Thursday, May 27, 2010

Supreme Court Declines To Review Retroactive Ban On Refund Claims

So you think a state cannot change its tax laws after the fact to validate an erroneous legal interpretation by its revenue department that caused massive over-reporting of tax? Think again. Indeed, we were reminded earlier this week that, at least in some circumstances, states can retroactively adjust the rules to foreclose even pending claims for tax relief.

The United States Supreme Court on May 24 declined to review a decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Miller v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 296 S.W.3d 392 (Ky. 2009). In Miller, the Kentucky Court upheld a state statute enacted in 2000 that retroactively barred refund claims by a group of corporate taxpayers who complied with a policy adopted by the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet, challenged the policy as unlawful, and got it invalidated back in 1994 (by the Kentucky Supreme Court, no less).

Here’s the background: In 1988, the Revenue Cabinet interpreted Kentucky law as prohibiting the filing of unitary income tax returns by corporate taxpayers, and instead required each corporation to file a separate return. The inability to file unitary returns resulted in substantially higher Kentucky taxes for a number of corporations. After the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that unitary returns were allowed under Kentucky law, the taxpayers amended their earlier returns, and sought refunds for the excess tax paid during the earlier years.

Monday, May 24, 2010

NEXUS: Quill Physical Presence Test Should Apply to Gross Receipts Taxes

Since National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Illinois Department of Revenue, 386 U.S. 753 (1967), was decided in 1967, states have attempted to avoid the physical presence test of nexus that the National Bellas Hess case established.  Thus, in the 1980’s, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue argued that that our client, L. L. Bean, Inc., was required to collect Pennsylvania sales and use tax on all of its sales into the state because the mail order industry had changed since National Bellas Hess was decided.  The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court squarely rejected this challenge to National Bellas HessL. L. Bean, Inc. v. Department of Revenue, 516 A.2d 820 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1986).

Similarly, the State of California threatened assessment of 300 direct marketers on the ground that they had nexus with California because of their use of 1-800 numbers and acceptance of credit cards.  On behalf of the Direct Marketing Association, Brann & Isaacson sued in federal court, and the Ninth Circuit issued a judgment in favor of the DMA, on behalf of its members, declaring that in the absence of a physical presence in a state, a company is not liable for sales and use tax in that state.  DMA v. Bennett, 916 F.2d 1451 (9th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 500 U.S. 905 (1991).

The states’ next test case, Quill v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992) (Brann & Isaacson filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the DMA in Quill), was yet another unsuccessful effort by the states to overrule and/or limit the physical presence test.

The states’ latest efforts to limit the nexus test under the Commerce Clause by adoption of an economic presence test to measure nexus for gross receipts tax should also be rejected.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Colorado Enacts Law on Gift Cards; Update on Other States’ Cash Redemption Rules

Amidst the hullaballoo over Colorado’s recently enacted affiliate nexus and out-of-state vendor reporting requirements and its recent economic nexus regulation, Colorado also passed a new law regarding gift cards.

Under the new law, signed by Governor Ritter on April 29, issuers of gift cards, including actual cards and electronic cards, must redeem the remaining value of a gift card for cash if there is $5 or less remaining on the card and the holder of the card so requests. Additionally, sellers may not sell gift cards which contain a service fee, dormancy fee, inactivity fee, maintenance fee, or any other type of fee. The new law does not apply to gift cards which are useable with multiple sellers, unless the multiple sellers are affiliated sellers. Violations of the new statute are deemed deceptive trade practices under Colorado law.

Other states have similar laws and/or pending legislation regarding cash refunds for low balances on gift cards and certificates:

Friday, May 14, 2010

California Nixes Affiliate Nexus Legislation; Connecticut’s Attempts Stall

Since our last update on the status of various legislative attempts to introduce Amazon-style affiliate nexus across the country, there have been a few important developments:


In the most current iteration of its bill, passed by the State Assembly on May 6, California scrapped proposed affiliate nexus and Colorado-style notice requirements (discussed here by us last month), and instead merely requires out-of-state retailers to provide notice on their websites and in their catalogues that California customers are required to remit use tax.  In the bill analysis provided by the Assembly’s Revenue and Taxation Committee, the Committee rightly noted that under Quill, California is constitutionally prohibited from collecting sales tax from out-of-state retailers with no physical presence in the State.  The Committee also noted that the bill provides no repercussions for non-compliant retailers.  The bill is now before the State Senate.


In Connecticut, the last action taken on H.B. No. 5481, the proposed affiliate nexus legislation, was on April 13.  The 2010 regular session of the State’s legislature adjourned on May 5 without holding any vote on the bill, and it appears that no affiliate nexus legislation will be enacted in the near future.

UPDATE, Aug. 31, 2010:  Please see our most recent post concerning the status of this California Bill here.

UPDATE, Jul. 5, 2011: California has enacted a new nexus law.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Colorado Jumps On The Economic Nexus Bandwagon

Increasingly, eCommerce vendors face potential exposure to state corporate income and similar taxes (such as certain franchise, gross receipts and business activity taxes) in jurisdictions where they have no physical presence, based on the doctrine of so-called “economic nexus.”  Judicial decisions from a number of jurisdictions, such as New Jersey and West Virginia, and recently enacted tax laws, such as the Ohio Commercial Activity Tax (“CAT”) and the Michigan Business Tax (“MBT”), are based on the notion that an out-of-state company may be subject to a state’s corporate tax laws based solely on having significant “economic activity” related to or directed at the state.  The issue of whether the doctrine (and each of its different incarnations) is consistent with the limits on state taxing power imposed by the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution remains unsettled.  Remote sellers have raised objections and challenges to many of these laws.  However, for now, at least, under laws such as the CAT and MBT, an out-of-state company that makes total sales to customers in the state that exceed a certain prescribed threshold, even without any offices, employees, or property in the state, will be deemed to have “bright line” nexus with the state for corporate tax purposes.

The latest state to jump on the “economic nexus” bandwagon is Colorado.  What is unusual about Colorado’s new standard, however, is that it derives not from a legislative enactment or decision of Colorado’s courts, but rather from a new administrative regulation, Colorado Code of Regulations §39-22-301.1 (effective April 30, 2010), promulgated by the Colorado Department of Revenue.   Under the guise of (re-)interpreting the statutory definition of “doing business” in the state, the Colorado DOR adopted a so-called “factor presence” standard of nexus for corporate income tax purposes which sets certain minimum levels for Colorado payroll ($50,000), property ($50,000) and, most importantly, for eCommerce businesses and Internet sellers, sales ($500,000), over which a company will deemed to be subject to Colorado corporate income tax.  While the establishment of such payroll and property thresholds may relieve certain companies with very limited physical presence in Colorado from having to report Colorado income tax, the determination that vendors having Colorado sales over $500,000 subjects them to Colorado income tax purports to extend significantly Colorado’s taxing power to many out-of-state direct marketers.

While it seems likely that the regulation will, like similar laws in other states, be challenged on constitutional grounds, direct marketers should weigh their options in consultation with counsel and based on their own particular circumstances.  When considered together with Colorado’s new law requiring out-of-state retailers to report the names and addresses of their purchasers to the Department of Revenue for use tax purposes (see our March 11 post), it appears that Colorado lawmakers are prepared to test (or even outright disregard) the time-honored principles of the Commerce Clause.   Stay tuned.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The "Draft" Federal Privacy Bill: Uniformity, But at What Cost?

On May 3, 2010, Representatives Rick Boucher, Democrat of Virginia, and Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida introduced a “discussion draft” of a bill “[t]o require notice to and consent of an individual prior to the collection and disclosure of certain personal information relating to that individual.”  The bill seeks to provide uniform, national regulation of information collection and disclosure practices for a wide range of companies--governing not only the Internet, but all other channels of interaction between businesses and consumers--and it has already generated controversy.  Not only does it include a definition of private information that goes far beyond all existing laws, it contains strict notice and consent provisions that may be difficult and costly to implement.  It is unclear what triggered the drafting of the bill, nor what compelling public interest would warrant such a degree of intrusion into private business practices.

It is important to keep the draft bill in perspective.  Numerous privacy and security bills have been proposed over the years and Congress has, to date, been unable to pass anything coming close to comprehensive national legislation.  For example, repeated attempts to pass federal security breach legislation have failed, resulting in a plethora of state laws which are both confusing and inconsistent.  If Congress can't bring itself to pass uniform rules dealing with the very real issue of security breaches involving the theft or loss of sensitive personal information, the likelihood of it passing a comprehensive law governing the collection and use of personal information -- a far less serious matter -- seems limited, at best.

Nevertheless, it remains useful to examine the bill and how it addresses key issues that affect eCommerce companies.  Even if the bill fails to gather support in Congress, individual states may feel inspired to adopt some of its provisions.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Should You Be FACTA Compliant? -- June 1, 2010 Deadline for Compliance with the FTC’s Red Flags Rule Approaches

Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (“FACTA”), Congress in 2003 mandated that businesses which extend credit to consumers for personal, family or household purposes must adopt policies and procedures designed to identify instances of possible “identity theft” in connection with transactions/requesting such credit.  The regulations promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) implementing FACTA’s provisions are referred to as the “Red Flags Rule,” because the procedures adopted by businesses are supposed to identify “red flags” that signal a risk of identity theft in connection with a consumer credit transaction.  After deferring the effective date of the Red Flags Rule four times, the deadline for affected businesses to comply is now June 1, 2010.

On its face, FACTA would not appear to apply to many direct marketers or Internet sellers, who most often do not extend credit, themselves, but instead rely on credit cards.  The requirements of FACTA, however, extend to those retailers that sell products or services on installment plans or otherwise extend credit to consumers.  In addition, retailers that offer private label or co-brand credit cards (i.e. the retailer’s name appears on the credit card) may also be affected, even if they do not act as the issuer of the card.  This is because the FTC’s Red Flags Rule also applies to service providers and others who assist creditors (the card issuer) in receiving or processing requests for credit.  Furthermore, FTC staff has indicated their intent to apply the Red Flags Rule very broadly, so that the rule may be applied even to transactions involving the extension of credit to sole proprietorships, on the theory that such transactions involve a risk of identity theft for the individual operating such a business.