On May 21, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision affirming the Massachusetts Tax Appeal Board’s decision in favor of Microsoft and Oracle, ruling that the companies may apportion sales tax to other states on software purchased by a Massachusetts company from which the software was accessed and seek a tax refund.
The case involved a claim by vendors for abatement of sales tax collected on software delivered to a location in Massachusetts but accessible from multiple states. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) claimed that the statute gave it the sole right to decide whether the sales price of the software could be apportioned and, if so, the methods the buyer and seller had to use to claim apportionment. Under rules promulgated by the DOR, there are three methods to choose from, such as the purchaser giving the seller an exemption certificate claiming the software would be used in multiple states, none of which the purchaser used. The DOR argued that if a taxpayer did not use one of the methods specified in the rule, no apportionment was permitted. The vendors sought abatement of the tax on the portion of the sales price that could have been apportioned to other states had one of the methods specified under the rule been used. The DOR claimed the abatement procedure was not a permissible method of claiming apportionment.
The court held: (1) the statute gave the purchaser the right of apportionment and it was not up to the DOR to decide whether apportionment was permitted; (2) the abatement procedure is an available method for claiming the apportionment; and (3) the taxpayer was not limited to the procedures specified in the rule for claiming sales price apportionment.
The court’s decision was based in part on separation of powers: “Under the commissioner’s reading of [the statute], the Legislature has delegated to the commissioner the ultimate authority to decide whether to allow apportionment of sales tax on software sold in the Commonwealth and transferred for use outside the Commonwealth.” The court found such a determination represented “a fundamental policy decision that cannot be delegated.”
The Massachusetts rules reviewed by the court have their genesis in amendments to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA) (that never became effective) providing special sourcing rules for, among other things, computer software concurrently available for use in more than one location. Even though Massachusetts is not a member of the SSUTA, officials from the DOR participate in the Streamlined process and apparently brought those amendments home with them and had them promulgated into the Commonwealth’s sales tax rules.
Practice Notes: This case addresses one of the issues with taxing business models in the digital space. This important decision makes clear, at least in Massachusetts, that taxpayers have post-sale opportunities to reduce sales tax liability on sales/purchases of software accessible from other states where tax on the full sales price initially was collected and remitted by the seller.
Taxpayers may have refund opportunities related to this issue and it should be noted that vendors generally must be the party seeking the refund.