Wednesday, January 3, 2018
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. Today I start a two-day series on the top ten developments of 2017 with a discussion of developments 10 through six. On Friday, developments five through one will be covered. To make my list, the development from the courts, IRS and federal agencies must have a major impact nationally on agricultural producers, agribusiness and rural landowners in general.
Without further delay, here we go - the top developments for 2017 (numbers 10 through six).
- 10 – South Dakota Enacts Unconstitutional Tax Legislation. In 2017, the South Dakota Supreme Court gave the South Dakota legislature and Governor what it wanted – a ruling that a recently enacted South Dakota law was unconstitutional. South Dakota’s thirst for additional revenue led it to enact a law imposing sales tax on businesses that have no physical presence in the state. That’s something that the U.S. Supreme Court first said 50 years ago that a state cannot do. Accordingly, the South Dakota Supreme Court struck the law down as an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause. The legislature deliberately enacted the law so that it would be challenged as unconstitutional in order to set up a case in hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court would review it and reverse its longstanding position on the issue. See, e.g., National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Illinois Department of Revenue, 386 U.S. 753 (1967) and Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992). If that happens, or the Congress takes action to allow states to impose sales (and/or use) tax on businesses with no physical presence in the state, the impact would be largely borne by small businesses, including home-based business and small agricultural businesses all across the country. It would also raise serious questions about how strong the principle of federalism remains. State v. Wayfair, Inc., et al., 901 N.W.2d 754 (S.D. Sup. Ct. 2017), pet. for cert. filed, Oct. 2, 2017.
- 9 - Amendment to Bankruptcy Law Gives Expands Non-Priority Treatment of Governmental Claims. H.R. 2266, signed into law on October 26, 2017, contains the Family Farmer Bankruptcy Act (Act). The Act adds 11 U.S.C. §1232 which specifies that, “Any unsecured claim of a governmental unit against the debtor or the estate that arises before the filing of the petition, or that arises after the filing of the petition and before the debtor's discharge under section 1228, as a result of the sale, transfer, exchange, or other disposition of any property used in the debtor's farming operation”… is to be treated as an unsecured claim that arises before the bankruptcy petition was filed that is not entitled to priority under 11 U.S.C. §507 and is deemed to be provided for under a plan, and discharged in accordance with 11 U.S.C. §1228. The provision amends 11 U.S.C. §1222(a)(2)(A) to effectively override Hall v. United States, 132 Sup. Ct. 1882 (2012) where the U.S. Supreme Court held that tax triggered by the post-petition sale of farm assets was not discharged under 11 U.S.C. §1222(a)(2)(A). The Court held that because a Chapter 12 bankruptcy estate cannot incur taxes by virtue of 11 U.S.C. §1399, taxes were not “incurred by the estate” under 11 U.S.C. §503(b) which barred post-petition taxes from being treated as non-priority. The provision is effective for all pending Chapter 12 cases with unconfirmed plans and all new Chapter 12 cases as of October 26, 2017. H.R. 2266, Division B, Sec. 1005, signed into law on October 26, 2017.
- 8 – “Hobby Loss” Tax Developments. 2017 saw two significant developments concerning farm and ranching activities that the IRS believes are not conducting with a business purpose and are, thus, subject to the limitation on deductibility of losses. Early in 2017, the IRS issued interim guidance on a pilot program for Schedule F expenses for small business/self-employed taxpayer examinations. It set the program to begin on April 1, 2017 and run for one year. The focus will be on “hobby” farmers, and will involve the examination of 50 tax returns from tax year 2015. The program could be an indication that the IRS is looking to increase the audit rate of returns with a Schedule F, and it may be more likely to impact the relatively smaller farming operations. The interim guidance points out that the IRS believes that compliance issues may exist with respect to the deduction of expenses on the wrong form, or expenses that actually belonged to another taxpayer, or that should be subject to the hobby loss rules of I.R.C. §183. Indeed, the IRS notes that a filter for the project will be designed to identify those taxpayers who have W-2s with large income and who also file a Schedule F “and may not have time to farm.” In addition, the guidance informs IRS personnel that the examined returns could have start-up costs or be a hobby activity which would lead to non-deductible losses. The interim guidance also directs examiners to look for deductions that “appear to be excessive for the income reported.” The implication is that such expenses won’t be deemed to be ordinary and necessary business expenses. How that might impact the practice of pre-paying farm expenses remains to be seen. The guidance also instructs examiners to pick through gas, oil, fuel, repairs, etc., to determine the “business and non-business parts” of the expense without any mention of the $2,500 safe harbor of the repair regulations. The interim guidance would appear to be targeted toward taxpayers that either farm or crop share some acres where the income ends up on Schedule F, but where other non-farm sources of income predominate (e.g., W-2 income, income from leases for hunting, bed and breakfast, conservation reserve program payments, organic farming, etc.). In those situations, it is likely that the Schedule F expenses will exceed the Schedule F income. That’s particularly the case when depreciation is claimed on items associated with the “farm” - a small tractor, all-terrain vehicle, pickup truck, etc. That’s the typical hobby loss scenario that IRS is apparently looking for.
The second development on the hobby loss issue was a Tax Court opinion issued by Judge Paris in late 2017. The case involved a diversified ranching operation that, for the tax years at issue, had about $15 million in losses and gross income of $7 million. For those years, the petitioner’s primary expense was depreciation. The IRS claimed that the ranching activity was not engaged in for profit and the expenses were deductible only to the extent of income. The Tax Court determined that all of the petitioner’s activities were economically intertwined and constituted a single ranching activity. On the profit issue, the court determined that none of the factors in the Treasury Regulations §1.183-2(b) favored the IRS. Accordingly, the petitioner’s ranching activity was held to be conducted for-profit and the losses were fully deductible. The court specifically rejected the IRS argument that a profit motive could not be present when millions of dollars of losses were generated. That’s a very important holding for agriculture. Depreciation is often the largest deduction on a farm or ranch operation’s return. Welch, et al. v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2017-229.
- 7 - Beneficial Use Doctrine Established Water Right That Feds Had Taken. In late 2017, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued a very significant opinion involving vested water rights in the Western United States. The court ruled that the federal government had taken the vested water rights of the plaintiff, a New Mexico cattle ranching operation, which required compensation under the Fifth Amendment. The court determined that the plaintiff had property rights by virtue of having “made continuous beneficial use of stock water sources” predating federal ownership. Those water rights pre-dated 1905, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) had allowed that usage from 1910 to 1989. The court also agreed with the plaintiff’s claim the water was “physically taken” when the United States Forest Service (USFS) blocked the plaintiff’s livestock from accessing the water that had long been used by the plaintiff and its predecessors to graze cattle so as to preserve endangered species.
More specifically, the plaintiff held all “cattle, water rights, range rights, access rights, and range improvements on the base property, as well as the appurtenant federally-administered grazing allotment known as the Sacramento Allotment” in New Mexico. The plaintiff obtained a permit in 1989 from the USFS to graze cattle on an allotment of USFS land which allowed for the grazing of 553 cows for a 10-year period. At the time the permit was obtained, certain areas of the allotment were fenced off, but the USFS allowed the plaintiff’s cattle access to water inside the fenced areas. However, in 1996, the USFS notified the plaintiff that cattle were not permitted to graze inside the fenced areas, but then later allowed temporary grazing due to existing drought conditions. In 1998, the USFS barred the plaintiff from grazing cattle inside the fenced areas, but then reissued the permit in 1999 allowing 553 cattle to graze the allotment for 10 years subject to cancellation or modification as necessary. The permit also stated that “livestock use” was not permitted inside the fenced area. In 2001, the USFS denied the plaintiff’s request to pipe water from the fenced area for cattle watering and, in 2002, the USFS ordered the plaintiff to remove cattle that were grazing within the fenced area. Again in 2006, the plaintiff sought to pipe water from a part of the fenced area, but was denied. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion in 2004 recommended the permanent exclusion of livestock from the allotment, and the plaintiff sued for a taking of its water rights which required just compensation. While the parties were able to identify and develop some alternative sources of water, that did not solve the plaintiff’s water claims and the plaintiff sued.
The court determined that the plaintiff’s claim was not barred by the six-year statute of limitations because the plaintiff’s claim accrued in 1998 when the USFS took the first “official” action barring the grazing of cattle in the fenced area. The court also determined that under state (NM) law, the right to the beneficial use of water is a property interest that is a distinct and severable interest from the right to use land, with the extent of the right dependent on the beneficial use. The court held that the “federal appropriation of water does not, per se constitute a taking….Instead, a plaintiff must show that any water taken could have been put to beneficial use.” The court noted that NM law recognizes two types of appropriative water rights – common law rights in existence through 1907 and those based on state statutory law from 1907 forward. The plaintiff provided a Declaration of Ownership that had been filed with the New Mexico State Engineer between 1999 and 2003 for each of the areas that had been fenced-in. Those Declarations allow a holder of a pre-1907 water right to specify the use to which the water is applied, the date of first appropriation and where the water is located. Once certified, the Declaration of Ownership is prima facie evidence of ownership. The court also noted that witnesses testified that before 1907, the plaintiff’s predecessor’s in interest grazed cattle on the allotment and made beneficial use of the water in the fenced areas. Thus, the court held that the plaintiff had carried its burden to establish a vested water right. The plaintiff’s livestock watering also constituted a “diversion” required by state law. Thus, the USFS action constituted a taking of the plaintiff’s water right. Importantly, the court noted that a permanent physical occupation does not require in every instance that the occupation be exclusive, or continuous and uninterrupted. The key, the court noted, was that the effects of the government’s action was so complete to deprive the plaintiff of all or most of its interest. The court directed the parties to try to determine whether alternative water sources could be made available to the plaintiff to allow the ranching operation to continue on a viable basis. If not, the court will later determine the value of the water rights taken for just compensation purposes. Sacramento Grazing Association v. United States, No. 04-786 L. 2017 U.S. Claims LEXIS 1381 (Fed. Cl. Nov. 3, 2017).
- 6 – Department of Labor Overtime Rules Struck Down. In 2017, a federal court in Texas invalidated particular Department of Labor (DOL) rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The invalidation will have a significant impact on agricultural employers. The FLSA exempts certain agricultural employers and employees from its rules. However, one aspect of the FLSA that does apply to agriculture are the wage requirements of the law, both in terms of the minimum wage that must be paid to ag employment and overtime wages. But, an exemption denies persons employed in agriculture the benefit of mandatory overtime payment. 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(12). The agricultural exemption is broad, defining “agriculture” to include “farming in all its branches [including] the raising of livestock, bees, fur-bearing animals, or poultry,…and the production, cultivation, growing, and harvesting of...horticultural commodities and any practices performed by a farmer or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with farming operations.” In addition, exempt are “executive” workers whose primary duties are supervisory and the worker supervises 2 or more employees. Also exempt are workers that fall in the “administrative” category who provide non-manual work related to the management of the business, and workers defined as “professional” whose job is education-based and requires advanced knowledge. Many larger farming and ranching operations have employees that will fit in at least one of these three categories. For ag employees that are exempt from the overtime wage payment rate because they occupy an “executive” position, they must be paid a minimum amount of wages per week.
Until December 1, 2016, the minimum amount was $455/week ($23,660 annually). Under the Obama Administration’s DOL proposal, however, the minimum weekly amount was to increase to $913 ($47,476 annually). Thus, an exempt “executive” employee that is paid a weekly wage exceeding $913 is not entitled to be paid for any hours worked exceeding 40 in a week. But, if the $913 weekly amount was not met, then the employee would generally be entitled to overtime pay for the hours exceeding 40 in a week. Thus, the proposal would require farm businesses to track hours for those employees it historically has not tracked hours for – executive employees such as managers and those performing administrative tasks. But, remember, if the employee is an agricultural worker performing agricultural work, the employee need not be paid for the hours in excess of 40 in a week at the overtime rate. The proposal also imposes harsh penalties for noncompliance. Before the new rules went into effect, many states and private businesses sued to block them. The various lawsuits were consolidated into a single case, and in November of 2016, the court issued a temporary nationwide injunction blocking enforcement of the overtime regulations. Nevada v. United States Department of Labor, 218 F. Supp. 3d 520 (E.D. Tex. 2016).
On Aug. 31, 2017, the court entered summary judgment for the plaintiffs in the case thereby invalidating the regulations. In its ruling, the court focused on the congressional intent behind the overtime exemptions for “white-collar” workers as well as the authority of the DOL to define and implement those exemptions. The court also concluded that the DOL did not have any authority to categorically exclude workers who perform exempt duties based on salary level alone, which is what the court said that the DOL rules did. The court noted that the rules more than doubled the required salary threshold and, as a result, “would essentially make an employee’s duties, functions, or tasks irrelevant if the employee’s salary falls below the new minimum salary level.” The court went on to state that the overtime rules make “overtime status depend predominantly on a minimum salary level, thereby supplanting an analysis of an employee’s job duties.” The court noted that his was contrary to the clear intent of the Congress and, as a result, the rules were invalid. The court’s ruling invalidating the overtime rules is an important victory for many agricultural (and other) businesses. It alleviates an increased burden to maintain records for employees in executive positions (e.g., managers and administrators), and the associated penalties for non-compliance. The case is Nevada v. United States Department of Labor, No. 4:16-cv-731, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140522 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 31, 2017).
Those are the "bottom five" of the "top 10" developments of 2017. On Friday I will reveal what I believe to be the top five developments.