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