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McDermott Defeats New York False Claims Act Case Alleging Starbucks Failed to Collect and Remit Sales Tax

On April 9, 2018, the New York State Supreme Court granted Starbucks’ motion to dismiss claims that it had failed to collect more than $10 million of sales tax at its New York stores. Lawyers from McDermott’s State and Local Tax (SALT) group and its White Collar and Securities Defense team handled the matter.

A unique feature of New York law is that the attorney general and private qui tam plaintiffs are permitted to bring New York False Claims Act (NYFCA) actions under New York Financial Law for “claims, records, or statements made under the tax law.” Fin. L. 198(4)(a)(i)-(iii). Under federal law and the law of most states, there is no False Claims Act liability for tax issues. But in New York, the attorney general and private plaintiffs can pursue False Claims Act cases for failure to comply with tax law. There have been numerous large settlements and judgments issued against major companies under the NYFCA, including one settlement for $40 million. See A.G. Schneiderman Announces $40 Million Settlement With Investment Management Company for Tax Abuses, Marking Largest Whistleblower Recovery in Office’s History (April 18, 2017). If successful, qui tam plaintiffs can recover a 25 – 30 percent share of the amount recovered, together with costs and attorneys’ fees. Fin. L. § 190(6)(b).

In this case, two private relator plaintiffs alleged that Starbucks failed to collect sales tax on warmed and “to-go” food items over a 10-year period. The relators filed a complaint, under seal, on or about June 11, 2015, with the New York Attorney General (AG). The AG declined to intervene. On June 30, 2017, the relators elected to proceed on their own with the lawsuit and filed a complaint seeking a judgment for at least $10 million in allegedly unpaid sales tax, as well as treble damages, civil penalties and attorneys’ fees. There was no allegation that Starbucks had failed to properly pay New York taxes that it had previously collected and was holding improperly. The relators’ allegations were solely based on their claim that Starbucks had under-collected sales tax from its New York customers.

On behalf of Starbucks, McDermott filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Starbucks properly collects and pays its taxes to the State of New York and that Starbucks has consistently worked cooperatively with auditors from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. McDermott further argued that the relators “survey” of purchases at Starbucks locations and anecdotal conversations with Starbucks employees failed to properly allege that Starbucks violated the tax law or engaged in any fraud.

On November 10, 2017, the court held oral argument. On April 9, 2018, the Honorable James d’Auguste agreed with McDermott’s arguments and dismissed the case. See State of New York ex rel. James A. Hunter & Keenan D. Kmiec v. Starbucks Corporation, No. 101069/15, Dkt No. 40 (Sup Ct. April 9, 2018). The court held that the relators failed to properly allege that Starbucks had knowingly avoided or recklessly disregarded [...]

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Delaware Court Denies Most of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Unclaimed Property Gift Card False Claims Action

Two years ago, a former employee of Card Fact, LLC (subsequently purchased by Card Compliant), a company providing gift card issuance and management services to retailers, filed a false claims action in Delaware alleging that his former company and its retailer clients concocted a scheme to avoid remitting unclaimed gift card funds to Delaware. Last week, the judge in the case issued a memorandum opinion on the defendants’ Motion to DismissState of Delaware ex rel. French v. Card Compliant LLC, et al., C.A. No.: N13C-06-289 FSS [CCLD] (Del Sup. Ct. Nov. 23, 2015). While the opinion is likely disappointing to most of the defendants, it should not be read as a final victory for the state. There is still much to be decided in the case, as this was just a motion to dismiss and not a decision as to whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail.

The judge did however make several legal conclusions that are of import to Delaware companies. First, the judge determined that as to gift card liability that was initially incurred by the retailers but subsequently transferred to Card Fact (and its affiliates), the retailers remained the debtors with respect to the card owners, unless the customers consented to the delegation of debt. The judge found that the contractual agreements between the retailers and the Card Fact companies were not controlling. However, the judge did not specifically rule on gift card liabilities that were never transferred from the retailers to Card Fact, but instead were incurred directly by Card Fact after its relationship with the retailers began.

Second, the judge found that for defendants that were not C corporations, the second priority rule was to be applied based on the state of formation, not the principal place of business. This is contrary to most state laws and sets up a direct conflict between the states.

Finally, the judge found that because one of the retailers had previously been audited by Delaware (through Kelmar), it could not be a defendant in this false claims action. The judge dismissed this defendant entirely, even for claims that arose subsequent to the audit conclusion. The judge noted that “[i]f the auditor has given [the retailer] a bye, that is between the escheater and the auditor.” This is very good news for any company that has previously been audited by the state regarding the risk of a false claims action.

Practice Notes

  1. For companies that have been audited by Delaware, the risk of a false claims action has likely been significantly reduced if not eliminated;
  2. Unincorporated entities should investigate the indemnification provisions between their state of formation and state of principal place of business to determine the risk of choosing which state to remit to;
  3. Companies using gift card entities or other liability allocation arrangements should review their disclosures and agreements with customers to verify appropriate consent and understanding regarding which entity holds the actual liability.



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