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Was It Wirth It? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Sets a Low Bar for Minimum Contacts

In Wirth v. Commonwealth, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that Pennsylvania personal income tax applied to non-resident limited partners whose only connection with the state was the ownership of a small interest in a partnership that owned Pennsylvania property.  This ruling has weakened the effectiveness of the Due Process Clause as a defense against Pennsylvania taxation.

In 1984 and 1985, the non-resident appellants purchased interests in a Connecticut limited partnership organized solely for the purchase and management of a skyscraper located in Pittsburgh.  The appellants each owned between one-quarter of a unit to one unit of the partnership.  One unit equated to a 0.151281 percent interest.  The opinion does not indicate whether any of the numerous non-appellant partners owned significantly larger shares.  Further, all of the appellants were only passive investors and did not take “an active role in managing the [p]roperty.”  After 20 years of losses, the lender foreclosed on the property.  The appellants lost their entire investments, but the partnership reported a gain on its tax filings consisting of the unpaid balance of the nonrecourse note’s principal and the accrued interest, totaling $2,628,491,551.  As a result, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue assessed personal income tax against the appellants, plus interest and penalties.

The appellants argued that the Commerce and Due Process Clauses prohibited the imposition of the Pennsylvania personal income tax on them.  The court did not determine whether the Commerce Clause bars the imposition of the personal income tax on these non-residents because the appellants waived this defense by not sufficiently distinguishing between the Commerce Clause and Due Process Clause arguments.

The court did reach a decision on whether the Due Process Clause would bar relief and held that the limited interest in the partnership amounted to minimum contacts with Pennsylvania.  The court agreed with the Department, which argued that the appellants’ interests, while limited, were “hardly passive” because of the large amount of money invested by each appellant, the extensive lifespan of the partnership and the partnership’s ownership of the Pennsylvania skyscraper.  (Interestingly, this statement from the court’s opinion echoes the Department’s brief; however, the Department instead describes the appellants’ actions as passive “on a technical level” and describes the appellants’ involvement with the partnership as “hardly trivial.”  The Department’s statement works to clear up confusion as to how an interest that is, by definition, passive  could not be passive, but does raise the question as to why the court would opt to affirmatively state that the appellants’ involvement was “hardly passive.”)  The court was also particularly concerned by the fact that had the appellants not had minimum contacts with Pennsylvania, any income earned by the appellants would escape Pennsylvania tax.

Practice Note: This case does not mean that other non-resident limited partners should accept Pennsylvania taxation.  Because the appellants did not adequately argue the Commerce Clause issues, this line of argument remains viable.  Further, the court’s concern with the possibility that income related to Pennsylvania property could escape Pennsylvania tax should be a question [...]

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New Jersey’s New Laws — Retroactive for Most Companies

A newly passed New Jersey law is interesting both for what it does and for what it does not do.  Assembly bill 3486/Senate bill 2268, attempts to “clarify” four aspects of New Jersey law (retroactively for three of the four!).  The four areas affected by the law change are:  (1) the business/non-business income distinction (called “operational/non-operational income” in New Jersey); (2) a limited partner’s eligibility for a refund of Corporation Business Tax paid on its behalf by a limited partnership; (3) net operating losses involving certain amounts related to bankruptcies, insolvencies, and qualified farm indebtedness; and (4) click-through nexus for sales and use tax purposes.

Business/Non-Business Income Distinction

The distinction between business and non-business income (called “operational” and “non-operational” income in New Jersey) is critical as it determines whether certain income (such as gain from the sale of an asset) can be apportioned among the states or instead much be allocated to only one state.  The law change expands the definition of “operational income” so that many more transactions will result in the generation of apportionable income.  In fact, the law change is estimated to increase revenue by $25 million annually.

Historically, New Jersey’s definition of business (“operational”) income included gain from sale of property “if the acquisition, management, and disposition of the property constitute integral parts of the taxpayer’s regular trade or business operations. . .”  N.J.S.A. 54:10A-6.1(5)(a) (emphasis added).  Use of the conjunction “and” caused New Jersey courts to determine that all three activities (“the acquisition, management, and disposition”) must each have been integral parts of the taxpayer’s regular trade or business in order for the gain from the asset to be apportionable business (“operational”) income.  This could be overcome by demonstrating that one of the activities—usually the disposition of an asset—was not an integral part of a taxpayer’s regular trade or business.

The definition was changed, however, to replace the conjunctive “and” with the disjunctive “or” such that it will now read “the acquisition, management, and or disposition of the property constitute an integral parts of the taxpayer’s regular trade or business operations. . .”  Thus, because engaging in any one (or more) of those three activities as part of a taxpayer’s regular trade or business is sufficient, many more transactions will generate apportionable business income.

This provision takes effect for tax years ending after July 1, 2014.  This means that for a calendar year filer the provision takes effect retroactively for the tax year starting January 1, 2014, since the end of the year (December 1, 2014) is after July 1, 2014.  Interestingly, while the legislation refers to this change as a “clarification,” the fact that it is anticipated to increase revenue by $25 million indicates that it is, indeed, a change of law, reiterating that for the test really is a conjunctive one for prior periods.

Overturning the Result of BIS LP v. Director

There has been (and continues to be) a substantial amount of litigation in New Jersey courts regarding tax payments and tax [...]

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