Friday, January 1, 2021

The “Almost Top Ten” Ag Law and Ag Tax Developments of 2020


It’s the time of year again where I sift through the legal and tax developments impacting U.S. agriculture from the past year, and rank them in terms of their importance to farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses, rural landowners and the ag sector in general. 

As usual, 2020 contained many legal and tax developments of importance to the agricultural sector.  Of course, there were major tax law changes that occurred as a result of the federal government’s response to various state governors shutting down businesses in their states and locking down their economies with resulting economic harm.  The other issues continued their natural ebb and flow in reaction to the economics governing the sector and policy and regulatory implementations.

It’s also difficult to pair things down to ten significant developments.  There are other developments that are also significant, but perhaps less so on a national scale.  So, today’s post is the first installment in a series devoted to those developments that were left on the cutting table and didn’t quite make the “Top Ten” for 2020.

The “almost top ten of 2020” (in no particular order) – that’s the topic of today’s post.

Withheld Tax Not Deprioritized in Bankruptcy 

In In re DeVries, 621 B.R. 445 (8th Cir. B.A.P. 2020), rev’g., No. 19-0018, 2020 U.S. Bankr. LEXIS 1154 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa Apr. 28, 2020)

A major aspect of Chapter 12 bankruptcy is the ability to deprioritize governmental claims (e.g., taxes).  But, does the provision cover withheld taxes?  Is so, Chapter 12 is even more valuable to farm debtors. 

In this case, the debtors filed Chapter 12 and sold a significant amount of farmland and farming machinery in 2017, triggering almost $1 million of capital gain income and increasing their 2017 tax liability significantly. The tax liability was offset to a degree by income tax withholding from the wife’s off-farm job. Their amended Chapter 12 plan called for a refund to the estate of withheld federal and state income taxes. The taxing authorities objected, claiming that the withheld amounts had already been applied against the debtor’s tax debt as 11 U.S.C. §553(a) allowed. The debtors claimed that 2017 legislation barred tax debt arising from the sale of assets used in farming from being offset against previously collected tax. Instead, the debtors argued, the withheld taxes should be returned to the bankruptcy estate. If withheld taxes weren’t returned to the bankruptcy estate, the debtors argued, similarly situated debtors would be treated differently.

The bankruptcy court was faced with the issue of whether 11 U.S.C. §1232(a) entitled the bankruptcy estate to a refund of the withheld tax.  Largely based on legislative history, the trial court concluded that 11 U.S.C. §1232(a) overrode a creditor’s set-off rights under 11 U.S.C. §553(a) in the context of Chapter 12. The debtors’ bankruptcy estate was entitled to a refund of the withheld income taxes.

On appeal, the bankruptcy appellate panel for the Eighth Circuit reversed. The appellate panel determined that 11 U.S.C. §1232(a) is a priority-stripping provision and not a tax provision and only addresses the priority of a claim and does not establish any right to or amount of a refund. As such, nothing in the statue authorized a debtor’s Chapter 12 plan to require a taxing authority to disgorge, refund or turn-over pre-petition withholdings for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate. The statutory term “claim,” The court reasoned, cannot be read to include withheld tax as of the petition date. Accordingly, the statute was clear and legislative history purporting to support the debtor’s position was rejected. 

Bankruptcy and the Preferential Payment Rule – The Dean Foods Matter

A decade ago, the preferential payment rule arose in the context of the VeraSun bankruptcy.  In late 2020, the issue back in relation to bankruptcy filing of Dean Foods, the largest dairy subsidiary company in the United States. Dean Foods and its forty-three affiliates filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on November 12, 2019 in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, which is being jointly administered under case no. 19-36313.  In the fall of 2020, Dean Foods and its affiliates filed a joint Chapter 11 plan of liquidation.  Dairy farmers that sold milk to Dean Farms shortly before the bankruptcy filing then started receiving letters demanding repayment of the amount paid for those milks sales. 

The preferential payment rule does come with some exceptions.  The exceptions basically comport with usual business operations.  In other words, if the transaction between the debtor and the creditor occurred in the normal course of the parties doing business with each other, then the trustee’s “avoidance” claim will likely fail. 

Exchange for new value.  The bankruptcy trustee cannot avoid a transfer to the extent the transfer was intended by the debtor and the creditor (to or for whose benefit such transfer was made) to be a contemporaneous exchange for new value given to the debtor, and occurred in a substantially contemporaneous exchange.  11 U.S.C. §547(c)(1)(A-B).  A contemporaneous exchange for new value is not preferential because it encourages the creditor to deal with troubled debtors and because other creditors are not adversely affected if the debtor’s estate receives new value.  See, e.g., In re Jones Truck Lines, 130 F.3d 323 (8th Cir. 1997).  “New value” as used in Section 547(c) means “money or money’s worth in goods, services, or new credit.” 11 U.S.C. § 547(a)(2). An exchange for new value is presumed substantially contemporaneous if the transfer of estate property is made within seven days of the transfer of the new value.  See, e.g., In re Mason, 189 B.R. 932 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 1995).

Ordinary course of business.  The bankruptcy trustee also cannot avoid a transfer  to the extent that the transfer was in payment of a debt that the debtor incurred in the ordinary course of the debtor’s business (or financial affairs) with the creditor, and the transfer was made in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the debtor and the creditor; or was made according to ordinary business terms.  11 U.S.C. §547(c)(2)(A)-(B).  If the transaction at is the first between the parties, “the transaction must be typical compared to both parties’ past dealings with similarly-situated parties.  In re Pickens, No. 06-01120, 2008 Bankr. LEXIS 6 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa Jan. 3, 2008). 

The vast majority of dairy farmers receiving the demand letters should be able to demonstrate that the milk sales were in the ordinary course of business.  But, just knowing the exceptions to the rule is vitally important.

Appellate Court Upholds $750,000 Compensatory Damage Award in Hog Nuisance Suit

McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, LLC, 980 F.3d 937 (4th Cir. 2020)

Here, the plaintiffs were pre-existing neighbors to the defendant’s large-scale confinement hog feeding facility conducted by a third-party farming operation via contract. The facility annually maintained nearly 15,000 of the defendant’s hogs that generated about 153,000 pounds of feces and urine every day. The waste was disposed of via lagoons and by spreading it over open “sprayfields” on the farm. The plaintiffs sued in state court in 2013 for nuisance violations, but later dismissed that action and refiled in federal court after learning of the defendant’s control over the hog feeding facility naming the defendant as the sole defendant.

The federal trial court coordinated 26 related cases against similar hog production operations brought by nearly 500 plaintiffs into a master case docket and proceeded with trials in 2017. In this case, the jury awarded $75,000 in compensatory damages to each of 10 plaintiffs and $5 million in punitive damages to each plaintiff. The punitive damage award was later reduced to $2.5 million per plaintiff after applying a state law cap on punitive damages.

On appeal, the appellate court determined that the trial court had properly allowed the plaintiffs’ expert testimony to establish the presence of fecal material on the plaintiffs’ homes and had properly limited the expert witness testimony of the defendant concerning odor monitoring she conducted at the hog facility. The appellate court also rejected the defendant’s claim that the third party farming operation should be included in the case as a necessary and indispensable party. The appellate court also affirmed the trial court’s holding concerning the availability of compensatory damages beyond the rental value of the property and the jury instruction on nuisance. The appellate court also concluded that the trial court properly submitted the question of punitive damages to the jury. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s admission of financial information of the defendant’s corporate grandfather and combining the punitive damages portion of the trial with the liability portion, but held that such errors did not require a new trial. However, the appellate court remanded the case for a consideration of the proper award of punitive damages without consideration of the grandparent’s company’s financial information (such as compensation amounts to corporate executives).

It’s also important to note that while North Carolina law was involved in this case, as a result of this litigation several states, including Nebraska and Oklahoma, have recently amended their state right-to-farm laws with the intent of strengthening the protections afforded farming operations. 

Shortly after the appellate court reached its decision, the defendant's parent company (China-based WH Group Ltd and its U.S.-based pork producer Smithfield Foods, Inc.) announced that it settled the nuisance suits brought by hundreds of plaintiffs.  Smithfield Foods, Inc. said that the settlement, "takes into account the divided decision of the court."  

Lifetime Ban on Owning Firearms For Filing Tax Returns With False Statement 

Folajtar v. The Attorney General of the United States, 980 F.3d 897(3rd Cir. 2020)

Any law that impairs a fundamental constitutional right (any of the first ten amendments to the Constitution) is subject to strict scrutiny – or at least it’s supposed to be.  The right to bear arms, as the Second Amendment, is a fundamental constitutional right.  Thus, any law restricting that right is to be strictly scrutinized.  But, does a convicted felon always permanently lose the right to own a firearm.  What if the felony is a non-violent one?  These questions were at issue in this case.

The plaintiff pleaded guilty in 2011 to willfully making a materially false statement on her federal tax returns. She was sentenced to three-years’ probation, including three months of home confinement, a $10,000 fine, and a $100 assessment. She also paid back taxes exceeding $250,000, penalties and interest. Her conviction triggered 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1), which prohibits those convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison from possessing firearms. The plaintiff’s crime was punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000.

As originally enacted in 1938, 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1) denied gun ownership to those convicted of violent crimes (e.g., murder, kidnapping, burglary, etc.). However, the statute was expanded in the 1968. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized gun ownership as an individual constitutional right in 2008. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). In a split decision, the majority reasoned that any felony is a “serious” crime and, as such, results in a blanket exclusion from Second Amendment protections for life. The majority disregarded the fact that the offense was non-violent, was the plaintiff’s first-ever felony offense, and was an offense for which she received no prison sentence. The majority claimed it had to rule this way because of deference to Congressional will that, the majority claimed, created a blanket, categorical rule.

The dissent rejected the majority’s categorical rule, pointing out that the plaintiff’s offense was nonviolent, and no evidence of the plaintiff’s dangerousness was presented. The dissent also noted that the majority’s “extreme deference” gave legislatures the power to manipulate the Second Amendment by simply choosing a label. Instead, the dissent reasoned, when the fundamental right to bear arms is involved, narrow tailoring to public safety is required. Because the plaintiff posed no danger to anyone, the dissent’s position was that her Second Amendment rights should not be curtailed. Likewise, because gun ownership is an individual constitutional right, the dissent pointed out that the Congress bears a high burden before extinguishing it. Post-2008, making a categorical declaration is insufficient to satisfy that burden, according to the dissent.

Expect this case to be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 


That’s the first part of the trip through the “almost Top 10” of 2020.  I will continue the trek through the list next time.

Bankruptcy, Civil Liabilities, Criminal Liabilities | Permalink


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