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Kehlenbrink v. Director of Revenue

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

June 25, 2019

DAVID KEHLENBRINK and JILL KEHLENBRINK, Respondents,
v.
DIRECTOR OF REVENUE, Appellant.

          PETITION FOR REVIEW OF A DECISION OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING COMMISSION The Honorable Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi, Commissioner

          PATRICIA BRECKENRIDGE, JUDGE

         The director of the department of revenue appeals a decision of the administrative hearing commission ("AHC") reversing the director's denial of an application for a sales tax refund. The director asserts the AHC erroneously ruled David and Jill Kehlenbrink were entitled to a refund of all the sales tax they paid after their purchase of a new vehicle. Specifically, the director claims that, in calculating the sales tax owed on the Kehlenbrinks' newly purchased vehicle, the plain language of section 144.025.1[1] unambiguously allows the Kehlenbrinks to credit the sale proceeds of only one vehicle against the purchase price of the new vehicle.

         Section 144.025.1 unambiguously permits the sale proceeds of only one vehicle as a credit against the purchase price of a new vehicle for purposes of calculating sales tax. The AHC erroneously decided the Kehlenbrinks were entitled to a refund of all the sales tax they paid because it mistakenly allowed credit for four vehicles the Kehlenbrinks sold within 180 days of their purchase of a new vehicle. The AHC's decision is reversed, and the case is remanded.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On February 26, 2017, the Kehlenbrinks sold a 2006 Ford truck for $10, 500. Two weeks later, the Kehlenbrinks sold a 2000 Kawasaki motorcycle for $3, 900. On March 14, the Kehlenbrinks purchased a 2016 Dodge truck for $27, 495. The Kehlenbrinks titled the Dodge truck on March 31 at an independently owned St. Louis County license fee office.[2]When titling the Dodge truck, the Kehlenbrinks were permitted to credit $14, 400 from the sales of the Ford and Kawasaki to reduce the sales tax due on the Dodge truck. Sales tax was assessed on the resulting net purchase price of $13, 095, and the Kehlenbrinks paid $1, 095 in state and local sales taxes.

         The Kehlenbrinks subsequently sold a 2008 Jeep for $5, 200 on May 9 and a 2013 Hyundai for $8, 400 on June 5. The dates of sale of all four vehicles - the Ford, the Kawasaki, the Jeep, and the Hyundai - were within 180 days of the March 14, 2017, purchase date of the Dodge truck. Devon Knupp, an employee of the license fee office who assisted the Kehlenbrinks on all relevant occasions, informed the Kehlenbrinks they were permitted to credit the proceeds from the sales of the Jeep and Hyundai against the prior purchase price of the Dodge.

         On June 6, the Kehlenbrinks applied for a refund of sales tax paid on the titling of the Dodge. This application for refund was based on the additional credit of $13, 600 derived from the sale of the Jeep and Hyundai. With this additional credit, the total credit from all four vehicles exceeded the purchase price of the Dodge. On July 17, the director denied the Kehlenbrinks' application for a sales tax refund. The Kehlenbrinks appealed to the AHC challenging the final decision of the director.[3]

         After a hearing, the AHC found section 144.025.1 to be ambiguous and construed it to give credit for the sales of multiple vehicles against the purchase price of a new vehicle in computing sales tax owed. It reversed the director's denial and awarded the Kehlenbrinks a refund of all sales tax paid, plus interest at the statutory rate.

         The director appeals the decision of the AHC. This Court has jurisdiction because the case involves construction of a state revenue law. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 3; McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Dir. of Revenue, 945 S.W.2d 437, 439 (Mo. banc 1997).

         Standard of Review

         Pursuant to article V, section 18 of the Missouri Constitution, this Court reviews the AHC's decision to determine if it is "authorized by law, and in cases in which a hearing is required by law, whether the same [is] supported by competent and substantial evidence upon the whole record." "The AHC's interpretation of revenue laws is reviewed de novo." Loren Cook Co. v. Dir. of Revenue, 414 S.W.3d 451, 453 (Mo. banc 2013).

         Section 144.025.1 Unambiguously Limits Credit to One Vehicle

         The director claims the AHC erred in concluding the Kehlenbrinks were entitled to credit the proceeds from the sales of four vehicles against the purchase price of a single newly purchased vehicle because section 144.025.1 unambiguously allows credit for the sale of only one vehicle.[4] "The primary rule of statutory interpretation is to give effect to legislative intent as reflected in the plain language of the statute." State ex rel. Young v. Wood, 254 S.W.3d 871, 872-73 (Mo. banc 2008). Words in a statute are not read in isolation but, rather, are read in the context of the statute to determine their plain and ordinary meaning. Union Elec. Co. v. Dir. of Revenue, 425 S.W.3d 118, 122 (Mo. banc 2014). A statute's language is "clear and unambiguous" if "the statute's terms are plain and clear to one of ordinary intelligence." Wolff Shoe Co. v. Dir. of ...


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