A Federal-Level Attempt to Codify the “Physical Presence” Nexus Standard From Quill

By Adam Koelsch

On June 12, 2017, The Honorable James Sensenbrenner (R. WI 5th District) introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives a bill, designated H.R. 2887, which would codify the nexus standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992).

The bill is set against the backdrop of multiple recent attempts by the states to persuade the Supreme Court to take a case that would revisit and overturn Quill.  Quill held that the dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits a state (or local taxing authority) from imposing upon a retailer an obligation to collect and remit sales tax from its sales to customers within that state if the retailer does not have a “physical presence” in that state.

Various state court decisions have interpreted Quill to limit the physical presence standard to sales taxes only.  With respect to other taxes, those courts adopted a more expansive “economic presence” standard, that is, broadly speaking, a standard by which a court attempts to determine whether a person exploited the state’s market, received protection from the state, and/or derived some benefit from the state, thereby subjecting the person to tax.

H.R. 2887, however, would prohibit a state from taxing, or regulating, a person’s activity in interstate commerce unless the person is “physically present in the State during the period in which the tax or regulation is imposed.”  H.R. 2887 § 2(a).  Essentially, the bill would roll-back the state court economic nexus decisions and require application of Quill to all tax types.

The bill defines “physical presence” as:  (A) maintaining a commercial or legal domicile in the state; (B) owning, holding a leasehold interest in, or maintaining real property such as an office, retail store, warehouse, distribution center, manufacturing operation, or assembly facility in the state; (C) leasing or owning tangible personal property (other than computer software) of more than de minimis value; (D) having one or more employees, agents, or independent contractors present in the State who provide on-site design, installation, or repair services on behalf of the remote seller; (E) having one or more employees, exclusive agents or exclusive independent contractors present in the state who engage in activities that substantially assist the person to establish or maintain a market in the State; or (F) regularly employing in the State three or more employees for any purpose.  H.R. 2887 § 2(b)(1).

Owning real property in a state has been traditionally recognized as providing sufficient nexus to subject a person to tax.  In addition, practitioners familiar with nexus issues will recognize elements taken from Supreme Court case law interpreting the Quill standard, such as the affirmation in subsection (D) that the presence of a single employee (Standard Press Steel Company v. State of Washington, 419 U.S. 560 [1975]) or an independent contractor (Scripto Inc. v. Carson, 362 U.S. 207 [1960]) is sufficient to subject a person to tax.

But parts of the physical presence standard set forth by the bill are more novel.  Subsection (C) of the above definition would likely have significant impact upon the debate regarding the taxability of computer software, which some states have considered tangible personal property, even when transmitted entirely over the internet.  Indeed, the manner by which courts interpret the term “tangible personal property” in subsection (C) will bear upon the question of whether states will be permitted to tax items such as streaming videos and music, when the taxpayer has no other presence in the state.  Moreover, Courts might interpret subsection (F) to expand the ability of states to claim that an out-of-state business entity has established nexus in the state by allowing any three of its employees to work from their homes in that state, although the allowance was made solely for the employees’ convenience, and although the business otherwise does not have any operations in the state.

The bill also sets forth a definition of “de minimis physical presence,” which includes: (a) entering into an agreement under which a person, for a commission or other consideration, directly or indirectly refers potential purchasers to a person outside the State, whether by an Internet-based link or platform, Internet Web site or otherwise; (b) any presence in a State for less than 15 days in a taxable year (or a greater number of days if provided by State law); (c) product placement, setup, or other services offered in connection with delivery of products by an interstate or in-State carrier or other service provider; (d) internet advertising services provided by in-State residents which are not exclusively directed towards, or do not solicit exclusively, in-State customers; (e) ownership by a person outside of the State of an interest in a limited liability company or similar entity organized or with a physical presence in the State; (f) the furnishing of information to customers or affiliate in such State, or the coverage of events or other gathering of information in such State by such person, or his representative, which information is used or disseminated from a point outside the State; or (g) business activities directed relating to such person’s potential or actual purchase of goods or services within the State if the final decision to purchase is made outside the State.  H.R. 2887 § 2(b)(2).

Finally, the bill also provides that “[a] State may not impose or assess a sales, use, or similar tax on a person or impose an obligation to collect or report any information with respect thereto, unless such person is either a purchaser or a seller having a physical presence in the State.”  H.R. 2887 § 2(c).

That provision that would eliminate remote seller sales and use tax reporting requirements recently enacted by a number of states, most notably, in Colorado.  See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 39-21-112 (3.5).

Furthermore — because that provision provides that a sales and use tax may not be imposed upon anyone who is not a “seller,” and because the term “seller” specifically excludes “marketplace providers” and “referrers,” as defined elsewhere in the bill (H.R. 2887 § 4[a][1], [5], [7][A], [B]) — that provision would prohibit state measures such as Minnesota H.F. 1, which was passed on May 30, 2017, that impose sales tax and use tax collection requirements upon marketplace providers, e.g., eBay and Amazon.

Interestingly, the bill provides that the federal courts will now have jurisdiction to hear civil actions filed to enforce the provisions of the bill.  H.R. 2887 § 3.  Currently, lawsuits involving state taxes are largely absent from the federal system as a result of the Tax Injunction Act, which provides that “district courts shall not enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State.”  28 U.S.C. § 1341.  H.R. 2887, however, allows any taxpayer challenging a state tax based upon nexus may bring suit in federal court.  Obviously, this new “federal option” would change the dynamic of SALT litigation involving nexus questions.

In short, the bill, if passed, would make dramatic changes to State and Local Tax law and litigation landscape.

Explore posts in the same categories: nexus, SALT

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