Photo of Lauren A. Ferrante

Lauren A. Ferrante focuses her practice on state and local taxation. She represents taxpayers at all stages of state and local controversy disputes at the audit, administrative and judicial levels. Lauren also assists taxpayers with planning, transactional, and compliance matters with respect to various state and local taxes, including income and franchise, sales and use, gross receipts and other miscellaneous taxes. Read Lauren Ferrante's full bio.

On August 31, 2017, in a 4-3 split decision, the Virginia Supreme Court (Court) affirmed a circuit court’s ruling that in order for income to qualify for the “subject-to-tax” exception to its addback statute, the income must actually be taxed by another state. Kohl’s Dep’t Stores, Inc. v. Va. Dep’t of Taxation, no. 160681 (Va. Aug. 31, 2017). A copy of the Opinion (Op) is available here. The Court, however, did find for the taxpayer on its alternative argument, concluding that the determination of where income was “actually taxed” includes combined return and addback states, in addition to separate return states, and includes income subject to tax in the hands of the payor, not just the recipient. For our prior coverage of the subject-to-tax exception, see here.

The issue here was whether Kohl’s Department Stores, Inc. (Kohl’s), which operates retail stores throughout the United States (including Virginia), was required to “add back” to its income royalties it paid to a related party for the use of intellectual property owned by that party. Kohl’s deducted the royalty payments as ordinary and necessary business expenses in the computation of its federal income, and the recipient related party included the royalty income in its taxable income calculations in the states in which it filed returns, including both separate and combined reporting states. The Court considered whether the royalty payments paid by Kohl’s must be “added backed” to Kohl’s taxable income under Virginia law, or whether the royalties fell within Virginia’s “subject-to-tax” exception. Continue Reading While Virginia Supreme Court Holds “Subject-To-Tax” Means “Actually Taxed,” Determination of “Actually Taxed” is Relatively Broad for Purposes of Addback Exception

On July 28, Circuit Judge Daniel Kubasiak dismissed the Complaint filed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and a group of retailers challenging the constitutionality of the Cook County, Illinois Sweetened Beverage Tax (Tax). A copy of the court’s Order is linked here (Order). The Order also dissolved the June 30 temporary restraining order which had halted the county’s imposition of the Tax, on which we have previously reported. In response to the Order, the county required Tax collection to begin on August 2. The county also announced that by September 20, retailers must remit a “floor tax” on the inventory of sweetened beverages in their possession as of August 1.

The Order rejected both of the constitutional arguments raised by the Complaint. The court held that Plaintiffs raised a good faith Illinois Uniformity Clause challenge, and thereby shifted the burden of proof to the county, because the Tax applied to pre-made, but not made-to-order sweetened beverages. The court went on to hold, however, that the county met its burden to justify this arbitrary tax classification by alleging that pre-made sweetened beverages were more widely available and therefore more likely to be purchased and consumed than made-to-order beverages (thus generating more tax revenues) and by arguing that imposing the Tax on made-to-order beverages would be administratively burdensome. The court then held that Plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of establishing that the county’s justifications were insufficient in law or unsupported by the facts. According to the court, the “County has set forth a real and substantial difference between the people taxed, who purchase ready-to-drink, pre-made sweetened beverages, and those not taxed, who purchase on-demand, custom sweetened beverages.” (Order at 9.)

Continue Reading Illinois Court Upholds Cook County’s Beverage Tax Finding It Passes Constitutional Muster and Related Developments

A legal challenge to Cook County Illinois Sweetened Beverage Tax (Tax) heads back to circuit court today for a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction. On June 30, Circuit Judge Daniel Kubasiak issued a temporary restraining order (TRO), halting Cook County, Illinois’ imposition of the Tax, which was to take effect on July 1. Judge Kubasiak found that the “Plaintiffs have persuaded the Court that a fair question exists as to the constitutionality” of the Tax.

Earlier this week, the plaintiff group, which includes the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and a group of retail food markets, successfully opposed the county’s emergency appeal of the TRO. In a ruling issued on Monday, July 10, the Illinois appellate court declined to set aside the TRO. While the fight is far from over, the Illinois rulings are a positive development for retailers, who have not succeeded to date in their efforts to defeat the Philadelphia sweetened beverage tax. See Opinion, Williams v. City of Phila., Nos. 2077 C.D. 2016, 2078 C.D. 2016 (Pa. Commw. Ct. June 14, 2017).

Continue Reading Beverage Tax Wars Continue as Parties Head Back to Court for a Preliminary Injunction Hearing on the Cook County, Illinois Tax

Yesterday afternoon, after months of wrangling and a marathon 4th of July weekend session, the Illinois House of Representatives voted to override Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of Senate Bill (SB) 9, the revenue bill supporting the State’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2017-2018 Budget. The vote ended Illinois’ two year budget impasse and may avoid a threatened downgrade of Illinois bonds to junk status. The key tax components of the bill as enacted Public Act 100-0022 (Act) are as follows:

Income Tax

Rate increase. Income tax rates are increased, effective July 1, 2017, to 4.95 percent for individuals, trusts and estates, and 7 percent for corporations.

Income allocation. The Act contains a number of provisions intended to resolve questions regarding how income should be allocated between the two rates in effect for 2017.

  • Illinois Income Tax Act (IITA) 5/202.5(a) provides a default rule, a proration based on the days in each period (181/184), for purposes of allocating income between pre-July 1 segments and periods after the end of June when rates increase. Alternatively, IITA 5/202.5(b) provides that a taxpayer may elect to determine net income on a specific accounting basis for the two portions of their taxable year, from the beginning of the taxable year through the last day of the apportionment period, and from the first day of the next apportionment period through the end of the taxable year.

Continue Reading Tax Changes Implemented As Part of Revenue Package Supporting Illinois Budget

In a bombshell opinion, the Illinois Appellate Court held that a law firm serving both as client and attorney may not recover statutory attorneys’ fees under the Illinois False Claims Act (the Act). In People ex rel. Schad, Diamond & Shedden, P.C. v. My Pillow, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 152668 (June 15, 2017), the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, reversed the trial court’s award of attorney fees in excess of $600,000 for work performed by Diamond’s law firm on behalf of itself as the relator. McDermott represents My Pillow in this matter.

Much like its federal counterpart, the Act allows private citizens (referred to as relators) to file fraud claims on behalf of the state of Illinois. If successful, relators can collect up to 30 percent of the damages award plus attorneys’ fees. The Diamond firm is hardly a traditional “whistleblower” with “inside knowledge,” as it has filed approximately 1,000 different qui tam actions as the relator over the last 15 years. The firm initially focused its suits on out-of-state businesses for allegedly knowingly failing to collect Illinois use tax on merchandise delivered to Illinois customers, then expanded its dragnet to allege a knowing failure to collect tax on shipping and handling charges associated with merchandise shipped to Illinois. The firm then targeted out-of-state liquor retailers for alleged knowing nonpayment of certain taxes on the sale of alcoholic beverages to Illinois residents and, most recently, the firm filed over 80 lawsuits targeting tailors based in Hong Kong and London, making similar claims for not collecting Illinois use tax.

Continue Reading Illinois Appellate Court Blows the Whistle on Serial Relator

On May 31, the Illinois General Assembly closed its regular legislative session, without a budget agreement.

Senate Bill 9

As we previously reported, the Senate passed a modified version of Senate Bill 9 (Bill), a tax proposal that is part of the Illinois “Grand Bargain” that we described in a previous post. The version of Senate Bill 9 that passed out of the Senate passed the House Revenue Committee on May 29 on a partisan vote. The House has extended the Bill’s final action deadline to June 30.

The current version of the Bill is similar but not identical to the version that we have previously described. Some of the more significant amendments include the following:

Two New Taxes. The Bill now proposes to create two new taxes. The “Video Service Tax Modernization Act” purports to impose a tax on satellite television and streaming television services at a rate of 5 percent of the gross revenues that a provider earns from its Illinois customers. The Bill also creates the “Entertainment Tax Fairness Act” which seeks to tax viewing “entertainment,” defined as “paid video programming whether transmitted by cable service, direct-to-home satellite service, direct broadcast satellite service, digital audio-visual works service, or video service.” The tax rate is 1 percent of charges paid by the customer. Both taxes exempt satellite or subscription radio services and can be passed-through and collected from customers.

Income Tax. The Bill now proposes to increase income tax rates for individuals, trusts and estates to 4.95 percent (rather than the previously proposed 4.99 percent rate). Also, the tax rate increases, including the increase to 7 percent for corporations (corporate increase unchanged from the Bill’s prior version), continue to be permanent.

Sales Tax Base Expansion. The current version of the Bill removes repair and maintenance services, landscaping services, cable television services (but see “Two New Taxes” described above) and some personal care services (including nails and hair removal) from the Bill’s expansion of the Illinois sales tax base.

It is difficult to predict whether any portion of Senate Bill 9 will be enacted. Since the Illinois General Assembly’s regular sessions have now ended, legislative approval will require a three-fifths majority and, to date, the governor has refused to endorse the legislation.

Senate Bill 1577

We have previously reported on Senate Bill 1577, which proposes to increase the penalty amounts imposed for violation of the Illinois False Claims Act. The bill passed the House on May 30 with the exception for certain low dollar tax claims as previously described.

Just days away from the May 31 close of its regular legislative session, the Illinois General Assembly has yet to enact the comprehensive series of tax and budget reforms that were first proposed by the Illinois Senate leadership late last year. Yesterday, the Senate passed a modified version of Senate Bill (SB) 9, the tax proposal we described in a previous post, without any Republican support. SB 9 now moves to the Democratically-controlled House for consideration. Even if approved by the House, it seems likely that Illinois’ Republican Governor will veto the legislation. Continue Reading Illinois Bills to Watch

Illinois Legislators have recently introduced three bills that would amend the Illinois False Claims Act (“Act”) to restrict the ability to bring tax-related claims. Senate Bill 9, the proposed “grand bargain” to resolve Illinois’ budget stalemate, includes language that would eliminate the ability to use the Act to bring tax claims.  In addition, Representative Frank Wheeler and Senator Pam Althoff have introduced House Bill 1814 and Senate Bill 1250, respectively, which are identical pieces of legislation that would significantly restrict a private citizen’s right to bring tax-related claims. Senate Bill 9, if adopted in its current form, would eliminate the ability to bring a tax-related claim under the Act.  Currently, the Act only excludes the right to bring income tax-related claims. 740 ILCS 175/3(c).  This would effectively conform the Act to the federal False Claims Act, which does not extend to tax claims.  Rather, tax-related claims are brought before the Internal Revenue Service’s Whistleblower Office as whistleblower claims. House Bill 1814 and Senate Bill 1250 (“Bills 1814/1250”) preserve the right to bring tax claims under the Act, and they maintain the prohibition against income tax claims.  However, in a significant improvement over current practice, the Bills would amend the Act to restrict the ability of a whistleblower or its counsel to control or profit from the filing of tax claims.  In addition, they enhance the role played by the Department of Revenue (“Department”) in determining whether a whistleblower’s tax claim should be pursued.  Effectively, the Bills make the filing of state tax-related whistleblower claims more like the procedure for bringing a federal tax violation before the IRS. Currently, the Act authorizes private citizens, termed “relators,” to initiate litigation to force payment of tax allegedly owed to the State.  740 ILCS 175/4(b).  Hundreds of such claims have been filed in Illinois by whistleblowers claiming a failure to collect and remit sales tax on internet sales.  Relators file a complaint under seal with the circuit court and serve the complaint on the State.  Id. 175/4(b)(2).  The Illinois Attorney General’s office then has the opportunity to review the allegations and decide whether to intervene in the litigation.  Id. 175/4(b)(2), (3).  The Department is not named as a Defendant and there is no requirement to involve the Department in the litigation.  If the Attorney General declines to proceed with the litigation, the relator may proceed with the lawsuit on its own and, if successful, is entitled to an award of 25 percent to 30 percent of the proceeds or settlement of the action, plus its attorneys’ fees and costs.  Id. 175/4(d)(2).  Even if the State intervenes and proceeds with the litigation, eliminating the relator’s day-to-day involvement, the relator is entitled to an award of 15 percent to 25 percent of the proceeds of settlement, plus attorneys’ fees and costs.  Id. 175/4(d)(1). In contrast, Bills 1814/1250 provide that only the Attorney General (“AG”) and the Department have the right to initiate claims under the Act for taxes administered by the Department.  Whistleblowers are required to report an alleged tax violation to the Department.  The Department must investigate the allegations and make a recommendation to the AG as to whether or not the AG should file suit based on the allegations.  Bills 1814/1250, 740 ILCS 175/4.5(b).  The AG can accept or reject the Department’s recommendation.  It can also bring suit in the absence of a Department recommendation.  Id.  If the AG initiates litigation based on a whistleblower’s allegations, the whistleblower is entitled to an award of 15 percent to 30 percent of the collected proceeds of the action and “related actions” or settlement, but no attorneys’ fees.  Id., 740 ILCS 175/4.5(d).  The whistleblower has no ability to proceed with litigation on its own if the Department or AG find the litigation unworthy.  These changes would significantly reduce the ability of a whistleblower or its counsel to profit from the filing of nuisance value claims. Bills 1814/1250 also provide that the Department has discretion to initiate an audit based on a whistleblower’s allegations and affirm that the audited entity has all the rights available to any other taxpayer to dispute any additional assessment of tax, interest and/or penalty charges.  Id., 740 ILCS 175/4.5(c).  Whistleblowers may not participate in or challenge the Department’s audit determination.  If the Department initiates an administrative action based on a whistleblower’s allegations, the whistleblower is entitled to an award of 10 percent to 15 percent of the collected proceeds of the action or settlement.  Id., 740 ILCS 175/4.5(d). Bills 1814/1250 also provide the much-needed ability to reduce the percentage award to a whistleblower under certain circumstances.  First, the Department has the discretion to reduce the percentage award to a whistleblower to 10 percent of the proceeds or settlement if it determines that the action (administrative or judicial) against a taxpayer is based primarily on disclosures from other sources.  Id., 740 ILCS 175/4.5(e).  (This provision is in the present version of the Act, but is a right afforded to the AG, not the Department.)  In addition, the Department has discretion to reduce the whistleblower’s award without limitation if it determines the whistleblower planned and initiated the violation of the Act.  Id., 740 ILCS 175/4.5(f).  The latter change should significantly reduce the ability of whistleblowers to profit from the repetitive filing of tax claims based on transactions initiated by the whistleblower. Bills 1814/1250 also would reduce the burden on the Circuit Courts with respect to these claims by requiring a whistleblower to file its claim with the Department, rather than the Court in the first instance, and by providing that Department award determinations are appealable exclusively to the Court of Claims.  Id., 740 ILCS 175/4.5(g), 705 ILCS 505/8(j). This is not the first time bills have been introduced to amend the Act.  Similar efforts over the past several years have been stymied when the legislature failed to consider the bills in Committee hearings. Hopefully, the Illinois General Assembly will take action to enact one of these much-needed legislative changes this year.

The Illinois Supreme Court, in Hertz Corp v. City of Chicago, 2017 IL 119945 (Jan. 20, 2017) , held that the City of Chicago’s ruling requiring rental car companies located within three miles of the City to collect tax on vehicle rentals is unconstitutional under the home rule article of the Illinois Constitution. Hopefully, the court’s ruling will stymie the City’s expansive interpretation of its taxing powers.

The tax at issue is the City’s Personal Property Lease Transaction Tax (Lease Tax), which is imposed upon “(1) the lease or rental in the city of personal property or (2) the privilege of using in the city personal property that is leased or rented outside of the city.” Mun. Code of Chi. § 3-32-030(A). While the Lease Tax is imposed upon and must be paid by the lessee, the lessor is obligated to collect it at the time the lessee makes a lease payment and remit it to the City. Mun. Code of Chi. §§ 3-32-030(A), 3-32-070(A).

The subject of this litigation is the City’s application of the Tax in its Personal Property Lease Transaction Tax Second Amended Ruling No. 11 (eff. May 1, 2011) (Ruling 11). The plaintiffs argued that Ruling 11 extends the reach of the tax ordinance beyond Chicago’s borders in violation of the home rule provision of the Illinois Constitution and violates the federal due process and commerce clauses. The Ruling “concerns [short-term] vehicle rentals to Chicago residents, on or after July 1, 2011, from suburban locations within 3 miles of Chicago’s border … [excluding locations within O’Hare International Airport] by motor vehicle rental companies doing business in the City.” Ruling 11 § 1.  The Ruling explains that “‘doing business’ in the City includes, for example, having a location in the City or regularly renting vehicles that are used in the City, such that the company is subject to audit by the [City of Chicago Department of Finance] under state and federal law.” Ruling 11 § 3. As for taxability of leased property, the Ruling cites the primary use exemption, exempting from Tax “[t]he use in the city of personal property leased or rented outside the city if the property is primarily used (more than 50 percent) outside the city” and stating the taxpayer or tax collector has the burden of proving where the use occurs.  Ruling 11 § 2(c) (quoting Mun. Code of Chi. § 3-32-050(A)(1)).

Ruling 11 contains a rebuttable presumption that motor vehicles rented to customers who are Chicago residents from the suburban locations of rental companies that are otherwise doing business in Chicago are subject to the Lease Tax. The Ruling applies to companies with suburban addresses located within three miles of the City. The presumption may be rebutted by any writing disputing the conclusion that the vehicle is used more than 50 percent of the time in the City. The opposite is assumed for non-Chicago residents. Ruling 11 § 3. The Ruling provides that such a writing can be as simple as a customer’s initialing a statement that the vehicle will be used more than 50 percent outside the City (Ruling 11 § 3), but it must be part of the lease agreement or otherwise kept in the company’s business records. Companies that do not wish to comply with the record keeping requirements may opt to pay tax on 25 percent of its rental charges from Chicago customers.

Plaintiffs Hertz Corporation and Enterprise Leasing Company of Chicago LLC, filed separate actions against the City seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from the application of Ruling 11. The cases proceeded in tandem in circuit court and the court granted summary judgment to the companies. The circuit court declared Ruling 11 facially unconstitutional and permanently enjoined the City from enforcing the ordinance with respect to vehicle rental transactions occurring outside the City. The appellate court reversed and held that there is a sufficient nexus between the plaintiffs and the taxable activity (the use of the cars in the City) to permit the tax to be imposed and collection duties placed on plaintiffs. The Supreme Court granted leave to appeal and allowed the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois to file amicus briefs on behalf of the car rental companies.

The Supreme Court held that the imposition of the Lease Tax on rentals of cars taking place outside the City limits has an extraterritorial effect and is therefore an improper exercise of the City’s home rule powers. The court was seemingly troubled by the fact that the Lease Tax is imposed not on the actual use within the City’s borders but on the lessee’s stated intent to use the property in Chicago or, failing any statement of intent, on presumed used based on the lessee’s home address. The court noted that at the time of the lease transactions, the use of the vehicle has not yet taken place and may, in fact, never take place within Chicago’s borders. The court said that “unrestrained extraterritorial exercise of home rule powers in zoning, taxation, and other areas could create serious problems, given the number of home rule units in Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area.” 2017 IL 119945 at ¶ 30.  Thus, the court held that Ruling 11 exceeds the scope of the City’s home rule authority. In light of its holding that the ruling violates the Illinois Constitution, the court did not address the plaintiffs’ arguments that it also violates the federal due process and commerce clauses.

Hopefully, the court’s ruling will invite further challenges to the City’s expansive imposition of the Lease Tax. The City’s recent extension of the Lease Tax to cloud computing in Lease Tax Ruling #12 is now particularly susceptible to challenge given that the providers of those services are often located outside Chicago’s borders.

On Monday, October 17, the Illinois Appellate Court issued another taxpayer-friendly opinion in an Illinois False Claims Act case alleging a failure to collect and remit sales tax on internet and catalog sales to customers in Illinois (People ex. rel. Beeler, Schad & Diamond, P.C. v. Relax the Back Corp., 2016 IL App. (1st) 151580)). The opinion, partially overturned a Circuit Court trial verdict in favor of the Relator, Beeler, Schad & Diamond, PC (currently named Stephen B. Diamond, PC).

Continue Reading Illinois Appellate Court Delivers Another Blow to Relator in False Claims Act Litigation