Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Ag Law and Tax Developments
During the last couple of months while various state governors have issued edicts randomly declaring some businesses essential and other non-essential, the ag industry has continued unabated. The same is true for the courts – the ag-related cases and tax developments keep on coming in addition to all of the virus-related developments.
As I periodically do, I provide updates of ag law and tax issues of importance to agricultural producers and others in the ag industry, as well as rural landowners in general.
That the topic of today’s post – a few recent developments in ag law and taxation.
FSA Not Entitled To Set-Off Subsidy Payments
In Re Roberts, No. 18-11927-t12, 2020 Bankr. LEXIS 1338 (Bankr. D. N.M. May 19, 2020)
Bankruptcy issues are big in agriculture at the present time. Several recent blog articles have touched on some of those issues, including bankruptcy tax issues. This case dealt with the ability of a creditor to offset a debt owed to it by the debtor with payments it owed to the debtor. The debtors (husband and wife) borrowed $300,000 from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in late 2010. The debtors enrolled in the Price Loss Coverage program and the Market Facilitation Program administered by the FSA. The debtors filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-2018 and converted it to a Chapter 12 bankruptcy in late 2019. The debtors defaulted on the FSA loan after converting their case to Chapter 12.
The debtors were entitled to receive approximately $40,000 of total MFP and PLC payments post-petition. The FSA sought a set-off of the pre-petition debt with the post-petition subsidy payments. The court refused to the set-off under 11 U.S.C. §553 noting that the offsetting obligations did not both arise prepetition and were not mutual as required by 11 U.S.C. §553(a). There was no question, the court opined, that the FSA’s obligation to pay subsidy payments arose post-petition and that the debtors’ obligation to FSA arose pre-petition. Thus, set-off was not permissible.
HSA Inflation-Adjusted Amounts for 2021
Rev. Proc. 2020-32, 2020-24 I.R.B.
Persons that are covered under a high deductible health plan (HDHP) that are not covered under any other plan that is not an HDHP, are eligible to make contributions to a health savings account (HSA) subject to certain limits. For calendar year 2021, an HDHP is a health plan with an annual deductible of at least $1,400 for individual coverage or $2,800 for family coverage, and maximum out-of-pocket expenses of $7,000 for individual coverage or $14,000 for family coverage. For 2021, the maximum annual contribution to an HSA is $3,600 for self-only coverage and $7,200 for family coverage.
Charitable Deduction Allowed for Donated Conservation Easement
Champions Retreat Golf Founders, LLC v. Comr., No. 18-14817, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 15237 (11th Cir. May 13, 2020), rev’g., T.C. Memo. 2018-146
The vast majority of the permanent conservation easement cases are losers for the taxpayer. This one was such a taxpayer loser at the Tax Court level, but not at the appellate level. Under the facts of the case, the petitioner claimed a $10.4 million charitable deduction related to the donation of a permanent conservation easement on a golf course. The IRS denied the deduction on the basis that the easement was not exclusively for conservation purposes because it didn’t protect a relatively natural habitat of fish, wildlife, or plants, or a similar ecosystem as required by I.R.C. §170(h)(4)(A)(ii). The IRS also asserted that the donation did not preserve open space for the scenic enjoyment of the general public or in accordance with a governmental conservation policy for the public’s benefit under I.R.C. §170(h)(4)(A)(iii). The Tax Court agreed with the IRS and denied the deduction. The Tax Court determined that the “natural habitat” requirement was not met – there was only one rare, endangered or threatened species with a habitat of only 7.5 percent of the easement area. In addition, the Tax Court noted that part of the golf course was designed to drain into this habitat area which would introduce chemicals into it. Thus, the easement’s preservation of open space was not for public enjoyment nor in accordance with a governmental policy of conservation.
On further review, the appellate court reversed. The appellate court found that the deduction was proper if the donation was made for the protection of a relatively natural habitat of fish, wildlife, or plants, or similar ecosystem or was made for the preservation of open space for the scenic enjoyment of the general public. The appellate court noted that without the golf course, the easement would satisfy the requirements and an easement deduction is not denied simply because a golf course is included. The appellate court remanded the case for a determination of the proper amount of the deduction.
Residence Built on Farm Was “Farm Residence” For Zoning Purposes
Hochstein v. Cedar County. Board. of Adjustment, 305 Neb. 321, 940 N.W.2d 251 (2020)
Many cases involve the issue of what is “agricultural” for purposes of state or county zoning and related property tax issues. In this case, Nebraska law provided for the creation of an “ag intensive district.” In such designated areas, any “non-farm” residence cannot be constructed closer than one mile from a livestock facility. The plaintiff operated a 4,500-head livestock feedlot (livestock feeding operation (LFO)) and an adjoining landowner operates a farm on their adjacent property. The adjoining landowner applied to the defendant for a zoning permit to construct a new house on their property that was slightly over one-half mile from the plaintiff’s LFO. The defendant (the county board of adjustment) approved the permit and the plaintiff challenged the issuance of the permit on the basis that the adjoining landowner was constructing a “non-farm” residence. The defendant affirmed the permit’s issuance on the basis that the residence was to be constructed on a farm. The plaintiff appealed and the trial court affirmed. On further review, the appellate court affirmed. On still further review by the state Supreme Court, the appellate court’s opinion was affirmed. The Supreme Court noted that the applicable regulations did not define the terms “non-farm residence” or “farm residence.” As such, the defendant had discretion to reasonably interpret the term “farm residence” as including a residence constructed on a farm.
Ag Cooperative Fails To Secure Warehouse Lien; Loses on Conversion Claim.
MidwestOne Bank v. Heartland Co-Op, 941 N.W.2d 876 (Iowa 2020)
I dealt with the issue in this case in my blog article of March 27. You may read it here: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2020/03/conflicting-interests-in-stored-grain.html In the article, I detail many of the matters that arose in this case.
The facts of the case revealed that a grain farmer routinely delivered and sold grain to the defendant, an operator of a grain warehouse and handling facility. The contract between the parties contemplated the sale, drying and storage of the grain. The farmer also borrowed money from the plaintiff to finance the farming operation and granted the plaintiff a security interest in the farmer’s grain and sale proceeds. The plaintiff filed a financing statement with the Secretary of State’s office on Feb. 29, 2012 which described the secured collateral as “all farm products” and the “proceeds of any of the property [or] goods.” The financing statement was amended in late 2016 and continued. The underlying security agreement required the farmer to inform the plaintiff as to the location of the collateral and barred the farmer from removing it from its location without the plaintiff’s consent unless done so in the ordinary course of business. It also barred the farmer from subjecting the collateral to any lien without the plaintiff’s prior written consent. However, the security agreement also required the farmer to maintain the collateral in good condition at all time and did not require the plaintiff’s prior written consent to do so.
The plaintiff complied with the 1985 farm products rule and the farmer gave the plaintiff a schedule of buyers of the grain which identified the defendant. From 2014 through 2017, the farmer sold grain to the defendant, and the defendant remitted the net proceeds of sale via joint check to the farmer and the plaintiff after deducting the defendant’s costs for drying and storage – a longstanding industry practice. The plaintiff, an ag lender in an ag state, claimed that it had no knowledge of such deductions until 2017 whereupon the plaintiff sued for conversion. The defendant did not properly perfect a warehouse lien and the lien claim was rejected by the trial court, but asserted priority on a theory of unjust enrichment. The trial court rejected the unjust enrichment claim.
The state Supreme Court agreed, refusing to apply unjust enrichment principles in the context of Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). The court did so without any mention of UCC §1-103 (b) which states that, "Unless displaced by the particular provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, the principles of law and equity” including the law merchant [undefined] and the law relative to capacity to contract; duress; coercion; mistake; principal and agency relationships; estoppel, fraud and misrepresentation; bankruptcy, and other validating or invalidating cause [undefined] supplement its provisions.” This section has been characterized as the "most important single provision in the Code." 1 J. White & R. Summers, Uniform Commercial Code § 5. “As such, the UCC was enacted to displace prior legal principles, not prior equitable principles.” However, the Supreme Court completely ignored this “most important single provision in the Code.” The Court also ignored longstanding industry practice and believed an established ag lender in an ag state that it didn’t know the warehouse was deducting its drying and storage costs before issuing the joint check.
The developments keep rolling in. More will be covered in future articles.