Friday, January 7, 2022

“Top Ten” Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2021 – Numbers 6 and 5


As I pointed out in the previous articles in this series, agricultural law and agricultural tax law intersect with everyday life of farmers and ranchers in many ways.  Some of those areas of intersection are good, but some are quite troubling.  In any event, it points to the need for being educated and having good legal and tax counsel that is well-trained in the special rules that apply to agriculture.

This is the third installment in my list of the “Top Ten” agricultural law and tax developments of 2021.  The list is comprised of what are, in my view, the most important developments in agricultural law (which includes taxation that impacts farmers and ranchers) to the sector as a whole.  The developments primarily are focused on the impact to production agriculture, but the issues involved will also have effects that spillover to rural landowners and agribusinesses as well as consumers of agricultural products.

The Sixth and Fifth most important agricultural law and tax developments of 2021 – it’s the topic of today’s post.

6.  The Potential Peril Associated With Deferred Payment Grain Sales. On November 8, a group of Mississippi farmers filed a class action against UMB Bank, N.A. for misleading them about the financial status of a grain elevator they sold grain to that filed bankruptcy before paying them.  Island Farms, LLC, et al. v. UMB Bank, N.A., No.___, (S.D. Miss. filed Nov. 8, 2021).    The case is a grim reminder of the financial peril a farmer can be in when grain is delivered to an elevator, but payment is not made on delivery.  After grain is delivered, but before it is paid for, the seller is an unsecured creditor of the buyer.  If the buyer files bankruptcy before making payment, the seller is not likely to recover much, if anything. 

Based on the plaintiffs’ complaint, they delivered grain to a grain elevator that, unbeknownst to them, was insolvent and being propped up by the defendant bank. The elevator’s grain purchases involved the farmers delivering and transferring title to the grain to the elevator.  The elevator would then weigh, inspect and access the grain, and deliver payment in the form of a check within a period of a few days, or at another date if any particular farmer so desired.

The elevator is one of the largest grain elevator operations serving farmers in the Mississippi Delta, and was highly leveraged with massive amounts of debt. The elevator’s principal creditor was the bank, with loans dating back to 2015. The total balance on the loans was approximately $70 million as of September 2021. $37 million was the balance on a revolving loan and $33 million was the balance on a term note. The bank required the grain elevator to post collateral, which meant that virtually all of its assets were collateralized. The loan agreements gave the bank a continuing security interest upon all property of the grain elevator, whether then owned or later acquired. The elevator’s most valuable collateral was the grain they stored, and the amount they could borrow was determined in part by the amount of grain in inventory.

By the spring of 2021, the elevator was in serious financial distress, having less than $4,000 cash on hand, and was effectively insolvent. In addition, throughout 2021 the elevator failed to make payments to reduce the balance of the revolving loan, which it was contractually obligated to reduce.   However, the bank permitted the elevator to keep the balance of the loan at the maximum level throughout the year.  The elevator was required to furnish audited financial statements to the bank within 120 days of December 31, the end of its fiscal year.

The plaintiffs claim that the elevator was kept afloat by the bank’s forbearance on their loans. The bank was aware that if it called the loans, there would be little grain it could claim as security for the grain elevator’s debt. As a result, the plaintiffs claim that the bank proposed to wait until the grain elevator had as much grain as practicable before calling the loan and thereby effectively forcing the grain elevator into bankruptcy – which it filed for Chapter 11 (reorganization) bankruptcy on September 29, 2021.

Although the elevator was in financial distress, the farmers claim that it continued to hold out to farmers the opposite. In the spring of 2021, the elevator issued an update that stated it would be better prepared financially than in years past. The update also mentioned that the elevator had funding in place from multiple sources to ensure everyone got paid on time. However, several checks that the elevator wrote bounced during the harvest season. By the end of September, the bank notified the elevator that all amounts owed under the loan would be due immediately.  As a result, the elevator filed Chapter 11 on September 29, 2021, effectively placing the bank in priority position as a secured creditor in accordance with its security agreements and the farmers in non-priority, general unsecured creditor status. 

The plaintiffs claim that the elevator made knowingly false representations and concealed information that it had a duty to disclose. Additionally, they claim the bank aided and abetted the elevator’s fraud by remaining silent while knowing that the farmers would deliver their crops with a time interval before being paid. The plaintiffs specifically claim that the bank deliberately propped up the grain elevator until the crops were delivered during harvest season. The plaintiffs claim that the bank was the beneficiary of the elevator’s fraud, and that it has been unjustly enriched at the plaintiffs’ expense. The plaintiffs further claim that in addition to equitable title of the crops, they had a constructive trust over the grain for the purpose of getting paid. They assert that had the grain elevator clearly indicated its financial position, the plaintiffs would have sold their crops elsewhere. Ultimately, the plaintiffs seek forfeiture of all money received by the bank in the matter.

The Mississippi case points out the problems that a farmer can encounter when a buyer fails before making paying on delivered grain. While state indemnity funds and bonding programs might be available, they often don’t go far in making any particular farmer whole.  Certainly, the financial status of a buyer should be examined carefully before delivery is made.  That means seeing a certified audit of the buyer before making delivery.  Also, carefully using a letter of credit or an escrow account might provide security against a buyer’s default and achieve deferability.  In any event, planning is required anytime an ag commodity is sold on a deferred basis to a buyer.

Update:  Shortly after the elevator filed bankruptcy, two farming entities sued for an expedited determination that the grain contracts they had with the debtor were executory and subject to an immediate deadline for the executor to assume them. In In re Express Grain Terminals, LLC, No. 21-11832-SDM, 2021 Bankr. LEXIS 3415 (Bankr. N.D. Miss. Dec. 14, 2021), the court determined that the contracts were executory and set deadlines for the debtor to assume or reject them. The debtor was required to provide adequate assurance of performance of both the monetary and non-monetary requirements of the executory contracts. The issues became whether the executory contracts were a part of a “single contract” under the Master Trade Agreement (MTA), and whether the executory contracts were actually contracts for “financial accommodations” under 11 U.S.C. §365(c)(2). The court determined that the individual farmer contracts were the executory contracts that the debtor could assume or reject. Based on state law, the court found that the individual farmer contracts were severable. In addition, the language of the MTA and the individual grain contracts demonstrated the severable nature of the individual grain contracts. In addition, the court determined that the parties’ conduct indicated the severable nature of the individual grain contracts. The court also held that the individual grain contracts with farmers were not contracts for financial accommodation because they were not contracts for the extension of cash or line of credit.

5.  U.S. Supreme Court May Decide Whether FIFRA Preempts State Law – Roundup Litigation. Since 2015, thousands of cancer victims have sued Monsanto in state and federal court, alleging that Roundup caused their non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In 2021, a state court in California and a federal court in California issued important decisions on whether the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) pre-empts a state-law failure-to-warn claim when the warning cannot be added to the Roundup product without the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) approval. 

Background.  In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bates, et al. v. Dow Agrosciences LLC, 544 U.S. 431 (2005) provided guidance on how courts are to analyze FIFRA preemption claims in the future.  The plaintiffs in Bates were 29 Texas peanut farmers who claimed that in the 2000 growing season their crops were severely damaged by the application of the defendant’s pesticide. The farmers claimed that the defendant knew or should have known that the pesticide would stunt the growth of peanuts in acidic soils. However, the pesticide label stated that the pesticide was recommended in all areas where peanuts were grown. Before the 2001 growing season, the defendant reregistered the pesticide with the EPA, and the EPA approved a supplemental label that specified that the product was not to be used on peanuts grown in soils with a high acidity level (pH of 7.2 or greater). After negotiations failed, the farmers gave notice of intent to sue under Texas law, and the defendant filed a motion for declaratory judgment in Federal District Court on the grounds that FIFRA preempted the farmers’ claims.  The farmers also brought tort claims based in strict liability and negligence, fraud, breach of warranty and violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act. The District Court granted the defendant’s motion, finding that FIFRA preempted the farmers’ claims, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Fifth Circuit reasoned that the farmers’ claims were preempted because if the claims were successful, the defendant would be induced (as opposed to being actually required) to change its label. Accordingly, the farmers’ successful claim would impose an additional “requirement” on the defendant under state law – something the states cannot do under FIFRA.

The Supreme Court began its analysis in Bates by noting that FIFRA preemption applies to state rules that:  (1) establish a requirement for labeling or packaging that; (2) is in addition to or different from what FIFRA requires. The Court noted, therefore, that rules that require manufacturers to design reasonably safe products, use due care in conducting appropriate testing of their products, market products free of manufacturing defect, and to honor their express warranties or other contractual commitments are not preempted because they do not qualify as requirements for labeling or packaging. Thus, the Court ruled that the farmers’ claims for defective design, defective manufacture, negligent testing and breach of express warranty were not preempted. The Court rejected the Fifth Circuit’s “inducement” test as overbroad – that the farmers’ claims were preempted because, if successful, the defendant would be induced to change the pesticide label. However, the Court ruled that the farmers’ fraud and negligent- failure-to-warn claims were premised on common law rules that qualified as “requirements” for labeling or packaging. But, such claims are only preempted, the Court reasoned, if the state level common law rules establish requirements that are “in addition to or different from” FIFRA’s standards. The farmers claimed that their claims based on fraud and failure-to-warn were not preempted because these common law duties were equivalent to FIFRA’s requirements that a pesticide label not contain “false or misleading” statements, or inadequate instructions or warnings.

Ultimately, the Court ruled that it had not received sufficient briefing on whether FIFRA preempted the farmers’ fraud and failure-to-warn claims brought under Texas law, and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit for a resolution of those claims. In remanding on these claims, the Court emphasized that a state law labeling requirement must in fact be equivalent to a requirement under FIFRA to survive preemption. If, for example, the element of falsity contained in a Texas common law fraud action imposes a broader obligation than FIFRA’s requirement that labels not contain “false or misleading statements,” the action would be preempted to the extent of the difference. The Court also opined that state law requirements must be measured against any relevant EPA regulations that give content to FIFRA’s misbranding standards. Likewise, the Court stated that jury instructions must ensure that nominally equivalent labeling requirements are genuinely equivalent such that a pesticide manufacturer should not  be held liable under a state labeling requirement unless the manufacturer is also liable for misbranding under FIFRA.

In rejecting the “inducement” test of the Fifth Circuit and utilizing a “parallel requirements” test for determining FIFRA preemption, it is likely that more claims against pesticide manufacturers will survive preemption. It is no longer a valid ground for preemption that a state-based claim, if successful, would induce a manufacturer to change a label. Under the “parallel requirements” test, preemption applies only to claims that, if successful, would actually require a label to be changed. Thus, the key is whether applicable state law imposes broader obligations on pesticide manufacturers than does FIFRA.

Note:   Nothing in FIFRA precludes states from providing a remedy to farmers and state law claims can be asserted based on alleged FIFRA violations to the extent that the claims would not impose a requirement that is in addition to or different from FIFRA requirements.  However, a federal claim cannot be asserted.  See, e.g., G & M Farms, Inc. v. Britz-Simplot Grower Solutions, LLC, et al., No. 1:13-cv-0368 LJO MJS, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75458 (E.D. Cal. May 29, 2013).              

Based on the Court’s opinion in Bates, it became reasonable to believe that additional litigation would be brought against applicators and other parties that have some connection with the activity that caused damages along with pesticide manufacturers, and that some state legislatures might reexamine state statutes governing pesticides with an eye toward conformity with FIFRA. In any event, the Court illustrated its preference against preemption without clear direction from the Congress.

2021 developments.  In a California case, a married couple claimed that their usage of Roundup on their properties for several decades caused the husband’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  They made numerous legal claims, including a claim that Monsanto knew or had reason to know that its Roundup products were defective and inherently dangerous and unsafe when used in the manner that Monsanto instructed.  The jury determined that Monsanto had designed Roundup in a manner that was a substantial factor causing the husband’s harm; that Roundup had potential risks that were known or knowable in light of scientific and medical knowledge that were generally known in the scientific community at the time of manufacture, distribution and sale; that Monsanto was negligent in designing, manufacturing and supplying Roundup; and that Monsanto negligently failed to warn and instruct of Roundup’s danger.  The trial court jury awarded $2,055,000,000 to the plaintiffs.  The trial court reduced the total damage award to $86.7 million. 

In 2021, the appellate court affirmed in Pilliod v. Monsanto Co., 67 Cal. App. 5th 591 (2021), pet. for review den., No. S270957, 2021 Cal. LEXIS 7965 (Cal. Sup. Ct. Nov. 17, 2021).  The appellate court determined that Monsanto had not shown that FIFRA preempted the plaintiffs’ design defect and failure to warn claims because it failed to identify any state-law requirements that were in addition to or different from FIFRA’s misbranding requirements. 

Also in 2021, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion on the application of FIFRA preemption in a bellweather case involving Roundup.  Hardeman v. Monsanto Co., 997 F.3d 941 (9th Cir. 2021).  In Hardeman, the trial court jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor of $5,267,634.10 in compensatory damages and $75 million in punitive damages for the plaintiff’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma allegedly caused by long-term used of Roundup.  Monsanto appealed claiming that FIFRA preempted the plaintiff’s failure to warn claims; that the trial court committed numerous errors; and that the punitive damage award was excessive in violation of California law and the Constitution’s Due Process Clause.  The appellate court disagreed, holding that the plaintiff’s failure-to-warn claims based on Roundup’s labeling were consistent with FIFRA and, therefore, neither expressly nor impliedly preempted.  FIFRA’s requirement, the appellate court found, that a pesticide not be misbranded were consistent with (if not broader) than California’s common law duty to warn.  Thus, Monsanto could comply with both FIFRA and California law which eliminated any preemption claim.  The appellate court also held that the trial court had applied the correct standard for the admission of the plaintiff’s expert witness testimony, and properly included and excluded various evidence as to Roundup being likely carcinogenic – a risk that was known at the time of the plaintiff’s exposure.  The appellate court also upheld the trial court’s reduction of punitive damages from $75 million to $20 million was proper.    

Note:   On August 16, 2021, Monsanto filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court held a conference on the matter on December 10.  While the Court did not decide whether to take the case at its conference on December 10, on December 13 the Court invited the U.S. Solicitor General to file briefs expressing the views of the United States on the matter.  Monsanto Co. v. Hardeman, No. 21-241, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 6152 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Dec. 13, 2021).    The issue the Court may consider is whether FIFRA preempts a state law failure-to-warn claim when the warning cannot be added to a product without the EPA's approval and the EPA has repeatedly concluded that the warning is not appropriate.  A side issue in the case is whether the Ninth Circuit's standard for admitting expert testimony is inconsistent with the Court's precedent and  Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.


The next installment in this series will detail what I view as the fourth and third most important developments in ag law and ag tax from 2021.  Stay tuned and keep reading.

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