California Supreme Court Rules OTAs Exempt from Paying Hotel Occupancy Taxes
In a loss for local governments, the California Supreme Court decided Monday that online travel companies such as Expedia Inc. are exempt from paying hotel occupancy taxes.
The ruling came in one of several lawsuits filed by California cities and counties against the online firms, including Hotwire Inc. and Priceline.com.
The local governments have been attempting to get the firms to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes.
Lawyers for the government argued the tax should be based on the total amount the companies collect from consumers, not the lower dollar figure the hotels receive. Cities and counties wanted the online sites to pay the difference.
The state high court agreed the tax should be based on the higher amount but said the online companies were not obligated to pay it.
“It changes the rules in California,” said Kent L. Richland, who represented the city of San Diego in the case decided Monday. “It is going to affect all these cases because they are going to have to be decided under new rules.”
Several cities and counties still have cases pending, including a lawsuit by Los Angeles.
So far, the online travel firms have won most of the disputes, which have been litigated across the country.
California’s top court, examining a San Diego transient occupancy ordinance, said it applied only to hotel operators, not the online businesses.
Online travel companies “are not operators,” the court said in a unanimous decision written by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar.
San Diego sued the companies in an attempt to recover about $21 million in back taxes.
Hotels contract with online sites to provide rooms at discounted rates. The sites charge a higher rate and require consumers to pay a charge for taxes and fees.
Hotels have been paying occupancy taxes based on the amounts they received for their rooms, not the higher price paid by consumers to the travel firms.