Trinova Corporation v. Michigan Department of Treasury

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Trinova Corporation v. Michigan Department of Treasury by Anthony Kennedy
Court Documents
Concurring Opinion
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

498 U.S. 358

Trinova Corporation  v.  Michigan Department of Treasury

No. 89-1106  Argued: Oct. 1, 1990. --- Decided: Feb 19, 1991


Michigan's single business tax (SBT) is a value added tax (VAT) levied against entities having "business activity" within the State. As part of the SBT computation, a taxpayer doing business both within and without the State must determine its apportioned tax base by multiplying its total value added-which consists of its profit, as represented by its federal taxable income, plus compensation paid to labor, depreciation on capital, and other factors-by the portion of its business activity attributable to Michigan-which consists of the average of three ratios: (1) Michigan payroll to total payroll, (2) Michigan property to total property, and (3) Michigan sales to total sales. During 1980, the tax year in question, petitioner Trinova, an Ohio corporation, maintained a 14-person sales office in Michigan. Under the SBT formula, its 1980 payroll and property apportionment factors were only 0.2328% and 0.0930% respectively, while its sales factor was 26.5892%, representing Michigan sales of over $100 million. Although its 1980 federal taxable income showed a loss of almost $42.5 million, Trinova's SBT computation resulted in a tax of over $293,000. Trinova paid the tax, but subsequently filed an amended return and refund claim, alleging that it was entitled to relief under Michigan law because the SBT's apportionment provisions did not fairly represent the extent of its business activity within the State. The amended return proposed that Trinova's company-wide compensation and depreciation be excluded from its preapportionment value added, and that its actual Michigan compensation and depreciation be added back into its apportioned tax base, which would result in a negative value added apportioned to Michigan and entitle the company to a refund for its entire 1980 SBT payment. When respondent Department of Treasury denied relief, Trinova sued for a refund in the State Court of Claims, which ruled in its favor. However, the State Court of Appeals held that Trinova was not entitled to statutory relief, and the State Supreme Court affirmed, holding, among other things, that the SBT's three-factor apportionment formula did not violate either the Due Process Clause or the Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution.

Held: As applied to Trinova during the tax year at issue, the SBT's three-factor apportionment formula does not violate either the Due Process Clause or the Commerce Clause. Pp. 372-387.

(a) Under the test stated in Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady, 430 U.S. 274, 279, 97 S.Ct. 1076, 1079, 51 L.Ed.2d 326, a state tax levied upon multistate businesses is valid under the Commerce Clause if, as relevant here, it is fairly apportioned and does not discriminate against interstate commerce. Moreover, the Complete Auto test encompasses the Due Process Clause requirement that, inter alia, a rational relationship exist between the income attributed to the State and the intrastate values of the enterprise. See, e.g., Mobil Oil Corp. v. Commissioner of Taxes of Vt., 445 U.S. 425, 436-437, 100 S.Ct. 1223, 1231, 1232, 63 L.Ed.2d 510. Pp. 372-373.

(b) Because the SBT attempts to tax a base that cannot be assigned to one geographic location with any precision, the decision to apportion the tax is not unconstitutional. Although Trinova's compensation and depreciation may appear in isolation to be susceptible of geographic designation, those elements cannot be separated from income, which cannot be located in a single State. The SBT is not a combination or series of several smaller taxes on compensation, depreciation, and income, but is an indivisible tax upon a different, bona fide measure of business activity, the value added. This conclusion is no different from the one this Court has reached in upholding the validity of state apportionment of income taxes. The same factors that prevent determination of the geographic location where income is generated-such as functional integration of the intrastate and extrastate activities of a unitary business enterprise, centralization of management, and economies of scale-make it impossible to determine the location of value added with exact precision. See, e.g., Mobil Oil Corp., supra, at 438, 100 S.Ct., at 1232; Amerada Hess Corp. v. Director, Div. of Taxation, New Jersey Dept. of Treasury, 490 U.S. 66, 74, 109 S.Ct. 1617, 1622, 104 L.Ed.2d 58. Thus, although Trinova had no federal income during 1980, it cannot be relieved of tax upon its Michigan business. Such relief would be incompatible with the rationale of a VAT, under which tax becomes due even if the taxpayer was unprofitable, and is unsupported by the record. Trinova's approach would require the conclusion that it added value only at the factory through the consumption of capital and labor, while the record would as easily support a finding that its production operations added little value and its sales offices added significant value. Although Trinova's 14 Michigan sales personnel need not be relied on as the sole, or even a substantial, source of all the value added that can be apportioned fairly to Michigan, it cannot be doubted that, without the company's $100 million in Michigan sales, its total value added would have been lower to a remarkable degree. It distorts the SBT both in application and theory to confine value added consequences of the Michigan market solely to the labor and capital expended by the resident sales force. Pp. 373-379.

(c) The SBT's three-factor apportionment formula cannot be ruled unfair, since Trinova has failed to meet its burden of proving, by clear and cogent evidence, that there is no rational relationship between its tax base measure attributed to Michigan and the contribution of its Michigan business activity to the entire value added process. Cf., e.g., Container Corp. of America v. Franchise Tax Bd., 463 U.S. 159, 169, 180-181, 103 S.Ct. 2933, 2942, 2948-2949, 77 L.Ed.2d 545; Moorman Mfg. Co. v. Bair, 437 U.S. 267, 274, 98 S.Ct. 2340, 2345, 57 L.Ed.2d 197. This Court has approved the same formula for apportionment of income, see, e.g., Butler Bros. v. McColgan, 315 U.S. 501, 62 S.Ct. 701, 86 L.Ed. 991, and the formula has gained wide acceptance in that context "because payroll, property, and sales appear in combination to reflect a very large share of the activities by which value is generated," Container Corp., supra, 463 U.S., at 183 103 S.Ct., at 2949 (emphasis added). Trinova's argument-that the formula leads to a distorted result, out of all proportion to the company's Michigan business, because sales have no relationship to, and add nothing to, the value that compensation and depreciable plant contribute to the Michigan tax base-is rejected, since sales (as a measure of market demand) do have a profound impact upon the amount of an enterprise's value added, and since there is no basis for distinguishing similar arguments that were pressed, and rejected by this Court, with regard to the apportionment of income. Because the three-factor formula causes no distortion, the SBT does not tax value earned outside Michigan. The argument that the value was added in Ohio, by labor and capital, and that no value has been added in Michigan, wrongly assumes that value added is subject to geographic ascertainment and that a sales factor is inappropriate in apportionment. Trinova gives no estimate of the value added that would take account of both its Michigan sales activity and Michigan market demand for its products, whereas the State has consistently applied the three-factor formula and has enacted further provisions giving relief to labor intensive taxpayers like Trinova. Pp. 379-384.

(d) The SBT does not discriminate against interstate commerce. Trinova cannot point to any treatment of in-state and out-of-state firms that is discriminatory on its face. Although American Trucking Assns., Inc. v. Scheiner, 483 U.S. 266, 281, 107 S.Ct. 2829, 2839, 97 L.Ed.2d 226, states that the Commerce Clause has a "deeper meaning" that may be implicated even absent facial discrimination, that meaning is embodied in the requirement of fair apportionment and does not encompass Trinova's vague accusation of discrimination. Nor is that accusation supported by a statement of Michigan's Governor that the SBT was enacted to promote business development and investment within the State. Such promotion is a laudatory goal in the absence of evidence of an impermissible motive to export tax burdens or import tax revenues. Pp. 384-386.

433 Mich. 141, 445 N.W.2d 428, affirmed.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. ---. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. ---. SOUTER, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Peter S. Sheldon, Lansing, Mich., for petitioner.

Richard R. Roesch, Lansing, Mich., for respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).