Friday, April 30, 2021
Court Developments of Interest
Periodically on this blog, I summarize recent cases of interest to those involved in agriculture and tax practitioners in general. Today is one of those days.
Recent court developments of interest – it’s the topic of today’s post.
Defendant’s Removal of Trees Within Conservation Easement Not a Nuisance
Cergnul v. Bradfield, 2021 Ind. App. Unpub. LEXIS 295 (Ind. Ct. App. Apr. 9, 2021)
The developers of a subdivision agreed to record a conservation easement twenty feet wide along two boundaries of the subdivision after complaints by local farmers. The conservation easement’s purpose was to preserve the visual aesthetic for residents who enjoyed the rural setting. Although the restrictive covenants that were recorded did not reference the conservation easement, the developer recorded a final plat that explicitly referred to the conservation easement. The defendant purchased a lot in the subdivision and proceeded to remove some trees and brush from within the conservation easement. The defendant had reviewed the restrictive covenants, which had not been updated after the final plat was recorded. The defendant also had met with a representative of the subdivision’s homeowner’s association, who advised the defendant that he could clear the trees and brush so long as he did not change the grade of the land. The plaintiff was an adjoining neighbor outside the subdivision who sought damages for the loss of quiet enjoyment of his property.
The trial court found that the plaintiff lacked standing to challenge the activity within the conservation easement. Further, the trial court noted that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that he had been denied a property right. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that although he lacked standing to enforce the conservation easement, he was entitled to damages to address a nuisance. The plaintiff noted that the developers had set aside a conservation easement pursuant to state law and that the defendant’s conduct amounted to nuisance per se. The appellate court noted that the conservation easement enabling statute did not provide the plaintiff with a private right of enforcement. Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that the defendant’s conduct created a nuisance per accidens as the right to the quiet enjoyment of his property had been destroyed. The appellate court noted that whether the defendant’s conduct qualified as a nuisance per accidens depended on whether his conduct would cause actual physical discomfort to a person of ordinary sensibilities. The appellate court found that the plaintiff failed to show any such evidence, and as a result, affirmed the trial court’s decision and denied the nuisance damages sought by the plaintiff.
No Attorney-Client Privilege For Communications Between Trustee and Attorney
In re Estate of McAleer, No. 6 WAP 2019, 2021 Pa. LEXIS 1524 (Pa. Sup. Ct. Apr. 7, 2021)
The decedent created a revocable trust and named his son as the sole trustee. The trust named the son and his two step-brothers as beneficiaries. In 2014, the trustee filed a first and partial accounting of the trust. A step-brother objected and the trustee hired two separate law firms to respond to the step-brother’s objections. After an evidentiary hearing, the probate court dismissed the objections. During the court process, additional filings indicated that about $124,000 of trust funds had been expended from the trust for attorney’s fees and costs through 2015. The step-brothers then filed a petition to determine the reasonableness of the fees. In early 2016, the trustee filed a second and final accounting to which the step-brothers also objected. The trustee claimed that he had no obligation to provide the step-brothers with copies of billing invoices because they were protected by attorney-client privilege. The probate court disagreed and ordered the trustee to forward the unredacted invoices to the step-brothers withing 30 days. The trustee disclosed the invoices, but filed an interlocutory appeal on the issue of the attorney invoices.
The state Supreme Court upheld the probate court’s ruling, noting that the assertion of privilege requires sufficient facts be established to show that the privilege has been properly invoked. According to the state Supreme Court, the trustee had not established those facts. The state Supreme Court also held that the privilege didn’t apply because the interests the privilege protected conflicted with “weightier obligations” – the fiduciary duty of the trustee to provide information to the beneficiaries outweighed the privilege. This was especially the case because the attorney fees were paid from the trust.
Will Authorized Court To Review Sale/Transfer of Farmland
In re Estate of Burge, No. 19-1881, 2021 Iowa App. LEXIS 214 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 17, 2021)
The decedent left her estate to her three children and six grandchildren. Two of her children sought to probate the will as executors. One of the executors died shortly after, and his wife participated in the proceedings as the executor and sole beneficiary of his estate. The will distributed a lump sum to the now deceased son if he “is surviving on the death of the survivor” of the decedent. The will distributed half of the remainder to the three children in equal shares and the other half to the six grandchildren in equal shares. The decedent’s will also granted four grandchildren an option to purchase all of her farmland. If they chose to exercise this option, the will directed them to pay a penalty if they sold the farmland within 15 years. The will also had a provision that offered one of the decedent’s children, the remaining executor, to receive his share of the estate in farmland, provided that he could agree upon a division with the grandchildren. Both the grandchildren and the executor exercised their option to purchase the farmland.
The first proposed contract filed by the executor to purchase the farmland was rejected by the trial court because some of the beneficiaries did not participate in negotiations or agree to the terms. The executor filed a second proposed contract to transfer the decedent’s farmland to himself and the four grandchildren. The trial court approved this contract but included direction that if the executor continued with the exercise of his option, he would not be entitled to his residuary share of the estate. Two of the four grandchildren and the executor appealed, and argued that the trial court should not have removed them as residue beneficiaries. The executor also argued that the trial court should have excluded his deceased brother’s wife as a beneficiary.
The appellate court held that since the deceased son survived the decedent, the deceased son’s wife was entitled to his share of the estate as the sole beneficiary. The two grandchildren argued that the executor had the sole right to sell the real estate without court oversight, because the will provided an unrestricted power of sale. The appellate court disagreed and noted that the decedent’s will contained numerous provisions on the sale in her will, namely that the court could resolve any dispute as to the reasonableness of the terms and conditions of the sale. The two grandchildren also argued that the first proposed contract was binding and that the trial court was bound to accept it without modification. The appellate court noted that the first proposed contract did not provide for the executor’s share of the farmland, and the farmland sale/transfer was subject to the terms and conditions in the will and court review for reasonableness.
FBAR Penalties Not Subject to “Full Payment” Rule
Mendu v. United States, No. 17-cv-738-T, 2021 U.S. Claims LEXIS 537 (Fed. Cl. Apr. 7 2021)
The plaintiff was assessed approximately $750,000 of “willful” Foreign Bank and Financial Account (FBAR) penalties. Such penalties can reach up to 50 percent of the highest account balance of the foreign account. He paid $1,000 of the penalty amount and then sued in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims under the Tucker Act to recover the $1,000 as an illegal exaction. The IRS counterclaimed, seeking the entire judgment of $750,000 plus interest. The plaintiff moved to dismiss his complaint on the basis that the court lacked jurisdiction over the illegal exaction claim on the basis of Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145 (1960). Such dismissal would nullify the court’s jurisdiction over the counterclaim of the IRS. Under Flora, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. §1346(a)(1), a taxpayer seeking to file a federal tax claim in federal court (other than the U.S. Tax Court) must pay the full amount of the tax before filing suit. However, the plaintiff claimed that 28 U.S.C. §1346(a)(1) only applied to “internal revenue taxes” and claims related to “internal revenue laws.” The petitioner noted that Bedrosian v. United States, 912 F.3d 144 (3d Cir. 2018) hinted that FBAR penalties may fall within the reach of 28 U.S.C. §1346(a).
The court, in ruling for the plaintiff, flatly rejected the Bedrosian decision in holding that FBAR penalties are not subject to the Flora rule because they are not internal revenue laws or internal revenue taxes. The court noted that FBAR penalties are contained in Title 31 of the U.S. Code rather than Title 26 (the Internal Revenue Code), and that this placement was intentional. Title 31, the court noted, has as its purpose, the regulation of private behavior rather than the purpose of being a charge imposed for the purpose of raising general revenue. In addition, the court concluded that FBAR penalties are unlike civil penalties in that they contain no statutory cross-reference that equate “penalties” with “taxes.” The court also reasoned that the if the full payment rule didn’t apply to FBAR penalties there wouldn’t be any concern that the collection of FBAR penalties would be seriously impaired because they are enforced via a civil action to recover a civil penalty. That meant that there were no administrative collection procedures for FBAR penalties with which a partial payment illegal exaction claim would interfere. Thus, the court concluded that the Congress did not intend to subject FBAR penalty suits to the full payment rule.
There’s always action in the courts and with the IRS. That’s especially true this tax season which continues…