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Division of Tax Appeals Rules Patent License Fees Not Subject to Sales Tax in New York

New York State Division of Tax Appeals administrative law judge (ALJ) recently ruled in Matter of AMO USA, Inc. on the question of whether patent license fees are properly subject to sales tax as part of the sale of tangible personal property. The ALJ determined that the patent license fees were not taxable because they were received in exchange for the right to use the taxpayer’s patents, which was a valuable, intangible right that could be sold separately from any tangible personal property.

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Division of Tax Appeals Rules Patent License Fees not Taxable in New York

A New York State Division of Tax Appeals administrative law judge (ALJ) recently ruled in favor of a medical device and technology company represented by McDermott Will & Emery on the question of whether patent license fees that the company charged to its customers were subject to New York sales tax. In Matter of AMO USA, Inc., DTA No. 824550 (N.Y. Div. Tax App. June 19, 2014), the ALJ determined that the patent license fees were not taxable because they were received in exchange for the right to use the company’s patents, which was a valuable intangible right that could be sold separately from any tangible personal property.

AMO USA, Inc., (AMO) was engaged in the development, manufacture and distribution of surgical procedures and technologies involved in laser assisted corrective eye surgery, and obtained patents covering many of the methods and apparatuses used to perform the surgery.  Under United States patent law, the patents issued to AMO created an enforceable right against the unauthorized use of the patented methods and apparatuses for a limited period of time.  When AMO sold a laser directly to a physician or hospital that would operate the laser in surgical procedures, AMO also granted its consent to perform the surgical procedures covered by its patents by entering into written patent license agreements with the purchasers.  The fee that the customer paid for the right to perform AMO’s patented surgical procedures was separately stated from the charge for the equipment on the customer’s invoice; while AMO collected sales tax on the latter, it claimed that the separate fee for the patent license was exempt from sales tax.

New York imposes its sales tax on retail sales of tangible personal property but not (as a general rule) on transfers of intangible property.   Further, under New York law, the primary purpose of the transaction controls the taxability of the entire transaction, even if some parts of the transaction would be taxable and other parts would not be if they were purchased separately.  If a person makes a taxable sale of tangible personal property, the entire amount of the receipt, including any expenses incurred by the seller that are passed on to the purchaser, is subject to sales tax.

The Division of Taxation (Division) asserted that the patent license fees were not independent of the charges for tangible personal property and thus the entire transaction should have been subject to sales tax.  AMO, however, explained that the patents themselves were valuable intangible rights that could be sold separately from any tangible personal property.  The ALJ agreed with AMO, remarking that the “essential and considerable value of a patent is the intangible right vested in its owner to have exclusive authority and control over the procedure, process or apparatus for a term of years[.]”

In reaching his decision, the ALJ distinguished AMO’s case from an Advisory Opinion, TSB-A-11(32)S (Dec. 7, 2011) in which the Division had ruled that certain patent license fees paid in connection with laser eye procedures were [...]

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Retroactive Revenue Raisers: A Taxpayer Win in New York; Problems Ahead in Virginia

When state legislatures are in need of additional funds – as they often are – it is tempting to enact retroactive legislation to bring more dollars into state coffers. Two recent developments have Due Process Clause questions of retroactivity back in the news in the SALT world. In Caprio v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Taxation & Fin., No. 651176/11, 2014 NY Slip Op. 02399 (N.Y. App. Div. Apr. 8, 2014), a New York court rejected a retroactive amendment reaching back three years into the past. Virginia, however, recently amended its add-back statute (H.B. 5001, § 3-5.11) with an even longer retroactive period of 10 years.

New York’s Three and a Half Year Retroactive Tax Struck Down As-Applied

In Caprio, Florida residents sold their stock in a New Jersey S corporation in exchange for an installment note. The S corporation was a janitorial services company that also did business in New York. The parties to the transaction made an IRC § 338(h)(10) election for treatment as a deemed asset sale, with the installment note thereby deemed to be distributed in liquidation to the shareholders. When the shareholders subsequently received payments on the installment note, they did not report any New York source income because they treated the payments as gain from the sale of stock, not sourced to New York any more than would be a sale of stock in a Fortune 500 company.

Treatment of gain from a nonresident’s sale of S corporation stock as not sourced to New York was upheld by the New York State Division of Tax Appeals in In re Mintz, DTA nos. 821807, 821806 (Jun. 4, 2009) (for a detailed discussion in Mintz, see Inside New York Taxes), but retroactive legislation in 2010 reversed the result. 2010 N.Y. Laws, c. 57, Part C (amending N.Y. Tax Law § 632(a)(2)).  Caprio voids the retroactive application of the 2010 amendment to the taxpayers as violating the Due Process Clause.

Applying New York’s three-factor test set forth in James Square Assoc. LP v. Mullen, 993 N.E.2d 374, 377 (N.Y. 2013), aff ’g, 91 A.D.3d 164 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th 2011) (which we discussed recently in State Tax Notes), the Appellate Division considered the factors of (1) taxpayer’s forewarning and the reasonableness of the retroactive change, (2) the length of the retroactive period, and (3) the public purpose of the retroactivity. The majority concluded that the 2010 amendment was unconstitutionally retroactive:

  • The taxpayers had no actual forewarning of the 2010 amendment at the time they entered into the transaction, and they reasonably relied on the law as it existed to structure the sale;
  • A three and a half year retroactive period was excessive; and
  • Raising $30 million for the state budget was not a sufficiently compelling public purpose.

The Questionable Validity of Virginia’s 10 Year Retroactive Add-Back Amendments

Just before Caprio came down, Virginia amended its add-back statute, retroactive to 2004, to narrow the subject-to-tax and conduit exceptions. See [...]

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