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Directv, Inc. & Subsidiaries v. South Carolina Department of Revenue

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

August 30, 2017

DIRECTV, Inc. & Subsidiaries, Appellant,
v.
South Carolina Department of Revenue, Respondent. Appellate No. 2015-001509

          Heard March 14, 2017

         Appeal From The Administrative Law Court Ralph King Anderson, III, Administrative Law Judge

          John C. von Lehe, Jr. and Bryson M. Geer, both of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, of Charleston, for Appellant.

          Nicole M. Wooten, William J. Condon, Jr., and Milton G. Kimpson, all of the South Carolina Department of Revenue, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          WILLIAMS, J.

         In this appeal from the administrative law court (ALC), DIRECTV, Inc. & Subsidiaries (DIRECTV) argue the ALC erred in (1) applying an improper burden of proof, (2) holding DIRECTV's income-producing activities (IPA) consisted solely of signal delivery into its customers' homes, (3) finding DIRECTV failed to establish the portion of its IPA occurring in South Carolina, and (4) finding the South Carolina Department of Revenue (the DOR) properly imposed substantial understatement penalties. We affirm.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case involves the DOR's denial of DIRECTV's claims for refunds of South Carolina corporate income and license fee taxes for the tax years 2006 through 2008 and the assessment of South Carolina corporate income and license fee taxes, interest, and penalties for the tax years 2009 through 2011. To properly determine DIRECTV's IPAs, we find it instructive to briefly detail DIRECTV's business operations and its methods for soliciting and securing customers and deriving its revenue.

         DIRECTV's Business Operations

         DIRECTV-a California corporation with its headquarters and principal place of business located in Los Angeles, California-provides access to direct-to-home digital television entertainment via satellite to residential and commercial customers across the United States in exchange for a subscription fee. DIRECTV has four principal "value drivers" for its business: development and acquisition of content; broadcast operations and distribution; marketing and sales; and customer care.

         DIRECTV targets customers through high-quality, national advertisements designed to encourage existing and potential customers to call a toll-free number, which directs customers to DIRECTV's customer service call centers, to place an order for DIRECTV's television services. The call centers-located entirely outside of South Carolina and owned and operated by DIRECTV and third parties-facilitate the installation of set-top boxes and dishes in subscribers' homes and businesses by a third-party home service provider hired by DIRECTV.[1]DIRECTV delivers programming to a subscriber only after the subscriber signs a customer agreement and installation of DIRECTV's equipment is completed. For a monthly subscription fee, DIRECTV provides its subscribers access to original and acquired television programming.

         DIRECTV produces several types of original programming and sporting events. Additionally, it acquires programming from third-party providers such as movie studios, broadcast television networks like NBC, local broadcast stations, and providers of cable programming like HBO and ESPN.[2] DIRECTV receives third-party programming content through satellite, fiber-optic cables, and over-the-air broadcasts. DIRECTV's national broadcast centers in California and Colorado receive, process, collect, and transmit these signals to one of eleven satellites in geo-stationary orbit above the earth, which then sends a wide beam of energy covering the United States. Programming from local broadcast television stations is collected at unmanned, local collecting facilities maintained by DIRECTV and located throughout the country in correspondence with each of the 210 Nielsen assigned designated market areas.[3] Each of the local collecting facilities transmits signals to one of DIRECTV's six up-link facilities, located throughout the country but not in South Carolina. The up-link facilities transmit the content to one of the eleven geo-stationary satellites, which then transmits a narrow spot beam, containing only the local programming, to the designated market area from which it originated. DIRECTV's subscribers receive national and local programming from these signal beams via mounted satellite dishes on or near their homes or businesses. The signal then relays from the mounted satellite dishes to the subscribers' set-top boxes, which delivers the signal onto the subscribers' television sets.

         Although DIRECTV established its four primary value drivers through testimony, DIRECTV primarily derives its revenue from "fees paid by its [approximately 20 million] customers for rentals of set-top boxes and subscriptions to its programming services." According to DIRECTV, this includes monthly fees from subscriptions to one or more video programming packages; revenue from pay-per-view programming; revenue from the sale or lease of DIRECTV's equipment; revenue from optional warranties on the leased set-top boxes; and revenue from fees associated with DVR set-top boxes, high-definition set-top boxes, and multiroom viewing charges. Other than DIRECTV's local collection facilities in South Carolina, its equipment rental and sale to subscribers in South Carolina, and the one or two employees located in South Carolina during the tax periods at issue, nearly all of DIRECTV's assets, employees, and property involved in providing its services to subscribers were located outside of South Carolina.

         DIRECTV's Income Tax Returns

         For income tax purposes, corporations like DIRECTV apportion net income to South Carolina using a fraction in which the numerator is gross receipts from within South Carolina during the taxable year and the denominator is gross total receipts from everywhere during the taxable year. See S.C. Code Ann. § 12-6-2290 (2014). For the 2006, 2007, and 2008 tax years, DIRECTV originally filed corporate income tax returns in South Carolina in which it sourced 100% of its subscription receipts and 100% of its rental receipts from South Carolina subscribers to the numerator of the gross receipts ratio. This corresponded to gross receipt ratios of 1.9539% for 2006; 2.0016% for 2007; and 2.0543% for 2008, which DIRECTV used to apportion its net income to South Carolina. In 2008, the DOR conducted a field audit on DIRECTV's tax returns from 2006 through 2008. Following the audit, the DOR did not make any adjustments to DIRECTV's tax returns, and thus, accepted DIRECTV's original 2006 through 2008 corporate tax income returns as filed. However, DIRECTV subsequently filed amended corporate income tax returns for tax years 2006 through 2008, wherein DIRECTV's only change was the removal of 100% of the South Carolina customer subscription receipts that was originally sourced to the numerator of the gross receipts ratio.

         As a result, the gross receipts ratio used to apportion DIRECTV's net income to South Carolina changed from the original 1.9539% to an amended 0.0246% for 2006; from 2.0016% to an amended 0.0810% for 2007; and from 2.0543% to an amended 0.1137% for 2008. DIRECTV attached the following statement, explaining the change, to each of its three amended returns:

The return is being amended to apportion sales receipts to the state under S.C. Code Ann. § 12-6-2295 which [sic] sources sales of services under a pro-rate cost of performance method. The originally filed return incorrectly apportioned satellite television subscription receipts to South Carolina using market-based sourcing, rather than the cost of performance sourcing that is prescribed by statute.[4]

         As a result of the change in the amended returns, DIRECTV attempted to reduce its income tax and license fee liability by $5, 976, 810 and sought a refund in the same amount. The DOR conducted another field audit of DIRECTV, and in its November 29, 2011 field audit report, the DOR denied DIRECTV's amended returns and refund request and accepted DIRECTV's original 2006 through 2008 tax returns as filed. In its filed original corporate income tax returns for tax years 2009 through 2011, DIRECTV used a method for calculating the gross receipt ratio similar to the one in its amended 2006 through 2008 returns, [5] which resulted in gross receipts ratios of 0.1437% for the 2009 tax year; 0.1570% for the 2010 tax year; and 0.2962% for the 2011 tax year. Again, the DOR conducted an audit on these returns, and in its January 28, 2014 field audit report, the DOR assessed DIRECTV for income taxes and license fees for 2009 through 2011 that calculated the gross receipts ratio by attributing 100% of DIRECTV's South Carolina subscription receipts to the numerator of the ratio.

         DOR Determination and ALC Hearing

         On February 18, 2014, the DOR issued a department determination in which it found the gross receipts DIRECTV generated from the sale of subscriptions were directly produced from activity occurring within South Carolina, namely the delivery of the signal into South Carolina homes and businesses and onto customers' television sets. Accordingly, the DOR determined the revenue from DIRECTV's subscription receipts should be sourced to South Carolina. Thereafter, DIRECTV requested a contested case hearing of the DOR's determination before the ALC, seeking a determination of the extent to which DIRECTV's IPA occurred in South Carolina and whether the DOR properly assessed substantial understatement penalties against DIRECTV for taxes owed for the 2009 through 2011 tax years.

         Following a hearing, the ALC issued an amended final order and decision on June 12, 2015. The ALC found (1) DIRECTV's IPA was the delivery of the signal into homes and businesses and onto the television sets of its customers; (2) the IPAs related to South Carolina customers occurred entirely within South Carolina; and (3) 100% of DIRECTV's subscription receipts from South Carolina customers must be sourced to the numerator of the gross receipts ratio. Additionally, the ALC found DIRECTV liable for substantial understatement penalties. Furthermore, the ALC denied DIRECTV's refund request for its amended 2006 through 2008 income tax returns and assessed DIRECTV $6, 646, 168 in tax and license fees; $653, 425 in interest; and $1, 246, 155.75 in penalties relating to its 2009, 2010, and 2011 income tax returns. This appeal followed.

         ISSUES ON APPEAL

         I. Did the ALC err in (1) holding DIRECTV's IPAs consist solely of the delivery of the signal into the homes of its customers and finding that DIRECTV failed to establish the portion of its IPAs that were conducted in South Carolina, and (2) applying an improper burden of proof?

         II. Did the ALC err in finding the DOR properly imposed substantial underpayment penalties?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Administrative Procedures Act (APA) governs appellate review of decisions from the ALC. Risher v. S.C. Dep't of Health & Envtl. Control, 393 S.C. 198, 203, 712 S.E.2d 428, 431 (2011).

The review of the [ALC]'s order must be confined to the record. The court may not substitute its judgment for the judgment of the [ALC] as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. The court of appeals may affirm the decision or remand the case for further proceedings; or[] it may reverse or modify the decision if the substantive rights ...

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