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WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT REVENUE v. WILLIAM WRIGLEY

decided: June 19, 1992.

WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE, PETITIONER
v.
WILLIAM WRIGLEY, JR., CO.



ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WISCONSIN.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Stevens, Souter, and Thomas, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and II of which O'connor, J., joined. O'connor, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Kennedy, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun, J., joined.

Author: Scalia

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 101(a) of Public Law 86-272, 73 Stat. 555 (1959), 15 U.S.C. § 381, prohibits a State from taxing the income of a corporation whose only business activities within the State consist of "solicitation of orders" for tangible goods, provided that the orders are sent outside the State for approval and the goods are delivered from out-of-state. The issue in this case is whether respondent's activities in Wisconsin fell outside the protection of this provision.

I

Respondent William Wrigley, Jr., Co. is the world's largest manufacturer of chewing gum. Based in Chicago, it sells gum nationwide through a marketing system that divides the country into districts, regions, and territories. During the relevant period (1973-1978), the Midwestern district included a Milwaukee region, covering most of Wisconsin and parts of other States, which was subdivided into several geographic territories.

The district manager for the Midwestern district had his residence and company office in Illinois, and visited Wisconsin only six to nine days each year, usually for a sales meeting or to call on a particularly important account. The regional manager of the Milwaukee region resided in Wisconsin, but Wrigley did not provide him with a company office. He had general responsibility for sales activities in the region, and would typically spend 80-95% of his time working with the sales representatives in the field or contacting certain "key" accounts. The remainder of his time was devoted to administrative activities, including writing and reviewing company reports, recruiting new sales representatives, making recommendations to the district manager concerning the hiring, firing, and compensation of sales representatives, and evaluating their performance. He would preside at full-day sales strategy meetings for all regional sales representatives once or twice a year. The manager from 1973 to 1976, John Kroyer, generally held these meetings in the "office" he maintained in the basement of his home, whereas his successor, Gary Hecht, usually held them at a hotel or motel. (Kroyer claimed income tax deductions for this office, but Wrigley did not reimburse him for it, though it provided a filing cabinet.) Mr. Kroyer also intervened two or three times a year to help arrange a solution to credit disputes between the Chicago office and important local accounts. Mr. Hecht testified that he never engaged in such activities, although Wrigley's formal position description for regional sales manager continued to list as one of the assigned duties "represent[ing] the company on credit problems as necessary."

The sales or "field" representatives in the Milwaukee region, each of whom was assigned his own territory, resided in Wisconsin. They were provided with company cars, but not with offices. They were also furnished a stock of gum (with an average wholesale value of about $1000), a supply of display racks, and promotional literature. These materials were kept at home, except that one salesman, whose apartment was too small, rented storage space at about $25 per month, for which he was reimbursed by Wrigley.

On a typical day, the sales representative would load up the company car with a supply of display racks and several cases of gum, and would visit accounts within his territory. In addition to handing out promotional materials and free samples, and directly requesting orders of Wrigley products, he would engage in a number of other activities which Wrigley asserts were designed to promote sales of its products. He would, for example, provide free display racks to retailers (perhaps several on any given day), and would seek to have these new racks, as well as pre-existing ones, prominently located. The new racks were usually filled from the retailer's existing stock of Wrigley gum, but it would sometimes happen -- perhaps once a month -- that the retailer had no Wrigley products on hand and did not want to wait until they could be ordered from the wholesaler. In that event, the rack would be filled from the stock of gum in the salesman's car. This gum, which would have a retail value of $15 to $20, was not provided without charge. The representative would issue an "agency stock check" to the retailer, indicating the quantity supplied; he would send a copy of this to the Chicago office or to the wholesaler, and the retailer would ultimately be billed (by the wholesaler) in the proper amount.

When visiting a retail account, Wrigley's sales representative would also check the retailer's stock of gum for freshness, and would replace stale gum at no cost to the retailer. This was a regular part of a representative's duties, and at any given time up to 40% of the stock of gum in his possession would be stale gum that had been removed from retail stores. After accumulating a sufficient amount of stale product, the representative either would ship it back to Wrigley's Chicago office or would dispose of it at a local Wisconsin landfill.

Wrigley did not own or lease real property in Wisconsin, did not operate any manufacturing, training, or warehouse facility, and did not have a telephone listing or bank account. All Wisconsin orders were sent to Chicago for acceptance, and were filled by shipment through common carrier from outside the State. Credit and collection activities were similarly handled by the Chicago office. Although Wrigley engaged in print, radio, and television advertising in Wisconsin, the purchase and placement of that advertising was managed by an independent advertising agency located in Chicago.

Wrigley had never filed tax returns or paid taxes in Wisconsin; indeed, it was not licensed to do business in that State. In 1980, petitioner Wisconsin Department of Revenue concluded that the company's in-state business activities during the years 1973-1978 had been sufficient to support imposition of a franchise tax, and issued a tax assessment on a percentage of the company's apportionable income for those years. Wrigley objected to the assessment, maintaining that its Wisconsin activities were limited to "solicitation of orders" within the meaning of 15 U.S.C. § 381, and that it was therefore immune from Wisconsin franchise taxes. After an evidentiary hearing, the Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission unanimously upheld the imposition of the tax. CCH Wis. Tax Rptr. para. 202-792 (1986). It later reaffirmed this decision, with one commissioner dissenting, after the County Circuit Court vacated the original order on procedural grounds. CCH Wis. Tax. Rptr. para. 202-926 (1987). The County Circuit Court then reversed on the merits, CCH Wis. Tax Rptr. para. 203-000 (1988), but that decision was in turn reversed by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, with one judge dissenting. 153 Wis. 2d 559, 451 N. W. 2d 444 (1989). The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, reversed yet once again, thus finally disallowing the Wisconsin tax. 160 Wis. 2d 53, 465 N. W. 2d 800 (1991). We granted the State's petition for certiorari, 502 U.S. (1991).

II

In Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. v. Minnesota, 358 U.S. 450, 454 (1959), we considered Minnesota's imposition of a properly apportioned tax on the net income of an Iowa cement corporation whose "activities in Minnesota consisted of a regular and systematic course of solicitation of orders for the sale of its products, each order being subject to acceptance, filling and delivery by it from its plant [in Iowa]." The company's salesmen, operating out of a three-room office in Minneapolis rented by their employer, solicited purchases by cement dealers and by customers of cement dealers. They also received complaints about goods that had been lost or damaged in shipment, and forwarded these back to Iowa for further instructions. Id., at 454-455. The cement company's contacts with Minnesota were otherwise very limited; it had no bank account, real property, or warehoused merchandise in the State. We nonetheless rejected Commerce Clause and due process challenges to the tax:

"We conclude that net income from the interstate operations of a foreign corporation may be subjected to state taxation provided the levy is not discriminatory and is properly apportioned to local activities within the taxing State forming sufficient nexus to support the same." Id., at 452.

The opinion in Northwestern States was handed down in February 1959. Less than a week later, we granted a motion to dismiss (apparently on mootness grounds) the appeal of a Louisiana Supreme Court decision that had rejected due process and Commerce Clause challenges to the imposition of state net-income taxes based on local solicitation of orders that were sent out-of-state for approval and shipping. Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. v. Collector of Revenue, 234 La. 651, 101 So. 2d 70 (1958), appeal dism'd, 359 U.S. 28 (1959). That decision was particularly significant because, unlike the Iowa cement company in Northwestern States, the Kentucky liquor company in Brown-Forman did not lease (or own) any real estate in the taxing state. Rather, its activities were limited to

"the presence of 'missionary men' who call upon wholesale dealers [in Louisiana] and who, on occasion, accompany the salesmen of these wholesalers to assist them in obtaining a suitable display of appellant's merchandise at the business establishments of said retailers . . . ." 234 La., at 653-654, 101 So. 2d, at 70.

Two months later, we denied certiorari in another Louisiana case upholding the imposition of state tax on the income of an out-of-state corporation that neither leased nor owned real property in Louisiana and whose only activities in that State "consisted of the regular and systematic solicitation of orders for its product by fifteen salesmen." International Shoe Co. v. Fontenot, 236 La. 279, 280, 107 So. 2d 640, 640 (1958), cert. denied, 359 U.S. 984 (1959).

Although our refusals to disturb the Louisiana Supreme Court's decisions in Brown-Forman and International Shoe did not themselves have any legal significance, see Hopfmann v. Connolly, 471 U.S. 459, 460-461 (1985); United States v. Carver, 260 U.S. 482, 490 (1923), our actions in those cases raised concerns that the broad language of Northwestern States might ultimately be read to suggest that a company whose only contacts with a State consisted of sending "drummers" or salesmen into that State could lawfully be subjected to (properly apportioned) income taxation based on the interstate sales those representatives generated. In Heublein, Inc. v. South Carolina Tax Comm'n, 409 U.S. 275 (1972), we reviewed the history of § 381 and noted that the complaints of the business community over the uncertainty created by these cases were the driving force behind the enactment of § 381:

"'Persons engaged in interstate commerce are in doubt as to the amount of local activities within a State that will be regarded as forming a sufficient . . . connection with the State to support the imposition of a tax on net income from interstate operations and properly appor-tioned' to the State.'" Id., at 280 (quoting S. Rep. No. 658, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 2-3 (1959)).*fn1

Within months after our actions in these three cases, Congress responded to the concerns that had been expressed by enacting Public Law 86-272, which established what the relevant section heading referred to as a "minimum standard" for imposition of a state net-income tax based on solicitation of interstate sales:

"No State . . . shall have power to impose, for any taxable year . . ., a net income tax on the income derived within such State by any person from interstate commerce if the only business activities within such State by or on behalf of such person during such taxable year are either, or both, of the following:

"(1) the solicitation of orders by such person, or his representative, in such State for sales of tangible personal property, which orders are sent outside the State for approval or rejection, and, if approved, are filled by shipment or delivery from a point outside the State; and

"(2) the solicitation of orders by such person, or his representative, in such State in the name of or for the benefit of a prospective customer of such person, if orders by such customer to such person to enable such customer to fill orders resulting from such solicitation are orders described in paragraph (1)."

73 Stat. 555, 15 U.S.C. § 381(a).

Although we have stated that § 381 was "designed to define clearly a lower limit" for the exercise of state taxing power, and that "Congress' primary goal" was to provide "clarity that would remove [the] uncertainty" created by Northwestern States, see Heublein, supra, at 280, experience has proved § 381's "minimum standard" to be somewhat less than entirely clear. The primary sources of confusion, in this case as in others, have been two questions: (1) what is the scope of the crucial term "solicitation of orders"; and (2) whether there ...


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