Tuesday, January 8, 2019
Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2018 – Numbers 6, 5 and 4
This week I continue the trek through the Top Ten ag law and tax developments of 2018 with the top six developments. Today’s post goes through numbers six, five and four. On Thursday I will turn attention to the remaining top three developments
Number 6 – U.S. Supreme Court Says States Can Collect Sales Tax on Remote Sellers
South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., 138 S. Ct. 2080 (2018)
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court handed South Dakota a narrow 5-4 win in its quest to collect taxes from online sales. The Court held that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause did not bar South Dakota from statutorily requiring remote sellers without a physical presence in the state to collect and remit sales tax on goods and services that are sold to buyers for delivery inside the state of South Dakota. In so doing, the Court overruled 50 years of Court precedent on the issue.
Historical precedence. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Commerce Clause grants “exclusive authority [to] Congress to regulate trade between the States” in holding that Illinois could not subject a mail order seller located in Missouri to use tax where the seller had no physical presence in Illinois. National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Illinois Department of Revenue, 386 U.S. 753 (1967). In holding the law unconstitutional, the Court reasoned that subjecting the seller’s interstate business to local “variations in rates of tax…and record-keeping requirements” would violate the purpose of the Commerce Clause “to ensure a national economy free from…unjustifiable local entanglements.”
Twenty-five years later, the Court reaffirmed the limitations of the Commerce Clause on state regulatory authority in Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, 504, U.S. 298 (1992). In Quill, the Court held that a mail order house with no physical presence in North Dakota was not subject to North Dakota use tax for “property purchased for storage, use, or consumption within the State.” The Court followed closely its holding in National Bellas Hess, Inc. because doing so “encourage[d] settled expectations and …foster[ed] investment by businesses and individuals.” As applied to internet sales, Quill (which predated the internet) does not exempt all internet sales from state sales taxes – just sales by sellers who don’t have a physical presence in a particular state. National retailers have a presence in many states.
More recently, the Court examined a Colorado “tattletale” law that required out-of-state sellers with no physical presence in the state “to notify…customers of their use tax liability and to report” sales information back to Colorado. Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, 135 S. Ct. 1124 (2013). The trial court enjoined enforcement of the law on Commerce Clause grounds. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit held that it couldn’t hear the challenge to the law because the Tax Injunction Act (28 U.S.C. §1341) divested it of jurisdiction and the matter belonged in state court and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court. The Tenth Circuit remanded the case for dismissal of the Commerce Clause claims and dissolution of the permanent injunction. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the decision of the Tenth Circuit on the jurisdiction issue and, on remand, the Tenth Circuit, invalidated the Colorado law on Commerce Clause grounds. Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, 814 F.3d 1129 (10th Cir. 2016).
South Dakota Legislation. S.B. 106 was introduced in the 2016 South Dakota legislative session. It requires the collection of sales taxes from certain remote sellers – those with “gross revenue” from sales in South Dakota of over $100,000 per calendar year or with 200 or more “separate transactions” in the state within the same timeframe. After S.B. 106 was signed into law, the state Department of Revenue soon thereafter began issuing notices to sellers that it thought were in violation of the law. Several out-of-state sellers that received notices did not register for sale tax licenses as the law required, and the state took legal action against them. The result was that the South Dakota Supreme Court invalidated S.B. 106 on Commerce Clause grounds based on the U.S. Supreme Court precedent referenced above. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
U.S. Supreme Court decision. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says that, “The Congress shall have the power...to regulate commerce…among the several states…”. That was the key point of the Court’s 1967 Bellas Hess, Inc. decision. As noted above, in that case the Court stated that the Commerce Clause grants “exclusive authority [to] Congress to regulate trade between the States.” Apparently, that is not the case anymore, at least according to the majority in Wayfair – Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito and Gorsuch. Under the new interpretation of the Commerce Clause, states can impose sale tax obligations on businesses that have no physical presence in the state. But is that completely true? Can the Court’s opinion be construed as giving the states a “blank check” to tax out-of-state businesses? Maybe not.
In Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady, 430 U.S. 274 (1977), the Court ruled that a state tax would be upheld if it applied to an activity having a substantial nexus with the state; was fairly apportioned; did not discriminate against interstate commerce; and, was fairly related to the services that the state provided. Later, in the Quill case, the Court determined that a physical presence in the taxing jurisdiction was what satisfied the Brady “substantial nexus” requirement.
In Wayfair, the Court determined that a “substantial nexus” could be present without the party subjected to tax having a physical presence in the taxing jurisdiction. But, the key point is that the “substantial nexus” test of Brady remains. Likewise, the other three requirements of Brady remain – fair apportionment; no discrimination against interstate commerce, and; fairly related to services that the state provides. In other words, taxing a business without a physical presence in the state cannot unduly burden interstate commerce. The Wayfair majority determined that the South Dakota law satisfied these tests because of the way it was structured – limited application (based on transactions or dollars of sales); not retroactive; the state was a member of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement; the sellers at issue were national businesses with a large online presence; and South Dakota provided tax software to ease the administrative burden.
Implications. Presently, 23 states are “full members” of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement. For those states, the Wayfair majority seemed to believe that had the effect of minimizing the impact on interstate commerce. Also, it would appear that any state legislation would have to have exceptions for small businesses with low volume transactions and sales revenue. That’s an important point for many rural businesses that are selling online. Whether a series LLC (in some states such as Iowa) or subsidiaries of a business could be created, each with sales below the applicable threshold, remains to be seen.
Post Wayfair, where will the line be drawn? Wayfair involved state sales tax. Will states attempt to go after a portion of business income of the out-of-state business via income tax? That seems plausible. However, the Interstate Income Act of 1959 (15 U.S.C. §381-384), requires that a business (or individual) have some sort of connection with a state before its income can be taxed (at least with respect to the solicitation of orders for tangible personal property). Is that legislation now unconstitutional too? Or, is there a distinction remaining between taxing receipts as opposed to income? Only time will tell.
Number 5 - Discharges of “Pollutants” To Groundwater
Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. Cty. of Maui, 881 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2018); Upstate Forever, et al. v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, LP, et al., 887 F.3d 637 (4th Cir. 2018); Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 905 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2018),
Background. 2018 saw a great deal of litigation on the issue of whether the discharge of a “pollutant” into groundwater requires a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Often, the courts have deferred to the EPA position that a point source discharge of a pollutant to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to a “Water of the United States” (WOTUS) is subject to the CWA. However, some courts take the position that a discharge, to be subject to the CWA, must be directed from a point source to a WOTUS. It’s a big issue for agriculture, particularly irrigation crop agriculture.
Ninth Circuit opinion. Early in the year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said that at least some discharges into groundwater are a CWA-covered event. In the case, the defendant owned and operated four wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility (LWRF), which is the principal municipal wastewater treatment plant for a city. Although constructed initially to serve as a backup disposal method for water reclamation, the wells have since become the defendant’s primary means of effluent disposal into groundwater and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. The LWRF receives approximately 4 million gallons of sewage per day from a collection system serving approximately 40,000 people. That sewage is treated at LWRF and then either sold to customers for irrigation purposes or injected into the wells for disposal. The defendant injects approximately 3 to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into the groundwater via its wells. The defendant conceded, and its expert, confirmed that wastewater injected into wells 1 and 2 enters the Pacific Ocean. In addition, in June 2013 the EPA, the Hawaii Department of Health, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, and researchers from the University of Hawaii conducted a study on wells 2, 3 and 4. The study involved placing tracer dye into Wells 2, 3, and 4, and monitoring the submarine seeps off Kahekili Beach to see if and when the dye would appear in the Pacific Ocean. This study, known as the Tracer Dye Study, found that 64% of the treated wastewater from wells 3 and 4 discharged into the ocean.
The plaintiff sued, claiming that the defendant was in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA) by discharging pollutants into navigable waters of the United States without a CWA National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The trial court agreed, holding that an NPDES permit was required for effluent discharges into navigable waters via groundwater.
On appeal, the appellate court held that the wells were point sources that could be regulated through CWA permits despite the defendant’s claim that an NPDES permit was not required because the wells discharged only indirectly into the Pacific Ocean via groundwater. Specifically, the appellate court held that “a point source discharge to groundwater of “more than [a] de minimis” amount of pollutants that is “fairly traceable from the point source . . . such that the discharge is the functional equivalent of a discharge into a navigable water” is regulated under the CWA.” The appellate court reached this conclusion by citing cases from other jurisdictions that determed that an indirect discharge from a point source into a navigable water requires an NPDES discharge permit. The defendant also claimed its effluent injections are not discharges into navigable waters, but rather were disposals of pollutants into wells, and that the CWA categorically excludes well disposals from the permitting requirements. However, the appellate court held that the CWA does not categorically exempt all well disposals from the NPDES requirements because doing so would undermine the integrity of the CWA’s provisions. Lastly, the plaintiff claimed that it did not have fair notice because the state agency tasked with administering the NPDES permit program maintained that an NPDES permit was unnecessary for the wells. However, the court held that the agency was actually still in the process of determining if an NPDES permit was applicable. Thus, the court found the lack of solidification of the agency’s position on the issue did not affirmatively demonstrate that it believed the permit was unnecessary as the defendant claimed. Furthermore, the court held that a reasonable person would have understood the CWA as prohibiting the discharges, thus the defendant’s due process rights were not violated.
EPA action. After the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion, the EPA, on February 20, 2018, requested comment on whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater may be subject to Clean Water Act (“CWA”) regulation. Specifically, EPA seeks comment on whether EPA should consider clarification or revision of previous EPA statements regarding the Agency’s mandate to regulate discharges to surface waters via groundwater under the CWA. A number of courts have taken the view that Congress intended the CWA to regulate the release of pollutants that reach “waters of the United States” regardless of whether those pollutants were first discharged into groundwater. However, other courts, have taken the view that neither the CWA nor the EPA’s definition of waters of the United States asserts authority over ground waters, based solely on a hydrological connection with surface waters. EPA has not stated that CWA permits are required for pollutant discharges to groundwater in all cases. Rather, EPA’s position has been that pollutants discharged from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow that has a direct hydrologic connection to the jurisdictional water may be subject to CWA permitting requirements. As part of its request, EPA sought comments on whether it should review and potentially revise its previous positions. In particular, the EPA sought comment on whether it is consistent with the CWA to require a CWA permit for indirect discharges into jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater. The EPA also seeks comment on whether some or all of such discharges are addressed adequately through other federal authorities, existing state statutory or regulatory programs or through other existing federal regulations and permit programs.
Fourth Circuit opinion. Later in 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit largely followed the Ninth Circuit’s approach in a case involving somewhat similar facts. The court held that an ongoing addition of pollutants to navigable waters was sufficient for CWA citizen -suit cases. The plaintiffs, a consortium of environmental and conservation groups, brought a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act (CWA) claiming that the defendant violated the CWA by discharging “pollutants” into the navigable waters of the United States without a required discharge permit via an underground ruptured gasoline pipeline owned by the defendant’s subsidiary. The plaintiff claimed that a discharge permit was needed because the CWA defines “point source pollutant” (which requires a discharge permit) as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, included but not limited to any…well…from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim.
On appeal, the appellate court held that the court had subject matter jurisdiction under the CWA’s citizen suit provision because the provision covered the discharge of “pollutants that derive from a ‘point source’ and continue to be ‘added’ to navigable waters.” Thus, even though the pipeline was no longer releasing gasoline, it continues to be passing through the earth via groundwater and continued to be discharged into regulable surface waters. This finding was contrary to the trial court’s determination that the court lacked jurisdiction because the pipeline had been repaired and because the pollutants had first passed through groundwater. As such, the appellate court determined that, in accord with the Second and Ninth Circuits, that a pollutant can first move through groundwater before reaching navigable waters and still constitute a “discharge of a pollutant” under the CWA that requires a federal discharge permit. The discharge need not be channeled by a point source until reaching navigable waters that are subject to the CWA. The appellate court did, however, point out that a discharge into groundwater does not always mean that a CWA discharge permit is required. A permit in such situations is only required if there is a direct hydrological connection between groundwater and navigable waters. In the present case, however, the appellate court noted that the pipeline rupture occurred within 1,000 feet of the navigable waters. The court noted that the defendant had not established any independent or contributing cause of pollution.
Sixth Circuit opinion. After the Ninth Circuit and Fourth Circuit decisions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued another opinion in 2018 on the groundwater/CWA issue. The Sixth Circuit, in concluded that groundwater is not a point source of pollution under the CWA. The defendant in the case was a utility that burns coal to produce energy. It also produced coal ash as a byproduct. The coal ash was 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 of the Ninth Circuit and the Fourth Circuit.
That different conclusion by the Sixth Circuit could prove to be very important for irrigation crop agriculture. It may also mean that the U.S. Supreme Court could be asked to clear up the discrepancy.
Number 4 - Air Emission Reporting for Livestock Operations
Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act (Farm Act) and Subsequent Litigation
Background. 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 farms from the reporting/notification requirement for air releases from animal waste 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.
Various environmental groups sued, challenging the exemption on the basis that the EPA acted outside of its delegated authority to create the exemption. On the other hand, agricultural groups claimed that the retained reporting requirement 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 determined 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. Waterkeeper Alliance, et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency, 853 F.3d 527 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
The court’s order potentially subjected almost 50,000 farms to the additional reporting requirement. As such, the court delayed enforcement of its ruling by issuing multiple stays, giving the EPA additional time to write a new rule. However, on March 23, 2018, President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, H.R. 1625. Division S, Title XI, Section 1102 of that law, entitled the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act (FARM Act), modifies 42 U.S.C. §9603 to include the EPA exemption for farms that have animal waste air releases. Specifically, 42 U.S.C. §9603(e) is modified to specify that “air emissions from animal waste (including decomposing animal waste) at a farm” are exempt from the CERCLA Sec. 103 notice and reporting requirements. “Animal waste” is defined to mean “feces, urine, or other excrement, digestive emission, urea, or similar substances emitted by animals (including any form of livestock, poultry, or fish). The term animal waste “includes animal waste that is mixed or commingled with bedding, compost, feed, soil or any other material typically found with such waste.” A “farm” is defined as a site or area (including associated structures) that is used for “the production of a crop; or the raising or selling of animals (including any form of livestock, poultry or fish); and under normal conditions, produces during a farm year any agricultural products with a total value equal to not less than $1,000.”
2018 litigation. Relatedly, in late 2018, various environmental groups filed suit in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia to overturn a USDA/FSA regulation that was issued in 2016 that exempts medium-sized (as redefined) CAFOs from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before receiving FSA loans or loan guarantees. The groups claim that proper procedures were not followed when the rule was developed, and seek to have the rule rescinded and reissued after a determination of the potential impacts of the exemption is made with the reissued rule made subject to a public comment period.
Before the regulation was issued in 2016, the FSA performed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) reviews to assess the impact of a government loan or loan guarantee to a medium-sized CAFO – defined as a facility holding 350 dairy cows, 500 feedlot cattle, 1250 hogs, 27,500 turkeys, and 50,000 chickens. For those facilities meeting the definition of a medium-sized CAFO, the FSA would undertake an EIS before loans or loan guarantees were approved. The results of the EIS were provided to the public before the USDA/FSA dispersed funds. The EIS process could take many months. Under the 2016 regulation, an EIS is not required unless a particular farm/facility has more than 699 dairy cows, 999 fat cattle, 2,499 hogs, 54,999 turkeys, and 124,999 chickens.
Next time I will go through the biggest three developments in ag law and tax. What do you think they might be?