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.

After the highly publicized administrative lease transaction and amusement tax expansions in Chicago last year, more cities around the country are taking steps to impose transaction taxes on the sale or rental of digital content. Unlike tax expansion efforts at the state level (such as the law recently passed in Pennsylvania), which have almost all been tackled legislatively, the local governments are addressing the issue without clear legislative authority by issuing administrative guidance and taking aggressive positions on audit. As the local tax threat facing digital providers turns from an isolated incident to a nationwide trend, we wanted to highlight some of the more significant local tax developments currently on our radar.

Continue Reading Digital Tax Update – Local Edition

Litigation over unclaimed property rules and obligations continues to accelerate. The first quarter of 2016 brought developments in several cases, including a much-watched contest over merchandise credits and a new battle between the states over which state gets the money.

California Merchandise Credits Not Subject to Remittance as Unclaimed Property; Implicit Application of Derivative Rights Doctrine Prevails

On March 4, 2016, a California superior court held in Bed Bath & Beyond, Inc. v John Chiang that unredeemed merchandise return certificates (certificates) issued by Bed Bath & Beyond (BB&B) to tis California customers are exempt “gift certificates” under the California Unclaimed Property Law—and not “intangible personal property” under the California catch-all provision. Like many retail stores, BB&B provides the certificates as credits to customers who return items without a receipt. While the certificates may be redeemed for merchandise at BB&B or one of its affiliates, they cannot be redeemed for cash. BB&B took the position that it mistakenly reported and remitted the unclaimed certificates from 2004 to 2012 and filed a refund claim with the California State Controller’s Office (Controller) in 2013 for the full amount remitted during that time period (amounting to over $1.8 million). The Controller denied the claim, and BB&B proceeded to sue John Chiang, both individually and in his official capacity as former California state controller. The relief sought by BB&B was the full refund request, plus interest. Continue Reading Unclaimed Property Litigation Update – Spring 2016

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.

Last week, the California Supreme Court denied the State Board of Equalization’s (BOE’s) petition for review in Lucent Technologies, Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, No. S230657 (petition for review denied Jan. 20, 2016). This comes just months after the California Court of Appeals held against the BOE and ordered it to pay Lucent’s $25 million sales tax refund. As explained in more detail below, the denial finalizes the favorable precedent of the Court of Appeals in Nortel Networks Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, 191 Cal. App. 4th 1259, 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d 905 (2011)—representing a monumental victory for a broad range of taxpayers in California and opening the door for significant refund opportunities. Moreover, the California Supreme Court’s denial affirms the Court of Appeals decision that the BOE’s position was not substantially justified and the taxpayer was entitled to reasonable litigation costs of over $2.6 million.

Background

Lucent and AT&T (collectively Lucent) are and were global suppliers of products and services supporting, among other things, landline and wireless telephone services, the internet, and other public and private data, voice and multimedia communications networks using terrestrial and wireless technologies. Lucent manufactured and sold switching equipment (switches) to their telephone customers, which allowed the customers to provide telephone calling and other services to the end customers. The switches required software, provided on storage media, to operate. Lucent designed the software (both switch-specific and generic) that runs the switches they sell, which was copyrighted because it is an original work of authorship that has been fixed onto tapes. The software also embodies, implements and enables at least one of 18 different patents held by Lucent.

Between January 1, 1995, and September 30, 2000, Lucent entered into contracts with nine different telephone companies to: (1) sell them one or more switches; (2) provide the instructions on how to install and run those switches; (3) develop and produce a copy of the software necessary to operate those switches; and (4) grant the companies the right to copy the software onto their switch’s hard drive and thereafter to use the software (which necessarily results in the software being copied into the switch’s operating memory). Lucent gave the telephone companies the software by sending them magnetic tapes or CDs containing the software. Lucent’s placement of the software onto the tapes or discs, like the addition of any data to such physical media, physically altered those media. The telephone companies paid Lucent over $300 million for a copy of the software and for the licenses to copy and use that software on their switches.

The BOE assessed sales tax on the full amount of the licensing fees paid under the contracts between Lucent and its telephone company customers. Lucent paid the assessment and sued the BOE for a sales tax refund attributable to the software and licenses to copy and use that software at the trial court. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on Lucent’s refund claims, and the Los Angeles County Superior Court issued a 15-page ruling granting Lucent’s motions in 2013. The court concluded that the contracts between Lucent and the telephone companies were technology transfer agreement’s (TTA’s) within the meaning of the California exemption statute. See Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code §§ 6011(c)(10); 6012(c)(10) (exempting the amount charged for intangible personal property transferred with tangible personal property in any TTA from the definition of “sales price” and “gross receipts”). According to the California statute, a TTA is “any agreement under which a person holding a patent or copyright interest assigns or licenses to another person the right to make and sell a product or to use a process that is subject to the patent or copyright interest.” As a result, Lucent was obligated to pay sales taxes on the tangible portion of the sale (the switches, the instructions, and the tapes and CDs used to transmit the software), but not required to pay tax on the intangible portion (the software and licenses). Because of this, the court ordered the BOE to refund the sales taxes paid on the software and licensing fees—totaling more than $24.5 million. The court also awarded court costs and “reasonable litigation costs” of more than $2.6 million after finding the BOE’s position in the litigation was not “substantially justified.”  The BOE appealed to the California Court of Appeals.

Court of Appeals Decision

On October 8, 2015, the California Court of Appeals for the Second Appellate District affirmed the Superior Court ruling granting Lucent’s motion for summary judgment and ordering the BOE to pay Lucent’s refund and costs (including attorneys’ fees). Once again, the BOE argued that copying the software to a CD or tape, rather than transferring it over the internet, transformed the software or the rights to use it into tangible personal property (i.e., subject to sales tax). The appellate court rejected this argument, citing to the 2011 Nortel case involving nearly the exact same facts. Consistent with Nortel, the court determined that that the BOE’s sales tax assessment was erroneous. In so concluding, the court held that: (1) the manufacturer’s decision to give the telephone companies copies of the software on tapes and CDs (rather than over the internet) does not turn the software itself or the rights to use it into tangible personal property subject to the sales tax; (2) a TTA, which exempts from the sales tax the intangible portions of a transaction involving both tangible and intangible property, can exist when the only intangible right transferred is the right to copy software onto tangible equipment; and (3) a TTA can exist as long as the grantee of copyright or patent rights under the agreement thereafter copies or incorporates a copy of the copyrighted work into its product or uses the patented process, and any of these acts is enough to render the resulting product or process “subject to” the copyright or patent interest. Procedurally, the court held that the BOE’s trenchant opposition to the manufacturer’s refund action in this case was all but foreclosed by Nortel and other binding decisional and statutory law, making the BOE’s position not “substantially justified” and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding the manufacturer its “reasonable litigation costs.”

Impact of the Decisions

The Lucent denial by the California Supreme Court could have a significant impact. Although both Lucent and Nortel were factually based on telecommunications equipment in interpreting the TTA, there is nothing in either decision to suggest that their scope is limited to telecommunication equipment. The decisions involve the sales and use tax statutes and broadly apply to any mixed or bundled transaction where the driving cost behind the transaction is an intangible, including software. Any business selling or buying software should consider whether refund opportunities exist for open years. In the sales tax context for California, the period of limitations to file a refund is generally “three years from the last day of the month following the close of the quarterly period for which the overpayment was made.” See Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code § 6902(a)(1).

As the refund madness plays out over the coming months (any beyond), it will be interesting to see if the BOE once again attempts to retroactively mitigate the effects of the courts’ precedent. Specifically, in June 2013, BOE officials, working with Governor Jerry Brown, made an eleventh-hour attempt to insert language into a budget trailer bill that would have retroactively overturned the effects of Nortel and curtailed the ability of other taxpayers to claim refunds of taxes on software qualifying for exclusion under the TTA laws. California lawmakers ultimately rejected the inclusion of the provision in the budget trailer on procedural grounds, but left the door open for future legislation on the substance. The language would have broadened the definition of “storage media” such that prepackaged software sold on storage media is always tangible property subject to sales tax. Whether the BOE pursues legislation or not, the fight over the scope of the TTA exemption will likely continue despite the recent precedential victory and slap on the wrist by the appellate courts.

On May 28 2015, The California Court of Appeals issued a decision in Harley-Davidson, Inc. v. Franchise Tax Board, 187 Cal.Rptr.3d 672; and it was ultimately about much more than the validity of an election within California’s combined-reporting regime. It also tackled issues and, perhaps most importantly, blurred lines surrounding the Commerce Clause’s substantial nexus requirement. In Harley-Davidson, the court concluded that two corporations with no California physical presence had substantial nexus with California due to non-sales-related activities conducted by an in-state agent. The court applied an “integral and crucial” standard for purposes of determining whether the activities conducted by an in-state agent satisfy Commerce Clause nexus requirements.

The corporations at issue were established as bankruptcy-remote special purpose entities (SPEs) and were engaged in securing loans for their parent and affiliated corporations that conducted business in California. As a preliminary matter, the court found that an entity with a California presence was an agent of the SPEs. The court then concluded that the activities conducted by the in-state agent created California nexus for the SPEs that satisfied both Due Process and Commerce Clause requirements.

The Due Process Clause requires some “minimum connection” between the state and the person it seeks to tax, and is concerned with the fairness of the governmental activity. Accordingly, a Due Process Clause analysis focuses on “notice” and “fair warning,” and the Due Process nexus requirement will be satisfied if an out-of-state company has purposefully directed its activities at the taxing state. In Harley-Davidson, the SPEs purpose was to generate liquidity for the in-state entity in a cost-effective manner so that it could make loans to Harley-Davidson dealers, including dealers in California. Additionally, the SPEs’ loan pools contained more loans from California than from any other state, and the in-state entity oversaw collection activities, including repossessions and sales of motorcycles, at California locations on behalf of the SPEs. As a result, the court concluded that “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” were satisfied.

The Commerce Clause requires a “substantial nexus” between the person being taxed and the state. The Supreme Court of the United States has addressed this substantial nexus requirement, holding that a seller must have a physical presence in the taxing state to satisfy the substantial nexus requirement for sales-and-use tax purposes. In Tyler Pipe Industries v. Washington State Department of Revenue, 483 U.S. 232 (1987), the Supreme Court stated that, “the crucial factor governing [Commerce Clause] nexus is whether the activities performed in this state on behalf of the taxpayer are significantly associated with the taxpayer’s ability to establish and maintain a market in this state for the sales.” While Harley-Davidson argued that the activities of the in-state agent could not create nexus for the SPEs, as such activities were not sales-related activities, the California court rejected this argument stating that “this argument fails from the outset, however, because the third-party’s in state conduct need not be sales-related; it need only be an integral and crucial aspect of the businesses” (internal citations omitted). The court observed that participating in actions to repossess motorcycles “maintain[ed] the value of the security interests underlying the securitization pools” and was “integral and crucial” to the SPE’s securitization business, thus, creating nexus for the SPEs.

Since Tyler Pipe, no case has expanded the “purposeful availment” or “substantial nexus” standards to encompass attribution of activities not relating to an out-of-state company’s ability to establish and maintain an in-state market. Although, some have argued that Tyler Pipe has left this door open. In contrast, other activities that do not directly generate income—such as purchases from in-state suppliers—have been found to be non-nexus creating.  The court’s decision in Harley-Davidson blurs the “market-enhancement” bright line by asserting that a broader range of activities conducted by in-state “agents” could satisfy Commerce Clause requirements if the activities are deemed “integral and crucial” to an out-of-state entity’s business. Interestingly, the court cites to a California Supreme Court decision, involving two foreign insurance companies and nexus under the Due Process Clause, to presumably support its Commerce Clause conclusion.

Since “integral and crucial” is a fairly amorphous standard, would an out-of-state business that retains a California law firm or a California management consulting firm to provide general advice (i.e., not specifically related to California) become subject to California taxation? After conversations with Franchise Tax Board (Board) employees, we understand the Board is encouraged that this decision reflects a broader view of the activities of an in-state person that can be attributed to an out-of-state business for nexus purposes. While this seems to be the superficial conclusion in Harley-Davidson, a closer review of the court’s rationale reveals that the court may have been confusing the “representative” and “alter ego” sub-categories of attributional nexus—or possibly, confusing unitary facts (which relate merely to apportionment concepts) with jurisdictional requirements. Perhaps the factors on which the court relied should have resulted in merely the conclusion that the two SPEs are properly includable in a combined California return, and not that such SPEs are taxpayers themselves.

This article is the first of our new series regarding common issues and opportunities associated with combined reporting. Because most states either statutorily require or permit some method of combined reporting, it is important for taxpayers to understand the intricacies of and opportunities in combined reporting statutes and regulations.

In this article, we will explore the foundation for combined reporting – the unitary business principle.

Read the full article.

Over the past decade we have seen a large increase in the number of third party tax enforcement claims against retailers involving transaction taxes (see Multistate Tax Commission Memorandum regarding survey of class action refund claims and false action claims, dated July 12, 2013, describing such actions).  The lawsuits typically are brought either as proposed class actions, alleging an over-collection of tax, or as whistleblower claims on behalf of state governments, alleging a fraudulent under-collection of tax owed to the state or municipality.  With respect to certain issues, including shipping and handling charges, retailers have been whipsawed with lawsuits alleging both under- and over-collection of tax.

On April 3, a proposed class action lawsuit was filed in Florida alleging that Papa John’s Pizza was improperly collecting tax on its delivery fees (Schojan v. Papa John’s International, Inc., No. 14-CA-003491 (Circuit Court Hillsboro County, Florida)).  The lawsuit is similar to an action filed in Illinois that resulted in an Illinois Supreme Court ruling rejecting a proposed class action claim that a retailer was improperly collecting tax on its shipping charges (Kean v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 919 N.E.2d 926 (Illinois 2009)).

Both Florida and Illinois impose sales tax on services that are inseparably linked to the sale of tangible personal property (see, e.g., 86 Ill. Admin. Code § 130.415(b) & Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 12A-1.045(2)).  The regulations provide that whether a customer has separately contracted for shipping charges, or has an option to avoid shipping charges by picking up the property at the retailer’s location, can be used as a proxy to determine whether the services are separate and thus not taxable (86 Ill. Admin. Code § 130.415(d); Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 12A-1.045(4)(a), (b)).

In Kean, the Illinois Supreme Court held that shipping charges were a taxable part of an internet sale in which the customer had no option but to pay shipping charges.  After the ruling, the Illinois Department of Revenue made no announced change to its commonly understood audit position that sales tax was not owed on separately stated shipping charges that were assessed at a retailer’s actual cost.

Seeking to capitalize on the Kean ruling, an Illinois law firm has filed upwards of 150 lawsuits under the Illinois False Claims Act against retailers that do not collect tax on the shipping and handling charges associated with their internet sales, alleging an intentional failure to collect tax and seeking treble damages, attorneys’ fees and associated penalties.  The suits were filed without regard to whether the retailers had been audited and found not to owe tax on their shipping and handling charges.  The State has declined to intervene in the majority of these cases, permitting the Relator to proceed with the prosecution.  Because the amounts at issue are small (6.25 percent tax on shipping and handling charges), the lawsuits force many retailers to choose between paying an (entirely undeserved) settlement to resolve the litigation or bearing the expense of litigation.  For reasons not entirely clear, the Illinois General Assembly has failed to act on a corrective bill that would make such lawsuits more difficult to be filed.

Fortunately, other states have not been as reticent to take action to prevent the type of abusive litigation that retailers have experienced in Illinois.  Tennessee has amended its false claims act to prevent its use in tax litigation, and in Nevada, the state attorney general intervened and successfully moved to dismiss similar litigation.  Most recently, in Loeffler v. Target Corp. ( No. S173972 (Cal. May 1, 2014)), the California Supreme Court held that consumers were precluded from bringing actions based on consumer fraud statutes, where consumers sought refunds of sales tax reimbursement previously paid and an injunction against future collections.  The court reasoned, in part, that the state tax code provides the exclusive means by which to dispute the taxability of a retail sale, stating that “it would be inconsistent with this scheme to permit the consumer to initiate a consumer action such as plaintiffs’ requiring a court to resolve, outside the searching regulatory scheme established by the tax code, whether a sale was taxable or exempt. …”.

In addition, the Multistate Tax Commission and the American Bar Association are each working to resolve the issues faced by retailers with respect to third party enforcement tax administration.  The ABA has adopted model legislation that would limit the rights of purchasers to bring over-collection of tax claims against retailers.  The Commission has formed a joint state/industry work group to examine the issues involved in tax-related third party class action suits and false claims act suits.  Hopefully these efforts will provide retailers with additional weapons to defend against third party tax claims.