Moments ago, the US Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., et al., No. 17-494. The 5-4 opinion was authored by Justice Kennedy and concluded that the physical presence requirement established by the Court in its 1967 National Bellas Hess decision and reaffirmed in 1992 in Quill is “unsound and incorrect” and that “stare decisis can no longer support the Court’s prohibition of a valid exercise of the States’ sovereign power.” This opinion will have an immediate and significant impact on sales and use tax collection obligations across the country and is something every company and state must immediately and carefully evaluate within the context of existing state and local collection authority.

Summary of Opinions

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Kennedy and was joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito and Gorsuch. In reaching the conclusion that the physical presence rule is an incorrect interpretation of the dormant Commerce Clause, the opinion states that the Quill physical presence rule: (1) is flawed on its own terms because it is not a necessary interpretation of the Complete Auto nexus requirement, creates market distortions and imposes an arbitrary and formalistic standard as opposed to the case-by-case analysis favored by Commerce Clause precedents; (2) is artificial in its entirety and not just at its edges; and (3) is an extraordinary imposition by the Judiciary. The majority went on to conclude that stare decisis can no longer support the Court’s prohibition of a valid exercise of the States’ sovereign power, noting that “[i]t is inconsistent with this Court’s proper role to ask Congress to address a false constitutional premise of this Court’s own creation.” The majority noted that the South Dakota law “affords small merchants a reasonable degree of protection” and “other aspects of the Court’s [dormant] Commerce Clause doctrine can protect against any undue burden on interstate commerce.” The majority opinion specifically notes that “the potential for such issues to arise in some later case cannot justify an artificial, anachronistic rule that deprives States of vast revenues from major businesses.” Finally, the majority decision provides that in the absence of Quill and Bellas Hess, the first prong of Complete Auto simply asks whether the tax applies to an activity with substantial nexus with the taxing State and that here, “the nexus is clearly sufficient.” Specifically, the South Dakota law only applies to sellers that deliver more than $100,000 of goods or services into the State or engage in 200 or more separate transactions, which “could not have occurred unless the seller availed itself of the substantial privilege of carrying on business in South Dakota.” With respect to other principles in the Court’s dormant Commerce Clause doctrine that may invalid the South Dakota law, the majority held that “the Court need not resolve them here.” However, the majority opinion does note that South Dakota appears to have features built into its law that are “designed to prevent discrimination against or undue burdens upon interstate commerce” including: (1) a safe harbor for small sellers; (2) provisions that prevent a retroactive collection obligation; and (3) the fact that South Dakota is a member of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement.

Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch both wrote a standalone concurring opinions. Justice Thomas acknowledged that he should have voted with Justice White in Quill to overturn Bellas Hess and Justice Gorsuch seemed to caution his concurrence should not be read as an agreement with all aspects of the dormant Commerce Clause (perhaps looking forward to future issues that may be before the Court).

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. The dissent argues that any alteration to the physical presence rule should be undertaken by Congress and that departing from the doctrine of stare decisis is an exceptional action demanding special justification, which is even further heightened in the dormant Commerce Clause context. The dissenting opinion went on to note that the majority “breezily disregards the costs that its decision will impose on retailers” and that the “burden will fall disproportionately on small businesses” which they note is something Congress could fix as part of a legislative solution. The Chief Justice Robert’s dissent concludes that “I fear the Court today is compounding its past error by trying to fix it in a totally different era.”

Practice Note and Next Steps

Today’s opinion raises no shortage of questions that will be discussed and further evaluated over the coming weeks and months. One thing that is clear from the decision is that the Court is still concerned about potential undue burdens that state tax systems may impose on businesses, particularly small businesses. The Court appears to have concluded that South Dakota’s imposition does not run afoul of those concerns, however, the door is open as to whether other states’ tax systems would satisfy the new requirements. The Court repeatedly emphasized that South Dakota’s participation in the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement was an important factor in upholding the imposition of tax. The Court also cited South Dakota’s lack of retroactivity and a threshold as important factors as well.

States will obviously rejoice at the decision. Expect states to seek legislative and regulatory expansion of their “doing business” laws to align with the South Dakota v. Wayfair opinion, with significant activity in the next round of state legislative sessions.

The Court reiterated that Congress may act to address any of the concerns with the new standard. In fact, Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion acknowledges that “Congress may legislate to address these problems if it deems it necessary and fit to do so.” Although little progress has been made in Congress on this issue for some time, the landscape is now changed and that may result in pushing Congress to act.

On April 9, 2018, the New York State Supreme Court granted Starbucks’ motion to dismiss claims that it had failed to collect more than $10 million of sales tax at its New York stores. Lawyers from McDermott’s State and Local Tax (SALT) group and its White Collar and Securities Defense team handled the matter.

A unique feature of New York law is that the attorney general and private qui tam plaintiffs are permitted to bring New York False Claims Act (NYFCA) actions under New York Financial Law for “claims, records, or statements made under the tax law.” Fin. L. 198(4)(a)(i)-(iii). Under federal law and the law of most states, there is no False Claims Act liability for tax issues. But in New York, the attorney general and private plaintiffs can pursue False Claims Act cases for failure to comply with tax law. There have been numerous large settlements and judgments issued against major companies under the NYFCA, including one settlement for $40 million. See A.G. Schneiderman Announces $40 Million Settlement With Investment Management Company for Tax Abuses, Marking Largest Whistleblower Recovery in Office’s History (April 18, 2017). If successful, qui tam plaintiffs can recover a 25 – 30 percent share of the amount recovered, together with costs and attorneys’ fees. Fin. L. § 190(6)(b).

In this case, two private relator plaintiffs alleged that Starbucks failed to collect sales tax on warmed and “to-go” food items over a 10-year period. The relators filed a complaint, under seal, on or about June 11, 2015, with the New York Attorney General (AG). The AG declined to intervene. On June 30, 2017, the relators elected to proceed on their own with the lawsuit and filed a complaint seeking a judgment for at least $10 million in allegedly unpaid sales tax, as well as treble damages, civil penalties and attorneys’ fees. There was no allegation that Starbucks had failed to properly pay New York taxes that it had previously collected and was holding improperly. The relators’ allegations were solely based on their claim that Starbucks had under-collected sales tax from its New York customers.

On behalf of Starbucks, McDermott filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Starbucks properly collects and pays its taxes to the State of New York and that Starbucks has consistently worked cooperatively with auditors from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. McDermott further argued that the relators “survey” of purchases at Starbucks locations and anecdotal conversations with Starbucks employees failed to properly allege that Starbucks violated the tax law or engaged in any fraud.

On November 10, 2017, the court held oral argument. On April 9, 2018, the Honorable James d’Auguste agreed with McDermott’s arguments and dismissed the case. See State of New York ex rel. James A. Hunter & Keenan D. Kmiec v. Starbucks Corporation, No. 101069/15, Dkt No. 40 (Sup Ct. April 9, 2018). The court held that the relators failed to properly allege that Starbucks had knowingly avoided or recklessly disregarded the law. Id. at 15. The court also opined that “the Survey was not scientifically performed and plaintiffs’ Survey was unsupported by any expert review or report.” Id. at 17. Finally, the court concluded that “plaintiffs’ allegations that Starbucks’ illegal practices were ongoing for a decade before this action was started and that it suffered $10 million in damages are based purely on speculation.” Id. at 17.

McDermott’s SALT and White Collar and Securities Defense teams joined forces in representing Starbucks in connection with this matter. The team consisted of Todd Harrison, Steve Kranz, Mark Yopp, Joseph B. Evans, Kathleen Quinn and Samuel Ashworth.

Full Case Name:          State of New York ex rel. James A. Hunter & Keenan D. Kmiec v. Starbucks Corporation, No. 101069/15 (Sup Ct. April 9, 2018)

Court:                           New York State Supreme Court

Justice:                         James E. d’Auguste

Opposing Counsel:     Hunter and Kmiec

On Tuesday, April 17, 2018, at 10:00 am (EST) the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., a state tax case poised to reconsider the dormant Commerce Clause physical presence standard upheld by the Court on stare decisis grounds in the historic mail-order case Quill Corp. v. North Dakota (U.S. 1992), which was litigated by McDermott Will & Emery. The Court is expected to consider whether a 2016 South Dakota law imposing sales and use tax collection obligations on online retailers–and other sellers–with no physical presence in the state is permissible given, among other things, the advances in technology and e-commerce since Quill was decided.

For those that would like to attend the South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. oral argument as a member of the public (as opposed to as a member of the US Supreme Court Bar), the Supreme Court Police give out 100–150 numbered tickets between 7:00 am–7:30 am. The doors to the building open at 8:00 am.  Once inside, the line re-forms in the hallway by the Gallery steps and at 9:00 am, the public is allowed upstairs to the Gallery.  The argument will begin at 10:00 am.  Given the popularity of this case, it is anticipated that only around 50 seats will be available to the general public for this argument—so plan to arrive early to ensure you have the best chance to make it in!

After the oral argument concludes, we invite you to join COST, Bloomberg Tax, McDermott Will & Emery, and lawyers involved in many respects of the litigation for a moderated roundtable discussion at the DC office of McDermott Will & Emery, which is just minutes away from the Supreme Court. The roundtable discussion will begin at 12:00 pm (EST) and explore the issues before the Court and opinions regarding the many possible outcomes from the case.

We expect a full house and space will be limited, so please register your interest now so that we can plan to accommodate as many as possible. This case promises to revolutionize the world of SALT, no matter the outcome.

Many provisions of the House and Senate tax reform proposals would affect state and local tax regimes. SALT practitioners should monitor the progress of this legislation and consider contacting their state tax administrators and legislative bodies to voice their opinions.

Continue Reading.

On October 2, 2017, the State of South Dakota (State) filed its petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court (Court). A copy of the cert petition is available here and the case, South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. et al., is expected to be docketed on October 3, 2017. The State is asking the Court to overturn its physical presence standard used to determine whether an entity has substantial nexus under the dormant Commerce Clause. This comes only a few weeks after the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled against the State in favor of the online retailer defendants, citing the Court’s physical presence standard upheld in Quill on stare decisis grounds.

Practice Note

This development comes as no surprise to the state and local tax community, and begins what is likely to be one of the most closely watched cert petitions in years. Going forward, the online retailers have three options: (1) acquiesce that the Court should grant cert; (2) waive their right to file a response to the cert petition; or (3) file a brief in opposition. If the online retailers choose the third option, they will have 30 days from today (if the case is in fact docketed today) to file their brief in opposition. This deadline is subject to extensions, upon request (the first of which is always granted as a matter of right). We expect a number of groups to file amicus curiae briefs regarding this cert petition given the significance of the issue raised. If the online retailers do file a brief in opposition, the State will be given an opportunity to file a reply brief, rebutting the points made by the online retailers and reiterating the arguments made in the State’s cert petition. Unlike the cert petition and the brief in opposition, which must be filed with the Court under strict deadlines, the exact timing of the reply brief varies. As a general rule of thumb, a reply brief is usually filed approximately 10 days after filing of the brief in opposition.

While this dispute is a long way from being heard by the Court on the merits (if at all), the cert petition is a critical first step that will have implications to Congress, the courts, state legislatures, taxpayers, and revenue departments across the country. Stay tuned for more coverage of this cert petition and the developments that follow.

Yesterday, the application period opened for the limited-time MTC Marketplace Seller Voluntary Disclosure Initiative opened and it will close October 17, 2017. Since our last blog post on the topic detailing the initiatives terms, benefits and application procedure, six additional states (listed below) have signed on to participate in varying capacities. The lookback period being offered by each of the six states that joined this week is described below.

  1. District of Columbia: will consider granting shorter or no lookback period for applications received under this initiative on a case by case basis. DC’s standard lookback period is 3 years for sales/use and income/franchise tax.
  2. Massachusetts: requires compliance with its standard 3-year lookback period. This lookback period in a particular case may be less than 3 years, depending on when vendor nexus was created.
  3. Minnesota: will abide by customary lookback periods of 3 years for sales/use tax and 4 years (3 look-back years and 1 current year) for income/franchise tax. Minnesota will grant shorter lookback periods to the time when the marketplace seller created nexus.
  4. Missouri: prospective-only for sales/use and income/franchise tax.
  5. North Carolina: prospective-only for sales/use and income/franchise tax. North Carolina will consider applications even if the entity had prior contact concerning tax liability or potential tax liability.
  6. Tennessee: prospective-only for sales/use tax, business tax and franchise and excise tax.

Practice Note

The MTC marketplace seller initiative is now up to 24 participating states. It is targeting online marketplace sellers that use a marketplace provider (such as the Amazon FBA program or similar platform or program providing fulfillment services) to facilitate retail sales into the state. In order to qualify, marketplace sellers must not have any nexus-creating contacts in the state, other than: (1) inventory stored in a third-party warehouse or fulfillment center located in the state or (2) other nexus-creating activities performed by the marketplace provider on behalf of the online marketplace seller.

While Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee have signed on to the attractive baseline terms (no lookback for sales/use and income/franchise tax), Minnesota and Massachusetts are requiring their standard lookback periods (i.e., 3+ years). Thus, these two states (similar to Wisconsin) are not likely to attract many marketplace sellers. The District of Columbia’s noncommittal case-by-case offer leaves a lot to be determined, and their ultimate offer at the end of the process could range from no lookback to the standard three years.

The Multistate Tax Commission (MTC) is moving quickly to implement a multistate amnesty program through its current National Nexus Program (NNP) for sellers making sales through marketplaces. The new MTC marketplace seller amnesty program is limited to remote sellers (3P sellers) that have nexus with a state solely as the result of: (1) having inventory located in a fulfillment center or warehouse in that state operated by a marketplace provider; or (2) other nexus-creating activities of a marketplace provider in the state. Other qualifications include: (1) no prior contact/registration with the state; (2) timely application during the period of August 17, 2017 through October 17, 2017; and (3) registration with the state to begin collecting sales and use tax by no later than December 1, 2017, and income/franchise tax (to the extent applicable) starting with the 2017 tax year.

The baseline guarantee is prospective-only (beginning no later than Dec. 1, 2017) tax liability for sales and use and income/franchise tax, including waiver of penalties and interest. The program also attempts to ensure confidentiality of the 3P seller’s participation by prohibiting the states and MTC from honoring blanket requests from other jurisdictions for the identity of taxpayers filing returns. Note, however, that the confidentiality provision would still allow for disclosure of the content of the agreement in response to: (1) an inter-government exchange of information agreement in which the entity provides the taxpayer’s name and taxpayer identification number; (2) a statutory requirement; or (3) a lawful order.

Continue Reading MTC Offers 18 State Marketplace Seller Amnesty Initiative

The No Regulation Without Representation Act of 2017 (NRWRA) is scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law on Tuesday, July 25 at 10:00 am EDT in 2141 Rayburn House Office Building. The bill was introduced by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) last month with House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) as one of seven original co-sponsors. As described in more detail below, the bill would codify the Bellas Hess “physical presence” requirement upheld by the US Supreme Court in Quill and make that requirement applicable to sales, use and other similar transactional taxes, notice and reporting requirements, net income taxes and other business activity taxes. Extending the concept to an area far beyond state taxation, the bill would also require the same physical presence for a state or locality to regulate the out-of-state production, manufacturing or post-sale disposal of any good or service sold to locations within its jurisdictional borders.

In the last Congress, the Business Activity Tax Simplification Act of 2015 (BATSA) would have codified a physical presence requirement in the context of business activity taxes (e.g., net income and gross receipts taxes). However, the scope of NRWRA’s limitations on interstate regulation and tax differs from the standard set forth in BATSA. Specifically, under BATSA, assigning an employee to a state constitutes physical presence, whereas under NRWRA a company does not have physical presence until it employs more than two employees in the state (or a single employee if he or she is in the state and provides design, installation or repair services or “substantially assists” in establishing or maintaining a market). Under NRWRA, activities related to the potential or actual purchase of goods or services in the state or locality are not a physical presence if the final decision to purchase is made outside of the jurisdiction. Continue Reading House Judiciary Subcommittee to Consider Sensenbrenner Bill Tomorrow

Can a seller have nexus with a state – so as to be obligated to collect and remit that state’s sales and use taxes – only in connection with certain sales that seller makes into that state?  In this article, the authors explore the concept that only certain transactions may be subject to that obligation, depending on the extent of the seller’s connection with that state.

Read the full article.

Originally published in State Tax Notes, July 3, 2017.