Cook County Circuit Court Dismisses 201 False Claims Act Lawsuits

At a hearing yesterday, Cook County Circuit Judge James Snyder granted the State of Illinois’ (State) Motion to Dismiss 201 Illinois False Claims Act (FCA) cases filed by the law firm of Stephen B. Diamond, PC (Relator) against out-of-state liquor retailers.  The lawsuits alleged that the defendants were obligated to collect and remit sales tax on their internet sales of alcohol shipped to Illinois customers.  The complaints admitted that the defendants lacked any physical presence in the state, and would not qualify for any Illinois liquor retail license, but nevertheless asserted a tax collection obligation for sales and a tax remission obligation for gallonage tax arising under the 21st Amendment of the US Constitution and the Supreme Court’s decision in Granholm v. Heald, 544 U.S. 460 (2005).

In its motion to dismiss and at oral argument, the State relied upon the favorable standard for consideration of motions to dismiss False Claims Act cases filed by the State established by the Illinois Appellate Court in two prior cases:  State ex rel. Beeler, Schad & Diamond v. Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., 369 Ill. App. 3d 507 (1st Dist. 2006) and State ex rel. Schad, Diamond & Shedden, P.C. v. QVC, Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 132999 (Apr. 21, 2015).  In both cases, the appellate court held that when the State moves to dismiss a qui tam action allegedly filed on its behalf, its motion should be granted absence evidence of “glaring bad faith” on the part of the State in moving to dismiss.  The State argued that it had concluded that the Relator’s claims were weak, based in part on the Relator’s admission that the defendants lacked nexus.  In response, the Relator argued that the State had acted in bad faith by relying on Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992) and other commerce clauses nexus rulings and, according to the Relator, ignoring the 21st Amendment and Granholm, which the Relator alleged supplanted any nexus analysis (a point the State and the defendants vigorously disputed in briefing prior to argument).

After hearing argument, Judge Snyder ruled from the bench that the Diamond firm had failed to meet its burden of proving bad faith by the State in moving to dismiss the 201 lawsuits.

The Diamond firm will have 30 days from the date of entry of the Circuit Court’s dismissal orders to either seek reconsideration or appeal from the trial court’s ruling.

Breaking News: Texas Comptroller Publishes Retroactive Rule Targeting IT, Pharmaceutical Retailers; Clock Running on Comment Period

On May 20, 2016, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts published proposed amendments to 34 Tex. Admin. Code 3.584 – relating to the reduced rate available under the Texas Franchise Tax for retailers and wholesalers – in the Texas Register. As previously reported, these proposed revisions have the potential to double the tax rate for a substantial number of businesses – namely those in the information technology and pharmaceutical industries.

The proposed changes to Rule 3.584 were first circulated as draft amendments to interested parties in April.  Although some interested parties opposed the draft, the official published version has remained unchanged after that initial informal review.  To summarize, entities “primarily engaged in retail or wholesale trade” are subject to a Texas Franchise Tax rate that is half the rate imposed on other businesses – 0.375 percent versus 0.75 percent for reports originally due on or after January 1, 2016.  To qualify for this reduced rate, a business must (among other statutory requirements) earn less than 50 percent of its retail or wholesale trade revenues from the sale of products it or an affiliate entity “produces.”  Tex. Tax Code § 171.002(c).  In a substantial change from the current version of Rule 3.584, the proposed amendments – which have a retroactive effective date of January 1, 2008 – provide that a retailer is considered to produce the products it sells if the business “manufactures, develops, or creates tangible personal property that is incorporated into, installed in, or becomes a component part of the product that it sells.”  See proposed Rule 3.584(b)(2)(C)(ii). The proposed Rule offers two examples of businesses that will now be considered “producers” rather than retailers: (1) a business that produces a computer program, such as an application or operating system, that is installed in a device that is manufactured by a third party; and (2) a business that produces the active ingredient in a drug that is manufactured by an unrelated party.  As discussed in prior coverage, these proposed changes create a regulation that is neither consistent with the language of the statute it purports to interpret nor supported by the common sense understanding of what it means to be a “producer” versus a “retailer.”

Although the proposed changes to Rule 3.584 have the potential to double the tax rate for those retailers and wholesalers who also engage in “development” activities and a retroactivity period of over eight years, the Chief Revenue Estimator, Tom Currah, has determined that “for the first five-year period the rule will be in effect, there will be no significant revenue impact on the state or units of local government” – and there is “no significant anticipated economic cost to individuals who are required to comply with the proposed rule.”  Mr. Currah also has determined that for each year of the first five years the rule is in effect, the anticipated public benefit will be “conforming the rule to current legislation and policy.”  No statement of fiscal implications for small businesses is required.

The publication of the proposed revisions in the Texas Register has started the clock for the submission of public comments.  Comments must be received no later than 30 days from the date of publication; i.e., by Monday, June 20, 2016.  Comments may be submitted to Teresa G. Bostick, Director, Tax Policy Division, P.O. Box 13528, Austin, Texas 78711-3528.

SALT Implications of Proposed Section 385 Debt/Equity Regulations

On April 4, 2016, without warning, the US Department of the Treasury proposed a new set of comprehensive regulations under section 385. There had been no advance indication that regulations were even under consideration. Although the Treasury indicated that the proposed regulations were issued in the context of addressing corporate inversions, their application went well beyond the inversion space and they apply to inter-corporate debt regardless of whether it occurs in an international context. The following is a discussion of the state and local tax consequences of the proposed regulations; for a detailed discussion of the proposed regulations themselves, see this previous article.

Read the full article.

Unclaimed Property Litigation Update – Spring 2016

Litigation over unclaimed property rules and obligations continues to accelerate. The first quarter of 2016 brought developments in several cases, including a much-watched contest over merchandise credits and a new battle between the states over which state gets the money.

California Merchandise Credits Not Subject to Remittance as Unclaimed Property; Implicit Application of Derivative Rights Doctrine Prevails

On March 4, 2016, a California superior court held in Bed Bath & Beyond, Inc. v John Chiang that unredeemed merchandise return certificates (certificates) issued by Bed Bath & Beyond (BB&B) to tis California customers are exempt “gift certificates” under the California Unclaimed Property Law—and not “intangible personal property” under the California catch-all provision. Like many retail stores, BB&B provides the certificates as credits to customers who return items without a receipt. While the certificates may be redeemed for merchandise at BB&B or one of its affiliates, they cannot be redeemed for cash. BB&B took the position that it mistakenly reported and remitted the unclaimed certificates from 2004 to 2012 and filed a refund claim with the California State Controller’s Office (Controller) in 2013 for the full amount remitted during that time period (amounting to over $1.8 million). The Controller denied the claim, and BB&B proceeded to sue John Chiang, both individually and in his official capacity as former California state controller. The relief sought by BB&B was the full refund request, plus interest. Continue Reading

Alabama Appellate Court Finds Photos Merely Incidental to Nontaxable Photography Services

Last Friday, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals handed the Department of Revenue (Department) a significant loss in their continued attempt to tax non-enumerated services and tangible property provided in conjunction with those services under the sales tax.  See State Dep’t of Revenue v. Omni Studio, LLC, No. 2140889 (Ala. Civ. App. Apr. 29, 2016).  Specifically, the appellate court affirmed the taxpayer’s motion for summary judgment granted by the trial court, which set aside the Department’s assessment on the basis that photographs provided by a photography studio are merely incidental to the nontaxable photography services provided by the studio.  While the prospective effect of the holding in the photography context is unclear due to recent amendments to the photography regulation (effective January 4, 2016), the case is significant in that it strengthens the “incidental to service” (or “true object”) precedent in Alabama and should be seen as a rebuke to the Department for ignoring judicial precedent in favor of their own administrative practices and guidance.

This decision is important in analyzing the taxability of mixed/bundled sales to Alabamans (i.e., where services and some degree of tangible personal property are provided as part of the same transaction).  As with any decision, taxpayers should consider potential refund claims. Continue Reading

Massachusetts’ First Really Good Amnesty Program Since 2002

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Department) is widely promoting a new amnesty program with significant taxpayer benefits.  Our experience with Massachusetts amnesty suggests that this is the broadest program offered by the Department since 2002.

Individual and business taxpayers may participate in the program for taxes due on or before December 31, 2015. To participate in the program, taxpayers must complete an amnesty return online and submit payment for the full amount of tax and interest electronically by Tuesday, May 31, 2016.

The amnesty program, which waives most types of penalties, offers three special features for taxpayers to consider.

Taxpayers in Audit Can Participate

First, unlike many other state amnesty programs, the current Massachusetts program is available to taxpayers who are under audit. The Department’s auditors have been notifying taxpayers of the program, and Department personnel have confirmed with us that taxpayers under audit are eligible for the program. Department personnel have asked that taxpayers who wish to participate in the program simply notify their auditor.

Refunds Permitted

Second, unlike many other amnesty programs, taxpayers who participate in the Massachusetts program do not lose appeal rights or otherwise forfeit their right of refund for amounts that are disputed in the audit or that they later conclude were mistakenly paid under amnesty. A recent Technical Information Release provides that participation in the amnesty program and the payment of any tax and interest “does not constitute a forfeiture of statutory rights of appeal or an admission that the tax paid is the correct amount of liability due.”

Non-Filers Can Participate

Third, for the first time since 2002, non-filers may participate in the amnesty program.  Participating taxpayers will receive a three-year limited look-back period.

Taxpayers with eligible liabilities should seriously consider whether to participate in the program.

No Surprises in Ohio CAT Nexus Oral Argument

Oral argument before the Ohio Supreme Court took place on May 3 in the three cases challenging Ohio’s Commercial Activity Tax (CAT) nexus standard.  Crutchfield, Inc. v. Testa, Case No. 2015-0386; Mason Cos. Inc. v. Testa, Case No. 2015-0794; Newegg, Inc. v. Testa, Case No. 2015-0483.  Ohio imposes its CAT on a business that has more than $500,000 in annual gross receipts in the state, even if the business has no physical presence in the state.  These three taxpayers have challenged this standard as violating the Commerce Clause substantial nexus test.

The oral argument in the cases proceeded as expected.  The majority of the time for both parties was taken up by questions from the bench.  Several judges quizzed the taxpayers’ counsel about the assertion that no business was conducted in Ohio.  The judges focused on activities such as products being received by customers in Ohio and software being placed on customers’ computers in Ohio to facilitate ordering or to track customer activity in Ohio.  The taxpayers’ counsel vigorously disagreed with this construction of the facts – noting that whatever happened in Ohio, all of the taxpayers’ actions occurred elsewhere.  He stated that the activities called out by the judges were no different than receiving and reviewing a catalog in the state.

The taxpayers’ counsel repeatedly cited to Tyler Pipe as the controlling law in this case – noting that before a state could impose a tax on a business, that business had to do something in the taxing state (or have something done on its behalf) that helped it establish and maintain a market in the state.  According to the taxpayers’ counsel, it was not enough that a market exists in the taxing state; the taxpayer had to be doing something in the taxing state.  He asserted that the taxpayer conducted no business activities in the state and thus Tyler Pipe prevented the state from imposing the CAT on them.  This became the taxpayers’ mantra throughout the argument. Continue Reading

BREAKING NEWS: Sales Tax Battle Breaks Out in South Dakota; Quill’s Last Stand?

This post is a follow-up to a previous post from April 21, 2016.

Introduction

On March 22, 2016, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed into law Senate Bill 106, which requires any person making more than $100,000 of South Dakota sales or more than 200 separate South Dakota sales transactions to collect and remit sales tax. The requirement applies to sales made on or after May 1, 2016.

The law clearly challenges the physical presence requirement under Quill, and that’s precisely what the legislature intended. The law seeks to force a challenge to the physical presence rule as soon as possible and speed that challenge through the courts.

As we discussed in our earlier post, the big question in response to the legislation was whether taxpayers should register to collect tax.  For those who did not register, an injunction is now in place barring enforcement of the provisions until the litigation is resolved.

Last night and this morning two different declaratory judgment suits were filed in the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court of South Dakota regarding S.B. 106’s constitutionality, and more may follow. As has already been reported in a few outlets, one of these cases is American Catalog Mailers Association and NetChoice v. Gerlach (the ACMA Suit).  In ACMA, the plaintiffs are trade associations representing catalog marketers and e-commerce retailers.  The complaint can be found here.

What has yet to be widely reported is the other suit.  This suit (the State Suit) was filed by South Dakota.  Letters sent by South Dakota indicated that identified retailers needed to register by April 25.  Because the new law does not become effective until May 1, many observers thought that South Dakota might wait to file until after that date.  However, the suits have already been filed.

Continue Reading

New Jersey Issues Guidance on BEIP Grant Conversion

This month the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (the Authority) provided businesses with guidance, in the form of Frequently Asked Questions, on how to elect to have their unpaid Business Employment Incentive Program (the Program or BEIP) grants converted into tax credits pursuant to N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:1B-129.

Under the Program, New Jersey awarded qualifying businesses cash grants for hiring new employees in the state for a term of up to 10 years.  Since the Program’s inception in 1996, the Authority has executed 499 BEIP agreements valued at nearly $1.6 billion.  However, since 2013, the New Jersey legislature has not funded the Program, and thus many businesses have not received grant payments owed by the state.

In January, Governor Christie signed P.L. 2015, c. 194 into law, permitting the voluntary conversion of outstanding BEIP grants into tax credits. The option to convert a BEIP grant to a tax credit is New Jersey’s attempt to provide relief to those businesses that have been awarded grants but have not received grant payments. The law, unfortunately, was short on details.

Businesses that wish to take advantage of the grant conversion must elect to convert the grant into a tax credit by July 11, 2016. Once the election is made, it is irrevocable.

Because a business cannot predict with any certainty whether the New Jersey legislature will fund the Program in future years, a business has to decide whether to opt to convert its grant. If a business does not elect to convert its grant, it risks losing all of its unpaid BEIP grants. On the other hand, if a business makes the election and the Program is funded in future years, the business will have no choice but to receive tax credits even though a cash payment might be more valuable to the business.

If a business elects to convert its grant commitments to tax credits, the credits will be issued over a period of years as set forth in the statute.   This delayed payment means that the business will suffer an additional loss of money owed by New Jersey on account of the time value of money. The statute provides that the BEIP tax credit must be used in the designated years and may not be carried forward. The credit is a priority credit and should be applied before all other credits. Accordingly, it is important to consider whether the other credits claimed by a business are refundable when deciding whether to make the election and calculating the potential benefit of conversion.

In anticipation of the July 11, 2016, deadline for businesses to opt to convert their grant into a tax credit, the Authority has provided guidance on how to make the election. This guidance, as mentioned above, is informal and not a regulation. The guidance provides that to make the election, a business must submit an executed Amendment to Agreement. The form Amendments to Agreement for different tax types are available on the Authority’s website.  Once a business opts to convert its grant into a tax credit, New Jersey will issue an annual certificate for the tax credit, which the business will attach to its return for that year to substantiate the BEIP tax credit. If a business has no tax liability in a particular year (before taking other tax credits into account), New Jersey will issue a cash refund in the amount of the certificate.

Pursuant to the Authority’s guidance, a business that is not filing corporate business tax in New Jersey must elect by the same deadline of July 11, 2016, whether to receive a tax credit transfer certificate. Such a business may apply for a tax credit transfer certificate and sell the credit for at least 75 percent of face value before considering present value adjustments. The purchaser of the credit may not sell to a third party.

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