Chris & Dick's Lumber and Hardware v. Tax Com'n of State of Utah

Citation791 P.2d 511
Decision Date24 April 1990
Docket NumberNo. 880188,880188
CourtSupreme Court of Utah
PartiesCHRIS & DICK'S LUMBER AND HARDWARE, a Utah corporation, Petitioner, v. TAX COMMISSION OF the STATE OF UTAH, Respondent.

R. LaMar Bishop, Salt Lake City, for petitioner.

R. Paul Van Dam, Stephen G. Schwendiman, Bryce H. Pettey, Salt Lake City, for respondent.


Chris & Dick's Lumber and Hardware, Inc., seeks a writ of review of a final decision of the Utah State Tax Commission ordering Chris & Dick's to pay a 10 percent penalty, plus interest, on over $90,000 due on an untimely filed prepayment of sales tax return. Chris & Dick's claims that the penalty was improperly assessed under the terms of section 59-15-5.1 of the code or, alternatively, that the language of the statute is so vague as to violate the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution. We affirm.

Section 59-15-5.1 of the code requires certain entities to prepay a portion of their state and local sales tax liability by June 15th. Utah Code Ann. § 59-15-5.1 (1985) (current version at § 59-12-108 (Supp.1989)). Chris & Dick's, through its accountant filed its prepayment return thirty-eight days late. The Utah State Tax Commission levied a 10 percent penalty against Chris & Dick's under section 59-15-5.1(3), which provides in pertinent part: "In addition to any other penalties for late payment provided in Section 59-15-5, there shall be a penalty of 10% of the total amount of the prepayment due from the date the prepayment return is due." Utah Code Ann. § 59-15-5.1 (1985) (current version at § 59-12-108 (Supp.1989)). 1 This penalty was ultimately determined to be $9,287, plus interest. Upon Chris & Dick's motion for a formal hearing, the commission affirmed the penalty in April 1988. Chris & Dick's appealed directly to this court, which has jurisdiction over decisions of the tax commission under section 78-2-2 of the code. See Utah Code Ann. § 78-2-2(3)(e)(ii) (Supp.1989).

On appeal, Chris & Dick's mounts a two-pronged attack on the statute under which the penalty was imposed. First, it asserts that the commission improperly construed section 59-15-5.1(3) as imposing a flat 10 percent penalty measured by the tax due, rather than an interest charge of 10 percent, the amount of which should be determined by the proportion of the year during which the return remained improperly unfiled. Second, it contends that the language of section 59-15-5.1(3) is so vague as to whether it imposes a penalty or interest charge that it constitutes a deprivation of due process in violation of the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution. We consider these two arguments separately.

Chris & Dick's initial claim that the 10 percent specified in section 59-15-5.1(3) is not a flat penalty is based on what it contends is the plain language of section 59-15-5.1(3). It says that the words "10% ... due from the date the prepayment return is due" create a per annum interest charge that is to run from the return's due date through the date of filing. Under this interpretation, Chris & Dick's calculates the penalty as follows: number of days payment is late (38), divided by the number of days in the year (365), multiplied by 10%, multiplied by the prepayment required ($92,874.93), equals $966.92.

We begin with the appropriate standard of review. The tax commission contends that we should defer to its previous constructions of section 59-15-5.1(3) as imposing a flat penalty. In the usual case, questions of statutory construction are matters of law for the courts, and we rely on a "correction of error" standard of review, according no deference to an administrative agency's interpretation. See, e.g., Williams v. Mountain States Tel. and Tel. Co., 763 P.2d 796, 798 (Utah 1988); Telecommunications Resellers v. Public Serv. Comm'n, 747 P.2d 1029, 1030 (Utah 1987); Utah Dep't of Admin. Servs. v. Public Serv. Comm'n, 658 P.2d 601, 608 (Utah 1983). There are a limited number of circumstances where the agency's interpretation of a statute or rule may be entitled to some deference, as where construction of the statute should take into account the agency's expertise developed from its practical, firsthand experience with the subject matter. See, e.g., Hurley v. Board of Review of the Indus. Comm'n, 767 P.2d 524, 527 (Utah 1988). However, in the present case, the question of statutory interpretation appears to be rather straightforward and of the type we can easily settle by resorting to the usual tools of statutory construction. Therefore, this case does not present an occasion for invocation of the exception, but is governed by the general rule. We do not defer to the tax commission's previous construction.

In interpreting this statute, we look to the plain meaning of the language at issue to discern the legislative intent. See Allisen v. American Legion Post No. 134, 763 P.2d 806, 809 (Utah 1988) ("Where statutory language is plain and unambiguous, this Court will not look beyond to divine legislative intent."). This statute, while not artfully drafted, does indicate in several places that a flat penalty was intended to be imposed. First, the title of the act creating the penalty states, in part, "[a]n act ... providing filing dates and penalties for late payments...." See 1984 Utah Laws ch. 64 (emphasis added). Second, the statute uses the term "penalty" to describe the 10 percent charge to be imposed on the taxpayer. Third, the sentence imposing the penalty is prefaced by a clause stating "[i]n addition to any other penalties for late payment...." Utah Code Ann. § 59-15-5.1(3) (1985) (current version at § 59-12-108 (Supp.1989) (emphasis added)). These uses of the term "penalty" must be assumed to have been done advisedly. Board of Educ. of the Granite School Dist. v. Salt Lake County, 659 P.2d 1030, 1035 (Utah 1983).

Support for the proposition that the legislature meant a flat charge when using the word "penalty" in section 59-15-5.1(3) is gathered from other provisions in the same part of the code. Elsewhere in title 59, it is clear that the term "penalty" is used to refer to the imposition of a one-time, nonapportionable charge, as opposed to an apportionable interest rate. For example, various sections make a specific distinction between penalty and interest by enumerating them both. Section 59-15-5(11) proscribes late payment of the sales tax, imposing both "penalties and interest" for late payment. Utah Code Ann. § 59-15-5(11) (1985) (current version at § 59-12-107(19) (Supp.1989)). Section 59-15-8 addresses deficient payments due to negligence and provides that in such cases, "there shall be added the greater of $50 or ten per cent of the total amount of the deficiency and interest at the rate prescribed in section 59-11-16." Utah Code Ann. § 59-15-8 (1985) (current version at § 59-12-110(5) (1987)). And section 59-16-9 addresses deficiencies in the payment of use taxes by making a consequence for the failure to pay the use tax a "penalty of ten percent of such amount ... plus interest at the rate prescribed in section 59-11-16." Utah Code Ann. § 59-16-9 (1985) (repealed 1987).

Further, the mere presence of the clause "due from the date the return was due" does not, without additional language, 2 create an apportionable interest charge. While this clause appears in other sections that impose an interest charge, it is invariably preceded by "interest at the rate of...." E.g., Utah Code Ann. § 59-15-8 (current version at § 59-12-110(7) (1987)); Utah Code Ann. § 59-16-6 (1985) (repealed 1987).

Chris & Dick's supports its reading of section 59-15-5.1(3) by relying on a clarifying amendment passed by the 1986 legislature. See 1986 Utah Laws ch. 55. Among other things, the amendment dropped the clause "from the date the prepayment return was due" from the last sentence of section 59-15-5.1(3). Chris & Dick's argues that by this amendment, the legislature demonstrated an awareness that it had actually created an apportionable per annum penalty analogous to an interest charge, rather than a flat penalty as it had created elsewhere, and dropped the final clause in order to make section 59-15-5.1(3) consistent with other flat penalty tax statutes, such as section 59-1-401. Utah Code Ann. § 59-1-401 (Supp.1989).

We reject this argument on two grounds. First, there is no reason to consider it given the unambiguous language of the statute. Allisen v. American Legion Post No. 134, 763 P.2d at 809. Second, even if we were to consider this argument, it seems much more reasonable to conclude that the 1986 amendment dropped the clause "from the date the prepayment return is due" to remove any doubt that a flat penalty was to be imposed. The title of the amendatory legislation, "An Act relating to ... the correction of significant problems of readability, clarity, and consistency ...," suggests that the legislature sought to clear up the awkward language in section 59-15-5.1 and not to substantively alter the fining mechanism in the statute. See 1986 Utah Laws ch. 55; Finley v. United States, 490 U.S. 545, ----, 109 S.Ct. 2003, 2009, 104 L.Ed.2d 593, 605 (1989) ("[I]t will not be inferred that Congress, in revising and consolidating the laws, intended to change their effect, unless such intention is clearly expressed.") (quoting Anderson v. Pacific Coast S.S. Co., 225 U.S. 187, 199, 32 S.Ct. 626, 630, 56 L.Ed. 1047 (1912)). We note that the 1986 amendment also struck the same clause from section 59-16-7.1, an almost identically worded statute dealing with use tax prepayments. Utah Code Ann. § 59-16-7.1 (1985) (repealed 1987).

We conclude that the plain language of the statute indicates that the clause "due from the date the prepayment return is due" was not intended to create an interest charge. The language of the clause does not include terms such as "per annum" or "interest at the rate of," which are found in other sections of title...

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