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Roy E. Crawford focuses his practice on corporate franchise and income taxation, personal income taxation, and sales and use taxation. He represents taxpayers in disputes and tax planning in many jurisdictions, with an emphasis in states that have adopted the Uniform Division of Income for Tax Purposes Act. Read Roy E. Crawford's full bio.

The New California Office of Tax Appeals (OTA) on November 6, 2017, held an interested parties meeting in Sacramento to discuss the contents of a draft of emergency regulations to guide both income tax appeals from the California Franchise Tax Board and sales and use tax appeals from the California Department of Tax and Fee Appeals (CDTFA). The meeting was chaired by Kristen Kane, the newly appointed Chief Counsel and Acting Director of the OTA, and by Zack Morazzini, the Director and Chief Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in the Office of Administrative Hearings.  Ms. Kane and Mr. Morazzini provided helpful insight on how the new OTA will operate, including the following:

  • The OTA is in the process of hiring 18 new ALJs.
  • Hearings will be held in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Fresno.
  • Hearings are expected to commence in late January, after a crash training program for the new ALJs.
  • Both Ms. Kane and Mr. Morazzini stressed the intention that the hearings be as informal and conversational as possible, bearing in mind that many, if not most, taxpayers will either appear pro per or be represented by non-attorneys.
  • Taxpayers will open the process by making a written submission, and the agencies will file a written brief in response. The procedures may be similar to the current practice before the State Board of Equalization, where the taxpayer submits a statement of facts and discussion of the law, and the facts as stated by the taxpayer are accepted unless the tax agency objects.
  • Where there is a disagreement on the facts, the burden will be on the taxpayer to come forward with supporting evidence.

In an informal discussion after the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Morazzini said that the Office of Administrative Hearings is proud of their long and successful run at conducting fair hearings in many contexts with flexibility being a paramount concern. At least at the outset, there will be no written rules on the presentation of evidence. Mr. Morazzini said that the Administrative Procedures Act and, generally, the rules of evidence allow ALJs to fashion orders responsive to discovery requests by either or both of the taxpayer or the agency, as required under the circumstance. Either party will have the right to request a preliminary meeting with an ALJ, or the ALJ can order a preliminary meeting. The preliminary meeting is intended to be informal, and will give taxpayers the opportunity to request the production of documents, stipulations and admissions. Note that OTA anticipates that the preliminary meeting will be attended by only one ALJ, although A.B. 102, the authorizing legislation, calls for a panel of three ALJs.

Continue Reading New California Office of Tax Appeals Discusses Emergency Regulations

As part of Governor Jerry Brown’s 2017 budget bill, the California State Board of Equalization (SBE) was stripped of its functions that had been authorized by statute, leaving principally property tax matters deriving from the state constitution. Sales and use tax and fee functions were moved to a newly created California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA). Jurisdiction to hear appeals from the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) as well as appeals in sales and use tax and fee matters from CDTFA was vested in a new Office of Tax Appeals (OTA), to become effective January 1, 2018. The OTA is scurrying to adopt rules before opening for business on January 1, 2018. It recently released an early draft of what will become emergency regulations. An informal public discussion meeting of the draft has been scheduled for November 6, 2017, in Sacramento. Continue Reading California’s New Office of Tax Appeals Issues Preliminary Draft of Procedural Rules that Is Silent on Discovery Matters

The California Franchise Tax Board has scheduled an Interested Parties Meeting to discuss proposed changes to its apportionment regulations. Several years ago, when the statute called for sourcing receipts from services and intangibles at the location of income producing activity, based on cost of performance, the FTB, after a series on interested parties meetings, adopted new regulation 25137-14 sourcing receipts for mutual fund service providers and asset management service providers not at the location of the service provider, but at location of customers.  That was good news for California service providers and bad news for out-of-state service providers.

The FTB scheduled on December 22, 2016 an Interested Parties Meeting for January 20, 2017 to discuss a series of issues arising under the new market- based sourcing regulations. A Discussion Topic Paper (attached) was issued on January 3, 2017, and included (1) draft examples of souring income from asset management fees, (2) a discussion of “reasonable approximation”, including who makes that reasonable approximation, (3) clarification of the term “benefit of a service” in several contexts, including timing, government contracts, R&D contracts and patent sales, (4) dividend assignment, (5) a freight forwarding example, (6) interest received from a business entity borrower and (7) marketing intangibles.

The FTB takes these Interested Parties Meetings seriously.  Taxpayers should pay immediate attention to whether any of these issues are of significance to them, and consider participating.

The California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) will hold a second Interested Parties Meeting at their office in Rancho Cordova on April 20, 2016, dealing with the apportionment of income for combined reporting groups with both financial and non-financial members.  The Notice of Interested Parties meeting provides a description of the sourcing methods used in other states and solicits comments on four specific proposals.

The current statute and regulations, applied literally, in effect assign the majority of combined income of bank(s) and broker-dealer(s) to the location of the bank(s) or broker-dealer(s) and its customers.  This can produce an issue worth many hundreds of millions of dollars to the bank or broker dealer.  We understand that the California FTB has issued ad hoc Notices of Proposed Assessment to some taxpayers based on a distortion theory; some of these cases have gone to the Settlement Bureau, where both the FTB and the taxpayers have settled and executed confidentiality agreements.

The FTB takes these Interested Parties Meetings very seriously.  They have an unusual format in that there is not a record of who said what, the goal being to have a full and frank discussion on a non-attribution basis. An early example of collaboration between the FTB and interested parties produced what is now Reg. 25137-10.  Before the regulation, many years ago Sears argued that it was not engaged in a unitary business with a finance company subsidiary.  Sears lost in the trial court on that issue, but the court also held that Sears was entitled to include intangible personal property in the property factor, and the situs of that property was Illinois, resulting in a refund for Sears. Regulation 25137-10 represented an effort to harmonize the income-producing character of intangible personal property with tangible property in the property factor, and the outcome was that intangible property would be included in the property factor at 20 percent of face value. This regulation and the bank regulation 25137-4.2 provide the current regulatory basis for modification of the statutory formula where high volume, low profit activity is combined with other activity in a combined return, but Reg. 24137-10 only applies where the principal business activity of the combined group is not financial.

Taxpayers should follow these regulatory activities carefully, as evidenced by the adoption of a regulation a few years ago on sourcing income of mutual fund service providers, which was favorable to California-based taxpayers. The statute provided for sourcing income from services at the location of income-producing activities, measured by cost of performance. The adopted regulation instead provides for a form of market sourcing.

Separate return state addback statutes, such as the Virginia addback statute, can overreach to produce an unfair and potentially unconstitutional overstatement of income assigned to the state.  Recently Virginia amended its addback statute retroactively 10 years to taxable years beginning on or after January 1, 2004.  The legislation is intended to codify an administrative interpretation that significantly limited an addback exception to the extent the income received by a related member is subject to taxes based on net income or capital imposed by Virginia, another state, or a foreign government with a comprehensive tax treaty with the United States (H.B. 5001, enacted April 1, 2004).  The legislation limits the subject-to-tax exception so that it applies only on a post-apportionment basis, as illustrated in two rulings of the Commissioner, Ruling 07-153 (Oct 2, 2007) and Ruling 13-140 (July 19, 2013).

Taxpayers, in particular taxpayers that have a significant presence in unitary tax states, should not blindly add back legitimate business expenses to income where the result would be an overstatement of income.  Consider this common situation as an example: a parent corporation, a manufacturer of high-tech products, pays a royalty for technology licensed to it by an R&D subsidiary.  The R&D subsidiary is based in California, a combined report state.  The parent corporation has $1,000 in gross receipts, pays $200 in royalties to R&D subsidiary, has $600 of other expenses and a net income of $200.  The R&D subsidiary has gross receipts of the $200 in royalties, deductions for R&D expenses of $100 and a net income of $100.  Together the federal consolidated income of the two entities (as well as GAAP income) is $300.  The R&D subsidiary conducts R&D activities in California and in many foreign countries (some with U.S. tax treaties, some without) and has taxable nexus in one separate return state to which it apportions 1 percent of its net income of $100.  Here is how Virginia applies its addback statute:  Virginia adds the $200 royalty paid to the R&D subsidiary to the parent corporation’s income, but excepts from the addback 1 percent of the royalty, or $2, to reflect the separate return state.  No exception from the addback is provided for the portion of the royalty apportioned to California.  Thus, the parent corporation’s taxable income in Virginia is $398, an amount almost equal to the combined net income of the parent and the subsidiary, plus the bona fide amounts paid by the subsidiary in R&D expenses. 

Taxpayers should carefully examine returns filed in addback statute states to see if they fail a sanity test, like the result in the hypothetical example.  If the State Department of Revenue doesn’t agree to rational exceptions to the expense disallowance, there are multiple grounds for challenge in the courts. 

Plain Meaning of the Statute

A typical addback statute provides an exception when the related member is subject to tax on net income in that state, another state, or a foreign government with a comprehensive tax treaty with the United States.  Where the R&D subsidiary pays tax on net income in another state—such as the commercial domicile of the R&D subsidiary—the statute would appear on its face to provide an exception, an issue of statutory construction subject to judicial review.  The post-apportionment theory is a product of a tortured reading of the statute.

Constitutional Information

There are potentially multiple constitutional infirmities with an addback statute, a comprehensive analysis of which is not appropriate for this post, but which can be viewed in a companion White Paper. Among them are:

  1. Internal Consistency and Foreign Commerce.  The Virginia addback statute does not provide an exception for taxes paid in a foreign county that does not have a comprehensive U.S. tax treaty.  Virginia can no more discriminate against foreign commerce than it can against interstate commerce.  Japan Lines, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, 441 U.S. 434 (1979).
  2. Fair Apportionment—External Consistency Test.  In the above example, the combined income of the parent and the R&D subsidiary is $300, but Virginia computes the parent’s separate taxable income to be $398.  This result would flunk any fair apportionment test.
  3. Fair Apportionment—Income From States That Do Not Impose A Tax Measured By Net Income Or Capital.  The Virginia addback statute treats activities and income in states without a tax measured by net income or capital as activities and income located in states with such taxes.  Activities and income in states such as Washington, Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota and possibly Ohio and Texas are not activities and income in Virginia.
  4. Discrimination Against Interstate Commerce.  Perhaps the most invidious discrimination in the example is the failure to provide an exception for the income that the R&D subsidiary reports to a state such as California that embraces the unitary tax principle.  An exception is provided for income reported to states that require separate returns, but no exception is provided for income reported to states that require the determination of business income earned in the state by using the mechanics of a combined report.  The R&D subsidiary is required to file an income tax return in California and pay a tax on its California income.  Combined report mechanics are used to determine the R&D subsidiary’s California unitary, or business, income.  That redetermined business income could be greater than or less than the R&D subsidiary’s separately stated business income.  To that business income the R&D subsidiary adds its California nonbusiness income or loss, takes into account its own separate net operating loss (NOL) carryover and reduces its California tax by its own individual tax credits.  There is simply no rational justification for the Virginia practice of granting a reduction from addback where a R&D subsidiary is taxable in a separate return state, while denying the reduction where a R&D subsidiary is taxable in a combined return state.

As noted in an earlier blog post, “[a] trend is developing in response to aggressive Department of Revenue/Treasury policy-making regarding cloud computing.”  This trend has not been friendly to aggressive Departments, and it appears that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Massachusetts Department) may be subtly moving away from its own aggressive position regarding one type of cloud computing transaction, software as a service (SaaS).

Following in the footsteps of the New York Department of Taxation and Finance, the Massachusetts Department has been one of the more aggressive departments in the current debate over the taxability of SaaS (see, e.g., Mass. Regs. Code 64H.1.3(3)(a); Mass. Letter Ruling 13-5 (June 4, 2013); Mass. Letter Ruling 12-13 (Nov. 09, 2012); Mass. Letter Ruling 12-10 (Sept. 25, 2012); Mass. Letter Ruling 12-6 (May 21, 2012)).  In its various letter rulings on the subject, the Massachusetts Department has routinely stated its position as follows:

Charges for prewritten software, whether it is electronically downloaded to the customer or accessed by the customer on the seller’s server (including the “Software as a Service” business model), are generally taxable. However, the marketing description of a product as “software -as-a-service” does not determine taxability of a product, nor does the fact that customers do not download software  or otherwise install software on their own computers or other devices.

The Massachusetts Department applies a “true object of the transaction” test to distinguish between situations where a transaction is for taxable software as opposed to a non-taxable service, noting in its guidance that “[w]here use of a software application is bundled with substantial non-taxable personal or professional services or non-taxable services such as database access or data processing, the object of the transaction may be the non-taxable service rather than a sale of software.”

Though the Massachusetts Department has continued to assert that charges for SaaS are generally subject to tax—both in its published guidance and during taxpayer audits—it has been over a year since the Massachusetts Department has published guidance finding that a specific SaaS offering was subject to tax (see Mass. Letter Ruling 13-5 (June 4, 2013)).  During that year, the Massachusetts Department has issued two new letter rulings, Mass. Letter Ruling 14-4 (May 29, 2014) and Mass. Letter Ruling 14-1 (Feb. 10, 2014), and revised one, Mass. Letter Ruling 12-8 (Revised Nov. 8, 2013), all of which have relied on the “object of the transaction” test to conclude that the offerings at issue were not taxable transfers of prewritten software.

In Mass. Letter Ruling 14-4, the Massachusetts Department considered the requestor’s SaaS offering through which it provided customers with remote access to interactive training programs hosted on its servers, seemingly a ripe fact pattern for finding that the true object of the transaction was prewritten software, especially in light of the Massachusetts Department’s position in other letter rulings (see, e.g., Mass. Letter Ruling 12-10, finding the true object of a SaaS transaction to be the underlying software, noting that “the customer must interact with the software in order to reach an objective”).  However, the Massachusetts Department determined the offering was a non-taxable “database access service” rather than a taxable transfer of prewritten software after ruling that “[w]here the Company is the primary source of the content or information accessed by customers on-line . . . the object of the transaction is the information and not the use of any software used to communicate that information.”

Taxpayers are encouraged to keep an eye on the direction of further guidance.  Do the Massachusetts Department’s most recent letter rulings indicate a move away from its prior aggressive position regarding SaaS by using the “out” of the true object test, or is it coincidental (and clear) that the true objects of the transactions in these recent rulings were not prewritten software?  Regardless of the answer to this question, the Massachusetts Department’s recent approach towards SaaS offers some basic lessons.  First, when entering into SaaS agreements, providers and customers alike should memorialize what the transaction is for (i.e., what its “true object” is).  The Massachusetts Department has displayed a willingness to rely on the object of the transaction test, so it is vital that the object of the transaction be made as clear as possible.  Second, language regarding the transfer of a license of the provider’s software to the customer should be avoided unless absolutely necessary for other reasons.  Though the Massachusetts Department observes that the particular means of transfer is not controlling in any taxability determination, “license” language is likely to draw unwanted attention of auditors and to be used to support assertions that the object of the transaction is the transfer of the licensed software.  Finally, if audited, taxpayers should not stand for unsupported assertions that a SaaS offering is subject to tax as a transfer of prewritten software; instead, they should hammer home the true object of the transaction by showing such things as the benefit to the customer and the types of activities performed by the provider’s employees (which can demonstrate that a service, not software, is being offered).