New Jersey Reconsiders Financial Transaction Tax

A troubling New Jersey financial transaction tax proposal, which appeared to be gaining in popularity over the last few months, has reportedly been left out of the 2021 budget deal Governor Phil Murphy struck with legislative leaders last week. The decision to drop the transaction tax from the deal came days after the Wall Street Journal reported that prominent stock exchanges with data centers in New Jersey were prepared to exit the state if the tax plan was adopted. Although the financial transaction tax may be off the table this round, Governor Murphy still likes the idea and we are hearing that the concept is not permanently dead.

S2902/A4402 would impose a financial transaction tax on persons or entities that process 10,000 or more financial transactions through electronic infrastructure located in New Jersey during the year. According to the bill, there are reportedly billions of financial transactions processed daily, and many of those are processed through infrastructure located in New Jersey. The tax would be a quarter of a cent per financial transaction processed in the state and be levied on the processor.

Many well-known New York stock exchanges maintain their electronic infrastructure in New Jersey and have expressed their intention to leave New Jersey before becoming subject to the tax, which they argue harms not only their customers but also ordinary investors because the costs of the tax are passed down from the exchanges to everyone else in the market. Many US stock exchanges already maintain backup facilities in the Midwest. An industry-wide effort to test those Midwestern facilities is scheduled for September 26 to demonstrate their preparedness, and willingness, to relocate.

New Jersey’s financial transaction tax proposal may drive data center businesses out of the state before it is even adopted or formally considered by the state legislature, which teaches a valuable lesson: In a post-coronavirus world, states looking to make up billions in deficits by aggressively taxing businesses that survived the economic crisis risk finding out just how mobile businesses have become.



Washington Department of Revenue Announces LendingTree Decision Does Not Prevent Sourcing of Services to Customer’s Customer Location

The Washington State Department of Revenue (the “Department”) recently announced its interpretation of the Washington Court of Appeals’ March 30, 2020, adverse ruling in LendingTree, LLC v. Dep’t of Revenue, no. 80637-8-I (Wash. App. Ct. Mar. 30, 2020). See here for our prior analysis of the LendingTree opinion. In its interpretation, the Department takes the view that the LendingTree opinion “does not represent a new legal framework,” but rather that the court simply followed the applicable business and occupation tax apportionment rules in sourcing service receipts to the customer’s location and rejecting the Department’s methodology sourcing to the customers’ customers’ location.

The Department’s response suggests that it intends to narrowly apply LendingTree‘s holding. The Department admits that the court agreed with LendingTree in designating the service at issue to be LendingTree’s referral services (lenders pay a fee to receive referrals of potential borrowers) and rejected the Department’s characterization of the service as marketing and outreach to potential borrowers. Under this characterization, the Department observes, in accordance with a Washington regulation sourcing services to where the customer’s related business activity occurs, the referral services are sourced to the lender’s location, where lenders evaluate the referrals received by LendingTree.

The response goes on to emphasize, however, that there are circumstances where the Department will continue to source service receipts to a customer’s customers’ location. The Department announced that one such circumstance would be for taxpayers who have revenues from the sale of marketing or advertising services to a customer engaged in the business of selling.

Taxpayers should be forewarned that despite the LendingTree ruling, they may still have to battle Department efforts to source service receipts based on the location of their customers’ customers (particularly if they are engaged in the sale of marketing or advertising services), despite a Washington statute requiring service receipts to be sourced to the customer and federal constitutional principles requiring that an apportionment method reflect a taxpayer’s in-state activity. (See: e.g., Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Jefferson Lines, 514 U.S. 175 (1995); Container Corp. of America v. Franchise Tax Board, 463 U.S. 159 (1983).) Unfortunately, it appears that “look through” sourcing disputes between taxpayers and the Department will continue.



Business Victorious in Unclaimed Gift Card False Claims Case

The Delaware Supreme Court gave Overstock.com a win in a False Claims Act (FCA) suit alleging the retailer failed to remit unclaimed gift card funds to the state. Overstock.com Inc. v. the State of Delaware and French, DE Sup. Ct., No. 327,2019 (June 25, 2020). A jury previously found Overstock liable for approximately $7.3 million. The Delaware Supreme Court, interpreting the FCA statute in effect for the years at issue, determined the trial court judge improperly instructed the jury that the knowing failure to file unclaimed property reports was the making of a false statement as required to succeed on an FCA claim. Contrary to the trial judge’s instructions, the Supreme Court determined that to meet the FCA standard in effect for the years at issue, some document incorporating the alleged false claim must have been provided to the government. Failure to file a report was by definition not a false record or statement because there was not record or statement.

Based on this interpretation of the FCA statute, the jury verdict was reversed because Overstock did not file any unclaimed property reports with Delaware. Absent a filed report, there was no false claim. The plaintiffs alleged other documents were sufficient to meet the submission of a “false record or statement” element of the relevant FCA: (a) Overstock’s books and records and (b) statements to the SEC. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments. Overstock’s books and records were not sufficient because these documents were not submitted to the State and the SEC filings were not submitted in order to avoid the alleged unclaimed property liability.

Delaware, like many states, adopts the same language as the federal FCA statute. The federal government made amendments in 2009 to include language imposing liability if someone “knowingly conceals or knowingly and improperly avoids or decreases an obligation.” Delaware amended its FCA statute in 2013 to include this language.

Practice Note:
This win does not provide any guidance on the substantive issue asserted by the plaintiffs at trial regarding whether and under what facts contracting with another entity to issue gift cards imposes unclaimed property obligations on the issuer rather than the retailer. This is a narrow victory as it applies to a prior version of Delaware’s FCA statute. However, companies confronted by FCA suits – for both unclaimed property and tax liability, should look at when or if the state at issue amended the FCA to adopt the modern version and whether they have a filing history. It is interesting that a company that did not file any report is potentially better off under the historic FCA language than one who did. While this a victory based on a narrow issue, a victory is a victory.



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 risk of paying treble damages in false claims suits, including for weak or even meritless claims.

We are hopeful that California’s legislators will fully consider the negative impact of expanding the CFCA to tax claims. In the meantime, the California Taxpayers Association is working to coordinate opposition, and we encourage our readers to contact them and the authors if you would like to discuss this troubling development in more detail.



California Bill Would Make Taxpayer Information Available to the Public (Seriously!)

A concerning bill is pending in the California Senate. SB-972 would require the California State Controller’s Office (the Controller) to make taxpayer information publicly available. The bill would require that the Controller post on its website a list of all taxpayers subject to the California corporation tax with gross receipts of $5 billion or more and information about each taxpayer, including the tax liability of taxpayer and the amount of tax credits claimed by the taxpayer in the previous calendar year. We are hearing that the California Senate is likely to pass the bill. If the bill does pass in the Senate, it will head to the Assembly.

This bill is surprising (and alarming) because the usual policy of states and tax departments is to protect the confidentiality of taxpayer information. In fact, most states have statutory provisions ensuring that taxpayer information obtained through tax filings and audits is kept confidential, and disclosure is criminal in most states. If SB-972 is adopted, California will be one of the only states (if not the only state) to proactively make taxpayer information public. There does not appear to be a public benefit to releasing this historically confidential information, making the bill’s infringement on taxpayers’ privacy expectations concerning.

We understand that California may be looking to increase tax on corporations (possibly by repealing certain tax credits) as a means to raise revenue, and it seems likely that this bill is related to that goal, or at least embarrassing taxpayers who do not pay significant funds to the state. However, the bill simply goes too far; releasing information that is universally treated as confidential eviscerates taxpayer privacy and should not be permitted. The legislation is simply an effort to weaponize taxpayer information and shame taxpayers based on what they owe or do not owe to the state.



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