Friday, January 6, 2017
Today we continue our look this week at the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation during 2016. Out of all of the court rulings, IRS developments and regulatory issues, we are down to the top five developments in terms of their impact on ag producers, rural landowners and agribusinesses.
So, here are the top five (as I see them) in reverse order:
(5) Pasture Chiseling Activity Constituted Discharge of “Pollutant” That Violated the CWA. The plaintiff bought approximately 2,000 acres in northern California in 2012. Of that 2,000 acres, the plaintiff sold approximately 1,500 acres. The plaintiff retained an environmental consulting firm to provide a report and delineation map for the remaining acres and requested that appropriate buffers be mapped around all wetlands. The firm suggested that the plaintiff have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) verify the delineations before conducting any grading activities. Before buying the 2,000 acres, the consulting firm had provided a delineation of the entire tract, noting that there were approximately 40 acres of pre-jurisdictional wetlands. The delineation on the remaining 450 acres of pasture after the sale noted the presence of intact vernal and seasonal swales on the property along with several intermittent and ephemeral drainages. A total of just over 16 acres of pre-jurisdictional waters of the United States were on the 450 acres – having the presence of hydric soils, hydrophytic vegetation and hydrology (1.07 acres of vernal pools; 4.02 acres of vernal swales; .82 acres of seasonal wetlands; 2.86 acres of seasonal swales and 7.40 acres of other waters of the United States). In preparation to plant wheat on the tract, the property was tilled at a depth of 4-6 inches to loosen the soil for plowing with care taken to avoid the areas delineated as wetlands. However, an officer with the (COE) drove past the tract and thought he saw ripping activity that required a permit. The COE sent a cease and desist letter and the plaintiff responded through legal counsel requesting documentation supporting the COE’s allegation and seeking clarification as to whether the COE’s letter was an enforcement action and pointing out that agricultural activities were exempted from the CWA permit requirement. The COE then provided a copy of a 1994 delineation and requested responses to numerous questions. The plaintiff did not respond. The COE then referred the matter to EPA for enforcement. The plaintiff sued the COE claiming a violation of his Fifth Amendment right to due process and his First Amendment right against retaliatory prosecution. The EPA refused the referral due to the pending lawsuit so the COE referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff for CWA violations.
The court granted the government’s motion on the due process claim because the cease and desist letter did not initiate any enforcement that triggered due process rights. The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s retaliatory prosecution claim. On the CWA claim brought by the defendant, the court determined that the plaintiff’s owner could be held liable as a responsible party. The court noted that the CWA is a strict liability statute and that the intent of the plaintiff’s owner was immaterial. The court then determined that the tillage of the soil causes it to be “redeposited” into delineated wetlands. The redeposit of soil, the court determined, constituted the discharge of a “pollutant” requiring a national pollution discharge elimination system (NPDES) permit. The court reached that conclusion because it found that the “waters” on the property were navigable waters under the CWA due to a hydrological connection to a creek that was a tributary of Sacramento River and also supported the federally listed vernal pool fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp. Thus, a significant nexus with the Sacramento River was present. The court also determined that the farming equipment, a tractor with a ripper attachment constituted a point source pollutant under the CWA. The discharge was not exempt under the “established farming operation” exemption of 33 U.S.C. §1344(f)(1) because farming activities on the tract had not been established and ongoing, but had been grazed since 1988. Thus, the planting of wheat could not be considered a continuation of established and ongoing farming activities. Duarte Nursery, Inc. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 2:13-cv-02095-KJM-AC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76037 (E.D. Cal. Jun. 10, 2016).
(4) Prison Sentences Upheld For Egg Company Executives Even Though Government Conceded They Had No Knowledge of Salmonella Contamination. The defendant, an executive of a large-scale egg production company (trustee of the trust that owned the company), and his son (the Chief Operating Officer of the company) pled guilty as “responsible corporate officers” to misdemeanor violations of 21 U.S.C. §331(a) for introducing eggs that had been adulterated with salmonella into interstate commerce from the beginning of 2010 until approximately August of 2010. They each were fined $100,000 and sentenced to three months in prison. They appealed their sentences as unconstitutional on the basis that they had no knowledge that the eggs at issue were contaminated at the time they were shipped. They also claimed that their sentences violated Due Process and the Eighth Amendment insomuch as the sentences were not proportional to their “crimes.” They also claimed that incarceration for a misdemeanor offense would violate substantive due process.
The trial court determined that the poultry facilities were in poor condition, had not been appropriately cleaned, had the presence of rats and other rodents and frogs and, as a result, the defendant and his son either “knew or should have known” that additional salmonella testing was needed and that remedial and preventative measures were necessary to reduce the presence of salmonella. The appellate court agreed, finding that the evidence showed that the defendant and son were liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak and that 21 U.S.C. §331(a) did not have a knowledge requirement. The appellate court also did not find a due process violation. The defendant and son claimed that because they did not personally commit wrongful acts, and that due process is violated when prison terms are imposed for vicarious liability felonies where the sentence of imprisonment is only for misdemeanors. However, the court held that vicarious liability was not involved, and that 21 U.S.C. §331(a) holds a corporate officer accountable for failure to prevent or remedy “the conditions which gave rise to the charges against him.” Thus, the appellate court determined, the defendant and son were liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak. The court determined that the lack of criminal intent does not violate the Due Process Clause for a “public welfare offense” where the penalty is relatively small (the court believed it was), the defendant’s reputation was not “gravely” damaged (the court believed that it was not) and congressional intent supported the penalty (the court believed it did). The court also determined that there was no Eighth Amendment violation because “helpless” consumers of eggs were involved. The court also found no procedural or substantive due process violation with respect to the sentences because the court believed that the facts showed that the defendant and son “had reason to suspect contamination” and should have taken action to address the problem at that time (even though law didn’t require it).
The dissent pointed out that the government stipulated at trial that its investigation did not identify any corporate personnel (including the defendant and son) who had any knowledge that eggs sold during the relevant timeframe were contaminated with salmonella. The dissent also noted that the government conceded that there was no legal requirement for the defendant or corporation to comply with stricter regulations during the timeframe in issue. As such, the convictions imposed and related sentences were based on wholly nonculpable conduct and there was no legal precedent supporting imprisonment in such a situation. The dissent noted that the corporation “immediately, and at great expense, voluntarily recalled hundreds of millions of shell eggs produced” at its facilities when first alerted to the problem. As such, according to the dissent, due process was violated and the sentences were unconstitutional. United States v. Decoster, 828 F.3d 626 (8th Cir. 2016).
(3) The IRS and Self-Employment Tax. Two self-employment tax issues affecting farmers and ranchers have been in the forefront in recent years – the self-employment tax treatment of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments and the self-employment tax implications of purchased livestock that had their purchase price deducted under the de minimis safe harbor of the capitalization and repair regulations. On the CRP issue, in 2014 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that CRP payments in the hands of a non-farmer are not subject to self-employment tax. The court, in Morehouse v. Comr., 769 F.3d 616 (8th Cir. 2014), rev’g, 140 T.C. 350 (2013), held the IRS to its historic position staked out in Rev. Rul. 60-32 that government payments attributable to idling farmland are not subject to self-employment tax when received by a person who is not a farmer. The court refused to give deference to an IRS announcement of proposed rulemaking involving the creation of a new Rev. Rul. that would obsolete the 1960 revenue ruling. The IRS never wrote the new rule, but continued to assert their new position on audit. The court essentially told the IRS to follow appropriate procedure and write a new rule reflecting their change of mind. In addition, the court determined that CRP payments are “rental payments” statutorily excluded from self-employment tax under I.R.C. §1402(a). Instead of following the court’s invitation to write a new rule, the IRS issued a non-acquiescence with the Eighth Circuit’s opinion. O.D. 2015-02, IRB 2015-41. IRS said that it would continue audits asserting their judicially rejected position, even inside the Eighth Circuit (AR, IA, MN, MO, NE, ND and SD).
In 2016, the IRS had the opportunity to show just how strong its opposition to the Morehouse decision is. A Nebraska non-farmer investor in real estate received a CP2000 Notice from the IRS, indicating CRP income had been omitted from their 2014 return. The CP2000 Notice assessed the income tax and SE Tax on the alleged omitted income. The CRP rental income was in fact included on the return, but it was included on Schedule E along with cash rents, where it was not subject to self-employment tax. The practitioner responded to the IRS Notice by explaining that the CRP rents were properly reported on Schedule E because the taxpayer was not a farmer. This put the matter squarely before the IRS to reject the taxpayer’s position based on the non-acquiescence. But, the IRS replied to the taxpayer’s response with a letter informing the taxpayer that the IRS inquiry was being closed with no change from the taxpayer’s initial position that reported the CRP rents for the non-farmer on Schedule E.
On the capitalization and repair issue, taxpayers can make a de minimis safe harbor election that allows amounts otherwise required to be capitalized to be claimed as an I.R.C. §162 ordinary and necessary business expense. This de minimis expensing election has a limit of $5,000 for taxpayers with an Applicable Financial Statement (AFS) and $2,500 for those without an AFS. Farmers will fall in the latter category. In both cases, the limit is applied either per the total on the invoice, or per item as substantiated by the invoice. One big issue for farmers and ranchers is how to report the income from the sale of purchased livestock that are held for productive use, such as breeding or dairy animals for which the de minimis safe harbor election was made allowing the full cost of the livestock to be deducted. It had been believed that because the repair regulations specify when the safe harbor is used, the sale amount is reported fully as ordinary income that is reported on Schedule F where it is subject to self-employment tax for a taxpayer who is sole proprietor farmer or a member of a farm partnership. In that event, the use of the safe harbor election would produce a worse tax result that would claiming I.R.C. §179 on the livestock.
An alternative interpretation of the repair regulations is that the self-employment tax treatment of the gain or loss on sale of assets for which the purchase price was deducted under the de minimis safe harbor is governed by Treas. Reg. §1.1402(a)-6(a). That regulation states that the sale of property is not subject to selfemployment tax unless at least one of two conditions are satisfied: (1) the property is stock in trade or other property of a kind which would properly be includible in inventory if on-hand at the close of the tax year; or (2) the property is held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of a trade or business. Because purchased livestock held for dairy or breeding purposes do not satisfy the first condition, the question comes down to whether condition two is satisfied – are the livestock held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of a trade or business? The answer to that question is highly fact-dependent. If the livestock whose purchase costs have been deducted under the de minimis rule are not held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of the taxpayer’s trade or business, the effect of the regulation is to report the gain on sale on Part II of Form 4797. This follows Treas. Reg. §1.1402(a)-6(a) which bars Sec. 1231 treatment (which would result in the sale being reported on Part I of Form 4797). In that event, the income received on sale would not be subject to self-employment tax.
In 2016, the IRS, in an unofficial communication, said that the alternative interpretation is the correct approach. However, the IRS was careful to point out that the alternative approach is based on the assumptions that the livestock were neither inventoriable nor held for sale, and that those assumptions are highly fact dependent on a case-by case basis. The IRS is considering adding clarifying language to the Farmers’ Tax Guide (IRS Pub. 225) and/or the Schedule F Instructions.
(2) TMDLs and the Regulation of Ag Runoff. Diffused surface runoff of agricultural fertilizer and other chemicals into water sources as well as irrigation return flows are classic examples of nonpoint source pollution that isn’t discharged from a particular, identifiable source. A primary source of nonpoint source pollution is agricultural runoff. As nonpoint source pollution, the Clean Water Act (CWA) leaves regulation of it up to the states rather than the federal government. The CWA sets-up a “states-first” approach to regulating water quality when it comes to nonpoint source pollution. Two key court opinions were issued in 2016 where the courts denied attempts by environmental groups to force the EPA to create additional federal regulations involving Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). The states are to establish total maximum daily TMDLs for watercourses that fail to meet water quality standards after the application of controls on point sources. A TMDL establishes the maximum amount of a pollutant that can be discharged or “loaded” into the water at issue from all combined sources on a daily basis and still permit that water to meet water quality standards. A TMDL must be set “at a level necessary to implement water quality standards.” The purpose of a TMDL is to limit the amount of pollutants in a watercourse on any particular date. Two federal court opinions in 2016 reaffirmed the principle that regulation of nonpoint source pollution is left to the states and not the federal government.
In Conservation Law Foundation v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, No. 15-165-ML, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172117 (D. R.I. Dec. 13, 2016), the plaintiff claimed that the EPA’s approval of the state TMDL for a waterbody constituted a determination that particular stormwater discharges were contributing to the TMDL being exceeded and that federal permits were thus necessary. The court, however, determined that the EPA’s approval of the TMDL did not mean that EPA had concluded that stormwater discharges required permits. The court noted that there was nothing in the EPA’s approval of the TMDL indicating that the EPA had done its own fact finding or that EPA had independently determined that stormwater discharges contributed to a violation of state water quality standards. The regulations simply do not require an NPDES permit for stormwater discharges to waters of the United States for which a TMDL has been established. A permit is only required when, after a TMDL is established, the EPA makes a determination that further controls on stormwater are needed.
In the other case, Gulf Restoration Network v. Jackson, No. 12-677 Section: “A” (3), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173459 (E.D. La. Dec. 15, 2016), numerous environmental groups sued the EPA to force them to impose limits on fertilizer runoff from farm fields. The groups claimed that many states hadn’t done enough to control nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agricultural runoff, and that the EPA was required to mandate federal limits under the Administrative Procedure Act – in particular, 5 U.S.C. §553(e) via §303(c)(4) of the CWA. Initially, the groups told the EPA that they would sue if the EPA did not write the rules setting the limits as requested. The EPA essentially ignored the groups’ petition by declining to make a “necessity determination. The groups sued and the trial court determined that the EPA had to make the determination based on a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the Clean Air Act (CAA). That decision was reversed on appeal on the basis that the EPA has discretion under §303(c)(4)(B) of the CWA to decide not to make a necessity determination as long as the EPA gave a “reasonable explanation” based on the statute why it chose not to make any determination. The appellate court noted that the CWA differed from the CAA on this point. On remand, the trial court noted upheld the EPA’s decision not to make a necessity determination. The court noted that the CWA gives the EPA “great discretion” when it comes to regulating nutrients, and that the Congressional policy was to leave regulation of diffused surface runoff up to the states. The court gave deference to the EPA’s “comprehensive strategy of bringing the states along without the use of federal rule making…”.
Also, in 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit which had determined in 2015 that the EPA had acted within its authority under 33 U.S.C. §1251(d) in developing a TMDL for the discharge of nonpoint sources pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. American Farm Bureau, et al. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, et al., 792 F.3d 281 (3d Cir. 2015), cert. den., 136 S. Ct. 1246 (2016).
(1) The Election of Donald Trump as President and the Potential Impact on Agricultural and Tax Policy. Rural America voted overwhelmingly for President-elect Trump, and he will be the President largely because of the sea of red all across the country in the non-urban areas. So, what can farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses anticipate the big issues to be in the coming months and next few years and the policy responses? It’s probably reasonable to expect that same approach will be applied to regulations impacting agriculture. Those with minimal benefit and high cost could be eliminated or retooled such that they are cost effective. Overall, the pace of the generation of additional regulation will be slowed. Indeed, the President-elect has stated that for every new regulation, two existing regulations have to be eliminated.
Ag policy. As for trade, it is likely that trade agreements will be negotiated on a much more bi-lateral basis – the U.S. negotiating with one other country at a time rather than numerous countries. The President-elect is largely against government hand-outs and is big on economic efficiency. That bodes well for the oil and gas industry (and perhaps nuclear energy). But, what about less efficient forms of energy that are heavily reliant on taxpayer support? Numerous agricultural states are heavily into subsidized forms of energy with their state budgets littered with numerous tax “goodies” for “renewable” energy.” However, the President-elect won those states. So, does that mean that the federal subsidies for ethanol and biodiesel will continue. Probably. The Renewable Fuels Standard will be debated in 2017, but will anything significant happen? Doubtful. It will continue to be supported, but I expect it to be reviewed to make sure that it fits the market. Indeed, one of the reasons that bio-mass ethanol was reduced so dramatically in the EPA rules was that it couldn’t be produced in adequate supplies. What about the wind energy production tax credit? What about the various energy credits in the tax code? Time will tell, but agricultural interests should pay close attention.
The head of the Senate Ag Committee will be Sen. Roberts from Kansas. As chair, he will influence the tone of the debate of the next farm bill. I suspect that means that the farm bill will have provisions dealing with livestock disease and biosecurity issues. Also, I suspect that it will contain significant provisions crop insurance programs and reforms of existing programs. The House Ag Committee head will be Rep. Conaway from Texas. That could mean that cottonseed will become an eligible commodity for Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC). It may also be safe to assume that for the significant Midwest crops (and maybe some additional crops) their reference prices will go up. Also, it now looks as if the I.R.C. §179 issue involving the income limitation for qualification for farm program payments (i.e., the discrepancy of the treatment between S corporations and C corporations) will be straightened out. Other federal agencies that impact agriculture (EPA, Interior, FDA, Energy, OSHA) can be expected to be more friendly to agriculture in a Trump Administration.
Tax policy. As for income taxes, it looks at this time that the Alternative Minimum Tax might be eliminated, as will the net investment income tax that is contained in Obamacare. Individual tax rates will likely drop, and it might be possible that depreciable assets will be fully deductible in the year of their purchase. Also, it looks like the corporate tax rate will be cut as will the rate applicable to pass-through income. As for transfer taxes, President-elect Trump has proposed a full repeal of the federal estate tax as well as the federal gift tax. Perhaps repeal will be effective January 1, 2017, or perhaps it will be put off until the beginning of 2018. Or, it could be phased-in over a certain period of time. Also, while it appears at the present time that any repeal would be “permanent,” that’s not necessarily a certainty. Similarly, it’s not known whether the current basis “step-up” rule would be retained if the estate tax is repealed. That’s particularly a big issue for farmers and ranchers. It will probably come down to a cost analysis as to whether step-up basis is allowed. The President-elect has already proposed a capital gains tax at death applicable to transfers that exceed $10 million (with certain exemptions for farms and other family businesses). Repeal of gift tax along with repeal of estate tax has important planning implications. There are numerous scenarios that could play out. Stay tuned, and be ready to modify existing plans based on what happens. Any repeal bill would require 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster unless repeal is done as part of a reconciliation bill. Also, without being part of a reconciliation bill, any repeal of the federal estate tax would have to “sunset” in ten years.