Overturning a 6-1 en banc decision by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that a coupon does not reduce the price upon which sales tax must be collected unless the coupon is adequately described and “linked” with the taxable item in accordance with Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (DOR) regulations. The case was brought by a retail customer seeking a sales tax refund on the difference between the retail price of the product and the discounted price as the result of a coupon. The decision instructs retailers on the application of coupon discounts when collecting sales tax. The decision may also provide comfort to retailers facing class action lawsuits in Pennsylvania for collecting sales tax on full invoice prices without taking discounts from coupons into account.
The case examined three transactions between a retailer and customer. In two of the transactions, the customer purchased a single taxable item and used a single coupon. In the other transaction, the customer purchased six taxable items and used five coupons of varying amounts. The receipt provided in each transaction identified each coupon as a “SCANNED COUP” and identified the discount provided with each coupon but did not further describe the coupon nor link the coupon as a discount to any specific item purchased. In all three transactions, the retailer collected sales tax on the full purchase price without taking the coupons into account. The customer sought a sales tax refund from the DOR, maintaining that sales tax should have been collected on the discounted price. The DOR denied the refund claim.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the DOR’s position that under Pennsylvania regulations, “sales tax is owed on the full purchase price” (disregarding any coupons) unless an invoice or receipt (1) separately states and identifies the amount of the taxable item and the coupon and (2) provides a description of both the taxable item and the coupon. Further, the Court agreed that a satisfactory description in the receipt must contain a “linking” element, meaning the coupon must be adequately described to show that it applied to a specific item. The Court explained that such a description on the receipt was necessary because, under Pennsylvania law, “there are discounts or coupons that do not establish a new [taxable] purchase price, such as a discount for shopping on a specific day, discounts from a minimum purchase amount, and sales tax absorption coupons.”
In recent years, state tax departments have been very aggressive in asserting that coupons and discounts do not reduce the sales tax base. This decision serves as a reminder to retailers that the description of coupons on invoices is critical in determining the amount of sales tax to collect. In Pennsylvania, the coupon must be separately identified and “linked” to the taxable product upon which the discount is applied.
This decision highlights the dilemma many retailers face when collecting tax on discounted products: if they collect on the full retail price, they face the potential for customer class action suits [...]