Wednesday, January 4, 2017
This week we are looking at the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation for 2016. On Monday, we highlighted the important developments that just missed being in the top ten. Today we take a look at developments 10 through six. On Friday, we will look at the top five.
- Court Obscures Rational Basis Test To Eliminate Ag Exemption From Workers' Compensation Law. While this is a state Supreme Court decision, its implications are significant. Most, if not all, states have a statutory exemption from workers’ compensation for employers that are engaged in agriculture. The statutory exemption varies in scope from state to state and, of course, an employer that is otherwise exempt can choose to be covered by the statute and offer workers’ compensation benefits to employees. In this case, the plaintiffs claimed that their on-the-job injuries should be covered under the state (NM) workers' compensation law. One plaintiff tripped while picking chile and fractured her left wrist. The other plaintiff was injured while working in a dairy when he was head-butted by a cow and pushed up against a metal door causing him to fall face-first into a concrete floor and sustain neurological damage. The plaintiffs' claims for workers' compensation benefits were dismissed via the exclusion from the workers' compensation system for employers. On appeal, the appellate court reversed. Using rational basis review (the standard most deferential to the constitutionality of the provision at issue), the court interpreted Sec. 52-1-6(A) of the New Mexico Code as applying to the primary job duties of the employees (as opposed to the business of the employer and the predominant type of employees hired), and concluded the distinction was irrational and lacked any rational purpose. The appellate court noted that the purpose of the law was to provide "quick and efficient delivery" of medical benefits to injured and disabled workers. Thus, the court determined that the exclusion violated the constitutional equal protection guarantee. The court further believed that the exclusion for workers that cultivate and harvest (pick) crops, but the inclusion of workers that perform tasks associated with the processing of crops was a distinction without a difference. The appellate court made no mention that the highest court in numerous other states had upheld a similar exclusion for agriculture from an equal protection constitutional challenge. On further review, the state Supreme Court affirmed. The Court determined that there was nothing to distinguish farm and ranch laborers from other ag employees and that the government interest of cost savings, administrative convenience and similar interests unique to agriculture were not rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The court determined that the exclusion that it construed as applying to ag laborers was arbitrary discrimination. A dissenting judge pointed out that the legislature’s decision to allow employers of farm and ranch laborers to decide for themselves whether to be subject to workers’ compensation or opt out and face tort liability did not violate any constitutionally-protected right. The dissent noted that such ability to opt out was a legitimate statutory scheme that rationally controlled costs for New Mexico farms and ranches, and that 29 percent of state farms and ranches had elected to be covered by workers’ compensation. The dissent also noted that the majority’s opinion would have a detrimental economic impact on small, economically fragile farms in New Mexico by imposing an additional economic cost of $10.5 million annually (as projected by the state Workers’ Compensation Administration). On this point, the dissent further pointed out that the average cost of a claim was $16,876 while the average net farm income for the same year studied was $19,373. The dissent further concluded that the exemption for farming operations was legitimately related to insulating New Mexico farm and ranches from additional costs. In addition, the dissent reasoned that the majority misapplied the rational basis analysis to hold the act unconstitutional as many other state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court had held comparable state statutes to satisfy the rational basis test. The dissent pointed out forcefully that the exclusion applied to employers and that the choice to be covered or not resided with employers who predominately hired ag employees. As such there was no disparate treatment between ag laborers and other agricultural workers. Rodriguez, et al. v. Brand West Dairy, et al., 378 P.3d 13 (N.M. Sup. Ct. 2016), aff’g., 356 P.3d 546 (N.M. Ct. App. 2015).
- 9. COE Jurisdictional Determination Subject to Court Review. The plaintiff, a peat moss mining company, sought the approval of the Corps of Engineers (COE) to harvest a swamp (wetland) for peat moss to use in landscaping projects. The COE issued a jurisdictional determination that the swamp was a wetland subject to the permit requirements of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The plaintiff sought to challenge the COE determination, but the trial court ruled for the COE, holding that the plaintiff had three options: (1) abandon the project; (2) seek a federal permit costing over $270,000; or (3) proceed with the project and risk fines of up to $75,000 daily and/or criminal sanctions including imprisonment. On appeal, the court unanimously reversed, strongly criticizing the trial court's opinion. Based on Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012), the court held that COE Jurisdictional Determinations constitute final agency actions that are immediately appealable in court. The court noted that to hold elsewise would allow the COE to effectively kill the project without any determination of whether it's position as to jurisdiction over the wetland at issue was correct in light of Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (U.S. 2006). The court noted that the COE had deliberately left vague the "definitions used to make jurisdictional determinations" so as to expand its regulatory reach. While the COE claimed that the jurisdictional determination was merely advisory and that the plaintiff had adequate ways to contest the determination, the court determined that such alternatives were cost prohibitive and futile. The court stated that the COE's assertion that the jurisdictional determination (and the trial court's opinion) was merely advisory ignored reality and had a powerful coercive effect. The court held that the Fifth Circuit, which reached the opposition conclusion with respect to a COE Jurisdictional Determination in Belle Co., LLC v. United States Army Corps. of Engineers, 761 F.3d 383 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. den., 83 U.S.L.W. 3291 (U.S. Mar. 23, 2015), misapplied the Supreme Court's decision in Sackett. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, 782 F.3d 984 (8th Cir. 2015), rev'g., 963 F. Supp. 2d 868 (D. Minn. 2013). In a later decision, the court denied a petition to rehear the case en banc and by the panel. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 13-3067, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 11697 (8th Cir. Jul. 7, 2015). In December of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and affirmed the Eighth Circuit on May 31, 2016. The Court, in a unanimous opinion, noted that the memorandum of agreement between the EPA and the Corps established that jurisdictional determinations are “final actions” that represent the Government’s position, are binding on the Government in any subsequent Federal action or litigation involving the position taken in the jurisdictional determination. When the landowners received an “approved determination” that meant that the Government had determined that jurisdictional waters were present on the property due to a “nexus” with the Red River of the North, located 120 miles away. As such, the landowners had the right to appeal in Court after exhausting administrative remedies and the Government’s position take in the jurisdictional determination was judicially reviewable. Not only did the jurisdictional determination constitute final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act, it also determined rights or obligations from which legal consequences would flow. That made the determination judicially reviewable. United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Company, 136 S. Ct. 1807 (2016).
- 8. Proposed Regulations Under I.R.C. §2704. In early August, the IRS issued new I.R.C. §2704 regulations that could seriously impact the ability to generate minority interest discounts for the transfer of family-owned entities. Prop. Reg. – 163113-02 (Aug. 2, 2016). The proposed regulations, if adopted in their present form, will impose significant restrictions on the availability of valuation discounts for gift and estate tax purposes in a family-controlled environment. Prop. Treas. Regs. §§25.2704-1; 25.2704-4; REG- 163113-02 (Aug. 2, 2016). They also redefine via regulation and thereby overturn decades of court decisions honoring the well-established willing-buyer/willing-seller approach to determining fair market value (FMV) of entity interests at death or via gift of closely-held entities, including farms and ranches. The proposed regulations would have a significant impact on estate, business and succession planning in the agricultural context for many agricultural producers across the country and will make it more difficult for family farm and ranch businesses to survive when a family business partner dies. Specifically, the proposed regulations treat transfer within three years of death as death-bed transfers, create new “disregarded restrictions” and move entirely away from examining only those restrictions that are more restrictive than state law. As such, the proposed regulations appear to exceed the authority granted to the Treasury by Congress to promulgate regulations under I.R.C. §2704 and should be withdrawn. A hearing on the regulations was held in early December.
- 7. Capitalization Required For Interest and Real Property Taxes Associated with Crops Having More Than Two-Year Preproductive Period. The petitioner (three partnerships) bought land that they planned to use for growing almonds. They financed the purchase by borrowing money and paying interest on the debt. They then began planting almond trees. They deducted the interest and property taxes on their returns. The IRS objected to the deduction on the basis that the interest and taxes were indirect costs of the “production of real property” (i.e., the almonds trees that were growing on the land. The Tax Court agreed with the IRS noting that I.R.C. §263A requires the capitalization of certain costs and that those costs include the interest paid to buy the land and the property taxes paid on the land attributable to growing crops and plants where the preproductive period of the crop or plant exceeds two years. I.R.C. §263A(f)(1) states that “interest is capitalized where (1) the interest is paid during the production period and (2) the interest is allocable to real property that the taxpayer produced and that has a long useful life, an estimated production period exceeding two years, or an estimated production period exceeding one year and a cost exceeding $1 million.” The corresponding regulation, the court noted, requires that the interest be capitalized under the avoided cost method. The court also noted that the definition of “real property produced by the taxpayer for the taxpayer’s use in a trade or business or in an activity conducted for profit” included “land” and “unsevered natural products of the land” and that “unsevered natural products of the land” general includes growing crops and plants where the preproductive period of the crop or plant exceeds two years. Because almond trees have a preproductive period exceeding two years in accordance with IRS Notice 2000-45, and because the land was “necessarily intertwined” with the growing of the almond trees, the interest and tax cost of the land is a necessary and indispensable part of the growing of the almond trees and must be capitalized. Wasco Real Properties I, LLC, et al. v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2016-224.
6. No Recapture of Prepaid Expenses Deducted in Prior Year When Surviving Spouse Claims Same Deduction in Later Year. The decedent, a materially participating Nebraska farmer, bought farm inputs in 2010 and deducted their cost on his 2010 Schedule F. He died in the spring of 2011 before using the inputs to put the spring 2011 crop in the ground. Upon his death, the inputs were included in the decedent’s estate at their purchase price value and then passed to a testamentary trust for the benefit of his wife. The surviving spouse took over the farming operation, and in the spring of 2011, took a distribution of the inputs from the trust to plant the 2011 crops. For 2011, two Schedule Fs were filed. A Schedule F was filed for the decedent to report the crop sales deferred to 2011, and a Schedule F was filed for the wife to report the crops sold by her in 2011 and claim the expenses of producing the crop which included the amount of the inputs (at their date-of-death value which equaled their purchase price) that had been previously deducted as prepaid inputs by the husband on the couple’s joint 2010 return. The IRS denied the deduction on the basis that the farming expense deduction by the surviving spouse was inconsistent with the deduction for prepaid inputs taken in the prior year by the decedent and, as a result, the “tax benefit rule” applied. The court disagreed, noting that the basis step-up rule of I.R.C. §1014 allowed the deduction by the surviving spouse which was not inconsistent with the deduction for the same inputs in her deceased husband’s separate farming business. The court also noted that inherited property is not recognized as income by the recipient, which meant that another requisite for application of the tax benefit rule did not apply. Estate of Backemeyer v. Comr., 147 T.C. No. 17 (2016).
Those were developments ten through six, at least as I see it for 2016. On Friday, we will list the five biggest developments for 2016.