Friday, November 9, 2018
Legal developments impacting rural landowners, producers and agribusinesses continue to occur. The same can be said for tax developments that impact practitioners and their client base. It’s a never-ending stream.
In today’s post, I examine just a few of the recent developments from the courts of relevance.
Debtor Can Convert Chapter 12 Case to Chapter 11
Can a Chapter 12 bankruptcy case be converted to Chapter 11? That was the issue in In re Cardwell, No. 17-50307-rlj12, 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 3089 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. Oct. 3, 2018). The debtor, an elderly widowed woman, owned three tracts of farmland that she leased out for farming purposes. The tracts served as collateral for loans taken out by her children and grandchildren. The debtor sued a bank and the spouse of a granddaughter for “improprieties on the loans and liens.” The debtor filed Chapter 12, but the bank moved to dismiss the case on the basis that the debtor was not a ‘family farmer.” The debtor then moved to convert the case to Chapter 11. The bank objected, claiming that a Chapter 12 case cannot be converted to a Chapter 11.
While the court noted that there is some authority for that proposition, the court also noted that there is no explicit statutory language that bars a Chapter 12 from being converted to a Chapter 11 and that the courts are split on the issue. Ultimately, the court concluded that 11 U.S.C. §1208(e) allowed for conversion if the proceeding was in good faith and conversion would not be inequitable or prejudicial to creditors. The court also noted that if it dismissed the debtor’s Chapter 12 case, the debtor could simply refile the matter as a Chapter 11 case. The court saw no point in requiring that procedural step as there was no explicit statutory language requiring dismissal and refiling. The court also noted that upon conversion the automatic stay would remain in place, and that the debtor would actually have a more difficult time getting her reorganization plan confirmed as part of a Chapter 11 case as compared to a Chapter 12 case.
Federal Law Preempts Kansas Train Roadway Blockage Law
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) operates trains through the town of Bazaar in Chase County, Kansas. At issue State of Kansas v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, No. 118,095, 2018 Kan. App. LEXIS 63 (Kan. Ct. App. Nov. 2, 2018), were two railroad crossings where the main line and the side tracks crossed county and town roads. The side track is used to change crews or let other trains by on the main line. Early one morning, the Chase County Sheriff received a call that a train was blocking both intersections. The Sheriff arrived on scene two hours later and spoke with a BNSF employee. This employee said that he was checking the train but did not state when the train would move. The Sheriff then called BNSF three times. The train remained stopped on both crossings for approximately four hours. The Sheriff issued two citations (one for each engine) under K.S.A. 66-273 for blocking the crossings for four hours and six minutes. K.S.A. 66-273 prohibits railroad companies and corporations operating a railroad in Kansas from allowing trains to stand upon any public roadway near any incorporated or unincorporated city or town in excess of 10 minutes at any one time without leaving an opening on the roadway of at least 30 feet in width. BNSF moved to dismiss the citation, but the trial court rejected the motion.
During the trial, many citizens presented evidence that they could not get to work that day, and a service technician could not reach a home that did not have hot water and was having heating problems. BNSF presented train logs for one of the engines. These logs showed that one engine was stopped in Bazaar for only 8 minutes to change crews and was not in Bazaar at 9:54 a.m. The Sheriff later conceded that he might have been mistaken about the numbers on the engines for the citations. There were no train logs for the other engine. BNSF also stated there could be other alternatives from blocking the crossings but uncoupling the middle of the train would be time consuming and unsafe.
The trial court ruled against BNSF and entered a fine of $4,200 plus court costs. On appeal, BNSF claimed that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) and Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) preempted Kansas law, and that the evidence presented was not sufficient to prove a violation of Kansas law. The appellate court agreed, holding that the ICCTA, by its express terms contained in 49 U.S.C. 10501(b), preempted Kansas law. While the appellate court noted that the Kansas statute served an “admirable purpose,” it was too specific in that it applied only to railroad companies rather than the public at large. Also, the statute had more than a remote or incidental effect on railway transportation. As a result, the Kansas law infringed on the Surface Transportation Board’s exclusive jurisdiction to regulate the railways in the United States. The appellate court noted that the Surface Transportation Board was created by the ICCTA and given exclusive jurisdiction over the construction, acquisition, operation, abandonment, or discontinuance of railroad tracks and facilities. In addition, the appellate court noted that the Congress expressly stated that the remedies with respect to regulation of rail transportation set forth in the ICCTA are exclusive and preempt other remedies provided under federal or state law. The appellate court did not consider BNSF’s other arguments.
Groundwater Is Not a “Point Source” of Pollution Under the CWA
The defendant in Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority, No. 17-6155, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 27237 (6th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018), is a utility that burns coal to produce energy. It also produces coal ash as a byproduct. The coal ash is discharged into man-made ponds. The plaintiffs, environmental activist groups, claimed that the chemicals from the coal ash in the ponds leaked into surrounding groundwater where it was then carried to a nearby lake that was subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The plaintiffs claimed that the contamination of the lake without a discharge permit violated the CWA and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The trial court had dismissed the RCRA claim, but the appellate court reversed that determination and remanded the case on that issue. On the CWA claim, the trial court ruled as a matter of law that the CWA applies to discharges of pollutants from a point source through hydrologically connected groundwater to navigable waters where the connection is "direct, immediate, and can generally be traced." The trial court held that the defendant’s facility was a point source because it "channel[s] the flow of pollutants . . . by forming a discrete, unlined concentration of coal ash," and that the Complex is also a point source because it is "a series of discernible, confined, and discrete ponds that receive wastewater, treat that wastewater, and ultimately convey it to the Cumberland River." The trial court also determined that the defendant’s facility and the ponds were hydrologically connected to the Cumberland River by groundwater. As for the defendant’s facility, the trial court held that "[f]aced with an impoundment that has leaked in the past and no evidence of any reason that it would have stopped leaking, the Court has no choice but to conclude that the [defendant’s facility] has continued to and will continue to leak coal ash waste into the Cumberland River, through rainwater vertically penetrating the Site, groundwater laterally penetrating the Site, or both." The trial court determined that the physical properties of the terrain made the area “prone to the continued development of ever newer sinkholes or other karst features." Thus, based on the contaminants flowing from the ponds, the court found defendant to be in violation of the CWA. The trial court also determined that the leakage was in violation of the defendant “removed-substances” and “sanitary-sewer” overflow provisions. The trial court ordered the defendant to "fully excavate" the coal ash in the ponds (13.8 million cubic yards in total) and relocate it to a lined facility.
On further review, the appellate court reversed. The appellate court held that the CWA does not apply to point source pollution that reaches surface water by means of groundwater movement. The appellate court rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that mere groundwater is equivalent to a discernable point source through which pollutants travel to a CWA-regulated body of water. The appellate court noted that, to constitute a “conveyance” of groundwater governed by the CWA, the conveyance must be discernible, confined and discrete. While groundwater may constitute a conveyance, the appellate court reasoned that it is neither discernible, confined, nor discrete. Rather, the court noted that groundwater is a “diffuse” medium that “travels in all directions, guided only by the general pull of gravity.” In addition, the appellate court noted that the CWA regulates only “the discharge of pollutants ‘to navigable waters from any point source.’” In so holding, the court rejected the holdings in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, 881 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2018) and Upstate Forever, et al. v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, LP, et al., 887 F.3d 637 (4th Cir. 2018).
Cash Gifts to Pastor Constituted Taxable Income
In Felton v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2018-168, the petitioner was the pastor of a church and the head of various church related ministries in the U.S. and abroad, got behind on his tax filings and IRS audited years 2008 and 2009. While most issues were resolved, the IRS took the position that cash and checks that parishioners put in blue envelopes were taxable income to the petitioner rather than gifts. The amounts the petitioner received in blue envelopes were $258,001 in 2008 and $234,826 in 2009. There was no question that the church was run in a businesslike manner. While the church board served in a mere advisory role, the petitioner did follow church bylaws and never overrode the board on business matters. As for contributions to the church, donated funds were allocated based on an envelope system with white envelopes used for tithes and offerings for the church. The white envelopes also included a line marked “pastoral” which would be given directly to the petitioner. The amounts in white envelopes were tracked and annual giving statements provided for those amounts.
The petitioner reported as income the amounts provided in white envelopes that were designated as “pastoral.” Amount in gold envelopes were used for special programs and retreats, and were included in a donor’s annual giving statement. Amounts in blue envelopes (which were given out when asked for) were treated as pastoral gifts and the amounts given in blue envelopes were not included in the donor’s annual giving statement and the donor did not receive any tax deduction for the gifted amounts. Likewise, the petitioner did not include the amounts given in blue envelopes in income. The IRS took the position that the amounts given by means of the blue envelopes were taxable income to the petitioner. The Tax Court agreed, noting that the petitioner was not retiring or disabled. The court also noted that the petitioner received a non-taxable parsonage allowance of $78,000 and received only $40,000 in white envelope donations. The court also upheld the imposition of a penalty because the petitioner, who self-prepared his returns, made no attempt to determine the proper tax reporting of the donations.
The developments keep rolling in. There will be more to write about in a subsequent post.