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Richard C. Call focuses his practice on state and local tax litigation before administrative and judicial bodies, at all levels and in multiple states, with respect to income, franchise, gross receipts, and sales and use taxes. He also advises clients on the state and local tax consequences of business restructurings, as well as the impact of new state legislation on current business operations. Read Richard C. Call's full bio.

Can a seller have nexus with a state – so as to be obligated to collect and remit that state’s sales and use taxes – only in connection with certain sales that seller makes into that state?  In this article, the authors explore the concept that only certain transactions may be subject to that obligation, depending on the extent of the seller’s connection with that state.

Read the full article.

Originally published in State Tax Notes, July 3, 2017.

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Department) has just issued Directive 17-2 revoking Directive 17-1 which adopted an economic nexus standard for sales tax purposes. Directive 17-2 states that the revocation is in anticipation of the Department proposing a regulation that would presumably adopt the standards of Directive 17-1. It appears that the Department took seriously, perhaps among other concerns, internet sellers’ arguments that Directive 17-1 was an improperly promulgated rule. Internet sellers that recently received letters from the Department regarding Directive 17-1 (see our previous blog post) may need to reconsider their approach.

Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Department) sent letters to several companies regarding Directive 17-1. The Directive announces a “rule” requiring remote internet sellers to register for and begin collecting Massachusetts sales and use tax (sales tax) by July 1, 2017, if they had more than $500,000 in Massachusetts sales during the preceding year. The legal premise behind the rule is that the Department believes sellers with more than $500,000 in annual Massachusetts sales must have more than a de minimis physical presence so that requiring sales tax collection would not be prohibited by Quill Corp v. North Dakota, 504 US 298 (1992). The Directive’s examples of such physical presence include the presence of cookies on purchasers’ computers, use of third-party carriers to make white-glove deliveries and the use of online marketplaces to sell products. The Directive also states that sellers who fail to collect tax beginning July 1, 2017 will be subject to interest and penalties (plus, of course, any uncollected taxes).

We think the Directive is contrary to law on three main grounds. First, we believe that the items that the Department asserts create physical presence are insufficient to establish more than a de minimis physical presence. For example, the presence of cookies on computers in a state appears to be less of a physical presence than the floppy disks the seller in Quill sent into North Dakota (which were used by its customers to place orders) that the United States Supreme Court viewed as de minimis. Second, the Directive violates the state administrative procedures act because it constitutes an administrative rule that was not validly adopted. Third, the Directive’s rule violates the Internet Tax Freedom Act, a federal statute, because the rule discriminates against internet sellers.

By its own terms, the Directive applies only prospectively. The Directive does not assert a blanket rule that internet sellers are liable for sales tax for periods prior to July 1, 2017, if they met a certain sales threshold. The risks from non-collection for such periods are dependent on a company’s specific facts. The letters advise sellers that they may be eligible for voluntary disclosure for such prior periods.

Companies have two general options: (1) register and begin collecting or (2) not register or collect. Litigation has been brought on behalf of a number of sellers to challenge the Directive on the grounds identified above. One important aspect of that litigation is the request for an injunction barring the enforcement of the Directive pending a court decision; an injunction would likely prompt many sellers to take a “wait and see” approach. Ultimately, sellers must make a business decision based on their own facts and business circumstances.

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.

Northeastern University, the Trustees of Boston University, Wellesley College and 131 Willow Avenue, LLC prevailed in their appeal of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s (the Department) rejection of their Brownfields tax credit applications in Massachusetts Superior Court. 131 Willow Avenue, LLC v. Comm’r of Revenue, 2015 WL 6447310 (2015). The taxpayers argued, and the court agreed, that the Department improperly denied their applications based on the unlawful use of Directive 13-4 issued by the commissioner of revenue (the Commissioner). At issue was the validity of Directive 13-4’s prohibition on nonprofit and transfer Brownfields tax credit applicants from receiving or transferring credits based on documentation submitted in a taxable year that commenced before the effective date of a 2006 amendment expanding the Brownfields tax credit statute to include nonprofit organizations and allow for credit transfers. The court held that the directive was “unreasonable and [the Department’s] denial of the applications based on that directive was unlawful.” Continue Reading Massachusetts Court Holds Department of Revenue’s Guidance to Be Unreasonable

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (the Department) released a draft administrative procedure introducing a pilot Voluntary Disclosure Program (the Program) for the settlement of uncertain tax issues for business taxpayers on January 19. The Department introduced this Program in response to a suggestion made by Scott Susko, an author of this article, and another practitioner, both of whom serve as taxpayer professional representatives on the Department’s Advisory Council. We commend the Department for reacting to this suggestion in such a proactive manner.

The Program will provide “a process through which uncertain tax issues may be resolved on an expedited basis, generally within four months” (All quotations in this post are from the Department’s draft administrative procedure).

We think this Program will be particularly helpful to public companies in resolving issues related to their financial statement reserves.

The Program defines an “uncertain tax issue” as an issue “for which there is no clear statutory guidance or controlling case law, and which has not been addressed by the Department in a regulation, letter ruling, or other public written statement,” and “for which a taxpayer would be required to maintain a reserve in accordance with ASC 740: Accounting for Uncertainty in Income Taxes (formerly Fin 48).” The issue also “must not have been addressed as part of a prior audit of the taxpayer, a prior application for abatement or amended return filed by the taxpayer, or a prior ruling request made by the taxpayer.”

To qualify for the Program, “any potential tax liability attributable to the uncertain tax issue(s) must be $100,000 or more, exclusive of interest and penalties.” A taxpayer that is under audit or has received notice of an impending audit is not eligible for the Program. The Department has the “discretion to determine that the Program is not appropriate for specific cases.”

The Department “will consider settlement of an uncertain tax issue(s) where: (1) the taxpayer has presented its position on the issue(s) and the Department agrees that the tax treatment of the issue(s) is uncertain; and (2) the taxpayer has fully disclosed and documented the issue(s) and the facts associated with that issue(s).”

A taxpayer may initiate the process by submitting an anonymous letter to the Department, which will respond to the taxpayer within 30 days. If the Department accepts the taxpayer into the Program, the taxpayer may submit an application, including a settlement proposal and identifying the taxpayer, within 45 days of receiving the Department’s acceptance letter.

The Department will waive penalties related to the uncertain tax issue for a taxpayer that reaches an agreement with the Department pursuant to the Program, as well as for a taxpayer that does not reach an agreement with the Department “provided the taxpayer acted in good faith.”

The Department requested practitioner comments on the draft administrative procedure by February 1, and MWE submitted two technical comments.

Our first comment was that following the initial evaluation, the Department should issue to the taxpayer a one-page technical position explaining whether it does or does not agree with the taxpayer’s position and responding to the taxpayer’s settlement proposal. The Department’s position would not be final, but it would be a helpful starting point to the taxpayer in terms of determining whether it would like to participate in the program before identifying itself to the Department.

Our second comment was that following the initial evaluation, the Department should provide a range or framework for a potential deal with the taxpayer. The potential deal would not be binding, but it would give the taxpayer some comfort in moving forward with the program.

In June of 2015, Connecticut passed legislation that implements combined reporting for tax years beginning on, or after January 1, 2016. Part of the new regime, which is codified by Conn. Gen. Stat. P.A. 15-5, § 144 (2015), requires water’s-edge combined groups to include entities incorporated in tax havens in the combined group. Just before the holidays, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation that narrowed the definition of a “tax haven” from the originally adopted definition. Under the originally passed combined reporting law, the determination of whether a jurisdiction was a “tax haven” was made using five different definitions. If any one definition was satisfied, the jurisdiction was a “tax haven.” None of the five definitions is entirely clear and each generally required an analysis of facts related to the jurisdiction’s government rather than the activities of a taxpayer in the jurisdiction. The original definition of tax haven was similar, but not identical to the Multistate Tax Commission Proposed Model Statute for Combined Reporting. The new law required the commissioner of revenue to publish a list of jurisdictions determined to be tax havens by September 30, 2016. In December, the Connecticut General Assembly convened a special session and passed Public Act 15-1, which amends the newly enacted tax haven law in section 37. As amended, the Connecticut statute still contains the five different definitions. However, the amended law excludes from the definition of a tax haven “a jurisdiction that has entered into a comprehensive income tax treaty with the United States” and which meets certain other requirements. Additionally, the December legislation also repealed the requirement for the commissioner to publish a list of tax havens. In sum, the limiting amendment to the tax haven law should provide taxpayers with some clarity, although that will be somewhat offset by the lack of a formal list. Connecticut is one of four New England states that considered and/or passed legislation adding tax haven provisions to their combined reporting regimes. Tax haven legislation passed in Rhode Island in 2015, as part of Rhode Island’s adoption of combined reporting effective for tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2015. The Maine and Massachusetts legislatures considered tax haven provisions, but ultimately did not pass such laws in 2015.

In the first Vermont Supreme Court decision addressing combined unitary reporting since Vermont’s combined reporting regime became effective in 2006, the court affirmed a lower court’s decision that AIG, the multinational insurance company, was not unitary with a ski resort operated by a subsidiary in Vermont; accordingly, a combined report covering the two businesses was not required. The decision is important because it lays the foundation for future unitary cases in Vermont.

The court agreed with AIG that there were no economies of scale between the operations of AIG and the ski resort. “Because [the entity] is a ski resort and therefore its business type is not similar to AIG’s insurance and financial service business, there is no opportunity for common centralized distribution or sales, and no economy of scale realized by their operations.” On centralization of management, the court noted that although AIG controlled the appointments to the ski resort’s board and management, this did not translate into “actual control” over the ski resort’s operations. Lastly, the Vermont Department of Taxes attempted to argue functional integration based primarily on AIG’s influx of working capital to the ski resort. The court rejected this assertion stating the funding “served an investment rather than operational function. The financing was not part of an AIG operational goal to grow part of its business. Further, there is no operational integration between AIG’s insurance and financial businesses and the ski resort operated by [the resort].”

The case is interesting because it involved whether an instate entity was unitary with its parent. For the year at issue, Vermont had a three factor apportionment formula with a double-weighted sales factor. Presumably, the ski resort had a high Vermont apportionment factor and relatively little income, so including AIG in the combined group increased AIG’s Vermont apportionment factor without significantly  diluting its income.

Interestingly, the court addressed AIG’s burden of proof on the unitary issue. The taxpayer argued that a preponderance of the evidence standard should apply. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed. Looking to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Container Corp. as well as to decisions of other states, the taxpayer has the burden of proving by “clear and cogent” evidence that its operations are not unitary.  Interestingly, the court suggested that one California court decision that applied a preponderance of the evidence standard to a unitary question was distinguishable because that case involved a taxpayer claiming that unity existed — and AIG was claiming that unity did not exist. This disparate burden depending on the direction of the unitary argument may prove important to taxpayers seeking to bring entities or operations into a combined report in Vermont.

State tax professionals may react to this decision in a manner similar to the way many reacted when the Court of Appeals of Arizona decided Talley Industries and Woolworth. Those decisions engendered substantial hope that courts — and, ultimately, state revenue agencies — would analyze unitariness not on the basis of a “checklist” or as a knee-jerk reaction to some superficial facts, but rather on the basis of seeking to implement the whole purpose of unitary apportionment. That purpose is, of course, reflecting the amount of income earned in a particular taxing jurisdiction. In other words, was the profitability of the ski resort affected by the operations of AIG? It would seem that merging the incomes and apportionment factors of the ski resort with those of AIG would cause a gross distortion of the profitability of the two distinct businesses.

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) likely will have significantly less employees starting July 1, 2015, due to a Massachusetts employee retirement incentive program.  Governor Charlie Baker recently signed legislation establishing the program on May 4, 2015 (see 2015 Mass. Acts Chapter 19, An Act Relative to State Personnel).  With more than half of DOR’s employees eligible to participate in the program, DOR is the state agency with the potential to lose the highest percentage of employees.

The program allows employees who already are eligible to retire but have not reached their maximum pension benefit to add up to five years onto their age, years of service or a combination of both, so they can retire immediately with a higher pension.  The program limits total workforce reductions in Massachusetts to 5,000 employees.  Eligible employees must submit an application to the State Board of Retirement between May 11 and June 12, 2015, to participate.  The retirement date and last day of work for approved employees will be June 30, 2015.  The Baker administration can use up to 20 percent of the savings from the retired employees to hire replacement staff, but it is unclear when such hiring will take place and how much funding will be allocated to DOR versus other state agencies affected by the program.

What does this mean for taxpayers and tax practitioners?  We are hearing that there may be a potential shortage of staff at DOR, particularly in the Audit Division.  Audits may be slowed and relationships that have been developed over years with auditors may end abruptly.  Consequently, taxpayers and their representatives might aim to quickly resolve any matters they have outstanding with DOR sooner rather than later as DOR may be forced to slow down following the reduction in staff this summer.

It is unclear what effect the program will have on the Litigation Bureau and other sections of DOR.  A loss of litigators could slow cases currently before the Appellate Tax Board.

Although disagreements may exist with various DOR positions, we are pleased with the institutional strength of DOR.  We hope that steps will be taken to retain the institutional knowledge of long time DOR personnel.

Allied Domecq Spirits & Wines USA, Inc. v. Comm’r of Revenue, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 1125 (2014)

In a unique case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a ruling of the Appellate Tax Board (ATB) that two corporations could not be combined for corporation excise tax purposes for 1996 through 2004. The distinctive aspect of this case was that a company was found not to have nexus with Massachusetts even though it rented property in the state and had employees in the state. If the company had been found to have nexus, it could have applied its losses to offset the income of an affiliated Massachusetts taxpayer in a combined report. The Appeals Court pointed to factual findings of the ATB that the transfer of employees located in Massachusetts to the company “had no practical economic effect other than the creation of a tax benefit and that tax avoidance was its motivating factor and only purpose.” The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied the taxpayer further review on August 1, 2014. Although this case is notable because the sham transaction doctrine rarely, if ever, has been applied to find that a company did not have nexus, a similar factual scenario likely would not occur today because Massachusetts adopted full unitary combination in 2009.

First Marblehead Corp. v. Comm’r of Revenue, 470 Mass. 497, 23 N.E.3d 892 (2015)

In a case that attracted the attention of, and an amicus brief from, the Multistate Tax Commission, the Supreme Judicial Court addressed how the property factor of a taxpayer subject to the Financial Institution Excise Tax (FIET) should be apportioned. The taxpayer, Gate Holdings, Inc. (Gate), had its commercial domicile in Massachusetts and held interests in a number of Delaware statutory trusts that purchased student loan portfolios. Below, the ATB held that Gate’s loans should be assigned to Massachusetts, resulting in a 100-percent property factor for apportionment purposes. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed and interpreted the Massachusetts sourcing provisions at issue, which are based on a model from the Multistate Tax Commission and incorporate the Solicitation, Investigation, Negotiation, Approval and Administration (SINAA) rules, as sourcing Gate’s loans to Massachusetts where Gates had its commercial domicile. The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision may be of interest in Massachusetts and other states because several states have adopted sourcing rules for financial institutions that are based on the Multistate Tax Commission’s model.

Genentech, Inc. v. Comm’r of Revenue, Mass. App. Tax Bd., Docket No. C282905, C293424, C298502, C298891 (2014)

The ATB held that Genentech, Inc., a biotechnology company, was engaged in substantial manufacturing and thus required to use single sales factor apportionment. Genentech is appealing the ruling.

National Grid Holdings, Inc. v. Comm’r of Revenue, Mass. App. Tax Bd., Docket No.  C292287; C292288; C292289 (2014); National Grid USA Service v. Comm’r of Revenue, Mass. App. Tax Bd., Docket No. C314926 (2014)

The ATB addressed whether an international utility corporation’s deferred subscription arrangements constituted debt for corporate excise purposes. The ATB held that it did not. In reaching its decision, the ATB noted that for United Kingdom tax purposes, the arrangements constituted debt; but that for United States, federal tax purposes the arrangements did not constitute debt. The ATB followed the United States federal tax treatment, which resulted in the taxpayer’s deduction of a liability against its net worth being disallowed. A few months later, in a related appeal, the ATB determined that by reporting federal changes to the Commissioner on a duplicative application for abatement, the taxpayer raised no new facts warranting a second application for abatement concerning the same assessment that was challenged earlier.

Direct, LLC v. Dep’t of Revenue, SJC-11658 (Feb. 18, 2015)

Two satellite television providers, DirecTV and Dish Network, challenged G.L. c. 64M, § 2, which imposes a five percent excise tax on satellite television services, as violating the dormant commerce clause since the tax does not apply to cable television services. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment to the Department of Revenue. The court determined that the excise tax was not discriminatory because cable companies are subject to a variety of local government franchise fees that can be imposed at a rate of up to five percent, and that the differences between the satellite television and cable television industries, especially the heightened federal and local regulatory requirements imposed on cable providers, were significant enough to permit discrepancies in taxes imposed on the industries. The court noted that other courts have considered and rejected the satellite companies’ challenges to similar laws in other states.

Excel Orthopedic Specialists v. Comm’r of Revenue, Mass. App. Tax Bd., Docket No. C318083 (2014)

The ATB agreed with the taxpayer that braces sold by an orthopedic practice were exempt from use tax as artificial devices because the braces were individually designed, constructed or altered for the specific use of each of the taxpayer’s patients.

Regency Transportation, Inc. v. Comm’r of Revenue, Mass. App. Tax Bd., Docket No. C310361 (2014)

The ATB found a multi-state freight business liable for use tax on the full sales price of its vehicles that it stored and used in Massachusetts. In an interesting twist, the Department of Revenue attempted to assert penalties even though the taxpayer’s position was based on a departmental ruling. The ATB held that penalties should be abated for multiple reasons, including:  (i) the “taxpayer’s prior successful reliance on the ruling and the fact that its vehicles are exempt from tax in every state of purchase”; and (ii) that the “Commissioner continues to publish [the ruling] in the official compendium of public written statements without any caveat or other signal to taxpayers that its content was erroneous and should not be relied on”; and (iii) that “the Department’s own auditor with 30 years of experience came to a preliminary conclusion that [the ruling] was applicable to the [taxpayer’s] use of vehicles in the Commonwealth.”