Category Archives: Superman

Superman and Supergirl: Environmental Refugees

(This guest post was written by Kean Zimmermana recent graduate from Michigan State University College of Law.  This post is an in-depth exploration of Superman and Supergirl’s environmental refugee status touched on in a previous article. The analysis in this article has changed to reflect the Supergirl in the TV series and recent New Zealand Court decisions. That article can be viewed online at L&F Magazine.)


The writers and contributors who have posted on Law and the Multiverse, as well as other legal scholars, have taken the opportunity to note the various legal issues that superheroes and villains face when it comes to the intricate web that is immigration law.  Recent developments in the world have lead to an increase in refugees, especially refugees forced from their homes not just by people, but by the environment.  Kryptonians would likely be counted among the other environmental refugees.  Similarly the survivors of Krypton would also struggle with many of the same setbacks.

The United States has instituted laws addressing refugees since 1948.[1]  In 1948, the  United States government enacted the first law for admitting persons fleeing persecution.[2]  The law permitted 205,000 refugees to enter the United States over the course of two years.[3]  It was not until 1951 that the first steps were taken to recognize refugees on an international scale.[4]  In 1951, the United Nations put forth the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is the underpinning of most refugee law in the world.[5]  The Convention defines refugees, their rights, and what obligations states have to refugees across the globe.[6]  The same Convention states that individuals may seek asylum if they have a well founded fear of persecution on account of one of the five pre-approved grounds.[7]  Those are race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.[8]  While most countries that have adopted the convention’s regulations to govern refugee law, those same laws have not been updated to keep pace with current trends.  Currently, there is a gap between what the law provides and what is needed.[9]  The widening gap is most certainly the case of what is occurring with environmental refugees.

A. Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugees are growing in number across the globe, but both domestic and international laws have yet to grow along with the refugees.  According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an environmental refugees is “a person displaced owing to environmental causes, notably land loss and degradation, and natural disaster.”[10]  These refugees are also known as “displaced people” or “climate refugees.”[11]  Environmental refugees are not a new phenomena, yet in recent years there has been an increase in attention to climate refugees.  This is correlative to the changes in climate that have occurred in recent years.[12]

I. Superman and Supergirl’s Not so Super Problem

A. Superman: A True Illegal Alien

There is no question that Superman, or rather Clark Kent, is not from this planet.  In fact he embodies the term “illegal alien” in that he never properly migrated to this country, or at least did not do so through official channels.  His provenance can be forgiven given the fact that he was sent by his parents from the planet Krypton.[13]  The reasons for the planet’s demise have varied over the years.  This post, however, adopts the theory from the Man of Steel movie.  In the Man of Steel, Krypton’s resources were over-consumed to the point that the planet imploded on itself.[14]   Environmental disaster on a planetary scale obliterated Krypton in its entirety.[15]

As a baby, young Clark could not be expected to file his asylum petition on his own.  The Kents adopted Clark after finding him in their field.[16]  The two possible ways this would occur today would be if Clark had been legally adopted as an abandoned child, or if the Kents had somehow managed to obtain forged documentation for Clark.  However, Clark would still have to file his claim for asylum the year after he turned 18.[17]  Clark would have clearly exceeded this statutory limitation as there is no evidence he has ever applied for asylum.[18]  Typically the law requires asylum seekers to affirmatively apply for asylum within one year after entering the United States.[19]  Recently, in a Board of Immigration Appeals decision, the court stated that an applicant’s age can be taken into consideration when determining if they can be exempted from the one year filing rule.[20]  Since there is no evidence that Clark ever attempted to apply for asylum this may have no bearing whatsoever.

Somehow Superman has the ability to renounce his United States citizenship in Action Comics 900.[21]  Renouncing American citizenship is governed under  section 349(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.[22]  The backlash after this comic book was released was so huge that publisher DC Comics backtracked a week later and announced the issue itself was standalone.[23]  Being a standalone issue meant no further issue would explore Superman’s discarding of his American citizenship.  At least in this respect, it can be assumed that he has United States citizenship.  There is a chance that Kent was granted citizenship under the foundling statute even though it is rarely used.[24]  Based on this law, because Kent’s parentage was unknown as he entered the United States under the age of five, and since he hid his secret well after the age of twenty-one, he could possibly have attained legitimate United States citizenship through the statute.[25]

There is little debate that Superman had to leave Krypton before its ultimate implosion.[26] While Superman has never formally been considered a refugee, he fits the basic understanding of an environmental refugee in that he literally has no planet to return to.  Since it is presumed from DC that he somehow has citizenship, he does not have to examine this question.[27]  The same cannot be said for his cousin Kara Zor-El, also known as Supergirl.

B. Supergirl’s Dilemma

While Superman might want to file for Supergirl’s entry into the country through legal channels, there is no “cousin” spot for admitting someone into the country as a family member (he could only seek to admit a parent, spouse, child, or sibling).[28]  The most logical option at that point would be Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).[29]  Supergirl’s biological age is only thirteen given that she was trapped in the Phantom Zone, a place where time moves slower than on Earth, after she left Krypton.[30]  However, her actual age is suggested to be much greater given that she was stuck in the Phantom Zone while Superman grew into a man (her age after arriving in the United States is an estimated thirty-seven years).[31]  The United States government might not consider her young enough to qualify for DACA based on the elevated age. Biologically she would have entered the country before turning sixteen, but she would have been alive for thirty-seven years.  As such, Superman would likely seek either asylum or withholding of removal for his cousin.

The problem then exists is that Supergirl cannot claim asylum based on the fact that her planet no longer exists.  Actual displacement based on loss of home due to an environmental disaster would seem to fall under the concept of an environmental refugee, but as of right now environmental refugees are not recognized under most international laws.  Environmental refugees do not appear to be eligible for asylum solely based on their status as an environmental refugee.  Most countries base their refugee law on the 1951 Refugee Convention.[32]  As previously mentioned, the Convention prescribes five grounds upon which an individual can receive asylum.  Those grounds are race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and a particular social group.[33]  Supergirl must also be suffering from some kind of “persecution” that is based on one of the five grounds.[34]

In this case Supergirl’s persecution is simply that she is unable to return to her home planet of Krypton.  She lacks the opportunity to avail herself of the Kryptonian government since it is non-existent.  She would seek admittance to the United States, but she does not fall into a persecutorial nexus based on any of the five grounds.  At this point, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would contemplate whether or not it could forcibly eject Supergirl from the United States.  To do so would mean extreme costs on the United States government as simply containing her would likely cost upwards of $20 million.[35]  Even if Supergirl were to be ejected from the country, she would have nowhere else to go.

C. Super and Stateless

In effect Supergirl is actually a stateless person.  As of now the United States has not signed on to any of the major international conventions which attempt to reduce the number of stateless persons.[36]  Currently, the United States is lacking a basic framework to deal with stateless people, so most of its efforts are merely stopgap measures.[37]  The absence of a framework often leaves stateless persons in a position of limbo for excessive periods of time, especially if they no longer have a country to return to or no country which will accept them.[38]  Supergirl would likely be in a similar position as Krypton no longer exists.  After a determination is made that she either cannot return, or that it is too expensive to deport her, the government would probably require Supergirl to make routine reports to the Department of Homeland Security.[39]  Although she might be able to receive a work permit, if she were to ever leave the borders of the United States, border patrol could then deny her readmission.[40]

As a last ditch effort, Supergirl might try to claim asylum on the basis of her membership in a particular social group.[41]  She could argue that her particular social group is that of a Kryptonian who survived the destruction of the planet of Krypton.  However, such a group has yet to be acknowledged by the United States government.  Even then the persecution would have to be a form of past persecution.  Different circuits within the United States recognize different grounds or acceptable forms of past persecution.  Thus far, none have accepted the idea of “loss of a home” as a viable form of past persecution.  In fact, there is no law stating that the loss of a country, let alone a planet, amounts to persecution.  One of the only individuals in the world to make such an argument thus far has had little success.

II. Tuvalu: An Island and its Implications for Immigrants

Ioane Teitiota is the first man in New Zealand to seek asylum under the label of environmental refugee.[42]  Teitiota has been living in New Zealand since 2007 after leaving his Tuvaluan home; he believes his home will become uninhabitable before too long.[43]  Tuvalu is a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean.[44]  The island is located halfway between Australia and Hawaii.[45]  Although very unassuming, the island is predicted to be the first island to succumb to rising sea levels.[46]  In 2009, there were many trees swallowed by the rising salt water, but as of 2012 whole parts of the island were consumed.[47] The highest point of the country above sea level is only a few meters high.[48]  Before the island is swallowed by the sea there are many Tuvaluans who are concerned that encroaching salt water will prevent any type of agriculture from persisting on the island.[49]  To that end, many Tuvaluans have fled their country, but not all have succeeded in trying to relocate.

The Court of Appeals in New Zealand denied Mr. Teitiota’s  application for Asylum in 2014 stating that his case was “fundamentally misconceived” and that it would “stand the [UN refugee] convention on its head.”[50]  While Teitiota argued that he would be facing “passive persecution” as a result of his government being unable to “protect him from climate change’s effects,” the court remained unpersuaded.[51]  Ultimately, the court felt that Teitiota’s arguments were “novel,” but “unconvincing” as granting him asylum would simply open up opportunities for millions of people living in low-lying countries to seek the same kind of asylum.[52]  To avoid a flood gates situation the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to deny Teitiota’s claim for asylum.  The Court’s decision meant that Mr. Teitiota, his wife, and his three children born in New Zealand would have to return to their native home of Tuvalu.[53]

It seemed strange then that a different family from Tuvalu was granted New Zealand residency only months later after making similar claims.[54]  The family’s petition was the first “successful application for residency on humanitarian grounds in which climate change had featured.”[55]  The Court claimed the second case was different since the family had strong ties to New Zealand.  Like Mr. Teitiota’s claim, the second family was denied initially for not meeting the standards of the refugee convention.[56]  However, the second family successfully won their subsequent appeal by basing their argument on humanitarian grounds.[57]  In the July 2014 decision, the Court found that returning the family back to Tuvalu would be “unjust and unduly harsh.”[58]  The largest difference between the two applicants is the second Tuvaluan family has three generations of relatives living in New Zealand, increasing their ties to the community.[59]  Supergirl may be able to raise a similar argument since she herself has ties to the United States in the form of her cousin Superman.  This would likely fail though since Superman himself is only one man, not three generations of familial ties.  Furthermore, the United States has done very little within its own borders to make immigration exceptions for environmental refugees from abroad.

III. What the United States is doing for Environmental Refugees

There is no official legal framework to address the problems environmental refugees face when they try to enter the United States.  The United States has taken some steps to acknowledge this unique group of refugees immigrating into the United States.  The Immigration Act of 1990 does address granting temporary protection status to such refugees.[60]  Temporary protection status is granted when:

There has been an earthquake, flood, drought, epidemic, or other environmental disaster in the state resulting in a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in the area affected’ and when ‘the foreign state is unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return to the state of aliens who are nationals of the state.[61]
Temporary status only applies to individuals who are already inside the United States at the time of the disaster.[62]  The temporary status includes six months of protection and the ability to work, but it does not allow for the admission of the claimant’s spouse or family.[63]  Temporary protection status was granted to victims of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and victims displaced by the Montserrat volcano explosion in 1997.[64]  However, the granting of temporary protection status is discretionary.[65]  In addition to only protecting those who were environmentally displaced while they were present in the United States, as of 2014 only citizens of Haiti (earthquake), Honduras (hurricane Mitch), Nicaragua (hurricane Mitch), and El Salvador (earthquakes) were able to get temporary protected status for environmental events. [66]  There is no legal protection in the United States that creates a path to permanent status for environmental refugees.  As a country, the United States’ ability to protect those persons displaced by climate change is limited since its laws do not offer any substantive relief to those fleeing environmental disasters or rising sea levels outside of the United States.  In this lack of framework, the United States is consistent with many other international states who do not have legal frameworks to address the problems faced by environmental refugees.


In the end Supergirl will face the same fate as millions across the globe.  Without an adequate legal framework to deal with the surge in environmental refugees that is predicted to come in the next few decades, stopgap measures will be used to treat the environmental refugee crisis on too small a scale.  Excessive stopgap measures will lead to a bottleneck in the immigration system.  Supergirl will likely not be deported because of the sheer cost that would entail, and the fact that there is likely no Kryptonian agreement with any other country that would allow her to reside there.  In all likelihood, she will stay in the United States, but will not be able to ever qualify for United States citizenship since she falls within a grey area of the law.  This might not be as much of a problem, but if she were to ever save anyone outside of the United State’s borders then the United States could deny her readmission to the country. This would drastically limit the range of her allowable Superhero activities.


[1] History of U.S. Immigration Laws, Federation for American Immigration Reform,

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 137 (done at Geneva, 28 July 1951), as amended by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 606 U.N.T.S. 267, T.I.A.S. No. 6577, 19 U.S.T. 6223, done at New York, 31 Jan. 1967.

[5] The 1951 Refugee Convention,

[6] 1951 Refugee Convention, supra note 5.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Climate Refugees, Michael P. Nash, LA Think Tank,

[10] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,

[11] National geographic, Climate Refugee, available at , last visited Apr. 20, 2015.

[12] Climate Refugees, supra note 9.

[13] Man of Steel, Zack Snyder, Warner Bros., 2014.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.  (Adopt is likely a tentative term,  seeing as the Kents probably did not file the appropriate adoption paperwork as they did not want to risk the safety of their young child).

[17] INA §208(a)(2)(B).

[18] Id.

[19] INA §208(a)(2)(B).

[20] BIA Decision, Mar. 29, 2013,,

[21] Paul Cornell, Action Comics 900, (DC Comics, 2011).

[22] INA §349(a)(5).

[23] DC Backtracks Superman Renouncing His Citizenship, May 5, 2011, available at, last visited Apr. 18, 2015.

[24] Ryan Davidson, Superheroes and Immigration Status, Law and the Multiverse, Dec. 22, 2010, available at, last visited Apr. 20, 2015.  (James Daily Commentary).

[25] Id.

[26] Man of Steel, supra note 13.

[27] Paul Cornell, supra note 21.

[28] Bobbie Masters, Frequently Asked Questions About Immigration, Masters Law Firm, P.C., available at

[29] USCIS, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

[30] Supergirl, Warner Bros. Television (2015)

[31] Id.

[32] 1951 Refugee Convention, supra note 5.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Matt Hershberger, Is Superman Undocumented?,

[36] See Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, opened for signature Sept. 28, 1954, 360 U.N.T.S. 117 (entered into force June 6, 1960 ) ; see also Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, opened for signature Aug. 30, 1961, 989 U.N.T.S. 175 (entered into force Dec. 13, 1975)

[37] Mikhail Sebastien, Stateless in the United States,

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] 1951 Refugee Convention, supra note 5.

[42] Kathy Marks, World’s first ‘climate change refugee’ has appeal rejected as New Zealand rules Ioane Teitiota must return to South Pacific island nation of Kiribati,

[43] Id.

[44] Climate Refugees, supra note 9.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Marks, supra note 42.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Amy Maas, Tuvalu Climate Change Family Win NZ Residency Appeal, The New Zealand Herald,

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id.

[59] Maas, supra note 54.

[60] An EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change, Commission Staff Working Document, European Union (2013), 17 (internal quotation marks omitted).

[61] Id.

[62] Id.

[63] Id.

[64] Strategy on Adaptation, supra note 60.

[65] Id.

[66] Madeline Messic & Claire Nergeron, Temporary Protected Status in the United States: A Grant of Humanitarian Relief that is Less Than Permanent,

Law and the Multiverse Retcon #10

Time for another installment of the Law and the Multiverse Retcons series, in which I discuss changes in the law (or corrections in my analysis) that affect older posts.  Alert readers will notice that there was no Retcon #9.  This is because there are actually two Retcon #6s, and I have decided to retcon the Retcon numbering system as though I had not lost the ability to count to 10 at some point between kindergarten and last year.

This Retcon addresses some of my shortcomings on a recent episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, specifically my discussion of Man of Steel and Superman’s possible civil and criminal liability for the destruction of Metropolis.  I saw the movie when it was released and had forgotten several key plot points that affect the legal analysis.  Thanks to Damon for pointing out these issues!  Some spoilers for Man of Steel follow.

Continue reading

Judging Batman and Superman

Today I have something a little different, a draft of a paper by Jeremy Greenberg titled Batman v. Superman: Let the Courts Decide, 33 Quinnipiac L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2014).  Mr. Greenberg analyzed 1449 mentions of Superman, Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Clark Kent in US state and federal court cases to determine how judges used references to these characters to explain their decisions.  After weeding out false positives such as actual people named Bruce Wayne, intellectual property decisions about the character of Superman, and statements made by witnesses, Greenberg was left with 55 references in the judicial opinions themselves.

Mr. Greenberg’s analysis of the common themes in the references is interesting, as is the underlying data.  I won’t reveal any more than that, lest I spoil some of the surprises.  Go check it out!

The Man of Steel Confesses

I know I said the post on Lois Lane’s employment contract would probably be our last post on Man of Steel, but we got a great question from Neal that I couldn’t resist writing up.  Neal—who is a rabbi in New York—writes:

You may remember that Clark Kent goes into a church and confesses to the priest (let’s assume he’s a Catholic priest, for the sake of argument, though to be clear different religions handle “confession” and counseling relationships differently) that he’s the guy everybody is looking for. Now, in NY, that priest can’t be compelled to testify or reveal information obtained while performing the duties of a clergy- penitent or clergy-congregant relationship (as I broadly understand it) but there ARE mandated reporting laws, e.g. regarding child and elder abuse.

So could the Feds or the state government have compelled the priest to testify given that:

1) An alien might not be presumed to be a member of the church, especially if he just showed up and had no prior relationship to this denomination or its clergy,


2) the stakes are just so damn high, like planetary destruction. If there is a mandated reporting law for child abuse- and to be clear I am not 100 percent sure even that overrides the legal protection of the clergy relationship in all instances- wouldn’t it apply on a vastly larger scale with something like this?

These questions raise several issues related to the confessional privilege.

I. The Confessional Privilege in Kansas

At common law there was little or no legal protection for statements made to a member of the clergy in confession or otherwise while seeking religious advice or counsel.  Instead, the privilege is largely derived from statutes.  Generally speaking it is weaker than, for example, the attorney-client privilege, but in some states the confessional privilege can be pretty broad.

I believe that the confessional scene takes place in Smallville, which is located in Kansas.  In Kansas the privilege is defined in the Kansas Rules of Evidence, specifically K.S.A. 60-429(b):

A person, whether or not a party, has a privilege to refuse to disclose, and to prevent a witness from disclosing a communication if he or she claims the privilege and the judge finds that (1) the communication was a penitential communication and (2) the witness is the penitent or the minister, and (3) the claimant is the penitent, or the minister making the claim on behalf of an absent penitent.

So in other words, Clark (if he’s present) or the priest (if Clark is absent) could claim the privilege (become the claimant) in order to prevent the priest from disclosing what Clark told the priest, or in order to prevent Clark from disclosing the same.

Now, there are a lot of specialized terms in that definition, including “penitent” and “penitential communication” (we’ll assume the priest is a regular or duly ordained minister).  Those terms are defined in 60-429(a):

“penitent” means a person who recognizes the existence and the authority of God and who seeks or receives from a regular or duly ordained minister of religion advice or assistance in determining or discharging his or her moral obligations, or in obtaining God’s mercy or forgiveness for past culpable conduct

“penitential communication” means any communication between a penitent and a regular or duly ordained minister of religion which the penitent intends shall be kept secret and confidential and which pertains to advice or assistance in determining or discharging the penitent’s moral obligations, or to obtaining God’s mercy or forgiveness for past culpable conduct.

So right off the bat we can see the answer to one of the issues: there’s no requirement that Clark have been a member of the church in question or otherwise have had a pre-existing confessional relationship with the priest.  As long as he “recognizes the existence and the authority of God and … seeks or receives from a regular or duly ordained minister of religion advice or assistance in determining or discharging [his] moral obligations”, that’s sufficient.  And honestly I’m not too sure about the “recognizes the existence and the authority of God” part, but it doesn’t appear to have been put to the First Amendment test, at least in Kansas.

In this case, Clark is at least seeking advice or assistance in determining his moral obligations (i.e. whether to reveal himself as Superman and try to do good in the world with his powers).  And it appears that he intended the communication to be confidential.  He and the priest were alone in the church, and I don’t recall him telling the priest it was okay to tell anyone else.  There was a strong implication that it was a confidential conversation, and that Clark told the priest what he did precisely because he believed it was confidential.

II. Any Exceptions?

The Kansas statute, like many such statutes, does not contain much in the way of exceptions.  It sets a relatively high bar to accessing the privilege in the first place, but once it’s reached, that’s pretty much it.  Many states do provide an exception for child abuse reporting, particularly if members of the clergy are mandatory reporters, but the issue does not appear to have come up in Kansas.  Certainly there is no broad exception for the public good or public safety.  And that makes a certain amount of policy sense.  The confessional privilege would be largely pointless if those confessing the possibility of endangering themselves or others (e.g. by committing a violent crime) were not protected by it.

III. But Wait, What About the Feds?

It’s all well and good that the privilege would apply in state court in Kansas, but what about federal court?  After all, it’s not exactly the local sheriff that’s looking for Clark.  Would the priest still be able to keep quiet if there was some kind of federal proceeding?

Maybe, maybe not.  There is no federal confessional privilege statute.  One was proposed as part of the Federal Rules of Evidence, but it was not approved by Congress.  Over the years a federal common law privilege has developed, and it appears to be recognized in Kansas. U.S. v. Dillard, 2013 WL 875230 (D.Kan. Mar. 7, 2013) (“Plaintiff does not take issue in this case with the general existence of the [confessional] privilege. Neither does this Court.”).

I have yet to see a federal case that describes the contours of the privilege clearly, so I will take this summary from a treatise on the subject:

The communication by a spiritual communicant is privileged if it is made to an ordained or otherwise duly accredited functionary of a religious organization in his capacity as such. … The communication must have been made for the purpose of obtaining spiritual aid or religious or other counsel, advice, solace, absolution, or ministration. It must also have been made in confidence.

Paul F. Rothstein & Susan W. Crump, Federal Testimonial Privileges § 10:3.

In this case, the federal privilege would also appear to apply.

IV. Conclusion

The state law confessional privilege probably applied in this case and there probably wasn’t an exception.  The same is likely true of the federal privilege, bearing in mind that it exists on somewhat shaky ground, having never been formally approved by the Supreme Court or even (as far as I can tell) the 10th Circuit, in which Kansas is located.


Superman and the Duty to Rescue on Bloomberg Law

Bloomberg Law has produced a short video about my piece on about Superman and the duty to rescue in Man of Steel.  Check it out!

Lois Lane’s Employment Contract

This will probably be our last post on Man of Steel.  No spoiler warning on this one, as I can set up the issue without giving anything of consequence away.

In Man of Steel, Lois Lane works as a reporter for the Daily Planet (no surprise there).  At one point in the movie, she has a disagreement with her boss, Perry White, over whether to run a certain story, and she threatens to quit.  White tells her that she can’t do that because she’s under contract, and Lois concedes the argument.

Wait, what?

I. Employment Contracts

How can Lane’s employment contract prevent her from quitting her job?  Surely the Planet can’t literally force her to work.  Doesn’t the Thirteenth Amendment have something to say about that?

And it does.  The Planet can’t force Lane to work, and a court can’t order her to work if she breaches her employment contract.  But that doesn’t mean an employment contract is completely toothless from the employer’s point of view.  There are two major techniques that the Planet might have used when drafting the contract to make it in Lane’s best interest to keep working for the Planet rather than quit: damages and a non-compete agreement.

II. Damages

Ordinarily in a breach of employment contract case it’s the employee who seeks damages from the employer, typically arguing that the employer owes them whatever they were due under the contract in the form of salary or other compensation.  Of course, that only works if it’s the employer that broke the contract.  If it’s the employee that reneged on the deal, then things could go the other way.

In cases where the employee is the breaching party, employers don’t often sue for damages because a) employees usually don’t have a lot of money and b) it’s difficult to say how much the employee’s work would have been worth.  This is different from the reverse situation, where the employer typically has deep pockets and it’s very clear what the employee was owed in terms of salary.

One possible solution to this problem is a liquidated damages clause, which says something like “if Lane breaches the contract then she must pay the Planet $X.”  Basically it’s an upfront agreement regarding the damages in the event of a breach of contract.  There are some limits and restrictions on such clauses, but they are, in principle, allowed in employment contracts as long as they are reasonable and not punitive.  See, e.g., Kozlik v. Emelco, Inc., 240 Neb. 525 (1992).

Faced with the prospect of having to pay the Planet the approximate value of her services to them, Lane would probably conclude that it was better to keep working.

III. Non-Compete Agreements

As the name suggests, these clauses bar the employee from competing with the employer after they quit working for the employer.  Usually this means that the employee can’t work for a competitor or in the same industry for a certain period of time, typically no more than a few years.  The agreement may also be limited geographically (e.g. only apply to the city where the employee was working).

Some states strongly disfavor non-compete agreements, whereas others are generally okay with them as long as they are reasonably narrow in scope.  We don’t know where Metropolis is, but it’s likely that it’s in a state that accepts non-compete agreements.  If Lois Lane was subject to a non-compete, then quitting the Planet would mean quitting being a journalist, at least in the Metropolis area.  That’s a powerful incentive not to quit.

IV. Conclusion

Although the Planet might not have literally been able to force Lane to keep working, her employment contract may have effectively done so anyway.

Man of Steel

I just got out of Man of Steel, and there’s something of a doozy of a legal question pretty early on. There are some very mild spoilers inside, but no real plot points, so proceed at your discretion. Continue reading

Truth, Justice, and the American Rule

I have a piece over at on Man of Steel and the duty to rescue.  There are some moderate spoilers in the article.  All in all it was a pretty good movie, though not without its flaws (<- serious spoiler alert!).  I recommend checking it out.  We’ll have more on Man of Steel here at Law and the Multiverse later this week.

Superman’s Diamonds Revisited

Just over two years ago I discussed Superman’s (lack of) tax liability for crushing coal into diamonds and (actual) gift tax liability if he gave those diamonds to another person.  In the comments to that post I mentioned that Superman could theoretically avoid gift tax liability by performing the gratuitous service of crushing coal into diamonds rather than giving a finished diamond.  In this post I’d like to expand on that topic briefly.

I. Form Over Substance

Although it is true that gratuitous services are not taxed, it is also true that the IRS and the courts frown on tax avoidance schemes that attempt to exalt form over substance.  Gregory v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465 (1935).  So a scheme by which Superman handed someone a piece of coal, fully intending to turn it into a diamond, then did so, would be tantamount to simply giving them a diamond.  The IRS would focus on the substance of the transaction, not the form, and consider it a taxable gift of property.

But if, for example, Superman were at someone’s house for a barbecue and decided to thank them for dinner by crushing a lump of their own charcoal into a diamond, that would be different.  In that case Superman really would be performing a gratuitous service.

This may seem like a fine distinction, but think of it in terms of a famous baseball player.  If the baseball player hands someone a baseball (retail value $3) and then signs it (market value $500), that’s not really a gratuitous service.  They’re really just giving the person a signed baseball.  But if the baseball player signs a baseball that the recipient already owns, then that is more clearly a service rather than a gift of property.

II. Engagement Rings

Superman has crushed coal into diamonds for various reasons, but one of the best known was his gift of a ring to Lana Lang in Superman III.  This raises an interesting question: is an engagement ring subject to gift tax?  There is, subject to certain qualifications, an unlimited marital deduction for gifts between spouses, but what about an engagement ring, which is given in anticipation of marriage?

The law surrounding engagement rings and other pre-nuptial gifts has a long and complex history, dating back to at least the Romans.  Most of the law has to do with who owns such gifts, particularly if the marriage is called off.  But it turns out that none of that matters for tax purposes.  If the donor and donee aren’t married at the time of the gift, then the marital deduction doesn’t apply.  26 U.S.C. § 2523(a).  So an engagement ring is subject to gift tax, even if the donor and donee get married later that same year.  In practice I suspect that few people actually report such gifts, even in the rare case where it would make a difference in their ultimate tax liability, but maybe Superman would actually be moral enough to do so.

III. Conclusion

Crushing coal into diamonds still doesn’t create tax liability for Superman, and he still has some ways to avoid liability if he crushes coal into diamonds for other people, but he has to be careful about it.  And strictly speaking he probably should have reported that ring he gave to Lana.

Guest Post: Clark Kent’s Taxes

Today we have a guest post from Martha L. Voelz, an associate with S.H. Jacobs & Associates LLC in New York that we met at New York Comic Con.  As we mentioned in a recent post, Clark Kent has quit his job with the Daily Planet to become a blogger.  Martha, who practices tax law, has written a post about some of the tax consequences of Kent’s newfound self-employment.  As with all of our posts, this post is not legal advice, does not create an attorney-client relationship, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the author’s employer.

Being Your Own Boss — Tax Consequences

With Clark Kent preparing to strike it out on his own in Superman #13, there are several  legal issues he faces as his own boss. As James Daily pointed out in his post, as an independent blogger and reporter Kent will have new intellectual property and liability issues. He also will have some tax differences as well.  For this post, I am sticking to Federal tax issues, but Kent will likely have state and local tax issues too.

As an employee, Kent’s share of income, Social Security and Medicare taxes were calculated and paid to the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) by his employer.  As his own employer, Kent now has to calculate and make these tax payments himself. Let’s start with the Social Security and Medicare tax differences, known as FICA and Self-Employment tax.

I. FICA v. Self Employment tax

When Kent received his pay stub from the Daily Planet, he would have seen withholding for his Federal income taxes and another  line notation called FICA. FICA stands for Federal Insurance Contribution Act, and this covers Kent’s tax contribution to Social Security and Medicare. FICA is found in §§ 3101-3128 of the Internal Revenue Code, which is part of the United States Code.

The total FICA tax rate is 15.3%, which is normally paid equally between the employer and employee.  Kent’s portion of FICA would normally be 7.65% and is broken down like this:

  • Social Security – Kent would pay 6.2% tax on his wages (including certain benefits) capped for the year at $110,100 in 2012 and will be capped at $113,700 in 2013. Anything Kent earns over the cap is not subject to the Social Security tax.
  • Medicare – Kent would pay 1.45% on his wages (including certain benefits). There is no yearly cap on this portion of the tax.

The reason for noting how FICA is normally paid is because in 2012 FICA is not working “normally”. In order to stimulate the economy, Congress reduced an employee’s portion of the Social Security part of FICA to 4.2% in 2011 and kept that reduction for 2012. This reduction is not set to continue in 2013. If Kent was working at the Daily Planet, when he received his first pay check of 2013 he might have been shocked by the reduction in his take-home pay and the sudden “increase” in the FICA line.

What makes this different for Kent as a self-employed taxpayer is that FICA does not apply. Instead self-employed taxpayers contribute to Social Security and Medicare under the Self-Employment Contributions Act of 1954, known as the Self-Employment Tax. This tax is found under §§1401-1403 of the Internal Revenue Code.

On its face, the Self-Employment Tax seems harsher because the taxpayer normally pays all 15.3% of the tax, which under FICA is split between the employer and employee.  However, the same 2012 reduction to the employee portion of the Social Security tax applies to the Self-Employment Tax. This means in 2012 the Self-Employment Tax rate is 13.3% and the breakdown would be as follows:

  • Social Security – Kent would pay 10.4% tax on his net earnings with the same income caps in 2012 and 2013 as FICA.
  • Medicare – Kent would pay 2.9% on his net earnings.

There are some additional differences in how the Self-Employment Tax is calculated to even out the differences between this tax and FICA.

First, the Self-Employment Tax is calculated on net earnings of the business and not the gross income. Net earnings are the amount Kent earns reduced by certain business expenses he may have during the year. Second, a portion of the Self-Employment Tax Kent paid may be deductible on his federal income tax return. This in turn may put Kent in a lower tax bracket and reduce his federal income tax.

II. Estimated Tax Payments

By becoming self-employed, Kent will have to calculate and pay income tax and Self-Employment Tax on his own. He will have to do this by making estimated payments to the IRS using Form 1040-ES. This form will help Kent calculate both his Federal income and Self-Employment Taxes.

He will need to file and make payments for each quarter to avoid an underpayment penalty. Quarterly estimated payments are due April 15 (for January, February and March), July 15 for (April, May and June), October 15 (for July, August and September) and January 15 of the following year (for October, November and December). If the due date falls on a Saturday, Sunday or Holiday, then the due date is typically the following business day.

Filing and payment is considered completed on the mailing date, and it is a good idea for Kent to send anything to the IRS via Certified Mail Return Receipt. This is his insurance should the IRS allege he missed a payment or filing deadline. Alternatively, he can make his quarterly estimated payments using the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System.

III. Happy New Year! – 2013 Tax Surprises

There are a few tax surprises in store for Kent and the rest of us taxpayers between the 2012 and 2013, in addition to watching our Social Security tax payment revert back to its normal amount.

First, some taxpayers may have to make an Additional Medicare Tax payment. If Kent makes over $200,000, then an Additional Medicare Tax will kick in. For every dollar over $200,000, he will pay Medicare Tax at 2.35%. (I assume for the rest of this post that Kent is not getting married in 2013 and has a taxpayer filing status of “Single”.)

Second, the Federal income tax brackets are set to revert to tax rates we last saw under President Clinton. The bottom income tax rate goes from 10% to 15% up to a maximum tax rate of 39.6%. Assuming Kent has an adjusted gross income between $35,351 and $85,650, his tax rate will go from 25% to 28% in 2013. This assumes that Congress does not make tax code adjustments connected to the “Fiscal Cliff” situation, which is still up in the air as of this writing. [Ed. note: the fiscal cliff has apparently been avoided, but if Kent makes more than $400,000 per year then he would pay 39.6% on income above that level.]

One of the best things Kent can do is read up on his obligations as a self-employed taxpayer and check out  the following IRS publications: Publication 334 –Tax Guide for Small Business and Publication 505 – Tax Witholding and Estimated Tax. If he doesn’t want to tackle this himself, hiring a certified public accountant is the best thing he can do. (Plus, the expense is a tax deduction in his new life as a self-employed reporter!)