Friday, November 8, 2019

Ag Law In The Courts

Overview

This month’s installment of legal developments in the courts involving agriculture features odors, estate planning and a farm program regulation. Farmers, ranchers, rural landowners and agribusinesses sometimes find themselves in disputes with other private parties or state or federal government agencies.  Once a month I try to feature a several developments that illustrate the problems that can arise and how they are resolved.

The November installment of ag law in the courts – that’s the focus of today’s post.

The Case of the Obnoxious Odors

Agricultural production operations and ag businesses sometimes produce offensive odors (at least to some).  While neighbors might complain and state and local governments may try to regulate, the question is really one of the relative degree of offensiveness.

In Chemsol, LLC, et al. v. City of Sibley, 386 F. Supp. 3d 1000 (N.D. Iowa 2019), the plaintiffs owned and operated a milk drying facility. Allegations arose that the facility made the local town, the defendant in the case, smell like “rotten eggs, dried blood, rotten animal carcasses (boiling, burning and decomposing), vomit, human waste and dead bodies.” The defendant enacted an odor ordinance in 2013 which prohibited the creation or maintenance of a nuisance," and defined nuisance to include "offensive smells.”  The ordinance barred the following:  “The erecting, continuing or using of any building or other place for the exercise of any trade, employment or manufacture which, by occasioning noxious exhalations, offensive smells or other annoyances, becomes injurious and dangerous to the health, comfort or property of individuals or the public.” In 2015 the town increased the penalties for violating the ordinance from $100 per offense to $750 for a "first offense," and $1,000 for repeated violations. In 2016, the ordinance was amended to clarify that: "[N]uisance" shall mean whatever is injurious to health, indecent, or unreasonably offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as essentially to interfere unreasonably with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property. *** Offensive Smells: The erecting, continuing or using of any building or other place for the exercise of any trade, employment or manufacture which, by occasioning unreasonably noxious exhalations, unreasonably offensive smells or other unreasonable annoyances, becomes injurious and dangerous to the health, comfort or property of individuals or the public.” (emphasis added).

From 2012 to 2016 the plaintiffs did not receive any citations under the odor ordinance. In 2016 the plaintiffs began receiving citations but didn’t pay or appeal the associated fines. Abatement of the nuisance was negotiated, but the odors problems persisted. The plaintiffs received 36 citations in 2016 (16 before the abatement hearing and 20 after), four citations in 2017 and one citation in 2018. The plaintiffs chose to reduce odors by drying less product. The plaintiffs sued on the basis that the ordinance violated their due process by causing them to lose business and become unable to sell the business due to bad publicity. The plaintiffs also alleged a constitutional taking had occurred and that the town had tortuously interfered with business operations. The defendant moved for summary judgment and the court agreed.

The court noted that the plaintiffs did not build the plant on any promise or assurance that the defendant would not be enact such an ordinance, and it was within the defendant’s jurisdiction to enact such an ordinance for a facility within the defendant’s limits. The court also determined that the ordinance did not rise to a regulatory taking because economic use of the plaintiffs’ property remained. The court also concluded that the defendant did not act improperly in enforcing the ordinance or in speaking to potential buyers. 

The Case of Crop Insurance Coverage Computation

Under the crop insurance program of the 2014 Farm Bill, crop insurance coverage for low yield losses was to be determined based on actual production history (APH). However, APH is determined by excluding abnormally low-yield years in the computation.  In this case, JL Farms v. Vilsack, No. 2:16-cv-02548-CM-GEB, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106789 (D. Kan. Jun. 26, 2019), the Risk Management Agency (RMA) determined that the 2015 winter wheat crop was not excludible from the APH. Thus, the insurer did not exclude the 2015 yield data from the plaintiff’s insurance pay-out computation.

On review by the National Appeals Division ("NAD") of the United States Department of Agriculture. The NAD hearing officer determined that the NAD lacked jurisdiction. On further review the NAD Director again determined that the NAD did not have jurisdiction, but that the RMA had discretion to implement the exclusion. The plaintiff then sought judicial review of the RMA’s decision and the NAD Director’s decision of lack of jurisdiction. The trial court determined that the NAD did have jurisdiction over the matter and remanded the matter to the NAD Director for reconsideration of the exclusion of the 2015 wheat crop from the plaintiff’s APH. The trial court also referenced a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit holding that the Congress intended the exclusion to be available for the 2015 crop year (winter wheat planted in 2014). 

The Ruling on the Reformed Trust

Trusts are very popular tools that are used in estate planning.  One of the key benefits is that they provide a great deal of flexibility to adjust to unknown events that might occur in the future.  One way in which that is done is by including a power of appointment in a trust.  A power of appointment gives the holder of the power the ability to direct the assets of the trust in a certain manner and in a certain amount.  Essentially, the power of appointment gives the person that creates the power in someone else the ability to determine how the property will be distributed at some point in the future.  Basically, the power creates the ability to defer deciding the ultimate distribution of trust assets.  For example, assume that a husband dies and leaves property in trust for his surviving wife and their children.  When the surviving spouse dies, the trust specifies that the remaining trust assets are to pass equally to the children, unless the surviving spouse exercises the power of appointment that was included in the husband’s trust.  At the time of the husband’s death, $2 million worth of assets was included in the trust and the couple had two children, each equally situated in life.  However, when the surviving spouse dies years later, perhaps the children aren’t so equally positioned anymore – one is rather well off and the other is struggling.  The exercise of the power of appointment can give the surviving spouse the ability to “unbalance” the disposition of the trust assets and leave more assets to the child with greater needs. 

A general power of appointment is one that is exercisable in favor of the decedent, his estate, his creditors or the creditors of his estate.  I.R.C. §2041(b)(1). It also means a power that is exercisable in favor of the individual possessing the power, his estate, his creditors, or the creditors of his estate.  I.R.C. §2514(c). Generally, the lapse of a power of appointment during the life of the individual who has the power of appointment is a release of the power.  I.R.C. §2041(b)(2)But, this rule only applies to a lapse of powers during any calendar year to the extent that the property which could have been appointed by exercise of such lapsed powers exceeded the greater of $5,000 or 5% of the aggregate value of the assets out of which the exercise of the lapsed powers could have been satisfied.  I.R.C. §§2041(b)(2); 2514(e).  In addition, generally the exercise or release of a general power of appointment is a transfer of property by the individual possessing such power.  I.R.C. §2514(c).  When that occurs, it can result in a taxable gift to the trust and/or inclusion of the assets in the power holder’s estate.  If large dollar values are involved, that can be a disastrous result.

A recent IRS ruling involved a trust that contained a general power of appointment that had been drafted incorrectly.  The question was whether that error could be corrected without triggering gift tax or causing the property to be included in the power holder’s estate.  In Priv. Ltr. Rul. 201941023 (May 29, 2019), the settlor created an irrevocable trust for the benefit of his six children. The purpose of the trust was to provide for his descendants and reduce transfer taxes by keeping trust assets from being included in a primary beneficiary’s gross estate. Under the trust terms, each child had his or her own separate trust (collectively, Children’s Trusts; individually, Child’s Trust). Each child was the primary beneficiary of his or her Child’s Trust.

Unfortunately, the trust had a drafting error pertaining to the withdrawal provision – it didn’t limit the general power of withdrawal right of a primary beneficiary over assets contributed to the trust to the greater of $5,000 or five percent of the value of the trust assets as I.R.C. §2041(b)(2) required. Thus, any lapse of a primary beneficiary’s withdrawal right would be a taxable transfer by that particular primary beneficiary under I.R.C. §2514 to the extent that the property that could have been withdrawn exceeded the greater of $5,000 or five percent of the aggregate value of the assets. Also, the portion of each child’s trust relating to the lapsed withdrawal right that exceeded the greater of $5,000 or five percent of trust asset value would be included in the primary beneficiary’s estate.

A subsequent estate planning attorney discovered the error in the original drafting upon review of the estate plan. Consequently, the trustee sought judicial reformation to correct the drafting error on a retroactive basis, and the court issued such an order contingent on the IRS favorably ruling. The IRS did favorably rule that the reformation didn’t cause the release of a general power of appointment with respect to any primary beneficiary. The purpose of the reformation, the IRS determined, was to correct a scrivenor’s error and did not alter or modify the trust in any other manner.  That meant that none of the children would be deemed to have released a general power of appointment by reason of the lapse of a withdrawal right that they held with respect to any transfer to their trust.  Thus, no child would be deemed to have made a taxable gift to their trust and no part of any child’s trust would be included in any child’s estate. 

Perhaps there is a “kindler and gentler” IRS after all – at least on this point. 

Conclusion

These are just a small snippet of what’s been going on in the courts and IRS recently that can impact agricultural producers and others involved in agriculture.  Each day brings something new. 

November 8, 2019 in Civil Liabilities, Estate Planning, Insurance | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Prevented Planting Payments - Potential Legal Issues?

Overview

Weather conditions in the Midwest and the crop-growing regions of the Great Plains have made it likely that prevented planting payments will be utilized by a greater percentage of impacted farmers this summer.  If that happens, what are the regulatory and legal rules that kick-in that the recipient-farmer becomes subject to?

Prevented Planting Payments

The crop insurance final planting dates for corn have passed, but many areas of the soybean growing region (basically south of Minnesota and east of Nebraska) still have final planting dates for soybeans that remain but will expire soon.  A farmer must weigh options of changing crops, planting soybeans or simply not planting at all.   The economics of the situation will dictate the outcome.  Crop insurance companies can provide guidance on eligible acres and production practices and the applicable rules for prevented planting payments.  It’s also important to know what neighboring farmers are doing.  Being the only farmer in a particular area to utilize prevented planting payments is not a good thing.  If that happens, crop insurance adjusters and underwriters may could suddenly become reluctant to allowing payment on the claim.

Legal and Regulatory Matters

The governing statute on prevented planting payments is 7 U.S.C.  §1508a.  The language contained in that statute defines such things as “first crop,” “second crop,” and “replanted crop.”  It then lays out the options that a producer has when a “first crop” is lost and what the rules are when a “second crop” is planted.  Also, specified is the effect on actual production history and the area conditions that are required for payment.  Also, detailed are the exceptions for established double cropping practices, among other things.

As with participation in any federal government farm program, the participating farmer becomes subject to the regulatory and legal framework of the particular program.  That means that any dispute must be appealed to a final decision through the administrative process before redress can be available in the judicial system.  Failure to preserve the administrative record can result in a court being unable to provide a remedy even though it may be clear that the farmer should prevail.  That’s not a good position to be in. 

Recent Prevented Planting Court Decisions

It is common for a prevented planting dispute to end up in arbitration.  Two recent federal court opinions have concerned the operation of the arbitration process with respect to prevented planting payments.

A case from Nebraska involved the statutory time limit for the notice of application to vacate a crop insurance arbitration award and whether that statutory time limit could be waived.  In Karo v. NAU Country. Ins. Co., 901 N.W.2d 689, 297 Neb. 798 (2017), the plaintiffs farmed together in Holt County, Nebraska. They each obtained federally reinsured crop insurance policies that the defendant serviced.  In 2012, the plaintiffs submitted “prevented planting” claims under their crop insurance policies, claiming they were unable to plant corn on certain acres due to wet conditions. The defendant denied the plaintiffs’ prevented planting claims, finding that excessive moisture was not general to the surrounding area and did not prevent other producers from planting acres with similar characteristics.  Pursuant to the mandatory arbitration clause in the policies, the parties submitted their disputes to binding arbitration.

The arbitrator issued a final arbitration award in favor of the defendant on January 21, 2014. On May 15, 2014, the plaintiffs filed a petition for judicial review in the Holt County District Court seeking to vacate the arbitration award under §10 of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) which provides “the district court wherein the award was made may make an order vacating the award upon the application of any party to the arbitration. . . where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.” The district court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion and vacated the arbitration award finding that the arbitrator exceeded his powers and manifestly disregarded the law.

The defendant appealed, but failed to note in the appeal that the plaintiffs did not meet the three-month time limit for appealing. Consequently, because the defendant did not raise the issue of the violation of the three-month limit, the appellate court had to determine whether the time limit was jurisdictional in nature and, thus, could not be waived even if the parties do not raise the issue. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, absent such a clear statement, the restriction should be treated as non-jurisdictional in character. Section 9 of the FAA which enumerates the notice requirements for judicial confirmation expressly states that after service of proper notice “the court shall have jurisdiction over the adverse parties to the arbitration.” Consequently, the appellate court determined that this was a clear indication that Congress intended the statutory requirements for service notice of an application for expedited judicial review under the FAA to be jurisdictional in nature. The appellate court held that although different timeframes apply for serving notice under section 9 and section 12 of the FAA, there is no difference in the mandatory process by which the adverse party must be served with notice and no difference in the practical purpose for requiring such notice. Thus, it would make little sense for Congress to give clear jurisdictional weight to service notice in one context but not the other.

In addition, the appellate court saw no indication in the statute that Congress intended the notice requirements for expedited judicial review to be jurisdictional when a party seeks judicial confirmation, but not jurisdictional when a party seeks judicial vacatur or modification. Consequently, the court determined that whether an arbitrating party is applying for judicial review to confirm and award under section 9 or to vacate or modify an award under section 10 and 11, Congress intended that party’s failure to serve notice of the application within the mandatory time limits, would have jurisdictional consequences. Because the appellate court concluded that the three-month requirement is jurisdictional in nature and the plaintiffs failed to comply with the three-month requirement the district court did not have authority under the FAA to vacate the arbitration award.  Because the district court didn’t have jurisdiction to enter a judgment vacating the arbitration award under the FAA, the district court’s judgment was void.  That meant that the appeal from the district court’s judgment didn’t confer any appellate jurisdiction on the appellate court – the Nebraska Supreme Court.  The district court’s judgment was vacated and the appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. 

In a more recent case from North Carolina, an arbitrator’s award was vacated.  In Williamson Farm v. Diversified Crop Insurance Services, No. 5:17-cv-513-D, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49249 (E.D. N.C. Mar. 26, 2018), the plaintiff, a farming partnership, bought crop insurance from the defendant for the 2013 crop year. The plaintiff intended to buy full crop coverage on all planted acres, and the defendant’s agents represented that the coverage purchased was full coverage. The plaintiff incurred a loss on one parcel, and was prevented from planting on two other tracts. The plaintiff filed claims for the losses under the policy and the defendant denied coverage on the basis that one tract on which the claim was made was listed under the policy as being in a different county and the tracts on which the plaintiff was prevented from planting crops were improperly claimed on an Farm Service Agency report. The defendant conceded that the errors were the fault of the defendant’s agents.

The plaintiff sought arbitration pursuant to the policy and was awarded coverage on the claims and treble damages. The arbitrator’s award was based on legal theories of negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, constructive fraud and violation of state (NC) law. The defendant challenged the arbitrator’s award as beyond the scope and authority of the arbitrator insomuch as the arbitrator engaged in interpreting the meaning, scope and applicability of the crop insurance policy at issue rather than obtaining an interpretation from the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC).

The court agreed, noting that 7 U.S.C. §1506(l) pre-empts the arbitrator’s award unless FCIC procedures had been followed. The court also noted that the treble damages were based on the arbitrator finding a violation of NC law involving unfair and deceptive trade practices without first seeking a ruling from the FCIC. Accordingly, the court vacated the award as being beyond the arbitrator’s authority.  On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.  Williamson Farm v. Diversified Crop Ins. Services, 917 F.3d 247 (4th Cir. 2019)

Conclusion

The decision whether to plant a crop or simply file for prevented planting payments is an important one.  In that decisionmaking process will be included the notion that this spring’s second round of market facilitation payments can only be received if a crop is planted.  That’s a key point.  But, once a claim is filed, the regulatory and administrative process kicks-in.  Those rules can be complex and confusing.  Another good reason to have an attorney specially trained in agricultural law matters at your side.

June 13, 2019 in Insurance, Regulatory Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 31, 2018

The "Almost Top Ten" Ag Law and Tax Developments of 2018

Overview

2018 was a big year for developments in law and tax that impact farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses and the professionals that provide professional services to them.  It was also a big year in other key areas which are important to agricultural production and the provision of food and energy to the public.  For example, carbon emissions in the U.S. fell to the lowest point since WWII while they rose in the European Union.  Poverty in the U.S. dropped to the lowest point in the past decade, and the unemployment rate became the lowest since 1969 with some sectors reporting the lowest unemployment rate ever.  The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) doubles the standard deduction in 2018 compared to 2017, which will result additional persons having no federal income tax liability and other taxpayers (those without a Schedule C or F business, in particular) having a simplified return.  Wages continued to rise through 2018, increasing over three percent during the third quarter of 2018.  This all bodes well for the ability of more people to buy food products and, in turn, increase demand for agricultural crop and livestock products.  That’s good  news to U.S. agriculture after another difficult year for many commodity prices.

On the worldwide front, China made trade concessions and pledged to eliminate its “Made in China 2025” program that was intended to put China in a position of dominating world economic production.  The North-Korea/South Korea relationship also appears to be improving, and during 2018 the U.S. became a net exporter of oil for the first time since WWII.  While trade issues with China remain, they did appear to improve as 2018 progressed, and the USDA issued market facilitation payments (yes, they are taxed in the year of receipt and, no, they are not deferable as is crop insurance) to producers to provide relief from commodity price drops as a result of the tariff battle. 

So, on an economic and policy front, 2019 appears to bode well for agriculture.  But, looking back on 2018, of the many ag law and tax developments of 2018, which ones were important to the ag sector but just not quite of big enough significance nationally to make the “Top Ten”?  The almost Top Ten – that’s the topic of today’s post.

The “Almost Top Ten” - No Particular Order

Syngenta litigation settles.  Of importance to many corn farmers, during 2018 the class action litigation that had been filed a few years ago against Syngenta settled.  The litigation generally related to Syngenta's commercialization of genetically-modified corn seed products known as Viptera and Duracade (containing the trait MIR 162) without approval of such corn by China, an export market. The farmer plaintiffs (corn producers), who did not use Syngenta's products, claimed that Syngenta's commercialization of its products caused the genetically-modified corn to be commingled throughout the corn supply in the United States; that China rejected imports of all corn from the United States because of the presence of MIR 162; that the rejection caused corn prices to drop in the United States; and that corn farmers were harmed by that market effect.  In April of 2018, the Kansas federal judge handling the multi-district litigation preliminarily approved a nationwide settlement of claims for farmers, grain elevators and ethanol plants.  The proposed settlement involved Syngenta paying $1.5 billion to the class.  The class included, in addition to corn farmers selling corn between September of 2013 and April of 2018, grain elevators and ethanol plants that met certain definition requirements.  Those not opting out of the class at that point are barred from filing any future claims against Syngenta arising from the presence of the MIR 162 trait in the corn supply.  Parties opting out of the class can't receive any settlement proceeds, but can still file private actions against Syngenta.  Parties remaining in the class had to file claim forms by October of 2018.   The court approved the settlement in December of 2018, and payments to the class members could begin as early as April of 2019. 

Checkoff programs.  In 2018, legal challenges to ag “checkoff” programs continued.  In 2017, a federal court in Montana enjoined the Montana Beef Checkoff.  In that case, Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America v. Perdue, No. CV-16-41-GF-BMM, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95861 (D. Mont. Jun. 21, 2017), the plaintiff claimed that the federal law requiring funding of the Montana Beef Council (MBC) via funds from the federal beef checkoff was unconstitutional.  The Beef Checkoff imposes a $1.00/head fee at the time cattle are sold. The money generated funds promotional campaigns and research, and state beef councils can collect the funds and retain half of the collected amount with the balance going to the Cattleman’s Beef Production and Research Board (Beef Board). But, a producer can direct that all of the producer’s assessment go to the Beef Board. The plaintiff claimed that the use of the collected funds violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to pay for “speech” with which they did not agree. The defendant (USDA) motioned to dismiss, but the Magistrate Judge denied the motion. The court determined that the plaintiffs had standing, and that the U.S. Supreme Court had held in prior cases that forcing an individual to fund a private message that they did not agree with violated the First Amendment. Any legal effect of an existing “opt-out” provision was not evaluated. The court also rejected the defendant’s claim that the case should be delayed until federal regulations with respect to the opt-out provision was finalized because the defendant was needlessly dragging its heels on developing those rules and had no timeline for finalization. The court entered a preliminary injunction barring the MBC from spending funds received from the checkoff. On further review by the federal trial court, the court adopted the magistrate judge’s decision in full. The trial court determined that the plaintiff had standing on the basis that the plaintiff would have a viable First Amendment claim if the Montana Beef Council’s advertising involves private speech, and the plaintiff did not have the ability to influence the advertising of the Montana Beef Council. The trial court rejected the defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on the basis that the court could not conclude, as a matter of law, that the Montana Beef Council’s advertisements qualify as government speech. The trial court also determined that the plaintiff satisfied its burden to show that a preliminary injunction would be appropriate. 

The USDA appealed the trial court’s decision, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court in 2018.  Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America v. Perdue, 718 Fed. Appx. 541 (9th Cir. 2018).  Later in 2018, as part of the 2018 Farm Bill debate, a provision was proposed that would have changed the structure of federal ag checkoff programs.  It did not pass, but did receive forty percent favorable votes.    

GIPSA rules withdrawn.  In the fall of 2016, the USDA sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) an interim final rule and two proposed regulations setting forth the agency’s interpretation of certain aspects of the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) involving the buying and selling of livestock and poultry. The proposals generated thousands of comments, with ag groups and producers split in their support. The proposals concern Section 202 of the PSA (7 U.S.C. §§ 192 (a) and (e)) which makes it unlawful for any packer who inspects livestock, meat products or livestock products to engage in or use any unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive practice or device, or engage in any course of business or do any act for the purpose or with the effect of manipulating or controlling prices or creating a monopoly in the buying, selling or dealing any article in restraint of commerce. The “effect” language of the statute would seem to eliminate any requirement that the producer show that the packer acted with the intent to control or manipulate prices. However, the federal courts have largely interpreted the provision to require a plaintiff to show an anti-competitive effect in order to have an actionable claim. 

The interim final rule and the two proposed regulations stemmed from 2010.  In that year, the Obama administration’s USDA issued proposed regulations providing guidance on the handling of antitrust-related issues under the PSA. 75 Fed. Reg. No. 119, 75 FR 35338 (Jun. 22, 2010).  Under the proposed regulations, "likelihood of competitive injury" was defined as "a reasonable basis to believe that a competitive injury is likely to occur in the market channel or marketplace.” It included, but was not limited to, situations in which a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer raises rivals' costs, improperly forecloses competition in a large share of the market through exclusive dealing, restrains competition, or represents a misuse of market power to distort competition among other packers, swine contractors, or live poultry dealers. It also includes situations “in which a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer wrongfully depresses prices paid to a producer or grower below market value, or impairs a producer's or grower's ability to compete with other producers or growers or to impair a producer's or grower's ability to receive the reasonably expected full economic value from a transaction in the market channel or marketplace." According to the proposed regulations, a “competitive injury” under the PSA occurs when conduct distorts competition in the market channel or marketplace. The scope of PSA §202(a) and (b) was stated to depend on the nature and circumstances of the challenged conduct. The proposed regulations specifically noted that a finding that a challenged act or practice adversely affects or is likely to affect competition is not necessary in all cases. The proposed regulations also specified that a PSA violation could occur without a finding of harm or likely harm to competition, contrary to numerous court opinions on the issue.

On April 11, 2017, the USDA announced that it was delaying the effective date of the interim final rule for 180 days, until October 19, 2017, with the due date for public comment set at June 12, 2017.  However, on October 17, 2017, the USDA withdrew the interim rule.  The withdrawal of the interim final rule and two proposed regulations was challenged in court.  On December 21, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denied review of the USDA decision.  In Organization for Competitive Markets v. United States Department of Agriculture, No. 17-3723, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 36093 (8th Cir. Dec. 21, 2018), the court noted that the USDA had declined to withdraw the rule and regulations because the proposal would have generated protracted litigation, adopted vague and ambiguous terms, and potentially bar innovation and stimulate vertical integration in the livestock industry that would disincentivize market entrants.  Those concerns, the court determined, were legitimate and substantive.  The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the court had to compel agency action.  The matter, the court concluded, was not an extraordinary situation.  Thus, the USDA did not unlawfully withhold action. 

No ”clawback.”   In a notice of proposed rulemaking, the U.S Treasury Department eliminated concerns about the imposition of an increase in federal estate tax for decedents dying in the future at a time when the unified credit applicable exclusion amount is lower than its present level and some (or all) of the higher exclusion amount had been previously used. The Treasury addressed four primary questions. On the question of whether pre-2018 gifts on which gift tax was paid will absorb some or all of the 2018-2025 increase in the applicable exclusion amount (and thereby decrease the amount of the credit available for offsetting gift taxes on 2018-2025 gifts), the Treasury indicated that it does not. As such, the Treasury indicated that no regulations were necessary to address the issue. Similarly, the Treasury said that pre-2018 gift taxes will not reduce the applicable exclusion amount for estates of decedents dying in years 2018-2025.

The Treasury also stated that federal gift tax on gifts made after 2025 will not be increased by inclusion in the tax computation a tax on gifts made between 2018 and 2015 that were sheltered from tax by the increased applicable exclusion amount under the TCJA.  The Treasury concluded that this is the outcome under current law and needed no regulatory “fix.” As for gifts that are made between 2018-2025 that are sheltered by the applicable exclusion amount, the Treasury said that those amounts will not be subject to federal estate tax in estates of decedents dying in 2026 and later if the applicable exclusion amount is lower than the level it was at when the gifts were made. To accomplish this result, the Treasury will amend Treas. Reg. §20.2010-1 to allow for a basic exclusion amount at death that can be applied against the hypothetical gift tax portion of the estate tax computation that is equal to the higher of the otherwise applicable basic exclusion amount and the basic exclusion amount applied against prior gifts.

The Treasury stated that it had the authority to draft regulations governing these questions based on I.R.C. §2001(g)(2). The Treasury, in the Notice, did not address the generation-skipping tax exemption and its temporary increase under the TCJA through 2025 and whether there would be any adverse consequences from a possible small exemption post-2025. Written and electronic comments must be received by February 21, 2019. A public hearing on the proposed regulations is scheduled for March 13, 2019. IRS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, REG-106706-18, 83 FR 59343 (Nov. 23, 2018).

Conclusion

These were significant developments in the ag law and tax arena in 2018, but just not quite big enough in terms of their impact sector-wide to make the “Top Ten” list.  Wednesday’s post this week will examine the “bottom five” of the “Top Ten” developments for 2018. 

December 31, 2018 in Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law, Estate Planning, Income Tax, Insurance, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Farm Liability Policies – Are All Activities on the Farm Covered?

Overview

Liability issues abound for farmers and ranchers.  Many farmers have a comprehensive farm liability policy to cover potential liability events associated with the farming operation.  But, a comprehensive farm liability policy is a hybrid policy that contains both homeowners and commercial insurance elements.  That’s because the home is on a part of the same premises where the farm and ranch business is conducted. and live on the same property.

One of the unique aspects of farming and ranching is that it’s not uncommon for a farmer or rancher to conduct some other type of business activity on the farm or ranch premises.  That other activity may or may not be related to the business of farming.  It is these other activities (such as a road-side stand, corn maize or U-Pick operation) that can raise questions about whether there is insurance coverage for them under the farm’s comprehensive insurance policy.  That’s because those policies often exclude “non-farm business pursuits” of the insured.

The scope and application of non-business pursuits of the insured as applied in the context of farming/ranching operations – that’s the focus of today’s post.

Homeowner Policies

The issue is often straightforward for farming operations that don’t conduct a separate business on the premises.  The comprehensive liability policy should cover the risks associated with the farming business because of it being tailored to the activities that the insured conducts as part of the farming operation.  But, for those that have a smaller farming operation or a hobby farm, the insurance coverage issue can be a big one.  Often the insurance coverage for these activities is provided by means of a traditional homeowner’s policy.  But, that can mean situations of non-coverage can arise as additional activities occur. 

Excluded activities.  Homeowner policies exclude business or farming activities.  Thus, any activity that is deemed to be “business” or “farming” is excluded from liability or property coverage.  That means that liability coverage would need to be broadened by adding an endorsement (subject to the carrier’s guidelines) to the policy that details all of the business or farming activities that are occurring on the premises.  Alternatively, a traditional homeowner policy might be able to be modified by adding a “farm liability” endorsement.  This additional endorsement would be appropriate when there are farm “hobby” activities on the premises.  This endorsement will essentially blend the personal and business coverages by making no distinction between the two general types of activities. 

What should be covered?  All dwellings on the premises should be covered including all buildings and appurtenant structures, equipment and coverage for livestock.  Many homeowner policies will cover a limited amount of animals for personal use such as horses and cows and goats, but if the animal is part of a business activity, a homeowner policy won’t provide coverage.   That would mean, for example, that the typical homeowner policy won’t cover liability situations arising from boarding horses whether a fee is charged or not.  If a fee is charged, the activity is an excluded business pursuit.  If a fee is not charged, coverage may not be available because the horses owned by someone other than the insured.     

Recent Cases

Hanover American Insurance Company v. White, No. CIV-14-0726-HE, (W.D. Okla. Aug. 3, 2015), is a good illustration of the application of the “business pursuits of the insured.”   The insured’s primary business was an aviation-related rental and repair business.  He also co-owned an oilfield service company.  The premises where the oilfield service company business was conducted was comprised of 150 acres. It was not adjacent to either of the insured’s other properties.  The property was fenced, and the insured kept a bull and about 50 head of cattle on the property.  The bull was purchased for the purpose of breeding the cows and produce calves.  Some of the resulting calf crop was sold and the balance used for team roping.  An employee of the oilfield service company cared for the cattle and bought supplies for them by charging the cost to the company’s account. 

The bull escaped its enclosure and attacked another person who died as a result of the injuries.  The decedent’s estate sued the insured.  The insured was covered by a homeowner policy on his residence and a dwelling policy for a dwelling on another property the insured owned.  Both policies contained identical language that excluded bodily injury “[a]rising out of or in connection with a ‘business’ engaged in by an ‘insured.’”  Both policies also defined “business” to “include…trade, profession or occupation.” 

The insurance companies claimed that they had no duty to defend or indemnify the insured.   Both companies claimed that the liability event fell within the “business exclusion” of the companies’ respective policies.  The insured claimed he wasn’t engaged in a cattle business, but merely a hobby activity and had coverage under the policies.  The court disagreed with the insured on the basis that the evidence showed that he engaged in the cattle activity with the intent (at least in part) to make a profit.  The court also pointed out that the insured treated the cattle activity as a Schedule F business on his tax returns.  That meant that the resulting losses from the cattle activity offset the income of the insured’s wife.  Thus, the court was persuaded that the cattle activity was not purely a hobby.  It was a business activity not covered by his insurance policies.

In Western National Assurance Company v. Robel, No. 35394-0-III, 2018 Wash. App. LEXIS 2387 (Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 23, 2018), the defendants owned a farm and orchard. The orchard was listed in the area brochure as one of the “U-Pick” orchards. The orchard also sold pre-picked cherries. The plaintiff called the defendants to ensure that they were open before visiting. The plaintiff and her friend arrived at the orchard, and each of them were given a basket to strap on and were directed to the orchard where the 10-foot tall, three-legged ladders were located. While picking cherries on a ladder, the plaintiff ‘s basket filled and caused her to become top-heavy. She lost her balance and fell off the ladder. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff broke her hand and foot, and injured her neck, back and shoulder. The defendants were not at the orchard that day. The plaintiff sued alleging that the defendants, doing business as an orchard, failed to maintain the orchard in a safe manner and failed to properly instruct her on use of the ladder.

The defendants’ insurance company with whom they held a homeowners’ policy defended the suit which was dismissed by the trial court for improper service. The appellate court reversed as to the dismissal and the insurance company brought a declaratory judgment action claiming that the homeowners’ policy did not provide liability coverage for the defendant’s orchard business due to an exclusion for business pursuits of the insured. The trial court agreed and denied coverage under the policy for the plaintiff’s injuries. The appellate court affirmed, finding that the accident arose from a separate business pursuit of the insured that was within the policy exclusion. The appellate court determined that it was immaterial that the defendants did not make much profit from the U-Pick business as a part of their overall farming operation. What mattered, the appellate court determined, was that the defendants sold produce to the public that were invited as business guests to the premises. In addition, the appellate court determined that the use of a ladder was within the scope of the U-Pick business. 

Conclusion

The non-farm “business pursuits” exclusion is an important exclusion that rural landowners need to be aware of.  It’s a particular issue for smaller, hobby-type operations and those growing or organic or specialty or niche crops.  Clearly, each rural/farming enterprise is different.  That means that a good comprehensive farm liability policy should be customized to fit each particular situation. Start with the basic coverage and then add on coverage based on your own unique set of facts.  Also, give careful thought to the amount of coverage needed.  The insurance agent is a key person in making sure that coverage is provided for the needs of the insured.  In farm settings, it’s almost always recommended that the insurance agent visit the premises to ensure that the agent has a full understanding of your needs.

 

November 19, 2018 in Insurance | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Agricultural Law Online!

Overview

For the Spring 2019 academic semester, Kansas State University will be offering my Agricultural Law and Economics course online. No matter where you are located, you can enroll in the course and participate in it as if you were present with the students in the on-campus classroom.
Details of next spring’s online Ag Law course – that’s the topic of today’s post.

Course Coverage

The course provides a broad overview of many of the issues that a farmer, rancher, rural landowner, ag lender or other agribusiness will encounter on a daily basis. As a result, the course looks at contract issues for the purchase and sale of agricultural goods; the peril of oral contracts; the distinction between a lease and a contract (and why the distinction matters); and the key components of a farm lease, hunting lease, wind energy lease, oil and gas lease, and other types of common agricultural contractual matters. What are the rules surrounding ag goods purchased at auction?

Ag financing situations are also covered – what it takes to provide security to a lender when financing the purchase of personal property to be used in the farming business. In addition, the unique rules surrounding farm bankruptcy is covered, including the unique tax treatment provided to a farmer in Chapter 12 bankruptcy.

Of course, farm income tax is an important part of the course. Tax planning is perhaps the most important aspect of the farming business that every day decisions have an impact on and are influenced by. As readers of this blog know well, farm tax issues are numerous and special rules apply in many instances. The new tax law impacts many areas of farm income tax.

Real property legal issues are also prevalent and are addressed in the course. The key elements of an installment land contract are covered, as well as legal issues associated with farm leases. Various types of interests in real estate are explained – easements; licenses; profits, fee simples, remainders, etc. Like-kind exchange rules are also covered as are the special tax rules (at the state level) that apply to farm real estate. A big issue for some farmers and ranchers concerns abandoned railways, and those issues are covered in the course. What if an existing fence is not on the property line?
Farm estate and business planning is also a significant emphasis of the course. What’s the appropriate estate plan for a farm and ranch family? How should the farming business be structured? Should multiple entities be used? Why does it matter? These questions, and more, are addressed.

Agricultural cooperatives are important for the marketing of agricultural commodities. How a cooperative is structured and works and the special rules that apply are also discussed.

Because much agricultural property is out in the open, that means that personal liability rules come into play with respect to people that come onto the property or use farm property in the scope of their employment. What are the rules that apply in those situations? What about liability rules associated with genetically modified products? Ag chemicals also pose potential liability issues, as do improperly maintained fences? What about defective ag seed or purchased livestock that turns out to not live up to representations? These issues, and more, are covered in the scope of discussing civil liabilities.

Sometimes farmers and ranchers find themselves in violation of criminal laws. What are those common situations? What are the rules that apply? We will get into those issue too.

Water law is a very big issue, especially in the western two-thirds of the United States. We will survey the rules surrounding the allocation of surface water and ground water to agricultural operations.

Ag seems to always be in the midst of many environmental laws – the “Clean Water Rule” is just one of those that has been high-profile in recent years. We will talk about the environmental rules governing air, land, and water quality as they apply to farmers, ranchers and rural landowners.
Finally, we will address the federal (and state) administrative state and its rules that apply to farming operations. Not only will federal farm programs be addressed, but we will also look at other major federal regulations that apply to farmers and ranchers.

Further Information and How to Register

Information about the course is available here:
https://eis.global.ksu.edu/CreditReg/CourseSearch/Course.do?open=true&sectionId=127126

You can also find information about the text for the course at the following link (including the Table of Contents and the Index):
https://washburnlaw.edu/practicalexperience/agriculturallaw/waltr/principlesofagriculturallaw/index.html

If you are an undergraduate student at an institution other than Kansas State, you should be able to enroll in this course and have it count as credit towards your degree at your institution.  Consult with your academic advisor to see how Ag Law and Economics will transfer and align with your degree completion goals.

If you have questions, you can contact me directly, or submit your questions to the KSU Global Campus staff at the link provided above.

I hope to see you in January!

Checkout the postcard (401 KB PDF) containing more information about the course and instructor.

KStateAgriculturalLawandEconomicsPostcard

October 18, 2018 in Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law, Estate Planning, Income Tax, Insurance, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Recent Developments Involving Crop Insurance

Overview

Earlier this year I did a blog post on some recent developments in crop insurance.  Since that time, there have been more very significant developments involving crop insurance.  As a result, another post on crop insurance is necessary. 

More crop insurance recent developments – that’s the topic of today’s post.

Relying on Agent Representations

Bush v. AgSouth Farm Credit, No. A18A0339 2018, Ga. App. LEXIS 437 (Ga. Ct. App. Jun 27, 2018), the plaintiff owned a 280-acre soybean and wheat farm. The farm had been in his family for many years and operated as a dairy farm. In 2011, the plaintiff began planting wheat and soybean as commodity crops. At this point he took out several loans from the defendant in order to purchase farm machinery and equipment. After he obtained these loans, the defendant recommended that he get crop insurance in case of a weather-related crop loss. The plaintiff had heard about crop insurance and agreed that he needed it, but told the defendant that he knew nothing about crop insurance or anybody who “writes it.”

The defendant put the plaintiff in touch with an insurance agent who had been a licensed crop insurance agent with the defendant since 2000. The insurance agent told the plaintiff she sold crop insurance for “Diversified” (a company contracted with USDA to deliver the federal crop insurance program). At that time, the plaintiff told her where he obtained his grain and that he had never sold crops commercially before 2011, using it only as feed or seed to replant. The insurance agent handled all of the production history calculations, presumably from weight tickets he had provided to her. As a result of their meetings, the insurance agent procured crop insurance from Diversified for the plaintiff’s 2011 soybean crop and his 2012 wheat crop. The plaintiff had a continuous policy for wheat with an actual production history (APH) of 75 bushels per acre, which the insurance agent calculated based upon what the plaintiff told her that he produced for the four years prior to 2012.

The agent did not ask the plaintiff for documents supporting these amounts and explained that he was not required to submit such documentation with his insurance application, but she warned him that if he was ever audited he would have to document what was reported in the insurance application. The application requested 60 percent coverage, and the plaintiff testified that he left it up to the agent to decide the amount, but did not object to it when he signed the application. The plaintiff did not read the insurance application or the production and yield report on which the insurance agent calculated the APH, and he did not ask any questions about either document. For crop year 2012, the plaintiff planted over 600 acres of wheat and conducted his farming operations based on the agent’s representation that the wheat was insured at the coverage level stated in his policy. In July of 2013, he suffered a complete loss of his wheat crop due to excessive moisture.

The plaintiff called the insurance agent to report the loss, and Diversified sent an adjuster to examine the crop and calculate the loss. The plaintiff received approximately $102,986 from Diversified, which he then assigned to the defendant to pay down an existing loan. In July 2014 Diversified performed an audit of the plaintiff’s claim. Shortly thereafter, Diversified notified the plaintiff that a reduction in production and yields for specific units was applied resulting in an overpayment of $102,986 and demanded repayment. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant and the insurance agent on May 9, 2016, alleging that the agent held herself out as a crop insurance expert and that he relied on that expertise and her representations to establish his farming plan. The plaintiff also claimed that the defendant, as the agent’s employer, was vicariously liable for her actions. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff was obligated to read the policy and, if he had, he would have known that documentation was required to support the claimed APH.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed. The appellate court determined that a jury could find that the plaintiff, a layperson, could not be expected to read the policy and determine what constituted a written verifiable record. The policy at issue referred to supporting “written verifiable records” and relied upon a reference to a federal regulation to define that term. Thus, the court held that it would not have been readily apparent to the plaintiff, on the face of the policy, that the weight tickets or other information he provided to the agent were not adequate to meet the definition of “written verifiable record.” Thus, the court held that even if the plaintiff had the read the policy from beginning to end, he would not have known that the calculation was not properly done in accordance with federal regulations because calculating the APH was up to the expert agent and governed by the rules set out in the Crop Insurance Handbook. As such, the appellate court held that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the defendant. 

Condition Precedent

In Bottoms Farm Partnership v. Perdue, No. 17-2164, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 19609 (8th Cir. Jul. 17, 2018), the plaintiffs were entities engaged in rice farming. Their rice crops were insured under federally-reinsured multi-peril crop insurance policies purchased from Rural Crop Insurance Services (RCIS). The insurance policy was provided under the Federal Crop Insurance Act (FCIA), which is administered by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) and the Risk Management Agency (RMA). After they purchased the insurance and planted the 2012 crop, their rice crops were damaged by excessive rainfall. They filed claims for indemnity with RCIS. RCIS denied the claims on the basis that the crops were not insurable under the policy because levees were not surveyed and constructed immediately after seeding the rice, and levee gates were not immediately installed and butted as required by a special provision in the policy. When their claims were denied, the plaintiffs sought arbitration with RCIS as required by the policy, which stated that: “In addition to the definition of Planted Acreage specified in section 1 of the Crop Provisions, the following must have occurred immediately following seeding. If these activities have not occurred, the acreage will be considered ‘acreage seeded in any other manner’ and will not be insurable: (1) levees are surveyed and constructed; (2) levee gates are installed and butted; and (3) the irrigation pump is operable, ready to be started in the event sufficient rainfall has not been received, and turned on to provide sufficient water for the purposes of germination or elimination of soil crusting.”

The FCIC agreed with RCIS that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "immediately" as "without any delay,” which means that the listed activities must occur right after planting has ended, weather permitting, without any delay. The plaintiffs requested a review of the FCIC's interpretation by the RMA, and the RMA affirmed. The National Appeals Division (NAD) concluded that RMA's written interpretation was not appealable and that the plaintiffs had exhausted their administrative remedies.

The trial court upheld the administrative determinations, as did the appellate court. The appellate court noted that the clear language of the FCIA indicated that the Congress intended the FCIC to have extensive and broad authority. Under the FCIA, judicial review is available but limited. Given the FCIA’s broad grant of authority to the FCIC, and the specific authority over the provisions of insurance and insurance contracts, the appellate court concluded that it must give substantial deference to the FCIC's interpretation of the special provision. In addition, the court determined that the FCIC's interpretation of the special provision was consistent with the plain reading of the policy, which indicated that the activities listed must "have occurred immediately following seeding" or the acreage would be considered to be uninsurable. The appellate court also determined that the FCIC's decision that the language provided a condition for insurability and was not subject to an analysis of good farming practices was not plainly erroneous. The appellate court, like the trial court found that the interpretation was not "'arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. 

APH Yield Exclusion

Adkins v. Vilsack, No. 1:15-CV-169-C 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 72790 (N. D. Tex. May 12, 2017), aff’d. sub. nom., Adkins v. Silverman, No. 17-10759, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 21961 (5th Cir. Aug. 7, 2018) involved a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill - Actual Production History (APH) Yield Exclusion.  The APH Yield Exclusion allows eligible producers impacted by severe weather to receive a higher approved yield on their insurance policies through the federal crop insurance program. APH works by allowing a farmer to exclude yields in particularly bad years (e.g., those having a natural disaster or other extreme weather event) from their production history when calculating yields that are used to establish their crop insurance coverage. The level of crop insurance available to a farmer is based on the farmer’s average recent yields. Particularly low yields in a prior year would reduce the level of insurance coverage in future years but for the APH provision. Farmers are eligible for the APH exclusion when the county yield is at least 50 percent below the average of the immediately previous 10 consecutive crop years.

The APH provision was to become effective in the spring of 2015 for spring crops with a November 30, 2014 change date. Eligible crops include corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, grain sorghum, rice, barley, canola, sunflowers, peanuts and popcorn. However, the USDA later decided to delay the APH Yield Exclusion for wheat for the 2015 crop year for winter wheat. The plaintiff challenged that decision as arbitrary, but the USDA’s National Appeals Division (NAD) upheld the decision. However, in late 2016 a U.S. Magistrate Judge recommended that the court reverse the USDA’s decision to delay implementation of the APH Yield Exclusion (i.e., “yield plug”) for winter wheat. The USDA appealed, but the trial court found that the NAD’s decision was erroneous because it failed to recognize the Farm Bill’s (7 U.S.C. §1508 (g)(4)(A)) effect on implementation for the 2015 winter wheat crop year. The court determined that Congress chose to leave the applicability provision in place thereby making it self-executing and immediate for the APH Yield Exclusion. In addition, the fact that Congress chose to include specific application/implementation language for other crops and yet stay silent as to winter wheat indicates a direct intention to allow the governing and existing statutory law to be applicable as to the implementation of the APH Yield Exclusion for the 2015 winter wheat crop. As a result, the court adopts the findings and conclusions of the Magistrate Judge. The USDA appealed, and the issue on appeal was “whether farmers were permitted to exclude the historical data for the 2015 crop year, even though the FCIC had not completed its data compilation.” The appellate court considered the “plain meaning” of the statute at issue in accordance with the standard set forth in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984) and affirmed the trial court's decision.

Conclusion

Crop insurance is an important part of many farmer’s financial “toolbox.”  It will likely also play a significant part of the next Farm Bill.  But, as illustrated in today’s post (and the one earlier this year), numerous legal issues can arise.   

August 15, 2018 in Insurance | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Beneficiary Designations, Changed Circumstances and the Contracts Clause

Overview

For many people, the most important estate planning document is the will (or trust) that disposes of property at the time of death.  Assets that pass by will are subject to probate and are known as “probate assets.”  But, a decedent’s estate may also have “non-probate assets.”  Those are assets that are not subject to the probate court’s jurisdiction and pass by a contractual beneficiary designation.  These contractual arrangements include life insurance, pensions, IRAs and annuities. 

For married couples, one spouse typically names the other spouse as the beneficiary of these non-probate assets.  But, what if one spouse names the other as the beneficiary of a non-probate contractual arrangement and divorce occurs and the beneficiary designation is not changed?  Does the beneficiary-spouse remain the beneficiary, or is that designation automatically revoked?  Can the law automatically remove the former spouse as beneficiary?  How does the Constitution’s Contracts Clause factor into this?

That’s the topic of today’s post – beneficiary changes upon divorce.

The Contracts Clause

Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution specifies that a state cannot enact legislation that disrupts contractual arrangements.  That provision says that, “[n]o state shall…pass any…Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.”  Thus, while citizens have the right to enter into contracts that don’t violate “public policy,” the government cannot impair otherwise permissible contracts.  But, what does that mean?  Does it mean that a state can enact a law that changes the contractual beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy, for example?  The issue recently came up in a case that made it all of the to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Recent Case

In Sveen v. Melin, 138 S. Ct. 1815 (2018), a couple married in 1997.  In 1998, the husband bought a life insurance policy that named his wife as the primary beneficiary and his two children from a prior marriage as the contingent beneficiaries.  In 2002, a new Minnesota law took effect providing that “the dissolution or annulment of a marriage revokes any revocable…beneficiary designation…made by an individual to the individual’s former spouse.”  Minn. Stat. §524.2-804, subd.1.  Thus, divorce automatically revokes the designation of a spouse as the beneficiary.  That would cause the insurance proceeds to go to the contingent beneficiary or the policyholder’s estate upon death of the policyholder.  If the policyholder does not want this result, the former spouse can be named as beneficiary (again).  In 2007, the couple divorced and the former husband died in 2011 without changing the beneficiary designation.  The deceased ex-husband’s children claimed that they were the beneficiaries of the life insurance proceeds.  But, the surviving ex-spouse claimed that she was the beneficiary because the law did not exist at the time the policy was purchased and she was named the primary beneficiary.  Her core argument was that the retroactive application of the law violated the Contracts Clause.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed with the surviving ex-spouse (Metro Life Insurance Co. v. Melin, 853 F.3d 410 (8th Cir. 2017), but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  The Supreme Court noted that the Contracts Clause did not establish a complete prohibition against states from enacting laws that impacted pre-existing contracts.  The Court noted that a two-step test existed form determining the constitutionality of such a law.  Step one involves the question of whether the law “operated as a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship” based on the extent to which the law undermined the parties’ bargain, interfered with the parties’ reasonable expectations, and barred the parties from safeguarding their rights.  If a contractual impairment is determined under step one, then the second step examines the means and ends of the legislation to determine whether the state law advances a significant and legitimate public purpose. 

In Sveen, the Court held that the law did not substantially impair pre-existing contractual arrangements.  The Court reasoned that the law was designed to reflect a policyholder’s intent based on an assumption that an ex-spouse would not be the desired primary beneficiary.  In addition, the Court stated that an insured cannot reasonably rely on a beneficiary designation staying in place after a divorce – noting that divorce courts have wide discretion to divide property, including the revocation of spousal beneficiary designations in life insurance policies (or mandating that they remain).  Accordingly, the Court concluded that a policyholder had no reliance interest in the policy in the event of divorce, and could undo the impact of the law by again naming the (now) ex-spouse as the primary beneficiary.  The decedent’s children were held to be the primary beneficiaries of the policy.

Kansas Approach

Kansas, like other states, has an automatic revocation provision for wills upon divorce.  Kan. Stat. Ann. §59-610.  For non-probate assets with a beneficiary designation, in divorce actions judges are to include changes in beneficiary status as part of the property division between the spouses and note any change in the divorce decree.  Kan. Stat. Ann. §2-2602(d).  The policyholder remains responsible for actually changing the beneficiary designation.  Id. 

Conclusion

The Court’s conclusion expands the reach of the government into private contractual arrangements.  It also assumes that all divorces are acrimonious and that a divorced policyholder would never want to benefit a former spouse.  That's simply not true.  What's more is that the Court upheld the Minnesota law even though it retroactively applied in the case at bar.  If a statute that changes (rewrites) the primary beneficiary designation of a contract on a retroactive basis doesn’t substantially impair that contract, I don’t know what does.  Judge Gorsuch seems to agree with that last point in his dissent. 

How does your state law treat the issue?

July 24, 2018 in Estate Planning, Insurance | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Agricultural Law and Economics Conference

Overview

Next month, Washburn Law School and Kansas State University (KSU) will team up for its annual symposium on agricultural law and the business of agriculture.  The event will be held in Manhattan at the Kansas Farm Bureau headquarters.  The symposium will be the first day of three days of continuing education on matters involving agricultural law and economics.  The other two days will be the annual Risk and Profit Conference conducted by the KSU Department of Agricultural Economics.  That event will be on the KSU campus in Manhattan.  The three days provide an excellent opportunity for lawyers, CPAs, farmers and ranchers, agribusiness professionals and rural landowners to obtain continuing education on matters regarding agricultural law and economics.  

Symposium

This year’s symposium on August 15 will feature discussion and analysis of the new tax law, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and its impact on individuals and businesses engaged in agriculture; farm and ranch financial distress legal issues and the procedures involved in resolving debtor/creditor disputes, including the use of mediation and Chapter 12 bankruptcy; farm policy issues at the state and federal level (including a discussion of the status of the 2018 Farm Bill); the leasing of water rights; an update on significant legal (and tax) developments in agricultural law (both federal and state); and an hour of ethics that will test participant’s negotiation skills. 

The symposium can also be attended online.  For a complete description of the sessions and how to register for either in-person or online attendance, click here:  http://washburnlaw.edu/practicalexperience/agriculturallaw/waltr/continuingeducation/businessofagriculture/index.html

Risk and Profit Conference

On August 16 and 17, the KSU Department of Agricultural Economics will conduct its annual Risk and Profit campus.  The event will be held at the alumni center on the KSU campus, and will involve a day and a half of discussion of various topics related to the economics of the business of agriculture.  One of the keynote speakers at the conference will be Ambassador Richard T. Crowder, an ag negotiator on a worldwide basis.  The conference includes 22 breakout sessions on a wide range of topics, including two separate breakout sessions that I will be doing with Mark Dikeman of the KSU Farm Management Association on the new tax law.  For a complete run down of the conference, click here:  https://www.agmanager.info/risk-and-profit-conference

Conclusion

The two and one-half days of instruction is an opportunity is a great chance to gain insight into making your ag-related business more profitable from various aspects – legal, tax and economic.  If you are a producer, agribusiness professional, or a professional in a service business (lawyer; tax professional; financial planner; or other related service business) you won’t want to miss these events in Manhattan.  See you there, or online for Day 1.

July 18, 2018 in Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law, Estate Planning, Income Tax, Insurance, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Business of Agriculture – Upcoming CLE Symposium

Overview

On September 18, Washburn School of Law will be having its second annual CLE conference in conjunction with the Agricultural Economics Department at Kansas St. University.  The conference, hosted by the Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB) in Manhattan, KS, will explore the legal, economic, tax and regulatory issue confronting agriculture.  This year, the conference will also be simulcast over the web.

That’s my focus today – the September 18 conference in Manhattan, for practitioners, agribusiness professionals, agricultural producers, students and others. 

Symposium Topics

Financial situation.  Midwest agriculture has faced another difficult year financially.  After greetings by Kansas Farm Bureau General Counsel Terry Holdren, Dr. Allen Featherstone, the chair of the ag econ department at KSU will lead off the day with a thorough discussion on the farm financial situation.  While his focus will largely be on Kansas, he will also take a look at nationwide trends.  What are the numbers for 2017?  Where is the sector headed for 2018? 

Regulation and the environment.  Ryan Flickner, Senior Director, Advocacy Division, at the KFB will then follow up with a discussion on Kansas regulations and environmental laws of key importance to Kansas producers and agribusinesses. 

Tax – part one.  I will have a session on the tax and legal issues associated with the wildfire in southwest Kansas earlier this year – handling and reporting losses, government payments, gifts and related issues.  I will also delve into the big problem in certain parts of Kansas this year with wheat streak mosaic and dicamba spray drift.

Weather.  Mary Knapp, the state climatologist for Kansas, will provide her insights on how weather can be understood as an aid to manage on-farm risks.  Mary’s discussions are always informative and interesting. 

Crop Insurance.  Dr. Art Barnaby, with KSU’s ag econ department, certainly one of the nation’s leading experts on crop insurance, will address the specific situations where crop insurance does not cover crop loss.  Does that include losses caused by wheat streak mosaic?  What about losses from dicamba drift?

Washburn’s Rural Law Program.  Prof. Shawn Leisinger, the Executive Director of the Centers for Excellence at the law school (among his other titles) will tell attendees and viewers what the law school is doing (and planning to do) with respect to repopulating rural Kansas with well-trained lawyers to represent the families and businesses of agriculture.  He will also explain the law school’s vision concerning agricultural law and the keen focus that the law school has on agricultural legal issues.

Succession Planning.  Dr. Gregg Hadley with the KSU ag econ department will discuss the interpersonal issues associated with transitioning the farm business from one generation to the next.  While the technical tax and legal issues are important, so are the personal family relationships and how the members of the family interact with each other.

Tax – part two.  I will return with a second session on tax issues.  This time my focus will be on hot-button issues at both the state and national level.  What are the big tax issues for agriculture at the present time?  There’s always a lot to talk about for this session.

Water.  Prof. Burke Griggs, another member of our “ag law team” at the law school, will share his expertise on water law with a discussion on interstate water disputes, the role of government in managing scarce water supplies, and what the relationship is between the two.   What are the implications for Kansas and beyond?

Producer panel.  We will close out the day with a panel consisting of ag producers from across the state.  They will discuss how they use tax and legal professionals as well as agribusiness professionals in the conduct of their day-to-day business transactions.

Conclusion

The Symposium is a collaborative effort of Washburn law, the ag econ department at KSU and the KFB.  For lawyers, CPAs and other tax professionals, application has been sought for continuing education credit.  The symposium promises to be a great day to interact with others involved in agriculture, build relationships and connections and learn a bit in the process.

We hope to see you either in-person or online.  For more information on the symposium and how to register, check out the following link:  http://washburnlaw.edu/practicalexperience/agriculturallaw/waltr/continuingeducation/businessofagriculture/index.html

August 22, 2017 in Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law, Estate Planning, Income Tax, Insurance, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 6, 2017

Top Ten Agricultural Law Developments of 2016 (Five Through One)

Overview

Today we continue our look this week at the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation during 2016.  Out of all of the court rulings, IRS developments and regulatory issues, we are down to the top five developments in terms of their impact on ag producers, rural landowners and agribusinesses. 

So, here are the top five (as I see them) in reverse order:

(5) Pasture Chiseling Activity Constituted Discharge of “Pollutant” That Violated the CWA. The plaintiff bought approximately 2,000 acres in northern California in 2012. Of that 2,000 acres, the plaintiff sold approximately 1,500 acres. The plaintiff retained an environmental consulting firm to provide a report and delineation map for the remaining acres and requested that appropriate buffers be mapped around all wetlands. The firm suggested that the plaintiff have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) verify the delineations before conducting any grading activities. Before buying the 2,000 acres, the consulting firm had provided a delineation of the entire tract, noting that there were approximately 40 acres of pre-jurisdictional wetlands. The delineation on the remaining 450 acres of pasture after the sale noted the presence of intact vernal and seasonal swales on the property along with several intermittent and ephemeral drainages. A total of just over 16 acres of pre-jurisdictional waters of the United States were on the 450 acres – having the presence of hydric soils, hydrophytic vegetation and hydrology (1.07 acres of vernal pools; 4.02 acres of vernal swales; .82 acres of seasonal wetlands; 2.86 acres of seasonal swales and 7.40 acres of other waters of the United States). In preparation to plant wheat on the tract, the property was tilled at a depth of 4-6 inches to loosen the soil for plowing with care taken to avoid the areas delineated as wetlands. However, an officer with the (COE) drove past the tract and thought he saw ripping activity that required a permit. The COE sent a cease and desist letter and the plaintiff responded through legal counsel requesting documentation supporting the COE’s allegation and seeking clarification as to whether the COE’s letter was an enforcement action and pointing out that agricultural activities were exempted from the CWA permit requirement. The COE then provided a copy of a 1994 delineation and requested responses to numerous questions. The plaintiff did not respond. The COE then referred the matter to EPA for enforcement. The plaintiff sued the COE claiming a violation of his Fifth Amendment right to due process and his First Amendment right against retaliatory prosecution. The EPA refused the referral due to the pending lawsuit so the COE referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff for CWA violations.

The court granted the government’s motion on the due process claim because the cease and desist letter did not initiate any enforcement that triggered due process rights. The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s retaliatory prosecution claim. On the CWA claim brought by the defendant, the court determined that the plaintiff’s owner could be held liable as a responsible party. The court noted that the CWA is a strict liability statute and that the intent of the plaintiff’s owner was immaterial. The court then determined that the tillage of the soil causes it to be “redeposited” into delineated wetlands. The redeposit of soil, the court determined, constituted the discharge of a “pollutant” requiring a national pollution discharge elimination system (NPDES) permit. The court reached that conclusion because it found that the “waters” on the property were navigable waters under the CWA due to a hydrological connection to a creek that was a tributary of Sacramento River and also supported the federally listed vernal pool fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp. Thus, a significant nexus with the Sacramento River was present. The court also determined that the farming equipment, a tractor with a ripper attachment constituted a point source pollutant under the CWA. The discharge was not exempt under the “established farming operation” exemption of 33 U.S.C. §1344(f)(1) because farming activities on the tract had not been established and ongoing, but had been grazed since 1988. Thus, the planting of wheat could not be considered a continuation of established and ongoing farming activities. Duarte Nursery, Inc. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 2:13-cv-02095-KJM-AC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76037 (E.D. Cal. Jun. 10, 2016).

(4) Prison Sentences Upheld For Egg Company Executives Even Though Government Conceded They Had No Knowledge of Salmonella Contamination. The defendant, an executive of a large-scale egg production company (trustee of the trust that owned the company), and his son (the Chief Operating Officer of the company) pled guilty as “responsible corporate officers” to misdemeanor violations of 21 U.S.C. §331(a) for introducing eggs that had been adulterated with salmonella into interstate commerce from the beginning of 2010 until approximately August of 2010. They each were fined $100,000 and sentenced to three months in prison. They appealed their sentences as unconstitutional on the basis that they had no knowledge that the eggs at issue were contaminated at the time they were shipped. They also claimed that their sentences violated Due Process and the Eighth Amendment insomuch as the sentences were not proportional to their “crimes.” They also claimed that incarceration for a misdemeanor offense would violate substantive due process.

The trial court determined that the poultry facilities were in poor condition, had not been appropriately cleaned, had the presence of rats and other rodents and frogs and, as a result, the defendant and his son either “knew or should have known” that additional salmonella testing was needed and that remedial and preventative measures were necessary to reduce the presence of salmonella. The appellate court agreed, finding that the evidence showed that the defendant and son were liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak and that 21 U.S.C. §331(a) did not have a knowledge requirement. The appellate court also did not find a due process violation. The defendant and son claimed that because they did not personally commit wrongful acts, and that due process is violated when prison terms are imposed for vicarious liability felonies where the sentence of imprisonment is only for misdemeanors. However, the court held that vicarious liability was not involved, and that 21 U.S.C. §331(a) holds a corporate officer accountable for failure to prevent or remedy “the conditions which gave rise to the charges against him.” Thus, the appellate court determined, the defendant and son were liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak. The court determined that the lack of criminal intent does not violate the Due Process Clause for a “public welfare offense” where the penalty is relatively small (the court believed it was), the defendant’s reputation was not “gravely” damaged (the court believed that it was not) and congressional intent supported the penalty (the court believed it did). The court also determined that there was no Eighth Amendment violation because “helpless” consumers of eggs were involved. The court also found no procedural or substantive due process violation with respect to the sentences because the court believed that the facts showed that the defendant and son “had reason to suspect contamination” and should have taken action to address the problem at that time (even though law didn’t require it).

The dissent pointed out that the government stipulated at trial that its investigation did not identify any corporate personnel (including the defendant and son) who had any knowledge that eggs sold during the relevant timeframe were contaminated with salmonella. The dissent also noted that the government conceded that there was no legal requirement for the defendant or corporation to comply with stricter regulations during the timeframe in issue. As such, the convictions imposed and related sentences were based on wholly nonculpable conduct and there was no legal precedent supporting imprisonment in such a situation. The dissent noted that the corporation “immediately, and at great expense, voluntarily recalled hundreds of millions of shell eggs produced” at its facilities when first alerted to the problem. As such, according to the dissent, due process was violated and the sentences were unconstitutional. United States v. Decoster, 828 F.3d 626 (8th Cir. 2016).

(3) The IRS and Self-Employment Tax. Two self-employment tax issues affecting farmers and ranchers have been in the forefront in recent years – the self-employment tax treatment of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments and the self-employment tax implications of purchased livestock that had their purchase price deducted under the de minimis safe harbor of the capitalization and repair regulations. On the CRP issue, in 2014 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that CRP payments in the hands of a non-farmer are not subject to self-employment tax. The court, in Morehouse v. Comr., 769 F.3d 616 (8th Cir. 2014), rev’g, 140 T.C. 350 (2013), held the IRS to its historic position staked out in Rev. Rul. 60-32 that government payments attributable to idling farmland are not subject to self-employment tax when received by a person who is not a farmer. The court refused to give deference to an IRS announcement of proposed rulemaking involving the creation of a new Rev. Rul. that would obsolete the 1960 revenue ruling. The IRS never wrote the new rule, but continued to assert their new position on audit. The court essentially told the IRS to follow appropriate procedure and write a new rule reflecting their change of mind. In addition, the court determined that CRP payments are “rental payments” statutorily excluded from self-employment tax under I.R.C. §1402(a). Instead of following the court’s invitation to write a new rule, the IRS issued a non-acquiescence with the Eighth Circuit’s opinion. O.D. 2015-02, IRB 2015-41. IRS said that it would continue audits asserting their judicially rejected position, even inside the Eighth Circuit (AR, IA, MN, MO, NE, ND and SD).

In 2016, the IRS had the opportunity to show just how strong its opposition to the Morehouse decision is. A Nebraska non-farmer investor in real estate received a CP2000 Notice from the IRS, indicating CRP income had been omitted from their 2014 return. The CP2000 Notice assessed the income tax and SE Tax on the alleged omitted income. The CRP rental income was in fact included on the return, but it was included on Schedule E along with cash rents, where it was not subject to self-employment tax. The practitioner responded to the IRS Notice by explaining that the CRP rents were properly reported on Schedule E because the taxpayer was not a farmer. This put the matter squarely before the IRS to reject the taxpayer’s position based on the non-acquiescence. But, the IRS replied to the taxpayer’s response with a letter informing the taxpayer that the IRS inquiry was being closed with no change from the taxpayer’s initial position that reported the CRP rents for the non-farmer on Schedule E. 

On the capitalization and repair issue, taxpayers can make a de minimis safe harbor election that allows amounts otherwise required to be capitalized to be claimed as an I.R.C. §162 ordinary and necessary business expense. This de minimis expensing election has a limit of $5,000 for taxpayers with an Applicable Financial Statement (AFS) and $2,500 for those without an AFS. Farmers will fall in the latter category. In both cases, the limit is applied either per the total on the invoice, or per item as substantiated by the invoice. One big issue for farmers and ranchers is how to report the income from the sale of purchased livestock that are held for productive use, such as breeding or dairy animals for which the de minimis safe harbor election was made allowing the full cost of the livestock to be deducted. It had been believed that because the repair regulations specify when the safe harbor is used, the sale amount is reported fully as ordinary income that is reported on Schedule F where it is subject to self-employment tax for a taxpayer who is sole proprietor farmer or a member of a farm partnership. In that event, the use of the safe harbor election would produce a worse tax result that would claiming I.R.C. §179 on the livestock.

An alternative interpretation of the repair regulations is that the self-employment tax treatment of the gain or loss on sale of assets for which the purchase price was deducted under the de minimis safe harbor is governed by Treas. Reg. §1.1402(a)-6(a). That regulation states that the sale of property is not subject to selfemployment tax unless at least one of two conditions are satisfied: (1) the property is stock in trade or other property of a kind which would properly be includible in inventory if on-hand at the close of the tax year; or (2) the property is held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of a trade or business. Because purchased livestock held for dairy or breeding purposes do not satisfy the first condition, the question comes down to whether condition two is satisfied – are the livestock held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of a trade or business? The answer to that question is highly fact-dependent. If the livestock whose purchase costs have been deducted under the de minimis rule are not held primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of the taxpayer’s trade or business, the effect of the regulation is to report the gain on sale on Part II of Form 4797. This follows Treas. Reg. §1.1402(a)-6(a) which bars Sec. 1231 treatment (which would result in the sale being reported on Part I of Form 4797). In that event, the income received on sale would not be subject to self-employment tax.

In 2016, the IRS, in an unofficial communication, said that the alternative interpretation is the correct approach. However, the IRS was careful to point out that the alternative approach is based on the assumptions that the livestock were neither inventoriable nor held for sale, and that those assumptions are highly fact dependent on a case-by case basis. The IRS is considering adding clarifying language to the Farmers’ Tax Guide (IRS Pub. 225) and/or the Schedule F Instructions.

(2) TMDLs and the Regulation of Ag Runoff. Diffused surface runoff of agricultural fertilizer and other chemicals into water sources as well as irrigation return flows are classic examples of nonpoint source pollution that isn’t discharged from a particular, identifiable source. A primary source of nonpoint source pollution is agricultural runoff. As nonpoint source pollution, the Clean Water Act (CWA) leaves regulation of it up to the states rather than the federal government. The CWA sets-up a “states-first” approach to regulating water quality when it comes to nonpoint source pollution. Two key court opinions were issued in 2016 where the courts denied attempts by environmental groups to force the EPA to create additional federal regulations involving Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). The states are to establish total maximum daily TMDLs for watercourses that fail to meet water quality standards after the application of controls on point sources. A TMDL establishes the maximum amount of a pollutant that can be discharged or “loaded” into the water at issue from all combined sources on a daily basis and still permit that water to meet water quality standards. A TMDL must be set “at a level necessary to implement water quality standards.” The purpose of a TMDL is to limit the amount of pollutants in a watercourse on any particular date. Two federal court opinions in 2016 reaffirmed the principle that regulation of nonpoint source pollution is left to the states and not the federal government.

In Conservation Law Foundation v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, No. 15-165-ML, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172117 (D. R.I. Dec. 13, 2016), the plaintiff claimed that the EPA’s approval of the state TMDL for a waterbody constituted a determination that particular stormwater discharges were contributing to the TMDL being exceeded and that federal permits were thus necessary. The court, however, determined that the EPA’s approval of the TMDL did not mean that EPA had concluded that stormwater discharges required permits. The court noted that there was nothing in the EPA’s approval of the TMDL indicating that the EPA had done its own fact finding or that EPA had independently determined that stormwater discharges contributed to a violation of state water quality standards. The regulations simply do not require an NPDES permit for stormwater discharges to waters of the United States for which a TMDL has been established. A permit is only required when, after a TMDL is established, the EPA makes a determination that further controls on stormwater are needed.

In the other case, Gulf Restoration Network v. Jackson, No. 12-677 Section: “A” (3), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173459 (E.D. La. Dec. 15, 2016), numerous environmental groups sued the EPA to force them to impose limits on fertilizer runoff from farm fields. The groups claimed that many states hadn’t done enough to control nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agricultural runoff, and that the EPA was required to mandate federal limits under the Administrative Procedure Act – in particular, 5 U.S.C. §553(e) via §303(c)(4) of the CWA. Initially, the groups told the EPA that they would sue if the EPA did not write the rules setting the limits as requested. The EPA essentially ignored the groups’ petition by declining to make a “necessity determination. The groups sued and the trial court determined that the EPA had to make the determination based on a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the Clean Air Act (CAA). That decision was reversed on appeal on the basis that the EPA has discretion under §303(c)(4)(B) of the CWA to decide not to make a necessity determination as long as the EPA gave a “reasonable explanation” based on the statute why it chose not to make any determination. The appellate court noted that the CWA differed from the CAA on this point. On remand, the trial court noted upheld the EPA’s decision not to make a necessity determination. The court noted that the CWA gives the EPA “great discretion” when it comes to regulating nutrients, and that the Congressional policy was to leave regulation of diffused surface runoff up to the states. The court gave deference to the EPA’s “comprehensive strategy of bringing the states along without the use of federal rule making…”.

Also, in 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit which had determined in 2015 that the EPA had acted within its authority under 33 U.S.C. §1251(d) in developing a TMDL for the discharge of nonpoint sources pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  American Farm Bureau, et al. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, et al., 792 F.3d 281 (3d Cir. 2015), cert. den., 136 S. Ct. 1246 (2016).

(1) The Election of Donald Trump as President and the Potential Impact on Agricultural and Tax Policy. Rural America voted overwhelmingly for President-elect Trump, and he will be the President largely because of the sea of red all across the country in the non-urban areas. So, what can farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses anticipate the big issues to be in the coming months and next few years and the policy responses? It’s probably reasonable to expect that same approach will be applied to regulations impacting agriculture. Those with minimal benefit and high cost could be eliminated or retooled such that they are cost effective. Overall, the pace of the generation of additional regulation will be slowed. Indeed, the President-elect has stated that for every new regulation, two existing regulations have to be eliminated.

Ag policy.  As for trade, it is likely that trade agreements will be negotiated on a much more bi-lateral basis – the U.S. negotiating with one other country at a time rather than numerous countries. The President-elect is largely against government hand-outs and is big on economic efficiency. That bodes well for the oil and gas industry (and perhaps nuclear energy). But, what about less efficient forms of energy that are heavily reliant on taxpayer support? Numerous agricultural states are heavily into subsidized forms of energy with their state budgets littered with numerous tax “goodies” for “renewable” energy.” However, the President-elect won those states. So, does that mean that the federal subsidies for ethanol and biodiesel will continue. Probably. The Renewable Fuels Standard will be debated in 2017, but will anything significant happen? Doubtful. It will continue to be supported, but I expect it to be reviewed to make sure that it fits the market. Indeed, one of the reasons that bio-mass ethanol was reduced so dramatically in the EPA rules was that it couldn’t be produced in adequate supplies. What about the wind energy production tax credit? What about the various energy credits in the tax code? Time will tell, but agricultural interests should pay close attention.

The head of the Senate Ag Committee will be Sen. Roberts from Kansas. As chair, he will influence the tone of the debate of the next farm bill. I suspect that means that the farm bill will have provisions dealing with livestock disease and biosecurity issues. Also, I suspect that it will contain significant provisions crop insurance programs and reforms of existing programs. The House Ag Committee head will be Rep. Conaway from Texas. That could mean that cottonseed will become an eligible commodity for Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC). It may also be safe to assume that for the significant Midwest crops (and maybe some additional crops) their reference prices will go up. Also, it now looks as if the I.R.C. §179 issue involving the income limitation for qualification for farm program payments (i.e., the discrepancy of the treatment between S corporations and C corporations) will be straightened out. Other federal agencies that impact agriculture (EPA, Interior, FDA, Energy, OSHA) can be expected to be more friendly to agriculture in a Trump Administration.

Tax policy. As for income taxes, it looks at this time that the Alternative Minimum Tax might be eliminated, as will the net investment income tax that is contained in Obamacare. Individual tax rates will likely drop, and it might be possible that depreciable assets will be fully deductible in the year of their purchase. Also, it looks like the corporate tax rate will be cut as will the rate applicable to pass-through income. As for transfer taxes, President-elect Trump has proposed a full repeal of the federal estate tax as well as the federal gift tax. Perhaps repeal will be effective January 1, 2017, or perhaps it will be put off until the beginning of 2018. Or, it could be phased-in over a certain period of time. Also, while it appears at the present time that any repeal would be “permanent,” that’s not necessarily a certainty. Similarly, it’s not known whether the current basis “step-up” rule would be retained if the estate tax is repealed. That’s particularly a big issue for farmers and ranchers. It will probably come down to a cost analysis as to whether step-up basis is allowed. The President-elect has already proposed a capital gains tax at death applicable to transfers that exceed $10 million (with certain exemptions for farms and other family businesses). Repeal of gift tax along with repeal of estate tax has important planning implications. There are numerous scenarios that could play out. Stay tuned, and be ready to modify existing plans based on what happens. Any repeal bill would require 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster unless repeal is done as part of a reconciliation bill. Also, without being part of a reconciliation bill, any repeal of the federal estate tax would have to “sunset” in ten years.

January 6, 2017 in Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law, Estate Planning, Income Tax, Insurance, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2016 (Ten Through Six)

Overview

This week we are looking at the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation for 2016.  On Monday, we highlighted the important developments that just missed being in the top ten.  Today we take a look at developments 10 through six.  On Friday, we will look at the top five. 

  1. Court Obscures Rational Basis Test To Eliminate Ag Exemption From Workers' Compensation Law. While this is a state Supreme Court decision, its implications are significant. Most, if not all, states have a statutory exemption from workers’ compensation for employers that are engaged in agriculture. The statutory exemption varies in scope from state to state and, of course, an employer that is otherwise exempt can choose to be covered by the statute and offer workers’ compensation benefits to employees. In this case, the plaintiffs claimed that their on-the-job injuries should be covered under the state (NM) workers' compensation law. One plaintiff tripped while picking chile and fractured her left wrist. The other plaintiff was injured while working in a dairy when he was head-butted by a cow and pushed up against a metal door causing him to fall face-first into a concrete floor and sustain neurological damage. The plaintiffs' claims for workers' compensation benefits were dismissed via the exclusion from the workers' compensation system for employers. On appeal, the appellate court reversed. Using rational basis review (the standard most deferential to the constitutionality of the provision at issue), the court interpreted Sec. 52-1-6(A) of the New Mexico Code as applying to the primary job duties of the employees (as opposed to the business of the employer and the predominant type of employees hired), and concluded the distinction was irrational and lacked any rational purpose. The appellate court noted that the purpose of the law was to provide "quick and efficient delivery" of medical benefits to injured and disabled workers. Thus, the court determined that the exclusion violated the constitutional equal protection guarantee. The court further believed that the exclusion for workers that cultivate and harvest (pick) crops, but the inclusion of workers that perform tasks associated with the processing of crops was a distinction without a difference. The appellate court made no mention that the highest court in numerous other states had upheld a similar exclusion for agriculture from an equal protection constitutional challenge.  On further review, the state Supreme Court affirmed. The Court determined that there was nothing to distinguish farm and ranch laborers from other ag employees and that the government interest of cost savings, administrative convenience and similar interests unique to agriculture were not rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The court determined that the exclusion that it construed as applying to ag laborers was arbitrary discrimination. A dissenting judge pointed out that the legislature’s decision to allow employers of farm and ranch laborers to decide for themselves whether to be subject to workers’ compensation or opt out and face tort liability did not violate any constitutionally-protected right. The dissent noted that such ability to opt out was a legitimate statutory scheme that rationally controlled costs for New Mexico farms and ranches, and that 29 percent of state farms and ranches had elected to be covered by workers’ compensation. The dissent also noted that the majority’s opinion would have a detrimental economic impact on small, economically fragile farms in New Mexico by imposing an additional economic cost of $10.5 million annually (as projected by the state Workers’ Compensation Administration). On this point, the dissent further pointed out that the average cost of a claim was $16,876 while the average net farm income for the same year studied was $19,373. The dissent further concluded that the exemption for farming operations was legitimately related to insulating New Mexico farm and ranches from additional costs. In addition, the dissent reasoned that the majority misapplied the rational basis analysis to hold the act unconstitutional as many other state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court had held comparable state statutes to satisfy the rational basis test. The dissent pointed out forcefully that the exclusion applied to employers and that the choice to be covered or not resided with employers who predominately hired ag employees. As such there was no disparate treatment between ag laborers and other agricultural workers. Rodriguez, et al. v. Brand West Dairy, et al., 378 P.3d 13 (N.M. Sup. Ct. 2016), aff’g., 356 P.3d 546 (N.M. Ct. App. 2015).
  • 9.  COE Jurisdictional Determination Subject to Court Review. The plaintiff, a peat moss mining company, sought the approval of the Corps of Engineers (COE) to harvest a swamp (wetland) for peat moss to use in landscaping projects. The COE issued a jurisdictional determination that the swamp was a wetland subject to the permit requirements of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The plaintiff sought to challenge the COE determination, but the trial court ruled for the COE, holding that the plaintiff had three options: (1) abandon the project; (2) seek a federal permit costing over $270,000; or (3) proceed with the project and risk fines of up to $75,000 daily and/or criminal sanctions including imprisonment. On appeal, the court unanimously reversed, strongly criticizing the trial court's opinion. Based on Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012), the court held that COE Jurisdictional Determinations constitute final agency actions that are immediately appealable in court. The court noted that to hold elsewise would allow the COE to effectively kill the project without any determination of whether it's position as to jurisdiction over the wetland at issue was correct in light of Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (U.S. 2006). The court noted that the COE had deliberately left vague the "definitions used to make jurisdictional determinations" so as to expand its regulatory reach. While the COE claimed that the jurisdictional determination was merely advisory and that the plaintiff had adequate ways to contest the determination, the court determined that such alternatives were cost prohibitive and futile. The court stated that the COE's assertion that the jurisdictional determination (and the trial court's opinion) was merely advisory ignored reality and had a powerful coercive effect. The court held that the Fifth Circuit, which reached the opposition conclusion with respect to a COE Jurisdictional Determination in Belle Co., LLC v. United States Army Corps. of Engineers, 761 F.3d 383 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. den., 83 U.S.L.W. 3291 (U.S. Mar. 23, 2015), misapplied the Supreme Court's decision in Sackett. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, 782 F.3d 984 (8th Cir. 2015), rev'g., 963 F. Supp. 2d 868 (D. Minn. 2013). In a later decision, the court denied a petition to rehear the case en banc and by the panel. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 13-3067, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 11697 (8th Cir. Jul. 7, 2015).  In December of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and affirmed the Eighth Circuit on May 31, 2016. The Court, in a unanimous opinion, noted that the memorandum of agreement between the EPA and the Corps established that jurisdictional determinations are “final actions” that represent the Government’s position, are binding on the Government in any subsequent Federal action or litigation involving the position taken in the jurisdictional determination. When the landowners received an “approved determination” that meant that the Government had determined that jurisdictional waters were present on the property due to a “nexus” with the Red River of the North, located 120 miles away. As such, the landowners had the right to appeal in Court after exhausting administrative remedies and the Government’s position take in the jurisdictional determination was judicially reviewable. Not only did the jurisdictional determination constitute final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act, it also determined rights or obligations from which legal consequences would flow. That made the determination judicially reviewable. United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Company, 136 S. Ct. 1807 (2016).  
  • 8.  Proposed Regulations Under I.R.C. §2704. In early August, the IRS issued new I.R.C. §2704 regulations that could seriously impact the ability to generate minority interest discounts for the transfer of family-owned entities. Prop. Reg. – 163113-02 (Aug. 2, 2016). The proposed regulations, if adopted in their present form, will impose significant restrictions on the availability of valuation discounts for gift and estate tax purposes in a family-controlled environment. Prop. Treas. Regs. §§25.2704-1; 25.2704-4; REG- 163113-02 (Aug. 2, 2016). They also redefine via regulation and thereby overturn decades of court decisions honoring the well-established willing-buyer/willing-seller approach to determining fair market value (FMV) of entity interests at death or via gift of closely-held entities, including farms and ranches. The proposed regulations would have a significant impact on estate, business and succession planning in the agricultural context for many agricultural producers across the country and will make it more difficult for family farm and ranch businesses to survive when a family business partner dies. Specifically, the proposed regulations treat transfer within three years of death as death-bed transfers, create new “disregarded restrictions” and move entirely away from examining only those restrictions that are more restrictive than state law. As such, the proposed regulations appear to exceed the authority granted to the Treasury by Congress to promulgate regulations under I.R.C. §2704 and should be withdrawn. A hearing on the regulations was held in early December.  
  • 7.  Capitalization Required For Interest and Real Property Taxes Associated with Crops Having More Than Two-Year Preproductive Period. The petitioner (three partnerships) bought land that they planned to use for growing almonds. They financed the purchase by borrowing money and paying interest on the debt. They then began planting almond trees. They deducted the interest and property taxes on their returns. The IRS objected to the deduction on the basis that the interest and taxes were indirect costs of the “production of real property” (i.e., the almonds trees that were growing on the land. The Tax Court agreed with the IRS noting that I.R.C. §263A requires the capitalization of certain costs and that those costs include the interest paid to buy the land and the property taxes paid on the land attributable to growing crops and plants where the preproductive period of the crop or plant exceeds two years. I.R.C. §263A(f)(1) states that “interest is capitalized where (1) the interest is paid during the production period and (2) the interest is allocable to real property that the taxpayer produced and that has a long useful life, an estimated production period exceeding two years, or an estimated production period exceeding one year and a cost exceeding $1 million.” The corresponding regulation, the court noted, requires that the interest be capitalized under the avoided cost method. The court also noted that the definition of “real property produced by the taxpayer for the taxpayer’s use in a trade or business or in an activity conducted for profit” included “land” and “unsevered natural products of the land” and that “unsevered natural products of the land” general includes growing crops and plants where the preproductive period of the crop or plant exceeds two years. Because almond trees have a preproductive period exceeding two years in accordance with IRS Notice 2000-45, and because the land was “necessarily intertwined” with the growing of the almond trees, the interest and tax cost of the land is a necessary and indispensable part of the growing of the almond trees and must be capitalized. Wasco Real Properties I, LLC, et al. v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2016-224.

6.         No Recapture of Prepaid Expenses Deducted in Prior Year When Surviving Spouse Claims Same Deduction in Later Year. The decedent, a materially participating Nebraska farmer, bought farm inputs in 2010 and deducted their cost on his 2010 Schedule F. He died in the spring of 2011 before using the inputs to put the spring 2011 crop in the ground. Upon his death, the inputs were included in the decedent’s estate at their purchase price value and then passed to a testamentary trust for the benefit of his wife. The surviving spouse took over the farming operation, and in the spring of 2011, took a distribution of the inputs from the trust to plant the 2011 crops. For 2011, two Schedule Fs were filed. A Schedule F was filed for the decedent to report the crop sales deferred to 2011, and a Schedule F was filed for the wife to report the crops sold by her in 2011 and claim the expenses of producing the crop which included the amount of the inputs (at their date-of-death value which equaled their purchase price) that had been previously deducted as prepaid inputs by the husband on the couple’s joint 2010 return. The IRS denied the deduction on the basis that the farming expense deduction by the surviving spouse was inconsistent with the deduction for prepaid inputs taken in the prior year by the decedent and, as a result, the “tax benefit rule” applied. The court disagreed, noting that the basis step-up rule of I.R.C. §1014 allowed the deduction by the surviving spouse which was not inconsistent with the deduction for the same inputs in her deceased husband’s separate farming business. The court also noted that inherited property is not recognized as income by the recipient, which meant that another requisite for application of the tax benefit rule did not apply. Estate of Backemeyer v. Comr., 147 T.C. No. 17 (2016).

Conclusion

Those were developments ten through six, at least as I see it for 2016.  On Friday, we will list the five biggest developments for 2016.

January 4, 2017 in Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law, Estate Planning, Income Tax, Insurance, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Most Important Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2016

Overview

This week we will be taking a look at what I view as the most significant developments in agricultural law and agricultural taxation during 2016.  There were many important happenings in the courts, the IRS and with administrative agencies that have an impact on farm and ranch operations, rural landowners and agribusinesses.  What I am writing about this week are those developments that will have the biggest impact nationally.  Certainly, there were significant state developments, but they typically will not have the national impact of those that result from federal courts, the IRS and federal agencies. 

It’s tough to get it down to the ten biggest developments of the year, and I do spend considerable time going sorting through the cases and rulings get to the final cut.  Today we take a quick look at those developments that I felt were close to the top ten, but didn’t quite make the list.  Later this week we will look at those that I feel were worthy of the top ten.  Again, the measuring stick is the impact that the development has on the ag sector as a whole. 

Almost, But Not Quite

Those developments that were the last ones on the chopping block before the final “top ten” are always the most difficult to determine.  But, as I see it, here they are (in no particular order):

  • HRA Relief for Small Businesses. Late in 2016, the President signed into law H.R. 6, the 21st Century Cures Act.  Section 18001 of the legislation repeals the restrictions included in Obamacare that hindered the ability of small businesses (including farming operations) to use health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs).  The provision allows   a "small employer" (defined as one with less than 50 full-time employees who does not offer a group health plan to any employees) to offer a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) that the employer funds to reimburse employees for qualified medical expenses, including health insurance premiums. If various technical rules are satisfied, the basic effect of the provision is that, effective for plan years beginning after December 31, 2016, such HRAs will no longer be a violation of Obamacare's market "reforms" that would subject the employer to a penalty of $100/day per affected person). It appears that the relief also applies to any plan year beginning before 2017, but that is less clear.  Of course, all of this becomes moot if Obamacare is repealed in its entirety in 2017. 
  • More Obamacare litigation.  In a somewhat related development, in May the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in United States House of Representatives v. Burwell, No. 14-1967 (RMC), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62646 (D. D.C. May, 12, 2016), that the Obama Administration did not have the power under the Constitution to spend taxpayer dollars on "cost sharing reduction payments" to insurers without a congressional appropriation.  The Obama Administration had argued that congressional approval was unnecessary because the funds were guaranteed by the same section of Obamacare that provides for the premium assistance tax credit that is designed to help offset the higher cost of health insurance as a result of the law.  However, the court rejected that argument and enjoined the use of unappropriated funds due insurers under the law.  The court ruled that the section at issue only appropriated funds for tax credits and that the insurer payments required a separate congressional appropriation.   The court stayed its opinion pending appeal.  A decision on appeal is expected in early 2017, but would, of course, be mooted by a repeal of Obamacare.
  • Veterinary Feed Directive Rule. The Food and Drug Administration revised existing regulations involving the animal use of antibiotics that are also provided to humans.  The new rules arose out of a belief of bacterial resistance in humans to antibiotics even though there is no scientific proof that antibiotic resistant bacterial infections in humans are related to antibiotic use in livestock. As a result, at the beginning of 2017, veterinarians will be required to provide a “directive” to livestock owners seeking to use or obtain animal feed products containing medically important antimicrobials as additives. A “directive” is the functional equivalent of receiving a veterinarian’s prescription to use antibiotics that are injected in animals.  21 C.F.R. Part 558.
  • Final Drone Rules.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Final Rule on UASs (“drones”) on June 21, 2016. The Final Rule largely follows the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued in early 2015 (80 Fed. Reg. 9544 (Feb. 23, 2015)) and allows for greater commercial operation of drones in the National Airspace System. At its core, the Final Rule allows for increased routine commercial operation of drones which prior regulations required commercial users of drones to make application to the FAA for permission to use drones - applications the FAA would review on a case-by-case basis. The Final Rule (FAA-2015-0150 at 10 (2016)) adds Part 107 to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations and applies to unmanned “aircraft” that weigh less than 55 pounds (that are not model aircraft and weigh more than 0.5 pounds). The Final Rule became effective on August 29, 2016.
  • County Bans on GMO Crops Struck Down.  A federal appellate court struck down county ordinances in Hawaii that banned the cultivation and testing of genetically modified (engineered) organisms.  The court decisions note that either the state (HI) had regulated the matter sufficiently to remove the ability of counties to enact their own rules, or that federal law preempted the county rules. Shaka Movement v. County of Maui, 842 F.3d 688 (9th Cir. 2016) and Syngenta Seeds, Inc. v. County of Kauai, No. 14-16833, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 20689 (9th Cir. Nov. 18, 2016).
  • California Proposition Involving Egg Production Safe From Challenge.  California enacted legislation making it a crime to sell shelled eggs in the state (regardless of where they were produced) that came from a laying hen that was confined in a cage not allowing the hen to “lie down, stand up, fully extend its limbs, and turn around freely.”  The law was challenged by other states as an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause by “conditioning the flow of goods across its state lines on the method of their production” and as being preempted by the Federal Egg Products Inspection Act.  The trial court determined that the plaintiffs lacked standing and the appellate court affirmed.  Missouri v. Harris, 842 F.3d 658 (9th Cir. 2016).
  • NRCS Properly Determined Wetland Status of Farmland.  The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) determined that a 0.8-acre area of a farm field was a prairie pothole that was a wetland that could not be farmed without the plaintiffs losing farm program eligibility.  The NRCS made its determination based on “color tone” differences in photographs, wetland signatures and a comparison site that was 40 miles away.  The court upheld the NRCS determination as satisfying regulatory criteria for identifying a wetland and was not arbitrary, capricious or contrary to the law.  Certiorari has been filed with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the court to clear up a conflict between the circuit courts of appeal on the level of deference to be given federal government agency interpretive manuals.  Foster v. Vilsack, 820 F.3d 330 (8th Cir. 2016).
  • Family Limited Partnerships (FLPs) and the “Business Purpose” Requirement. In 2016, there were two cases involving FLPs and the retained interest section of the Code.  That follows one case late in 2015 which was the first one in over two years.  In Estate of Holliday v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2016-51, the court held that the transfers of marketable securities to an FLP two years before the transferor’s death was not a bona fide sale, with the result that the decedent (transferor) was held to have retained an interest under I.R.C. §2036(a) and the FLP interest was included in the estate at no discount.  Transferring marketable securities to an FLP always seems to trigger issues with the IRS.  In Estate of Beyer v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2016-183, the court upheld the assessment of gift and estate tax (and gift tax penalties) with respect to transfers to an FLP because the court determined that every benefit allegedly springing from the FLP could have been accomplished by trusts and other arrangements.  There needs to be a separate non-tax business purpose to the FLP structure.  A deeper dive into the court opinions also points out that the application of the “business purpose” requirement with respect to I.R.C. §2036 is very subjective.  It’s important to treat the FLP as a business entity, not put personal assets in the FLP, or at least pay rent for their use, and follow all formalities of state law. 

Conclusion

These are the developments that were important, but just not big enough in terms of their overall impact on the ag sector to make the list of the “top ten.”  The next post will take a look at developments ten through six. 

January 2, 2017 in Bankruptcy, Business Planning, Civil Liabilities, Contracts, Cooperatives, Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law, Estate Planning, Income Tax, Insurance, Real Property, Regulatory Law, Secured Transactions, Water Law | Permalink | Comments (0)