Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nexus of Subsidiary Not Automatically Attributable to Parent Company

Recently, a number of states have adopted statutes providing that an out-of state retailer is presumed to have nexus in the state by virtue of ownership of a subsidiary that does business in the state. See California (ABX 1, but note its implementation was delayed by AB 155); Colorado (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 39-26-102(3)(b)(II)); and Arkansas (Ark. Code Ann. 26-52-117(b)). While each of these state statutes provides that mere ownership creates only a presumption of nexus, which a retailer can rebut, some commentators have interpreted these laws as attributing the nexus of in-state affiliates to related out-of-state companies.

But an out-of-state retailer’s mere ownership of a company without the company acting as an agent or representative of the retailer will not create nexus for the retailer under the constitutional standard. Quill and a number of cases decided both before and after Quill stand for the proposition that mere ownership of another company that has an in-state presence does not create nexus for the parent, absent the in-state subsidiary engaging in activities on behalf of the parent to create a market in the state for the parent. We wrote an article back in 1996 that discusses the case law. See Defending Against Affiliate Nexus in Sales and Use Tax Collection Liability Cases, State Tax Notes (March/April 1996). In other words, the subsidiary must be acting as an agent or representative of the parent company in the state for the nexus of the subsidiary to be attributed to the parent.

The constitutional standard has not changed since we wrote the article in 1996. In fact, recent position statements issued by the Tennessee Attorney General and the staff of the California Board of Equalization agree that ownership of an in-state company alone does not create nexus for the out-of-state company. The Tennessee statute (Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-6-102(25)(G)), which has been on the books for a number of years, provides that an out-of-state retailer that “maintains, or has within this state, directly or by a subsidiary, sales room or house, warehouse, or other place of business distributing facility or warehouse,” has nexus with Tennessee. Cal. Rev. & Tax Code § 6203(c)(1) similarly provides that “[a]ny retailer maintaining, occupying, or using, permanently or temporarily, directly or indirectly, or through a subsidiary, or agent, by whatever name called, an office, place of distribution, sales or sample room or place, warehouse . . . or other place of business” is required to collect and remit the California use tax.

In Opinion No. 11-71 (dated October 3, 2011), the Tennessee Attorney General opined in a response to a request from the Legislature to interpret the statute that the mere ownership by of a subsidiary that operated a distribution center in Tennessee would not establish nexus for in connection with its sales of products. Something more needs to be established. According to the Attorney General, “nexus is established only if the subsidiary’s in-state activities are significantly associated with the retailer’s ability to establish and maintain a market in Tennessee for sales.” The Attorney General’s opinion cites Tyler Pipe Industries, Inc. v. Washington Department of Revenue, 483 U.S. 232 (1987). In Tyler Pipe, the out-of-state company contracted with sales representatives that conducted in-state solicitation activities on its behalf. These activities, according to the Supreme Court, created nexus because they helped “to establish and maintain a market” in the state. The Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion notes that “the current Supreme Court jurisprudence in this area does not firmly establish whether a subsidiary’s ownership or maintenance of an in-state distributing center or warehouse would be sufficient to create nexus where the subsidiary is not engaged in actual solicitation activities.” See Attorney General’s Opinion No. 11-71 at p. 2.

Similarly, in an October 14, 2011 discussion paper regarding proposed revisions to Sales and Use Tax Regulation 1684, Board of Equalization staff commented on the state of common ownership nexus. The staff agrees with the Tennessee Attorney General that mere ownership does not establish nexus, citing Current, Inc. v. State Board of Equalization, 24 Cal.App.4th 382 (1994) (a case that we commented on in our 1996 article), and the more recent case of Borders Online, LLC v. State Board of Equalization, 129 Cal. App.4th 1179 (2005), in which the Court of Appeals held that the activities conducted on behalf of the retailer must “enhance the retailer’s sales to California customers and significantly contribute to the retailer’s ability to establish and maintain a market in California.” See Discussion paper at 5. (We disagree with staff’s conclusion that the standard of performing “services in this state in connection with tangible personal property to be sold by the retailer” satisfies Quill.)

In short, as we wrote long ago, the ownership of a subsidiary alone will not create nexus. The in-state subsidiary must be engaged in activities on behalf of the out-of-state company (parent) in order to create the necessary nexus for the out-of-state company. The law has not changed since we wrote the article. The recent wave of legislation does not alter the test in Quill.

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