It’s hard to like the result in Wake County v. Hotels.com, LP, 2012 NCBC 61.  The case is a consolidation of cases brought by several North Carolina counties (Mecklenburg, Wake, Dare, and Buncombe) against Hotels.com and other internet travel sites (like Orbitz.com, priceline.com, and travelocity.com).  Hotels.com, the first named Defendant, is an online booking service that promises the lowest available rates for a multitude of hotels.

The NC County Plaintiffs allege that Hotels.com and the other Defendants contract with hotels for rooms at a discounted rate, and then sell the rooms to consumers at a higher rate.  Their beef is over the non-payment by hotels.com of the Occupancy Tax ordinarily paid by hoteliers.  They allege that Hotels.com and the other Defendants charge their customers for tax at the higher rate at which the hotels actually sell the room, but then only remit taxes based on the discounted rate they pay the hotel operator.

What happens to the difference?  Hotels.com and the other Defendants pocket it.  Shouldn’t they pay the excess collected to the counties or the North Carolina Department of Revenue?  The Counties thought so.

But the upshot of Judge Murphy’s decision in the Wake County case is that the Counties had no cause of action against the Defendants.  He granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendants.

The why of it took 30 pages of statutory analysis of North Carolina’s taxation scheme.  The Occupancy Tax is not contained in the General Statutes.  Instead, the General Assembly passed statutes authorizing counties to levy an Occupancy Tax.  The counties levy the Occupancy Tax via resolutions or ordinances.

So the cases turned on the counties’ ordinances, and upon whom they placed the obligation to collect the tax.  In Mecklenburg and Wake Counties, it was the "operator of a taxable establishment."  In Dare and Buncombe Counties, it was the "operator of a business subject to a room occupancy tax."

Judge Murphy concluded that the Defendants were not responsible for collecting the Occupancy Tax.  If you are curious about how he reached that conclusion — and you must be a state taxation junkie if you are — you can read about it in Paragraphs 33 through 53 of the Opinion.

Other Interesting Things About This Opinion

For those of you who aren’t enamored  by the Occupancy Tax, you might find interesting Judge Murphy’s discussion of Rule 8 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure and his disposition of a conversion claim.

 

Continue Reading Hotels.com And Other Online Travel Vendors Don’t Have To Pay Occupancy Taxes To North Carolina Counties

The Court of Appeals faced that rarest of truffles this week:  an outcome-determinative choice of law question.  The Court adhered to its traditional roots and rejected a new test fashioned by the Business Court.

At issue in Harco Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Grant Thornton, LLP was an audit of a company providing bail and immigration bonds in North Carolina and other states.  The plaintiff, an insurance company, entered into an agreement with the bonding company on the basis of that audit.  When the bonding company went defunct, the plaintiff ultimately became liable for $15 million in bonds issued in North Carolina alone.

Conflict of laws professors seeking exam questions, take note of these facts:  The plaintiff is an Illinois corporation who paid most of the $15 million from its corporate bank account in Illinois, but did not pay any of that money to any Illinois recipient.  The audit itself was performed by the defendant in Pennsylvania and the audit report was delivered to the bonding company in that Commonwealth as well.

Unlike many choice of law disputes, this one actually made a difference due to the great variety of standards among states for auditor liability to third parties not in privity with the auditor.  The plaintiff argued that North Carolina law applied and, under North Carolina law, the defendant would not be entitled to summary judgment.  The defendant argued that Illinois law applied and that no liability was possible under that state’s law.

As we noted last April, the Business Court went its own way, determining that Pennsylvania law applied.  In doing so, Judge Tennille held that the law of the state in which an audit is performed should govern the auditor’s liability to third parties not in privity.  The Business Court’s analysis was premised on principles of certainty, predictability, and the avoidance of forum shopping.

The novelty of this approach clearly bothered the Court of Appeals in its somewhat tersely-worded opinion:

The Business Court’s Audit State test seems to be the only such test of its kind.  Our research has not revealed a single case in any jurisdiction that purports to utilize such a test for the purpose of determining the choice of law in an auditor liability
case. As the Business Court’s order acknowledges, claims for negligence and negligent misrepresentation are claims sounding in tort.  It is the nature of the cause of action, not the occupation of a defendant, that controls the determination of the applicable choice of law test.  While the Business Court expressed concern that “[u]sing the law of the state where the injury occurred is problematic[,]” it was required to apply the lex loci test to plaintiff’s tort claims pursuant to the prior holdings of our Supreme Court and the doctrine of stare decisis.

In other words, a tort is a tort is a tort, and any deviation from the First Restatement: Conflict of Laws (1934) will be punished.  (The Second Restatement, at not yet 40 years old, apparently lacks the gravitas necessary for such issues).

Applying the traditional lex loci test, the Court of Appeals held that Pennsylvania, although the site of the alleged misrepresentations, was not the site where the injury was felt.  Nor was Illinois, the location of Plaintiff’s business.  Instead, the place of harm was North Carolina, in which the plaintiff’s funds were seized by the Department of Insurance.

Note that the Court of Appeals affirmed the Business Court’s denial of the defendant’s summary judgment motion under Illinois law.  Because the Business Court determined that Illinois law did not apply, the denial of summary judgment was appropriate.