WASHINGTON — Cecil the tennis pro thought it would be unseemly to be mistaken for one of his students on the courts, so he bought stylish, top-of-the-line shorts, shirts and sneakers.
Reasoning that the clothing was essential to his work, Cecil claimed a tax deduction for the $1,350 cost of the togs. After the Internal Revenue Service faulted that argument, Cecil appealed to the U.S. Tax Court, which now has given him the back of its hand.
A key factor in determining whether work uniforms are deductible is that they not be suitable for general off-the-job wear, the court noted. And in this case, the court added, "It is relatively commonplace for Americans in all walks of life to wear warm-up clothes, shirts and shoes of the type purchased by the petitioner (Cecil) while engaged in a wide variety of casual or athletic activities.
"The items are fashionable and in some cases have the name or logo of designers that have become common in America," the opinion read. In fact, at the trial, "it was stated that tennis professionals . . . are clothing style setters for their students."
The case involving Cecil Mella, a teaching professional in Bannockburn, Ill., added another footnote to a long line of IRS rulings and court decisions on which work uniforms are deductible and which are not. The dispute also highlights the complexity of the federal tax system--complexity that in this area, at least, will not be reduced by the new tax overhaul.
Courts have held as far back as 1948 that even though a business wardrobe is essential to holding a job, the cost is generally a non-deductible personal expense. The chance of a deduction drops considerably if the clothes are suitable for general wear--even if it can be proven that they would never have been bought except for purposes of holding a job.
As always there are exceptions. A 1943 ruling allowed a deduction for clothes that, while normally suitable for street wear, were rendered unsuitable because of sanitary considerations. A 1935 case held that a worker's clothes were deductible because they were a costume and the worker was an actor. In 1944 an appellate court said the duds in question were deductible because they were clearly a uniform not expected to be worn for general purposes.
The Tax Court in 1979 permitted the manager of a designer boutique to write off the cost of wearing designer clothes. But an appeals court said no--because the clothes could be worn off the job.
Mella, the tennis pro, argued that his deduction should be allowed on grounds that the clothing expenses were incurred as a result of his job, the togs were worn only in connection with his work, and they did not replace his regular clothing.
After all, Mella contended, "by custom, usage and traditions of the tennis profession, such items are not worn outside the work environment."
No matter, the court held. "His tennis clothes and tennis shoes are suitable for general or personal wear" and, therefore, are not deductible.
According to the H & R Block Income Tax Guide, uniforms may be deductible if worn by transportation workers, firefighters, police, sanitation workers, hairdressers, barbers, entertainers (in theatrical costumes), guards, elevator operators, lobby attendants, mail carriers, professional athletes, nurses, other health-care workers and military reservists who may wear their uniforms only when they are on duty.
Work clothes usually are not deductible if worn by cab drivers, carpenters, factory workers, most drivers of milk and bread trucks, painters and welders. And now tennis pros.