September 14, 2014

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Supreme Court weighing whether work perks count as support income

COLUMBUS — Ohio Supreme Court justices heard arguments Tuesday on whether company-provided fringe benefits like cars and phone services should count in determining a person’s child support payments.

The case focuses on Medina County resident Jeffrey S. Morrow, whose salary as president of the Ohio College of Massotherapy dropped from $120,000 to $75,000 as a result of the 2008-09 economic crisis.

Morrow, 52, of Granger Township, asked Medina County Domestic Relations Judge Mary Kovack for a reduction in his child support payments in 2010. He was paying almost $2,200 monthly, records show.

Kovack denied the request and ruled that the calculation of payments should include $16,756 in fringe benefits — including a car, insurance, cell phone service and Ohio State University football season tickets, all paid for or owned by his employer.

The 9th District Court of Appeals affirmed Kovack’s decision because those benefits fit under a catch-all provision in the law as “other forms of income.”

Morrow’s attorney, John Ragner, told the justices Tuesday that the provision only applied to people who are self-employed, because any benefits provided to them also would be owned by them.

“If he were to quit or be terminated from his position,” Ragner said, “he would have to give back those things.”

He argued that Morrow’s fringe benefits shouldn’t be included as income because he uses those things to perform his work, not for personal use.

“He gets them ‘for free,’ as you would say, because he needs them to do his business,” he said.

Ragner said Morrow has a personal phone and vehicles that he uses in his off-time.

Tom Morris, the attorney for Morrow’s ex-wife, Sherri Becker, told the justices that Morrow was not only president of the college but on the board with his uncle. As a result, Morris said Morrow acted similar to an owner because he set his own benefits and salary.

“My position is that he has absolute control over the company,” Morris said, “so those benefits should be included in the gross income.”

Morris urged the justices to side with his client, asserting that reversing the lower courts’ decisions would prove to be a slippery slope.

“Let’s take it to the next step,” he said. “If the college bought him a house and that wasn’t included as income, what kind of result would we be looking at?”

According to a court spokeswoman, the justices usually take four to six months to return a decision after hearing oral arguments.

Contact Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.