Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Former NFL Players Challenge Cleveland Taxes in Ohio Supreme Court

Seven Cases To Be Heard on January 13 and 14

Image of a snow-covered giant gavel in the south plaza of the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center

In the new year’s first Supreme Court session, justices will consider a death-penalty appeal, attorney fees in pro bono cases, and disciplinary charges against Akron and Cleveland attorneys.

Image of a snow-covered giant gavel in the south plaza of the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center

In the new year’s first Supreme Court session, justices will consider a death-penalty appeal, attorney fees in pro bono cases, and disciplinary charges against Akron and Cleveland attorneys.

Two former professional football players have brought cases to the Ohio Supreme Court disputing the way Cleveland taxes nonresident athletes. The appeals will be heard on Wednesday, January 14, during the court’s oral arguments.

Professional athletes pay local income taxes to cities where they play games. Hunter T. Hillenmeyer, a onetime Chicago Bears linebacker, requests a refund of taxes he paid to Cleveland in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

Bears Player Questions “Games-Played” Tax System
In each year, Hillenmeyer competed in one game against the Browns and was in Cleveland for two days. Cleveland calculates taxes on nonresident athletes based on the number of games the visiting team played in the city divided by the total number of games per season. However, other municipalities nationwide determine a nonresident athlete’s taxes by dividing the number of days the team spends in the municipality by the total “duty days,” or total days worked for the employer – a much higher quantity than the number of games in a season.

Under Cleveland’s games-played method, Hillenmeyer had to pay local taxes on about 5 percent of his income (1 of 20 or 21 games, depending on the year). He claims Cleveland is the only city charging taxes this way. Had the more common duty-days formula been used, he would’ve paid taxes on a little more than 1 percent of his income (2 days divided by 157 days worked that year).

Hillenmeyer argues the salaries of professional athletes encompass professional activities and obligations in addition to the games they play. Given that, he contends Cleveland’s tax structure doesn’t correctly apportion athletes’ salaries for determining the amount of a player’s income to be taxed.

He also asserts that the games-played method for assessing taxes is unconstitutional – violating due process and equal protection rights, along with the commerce clause.

Injured Colts Athlete Absent from Cleveland Game
Jeffrey B. Saturday, who played for the Indianapolis Colts, also challenges taxes he paid to Cleveland. In his case, he had to pay 2008 taxes to the city for a matchup against the Browns that he didn’t attend. He had been injured and stayed in Indianapolis for treatment.

The former center maintains the city’s ordinance and state law require a nonresident to perform services within the municipality before the person can be subject to local taxes. He further argues it’s unconstitutional for Cleveland to impose taxes on someone who was never physically present in the city.

The players are represented by the same attorneys in the cases, and several additional claims raised by Saturday are identical to those from Hillenmeyer.

National Players Associations Jump In
Also making an appearance in the case are the Major League Baseball Players Association, National Basketball League Players Association, National Football League Players Association, and National Hockey League Players Association. The organizations have collectively filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Hillenmeyer’s appeal claiming that a state law allowing municipalities to tax pro athletes and entertainers, but not other nonresidents, who work in a city for 12 or fewer days a year violates equal protection guarantees in the federal and state constitutions.

Other cases set for oral argument
On Tuesday, January 13, the court will hear three cases, including a death penalty appeal. Along with Hillenmeyer v. City of Cleveland Board of Review and Saturday v. City of Cleveland Board of Review on Wednesday, the court will consider two other appeals.

The court’s sessions begin at 9 a.m. each day at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus. The arguments will be streamed live online at and broadcast live on The Ohio Channel.
Along with the brief descriptions below, the Office of Public Information today released summaries of each case.

Cases for Tuesday, January 13
Before the court on Tuesday:

  • A Butler County man on death row asks the court in McKelton v. State to overturn his convictions, grant a new trial, or convert his sentence to life in prison. He was found guilty and sentenced to death for murdering his girlfriend and, months later, a friend who saw the strangulation. Among his claims, he believes the state notified his lead trial counsel too late of a conflict that led to the attorney’s withdrawal, the state wrongly withheld the names of several witnesses until the night before trial, and statements his girlfriend made to friends about domestic violence in the relationship should not have been admitted at trial.
  • A Cleveland woman wants a $1,000 award for attorney fees reinstated in Wilkins v. Sha’ste Inc. She hired a company to renovate a distressed home she had purchased, but the company failed to complete the work.  A law school clinic represented her without charge in the dispute, and the trial court ordered payment of attorney fees from another party to the case that had cashed forged checks. The home owner argues an award of attorney fees is supported by a procedural rule in civil cases regardless of whether the case was handled pro bono.
  • In Akron Bar Association v. Shenise, the state’s professional conduct board recommends a stayed two-year suspension for an Akron attorney found to have neglected deposition and document requests in his representation of a man fighting eviction from the garage where he ran his mechanic’s business. The board also determined that the attorney’s comments to a newspaper were degrading to the court and judge involved in the case. The attorney counters that he didn’t receive notices of certain hearings or ensuing arrest warrants, and that his comments to the media don’t amount to misconduct.

Cases for Wednesday, January 14
In addition to the Cleveland tax appeals, the court will consider two other cases during Wednesday’s session:

  • Wells Fargo Bank v. Horn involves the legal concept of standing, or whether a party has the right to file a lawsuit. A couple bought property in Columbia Township outside Cincinnati, and several years later the bank filed for foreclosure. The bank contends that it wasn’t required to establish standing and prove it held the promissory note and mortgage on the property at the time it filed its complaint.
  • In Disciplinary Counsel v. Calabrese, the court will consider the proposed disbarment of a Cleveland attorney found guilty of bribery, conspiracy, corrupt activity, and other federal and state crimes. The attorney objects to the proposed sanction, maintaining that it is too harsh because he wasn’t a public official at the time of the offenses, he has no client complaints or prior disciplinary record, and he’s paying restitution.