Customer shortchanged $2.48 in sales tax files class action against Wal-Mart

Kelly Holleran Jun. 4, 2009, 10:19am


A Maryville man has filed a class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart, alleging the store violated its own policy when it did not refund him the total amount of money he paid for one of its products.

Lead class plaintiff John Whitwell says Wal-Mart fails to refund customers all of the sales tax they pay on a product if they return the product to a Wal-Mart where the sales tax is less than where they originally purchased the product.

Whitwell was shortchanged $2.48 in sales tax when he returned a Blue Ray disc player on April 16, according to the complaint filed May 21 in Madison County Circuit Court.

Whitwell says he originally purchased the disc player on April 14 at Wal-Mart's Collinsville store for $214.04. Of the purchase price, $198 was the actual cost of the player, while $16.04 represented the 8.1 percent sales tax.

When Whitwell returned the item to Wal-Mart's Glen Carbon store, he only received $211.56 back, according to the complaint.

"Upon information and belief Wal-Mart returned the lesser amount because the applicable tax rate at the Glen Carbon, Illinois store is 6.85%," the suit states.

Bradley M. Lakin, Robert W. Schmieder II and Mark L. Brown of LakinChapman in Wood River will be representing Whitwell and the putative class.

Whitwell was contacted for comment, but he has not returned a phone call to the Record.

Wal-Mart is breaching its contracts with its customers because it promises them a full refund for goods they purchased if the products are returned to the store within a certain number of days, the complaint says.

"While Wal Mart promises a refund of all amounts paid by the purchaser if merchandise is returned to it within the prescribed time period, it does not do so if the item is returned to a Wal Mart location where the item originally was purchased," the suit states. "Rather than return the entire amount paid by the purchaser as promised, Wal Mart returns only what it categorizes as the cost of the item and an amount equal to the sales tax rate at the store where the item is returned."

On the other hand, Wal-Mart will not return more than the amount originally paid for an item if the merchandise is purchased at a store with a lower sales tax, then returned to a store with a higher sales tax, according to court records.

Whitwell is asking the court certify the case as a class action lawsuit. He is also seeking actual damages, attorneys' fees, costs, pre- and post-judgment interest and other relief the court deems just.

The Record asked the Illinois Department of Revenue how much a customer should get back on a $10 returned item when, for instance, the customer buys a $10 widget at a Home Depot with a 7 percent tax rate and then returns it to a Home Depot with an 8 percent tax.

Would the customer get 80 cents or 70 cents, the Record asked.

"It isn't that simple," explained Susan Hofer of the IDOR in an email reply.

"In part it depends on how the tax remittance is set up. Using your example, if all Home Depot stores remit taxes together then it's a matter of bookkeeping for the store if they choose to handle it that way. If each store collects and remits taxes individually they can, by statute, only get refunds of the tax they remitted."

Madison County Circuit Court case number: 09-L-525.

Steve Korris contributed to this report.

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