The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Department) has just issued Directive 17-2 revoking Directive 17-1 which adopted an economic nexus standard for sales tax purposes. Directive 17-2 states that the revocation is in anticipation of the Department proposing a regulation that would presumably adopt the standards of Directive 17-1. It appears that the Department took seriously, perhaps among other concerns, internet sellers’ arguments that Directive 17-1 was an improperly promulgated rule. Internet sellers that recently received letters from the Department regarding Directive 17-1 (see our previous blog post) may need to reconsider their approach.
Massachusetts DOR Sending Letters to Sellers Regarding July 1 Effective Date of Economic Nexus Directive
Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Department) sent letters to several companies regarding Directive 17-1. The Directive announces a “rule” requiring remote internet sellers to register for and begin collecting Massachusetts sales and use tax (sales tax) by July 1, 2017, if they had more than $500,000 in Massachusetts sales during the preceding year. The legal premise behind the rule is that the Department believes sellers with more than $500,000 in annual Massachusetts sales must have more than a de minimis physical presence so that requiring sales tax collection would not be prohibited by Quill Corp v. North Dakota, 504 US 298 (1992). The Directive’s examples of such physical presence include the presence of cookies on purchasers’ computers, use of third-party carriers to make white-glove deliveries and the use of online marketplaces to sell products. The Directive also states that sellers who fail to collect tax beginning July 1, 2017 will be subject to interest and penalties (plus, of course, any uncollected taxes).
We think the Directive is contrary to law on three main grounds. First, we believe that the items that the Department asserts create physical presence are insufficient to establish more than a de minimis physical presence. For example, the presence of cookies on computers in a state appears to be less of a physical presence than the floppy disks the seller in Quill sent into North Dakota (which were used by its customers to place orders) that the United States Supreme Court viewed as de minimis. Second, the Directive violates the state administrative procedures act because it constitutes an administrative rule that was not validly adopted. Third, the Directive’s rule violates the Internet Tax Freedom Act, a federal statute, because the rule discriminates against internet sellers.
By its own terms, the Directive applies only prospectively. The Directive does not assert a blanket rule that internet sellers are liable for sales tax for periods prior to July 1, 2017, if they met a certain sales threshold. The risks from non-collection for such periods are dependent on a company’s specific facts. The letters advise sellers that they may be eligible for voluntary disclosure for such prior periods.
Companies have two general options: (1) register and begin collecting or (2) not register or collect. Litigation has been brought on behalf of a number of sellers to challenge the Directive on the grounds identified above. One important aspect of that litigation is the request for an injunction barring the enforcement of the Directive pending a court decision; an injunction would likely prompt many sellers to take a “wait and see” approach. Ultimately, sellers must make a business decision based on their own facts and business circumstances.