Friday, January 5, 2018

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2017 (Five Through One)


This week we are looking at the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation for 2017.  On Monday, I discussed those developments that were important but just not quite significant enough based on their national significance to make the top ten.  On Wednesday I addressed developments 10 through 6.  Today I discuss the top five developments of 2017 – the really big ones.  These are the developments that I deem to be of the highest importance on a national scale to agricultural producers, agribusiness and rural landowners in general. 

Today’s blog post – the top five developments in agricultural law and taxation in 2017.

  • 5 – Federal Implied Reserved Water Rights Doctrine Applies to Groundwater. Water issues are big in the West, and the Federal Government owns about 28 percent of the land area of the United States, with approximately 50 percent of that amount concentrated in 11 Western states (excluding Alaska).  Across the West, most water rights are granted under and governed by state law. Federal law touching on water rights has generally deferred to state law for over 140 years, and the federal government waives its sovereign immunity from state court proceedings involving water rights.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that Native American tribes can be entitled to water rights under federal law, rights that supersede many of these state rights. These federal implied rights are based upon the belief that the United States, when establishing Indian reservations, “intended to deal fairly with the Indians by reserving for them the waters without which their lands would have been useless.”  But, the federal government’s water rights are not limited to its trustee capacity for Native American Tribes, but also apply to national monuments, national forests, and other public lands.  In 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the first federal appellate case to reach a decision on this issue, and its reasoning follows multiple state court decisions across the West.  The court first held that the United States clearly intended to reserve water under federal law when it created the Tribe’s reservation. The court noted that the underlying purpose of the reservation was to establish a tribal homeland supporting an agrarian society.  That purpose would be entirely defeated, the court reasoned, without sufficient water supplies held under federal law. Thus, the Tribe was entitled to a reserved water right for the Agua Caliente Reservation.  Next, the Ninth Circuit held that the Tribe’s reserved water right extended to groundwater. It was necessary for the Tribe to access groundwater in the Coachella Valley Basin because surface supplies were clearly inadequate—a reservation without an adequate supply of surface water must be able to access groundwater as well. Thus, the court held that the reservation and establishment of the Agua Caliente Reservation carried with it an implied federal reserved right to use water from the aquifer.  The court also determined that the Tribe’s implied reserved water rights pre-empted state water rights, and the Tribe’s lack of groundwater pumping did not defeat those rights, because they are immune from abandonment.  The court also determined that the proper inquiry was whether water was envisioned as necessary for the reservation’s purpose at the time the reservation was created. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held, the issue of the Tribe’s state law-based water rights did not affect the existence of its federal implied reserved water right.  That right, the court held, always applies as a matter of federal pre-emption, regardless of how a state allocates groundwater rights.  The court’s opinion is significant because groundwater has become the dominant supply of water across the West.  The decision also has important implications for California, the number one agricultural state in the nation (in terms of cash receipts), which enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014.  Because the Ninth Circuit’s decision establishes strong (and largely non-negotiable) rights for tribes within California’s groundwater basins, it complicates the formidable task of achieving sustainable groundwater management.  Across the West, the other implications of the decision likely depend upon what remains of basin-wide adjudications of water rights.

                Note:  On November 27, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in the first phase of the case, allowing the Ninth Circuit’s holding to stand.  Coachella Valley Water                 District v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, No. 17-40, Vide No. 17-42, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 7044 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 27, 2017).

  • 4 - EPA Rule Exempting Farms From Air Release Reporting Vacated.Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), the federal government is to be notified when large quantities of hazardous materials are released into the environment. Once notified, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has discretion to take remedial actions or order further monitoring or investigation of the situation. In 2008, the EPA issued a final regulation exempting large (commercial) farms (those that emit more than 100 pounds total of hydrogen sulfide or ammonia daily) from the CERCLA reporting/notification requirement for air releases from animal waste (by issuing an annual report of “continuous releases”) on the basis that a federal response would most often be impractical and unlikely. However, the EPA retained the reporting/notification requirement for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) under EPCRAs public disclosure rule.  Indeed, in early 2009, EPA, pursuant to the EPCRA, issued a final regulation regarding the reporting of emissions from confined AFO’s – termed a “CAFO.”  The rule applies to facilities that confine more than 1,000 beef cattle, 700 mature dairy cows, 1,000 veal calves, 2,500 swine (each weighing 55 pounds or more), 10,000 swine (each weighing less than 55 pounds), 500 horses and 10,000 sheep.  The rule requires these facilities to report ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions to state and local emergency response officials if the facility emits 100 pounds or more of either substance during a 24-hour period. Various environmental activist groups challenged the exemption in the final regulation on the basis that the EPA acted outside of its delegated authority to create the exemption. Agricultural groups claimed that the carve-out for CAFOs was also impermissible. The environmental groups claimed that emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide (both hazardous substances under CERCLA) should be reported as part of furthering the overall regulatory objective. The court noted that there was no clear way to best measure the release of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, but noted that continuous releases are subject to annual notice requirements. The court held that the EPA’s final regulation should be vacated as an unreasonable interpretation of the de minimis exception in the statute. As such, the challenge brought by the agriculture groups to the CAFO carve-out was mooted and dismissed.  Later, the court, granted a motion filed by the EPA and ag groups to delay the removal of the exemption until November 14, 2017.  The EPA’s interim guidance on the new reporting requirements was issued on October 26, 2017, but the EPA again motioned for an extension of time to fully implement the regulations.  The court granted the motion on November 22, 2017, staying the implementation of the new reporting regulations until January 22, 2018. The reporting requirement will have direct application to larger livestock operations with air emissions that house beef cattle, dairy cattle, horses, hogs and poultry.   It is estimated that approximately 60,000 to 100,000 livestock and poultry operations will be subject to the reporting requirement.  The reporting level would be reached by a facility with approximately 330-head (for a confinement facility) according to a calculator used by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln which is based on emissions produced by the commingling of solid manure and urine.  The underlying action is Waterkeeper Alliance, et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency, 853 F.3d 527 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
  • 3 – Clean Water Act “WOTUS” Developments. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) finalized a regulation (known as the “Clean Water Rule”) concerning “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) which expanded the parameters of waters (streams, rivers, ponds, ditches, puddles and other water bodies) that are subject to federal jurisdiction and regulation.  The final regulation became effective in the late summer of 2015, but a federal court stayed its implementation later that year in October. In early 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that federal law placed jurisdiction with the federal appellate courts rather than the federal district courts concerning any challenges to the WOTUS rule.  In January of 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision.  National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense, et al., 137 S. Ct. 811 (2017).  About a month later, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the EPA and the COE to revisit the Clean Water Rule and change their interpretation of waters subject to federal jurisdiction such that it only applied to waters that were truly navigable – the approach taken by Justice Scalia in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  The EPA and Corps later indicated they would follow the President’s suggested approach, and would push the effective date of the revised Clean Water Rule to two years after its finalization and publication.        

In addition, there were several important WOTUS cases decided/finalized in 2017:

  • COE jurisdictional determination is final agency action; no WOTUS present. 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 further review, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding 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.  Not only did the jurisdictional determination constitute final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act, the court held that 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, No. 15-290, 136 S. Ct. 1807 (2016).  On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff on the grounds that the plaintiff’s property did not constitute “waters of the United States” that the defendant had jurisdiction over. The court determined that the government did not establish a “significant nexus” under the Rapanos standard between the plaintiff’s property and the Red River 93 miles away that the defendant claimed were connected via ditches and seasonal tributaries. The court also determined that the Jurisdictional Determination was not based on the “significant nexus” standard of Rapanos and was arbitrary and capricious. The court entered an injunction that ordered the defendant to not assert jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s property. In doing so, the court determined that the defendant had an adequate chance to develop a record which negated a remand back to the defendant to address the evidentiary inadequacies. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 13-107 ADM/TNL, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10680 (D. Min. Jan. 24, 2017).
  • Prior Converted Cropland Exception to CWA Jurisdiction Inapplicable.The plaintiff, a developer, obtained title to a 100-acre tract on the southeast side of Chicago metro area in 1995. The defendant claimed federal jurisdiction over water on a portion of the property on the basis that the “wetland” drained via a storm sewer pipe to a creek that was a tributary to a river that was a navigable water of the U.S. After exhausting administrative appeals, the court upheld the defendant’s nexus determination because it sufficiently documented a physical, chemical and biological impact of the navigable river. The court also determined that the prior converted cropland exemption did not apply because farming activities had been abandoned for at least five years and wetland characteristics returned. The court noted that the defendant and the EPA had jointly adopted a rule in 1993 adopting the NRCS exemption for prior converted cropland. The court also that prior caselaw had held that the CWA’s exemption of “prior converted croplands” included the abandonment provision, and that it would apply the same rationale in this case. The court noted that the specific 13-acre parcel at issue in the case had not been farmed since 1996, and that conversion to a non-ag use did not remove the abandonment provision. The plaintiff also claimed that the wetlands at issue were “artificial” wetlands (created by adjacent development) under 7 C.F.R. §12.2(a) that were not subject to the defendant’s jurisdiction. However, the court noted that the defendant never adopted the “artificial wetland” exemption of the NRCS and, therefore, such a classification was inapplicable. The court granted the defendant’s cross motion for summary judgment. Orchard Hill Building Co. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 15-cv-06344, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151673 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 19, 2017).
  • Conviction Upheld for Clean Water Act Violations.The defendant, a disabled Vietnam Navy veteran, was charged with multiple counts of criminal violations of the (CWA) by virtue of the unauthorized knowing discharge of “pollutants” into the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) (in violation of 33 U.S.C. §1251-1388) and depredation of U.S. property (18 U.S.C. §1361). The defendant was indicted for building illegal ponds (nine in total) in an existing stream on two parcels - one federal and one private (which the defendant did not own). The defendant did the work due to multiple fires in the area that had recently occurred and to create stock water ponds for his animals. The government claimed that the ponds resulted in the discharge of dredged and fill material into a tributary stream and adjacent wetlands and damaged both properties, even though there was no tributary from the ponds. Dredged material from the ponds had been used to create the berms and had been placed in and around the streams and wetlands. The trial court determined that the stream at issue was a WOTUS on the basis that the stream headwater and wetland complex provided critical support to trout in downstream rivers and fisheries, including the Boulder and Jefferson Rivers (60 miles away) – navigable waters of the U.S. The trial court jury, after a second trial and the introduction by the government of evidence that it allegedly manufactured, found the defendant guilty of two counts of illegal discharge of pollutants into WOTUS without a federal permit and one count of injury or depredation of U.S. property. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court held that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006) was controlling and that the trial court jury instructions based on Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus test contained in his opinion in Rapanos were proper. The appellate court also held that the definition of WOTUS was not too vague to be enforced. Thus, there was no due process violation. The defendant had fair warning that his conduct was criminal.  United States v. Robertson, 875 F.3d 1281 (9th Cir. 2017).
  • 2 – Rental and Employment Agreements Appropriately Structured; No Self-Employment Tax on Rental Income.The petitioners, a married couple, operated a farm in Texas. In late 1999, they built the first of eight poultry houses to raise broilers under a production contract with a large poultry integrator. The petitioners formed an S corporation in 2004, and set up oral employment agreements with the S corporation based on an appraisal for the farm which guided them as to the cost of their labor and management services. They also pegged their salaries at levels consistent with other growers. The wife provided bookkeeping services and the husband provided labor and management. In 2005, they assigned the balance of their contract to the S corporation. Thus, the corporation became the "grower" under the contract. In 2005, the petitioners entered into a lease agreement with the S corporation. Under the agreement, the petitioners rented their farm to the S corporation, under which the S corporation would pay rent of $1.3 million to the petitioners over a five-year period. The court noted that the rent amount was consistent with other growers under contract with the integrator. The petitioners reported rental income of $259,000 and $271,000 for 2008 and 2009 respectively, and the IRS determined that the amounts were subject to self-employment tax because the petitioners were engaged in an "arrangement" that required their material participation in the production of agricultural commodities on their farm. The Tax Court, in an opinion by Judge Paris, noted that the IRS agreed that the facts of the case were on all fours with McNamara v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 1999-333 where the Tax Court determined that the rental arrangement and the wife's employment were to be combined, which meant that the rental income was subject to self-employment tax. However, the Tax Court's decision in that case was reversed by the Eighth Circuit on appeal. McNamara v. Comr., 236 F.3d 410 (8th Cir. 2000).  Judge Paris, in the current case, determined that the Eighth Circuit's rationale in McNamara was persuasive and that the "derived under an arrangement" language in I.R.C. §1402(a)(1) meant that a nexus had to be present between the rents the petitioners received and the "arrangement" that required their material participation. In other words, there must be a tie between the real property lease agreement and the employment agreement. The court noted the petitioners received rent payments that were consistent with the integrator's other growers for the use of similar premises. That fact was sufficient to establish that the rental agreement stood on its own as an appropriate measure as a return on the petitioners' investment in their facilities. Similarly, the employment agreement was appropriately structured as a part of the petitioners' conduct of a legitimate business. Importantly, the court noted that the IRS failed to brief the nexus issue, relying solely on its non-acquiescence to McNamara (A.O.D. 2003-003, I.R.B. 2003-42 (Oct. 22, 2003)) and relying on the court to broadly interpret "arrangement" to include all contracts related to the S corporation. The Tax Court refused to do so and, accordingly, the court held that the petitioner's rental income was not subject to self-employment tax. Martin v. Comr., 149 T.C. No. 12 (2017).
  • No 1 – The Tax Bill ("To provide for Reconciliation Pursuant to Titles II and V of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2018"). The most significant development of 2017 with the widest impact on agricultural producers, agribusinesses and rural landowners is unquestionably the tax bill enacted into law on December 22, 2017.  The new law establishes new tax brackets, essentially doubles the standard deduction, eliminates many itemized deductions, modifies many cost-recovery provisions and changes the corporate tax rate to a flat rate of 21 percent.  The legislation also creates a new 20 percent deduction for qualified business income from a pass-through entity.  Prior law was also modified concerning cash accounting, the tax rate applicable to commodity gifts made to a non-charitable donee above certain levels of unearned income, the rules surrounding net operating losses, interest deductibility, elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT) and modification of the individual AMT, the child tax credit and various international tax provisions.  The new law will create many planning questions and opportunities with the structure of perhaps many farm operations being modified to take advantage of the new provisions. 


2017 was another active year on the agricultural law and taxation front.  It was also the first year in many years where some rather significant federal regulations as applies to agriculture were either rolled back or eliminated.  2018 will be another very busy year.  That is certainly to be the case especially on the tax side of things.

Environmental Law, Income Tax, Water Law | Permalink


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