Articles Posted in Multi-state sales tax

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The United States Constitution expressly forbids ex post facto laws with respect to both the federal and state governments.[i] An ex post facto law is one that retroactively changes the legal status and consequences of a particular action. The easiest way to understand it is in the criminal realm. Today, I ate a yogurt. Two years from now, the government passes a law saying it is a third-degree felony to eat yogurt and makes the law retroactive for a 5-year period. While eating my yogurt today was not against the law, I am still, two years later, guilty of a felony and can be punished accordingly. Fortunately, the government is not too interested in yogurt. Unfortunately, the government is very interested in tax.

In 2014, Michigan passed 2014 PA 282, a retroactive tax law replacing the elective three-factor apportionment formula from the Multistate Tax Compact to which Michigan adhered with a new single-factor apportionment formula. This may have been just another disappointment to Taxpayers, who are regularly disappointed by the creative and nefarious ways in which states try to drum up revenue. But with a retroactive application to 2008, it was just plain devastating.

It is no surprise that the state supreme court upheld the state’s interest in collecting more tax. The case challenging this law was in fact 50 consolidated cases in Gillette Commercial Operations North America & Subsidiaries et al. v. Dep’t of Treasury, No. 325258 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 29, 2015). The question now is: will the Supreme Court hear the case? The Department of treasury argues that the Supreme Court can’t. Rather than a retroactive law, the state argues that 2014 PA 282 is simply a clarification of the preexisting law. Therefore, under the state statutory-construction law, the Michigan state court had adequate and independent state law ground to uphold 2014 PA 282 and the Supreme Court of the United States does not have the jurisdiction to overturn it.

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Earlier in 2017, Premier Netcomm Solutions LLC (“Premier”) lost on reconsideration in New Jersey tax court.  The case dealt with the taxability of software as a service (“SaaS”) dating back to an audit from 2004 through 2005.  After initially beating for state, the court overturned a prior decision on reconsideration, which ultimately upheld New Jersey’s tax assessment.

Premier seems to be a classic IT provider in that it provides services such as network supports, internet access, consulting and design of IT and telephone projects, trouble shooting, remote training, data back-up, and network monitoring for businesses.  In the original decision, the court sided with Premier that its sales were not subject to sales tax.  The court concluded that prior to 2005, sales of services related to prewritten software were not taxable. In so doing the court invalidated New Jerseys tax assessment against Premier.

Unhappy with the decision, New Jersey’s Division of Taxation sought reconsideration, which is very difficult to prevail on.  The Court seemed to grant reconsideration because the original case erred fundamentally on its analysis.  Primarily, the court originally believed the law did not tax such services until its 2005 amendment.  However, the amendment was really based on New Jersey’s membership into the Streamline Sales and Use Tax Agreement (“SSUTA”) in 2005, which required it to adopt a uniform definition.  Therefore, based on a 2004 Bulletin, the court reconsidered the case and ruled that the services were and have been subject to tax since 2004.

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Over the past several years software as a service (“SaaS”) has been a booming industry.  Pioneers in the cloud computing industry, like Salesforce, have developed web based applications that offer a wide range of services to the user.  Driven by competitors such as Microsoft, Adobe, Sap, ADP, Oracle, IBM, Intuit and Google, the SaaS industry has become a $204 billion industry and grown by more than 16% last year.

Traditionally, from a sales tax perspective, states tax the sale of tangible personal property but not services.  While many states adhere to that mantra, several states have moved towards taxing software despite being intangible in nature.  Still, it can be difficult to determine whether SaaS is more like a software, which may be taxable, or if it feels more like a service provided, which is not taxable in many states.

States have been consistently inconsistent across the country in determining whether to tax SaaS.  States often have similar statutes and reach completely different conclusions in their quest to analyze SaaS.  Further, many situations occur in which a state can treat two seemingly similar SaaS companies differently within their own state.  In an attempt to comply, companies often struggle with charging the appropriate sales tax in the correct state and/or their state income tax obligations, with respect to SaaS.

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Florida’s hotel reservation industry recently received an important victory relating to Tourist Development Tax (“TDT”).  TDT is a tax imposed on the privilege of renting, leasing or letting “for consideration any living quarters or accommodations in any hotel . . ., or condominium for a term of six months or less.”  § 125.0104(3)(a)1., Fla. Stat.  Notably, the TDT is due on the consideration paid for occupancy in the county. § 125.0104(3)(a)1., Fla. Stat.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court held that the “consideration paid for occupancy” is limited to the actual rental amount paid for occupancy of the room and not to mark-up charges and service charges associated with the reservations.  See Alachua County v. Expedia, Inc., 175 So. 3d 370 (Fla. 2015).

The issue in Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club Condominium Assn., Inc. v. Sarasota County, et al., Case No. 2015 CA 002612 NC (Fla. 12th Cir, July 11, 2016) was whether reservation and cleaning fees charged by a condominium association to guests during the reservation process were subject to TDT.  The County argued that the fees were part of the total consideration paid for occupancy and therefore subject to TDT.  The association argued that, pursuant to Expedia, only the rental amount was subject to TDT, not the reservation and cleaning fees charged in connection with the reservation.

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On December 14, 2015, the Supreme Court of the State of Utah issued its ruling in the case of DIRECTV and DISH Network v. Utah State Tax Commission. At issue in this case was a tax scheme that provided a sales tax credit for “an amount equal to 50%” of the franchise fees paid by pay-TV providers to local municipalities for use of their public rights-of-way.

The franchise fees were imposed for the running of cable and the construction of hubs on public property. Therefore, it is exclusively cable providers who pay franchise fees and qualify for the credit. Meanwhile, satellite providers such as DIRECTV are not subject to franchise fees and do not qualify for the tax credit.

DIRECTV argued that the tax credit was a violation of the dormant commerce clause of the Constitution. The dormant commerce clause is a legal term that means that states cannot either discriminate against interstate commerce or unduly burden interstate commerce because the power to do is in the hands of Congress. From a practical perspective, allowing 50 states to regulate interstate commerce differently would cause complete chaos, so the federal government wants to reserve that power for itself. Furthermore, states’ motivation to help their own local businesses would weaken the national economy as a whole.
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Since Quill in 1992, states only have the power to impose taxes on businesses if they have a “physical presence” in the State. For example, in order for a state to be allowed to require a company to charge sales tax, the company must have a place of business in the State, employees in the State or have a representative in the State. However, as the economy has shifted, more and more States are enacting an “economic nexus” to impose a tax on businesses.

But, what is economic nexus?
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Our firm has been extremely involved with Florida’s wholesale tobacco tax for the past several years. Since Micjo in 2012, the Florida wholesale tobacco tax area has been fraught with seemingly endless litigation. In addition to the Micjo litigation, which focused on whether Florida tax applied to Federal Excise Tax (“FET”), there was another parallel of litigation which centered on a product called a blunt wrap or a cigar wrapper. Florida’s 1stDCA spoke loud and clear on April 6, 2016, by determining that the Wrap product is not subject to Florida tax, which appears to be a giant step towards putting an end towards at least 1 important issue for the industry.
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State and local governments are continually searching for ways to increase revenue through taxation of online companies conducting business within their state or county. One such way is by assessing a rental tax against online travel companies (“OTCs”).

OTCs typically facilitate the rental of a hotel room for vacationers and charge a fee for their services. OTCs play a significant role in the hotel rental business by providing consumers with a variety of choices based on price, location, and other factors. OTCs also provide benefits to hotels through promotion and advertising, and providing the ability for vacationers to rent a room at a lower price. Further, OTCs increase hotel occupancy rates and promote tourism thereby creating revenue for state and counties.
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Yet another state jumped on the band wagon to force out-of-state companies to collect and remit state tax. Specifically, South Dakota recently passed legislation adding sales and use tax collection requirements for out-of-state businesses conducting sales within the state. The legislation continues the trend of states enacting aggressive nexus statutes aimed at out-of-state online retailers.

The concept of nexus is derived from the Commerce Clause and the Due Process Clause of the United State Constitution. Essentially, these Federal limitations limit the ability of a state to tax business that takes place outside of the state. However, if a business has enough of connection to a state, then the state can force the business to abide by its state and local tax laws.

In Quill Corporation v. North Dakota (U.S. 1992), the U.S. Supreme Court held that nexus required a physical presence of the business within the state to require a business to follow a state’s state and local tax laws. The physical presence requirement has resulted in much litigation throughout the country. Essentially, there has been confusion as to how much of a connection to a state is required before a physical presence is established.

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Few understand or even bring up sales tax issues when they order pizza. The next time you order pizza, take a look at the receipt and see if the pizza shop charges you for the delivery. Taking it a step further, what happens if you purchase an item and pay for shipping charges? Is tax due on just the item, or is it also due on the delivery charge as well? The answer depends largely on whether the delivery charge is separately stated and if it is optional. This issue will be in center stage for a recent class action filed in Broward County against Pizza Hut.

Lauren Minniti, the class representative, purchased a pizza from Pizza Hut and had it delivered. Pizza Hut allegedly charged her tax based on the charge for the pizza and for the separately stated delivery fee instead of tax on the pizza alone. Was this correct?
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