Railway employee's recovery of working time lost due to an on-the-job injury is taxable "compensation" (7-2)


The US Supreme Court has brought us a decision that we may actually remember for about five minutes. It's that exciting.

The Court holds that a railroad's payment to an employee for working time lost due to an on-the-job injury is taxable "compensation" under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA). BNSF Railway v. Loos (US Supreme Ct 03/04/2019) [PDF].

Loos sued BNSF Railway under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) for injuries he received while working at BNSF's railyard. A jury awarded him $126,212.78, ascribing $30,000 of that amount to wages lost during the time Loos was unable to work. BNSF asserted that the lost wages constituted "compensation" taxable under the RRTA and asked to withhold $3,765 of the $30,000 to cover Loos's share of the RRTA taxes. The District Court and the Eighth Circuit rejected the requested offset, holding that an award of damages compensating an injured railroad worker for lost wages is not taxable under the RRTA. The Supreme Court reversed, 7-2.

The Court noted that the statutory foundation of the railroad retirement system mirrors that of the Social Security system. Thus, the term "compensation" in the RRTA was given the same meaning as the term "wages" in the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) and the Social Security Act (SSA). Therefore, as is true for backpay, FELA damages for lost wages are "compensation" taxable under the RRTA.

DISSENTING, Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justice Thomas) said,

"When an employee suffers a physical injury due to his employer’s negligence and has to sue in court to recover damages, it seems more natural to me to describe the final judgment as compensation for his injury than for services (never) rendered."

After all, the RRTA taxes an employee’s "compensation," which it defines as "money remuneration . . . for services rendered as an employee to one or more employers." 26 U. S. C. §3231(e)(1).