U.S. Supreme Court Expands Rights of States to Collect Tax on Internet Transactions

by James S. Pieper

Since the dawn of the Internet, online sellers have benefited from a line of United States Supreme Court precedent that prevented states from requiring out-of-state businesses to collect and remit sales tax on sales in states where the seller has no “physical presence.”

On June 21, 2018, the Court discarded its longstanding “physical presence” test, thus opening the door for state governments to impose a broader range of duties on remote sellers, including the duty to collect and remit sales tax.

In South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., South Dakota sought to defend its statute that imposed a duty on all retailers with more than $100,000 of sales or 200 transactions within the state to collect sales tax on transactions and remit the tax to the state.  For retailers with no physical presence in the state, the statute was clearly in violation of the historic interpretation of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, which limits the ability of states to regulate “interstate commerce” unless there is a “substantial nexus” between the state’s interests and the commercial activity.

Prior court decisions concluded that a state could have no “substantial nexus” with a seller that had no “physical presence” in said state.  As a result, online sellers with no “brick-and-mortar” presence or employees working in a state were free from the obligation to collect tax on their sales.

In South Dakota v. Wayfair, the Court rejected its prior interpretations of the Commerce Clause and held that a “substantial nexus” could be created by online sales alone despite the lack of “physical presence.”  The decision was decided with a bare 5-4 majority.

As a practical matter, the majority of online sales already entail the collection of sales tax due to either requirements that were valid under prior law or voluntary compliance by larger online retailers (including amazon.com).  Some retailers with no physical stores, however, will lose the advantage of being able to undertake transactions without collecting tax (including the respondents in the case, wayfair.com, overstock.com and newegg.com).

It will be up to each state to set the parameters of which remote sellers might be exempt from collecting tax due to a lack of significant sales, and the Court did not set a constitutional standard for what level of sales would constitute a sufficient “substantial nexus” to allow a state to impose duties (only that South Dakota’s standards were more than sufficient).

Perhaps more importantly, by jettisoning the “physical presence” standard as inappropriate in an era of “substantial virtual connections,” the Court has raised the prospect of greater opportunity for individual states to tax and regulate the actions of businesses whose only connection to said state is via online presence.

All businesses that connect with customers in other states via online connections will need to have heightened awareness that state tax and regulatory requirements in those other states may now apply to those interactions due to the Court’s new reading of the scope of a state’s authority under the Commerce Clause.

© 2018 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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U.S. Supreme Court Interpretation Permits Thousands of “Church Plans” – Including Many for Hospitals and Health Systems – to Remain Exempt from ERISA

On June 5, 2017, the United States Supreme Court unanimously adopted a “broad” interpretation of the exemption allowed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) for “church plans.”   The decision effectively permits thousands of retirement plans adopted by church-affiliated organizations – including numerous hospitals, schools and social-service organizations – to remain exempt from most ERISA requirements.

Plaintiffs in the case of Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton argued that a “narrow” interpretation of the “church plan” exemption was appropriate, and that they were damaged by their employers failing to comply with ERISA’s various requirements designed to protect employee retirement savings.  Advocates of the “narrow” interpretation argued that only plans actually established by a church should be eligible for the exemption.

A split among the United States Courts of Appeal between the “broad” and “narrow” interpretations of the exemption had left plan sponsors and participants in an uncertain state where the applicable plan was maintained by a church-affiliated group and not established by the church itself.

A considerable number of plans in question related to church-affiliated hospitals and health systems.  A “narrow” interpretation would render such plans subject to ERISA.

In an 8-0 decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court concluded that principles of statutory interpretation favored the conclusion that Congress chose language indicating a “broad” exemption.  The “broad” exemption had been employed in interpretive materials, advisory opinions and private letter rulings of the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor, so the decision eliminates, for now, the uncertainty that had arisen with respect to plans that had relied on said interpretation.

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Supreme Court Issues Ruling on Insider Trading Case

In its first insider trading decision in nearly two decades, the United States Supreme Court upheld the insider trading conviction of Bassam Salman and reaffirmed the three-decade-old personal benefit standard applied to insider trading violations under federal securities laws. Salman was convicted of securities fraud, after making over $1 million by trading on a tip from his brother-in-law, who was an investment banker with Citigroup at the time.

To prevail in an insider trading case, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) must establish that the person who gave the tip, the “tipper”, received a personal benefit in exchange for giving non-public information to the tippee. The Supreme Court ruled that the personal benefit test is satisfied if the tipper gifts the confidential non-public information to a relative or friend. This result is different from the Second Circuit case, United States v. Newman, which stated that the personal benefit test requires an insider to receive something of a pecuniary and valuable nature in exchange for the information. The Supreme Court noted in Salman v. United States that the Newman outcome is inconsistent with the requirements of the personal benefit test and clarified the test is satisfied even in the absence of a tipper’s receipt of a pecuniary benefit.

Notably, the Supreme Court did not address several pressing issues with insider trading. While the Supreme Court stated the personal benefit test is not necessarily satisfied when a tipper discloses information to anyone, it did not specify how close a relationship is required between a tipper and tippee, outside the context of relatives or friends. Similarly, the Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of aggressive enforcement tactics, including the SEC’s use of the “rocket docket”. The “rocket docket” requires cases to be decided within 300 days of filing, and consequently leaves little time to prepare for a hearing. It is unclear whether the Supreme Court intends to address these concerns in the near future.

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