State, Dept. of Taxation v. Daimlerchrysler, No. 42117.

Docket NºNo. 42117.
Citation119 P.3d 135
Case DateSeptember 15, 2005
CourtSupreme Court of Nevada

Page 135

119 P.3d 135
No. 42117.
Supreme Court of Nevada.
September 15, 2005.

Brian Sandoval, Attorney General, and Joshua J. Hicks, Senior Deputy Attorney General, Carson City, for Appellant.

Kolesar & Leatham, Chtd., and Kenneth A. Burns, Las Vegas; Akerman Senterfitt and Peter O. Larsen and David E. Otero, Jacksonville, Florida, for Respondent.

Before the Court En Banc.



In this case, we consider whether a person who provides primary financing of a retail sale may exercise the retailer's right to sales tax refunds from the State under Nevada's bad-debt statute, NRS 372.365(5). We conclude that the statute unambiguously precludes a finance company from obtaining tax refunds and therefore reverse.


Respondent, DaimlerChrysler Services North America, LLC, financed numerous retail motor vehicle purchases within the State of Nevada. Under these arrangements, the

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purchasers agreed to repay all or part of the purchase price, including a pro rata portion of sales tax incurred, on an installment or credit basis. As part of these sales, the dealers assigned to DaimlerChrysler all of the dealers' rights associated with the contracts without recourse. In exchange for the assignments, DaimlerChrysler paid the dealers the full amount financed under the contracts, including the full amount of sales tax. From this amount, the dealers remitted the sales tax to the Nevada Department of Taxation (Department). The contracts at issue eventually went into default and, after exhausting collection and repossession efforts, DaimlerChrysler determined that the unpaid balances were uncollectible. It ultimately claimed the unpaid amounts as bad-debt deductions on its federal income tax returns for the years 1997 through 1999.

DaimlerChrysler applied to the Department under NRS 372.365(5) for a sales tax refund proportionate to the unpaid amounts. The Department denied the refund request, and an administrative hearing officer later denied a petition for redetermination. DaimlerChrysler then appealed to the Nevada Tax Commission (Commission), which unanimously upheld the hearing officer's decision. Subsequently, the district court granted DaimlerChrysler's petition for judicial review, concluding that DaimlerChrysler was entitled to a sales tax refund. The Department appeals.


The Department argues on appeal that DaimlerChrysler does not qualify for bad-debt relief under NRS 372.365(5).1 We agree.

"[Q]uestions of statutory construction, including the meaning and scope of a statute, are questions of law, which this court reviews de novo."2 When the language of a statute is unambiguous, this court gives that language its ordinary meaning unless it is clear that this meaning was not intended.3

NRS 372.365(5) states:

5. If a retailer:

(a) Is unable to collect all or part of the sales price of a sale, the amount of which was included in the gross receipts reported for a previous reporting period; and

(b) Has taken a deduction on his federal tax return pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 166(a) for the amount which he is unable to collect,

he is entitled to receive a credit for the amount of sales tax paid on account of that uncollected sales price.

To summarize, this statute allows for relief if (1) the entity requesting the relief is a retailer, (2) the retailer is unable to collect all or part of the sales price, (3) the sale was included in gross receipts, and (4) the retailer has taken a deduction on its federal income tax equal to the uncollectible amount. NRS 372.055 defines retailers for the purposes of NRS Chapter 372 as "[e]very seller who makes any retail sale or sales of tangible personal property," and "[e]very person making more than two retail sales of tangible personal property during any 12-month period."4 NRS 372.040 defines "persons" as including, among others, individuals, firms or assignees.

DaimlerChrysler argues that, as the retailers' assignee, it stands in the retailers' shoes for the purpose of sales tax refunds under NRS 372.365(5). Because this court has not had occasion to reach this question, DaimlerChrysler asks that we embrace Puget Sound National Bank v. Department of Revenue, in which the Washington Supreme Court addressed a statute similar to NRS 372.365(5).5 The statutory scheme at issue in Puget Sound entitled retail sellers to "a credit or refund for sales taxes previously paid on debts which are deductible as worthless for

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federal income tax purposes,"6 defined "sellers" as "person [s]" making retail sales,7 and defined a "person" as including an "assignee."8 Within that framework, the court determined that third-party financing entities given rights under retail credit assignment agreements were eligible to claim bad-debt sales tax refunds.9

We decline to adopt the Washington approach in this instance. Most states confronted with a finance company's claim that it is entitled to a bad-debt tax credit have denied the finance company relief for a variety of reasons.10 Like Washington, Ohio's bad-debt statutes are similar to Nevada's in that they include an "assignee" in the definition of a "person."11 The Ohio court, in Chrysler Financial Co., L.L.C. v. Wilkins, strictly interpreted its statute in denying a finance company relief because the statute was granting something similar to a tax exemption, which it concluded should be strictly interpreted.12 Other states that have considered a finance company's claim to a bad-debt credit have also used strict construction of the statute to deny the requested relief.13

The most recent case on the subject from the Connecticut Supreme Court14 rejected the same argument made by the respondent in this case by relying, in part, on strict statutory construction. The Connecticut court first stated that:

"The general rule of construction in taxation cases is that provisions granting a tax exemption are to be construed strictly against the party claiming the exemption.... Exemptions, no matter how meritorious, are of grace, and must be strictly construed. They embrace only what is strictly within their terms."15

It went on to observe that the right to assign the retail tax credit was not expressly given by the state legislature to anyone and therefore it is a common-law right to assignment that DaimlerChrysler claimed. And, between a general common-law right to assign and the statutory right to a tax credit, the Connecticut court concluded that the principle of strict statutory construction of tax statutes must prevail.

The common thread among most of the decisions cited by the plaintiff is that they reach their conclusion based on common-law principles of assignment without regard for the general rules for construing tax provisions. Our approach, however, is in accord with the majority of jurisdictions that have considered the statutory origin of the right to tax relief. We similarly conclude that, absent an express indication from the legislature that such a right could be assigned, the plaintiff cannot invoke the tax credit by virtue of its status as an assignee.16

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We conclude that the plain meaning of NRS 372.365(5) compels the same result as that reached in the Ohio and Connecticut cases.17

In two other recent cases, the Arkansas Supreme Court determined that a finance company was not entitled to a tax credit because it was not the entity responsible for paying the tax.18 Instead, under the statute, the actual motor vehicle consumer was responsible for paying the taxes.19 Similarly, in Nevada, the retailer is responsible for remitting the sales tax to the state.20 Further, the bad-debt statute makes no reference to entities providing retail credit financing. Therefore, only the original retailers, and not the finance companies lending money for the purchase, should be allowed to claim the tax credit.

Additionally, Nevada's statutory scheme differs from that at issue in Puget Sound in that NRS Chapter 372 includes an anti-assignment statute. NRS 372.700 states:

A judgment may not be rendered in favor of the plaintiff in any action brought against the Department to recover any amount paid when the action is brought by or in the name of an assignee of the person paying the amount or by any person other than the person who paid the amount.

(Emphasis added.) By its explicit terms, Nevada's anti-assignment statute only affords relief to persons who paid the taxes in the first instance. Applying the plain meaning of this statute, as we have concluded we must, DaimlerChrysler's refund claims fail because it never paid any sum by way of sales tax to the Department during the period at issue.

Going further, the statute explicitly provides relief in the form of a "credit," not a refund.21 The State explains that, under the previous statutory construct, a bad-debt credit actually operated as a refund. However, in 1997, the Legislature amended the statute and clarified that when a retailer is unable to collect previously paid sales taxes, that retailer is entitled to a "credit" against ongoing sales tax obligations.22 The use of the word "credit" in a similar statute was enough to persuade the Maine Supreme Court to conclude that only retailers with sales tax liability could avail themselves of the statute.23 In that case, the court determined DaimlerChrysler to be ineligible for the bad-debt credit in part because there was no evidence it had any existing sales tax liability.24 This reasoning is persuasive. Under the basic claims provision governing this controversy, the retailer, not the lender, physically forwards tax payments to the Department and incurs future obligations as sales continue against which credit may be assessed. Third-party lenders such as DaimlerChrysler never develop such balances with the Department. Thus, the...

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