidance, which coincides with the Service's position on the taxation of punitive damages prior to the 1989 amendment to IRC section 104(a)(2).

    With the enactment of Public Law 104-188, Section 1605(d), Congress made it clear in IRC section 104(a)(2) that punitive damages are taxable, regardless of the nature of the underlying claim.

    However, the courts have not decided a case involving punitive damages subject to the 1989 amendment to IRC section 104(a)(2). In dictum, the Supreme Court indicated that Congress amended IRC section 104(a)(2) in 1989 to allow the exclusion of punitive damages only in cases involving physical injury or physical sickness. United States v. Burke, 504 U.S. at 236, n.6. Faced with the taxation of punitive damages prior to the 1989 amendment and the specter of addressing the 1989 amendment in a subsequent case, the Supreme Court, retreating from the statement in Burke, rejected the taxpayer's argument that was based on this dictum. O'Gilvie, 519 U.S. at 89-90. The Court indicated that Congress' focus in 1989 was on what to do about non-physical personal injuries rather than on punitive damages under prior law. The Court's statement lays to rest the negative inference and provides support for the conclusion that, in enacting the 1989 amendment, Congress did not intend to create an exclusion for punitive damages received in connection with a physical injury or physical sickness. See, also, Miller v. Commissioner, 914 F.2d 586, 588, n. 4 (4th Cir. 1990) (Congress has amended IRC section 104(a)(2) so that it now explicitly does not exclude from gross income "punitive damages received in connection with a case not involving physical injury or physical sickness.")

Wrongful Death

Claims for wrongful death usually encompass compensatory damages for physical and mental injury, as well as punitive damages for reckless, malicious, or reprehensible conduct. As a result, both claims may generate settlement amounts. Any amounts determined to be compensatory for the personal injuries are excludable from gross income under IRC section 104(a)(2). The amounts determined to be non-compensatory, that is, punitive payments, are not excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2). This is true regardless of whether the punitive amounts are received prior or subsequent to the August 20, 1996, amendment. (See O'Gilvie, 519 U.S. 79, 117 S. Ct. 452; 96-2 U.S.T.C. 50,664; 78 AFTR 2d 7454.)

The exclusion available for personal injuries under IRC section 104(a)(2), as of August 20, 1996, reads as follows:

"* * * the amount of any damages (other than punitive damages) received (whether by suit or agreement and whether as lump sums or as periodic payments) on account of personal physical injuries or physical sickness."

As mentioned previously, caution should be used in applying this general rule that punitive damages received in wrongful death cases are taxable. The courts have generally looked to the state statute under which the wrongful death claim was litigated to determine whether there could be compensatory and/or punitive damages awarded. This search, at times, has revealed a state statute, which provides only for punitive damages in wrongful death claims. One court has ruled, that such damages received in wrongful death cases in that state are excludable from income. Burford v. United States, 642 F. Supp. 635 (N.D. Ala. 1986). The court's reasoning was that because the taxpayer is precluded from receiving any compensatory amounts, it is unfair to tax the amounts although they were classified as punitive.

Questions have arisen as to whether the 1996 amendment codified this judicial treatment of punitive damages in Burford. A new provision, IRC section 104(c), provides as follows:

(c) Application of prior law in certain cases.
The phrase "other than punitive damages" shall not apply to punitive damages awarded in a civil action -
(1) which is a wrongful death action, and
(2) with respect to which applicable State law (as in effect on September 13, 1995, and without regard to any modification after such date) provides, or has been construed to provide by a court of competent jurisdiction pursuant to a decision issued on or before September 13, 1995, that only punitive damages may be awarded in such an action.

Due to the inference raised by this language in the wrongful death claims area, it may become necessary to determine if your state is one having a statute precluding the awarding of compensatory damages in wrongful death cases. If that is the case, then contact the Office of Chief Counsel for guidance on Service position.

Product Liability

Product liability cases often include claims for personal physical and mental injury. For example, X brings a claim for personal injury against an auto manufacturer claiming a wreck was caused by a faulty steering column on his car, or Y brings suit against the manufacturer of a contaminated pesticide claiming damage to ornamental plants and the nursery, and injury to business reputation.

These type cases will usually involve the various elements discussed above, relative to compensatory damages for physical and mental injury, as well as punitive damages. Proper allocations among the taxable and nontaxable portions received must be determined.

Non-Physical Personal Injury or Sickness

Prior to the amendment of August 20, 1996, the Service and the courts consistently interpreted IRC section 104(a)(2) as providing an exclusion for damages received in connection with claims of mental and emotional distress which arose from non-physical injuries. Examples of these type cases are employment wrongful discharge; discrimination; libel; etc. Exclusions from gross income have been widely debated in prior years. Generally, the Service has challenged taxpayers' allocation of settlement proceeds to compensatory damages for mental/emotional distress when those allocations do not reasonably reflect the economics of the underlying claim. Thus, whether the Service must respect the specific allocations contained in a settlement agreement has arisen in several cases. The same considerations to proper allocations for emotional claims that were discussed earlier under "physical injuries" are applicable to the non-physical cases as well. (Refer to comments under "Emotional".)

The August 20, 1996, amendment has plainly resolved this issue on the side of the Government. With the exception of amounts paid to treat emotional distress, damages received after August 20, 1996, are excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2) only if received on account of physical injury or physical sickness.

The 1996 amendment changed the last sentence in paragraph (a) of IRC section 104 to include the following:

For purposes of paragraph (2), emotional distress shall not be treated as a physical injury or physical sickness. The preceding sentence shall not apply to an amount of damages not in excess of the amount paid for medical care (described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of section 213(d)(1)) attributable to emotional distress.

The House Committee Report on the 1996 amendment to IRC section 104(a)(2) states:

* * * the exclusion from gross income does not apply to any damages received (other than for medical expenses as discussed below) based on a claim of employment discrimination or injury to reputation accompanied by a claim of emotional distress * * * In addition, the exclusion from gross income specifically applies to the amount of damages received that is not in excess of the amount paid for medical care attributable to emotional distress.

As a result of the above 1996 changes to IRC section 104(a)(2), a taxpayer receiving lawsuit proceeds from a non-physical injury claim cannot exclude any amount for payment to compensate for an intangible emotional distress value. The taxpayer can only exclude an amount for actual out of pocket medical costs. This exclusion would further depend upon whether the taxpayer had previously deducted those medical expenses on his or her tax return. See IRC sections 111 and 213.

Employment-Related

Employment-related lawsuits may arise from wrongful discharge or failure to honor contract obligations. Whether a wrongful termination constitutes a tort under applicable state law is not controlling for IRC section 104(a)(2) purposes. As indicated earlier, the victim of a tort may suffer both personal injury and economic loss. Damages received to compensate for economic loss, for example, lost wages, business income, benefits, are not excludable from gross income unless a personal injury caused such loss.

If the payments in question are received prior to the 1996 amendment, there may be issues concerning the proper allocation between taxable and nontaxable proceeds. The taxpayer may be seeking to exclude substantial amounts for emotional/mental distress. After the 1996 changes, the taxpayer can exclude under IRC section 104(a)(2) only an amount of damages received not exceeding medical costs paid to treat any emotional distress.

Discrimination Suits (Employment-Related)

Discrimination suits usually are brought alleging infringements in the areas of age, race, gender, religion or disability. These types of cases can generate compensatory, contractual and punitive awards. Historically, the courts have usually looked to the underlying-cause-of-action statute to determine the nature of remedies allowed for the various types of discrimination.

Some courts, and, for a short time, the Service, permitted taxpayers to exclude amounts awarded which actually represented back pay. Rev. Rul. 93-88 was based on the interpretation of the Supreme Court's ruling in Burke, 504 U.S. 229 (69 AFTR 2d 92-1293). Rev. Rul. 93-88 held that amounts received under the following provisions, including, not only amounts for non-pecuniary losses, but back pay as well, were excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2):

  1. Gender discrimination claims under the disparate treatment provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. section 2000e et seq., as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. section 1981a;

     

  2. Racial discrimination claims under, 42 U.S.C., section 1981, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and

     

  3. Discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. sections 12101-12213.

The decision of the Supreme Court in the Schleier case, (1995, S. Ct.) 515 U.S. 323, 115 S. Ct. 2159, caused the Service to suspend Rev. Rul. 93-88 with the issuance of Notice 95-45, 1995-2 C.B. 330, on August 3, 1995. Notice 95-45 stated the following:

In Schleier, the Supreme Court held that back pay and liquidated damages received in settlement of a claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C sections 621-634 (ADEA), are not excludable from gross income under section 104(a)(2). The Court concluded that section 104(a)(2) and its regulations set forth two requirements for a recovery to be excludable from income: (1) it must be based on tort or tort-type rights, and (2) it must be received "on account of personal injuries or sickness." The Court held that back pay and liquidated damages received under the ADEA meet neither requirement because (1) the ADEA provides no compensation for any of the other traditional harms associated with personal injury, (2) the back pay is completely independent of the existence or extent of any personal injury, and (3) the ADEA liquidated damages are punitive in nature.

In Notice 95-45, the Service requested public comments concerning the impact of Schleier on the above listed statutes; allocation of the excludable and nonexcludable portions of lump-sum awards and settlements; and the extent to which IRC section 7805(b) relief should be granted in the event that guidance previously issued by the Service is modified. Notice 95-45 was superseded when the Service published Rev. Rul. 96-65, 1996-2 C.B. 6, in December of 1996.

After providing a brief history of the law and rulings relating to the discrimination cases, Rev. Rul. 96-65 holds:

  1. Current section 104(a)(2) - (after August 20, 1996) Back pay received in satisfaction of a claim for denial of a promotion due to disparate treatment employment discrimination under Title VII is not excludable from gross income under section 104(a)(2) because it is completely independent of, and thus is not damages received on account of, personal physical injuries or physical sickness under that section. Similarly, amounts received for emotional distress in satisfaction of such a claim are not excludable from gross income under section 104(a)(2), except to the extent they are damages paid for medical care (as described in section 213(d)(1)(A) or (B)) attributable to emotional distress.

     

  2. Former section 104(a)(2). Back pay received in satisfaction of a claim for denial of a promotion due to disparate treatment employment discrimination under Title VII is not excludable from gross income under former section 104(a)(2) because it is completely independent of, and thus is not damages received on account of, personal injuries or sickness under that section. However, damages received for emotional distress in satisfaction of such a claim are excludable from gross income under former section 104(a)(2) because they are received "on account of personal injuries of sickness."

Pursuant to the authority contained in IRC section 7805(b), Rev. Rul. 96-65 will not apply adversely to damages received under any provision of law providing tort or tort-type remedies for employment discrimination for race, color, religion, gender, national origin, or other similar classifications, if the damages are received (1) on or before June 14, 1995, the date that Schleier was decided by the Supreme Court, or (2) pursuant to a written binding agreement, court decree, or mediation award in effect on (or issued on or before) June 14, 1995.

Rev. Rul. 96-65 also contains information concerning its effect on other rulings and references to treatment of amounts as wages and compensation. Rev. Rul. 96-65 should be consulted for guidance in certain employment discrimination cases. The provisions of Rev. Rul. 96-65 apply to proceeds received for employment discrimination that is also prohibited by certain state and local laws. Rev. Rul. 93-88, although made obsolete by Rev. Rul. 96-65, contains a good explanation of various discrimination statutes.

Libel (Defamation of Character)

Prior to the 1996 amendment to IRC section 104, the government and the courts were at odds on the proper tax treatment of awards due to damage of business reputation. The government took the position that these damages could not be excluded from income. See Rev. Rul. 58-418, 1958-2 C.B. 18.

Although the Tax Court initially agreed with the government, Roemer v. Commissioner, 79 T.C. 398 (1982), rev'd, 716 F.2d 693 (9th Cir. 1983), it adopted the circuit court's rationale in Threlkeld v. Commissioner, 87 T.C. 1294 (1986), aff'd, 848 F.2d 81 (6th Cir. 1988). As a result, the courts allowed taxpayers to exclude from gross income compensatory amounts received for injury to business reputation and malicious prosecution. See also Srivastava v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1998-362 (defamation of a person is a personal injury under state law).

Recently, however, the Tax Court revisited this issue and concluded that damages received for injury to the taxpayer's business or professional reputation failed to qualify for the IRC section 104(a)(2) exclusion. Fabry v. Commissioner, 111 T.C. 305 (1998). The court held that whether damage to an individual's business or professional reputation constitutes a personal injury for IRC section 104(a)(2) purposes is an issue of fact, rather than a question of law. Because the taxpayer failed to allege any personal injury in the underlying product liability action, the court concluded that the portion of the proceeds allocable to injury to taxpayer's business reputation was not excludable under IRC section 104(a)(2). Fabry was decided under IRC section 104(a)(2) as it existed prior to the 1996 amendment.

However, the 1996 changes to IRC section 104(a)(2) should resolve this issue on the side of the government as well. Because damage to reputation, be it personal or business, is a non-physical injury, only out of pocket costs to treat emotional distress can be excluded. Any other compensatory and punitive damages arising from these cases are taxable.

Other Non-Physical Personal Injury

Lawsuits against insurance companies, finance companies, etc., for negligence, fraud, breach of contract, etc., can include a variety of claims, and therefore can produce a variety of types of awards/settlements.

For amounts received prior to August 21, 1996, the facts and circumstances of each case must be analyzed to determine the reasonable allocations between taxable and nontaxable amounts. Some taxpayers may erroneously categorize punitive damages and other non-compensatory amounts received in these cases as amounts received for personal injuries related to emotional distress.

Subsequent to August 1996, the taxable amounts in these cases are more easily determined. Because these are nonphysical injuries, under the current version of IRC section 104(a)(2), only out-of-pocket amounts for medical costs incurred to treat any emotional distress claims would be excludable from income. All amounts determined to represent punitive damages are taxable.

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