physical presence standard

On October 2, 2017, the State of South Dakota (State) filed its petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court (Court). A copy of the cert petition is available here and the case, South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. et al., is expected to be docketed on October 3, 2017. The State is asking the Court to overturn its physical presence standard used to determine whether an entity has substantial nexus under the dormant Commerce Clause. This comes only a few weeks after the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled against the State in favor of the online retailer defendants, citing the Court’s physical presence standard upheld in Quill on stare decisis grounds.

Practice Note

This development comes as no surprise to the state and local tax community, and begins what is likely to be one of the most closely watched cert petitions in years. Going forward, the online retailers have three options: (1) acquiesce that the Court should grant cert; (2) waive their right to file a response to the cert petition; or (3) file a brief in opposition. If the online retailers choose the third option, they will have 30 days from today (if the case is in fact docketed today) to file their brief in opposition. This deadline is subject to extensions, upon request (the first of which is always granted as a matter of right). We expect a number of groups to file amicus curiae briefs regarding this cert petition given the significance of the issue raised. If the online retailers do file a brief in opposition, the State will be given an opportunity to file a reply brief, rebutting the points made by the online retailers and reiterating the arguments made in the State’s cert petition. Unlike the cert petition and the brief in opposition, which must be filed with the Court under strict deadlines, the exact timing of the reply brief varies. As a general rule of thumb, a reply brief is usually filed approximately 10 days after filing of the brief in opposition.

While this dispute is a long way from being heard by the Court on the merits (if at all), the cert petition is a critical first step that will have implications to Congress, the courts, state legislatures, taxpayers, and revenue departments across the country. Stay tuned for more coverage of this cert petition and the developments that follow.

On Saturday, January 14, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Task Force on State and Local Taxation (Task Force) met in Scottsdale, Arizona to discuss many of the key legislative issues that are likely to be considered by states in 2017. The Task Force consists of state legislators and staff from 33 states and serves as an open forum to discuss tax policy issues and trends with legislators and staff from other states, tax practitioners and industry representatives.

Below is a short summary of the key sessions and takeaways from the first Task Force meeting of 2017. PowerPoints from all sessions are available on the Task Force website.

Nexus Expansion Legislation Expected to Continue

With lawsuits pending in South Dakota and Alabama over actions taken by states in 2016, MultiState Associate’s Joe Crosby provided an overview of 2016 nexus expansion legislation (as well as legislation introduced thus far in 2017), with NCSL’s Max Behlke pointing out that he expects a lot of states to act on this trend this year.

In particular, it was pointed out that the US Supreme Court’s denial of cert in DMA v. Brohl (upholding the decision of the 10th Circuit) should give states confidence about their ability to constitutionally adopt similar notice and reporting laws. Last month, Alabama Revenue Commissioner Julie Magee publicly stated that Alabama plans to introduce notice and reporting legislation similar to Colorado, along with at least two other states.

Economic nexus laws directly challenging Quill, similar to South Dakota SB 106 passed last year, are also expected to be prevalent in 2017—with five states (Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) already introducing bills or formal bill requests that include an economic nexus threshold for sales and use tax purposes. Notably, the Wyoming bill (HB 19) has already advanced through the House Revenue Committee and its first reading by the Committee of the Whole and is expected to receive a final vote in the House this week. The Nebraska bill (LB 44) takes a unique approach in that it would impose Colorado-style notice and reporting requirements on remote sellers that refuse to comply with the economic nexus standard.

Behlke pointed out that he doesn’t see Congress acting on the remote sales tax issue in early 2017 due to other priorities—including federal tax reform. With a final resolution of the kill-Quill efforts by the US Supreme Court most likely not possible until late 2017 (or later), state legislatures are likely to feel the need to take matters into their own hands. From an industry perspective, this presents a host of compliance concerns and requires companies currently not collecting based on Quill to closely monitor state legislation. This is especially true given the fact that many of the bills take effect immediately upon adoption.

Continue Reading NCSL Task Force on SALT Meets in Anticipation of Active Legislative Sessions

This morning, the US Supreme Court announced that it denied certiorari in Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, which was on appeal from the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The denied petitions were filed this fall by both the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and Colorado, with the Colorado cross-petition explicitly asking the Court to broadly reconsider Quill. In light of this, many viewed this case a potential vehicle to judicially overturn the Quill physical presence standard.

Practice Note:  Going forward, the Tenth Circuit decision upholding the constitutionality of Colorado’s notice and reporting law stands, and is binding in the Tenth Circuit (which includes Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma as well). While this development puts an end to this particular kill-Quill movement, there are a number of other challenges in the pipeline that continue to move forward.

In particular, the Ohio Supreme Court recently decided that the Ohio Commercial Activity Tax, a gross-receipts tax, is not subject to the Quill physical presence standard. A cert petition is expected in this case, and could provide another opportunity for the US Supreme Court to speak on the remote sales tax issue. In addition, litigation is pending in South Dakota and Alabama over economic nexus laws implemented earlier this year. A motion hearing took place before the US District Court for the District of South Dakota last week on whether the Wayfair case should be remanded back to state court. If so, the litigation would be subject to the expedited appeal procedures implemented by SB 106 (2016), and would be fast tracked for US Supreme Court review. Tennessee also recently adopted a regulation implementing an economic nexus standard for sales and use tax purposes that directly conflicts with Quill that is expected to be implemented (and challenged) in 2017. While Governor Bill Haslam has praised the effort, state legislators have been outspoken against the attempt to circumvent the legislature and impose a new tax. Notably, the Joint Committee on Government Operations still needs to approve the regulation for it to take effect, with the economic nexus regulation included in the rule packet scheduled for review by the committee this Thursday, December 15, 2016.

All this action comes at a time when states are gearing up to begin their 2017 legislative sessions, with many rumored to be preparing South Dakota-style economic nexus legislation for introduction. While DMA is dead as an option, the movement to overturn Quill continues and the next few months are expected to be extremely active in this area. Stay tuned to Inside SALT for the most up-to-date developments.

Earlier today, the Tennessee Department of Revenue (DOR) submitted a new sales and use tax regulation for publication titled “Out-of-State Dealers” (Rule 1320-06-01-.129) that would administratively create an economic nexus threshold. With the submission, Tennessee becomes the most recent addition to the growing list of states seeking to directly attack the Quill physical presence standard.  As detailed in our prior blog, both Alabama and South Dakota are already litigating whether their economic nexus standards are sufficient to satisfy the dormant commerce clause substantial nexus requirement.  Additionally, at least 11 different bills in eight different states have been introduced in state legislatures so far in 2016.  With states continuing to attack Quill from all angles, remote sellers are scrambling to keep up with the increasingly volatile nexus landscape. Continue Reading Breaking News: Tennessee Submits Proposed Economic Nexus Regulation for Publication

Ever since Alabama’s new economic nexus regulation went into effect, litigation over its constitutionality has been expected given that Alabama Commissioner Julie Magee and Governor Bentley said as much when announcing it (Rule 810-6-2-.90.03, effective January 1, 2016).  It appears that they finally got their wish. On June 8, 2016, Newegg Inc. (Newegg) filed a Notice of Appeal in the Alabama Tax Tribunal challenging the Alabama Department of Revenue (DOR) Notice of Final Assessment of Sellers Use Tax (Assessment) that was entered on May 12, 2016. The Assessment is for seller’s use tax, interest and penalties for the months of January and February 2016 (the Assessment Period), which represent the first two months the new regulation was in effect.

The Alabama litigation comes on the heels of the litigation in South Dakota, which also involves Newegg and other retailers. Although the critical issue in both is whether economic nexus is constitutional, given that the Alabama imposition is through a regulation and not a statute, the arguments in each state’s litigation may not be parallel.

DOR Explanation of the Assessment

The DOR asserts that under the new regulation Newegg has a “substantial economic presence” in Alabama.  According to Newegg, the DOR “has offered no basis for its determination” that the regulation’s requirements were satisfied during the Assessment Period. Specifically, Newegg notes that the DOR “conclusion appears to be based solely upon the fact that Newegg had ‘significant sales into Alabama,’ i.e., more than $250,000 of retail sales to Alabama customers.”

Newegg’s Grounds for Appeal

Newegg requests that the Tax Tribunal cancel the Assessment, citing the following grounds as the primary basis:

  1. The application of the new regulation to Newegg (and the Assessment) are unconstitutional because Newegg did not (and does not) have the necessary physical presence required to satisfy the “substantial nexus” standard for sales and use taxes under the Commerce Clause, as described by the US Supreme Court in Quill.
  2. The new regulation is invalid because retailers must “lack an Alabama physical presence” for it to apply. Therefore, it conflicts with both the Alabama sales and use tax statutes and the US Constitution, each of which requires a physical presence in the state by (or on behalf of) the retailer.
  3. The application of the new regulation to an internet retailer with no physical presence in Alabama is inconsistent with the authorizing seller’s use tax statute. Specifically, none of the provisions of the sales and use tax statutes (or any other provision in the Alabama Code) authorize the DOR to impose seller’s use tax collection obligations on internet retailers with no physical presence in the state.

The State of Nexus in Other States

The Alabama litigation represents the third prominent nexus case that involves Newegg.  Not only is the company involved in South Dakota (see our prior coverage of the South Dakota lawsuits here), but it is also one of the three taxpayers involved in the Ohio Commercial Activity Tax (CAT) litigation (see our prior coverage of the Ohio lawsuits here). All three cases involve the imposition of nexus on a company without physical presence in the taxing state, one with respect to a gross receipts tax (the Ohio CAT), and the others with respect to sales and use taxes.

On May 25, 2016, the fast-tracked lawsuit filed by South Dakota was (at least temporarily) slowed down when defendants filed a Notice of Removal (Notice) in the US District Court for the District of South Dakota. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the plaintiff (South Dakota here) has 30 days (i.e., until June 24, 2016) to file a motion to remand based on a defect in the removal procedure. However, a claim based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction can be raised at any time. According to the Notice and accompanying documentation, the basis for removal is federal question jurisdiction. Because the defendants notified the state court, the state court is likely deprived of jurisdiction to act unless the federal court remands the case back to state court. If South Dakota proceeds with the litigation in federal court, it will lose the benefits of the expedited state court appeal process enacted by Senate Bill 106. Only time will tell how the case proceeds.

Practice Note

As judicial challenges to the continued viability of Quill move further along (with Alabama now joining South Dakota as a state with potential Quill litigation pending), the impact on the status of federal legislation remains to be seen. Speaking before the Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA) yesterday, Commissioner Magee pointed out that 41 remote sellers have signed up for Alabama’s Simplified Sellers Use Tax Program, which allows them to avoid the application of the new economic nexus regulation. The Commissioner proudly touted revenue raised in excess of $1 million in the first calendar quarter of 2016 alone. Although we only know of the Newegg case at this point, it’s likely that there are many other assessments and suits to come in Alabama.

During yesterday’s FTA panel presentation on the topic (by Commissioner Magee, South Dakota Secretary Andy Gerlach, COST’s Fred Nicely and Steve Kranz) and conversations that followed, tax administrators in a number of states expressed a willingness to accept prospective voluntary disclosure agreements (VDA’s) from remote retailers. See our prior article explaining why taxpayers should say no to standard VDA lookback periods. In states where a risk of retroactive application exists (or where the taxpayer is going to begin filing anyway) it makes sense to explore the possibility of a prospective arrangement and ensure the state does not seek backward-looking compliance with their new law or position. It should be noted that, unlike South Dakota, the Alabama regulation does not contain any provisions regarding retroactivity.  The regulation took effect as of January 1, 2016, and, ostensibly, liability for retailers not collecting and remitting is accumulating. Retailers should review their positions regarding Alabama and determine the potential liability.  Retroactivity was a significant issue in the Quill case and, unlike South Dakota, there is no statute limiting the effect of a judicial decision to a prospective basis. How this will affect the litigation remains to be seen.