Friday, December 7, 2012

Florida Introduces Affiliate Nexus Legislation

For the sixth year in a row, Florida legislators introduced a bill that (like many states before it) would create a rebuttable presumption that any out-of-state Internet retailer or mail order seller which enters into an agreement with a Florida resident (an “affiliate”) for paid referrals is subject to the State’s sales and use tax.  Referrals which subject out-of-state sellers to Florida tax are broadly defined and can be via “a link on an Internet website, an in-person oral presentation, telemarketing, or otherwise.”  Out-of-state sellers who have cumulative gross receipts of $10,000 or less from the referrals would not be subject to Florida tax.  As in several other states, the bill would allow sellers to rebut the presumption that they are subject to tax by submitting evidence that the affiliates “did not engage in any activity within [Florida] which was significantly associated with the dealer’s ability to establish or maintain the dealer’s market…during the 12 months immediately before the rebuttable presumption arose.”

As we have written previously, in response to a challenge by to a similar law enacted in 2008 in New York, a New York State appeals court held that the law was not unconstitutional on its face because it allows a retailer to rebut the presumption of solicitation.  The court remanded the case to the lower court to determine whether the law violated the Constitution’s Commerce and Due Process Clauses as applied to  In the meantime, as similar affiliate nexus laws have been passed in a handful of other states, many retailers have terminated their affiliate relationships.  Also, last spring, in a case argued by George Isaacson and Matt Schaefer of Brann & Isaacson, an Illinois court found that Illinois’ affiliate nexus law, which does not allow an affected retailer to rebut the statute’s conclusive determination that having affiliates in the state creates nexus, violates the Commerce Clause as well as the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Data Breaches: Some Lessons

Some of our readers may have read about recent high profile data breaches, such as the one involving credit card information taken from many Barnes & Noble retail stores. Or they may have heard of the huge class action law suits against Sony which resulted from its handling of a 2011 incident involving hackers into the Sony Playstation network. In that case, the hackers accessed personal information including names, addresses, user names, passwords, and other personal information from about 77 million user accounts. And they may have read about the breach involving TD Bank, in which TD Bank misplaced in March 2012 computer back-up tapes containing personal information for 267,000 customers, but did not inform the affected customers and pertinent state authorities until seven months later, in October. Each of these instances brings to light some apparent misconceptions regarding the handling of data breaches.  

Myth 1: There is no law that requires action in the event of a data breach.

Fact 1: There is no federal law (aside from laws regarding specialized industries such as banking and health care) that requires a response. However, 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands require certain actions be taken in the event of a data breach regarding personal information, and each of these laws is different.

Myth 2: My company only needs to comply with the data breach laws of the states in which my company has an office or other physical presence.

Fact 2: A company is subject to the data breach laws of not only the states in which it has a physical presence but also the states in which it has customers.

Myth 3: I need only look at one state’s laws if there has been a data breach.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tennessee Ruling Provides Another Wrinkle for Cloud Computing Services

A recent ruling by the Tennessee Department of Revenue (Ruling #12-11) illustrates some of the anomalies and pitfalls in properly taxing cloud computing services. The request for ruling concerned a service that provided Tennessee users access to software maintained on remote servers located outside of Tennessee. This is otherwise known as an SaaS service. In addition, the charge for the service permitted users access to certain databases, including certain reference materials such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. It would appear that the users did not download the references to their computers.

One of the anomalies in the ruling is that the Department stated that the SaaS portion of the service was not taxable, but access to the databases was taxable because the Department deemed the access to include the right to license and use digital books. As of January 1, 2009, the right to license and use digital books is taxable pursuant to an amendment to the Tennessee sales and use tax statute adopting the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (“SSUTA”).

The Department’s basis for this distinction in taxability appears to be that access to software is not taxable because “title, possession, and control” of the software always resides outside of Tennessee. On the other hand, the taxability of digital books is predicated on the following underscored clause from Tenn. Code Ann § 67-6-233(a), which provides for the taxation of digital books when there has been the “retail sale, lease, licensing, or use of specified digital products transferred to or accessed by subscribers or consumers in this state.” (emphasis added). Section 67-6-231(a), providing for the taxation of software, includes only “software transferred by tangible storage media or delivered electronically,” but does not include access to the software. The difference between the two statutory provisions is subtle. On the one hand, digital books are taxable if the consumer in Tennessee has “access” to the books, without being required to download them. On the other hand, computer software is not taxable, even if the consumer has access to the software, so long as the consumer does not download the software to his or her computer in Tennessee.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

One Month Left to File under Maine’s Use Tax Compliance Program

At the root of debate about whether Internet retailers and other direct marketers should be required to collect state sales and use taxes is the well worn complaint by state revenue departments that consumers (the folks who actually owe the tax under nearly every state’s laws) just do not self-report and pay use tax if left to their own devices. Consequently, the states’ argument goes, states should be entitled to shift the burdens of tax collection onto remote sellers (no matter how onerous), rather than requiring the state to pursue measures to promote reporting, or to boost collection. There are ways, however, for a state to educate consumers about their obligations to pay the use tax.

For example, now through November 30, taxpayers who have unreported use tax liability due to the State of Maine may remit tax under the 2012 Maine Use Tax Compliance Program. The Program, enacted by the State’s Legislature last spring, seeks to “encourage payment of previously unreported use tax and to improve compliance with the State’s use tax laws.”

The Program covers periods from January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2011. Taxpayers must report all taxable purchases for which tax has not been remitted for the entire six year period. But, taxpayers only must remit tax for the three years with the greatest amount of unreported tax due. No tax is due for the three years with the lowest amount of tax reported and all interest and penalties are waived for the entire six year period. Taxpayers who timely file returns under the Program are “absolved from further liability for unreported and unassessed use tax incurred prior to January 1, 2012, and [are] also absolved from liability for criminal prosecution and civil penalties related to those taxes for those years.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

California Affiliate Nexus Law Goes Into Effect

We have written frequently about the California affiliate nexus statute, AB 155, which was adopted in June 2011, but was temporarily repealed in September 2011, pending Congressional action on a bill rejecting the Quill physical presence test. Since Congress has not enacted such a law, AB155 is set to go into effect tomorrow.

The California Board of Equalization (“BOE”) undertook a lengthy rulemaking process over the past year to flesh out the requirements of the law. Much of this effort is reflected in the BOE’s newly amended version of California Regulation 1684. Here are some of the key points:
  • The law provides that an affiliate relationship will create nexus only if the payment to the affiliate is based upon a completed sale of tangible personal property; i.e., a commission-based arrangement. Thus, pay-per-click payment arrangements with affiliates do not create nexus. 
  • The statute, and Regulation 1684 which interprets the statute, provides that if the arrangement with the affiliate is for the purchase of advertisements to be delivered on the Internet, the retailer will not be deemed to have nexus if the affiliate does not directly or indirectly solicit customers in California through the use of flyers, newsletters, telephone calls, email, blogs, social networking sites, or other means of direct or indirect solicitation specifically targeted at potential customers in California. Thus, if a retailer places content on the website of a California affiliate that provides information regarding the retailer’s products and the affiliate links to the retailer’s website, so long as the affiliate does not make any solicitations on behalf of the retailer that specifically target CA residents, the retailer should not have nexus under the California statute. 
  • Regulation 1684 provides for a safe harbor if (1) the agreement between the retailer and affiliate provides for a prohibition of California solicitation activities on behalf of the retailer, such as distributing flyers or coupons or sending emails; (2) the retailer obtains certificates annually from the California-based affiliates that it has not engaged in any such prohibited solicited activities; and (3) the retailer accepts such certificates in good faith. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Borders’ Gift Card Holders Not Permitted Recovery in Bankruptcy

We’ve written about gift cards in this space in the past, and have covered escheat issues related to gift cards, as well. But, in a different wrinkle, last month, the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York addressed the impact of bankruptcy law on companies’ requirements to honor gift cards.

By way of background, in February 2011, Borders filed a voluntary petition for relief under chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. In general, retailers are not obligated to honor gift cards in bankruptcy, despite any state requirements that gift cards be honored for a certain period of time. Instead, gift card holders are generally treated like all other creditors and are required to timely file proofs of claim prior to a bar date set by the court in order to receive the value (or a portion of the value) of the gift cards. Note though, that in California, at least, retailers in bankruptcy may be required to honor gift cards.

But, via a motion filed with the Bankruptcy Court, Borders indicated that it planned to honor gift cards issued prior to the petition date. That is, customers could continue to use Borders gift cards in Borders stores and on its website. Later, following the September 2011 liquidation of Borders’ retail stores and the end of its e-commerce operations, Borders no longer honored its gift cards since it no longer had any retail channels through which it could do so. In January 2012, after confirmation of the bankruptcy plan, several holders of gift cards who had not yet redeemed the cards filed a motion seeking to allow late proofs of claim so that they could recoup the value of their unused gift cards. They argued that because of data systems Borders had in place, Borders should have been required to provide each gift card holder actual, individual notice of the bar date to file claims, rather than the general notice provided via publication in the New York Times. Since they did not receive adequate notice, they argued, their failure to file proofs of claim was due to excusable neglect and late claims should have been permitted.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Retailers Beware of the new New Jersey Gift Card Law

In the wake of the 2011 decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in New Jersey Retail Merchants Association v. Sidamon-Eristoff, 669 F.3d 374 (3rd Cir. 2012),  condemning a large portion of the New Jersey statute adopted in 2010 regarding gift cards, gift certificates, and other stored value cards, the New Jersey legislature amended the statute.  S.B. (1928), Laws 2012, effective June 29, 2012.  The statute removes some of the more objectionable provisions of the old law regarding stored value cards, which are defined broadly to include gift certificates, gift cards, and any other record (tangible or electronic) that reflects a promise, for money, by the issuer or seller that the owner of the record may obtain merchandise, services, and/or cash in the amount of the face value of the record.  The statute, however, does add some strict prohibitions regarding stored value cards, and gift cards and certificates in particular.  These prohibitions are such that a retailer that issues gift cards could be exposed to significant penalties unless it makes sure its practices conform to the requirements of this statute.  At the same time, the law reduces the potential escheat of unredeemed gift cards. It also protects small issuers of stored value cards.  A company that issues stored value cards of less than $250,000 per year is not subject to the escheat and consumer protection provisions of the New Jersey statute.  Now for the details:

The features of the new law that are beneficial to retailers are that:  (1) it repeals the provision of the old law that if the issuer does not maintain the address of the owner or purchaser of the stored value card, the value of the card must be escheated to New Jersey if the card was issued there; (2) it eliminates the requirement of the old law that the issuer obtain information about the gift card purchaser or owner, but instead requires that by July 1, 2016, the issuer maintain a record of the zip code of the owner or purchaser; (3) it extends the period of abandonment (i.e. an unredeemed gift card not claimed) from two years after issuance to five years; and (4) it requires escheat of only 60% (as opposed to 100%) of the proceeds of all stored value cards other than general purpose reloadable cards, which are cards issued by a bank or other financial institution.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Committee Hearings Held on Remote Collection Bills; Coalition Forms to Demand True Simplification Of State Sales Tax Systems, Defend Quill

We have written previously about attempts by Congress to overturn the physical presence nexus standard of Quill Corp. v. North Dakota via the Main Street Fairness Act, the Marketplace Fairness Act, and the Marketplace Equity Act. The bills vary in their specifics as we discuss here and here, but most simply put, all three bills would permit states to require remote sellers to collect and remit sales and use tax despite such sellers having no physical presence in the state. While it is difficult to predict what Congress may do in an election year, it appears that so far, the Main Street Fairness Act has not made much progress through Congress since being introduced. The other two bills have seen some committee action lately, however, as discussed below.

Meanwhile, a coalition has formed to help protect remote sellers’ interests. The TrueSimplification of Taxation (“TruST”) Coalition was formed jointly by the Direct Marketing Association, the American Catalog Mailers Association, the Electronic Retailing Association, and NetChoice to represent “American businesses in the fight to keep interstate commerce and competition free from unfair tax burdens imposed by states where our businesses have no operations or representation.” Brann & Isaacson partners George Isaacson and Martin Eisenstein assisted in forming the coalition and provide ongoing advice regarding the sales and use tax collection implications to remote sellers.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Congressional Privacy Caucus Begins Inquiry into Data Brokers

The Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, chaired by Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), announced this week that they are launching an inquiry into data brokers.  Members of the caucus sent letters to nine data brokers – Acxiom, Epsilon (Alliance Data Systems), Equifax, Experian, Harte-Hanks, Intelius, Fair Isaac, Merkle, and Meredith Corp.  – requesting that they provide information about their practices. 
The Caucus’s letters request information including:
  • The names of entities that have provided consumer information to the data broker;
  • The data items collected from or about consumers and the methods by which the data was collected;
  • Products or services offered to third parties that utilize consumer data;
  • The information consumers are given access to, if it is requested, and any policies around sharing or deletion of that data; and
  • Encryption or other safety protocols used to protect data.
The data brokers were asked to respond within three weeks. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

New Hampshire Does Not Tax Internet Access

Reaffirming its state’s anti-tax DNA, the New Hampshire legislature confirmed what some state tax practitioners have been arguing all along: the New Hampshire communications services tax does not apply to Internet access charges. (New Hampshire does not have a sales tax.) On June 21, 2012, the Legislature enacted a statute, 2011 NH 1418, that bars imposition of the communications services tax on “Internet access” charges. The statute also prohibits the New Hampshire Department of Revenue from enforcing any existing assessments of communications services tax on charges for Internet access and requires the prompt withdrawal of any pending assessments. Even though the effective date of the legislation is the date of its enactment, June 21, 2012, the law prohibits the Department from issuing any “additional” assessments with respect to Internet access charges. The statute does not limit the prohibition to Internet access services provided after June 21, 2012, so a fair reading of the statute is that any future assessments for Internet access charges, regardless of when the services were provided, are precluded.

The new law defines the term Internet access in the same way as that term is defined in Section 1105(5) of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (“ITFA”), codified as a note to 47 U.S.C. § 151. The law should apply not only to services provided by Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) but to services purchased by such ISPs in order to provide Internet access.

Prior to the June 21, 2012 legislation, the New Hampshire Department of Revenue had taken the position that the Communications Services Tax applied to Internet access charges, and that such tax was not prohibited by the ITFA. See New Hampshire Department Technical Information Release, TIR 2008-006, September 15, 2008. In that TIR, the Department took the position that it is grandfathered under the ITFA.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Is the EU About to Break the Internet?

In a move that has the potential to do severe damage to the e commerce user experience, some E.U. countries are beginning to implement the E.U. privacy directive on internet cookies (small information files which websites use to remember customers and preferences). In principle, the so-called “Cookie Directive” requires that website users receive explanations of the particular cookies used by a website (except those which are “strictly necessary”) and then actively choose to accept them before the cookies can be automatically stored on the user’s computer. Businesses fear that their retail websites will frighten customers with pop-up boxes of legal language and strange file names. In addition, should users choose not to permit the use of cookies, their browsing and shopping experience stands to be severely compromised, impacting merchant performance.
The UK appears to be in the vanguard of jurisdictions charging ahead with implementation of an aggressive version of the directive. In the May 26, 2012 revisions to Regulation 6 of its Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (“PECR”) and the latest guidance from its Information Commissioner’s Office, the burden is on websites to include:
  • An information page providing a general explanation of what cookies are, the file names of the cookies in use on the website and explanations of each cookie’s function;
  • A sufficiently prominent link to that page from its homepage; and
  • A pop-up box, gateway window, or header/footer bar by which a user must choose to “accept” the cookies from that website after having the option to read the information page.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Some Preliminary Thoughts On The New Maine Board Of Tax Appeals

The Maine Legislature recently voted to create a new, three-member Maine Board of Tax Appeals (MBTA).   The MBTA replaces the Independent Appeals Office that the legislature devised in 2011, which had yet to take effect, and will serve as an independent entity within the Department of Administrative and Financial Regulation.  The MBTA is not part of (or supervised by) Maine’s revenue department (know as Maine Revenue Services (“MRS”)). 

The MBTA will spring into existence as of July 1, 2012.  Obviously, time is short for the MBTA to get up and running.  While the MBTA is intended as a business friendly measure to “provide taxpayers with a fair system of resolving controversies and to ensure due process,” it remains to be seen whether it will be a favorable option/forum for taxpayers.     
Here is how the tax appeals process will work under the new law creating the MBTA:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is It Raining In Pennsylvania: Sales Tax on Cloud Computing Services?

I recently wrote a blog post on the new Vermont law on sales tax on cloud computing services, in which the state placed a moratorium on taxation of software as a service (“SaaS”). Pennsylvania, however, has decided to take a different approach to cloud computing. In Legal Letter Ruling No. SUT-12-001 (May 31, 2012), the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue announced a change in the existing law in Pennsylvania. In particular, the Department’s new approach is that SaaS is taxable in Pennsylvania to the extent that the users of the services are located in Pennsylvania. The Department took the position that the charge for electronically accessing taxable software is taxable because computer software is tangible personal property, and the user “is exercising a license to use the software” within the meaning of 72 P.S. § 7201(o)(1). That section of the statute provides that the exercise or right or power incidental to the ownership of tangible personal property constitutes a taxable “use.”

But this recent ruling, and basis therefor, is inconsistent with the prior ruling of the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, Legal Letter Ruling No. SUT-10-005, in which the Department held that access to software solely through the internet from a data center located outside of Pennsylvania is not taxable because there is not a taxable transfer in Pennsylvania. Nowhere does the Department of Revenue in its 2012 ruling explain the basis for its ruling that a taxable transfer of the tangible personal property has occurred in Pennsylvania, other than the reference to “recent case law and technological advances.” In the case the Department identifies, Dechart, LLP v. Commonwealth, 998 A.2d 575 (Pa. 2010), the court found that electronically transmitted software downloaded to a computer in Pennsylvania constitutes the sale of tangible personal property in Pennsylvania.

However, there is no tangible personal property that is present in Pennsylvania for software that is accessed remotely from a data center located outside of Pennsylvania. Thus, as I wrote in my article on cloud computing, Let the Sunshine In: The Age of Cloud Computing, State Tax Notes November 28, 2011, and as other states (such as Kansas, Utah and Arizona) have ruled, SaaS should not be taxable in Pennsylvania because the tangible personal property is not transferred in Pennsylvania.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Some Sunshine in Vermont: Sales Tax on Cloud Computing Services

I recently authored an article in State Tax Notes entitled “Let the Sunshine In: The Age of Cloud Computing”, which describes the murky area of state taxation of cloud computing services.  On May 24, 2012, Vermont brought some sunshine to this cloudy area. 
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill that temporarily exempts charges for pre-written software accessed remotely.  This is knows as “software as a service” or “SaaS.” 
In particular, the legislation prohibits the Vermont Department of Taxes from assessing sales and use taxes on charges for SaaS.  This prohibition is for the period of January 1, 2007 through June 30, 2013.  The law also provides that any taxes paid during this period may be refunded, as long as the statute of limitations has not expired and the claimant provides proper documentation. The legislation would cause the abatement of any pending assessments for taxes on charges for SaaS during this period.
The new law does not affect the tax on digital products.  Thus, if a Vermont customer were to download software or music, the customer would be liable for the Vermont sales and use tax. 
In addition, the Governing Board for the Streamlined Sales Tax Agreement is scheduled to have a policy discussion regarding taxation of cloud computing at its meeting in August.  It is likely that more and more states will take up the issue of sales tax on the various types of cloud computing services.

Illinois Circuit Court Enters Written Order That Illinois Affiliate Nexus Law Is Unconstitutional

On May 11, 2012, Judge Robert Lopez Cepero of the Illinois Circuit Court for Cook County, entered a written order (“May 11 Order”) granting summary judgment to the Performance Marketing Association (“PMA”) in its challenge to the 2011 Illinois affiliate nexus statute.   The Court ruled that the Illinois law fails the “substantial nexus” requirement for state taxes under the Commerce Clause and violates the federal moratorium on state taxes that discriminate against electronic commerce under the Internet Tax Freedom Act (“ITFA”). The Court’s May 11 Order memorializes Judge Cepero’s ruling from the bench after oral argument on April 25, 2012, previously reported in our blog on April 26.(The May 11 Order is styled an “Amended Order,” because it addresses certain technical requirements of a local Illinois Supreme Court Rule not originally addressed in a written order issued by the Court on May 7, 2012.)

The Illinois affiliate nexus statute by its terms imposed an obligation to collect Illinois use tax on any out-of-state Internet retailer that enters into a contract with an Illinois Internet affiliate for a link on the affiliate’s website that connects Internet users to the e-retailer’s website, where the affiliate is compensated based on sales made by the retailer to such customers, and the total receipts by the retailer resulting from all such sales is in excess of $10,000. In striking down the law as unconstitutional, the Court concluded that such affiliate relationships are insufficient to create nexus and that, by failing the “substantial nexus” test, the statute is “facially invalid and unenforceable.” May 11 Order at para. 1.a.

The May 11 Order makes clear that the Defendant, the Director of the Illinois Department of Revenue, has 30 days from the date of the order, or until June 11, 2012, to appeal the ruling directly to the Illinois Supreme Court. The State is expected to appeal.

George Isaacson and Matt Schaefer of Brann & Isaacson represent the PMA in the case.

Friday, May 18, 2012

FTC Report outlines Consumer Privacy Framework, urges self-regulation

Following on the heels of the White House’s “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” (recently discussed in this space), the Federal Trade Commission released its own final report on Consumer Privacy last month: “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change, Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers.” The issue of consumer privacy online continues to receive sustained attention from privacy advocates, policymakers and journalists (see, for example, the Wall Street Journal’s “What they Know” series), and this latest policy paper highlights a number of important areas for retailers.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Yet Another State (Georgia) Adopts a Click-Through Nexus Law

On April 20, 2012, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation revising the definition of “dealer” in the Georgia statute. Under Georgia law, a dealer is required to collect and remit sales/use tax on all taxable sales to Georgia residents.

The first change to the dealer definition is to adopt a so-called “click-through nexus” law (or “Internet affiliate nexus” law), along the lines of the New York statute enacted in 2008. Georgia is now the eighth state to adopt a click-through nexus law. As previously reported in this blog, New York was the first state to adopt a nexus click-through statute, followed by Rhode Island, North Carolina, Arkansas, Illinois, Connecticut, California and Pennsylvania. (The California statute is effective only if federal legislation is not adopted, and will go into effect on January 1, 2013). (The Pennsylvania “law,” which is an administrative rule, does not commence until September 1, 2012).

*As previously reported in our blog, on April 25, 2012, the Illinois Circuit Court ruled from the bench that the Illinois “click-though nexus” (or “Internet affiliate nexus”) statute is unconstitutional under the substantial nexus requirement of the Commerce Clause and also violates the federal Internet Tax Freedom Act’s moratorium against discriminatory state taxes on electronic commerce.* (As a ruling of a court in a different state, the Illinois court’s decision striking down the Illinois statute has no direct effect on the Georgia click-through nexus law, but certainly would have some relevance in any review of the statute. )

Much like the New York law, the Georgia statute, HB 386 (LC 34 3484S/AP), provides that a retailer that enters into an agreement with one or more persons who are residents of Georgia under which the resident, for a commission or other consideration based on completed sales, directly or indirectly refers potential customers to the retailer, if the retailer’s cumulative gross receipts from sales by such persons exceed more than $50,000 during the preceding twelve months. (Under the New York law, the threshold is $10,000.) If the retailer enters into such an agreement, a presumption is created that the retailer is a dealer required to collect the Georgia sales and use tax. However, the presumption may be rebutted by submitting proof that the residents with whom the person has an agreement do not engage in any activity within Georgia that is significantly associated with the person’s ability to establish or maintain a market in Georgia during the preceding twelve months. The proof may consist of sworn written statements with the residents attesting to the fact that they have not engaged in any solicitation in the state on behalf of the retailer. It is somewhat unclear when this portion of the statute goes into effect; the earliest date is July 18, 2012 but it may be as late as December 30, 2012.

In short, the Georgia statute is modeled after the New York statute. Like the New York statute, a retailer can overcome the presumption of nexus by a showing that the resident does not engage in any activity in the state to maintain a market in the state. (This is in contrast to the Connecticut and Illinois statutes, which create a per se finding of nexus if the requisite relationship is found to exist).

The new Georgia law also provides for “affiliate nexus,” similar to the recently adopted Utah statute concerning companies related through common ownership, as discussed in my article in this blog dated April 2, 2012. This part of the law goes into effect on October 1, 2012. In particular, if a retailer and any other company under common ownership or control that has substantial nexus in Georgia sells a similar line of products in the state under a similar business name or use substantially similar trademarks or service marks, then a presumption of nexus is created. Again, this presumption can be rebutted by a showing that the in-state affiliate does not engage in any in-state activities on behalf of the retailer that are significantly associated with the retailer’s ability to establish a market.

The new Georgia law does provide a safe harbor for participation in trade show activities of five days or less and if the retailer “did not derive more than $100,000 of net income from those activities during the prior calendar year.” It is unclear whether the term “deriv[ation] . . . of net income” means sales less expenses made at the trade show or whether it means sales remotely made.

In sum, online retailers and other direct marketers should carefully scrutinize their existing relationships to make sure that their companies are not vulnerable to a finding of nexus under the new Georgia law. While such review does not necessarily mean discontinuance of click-through relationships, it does require making sure that any agreement with affiliates is tailored to overcome the presumption if sales through such affiliates are greater than $50,000.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Court Rules that the Illinois Internet Affiliate Nexus Law is Unconstitutional and Violates the Internet Tax Freedom Act

Yesterday (April 25, 2012), Judge Robert Lopez Cepero of the Illinois Circuit Court for Cook County granted summary judgment in favor of the Performance Marketing Association (“PMA”) in its constitutional challenge to the Illinois "Internet affiliate nexus" statute, Public Act 96-1544 (the “Act”), which took effect in July 2011. Judge Cepero ruled from the bench, after oral argument by the parties’ counsel, that the Illinois law is both unconstitutional under the “substantial nexus” requirement of the Commerce Clause and violates the federal Internet Tax Freedom Act's moratorium against discriminatory state taxes on electronic commerce. The Court will enter a formal order encapsulating its rulings, although Judge Cepero indicated that he does not plan to issue a written opinion, separate from his remarks made on the record at the hearing. The Defendant, the Director of the Illinois Department of Revenue, is said to be reviewing his options, but is expected to appeal the ruling directly to the Illinois Supreme Court. (George Isaacson and Matt Schaefer of Brann & Isaacson represent the PMA in the case.)

Like other “Internet affiliate nexus” laws, the Illinois statute seeks to impose a use tax collection obligation upon out-of-state Internet retailers who enter into contracts with affiliates located in the state, under which the affiliate places a link on its website connecting Internet users to the retailer’s website, and receives commissions or other compensation based on sales made to such customers. Under the terms of the Act, any Internet retailer that realized $10,000 in annual sales from customers who reached its website through links on the sites of Illinois Internet affiliates would be required to collect Illinois use tax. The Court held, however, that the activity described in the Illinois law was not sufficient to create use tax nexus with Illinois for purposes of the Commerce Clause. The Court also held that imposing a use tax collection obligation upon Internet retailers engaged in such online linking relationships, but not on other retailers engaged in similar offline adverting arrangements, is “premature” in light of the ITFA's moratorium, which remains in effect until November 1, 2014.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Internet Retailers and Digital Businesses Should Understand the State Tax Risks Associated with Telecommuting Employees

In the increasingly “officeless” environment of the digital workplace, Internet retailers, cloud computing providers and other remote sellers should be aware of the sometimes unexpected state tax consequences associated with employees who telecommute. Although there are few reported court decisions, a vast majority of the states assert that having employees located in the state engaged in non-sales activities who telecommute from home is a sufficient presence in the state to require a company to collect the state’s corporate income or franchise tax. It is also clear that having a telecommuting employee in the state creates meaningful sales and use tax nexus risk, but whether a telecommuting employee will create a "physical presence" in the state sufficient to require the company to collect state use tax may depend upon the nature of the employee’s in-state activities on behalf of the company.

The leading case in the still-developing decisional law on telecommuting is the recently-decided Telebright Corp. v. New Jersey Division of Taxation, 424 N.J.Super. 384, 38 A.3d 604 (App. Div. 2012). In Telebright, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed a Tax Court decision that the presence in the state of a software developer telecommuting on a daily basis for a Maryland company was sufficient to subject the company to an obligation to report New Jersey Business Corporation Tax (“CBT”). Id., 424 N.J.Super. at 395, 38 A.3d at 611. The employee in Telebright performed no sales functions on behalf of the company (indeed, the Tax Court noted that the company solicited no sales in New Jersey, at all), but she was involved in developing a web-based software application that the company marketed to its clients, a fact that the Appellate Division emphasized in finding that the company both was “engaged in business” under CBT statute and had sufficient nexus with the state for CBT purposes.

Of course, federal law P.L. 86-272 will still protect a company from an obligation to report a state’s corporate income tax, if the company’s in-state telecommuting employees are engaged solely in solicitation of sales for orders of tangible personal property that are approved and filled from outside the state. Many businesses that rely on telecommuting, however, are not protected by P.L. 86-272, because they sell services or computer software applications that may not be deemed “tangible personal property” under state law. Furthermore, employees telecommuting from a state engaged in activities other than solicitation (or activities strictly ancillary to solicitation), will not qualify for P.L. 86-272 immunity. Indeed, more than thirty-five state revenue departments have indicated in response to various surveys that the presence of non-sales, telecommuting employees will subject the company to an obligation to report state income tax.

With regard to state sales and use taxes a direct physical presence in a state through employees will also create a risk of use tax nexus. It is clear that if an in-state employee is engaged in sales solicitation or support activities with respect to in-state customers, s/he can create nexus under established Supreme Court precedent. See, e.g., Tyler Pipe Indus., Inc. v. Washington Dep’t of Revenue, 483 U.S. 231 (1987). Even the activities of non-sales employees, however, should be examined carefully to determine the level of nexus risk to the company when making a business decision about whether to engage telecommuting employees in the state employee to telecommute. In some states, a non-sales employee may not create nexus. For example, the California Board of Equalization has indicated in one Sale and Use Tax Annotation (SUTA 220.0256: “Telecommuting In-State”) (June 21, 1999) that a remote seller that had an employee engaged in web design who telecommuted from his home in California was not “engaged in business” in the state for purposes of California use tax because the telecommuter did not have any contact or involvement with customers in the state. Many other state revenue departments have, however, at least in response to informal surveys, taken a less permissive view. Remote sellers should consult carefully with their tax counsel to understands the use tax risks associated with particular telecommuting arrangements.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Federal Court Declares Colorado Use Tax Notice and Reporting Law Unconstitutional

Good news for Internet retailers and other direct marketers. Last Friday, March 30, 2012, Judge Robert Blackburn of the Federal District Court for the District of Colorado, entered summary judgment in favor of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in its suit challenging a 2010 Colorado notice and reporting law. The Court declared the law unconstitutional and permanently enjoined and restrained the State from enforcing it. (The Court had previously suspended enforcement of the law in January 2011, pending entry of a final judgment in the case. George Isaacson and Matt Schaefer of B&I represent the DMA in the case.)

The Colorado law sought to impose three principal requirements upon retailers that do not collect Colorado sales tax. First, the Act required affected out-of-state retailers to give notice to their Colorado customers, in connection with each sale, that the customer must report Colorado use tax (the “Transactional Notice”). Second, the Act required affected retailers to send annually to each customer that purchased more than $500 of goods for delivery to Colorado, a summary of the customer’s purchases for the year (the “Annual Purchase Summary”). Third, of perhaps greatest concern to retailers, the Act required remote sellers to submit a report to the Colorado Department of Revenue, by March 1 of each year, listing the name, billing and shipping addresses, and total amount of purchases of all customers who purchased goods for delivery to Colorado (the “Customer Information Report”). The Court struck down each of these requirements as unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause.

The Court’s ruling is particularly important because Judge Blackburn found in favor of the DMA on both counts of its complaint challenging the law (and its implementing regulations) under the Commerce Clause. In other words, Judge Blackburn agreed with the DMA that the statute and regulations violate the Commerce Clause because they both: (a) discriminate against out-of-state retailers who do not collect Colorado sales tax, by imposing upon them burdens that are not imposed on Colorado retailers; and (b) place undue burdens upon retailers with no physical presence in the state, consistent with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota.

On the issue of whether the Colorado law discriminates against interstate commerce in violation of the Commerce Clause, the Court ruled that, by singling out retailers that do not collect Colorado sales tax for differential burdens, the law imposes its notice and reporting obligations solely upon out-of-state retailers. The Court expressly rejected the Department’s argument that the law is non-discriminatory because out-of-state retailers could “choose” to collect Colorado sales tax and thereby avoid the notice and reporting burdens imposed by the Act. The Court found that, by conditioning an out-of-state retailer’s reliance upon its constitutional rights on a requirement that the retail accept a different burden, unique to out-of-state retailers, the purported “choice” offered by the Act “does not eliminate, but instead, highlights the discrimination” against out-of-state retailers with no physical presence in the state. The Court also found that the Department had offered no evidence to show that the law's goal of increased tax compliance by Colorado purchasers could not be achieved through reasonable non-discriminatory alternatives, such as those suggested by the DMA.

The Court also agreed with the DMA that the law imposes improper and burdensome regulations upon retailers with no physical presence in the state, in violation of the Commerce Clause principles embodied in Quill. Judge Blackburn wrote:

“Looking to the practical effect of the Act and the Regulations, as Quill instructs, I conclude that the burdens imposed by the Act and Regulations are inextricably related in kind and purpose to the burdens condemned in Quill. The Act and the Regulations impose these burdens on out-of-state retailers who have no physical presence in Colorado and no connection with Colorado customers other than by common carrier, the United States mail, and the internet. Those retailers are protected from such burdens on interstate commerce by the safe-harbor established in Quill.”

The Court’s application of the Quill physical presence nexus standard to a law that does not impose use tax collection obligations upon remote sellers, but instead purports to impose related, but different regulatory burdens, is a potentially significant development with regard to the constitutional protections afforded to remote sellers against states seeking to extend their regulatory authority beyond state borders.

The State of Colorado is expected to appeal the District Court’s ruling to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Monday, April 2, 2012

What is an “Affiliate Nexus” Statute?

Some of you may have read the headline in CCH’s State Tax Day on March 27, 2012, “Affiliate Nexus Bill Enacted,” and wondered whether this describes yet another state that provides that nexus is established by virtue of a link from a web site “affiliate” to a remote seller’s web site. The State Tax Day article describes a statute signed into law on March 24, 2012 by Utah Governor Gary R. Hebert. The Utah law, H.B. 384, Laws 2012, however, does not provide for nexus on the basis of a link to a web site. Rather, the law provides that nexus is established for a remote seller based upon certain specified relationships between the remote seller and affiliated entities; i.e. parent, subsidiaries or other companies under common ownership. In other words, the law has no click–through nexus provisions, so the Utah statute does not specify that a company has nexus simply because a blogger or other internet site links to the company’s web site and receives commissions from the company sales that resulted from such a link.

There are two types of “affiliate nexus” statutes. The first type is of the Utah variety, in which the word “affiliate” means the companies are affiliated through common ownership. Several states have adopted statutes of this type, in part in response to the localized distribution model Amazon has begun to implement in which an affiliate of opens a distribution center in a state and drop ships to’s customers. Texas, for example, enacted S.B. 1, Laws 2011 (effective January 1, 2012), that provides that a retailer is engaged in business in Texas if an affiliate distributes goods to the retailer’s customers from a distribution center in the state. The new law in Utah (as does a proposed law in Virginia, SB 597), provides that a remote seller is engaged in business in the state if its affiliate has a place of business or employee in the state that advertises, promotes or facilitates sales by the remote seller. Such a provision in not controversial from a constitutional perspective, in that if the Utah–based affiliate operates as an agent or representative of the remote seller to make a market for the remote seller in Utah, the physical presence requirement of Quill is probably satisfied. (Please note that the proposed Virginia law reference above, SB 597, has an effective date of September 1, 2013, as part of an arrangement with Amazon to permit Amazon to open a fulfillment center in that state without being liable for taxes prior to that date. Similar arrangements for a delayed effective date, combined with Amazon opening a distribution center in the state, were reportedly agreed upon between Amazon and lawmakers in both Indiana and Tennessee, as well.)

The second type of “affiliate nexus” statute, which is more controversial from a constitutional perspective, is a click–through nexus statute in which the “affiliate” has no ownership connection to the remote seller, but refers potential customers to the remote seller’s web site. Thus far, seven states have adopted click through nexus statutes: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island. In addition, Pennsylvania has adopted a regulation, Sales and Use Tax Bulletin 2011-01 (issued December 1, 2011 with a delayed effective date of September 1, 2012) with similar provisions. The click–through nexus laws are of two kinds. In the first kind, modeled after the New York law, a contract or other arrangement with a resident of the state by which the resident receives a commission from a remote seller for referrals to the seller creates a presumption of nexus if the annual sales from such arrangements exceed a certain threshold. All but the Connecticut, Illinois and Pennsylvania laws contain a presumption, which may be rebutted by a showing that the in–state company does not engage in any other solicitation or other promotional activity in the state on behalf of the remote seller. While there are potential arguments to challenge the constitutionality of these “presumptive nexus” laws, many remote sellers prefer to avoid the expense of litigation and structure their relationships with affiliates to be able to show that the affiliates do not engage in activities on their behalf in the various states that have adopted nexus presumption statutes.

The Connecticut, Illinois and Pennsylvania laws do not permit a remote seller to introduce evidence that the affiliates do not conduct in–state services on their behalf. These statutes, therefore, raise serious constitutional questions. While I will not discuss those in detail, because they are the subject of pending litigation of which Brann & Isaacson represents the plaintiff in a constitutional challenge, I note that a critical feature in the New York appeals court’s decision in LLC v. New York State Dep’t of Taxation and Finance, 81 A.D.3d 183, 913 N.Y.S.2d 129 (App. Div. 2010) that the New York statute was constitutional, is that under the New York law the out–of–state company could avoid a nexus determination by presenting evidence that the online affiliate did not conduct solicitation in New York.

I should also point out that there are a number of state legislatures that are reviewing proposed nexus click–through statutes. They include Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi , and New Jersey. The Georgia Bill, H.B. 386, has both types of “affiliate nexus” provisions and has been adopted by both the House and Senate, but is awaiting approval or rejection by the Governor. As of the writing of this blog, none of the other proposed laws has been enacted.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Are You Minding The Store? Executives Held Personally Liable For Unreported Sales Tax

Two recent decisions provide an important reminder for executives and tax managers of Internet retailers and remote sellers: Make sure that you: (1) understand your company’s sales and use tax obligations; (2) have a defensible position on state tax issues; and (3) pay attention to notices from state revenue departments, including those that come from outside your home state ― or you could find yourself subject to personal liability for unreported sales and use tax.

Most states’ tax laws deem sales/use taxes collected by a company to be held in trust for the state, and allow the state to impose personal liability upon responsible corporate officers for the failure to report and remit such “trust fund” taxes. Some state statutes go farther and impose liability on corporate officers for unreported tax.

In a New York State Tax Tribunal Decision (DTA No. 822971) issued on February 23, 2012, the CEO of a publicly-traded, online vendor of wireless phone devices and accessories was determined to be personally liable for unpaid sales tax, largely with respect to shipping and handling fees charged by his company on sales to consumers. The CEO argued that he could not be held personally liable because, among other things: (1) the company had a tax department that handled such matters, on which he relied, and that reported to the company’s CFO; (2) the company further relied upon outside accountants and auditors to ensure tax compliance; (3) the size of the company and number of transactions involved made monitoring them impossible for the company’s chief executive; and (4) the CEO did not sign the company’s sale tax returns. The Tax Tribunal rejected all of the CEO’s arguments, holding that he was a responsible officer with the power to exercise oversight over all functions related to sales tax compliance, and could not avoid liability by arguing that he relied upon others – even a full tax department and outside tax professionals – to ensure the company’s compliance.

In Eberhardt v. Michigan Department of Treasury, Michigan Court of Appeals No. 299532 (March 8, 2012), the Court upheld the imposition of personal liability against the sole shareholder and responsible corporate officer of an Indiana retailer of spas and related supplies, for unreported tax on sales to Michigan residents. The Department had previously issued an assessment for unpaid sales/use tax to company, which failed to respond. The Department subsequently assessed the shareholder for the amounts not paid by the company on the theory that he was personally liable as a responsible corporate officer. The appellant responded by arguing that the State of Michigan lacked jurisdiction to issue the earlier assessment to the company. The Michigan Tax Tribunal upheld the assessment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court found that the corporate officer was barred by the company’s failure to respond to the original sales tax assessment to raise the issue of lack of jurisdiction over the company as a defense. The Court therefore affirmed the imposition of liability of over $225,000 against the appellant.

These recent decisions should be a wake-up call for all corporate officers and tax managers – whether they work in a sole proprietorship, small private company, or even in a large, publicly traded company – to be certain that the they are confident the company’s state sales/use tax affairs are being handled appropriately, and tax counsel consulted where they have meaningful doubt or uncertainty regarding the company’s compliance. Failure to exercise proper oversight responsibility could mean the company’s tax liabilities become their own.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Obama Administration Releases Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

In April 2011, Senators Kerry and McCain introduced a bill entitled the “Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights." As discussed in this space, the bill would have required online collectors of information to permit individuals to opt out of the collection of information about browsing and shopping activities and required affirmative consent (opt-in) for the collection of sensitive personally identifiable information, including email addresses. The bill’s introduction was met with significant hand-wringing by the online business community about the impact that it might have on the business practices of even the most reputable electronic merchants. The bill was referred to committee, and little has been heard about it since.

But the issue has not gone away. Apple, Google, Facebook, Path, UPromise, and others have all suffered embarrassing public relations setbacks as a result of the exposure of certain of their practices relating to the collection and use of user information.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration has shifted its focus to a (mostly) non-legislative solution to the perceived need for more robust protection of consumers’ online privacy. On February 23, 2012, the Obama administration published A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights provides for industry self-regulation coupled with the prospect of government enforcement in the event that industry fails to do the things that it claims it will do. It would apply to “personal data,” broadly defined as any data that can be linked back to an individual.

Friday, March 9, 2012

More Cautionary Tales of State Tax Laws With Retroactive Effects

We have written before about retroactive tax laws, but there is reason for concern that the phenomenon of states resorting to retroactivity may be on the rise. In the most recent case to wind its way to the end of the state appeal process, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a statute that amended Michigan’s use tax code with an effective date 5 years prior to its enactment. General Motors Corp. v. Department of Treasury, 290 Mich. App. 355 (2010), appeal denied, 489 Mich. 991 (2011), and cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1143 (2012). The Michigan Supreme Court denied review in the case last year, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision a few weeks ago, in late January 2012. The decision by the GM Court, which cited the Kentucky case discussed in our earlier blog post, Miller v. Johnson Controls, 296 S.W.3d 392 (Ky. 2009), rehearing denied (2009), and cert. denied, 130 S.Ct. 3324 (2010), suggests that the legal standard a state must satisfy to amend its tax law retroactively is, in many instances, not very exacting.

GM concerned a statute passed by the Michigan legislature to block the giant automaker (and potentially other companies) from obtaining a refund of use tax paid on “demonstration” vehicles driven temporarily by GM employees, but expressly held by GM in inventory for resale, and later sold to consumers. Over the years, GM had paid tens of millions of dollars in use tax based on the Michigan Department of Treasury’s enforcement position, asserted in audits of the company, that GM was required to self-assess and pay Michigan use tax as a result of its employees’ temporary use of the vehicles in the state.

However, in 2006, the Michigan Court of Appeals held (in a case involving auto dealerships) that such demonstration vehicles acquired and held for resale were not subject to use tax, and that interim employee use did not result in conversion of the autos’ use to a taxable use, as the Department argued. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed the relevant portion of the Betten decision in 2007. Betten Auto Center, Inc. v. Department of Treasury, 272 Mich.App. 14, 20-22 (2006), aff’d in pertinent part, 478 Mich. 874 (2007).

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pennsylvania DOR Puts Constitutionally-Suspect Affiliate Nexus Interpretation on Hold

On January 27, 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue delayed until September 1, 2012 the enforcement of its recently announced (and legally questionable) position regarding affiliate nexus.

We have written frequently about state affiliate nexus statutes and proposed legislation, as well as the challenge brought by our client, the Performance Marketing Association (“PMA”), against the Illinois affiliate nexus statute which took effect in July 2011. All of these affiliate nexus laws are of doubtful constitutionality. Indeed, Brann & Isaacson has argued on behalf of the PMA that the Illinois law impermissibly targets Internet performance marketing as a basis for asserting a use tax collection obligation on out-of-state retailers, in violation of both the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and the federal Internet Tax Freedom Act (“ITFA”). In an area of law where the authority of the states to expand their taxing power is very much in doubt, every state that has adopted an affiliate nexus law has done so through the legislative process by enacting a statute that purports to require reporting of use tax by remote sellers with no physical presence in the state.

On December 1, however, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue determined that it did not require a new affiliate nexus statute in order to require use tax collection by Internet sellers advertising online through websites located in Pennsylvania. Instead, the Department issued Sales and Use Tax Bulletin 2011-01, regarding Remote Seller Nexus. The Department asserts in the Bulletin that a variety of activities, if conducted in the state by, or on behalf of, an out-of-state company, already constitute sufficient nexus under the Commerce Clause and state law to require the remote seller to collect Pennsylvania use tax. Some of the activities cited by the Department have been the basis for a finding of nexus for an out-of-state company in prior court decisions around the country (and, presumably, have long been reflected in the Department’s enforcement practice). The Department, however, also included “affiliate nexus” on the list. The Department will now make a finding of nexus for an out-of-state company even if the company’s only activity is merely having a contractual relationship with a person located in Pennsylvania whose website has a link to the remote seller’s website, if the in-state affiliate receives “consideration” for the contractual relationship with the retailer.