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High court rules on issue preclusion in tax case

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In an opinion handed down March 6, the Indiana Supreme Court had to decide whether a previous ruling barred the Indiana Department of Revenue from raising new contentions in support of a different method of allocation of income to the state.

In Miller Brewer Co. v. Indiana Department of Revenue, No. 49S00-0711-TA-553, Miller Brewing Co. argued that because of a previous ruling, Miller Brewing Co. v. Ind. Dept. of State Revenue (Miller I), 831 N.E.2d 859 (Ind. Tax Ct. 2005), the Department of Revenue is bound by that ruling under the doctrine of issue preclusion.

Miller I deals with the company's 1994, 1995, and 1996 Indiana tax returns and ruled Miller was entitled to a refund of the taxes it paid for sales in which the customer picked up its product outside of Indiana or pickup by a carrier because these sales weren't allocable to Indiana.

In the instant case, the same issue is being challenged - whether sales to Indiana customers are allocated to Indiana if the customer arranged for a common carrier to pick up the product at a facility in another state - but for the tax years of 1997-1999. The department denied Miller's request for a refund of those types of sales claiming the state's sales factor was based on a "destination rule" which allowed the state to treat sales of products picked up by common carriers for delivery to Indiana as sales derived from this state. Miller appealed to the Indiana Tax Court claiming that issue preclusions barred the department from denying a refund for those sales. The case is on appeal to the high court solely on the question of issue preclusion.

The Supreme Court has yet to determine whether or to what extent issue preclusion applies in tax cases. The Tax Court had held that issue preclusion is generally not applicable in tax cases, but the high court didn't address the issue in a review of the decision. The Supreme Court held that the department's new arguments in support of its "destination rule" aren't precluded by Miller I.

Even though the issue presented by Miller's claim for a refund for the years of 1997-1999 was identical to the issue in Miller I, appeals from final determinations of the Department of State Revenue are to be heard de novo by the Tax Court, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. The Tax Court wasn't bound by the evidence or the issues raised at the administrative level and not barred from considering this new issue, he wrote.

Miller claims this is a new argument, not a new fact, and can't reopen the issue of law already determined between two parties, but the Supreme Court thought that in tax cases, the principle should be relaxed.

"If failure to raise an omitted argument can forever preclude the Department from re-litigating a legal issue, the state is in effect barred by the omission of its agents who generally do not bind the government by a mistake of law," he wrote. "We have also noted the concerns for equity in taxation and for potential competitive effects that perpetuating a legal rule for one taxpayer can produce."

For the purposes of this appeal, the Supreme Court found sufficient that the relevant equities of the interpretations of the statute and regulation weren't presented in Miller I.

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