Friday, March 29, 2019
The developments in agricultural law and taxation keep rolling in. Many of you have requested more frequent posts on recent developments, so today’s post is devoted to just a handful that are important to farmers, ranchers and the professionals that represent them. In today’s post I take a look at a couple of recent farm bankruptcy cases, the use of a trust to hold farm and ranch property, and the rights of grazing permit holders on federal land.
Selected recent developments in agricultural law and tax – it’s the topic of today’s post.
Times continue to be difficult in agriculture with bankruptcy matters unfortunately taking on increased significance. In one recent case, In re Wulff, No. 17-31982-bhl, 2019 Bankr. LEXIS 388 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. Feb. 11, 2019), the debtor filed Chapter 12 bankruptcy and submitted a complete list of creditors. One of the creditors did not receive notice of the bankruptcy because of a bad address but became aware of the debtor’s bankruptcy upon attempting to collect on their account after the proof of claim deadline had passed. There were multiple plans submitted to the court that were rejected for various reasons, but every plan submitted accounted for the creditor that did not have notice. Ultimately, the debtor’s plan was confirmed. After confirmation, the creditor attempted to file a proof of claim and the trustee objected. The creditor maintained that it filed as soon as receiving notice of the proceedings. The court allowed the claim, but that the creditor had not established grounds for an extended timeframe to file the proof of claim. Even so, the court noted that the debtor’s initial plan and amended plans all accounted for the creditor’s claim. All the plans were consistent with the creditor’s late-filed proof of claim. Thus, the court confirmed the debtor’s reorganization plan with the late-filed proof of claim upon a finding that it was consistent with the plan.
In another bankruptcy case, In re Smith, Nos. 17-11591-WRS, 18-1068-WRS, 2019 Bankr. LEXIS 234 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. Jan. 29, 2019), the debtor filed bankruptcy in 2017. At the time of filing, the debtor had a 2006 loan secured by his farmland that had matured. Instead of foreclosing, the creditor bank and the debtor negotiated a renewal in 2012. Another creditor, an agricultural cooperative, held a 2009 lien. In determining priority, the court held that the bank’s liens were prior to the cooperative’s liens. The court determined that the 2012 renewal of the bank note, even if the bank new of the cooperative’s lien, did not cause the bank to lose priority. While the court noted that sometimes an advancement on an existing mortgage causes the underlying mortgage to lose priority over subsequent liens, the court determined that the 2012 renewal was not an advancement. There was no evidence that additional funds were loaned to the debtor by the bank. In addition, the court determined that the bank’s lowering of the interest rate on the obligation did not cause the creditor to lose priority.
Trusts and Estate Planning
Trusts are a popular tool in estate planning for various reasons. One reason is that a trust can help consolidate farming and ranching interests and aid in the succession planning process. The benefit of consolidating farm and ranch property in trust was the issue of a recent Wyoming case. In re Redland Family Trust, 2019 WY 17 (2019), involved a family that has been involved in contentious litigation over a family trust. The case had been before the Wyoming Supreme Court on multiple occasions. The trust was created in 1989 and amended in 1995. The amendment provided for the appointment of a successor trustee; always required the service of two trustees; created a marital trust for the survivor of the settlors; and revised the buyout provision. The grantors and their five children made contributions to the trust. Upon the death of one of the grantors in 2007 one of the children was appointed as co-trustee. Ligation arose when the surviving grantor’s property was not conveyed to the trust and then again involving removal of the trustees, and an appointed trustee moved to have the trust terminated due to the administrative difficulties to administer, family dysfunction, and because the trust no longer served its purpose. The defendants, (including the co-trustee that resigned) asserted that termination was moot and moved to have the new co-trustee removed.
The trial court did not remove the co-trustee and found that the trust was still valid. The trial court found that the co-trustee did not violate any fiduciary duties and that the defendants failed to show gross and willful misconduct to justify her removal. Further the trial court found that the co-trustee’s claims that the trust was invalid should have been raised in the original trust challenge. The trial court determined that the primary reason for the trust (to keep the lands and leases together for the Redland family) had not been frustrated and that the trust remained administratively functional and was not "unlawful, contrary to public policy, or impossible.
On appeal, the Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed. The Court determined that the trust still had a purpose - to keep the ranch holdings together to conduct business. Even though the other purpose of minimizing tax consequences had failed, consolidation of ranch holdings remained a legitimate purpose. The Court also determined that the co-trustee did not violate her fiduciary duties, her duties of impartiality or loyalty, and that her actions did not amount to gross and willful misconduct. In addition, the Court found that the duty of impartiality did not require the trustee to treat all beneficiaries fairly, but simply to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries and equally defend the intentions of the settlors. While the Court could find no precedent with respect to the duty of loyalty the Court held that merely seeking termination of the trust was not a breach of loyalty. In addition, the Court determined that hostility between parties did not warrant removal.
Rights of Grazing Permittees
In the U.S. West, the ability to graze on federally owned land is essential to economic success. An understanding of those rights is essential, and many legal battles in the West involve associated rights and responsibilities on federal land. One of those issues involves the erection of improvements. In Johnson v. Almida Land & Cattle Co., LLC, 2019 Ariz. App. Unpub. LEXIS 140 (Ariz. App. Ct. Jan. 31, 2019), the defendant owned a grazing allotment and was permitted to graze cattle on the allotted Forest Service land in Arizona. Consistent with the grazing permit, the defendant erected an electric fence on the allotment. In June 2011, the plaintiff collided with the fence while riding an off-road motorcycle, when he turned off a Forest Service road onto an unmarked, unimproved “two-track route” which the fence crossed. The plaintiff brought sued for negligence and the defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff. The trial court granted the motion, agreeing that there was no duty of care under the Restatement (Second) of Torts.
On appeal, the appellate court determined that the issue was whether a federal permittee owes a duty of care to the public with respect to construction of improvements on the land. Determination of that issue, the appellate court reasoned, was dependent on state law. On that point, the appellate court found that a criminal statute will establish a tort duty if the statute is designed to protect the class of persons in which the plaintiff is included, against the risk of the type of harm which has in fact occurred as a result of its violation, regardless of whether the statute mentions civil liability. The relevant AZ criminal statute held that a person commits a misdemeanor of public nuisance if that person knowingly and unlawfully obstructs a “public highway,” “public thoroughfare,” “roadway” or “highway.” The appellate court held that this public nuisance statute prohibiting the obstruction of certain types of pathways, also created a tort duty in those who erect improvements that impact those paths. Based on this interpretation, the court held that AZ law establishes a public policy giving rise to a tort duty with respect to the obstruction of certain types of public pathways. Consequently, a permittee on federal land owes a duty of care to the public when it erects an improvement across a publicly accessible route. However, the appellate court held that the facts were insufficient to determine, as a matter of law, whether the route at issue qualified as a “public highway,” “public thoroughfare,” “roadway” or “highway.” Consequently, the appellate court reversed on the duty of care issue and remanded to determine if the route fell within the scope of the relevant statutes.
Agricultural law is a “goldmine” of issues that landowners, producers and their legal and tax counsel must stay on top of. It’s a dynamic field. In a few more weeks, I will dig back into the caselaw for additional key recent developments.