Wednesday, September 14, 2022
Ag Law and Tax Developments
It’s been a while since I last did an case and ruling update. So, today’s post is one of several that I will post in the coming weeks.
Some recent developments in the courts and IRS – it’s the topic of today’s post.
Retained Ownership of Minable Surface Negates Conservation Easement Deduction
C.C.A. 202236010 (Sept. 9, 2022)
The Chief Counsel’s office of IRS has taken the position that a conservation easement donation is invalid if the donor owns both the surface estate of the land burdened by the easement as well as a qualified mineral interest that has never been separated from the surface estate, and the deed retains any possibility of surface mining to extract subsurface minerals. In that instance, the conservation easement doesn’t satisfy I.R.C. §170(h). The IRS said the result would be the same even if the donee would have to approve the surface-mining method because the donated easement would not be donated exclusively for conservation purposes in accordance with I.R.C. §170(h)(5). The IRS pointed out that Treas. Reg. §1.170A-14(g)(4) states that a donated easement does not protect conservation purposes in perpetuity if any method of mining that is inconsistent with the particular conservation purposes of the contribution is permitted at any time. But, the IRS pointed out that a deduction is allowed if the mining method at issue has a limited, localized impact on the real estate and does not destroy significant conservation interests in a manner that can’t be remedied. Surface mining, however, is specifically prohibited where the ownership of the surface estate and the mineral interest has never been separated. On the specific facts involved, the IRS determined that the donated easement would not be treated at being made exclusively for conservation purposes because the donee could approve surface mining of the donor’s subsurface minerals.
Use of Pore Space Without Permission Unconstitutional
Northwest Landowners Association v. State, 2022 ND 150 (2022)
North Dakota law provides that a landowner’s subsurface pore space can be used for oil and gas waste without requiring the landowner’s permission or the payment of any compensation. The plaintiffs challenged the law as an unconstitutional taking under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. The trial court held that the law was unconstitutional on its face and awarded attorney’s fees to the plaintiff. On further review, the North Dakota Supreme Court determined that the plaintiffs had a property interest in subsurface pore space and that the section of the law specifying that the landowners did not have to provide consent to the trespassers to use the land unconstitutionally deprived them of their property rights as a per se taking. However, the Supreme Court determined that the section of the law allowing oil and gas producers to inject carbon dioxide into subsurface pore space was constitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the award of attorney fees.
Net Operating Loss Couldn’t Be Carried Forward
Villanueva v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2022-27
The petitioner sustained a loss from the disposition of a condominium he owned as a rental property. He reported the date of the loss as August 2013, but a mortgage lender had foreclosed on the condo in May 2009 and the taxpayer lost possession on that date. The IRS denied the deduction on the basis that the petitioner had not claimed the loss on either an original or amended return which meant that there was no loss that could be carried forward. The Tax Court agreed with the IRS, noting that the Treasury Regulations for I.R.C. §165 provide that a loss is treated as sustained during the tax year in which the loss occurs as evidenced by a closed and completed transaction and fixed by identifiable events occurring in such taxable year. A loss resulting from a foreclosure sale is typically sustained in the year in which the property is disposed of, and the debt is discharged from the proceeds of the foreclosure sale. Thus, the Tax Court determined that the loss had occurred in 2009 and should have been claimed at that time where it could have then been carried forward.
Overtime Pay Rate Not Applicable to Construction Work on Farm
Vanegas v. Signet Builders, Inc., No. 21-2644, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 23206 (7th Cir. Aug. 19, 2022)
The plaintiff, the defendant’s employee, worked overtime in building a livestock fence for the defendant. The defendant refused to pay the plaintiff time and a half for overtime. The plaintiff sued the defendant to recover the extra wages. The defendant’s refusal was based on the plaintiff being an agricultural worker not entitled to overtime. The trial court agreed and dismissed the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court looked to the language of 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(12) and the work of the plaintiff to determine if the plaintiff would be considered an agricultural employee. The appellate court found the plaintiff’s work was carried out as a separately organized activity outside of the defendant’s agricultural operations. The plaintiff worked for the defendant, but he built the fence on his own without any aid from any of the farm employees. The appellate court noted that another indication the work would not be considered exempt is whether farmers typically hire someone out for the work at issue. If so, it could be an indication the work is separate from agricultural work and would qualify for overtime pay. The appellate court found the defendant failed to provide much evidence to show that the plaintiff worked with agricultural employees and did not show the work was commonly done by a farmer. The appellate court also reasoned that just because the plaintiff was given a visa for agricultural work did not mean his work for the defendant was agricultural. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the complaint.
Early Distribution “Penalty” is a “Tax” and Does Not Require Supervisor Approval
Grajales v. Comr., No. 21-1420, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 23695 (4th Cir. Aug. 24, 2022), aff’g., 156 T.C. 55 (2021)
The petitioner borrowed money from her pension account at age 42. She received an IRS Form 1099-R reporting the gross distributions from the pension of $9,025.86 for 2015. She didn’t report any of the amount as income in 2015. The IRS issued her a notice of deficiency for $3,030.00 and an additional 10 percent penalty tax of $902.00. The parties later stipulated to a taxable distribution of $908.62 and a penalty of $90.86. The petitioner claimed that she was not liable for the additional penalty tax because the IRS failed to obtain written supervisory approval for levying it under I.R.C. §6751(b). The Tax Court determined that the additional 10 percent tax of I.R.C. §72(t) was a “tax” and not an IRS penalty that required supervisor approval before it would be levied. The Tax Court noted that I.R.C. §72(t) specifically refers to it as a “tax” rather than a penalty and that other Code sections also refer to it as a tax. The appellate court affirmed.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Can Regulate Ag Practices on Leased Land
Tulelake Irrigation Dist. v. United States Fish & Wildlife Serv., 40 F.4th 930 (9th Cir. 2022)
The plaintiffs sued the defendant, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the defendant violated environmental laws by regulating leased farmland in the Tule Lake and Klamath Refuge. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court noted that the Kuchel Act and the Refuge Act allow the defendant to determine the proper land management practices to protect the waterfowl management of the area. Under the Refuge Act, the defendant was required to issue an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). The defendant did issue an EIS and CCP for the Tule Lake and Klamath Refuge area, which included modifications to the agricultural use on the leased land within the region. The EIS/CCP required the leased lands to be flooded post-harvest, restricted some harvesting methods, and prohibited post-harvest field work, which the plaintiffs claimed violated their right to use the leased land. The plaintiffs argued that the language, “consistent with proper waterfowl management,” within the Kuchel Act was “nonrestrictive” and was not essential to the meaning of the Act. The appellate court held it was improper to read just that portion of the Act without considering the rest of the Act to understand the intent. The appellate court found the Kuchel Act was unambiguous and required the defendant to regulate the leased land to ensure proper waterfowl management. The Refuge Act allows the defendant to regulate the uses of the leased land, but the plaintiffs argued the agricultural practices were a “purpose” rather than a “use” so the defendant could not regulate it under the Refuge Act. The appellate court found the agriculture on the leased land was not a “purpose” equal to waterfowl management. The appellate court also held the language of the act was unambiguous and determined that agricultural activities on the land was to be considered a use that the defendant could regulate. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s award of summary judgment for the defendant.
Crop Salesman Sued for Ruining Relationship with Landowner
Walt Goodman Farms, Inc. v. Hogan Farms, LLC, No. 1:22-cv-01004-JDB-jay, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134192 (W.D. Tenn. Jul. 28, 2022)
The plaintiff, a farm tenant, sued the defendant landlord and a third-party ag salesman. The plaintiff claimed that the salesman wrongly advised the landlord and encouraged the landlord to complain about the plaintiff’s farming practices. Specifically, the plaintiff’s claims against the salesman were for interference with contract, interference with business relationship, and fraud. The salesman moved to dismiss each claim, but the trial court denied the motion with respect to the contract interference and interference with business relationship claims. The trial court, however, dismissed the fraud claim involving the efficacy of corn seed.
Standard Default Interest Rate Not Unconscionable
Savibank v. Lancaster, No. 82880-1-I, 2022 Wash. App. LEXIS 1558 (Wash. Ct. App. Aug. 1, 2022)
The defendant obtained a loan from the plaintiff to purchase his father’s farm before the virus outbreak. The loan agreement stated that the interest rate would increase to 18 percent upon default. The defendant did default when the pandemic hit, and the plaintiff filed a foreclosure and repossession action against the plaintiff. The trial court ruled in favor the plaintiff. The defendant appealed and asserted the 18 percent default interest rate was unconscionable during a pandemic. During the appeal, the defendant claimed the plaintiff should have alerted the defendant to any better loan alternatives but failed to do so. The appellate court, affirmed, finding that the plaintiff had no contractual obligation to make the defendant aware of any better financing agreement. The appellate court also upheld the trial court’s finding that the 18 percent default interest rate was not unconscionable and was common for agricultural loans with other banks in the area. The appellate court also noted that the defendant had the opportunity to consult with a lawyer about the loan terms before signing. The loan terms were standard and straightforward, and the defendant failed to show any evidence as to how the virus caused his default or how it made the default interest rate unconscionable. In addition, the court noted that the defendant had stopped making loan payments before the virus began to impact the United States. The appellate court also held that the defendant failed to provide any evidence for an unconscionability defense.
I’ll post additional developments in a subsequent post.