Monday, January 27, 2020
Ag Law and Tax in the Courts – Bankruptcy Debt Discharge; Aerial Application of Chemicals; Start-Up Expenses and Lying as Protected Speech
A couple of weeks ago I did a post on some recent developments in the courts involving ag law and ag tax. Since that time, there have been additional important court developments. Before getting deep into tax season, it may be a good idea to provide a summary of a few of these cases.
More ag law and tax developments in the courts – it’s the topic of today’s post.
Bankruptcy Discharge and Fraud
In re Kurtz, 604 B.R. 349 (Bankr. D. Neb. 2019)
A major feature of bankruptcy in the United States is the ability to discharge at least some debt. This makes possible the “fresh start” for debtors. But, some debtors and debts are not eligible for discharge. Of the several categories of debts that aren’t eligible for discharge, one category is reserved for debts associated with the debtor’s fraudulent conduct. In this case, the creditor was a landlord and the debtor was the farm tenant who put up hay and other crops on the landlord’s land. The parties did not have a written lease agreement, but the landlord assumed the lease was a 50-50 crop share agreement where the parties would split the expenses and the sale proceeds equally. The record was unclear as to what the tenant understood the relationship to be, but he did make statements to others that it was a cash rent lease. The tenant did not pay the landlord after the first two cuttings of hay because he incurred expenses while cutting. After the third cutting was bailed the landlord contacted the tenant about payment. The tenant told the landlord that he could have the proceeds from the third cutting of hay and that the tenant was finished farming for the landlord. The tenant paid a third party to stack the hay. When the landlord attempted to sell the hay he discovered that the tenant had already given the hay to a third party to settle a debt. Both parties submitted expenses related to the hay crop that year.
The landlord filed a complaint in the tenant’s bankruptcy case alleging fraud and misrepresentation seeking that the debt to the landlord not be discharged. The bankruptcy court agreed, determining that the landlord proved that the tenant’s obligation of $5,916.50 was exempt from discharge because of the debtor’s false representation. The bankruptcy court determined that the full debt owed to the landlord was $22,292.84 based on the oral lease, but that the only part of that amount derived from fraud was the amount related to the third cutting of hay - $5,370.50 plus $546 for stacking. The balance of the unpaid debt arose from a general misunderstanding that wasn’t settled before the debtor put up the first two hay cuttings. The only blatant dishonesty, the bankruptcy court determined, concerned the third cutting.
Aerial Application of Ag Chemicals Not Inherently Dangerous
Keller Farms, Inc. v. Stewart, No. 1:16 CV 265 ACL, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 210209 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 13, 2018), aff’d. sub. nom., Keller Farms, Inc. v. McGarity Flying Service, LLC, No. 18-3755, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 36664 (8th Cir. Dec. 11, 2019)
This case involves a dispute involving alleged damage to the plaintiffs’ trees caused by chemicals that allegedly drifted during aerial application. The plaintiffs attempted to hold liable both the aerial applicator and the landowner that hired the applicator. The plaintiffs claimed the landowner was vicariously liable (liable because of the relationship with the applicator) for the applicator’s actions because aerial spraying of burndown chemicals is an "inherently dangerous activity." The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on the plaintiff's trespass claim, but the remaining issues were left for the jury to resolve. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants on the negligence and negligence per se claims. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial, arguing the verdict was against the weight of the evidence; that the trial court erred in excluding evidence; and that the trial court erred in granting the defendants’ Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. The trial court, however, denied the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial.
On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court determined that the jury’s verdict was not against the weight of the evidence, and that the aerial application of herbicides was commonplace and not inherently dangerous. In addition, the appellate court noted that the defendants’ evidence was that the herbicides did not actually drift onto the plaintiffs’ property and that the applicator complied with all label requirements and sprayed during optimal conditions. The appellate court also determined that the trial court had ruled properly on evidentiary matters and that the plaintiff had not proven the alleged monetary damages to the trees properly. The appellate court also upheld the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial.
The Line Between Nondeductible Start-Up Expenses and Deductible Business Expenses
Primus v. Comr., T.C. Sum. Op. 2020-2
The petitioner lived in New York and bought a property in Quebec containing 200 maple trees with a significant number of them being mature, maple syrup-producing trees. The tract contained other types of trees and pasture ground and hay fields and a small amount of ground suitable for growing crops. There were also various improvements on the tract. Before collecting sap and producing syrup, the petitioner thinned underbrush and later installed a pipeline to collect sap. Sap production began in 2017. When the petitioner bought the property in 2012, the cleared the areas of the tract where he planned to plant blueberry bushes. He ordered 2,000 blueberry bushes in 2014 and planted them in 2015. He reported a substantial amount of farming-related expenses in 2012 and 2013, with most of the expenses attributable to costs of repairs to improvements on the property. The petitioner deducted expenses attributable to preparatory costs for the production of selling maple syrup and blueberries as trade or business expenses under I.R.C. §162 (or as I.R.C. §212 expenses for income-producing property).
The IRS denied the deductions, asserting that they were nondeductible start-up expenses under I.R.C. §195 on the basis that the petitioner had not yet begun the business of producing maple syrup and blueberries. The Tax Court upheld the IRS position. The Tax Court noted that expenses are not deductible as trade or business expenses until the business is actually functioning and performing the activities for which it was organized. Here, the petitioner had not actually started selling blueberries or sap in either 2012 or 2013. That meant that the expenses incurred in 2012 and 2013 were incurred to prepare the farm to produce sap and plant blueberries, and were nondeductible startup expenses. The thinning activities, while a generally acceptable industry practice, did not establish that the business had progressed beyond the startup phase. In addition, during the years at issue, the petitioner had not collected sap, installed any infrastructure needed to convert sap into syrup, or bought any blueberry bushes.
Lying With Purpose of Harming Livestock Facility is Protected Speech
Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Schmidt, No. 18-2657-KHV, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202 (D. Kan. Jan. 22, 2020)
The plaintiffs are a consortium of activist groups regularly conduct undercover investigations of livestock production facilities. Some of the plaintiffs gain access to farms through employment without disclosing the real purpose for which they seek employment (and lie about their ill motives if asked) and wear body cameras while working. For those hired into managerial and/or supervisory positions, they gain the ability to close off parts of the facility to avoid detection when filming and videoing. The film and photos obtained are circulated through the media and with the intent of encouraging public officials, including law enforcement, to take action against the facilities. The employee making the clandestine video or taking pictures, is on notice that the facility owner forbids such conduct via posted notices at the facility. The other plaintiffs utilize the data collected to cast the facilities in a negative public light, but do no “investigation.”
In 1990, Kansas enacted the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protect Act (Act). K.S.A. §§ 47-1825 et seq. The Act makes it a crime to commit certain acts without the facility owner’s consent where the plaintiff commits the act with the intent to damage an animal facility. Included among the prohibited acts are damaging or destroying an animal facility or an animal or other property at an animal facility; exercising control over an animal facility, an animal from an animal facility or animal facility property with the intent to deprive the owner of it; entering an animal facility that is not open to the public to take photographs or recordings; and remaining at an animal facility against the owner's wishes. K.S.A. § 47-1827(a)-(d). In addition, K.S.A. § 47-1828 provides a private right of action for "[a]ny person who has been damaged by reason of a violation of K.S.A. § 47-1827 against the person who caused the damage." For purposes of the Act, a facility owner’s consent is not effective if it is induced by force, fraud, deception duress or threat. K.S.A. § 47-1826(e). The plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the Act, and filed a motion for summary judgment. The defendant also motioned for summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked standing or, in the alternative, the Act barred trespass rather than speech.
On the standing issue, the trial court held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the portions of the Act governing physical damage to an animal facility (for lack of expressed intent to cause harm) and the private right of action provision, However, the trial court determined that the plaintiffs did have standing to challenge the exercise of control provision, entering a facility to take photographs, etc., and remaining at a facility against the owner’s wishes to take pictures, etc. The plaintiffs that did no investigations but received the information from the investigations also were deemed to have standing on the same grounds. On the merits, the trial court determined that the Act regulates speech by limiting what the plaintiffs could say and by barring pictures/videos. The trial court determined that the provisions of the Act at issue were content-based and restricted speech based on viewpoint – barring only that speech that would harm an animal facility. The trial court determined that barring lying is only constitutionally protected when it is associated with a legally recognizable harm, and the Act is unconstitutional to the extent it bars false speech intended to damage livestock facilities. Because the provisions of the Act at issue restrict content-based speech, its constitutionality is measured under a strict scrutiny standard. As such, a compelling state interest in protecting legally recognizable rights must exist. The trial court concluded that even if privacy and property rights involved a compelling state interest, the Act must be narrowly tailored to protect those rights. By focusing only on those intending to harm owners of a livestock facility, the Act did not bar all violations of property and privacy rights. The trial court also determined that the Governor was a proper defendant.
The status of the litigation presently rests with the Kansas Attorney General and the Governor to determine the next step(s) to be taken.
There is never a dull moment in agricultural law and taxation. I will provide more updates like this is in future posts.