Wine Seller Victory in Illinois Qui Tam Lawsuit
Wine sellers received a second positive update just this week in the qui tam winery lawsuits in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. On September 3, 2015, Judge Margaret Ann Brennan granted Motions to Dismiss filed by Co-Defendants, 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. and TSG, LLC in a two-count False Claims Act complaint. In Count I, the Relator alleged that the out-of-state wine-seller defendants failed to pay local sales tax, owed through obligations under the Illinois Liquor Control Act; and Count II was the all too familiar allegation that defendants failed to collect and remit tax on shipping and handling charges for the wine they sold and shipped into Illinois.
After months of briefing and a lengthy oral argument, Judge Brennan granted our Motions to Dismiss both Counts I and II of Relator's Second Amended Complaint. Regarding Count I, Judge Brennan said that the Wine Shippers License, required to be held by wine sellers in Illinois pursuant to the Illinois Liquor Control Act ("LCA"), does not obligate local tax collection or remittance as argued by Relator. Specifically, Relator alleged that because the out-of-state wine sellers failed to comply with the LCA by improperly selling some wine that they did not produce, that they must be considered Illinois retailers and thus must collect and remit local tax. The parties agreed that Defendants did collect and remit the 6.25% use tax required on sales made into Illinois, but Judge Brennan noted that it would take an absurd leap in interpreting the LCA to conclude that it obligated Defendants to collect local sales tax as well. Important points were also made that local tax is based on the location where the seller is in the "business of selling" and that all of the "selling activities" occurred outside Illinois. Also, the LCA contains its own remedies for failing to comply with the Wine Shippers License, none of which relate to tax collection.
Regarding Count II, Judge Brennan was convinced that the Defendants' disclosure of shipping and handling charges deducted from their gross receipts on their monthly Illinois returns (ST-1s) was sufficient to take this claim out of a knowingly made, False Claims Act issue. The Defendants met their obligation of monthly filing and there was no proof that the Department felt Defendants should have been collecting and remitting tax on the shipping and handling charges. Even if it was ultimately deemed inaccurate in an audit by the Department, it was still a truthful disclosure to the Department, not a knowing, false statement.
What Does "with Prejudice" Mean?
Significantly, Judge Brennan dismissed the claims with prejudice, meaning the Relator cannot re-plead claims, in this case, for a fourth time. The only options for the Relator at this point would be a Motion to Reconsider (unlikely because the Judge was emphatic and thorough in her decision) or to appeal the decision to the Illinois Appellate Court. Because these same issues are in hundreds of other cases before Judge Mulroy, it is unlikely that Relator will appeal this one-off decision by Judge Brennan. If Relator appeals and the dismissal is upheld, that would create legal precedent that would hurt Relator in all of his other cases pending and yet to come before Judge Mulroy.
So while it is great news that Judge Brennan decided correctly on these issues, where Judge Mulroy has consistently held that questions of fact remain and the defendants are thus forced to pay large settlement amounts or litigate through trial, the sobering news is that her ruling is not legal precedent for Judge Mulroy, another Circuit Court Judge; and it is Judge Mulroy who oversees the vast majority of the winery qui tam lawsuits.
Moving Your Case to a New Judge
You are most certainly asking at this point: How do we move our case to Judge Brennan? Because of the protections put in place against forum and judge shopping, it is extremely difficult and depending on how far you are into the case, potentially impossible. The first step would seem to be a simple one, however, by taking advantage of the Illinois law allowing for a substitution of judge as long as no substantive rulings have been made by the judge yet.