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Preparing for the Repeal of Cook County’s Beverage Tax: Requesting Credits and Refunds

Earlier this fall, the Cook County Board voted to repeal its constitutionally suspect, politically unpopular one cent per ounce sweetened beverage tax (Tax). The short-lived Tax will expire at the end of the County’s fiscal year on November 30, 2017.

Having been tasked with implementing the Tax, the Cook County Department of Revenue (Department) is now charged with unwinding it. Distributors and retailers who have paid the Tax are entitled to credits or refunds on their unsold inventory at month’s end. The Department recently issued guidance on the credit/refund procedure.

Retailers that have paid Tax to their distributors may claim a credit/refund from their distributors for Tax paid on their unsold inventory by completing the Department form entitled “2017 Sweetened Beverage Retailer Inventory Credit Request Form and Schedule A.” Retailers should complete and submit the form to their distributors, not the Department.

Distributors must file a final Tax return with the Department on or before December 20 (Final Return). To the extent a distributor already has refunded or credited Tax to its retailers, the distributor may claim a credit for the amount refunded on the “other deductions” line of its Final Return. Distributors must file the Department’s standard refund application, found on the Department’s website, to claim refunds for amounts refunded or credited to retailers after December 20. The Department has issued a new form (the “Sweetened Beverage Tax Distributor Credit Form Schedule”) to be submitted by distributors to the Department in support of any credit or refund claims. The form requires distributors to identify the retailers to which it has provided credits/refunds and the amounts thereof.

Retailers who self-remit the Tax may take a credit on their Final Return with supporting documentation. In addition, retailers that have unsold inventory as of December 1, on which they previously remitted floor tax, may obtain a refund of the floor tax through the Department’s standard refund procedure.

Practice Notes:

  1. To the extent possible, Taxpayers should take advantage of the opportunity to claim a credit on their Final Returns in order to avoid the time and expense associated with the County’s standard refund procedure.
  2. Since the Tax was repealed, enthusiasm has waned for various Illinois House Bills (HB 4082-84) proposing to limit the authority of localities to impose beverage taxes. It’s difficult to predict whether the bills will be enacted.
  3. However, the State of Michigan has passed legislation, signed into law by Governor Snyder on October 26, 2017, which prohibits municipalities from levying local taxes on food or beverages.



DC Council Introduces False Claims Expansion – Taxpayers Beware!

Last month, a bill (The False Claims Amendment Act of 2017, B22-0166) was introduced by District of Columbia Councilmember Mary Cheh that would allow tax-related false claims against large taxpayers. Co-sponsors of the bill include Chairman Jack Evans and Councilmember Anita Bonds. Specifically, the bill would amend the existing false claims statute to expressly authorize tax-related false claims actions against persons 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. The bill was referred to the Committee of the Whole upon introduction, but has not advanced or been taken up since then. Nearly identical bills were introduced by Councilmember Cheh in 2013 and 2016. (more…)




Unclaimed Property Hunger Games: States Seek Supreme Court Review in ‘Official Check’ Dispute

Background

As detailed in our blog last month, MoneyGram Payment Systems, Inc. (MoneyGram) is stuck in between a rock and a hard place as states continue to duel with Delaware over the proper classification of (and priority rules applicable to) MoneyGram’s escheat liability for uncashed “official checks.”  The dispute hinges on whether the official checks are properly classified as third-party bank checks (as Delaware directed MoneyGram to remit them as) or are more similar to “money orders” (as alleged by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and numerous other states participating in a recent audit of the official checks by third-party auditor TSG). If classified as third-party bank checks, the official checks would be subject to the federal common law priority rules set forth in Texas v. New Jersey, 379 U.S. 674 (1965) and escheat to MoneyGram’s state of incorporation (Delaware) since the company’s books and records do not indicate the apparent owner’s last known address under the first priority rule. However, if the official checks are classified as more akin to money orders under the federal Disposition of Abandoned Money Orders and Traveler’s Checks Act of 1974 (Act), as determined by TSG and demanded by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the other states, they would be subject to the special statutory priority rules enacted by Congress in response the Supreme Court of the United States’ Pennsylvania v. New York decision and escheat to the state where they were purchased. See 12 U.S.C. § 2503(1) (providing that where any sum is payable on a money order on which a business association is directly liable, the state in which the money order was purchased shall be entitled exclusively to escheat or take custody of the sum payable on such instrument).

In addition to the suit filed by the Pennsylvania Treasury Department seeking more than $10 million from Delaware covered in our prior blog, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue recently filed a similar complaint in federal district court in Wisconsin, alleging Delaware owes the state in excess of $13 million. Other states participating in the TSG audit (such as Arkansas, Colorado and Texas) also recently made demands to MoneyGram and Delaware.

It is interesting to note that in 2015, Minnesota (MoneyGram’s former state of incorporation) turned over in excess of $200,000 to Pennsylvania upon its demand for amounts previously remitted to Minnesota for MoneyGram official checks. Apparently not only do the states in which the transaction occurred disagree with but even a former state of incorporation took the majority path.   (more…)




Michigan Department of Treasury’s New Acquiescence Policy: A Model for Other States

On February 16, 2016, the Michigan Department of Treasury announced its new acquiescence policy with respect to certain court decisions affecting state tax policy. The Treasury’s acquiescence policy is similar to the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) policy of announcing whether it will follow the holdings in certain adverse, non-precedential cases.

In Michigan, while published decisions of the Michigan Court of Appeals and all decisions of the Michigan Supreme Court are binding on both the Treasury and taxpayers, unpublished decisions of the Court of Appeals and decisions of the Court of Claims and the Michigan Tax Tribunal are binding only on the parties to the case and only with respect to the years and issues in litigation. Nonetheless, the Treasury has determined that a particular decision, while not binding, may constitute “persuasive authority in similar cases.” The Treasury may therefore decide to follow a non-precedential decision that is adverse to the Treasury in other cases, a policy known as acquiescence. Beginning with its May 2016 quarterly newsletter, the Treasury will publish a list of final (i.e., unappealed), non-binding, adverse decisions, and announce its acquiescence or non-acquiescence with respect to each. The Treasury points out that an indication of acquiescence does not necessarily mean that the Treasury approves of the reasoning used by the court in its decision. (more…)




Michigan Backs Off Cloud Tax, Refund Opportunities Available

After refusing to back down on the issue for years, the Michigan Department of Treasury (Department) issued guidance last week to taxpayers announcing a change in its policy on the sales and use taxation of remotely accessed prewritten computer software.  This comes after years of litigating the issue in the Michigan courts, most recently with the precedential taxpayer victory in Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Dep’t of Treasury, No. 321505 (Mich. Ct. App. Oct. 27, 2015), in which the Michigan Court of Appeals held that remote access to software did not constitute delivery of tangible personal property.  See our prior coverage here.  The Department has announced it will apply Auto-Owners (and the numerous other favorable decisions) retroactively and thus allow for refunds for all open tax years.  This is a huge victory for taxpayers; however, those that paid the tax (both purchasers and providers alike) must act promptly to coordinate and request a refund prior to the period of limitations expiring.

Implications

In issuing this guidance, the Department specifically adopts the Michigan Court of Appeals interpretation of “delivered by any means” (as required to be considered taxable prewritten computer software).  Going forward, the “mere transfer of information and data that was processed using the software of the third-party businesses does not constitute ‘delivery by any means’” and is not prewritten software subject to sales and use tax.  See Auto-Owners, at 7.  Not only has the Department admitted defeat with respect to the delivery definition, but it also appears to have acquiesced to taxpayers’ arguments with respect to the true object test (or “incidental to services” test in Michigan).  This test was first announced by the Michigan Supreme Court in Catalina Marketing, and provides that a court must objectively analyze the entire transaction using six factors and determine whether the transaction is “principally” the transfer of tangible personal property or the transfer of services with a transfer of tangible personal property that is incidental to the service.[1]  In last week’s guidance, the Department states that if only a portion of a software program is electronically delivered to a customer, the “incidental to service” test will be applied to determine whether the transaction constitutes the rendition of a nontaxable service rather than the sale of tangible personal property.  However, if a software program is electronically downloaded in its entirety, it remains taxable.  This guidance comes in the wake of Department and the taxpayer in Thomson Reuters, Inc. v. Dep’t of Treasury stipulating to the dismissal of a Supreme Court case involving the same issues that had been appealed by the Department.  In light of these developments, it appears that the Department has given up all ongoing litigation over cloud services.

Immediate Action Required for Refunds

Taxpayers who paid sales or use tax on cloud based services are entitled to receive a refund for all open periods.  In Michigan, the period of limitations for filing a refund [...]

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Focus on Tax Controversy – December 2015

McDermott Will & Emery has released the December 2015 issue of Focus on Tax Controversy, which provides insight into the complex issues surrounding U.S. federal, international, and state and local tax controversies, including Internal Revenue Service audits and appeals, competent authority matters and trial and appellate litigation.

Mark Yopp authored an article entitled “Waiting for Relief from Retroactivity,” which discusses how courts are expanding the ability of state legislatures to retroactively change taxpayer liability going back many years.

View the full issue (PDF).




Precedential Cloud Victory in Michigan Court of Appeals

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel sitting for the Michigan Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a lower court decision finding that the use of cloud-based services in Michigan is not subject to use tax in Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Dep’t of Treasury, No. 321505 (Mich. Ct. App. Oct. 27, 2015). While there have been a number of cloud-based use tax victories in the Michigan courts over the past year and a half, this decision marks the first published Court of Appeals opinion (i.e., it has precedential effect under the rule of stare decisis). See Mich. Ct. R. 7.215(C)(2). Therefore, the trial courts and Michigan Court of Appeals are obligated to follow the holdings in this case when presented with similar facts, until the Michigan Supreme Court or Court of Appeals say otherwise. While the ultimate outcome (i.e., not taxable) of the lower court decision was affirmed, the analysis used by the Court of Appeals to get there was slightly different and the court took the time to analyze over a dozen different contracts, as discussed below. Given the fact that a petition for review is currently pending in another Court of Appeals case (Thomson Reuters) decided on similar issues in 2014, it will be interesting to see if this development increases the Michigan Supreme Court’s appetite to hear a use tax case on cloud-based services. The Department of Treasury (Department) has approximately 40 days to request that the Auto-Owners decision be reviewed by the Michigan Supreme Court.

Facts

Auto-Owners is an insurance company based out of Michigan that entered into a variety of contracts with third-parties to provide cloud-based services. These contracts were grouped into six basic categories for purposes of this case: (1) insurance industry specific contracts, (2) technology and communications contracts, (3) online research contracts, (4) payment remittance and processing support contracts, (5) equipment maintenance and software customer support contracts and (6) marketing and advertising contracts.  The contracts all involved, at some level, software accessed through the internet. Michigan audited Auto-Owners and ultimately issued a use tax deficiency assessment based on the cloud-based service contracts it utilized.  In doing so, the Department cited the Michigan use tax statute, which like many states, provides that tax is imposed on the privilege of using tangible personal property in the state. See generally Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 205.93. The Department took the position that the software used in Michigan by Auto-Owners was “tangible personal property,” which is defined to include prewritten, non-custom, software that is “delivered by any means” under Michigan law. See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 205.92b(o). The taxpayer paid the tax under protest and filed a refund claim, which was the focus of the Court of Claims decision being appealed.

Procedural History

At the trial court level, the Court of Claims determined that the application of use tax to the software used in Michigan by Auto-Owners would be improper. In doing so, the court issued three separate holdings—all in favor of the taxpayer. First, the court held that use tax [...]

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Three Strikes…Tax on Cloud Computing Out in Michigan?

If the Department of Treasury (Treasury) was hoping that the Michigan courts would simply overlook the previous two cloud computing losses this year in Thomson Reuters (previously covered here) and Auto-Owners (discussed here), they appear to have been mistaken.  Last Wednesday’s Court of Claims opinion in Rehmann Robson & Co. v. Department of Treasury marked the third Michigan decision this year to rule that cloud-based services are not subject to use tax in the state.  In Rehmann Robson, the Court of Claims found that the use of Checkpoint (a web-based tax and accounting research tool) by a large accounting firm was properly characterized as a non-taxable information service, despite Treasury’s continued effort to impose use tax and litigate similar cloud-based transactions.  This taxpayer victory comes just six months after the Michigan Court of Appeals in Thomson Reuters found that a subscription to Checkpoint was primarily the sale of a service under the Catalina Marketing test, Michigan’s version of the “true object” test, which looks to whether the use of tangible personal property was incidental to the provision of services when both are provided in the same transaction.  The Thomson Reuters decision reversed a 2013 Court of Claims opinion that granted summary disposition in favor of Treasury’s ability to tax the cloud-based service as “prewritten computer software.”

Analysis

While all three Michigan decisions issued this year reach the same conclusion, the most recent decision makes an explicit effort to affirmatively block any potential avenue Treasury may use to impose the use tax on cloud-based transactions.  For what it’s worth, the Rehmann Robson opinion was written by the same judge who wrote the Auto-Owners opinion released in March 2014, and contained an identical analysis.  Unlike the Thomson Reuters decision that found use of prewritten computer software in the state, but simply found it to be incidental to the nontaxable information services provided under Catalina Marketing, Auto-Owners (and now Rehmann Robson) both undercut the Treasury’s argument before it begins.

First, the court held that there was no tangible personal property transferred because the definition of “prewritten computer software” was not satisfied.  Like many other states, Michigan defines this term as software “delivered by any means.”  The court reasoned that because the accounting firm simply accessed information via the web that was processed via BNA and Thomson Reuter’s own software, hardware and infrastructure, there was no “delivery” under a conventional understanding of the word.  Absent delivery, there was no prewritten computer software for Treasury to impose tax upon.

Second, the Court of Claims went on to note that even if prewritten computer software was delivered, the accounting firm did not sufficiently “use” the software to impose the tax.  Because the accounting firm did not exercise a right or power over the software incident to ownership (other than the ability to control research outcomes by inputting research terms), there was no use.  The court explicitly turned down Treasury’s argument [...]

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Did You Pay a Michigan Assessment After an MTC Audit? What the State’s Retroactive Compact Repeal May Mean

On September 11, 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation (SB 156) retroactively repealing the Multistate Tax Compact (Compact, formerly codified at MCL § 205.581 et seq.) from the state statutes, effective January 1, 2008.  Among other things, the bill’s passage ostensibly supersedes the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Int’l Bus. Machines Corp. v. Dep’t of Treasury, 496 Mich. 642 (2014) (holding that (1) the enactment of a single sales factor under the Business Tax Act (codified at MCL § 208.1101 et seq.) did not repeal Compact by implication and (2) the state’s modified gross receipts tax fell within the scope of Compact’s definition of “income tax” which the taxpayer could calculate using Compact’s three-factor apportionment test) and relieves the Department of Treasury from having to pay an estimated $1.1. billion in refunds to taxpayers.  While many commentators have rightfully focused on the constitutional validity of retroactively repealing the Compact in Michigan in such a manner (including our own Mary Kay Martire in her recent blog post), we think it is equally as important to consider whether the repeal compromises the validity of prior interstate audit assessments authorized pursuant to the Compact.

Background

Article VIII of the Compact provides the specific rules governing participation in interstate audits conducted by the Multistate Tax Commission (MTC) via their Joint Audit Program (Program).  Unlike other provisions of the Compact, Article VIII is “in force only in those party states that specifically provide therefore by statute.”  Section 8 of the Compact provides this authority, simply stating “Article VIII [of the Compact] shall be in force in and with respect to this state.” See MCL § 205.588 (repealed by SB 156).  This threshold matter must be satisfied before the MTC is authorized to audit and assess businesses and review their books and records on behalf of any particular state.

The MTC and its participating audit states have taken the controversial position that membership and participation in the Program is independent from a state’s Compact status (e.g. Massachusetts, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Wisconsin have not adopted the Compact, yet participate in the Program).  Further, even when authorized, states have the discretion to elect not to participate in the Program by simply opting out for one or both of the taxes audited (income and franchise, or sales and use).

Minnesota offers an example of a state that may have withdrawn from the Compact correctly while maintaining the State’s ability to participate in MTC audits.  In May 2013, the legislature enacted legislation repealing the Compact (H.F. 677, repealing Minn. Stat. § 290.171) (this legislation does not appear to be retroactive).  In doing so, the legislature included a separate provision authorizing continued participation in audits performed by the MTC. See Minn. Stat. § 270C.03 subd. 1(9), amended by H.F. 677.  While Minnesota ultimately opted not to participate in these audits, they have statutory authority if they so choose (but as noted above, the Compact itself may not allow for this).

Implications

Unlike Minnesota, the recent repeal in Michigan failed to [...]

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How Will Michigan Courts Analyze a Legal Challenge to the Michigan Legislature’s Retroactive Repeal of the Multistate Tax Compact?

In recent days, the state tax world has focused on the State of Michigan’s retroactive repeal of the Multistate Tax Compact (Compact).  Last week, the Michigan Legislature passed and Governor Snyder signed into law a bill (P.A. 282) that nullifies the effect of the state Supreme Court’s July 14, 2014 decision in International Business Machines v. Dep’t of Treasury, Dkt.  No. 146440.  In IBM, the state Supreme Court held that IBM may apportion its business income tax base and modified gross receipts tax base under the Michigan Business Tax (MBT) using the three-factor apportionment formula provided in the Compact, rather than the sales-factor apportionment formula provided by the MBT. Reflective of the urgency with which he views the situation, Michigan’s Governor Snyder signed the bill into law within twenty-four hours after its passage, with a statement that the state’s actions were an effort to ensure that “Michigan businesses are not penalized for investing in the State.”  The Michigan Department of Treasury (MDOT) made no attempt to sugar coat its statements in language that would reflect support for Michigan business interests.  Rather, it loudly proclaimed that the Legislature must act because the revenue impact to the State of the IBM decision was $1.1 billion.

The new law repeals L. 1969, P.A. 343, which enacted the Compact, retroactive to January 1, 2008, allegedly in order to express the original intent of the legislature regarding the application of M.C.L.A. §208.1403 of the MBT.  (Section 208.1403 specifies that a multistate taxpayer must apportion its tax base to Michigan using the sales factor.)  The law goes on to provide that the Legislature’s original “intended effect” of §208.1403 was to eliminate the ability for taxpayers to use the  Compact’s three factor apportionment election provision in computing their MBT, and to “clarify” that the election provision included in the Compact is not available to the Michigan Income Tax Act, which replaced the MBT in 2012.

The actions of the state are perhaps not surprising, given MDOT’s revenue estimate and the number of related claims (more than 130) that are reported to be pending before MDOT and/or the Michigan courts on this issue.  Earlier this week, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision holding that the IBM ruling was dispositive on the issue of whether Lorillard Tobacco Company could elect to use a three-factor apportionment formula in computing its MBT for 2008 and 2009.  Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Dep’t of Treasury, No. 313256 (Sept. 16, 2014).  Critics of the new law make strong arguments about the unfairness of the state’s recent actions, and tax pundits predict that the retroactivity of the law will soon be the subject of a court challenge.  What do Michigan court’s prior rulings on retroactivity teach us about how the Michigan courts are likely to address this issue?

This is not the first time in recent memory that the state has acted to retroactively repeal legislation with the potential for large, negative implications to Michigan’s revenue stream.  In General Motors Co. v. [...]

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