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Viral Marketers Beware – In Alabama, Sales Tax Nexus Created for Out-of-State Bookseller Even Though In-State Teachers Not Acting on Behalf of Seller

After a quarter of a century, the school book nexus cases continue to proliferate, delight and mystify.  The latest installment in the saga is from Alabama.  Scholastic Book Clubs, Inc. 2931 v. State Of Alabama Department Of Revenue, Ala. Tax Tribunal, Dkt. No. S. 14-374 (March 25, 2016).  Like the other cases, the question addressed is whether a vendor with no property or employees in the state nevertheless has nexus for sales tax collection purposes because of the activities of unrelated, and uncompensated, teachers in the state.  Like all of the other cases, these teachers received unsolicited catalogs from the vendor and could either discard the materials or distribute them to their students.  Like all of the other cases, if a teacher elected to distribute the materials, the teacher collected completed order forms and payments from the students and mailed the order and payments to the vendor.   Like all of the other cases, the teacher distributed the order once received to the individual students that placed orders.  Also, like all of the other cases the vendor provided bonus points to teachers based on the dollar amount ordered.  The vendor intended the bonus points be used to purchase additional classroom materials – either from the vendor directly or through gift cards to another retailer.

In reaching its decision, the Alabama Tax Tribunal (the Court) restricted its analysis to the historical Quill physical presence standard.  While noting that on the same facts courts in other states have been severely split on the issue of whether physical presence existed for such a vendor, the Court determined that the opinions finding physical presence were more persuasive.  The Court quoted at length from Scholastic Book Clubs, Inc. v. Comm’r of Revenue Servs., 38 A.3d 1183 (Conn. 2012).

As with most of the other bookseller cases in which a court found substantial nexus existed, the Alabama Tax Tribunal focused on the Scripto language negating the importance of labels such as “agent,” “independent contractor,” and “representative.”  This is a red-herring, as the correct analysis should be that regardless of the label, on whose behalf were the teachers acting.  Evidence was introduced that the teachers were acting on behalf of their students, not the vendor.  The Court, however, assumed this bedrock issue away by finding that regardless of on whose behalf the teachers were acting, because the teachers’ activities were substantially associated with Scholastic’s ability to establish and maintain a market in the state, this result was sufficient to establish physical presence for the vendor.  According to the Court, it did not matter that the teachers did not receive any type of compensation from the vendor and did not intend to benefit the vendor.  The only thing that mattered to the nexus analysis was that at the end of the day, the teachers were important to Scholastic’s maintenance of a market in the state.

But that cannot be the correct analysis.  Otherwise, any advertising campaign that relied on word-of-mouth (and similarly any viral marketing campaign) would establish nexus [...]

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New Jersey Issues Ominously Vague Guidance on New Click-Through Nexus Law

The New Jersey Division of Taxation issued a Notice last week that is hardly reassuring to remote sellers.  The Notice basically paraphrases the new click-through statute, noting that the statutory definition of “seller” was amended to create a rebuttable presumption that an out-of-state seller, who makes taxable sales of goods or services, is soliciting business and has nexus in New Jersey if it (1) enters into an agreement with a representative located in New Jersey for compensation in exchange for referring customers via a link on its website and (2) has sales from those referrals to customers in New Jersey in excess of $10,000 for the four prior quarterly periods.

The Notice provides no guidance for sellers on how they can prove that their New Jersey independent contractors or representatives did not engage in any solicitation on their behalf in New Jersey.  The Notice states that the out-of-state seller may provide proof that the representative did not engage in solicitation, but it does not include any details on what type of proof will be acceptable to the Division.

More troubling is that the Notice does not provide specific relief to arrangements where affiliates are paid on a cost-per-click basis (compensation based solely on the number of clicks rather than a commission on sales resulting from clicks).  States such as California, New York and Pennsylvania have said that such arrangements are indicative of advertising rather than solicitation.  The one example given in New Jersey’s Notice describes a commissioned click-through arrangement; the Notice is silent as to cost-per-click advertising.

It is unclear whether New Jersey will issue additional guidance, but given that the Notice does not provide relief for remote sellers with cost-per-click arrangements, they should not simply rely on California’s and New York’s guidance in the interim.  Instead, they should obtain documentation from all their New Jersey independent contractors and representatives that they are not soliciting business in New Jersey on their behalf, even if they are only compensated on a cost-per-click basis.




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