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Alert: California False Claims Expansion Bill Advances to the Senate

Like the days of the Old West, last week a masked gang held up local businesses demanding their wallets. Unlike the days of the Old West, this was not the hole-in-the-wall gang, but the California State Assembly who, on June 10, 2020, approved AB 2570, a bill that authorizes tax-based false claims actions. If passed, AB 2570 would expand the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to allow private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement tax-based lawsuits. The bill now heads to the California Senate where its predecessor bill, AB 1270, failed last year.

According to the bill’s author, Assembly Member Mark Stone, there are two key differences between AB 2570 and last year’s AB 1270. First, AB 2570’s definition of “prosecuting authority” has been revised to remove the term “counsel retained by a political subdivision to act on its behalf.” In his comments on the Assembly floor, Stone explained that this amendment was “sought by the bill’s opponents” as it prevents local governments from contracting with private attorneys to bring tax CFCA lawsuits.

Second, AB 2570 mandates that a plaintiff’s complaint must be kept under seal for 60 days and can only be served on a defendant by court order. According to Stone, this second amendment will prevent qui tam attorneys from bringing suit if they send demand letters to the taxpayer before the expiration of this 60-day period.

Although these amendments are minor improvements upon last year’s bill, they are not enough to prevent the rampant abuse that will certainly accompany an expansion of the CFCA. Moreover, as Stone has acknowledged AB 2570 rests on the faulty premise that insider information is generally required to establish a “successful” tax enforcement claim. In his comments to the assembly, Stone stated:

No one questions the ability of the Franchise Tax Board and the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA) to skillfully administer the tax law within their respective jurisdictions. This bill, rather, rests on the premise that there are individuals—often current or former employees of a company—who have access to information establishing that tax authorities have been misled as to the amounts owed by the company. These cases are difficult to uncover without the cooperation of an insider because there is no other way to bring the relevant documents and information to light if a company is determined to commit fraud.

However, as evidenced by the states where an FCA has been expanded to tax cases, such as Illinois and New York, very few FCA tax cases involve internal whistleblowers, actual fraud or reckless disregard of clear law. Instead, they typically involve inadvertent errors or good-faith interpretations of murky tax law. As a result, expanding the CFCA to tax claims will only serve to hurt good-faith taxpayers who are already struggling to survive and recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19. Such legislation could force taxpayers to incur enormous costs or pressure them into settlements to make the case go away to avoid the [...]

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Last Minute Relief for Filers of Business Property Statements

Once again, San Francisco has shown leadership in addressing property tax relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, May 4, 2020, the San Francisco County Assessor announced that she was moving the deadline for businesses to file their Business Property Statements (Form 571-L) to June 1 of this year, due to physical office closure of the San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder.

Normally, under state law, a 10 percent penalty automatically attaches when a taxpayer’s business property statement is filed after May 7. But, if May 7 falls on a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday, then a property statement that is mailed and postmarked on the next business day is deemed to have been timely filed. Under the applicable statue, legal holidays include days when the county’s offices are closed for the entire day.

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AB 2570: Déjà vu All over Again as California Attempts to Amend CFCA

California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, and Assembly Member Mark Stone have again advanced legislation that would amend the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to enlist private bounty hunters to go after California taxpayers. Becerra described the latest bill, AB 2570, as an additional tool to combat against “corporate cheats” whom Becerra claimed cost the state billions in lost revenue in 2019. Of course, the state already possesses an arsenal of tools to combat any underreporting: currently, the power to investigate cases of suspected tax fraud rests with the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) and the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA). Thus, as many of the predecessor bill’s critics have adeptly noted, AB 2570 is more appropriately characterized as a “solution in search of a problem.”

The text of AB 2570 is almost identical to its predecessor, AB 1270, which failed to make it out of the legislature last year, and has likely given California’s business-savvy taxpayers a sense of dread-filled déjà vu. AB 1270 came under intense opposition last summer because, as seen in other states, allowing qui tam plaintiffs to initiate civil suits for state and local tax issues leads to abusive practices and undermines the goal of voluntary compliance in tax administration.

Like AB 1270, AB 2570 is replete with problematic provisions, including: (1) the imposition of a separate statute of limitations that will arguably trump any shorter limitations periods imposed by the Revenue & Taxation Code (See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12654(a) which permits claims under the CFCA to be pursued for up to 10 years after the date the violation was committed, compared to standard three or four years for tax audits); (2) a more lenient burden of proof for elements of an alleged violation; and, (3) extremely punitive damages—violators are subject to treble damages (i.e., three times the amount of the underreported tax, interest and penalties), an additional civil penalty of $5,500 to $11,000 for each violation, plus the costs of the civil action to recover the damages and penalties including attorney’s fees.

Unfortunately, private enforcement of state tax code violations has erupted over the past few years after whistleblowers in New York and Illinois purportedly have racked up multimillion dollar settlements as the result of such claims. If enacted, AB 2570 will open the floodgates to a slew of financially incentivized plaintiffs’ attorneys who are eager to enter the litigation lottery in hopes of winning a jackpot settlement payout from California’s taxpayers.

As discussed in our blog post from August 26, 2019, Vultures Circling as Bill to Expand California FCA to Tax Looms in Legislature, regarding AB 1270, when a false claims suit is filed by a private plaintiff (or relator) in a qui tam action, the recovered damages or settlement proceeds are divided between the state and the relator, with the relator permitted to recover up to 50% of the proceeds. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12652(g)(3). Thus, this practice can be very lucrative for aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys.

Even [...]

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Illinois Amnesty Programs Now Underway

As previously announced, the Illinois Department of Revenue has begun a new amnesty program, running October 1 through November 15, 2019. All taxes paid to the Illinois Department of Revenue for taxable periods ending after June 30, 2011, and prior to July 1, 2018, are eligible for amnesty with relief from penalties and interest. Unlike prior Illinois programs, taxpayers who do not participate in amnesty will not be subject to double interest or penalty charges on subsequent audit assessments for taxes that were eligible for amnesty. A link to the Illinois Department of Revenue forms for its amnesty program is attached here.

The Illinois Secretary of State also offers an amnesty program running from October 1 through November 15, 2019, for corporate franchise taxes related to periods ending after March 15, 2008, and on or before June 30, 2019. In light of the phase-out of the corporate franchise tax by January 1, 2024 (enacted by Public Act 101-9), participants in the amnesty program should proceed with extreme caution. For more information, the Secretary of State has published a Fact Sheet and form of Petition on its website: https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/business_services/home.html.




Vultures Circling as Bill to Expand California FCA to Tax Looms in Legislature

Legislators in Sacramento are mulling over one of the most (if not the most) troubling state and local tax bills of the past decade. AB 1270, introduced earlier this year and passed by the Assembly in late May, would amend the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to remove the “tax bar,” a prohibition that exists in the federal False Claims Act and the vast majority of states with similar laws.

If enacted, this bill will open the door for a cottage industry of financially driven plaintiffs’ lawyers to act as bounty hunters in the state and local tax arena. California taxpayers would be forced to defend themselves in high-stakes civil investigations and/or litigation—even when the Attorney General’s Office (AG) declines to intervene. As seen in other states, this racket leads to abusive practices and undermines the goal of voluntary compliance in tax administration. (more…)




QHTC You Later: DC Bids Farewell to Historic QHTC Certification Process

The District of Columbia (DC) Office of Tax & Revenue (OTR) implemented sweeping changes to the Qualified High Technology Company (QHTC) certification process this year. As you may remember, beginning last year, OTR implemented a new online QHTC self-certification process for companies to obtain exempt purchase certificates. This year, OTR is expanding the scope of this online self-certification requirement to all QHTC benefits—including exempt sales as a QHTC and other non-sales tax benefits available to a QHTC (summarized here). This change was accomplished through amendments to the QHTC certification regulation (DC Mun. Regs. tit. 9, § 1101) that were proposed by OTR in November 2018 and became final on January 4, 2019. The changes apply to all tax returns due on or after January 1, 2019.

So What Changed?

Historically, the relevant OTR regulation provided that to claim a credit or other benefit, a QHTC was required to attach a form prescribed by OTR (i.e., Form QHTC-CERT) to each applicable tax return or claim for refund. See DC Mun. Regs. tit. 9, § 1101 (prior to Jan. 4, 2019). Effective January 4, 2019 with the finalization of the amended regulation, this procedure now requires every QHTC to submit a Self-Certification request online via MyTax.DC.gov on an annual basis and obtain a “certificate of benefits” letter from OTR each year. No tax exemptions or benefits will be allowed without a valid certificate of benefits letter that is obtained prior to or concurrently with the filing of a return on which the benefits are claimed. Thus, to claim QHTC benefits on a monthly sales tax return for January 2019, the certificate of benefits will need to be requested from OTR for review/processing prior to the upcoming mid-February return deadline. Unlike the procedure in the past, the certificate of benefits letter obtained online will be deemed to attach to any tax return due and filed during the period for which the certificate is valid and unexpired. The certificate of benefits is expected to be valid for one (1) calendar year from the date it is issued/approved by OTR. Unlike prior years, the new regulation requires all benefits applications filed by a QHTC to include all of the following information:

  1. Taxpayer ID Number
  2. Name
  3. Address
  4. Sales Tax Account Number
  5. NAICS Code
  6. Information demonstrating QHTC eligibility (including attaching proof of DC office location, such as a current lease agreement)
  7. First year certified as QHTC
  8. Explanation of principal business activity
  9. Amount of QHTC Exempt Sales/Purchases from the prior year (broken down by period)
  10. Number of QHTC employees hired
  11. Number of QHTC employees hired who are District residents
  12. Schedules detailing QHTC employee credits
  13. Number of QHTC jobs created in the past year
  14. Gross revenue
  15. Gross revenue earned from QHTC activities in the District

Practice Note: Companies that have historically claimed one or more of the tax benefits available to QHTCs and wish to continue to do so in 2019 need to carefully review [...]

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Court Strikes Down New York Opioid Surcharge on Manufacturers and Distributers

On December 19, 2018, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of McDermott’s client, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA), the trade association for pharmaceutical distributors. In Healthcare Distribution Alliance v. Zucker, the court granted summary judgment and enjoined enforcement of the New York Opioid Stewardship Act, which imposed a $600 million surcharge on manufacturers and distributors of opioid pharmaceutical products. The first $100 million installment was due on January 1, 2019. (more…)




Illinois Department of Revenue to Waive Penalty for Late Filing of Business Income Tax Returns Due October 15

The Illinois Department of Revenue (Department) announced that it will grant abatement of late filing penalties for taxpayers that file their Illinois business income tax returns on or before November 15 and request penalty waivers for reasonable cause. The Department stated that it will waive late penalties due to the “complexity” of recent federal tax reform and possible taxpayer challenges in meeting the October 15 extended filing deadline for federal and state purposes.




Illinois Appellate Court Overturns Tax Tribunal Ruling for the First Time

On December 29, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court issued a ruling reversing the decision of the Illinois Independent Tax Tribunal (Tribunal) in Waste Management of Ill., Inc. v. Ill. Independent Tax Tribunal, 2017 IL App (1st) 162830-U. This is the second appellate court to consider a Tax Tribunal ruling, and the first to overturn a decision of the Tribunal. The appellate court overturned the Tribunal’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the Illinois Department of Revenue (Department) and held that for the time periods at issue, the Motor Fuel Tax Law (Tax) (35 ILCS 505/1 et seq.) did not impose tax on compressed natural gas (CNG). In this case, Waste Management filed monthly returns reporting and paying the Tax on its usage of CNG. Following an amendment to a Department regulation that explicitly provided that CNG was subject to the Tax (see 86 Ill. Admin. Code § 500.200(c)), Waste Management amended its returns and sought a refund of Tax paid on CNG-powered vehicles for time periods prior to the amendment. The Department denied the refund claims, and Waste Management appealed the Department’s denial to the Tribunal. On the parties’ cross motions for summary judgement, the Tribunal found in the Department’s favor, on the basis that CNG was a taxable “motor fuel” under the Tax statutes. A copy of the Tribunal’s Order (Order) is linked here. (more…)




Illinois’ Invest in Kids Tax Credit

Overview

Illinois’ July 2017 Revenue Bill for the 2018 fiscal year included the Invest in Kids Act (Act), which creates a new program, effective January 1, 2018, that provides up to $75 million in income tax credits for Illinois taxpayers making contributions to eligible organizations that grant scholarships to students attending private and parochial schools in Illinois. The Act allows approved Illinois taxpayers to receive state income tax credits of 75 percent of their total qualified contributions to Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs), up to $1 million annually per taxpayer. For example, a contribution of $100,000 to an SGO allows an approved taxpayer to claim a $75,000 income tax credit. The program is administered by the Illinois Department of Revenue (Department). The Department will allocate the credits among taxpayers on a first-come, first-served basis.

Who Benefits?

The Act is intended to benefit students who are members of households whose federal adjusted gross income does not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level before the scholarship and does not exceed 400 percent of the federal poverty level once the scholarship is received. The Illinois State Board of Education will annually provide the Department with a list of eligible private and parochial schools that may participate in the program and receive scholarship contributions from SGOs. As of December 18, 2017, the list of eligible private and parochial schools for 2018 has not been published. (more…)




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