Over the past decade we have seen a large increase in the number of third party tax enforcement claims against retailers involving transaction taxes (see Multistate Tax Commission Memorandum regarding survey of class action refund claims and false action claims, dated July 12, 2013, describing such actions). The lawsuits typically are brought either as proposed class actions, alleging an over-collection of tax, or as whistleblower claims on behalf of state governments, alleging a fraudulent under-collection of tax owed to the state or municipality. With respect to certain issues, including shipping and handling charges, retailers have been whipsawed with lawsuits alleging both under- and over-collection of tax.
On April 3, a proposed class action lawsuit was filed in Florida alleging that Papa John’s Pizza was improperly collecting tax on its delivery fees (Schojan v. Papa John’s International, Inc., No. 14-CA-003491 (Circuit Court Hillsboro County, Florida)). The lawsuit is similar to an action filed in Illinois that resulted in an Illinois Supreme Court ruling rejecting a proposed class action claim that a retailer was improperly collecting tax on its shipping charges (Kean v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 919 N.E.2d 926 (Illinois 2009)).
Both Florida and Illinois impose sales tax on services that are inseparably linked to the sale of tangible personal property (see, e.g., 86 Ill. Admin. Code § 130.415(b) & Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 12A-1.045(2)). The regulations provide that whether a customer has separately contracted for shipping charges, or has an option to avoid shipping charges by picking up the property at the retailer’s location, can be used as a proxy to determine whether the services are separate and thus not taxable (86 Ill. Admin. Code § 130.415(d); Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 12A-1.045(4)(a), (b)).
In Kean, the Illinois Supreme Court held that shipping charges were a taxable part of an internet sale in which the customer had no option but to pay shipping charges. After the ruling, the Illinois Department of Revenue made no announced change to its commonly understood audit position that sales tax was not owed on separately stated shipping charges that were assessed at a retailer’s actual cost.
Seeking to capitalize on the Kean ruling, an Illinois law firm has filed upwards of 150 lawsuits under the Illinois False Claims Act against retailers that do not collect tax on the shipping and handling charges associated with their internet sales, alleging an intentional failure to collect tax and seeking treble damages, attorneys’ fees and associated penalties. The suits were filed without regard to whether the retailers had been audited and found not to owe tax on their shipping and handling charges. The State has declined to intervene in the majority of these cases, permitting the Relator to proceed with the prosecution. Because the amounts at issue are small (6.25 percent tax on shipping and handling charges), the lawsuits force many retailers to choose between paying an (entirely undeserved) settlement to resolve the litigation or bearing the expense of litigation. For reasons not entirely clear, the Illinois General Assembly [...]