Do Employer Sponsored Cafeterias Have to Collect Sales Tax?

Missouri Supreme Court Says Operator of Federal Reserve Cafeteria Must Collect Sales Tax

Most states apply some form of sales tax to the purchases of meals and drinks. But what if a business or public employer maintains an employee cafeteria? Does the cafeteria operator need to charge sales tax on the meals and drinks sold to the employees?

The Missouri Supreme Court recently confronted these questions in a case, Myron Green Corporation v. Director of Revenue, that also involved the interaction of federal and state law. The plaintiff in this case, Myron Green Corporation, is a private company that provides food services to clients in Kansas City and several other Midwestern cities. One of Myron Green’s customers was the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

FRB of Kansas City contracted for employee cafeteria.

cafeteriaThe Bank contracted Myron Green to run its in-house cafeteria which is restricted to Bank employees due to security needs. But, if cleared to enter the Bank, visitors could also purchase food and drink at the cafeteria.

Under Myron Green’s contract, Bank employees could pay for their purchases using their identification badges. The Bank would then deduct the purchase amounts from the employee’s next paycheck. Employees and visitors could also pay for purchases in cash, although roughly 80 percent of all sales were paid for using payroll deduction.

Actually, the bank paid Myron Green a lump-sum every two weeks using its own credit card. The Bank then reimbursed itself from the amounts deducted from individual employees. The Bank further subsidized the overall cost of food such that the employees and other customers paid below-market prices at the cafeteria.

Under federal law, Federal Reserve banks are exempt from paying all state and local taxes (aside from property taxes). Myron Green believed this federal exemption meant it did not have to collect Missouri sales tax on any products sold in its cafeteria at the Kansas City bank.

Sales are to employees, not the bank itself, thus taxable.

The Missouri Department of Revenue determined that all the cafeteria’s cash and payroll-deduction sales were made to individual employees, not the bank itself, and the exemption only applied to the latter. After an administrative hearing commissioner upheld the Department’s determination, Myron Green sought judicial review directly with the Missouri Supreme Court.

Missouri Supreme Court Upholds Determination

In a unanimous decision published on January 15, 2019, the Court agreed with the Department of Revenue and the commissioner’s reading of the law.

First, the Court noted that Missouri law imposes a sales tax any place where “meals or drinks are regularly served to the public.” The Court said there was a difference between a company-owned cafeteria and one maintained by an outside contractor like Myron Green. In a 2003 decision, the Supreme Court said a Missouri company that operated its own employee cafeteria did not need to collect sales tax because the firm’s “main business was not operating company cafeterias.” In contrast, Myron Green’s main business was “operating on-site cafeterias for corporate clients.” And the fact that access to the Federal Reserve building itself was restricted did not matter, as Myron Green’s cafeteria sold food or drink to anyone who had cash, i.e. it “regularly served” the public.

Second, the Court also rejected Myron Green’s argument that the Federal Reserve’s institutional sales tax exemption extended to individual employees. The Bank did not purchase food or drink directly from Myron Green. Rather, Myron Green purchased its own food at wholesale and offered it for resale to individual employees. Even though most Bank employees paid for purchases using their employee IDs, this “merely provided an avenue through which bank employees could pay.”

 

Incorrect sales tax charge leads to seemingly avaricious lawsuit

$3.10 in incorrect sales tax leads to $158k in attorney’s fees

Retailers need to be careful when implementing any automated system for calculating sales tax. Even minor errors can lead to a lawsuit if a customer is charged the incorrect sales taxincorrect sales tax amount. Indeed, there are a number of class action law firms and “professional plaintiffs” who prey upon such mistakes. And even when the amount sought is just a few dollars, any judgment may be accompanied by a substantial bill to pay the successful plaintiff’s attorney fees.

A recent Illinois case illustrates this problem perfectly. The retailer in this case was Sears, one of the country’s best known department stores. The plaintiff was a customer who claimed he paid $3.10 too much in sales tax when he purchased a digital television converter box from Sears.

Converter boxes are a device used to allow older televisions to receive digital broadcast signals. In 2008 and 2009, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a federal agency, distributed $40 “coupons” to subsidize individual purchases of converter boxes. In July 2008, the Illinois Department of Revenue advised retailers in that state they should deduct the coupon before assessing sales tax. In other words, the sales tax only applied on the net price paid by the customer.

In this case, the plaintiff presented a NTIA coupon when he purchased his converted box at Sears, which reduced the net price paid from $59.99 to $19.99. The sales associate, however, added the sales tax to the higher price before applying the coupon. As a result, the plaintiff paid an incorrect sales tax of $4.65 when he only should have paid $1.55, a difference of $3.10.

A law firm later sued Sears, purportedly on behalf of the plaintiff and anyone else who was similarly overcharged. While the law firm eventually abandoned its quest for class action status, a judge agreed the plaintiff was entitled to $3.10 in damages because Sears violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act. The court rejected Sears’ argument that this was a case of predatory lawyers “shopping for a lawsuit,” even though the same plaintiff had reportedly filed “23 class action complaints in the past eight years, using the same attorneys that represent him in this action.”

The judge also awarded the plaintiff’s law firm approximately $158,000 in attorney’s fees. Sears appealed the decision. In December 2015, an Illinois appeals courtupheld the $3.10 judgment in favor of the plaintiff but threw out the award of attorney’s fees. It turned out the law firm did not submit proper billing records to the trial court. As the appeals court explained, the attorneys prepared written time sheets detailing their work, entered that information into a computer system, then threw the time slips out and only gave the printouts from the computer system to the court. The appeals court said the trial judge erred in admitting these printouts as evidence in lieu of the original time sheets. While the attorneys are still entitled to compensation, the appeals court said, the trial judge must reconsider the matter using only admissible evidence.

S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info

Federal income tax deduction for state sales and use taxes reinstated

Your federal tax deduction for state sales and use taxes could be larger than your income tax deduction depending upon your circumstances

On December 18, President Obama signed a massive federal spending bill into law. Among other things, the law reinstates a federal income tax deduction for state sales and use taxes paid by individuals. This deduction officially expired at the start of 2015, but the new spending bill retroactively abolished the expiration date, thereby making the deduction “permanent” according to its legislative supporters.federal income tax deduction for state sales and use taxes paid by individuals.

What is the sales tax deduction?

Taxpayers who itemize deductions on their federal income tax return (Form 1040, Schedule A) are no doubt aware they can claim any state and local income taxes paid as a deduction. But a taxpayer may elect to deduct state and local sales taxes paid. This is in lieu of the income tax deduction. In other words, you may deduct either your state income tax paid or state sales tax paid, but not both. This election only applies for the current tax year, however, so if you take the income tax deduction on your 2015 return, you could still take the sales tax deduction on your 2016 return.

Why is there a deduction for sales and use tax?

Although most states assess some form of personal income tax, seven states do not, while two others only assess dividend and interest income but not wages or salary. This creates a disparity with respect to the federal income tax, as residents of states with no income tax, like Florida, are at a disadvantage compared to residents of states like California that charge a high income tax. The sales tax deduction is designed to remedy this imbalance.

Keep in mind, you can elect to take the sales tax deduction regardless of the state you reside in. While it is generally a good idea to take the income tax deduction in a state that has one, there may be situations where the sales tax deduction would be more favorable to you in a particular tax year.

How do I calculate my sales tax deduction?

As a basic rule, an individual can deduct the actual sales taxes he or she paid in a given tax year. This means you must actually keep the receipts of your purchases showing the sales tax paid. Alternatively, the IRS publishes tables of predetermined deduction amounts based on your state and locality. The IRS also provides an online calculator to help determine your deduction under this alternate method. You are free to choose either method.

 What sales taxes cannot be deducted?

You may not deduct any business expenses on Schedule A, which includes sales tax paid on items used for your trade or business. There may also be limits on how much sales tax you can deduct on an individual purchase. For example, if you pay more than the “general sales tax” rate for a motor vehicle, you may only deduct the amount equal to the general sales tax. Additionally, if you receive any refund for sales tax paid in a given tax year, you must reduce your deduction by an equal amount.

S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info

Tennessee rules for sales tax on vacation rentals

While budgeting for travel, plan on paying sales tax on vacation rentals through companies like Airbnb

tax on rentals

Many people have turned to their spare bedrooms as source of additional income but sales tax on vacation rentals is a new fly in the ointment that renters in several states may have to deal with. Websites like Airbnb and VRBO allow anyone to list their properties for short-term rental. Travelers then book rooms through the website, which in turn deducts its fees from the money paid to the renter.

But as these services have become more popular, officials in a number of states have questioned whether sales tax should apply to these transactions. About a half dozen states currently require Airbnb and its competitors to collect local sales and hotel occupancy taxes. Just recently, Tennessee’s top law enforcement official said the Volunteer State should be one of them.

Earlier this year, a member of the Tennessee legislature asked state Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III for an official advisory opinion to answer three questions. The first was whether Tennessee sales tax was due on “short-term rentals of homes, apartments, and rooms” arranged through websites. The second question was whether such rentals qualified as “hotels” subject to additional state and local tax on occupancy. And finally, assuming such taxes are due, who is responsible for collecting them?

On December 1, Slatery issued his opinion. Under Tennessee law, sales tax is assessed on any “sale, rental or charges” for any “accommodations” furnished to a person for less than 90 continuous days. The attorney general said the types of services offered through Airbnb and VRBO fit that description. However, Slatery also said only those “individuals who regularly or frequently rent their homes on a short-term basis” were liable for collecting sales tax. Individuals who only rent rooms through a website “infrequently or irregularly” are not subject to tax.

Slatery further determined individuals who regularly rent out rooms in their homes are effectively operating “hotels,” which are subject to varying levels of occupancy tax depending on the specific Tennessee county. By law it is the homeowners, not the third party websites, who are liable for collecting the tax since they are the “operators” of the hotel. And unlike the general sales tax, occupancy taxes must be collected even on “occasional” or “isolated” short-term rentals.

But as the attorney general noted, Airbnb and similar websites allow individual renters “to set the price of the rental and to specify any taxes that are due from guests.” Therefore he did not expect compliance with Tennessee sales and occupancy tax laws to be “overly burdensome” for people who rent rooms.

S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info

Proposed Canadian provincial sales tax increase reversed

provincial sales tax

Many state and local governments have turned to sales tax increases in order to address growing budget deficits. But the newly installed government of one Canadian province has decided to change course and cancel a planned provincial sales tax increase that was scheduled to take effect in 2016. It may be the first and only case in North America of such a reversal.

provincial sales taxIn Canada, unlike the United States, sales taxes is assessed at both the federal and provincial level. The federal portion of the tax, known as the Goods and Services Tax (GST), is 8%. This is added to each province’s sales tax to form what is called the harmonized sales tax (HST). Newfoundland and Labrador currently charges a 5% provincial sales tax, making its HST 13%.

Back in April, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced a 2% increase in the provincial sales tax, which would have raised the HST to 15% as of January 1, 2016. Then-Premier Paul Davis and his cabinet said the additional tax revenue was needed to “facilitate a return” to a surplus in the government’s budget by 2021. At the time, the government estimated it would run a deficit of about $1 billion in 2016.

But on November 30, Davis and his Progressive Conservative Party lost their majority in the provincial legislature following a general election. Liberal Party leader Dwight Ball was sworn in as the new premier on December 14. During the provincial election campaign, Ball said his “first order of his business” would be to rescind the 2% sales tax increase. And he kept his word. On December 3, Ball formally asked Bill Morneau, the finance minister for Canada’s federal government, “to take the required measures to ensure the general sales tax rate remain at 13 per cent after December 31, 2015.” Morneau, who recently took office himself, had to sign off on this action because the federal government is actually responsible for collecting the HST.

As of this writing, however, there is still some confusion among local businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador as to what sales tax rate they should charge customers come New Year’s Day. A local business leader told the Canadian Broadcasting Company, “small business owners are being left in the dark, and Canada Revenue Agency needs to make more details available.” After all, the official noted, it is businesses which collect the harmonized sales tax, and “[a]s such, they need to know when to adjust cash registers, accounting software and other details.” However, a press release from Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Finance, issued shortly after Premier Ball was sworn in, emphatically stated “the federal government has agreed” to the new government’s request to keep the sales tax at 13%.

S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info

 

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