Friday, May 10, 2019
It’s been a while since I have devoted a post to recent developments, so that’s what today’s post is devoted to. There are always many significant developments in ag law and tax. I was pleased recently when one of my law students, near the conclusion of the course, commented on how many areas of the law that agricultural law touches and how often the rules as applied to farmers and ranchers are different. That is so true. Ag law is daily life for a farmer, rancher, rural landowner, and agribusiness in action.
Recent development in ag law and tax – that’s the topic of today’s post.
Chapter 12 Plan Not Feasible
As I have written in other posts, when a farmer files Chapter 12 bankruptcy, the reorganization plan that is proposed must be feasible. That means that the farmer must estimate reasonable crop yields and revenue based on historical data, and also provide reasonable estimates of expenses. Courts also examine other factors to determine whether a reorganization plan is feasible.
In, In re Jubilee Farms, 595 B.R. 546, 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 4080 (Bankr. E.D. Ky. Dec. 28, 2018), the debtor, a farm partnership operated by two brothers, farmed primarily corn and soybeans. The Debtors filed Chapter 12 bankruptcy in early 2018. In May of 2018, the Debtors filed a joint Chapter 12 plan, but the secured creditors, FCMA and FCS, objected. The debtors filed an amended Chapter 12 plan providing FCMA with a fully secured claim of roughly $2.7 million and FCS with a fully secured claim of roughly $180,000. The plan provided for periodic payments funded primarily by the debtor’s farming income and supplemented by custom trucking and combining revenue. Additional funding in the first year would come from crop insurance and anticipated federal aid for farmers affected by political activity upsetting foreign crop sales.
The creditors and the Trustee objected to the confirmation of the amended plan on various grounds, but the main argument raised was that the amended plan was not feasible, because the debtor’s one-year income and expense projections were limited and unrealistic compared to the debtor’s historical income and expenses. An evidentiary hearing was held to present projected revenue and expenses for the farm and thus determine the feasibility (whether the debtor could make all plan payments and comply with the plan) of the amended plan.
The court analyzed the projected revenues and expenses for the coming year, and the concluded that the plan was not feasible because the debtors had failed to prove that the plan was feasible beyond March 2019. The court stated that if the debtors only had to prove they could make the payments required up to March 2019, the debtors would prevail because the testimony created a reasonable belief that the receipts necessary to make payments up to that time either had or would soon occur. However, beyond March 2019 that was not the case. The court compared the debtors’ projections to calculations using the yield and price per acre that was supported by the record. The record showed that the debtors could only pay anticipated operating expenses and plan payments after March 2019 if the debtor’s unsupported projections were used. The projections using the bushels per acre and price per bushel only showed revenue of $592,000 to $736,000 with expenses of $872,000. Given this lack of ability to pay combined with the debtor’s projections overstating revenue from soybean production during the 2019 crop year the court found that the debtors anticipated receipts simply did not cover the debtors’ obligations to pay operating expenses and plan payments beyond March 2019. Thus, the plan was not feasible and the court denied confirmation of the amended plan.
Grazing Scam Results in Fraud Convictions
There are various scams that one can get caught up in, but they don’t often involve cattle grazing. However, a recent case did involve a cattle grazing scam. In United States v. Hagen, No. 17-3279, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 6109 (8th Cir. Feb. 28, 2019), the defendant and his ex-wife set up a company to provide custom grazing in 2004. The ex-wife obtained grazing leases on tribal land from the Bureau of Indian Affairs ("BIA"). The defendant worked with ranchers to set up custom grazing contracts. In 2011, the BIA issued letters to the defendants for non-compliance with leasing procedures. In 2012, the defendants had leased enough pasture to sustain 57.92 cow-calf pairs but contracted to graze with three cattle producers for the lease of 100 cow-calf pairs and 200 heifers. That summer, 70 pairs were grazed for the full term of the grazing contract, and 33 pairs belonging to another rancher were grazed for a day. A third rancher was forced to find other pasture for his heifers. In 2013, the defendants had leased pasture for 91.26 pairs and had contracted with six different producers to graze a total of 380 pairs. A total of $126,500 was paid upfront by the producers. Not a single pair was grazed that summer and no rancher was reimbursed.
In 2014, the defendants had leased pasture for 6.67 pairs and again over-contracted with three ranchers for 300 pairs, who paid $102,500 up front. No pairs grazed during the summer of 2014 and the ranchers were not reimbursed. The defendants were charged with three counts of wire fraud, four counts of mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud for their fraudulent contracting/leasing practices. The ex-wife plead guilty to the conspiracy count and testified against the her ex-spouse at trial. He was convicted by a jury on all eight counts. Sentencing included 46 months imprisonment and 3 years of supervised release on each count, restitution in the amount of $236,000, and a $100 special assessment on each count. The defendant appealed on the basis that the evidence was insufficient to prove he had the requisite intent to defraud, and that the two mailings were not in furtherance of any fraud.
The appellate court affirmed the defendant’s conviction of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, but vacated the conviction and special assessments on the other five substantive counts. The appellate court determined that sufficient evidence supported the jury verdict that the ex-husband had conspired to commit fraud by contracting with twelve different cattle producers to graze cattle. Only one of those contracts had been filled, and the defendants failed to issue refunds on the other contracts for the the 2012-2014 grazing seasons. The appellate court also found sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict of use of mail and wire to defraud. One of the ranchers had mailed the defendant a $35,000 check, as full payment for the grazing contract and the defendant had cashed the check using a wire transmission a week later. There was a pasture visit where a rancher was assured that the pasture could support 200 pairs. Another contract was signed by the rancher’s son, and another $35,000 check was written to the defendant. This second contract brought the total contracted to graze with the defendant to 200 pairs for $70,000. It later became evident that the defendant only had 40 acres leased, enough to sustain 6.67 pairs. When it came time for delivery, the defendant did not return any calls. The ranch did not graze any cattle that season nor issued refunds for their payments. The appellate court determined that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that the defendant knowingly only had enough pasture to graze 6 pairs but nonetheless contracted to graze 200 pairs with this rancher. However, the appellate court vacated the convictions and special assessments tied to specific instance of fraud against different ranchers. The dry conditions that limited the length of the grazing season likely lead to a breach of contract for early termination, rather than an intent to defraud. Other mailings by the defendants containing offers to graze cattle were not in furtherance of fraud, and the convictions and special assessments related to these mailings were vacated.
Fences, Boundary Lines and Adverse Possession
Fences and boundary issues present many court cases. It is certainly true that good fences make good neighbors. Bad fences and boundary disputes tend to bring out the worst in neighbors. A recent Alabama case illustrates the issues that can arise when fences and boundary issues are involved. In Littleton v. Wells, No. 2170948, 2019 Ala. Civ. App. LEXIS 20 (Civ. App. Feb. 22, 2019), a predecessor sold 82 acers to the defendants in 2015. This land had been in the same family for generations, however the seller had only been on the property “maybe twice” since 1989. The plaintiffs received title to their property from their parents, who had been there since 1964. There were three fences between the party’s properties. The defendant relied on a 1964 survey when making his purchase, thinking the property line was the middle fence. No survey was completed at that time.
In 2000, the mapping office notified the parties of a “conflict.” The office determined the actual boundary to be closer to the fence on the defendant’s property rather than the middle fence. However, this determination was for tax purposes and was not a substitute for a survey. The plaintiffs also treated the third fence line, like the map office, as the boundary line.
The plaintiffs grazed cattle up to the furthest fence and maintained all the ground between the fences as their own. The plaintiff also testified as to working on the furthest fence as a child in the 1960’s. The plaintiffs also showed that they held annual gatherings and the kids would play in the creek on the disputed ground. There was also evidence that the plaintiffs leased the disputed ground to others. The plaintiffs did not present all the witnesses as to the family’s use of the property up to the furthest fence. Nor was the employee of the map office testimony heard in court.
The trial court determined that the property line was to be the closer center fence, not the third fence as the plaintiffs claimed. The court ordered an official survey to their findings and entered that survey as the final order. The plaintiffs appealed. The appellate court reversed and remanded. The plaintiffs’ challenged the trial court’s denial of their adverse possession claim and determination of the location of the boundary line. The court looked at all the evidence on record from trial, when analyzing the plaintiff’s adverse possession claim. The appellate court held that the record showed that the plaintiffs had been in actual, hostile, open, notorious, exclusive, and continuous possession of the disputed property for more than ten years (the statutory timeframe). The plaintiffs had presented evidence to support every one of those elements and the defendants have not rebutted any element. The only evidence the defendant presented to rebut the plaintiffs’ evidence was a “belief” that he owned up to the second fence. Since the lower court was erroneous in determining the adverse possession claim, the appellate court did not need to analyze the boundary line determination. The court remanded to create a new boundary line that included the property that the plaintiffs had adversely possessed.
There’s never a dull moment in agricultural law. It’s everyday reality in the life of a farmer, rancher, rural landowner and agribusiness.