Supreme Court Rules Retailer Physical Presence No Longer Required For States to Tax Sales in Wayfair Decision

In a highly anticipated decision issued today, the Supreme Court overruled decades of its own precedent and held that states can require out-of-state retailers to collect and remit sales tax proceeds, even if the business has no physical presence in the state.  The Court’s decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, No. 17-494 (2018), could have a significant impact on retailers who sell goods or services through the internet, as states rush to enact legislation forcing online sellers to collect and remit sales tax for transactions within those states.

The case was a challenge by Wayfair and other on-line retailers to a South Dakota law requiring large out-of-state sellers to collect and remit sales tax as if the seller had a physical presence in the state.  In two previous cases – National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Revenue of Ill., 386 U.S. 753 (1967) and Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992) the Supreme Court had ruled that states could not require sellers to collect and remit sales taxes if they had no physical presence in the state.  In those situations, states were forced to rely on their residents to voluntarily pay sales tax owed on purchases.  The Court noted that consumer compliance is as low as 4%, causing states to lose as much as $33 billion in combined sales tax revenue every year.

Referring to the “internet revolution” and the modern dynamics of the national economy, Justice Kennedy writing for a majority of the Court overruled Bellas Hess and Quill, finding that the rule in those cases amounted to a judicially-created tax shelter for businesses with no physical presence in a state.  The Court noted that modern e-commerce does not analytically align with a test based on the physical location of brick-and-mortar stores.  Instead of the physical location test, the Court concluded, to be subject to a state’s tax, there must be a “substantial nexus” between the state and the taxed activity.  Just how substantial a nexus remains to be seen and will likely result in future litigation.

The dissenting opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, agreed that the Court’s older decisions were wrong, but contended that Congress, not the Court, should fix the problem and determine the extent to which states may burden interstate sellers with the duty to collect sales or use taxes.

For more information on the implications of Wayfair, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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Third Circuit Rules that Samsung Cannot Compel Arbitration Based on Clause “Buried” in Safety and Warranty Guide

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that Samsung cannot force arbitration in a consumer fraud class action about the battery life of its Galaxy Gear S Smartwatch.  Noble v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc.

Plaintiff had purchased a smartwatch but found, after trying three of them, that the battery lasted for only a few hours, compared to the advertised “24 to 48 hours with typical use.” Finding that others were in a similar position, Noble filed a class action complaint in federal court in New Jersey. Samsung sought to compel arbitration based on an arbitration clause in the company’s 143 page “Health and Safety and Warranty Guide,” included in the Samsung Smartwatch box.

Affirming the district court’s decision denying Samsung’s motion to compel arbitration, the Third Circuit found that Noble had no actual or constructive notice of the arbitration provision because it was not “reasonably conspicuous.”  The “Guide” in which the arbitration clause was included, “buried” the terms on page 97 of the document.  Unlike previous cases involving “shrinkwrap” or “clickwrap” agreements, Samsung’s “Guide” did not clearly inform customers that they are agreeing to certain terms upon purchase and use of the product.

The Third Circuit’s decision is a reminder to businesses to ensure not only the visibility of their terms and conditions, but also an indication that the terms are a contract to which a consumer is binding himself.

For assistance in editing your company’s agreements or product enclosures, or for further information on the Noble decision, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Chair of the Firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com or Jennifer Borek, Esq., Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at jborek@genovaburns.com.

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