Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Earlier this year I did a blog post on some recent developments in crop insurance. Since that time, there have been more very significant developments involving crop insurance. As a result, another post on crop insurance is necessary.
More crop insurance recent developments – that’s the topic of today’s post.
Relying on Agent Representations
Bush v. AgSouth Farm Credit, No. A18A0339 2018, Ga. App. LEXIS 437 (Ga. Ct. App. Jun 27, 2018), the plaintiff owned a 280-acre soybean and wheat farm. The farm had been in his family for many years and operated as a dairy farm. In 2011, the plaintiff began planting wheat and soybean as commodity crops. At this point he took out several loans from the defendant in order to purchase farm machinery and equipment. After he obtained these loans, the defendant recommended that he get crop insurance in case of a weather-related crop loss. The plaintiff had heard about crop insurance and agreed that he needed it, but told the defendant that he knew nothing about crop insurance or anybody who “writes it.”
The defendant put the plaintiff in touch with an insurance agent who had been a licensed crop insurance agent with the defendant since 2000. The insurance agent told the plaintiff she sold crop insurance for “Diversified” (a company contracted with USDA to deliver the federal crop insurance program). At that time, the plaintiff told her where he obtained his grain and that he had never sold crops commercially before 2011, using it only as feed or seed to replant. The insurance agent handled all of the production history calculations, presumably from weight tickets he had provided to her. As a result of their meetings, the insurance agent procured crop insurance from Diversified for the plaintiff’s 2011 soybean crop and his 2012 wheat crop. The plaintiff had a continuous policy for wheat with an actual production history (APH) of 75 bushels per acre, which the insurance agent calculated based upon what the plaintiff told her that he produced for the four years prior to 2012.
The agent did not ask the plaintiff for documents supporting these amounts and explained that he was not required to submit such documentation with his insurance application, but she warned him that if he was ever audited he would have to document what was reported in the insurance application. The application requested 60 percent coverage, and the plaintiff testified that he left it up to the agent to decide the amount, but did not object to it when he signed the application. The plaintiff did not read the insurance application or the production and yield report on which the insurance agent calculated the APH, and he did not ask any questions about either document. For crop year 2012, the plaintiff planted over 600 acres of wheat and conducted his farming operations based on the agent’s representation that the wheat was insured at the coverage level stated in his policy. In July of 2013, he suffered a complete loss of his wheat crop due to excessive moisture.
The plaintiff called the insurance agent to report the loss, and Diversified sent an adjuster to examine the crop and calculate the loss. The plaintiff received approximately $102,986 from Diversified, which he then assigned to the defendant to pay down an existing loan. In July 2014 Diversified performed an audit of the plaintiff’s claim. Shortly thereafter, Diversified notified the plaintiff that a reduction in production and yields for specific units was applied resulting in an overpayment of $102,986 and demanded repayment. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant and the insurance agent on May 9, 2016, alleging that the agent held herself out as a crop insurance expert and that he relied on that expertise and her representations to establish his farming plan. The plaintiff also claimed that the defendant, as the agent’s employer, was vicariously liable for her actions. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff was obligated to read the policy and, if he had, he would have known that documentation was required to support the claimed APH.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed. The appellate court determined that a jury could find that the plaintiff, a layperson, could not be expected to read the policy and determine what constituted a written verifiable record. The policy at issue referred to supporting “written verifiable records” and relied upon a reference to a federal regulation to define that term. Thus, the court held that it would not have been readily apparent to the plaintiff, on the face of the policy, that the weight tickets or other information he provided to the agent were not adequate to meet the definition of “written verifiable record.” Thus, the court held that even if the plaintiff had the read the policy from beginning to end, he would not have known that the calculation was not properly done in accordance with federal regulations because calculating the APH was up to the expert agent and governed by the rules set out in the Crop Insurance Handbook. As such, the appellate court held that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the defendant.
In Bottoms Farm Partnership v. Perdue, No. 17-2164, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 19609 (8th Cir. Jul. 17, 2018), the plaintiffs were entities engaged in rice farming. Their rice crops were insured under federally-reinsured multi-peril crop insurance policies purchased from Rural Crop Insurance Services (RCIS). The insurance policy was provided under the Federal Crop Insurance Act (FCIA), which is administered by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) and the Risk Management Agency (RMA). After they purchased the insurance and planted the 2012 crop, their rice crops were damaged by excessive rainfall. They filed claims for indemnity with RCIS. RCIS denied the claims on the basis that the crops were not insurable under the policy because levees were not surveyed and constructed immediately after seeding the rice, and levee gates were not immediately installed and butted as required by a special provision in the policy. When their claims were denied, the plaintiffs sought arbitration with RCIS as required by the policy, which stated that: “In addition to the definition of Planted Acreage specified in section 1 of the Crop Provisions, the following must have occurred immediately following seeding. If these activities have not occurred, the acreage will be considered ‘acreage seeded in any other manner’ and will not be insurable: (1) levees are surveyed and constructed; (2) levee gates are installed and butted; and (3) the irrigation pump is operable, ready to be started in the event sufficient rainfall has not been received, and turned on to provide sufficient water for the purposes of germination or elimination of soil crusting.”
The FCIC agreed with RCIS that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "immediately" as "without any delay,” which means that the listed activities must occur right after planting has ended, weather permitting, without any delay. The plaintiffs requested a review of the FCIC's interpretation by the RMA, and the RMA affirmed. The National Appeals Division (NAD) concluded that RMA's written interpretation was not appealable and that the plaintiffs had exhausted their administrative remedies.
The trial court upheld the administrative determinations, as did the appellate court. The appellate court noted that the clear language of the FCIA indicated that the Congress intended the FCIC to have extensive and broad authority. Under the FCIA, judicial review is available but limited. Given the FCIA’s broad grant of authority to the FCIC, and the specific authority over the provisions of insurance and insurance contracts, the appellate court concluded that it must give substantial deference to the FCIC's interpretation of the special provision. In addition, the court determined that the FCIC's interpretation of the special provision was consistent with the plain reading of the policy, which indicated that the activities listed must "have occurred immediately following seeding" or the acreage would be considered to be uninsurable. The appellate court also determined that the FCIC's decision that the language provided a condition for insurability and was not subject to an analysis of good farming practices was not plainly erroneous. The appellate court, like the trial court found that the interpretation was not "'arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.
APH Yield Exclusion
Adkins v. Vilsack, No. 1:15-CV-169-C 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 72790 (N. D. Tex. May 12, 2017), aff’d. sub. nom., Adkins v. Silverman, No. 17-10759, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 21961 (5th Cir. Aug. 7, 2018) involved a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill - Actual Production History (APH) Yield Exclusion. The APH Yield Exclusion allows eligible producers impacted by severe weather to receive a higher approved yield on their insurance policies through the federal crop insurance program. APH works by allowing a farmer to exclude yields in particularly bad years (e.g., those having a natural disaster or other extreme weather event) from their production history when calculating yields that are used to establish their crop insurance coverage. The level of crop insurance available to a farmer is based on the farmer’s average recent yields. Particularly low yields in a prior year would reduce the level of insurance coverage in future years but for the APH provision. Farmers are eligible for the APH exclusion when the county yield is at least 50 percent below the average of the immediately previous 10 consecutive crop years.
The APH provision was to become effective in the spring of 2015 for spring crops with a November 30, 2014 change date. Eligible crops include corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, grain sorghum, rice, barley, canola, sunflowers, peanuts and popcorn. However, the USDA later decided to delay the APH Yield Exclusion for wheat for the 2015 crop year for winter wheat. The plaintiff challenged that decision as arbitrary, but the USDA’s National Appeals Division (NAD) upheld the decision. However, in late 2016 a U.S. Magistrate Judge recommended that the court reverse the USDA’s decision to delay implementation of the APH Yield Exclusion (i.e., “yield plug”) for winter wheat. The USDA appealed, but the trial court found that the NAD’s decision was erroneous because it failed to recognize the Farm Bill’s (7 U.S.C. §1508 (g)(4)(A)) effect on implementation for the 2015 winter wheat crop year. The court determined that Congress chose to leave the applicability provision in place thereby making it self-executing and immediate for the APH Yield Exclusion. In addition, the fact that Congress chose to include specific application/implementation language for other crops and yet stay silent as to winter wheat indicates a direct intention to allow the governing and existing statutory law to be applicable as to the implementation of the APH Yield Exclusion for the 2015 winter wheat crop. As a result, the court adopts the findings and conclusions of the Magistrate Judge. The USDA appealed, and the issue on appeal was “whether farmers were permitted to exclude the historical data for the 2015 crop year, even though the FCIC had not completed its data compilation.” The appellate court considered the “plain meaning” of the statute at issue in accordance with the standard set forth in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984) and affirmed the trial court's decision.
Crop insurance is an important part of many farmer’s financial “toolbox.” It will likely also play a significant part of the next Farm Bill. But, as illustrated in today’s post (and the one earlier this year), numerous legal issues can arise.