WVU College of Law clinic case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court

A case being handled by a clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law will be argued in the United States Supreme Court on Dec. 3.

WVU Law students in the U.S. Supreme Court Clinic have been preparing for Dawson v. Steager, a tax discrimination case, for 18 months. They conducted much of the required research, analysis and writing for the case under the leadership of Lawrence Rosenberg, a partner with Jones Day in Washington, DC, and Anne Marie Lofaso, professor of law.

Rosenberg will argue the case before the Supreme Court. He and Lofaso founded the U.S. Supreme Court Clinic at WVU in 2011.

“This is a truly transformative experience for the WVU law students who have worked on this case,” said Gregory Bowman, dean of the College of Law. “Their work is critically important to a case that is going to be ruled on by the highest court in the land and will establish meaningful precedent. Only a handful of law schools in the country can provide this opportunity to their students.”

At issue in Dawson v. Steager is whether the State of West Virginia can impose a heavier tax burden on federal retirees than it imposes on state retirees who performed the same job duties.

It is the position of James and Elaine Dawson, clients of the WVU U.S. Supreme Court Clinic, that the state must extend favorable tax treatment of state employees to similarly situated federal employees.

West Virginia, on the other hand, argues that it can tax the benefits of federal and state retirees differently as long as it only favors a specific and small group of retirees.

At the heart of the case is James Dawson. A retired presidentially appointed U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of West Virginia, Dawson was enrolled exclusively in the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). He sought a state tax exemption for all of his retirement income, but was denied by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Under West Virginia law, Dawson is entitled to exempt only a small portion of his FERS income from state tax. However, West Virginia allows most state law enforcement retirees to exempt all of their state benefits from state tax.

According to the law clinic’s argument, several U.S. Supreme Court decisions support Dawson including Davis v. Michigan Department of Treasury (1989) and Jefferson County, Alabama v. Acker (1999).

The WVU Law students found that three state appeals courts have struck down tax laws that discriminate against federal employees, but three state appeals courts have also upheld such laws. Other state courts of last resort have ruled inconsistently on related laws.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Dawson v. Steager is expected by the end of June 2019.

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