Recent FAA Serves as Warning to Employers Using PEOs

A recent Internal Revenue Service Office of Chief Counsel field attorney advice memorandum (FAA 20171201F) sounds a cautionary note for employers making use of a professional employer organization (PEO).  The FAA holds a common law employer ultimately liable for employment taxes owed for workers it leased from the PEO.  Under the terms of the employer’s agreement with the PEO, the PEO was required to deposit employee withholdings with the IRS and pay the employer share of payroll taxes to the IRS.  Alas, that was not what happened.

The taxpayer did not dispute that it had the right to direct and control all aspects of the employment relationship and was thus was the common law employer with respect to the employees, but asserted that it was not liable for the unpaid employment taxes. Under the terms of the contracts between the taxpayer and the PEO, the taxpayer would pay an amount equal to the wages and salaries of the leased employees to the PEO prior to the payroll date, and the PEO would then pay all required employment taxes and file all employment tax returns (Forms 940 and 941) and information returns (Forms W-2) with respect to the employees.

After the PEO failed to pay and deposit the required taxes, the Examination Division of the IRS found the taxpayer liable for the employment tax of those workers, plus interest. The taxpayer appealed, making several arguments against its liability: (i) the PEO was liable for paying over the employment taxes under a state statute; (ii) the PEO was the statutory employer, making it liable for the employment taxes; and (iii) the workers were not employees of the taxpayer under Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978.

The Office of Chief Counsel first explained that the state law cited by the taxpayer was not relevant because it was superseded by the Internal Revenue Code. The FAA rejects the taxpayer’s second argument because the PEO lacked control over the payment of wages, and thus it was not a statutory employer. The PEO lacked the requisite control because the taxpayer was obligated to make payment sufficient to cover the employees’ pay before the PEO paid the workers.  Finally, the Office of Chief Counsel denied the taxpayer relief under Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978 because that provision only applies to questions involving employment status or worker classification, neither of which was at issue.  Although the FAA makes clear that the common law employer will be on-the-hook for the unpaid employment taxes, the FAA did indicate that it would be open to allowing an interest-free adjustment because the taxpayer’s reliance on the PEO to fulfill its employment tax obligations constituted an “error” under the interest-free adjustment rules.

The FAA serves as a reminder that the common law employer cannot easily offload its liability for employment taxes by using a contract. Indeed, it remains liable for such taxes and related penalties in the event that the party it has relied on to deposit them fails to do so timely.  Employers who choose to make use of a PEO should carefully monitor the PEO’s compliance with the payroll tax rules to ensure that it does not end up in this taxpayer’s position.  Alternatively, employers should consider whether to use a certified PEO under the new regime established by Congress (earlier coverage  available here and here).  When using a certified PEO, the common law employer can successfully shift its liability to the PEO and is not liable if the PEO fails to comply with the payroll tax requirements of the Code.