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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Approves Sales Tax Apportionment for Software

On May 21, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision affirming the Massachusetts Tax Appeal Board’s decision in favor of Microsoft and Oracle, ruling that the companies may apportion sales tax to other states on software purchased by a Massachusetts company from which the software was accessed and seek a tax refund.

The case involved a claim by vendors for abatement of sales tax collected on software delivered to a location in Massachusetts but accessible from multiple states. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) claimed that the statute gave it the sole right to decide whether the sales price of the software could be apportioned and, if so, the methods the buyer and seller had to use to claim apportionment. Under rules promulgated by the DOR, there are three methods to choose from, such as the purchaser giving the seller an exemption certificate claiming the software would be used in multiple states, none of which the purchaser used. The DOR argued that if a taxpayer did not use one of the methods specified in the rule, no apportionment was permitted. The vendors sought abatement of the tax on the portion of the sales price that could have been apportioned to other states had one of the methods specified under the rule been used. The DOR claimed the abatement procedure was not a permissible method of claiming apportionment.

The court held: (1) the statute gave the purchaser the right of apportionment and it was not up to the DOR to decide whether apportionment was permitted; (2) the abatement procedure is an available method for claiming the apportionment; and (3) the taxpayer was not limited to the procedures specified in the rule for claiming sales price apportionment.

The court’s decision was based in part on separation of powers: “Under the commissioner’s reading of [the statute], the Legislature has delegated to the commissioner the ultimate authority to decide whether to allow apportionment of sales tax on software sold in the Commonwealth and transferred for use outside the Commonwealth.” The court found such a determination represented “a fundamental policy decision that cannot be delegated.”

The Massachusetts rules reviewed by the court have their genesis in amendments to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA) (that never became effective) providing special sourcing rules for, among other things, computer software concurrently available for use in more than one location. Even though Massachusetts is not a member of the SSUTA, officials from the DOR participate in the Streamlined process and apparently brought those amendments home with them and had them promulgated into the Commonwealth’s sales tax rules.

Practice Notes: This case addresses one of the issues with taxing business models in the digital space. This important decision makes clear, at least in Massachusetts, that taxpayers have post-sale opportunities to reduce sales tax liability on sales/purchases of software accessible from other states where tax on the full sales price initially was collected and remitted by the seller.

Taxpayers may have refund opportunities related to this [...]

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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.




Massachusetts’ First Really Good Amnesty Program Since 2002

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Department) is widely promoting a new amnesty program with significant taxpayer benefits.  Our experience with Massachusetts amnesty suggests that this is the broadest program offered by the Department since 2002.

Individual and business taxpayers may participate in the program for taxes due on or before December 31, 2015. To participate in the program, taxpayers must complete an amnesty return online and submit payment for the full amount of tax and interest electronically by Tuesday, May 31, 2016.

The amnesty program, which waives most types of penalties, offers three special features for taxpayers to consider.

Taxpayers in Audit Can Participate

First, unlike many other state amnesty programs, the current Massachusetts program is available to taxpayers who are under audit. The Department’s auditors have been notifying taxpayers of the program, and Department personnel have confirmed with us that taxpayers under audit are eligible for the program. Department personnel have asked that taxpayers who wish to participate in the program simply notify their auditor.

Refunds Permitted

Second, unlike many other amnesty programs, taxpayers who participate in the Massachusetts program do not lose appeal rights or otherwise forfeit their right of refund for amounts that are disputed in the audit or that they later conclude were mistakenly paid under amnesty. A recent Technical Information Release provides that participation in the amnesty program and the payment of any tax and interest “does not constitute a forfeiture of statutory rights of appeal or an admission that the tax paid is the correct amount of liability due.”

Non-Filers Can Participate

Third, for the first time since 2002, non-filers may participate in the amnesty program.  Participating taxpayers will receive a three-year limited look-back period.

Taxpayers with eligible liabilities should seriously consider whether to participate in the program.




Massachusetts Court Holds Department of Revenue’s Guidance to Be Unreasonable

Northeastern University, the Trustees of Boston University, Wellesley College and 131 Willow Avenue, LLC prevailed in their appeal of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s (the Department) rejection of their Brownfields tax credit applications in Massachusetts Superior Court. 131 Willow Avenue, LLC v. Comm’r of Revenue, 2015 WL 6447310 (2015). The taxpayers argued, and the court agreed, that the Department improperly denied their applications based on the unlawful use of Directive 13-4 issued by the commissioner of revenue (the Commissioner). At issue was the validity of Directive 13-4’s prohibition on nonprofit and transfer Brownfields tax credit applicants from receiving or transferring credits based on documentation submitted in a taxable year that commenced before the effective date of a 2006 amendment expanding the Brownfields tax credit statute to include nonprofit organizations and allow for credit transfers. The court held that the directive was “unreasonable and [the Department’s] denial of the applications based on that directive was unlawful.” (more…)




Massachusetts Department of Revenue Introduces Pilot Voluntary Disclosure Program

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (the Department) released a draft administrative procedure introducing a pilot Voluntary Disclosure Program (the Program) for the settlement of uncertain tax issues for business taxpayers on January 19. The Department introduced this Program in response to a suggestion made by Scott Susko, an author of this article, and another practitioner, both of whom serve as taxpayer professional representatives on the Department’s Advisory Council. We commend the Department for reacting to this suggestion in such a proactive manner.

The Program will provide “a process through which uncertain tax issues may be resolved on an expedited basis, generally within four months” (All quotations in this post are from the Department’s draft administrative procedure).

We think this Program will be particularly helpful to public companies in resolving issues related to their financial statement reserves.

The Program defines an “uncertain tax issue” as an issue “for which there is no clear statutory guidance or controlling case law, and which has not been addressed by the Department in a regulation, letter ruling, or other public written statement,” and “for which a taxpayer would be required to maintain a reserve in accordance with ASC 740: Accounting for Uncertainty in Income Taxes (formerly Fin 48).” The issue also “must not have been addressed as part of a prior audit of the taxpayer, a prior application for abatement or amended return filed by the taxpayer, or a prior ruling request made by the taxpayer.”

To qualify for the Program, “any potential tax liability attributable to the uncertain tax issue(s) must be $100,000 or more, exclusive of interest and penalties.” A taxpayer that is under audit or has received notice of an impending audit is not eligible for the Program. The Department has the “discretion to determine that the Program is not appropriate for specific cases.”

The Department “will consider settlement of an uncertain tax issue(s) where: (1) the taxpayer has presented its position on the issue(s) and the Department agrees that the tax treatment of the issue(s) is uncertain; and (2) the taxpayer has fully disclosed and documented the issue(s) and the facts associated with that issue(s).”

A taxpayer may initiate the process by submitting an anonymous letter to the Department, which will respond to the taxpayer within 30 days. If the Department accepts the taxpayer into the Program, the taxpayer may submit an application, including a settlement proposal and identifying the taxpayer, within 45 days of receiving the Department’s acceptance letter.

The Department will waive penalties related to the uncertain tax issue for a taxpayer that reaches an agreement with the Department pursuant to the Program, as well as for a taxpayer that does not reach an agreement with the Department “provided the taxpayer acted in good faith.”

The Department requested practitioner comments on the draft administrative procedure by February 1, and MWE submitted two technical comments.

Our first comment was that following the initial evaluation, the Department should issue to the taxpayer a one-page technical position explaining whether it does or [...]

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Massachusetts DOR May Lose Staff This Summer

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) likely will have significantly less employees starting July 1, 2015, due to a Massachusetts employee retirement incentive program.  Governor Charlie Baker recently signed legislation establishing the program on May 4, 2015 (see 2015 Mass. Acts Chapter 19, An Act Relative to State Personnel).  With more than half of DOR’s employees eligible to participate in the program, DOR is the state agency with the potential to lose the highest percentage of employees.

The program allows employees who already are eligible to retire but have not reached their maximum pension benefit to add up to five years onto their age, years of service or a combination of both, so they can retire immediately with a higher pension.  The program limits total workforce reductions in Massachusetts to 5,000 employees.  Eligible employees must submit an application to the State Board of Retirement between May 11 and June 12, 2015, to participate.  The retirement date and last day of work for approved employees will be June 30, 2015.  The Baker administration can use up to 20 percent of the savings from the retired employees to hire replacement staff, but it is unclear when such hiring will take place and how much funding will be allocated to DOR versus other state agencies affected by the program.

What does this mean for taxpayers and tax practitioners?  We are hearing that there may be a potential shortage of staff at DOR, particularly in the Audit Division.  Audits may be slowed and relationships that have been developed over years with auditors may end abruptly.  Consequently, taxpayers and their representatives might aim to quickly resolve any matters they have outstanding with DOR sooner rather than later as DOR may be forced to slow down following the reduction in staff this summer.

It is unclear what effect the program will have on the Litigation Bureau and other sections of DOR.  A loss of litigators could slow cases currently before the Appellate Tax Board.

Although disagreements may exist with various DOR positions, we are pleased with the institutional strength of DOR.  We hope that steps will be taken to retain the institutional knowledge of long time DOR personnel.




Take Two: Massachusetts Department of Revenue Releases Revised Market-Based Sourcing Regulation

Late last week, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (the Department) released a revised draft regulation on Massachusetts’s new market-based sourcing law.  The changes made by the Department to purportedly address practitioner and taxpayer concerns were relatively modest.  The rules remain lengthy, complex and cumbersome.  There are still various assignment rules that apply to each of the following types of transactions: (1) in-person services, (2) professional services, and (3) services delivered to the customer, or through or on behalf of the customer (described in the new regulation as services delivered to the customer, on behalf of the customer, or delivered electronically through the customer, hereinafter “sales delivered to, by, or through a customer”).  For a more detailed discussion of these rules see our State Tax Notes article on market-based sourcing

The most noteworthy changes from the initial draft relate to the taxpayer’s ability to use a “reasonable approximation” method.  The initial draft regulation provided taxpayer’s with the ability to use a “reasonable approximation” when “the state or states of assignment” could not be determined.  The new regulation clarifies that a taxpayer must, in good faith, make a reasonable effort to apply the primary rule applicable to the sale (e.g., the specific assignment rules for in-person services, professional services, or sales to, by, or through a customer) before it may reasonably approximate.  Additionally, the regulation explicitly states that a method of reasonable approximation “must reflect an attempt to obtain the most accurate assignment of sales consistent with the regulatory standards set forth in [the regulation], rather than an attempt to lower the taxpayer’s tax liability.”  There is no guidance as to how a taxpayer would demonstrate that its reasonable approximation attempt was made to “obtain the most accurate assignment of sales.”  This raises a number of questions–for example, if a taxpayer determines that there are two equally reasonable methods by which it can reasonably approximate its Massachusetts sales, can it use the method that results in less tax?  Additionally, there does not seem to be any converse requirement that the Department make a similar demonstration (i.e., that any modifications to a taxpayer’s sourcing methodology not be an attempt to increase a taxpayer’s liability) when exercising its authority to adjust a taxpayer’s return (as discussed below).

In an attempt to make the regulation more even-handed, the Department’s revisions provide that neither a taxpayer nor the Department may adjust a “proper” method of assignment, including a method of reasonable approximation, unless it is to correct factual or calculation errors.  However, the revision isn’t all that meaningful because there are still a broad number of scenarios in which the Department can make changes, one of which is when a taxpayer uses a method of approximation and the Commissioner determines that the method of approximation employed by the taxpayer is not “reasonable.”  Additionally, when a taxpayer excludes a sale from both the numerator and denominator of its sales factor because it has determined that the assignment of the sale cannot be reasonably approximated, [...]

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Does the Massachusetts Department of Revenue Still Believe SaaS is Subject to Sales Tax?

As noted in an earlier blog post, “[a] trend is developing in response to aggressive Department of Revenue/Treasury policy-making regarding cloud computing.”  This trend has not been friendly to aggressive Departments, and it appears that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (Massachusetts Department) may be subtly moving away from its own aggressive position regarding one type of cloud computing transaction, software as a service (SaaS).

Following in the footsteps of the New York Department of Taxation and Finance, the Massachusetts Department has been one of the more aggressive departments in the current debate over the taxability of SaaS (see, e.g., Mass. Regs. Code 64H.1.3(3)(a); Mass. Letter Ruling 13-5 (June 4, 2013); Mass. Letter Ruling 12-13 (Nov. 09, 2012); Mass. Letter Ruling 12-10 (Sept. 25, 2012); Mass. Letter Ruling 12-6 (May 21, 2012)).  In its various letter rulings on the subject, the Massachusetts Department has routinely stated its position as follows:

Charges for prewritten software, whether it is electronically downloaded to the customer or accessed by the customer on the seller’s server (including the “Software as a Service” business model), are generally taxable. However, the marketing description of a product as “software -as-a-service” does not determine taxability of a product, nor does the fact that customers do not download software  or otherwise install software on their own computers or other devices.

The Massachusetts Department applies a “true object of the transaction” test to distinguish between situations where a transaction is for taxable software as opposed to a non-taxable service, noting in its guidance that “[w]here use of a software application is bundled with substantial non-taxable personal or professional services or non-taxable services such as database access or data processing, the object of the transaction may be the non-taxable service rather than a sale of software.”

Though the Massachusetts Department has continued to assert that charges for SaaS are generally subject to tax—both in its published guidance and during taxpayer audits—it has been over a year since the Massachusetts Department has published guidance finding that a specific SaaS offering was subject to tax (see Mass. Letter Ruling 13-5 (June 4, 2013)).  During that year, the Massachusetts Department has issued two new letter rulings, Mass. Letter Ruling 14-4 (May 29, 2014) and Mass. Letter Ruling 14-1 (Feb. 10, 2014), and revised one, Mass. Letter Ruling 12-8 (Revised Nov. 8, 2013), all of which have relied on the “object of the transaction” test to conclude that the offerings at issue were not taxable transfers of prewritten software.

In Mass. Letter Ruling 14-4, the Massachusetts Department considered the requestor’s SaaS offering through which it provided customers with remote access to interactive training programs hosted on its servers, seemingly a ripe fact pattern for finding that the true object of the transaction was prewritten software, especially in light of the Massachusetts Department’s position in other letter rulings (see, e.g., Mass. Letter Ruling 12-10, finding the true object of a SaaS transaction to be the underlying software, noting that “the customer must interact with the software in [...]

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