"dissociation" dead for Washington B&O tax?

A taxpayer loses the dissociation argument in a Washington Business & Occupation (B&O) Tax case. The Washington Court of Appeals held Washington's statutes and regulations subject both categories (streams) of the taxpayer's Washington bound sales to the B&O tax. The court also held the application of the B&O tax is consistent with the commerce clause. (see Avnet Inc. v. State of Washington, April 28, 2015)

The taxpayer shipped all of its products from distribution centers outside Washington. During the time period at issue, the taxpayer maintained an office in Washington. The taxpayer excluded two categories of Washington bound sales described as "National Sales" and "Third Party Drop-Shipped Sales." The "National Sales" category involved transactions where the taxpayer's customer places an order from a location outside Washington with the taxpayers office outside Washington, but directs the taxpayer to ship the products to Washington.  The drop-shipped category involves a customer located outside Washington placing an order with the taxpayer's office outside Washington, but directs the taxpayer to ship products to a third party located in Washington. Nothing in the record indicated that the taxpayer's Washington office participated in soliciting or filling orders, investing customer credit, or providing technical support to the end users in the specific sales at issue in the case.

The case discusses the interpretation and application of Washington's statutes and regulations regarding when the B&O tax applies to a sale. The case discusses WAC Rule 193 in the context of the taxpayer's argument that sales "not significantly associated in any way with  the taxpayer's activities in Washington" could be excluded from the B&O tax (dissociation). The court reasoned that Rule 193 was interpretive and can not provide a greater exemption than that provided by B&O statutes. The court held the taxpayer's claim must be determined according to constitutional arguments.

The taxpayer conceded that it has nexus in Washington. The dispute centers around whether the commerce clause allows the taxpayer to "dissociate" its Washington bound national and drop-shipped sales by showing that its instate personnel played no significant role in those transactions. Previous court cases, including those in Washington, held dissociation to be a viable position. However, the court asserted, agreeing with the Department, that subsequent precedent has shown a progressive broadening of the types of activities that may establish substantial nexus. Those precedents, according to the court, show that a state need not demonstrate a direct connection between a taxpayer's nexus-creating activities and particular sales into the state in order to tax those sales.

Take Away

If you or your clients have utilized dissociation to keep specific Washington bound sales from taxation, it is time to review that position and determine the prudent path forward.