Saturday, July 25, 2020

Recent Court Developments of Interest


The court decisions of relevance to agricultural producers, rural landowners and agribusinesses keep on coming.  There never seems to be a slack time.  Today’s article focuses on some key issues involving bankruptcy, business valuation, and insurance coverage for loss of a dairy herd due to stray voltage.  More ag law court developments – that’s the topic of today’s post.


Court Determines Interest Rate in Chapter 12 Case

In re Key Farms, Inc., No. 19-02949-WLH12, 2020 Bankr. LEXIS 1642 (Bankr. D. Wash. Jun. 23, 2020)

 The bankrupt debtor in this case is a family farming operation engaged in apple, cherry, alfalfa, seed corn and other crop production. The parents of the family own 100 percent of the debtor. In 2014, the debtor changed its primary lender which extended a line of credit to the debtor that the father personally guaranteed and a term loan to the debtor that the father also personally guaranteed. The lender held a first-priority security interest in various real and personal property to secure loan repayment. The debtor became unable to repay the line of credit and the default caused defaults on the term loan and the guarantees. The lender sued to foreclose on its collateral and have a receiver appointed.

The debtor filed Chapter 12 bankruptcy and proposed a reorganization plan where it would continue farming during 2020-2024 in accordance with proposed budgets. The plan provided for repayment of all creditors in full, and repayment of the lender over 20 years at a 4.5 percent interest rate (prime rate of 3.25 percent plus 1.25 percent). The lender opposed plan confirmation.

In determining whether the reorganization plan was fair and equitable to the lender based on the facts, the bankruptcy court noted the father’s lengthy experience in farming and familiarity with the business and that the farm manager was experienced and professional. The court also noted that parents had extensive experience with crop insurance and that they were committing unencumbered personal assets to the plan.  In addition, the court took note of the debtor’s recent shift to more profitable crops and a demonstrated ability to manage around cash flow difficulties, and that the lender would be “meaningfully oversecured.” The court also determined that the debtor’s farming budgets appeared to be based on reasonable assumptions and forecasted consistent annual profitability. However, the court did note that the debtor had a multi-year history of operating losses in recent years; was heavily reliant on crop insurance; was engaged in an inherently risky business subject to forces beyond the debtor’s control; had no permanent long-term leases in place for the considerable amount of acreage that it leased; could not anticipate how the Chinese Virus would impact the business into the future; and proposed a lengthy post-confirmation obligation to the lender.

Accordingly, the court made an upward adjustment to the debtor’s prosed additional 1.25 percent to the prime rate by increasing it by at least 1.75 percent. The court scheduled a conference with the parties to discuss how to proceed.


Valuation Discount Applies to Non-Voting Interests

Grieve v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2020-28

The petitioner was the Chairman and CEO of a company. After his wife’s death, he established two limited liability companies, with a management company controlled by his daughter as the general partner in each entity holding a 0.2 percent controlling voting manger interest and a 99.8 percent nonvoting interest in each entity held by a family trust – a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT). The petitioner gifted the 99.8 percent interest in the two entities and filed Form 709 to report the gifts. The IRS revised the reported value of the gifts and asserted a gift tax deficiency of about $4.4 million based on a theoretical game theory construct.

According to the IRS, a hypothetical seller of the 99.8 percent nonvoting interests in the two LLCs would not sell the interests at a large discount to the net asset value (NAV), but would seek to enter into a transaction to acquire the 0.2 percent controlling voting interest from the current owner of that interest in order to obtain 100 percent ownership and eliminate the loss in value as a result of lack of control and lack of marketability. In support of this, the IRS assumed that the owner of the 99.8 percent nonvoting interest would have to pay the controlling 0.2 percent voting member a premium above their undiscounted NAV. Under traditional methodology, the IRS expert estimated that a 28 percent discount to the NAV was appropriate for the 99.8 percent nonvoting units. But, instead of accepting that level of discount, the IRS proposed that the owner of the nonvoting units would pay a portion of the dollar amount of the discount from NAV to buy the remaining 0.2 percent voting interest.

The petitioner’s expert used a standard valuation methodology to prepare valuation appraisal reports. This expert applied a lack of control discount of 13.4 percent for the gift to the GRAT and a 12.7 percent lack of control discount for the gift to the irrevocable trust. The valuation firm also applied a 25 percent discount for both gifts.

The Tax Court determined that the IRS failed to provide enough evidence for its valuation estimates. The Tax Court also rejected the IRS assumption of the impact of future events on valuation, noting that the IRS valuation expert reports lacked details on how the discounts were calculated. Thus, the Tax Court rejected the proposed valuation estimates of the IRS and accepted those of the petitioner. The result was a 35 percent discount (total) for entity-level lack of control and lack of marketability compared to a 1.4 percent discount had the IRS approach been accepted.


S Corporation Value Accounts for Tax on Shareholders

Kress v. United States., 327 F. Supp. 2d 731 (E.D. Wisc. 2019)

The taxpayers, a married couple, gifted minority interests of stock in their family-owned S corporation to their children and grandchildren in 2007-2009. The taxpayers paid gift tax on the transfers of about $2.4 million. The taxpayers’ appraiser valued the S corporation earnings as of the end of 2006, 2007 and 2008 as a fully tax-affected C corporation. On audit, the IRS also followed a tax-effected approach to valuation of the S corporation earnings but applied an S corporation premium (pass-through benefit) and asserted that the gifts were undervalued as a result. The IRS assessed an additional $2.2 million of federal gift tax. The taxpayers paid the additional tax and sued for a refund in 2016.

The issue was the proper valuation of the S corporation. Historically, the IRS has not allowed for tax-affected S corporation valuation based on Gross v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 1999-254; Wall v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2001-75; Estate of Heck v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2002-34; Estate of Adams v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2002-80; Dallas v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2006-212; and Estate of Gallagher v. Comr, T.C. Memo. 2011-148. The IRS also has an internal valuation guide that provides that “…no entity level tax should be applied in determining the cash flows of an electing S corporation. …the personal income taxes paid by the holder of an interest in an electing S corporation are not relevant in determining the fair market value of that interest.”

But other courts have allowed the tax impact on shareholders. See, e.g., Delaware Open MRI Radiology Associates, 898 A.2d 290 (Del. Ct. Chanc. 2006); Bernier v. Bernier, 82 Mass. App. Ct. 81 (2012).

The court accepted the tax-affect valuation but disallowed the S corporation premium that IRS asserted. The court also allowed a discount for lack of marketability between 25 percent and 27 percent depending on the year of the transfer at issue.


Stray Voltage Could Lead to Partial Insurance Coverage

Hastings Mutual Insurance Co. v. Mengel Dairy Farms, Inc., No. 5:19CV1728, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87612 (N.D. Ohio May 19, 2020)

 The defendant unexpectedly had several cows and calves die and also suffered a loss of milk production and profits. The defendant filed a claimed against the plaintiff for insurance coverage for death of livestock, cost of investigation and repairs, and loss of business profits. The plaintiff investigated the claim, utilizing an electrical company to do so. The electrical company found a stray electrical current present on the property. The plaintiff then hired a fire and explosion company to investigate the property. This investigation resulted in a finding of no stray voltage on the property, but the company did express its belief that stray voltage did cause the defendant’s harm. As a result, the plaintiff paid the insurance claim for death of livestock and repairs, but not for loss of business profits.

The plaintiff then filed an action for a determination under the policy of whether loss of business profits was a covered loss. The plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment specifying that coverage for loss and damage resulting from the stray voltage was not triggered because the defendant was not subject to a “necessary suspension” of farming operations, and that the defendant’s loss or damage had to be directly caused by a “peril insured against” rather than being caused by dehydration which resulted from the cattle’s reaction to the stray voltage. The defendant filed a counterclaim for breach of contract; breach of good faith and fair dealing; and unjust enrichment. The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the basis that the policy wasn’t triggered for lack of electrocution and that there was no suspension in the defendant’s business operations. The court determined that the policy did not define the term electrocution in the context of dairy animals. As such, the court concluded that the term could be reasonably interpreted to mean death by electrical shock or the cause of irreparable harm. As an ambiguous term, it was defined against the plaintiff and in the defendant’s favor. The court also refused to grant summary judgment on the cause of death issue. In addition, because the defendant did not cease operations, the court concluded that the policy provided no coverage for lost profits. The court also rejected the defendant’s breach of contract claim due to lack of suspending the business and rejected the good faith/fair dealing claim because mere negligence was not enough to support such a claim. The unjust enrichment claim was likewise denied.


The cases discussed above are all quite relevant to agricultural producers.  For those struggling financially that find themselves in a Chapter 12, the interest rate utilized in the case is of primary importance.  Many factors go into determining the rate, and farming operations can achieve a lower rate by meeting certain factors listed by the court in the decision mentioned above.  Likewise, the valuation issue is critical, particularly if the federal estate tax exemption amount were to drop.  When federal (and, possibly, state) estate tax is involved, valuation is the “game.”  Finally, in all insurance cases, the language of the policy is critical to determine coverage application.  Any ambiguous terms will be construed against the company.  In all situations, having good legal counsel is a must.

Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Insurance | Permalink


Post a comment