Monday, December 12, 2011

Unclaimed Property Laws Often Go Overlooked by E-Marketers, But Many States Are Aggressively Enforcing Them

One set of legal obligations that are often overlooked by Internet sellers arise under states’ “unclaimed property” laws, sometimes referred to under the arcane label of “escheat.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines escheat as “the preferable right of the state to an estate left vacant, and without there being any one in existence able to make a claim thereto.” Although dense, the definition, once parsed, describes a relatively simple concept: under the laws of nearly every state, a business that is holding property on behalf of a third-party (called the “owner”) is obligated to report and turn over the unclaimed property to the state, after passage of a prescribed “dormancy” period.

Unclaimed property includes customers’ unredeemed gift certificates and gift cards, merchandise credits, and uncashed refund checks. It also includes accounts payable, payroll and benefits, shareholder dividends, and even workers’ compensation funds, among other things. Indeed, any third-party obligation that goes unredeemed may be subject to escheat. For Internet retailers, unredeemed gift obligations can be substantial (although fortunately some state laws include exemptions for gift certificates). Retailers should be aware that expiration dates on gift certificates and gift cards do not apply to states’ right of escheat and that there is no statute of limitations on escheat obligations under most states’ laws.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Storm Clouds on the Horizon for Direct Marketers Regarding Required Use Tax Collection

After the introduction in July 2011 of the “Main Street Fairness Act” by three senators from the Democratic Party, federal legislation intended to eliminate the Quill physical presence requirement for state sales and use tax collection has gathered increased support. A group of 10 Senators from both sides of the aisle introduced the “Marketplace Fairness Act” on November 9, 2011. The new bill, S.1832, is sponsored by Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Tim Johnson (D-SD), John Boozman (R-AR), Jack Reed (D-RI), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Robert Corker (R-TN), and Mark Pryor (D-AR).  On October 13, 2011, Representatives Steve Womack (R-AR) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced in the House a similar, but not identical, bill called the “Marketplace Equity Act.”

As we wrote in our post on August 8, the Main Street Fairness Act, which was sponsored by Senators Durbin, Johnson, and Reed, does not provide meaningful measures to simplify the arduous burden of sales and use tax collection. The Marketplace Fairness Act (and its House counterpart) would provide even less simplification than does the Main Street Fairness Act. It is ironic that despite the unfairness of this proposed legislation to catalogers, online retailers, and other direct marketers, the Marketplace Fairness Act is more likely to pass than prior legislative efforts, because of the increased number of sponsors from both political parties, as well as the coalition of states, industry groups, and big retailers (including e-commerce giant, that have announced their support for this new bill. Thus, the alarm bells should be ringing loudly for Internet and other direct marketers.