Fate of Employer Tuition Assistance Programs Hangs in the Balance

On December 2, the Senate passed a version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that differed in key respects from the House bill passed several weeks prior.  Notably, the House bill would eliminate the exclusion of up to $5,250 from an employee’s wages for qualified educational assistance under Code section 127 (discussed here), but the Senate bill would leave the exclusion in place.  While headlines address the more high-profile differences between the bills (e.g., the new corporate tax rate and the repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate), a number of large employers, including a number of our clients, have expressed concern about the fate of tuition assistance programs, as they view it as an important benefit for their employees.  This backlash is unsurprising, given that the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates that over 60% of employers offer some form of tuition assistance.

The fate of the tuition assistance exclusion, as well as all other areas in which the House and Senate bills disagree, now rests with the conference committee.  The Senate bill also retains the exclusion for qualified tuition reductions provided by educational institutions that the House bill would eliminate, representing another education benefit that the conference committee will need to address.  The conference committee is tasked with reconciling the differences between the two bills, and it is expected that the process will conclude within the next one to two weeks.  Conference committees are notoriously unpredictable, making it difficult to anticipate the fate of the tuition assistance provision, particularly with many of the details of the final legislation in flux.  Though several major employers, as well as SHRM, have vocalized objections to the House bill’s proposed repeal, public criticism of a possible repeal has not been as strong as some had anticipated, a fact that could influence policymakers.

Educational Benefits that Qualify for Exclusion as Working Condition Fringe Benefits

Notably, neither version of the Bill would affect the ability of employees to exclude education benefits that qualify as working condition fringe benefits from taxable wages under Code section 132(d).  Working condition fringe benefits include any property or services that would have been deductible by an employee as a business expense had the employee paid for it his or herself.  Some employers have questioned whether the suspension of miscellaneous itemized deductions under Code section 67 under the Senate bill and the new Code section 262A that would be added by the House bill disallowing deductions for unreimbursed business expenses would eliminate the exclusion for working condition fringes because the expenses would no longer be deductible under Code section 162 by the employee if the employee had paid them directly.  The House bill directly addresses this by amending Code section 132(d) to specify that it is determined without regard to Code section 262A.  Although the Senate bill is silent, the change to section 67 would not seem to affect working condition fringes as the exclusion is currently applied without regard to the 2% of adjusted gross income floor that section 67 applies under current law.

Many employers offer educational benefits that qualify for exclusion as a working condition fringe benefit because the benefits are limited to education that maintains or improves job skills or meets requirements for the employee to remain in his or her current position.  One example would be a program under which the employer pays for continuing education courses for medical professional, lawyers, and accountants.  Education benefits that qualify as working condition fringes are more flexible than under Code section 127 because there is no dollar limit and a written plan is not required.  Travel and lodging expenses incurred as part of attending courses can also qualify for exclusion.

Impact of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: Part IV – Changes to the Section 162(m) Deduction Limitation for Executive Compensation

November 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Legislation, Tax Reform

Yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee released the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1) (the “Bill”), a bill that, if enacted, would represent the most substantial overhaul of the U.S. tax code in decades.  We are releasing a series of posts to highlight the provisions of the Bill affecting the topics pertinent to our readers, where each post will cover a different area of importance.  In Part I of this series, we covered potential changes to employer-provided benefits, and in Part II, we addressed entertainment expenses and other fringe benefits.  In Part III, we discussed the Bill’s potential impact on various retirement provisions.  In this Part IV of the series, we address proposed changes to the deduction limitation for executive compensation under Code section 162(m).

Currently, Code section 162 allows as a deduction all ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business.   This includes a deduction for reasonable compensation for personal services actually rendered.   However, Code section 162(m) limits the deduction of any publicly held corporation with respect to compensation paid to a “covered employee” to $1 million.   However, certain types of compensation—such as qualified performance-based compensation and commissions—are not subject to the deduction limitation.  Covered employees are defined to include the chief executive officer (“CEO”), as of the close of the taxable year and the officers whose compensation is required to be reported to shareholders by reason of being among the three most highly compensated officers for the taxable year (other than the CEO).

Section 3802 of the Bill would amend section 162(m) in three key ways: (1) it would eliminate the exceptions for qualified performance-based pay and commissions; (2) it would extend the deduction disallowance to a broader array of companies; and (3) it would amend the definition of covered employee to more closely align with current SEC disclosure requirements and make covered employee status permanent.

Repeal of Exceptions to Deduction Limitation.  Many public companies pay covered employees primarily in the form of performance-based compensation to avoid the effect of the deduction limitation.  This exception applies to many forms of equity-based compensation— most stock options, stock appreciation rights, restricted stock, and restricted stock units—and many annual and long-term cash incentive compensation plans.  The Bill would repeal Code sections 162(m)(4)(B) and (C), removing the exceptions for performance-based compensation and commissions.  It is unclear whether the repeal of the performance-based pay exception will reverse the trend toward performance-based compensation, given that many shareholders and shareholder advocates believe that performance-based compensation can align shareholder and executive interests.

Expansion of Deduction Limitation to Additional Corporations.  Currently, the deduction limitation applies only to corporations that issue a class of common equity securities required to be registered under section 12 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “’34 Act”).  The Bill would amend Code section 162(m)(2) to apply the limitation to any corporation that is an issuer under section 3 of the ’34 Act that (1) has a class of securities registered under section 12 of the ’34 Act or (2) is required to file reports under section 15(d) of the ’34 Act.  This would extend the deduction limitation to corporations beyond those with publicly traded equity securities to include those are required to file reports solely because they issue public debt.

Change to the Definition of Covered Employee.  Code section 162(m)(3) defines covered employee to include the CEO (or the individual acting in such capacity) as of the last day of the tax year and the four officers whose compensation is required to be disclosed to shareholders because the officer is one of the four most highly compensated officers for the tax year.  However, because of a change to the cross-referenced section of the ’34 Act, the IRS interpreted the limitation as applying to only the principal executive officer (generally, the CEO) and the three most highly compensated officers other than the CEO and CFO in Notice 2007-49.  Compensation paid to the CFO was not subject to the deduction limitation regardless of how much he or she was paid.

The Bill would amend the definition of covered employee to align it more closely with current SEC disclosure rules.  Under the Bill, covered employees would include employees who, at any time during the tax year, were the principal executive officer or principal financial officer, and the three officers whose compensation is required to be disclosed to shareholders because they are the three most highly compensated officers during the tax year (other than the principal executive officer).  As a result, the deduction limitation could apply to a variable number officers for any given tax year depending upon whether more than one individual serves as either the principal executive officer or principal financial officer during the tax year and whether the principal financial officer is among the three most highly compensated officers during the tax year.

The Bill would also add a third category of covered employee: individuals who were covered employees of the employer (or any predecessor) for any preceding tax year beginning after December 31, 2016.  Accordingly, the Bill has the effect of making covered-employee status permanent.  Under current law, employees (and former employees) who are no longer officers of the employer as of the last day of the tax year are not covered employees.  As such, the deduction for compensation that is deferred until a date after the employee is no longer a covered employee is not subject to the limitation under Code section 162(m).  The Bill would eliminate this strategy for avoiding the deduction limitation.  Moreover, the Bill specifies that covered-employee remuneration that is includible in the income of, or paid to, someone other than a covered employee, such as a beneficiary of a covered employee after the covered employee’s death, remains subject to the deduction limitation.  Given the changes to the taxation of nonqualified deferred compensation in the Bill (and discussed in Part III of our series), the utility of this strategy for avoiding the deduction limitation would have been greatly reduced even without this amendment.

The amendments to Code section 162(m) would be effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017.

Tax Court Expands Section 119 Exclusion in Boston Bruins Decision

In a much anticipated decision, the U.S. Tax Court ruled yesterday that “the business premises of the employer” can include an off-premises facility leased by the employer when its employees are on the road.  The decision in Jacobs v. Commissioner addressed whether the employer (in this case, the professional hockey team, the Boston Bruins) was entitled to a full deduction for the meals provided to the team and staff while on the road for away games.  The debate arose after the IRS challenged the full deduction and asserted that the employer should have applied the 50% deduction disallowance applicable to meals by section 274(n) of the Code.

Under section 162 of the Code, an employer may deduct all ordinary and necessary business expenses.  However, in recognition that the cost of meals is inherently personal, the Code limits the deductions for most business meal expenses to 50% of the actual expense under section 274(n), subject to certain exceptions.  The exception at issue in Jacobs allows an employer to deduct the full cost of meals that qualify as de minimis fringe benefits under section 132(e) of the Code.  In general, this includes occasional group meals, but would not typically include frequently scheduled meals for employees travelling away from home.  (For this purpose, home is the employee’s tax home, which is typically the general area around the employee’s principal place of employment.)  However, under Treasury Regulation § 1.132-7, an employer-operated eating facility may qualify as a de minimis fringe benefit if, on an annual basis, the revenue from the facility is at least as much as the direct operating cost of the facility.  In other words, an employer may subsidize the cost of food provided in a company cafeteria, provided the cafeteria covers its own direct costs on an annual basis and meets other criteria (owned or leased by the employer, operated by the employer, located on or near the business premises of the employer, and provides meals immediately before, during, or immediately after an employee’s workday).

The Bruins’ owners argued that they were entitled to a full deduction because the banquet rooms in which employees were provided free meals qualified as an employer-operated eating facility.  That may leave some of our readers wondering, “How can a facility that is free have revenue that covers its direct operating cost?”  The key to answering that question lies in the magic found in the interface of sections 132(e)(2)(B) and section 119(b)(4) of the Code.  Under section 132(e)(2)(B), an employee is deemed to have paid an amount for the meal equal to the direct operating cost attributable to the meal if the value of the meal is excludable from the employee’s income under section 119 (meals furnished for the “convenience of the employer”) for purposes of determining whether an employer-operated eating facility covers its direct operating cost.  In turn, section 119(b)(4) provides that if more than half of the employees who are furnished meals for the convenience of the employer, all of the employees are treated as having been provided for the convenience of the employer.  Working together, if more than half the employees are provided meals for the convenience of the employer at an employer-operated eating facility, the employer may treat the eating facility as a de minimis fringe benefit, and deduct the full cost of such facility.

The IRS objected to the owners’ treatment of the banquet rooms as their employer-operated eating facilities and disallowed 50% of the meal costs.  The Tax Court succinctly explained that the Bruins’ banquet contracts constituted a lease of the rooms provided for meals and that the contracts also meant that the Bruins operated the facilities under Treasury Regulation § 1.132-7(a)(3).  In doing so, the Tax Court summarily dismissed the IRS’s argument that the payment of sales taxes meant that the contracts were not contracts for the operation of an eating facility but instead the purchase of meals served in a private setting.

Having determined that the first two criteria were satisfied, the Tax Court turned to the question of whether the hotel banquet rooms constituted the “business premises of the employer.”  The court looked to a series of cases indicating that the question was one of function rather than space.  Relying on those cases, the court determined that the hotels were the business premises of the employer because the team’s employees conducted substantial business activities there.   The court seemed to put significant weight on the fact that the team was required to participate in away games, necessitating it travel and operation of its business away from Boston.  The Tax Court was unpersuaded by the IRS’s quantitative argument that the team spent more time working at its facility in Boston than at any individual hotel and its qualitative argument that the playing of the away game was more important than the preparation for the game that took place at the hotel.

Having determined that the hotel banquet rooms were an employer-operated eating facility, the Tax Court next addressed whether it qualified as a de minimis fringe benefit because more than half of the employees who were furnished meals in the banquet rooms were able to exclude the value of such meals from income under section 119 of the Code.  The court determined that this requirement was satisfied because the meals were provided to the team and staff for substantial noncompensatory business reasons.  The business reasons included: ensuring the employees’ nutritional needs were met so that they could perform at peak levels; ensuring that consistent meals were provided to avoid gastric issues during the game; and the limited time to prepare for a game in each city given the “hectic” hockey season schedule.  Relying on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Boyd Gaming v. Commissioner from the late 1990s, the court declined, once again, to second guess the team’s business judgment by substituting the government’s own determination.

Although the decision focuses on the specific facts and the exigencies of a traveling hockey team, the decision is of interest for other taxpayers as well.  This is especially true given the IRS’s recent increased interest in both meal deductions and the imposition of payroll tax liabilities with respect to free or discounted meals provided to employees, particularly in company cafeteria settings.  The decision expands the scope of the section 119 exclusion to meals further than the IRS’s current limited view that it applies only to remote work sites, such as oil rigs, schooners,  and camps in Alaska.   To date, the most expansive application of the exclusion in the company cafeteria setting occurred in Boyd Gaming, where a casino successfully established that its policy requiring employees to eat lunch on-site was based on security concerns and the attendant screening procedures made it necessary to provide employees with meals during their shifts.

Jacobs seems to take the analysis one step further, because many of the business reasons for providing meals to Bruins employees could be echoed by other taxpayers.  No doubt, all employers are concerned with the performance of their employees.  To that end, it could be argued that ensuring that they eat well-balanced nutritionally appropriate meals can increase performance even if the employer is more concerned with brains rather than brawn.  Indeed, given the large health insurance costs borne by many employers, employers have a legitimate interest in providing healthy meals that may reduce the incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic ailments that raise their costs.  Moreover, many employees have hectic schedules during the work day with frequent appointments, meetings, and other activities that make it necessary to maximize the time available for work during the day.   Given the Tax Court’s implicit admonition of the IRS’s attempt to substitute its own judgment regarding the employer’s business reasoning in Jacobs and the court’s refusal to substitutes its own judgment as well, the IRS likely has a more difficult road ahead if it attempts to challenge the purported business reasons that an employer provides for furnishing meals to its employees.  It remains to be seen how the IRS will react to the decision and whether it will appeal the case, which seems likely.  For now, however, the case is a positive development for employers who have made a business decision to provide meals on a free or discounted basis to their employees to increase productivity and improve their health.