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California Supreme Court Denies BOE Petition for Review in Lucent Technologies

Last week, the California Supreme Court denied the State Board of Equalization’s (BOE’s) petition for review in Lucent Technologies, Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, No. S230657 (petition for review denied Jan. 20, 2016). This comes just months after the California Court of Appeals held against the BOE and ordered it to pay Lucent’s $25 million sales tax refund. As explained in more detail below, the denial finalizes the favorable precedent of the Court of Appeals in Nortel Networks Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, 191 Cal. App. 4th 1259, 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d 905 (2011)—representing a monumental victory for a broad range of taxpayers in California and opening the door for significant refund opportunities. Moreover, the California Supreme Court’s denial affirms the Court of Appeals decision that the BOE’s position was not substantially justified and the taxpayer was entitled to reasonable litigation costs of over $2.6 million.

Background

Lucent and AT&T (collectively Lucent) are and were global suppliers of products and services supporting, among other things, landline and wireless telephone services, the internet, and other public and private data, voice and multimedia communications networks using terrestrial and wireless technologies. Lucent manufactured and sold switching equipment (switches) to their telephone customers, which allowed the customers to provide telephone calling and other services to the end customers. The switches required software, provided on storage media, to operate. Lucent designed the software (both switch-specific and generic) that runs the switches they sell, which was copyrighted because it is an original work of authorship that has been fixed onto tapes. The software also embodies, implements and enables at least one of 18 different patents held by Lucent.

Between January 1, 1995, and September 30, 2000, Lucent entered into contracts with nine different telephone companies to: (1) sell them one or more switches; (2) provide the instructions on how to install and run those switches; (3) develop and produce a copy of the software necessary to operate those switches; and (4) grant the companies the right to copy the software onto their switch’s hard drive and thereafter to use the software (which necessarily results in the software being copied into the switch’s operating memory). Lucent gave the telephone companies the software by sending them magnetic tapes or CDs containing the software. Lucent’s placement of the software onto the tapes or discs, like the addition of any data to such physical media, physically altered those media. The telephone companies paid Lucent over $300 million for a copy of the software and for the licenses to copy and use that software on their switches.

The BOE assessed sales tax on the full amount of the licensing fees paid under the contracts between Lucent and its telephone company customers. Lucent paid the assessment and sued the BOE for a sales tax refund attributable to the software and licenses to copy and use that software at the trial court. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on Lucent’s refund claims, and the Los Angeles [...]

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Louisiana Supreme Court Upholds Bundling Portable Toilet Leases and Cleaning Services, but Not Sure About True Object of Resulting Transactions

If you are ever waiting in line for portable toilet facilities at the St. Patty’s Day Parade and in need of something to think about, consider the property and service you are about to use: Is it the lease of tangible personal property, the provision of a cleaning and waste removal service, or both? The Supreme Court of Louisiana grappled with this fundamental sales and use tax issue in Pot-O-Gold Rentals, LLC v. City of Baton Rouge, No. 2014-C-2154 (La. Jan. 16, 2015). Approaching the provision of toilets and services as a single transaction and finding the true object to be unclear, the court interpreted the taxing statute narrowly and ruled in favor of the taxpayer. Underlying the opinion is an unusually broad, all-or-nothing bundling approach to the taxability of goods and services provided together.

The City of Baton Rouge taxes the lease of tangible personal property but does not tax the provision of cleaning services. The taxpayer provided both: a customer could lease portable toilets, could purchase toilet cleaning services, or could lease toilets and purchase cleaning services together. There was no question that services alone were nontaxable or that the lease of toilets alone was taxable. The issue was how tax should apply when toilets and cleaning services were provided together. The taxpayer had collected tax on the charges for the toilets but had not collected tax on charges for services in such transactions.

Baton Rouge assessed sales tax on the services where toilets also had been provided. The taxpayer challenged the assessment and won summary judgment in its favor, with the trial court allowing the splitting of the transaction into taxable and nontaxable components. The Court of Appeals reversed, No. 2013 CA 1323 (La. Ct. App. 1st Cir. Sept. 17, 2014), holding that the cleaning service and toilet lease components of combined contracts could not be split and addressed separately. That court then applied the true object test to determine that the entire bundled transaction should be treated as a taxable lease.

The Supreme Court reversed in a per curiam opinion, taking the bundled approach of the Court of Appeals but reaching the opposite conclusion on taxability. The Supreme Court observed that it was unclear whether providing tangible personal property in connection with waste removal services constituted the provision of a nontaxable service, comparing the Louisiana Department of Revenue’s Revenue Rulings 06-012 (Aug. 23, 2006) (providing dumpsters with trash removal service is nontaxable) and 06-013 (Sept. 19, 2006) (providing portable toilets with cleaning services is taxable). Given that the true object of such a transaction was “debatable,” the canon of reading a taxing statute narrowly against the state and in favor of the taxpayer applied: The transaction was nontaxable.

Underlying both the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals opinions was a very broad, all-or-nothing approach to taxability. Where many states would view this type of transaction as a taxable lease of property coupled with nontaxable cleaning services that were not “necessary to complete [...]

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Division of Tax Appeals Rules Patent License Fees Not Subject to Sales Tax in New York

New York State Division of Tax Appeals administrative law judge (ALJ) recently ruled in Matter of AMO USA, Inc. on the question of whether patent license fees are properly subject to sales tax as part of the sale of tangible personal property. The ALJ determined that the patent license fees were not taxable because they were received in exchange for the right to use the taxpayer’s patents, which was a valuable, intangible right that could be sold separately from any tangible personal property.

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