Friday, November 8, 2019
Ag Law In The Courts
This month’s installment of legal developments in the courts involving agriculture features odors, estate planning and a farm program regulation. Farmers, ranchers, rural landowners and agribusinesses sometimes find themselves in disputes with other private parties or state or federal government agencies. Once a month I try to feature a several developments that illustrate the problems that can arise and how they are resolved.
The November installment of ag law in the courts – that’s the focus of today’s post.
The Case of the Obnoxious Odors
Agricultural production operations and ag businesses sometimes produce offensive odors (at least to some). While neighbors might complain and state and local governments may try to regulate, the question is really one of the relative degree of offensiveness.
In Chemsol, LLC, et al. v. City of Sibley, 386 F. Supp. 3d 1000 (N.D. Iowa 2019), the plaintiffs owned and operated a milk drying facility. Allegations arose that the facility made the local town, the defendant in the case, smell like “rotten eggs, dried blood, rotten animal carcasses (boiling, burning and decomposing), vomit, human waste and dead bodies.” The defendant enacted an odor ordinance in 2013 which prohibited the creation or maintenance of a nuisance," and defined nuisance to include "offensive smells.” The ordinance barred the following: “The erecting, continuing or using of any building or other place for the exercise of any trade, employment or manufacture which, by occasioning noxious exhalations, offensive smells or other annoyances, becomes injurious and dangerous to the health, comfort or property of individuals or the public.” In 2015 the town increased the penalties for violating the ordinance from $100 per offense to $750 for a "first offense," and $1,000 for repeated violations. In 2016, the ordinance was amended to clarify that: "[N]uisance" shall mean whatever is injurious to health, indecent, or unreasonably offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as essentially to interfere unreasonably with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property. *** Offensive Smells: The erecting, continuing or using of any building or other place for the exercise of any trade, employment or manufacture which, by occasioning unreasonably noxious exhalations, unreasonably offensive smells or other unreasonable annoyances, becomes injurious and dangerous to the health, comfort or property of individuals or the public.” (emphasis added).
From 2012 to 2016 the plaintiffs did not receive any citations under the odor ordinance. In 2016 the plaintiffs began receiving citations but didn’t pay or appeal the associated fines. Abatement of the nuisance was negotiated, but the odors problems persisted. The plaintiffs received 36 citations in 2016 (16 before the abatement hearing and 20 after), four citations in 2017 and one citation in 2018. The plaintiffs chose to reduce odors by drying less product. The plaintiffs sued on the basis that the ordinance violated their due process by causing them to lose business and become unable to sell the business due to bad publicity. The plaintiffs also alleged a constitutional taking had occurred and that the town had tortuously interfered with business operations. The defendant moved for summary judgment and the court agreed.
The court noted that the plaintiffs did not build the plant on any promise or assurance that the defendant would not be enact such an ordinance, and it was within the defendant’s jurisdiction to enact such an ordinance for a facility within the defendant’s limits. The court also determined that the ordinance did not rise to a regulatory taking because economic use of the plaintiffs’ property remained. The court also concluded that the defendant did not act improperly in enforcing the ordinance or in speaking to potential buyers.
The Case of Crop Insurance Coverage Computation
Under the crop insurance program of the 2014 Farm Bill, crop insurance coverage for low yield losses was to be determined based on actual production history (APH). However, APH is determined by excluding abnormally low-yield years in the computation. In this case, JL Farms v. Vilsack, No. 2:16-cv-02548-CM-GEB, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106789 (D. Kan. Jun. 26, 2019), the Risk Management Agency (RMA) determined that the 2015 winter wheat crop was not excludible from the APH. Thus, the insurer did not exclude the 2015 yield data from the plaintiff’s insurance pay-out computation.
On review by the National Appeals Division ("NAD") of the United States Department of Agriculture. The NAD hearing officer determined that the NAD lacked jurisdiction. On further review the NAD Director again determined that the NAD did not have jurisdiction, but that the RMA had discretion to implement the exclusion. The plaintiff then sought judicial review of the RMA’s decision and the NAD Director’s decision of lack of jurisdiction. The trial court determined that the NAD did have jurisdiction over the matter and remanded the matter to the NAD Director for reconsideration of the exclusion of the 2015 wheat crop from the plaintiff’s APH. The trial court also referenced a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit holding that the Congress intended the exclusion to be available for the 2015 crop year (winter wheat planted in 2014).
The Ruling on the Reformed Trust
Trusts are very popular tools that are used in estate planning. One of the key benefits is that they provide a great deal of flexibility to adjust to unknown events that might occur in the future. One way in which that is done is by including a power of appointment in a trust. A power of appointment gives the holder of the power the ability to direct the assets of the trust in a certain manner and in a certain amount. Essentially, the power of appointment gives the person that creates the power in someone else the ability to determine how the property will be distributed at some point in the future. Basically, the power creates the ability to defer deciding the ultimate distribution of trust assets. For example, assume that a husband dies and leaves property in trust for his surviving wife and their children. When the surviving spouse dies, the trust specifies that the remaining trust assets are to pass equally to the children, unless the surviving spouse exercises the power of appointment that was included in the husband’s trust. At the time of the husband’s death, $2 million worth of assets was included in the trust and the couple had two children, each equally situated in life. However, when the surviving spouse dies years later, perhaps the children aren’t so equally positioned anymore – one is rather well off and the other is struggling. The exercise of the power of appointment can give the surviving spouse the ability to “unbalance” the disposition of the trust assets and leave more assets to the child with greater needs.
A general power of appointment is one that is exercisable in favor of the decedent, his estate, his creditors or the creditors of his estate. I.R.C. §2041(b)(1). It also means a power that is exercisable in favor of the individual possessing the power, his estate, his creditors, or the creditors of his estate. I.R.C. §2514(c). Generally, the lapse of a power of appointment during the life of the individual who has the power of appointment is a release of the power. I.R.C. §2041(b)(2). But, this rule only applies to a lapse of powers during any calendar year to the extent that the property which could have been appointed by exercise of such lapsed powers exceeded the greater of $5,000 or 5% of the aggregate value of the assets out of which the exercise of the lapsed powers could have been satisfied. I.R.C. §§2041(b)(2); 2514(e). In addition, generally the exercise or release of a general power of appointment is a transfer of property by the individual possessing such power. I.R.C. §2514(c). When that occurs, it can result in a taxable gift to the trust and/or inclusion of the assets in the power holder’s estate. If large dollar values are involved, that can be a disastrous result.
A recent IRS ruling involved a trust that contained a general power of appointment that had been drafted incorrectly. The question was whether that error could be corrected without triggering gift tax or causing the property to be included in the power holder’s estate. In Priv. Ltr. Rul. 201941023 (May 29, 2019), the settlor created an irrevocable trust for the benefit of his six children. The purpose of the trust was to provide for his descendants and reduce transfer taxes by keeping trust assets from being included in a primary beneficiary’s gross estate. Under the trust terms, each child had his or her own separate trust (collectively, Children’s Trusts; individually, Child’s Trust). Each child was the primary beneficiary of his or her Child’s Trust.
Unfortunately, the trust had a drafting error pertaining to the withdrawal provision – it didn’t limit the general power of withdrawal right of a primary beneficiary over assets contributed to the trust to the greater of $5,000 or five percent of the value of the trust assets as I.R.C. §2041(b)(2) required. Thus, any lapse of a primary beneficiary’s withdrawal right would be a taxable transfer by that particular primary beneficiary under I.R.C. §2514 to the extent that the property that could have been withdrawn exceeded the greater of $5,000 or five percent of the aggregate value of the assets. Also, the portion of each child’s trust relating to the lapsed withdrawal right that exceeded the greater of $5,000 or five percent of trust asset value would be included in the primary beneficiary’s estate.
A subsequent estate planning attorney discovered the error in the original drafting upon review of the estate plan. Consequently, the trustee sought judicial reformation to correct the drafting error on a retroactive basis, and the court issued such an order contingent on the IRS favorably ruling. The IRS did favorably rule that the reformation didn’t cause the release of a general power of appointment with respect to any primary beneficiary. The purpose of the reformation, the IRS determined, was to correct a scrivenor’s error and did not alter or modify the trust in any other manner. That meant that none of the children would be deemed to have released a general power of appointment by reason of the lapse of a withdrawal right that they held with respect to any transfer to their trust. Thus, no child would be deemed to have made a taxable gift to their trust and no part of any child’s trust would be included in any child’s estate.
Perhaps there is a “kindler and gentler” IRS after all – at least on this point.
These are just a small snippet of what’s been going on in the courts and IRS recently that can impact agricultural producers and others involved in agriculture. Each day brings something new.