Have I Committed Malpractice?

Let’s say John Smith is a consultant in Syracuse, New York. His business is conducted fully in Syracuse. He never travels outside of Syracuse. He writes reports on a niche area for businesses. Mr. Smith files and pay New York state income tax (as he’s a resident of New York) in addition to his federal income tax. Has he satisfied his income tax filing requirements? (There are no local income taxes in Syracuse.)

In my view, almost certainly. His activity is conducted solely within Syracuse, New York. He’s filed his tax returns every year. Yet in the view of the State of California he may owe tax to the Bronze Golden State. How, you might ask, might this be the case?

The State of California, in its unending wisdom, enacted legislation for “economic nexus.” If you have sales to California, a portion of your income is, in the view of California, subject to California tax. Here’s an excerpt from the FTB’s website:

Jill, a nonresident of California, owns a web design business that she holds as a sole proprietorship. She works from her home out of state but has customers in various states including California. For the 2013 taxable year, Jill’s sales receipts from California customers are $300,000 out of the total sales receipts everywhere of $1,000,000. Does Jill have a filing requirement in California?

Yes, nonresident individuals are taxed on all California source income. Jill’s sole proprietorship is carrying on a business in and out of California and will be required to apportion its income to California using UDITPA rules. Under market assignment, sales of services are assigned to California if the purchaser of the service received the benefit of the service in California. Accordingly, $300,000 will be assigned to the California sales factor numerator for Jill’s sole proprietorship and Jill would apportion 30% ($300,000 CA sales/$1,000,000 total sales) of its business income from her sole proprietorship to California. [emphasis in original]

In a tax professional’s forum I noted that while the California legislature enacted this law, there is a good chance that it’s unenforceable except for businesses with nexus to California. Consider a partnership with one of the partners a California resident and the other a New York resident. Here, there’s clearly nexus to California and California tax is owed.

However, in the example I give (above) Mr. Smith clearly has no nexus to California and while California thinks he has a filing requirement, he probably doesn’t because of court cases. I noted the following on that forum:

While I understand that’s the Franchise Tax Board’s position, the ability for a state to to force collection of taxes to a nonresident who resides in another state is governed also by Quill Corp. vs. North Dakota, the famous case on states having the ability to force collection of sales tax on nonresident companies. The background for this case is the “dormant commerce clause.” (Interestingly, the Supreme Court recently accepted another case on this same issue: South Dakota vs. Wayfair, so it’s possible Quill will be overturned.)

The principal of this is that California has the absolute right to tax individuals with nexus to the state. But does California have the right to tax me–a resident of Nevada with no nexus to California–on the (say) 10% of income I receive from California residents whose tax returns I prepare? Can California legally go after Jill who never sets foot in California? My suspicion is courts in Nevada and Jill’s home state would today look askance at such requests.

One tax professional said my response bordered on malpractice: advising clients to disobey laws. I don’t think that’s the case at all. What I am advising clients is that the California law is of dubious legality, and it is difficult for California to enforce on businesses without nexus to California (such as the hypothetical Mr. Smith). I am not ignoring what California is stating (and I’m informing clients who may be impacted by this). That said, based on current precedent federal courts would, in my opinion, rule for Mr. Smith. (Since Mr. Smith has no nexus to California, a court case would almost certainly be in federal court in New York–the only place he has nexus to.)

It’s important to realize that the law could change based on the decision in South Dakota vs. Wayfair. (South Dakota enacted a law regarding sales tax that allows for economic nexus to the state. South Dakota courts held the law was unconstitutional based on the Quill decision.) Today, though, the federal supremacy clause (the federal supremacy clause means that state constitutions and laws are subordinate to federal law) governs; current federal law holds that California cannot tax companies without nexus to the state–and today nexus means physical nexus.

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