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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.




Washington Appellate Court Rejects Department’s B&O Tax Apportionment Method

In a recently issued taxpayer-favorable opinion, the Washington Appellate Court rejected the apportionment methodology used by the Department of Revenue, which sourced service receipts to the location of a taxpayer’s customers’ customers. The Court then affirmed the taxpayer’s methodology, which sourced the receipts to the location of its customers. LendingTree, LLC v. State of Wash. Dep’t of Revenue, no. 80637-8-I (Wash. App. Ct. Mar. 30, 2020) (“LendingTree Op.”).

The dispute concerned the receipts LendingTree, LLC (“LendingTree”) earned from operating its online loan marketplace for purposes of Washington’s Business and Occupation Tax. LendingTree’s business sought to match prospective borrowers and lenders though its website. Prospective borrowers provided LendingTree with requested financial information for no charge, and LendingTree analyzed this data to make referrals to lenders. Lenders paid fees to LendingTree related to its referral services. On audit, the Washington Department of Revenue (“Department”) took the position that LendingTree should have apportioned its service receipts based on the location of potential borrowers rather than its lenders’ locations. Both the Administrative Review and Hearings Division and trial court found for the Department, and LendingTree appealed.

Washington law, like the law of other states, requires multi-state taxpayers earning income from the performance of services to apportion the income to Washington if a customer receives the benefit of the taxpayer’s services in Washington (see Wash. Rev. Code § 82.04.462(3)(b)(i)). A related Washington regulation clarifies where a customer engaged in business receives the benefit of a taxpayer’s service: If the service relates to a customer’s business activities (and the service does not relate to real or tangible property), then the benefit is received where the customer’s related business activities occur. See Wash. Admin. Code 458-20-19402(303)(c). Citing this regulation, the Appellate Court concluded that “taxes are attributed to the state where the lenders conduct their business activity that most closely or directly relates to the services performed by LendingTree” (LendingTree Op. at 5).

The Appellate Court went on to conclude that the services at issue were LendingTree’s referrals of prospective borrowers to lenders, and that the lenders’ related business activities were their receipt and evaluation of the referrals at lender business locations. The Court rejected the Department’s argument that lenders received the benefit of LendingTree’s services where the borrowers (LendingTree’s customers’ customers) were located, reasoning that lenders received no benefit from LendingTree’s services until LendingTree made referrals to lenders identifying prospective borrowers. In support of its conclusion, the Court noted that lenders did not even know the identity of potential borrowers at the onset of the referral evaluation process. (LendingTree Op. at 7).

In reaching its conclusion that service receipts must be apportioned based on where the customers received the benefit of the taxpayer’s services, rather than where the customers’ customers were located, the court relied on its recently published opinion in ARUP Laboratories, Inc. v. State of Washington Department of Revenue, no. 52349-3-II (Wash. App. Ct. Feb. 11, 2020) (“ARUP Op.”). Interpreting the same rules at issue in [...]

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