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Eric D. Carstens focuses his practice on state and local tax matters, assisting clients with state tax controversy, compliance and multistate planning across all states for a variety of tax types and unclaimed property. Eric engages in all forms of taxpayer advocacy, including litigation, legislative monitoring and audit defense. He works closely with several of the Firm's taxpayer coalitions focused on specific state tax policy issues such as the taxation of digital goods and services and unclaimed property. Read Eric D. Carstens' full bio.

The District of Columbia (DC) Office of Tax & Revenue (OTR) implemented sweeping changes to the Qualified High Technology Company (QHTC) certification process this year. As you may remember, beginning last year, OTR implemented a new online QHTC self-certification process for companies to obtain exempt purchase certificates. This year, OTR is expanding the scope of this online self-certification requirement to all QHTC benefits—including exempt sales as a QHTC and other non-sales tax benefits available to a QHTC (summarized here). This change was accomplished through amendments to the QHTC certification regulation (DC Mun. Regs. tit. 9, § 1101) that were proposed by OTR in November 2018 and became final on January 4, 2019. The changes apply to all tax returns due on or after January 1, 2019.

So What Changed?

Historically, the relevant OTR regulation provided that to claim a credit or other benefit, a QHTC was required to attach a form prescribed by OTR (i.e., Form QHTC-CERT) to each applicable tax return or claim for refund. See DC Mun. Regs. tit. 9, § 1101 (prior to Jan. 4, 2019). Effective January 4, 2019 with the finalization of the amended regulation, this procedure now requires every QHTC to submit a Self-Certification request online via MyTax.DC.gov on an annual basis and obtain a “certificate of benefits” letter from OTR each year. No tax exemptions or benefits will be allowed without a valid certificate of benefits letter that is obtained prior to or concurrently with the filing of a return on which the benefits are claimed. Thus, to claim QHTC benefits on a monthly sales tax return for January 2019, the certificate of benefits will need to be requested from OTR for review/processing prior to the upcoming mid-February return deadline. Unlike the procedure in the past, the certificate of benefits letter obtained online will be deemed to attach to any tax return due and filed during the period for which the certificate is valid and unexpired. The certificate of benefits is expected to be valid for one (1) calendar year from the date it is issued/approved by OTR. Unlike prior years, the new regulation requires all benefits applications filed by a QHTC to include all of the following information:

  1. Taxpayer ID Number
  2. Name
  3. Address
  4. Sales Tax Account Number
  5. NAICS Code
  6. Information demonstrating QHTC eligibility (including attaching proof of DC office location, such as a current lease agreement)
  7. First year certified as QHTC
  8. Explanation of principal business activity
  9. Amount of QHTC Exempt Sales/Purchases from the prior year (broken down by period)
  10. Number of QHTC employees hired
  11. Number of QHTC employees hired who are District residents
  12. Schedules detailing QHTC employee credits
  13. Number of QHTC jobs created in the past year
  14. Gross revenue
  15. Gross revenue earned from QHTC activities in the District

Practice Note: Companies that have historically claimed one or more of the tax benefits available to QHTCs and wish to continue to do so in 2019 need to carefully review the amended regulation and OTR guidance to ensure the new certification process (including providing a laundry list of data not required historically) is understood and submitted in a timely manner. Those with questions about the new QHTC certification process or timing are encouraged to contact the authors.

If the Delaware Office of Unclaimed Property believes that a person may have filed an “inaccurate, incomplete, or false report,” the State Escheator may authorize a “compliance review” under Del. Code Ann. tit. 12, § 1170(b). This is not a standard audit and as a result, the target is not entitled to the option of entering the state’s voluntary disclosure program rather than being subject to the audit. Nevertheless, the compliance review can result in a finding of liability.

Correspondence between the Unclaimed Property Professionals Organization and the Delaware State Escheator’s Office acknowledges that several holders have been selected for this review. According to the Escheator’s Office, if a holder has no report or a negative report, the state will typically request a copy of the holder’s unclaimed property policies and procedures that would support the lack of property due to the state. By statute, the state may review the filed reports and “all supporting documents related to such reports.” The scope of the concept of “supporting documents” is not clear.

Practice Note: Companies, particularly those domiciled in Delaware, not filing Delaware unclaimed property reports or filing reports showing no liability, should review their policies and procedures related to unclaimed property, including how voided checks and unidentified remittances are handled. Furthermore, recent audits have included an expanded Automated Clearing House (ACH) payment review request, so a company should also review its treatment of failed ACH payments. Such a review should take place in an environment that will protect the attorney-client privilege – so, including internal counsel and/or external counsel is critical. Such an internal review should: (a) verify that the holder is in compliance with its policies and procedures; and (b) provide any necessary policy or operational changes. Conducting such a review and maintaining attorney-client privilege for appropriate elements of the review is especially important given recent false claims act developments in the unclaimed property space.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson recently announced that a public hearing will take place later this month before the Committee of the Whole to consider a bill (The False Claims Amendment Act of 2017, B22-0166) that would allow tax-related false claims against large taxpayers. The hearing will begin at 9:30 am on Thursday, December 20, 2018, in Room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building. More details on the hearing and opportunity to testify are available here. The bill is sponsored by Councilmember Mary Cheh, and co-sponsors of the bill include Committee on Finance and Revenue Chairman Jack Evans and Councilmember Anita Bonds. Nearly identical bills were introduced by Councilmember Cheh in 2013 and 2016, but did not advance.

As introduced, the bill would amend the existing false claims statute in the District of Columbia to expressly authorize tax-related false claims actions against a person that “reported net income, sales, or revenue totaling $1 million or more in the tax filing to which the claim pertained, and the damages pleaded in the action total $350,000 or more.”

Practice Note:

Because the current false claims statute includes an express tax bar, this bill would represent a major policy departure in the District. See D.C. Code § 2-381.02(d) (stating that “[t]his section shall not apply to claims, records, or statements made pursuant to those portions of Title 47 that refer or relate to taxation”). As we have seen in jurisdictions like New York and Illinois, opening the door to tax-related false claims can lead to significant headaches for taxpayers and usurp the authority of the state tax agency by involving profit motivated private parties and the state Attorney General in tax enforcement decisions.

Because the statute of limitations for false claims is 10 years after the date on which the violation occurs, the typical tax statute of limitations for audit and enforcement may not protect taxpayers from false claims actions. See D.C. Code § 2-381.05(a). Treble damages would also be permitted against taxpayers for violations, meaning District taxpayers would be liable for three times the amount of any damages sustained by the District. See D.C. Code § 2-381.02(a). A private party who files a successful claim may receive between 15–25 percent of any recovery to the District if the District’s AG intervenes in the matter. If the private party successfully prosecutes the case on their own, they may receive between 25–30 percent of the amount recovered. This financial incentive encourages profit motivated bounty hunters to develop theories of liability not established or approved by the agency responsible for tax administration. Allowing private parties to intervene in the administration, interpretation or enforcement of the tax law commandeers the authority of the tax agency, creates uncertainty and can result in inequitable tax treatment. While many other problems exist with application of false claims to tax matters, those issues are beyond the scope of this blog.

Today, US Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) filed the Digital Goods and Services Tax Fairness Act of 2018 (S.3581) for reintroduction in the United States Senate. A companion version is expected to be reintroduced tomorrow in the House of Representatives by Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Cohen (D-TN). This bill, if enacted, would establish a national framework for how states apply their sales and use tax systems to sales and uses of digital goods and digital services.  The bill would resolve current uncertainty regarding which state has the right to tax certain sales and whether a state has the right to tax the sale of a digital good or digital service. The bill also would establish uniform, destination-based, sourcing rules for sales of such products and services.

Sales of digital goods and services are highly mobile transactions. A customer could have a billing address in one state and download a digital good from the seller’s server in another state while the customer is traveling in a third state. Whether such a transaction has sufficient attributes in any one of the three states to give rise to the right to tax the transaction by any one of them is open to question. Assuming one of the states has the right to tax the sale, there is a question as to which state that might be. The bill would clearly specify that one of the states has the right to tax the sale and clearly delineate which state has such taxing rights.  Continue Reading Federal Digital Goods Bill: Rules of the Road for State Sales and Use Taxation of Digital Goods and Services

The US House Committee on the Judiciary has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, July 24 at 10:00 am EDT in 2141 Rayburn House Office Building. According to a press release circulated last night, the topic of the hearing will be “[e]xamining the Wayfair decision and its ramifications for consumers and small businesses.” According to comments made by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) to Bloomberg Law, specific pending or former legislation will not be considered and instead the hearing will be informational and used to drive the committee’s next steps, if any.

The 8 witnesses that will be testifying at the hearing next week are listed below.

  1. Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform President
  2. Chad White, Class-Tech-Cars, Inc. Owner
  3. Lary Sinewitz, BrandsMart Executive Vice President, on behalf of the National Retail Federation
  4. Bartlett Cleland, American Legislative Exchange Council General Counsel and Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer
  5. The Honorable Curt Bramble, National Conference of State Legislatures Past President
  6. Andrew Moylan, National Taxpayers Union Foundation Executive Vice President
  7. Joseph Crosby, MultiState Associates Incorporated Principal
  8. Andrew Pincus, Mayer Brown Partner

A live video feed of the hearing will be available here next Tuesday. The authors plan to attend the hearing in-person and will post a follow-up blog summarizing our thoughts shortly after the hearing concludes next Tuesday. Stay tuned!

Moments ago, the US Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., et al., No. 17-494. The 5-4 opinion was authored by Justice Kennedy and concluded that the physical presence requirement established by the Court in its 1967 National Bellas Hess decision and reaffirmed in 1992 in Quill is “unsound and incorrect” and that “stare decisis can no longer support the Court’s prohibition of a valid exercise of the States’ sovereign power.” This opinion will have an immediate and significant impact on sales and use tax collection obligations across the country and is something every company and state must immediately and carefully evaluate within the context of existing state and local collection authority.

Summary of Opinions

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Kennedy and was joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito and Gorsuch. In reaching the conclusion that the physical presence rule is an incorrect interpretation of the dormant Commerce Clause, the opinion states that the Quill physical presence rule: (1) is flawed on its own terms because it is not a necessary interpretation of the Complete Auto nexus requirement, creates market distortions and imposes an arbitrary and formalistic standard as opposed to the case-by-case analysis favored by Commerce Clause precedents; (2) is artificial in its entirety and not just at its edges; and (3) is an extraordinary imposition by the Judiciary. The majority went on to conclude that stare decisis can no longer support the Court’s prohibition of a valid exercise of the States’ sovereign power, noting that “[i]t is inconsistent with this Court’s proper role to ask Congress to address a false constitutional premise of this Court’s own creation.” The majority noted that the South Dakota law “affords small merchants a reasonable degree of protection” and “other aspects of the Court’s [dormant] Commerce Clause doctrine can protect against any undue burden on interstate commerce.” The majority opinion specifically notes that “the potential for such issues to arise in some later case cannot justify an artificial, anachronistic rule that deprives States of vast revenues from major businesses.” Finally, the majority decision provides that in the absence of Quill and Bellas Hess, the first prong of Complete Auto simply asks whether the tax applies to an activity with substantial nexus with the taxing State and that here, “the nexus is clearly sufficient.” Specifically, the South Dakota law only applies to sellers that deliver more than $100,000 of goods or services into the State or engage in 200 or more separate transactions, which “could not have occurred unless the seller availed itself of the substantial privilege of carrying on business in South Dakota.” With respect to other principles in the Court’s dormant Commerce Clause doctrine that may invalid the South Dakota law, the majority held that “the Court need not resolve them here.” However, the majority opinion does note that South Dakota appears to have features built into its law that are “designed to prevent discrimination against or undue burdens upon interstate commerce” including: (1) a safe harbor for small sellers; (2) provisions that prevent a retroactive collection obligation; and (3) the fact that South Dakota is a member of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement.

Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch both wrote a standalone concurring opinions. Justice Thomas acknowledged that he should have voted with Justice White in Quill to overturn Bellas Hess and Justice Gorsuch seemed to caution his concurrence should not be read as an agreement with all aspects of the dormant Commerce Clause (perhaps looking forward to future issues that may be before the Court).

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. The dissent argues that any alteration to the physical presence rule should be undertaken by Congress and that departing from the doctrine of stare decisis is an exceptional action demanding special justification, which is even further heightened in the dormant Commerce Clause context. The dissenting opinion went on to note that the majority “breezily disregards the costs that its decision will impose on retailers” and that the “burden will fall disproportionately on small businesses” which they note is something Congress could fix as part of a legislative solution. The Chief Justice Robert’s dissent concludes that “I fear the Court today is compounding its past error by trying to fix it in a totally different era.”

Practice Note and Next Steps

Today’s opinion raises no shortage of questions that will be discussed and further evaluated over the coming weeks and months. One thing that is clear from the decision is that the Court is still concerned about potential undue burdens that state tax systems may impose on businesses, particularly small businesses. The Court appears to have concluded that South Dakota’s imposition does not run afoul of those concerns, however, the door is open as to whether other states’ tax systems would satisfy the new requirements. The Court repeatedly emphasized that South Dakota’s participation in the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement was an important factor in upholding the imposition of tax. The Court also cited South Dakota’s lack of retroactivity and a threshold as important factors as well.

States will obviously rejoice at the decision. Expect states to seek legislative and regulatory expansion of their “doing business” laws to align with the South Dakota v. Wayfair opinion, with significant activity in the next round of state legislative sessions.

The Court reiterated that Congress may act to address any of the concerns with the new standard. In fact, Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion acknowledges that “Congress may legislate to address these problems if it deems it necessary and fit to do so.” Although little progress has been made in Congress on this issue for some time, the landscape is now changed and that may result in pushing Congress to act.

Minnesota has several bills pending that would address the Minnesota state tax implications of various provisions of the federal tax reform legislation (commonly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act).

HF 2942

HF 2942 was introduced in the House on February 22, 2018. This bill would provide conformity to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as of December 31, 2017, including for corporate taxpayers. The bill makes clear that, with respect to the computation of Minnesota net income, the conformity to the Internal Revenue Code as amended through December 31, 2017, would be effective retroactively such that the federal provisions providing for the deemed repatriation of foreign earnings could have implications in Minnesota. Continue Reading Overview of Minnesota’s Response to Federal Tax Reform

This morning, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law that will exempt cloud-based software transactions from State Gross Retail and Use Taxes, effective July 1, 2018. The signing took place at the headquarters of Indiana-based cloud service provider DemandJump, Inc.

Specifically, Senate Enrolled Act No. 257 (which was unanimously passed by both chambers of the General Assembly) will add a new section to the Indiana Code chapter on retail transactions that specifically provides that “[a] transaction in which an end user purchases, rents, leases, or licenses the right to remotely access prewritten computer software over the Internet, over private or public networks, or through wireless media: (1) is not considered to be a transaction in which prewritten computer software is delivered electronically; and (2) does not constitute a retail transaction.” The new law will also clarify that the sale, rental, lease or license of prewritten computer software “delivered electronically” (i.e., downloaded software) is subject to the Gross Retail and Use Taxes. Continue Reading BREAKING: Indiana Enacts Cloud Software Tax Exemption

On January 10, 2018, a bill was introduced in the Washington State Legislature that would substantially enact the Revised Uniform Unclaimed Property Act (RUUPA) finalized by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) in late 2016. The bill, House Bill (HB) 2486, is sponsored by Representative Paul Graves at the request of the ULC and would be effective beginning January 1, 2019. The House Committee on Finance conducted a public hearing on the bill on January 16, 2018, but only the sponsor testified and the bill was held for further consideration. While similar (or identical) to RUUPA in most respects, the bill contains a number of significant deviations. Below is a brief summary of several provisions that we flagged in our initial review and the potential impact on Washington holders. Continue Reading Washington Legislature Introduces Revised Uniform Unclaimed Property Act

On December 19, 2017, DC Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced the District Tax Independence Act of 2017 (Act), which would require the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to submit a report outlining the steps and amendments necessary to decouple the District’s tax deduction laws from federal law. As introduced, the Act would require this report by no later than April 30, 2018. The Act was referred to the Committee on Finance and Revenue the same day it was introduced and has not been taken up by the committee, which has been dormant since and is not currently scheduled to meet again until the Council returns in late January. The legislation is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Allen, Evans, McDuffie, Bonds, Gray, Nadeau, R. White, Grosso, Silverman, T. White, and Chairman Mendelson. Notably, all members of the Committee on Finance and Revenue—including Chairman Evans—are co-sponsors. Practice Note The introduction of the Act signals the Council’s overwhelming disapproval of the federal tax reform enacted by Congress and signed by President Trump on December 22, 2017. This is a process that is likely to take place across the country as states begin to assess the revenue impact of the federal tax reform legislation on their state corporate income and franchise tax regime. The District currently conforms to many federal deductions on a rolling basis for purposes of the Franchise Tax, which is imposed on both corporations and unincorporated entities. See generally DC Code Ann. § 47-1803.03. As part of the decoupling process, the CFO and Council will need to determine which deductions to alter to avoid a significant revenue loss and what the DC treatment should be. Furthermore, the CFO and Council should consider which deductions are necessary to retain due to related increases to the federal tax base, which DC utilizes as the starting point for Franchise Tax purposes. The effective dates and relation to 2017 return deadlines will be critical to monitor as this process moves forward, as several portions of the federal tax reform are effective for the 2017 tax year—meaning the corresponding District changes (if any) will need to be retroactive since returns (absent extensions) are due before the CFO’s report to the Council is. DC taxpayers with specific questions on how this process may impact their Franchise Tax liability in 2017 and going forward are encouraged to contact the authors.