Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Now You Say You're Leaving California

I have stumbled into our next story of outrageous state tax behavior.

I was skimming (quickly, trust me) the Supreme Court decision in Franchise Tax Board v Hyatt. It involves a resident of Nevada who sued California. California invoked sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine arising from the era of royalty and asserting that the king can do no wrong and is therefore immune from legal action.

Handy, if you are the king  … or any of California’s countless government agencies.

This case goes back a long way. Gilbert Hyatt moved from California to Nevada in the early 1990s. More specifically, he said he moved in September, 1991. California says he moved in April, 1992.

COMMENT: Sounds like a “poe-tae-toe” versus “poe-taw-toe” moment, on first impression.

California said this meant he owed the state $10 million in taxes, interest and penalties from patent income.

            COMMENT: Of course.

Problem is that the California Franchise Tax Board took some … questionable steps in developing their case against Hyatt:

·        They went through his mail
·        They rifled through his garbage
·        They contacted third parties, including estranged family and people who did not have his best interests at heart

He brought suit … in Nevada courts. There was a previous Supreme Court decision (Nevada v Hall) that allowed a private citizen to bring legal action against a second state, without the second state's consent.

The jury verdict was almost $500 million in damages and fees.

Then California appealed, arguing that Nevada's law limited damages in similar suits against its own agencies to $50,000.  

California got the Nevada Supreme Court to reduce the verdict to $1 million. The Court reasoned that California went a bit further than Nevada would allow, so the $50,000 cap did not apply.

COMMENT: Folks, we need our own state. We could do whatever we want and then hide behind sovereign immunity, hakuna matata or whatever other multi-syllabic nonsense springs to mind.

California was still not happy, arguing that Nevada was exhibiting a “policy of hostility.”      

California appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution applied. The Supreme Court agreed, using words such as "comity" to reduce the damages to $50,000.

My thoughts?

I allow that there may have been a legitimate disagreement at the very beginning of this whole matter. Let’s say that you move most, but not all, of your possessions to another state. You leave some furniture there, as the realtor said that it would help to show and sell the house. You then have a California tell you that you had not really moved until the last chair and framed art had left the state. What are you going to do: sue? You are not moving back to California just to sue. That means that you are suing from another state and California is going to invoke the doctrine of the king’s pantaloons or whatever.

Still, doesn’t it feel … wrong … to have California going through your mail and trash, peering through your windows and contacting estranged relatives? This is behavior beyond the pale. We are not talking about homeland security, where some argument might possibly be made to excuse the king’s overreach. 

We are only talking about taxes.

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