Friday, August 2, 2019
Ag Legal Issues in the Courts
It’s been about a month since I devoted a blog post to court litigation involving agricultural producers and businesses. So, it’s time to devote another post to the matter as an illustration of how often the law and the business of agriculture intersect. These posts have proven to be quite popular and instructive.
“Ag in the Courtroom” – the most recent edition. It’s the topic of today’s post.
More Bankruptcy Developments
As I have noted in numerous posts over the past couple of years, the difficult economic conditions in much of agriculture in the Great Plains and the Midwest have made bankruptcy law rise in importance. Fortunately, legislation is headed to the President’s desk that will increase the debt limit in Chapter 12 bankruptcy to $10 million and place some of the existing Chapter 12 provisions in Chapter 11 for use by non-farm small businesses. Those were needed pieces of legislation.
A recent Alabama bankruptcy case illustrates the peril of selling loan collateral without the creditors notice and consent. It’s a unique set of facts because the debtor sold the collateral, a tractor, to bail her boyfriend out of jail. In In re Reid, 598 B.R. 674 (Bankr. S.D. Ala. 2019), the Farm Service Agency (FSA) attached itself as a creditor in the debtor’s chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding. In March of 2016 the debtor took out two FSA loans for a total of $50,000. A security agreement was also executed at the same time granting the FSA a security interest in "All farm equipment . . . and inventory, now owned or hereafter acquired by the Debtor, together with all replacements, substitutions, additions, and accessions thereto, including but not limited to the following which are located in the State of Alabama." A specific list of assets was attached, including a New Holland tractor, ten beef breeding cows, and nine calves. The debtor used the loan proceeds to purchase the equipment and livestock that was listed as collateral.
In June of the same year, the debtor was notified that she could not have cattle on the land she purchased with another loan not at issue in the case. However, the debtor was never notified of the restriction and it was not stated in the purchase contracts. Ultimately, the debtor was given thirty days to vacate the premises. Around this time, the debtor’s equipment and cattle started to go missing. The debtor was also becoming aware that her boyfriend (and father of her children) had a drug problem, and she began to suspect that he was selling the equipment and cattle for drugs. Later, the debtor attempted to stop a man from taking cattle from the property and the man said to take it up with her boyfriend. The debtor did not report the cattle or equipment as stolen. The debtor’s boyfriend was arrested about the same time for drug crimes and eluding the police. The debtor vacated the property with the only collateral remaining at the property being the New Holland tractor, which the debtor listed for sale on Facebook. The debtor testified that she sold the New Holland tractor to an unknown purchaser for between $6,000.00 and $8,000.00. But the exact price and identity of the purchaser could not be found as the debtor deleted her Facebook account. The proceeds of the tractor sale were put towards bail money for the boyfriend. The debtor never made a payment on the loans and vacated the property before the first payment was due.
The FSA attempted to recover the tractor but was unsuccessful. The FSA sought to have the bankruptcy court find the debt owed to the FSA in the amount of $52,048.56 plus interest to be non-dischargeable for fraud; fiduciary defalcation; embezzlement; and willful and malicious injury. The court averaged the alleged selling price of the tractor and rendered $7,000 non-dischargeable. The court also determined that the debtor did not fraudulently obtain the FSA loans, and did not embezzle the collateral because fraud wasn’t present. Because willful and malicious injury was present upon the debtor’s sale of the tractor without notice to the FSA and use of the proceeds for the debtor’s personal benefit, the $7,000 that the debtor received upon sale of the tractor was non-dischargeable.
The Intersection of State and Federal Regulation
Agriculture is a heavily regulated industry. Sometimes that regulation is apparent and sometimes it occurs an a rather unique manner. Sometimes it comes from the federal government and sometimes it is purely at the state and local level. In yet other situations, the regulation is an interesting (and frustrating for those subject to it) blend of federal and state/local regulation.
In 2009, the defendant in Carroll Airport Comm'n v. Danner, No. 17-1458, 2019 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 57 (May 10, 2019), planned to construct a grain leg (bucket elevator) and grain bins. In 2013, the defendant obtained the proper county zoning permits but was told of the need to comply with the airport zoning ordinances. The grain leg stands within 10,000 feet horizontally from the end of plaintiff’s runway. The structure reaches a height of 127 feet off the ground. The parties agree the grain leg intrudes within the airport's protected airspace by approximately sixty feet. After construction began it was evident that there would be issues with the airport zoning ordinances and the plaintiff asked the Federal Airport Administration (FAA) to perform an aeronautical study of the grain leg and its impact on aviation safety. The FAA issued a letter stating, "This aeronautical study revealed that the structure does exceed obstruction standards but would not be a hazard to air navigation." It also warned, “This determination concerns the effect of this structure on the safe and efficient use of navigable airspace by aircraft and does not relieve the sponsor (i.e., the defendant) of compliance responsibilities relating to any law, ordinance, or regulation of any Federal, State, or local government body.” Lastly the FAA requested that the defendant paint the structure and add red lights to the top of it. The defendant did so. The FAA also adjusted the flight patterns in and out of the airport to accommodate this structure. The plaintiff did not seek review under this determination.
Two years later, the plaintiff (the local airport commission) sued alleging the grain leg violated certain building ordinances; city and county zoning ordinances; airport commission regulations; and constituted a nuisance and hazard to air traffic. The plaintiff sought equitable relief—an injunction requiring the defendant to modify or remove the grain leg. The defendant raised an affirmative defense of federal preemption. In June 2017, the trial court found that the grain leg violated state and local zoning ordinances and constituted a nuisance and an airport hazard. The trial court found that the grain leg did not fall within the agricultural exemption to certain zoning laws and rejected the defendants’ affirmative defense that the no-hazard letter preempted state and local zoning ordinances. The appellate court affirmed, concluding that the doctrines of express, implied, and conflict preemption did not apply to the FAA no-hazard determination. On further review, the state Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court concluded that the FAA no-hazard determination did not preempt local zoning ordinances, was not legally binding, and contained language notifying the defendant that compliance with local rules was required.
Rights involving surface water vary from state-to-state. In some parts of the U.S., however, a party owning land adjacent to a watercourse has what are known as “riparian” rights to the water. But, do those rights apply to man-made lakes, or just natural lakes? The issue came up recently in Incline Village Board of Trustees v. Edler, No. SC97345, 2019 Mo. LEXIS 178 (Mo. Sup. Ct. Apr. 30, 2019).
The defendants owned properties in subdivisions around a lake. One of the properties of the second subdivision abutted the lake. The properties they owned in the first subdivision did not abut the lake. During the creation of the first subdivision, restrictions were added to the land. One such restriction stated, “No structures or other improvements shall be made on or to any common area, including any body of water, other than such structures or improvements which are made by the trustees for the benefit of all lot owners. Except that, the owner of each lot which abuts any body of water, may construct one boat dock on such body of water, provided that, said boat dock extends from said lot and is first approved in writing by the trustees.” All landowners in the first subdivision were entitled to use the lake, even if they did not abut the lake. The second subdivision was not joined with the first one, but it was clear that the second subdivision was excluded from use rights on the lake. Lots in the first subdivision were subject to assessments to maintain the lakes.
The defendants built a dock on the property on the second subdivision. The trustees of the first subdivision defendants sued seeking a declaratory judgment, damages for trespass, and the removal of the dock. The district court ordered removal of the dock and determined that special circumstances existed supporting the award of attorney's fees of $70,000 in favor of the trustees.
On appeal, the appellate court determined that the lake was clearly artificial and, thus, the defendants were not riparian owners. Riparian rights are only extended to landowners adjacent to natural lakes. The appellate court also rejected the defendants’ reliance-based argument. The appellate court noted that the defendants had never had use of the lake for dock purposes or paid assessments for its maintenance. In addition, the defendants’ predecessor in title's deed to the adjacent land explicitly excepted the lake from the transfer. In addition, the plaintiffs had told the defendants of the property restrictions before the dock was built. As for attorney fees, the appellate court determined that there was not any special circumstance to merit an award of attorney fees. The plaintiff had not given any formal warning about not building the dock and the defendants had sought legal advice.
It’s never a dull moment in ag law involving ag producers, agribusinesses and rural landowners. The cases keep on rolling in.