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Alert: California False Claims Expansion Bill Preparing to Advance

The revived False Claims expansion bill in California, A.B. 2570, is on the agenda to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on May 11 at 10:00 am PDT. The proposal would authorize tax-based false claims actions, allowing private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement lawsuits—an abusive practice that is prohibited under current law consistent with the vast majority of other states with similar laws. A nearly identical bill sputtered out last summer but has now been revived, as our colleagues covered in February:

AB 2570 is replete with problematic provisions, including: (1) the imposition of a separate statute of limitations that will arguably trump any shorter limitations periods imposed by the Revenue & Taxation Code (See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12654(a) which permits claims under the CFCA to be pursued for up to 10 years after the date the violation was committed, compared to standard three or four years for tax audits); (2) a more lenient burden of proof for elements of an alleged violation; and, (3) extremely punitive damages—violators are subject to treble damages (i.e., three times the amount of the underreported tax, interest and penalties), an additional civil penalty of $5,500 to $11,000 for each violation, plus the costs of the civil action to recover the damages and penalties including attorney’s fees.

Few of these cases will involve internal whistleblowers, actual fraud, or reckless disregard of clear law. Instead, the cases in Illinois (a state that has adopted false claims expansion to tax) usually involve inadvertent errors or good-faith interpretations of murky tax law. With the party bringing the case able to keep up to 50% of the proceeds, the only winners in the proposal is the cottage industry of money hungry plaintiffs’ attorneys that will descend and harass good-faith taxpayers in an effort to pad their own pockets.




AB 2570: Déjà vu All over Again as California Attempts to Amend CFCA

California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, and Assembly Member Mark Stone have again advanced legislation that would amend the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to enlist private bounty hunters to go after California taxpayers. Becerra described the latest bill, AB 2570, as an additional tool to combat against “corporate cheats” whom Becerra claimed cost the state billions in lost revenue in 2019. Of course, the state already possesses an arsenal of tools to combat any underreporting: currently, the power to investigate cases of suspected tax fraud rests with the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) and the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA). Thus, as many of the predecessor bill’s critics have adeptly noted, AB 2570 is more appropriately characterized as a “solution in search of a problem.”

The text of AB 2570 is almost identical to its predecessor, AB 1270, which failed to make it out of the legislature last year, and has likely given California’s business-savvy taxpayers a sense of dread-filled déjà vu. AB 1270 came under intense opposition last summer because, as seen in other states, allowing qui tam plaintiffs to initiate civil suits for state and local tax issues leads to abusive practices and undermines the goal of voluntary compliance in tax administration.

Like AB 1270, AB 2570 is replete with problematic provisions, including: (1) the imposition of a separate statute of limitations that will arguably trump any shorter limitations periods imposed by the Revenue & Taxation Code (See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12654(a) which permits claims under the CFCA to be pursued for up to 10 years after the date the violation was committed, compared to standard three or four years for tax audits); (2) a more lenient burden of proof for elements of an alleged violation; and, (3) extremely punitive damages—violators are subject to treble damages (i.e., three times the amount of the underreported tax, interest and penalties), an additional civil penalty of $5,500 to $11,000 for each violation, plus the costs of the civil action to recover the damages and penalties including attorney’s fees.

Unfortunately, private enforcement of state tax code violations has erupted over the past few years after whistleblowers in New York and Illinois purportedly have racked up multimillion dollar settlements as the result of such claims. If enacted, AB 2570 will open the floodgates to a slew of financially incentivized plaintiffs’ attorneys who are eager to enter the litigation lottery in hopes of winning a jackpot settlement payout from California’s taxpayers.

As discussed in our blog post from August 26, 2019, Vultures Circling as Bill to Expand California FCA to Tax Looms in Legislature, regarding AB 1270, when a false claims suit is filed by a private plaintiff (or relator) in a qui tam action, the recovered damages or settlement proceeds are divided between the state and the relator, with the relator permitted to recover up to 50% of the proceeds. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12652(g)(3). Thus, this practice can be very lucrative for aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys.

Even [...]

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Vultures Circling as Bill to Expand California FCA to Tax Looms in Legislature

Legislators in Sacramento are mulling over one of the most (if not the most) troubling state and local tax bills of the past decade. AB 1270, introduced earlier this year and passed by the Assembly in late May, would amend the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to remove the “tax bar,” a prohibition that exists in the federal False Claims Act and the vast majority of states with similar laws.

If enacted, this bill will open the door for a cottage industry of financially driven plaintiffs’ lawyers to act as bounty hunters in the state and local tax arena. California taxpayers would be forced to defend themselves in high-stakes civil investigations and/or litigation—even when the Attorney General’s Office (AG) declines to intervene. As seen in other states, this racket leads to abusive practices and undermines the goal of voluntary compliance in tax administration. (more…)




DC Council Introduces False Claims Expansion – Taxpayers Beware!

Last month, a bill (The False Claims Amendment Act of 2017, B22-0166) was introduced by District of Columbia Councilmember Mary Cheh that would allow tax-related false claims against large taxpayers. Co-sponsors of the bill include Chairman Jack Evans and Councilmember Anita Bonds. Specifically, the bill would amend the existing false claims statute to expressly authorize tax-related false claims actions against persons that reported net income, sales, or revenue totaling $1 million or more in the tax filing to which the claim pertained, and the damages pleaded in the action total $350,000 or more. The bill was referred to the Committee of the Whole upon introduction, but has not advanced or been taken up since then. Nearly identical bills were introduced by Councilmember Cheh in 2013 and 2016. (more…)




Another Effort at False Claims Act Reform: Bills Introduced to Amend Illinois Act to Restrict Tax-Related Claims

Illinois Legislators have recently introduced three bills that would amend the Illinois False Claims Act (“Act”) to restrict the ability to bring tax-related claims. Senate Bill 9, the proposed “grand bargain” to resolve Illinois’ budget stalemate, includes language that would eliminate the ability to use the Act to bring tax claims.  In addition, Representative Frank Wheeler and Senator Pam Althoff have introduced House Bill 1814 and Senate Bill 1250, respectively, which are identical pieces of legislation that would significantly restrict a private citizen’s right to bring tax-related claims. Senate Bill 9, if adopted in its current form, would eliminate the ability to bring a tax-related claim under the Act.  Currently, the Act only excludes the right to bring income tax-related claims. 740 ILCS 175/3(c).  This would effectively conform the Act to the federal False Claims Act, which does not extend to tax claims.  Rather, tax-related claims are brought before the Internal Revenue Service’s Whistleblower Office as whistleblower claims. House Bill 1814 and Senate Bill 1250 (“Bills 1814/1250”) preserve the right to bring tax claims under the Act, and they maintain the prohibition against income tax claims.  However, in a significant improvement over current practice, the Bills would amend the Act to restrict the ability of a whistleblower or its counsel to control or profit from the filing of tax claims.  In addition, they enhance the role played by the Department of Revenue (“Department”) in determining whether a whistleblower’s tax claim should be pursued.  Effectively, the Bills make the filing of state tax-related whistleblower claims more like the procedure for bringing a federal tax violation before the IRS. Currently, the Act authorizes private citizens, termed “relators,” to initiate litigation to force payment of tax allegedly owed to the State.  740 ILCS 175/4(b).  Hundreds of such claims have been filed in Illinois by whistleblowers claiming a failure to collect and remit sales tax on internet sales.  Relators file a complaint under seal with the circuit court and serve the complaint on the State.  Id. 175/4(b)(2).  The Illinois Attorney General’s office then has the opportunity to review the allegations and decide whether to intervene in the litigation.  Id. 175/4(b)(2), (3).  The Department is not named as a Defendant and there is no requirement to involve the Department in the litigation.  If the Attorney General declines to proceed with the litigation, the relator may proceed with the lawsuit on its own and, if successful, is entitled to an award of 25 percent to 30 percent of the proceeds or settlement of the action, plus its attorneys’ fees and costs.  Id. 175/4(d)(2).  Even if the State intervenes and proceeds with the litigation, eliminating the relator’s day-to-day involvement, the relator is entitled to an award of 15 percent to 25 percent of the proceeds of settlement, plus attorneys’ fees and costs.  Id. 175/4(d)(1). In contrast, Bills 1814/1250 provide that only the Attorney General (“AG”) and the Department have the right to initiate claims under [...]

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Illinois Appellate Court Delivers Another Blow to Relator in False Claims Act Litigation

On Monday, October 17, the Illinois Appellate Court issued another taxpayer-friendly opinion in an Illinois False Claims Act case alleging a failure to collect and remit sales tax on internet and catalog sales to customers in Illinois (People ex. rel. Beeler, Schad & Diamond, P.C. v. Relax the Back Corp., 2016 IL App. (1st) 151580)). The opinion, partially overturned a Circuit Court trial verdict in favor of the Relator, Beeler, Schad & Diamond, PC (currently named Stephen B. Diamond, PC).

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Illinois Department of Revenue Issues Proposed Amendments to Shipping and Handling Regulations

The Illinois Department of Revenue (Department) recently proposed amendments to its regulations governing the taxability of shipping and handling charges. The Proposed Amendments to 86 Ill. Admin Code §§ 130.415 and 130.410 (Proposed Amendments) are intended “to incorporate the holding of the Illinois Supreme Court in Kean v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 235 Ill. 2d 351 (2009) … [and to] clarif[y] when transportation and delivery charges are considered part of ‘gross receipts’ subject to the Retailers’ Occupation Tax Act or the Use Tax Act.”  The Proposed Amendments state that they are retroactive to November 19, 2009, the date of the Kean decision.

Delivery charges taxable when they are “inseparably linked” to the taxable sale of property

In Kean, the Court held that delivery charges for products purchased over the internet and shipped to Illinois customers are taxable when “an ‘inseparable link’ exists between the sale and delivery of the merchandise plaintiffs purchased.”… 235 Ill. 2d at 376.  Citing Kean, the Proposed Amendments adopt that rule (Prop. 86 Ill. Admin. Code § 130.415(b)(1)(B)(i)) and provide two examples of an “inseparable link”:

  • When delivery charges are not separately identified to the customer in the contract or invoice; or
  • When delivery charges are separately identified to the customer, “but the seller does not offer the purchaser the option to receive the tangible personal property in any manner except by delivery from the seller (g., the seller does not offer the purchaser the option to pick up the tangible personal property).”

Prop. § 130.415(b)(1)(B)(ii)

The Proposed Amendments provide that if a product can be sold without rendering the delivery service, the service is not taxable.  Prop. §130.415(b)(1)(B)(ii).  Although this language is not limited to a circumstance in which a pickup option is offered, all of the examples provided by the Department focus on that fact pattern.  Notably, the pickup option need not be at an in-state location.  This is consistent with the Department’s recent private letter rulings concluding that when a pick up option is offered, even if it is out-of-state, the delivery charges are not taxable.  ST-15-0011-PLR (7/16/15); ST-15-0012-PLR (7/27/15).

In a change from the Department’s prior practice, the Proposed Amendments provide that separately stated shipping charges not found to be inseparably linked to the sale of goods are not taxable even if they include a profit component (i.e., exceed the actual cost of shipping).  Cf. the current regulation, at 86 Ill. Admin. Code §130.415(d), with Prop. §§ 130.415(b)(1)(C) and (b)(1)(D)(iv).

Practice Note:

Sub-part (b)(1)(B)(ii) of the Proposed Amendments supports the conclusion that offering customers free standard shipping evidences that any other shipping service for which a seller charges customers (i.e., expedited shipping) are separately contracted for and thus nontaxable.  Arco Industrial Gas Division, The BOC Group, Inc. v. Department of Revenue, 223 Ill. App. 3d 386, 392 (4th Dist. 1991), which is cited in the Proposed Amendments, also supports this conclusion.  Several defendants have successfully raised this defense in response to Illinois False Claims Act litigation alleging a failure to collect [...]

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Illinois Law Firm Continues to Clog Court System with Tax-Related False Claims Act Allegations—but Proposed Legislation May Offer Relief

As many readers of this blog know, over the past 12 years the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois has been deluged with lawsuits filed by a Chicago law firm against internet retailers as a “whistleblower” under the Illinois False Claims Act.  The factual support for the lawsuits comes solely from internet-based investigations, including purchases made on retailer websites.  The lawsuits typically allege that the retailers have knowingly failed to collect and remit sales and use tax on some aspect of their internet sales shipped to Illinois.  See 740 ILCS 175/1 et seq.  Substantial damages are claimed, including up to three times the tax allegedly owed to the State, attorneys’ fees, and a penalty assessment for each tax filing that failed to disclose the tax due.

An initial wave of approximately 90 lawsuits was filed in 2003 and 2004 against retailers that did not collect Illinois tax on their internet sales.  In 2011, the whistleblower firm began to file a second round of lawsuits against retailers that collected tax on their internet sales of merchandise, but not on the shipping and handling charges associated with those sales.  To date, more than 200 of these “shipping and handling” tax lawsuits have been filed.  Most recently, the whistleblower firm has filed claims against defendants in the liquor industry, alleging a failure to collect sales and use tax and, in some instances, the failure to remit Illinois’ gallonage tax on sales of alcohol.

The validity of these lawsuits is hotly contested.  Many lawsuits have been dismissed, and at least two shipping and handling tax cases have resulted in trial rulings against the whistleblower firm and in favor of the retailer defendants.  It remains to be seen how the courts will determine the viability of Relator’s most recent claims, which appear on their face to be flawed.

Many other cases, including those that raise only nuisance value damages, have been settled to avoid the cost of litigation.  These settlements appear to have fueled the whistleblower firm’s continued voracious appetite for this type of litigation.

Although the State of Illinois has the right to intervene and lead the prosecution of these actions, for the past several years the Office of the Illinois Attorney General has generally declined to intervene in these actions.  Unfortunately, when this occurs, the Illinois False Claims Act permits a whistleblower claimant to proceed on its own with the litigation.  In almost all cases in which the State has declined to intervene, the whistleblower firm has elected to proceed on its own with its tax-related claims.

The continued activity in this area underscores the need for the Illinois General Assembly to address and pass House Bill 0074 – legislation carefully crafted, through negotiations with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, to modify the procedure for state tax-related False Claims Act litigation in Illinois.  The legislation would vastly improve the current False Claims Act situation by modifying the law as follows:

  1. Requiring whistleblowers with state tax-related claims to first disclose their claims [...]

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