(CN) – An Ohio woman who was gifted $55,000 on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” should not have faced jail time for failure to pay city taxes, a state appeals court ruled, finding that her attorney should have argued she was unable to pay the tax.
Ryshonda Fields, a single mother with four children, had lost her teaching job when she turned to the local Rotary Club for help.
She met Diane Toby, who bought Christmas presents for Fields’ family for the next three years.
Fields wrote to Ellen DeGeneres’ TV show in 2013 seeking to show her appreciation to Toby. The producers flew Fields and her children to Los Angeles to appear on the show.
Toby was a surprise guest on the show, and Fields and her family received $55,000 from the website Shutterfly.com.
Fields received $10,000 for each of her children’s education and another $10,000 for herself toward the completion of her master’s degree. The other $5,000 went toward her bills.
Shutterfly sent a tax form to Fields, listing the $55,000 as “non-employee compensation.” Fields reported the income on her federal, state and local tax returns, but she was unable to pay the taxes on the gift.
The city of Xenia prosecuted Fields for failure to pay $1,758 in municipal taxes. She asked the trial court to dismiss the case, presenting the YouTube video and newspaper clippings of her appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
The court refused, finding it could not “change the characterization of the money as reported to the IRS by the payer, Shutterfly, Inc.”
Fields pleaded no contest. The trial court found her guilty and imposed a suspended sentence of 30 days in jail and a $75 fine.
On Friday, the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s finding of guilt because “Fields did not argue to the trial court that her indigence precluded a finding of guilt, and she did not object to the factual bases of the court’s finding.”
However, the appeals court did overturn Fields’ conviction on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel. Judge Jeffrey E. Froelich agreed with Fields that her lawyer should have argued that Fields was unable to pay the tax.
“There is a reasonable probability that the outcome of this case would have been different had Fields proceeded to trial,” Froelich wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel. “At trial, the State would have been required to prove that Fields willfully failed to pay the income tax.”
Reversing the conviction, the judge added, “We find a reasonable probability that the trial court might have concluded, had the issue been raised at trial, that Fields’s failure to pay was not willful due to indigence.”