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Stephen (Steve) P. Kranz is a tax lawyer who solves tax problems differently. Over the course of his extensive career, Steve has acquired specific skills and developed a unique approach that helps clients develop and implement holistic solutions to all varieties of tax problems. He combines strategic thinking with effective skills for the courtroom, the statehouse and the conference room. Read Stephen P. Kranz's 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.

On December 19, 2018, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of McDermott’s client, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA), the trade association for pharmaceutical distributors. In Healthcare Distribution Alliance v. Zucker, the court granted summary judgment and enjoined enforcement of the New York Opioid Stewardship Act, which imposed a $600 million surcharge on manufacturers and distributors of opioid pharmaceutical products. The first $100 million installment was due on January 1, 2019. Continue Reading Court Strikes Down New York Opioid Surcharge on Manufacturers and Distributers

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.

While the state treatment of global intangible low-taxed income (GILTI) was on the mind of many taxpayers, most state legislatures that enacted legislation in 2018 focused on the state treatment of foreign earnings deemed repatriated under IRC § 965, leaving the state treatment of GILTI unclear in many states. That said, of the states that enacted legislation addressing GILTI, very few have decided to tax a material portion of GILTI.

In states that did not address global intangible low-taxed income through legislation, a lack of clarity in the state laws created an opportunity for the STAR Partnership to seek favorable administrative guidance on the treatment of GILTI. The STAR Partnership pursued that opportunity in a number of states, as discussed in more detail below. Continue Reading STAR Partnership and State Responses to GILTI

Since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed in December 2017, over 100 bills were proposed by state legislatures responding to the federal legislation. Thus far in 2018, nearly half of states have passed legislation responding to the TCJA. With some exceptions, in this year’s legislative cycles the state legislatures were primarily focused on the treatment of foreign earnings deemed repatriated and included in federal income under IRC § 965 (965 Income).

The STAR Partnership has been very involved in helping the business community navigate the state legislative, executive and regulatory reaction to federal tax reform, and IRC § 965 in particular. The STAR Partnership’s message to states has been clear: decouple from IRC § 965 or provide a 100 percent deduction for 965 income. The STAR Partnership emphasized that excluding 965 Income from the state tax base is consistent with historic state tax policy of not taxing worldwide income and avoids significant apportionment complexity and constitutional issues.  Continue Reading 2018 Recap: State Responses to the Repatriation Transition Tax in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

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.

On April 9, 2018, the New York State Supreme Court granted Starbucks’ motion to dismiss claims that it had failed to collect more than $10 million of sales tax at its New York stores. Lawyers from McDermott’s State and Local Tax (SALT) group and its White Collar and Securities Defense team handled the matter.

A unique feature of New York law is that the attorney general and private qui tam plaintiffs are permitted to bring New York False Claims Act (NYFCA) actions under New York Financial Law for “claims, records, or statements made under the tax law.” Fin. L. 198(4)(a)(i)-(iii). Under federal law and the law of most states, there is no False Claims Act liability for tax issues. But in New York, the attorney general and private plaintiffs can pursue False Claims Act cases for failure to comply with tax law. There have been numerous large settlements and judgments issued against major companies under the NYFCA, including one settlement for $40 million. See A.G. Schneiderman Announces $40 Million Settlement With Investment Management Company for Tax Abuses, Marking Largest Whistleblower Recovery in Office’s History (April 18, 2017). If successful, qui tam plaintiffs can recover a 25 – 30 percent share of the amount recovered, together with costs and attorneys’ fees. Fin. L. § 190(6)(b).

In this case, two private relator plaintiffs alleged that Starbucks failed to collect sales tax on warmed and “to-go” food items over a 10-year period. The relators filed a complaint, under seal, on or about June 11, 2015, with the New York Attorney General (AG). The AG declined to intervene. On June 30, 2017, the relators elected to proceed on their own with the lawsuit and filed a complaint seeking a judgment for at least $10 million in allegedly unpaid sales tax, as well as treble damages, civil penalties and attorneys’ fees. There was no allegation that Starbucks had failed to properly pay New York taxes that it had previously collected and was holding improperly. The relators’ allegations were solely based on their claim that Starbucks had under-collected sales tax from its New York customers.

On behalf of Starbucks, McDermott filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Starbucks properly collects and pays its taxes to the State of New York and that Starbucks has consistently worked cooperatively with auditors from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. McDermott further argued that the relators “survey” of purchases at Starbucks locations and anecdotal conversations with Starbucks employees failed to properly allege that Starbucks violated the tax law or engaged in any fraud.

On November 10, 2017, the court held oral argument. On April 9, 2018, the Honorable James d’Auguste agreed with McDermott’s arguments and dismissed the case. See State of New York ex rel. James A. Hunter & Keenan D. Kmiec v. Starbucks Corporation, No. 101069/15, Dkt No. 40 (Sup Ct. April 9, 2018). The court held that the relators failed to properly allege that Starbucks had knowingly avoided or recklessly disregarded the law. Id. at 15. The court also opined that “the Survey was not scientifically performed and plaintiffs’ Survey was unsupported by any expert review or report.” Id. at 17. Finally, the court concluded that “plaintiffs’ allegations that Starbucks’ illegal practices were ongoing for a decade before this action was started and that it suffered $10 million in damages are based purely on speculation.” Id. at 17.

McDermott’s SALT and White Collar and Securities Defense teams joined forces in representing Starbucks in connection with this matter. The team consisted of Todd Harrison, Steve Kranz, Mark Yopp, Joseph B. Evans, Kathleen Quinn and Samuel Ashworth.

Full Case Name:          State of New York ex rel. James A. Hunter & Keenan D. Kmiec v. Starbucks Corporation, No. 101069/15 (Sup Ct. April 9, 2018)

Court:                           New York State Supreme Court

Justice:                         James E. d’Auguste

Opposing Counsel:     Hunter and Kmiec