COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The way Cleveland taxes professional athletes who work for short periods of time in the city is unconstitutional because it violates athletes’ due process rights, the Ohio Supreme Court said Thursday.
The city unfairly imposed a 2 percent income tax on ex-Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer based on games played in the city as a percentage of total games played, the ruling said.
Hillenmeyer is due a partial refund under the method used by most cities — in which athletes are taxed based on games played as a percentage of the season, according to the unanimous decision.
Cleveland’s method reached “beyond its power to tax,” Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger said.
In a related ruling, the court said retired Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday shouldn’t have been taxed at all by Cleveland during the 2008 season because he was injured and not in the city.
At issue in Thursday’s decision was an Ohio law that excludes entertainers or athletes from a ban on municipalities taxing people who perform services 12 or fewer days per year.
Sport leagues including the NBA, NFL and NHL wanted the law found unconstitutional, saying it singles out professional athletes for less fair tax treatment and overlooks the fact that despite high salaries the athletes’ careers are relatively short.
The court rejected that broader argument, however and ruled only on Cleveland’s method of applying the law.
The leagues were disappointed the law was upheld but happy the court struck down Cleveland’s interpretation, said Steve Kidder, a lawyer representing Hillenmeyer.
Cleveland “insisted on following what they knew was just a grab for money, frankly, because they were taking five times as much tax from football players as they had any legitimate right to do,” he said.
The city is reviewing the decision and considering options and any economic consequences, Cleveland spokesman Daniel Bell said in a statement.
Cleveland’s system, known as the “games-played method,” treats professional athletes as if they were paid only to play in games, Kidder said in a filing with the Ohio Supreme Court.
This ignores everything else NFL players are paid to do, including minicamps, preseason training camp, team meetings and practice sessions, Kidder said.
Under the method most cities use, an NFL player who travels to a city for two days during a 160-day season would be taxed on 1/80th of his income. But in Cleveland, a visiting football player is taxed just on the game, which amounts to 5 percent of his income based on a 20-game season (which includes exhibition games), Kidder said.
Cleveland said its interpretation of the law is based on what players are hired to do: play games.
A case Hillenmeyer used to bolster his argument involved the late actor Paul Newman’s successful challenge of taxes he paid filming the 1973 movie “The Sting.”
California wanted to tax Newman only for the approximate month he was in California filming, but Newman won an appeal that said he should be taxed at a lower rate because his actual contract — similar to a professional athlete’s season — was 54 days, according to Kidder’s court filing on behalf of Hillenmeyer.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.
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