Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mail Order Merchandise Rule: Are Your Business Processes up to Snuff?

This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting the major legal and regulatory issues that are specific to the multichannel merchant. The Mail Order Merchandise Rule, promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission, is intended to ensure that mail order customers actually receive the items that they order from catalog or online merchants. The Rule requires that when a seller advertises merchandise, it must have a reasonable basis for stating or implying that it can ship the merchandise within a certain time. If the business makes no shipment statement, it must have a reasonable basis for believing that it can ship within 30 days. That is why direct marketers sometimes call this the "30-day Rule." Surprisingly, though, many well-established mail order companies have only a loose grip on the operational steps necessary to comply with this rule.

It is usually the case in the highly competitive, technologically advanced environment of mail order and internet sales, that merchants are easily able to comply with the Rule by providing a stated shipment representation. If a website says the product will be shipped in two days, it almost always is, and often it is shipped even sooner. But when products are not timely shipped, things sometimes go a little sideways. The most common reason for failure to ship within the stated time frame is the lack of a product–the back order issue.

The rule provides that, if after taking the customer’s order, a seller learn that it cannot ship within the time stated, it must seek the customer’s consent to the delayed shipment. If it is the first such delay, and if the seller can provide a revised shipment date, it must notify the customer of his or her right to cancel the order; sellers are permitted to treat the client’s silence in response as an expression of assent.  But, if there is a second delay, or if the seller cannot provide a revised shipment date, then the seller MUST get the client to consent affirmatively to the continued delay. If a seller cannot obtain the customer’s consent to the delay – or if the customer refuses to consent -- the seller must, without being asked, promptly refund all the money the customer paid for the unshipped merchandise.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Direct Marketing Association Re-files Challenge to Colorado Notice and Reporting Law in State Court

We have been updating readers on developments regarding the court challenge brought by the Direct Marketing Association (“DMA”) to a 2010 Colorado law that purported to require Internet retailers and other remote sellers that do not collect Colorado sales tax to: (1) give certain notices to their Colorado customers regarding the purchaser’s obligation to self-report Colorado use tax; and (2) file reports with the Colorado Department of Revenue detailing the private purchasing information of their Colorado customers. The DMA won a preliminary injunction in January 2011 in federal District Court suspending the law on the grounds that it violated the Commerce Clause. The Court later made the injunction permanent when it awarded the DMA summary judgment in March 2012. The State appealed.

In August 2013, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled on its own initiative that the Tax Injunction Act (“TIA”) barred federal court jurisdiction over the DMA’s claims. The Court of Appeals did not reach the merits of the DMA’s Commerce Clause claims, but rather ordered that the claims be dismissed on procedural grounds. The Court held that the DMA was required under the TIA to bring its claims in Colorado state court. The DMA requested rehearing on the jurisdictional issue, but the Tenth Circuit declined in early October to rehear the matter. The Court of Appeals then issued a mandate to the District Court on October 9, directing the lower court to dissolve the injunction and dismiss the claims. (The District Court has not yet implemented the mandate, so for now the federal injunction remains in place.)

On November 5, 2013, the DMA re-filed its challenge to the Colorado notice and reporting law in state District Court in Denver. At the same time, the DMA moved for a preliminary injunction, in order to continue the suspension of the law after the federal court injunction is lifted. Briefing on the motion for a preliminary injunction is expected to conclude in December, with a hearing on the motion likely to be scheduled for early January 2014. The DMA will request that the state court rule on the injunction request prior to January 31, the deadline under the law for retailers to send certain annual notices to customers who purchased at least $500 in goods from the retailers in the prior year.

Brann & Isaacson partners George Isaacson and Matthew Schaefer are co-counsel to the DMA in connection with the appeal.

We will keep you apprised of further developments in the state court proceeding.

Friday, November 15, 2013

MFA Update: Rep. Goodlatte’s Seven Principles and an Interview with George Isaacson

Although the Marketplace Fairness Act (S. 743) ("MFA") has not yet progressed out of a House committee since its Senate passage last spring, it continues to make headlines. In late September, the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), released seven “Principles on Internet Sales Tax.” Brann & Isaacson senior partner George Isaacson was recently profiled by State Tax Notes discussing both the MFA and Goodlatte’s Seven Principles.

The Seven Principles outlined by Representative Goodlatte provide for:
  1. Tax Relief – “no new or discriminatory taxes not faced in the offline world”
  2. Tech Neutrality – brick and mortar and online businesses “should all be on equal footing. The sales tax compliance burden on online Internet sellers should not be less…than that on similarly situated offline businesses”
  3. No Regulation Without Representation – taxpayers “should have direct recourse to protest unfair, unwise or discriminatory rates and enforcement”
  4. Simplicity – no “onerous compliance requirements,” “laws should be so simple and compliance so inexpensive and reliable as to render a small business exemption unnecessary”
  5. Tax Competition – “Governments should be encouraged to compete with one another to keep tax rates low and American businesses should not be disadvantaged vis-à-vis their foreign competitors”
  6. States’ Rights – “States should be sovereign” and “the federal government should not mandate that States impose any sales tax compliance burdens” and
  7. Privacy Rights – “Sensitive customer data must be protected.”