Monday, December 31, 2018
2018 was a big year for developments in law and tax that impact farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses and the professionals that provide professional services to them. It was also a big year in other key areas which are important to agricultural production and the provision of food and energy to the public. For example, carbon emissions in the U.S. fell to the lowest point since WWII while they rose in the European Union. Poverty in the U.S. dropped to the lowest point in the past decade, and the unemployment rate became the lowest since 1969 with some sectors reporting the lowest unemployment rate ever. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) doubles the standard deduction in 2018 compared to 2017, which will result additional persons having no federal income tax liability and other taxpayers (those without a Schedule C or F business, in particular) having a simplified return. Wages continued to rise through 2018, increasing over three percent during the third quarter of 2018. This all bodes well for the ability of more people to buy food products and, in turn, increase demand for agricultural crop and livestock products. That’s good news to U.S. agriculture after another difficult year for many commodity prices.
On the worldwide front, China made trade concessions and pledged to eliminate its “Made in China 2025” program that was intended to put China in a position of dominating world economic production. The North-Korea/South Korea relationship also appears to be improving, and during 2018 the U.S. became a net exporter of oil for the first time since WWII. While trade issues with China remain, they did appear to improve as 2018 progressed, and the USDA issued market facilitation payments (yes, they are taxed in the year of receipt and, no, they are not deferable as is crop insurance) to producers to provide relief from commodity price drops as a result of the tariff battle.
So, on an economic and policy front, 2019 appears to bode well for agriculture. But, looking back on 2018, of the many ag law and tax developments of 2018, which ones were important to the ag sector but just not quite of big enough significance nationally to make the “Top Ten”? The almost Top Ten – that’s the topic of today’s post.
The “Almost Top Ten” - No Particular Order
Syngenta litigation settles. Of importance to many corn farmers, during 2018 the class action litigation that had been filed a few years ago against Syngenta settled. The litigation generally related to Syngenta's commercialization of genetically-modified corn seed products known as Viptera and Duracade (containing the trait MIR 162) without approval of such corn by China, an export market. The farmer plaintiffs (corn producers), who did not use Syngenta's products, claimed that Syngenta's commercialization of its products caused the genetically-modified corn to be commingled throughout the corn supply in the United States; that China rejected imports of all corn from the United States because of the presence of MIR 162; that the rejection caused corn prices to drop in the United States; and that corn farmers were harmed by that market effect. In April of 2018, the Kansas federal judge handling the multi-district litigation preliminarily approved a nationwide settlement of claims for farmers, grain elevators and ethanol plants. The proposed settlement involved Syngenta paying $1.5 billion to the class. The class included, in addition to corn farmers selling corn between September of 2013 and April of 2018, grain elevators and ethanol plants that met certain definition requirements. Those not opting out of the class at that point are barred from filing any future claims against Syngenta arising from the presence of the MIR 162 trait in the corn supply. Parties opting out of the class can't receive any settlement proceeds, but can still file private actions against Syngenta. Parties remaining in the class had to file claim forms by October of 2018. The court approved the settlement in December of 2018, and payments to the class members could begin as early as April of 2019.
Checkoff programs. In 2018, legal challenges to ag “checkoff” programs continued. In 2017, a federal court in Montana enjoined the Montana Beef Checkoff. In that case, Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America v. Perdue, No. CV-16-41-GF-BMM, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95861 (D. Mont. Jun. 21, 2017), the plaintiff claimed that the federal law requiring funding of the Montana Beef Council (MBC) via funds from the federal beef checkoff was unconstitutional. The Beef Checkoff imposes a $1.00/head fee at the time cattle are sold. The money generated funds promotional campaigns and research, and state beef councils can collect the funds and retain half of the collected amount with the balance going to the Cattleman’s Beef Production and Research Board (Beef Board). But, a producer can direct that all of the producer’s assessment go to the Beef Board. The plaintiff claimed that the use of the collected funds violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to pay for “speech” with which they did not agree. The defendant (USDA) motioned to dismiss, but the Magistrate Judge denied the motion. The court determined that the plaintiffs had standing, and that the U.S. Supreme Court had held in prior cases that forcing an individual to fund a private message that they did not agree with violated the First Amendment. Any legal effect of an existing “opt-out” provision was not evaluated. The court also rejected the defendant’s claim that the case should be delayed until federal regulations with respect to the opt-out provision was finalized because the defendant was needlessly dragging its heels on developing those rules and had no timeline for finalization. The court entered a preliminary injunction barring the MBC from spending funds received from the checkoff. On further review by the federal trial court, the court adopted the magistrate judge’s decision in full. The trial court determined that the plaintiff had standing on the basis that the plaintiff would have a viable First Amendment claim if the Montana Beef Council’s advertising involves private speech, and the plaintiff did not have the ability to influence the advertising of the Montana Beef Council. The trial court rejected the defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on the basis that the court could not conclude, as a matter of law, that the Montana Beef Council’s advertisements qualify as government speech. The trial court also determined that the plaintiff satisfied its burden to show that a preliminary injunction would be appropriate.
The USDA appealed the trial court’s decision, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court in 2018. Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America v. Perdue, 718 Fed. Appx. 541 (9th Cir. 2018). Later in 2018, as part of the 2018 Farm Bill debate, a provision was proposed that would have changed the structure of federal ag checkoff programs. It did not pass, but did receive forty percent favorable votes.
GIPSA rules withdrawn. In the fall of 2016, the USDA sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) an interim final rule and two proposed regulations setting forth the agency’s interpretation of certain aspects of the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) involving the buying and selling of livestock and poultry. The proposals generated thousands of comments, with ag groups and producers split in their support. The proposals concern Section 202 of the PSA (7 U.S.C. §§ 192 (a) and (e)) which makes it unlawful for any packer who inspects livestock, meat products or livestock products to engage in or use any unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive practice or device, or engage in any course of business or do any act for the purpose or with the effect of manipulating or controlling prices or creating a monopoly in the buying, selling or dealing any article in restraint of commerce. The “effect” language of the statute would seem to eliminate any requirement that the producer show that the packer acted with the intent to control or manipulate prices. However, the federal courts have largely interpreted the provision to require a plaintiff to show an anti-competitive effect in order to have an actionable claim.
The interim final rule and the two proposed regulations stemmed from 2010. In that year, the Obama administration’s USDA issued proposed regulations providing guidance on the handling of antitrust-related issues under the PSA. 75 Fed. Reg. No. 119, 75 FR 35338 (Jun. 22, 2010). Under the proposed regulations, "likelihood of competitive injury" was defined as "a reasonable basis to believe that a competitive injury is likely to occur in the market channel or marketplace.” It included, but was not limited to, situations in which a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer raises rivals' costs, improperly forecloses competition in a large share of the market through exclusive dealing, restrains competition, or represents a misuse of market power to distort competition among other packers, swine contractors, or live poultry dealers. It also includes situations “in which a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer wrongfully depresses prices paid to a producer or grower below market value, or impairs a producer's or grower's ability to compete with other producers or growers or to impair a producer's or grower's ability to receive the reasonably expected full economic value from a transaction in the market channel or marketplace." According to the proposed regulations, a “competitive injury” under the PSA occurs when conduct distorts competition in the market channel or marketplace. The scope of PSA §202(a) and (b) was stated to depend on the nature and circumstances of the challenged conduct. The proposed regulations specifically noted that a finding that a challenged act or practice adversely affects or is likely to affect competition is not necessary in all cases. The proposed regulations also specified that a PSA violation could occur without a finding of harm or likely harm to competition, contrary to numerous court opinions on the issue.
On April 11, 2017, the USDA announced that it was delaying the effective date of the interim final rule for 180 days, until October 19, 2017, with the due date for public comment set at June 12, 2017. However, on October 17, 2017, the USDA withdrew the interim rule. The withdrawal of the interim final rule and two proposed regulations was challenged in court. On December 21, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denied review of the USDA decision. In Organization for Competitive Markets v. United States Department of Agriculture, No. 17-3723, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 36093 (8th Cir. Dec. 21, 2018), the court noted that the USDA had declined to withdraw the rule and regulations because the proposal would have generated protracted litigation, adopted vague and ambiguous terms, and potentially bar innovation and stimulate vertical integration in the livestock industry that would disincentivize market entrants. Those concerns, the court determined, were legitimate and substantive. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the court had to compel agency action. The matter, the court concluded, was not an extraordinary situation. Thus, the USDA did not unlawfully withhold action.
No ”clawback.” In a notice of proposed rulemaking, the U.S Treasury Department eliminated concerns about the imposition of an increase in federal estate tax for decedents dying in the future at a time when the unified credit applicable exclusion amount is lower than its present level and some (or all) of the higher exclusion amount had been previously used. The Treasury addressed four primary questions. On the question of whether pre-2018 gifts on which gift tax was paid will absorb some or all of the 2018-2025 increase in the applicable exclusion amount (and thereby decrease the amount of the credit available for offsetting gift taxes on 2018-2025 gifts), the Treasury indicated that it does not. As such, the Treasury indicated that no regulations were necessary to address the issue. Similarly, the Treasury said that pre-2018 gift taxes will not reduce the applicable exclusion amount for estates of decedents dying in years 2018-2025.
The Treasury also stated that federal gift tax on gifts made after 2025 will not be increased by inclusion in the tax computation a tax on gifts made between 2018 and 2015 that were sheltered from tax by the increased applicable exclusion amount under the TCJA. The Treasury concluded that this is the outcome under current law and needed no regulatory “fix.” As for gifts that are made between 2018-2025 that are sheltered by the applicable exclusion amount, the Treasury said that those amounts will not be subject to federal estate tax in estates of decedents dying in 2026 and later if the applicable exclusion amount is lower than the level it was at when the gifts were made. To accomplish this result, the Treasury will amend Treas. Reg. §20.2010-1 to allow for a basic exclusion amount at death that can be applied against the hypothetical gift tax portion of the estate tax computation that is equal to the higher of the otherwise applicable basic exclusion amount and the basic exclusion amount applied against prior gifts.
The Treasury stated that it had the authority to draft regulations governing these questions based on I.R.C. §2001(g)(2). The Treasury, in the Notice, did not address the generation-skipping tax exemption and its temporary increase under the TCJA through 2025 and whether there would be any adverse consequences from a possible small exemption post-2025. Written and electronic comments must be received by February 21, 2019. A public hearing on the proposed regulations is scheduled for March 13, 2019. IRS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, REG-106706-18, 83 FR 59343 (Nov. 23, 2018).
These were significant developments in the ag law and tax arena in 2018, but just not quite big enough in terms of their impact sector-wide to make the “Top Ten” list. Wednesday’s post this week will examine the “bottom five” of the “Top Ten” developments for 2018.