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Volume XI, Number 268

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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Approves Sales Tax Apportionment for Software

On May 21, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision affirming the Massachusetts Tax Appeal Board’s decision in favor of Microsoft and Oracle, ruling that the companies may apportion sales tax to other states on software purchased by a Massachusetts company from which the software was accessed and seek a tax refund.

The case involved a claim by vendors for abatement of sales tax collected on software delivered to a location in Massachusetts but accessible from multiple states. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) claimed that the statute gave it the sole right to decide whether the sales price of the software could be apportioned and, if so, the methods the buyer and seller had to use to claim apportionment. Under rules promulgated by the DOR, there are three methods to choose from, such as the purchaser giving the seller an exemption certificate claiming the software would be used in multiple states, none of which the purchaser used. The DOR argued that if a taxpayer did not use one of the methods specified in the rule, no apportionment was permitted. The vendors sought abatement of the tax on the portion of the sales price that could have been apportioned to other states had one of the methods specified under the rule been used. The DOR claimed the abatement procedure was not a permissible method of claiming apportionment.

The court held: (1) the statute gave the purchaser the right of apportionment and it was not up to the DOR to decide whether apportionment was permitted; (2) the abatement procedure is an available method for claiming the apportionment; and (3) the taxpayer was not limited to the procedures specified in the rule for claiming sales price apportionment.

The court’s decision was based in part on separation of powers: “Under the commissioner’s reading of [the statute], the Legislature has delegated to the commissioner the ultimate authority to decide whether to allow apportionment of sales tax on software sold in the Commonwealth and transferred for use outside the Commonwealth.” The court found such a determination represented “a fundamental policy decision that cannot be delegated.”

The Massachusetts rules reviewed by the court have their genesis in amendments to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA) (that never became effective) providing special sourcing rules for, among other things, computer software concurrently available for use in more than one location. Even though Massachusetts is not a member of the SSUTA, officials from the DOR participate in the Streamlined process and apparently brought those amendments home with them and had them promulgated into the Commonwealth’s sales tax rules.

Practice Notes: This case addresses one of the issues with taxing business models in the digital space. This important decision makes clear, at least in Massachusetts, that taxpayers have post-sale opportunities to reduce sales tax liability on sales/purchases of software accessible from other states where tax on the full sales price initially was collected and remitted by the seller.

Taxpayers may have refund opportunities related to this issue and it should be noted that vendors generally must be the party seeking the refund.

Jonathan Hague contributed to this article.

© 2021 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 145
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About this Author

Stephen P. Kranz Lawyer McDermott Will
Partner

Stephen P. Kranz is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in the Firm’s Washington, D.C., office.  He engages in all forms of taxpayer advocacy, including audit defense and litigation, legislative monitoring, and the formation and leadership of taxpayer coalitions.  Steve is at the forefront of state and local tax issues, including developments arising in the world of cloud computing and digital goods and services.  He assists clients in understanding planning opportunities and compliance obligations for all states and all tax types. ...

202-756-8180
Partner

Richard C. Call is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in the Firm's Boston office.  He focuses his practice on state and local tax litigation before administrative and judicial bodies, at all levels and in multiple states, with respect to income, franchise, gross receipts, and sales and use taxes.  He also advises clients on the state and local tax consequences of business restructurings, as well as the impact of new state legislation on current business operations.

Richard is a frequent publisher on state and local tax topics.  He has published...

212-547-5333
Mark Nebergall, McDermott Law Firm, Washington DC, Tax Law Attorney
Of Counsel

Mark Nebergall advises clients on all aspects of tax policy with respect to software transactions at state, federal and international levels. He also works with McDermott’s tax controversy team handling tax litigation where he brings his former experience as a litigator for the US Department of Justice, Tax Division. Mark combines tax policy and tax litigation skills to help solve client tax problems holistically.

Mark has served as President of the Software Finance and Tax Executives Council, a trade association providing software industry...

202-756-8253
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