Business Victorious in Unclaimed Gift Card False Claims Case

The Delaware Supreme Court gave Overstock.com a win in a False Claims Act (FCA) suit alleging the retailer failed to remit unclaimed gift card funds to the state. Overstock.com Inc. v. the State of Delaware and French, DE Sup. Ct., No. 327,2019 (June 25, 2020). A jury previously found Overstock liable for approximately $7.3 million. The Delaware Supreme Court, interpreting the FCA statute in effect for the years at issue, determined the trial court judge improperly instructed the jury that the knowing failure to file unclaimed property reports was the making of a false statement as required to succeed on an FCA claim. Contrary to the trial judge’s instructions, the Supreme Court determined that to meet the FCA standard in effect for the years at issue, some document incorporating the alleged false claim must have been provided to the government. Failure to file a report was by definition not a false record or statement because there was not record or...

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Alert: California False Claims Expansion Bill Advances to the Senate

Like the days of the Old West, last week a masked gang held up local businesses demanding their wallets. Unlike the days of the Old West, this was not the hole-in-the-wall gang, but the California State Assembly who, on June 10, 2020, approved AB 2570, a bill that authorizes tax-based false claims actions. If passed, AB 2570 would expand the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to allow private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement tax-based lawsuits. The bill now heads to the California Senate where its predecessor bill, AB 1270, failed last year. According to the bill’s author, Assembly Member Mark Stone, there are two key differences between AB 2570 and last year’s AB 1270. First, AB 2570’s definition of “prosecuting authority” has been revised to remove the term “counsel retained by a political subdivision to act on its behalf.” In his comments on the Assembly floor, Stone explained that this amendment was “sought by the bill’s...

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California Bill Would Make Taxpayer Information Available to the Public (Seriously!)

A concerning bill is pending in the California Senate. SB-972 would require the California State Controller’s Office (the Controller) to make taxpayer information publicly available. The bill would require that the Controller post on its website a list of all taxpayers subject to the California corporation tax with gross receipts of $5 billion or more and information about each taxpayer, including the tax liability of taxpayer and the amount of tax credits claimed by the taxpayer in the previous calendar year. We are hearing that the California Senate is likely to pass the bill. If the bill does pass in the Senate, it will head to the Assembly. This bill is surprising (and alarming) because the usual policy of states and tax departments is to protect the confidentiality of taxpayer information. In fact, most states have statutory provisions ensuring that taxpayer information obtained through tax filings and audits is kept confidential, and disclosure is...

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False Claims Never Die in California

Recently, AB 2570 has cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which authorizes tax-based false claims actions—allowing private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement lawsuits. The bill is now on the Assembly floor for consideration and faces a June 19 house-of-origin deadline for passage. The bill is similar to a bill that failed to pass last year (AB 1270) after encountering intense opposition. California’s current False Claims Act (FCA) bars its use in tax cases, a similar practice followed by most states with FCAs. This leaves initiation of tax enforcement to tax agencies that interpret and enforce those laws. In states where a FCA has been expanded to tax cases, such as in Illinois and New York, very few cases involve internal whistleblowers, actual fraud or reckless disregard of clear law. Instead, they typically involve inadvertent errors or good-faith interpretations of murky tax law. FCA expansion undermines taxpayer...

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Washington Surtax on “Big Banks” Struck Down as Unconstitutional

On May 8, Washington’s 1.2% surtax on “specified financial institutions” (banks with at least $1 billion a year in net revenue) was struck down by a King County Superior Court judge. Judge Marshall Ferguson ruled that the tax, which is imposed on top of all other taxes, violates the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution by discriminating against out-of-state banks in both purpose and effect. In their briefs, attorneys for the Washington Bankers Association and American Bankers Association explained that an out-of-state bank would pay a much higher tax rate (and be at a competitive disadvantage) compared to an in-state bank because its global revenue is sufficient to trigger owing the surtax. The associations presented evidence that every bank meeting the definition of “specified financial institution” was an out-of-state bank, and that no in-state bank met the definition. Further, they pointed to statements by legislators appearing to show an intent to...

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Taxes, Like Temperatures, Going Up: California COVID-19 Budget “Revenue Solutions”

Yesterday Governor Gavin Newsom turned to a familiar gambit from California’s playbook to help tackle the budgetary hole wrought by COVID-19. In January, the Governor proposed his budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which projected a $5.6 billion surplus. Indeed, revenues through March are reported as having run $1.35 billion above projections. But, as the Governor says in his May Revision to his January Budget, “[t]he COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession has changed the fiscal landscape significantly.” Without the various changes proposed by the May Revision, which includes the “revenue solutions” described below, the Governor’s Budget projects a $54 billion deficit. The May Revision proposes two significant changes to business taxation. The Governor proposes suspending net operating losses for 2020, 2021, and 2022 for medium and large businesses. The Governor also proposes limiting business incentive tax credits from offsetting more than $5...

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False Claims Bill Advances in California – Taxpayers Beware!

California’s bill to authorize tax-based false claims actions—allowing private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement lawsuits—cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee on May 11 in a party-line vote. The bill, AB 2570, is sponsored by the committee’s chair, Assemblymember Mark Stone (D), and has strong backing from Attorney General Xavier Becerra. It now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Proponents claim the bill only affects “tax cheats” but under similar laws in Illinois and New York, very few cases involve internal whistleblowers, actual fraud or reckless disregard of clear law. Instead, they typically involve inadvertent errors or good-faith interpretations of murky tax law. Moreover, while there often is an erroneous assumption that most tax false claims actions are brought by “by-the-books” whistleblowers acting in the interest of the taxing jurisdiction, claims in the tax realm are primarily developed and driven by a...

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Alert: California False Claims Expansion Bill Preparing to Advance

The revived False Claims expansion bill in California, A.B. 2570, is on the agenda to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on May 11 at 10:00 am PDT. The proposal would authorize tax-based false claims actions, allowing private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement lawsuits—an abusive practice that is prohibited under current law consistent with the vast majority of other states with similar laws. A nearly identical bill sputtered out last summer but has now been revived, as our colleagues covered in February: AB 2570 is replete with problematic provisions, including: (1) the imposition of a separate statute of limitations that will arguably trump any shorter limitations periods imposed by the Revenue & Taxation Code (See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12654(a) which permits claims under the CFCA to be pursued for up to 10 years after the date the violation was committed, compared to standard three or four years for tax audits); (2) a...

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Governor Newsom Signs Executive Order Providing Last Minute Property Tax Relief

On Tuesday we authored a blog post commending San Francisco County Assessor Carmen Chu for moving the deadline for businesses to file their Business Property Statements (Form 571-L) to June 1 of this year. We noted that California statutory authority provides that if the property tax filing deadline falls on a date when the county assessor’s office is closed for the entire day, a property statement that is mailed and postmarked on the next business day is deemed to have been timely filed. We further explained, however, that despite the fact that most, if not all, county assessor offices across the state are closed due to COVID-19, most assessors have been reluctant to provide relief to the taxpayers struggling to meet the May 7 deadline. Consequently, we urged county assessors to follow the example set by the San Francisco County assessor and to likewise extend the business property tax deadline. In April, we also authored a blog post encouraging the State...

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Last Minute Relief for Filers of Business Property Statements

Once again, San Francisco has shown leadership in addressing property tax relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, May 4, 2020, the San Francisco County Assessor announced that she was moving the deadline for businesses to file their Business Property Statements (Form 571-L) to June 1 of this year, due to physical office closure of the San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder. Normally, under state law, a 10 percent penalty automatically attaches when a taxpayer’s business property statement is filed after May 7. But, if May 7 falls on a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday, then a property statement that is mailed and postmarked on the next business day is deemed to have been timely filed. Under the applicable statue, legal holidays include days when the county’s offices are closed for the entire day. As a practical matter, most, if not all, county assessor offices across the state are closed. Yet, most assessors have been reluctant to go on the record...

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