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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Approves Sales Tax Apportionment for Software

On May 21, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision affirming the Massachusetts Tax Appeal Board’s decision in favor of Microsoft and Oracle, ruling that the companies may apportion sales tax to other states on software purchased by a Massachusetts company from which the software was accessed and seek a tax refund.

The case involved a claim by vendors for abatement of sales tax collected on software delivered to a location in Massachusetts but accessible from multiple states. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) claimed that the statute gave it the sole right to decide whether the sales price of the software could be apportioned and, if so, the methods the buyer and seller had to use to claim apportionment. Under rules promulgated by the DOR, there are three methods to choose from, such as the purchaser giving the seller an exemption certificate claiming the software would be used in multiple states, none of which the purchaser used. The DOR argued that if a taxpayer did not use one of the methods specified in the rule, no apportionment was permitted. The vendors sought abatement of the tax on the portion of the sales price that could have been apportioned to other states had one of the methods specified under the rule been used. The DOR claimed the abatement procedure was not a permissible method of claiming apportionment.

The court held: (1) the statute gave the purchaser the right of apportionment and it was not up to the DOR to decide whether apportionment was permitted; (2) the abatement procedure is an available method for claiming the apportionment; and (3) the taxpayer was not limited to the procedures specified in the rule for claiming sales price apportionment.

The court’s decision was based in part on separation of powers: “Under the commissioner’s reading of [the statute], the Legislature has delegated to the commissioner the ultimate authority to decide whether to allow apportionment of sales tax on software sold in the Commonwealth and transferred for use outside the Commonwealth.” The court found such a determination represented “a fundamental policy decision that cannot be delegated.”

The Massachusetts rules reviewed by the court have their genesis in amendments to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA) (that never became effective) providing special sourcing rules for, among other things, computer software concurrently available for use in more than one location. Even though Massachusetts is not a member of the SSUTA, officials from the DOR participate in the Streamlined process and apparently brought those amendments home with them and had them promulgated into the Commonwealth’s sales tax rules.

Practice Notes: This case addresses one of the issues with taxing business models in the digital space. This important decision makes clear, at least in Massachusetts, that taxpayers have post-sale opportunities to reduce sales tax liability on sales/purchases of software accessible from other states where tax on the full sales price initially was collected and remitted by the seller.

Taxpayers may have refund opportunities related to this [...]

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Indiana Tax Court Upholds Pharmacy Benefit Management Costs of Performance Approach

The Indiana Tax Court held that a “pharmacy benefit management company” sold services as opposed to tangible personal property for tax years 2011 through 2013. The company’s receipts were properly sourced as revenue from services under the income producing activity/costs of performance rule, which in this case meant that all receipts were sourced outside of Indiana.

The Indiana Department of Revenue (Department) argued that the pharmacy benefit management company’s “receipts from its sale of prescription drugs should have been sourced to Indiana as required for sales of tangible personal property under Indiana Code” because the company’s “primary ‘revenue stream’ was attributable to buying, selling, and delivering prescription drugs in transactions which occurred within [Indiana].”

The court disagreed with the Department, finding “[the pharmacy benefit management company’s] income was derived from providing pharmacy benefit management services and not from selling prescription drugs during the years at issue.” The court looked to the company’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Form 10-K filing, observing “[n]one of the emphasized words [in the Form] describe a sale of goods, but instead, describe services. Indeed, nowhere in the designated portion of [the company’s] Form 10-K does the text state that the [company’s] revenue is from the sale of prescription drugs, focusing on facilitating delivery as its discrete service, not as a function of selling a good” (emphasis in the original). On May 1, 2019, Indiana switched from its historical cost of performance sourcing methodology to a market-based sourcing for services, retroactive to January 1, 2019.




US Treasury Issues Guidance on the ARPA Claw-Back Provision

Earlier this week, the US Department of the Treasury (Treasury) issued formal guidance regarding the administration of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) claw-back provision. The guidance (Interim Final Rule) provides that the claw-back provision is triggered when there is a reduction in net tax revenue caused by changes in law, regulation or interpretation, and the state cannot identify sufficient funds from sources other than federal relief funds to offset the reduction in net tax revenue. The Interim Final Rule recognizes three sources of funds that may offset a net tax revenue reduction other than federal relief funds—organic growth, increases in revenue (e.g., a tax rate increase) and certain spending cuts (i.e., cuts that are not in an area where the recipient government has spent federal relief funds). According to the Treasury, this framework recognizes that money is fungible and “prevents efforts to use Fiscal Recovery Funds to indirectly offset reductions in net tax revenue.”

The Interim Final Rule also provides guidance on what is considered a change in law, regulation or interpretation that could trigger the claw-back (called covered changes), but that point remains somewhat ambiguous. The Rule provides that:

The offset provision is triggered by a reduction in net tax revenue resulting from ‘a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation.’ A covered change includes any final legislative or regulatory action, a new or changed administrative interpretation, and the phase-in or taking effect of any statute or rule where the phase-in or taking effect was not prescribed prior to the start of the covered period. [The covered period is March 3, 2021 through December 31, 2024.] Changed administrative interpretations would not include corrections to replace prior inaccurate interpretations; such corrections would instead be treated as changes implementing legislation enacted or regulations issued prior to the covered period; the operative change in those circumstances is the underlying legislation or regulation that occurred prior to the covered period. Moreover, only the changes within the control of the State or territory are considered covered changes. Covered changes do not include a change in rate that is triggered automatically and based on statutory or regulatory criteria in effect prior to the covered period. For example, a state law that sets its earned income tax credit (EITC) at a fixed percentage of the Federal EITC will see its EITC payments automatically increase—and thus its tax revenue reduced—because of the Federal government’s expansion of the EITC in the ARPA. This would not be considered a covered change. In addition, the offset provision applies only to actions for which the change in policy occurs during the covered period; it excludes regulations or other actions that implement a change or law substantively enacted prior to March 3, 2021. Finally, Treasury has determined and previously announced that income tax changes—even those made during the covered period—that simply conform with recent changes in Federal law (including those to conform to recent changes in Federal taxation of unemployment insurance benefits and taxation of loan [...]

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The US Department of the Treasury Says State IRC Conformity Bills Do Not Trigger Federal Relief Claw-Back Provision

As we’ve blogged about in the past, the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) includes an ambiguous claw-back provision. If broadly interpreted, it could result in states losing relief funding provided under the APRA if there is any state legislative or administrative change that results in the reduction of state revenue. This provision is causing havoc in the state tax world, rightfully so.

After much yelling and screaming from state attorneys general and those in the tax world, including McDermott (see McDermott letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen attached), the US Department of the Treasury issued a press release announcing forthcoming “comprehensive guidance” on this provision. Treasury also addressed a question that has been on the top of our minds since the provision was enacted: Could state legislation addressing state conformity to the Internal Revenue Code trigger the claw-back? States routinely conform to and decouple from changes to the Internal Revenue Code, so if such actions could trigger the claw-back, state legislatures would be reluctant to consider them. We were so concerned about this issue that we specifically addressed it in our letter to Secretary Yellen.

This week, we received the Treasury’s guidance on this issue: Conformity bills will not trigger the claw-back. In its press release, Treasury stated:

… Treasury has decided to address a question that has arisen frequently: whether income tax changes that simply conform a State or territory’s tax law with recent changes in federal income tax law are subject to the offset provision of section 602(c)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act, as added by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Regardless of the particular method of conformity and the effect on net tax revenue, Treasury views such changes as permissible under the offset provision.

This is a step in the right direction and should ease concerns of state legislatures. Passing a conformity bill will not cause any loss of federal funding. Treasury’s guidance, because it applies to all “methods of conformity,” should cover any legislation that either couples with or decouples from the Internal Revenue Code.

But our work is not done. In our letter to Secretary Yellen we also asked for guidance confirming that state actions in other areas will not trigger the claw-back. Specifically, we made concrete suggestions that actions to correcting tax statutes or rules that are either unconstitutional or barred by or violate federal law also should not trigger the claw-back. Treasury’s recent press release gives us a glimmer of hope that Treasury will exclude such actions from the clutches of the claw-back provision as well. Stay tuned for more!




McDermott Provides Treasury Department with Concrete Suggestions for Guidance on the American Rescue Plan Act’s Claw-Back Provision

The recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) includes an ambiguous claw-back provision that has brought the world of state and local tax policymaking to a grinding halt. Because ARPA’s adoption occurred during the final weeks of many states’ legislative sessions, rapid issuance of guidance from the US Department of the Treasury is needed before the sessions adjourn to prevent the irreversible damage that will occur if a state foregoes enacting policies aimed at alleviating the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 out of fear of facing claw-back of federal relief.

McDermott recently sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, urging the issuance of guidance giving a balanced interpretation of the claw-back provision. This guidance is necessary to avoid putting state legislatures, governors and tax administrators across the country in an untenable situation where every tax change or adjustment being considered—no matter how innocuous or routine—will carry the risk of a reduction to their state’s share of federal funding for the next three years.

In the letter, we provided concrete suggestions on areas where the ARPA left room for such balanced interpretation. We suggested that Treasury interpret the claw-back provision as either inapplicable to or provide a safe harbor for:

  • Changes addressing state conformity to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)
  • Corrections of unconstitutional tax statutes or rules
  • Corrections of tax provisions barred by or that violate federal law
  • Actions in which there is no or only a weak connection between the law change reducing net revenue and the use of federal relief funds
  • Changes in the law announced before the enactment of ARPA
  • Reductions in net revenue related to purposes that further ARPA’s objectives.

The letter pointed out that states need concrete guidance, whether formal or informal, addressing these areas. Such guidance will alleviate the concerns of state governments and allow state policymakers to function and continue the orderly administration of state taxes.




Federal COVID-19 Relief Bill Brings State Tax Policy to a Grinding Halt

On March 11, 2021, US President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), the COVID-19 relief bill that includes $350 billion in relief to states and localities. To prevent states from using federal relief funds to finance tax cuts, Congress included a clawback provision requiring that any relief funds used to offset tax cuts during the next three years be returned to the federal government. Here is the text of the provision:

  • A State or territory shall not use the funds provided under this section or transferred pursuant to section 603(c)(4) to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue of such State or territory resulting from a change in law, regulation or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.

This language broadly prohibits states from taking legislative or administrative action through the end of 2024 that reduces state tax revenues by any means (deduction, credit, delay, rate change, etc.) if doing so could be characterized as the use of federal relief funds to offset, directly or indirectly, the tax reduction. Practically speaking, this limitation will completely hamstring state and local governments from the normal ebb and flow of tax policy changes, adjustments and interpretations. Taken to its logical conclusion, this language freezes state legislative and administrative tax policy development out of fear anything they may do would require the return of federal relief funds. We expect the US Department of the Treasury will issue guidance clarifying this provision in the coming weeks.

Practice Note: This provision of ARPA is, in our view, the most significant federal pre-emption of state tax policy in history. For the next three years, legislators and tax administrators alike will be scrutinized as their tax policy decisions are evaluated through the lens of this prohibition. This level of congressional control over state tax policy decisions and fiscal autonomy likely violates the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution and would dismay the framers’ basic notions of federalism.

While Congress has the ability to limit the use of federal funds in ensuring its policy goals are accomplished, the overly broad state tax limitation adopted by Congress goes far beyond its stated purpose and prevents states from furthering ARPA’s goals by using tax policy to craft their own COVID-19 relief measures. Any regulation or administrative interpretation that reduces state tax revenue or delays the implementation of a tax is, effectively, barred by the unprecedented intrusion into state tax policy-making.

The effects of ARPA’s state tax limitation are immediate and far-reaching. It will chill continuing state efforts to couple/decouple state tax codes to or from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Additionally, ARPA already stalled legislation pending in Maryland that would delay, for one year, implementation of its digital advertising services gross receipts tax, restoring return filing and tax [...]

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False Claims Act Risk for Unclaimed Property Holders

In what has become an unfortunate trend, unclaimed property holders continue to be subject to lawsuits under state false claims acts (FCA – also called a qui tam or whistleblower action) for alleged underreporting and remittance of unclaimed property obligations. More than 30 states have a false claims act with whistleblower provisions and nearly all are applicable to unclaimed property. While an honest mistake should not create liability under an FCA, a holder could be liable if its failure to report not only was done knowingly, but also if such failure to comply was done with deliberate ignorance or with reckless disregard. Actual fraud is not a necessary precursor to being subject to false claims act liability.

Potential liability under state FCA laws is far in excess of any liability under an unclaimed property audit. FCA laws impose treble damages (3x the value of the underreported property), penalties, interest and attorney’s fees. Successful claims under these laws are not just extremely punitive to the holder but also lucrative for the person bringing the lawsuit who can earn up to 30% of the ultimate recovery to the state. Liability under a FCA can turn a holder’s failure to be appropriately diligent in determining its unclaimed property compliance obligations into a multi-million dollar legal battle with long-term public relations implications. The fact that a holder has already been audited or that the State may have historically agreed with the holder’s position may not prevent a FCA case progressing.

A holder’s FCA unclaimed property horror begins with an investigation, which can be prompted by either claims by private parties (called relators) or the state attorney general’s office. A relator may be a disgruntled employee or any clever person with good research skills. The holder may not even know the claim has been filed and the investigation has been going on for years. These investigations may open closed periods and, once the holder is informed, are very interrogation-like, with the holder often knowing very little about the underlying claims until the case is unsealed. Eventually, these investigations may turn into a public court battle with a sometimes politically motivated state attorney general on the other side. Even if the state AG’s office declines to proceed with the case, the private party initiating the case may nevertheless proceed.

While frequently FCA cases are settled before becoming public, several recent cases provide some background for holders looking for FCA examples. In a series of Delaware qui tam cases, more than 25 retailers and restaurants were sued by a former disgruntled employee of a gift card issuance and management company alleging unclaimed property compliance violations. All but one settled or was dismissed by the court. In New York, a court recently dismissed claims by an audit firm against nearly a dozen life insurers in response to allegations under the false claims act that the companies failed to report life insurance policy funds – alleging more than $14.5 billion in damages. Regardless of industry, these lawsuits are a [...]

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Connecticut Bill Aims to Address the Impact of Telecommuting during the Pandemic

As we continue to face growing concerns because of the nationwide impact of COVID-19, taxpayers should be mindful of the potential impacts that the continued rise in telecommuting may have on their state personal income tax liabilities.

A bill was recently introduced in Connecticut that partially addresses this situation. Connecticut House Bill No. 6513 (HB 6513) clarifies that Connecticut residents will not face double taxation on their 2020 taxes and will instead receive a credit against their Connecticut personal income taxes for taxes paid in other states even if the resident, because of COVID-19, was working remotely from Connecticut rather than from their usual out-of-state office. HB 6513 further states that the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services, in determining whether an employer has nexus with Connecticut for purposes of the imposition of any Connecticut tax, shall not consider the activities of an employee who worked remotely from Connecticut solely because of COVID-19.

HB 6513 passed in the 151-member Connecticut House of Representatives on February 24, 2021, and passed in the 36-member Connecticut State Senate on March 1, 2021. The bill now heads to the state governor’s desk for signature. While it is expected that the Governor will sign the bill, passage of the bill still leaves taxpayers with uncertainty for 2021. Many taxpayers nationwide are likely to continue working remotely (from states other than where their usual offices are located) for the foreseeable future, and absent Congressional legislation or a Supreme Court decision, this state income tax issue does not seem likely to abate any time soon.




Maryland Digital Advertising Services Tax—Implementation Delay Likely

On the morning of Friday, February 26, 2021, the Maryland Senate Budget and Taxation Committee added a new item to its agenda for the hearing later that morning. The new item was proposed amendments to Senate Bill 787, a bill that would amend the Maryland Digital Advertising Tax by excluding broadcasters and news media and preventing service providers from directly passing the tax through to customers. One of the amendments would change the tax years to which the tax applies from tax years beginning after December 31, 2020, to tax years beginning after December 31, 2021. The amendment passed on a voice vote.

The amendment was sponsored by the bill’s author, Senate President Bill Ferguson. Senator Ferguson was also the chief proponent of the Digital Advertising Services Tax. A companion bill, House Bill 1200, sponsored by House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke, came up for a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee later that day, but only testimony from supporters of the two carve-outs was received. No amendments were offered, and no votes were taken.

Because the amendment delaying the implementation of the Digital Advertising Services Tax is coming from the Senate’s president, we believe its passage a near certainty. This amendment, if passed, would not delay the effective date of the tax, it would only change the tax year to which it first applies from 2021 to 2022.




Wisconsin Court of Appeals Rules That Department Cannot Deny John Deere DRD Because of the Department’s Prior Guidance on Foreign Distributions

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District IV, issued its decision in Wisconsin Department of Revenue v. Deere & Company, regarding the treatment of distributions from foreign partnerships that are treated as corporations for federal tax purposes. There were two questions presented in the case. The first issue was whether distributions received by John Deere qualified as “dividends received from [the foreign partnership] with respect to its common stock” under Wis. Stat. § 71.26(3)(j). The state argued that this distribution was not made with respect to common stock because the entity was a foreign partnership. Unlike the Tax Appeals Commission, the Court of Appeals did not address this issue.

The second issue was whether previous Wisconsin Department of Revenue guidance, in effect during the period at issue, which stated that if a non-corporate entity is classified as a corporation, a non-corporate interest is treated in the same matter as stock, was binding on the Department under Wis. Stat. § 73.16(2)(a). The court held for the taxpayer, finding that the guidance applied and was binding on the Department. The Department has since modified that guidance, thus limiting the applicability of the decision to earlier tax years. This decision leaves open the issue, which will matter to taxpayers for later years, of whether similar distribution events will be eligible for dividends received deduction treatment.

The case is Wisconsin Department of Revenue v. Deere & Company, Appeal No. 2020AP726, in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District IV (Feb. 25, 2021).




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