Moritz v. IRS: The Tax Case at the Center of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Origin Story

The recently-released “On the Basis of Sex” – which chronicles the early professional life of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg – is centered on Justice Ginsburg’s involvement with a litigation that set the stage for the legal battle for gender equality.

That case – Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 469 F.2d 466 (10th Cir. 1972) – arose from the IRS’s denial of the “caregiver deduction” to the male plaintiff under Internal Revenue Code section 214.

In sum, the petitioner was an unmarried male who was responsible for the care of his elderly mother. Having a job that required frequent travel, he hired a woman to perform caretaking services. He attempted to deduct the costs for these services under Section 214.

That section provides, in pertinent part:

Sec. 214. Expenses for care of certain dependents

(a) General rule.-There shall be allowed as a deduction expenses paid during the taxable year by a taxpayer who is a woman or widower, or is a husband whose wife is incapacitated or is institutionalized, for the care of one or more dependents (as defined in subsection (d) (1)), but only if such care is for the purpose of enabling the taxpayer to be gainfully employed.”

“(d) Definitions.-For purposes of this section-

(2) Widower.-The term ‘widower’ includes an unmarried individual who is legally separated from his spouse under a decree of divorce or of separate maintenance.”

The IRS denied the deduction. The Tenth Circuit reversed that decision.

The Court began by noting that “if the Congress determines to grant deductions of a general type, a denial of them to a particular class may not be based on an invidious discrimination.”

It continued:

Classifications do not per se violate due process or equal protection principles. Flint v. Stone Tracy Co., 220 U.S. 107, 158-160, 31 S. Ct. 342, 55 L. Ed. 389. The legislature may address a problem one step at a time, and even select one phase of one field and apply a remedy there, neglecting the others. Jefferson v. Hackney, 406 U.S. 535, 546, 92 S. Ct. 1724, 32 L. Ed. 2d 285. And normally a legislative classification made will not be set aside if any set of facts rationally justifying it is demonstrated or perceived by the courts. United States v. Maryland Savings-Share Ins. Corp., 400 U.S. 4, 6, 91 S. Ct. 16, 27 L. Ed. 2d 4, and cases cited.

However, as noted, Sec. 214 gave the deduction to a woman or widower, a divorce and a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized, but denied it to a man who has not married. We must agree that the classification here premised primarily on sex must be scrutinized. Where treatment accorded is based on sex the classification is subject to scrutiny under equal protection principles. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 75, 92 S. Ct. 251, 30 L. Ed. 2d 225. And those principles of equal protection basically apply here as a part of due process under the Fifth Amendment. …

We conclude that the classification is an invidious discrimination and invalid under due process principles. It is not one having a fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation dealing with the amelioration of burdens on the taxpayer. See Reed v. Reed, supra, 404 U.S. at 76, 92 S. Ct. 251. The statute did not make the challenged distinction as part of a scheme dealing with the varying burdens of dependents’ care borne of taxpayers, but instead made a special discrimination premised on sex alone, which cannot stand. See In re Estate of Legatos, 1 Cal. App. 3d 657, 81 Cal. Rptr. 910. If Congress had desired to give relief to persons in low income brackets and bearing special burdens of dependents, means were available through classifications geared to such objectives, without using the invidious discrimination based solely on sex.

Having gone through this analysis, the Court concluded that the challenged legislation was invalid, and extended the benefit of the deduction to the taxpayer.

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